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#38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

 

 

 

 Dear Book Explorers:

 

I consider it my duty -- and my pleasure -- to keep you up to date on all matters having to do with the publishing industry and how that affects you, the reader. There are numerous articles and blogs to wade through each week and I try to bring the most provocative to you. In case you didn't see this one, partially below, in Time magazine, here it is. Lots of food for thought and very much in keeping with the discussions we've had about publishing and reading -- past, present and future.

 

My opinion: this article while not the first to discuss these new wrinkles in the business does a very good job corraling them into one place.

 

But it is your opinion that counts! Give me your thoughts.

 

Ande

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009

Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature

By Lev Grossman

Here's a literary parable for the 21st century. Lisa Genova, 38, was a health-care-industry consultant in Belmont, Mass., who wanted to be a novelist, but she couldn't get her book published for love or money. She had a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, but she couldn't get an agent. "I did what you're supposed to do," she says. "I queried literary agents. I went to writers' conferences and tried to network. I e-mailed editors. Nobody wanted it." So Genova paid $450 to a company called iUniverse and published her book, Still Alice, herself.

That was in 2007. By 2008 people were reading Still Alice. Not a lot of people, but a few, and those few were liking it. Genova wound up getting an agent after all--and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5. "So this is extreme to extreme, right?" Genova says. "This time last year, I was selling the book out of the trunk of my car." (See the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008.)

Something has changed, and it's not just the contents of Lisa Genova's trunk. We think of the novel as a transcendent, timeless thing, but it was shaped by the forces of money and technology just as much as by creative genius. Passing over a few classical and Far Eastern entries, the novel in its modern form really got rolling only in the early 18th century. This wasn't an accident, and it didn't happen because a bunch of writers like Defoe and Richardson and Fielding suddenly decided we should be reading long books about imaginary people. It happened as a result of an unprecedented configuration of financial and technological circumstances. New industrial printing techniques meant you could print lots of books cheaply; a modern capitalist marketplace had evolved in which you could sell them; and for the first time there was a large, increasingly literate, relatively well-off urban middle class to buy and read them. Once those conditions were in place, writers like Defoe and Richardson showed up to take advantage of them.

Fast-forward to the early 21st century: the publishing industry is in distress. Publishing houses--among them Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt--are laying off staff left and right. Random House is in the midst of a drastic reorganization. Salaries are frozen across the industry. Whispers of bankruptcy are fluttering around Borders; Barnes & Noble just cut 100 jobs at its headquarters, a measure unprecedented in the company's history. Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be "the worst year for publishing in decades."

A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.

What's the Matter with Publishing?

It isn't the audience. People are still reading. According to a National Endowment for the Arts study released on Jan. 12, literary reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002, the first such increase in 26 years. So that's not the problem. What is?

The economy, obviously. Plenty of businesses are hurting. And it doesn't help that new media like video games (sales up 19% in 2008!) are now competing with books for our entertainment hours and dollars. But publishing has deeper, more systemic problems, like the fact that its business model evolved during an earlier fiscal era. It's an antique, a financial coelacanth that dates back to the Depression.

Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn't "earn out," in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. "They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW. These systems were created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.

If you think about it, shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century. Novels are getting restless, shrugging off their expensive papery husks and transmigrating digitally into other forms. Devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon's Kindle have gained devoted followings. Google has scanned more than 7 million books into its online database; the plan is to scan them all, every single one, within 10 years. Writers podcast their books and post them, chapter by chapter, on blogs. Four of the five best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 belonged to an entirely new literary form called keitai shosetsu: novels written, and read, on cell phones. Compared with the time and cost of replicating a digital file and shipping it around the world--i.e., zero and nothing--printing books on paper feels a little Paleolithic. (See 25 must-have travel gadgets.)

And speaking of advances, books are also leaving behind another kind of paper: money. Those cell-phone novels are generally written by amateurs and posted on free community websites, by the hundreds of thousands, with no expectation of payment. For the first time in modern history, novels are becoming detached from dollars. They're circulating outside the economy that spawned them.

Cell-phone novels haven't caught on in the U.S.--yet--but we have something analogous: fan fiction, fan-written stories based on fictional worlds and characters borrowed from popular culture--Star Trek, Jane Austen, Twilight, you name it. There's a staggering amount of it online, enough to qualify it as a literary form in its own right. Fanfiction.net hosts 386,490 short stories, novels and novellas in its Harry Potter section alone.

