Writing on the Ether

The theater at Epidaurus, in Greece. (iStockphoto / Anton Marlot)

No e-deus ex machina
PR: The publishers strike back?
Ether Extra: Barnes and Noble’s status
Ether Extra: Ellora’s Cave shows some ‘Brawn’
Ether Extra: Conference season advancers
Community: It’s not easy being vertical
Amazon: Our friends in Seattle
Libraries: What’s not in the e-stacks
Piracy: A Spanish kind of SOPA
Copyright: Not all rights reserved
Authors: Public domain and the wrong rights
Access: Ch-ch-change
Agents: And you were afraid to ask
Mass market: Vampires in love
Language: Why wait for the next occupation?
Singularity: That old-time religion

Newly added Extra Ether (updated Friday)
Barnes and Noble’s status
Ellora’s Cave shows some ‘Brawn’
Ether Extra: Conference season advancers

No e-deus ex machina

“God in a bucket,” we used to call this in my theater days, not to say my theatrical days.

There was no “e-” in front of it in the 18th century, of course. But the concept from works of ancient theater (Aeschylus, Euripides) was that the way one got characters out of a mess of an ending to a play that was running too long anyway was through a bit of stagecraft. A machine was deployed to raise or lower a godlike figure into the fray to get everyone sorted, untangle a big mess, and jolly the audience off to the post-show bacchanalia. Worked out well for Medea.

In chatting with some year-enders as we watched that ball ex machina descend in Times Square to haul us all out of the mess that was 2011, it became clear that many authors today see the digitization of things as just such a handy lift, a chariot swinging low to carry us home (where the readers are) — to deliver everyone from the gatekeeping Eumenides of old publishing and into the stage-center jig-fest of DIY abandon. Mickey Rooney, that ancient thespian, called this “let’s put on a show!”

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Now, if we set aside the Steve Pressfield-scale battle of the bullies that sometimes threatens the traditional-vs.-self-publishing issue — pray to your gods that we see fewer such unseemly skirmishes in 2012 — we do, however, find Mike Shatzkin ready en toga, olive leaves in his hair, to offer us the Poetics of our lesser day, and in winged words.

Bookstores are disappearing. Sales are moving to digital. We’ve had an iPad in the marketplace for almost two years. And we have as yet discovered no formula for success to convert a successful illustrated print book to a successful illustrated ebook.

In his new essay, The digital future still is a mystery if you don’t publish “immersive reading,” Shatzkin refers to, say, a standard novel or work of non-fiction that requires no major graphic embellishments as “immersive reading,” immersive by its subject and/or writing alone. So is a good production of “Seven Against Thebes” at Epidaurus, the great ancient theater in the Peloponnese, at least until that bucket arrives bearing Greek contrivances. It’s what most of us write. Books of text, suitable for print or, now, for e-versioning. We have to hope they’re immersive.

Publishers of immersive reading can, at least in the short run, largely count on keeping the sales from readers they’ve always had. The problem for these publishers will be keeping the big authors (at a sustainable royalty rate) if the business becomes largely digital and most readers can be accessed without the capabilities of a major company operating at scale.

Where Shatzkin sees the wheels coming off is in “the rest of the book output,” some of it in the realm of children’s illustrated material, sure, but even beyond that.

It isn’t just illustrations that stamp a book as “not immersive reading.” Books of content chunks, like cookbooks or travel guides, are also not “optimized” merely by making them reflowable.

Production expense, reproduction dilemmas, cross-format complexities, and even copyrighting issues bedevil these sectors and will become increasingly a part of the publishing plot as physical bookstores struggle to survive as outlets for such products in print.

Not only do these not convert well to ebooks, they aren’t as well displayed in an online shopping environment.

For all our respective and collective carping here in χάος — khaos — it’s enough to make anyone not working in these areas feel “shut my mouth” lucky to be plying the wine-dark immersive sea. And glad to have a thoughtful first write of the year from Shatzkin for the journey.

Tell Penelope we’re on the way.

Note: Shatzkin speaks at the Digital Book World Conference & Expo later this month on “Remaking an Industry: What publishers should be thinking about in 2012.”

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Ether Extra: Barnes and Noble’s status

Friday update: By all means, do start with Michael Cader’s Publishers Lunch day-after piece, The Market’s Many Minds On Barnes & Noble, for the sort of sane, calming re-think we all need after a stressful break of news like yesterday’s. Then read on for more of how the confusion and concern played out Thursday. From today’s Cader retrospective on the question of spinning off the Nook in particular, for example:

This is a financial move more than an operational one. And don’t expect any sudden moves. Any restating of BN’s results–which may be the only thing that comes of their current “strategic exploratory work”–won’t happen until late April. Ever since Nook started taking off, Barnes & Noble has been asking markets to look at them as a technology growth company.

