Table of Contents
- Doctorow’s New Doctrine: Take Me to Your Data
- eBook Sales: Don’t Get Comfortable
- ‘No Discernible Increase in Piracy’
- Patter about Patterson
- Last Gas: A Cupcake Rebellion
Whatever else is going on with publishers and Amazon, Google, Apple, et al, the fact that publishing knows almost nothing about its ebook customers and has no real-time view into its ebook sales; and that the ebook channel knows almost everything, instantaneously, is untenable and unsustainable.
Author and avid agitator Cory Doctorow has spent most of his recent rabble-rousing time on the DRM issue.
But as he heads to Paris’ Palais des Congrès for his keynote address Thursday at the ACM Web Science conference, he seems to be signalling a new focus.
As a certified, dyed-in-the-wool Internet Person, I am forever mystified by the electronic hills that publishing chooses to die upon. If you’re going to get into a life-or-death struggle with Amazon, it certainly shouldn’t be over book pricing or co-op—it should be over data.
Down-With-DRM is, after all, a near cousin of Take Me to your Data.
There’s no real-time ebook numbers given to the publishers. We’ll all find out exactly how the book performed in a couple of months.
Having done 23 cities in 25 days for his Tor Teen book Homeland, Doctorow formulates the disbelieving question of a fan, an aggregate personality of readers and friends the author prizes as his “Internet People”:
“You mean Amazon, Apple and Google know exactly who comes to their stores, how they find their way to your books, where they’re coming in from, how many devices they use and when, and they don’t tell the publishers?”
Passport. Check. Tickets. Check. Unrestrained technological determinism? Don’t even think about it. #WebSci13
— mark_weal (@mark_weal) April 30, 2013
Oddly, there are even Publishing People who don’t know much about this reality, either. I still get surprise and “That can’t be right” shrugs when I tell authors that we don’t know, reliably, what kind of sales numbers are affecting analysis of, and decisions about, the ebook market.
Doctorow, politburo glasses and all:
When Amazon or Google wants to test out a commercial proposition—moving a certain button a few pixels over to see how it performs relative to the old spot, say—they get to make the change, run it against a few thousand users, and examine the data on the spot. When a publisher wants to try out new cover art or different catalogue copy, it makes the change, waits six months or a year, and makes a guess about whether that was a good idea or a bad idea.
His timing may be right. The more you hear people make this or that assertion about “how ebooks are doing,” the less you realize we know just how they’re doing.
As discussed in Ether for Authors in the past, the difficulty of drawing overall e-market pictures can be compounded by the reluctance of many self-publishing interests to use ISBNs.
At The FutureBook blog site, a corporate blog post without byline, Are you measuring your metrics?, is offered from the London-based Firsty Group, which specializes in “helping publishers and authors take full advantage of digital publishing opportunities.”
Photo: Glad I wasn’t there that day, but dang, Disneyland Paris is purdy in the snow tmblr.co/ZtsJRsjplt2I
— Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) April 29, 2013
In echoing what Doctorow is saying, the Firsty ones manage to find a cogent comment on the subect from Scott Turow, normally held up for anything-but-sensible remarks.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2012, leading American novelist Scott Turow voiced his frustration at the publishing industry’s failure to study its customer base. He recalled saying to one of his publishers, “I’ve been publishing with you for a long time and you still don’t know who buys my books” and receiving the reply, “Well, nobody in publishing knows that.”
We must note that Firsty’s contribution here is probably as self-serving as it is community-spirited: it is fully to that company’s advantage that more metrics be available to measure, after all. And if retailers keep the numbers close to their executive-suite chests, then publishers are hard-put to sort through the revelations those numbers are thought to hold. Here, for example, is an interesting Firsty assertion:
They [publishers] should, where possible, obtain data gathered by other groups (e.g., reading device owners) on reader behaviour. They might find useful, for example, Barnes & Noble’s report that book series tend to be read consecutively, non-fiction titles are read in bursts, and readers of science fiction, romance and crime fiction finish more books than readers of literary fiction.
