Predicting the future

By Joe Moore

In a recent article in THE TELEGRAPH, the founder of the famous Waterstone’s London book store, Tim Waterstone, stated that the “printed word is far from dead” and gypsey-with-crystal-ball (Small)the “so-called e-book revolution will soon go into decline.” He joked that insiders were generally “apocalyptic” about the book industry’s prospects but said he refused to believe the traditional physical book was under threat.

I tend to agree with Mr. Waterstone in as much as most bookstores I visit are packed with books and people buying them. I know it’s a simplistic measure of current trends, but when I start seeing large sections of empty shelves in book stores, I may change my viewpoint.

I disagree with him about e-books. So does Gaby Wood, who also wrote an article on the subject in THE TELEGRAPH. She states that “Booksellers are the group most threatened by the possible death of the printed book, and they have a reason to think wishfully of the digital book’s demise.” She also said that publishers have got to stop thinking of their digital products as “books”, and start imagining more expansive ways of communicating information. Until then, the digital revolution hasn’t even begun.

I think Gaby Wood has it right—this whole electronic publishing wave has just gotten started. The possibilities for industries like publishing, education and entertainment are endless. To say that e-books will soon go into decline is a prediction that may become laughable in the future.

To put this prediction business into perspective, let me share with you some famous visionaries of the past whose predictions carried a great deal of weight when first put forth, but didn’t stand up to the test of time. Enjoy.

"This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a
means of communication.  The device is inherently of no value to us."
— Western Union internal memo, 1876

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."
— Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
— Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
— Bill Gates, 1981

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the
best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t
last out the year."
— The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what… is it good for?"
— Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
— Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay
for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
— David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible."
— A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
— H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

"I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper."
— Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind"

"We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."
— Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."
— Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895

"So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us?  Or we’ll give it to you.  We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come
work for you.’  And they said, ‘No.’  So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’"
— Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer

"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."
— 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is named after Professor Gaddard.

"Drill for oil?  You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil?  You’re crazy."
— Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859. Drake was the first man credited to drill for oil in the United States

"Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value."
— Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre

"Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
— Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
— Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899

How about you? Any predictions on the fate of the printed book and the electronic book revolution?

The Most Important Thing Literary Agents Owe Their Clients

James Scott Bell

You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat’s navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent’s heart. 
                                 – Fred Allen
Mr. Fred Allen was a famous curmudgeon who labored in the entertainment (mainly radio) business. I would note that the Hollywood agent and traditional literary agent are largely different species. But that doesn’t stop me from using the quote to tease my agent friends.
And I do have friends who are literary agents. Is that so odd? When I was a lawyer, people still befriended me. It can be done!
Seriously, those agents I know are good ones: caring deeply about the success of their clients, hurting when they can’t place a project, or when a client is dropped by a publisher. But they know this is the duty they signed up for. They are professional about it.
That’s a key word, professional. In any business relationship, no matter how warm, there are duties. So it’s proper to ask what each party owes the other. 
What do writers owe their agents? I think they owe them productivity, optimism, partnership and patience. There will be times, of course, when concerns must be expressed and details hashed out. Time for phone calls and complaints. But these should be rare in comparison to the positives.
A writer needs to listen. Part of a good agent’s job (we’ll get to bad agents in a moment) is to guide a career, and the writer (who ultimately makes the decision about direction) ought to consider and attend to an agent’s wisdom.
And just plain not be a “pill” (slang, 1920s, “a tiresomely disagreeable person.”)
I said we’d get to bad agents, and here’s all I have to say: it is better by a degree of a thousand for a writer to have no agent than to have a bad agent. A bad agent is one who will make you pay fees up front before reading or submitting something; who will slough you off to an editorial service which kicks back a finder’s fee to the agent; who provides no feedback on projects or proposals; and who throws up anything against several walls to see if it sticks. How does one find the good and avoid the bad? The SFWA has a postthat’s very helpful in this regard.
Now, what does an agent owe a client? Honesty, encouragement, feedback. But I think there is one thing above all, and that is what prompted this post today. Over the years I’ve heard from writer friends who are frustrated and sometimes “dying on the inside” because of lack of this one thing:
When I was an eager young lawyer I took a course on good business practices from the California Bar. One item that stood out was a survey of clients on what they most wanted from their attorneys. At the very top of the list, by a wide margin, was communication.Whether it was good news or bad, they wanted to know their lawyer was thinking about their case or legal matter. 
Writers are the same way. Even more so, because the insecurity of the business is an ever-present shadow across their keyboards. So if a writer sends in a proposal or list of ideas to his agent, and the agent doesn’t respond within a few weeks . . . and writer sends follow-up email or phone call, and stilldoesn’t hear from agent . . .this is not a good thing. In fact, for a writer, it is close to being the worst thing.
So I would say to agents what the California Bar says to young lawyers: just let the client know what’s going on from time to time. Especially if the client has sent something to you.
Now, I know from my agent friends that there are times when they can’t drop everything to communicate immediately. They have other clients, and things may be popping for one or more of them. It may be that the writer has submitted something that is going to take a lot of time to go over and assess. The agent may be off at a conference or maybe, gasp, needs some personal family time. All understandable.
But communication can be brief, even if it is just a short email acknowledging receipt.
If I may be so bold: if a client submits a proposal, it shouldn’t take more than two months to get back to said client with substantial feedback. If the client submits some ideas, or communicates about another concern or quandary, I would think a couple of weeks is the outside limit, even if it’s brief.
I think there is one area where an agent, being human, is reticent about communicating: the area of bad news. It may be that a proposal or manuscript has failed to land. It may be a publishing house dropping a series. Perhaps the writer has sent the agent a proposal that, for the agent, falls flat, even after notes and suggestions from the agent have been incorporated. It may even be that the agent has lost confidence in the writer’s long term prospects.
At times like these it is tempting to put off communicating with the client. My plea: don’t do it. As hard as it is, as painful as it may be, this is the time the client needs you most.
And authors, remember, it’s a tough time out there in the publishing world, for agents and everybody else. So give them something good to talk about—namely, killer fiction from a productive writer.