No printing and shipping. No advances. Maybe publishing will survive after all! Then again, if you can have publishing without paper and without money, why not publishing without publishers?

Vanity of Vanities, All Is Vanity

When Genova had reached the end of her unsuccessful search, she told the last literary agent who rejected her, "I've had enough of this. I'm going to go self-publish it." "That was by e-mail," she says. "He picked up the phone and called me within five minutes and said, 'Don't do that. You will kill your writing career before it starts.'"

It's true: saying you were a self-published author used to be like saying you were a self-taught brain surgeon. But over the past couple of years, vanity publishing has become practically respectable. As the technical challenges have decreased--you can turn a Word document on your hard drive into a self-published novel on Amazon's Kindle store in about five minutes--so has the stigma. Giga-selling fantasist Christopher Paolini started as a self-published author. After Brunonia Barry self-published her novel The Lace Reader in 2007, William Morrow picked it up and gave her a two-book deal worth $2 million. The fact that William P. Young's The Shack was initially self-published hasn't stopped it from spending 34 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)

Daniel Suarez, a software consultant in Los Angeles, sent his techno-thriller Daemon to 48 literary agents. No go. So he self-published instead. Bit by bit, bloggers got behind Daemon. Eventually Penguin noticed and bought it and a sequel for a sum in the high six figures. "I really see a future in doing that," Suarez says, "where agencies would monitor the performance of self-published books, in a sort of Darwinian selection process, and see what bubbles to the surface. I think of it as crowd-sourcing the manuscript-submission process."

Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball. It's the last ripple of the Web 2.0 vibe finally washing up on publishing's remote shores. After YouTube and Wikipedia, the idea of user-generated content just isn't that freaky anymore.

The Orchard and the Jungle

So if the economic and technological changes of the 18th century gave rise to the modern novel, what's the 21st century giving us? Well, we've gone from industrialized printing to electronic replication so cheap, fast and easy, it greases the skids of literary production to the point of frictionlessness. From a modern capitalist marketplace, we've moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional. And in place of a newly minted literate middle class, we now have a global audience of billions, with a literacy rate of 82% and rising.

Find this article at:

·                                 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1873122,00.html

 

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Melissa_W
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

I think it is good that publishers are showing more restraint with their advances - they've gotten egg on their face recently with some debacles (Opal Mehta comes to mind, along with JT Leroy, etc.) so it's getting harder to justify just giving someone money in the hopes the result will be a blockbuster.  I agree with Grossman's equation of self-publishing to out-of-town tryouts - there is no risk to the company up front.  That is probably not so much of a bad thing; the movie industry as test audiences, advance screenings, and such so why not the book industry? 

 

And judging the number of composite, add-on story threads in different groups on the BNBC it seems people just want to get their creative thing on.

Melissa W.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

In a slightly tangential article in the NYTimes, J. Courtney Sullivan profiles the emergence of web-site and video promotion of book titles.
Melissa W.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

And as the shakeout continues we'll see more and more coverage.
Ande

pedsphleb wrote:
In a slightly tangential article in the NYTimes, J. Courtney Sullivan profiles the emergence of web-site and video promotion of book titles.

 

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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

I like your analogy, Melissa, with self-published books being like out of town tryouts.  Or maybe more like our local theater which puts on one-act plays written by locals (it's an annual contest, and they select usually four or five out of those submitted).  They do get some serious directors to stop by and see the productions -- one, for example, is a Hollywood movie director with major productions under his belt. 

 

The review channels will have to develop (I see from a later post that they're already starting to do so), but that will happen.  

 

The other development we haven't talked about is print-on-demand.  That, also, will allow the major publishing houses not to ship paper all over the country.  Those systems need to get a bit better so they can put out books that in quality rival the paperbacks from major publishers,but that will happen.  Then Barnes and Noble can stock every book any publisher is willing to put into electronic format, including out of print titles. 

 

In short, Ande, the article was right about there being another major change in the dynanics of the publishing industry.  And, I think, all for the good.

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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

Everyman:
 
I think we'll be seeing much more print-on-demand as time goes by. Reader demand, the economy and the need to be green are some of the factors driving this.
 
