Monday, November 18, 2013

How to Break the Publishing Malaise


More people are reading now than ever, especially young people, more options are available to reach readers than ever before, and yet publishing is in a deep malaise.  Why so glum? Well it turns out that despite record-breaking sales for some books, most books' sales are well below the industry's high-water marks in the late 90's, and the mass-market paperback has continued its steady decline. A pervasive attitude exists in publishing that our glory days are behind us, and that the future will hold greater consolidation in the big houses, and further dominance of the marketplace by online media conglomerates.  

Like the rest of America in this glorious recession of ours, publishing professionals have been told to do more with less (in most cases a lot less).  Staffs have shrunk in editorial, contracts, and rights departments at every major publisher. Imprints have been shuttered, or absorbed into larger imprints. Several small and mid-sized presses have simply gone bankrupt. And things just seem like they're getting worse.    

In addition, there's an outright hostility among some authors in some corners of the internet against publishers, editors, and agents. It's hard not to feel a bit of malaise when the most lauded view of publishing is that it is bureaucratic, cumbersome, exploitative and, worst of all, unnecessary.

While most criticism borders on the abusive and misinformed, sadly, a lot of it is warranted. And, while the publishing industry has been more adaptive to the upset of digital distribution systems on media content delivery than the music industry or film and television industries have been (an admittedly low bar), it still has more adapting to do.  There are challenges out there that need to be overcome, but there's also a lot of nonsense that needs to be dismissed as such.

The first big issue at the heart of this malaise is the pervasive belief among those in publishing that the digital marketplace is usurping the physical marketplace.

E-book Conflation

Though it's a popular notion, there's no credible evidence (and hardly any circumstantial evidence) to point to the notion that e-book sales have cannibalized print sales in any meaningful way. The decline in print sales predates the introduction of the Kindle, with sales peaking in 1999 and a steady decline that can undoubtedly be tied not to the rise in e-books but to the leveling growth of the big bookstore chains and larger trends in the retail economy in general.

The rise of Kindle just happened to coincide with the demise of Borders, which may have resulted in the conflation of the dip in print sales, with the rise in e-book sales. The tremendous growth in e-books is a separate phenomenon from the decline in print books, and is, despite popular belief in publishing circles, not a mixed bag at all.  E-book growth has an unreservedly good thing; in fact, it may be the only good news for publishing in the past decade.

88% of e-readers (according to Pew Research) are regular readers of physical books as well. The corollary that these 88% are buying less physical books now that they have an e-reader is also not supported by the evidence.  In fact, these e-readers are still reliable print readers, who have now been transformed into e-book super consumers.  They read twice as many books than the average physical book reader, now that they own an e-reader, and they are more likely than average to have bought (rather than borrowed) their books. The remaining 12% of e-readers are also not former physical book readers, but new readers enticed by the convenience (and coolness) of e-readers.

In short, publishers are not losing print sales, because those sales are being taken by e-book sales, they are losing print sales, because they aren't trying to change their strategies to sell more print books after failing at it for over a decade. The retail conglomerates pushed out the indies, consolidated their shelf-space, and now are contracting, which means fewer opportunities to sell in the physical marketplace.  None of this has much to do with e-book consumers who now find it more convenient to buy books wherever they are.

Many in publishing (and certainly many self-published rabble-rousers) are laboring under the illusion that the future of bookselling is digital, and that physical books are bound to become publishing's vestigial limb.

Well it's not the case.  Turns out people still love books.  Shrinking from the physical marketplace because of a poor retail economy, and the contraction of overextended chain bookstores in lieu of an e-book market that, after a period of extreme growth, appears to be leveling out is a mistake. Publishers need to recommit themselves to physical book publishing, and that means learning from past mistakes, investing in print as a growth opportunity, and pushing forward with a smarter strategy that will allow them to capitalize on the digital marketplace as well.

Owning Mistakes

Most of the publishing industry's self-inflicted injuries are about empowering the wrong people.  In the 90's that meant forfeiting most marketing functions to the book retail conglomerates, and allowing them to price independent book retail institutions out of business. In the '00s, it's been turning over vital marketing functions to Amazon and letting them do the same in the digital world. When publishers found they had created a monster in Amazon, seeking an even larger corporation (Apple), with even less interest in bookselling, as a bulwark against Amazon's predatory pricing was also a huge mistake, one that plunged them into an internecine battle between vertically integrated device manufacturers/digital distributors with anti-trust implications.

When publishers weren't backing the wrong horse, they were buying the wrong properties.  Nobody forced Penguin to buy Author Solutions, nor did anyone force the publishers to spend money on the joint venture Bookish, when all that money would have been better invested in buying the already extent (and quite successful) Goodreads (which later was bought by Amazon). The wealth of consumer data housed in Goodreads, and types of marketing opportunities provided by the platform (provided publishers didn't change things) could have meant a fortune for publishers, had they decided to acquire it jointly.

Most mistakes have just been a matter of priorities. Publishers prioritized stopping piracy, over increasing access to digital content, which further put them in the thrall of Amazon, Apple, and Barnes and Noble by pricing other DRM free e-reading formats and devices out of the market. DRM is bad for Publishers, independents, and, most importantly, consumers. It also doesn't work. Recent experiments with abandoning DRM have proven quite successful, and yet most imprints still cling to the notion that the key to holding the line is treating every customer as a potential criminal.

Meanwhile, publishers have been consolidating their publicity and marketing departments, at a time where marketing is their one most valuable asset, and the one most likely to actually earn them money. Publishing marketing is in a sorry state.  They do tremendous work, but they do it blindly.  In a world awash in consumer data, publishers are completely in the dark about the lifeblood of their business, and willfully so. By having a single-minded focus on the wholesale business of publishing, where their main concern is the retailer as customer, they've lost sight of who really matters: the end users (see: readers). 

What publishers ought to have done a long time ago, and ought to devote themselves to now, is marketing directly to readers, and making partnerships with a larger variety of physical and digital retailers.  That means dividing promotions, and co-op buys equally between the large accounts and the indies. Promotions directed at indie bookstores that agree to host in store events, rather than lazily relying on merchandising provided by the big box stores, is where the future of the physical business is.  

The strip mall big-box stores are dying out. Malls are the ones most "disrupted" by large online retailers, not necessarily bookstores.  Since malls are no longer the most convenient shopping experience, they need a new strategy to get people into the stores. That strategy is to make the store a destination for more than just shopping. Independent bookstores are utilizing the same strategy and seeing a resurgence. The ABA has nearly twice as many member stores as Barnes and Noble has stores, and yet co-op buys increasingly go to B&N.  It's certainly harder to buy co-op and run promotions without the help of a central executive authority, but that doesn't make it less worthwhile an investment.

Likewise, working with smaller device manufacturers, and e-tail book platforms (including subscription services) to make exclusive content available on the condition that they share user data, rather than paying Amazon to administer promotions is probably worth trying. Amazon is getting fat off publishers' content, discounting it to undermine the publishers' sales elsewhere, and using the publishers' own customer's data to do it. So why should publishers continue to encourage them by devoting their budgets to pay Amazon to run promotions? 

