Nathan Bransford, Author

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Breaking: Amazon Will Give Authors Choice on Text to Speech

In a late Friday night news brief from Publishers Lunch (why yes, I'm checking publishing news at 11:30 pm. What else would I be doing on a Friday night??), Amazon has announced that they will allow authors to decide on a title-by-title basis whether they would like a computerized voice to be able to read their work on the Kindle 2.

Big big news. Amazon still asserts that it's legal, but suggests that authors will be more comfortable if they have the choice. They're working on the techno gizmo alterations as we speak.

[Pub Lunch]

Friday, February 27, 2009

This Week in Publishing 2/27/09

This week in the Kindle!

Yes, the Kindle news is flowing fast and furious as everyone assesses their favorite new white book thingy of the future. What does it all mean? Um. Depends on who you ask.

First off for your nuts and bolts review, David Pogue always delivers a great rundown and he likes the new version quite a bit. Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos went on the Daily Show to talk to Jon Stewart, whose conclusion was essentially: "It costs what now?" (Also on the Daily Show: confirmation that they are working on books beamed to brains. Bezos: "We're working on that." Well, hurry, please!)

Of course, we all know by now that the Kindle 2 is stirring up controversy with its text to speech function, and the head of the Author's Guild took to the pages of the New York Times to assert that authors have a right to a share of revenue from derivative audio uses, even if said audio sounds crappy at the moment. (And especially since the said crappy audio is getting better).

How do authors feel? Well, Neil Gaiman came out very quickly against the Author's Guild stance by saying that when you buy a book you're buying the ability to read it out loud (although actually, the Author's Guild isn't disagreeing with this -- just having an e-reader do it) and that no one is going to confuse it with an actual audiobook.

Author Jason Pinter strongly disagrees with Gaiman: Amazon is making money off of the technology, and he says that authors have to stand up for their share of the pie when the market is segmented, particularly because the technology is only going to improve. In a nod to Gaiman, Pinter writes: "Major bestselling authors have less to worry about because the bookstores (and audiobook producers, and all other tributaries) can expect a certain number of sales. As tides rise, people with bigger platforms will be able to keep their heads above water. But the situation is different for authors who must squeeze out every bit of potential book revenue to stay afloat."

Well. At least we're all agreed that Amazon is going to completely dominate the new book world, right? Um..... Also depends on who you ask.

First up, writing for Slate is Farhad Manjoo, who writes that publishers are doomed as Amazon uses the Kindle to gobble up an increasing share of the e-book marketplace and will subsequently flex its muscle a la Apple and iTunes. Meanwhile, Mike Shatzkin argues that Amazon will lose its competitive advantage in an e-book world as new devices challenge the Kindle and as the new companies don't have to worry about Amazon's huge logistical advantage with physical books. (HT Maya Reynolds)

Got all that? Welcome to the new publishing world! We totally have this under control.

Hmmm.... did I forget anything? Oh yeah: here's what your Kindle looks like naked.

In non-Kindle news: more fallout from the Great Query Flood of '09, as agent Rachelle Gardner was forced to abandon her policy of responding to everyone, and would like everyone to please remember that we don't have time, nor are we paid for, personalized responses to every manuscript we receive. But we still try.

And finally, ever wondered whether you or one of your fellow writers have crossed the line from confidence straight into delusion? J.A. Konrath has a helpful breakdown.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sympathetic vs. Unsympathetic Characters

Thanks so much to everyone who de-lurked yesterday. And notice how you don't have scurvy today? You're cured! Also a special thanks to WitLizToday, who provided some awesome/hilarious de-lurk stats, including a tally of the few states not represented and the number of de-lurkers who claim to be from the Internet and/or Never-Never Land. Also apparently lots of you were hungry. Hope you found food.

Characters. What to do with them, right? And what's the line between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters? Particularly the ones who do bad and horrible things? Why do we like some characters who do horrible things and dislike the heck out of some goody two shoes?

In this agent's opinion, it all comes down to the concept of redeemability.