Now, to take you back to yesterday’s gathering energy around the story:

As Julie Bosman and Michael de la Merced have reported in the Times on Thursday in their analysis piece, Barnes & Noble Considers Spinning Off Its Nook Unit,  Barnes and Noble has grabbed the attention of the publishing world with the news that it’s considering spinning off the Nook (its popular ereader), amid a darkening earnings outlook.

(Barnes and Noble said) it was beginning “strategic exploratory work” to separate the Nook division, in an effort to help the nascent business grow.  But a spinoff of the unit would raise questions about Barnes & Noble’s ultimate fate.

The news has been hotly debated, sometimes in doomsday terms about this major chain of brick-and-mortar bookstores, especially important to publishing since the demise of Borders.

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Some observers counsel against overly zealous analysis — one of Mike Shatzkin’s best comments of the day was, “I think they just need cash!” He earlier was quick to point out:

One analyst I spoke with in mid-December told me that his team’s research was showing Kindle outselling Nook by huge margins in the third-party merchants that were selling both. That’s totally anecdotal (and maybe it is even wrong)…But I think the problem making them sell is that the costs of launching the Nook business are a much heavier lift for B&N than the costs of launching the Kindle were for Amazon.

I’m using Shatzkin’s comments here by permission, along with the initial reaction of Eoin Purcell, which handily echoed that of many in the business:

I don’t get it. This is the future of their business, offload it and they become just another book chain managing down their legacy operation until they reach the bottom, wherever that is.

Writing Barnes & Noble May Spin Off Its Nook Business for paidContent, Laura Hazard Owen notes:

The news follows a WSJ report yesterday that Barnes & Noble is selling off Sterling Publishing (a division it bought almost a decade ago)…The company cautions that “there can be no assurance that the review of a potential separation of the Nook digital business will result in a separation. There is no timetable for the review,” but since Barnes & Noble is choosing to publicly announce this in a press release, it seems possible that an announcement of a separation is imminent—or this could be a way to attract interest from potential buyers.

Owen goes on to get at some of the confusion native to the situation: the company has had plans to move the Nook into the UK this year, and also has made  statements about discussions with “strategic partners…that may lead to expansion of the Nook business abroad.”

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Under a somewhat apocalyptic headline, Beginning of the End for Barnes & Noble?  Jeremy Greenfield at Digital Book World gets the input of two industry watchers. One is Peter Wahlstrom of Morningstar, who describes the struggling bookstore market’s decline:

If you look out five years and ask if there are going to be more bookstores or fewer bookstores, I think there will be fewer. Barnes & Noble is facing an uphill, structural industry headwind.”

Greenfield also talks again to frequent DBW commentator Thad McIlroy of TheFutureofPublishing.com about the news. McIlroy says, “It’s way too soon to think or react or to know how it’s going to play out.”

 

He goes on to say that divestments similar to a possible spinoff of the Nook — such as Indigo’s spinoff of its Kobo ereader in the fall — don’t necessarily produce major benefits. The change of hands for Kobo “proved to be a very modest return for them and left the mother-ship vulnerable.”

 

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That basic tone seems to underlie comments shared by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords and veteran observer of the field.
If the market doesn’t see value, it means the party in need of financing needs to sacrifice a larger chunk of flesh to investors and the banker devils…The timing of this is unfortunate.  Given another year or two of execution within a unified BN, the market’s reaction to a digital spinoff might have been completely different.

 

Coker is joined by others in noting the timing of the announcement, which Owen points out, was, “buried in the middle of a holiday sales report.” The technical difference in a “spinoff” and a sale can lie in tax liabilities for investors, the incorporation of a spinoff avoiding the capital gains taxes of a sale.
She quotes the company statement from CEO William Lynch reading, in part:

 

We see substantial value in what we’ve built with our Nook business in only two years, and we believe it’s the right time to investigate our options to unlock that value.

 

At Publishers Lunch, meanwhile, Sarah Weinman makes an interesting point in Barnes and Noble seeks bids for Sterling:

 

Publishing has not been Barnes & Noble’s focus for many years, and the company never integrated Sterling into their ebook strategy, which is driving the company going forward.

 

With Purcell and others seeing that driving ebook strategy crippled by a potential separation of the Nook from Barnes and Noble, these new developments do call into question what had appeared to be an effort to couple the bricks-and-mortar basis of the chain with a strong ebook component to answer Amazon.

