The 600-Pound Gorilla in the Publishing Industry

When it comes to small presses today, there is a 600-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room, and everyone is trying to ignore it. They point to the pretty pictures on the wall and to the bright new books on the shelves, but there the gorilla sits, filling the place with its heavy breathing and strong animal scent.

What is this gorilla? POD. Print-on-demand. A technology for printing a single book at a time in a matter of minutes. Because of this new printing process, small presses with vision and little capital are able to publish good books that otherwise would never reach a readership. Just a few years ago, a small press would only be able to publish a book or two. They would have to print a thousand or five thousand copies and hope to break even somehow. And of course, they would have to find a place to store them. Now, with new technologies, they can publish many books and have them printed up as needed.

Traditional publishers who still print books the old way — in offset print runs of 5,000 or 20,000 for debut authors — have no advantage over the new presses, except, of course, when it comes to promotion and publicity. They can reach vast numbers of readers. Still, in the end, 25% of all books published this way end up as pulp, so it makes one wonder if they really know what they are doing. The publisher will save a few copies of each, of course, because that way they can keep the rights to the book indefinitely, even after they stop promoting it.

To me, print-on-demand is something to be embraced, not ignored. Small presses should brag that they print as demand requires. As long as the publisher and author agree, the book can be available to the public indefinitely, with no exorbitant upfront printing costs, no storage costs, no unsold books to be pulped.

If one mentions book burning, people get indignant. Books are sacred! One cannot burn books! But who besides me (and the traditional publishers’ accountants) cares about the books that are pulped? No one — it’s an acceptable part of the business, though it shouldn’t be. It’s wasteful and shameful. So you’d think small presses would brag about printing on demand. Instead, they try to hide it.

And there sits the 600-pound gorilla. You can ignore it, but you can’t hide it. The size of the book — trade paperback — is one giveaway. The cost is another. A POD book is more expensive than a traditional paperback (though not much more expensive than other trade paperbacks). That it’s not available in most bookstores is another tell.

A POD book is special — perhaps a book that only a few thousand would love, perhaps a regional story that no one in New York cares about, perhaps a book whose time has not yet come. And every single one of them has been filtered through the publisher’s submissions department, and every single one of them has been accepted on its merits. They are chosen.

Print books are not going to disappear any time soon, but how they are printed will change. POD will become the norm rather than the exception — it’s a much better way to conduct business.

So why the reluctance to admit small presses are POD? Because of the other POD — publish on demand. These POD people will publish anything — for a price. (Some POD companies and vanity presses are owned by the major publishers. A nice scam. But a lucrative one. Why not prey on the millions of authors who want to be published at any cost?) Since I don’t want to incur the wrath of all the self-published authors out there who are doing a good job, I’m going to stop here.

Except to say one more thing.

If one cannot hide the gorilla, change its name.

Since there are two distinct meanings to POD, I suggest calling publish-on-demand PLOD and print-on-demand PROD. That way no one will ever get them confused.

(March is Small Press Month. So, this month, let us pay tribute to all the PROD publishers out there.)

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A New Era in Publishing

When I was studying the publishing industry, trying to figure out how to get published, one thing bothered me. There you are, a debut author, and because the publisher does not promote you — spending their promotion dollars instead on the big names — your books sit on bookstore shelves or in warehouses until finally the publisher gives up on you and remainders your book. That is the best scenario, because if it is remaindered, at least it will still be available for a time. Generally what happens is that it is pulped. 25% of a publisher’s total output (including your beloved book) is destroyed. This after shipping costs incurred to and from the publisher’s warehouse.

My books, More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire are being published by Second Wind Publishing, a so-called POD publisher, and because of it, I do not have to fear my novels succumbing to such a fate. Nor do I have to fear an inadvertent error showing up in thousands of volumes. As soon as an error is found, it can be corrected. Because of POD technology, there is no reason to destroy unsold merchandise. There is no reason to stop publishing a novel because it does not live up to the bottom-line demands of the traditional publishing houses.

Small presses today are where independent movie producers were in the late eighties and early nineties. They have the ability to publish books that need time to reach an audience, books that might not appeal to the masses but could still be loved by many (and turn a tidy profit in the process.)

Though POD still has the taint of vanity press, my books did go through a submission process, and I like knowing I was chosen. I like having a say in the editing, the cover choice, the arduous copy-editing. I even like promotion — what I’ve done of it, anyway.

So, new era in publishing? Good for us all. And I am pleased to be a part of it.

