Ether for Authors: Can We Stop Short of Overstatement?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

26 November 2013 iStock_000000894187XSmall photog AlpTraum texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Toward More Accu­rate Drainage
  2. A Call for Author Input
  3. Speak­ing of Sur­veys: Good News for Print Heads
  4. Conferences
  5. Last Gas: Who’s Afraid of the eBook “Slowdown?”

Toward More Accu­rate Drainage

Despite how this is interpreted in some circles, it does not add up to publishing “spiraling down the drain.”

I know how Mike Shatzkin felt.

Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin

According to who you ask, these are worst of times and the not-quite-as-bad-as-all-that of times. And that means that folks in and around the industry! the industry! sometimes tend to see things in extremes. They can take one or another comment and proceed to drive the car right on over the cliff chanting it.

In the entertainingly headlined “No, Mike Shatzkin did NOT say that publishing is spiraling down the drain,” you see the titular Shatzkin at some pains to try to refute Paul St John Mackintosh’s piece at Teleread, “Mike Shatzkin shows publishing spiraling down the drain.”

Not that St John Mackintosh was alone in looking hard at the item that made the slope look slippery.

In “Shatzkin: The Challenge and Opportunity of Self-Published Authors for Publishers,” Digital Book World’s Jeremy Greenfield selected some comments from an extended interview with the longtime publishing consultant, as a preview to the fifth annual Digital Book World Conference and Expo. Again this year, Shatzkin leads the programming effort on the conference, set for January 13-15 in New York City. (More info is in our Conferences section.)

Rebecca Smart

Rebecca Smart

And if anything, I was reminded when I looked back over Shatzkin’s comments of something the Osprey Group’s chief Rebecca Smart said at the FutureBook Conference last week in London. (Here today’s Publishing Perspectives write on “The Big Ideas Session” that became a flashpoint of discussion.) Smart created a near show-stopper in the “Big Ideas” session with her spirited appeal for publishing to speed up its process and get books to market faster. At one point, she spoke of how fed up writers are with the traditional one-to-two-year process of getting a book published:

Debut authors may be understanding about this and put up with it, but as they build reader communities around them they will get really, really pissed off and go and self-publish.

Now, that’s a long way, too, from saying that publishing is spiraling down the nearest drain.

Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield

But some of Shatzkin’s comments in his excerpted interview with Greenfield were lines I’d flagged, myself, as sounding particularly direct. For example, Shatzkin said:

What publishers need to understand is that they have some built-in handicaps. One is speed. Publishers are slow compared to authors. And there’s very little a publisher can do to change that.

The second thing is that publishers need to share more of the revenue — a big chunk of the revenue. That’s two things a publisher has to compensate for if they’re going to be appealing to an author.

Those words, particularly about the problems of low author royalties, will fall on very receptive authorial ears these days. Shatzkin:

What you have on the one hand is a publishing business that has long-established practices and a lot of bureaucracy and agents and committees versus the lean situation for an author on their own. At the same time, you have more and more services — the most recent one being Ingram Spark — to make it easier for authors to do this on their own. You have an environment which is, over time, bound to get more difficult from a publisher perspective and easier from an author perspective.

In his later write about being misunderstood, Shatzkin gets into one of the most bedeviling elements of the whole situation, something we’ve written about here on the Ether many times: the fact that we can’t tell how big the self-publishing movement is, but it’s definitely a lot bigger than we can see. We “count” books in this business based on the ISBN as our key identifier. And the ISBN isn’t being applied to a lot of books.

Shatzkin:

Amazon is already truly disruptive and it isn’t clear to anybody but those on the inside of Amazon exactly how disruptive. I’ve written earlier that we know nothing about the used book marketplace they host and foster, which we must assume cuts into sales, particularly of bestselling books which have many copies in circulation…Why? Because Bowker, which issues ISBN numbers and therefore helps us count the titles going into the marketplace, doesn’t necessarily get to touch (and count) titles that stay entirely inside of Amazon and therefore only use the Amazon “ASIN” substitute for the ISBN. Other ebook retailers will handle titles without ISBN numbers, but only Amazon has a large enough market by itself to make a substantial number of self-publishers work with them alone.