Well, yes. But that “where possible” phrase looms large, doesn’t it? As in, where is it possible to obtain such data gathered by “other groups” if such other groups aren’t handing it over?
Confidential to the guy in the jaguar blasting the james bond theme on Astor Place: NO ONE THINKS YOU’RE DANIEL CRAIG. — Ginger Clark (@Ginger_Clark) April 25, 2013
This is why Doctorow rightly perceives it as a battle. The commercial advantages of guarding consumer data must look like good business on one side of the street. Publishers’ efforts to sell online directly to consumers are still relatively young, but their sales through the major Internet emporia aren’t. And as yet, whatever negotiating efforts have been made to bring home the big boxes of cyber-store stats appear to have failed. Doctorow:
Is it any wonder that the e-book channel is running circles around publishing? They’ve chucked in all kinds of creepy, privacy-invading rubbish that lets them know how and where you’re reading, which search terms you’re using to get to where in the book, and they won’t even share it with authors or publishers in real time! This is the worst of all possible worlds—e-books that threaten the intellectual liberty of their readers and provide virtually no real-time intelligence to publishers and authors.
Remember when people called me a nerd for reading ahead during The Great Gatsby unit? Thanks for making me cool again Dicaprio. — Grady Rains Forkin (@GradyRains) April 29, 2013
If anything, Doctorow may have decided that this step is of greater essential urgency than even the DRM debates he has fanned for so long:
If the publishers want to go to the mats with Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, and BN.com, this is the issue they should be fighting over and for: real-time equitable retail intelligence and a reader’s bill of rights to ensure the long-term health of books’ special penumbra of virtue—this latter is an intangible asset far more important than the “intellectual property” rights, and the DRM deployed in the name of the latter lays waste to the former.
An idea has taken root in the bookosphere that e-book sales have peaked as the people who want e-books buy e-books and the people who want print continue to buy print…This is not remotely the case.
Nathan Bransford is the social media manager for CNET, still better known to publishing people from his former work as a California-based literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. He’s also the author of a series of middle-grade adventures, the Jacob Wonderbar books. Here, he tries to straighten out for his mostly authorial blog readership the confusion born of mushy publishing reporting and/or wishful thinking of late:
E-book sales aren’t declining. E-book sales percentage growth is declining. These are two very, very different things.
He uses American Association of Publishers figures.
E-book sales were up 41% in 2012. This is less in percentage terms than the exponential 100%+ growth that was seen in previous years, but it still represents a significant rise in sales. What is misleading about fixating on percentage growth is that it’s looking at a market that started at zero five years ago.
That “Game of Thrones” moment when you’re packing your suitcase & suddenly say to yourself, “Don’t forget to pack your smallclothes.” o_O — Elle Lothlorien (@ElleLothlorien) April 29, 2013
And Bransford switches between percentage growth and sales growth, pointing out, “What is misleading about fixating on percentage growth is that it’s looking at a market that started at zero five years ago.” Using real terms, he writes:
Yes, 2011 was a huge increase. But growth in 2012 (41%) was still greater than in 2010, when it represented a 164% increase.
And he charts it:
In April 2012 Tor, the science fiction and fantasy imprint at Macmillan, announced our intention to make the list DRM-free. We made this decision in conjunction with our sister company in the US, for our shared brand imprint. It was something that we’d been exploring for quite a while and a move that we felt committed to for our particular area.
For our particular readership, we felt it was an essential and fair move. The genre community is close-knit, with a huge on-line presence, and with publishers, authors and fans having closer communication than perhaps some other areas of publishing do. Having been in direct contact with our readers, we were aware of how frustrated many of them were by DRM. Our authors had also expressed concerns at the restrictions imposed by the copyright coding applied to their ebooks. When both authors and readers are talking from the same page, it makes sense for the publishers to sit up, listen and take note – and we did!
