Category Archives: publishers

Independent Bookstores = Happier Writers

BookLookI was in my late (early? mid?) twenties when knowledgeable folks explained to me why the business of writing sucked.

There was the consolidation of book distributors, the consolidation of publishers, and the consolidation of retail outlets.  There was the decline in readership, the decline of the midlist, and the decline of time new writers were given to build an audience.

Editors no longer discovered new writers.  They instead sorted through a curated selection provided by agents they knew.  Bookstores no longer made buying decisions for their local clientele nor displayed their favorites on front tables.  They instead stocked the books chosen by centralized purchasing departments and displayed books publishers paid them to display.

As a result of the shifting business landscape, writers were faced with an increasingly adversarial process.  The writer expected to invest hours upon hours to research the particular likes, dislikes, peeves, and ethics of agents and editors who required exclusive consideration for months or years before delivering rejection or acceptance.  And if it happened to be an acceptance, the writer expected the publisher might—eventually—pay her something close to what the contract said she was owed, sometime close to when the contract said she should be paid. And if the writer’s sales didn’t take off and increase, the writer could look forward to being dropped (a fear expressed, alas, by some Hachette writers who assume the publisher will penalize writers for its own contract disputes).

I know there are many people who currently decry the decline and loss of Borders and Barnes & Noble.  I’m sorry, but I cannot share the sadness.

As outlined in this article from Slate, those big box stores—the ones publishers actively supported at the expense of independent booksellers—were the primary forces that drove the business of writing into the realm of suckitude. Their buying decisions cut numerous careers short.  Their inventory policies homogenized selection to emphasize books that would sell quickly and in quantity.  Their publisher-backed display policies attempted to drive readers to what publishers wanted to sell rather than what readers wanted to read.

Thinking the fall of Big Box retailers signals the demise of literature and a decrease in a writer’s opportunity is like seeing the bankruptcy of Applebee’s as an event of culinary significance.

The Big Box book retailers, in conjunction with publishers, killed off independent booksellers some years ago, and adapted their business models to create a unified chain-restaurant experience.  Independent bookstores and online retailers actually stand a much better chance of creating a synergistic experience for readers and writers because they each provide a unique experience.  They might sell the same general products, but the specifics are what make the difference. Independent bookstores are on the rise, and have been for a few years now.  They serve their unique readership.  They like backlists.  They like unique books.  They like writers.  They are stepping into the role Big Box stores attempted, and failed, to fulfill, and they’re doing it with enthusiasm backed by business plans that play to their strengths.  They’ve adapted, they’ve opened their opportunities, and they’re happy about it.

At this point, I’m fairly certain someone is awaiting the opportunity to insert the dangers of Amazon into the discussion.  Go ahead.

But keep in mind that Amazon and other online retailers don’t remove slow-selling titles from their shelves.  They don’t pulp the backlist.  They don’t limit their displayed selection to a few publisher-funded choices.  They don’t destroy the organic process of writers growing a readership through word-of-mouth discovery and list-building.

So, as a writer and reader, I am thrilled to hear more independent bookstores are opening and thriving.  Those stores give me human connections, expertise, enthusiasm and community.  I am thrilled with large online bookstores.  Those sites give me unimaginable selection as a reader and open opportunities as a writer. Coolest of all? No one has to pick sides in this one.  Indie stores and online stores complement each other.  They don’t have to compete with each other to succeed.

For writers, the business of writing doesn’t suck so much at the moment.  In fact, I think its future looks far more interesting than its past twenty years.

Note: If you’d like to discuss the Hachette case in this context, please read these links first so we don’t waste each other’s time exchanging opinions and facts already hashed and rehashed.  If after reading, there is something new to add, awesome! Let’s talk!

