Ask The Editor

November 30, 2008

New life for old books

Filed under: Commentary,Publishing technology,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 5:43 pm

James Gleick has a lovely op ed in today’s New York Times about what the recent settlement between Google and the Authors Guild means for the future of books.

Gleick helped to negotiate the settlement, which allows Google to scan millions of books (something it already was doing without permission), and make those books available online. When readers access the books, the copyright owner will share in any advertising revenue.

Gleick sums up why this is a good thing for the millions of books that would otherwise be mostly unavailable:

In bookstores, the trend for a decade or more has been toward shorter shelf life. Books have had to sell fast or move aside. Now even modest titles have been granted a gift of unlimited longevity.

What should an old-fashioned book publisher do with this gift? Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. Don’t aim for instant blockbuster successes. You won’t win on quick distribution, and you won’t win on price. Cyberspace has that covered.

Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.

November 26, 2008

Bestseller or bust?

Filed under: Advice for fiction writers,Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 11:39 am

I’ve heard from a number of published novelist friends that, although their earlier books did reasonably well, they’re having great difficulty selling subsequent novels. Publishers are reluctant to buy “midlist” books (books that may sell steadily but never reach bestseller status). The New York Times’ report on the decision by one publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to freeze its book acquisitions for the foreseeable future, gives some clues about the reasons for this bestseller-or-die mentality. It’s not just the economy — which, we all know, is beyond awful — but the fact that some publishers have such significant debt, they can’t afford to publish anything that’s unlikely to become a huge hit:

Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.

“It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent who represents blockbuster authors like the thriller writers Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The Times. “I would hate to be starting out in the business.”

So, what does that mean for the thousands of authors who have written wonderful novels – or hope to? If you are lucky enough to get a contract, you’ll have to do everything in your power to help get attention for your book – because nobody can buy a book they don’t know exists (and publishers generally throw the most publicity dollars at books they know will return the favor with book sales dollars). And if you can’t get a contract in this brutally difficult market, take a tip from Brunonia Barry and consider becoming your own publisher.

November 25, 2008

Is it ever wise to self-publish a novel?

Filed under: Advice for fiction writers,Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 1:21 pm

Every few months, you’ll read that a novel, originally published by the author, has been picked up by a major publishing house. And, if you have a novel sitting in your desk drawer for which you haven’t been able to attract a publisher, you may be tempted to give self-publishing a try.

Should you? Maybe. But be prepared to do more work promoting it than you ever imagined.

And before you can begin promoting your book, you’ll have to spend time developing a publicity pitch with an intriguing story-behind-the-story. Several originally self-published authors who have gone on to major publishing successes first gained readers and media attention with a tale of how their real lives and the stories they told intersected. Add in an appealing plot, well-crafted characters, exceptional writing, and a bit of luck and — who knows?

Brunonia Barry first published THE LACE READER, a story that came to her in a dream, on her own. The tale she told was about her own home town, Salem, Massachusetts, known for its spooky past. So, she was able to focus her marketing efforts in a small, manageable geographic area, at first, and then grow her audience from there. But, before Barry went on to attract an agent and a seven-figure deal, she and her husband traipsed from local bookstore to local bookstore, book club to book club, offering the manuscript to readers and asking for feedback. The book was just nominated for Borders’ 2008 Original Voices Awards.

So, yes, it’s possible to self-publish a novel and gain an audience and even, on rare occasion, a major publishing contract. But, be prepared to devote yourself almost full-time to promotion. And to succeed at promotion, first develop an intriguing angle that has local appeal. Also, be realistic about your chances. Most self-published novelists sell very few books and even books that are published by major houses sometimes just don’t catch on.

November 24, 2008

Random House goes whole hog on ebooks

Filed under: News,Publishing technology,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 1:05 pm

The publishing giant is going to digitize 6,000 books from its “backlist” (older books), bringing its total number of titles available in ebook format to 15,000. New titles will be available in both print and digital formats.

Random House apparently sees ebooks as a major market in the near future and wants to be positioned to take advantage.

November 23, 2008

Buy books for Christmas II

Filed under: Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 12:29 pm

Even those who aren’t prodigious readers are likely to appreciate the gift of a book that focuses on their interests. Got an aunt who sends you hand-made sweaters and scarves each year? She’d probably love a book about knitting all wrapped up in sparkly paper. Those friends who canvassed non-stop before the election? Choose among dozens of texts about politicians and policy.

To make matters more convenient, you can even read the first chapters of some bestsellers online. Check out this page at The New York Times.

And, Amazon, helpfully, offers its list of “Most Gifted” –- the 100 books most often ordered with gift options — if you’re having trouble coming up with a book idea for someone on your list.

