What’s the next chapter in book publishing – and how will it end?
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Bob Follett has been a leader in publishing nearly his entire life. When he left Chicago’s Follett Publishing and moved to Keystone 17 years ago, he started a small but very successful nonfiction publishing company called Alpine Guild, which he sold to John Wiley in New York. Now Follett’s a professor at University of Denver, teaching writing courses and classes at its summer Publishing Institute.
So if anyone keeps track of the publishing industry as it trends toward electronic books and self-publishing, it would be Follett.
“Do I have great answers? No,” Follett says as he considers the direction of publishing and marketing. But he has plenty of knowledge and solid ideas.
The story of emergent publishing modalities continues to unfold, but, like any good yarn, nobody’s sure exactly how it will end. And whether new opportunities benefit writers and readers is a matter of debate.
The 1984 film “Ghostbusters” forecast the demise of books, when secretary Annie Potts asked nerdy scientist Harold Ramis if he likes to read. His response: “Print is dead.” Audiences laughed at the quip over 20 years ago, because his reply was meant to be nonsensical, author Jeff Gomez points out in his 2008 book, “Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age.”
In the mid-1990s, approximately a decade after the “Ghostbusters” release, Follett began working closely with IBM to develop a digital rights management system, so readers could download books electronically. Since then, e-books have gained ground, but, “17 years later, we still don’t have a decent digital rights management system,” Follett said. Gomez explained why e-books faltered in the early days – mostly due to overpricing and insufficient technology.
But with Kindles, iPads, Sony Readers, NOOK and personal computers, it seems e-books are finally taking hold, and just in time. According to Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More,” books took longer than other media, including music, movies, television, newspapers and magazines, to indicate a crisis in declining sales.
Both readers and writers are tuning in more and more to e-books, due to the immediate availability, convenience and lower price. These days, e-reader benefits also include long battery life and screen legibility in bright sunlight, said Kim Fenske, a Summit County local who has presented his hiking books both in print and on the web, and found a solid online following.
While most people, especially those 35 and older, say they love the tactile feel – and even the smell and sound – of pages turning, they’re also intrigued by carrying hundreds of books with them on, say, a small iPad.
Still, even college students tell Follett they don’t like e-textbooks because it’s more difficult to reference ideas or take notes. But he thinks the publishing industry is eventually going electronic, mostly because of the economics – with used bookstores and e-books competing for market share, coupled with the cost of stocking books in a brick-and-mortar business, e-books make sense.
“It’s a really compelling business model in terms of publishing,” Follett said.
On the flip side, plenty of people can’t imagine living without books.
“I think e-books are great, but I don’t honestly think they will take over books we hold in our hands,” said Summit County author Lindsay Eland, who published her young adult book “Scones and Sensibility” through Egmont USA and doesn’t offer an electronic version of the story. “It’s too much of a precious thing.”
Still, Eland welcomes yet another option to present reading as a fun pastime.
“If it gives (kids) another motivation to read, that’s good,” Eland said.
Since e-book hosts such as Amazon and Smashwords don’t act as gatekeepers in the traditional way print publishers do, anyone can post a book online.
“Most professional authors have a love/hate relationship with the whole concept,” said John Fayhee, veteran author and editor of Mountain Gazette. “From a content-generator’s perspective, e-books suck because authors get a relatively lower percentage of money when selling an e-book as compared to a real book. In some instances, maybe more books are going to be sold as a result of their availability as an e-book. Maybe it evens out in the long run.”
Many local authors, including Lisa Mercer and Alex Miller, posted their work online only after submitting it to agents. Miller offers his “Ohiowa” novel through Kindle, but he posted chapters of his new piece, “Zombie Road Trip,” on http://www.scribd.com as he finished them, inviting readers to comment. He’s had 2,100 readers so far, though he admits, “I have no idea what this means.” Still, several agents have expressed interest, and more than 2,000 hits on a story can’t be a bad thing.
Mercer pitched her novel, “Loveland,” to a number of traditional publishers before going with an independent publishing house, Write Words, Inc. The company posts new books electronically, and if they do well, it publishes a print version. Mercer’s e-book debuted in May, and the print version comes out in a few months. She credits e-books for “opening up doors for people who are not writing traditional plots or endings,” and giving writers and readers “a little more range.”
Bill Hubiak, a Denver resident who incorporated Summit County into his novel, “Troubadour of Peace,” released his self-published print book and e-book at the time. He said they’re selling about the same, and he’s getting regular royalties (though they’re not “huge”).
Other benefits of e-books include the fact that they can be shorter than average books and include more photos.
“I think at some point, one of these self-published e-books is going to hit a home run and get picked up by a traditional house, and e-books will gain traction,” Miller said.
Less than a decade ago, most people – especially academics – highly frowned upon self-publishing, but as fewer publishing houses release fewer mid-list books and as their marketing budgets continue to dwindle, self-publishing is becoming a viable alternative; in 2009, writers self-published about 764,000 titles, according to Publishers Weekly. In July, Amazon reported its Kindle sales tripled for the first half of 2010, compared to the same time period in 2009, meaning: For every 100 hardcover books sold, consumers purchased 180 Kindle books.
As Follett said, the academic opinion is “in a great state of flux at the moment, because no one knows what the best way of marketing a self-published book is.”