It takes her a while to get the good stuff, of course. Corporate people are like that. They love to preamble along with praise to this and kudos to that…”our readers are earlier adapters of technology, the first in-line to experiment with new formats”…yes, yes, yes…”protecting our authors’ intellectual copyright will always be a key concern to us and we have very stringent anti-piracy controls in place”…yes, yes, yes…
One of those Tor authors, in fact, gets to it far faster and more directly. Tobias Buckell, runs a post, Tor books, after one year of DRM-free: no discernable increase in piracy, in which he does little more than quote Crisp’s bottom line:
For the love of everything, please pay attention to this, fellow authors and other publishers: “As it is, we’ve seen no discernible increase in piracy on any of our DRM titles, despite them being DRM-free for nearly a year.”
— ← denkt selbst! (@Art1Pirat) April 29, 2013
Tor’s Crisp, of course, continues after the news to spread the pixie dust, but the company does have reason to observe the year’s effort and drive home this Pan Macmillan corporation’s satisfaction in making what it sees as the right move.
The most heartening reaction for us was from the readers and authors who were thrilled that we’d listened and actually done something about a key issue that was so close to their hearts. They almost broke Twitter and facebook with their enthusiastic responses.
If anyone saw the move as dicey last year, there’s nothing but joy in Mudville now.
The move has been a hugely positive one for us, it’s helped establish Tor as an imprint that listens to its readers and authors when they approach us with a mutual concern – and for that we’ve gained an amazing amount of support and loyalty from the community. And a year on we’re still pleased that we took this step with the imprint and continue to publish all of Tor’s titles DRM-free.
Despite his success in a strain of genre fiction not often recommended in classrooms, [James] Patterson has become, suddenly, the closest thing the publishing industry has to an ambassador. The multimillion-seller author placed an ad last weekend in the New York Times Book Review and in Publishers Weekly (depicted below) advocating for government intervention — the same sort of bailout Goldman got — in order to save an industry besieged by bookstore closings and consolidation of the few remaining major publishing houses.
Daniel D’Addario at Salon in James Patterson speaks out about his aggressive “book industry bailout” ads gets pretty quickly to the fact that James Patterson isn’t really talking about government bailouts for U.S. publishing. He quotes Patterson:
I don’t think it’s a question of bailing out, necessarily. In Germany, Italy, and France, they protect bookstores and publishers. It is widely practiced in parts of Europe. I don’t think that’s outlandish. But people have mixed feelings about the government doing anything right now. I haven’t thought about it but I’m sure there are things that can be done. There might be tax breaks, there might be limitations on the monopolies in the book business.
In other words, there’s not a lot of organized action-oriented thinking behind the ad Patterson placed. “My publisher, we will sit down and talk about this,” Patterson says, also noting:
I don’t think we have a real strong spokesperson in the publishing community, someone who can stand up.
The arrival of the ad has prompted responses that swing peculiarly wide. The British author Richard Herley in The Kraken and the long tail seems particularly put out with the idea of publishers needing or deserving help:
James Patterson has caused some ripples in the ebook world…by calling for government aid for the traditional publishing model. I’d like to examine his principal delusion: that publishers are the guardians of literary culture.
And considering how many books have Patterson’s name on them, it’s interesting to read Herley writing:
The industry churns out far too many titles. At least 50% of fiction sales are made through word-of-mouth. It takes time for momentum to build and far too few books are given long enough in the sun.
His formulation of what’s going down here is that Patterson is trying to shore up the old guard at the expense of—or in fear of—the digital revolution.
Mr Patterson need not fear the electronic slush-pile, since poor reviews and the retailers’ algorithms make bad books sink. Instead, as a self-styled champion of literature, he should welcome the ebook revolution, even though the general rise in quality might make it harder to sell the sort of works which … well, I think we’d better leave it there.
I can’t keep my startups straight anymore.
— DonLinn (@DonLinn) April 26, 2013
Meanwhile, at Digital Book World, Bookigee’s Kristen McLean gets into love-letter mode for Patterson, in An Open Letter to James Patterson on Bravery, Optimism, and the Future of Books. I’ll quote her opener at some length:
I want to thank you, James Patterson. [This is not a setup.] Specifically, I want to thank you for three things:
- That you are clearly so passionate about your industry at a time when you could happily sit back and enjoy your successes
- That you have enough ready cash to be able to afford such a prominent display of pique as taking an ad on the cover of the NYT Book Review to ask “Who will save our books?” – and
- That you then told the New York Times that it needs “to wake the fuck up” regarding its monochromatic coverage of publishing.
