Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Careful Mr. Nash, there are lions out on that there savannah!

Pretty much our favoritest publisher has resurfaced-sort of. Richard Nash, who officially stepped down at Soft Skull yesterday, has given an interesting interview to, well, Interview magazine where he talks with Cara Parks about his past, present, and future. We here at Survival of the Book send Mr. Nash all the best in the his next incarnation and wish that more in the publishing world had his vision, passion, and professionalism. Believe it or not, those three things can often be in short supply in this business. Instead of linking to the article, I am just pasting it here for
your convenience...besides, who the hell reads Interview these days? Just sayin'.
_ _ _ _ _ _


Richard Nash, Head On

Cara Parks

Last week, Richard Nash stepped down as editorial director of Soft Skull Books and executive editor of its parent company, Counterpoint. That might sound par for the course in a publishing world whose general tenor was nervous even before the economy tanked. But since 1992, Soft Skull has been different: It's the beloved Brooklyn-based indie publisher that gleefully embraced its iconoclastic, second-borough status—even when it moved to Chelsea last year. After all, it's the group published James Hatfield's controversial Fortunate Son—the book that discussed W.'s early cocaine use and general delinquency—after established press St. Martin's dropped the book because Hatfield was an ex-con. The whole affair was chronicled in the 2002 documentary Horns and Halos, and showed the desperate gambles independent publishers must take just to survive. Nash has piloted Soft Skull since 2001 through all sorts of economic turbulence, eventually finding a haven for the imprint in Counterpoint. However, while the group will continue to churn out controversial literature, Nash has decided to explore new areas of the publishing world.

CARA PARKS: How did you come to work with Soft Skull?

RICHARD NASH: I fell into it. The guy [punk-publisher Sander Hicks] who founded Soft Skull was also a playwright and I was directing his plays. Around 2001, things got tremendously financially complicated. I was working on a play at the time, and working part-time for another publishing company, but without any vocational interest in working in publishing at all. It was a way to get health insurance. For a variety of reasons that required a whole documentary [Horns and Halos] to go into even one of them, the founder took a sort of sudden leave of absence. I was the only adult around to try to save the business. I agreed to help out for a while as a short-term, gratis thing because Soft Skull seemed like a really worthwhile venture and it would be a pity if it fell apart. I fell in love with publishing over the course of a year, and ended up getting deeper and deeper into things, even though it was in terrible, terrible financial state.

CP: Was that the reasoning behind the merger with Counterpoint books?

RN: No, this was all back in 2001. There were all kinds of ups and downs after that. Mostly, Soft Skull grew quite dramatically. At times, it seemed like we would be completely out of the woods. At times, [there were challenges] just by the very nature of independent publishing. We never got capital from investors, or could ever obtain any kind of small business loan, because no one loans you money unless you have collateral to put up against it. Then in late 2006, our distributor went bankrupt, owing us four months of sales ... and that was basically the sledgehammer that broke the camel's back. It would have taken a lot less, but that was what we got.

CP: On your blog you mentioned that people in publishing are going to have to start re-justifying their percentage of a book.

RN: I mean we're basically going to have to re-justify our existence [LAUGHS]

CP: Who do you think is going to be on the losing side of that re-adjustment?

RN: I honestly don't know yet. It is very complicated for an unknown writer to reach an audience of readers given the vast numbers of unknown writers out there. How do people find out about it? So I believe in the role of intermediaries. People always look to trusted friends who might be more expert or knowledgeable in a given area for advice about things, whether its what to eat, what to wear, who to love. Well, who to marry at least. The question is, who are going to be those people. The model is going to shift from kind of a gatekeeper model to an advisor/service model. Or lets say from a bouncer model to a concierge model.

CP: What are some of the changes you envision the Internet and developing technologies will have?

RN: Almost every change in technology has resulted in a broader dissemination of knowledge and the previous gatekeepers of that knowledge were freaked out by the knowledge that they were losing their capacity to deny people access to it and freaked out about and losing their status.

CP: There is a lot of talk about the end of the publishing world.

RN: It will be a hard transition to go from one model to another of how we connect writers and readers. Things are changing so quickly, that figuring out how to make a living doing that, figuring out how to not fuck up writers' careers while doing that, is really hard.

CP: Do you have any plans, or know what part of the publishing world you'd like to focus on right now?

RN: In the long run, I want to help develop the models that will allow the connecting of writers and readers as richly as possible. That's probably something that I'll both want to be doing directly myself and helping others do.

CP: The publishing industry is so skittish right now, do you think there will be a lot of experimenting going on?

I was chatting yesterday with a wonderful guy yesterday, [rare books dealer] Bob Gray. He was pointing out how in anthropology there's a theory of refuge and prospect. Refuge is the cave and prospect is the savannah. You're safe in your cave, but you have to go out on the savannah to eat. You spend too much time out on the savannah you get eaten, you spend too much time inside the refuge, you starve. Who knows what's going to happen with Simon and Schuster? What I do know is that there are going to be intermediaries, and they're going to need to strike a balance between refuge and prospect.

CP: Can you talk about what motivated you decision to leave Counterpoint?

RN: Prospect, in effect. I felt like I could more usefully participate in the future of publishing outside than inside. That's the baldest answer.

CP: That was quite a bold move.

RN: I left this job by choice and a lot of people are leaving their jobs preferring to stay in the cave a little longer, and I voluntarily left the cave. But it doesn't mean that I don't recognize that life out on the preserve can be really scary at times, when you see a lion behind that tree over there. Damn, am I working that metaphor. [LAUGHS]

CP: [LAUGHS] You're a brave man, out on the savannah for all of us.

RN: Well, there are people who got thrown out on the savannah along side me, so you know, brave, foolhardy, I don't know.

Monday, March 30, 2009

SXSW fall-out

I know there has been much talk online about the ill-equipped publishing presenters at the now infamous panel, "New Think for Old Publishers," at this year's South by Southwest conference/festival in Austin, TX. (I attended the better known music festival years ago, in college, since I went to UT.) I thought I'd post just one link about the panel that includes other links, and is quite well done.

