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)


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.


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.


On the Road to Immortality

June 29, 2010

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work….I want to achieve it through not dying.

–Woody Allen

The New Yorker had an article by Lauren Collins about the rare book room in the main branch of the New York Public Library. In Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Jack Kerouac had underlined this sentence: “The traveler must be born again on the road.” I guess you can never tell where you’ll find a good title.

The moment you make the first keystroke on your book, you are on the road to being born again. Transforming an idea into a book transforms the idea. It’s black-and-white magic: creating something out of nothing but your knowledge, craft, and imagination.

When you or your publisher publishes your book, you are born again on the road to literary immortality as an author. It’s been said that people only die when they’re forgotten. As long as people read your book, you live as an author. Books are an endearing, empowering, inspiring form of immortality.

Taking the World by Surprise

Unexpected phenomena like the roads taken by  J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Stieg Larsson are surprising. But roads most successful authors take start as narrow paths and broaden as their careers develop. They continue to write books that attract a growing number of readers.

If that’s the road you’re drawn to follow, stay on it. If not, there are many kinds of writing, paths to success, and ways to succeed as an author. So pick the path that best suits you and what you’re passionate about writing.

Three Prompts to Help You Decide

Capture the essence of your life in one line: write your epitaph.

Summarize the life you’d like people to read about: write your obituary.

List the trade-offs on your road: the good news and the bad news. One list will be longer, one stronger.

You’re welcome to share your responses with readers if you wish.

May all your keystrokes be rewarding!


Following the Money: Publishing 2010

May 6, 2010

“Publishing exists in a continual state of forecasting its own demise; at one major house, there is a running joke that the second book published on the Gutenberg press was about the death of the publishing business.”

This is from a must-read article by Ken Auletta about the iPad in April 26th issue of The New Yorker. It includes numbers that follow the money in publishing as it migrates to the Web. They also provide a perspective on the business and where it’s going:

P-commerce

* Six publishers produce 60% of books sold.

* 70% of the 100,00 books that industry produces a year don’t earn back their advances.

*On a $26 book, authors receive $3.90 in royalties, 15% of list price on a hardcover book. Publishers make a $1 profit.

* More than 50% of revenue at Random House comes from backlist books.

* Since 1999, the number of independent bookstores declined from 3,250 to 1,400.

(On the other hand, the San Francisco Bay Guardian just gave a Chain Alternative Award to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, which has two new members this year.)

* Independents have 10% of sales, chains about 30%, big-box stores like Wal Mart, 45%, which pressures big houses, like Hollywood studios, to produce blockbusters.

* Publishers have to run two businesses at once: a traditional publishing business and an electronic business.

E-commerce

* Marcus Dohle, the Chairman and CEO of Random, said “The digital transition will take five to seven years.”

* There are 50,000,000 iPhones in the world, which O’Reilly Media vice-president Andrew Savikas calls “a great customer base” for book apps.

* Most publishers are giving a 25% royalty on e-books.

* Amazon’s 3,000,000 Kindles generate 80% of e-book sales, which Amazon achieved, in part, by selling at a loss.

* When Amazon customer can choose between a paperback and an e-book, 40% of them choose the e-book.

* Kindles users buy 3.1 as many books as they did twelve months ago.

* An Apple adviser who used Netflix to download movies compared bookstores to video stores ten years ago.

* Three behemoths–Apple, Amazon, and Google–are competing, so one of them can’t dictate terms.

* Author Solutions works with 90,000 authors.

What these numbers suggest is that publishing is going through a transformation. Old and new media companies will in time establish a business model that works for them and makes money for writers.

What these numbers can’t capture is the article’s engaging, rough-and-tumble portrait of predators at play or the importance of

* publishers in discovering and developing new authors

* independent bookstores in launching them

* writers who keep the whole enterprise afloat by sitting in front of their computers creating the art that makes commerce possible

Former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein said: “When I went to work for Random Houe, ten editors ran it. We had a sales manager and sales reps. We had a bookkeeper and a publicist and a president. It was hugely successful. We didn’t need eighteen layers of executives. Digitization makes that possible again, and inevitable.”

Author Lee Foster says “This will be a golden age for content creators.” You will create your future as a writer with your head, your heart, and your fingertips. Three cheers for content, whatever form it takes!


Welcome to the Age of Living Books

May 4, 2010

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a dejected guy, holding a brief case, who has just come home after work, and he’s saying to his wife: “Bad news. Hon. I got replaced by an app.”

As a writer, you don’t have to worry about being replaced by an app. But one way e-books can replace p-(rinted)books is clear. As screens of all sizes are returning our focus from words to images, e-books are reinventing reading and writing for new generations of book buyers.

Computer technology created the greatest revolution in publishing since the printing press. E-books are creating the next revolution by giving you two ways to write living books:

* E-readers connected to the Web can have links to anything that already exists and you and your publisher produce. This is an amazing opportunity for you to use an exploding multimodal universe to provide new ways to enhance your readers’ experience and entice Web-centric readers. Using links for footnotes and authors discussing their books are obvious uses.