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McBooks

The book business is a very thin slice of the entertainment pie graph, but it is still big business. Moreover, it is a business steeped in tradition and antiquated business practices. There is a chance that the recent upheavals “just happened” because of the economy, the high price of hardback books, the younger generation (and even older ones) not as interested in reading. It could also be due to more people buying used books or patronizing libraries.

But I don’t believe it.

I tend to see purpose behind seemingly unpurposeful events. I don’t necessarily think that those at the top of the publishing food chain created this so-called crisis, but I do think they are taking advantage of it; they would be foolish not to.

Innovative technologies, such as the much-maligned print-on-demand (POD) publishing, put the big guys at a disadvantage. True, for now, POD-produced books are more expensive than those printed by major publishers, but that is because the machines are new, very expensive, and in the hands of only a few.

What will happen when these machines become cheap enough that every bookstore owner can buy one? A customer will be able to walk into a bookstore, browse through a catalog or display copies of books, make their choice, and in fifteen minutes the bookseller will hand them their purchase, hot off the press.

For the bookseller, this will mean a cleaner, more profitable shop. As it stands now, 85% of books in a typical bookstore sell less than two copies. It also means less time packing up books for return, less inventory costs, and the ability to offer an unlimited selection.

For the big publishers, it will mean no more costly print runs, no more warehousing overstock, no more returned books, no more shipping costs, no more having to destroy 25% of their product as they now do.

It’s entirely possible that as the technology becomes even more advanced, there will be book vending machines — customers make their choice, the machine prints and binds your books, and there it is. Who knows, there could even come a day when you order a cheeseburger, fries, and shake for lunch, and at the same drive-up window, order a book by Pat Bertram to read while you are eating.

Many people see print books as obsolete, taken over by e-publishing, and that is definitely a possibility, but I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Many readers like the feel and smell of books; other readers, especially older ones or those with failing eyesight, need the print format.

What I do know is that heads of major corporations are not stupid. Why would they put up with the ridiculous expenses of traditional publishing ways if they don’t have to? And with new technologies (some of which, I’m sure, we have yet to hear about) they won’t have to.

The end of the book business? No.

The end of the book business as we know it? Without a doubt.

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Feeling Like a Guest on My Own Blog

I’m starting to feel like a guest here on my own blog. I’m getting so many visitors to my “guest event” on the future of books, that I spend my allotted blog time wandering from one “referrer” link to another to see where everyone is coming from, and I never get around to posting my own work. If I’m not careful, I’ll forget the reason I started writing this blog: me. A month ago I decided I would stop inviting guest bloggers and reclaim my blog, but that resolution died even before the new year began. It’s just too much fun finding new voices (and established voices) to come guest, and for me, that’s the real purpose of this blog: fun. As addicted to the Internet as I’m getting — or as seduced by it — I still find this blog to be the most enjoyable online activity. I like saying what I want and just throwing it out there. Sometimes people agree, sometimes they don’t, but I’ve met some of my best blog buddies (bet you can’t say that three times!) because of discussions resulting from this disagreement.

So, here I am with a blank slate, and nothing to say. Actually, the problem is that I have too much to say, and it won’t all fit in a single bloggery. I want to talk about how amazing it is that writers such as Suzanne Francis, author of the Heart of Hythea books can make up such wonderful-sounding words and worlds. When I needed a name for my disease in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the most exotic one I could come up with was . . . ta da! . . . The Red Death. It fits (people get red eyes and vomit bright red blood) and it’s probably what it would have been called if such a disease really had decimated Colorado. (And that is the correct use of the term decimated — about a tenth of the residents of Colorado end up dead.) But it isn’t a clever, made-up word.

Another thing I would like to talk about is the incredible journey a novel takes from that first glimmer of an idea to a book in the hands of a reader. Each step is a big one: the first word, the first chapter, the first draft. You think you are unique because there is a good chance you are the only person you know who writes.  And then you start querying, and find out you are one among millions, and no one cares. Finally, you find someone to publish your opus (or you decide to self-publish) and have you entered the rarefied atmosphere of the few? No. For some reason, once you start promoting your work, everyone you encounter is also promoting a work. So who buys these books? Someone, I hope, because eventually the delays will be over, and my books will be available.

Another thing I would like to talk about is . . . oops, my allotted blog time is up. I’ll get back to you tomorrow. Unless I have another guest blogger.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the third in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down.  Part two looked at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less uselful. Part three is kind of an “Empire Strikes Back” section.  It looks at how publishers might react to the new environment.  I’m not necessarily advocating these solutions.  I’m saying that companies or individuals may go these routes. 