Peter Miller, director of publicity at Bloomsbury and owner of a used bookstore in Brooklyn called Freebird Books, wrote about his experience on the panel for Publishers Weekly. He framed it as a word of warning for anyone thinking of putting together a publishing panel at next year's festival...


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tweet it!

Things that occur online are kind of a microcosm for globalization in general. It's wonderful that the internet connects us so readily to people from across the world - I've had chat sessions with friends in South Africa, the UK, Cambodia, Hong Kong, etc.. But to have that good you also have to take the bad - the viruses that can shut down computers worldwide in seconds, for example.

We've all discussed with great amusement and perhaps a bit of confusion the Japanese phenomenon of texted novels from cellphones, which went from quirky sub-genre to mainstream. And now we have news that Nigerian novelist Ben Okri is releasing new poetry via Twitter:
"Forms follows adversity – we live in uncertain times. I think we need a new kind of writing that responds to the anxiety of our age and yet has brevity," he said. "My feeling is that these times are perfect for short, lucid forms. We need to get more across in fewer words. The Twitter poem tries to respond to this and the feeling of freedom."

Whenever someone embraces something online as a resource that can free us from some shackles, I have to throw up a flag. People, the internet is not public space. Twitter is corporate space that is within a company's control. Sometimes sites like Twitter give the user this false feeling of freedom - I'm going around the publisher and bringing my readers the work directly - but that's not really the case, because legally, Twitter could probably shut you down as easily as any old-fashioned book publisher could refuse to print books.

Go forth and use Twitter, by all means, but I'm not signing on to this venue as offering a truly new model. It's just faster - I'll give it that. Quite frankly, its brevity can also be annoying.

(Thanks to MobyLives for the initial link.)

I wanted to also post this F-Minus cartoon from today's paper, which I think we can all appreciate. Hilarious!

F Minus

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ideas on the Internets

Even as I get swamped by life's pressures, I have to mention a few ideas floating out in cyberspace on publishing.  Huh. Does anyone still call it cyberspace? 

Anyhow, over at The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas suggests a book version of Netflix. It's a nice opportunity to mention that stores have rented out books before:

The Waldenbooks chain (now owned by Borders) got its start that way, back in 1933.  Founders Lawrence W. Hoyt and Melvin Kafka believed in books, but in the throes of the Great Depression, they decided against opening a retail bookstore.  The pair saw books as something of a luxury, and reasoned that few people would be willing to part with what little money they had to purchase these non-essentials outright.

Like the founders of Netflix, Hoyt and Kafka bucked industry trends.  They decided to set up shop in a department store in Bridgeport, CT, where they leased floor space in the hope of reducing fixed capital costs.  And instead of selling books, they rented them out for three cents per day.  By 1948, Hoyt and Kafka had opened as many as 250 rental libraries in department stores spanning from New York to Maine.

The rental library business declined after the Second World War.  Rising wages and fuller employment meant that rental culture could once again give way to consumer culture.  Waldenbooks followed the trend by introducing retail book sales in 1945, and abandoning book rentals in 1957.

I had heard about this manner of retail from the owner of the Provincetown Book Store, when I spoke to him last summer. 

Striphas updates this idea for the internet age, as noted, using Netflix as his model, but I've heard this idea is already out in the world. I know Bookswim has been doing this for some time, and there are others for textbooks and other niches. The idea for a niche market in particular has some real potential. I like the idea of doing this cheaply with mass markets, seeing as people into romance, sci-fi or mystery blow through books quickly. It would have to have books available digitally as well. And at some point, I can't help but think of, um... libraries. My only point here is to say Striphas loses a bit of credibility for failing to realize these companies exist.

Over at Galleycat, they sum up a talk given by Jonathan Karp of Twelve at the Publishers Advertising and Marketing Association about the current state of publishing. He declares that publishers need to stop publishing so many books and copying successful books, all the stuff people are saying, right? But I've said before that I still find Twelve frustrating because Karp et al are not presenting a unified list of books, but rather one book a month that they think can make money. They're led by a belief in the market, rather than by vision and values and commitment. I guess I see this speech and I think he's halfway there.

Lastly, I wanted to link to an interesting article by Richard Curtis "reprinted" from 1986, over at The Writer's Edge, all about the state of editors during that period of buy-outs and mergers. It's a useful bit of history, showing that what's happening now has happened in a different way before, as non-publishing companies gobbled up publishers, and publishers consumed other publishers, and editors feared for their jobs. What was most fascinating was the list of companies that ate other companies - who could ever keep this straight?!

Appleton-Century-Crofts (a division of Prentice-Hall)
Prentice-Hall (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Simon & Schuster (acquired by Viacom Corporation)
Atheneum (acquired by Charles Scribner)
Charles Scribner (acquired by Macmillan)
Macmillan (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Little, Brown (acquired by Time Inc.)
Warner Paperback (merged with Little, Brown)
Avon Books (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Arbor House (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Fawcett Books (acquired by Ballantine Books)
Ballantine Books (acquired by Random House)
Times Books (acquired by Random House)
Pantheon Press (acquired by Random House)
Alfred A. Knopf (acquired by Random House)
Random House (acquired from RCA by the Newhouse
Bantam Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Doubleday (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Dell Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Basic Books (acquired by Harper & Row, then deacquisitioned)
Crowell (acquired by Harper & Row)
Abelard-Schuman (acquired by Harper & Row)
Harper & Row (acquired by Rupert Murdoch's NewsAmerica
Playboy Press (acquired by Berkley Books)
Ace Books (acquired by Grosset & Dunlap)
Grosset & Dunlap (acquired by Berkley Books)
Berkley Books (acquired by G. P. Putnam's)
G. P. Putnam's (acquired by MCA, sold to Matsushita, then to
Seagram, then to Pearson Ltd.)
Pyramid Books (acquired by Harcourt Brace, renamed Jove)
Jove (acquired by Berkley)
Coward-McCann-Geoghegan (acquired by Putnam, then dissolved)
Dial Press (acquired by Dell, sold to Dutton)
Dutton (acquired by Elsevier, sold to JSD, sold to NAL)
NAL (sold by Times-Mirror to Odyssey Group, resold to Viking,
merged with Penguin)
Rawson, Wade (acquired by Macmillan)
Silhouette Books (acquired by Harlequin from Simon & Schuster)


(Thanks to Editorial Ass for the link!)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Newsflash on George Bush

I know, I'm not happy about that post title either. Yuck.

