Publishing Goes to the Movies: Part 1

September 7, 2010

Broadway Meets Hollywood Boulevard

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a Hollywood producer in his office on the phone saying: “There are two ways we can go here, 2% of the gross or 99% of the net.”

(It’s a Hollywood tradition that movie studios try to avoid having net profits no matter how much money a movie makes.)

[By the 1970s], the only major difference between the book business and the movie business was that in the book business the money was smaller.

–Former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and bestselling author Michael Korda in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, my candidate for the most enjoyable book ever written about publishing.

If you want to be a successful author, you need to have a positive but realistic perspective about publishing. You also have to be able to read between the lines of what’s happening so you can figure how to take advantage of it to achieve your goals. What goes on in the film business will help you understand publishing.

Hollywood and publishing have a lot in common:

  • They are each dominated by six large companies. Two of the publishers and movie studios are parts of the same multimedia, multinational conglomerates:

             * HarperCollins is owned by the News Corporation, which also owns 20th-Century Fox.

             * Simon & Schuster is owned by Viacom, which also owns Paramount.

             * (Random House Films partners with Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal, on books Random publishes.)

  • They are being transformed by technology, which makes it faster, cheaper, and easier for newcomers to participate. Technology is also moving the culture from words to images, from product to experience, from possessing books and films to downloads. Meanwhile, the number of theatergoers and book sales are declining, so these companies are cutting costs and reducing their output.
  • Publishers and movie makers must produce winners to make the chains happy and meet corporate profit expectations. Hollywood must have hits—“tentpoles;” big publishers must have bestsellers. “Studios want movies that are bigger than ever,” said veteran Warner producer Joel Silver in an excellent piece about the cost-conscious state of Hollywood in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times (9/29).
  • They use marketing to build and sustain momentum, but what they release must generate good word of mouth and mouse to succeed. However, they are at the mercy of subjective, unpredictable responses of critics and consumers and fail most of the time. Less than one percent of what they produce becomes as profitable as they want it to be. Because they’re hit-or-miss businesses, the hits have to compensate for the misses. It’s the “Spaghetti Factor.” You throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it will stick.
  • They spend fortunes on failures and unheralded work by independent publishers and producers strike it rich. In Another Life, Michael Korda quotes one of former S&S president Richard Snyder’s favorite sayings: “Anybody in this business who is right more than fifty percent of the time is a genius.”  If independently produced books and movies break out, the big companies welcome the winners with open arms and wallets.

In the next post, more similarities between companies that would like to monopolize your eyeballs.

Upcoming Event

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)


September 2, 2010

The Most Important Letter in Publishing

I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny,

but it keeps them on my knife.

–Colonial ditty

However you eat your peas, know that P is the most important letter in the alphabet stew of publishing. Here is a taste of Ps that drive publishing for you to digest:

  • Publishing: The art of transforming black lines of words into a green bottom line and an industry with an unknowable future.
  • Problems: What publishers have always had and have always figured out how to solve. When you’re using a publishing system that goes back a century to sell a technology that goes back five centuries, problems are inevitable.
  • Progress: Technology is 

