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Ether for Authors: Circling the Collective


Table of Contents

  1. Cir­cling the Col­lec­tive: Hints of What’s To Come
  2. Social and Not: Are the Lines Blurring?
  3. More Kids, Please: Pot­ter­more, Not Less
  4. Immersion-more: A YA Fest in New York
  5. March of the Kindle: An Appraisal
  6. Bed­fel­lows: Strange and Otherwise
  7. Books: Read­ing on the Ether
  8. Last Gas: Are We There Yet?

Cir­cling the Col­lec­tive: Hints of What’s To Come

Angry Robot is very much part of the community (of both authors and readers) it serves. The editors and marketers use social media all the time as a natural part of being ‘in the gang’.

Rebecca Smart

This is Rebecca Smart (good name, no?), CEO of the UK-based Osprey Group, which has a considerable presence in the States, as well.

Developing a brand within a niche market takes time and patience, but a steadily growing feeling of belonging is crucial and social media is key to this.

What she’s talking about in this interview with Sam Coleman of AtwoodTate — ahead of her appearance Monday at London’s FutureBook 2012 Conference (#fbook12) from The Bookseller — has a lot to do with some of the exploration of working models being made by authors today.

Lessons … don’t try too hard, blend different types of communication, be yourself, make friends, remember that face-to-face is a social medium too.

Smart’s Osprey, as Coleman puts it, “publishes books and content based on subject enthusiasms and passions, whether it be authoritative technical data on the military technology of World War II, a positive psychology guide, a history of the Great Western Railway or an edgy genre novel set in near-future South Africa.”

And, as you may know, this is called publishing in “verticals,” each vertical representing a specialized area of reader interest and involvement.

Osprey’s brands are lined up in three verticals:

Osprey Books focus on illustrated military history

Angry Robot Books are concentrated in science fiction and fantasy

Shire Publications are nonfiction — “history, heritage and nostalgia”

Sam Coleman

And two things in this quick Q&A, simply headlined Rebecca Smart, have resonance for writers.

First, there’s the concept of verticals, itself, well represented in the States, for example, by F+W Media, which includes in its portfolio of verticals Writer’s Digest and Digital Book World, plus specializations in art, weaponry, sports, genealogy, woodworking, and more.

If the kind of author collectives many of us are watching to see develop on the new landscape of publishing are to successfully array and promote the work of their member-authors, how much will a sort of vertical-like organization be part of that success? Do all member-authors of a collective of writers working together need to function in the same genre or general marketing space as their cohorts?

This is the case with the Kill Zone, a group of 11 mystery and thriller authors who cooperate on a common blog site, posting in turn on various dates. What’s interesting is that these authors don’t always blog “to” their readership. It’s not, necessarily, suspense-related material.

James Scott Bell

Here’s James Scott Bell, the group’s leading light, for example, in Will Immersive Reading Save Publishing and Kill the Traditional Novel? Bell is raising the very good point that should the industry’s established publishers embrace elaborate, digitally enabled enhanced e-books — so far not all the rage because of how expensive they are to produce —  self-publishing authors could find themselves at a serious financial disadvantage. Bell writes:

This will be an increasing challenge for indie authors, who may have to become what Hollywood calls “hyphenates,” that is, producers who do more than one thing. Which requires skill sets most writers don’t have and don’t care to learn. They want to tell stories. They don’t want to have to shell out big bucks to get a hyper-enhanced “book” out there. But will they have a choice if they want to make new readers?

We see then, in the Kill Zone (hardly a title to bring pacifists running, is it?), a kind of vertical-cooperative of authors for blogging purposes. But their blog topics may not, in fact, always address the stuff that brings them together, that suspense-thriller focus.

Sometimes they do work in their genre and sub-genres. Here’s Clare Langley-Hawthorne writing about Skyfall in her post, Shaken not Stirred.

Roz Morris

But not always.

And maybe the genre structure is less valuable than generally thought. Author Roz Morris is at the 29-writer blogging cooperative Do Authors Dream of Electric Books? writing that “narrow-casting,” as we’ve called it from time to time in the television business, may not make sense for some collectives of authors who want to build their cooperative arrangements into recognizable brands.

In While publishers play safe, authors create the brands of the future, Morris writes:

This is the AE brand. Forget your niches and pigeonholes. You’re in safe hands. We write books, and whatever they are they will be good. That is all you need.

