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Ether for Authors: Booking the Future

By Porter Anderson


Table of Contents

  1. Future­Book 2012: Book­ing the Future
  2. Crowd­fund­ing: Is Kick­starter Los­ing Its Kick?
  3. Story: And Youth
  4. E-Reading: The Costs of Inaction
  5. Self-Publishing Pro­mo­tions: iBook­store in Aus­tralia & New Zealand
  6. Busi­ness & the Author: A New Resource
  7. Books: Read­ing on the Ether
  8. Last Gas: Global as Local

Future­Book 2012: Book­ing the Future

I actually think the digital revolution is where agents will come out (well). Because every good author who’s had a good agent knows exactly what a good agent does. And yet, most of the industry, whether booksellers or several down the chain have no idea what agents do. And I actually can understand why they don’t.

Jonny Geller

Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller, widely appreciated for his occasional guest blog post at The Bookseller, spoke Monday afternoon in London at the FutureBook 2012 Conference and Innovation Awards.

Geller alluded to a then-still-unannounced initiative of his agency with Amazon — “Well, I guess I just announced it.” It is:

… a digital self-publishing programme through Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace, in a venture primarily aimed at breaking UK authors into the US market.

As written up by The Bookseller staff, the arrangement is expected to take some 200 titles into Kindle editions, works by Curtis Brown clients including Tony Parsons, Adele Parks, Colin Bateman, Emily Barr and Rosie Goodwin, per the Bookseller story.

Neil Blair

And agent Neil Blair announced, minutes later, that the BBC is commissioning a television series based on his client JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy — and that his company, The Blair Partnership, will be producing.

These announcements were made in a panel session titled “The Changing Role of the Literary Agent” at the conference, and they reflect some of the more aggressive moves being made on clients’ behalves by agents — sometimes sweetly nuanced by the complications of the digital dynamic.

For example, in The Bookseller’s writeup, Curtis Brown launches digital programme with Kindle Direct Publishing, note again that the text describes this as “a digital self-publishing program.”

The Rogue Reader initiative in New York, created and housed by Movable Type Management agent Jason Allen Ashlock and Adam Chromy is, similarly, a self-publishing program, a form of “assisted publishing” developed by an agency to take a part of clients’ output in hand and help get it to an audience without a publisher in the traditional role. Likewise, Blair’s new work for his main and uniquely positioned  client. In Casual Vacancy heads to TV screens, The Bookseller’s Katie Allen writes:

BBC One and BBC Drama have commissioned the exclusive adaptation from agency The Blair Partnership. The series will be produced through an independent production company operated by Neil Blair on behalf of TBP, and producer Rick Senat.

Philip Jones

And what of the element here of an agent making a television production of his own client’s work? Allen:

Blair told The Bookseller that an independent executive producer would be engaged. He added: “It’s us providing added value and for Jo, it’s a case of having creative control over her creation.” Rowling will be “intimately involved” in the series, he said.

I was glad to moderate this agent-evolution panel at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, at the kind invitation of the event’s tireless director Sam Missingham and The Bookseller’s astute editor, Philip Jones.

Sam Missingham

(And may I just say, on behalf of conference-goers everywhere: Maybe the best conference wi-fi I’ve encountered at a convention site yet. Even when we all got going to the tune of 4,155 tweets at last check . See the Epilogger account I’ve set up for the conference to aggregate media on it.) Bookseller owner Nigel Roby was an unfailingly warm host all day to the gathering of some 700 key figures in the publishing world.   All of us are grappling in one capacity or another with the industry’s rapidly advancing new suite of potentials that can look, on a good day, like bright new beginnings, and on another day like an accelerating luge run down the slippery slope directly into opportunism, blurring ethical lines, and new relationships under the banner of author management.

Nigel Roby

The day was filled with provocative observations from innovative publishers, an author or two, and even retailers — as in Miriam Robinson’s announcement that The Bookseller, itself, will work with Foyles in a February workshop to formulate plans for a 40,000-square-foot “bookshop of the future.” See my Publishing Perspective colleague Alex Mutter’s story on that, Foyles and The Bookseller Unite to Crowdsource a “21st Century” Bookstore. Under Jones’ cordial leadership, the final panel of the day revealed stark gaps widening between some publishers as Charlie Redmayne of DRM-free Pottermore and Anthony Forbes Watson of Macmillan (parent of the non-DRM TOR) and Ursula Mackenzie of Little, Brown, who made a robust pitch for DRM as a copyright-protective approach that publishers owe their authors.

