Table of Contents
- Climbing the walls
- Going digital: Not easy for publishers, either
- The Big Seventh: Amazon as Trojan Darth Vader
- Barnes & Noble: Who called this meeting?
- Journalism: Not That American Life
- Libraries: How about they become publishers?
- Comics: The Legion of Digital
- Confabs: A Campari and kidlit, please
- Blogging: Why weren’t you tweeted?
- Tweeting: Just setting up my twttr
- Last Gas: Coming in second
No, I’m not talking about the pot delivery that court records are reported to indicate was headed for St. Martin’s Press (SMP) from San Diego.
And what timing.
I was just saying, here at Karen Wrighting on the Ether, that if anybody deserves to engineer themselves a little break these days, it has to be publishers. And boom. Here came The Smoking Gun with Feds Intercept Pot Shipments To Publishing House.
I’m glad for the chuckle because all the news here in the EtherDome isn’t so fun. This stuff could drive anybody to the shipping room to watch for incoming express packages.
In fact, it’s a sadly traditional rift, the gulf between authors and the publishers who depend on them for the raw material of their business. But as with so many things in the industry, the digital dawn seems to be aggravating this strange estrangement. Insiders are starting to call into healthy question the scorn with which too many in the publishing core see their indispensable writers.
Take Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown in London. You know Geller. I Etherize a tweet or two from him every week here. His is a nimble wit and he’s a one well-placed agent, look at his list. So Geller goes into the TheBookseller site’s blogs with what he calls An Agent’s Manifesto, capturing the appreciation of a lot of his industry associates.
It feels like a perfect storm is brewing; publishers battening down the hatches, retailers at war with one another, e-tailers deactivating “buy” buttons as if it’s a game of Call of Duty. One person has been forgotten in this unholy maelstrom: the author. Remember, we don’t have a job without him or her. For those of us still working in the legacy business of publishing books, here’s a reminder of the primary mover in this chain.
- Geller goes on to call out publishing houses for their disregard of authors’ intimate understanding of their own material and publishers’ dismissal of authors’ concerns about “cover, blurb, copy or format.”
- He chides publishing-core people who claim they bear the industry’s risks: “Authors risk only their whole life, self-esteem and their babies.”
- He argues that “authors who are valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like an adult” can be expected to perform as prized, long-term colleagues.
Geller talks of hearing that agents are marked women and men, likely to be “‘disintermediated’ out of the picture.” I worry, myself, that agents are being squeezed out onto the crumbling ledges of publishing with nobody to catch them but half-cocked clients flushed with DIY sass.
So impressed with Geller’s piece is author Roz Morris that she has followed up with an article of her own, Why do authors get treated so badly? – and then another, related one, Stand up for good self-publishers, at the Authors Electric blog site. What’s more, Morris’ first piece has spawned yet another, London Crockett’s Don’t blame publishers: you’re a commodity, resonant with sadness: “It’s not a world I want, but it’s the world I — and you — live in.”
With Geller, Morris can claim an inside view, in which, she writes, “I’ve commissioned, copy edited, proofread, passed for press, trained people – and run editorial departments.” And she comes out in full agreement with Geller, writing:
It is common, behind the scenes, to hear editors talk about authors with undisguised loathing – not just individual ones who may be difficult, but all of them, authors as a breed. There is a culture that authors must not be listened to.
That culture, that tone of perceived disdain I’ve mentioned here before, that’s what’s at issue. And it must always be said, of course there are exceptions. These unpleasant relations aren’t the entire story. But they’re a big part of it, or Geller and Morris and others wouldn’t be tackling them.
Precious few publishers respond when these painful, ugly factors are discussed. I was so pleased to have a tweet of support from Peter Ginna’s Bloomsbury Press, in response to my tip of the hat to Geller at the DBW Expert Publishing Blogs, Authors Among Us: The Problem Writ Larger. That takes nerve. I applaud it.
It also takes guts for many an author, Geller’s “primary mover in this chain,” to step forward and write something in a comment, perhaps risking the anger of unseen, unheard, apparently unmoved publishing executives.
I plan to revisit this issue and these articles on Saturday (March 24) at Writer Unboxed — and I hope you’ll join us there. For now, I want to leave the topic somewhere near your conscience, and briefly excerpt some of the many comments you can read at Morris’ and Geller’s posts.
