Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.


An Agent’s Advice: The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent

Kathryn Lilley

The Kill Zone is honored to have literary agent Mark Gottlieb as our guest today, from the Trident Media Group. Feel free to ask him those burning questions you may have about what he’s looking for, or how he sees publishing trends, or his insights into publishing and the role of literary agents. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College where he helped establish Wilde Press, from a publishing club of students. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with the VP of Berkley Books (Penguin). Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Exec Assistant to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories. 


As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter… Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:

1) FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.

2) DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.

3) PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author? It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.

4) READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.

5) THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.

Mark Gottlieb
Literary Agent
Trident Media Group, LLC
41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
New York, NY 10010
(212) 333-1506

Mark Profile at Trident Media Group




Mark has consented to answering your questions. Feel free to ask away. Thank you for being our guest, Mark.


State of the Publishing World 2017

by James Scott Bell

There is a publishing industry. And there is a publishing world.

The Big 5 publishers, along with the Medium However Many, form the industry.

All of them, plus every self-publishing author, form the world.

Here in 2017, what does that world look like? Your humble correspondent now takes his shot.

Self-Publishing is Not Rodney Dangerfield

Back around 2010-2011, the internet was aflame with screeds arguing all sides of the self-publishing boom. Such jeremiads have mostly disappeared. But every now and then, like a California aftershock, we get a fulmination that rattles the furniture.

One such appeared recently in HuffPo, wherein author Laurie Gough referred to the self-publishing enterprise as “an insult to the written word.” As of this morning, the piece has well over 600 comments, and at least one solid “fisking.” What a stroll down Memory Lane! It was like the good old Joe Konrath-Barry Eisler blogosphere of yore.

Ms. Gough believes that “gatekeeping” is essential for the consumer. “Readers expect books to have passed through all the gates, to be vetted by professionals. This system doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it’s the best system we have.”

Is it? Sarah Nelson, Executive Editor at Harper Collins, seems to think so:

There will always be a market for good writing and storytelling, whatever the format, and there are always going to be “gatekeepers,” no matter how much people complain about them. In fact, the more self-published stuff that’s out there, the more imprints, the more books, the more regular people (i.e. people who buy books) are going to need a filter, a curator, a gatekeeper. Nobody can read everything, after all: people still want to hear what’s the best of the bunch.

Methinks this does not reflect how readers actually decide to plunk down their discretionary income. Almost always it’s by some form of word-of-mouth that a book is purchased. These days, word-of-mouth is not only by way of a friend, but also reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

In other words, readers are the gatekeepers.

Besides, attempts to form some sort of new, official gatekeeping locale have been going on for years, without success. Remember Bookish? It started off as a joint venture between the (then) Big 6 publishers to create an Amazon-style footprint on the internet. This was back during the industry fight over Amazon’s increasing dominance, and before the Department of Justice stepped in to stop the brouhaha. In any event, Bookish did not catch on. There was simply not enough incentive or reason to latch onto a new form of “approval.”

Self-publishing continues to get a few slings and arrows from the establishment, but the force of the blows is largely spent. “With my dog,” Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I don’t get no respect. He keeps barking at the front door. He doesn’t want to go out. He wants me to leave.”

Well, self-publishing authors aren’t leaving. And those who keep producing and growing as writers, and who take a business-like approach, will fare nicely.

The Future of Print

Back in 2013 you could find fields of blooming blogsters predicting the imminent demise of traditional print publishing. (I was not one of them, likening trad-pub to the fighter who would not go down, Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta.)

Last year Publishers Weekly wrote a story about the Codex Group’s April, 2016 survey of booksellers. The main finding was that “e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016. The Codex survey includes e-books published by traditional publishers and self-publishers and sold across all channels and in all categories.”

What was the cause of the decline (or stagnation, if you’re a half-full kind of person)? It might be “digital fatigue,” especially among the young—the future book buyers.

[T]hough book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print … Overall, 14% of book buyers said they are now reading fewer e-books than when they started reading books in the format, and 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. The share of print books purchased was also the highest among the heaviest screen users, the so-called digital natives, ages 18–24 (83%), and lowest (61%) among 55-to-64-year-olds.

That’s a bit of amazing, isn’t it? A few years ago all the old codgers were thinking this younger generation was going to be all digital, all the time. Apparently, the trend is the other way! Don’t those Millennials know how to listen to us?

And in another bit of print-preservation news, one of the original indie firebrands, Joe Konrath, announced a print-only deal with Kensington:

I’ve always known that I’m leaving money on the table because my books aren’t in brick and mortar stores. There are a whole lot of readers who shop at bookstores, airports, department stores, and convenience stores, and I’m not available in those outlets. My POD titles are $13-$17, which is pricey compared to my $4.99 ebooks. Wal-Mart won’t ever carry me. Neither will B&N.