 

Wahlstrom speaks with the Times’ Bosman and de la Merced for their story, as well as with Greenfield. And in the Times piece, he says that Lynch wouldn’t want to give up the Nook because “it is so ingrained with the physical bookselling experience.”

 

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Ether Extra: Ellora’s Cave shows some ‘Brawn’

A couple of weeks ago, an Ether report mentioned author Laurann Dohner‘s book Brawn  slated for the company’s typical digital-first publication and without a reduced pricing structure.

The book has arrived, we now learn, on the bestseller lists at the Times (at No. 35 in digital) and USA Today (at No. 91 of 150).

Ellora’s Cave has been studied repeatedly by others in the publishing community — including much larger, legacy houses — for its early emphasis on ebooks and aggressive subscription models.  The company also is maintaining a policy of avoiding deeply discounted prices where posstible.

And this is where the corporate leadership says they’re particularly proud of the success of Brawn. It has been sold within the usual EC pricing structure — pertinent to the comments in that December 22 column from some in the business who say they think ebooks that cost more than a buck or two are overpriced.

Patty Marks, Ellora’s CEO, says:

We resisted the emerging trend in digital publishing of putting bargain basement prices on our books to sell more. We really felt that it devalued the authors and their work. Making the lists with a digital book at a reasonable price proves that you don’t have to practically give them away to sell well. Quality does win out in the end.

 

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Ether Extra: Conference season advancers

Starting Monday (9 January), Dan Blank and I will have material outlooking the high points and key issues of the 2012 publishing conferences season. Watch the newly redesigned WeGrowMedia.com site. Keep an eye on it.

Your Ether-eal  journo here will be live-texting extensive coverage from select conferences, more on that to come.

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PR: The publishers strike back?

So now we conclude a month or so of grading retros and saying sooths. Are we about done with these 2011 look-backs and 2012 agenda-setters yet? As you lay down those entrails and wash the teacup, I’m going to give the honor of our year-end benediction to the Twitter-evading Michael Cader.

I respect Cader, the savant of Publishers Lunch (well worth a subscription) and co-creator and -wrangler of Publishers Launch. You come to appreciate the Caderian consistency for its dependable downplay of daily drama.

Which makes Cader’s Remembering 2011 all the more impressive. We see a few flashes of quasi-snark here. I’ll let you enjoy the more granular view and just skip a stone across a few surface items such as:

  • Major book publishers did not raise ebook prices in 2011. Or 2010. They actually lowered them.
  • Mill River Recluse was not the bestselling fiction ebook of the year.
  • Mainstream publishing didn’t die.

Now remember, whether he’s lunching or launching, Cader is talking publishers. We have some point of view here. Nevertheless, when our self-publishing authors are beginning to ask the 99-cents question, it’s hard to disagree with Cader:

413,000 units is impressive, but at ninety-nine cents, that’s a gross of $413,000.

Nothing being that simple, I’ll just point you to Brian O’Leary‘s take on that 99-cents issue, This must be the place, for an alternate view.

Cader decides to drive the car right on over the cliff when he announces “Pottermore was an abject failure” because, of course, it hasn’t launched yet. In near-Yoda patois, Cader writes:

(Rowling is) actually promising revenues to her traditional publishers in exchange for staying out of it and straining for a paradigm that leaves retailers on the sidelines as well leaves her still trying to get her game on.

I have one word here: Spiderman. And I mean Broadway’s “abject failure,” the show that Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney says turned $2.9 million over the holidays. And how many times did the press have it down for the count, wagging big bunraku fingers at the producers?

Here is a fine, intelligent, deeply informed write. Quibble, Sybil, as I might with him, Cader has managed to grapple with larger issues, better numbers, bigger players, and more feverish factions than most of these eternity-to-here wraps and gypsy violin pieces we read over the holidays.

Note: Cader speaks on ebook distribution at the Digital Book World Conference & Expo later this month.

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And now, who do we hear but Ellen Archer of Disney’s Hyperion warming up for her Digital Book World Conference & Expo closeup with more than a few choice words to Jeremy Greenfield (who does love a loaded lede):

  • I have an enormous advantage in the marketplace because I have media platforms…to create and promote books. At the end of our fiscal year, I had two No. 1 best-sellers the same week…it showed the range and the power of my media company.
  • As for overall revenues…we’re going to have to create new models. This business model, while it’s never been great, is broken; 2012 is going to be about finding new business models.
  • We’ve been able to provide advances to authors and unfortunately most of those [advances] don’t drive revenue…There are lots of different ways a deal can be structured.
  • As Barnes & Noble and other retail outlets look to find sidelines to marry with books…(we) tell them we’re going to be one-stop shopping.
  • Author tours will be few and far between; it’s going to be more of a focus on finding those niche communities and working social media.
  • I’ve been looking closely at…pre-order strategy and how that aligns with authors that we acquire and publish who have active blog sites and followers.
  • We’ve got a number of authors who are really good with social media…If they’re not promotable, then it makes selling their book challenging…I will look to acquire media-genic authors and properties.
Whoa. I’m sitting up. “The range and power of my media company,” says she.