* E-books can link to social media, the ultimate book club: a community of readers who can email you links to what they find or create to which you and other readers can respond. This conversation creates living books, endless works in progress that continue to improve and stay up to date.

Groupsourcing with Your Readers

Vook
, vook.com, is embedding videos in a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. But video is only one medium, and you’re only limited by your imagination and what you and your readers can find and create. In fiction and narrative nonfiction, you can embed links to music, photographs, or video to create a sense of the period and setting in which the narrative takes place. You can dramatize part of it to draw readers into your story and use the video as a promotional trailer.

Little, Brown will be releasing David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest with links to the book’s cultural allusions. Imagine how links can bring new readers to the classics by with definitions of words and the explanations of the cultures in which they were written.

Links empower your readers to contribute a video of how they used a gardening book, for example, and show the results. In addition to responding to what readers submit, you can decide whether to make use of what readers send in for your e-book or just let it be part of the conversation. Either way, readers will offer testimonials, which on the Web, are golden. You can also make your e-book interactive by including tests and assessments to which you can provide automated responses.

The author Dorothy Parker once said: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” It’s also the soul of writing on the Web. When you can download anything you want into your book instantly, you will need to build a list of links from something in the text, with one-line descriptions to help readers decide whether to click on them. This will prevent your e-book from becoming too long.

The collaboration between you and your readers can begin while you’re developing your book as a blog and articles, and giving talks. You can test the effectiveness of links as you integrate them into your text and change or add to them as you discover new links. Book buyers will benefit because they will always buy the best version of your e-book, which means that responses to it will continue to be more glowing, which in turn will generate more sales for your book and everything else you create.

Making your readers’ feedback part of a conversation makes them members of your book community. Building communities, online and off, of people you need to help you is essential to everything you do as a writer. And as social networks prove, community is one of the fundamental forces driving the Web.

Your readers will also ask questions and send ideas you can make use of for talks, articles, videos, and books that they will look forward to seeing. They will help you create your career and remain part of it as long as you serve them well. Indeed, everything what you write is your answer to the fundamental question: How can you best serve your writers?

Adding text to your e-book will change the pagination, index, and table of contents, so updates will require planning. But in time, new software will make it easy for you to insert changes whenever you wish.

A New Kind of Book for New Generations of Readers

E-readers and will continue to grow in quality and acceptance. They will become full-fledged computers with voice recognition. Computers will have the same information, whether you’re accessing it at home, in your car, or on your phone. Simultaneous translation of voice and text is coming.

Pricing and technical standards will emerge. But a unique, enhanced e-book that only you can write and that continues to grow in value justifies a higher price than just the text. Prices will also have to reflect the cost of creating and licensing content.

E-books will enable your books to do what only they can: provide the best, newest, in-depth information available in all media. However, don’t despair about p-books. You can list links in the back of the printed book by page number and update them on your Web site, and p-book readers can contribute to the online conversation.
Technology guru Ray Kurzweil predicts devices will be placed in our brains and “the Web will take over everything, including our minds.” But the longevity of technology is unknowable. Books have proven their worth for more than 500 years. As publishing visionary Jason Epstein noted in The New York Review of Books, printed books “will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.

But e-books will bring life to your books by bringing your books to life for new generations of readers. They are one of the most promising signs for your future as a writer. So keep writing and think links!


The Building Blocks for a Writing Career

April 6, 2010

Anne Lamott begins a chapter of her wonderful book Bird by Bird like this:

There’s an old New Yorker cartoon of two men sitting on a couch at a busy cocktail party, having a quiet talk. One man has a beard and looks like a writer. The other seems like a normal person. The writer type is saying to the other: “We’re still pretty far apart. I’m looking for a six-figure advance, and they’re refusing to read the manuscript.”

If you find yourself pretty far apart from publishers, perhaps you need to consider using the following seventeen building blocks to construct your career as a successful author:

1. Read: Ernie Gaines, author of the Oprah book club selection, A Lesson Before Dying, believes that you can only write as well as you read. So read what you love to read and write what you love to read. Reading will enable you to establish criteria for your books.

Also read about authors you admire to learn how they succeeded.

2.  Establish models for your books and your career. Choose those that most inspire you.

3. Understand how publishers and agents work: You want the best editor, publisher, and deal for your books. Having a positive but realistic perspective on the business will help you find the right publisher for you and your book, and an agent if you decide to hire one.

4. Set personal and professional goals: Establish goals that keep you motivated to do all you can to achieve them.

5. Practice nichecraft: You can write any kind of book on any subject. But a faster way to build a career is to come up with an idea for a series of related books that sell each other and that you will be passionate about writing and promoting.

6. Develop your craft as a writer: Make every word count for your readers. Find early readers to help you make sure your work is 100% before submitting it.

7. Build communities: You can’t get your books right or make them succeed by yourself. Get the help you need by helping people and asking them to help you.

8. Develop your craft as a marketer:

 * Build your platform: your continuing visibility, online and off, with the readers for your books.

 * Build the communities you need to succeed.

 * Test-market your work: Maximize the value of your book by proving it will sell before trying to get it published.

