Month: June 2009

Guest Post: An Author’s View of Electronic Publishing

Peadar Ó Guilín agreed to write a post for me on, well it does what it says on the tin. I was inspired to ask him by the contribution he made to the forum on the future of publishing that CBI ran.

Paper Chase
There is a goose that lays golden eggs. Yet, its flesh is so tasty that sooner or later, people who aren’t getting their share of the gold, will say to one another — “why don’t we take that bird to the chopping block and have ourselves a feast?” It’s not their goose and they didn’t spend money feeding it. They have nothing at all to lose.

Good morning, or maybe, good afternoon. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but newspapers all around the world are going out of business right about now. The Rocky Mountain News has bitten the dust, The Boston Globe is slashing wages and even the world-famous New York Times, the “grey lady” herself, is predicted to phase out its print edition a few short years down the line. Journalists by the score are losing their jobs because they can’t compete with the lower quality, but free information that lives less than a click away. Nor, as Rupert Murdoch is learning, can online revenues make up for eyeballs lost in the real world.

“But books are different,” I hear you say.* “It’s all very well for gentlefolk to read a few headlines off the screen, but War and Peace would burn the eyes right out of their sockets…

A few years ago, you’d have been right about that, but these days the arrival of e-ink devices, such as the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle, mean that electronic reading causes no more eye-strain than paper. Indeed, if your peepers are beginning to age a little, the fact that you can increase the print size at will, might allow you to leave your glasses in their case all the way to Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow.

There are other advantages that make a compelling argument for the imminent rise of ebooks. Here are just a few:

    1) some of these devices can hold thousands of books at once. This is handy if you want to carry around a whole law library, or take 17 novels away with you on holiday
    2) some of them access the internet directly so that the user can buy a book while on the train, or sitting up in bed, or out for a walk
    3) the title you want is never out of print or out of stock
    4) some devices allow you to take notes
    5) all of them will let you upload your own documents from work
    6) school books weigh nothing and never go out of date

If none of the points above represent a compelling reason as to why you would want an ebook reader, then rest assured, there are thousands willing to take your place in the queue. Once they become the majority,** the publishing game will have changed forever and woe betide the writers, publishers, editors and book-sellers who don’t find an online berth for themselves before that day comes.

A Rising Tide of Tosh
We’ve all had the experience of spending our own sweet, sweet money on awful books. Books that we’ve flung at the wall, or abandoned in train stations, or given as gifts to our enemies. But even terrible books have to meet certain standards before they can be published. Somebody loved them enough to purchase the rights. And that same person only did so after a process that weeded out a thousand books that were even worse. Imagine that! Just close your eyes and think about how bad some of those rejected books must be. Try to picture them in a pile next to the one book that was chosen. This is important, because, that column of purest tosh,*** is the future of fiction.

You see, when electronic books take over, printed novels will become a bit of a rarity. I don’t believe they will ever die out completely. There are still specialist shops, for example, where you can buy the tiny number of vinyl records that the music corporations still produce. However, in the same way that most people these days listen to songs on CDs or mp3s, most readers will find their thrills on e-ink devices and a large amount of fiction will only ever appear in that format. After all, cut out the book shops and the printers, distributors, buyers, returns, warehouses etc. etc. and it will be cheaper to produce an ebook than a pbook by orders of magnitude.

Indeed, in many cases, the production of an ebook will cost precisely nothing. After all, anything you write on a word processor is already a document capable of being read on an electronic reader.

Rejectee’s Revenge
Once upon a time, the public would never have come across a writer’s work without the intercession of a publisher. A rejected author might shake his fist at the gods or smash a bit of furniture, but in the end, the manuscript would be retired to the sock drawer for the nourishment of mice and beetles.***

These days, however, the rejectees have another outlet for their frustrations. They can sell the book through their own website or even on Amazon, where it will compete with, and distract from, more professionally produced work. The authors can also give their novels away for free, and a great many do.**** That is, of course, their right and none of my business. But I can’t help thinking about what is happening to journalism right now as it tries, and fails, to compete with free sources of news

The Death of Reading?
This is dangerous territory for everybody involved in publishing, from the authors right on down the line to the person who stacks our books at Easons. It’s not just that we might all lose our jobs. There’s a very real possibility that the hobby known as “reading for pleasure” could become a thing of the past. A reader’s investment of effort in a book, is far greater than the three minutes it takes to sample a pop song. In a world chock-full of free, but pitiful fiction, the average novel will be a waste of time, an insult to the intelligence and an advert for every other form of entertainment out there.

