Category Archives: Musings on the Publishing Revolution Underway

Why I Believe in the Future of Print-on-Demand Books

Back in 1995 when I worked in the photo industry, where the existing infrastructure in 35mm film, cameras, and long-life photo paper worldwide amounted to billions of dollars, many of the people working in that industry were dismissive of digital photography and the future of print-on-demand retail kiosks. The costs were prohibitive, the machines were too expensive and unreliable, and retailers would not want them. The list of reasons denying their future viability was extensive.

Today, one finds tens of thousands of these machines in chain drugstores, supermarkets, and mass merchants, albeit producing far fewer prints than in the 35mm heyday of wholesale photofinishing labs pumping out 50,000 rolls a night, guaranteed next-day or free just to add to the pressure. Back then, research showed the typical consumer was pleased with three good prints out of a roll of thirty-six (talk about progress, now they can see what they are getting before printing). That was a lot of photos that went directly into the trash or were stuffed under the bed in a shoebox, before ending up in the trash when future generations wondered just who the hell everyone was back then and why anyone would care.

The success of modern onsite digital photo machines is in great measure due to their role in bringing customers into stores knowing they will buy other goods while there. If you look at a Walgreens today, you will notice they continue to promote two services on the exteriors of their buildings: pharmacy and photo. I HAVE to go into a drugstore or supermarket every week; I DO NOT HAVE to go into a bookstore for months unless I want to buy a printed book in that way. (Sadly, in my experience lately, better independent bookstores are stocking fewer and fewer titles to make room for merchandise I do not care about, so increasingly I shop for books online or at Goodwill, the local bookstore of our time.) Sigh.

So now we enter the era of change for books, similar and also different to the photo industry of twenty years ago. We have early innovators such as On-Demand Books with their Espresso Book Network for printing high-quality paperbacks in minutes, and I expect they face an entrenched group of interests eager to maintain the status quo, hoping they will “simply go away.”  I believe there is nearly as much waste and inefficiency in printed books as there was with those old unacceptable (but accepted then!) “three good photo” stats in the days of 35mm film, when you could not possibly know what you were getting until you held the paid-for print in hand, excitedly flipping through them clandestinely in your car like a lotto ticket scratcher on a bender. (And apparently it was so important that those three good photos arrive the next day!)

I wonder how many books truly need to be printed on the paper they consume. Why not read a book digitally first and then if you love it and want to own it “forever” (or until your kids chuck it once you move on), buy a hardcover or paperback edition, along the lines of what happens with the books we call “classics.” (You know, like Fifty Shades of Grey, which the publishing industry rescued from the seedy world of self-publishing, thank God.)  Owning a print collection of the The World’s Great Novels or the The World’s Great Thinkers makes sense to me; owning a novel or celebrity biography that is just okay or a colossal disappointment to many (which happens all the time, just scan the reviews of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch as one example) strikes me as a huge environmental waste of perfectly good trees.

If you look at the space in a Rite Aid or the Photo Center of your supermarket, you will see most have room for a print-on-demand book machine. On-Demand Books recently announced that a hoped-for relationship with Kodak fell through, but Fuji is in fact the company with the most installed photo machines, precisely because Kodak was slow to the new game, hoping their existing 35mm infrastructure would not collapse as quickly as it did. And they had the largest global infrastructure invested in the century-old ways, racing to get those thirty-three bad prints back to you, whereas Fuji and Konica exited those businesses more rapidly instead of making further investments to gain short-term new business. The book machine at mass retail cost-justification is different than what the bookstore faces, in that drugstores and supermarkets are always looking for stores-within-stores to bring customers in more frequently and raise the average total amount spent, so the machine payback does not need to be as stringent as in the standalone bookstore scenario.

The purpose of these book machines, which will come down in price over time and become more reliable to operate, is to attract more overall business to your store. Fuji, Xerox, and Konica have large field-service organizations already servicing copiers and photo machines in mass market locations, so they can add the book machine to the list of reasons they need to be in the stores (e.g., supplying more paper, getting paid “per copy,” installing and servicing their latest machines, making money off  lucrative service agreements).

I believe this business model will be far better for society, including for many authors, who via the current business practices see their books declared out-of-print prematurely to avoid wasteful publisher returns from retail, a truly preposterous way of doing business. As bookselling consolidated power to the large chains and publishing conglomerates, the time a book other than a bestseller was given to prove itself on shelf was a matter of months, obviously not sufficient time to support a non-bestseller book launch.

Print-on-demand will eliminate the truckloads of books literally bought by the pound on pallets from publisher warehouses to be remaindered and trashed. Those making the case for how special writers are versus other product producers should witness that humbling spectacle.

