Category Archives: Publishing

More Seats at the Writer Table, Less Pie for All

Mike Shatzkin maintains one of the best blogs I’ve found yet on the changes happening in publishing. If you care about this subject, follow his blog. He posts about once per week, so it’s not a huge time hit.

His most recent post is on how publishers will need to transition from a b2b to a b2c model as bookstore shelf space continues to dwindle. This isn’t–for now, at least–about publishers selling directly to consumers. It’s more of a change in marketing tactics to focus on creating brands around which communities can gather. In this area, the publishing industry has one shining star:

The one consumer brand in publishing that means the most and provides the most equity to its owner is Harlequin. Consumers recognize it and have understandings about quality and price based on it. But because they also know that the Harlequin name means the “romance” genre, and because many romance readers buy and consume dozens, even hundreds, of titles in the genre every year, they have logical reasons to visit Harlequin’s web site repeatedly and to request and open email reminders of new publications from them.

Two thoughts in particular struck me. First, other than for Harlequin, this transition is likely to be a whole lot harder than most publishers anticipate. The competition in this space is fierce, and there are a lot of players in it already. Amazon is indeed the grandpa of all companies when it comes to understanding your customers, and some of them do seem quite fanatical. Though Facebook may soon be giving them a run for their money.

My second thought was hinted at later in the post. This type of tribe building around shared interests seems to be more suited to specialized, boutique publishers. There is a real question around what advantages scale offers. Customers passionate about something sense phoniness towards it from a mile off. It seems likely that major publishers will work on fostering smaller brands that are highly targeted to specific consumers, and that many smaller publishers will sprout up to serve specific communities.

This all means one thing: many more books get published. Shatzkin does make this point later in the post when he talks of “tripling down on title output to become a serious player in a niche.” That’s great news for new authors. More titles mean more seats at the table. Though it also implies a smaller slice of the pie for all. We may earn a little less, but is that really anything new for writers?

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PW Select: Who Really Benefits?

Publishers Weekly received tons of flack this week when they announced the launch of PW Select. In short, they’re adding a quarterly supplement that will list self-published titles from the preceding period. They’ll also review at least 25 of these titles and apparently include other tidbits. In their words:

At least 25 of the submitted titles will be selected for a published review. There will also be an overview of the publishing trends that can be identified from among the titles from that reading period. We will also focus on the opportunities that the self-pub world offers. A resource directory will accompany the section offering names of companies providing services in the DIY space.

The catch? To be included on the list, self-publishers must submit a processing fee of $149. Reading through the comments, it seems PW has since revised this to allow all current subscribers one free listing. If this is the case, the flack can be somewhat mitigated, but overall there still seems to be a fundamental problem with this business model–at least from the self-publisher point of view.

First off, I applaud PW for not for not going the Kirkus Discoveries route of flat out charging for reviews. I know from my own reviewing experience that often a whole lot more work went into selecting which books to review, from the hundreds I received each month, than actually writing the reviews. (And these were books from traditional publishers.) The real service PW offers the publishing world isn’t the few reviews they write, but the winnowing process in which they select those titles. The problem is that they’re charging the wrong people it.

Most self-publishers won’t actually see their book reviewed. They pay for nothing. Who does benefit? People who read the magazine and need this information, i.e. book store buyers, other publishers, and these agents with whom PW hints they’ll share their findings. They’re the ones who would otherwise be faced with the daunting task of making heads or tails out of the hundreds of thousands of self-published books. Yet it seems clear that all of the above beneficiaries aren’t willing to pay anything extra for this winnowing service. And if they’re not willing to pay for it, we can pretty much sum up what the overall value to self-publishers is likely to be.

This might change over time. If PW invests in this space, doesn’t just see it as a means to bilk unsuspecting writers from their cash, it could become a valuable tool for the industry. But this all very much remains to be seen.

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Snail Mail Submission Angst

TypewriterI just got a snail mail submission together for one of my short stories that’s making the rounds. I’m sending it off to one of the big science fiction markets, a holdout that still doesn’t accept electronic submissions.

It’s amazing how much more complicated snail mail is. The cover letter feels far more formal. It must be printed on something that resembles letterhead. The “fast draft” print that I use to edit stories won’t do. It’s “best print” mode all the way, which both uses more ink and took half a century to finish printing the story. It does look rather spiffy though.

Then there are the envelopes that need to be filled out, addresses double and then triple checked, and appropriate postage attached. My morning will begin with a wait at the post office. All around it looks like this submission will take about an hour… and it won’t be free. There is the postage, paper, and ink costs of actually sending the physical story out.

This isn’t a gripe though. It made my story feel much more solid. It’s real now, sitting out there on the dining room table awaiting its fateful trip to the post office. That baby is going places!

I also wonder if this market has chosen to not accept electronic submissions, in part at least, to cut back on their slush pile. They’re okay with PayPal for a magazine subscription, so they can obviously handle e-mail. But how many of us have become so lazy that we’re no longer willing to print out and mail short story submissions, even for a top-tier market? I definitely debated about sending this story to this market, wondering if instead I should move directly on to a less noteworthy one that does accept electronic submissions.

