Tag Archives: Book Publishing

Ten Helpful Tips for Novelists

Let’s face it, writing fiction is a daunting undertaking. It’s heartening that so many people want to write novels, and we want to help you before you get too far along, by identifying some of the most common areas for improvement we see in submissions as well as in published works.

First, a lesson from the Japanese. This may be the most important word to keep in mind when working on your novel and living your life:

Kaizen (改善), is the Japanese word for “continuous improvement.” In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to assembly-line workers.

So when you find yourself tearing your hair out working on a first draft, or tearing your remaining hair out when revising, keep this important concept in mind. Everything, including your novel, can be improved.

Here are Ten Areas for Improvement:

  • Strive to be Original. The vast majority of submissions we receive are poor imitations of work already done very well by popular writers. Much of this imitation is subconscious, so pay careful attention to your premise when first setting out. Has it been done before? If so, then why bother?
  • Find Your Own Voice. Related to the above, try and write in a tone and attitude that is uniquely you. Much of the writing we read has no distinctive voice at all, but is just words strung together on the page lacking flavor. Like a bad soft-serve ice cream cone. Insipid. It might take you much of your life to find your voice. It will take plenty of practice runs with much work tossed in the trash before you finally start getting the hang of it. Listen to this voice as you walk around town. Finding it is a bit like hitting a baseball: you cannot try too hard or you’ll miss. It’s a delicate mix of passive and active living and effort, paying close attention to your subconscious mind.
  • Be Fearless. You must be confident enough in the mysteries of the creative process to not judge yourself as you write. Just start writing and go with the flow. Even though you cannot see over the next hill, you need to at least get to that hill, which means moving forward. Kurt Vonnegut described it as driving in the fog. What are you afraid of, anyway? If you don’t make the drive, someone else will. So go for it. Life is short. We’re all going to be dead soon enough. Let yourself go and become the characters on the page. It’s fun and rewarding, despite all the difficult work.
  • Read Great Works. The books you read while writing will influence you. So try and read great literature or non-fiction you admire, and study all the problems of fiction: what point of view (or points) is the story told in? How does the author handle time? What do the characters smell, hear, think, taste? How you tell your story is as important as the story itself. Maybe you have noticed this at the movies. The filmmaker and camera have a unique way of telling the story. Maybe we go into the future, then back into the past. Maybe a different character tells the story in each chapter, so the story itself becomes murky, conflicted, fascinating. How is Thomas Hardy telling his story as you read along? Virginia Wolfe? Jane Smiley?
  • Write an Original Metaphor on Page One. You’d be amazed how many submissions do not have a single striking metaphor anywhere within them. Yes, there are hackneyed ones, the ones stuck in your brain because they’ve been drilled in so many times over your lifetime you don’t even think about them as you put words on the page.  Metaphors allow us to better see inside our characters. A favorite example we cite is the recovering alcoholic, just out of rehab, who drives to the ocean.  “The sea looked like a giant Tom Collins.” This is great because it helps us understand how difficult it is for the character to just gaze at the ocean without thinking about the allure of a cocktail. Hit us over the head with an original metaphor on your first page.
  • Create Your Own Analogies for the Writing Process. This is how you think about and approach your writing. For instance, some writers consider their initial draft to be more of a sketch than a watercolor. But one needs a great sketch to create an even greater watercolor, with all the details filled in as you circle back over and over again, adding texture, detail, and depth. Another analogy is . . .

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New Ways for Authors

(This first appeared on Book Business, under a different title.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of new technologies is how they open doors for new business models. And this is very true in the evolving world of book publishing.

The book publishing model has many challenges, most notably how the established system of author advances, large superstore pre-orders, and returns limits what will be published. Consolidation has made it more difficult to gamble on new authors, so a significant portion of publishing has become about pumping out more of the same from the well-known writers with celebrity status.

Let’s face it. The best authors throughout history were not celebrity personality types! Writers and readers tend to be people eager for the contemplative life. I have been cringing while reading recent audience-driven articles about producing shorter works to feed increasingly distracted tastes. Great works have not been created to feed reader tastes. They have been written because the author had something important to add to our understanding of human existence.

I’m basically an optimistic pessimist, which means when all hope seems lost, mankind rises to the occasion with something better. And for many authors, publishers, and readers, I think print-on-demand is that meaningful, lasting innovation (along with ebooks).

I recently had an email from a reader who bought a Publerati novel through the Espresso POD network and the feedback was revealing to me. “I was surprised how high-quality the book is. I thought it would be a comb-bound pamphlet.” Wow! This reminded me of when digital photo first came on the scene and was just assumed to be inferior. (Side note: I am fascinated by the twenty-somethings I meet who are reviving vinyl records. They will pay more for what they perceive to be better quality. Innovations always confront a nostalgic backlash, I suppose. Or said another way, it’s cool to be retro and “not popular.”)

So maybe we need to overcome some consumer concerns around the quality of print-on-demand editions. That will take a more concerted industry campaign. The first thing I did was make a new page on the Publerati website with a quality statement along with a list of locations offering our titles. You can see it here and I welcome comments on how to make this better.

But the big opportunity of POD is to save the many excellent writers whose books will never sell in the huge quantities that the consolidated publishing industry needs. And in the POD model, these authors don’t necessarily require an advance. Why should they? Let’s get paid for what we produce, not what we have the potential to produce. Publishers have been burned time and time again with that hyped second novel that was a dud.

By only printing what each local market will support, we have a more responsible and sustainable business model. There is no need to prematurely mark an author’s book out-of-print to stem unexpectedly high returns. Now, the author’s book can be available for as long as the publisher wants and for as long as the reader wants. Isn’t that a much better system? Is that not a benefit publishers can offer mid-list and potential breakout authors?

When I see HarperCollins providing front list titles through the Espresso Book Network, I know change is underway. Change is always underway, but we can only see it after it has happened. The benefits to those on the front-edge of change are disproportionately high. Customers remember “who did it first” and their loyalty can be an immense barrier to entry from imitators slow to the new game.

POD publishing is already opening many new doors. What we cannot see from here is how fast this change will occur and who the early winners will be. I’m hoping many of these winners will be authors who can take more control of their publishing destiny. Enjoy the ride!

Announcing “Publishing Outsights”

Someone made the mistake of asking me for my opinions on book publishing. So I will be offering them through a new blog on BookBusiness called “Outsights on Publishing.”

Why the name? It’s my sincere hope that I can share something of value to others based on my many years working in the book industry, photo industry, mapping and GPS industry, and tourism industry, each different in their own unique ways but with similar challenges brought about by rapid rates of disruption from unexpected places.

My latest post concerns the possible negative impact on publishers’ profitability due to small gains in print book sales offset by much larger losses in ebooks. The big question in a world of disruption, is how many of those former ebook readers bought an ebook from Amazon or another source outside the AAP-measured traditional book industry?

Anyone have any reliable way to measure that?

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