Dominique Raccah

Earlier in the day, Dominique Raccah  of the US-based Sourcebooks described her company’s Shakesperience series of iBookstore e-books and the new “Put Me in the Story” iPad app with which children and their parents can personalize their reading together. She spoke of the iterative “agile” process that tests new products with targeted consumers during development and made a robust appeal for more “co-opetition” (she echoed writer Joanna Penn’s TheFutureBook blog post calling for transparency) so that more ground can be covered more quickly in creating more digitally enabled products. But while the whole day was punctuated by such smartly toned snapshots of real and conscious efforts to understand and adapt to disruption, the agents’ panel seemed especially sensitive to the overturned furniture and wobbling heirlooms of tradition all around us.

Clare Alexander

Agent Clare Alexander had some pointed phrasing for the news of Curtis Brown’s and The Blair Partnership’s respective new initiatives for clients — in “helping self-publishing,” as Geller describes it, through Amazon and Blair’s television production for Rowling.  From Alexander’s comments: 

There are other ways of being an agent… by being more bespoke, being a secret agent. There are ways of being a very public agent…and there are ways of being more directional on a map between the author’s creativity and the publisher. That might be an editorial role, it might be a contractual role, it might be selling rights to movies (of) books. Where I absolutely agree with Jonny is that we have to be relevant. I think we don’t so much want to be in the public eye, but we want to be diverse… available to any talented writer anywhere. So we’ve opened in India, we’ve opened in America, American agents in England, English agents in America. It’s less about being transparent to the outside world, more about…adding value to the author.

Joanna Penn

And that author — in the person of Penn (whose self-published books are written under the name J.F. Penn) — was with us on the panel to respond to what she was hearing from these industry-leading agents.

I actually agree with you guys (the agents) that there are some win-win situations here. As an individual, a business on my own, I can easily publish my own e-books on Amazon…but what I would like, and what my agent (Rachel Eckstrom at Irene Goodman Literary in New York) is looking for, are foreign deals, I don’t want to do translation, I don’t want to do print. I acknowledge that traditional publishers do print very well, so I’m not interested in doing that. I want film and TV. I want to be JK Rowling — who doesn’t? — and have all these people looking after us. But as mini-brands, authors coming up from nowhere, I will only be able to get a type of opportunity if I have people to help me. So an agent, to me is a business partner. And if you don’t get that value, then you have to look for somebody else.

FutureBook lunchtime with Westminster Abbey as backdrop

In short, Penn sees little to complain about in the conversation of the agents on the panel  from her stance as an author who hopes to publish traditionally as well as in self-publishing. But she qualifies her interest as being predicated on the need for partnership, the author serving as a kind of creative director who works with the agent. To the approval of the table she spoke of going to meet with her agent and taking her contract in with her, having parsed it first for questions of legal language she didn’t understand. “We can’t lump all self-publishing authors together,” she said. She uses the phrase “independent” rather than “self-publishing” to describe her way of seeing it as a self-directed business proposition.

Geller’s point, in response, is that the very transparency that Penn and other authors call for in their publishing business relations is, in fact, already the key to the new levels of author service agencies are looking to provide.

It’s a very big, significant change in our business. And it can only work if the author feels nurtured, looked  after, trusts, is in partnership with the agency. It’s got to be  transparent. And the only way we’ve got to that position of producing our authors is by complete transparency, and by offering them better terms than they can have outside (the agency), better rights than they can reserve (otherwise), and more control.

A packed plenary session at FutureBook 2012 Monday in London

With major new initiatives coming out of the agencies represented here — Blair on new production, Aitken Alexander’s international expansion, and what is, in fact, a BBC production deal for Curtis Brown, as well (on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) — I hope to return to more of this panel’s discussion of the agent’s developing role in the business in coming days. Suffice it to say for now, we heard many times during the day Monday at FutureBook about a new awareness of the author as the central, or at least essential, component of new publishing configurations. However far along they may be in implementation and execution, publishers do seem to understand in the UK, as they do in the States, that the creative corps has to be prioritized and that sales and distribution elements need to be aligned with that emphasis.

There is an air of camaraderie at FutureBook not found at all publishing conferences. The room bustles with what might be the ragged nervous energy of the long struggle to understand this new post-digital era — but it also might be hope. As if smart heads on the European side of the Atlantic had done some good homework in studying what has happened in the US. As if they’d  learned from some Stateside mistakes, or at least would like to.

FutureBook buzzes pink with that idea that there is a future for the book.

