Ask The Editor

January 30, 2009

Amazon sales are up — good news for writers?

Amazon is doing well at a time when just about every other business is tanking.

Some highlights from its announcement:

  • North America segment sales, representing the Company’s U.S. and Canadian sites, were $3.63 billion, up 18% from fourth quarter 2007.
  • International segment sales, representing the Company’s U.K., German, Japanese, French and Chinese sites, were $3.07 billion, up 19% from fourth quarter 2007. Excluding the unfavorable impact from year-over-year changes in foreign exchange rates throughout the quarter, International sales grew 31%.
  • Worldwide Media sales grew 9% to $3.64 billion, compared with $3.33 billion in fourth quarter 2007.
  • One has to wonder how much of its success is due to business practices that have the potential to harm publishers, writers, and others in the business. For example, it recently strong-armed publishers into either using Amazon’s print-on-demand services or forfeit “buy now” selling opportunities with the online retailer. (Without the “buy now” button, publishers have to compete with sellers of used copies and don’t qualify for the free shipping that makes Amazon so attractive to buyers). That move prompted a class action lawsuit.

    Amazon also demands higher than customary discounts from publishers, which cut into the profits of both publishing company and author. Protest and Amazon, again, cuts off the “buy now” opportunity to buy a publisher’s books. It also drops such publishers from its promotions.

    Now, Amazon, distributor of the Kindle e-book reader, has decided not to carry any e-books except those that use the Kindle proprietary format. It’s a move, like the others, designed to cut off competition.

    So, is Amazon’s success good news for writers? Not if Amazon continues to strangle competition and force publishers and others to accept its terms or take a hike. It would be far better for the industry if there were several online booksellers thriving — and giving book buyers a multitude of choices.

    January 22, 2009

    From rejection to self-publishing to bestselling novelist

    We keep reading (and hearing from agents, publishers and others in the industry) that it’s more difficult than ever to get a book published by a major publishing house. And that’s not surprising, given the economy in general and the publishing market in particular.

    Yet, with increasingly regularity, we read stories such as this one, about a novelist who couldn’t get a literary agent, let alone a publisher, decided to self-publish, and now has a hit.

    Lisa Genova, 38, was a health-care-industry consultant in Belmont, Mass., who wanted to be a novelist, but she couldn’t get her book published for love or money. She had a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, but she couldn’t get an agent. “I did what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “I queried literary agents. I went to writers’ conferences and tried to network. I e-mailed editors. Nobody wanted it.” So Genova paid $450 to a company called iUniverse and published her book, Still Alice, herself.

    That was in 2007. By 2008 people were reading Still Alice. Not a lot of people, but a few, and those few were liking it. Genova wound up getting an agent after all–and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5. “So this is extreme to extreme, right?” Genova says. “This time last year, I was selling the book out of the trunk of my car.”

    Does this mean we should all be self-publishing? No, although it’s easier than ever to do so. What it probably means is that, when literary agents and publishers are too cautious to consider any manuscript that doesn’t scream “bestseller” the minute they read it, lots of potential hits will never get published. And, intrepid authors who have faith in their books, who understand marketing and promotion, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to get those books into the hands of readers, might as well try on their own.

    The alternative is that nobody reads what you may have spent years writing.

    January 16, 2009

    Should you write for free II? (HuffPo edition)

    An article about a political writer who blogs for the Huffington Post without pay has almost every writer I know weighing in. Arianna’s business model, for those who are unfamiliar, is to pay not a cent to contributors  (presumably, she does pay staffers). To say that this makes Ms. Huffington unpopular among some professional non-fiction writers I know is like saying that Bernie Madoff has somewhat miffed his investors.

    Despite the antipathy toward her among some authors, Huffington has no trouble getting people to contribute to her success by contributing free text. Even several established writers who make decent rates elsewhere agree to write for HuffPo for the “exposure.” One writer friend suggested I write something here about the issue. So, here’s my take, for anyone who might be weighing whether the exposure is worth it.

    For a celebrity, say Bill Maher or Michael Moore, who simply wants to exploit Arianna’s ability to attract huge numbers of political junkies in one place, a guest appearance on the Huffington Post is like free advertising.  While there, they can pitch their next project. And it will pay because people reading HuffPo really want to buy whatever Maher and Moore are selling.

    Contributing a post to HuffPo would also make sense for an established but lesser known author of a book about a political topic.  Excerpt your book on the site or paraphrase something to tempt members of this huge audience to buy the whole thing.

    It’s similar to appearing on TV or radio without pay to plug your project.

    But, if you’re hoping to establish yourself by working for free for Arianna, and you have nothing to pitch to her audiences other than your free copy, you are probably doing little or no good for your own career. You may even damage your brand by establishing your price for the world to see: Zero. Also, you’re lending a hand to exploitation by contributing to its success.