This Kensington deal will let me reach an audience I haven’t reached since 2009.

So is this a portend of things to come for self-pubbed authors?

Kensington has shown themselves to be nimble and forward-thinking. I have yet to see any evidence that the Big 5 are smart enough to try something like this, save for that big Hugh Howey deal years ago. Writers waited for more opportunities like that (me included), and none happened.

It will indeed be interesting to see how this plays out. Kensington specializes in mass market editions, a segment of the industry that has been in steady decline. If Kensington can figure out a way to make it work for Konrath, maybe others will follow…but only those with significant ebook success, a la Joe.

Add one more datum, from the aptly named “Data Guy” (the mastermind, with Hugh Howey, behind the Author Earnings Reports). As quoted by Mr. Porter Anderson in the new Digital Book World white paper, Mr. Guy states, “Adult fiction sales in the US are nearly 71 percent digital now, and that is also the category where indie sales have made the deepest inroads: today, 30 percent of all US adult fiction book purchases are of titles self-published by indie authors.”

When it comes to fiction, then, E is eating away at P. And it is voracious.

And don’t let us forget about the fastest-growing medium for “reading” books: audio. According to one source, audio book downloads increased by a whopping 38.1 percent in 2015. An executive of Audible, Inc. is quoted in the story thus: “Audible members globally listened to 1.6 billion hours of audio content in 2015 (up from 1.2 billion in 2014).”

So A now encroaches on both E and P. That’s the alphabet soup of current publishing.

However, print will hang in there. As one editor told me, “Flat is the new up.” And there’s some good cheer for print in the mini-boom of independent bookstores. As Borders closed down and Barnes & Noble cut back, mom-and-pop bookstores started springing up. According to one report, 550 indie bookstores have opened since 2010. That makes me happy.

The Rise of Amazon Publishing, and How it Affects Indies

Amazon continues to expand its own imprint publishing program. They now have thirteen (13) imprints, ranging from mystery & suspense (Thomas & Mercer) to StoryFront, a venue for short fiction. Wow.

This expansion has been the subject of interest to many pure indie writers, who have reported a downward trend in their sales. John Ellsworth, for example, a bestselling legal thriller authors, wonders if APub is the major reason behind this decline.

Well, APub is an arm of the world’s largest bookstore, and therefore it makes sense that it would use the power of its algorithms to feature titles it publishes. It’s like front-of-store placement.

Amazon Publishing is turning out a high-quality product, and so will continue to expand. Heck, Amazon is even opening up physical bookstores to shelve them!

Writers, as the corks atop  the roiling sea of change, will continue to adjust. Indies are always experimenting with things like Kindle exclusivity versus “going wide.” There are also scads of startups who want to partner with authors for publication and distribution. All I can say to that is, caveat scriptor! Do your homework before signing over your life’s work. For while there are top-notch companies like Brach Books, there is also a cautionary tale in the shuttering (and withholding of royalties) by AllRomance.

Are We All Part of The Gas Lamp Industry Anyway?

The larger question is whether book publishing itself is in its last phase as a human enterprise. There was a need for gas lamplighters 120 years ago. Electricity killed that need. Human beings were out of jobs. Fast food franchises are moving to ordering kiosks, with more jobs lost.

Will the same thing happen to authors when AI starts churning out books? What Patterson does with co-writers now, AI will do by itself, a million times faster and perfectly tailored to the various market niches.

Hugh Howey predicts that AI will become “the holy grail for readers, the end of writing as a profession, and I give it anywhere from 50 – 200 years.”

Entire novels will be written from scratch by machines, a million novels spurting out in the blink of an eye, and they will be tailored to individual readers, win major awards, and be as sublime and moving as anything we’ve ever read before. We balk at the idea now, but just as manually driving a car will seem insane one day (unless on a closed track by daredevils with death wishes), a handwritten novel will also seem bizarre. Why do with long division what a calculator on our phone can do for us? Sure, people will still write, but very few will read these works. And the process will happen so gradually that hardly anyone will understand what has happened.

Sure, machines will try to take over. We’ll Sarah Connor them! And we’ll keep writing. Because what we do. Never despair over trends. We are the storytellers!

With apologies to Dylan Thomas, let me adapt his most famous poem for our purposes:

Do not go gentle onto that good page,
True writers burn and rave at gloomy news;
They type, and never think to disengage.

They know it’s hard to make a living wage.
But harder still it is to mute the Muse
Or keep their heart’s desire in a cage.

So writers, though they are of drinking age,
Will not allow surrender to the blues!
They’ll up the heat, and burst the pressure gauge!
They won’t go gentle onto that good page!

So what are your thoughts about the state of publishing-writing-print-reading these days? Any predictions for the year ahead? 


