Ether for Authors: Digital Book Worldliness

In What's the Buzz by Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. DBW: Digital Book Worldliness
  2. DBW: High­lights for Authors
  3. DBW: Authors for DRM—Survey Results Ahead
  4. DBW: The Pub­lish­ing Inno­va­tion Awards
  5. e-Books: The Book­seller Scores Hard Numbers
  6. Craft: More Than Shirtless
  7. ‘The Freak­ing Craft’: Bell on Our Com­modi­ties Market
  8. Last Gas: ‘The Age of the Trade Pub­lisher Is Over’

DBW: Digital Book Worldliness

So everybody’s all suited up here, Ether tanks strapped to our backs, for the staging of Digital Book World 2013, or “DBW”— the first of the really-big US publishing conferences of the year.

The second major production of our season will come in mid-February, of course, when O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change (“TOC”) is held, also in New York City. My colleagues at Publishing Perspectives and I will be covering that one, of course, as we’ll also be covering DBW.

We’re going to focus most of the Ether on DBW this week because there’s an interesting line drawn here each year. And this time around it may be a bit harder than usual to discern.

Normally, the conference’s organizer, F+W Media, holds its big East Coast Writer’s Digest Conference (WDC), immediately before Digital Book World. And this helps cast in some relief the peculiar two-sided nature of publishing. There’s the creative fundament on which the entire industry rests, represented by the writers at WDC. And then there is the harder-edged business drive of publishing, echoing up and down the hallways at DBW.

Because of a venue-scheduling issue, however—nobody’s fault—this year’s Writer’s Digest conference has been moved to April. Weather-wise, the writers win. That’s arguably a far more welcoming time of year in New York. But it’s months removed from the comparative bang and boom of profit and loss discussions, e-book-vs.-print guesses, DRM debates, and the general commercial clamor of DBW.

And so while DBW may never be a place in which the arc and tone of contemporary publishing’s messages are central—I’m talking the creativity behind content here—this year, such issues may be even farther from the floor. WDC’s hundreds of authors may not be out of mind, but they’re not in sight, and not even in earshot.

They may not hear DBW’s more-than-1,000 attendees rehearsing under their breaths: “Oh, yes, an industry dominated by $7.99 erotic romance is exactly what I’ve wanted all along as a focus for my career. Fanny fiction. That’s what got me into publishing in the first place, you betcha.”

And yet, “past performance,” as they say on Wall Street, makes it seem unlikely the industry! the industry! will assign itself questions of pith or purpose—what a world of literature once was thought to be, and what a world of entertainment now has become.

Nowhere on the agenda of more than 50 sessions and events at DBW do I find something that asks, “What Are We Publishing? Is It What We Want?” Any asking of “whither publishing?” has to do with mergers, anti-trust lawsuits, bellwether this, and trending that.

The product.

In Writing on the Ether last week, we worked over some issues of “commodity publishing,” as Jane Friedman has termed it. The topic there lay in the self-publishing arena. But Random House’s $5,000 bonuses didn’t come from the soul-nourishing riches of literature, did they? And Macmillan is busy buying itself Entangled Publishing, an assisted self-publishing operation specializing in…romance. Shirtless men kissing beautiful women.

It will be interesting to see if anyone in the US leadership is ready and/or willing to consider what may be a substantive shift in content emphasis in the business. The easy out is to blame it on consumers. “We’re just giving them what they want.”

That’s what the news industry has done during its own swing by the digital sun before us. Look at it now.

So as the double-wides pull into the DBW trailer park this year, it’s much easier, of course, to address facts and figures. But even those, in today’s publishing, can present “grey” areas.

Mike Shatzkin

Headlining his latest post Stats are often hard to interpret in our business, DBW Conference Council Chair Mike Shatzkin promises to regale all comers with just that, stats and more stats, during Wednesday’s and Thursday’s sessions (January 16 and 17). He writes:

We will kick off the event with Forrester’s snapshot based on interviewing [publishing] executives; we’ll feature academic research from Carnegie-Mellon on the true impact of piracy; and Dan Lubart and Jeremy Greenfield will deliver a report based on close study of e-book bestseller data. That’s just on the first morning. We also will have…data about discovery in the general trade marketplace from [Peter] Hildick-Smith; and a report from Bowker about book buyers and BISG about e-book buyers.

Before we descend into the Valley of the Confusing Numbers, there are a few housekeeping points that might be of use if you can’t be in New York City but would like to follow along and have your eyes glaze over with us.