I’m sure there are plenty of editors out there in the Big 6 who treat their authors well and probably don’t get the mentions they deserve…It can be just as fraught with small presses. I got offered a contract from a very respectable small press, but the clauses were so restrictive…I spent 20 years in the trenches of traditional publishing where I was treated as an easily replaceable part…This is what bullying is all about. Not all publishers are necessarily bullies, but the dynamics of the situation and the business mandate of maximizing profit make it almost inevitable that they fall into that role…A future that will belong to the smaller, more nimble publishers, while the big monolithic houses will start to break up…Virtually everything about the industry screams contempt for the actual writers: take the term “slush pile” for example…It breaks my heart that the author is considered a puppet within publishing…traditional publishers who treat their authors with contempt deserve to find themselves without quality writers…As a journalist for 23 years it’s been my experience that the worst writers make the most annoying and narcissistic clients. Maybe it’s NOT always the publishers—but the writers’ “fault”?…It’s a pity more publishers can’t see authors as partners in a venture – we’re doing the early-stage risk investment, they’re putting in cash as enablers…Most books are lucky to break even, and that gives publishers the confident belief that they are doing authors a favour by taking a chance on their book…I seem to have been banging on for years about the need for writers to treat themselves as professionals rather than humble supplicants. If we don’t, nobody else will. But it’s good to hear an agent saying the same thing. Good for him.
I think, in some ways, senior management at many (but by no means all) publishers want an Easy Button to simplify the route from a primarily print to a primarily digital world.
It’s a trap, but not because the easy solution to any given problem could be the best. It’s because the inter-relationships of the many functions publishers have performed and will need to perform going forward are of such complexity that optimizing one process can sub-optimize the whole.
This, as Frédéric Filloux takes the agonies of newspapers in digital extremis as his setting to demonstrate in Media Culture Shifts: theory vs. reality that:
Regardless of upper management’s determination, you’ll never be able to steer a century-old company the way a young startup adjusts to changing circumstances, whether it’s explosive growth or adverse events.
So few of us are willing to just admit it: morphing a legacy media business into a modern, digital-dominated company is a f***ing complicated endeavor. How DO you tell the staff: Here’s what we want you to do: Turn everything into a lean, mean, digital machine and then we’ll lay you off (and your best buddies) because we’ll no longer have the revenue to support your positions. I love the intersection of technology and publishing. I hate seeing good, smart, hardworking people’s lives destroyed.
Looming over this whole discussion is, of course, Amazon.com Inc., which I consider the Darth Vader of the literary world. I admire its success in creating a new, wildly successful business model, but it has a deserved reputation as a frequently unscrupulous competitor.
That’s Scott Turow, the eagerly opinionated current lead at the Authors’ Guild. The Guild has produced some of the most controversial articles of the year, by the way — the Ether covered one with the responses of Guy LeCharles Gonzalez here during the IfBookThen conference, in Whose side is the Author’s Guild on?
Now, Turow is back in a Bloomberg op-ed headlined Apple Antitrust Suit Would Aid Amazon Book Monopoly, with a litany of threats he foresees as outcomes of Jeff Bezos’ “new, wildly successful business model.”
Some analysts project that Amazon will own more than half the U.S. book business across all formats by the end of this year. Not only does Amazon have 75 percent of the market in online sales, but it is spreading its tentacles to other areas. It now owns Audible.com, the largest seller of downloadable audio books, and BookSurge, an on-demand printer of self-published and other books offered only by publishers as individual copies.
In addition, Bryce Milligan of Wings Press, goes into Ed Nawotka’s Publishing Perspectives with an editorial of his own, Amazon’s Trojan Horse. Having written recently that Amazon’s business practices may pose “a threat to American intellectual freedom” (this is Laura Hazard Owen’s coverage at paidContent), he now tells us:
Amazon’s “charitable” giving is an interesting topic, not so much for the good it has done but for the strategy of which it is a part…Far be it from me to suggest that honorable organizations like PEN American Center or CLMP or Poets & Writers or AWP have been “bought off.” I’m sure that they have not! I am equally certain that many of them are beginning to wonder about the motivation behind the grants — and about the ultimate price to be paid for having accepted them.
