December 16th, 2009 by Will Entrekin

New Readers, New Writers, New Publishing

In taking business classes to earn my MBA in international business and strategic marketing, I have had to come up with a lot of plans. Plans for businesses, plans for marketing, plans for management teams. My latest course required a leadership profile; I had to analyze my three major leadership traits (I chose service, participation, and charisma), as well as create an action plan to not only maintain but also enhance those traits. Those traits weren’t difficult to choose: all my life, I’ve pursued leadership, mainly because I tend to think that leading can often be the best way of serving (which is why service was my first and primary trait). The plans–especially the marketing and business plans–required a lot of research into specific industries we had to choose for ourselves.

Now, I’m pursuing an MBA as an extension of my master’s degree in writing, which I earned in 2008 from USC. Among my most valuable classes (and in some ways my most difficult) were courses with Shelly Lowenkopf and Paula Brancato; I studied the Literary Marketplace with the former and the Business of the Business with the latter. In that former, I learned lots about the differences between book formats, genres, and etc., while in the latter I had to write my first business plan. I struggled there with Paula, because I used the novel I was writing as my thesis, The Prodigal Hour, as my example for marketing and promotions, which was difficult both because I was still writing the damned thing as well as because it’s a difficult piece to sell/market/promote (it’s main plot device is a time machine, but it’s not really a science fiction novel). After graduating from USC, I realized that I was a good writer but still had a lot to learn about the business side of things, so I set about figuring out how to learn what I still needed to know. Given living situations and the state of the economoy, I also wanted to put off student loans, so I enrolled at Regis.

Since then, I’ve written several business plans, using as examples both my writing in general and my writing projects in particular, and the more I write about it, the less sense the publishing industry begins to make. And for a new writer just starting out, still trying to sell his first novel, this is not only a daunting idea but a disempowering one as well. I’m not a writer who thinks that all my time should focus on the creation of more books and stories while I let some agent or editor handle the business and the numbers; that’s not enough for me. I want to be able to participate in–not, it’s worth noting, control–the entire process, from the germ of an idea to getting that finished story into readers’ hands. It’s important for me. And like I said, this doesn’t mean control; given my participative leadership trait, I like to let people do their jobs as best they can. I just tend to keep the overall vision in good mind, and I feel I should, given that my overall vision is my career, after all.

I think more writers need to do this. I’ve been reading a lot about digital content and how publishers are implementing e-book delays to discourage readers from picking up e-books in favor of substantially more expensive hardcovers. The debate rages, and publishers like Harper and respectable agents like Nat Sobel agree that there should be a delay, but I’ve read few writers and readers comment on it. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I’ve just missed them (I’ve after all been endeavoring to spend less time online lately, with other projects to work on).

But it strikes me this is a terrible balance, for writers and readers to sit back and let agents, editors, publishers, hardware manufacturers, and software designers argue amongst themselves while determining the best way to deliver writers’ stories to readers.

Because the thing about the argument is it seems like publishers don’t much care what readers want. They are floundering now, with newspapers and magazines doing pretty terribly while the book industry relies on Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and Sarah Palin for business and profit while deigning to grace other books with the published-seal-of-approval. Unfortunately, this makes sense, especially nowadays, when so much content is available online, for free–which may be another problem altogether–and the natural inclination of publishers is to increase the number of titles overall with the hope that one will stick. The joke was always that the average book has a shelf life shorter than a gallon milk, but now it may be more analogous to ground beef; a few hours out is all it takes before literally most books disappear from attention. I remember reading that one of every seven books sold this year was written by Stephenie Meyer, while something like 99% of all books sell fewer than 1000 copies.

A thousand copies isn’t much. To put that into perspective, my collection has been downloaded nearly twice that (it’s sold, meanwhile, about half it; people do like free, after all).

But the thing is, for a new writer (maybe any writer), what’s the motivation to wait around for publishers who pretty obviously don’t know what to do with digital content anyway? Digital rights are different from paperback rights, which are different from hardcover rights; as I understand it, when pubishers acquire books, they are basically purchasing for a set price (against royalties, in the case of an advance) the rights to copy and distribute the authors’ original work. Which makes a lot of sense in terms of printing, publication, and distribution.

But in terms of digital content? Why even license digital rights in the first place?

I am reasonably sure that publishers will refuse to enter into contracts with authors who don’t want to give up digital publication rights, but I can think of little other motivation for an author to do so.

Or perhaps, given that hardcover rights as well as paperback rights have to be sold (e.g., Double Day [I think it was Double Day] paid Stephen King’s hardcover Carrie publisher $400,000 for said novel’s paperback rights, of which King received half [well. Half, then less agent, less taxes, less you get the idea]) . . . well, I was going to say that digital rights could be handled similarly, but I can’t figure out how that might work. It’s not like a hardcover publisher is going to sell Amazon digital rights to a book for the Kindle, no matter how completely insane that would suddenly make an already confusing and wide-reaching debate.