Diversity is the spice of life, and publishers should be looking to empower as many different partners as they can possibly empower. Growing the pie means making more money in aggregate, it also grants one better leverage over the big retailers without the attendant anti-trust litigation. And that is certainly a good first step towards breaking the current publishing malaise. The second step is, of course, to...

Sell More Books

…And I don't mean more e-books, though, that's certainly a swell idea too. I mean more physical books, mass-market paperback books to be specific.  If we accept the notion that physical book sales are in decline, and that attendant raise in e-book sales is largely unrelated to this, then we can start to look towards a solution to the problem of the shrinking of the physical marketplace. 

The biggest impediment towards the sales of physical books, publishers will tell you, is that there is limited shelf space.  They say that as if shelving weren't a renewable resource.  The real problem here is not that there are too many books and too few shelves; it's that there are too many potential readers out there who will never encounter a book where they live, where they work, or where they shop.

Waiting for retailers to increase their capacity to receive your books is not a winning strategy. Limiting the options available in order to fit the "new reality" of less shelf space is also not a winning strategy.  Yet, that's exactly what publishers have been doing for the past decade, while blaming the decline in print sales on the twin phantoms of e-book cannibalization and online piracy instead of on poor selection, decrease in foot traffic, and pricing inflexibility. 

The response to the decline in mass-market edition sales across the industry has been to decrease first-printings for all mass-market editions. The whole point of the mass-market edition is to cater to the mass-market.  It's not really a mass, when you cut first printings in half or more and are absent from marketplace in most areas where you used to have a presence. Arguably, those old readers didn't disappear, and they weren't hijacked by cannibal e-readers, or lured into the pirate's life, they just stopped shopping where publishers used to sell their books.  It's high time that publishers be brave, and attempt to find them again. 

In addition to finding those old readers, it might be helpful if the only options for the growing number of young readers (NEA reports a 21% increase in young adult readership from 2002 to 2008) to find books weren't Amazon, Apple, Google or Nook. 

In short, it's time to go big or go home (so far publishers have opted to go home). Publishers need to once again, wield the weapon of the mass-market paperback to fell their foes. It's time to look for new vistas, rather than hoping to do more with less. If publishers retreat from the marketplace, then they diminish themselves.  A myopic focus on individual book performance is a coffin nail.  You can expect that most books will fail spectacularly in mass-market, but the ones that succeed will cover the losses.  The worst thing publishers can do is continue to retreat from this marketplace. The reason for the diminished sales in mass market has been diminished expectations. Mass-market editions shouldn't be an afterthought. Treat them like the primary edition, and they'll sell that way. If the bookstores chains don't buy that, then find other options.

That means going with sales agencies that specialize in non-standard retailers for books, and look to place book displays wherever people shop, wherever people wait, wherever people go.  There should be more books at the supermarket checkout line, book vending machines at the DMV, and in cardboard displays with books at the hair salon.  Ubiquity is a necessity when you acknowledge that book discovery is the one clear advantage the physical marketplace still maintains. Publishers should be looking to expand their reach, regardless of what the bookstores are doing.

It also means, as I stated before, dividing promotional money between the big boys and the independents.  You want more shelf space? Help the small fries so they can expand, and get them to work for it by holding in store events for your authors. The small fries will be happy for your business, the big box stores will squeeze you dry to pay their creditors, and offer you less every year.

In addition, more could be done with the shelf space already available, by pressuring buyers to cycle books out more frequently, and to offer more variety. Putting up the same five best-selling thriller authors in hardcover on a small display is a waste of everyone's time. Everybody shopping has already bought that book, and they probably got it for cheaper on Amazon. Publishers could just as easily replace that hardcover with two mass-market paperbacks from two different genres, one a bestselling author, and the other a debut (even better: package them together and sell them for a bundled price). The mass-market is your friend when it comes to limited shelf space.  It leads to greater variety and better pricing competition compared to the online retailers (and other forms of media like DVDs, CDs, & video games). If Sales can treat the mass market like a primary edition, so will the buyers, and so will customers.  Especially if you get creative with sales strategies, like bundling.

The spike in e-book sales should tell you that people are interested in reading more and interested in buying lots of books with greater frequency across a more diverse selection, provided that it’s convenient to do so and that there is...

Competitive Pricing

Another lesson Publishers can learn from the e-book marketplace is just how sensitive readers are to pricing. Again, the mass-market paperback is designed to be competitive in this arena. You want readers to pull the trigger on the first book from a new author of a new series, put it in front of them in a cheap paperback, and mark it down. 

Trying to match pricing with online retailers is a fools' errand, but that doesn't mean publishers should be inflexible on price, or unwilling to run pricing promotions with greater frequency, and across a greater number of titles. Sure, the margins are lower, and will be made even lower by pricing promotions, but it beats the diminishing returns publishers are seeing now. What would you rather have 20,000 full priced mass-market paperbacks of which you only sell 10,000 or 100,000 mass-market paperback sales, only 10,000 of which you sell at full price?

Amazon's already set pricing expectations low, publishers can't help that. But they can attempt to compete, rather than to surrender.  In the process, they'll be creating the next generation of stars by lowering the barrier of entry for new and upcoming authors.

Today's discount paperback author is tomorrow's best-selling hardcover author. The way things are going for debuts, there are authors who can make sales regardless of price, and then there are authors with the best-reviewed $30 hardcover no one is going to buy.  Apart from being ruinous for authors' careers, it's ruinous for publishers as a whole. Relying on hardcover/trade sales as a major tent pole is a risky proposition.  Having a more even distribution among hardcover, paper, and e-book debuts (as well as a healthy backlist, more on that later) is a much better strategy.

A publisher that is reliant on a few authors who can command the sort of readership that will pay for the premium edition, and that ignores the power of pulp, is going to circumscribe itself and become vulnerable to increased competition among other publishers and disruption from online retailers. They're also going to send a message to the midlist, whether they mean to or not, that midlist authors would be better off self-publishing, which simply isn't the truth.  Everyone is better off by having a publishing industry that's prepared to sell books to the mass-market and make more money. And when it comes to money, publishers should really be using it to...

Invest in Authors

In addition to selling more books, publishers need to buy more books, and they need to be more flexible when it comes to deal making.  Publishers need to be broadening their offerings, not shrinking their lists. Readers are voracious, and they're looking for expansive selections, and more diversification within genres. The single-minded focus on retaining top sellers is turning publishing into a zero-sum game.  Resources are being wasted on inflated advances that could be put to better use broadening the pool of potential future bestsellers. Nobody in this business has a crystal ball, and often books bought with little fanfare succeed far beyond expectations, while books with six-figure advances go down in flames.  If the publishing CEOs want to lay down a cost-saving policy, what they ought to do is cap the budgets available for auctions, and allocate the savings to new acquisitions.  The voracious e-book reader has increased demand, and unless publishers want to see that gap filled with self-published authors selling their wares primarily on Amazon, they need to step up and start buying.

Another major obstacle is publishers' attitudes towards successful self-publishers. There's a tremendous opportunity to parlay the success of self-published authors into physical sales, but publishers are leaving these deals on the table, unless they can get a hold of e-book rights in addition. 