I’ve been complaining that our larger publishing entities weren’t good at talking back, speaking their side of the story while the self-publishing pitchforks, shipped free by Amazon to Prime members, bobbed up and down in the stairwell. So maybe we’re finally getting past the throat-clearing stage.

Next stop, that Loudpoet’s take on all this “niche” and “community” chatter we’re hearing.

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Community: It’s not easy being vertical

It’s a brand new year, and that means the publishing conference calendar is about to hit overload for the next several months, as pundits o’plenty mount their soapboxes to advocate for their business models du jour.

Never in the market for minced words, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez braces for an old chestnut in The Myth of “Verticalization” – Community Ain’t Easy :

One of the perennial memes that will surely be flogged again and again is that of community, variously referred to as niche, genre, branding (um, no) and/or, the worst buzzword of them all, “verticalization.”

Gonzalez introduces those of us unfamiliar with it to:

Magic: The Gathering…about as niche it gets…Especially interesting is that, despite celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, MtG has 12 million players and is growing…A 20-year-old “legacy” trading card game that reaches 12 million people (16 to 35-year-olds, predominantly male high school or college students; aka, those guys who supposedly don’t read books), has successfully managed the digital transition and is growing, and whose head designer has been writing a weekly online column and engaging directly with fans for ten years?!?

Gonzalez’s point is something to carry into debates held largely in-house, in-industry, in-conference. Are we looking outside our own world for who may know what we need?

When’s the last time you saw Mark Rosewater speak at a publishing conference?

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Amazon: Our friends in Seattle

A few years ago I might finish a book and not have another one in the pipeline. I would start watching a TV series, which would occupy my spare time for a while … Now my Kindle is filled with unread books, so when I finish one I naturally start another one. As a result I haven’t watched TV in a couple of years.

I like this piece from Diego Basch on how Amazon Has Drastically Changed the Way I Read, as flagged by O’Reilly’s Joe Wikert (of the Kindleville blog). Like Basch, I, too, am “starting to buy books based on their availability on the Kindle store. Last week I was trying to choose my next book. The one I wanted the most only had a hardcover version, so I postponed reading it.”

In the interest of being utterly clear, however, it’s important to say that I differ with Basch in the latter part of his good post. He writes that he will download pirated material rarely, and not “unless there’s absolutely no alternative” way to get an e-edition. Speaking strictly for myself, I don’t use pirated content at all, and not because I’m holier than thou (nor he), but because I see piracy as outright theft, and I see theft as flatly wrong. And if there’s “absolutely no alternative” to getting your book in the form I prefer — an e-version — I will not steal it. Another day, another opinion, but I wanted to clarify my cordial break with Basch on this point.

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Now, when it comes to sales of the Jeffarian Juggernaut (the, shh, Kindle), Robert Andrews at paidContent has an interesting but unsatisfying report, and it’s not his fault it’s unsatisfying. It’s called Research: One In 40 In UK Got The Gift Of E-Reader This ‘Kindle Christmas’. The research outfit YouGov (“What the world thinks” – nothing overbearing about that slogan) has guessed at how much Kindling was gifted in the UK at Christmastime.

  • (YouGov) says 1.33 million e-readers were given as gifts in the UK this Christmas.
  • 92 percent (1.22 million) of them were Kindles.
  • That beat the 640,000 tablets YouGov says were given as gifts – 72 percent of them were iPads.
  • All in all, YouGov says one in 40 UK people received an e-reader this Christmas.

But this is speculation “based on a survey of 2,012 adults” (get that number) “modeled up to try representing the entire UK population; and the survey was done online so it naturally “skews techy” writes Andrews.

He’s right to stress the disclaimer. Amazon doesn’t release actual sales figures. And the Kindle Fire hasn’t yet thrown its sparks in the UK market.

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Let’s keep our e-readers in hand and look back at the e-lending issues facing our libraries in the Age of Amazon, there’s an important question raised by Eric Hellman in his look-back (sigh), 2011: The Year the eBook Wars Broke Out.

Libraries mostly welcomed the possibility to lend their Overdrive ebooks to patrons with Kindles. But at what cost? Do the traditional library values of privacy go right out the door? Do libraries realize that patrons gone to Amazon might not come back?

