Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'Tis the season

I'm not keeping this up well, but other things get in the way this time of year. I'll try to post regularly in the new year - for the, ya know, legions of readers anxiously awaiting my babblings. I know, it's almost too much.

But for today, wanted to mention the Wall Street Journal article - I won't bother linking as its restricted access - about authors taking lower advances from smaller publishing houses ("The New Hot Advance: $0," Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg), which explains the trend:
Several top authors in some instances have struck deals with small publishing houses that don't pay them a penny in advance. Instead, these writers have been promised that their latest works will be promoted more substantially to readers in stores, online and in the newspapers. The authors also receive a higher-than-normal royalty rate and have a bigger say in how and where their books are marketed.

Much of this is good news. I like the concept, as long as authors appreciate the limits to their "bigger say." There's a fine line between having an established author who can bring prestige to your list and sales in the bookstores having more room to weigh in on things like the publicity list and design, and good ol' fashioned vanity publishing. An author has to come in understanding the limits to her or his control in publishing a book with a publishing house, as compared to doing it on their own. We bring you our resources, you trust what we do with your book.

David Morrell, who writes thrillers, explains it fairly:
"Traditional publishing functions as an assembly line," says Mr. Morrell. "Often by the time a book is published the project has gone through various departments and the memory of why certain decisions were made weren't passed along, so nobody can understand what's going on."

This is the problem with the ever-corporatizing publishing world. Editors cannot keep in touch with their authors as their numbers are pushed up and they're judged on how many sales their books can generate. They focus on acquiring many and then making sure the few big ones sell really big, thereby leaving the midlist titles to flounder. It's nice to see authors taking back control by going to smaller presses where they can actually get their editor or publicist on the phone.

It is a luxury sometimes to be able to go to a smaller press, it should be noted. As Trachtenberg explains:
For writers who don't need advances for their living expenses, the gamble may be one worth taking. Even the biggest publishers have limited budgets, and invariably they put the bulk of their marketing spending behind each season's most expensive books. The other writers often have to make do with less.

So I started thinking the literary agents must not love this trend, insofar as they don't get any serious profit from an increased marketing effort. I mean, they'll take a cut of the royalties, but we're talking 15% of a maybe 10% royalty - though maybe it's higher in these cases, as that seems to be part of the deal (lower advance, higher royalty = invested author in longterm sales). So the article mentions Eileen Goudge's agent - a "women's fiction writer" (what a genre title, huh ladies?) who moved to a small house, NJ's Melville House:
Susan Ginsburg, Ms. Goudge's literary agent, says she supported the move. Ms. Goudge's books were selling well but needed a lift. Although publishing without an advance is a risk, says Ms. Ginsburg, the allure of a six-figure marketing budget was hard to resist. "If you can afford to make an investment in your career, it's worth trying," she says.

A good agent should support this kind of thing, but a bad agent would go for the big advance money to the detriment of the author's career. Morrell's agent, Jane Dystel, explains that she benefitted from his move as she sold many of the sub-rights - that's the way the agent should do it. Hold back the rights you can sell so you can still rake in a li'l dough.

Now bizarrely, in Morrell's case (unlike Vonnegut's case at Seven Stories), he's just gone to a kind of "small publisher" division of a corporate house: Perseus Book Group. It's not clear whether Perseus is just their distributor or actual owner. Just wanted to throw that in.

It's nice to see established authors seeing their work as benefitting from the added attention they get at smaller houses. Should I ever establish my own publishing house - ya never know - I'd like to retain this quality. It's hard for huge corporate publishers to remember it's about the book, not just the sales, the prizes, the sheer numbers. Authors might have to be the ones, through acts like these, to really make that point.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Truth out of Advertising

I found the speech by Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, as posted on his blog, quite interesting. (I got there through mediabistro.)

He's basically going over the new media landscape - hardly anything new, but I think he phrases and identifies certain strains well. He explains that trust is the main issue in this age of blogs, and he envisions a world where blogs work with more traditional media - let's say, a large media producer, like... Reuters - to make traditional media more accountable. He asks,
What does the future look like in a world in which the consumer has taken over the printing press, the dark room, the television studio? What does the result of a mash-up of professional and “amateur” actually look like?