But it only gets worse.

There was news today that former president George W. Bush sold a book to Random House:

"I want people to understand the environment in which I was making decisions. I want people to get a sense of how decisions were made and I want people to understand the options that were placed before me," Bush said during a brief telephone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press from his office in Dallas.

Bush's book, tentatively (not decisively) called "Decision Points," is scheduled for a 2010 release by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.

Oof. Ugh. Blargh. Ack. Etc.

But then there's an update on the Daily Beast that includes some specifics: "A well-placed source in the publishing industry says George W. Bush’s book deal is valued at about $7 million. " (Thanks to MobyLives for the link - where Dennis Johnson also notes, the absurdity of this advance considering "it’s coming from a company, Random House imprint Crown, that has been consolidating, laying off people, and freezing and/or ending benefits, for months").

Isn't this when some of us think publishing is for the birds and want to pick up and leave books forever?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Buzzword for Day: Hyperspecialize

That's a pretty good buzzword for publishing's future, right?

Seth Godin might think so.

In a post on his blog today, Godin advises literary agents to hyperspecialize if they want to survive:
To thrive in a world of self-service, agents have to hyperspecialize, have to stand for something, have to have the guts to say no far more than they say yes. No, you can't publish this book. No I won't represent you. No, don't take that flight. No, I won't sell this house, it's overpriced, list it yourself.

He smartly places the literary agent's role into the context of other agents - real estate agents, travel agents - to show the danger one faces in this role as middleman, if one doesn't differentiate one's self. Excuse all those ones. I think you get the point.

But Godin's point is true for publishers in general, isn't it? And isn't this the very thing we editors have been telling authors forever? Well well well, it's really come back to bite us on the ass. You can't just churn out predictable books and make money, because there are too many books out there, and too many self-publishers and vanity presses, and too many venues to advertise a book. The old channels - most notably, newspaper reviews - are wilting, and in their place are springing a million blogs. How much more can you wash down a product and still have a product? That's essentially what's happening, editors, if you are chasing the thing to follow what was once the Next Big Thing.

So editors have to stand out front, take bold risks, and have a sharp, definable, possibly polarizing vision as they build a list. (Of course, the publisher must support them in this, so a constant threat of lay-offs isn't conducive to such confidence.) I've been chiming this note for years. Publishers should return to having identities, rather than just being a collection of books that should sell. That identity should encompass politics, aesthetics, intellectual philosophy, a sense of humor - it should have a personality of its own. Readers will be attracted to that identity and seek it out in this world of options. Don't underestimate smart consumers.

As our world breaks into a million fragments, publishers shouldn't try to gobble up as many fragments as possible but just define their own and create a consistent list with a vision behind it. As Godin concludes, "When markets change, agents can lead the way, not follow along grudgingly." Point!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Inside Baseball for Books

I found a couple of interesting articles to share today, if ya don't mind...

I'm pleased to see that Sara Nelson, once of Publishers Weekly fame but recently laid off in their restructuring, has placed some nice insider articles elsewhere. The online publishing world - meaning online people writing about somewhat traditional book publishing - has responded in kind with links and mentions (I suppose, now, this includes me!). Her recent article over at The Daily Beast on Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his whopping $3 million deal for two books, including a poetry book, certainly found ample reaction online.

Nelson has a new piece up at WSJ that is old-school book publishing news analysis, all about how the new HarperCollins imprint, It Books, and its subimprint Igniter, reek of Judith Regan's influence - though no one at HC seems to be saying that outright. Nelson discusses the folks running these new imprints to make her case:

Now, two years later, we're may be witnessing Regan Redux, in the unlikely person of Neil Strauss. A thirtysomething onetime pop culture reporter for the New York Times, Strauss appears to be nothing like his muse. Except that he is a master of the kind of high-low books that were her hallmark.

In fact, the titles that have made him a famous and successful author -- "Motley Crue: The Dirt, Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band," "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," a memoir with Jenna Jameson and the pick-up guide "The Game" -- were all Regan projects.

Add to that the rise, within Harper, of Carrie Kania, who was relatively new to publishing during Regan's tenure but is herself the kind of passionate, tough-talking woman a less politically-correct generation would have called a "dame." Then factor in Cal Morgan, who was one of Regan's longest and closest lieutenants, and still very much employed at Harper. Presto: The company had found a way to fill the hole left by Regan's demise.

My favorite part, of course, is her line about Kania being a "dame." What an honor! (I don't know Kania but I hope she sees that as a compliment.)

Nelson makes a valuable point but she doesn't go as far as I would to position this all as sexist. I mean, isn't it? Yes, Judith Regan made her share of enemies, but get this, from Nelson:
And while he never invoked her name, when Strauss said he planned to be involved in every aspect of the choosing, designing and marketing of Igniter titles, down to where, for example, the author's bio should appear, I could feel Ms. Regan's presence -- she was ostracized and maligned for being, among other things, a "control freak" -- in the room. Design, book jacket, font type: "They all affect the reader," he says. "I think a book needs to be like a show."

Will Strauss be considered a control freak, or merely committed to his product? Women in control still make folks nervous, even in an industry like publishing where women are in abundance - at least outside of boardrooms.

But yes, I find it a bit awkward to be defending Regan, who published absolute tripe. I say that about her as an Editor seeking out the lowest common denominator, not as a woman who should have every right to make bad executive decisions as any man.

It just seems over at HC, they've cut off the head only to have the same spring up again, from Regan to Strauss, but now we'll see if a man can make a go of peddling this garbage better than a gal.

