Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, February 26, 2010

This Week in Publishing 2/26/10

It's my last day in Mexico, and what a trip it's been. My wife and I are staying in a hotel at the top of a funicular (every morning should start with a funicular ride) and are enjoying the sights of Guanajuato, an old silver and gold mining town that has Parisian alleys and Mexican colors. Underneath the city are cavernous passageways that were originally built for flood control but now serve as roads. The food (especially anything sweet) is incredible and the coffee supposedly the best in Mexico. I'm currently at the Cafe Tal coffee shop, and my wife just ordered a shot of pure liquidy chocolate goodness called Beso Negro that should probably be a controlled substance. Mexico = awesome!

But meanwhile, there was a week in publishing and I tried to keep up with it (I'll fold anything I missed into next week).

There was some terrific writing advice catalogued online by the Guardian UK this week by authors as varied as Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, and Neil Gaiman, but with apologies to the other luminaries, Elmore Leonard steals the show: don't open with weather, avoid non-said dialogue tags, and best of all, try to leave out the parts that readers skip. (via @ColleenLindsay) The New Yorker's Book Blog notes how personal these lists are to each individual writer, and it hints at the ultimate writing rule: make your own rules.

If you're a writer, chances are you've received your fair share of rejections. But have you received 11,000 rejections?

This week in the Forums: people share their rejection stats, discuss their book cover pet peeves, and does your manuscript get longer or shorter after your first draft?

Kids everywhere have a new strategy for convincing their parents to buy them a Nintendo DSi XL: it doubles as an e-reader. I'm not even a parent and I can hear it now. "But Moommmmmm, it's educational!!"

In addition to serving as poster child for the mid-aughts fake memoir craze, the New York Post is speculating that James Frey is writing many books under many pen names, including supposedly-off-the-grid John Twelve Hawks. Savvy promoter as ever, Frey will neither confirm nor deny the questions. I like this strategy. I will neither confirm nor deny that I am William Faulkner. And a vampire. (via The Book Bench)

And finally, it's a snow day for many of my East Coast friends, who I guess are having as many Snowpocalypses as bad horror movie sequels. I will raise a margarita in false solidarity.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Do You Own Your Characters or Do Your Characters Own You?

As an agent I get to hear lots of different types of authors discuss their writing process and how they go about crafting a world, and especially the lives of characters.

One common refrain is that authors often go into a story with certain ideas about how the story is going to go, but all of a sudden, once characters really begin to come alive they take the story in a different direction altogether.

And this can really help out a story - while obviously the characters are only alive insasmuch as they're in the author's (living) head, this may be a way of expressing that the author is being true to the logic of a situation. The author has a sense of the character, and it's important that the character's actions are logically consistent.

At the same time, I always find it curious to hear authors so completely in thrall to their worlds and characters, and I start wondering, "Wait a second, who's in charge here?"

Once the characters and worlds begin to take life it can be a danger if the author lets the characters take the story in a completely different direction. Willful characters can walk themselves straight out of a plot if the author loses touch with the story and instead just follows the characters' whims.

My personal belief is that the story has to come first, but at the same time, I definitely think it's important to listen to the inner logic of a character who is coming alive. Balance is everything.

How do you balance story while being true to a character?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Where Do You Go for Inspiration?

As chronicled yesterday, San Miguel de Allende is quite an inspiring place. The landscape and architecture are beautiful, the weather is perfect, and they somehow manage to have a spectacular sunset every single night. No surprise, then, that artists and writers have been coming here for years for inspiration. It's a great place for creativity.

It got me to thinking about how all writers seem to have a place (usually closer to home) where they go when they need to unlock the creativity or possibly beat a case of writer's block. Some places just get the mind thinking and the creative juices flowing.

Where do you go when you need inspiration?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Recapping the San Miguel Writer's Conference

San Miguel de Allende is an interesting city that never fails to surprise. It's at once colonial and modern, with old walls and narrow cobblestoned streets hiding hip restaurants and beautiful courtyards. It's both Mexican and international, with a huge community of expats mingling comfortably with locals. And you'll find everyone hanging out in the central Jardin at all hours of the day and night, where you might see tourists with maps, expats sipping coffee, and locals singing along late at night with a mariachi band.

All in all it's a perfect setting for a writer's conference - both exotic and comfortable, with a close-knit expat community comprised of very interesting individuals who have lived varied and colorful lives. I don't think it's a coincidence that memoir was by far the most popular genre here.

I heard many interesting keynotes - Chuck Adams from Algonquin talked about the publishing philosophy that has delivered hits like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and 6 bestsellers out of the 20 books they published last year. They focus only on the titles they know they can publish well, and they throw all of their energy into them.

Memoirist and poet Judith Barrington talked about the memoir as map - sometimes memories are lost in the folds, creases, and tears, and it's up to the memoirist to reconstruct the events. Memoir isn't autobiography but rather based on memory, which both science and experience tells us is faulty, swayed by emotion, and ever-evolving. (If you're interested in a how-to on memoir, check out her very popular WRITING THE MEMOIR.)

Agent Rosemary Stimola (who represents Suzanne Collins, among others) talked about the history of language and storytelling, and shared some terrific quotes by Socrates and Martin Luther, who feared the alphabet and printing press, respectively. People have always feared change, but the state of literature is no worse for wear.

