Friday, May 27, 2011

New Twist on Book Publishing

Thanks to Lorina Stephens (Five River Books) for pointing this one out: Ubimark books has come up with a new concept in print books to allow readers to tie into the internet experience as easily as digital books do...these books include QR codes (those little square 2d bar codes you photograph with your cell phone) to connect readers to maps, photos, and commentary. Interested in more detail about this scene? Want to see a map of where it takes place? Photo of the house in question? You whip out your smart phone, use the camera to take shot of the QR, and the QR application on your phone connects you directly to the relevant Internet page.

Naturally, this allows publishers to upload a lot of supplementary material, but what is really exciting is that it turns print books into Books 2.0 because like Web 2.0, the commentary and supplementary content is generated by other readers. Instant book club!

Check out the video at

As a university instructor, I could definitely see some applications for textbooks -- click the QR code for anything you don't quite understand, and get the FAQ file on that topic, the powerpoint, the discussion group.... Could be interesting!

On the other hand, I'm not sure I want a QR code on every page of my novel...I think I would find it distracting. Here I am trying to get into the scene of the hero fighting the pirates, or whatever, and there is this QR code staring at me saying, "Hey, buddy! Want to see what other people have to say about how realistic this scene isn't? Hey you, yeah, I'm talking to you! There is a whole bunch of stuff here you're missing! Stop what you're doing and come see!" Yeah, not so much! It would be like your spouse talking to you while you're trying to read. And there is no gurantee that reader-supplied commentary wouldn't include a whole bunch of spoliers: "Hey, did you notice the line about the butler -- this is where he does the murder!"

One code at the end of the book or at the end of each chapter, maybe -- or maybe QR codes will become the new scene break mark...but I think Ubimark might be overdoing it with one or two a page. Though for a historic work, might make sense to provide access to more explanations than for a contemporary novel. I could certainly see them as useful in reading Chaucer, though at some point, a hyperlinked digital text (where you could simply touch a word on your Kobo/Kindle or whatever, and it would define it for you etc...

But still, interesting possibilities...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Agents as Publisher

Perceptive column by Dean Wesley Smith on how writers are allowing themselves to be exploited by agents.... (Thanks to Russ Crossley for bringing column to my attention.)

I have to admit, my reaction to agents turning "publisher" was very similar, though Smith writes with a good deal more verve than I could have managed. As the publishing field is revolutionized by emerging technologies, various parties will try to reconfigure the playing field to their advantage. These new 'agent' publishers are a good example of the capitalist entrepreneur trying to insert himself between the producer and consumer to skim off the profit. Given new publishing modalities, there is no need for anyone to intrude between producer and consumer in this market -- an established writer should have no difficulty selling directly off their own website, though I can see a place for distributors such as Amazon. But agents taking 50% of the 'net'? After paying out set up expenses? Smith is correct to rain down derision on such a suggestion.

As mentioned here previously, 'net' is a flexible figure, and there is a long history of Hollywood ripping off creators through creative accounting such that their work never turns a 'profit', even when it earns enormous amounts. That hasn't been a significant issue with publishers up to now, but the agent-publisher contract that Smith reviews is very clearly an example. And the agent-publisher is completely upfront that all the set up costs for the book (cover art, book design editing and so on) are to be recovered off the top -- so the question has to be, exactly what is the agent bringing to the table for his "50%" share of royalties, when the author is bearing all the costs of publishing the book in the first place?

There are two possibilities: First, the agent is acting as the contractor, bringing all the necessary subcontractors --editors, artists, designers, distributors etc.-- to bear on the project. Smith recognizes this role and correctly sneers at the need to pay such a person 50% of your lifetime profits. There are plenty of actual service agencies that will provide these services for a flat fee. Or, the author could simply take on the contractor role his or herself, and hire their own artists and designers and editors, thus be assured that the cover (for example) will meet their own requirements, standards, and personal tastes. Who needs an agent for this?

Second, and a role Smith fails to acknowledge, the agent does bring a level of branding to the product. Presumably, sufficiently famous agents provide a layer of refereeing that could increase consumer confidence. Okay, I can see that. But is that worth 50% of the book's income forever? Not convinced!

For me, the question is simple: What are you getting and what are you paying for it? I am not about to hand over the rights to my book to an agent to publish using my own money. Traditional publishers earn the right to my rights by offering to cover all the costs of publication upfront, and by providing a variety of services (editing, cover art, promotion, distribution) and (usually) by paying an advance on royalties. Their willingness to take a risk on my book, investing a fair bit of capital up front, earns them the right to reap a return on their investment. And their willingness to invest in the book provides the consumer with the assurance that somebody beyond the authors themselves thought the book worthwhile and likely to be of interest to readers. That model has worked well for a long time...Publishers who backed the wrong books went out of business; those who made good calls prospered, along with their stable of authors. I'd still be happy to sell to a major publisher and know I was going to get mass distribution, upping my odds of getting mass sales. Failing that, selling to a small press like Five Rivers or CZP makes sense to me, as they bring a whole range of services to bear, and take on all the financial risk, and provide some branding beyond my own name. But I'll self-publish before I hand over my book to one of these emergent agent-publishers.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Submission Guidelines