              * transforming writing and publishing

              * creating profit, turmoil, uncertainty

              * forcing us to be creative and improvise

  • Power: Publishers have the power to say no and make decisions about the commitment they make to a book and how to publish it. Agents with potential bestsellers, bestselling authors, and major customers have the power to make demands. Writers have the power to be publishers.
  • Profit: What publishers must make to survive and pay authors. Authors survive on hope and a paying job.
  • P&L: A computerized profit-and-loss form editors prepare for books they want to buy guesstimating how the books will be profitable enough to justify buying them.
  • Price: An evolving number determined by costs, competition, powerful customers, the need to maximize profits, and what the traffic will bear.
  • Print on Demand: Behind the explosion in self-publishing because publishers only produces books when there are buyers for them. An alternative for new writers, if only to test-market their books, and for established authors who can reach their readers. Publishers are using it for backlist books, and booksellers are starting to use Espresso Machines in their stores to produce and sell books they can’t stock.
  • Privishing: the premature demise of most books that are deprived of the time and other resources they need to succeed because of the plethora of books published every year that prevents publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and book buyers from doing justice to them.
  • Process: From deal to bookstore, publishing a book at a big or midsize house can take two years, a process that’s hard to accelerate if you’re publishing hundreds of books a year.
  • Prose:  Style, voice, and impact determine readers’ responses to a proposal or manuscript for which the writing is crucial. Prose must be as effective as it needs to be to satisfy readers. How well writers string words together to embody their ideas will, sooner or later, determine a book’s fate, regardless of how it’s published.
  • Passion: Publishers yearn to be passionate about every book they publish, a luxury only small houses can afford. Authors have to be passionate about their work.
  • Pitch: The brief description of a book that must excite agents, editors, sales reps, booksellers, the media, and book and subsidiary-rights buyers
  • Proposal: A 35-to-50-page business plan for a nonfiction book that must convince a publisher to gamble on it. For fiction, a synopsis as  much of the novel as agents’ and editors’ guidelines request.
  • Platform: Continuing visibility, online and off, with potential readers. Authors of  certain kinds of books need one to sell books to big and midsize houses.
  • Promotion: Online and off,  marketing is vital for success, and authors do more of it than publishers. Authors and publishers can only be as effective as their books enable them to be. Promotion can’t sell a book that doesn’t deliver what it promises.
  • Publicity: Free time and space in the media are more cost-effective than touring and advertising. The Web empowers authors to publicize their books without leaving their desks.
  • Perseverance: What it takes to see publishers (and authors) through the complex, creative, time-consuming challenges of writing and publishing books, despite the hurdles involved the process.
  • Pride: Like authors, publishers want to be proud of their books. Only your best will do.
  • Promise: Publishers are perpetual optimists who let themselves be seduced by their hopes for a book and an author’s potential.

I hope this pot pourri of Ps has given you a perspective that will push you to persist in getting published.


13 Wonderful Truths About Publishing

August 31, 2010

Publish and Flourish

The trouble with the publishing business is that too many people who have half a mind to write a book do so.

–Editor William Targ

Publishing faces its share of challenges, but I hope these wonderful truths about the business will reassure you:

1.  You have more options for getting your books published than ever.

2. The phrase unpublished author is becoming obsolete. It’s faster, easier, and cheaper than ever to self-publish your book: ebooks, print-on-demand, podcasting, blogs, serialization, and  websites cost little or nothing. If a book costs nothing to write and publish, and only sells one copy, it’s making money.

3. There are thousands of editors and publishers in America and abroad whose existence depends on them finding books to publish, and they love to discover new writers.

4. Publishers accept more new ideas, writers, and books than the gatekeepers in other fields.

5. Technology is making the industry more effective than ever. Publishers

  • Edit and sell books and subsidiary rights more efficiently.
  • Promote to the public and the trade—booksellers of all kinds, subsidiary-rights buyers, and publishing media, online and offline. Big houses have techies who specialize in online promotion.
  • Are converting their lists into ebooks.
  • Receive daily sales figures from Nielsen BookScan that account for 75 percent of their sales. This enables them to

      * print, reprint, and distribute books faster.

      * Know how their books and competing books are selling.

      * Schedule reprints based on sales, which lessens returns and ensures stores have a steady supply of books.

      * Acquire the kinds of title that consumers are buying.

6. If publishers believe in a book passionately because they love it, they think it will sell, or because of its literary or social value, it must be published, they’ll publish it.

7. A book that serves its readers’ needs for information, inspiration, beauty, and entertainment well enough is unstoppable. Publishers spend millions of dollars every year buying and marketing books that fail, while self-published books and books from small and university presses become bestsellers.

8. Television and word of mouth and mouse enable books to succeed faster than ever. One of our authors, Chérie Carter-Scott, appeared on Oprah, and that afternoon her book, If Life  is a Game, These are the Rules, rocketed to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Its momentum carried it to the top of The New York Times best-seller list.

9. Books have more subsidiary-rights potential than ever. People in more countries are buying books in English, and more countries are acquiring translation rights than ever..