I also don't want to be in a position to help salvage any kind of massive corporate undertaking, as I'm more interested in this story out of Ann Arbor (via Shelf Awareness): Some folks are getting together to speed up the process wherein Shaman Drum Bookstore, a legend amongst independent bookstores nationwide, goes non-profit. The owner has incorporated the bookshop into the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center as he seeks non-profit status, and some profs from the University of Michigan are trying to help. Once done, the shop could, for one, offer shares or memberships to community folks to raise revenue. The owner Karl Porht has been discussing the financial struggles of the store for some time. Of this idea, he says,
"What I am interested in is what the new model for bookshops will look like. This is an opportunity to try and invent it. And it's not a lone ranger thing. This is collaborative.''

Exciting stuff! I'm interested to see what develops, as well. Going non-profit and engaging the community that fully is one way to salvage local independent stores. Good luck to Porht and company!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

And now Houghton is *NOT* for sale: A retraction!

The wind changed direction again!

Galleycat reports that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is no longer for sale, citing Jeffrey Tracktenberg's article in the WSJ. (May be subscription only.)

"We received an unsolicited offer for the business late last year, so we hired advisers and studied various options, including joint-venturing with a larger trade publisher," said Barry O'Callaghan, chairman and CEO of Education Media [owners of HMH]. "What we concluded was that the offers we've received were less than what the business was worth in terms of long-term value and long-term profitability."

So much for that. So now what will Strothman et al buy? And who was that independent publishing house?

And most worrisome, will Education Media let this incredible resource wither on the vine?

Houghton on the Block!

I know we've all talked about the dire state of things with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the last few months, but the idea of them finding a buyer was speculation. Suddenly today, it all seems more realistic.

Publishers Weekly reports that a sale is "steadily moving forward." Hold onto your hat, employees!
[T]here are four serious bidders for the group, including Hachette--widely thought to have been the early favorite--Random House, a group led by a former HMH xecutive Wendy Strothman who has the backing of private equity firm, and a independent publishing house.

I'm on the edge of my seat!

Wendy Strothman is a bit of a shock. She is currently an agent here in Boston, formerly the Executive VP and publisher over at Houghton and former to that, Director of independent publisher Beacon Press (also here in Boston). She's a publishing veteran, to be sure, and has a reputation as being tough as nails. She has been openly cross about Houghton's recent struggles, telling the Boston Globe's David Mehegan:
"I think it's heartbreaking that decisions made by a series of corporate owners are decimating two venerable publishers. It was their hubris in taking on so much debt when anyone could see that the economy was weakening. The editing and marketing operations pursued quality, and were creative. It's not about the books; it's about the gross mismanagement of the owners."

This is a fair point. HMH's backlist, enhanced even more when they acquired Harcourt, is an incredible asset being wasted as corporate buyers seek out fast and big profit, with no literary taste whatsoever. This is not true of these buyers - that much can be said. And that includes Strothman.

But predictably, I'm most curious about the mysterious "independent publishing house" mentioned in this list of potential new owners. Who could it be?! Any guesses?

Grove Atlantic? That's my only thought now, but I'd love to hear suggestions or, ya know, gossip.

The other big question is what this could mean for publishing in Boston. In Mehegan's more recent piece on Houghton in the Globe, referenced by Christopher on this blog, Mehegan considers this very question: "Although it's unlikely that Houghton would disappear, default on its debt could mean a fire-sale breakup and a new owner or owners who could move all or parts of it from Boston." Notice that article, in Boston's hometown newspaper, generated 47 comments. It's been hopelessly mismanaged by people with no sense of the real value of its backlist. Now as the sale is pending, we Boston folks have reason to worry about losing this once great publishing institution.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

And So the Classics will Tweet

I knew it. I just knew it would happen.

First, we had Orwell's diaries turned into a blog - an idea I have not opposed. But I don't know about this new one, as reported over at MobyLives. It's something I predicted, but I'm certainly not ready to celebrate.

It's Shakespeare on Twitter. And yes, part of me is thinking, "oh, the horror..." I may not be a classics guy, but I do love Shakespeare. I admit it. And I know Christopher's a fan as one spring, possibly around the time he helped me on one of my many apartment moves, he told me that he had designed and was taking his very own course in the Great Bard of Stratford.

Anyhow, this twitter project, from Amway Shakespeare Opportunity, it's Twitter of the Shrew:
Spanning 19 Twitter accounts and presented over 12 days (one scene per day), “Twitter of the Shrew” attempts to live up to Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul
of wit” proverb, by condensing the play’s iambic pentameter dialogue down to updates of 140 characters or less.

Do with this what you want, people, I think I have to sit it out. It sounds too tedious to bear.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Getting In on the Action

I'm often interested to see the opinion of Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large for PublicAffairs, executive director of the Caravan Project, and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, where he has posted a number of articles on publishing and journalism. He is a smart man, obviously, and is invested in the idea of books and authors and good writing surviving well into the future.

So this relatively brief article about Osnos by John Mutter from today's Shelf Awareness caught my eye. (Scroll down as needed to find "Conversation with Peter Osnos.") The article focuses on how Osnos envisions the future of books and e-books. He doesn't make any huge declarations but raises points that are very much needed as this conversation moves forward with such rapid speed, propelled too often by base market interests. (Again I'm eyeing YOU, Jeff Bezos!) He puts the optimistic spin on this e-revolution, indicating how much promise it holds for the broken production system currently in place at book publishers: "We publishers print 10 copies of a book to sell six," Osnos said. In a new world, "If we print 10 to sell eight, two of which are digital, that would change the economics of our business." But he also mentions concerns about independent booksellers not getting in on the action:

Osnos envisions a bricks-and-mortar bookstore that will allow customers to buy books any way they want them, whether--once again--it's the traditional book, a
POD version, an e-book or audio. In this kind of bookstore, booksellers won't turn some customers away or tell them to come back to pick up a book later.
I'm all for this, but Osnos' own Caravan Project was supposed to help indie bookstores do this, and it didn't really work out that way:

Ultimately traditional booksellers were not as involved in the Caravan Project as expected. "The availability of the Caravan Project books is significant and being sold but not generally through traditional bricks-and-mortar stores," Osnos said. "A lot more e-books are being sold through newer, digitally based retailers than bricks-and-mortar stores."
Perhaps he blames the booksellers themselves for not signing on and investing in the technology needed to make the Caravan books available. I don't know. But I'm not sure we have yet to see how an indie bookstore can compete with Amazon when Amazon controls the copyright to the Kindle technology. Amazon is forcing indies to sign on to their agenda in order to get in on the deal, and that's a dangerous proposition - not to mention cruel, as these bookstores have lost so much business already to Amazon. (Kudos, btw, to the Harvard Book Store, which put a print of the famous New Yorker cover up right over the new books section!)