And in a completely different approach to Amazonia:
In less than a year, I’ve gone from mocking e-books to never wanting to buy a print book again. Blame the Amazon Kindle. I’ve found it a great way to read.
Have you had it happen yet? — somebody you know comes up to you and, because you’re in books, maybe you’ve got your own Kindle with you, they want to know which Kindle is right for them or for Aunt Gladys or whomever. Maddening. Well, at last you have the article to give them.
And what’s great about journalist Danny Sullivan — as you’ll see in this piece for CNET, My life among the Kindles: Comparing the models — is that he doesn’t sneer, scowl, mewl, puke, or treat a disappointing model as if it’s a personal affront. deliberately designed and manufactured by Jeff Bezos and the staff to insult his precious techno-sensibilities. I’m sick of the snot-geek tone we get from so many of these Boys of Tech these days. Love me, love my gadgets? — Go to hell. I’ll stick with the quiet, even-handed, painstakingly explained observations of Sullivan, thanks.
I thought perhaps the Kindle Fire might also be a book-reading device with which I’d fall in love. It offers backlighting, unlike the Kindle E Ink devices. It also offers a touch screen. As it turns out, it did succeed for me, in many ways.
And to the surprise of some, Amazon’s total of 54 deals listed last quarter, when surveyed by Michael Cader at Publisher’s Lunch produced an interesting evaluation of the retailer’s growing presence as a publisher: Amazon Publishing’s Deals Make It the Peer of Two Big Six Adult Groups for Now. Cader writes:
Compared to the rest of our deal report stream, it makes Amazon roughly equal to the adult publishing deal reports for two of the “big six,” Hachette Book Group (also with 51 deals reported) and HarperCollins (with 53 deals reported).
Cader goes on to produce, or deduce, really, a bit of a personnel chart for Amazon Publishing in the same article, very useful.
Attendees appear (understandably) frustrated by the fact that Barnes & Noble is not answering questions about international expansion even as the company invites them to create apps for the platform.
That’s Laura Hazard Owen at paidContent in Nook May Be Expanding Internationally, But Barnes & Noble Stores Aren’t, relaying the dismay from the Monday Mobile London event in which a BN presentation on the Nook’s international prospects gave, seemingly, no one any satisfaction.
70% of Nooks have been bought by women, aged between 25 and 45. McDonnell revealed the typical Nook owner comes into a branch to play with the device three times before they buy it.
Daisey’s downfall is the sadder and more infuriating because it was so completely unnecessary and avoidable. If he had even once said that he was presenting a polemic, a metaphor, a dramatization, an “inspired by real events” monologue rather than real “facts,” no one could ever have complained.
But, as we all know, nothing so logical and wise as James Fallows suggests in The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case in The Atlantic did happen. And if you haven’t listened already, I urge you to hear the new episode of This American Life, Retraction. It’s in its second section that Ira Glass interrogates the actor Daisey and comes up with the man’s position amid the most amazing pauses.
Being both a journalist and a former Equity actor, myself, I particularly understand critic Chris Jones’ Pulling the plug on Mike Daisey: When entertainment meets journalism for the Chicago Tribune. Jones identifies the trend of these mistakes when he writes of the mess:
It reveals the perils of what can happen to news organizations when, in the pursuit of populist storytelling or buzz-heavy names, they subcontract their reporting to artists or entertainers. And it reveals what can happen to artists and entertainers when they become so seduced by the desire to compound their real-world influence that they obscure or misrepresent the nature of their work.
This week, I’ve heard from friends and cohorts in transmedia storytelling. Wasn’t this a case, they asked, of the world not being willing to allow a transmedial artist (Daisey) to work his storytelling across all platforms (from the stages of his monologue performances to the public-radio air of This American Life)?
I remain open to these folks, of course, these debates are always instructive. But — again, maybe because of my long years both in newsrooms and onstage — my own answer here is no. This one’s not about transmedia.
What theater artists may do, especially when they — we — decide to dramatize and enhance facts for effect, has no place in the arena of best journalistic practice. Inasmuch as possible, the journalist’s role is to reject embellishment and fabrication, outright.
- A good news photographer knows never to adjust the scene of a shot to “make it better.”