I've blogged elsewhere that the The editor is not your enemy, but I am constantly amazed how many authors seem to start from that assumption. In one recent on-line discussion, an author took exception to a online publisher specifying such details as "straight quotes marks rather than Word 'Smart quote marks'" in their guidelines as needlessly picky -- he described such requirements as "stringent, bordering on snobby" and a "barrier" to soliciting work. When I tried to argue that different publishers needed different formatting options (e.g., print publishers like smart quote, online publishers need straight quotes because smart quotes turn into weird Greek characters on screen) so it just made sense to alert authors to what was needed for this particular market, he responded that the publishers were trying to get the authors to do their job for them.

Well, yeah, I guess you could see it that way. But if I am submitting to a publisher, I'm going to try to make it as easy as possible for them to accept my work. The first step in that process is to ensure that I have read and followed the submission guidelines. In my most recent sale, I had to reformat all my "--" to "&emdash", a process that took me about 20 seconds. I really don't see the problem. Making all the changes required by their guidelines probably took about half an hour, a very minor investment of time compared to writing and editing the story -- but if you multiply that half hour by 200 submissions, well, from the editor's point of view, that's a couple of week's work for no reason -- it's just annoying that authors couldn't be bothered to follow the formatting specified guidelines.

When I encounter a manuscript that isn't formatted for the particular market, I usually safe in assuming either:

(a) the author is a newbie whose got hold of some Writer's Guide manual from the 1970s that says this or that format is the correct way to do it, and no one's explained that that's all changed since the turn of the century -- what the publisher needs varies depending on the software they're using and the format (book or print) they are putting out, so it varies between publishers and actually matters because if you get it wrong and they don't catch it, your published work could be filled with weird Greek characters....

(b) they are submitting a piece they formatted for another market which has already rejected it, and the author is shooting it out to the next market down their list -- and if they are not reading the submission guidelines on formatting, they're probably not paying much attention to the guidelines on genre, style, etc. etc. either.

I'm usually okay with (a), since it is relatively easy to bring these folks up to speed, but the (b) category are a pain. Why would I want to read, let alone publish, a manuscript that someone else has already rejected, possibly more than once? Sure, taste vary and it is possible that I might like what someone else felt unsuitable for their venue, but if I have to read through 200 slush pile submissions, anything I can do to quickly whittle that number down, I'm going to do. When I see a submission that looks like a resubmission from somewhere else, chances are I'm going to send it to the bottom of the pile and get to it when (and only if) I can't find anything more suitable among the submissions targeted specifically to my publication guidelines.

To summarize: what publishers need varies widely; each publisher specifies their particular preferences in their submission guidelines; following the guidelines makes it easier for them to accept your work.

This is not rocket science. This is about professionalism. If you are submitting (or resubmitting) a manuscript, take the time to read and follow the guidelines provided. The half hour it takes you to do so is time well invested both in terms of your making the sale and in saving some poor copy editor hours of unnecessary frustration. Failing to do so strongly suggests to a publisher that the submission is coming from someone who is unprofessional -- either inexperienced, or careless, or just difficult to work with. With so many quality manuscripts competing for so few slots, you'd have to be a complete idiot not to format as requested.

I'd like to conclude with a comment by editor/publisher Sandra Kasturi which illustrates what I've been saying (emphasis added):

    We prefer CLEAN manuscripts, READABLE manuscripts--no stupid Gothic Nazi fonts and weird layouts intended to "help" us. But I don't want zero formatting and courier font because I'm reading manuscripts on the screen. I get tired of reformatting them into a readable font just so I can have a look at it. And the correlation between stupid font/layout/lack of paying attention to guidelines & really dumb story/bad writing, is almost 100%.

    I think when we re-open to slush on July 1st, I might put a caveat at the top of the guidelines page that states "Due to the extremely high volume of submissions, if you have chosen to ignore the guidelines, then your manuscript will be automatically rejected."

    Then I can hear the sound of a thousand terrible writers having temper tantrums because we're not catering to their every needy whim.

    Isn't it nice? We've only been in business three years, and already disillusionment and aggravation are the mots du jour. : )

Monday, May 9, 2011

Digital Book Signings

Fun little video at autography on new software that allows authors to sign digital copies of their books on Kindle, Kobo etc. (Thanks to Lorina at Five River Books for pointing this one out to me.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Creative Accounting

Excellent article by J. Daniel Sawyer on how authors (and other creative types) are often cheated out of their share of project's profit through creative accounting. Fascinating stuff. (Thanks to Rebecca M. Senese for bringing it to my attention.)