Except…

Except, of course, there’s rarely such a thing as a completely random read. Most of our books come recommended from friends or reviewers we’ve grown to trust, or they’ve been written by a favoured author. We’ll still have such voices to listen to in future: the modern internet is already well-populated with heroic bloggers who sacrifice their own sanity wading through dung so that we don’t have to.

Instead of agents and publishers, we authors might end up submitting our work directly to the famous taste-makers of the day. Indeed, many of our current industry professionals, in particular, editors, might well find that their opinions are still be in high demand.

But what I can’t yet see, is where the money is to come from in this scenario. And I do believe, that the very best fiction, like great journalism, needs to be funded. Professional writers have more time to dedicate to their art; editors add enormous value by taming a manuscript and so on. Yet, in the end, none of us will keep our jobs unless we can find a way to succeed where the newspapers have failed: we must convince the public that our services are worth paying for.

For now, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. Hope to see you on the other side 🙂

*I have remarkably large ears.
**Which they will when schools start to make use of eReaders.
***This is not to say that all rejected books deserve such a fate, and we are all familiar with stories of spurned genius, but please understand that I’m speaking in generalities here. Also, some novels fail to find a publisher, not because of low quality, but because the potential audience might not be large enough to justify production costs. However, it is also true that the vast majority of what lands on a slush pile is pretty much unreadable.
****But since the ebook market is still so small, the effect is negligible for the moment.

Quartet Press: One to watch

Eoin Purcell

Start your engines
If business models in publishing are to change and if people are to adopt digital over paper books as their main reading method (whether that be in ebook, online access or whatever), publishers are going to have ro embrace the online world in a real way. To date, although some publishers have started to do this, few major movers in the Trade Publishing world have shifted in any earth shattering way.

Which is why the new, digital only, house Quartet Press is an interesting launch. For one thing the three members of the quartet that we know of are not easily dismissed. They are serious people with a record of expressing informed opinion on the trade, not to mention actually engaging on one level or another with the trade and making things happen.

The stature that Quartet will have because of the prominent status of its founders suggests that the digital publishing space is about to become much more interesting. Quartet may be the trailblazer but there is a every reason to expect that most trade publishers will follow suit and launch digital only imprints (or indeed change the basis of their publishing to digital first), maybe not in a rush but eventually as they translate their publishing from a predominantly paper based business to one that revolves around the types of verticals that Mike Shatzkin discusses in this post and many others and communities like Tor.com.

In any case, we watch this space with interest!
Eoin

I am not convinced – Why “bookaholic”, as a concept, stinks

Eoin Purcell

Books bought by the kilo, sold by the rupee. Probably about a mile of books along the street for sale. If you ever need any outdated calculus and basic programming books, I know where you can go!

Books bought by the kilo, sold by the rupee. Probably about a mile of books along the street for sale. If you ever need any outdated calculus and basic programming books, I know where you can go!

**

Bad ideas sometimes have a long half-life*
Damian Horner has an opinion blog in the bookseller today and it is a pretty shameless self-defence piece:

That is why we are moving forward with the Book­aholic concept. It gives a new twist to the mantra “You can’t put a good book down”, one that provokes comment and debate. And with limited resources, that debate will be crucial in providing the campaign with the oxygen it needs to get noticed.

The comments on the piece are developing nicely and are worth paying some attention to.

By Booktard
Perhaps I’m flogging a dead horse here, but it really does seem that the statement ‘I’m a Bookaholic’, as you’ve presented it Damian, ie “Hello. My name is Damian Horner and I’m a Bookaholic.” which relies on implicit irony to have any impact at all, is a slap in the face to alcoholics, especially AA members for whom that statement is part of a ritual of overcoming their addiction. Even if it’s funny, it’s insensitive. You may as well try ‘I’ve got book flu’ (or indeed ‘I’m Booktarded’). It’s asinine and that’s why it’s under attack and not recieving the support it might require to ‘work’.