What Authors Need To Know About the Publishing Industry Today

by James Scott Bell

And by today, I mean the date of this post. Because the only constant now is change!claude-vernet-81514_1280

If you’re in the writing game to make serious bank, or at least a good side income (and only “blockheads” never write for some kind of income, according to Dr. Johnson), then you need to keep up to date on industry developments.

Now is a good time to look, as reports about the first quarter of 2016 are coming in.

Traditional Publishing Sales Are Down

According PW, sales of adult print books fell 10.3% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the first period of 2015, and ebook sales in the same category fell 19%. Regarding the latter, industry observer Mike Shatzkin says a big part of the problem is the pricing of ebooks by publishers:

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales.

casino-royale-181How much of this “pain” can the big publishers endure? Economics in a disruptive environment is merciless. Remember that scene in Casino Royale? (All the men do.) But also recall that Bond got out of it.


Barnes & Noble Barely Hanging On

The biggest bookstore chain has been closing stores and circling wagons. They’ve been emphasizing vibe (coffee house, browsing chairs) but not expanding shelf-space for books. Thus, says another article in PW:

Sales at Barnes & Noble fell 6.6% in the quarter ended July 30, compared to the same period last year. Revenue fell 6.1% in the company’s retail sector, and Nook revenue fell 24.5%. As a result of the lower-than-expected sales, B&N reported a net loss from continuing operations of $14.4 million in the period, its first quarter of 2017, compared to $7.8 million in the first period of fiscal 2016.

We all love bookstores. We hate to see physical shelf space shrink, and brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. A nice development is a rise in the local independent bookstore. Good! There are many cultural benefits to this uptick. However, the scale is small relative to a large chain, and breakout books by new authors cannot be driven on these tiny islands alone.

Meanwhile, Amazon Opens Another Physical Bookstore in San Diego

This to go along with their first such store in Seattle. And there are plans to open stores in Chicago and Portland.

According to industry observer Jane Friedman, here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s bookstores:

  1. They have a relatively small square footage when compared to Barnes & Noble. The most recently opened store is 3,500 square feet, and the average Barnes & Noble is ten times that size, sometimes more.
  1. All the books are face out, so the emphasis is on curation.
  1. No prices are listed; customers have to check book prices on their phones.

On this last point, a marketing professor quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune says the intent is to “drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system.” The books “act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of [Amazon] Prime membership.”

Amazon has proven over and over again to be ahead of the curve, as they say, even though the curve these days is as formidable as that tossed by Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Amazon keeps staying in the batter’s box making contact.

What Should Writers Do?  

This is a blog for writers, so the key question for me is always what do I and my fellow scribes need to be about in these turbulent times?

My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.

Next, turn your ear to wisdom, and your heart toward understanding (Proverbs 2:2). You need to decide what path to pursue as a writer, and how to do so with eyes open and good business practices. Thus: 

Perspective #1 – Indie Writers

In a comment on the PW site, the estimable Hugh Howey said, in part:

The reality is that acquisitions and mergers have hidden the steady loss of market share by the Big 5, market share gladly gobbled up by self-published authors. Coloring books, plays, and rejected rough drafts have also helped the last two years, but it’s hard to rely on these things going forward. And publishers have to stop believing surveys that say people prefer print books. Yeah, the people who don’t read much do.

If the Big 5 are going to continue to guide their businesses by personal editorial tastes, celebrity tomes, and the whims of those who read (but probably don’t finish) 2 – 3 books a year, they’re in trouble. The real market for publishers should be the voracious readers who consume several books a week.


For authors, this time of flux is critical. As bookshelves dwindle, and B&N appears on the verge of going the way of Border’s, now would be a terrible time to take a work of art that lasts forever and sign it over to any publisher for term of copyright. The new standard has to be 5 to 7 years of license, or self-publish, until things shake out.

One ongoing debate is about whether an indie author should go exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities (such as limited free pricing), and the page payouts of Kindle Unlimited. I think this is a great option for new writers who need to get eyeballs on their pages so they can begin building a readership. See the substantial discussion and links in the section on Kindle Unlimited in Jane Friedman’s post, mentioned above.

Perspective #2 – Traditionally Publishing Writers 

For those writers in the midst of––or are hoping to land––a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed. You need to know what to accept, what to reject, and where to compromise.  Which also means knowing what your leverage is. If you are being represented by an agent, this is a conversation to have with them. (Oh, are you looking for an agent? Well, maybe one is looking for you. Keep track of the new agent alerts and other info at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.)

Big tip: Don’t do any of this with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite and businesslike. But as the great Harvey Mackay counsels in Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, you need to know when to “smile and say no until your tongue bleeds.”

Mackay also says, “Make your decisions with your heart and what you’ll end up with is heart disease.” Don’t be so dreamy-eyed about being invited into the Forbidden City that you fail to make rational, long-term decisions.

