Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts on the “Death of the American Author"

A fairly recent (April 7) commentary by Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, is titled “The Slow Death of the American Author.” 

While ostensibly a commentary on the first use aspect of printed books, it is a bleak assessment on the ability of an author to make a living in the U.S. And by author, I and he mean full length manuscripts and books.

I want to rail against his assessment, but the problem is that over the past few years my assessment is rather similar to Scott’s.

Think how scary it would be for the author if Amazon wins the right to “resell” used ebooks? No royalty for that second and third re-selling of an ebook. All those self-published authors who think Amazon is the next best thing to sliced bread might re-assess that if one book gets sold, via the “used” market one million times. Net royalties for the author: $2. Net revenue for Amazon, $2 million. A scary permutation of the “first use” law that will probably NOT happen, but given the U.S. copyright and patent law rulings of the past 10 years, not totally out of the question.

The changes are slow. There will be some upsides along the way. But, I wish I had a great response to counter Scott. I don’t.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Size does matter

OK, I just couldn’t help the double entendre.

A recent study on continued trends shows some interesting correlations between genre and what type of eReader the user is using. Thus, the title.

First, the number of people reading eBooks continues to increase. No surprise, but it is important to get that out of the way. This stuff matters if you are an author or a publisher.

Dedicated eBook readers tend to be the smaller, less powerful device. They are cheaper and focused on one thing: reading books.

Tablets are multifunction and the reader is simply an app on the tablet. They tend to be bigger (although a smart phone is fundamentally a micro tablet).

Finally, you still have the PC. Yes, quite a bit of reading still occurs on the PC.

Why should you care? Because the capabilities of each is different as is the type of reader.

Dedicated eReader users tend to buy general fiction, mystery, literary fiction, or romance. Computer readers tend to buy technical manuals and similar non-fiction. Phone users tend to read travel guides. Tablet users are the rest.

This matters because of the type of material presented and how you might expect it to look to the end reader. The travel guide writer and publisher needs to think about how to present key information on very small screens. But, with eBooks, you can add navigation. Easy navigation becomes important on a phone.

Technical manual writers, and other similar non fiction, can depend on a larger screen and more processing power. Sure, there will be someone who tries to read your book on a phone, but that will not be the “average” nor the trend.

Full fledged tablets will have fairly big screens, with higher resolution. Artwork and illustrated novels could work. So can cookbooks. Science Fiction and Fantasy will probably be read on a tablet.

This can matter even in the sense of the “free” partial book that you include as a publisher. If you know that the reader is on a tablet, you might not pitch the literary fiction novel there (say via iTunes).

Size/format/form factor/technology does matter and publishers and authors will need to think a little bit about which device they think their reader is reading from, because in on form or another, over 50% of your audience is on one of these devices.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

View from the trenches: Query Letters revisited.

New Libri Press has only two editors, so take what I say with a grain (or lump) of salt. We don’t represent every editor (or agent) out there—by a long shot.

Small (micro) publishers, especially newer ones, tend to be more forgiving and flexible than larger organizations. We are more casual. We tend to be technology savvy and submissions by email are the norm (the preference).

All that said, when you go into Microsoft (where I have worked) or Amazon (where I have worked) for an interview do you wear jeans with holes in them and a ratty T-shirt? You are allowed to wear those as an employee, but would you interview that way?

I hope not.

The query email (let’s not even call it a letter for many organizations) is still your interview. It’s your preliminary interview. The full interview is still the manuscript, but first impressions are important. Dress up a little bit. You can wear those ratty jeans (as I do) after you are in.

The simple stuff is important:

1) Don’t have dumb misspellings in the query. We all make mistakes, but catching it in that 200 word query should be easier.

2) I am sure this has been said a million times, but cute and wacky don’t work very often in a query.

3) In the age of Facebook, Twitter, etc., there is a temptation to do super brief, one liner queries. Just as too much isn’t great, 140 characters or less doesn’t really cut it either.

4) Need it be said, read the publisher’s/agent’s website.

5) We don’t need to hear that your goal is to get the book published. We don’t need to hear that the book will make us millions. We don’t need to hear that we would be stupid to turn it down. We don’t need to hear how great the novel is. Or how thrilling. Or how romantic. This is a bit of the old show not tell. Don’t tell us how to feel about the novel. Show us, via the novel and the query.

This sounds like a rant. It really isn’t. We love getting manuscripts and we have seen a steady average quality and quantity increase. The problem is, as we see the volume and the average quality go up, guess what happens with first impressions? They matter more.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Amazon Swallows Goodreads. Amazon: Genius? Evil? Welcome to the Zoo.

