Thursday, February 26, 2009

Writing and publishing for a technological explosion

Today I'm working on the files for the titles I want to send to Amazon Kindle by the end of the week. We're doing Nocturne and Twilight, The Deceivers, and two (or three) others where I'm not absolutely sure what they'll be. Could be White Rose, or Swordsman, or ... whatever. Depends what I feel like when I get down to the brass-tacks conversion work in the morning.

This morning, I blew off an hour (the only hour I had to invest in this ... work was calling. Loudly; demandingly) to figure out the process of how to get the book out of the DTP software (Serif) and into stripped HTML, without any loss of italics, chapter formatting, paragraph indents, and so on.

Done: process figured out. Now, I ought to be able to fix the other books in a couple of hours in the morning ... and, since they're digital, they ought to pop up in the Amazon engine more or less in real time. I hope. If so, we'll be having our Kindle launch at the weekend.

A couple of news items crossed my desk this morning, and for a change it's not bad news ... it's good. For a start, Amazon just announced that it intends to make its Kindle range available for smartphones:

Amazon has unveiled a new version of its Kindle reader, with a company spokesman having also announced that Amazon plans to offer Kindle books on cellphones.

This news countered Google's announcement that the 1.5 million public domain books available on its Google Book Search offering will soon be available (free, of course) via a new cellphone application.

I believe that cellphones will quickly outpace the dedicated e-book readers, including the Kindle, as the platform of choice for e-book readers. Leading the pack? The iPhone, ironically.

When asked by The New York Times a year ago about the quality of the Amazon Kindle, Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said, that "it doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore".

(It was an ironic statement, because one heard it by reading — all the more so for me, as I first read it on a Kindle.)

It's worth noting that sold more Kindles (at least 500,000) in its first year of sales than the number of iPods that Apple sold in its first year (378,000).

Apple may not understand the value of e-books, but iPhone users will embrace them anyway. The reason is simple: The iPhone has a decent sized, high-quality screen. And its user base includes millions of people who love to do everything on their iPhones, including reading, which they're already doing with online content.

(Incidentally, the above article, on Reseller News, is extremely good. There's a lot in it for writers, publishers, readers and technologists to mull over. I urge you to read it: Here comes the e-book revolution)

Ebooks are almost certainly where the future is ... they cost a hell of a lot less; they weigh nothing; they save trees; they let writers say what they what they want to say, and say it FAST. Going through the channels of traditional publishing, what you write/say today won't be read/heard for YEARS. What you said in 2003 might no longer be relevant in 2005.

I've been saying this for eons, and it was great to see the point validated here:

The book publishing industry is one of the most backward, musty, obsolete businesses in our economy. While every other kind of information moves at the speed of light, the process of publishing a book is like something from the Middle Ages.

For authors, it can take months to even find a literary agent willing to represent their work. Then the agent takes months to find a publisher. Then it takes ages for the publishing company to get the book out there.

People are already circumventing all this by self-publishing. The self-publishing industry is the only area of paper-book publishing that's thriving right now. Soon enough, a huge number of authors are finally going to get fed up with the publishing industry and just self-publish electronically. They'll hire their own freelance editors and do the marketing themselves. The publication of a finished manuscript will take minutes, rather than months.

Old-school thinkers in the publishing industry will lament the slap-dash nature of self-published e-books, and sniff that books are no longer published with the quality and care that they used to achieve. (Never mind that book publishers abandoned high standards years ago in previous cost-cutting initiatives.) The world will pass them by as the book industry undergoes the same transition that happened with the media and blogs.

There's actually more good news, if you "look past what's on the screen," or as they used to say, read between the lines.

View the industry, for a moment, from the perspective of the person (the buyer) who decides what books are going to make it into the physical, streetfront store:

Every month I meet with publishing reps who arrive with information sheets on all the books they’ll be releasing in the next month or two.

We go through them, one at a time, talking about what makes each of them “right” — or not — for our clientele. I look at the cover image, read the blurb , consider the title, the author, the price, the number of pages, whether or not it has a hard or soft cover, and how many other similar/better titles we may already have on the shelves. Then I listen to my gut. If it says okay, I think about how many copies we’re likely to sell and how long it could take to do so. I order anything from 0 to 10 copies; by far, the majority are refused.