A place to start is with attorney David Vandagriff’s book, The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract. Not only are important clauses explained, but Vandagriff (who is also known as the Passive Guy blogger) offers you strategies on how to make them better.

As I have stated several times, authors with a modicum of business sense (which is why I wrote How to Make a Living as a Writerare the only corks on this roiling sea of change.

Be a cork. But be a smart cork. Subscribe to the Publishing Trends blog, which posts links to the “Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week.” Also consider a paid subscription to “The Hot Sheet” the twice-monthly industry dispatch written by the aforementioned Jane Friedman and journalist Porter Anderson.

Because information is now the coin of the realm. Get the info, digest it, use it. But don’t ever let it freak you out. Remember:


What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry going? How are you, as a writer, dealing with constant change?


2016 Publishing Trends

Jordan Dane


I recently received an email from a reader fan who complained about not having access to my Amazon Kindle Worlds (KW) digital books in Australia. I’ve heard this complaint before regarding the difficulty of obtaining US books in other countries. You’d think that in this digital world, it would be easier to satisfy markets all over the globe (especially with digital books), but not so. In the case of Kindle Worlds, the division is separate from Amazon and has to build upon its infrastructure and distribution resources. KW will be in Australia eventually—things are changing—but online retailers restrict certain markets because of their selling platform limitations. Yet the world is becoming borderless and more universal, so it got me thinking about trends in the publishing industry that have changed how books are created, marketed, and distributed.

1.) Publishers Optimizing Licensing Prospects – Publishers over the globe are recognizing the value of licensing and holding tightly to the rights they have under contract. Licensing, traditionally a subsidiary rights value, could become a larger contributor to a publisher’s cash flow if the house can expand its reach into the global marketplace. International borders would become less important (not an obstacle) and publishers could expand their reach in creative ways by enhancing the book experience for the reader. Plus, larger houses could continue to acquire struggling mid-sized houses to acquire these rights that they could exploit across the globe.

How can indie authors exploit their sub-rights (ie foreign language translations, audio, film rights, serial rights, and merchandising)? They can either sell those rights themselves, or have an agent do it for them, or exploit these rights on their own, such as audio rights for independent artists and authors through ACX, Spoken Word Inc, and Open Book Audio. If the author controls the artwork for their covers or develops a series logo as a brand, they can control merchandising through service providers like Café Press, Zazzle, and DeviantArt. For foreign language rights, some independent authors have worked directly with translators, offering them nothing up front but with 20% of proceeds on the back end. If you’re not daring enough to go directly to the translators, there are ways for author right holders to be matched with publishers willing to acquire such rights through a site called PubMatch. (Pubmatch is free to join but when I input my profile, they asked for money to be paid annually since I was submitting books for consideration. I paid a nominal fee of 19.99 for a year and will see how things go.) The author would create a profile and either wait to be contacted on their offerings or be more proactive by searching the profiles of publishers listed on the site, similar to the way ACX (for audio) is set up.

2.) The Importance of Local POD Providers – There have been some out-of-the-box thinkers who see the value in “local” print on demand (POD) options as a means to get around the international obstacles of limited selling platforms. My reader in Australia could wait for Amazon KW to expand its reach into the country, or some entrepreneurial company (like a more nimble micro-publisher) could simply place an order at any local POD service providers in various countries to create a bigger marketplace. Could this lead to niche POD companies springing up to support a strengthening print sales demand across the world? Only time will tell.

3.) Print Book Resurgence – It wasn’t long ago that people were predicting the death of the print book, but quite the opposite has happened with stronger print sales being reported in 2015. Perhaps this is because publishers now have more control over pricing after the reintroduction of agency pricing through online retailers like Amazon. And with demand strong and the boutique model dominating digitals, larger publishers are optimizing their marketing strategies by attempting to manipulate their print prices up.

How? By offering fewer books for predominantly well-known authors with large readerships—books that are in demand—publishing houses can control how books are launched, pricing-wise. With ebooks priced nearly on parallel with print sales, publishers can create a value-related decision point for readers to evaluate whether they would rather own a print book versus a digital copy. At certain prices, readers will make the choice to own a print copy, even if they are paying slightly more. Would you pay an extra $2.00 to own a hard copy print book?

But it’s not all rosy for large houses, even with the glimmer of print sales being up. Overall, traditional publishers are offering fewer books to the reading public—focusing on big name authors—so they must squeeze profitability out where they can. They won the right to control their pricing through online retail giant Amazon, but Amazon is quietly expanding their reach as a service provider and/or a publisher, working with indie authors and micro-publishers with revenue from all sources. We live in interesting times.