10. Anything is possible.

  • Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock has sold 50,000,000 copies.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has sold more than 80,000,000 books.
  • The more than one hundred Chicken Soup books have sold more than 115,000,000 copies.
  • The Harry Potter series has sold more than 300,000,000 copies.
  • Barbara Cartland’s romances have sold one billion copies.
  • The Agatha Christie mysteries have sold two billion copies.
  • The Bible has sold more than six billion copies. 

11. Thousands of new authors succeed every year. First-time fiction bestsellers include

  • The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
  • The Christmas Box, originally self-published by Richard Paul Evans
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  • Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • The Shack by William P. Young
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett

 Recent first-time nonfiction bestsellers include

  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson 
  • Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
  • Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

 12. Books are more accessible than ever:

  • They’re available in more forms, media, and countries.
  • It’s faster and easier to buy books and find discounts for them.

 13. The more people know, the more they want to know. If book buyers like one book on a subject or in a series enough, they will want to read others, so books continue to sell as more new readers discover them, and publishers continue to market all the books in a series.

A Paperless Future?

Futurist Ross Dawson has predicted that by 2022:

  • Newspapers will be gone. We’ll access crowdsourced news on smartphones and news readers that will be “foldable, or rollable, gesture-controlled and fully interactive.”
  • iPads will be free.
  • We’ll have a “media economy, dominated by content and social connection.”

But books are an essential part of our culture. No matter how they are written, published,  promoted, purchased, and read, books that people need and want to read will continue to provide what only books can.  And the authors who write them will continue to flourish.


Overcoming Publishing’s Problems

August 26, 2010

A Sipress cartoon in The New Yorker shows a medieval prison cell in which a terrified prisoner is on a rack with his hands and feet bound. His hooded tormentor is saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.”

If you’re a writer, mental suffering comes with the calling. The anguish of finding the right word, completing and revising a manuscript, hearing what’s wrong with it, finding an agent or publisher, promoting the book. All of these challenges involve effort, uncertainty, and mistakes. Getting them all right the first time only happens in heaven.

One goal of this blog is to help ease your burdens. But thanks to Steve Piersanti, publisher of Berrett-Koehler, the list that follows won’t make you any happier about your profession. But the more you know, the farther you can go. Steve recently updated

The 10 Awful Truths About Publishing.

Awful they are, but if you know them, you can overcome them. Thousands of authors do it every year, and they’re using technology to create new ways to help them. After the list, Steve offers seven ways to help you do it. Previous posts have also discussed what it takes to succeed in the brave new whirl of publishing.

To see Steve’s list, visit www.bkpub.com, click on Resources, then on publishing documents. (You can also subscribe to BK’s outstanding newsletter.) Here are the list’s highlights:

* Publishing produces more new products per year than any other industry.

* More than a million books were published last year, but bookstore sales are declining.

* More than 7 million books are available.

* The average nonfiction book sells 250 copies per year, 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

* A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

* It’s increasingly difficult to make any book stand out, in part because other media are claiming more of people’s time.

* People are reading only books that their communities make important or mandatory.

* Authors do more marketing than publishers.

* Technology is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales, and e-profits are slimmer than print profits.

* Technology, small profit margins, the complexities of the business, competition from other media and publishers guarantee change and turmoil.

Steve’s 7 Strategies for Responding to These Truths

1. The game is now pass-along sales, people buying books for other people.

2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.

3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.

5. Master new sales and marketing channels.

6. Build books around a big new idea.

7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.

As earlier posts suggested, reading, models, goals, craft, a series of related books, platform, promotion, commitment, and communities to help you are the keys to your career. Armed with them and your share of luck, nothing can stop you.

Next up: 13 Wonderful Truths About Publishing.


A Dying Read: An Obit for E-Readers

August 24, 2010

Predictions are hard, especially about the future.

–Yogi Berra

In the last century, it was said that there are pipes companies and content companies, companies that produce information and entertainment and those that transmit them. As we become a wireless world, the pipes are being replaced by air.

Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy predicts that ebook sales, now 8 percent of S&S’s business, may be as high as 40 percent in three to five years. It’s been predicted that in ten years, ebooks will be 75 percent of the business. These predictions may be right, but they may not come true with e-readers.