Self-published authors would love to have an entrance into the physical marketplace.  They have nothing to lose, and publishers could have rights cheaply for books that have a proven sales track record, and a legion of online fans willing to recommend the paperback to their antiquarian book-buying friends.  It used to be publishers made money by publishing paperback runs of popular small-press hardcovers.  The same paradigm can work here, and it shouldn't take a Hugh Howey level sales, and permission from the CEO, to convince a publisher to offer a print-only paperback deal to a self-published author.  

While publishers are doing short-term thinking, Amazon is playing long ball, and consolidating their power.  Publishers meanwhile are withdrawing from the physical marketplace that is the fulcrum of their power, and contributing to their own irrelevance by writing off self-published authors, effectively ensuring that a whole group of potential customers can only find the authors they like on their Kindle.

The rationale behind the e-book-rights-or-nothing attitude is that this will somehow frighten the publishers' big-ticket authors away from trying to self-pub their own e-books, and seek print deals separately. Publishing executives who think this strategy is wise are communicating to their staffs that they have little faith in their judgment and abilities. Acquiring editors should be empowered to negotiate these sorts of deal terms without corporate preconditions, and based upon their own calculations and knowledge. Publishers are also giving short shrift to the real work that goes into creating a fine digital product (interior design, coding, cover design, editing). 

This amounts to an admission that publishers really do have nothing to offer authors when it comes to the digital marketplace, if the only way to get an author to agree to hand digital rights over is by holding print rights hostage.  If nothing changes regarding royalties for digital rights, this attitude is only going to become more pervasive.  And as publishers continue to reduce print runs, the bargaining chip of print rights is going to be severely diminished.

Consider the author whose sales numbers are beginning to look pretty lopsided in favor of e-books: what power do the publishers think they are going to have over them when there's no longer a financial advantage to selling a print edition as compared to the serious advantage of going e-only for a 50%-70% royalty?

On that note, there is a simple and elegant solution to the issue of e-book royalties, and it's one that should be familiar to publishers already. That solution (as mentioned by me many times before) is...

E-Book Royalty Escalators

It costs money to make a good e-book product.  It costs money to edit, it costs money to design, it costs money to convert to multiple formats and distribute across multiple platforms, it costs money to promote and optimize for search. And this money is not for nothing, it's why publishers, despite supplying only about 8% of the total e-book titles nonetheless take in 50% of total e-book revenue.  For the first 1,000 to 5,000 sales, the publisher is really earning that 75% of net receipts.  After that? The per-unit overhead cost of an e-book begins to shrink to nothing, and that's where the author’s share of income should start to rise proportionally.

For those of you unfamiliar with the e-book royalty escalator, it is not an actual set of moving stairs comprised of sales data, but rather a graduated raise in revenue splits based upon number of units sold.  For hardcover copies, the standard royalty escalator looks something like: 10% of the list price of a book for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold, and 15% for every copy sold over 10,000 copies.   In e-books, there's a flat royalty based upon net receipts, and that flat royalty could probably use a few more steps.

Exactly how much to raise the e-book royalty, and at which levels of sales, I can't say with any great authority, but it suffices to say the publishers should start doing the math to figure out what the standard escalators ought to be, and then they should be prepared to negotiate fairer revenue splits on a case by case basis (some authors sell a lot of e-books as compared to physical books, some don't). The deficit between their royalty of 25% of net receipts, and Amazon's 70% royalty is simply too staggering to ignore for published authors.  Even if they appreciate the value their publishers impart, and they love their editor, and they want to reach their print readership, they also have bills to pay, and you can't pay them with the satisfaction of holding a well-designed hardcover.

Likewise, if publishers want to make a strong case for successful self-publishers to grant e-book rights to them, they need to be able to compensate them for those rights in a way that at least pretends to be competitive with self-publishing platforms' generous royalties.  

Finally, publishers missed a terrific opportunity to shore up a windfall in long-tail backlist e-book sales by being penny-wise and pound-foolish when it came to negotiating e-book royalties, and devoting resources into backlist curation and cultivation. 25% of net receipts flat for a backlist title is too little, and though publishers have made concessions for popular backlist editions and famous estates in the past, they've been less willing to give a square deal to every author and estate with a sizable e-book backlist to offer up.  In the interim businesses like Open Road Media, Rosetta Books, Constellation (run by Perseus), and Premier Digital Publishing, have been drinking their milkshake by offering more competitive royalties. Opening negotiations with reasonable escalators, and noting the advantages big publishers have when it comes to negotiating distribution fees, and distributing across all platforms is a surefire way to stem the tide. 

The e-book royalty escalator would be a great boon to publishers in retaining top talent, enticing new and exciting authors from the booming self-pub world into the fold, and welcoming back authors and estates to share their backlists with new generations of readers.  E-book royalty escalators, in addition to being fair, will also do little to hurt the publisher’s bottom line, and may even help it by adding more e-books to their catalog.

The Long Tail (or more appropriately The Long Tale)

Hyperion apparently hasn't been reading its own books, because despite publishing The Long Tail in 2006, it is now divesting itself of it's sizable backlist to focus on "synergy" (see: Disney movie/TV tie-ins).  For those publishers without a powerful media dominating parent company, relying on synergy isn't going to save them from consolidation.  The long tail is a simple principle, one that should be familiar to publishers, since it's the business model Amazon is currently using to thwart them.  Too many publishers treat a big list like a burden, when, in fact, it's their greatest asset. The problem is making it work for them.

An inert long tail isn't good for much, you've got to shake that money-maker.  That means ramping up conversions of out-of-print but under-contract books into e-book (Publisher's Weekly notes that when they looked back at previous best-seller lists, only a fraction of those old best-sellers had been converted into ebooks) and getting the metadata right. It means devoting marketing resources to target whole groups of books based upon market conditions (i.e. around the time Osama Bin Laden was killed in a Navy Seals operation, books about Navy Seals suddenly became a hot commodity, and backlist e-books about Navy Seals seemed to be popping up out of nowhere, some by publishers but many uploaded straight to Amazon by the authors themselves). And it means exerting at least as much effort on their backlists as their frontlists.  

Publishers are trying, but they could be devoting more resources, both to curating the backlist from an editorial and marketing standpoint (serving up e-books to readers based upon current market trends at prices designed to move copies) and to obtaining the digital rights necessary, or amending agreements to include fair royalties in order to exercise rights. At each of the major publishers there are a handful of contracts associates charged with sending out thousands of boilerplate amendment letters. I've gotten several for authors who were not interested in handing over rights, and never received a follow up from the publisher to see whether the author was indeed interested, much less to negotiate for better terms. 

Institutionally, publishers need to treat the backlist like the major revenue generating power center of their business, and devote resources to retaining rights, and promoting backlist titles (both individually and by theme, subject or category) in ebook. There's terrific amounts of money on the table here that just requires the publishers to make the appropriate amount of investment. 


Just to recap, publishing is in a funk, but it needn't be.  There are things that can be done to correct this slump.  Reading is becoming more popular, and publishers should stop conflating the rise in e-books to the decline in print sales. They're separate phenomena.  E-books are nothing to lament, but should be pursued with gusto as part of a two pronged approach to maximize sales in the physical marketplace as well. 