My own speech was about why I'm optimistic about the future of books, which boils down to: yes, we're going through a time of some tumultuous change, but books didn't go away when movies came along, they didn't go away when TV came along, and they're not going away just because we have the Internet. As long as we still have books there will be authors to write them, agents to represent them, and publishers to publish them, even if how we obtain and read them changes.

And beloved author Barbara Kingsolver talked about the origins of her novel THE LACUNA, ten years in the making, which arose alternately out of a long-ago trip to Mexico, notes she thought she'd leave behind for a future historian, and the post-9/11 political climate of America. She had answered the question to the press before, but never felt as if she could tell the whole story without time to delve into the different points of origin.

The conference was punctuated by some seriously incredible fiestas - one in an estate up on the hill above the city, where we were serenaded by a mariachi band, ate fabulous food from many different stations, hit a pinata, and watched a fireworks display dedicated to THE LACUNA. The next night we were shuttled to a speakeasy-themed party, where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lookalikes were on hand to make us feel as if we were back in time.

What an incredible introduction to Mexico, and thanks so much to the organizers for putting on such a fabulous conference, and to the Oasis for their fantastic accommodations.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Guest Blog: Mitchell Waters on Louis Auchincloss

Hola amigos, as I'm still busy at the fabulous San Miguel Writer's Conference and pushing my enchilada consumption count past a dozen, Curtis Brown agent Mitchell Waters was kind enough to step in with a tribute to longtime Curtis Brown client Louis Auchincloss, who recently passed away at age 92 after an incredibly prolific career, including the novel LAST OF THE OLD GUARD, which came out when he was 90, and his memoir A VOICE FROM OLD NEW YORK, which will be published this Fall.


Several weeks ago I accompanied Susannah Carson on an afternoon visit to my venerable 92 year-old client Louis Auchincloss. She was here on tour for the anthology A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, for which Louis had contributed an old essay, "Jane Austen and the Good Life."

We took the elevator up to his Park Avenue penthouse, where the front door was left ajar so that we could enter the large vestibule without requiring him to walk to the door. Louis was fully ambulatory, but moved more tentatively since a fall and hip replacement surgery. Louis invited us into the living room where he was seated in his favorite chair and we sat on the nearby couch. Susannah had brought Louis an inscribed copy of the anthology as well as one she hoped he'd sign.

I asked Louis if I might show Susannah some of the first editions in Louis' vast library.

"What's that?" asked Louis.

"Can we see your first editions of Jane Austen?" I shouted.

"Oh yes, yes, of course..." He waved a hand behind him to the bookshelves.

Louis admired Austen as much as he did any writer. I'd once asked him for a recommendation of the best criticism on Austen. Apparently, Louis felt that criticism of Austen was almost impertinent. Reading the author again was the only recommendation I received.

I took down volumes of Pride and Prejudice and Susannah and I sat there reading the first few pages, pretending we had just brought them home, unwrapped them, and were among the first eyes to read those famous opening lines. Louis got up to show us more from the seemingly endless rows of beautiful volumes as well as the complete leather bound collection of his own books (more than sixty, in all). Though I'd experienced this privilege before, I still felt like a kid in a very expensive candy shop, trying to get a taste of as many of these rare treats as possible in the time allowed, and still managing to savor each.

"Oh my god, I'm holding a first edition of Wuthering Heights," I said, while Susannah read Jane Eyre. There were extensive collections of Wharton and James, Proust and Trollope. Where else could one find such a personal collection. And then to be able to handle the books -- without gloves! Louis would sometimes replace or duplicate a valuable first edition, in order to have one that he would feel was sturdy enough to be comfortable reading. This was no musty museum exhibition, but rather the living room library of a truly great lover of books. The apartment itself was a kind of library and Louis had more to show us in his office.

"Quick," I thought, "it should be just about here -- and there it was: "Nelly, I am Heathcliff!""

Well, as close as I'm ever going to be and I handed Louis back the volume and we continued our tour. Who knew when the shop would close?

I became Louis Stanton Auchincloss' agent nearly ten years ago, after he'd already had a long and distinguished career, both as a lawyer and author of nearly sixty books by then. It certainly was the most anxious I've ever been about a new client, both because of the imposing literary figure he was and the fact that I was inheriting a client who had been very well served by his agent of longest standing, James Oliver Brown, as well as the retiring head of Curtis Brown, Perry Knowlton.

For many agents, the most gratifying aspect of our work is discovering and nurturing young talent. Is there a more exciting moment than calling that client and telling her or him that you've received an offer for a first novel? Such bonding moments would have long faded from Louis' memory (I never asked) and would not be the part of the foundation of any relationship we might have. I knew that Louis had spoken to Jim Brown on the phone almost every morning over their first cups of coffee and that they would have been to many of the same parties and literary events together.

I wanted Louis to feel that, while things might not be the same (when are they ever?), that he would be hard put to see or feel any real diminishment in how he and his work were treated. I would continue to do some things the old-fashioned way: his manuscripts would be picked up by hand, photocopied and hand delivered to him and his editor the next day; they would be read within a day or two. Louis wasn't looking for much in the way of editorial input from me and I rarely presumed. He did want his manuscripts to be read promptly and was not averse to hearing how much I loved them -- and I did.