That’s amazing, especially when I think of how things worked for Roald Dahl or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or Ray Bradbury. Those guys had to actually type out a clean draft of a story before submitting it. That would have taken the better part of a day. How did paper, especially squeaky clean word-processed paper, ever become such a pain? Have I really become that addicted to instant submission gratification?

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Drowning in a Sea of Television Slush

MatlockWhen I was studying film production at Syracuse University, we had the chance to head to Hollywood for a week and meet with illustrious alumni from the university. Of all the people we met, Fred Silverman stuck in my mind the most. The man is a living legend of television, having helmed all three of the original US networks at one time.

I met him in the early 90s, when he had moved on to his own production company. Its shows then included Matlock and Jake and the Fatman. His offices were the swankiest out of everyone we met. I remember a huge stone table with an elaborate conch shell sculpture in the middle of it. I spent half the time sitting there trying to figure out if the sculpture was carved out of the same piece of stone–a rough, beige sandstone–as the rest of the table.

Silverman spoke about the explosion in cable channels that was happening at the time. When viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from, it segments the audience. He accurately predicted the end of truly mass television. Of the top 45 most-viewed television shows, the only one from this millennium is the 2008 super bowl.

Our host felt this was disastrous for “quality” television. He said that it cost so much money to produce good television that unless it could garnish a mass audience, we’d end up with nothing but low budget crap. I remember thinking that Matlock wasn’t exactly the epitome of quality, but didn’t mention it. My mother was a huge Matlock fan, and would never have forgiven me.

Fred Silverman was right… in part. Television has become a sea of sludge, endless cheap reality shows and low budget drama targeted at subcultures. But we also have some phenomenal programming, much of which doesn’t come from the three grand pappy networks. Cable channels, yes those very same stations that Silverman seemed to so despise, produce shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Mad Men which win far more awards than shows dredged up by the three old-boy networks.

At the time, I thought that what Silverman really resented wasn’t some uber threat to quality programming, but all the new kids on the block. Rather than having all of American television controlled by three networks, it had exploded across hundreds of cable channels. Today, as books begin to expand out beyond the dominion of the big six New York publishers, we hear many of the same arguments that I heard them from this television executive. We will all be drowned in a sea of slush, they tell us. We have no idea of the evils that await us.

I think just the opposite. With a level playing field, there will be a slew of small and independent presses that will produce some fantastic books. Yes, the mega best sellers may become a thing of the past. But do we really need to sell 40 million copies of a book for it to be deemed worthy?

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Odyssey Editions Covers Reminiscent of Early Penguin

Invisible ManI’ve been fascinated by the announcement from Amazon and the Wylie Agency. For those not following the story, Wylie published 20 novels on Kindle as an exclusive deal through Odyssey Editions, a new imprint created by the literary agency. Calling it “E-Book Editions of Modern Classics,” Wylie is bypassing not only traditional publishers, but also Apple, Barnes & Noble, and a slew of the other usual suspects. And their list does indeed include some modern classics, such as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer.

I won’t dwell on the details of the arrangement, that has been covered exhaustively elsewhere. (I’ve given links to some of the better reports below.) But one thing stood out for me: the covers. When I saw them I immediately thought of another publisher, one at a similar stage in publishing history when a new format was first catching on: the quality paperback.

Penguin Books: Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row by John SteinbeckPenguin originally also launched with stripped down covers that featured little more than the author’s name and the title of the book. As detailed in this fantastic article from Smithsonian, Penguin used different colors to denote fiction, biography, mystery, etc. but other than that the covers are essentially blank. These stripped down covers branded the publisher much more than any specific author or book. Similarly, it seems Odyssey itself is the brand for the 20 ebooks it just released. While no plans to publish new titles have been announced, one can see this minimalist cover conveying some of the trappings of these first 20 titles to any new titles it may publish. Instant classic anyone?

My hunch is that Wylie studied the Penguin model, and is imitating it. Other similarities between the two ventures are apparent. They are both new imprints that launched during a down time in the economy. Each chose a limited number titles and placed a premium on quality fiction. The titles they initially published were all previously available in other formats, all that’s new is the packaging and the reduced price it brings.

The one major difference: Penguin needed to sell 17,000 copies of a book to break even. Since launching last Thursday, Odyssey Editions is most likely already profitable.

Of course, the cover design for Odyssey Editions has to be a lot more versatile than that for early Penguin. Though they look fine on the Odyssey site and Kindle itself, on the Amazon site they’re far too small to be legible. Also, the Kindle logo covers the Odyssey logo in the lower right corner of each cover. Is a slight redesign is forthcoming?

It’s surprising that more publishers haven’t gone this route of clearly branding their titles as ebooks continue to rise in prominence. How else can publishers distinguish what they bring to the free-for-all ebook market?