It’s refreshing, really. And brave.
This, it turns out, is the velvet approach to Herley’s Kraken-view. Herley uses the occasion to bad-mouth traditional publishing, while McLean takes the chance to talk up the new entrepreneurism of authors and start-ups that, she writes, “are working hard to create the tools and platforms that will drive the publishing future.” She’s not ready to chuck the majors overboard:
The big publishers have their role to play also. They will cherry-pick the most marketable projects from the layers below them, and they will continue to do the heavy lifting in the mass-market game. As agent Kristin Nelson pointed out at #WDCE [Writer's Digest Conference East] a few weeks ago, you still can’t have an international bestseller without the big guys. At least not yet.
Her deeper concern, McLean writes, is the “effects of ebooks, the loss of bookstores, and the closures of libraries,” something she says is “going largely unaddressed in our focus on the mechanics of the digital age.”
Books need advocates, not algorithms…In the end, you have partly answered your own question, “Who will save us, et al?” It will be the ones among us who can create new and meaningful ways to connect readers with books, and authors with readers.
“This is hopefully starting a dialogue,” Patterson said. “I hate sitting around and talking; I like to do things.” Specifically, Patterson expressed frustration at the lack of advancement of the future of books discussion. The discussion, Patterson said, is stuck in a rut and there are ways everyone can chip in to fix it. “Publishers are sitting around saying: ‘Woe is me.’ Get in attack mode,” Patterson said.
D’Daddario at Salon pointed out that in placing his ad in the New York Times Book Review, he took it to a place “unlikely to review your books or take them seriously.” Patterson:
I don’t care about that, that’s irrelevant. Stephen King’s [mentioned in the ad as a classic author] and he hasn’t been kind to me. It’s just that they’re more influential.
If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. Amazingly, there are still some conferences I haven’t seen in action yet.
May 2-5 Oxford, Mississippi Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference & Workshops: Susan Cushman follows her Memphis Creative Nonfiction confab with this year’s gathering at the shrine. Among faculty members: Neil White, Leigh Feldman, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Beth Ann Fennelly, Bob Guccione Jr. and Lee Martin. Pre-conference workshops or just the creature itself, your choice.
May 3-5 Boston The Muse & the Marketplace 2013 is a production of Eve Bridburg’s fast-rising non-profit Grub Street program. Its material tells us that organizers plan more than “110 craft and publishing sessions led by top-notch authors, editors, agents and publicists from around the country. “The Manuscript Mart, the very popular and effective one-on-one manuscript reviews with agents and editors, will also span three days. We expect nearly 800 writers and publishing professionals to attend, while maintaining the conference’s wonderfully intimate, ‘grubby’ energy that we love.” (Hashtag: #Muse2013) Live-tweet coverage from this conference.
May 28 New York City: Reaching Readers: Book Marketing Conference 2013 is a production of our Ether-eal host here, Publishing Perspectives and the Frankfurt Academy. An early-bird rate of $365 runs to April 15. After that, regular price is $415 for the day that features expert commentary from folks including Ketchum’s Nancy Martira, Scholastic’s Morgan Baden, Wiley’s Jeanenne Ray, Edelman’s Steve Rubel, and many more.
May 29-June 1 New York City BookExpo America (BEA): “BEA continues to evolve each year by adding new and exciting features to keep pace with the industry and in direct response to customer feedback to ensure you get the best return on investment by participating in North America’s premier publishing event.”
May 29-30 New York City IDPF Digital Book Conference at BookExpo America (BEA): “IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) Digital Book 2013 at BEA is a two-day conference focused on all the key issues we face in advancing publishing in an increasingly digital world. In-depth sessions will analyze key opportunities and pitfalls, highlighting compelling business strategies and actionable solutions.”
May 29 New York City: Publishers Launch BEA is May’s installment of the series of daylong conferences programmed by Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical and Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch. Speakers on tap so far include agent Brian DeFiore, Enders Analysis’ Benedict Evans, Trident Media’s Robert Gottlieb, Aerbook’s Ron Martinez, consultant Peter McCarthy, Hachette’s Ken Michaels, and more.
