Tag Archives: publishing

Who Still Buys Hardcovers?

My loyal readers (both of you) know that I keep an eye on the publishing industry, and try to make sense of pronouncements and prognostications, especially as they regard e-books and the future for those of us outliers.  But here’s something that still mystifies me:  Who buys hardcover books?

The better-half and I are book junkies.  We have far more DTBs than anyone living in a cramped apartment ought to.  But very few of these are hardcovers.  A quick perusal of the stacks shows that the b-h has more hardcovers than I do.  Mine tend to be graphic works — Mondo Boxo, by Roz Chast for example, or movie books like Lulu in Hollywood, badly damaged by certain bored kittehs who used it as scratching post.

The b-h has more hardcovers than I do reflecting his varied interests — eco-systems, travel, botany, geology, etc.

Both of us have a smattering of fiction and biography in hardcover.  Generally, these are books that were purchased used, gifts or found in the laundry room.  It is exceedingly rare that either of us buys new hardcovers.  Generally, when we do it’s a question of impatience.  The last new hardcover I bought, I purchased shortly before I got my kindle.  It was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the last of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. I came late to the series.  I’d devoured the first two books, and the third one had just come out in hardcover. I broke down and bought it after finding out that I would be 504th on the New York Public Library waiting list.

Here’s the thing: hardcover books aren’t just expensive, they are big and bulky.  I’ve never seen them as “better” from a reader’s point of view.  I bring this up because there is a constant debate on the Kindle forums regarding the price of e-books.  Much has been said about the “agency pricing” model and how Amazon wanted to cap prices for ebooks at $9.99 but got outflanked by big publishing.  Many readers complain that e-book prices for new books often exceed the paperback prices, but that doesn’t matter much to me. As a consumer, and avid reader, I’m likely to buy the cheapest version of a book I can get. I prefer to get books from the library (since I’m likely to only read a book once) or to get them used or free from my laundry room and then “recycle” them by leaving in the laundry room when I’m done.  Usually, I can wait for a book from the library or to be discounted, but on the rare occasion when I don’t want to, getting the book on Kindle at a lower price than I’d pay for a new hardcover feels like a bargain to me.

I finally paid more than $9.99 for an e-book when I decided I “had to” read Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  The initial Kindle price was $26; apparently this was an “enhanced” version, which included some old CBS footage of the Kennedy assassination.  That was more than I was willing to pay, but once the price came down to $14.99, considerably lower than the hardcover, I grabbed it.  It’s now back up to $16.99.  My reasoning was simple:  I wanted to read it.  I wanted to read it THAT SECOND.  I wanted to read it at the lowest available price and without having to leave my house or wait for a delivery.

What I don’t get, however, is who, under normal circumstances buys hardcover fiction when less expensive e-books are available?

I took a quick look at the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestseller list.  The first 17 books listed were mostly mysteries, thrillers, or fantasies, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, even the very late Michael Crichton was represented.  General fiction as represented by Nicholas Sparks came in at number seven and Janet Evonovich at number 9.  It’s safe to say that none of the books represented would be considered literary fiction or serious fiction.  So is it all people who simply can’t wait to read the next one by _______?  Or do people prefer to read hardcovers because they think they are more “classy”?  What happens to these books once they are read?  Are they resold? Given away?  Placed proudly on bookshelves for years to come?

I’m imagining that’s it’s an older demographic, but then I wonder who precisely.  Kindle early adapters skewed old, and the main selling point for the “traditional” non-backlit e-readers was that they read like print, not a computer screen, which appeals to people who grew up reading print. Given that the price of e-reading devices has come down and that e-book prices remain below hardcover prices, it would seem likely that more traditional hardcover buyers will switch to ebooks.  I’d like to know why they haven’t made the switch already.  I don’t know what the market researchers have uncovered but my guesses would be (1) they don’t like “e” anything and would prefer to just read their books (2) they like the feeling of “ownership” they get from print books, and on some basic level you don’t “own” your e-books no matter what Toni Morrison says, (3) while they might consider price, they also take into account “sharability”.  They always pass the book along and then discuss it with at least one other person, and so far e-books with DRM don’t provide a good system for doing that.

So here are my prognostications on book formats and pricing:

DRM will continue to have a negative impact on e-book sales since it’s still much easier to share your DTBs, and even circulate them within your family or non-virtual social network.  While having all your books in a “cloud” somewhere may be great insurance in case your devices are stolen or destroyed, there’s something off-putting about a company like Amazon controlling your cloud. It’s not irrational for consumers to be concerned, not just about sharing, but that someday Amazon (or a competitor) will simply scoop up your “books” or impose a new rule: “Henceforth, you will pay to us the sum of $100 a month for “storage” or we will hold captive and eventually destroy your entire library.”