    January 15, 2009

    Bestselling novelists, worldwide?

    It’s not who you may think — or, at least, not who I guessed it would be (J.K. Rowling and/or Stephenie Meyer). Instead, according to the U.K.’s,   in a poll of Top 10 fiction bestseller charts across nine different countries , the two names that appeared most often are Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns) and Ken Follett (World without End).

    Hosseini and Follett made bestseller lists in seven of the nine countries.

    So maybe, adult fiction can compete with YA after all. (At least, outside the U.S.)

    January 12, 2009

    Survey: Americans reading more fiction

    Finally, a bit of good news on the publishing front: According to a survey conducted for the National Endowment for the Arts, Americans are reading more literature, from novels to short stories. Even better, the increase in reading isn’t just among older generations whose reading habits were formed before there was a web to distract us. Reading increased most significantly, according to the survey, among 18 to 24-year-olds. What’s also interesting is that 15 percent of those surveyed said that they read literature online. Below are a few bullet points from the NEA press release that should come as good news for authors of novels and short stories and also, provide hints about where those new readers may be found:

    • Since 2002, reading has increased at the sharpest rate (+20 percent) among Hispanic Americans, Reading rates have increased among African Americans by 15 percent, and among Whites at an eight percent rate of increase.
    • For the first time in the survey’s history, literary reading has increased among both men and women. Literary reading rates have grown or held steady for adults of all education levels.
    • Fiction (novels and short stories) accounts for the new growth in adult literary readers.
    • A slight majority of American adults now read literature (113 million) or books (119 million) in any format.
    • Reading is an important indicator of positive individual and social behavior patterns. Previous NEA research has shown that literary readers volunteer, attend arts and sports events, do outdoor activities, and exercise at higher rates than non-readers.

    January 9, 2009

    Why do Young Adult novels dominate bestseller list?

    During the years that Harry Potter books were selling millions more than comparable adult fiction, we could have chalked up that success story to the charm of the teen wizard tales.

    But what do we make of the current bestseller list? Stephanie Meyer’s novels about teen vampires are, by all accounts, less charming and yet,  her young adult stories of teen bloodsuckers are in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 8th positions on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list of fiction. A Harry Potter title is in 4th place while Brisingr, a dragon tale for young adults, is in 14th place.

    That makes six young adult books in the top 15.

    What should authors take away from this? It’s difficult to say. If you start writing a young adult novel now to take advantage of this trend, by the time you’re done, there’s a chance that the trend will be done, too. But if you’re already an author of young adult fiction, you might find agents and acquiring editors more receptive to reviewing your work, especially if there is an element of the other-worldly or whimsy in it.

    January 8, 2009

    “Girls Gone Wild” for a Washington Bail-out?

    Filed under: Commentary,News — editorialconsultant @ 10:10 am

    It’s a morning full of weird publishing news and this bit should knock Joe the plumber, political spokesperson, author, war correspondent off the front page: Larry Flynt of Hustler fame, and Joe Francis, producer of “Girls Gone Wild,” want a bit of bail-out money for their X-rated niche industry. It seems that smut sales are down by 22 percent. And, so these guys say, something must be done.

    Crazy? Sure. But no less insane than using our tax dollars to keep writing those Wall Street bigwigs’ $million bonus checks.

    Oh, no! Now it’s Joe the war correspondent?

    Filed under: Commentary,News — editorialconsultant @ 9:40 am

    Joe the plumber, political spokesperson, author has a new gig: Joe the journalist. And this time, I really must protest that his 15 minutes of fame have been stretched too far. At least, as Joe the book author, he would have had a ghost to turn his thoughts into something approaching coherence. But what editor in his or her right mind would send a guy like Joe, who admits he knows just enough to make him dangerous, into a war zone?

    January 5, 2009

    Freebie manuscript critiques!

    How can you hope to get your book published in a market that’s getting tougher every day?

    Although it may seem counter-intuitive, new authors sometimes have an easier time getting agents and publishers than do published authors with less-than-blockbuster track records. Acquiring editors are always looking for the next new publishing sensation.

    But here’s the catch. Only the most marketable, engaging stories have any chance of attracting agents and, eventually, publishers. Editors have no time to work with diamonds in the rough. They need polished gems.

    So, starting in the month of February, I’ll be offering free critiques on Ask the Editor of the first 3 to 5 pages of select manuscripts. Using these manuscript excerpts, I’ll point out what works, what doesn’t and why, and how to improve the overall effect so that the reader gets caught up in the action.

    If you’d like your work critiqued on Ask the Editor, the email address for submission and other details on sending your work may be found here.

    Remember, even if it’s not your manuscript I’m commenting upon, my guess is that you’ll come away with valuable tools to help you refine your own work.

    UPDATE: Critiques offer above is suspended indefinitely as I am swamped with work at the moment.

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