Morris, who has worked both the traditional and self-publishing side of the business, knows there’s a departure implied here:

In the traditional publishing world, a brand usually implies a genre. But at AE we’re all over the place. Crime, suspense, YA, non-fiction, self-help, literary, thriller. Some of our writers were barred from the holy publishing temple because they mix genres.

So, in fact, we see at Authors Electric, an interest in deliberately side-stepping the genre-structure and gathering for mutual promotion and hoped-for branding outside of vertical thinking.

For the most part, such author-collectives are blog sites, mutual-support sites, not necessarily the kind of producing/publishing consortiums we may see rise.

The Rogue Reader group is a departure — still in its second month and featuring the work of suspense author Michael Hogan for November. It’s production-focused. But in a twist, it’s formed not by its authors but by the selection of its member-writers by New York literary agents Jason Allen Ashlock and Adam Chromy of Movable Type Management. The Rogue Reader is defined by genre, and the ancillary material the program has produced so far to support sales of its self-publishing authors is, logically, aimed at the suspense community.

The closer a collective of authors may come to actually producing work — assisting in publishing or fully publishing its writers — the more important a genre-alignment and focus may seem.

If Authors Electric in the UK were publishing its writers, for example, could Morris’ idea of quality as the branding message work to hold it together in readers’ and its member-writers’ minds? 

As the “you’re on your own” factor rises, even for “hybrids” who try to publish both traditionally and independently, efforts to form alliances with each other for promotion and visibility will take many forms and will need to go beyond blog sites.

I’m particularly interested in seeing producing collectives at work. If you know of an authors’ group that is not only blogging together (which is fine, mind you) but also publishing its members’ work, please let me know.

Meanwhile, back to the interview with Osprey’s Smart from AtwoodTate’s Coleman, there’s a second point in her comments of importance to authors. It involves her comments on hiring for her company. (AtwoodTate is a publishing recruitment firm and thus Coleman’s interest in staffing and employment in the field.) Asked by Coleman what she looks for when hiring for digital publishing, Smart says her list of factors includes:

          • Creativity – not just capability around design/appearance of a product but also in thinking about process. I need people who can find their way through a project using innovative solutions. And that means flexibility is also key.
          • High energy combined with strong communication skills and a ‘can-do’ approach – I want someone who can enthuse and evangelise about digital and who is driven to succeed.
          • Technical knowledge and/or a hunger to learn a broad range of skills.
          • Broad commercial awareness and a focus on the customer.

   

These are traits and skills that will come more seriously into play for authors as they approach the entrepreneurial models being “thrust upon ‘em” by the digital dynamic.
And one of the main reasons that producing author collectives may hold promise for some writers is that they might supply each other with parts of a list like this. Some authors in a group will make better front-people than others, for example — handling appearances, serving as a collective’s “face.” Others may be better able to manage technical elements of publication, relations with managerial support (agents of the future?), and outreach.
Osprey at times has fielded authors as a branded group, sending its Angry Robots writers to a book convention together, for example. And under Smart’s smart leadership, it has positioned itself strongly on social terrain, which can access the personality appeal of authors .
As long as social media (still a plural word, thank you) have come up, let’s take a new tack in our next item.

 

 

Social and Not: Are the Lines Blurring?

 

When we stop and think about it – it’s spooky (as Andrew Keen repeatedly points out in his book Digital Vertigo) that algorithms can hit the bull’s-eye even some of the time.

Sheila Bounford

London-based publishing consultant Sheila Bounford takes a look at the dreaded discoverability question, at least tangentially, in starting her piece on shopping for books.

It’s widely agreed that the limitations of online browsing are the strongest card traditional bookshops have in their (weak) hand. Personalisation of recommendation is something that online customers seem to want most, and yet are most irritated by when it doesn’t quite work (which is often).

In Avoiding the Dust Bowl, Bounford takes a close look at some of our usual complaints about online shopping. She’s amused with the tweet from the UK’s Suw Charman-Anderson, who freelances for Forbes, among other publications. Charman-Anderson identifies herself as a “social media pioneer” and yet seems to have been taken aback by the digital hand-selling Amazon offered her recently:

Bounford writes:

Compare Suw’s wry irritation with an author walking into a bricks and mortar bookstore on any high street. Unless it is the author’s local store there would be no expectation at all that a bookseller would know that this customer is an author of any book at all, let alone one on the display table.