For those, like SoTB's own Christopher, who are standing resolutely with their back to this new technology, take some comfort in Citizen Reader's post in praise of books. She declares outright, "I love reading...but I love reading books more."

Monday, March 09, 2009

As usual, I have vision while everyone else is wearing bifocals...

Turns out, Sven Birkets is on my side about the new Kindle*. Read all about here.

* = more or less but he sounds better explaining why. *Sigh*

Friday, March 06, 2009

You don't have to digitize if you don't wanna

I know in today's manic culture, one must have a strong opinion and loud voice to be heard over the cacophony, but I'm afraid I'm a bit middle-of-the-road, a not-too-much, not-too-little kinda guy. Perhaps I just loved the Berenstain Bears' version of Goldilocks too much as a child - that was my favorite. (And now this site shows me that these books are soooooooo moralistic and didactic and obvious. Were they always?)

Let me get this back to the point at hand.

Over at the Abbeville Press blog, they have an interesting discussion that starts with the premise mentioned in a few places they quote, that books to e-books are like radio to television, and they then take apart this analogy as somewhat inaccurate. The blogger's point - whoever the blogger might be at Abbeville Press - is that what some people are seeing as e-books, as the future of publishing, sounds remarkably like... a website! This is very obvious, but very true.
The more links, videos, audio commentary, and so forth (we’re resisting the curmudgeonly phrase “bells and whistles”) a book accumulates, the more it ceases to be a book at all and begins to resemble, in fact, a website. At most it becomes a hybrid medium in which any and all methods of storytelling or imparting information—video, audio, photography, text—are combined, with text (generally) privileged and the whole package conceived as more unified and circumscribed than the average website.

They are not saying it's a bad thing, but it's different from a book, a whole different animal. I thought of Frontline - a great PBS show that has extensive information for each program online. The website does not take the place of the show entirely, though some may use the website without necessarily watching the program.

Not all bells and whistles are all that great, for one, or at least they are not objectively useful and considered value-added. I for one have found videos posted to newspaper sites like the New York Times fairly pointless. I also find author-created videos in support of new books, especially fiction, entirely useless. Many folks sing their praises - google "book trailers" and watch all the companies telling you what a great "marketing tool" they are - but I just don't get the point. So to me, there is a danger of publishers becoming over-enthusiastic in their attempts to add extras to books, with links and additional information. I don't want to buy a book and have it become like that kid in school whom you invite over and he tries every joke and trick to impress you. That's so awkward and embarrassing, and I don't like that kid.

Abbeville Press has it right, though:
Our industry seems increasingly to feel embarrassed about traditional books, as though they were stodgy and outmoded and better disguised as newer, more popular media... while the e-book presents formal possibilities that are well worth exploring, not every e-book has to reinvent the wheel—and not every publisher should scramble to produce the kind that do, or even to produce e-books at all. Right now it’s at least as important for publishers to recognize what writing and illustration can do that other media cannot; to cultivate excellence in those areas; and to share that excellence with readers as part of a marketing strategy based not on insecurity but legitimate pride.

Not too much, not too little... There is a middle ground here, and we can expect a lot of shoddy products to emerge as everyone races to reach the future, so perhaps some indies should cool their heels and let great writers write great books that sit on shelves for now, separate from a website that has links and videos and extra information. In our rush to network everything at once, perhaps we should remember the value in a singular book, with a beginning, middle, and end, sitting alone with a single reader at one moment in time.

But once again, e-books are going forth and exciting things are happening in the digital world, and some of us at SoTB are intrigued by this buzzing future. Let's keep old-fashioned books safe even as we, as Abbeville Press discusses, look at this different creature, the e-book. This world moved forward this week with news that Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise, a formerly independent e-retailer. Just like Amazon hogging the innovation on the device end, I hope we don't see B&N hog up the retail side - I suppose with Amazon, as they have the device and the data to put on it.

As the e-book world develops, some of us better put our heads together to specifically address how independent business can survive when these corporations have patents and so much of the market already. Is there a symposium or something planned, I wonder, through the American Booksellers Association or the Independent Book Publishers Association? I'd be curious to know. We need to harness the potential all this technology offers and not have it create endless mush in the hands of those looking only at profit. Let's take control of the future of books and reading!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Creaking Forward

It's an exciting time to be writing about the future of publishing, that's for sure. Some people are trying to race to some non-existent finish line, while others are sitting out of the race and sticking their tongue out. And no, of course I am not referring to my partner in crime here at SoTB, Christopher, who won't won't WON'T use a Kindle - you can't make him!

Anyhow, I meant to post yesterday about Cory Doctorow's article in Locus Magazine on the value of a publisher's sales force. Doctorow is of course most known for his manic blog, Boing Boing, which I don't have the energy for. It's just too much content for me, I'm afraid, but there's no doubt that it has clever writing and useful links and interesting news. All of it, all the time, constantly humming. But I digress.

Doctorow makes the point that an author is only as good as her or his sales force, the women and men going out and selling the book into bookstores, getting it onto shelves:
That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs.

Now it's surprising to see Doctorow get all Mad Men on us here, painting this dreamy picture of ol' Willy Loman knockin' on doors, charming the ladies and glad-handing the mens, but in the article, he goes on to talk up all the ways we have seen the process of publishing a book get splintered through outsourcing. Big publishers have become as lean as possible, sending all the pieces of the process out to freelancers, but then Doctorow gets to the point:

Here, then, is the major challenge and opportunity of networked, author-driven, revolutionary publishing for this century: how do you turn the Internet into a machine for introducing books to physical, real-world stores? How do you use the Internet to introduce books to online stores that don't specialize in books, like ThinkGeek?