Possibly Amazon’s hedge against this is that we are moving toward what AOL founder Steve Case, referred to as a “sharing economy.” While entrepreneurs like Case, believe that younger consumers are more interested in “use and experience” then ownership, the model that has made Zip Car profitable, might not work for books.  Books have almost always been shared, passed along between friends, stored on shelves where guests were welcome to them.  They are available for free at libraries.  Like movies, most be people don’t mind sharing, and  we may only experience the same book once.  Yet unlike movies, people want to “own” their books, and “ownership” seems to add value even though the same book will probably only be “experienced” once by the same consumer, and most books won’t be resold.  It’s not that people don’t want to “share” the experience of reading a book; it’s simply that they want to do so without the interference of a big company, or with a big company getting a cut every time they share.

It wouldn’t be against Amazon’s self-interest as a publicly “consumer-oriented” company to create a different system.  They could probably even figure out a way to make money from it.  How’s this: Instead of a virtual lending system that is amazingly complex and restricted, why not a DRM that sells you a license that still can’t be copied, but can be removed from the “cloud” and lent a limited number of times before it self-destructs?

Right now Amazon “storage” is free because this sells more books.  People can buy ebooks and read them with the kindle app whether they own a Kindle or not.  That would still be the case.  The difference would be that people could remove books from this “virtual” library without having to have Mother’s permission to do so.

If you could, in fact, actually “buy” your download, then Amazon could, without raising too big a ruckus, actually charge a storage fee. They might offer different pricing schemes for this — book recovery (in case of device loss or damage) for any ebook purchased through Amazon and not purposely removed from the cloud by the consumer, could remain free, but the ability to read books on multiple devices could have a fee that could rise with the number of devices.

Like the current used book market it wouldn’t be so great for publishers or authors, but consumers would love it.  Let’s say you limited a book to five moves before it self-destructed. That would be pretty similar to what happens when you loan someone a book and they loan it to someone who loans it to someone. While that might lead to some online swapping systems that would cut into profits, it could also work out for sellers and publishers.  The “books” themselves would be more valuable (and Amazon could charge more) because they could be loaned or resold, and there’d be no danger of Amazon coming to reclaim them. Amazon could as it does now, get a cut on resales or become a direct seller.

Just as there are now different formats for print books with different pricing — hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, there could be different e-formats as well — a “first run” that comes at a higher price with bonus features (as was tried it with 11/22/63), a lower-priced version that comes out later without the bonus, and a third run, equivalent to “mass market” that’s considerably cheaper but maybe with a more limited number of loans or no free storage.

Granted, the Internet makes a lot of things easy, and it might be very easy to set up a “used e-book” website and offer people money to sell e-books that still had loans (just as it’s almost as easy now to became an online used book seller). But how much would that actually cut into sales given that “used” e-books would have fewer if any “loans” available and couldn’t be stored free or used on multiple devices?  Amazon currently makes a large profit selling used print books, and could continue the trade with e-books.  Publishers and authors could demand something they don’t currently have with print — resale rights and restrictions.

In short, it could be done in a way where almost everyone wins, except of course brick and mortar bookstores.  I have also ideas about that, but I’ll save them for another post.

On Fiction Writing Rules

The conversation was about the “rules.” Mr. McGrumpypants insisted that he knew what agents and editors wanted, despite having never actually landed an agent, and having only been “edited” by a very, very small press publisher who went out of business shortly thereafter, and many years later by a one-man shop “e-book publisher.”  In spite of  his extremely dismal sales numbers, he was quite adamant that his ability to have “sold” to a “publisher” gave him special insight that all others lacked, and if we’d only read Dwight Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. we’d be enlightened and as successful as he.

The above took place on a forum in one my old haunts — an online writer’s community filled mostly with those desperate for publication. I found the same “debate” raging as when I left months before. Except it wasn’t exactly a debate, since all but one old sourpuss seemed to be in agreement.

I don’t claim to know what anyone wants. I’ve never landed an agent despite several “full manuscript requests” for Loisaida — A New York Story.  I know a few people who found agents who were enthusiastic about their work, but failed to sell it to editors. So apparently even those gatekeepers don’t always know what editors want.

I should know more. I have one of those MFA’s, but  I’ll tell you a dirty secret — at least back in the 1980’s when I got it, we almost never talked about publishing though we probably should have. That was at Sarah Lawrence. I’m pretty sure they were talking about publication at Columbia.

The truth is at this particular moment in publishing history, as I wrote months ago, “nobody knows anything.” Bookstores are closing, even the big chains that not so long ago devoured the independents. Some legitimately published writers like Stephen Leather are choosing Kindle to self-publish their old titles and the ones their agent couldn’t use. The success of a purely “indie” author like  Amanda Hocking is a shock to the system. Yet, yesterday I read a story of a first novel being published by a major house. It read like a fairytale, and was enough of an anomaly to make it to the pages of The New York Times, but is it sign that good books will always find a way?