Redeemability involves more than just actions. We've seen lots and lots of characters in novels and movies who do utterly horrible things and yet we love them anyway. But if characters are going to consistently do bad things and retain the reader's sympathy: they have to be likable. They have to be brave or brilliant or hilarious or charismatic or strong or all of the above. They have to possess qualities that we admire in ample quantities. We wouldn't normally like someone who eats flesh, but holy crap is that Hannibal Lecter smart and kind of hilarious.

Charisma minus actions = the redeemability meter

Now, redeemability is a fickle beast. If a character's redeemability meter dips below a certain base line, that character will "lose" the reader. We've all read moments where this happened: a character did something so horrible and shocking and irredeemable that there was no going back. We're officially done with that person. This may or may not be accompanied by flinging a book against the wall.

The redeemability meter often dips below zero when a character does something that's wrong and there is not sufficient explanation for their actions. They weren't misguided or deluded or well-intentioned-but-astray. They didn't have an excuse. They just went and did it, and the reader concludes: they're just evil. And there's no going back. The reader will make some allowances for a really likable character, but unlikability combined with unmotivated evil actions: that character has officially "lost" the reader. The worse the action the more insanely likable the character has to be.

And there are some actions that are just too far beyond the pale for even the most likable of characters, including using racial slurs and/or other powerful cultural taboos. (Oddly this does not seem to include killing people and eating their flesh. Books are weird that way.) There are also characters whose charisma level is so low it doesn't matter what good deeds they do.

It's fine for a villain to lose the reader. It's also fine for a hero to lose the reader if you're going all Greek tragedy on us and the hero is suffering for their fatal flaw in the climax.

But a protagonist, particularly a narrator, just can't lose the reader before the absolute end of the book, and maybe not even then. It's crucial crucial crucial that the protagonist, the person who the reader is most identifying with, has the reader's attention and sympathy throughout the novel. Otherwise your reader will just stop caring.

And then they'll stop reading.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Belated De-Lurk Day!

Apparently I missed de-lurk day last month, but I thought I'd call out of you lurkers out of the woodwork to come and leave a comment. Commenting is fun! 3 out of 5 dentists recommend it. I'm pretty sure it cures scurvy.


Where are you from?
Anything on your mind?
Who is Jason going to choose?
Will Jillian be the new Bachelorette?
How's the weather?
I know, right?

And hey, if you comment here you might even be featured in the San Francisco Chronicle like Vegas Linda Lou.

Come out come out wherever you are!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Art of Summarizing Your Work

Around the Internets it seems to be conventional wisdom that novel writing and query writing require two different skill sets, and an author who is good at one may not (or even need not) be good at the other.

Personally, I disagree with this premise entirely and believe that anyone who can write a good novel can write a good query. But. For the sake of this discussion, let's say that writing a novel and writing a query does require different skill sets and one may not necessarily go with the other.

Well... you need both skill sets.

International bestselling author Jeff Abbott was kind enough to send me just a few of the instances when he has had to distill his work into cogent summaries without the help of anyone:

- "My publisher once asked me to write a letter to the sales force, talking about myself and my book. It wasn't something a copywriter could do. I had to do it. And you want to make a good impression on the sales force--you live and die by sales. That letter is something they can then use in closing more orders for your books.

- Most publishers ask you to fill out a marketing questionnaire, so the publicists can use that in shaping their press pitches. A lot of that involves summaries of your book to different audiences: press, readers, booksellers, etc. Yes, the publicist has read the book. But they want to know what YOU want to stress before they start throwing ideas at you. You have to be part of that conversation.

- Writers are sometimes involved in jacket copy. Not often. But if the copywriter is stuck or having trouble, it's not unusual for the author to take a stab at a rewrite. The few times I've heard of this happening, it's because the copywriter missed on the major stakes of the book for the main character or emphasized a minor point to the exclusion of the focus of the book. Copywriters aren't perfect. No one can know your book better than you do.

- You get a call from a film studio, interested in you writing a treatment or a script for your book. This might come from your agent or they may have read the book. They want you do to a pitch on how you'd do the adaptation. And they want it tomorrow, via conference call. That's a verbal form of a query letter.

