Ask The Editor

October 26, 2009

Sales of ebooks nearly triple from 2008 to 2009

The headline says it all. E-Reads reports that, from August 2008 to August 2009, ebook sales shot up from $5 million to $14.4 million.

This may be bad news for traditional publishers but it has the potential to be excellent news for the small publisher, especially the one-person shop, publishing his or her own title.

It means that there is a market for ebooks and that market is growing like kudzu.

It does not mean you can simply publish and hope that people find your books, buy them, and recommend them to their friends. You still have to publish a book that is compelling enough to rise above the pack, with a great story, well-told, and a satisfying ending. You still have to promote the hell out of the book. Otherwise, no matter how great it is, nobody will know it exists.

But if you can turn out something that others will want to read and if you know how to reach potential readers, you have an easier entry now that at perhaps any other time in history.

– Anita Bartholomew

October 25, 2009

How Demand Studios’ exploitation of writers turned it into a billion dollar company

Wired has a fascinating article about Demand Studios, one of the word factories that regularly advertises for writers, only to exploit them. You can’t claim Demand pays writers peanuts. It’s more like peanut husks.

It’s worth reading the article to learn how this sweatshop-type operation makes such big bucks. But here, we’re only concerned with the pennies it pays to the people who made it possible for Demand to become the billion-dollar enterprise it now is. The snippet below provides a hint:

It’s the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot. Writers can typically select 10 articles at a time; videographers can hoard 40.

Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal. Demand also offers revenue sharing on some articles, though it can take months to reach even $15 in such payments. Other freelancers sign up for the chance to copyedit ($2.50 an article), fact-check ($1 an article), approve the quality of a film (25 to 50 cents a video), transcribe ($1 to $2 per video), or offer up their expertise to be quoted or filmed (free). Title proofers get 8 cents a headline.

Don’t write for these — or any — exploiters. Leave these crumbs for the amateurs. I know it’s tempting, as newspapers die, and magazines fight for survival, to take whatever work is available. But writers who do so help perpetuate their own exploitation.

Write a book, instead. Either shop it to agents and publishers or invest in publishing and marketing it yourself. There are plenty of new publishing opportunities to explore, from the Espresso Book Machine which is rolling out a few new locations and may soon make the printing of a single book as cost-effective as printing in bulk, to ebooks, which already eliminate the costs of distribution, warehousing and shipping.

– Anita Bartholomew

September 17, 2009

Publishing at the crossroads: who will own the future, you or Google?

I’ve written before that I believe the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) from On Demand Books,  could be a publishing industry game-changer, as much and even more so than the advent of ebooks. Although the EBM is only in 10 locations now, the wide distribution of EBMs or other machines like them, would allow authors, with new or out-of-print books, to publish their own work, at lower costs than are now generally available from POD printers. Because the books get published at the bookseller’s site, the author-publisher isn’t saddled with the significant costs of warehousing, shipping and distribution.

And returns? That would be a store-by-store policy issue but here, too, the savings to the author-publisher would be significant. If a store with an EBM permitted returns, the author-publisher might have to bear those costs. But the author-publisher would be spared the expense of refunds and two-way shipping on unsold  books that were published sans demand, and then removed from the shelf and returned when demand failed to catch up to supply.

The lower overhead opens up all sorts of possibilities and Google is now showing us that the game could go either way for those who want to breathe new life into their old books.

A story today in Wired says that Google is going to offer public domain (out-of-copyright) books via the Espresso Book Machine:

Over the last seven years, Google has scanned millions of dusty tomes from deep in the stacks of the nation’s leading university libraries and turned them into searchable documents available anywhere in the world through its search box.

And now Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books, is letting readers turn those digital copies back into paper copies, individually printed by bookstores around the world.

Or at least by those booksellers that have ordered its $100,000 Espresso Book Machine, which cranks out a 300 page gray-scale book with a color cover in about 4 minutes, at a cost to the bookstore of about $3 for materials. The machine prints the pages, binds them together perfectly, and then cuts the book to size and then dumps a book out, literally hot off the press, with a satisfying clunk. (The company says a machine can print about 60,000 books a year.)

