Field Report From the E-Book Revolution #2


UPDATE: Well, that didn’t take long. Random House and Penguin have announced their merger. So what will that mean for authors? Agent Richard Curtis has one opinion. So does The Passive Voice.


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David Letterman once did a Top Ten list of headlines that would cause a panic. Such as:


“Sometimes When We Touch” Made National Anthem.
Constitution Thrown Out in Favor of Old “Marmaduke” Cartoon.
Willie Nelson Discovered Washing Hair in New York City Water Supply.
That last one is very troubling. And in the publishing industry, it seems there are headlines each week that, if they don’t cause a panic, at least give traditional publishing executives the jimmy-legs at night. Headlines like the following:
Indeed, it was inevitable that the Big 6 would become the Big 5, and maybe even the Big 4, and that soon. I predicted this would happen sometimes in 2013. Well, the talks are happening right now.
“It’s a recognition that they don’t individually have the scale to be able to stand up to companies like Amazon or Apple,” Philip Downer, former chief executive of Borders UK who now runs the retail consultancy Front of Store, told the BBC.
Thus, it seemed apt to file another field report on developments in the e-book revolution. It was a year ago that I filed my first one. Happy anniversary:
1. The Business Cycle as a Funneling Sump Pump
Traditional publishers are in the midst of a horrible business cycle (not necessarily in terms of income, but in terms of sustainability and growth of income). We all know that, and the merger talks are a sign.
Another sign: In an effort to “streamline operations,” Simon & Schuster has reduced its adult publishing divisions from six to four, with accompanying layoffs.
Layoffs, hires and re-structuring are all focused on digital now. For example, Hachette announced changes in its sales force with an appropriate press release: “We are changing our current structure to enable HBG to meet the needs and challenges of our ever-shifting world, where digital has made a deep and lasting impression on the way HBG sells and the customers we sell to, the platforms we advertise on, and the manner and type of content we publish.”
On the other side of the publishing fence (an electric fence, BTW):
• In 2011, 39% of books were sold via some form of e-commerce. Only 26% in bookstore chains. (Source: Bowker)
• The number of self-published books produced annually in the U.S. has nearly tripled, growing 287% since 2006, with 235,625 print and e titles released in 2011. (Source: Bowker)
• And a company that recorded $13.8 billion (with a “b”) in sales this past quarter did not make a profit, but rather a $247 million loss. That company is Amazon. But it is also Amazon’s strategy. As Jeff Bezos puts it:
“Our approach is to work hard to charge less. Sell devices near breakeven and you can pack a lot of sophisticated hardware into a very low price point. And our approach is working – the $199 Kindle Fire HD is the #1 bestselling product across Amazon worldwide . . .The next two bestselling products worldwide are our Kindle  Paperwhite and our $69 Kindle.”
Is this just sound and fury? Or is it, as Forbes magazine puts it, a crafty strategy worthy of Steve Jobs? For it just may be that what Amazon is after now is Apple. As Bezos says, in a shot across the bow from the above release:And we haven’t even started shipping our best tablet – the $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9.”
And this in light of Apple’s disappointing iPad sales this past quarter.
2. The New Vanity?
“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” wrote Solomon the Wise. Was he thinking of self-publishing Ecclesiastes? Or was he hoping to sell it to a big papyrus company? One writer has gone so far as to call traditionalpublishing the “new vanity publishing.”

According to this HuffPo post, many writers “are willing to forego the benefits of self-publishing for the unshakable belief in the “prestige” of signing on with a ‘real publisher.’” He concludes:
Think about how much you are willing to sacrifice for a “real publisher.” Is the “prestige” of a traditional publisher’s imprint mostly illusory in the context of the new world of publishing? Ask what traditional publishing will do for you in the long run if you don’t get effective distribution and publicity. Which platform is more likely to bring you sizable sales? Which will help you build a large following for marketing future publications? These are critical questions that deserve serious attention, especially if you are planning a career in writing.
Is the imprimatur of traditional publishing the new “vanity” plate? Perhaps that’s not the right designation. Vanity publishing was about paying your way in with a crummy book. Traditional publishing requires a great book (and/or platform, and/or celebrity co-writer who does not really do any of the real writing but is on TV.)
But more and more authors are asking what specific benefits are there for a new writer within the walls of traditional publishing. Especially in light of low advances (or, in the case of digital only, no advance at all), the semi-fixed royalties in the publishers’ favor, the shrinking of shelf space, and the lack of a significant marketing push unless you have a “name.”
If deals are to be made favorable to both sides, they will have to be creative, forward thinking, shared-risk and flexible. This is my message to the Big 6 or 5 or 4, or whoever is left standing when we file our next field report.  

