Monthly Archives: April 2015

Bring back the serialized novel

30 April 2015

From The Washington Post:

In 1847, an English cleaning woman was extremely excited to learn that the boy lodging in her employer’s house was “the son of the man that put together Dombey” — that is, the son of Charles Dickens. The woman could neither read nor write, but she lived above a snuff shop where, on the first Monday of every month, a community of friends would gather to read aloud the latest installment of “Dombey and Son,” which had begun serialization on Oct. 1, 1846. By that time, the monthly installments of Dickens’s novels — which started with “The Pickwick Papers” in 1836 — were such a staple of British culture that an illiterate woman with no access to the actual book knew the author’s work intimately.

More than 150 years later, the publishing industry is in the doldrums, yet the novel shows few signs of digging into its past and resurrecting the techniques that drove fans wild and juiced sales figures. The novel is now decidedly a single object, a mass entity packaged and moved as a whole. That’s not, of course, a bad thing, but it does create a barrier to entry that the publishing world can’t seem to overcome. Meanwhile, consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments — whether it’s a “Walking Dead” episode, a series of Karl Ove Knausgaard ’s travelogues or a public-radio show (it’s called “Serial” for a reason, people) — so there’s reason to believe they would do the same with fiction. What the novel needs again is tension. And the best source for that tension is serialization.

. . . .

Why can’t the same techniques that once galvanized readers be revived? Today, when a novel is released, it relies on a series of tried (but not always true) advertising methods. The book is accompanied by a simplified synopsis targeting a specific audience, inflated with blurbs from “influencers” and dropped onto reviewers’ desks with the hope that enough serious critics will praise it that it will wriggle onto a prize list. Even greatness doesn’t always guarantee success. As the Telegraph noted in its look at “Why great novels don’t get noticed now ,” Samantha Harvey’s“Dear Thief” received universally glowing reviews — and sold only 1,000 copies in six months. Publishing houses have a brief window to push a work into the public’s consciousness. If the pilot doesn’t light, the novel doesn’t move. But with a constant stream of exposure over a period of six or 12 or 18 months, a novel would stand a far better chance of piquing the public’s interest.

. . . .

Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. Yes, not every novel can, or should, be serialized. As novelist Curtis Sittenfeld worried, “I imagine serializing would force me to commit to certain plots even if I subsequently decided they were weak.”

. . . .

“Since the loss of compelling plot is one of the things that readers most often complain of in the modern novel,” the critic Adam Kirsch says, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Blue Origin soars into space from West Texas

30 April 2015

From the Houston Chronicle:

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, announced late Wednesday night the first flight of its New Shepard spacecraft into space.

. . . .

Powered by a BE-3 engine, the spacecraft flew to 307,000 feet, the edge of space, and returned smoothly to the ground. The company said it was able to recover the reusable spacecraft.

. . . .

Why is Bezos investing hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money in Blue Origin? Like the other new space pioneers he believes in the dream of cheap, reusable access to space. It appears we are getting closer indeed to that dream.

 

Link to the rest, including video, at Chron and thanks to M.S. and others for the tip.

PG thinks speeding up deliveries for Amazon is part of the rocket plan.

Love takes hostages

30 April 2015

Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life…You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so simple a phrase like ‘maybe we should be just friends’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.

Neil Gaiman

Mind Control

30 April 2015

Not much to do with books, but it might be a good writing prompt for some genres. The experiment begins at about 1:45, but you have to watch until almost the end for the payoff.
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Writer’s Block

30 April 2015

Is Agency Ebook Pricing Suppressing Sales? Hard to Say

30 April 2015

From Digital Book World:

The latest monthly data from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), for January 2015, show ebook sales in slump.

Comprising just 20% of trade sales, digital formats clocked in at $100.3 million, down more than 10% to what Publishers Lunch notes is the lowest monthly sales figure since April 2012, when the AAP reported digital sales at $99.5 million.

Some suspect the progressive restoration of agency ebook pricing that began late last year is a likely culprit for the decline.

While that may turn out to be the case, the fact is it’s very difficult to tell.

Publishers Lunch, which tracks and analyzes the AAP figures each month, has noticed considerable variation in what participating publishers report month-to-month, as each successive report includes revised data from the corresponding month twelve months prior.

Which is just one of several reasons why the latest snapshot, as Michael Cader commented yesterday, “shows how far we still have to go in obtaining reliable, consistent basic statistical measures of what’s happening in even a portion of our marketplace.”

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

Higher prices reduce sales? Amazon knows more about pricing ebooks than Big Publishing? Impossible!

Kobo has ‘no interest in fighting publishers’

30 April 2015

From The Bookseller:

Kobo has said it has “no interest in fighting publishers”, after signing its first publishing deal with journalist Kevin Donovan for a book about Canadian radio presenter Jian Gomeshi, who is currently awaiting trial for sexual assault.

The Canadian e-book retailer has signed world English language rights in print and digital to Jian Ghomeshi – Secret Life via Donovan’s agents Jesse Finkelstein and Samantha Haywood of Transatlantic Agency – in the first deal of its kind for the company.