My input was mostly confined to wanting more -- that the manuscripts should be longer. I came to realize that this may have been too much to ask of a client well into his eighties. Despite my best intentions, it appeared that we were off to a rough start. Whenever I received a call from Louis, he would tell me why he had called -- asking questions, alerting me that a manuscript was ready or soon-to-be, and then he would hang up. There was never any "goodbye," "speak to you soon," or "take care" and I often found myself mildly sputtering on my end, "but, Louis..."

I soon learned that if I had something to discuss with Louis, I had better initiate the call, make my points and be prepared to have the call come to an abrupt end. All of this only increased my anxiety about working with this "Living Landmark", until the day Louis called to thank me in particular for something I'd been able to accomplish on his behalf. He was nearly lavish in his praise, and then he was gone. And though I continued to find myself hanging there with another question or comment for years to come, I never took it personally again. I told this story to his son Andrew recently and learned that, while his dad was scrupulously courteous in every aspect of his life, I was far from alone when it came to this one quirk.

I represented Louis Auchincloss for ten books. His current editor, George Hodgman, asked Louis to write a memoir and, after some initial resistance, we persuaded him to do it. I'll never again have the opportunity to chat with Brooke Astor, dance alongside Kitty Carlisle Hart, or listen to the most sophisticated observations about important political, social and literary figures of the past century over lunch at one of his clubs, as I had courtesy of my relationship with Louis Auchincloss. But we will still have the chance to partake of A Voice from Old New York when his memoir is published this Fall.

After showing us many of the inscribed first editions he had received from many of his contemporaries (John Updike, Norman Mailer) and looking at photographs of generations of his family (and hearing gossip about a certain 19th Century monarch), Louis escorted Susannah and me to the front door. Louis said "goodbye" (of course!) and then we were gone. Two weeks later he died.

"but Louis..."

Friday, February 19, 2010

This Week in Publishing 2/19/10

Este Semana in El Publishing....

Hola compadres! So far so good at the San Miguel Writer's Conference. I met with some talented writers today for some manuscript consultations, sat in on a talk by Chuck Adams, publishing veteran and editor extraordinaire at Algonquin, and looking forward to a keynote tonight by Barbara Kingsolver and a fiesta afterward. And, in case you're wondering, Enchilada Consumption Count: 1. So far.

Meanwhile, there was news in publishing this week and I aim to give it to you.

The big news this week has been reported on by the incomparable Michael Cader, who sums up the latest developments in the Google Settlement hearing. The judge reviewing the settlement expressed some skepticism regarding the deal, and will ultimately decide if the settlement is permissible. (Also, that link is subscription only, but if you're no subscribing, well... probably should.)

In e-book news, the NY Times recently reported on some developments surrounding the iPad. If you recall from the Kindle Missile Crisis post, under the "agency" model, some publishers are willingly receiving less money per copy on some new titles in order to have more control over pricing. According to the NY Times, however, Apple is still retaining the ability to discount some bestsellers, and per the anonymous sources in the article the much-discussed $12.99-$14.99 price point is just "a ceiling." Which begs a question on many a publishing mind: if the goal of the agency model was to have more control over pricing, how does potential Apple-bestseller-discounting fit into the plan?

And meanwhile, Eric at Pimp My Novel spots some details about the Apple DRM, which is going to look a lot like the DRM they used to use for music. He wonders what you think about this.

This week in the Forums: the ongoing question What writer you'd have dinner with if you had a chance, What do you think made TWILIGHT so popular?, Should you share your work before it's finished, and, of course, we're still trying to figure out what in the heck is happening on Lost.

Ever sent a question to an agent or publisher and gotten a vague, unehlpful nonresponse in return? INTERN tells you why this be so.

James Cameron is writing a prequel to Avatar, and guess what: it's a novel.

And finally, an updated Enchilada Consumption count: 1 1/2.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Estoy Salieeeennndooooo en un Avion de Jet

Hola mis amigos! I'm on my way today to the San Miguel Writer's Conference in scenic and beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where Barbara Kingsolver will be speaking and where I'm due to meet with many lovely and talented writers.

I know. It's a difficult job, but someone has to do it.

I hope to continue posting while I'm away, but blogging may be a bit sporadic as time and enchilada consumption warrants.

Also, in case you haven't seen it, Kingsolver's new novel THE LACUNA was recently released and I'm reading it now. It's muy interesante.

Hasta luego!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Keeps You Writing?

Lots and lots and lots of people dream about writing a novel. Fewer people actually start. And fewer than that actually finish.

Writing a novel takes hundreds of hours, the ability to tune out distractions, forcing oneself to buckle down when the novelty wears off, and the mental perseverance to keep going when doubts and the am-I-crazies creep in.

There are lots of things that can stop someone from writing. What keeps you going?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Writing Significant Other/Friend/Family Appreciation Day

Writing can be a very solitary pursuit: staring in silence at a notebook or a computer screen for hours and hours, and some more hours, and maybe some more hours after that. Writers are often lost in their worlds even when they're not actually writing and when they are ahem supposed to be spending quality time with their loved ones. Managing to write a novel while also maintaining the love and support of family, significant others, and friends demands a whole lot of those people. They invest in every writer's dreams through support and patience and they live many of the same highs and lows.