As Jane Friedman (not the former CEO of HarperCollins Jane Friedman, but the publishing world observer Jane Friedman) recently wrote:

In a nutshell, I suggest that—given the changes happening in the industry—traditional publishers will need to be more author-focused in their operations by offering tools, community, and education to help authors be more successful, to everyone’s greater benefit. If publishers fail to do so, then authors, who have an increasing number of publishing options available to them, will depart for greener pastures.
3. Remember Sony Reader?
With all the talk about Kindle, Nook and Kobo, it’s easy to forget the first kid on the block, the Sony Reader. Yes, it’s still out there and people still have them. But if Kindle is Godzilla, and Nook is The Hulk, and Kobo is Mothra, what would Sony Readers be? Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Because at least they are alive and kicking. From a press release this week:
Today Sony Reader Store has announced the launch of its inaugural virtual Book Club, the ‘Sony Readers Book Club.’ Each month, Sony Reader Store will select a book of the month. During each month, Reader Store will host a virtual Book Club meeting, an online chat with the author, on the Sony Reader Store Facebook and Twitter pages, giving participants the opportunity to interact with the author and each other and ask questions related to the book. The Sony Readers Book Club will also offer special discounts and book club extras for download, available to U.S. customers at Reader Store.
Upcoming chats will feature Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Connelly. Not a bad start. I wish them well.
4. Happiness as the New Currency
In Field Report #1 I wrote this: Authors who are succeeding at being completely independent are those who are able to bring entrepreneurial analytics to the task. If you’re going to publish successfully as an indie, you have to think like a business.
Which is why, not long after, I published Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books. I’ve used the formula successfully for going on two years now, and am holding workshops to help others do the same.
Because I want writers to be happy in their work.
I have a friend who is a New York Timesbestselling author. He has found advances decreasing and the publishing lag time of 18 months – 2 years intolerable. So he has self-published his new book, in both e form and POD (Print On Demand). He has set up his own book signings with independent bookstores. And he’s happy about it.
I have another friend who is a successful screenwriter. But he now finds the whole vibe of the business “soul sucking” and longs to get out and just write fiction. He has self-published a thriller, and I’m helping think things through.
You see, sometimes being happy as a writer is worth trading in other things that just don’t matter so much anymore.
Happiness just may be the new currency in the writing game. Make your choices accordingly.


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A Little of This, a Little of That

I visited one of our local Barnes & Noble superstores — one of those two story freestanding buildings that one can get lost in for hours — and was on the receiving end of a mental gut punch. A good portion of the second floor which had formerly been set aside for fiction has been given over to the expanded children’s section. I don’t have anything against children’s books, mind you; if young ones don’t love reading early it’s doubtful they’ll develop even a deep fond for it later — but a lot of what I saw consisted of book-related merchandise (stuffed animals and the like) as opposed to books. What caused the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach (and yes, there’s quite a distance to be traversed before one reaches my pit) was that I recalled a very similar occurrence several years before. There was a popular chain store named Media Play that I used to frequent. I walked into one about a year after digital downloading of music became popular, and found that their music CD section was reduced by forty percent. Media Play, by the way, is no longer in business.

What you will find at Barnes & Noble: signs everywhere you look for the Nook (you might say they‘re in every cranny). And the Nook will be available at your local Wal-Mart beginning Monday October 25. You’ll be able to find the Kobo there as well, along with the Sony e-book Reader and something called the iPad. The battle has been joined.