It is important not to let such articles make us too paranoid, however. The examples from the movie industry do not apply nearly so much to the book publishing industry; and unless you're Stephen King, chances are your books aren't making enough money to make it worthwhile for anyone to go to the trouble of cooking the books to cheat you. Most publishers are pretty conscientious about paying you your 10%, because fudging the books to shave a few thousand dollars off an author's returns would be more trouble than it's worth.

The structure of (traditional) book publishing was such that as long as a few of a publisher's books were hits, they could afford to have others break even and the occasional loser. Recently, for example, a romance writer worked out that her NYTimes hit romance novel earned her about $50,000 and made $250,000 for the publisher (though one has to subtract paper, printing, distributions costs from that, so not sure what the actual net profit would be here). The revenues from all books published are put against all the costs incurred, and the publisher hopes that comes out in the black. In contrast, each movie or TV series is set up as a separate company/project, with it's own debits and credits -- so in that scenario, putting the costs/losses of movie A against the profits of movie B looks like cheating to people who signed contracts based on net profit from movie B. But in the book industry, its just 10% of cover price of your particular title, and everything is just one company, so that is a lot more straight forward.

Or to put it another way, authors recognize that its okay for 90% of the cover price to go to publisher, to cover the costs of printing, paper, distribution, sales people -- but also acquisition editors, copy editors, book designers, cover artists, etc. -- AND the money lost on books on which the publisher took a risk. Because, you know, at some point they took a risk on you....

In my experience, the people who suspect the (legacy) publisher is ripping them off are more likely paranoid than justified. The number of cases where legitimate publishers were ripping off authors are vanishingly small; though of course the vanity press industry is a different matter entirely.

What makes the article about creative accounting relevant to writers today, is that the publishing model is rapidly changing as emergent technologies open all sorts of opportunities. Some of the proposed models look a lot more like movie contracts and are therefore similarly suspect. The fight between Amazon and publishers over the pricing of eformats was a distance abstraction to most authors, but it was precisely a struggle over these sorts of issues -- an attempt to blur the lines between publisher and distributor, with Amazon and Smashwords and the rest trying to grab off a higher % of the net profits by defining themselves as the publisher rather than just a distributor-- that was at the heart of the struggle. This matters to authors in the long run, because, as Sawyer's article cited above points out, it's the 'net' profits that allows space for creative accounting.

Similarly, the proliferation of small press publishers raises the possibility of a greater range of accounting practices -- either through inexperience, or deviousness. It's possible that some of these publishers are less ethical than others. But again, in my experience, most are scrupulously honest and in fact often putting their own finances at risk to ensure authors get paid what they are owed and on time. The few cases where the publisher/editor is of questionable reliability, there are usually plenty of warnings on various blogs, such as Writer Beware. Although authors should adopt a 'buyer beware' attitude towards new presses and do a little research, if a publisher has a stable of happy authors, one should start from the assumption that they haven't decided to rip you (and only you) off.

I have come across a few authors who are sure they are not getting their due, loudly decrying this or that publisher for ripping them off. But whenever I have asked how they know, they say something like, "Well, they say I only sold 320 books last year. I know that many copies sold to people in just my local circle of friends, so they must be lying! I bet I've sold thousands of copies just this week alone!" And so on. Okay, I suppose that's possible -- but is it maybe possible one only sold copies to people in one's circle of friends? Because the average self-published and small press title sells less than 200 copies. One can't really blame the publisher's royalty statements every time one's sales are slower than one might hope.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Understanding E-book Sales Trends

Very interesting article by Erik Sherman April 25 on e-book business trends in which he concludes that " E-books may actually be growing at a far faster rate than even those who are bullish on the subject think."

Sherman's breakdown of the available data reveals that it is woefully inadequate: it quickly becomes obvious that methods and databases established to track traditional book sales are based on assumptions that no longer apply. For example, AAP represents the 300 top American publishers, so it used to be the database to analyze -- but only 16 of those 300 members are reporting their ebook sales to AAP, so those figures are clearly a completely inaccurate representation of even trends within the AAP-- even if the AAP members were still relevant for ebook sales which they may well not be! Given that the whole point of the emergent ebook tech is that one can go to press without a publisher, analyzing ebook sales from legacy publishers may be missing the boat. Given the hundreds (thousands maybe?) of small presses springing up in response to the new POD and ebook technologies (and in response to the legacy publishers increasing tendency to 'play it safe' by publishing only mainstream, lowest common denominator, processed cheese product) many of whom have been selling quite well on the ebook market, it may well be that self-publisehed authosr and 'small' presses have a significantly -- but completely unreported - larger share of the ebook market than AAP members.

Sherman also points out that even if one accepted the currently available indicators, inadequate as they are, they often compare apples and oranges -- when someone says ebooks sales are up x%, are they talking $ figures or numbers of titles sold. Because comparing $ figures between a $2.99 ebook and the same book in paper for $22.99 may seriously misrepresents the comparison if we are talking # of copies sold. The more one looks at the numbers the more confusing, or ludicrous, it becomes.

(See also Flying under the radar)