Notable coverage of the latest ebook kerfuffle:

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AmazonEncore, J.A. Konrath, and the $2.99 eBook

"Shaken" by J.A. KonrathAmazonEncore announced this week that they’ll be releasing Shaken by J.A. Konrath. The ebook will come out in October, and in an interesting twist the paperback will follow four months later. According to Konrath: “It’s easier to release an ebook than a print book. Print books require printing, shipping, warehousing, pre-orders from bookstores, etc.”

Shaken is the seventh novel in the Jack Daniel’s mystery series by Konrath. The previous six books were published by Hyperion, which dropped its entire mystery line including this series. Apparently Shaken is a bit of a departure for AmazonEncore as it will be the first entirely new title that they publish. The recent imprint instead focuses on publishing books already available on Kindle, either those by new authors or re-releases from traditional publishers that have since gone out of print.

Konrath has long been a proponent for authors to self publish their back list, and he’s documented his own growing stream of revenue on his blog. According to his most recent post on the subject, his self-published titles on Kindle are now generating a staggering $472 per day. That works out to an annualized income of over $120,000 assuming that no books at all are sold over the weekend, an unlikely scenario considering when readers use Kindles most–all this from books that traditional publishers passed on.

As for the Shaken deal with AmazonEncore, while Konrath is bypassing a traditional publisher, his agent has been involved every step of the way. On his blog, he frequently encourages new writers to take their lumps, put in the effort, and hone their writing chops until they land an agent to champion their work–and he often takes some heat for it due to his own experiences with self publishing.

This success and his sometimes outspoken blog on the traditional publishing industry makes Konrath a no-brainer choice for AmazonEncore. It’s an interesting partnership. As part of the deal, Amazon gets to sell an original title in an established series for only $2.99. (The paperback version, when available, will sell for $10.17.) This super low price is one of the hallmarks of Konrath’s other Kindle titles. He’s extensively tested different prices, and found that low prices drive enough incremental sales to grow overall revenue. He can prove this with the fact that he’s making a killing off of books that New York publishers didn’t want.

There’s no question that Amazon will use this as a case study to show publishers that their concerns over low ebook prices and windowing are baseless, if in fact that turns out to be the case with this book. At just $2.99 a pop, this new title isn’t in the ballpark of the $9.99 price that was so hotly contested, and not even in the same universe as the $27 hardback price, where it would be if it had gone the traditional route.

Ironically, Hyperion will likely to see a boost to their Kindle sales for the earlier books in the series, though they may have trouble explaining why these older titles are priced at two to three times the cost of the latest book. Konrath will also will also likely see his self publishing numbers grow at an even faster rate. It’s far from chump change. More than a few established midlist writers must be taking a second look at those manuscripts they have filed away in a drawer somewhere.

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Kirkus Discoveries and Vanity Reviews

With all the hubbub over Harlequin Horizons late last year, I’m surprised that more attention isn’t paid to Kirkus Discoveries. This service is a division of the established and formerly (by me, at least) respected Kirkus Reviews. For a mere $425 for 7 to 9 week turnaround or $575 for 3 to 4 week turnaround, self-published and independent authors can have their book reviewed by an “experienced” reviewer.

The site is filled with the same hollow claims that raised ire far and wide against Harlequin. They offer to publish the review on their website “which has a wide audience of librarians, major publishers, agents, rights representatives, booksellers and film and television producers.” They go on to say that their reviews help “many authors” boost sales on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, and that each month they include a lucky few in their Discoveries e-newsletter.

They also make great pains to indicate that while these reviews cost money, this doesn’t impact their content:

Though all our reviewers are experienced professionals, not all Discoveries reviews are glowing. Kirkus Discoveries is a caveat emptor service that gives honest, impartial evaluations of the titles we receive. The resulting reviews can be positive, negative or anywhere in between. By upholding Kirkus’ rigorous editorial standards, we ensure that an enthusiastic review is meaningful in the publishing community. Our long-standing editorial policy of anonymous reviews also applies to the Discoveries program.

Why would anyone commission a piece of writing and then not be able to dictate its content? This seems to be designed for the pure and simple purpose of separating writers from their money. Kirkus is preying on the same hopes that vanity presses are notorious for abusing, and they undoubtedly often add insult to injury once the review is delivered. One can only wonder what the reviewers must think who get these books. Are they the same reviewers who write the regular Kirkus reviews?

Kirkus defends the review-for-pay scheme with much of the same rhetoric that Harlequin used to defend Harlequin Horizons. As the world of publishing changes, they need to look for alternative revenue streams.

They’re right: the world of reviews has changed. We don’t need Kirkus anymore. Customer reviews written on sites like Amazon and the slew of great book bloggers that have emerged can quite nicely replace much of ye olde booke review guarde. These new venues review both traditionally and self-published books, and they charge nada. If a book–no matter who publishes it–is noteworthy enough to merit review, it should be reviewed. Period.

And whatever did happen with Harlequin Horizons? They yanked Harlequin from the name, relaunching the self-publishing imprint as DellArte Press. But it’s not clear if they’re still marketing self-publishing services when they reject a manuscript from the traditional Harlequin lines. They may not be, a search on the main Harlequin site did not bring up anything about DellArte.

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