I expect what will happen over the next ten years is standalone book superstores will be forced to close their doors in increasing numbers if not completely, which will continue the shift of book distribution into food, drug, and mass merchant retail outlets, as well as online. Amazon might buy RadioShack, and install a bunch, who knows?  Print-on-demand machines will become more affordable and offer wider publisher selection to match online inventories, as the machines make their way into mass merchants. The books that truly deserve to be pre-printed will continue that way through fewer and fewer independent bookstores, as well as schools and libraries—children’s books and art books most notably—while fiction and non-fiction titles will continue migrating to digital first, with more print-on-demand in the mix.

As was the case with Kodak, the largest and most channel undiversified of the current publishers will face the fastest declines when the transition accelerates, given their disproportionate stakes in old infrastructures. And similar to Kodak and Polaroid twenty years ago, I can hear them dismissing this line of thought as I type. The two greatest gifts the gods gave man: rationalization and denial, are also two of the most dangerous. Book people, of all people, should know this.

Publishers, unlike Kodak, at least control a great deal of terrific content, so their challenge will be more about managing the distribution shift over time, as well as eventually being forced to pay their authors better royalties in order to keep them from fleeing. If you accept that statement as a given, then they also will need to earn more per copy sold than they do currently, which I believe ebooks and print-on-demand can help them accomplish. Paying a reseller 55-60% of a book’s cover price right off the bat simply does not leave enough operating income to sustain most publishers or authors.

— Caleb Mason, Publerati

Amazon, Hachette, Russia, Israel…(Sigh)…

Gaza and Israel. Russia and the Ukraine.  Isis, Iraq, the United States. Amazon and Hachette…

Phew, people!  Can we all just chill out and love one another? (Song: C’mon, people now, smile on your brother…)

Just about every author on the planet has joined the Amazon/Hachette war this morning by adding their name to a NY Times author-paid ad calling for a ceasefire between these two entrenched huge corporations accustomed to getting their way. Unfortunately, unlike with the sale of pots and pans, a large number of authors are stranded on their own isolated mountaintops as these two huge armies duke it out. The authors are the innocent civilians, and I would argue in many cases, not particularly well informed.

I have been observing with interest how the remaining Big 5 publishers address the threat and opportunity provided by the only new invention in decades within books: the ebook.  From what I can see, most have continued doing business as they have in the past, publishing the $27 hardcover novel first along with a $15 ebook, then one year later along comes the $17 trade paperback as the print book backlist hopeful.

But some publishers, most notably HarperCollins from what I can tell, have shaken up their old business models and tried new approaches, including lowering ebook prices on new releases in conjunction with offering the other higher-priced versions (depending on the author, depending on the title), and I have to believe they have learned something about incremental revenue increases and total profitability from altering their overall pricing mix.

Every business wants and needs to create new customers to maintain a healthy future. Some customers are always leaving, so new ones are desperately needed. In and out. Might it be that Amazon and ebooks are responsible for the lion’s share of new customer creation for publishers and authors? New readers? I’m talking about established authors here, not self-published.

Most established authors I speak with do not realize that 40-50% of their print book royalties have been coming from Amazon over the past decade, plus 80% of their ebook royalties. Surely Amazon knows how to sell books! That is their job as a reseller. Well done. Hats off. Good for you.

Many Hachette authors are now learning with recent royalty statements what this ongoing war is doing to their livelihood, and they blame Amazon. (A publisher’s royalty statement does not show where the sales are being made so authors would not have known in the past just how important Amazon is.) But I think this is truly unfair. A reseller is in business to resell the items they want to sell at the terms they mutually agree to.

Retailers have no commitment to product producers, let alone authors. Their mission statements all say to conduct business ethically, blah, blah, blah…but in the end they decide what to sell. The DVD of the movie Sandlot is not always available at Walmart, Target, Stop & Shop, and Blockbuster. Same for many other notable movies.  Do you hear those copyright holders crying in public against the retailers?

I am confident Amazon has the best data on the effect of different price points on sales and profits in this particular war. They believe digital content priced over $10 will not sell nearly as well as under $10. To me, as a consumer, this seems obvious.  (Mass market paperbacks sold much better at $4.95 than $5.95 and the profit return was better.)

I have found book prices in general over the past two decades indicate a lack of concern for consumer pricing by the publishers. $28 for a hardcover novel?  You couldn’t have made me feel a tiny bit better and priced it at $27.95? $18 for a 128-page novel in paperback? Not $17.95? Throw me a bone here, will ya?

