Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Things that piqued my interest last week...

Again, In-Store Publishing

About a thousand years ago in digital time (i.e., around 2000), a company called Sprout produced a stir by partnering with Borders and a consortium of independent booksellers to initiate an in-store publishing program, using Sprout's print on demand equpiment to print and bind books while customers waited.

In 2004, a company called InstaBook installed its digital printing machinery in a bookstore in Ridgewood, N.J. With 10,000 digitized titles available for printing, as well as the capacity to produce bound books from author-provided disks, InstaBook offered booksellers the option of turning themselves into bookseller-publishers.

Well, the Sprout deals fell through, and Bookends' special website for its InstaBook service is defunct--but the in-store publishing idea refuses to die. According to last Monday's Publisher's Lunch, Ingram recently presented an experimental program that would make it possible for ABA member bookstores to set up their own in-store publishing services. "The vision is that independent stores can serve as 'niche publishers focused on regional and local interests,' leveraging relationships within their communities and using their expertise to identify public domain material appropriate for reprint. Conceivably, stores can also offer their own 'self-publishing' services to patrons looking for a place to launch and sell their manuscripts."

Maybe the third time will be the charm--although I can only imagine the headaches for stores beseiged by their own self-published authors begging for shelf space.

Facebook Fatigue?

Every writer is looking for a magic bullet, Internet self-promotionwise. New paradigms for self-promotion arise a regular basis, and are hailed as the Next Big Thing--until the Next Next Big Thing comes along. First, author websites promised to revolutionize the mechanics of self-promotion. Then came blogs. Then came plogs (remember plogs? I didn't think so). Then came social networking sites, free book downloads, and book trailers...each holding out the hope that it, at last, would prove to be the Holy Grail of self-promo, the Shangri-La of author marketing, the One Ring of Internet publicity--the ultimate, single strategy that would finally, provably work.

Unfortunately, even as older strategies prove not to be magic bullets after all, newer strategies don't supplant them--they merely expand the field of self-promotional activity, adding to the burden of non-writing tasks that writers must fit into their schedules. If you don't know what works, you've got to do it all, right?

Maybe not. If, like me, your Facebook fatigue is triggered by the mere idea of setting up a page (not to mention maintaining it)...take heart. According to this article in The Register, people are getting bored with social networking. Apparently, "Bebo, MySpace and Facebook all took double-digit percentage hits in the last months of 2007. December could perhaps be forgiven as a seasonal blip when people see their real friends and family, but the trend was already south."

So maybe by the time my next book is published, social networking will have become a self-promo has-been, and I won't have to feel guilty about not wanting to deal with it.

The Publishing Tortoise

One of the things that seems to drive writers toward self- or vanity-publishing is frustration over commercial publishers' long lead times. Between book acquisition and book publication, a year, a year and a half, or even two years can elapse. Impatient authors often don't see why they should have to wait that long. Many take the delay as yet another indication that the "traditional" industry is moribund--a sign, like the five-mile turning radius of a cruise ship, of Big Publishing's juggernaut-like inertia and inefficiency.

In fact, there are very good reasons for publishers to take their time bringing books to market--among them the need for careful editing, effective cover art, pre-publication reviews--and, as discussed in this recent article in the New York Times, the vital importance of generating word-of-mouth excitement well in advance of the publication date.

"While writers bite their nails, the book editor tries to persuade the in-house sales representatives to get excited about the book, the sales representatives try to persuade retail buyers to get excited, and the retail buyers decide how many copies to buy and whether to feature the book in a prominent front-of-the-store display...In the meantime, the publisher’s publicity department tries to persuade magazine editors and television producers to feature the book or its author around the publication date, often giving elaborate lunches and parties months in advance to drum up interest."

One of the most basic misapprehensions of would-be self-publishers, and also of the amateur publishers I discussed in my last post, is that it's what you do after a book goes on the market that generates volume sales. But in the increasingly competitive world of publishing, books must be sold long before the public can actually buy them. For most books, post-publication publicity is effective only if it can build on a platform already established by careful pre-publication marketing.