On a Media Post blog, Aaron Shapiro predicts that in five years, e-readers will be the Rubik’s Cube of 2010. A partner in a technology company called Huge, Shapiro thinks that e-readers will go the way of previous one-use devices such as calculators, Palm Pilots, dedicated word processors, and fax machines. Other: ”likely doomed technologies: digital cameras, digital video recorders, digital audio recorders, handheld gaming devices, automotive GPS systems, televisions, portable DVD players, and even the iPod. All you’ll need is a screen for your hand, a screen for your lap, and a screen for your wall.”  

In the age of all media all the time, the consolidation of information, entertainment, and communication into one device, or as Shapiro suggests, three synced screens, is inevitable–four, if you count your car. Some people are already abandoning laptops as well as land lines for smartphones. For Shapiro, the introduction of the iPad marks the beginning of the end for e-readers. Like the smartphone, the iPad will be a miniature desktop.

It’s been said that the only way to predict the future is to create it. As a writer, you can help shape the future with your writing. From free to fee, from tweets to books, people will continue to want information and entertainment. Consumers will decide how they want to receive them. Whatever devices emerge–and implants are coming–it’s up to you to provide content that will keep your readers coming back for more. If you succeed, predicting your future will be easy.


Winning the Showdown on Page One

August 19, 2010

In an old New Yorker cartoon, an angry writer sits at his desk before a battered typewriter pounding out a note to a publisher. The caption goes like this: “I find your rejection slip mealy-mouthed, turgid, and totally lacking in style, and regret that I must reject your rejection slip.”

Rejection slips will never be models of style, and they never bring good news. Read on to learn one way to help avoid them. Our assistant Claire Cavanaugh, an outstanding editor, and Robin Perini–both are romance writers–did a workshop at the Romance Writers of America Conference. To prepare, they asked a group of agents, including Elizabeth Pomada and Laurie McLean at our agency, seven questions about fiction and nonfiction books.

In response to one question, agents replied that 90 percent of time, they can tell from page one if a manuscript was not salable. This was the follow-up question:

4. What are the most common reasons that you can tell a manuscript will NOT work on page one?

  • Poor writing, incomplete sentences, lots of adjectives each sentence.
  • No hook. Not enough dramatic tension. Too much like so many other plots.
  • Misspellings & poor grammar.
  • Lengthy narrative (usually “setting the scene” with too many details); dull opening with no change (change can be subtle but something must be happening); writing style that doesn’t engage; writer is telling and not showing the story
  • Bad writing, cliché opening, trite character names, poor grammar.
  • Bad prose, wrong word choices, bad grammar and punctuation. Boring, flat, no voice
  • You can’t tell on the first page unless the topic is impossible

The survey has a lot of helpful information. Do yourself a favor and check it out at Robin’s blog: http://robinperini.wordpress.com. Read the post called “Hooks and Opening – Inside Scoop,” click on the helpful handout which has sample openings, and on the last link for the “Inside Scoop Complete Survey Report.”

Agents and editors have a hair-trigger response to bad prose. If you’re telling a story, you can win the showdown on page one by showing up with a killer first page. Let your best words win. It beats having to reject rejections.


Lighting the Night So Your Readers Can See

August 17, 2010

Once you’ve seen your face on a bottle of salad dressing, it’s hard to take yourself seriously.

–Paul Newman

You have to take your work, your career, and your life seriously. Everything you think, say, and do is either making you a better, more productive writer and person or it isn’t.

And yet, you also need to balance the importance of your efforts with a sense of perspective about your place in the universe. Elizabeth and I saw a few sprinkles of the Perseid meteor shower last Saturday. Shooting stars are an apt metaphor for our existence, a fleeting burst of light with a long tail. The tail is our trail, what our light leaves behind us when it burns out.

As a writer, you have the chance to leave behind a trail of work that can continue to illuminate life and the world for your readers. What a gift and privilege it is to be able to transcend the confines of our own life and communicate with present and future readers around the planet.

Mel Brooks once said: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” So are drama, information, and inspirational writing. Stories and ideas that help us come to terms with the world and ourselves will have lasting value. Your work–long and short, online and offline–is your legacy, your gift to future readers.

So be gentle with yourself, but devote yourself to fulfilling your readers’ expectations. Light up the night for your readers and you will have fans for life.


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