I continue to find the rhetoric worrisome - this concept of readers as consumers first and foremost. I know it's idealistic to think otherwise since media can only survive in this day and age if it's a successfully run business, if it rides the market successfully. But all the same, this rhetoric leads to this vision, then, of consumers taking over the editorial meetings and deciding content. This is what anyone in publishing anything grapples with. The consumer cannot stop consuming!! They're like goats, out of grass and chewing on the sheets! Save yourself!

So Glocer goes with this and brings up trust, asking the question I've asked: how do we know whom to trust in an age of blogging, when anyone can start disseminating information? He explains, "The comfortable one-way model of publisher to editor to journalist to reader has changed forever." And later, he admits, "we no longer have a choke-hold on the flow of information, whether technological, professional or financial."

He puts a positive spin on all this by celebrating "a truly engaged audience," controlling their media so it suits them and then revelling in it, really indulging in youtube videos and news headlines personalized to their interests. This goes back to the Future of the Book folks - this personalized media is creating an army of amateur specialists, if you will, well-versed in the areas in which they have a strong interest, be that wireless networking, romance novels, car engines, or antique dolls.

This army can then watch their favorite news sources closely - even Reuters - and call them out if something ain't right - as they did when a doctored photo appeared from Reuters. He goes on at length about this moment, which is admirable in terms of honesty. I like people who just point out the elephant in the living room rather than talking around it so as to not reveal a weak moment to people not in the know.

I like Glocer's idea, to have both traditional news providers with known standards who are open to criticism, but not control, from readers. To quote at length:

Our professionals bring something extremely important to a story. They write in accordance with a professional code and brand, and they are mindful of the standards they must uphold. They are trained to sift through facts and provide perspective and context, to provide insight without spin. And they are human beings born in places like Tel Aviv or Gaza City or Dublin or Belfast. They seek to leave their inherent biases at home, but they are human like you and me, and they also make mistakes – again like you and me.

Amateur content provides something else – they often bring immediacy that we cannot deliver, just like the tourist photographs of the immediate aftermath of the Asian Tsunami, or the London bombings on 7/7.

But in the excitement and enthusiasm of this new collaboration we mustn’t forget the value of trust. We mustn’t forget that our actions and ideas must remain guided by impartial accurate information.

I don't like all the rah-rah-Reuters that is inevitable given he's the CEO, and this might be a bit corporate, but I like how he states,
The real opportunity – besides more voices – is that in a world of multiple choices, brands become billboards guaranteeing an experience. If your brand stands for accuracy, for truthfulness, for trust, you become a beacon – a trusted source – a hub in a plural media universe.

I'm not a fan of the "branding" industry, but I think the fundamental point is important for anyone - authors, non-profits, anyone trying to get attention in the world these days. So a publisher establishes itself as a brand, builds trust, and then readers know. If readers want to point out a misstep, they can and they should and the publisher should respond. But in an age of corporate conglomerations controlling publishing and folks like Judith Regan pushing to ethical extremes - and did we all know that the writer hired for the OJ book was someone she met while working at the Enquirer, as the New Yorker reported? - there are no standards or accountability.

Rather than envisioning a world of online books that are actually just venues for discussions, I'd rather envision a publishing model in which the publisher, on all levels, is more accountable, providing a non-book venue for interactions with readers. Brands are more important, so maybe readers can start identifying the publishers they like - something only quite savvy readers do at this point, methinks - and going directly to those websites. The publishers should start blogs and have online discussions so the readers have a voice, but do not provide or dictate the content itself.

If publishers of all kinds, from newspapers to books, continue to rely on reader-provided content, the brand will fold. They are watering down their content by letting the readers provide it all, because in the long run, what is left? What is drawing the reader in? It's narcissistic, and readers will lose interest in their own content and then the brand if that's all that's being provided. The rich, unique content that built the brand and got the reader will not be as strong and new readers will not find it and it will be thrown out, like so much of our disposable culture.

I'm still working out the ideas here, but I think I've come to a point in this entry. It's kind of making me think of TRL on MTV - though, mind you, I don't currently have cable. I believe that's still on the air, and I don't really get how people can watch it. The high-pitch shrieks compete with mindless discussion. The success of TRL disproves my point. Despite it being more about the audience than original content - the videos don't play all the way through! - it continues to find new audiences, obviously. But it's a straw house.