- A good news writer reads aloud to himself softly at his desk just to catch the insidious little “pushes” that human nature always inserts into a news story’s draft.
- We are all creatures of the griot and when, at last, we come to a context in which fact is hallowed over fancy, even she must lay down her storytelling devices and allow truth to make the perp walk, unadorned.
This is why, I believe, you hear Glass go to the mat in Retraction to say, repeatedly, “We should have killed the story rather than run it.” As I understand this situation, he’s right. He should have killed it. And I’ll let him have the last word here:
We trusted his (Mike Daisey’s) word. Although he’s not a journalist, we made clear to him that anything he was going to say on our show would have to live up to journalistic standards.He had to be truthful. And he lied to us.
The New York Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and every public library system in between now has the capability of starting their own publishing imprint. Imagine “NYPL Press” extended into a series of digital books, stemming out of the rich literary community of New York City. Libraries excel at selection and curation, and to have the stamp of approval of one’s local library as your press could be the most valued signet of the publishing market.
You have to hand it to Peter Brantley, of the Internet Archive’s BookServer Project. He’s not only our most eloquent library advocate, but he also is someone who tries to come up with ideas, solutions. ways forward. In Libraries as Community Publishers: How to Turn the Tables for Publishers Weekly’s PWxyz blog, he gets off an intriguing concept — one that authors will want to look at closely, along with their favorite librarians.
Even for smaller library systems, it would be possible to dedicate staff to support the growth of a publishing series. Using tools like Pressbooks and other easy to use authoring environments, it’s possible for libraries to get community works into the hands of retailers quite easily. A library could offer both general purpose publishing tools and services, as well as establish a house imprint for those materials it felt were worthy of its imprimatur. Of course, the best thing about libraries becoming presses is that it could bring in needed revenue to support and innovate across all of their services.
This, as Mike Shatzkin gets busy Thinking more about ebooks and libraries and what big publishers should do, and does what I like best in his work: sands all the veneer off the top of the argument. Shatzkin says he spoke with some Big Six publishers last year about their library policy. And he puts the answer in blessedly plain terms, first time I’ve read it stated so baldly:
What really rang true was the fear that the consumers in an emerging ebook ecosystem would “learn” that getting “free” ebooks from libraries was just as easy as getting ebooks from retailers and paying for them. Given that all this requires is pointing your web browser in a different direction, it looked to many of the publishers like a really poor bet to enable ebook lending by libraries. Sales of ebooks to libraries isn’t a huge market so the upside is limited.
Shatzkin then goes on (more ideas, you see, not just analyze-’n'-gripe) to make suggestions to publishers for experimentation. Presumably, this is the kind of active search for movement that Dr. Anthony Marx clearly had in mind when he offered the forces of the New York Public Library to publishers for tests. Here’s one of my favorite Shatzkin suggestions because it could produce some hard data around “a library effect”:
Look at the “make” books on an upcoming list: those that aren’t by big name authors that are already guaranteed to sell well. Split them in half. Put one half into libraries and withhold the other half. See if you can detect a library effect, positive or negative.
One thing we can hope will keep driving this debate more swiftly is a widening awareness among non-industry media that we have this problem, Houston, with our libraries and the publishers non-cooperative stance.
Last week, I mentioned the peculiar but hardly surprising turnaround generated in Toronto’s library situation when Margaret Atwood’s celebrity was brought into play. This week, look at Libraries need e-books, too from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board. No howling indictment of the publishers at all. If anything, the rest of the world frequently can see some balance that’s hard for us to discern inside the fight cage:
“We know book borrowers are also book buyers, and we find that e-book borrowers are also e-book buyers, and that pattern won’t change,” says Sari Feldman, cochair of the American Library Association’s e-book committee.
But publishers have a point, too, in wanting to protect their businesses and authors from losses. Unlike newspapers, which went to the Internet without a sustainable business model, book publishers are trying to figure out a way to protect themselves before leaping into cyberspace.
So my suggestion about libraries, Ethernaut, is that you think about who in your mainstream media (still a plural word, damn it), you can show the Philly paper’s editorial to? Editorial boards tend to care about these matters, especially at papers that long ago laid off their “Features Department” book editors. Who can you encourage to call publishers’ offices, ask for statements, and produce coverage of their own on this impasse?