I waited a bit before deciding to comment on the recent acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon. Let it digest for a while. In interest of full disclosure, I worked at Amazon for a period of time.

Goodreads started in 2007 (or rather went “live” in 2007). Generally speaking it was one of the more independent social book review sites available. They had good success getting university writing programs to use it.There was some minor controversy that it was getting acrimonious in the Goodreads ecosystem, with some of the same issues Amazon faced vis-à-vis whether some reviewers were indeed creating legit reviews. That is a topic commented on before. It remains an issue and certainly by being “open” to any user, the risk is always there. In general, Goodreads had what I thought were better reviews and more books covered than Amazon. I even went to the trouble to “upload” a partial library list of books I own or have read (partial as the full list is many thousands).

Last year I was further encouraged by Goodreads having the courage to DROP the use of Amazon’s API for data and use Ingram and the Library of Congress.  This was about the same time that Amazon was pushing the use of Shelfari, their competitor to Goodreads. Amazon owned Shelfari since 2008, but really just let it rot until last year, when they then tried to make some tie ins to Author Central and other parts of the Amazon ecosystem.

All that has changed as now Amazon owns Goodreads in addition to Shelfari. Questions posted on Shelfari have received the expected “we’re excited about this here at Shelfari and Amazon remains committed.” Amazon is all about results. That’s its commitment. We’ll see which one lasts. The last real hold out is probably LibraryThing. I certainly hope THEY remain independent!

My real purpose was not to just ruminate on Goodreads, but to toss out a few thoughts on the genius of Amazon. I say this while over the past year lamenting Amazon’s continued growth and monopoly over the entire book industry. The method behind Amazon’s success is both genius and worrisome.

The genius of Amazon is amazingly simple, although complex to execute and a balancing act. The genius is that the end consumer, the individual, is king/queen. If I talk to authors and readers, professors who think about this sort of thing, they all agree that they “love” the independent book store. They “love” small publishers and independent publishers. When you ask these same people, who have skin in the game, where they purchased their last ten books, not to mention any other merchandise, they sheepishly admit most of it was at Amazon.

“It’s so convenient.”

“I love the reviews.”

“It’s the cheapest.”

“I know if there is an issue, Amazon will deal with it.”

It is all true. Amazon treats their customers (only their end consumer customers, the merchant is a completely different story) extremely well. Dare I say it, they are the best ONLINE retailer for customer treatment, all (by the way) without really having any human interaction.

Welcome to the Zoo.

Yes, you are treated so well that you really don’t need to leave. You don’t need to know what goes on outside of the zoo. You get the food, you have “enough” space. You really have everything you should need. You are a animal in the zoo. Why would you want to escape?

The anti-trust laws in the U.S. don’t care IF you are a monopoly, they just care if you “abuse” your monopoly power. Abuse is how you (generally speaking) treat the consumer. The book consumer wants more books, cheap? Time to pull the authors into the ecosystem to help provide cheap food for the zoo animals. Genius. Amazon doesn’t even need to do any of the work, the authors will do it for them, willingly.

Authors tend to be readers. They love Amazon’s cheap prices. Authors also tend to hate publishers—at one level. “Why am I giving up part of my money to the publisher when publishing is so cheap? Amazon makes it easy, press a button and I am published. I get to keep 70%! (Never mind that the 70% was set because of the agency pricing that Apple and publishers worked on and that Amazon fought and got the FTC to initiate proceedings on.) Thus, Amazon must be good, because that nasty publisher keeps 40-75% of that same amount of money.

Do more books get published? YES. Are more authors happy? YES. Is Amazon now more vertically integrated? YES. Are they now no longer dependent on publishers? Getting there!

It is genius. It is part of the “flywheel effect” (from the book Good to Great). They keep adding momentum to the flywheel they have going already. It all fits in.

Zoos are closed ecosystems where the animals are generally treated well and the food is free. They are also important because often times the natural habitat and food source no longer exists. It has been destroyed. Like benign dictatorships, one still feels there is something wrong with the system, but it is hard to point to the “harm” being caused.

So, with Amazon acquiring Goodreads, already owning Shelfari, already having 5-6 publishing imprints, already having two self-publishing and print on demand companies, having 80% of the ebook retail business and about 70% of the hard copy business, having a movie production studio, having IMDB database for movie reviews and you get it all with free shipping and streaming to your device it is hard to show where the consumer “suffers.”  Yet, this animal is starting to pace his cage and wonder.