Tag Archives: Caleb Mason

One Small Publisher’s Experiences with the Espresso Book Machine from On-Demand Books

The following blog post first appeared on the Teleread Website:

As a small publisher of literary fiction, I am very grateful to have a retail resource like Espresso On-Demand Books.

Publerati will have three titles available through the Espresso Book Machine Network this spring, and although there are a number of unique challenges to marketing and selling books this way in the current retail climate, I remain optimistic that this, or something similar to follow, will be an important part of future print book distribution. The three available titles are Normal Family by Don Trowden, Dancing in the Kitchen by Susan Sterling, and Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney.

The first thing one has to accept is the eventual disappearance of most standalone bookstores.  Ouch.  I know, that hurts, and as a former bookseller myself I wish it were not so, but all the trends of the past ten years in book and other retailing (e.g., music, software, photos, DVD movies, florists, post offices) point to this reality.

In a future world where only the bestsellers and illustrated books are preprinted and sold mostly not through bookstores but in mass market channels like Target, supermarkets, and Amazon, how will the rest of the industry’s titles make it into print? How many standalone classes of retail trade can you think of in this day and age of the “huge general store”?  Why should books be any different and deserve their own dedicated space in the era of the store-within-store?

I wonder how Big Publishing will distribute the needed quantities of preprinted books when Barnes & Noble is gone. B&N is already barely surviving due to selling more non-book items, while quietly closing underperforming stores, so this trend is established. These trends don’t just simply turn around and change direction suddenly because we hope they will. The only way B&N might survive is to become a general store themselves, with less merchandising space given to lower margin books. Which is what they have been doing and so have indie bookstores. For years.

My experience with On-Demand Books has been excellent.  I received the necessary advance training to learn how to format and upload our titles correctly. Because the machines are so groundbreaking and mostly under-utilized in these early days, the operators at the various locations have been open to hearing from me as a small publisher and working together on store signings and promotions. There is no way I would get similar attention from the current physical book channels.

As a publisher, this changes how books are discovered in a similar way to ebooks.  I don’t have the opportunity for “stumble-and-find” retail book browsing, which I know is very important.  So I have to direct market to my own list of ebook purchasers and opt-in newsletter subscribers  the news that they can now go anywhere in the world where an Espresso Book Machine exists and request a printed copy.

I believe in the digital-first, print-second approach for the future of most entertainment content. Pay less for a digital copy and then only buy a print edition if you want to own it. You know…hold it. Sleep with it. MP3, vinyl. Whatever you’re into.

For Publerati, having all our literary fiction titles available through the most popular ebook channels and then also in print at retail via Espresso On-Demand,  constitutes a new business model I can believe in for the future. And one great benefit of this new efficiency is we can pay our authors the bulk of the royalties while also donating to literacy charities like Worldreader.

— Caleb Mason

Bringing Instincts Back to Book Publishing Acquisitions

The following is an article written by Publerati Founder Caleb Mason that appeared in the December issue of Book Business Magazine:

There are agents and editors working in book publishing who may love a new project under consideration but realize they cannot justify it given the likely modest sales. This is especially true for first-time novelists, but also for other midlist authors who have been published before and are running out of options as the trade print marketplace continues to narrow around bestsellers.

Editors have lost much of the power they once wielded to marketing and sales. It used to be easier to operate on a hunch, to believe in the merits of a riskier work and “push it through.” Some of publishing’s biggest success stories have been the surprise, low-advance breakout titles. That is much of the fun of working in publishing — the Vegas aspect.

As publishers consolidated into larger media groups with other more profitable business units, the pressure to operate less on instincts and more on “science” was inevitable. This trend towards evaluating product ideas based on what sales and marketing thinks the market can support is common within most industries today. The conflict between a business unit product manager championing a new idea and the sales and marketing people challenged with selling it has been a tension created precisely to improve accountability.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs I have known all share one common belief: if the market can actually identify what it wants, then the product potential is already limited. A trend is gone as soon as you can spot it. Which leads me to why I feel ebooks offer large publishers a great way to rebalance how they operate back towards the hunch method.

Why not create ebook imprints focused on editorially-championed titles, hoping that some books will find larger audiences than marketing and sales predicted. This becomes a form of affordable test-marketing for publishers (their own R&D) and allows them to bring their editorial expertise to authors who may deserve to be published, but not under the riskier hardcover and paperback advance payment pathways. Forget about crowd-sourcing and contests; do what you already do well but confined to the ebook realm. More breakout books in the publisher system would be good for overall business health, especially as the print and digital readership mix continues unfolding in ways no one can predict.