As a reader, I know what I like. What I like isn’t formulaic. It bends and breaks “the rules” and does so with such grace that the writer makes it look as natural as Fred Astaire’s dancing.

As a reader who’s also a writer, it gives me a thrill to see the risks great writers take in their storytelling especially around “point of view” and “backstory.” Think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with a man about to be shot by a firing squad, remembering an incident from his childhood. Then we go into the “backstory” including the lives of several characters besides the man in front of the firing squad, and we don’t get back to the firing squad for another 200 pages or so.

More recently, Jonathon Franzen, pulls off a similar trick with Freedom which starts off with a distant narrator telling a story about some neighbors who moved away long ago and were recently involved in a “scandal” which we don’t get any details about. We then go back twenty years or so to when they first moved into the neighborhood. Later we go further into the past and then up to the present with shifting points of view including a journal in which the first person narrator refers to herself in the third person. Neat trick, that. We don’t find out about the “scandal” till around the last quarter of the book.

Then there’s James Hynes, whose novel Next almost stopped my heart. It’s a close third-person tale. The story itself takes place over the span of a single day. A man travels from one city to another for a job interview. We are privy not only to what occurs in real time, but his thoughts and memories. You know the rule about avoiding “info dumps” or “too much backstory?”  This is almost all “backstory” and it’s riveting. And while its ending is perfection, I can easily imagine an editor rejecting it for not being “upbeat.”

Warning: The following statements are purely the opinion of the blogger, and may not lead you to find an agent or write a bestseller. The following “advice” is meant for writers interested in honing their craft for non-commercial purposes:

I’m not advising that untested writers attempt the trickiest ways to tell a story, but I am suggesting to think more of guidelines than rules and not to be afraid to drive off road for a while. Even a failed experiment might teach you something, or yield unexpected results.

Writing guidelines can be simple and should be aimed at keeping the story moving. As Elmore Leonard helpfully suggests, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” I would humbly add that most of us may need readers to tell us what those parts are, so its a good idea to  have some workshop buddies, or others whose reading skills we respect, who are willing to be honest with us, and it’s a good idea for all of us to be open to critique.

This brings me back to Sarah Lawrence, and one day in a writing workshop taught by the late great Grace Paley. There was a conversation about the short-hand “rules,” like  “show don’t tell,” which Paley joked she sometimes turned around. Someone brought up, “write what you know.” Paley replied that if you only wrote what you already knew, it would be boring, and then she stated the one rule that I always attempt to follow, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”

Nobody Knows Anything (About Publishing)

The title phrase was of course coined by screenwriter William Goldman and refers to the entertainment industry. It is most applicable now to publishing though I thought of calling this blog, There’s Something Happening Here, but then got afraid that ASCAP would come after me.

I’m just an interested bystander, and my theories aren’t worth the paper they aren’t printed on, but I’ve been doing some reading and have listed below some interesting pieces. What’s it mean? Draw your own conclusions and by all means, feel free to drop by and spout off your opinion and relevant links.

Here goes:

Publish or Perish from The New Yorker in which Ken Auletta explains how big publishing is hoping the IPad will break Kindle’s hold on the ebook market and allow publishers to charge print prices for ebooks because of course we all know that that will save the book business. (If you go to The New Yorker’s website you’ll also see lots of blogs, letters and articles on related topics.)

The Rise of Self-Publishing in which The New York Times not only discovers self-publishing, but declares it respectable!  (which means that it’s now officially over.)

Man Bites Dog, no that’s not the name of it, but here’s an article from Publisher’s Weekly explaining why award winning writer John Edgar Wideman decided to publish a story collection on Lulu.

There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen by Jonathan Galassi. The head of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux makes a not so subtle case for why publishers should hold digital rights FOREVER. This was as the youts say a pretty lulz-worthy piece of work and led to many responses including one of my own, though my favorite was by Heather Michon in Open Salon who boiled Galassi’s point down to “There is no “I” in book.”

You could also do worse than check out The Militant Writer blog in which Mary Walters takes a hard look at the industry. One of my favorites from that site is a piece where she blames literary agents for the mess. Some of the more blogactive agents posted replies making the discussion uh spirited.

Happy reading!

(Update:  Not too many comments at this obscure website, but there is an ongoing discussion over on a thread on Authonomy.  Anyone can “listen” in, though you’d need to register on the site to participate.)

There’s More to Publishing Than In Jonathan Galassi’s Recent Op-Ed

In a New York Times opinion piece, There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen, (1/3/10), Jonathan Galassi — President of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, writes of the decision by the heirs of William Stryon’s estate to put out e-book versions of the author’s work. Galassi wonders whether e-books are “a new frontier in publishing” or “simply the latest edition of the books produced by publishers like Random House.”