Help! I’m Published and I Can’t Get Up!

James Scott Bell

Today’s post is brought to you by Self-Publishing Attack! Nine out of 10 doctors who self-publish recommend it to their patients who self-publish.


Over the past year I’ve heard from a number of writing friends, all of whom have been traditionally published. They are facing some harsh realities, like being dropped by their publisher. Or being unable to land another contract because their sales record follows them around like a bad smell. They are good, solid writers who made it into the Forbidden City. But the gendarmes have tossed them outside the gates without so much as a fare-thee-well.

These writers tremble now in the dark forest, wondering about the band of scofflaws who are self-publishing. It’s not something they thought they’d ever want to (or have to) do.

They always thought they’d have that comfortable room in the City, and maybe even get a place at the A List banquet table if things broke right.

But things haven’t broken right. And now they don’t know what to do. So here’s an amalgamation of the advice and encouragement I’ve been handing out:

1. Know Thyself

Are you a writer? Yes, that’s the first question. I mean the kind of writer who can’t not write. If you can do anything else and it improves your quality of life, by all means, do that thing instead. It reminds me of Lawrence Block’s counsel: If you think you want to write a novel take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass.

If you get out of that dark room and know you have to do this, no matter what, take further stock. What type of writer are you? I see four general categories:

Hands off

This is where the author gives everything, including most of the rights and income, over to a publishing house. It must be pointed out, however, that such contracts are increasingly rare, especially for midlist writers whose previous books did not sell. Indeed, several agents I’ve talked to recently say it’s easier to place a new writer than a midlister with poor numbers. And advances are down so low they are starting to feel like retreats. 

Yet many writers continue to pound on the gates of the Forbidden City because of the “prestige” factor. They also hold to the hope that they might make it to national and international bestseller status. If that’s you, just understand that the odds of moving from published to mega-bestselling is an Evel Knievel jump over the Snake River. So wear a helmet. 

Fingers in

There are new ops springing up in the digital world, where the author can contract with a company providing a menu of services. These companies are innovative and fast moving. You share the income, but in terms that are more favorable to the writer who takes the hands off approach. At the Writer’s Digest Conference last week in New York, I heard about one such company, Booktrope. There will be more, many more, down the road. Look over the terms each company offers, and see what other authors say about them. Keep track of the fakes and phonies by looking at Writer Beware every now and then. 

Hands on

This refers to the pure self-publishing writer, who knows writing is (and really always has been) a business. He puts writing as job #1, but places strategic planning as job #1a. He breaks down his publishing career into three parts: a) production (which includes short form and long form work); b) design; c) marketing. He puts in research up front to get his own freelance team in place and, once there, works a plan, works a plan, adjusts, works a plan, works a plan. And, as I say in Self-Publishing Attack, they repeat this over and over the rest of their lives.

More and more we are hearing about even New York Timesbestselling authors who have been crunched by current reality. The aforementioned Mr. Block, who once could find two shelves of his backlist at a Barnes & Noble store, now sees only three or four titles, one copy each. A few years ago he never would have thought he’d recommend a hands on approach, but that was then. In a recent blog post he writes:

“[M]y default response, when someone asks how to get an agent, or how to find a publisher, or any writerly version of what-do-I-do-now, is to suggest publishing it oneself. That’s a course I never would have recommended to anyone, except perhaps the occasional dotard who’d penned a memoir he hoped his grandchildren would read. And now I’m urging it upon everyone—writers whose publishers have dropped them, writers who never had publishers in the first place, writers whose early books have gone out of print.”