While Kobo is publishing the title in digital on its platform, it is partnering with Canadian independent publisher ECW Press on a print edition of the book. The company also has press partners in the US and had “some preliminary discussions with publishers in the UK.”

Speaking about cutting its first professional publishing deal, Pieter Swinkels, Kobo vice president of publisher relations, told The Bookseller that the company saw itself as “enabler of publishing houses” and added “we support them, we have no interest in fighting them.” However, he also said that “publishing is a term that needs to be redefined” and while the company wasn’t looking to become a traditional publisher, it was hoping to “evolve the model” going forward.

He said: “Kobo is always looking to how we can improve, evolve and develop our platform for our readers. As we see how projects develop and publishing and bookselling models evolve, we are looking for our place to give our customers the support and experience. What we are looking for is not to become an traditional publisher, we are looking to evolve the model.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller and thanks to John for the tip.

Author Solutions and Friends: The Inside Story

29 April 2015

From David Gaughran:

Author Solutions has forged partnerships with a long list of famous names in publishing – from Simon & Schuster and Hay House to Barnes & Noble and Reader’s Digest.

Recent disclosures in various lawsuits, along with information sent to me by a Penguin Random House source, detail for the very first time exactly how these partnerships work and the damage they are causing.

Since a second suit was filed at the end of March, Author Solutions is now facing two class actions, with the new complaint alleging unjust enrichment and exploitation of seniors on top of the usual claims of fraud and deceptive practices. It also has a wonderfully precise summary of Author Solutions’ operations:

Author Solutions operates more like a telemarketing company whose customer base is the Authors themselves. In other words, unlike a traditional publisher, Author Solutions makes money from its Authors, not for them. It does so by selling books back to its Authors, not to a general readership, and by selling its Authors expensive publishing, editing, and marketing services (“Services”) that are effectively worthless.

Indeed.

. . . .

Despite Author Solutions’ mounting legal troubles, and an unending stream of complaints against the company from both its own customers and a whole host of writers’ organizations and campaigners, companies are still queuing up to partner with Author Solutions.

Penguin Random House – its corporate parent – has shown no inclination towards reforming any of the deceptive and misleading practices of Author Solutions, or addressing any of the long-standing issues its customers face, handily summarized by Emily Suess as:

  • improperly reporting royalty information
  • non-payment of royalties
  • breach of contract
  • predatory and harassing sales calls
  • excessive markups on review and advertising services
  • failure to deliver marketing services as promised
  • telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars
  • ignoring customer complaints
  • shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories.

Instead of making any attempt to tackle that list, Penguin Random House has focused oninternational expansion of Author Solutions, a process which has also seen the re-introduction of practices which had previously been banished from the industry, like reading fees.

. . . .

Below is a partial list of the publishing companies which have partnered with Author Solutions to create their own in-house “self-publishing service,” but it gives you an idea of just how many supposedly respectable publishers are willing to profit from exploiting inexperienced writers.

The name of the respective service – or what Author Solutions refers to as a “Partner Imprint” – is in brackets.

  • Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing)
  • Lulu
  • Harlequin (DelleArte Press) – partnership terminated 2015
  • Hay House (Balboa US, Balboa Australia)
  • Barnes & Noble (Nook Press Author Services)
  • Crossbooks (LifeWay) – partnership terminated 2014
  • Penguin (Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa)
  • HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson/Zondervan (Westbow Press)
  • Random House (MeGustaEscribir)
  • Writer’s Digest (Abbott Press) – partnership terminated 2014

Some of these companies go to great lengths to hide the Author Solutions connection (Lulu, Barnes & Noble, and Crossbooks being pretty famous examples), and customers of these platforms often aren’t aware that services are being fulfilled by Author Solutions – yet another reason, if one is needed, why victims shouldn’t be blamed.

. . . .

Author Solutions pitches its services to publishers as a way of monetizing the slush pile, offering what it calls “white-label services” to these organizations – which essentially means that Author Solutions will provide the entire infrastructure for their “self-publishing service” and operate it on their behalf too.

. . . .

These relationships are crucial to Author Solutions, as it doesn’t get organic referrals – i.e. for obvious reasons, writers aren’t recommending its services and Author Solutions has severe problems with customer retention.

Aside from providing a false veneer of respectability to Author Solutions’ operations, the only role that the partnering publisher plays is to provide “leads” to Author Solutions, and then sit back and collect the royalty checks. In short, these publishers are pimping out their brand as bait for the Author Solutions scam.

. . . .

The relevant points regarding partners are:

  • Partner Imprints provide identical services, but often with higher prices. For example, the exact same book review package – Kirkus Premium – costs $5,999 from iUniverse and $6,999 from Archway.
  • These higher prices are necessary to cover, in part, the royalty payment to partners.
  • The balance is made up via higher quotas assigned to sales reps responsible for Partner Imprints.

. . . .

The sales force employed by Author Solutions is considerable. Most (approximately 80%) are based in the Philippines, despite deliberately giving the impression they are based in the US. Also, they aren’t identified as sales reps to Author Solutions customers, instead they are dubbed “Marketing Consultants,” “Book Consultants,” or “Publishing Consultants.”