In order to manage this publishers should not give up on the mass-market, and should be pioneering ways to make books ubiquitous and affordable. Publishers need to break themselves of their reliance on big box stores and big online retailers. To do this publishers should be divvying up their marketing and promotions budgets to serve a larger and more diverse set of retailers, and targeting smaller retailers for exclusive promotions in exchange for customer information about the habits of readers as end users.  As part of this effort in the digital realm, publishers should drop DRM, and look to empower smaller distributors, rather than allow online retailers to use publishers' content against them.

On the acquisitions side, publishers can truly do more with less by capping the amount of money available for auctions, setting a target for increasing their acquisitions of debut authors and assigning a budget appropriate to the task. In order to attract talent, in lieu of big advances, publishers should offer more competitive e-book royalties, using escalators as a method of compensating authors fairly, while reducing the risk of potential overcompensation.  Increasing the number of new acquisitions will help increase the chances of finding a hit, spread the risk of failure, and eventually aggregate more books to add to a publishers long tail backlist. 

Publishers should cultivate their long tail by being comprehensive in their approach to retaining rights, being flexible when it comes to negotiating, and looking for creative ways to sell backlist titles using the market data available.  

There are real opportunities for growth out there that publishers are uniquely positioned to take advantage of, and they should start seizing those opportunities now.

Mostly though, I want to leave those in publishing with the following message:  You are needed.  Be fearless.

Change can be hard, but it doesn't have to result in malaise. Despite the naysayers, the world is not marching on without publishers, and publishers do have real value to impart.  Readers want superior products (both in the physical and digital worlds), and publishers can deliver.  Authors want better ways to connect to their readers and publishers can deliver. Bookstores want better merchandising, and pricing flexibility, and selection, and publishers can deliver. It's time to stop feeling sorry for yourselves, and do the hard work of making that happen.  I believe publishers can do better.

For those working in the trenches, it means having the courage to tell your bosses when they're doing something wrong, and presenting them with options on how to do things better.  For those of you who feel stuck, get unstuck.  Shake things up, make noise, and if that doesn't work then consider going with an employer who values your work, and your input. Life is too short to waste doing shoddy work, or promoting a failed strategy, or reading a bad book. You owe yourself better than that, you owe authors better than that, and you owe readers better than that.  If you can do that, I believe things will get better.

For those in charge, it means making bold decisions, listening to staff, and consulting outside experts in areas of potential growth.  It means trusting the evidence, but it also requires having a bit of faith in readers, and in authors, and in your staff. Most of all it means looking at the future as a great opportunity, rather than threat.  If we can all do that, I believe things will be better.

Go forth, and sell more books. Malaise is for the people who would stand in your way.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs

An Introduction

There has been much talk about the relative merits of self-publishing (mostly through Amazon) and major print distribution through one of the big 5.5 publishers.  Rabble-rousers like Scott Turow of the Author's Guild  (representing Establishmentarian Authors of Serious Books published by Serious Companies) and bloggers like J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, and David Gaughgran (representing the Nouveau-Riche Wildcat Pioneers of the New Digital Frontier) have taken to the internet to duke it out over who has the lock on the evolution of book culture in the digital age.

Rather than take up camps defending Amazon, or the Publishers, I think folks would do best if they decided to look out for themselves, and in doing so look out for society as a whole.  When Turow warned last year that forcing the publishers to abandon agency pricing "...would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support," I, for once, didn't think he was being overly dramatic.  Even Konrath can't deny that price deflation in favor of electronic sales and distribution could wreak much havoc on physical publishing in a way that could alter the way people experience book culture irreparably.  

 Some may argue (as Konrath does) that the benefits to the average consumer of the physical bookstore are minimal as compared to the vast digital marketplace, and that the demise of the physical bookstore (and the publishers who rely on these markets) is thus unavoidable.  The problem with that is, not every book buyer is a digital book buyer, and many book buyers may not want to ever become digital book buyers.  Additionally, there are  digital book buyers who would also like to buy physical books on occasion, and of those who will buy physical books there will be a subset who prefer to do so from a physical store.  

The introduction of efficient online shopping does not change the value of bookstores, both as repositories of physical product, and as centers of cultural meaning.  Each individual should have a choice about whether they want to read a book as an e-book, to buy a book from an online distributor (such as Amazon), or to walk into their local bookstore and pluck it from the shelf. Each transaction has corresponding economic and cultural value.  If you subscribe to the sort of economic Darwinism that Konrath espouses, then the only thing to do is let Amazon, being the fiercest competitor, do as it pleases, and walk away with as much of the marketplace as it can claim. Of course if you subscribe to Turow's point-of-view, Amazon is a villain whose predatory pricing structures are a threat to the act of reading itself.  I don't believe that either of these perspectives is really helpful in understanding the paradigmatic shift that's occurring, or how to readers and writers should respond to these changes.

I think its important to put this current debate into a broader societal context, and to focus on the paradigmatic shifts that are taking place not just in publishing, but in media in general.  I don't doubt the sincerity of Mr. Turow, Mr. Konrath, Mr. Eisler and Mr. Gaughgran, but I don't believe they fully grasp how the fundamental changes taking place will affect them as authors and as readers . Deciding whether you're team Amazon or team Publisher is largely irrelevant when it comes to determining the destiny of how information is going to be consumed in the future.  As a subset of all media, publishing is now subject to a multi-platform, worldwide, marketplace of attention.  The entire $25 Billion American publishing industry is just a minor actor caught up in the epic Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs.

The Pile of Eyeballs

Audience, readership, followers, friends, subscribers, players, are all interchangeable terms for consumers of media.  If you're a savvy type like myself, you participate across several platforms, devices, methods of distribution and delivery to consume several forms of media. Like me, you are a person existing in the physical world.  You have to work, you have to eat, and you have to sleep (eventually). That means there is a limit to the amount of media you can consume.  Because you are an individual there is a limit to the amount of devices you can use (and/or afford) at a time .  That means there is a premium on your attention, and where you choose to direct it.  For companies selling media, this means their utmost priority is getting your attention, and engaging it long enough for a transaction (whether it’s paying $2.99 for an e-book, or watching a 30 second advertisement).  For companies selling dedicated devices, the economics is roughly the same, the more attention you pay to the device the better it is for device sales, and offering access to media (and in some circumstances tightly controlling that access) is the main way they achieve this.  For companies that own distribution and delivery systems their goal is to keep you engaged with their system for delivery exclusively. For companies that own both device and delivery components their ultimate prize is the Pile of Eyeballs (the most simultaneous consumers devoting attention to a media product through their distribution and delivery system, and on their device) and the battlefield in this case is textual (book) media.

Doing Battle

If the Pile of Eyeballs is the prize, then who are the players?  In this instance it is not Amazon and the Publishers, but rather Apple and Amazon.  Apple started out primarily as a device manufacturer, and they developed a media delivery and distribution system (iTunes) whereas Amazon was a delivery and distribution company that developed a device (the Kindle) to better deliver their content to consumers.  Apple is by far the bigger company, in terms of raw profits, but Amazon is no punter either.  They both dwarf the entire publishing industry and the biggest of the bookstore chains in terms of money, and they are both at war with each other, primarily over devices, and secondarily over content delivery.  Their war over devices and content delivery, however, has several pitched battles, the most recent being over book territory.  The Publishers are not, in this instance, combatants in the war, but rather the unfortunate locals caught up in the colonial battle for media resources with both Apple and Amazon demanding its allegiance.  