Magic Pen

Have you ever, in moments of block or frustration, wished for a pen that would write your book for you? Well, this one almost does.

18 comments:

Emily Hendricks said...

As a bookstore employee, I can't see book printing right in the store. To me it sounds insane. But who knows? In five years it may be common practice... But I hope not.

randomsome1 said...

I've heard recently that some Borders stores are getting media stations which are also supposed to offer POD-while-you-wait technology. One was put in right down the road from me, but I haven't had a chance to examine it yet.

pjd said...

Maybe the third time will be the charm--although I can only imagine the headaches for stores beseiged by their own self-published authors begging for shelf space.

Maybe it's libraries that will eventually be replaced by self-service, fully renewable kiosks. Technology certainly will advance one day to the point where you bring in the book you just read, drop it in the slot, and it gets recycled right there on site, and you print out and bind a new book to take home. And it will all be done with solar power and zero carbon waste! Even better, you log in from home to let it know what book you want and what time you'll pick it up, and all you have to do is drop your old one in the slot to retrieve the new one.

OK, pipe dream maybe. But the technology is certainly achievable within our lifetime.

Regarding the Facebook Fatigue section: Anyone heard from Gather recently? Or their contest winners? Created quite a splash, but was it a one-hit wonder?

Angie said...

On the lead-time discussion, I have a hard time seeing all that prep work applying to all, or even a majority of the fiction published. That sounds more like what's done for books the publisher sees as potential bestsellers. The sales force (at any level) can't be all that excited about every single book. Not every book can be featured at the front of the store, nor even considered for it. Not every writer can be interviewed on TV or even radio, or even get a mention in a local paper.

That whole "excitement building" process sounds reasonable if you're talking about a Grisham or Roberts or Gaiman, but seriously, what's going on for those two years when the book isa pretty decent novel by an unknown writer, and it's expected to sell some copies and make everyone some money but not cause any major excitement or splash? That's, what, the other ninety-some percent of the books that come out?

Angie

Dennis Latham said...

Thanks for the great column. I never could see the point of book trailers unless you can use them on television during prime time. And who but a major can afford to do that?
I edit manuscripts and my brain gets fried from dealing with people who slap something together and call it a book. I can imagine the nightmare of letting everyone publish anything without the slightest idea of basic format and punctuation.

Kristi Holl said...

You really hit the nail on the head when you wrote this paragraph. ("Unfortunately, even as older strategies prove not to be magic bullets after all, newer strategies don't supplant them--they merely expand the field of self-promotional activity, adding to the burden of non-writing tasks that writers must fit into their schedules. If you don't know what works, you've got to do it all, right?") If you listen to all the hype, it makes you nuts. If you try to do even a fraction of it on a regular basis, it really eats up your writing time. The only people who it seems to work for are the ones who already are well known for a bestseller when they put up the website. Thanks for "permission" to step back and take the long view.

Cheryl Pickett said...

I just wanted to say I agree with the fact that trying every new thing can drive someone crazy. There are a lot of tactics, many do work regardless of notoriety.

I believe it has a lot more to do with what you're comfortable with. Like to chat? By all means hit the social networks. Prefer to write? Submit articles and so forth.

You do have to experiment to some extent to see if what you choose works. However, when find something good,there's nothing wrong with sticking with it as long as it gets the results you want.

Anonymous said...

I can understand the death of online promotion - frankly, I've never been convinced that spamming every board and linking to every group possible is good to sell your book.

And I agree wholeheartedly with the promotion aspect - unfortunately there are too many micropresses (and yes, I got taken by one) who don't "believe" in sending out ARCs or review copies until after the fact or insist that it's up to the author to do so. All they do is print the book and slap it up on their website; leaving the majority of the promotion to the author - and if your company is notoriously late in releasing books on time (mine was *only* three months late; others are literally years behind schedule!) then all your promotion efforts can come to naught.

co-ordination with a legitimate publisher is important, to say the least.

