Tag Archives: publishing

Do You Really Need That Publisher?

In the brave new world of digital and self-publishing, Lisa Buchan, CEO of Sparkabook, poses a question that few dare to ask – do writers need a publisher?  It’s most certainly a query that traditional book agents and publishing houses loathe.  But, as authors take greater control over their work, it’s an inevitable discussion that needs to be had.

Previously, creative types labored in the name of their art.  If they encountered someone who had enough money and power to commission them to complete further works, then they were truly blessed – and ultimately so was the rest of society.  The first publishers actually were benefactors – people who sponsored a writer they liked.  And, the books these writers cranked out would go almost immediately into the patron’s personal library.  In other words, all the sculptors, painters and writers were at the mercy of these affluent individuals.  The patrons weren’t making an “investment,” since they didn’t need to generate income for themselves.  Art was done purely for art’s sake.

Contemporary publishing isn’t quite so paternalistic, but it’s close.  When a publisher accepts a manuscript, they truly are making an investment in the author – in both time and money.  They work with the author to polish the final product; have someone design the book jacket and any illustrations inside the text; and engage in marketing and advertising.  Consequently, for their efforts, the publisher lops off a certain percentage from the profits.  Book agents do basically the same, except the actual printing.  If the writer is foolish enough to relinquish all rights, then that means the publishing house can sell movie or TV rights to the book, and the only benefit the writer will see is his or her name in small print beneath the term, “Based on the book by…”

As with any investment, it’s always a risk.  An agent or editor may fall in love with a particular book, but – even with heavy marketing – that’s no guarantee it will sell.  Every publishing house wants to discover the next Stephen King or Anne Rice.  But, they won’t know if they don’t take a chance with the writer.  King, for example, couldn’t get any of his horror short stories published when he began his writing career.  So, porn magazine purveyor Larry Flynt, of all people, published them.  Ernest Hemingway endured almost a hundred rejections before he got his first story published.  If a publisher doesn’t accept someone like John Grisham – only to see him go with another company and start making millions – then obviously that first publisher starts kicking themselves.  Therefore, publishing is filled with more regrets than glory.

But, as self-publishing gains more respectability and becomes the norm, agents, editors and publishers are squirming.  They’re akin to the British Empire seeing power slip from its grasp, as millions of people in India refuse to bow to their authoritarian rule.  It’s frightening to them, but exciting to the rest of us.

Read the rest of Buchan’s editorial here.

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DOJ Files Antitrust Suit Over E-Book Pricing

Last month the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against Apple and 5 major publishers – Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster – alleging collusion in e-book pricing and sales models.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, acting Assistant Attorney General Sharis A. Pozen and Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen made the announcement at DOJ headquarters in Washington, D.C.  It’s surprising to see that digital publishing – a truly 21st century technological phenomenon – has fallen under the glare of the nation’s top law enforcement official.  But, it’s equally serious – and perhaps even warranted – as the number of publishing outfits diminishes.  It appears the 5 publishers named in the suit most feared the Amazon giant.

According to the suit, filed in the Southern District of New York, the 5 publishers “feared that lower retail prices for e-books might lead eventually to lower wholesale prices for e-books, lower prices for print books, or other consequences the publishers hoped to avoid.”  It also mentions “deflating hardcover prices” and charges that the “Publisher Defendants were especially concerned that Amazon was well positioned to enter the digital publishing business and thereby supplant publishers as intermediaries between authors and consumers.”

When the 5 publishers couldn’t force Amazon to stop selling e-books at such sharply discounted prices, they conspired to increase those very same e-book prices and thereby limit competition in the sale of digital books.  To accomplish their goal, the publishers teamed up with Apple, which had the same desire to restrain retail price competition over e-books.”