Online library lets you rent the books you want to read

Filed under: Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 10:11 am

Bookswim’s business model is like NetFlix’s: choose the books on your wishlist and Bookswim sends them to you, postage-paid. You return them when you like in a postage-paid envelope, and get sent the next few on your list. It’s a great concept. Free local libraries often have months-long waiting lists for popular books. And, for the obsessive reader, buying all those bestsellers can be expensive.

But Bookswim is a tad pricey and that makes me wonder whether it’s really going to take off. I checked Amazon’s prices for a few of the books on Bookswim’s most popular rentals list: BREAKING DAWN (part of the popular “Twilight” vampire YA series) costs $12.64, new. LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA can be had for as little as $10.17, new. THE SECRET is $13, new. Total cost of buying the first three on the list is then $35.81 vs $19.98 to rent, a savings of $15.83.

But if you’re more interested in books other than the three most popular, savings get iffy. Number 4 in popularity, ECLIPSE, will cost you $10.99 and two other “Twilight” series books, TWILIGHT and NEW MOON go for $6.04, each. So, you can buy those three for $23.07 (plus shipping) versus renting them for $19.98.

Bookswim gives you the first month for about half the regular cost: $9.95 for three books at a time vs $19.98 thereafter. Or, you can choose to rent 5, 7, or 11 books at a time for higher monthly fees (each plan gives you the first month for about half the regular rate).

Speaking just for me, while I love the idea of Bookswim, I’m more likely to buy the books I want to read if the difference in cost between renting and buying is minimal. How about you?

November 22, 2008

“Twilight” books sell the movie — will the movie sell the books?

Filed under: Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 6:03 pm

Whoever says that kids don’t read any more hasn’t been paying attention.The last two publishing mega-blockbuster book series were targeted to young adults. First came the teen wizards of Harry Potter and now we have the teen vampires of the “Twilight” series.

The new movie based on the latter is expected to get even more kids reading:

Elayne Rapping, a professor at Buffalo University specializing in pop culture, said books were extremely important in drawing people to movies, especially teenagers, and it often works the other way around too.

“This is an age group where people’s social communities are the most important thing in deciding what cultural products they’re going to be consuming,” she said. “Everybody wants to read the same books.”

The five “Harry Potter” movies have raked in more than $1.4 billion in the United States and Canada, and the publicity surrounding them stoked already stellar book sales.

Other epic fantasy films that boosted book sales were “Narnia” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, both decades-old classics that engaged a whole new generation with the films.

November 21, 2008

Reading War and Peace on your iPhone

Filed under: News,Publishing technology — editorialconsultant @ 10:46 pm

Yes, it’s possible, using the free downloadable software from Stanza. And the downloadable book is also free, as are tens of thousands of other books in the public domain. But is it as enjoyable to read long sections of text on that teensy screen as it would be to lie in bed, flipping pages?

Not having an iPhone, I can’t answer the question. But I’d love to hear about the experience from anyone who decides to try it.

And the winner is…

Filed under: Commentary,News,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 3:57 pm

The National Book Award winners were announced this week. Annette Gordon Reed won for her latest work on the Sally Hemings’ family. I haven’t yet read this one but her earlier work on the topic, THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SALLY HEMINGS, AN AMERICAN CONTROVERSY was fascinating. Winners and contenders include:

Peter Matthiessen won in the fiction category for Shadow Country. “I had a hard time,” he said in his acceptance speech, “persuading people that fiction was my natural thing, not nonfiction.” Alexander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Marilynne Robinson’s Home were front-runners. Salvatore Scibona’s The End, a debut novel published by independent publisher Graywolf Press, was also nominated. Gail Godwin presented the award.

In nonfiction, Annette Gordon Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello took the award. Reed opened her acceptance speech saying that “today is my birthday.” Jane Meyer’s The Dark Side and Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute were also closely watched contenders. Author and editor of Washington Post Book World Marie Arana presented the award. She praised all the finalists for their “uncompromising commitment to truth.”

November 20, 2008

One literary agency’s wishlist (sort of)

Filed under: Advice for fiction writers,Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 9:04 pm

The Donald Maass Literary Agency semi-regularly publishes a list of the novels it would like to see. It’s a whimsical compilation of what the agents view as potentially salable fiction themes. Don’t start writing based on the list; by the time you’re done, the new list will be up — focusing on the hottest topics of that moment.  Just use it to peek inside the minds of those who are out there every day, talking to acquisitions editors. Here’s a sample:

THE PROMISED LAND: An itinerant worker in 1930’s Depression America, laid off from a Detroit factory, becomes a hobo and must ride the rails home to his wife and children in Southern California in time for Christmas.

ALONE FOR THE HOLIDAYS: A single New York woman escapes to a Central American resort for holiday R&R but finds that an unexpected romance and a mission for street children give new meaning to Christmas.

SEASONS GREETINGS: Two friends, veterans of the war in Korea, have not met since but have exchanged early Christmas cards every year…until this year, when one card doesn’t arrive forcing the other friend to uncover the unknown truths of his army buddy’s life.

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