Publishers could try to restrict the number of books published by raising the cost of entry.  In a lot of industries companies have prospered by making it difficult for competitors to enter the market.  That can be done a variety of ways.  Companies can raise the cost of marketing by launching expensive ad campaigns that only companies with a lot of cash can match.  They can get patents on key parts of a production process.  They can use economies of scale to reduce their costs far below their competitors’ costs.  They can dominate shelf space and exclude their competitors. 

All of those techniques other than maybe patents have been used to some extent in the book market.  None of them are likely to stop the proliferation of small print on demand or e-book publishers or the increase in self-publishing.  Expensive marketing campaigns can drive sales of some books up.  Publishers can’t afford to do those kinds of campaigns for all of their books though.  Lesser known authors with smaller sales potential can’t justify large ad budgets, and they are the ones most at risk from competition with small POD or e-book companies.  Economies of scale do make the cost of production lower for traditional large publishers as opposed to POD publishers but their return policies and the need to maintain inventories eat up much of the savings.  Dominating shelf space works in brick and mortar stores but is less effective at Amazon.com because there are no shelves to dominate. 

Publishers could work harder to establish themselves as reliable brands.  I rarely notice the publisher when I’m trying to decide whether or not to buy a book.  I look for favorite authors.  I look for attractive covers.  I look for exciting concepts.  I sometimes look at reviews.  I don’t recall ever buying or not buying a book based on the publisher. I may be wrong, but I think most readers are like me. 

Publishers may work to change that, marketing themselves as “name brands”-places you can rely on for high quality reading.  That’s tricky because quality in books is very much a matter of opinion.  Appealing reliably to a segment of the book buying public might not be hard, but a generalized ‘high-quality’ is more difficult.  Publishers could and probably should feature their imprint names more prominently on books and in advertising. 

Many if not most small POD and e-book publishers claim to be very selective.  Some of them may be selective, but it will take a while for those claims to be widely accepted by readers. 

I hate to say this, but publishers might also rely more on company owned pen names using a variety of ghost writers, and then promote the pen names.  That’s been done with various pulp and young adult series books from time-to-time, and publishers might extend it to areas outside of series books.  Frankly I hope that doesn’t happen.  Recognition is a large part of a writer’s compensation. 

Publishers may try to differentiate themselves by reinventing the book:  We have Web 2.0.  Why not Novels 2.0?  The idea is that the technology of publishing lets publishers do a lot of things they couldn’t do thirty years ago.  The design and layout of magazines, newsletters and textbooks have changed a great deal since the sixties.  The layout and design of novels really hasn’t.  Companies trying to differentiate themselves from the glut should be asking themselves how they can make novels more visually exciting for a generation with a short attention span, just as textbook makers and magazine editors have done.  They’ll need to do that without running up printing costs too much. 

So what would a “Novel 2.0″ look like?  I have some ideas I’m experimenting with, but I’m sure a professional design team could do better.  The key is to actually enhance the reading experience or at least not get in the way of it, while avoiding page after page of dull black on white that turns off younger generations of readers and avoiding a comic book feel that would turn off more traditional readers.  Good design could enhance the reader’s experience without drawing attention to itself. 

Going to some kind of “Novel 2.0″ design could do a kind of filtering by raising the bar for acceptable book design, making it more difficult for individuals without design experience to make a professional-looking book. 

Novels 2.0 might be easier in e-books.  An e-book doesn’t have to be a simple transfer of an existing book to electronic format.  E-book readers are just specialized computers.  That means that they can potentially do a lot of things that you can’t do on a printed page.  The current generation of e-books may not be able to do all of these things, but eventually the e-book version of a novel could have built in mood music that changes as you flip the pages (I would hate that and turn it off).  It could have a built-in audio-book version with good professional-sounding audio.  That would let you read, then simply switch to the audio version when you had to do something like running errands. 

E-books could have hyperlinks to pop-up boxes that let impatient readers find out more about a character or a town or some event that is mentioned in passing, or even pictures of characters or scenes.  For that matter they could even have small clips of video embedded in the pages at a few crucial points.  An e-book mystery novel could have clues to the mystery hidden in hyperlinks.  It could also have “Easter Eggs”-little hidden touches that could only be accessed by a special combination of buttons.  Easter Eggs are common in computer software and DVDs.  They’ll probably become popular in e-books too.  Readers might find an alternate ending that they never knew was there, deleted scenes, insights into some of the characters, backstory, or historical notes.  Some brave authors might even include earlier drafts of the novel as Easter Eggs or additional content. 

