Tag Archives: Book Publishing

Alas, Why? – The Problem With Big Publishing Rejection Letters

One would think well-educated, literate people, such as those who are attracted to and working in book publishing, would be able to write a rejection letter without using the dreaded “alas” word.

But it’s always there, in letters written by veterans and rookies alike. I’d like to suggest we break the pattern and either use form rejection letters that say nothing or try and write a meaningful response to those writers slaving over every word on their pages.

I mean, where else do you encounter this quaint word in modern usage to the extent we find it in Big Publishing rejection letters? Despite its common usage by publishers as “woe is me, if only I could, but now I must stab you in the heart, oh little one,” it actually means weary, stemming from the Latin word lassus.  As in lassitude. Is that how you want to present yourself to potential customers, even though it may well be true? Do you really want agents and writers to picture you asleep under your desk like George Costanza? Alas, methinks not (therefore I am).

Why does it matter, you ask? Think about it. Every writer wants to work with an intelligent, open-minded editor, who can appreciate and form unique expressions, same as they ask of them. Seriously, as a writer you can’t get away with using hackneyed words like  plethora, impactful, and no-brainer — unless you’re a sports announcer, which you ARE NOT.

It’s like—literally—unbelievably basically so absolutely not totally AWESOME.

Or compelling (ugh).

One of my favorite rejection letters goes something like this: “Thank you for submitting Honking Donkeys, which we loved! Someday we plan to read it.” I like it because it’s both funny and true.

I receive and write rejection letters at Publerati  (which Word wants so badly to re-spell as Puberty). Writing them isn’t easy and evaluating subjective works of fiction is especially difficult. But I know most editors understand there are common problems facing writers, and pointing these out via a standardized rejection letter might serve everyone better.

For instance, most submissions I read are reminiscent of some popular book already done better than anyone else is ever going to do again. Why bother? So try and write something unique to you. Do you have a voice of your own? Can you develop one with work and time?

Only the best writers are able to come up with metaphors that stand out from the crowd. As seen by the recovering alcoholic gazing at the ocean: “The sea looked like a giant Tom Collins.”

There are many common areas for improvement for writers, so at least offer some meaningful help.

Instead of pelting writers with a million hopeless alases, put together a helpful form rejection letter for each category you publish and send that instead. And whatever you do, don’t let your occasional personalized rejection letter make you sound like an antiquated stiff perched upon a high horse snoozing beneath a mahogany desk.

As you were. (Nap time yet?)

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