4.) The Rise of Alternatives to Traditional PublishersAuthorEarnings.Com reports that in 2015, nearly half of all ebooks sold on Amazon (the most influential digital retailer) are either self-published, published by micro-publishers, or are generated through an Amazon Imprint. Here’s their ebook breakdown by publisher type:

Big Five Published 33%
• Indie Published 34%
• Micro-Publishers 19%
• Amazon Imprint 10%
• Misc 4%

So this is what I mean about Amazon making money off the competition of traditional houses. As a service provider, and an imprint, Amazon doesn’t have to be in direct competition with traditional houses as their only source of revenue.

5.) The Retail Gorilla – According to AuthorEarnings.Com – the overall market share of US ebook unit sales is dominated by Amazon at 74% with the balance held by other online retailers: GooglePlay, Kobo, Nook, Apple, and miscellaneous others. So if you’re an indie author with a limited budget, where would you spend your ad dollars?

For Discussion:

1.) Have you noticed any interesting trends in the publishing industry that has affected how you do business as an author?

2.) Whether you’re a traditionally published author, independent author, or a hybrid author with feet in both camps, have you been rethinking the value of sub-rights?


Once Again, The Future of Publishing

psychics-1026092_1920It happens every year or so. A bigwig from the traditional publishing world takes a look at the data—usually some sort of downturn in the industry—and writes a piece predicting the future of publishing.

Recently Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette, took a turn (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2015. Link may expire). It’s always good to hear from inside the walls of the Forbidden City. Mr. Pietsch begins thus:

I’ve been hearing about the demise of book publishing since the first day I stepped through the doors of a publisher back in 1978. But here we are still, publishers like Little, Brown, with histories going back 100 and 200 years. What other American industry has companies still in existence after two centuries, evolving and modernizing but still doing much the same work? The most recent variant of the death watch: A digital revolution would cause e-books to replace printed ones, authors would overwhelmingly choose self-publishing, and publishers would follow carriage makers into oblivion.

Mr. Pietsch then notes that e-book revenue for major publishers has “topped out” (this datum has been misreported in the media as reflecting a downturn in the overall e-book market. Such is not the case).

What of the boom in self-publishing? Mr. Pietsch gives it a nod, but also notes:

But writers like to be paid, in advance, for their work. Publishers are investors and risk takers. And a publishing company with longstanding media and marketing relationships is far more capable of getting attention for a new book than a writer working alone.

This deserves a closer look. Writers like to be paid period. And they like payments to be a fair exchange. Currently, big publishing is holding firm with its contracts, the boilerplate of which hearkens back to when the industry was an oligopoly, “a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers.”

Indeed, the Authors Guild has begun an initiative that seeks more equitable contract terms. But this effort is running into the merciless force field of big business, which is electrified by the need for profit. And an enterprise does not generally increase its profits by raising its own costs.

So a writer looking at a modest advance (the norm these days) must make a decision. Yes, a big publisher can get a book “attention.” But not for every book. Not even for most books. And a book that does not get the big push and doesn’t sell well means the author will probably be let go—without, by the way, retaining the rights to his work.

Still, there are writers who want to spin that Wheel of Fortune. If they win, they win big. If wheel4they lose, there is at least an alternative for them that never existed before. As indies they’ll be starting from square one (or maybe square two or three, with a bit of a readership), but at least they won’t be outside the walls of the Forbidden City, in the cold, blowing on their hands, begging to be let back in.

Mr. Pietsch insists that a publisher’s “essential work” is “identifying, investing in, nurturing, and marketing great writers.” I would ask: how much of an investment? How lasting the nurturing?

Sometimes a deal pays off and a book is a smash and the author moves to the A-list. But this doesn’t happen often. And it doesn’t happen at all for midlist authors who are dropped by their former nurturers for lack of numbers.

Yet many of these midlisters are now making good money by going indie. Some have secured rights to their backlist (though publishers are digging in their heels these days)—or they are being productive with new work on a consistent basis.

On the future of the business, Mr. Pietsch says:

Ever-larger retailers and wholesalers bring significant margin pressure, which will lead to continued conglomeration. Social media will continue to expand the writer’s ability to connect with readers; publishers will deepen their relationships with writers, but they’ll also create content of their own. As runaway books sell ever-larger numbers, publishers will earn more on their biggest sellers—which will keep driving up the advances they pay for potential hits. At the same time, publishers will need to innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.

I would like to hear some details on how publishers can “deepen their relationships with writers.” I have a large number of professional writing friends, and for all of them the relationship with a publisher has been based, over and above all else, on the counting of beans. When the beans are flowing, the author and publisher are a regular Mike and Carol Brady. But when the beans dry up, it’s Al and Peg Bundy … usually ending in divorce.

This, by the way, is not a knock on publishers. It’s simply the way things are, and always have been, for big business. You can’t keep sinking dollars into a widget that isn’t selling. And in this day of market disruption and volatility, there is no longer the patience to hang on to a once-promising author to see if he can make a comeback.