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Here’s an idea for you: renting e-books. If you can’t afford Ken Follett’s latest book, even as an e-book, rent it for two bucks for two weeks. Pay two bucks, download a DRM-protected file to your Kindle (or Sony Reader, or Nook, or iPad) and read it. It disappears after two weeks. The provider gets a cut and — yes! — the author and the publisher (if there is one) get royalties as well every time a book is downloaded. Under the traditional library model, nobody gets anything when a book is borrowed from the library. I remember a few years ago when I went to borrow a book about a Da Vinci code or something or other and was on a waiting list behind 288 people. If you don’t want to wait to read it, then for a couple of bucks you won’t have to. Reader’s groups would love this. You wouldn’t need a public, tax-supported entity to sustain it, either. I don’t see libraries loving this idea (or jumping on it (some libraries offer audio book and e-book downloads, but the selection is paltry) but its meant as an alternative, not a substitute, to libraries. And suppose you really like the book, and want to keep it? Your rental fee could count, in full or in part, toward the purchase price.
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A new site to bookmark and check daily: Len Wanner’s The Crime Of It All The Crime Of It All
The Crime Of It All

. It’s devoted to mystery and crime fiction. Worth a look and a read. Repeatedly.

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And speaking of reading: I’m juggling two books. One is NASHVILLE CHROME by Rick Bass, a fictional treatment of the history of country music’s Brown Family. It’s a wonderfully told cautionary tale about the downside of getting what you wish for. The other is BOOK OF SHADOWS by Alexandra Sokoloff, a beautifully dark tale by one of my favorite authors and people.

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The iPad: Is it really all that?

by Michelle Gagnon

ibooks_hero_20100403.jpgI’ll start by saying that I don’t completely understand the Apple mystique, in fact I’m a little perplexed by their cult following. I appreciate my iPod and iPhone as much as the next person (although AT&T easily takes the prize for the worst network). But in my experience, some of the Apple products leave much to be desired. My husband finally convinced me to switch from a PC to a Mac last year–which has absolutely been a mixed bag. Some of the programs, like iPhoto and Scrivener, I love. Yet I can’t fathom why there isn’t a blogging program for Macs that holds a candle to Live Writer. On the plus side: fewer viruses and crashes. But I sorely miss Microsoft Outlook.

So with all the hoopla surrounding the release of the iPad, I was skeptical. It looked big, for one thing. What I like about the Kindle and the Sony Reader is that they manage to mimic the experience of reading a book. You open something, hold it in both hands. In comparison the iPad appears unwieldy, roughly the size of a dinner plate. I couldn’t imagine holding this big flat thing and reading off it.

But then a friend brought one over for me to test drive. Wow. It has all the features of the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader. It’s light and comfortable to hold. The pages actually appear to turn, which is a neat trick. And that’s just the beginning.

There’s been a lot of chatter about eBooks and what they mean for the industry. Most of the debate has centered around issues like the recent Amazon/Macmillan pricing standoff, and what kind of ebook rights authors should be getting. There are those who claim that within a decade print books will be a rarity, limited editions published exclusively for collectors. Others say that’s an exaggeration, books are here to stay.

What’s been lost in the debate (because until now it was largely irrelevant) was how books and the entire reading experience could change. The Kindle and the Sony Reader were great, but they basically just enabled a reader to experience a book the same way they always had. The main benefit was that the font size could be adjusted, and the reader could hold a full library. Neither offered true interactivity, a bridge between books and other media.

That bridge is exactly what the iPad provides.

Check out this video of the iPad version of Alice in Wonderland (but be forewarned, it’s a little frenetic. I’d advise against clicking on the link if you’re prone to seizures).

Wow. Seeing that, I finally grasped the iPad’s potential. For one thing, it could revolutionize children’s books (although I’m hard pressed to name a parent who would hand a relatively fragile $500 device over to their child). And for graphic novels, this is a complete game changer. aliceforipad041610b.jpg

On my book tour for THE GATEKEEPER, I assembled a PowerPoint display of real-life settings from the book and other materials to provide a frame of reference for readers. Just imagine if that information could actually be incorporated into the text itself.

It reminded me of reading The Da Vinci Code while vacationing in Costa Rica. I found it maddening that when so much of the plot was focused on specific paintings and statues, there were no images included in the text. With the iPad, a book could include those, plus links to video interviews with the author, related sources- really, the sky is the limit.

I’ll save a discussion of other iPad features for another day, including apps (movies look amazing on it, though, in case you’re curious). But I have to say, I’m a convert. I’ll probably wait for the inevitable price drop. When that comes, (and I suspect we’ll be seeing a huge decline in prices for eReaders across the board soon), Apple could corner the publishing market the same way that they basically appropriated the music industry. And along the way, they might end up changing what constitutes a book.


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