Two issues the story doesn’t address give us the clues to what makes this so technology so important to those of us who make our living by the written word:
The possibility for POD editions had been treated as a “maybe someday” clause in the Google settlement. Someday is here, it seems, the moment the settlement gets the judge’s thumbs-up (if it does). Assuming the same pricing structure as the out-of-copyright books, Google gets a dollar, and passes along 63 cents to the Book Rights Registry (BRR). The BRR passes along to publishers what’s left after taking its unknown cut. Publishers pass along to authors — what? Maybe 10 to 25 cents per book sold?

Contrast that to what an enterprising author might get by republishing her or his own out-of-print book and offering it via the EBM. Costs to print via the Espresso Book Machine are just $3 in materials plus whatever the bookseller adds for profit and the cost of amortizing the EBM owner’s investment in the machine. But on the author-publisher’s side, when you consider eliminating the costs of warehousing, shipping, distributors and returns, you’re likely to be about where you’d be with a traditionally published book with one enormous difference. You’ve removed the uncertainty factor that drives costs to unknown, profit-killing levels and keeps so many would-be author-publishers from going it alone.

When you’re no longer working on the crazy model of providing books on consignment and assuming all financial risks, you might actually be able to run a profitable business as an author-publisher.

Can you say the same is anywhere near possible if your books are coming out of the same Espresso Book Machine but the money goes to Google instead?

– Anita Bartholomew

September 14, 2009

Biggest challenge for publishers=biggest opportunity for authors?

The Frankfurt Book Fair is conducting a survey of publishers to learn what they believe will be the business models of the future.

The second question on the survey is interesting because it points to a potential shift in the balance of power in publishing from publishers to authors.

In your opinion, what are the three biggest challenges for the media industry? (Please check three answers)

Along with digitization, piracy, the economic crisis, oversupply and other issues, one of the 10 possible answers that you get to choose as among the three biggest challenges to publishers:

– Strengthened position of authors (increasing possibility for direct marketing without a publisher/bookseller)

The fact that this is one of the possible answers tells you that the market is shifting dramatically.

The fact that the following is also among the possible answers tells you we are at a crossroads.

– Concentration of distribution channels

Either authors will gain significant power in the new marketplace or big players like Google and Amazon will so overwhelm us all that we would do well to learn a new trade that will always be in demand, like plumbing.

We live in interesting times.

– Anita Bartholomew

August 5, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing, part II

Article fees are stagnating at best. Numerous magazines have lowered their per-word rates. I hear reports all the time from  writers that magazines assign an article at, say, 1,000 words but demand extra reporting that can require the writer to up the submitted word count by 50 percent or more, with no extra pay.

Writers, brace yourselves. This is your future if you continue to bank on magazines. Magazines were hurting before the economic downturn and you can’t assume that the situation will reverse once the economy stabilizes. See this article from Min on the prospects for consumer magazines — or simply read the following sobering excerpt:

Magazines did not come into the recession from a position of strength, with a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] at a meager 1.1% from 2003 to 2008.

Virtually all of the main revenue drivers for this industry are being depressed by a shifting media economy and digitization, such that magazine advertising will decline 15.6% in 2009 to $10.53 billion and a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of -6.6% for the 2008-2013 period. This will leave the ad spend on magazines at $8.87 billion in 2013, the lowest level since 1995.

Ever-shrinking ad revenues mean that articles fees must also continue to shrink.

And for those who say, “no problem, I’ll write for the web,” I have to ask: haven’t you noticed that most websites pay less than even the struggling magazines? While some web publications pay at least something, too many are paying so little, the fee offered is an insult. And you can’t pay your bills with the proceeds  of insultingly low fees no matter how quickly you write.

So, what’s left?

My guess is that the writers who continue to make a living from writing will be writing books. Some will get traditional publishers. Some will publish their own books as book publishers also tighten their budgets.