But by the far the more reasoned and on the button piece (in fact there was a second one too) on this was written by the wonderful Vanessa of fidrabooks a little while ago:

“Bookaholism” – that’s what they came up with. Yes people, we’re going to liken a love of books to an addiction to alcohol. That’s classy. And it gets worse. Apparently ”among the slogans likely to be seen in the campaign – which, having been green-lit, will be prioritised and rolled out before Christmas – are “Consume no less than one a month”, “Class A reading material”, “This book is seriously addictive”, “Once you’ve started it’s hard to stop” [sorry, but that was Pringles – are we now likening our industry to crisp-selling?], and “Books are mind expanding” – I can’t see those working in our children’s bookshop or among the Morningside matrons who make up a large part of our customer base: “Yes madam, do try the new Eoin Colfer, I believe it’s very similar to crack cocaine”… Maybe not.

She wasn’t shy about offering other ideas either, this was no lame attack without substance or alternative, it was informed, clever and well thought through:

It also struck us that unlike the addiction-based scheme, it needs to be a campaign which can easily be adapted to appeal to all parts of the trade from children to older people, from avid readers to people who read only a few books a year. We also loved the American Booksellers Association slogan of “Eat. Sleep. Read.” and I’m sure that the UK could license that from them. It is quite similar to 2008’s National Year of Reading but to be fair, the message is pretty much the same with the new campaign just being tweaked to encourage people to buy books. I don’t know how ‘bookaholism’ encourages buying books specifically rather than borrowing them from the library.

In return she felt so badly abused that she stopped blogging for a while only returning this week to reveal the great news that fidra is a) opening a gallery for the summer (whoop) and b) opening an adult bookshop as well. And why not?

I’m very partisan on this front and cannot help but think that the Bookaholic idea is a dud of gigantic proportions and I look forward to it being buried in lead-lined concrete bunkers along with the other toxic and radioactive waste!

Nice weather here in Cork!
Eoin

** Image From Flickr user Distra

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 19/06/2009

Eoin Purcell

Google Books have bumped up the features on the service, nothing too amazing but some nice new additions!

A bit of accidental digging and searching for something else led me to this book on a natural history of New York City, Mannahatta, very cool indeed!

The Bookseller has a piece on the upcoming celebrity books this autumn season! Fun! Fun! Let’s hope it pulls the industry out of the fire!

Wishing I could wish for something better to rescue the industry! Like people suddenly deciding to pay for content online!
Eoin

Tor.com launches a “publisher agnostic” webstore

UPDATE: Tor.com becomes an imprint in itself!

The front page of the Tor.com store

The front page of the Tor.com store

Singing Praises
If you watched the Mike Shatzkin video (it has shuffled to new quarters now and offers a very fancy annotation system) I linked to last weekend about the digital shift, this news makes perfect sense. I wrote some time ago about the differences between the Tor.com community and the less developed Voyager books community, well now, Tor have taken a further giant leap ahead and launched a new store for the web community that they say:

offers science fiction and fantasy media from most major publishers—the only requirement is that the books in question relate to the genre in some form or another. In keeping with the spirit of our “…And Related Subjects” tagline, we’ve made sure to be as inclusive as possible, and are going to be constantly updating and refining the selection of titles available in the Store.

Smarts
Frankly, this is a game changing move and here is why. Tor has succeeded in capturing a great deal of attention relating to science fiction and fantasy in the online space. They have done this organically by offering decent services and interesting content to fans of the genres. Now they are adding, not so much a commercial layer as a further service to their members. The community is already buying books, they are already reading about books they might wish to buy on Tor.com. By offering a way to get these books to the community they have made life easier for the community members, at a stage when those members have already become used to allocating a great deal of their attention to Tor.com.

Naturally (and so long as prices are reasonable) they will use the site to buy books and not resent the fact that Tor will benefit. What’s more, Tor don’t need to clutter their site with lots of ads for books, links in CONTEXT will suffice. I’ve several times read reviews of books then had to leave the site to find a copy for sale, an in content link would have saved me time, hassle and probably money.