Ande

Everyman wrote:

I like your analogy, Melissa, with self-published books being like out of town tryouts.  Or maybe more like our local theater which puts on one-act plays written by locals (it's an annual contest, and they select usually four or five out of those submitted).  They do get some serious directors to stop by and see the productions -- one, for example, is a Hollywood movie director with major productions under his belt. 

 

The review channels will have to develop (I see from a later post that they're already starting to do so), but that will happen.  

 

The other development we haven't talked about is print-on-demand.  That, also, will allow the major publishing houses not to ship paper all over the country.  Those systems need to get a bit better so they can put out books that in quality rival the paperbacks from major publishers,but that will happen.  Then Barnes and Noble can stock every book any publisher is willing to put into electronic format, including out of print titles. 

 

In short, Ande, the article was right about there being another major change in the dynanics of the publishing industry.  And, I think, all for the good.


 

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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

And speaking of more coverage:  Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab

 

A a bookseller, I have only two complaints with the self-publishing industry. 1) The books aren't returnable so if we somehow wind up with a copy of something no-one wants we might have it on the shelf for years until it becomes so damaged we have to take it as a loss and 2) it can take longer than other product to come in if ordered (we usually get things into the store in about 4 business days, so the delay can be frustrating for customers).


ande wrote:

And as the shakeout continues we'll see more and more coverage.
Ande

pedsphleb wrote:
In a slightly tangential article in the NYTimes, J. Courtney Sullivan profiles the emergence of web-site and video promotion of book titles.

 


 

Melissa W.
I read and knit and dance. Compulsively feel yarn. Consume books. Darn tights. Drink too much caffiene. All that good stuff.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

I thought that article was a very thin look at a very complex situation. Just because you can publish your own book should you? Or let me put it this way: would you still publish your book if you knew that only dozens -- not thousands -- of readers would buy it. To publish literally means to put something out in the world and that is what the self-published author does. True, sometimes you have a publishing miracle occur and a large publisher pays you lots of dough and relaunches your book (Still Alice and The Lace Reader are two recent Cinderella stories).
 
But most of the time that large thing called distribution gets in the way. What you say is true. Also, quoted in that Times article is a high respected bookseller in Denver who says, basically, just because you write a book doesn't mean anyone will buy it.
 
That said, there are some ways self-published authors can be successful. And I would be happy to pontificate on that if anyone is interested.
 
Ande
 
 

pedsphleb wrote:

And speaking of more coverage:  Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab

 

A a bookseller, I have only two complaints with the self-publishing industry. 1) The books aren't returnable so if we somehow wind up with a copy of something no-one wants we might have it on the shelf for years until it becomes so damaged we have to take it as a loss and 2) it can take longer than other product to come in if ordered (we usually get things into the store in about 4 business days, so the delay can be frustrating for customers).


ande wrote:

And as the shakeout continues we'll see more and more coverage.
Ande

pedsphleb wrote:
In a slightly tangential article in the NYTimes, J. Courtney Sullivan profiles the emergence of web-site and video promotion of book titles.

 


 


 

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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

I think that if someone wants to pay out of their own pocket to have their writing published that isn't such a new thing.  Jane Austen and her brother had to pay the upfront costs of printing her novels but got a share of the profits in return (I think - I'm a bit hazy on the specifics beyond what they had to lay out to get the work in print).  People are allowed to spend their money the way they like.  I'm just worried that it might be a bigger form of rejection if one lays out the money for self-publication and the work doesn't sell - getting rejected by the populace is a little different than getting rejected by the establishment.  And Cinderella stories like Still Alice and The Lace Reader might cause false hopes of scoring that amazing contract once the novel is in the vanity publishing industry.


ande wrote:

I thought that article was a very thin look at a very complex situation. Just because you can publish your own book should you? Or let me put it this way: would you still publish your book if you knew that only dozens -- not thousands -- of readers would buy it. To publish literally means to put something out in the world and that is what the self-published author does. True, sometimes you have a publishing miracle occur and a large publisher pays you lots of dough and relaunches your book (Still Alice and The Lace Reader are two recent Cinderella stories).
But most of the time that large thing called distribution gets in the way. What you say is true. Also, quoted in that Times article is a high respected bookseller in Denver who says, basically, just because you write a book doesn't mean anyone will buy it.
That said, there are some ways self-published authors can be successful. And I would be happy to pontificate on that if anyone is interested.
Ande