Without the giddiness of denial about the long, hard-to-see road ahead, a constructive setting is productive. It’s heartening to see a little grace under fire.

Back to Table of Contents

"The hallways" at FutureBook 2012, London — that's our term in the States for a break in the conference day when some of the most important dialogues can occur outside the main meeting rooms

 

Crowd­fund­ing: Is Kick­starter Los­ing Its Kick?

I found myself thinking about Kickstarter. I know a number of musicians who have made use of this service, raising money before recording tracks. Could it work for aspiring authors?

Patrick Ross

Patrick Ross, in Is Kickstarter the Answer for Aspiring Authors?, seems to be echoing the misgivings of some other observers of the project fundraising program.

His question is simple: If you’re not a Seth Godin (whose Kickstarter for a book not only went far beyond its goal but was also controversial), is the grassroots-capitalization tool really practical?

Like a question whose time has come, it was echoed by Suw Charman-Anderson at Forbes, who turned to the same issue — no connection to Ross’ write, I presume.

In Kickstarter: Dream Maker Or Promise Breaker? Charman-Anderson’s focus is on issues of fulfillment and projects that deliver their rewards late, if at all. She refers to yet another piece questioning the efficacy of the program, from about two weeks’ earlier.

Noreen Malone

The False Promise of Kickstarter is Noreen Malone’s write-up from The National Review, and it carries a tough bit of news about what happens after the kick has started. Writes Malone in her piece:

As many as 75 percent of Kickstarter projects don’t deliver on time, according to a recent University of Pennsylvania study, and some never deliver at all. One of the great ironies of the service is that many of the most popular campaigns, the ones that draw in far more support than they need, have been unable to produce their project on deadline due to demand that far overwhelmed their preparedness.

Here, Charman-Anderson steps in with a very good suggestion:

I’d like to see (Kickstarter) create a built-in tool that allows project owners to tick off tasks and rewards as they complete them, so that backers can be kept up to date even when the project owner is too busy to write a full update. That would have the added benefit of creating a clear sense of completion when the last reward has been sent out. It would also produce some very interesting data that might help Kickstarter find out more about the riskiest projects and how to help those creators think more thoroughly about what they are promising.

Suw Charman-Anderson

Where Ross engages the issue, though, is upstream of the reward-delivery stage. His research takes him through several instances of campaigns, some successful, some not. He soon runs into a report similar to those of Charman-Anderson and Malone:

I found a talented visual artist who had fallen short of selling her first prose novel commercially, so she turned to Kickstarter and raised $26,478 to self-publish the book, well past her $8,000 goal. A fantastic story, yes? But she also is an example of the challenges of self-publishing. She blogged recently that she had to abandon NaNoWriMo because of the time it was taking her to mail copies of her novel to those who had pledged her donations.

And again, he returns to the basic query of whether this digital tool is the answer for authors with slim or no track records.

Kickstarter is framed by many as a way for and artist to bypass the middleman. That is true, and also obvious. Kickstarter has also been framed as an inevitable future, one in which middlemen will go extinct, and artists and consumers will bask in digital interconnection. That future does not seem assured.

 

For one thing, Ross argues, if a publisher won’t fund the development of a project, “I suspect I couldn’t find a successful Kickstarter campaign in which a would-be author received money to write his or her book for the same reason.” “But the problem isn’t only on the supply side,” Malone is writing in her article,. “How much of the demand is real, and how much is peer pressure or idle boredom, can be tough to sort out.” And in the end, the cases Ross looks at lead him to a downbeat conclusion:

Kickstarter seems unlikely to be a tool to ease the financial pain of writing a book on spec, at least if your name isn’t Seth Godin.

Still with what Malone reports is some $1 million being pledged on the site per day (for all types of projects), is there any expectation that little-known authors can dependably access this platform’s power?

Back to Table of Contents

 

Story: And Youth

I don’t mean to politicize stories, but I am going to argue for their radical significance in this fragile stretch of time. I’m going to argue, specifically, on behalf of stories written for young adults and Generation Y.

Beth Kephart

In her keynote address to the YA: What’s Next? conference presented last week in New York by Publishing Perspectives and Scholastic, author Beth Kephart spoke in a very personal vocabulary of the needs of kids and of her — and our — need to answer them responsibly.

The stories we write for young adults must, I think, be enlivened and also tested by all that percolates and yearns in between.

