By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From June 7, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Perfect Skin: A Novel by Nick Earls
A finalist in the 2003 Australian Comedy Awards and adapted into a feature film in Italy (Solo un Padre, Warner Brothers/Cattleya)
“Readers should enjoy this amiable, well-crafted and genuinely romantic book.”
Why is it that a lot of people can look at the same set of facts and come away with completely different conclusions?
That’s Barbara Kingsolver, an author for whom I have a lot of respect. She was talking at one of the author breakfast sessions at Book Expo America (BEA), which is soon, mercifully, closing.
I say mercifully because I find BEA the most discouragingly retrograde event of the year in publishing. It’s old-school swag-‘n’-swagger, the hawking of wares not to customers but to intermediaries, an anachronistic holdover in a business still having trouble recognizing profound change.
Kingsolver’s line was not about BEA. She was talking about climate change. She’s a biologist by training, and her new book, Flight Behavior (November 6, HarperCollins) is about how rural farmers of the South, where she lives, are the least likely to believe scientific assertions about climate change — and the most likely to be affected by it.
Somehow the theme of denial felt awfully close to home.
The publishing colleagues who man the booths and pavilions of BEA are some of the people who may be most gravely affected, at least as far as their work lives go, in climactic changes coming into the industry.
It has occurred to me that the profession in which you’re least likely to get a book contract is: writer.
With Stephen Colbert sitting onstage with her, Kingsolver steadily walked out onto a limb as she talked about “celebrity chefs, celebrity housewives” and “celebrity celebrities” — who do get contracts.
She went on, chatting her way through publishing transitions of the past:
Many, most, all of these steps have been about making books more accessible…paper started edging out parchment. You know what people said: “This paper doesn’t do it for me, I have to feel the skin of a dead sheep for the words to work.” The physical form and distribution of books has changed radically again and again, and we complain and we get over it, and what endures is the book.
Having to hope she’s right, I took a different tack this year, and it proved a good decision. I focused on one of the conferences that stands as a satellite to the huge show.
BEA is not a conference. I hear a lot of people calling it that. It’s not. It’s a trade show.
Think of the major auto shows. Manufacturers roll out their new models and their loopiest prototypes, and they stage innumerable stunts involving dry ice and colored lights to make members of the press and major dealership representatives become excited about what’s rolling off the assembly lines for the next season.
This is close to what BEA does. At its cash-cold heart, the exhibitor floor is a maze of booths and pavilions in which publishers hawk what they have coming up. Even the heartiest literature is reduced to “the product” in such a context.
Way beyond author platforming, this is major salesmanship of a kind that author Lois Lowry noted has been around for decades — she spoke at the 1987 edition of BEA, she said, when the event was under another name and set in Washington.
At BEA today, self-publishers walk the carpeted aisles and try to give away copies of their books, preferably to a reviewer, an influential blogger, eventually to anybody who will take a copy, anybody at all. There’s something depressing about these self-published authors trying to gain traction amid the chrome and teak of the big companies’ displays.
As Jane Litte wrote this week in one of her day-wraps, BEA: Day 2, Kobo announces self publishing platform and Bowker releases ebook reading data:
Essentially, publishers and other vendors set up booths and then advertise their wares to the other BEA attendees who are primarily booksellers and other industry individuals. The trade people are everyone from those who sell the cardboard containers that hold the racks of books at the bookstore to printers.
The event is about mass buy-in. I’ll cheer for your list if you’ll cheer for mine. And do, please, have one of our tote bags.
Kingsolver, author that she is, has a different take on the marketing challenges to come:
We are all jockeying for the attention of the consumer, the reader, whom we now call the consumer. Trying to wrestle a little bit of attention from those Angry Birds.
I took shelter in the comparative intellectual sanctuary of Mike Shatzkin’s and Michael Cader’s Publishers Launch BEA Conference.
I watched people drift in and out of the room from the simultaneously running IDPF Digital Book Conference — quite a bit of interest was generated by the Launch agenda.