- At the Southeast Booksellers Association, they do an event called Moveable Feast--ten booksellers at a table, one empty chair for an author, a few dozen tables. You sit at each table and talk about your book to the booksellers for ten minutes, then move to the next table. Guess what? Your publicist isn't sitting next to you, whispering cues in your ear.

- At a cocktail party in London, me and 25 booksellers met for drinks and dinner. I had to mingle, meet everyone. At that point, the booksellers knew I'd had one successful book in the UK; they wanted to know about the next one. And they want to hear it in your words, not the press kit. They want to make that connection with you. You have to be able to talk about your work, your vision, what makes you you in a brief and interesting way.

- Any number of times, just out socializing, someone finds out I'm a writer and asks what I write or what's my new book about. They want something short and snappy and memorable. I want them to be interested in the book."

Annnnnnd so on.

So the message for the school of "I'm Just a Novelist" -- successful summarizing doesn't end with the query. If you feel like you can't do it, forcing yourself to write a good query is a great way to start.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Revenue Breakdown

We had quite the lively discussion in the comments section on Friday, and one of the results is that I slightly changed my submission guidelines. Steve Fuller pointed out that it is incredibly frustrating for authors to live and die by the query without even being able to include a single page from their manuscript. I'm definitely sympathetic to this, and I'm now asking that queriers paste five pages into the body of the e-mail after their query (but still, no attachments).

After a weekend of queries (100+, which I'm still working through), I'm here to tell you: soooo much better for me as well. Thanks very much to Steve for the suggestion. I had been worried about people sending too many attachments if I asked for sample pages, but so far so good.


There were also some questions about how much an author receives from a book sale, so I thought I'd provide a handy dandy breakdown. This varies greatly depending on what discounts the publisher is extending to booksellers/distributors/wholesalers etc. and what royalty the author is receiving from the publisher. I'm not going to get into what is a "typical" royalty, and please don't consider the below as such, because I can't discuss proprietary info. But here's a basic (and rough) rule of thumb to help with your calculations:

Start with a $24.95 hardcover.

Discounts to booksellers vary, but for a rough estimate figure that the publisher receives around 50%.

Let's say the author has a 10% retail royalty, and the author has an agent who receives 15% of the author's share. This works out to (again, roughly):

$12.48 to the bookseller (50%)
$9.98 to the publisher (50% minus author/agent share)
$2.12 to the author (10% of retail minus 15%)
$0.38 to the agent (15% of 10%)

For another example, let's take a $14.95 trade paperback where the author receives 7.5% retail. That translates to:

$7.48 to the bookseller
$5.83 to the publisher
$0.95 to the author
$0.17 to the agent

So there you have it. Note that the author (and agent) do not actually receive the above money until the advance has "earned out," meaning until all those little $0.95s per book have exceeded the amount the publisher paid as an advance. Subrights revenue, i.e. first serial (excerpts in periodicals), permissions, electronic, etc. also go towards paying down that advance.

Also note that this (thankfully) doesn't include rights the agent/author might have reserved, such as audio rights, foreign, and dramatic rights, which can be very important in helping authors earn enough for a new couch to sit on as they frantically write their next book in the hopes of landing the money for a new coffee table.

Friday, February 20, 2009

This Week in Publishing 2/20/09

This Week..... Publishing......

Not a whole lot of news in publishing this week, so let's start with a cheerful reminder: I've been getting so so so many questions like, "How do I find a literary agent," "How do I write a synopsis," "What are your submission requirements," etc. etc. If you look to the right side of the page you will find a set of links called "The Essentials," which will tell you all the basics. You will also find FAQs, which have much more than the basics and contain blog posts on nearly every question I have ever been asked. You can also Do A Google with my name and the subject you're interested in. Since time is tight, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ignore questions that are easily answered in this fashion.

Cool? Cool.

Now then. On to the links! Starting with..... you guessed it, more layoffs (subscription). This time at Borders, who is cutting 12% of their corporate employees.

And speaking of layoffs: haven't heard from your editor lately? Well, as Editorial Anonymous explains, in the wake of layoffs the projects of the departed are dispersed to the remaining editors, which creates a great deal more work.