E-books could also have more color illustrations.  Adding color to a print book adds to the cost of printing.  In an e-book the only cost would be the illustrator.  E-books wouldn’t have to be restricted to black on white print color schemes.  Without the restrictions of having to be printed, pages could be as eye-catching as web-pages. 

All of these “Novel 2.0″ ideas might make it more difficult for an individual or a small publisher to create a state of the art book.  They would also raise a publisher’s costs.  Getting a state of the art novel 2.0 ready would require a person capable of creating professional-sounding audio, someone capable of making visually exciting interior page designs, probably a professional illustrator, and maybe even someone capable of making professional-looking video clips. 

From a publisher’s point of view, would standing out from the competition be worth the additional costs?  Would readers really seek out books written as Novels 2.0 rather than more traditional books?  How long would it be before little groups of would be writers, designers and illustrators found each other through the Internet and began producing their own Novels 2.0?  They might even produce Novels 2.0 before the big publishers do. 

Unless I’m missing something it doesn’t look like the old ways of filtering out “bad karaoke” writing are going to come back.  Some of the things I’ve talked about may bring back some of the filtering by “raising the bar” of talents you need to have in order to publish a state of the art novel.  Readers will still have to get used to a situation where they have more choice but they also have more junk to wade through. 

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 1)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)

—–

 Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the second in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down.  This section will look at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less useful. Part three will look at how publishers might react to reestablish their role in filtering.  

New Types of “Brand Names”: With the glut of books, readers are looking for ways of to be sure they are getting good quality reading material.  In that environment, “brand names”-names that readers have heard of-sell books, even if the names have little to do with publishing.  Celebrity is its own brand name.  Oprah’s book selections come to mind.  Fortunately or unfortunately, talk show hosts with the ability to attract readers are scarce. We probably won’t see book recommendations from say Jerry Springer.  (Shudder) 

We will probably see celebrities of other kinds acting as filters in various ways though.  Politicians like Newt Gingrich and actors like William Shatner have gotten into the book business.  Celebrity “bookshelves” or endorsements on Amazon.com and the like would sell books too, but would probably be too expensive in most cases, though actors and celebrities in certain niches might find that it’s a good way to keep their names in the public eye.  Would you be more willing to try a book from someone you’ve never heard of if it was on an Amazon bookshelf from say Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly) or one of the actors from his shows?  If you loved those shows you might, and if the quality was high, you might try others from his shelf (assuming that he had one).  Popular bloggers sometimes get into the book filtering business too, recommending books and sometimes writing their own books. 

Popular writers can act as filters too.  Authors do recommend promising new writers to agents and publishers.  They sometimes offer blurbs to promising young authors or recommend them in their blogs.  Some popular authors near the end of their careers as writers have taken to being “co-authors” with a collection of promising young authors, basically lending their name (and probably some polish) to books written mainly by the younger or lesser known author.  The popular author’s name on the book attracts readers, acting as kind of a filter while pointing fans to good new authors. 

I could see aging but still popular and intellectually active science fiction authors like Jerry Pournelle or Robert Silverberg doing virtual bookshelves of promising new science fiction on Amazon in exchange for a share of the revenue from any traffic driven to the books on their shelves. Another possibility: publishers could set up boutique brands of “X-famous author Recommends” books, letting the author act as screener and to some extent putting his status as a brand name on the line.  That might also be a way for an up and coming independent press to differentiate itself, though the cost of bringing a big name in may be prohibitive. 

Data Mining: In a world with a glut of choices in books, figuring out reader preferences and directing them to books they’ll like can be great for both authors and readers.  Amazon is often very good at this.  Their recommendations based on previous purchases can be extremely well targeted.  To some extent their data mining replaces the old bookstore owner who knew the customers tastes and could direct them to good new authors. 

From a reader’s point of view, sites like Goodreads or Shelfari can do some of the same things.  If I see a reader with ten or twenty percent of their Goodreads library in common with mine I know that there is a good chance I’ll like the other books they’re reading too.  Sites like that would be even more helpful for finding new books to read if readers could sort other readers by percentage of books in common.  Goodreads is to some extent an amplified word of mouth. 

Word of mouth/social networking: Speaking of word of mouth, it can be important as a filter too, but for some reason doesn’t seem to work as well for books as it does for movies.  Part of the problem is our diversity of tastes in books.  Social networking may amplify the role of word of mouth, but so many aspiring authors are trying to manipulate it in various ways that it may not be particularly effective. 