  • Your hashtag to use in following the events on Twitter is #DBW13.
  • Here is the main agenda for the key sessions. (Times listed are Eastern; New York City is five hours behind GMT.)
  • As is the pattern among many of our publishing conferences today, there’s a day of pre-conference workshop sessions on Tuesday (January 15), well worth keeping an eye on. They’ll also carry the hashtag #DBW13.
  • There is also one of Shatzkin and Michael Cader’s Publishers Launch one-day programs on Tuesday, the sold-out Children’s Publishing Goes Digital. Let me recommend the 9:10 a.m. ET session (1410 GMT), “Sizing Up the Kid’s Book Market, with Bowker’s Carl Kulo and Bookigee’s Kristen McLean, joined by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers’ Tina McIntyre and Darien Library’s Gretchen Caserotti.
  • After Tuesday’s day of workshops, DBW proper runs all day Wednesday and Thursday at the New York Hilton on Sixth Avenue at West 53rd.
  • On both Wednesday and Thursday, the sessions open at 8:30 a.m. ET (1330 GMT) and run until 4:50pET (2150 GMT).
  • Digital Book World has set up a $295 paid subscription video-stream live-and-on-demand program. It offers the morning sessions of Wednesday and Thursday in real time, plus selected additional sessions in a taped format.

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DBW: High­lights for Authors

Digital Book World this week is at the Hilton New York in Manhattan.

DBW being a business-of-publishing conference, the overwhelming majority of its attendees are publishers, marketers, agents, distributors, retailers, vendors, and others whose work in the industry is not necessarily—or not always—primarily rooted in the creative elements, as authors’ roles are. Nevertheless, of the more than 50 sessions and events DBW will comprise in its two days, several are standouts for authors who are looking to catch a sense for the tenor of this new year’s digital dynamic.

As you may know, I wholeheartedly urge authors to become as deeply versed in the business of the industry as possible. Writers are carrying increasing levels of responsibility for their own performance as small-business operatives in publishing. Keeping an eye on DBW is one good way to gain some insight. DBW’s web site doesn’t allow me to link you directly to a single session, but I can guide you here toward several specific good moments to follow via Twitter if you can.

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Jeremy Greenfield

Digital Book World’s Jeremy Greenfield and Dan Lubart of HarperCollins and Iobyte Solutions will present commentary on “e-Book Pricing: State of Play and Analysis” on Wednesday at 10:45 a.m. ET (1345 GMT).

The basis for their presentation is their workup each week of the DBW site’s Top 25 e-Book Best-Sellers and a group of associated rankings they produce in various price bands.

Dan Lubart

Getting back to Shatzkin’s very right observation about the difficulty of interpreting statistics in publishing, there’s a grain of salt to be kept nearby on this one: while many of us have welcomed this relatively new set of weekly listings (the methodology used is partly explained here), the weekly interpretation at times seems overheated.

The most recent update of the list from this week, is headlined with some welcome restraint: e-Book Best-Seller Prices Continue to Decline; Fifty Shades and Hunger Games Make Comeback.

(It also gives us shirtless men kissing beautiful and also-shirtless women. Next year’s key DBW panel: “Can Publishing Keep Its Pants On?”)

In his discussion on the week’s Top 25, Greenfield, as usual, has some good examples of prices moving down. In the World of these Digital Books on the list, the decline takes the average price of one of these Top-25 e-books from $11.79 in October to $8.09 this week. Greenfield writes:

Another interesting metric to note is that the number of $10 and above books in the top-25 has taken a nosedive. A month ago, there were nine e-books at that price point on the list. On Oct. 22. there were 13 books at that price point in the top-25. This week, there are only five.

Recent installments if the list have described e-book prices “plummeting” and going into a “tailspin” in the wake of DoJ anti-trust action against agency pricing. But these Day-Glo assessments are made on a weekly list of 25 e-books, an exceedingly small and easily impacted, changing, sample.

Greenfield writes well to this point in Tracking the Price of e-Books: Average Price of e-Book Best-Sellers in a Two-Month Tailspin:

Because our list is only 25 titles long, a $0.99 book hitting the list or a higher-priced title dropping off can have a marked effect on the average. For instance, when the $29.99 Fifty Shades of Grey bundle dropped off the list in early Oct., the average price dropped nearly $1.