AmazonHe goes on to get at what may be a deeper bifurcation of the industry than many of us had foreseen opening up:

We are developing two publishing businesses. One of them includes all of us: all the publishers, all the retailers, all the industry bodies counting books and sales. And one of them is “private” or “proprietary”; it is Amazon. They are publishing an unknown number of titles selling an unknown number of copies netting an unknown number of dollars under a numbering system nobody else can crack or track.

I’d add to what Shatzkin is saying the fact that the second publishing business, the one Amazon holds as proprietary, is also aggressively developing its own vast audience, also of unknown size.

The shifted economics of less-expensive ebooks and the joyous camaraderie many readers enjoy with their favorite authors in this space may well be firming up an eventually discernible, separate readership—interactive, socially engaged, participatory counterparts to the more traditional, largely passive readership of standard publishing.

Shatzkin gets at this when he writes:

As the difference between what is Amazon’s audience and what is the whole audience gets smaller, the publishers’ challenge gets harder. And only by doing a smashing job at both publishing in a way that sells more on Amazon and by maximizing the market outside Amazon will publishers retain their power to attract authors in the years to come.

St John Mackintosh, by now, likely has read Shatzkin on what he sees as the way forward:

The answers for publishers as seen from here are “verticality”, or “audience-centricity”, combined with scaled skills (and tools) to do digital marketing in ways the authors can’t on their own and which Amazon isn’t likely to develop. The two go together: focusing on an audience enables a publisher to build scaled capabilities to reach that audience that others without that focus will not have.

And what he’s describing, of course, is robust distribution, the key element most elusive to authors and largely still vested in legacy publishing’s corner.

What he’s not describing, of course, is anything to do with a drain. Few of even the most effective self-publishing authors will say they want to see traditional publishers go down that proverbial aperture. And it’s always good in these times of sensitive, difficult, exhausting change and unease to be careful how we interpret comments.

As Shatzkin puts it:

Seeing that things will get harder is not the same as seeing a pending apocalypse, and recognizing there are benchmarks that would signal a real escalation of the challenge is not the same as saying we’re about to hit them.

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A Call for Author Input

Phil Sexton

Phil Sexton

“What Authors Want” is the survey administered by two verticals of F+W Media, Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest.

The survey’s results are periodically updated and used in sessions at both Digital Book World (DBW) and Writer’s Digest (WDC) conferences.

The project is under the supervision of Phil Sexton, Publisher at Writer’s Digest.

It’s from this survey, for example, that we had data in last January’s DBW, presented by Sexton, indicating that “hybrid” authors (who both self-publish and traditionally publish) report making better income from writing than their colleagues on both sides of the divide.

From the "What Authors Want" survey, as presented by Writer's Digest and DBW in its January 2013 edition.

From the “What Authors Want” survey, as presented by Writer’s Digest and DBW in its January 2013 edition.

As we approach the 2014 DBW sessions, the company is updating its survey results and invites all authors interested to participate.

The survey is here.

And there’s more about the project in a statement from Sexton on the Writer’s Digest site.

There’s a Kindle Fire to be won by a survey respondent.

And DBW’s Jeremy Greenfield tells me he thinks that some of the data may be shared with those who participate.

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Speak­ing of Sur­veys: Good News for Print Heads

Gerard Ward

Gerard Ward

When asked which products currently available for download were preferred as physical objects, 62% agreed with books. Magazines and newspapers collectively had 47% prefer the physical form. Considering magazines are considered more visually attractive due to its use of imagery and glossy paper, these statistics show text-heavy books still have an audience with young people.

These are survey statistics from the UK’s Voxburner, an marketing research and strategy company focused on young consumers.