Websites/blogs: Author websites and blogs may give readers some idea if they are going to like an author or not.  From a reader’s point of view it’s probably a good idea to look for an author’s blog or website if you’re not sure you want to take a chance on a book.  If the blog or website is not professional the book may not be either.  If you don’t like the writing style on the blog, that’s a good sign you won’t like the writing in the book either.  The flip side of that is that authors need to make sure their websites look professional and make a good impression.  That’s a do as I say not as I do thing.  My website badly needs remodeling.  

“The Wisdom of Crowds”: A couple of years ago someone at social networking website Gather.com had what seemed to be a brilliant idea: Stage an American Idol-style contest for unpublished authors.  The winner would get a publishing contract with Simon and Schuster and a big boost in sales from their exposure during the competition.  It would be democracy in action.  Readers would choose who got published.  Well, for a variety of reasons it didn’t work out that way, though two reasonably worthy winners did eventually emerge. 

The concept has been tried a few times since then, both by Gather and by Amazon.com, but in both cases the ‘popular vote’ element has been toned down.  In both of the subsequent Gather contests, the eventual winner received little popular attention during the contest and little advertising boost from the victory.  I still think there’s potential in the approach, but nobody seems to have found the right formula yet.  All of the contests so far have suffered from a common problem: not enough impartial readers participating.  There is also an inherent problem with the approach.  If a publisher’s marketing people don’t like a book or understand its appeal that makes it hard for them to market that book effectively. 

Web forums: As an author, it’s a good idea to have some presence on various on-line forums related to your subject matter, but you’ve got to be careful not to let them eat up too much of your writing time.  You’ll also need to learn how to avoid trolls, flame wars and the usual Internet hazards.  If a major hunk of your potential audience decides you’re a jerk, then you probably aren’t helping yourself.  If you get a good reputation on the forums but don’t get stuff written you’ve defeated the purpose of the exercise.  Also, be aware that a good reputation in an Internet forum is a very transient thing, as are boosts from blogging and web posts.  If you don’t maintain a consistent presence any impression you have made will quickly be forgotten. 

Free samples: Baen Books, a science fiction publisher, has a program where people can download free e-books of some of their authors’ older books.  The idea is that readers will get hooked on the free samples and then go out and buy the newer books from those authors.  Apparently that has worked fairly well.  The key here though is that these are books that have already been through the filtering process at a traditional publisher, and the authors have other books that have also been through that process.  Giving away e-books is probably not going to work for most aspiring authors, though some other kinds of free samples may. 

New technology: The first few good writers who hop on a new technology that takes off can often establish a good readership.  In the early days of the World Wide Web it was relatively easy to establish a good-sized niche readership if you consistently had something interesting to say.  Good writers who jumped into blogging early and consistently did well.  Those niches fill up quickly though, and it becomes more and more difficult to attract readers.  Technology advances will undoubtedly open up more niches like that.  The key for aspiring authors is to recognize technologies that are likely to take off and get into them early.  That’s much easier said than done.  You can waste a lot of time on things that look promising but never really amount to much. 

So, do I have a magic key to solving the filtering problem and getting authors together with their audiences?  Yes, but I’m going to keep it a secret and use it to become fabulously rich.  Just kidding.  I don’t think any one thing is going to fix the problems or even that all of the things I’ve mentioned are going to solve the problems.  Readers, authors and publishers are going to be living in an environment where many times readers never find authors that they would love, where good authors often never find their audience, and where publishers never find authors the public would love.  At the same time we’ll be living in an environment where readers have more choice in their reading than ever before.  They’ll have to work harder to exercise it, but it will be there. 

Finally, if you’re an aspiring writer be a reader too.  Go out and do what you have to do to find good books from authors you’ve never heard of before and from publishers you’ve never heard of before.  You’ll find some “bad karaoke” writing, but you’ll also find some gems and reading those gems will make you a better writer.  When you find good writing tell your friends about it.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 1)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

—– 

Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com

Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (part 1)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

If you’ve been around aspiring writers much you know that a good percentage of them produce the writing equivalent of really bad karaoke.  You also know that there are undiscovered gems out there.  Until recently the book buying public has not had to deal with the ‘bad karaoke’ books.  We’ve probably missed a few gems too.  What we saw in bookstores was filtered.  Sometimes that filtering kept out good books, but it mainly kept readers from wading through an awful lot of crap. 

