New Tricks for 21st-Century Readers & Writers, part 2

gauguin-fullWhoby CJ Verburg

Who are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?
The questions Paul Gauguin asked in this painting have been buzzing around the book industry for the past decade. Fifteen years into our new century, some answers have emerged. The dominant theme remains CHANGE; the dominant factor remains the shift in control of the publishing industry from literary experts to technology companies.

KnopfAs I noted last week, in Part One of this Nov. 19 presentation at San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute Library, traditional publishers and print books aren’t dead. They’re not even moribund–they earn more than $14 billion a year.  While most of the classic 20th-century publishing houses have been merged into the Big Five mega-houses, new and (usually) specialized small publishers continue to sprout and thrive. YouveGotMailThe big-box booksellers that steamrolled so many indie bookshops in the last century are gone or languishing, replaced by book sections in mall and airport stores as well as by resurging neighborhood bookshops. Some of these now sell e-books as well, whose sales are booming.

Basically, what’s happened is that more people are reading more books. Book publishing is not a zero-sum game, thank goodness. The challenge is, with half a million new books coming out every year, how do you as a reader find the ones you’ll like? And how do you as a writer find your readers?

This loops us back to the irony I mentioned last week: For an author, writing the book is just the beginning. Most of the job these days is marketing.GauguinWhoRWe-cropt One of the first questions an agent or editor typically asks a prospective author is Do you have a platform?–that is, do you have a strong social media presence? a website, a blog, thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere on the Internet. You know and I know that you can buy ten thousand followers with a click and a credit card, and they’re not potential buyers of your book or anyone else’s; they’re sweatshop workers. But publishers are gatekeepers, and they need some way to decide who’s in and who’s out. When a psychologist friend of mine tried to parlay his nonfiction success into a novel contract, he was told he’d have a better chance if he were a serial killer.

FarrarStrausGThe up side is that publishers have finally recognized that if they want to stay in the game, they have to add value. Book-buyers look for Jane Austen or Stephen King on the cover; they don’t look for Macmillan or Simon & Schuster on the spine. Traditional publishers do offer the advantage of an expert staff, including sales reps and marketing departments. LB-logoBut as Betty Kelly Sargent reported last week in Publishers Weekly,“Self-publishers have become sophisticated marketers–finding and connecting with their readers through social media, Amazon, and by selling directly from their websites in ways never possible before.” They have to–between 2008 and 2013, the number of self-published books climbed 437 percent.

So on the one hand, publishing houses have circled the wagons: self-published books are still shut out of many literary awards, organizations, and bookstores. On the other hand, the Big 5 look at self-publishing as a sort of farm team, between agent submissions and the slush pile. As of now, most of the top-selling self-published authors started out as traditionally published authors; and the most successful author category is the hybrid, who publishes both ways.

Harper Collins took the farm-team idea another step by creating the website Authonomy, where writers can post a book and readers can vote for which ones should go all the way to the editor’s desk. A couple weeks ago, Amazon trumped that concept. Quoting from the website: “Kindle Scout is reader-powered publishing for new, never-before-published books . . . where readers help decide if a book gets published. Selected books will be published by Kindle Press and receive 5-year renewable terms, a $1,500 advance, 50% eBook royalty rate . . . and featured Amazon marketing.”KindleScout That could be a game-changer. What Amazon’s doing is cutting out both publishers and agents. The burden is on the author to write, design, and produce an outstanding e-book; but for the chosen few, the 800-pound gorilla will help with the marketing.