This does not excuse, however, the unhappy feat Penguin achieved last fall when, as Hellman puts it, the publisher’s “target of opportunity was library lending (because) evidently Penguin decided that a frontal assault on Amazon would be suicidal.”

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And as we flee from the prediction-prone and nostalgia-noxious equinox back into our present, we’re going to cast one brave look over at George Davis’ set of what he calls 2012 Publishing Predictions — but, ah, these are actually wishes.

Print books can remain relevant if they include the digital bundle. Gift giving demands this. I want to write a personal inscription in green fountain pen ink in the front page, and I want to be able to wrap and hand the familiar bound heft of a book.

What Davis says he wants is a seamless read across several media — not formats, media. And that is, still, a plural word, you self-described writers, you. One medium, two media.

Davis wants to start in the print hardcover. Then have the e-version know where he left the bookmark. Then have the audio edition’s narrator pick up at the same place. And — I’m extrapolating here — finish the book by streaming the film, as before from the last point he left off in the audio-, e-, or tree-version.

Now, if there’s a company in the mix right now that could look at such a big-bundling concept, do you think for a moment that it wouldn’t be headquartered in a major Northwestern city the name of which starts with S in the Puget Sound area?

Careful what you ask for, George. I’m on the line with Customer Service in the 206 area code right now.

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Libraries: What’s not in the e-stacks

OverDrive released its lists of the most-downloaded e-books from libraries in December 2011. These lists look pretty different from the current New York Times e-book bestseller lists.

At paidContent, Laura Hazard Owen goes over Which E-Books Are Most Borrowed From Libraries, And Why? In addition to noting that self-published titles don’t seem to be ranking on the libraries’ most-popular lists, she adds an interesting point:

Publishers are not restricting downloadable audiobooks in libraries in the same way that they are restricting e-books. OverDrive’s list of the most-downloaded audiobooks in December includes Kill Alex Cross and The Drop (both Hachette, which doesn’t license e-books to libraries) and Red Mist (Penguin, can’t be borrowed as an e-book).

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Piracy: A Spanish kind of SOPA

There is also a cultural divide at work, according to Yancey Stickler, one of the founders of Kickstarter, a Web site that helps raise funds for creative projects, and a critic of SOPA.

In The Danger of an Attack on Piracy Online the Times’ David Carr goes on to quote Yancey on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation, which is expected to be taken up again on the Hill early this year:

“The schism between content creators and platforms like Kickstarter, Tumblr and YouTube is generational…It’s people who grew up on the Web versus people who still don’t use it. In Washington, they simply don’t see the way that the Web has completely reconfigured society across classes, education and race. The Internet isn’t real to them yet.”

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And from John Paul Titlow at ReadWriteWeb, there’s a piece on Spain’s experience with similar issues. We’d had a reference to this here on the Ether last time from Brian O’Leary. Now, as Titlow writes:

Just as SOPA opponents in the United States prepare for round two in their battle against far-reaching anti-piracy legislation, it appears that their Spanish counterparts just lost theirs. On Friday, the Spanish government approved the Sustainable Economy Law, (SEL) which enables rights holders to have infringing websites shut down within 10 days after a complaint is filed.

Titlow’s article is headlined Spain Gets its Own SOPA-Style Anti-Piracy Law For Shutting Down Websites, and he writes that “Spain has a much bigger piracy problem than the United States. Illegal file-sharing runs rampant in the country” and goes on to describe the mechanism the law provides for action:

Under the new law, copyright complaints will be heard by a panel called the Intellectual Property Committee who will decide how to rectify the issue and are endowed with the power to go after site owners.

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Copyright: Not all rights reserved

The copyright industries—which are after all in the storytelling business—have constructed a very powerful story, complete with heroes and bad guys, that policy makers want to believe. In this story, the villains are file sharers and Internet companies out to destroy the American (or fill in any other country’s) way of life. And like Superman, legislators can swoop in and pass stronger copyright laws to put the bad guys in jail…That’s a great story, but it doesn’t match today’s reality.

For the release this week of his new book, How to Fix Copyright, William Patry has produced a three-part series at Bloomberg. The above quote is from Part 1, Copyrights Are No Longer About Copies. And in Part 2, Creativity Springs From Careful Copying, Patry takes a strong position on the tradition in many art forms, from young painters at the Louvre to the writing student smart enough to copy out a few pages of Didion:

To deny people the right to copy, intimately, from others, is to deny the essence of what it is to be a creative person.

As Richard Nash and others have pointed out in the last couple of days, the comments that follow these installments are worth a look. As an example, I’d like you to look at Patry’s distinction in his answer to a comment after Part 2, involving “substitutional” vs. “transformational” copying.