— Caleb Mason

 

Publerati 100% Publisher Donation Program for the Holidays

I’m pleased to announce that once again this holiday season Publerati will donate 100% of our publisher proceeds to the Worldreader Organization for sales made of our two holiday-themed titles: Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney and Normal Family by Don Trowden.

Last year we offered an incentive to readers and were able to send $500 to the Worldreader Organization, which was doubled though a matching program then in effect.  As a small publisher, we realize our impact is unlikely to be huge, but remain committed to encouraging people at the grassroots level to read new fiction from excellent authors and to do so in part knowing they are helping spread literacy.

The novel Thanksgiving follows one family of progressive women across 350 years in the same home in New England.  In a series of beautifully written November vignettes, we come to see the common threads that bind the generations together as American history unfolds behind the scenes.  From the author of the Mountaintop School for Dogs.

Normal Family also involves one family, but is set over a single year of outlandish holidays within an eccentric family in decline. The first in a planned trilogy, this novel features a witty voice where humor masks pain as the family is forever transformed over four consecutive holidays.

Publerati will donate the entirety of our publisher’s share to the Worldreader Organization for these two titles sold between October 29 and December 25, 2014.  Worldreader is proving how increased access to ebooks in remote regions of the world is changing the lives of students and teachers.

Please consider the other terrific titles on our small list in supporting all our authors. We donate no less than 15% of our publisher proceeds to Worldreader on an ongoing basis and each title has been carefully selected and edited to provide a range of styles. Our ebooks are priced at $4.99 and are available through most popular resellers, and some are also available as print-on-demand paperbacks through the Espresso Book Network.

Please share this with family and friends to help us make the largest possible difference.  Let’s try and at least double the amount we donated to Worldreader from last year. Happy holidays and remember…Good Works.

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.

 

 

What do we mean by the label “literary fiction”?

Some people have been asking what we mean by “literary fiction,” as the term carries many positive as well as some negative connotations. Publerati purports on our Web Site to be “Publishers of Fine Fiction for eBooks,” and we say in our submissions area that we are looking to specialize in literary fiction at the exclusion of other forms of writing. What do we mean by “fine fiction” and “literary fiction”?

When we use the term “literary fiction” we mean the following as it pertains to novels, novellas, and story collections:

  • Works that grab you with a distinctive voice and perspective. There are many examples of these but one we like to cite is Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. We love this classic for its distinctive voice and mood, and how the stories all hang together in a coherent collection. This American classic has dropped out of favor in modern times, which is a shame and our collective cultural loss. It is a great example of unique human expression via the written word. It stood out in its day and it stands out today.
  • Works that focus more on characters and less on plot. Ideally there is a balance and that is when modern publishers will say a “literary novel can cross over into the mainstream.” Just as some indie movies can. In general terms these are strong character-driven works of fiction. They can be funny, tragic, or both.
  • Works with psychological depth that reveal the interior moral struggles of the protagonist in engaging our interest. Works where there is subtext. Works where what the main character says they want does not always align with their actions.
  • Works that can be read many times during our lifetime and where we discover something new with each reading. Ideally, works that will endure over several lifetimes because of the universality of the themes and story.

The sort of books described above oftentimes will not earn their way from a commercial standpoint, as they were not created with the pressure to “make money.”  Yes, we all would love to make money and many great works of literary fiction have from the earliest times. Oftentimes these are first novels by writers who have spent years or decades perfecting what they want to say, without the pressure of publishing every two years to make money for themselves and the publisher while under contract. Many are cathartic works of art, whether in painting, music or literature, that share some profound emotional truths that move us deeply.

The purpose of Publerati is to utilize ebooks as a way to reopen access for literary works. Period. That is our mission. All great literary writers were unknown when they first began their careers, so let’s make it easier for writers of literary fiction today by using the new technology now at our disposal.

Many publishers and excellent imprints used to gamble much more than they do now on literary works, because as the industry consolidated into a handful of media conglomerates, the pressures to have every title earn its way as a commercially successful work became a prerequisite when deciding what to publish. If the chances of “earning out” its small advance were low, then the proposal to publish was never even presented internally. Just too much work for too little gain.

“Literary acclaim” became too difficult a case to make to the Editorial Board. Many excellent editors in the industry know this to be true and struggle with the modern reality.
We are of the opinion there will be plenty of room for ebooks and print books to coexist, so let’s use ebooks as a way to reopen access for deserving literary works while also supporting literacy charities around the world. It’s a win-win.

We envision ebook-only futures for some very talented fiction writers who otherwise would never be read. Some will also get print contracts down the road or be released in print-on-demand editions as this technology becomes widespread. That thought should give us all hope.

-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
 

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

 

 

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