Here is someone who has been on the vanguard of the information age for awhile who is revealing the limitations of the internet. It can get people talking, but can it ultimately get enough people buying?

I'm pretty fascinated by this taking apart of the machine, examining each piece to see if we're getting maximum efficiency. Doctorow dispels the myth of some "techno-utopians" who think anyone can now publish a book and get it to readers and we don't need The Man anymore! Goodbye big publishers! It isn't that simple. The true, sustainable value, in my mind, is in smaller operations, independent presses that can be nimble and creative, with real work horses powering them forward, dedicated to a good product (editing and design) and impassioned enough to generate attention (publicity and marketing). As Doctorow points out, such a press can establish enough of a presence to get into bookstores and non-traditional venues, with a catalog of books. The internet can allow things to splinter but if it becomes every man for himself, venues for selling books, whatever they may be, are going to get discouraged from selling and move on.

And for a future talking point very soon: Shelf Awareness reported on this announcement from publisher Thomas Nelson: "Under the NelsonFree program, anyone who buys the traditional book will have free access online to a downloadable audio version of the book and downloadable e-book files of the book, including EPub, MobiPocket and PDF." This of course is similar to records coming with free downloads - a set-up I really appreciate. Shelf Awareness has responses to this idea in today's installment. My initial response is interest, my very quick second response is Thomas Nelson?! No no no no no no no. Can someone cool do this please? Because they're kind of lame - Bible publishers who also do inspirational titles from celebrities. Yeck.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I Don’t Want a Kindle.

I Don’t Want a Kindle.

It has taken me a little while to come to that point. I am not some crazy pencil-waving technophobe like Wendell Berry but I just can’t see the purpose of an electronic reader. There, I’ve written it. For a while I have pretended to be interested in electronic reading devices but that was all it was: pretend. I don’t care about the features. I don’t care about how easy they are to read-even in direct sunlight. Lemme see if I can explain without sounding like a luddite.

For all of my reading life I have had a love affair with my books. Sometimes it was a simplistic love-like I bought something only because I loved the cover image. Other times it could be obsessive like the time I bought all of the new editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels cuz the new editions were sooooo cool. There have been some love affairs with specific books that I can’t rightly explain. I own a first edition of Klaus Kinski’s All I Need Is Love which has made every move with me from home to home I have done as an adult. While I pack my stuff I always know where my copy is. I still consider it the greatest mistake Random House ever made because I am sure they didn’t read it before putting it between boards. His narrative can be downright scandalous. In fact, when Kinski died I put his obituary in that book just for closure. I have my great secret love hidden away: a first edition of J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book I scored while in charge of the Children’s department at the Harvard Book Store back in the day. I didn’t think anything of it at the time I just needed something to give to parents who were coming in pleading for “something, anything, my 11 year old son will read.” I never looked up the value of it until just recently (holy moly!).

So, books have been my friends. These physical objects have meant more to me than almost any possessions I have ever owned…except my baseball glove (heck even I’m not that much of a nerd). I have used a copy of the complete Lord of the Rings saga as a pillow to fall asleep in a cemetery on a summer day. I ate two pages out of a book once to see if I could do it without getting sick. (Really.) I have always wanted to hollow out a book as a “secret spot” on my bookshelf to hide stuff but could never bring myself to do it-it would seem so much like murder. Wallpaper made out of a book-let’s say a classic French cook book-decorating a welcoming kitchen always made me jealous of the homeowner and more interested in cook books than I would ordinarily be. Before I was married, heck even now, I used to stay up later than I should organizing my books by size, shape, color, subject, read/not read, etc…you get the idea.

All of this is, of course, prelude to the real reason for love affair with books: the reading and the gaining of knowledge. I have read thousands of books in my short life. I was lucky enough to get a job at my hometown’s used bookstore the very afternoon I finished my last day of high school. It was I job I held for nearly 9 years before I moved to Cambridge (where I got another job in a bookstore). The used store allowed for plenty of reading and purchasing of books. Everything was cheap and, as the second in command of the shop, I got first pick of damn near all the titles before they went out on the floor. Hell, I have six B. Traven novels in individual volumes…that is quite an accomplishment, I’d say. Once the work was done for the day, there was always time to read and get paid for it (sorry, Larry). In Cambridge I worked at two independent bookstores for several years and once I got tired of the retail end of things, I went into publishing where I am today. So when I write that books have been my life, you know I am not just blowing smoke.

With the Kindle I just don’t feel that it does enough to convince me to replace the good, old book. My problems with it are manifested in one simple way: I believe that the book isn't obsolete. It just isn’t. Not yet. Let’s look at a few of the Kindle virtues (from the Amazon website):

Slim: Just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines.

True, that has a book beaten. Even if I were going to read The Kindly Ones (which I’m not), it does weigh in at nearly 3lbs and 2 1/2 inches thick. Ugh.

Lightweight: At 10.2 ounces, lighter than a typical paperback.

See answer above.

Wireless: 3G wireless lets you download books right from your Kindle, anytime, anywhere; no monthly fees, service plans, or hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots.

Books, as far as I know, are not 3G wireless ready. Score one more for Kindle.

Books in Under 60 Seconds: Get books delivered in less than 60 seconds; no PC required.

Okay, that is kinda cool too. 4-0, Kindle.

Improved Display: Reads like real paper; now boasts 16 shades of gray for clear text and even crisper images.

Ah ha! Well, there is no reason for books to “read like real paper” because they are real paper. I don’t need shades of gray; I just need to have a light source. Black print on a white page works just fine. Yes, 4-1, Kindle.

Longer Battery Life: 25% longer battery life; read for days without recharging

Uh oh…now it’s coming on. Are there two scarier words in the English language than “battery life?” Books clean up here as you can read one anywhere, anytime. No batteries needed. Evah. I say. 4-2.

Faster Page Turns: 20% faster page turns.

I don’t even know what to do with this one. Who cares? This feature reminds me of the “wide-mouth” can phenomena. Was anyone having trouble drinking from a can with the old standard mouth? Maybe it matters when you are reading a screen but faster isn’t supposed to ever be part of the reading experience, is it? Kindle barely hanging on at 4-3.