Substitutional copying is copying that substitutes for the original. If the orignal is under copyright, there is no societal value in allowing substitutional copying…By contrast, transformational copying…is copying that contains new material that changes the original, and/or provides new insights into the original. Book reviews are an example of the latter…We should encourage transformational copying by making them not infringing.

Patry ends his series at Bloomberg with Part 3, Pricing, not Piracy, Hurts Culture Trade.

The best way to prevent the sale of unauthorized goods is to flood the market with authorized goods. The vast unauthorized markets that exist around the world are not a sign of moral shortcomings among people in those countries; they’re simply the result of copyright owners clinging to failed business models.

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Authors: Public domain and the wrong rights

The United States is not part of Public Domain Day because the length of U.S. copyright was extended in 1998 to automatically last for an author’s lifetime, plus 70 years.  The earliest that any works covered by the law would become available under public domain is expected to be 2019.

On the American non-celebration of Public Domain Day on January 1,  Brian O’Leary refers you to Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain story, which asks, “What is entering the public domain in the United States? Nothing.”

No James Joyce or Virginia Woolf in public domain for us. O’Leary goes on to clarify the problem of overlong copyright protection in his Life plus 70 in quoting author Barry Eisler:

Lower-cost, more efficient distribution methods are developments content providers should embrace, not attempt to stymie, and fighting technologies that benefit consumers is about the best way I can imagine to lose money, create new pirates, and seed business opportunities to competitors.

O’Leary, by the way, is pledging to “write something useful every day” in 2012. We’re luckier in that regard than in our public domain laws.  So far, O’Leary hasn’t missed a beat.

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Access: Ch-ch-change

Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.

This is Nicholas Carr in the Wall Street Journal in Books That Are Never Done Being Written.

To my ear, Carr’s gee-whiz tone about discovering that his ebook at Amazon can be updated rings shallow for the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains. (“An ebook, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one.” You go, Nick.)

But Carr does start to explore the disturbing side—depending on your viewpoint—of the lack of permanence in publication today.

Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history.

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Agents: And you were afraid to ask

(Your agent) should let you know what imprints/publishers he has contacted and has been rejected by. It’s your right to know this information, especially after a long period of time has passed. You may also ask for the rejection letters, though your agent is under no obligation to provide you with specific contact information of editors and publishers.

A small group of writers I’m close to (I call them my Hood River group) is already familiar with my disdain for a couple of rather high-visibility agents in the business whose own profiles seem to be the point of their work – not the careers and positioning of their clients. These agents are not common, I’m glad to say.

But I’m also pleased to see Jane Friedman, my host here for the Ether, bright-line some points of how a good agent works with a client, because I’ve been amazed and impatient with how much stony silence and smoke-screening some of my colleagues will accept.

Mind you, Jane is careful to note, “I have observed some unpublished writers who seem to be very demanding and have expectations outside the norm.” I’ve seen this, too. But in the right relationship, as Jane writes in How Do You Know If Your Agent Is Any Good?:

They get back to you in a timely manner, they communicate clearly and respectfully, their business operations aren’t cloaked in secrecy, they treat you as an equal.

As it happens, this post from #JaneFriedman, hashtag unto herself, comes just as agent and eager blogger Rachelle Gardner makes her move to Janet Kobobel Grant’s Books & Such Literary Agency. In writing about her change of venue in Welcome to 2012, Gardner anticipates an issue writers encounter from time to time, when agents switch agengies. She fields it this way:

Some of you may be curious about what happens to my clients in this situation. Whenever there’s a change in an agency, the original Author-Agent Agreement determines what the client’s options are. They may be obligated to stay with the agency for a certain specified term, or they may be free to leave the agency and, if they want, follow their agent. In my case, each of my clients has the ability to choose what they’d like to do.

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In addition, there’s some useful guidance on handling agents’ responses to your work from Jael McHenry at Writer Unboxed on what she calls Finding the Lines.

Finding the line between analysis and obsession is important if and when you get rejections back from agents on a partial or full manuscript. Looking at patterns is important, but spending hours or days or weeks parsing the sentence “I just didn’t connect with the material” isn’t a great use of your time.

McHenry goes on to address the broader uncertainties that can plague any author’s effort to find his or her peace.

The line between confidence and arrogance is also essential to find. Because you need confidence. Absolutely need it. You won’t get by, either before publication or after, if you can’t find some core of confidence within yourself that enables you to say I am a good writer and my book is worth reading … (but not)  Anyone who doesn’t see that is a fool.

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Mass market: Vampires in love

The main problem with Twilight isn’t its sparkly vampires who lack all traditional weaknesses, or even its anti-feminist sensibility. When you get right down to it, the trouble is that the writing is terrible, filled with cliche phrases (“smoldering eyes”), repeated words (294 “eyes” in 498 pages) and the reductive characterization of its main characters (Bella is clumsy, and I guess she likes books. Or something).