Publishing Consultants are the first to deal with authors, advising them which publishing package to purchase. The only way that Author Solutions measures the performance of Publishing Consultants is the total dollar value of packages sold, so these sales reps are only incentivized to sell the most expensive package possible. If the customer can’t afford a given package, a payment plan is offered.

. . . .

Book Consultants are introduced to Author Solutions customers as the people who will help fulfill the “free” order of books that comes with their publishing packages, but their true role is to convince the author to place an additional order for further copies of their books, beyond the small amount that comes free with some of the publishing packages. From Author Solutions own figures released when looking for a buyer in 2012, we know that two thirds of its revenue comes from selling publishing and marketing packages, and one third from selling books. What wasn’t known until the depositions of Author Solutions executives were made public is that the vast majority of those book sales are authors purchasing their own books.

. . . .

According to a source at Penguin Random House, Author Solutions employs 594 sales reps in its Philippines office, and 138 in its US office, making a total of 732 staff members whose primary role is to sell products to its own customers.

This is in stark contrast to the amount of people dedicated to actually providing basic services to its customers – services which Author Solutions has a duty to provide.

. . . .

A recurring complaint from Author Solutions customers is that the company fails to fulfill purchased services, and also fails to fulfill basic services included in the publishing packages (allegations which are repeated in the class actions).

An example should illustrate why these complaints are so common. A frequent claim is that royalty payments are often delayed, incomplete, or wholly inaccurate – a situation further compounded by abysmal customer service when complaints are made.

You might imagine that calculating the respective royalties for the 180,000 authors and 225,000 titles which Author Solutions has published is a tricky task, especially given that these titles are distributed in several different formats to a large list of retail outlets, many of whom operate in different territories and currencies and pay out a different percentage based on a whole range of factors, including price.

This is how many staff Author Solutions employs to calculate royalties for all those authors and titles: 1.

That’s not a typo, there is one single person to calculate royalties for 180,000 authors and 225,000 titles. One person! And 732 sales reps with aggressive quotas to sell worthless crap like “web optimized” press releases for $1,299, YouTube advertising packages for $4,099, and Hollywood pitching services for $17,999.

. . . .

Staff turnover is a problem in general at Author Solutions, but particularly for the position of the poor person who has to calculate royalties for 225,000 books from 180,000 authors. I’m told that it’s lucky if this staff member can get through two payment quarters without quitting in sheer frustration – which means that a new person has to be regularly trained in, and is always playing catch-up.

. . . .

Among those refusing to comment was Publishers Weekly and I suspect its partnership with Author Solutions runs far deeper than simply allowing it to re-sell blocks of advertising.

. . . .

Obviously, having a financially lucrative partnership with Author Solutions acts as a strong disincentive [for Publishers Weekly] to run an exposé of its shady practices, but there are other factors in play. Author Solutions is owned by the largest trade publisher in the world and Penguin Random House’s advertising spend is considerable.

Penguin Random House has also been actively suppressing the Author Solutions story. One investigation I have knowledge of was supposed to be published in April 2014, but the editor in question decided to kill the story at the last moment.

Link to the rest at Let’s Get Digital and thanks to John and others for the tip.

Here’s a link to David Gaughran’s books

In hindsight

29 April 2015

In hindsight, I suspect that Neuromancer owes much of its shelf-life to my almost perfect ignorance of the technology I was extrapolating from. I was as far from the Sixties author who knew everything about cell-phones as it was possible to be. Where I made things up from whole cloth, the colors remain bright. Where I was unlucky enough to actually have some small bit of real knowledge, the reader finds things like the rattling keys of a mechanical printer, or Case’s puzzlingly urgent demand, when the going gets tough, for a modem.

William Gibson

John Steinbeck’s Pen: How the Joy of Handwriting Helps Us Draft the Meaning of Life

29 April 2015

From Brain Pickings:

Edgar Allan Poe believed that handwriting is an indication of character, revealing our “mental qualities.” Mary Gordon saw in its “flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper” a reminder that “however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.” Indeed, the marks we leave on the paper are our most human trails of thought. Few things exercise — and exorcise — the not always seamless collaboration between brain and body like that direct line between the tip of the pen and the tip of the neuron. To be particular about one’s writing instrument is, then, to be particular about thought itself — one can’t afford to be careless about the corporeal transmitter of creative flow.

John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) captures this curious role of the pen as a negotiator between brain and body in a series of disarming observations in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath — that remarkable volume that gave us a glimpse of how the great writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt when he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life, the masterwork that earned him the Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for his Nobel Prize.

. . . .

In mid-July of 1938, three weeks into the work, Steinbeck makes an endearing note of his writing companion — that trusty conduit of thought:

This good pen holds up beautifully. I guess it will last out the entire book.

Then, on July 25, he records the growing intimacy with his writing instrument:

This pen writes thinner if it is steeper. This has been a good pen to me so far. Never had such a good one.

By mid-August, he is fully in love:

What a wonderful pen this is. It has and is giving me perfect service — never stops flowing for a second and never overflows and blots a word.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings and thanks to Barb for the tip.

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