Wednesday’s presentation from Lubart and Greenfield will be of most help to everybody if the characterizations are restrained and the numbers are allowed to speak the lists’ own volatility, without reachy extrapolation to wider markets.

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Hugh Howey

Certainly, many writers will also be interested in what Wool author Hugh Howey has to say when he and his agent, Kristin Nelson, speak with Shatzkin about their deal with Simon & Schuster for the print-only rights to the series. (This is considered by many to be something of a coup for the author and agent because most major publishers require electronic rights; Howey’s success as a self-publisher of his own e-books made him attractive enough, apparently, for Simon & Schuster to accept a print-only arrangement.)

Jane Dystel

That session is at 9 a.m. ET on Thursday (1400 GMT), and Nelson then will be joined fifteen minutes later by agents Steven Axelrod, Jay Mandel, and Jane Dystel, for a panel on hybrids, “Straddling the Models: Authors Choosing to Both Self- and Traditionally Publish,” moderated by paidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen.

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Michael Tamblyn

Immediately following that session Thursday, at 9:45 a.m. ET (1245 GMT), there’s a presentation on the Canadian Kobo’s “efforts to help indies around the world reach the e-book marketplace.”

That one is given by Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn.

Dominique Raccah

(An alien could be forgiven for assuming that the laws of many countries now require that both Tamblyn and Sourcebooks’ Dominique Raccah be on every roster of speakers. We may have to name them king and queen of the confabs by Ethereal decree.)

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Another Thursday session of special interest to authors is “The Evolving Author-Publisher Relationship: How Publishers are Powering—and Empowering—Authors Today.”

Carolyn Pittis

This one brings together HarperCollins’ Carolyn Pittis, McCarthy Digital’s Peter McCarthy, Random House’s Nina von Moltke, and the Naggar Agency’s Jennifer Weltz. Watch for this panel at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday (1830 GMT).

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DBW: Authors for DRM—Survey Results Ahead


According to a recent survey conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest (also owned by F+W Media) of nearly 5,000 authors, Lulu might have made a mistake. More than any other position, authors [responding to the survey] are generally in favor of DRM.



That’s Greenfield, in Author Services Site Moves Toward DRM-Free; But Is It What Authors Want?


And while pegged on the self-publishing site Lulu’s decision to stop offering DRM as an option (except for when books go to other sites that require DRM, such as Amazon), the story turns out to reveal a strong pro-DRM stance among writers who took part in a survey conducted by DBW and Writer’s Digest.


Greenfield writes:


About a third of authors [responding to the survey] are for actually strengthening DRM and a total of 43% want it either strengthened or left alone.



Cory Doctorow

This response could be surprising to some who have been aware of the opposition to DRM of such high-profile authors as Cory Doctorow. He appeared at BEA’s Publishers Launch event last year with several author-colleagues in support of TOR’s decision to go DRM-free in its store.

In an article for the Guardian last May, Why the death of DRM would be good news for readers, writers, and publishers, Doctorow wrote:


The first thing you need to know about e-book DRM is that it can’t work. Like all DRM systems, e-book DRM presumes that you can distribute a program that only opens up e-books under approved circumstances, and that none of the people you send this program to will figure out how to fix it so that it opens e-books no matter what the circumstances. Once one user manages that, the game is up, because that clever person can either distribute e-books that have had their DRM removed, or programs to remove DRM (or both).

Phil Sexton

The new survey responses seem to indicate that there are authors, at least among those responding to this study, who don’t see it Doctorow’s way.

These and more results of the survey are scheduled for a presentation on Thursday at 8:40 a.m. ET (1340 GMT) by Writer’s Digest Publisher Phil Sexton. That session is titled “The Authors’ View of the Industry.”

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DBW: The Pub­lish­ing Inno­va­tion Awards

What DBW organizers call “the business challenges posed by technology to trade publishers” jumps fast from the expert opinions of panelists to rubber-on-road reality at the international Publishing Innovation Awards (the “PIAs,” sometimes hashtagged independently of DBW, #PIA).

In their third year, Digital Book World’s PIA finalists, according to a news release from the weekend, embrace “2013’s most innovative e-books, enhanced e-books, book apps and transmedia projects.”

They’re being stepped up in presentation, too, their status enhanced by a special luncheon on Wednesday at 12 p.m. ET (1700 GMT), which I’ll have the honor of hosting. It’s a pleasure getting to know something about these finalists and winners in 13 categories. And no, I’m tipping nothing here, you’ll have to join us for the luncheon Wednesday, physically or virtually.