Amazon was squeezing publishers by undercutting the sales from bookstores that the publishers relied on for a huge portion of their revenues in a bid to drive publishers further into Amazon's thrall, and to attract more eyeballs to their Kindle devices through competitive pricing.  Meanwhile, Apple seeing an opportunity to win the allegiance of the publishers offered them a deal using a strategy that proved beneficial to them in the pitched media battle over music: the agency model.  Apple hoped to horn in on Amazon's grip on book media by ending Amazon's pricing advantage, and driving traffic to their competing iPad devices.  Neither Apple nor Amazon have as their primary interest publishing, books, or book culture.

The publishers, for all their inadequacies, are at the very least exclusively interested in producing books.  Not content, mind you, but books.  I think the distinction should be clear. Content can be anything, whether it's a novel, a TV show, or a hypnotic image.  So long as it can capture the Pile of Eyeballs, it will be utilized, and maybe even promoted.  A book is not merely content, and treating it thusly, is I believe, a dangerous proposition.  Especially if it means the elimination of book publishers along with the bookstores, or the transformation of book publishers into "content providers".  It is dangerous because books are important, and I will explain why.

The Importance of The Book as Physical Object

Don't get me wrong, I love my digital devices.  I love my e-reader.  I love the freedom of having stories, novels, articles on demand at my fingertips. I believe, whole-heartedly in transformative power of digital content delivery and display systems.  I think e-readers should be mass produced, granted access to endless libraries, and air-dropped over every continent so every man, woman, and child can have access to endless information.  I do, however, still believe in the utility of the book as a physical object.

Some people like to compare the shock currently being experienced by the book publishing industry with the upset visited upon music publishing industry nearly a decade ago, and to a certain extent there are some tenuous correlations.  However, books are not like CDs.

The first distinction one should note is that the compact disk is a piece of laser inscribed plastic which rose to prominence in the 1990s, it obviated the cassette tapes which rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, which obviated the vinyl record which came to prominence in the 1900s, which obviated the wax cylinder of the late 1800s. In this context, it is not entirely shocking to think that the CD might be obviated by some new means of transmitting the audio content it contained. Printed books, on the other hand, have been around since about 1400 A.D., and were predicated on the not entirely dissimilar hand-written volumes dating back to the 3rd century B.C.

The utility of the book as a physical object has been relatively unchanged since it's inception millenia ago. While there have been many upheavals in the design, manufacture, and price of books, a book is still, more or less, a book, in the same way that a wheel is, still more or less, a wheel. The books of today still operate with the same efficiency as the codices of Cicero. The pages turn, and text is indelibly inscribed in lines of script designed to be read in sequence. This technology is not so advanced, but neither is the technology of the wheel.

The second distinction one should note is that the book as physical object, unlike the CD, cassette, vinyl record, wax cylinder, and the e-book,  requires no additional equipment (i.e. phonograph, stereo, e-reader) in order to access.

A book still has value in the marketplace, and the main marketplace (the bookstore) still has a value to consumers.  People who don't want, or can't afford, the technology to access e-books, but who nonetheless would like to read something may find themselves without another alternative to the digital marketplace. If that happens then something essential about the way we consume media will be altered, for some tangibly, for others imperceptibly. For even committed digital readers rely somewhat on the physical bookstore as a means (sometimes indirectly) of discovering some of their prized content.

I think everyone takes bookstores for granted.  You may never set foot in one, but I can assure a bookstore was the genesis of at least one word-of-mouth wave that eventually brought one of your favorite books to your attention.  Certainly recommendation engines online can augment the ways by which a book comes to your attention, but nothing can replace a bookstore as a repository of cultural meaning and discovery.  Amazon, Google and Apple can tell you what you might like based on what you do like, but they can't tell what you should like based on what you feel like. In short, there isn't an App for that.

The problem with digital editions of books becoming the primary or dominant edition is not that a superior product is replacing an inferior one (physical book sales make up nearly 75% of the marketplace) but that an instantaneous online marketing and distribution platform is taking just enough market share to sink the already beleaguered physical distribution boat.

Amazon, Apple and Google are fantastic at what they do, their devices border on the magical, their search and distribution systems are amazing, but for all their wonder they are not capable of replacing human interaction, or transcending the physical experience of browsing.  Additionally, say what you will about the inflated price of hardcovers, but don't forget that the cost of an ebook includes the hefty initial investment in the e-reader itself.

This is where the music industry analogy falls apart entirely.  Buying an e-book may be exactly like buying an MP3, it's true, but buying a book is not like buying a CD. A CD is of little use as an object without a corresponding player.  This is not the case for books, because there's no difference between the book and the content.  The book is the content incarnate. A book doesn't require a device to read, it is already a device for reading.

The best thing about a physical book is that it has presence, whereas an e-book is ephemeral.  A book takes up space; an e-book only takes up space on a server. The presence of a book offers possibilities for discovery and transmission that are unavailable to the e-book. You have to have intent to find an e-book, you can't just happen up on it.  You have to buy a device specifically to access it, you have to search a marketplace to find one you wish to read, or respond to an advertisement directed at you. A physical book draws attention to itself merely by existing. If you can see it, and reach, and pick it up, you can read it.

I like to think of the book as a body, and its text as its spirit.  With its body it can engage with the world, without its body it is just essence.  You can take the essence and feed it through a machine, and make it accessible to everyone simultaneously, but it is still a ghost. If it passes out of collective memory, it may as well have never existed. An unread book on your coffee table is a constant reminder of your failure to have read it, an unread e-book on a server is not just invisible, it's debatable whether it exists at all.

That's why it troubles me to think that the primary edition of a book may become the e-book, with the print book a tertiary, or sometimes non-existent, counterpart.  If you remove accidental discovery from the picture, what kind of book culture do you create?  If most content must be accessed through a device, utilizing software, delivered by a digital distribution platform, to what extent are we yielding a part of the experience of discovery to the proprietary marketing algorithms of giant conglomerates?

To what extent does publishing also become invisible?  What happens when I ride the subway, and instead of seeing riders' faces hidden behind copies of Moby Dick, or the Hunger Games, I can only seek sleek pieces of plastic with logos for Kindle, or Apple, or Google on them?  What about readers and library patrons who can't afford a digital device and are excluded from this new evolution in book culture entirely?

In short, when you relegate the physical book to the backseat, you relegate physical book readers there as well, and not all physical book readers are going to make the jump to digital reading, some of them may make the jump to no reading at all (7% of readers report having read only one book last year).

The Importance of the "Book" as Concept

Because of the intentionally skeuomorphic design of the display of most e-readers, the radical act of divorcing the text from the book is hardly given much thought. A book is a book to most consumers, whether it's a bound volume or a .AZW file. The implications of liberating the text from a book are larger than I think readers and authors realize.

Why can't a book be a million words long?  Why can't a book be two words long?  Does a book have to be read sequentially, or can the reader choose a path through hyperlinks? Can a book include videos, games, and digital applications and still be considered a book?  Can a book change or update its content on the fly?  What makes a book a book?