Valentine's Day was this past weekend, and I thought it would be nice to have a post-Valentine's Day show of thanks for the significant others, family, and friends who read drafts, find ways to occupy themselves during writing time, listen to complaints about the endless frustrations of the writing life, and offer support when doubts creep in.

Is there anyone you'd like to thank for making your writing life possible?

UPDATE: And here I was all focused on writing this post and not giving thanks to the most important person in my writing life, my wife, who believed that I could be a writer way way way before I ever did. I couldn't have written a novel without her. And to my family and friends for always being so supportive.

Photo by Jnlin

Friday, February 12, 2010

This Week in Publishing 2/12/10

Publishing decided to go and have a relatively quiet week this week. Thank you for the breather, publishing news! I had gotten used to the world being revolutionized. Every single day.

First up, for those of you in the vicinity of New York City, on February 18th there will be an upcoming panel on Digital Publishing and the Author with some publishing luminaries, including my quite brilliant colleague Ginger Clark. Be sure and check that out.

And speaking of digital publishing and the future, the NY Times found some customers who do not like e-books that cost more than $9.99. One. Single. Bit. Though I would have been more impressed if the NY Times found any consumer who would go on the record saying they like higher prices. Maybe someone living in opposite land.

The most helpful Stephen Parrish pointed me to an article wonder, so what in the heck is in J.D. Salinger's safe anyway? So far the answer from everyone who might know has been "No comment. Hopefully this will end up being a tad more exciting than the time they opened up Al Capone's vault on TV only there was nothing in it. Then again that might be kind of awesome too.

This week in the forums: I created a new forum for All Things Feedback, people discuss their writing processes, there's a new thread devoted to nonfiction, and perhaps most importantly, we continue to discuss what in the world (or maybe it's ANOTHER WORLD) is happening on Lost.

Jennifer Briggs pointed me to a very enjoyable post on the tacky book covers of yore. The cheesiness, it abounds.

In life of the writer news, @colsonwhitehead linked to a really interesting article by Dani Shapiro about the difficulty of making a living writing. She laments our current emphasis on publishing rather than creating, though I somehow suspect this isn't actually a recent development.

In agent advice news, Rachelle Gardner has a great post on the three things that make her say "yes": craft, story, and voice.

And finally, in an attempt to out-Twitter Twitter, Google Buzz launched amid a flurry of, well, buzz and controversy. Anyone checked it out yet? What do you think?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Batch Querying Theory

As anyone who has ever written one knows: writing a query is difficult. Really really difficult. Like, figuring out what in the heck is happening on Lost difficult.

And like everything that's really really difficult, you might not get it right the first time. You might need a couple of rounds of practice or a critique in a forum (shameless plug ZOMG I have just the forum for you act now!).

As I'm sure you've heard, one of the more mystifying ways some aspiring authors go about the query process is to blast an e-mail to every single agent in the publishing industry listed in the To box and a "To My Future Literary Agent" salutation.

What makes me slap my head isn't just that it's poor e-mail etiquette and I know 1,000 of my closest colleagues are also considering at exactly the same time, but rather because I don't think it's very good strategy on the part of the author.

If you didn't get it quite right the first time and you've sent it to everyone in publishing, you just lost your chance at tweaking it a bit and trying again. If you rush the submission process you lose the ability to evaluate and adjust as you go.

I personally think it's much better to send out the query in batches of five to seven at a time. Take your time. See what the response is like. If you're not getting any requests, you might take another hard look at your query and opening and think about possibly making a change - since time will have gone by you might notice something you could do better. If, on the other hand, you're getting requests and just not a firm bite, you will know you're on the right track but maybe just haven't found the right fit. Going at a steady pace can be frustrating and tedious, but it gives you time to research agents and personalize, to keep working on new material, and to give yourself time to look at your query and opening with fresh eyes.

Patience in the submission process goes a long way. If you try to send your query to 1,000 agents all at once you won't have a chance to adjust your strategy as you go.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Can Authors Balance Publicity and Privacy in the Internet Era?

In the discussion on Monday regarding the person stopping by the office, an anonymous commenter chimed in with what I thought was an interesting point of discussion about boundaries in the Internet era.

He/she writes:

Have been thinking a lot about the writers who choose to keep their privacy, such as Salinger and Pynchon and those who are all out twittering hither-nither.

I have very mixed feelings about the personal publicity writers are encouraged to develop, even agents. It seems like we are auditioning for "America's Next SuperWriter" and the fifteen minutes of fame required.

...The photos do connect people. But then where is privacy given a boundary?

As I wrote in a post late last year, the days of being "Just An Author," if they ever existed, are basically over. Everything is out there on the Internet, and authors are really expected to put themselves out there to find their audience. Publishers want authors to be Facebooking, Tweeting, blogging, and everything they can do to get out there. It's really tough to do that without using at least part of your personal life and picture to make that happen, even if you're using a pen name.

What do you think: Is this the price the modern author has to pay if they want an audience? Is there a way to balance Internet presence with privacy?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Can Bookstores and E-books Coexist?