The future of publishing lies within this overall pricing challenge. The audience for hardcover fiction is shrinking, not growing, so the publisher needs to get as much out of that shrinking group of purchasers as possible.  People who love hardcover novels might well pay $35 for all I know. I think there are some people who would pay $10 for the Sunday New York Times in print to keep it alive. If those options can be managed without too much churn by the publishers, good for them. They are taking care of more customers with acceptable choices.

But Amazon has a unique point of view about digital content, armed with mountains of price-testing data.  Ebooks are where the new readers can be found, in the sub-$10 price points, using interesting new “tech toys” such as Kindles and iPads, the exciting developments of our time. Impulse buying works. Ebooks can be downloaded anywhere anytime immediately so lower impulse prices make sense. (No one is measuring how many sales are not made due to the price being $1.00 too high.) There is a reason retailers put sub-$5 items at the checkout and not higher-priced ones. Retailers do know what they are doing sometimes, shocking, I know!

Hachette needs to be profitable, which is tough enough in books, hence all the T-shirts and bags one sees in what used to be “book stores.” The problem with big retailers when they set low prices, is those already low prices will come down further beyond the established point in retail wars of digital competition. (Yes, more wars, sigh.) I do not believe manufacturers should ever dictate what retail prices will be  as that leads to worse forms of monopoly. Hachette gets paid the same invoice price regardless of the retail price, a fact most authors I speak with do not understand, so the publisher gets their money, but then they have to manage the “chaos on the field” of other resellers complaining they cannot compete. And they have to worry about the erosion to their print book profits.

This has been the name of the retail game for decades now. In books, Barnes & Noble drove down retail prices first back in the 1980s.  Staples did it for office supplies;  Home Depot for hardware; Walmart for everything on earth, and so on and so forth.  And now Amazon. Consumers love these bargains.

As a consumer of books, I hope I can buy new ebooks within the first few years of their release for under $10. I will spend much more than I do now if that happens and try more first-time novelists.  I don’t need to read a new novel first in hardcover, and in fact most of the books I read have been available for five years or more by the time I get around to them. (Many are freebie pass-alongs, with the average popular book read around 77 times I believe is the stat? As in bought once, read 77 times.)

Clustering customers into their appropriate “buckets” is what is needed by the publishers: those who need to buy first (hardcovers, the avids); those who want a reasonably-priced paperback (the early mainstream), and then the mainstream and laggards with ebooks priced $9.95 or lower– the same price they pay to go enjoy a three-hour movie.

But they don’t have this data. Amazon does. Working together they could both learn a lot.

Anyway…(sigh)…peace be with you.

— Caleb Mason from Publerati

 

 

 

How a Free Print Book Made an Ebook Sale

I wonder how often this happens?

I was on vacation and the rental home where I was staying had several print books scattered about. I picked up a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and immediately became absorbed in this classic novel.

At bedtime I realized I did not have a reading lamp next to my bed. I wanted to keep on reading and tried finding a light to plug in but all the cords were too short.

Instead I grabbed my iPad Mini and looked to see how much the book was selling for as an ebook. $1.99, the perfect price for my situation. I bought it and was reading with my backlit iPad within minutes.

How much more might I have paid? Maybe another dollar but that’s it. I was afterall being somewhat lazy considering I had the free print book right there and could easily wait until the morning to resume reading.

I have to believe my behavior is not unique, and that other people are buying ebooks as I type this because they encountered a print edition of a book they did not even pay for. Let’s face it, free print books are all over the place. I must have twenty on my bedside table right now.

I have to believe this ebook trend will be very helpful for publishers and authors looking to actually get paid for their hard work, as opposed to accepting the print pass-along freebie realities.

 

 

Is B&N Divestiture the Pathway to Samsung?

With the recent news of Samsung taking over development of Barnes & Noble Nook Media tablets, followed by the news this week of the coming divestiture of B&N Retail from B&N Nook Media, might this all be leading to a solution to problems for both Samsung and Barnes & Noble?

Let’s start with B&N Retail, who once free of the Nook Media relationship can surely find better ways to maximize profitability from that current floor space and drive increased store traffic. Possibly they will want to sell a more diverse selection of tablets and smartphones. Possibly high-level corporate pressure will temper the difficult negotiations likely to occur so a sensible B&N overall brand strategy is followed.

But NOOK Media will not want to overpay for that prime retail space given their current difficulties and so a significant reset of that valuable floor space seems likely, especially given it is front and center in many locations, prime real estate. How many more print books might they actually be selling in that space right now if it were available?