In 62% of 16-24s prefer books as physical products, Voxburner Editor Gerard Ward—someone with a book of his own to sell—writes:

We’ve explored the pricing of ebooks being too high for the new generation – a key factor for both those who read ebooks, and others who may be deterred because of it – but it’s not the only reason.

Grow Up by @GerardWard

Grow Up is by the Australian-born Gerard Ward of Voxburner. It’s available in both print and ebook formats.

What may surprise some readers of this summation of the research is the relatively elementary level of e-reading understanding represented in such lines as this from Ward:

Imagine reading a book, and after a mention of a famous Italian structure, press on the name and have a Wikipedia description of its history appear, with an image.

Bricks-and-mortar supporters will be gladdened to read:

The experience of a bookstore – physically standing in a room filled with books – is still precious. While it may seem a waste of money for a bookstore to encourage digital downloads in-store, for young people who have adopted the new technology with open arms this could be a great addition. Being able to pick up a book physically, flip through it and buy the digital copy via a QR code or something similar – without having to carry it home – not only solidifies the idea that they are still purchasing a book, but also shows a brand’s adoption of new technology.

The Guardian’s Liz Bury gets deeper into the survey in Young adult readers “prefer printed to ebooks,” writing:

The two big reasons for preferring print are value for money and an emotional connection to physical books. On questions of ebook pricing, 28% think that ebooks should be half their current price, while just 8% say that ebook pricing is right.

The top-rated reasons for preferring physical to digital products were: “I like to hold the product” (51%), “I am not restricted to a particular device” (20%), “I can easily share it” (10%), “I like the packaging” (9%), and “I can sell it when used” (6%).

VoxburnerOne of the interesting comments from respondents cited to Bury by Luke Mitchell, one of Ward’s colleagues: “Books are status symbols, you can’t really see what someone has read on their Kindle.”

Back at Voxburner’s site, Ward points out:

45% of those surveyed don’t own a device that can read ebooks – this includes both e-readers and smartphones. It’s possible that young people haven’t experienced the format, or still have some warming up to do. Knowing that 38% of 16-24s prefer e-books over the physical form show that its practicality, adoption with large retailers and ease-of-use is making a smoother transition from paper to e-ink.

And, my favorite of his lines:

Punishing the adopters of e-reading technology is not the way to go.

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Conferences

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. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

DBW Conference 2014January 13-15, 2014, New York City: Digital Book World Conference & Expo: “Digital Book World’s sessions strive to offer you the most practical, relevant and actionable programming on everything from eBook publishing and internet marketing to digital solutions for selling and marketing your books. While we’re still building the final program, registration is officially open.” Speakers include Brad StoneTim O’Reilly, Simon Lipskar, Peter McCarthyDominique RaccahMike Shatzkin, and more. (Hashtag: #DBW14) Use code PORTER14 to save 5 percent on a full registration.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

London Author Fair AuthorightFebruary 28, 2014: London Author Fair: “Authoright, the leading publishing and marketing consultancy, is thrilled to announce the first London Author Fair, to be held at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden, London, on February 28th, 2014. The London Author Fair will host over 400 authors across three floors of the private members club, for a day of radical seminars, intimate workshops, one-on-one collaborator hubs, educational films, the live PitchUp! literary agent submissions event run by LitFactor, and a lavish late-night drinks reception and networking event to close.” Pricing and ticket info to come. (Hashtag: #LAF13)

1. PubSmart_logoApril 16-18, 2014, Charleston, South Carolina: PubSmartCon: “An unprecedented gathering of publishing professionals, some of the smartest on the planet. They represent today’s broad range of publishing opportunities – self publishing, traditional, small press and hybrid. This is a new kind of event that puts emerging authors and small publishers in the driver’s seat and gives them the information they need to create a customized roadmap for success.” Speakers include Hugh Howey, Jane Friedman, Rachelle Gardner, Orna Ross, Miral Sattar, Christine Munroe and many more. Use code PS14PA30 for a discount on registration. Early bird ends February 1.