Like it or not, the filters are going away.  Good books are still being published but they are hard to find among increasing amounts of drek.  Readers, authors and publishers need to figure out how to deal with the glut.  If we don’t the book market will continue to spiral downward, with more writers pursuing fewer and fewer readers.

The key issue for readers, authors and book publishers is going to be how to replace the traditional filters and get high quality novels together with their audiences.  

In part one I’ll look at what has happened to the traditional filters.  Past two will look at potential replacements. 

So what have the filters been and why are they going away? 

Filter One: The Expense Of Putting Together a Manuscript: Until recently putting together an acceptable manuscript was difficult and expensive.  Personal computers and affordable laser printers made writing a novel and putting together a manuscript much easier.  Before  affordable PC and laser printers you didn’t just have to write the novel, you also had to type up the manuscript, then retype revisions, a slow and cumbersome process that kept many would-be novelists (including me) from ever sending a completed manuscript to a publisher. 

Affordable computers and laser printers let more people write novels.  Established writers could write faster.  The result was empowering.  A lot more people wrote a lot more stuff.  The result was also disastrous.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t deal with the increased flow of manuscripts.  That brings us to filter two.. 

Filter Two: Publishers: Publishers used to look at the stream of manuscripts coming in from aspiring writers and rejected the ninety-nine percent or more that for one reason or another they couldn’t profitably sell.  That took care of most of the ‘bad karaoke’ writing. 

Writers had little choice but to accept the verdicts of the publishers.  Publishing and promoting a book was expensive.  An author could almost never make money publishing a book independently.  Also, ‘subsidy publishers’ preyed on would be authors, charging exorbitantly to print unsellable books.  Most readers correctly felt that self-published books were mostly junk because if a book was any good it would have been published by a real publisher. 

The system worked for the most part.  Authors with enough persistence and skill could find a publisher.  Readers could know that the books they saw on a booksellers shelves usually, though by no means always, met a set of minimum standards.  Publishers prospered in that environment, taking most of the risks and most of the profits from publishing.  Most writers didn’t prosper, though authors who made it through the filters and established a name for themselves could earn a modest living at writing, and a few very big name authors became moderately wealthy. 

Smart publishers made an effort to find the few publishable manuscripts among the “slushpile” of unsolicited manuscripts they received.  That made sense because if they didn’t they not only lost out on a potential profit, but they also handed that profit to their competitors.  Good publishers also took pride in finding and nurturing new talent. 

Several things changed that system over the past several years.  First, the sheer number of manuscripts coming in made even skimming the slushpile more expensive.  Second, many major US publishers were bought out by conglomerates from outside the publishing industry.  They moved to the short-term “what is the bottom line this quarter” thinking that has destroyed so many US industries.  Many publishers also seemed to develop a “who needs talent when we have marketing?” view of the industry. 

Most major publishers stopped looking at unsolicited manuscripts a few years ago.  They farmed that function out to agents.  As the slushpile flood diverted to agents, those agents were also overwhelmed and most of the good ones stopped looking at unsolicited manuscripts too. 

New authors found it harder to get published by traditional publishers.  They also found it easier to take other routes.  Print-on-demand and e-book technology makes both self-publishing and being a publisher much less expensive. 

Some readers still look down on self-publishing and to some extent on being published by small POD or e-book publishers.  Part of the problem is lingering attitudes left over from the old “big publisher versus vanity press junk” dichotomy.  Part of the problem is that a lot of small POD and e-book publishers do publish “bad karaoke” writers.  

Small POD and e-book publishers have little short-term incentive to filtering out the junk.  Being selective can actually hurt a small publisher in the short-term because most novels will attract enough of the novelist’s family and friends to pay the bulk of the (very low) costs of publication. That makes it close to cost free in the short term to take a chance on a new novelist if the advance is low enough or if there is no advance.  Some, but by no means all POD publishers actually charge the author for publication, which gives them incentive to publish just about anything. 

At the same time, POD and e-books are in many ways a much more rational way of publishing books than the traditional publishing model with its wasteful return policies.  Some newer, smaller publishers are finding and publishing gems or at least books that satisfy certain audience niches more effectively than traditional publishers.  Readers who stick exclusively with traditional publishers do miss out on some good reading. 

Filter Three: Bookstores.: Up until the last couple of decades, bookstores acted as an additional filter, with small bookstores owned by people who were also avid readers  Those bookstore had limited shelf space and did not stock books that they didn’t like or think would sell. 