What NOOK Media needs most is available via Samsung, whose tablet and smartphone lineup gains them access to Best Buy, Staples, AT&T, Verizon, and more, amounting to several thousand more storefronts located in the places people already shop for tech.

Samsung, on the other hand, made a weak attempt to establish their own branded ebook storefront but are too late to that game, a game in which even Apple is struggling competing against Amazon. So the B&N NOOK Media group would potentially offer Samsung the second largest database of ebook buyers after Amazon. Chances are many of these customers have zero (or worse) brand affinity toward Amazon, so they are not likely to leave if given better hardware than what they have gotten from B&N in the past. And many prefer their Nook models dedicated to reading over multi-purpose “distraction-easy” tablets.

That better hardware will start soon as the strategic partnership rolls out. Assuming it is going well, which I believe will be the case, then the divestiture to follow opens the door for Samsung to outright buy Nook Media, leaving B&N Retail Founder Leonard Riggio free to resume running the retail business he loves so dearly. As well as gain from the Nook Media sale. Which from a brand standpoint is a great reason why B&N came up with the NOOK name, because it is an excellent ebook product brand name and can be carried forward under any other larger brand umbrella.

I do not own shares in any of these companies and am just an interested industry observer speculating off in the wings. I appreciate your comments.

‘Tis the Season of Not-So-Happy Returns

Can you feel it?  I can. Always will. Haunts me.

The sound of the returns, like an ominous storm in retrograde, unsold inventory backing in on you from retailers everywhere, reducing holiday sales results. All part of the cruel retail game.


I used to fear this time of year when I worked in the book industry and later the packaged goods’ software industry, because large retailers stand between the producers and the purchasers, so you cannot truly know what actually sold to an end-user until well into March. Many of those “sold” gifts are returned by the recipient as well, only adding to the inventory turmoil.
 
Sales commissions and bonuses need to be paid, yet you do not know what actually sold through. Annual results need to be reported, pay raises given or not, plans completed.
 
The book industry is among the worst in this regard, employing an antiquated business model that hurts everyone along the way. Retailers are pushed to load up for the holidays, early sales estimates look promising so reprints are ordered and shipped. After the holiday blitz, when the invoice comes due in February, the publisher’s sales and accounting teams suddenly catch wind of the impending invoice reductions for returns.
 
Turns out sell-through was not that great, 35% of the product is coming back from retail. The finance team reserved for a 20% returns rate. The publisher moves urgently to declare the book out-of-print to stem further returns, forcing the bookseller to mark down and dispose of remaining inventory instead of taking a credit on their invoice. Which further delays their payment and possibly propels them out of business as they decide whether to pay the tax man or the publisher.
 
The authors are out of luck. Their book’s life was cut prematurely short. A fast and furious game of roulette with no winners.
 
The software industry was smart enough to sell their goods on consignment starting in the late 1990s, a trend driven by large retailers Staples and Best Buy looking to reduce all the reverse-flow returns chaos. The cost in the stores to pull product from shelves, in the warehouses, in the accounting departments — just staggering. Packaged goods’ software publishers resisted at first but then discovered it was a major improvement. The retailer stocked more inventory without the ownership risk. They worked through their inventory instead of returning it for credit. Eventually when a new version came out, they destroyed the old one in-field as instructed. Similar to the fates of magazines and mass market paperbacks.
 
The consumer products hardware industry (e.g., cameras, phones, tablets, GPS, etc.) is the worst: you cannot reliably estimate true sell-through nor would you destroy in field, so you load up the channels for the holidays with a full line of price points and models, and then grind your teeth this time of year when the returns start showing up back in the warehouse. The unopened products need to be received, go through QA again, be re-flashed with the latest firmware updates, loaded with the latest software, and stuck back in a new box on a warehouse shelf waiting for hopeful “future marching orders.”
 
This returns nightmare is one of the main reasons I believe so strongly in digital goods and why they can and should cost the end-user less. Streamed content. Ebooks, photos, movies, and music. They don’t come back and create nightmarish churn. This is another of the revolutionary advancements that the digital world brings to our otherwise antiquated physical goods and retail business models, which continue to be in decline in part due to these inventory inefficiencies.
 
And it is not just brick-and-mortar retailers. Amazon surely is one of the newest sources of bi-polar anxiety for product producers, as they reorder feverishly after Black Friday causing producer elation, run their Holiday Daily Deals, only to reach mid-January and realize the demand was not what their algorithms projected, resulting in sudden producer depression syndrome (SPDS). Back comes the product, which given Amazon’s impact on most businesses can amount to 40% of all the producer’s product available in the field. Ouch.
 