Suw Charman-Anderson

She has a point.

As silly as having one’s own book pop up as a recommendation from Seattle might seem, at least Seattle can spot Charman-Anderson and correctly match her up with (we have to hope) an interest in her own book. Bounford goes on:

In that real-life-but-anonymous situation the author would probably be delighted to have their own book thrust into their hands with an “I think this could be what you’re looking for.”

I’d say that we’d quickly praise a bookseller so astute as to walk an unknown author to her or his own book in the shop. Looks like a tip earned, to me.

Bounford, though, has more on her mind than Amazonian algorithmics.

There’s a lot of talk about how our online and offline lives are blurring. But I don’t agree. My online and my offline lives inform and enrich each other, but they’re distinct aspects of my existence to which I (increasingly) apply different approaches and from which I have different requirements.

 

Perhaps this is an answer to the supposition raised by James Scott Bell in his Kill Zone piece mentioned above, Will Immersive Reading Save Publishing and Kill the Traditional Novel? Looking at recent announcements of new technical capabilities — and/or apparent publishing interest in them — for digitally interactive material, Bell is speculating on the future. He’s considering a time when reading as we’ve known it, that Old World way of letting a story take over your thoughts and absorb your attention, may have been overtaken, itself, by increasingly sophisticated tech production. A car in every garage and a holodeck in every home.

    Bell:

What about the future of the plain old novel? As kids grow up fully immersed, will they have the patience for a simple black-on-white book anymore? …Will future generations expect some kind of multi-layered sensory experience?

Maybe Bounford has something hopeful to say to us on this:

My own hunch is that in the coming months and years we’re going to become clearer and more self (and socially) aware about these as we begin to stake down some fences and make some laws for life out on the virtual prairies.

If her new farmer-cowman spate of boundary drawing comes about, it may outline a fairly stark division in publishing, as imagined by Bell, who sees a potential salvation for wealthy major publishers in the expensive teched-up route. And even Bounford sees the conversation hard to escape:

Meanwhile when I arrived in the office an hour or so later, I chuckled when Jenny exclaimed “Amazon’s just recommended one of my own books to me.”

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More Kids, Please: Pot­ter­more, Not Less

 

There are X million new eight-year-olds in the world who are discovering Harry Potter every year—how do we engage with them? How do we make sure Pottermore is an important part of that discovery of Harry Potter?

Charlie Redmayne

Pottermore’s Charlie Redmayne doesn’t seem to be mourning the digital world’s drive past those text-on-a-page days of reading the old-fashioned way.

So there will be more interactivity, more community elements—this is critical for us if we are to engage with these new fans. You’re going to see stuff being developed on other platforms and you might also see things happening in the app and enhanced e-book space.

That generational element referred to by Bell (see the item above) is understandably a critical focus for Redmayne.

Often sounding like one of the clearest heads in the business, he’ll be at Monday’s FutureBook 2012 Conference in London, and spoke with The Bookseller’s Felicity Wood for a fast preview, Interview: Charlie Redmayne, CEO of Pottermore.

Scale is the issue. Jo Rowling may seem an authors’ collective unto herself, but even Pottermore has to expand to grow.   And, as he said at Mike Shatzkin’s Publishers Launch last month at Frankfurt Book Fair, Redmayne is open to working Pottermorean magic with other brands. He says it this way to Wood:

If you have a brand that is very relevant to 11- to 15-year olds, it is clear to me they consume more content on YouTube than on TV, for example. So therefore we have to think very carefully about what we do for Harry Potter and Pottermore in that environment.

More from the conference in London next week.

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Immersion-more: A YA Fest in New York

 

Speaking in great generalities, this generation wants content immediately available and accessible, on multiple platforms and devices, with social applications providing increased immersion.

Dan Weiss

More — and sooner — to the generational question, a half-day conference in New York on Wednesday is scheduled to look at issues in Young Adult (YA) books. The event is produced by our Ether for Authors host, Publishing Perspectives, and that comment is from Dan Weiss,  St. Martin’s Press publisher-at-large, who’s on the roster to speak at YA: What’s Next?