It’s her husband, Kephart tells me, who created the striking images that are published with the full text of her address, Lamp Lighters and Seed Sowers: Tomorrow’s YA. Both her comments and his visuals are well worth your visit. As she says:

I’m thinking that politics aren’t working so well, and that our planet and our children need us, and that our stories, meticulously made, can still be the cure.

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And for more on the conference, see Alex Mutter’s write up, also here at Publishing Perspectives, What’s Next for YA Publishing? We Have Some Answers.

Back to Table of Contents

 

E-Reading: The Costs of Inaction

Eoin Purcell

The costs of inaction for the major Amazon rivals are first and foremost that a local competitor in a small local market looks set to steal a march on them. Eoin Purcell in Dublin takes one look at a potential coup developing in his market, and puts together, with his usual sharp eye, The Rewards & Costs Of Inaction.

Eason, by far the largest bookstore chain in Ireland, is set to launch an ereader onto the Irish market in December. It’s called the Eason Leaf…It could plausibly become the best-selling dedicated ereading device in Ireland after the Kindle and create a mass market for ebooks sold via the Eason ebookstore.

Eason's new Leaf

Taking in turn the cases of Kobo, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and Apple, Purcell walks through summarizes the particular of each instance.

The truth is though that all these companies could have acted more forcefully in Ireland at any time, it’s a small, English language territory with pretty friendly tax arrangements. It was inaction when the time called for action that led them to where they are now.

In sum, he writes, “a small bookseller with great physical footprint and footfall but not much by way of a digital track record might just, strangely, be a leader in this shift from print to digital in Ireland.” There’s some understandable pride in Eoin Purcell’s conclusion:

We always do things a little differently here!

Back to Table of Contents

 

Self-Publishing Pro­mo­tions: iBook­store in Aus­tralia & New Zealand

This is the largest, broadest and most significant Smashwords-specific promotion yet undertaken by any ebook retailer.

Mark Coker

In Apple Launches Breakout Books Promotion in Australia and New Zealand Featuring Thousands of Smashwords Titles, Smashwords founder Mark Coker is describing is a new promotional initiative he sees as pivotal in his publishing and distribution platform’s evolution.

It means that during this promotion, many Smashwords titles will enjoy some measure of promotional advantage not available to authors of traditional publishers.

The titles eligible for the promotion are priced $4.99 and lower.

From the iBookstore page on the promotion / Smashwords

Coker writes.

This special promotional catalog, which for two weeks will receive top-of-store promotion in their Featured Books section, includes titles sourced exclusively from Smashwords.  After the initial two week promotion, the catalog may become a regular feature in the Australia and New Zealand stores, providing yet another path for iBookstore customers to easily discover, sample and purchase Smashwords titles.

And he includes a discussion of how an author may be able to better her or his chances of having a book included in the promotion and its catalog.

Based on my observations, Apple’s merchandising decisions appear to be both customer-driven and editorial-driven.  By customer-driven, I mean that the more Apple iBookstore customers who purchase and review your book, the more visible your book becomes in the store…By editorially-driven, I mean that the Apple merchandising team hand-selects quality books that meet the interests of their customers.

 

 

The platform-agnostic status of Smashwords doesn’t change here. But if anything, this new effort raises Coker’s estimation of Apple:

Apple has always been amazingly supportive of our authors, but this promotion takes their support to a new level.   Of all 50 territories in which Apple operates their iBookstore, Australia is the second-largest-selling iBookstore for Smashwords authors.

Back to Table of Contents

 

Busi­ness & the Author: A New Resource

 

I’m going to enter the fray again, but on a monthly basis, strictly focusing on the business of being a writer. No craft & technique, no inspirational stuff. Just the absolute best advice I’ve found, online, about being smarter about your career—and why I think it’s the best.

Jane Friedman

Our good colleague, author and former publisher Jane Friedman, is beginning a monthly compilation of key writings for authors in relation to the business of the career. This is great news. Friedman is among the most experienced and dedicated observers of the industry’s patterns and their effects on writers. In Best Business Advice for Writers: November 2012, she has:

  • Material from Joel Friedlander on the actual, top goals for cover designs;
  • That lucid explanatory piece from Jeff John Roberts at Paid Content on the US copyright laws’ provision for rights recoveries to start in 2013;
  • A new Tumblr site “simply trying to collect information about who pays (writers) and who doesn’t”; and
  • Specialized advice for best uses of Facebook by authors.

