Tag Archives: publishers

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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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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Limited-Edition Bloody Cricket Book for $75,000

It’s often said that a writer’s job is to bleed on the page, but so-called luxury publisher Kraken Opus seems to have taken that mantra a bit too seriously. As reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, a pint of blood from Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar was mixed with paper pulp to produce the signature page for a book about his cricket prowess. The book was limited to an edition of only ten copies, which are offered at the staggering price of $75,000 a pop. Apparently all ten copies are spoken for, so it’s too late for the rest of us.

The article details a number of other luxury collector’s editions that have recently been released:

Earlier this year, Taschen Books sold pieces of the moon with 12 copies of its massive photography book on the lunar landing (one of the lunar-rock editions sold for $112,500). Taschen previously published a $7,500, 800-page book on Muhammad Ali, GOAT (for “greatest of all time”), that comes with four signed photographs of the boxer and a sculpture by Jeff Koons.

“No one says, ‘I want to download the e-edition of this book,’ ” says book analyst Michael Norris of research firm Simba Information. “If it’s a physical object that’s beautifully done, people see the value.”

Is this the traditional publishers answer to the coming e-tsunami? They could offer books bound directly by the author. Or those that feature a few handwritten pages, each slightly unique. Or for writers who also have at least a snippet of artistic talent, the doodle could replace a signature on the title page. All of it, of course, would be available as an extremely limited–and pricey–collector’s edition.

Publishers like Subterranean Press have long been producing higher quality, collector’s editions for well-known science fiction and fantasy authors. But their prices cap out at around $500 and often don’t get much above $50. Are they being too modest? Could they charge a small fortune by producing truly customized editions? Of course, limited-edition, pricey titles will only work for well-established authors. Most of the luxury books mentioned in the article feature celebrities, not writers at all. The rest of us are challenged to even give our words away, gratis.

I’ve often thought that as competition for ebooks heats up, paper books are going to compete by getting nicer. This type of personal touch is a possibility, and could well create a small safe haven for publishers, not the meat-and-potatoes type of safe haven, but maybe a little icing on the cake. I just hope that the blood in wood pulp thing doesn’t catch on as a full-fledged trend.

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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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What’s Wrong with Readers Today?

A post last week by one of the editors I follow is still rattling inside my brain. It went something like: If only there were more people interested in good books. My writers work so hard and ultimately they’re read by so few. I heard similar things when I worked in a bookstore. Stuff like: There should be more readers who appreciate fine books. The bookstore struggled financially, yet the fiction buyer there refused to stock romance. Why? They’re not “good” books. This type of thinking is often at the heart of the dire predictions about how ebooks will annihilate everything. If those fancy devices have flashing gizmos and video games on them, who will ever read “serious” fiction?

If people aren’t reading today, which is debatable, let’s not blame the readers themselves or the gadgets they use. How about we blame the books? Yes, some classic fiction can be a tough, yet rewarding read, but that fiction needs to speak across decades, if not centuries. Books today should be produced for a contemporary audience, one that multitasks and has cell phones and videos available on demand. For kid’s literature in particular, books need to fit nicely in between bouts of texting. Books need to be written with all this in mind, not wish that it was 1930 again. And books that speak to contemporary readers, particularly kids, can both inspire in their own right and pave the way for the likes of Dickens or Tolstoy or Melville.

While sales often don’t indicate quality, there’s no question that there’s lots of great fiction out there–some of it even romance–that’s written, bought, and read today. Books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and The Invention of Hugo Cabret go one step further, bridging the gap between the visual and the word on the page. And they sell quite nicely. What’s wrong with readers today? Nothing. If there’s a problem at all, it’s with the books.

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Independent Musician vs. Independent Author

A few independent musicians have practically become household names. They sell millions of downloads and can fill stadiums with fans. A recent post on the marketing strategies of Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails trumpets them as an example for all to follow. How about novelists? Should they cast off the yokes of their evil publishers? Not so fast. There are some major differences between the independent author and musician. Even successful independent authors are hard pressed to set up a book signing, and most who do sell a bunch of books soon parlay that into a book contract with a traditional publisher.

So what gives? A lot of this is specific to novels and other types of narrative prose. Some who write inspirational or business advice are doing quite well going the independent route, even if they’re not likely to sell out a stadium anytime soon. That aside, here’s a few ideas that may explain the gulf between the independent musician and author:

Musicians form bands. Unlike writers, who toil away in solitude, musicians are social beasts. Music is a collaborative process with lots of instant feedback as it’s created, long before anyone outside the band is asked to pay to hear it. Such collaborations can obviously be heated, which makes for better music but is also why most bands eventually break up. Then the lead singer goes on (more often than not) to produce some less than stellar music on his own. For books, it’s not until an editor enters the scene that the collaboration starts.

Music makes noise. When I was a kid playing my guitar and singing John Denver songs (my guitar teacher’s idea) my whole family made a point of letting me know how terrible I was. This worked. I stopped singing, and the world is a better place for it. If only all the parents of those kids who end up on the early American Idol shows had been so kind to their offspring. No one can tell just from the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard whether my scribbles are any good or not, they’re just happy I’m not singing.

Everyone is taught how to write. Music lessons stop at about the sixth grade. Not many would pick up a saxophone in the morning, blow into it until it made some noise, then start laying down tracks. Yet lots of people think that since they wrote papers in high school, they can write a novel. But what about all the other stuff that goes into a novel, like character, plot, setting, pacing, style, theme? It takes a decade to even begin to master it all, just like it takes a decade to learn how to play a musical instrument well.

No one likes record labels. Listeners and musicians alike have long felt duped by record executives, who seem much keener on producing a stream of one hit wonders than actually making music. They foster a system where musicians starve, originality suffers, and massive profits end up in the pockets of big business. There’s been no publishing equivalent of Milli Vanilli. Authors can be as ugly as they want to be on their back covers. Most readers don’t think much at all about publishers, while authors like John Scalzi and Charles Stross in recent posts actively defend the status quo. If people who make stuff up for a living can be trusted, they truly value these relationships that help them create better books.

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