Which is why Mr. Pietsch is correct that the only way forward for the industry is to hope for more “runaway books.” I just wonder about the assumption that they will sell in “ever-larger numbers.” And how many times a big bet can be placed on a “potential” hit.

In any event, I do think a robust, traditional publishing industry is a good thing to have around. When it scores, it brings books and authors the attention they deserve.

But the landscape is now in a permanent state of disequilibrium. Meaning, yes, that big publishers must “innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.”

Kind of like the ever-increasing corps of authorpreneurs who have been writing and innovating for years.

So what is your take on the future of the publishing business? Can the Bigs survive in their present condition? Will self-publishing continue to provide serious revenue to enterprising and productive authors?




Speaking of the present, the first Sister J vigilante nun novelette, FORCE OF HABIT, is FREE through Thursday on Amazon. Get in on the kicks!


Beating Free


February 1973 was a month of uncertainty for me. I was ready to graduate from college in a few months and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I “grew up” (a state of mind which continues, verily, to this very day!). I somehow found myself being interviewed by the head of an insurance firm, a very nice guy who sensed almost immediately, as I had, that putting me in his office would be inserting a round stick of dynamite into a square…well, office. We had a cordial conversation anyway, and at the conclusion of it he showed me a blocky machine that was hooked up to a television. “This,” he said, “is the future.” He picked up a rectangular object that looked like an audio cassette on steroids, inserted it into the machine, and turned on the television so we could watch a gentleman nervously give a lecture about actuarial tables and premiums and whole life insurance and the like. What I was being shown was something called a VCR in U-Matic format, the forerunner to Betamax and VHS and the grandparent to DVDs and yes, streaming. I was assured that within a few years there would be one of these machines, or something like it, in every home in the country. My new friend probably had no idea how that machine, and its descendents, would change things. I didn’t either, but I felt that ground move. This thing was a game changer.

I had the same feeling, and not in a good way, when I was wading through my emails yesterday and found a news release about a company named CzurTek (pronounced “SEE-zer Tek”) which has developed a relatively high-speed book scanner called “Czur” (just like Julius) which it appears to intend to sell for around $169.00 and which it is attempting to bring to market by crowd-sourcing.

czur scanner

The video of it is impressive, for sure; Czur does involve some human interaction, but nothing that a semi-sober fraternity brother couldn’t handle. There is a lot of talk about algorithms and the like that I didn’t understand but the legal part of me got went on high alert: the bad kind. I remember what happened, and is still happening, to the music industry, when CD players and copiers started appearing as basic equipment on home computers. “RIP AND BURN!” became the catchphrase of the day. It used to be that if you wanted to have a bestselling album you had to sell a million copies or more in a week. A lot of people did that, too. Now, not so much. You can hit the top of the charts on some weeks by bringing home unit sales of five figures. People don’t buy a lot of music anymore; they go to peer-to-peer sites or they stream it but they don’t buy a lot of it. It’s tough to beat free. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened fast enough that no one knew what was happening. I think that we are about to see the same thing happen, and with books this time. And it comes at a time when the industry, including the publishers and authors, can’t take the hit.

The folks at CzurTek know exactly what they are doing. The video I have linked you to above seems benevolent enough — there’s talk of copying rare and delicate manuscripts to preserve them, for but one example — but when you go to their Facebook page the 800-pound bear in the room is too much to ignore. Witness this, taken from the August 30, 2015 post off of CzurTek’s site, which infers that the idea for Czur sprung from the high cost of textbooks:

Normally one textbook is more than 100 dollars, and sometimes a professor will ask us to buy 6 or 7 of them.

In order to solve this problem, some of my schoolmates would buy second-hand books, or photocopy them. I once borrowed my roommate’s camera to take pictures of an entire book. It was really tiring, and hard to get high-quality pictures when the pages are curved.

Two years later….

in Shenzhen, we decided to have a go at solving this problem. After several attempts, we found that digitizing the books seemed to be the best approach. However, a book scanner costs tens of thousands of dollars, which is beyond the reach of ordinary people. So we decided to create one ourselves! Over the past 3 years, in the course of visiting numerous factories and testing our algorithm hundreds of times, we have turned ourselves into specialists in this area.


all the technical problems have been solved, and the prototype is ready. Ten minutes is all it takes to scan a 300-page book easily and comfortably; scanning of personal documents is possible as well. No more lugging heavy books all over campus! What’s more, if you haven’t finish reading a library book by the due date, just make a permanent copy for yourself. The robust OCR software included means the electronic document can be edited, a great help for essay writing.

In other words, if a book is too expensive, just copy it. If it’s due back at the library and you’re not done with it, copy it. If the books are too darn heavy, copy them. Edit the text and put it in your essay! The CzurTek website even talks about building your own library for free, of course.