Victoria Strauss said...

"...but seriously, what's going on for those two years when the book is a pretty decent novel by an unknown writer, and it's expected to sell some copies and make everyone some money but not cause any major excitement or splash?"

Some of the delay may be due to the publisher's schedule. But even non-bestsellers, or books by midlist hacks, or decent novels by unknown first-timers, need editing, design, cover art, and catalog inclusion--all of which take time. Even if the sales staff aren't excited about a book, it still will be sold into stores months in advance of pub dates (print runs are often based on pre-orders). And review copies need to be sent out, also months in advance of pub dates. Review venues like PW want to see galleys (which means the book must already have been edited, designed, and copy edited) a minimum of three months ahead of the pub date.

So there's a lot to be done, even for a publisher's most insigificant books and authors. It doesn't make the wait any easier, and if a publisher has a crowded schedule, the less important writers may get pushed to the back of the queue--but the publisher isn't just sitting on its thumbs for two years.

Angie said...

need editing, design, cover art, and catalog inclusion--all of which take time ... the book must already have been edited, designed, and copy edited) a minimum of three months ahead of the pub date.

Of course that's true, but it's true for the potential bestsellers as well. So if the two years' lead time applied to those books for which hype and buzz had to be carefully nurtured, then it just seems that the process without that extra marketing attention would take some lesser amount of time for the more average books.

if a publisher has a crowded schedule, the less important writers may get pushed to the back of the queue

That makes more sense, actually. [ponder/nod] I mean, as one of those little nobody writers, I might not like it, but from a business POV I can understand it so long as it doesn't get ridiculous. I'd been assuming that once you had a publishing slot, you had it, but now that I think about it, it makes sense that a book that the publisher thinks is going to make them a few million would be given any slot they think is best for it, regardless of what might've already been occupying it.

So for a mid-list or lesser status book, it might well be that a chunk of the time waiting for publication is spent just sitting around waiting for that slot in the schedule, but it's not completely arbitrary. That's not a terribly pleasant thing to think about, but it does work from the publisher's POV. Thanks.

Angie

Anonymous said...

My experience as a reviewer is that what publishers do with the lead-time varies by press.

On my end, the big-big guys, Norton, Random House, Scribner, etc. use the time to tell every reviewer/magazine editor/NPR/TV person they meet about their upcoming titles, keeping in mind the necessary lead-time for their medium. Places like Glamour and VF have a lead-time, for reviewer, author spots and interviews of eight months.

Because editors at VF & The New Yorker will be reading the books during this time, the big guys like the galleys to be spotless. Spotless takes time.

Also, during this period, the rights people will be dangling the property in front of people in Hollywood. My sense is that Hollywood doesn't bite until a book does well, but they like to know what's going on before publication. Same with foreign rights.

Also, PW likes to put out reviews 3 months beforehand. Meaning they want the galley 2-3 months before that, if possible.

There are a few places that do books in bulk, Perseus Book Group comes to mind, that don't sell their titles as if their lives depended on it. If you're with a bulk house (Tor can act like one, too), have a friend set up a website for you, and assume you are going to have to do a lot on your own, pre-pub, even if it means angering your publicist. It's not that they don't care, but they depend on a lot of books making reasonable money rather than on blockbusters, and so are stretched pretty thing.

But yeah, if a house says they can get you to print fast, unless it's a title about the upcoming election or something extremely timely, you should worry.

Mick Rooney said...

Victoria,

I think for some writers who choose vanity/pod publishers over the traditional channel, its not so much the "acquisition to book publication", but first and foremost "the dream", quickly followed by the period of time from submission of an ms to acquisition by a publishing house.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

The idea of an in-store printer does seem kind of interesting from a business perspective, less physical inventory with more titles available. But I'm not sure it will quite work for the buyer who wants to pick up a book and flip through it - seems more like it would work for someone who needs to special order a title. But you'd think this would have caught on for CDs first - these could be recorded to order a lot faster, you don't flip through CDs, etc - and it hasn't.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

It seems to me that most of these "new technology" options for book distribution (like the Gather First Chapter contest, in-store POD, etc) are all dead-on-arrival.