Photo of Shakespeare & Company by Alexandre Duret-Lutz via a Creative Commons License

As you may be able to tell from the references to rice farming in my bio, I grew up in a really small town: 5,000 people, a handful of restaurants, two grocery stores, a one-screen movie theater, and two stoplights that only operated during school hours (after I moved away they put in one that operates 24 hours - you don't know the excitement). And it's not like this was a suburb. The nearest town, seven miles away, had a whopping 700 people. My hometown is the biggest town in a county that's 3/4 the size of Rhode Island.

And because it was such a small town we didn't have a bookstore. The closest one was a tiny mall store in a town 30 miles away that was invariably staffed by surly teenagers and very rarely had what young Nathan was looking for. I got by on the books my parents had bought for my older siblings, the armfuls I'd grab when the book fair came to town, and whatever they had at the local library.

Combine this with a generally pro-future attitude and I think you'll see why my mind continues to be blown that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we now have access to pretty much every book you could ever want to read. You don't even have to talk to a bored teenager to get them.

But don't get me wrong - I love bookstores!! Love love love. I'm eternally grateful to Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, OR for introducing me to David Eddings, I loved my pilgrimage to Elliott Bay in Seattle, and I always stop by Borderlands in San Francisco whenever I'm looking for science fiction (especially if Ripley the hairless alien cat is in). Bookstores are hugely important, and I don't want them to go away.

Much as Mike Shatzkin recently expressed in a recent post, I'm a bit torn between my love of e-books and my love of bookstores. Selfishly, I want the best of both worlds. I want the convenience of e-books without inadvertently killing off the places that host author readings, who nurture local talent, serve as community centers, and introduce readers to authors they might not have heard about otherwise.

Opinions vary on the extent to which we can have both worlds. Shatzkin sees the conflict between e-books and bookstores as essentially zero sum, in a comment on Shatzkin's post Kassia Krozser of Booksquare says it's not zero sum and they can coexist provided bookstores embrace both print and digital, and independent booksellers Christin Evans and Praveen Madan recently chided the press for treating the demise of bookstores as an inevitability rather than taking a hard look at the fact that, among other things, after 15 years independent booksellers combined have a digital market share of 0.1%.

There are definitely independent stores who have embraced the Internet (Powell's comes to mind), and if publishers are able to control uniform pricing via the agency model, bookstores may be back to competing on consumer experience rather than pricing. Is this a digital environment in which physical stores could thrive if they embraced the Internet? Or do e-books just further erode the necessity of brick and mortar stores?

I don't pretend to know for sure. Like any consumer, I want it all. I just hope I can get it. Right now I have my feet (and put my dollars) in both worlds. I wonder if that's enough.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Drop-Ins Not Allowed

This one falls into the "Yes, it needs to be said" category. I know 99% of you wouldn't think of doing this, but hopefully this will reach the other 1%.

We had a bit of an incident the other day here at Curtis Brown San Francisco as someone came to the office wearing sunglasses and a black hat, refused to provide their name, and asked to see me without an appointment.

Now, I don't know whether you would have come out of your office when the receptionist called and said, "There's a guy here wearing sunglasses and a hat and he'd like to see you and I don't know who he is," but I believe my exact quote was "Absolutely not."

Then the person refused to leave for a while. Eventually he gave the receptionist a query and left.

Now, let me be clear: I'm sure this person was just trying to show initiative, probably lives in the area or happened to be here on vacation and was thinking, "Hey, what the heck I'll stop by and maybe make a personal connection." I'm sure it was all completely well-intentioned.

But this is not like other businesses - we don't take drop-in appointments. We also have no way of knowing if someone who shows up at the office unannounced has received one query rejection too many or just thought they'd pound the pavement to show agents they're serious. So we're probably not coming out of the office. I take this stuff pretty seriously.

Save yourself a trip - just send me a query. If I love your work there will be more than enough time to meet in person.

Friday, February 5, 2010

This Week in Publishing 2/5/10

Yeah, wow.

This was quite an epic week in publishing, and on top of this epic week I still have a couple of leftover weeks because I haven't done a link roundup in a while, so... buckle up, everyone! We're going for a long drive together.

But first, this week in the forums we are busy discussing: Do you have a rejection contingency plan?, What is Literary YA?, What writing disorder do you suffer from? Do men read less fiction than ever? and, of course, what in the heck happened this week on Lost?

The big news this week, as we all know, is the Amazon/Macmillan kerflareup. If you have been on the moon the last few days, welcome back and here's basically what happened: Macmillan wants to set their own retail prices to open up the marketplace and are willing to accept less per copy to make this happen. Amazon wants to be able to sell books as cheaply as they want. The Kindle Missile Crisis ensued and Amazon took down buy button links for nearly all Macmillan titles for both print and e-books. Since all that went down, buy buttons have not yet been fully restored, and meanwhile, Macmillan released a full page ad for THE CHECKLIST MANIFESTO that very prominently says: "Available at booksellers everywhere except Amazon." Yowch.

Also since the announcement, in a letter to agents Hachette CEO David Young announced that they too would be adopting the agency model and Newscorp CEO Rupert Murdoch (owner of HarperCollins) spoke out against the $9.99 price point. Meanwhile, lurking behind all of these discussions is the iPad - Carolyn Kellogg at LA Times' Jacket Copy has a great analysis of whether the iPad and the iBooks store will challenge Amazon (plus some good Apple DRM info for the DRM/anti-DRM junkies out there), and the Associated Press wonders if people will be confused by different proprietary e-book formats.