Anne Kostick

Among many smart things said by Anne Kostick, the tireless chair of the judging panel for this year’s awards—she’ll be with us Wednesday at the luncheon to keep me honest—I love her description of what it is to encounter the sheer diversity of this year’s entries:

This kind of range and variety reminds us of…well, of a great big, well-stocked bookstore. Browsing was fun.

Could there be any more heartening statement of where we’re headed—cloudy interpretations and all—than to describe hours and weeks of jurying these awards as something like a trip to a bookstore? There’s hope yet. The list of finalists is included here. Have a look and join us.

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e-Books: The Book­seller Scores Hard Numbers


For years we’ve been labouring under the assumption that books were somehow in decline, that reading, particularly of traditionally published books, was going out of fashion—pushed out by smartphones, iPads, computer games and, of course, the digital slush-pile. But the aggregate numbers we have been able to gather this week, and which we hope to build on in the weeks and months ahead, show a different picture.

Philip Jones

In case you were looking in some other direction at the time, London’s The Bookseller, led by Philip Jones pulled off something enviable before the new year was even two weeks old: actual numbers, hard sales figures, on 2012 e-book sales in the United Kingdom.

In A positive start (imagine that), Jones reports:

With confidence we can say more reading happened in 2012, more books were bought (from traditional outlets as well as through Amazon), and though Fifty Shades played its part, not all of them involved bondage.

The story with those hard facts and figures, e-Book sales revealed for 2012’s top 50, lies behind The Bookseller’s pay wall. If you don’t have a subscription, however, you can read Jones’ strong blog post on the story, at The FutureBookE-book sales data, the truth is out there. In it, he explains:

The data was gathered from the major trade publishers, and those smaller presses with books in The Bookseller’s Top 50 of 2012, including Hesperus Press.

In short, he got around the problem of major retailers holding e-book sales as proprietary information by going to the publishers. Needless to say, self-published volumes aren’t included. And neither, by the way, are the Harry Potter e-books of Pottermore.

But here is solid evidence from the UK market of fiction’s viability in the digital world—with, Jones cautions, great fluctuation:

The e-book share of adult-audience novels in the Top 50 is significantly higher than non-fiction and children’s, with the print/e-book share averages being 74%/26%. But even within the fiction sector, there are fluctuations. A massive 45% of sales of S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man came in “e” in 2012, but just 8% of sales of Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year were digital.

Jones also discusses Amazon’s famous policy to decline reporting its e-book sales figures:

The current lack of e-book data helps no-one but Amazon. Only this week the Internet company announced that 15 of its top 100 best-selling Kindle books of 2012 were written by independent (i.e. self-published) authors and published using Kindle Direct Publishing: according to Amazon 12 authors have sold in excess of 100,000 copies…Amazon’s own bestselling KPD bestseller list contains titles that I now know have sold far fewer copies that e-books published by publishing companies such as Hachette and Simon & Schuster.

Jones clarifies:

I don’t write this to undermine those self-published writers or their hits, in fact I greatly admire how they’ve seized the opportunities open to them and given publishers a bloody nose, and in some cases managed to earn a living publishing direct to the consumer. But readers deserve more. Amazon should be promoting the most popular titles available, not just those titles that serve its business aims.

His FutureBook post includes a selection of some of the hard numbers — print sales and e-book sales — gathered in The Bookseller’s development of these new UK market insights.

American readers will wish we had such a view, this week in particular, as the interpretations roll around the DBW ballrooms at the Hilton New York.

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Craft: More Than Shirtless

As writers, we are utterly exposed the moment we put pen to paper. Which is probably why even considering writing can be an act of tremendous courage.

Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers isn’t known for trading in feel-good, “inspi-vational” twaddle at Writer Unboxed. Her monthly contributions are among the most serious of the site’s regular contributors, whom I count as colleagues. In Embrace the Naked, however, she goes to the mat to apologize to readers.

I was absolutely certain that I’d be back here in a few months with Seven Tips for Self Protection, or Five Key Ways For Writers to Protect Their Emotional Selves. No lie—the working title for this post for the last few months has been Shields Up! because I was certain I would come back here with answers on how to shield oneself. Well, Dear Reader, I was wrong. Sadly and horribly wrong.

The self-revelations that are part and parcel of serious writing—I’ve been toying lately with new hashtags #seriouswriting and #legitlit to distinguish this from formulaic entertainment pabulum—aren’t avoidable, LaFevers writes.