So for those of you living through this returns season, you have my deepest sympathies. It is a cruel game and depending on what the real sell-thru looks like after all the counting is finally complete, jobs may be lost or gained. 
 
— Caleb
 
 

Buttons, Zippers and Books

 
I very much enjoyed my time at the Publishing Business Conference and Expo, where as always I learned a great deal from some very bright and thoughtful people.

 

As someone who has now attended three decades of conferences in the book, photo, and consumer electronics industries, I have noticed one constant across them all: denial of the speed and depth of the coming changes.

 

This conference had many feel-good moments of “print is not dead” and “print will always be here” and one excellent speaker used an analogy I had not heard before: “Just look down at your shirt buttons, which have been around since the earliest times. The same will be true for the printed book.” 

 

I dutifully looked down at my shirt and did indeed notice many buttons (all buttoned thank goodness!) but then continued downwards to my pants where I encountered a zipper and metal clasp. Hmm…I thought…plus geez I hope no one is looking at that strange balding dude up front. 

 

The point of these changes is not about “going away forever” but how the companies making the buttons of their time adapt to weird things like Velcro, metal clasps, and zippers, which reduce the number of buttons they sell.

 

So I did a little button research and came upon this fascinating excerpt about the dawn of the zipper:

“In 1913, Sundback revised and introduced a new model, which had interlocking oval scoops (instead of the previously used hooks) that could be joined together tightly by a slider in one movement or swoop. This final model is recognized as the modern zipper, which took many months to find success in the industrial market. Retailers, who were prone to sticking with traditional materials and design methods, were slow to purchase the product.” (Source: Wikipedia, whatever that is!)

 

And then I started thinking about the great wooden boat builders here in my state of Maine and how they “totally missed the boat” when the rest of the world moved on into the age of metal. And indeed you can find some of the best wooden boat builders in the world still operating in Maine, but most ship builders who did not move forward are gone.

 

A direct mail guru once told me the reason people open sealed envelopes at a higher rate than wafer-sealed self-mailers is because this sacrosanct item dates back to the time of Charlemagne and is therefore deeply encoded in our DNA in signifying something important is inside. (He also had some important “ins” with a 6 x9 envelope vendor needing to dump excess inventory. Would I like to purchase 1.5 million today?) 


The only thing that comes sealed in my mail is a treasured invitation to go see the newest Volvo S60. The important messages I receive are happening in email, text messaging, or on Facebook. And my missing a wedding invitation could be the best thing to happen to that lucky couple getting married.

 

The old photo industry denials were truly tough to fathom. “People love their prints, they will never give them up!” “You cannot match the quality of a printed photo with digital!” “Yes, things are shifting but we will be fine for the next 10-15 years and then I can retire.” (As in screw the younger people.) Well 15 years later the number of prints produced has dropped to a whole new scale and stalwarts like Kodak, Sony, and Polaroid are forever changed. And the number of photos being captured and shared has never been higher.

 

And what about those old paper mapping atlas denials? “People will always want a printed atlas,” the Rand McNally man is so certain, it guarantees he must be wrong. Funny but a woman sitting next to me at the Book Conference commented that her teenage son could not figure out how to use a paper atlas recently, where you have to go from page 14 to page 37 to connect to the north but page 17 to connect to the east and so on. Plus you cannot even see where you are on the page. “Jeez, Mom, I can figure that all out in a few seconds using my phone.” (Guess who never figured out how to penetrate the GPS market…yup, Rand McNally.)

 

Older people will lament the loss of map-reading skills and a few teenagers will probably die in the woods unnecessarily. But how many more will show up on time for their college interview? Will get into North Dakota State because they actually showed up in the correct town? 

 

I think Sony had it right even though they have lost so much over the years. “Disrupt yourself before someone unexpected does it to you.” Many of the changes come with comforting but deceptive downward plateaus, where you get to catch your breath. But you are still in a stepping-down trend that becomes more and more problematic as key volume thresholds are passed. Retailers need to sell “x” amount. When it falls to the “g” amount, they need to ask you to leave the shelves. And depending on how smart they are in staying current (Staples does an excellent job with this) the stores themselves close. CompUSA, Borders, and Circuit City were not so smart apparently.

 

The hardest part is managing the profitability slides from print to digital with all those fixed overheads (e.g., human beings with kids to feed), but this control is not actually in the manufacturer’s hands. New competition comes along and baits you into eroding what you have. You follow you lose. You don’t you lose. But change was going to erode and alter everything anyway so why not figure it out yourself while you still can? Continuous innovation. Kodak did not. Palm did not. The list is very long.