We’ll see more of this
I have long felt Tor.com was a sensible and exciting model for genre fiction publishers, in much the same way as Osprey’s site seems to be for military history. I have little doubt we will see other publishers try and develop sites with similar features. I wonder will they get the central message of Tor.com which is that only by loosening control and offering something that the community values will you progress in the digitally shifted world?

Who knows, it will sure be interesting to see how it develops!
Eoin

For A Limited Time Only: Mike Shatzkin’s Publishing Shift Video

Eoin Purcell

If you do nothing else before Monday, you should watch Mike Shatzkin’s video on the digital shift in publishing. It is only available for free until Monday and you can view it here. It is deeply impressive, crystallizing as it does, the reasons why this shift MUST happen as well as cataloging the results of the shift and suggesting a remedy.

That remedy is the niche and the nugget. Niche being a vertical interest like knitting or US Civil War Uniforms. I love the section in the video where he suggests that publishers will discover that they all of a sudden not only don’t nearly have enough content within these specific niches but that on their own, in their current state they never will. Nuggets are the intriguing part, the small bits if content created by individuals within a community adding value as they accumulate.

I wholeheartedly agree with Mike that publishers need to get niche and embrace the communities that sustain those niches. It’s a fascinating time ahead and we are rushing towards it rapidly.
Eoin

Publishing, but not as we know it

Eoin Purcell

A screenshot of SCD Library Website

A screenshot of SCD Library Website

Hopes & Dreams
I went to Children’s Books Ireland’s talk on Thursday 11th June on the future: Publishing but not as we know it | ebooks, digital publishing and children’. Aside from the very minor quibble, that the panel had no publisher (odd given the topic) it was nonetheless by far the most interesting group assembled to talk about the topic that I have seen for some time in Ireland.

I arrived late and so missed Samatha Holman of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency who I have seen talk recently about Google and possess probably the best understanding of Copyright law (both national and international) in Ireland. This added greatly to the discussion because it enabled her to cut through the hopes, dreams and wishes right down to the what was allowed and what had yet to be agreed, always useful when discussing the future!

I also missed Peadar Ó Guilín which annoyed me, as I found his contributions to the discussion after the main talks, fascinating, even if he seemed an evangelist for no longer needing publishers*. If I have him wrong, I’ll apologize.

Two other panelists really fascinated me too. The first was speaking as I arrived, John McNamee, President European Booksellers Federation spoke about the challenges of bookselling in the future and spoke of a vision where he sold the customer the intellectual property for a fee and then asked what format he would prefer it in. Seems a nice idea, though my gut told me that it wouldn’t work at a decentralized level and would work at a much more central level. But then, being proved wrong on that one, would be a bonus.

By far the most revelatory though was the South County Dublin Librarian, Georgina Byrne. She revealed the extent of their download services something its seems that has floated beneath the radar of nearly everybody in Irish publishing (certainly non-one has ever mentioned it to me).

They have partnered with Overdrive and now deliver up to 3000 titles in ebook and audio book form to members via their download zone.

If you like paper and love paper books then the message Georgina had to share was a depressing one. Children love the libraries Tumblebooks service which offers children’s books online. And, if you listen, read an watch one, you can see why. I tried Dinotrain and it is fun!

As Samantha Holamn said during the discussion, the panel and teh subsequent discussion was by far the best she had attended because it looked forward and I think that was due in large part to Oisín McGann who chaired the event quick wonderfully offering his well considered contributions and links out to funny and informative videos throughout.

I’ve left numerous side issues out but needless to say there was much discussion on Agents, Publishers, Contracts, Google, a little about Amazon, Scribd and a little about revenue models and changing cultural norms. It was a shame I had to leave so quickly when it ended I’d have liked to discuss some of the issues more with the panelists. Still, a thoroughly thought provoking evening.
Eoin

* It always amazes me that people would relish the disappearance of publishers wholesale. Yes some publishers might not be excellent and sometimes working relationship have become strained or just plain broken, but surely as an industry over the lifetime of their existence, publishers have been more than simply blood suckers?