The print fetishists are getting another kick in the butt from The Future.
That’s Mike Cane in We’ll Always Have Print. No. Wait. We Won’t! He reads Rich Johnston’s Marvel “Greatly Reduces” Newsstand Distribution — “I now understand that Marvel is all but withdrawing from newsstand distribution…digital is being seen more and more as a way to recruit readers.”
And Cane writes, emphasis mine:
Expect this to accelerate. Really, the new iPad’s Retina Display is just as good as premium-quality printed comics. Who wants to deal with print when there is a real substitute now?
I like his kicker:
And a reminder: Disney owns Marvel Comics. And Steve Jobs was the largest private shareholder in Disney.
Dominique Raccah, publisher of Sourcebooks, proclaimed that the transformations we’re now seeing will define “the meaning of the book.” She listed the three challenges facing children’s digital books, including file size, illustration and animation, platforms and pricing. She also noted the need for children’s digital books that give children control over the narrative, that support 21st century skills, and that encourage exploration — ending with the famous Steve Jobs quote, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards towards the technology, not the other way around.”
Dennis A. Abrams did some clean, cogent work for Publishing Perspectives in covering O’Reilly Media’s TOC Bologna, which drew some 400 people at the start of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in his TOC Bologna Report: The Business of Digital Content for Kids.
Here’s his second-day report, Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Day 2: Prehistoric Publishers?
Its headline comes from a delightful anecdote in which, he writes:
The tech guys still seem convinced that the world is theirs. In the little “tech corner” in hall 26, (O’Reilly TOC Pavillion, Digital Café, and a small group of developers), one of those developers, who shall remain nameless, when asked how things were going, replied, “For us in this corner, it’s great, but everyone else out there is prehistoric.”
Here I’ll be giving you no links to embarrass anyone. As much as I might like to. Instead, I’ll just call your attention to a couple of frequent blogging tricks many folks seem to think are clever. They are not.
(1) The hyped headline. I’ll make some up here:
- “Ten Ways To Create a Successful Book Campaign Using Flamingos.” As opposed to what? Creating an unsuccessful book campaign?
- “Five Tricks for Effective Speaking.” As opposed to the secrets of being deftly ineffective at the podium?
- “Three Smart Ways To Attract Winning Site Traffic.” Versus a trio of dumb ways to woo losers?
If that adjective “goes without saying?” Don’t say it.
(2) The not-so hidden agenda. It’s the flimsy blog post that appears to be informational but devolves into “and that’s why I wrote my book this way to help you.” BUY MY BOOK! is the real message. These bloggers take us for ninnies who can’t tell that.
Promotion is wise. But announce that’s what you’re doing. Don’t pill-pocket it inside some vague “helpful” post thinking no one will catch on. If your readers are smart enough to want your advice, don’t treat them like they’re stupid enough to believe your hype.
Thomas Jones at the London Review of Books points out that Franzen makes a “category error” by pitching Twitter users against serious readers/writers. The two coëxist, happily. Maud Newton and Sarah Weinman are some of the closest readers I know, and using Twitter has not hampered their ability to create arguments or to be serious. Authors are on Twitter: Shelia Heti, Lynne Tillman, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, and Neil Gaiman come to mind most quickly, though they are hardly alone.
I was up for a Sidney Prize with Storyville (which, by the way, is a great, great app for those people who like short stories – a new one every week from an already published collection; kind of like K-Tel for literates), a finalist, and I didn’t win. I congratulate the winner, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (a fellow Canadian!) and the other finalists. No really.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for funny people who come up with things that aren’t so funny. But Arjun Basu, he of the tweet-sized stories, does a gracious job in Kissing Sisters of explaining the business of not winning.
Someone smart once said “you win a bronze medal but lose a silver.” Something like that. Or “you win gold and you win bronze but you lose silver.” I think.
Once again, here’s the player for Q2 Music in New York, the NPR-affiliated free 24/7 stream of “contemporary classical” music I’d love to see writers check out for its creativity-supportive genius. Living composers at your service, many of them writing soundtracks for Hollywood as well as concert work for New York and London. Let me know what you think.
Today’s Ether image by iStockphoto / microgen