 

And I imagine many button manufacturers who continued to supply the risk-averse retailers who confidently dictated what products they should make (do NOT go there) failed to survive as clasps and zippers and Velcro reduced their volumes. I will zip it now. Or button it?

 

— Caleb

 

 

 

 

Why Digital-First Makes Sense for Books

Anyone who has worked in marketing knows how to use digital communications to test and improve the quality of the work before going into print. The best brands test first in digital format because they can improve internal knowledge at little expense before carving their marketing into stone and investing those subsequent expensive ad dollars. True for product packaging, advertising campaigns, and just about anything going out the door.

Does this same approach make sense for books? Books are long, contain a lot of words with plenty of opportunities for typos and other errors that the author and publisher would love to fix before it is locked into print.
 
Imagine how awful most software would be if user-response mechanisms were not built directly into the product so they can be quickly addressed and fixed wherever possible. All the participants in the content benefit from an ongoing continuous quality improvement process. Alpha. Beta. Release. Round and round and round.
 
I have a feeling this is what the future of books will look like. The vast majority will be released in digital first and then some will go to trade paperback editions and then a lesser amount into deluxe hardcover editions. The digital edition will have the most errors and needed fixes; the paperback should be near perfect if not perfect, and then the deluxe hardcover that someone pays $29.95 or more for will be flawless in all the best ways of the printed book. Design. Typography. Editing.
 
The digital edition costs the least so the reader will be slightly more forgiving of errors. The print editions will then fix those issues reported by readers. Right now,  if a reader encounters typos, there is no good feedback system in place. In fact, getting through to anyone in editorial at a major publisher without already having an email, which most readers will not, is like trying to penetrate a fortress surrounded by music-theory graduate student zombies playing spectral music from Germany. (Trust me here.)
 
The other advantage this new approach would have relates back to the marketing example at the beginning of this post. Publishers could test their digital editions before going to print to better identity new readers, to better understand the demographics of the markets with growth potential. Then the print distribution and associated marketing could be that much smarter when their time rolls around.
 
— Caleb Mason
 

Book Editing Meets Beethoven

Many music-lovers believe that Beethoven’s music and those composers who followed during the great Romantic Era  would not have existed without destiny’s timely intervention, in the form of the iron sounding board added to the wooden piano forte frame.

The famous piano-maker Broadwoods made their last harpischord in 1793 and in 1808 introduced bracing bars of metal to support the wooden frame. Other engineering improvements followed and the art of the piano and musical composition was forever changed.

This interplay of new technology and artistic development is a fascinating one and I believe we are living in a similar time for books. These watershed time periods present many challenges and opportunities for the authors and composers and I would like to share some of what I have learned so far while editing manuscripts for my company Publerati.

This challenge is especially difficult for publishers originating content headed for print and ebook formats simultaneously. The author and publisher maintain control over their work in print because the reader cannot adjust font sizes, for example. The print text is not flowable. I witnessed a similar challenge when working for a map publisher, who had many exciting new user-experiences heading out the door digitally, while still needing to update and publish static paper atlases. For those managing this giant layered map data soup, aspirin and vodka were always on hand.

Because I can enlarge the type on ebooks, I am much more aware of punctuation. Punctuation, like a good waiter, should work efficiently in the background. (Hey: how’s everything tasting Mister!)  Full colons shout and wave at you in 24-point size in a novel.  Em-dashes, given their larger size, work better if a connecting mechanism is truly needed but sometimes all this “punctuation intrusion” into the uninterrupted dream of reading is an indication further rewriting is needed.

Another example is the difficulty ebook conversion processes have with certain combinations of punctuation.  “Everything was going well until my bi-polar wife Audrey screamed at the neighbor’s son ‘Get out of here or I’ll gut you like a pig’!”  That ending ‘!” trifecta is likely to set off machine-driven havoc on e-readers. So I would rework the sentence, probably getting rid of the exclamation mark as the first easiest solution. And the author might want to bump off Audrey.

So what to do? I think any editor working on a manuscript heading for simultanous print and ebook production needs to be sure to pay attention to what happens on the ebook, which means looking long and hard at the use of punctuation. This in turn, could lead to better writing via rewrites, which is a desirable outcome for the work in all formats.

Related to the above is to be sure to proof the book on ereaders in EPUB and mobi formats before simply releasing to the public unchecked. Assume those reading on ebooks will enlarge the fonts. Acknowledge you are giving up some control so write and edit to that new user experience where possible while taking care of print readers as well. I have found that when I go from “final” manuscript to first ebook proof I notice further edits that I cannot believe we all missed. I attribute this to the challenge of “state-specific memory,” the reason you can recall your wife’s phone number on your work phone but not on the phone in the next office.