That changed in two waves.  First, bookstore chains pushed most small independent bookstores out of the market by stocking a larger selection and charging lower prices.  That cut out much of the filtering function of bookstores.  More shelf space meant that bookstores didn’t have to be as careful what they stocked.  Loose return policies meant that if a bookstore overestimated many books would sell it was the publisher’s problem, not the bookstore’s. 

The increasing power of the chains also made the market less responsive to local preferences.  A local bookstore had to know what would sell locally and order accordingly.  Owners often knew and talked with customers.  That was much more difficult for chains. 

Second, Amazon.com rose to challenge the chains.  Amazon lists books at very little cost to themselves and do almost no filtering.  Best sellers from big traditional publishers are listed along with self-published “bad karaoke” POD books.  Amazon reviews can give some idea of the quality of a book but they’re fairly easy to game. 

So the traditional filters are disappearing.  Readers can’t find new authors they like among the glut of “bad karaoke” books.  New authors often can’t find a publisher, and often can’t find an audience even if they find a publisher.  Traditional publishers no longer reliably find fresh talent and increasingly rely on marketing rather than talented writers.  That shrinks the market by making books less attractive to younger readers. 

So how can all of that be reversed?  I have some ideas.  They’ll be in part two.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

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Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at http://www.DaleCozort.com

Immigration of Characters

I was sitting here trying to figure out what to write — I’ve had so many guest bloggers lately, I’m out of the habit of writing my own bloggeries — when I received an email from a friend with an attached article that she wanted me to check over. It was so clever and true it made me smile. We all have characters who deserve to immigrate to a better place than in our heads or on our computers. More to the point, she’s letting me post her article, saving me the trauma of having to think of something to write. Here’s what my friend Sylvia McKye say sabout the immigration of characters:

I write, as do many writers, because I enjoy writing.  I take pleasure in telling stories and taking people on adventures via my stories.  I have voices and ideas in my head.  It gets crowded in there; I need these clamoring characters to immigrate.  Onto my computer screen is the perfect new world for them. Rarely are they happy there, though.  They want a larger world.  They want to travel; they want to see and be seen.  These characters are determined; they have visions of the wide world of places like Barnes and Noble in which to sow their wild oats.  A few are truly ambitious and, having a high opinion of themselves, dream of traveling to New York and make the rounds socially-on the ‘A’ list, of course.  One or two have even mentioned being on the ‘A’ list will help them realize another dream, living on the silver screen.  Once they’ve done that, then they want to settle down on a nice little cozy bookshelf somewhere. 

So what’s a beleaguered writer to do?  Help them immigrate, of course. 

As a writer, I’ve in effect given birth to them and I’m emotionally attached to them.  I’ve raised them to be tough and strong, to set goals and dream.  I applaud their ambition.  I love my characters, so I start the paper trail to help them realize their dreams and ambitions.  However, immigration laws for characters have become tough in the past ten years.  There’s so much red tape involved.  Character immigration is a tough business all around. Getting through to the Character Immigration Officers is daunting.  

I get frustrated because some of these CIO’s reject my characters without even giving them a chance.  I polish them, provide my characters with a new wardrobe, take care with accessories-because appearances are everything in this world-and try again.  I provide them with the right background and setting and still they get rejected.  Some of these CIO’s want clear-cut categories to pigeonhole them.  A certain background.  Some of my characters don’t fit into a particular category-they are people after all-much less a set background.  Some of my characters do, but still aren’t accepted.  My characters are upset and I’m frustrated.  Because I’m attached to them, it bothers me when they’re rejected.  Meanwhile, I have a small town of characters living on my computer, and more in my head.  Will I stop creating?  No.  Will I stop trying to help my characters to immigrate?  No, again.  

I have invested in some tough Rhino skin for my characters and myself.  It’s survival.  I have no intention in giving up on finding homes for my characters.  But rejections hurt you as an author.  They can’t help but hurt us because we have created these characters and invested time and emotion in them.  Rejections are a normal process of the querying your novels and stories.  Some published authors say they’ve received enough rejection letters they could’ve papered their bathroom walls.  That’s a lot of rejections. 

Some of these published authors made it through the red tape of Agents and Editors and gotten their stories published with traditional publishing houses, others investigated smaller publishers and went that route, and still others have settled in nicely with POD publishers.  They did this because they believed in their abilities to tell an entertaining story and a desire to take readers on an adventure.  They enjoy writing. 

The point is, these are published authors and they didn’t give up. They obviously invested in some tough Rhino skin as well so as not to be discouraged to the point of not writing or querying their stories.  Persistence has its rewards.   They’ve networked and marketed aggressively. Even after getting a contract, they continue working on building and keeping a strong reader base by perfecting their skills as a storyteller. 