In a Q&A with Beth KephartOn Publishing for Gen Y and “New Adult” Literature, Weiss describes the readership he sees in the younger market:

This demo(graphic) is quickly becoming a very fast consumer of e-books, probably due to the penetration of smart phones and tablets rather than dedicated devices. They still love great stories, valuable and timely information that’s presented in easy to digest form. They still see themselves as a unique group of people with unique challenges and strengths.

And how easy is it for authors of Gen Y titles to find their readers?

Weiss mentions a phrase we’re all hearing, “new adult” as a reference to readers in their twenties, then tells Kephart that, as with seemingly all sectors of the business, it’s no walk through the park:

Finding a readership is tough; there’s no “new adult” shelf and finding anything online is a big challenge. However, we use digital media almost exclusively to find our readers and there are, fortunately, lots of blogs, sites and reviewers who seem to relate and will often promote our titles. But it is a challenge.

We’ll hear more from the conference later this week, here at Publishing Perspectives.

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March of the Kindle: An Appraisal

 

On one hand, Amazon has a clear strategy of going into most promising markets, one be one, by opening fully fledged Kindle Stores. We’ve got six so far: in UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Japan.

Piotr Kowalczyk

Piotr Kowalczyk in Warsaw has watched reading technology develop for some time now, and has an extensive set of new observations on what he’s seeing in Amazon’s rollout of its Kindle. In How Kindle affects foreign e-book markets, he writes:

On the other hand, Kindle is the most famous e-reader in the world. People were buying it since it became internationally available in October 2009. Many users were not aware of content limitations: DRM and a lack of e-books in mother tongue.

In a reference to the international file-sharing shakedown that has bedeviled so many in the industry, Kowalczyk points out that availability seems to be the fix:

Two years ago, Amazon was in fact encouraging piracy. The most common pattern Kindle users were choosing was via DRM-removal and epub-to-mobi conversion tools. Their e-book management environment were tools like Calibre. Now, users can legally download mother tongue books from local e-bookstores, and they use Kindle account for that.

 

And in an ironic response to the growing presence of Kindle stores on the global scene, he writes, Polish booksellers have played a very practical role in producing Kindle versions of their own country’s books.

The problem of a lack of Polish books for Kindle was fixed. Not by Amazon, but by local e-book sellers. One reason for that was to meet the demand, but the other strong reason was to grab as much of e-book business as possible before the launch of Kindle Store.

In another effort to end-run the inevitable, Kowalczyk writes:

In autumn 2010, Empik, the Polish Barnes & Noble (which entered e-book business by buying one of the largest e-book distributors, Virtualo), started an e-bookstore with 3,500 e-books.

But with a February estimate of some 60 percent of e-readers in Poland being Kindles, he writes, the moves made by booksellers to produce mobi files for the Kindle was the logical response. It was that or not have Kindle-friendly files for the majority of the e-reader market. Amid rumors of Amazon talking with Polish publishers, Kowalczyk reports:

There are several tools being used in a fight for hearts and wallets of Kindle owners. Virtualo, for instance, offers a simple feature that automatically sends any mobi file…to the email address associated with a Kindle device…Woblink, an e-bookstore launched by a group of Polish publishers, goes even further. They offer a Kindle-optimized version of their e-bookstore. You can browse for books on Woblink directly from a Kindle browser.

As for authors looking at a market in such flux and poised for expansion, Kowalczyk writes:

Simple advice is: make sure to have your book in Kindle Store, or at least in Kindle format. Epub-only solution is not the right way to go. As you’ve seen in the examples above, e-book markets can switch to mobi extremely quickly.

He offers some detailed comparative observations, as well, about the iBookstore (the “beautiful walled garden”) and Kindle store in this arena, good reading for writers watching these developments.

A final conclusion is that in local e-book markets, the biggest chances to succeed are on the Amazon side of the game.

He’ll next recommend Kobo and Barnes and Noble over Apple. And if you’d like to dicker with him on that point, Kowalczyk will be glad to hear from you, I’m sure.

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Bed­fel­lows: Strange and Otherwise

 A 14-year-old is not going to have a Visa card. If there are no young readers and writers, pretty soon there are going to be no older ones.