A book without pages is not a book. It's something else. It's textual media that is plastic, not static. Arguably, what makes a book a book are its limitations.  The book, as concept, serves a distinct (and some might say antiquarian) purpose.  It is about the devotion of attention to a single subject for a substantial amount of time.  It's about building a monument to an idea and putting it down in a bound volume that has breadth and length, and that does not change.  You can't build the same sort of monument from the shifting sands of the digital media landscape.

As a media property, the e-book is a version of a book, but it is not a book in itself. Its intentions (to be static, to be permanent) are subverted by its form (the mutable digital text). Without the physical book as referent, it's like a ringtone mimicking the rattling bells of an old rotary phone.

The relegation of physical books to the dustbin of history will only serve to cleave textual media from its predecessor form.  The physical book, sold in the context of bookstore, is sold as book among other books.  Textual media, is sold in the digital marketplace as one sort of media among many.  Changing the context, informs the process of creation.

Put succinctly, writers who write books, write books for the book market.  Writing a text for the physical book marketplace necessitates that the text fit the criteria for a book as it has been traditionally understood . Writing a book for the digital marketplace requires one to make the choice to write a “book”, and that is one choice among many.

While there is overlap in the marketplace now between physical book readers and e-book readers, consider what happens a generation or two after the collapse of publishing as we know it, and the end of brick and mortar bookstores, when physical books become mere antiques and objets d'art. What happens when there's no longer a context for books and the digital marketplace shifts away from what we might traditionally consider a book to be. 

I imagine we will lose a vital continuity, common history, and understanding, that might otherwise have been preserved. 

Which is not to say we should stop all the clocks and halt progress, but merely that we ought to hold on to some of the old ways while we simultaneously explore the new.  Some of the old ways are still useful, are still important, and can still exist in harmony with and in conversation with the new.

A failure to preserve and build upon the traditions of publishing, I fear, will result in the unmooring of textual media from print media, and grant the Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs total and insuperable influence over book culture. 

In Conclusion

There are a lot of good reasons to wish for the continued success of bookstores, publishers, and physical books.  Not the least of which is that it provides an additional revenue stream for authors.  That's not to say that we should stand in the way of progress, but we shouldn't treat the future as a zero-sum game either.  The growth of e-books doesn't have to mean the death of bookstores.  In fact, were it not for the Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs growth in e-book sales could help spur growth in print sales.  Engaging more people in the act of reading only encourages the act of reading, provided that content is widely available in as many formats as possible in as many venues as possible.  The Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs ensures that content is channeled through proprietary systems of delivery and distribution (i.e. through iTunes on the iPad exclusively, through Amazon in Kindle format only) and that’s a dangerous paradigm which grants companies whose primary interest are not books enormous influence over what is available to readers.  There ought to be room for physical books, bookstores, and even independent e-book publishers and online stores.  A lush and diverse media marketplace benefits everyone, and as consumers we ought to be aware of how we consume media, and to what extent we are feeding systems of proprietary control. Book culture should be determined by people who read books, not by device manufacturers, or online retailing conglomerates, or anyone whose primary interest is separate from the interest of readers.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Conventioneers! O Conventioneers!

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson...

I'll be attending a couple writer's conventions in April and May.  So while this is fresh in my mind, I thought I might delight you dear readers with a few tips about writer's conventions.

Conventions can be fun and provide you with some useful insights and exposure to the publishing world.  Whether the convention you're attending is large or small, there are a few things you should probably know about what to expect (and to not expect) at a convention.

What you should expect

Writer's conventions are often held by writer's groups, but sometimes by magazines and other professional groups. For writer's groups they work simultaneously as a benefit for the members, a fundraiser for the group, and a membership drive.  Writer's groups can be helpful for all sorts of reasons, the primary one being Community.  Being with other like-minded individuals and sharing your struggles and information can be a blessing.  Writing is a rather solipsistic activity, and encouragement can be difficult to find.  If you do not belong to a writer's group, then consider joining one, and consider going to their convention first to find out if it's your scene.

Usually these conventions have a few familiar components.  The first are classes or presentations.  Guest lecturers from inside the community and from without will hold forth on a range of topics, usually having to do with books (how they ought to be written, how best to sell rights to them once they are).  The second is some sort of keynote speaker (or draw) usually a notable author, agent, editor.  Then, there are the agents and editors.

There are typically a few panels dedicated to agents and editors where writers are given an opportunity to pick our brains, ask about submissions practices, and what our likes/dislikes are.  That is usually followed (though not necessarily) by a pitch session, where authors can pitch their projects to agents and editors in person.

It seems to me that there is an undue amount of attention put on the pitch sessions, which, in my not so humble opinion, are only about as important as the other stuff on the agenda.  Certainly a lot of authors will skip a lot of the other conference stuff, and go right into their tete-a-tete with the hungry agent, eyes gleaming with false hope.

What you should expect from these sessions is for an agent to listen patiently to your attempt at pitching the concept behind your work and, if you're lucky, to request a sample of your work for further study back at their respective lairs.  That is the best-case-scenario.

You can't reasonably expect a professional, whose job it is to evaluate book properties for their potential marketability to learn everything they need to know about your property from a brief spiel, and a few minutes of chatting.  There is the small matter of having to read the work, and decide whether or not you're actually as good on the page as you may have been in person.  Since what end-users (see: readers) will be reading is the book (see: your book), the pitch (see: your pitch) doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.  So don't build it up to be something bigger than it is.  If you blow it, you haven't really lost anything.  You may have embarrassed yourself a little, but so what?  What matters is what's on the page, and as long as you nail that, you should be fine.

While you should certainly prepare for your pitch session (more on that below) what you should focus on during your convention experience is building a community and opening yourself up to new information. If you obsess about the pitch session at the exclusion of everything else, then you're not really getting your money's worth.

The pitch session isn't a make-or-break moment for anyone's career, it's just an exercise.  At best, it can be the beginning of a business relationship, but in order for that to transpire it first has to be an interaction between two human beings.

What you should not expect

You should not expect to win publishing.  It's not a prize, it can't be won, and if it were it certainly couldn't be won in the convention hall of a hotel. This is a scenario that will never play out:

Author pitches book to agent. Agent immediately stops author mid-     sentence and declares: "that's the most brilliant thing I've ever heard! I needn't even read this book, it will be a best-seller, I am certain! I wish to sign you up as a client right now!"

"In fact," the agent continues "let me call every editor I know right now and let them know you've won publishing. You're absolutely correct unicorn slash fiction is the new Harry Potter." Agent immediately takes out cellphone, conferences every editor agent knows while drawing up your contract. End scene.

The best-case scenario, as mentioned above, is that the agent/editor thinks your idea is neat, and pending a review of your material may make a determination at a later date.  That's nice, but not really cause for a ticker-tape parade.  The same could have happened if you had sent a blind-query.

The added benefit to you is that you actually got to discuss the book in a real conversation with a real live human being.  In a conversation you get to provide the agent/editor with some information in response to their direct questions.  That information is, hopefully, more pertinent to them than information you may have volunteered in a query.

So now that you have your expectations set, what can you do to make the most of your pitch session?