Yale Publishing CourseJuly 13-18, 2014: New Haven: Leadership Strategies in Magazine and Digital Media: “The Yale Publishing Course [YPC] is designed for mid- to senior-level professionals from all over the world. Our mission is to provide participants with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to be more effective leaders and advance their careers. YPC tackles the most important issues facing publishers in this time of ever-accelerating change….The program provides a mixture of overviews of the current and future state of the industry and in-depth explorations of specific topics in editorial content, design, marketing, circulation, advertising, finance, and management.

Yale Publishing CourseJuly 20-25, 2014: New Haven: Leadership Strategies in Book Publishing: “Yale Publishing Course [YPC] tackles the most important issues facing publishers in this time of ever-accelerating change. The curriculum concentrates on: best practices in business and management; understanding and utilizing the latest advances in technology; implementing innovative strategies for discoverability, audience development, and brand extension; ways to increase revenue in a global economy in which print and digital publishing co-exist profitably; managing organizational change and finding new sources of revenue. Speakers confirmed include Craig ModMarcus LeaverKirsty MelvilleLiisa McCloy-Kelley, and Carolyn Pittis.

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Last Gas: Who’s Afraid of the eBook “Slowdown?”

The folly of many traditional publishers is that their passive-aggressive actions are only obscuring the real battle being fought: a world of writers forming direct pipelines to their readers, always listening to what their readers want and going out of their way to provide it.

Anybody remember author Hugh Howey once writing that independent authors are “maniacally focused on the reader?” Here at Publishing Perspectives, you’ll find a reference to that comment in Hybrid Author Hugh Howey on Self vs. Traditional Publishing.

Thad McIlroy

Thad McIlroy

It comes to mind as you read Canada’s Thad McIlroy in Why Pretend to be Mystified by the Ebook Sales Slowdown? McIlroy, a publishing consultant, writes:

Why all the head-scratching over the long-awaited “ebooks sales are no longer growing and perhaps even shrinking a bit” moment? It’s what the major players in the industry have been striving for years to accomplish. After many months of putative “sales slowdowns” we now apparently have a genuine decline. One percent, maybe two, maybe 2.7%. Whatever.

He refers you to Publishers Weekly’s report of the “StatShot” figures from the American Association of Publishers, in Trade Sales Down Through August.

For the rest of this entry I’m going to indulge in a fantasy that the numbers provided by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) have magically become truly representative of the state of U.S. trade book sales. This is even though they measure only a fraction of U.S. publishing companies (1202 publishers; yes, OK, including most of the largest ones), and virtually no self-published sales. This is also because of the sporadic bits of data: I always feel like they’re dealing from the bottom of the deck.

Association of American Publishers  AAPMcIlroy shows you comparative pages from a couple of print and Kindle editions of books, laying any shortcomings in the e-versions squarely at the feet of the publishers and asking sardonically, “What’s not to like?”

I’m so tired of pretending that this is a complex issue demanding deep thought to find a resolution. What I see is that you pay about 70% of the print price to get some badly-designed digital book pages that are much more difficult to read than the generally well-designed print versions. The books can’t be resold…They can just barely be loaned, and are all but impossible to find at your public library.

In McIlroy’s purview, it all amounts to near sabotage. And he ends up where we started this Ether—with Mike Shatzkin trying to get across to the many who never seem to want to face the fact that we don’t know what the ebook landscape actually looks like. We can’t count the things. Nor can the Association of American Publishers.

I leave you with a kind of dramatic recitation by McIlroy of Shatzkin, emphasis mine:

“And now we have the anomaly of sales reporting from the AAP, once again working without totally internal Amazon IP, that suggests ebook sales are going down. Are they going down? Or are self-published titles exclusively inside Amazon taking share away from the part of the business we can see…and masking the ebook sales growth that is actually taking place? I have no evidence, but that strikes me as a more likely reality than that ebook sales have actually fallen year-to-year recently.

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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 Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – iStockphoto: Alp Traum

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.