In cheerier news, the indispensable Cynthia Leitich Smith, who runs one of the absolute best writing blogs out there featuring interviews and Cynsational News and Giveaways, will be on Second Life on February 24th! She has an awesome space set up, so if you prefer your book parties to be virtual, here's your opportunity.

Probably about 25% of the projects I pass on result in a follow-up question asking for a recommendation for another agent. I'm afraid I have to delete these without responding, and Jessica Faust at Bookends wrote a post today addressing these questions.

And finally, via Andrew Sullivan comes one of the most amazing YouTube videos I've seen: driving into a dust storm.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

More Story, Less You

A quick bit of query advice for this Thursday. I know you'll find all over the Internets that writing qualifications are important. They definitely are if you're writing nonfiction. But for novels: not so much. Honestly.

Qualifications are icing. They can adjust the calculus in my brain that leads me to request a partial, but they're far from the biggest factor that goes into my decision. I've seen novels from authors with impeccable credentials that I knew I couldn't sell, and I have sold novels from authors with basically no qualifications.

Lately I've been getting lots of queries where the story is described in just a tiny first paragraph with only the barest of inadequate description, and the rest of the query describes the author's qualifications and/or other extraneous things that don't belong in the query. Please don't do this! I like you a lot (really, I do), but for qualifications I only need a short paragraph with the highlights. Please please please focus on your story and what makes it stand out.

Particularly with the tough publishing climate and incredible deluge of queries, I just don't have time these days to take chances on projects that don't really grab me in the query. Thus, I'm passing on some of these types of queries, even if it gives me heartburn and indigestion and takes years of my life to do so. I really don't want to miss anything, but time is tight. Think of my health, people!

Unless you're a rock star or the pope, I'm not selling you, I'm selling your novel. The query should be focused accordingly.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Do Your Friends and Family Think of Your Writing Habit?

Writing is a solitary pursuit. It takes silence, concentration, patience, and provides a ready excuse to escape any awkward family gathering.

It also takes the forbearance of your friends and family as you toil away on the page or laptop and anguish over rejection letters and bad reviews.

What do they think about it?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Presidents' Day Query Stats

As many blogging agents have noted, there has been quite the uptick in queries this year, and I have the stats to prove it. I received 105 queries over the past three days, which is certainly a record for a holiday weekend. Also of note: the Stephenie Meyer effect is strong. I didn't separate out "YA Fantasy" in the YA category, but the bulk of the YA queries I received were YA Fantasy, plus 13 adult fantasy queries.

On to the stats:

Young adult: 19
Literary fiction: 14
Fantasy: 13
Mystery/Suspense/Thriller: 13
Women's fiction: 8
Male ennui: 5
Self-help: 4
Religion: 4
Historical fiction: 4
Memoir: 4
Science Fiction 3
Short Story collection: 2
Picture book: 2
Biography: 2
Romance: 1
Western: 1
No freaking clue: 4

Of those 105 queries, 35 were personalized (33%) and I requested two partials (2%)

Some more fun categories:

People who "didn't take no for an answer" and sent me their partial after I had already passed (please note: this doesn't work): 2
Queries sent as nothing but an attachment (which I deleted): 2
Queries that misspelled the word "query" or "blog": 3
Addressed "Dear Literary Agent" or other impersonal opener: 8
And, of course, queries beginning with a rhetorical question: 4

Friday, February 13, 2009

This Week in Publishing 2/13/09

This week..... publishing....

Lots of links this week, but first comes news that Dan Brown's long long long awaited follow-up to THE DA VINCI CODE just might be finished! He would have delivered it sooner, but he was caught up in a global conspiracy involving an ancient Sanskrit text, the National Security Council, aliens, and, of course, the Catholic Church. It was epic. I'm told the ordeal also had impeccable pacing.

My colleague Tracy Marchini attended the O'Reilly Tools of Change Conference, and has a must-read series of posts on what she learned. Absolutely worth spending some time there to learn more about eBooks, the future of free content, books and social media, and all kinds of other good stuff.

You might have heard about a little device called Kindle 2, which a little company called Amazon will be shipping out in a couple of weeks now. Kindle 2's birthing was met with a touch of controversy, as the device includes a feature where you can have the Kindle 2 read to you in a digital voice, which Amazon may not have the right to offer as they may not have secured, you know, audio rights. Stay tuned for this one.