1. Do take the opportunity to hang out with other authors.  Before you even consider signing up for a pitch session you should make friends, talk shop, compare notes, give and receive advice.  The purpose of the conference should be more than preparing for your big debut with the agents and editors. In the long run it's your fellow authors who are going to be the biggest help to you.

2. Do prepare for your pitch session.  Your pitch session will last anywhere from three to ten minutes, but you needn't spend the entire time on the "pitch" part of pitching.  The pitch should be only a few sentences long, and it should give the agent/editor a good idea of what the book is about and who the book is for. As with a query, you should do research about where your book likely fits in genre-wise, and you should already have a brief summary of your book on hand.  For the pitch you're going to want to condense that summary down to a few sentences, and write those sentences down.  You needn't practice them verbatim, but you should be able answer, in a few brief sentences, the direct question that seems to beleaguer even professional authors: "So, uh, what's your book about?"  The tendency when faced with this question is to think to oneself "what isn't this book about?" and that is the highway to the danger zone (see: Don'ts #2).  What you should do instead is take your written pitch and read it aloud several times (again, not memorizing it, just reading it aloud) and get a feel for summarizing your book in the most natural way possible.  Once you feel like you've nailed it, then practice it on some test subjects (a willing spouse perhaps, or an honest friend) to see if you make any sense.  If you pass that test then you should be ready to go.

3. Do try to be professional. You don't have to dress like it's a job interview, or a black-tie event, but do try to appear professional.  Do conduct yourself with a bit of decorum. Do be polite, and gracious, and kind. In short, do try to behave like the sort of person an agent/editor might like to be in protracted business relationship with.  Personality is a factor in evaluating potential clients and authors.

4.That being said, do relax. Agents and editors are just people.  They aren't smarter than you, or better than you, they probably aren't even as good looking as you.  All they have is a bit more experience working the levers of publishing, and a bit more time spent reading unpublished manuscripts. Their evaluation of your concept as a marketable concept is not an evaluation of you as a person or an artist. Also, they aren't there to judge you, they're there to help you.  If you're on the verge of success they have both a personal and a financial interest in helping you get there.  If you're struggling, they have an interest in seeing that you have the tools to succeed.  They want more and better authors, and they know that authors aren't born, they're built.  To the extent that they can help you, they will.  If they can't help you, no biggie, the convention should be full of people who can.


1.Don't be a pitch robot.  I don't need your help reading your query letter.  I would be in a lot of hot water if I was an illiterate literary agent.  So you needn't waste your time reading your letter to me.  Even less helpful is having you memorize and recite it.

2. Don't ramble.  While you don't want to be a robot, you also don't want to give me the long version of your pitch.  Keep it brief, so that we have some time to talk. Also, so I can keep the story straight.  There is such a thing as information overload.  Stories are full of information (character building, world building, back story) all of which may be necessary in the novel, but not in the pitch. You start describing every minor character and sub-plot and you're going to lose me, and lose me quick.

3. Don't omit necessary info. While you are trying to not be a robot, and also trying to keep it brief, try to give me a good idea of what we're talking about.  If your pitch omits important information it's just going to complicate matters as we start to talk, and I try to parse out exactly what your story is supposed to be about. Your summary should include all the relevant info: genre, length, main characters (name them, tell me who they are and why they are important), central conflict, how that conflict is resolved (spoilers welcome).  I once had an author pitch to me, and I wasn't clear on what the central conflict of the author's book was or how it was supposed to be resolved.  I kept asking questions, and the author kept responding "you'll just have to read it".  After a while I got fed up and finally said, "actually, I don't have to read it, that's the point of this conversation."  When you have limited time, and the other party has limited patience, it's best not to be coy. If I didn't want to know who the secret murderer was in your mystery novel, I wouldn't have asked.

4. Don't forget to have fun. This should be fun. Learning is fun.  Meeting new people is fun. Remember to have fun.  If you don't plan on having fun, don't bother coming.  You'll just harsh everyone else's cool.  If you know you're prone to nervousness and panic, and your strengths lie primarily in written communication, then maybe querying is the best path for you.  If you still feel like you'd like some face-time with an agent, but you don't think you can pitch your book without breaking into a cold sweat, you can sign up for a pitch-session and use it to ask the agent questions. They won't be disappointed (in fact they may welcome the break), and you don't have to feel like you have to perform for them.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In Defense of the Royalty-Only Model for Digital Publication

John Scalzi, author, blogger, lame-duck (but by no means lame) President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, defender of working writers everywhere, and client of the agency I happen to work for, has been commenting this past week about a shift toward advanceless book deals and the gradual erosion of authors compensation in the digital marketplace (summary can be found here).

While John is mostly right (especially about Random House's new Hydra/Alibi/Loveswept/Flirt "profit share" endeavor being exploitative) I thought he was perhaps a bit unfair to the royalty-only model, and I thought I might supply a counterpoint to his criticism, and also a bit of context about how the royalty-only model rose to prominence in the digital book sphere.

The royalty-only model is, as mentioned by John, not a new model, but its rise in the digital book world is not surprising, nor should its adoption by the larger publishers for the purposes of creating their own low-overhead imprints be necessarily surprising either. The model was born out of desperation by upstart e-publishers who didn't have the initial capital to pay out advances.  Even before the rise in popularity of self-publishing, they needed an arrow in their quiver to convince authors to write for them, rather than focus their efforts elsewhere.  That arrow was a higher than average royalty, and in some circumstances flexibility on the rights retained by the author.  

The benefits to the publisher of such a model are fairly obvious: by not having to pay advances, they had more money to invest in expanding their business, and greater discretion to acquire works.  By not having to worry about recouping an advance and by having limited production costs, not only could these small upstarts publish with greater frequency, but they could also experiment with more niche works and sub-genres, and find readerships that were previously not serviced by the larger publishers.

If you need an example of one such publisher, consider our agency's other client Ellora's Cave Publishing.  They began in early 2000 as an upstart by a romance and erotica author named Tina Engler (you may know her by her pseudonym Jaid Black) who found that her steamier material was too hot for mainstream publication and decided to begin offering her and her friends' erotic tales online.  The transactions used to be handled over PayPal, and the books delivered via email as PDF files. Now they are a multi-million dollar operation with over 800 authors, a backlist of over 4,000 titles, and they have launched the careers of several best-selling authors including Lora Leigh, Shiloh Walker, and Sylvia Day.

Now that's all well and good for Ellora's Cave, and other such royalty-only e-book publishers, but what about the authors?  Well the redounding benefits to the authors are that now there is a market for erotic romance, where none used to exist.  In 2000, good erotica was hard to find, now its ubiquity has spawned several competitors to Ellora's Cave, as well as paved the way for mainstream successes such as 50 Shades of Grey.

In 2000 there was no one willing to publish an author's male-male paranormal romance novel, now an author can choose between several different publishers, including an imprint of the largest romance publisher in the world.  Next year Ellora's Cave authors will pioneer several new sub-genres (ever wonder what a vampire steampunk menage-a-trois might be like?) and a handful of their authors will grace the New York Times e-book best-seller list while doing so

It's hard to say that Ellora's Cave's authors are exploited by their royalty only agreements because they receive no advances. Authors receive a substantial share of their book's take, and the back-end compensation is not as big a burden because the lead time between delivery of the manuscript and publication is short, and royalties are paid monthly or quarterly. Certainly there have been a few authors whose experience with Ellora's Cave didn't live up to their expectations of what publication should be, but when considering the alternative (no publication at all) it hardly seems fair to begrudge Ellora's Cave their business model.  