It’s good to have this compendium in the pipeline each month, keep an eye out for it. Back to Table of Contents

 

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: Global as Local

I lived in Portland, Oregon for 3 years. I worked every waking hour, growing CD Baby and Hostbaby. It was incredibly productive.  I made some dear and deep friends worldwide, but none in Portland. I never hung out in Portland. My attention was still focused outward.

Derek Sivers

Innovator Derek Sivers’ essay on what some might see as introversion, You Don’t Have To Be Local, — will have resonance for anyone who’s been accused of being too much online, of ignoring “real life” and loved ones in favor of the digital phantasms of an onscreen focus. Sivers writes of taking a new tack when he moved to Singapore — he was purposely social in his new physical community.

I met with over 400 people, one-on-one, went to every conference and get-together, and said yes to every request. I spent most of the last two years just talking with people.

But it wasn’t for him, he writes.

After a day of talking, I was often exhausted and unfulfilled. Two hours spent being useful to one person who wants to “pick my brain” is two hours I’d rather spend making something that could be useful to the whole world (including that one person).

And eventually, he relates, he ended up giving himself new permission:

So I’m finally admitting: I’m not local.

 

 

There may be more people like this, particularly in the writing community, than is commonly thought. The stigma of being “a loner” can be worse at times than the actual loneliness and isolation an author feels from time to time. If you’re the proverbial “people person” who does revel in the personal face-to-face contact of a locally involved life, there’s nothing wrong with that whatever. In many cultures, maybe in most cultures, it’s considered the norm. The way Sivers describes it:

Some people feel a strong separation between inside and outside. If you’re a part of their family, neighborhood, church, school, or a friend-of-a-friend, then you’re an insider. Everyone else is an outsider.

And many creative people work in parallel to “individual sports” — painting, sculpting, composing, writing, as opposed to staging plays, making films, setting choreography on dance companies, singing in chorales. Sivers:

Other people feel no separation. You’re treated equally, no matter where you’re from or who you know. There are no outsiders. If extra-strong bonds are made, it’s based on who you are now – not where you came from or where you’ve been.

Ironically, Sivers is saying that the folks who aren’t making the local scene may be, in fact, the more connected — because they’re not engaging in the us-vs.-them elements of community membership.

Neither is right or wrong, but you need to be aware of the choices you’re making, “I was not born for one corner. The whole world is my native land.”

Offering your work unshaped by the local crowd, to the widest audience unconcerned with county lines, is the right path for many. You’ll know if you’re among them.

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Back to Table of Contents

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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 Photo: Porter Anderson

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 5, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Hi Porter,

    I have a number of issues with Curtis Brown’s new initiative (well, not that new, they have been publishing books quietly since the summer). I can’t speak to royalty rates or other terms in the publishing deals they have with their clients (who negotiated them I wonder, did the authors have to hire an agent to deal with their agent?) as no details are given, but I can look at the product and its performance.

    In short, I think Jonny Geller would have been better off keeping this under wraps. Aside from pricing that’s all wrong and truly shocking covers, the books are performing extremely poorly – the highest ranked is at about #150,000 in the Kindle Store (selling around 2 copies a week), and they go right down to around #600,000 (selling about 1 copy every 2 months).

    Here’s a couple of examples. You can see that, if anything, I’m being quite restrained in my criticism:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Twisted-Playground-ebook/dp/B00AGDTYGC
    http://www.amazon.com/Bondi-Blues-ebook/dp/B00A9Z0EZC

    That first book has been out for a week, and hasn’t had a single sale. In launch week! The second book has been out for nearly three weeks. Again, no sale.

    I don’t know what these authors were promised by Curtis Brown, but I’m sure it wasn’t a sub-standard product with completely ineffective marketing.

    I have one final concern – which I have highlighted to Writer Beware. Curtis Brown have launched a snazzy new submissions portal. On that same site, newbie authors are being pushed towards massively overpriced writing courses, and news of Curtis Brown’s “self-publishing” operation. If agents are going to go into these areas – and I think they shouldn’t – there needs to be clear walls.

    But, as I said, they really shouldn’t. Aside from the ethics, they appear to be terrible publishers. Jonny Geller talks a lot about transparency. However, there is no mention on there site regarding the royalty percentages they pay. That would be a good start. Spending more than 10 seconds on the books they publish would be even better.

    Dave

    P.S. The iBookstore promotion wasn’t Smashwords-specific. It was an indie promotion. Smashwords just happens to distribute lots of indie books to Apple and actually have nothing to do with it (despite the wording of Coker’s blog post).

  2. Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Smart way of observing things – I am a little more of a black and white guy, myself

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