These huge conference gatherings take place in the lower-level convention salons of the airless Javits Center as the trade show thunders along upstairs. And after 5 p.m., the people of the industry! the industry! all head out to various parties thrown by publishers and startups to tweet each other across Manhattan’s twilight.
Kingsolver, these days, is trying to take a long view:
It’s always been like this. My point is the literary reader is a small but probably stable demographic. We have our place. We absorb and pass on information in a way that endures.
I’m not as reassured as I’d like to be by Kingsolver’s good efforts to say that the forces of commerce and entertainment have always challenged the writer’s ability to get across, although I certainly appreciate her effort to ease the worry.
On the other hand, it was good to hear and see presentations and panel discussions in the Publishers Launch conference — I recommend this series of conferences to you. They’re responsibly put together and expertly run.
The outfit’s Jess Johns, in fact, somehow managed to set up a table for my all-day live-tweet coverage with a power strip — a back-saving grace over having to hunch-‘n’-tweet all day from one’s lap.
Among the standouts of the day was a panel focused on what’s changing about the agent’s role amid the new pathways authors have to publication.
Simon Lipskar of Writers House dominated the session moderated by paidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen, making the case that agents’ work has changed from what once might have been the passion of personal advocacy to a new demand for — and reliance on — the “harder” proofs of metrics and analysis. Lipskar made his point well:
It’s a big change in how we think. We’re doing math. A new skill set for agents. We’re stats geeks.
Jennifer Weltz of Jean Nagger suggested that as the obligations and opportunities of authors expand, so do the jobs of those authors’ agents:
We see ourselves as our authors’ advocates in everything they have to tackle to survive this market.
Laura Dail of Dail Literary concurred, and spoke to the fact that once-traditional approaches can become fragmented in a multi-platform market:
We do deals right now where it makes sense. We’re looking for partners. If e- and print, great.
And Tim Knowlton of Curtis Brown talked of discovering a contract that mentioned “electronic rights” — from 1966.
More takeaways from Publishers Launch BEA (we hashtagged it #LaunchBEA, in case you’d like to review the day’s tweets) included some of the fine globalization context that Shatzkin brings to the annual Digital Book World Conference.
In this case, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives captured a growing tendency for non-US publishers to consider moving into American markets. In US to Face Domestic Competition from Overseas Digital Publishers, Nawotka quotes panelist David Cully of Baker & Taylor:
“Territorial rights barriers can’t stand and are falling. When a book goes on sale, it goes on sale — if you go online on the internet, rights are being violated each in their own way. I think the market will deal with it financially. Publishers are recognizing that the rights they once acquired, will have a different value.”
Javier Celaya of Dosdoce, Nawotka notes, described the translation faculty backing the coming competition from offshore. Celaya:
“A lot of European publishers are holding on to their own rights in an effort to create their own markets.” While the United States has “no tradition of translation, and those books that are translated are considered ‘difficult’ books,” in markets like Spain, France and Italy, as many as 30-40% of all books are translations.
In addition to selling English-language e-books in countries like Germany and Sweden, Penguin has made significant investments in ramping up e-book sales in countries like Brazil and China, according to Barton. Penguin has also been translating its e-books into foreign languages including Korean and selling directly into those markets. The program is a “pilot” for the future, said Barton.
In the afternoon, a Publishers Launch surprise: Authors Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi (president of the Science Fiction Writers of America), and Charlie Stross joined Macmillan’s Fritz Foy to announce a coming online DRM-free store at Tor.com, opening later this summer.
An ebook with DRM is unlikely to be readable in five years’ time, 10 at the most.
We have backup from our publishers…to do enforcement of copyright.
DRM in effect says to readers they’re “foolish enough to buy this book instead of stealing it.”
And meanwhile, the Great Satan of Seattle hovered over all, sending a shudder through the Javits just as things got under way with the news that it was buying publication rights to 3,000 backlist titles from Avalon Books.
Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch wrote it up:
Amazon director of business development, rights and licensing Philip Patrick notes importantly, “None of these titles have been digitized yet and we know Kindle customers will delight in this great new offering.” The acquired titles will be issued by the various West coast Amazon imprints, and “will continue to be available in print for booksellers and libraries nationwide.”