Arms around

This is the writer who embraces change and all the opportunities out there. He does not shun traditional publishing, for example, but is open to the right deal (and that means knowing publishing contracts and what terms to walk away from). This writer does not throw flames at bridges. Instead, he builds them—to readers, mostly, but on occasion to the industry, too.

So the very first thing, if you’re a writer who has “fallen,” is to know what type you are. Are you entrepreneurial or highly risk averse? Can you think like a business person, or does the thought of doing so give you the cold sweats?

Since I’m an “arms around” writer, I try to counsel those of the opposite disposition to at least try to know more, do more, take more responsibility for their own life and career. The days of Emily Dickinson are over. I liken the current climate more to the pulp writing days of the Great Depression. Those guys knew it was a business, and had to produce the work to eat.

Get busy, learn, and remember . . .

2. Don’t Give Up, Ever

You have the talent and the craft. That was proved when you signed with a publisher once upon a time. You can still write, so do it. Produce the words. Spend some part of your week, whatever you can spare after the writing is done, studying the new landscape and applying what you learn.

Finally, get rid of all expectations. Expectations are for chumps. The only thing you can control is the work you do today, and then tomorrow. If you are a writer, you write, even if you never sell another thing. But you will. As I told my workshop in NY, your Ficus tree will make something, if it follows the right plan. It may just be enough for a specialty drink at Starbucks (assuming your Ficus likes coffee). But it will be something, and something is better than nothing (I took high school math).

Get up and write, friend. You are not alone. And you are not down for the count. The future is bright for the writer who won’t give up.

Will Immersive Reading Save Publishing and Kill the Traditional Novel?

In the digital book world these days most of the talk is about whether the big publishers will survive, and what the relative merits (or demerits) of self-publishing are. But simmering in the background is another issue, one that could affect all fiction writers forever. And that is whether the simple reading experience itself is on the way out.
I’m talking about “immersive reading.” Recently PW reported on Apple’s iBooks Author development initiative. This is a program intended to produce multi-media and interactive reading experiences, primarily for tablet users and the educational market. But its reach is potentially far greater than that. As the story reports:
Since iBooks Author was released, hundreds of books created with the authoring tool are being sold through the iBookstore in a variety of categories, including travel, children’s, cooking, music instruction, gaming strategy, biography, entertainment and other categories. The books are coming from a variety of sources, including big six publishers, self-published authors, small publishers, app developers and TV networks.
Thus, publishers are using iBooks Author to create “an impressive selection of enhanced e-books with everything from photographs, sound, and animation to video footage.”
Meanwhile, Hachette announced it is committing to the EPUB3 format, which allows “greater flexibility in representing enhanced content, including interactive covers, embedded multimedia and interactivity, pop-up screens for end-notes, and melded audio and text, as well as improved navigation of reference content, creating a high-quality digital reading experience.”
A few thoughts here. First, this may be the salvation of the big publishing corporations. Why? Because they are the ones who have the resources to do immersive to the max. They will become like mini-studios, putting together multi-media experiences of all types. Or becoming a content partner with other media companies.
Second, this will be an increasing challenge for indie authors, who may have to become what Hollywood calls “hyphenates,” that is, producers who do more than one thing. Which requires skill sets most writers don’t have and don’t care to learn. They want to tell stories. They don’t want to have to shell out big bucks to get a hyper-enhanced “book” out there. But will they have a choice if they want to make new readers?
The cost of producing a book that can compete in an immersive world is daunting. A new start-up specializing in enhanced books, Orson & Co., is spending 20k on its first app! How can an indie author afford to do anything like that?
Which brings up the third, and perhaps most disquieting issue: what about the future of the plain old novel? As kids grow up fully immersed, will they have the patience for a simple black-on-white book anymore (Joe Hartlaub’s wonderful granddaughter notwithstanding)? Will future generations expect some kind of multi-layered sensory experience?
I was in Best Buy the other day and saw a four-year-old pounding away at an iPad, his little gaming soul oblivious to his mother telling him they had to go. Is this our future audience?
Think about it: how many live, black-and-white TV shows do you watch? We moved from B&W to color, from live to tape, from scripted to reality, from 2-D to 3-D. 
Once immersive reading becomes the norm, at home and in schools, will the very notion of what a book is be changed forever? Will the simple reading of ordinary text go to the elephants’ graveyard?
It’s like when I try to tell young people about great films of the past, and they say they just don’t like black-and-white movies that move so slow. Ahhhh!!!
The buggy whip industry did not disappear overnight. But certainly many a tanner looked at the sputtering fruit of Henry Ford’s assembly line and began to lament the passing of the old ways.
So, novelist and reading friends, I ask you: Will there be any such thing as the simple, traditional novel in fifty years? And if so, who besides the monthly book group at Leisure Village in Boca Raton will read it?