You simply can’t make good art and stay covered up at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. A creative path is not about least resistance or playing it safe—by its very nature it is about casting off layers and dancing along edges that others fear to tread. If you do that from a place of fear, your steps will falter, your rhythm stumble, your movements become false and stilted.

Even at Writer Unboxed: shirtless. (Photo: Alice Popkorn, Flickr)

Usually not fond of poor-writer approaches, I’m impressed with LaFevers’ lack of sentiment.

The writer only writes the first half of the book, it is the reader herself that writes the second part of the book. All that white space we leave in the book is filled in by the reader’s own personality, world view, and expectations, and there is simply no way we can control that… Therein lies the true power of negative reviews and harsh criticism: it stings not because the people who dole them out mean so very much to us, but because they give external voice to our deepest held fears and suspicions—that even all in, we’re not enough.

There’s a lot to think about here, and I commend it to you.

Through the act of owning these vulnerabilities, by simply saying quietly, firmly, yeah, I do believe that, I do feel that, those issues areimportant to me, we immediately remove some of the power such exposure has to shame us.

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‘The Freak­ing Craft’: Bell on Our Com­modi­ties Market


Looking closer I saw that the C was really a G, and the actual title was: Publishing and Marketing Your Graphic Novel.


James Scott Bell. Keeping his shirt on.

James Scott Bell first makes it clear that he’s disappointed the course he saw advertised wasn’t Publishing and Marketing Your Crap, as he headlines his column.

But he goes it one better with his own write, following up on Jane Friedman’s hotly debated piece on “commodity publishing” and the Ether follow, Trafficking in Publishing’s Commodities.

Like many others, he’s pushing back against a going refrain in some authorial circles that places concerns of quality below quantity.

There may be some who argue that quality doesn’t matter and sheer volume will bring in the big dough. Allowing for the occasional exception, I say it won’t. You’ve still got this pesky thing called a reader you have to please. If readers don’t like the first book of yours they try, they’re most unlikely to buy any of the other 37.

And Bell, in his succinct post of the week, gets hold of the excuse often passed around with this topic, that quality is a subjective call, anyway, so why try to reach some imaginary definition of it:

Yes, quality is in the eye of the beholder. So behold your own work, and kick it up a notch. This is the only way to improve the chances that your books won’t get dumped into the great white bowl of literary obscurity.

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Last Gas: ‘The Age of the Trade Pub­lisher Is Over’

It might give a pause to leaders of the publishing industry heading into DBW this week to read this:

Publishers need to become experts again and to do that they need to specialise. That and to understand that if they want to be doing business with the most commercially minded authors, the one’s who make the serious money and who are not afraid to go it alone, then they need to offer deals that make sense to both parties.

Are they ready to hear that?

It’s written by a London-based agent who uses a pen name when he writes for The FutureBook: Agent Orange. In most cases, I will avoid using the work of people who don’t identify themselves clearly and “own” their work in public.

This is a case, however, in which I make an exception—and put you through this disclaimer to explain—because the views of this writer are pertinent and because I have had direct correspondence with him about his use of a pseudonym. I can, therefore, assure you that I know who this is and that the source is worthy of your attention. His position is such that he feels his criticism of publishing houses could damage his authors’ relations with those houses.

In The age of the trade publisher is over, he writes:

This isn’t about any particular publisher; it is about a seemingly endemic desire to alienate authors, damage the publishing brand and do as much as is possible to create the impression that they just don’t get it.

As we know, there are many writers in the United States and other countries who feel that many of their established publishers are on the same course.

All of the predictions about further consolidation after last year’s news about the Random Penguin merger are confirmation of this.

On the face of it how do you fight a titanic enemy like Amazon? You mass your forces right? No, not if you are still heavily outnumbered, that way you merely present a bigger target.

In some ways, this is the gauntlet that, thrown properly onto a panel’s table at DBW, could generate superb and forceful debate. It’s not, of course, what we’ll see or hear. Our industry dialog is a more circuitous chat bound up in layers of politeness and evasion.

But you have to wonder: if everyone at this week’s DBW in New York could somehow be under cover as “Agent Orange” is, would we hear something more like this?

Publishers still expect to shift between celeb auto’s, swords and sandals, chick lit, reading group fiction etc. etc. in any given month. A few averagely paid marketing people cannot possibly make that work.

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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. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at

Main image / iStockphoto: surpasspro

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.