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Dear Hachette,

Dear Hachette,

I’m a nobody. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I don’t have a contract with you or any of your peer companies. But I’ve known and listened to writers and editors for the last twenty years, and many of those conversations would never be placed in writing for fear of repercussions. I’ve learned a thing or three. And when I read through the latest round of open letters telling Amazon what they ought to do to support Hachette writers during your negotiations, I thought it exceedingly odd no one had written to you. Since I tend to be my own boss rather than await someone else’s action, and since no professional writers’ organization seems interested in stepping up, I’ve opted to write you myself.

You see, your writers are contracted directly with you, and not at all with Amazon, even though many target Amazon with their urging to settle disputes.  I get the impression you prefer it that way, which is an odd preference as it assumes you, Hachette, have no ability to support your writers and fulfill your contractual obligations without Amazon’s approval.  That’s an odd negotiating position for a competent company to desire.

Continue reading Dear Hachette,

Update to “Interesting Timing”

Back on May 21, I mentioned that Bowker was recommending the vanity press Author Solutions as a great place for self-publishers to find needed services.  And now–Hooray!–the endorsement of Author Solutions has been removed.

However–Boo!–the first choice on the list is now Vook.  This is a company that charges $6 per page for copyediting.  This is a company that calls ebook retailing “complicated,” thus justifying the percentage of royalties they will take.  Oh, and the payments from ebook retailers go to Vook first, and Vook will pay its customers (the writers).  Is Vook more acceptable because it doesn’t have as many complaints against it as Author Solutions?  I’m not sure.  It looks as if I’d have to “sign up” to get more information.

Never trust a company that requires you to “sign up” to learn about what you will be paying for.

If Bowker understood self-publishing, their links would be instead to the various self-publishing platforms and information centers rather than companies that charge huge fees for work that can be performed by professionals at reasonable rates

(As an aside, Vook works in partnership with Publishers Weekly on a program that has self-published writers paying a fee for a line listing in PW publications that go to folks working in the publishing industry.  Truly, if one wants to spend money marketing, it would likely be best to target readers.)

This stuff drives me crazy.

Judith Tarr on Escaping Stockholm

Novelist and equine expert Judith Tarr has had quite enough of seeing writers pushed and manipulated by publishers.  The first segment of her series “Escaping Stockholm” is here.  At the end of that post is a link to Part Two, and Part Three should be available May 30.

I never broke into trade publishing with a novel (just a couple short stories), but first met and befriended published novelists over twenty years ago.  I’ve watched and listened to their experiences.  Some years ago, I decided I didn’t want to work under the constraints and conceits of traditional publishing because what such work would require wasn’t the sort of thing I wanted in my life.*  What Tarr is discussing–the treatment of authors on all levels of what should be a professional relationship–highlight many of the reasons I chose to self-publish.

And if you haven’t read Tarr’s work, you are missing some really cool stuff.  You can check out her offerings through Book View Café and Amazon.

 

*I consider it unreasonable to give an editor one, two, or more years of exclusivity to make a decision about my work.  I get that traditional publishing has many reasons for wanting both exclusivity and open-ended time to decide.  That doesn’t mean I find those reasons acceptable.  Some writers will call me arrogant for refusing a single person exclusive rights to hold what I’ve created–without given either a decision or compensation–for as long as that single person wishes.  Most non-writers would call me crazy for agreeing to such a thing.

 

 

Interesting Timing

Today I followed a link provided by David Gaughran to a website run by Bowker (the exclusive provider of ISBN numbers in the U.S.).  The site purports to be informational for folks looking to self-publish.  The trouble is, their recommended service includes Author Solutions.  ETA: It used to be listed as the first option, but has oddly enough been moved down the list.

If you’re not sure why that’s a bad thing, check out the Writer Beware blog for years’ worth of background.

The rest of the site is also filled with misinformation that does, indeed, make self-publishing sound so immense, costly and daunting, it’s small wonder inexperienced writers, or writers who haven’t researched much, would see it as a relief to have companies like Bowker and Author Solutions on their side.