But to my original point, the people who seem to get cut out of the debate are writers and, more importantly, readers. If my primary leadership trait is service, I am fully aware that I hope to ultimately serve readers great stories. The debate, however, seems to sink readers, and even the very act of reading, down to the bottom in terms of primary intention; much of it seems to focus on how to make more profit and sell more books, rarely how to attract new/more readers. If it were about how to attract more readers, I don’t think publishers would be trying to delay e-book release in the hope of squeezing a little more profit out of the transaction. The hope seems to be that more people will buy that $30 hardcover if there’s no other option, but I think the opposite is true; I think a $30 hardcover would only encourage people to wait until the digital version is available for the nook or Kindle or other e-reader of their choice. In fact, I would think a $10 e-copy will not compete with but rather enhance the sales of a $30 hardcover; me personally, I tend to buy hardcovers as souvenirs, a physical artifact of only the books I most enjoy, and even then I tend to get them for a penny from the Amazon Marketplace, and it’s worth noting here I’m a writer. This is what I do and ultimately hope to make some money from as a bonus for attracting a go-jillion readers, and even still I hesitate to drop $30 on some dead tree and dry ink. Even still chances are I’d rather buy a penny hardcover and spend the rest on a good bottle of wine.

Because it’s worth noting, so rarely are we buying a book; more so, we buy experiences. We seek from our books knowledge and entertainment but also the experience we get through reading them, be that experience new insight or a great story. I am not one of those hardcover fetishists who requires the look and feel and smell of a book; all I tend to care about is the transportation a book provides.

Until, of course, I love a book; when I love a book for its story, I desire it too for its physical presence. In other words, I only desire books for their feel and presence after they’ve already transported me. Lord knows people haven’t loved The Lost Symbol or Twilight for their shining examples as good writing of stories; they are transportation. Quite literally in the sense of Brown, around whom cottage travel industries have sprung up, while Meyer’s books seem to provide teenage girls a perfect heroine on which to project themselves and by which to live a dramatically volatile existence completely vicariously.

Readers who love books will purchase them, and we who are in publishing, whatever our part may be, should work to reward that love, to encourage it, to foster it. Not to delay it and put it off in the hope of making a few more bucks off it.

Comments

5 Responses to “New Readers, New Writers, New Publishing”
  1. “I’m not a writer who thinks that all my time should focus on the creation of more books and stories while I let some agent or editor handle the business and the numbers; that’s not enough for me. I want to be able to participate in–not, it’s worth noting, control–the entire process, from the germ of an idea to getting that finished story into readers’ hands.”

    I think this is one of the reasons why writers have little to no voice in the digital debate (or in any debate that involves us, for that matter). We foolishly let other people handle the business side of things while we lurk in the shadows and concentrate on our “art”. I’m not sure if this is because most writers are reclusive by nature or if it’s because aggressively promoting our work and branding ourselves is considered “selling out”.

    I don’t know about you, but nothing irritates me more than someone calling a writer who effectively markets his or her work a “sellout”. If making a good living through writing is considered selling out, I embrace it wholeheartedly.

    I’m so tired of seeing writers get screwed over financially when in fact we’re the ones putting in most of the time and effort. Essentially, we’re the backbone of the entertainment industry: we write the books, we write the scripts, we write content for newspapers and magazines, we create online content, etc., yet we get little to no reward for doing so. As I indicated before, this is our fault. We need to start taking more control over our work, our image, and our rights as creators if we ever want to have say in not only our careers but in the publishing/entertainment industry as a whole.

  2. I’ll definitely agree with many of those points. Especially with regard to selling out: I hope so! Every copy, every book, every time!

    As far as your last paragraph, I have some thoughts on that for a future post. I’m getting there. Took me a while to build back up, and I think it’s a post that’s going to help me solve some dilemmas.

  3. Writers must begin asking themselves a question that they’re not used to asking: How is a traditional publisher adding value to my work? It used to be that the publisher was delivering distribution, marketing, and, most important, manufacturing. But distribution is easier than ever; marketing is non-existent except for the few books a publisher chooses to “get behind”; and — if books migrate substantially to electronic form — manufacturing is no longer a barrier to entry. So what is a publisher worth to you, the creator…a quarter of the wholesale price, a third? Certainly not half, let alone the two-thirds they’re taking now.

  4. You know, my aunt and I are working on a concept for a satellite radio show, but I think the concept would be valid for print (Oprah would lap it up, but she’ll be gone long before anything comes to fruition, likely.) There are, of course, other options to print medium. Just a thought. And no, I didn’t read the whole damned thing. Sometimes you can be so wordy! (I can be guilty of this as well, but I’m down to like 18 minutes of battery life here and I didn’t bring my power cord with me to the wifi spot.)

    Ravvy

  5. @Joel: yes, exactly. Not just adding value, but as a tool, what does a traditional publisher allow me, as a writer, to accomplish that I otherwise would not be able to? And I mean that generally, just using personal pronouns. I think that question is becoming more difficult to answer.

    @Ravnostic: see, for more personal projects, even approaching traditional publishers doesn’t make sense. Without knowing the nature of what you’re thinking, of course, one can’t extrapolate.

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