Whew! Want more e-book news? CAUSE THERE'S MORE.

Ad Age thinks ahead to a future in which advertising agencies could enter the publishing industry with book products on the iPad (via my colleague Katherine Arathoon), Mike Shatzkin ponders whether free promotional e-books are a good idea or not (short version: short term/individual author yes, long term/industry wide no), and Steve Ross surveys some of the digital issues facing the publishing industry as discussed at the recent Digital Book World conference.

And last but not least in really huge e-book news, the Justice Department took a look at the proposed (revised) Google Settlement agreement and said, "Nuh uh." Their concern: that the agreement "still confers significant and possibly anticompetitive advantages on Google as a single entity."

In "Hey people, paper books still exist ya know" news, The Millions has a really cool post dedicated to deckle edge pages, the rough edges of some books that give them an old-fashioned feel, reader Emma Michaels has a DIY guide to giving books new covers and restoring old books, and the Guardian reminds us that the print book's obituary has been written many times before and guess what they're still here (via Neil Vogler in the forums).

The Wall Street Journal recently had a fascinating history and update on The Slush Pile as it continues to move from editors' desks to agents' (via HuffPo), starting with Anne Frank all the way to Stephenie Meyer.

I had a fabulous time this past weekend at the Austin SCBWI Destination Publication Conference where I met lots of fabulous and talented individuals! The indispensable Cynthia Leitich has a roundup of the conference roundups.

In agent advice news, Janet Reid has an awesome checklist of things you need before you query, divided between fiction/memoir/nonfiction, Jessica Faust at BookEnds writes that unless each book can really truly stand alone, it's probably not a good idea to write a sequel to an unpublihsed first book in a trilogy, and Rachelle Gardner surveys ten query mistakes.

ALA awards announced, including Newbery, Caldecott, Printz and much more! Congrats to all the winners and finalists.

You probably heard that J.D. Salinger passed away last week, but we also recently lost beloved long time Curtis Brown client Louis Auchincloss as well as the scholar Howard Zinn. GalleyCat has a roundup of tributes.

In The Life of Writing news, Bryan Russell/Ink has a great post on the simultaneous necessity and difficulty of considering your audience,

The Rejectionist and boss received 537 queries last month, a record for them (I've been blowing past query records as well). Le R has, as always, some hilarious stats on the themes and categories.

As many have deduced from the title of my novel I am a massive, massive Calvin & Hobbes fan, and the ever-reclusive Bill Watterson turned up this week for an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Which I devoured faster than you can say Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie.

The kind Stephen Parrish pointed me to a survey that says that people refuse to cut back on books even during the recession. The poll then inexplicably moves on to address attitudes toward cheating on spouses and sabotaging coworkers. Um. Wow. Maybe they're reading the wrong books?

And finally, as you know this was a huge week for publishing news, but the great Jeff Abbott (who is celebrating a new book deal!) pointed me to the biggest, most massively epic publishing news of all: Makers Mark is releasing a new bourbon. Now I have to decide whether I'm going to wait in line for two months for the iPad or the new Makers. Hmmmm..... Choices choices......

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It's a Great Time to Be An Author

Read the publishing news these days and there's so much doom and gloom and anxiety about e-books and print books and booksellers and publishers in trouble and authors getting squeezed and the midlist dropped and it's enough to make you want to hide under the bed lest a stray Kindle impale you in the forehead. You'd think an infectious disease is sweeping the land, an e-virus that is going to pollute the land with readily available books and increased author entrepreneurship. Run for your liiiiiiiives!

But hey. You can either be scared of the future or excited. I'm pretty excited.

Look, the last few hundred years have been great and everything. Some of my favorite books were written then. We had bound books, novels, bookstores, the smell of the binding, and librarians shushing everything above a whisper. Publishers filtered everything for us, then agents filtered most things for the publishers, and all that resulted in a choice of a few thousand titles in a bookstore. Which sounds like a lot, until you happen to be looking for the Definitive History of the Drunken Monkeys of the Caribbean (in which case, thank goodness for YouTube).

And guess what: that era isn't going away, at least in the near term. All of those things will still exist, and thank goodness. Those things are really great.

But as I outlined in a past post, in order for a book to become a bestseller in the current era, so many different publishing people have to agree about it before it reaches readers in big numbers. And if anybody in that chain is wrong, poof, that bestseller may not happen.

In the e-book era, everyone will have a shot. And I refuse to believe that's a bad thing.

Yes, there's going to be a lot of dreck out there that we'll have to find a way to sort through. Yes, publishers will be challenged by lower price points and will have to change and adapt to the digital era. Yes, my job will probably change some too, even if I don't believe agents will go away, especially as they fight so that authors get their fair share of e-book revenue. And yes, this new era will require more of authors than just writing a book in a cabin in the woods and shipping it out for someone else to do the rest. It will require an entrepreneurial spirit and a whole lot of virtual elbow grease.

But what better time to be an author?! All any writer wants is the chance to reach an audience and see what happens from there. Just a chance. And it's looking like everyone's going to get that chance.

To be sure, the vast majority of books will only be read by a few people. Riches and celebrity are not in everyone's future, I don't care how many drunken monkey books there are. Established authors and the traditional publishing industry will still have enormous advantages. Eyeballs will be key, and those eyeballs will have a whole lot of shiny objects attempting to distract them.