He points to the contributions made by traditional publishers in creating the finished product that goes to the public. In addition to marketing, design and layout, Galassi speaks of the role of editors in making sure that the final version of a book is the best that it can be.

Galassi does not discuss the other important role of traditional publishers. They have been the gatekeepers, not only ensuring that no book would bare their imprint before it was ready, but that any book with their stamp would be one worth reading. Publishers could be depended upon to bring us new and interesting authors, and beyond that to expand the very foundations of literature.

But the publishing industry abandoned these tasks long before e-books came on to the scene.

Any visit to a bookstore will show that nowadays it’s only name brand best selling authors and celebrity writers getting onto store shelves. If William Styron were starting out today, an editor would never have taken a chance on a book like Lie Down in Darkness (unless perhaps Styron added vampires or zombies) and Styron himself might have been forced to publish only as an e-book if for no other reason than to prove to potential agents or publishers that he could gain a following and his books would sell.

While books may still need “the care and dedication” of a good editor, publishing houses are not going to provide that to any novels they don’t believe are marketable and most of the books they believe will sell, no amount of editing will help.

The result of this is that sales are down and the publishing industry is in trouble. If only it would occur to those involved to look inward, they might find that the problem is not competition from e-book distributors. Perhaps what they need to do is look for books that have literary merit to begin with. Maybe they should be using that marketing acumen to make serious reading “sexy” again, or to find out what kinds of books would compel readers who aren’t buying theirs. Of course they need to make other changes as well. Changes might include a different type of distribution, the realization that e-book and print pricing can’t be the same, a rethinking of how royalties are set, and new ways of incorporating digital marketing. As in any industry, new technologies require new approaches.

Galassi makes a valid a point. The publishing industry plays an important role in the production of books. If they are going to continue to play an important role in the production of important books — both print and electronic, they need to change.

(This blog also appeared in Marion’s Open Salon page with lots more comments.)

Crack for the Unpublished

Why no recent posts? Why no emails to my friends? Why am I losing weight and why does my husband say he feels like he’s living with a ghost? The answer my friends, is Authonomy — crack for the unpublished novelist.

Authonomy was created by Harper-Collins UK in order to eliminate their slush pile. The deal is they won’t read anything unsolicited or unagented, but writers can post excerpts or entire manuscripts on this “social networking site.” None of the stigma of being self-published since you’re only “previewing” your work. Meantime you can upload a cover, work on your pitch, write your bio and do all of the stuff real writers do. You even get reviews from the other chumps on the site. When one of the top ranked authors gave me a glowing review the first day up, I was hooked. Soon, however, I came to understand the dark side.

Every member of Authonomy gets a bookshelf with space for 5 books. If you put a book you like on your shelf, then all your friends on the site will see it there and may decide to read it. If you “back” an up and coming book, then your “trend setting rank” will rise. This means that when you back a book the book’s ranking will rise more than if it was backed by a mere mortal.

Why is the book’s ranking important? Because every month the HC-overlords review the 5 top ranked books. This doesn’t mean that they will publish any of them, and some of their reviews have been painful to read, but it does mean that people believe that they have a shot if they can just get high enough in the rankings. (HC has also given contracts to some novels that they spotted on the site which didn’t rise to the top.) So between the personal trend-setter rank and the book ranks, there’s a lot of politicking going on with people swapping reads. You’re somehow ethically bound not to put books on your shelf unless you really “believe” in them, and yet…

I had a meteoric rise my first week, but this involved reading and commenting on many other books, accepting offers of “friendship” in return for reading swaps, soliciting the top ranked — who weren’t all that interested as they get tons of offers to swap and besides a newbie’s ranking isn’t going to help their books rise. Some of the books I read were better than a lot of what’s on non-virtual shelves, some not so much. But I often felt obliged to shelf those who shelved me. I began to wonder if I was getting a reputation for being “easy” — an Authonomy-whore. I began to question the sincerity of the reviews I received, even the decisions by others to put my book on the shelf. And yet seeing my virtual book with it’s virtual cover rising on the weekly “what’s hot” list, reaching number 6 in literary fiction after only 5 days on the site, kept me coming back for more.

I have become convinced that HC isn’t really involved in this at all. It’s all a Milgramesque experiment set up by deranged social scientists (Is there any other kind?) designed to show the level of depravity to which the desperate will sink when they have their eyes on the prize.

But still I cannot stop myself ….

And now that my book has reached the top 200, I’m seeing less “bump” (score change) each time I get shelved. The first few days, I moved hundreds of points within hours. Now nada. Like heroin you build a tolerance and need more just to get through.

So if I disappear, if you don’t see any new blogs, you’ll know where I am. Sweet Jesus, won’t someone save me?