Lizzie Stark ‘s car-trip charmer, If Famous Writers Had Written Twilightis picked up by io9 for another spin if you hadn’t seen it before. Here are three of the what-if’s:

Herman Melville – “Call me Bella.” A tome about the length of the original series investigates Bella’s monomanical search for the vampire who stole her virginity. There’s an entire chapter devoted to describing the devastating whiteness of Edward’s skin, and several on the physiognomy of vampires, starting with their skeletal structure outward.

Jane Austen – Basically the same as the original, except that Bella is socially apt and incredibly witty. Her distrust of Edward is initially bourne out of a tragic misunderstanding of his character, but after a fling with Jacob during which he sexually assaults her (amusing to no one in this version) she and Edward live happily ever after.

Annie Proulx – Edward and Jacob defy society’s expectations up in the mountains.

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Language: Why wait for the next occupation?

Fresh off the turn of the calendar — and totally forward-looking — it’s Pascal Wyse’s wise Dictionary for 2012. Learn your lingo now, avoid the rush later, there are more where these three came from.

Slopups – Hipster culinary fad involving a resurgence of Dickensian workhouse chic and menus featuring single-estate gruel and “air-dried” bread.

Roadkour – New urban sport, created by rioting types, of stealing hundreds of hurdling barriers and erecting them in the VIP Olympic driving lanes overnight.

Occupiety – The Anglican church retaliates for the unauthorised squatters of 2011 by moving St Paul’s, brick by brick, on to the family camping field at Glastonbury and staging a 72hr Cliff Richard v John Rutter smackdown. Pop-up churches become a mainstay of the festival circuit.

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Singularity: That old-time religion

Six years before his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson constructed a text for his own personal library, which he often read each night for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth — commonly referred to as The Jefferson Bible — is a compendium of clippings from the four gospels of the New Testament.

Trent Gilliss, senior editor with On Being, has this quick look at the restoration and exhibition of a particularly compelling tool of literature. And it’s not so significant, necessarily, because it involves the biblical story of Jesus, although this will be an attractive point for many, of course.

No, for my money, The Bible as Thomas Jefferson Read Jesus’ Life reveals one of the most endearing and enduring capacities of the writerly effort: to make something one’s own. In telling a story, it can become yours.

Going beyond the sort of painstaking copying of masterworks William Patry describes earlier in this edition of the Ether, the Jeffersonian Testament, if you will, takes care of business with the authority of a mind at ease and in grace with itself.

(Jefferson) intended to tell a chronological version of Jesus’ life, eliminating the passages that appeared “contrary to reason.”

There’s no resurrection story at the closing of Jefferson’s Bible; the tomb is shut.

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Posted in Writing on the Ether.

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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31 Comments on "Writing on the Ether"

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Nancy Jill thames

Being an author in today’ digital world reminds me of my husband’s advice when he’s playing golf: Keep your head down and don’t look up when you swing the club to follow the ball. Translation for me as an Indie Author–write the best books I can and then do my best to market them online. Here we go 2012! I enjoy your blog, Jane.

Porter Anderson
Thanks for reading the Ether and responding, Nancy. Authors today aren’t only looking into self-publishing as an outlet, they’re also learning to seek the professional assistance they need for high production standards and quality assurance, in order to compete with traditionally published work and the strongest self-publishers. So you have your work cut out for you. More power to you and come back frequently. Jane is here six days a week (lovely piece from her today, the kickoff to a whole new series of stories) and I’m here weekly on Thursdays with Writing on the Ether. Do let us hear… Read more »
Porter Anderson

Thanks for reading the Ether and responding, Nancy. Authors today aren’t
only looking into self-publishing as an outlet, they’re also learning
to seek the professional assistance they need for high production
standards and quality assurance, in order to compete with traditionally
published work and the strongest self-publishers. So you have your work
cut out for you. More power to you and come back frequently. Jane is
here six days a week (lovely piece from her today, the kickoff to a
whole new series of stories) and I’m here weekly on Thursdays with
Writing on the Ether. Do let us hear from you whenever you’re with us.
Cheers,

-p.

Kathleen Pooler

Porter,
Thursday has become my “soak up the ether ” day~ lol! Thanks for another great round-up. I’m hoping by the time I get ready to seek publication, it’ll all be smoothed out or not..at least I’ll be familiar with the fray. Makes for an exciting time. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on being “media-genic” as per Ellen Archer and getting “digitally-bundled” as per @virtualdavis!