For these published authors, their characters have emigrated from the world in their heads and their computers to New York and hit the ‘A’ list-the Best Sellers list.   Some of the authors have had their books optioned and have seen their characters make it to the movies. Some of their characters have starred in TV movies or series. Their characters have happily found homes in Borders and Barnes and Noble.  Others are happily ensconced on a nice cozy bookshelf in someone’s home.  

There are many success stories out there.  The question is, will you stay the course and help your characters immigrate?  Where will your characters end up?  Will they immigrate or end up spending their life with you?

As for me, I’m determined to help my characters immigrate.

Waiting for the Ball

Originally, my first book was going to be released in September and the second in October, then both were going to be released at the beginning of November, now I’m looking at December.

I understand about publishing delays, but my publishing date always seems to be just out of reach. It makes me feel as if I’m in a strange game where the quarterback told me to go long and he’d pass me the ball. So there I am out in left field, waiting to dunk the ball or perhaps dropkick it home. Play after play, down after down, inning after inning I stand there, bouncing on the balls of my feet, hands in the air, planning my victory dance. But I never get the ball.

I can see everyone else on the team running around the bases, throwing passes, making baskets. Empty-handed, I wait. And wait. Eventually, I know, I will get the ball. But will I remember what I’m supposed to do with it?

As a Writer, Where and How Are You Dropping Your Pebbles?

My guest blogger today is marketing consultant Sia McKye. McKye writes:

I’m a reflective person by nature.  I think about many things in life.  Look for lessons and ways to make things better for me and mine.  To me, life is like a giant puzzle made of pebbles.  Sometimes it’s comprised of hard labor.  Other times, the fun is in seeing how to work all the pieces tossed at us, and make a picture of it.  Don’t like those particular pieces? Rearrange them.   I’m also an optimist but with my feet firmly planted in reality.  I know if I work at it hard enough, think it through, I’ll find a way.  And so it is with my writing.

To be a writer is rather solitary.  We pour our hearts and souls into our writing–our characters, our created world.  They’re part of us, aren’t they?  When someone rejects that, of course we feel it AND feel they’re rejecting us. On one level that’s true, but we have to learn to compartmentalize, or we’re dead in the water.  We have to have tough Rhino skin or we’re not going to survive.  And yah, it sucks.

As with most of the entertainment/arts groups, publishing is a tough playing field to break into.  A key element to be a success in any field is to be focused, working at perfecting your skills, and believing in yourself and your abilities.

I think about authors like Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Catherine Coulter.  They all started out with Harlequin and or Silhouette.  Many curled their lips at books from Harlequin.   Whether it’s a lightweight romance publisher, or POD and E-book publishers-who cares where you start, so long as you start? I believe these authors honed their story telling skills and learned what readers like and didn’t like, and built a readership base in these forums. And who are we to curl our lips, or diminish the worth of an author that makes those choices? Now, these authors are now regularly on the Best Sellers lists.

Singers start out playing local, market themselves aggressively, and get their names out there.  How?  Singers play for anyone that lets them sing.  Bars, lounges, you name it.  Actors do the same with local theatre, and work their way up. They network like crazy.  Are you doing that as a writer? 

Pebble in the pool effect.   Think about American idol.  These singers are looking for shortcuts and there isn’t anything wrong with that, but even the shortcuts come with fierce competition.  As authors, we do contests too, so we can relate.

What’s important here is: if the pebble isn’t first dropped into a pool of water, no ripples happen.  The pebble has to be dropped more than once. It’s the same with writing.  Every time you write a story, you drop a pebble and every time you query, or enter a contest, you drop another one.  Every blog, writer’s conference, and joining a writing group is another pebble.

 Maybe only a few of us will make it big.  The truth of the matter is; it’s not solely dependent upon talent.   There are lots of talented people.  Sometimes chance or fate or whatever you want to call it, steps in.  But, if we’re not putting forth the effort, and getting our writing, our name out there, it can’t be offered.

There’s a quote I like and I’ll share it with you.  Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor.”

 …or dropping the pebbles.

It’s something I think about frequently-what am I doing with my pebbles?

Stacking them in a pile with no work or thought given them?

Am I hoarding them in a drawer where no one can see them?   

Am I allowing fear of success or failure, hold me back?  

 

By putting our work out there, we’re on the dance floor or to continue the metaphor, dropping our pebbles.

 As a writer, where and how are you dropping your pebbles? Are your pebbles used to the best effect?

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