Read-to-Me: With the new text-to-speech feature, Kindle can read every newspaper, magazine, blog, and book out loud to you, unless the book is disabled by the rights holder.

Um, ok. Weird, but ok. As I understand it, the voice sounds like a robot if you were pretending to read this like a robot. Seriously. All tied up at 4-4.

Large Selection: Over 240,000 books plus U.S. and international newspapers, magazines, and blogs available.

This one really rings hollow. True that you could buy any of 240, 000 books but if’n I stop into a good used store I can find hundreds of books I need for cheap (see below-9.99? You must be crazy). Sometimes as low as $1 (yes, I’m looking at you Joyce’s-Selected-Letters-I-found-at-the-Brattle-Bookshop-this-past-summer. Holla). If I want to buy something I can’t find, the library system in this country has access to over 15 million books from sea to shining sea. Books lead, 5-4!

Low Book Prices: New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise.

Ugh. See above. I guess it is cool that they are cheaper than actual books but $9.99 isn’t exactly free now is it? Call it a draw because $9.99 per book is cheaper than new but still a helluva lot more than used. So, 5-4-1.

More Storage: Take your library with you; holds over 1,500 books.

This feature, which is much higher up on Amazon’s list was moved down because I have never, ever understood this selling point. I get it, 1,500 books all in one place. So what? Last time I checked you could only read one book at a time. Period. End of discussion. If you are close to the end of a book and don’t want to carry two with you here’s a tip: finish the first and then start the second…or if you finish the other book and don’t have another to start RIGHT AWAY, how about sitting quietly and thinking about what you have just read? You know, digest it? This isn’t the new Britney Spears song, ok, there is more to it than that.

In the final analysis it is about personal choice. I know this note seems a lot like sticking my finger in the crack in a dam…the Kindle is here to stay and sooner or later the book will go. I know this…. I just don’t need to like it. I am sure I could have come up with much more substantive reasons like Mr. Berry did about why he isn't buying a computer, but I don't have any substantive reasons that can't be refuted. I just know that "to believe your own thought, to believe what is true for me in my private heart, is true for all men..." I read that somewhere...in a book.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I found a sunny take!

I wanted to pass along this link to literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog, wherein he discusses why he's excited about where publishing is headed. He does a nice job laying out the landscape, but it may be a tad simplistic. He envisions a time when,
anyone will be able to publish their book, and there will be no distribution barrier. The same eBook stores that stock Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown will stock, well, you. Readers will be the ones who decide what becomes popular. There will be no intermediary. It will be just as easy to buy a book by you as it will be to buy the HARRY POTTER of the future. Your book will be just a few keystrokes away from everyone with an internet connection (and their tablet / eReader / iPhone / gizmo / whatchamacallit of the future).
But he doesn't really say how the independent bookstores are going to survive, or if they will survive. That's no good to me. I don't want to rely on the web, and especially just one website, for all my "book" needs, digital or otherwise, in the future. I would ask that we go back to the drawing board and get a bit more creative. Though I should be fair and say that Bransford is purposely being simple, as this very popular blog is most read (I believe) by aspiring writers, so it was not his responsibility to lay out the future in great detail. (I say popular because he gets so many comments to his posts!)

I also like how he explains the way he as an agent will survive, along with big publishers and smaller presses. Unfortunately, he never gets around to the independent bookstores.

I found his understanding of how an agent's role will change most interesting - and fairly obvious, though I hadn't given it thought:
If anything things are getting more complicated, and authors will still need agents to navigate the business and negotiate with the Amazons and Sonys and Apples and whoever else rises up in the future. There will still be subrights to negotiate and distribution deals and all sorts of challenges that authors will be hardpressed to face on their own.

Of course he's right. It's a big task but a necessary one, and somehow it pleases me to know that agents will still be in the writer's corner, going to bat for her or him regarding these emerging rights.

So a bit of optimism for you on this day-after-snow-day, work day. And I'm quite proud of myself: I managed to write this whole post without mentioning former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's book deal. D'oh!

Oh, but I did want to update the story I reported on a couple of weeks ago, regarding McGraw-Hill cancelling Barry Ritholz's book Bailout Nation: How Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy, a book critical of Standard & Poor's, which it owns. It seems Wiley will snap it up. Smart thinking!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Taking a page from Radiohead.

I have been telling my clients (as well as prospective clients) that is was only a matter of time before a major publisher tried to do with a book what Radiohead did a few years ago with their record In Rainbows. It was a simple experiment: Radiohead, super duper indie rockers, allowed you to pay whatever you as the consumer felt their music was worth. If you wanted to pay 20 bucks, cool...if you prefered to drop a dime on them-literally, ahem-that was cool too. Once you paid-or didn't, cheap bastard, Brian-they sent you a unique link which allowed you to download the album. As an incentive they were also selling a special edition of the record for a set price (much like the standard retail arrangement you experience in a store like Newbury Comics.) Was it a success, you axe me? Hell, yeah...smashing as they say in the UK:
A year after the album’s release, the band’s publicist announced that “In Rainbows” has sold 3 million copies, including downloads from radiohead.com, and sales of digital albums from other retailers, CDs and a box set. The sales from the band’s Web site alone exceeded the total sales for the band’s previous album, “Hail to the Thief,” released by largely conventional means through a major label in 2003. At the time, the album was available legally in essentially only one format: a compact disc...When physical copies of the album were finally made available three months after the digital release, “In Rainbows” debuted atop both the U.S. and U.K. pop charts. (This follow up on the Radiohead experiment here was done by Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot. All thanks to him for doing the research.)
Um, ok...that would be considered a success in music sales. What about the publisher trying it in the book world? The Guardian in England is reporting that Faber & Faber will allow customers to pay what they would like to obtain a copy of Ben Wilson's new book, What Price Liberty? Now, I hope this works. I love me some "pay what you think something is worth" but I am worried that this might not work well enough to convince others to try it.
Wilson's examination of the value and meaning of liberty will be available to download on 27 April, six weeks before it is published on paper at £14.99 (about $21.00), with readers given the freedom to set their own price, or even download it for free.
Have you ever heard of Ben Wilson? Right. Me neither. Now that doesn't mean anything...he could be an extremely important writer and/or well published in the UK and world. Buuuuut...he doesn't exactly have the profile of Radiohead. Radiohead was able to attract a considerable amount of attention from non-fans as well as rabid fans because of the novelty the sale and the forward thinking marketing strategy of "pay what you think it's worth. It's up to you." This is a fact that even Mr. Wilson understands:
It's a strategy Wilson, whose two previous books were published conventionally by Faber as hardbacks, admits is "a gamble". When he first heard about the "frightening idea of giving the book away", his reaction was surprise. "I've published before," he explains, "and you have that excitement of a book in physical form, so that's what you expect". But after a while "it clicked together so well with what I wanted to do with the book – the campaigning edge – that it made a lot of sense."
I really, really want this to work but I think they might have needed an author with a more famous name. Sad, but true. Radiohead worked because they are freakin' Radiohead. Everyone who cares about modern rock 'n' roll knows who they are (even if one doesn't like them). Yes, Mr. Wilson was named by Waterstone's as "one of 25 authors for the new century." Let's hope. I will be purchasing a copy of his book because I want this experiment to succeed. If it doesn't I worry that the same old model of publishing that has dominated the business for decades will continue while feeling empowered that what works for music doesn't have a chance of working in books. The problem with the old model is that is we end up with two million dollar advances for books by Kathy Griffin.