What’s interesting is that this news–this seeming support of self-publishing from Bowker–comes on the heels of big (yet oddly quiet) news from the distribution sector of the publishing world.  Book distribution company Baker & Taylor changed its policies, permitting self-published titles to appear alongside of, and be sold at the same terms as, titles published by the “Big Publishers.”

So why did this happen now?

I think it’s tempting to assume it’s because self-publishers and small presses are seeing greater possibilities for success than ever before.  But I’ve a cynical bent, you see.

I believe these two major shifts happened because, as is outlined here, the large publishers who work with Bowker and Baker & Taylor now have their own “self-publishing” divisions which are–what a coincidence!–mostly supported by Author Solutions.  While the main source of income for Author Solutions has been authors purchasing services rather than readers purchasing books, I’ve no doubt “Big Publishers” wanted a better chance of making money off bookselling as well.

That doesn’t mean small press and self-publishers can’t take advantage of the opportunities.

Warning All Writers Should Heed

David Gaughran outlines the on-going influence and growing reach of the Penguin-owned vanity publisher Author Solutions.

Follow the links he has provided.  You’ll find an extensive background on Author Solutions, as well as the current lawsuit against them.

Write down the names of publishers that have chosen to support Author Solutions by funneling their own imprints to them.

Write down the names of those publishers’ imprints.

Consider those lists when deciding which publishers you’ll submit your work to.  Expect to read your contract very, very closely, and have an IP attorney review it as well.  As Gaughran stated, “And it’s much harder to tell the scammers from the legitimate organizations when they are owned by the same people.”

After seeing the number of major publishers and writing-related businesses that have chosen to bind themselves to Author Solutions, this writer is far far far more concerned about steering new writers away from such exploitation than I am that Amazon will somehow subjugate over a 150,000 writers.  Alas, most of the business seems to be otherwise occupied.

 

 

 

What a Writer Deserves

From Joe Ponepinto at The Saturday Morning Post:

“Literary writing teachers are fond of telling students they should write for the love of writing itself. But I wonder what they would tell their charges if the university wasn’t sponsoring that philosophy; if they had to work eight hours in a cubicle or on an assembly line.

That attitude also conditions writers to believe they don’t deserve to make money from their writing, and helps make it easier for publishing companies to keep straight faces while offering today’s Draconian contract terms.”

It’s nice to see that sentiment spreading.  Writers have been offered little or no pay only because so many writers are willing to accept little or no pay–not because there is no money to be made from writing.  Even as novel advances fall and royalty rates remain low, and writers are given the impression funds are scarce, major publishers are posting incredible financial gains.  When a publisher can afford to give all its employees a $5000 bonus, you know things are good.

But the writer is told to never expect to make a living from such work–usually by the folks who make a living processing and packaging the work of writers.

In contrast to Ponepinto’s reasoned piece is this in Salon.  It is, sadly, a view inside the mind of a writer who jumped into self-publishing without researching the business, and who is now angry and resentful that the world hasn’t responded as he wishes.  Had he invested perhaps a month or two investigating what are fast becoming Professional Practices in self-publishing, he would have known that 1) self-publishing isn’t synonymous with ebook only, and hasn’t been for quite some time; 2) sending mass emails to reviewers is the fast-track to being ignored; 3) self-publishing sales tend to happen over a period of months and years rather than weeks.  Lastly, he’d know there is a community of writers who are making good sales and are willing to help other writers do the same.

Every published writer deserves to see their publisher act with competence, diligence and professionalism.  When a writer is self-published, the writer should expect the same of herself.

Alas, given the tone of his piece, I suspect he’s a person who will have a hard time putting down his anger long enough to learn what will actually help him.  Too often, writers who’ve been trade-published expect self-publishing to work the same way and, when it doesn’t, call it a failure.  And that sense of failure will persist until a shift of thought is made.

Is the self-publishing market different for literary works than it is for genre?  Of course.  But “different” isn’t insurmountable.  It’s merely challenging.