Margaret Atwood

That’s Canada’s Margaret Atwood — yes, the great lady tweets — talking with Alexandra Alter for the Wall Street Journal article  A Literary Star Dabbles in Web Publishing.

 The chances of my writing a zombie novel for legitimate publication are zero.

But amid rising eyebrows and more than a few admiring head shakes, Atwood is, indeed, busy with a serialized zombie corker on Allen Lau’s Wattpad, one of so many startups working on connecting readers and writers.

Say what you like, Atwood knows her way around an online bio page:

I’ve been a writer since 1956. I’ve seen writing and publishing change a lot over the years. I look forward to exploring the ways Wattpad connects people to reading and writing, and may help give them confidence through feedback from readers.

Alter writes of Wattpad this way:

With its 10 million monthly users and nine million stories, Wattpad has emerged as the literary equivalent of YouTube. It’s an anarchic, largely uncurated site where mostly amateur writers post their fiction, and read and critique works by others. It’s also become a digital training camp for new writers.

For Atwood, it’s another way to get her work to younger readers, a wider field, specifically a digital field. She’s also  producing material for sale at Byliner.

At Wattpad, her zombie romp, co-authored with Naomi Alderman, is free.

And, as always, Atwood keeps her sense of humor handy. As Alder points out, she has had a few detractors at Wattpad:

One commenter griped about being forced to read “The Handmaid’s Tale” in school. Another user, TopazEyes, bluntly wrote: “ur old!” Ms. Atwood responded via the site with a cheerful threat: “Yes. Reeeaaaally old. Much… older… than… you… can… guess. Lock those windows.”

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Books: Read­ing on the Ether

The books you see here have been referenced recently in Ether columns or in tweets. I’m bringing them together in one spot each week, to help you recall and locate them, not as an endorsement.

      Back to Table of Contents

Last Gas: Are We There Yet?

I remember the triumphant feeling of finishing my first picture book manuscript. Of course, I thought it was perfect. Hahahaha.

Danielle Davis

Author Danielle Davis updates the kind of Southern lament I grew up with — “How long, O Lord, how long?” — with a meditation that  goes against the impatience of our modern grain.

I kept working on it. I got feedback…I even sent it out to agents, to editors. And then, after revision, I sent it out again…I remember the frustration of thinking, “When is this going to happen?” followed by “Never, obviously.” I wanted process and rejection to be over. Closed. Now, please.

Davis’ essay,  ‘Are We There Yet?’ Thoughts on Process, is found n the blog space at the Jenny Bent Agency, which represents her. And what might have turned into another shortcuts-‘n’-tips turn on yet more “inspi-vational” claptrap becomes a call for something much better: patience.

Seven years after I wrote that first one I was up on a cold night, shivering instead of sleeping. The title floated around my head and I couldn’t let it go, just like I couldn’t get warm under the blankets. I loved the title, the characters, the idea. I just didn’t like the story. I’d have to change it. And I finally had some direction as to how.


Blog posts, forums, some conference sessions for writers, all go on these days about how many books you can produce in a hurry. Churn them out, two a year, three a year, four a year. Authors gin-up on genre and grind as fast as possible, reminded by “gurus” that short is good, singles are great, series even better, more content … to add to too much content, readers smothered in choices, writers fighting for air.

And yet here’s Davis talking of losses, real-life ones, that colored her perceptions as her story returned to her when she’d matured and was ready to think in new ways.

Then he was gone.
And I couldn’t get him back.
My character had lost a special thing too, and it turned out no kind of magic was going to bring it back (at least not this time).

If you’re an author who’s in it for the writing and not for the cover-count on Amazon, you’ll love the conversation Davis has with herself.

When you resist the universal urge to be done, like yesterday already, the early closure monster can stop screaming in impatience, doubt, and despair. (Or you can ignore it.) You can ask questions like: What is this story really about?What’s the heart of it? Why am I writing this book? How is it something only I can tell?

Would you like to slow down? “The magic, the payoff, is in process.”

Are you sick of feeling rushed by the industry? “When you’re there, you’re there.”

Tell them Davis sent you: “It’s really about getting to the story in the story. Not the end, but the essence.”

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“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.” René Magritte was born 114 years today! bit.ly/Wjc1Mo


Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and networks of CNN, and a former producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com

Main image by iStockphoto / AnthonyJHall

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