May 29 New York City BEA Bloggers Conference at BookExpo America (BEA): “Attend BEA Bloggers Conference to learn, be inspired, and connect with book bloggers, authors, and publishing industry professionals. You will benefit from a jam-packed day of education, extreme networking, and the passion and fun that surrounds book blogging. Session topics include: blogging in today’s world, critical reviews, making money with your blog, creating community, and how publishers and bloggers work together.”
June 1 New York City uPublishU at BEA: “Are you ready to take the leap and transform your manuscript to a published book and/or ebook? Aspiring writers and authors will learn from industry experts tips and tactics and all about the tools and technology to help them self-publish a print book or an ebook.”
June 27-29 Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Jackson Hole Writers Conference: “Each year distinguished speakers, editors and agents join our resident faculty to deliver a weekend of active and engaging dialogue, collaboration and the opportunity for all of us to raise the stakes on our work.Manuscript critiques are an important part of our conference, providing a way for you to discuss your work one-on-one with experienced writers, editors and agents.” The program also features a pre-conference writing workshop.
When Fitzgerald died in 1940, Scribners still had unsold stock from 1st printing of Gatsby tinyurl.com/cn3337s
— James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) April 29, 2013
So the email arrives:
I wanted to share the third video in our new video series Have Your (Cup)Cake & Read it Too! This month, BookExpo America (BEA) and Huffington Post Books are proud to unveil our new video featuring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, as well as our very own book-inspired The Great Gatsby cupcakes. When you check out the video you will also see a very special guest—Hollis Wilder, author of Savory Bites: Meals You Can Make in Your Cupcake Pan.
Well, gosh. This one takes some sensitive wording, a calm approach, and some honesty. If you’d like to watch the tape (seven minutes, 14 seconds) it’s here. And if you enjoy it, I won’t hold that against you.
This particular promotional direction has more than one major issue. First, there’s the obvious. Cupcakes. I mean cupcakes. This is a promotion in which a fine young person describes putting a daisy on a cupcake as part of its design. To represent Daisy Buchanan.
Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, typically sells 500,000 copies each year, but in 2013 it has already shipped 280,000 copies, according to the publisher. Ebook sales have been skyrocketing, too: in 2012, about 80,000 e-book copies of “Gatsby” were sold. So far this year, sales have surpassed 125,000.
So we have the new film treatment and its associated new book cover.
Personally, I don’t see why we need that Hollywood cover when the original Hemingway-hated artwork is as classic as Fitzgerald’s book.
But this, too, I’m sure is “marketing genius.”
And you’d think all this new Gatsby-alia for a an 88-year-old landmark in literature would be all the excitement we could eat.
But no. We have cupcakes about it.
And then the video gives us Hollis Wilder, whose mission and book are meant to persuade us, it seems—I’m quoting her from the video—”to make meals in the cupcake tin, meals that we already make on a regular basis with our children, our families, that we’ve been making for generations.”
In a cupcake tin. Dinner. In a cupcake tin.
Inspecting a Gatsby-esque cupcake, Wilder tells us that whiskey icing “is a little big-girl for me.” Nevertheless, in the service of duty, of course, she eats the cupcake and pronounces it “not a tragedy.”
Her ego unimpaired, she reminds us, more than once, that she has won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars three times.
Which success compels her, apparently, to bake Barbie into a cake.
She shows it to us, saying, “I should be able to have a cake that looks like me to honor that [Cupcake Wars] crown.”
And all of this happens before she mentions Guantanamo. I’m not kidding. It’s quite a video. The promotion is housed on the BookBliss.com page.