Meanwhile, reader John Askins pointed me to this New York Times article about an upstart challenger to the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle. Plastic Logic debuted a prototype eReader with a 10.7 inch display (compared to 6" for the Sony and Kindle) that will support a variety of formats, and they've already begun reaching agreements for content.

As we all know, confidence is essential for any writer, and super-editor (I'm pretty sure that's his actual title) Alan Rinzler recently wrote a great series of tips on how to keep up the writerly self-esteem.

Reader Neil Vogler pointed me to a BBC article which poses the question: when you have mobile devices and a short attention span to distract you, are you still reading?

Jan Markley was the first to point me to an "End of Publishing As We Know It: Canadian Style" article from the Globe and Mail about the increasing necessity of authorial self-promotion and what's perceived as declining promotional efforts on the part of Canadian publishers, who are battling small margins. Sounds pretty familiar, eh?

The good people over at Book Roast have an anonymous publisher writing some great posts, and the most recent discusses what goes into a book cover.

One of the very most common questions I receive: how should an author conduct themselves when they have an agent? Agent Richard Curtis has drafted a 10 Commandments on this very subject, and quite a few of the points boil down to: let the agent do the talking. (hat tip Josephine Damian)

Several different blogging agents, including this one, have noted a serious uptick in queries in '09, and particularly of the "Dear Agnet, Ive written a book I need an agent please write me back, Sincerely, Author" variety (often with the word "query" misspelled in the subject line). Janet Reid, needless to say, has some hilarious choice thoughts.

And finally, because we all need a little more pig in our life...

Kingsford Goes to the Beach - Funny home videos are a click away

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Freevangelism: What Should Content Cost?

Nearly everyone in the media world in some form or another is grappling with one huge, massive, essential question: what should content cost in the digital era?

On one side you have the freevangelists (TRADEMARKED MUST CREIDT NATHAN BRANSFORD OMG) like Cory Doctorow who see the benefits of free and shared content in terms of building audiences, and believe that the only way forward is to follow what consumers want: online content (sometimes, if not always) for free, and definitely without DRM. Best be brushing up on your ancillary revenue streams. (more on DRM here)

On the other side you have the publishing establishment, who is looking at their P&Ls and concluding that e-books aren't really that much cheaper to produce than a book when you consider overhead like editing, copyediting, production (cover, typesetting, etc.), marketing, sales, rent, etc. HarperStudio asserts that an e-book is only about $2.00 cheaper to produce than a paper book, and thus, any drastic price cutting for e-books will be eating away at already-slim margins.

I don't doubt that free is great for the freevangelists like Cory Doctorow and Chris Anderson. They've done quite well by building their ancillaries (such as huge blogs) and benefit from the fact that they've been able to build a gratified audience base by giving away content. I also am sympathetic to concerns that DRM is completely annoying for the majority of consumers who want to use their content legitimately. And if publishers can make a mass market paperback original profitable when it's priced at $6.99, surely they can make e-books work under $10.00.

But are we really comfortable with a publishing world where authors and publishers are expected to, essentially, give content away and build revenue instead through ancillary streams?

And in defense of DRM, are you (as writers, not consumers) really comfortable with a theoretical world where a book can be downloaded (cheaply no doubt) and instantly e-mailed to 1,000 of the purchaser's closest friends? Sure, someone who has too much time on their hands can pirate a book and do precisely the same thing. But particularly when e-books become the main game in town (which is coming), should we really make sharing e-books as easy as 1 2 3? It's not the same thing as passing around a tattered paperback to one friend at a time.

Count me as someone with my feet firmly stuck in the muck of skepticism about a brave new world of overly cheap and unencrypted books. Maybe it's coming anyway and at 28-years-old I'm already a dinosaur. Maybe all the free blogs and content out there will make people reluctant to part with $24.95 or even $14.95 for a new book and the model is broken. Maybe DRM needs to be eased, even if it's not done away with entirely. Better yet, maybe e-book providers can use Peter Olson's suggestion of demand-based e-book pricing and create a pricing algorithm where a book that's downloaded 1,000 times a week costs $14.95 and a book that's downloaded 2 times a week costs $2.95.