Arguably, it was the rise of Ellora's Cave (and other notables like Samhain Publishing) that caused publishers like Harlequin to experiment with their Carina Press imprint (headed by former Samhain and Quartet editor Angela James), and Carina Press that started the domino effect at the other publishers to capture the same lighting in a bottle. Overall I don't believe this trend is harmful.  In fact the opposite is probably true. Publishers throwing their weight behind royalty-only digital-only imprints means gaining additional opportunities for authors to reach readers with partners that offer a bit more stability than a fly-by-night digital startup can offer.

While I'm not running to go get all my clients digital-only royalty-only deals (I would prefer an advance against royalties and a print component as, I'm sure, would most of my clients) a royalty-only ebook deal is better than no deal at all, and it presents a viable alternative to self-publishing for authors who don't have the knack for it.

Not every book is mainstream enough to warrant a substantial investment by a publisher (just like erotica was thought to be unpublishable in 2000) but that doesn't mean there's no readership for that book. A publisher's knowledge of the market (or potential markets) is not absolute, and because they can't afford to take as many risks when it comes to offering an advance they often don't. That's not to say publishers don't take risks, they do, but the business of publishing is more art than science.  Whole sub-genres can get written-off because a publisher's first trial with that particular sub-genre was a flop.  Taking a flyer on some weird book by a new author is hard to justify when you've got to put up tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege. 

Royalty-only e-book publication offers a viable alternative for success in the instance that a mainstream publisher deems a book too big a risk to publish through traditional means.  I am happy to see that the big publishers are each sporting new digital-first/digital-only imprints (some of which, like Berkley's Intermix and S&S's Pocket Star, do pay nominal advances, though smaller royalties) and I think creating more opportunities for up-and-coming authors to get published should be encouraged, even if that means giving up an advance in lieu of back-end compensation.

That being said, John is right to be wary of the big publisher's foray into this realm. In the absence of advances, royalties should be higher than average, and authors should never be on the hook for expenses related to publication. Nor should authors tacitly accept less than favorable terms, just because their book is being sold digitally.  There is always room to negotiate, and authors, agents, and writer's groups have a responsibility to insist on fair compensation. (update: it turns out such insistence works)

The point of these digital-only/digital-first imprints should not be to lure noobs into exploitative arrangements but to use the flexibility afforded by the low overhead to explore new vistas of genre and style and to discover and cultivate readerships that can blossom into new enterprises that will benefit authors, publishers, and readers alike.  

Monday, March 11, 2013

Turns out writing is like...hard

Which is to say, I apologize for my long absence.  I've had no shortage of things to blog about, but little time to actually spend blogging.  I have decided, however, to rededicate myself to the noble effort of shouting into the internet void.  More content to come...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Take a Chance with a Weird Book

I have a pretty awesome job for a book nerd.  I get to read books only a handful of people will ever read.  Sometimes I read great books with fascinating characters and engrossing plots.  The trade-off for this privilege is that I also have to read a lot of really awful books as well.  I also get to sit by and grumble as decent, but mediocre, books climb the best-seller lists while the books I like collect dust on an editor's desk.

The only thing more painful than having a book one champions continually rejected is the practice of self-censorship one must engage in from time to time just as a matter of expediency.  Some books that I find fascinating, I know from experience, most editors won't touch.

It pains me to think of all the average, but marketable, books that get published every year, and all the weird, but deliciously good, ones that don't.  If you're curious about how this fascinating selection process works, I'd recommend taking a look at my colleague Denise Little's blog post about the way books are acquired and published entitled Two or More Years Before Publication: The Publisher at Work.  

To summarize: the acquisitions process is a group process involving the editorial staff, as well as marketing, sales, and the art departments.  Books are chosen by popular vote and evaluated not just for their artistic merits, but for their saleability.  Lots of funny things can happen in these meetings that can prevent a book from making it to publication.  Often times editors are crestfallen that their pet project didn't survive the scrutiny of their co-workers.  I've been on the receiving end of many a regretful rejection letter from an editor who, as much as they loved the book, failed to get it picked up at their acquisitions meeting.  Separate from the acquisitions process, some imprints also have editorial meetings, wherein they winnow down selections before even presenting them for acquisition.

There are many ways that this process is effective from a practical standpoint.  Group decisions help build coalitions and foster a sense of group responsibility that will guide a book through each stage in the process of production and sales.  The hope is that these group decisions will more closely mirror the current zeitgeist, and that the books chosen will therefore reach the maximum number of readers.  This is sometimes the case, but  the downside of these group decisions, in my opinion, is that they create a culture of self-censorship which then trickles down to agents like me.  Editors don't want to bring oddball projects to their editorial or acquisitions meetings if they know they're going to get shot down, and so they avoid them altogether. 

I don't believe that there's any special talent editors or agents possess that make them any better in their role as taste-makers than your average reader.  The decisions they make about which books to keep and which books to toss, are similar to the type of decisions shoppers make at bookstores every day.  No one likes to be bored, and editors and agents are no exception.  The one thing that differentiates them from other readers is the surrounding cultural influences of the industry itself, and the narratives constructed around the successes or failures of the books they publish.  While publisher's like to think they're giving their customers what they want, in truth it is a publishing professional's preconceived notions about what a commercial book should look like that most influences what readers end up with.

The lessons a publisher extrapolates from the data compiled on a book can be rather unscientific.  One poor showing can mean writing off an entire sub-genre and some successes are falsely attributed to the popularity of a theme when they're really based on the popularity of an author (or visa versa).  In leaner times, like the ones we're experiencing now, this sort of problem only gets exacerbated. On the one hand publishers are being very cautious about trying different sorts of books, and on the other they are looking to throw their weight behind previous successes that are rapidly approaching their expiration date.  People tend to respond to scarcity by being more conservative, and that can be a recipe for stagnation. Is it possible that in our efforts to better serve existing readerships that we're limiting the opportunities to connect with new readers, and to open the door to new styles and genres? 

What are we so afraid of?  There are several admirable books that pass muster with the acquisitions team, but which flop anyway.  No one has a complete lock on the marketplace, and bubbles are bursting all around us.  What would be the harm in taking a crazy risk once a season, rather than once in a career?  If your bubbles are bursting, why try to prevent the others from bursting when you can just blow more bubbles? 

I propose that imprints seriously consider publishing one hare-brained book a season, and market it as such.  Restaurants have specials every day as a way of experimenting with which dishes to add to the menu, why can't imprints create a slot each season for that one experimental book that editorial can agree is so crazy it just might work?  The rest of the list can be meat and potatoes, but once a season a book should make it to publication that will either blaze a trail to the stars or end up as a beautiful pillar of smoke at the end of the runway. Otherwise, why bother?

Likewise, readers should get their sense of adventure back.  Read something freaky once a year, why don't you?  You could read something that you don't connect with at all, or you could wind up having a revelation.  Either way, at least you won't be bored, and you'll be saving the publishing industry from itself.