But soon everyone will have their shot. Books will catch on out of nowhere through word of mouth, probably even books that publishers may not have taken a chance on in the past. Readers will decide what they want to read rather than having those choices constrained in advance. Authors will have more control over their own future than ever before.

And I think that's pretty great.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Where Are You From?

I thought we could take a little breather from the VERY INTENSE current world of book publishing for a moment and take in our surroundings. I'm going to go a whole post without even mentioning the word e-book. I know! You probably think I can't do it. I'll show you.

In one of the earlier recent threads someone was curious about where people reading the blog are from and the US/international breakdown of the blog readership. And now that I've started receiving queries from areas as far away as Pakistan and Nigeria, I'm quite curious myself.

So: where are you living? (city/state/country)

Me: San Francisco, CA, USA

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What Should an E-book Cost?

Before you read the below post, please vote in the following poll. For a brand new book that is also available in hardcover at $25.00, what do you think the e-book should cost? (People who subscribe via e-mail will need to click through to see the poll).

Did you vote? Cool.

(and let me pre-empt my not-interested-in-ebook friends: I know. There's no option for backlighting grayscale look feel smell DRM you'll go blind bathtub. Just vote for the option you feel sounds about right)

Now. As I'm writing this post, I have no idea how that poll will go and what consumers think a new e-book should cost, but I can confidently guess it's less than what publishers think they should cost.

As everyone knows, once the first e-book copy is produced it doesn't really cost much extra for the next million to be shipped electronically. When they sell e-books, publishers save on printing, binding, warehousing, shipping, returns, etc. etc. etc. Therefore, e-books save publishers money and consumers expect that e-books should be cheaper than paper books (and agents and authors expect that their electronic royalties should be higher than with paper book royalties).

So. How much do publishers save with e-books?

According to HarperStudio publisher Bob Miller, the printing/binding cost of most books is about $2.00. Let's just say for the purposes of this post that the other incidental costs relating to print books (shipping, warehousing, returns) comes to another couple of dollars, so, let's say, print costs translate to roughly $4.00 on a $25.00 hardcover. (I'm not a publisher and thus this number should be taken with a grain of salt. Also it varies from book to book).

Thus, assuming the discounts to booksellers and e-booksellers are the same, in order to preserve the same profit margin on an e-book for this $25.00 hardcover, an e-book would need to cost roughly $17.00.

(The math: $25 x 50% discount = $12.50 to publisher, minus $4.00 print costs = $8.50; $17.00 x 50% discount = $8.50. Note that the $8.50 is not profit - that is the chunk out of which they have to cover costs and pay authors. Also see this post and this post for more info on how revenue is broken down between bookseller, publisher, agent and author.)

Where do the other costs of producing an e-book go? Paying the author, marketing and publicity, editorial, sales, production, overhead, accounting, etc. These are fixed costs that exist whether it's a print book or an e-book.

Now, I understand that lower prices result in more sales, and that publishers might need to recalibrate their pricing model to best utilize electronic sales. Margin per copy isn't everything if publishers are able to make it up in volume. Also bear in mind that for now, as I explained yesterday, major publishers (with the exception now of Macmillan) are being paid for Kindle e-books on the basis of the hardcover list price, not the price Amazon actually charges.

But what we're seeing from the Macmillan/Amazon spat is great anxiety on the part of the publishers about a (for now completely theoretical) future in which they receive income based on a $9.99 price point. This was never a business with huge profits. If publishers are ever paid on the basis of a $9.99 price point for their blockbuster books rather than $24.95 the pie will have shrunk by over half. And that is striking fear into the heart of publishers. Publishers want to push up from $9.99 so badly some are willing to accept less money per copy sold just to make that happen.

And yet, underlying all of this nuts and bolts reality for publishers is a cold fact. When it comes to a publishers' fixed costs and margins and legacy business models: consumers don't care. They have their own idea about what an e-book "should" cost. An e-book feels like it should cost a lot less than something tangible like a paper book. And in a digital era consumers can ruthlessly enforce the perceived value of a digital product with their dollars and with piracy.

You can plainly see the dilemma the publishers are facing, especially if/when e-books grow to be bigger than print book sales. There's a gap between their margins and the e-book expectations of consumers. Right now Amazon is filling that gap by taking losses on e-books in order to sell Kindles. But publishers worry that can't last forever. The pressure is building, and someone is likely going to feel the squeeze, as authors already are.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Kindle Missile Crisis

As I'm sure you've heard by now, here was a major kerfuffle between Amazon and Macmillan over the weekend that is so hugely important it will necessitate the postponement of my planned "Last Week in Publishing" post. I KNOW. Didn't Macmillan and Amazon realize the implications to my blog???

Stay with me, because I'm going to go into the weeds a bit to break this down. And to do that I need to provide some background info.

The Background Info

The whole issue revolves around e-book pricing: many publishers have long been extremely uncomfortable with the $9.99 price point that Amazon established for e-books, feeling it's too low and acclimating consumers to a price that is, from a publishers' perspective, unsustainable. In the words of Hachette CEO David Young when Hachette announced that they would delay some e-book releases: "I can't sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices."