I don't think free (or close to free) works for everyone. But is free inevitable?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

When Does One Become a "Writer?"

So. When do you start calling yourself "a writer?", as in, "I'm a writer, please go easy on me with the bad news."

When you finish a novel?

When you spend a certain amount of time doing it?

When you decide it's what you want to do?

When you have an agent?

Upon publication of your first novel?

And what about "author?"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Layoffs at Harper, Collins Closing

Another shoe is dropping in the industry this morning. Following last week's earnings report, Publishers Lunch (subscription) is reporting that HarperCollins is closing the Collins division that had grown quickly under publisher Steve Ross, and folding the imprints into Morrow and HarperCollins. This also means, of course, layoffs.

Ugh. Really, really to sorry everyone over there who is affected.

UPDATE: Children's imprint Bowen Press is closing as well. Ugh.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In Praise of the Sony Reader

It's Kindle 2.0 Launch day, and you'll find all about it, well, practically everywhere. Amazon has not yet sent a device for review (call me!), but I would like to tell you about my new Sony Reader.

Which is awesome.

First off: touch screen, people!

The touch screen leads to quite a bit of trickle-down quality, especially from an aesthetic standpoint because the device is mostly screen. If you want to take notes, it's very simple: a keyboard pops up on the screen and you simply type on it. It's also easy to navigate because you just touch which book you want to read, so there's no scrolling.

The display itself is a wonder: if you haven't seen e-ink you haven't seen... uh, e-ink. The best comparison I can make is that it's like an Etch-a-Sketch. It's not backlit. It's not like reading on a PDA or laptop. Repeat: it's not like reading on a PDA or laptop. It doesn't strain your eyes any more than paper. Repeat: it doesn't strain your eyes any more than paper. And the pages turn noticeably faster with this version of the Reader. It's just a tiny blink.

(And yes, I know that there will still be comments from people worried about eye-strain)

But perhaps my favorite underrated aspect of this device is quite simple: a built-in nightlight.

Because the screen isn't backlit, you can only read it under light. Thus, having a nightlight is basically indispensable for reading at night.

Other cool features:

- you can easily change the font size and layout if you'd like to read bigger or on widescreen.
- multiple ways to change pages, whether pressing a button or "flicking" the touch-screen with your finger
- an approximation of page numbers, unlike Kindle's bewildering "locations"
- the leather case snaps shut easily with a nice magnet
- you only need to charge it, at most, once a week

The Reader does have some drawbacks: the e-book store is not yet Mac compatible, and I do miss the lack of wireless. For an average reader I don't think this would be a problem because you can easily load up a bunch of books on a single plug-in and be good to go for a while. When you're an agent dealing with a thousand partials, however, I miss the wireless.

You can check out the Reader at your friendly neighborhood Target, Borders, and other stores.

I honestly, honestly never thought when I got a Kindle and Sony Reader that I'd become a raving lunatic of a fan of these devices. But what can I say? I really feel like it's an improved reading experience. I like reading with one hand so I can hold onto the bus/train with the other hand. I like the lack of clutter. I like getting books instantaneously. I like being able to easily search a book and have access to a ton of them. I like how they always open up to the last place I left off.

We'll always have paper books, and I'd always want to have some of my favorites. But now that I have e-readers: I can't imagine going back.

UPDATE: In the comments section people have been weighing on the new commenting system (an embedded window) vs. the old one (separate page with icons). Let's put it to a vote, and I'll change it accordingly:

Friday, February 6, 2009

This Week in Publishing 2/6/09

But first, a word on yesterday's You Tell Me, which was one of the most fascinating discussions evah.

While I will leave it to everyone else to decide how they personally feel about the appropriateness or accuracy of King's statement, I would like to address the broader question of who can and should decide what books are "good," and push back a bit on the notion that "the reader" is or should be sole arbiter.

Yes, individual reader opinions are all valid in their own way. But I would not say that all opinions are equally valid, and if we as a culture completely devalue the role of experts and critics in shaping and helping define what we consider good I think we will lose a collective appreciation and elevation of artistic merit.