Authors such as Mercer and Eland wouldn’t give up traditional publishers; Eland respects the professionalism, editing and marketing they provide, and Mercer believes “it’s the literary equivalent of going to the prom with your father,” in that, if no one’s willing to take the book on, it probably means it’s not ready.
“Self-publishing still bears the stigma of what used to be called ‘vanity publishing,'” Fayhee said. “In a lot of ways, that’s not as bad as it was, because many established authors are now going the self-publishing route. But, in a lot of ways, it’s now a lot worse, because it’s so easy for Joe Blow the Ragman to self-publish a book.”
On the other hand, writers like Hubiak decided to self-publish after going with a traditional house.
Hubiak said his first book, released through a publisher in May, is “selling about the same” as “Troubadour of Peace,” which he self-published in August. He’s leaning toward self-publishing his third novel as well.
“At my age (63), I don’t want to spend three years trying to get a publisher interested,” Hubiak said. “It doesn’t make sense for me to spend time on things that might happen when I can make things happen now.”
He sees the shift in reader perspective toward self-publishing just like any other change. As a business trainer and project manager, he consistently runs into about half the population who are afraid of change itself.
“It think that’s just human nature,” he said, talking about book chains’ refusal to carry self-published books. “There’s a system in place; people don’t want to change their systems, so that’s definitely an obstacle. But there will come a time when people will say, leave a $29 book (on the shelf) for something cheaper.”
Fayhee chose self-publishing for a number of reasons, including maintaining editorial control and a larger piece of the pie. But Fayhee points out that he only self-published because he had considerable experience in the book-publishing world (his self-published “Bottoms Up” was his eighth book); otherwise, he would have stuck to the traditional route.
“There is no doubt that technology and the emergence of print-on-demand publishing companies has transformed the industry,” Fayhee said. “It is literally to the point where, if you can use a computer at even a basic level, you know enough technically to get your material to a print-on-demand publisher, who can then lead you through the process.”
Though he printed his initial run of “Bottoms Up” through a print-on-demand company, he released the bulk with a traditional printer because the latter is “a lot cheaper.”
As a writer with 30 years of experience, Fayhee felt he knew “at least as much about how things ought to be written as most book editors,” he said, adding that he still highly values editors’ input, and even hired one for “Bottoms Up.” “When push comes to shove, I feel it ought to be me who makes the final decision about what appears in print under my byline.”
And, self-publishing offers the potential for greater income. With traditional publishers, “basically, it usually comes down to getting a buck or two per book sold,” Fayhee said, pointing out that if you drive to Ouray for a book signing where you sell 10 books – a nice haul for a mountain town – you haven’t even covered gas money. Self-publishing could net a third of the cover price, “but you also have a lot of production, marketing and distribution costs you need to recoup.”
In the past, writers turned to traditional publishers because of the houses’ marketing expertise (not to mention it was the only acceptable way to go).
“But that has changed a lot over the years, to the point that many traditional publishers are big time dropping the ball on marketing and promotion – meaning the author has to take responsibility for arranging interviews, reviews, signings and readings even though that is, in theory, the publisher’s job,” Fayhee said. “It’s like, well, if you’re going to have to do that yourself anyhow, might as well do it for yourself.”
Though that’s more easily said than done, it does help if a book takes a regional slant or addresses a nonfiction topic for a specific demographic. For example, Fayhee has established plenty of connections through the Mountain Gazette, both personally and professionally (with media sources). He doesn’t recommend the solo route until writers have gained experience in the publishing world, adding that he had to learn plenty of things along the way, especially how tedious the marketing component is.
“One caveat I would make would be to say that, if someone has an already-established (and well known) expertise in a given field, a field where one can take advantage of already-existing professional relationships that would help in the marketing of the book, then maybe,” he said. “But, even then, I would suggest for the first project hiring a book-producing consultant.”
Still, even publishing houses don’t know how to deal with the biggest problem these days: How to market a book. In a world where newspapers have shrunk their pages dedicated to book reviews, readers still rely on reviews to choose new authors; promoters are trying everything, from tweeting to Facebooking to sending out review copies to media outlets.
“It’s a very difficult business from a marketing point of view,” Follett said. “A lot of people ask me, ‘How do I get this published (and purchased),’ and I have to say, I have no idea at the moment.”
However, Follett has some tips, the most important being: Identify your audience.
“Who are the likely readers of this book, and how do you tell them this book is available,” he asks. “In the old days, publishers used to identify the audience. Now, (you need) a strong pitch on how your book is going to be marketed.”
He said big publishing houses are dropping their mid-list books (defined as successful books that sell 10,000 copies) in favor of a new business model – searching for the next blockbuster.
“They’re not really interested in books that sell 10,000 to 20,000 copies. They don’t want to mess with it,” Follett said.
And yet, marketing still seems to boil down to its most essential component: word-of-mouth. In the past, traditional publishers spent big bucks on advertisements and jumped through all kinds of hoops to garner good reviews. But they merely aimed “to get a few readers to buy it, and then world-of-mouth (would sell the rest),” Follett said. Once the first wave of readers latched onto a book, it had a snowball effect.
And so it is today: Even though self-publishing and e-books create a flood of inventory, making it more difficult for readers to determine the quality of the writing and story, the bottom line is, a good book creates a buzz.
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