I’m not without sympathy, up to a point. College textbooks are extremely expensive. There are reasons for this, particularly with respect for those dealing with higher mathematics, biology, and physics, but that’s a topic for another time. But does the cost — or that they’re too heavy, or due back at the library — make it okay to steal them? Just copy them.

This isn’t the future. It’s already here. There are a bunch of book scanners on the market right now that don’t quite do the job well, but have the basics down. If Czur isn’t the gamechanger it appears to be, someone else will make one that is, and make it soon. The issue then becomes whether you want to spend a year of your life creating something that gets copied and probably illegitimately disseminated as soon as it is published, with no compensation to you. To go back to the music business: musical artists have found other revenue streams, such as licensing their music to film projects, tee-shirts, bumper stickers, tours, and the like. Their music? The newbies give it away, in the hope that someone will come to their concerts and buy merchandise. What are authors going to do? Tours? Please. Do you really think that someone is going to buy a ticket to listen to (fill in the blank) read or give a talk. Tee-shirts? C’mon.

I’ve prattled on a bit too long on this, and I apologize for that. I see this, however, as a significant problem. Am I Chicken Little? Or am I Dr. Miles Bennell? If I’m right, what are we — you, me, and the publishing industry — going to do about it? You tell me. And as for you folks at CzurTek…how would you feel about someone reverse engineering Czur, and giving it away for free? Sound good?



Literary Agents in the Digital Age

Gray-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing over the wine-dark sea. – Homer, The Odyssey
My friend, literary agent Wendy Lawton, recently wrote an intriguing post wondering about her own obsolescence. It is an honest and open look at the current state of affairs in traditional publishing and what that could mean for agents in the future.
This prompted a few musings of my own, from a writer’s point of view. To begin, I dip into the realm of myth.
The traditional publishing industry has long been a Forbidden Kingdom. Writers on their journey toward publication had almost no hope of entering the gates alone. They had to find someone willing to show them the way, someone with influence within the walls.
Enter the agent as mentor. That word comes from a character in The Odyssey who guides Telemachus through the dark world. It turns out later that Mentor is really the goddess Athena in disguise. She has special powers to help, and so do agents seeking to get writers their own set of keys to the Kingdom.
But here is the question: what if a new kingdom is discovered by Telemachus? And what if access to this kingdom is open to all? Does Telemachus need his Mentor anymore?
If he still wishes to enter the Forbidden Kingdom, the answer is yes. But there have been reports flown out via carrier pigeon that this Kingdom is in turmoil. There is chaos and infighting and confusion and bonfires. At the same time, word is that in the new kingdom a revolution is underway. It has no walls or gatekeepers. Writers are dancing through tulips and earning gold sovereigns all by themselves.
Why should Telemachus tarry outside the forbidden walls when he can join that dance on the other side of the river?
This is the question of the moment for writers: pursue the “forbidden kingdom” of traditional publication? Or go join the rebels?
If the former, which is certainly a free and legitimate choice, you need a mentor, a guide. You need someone who: knows who is buying what, can brainstorm a project with you, can negotiate a contract, can collect your money, can buck you up when you’re down, can feed you valuable information about the industry.
If you decide to go solo, you will need to fill your own gaps in “quality control,” and believe me, you’ll have them. You’re on your own, and not every adventure into the forest ends happily. Start the journey with your eyes wide open.
As e-books continue toward becoming the primary delivery system (you no doubt saw that Amazon sold four times the number of Kindles on Black Friday this year than they did last year). agents become crucially important in the negotiation of contracts. For example, the agent should fight against draconian option and non-compete clauses. There should be real give and take with a publisher, keeping the long view and the writer’s best interests in mind.
But as we all know the traditional publishing industry faces challenges of major proportions, and that has affected agents. Advances are low and not as many deals are being struck. Thus, some agents have become de facto publishers, which has raised concerns about conflict of interest. Others are actively seeking to secure the best e-rights options for their clients.
Agents are human. Not all of them are good. I’m fortunate in that my own agent, and the agents I know personally, are superb professionals. But there are lemons out there, so know this: having no agent is better than having a bad agent. And the best agents will see the value in the author having a platform-building presence on the indie publishing side of the valley.
Like everyone else in the publishing game, agents are going to have to explore ways to adapt to the increasing rate of change. But they will continue to have a role to play because traditional publishing still exists.
What do you think the future holds for agents? 