Like English weather, if you’re not happy with the options you have for self-publishing, just give it about 10 minutes and something else will turn up.
As the hardest working woman in show business, Laura Hazard Owen, wrote from under a chair somewhere in a conference at BEA, Kobo is the latest outfit to give us a self-publishing platform, branded with the Norman-Rockwellian name Writing Life.
Writing Life is in beta tests with 50 authors now and will launch in English by the end of June, “with new language and country-specific support added in the coming year,” Kobo said in a blog post.
One reason you read Owen, by the way, is that she’s good about spotting companies’ poison darts and calling them out on it. Yea, even when they’re aimed at Seattle. You see her do this quite handily in Kobo launches e-book self-publishing platform, “Writing Life.”
On its website, Kobo takes a jab at Amazon: “Unlike some self-publishing portals we could mention, Kobo doesn’t bind you to us. Publish to Kobo and take your ePub to your adoring fans, no matter where they might be. You’re free to sell your eBook the way you want.”
Now she counters, emphasis mine:
To be fair, Amazon’s KDP doesn’t require exclusivity, but its KDP Select (which lets self-published authors include their titles in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library) does.
PR trash talk. My, what we’ve taught the Canadians, huh?
The main difference between Kobo and Amazon is outlined in the press release: Unlike competitive self-publishing tools, Kobo allows authors to set their book price to “FREE” at any time without restrictive exclusive agreements, in addition Kobo pays 10% higher royalties on sales in many growing international markets and allows authors much more freedom on pricing.
And for some clarification on that point about royalties, here is Jane Litte, as referenced by Owen, in BEA: Day 2, Kobo announces self publishing platform and Bowker releases ebook reading data.
The terms are 70/30% (that’s 70% for the author) for books priced between $1.99 and $12.99. For books under $1.99 and above $12.99, the author gets 45%. There is no download fee or hidden costs.
And there’s a DRM-free element here, as Litte clarifies in her nicely parsed interview with Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Kobo’s chief of self-publishing and author relations.
The author can choose DRM or avoid it.
One of the chief features will be bringing (Kobo’s) signature gamification to the writing process. By the end of the summer, authors who use the Writing Life platform will earn badges for selling books in multiple countries (Globetrotter badge) as well as for doing things like working late at night (Midnight Oil badge). The badges will be socially shareable so writers can interact with each other through the Kobo tool.
So, you know, maybe your book sucks but you can still be the Mayor of Kobo.
The long term plan for Writing Life is to have all authors, many of whom may not even use the Writing Life tool to publish and sell their books, interact with the interface to track sales, track social engagement with their books across the Web and, of course, earn and share badges.
“Of course, earn and share badges.”
I’ll just say that again. Badges.
Greenfield again, this time on the element of baked-in social mediation planned for eventual integration into the platform:
In addition to gamification, high on the company’s product development roadmap is integration of social tracking tools that authors can use to see when readers comment on their work on Facebook or using Kobo’s embedded social reading tools. Notifications for authors about when their books are trending in certain countries or on certain, highly specific best-seller lists is also a high priority.
And here’s Lefebvre, very likable guy, talking up the Writing Life to an unseen Mercy Pilkington from Good e-Reader on video at BEA. At 1:20 on the tape, Lefebvre answers a question from Pilkington about why the platform is — ostensibly — going to focus so heavily on tracking data for authors on their books. Lefebvre answers, in part:
We are treating indie authors the same way we’d treat publishers, with the same sort of respect and love and giving them the same sort of tools and analytics we’d give publishers. We’re finding in a lot of cases that indie authors are thirsty for that data. Nobody’s going to get behind a book than authors, themselves. We want to give them every ability to control that book and to take advantage of detailed data.
Badges, shmadges, if Writing Life truly delivers on what Lefebvre is talking about here with industrial-grade data to let authors track and dashboard their sales patterns, authors may find this route worthwhile.