The lawsuit further alleges that Apple wished to raise the profit margin for e-book retailers above what Amazon and its competitors had been making.  The suit also claims that prior to negotiating with Apple, executives with the 5 publishers engaged in a series of meetings, telephone calls and other communications where they “agreed to act collectively to force up Amazon’s retail prices and thereafter considered and implemented various means to accomplish that goal, including moving under the guise of a joint venture.”  One e-mail stated that “without a critical mass behind us Amazon won’t ‘negotiate,’ so we need to be more confident of how our fellow publishers will react…”  It also charges that publishers sought to destroy evidence and conceal their communications, showing they knew their activities were illicit.

This conspiracy would make the Enron scoundrels proud.  And, the 5 publishers almost sound like the “five families;” a.k.a. the mafia.  It’s distressing for writers, whose first love is the written word, to see the creative world run smack into the brutality of corporate politics.  There are mixed feelings.  On one side, no decent writer wants to see their publishing choices limited to just a handful of conglomerates.  On the other is the leeriness of government interference in the arts.  But, there’s a reason it’s called show business.  It’ll truly be interesting to see how far the DOJ will go with this case.

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The 99 Cents

When is 99¢ the most appropriate price for a writer’s work?  When it’s just a short story?  An essay?  An entire novel?  I’ve noticed a number of books offered on Amazon for 99¢, usually from first-time writers trying to get their name into circulation.  If you invested $1,000 to publish a novel yourself, you’d have to sell more than a 1,000 novels just to break even.  This issue reminds me of a question that came up years ago, when I worked for a major bank in Dallas – how does human resources decide salaries and bonuses?  What criteria do they use to determine how much someone should be paid?  If you’ve kept up with the recent financial implosions on Wall Street and around the country, you’ve surely wondered how someone could justify a 7- or 8-figure salary.

So, what price do we place on a writer’s work?  Should the writer set that standard?  Or, should the market?  And, there again, what criteria does “the market” utilize?  As publishing companies struggle to survive in a rapidly changing market, so do the writers who essentially keep them in business.  We all want to be paid what we think we’re worth, but that’s always subjective.

How often have you read a book or watched a movie and regretted paying for it?  It went on too long; it had too much filler.  People often make it through a fiction novel and think it would have been better off as just a short story.  Other times they feel a non-fiction book could have fit into a magazine article.  Agents and editors often will try to construct a book around a single good magazine piece.  Anyone submitting a nonfiction proposal probably should have published several excerpts well in advance, as a form of vetting the work.

Writers always come up with good ideas – I have a notebook filled with great synopses – but it’s a different matter to flesh it out into a coherent story that will hold the reader’s interest.  Still, you really can’t make a decent living selling your stuff for 99¢.  People may buy it, but unless you’re already independently wealthy, gainfully employed, or more than willing to suffer for the sake of your art, I don’t think you’ll be too happy with how things turned out.

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Creative Destruction

Martin Levin spent four decades in the publishing industry, before retiring and – at the age of 61 – immediately decided to attend law school.  He graduated from the New York School of Law 4 years later and found a new career with Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman in New York City.  But, he’s obviously more than a little qualified to voice an opinion on the state of publishing in America today.  In this piece, he expresses his concerns for publishing in the face of such growing enterprises as Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft.  He dubs the new wave in technology “creative destruction,” a process that has enabled “larger, well established, well financed, entrepreneurial publishers to acquire independent publishers.”  In a manner similar to how the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans controls the bulk of the nation’s financial assets, 20 publishers now control some 80% of publishing revenue in the United States.

Levin is channeling the late Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-born economist and political scientist who introduced the world to his theory of “creative destruction” in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.  Unlike stereotypical anti-capitalists who believed capitalism would be destroyed by its enemies, Schumpeter believed that it would be undermined by its own successes; that it would create a class of elitists who make their living by attacking the same system of private property and freedom necessary for the very survival of those elitists.

Levin applies Schumpeter’s theory to recent events in the publishing industry.

Last year Harper Collins, already the owner of a major religious publisher, Zondervan, acquired its significant competitor, Thomas Nelson, for $200 million.  Ironically in 2006, Intermedia had paid $473 million for Nelson.