You would not value my opinion on particle physics, nor should you, because all I know about particle physics is that wave and particle duality makes my freaking head hurt. So would you value a particle physicist's view on books equal to a book expert's? Have we gotten to the point where everyone's opinion on books, no matter their expertise, background, insight, and level of literacy, should be treated with equal reverence?

Yes, art is at least partially subjective, we all read different books for different reasons, and there is something to appreciate and learn from in every single successful book. But in terms of opinions and discourse, the American Idolization of culture can only go so far. Otherwise we might as well just do away with Oscars and National Book Awards and crown whatever books are most accessible and successful "the best" and scrap the notion of ideal books that, yes, not everyone might appreciate or find easy to read, but which advance the art form, represent an artistic ideal, and break new ground for those who follow.

Anon@9:37 this morning put it more eloquently than I could: "One of the worst things happening in public discourse about the arts is that there appears to be an attempt to bring criticism down to the level of mere opinion, with the further claim that everyone's opinion is equal, and that all opinion is "just opinion" and nobody's opinion is more valid than another's.

This false conflation of criticism with opinion and the misguided egalitarianism in which it's wrapped is leading to the death of informed criticism, which is being drowned in a sea of uninformed opinion."


I hesitate to describe King as a critic because he's primarily an author, and in no way should the preceding be construed as an endorsement or rejection of his views. Call me Switzerland. I also will freely admit that the "experts" sometimes get it spectacularly wrong both in the short term and from a historical perspective. But consider me a little nervous about the pendulum swinging too far toward an artistic elevation of mass appeal and the yes, "misguided egalitarianism" of treating all opinions as equally valid.

Now then. There was news in publishing this week, and I aim to bring it to you.

The big news today is that HarperCollins reported a 25% drop in sales in the last quarter compared to the final quarter last year. Let that sink in. 25% drop. I can't even bang my head on my desk that's so depressing.

Meanwhile a new website geared toward all things self-publishing has gone live, edited by one of the best self-pubbed authors out there, Henry Baum. His excellent book NORTH OF SUNSET was named one of the best self-published books by POD-dy Mouth in Entertainment Weekly.

It turns out that Pilot Sully, he of dropping a plane down smoothly in the freezing Hudson, had a library book in his luggage, which he lost in the crash. What was it? A book on professional ethics. OF COURSE IT WAS. Can we please appoint Pilot Sully to the Supreme Court or name him pope or something? My goodness. Also the library waived his fees. Which he then probably insisted on paying anyway.

HarperStuido had a (typically) great post this week: they asked an independent bookseller three things publishers could do better, and then dished right back on three things independent booksellers could do better. The answers were insightful.

Google and Amazon are making waves today as Google announced plans to bring Google Book Search and its 1.5 million public domain books onto the iPhone. Meanwhile, Amazon dropped a huge bomblet by suggesting that they're going to make Kindle books available on mobile devices. (hat tip Pub Lunch)

Meanwhile, thanks to reader Jan Whitaker for a great article about the past, present, and future of e-books. Written by an e-book junkie, it's really worth a look as it puts both the past and future in perspective

And finally, Anne and May (Dayton and Vanderbilt) have killed many characters over the course of their writing careers, and Anne recently wrote a hilarious look back at the poor saps who were edited out completely. RIP, suckers!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

King vs. Meyer, and Who Decides What is "Good" Anyway?

The writosphere is aflutter after Stephen King said, in an interview with USA Weekend: "The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good."

After some further thoughts on Erle Stanley Gardner (King: "terrible"), Jodi Picoult (good), Dean Koontz (good and bad) and James Patterson (bad), King said further:

"People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it's not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet."

The whole situation is not without its irony. After Stephen King won a National Book Foundation award for "distinguished contribution" to American letters (and surely books as well), the critic/professor Harold Bloom wrote in the Boston Globe:

"What [King] is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. The publishing industry has stooped terribly low..."

Aside from putting books in the news, which, hi, doesn't happen very often, this whole spat raises some interesting questions. Or rather one interesting question: who decides what is good anyway?