One notable exception is the erotica e-book market, which is booming based on several online startups that are now being copied by the big houses.

(And as a midlist writer myself, I resent being called a 'hack')

Gregory Ludwig said...

This blog entry is interesting but I'm a little puzzled by some of the assumptions shaping it.

Consider:

"One of the most basic misapprehensions of would-be self-publishers, and also of the amateur publishers I discussed in my last post, is that it's what you do after a book goes on the market that generates volume sales. But in the increasingly competitive world of publishing, books must be sold long before the public can actually buy them. For most books, post-publication publicity is effective only if it can build on a platform already established by careful pre-publication marketing."

I myself never saw the pre-publication production/publicity building as important when I "self-published" a book (a novel) in 1999 (see thread to previous entry). Believe me, that production was low-tech. And I just "published" the book in part to give a copy to friends, which I did. I was not at all interested in big sales.

I have considered not having a manuscript I am currently shopping around published, but rather available on the Web, for different reasons. As I said in a comment in the thread of the previous entry, a book on related topics that was published by HarperCollins was copy edited like crap. Why this occurred, I don't know. My concern about my own book was to make some of it publicly available, not through the channel of publishing. It is not necessarily that I don't want copy editors of questionable simian pedigree butchering my ms.; the issue is unadulterated availability for those who are interested.

Part of my point is, the value to some manuscripts of publishing is more distribution and promotion than careful handling of the copy.

I say this as someone who has worked in nationally distributed publishing (learning as I go) since 1990.

Nancy said...

pjd...

As a librarian, I sure hope libraries are not replaced by self-service kiosks!

The system you described, including the recycling of books after they've been read, would be a wonderful supplement to all the services libraries have to offer. And would certainly be terrific for some of the more difficult to locate materials my patrons want through inter-library loan.

As for the lead time for all the prepublication publicity, libraries are usually ordering books 2-3 months before they are published, and rely on prepub reviews to make decisions on what to order. Obviously, the more hype a given book receives, the more likely we are to order a copy (either purchase or lease). But we're also looking for those first or second novels that may catch the attention of a small but devoted group of fans.

The self-promotion tactic I like least is getting emails from "Joe" or "Sue" suggesting a book we should add to the library's collection. If I get an email that includes all the publication info, plot summary, and which distributors are carrying it, the email goes into my junk box.

~just a librarian's perspective

Gregory Ludwig said...

It only occurred to me after I had written the above 2/8 p.m. comment that the word "platform" is used oddly in the following from Victoria's entry:

"For most books, post-publication publicity is effective only if it can build on a *platform* already established by careful pre-publication marketing." [emphasis mine]

Today, it is very common for literary agents to say they will only handle a nonfiction writer if he or she has a "platform." By this they mean nothing that the publisher will bring to the table; they mean the writer already has a public profile and/or the means outside the publishing realm to promote the book. Say, the writer already hosts a radio show, or is a columnist, or is Paris Hilton. With this sort of "platform" being more and more a prerequisite for being published (for nonfiction), writers who publish a book for the first time face the Catch-22 of not being able to publish before they are already, in some sense, published.

Deb said...

Gregory, don't look now, but fiction writers are beginning to hear some of the same things. In a recent proposal to an agent, I was dismayed to find in the guidelines that they wanted to know what sorts of routine speaking engagements, conferences attended, media coverage, awards, prizes, etc. Also market analysis, marketing strategies, and competitive analysis for the book being proposed. They define "competitive analysis" as finding out what books have been published in the last FIVE YEARS that are similar to yours.

Whoa! A big pile of noodles for anyone's plate. I did my best, but the last time I contacted this agency, they'd lost my proposal, apparently within the last 2 months, so I sent it again...

Still waiting.