Around the same time, Barnes & Noble decided to put its Sterling Publishing Company on the market for $115 million, so it could concentrate on its e-book reader, the Nook.  Sterling had a backlist of more than 5,000 titles and revenues close to $100 million.  But, no one was interested.  Sterling lost its CEO and 3 other executives.  B&N still owns it, perhaps realizing only now that what had been a truly valuable asset is now a liability.

Just this past March, John Wiley and Sons, original publishers of Moby Dick, announced it would explore the sale of its print and digital assets that if felt were no longer in line with the company’s long term strategies.  Wiley had carefully procured the targeted assets, many of which had been freestanding companies.  They included CliffsNotes and Webster’s New World Dictionary.  At the same time, Wiley had acquired a workplace learning solutions company, Inscape Holdings, for $85 million.  They then bought another digital publisher, Structure, making it clear that they see their future in technology.

Also last year, Bloomberg, a global business and financial news corporation, bought BNA, the 19th largest publisher in the U.S.  BNA specializes in publishing for business, legal and government professionals.  Thus, the union creates a new monolithic entity, apparent in the $990 million cash payment Bloomberg made to shareholder employees.  That’s roughly $600,000 for each shareholder.

In 2008, Zagat, publisher of a survey directory for diners, placed itself on the market for $200 million, then withdrew its offer when no takers arose.  Three years later Zagat finally found the appropriate buyer – Google, which paid $161 million.  Zagat’s directory will now join Google’s other online programs, such as Google Maps.

With such mega-mergers in mind, Levin asks, “is it within reason that the future buyers of publishers will be a non-conventional buyer?  And if so, is it hard to speculate about list of potential buyers who may be interested in acquiring book publishing companies?”

Mergers and acquisitions was a popular trend in the financial services industry throughout most of the 1990’s.  It came on the heels of the disastrous savings and loan collapse.  Banks grew bigger, with tentacles reaching across the country and across the globe; an endeavor some saw as ultimately beneficial to the consumer.  But, with the recent housing market catastrophe, which was tied directly to the banking industry, the entire concept of a company growing larger just for the sake of it is questionable.

As for Amazon, Levin points out the obvious: it led the way in the e-book market with its Kindle device and it is now a full-fledged publisher, as well as a top book distributor.  Microsoft is close behind, and Facebook is now maturing along with its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Everyone in the publishing industry is asking what the future look like.  It’s the million- (or billion) dollar question.  Some smile at the prospects, seeing nothing but a bright, infinite horizon.  Others squirm at the thought of a handful of publishing titans deciding what writers should be published and therefore, what consumers should read.  It could mean that a small number of powerful people will decide what information is released and when.  I have to admit I have my own qualms at such a future.  If the banking and housing industry crises are any indication, it doesn’t look that bright.  I’m not clairvoyant and I’m not among the monied elite, so I’ll just wait – and keep writing like the rest of us.

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Amazon’s Trojan Horse

Count Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, among Amazon’s detractors.  In an essay on Paid Content last month, Milligan suggests that the publishing and book distribution giant’s business practices may pose a threat to American intellectual freedom.  He highlights the recent dispute between Amazon and the Independent Publishers Group over Kindle versions of some 5,000 titles IPG had in stock.  IPG refused to bow to Amazon’s demands for better contract terms.  It may be the first volley in a long battle to unseat Amazon’s increasing domination of the publishing world.  IPG is second to Amazon in book distribution.

“Amazon’s recent actions have already cut the sales of the small press I run by 40 percent.  Jeff Bezos could not care less,” Milligan claims in his editorial, speaking of Amazon’s CEO.  He lambastes Amazon’s efforts since 2009 to engage in charity by giving fairly large grants “to nonprofit organizations involved in literature and literacy.”  But, there is no application process; Amazon just asks for nominations.  Amazon says upfront that it’s looking for “innovative groups with a proven track record of success; an ability to work effectively with us to execute on the organization’s goals, including appropriate public outreach; and an established presence and voice in the publishing community.”  So far, these grants have appeared on the doorsteps of otherwise unsuspecting organizations.