Porter Anderson

Hey, Kathy, great of you to be such a faithful Ethernaut, and always love your comments. I’m interested to see whether we ever get publishing “sorted out” as it once was (i.e. stable) — or whether it doesn’t remain an industry in heavy flux as an ongoing feature. Riding the flux may be the best talent to cultivate. Thanks again for reading and commenting!
-p.

Porter Anderson

Hey, @KathyPooler:twitter  great of you to be such a faithful Ethernaut, and always
love your comments. I’m interested to see whether we ever get publishing
“sorted out” as it once was (i.e. stable) — or whether it doesn’t
remain an industry in heavy flux as an ongoing feature. Riding the flux
may be the best talent to cultivate. Thanks again for reading and
commenting!

-p.

virtualDavis

 Three cheers for the digital bundle! 🙂

Vaughn Roycroft

Lots to love here, Porter. I’ll have to come back later to explore all the links. Stark’s Twilight snark had me snorting. And the Dr. Suess poem in the comments is not to be missed. (Note to self: check for incidence of the word ‘eyes’ in ms.)
Coincidentally, I’ll be flogging the perennial meme of Community tomorrow in a guest post on Writer Unboxed. Happily, it’s too late for me to add my thoughts on ‘verticalization.’

Porter Anderson

Hey, Vaughn, thanks for reading and commenting, and will check WU for that big Verticalization Spectacular.:) -p.

Porter Anderson

Hey, @VaughnRoycroft:twitter  thanks for reading and commenting, and will check WU for that big Verticalization thesis, congrats on your Writer Unboxed debut.  🙂 -p.

Barbara McDowell Whitt

Porter, thanks to commentary such as yours I stay in the loop regarding publishing and reading. I left the field when a dominant word for writers was “voice” and returned when it is (was?) “platform,” having somehow missed “gig economy” along the way. I was enticed onto the I(i?)nternet by my husband and two daughters (no sons) and once spoke to one of them about the “dub-a-you, dub-a-you, dub-a-you.” I am old enough (69) to know that being able to write and change what I have written and write it again painlessly is what I knew needed to happen.   

Porter Anderson

Barbara, delighted to have you reading the Ether, and hope you’ll be back weekly (on Thursdays), plus check out Jane’s super excellent daily work here. Publishing is changing at what feels like breakneck speed, since digital distribution moves so quickly. No better aid to hang onto than JaneFriedman.com. Thanks for commenting!
-p.

Porter Anderson

Barbara, delighted to have you reading the Ether, and hope you’ll be
back weekly (on Thursdays), plus check out Jane’s super excellent daily
work here. Publishing is changing at what feels like breakneck speed,
since digital distribution moves so quickly. No better aid to hang onto
than JaneFriedman.com. Thanks for commenting!

-p.

Janet Oakley

Wow, Jane. I always enjoy reading your posts, but this one was so informative. I feel like I”m on top of this wild-west-changing industry.

As I’m one of those who self-pubbed, I’m always looking for ways to make sure I’m creating the best work as well as getting my novel both in ebook and “real” format out to the reading world. My physical book is in libraries and bookstores and being read by book groups, but those book groups are also reading it as an ebook.

Getting a great review in PW Select also helped.

Porter Anderson

Janet, thanks for reading and commenting. Writing on the Ether is weekly on Thursdays here at JaneFriedman.com, and I hope we’ll have you come by often! Congrats on your work. – Porter

Porter Anderson

Janet, thanks for reading and commenting. Writing on the Ether is weekly
on Thursdays here at JaneFriedman.com, and I hope we’ll have you come
by often! Congrats on your work. – Porter

Sidney Peck

Blasted ebooks.  I hate them and I always will, and every article about them only confirms this revulsion.

Porter Anderson

@CinemaProfound:twitter , thanks for reading and commenting. But I’m distressed to hear you’re so dead set against e-books. I find they have so much to offer us all and need not be placed in opposition to traditional books, literature is big enough for both e- and tree-books. My question to you is this: Have you read an entire book on a good,  e-reader yet?

Sidney Peck

Giggling like mad.  No, and Hell will freeze over before I will.

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Honored, flattered and *slightly* misunderstood, Sir Porter. Clarification posted in the update at the end of my post, bust the gist is simply that I anticipate an integrated digital bundle sold with print books. I readily concede the lofty dream of bookmark integration across print/digital, but I believe that there’s value in packaging the integrated digital bundle (e-books, audio books, multimedia and possibly even film/video, as you’ve suggested) with print books. For readers who fancy tree-versions, they are tempted with a transmedia immersion experience that may entice them to explore digital titles. For readers more inclined to digital, they can… Read more »
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