Still, I am excited...I think this might be how books survive. "We also think we'll learn a lot about the thirst for books in digital form," said Faber marketing executive Silvia Novak. For his part, Mr. Wilson seems to have his head screwed on correctly. He knows that "ideas are always judged in the same way, whether someone's paid £14.99 or a penny." "Any way you can get those ideas out there, the better." Agreed.

Oh, and for the record, I paid Radiohead 12.99 for In Rainbows.

Because Classy is Always in Vogue

My other idea from the title of this post came from Antony Hegarty at a recent Antony & the Johnsons show, something he said after covering Beyonce's "Crazy Right Now": "You can't beat perfection, but you can sidle up next to it." Somehow this line fit this news pretty well.

The news comes from Mediabistro's Galleycat blog, which reports that madam Kristin Davis, who once hosted some of the best and brightest at her New York City whorehouse, including (allegedly) ex-governor Eliot Spitzer, is selling her new "book" as an e-book online, with a self-publisher called Hollan Publishing, selling it for a mere $9.99. What a steal! Rather than wait around for a traditional publisher to, ya know, developmentally edit, stylistically edit, proofread, and design the book and come up with a publicity and marketing plan, Madam Davis has a book right away to sell. Her agent, Lori Perkins, arranged this:
"I told her I didn't think it would sell as a typical book," Perkins told us of her first meeting with Davis. "It'd take 18 months just to get published."

Smart gal. Even smarter, from this same post:
(Perkins added that she's also selling rights to a different paperback edition, which would include exclusive material from Davis's prison diaries.)

The positive spin, which I've been trying to add to stories these days (despite inevitable dour responses from Christopher - see previous post) is that maybe this kind of trash will get siphoned off by e-publishing, which can find readers interested in this crap more directly. Having said that, however, the point of the Galleycat post is that this "book" will be accompanied, unlike most e-books, with much media fanfare - Geraldo and Judith Regan unsurprisingly lined up to chat with the madam. But really, I don't turn to these two for interesting and upstanding news, so let 'em take the bait. Without a physical book, the media should be flash-in-the-pan and then out of sight, out of mind, without any real evidence left behind, and we can all move on with our lives, right?

Unless Perkins sells that other Davis project she has in mind...

It's all about the Event!

We've all been talking about the ways in which the internet can actually bring more literature to more people, if we expand our ideas about how people consume literature. People will still read Emerson, but it might be in a grocery line rather than a library. But for contemporary writers, this raises the question of how they can disseminate their work in a way that makes them money. Of course, this goes hand in hand with all the discussion - on Shelf Awareness, on Harper Studio's 26th Story - with pricing for e-books. (Shelf Awareness had the best, most democratic discussion on the issue and I'd strongly recommend a read through bookseller and rep and other folks' comments.)

But let's factor in this Stephen Adams' article in the UK Telegraph (please please stop making me link to this paper!). It seems more people are reading poetry than ever due to additional e-venues for it: "Rather than killing it off, modern technologies like email, social networking sites such as Facebook and online media players are helping poets reach new audiences." It seems the internet gets the poetry out there and the poets are seeing increased numbers at their readings.

Such a trend suggests we could go back to ye olde days when folks like Oscar Wilde made a mint doing lecture tours. Advances can come down, royalties can go up (the Harper Studio model), and authors can hit the road and charge some $$ for events. Of course plenty of writers do this already - here in the Boston area, writers often charge a few for readings at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge or the Coolidge Corner theatre in Brookline, often in association with the Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith, both fantastic independents, respectively.

I just want to mention this as another piece of the revenue puzzle that certainly makes me more open to the idea of getting things digitally - again, as long as someone, somewhere still prints books once in awhile. The upshot to this poetry trend is this point made in the article:
And rather than making poetry pamphlets "obsolete", Mr Price said the internet had provided "a limitless shop window for a new generation of small presses and micro-publishers".

(That's Richard Price, a published poet and head of modern collections at the British Library.)

So again, I'm all for anything that makes more room for independent presses. The question of course is how to couch the speaking engagements in such a way that they generate revenue, that people want to pay for them, and I'm again brought back to Richard Nash's point about publishers needing to reach niches more fully, to accept the fact that only 200 people might read that (digital) book and instead take advantage of their high level of interest. If you have people excited about being part of a community, in the way we see most visibly with fans at Comic Con or the way we once saw, and maybe still do, with Trekkies, then they will pay to share the experience that they've enjoyed online with other people in the flesh.

This is all part of re-organizing ourselves as publishing folks around new ways of reading, but a new system is falling into place, led by readers and innovators. As long as we navigate carefully and don't demand too much of the pie - I'm giving the stink on to you, Bezos - then we may just come out with a pretty damned good system!