9. Promote your work: Whether Random House publishes your books or you do, you will be the person most responsible for promoting them. Regard promotion as an essential part of your mission to spread your message.

10. Be passionate about your books: You want all of the people you meet to be as passionate about your work as you are. You are the well from which they will draw.

11. Make Mistakes: Jame Joyce said that “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” As long as you learn from your mistakes, you will make fewer of them. Eliminate  failure as an option, and success is inevitable.

12. Staying committed to your writing and your career: No one will know or care as much about your books as you do. So you must be relentless but professional about writing and promoting them, and about building your presence in the industry and in your field.

13. Put your life in the service of your readers: The better you serve them, the more they’ll help you achieve your goals. If you want people to keep buying your books, establish and maintain a relationship with them. You have more ways to do that than ever.

14. Be an authorpreneur: Speaker Sam Horn’s brilliant word which, for me, means:

 * having the entrepreneurial ability to create something out of nothing: an idea; a book that you can sell in more forms, media and countries than ever ; an international 365/24/7 business; and a career

 * coming up with ideas that you can sell in as many forms, media, and countries as possible

 * being responsible for your success

 * being unique by being creative in writing and promoting your books

 * being resourceful in meeting challenges

 * looking at everything you experience and reflexively wondering if there’s a way to use it to enrich your personal or professional life

 * using speed, creativity and flexibility to compensate for size

 * embracing and taking advantage of new information, technology, and opportunities created by accelerating change

15. Have courage: Believe in yourself and the value of your books. You will overcome the obstacles that await you.

16. Take the long view: A writing career isn’t one book but ten or twenty, each better and more profitable than the last. So you have to balance and integrate your short- and long-term goals.

17. Grow yourself: You are the most important factor in your success. You have to challenge yourself to improve physically, mentally, spiritually, and professionally. You have to keep learning if you want to keep earning.

You are Needed Now

Creative, resourceful people keep proving that anything is possible, that we are limited only by our ideas and the time and resources we devote to developing them. The world needs all the information, inspiration, help and entertainment you can provide. Enjoy the journey and best of luck!


Writing for Yourself or the Marketplace?

March 23, 2010

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. –Elmore Leonard

Someone once indelicately said that if you don’t understand the obscurity in Eliot’s poetry, it’s TS. This reminds me of an article in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen, author of the bestseller The Corrections. He described two models for novelists that I think can apply to nonfiction writers as well: the status model and the contract model.

The Status Model

The status model is that of literary artist whose mission is to create the most artistic combination of characters, plot and setting that they can devise. How commercial their work is, or how well readers can understand it, is not their primary concern. If Umberto Eco wants to start Focault’s Pendulum with six lines of Hebrew, and you don’t know Hebrew, it’s tough, er, darts. But Eco’s The Name of the Rose does prove that literary writing can be entertaining as well as erudite and enlightening.

If University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Vikram Chandra uses so many Hindi words in his otherwise accessible bestseller, Sacred Games, that many of his sentences are unintelligible, it’s our problem, not his. But Chandra is a gifted storyteller, and it didn’t keep him from getting a million-dollar advance. And it made his use of Hindi Harpercollins’s problem.

Herman Melville may be the ultimate example of a status writer. He wanted to write books that are “said to fail,” and he succeeded. Moby Dick sold less than 500 copies during the forty years that Melville lived after writing it. (But as George Carlin once wondered: “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”)

My bias: I can’t sustain the suspension of disbelief when I read something I don’t understand. It takes me out of being immersed in the story and annoys me that the author has interrupted my enjoyment. But if you were born to be a literary artist, you won’t let my bourgeois failing stop you. Nor should it.

For me, the status model for nonfiction writers is represented by those who feel liberated from the demands of the marketplace. Their mission is presenting their ideas or story however seems best to them, without using successful books like theirs as models. As agents, Elizabeth and I can sometimes tell from the first line of nonfiction submissions, sometimes even the cover letters, that the writers’ only concern is delivering their message, regardless of how well they do it or its salability. But thanks to technology, status nonfiction writers are always assured of getting their books published because print-on-demand and e-book publishers will do it for free.

The Contract Model

The premise of Franzen’s “contract model” is that when you buy a novel, you’re buying entertainment: the author has entered into a contract to entertain you. That becomes the criterion for everything in the book: Does it entertain? Does it, as Elmore Leonard advises, leave out the parts that people skip.

Since readers can’t be entertained by what they don’t understand, being incomprehensible isn’t an option. Most of the literary novelists you see on bestseller lists thrive on making their books understandable as well as entertaining.

For nonfiction, I think the contract is that the book will deliver the benefit that the title promises well enough to justify the time and money you spend on it. Reviews and sampling a book can usually lead you to the right decision about whether to buy it.

Since the fate of most books is uncertain, you’ve got to love writing them to produce your best work. Books you love to read will lead you to the books you were born to write. But no matter what you write, the challenge is to find the right place for your work on the spectrum between art and commerce, between writing for yourself and writing for the marketplace.

Happy trails!

Comments and questions welcome.


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