Wings Press is a for-profit business and therefore, not eligible for grants – from anyone.  If Milligan sounds bitter, it’s understandable.  He publishes mostly poetry, a literary art form that’s often ignored by mainstream publishing houses.  If making a living from writing novels is difficult, poets embody the true spirit of the starving artist!  But, Milligan publishes works based primarily on its literary merits, not just to make money.  As a major corporation, Amazon, on the other hand, clearly is out to make a profit.  Offering “grant” money to charitable entities is a noble endeavor, but not if the giver is directing profits back to themselves.  Thus, is Amazon really just giving a proverbial Trojan horse?  It may be a matter of interpretation.  Read the rest of Milligan’s essay and decide for yourself.

Additional source.

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What Comes First, the Platform or the Book?

Should anyone who wants to write a book already have a published collection of, say, short stories or essays?  It’s like learning to walk before you can run, and it’s a question Edward Nawotka proposes in this brief editorial.  As someone who’s still trying to get his first novel published – without having so much as a short story in print – this piqued my curiosity.  Some people are fortunate in that they write a book that catches a publisher’s fancy, which in turn, catches the public’s attention and launches a successful career.  Others write a book based on a lifetime of personal adventures; pulling together years of true experiences in teaching, law enforcement, or whatever.  But, Nawotka asks if someone can write a book and then “develop a platform to go along with it.”  Is it too conceited for someone to conjure up a magnificent tale and then seek an audience for it?  It’s an interesting hypothesis, and I know a lot of people are that confident in themselves to do it.  But, it seems to go against one of the first tenets of writing: know your audience and target your work for them.  It’s also akin to composing an outline, or synopsis, before actually writing.  I’ve never done an outline, except for high school and college essays.  But, I’ve found synopses work well for me.  I can understand the urge of some writers just to get something down.  Often, I have strange ideas and visions germinate in my brain, ultimately forcing me to put them down into a tangible form without concern for any prospective audience.  But, that’s just how I am.  We writers are a curious lot anyway; often very introverted and introspective.  No single formula for getting our stories out works for everybody.

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The Battle of Book Discovery

For any writer, getting a book published is the first hurdle in the business end of the overall writing journey.  Marketing is the second – and perhaps toughest – hurdle.  If you’re like me, your mind spits a slew of creative plot lines and story ideas.  But, actually marketing the final product is worst than a job interview.  Obviously, no one outside of your close circle of family and friends will read your book if they can’t find it.  Whether it’s traditional publishing or e-publishing, getting your name out there is critical to your success.

Otis Chandler, founder and CEO of Goodreads, uses the title of the classic Jacqueline Susann book, Once Is Not Enough, to describe the need for readers to take interest in a particular tome.  Unless you’re simply a compulsive person, he states in this article, you need to run across a title multiple times before it will stick and motivate you to buy it.  Today, amidst heated discussions about the future of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, retailers must realize, when it comes to books, “rediscovery trumps discovery.”

Goodreads is a privately run “social cataloguing” web site Chandler, a former software engineer, started in December 2006.  Individuals sign up to create a personal library of their favorite books.  It also allows them to discuss books they’ve read and suggest them to fellow readers.  Just like when people walk into a traditional brick and mortar bookstore, determined to find one particular book, they often walk out with even more.

When shopping online, people are faced with a number of options – to buy, save it to a wish list for later, share it through social media.  Everything they might want is available through a mouse-click.  At the same time, though, there’s no urgency to buy.

If enough people become interested in a particular author, the writer develops a following, or what Chandler simply dubs a “tribe.”  I think in rock n’ roll terminology, it’s a groupie.  Whatever the verbiage, every writer hopes to gain a following.  We write for the joy of it, yes, but we also want to become recognized.

This pie graph displays the 10 primary means people discover books on Goodreads:

 

Social networking has become invaluable for writers, as the publishing industry evolves and gravitates towards the electronic format.  Nothing can replace the often difficult creative process.  And, nothing can replace the equally great challenge of marketing.

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