You have til 5/9 to read THE GREAT GATSBY. Or as I’m calling it until I read it, THE HOLDING-MY-JUDGMENT GATSBY. #cOlbertsBookClub
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) April 28, 2013
When I asked Huffington Post senior books editor Andrew Losowsky about this partnership, he couldn’t have been more gracious. I mean, there are fish in barrels here, and he’s really a mensch to get back to me, on his weekend, no less. Here’s his full and intelligent response:
We run all kinds of book-related stories on our page, serious and frivolous. These videos definitely lean towards the frivolous for sure, but that said, they do convey the idea that there is no single “correct” way to react to a work of literature. If someone expresses their creativity through baking, then we think that is as valid a method of artistic response as a painting or a song. It’s an exercise in lateral thinking that could provide unexpected literary insight, along the lines of DeBono’s Random Entry tool. It’s also not our invention, as there are Edible Book Festivals held across the country and around the world each year, in which bakers compete to reflect the essence of a book in their creations. The videos are a work in progress, but not a major feature of our general coverage, nor of our ongoing partnership with BEA, which will include panel discussions and author interviews at this year’s event.
It’s important to note, of course, that the Huffington Post and BEA have every right to promote, singly and together, in any way they want to.
And Losowsky is right, “There is no single ‘correct’ way to react to a work of literature.”
While I may question whether cupcakes and doll desserts do anything for literature—I can’t imagine why the government wouldn’t want to support this, Mr. Patterson, can you?—mine is only one person’s opinion.
*tweets the entirety of The Great Gatsby 140 characters at a time over the course of six days* — Ristolable (@ristolable) April 29, 2013
I’ll tell you where I think this all gets a bit more serious, though.
And then I’ll leave the country quickly.
I’m reminded of a line from John Updike’s The Centaur. It has stuck with me for decades. Reverand March asks, “Why do all the ladies of my parish bake cupcakes once a month and sell them to each other?”
And when I was searching to verify that reference, I came across—isn’t Google grand?—the reason for my real discomfort here.
You know what I would have liked instead of decorating tips or a new recipe? I would have liked to pray together. I would have liked the women of the church to share their stories or wisdom with one another, no more celebrity speakers, please just hand the microphone to that lady over there that brought the apples. I would love to wrestle with some questions that don’t have a one-paragraph answer in your study guide. I would like to do a Bible study that does not have pink or flowers on the cover.
Now, yes, Bessey is working in a different field from publishing. I think the faith is lucky to have her.
But for those of us who find spiritual presence in the world of real literature—and for those of us who want to see women fully integrated into the genuine centers of our modern life, not left to pretty-up the frilly perimeters—there is resonance here. At least, for me. Perhaps you get this, too.
The world can give me cute cupcake designs and decorating tips, scrapbooking parties, casserole recipes, and other ways to pass the time. But truly, with my respect and love, may I be honest? If I wanted to learn how to decorate cupcakes, I would take a class in it. If I wanted to be educated on strategies for decorating my home inexpensively from Winners, I would just, you know, go to Winners. Or Pinterest.
If I wanted to talk about great, powerfully enduring books…?
the great gatsby trailers make it look like gatsby is the main character and not nick hmm — lauren (@wllflwrs) April 29, 2013
To each her own, sure, absolutely. There are, surely, women who must love baking cupcakes about books.
And did anyone wake up one morning and say, “Hey, let’s do a promotional partnership that sort of assigns women to making cupcakes about great literature?” Of course not, certainly not. I know that. You know that. The intentions are good. Look at how carefully Lowsowsky parses his comments.
Im actually pretty upset that in the future, MRS AKERS is going to let her classes watch the Great Gatsby instead of reading it like we did — Shelby Waltrip (@ShelbyLynn_24) April 29, 2013
This is simply the kind of thing we need to rethink in publishing. I’m always going on about the “cute” factor. Can you really tell me that this seven minutes of relentless cuteness is doing a thing to promote reading, writing, and the serious roles of good literature and our important trade in the world?
We need to do the best we can for books. We also need to do the best we can for women, and for men.
And we all must keep an eye out for unintentional missteps. Even the funny ones might need serious review.
Don’t put anything on the internet (any part of it, however ‘private’ you may think it) you wouldn’t want the world to see. Easy, right?
— Craig Mod (@craigmod) April 28, 2013
@blaine Right right right
— Craig Mod (@craigmod) April 28, 2013
Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Mondays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com.
Main image – iStockphoto: ScanRail