Won't someone please, please blow it over? Anyone?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Letting Forbes weigh in on our industry

So Forbes decided to devote an issue to publishing - how kind. And they include all kinds of... wisdom. Yes, deep wisdom from the experts.

It's actually not a bad collection of pieces. My friends and I were just wondering the other day how McSweeney's does it, as I've asked here, so the article on Dave Eggers was rather, if you will, illuminating. It didn't touch too much on the issue of publishing online, like other pieces did.

Cory Doctorow's article about having his publisher, Tor Books, publish traditional books for a price while giving away electronic versions of his book for free. He explains how this works:
A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book--those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They're gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I'm ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing.

Pretty handy. He even frames this as word-of-mouth with fewer downed trees. I can appreciate this sentiment, realizing full well that this is in part due to the genre. Again, as he explains,
Given the high correlation between technical employment and science fiction reading, it was inevitable that the first nontechnical discussion on the Internet would be about science fiction. The online norms of idle chatter, fannish organizing, publishing and leisure are descended from SF fandom, and if any literature has a natural home in cyberspace, it's science fiction, the literature that coined the very word "cyberspace."

So not every book could work in this way, I think we can safely say. What works for sci-fi won't necessarily work for romance, literary, non-fiction of all kinds.

I still find his notion of using the internet to kind of infect readers a little disturbing, but I guess he is a sci-fi writer after all. Of the e-book, he says: "It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life." Okay, get your e-book off my leg, buddy. I ain't interested. You over-sold it.

And then we have Ben Vershbow doing his whole networked-book thing. Snore. He praises Wikipedia, and says "down the road we'll see similar kinds of open, distributed authorship of all sorts of books, from academic textbooks to travel guides." Terrific! I recently heard from a professor and a grad student that many students are now quoting Wikipedia in their papers - often without citing it. Ah, information sharing. It's the way of the future! It's like I'm pushing to videotape the Daily Show, fooling with VCR timers, and you're just watchin' the 2:24 minute clip on YouTube. Get with it, daddy-o!

I'm also bothered by his casual mix of scholarship and commerce. In one single paragraph, he mentions Neal Stephenson's use of the internet for edits to his novel, Quicksilver, and then cyberlaw scholar Lawrence Lessig's use of "crowdsourcing" for his "seminal text." He talks about building readership - important for any author, whether a scholar, activist, or novelist - but then says, "publishers are beginning to realize that giving away some or even all of a text online can lead to increased community interest that can, quite counter-intuitively, sell more books in the physical world." Capitalism, are you listening?!

And then later, "No longer just an audience, readers will become assets, and eventually writers will be judged not for the number of books they sell but for the quality and breadth of their networks." Again, this reminds me of the Boston Globe including readers' comments in the "You're Up!" section. Make the reader work a bit, feel that they've contributed, and you have a solid customer. Make them invest mentally and you can count on them investing financially. I'm not convinced this is good for authors or readers.

He ends by saying, "We're learning to read and write all over again." It's too arching, too large a claim here. I get itchy hearing it, and I'm allergical to fascism. Correlation or causation?

I know, I'm going too far. The Future of the Book people are NOT fascists. I just think their efforts to blur the line between author and reader are suspect. They say authors will be more important than ever as guides in these new worlds, so it's not as if they're eliminating the author's role. But the idea of entering a book with others... it feels like my role as reader is lessened, and I would have too much competing for my attention. I want to trust an author, have her show a world to me that's from her. I know it's not pure, that it has influences that may be drug-related (Huxley), unacknowledge personal experience (Harper Lee?), or just plain plagiarism (oops, Kaavya and Alloy Entertainment), but we usually find this information out and leave it outside the novel, not bring it inside in some community setting.

Not everything has to be social and immediate. Reading can be quite and solitary, a time to develop yourself and your imagination. I don't want bostonboi24 and hollagal38 reading with me or commenting on what I'm writing as I'm reading it. Maybe that's what I fear.

The rest of Forbes is worth a gander. I may very well never say that sentence again.