Is it the readers? After all, if Meyer is so successful she has to be doing something right. And in this world of American Idol, everyone fancies themselves an expert. But surely there is some difference between commercial success and artistic merit, right? Are we ready to crown the most successful books the "best" books?

Is it the critics? Should we leave "good" to the people who devote themselves to sifting through the books and movies and decide what's good and bad? Surely there's something to be said for expertise, right?

Is it the writers? Who knows better than the people who are actually writing the books, right? Or do they?

Is it the scholars? Yesterday's potboilers are today's classics. Yesterday's drivel is today's unappreciated genius.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How Do You Feel About the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest?

It's that time of year.

Lots of people have been asking me about my thoughts on this contest, but for reasons of professional discretion I'd rather not weigh in.


There are lots of knowledgeable people around these parts who would be able to tell you a thing or two about the contest and their experiences entering last year.

What do the real experts have to say? Anyone have any questions for them? Is this contest either a breakthrough or novel?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It's The End of Publishing As We Know It: Do You Feel Fine?

Last month, Publishers Weekly published an "end of the publishing industry as we know it" article that was very different than most of the other "end of the publishing industry as we know it" articles, mainly because it was really good.

As it happens it was written by former Random House CEO Peter Olson, and he addresses a somewhat familiar litany of problems: the weak standing of bookstore chains, discount stores treating books as loss leaders and slashing prices (which further erodes bookstores), the rise of Amazon, and the sinkhole of confusion that is e-book pricing.

His solution? Demand-based pricing on e-books, partnership with Amazon, and enough with the layoffs.

The article is must-read of all must-reads if you want to know the challenges facing the book industry. Olson should know. He was there, and you won't find a better summary of what the industry is facing, and particularly new authors. Olson writes:

"Despite the drive to cut costs, the market for advances for celebrity books shows few signs of abating in 2009. Publishers will likely continue to overbid for potential bestsellers, justifying their offers on marginal contribution from outdated sales projection models. This means bad news for other writers, as the willingness of publishers to invest time and money in developing new projects and of retailers to risk stockpiling unknown authors may drop precipitously."

Can publishing change? One Harvard Business Prof isn't so sure.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse defends the blockbuster model, citing the blockbuster effect of publishers doing everything in their power to make a book a bestseller when they've paid so much, paying a lot means agents will send their best projects, bookstores take notice when a publisher is investing in a title they believe in, and the vast array of books available creates an even stronger craving in the reading public for a shared experience. People want to read what other people are reading.

So what, dare I ask, should we make of all this?

Well, in my opinion there are two meta forces at work in book publishing at the moment. With the closing of bookstores, fewer titles being ordered by the bookstores that are left, and more people buying their books in stores where there are fewer titles available (i.e. box stores like WalMart), there is tremendous pressure on publishers to invest in the few books that can reliably sell.

At the same time, the Internet and e-books are opening up new sales avenues for authors who either catch on through word of mouth or are able to build their own buzz. As a result, you're seeing progressively more self-published and small-press books rise up through the cacophony of titles and find their readers.

In essence, it's the best of times and the worst of times. If you're an enterprising author there is a world of opportunity out there. Never before have we had a book publishing world where truly anyone could publish and potentially find their readers. Before there was a fundamental obstacle: distribution. That's going away. Anyone can publish. It's a massive, groundbreaking shift! I suspect soon there will be even more opportunities for collectives and online communities to boost sales, build brands, and become real players in publishing. Out of chaos comes order.

At the same time, when faced with such a multitude of choices, people tend to go with the familiar, and publishers are following that trend and filling that niche. The blockbuster model carries a great deal of risk, and there are drawbacks to putting so many eggs in a few baskets, but it may not be an irrational choice. And of course, this means that precious few new authors will get the backing of the publishers, making it that much harder for them to break out. But once an author is able to break out and convince a publisher to invest in them, no one can match a major publisher's combined efforts in publicity, production, and distribution.

It certainly is a brave new world. After changing so little for 75 years, the book industry is in for a wild ride.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Can You Query If You Are an Unpublished Novelist and Your Novel Isn't Finished?


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