But even to appear on the form means they have gone through the agony of being submitted to a publisher, assessed for the sales and marketing potential, been accepted, edited and printed. Thousands of manuscripts never make it that far. Publishers make mistakes, but their expertise offers some assurance that a book has a market. When it is presented to buyers , it has already succeeded way beyond anything the author could have dreamed .

The process of getting a book into the hands of a reader via the traditional method is so arduous that many writers consider self-publishing to be an easier route to literary glory. A few have done so successfully. It may be easier to get a book into print this way, but these writers face more obstacles to actually being read by anyone other than immediate family .

Speaking as a writer, I don't want to deal with all that stuff anymore. I don't want to go through the years-long hunt for agents, and then the years-long period when the agent shops the book around and sends you bills for postage and phonecalls, and comes up dry at the end of a two year stretch.

There's a line that troubles me deeply in the above feature: Publishers make mistakes, but their expertise offers some assurance that a book has a market. And she says this literally cheek-by-jowl with the remark, by far, the majority are refused. (In other words, the store buyer doesn't reject authors and books ... s/he rejects publishers. Yeeeouch! That smarts.)

If the publishers were smart enough to know which books would bear fruit and which were dross ... why are the vast, vast majority dumped by the buyers at wide-spectrum book stores?

The reason is that everyone has a different perspective on what's good, what's great, what's commercial, and what's garbage. We're all human. We disagree. Frequently. This is what makes horse races.

But traditional publishing is an area in which one's subjectivity is going to come expensive, in the event that one is dead wrong. And this is what has happened to the publishing industry. They placed their faith in the few percent of writers who can sell millions; they pruned back the tens of thousands of writers who play to smaller audiences. This was done to maximize profits, but the net effect is that the human voice is getting strangled out of existence.

The solution? Digital publishing: ebooks. Anyone can publish a book, right NOW. And yes, I know that 99% of them will be the most unutterable rubbish! However, if only 1% of books published between now and 2100, using emerging "sunrise" technologies, were fine works...

That's 10,000 fine pieces of work in every million self-published. And the way POD is going, by 2012, that would represent a year's creativity. If half a percent are great, it's 5,000 new, fantastic books, per year. That's 100 great new books per week.

People might just start to read again, if they can get novels for a price they can afford ... save trees, and so forth. Or maybe the speculations I made the other day are closer to the truth:

What I'm saying is this: publishers -- whether New York or DIY -- shoot for the mass market. The big-time publishers have their market pegged: extremely literate people who demand high standards in their reading. But the mass of the public is increasingly illiterate; the readers who demand high standards, and have $40 to spend on a hardcover, are an ever-shrinking group, while the millions of readers who wouldn't know good grammar if it jumped up and bit them ... well, these people have pockets full of smartphones. And a lot of smartphones take SD cards. You can read stories on smartphones, kill time on the bus, train, plane, whatever.

Here's the bottom line: For every highly literate lady or gent with a credit card, standing in line for the hardcover of the New York Times bestseller, there could be a thousand, or ten thousand, semi-literate readers with smartphones, willing to pay $2, or $1, for an entertaining little read to pass the time on the commute.

Short version: there is an incredible fortune out there, reapable in the next few years ... and I have the sneakiest feeling that the writer's literary merit will be just about the last quality looked for by the mass of "common" readers who are, by the millions, daily, paying tiny fees for quick, cute reads.

Adult literacy is an increasingly lost cause, at the same time as the technology is racing to put video phones on our wrists, video wallpaper in our living rooms, and the electronic equivalent of the old "penny dreadful" in our laps, to while away that train ride, after we've all put the car up on blocks in a concerted effort to save the planet from our carbon emissions.

There's a heck of a lot more to talk about (I wanted to tackle the question of competition ... how one survives in a world where 100 great new books are published every single week, year in, year out, via technological freedom), and also to read -- but I just ran out of time.

I'll give you a couple of links, and with a tad bit of luck I'll be able to pick up the thread of this tomorrow of the day after!

See these:
Book publishers, R.I.P.? In this bad economy, it's tougher than ever to sell books
Self-publishing is not a last resort for authors

...and like the man said in the movie, "I'll be back."

Oh -- the next segment of Legends is up: enjoy!


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