 


 

Melissa W.
I read and knit and dance. Compulsively feel yarn. Consume books. Darn tights. Drink too much caffiene. All that good stuff.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

Melissa -- your link didn't work for me.


pedsphleb wrote:

And speaking of more coverage:  Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab

 

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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

Hmmm - try this one


Everyman wrote:

Melissa -- your link didn't work for me.


pedsphleb wrote:

And speaking of more coverage:  Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab

 


 

Melissa W.
I read and knit and dance. Compulsively feel yarn. Consume books. Darn tights. Drink too much caffiene. All that good stuff.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

That worked.  Thanks.  Interesting article.  I'm surprised at how cheaply one can actually self-publish these days.


pedsphleb wrote:

Hmmm - try this one


Everyman wrote:

Melissa -- your link didn't work for me.


pedsphleb wrote:

And speaking of more coverage:  Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab

 


 


 

 

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Europa Editions

A short article about a small press that publishes translated works from Europe.
Melissa W.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

I think that the picture this article paints of the publishing industry in the future is rather grim.  Sure, as with any industry, publishing must grow and evolve.  However, I fear the day when we will no longer be able to hold a book in our hands.  Electronic books may be more convenient, but there is something about turning pages or scanning the spines at a library to find just the one you want.  A good book will remain on your shelf for years or be handed down like an heirloom.  It will show wear when thumbed through by an avid reader.  And I, personally, always find it fascinating to read the hand-written notes in the margins of an antique book.

 

Furthermore, I think self-publishing and e-publishing somewhat dilute the literary waters, so to speak.  Certainly there are books out there, like the example cited in this article, that are wonderful works which, without self-publishing, might never see print.  But for those who dedicate years to honing their craft with the goal of becoming professional authors there seems to be no reward, no way to make a living or stand out as the artists of our age.

 

The state of our economy has forced many industries into crisis, not only the publishing industry.  But what editors need to remember is that the economy is cyclical; it will recover.  That is why it is so important now to not take any drastic measures, but also not to hide from the world and refuse to take a risk.  People will always read, and I think, in the end, people will always want a tangible book.  If the financial crisis calls for adjusting the terms of contracts to shift costs, then so be it.  Just don't stop publishing or taking a chance on a gifted author, solely out of fear.  Take a long look and picture the book being handed down to future generations.

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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

Has anyone heard more about the proposed mergers? Caught a 30sec blurb last night.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

What merger, Tigger?


TiggerBear wrote:
Has anyone heard more about the proposed mergers? Caught a 30sec blurb last night.


 

Melissa W.
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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!


pedsphleb wrote:

What merger, Tigger?


TiggerBear wrote:
Has anyone heard more about the proposed mergers? Caught a 30sec blurb last night.


 


Hmm don't know the specifics, which is why I asked. All I heard was that several of the still existing but not doing so hot are discussing banding togeather and a few merging (cities near each other I guess) into one paper. Not one merger but many, across the US. So I was wondering if anyone elses local station ran a bigger or more detailed piece. Or knew any more about it.

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Re: #38 More on the state of publishing and how that afffects you!

Obviously, the option for someone to easily publish through companies such as iUniverse and whatnot is nice; but there seems to be a lack of adequate information as to what comes next for the author.  Especially if they are paying for the service.  Published is only the first step in the main goal . . . getting readers to buy the book.  That's where the marketing, advertising, and sales pieces come in.  This is also not an area most writers are comfortable with.  So here are some suggestions to help you get off the ground:

 

1.  If applicable, tie-in your book with a local charity organization.  For example, I know of an author who has his book tied in with a Sea Turtles organization and offers the ability for the children purchasing it to sign up to adopt a sea turtle and track it via GPS.

 

2.  Give a talk about the book at the local library and invite a targeted group the book is applicable to.

 

3.  If it's a school-age read, meet with some media specialists in the area and see if they would like to put the book on their reading lists. 

 

4.  Set up a social networking group such as on Facebook. 

 

5.  Start a blog associated with the book and email all of your friends and family about it. 

 

6.  Get some promotional material (especially bookmarks with a description of the book) to hand out. 

 

Have fun, and create a plan that is comprehensive and targeted to the appropriate audience. 

 

With purpose and on purpose