Being able to change the context of the editing experience after staring at the same pages for so long and over so much time, (oftentimes sitting at the same desk staring at the same screen or printout), simply by injecting an ereader proof as a pre-publication tool, is a great development for book editing.  Quite possibly similar to how a modern composer can play his work on a computer and revise before hearing for the first time at a live performance, which is what the 19th-century composers had to do, so they made their changes oftentimes in horror after that first embarrassing performance. Edward MacDowell once said he much preferred writing piano sonatas to symphonies because he could hear them right away fully under his control, literally at his fingertips.

I think the ebook proof is a better next proofing stage than the bound galley, which does bring the work closer to a print book but does not allow for the full editing power available on an ereader. For instance, once the proof is on the ereader, you can select any word to make sure it is spelled correctly or jump to the Internet by highlighting an historical character’s name spelling, and in the process discover other fact-checking errors you and the author missed by being able to dive deeper.

Back to Beethoven. Instrument evolution for books will surely cause the artform to evolve as well. Some will gladly continue playing their piano fortes and harpischords for a welcoming audience. Others will head out onto the bleeding edge and quite possibly replace many forms of books with something completely new. Maybe Facebook and Google have already done so. The information we once got from books is quickly being replaced by the Internet, which is making life so difficult for education and non-fiction publishing.

I happen to believe the novel will survive as a sustainable art form, similar to the sonata. Personally, I am interested in fiction and the challenges of writing and editing fiction, which is why I started a company that only publishes this genre. But I also figure I am being near-sighted and fiction will change in unforeseen ways in the future. Especially when read by our relatives, the Borgs. (Not Bjorn. His grandson Cy.)

— Caleb Mason

 
 

The Barnes & Noble House of Cards is in Motion

I recently made myself a promise to remain silent unless I had something positive to say. Anyone who knows me knows this is not a personal strength but I want you to understand I am working on it.  I walked around the recent Book Expo (Print Book?) Show feeling like Rip Van Winkle passing through an industry that continues to operate in the same ways as 125 years ago, and just smiled and winked at the many ghosts passing down the aisles.

But this news today from Barnes & Noble brings me back to my chief concern for the future of print book publishing, and especially the authors to be impacted, which is their announced ongoing poor retail store performance.

As reported by Reuters: “The picture was also bleak in its retail business, consisting of its 675 bookstores and accounting for two-thirds of sales. Sales at stores open at least 15 months fell 8.8 percent last quarter. Barnes & Noble expects retail sales to be down by a high single digit percentage in its new fiscal year.”

You see it is all a house of cards and I lived through this during the decline of print photography and see so many parallels I would feel remiss for not sharing them even if they fall upon denying ears. The parallels are these:

1) The core print retail business erodes much faster than the internal denial plans for, with too-rosy financial assumptions (the people driving the bus understandably want to stay employed) proving to have been far too optimistic when viewed in hindsight. That escalating erosion plays hand in hand with:

2) You cannot continue to invest in new competitive digital areas like the Nook without a funding base, so both the new and the old are failing in tandem.  I witnessed this working for Konica in the 1990s and also watched it happen at Poloroid, Kodak, and others. What these giants had in common were huge investments with mega-retailers to push through huge volumes, via expensive multi-year contracts. And also huge investments in R&D digital image capture, edit, and share product ideas (e.g., cameras/phones, photo software, and send/storage).

3) This major retail erosion is truly bad news for the publishing Big Six in my view, who have built publishing models scaled on these superstore retail volumes. Increased royalty advances, larger print runs…all made possible by widespread retail presence through B&N and Borders (gone). The current consolidation is similar to what happened in the photo industry, when Konica merged with Minolta (and eventually wisely got out of consumer photo altogether). Sony also exited as did others. The new growth came from new players. The industry survivors rapidly downsized themselves to new smaller niche market segments (e.g., Nikon). And one of the world’s longest-standing, most-prized brands — Kodak — was brought to their knees. Impossible people thought.

So if you are a major publisher, with all those newly combined overheads and impending staff reductions, how do you make it work as your core retail business dries up? I do not pretend to have answers but based on what I saw in other industries forever altered by the digital revolution, would suggest that they need to take their best and brightest and put them to work with the West Coast best and brightest in launching new brands using new business models. Or buy new brands while they still have cash. The good news is the food will still be served, but it will be on a new plate, as Douglas Adams famously said over a decade ago.