The Espresso Book Machine, or something like it, if it catches on, will make any bookstore that has one a print-on-demand center. That will make it possible for good writers to become publishers without the overhead of warehousing and shipping, and with a lower per-book printing cost than current POD options. But only those who master marketing and publicity will earn enough to make a living.

I know this isn’t a cheery post but I read too many cheery proclamations from writers who keep doing what they’ve been doing while their incomes shrink. We all need to think ahead, not just to the end of the year but to five years from now. Where will publishing be? And where will you be in publishing?

– Anita Bartholomew

June 23, 2009

“The View” star accused of plagiarism

Susan Hassett, a self-published author of a book on celiac disease, claims that “The View” star Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s book on the same topic borrowed heavily from hers.

Hassett’s lawyer’s letter to Hasselbeck, which you can download at the TMZ site, cites a number of similarities.

There’s one line in each that jumped out at me. Each book talks about how shoppers should “shop in the outer isles [sic] of the supermarket.”

I can’t and won’t pass judgment on the claim as a whole but, how likely is it that both authors would misspell the word “aisles” in the same way?

Hmm.

– Anita Bartholomew

May 26, 2009

If you’ve been turned down by publishers, should you beome a publisher yourself?

We live in interesting times.

Advances are half or even a third of what they were a year or two ago. I’ve heard reports from colleagues who are accustomed to high five-figure advances for their non-fiction narratives and how-to books getting offers in the mid or even low four figures. And that’s if an author can even get an offer.

Fiction seems to be particularly difficult to sell at any price right now.

Filmmaker John Sayles’ agent failed to get a single offer on his latest novel.  Sayles has previously published acclaimed novels and is among Hollywood’s most accomplished directors and screenwriters.

The rejection of his latest manuscript drives home just how depressed the market is.

“This is really astonishing,” says Ron Hogan, senior editor of Galleycat.com, a website devoted to publishing news. “I mean, this is John Sayles! You’d think there would be some editor who’d be proud to say, ‘I brought the new John Sayles novel to this house.’ ”

Anthony Arnove, Sayles’ literary agent, sent the novel out on a first round of submissions last fall, and recently sent it to another group of editors. His goal is to land a deal with a deep-pockets publisher who can promote the sprawling, epic tale about racism and the dawn of U.S. imperialism.

Sayles’ 1977 novel, “Union Dues,” was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “The Anarchists’ Convention,” his comic short story about aging Jewish lefties, has become an American classic.

But Sayles’ earlier novels weren’t bestsellers and traditional publishers are looking for sure things. Nevermind that, as anyone who has ever browsed a remainder table knows, the sure thing doesn’t exist.

So, what should an author who has a good manuscript do? In my opinion, as traditional publishing opportunities shrink, and non-traditional opportunities expand, the best thing an author who is willing to bet on his or her own prose can do is become a publisher. I don’t mean that authors should send their manuscripts off to iUniverse or Lulu, pay a few hundred bucks, and keep their fingers crossed. That may seem an inexpensive option but it’s probably going to get you exactly nowhere. The cheap solution is actually an expensive one if nobody knows your book exists or wants to buy it.

Become a real publisher, if you have the time, money, marketing understanding, and willingness to work as you never have before for your book’s success.

More on what this means in terms of budget, planning, and everything else, in subsequent posts.

– Anita Bartholomew

May 13, 2009

Is Amazon becoming a publisher — or simply promoting its self-publishing options?

From its press release, announcing the new venture:

Amazon customers raved over “Legacy,” a self-published novel by 16-year-old Cayla Kluver, with customer review titles such as “loved it, loved it,” “rich lyrical tapestry and story” and “breathtaking in scope and execution!” Despite winning several prizes from literary groups and accolades like this from readers, Kluver’s debut novel achieved only modest sales. Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) today announced a new program, “AmazonEncore,” to help readers discover exceptional books from emerging authors, such as the program’s first book, “Legacy.”