Publishers Trying Stuff

We’ve been all over the e-book revolution here at TKZ. Last month I asked what the publishing industry would look like in six months. We’re starting to see some things taking shape.
First, the news. The publishing industry’s first quarter stats are in, and here’s the headline:
E-book sales are up 159.8%. Adult hardcover and mass market paperback sales are down 23.4%.
If you were an American car manufacturer and you saw that sales of Japanese made cars were up 158.8% and sales of American cars were down 23.4% in the first quarter, what would you do? I’ll tell you what you would do. You would run to the federal government and ask it to bail you out.
Traditional book publishers can’t do that. (Well, I guess they could try, but it would be a tougher sell than a Charlie Sheen self-help book.)
So what should they do? Try stuff. Innovate. Move fast.
There’s a problem, though. It’s not easy for major industries to change. Publishers have been operating under a model that is a hundred years old. But the market does not care. It is merciless. So adapt or be left in the dust.
This week one of the major Christian book publishers, Tyndale, announced a “digital first” imprint. They are going to bring out four fiction titles in July that are e-book only, by new authors. Then they’ll add non-fiction titles. If a title performs well, they will consider giving the author a print run.
Tyndale issued a press release that read, in part:
Lisa Jackson, Associate Publisher explains, “The world of publishing is shifting rapidly, and it’s important that we as publishers deliver content in as many ways as possible. The Digital First project allows us to get fresh, new voices into the marketplace more quickly and efficiently than ever before.”
“I am very excited about this new initiative,” says Ron Beers, Senior Vice President and Publisher. “Tyndale has always been known for its innovation. Now we are working hard to be at the leading edge of the digital publishing revolution and to use that creativity and expertise to most effectively launch new voices into the marketplace. We are one of the few houses that has invested heavily in in-house digital expertise and this has allowed us to be more nimble yet strategic in bringing digital content to market.”
Looking at this from a business angle, this seems like a solid move. Whether this will be a net positive for the bottom line cannot be predicted. There are too many variables and the landscape changes almost daily. But it’s proactive and “outside the box,” and that’s what it’s going to take to survive. Plus, it lowers the risk of finding new authors the old way, via advance and print runs and hoping to sell through. It’s like a farm system.
Now, what about the writers? How is this deal for them? I have not seen an actual contract, but I have heard informally that we’re talking very low advances with a higher percentage on the back end, between 30 – 50% royalty.  IOW, shared risk and reward.
Seems like a win-win.

Yet the stats above indicate that print is in a downward trajectory. So will being “in print” mean the same thing a year from now? Will there be enough shelves for the new writers to occupy?

What do you think? 

What Will Book Publishing Look Like in 6 Months?

There’s an old joke about a guy who goes to see his surgeon. The surgeon has bad news: they’re going to have to operate. The guy says he can’t afford the operation. So the surgeon says, “No problem. For a hundred bucks I’ll touch up the x-rays.”
Right now a lot of people think touching up the x-rays is the way to save traditional publishing. They know that major surgery is required but have no idea where to cut, what to look for, or how to make it better.
It’s really no one’s fault. Stuff happens. In this case, the stuff is e-publishing/reading, and it has exploded faster than most thought possible. And big industry is not built to change on a dime. It’s not even built to change on an open road, especially when there are all sorts of trails and byways it has never explored, or even been equipped to explore.
Meanwhile, a bad business spiral only increases in speed.
Bookstores are closing. Revenues for print books are way down. That means fewer books published on paper. Even those that are P-published have fewer places to go. They sure ain’t going to Borders.
The trend line for print is not good. According to the American Association of Publishers, in January of this year hardcover sales were down 11.3% and mass market paperbacks down 30.9%.
Further, the old way people used to find books –- browsing and being hand-sold by trusted folks in physical bookstores — is over. Gone. Finito.
The big publishers didn’t want that to happen. 
But it has.
And we have to acknowledge the reality and not get out the Sharpies to cover spots on the x-ray film. (see also, “Sand, Ostrich Head In”)
The ever insightful Mike Shatzkin sums it up:
I take no pleasure in the big publishers’ pain. It is a matter of professional pride to me to not allow my preferences to color my predictions. I love bookstores and libraries and consider the top management of the big trade houses to be intelligent, ethical, and creative people. I consider many of them friends. The fact that the transition from reading and distributing print to largely reading on screens and distributing print online makes much of their skill sets and business models obsolete is not their fault. Nor is the fact that preserving their old business, and the cash flow it still yields, sometimes interferes with inventing the new one.
The next 4 – 6 months are critical for the survival of traditional publishing in some form. It will not look like it does now. And it will never again be “the only game in town.”
Meanwhile, writers write. We know there is money to be made in self-publishing e-books. I’m experiencing that now with WATCH YOUR BACK.    
This pleases me, because it is the most elemental of transactions, just like when Og the caveman got a year’s worth of fox furs from the tribal chieftain for telling stories about heroic fights with the killer mastodons. We can go directly to readers, who can download us directly to their devices. 
There are many, many things traditional publishers do well, and have for a long time. But that is a bit beside the point. Typewriters did many things well, too.
Here’s the $64 billion question: Which traditional publishers will turn out to be like Apple and which like Underwood? What will the new industry standard look like?