Here's the interesting thing about that, and something to keep in mind because it's not often mentioned in the discussions surrounding Amazon: major publishers weren't getting paid based on the $9.99 price point. According to the NYTimes, for a new release publishers have been receiving roughly the equivalent of half the hardcover retail price. For a $24.99 hardcover book available as an e-book for sale at $9.99, again, according to the NY Times, Amazon pays the publisher somewhere around $12.50 and uses it as a loss leader, presumably to sell Kindles.

Along comes the iPad and Apple's "agency" model. Apple is allowing publishers to set the list price of their own titles, and they pay publishers a 70/30 split. E-books will cost no more than $14.99. This means that for a $14.99 iBook, publishers will receive $10.43. (note: Random House hasn't come to an agreement with Apple and is still in discussions)

Do you see what's interesting about this?? Take this hypothetical $25.00 new release hardcover. Publishers are willingly taking less money from Apple ($10.43 in our hypothetical example vs. $12.50 for Kindle) in exchange for setting what publishers feel is a more sustainable list price.

Assuming all these reports are right. Also my math.

The Kerfuffle

This past week, as Macmillan CEO John Sargent explained, Macmillan told Amazon they wanted to use the Apple agency model for Kindle e-books. Essentially, Macmillan was proposing that Amazon could pay them less money per title if Amazon would let them set their own e-book prices.

Amazon reacted with what Mike Shatzkin called the "nuclear option": they took down the buy buttons for nearly all Macmillan titles. As in: they pulled down the buy buttons not only for the e-books, but for print books as well. Some customers reported that Amazon removed Macmillan titles from their wish lists and deleted Macmillan sample chapters off of Kindles. Yowza.

The dust settled somewhat Sunday afternoon as Amazon said that they would "ultimately capitulate" to Macmillan's demands and abide by the agency model with Macmillan, though the buy buttons have not yet, as of this writing, been reactivated. And that brings us up to speed.

Say What Now?

So. Why would a publisher willingly take less money per e-book copy sold in exchange for, essentially, the ability to charge consumers more money for an e-book? And why would Amazon react so vehemently when Macmillan was proposing that they receive more per copy?

Well, you'd have to ask them yourself to get the real answer. I have a few guesses though (and everything below should be taken as such).

Amazon's position is relatively easy to guess at: they want e-book prices to be as low as possible to entice more people to buy Kindles and to make sure they have the lowest prices period. The more people who buy Kindles, the more people who are locked into their proprietary format, who are probably likely to stay with Amazon to buy e-books in the future, and, by the way, who may be less likely to buy paper books from a bookstore, further consolidating Amazon's position as the dominant player in the bookselling world. They want the ability to sell products to consumers at as low a cost as possible.

Presumably, publishers are (presumably) concerned about losing control over the price of their books in the marketplace, especially when they compete with higher priced editions of the same work.

And, of course, lurking behind all of this is the iPad.

The iPad Factor

I plan on delving into the book world implications of the iPad in a later post, but one of the great ironies of the iPad, as Bloomsbury publisher Peter Ginna recently noted, is that Amazon and Apple are very likely going to be competing against each other on the very same device. Apple will be selling e-books through the iBooks store, and Amazon will (I'm guessing) make books available via its Kindle app.

This set up an interesting scenario where these models could potentially compete against each other head to head: Amazon presumably selling an iPad compatible e-book for $9.99 and Apple selling an iBook for $14.95. This led Ginna to ponder whether the iPad was actually a trojan horse for Amazon, who could use their app presence on the iPad to further corner the e-book market. Or, even if Amazon decides against making an iPad app available, they could still offer the same e-books at a lower price on the Kindle in order to retain a key Kindle selling point.

And that, I would postulate, is the one of the keys to all of this. Macmillan's books will now be the same price on the Kindle as they are in the iBooks store on the iPad (and on the Kindle App on the iPad if Amazon goes that route). Amazon made an audacious bid to retain the ability to be the lowest priced e-book vendor for Macmillan's books. Amazon blinked.

Oh Yeah, What About the Consumer?

This ain't over. Not by a long shot.

As we've seen repeatedly in digital media (hello, music industry!), consumers are the ones who are going to have the most power to determine what the coming e-book landscape is going to look like. And this is where consumer experience and expectations, DRM, proprietary e-book formats, piracy, and competition are going to come together to dictate prices. I'm not exactly going out on a limb to say that consumers have their own expectations for what an e-book "should" cost, and these might not mesh with what a publisher thinks they "should" cost.

And as a recent NY Times article points out, customers are not exactly lacking for free or cheap e-book options. On the iPad and similar devices of the future, they're not going to be lacking for cheap or free non-book distractions either.

You didn't hear it from me, but they might even still want their books on paper too. Which they bought at their friendly neighborhood bookstore.

When the dust clears on all of this, will publishers regret accepting a lower price per copy in exchange for the ability to set higher prices? Or was Macmillan smart to take a stand against very low discounting to help level the playing field? Have we seen Amazon's peak as an e-book player or will they continue to dominate the coming e-book world? Will publishers follow Macmillan's lead or work out their own arrangements? Are you on Team Amazon or Team Macmillan? Or maybe even Team Can't We All Just Get Along?

You tell me. I'm extremely curious to know what you think about all of this.

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