AmazonEncore is a new program whereby Amazon uses information such as customer reviews on Amazon websites to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors that show potential for greater sales. Amazon then partners with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store, Audible.com, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers. This summer “Legacy” will be revised by the author and re-issued as an AmazonEncore edition in print on Amazon websites around the world, in physical bookstores, as a digital download from the Kindle Store in less than 60 seconds, and via spoken-word audio download on Audible.com.

There’s no word on what Amazon means when it says it “partners” with authors. Amazon may, indeed be acting like a traditional publisher and offering advances, royalties, etc. But AmazonEncore may, instead, be a re-branding or expansion of Amazon’s current self-publishing tools. It’s not clear yet. But, what if Amazon is merely selecting certain self-published books for more favorable design, distribution and marketing treatment? And what if it’s using this as a marketing tool to promote its self-publishing arm?

That seems more likely to me — and, if so, appears to be a smart marketing move.

I hate to be a cynic but, stay tuned for the details.

– Anita Bartholomew

March 6, 2009

Barnes&Noble to challenge Amazon in ebooks

Barnes&Noble is buying Fictionwise, an ebook seller that will allow it to open an ebook store and go head-to-head against Amazon in the ebook business.

It’s a smart move. Amazon just announced that its Kindle application will be available on the iPhone. But Fictionwise, the new B&N acquisition, is already available on iPhones, on which it offers thousands of titles.

And, unlike Kindle titles, which require using Kindle as the application, either on the Kindle device or a supported iPhone or iPod, Fictionwise titles can be read on a variety of applications and devices. That means that there are fewer limits on its expansion. Amazon has tried, in every area where it’s become the leader, to crowd out the competition. When it comes to technology, however, if history is any guide, you want an application to be broadly adopted across platforms, not limited to a few.

March 4, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing

An article by Francis Wilkinson in The Week asks whether writing is now a career that only the rich can afford to pursue:

The high end of publishing—books, magazines, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—has always contained a contingent of wealthy worker bees who don’t actually live off their often meager salaries. But even a couple decades ago, a writer without independent means could still scrape together a living writing about something other than movie stars. Not a good one necessarily, but a living.

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve.

He also says that “freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years.” Apparently, Wilkinson doesn’t write for many magazines or he’d know that the problem isn’t just that rates haven’t risen; they’re recently begun falling.

Moreover, the trend of stagnating rates isn’t a recent phenomenon. According to Murray Teigh Bloom, one of the original members of the trade organization that is now known as the American Society of Journalist and Authors, told me about 15 years ago that he earned $1 per  when he began freelancing in the 1950s.

Today, many magazines are still stuck at $1 per word and several want to pay less than that. And it’s not simply because they want to exploit writers (although, they often do because too many writers agree to be exploited).

Every week, at least one magazine goes under. Hallmark magazine folded last week, not because it was doing poorly. It was one of the very few magazines where ad revenues were up.

If a magazine folds because (my assumption) it sees dimming prospects for the future, that solidifies my sense that focusing all one’s energy on writing for magazines is like focusing all one’s energy on selling VHS tapes. Not wise.

I recently wrote an article, for far less than I normally get paid, for an online magazine. It was on a controversial topic, close to my libertarian heart, and I wanted it published, even if it meant taking a pay cut. I felt good about getting the word out there. But the online magazine quickly folded (although its content is still up).

Even writing for major magazines that offer $2 per word and up, you have to contend with the possibility that the publication may not still exist when it’s time to pay you.

But books will always be with us, in some form, even if ebooks supplant paper. And that’s where I’d recommend any writer focus the greater share of his or her energy. It may mean that, in the not-too-distant future, you take on the multiple roles of author, publisher, publicist, distributor and warehouser, because major houses are trimming their acquisitions to those they believe (often wrongly, but that’s another post), will be surefire hits.

Only the intrepid, with an entrepreneurial bent can expect to do well under current conditions that are bad for the economy as a whole but worse for publishing. Any writer who sees him- or herself as too delicate to take on the business of marketing probably won’t survive in this climate absent a hefty trust fund or other means of support.

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