And if I were B&N? I would be working hard and fast on a new store-within-store branded retail concept to go into supermarkets and mass merchants while the brand still has value. A combination of bestsellers and print-on-demand from a new wave of cheaper faster machines. This is what Fuji did in the photo business to stay afloat. Today, their self-service photo stations are everywhere from Walmart to Walgreens to Kroger. Kodak once had that space locked up but Fuji out-innovated them.

The good news in all this? The sooner we get through the painful transition, the faster the new jobs can be created. But sadly they will not be the same people, many of whom look like they are over sixty based on what I saw at Book Expo. The twenty-somethings will continue driving major new changes in the decades to come. I doubt there are many former Kodak people working at Facebook or Apple in the new world of consumer photo we all enjoy so much today. What happens to all the good “old” people is truly the saddest part of these disruptive changes and I sincerely hope they can manage a soft landing.

I promise…my next post will be extra bubbly to make up for this Debbie-Downer one.

— Caleb Mason

John Updike and the Writer’s Challenge as Reviewer

Back in the early 1980s, John Updike walked into the Book Exchange where I worked on Beacon Hill in Boston and told me he needed to read all of Ursula Le Guin’s books for a New York Times Book Review feature article he had been assigned. His review was due next week.

 

A few weeks later, when the front-page review appeared, I remember how awestruck I was in reading one writer’s in-depth critique of another who worked in such a different style. Updike’s review could only have been written by someone who had studied and practiced the craft for many years. 

 

Updike told me when he next came into the store (he a famous author and I a recent English major nobody, which tells you something about the kind of person he was), that he had skimmed Le Guin’s ten or so backlist titles to understand where she had been, and then read the new novel twice. All in one week. Lots of sleepless nights I supposed.

 

Ursula Le Guin’s work warranted this level of intelligent analysis from a practicing peer. As a novelist himself, Updike felt the weight of the assignment. There is so much noise in our modern lives what with television, Facebook, Twitter, blog posts like this – even satellite GPS communication from the middle of nowhere – that the quiet quality involved in creating excellent fiction and evaluating it stands out.

 

Not simple platitudes that say nothing such as “riveting” or “compelling” but serious literary criticism. Book engineering for you engineers out there. Blueprints. Foundations. Framing. Reverse engineering and rebuilding. Finishing. Knowledge. Experience. Plus the magical ingredient called art.

 

My goal in starting Publerati was to help excellent fiction thrive in a time when everyone can pretty much do anything in every artistic format available. Yes, every child may be a winner but some still excel well beyond the norms. Ultimately, I am the sole decider (channelling a former president here hopefully with different results) of what we publish based upon my own tastes, and this can be lonely work in much the same way as creating novels. Nothing makes me prouder of what I am doing than when our authors receive thoughtful reviews from their peers.

 

This week Susan Sterling’s novel Dancing in the Kitchen received reviews from two terrific contemporary writers, these in addition to the one already received from Richard Russo, plus nothing but 5-star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. (In fact, all the Publerati books are getting great reviews.) 

 

I want to sincerely thank each of them for the time they spent reading her novel and for generously offering insightful critiques, the sort of praise a fellow practitioner can articulate. There have been many writers kind enough to offer advance reviews for the titles we are publishing next fall, so thanks to all of you, knowing how busy you are with your own work. I sincerely believe we owe our collective support to each other, to literary fiction traditions, and to future John Updikes.  Here are the new quotes:

 

 

“Susan Sterling writes with the intelligence and psychological complexity of Virginia Woolf, and her characters will quickly take up residence in your mind.  With deceptive ease and remarkable assurance Sterling explores issues of love and commitment, families, secrets, denial, and betrayal.  The result is a richly textured and suspenseful book that I found impossible to put down.  Above all, Sterling reminds us how exhilarating good writing can be.”

 

Helen Fremont

Author of the Holocaust memoir (and national bestseller), After Long Silence

 

A superb evocation of place, family, and love, Dancing in the Kitchen vividly describes the lives of two struggling, kind siblings and their partners and parents.  Ranging from New England to Old England and back, the novel concerns the competing claims of morality and emotional honesty. How should one behave?  How does one most wish to behave?  And what difference does the answer make, given the complications of an individual life?  A warm-hearted, perceptive story about how adults weather compromise and consider change.”

 

Debra Spark

Author of Coconuts for the Saints, Good for the Jews, and The Pretty Girl

 

“What a smart elegant writer Susan Sterling is. Dancing in the Kitchen, her finely observed first novel, is a moving exploration of betrayal, not just of others but ourselves.”

 

Richard Russo

Pulitzer-Prize Novelist

 

 

— Caleb

 

 

Click the Share Button Below for Social Media Sharing Options…then Share Where You Want!