What makes Kindle Scout so brilliant and scary is that it plays into the current publishing trend known as Social. Social is the kind of readers and writers exchange you find on Web hubs like Goodreads, LinkedIn groups, or Kindleboards. Simon Dunlop, who’s launched a subscription service in Russia called Bookmate, says Social is his big draw. His customers are less interested in the unlimited books than the Goodreads-type features, such as groups, recommendations, and author pages.

scribdpxAmazon bought Goodreads, so they obviously think Social is hot. How hot subscription services are, is hard to say; they’re still pretty new and kind of groping for a niche. Amazon launched its version, Kindle Unlimited, in July. In case you missed it, the idea is Netflix for books: for $10 a month you get all the e-books you can read, up to 10 at a time. Their competitor Oyster just added Social in the form of Booklists. Their press release describes these as playlists, like on Spotify; I’d call them bookshelves, like on Goodreads. It’s sort of back to the future, like the Samsung Galaxy Note. OMG, a cellphone you can write on, just like a pen and paper! oysterlogo

I don’t think Oyster and Scribd and Bookmate are like Netflix as much as they’re like your local library. Right in this building, you can get all the books you want. Paper books, and e-books too. Also audiobooks, music, and movies. And talk about social! Look around.

IndiePcakeSSo, have fun tonight. You’re on the cutting edge.

New Tricks for 21st-Century Readers & Writers, part 1

If you missed Boom-Books author CJ Verburg’s panel presentation last night at San Francisco’s Mechanics Institute Library, here’s Part 1. Part 2 next week.

MILNov19-revSI want to focus on the digital end, since that’s where the action is. And since this is a short presentation, I’ll be making some large generalizations.

The first and most important one comes from info-techno wizard Peter Brantley. Book publishing in the 21st century is run by geeks, not by publishers. This is important. How we read, and to a great extent what we read, is no longer shaped by literary experts in New York and London, but by techies at Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. To that I would add: It’s also shaped by marketing experts more than writers.

The publishing revolution started with print-on-demand. Up until the 2000s, publishers had to gamble on how many copies of a book to print, based on expected sales. Digital printing ended that. Now you don’t have to print any books until somebody orders one. And that meant a writer didn’t HAVE to have a publisher to become a published author.
Ángela Ruiz Robles invented her Mechanical Encyclopedia in 1949. (Daily Mail;

The next major turning point was e-books. Over my years in publishing, I watched electronic reading gadgets come and go. Like cell phones: the early ones were too big, too clunky, too expensive, and people didn’t see the need. Not any more. You can’t go a month without some new digital device popping up to let you read, buy, and (more and more) borrow books.

From 2010 to 2011, ebook sales doubled.

Author and blogger Hugh Howey reported some amazing figures a couple weeks ago. According to New Republic, between 2008 and 2012, U.S. net income from print books (hardcover and paperback) fell from $10,420,000,000 to $10,003,000,000. That’s a $417 million loss. In the same period, ebook revenue went from $64,000,000 to $3,062,000,000. That’s a GAIN of almost 3 billion dollars. Just this morning, Digital Book World reported that some analysts predict ebooks will overtake print books by 2018.

Back in January 2011, when our Indie Publishers group started, most writers’ goal was to hold a book in their hand with their name on the cover. Next thing we knew, it’s the Wild West: ebooks, audiobooks, interactive books. Now that the dust is settling, what’s left?

EGOS_wpInteractive books never really caught on, outside of specialized nonfiction. When I published my multimedia memoir Edward Gorey On Stage in June 2012, with links to rare film clips and music, what people liked best was the text and pictures. The potential customers for so-called enhanced ebooks mostly stayed with video games, or some combination of ebook, TV series, and film. That’s a hot trend, in fact — about half of recent top-selling e-books have a TV or film tie-in.

Moving up fast are audiobooks, thanks to multitasking: people like to listen to a book while they commute, or do chores, or work out. According to Jared Friedman, co-founder of the ebook subscription service Scribd, “Being able to switch between an audiobook and an ebook version of the same title has been one of subscribers’ top feature requests” ever since they launched. Scribd has just added 30,000 audiobooks to its list, moving ahead of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. Barnes & Noble’s Nook, which left the audiobook business, just announced they’re getting back in.

Meanwhile, printed books are alive and well. Publishers still sign up authors; they don’t edit manuscripts like they used to, but they still design them and print them and sell them. The big-box bookstores took a hit, but the smaller bookshops they replaced are coming back. Libraries have added computer terminals, but you can see, the stacks are still full.

Basically, what’s happened is that more people are reading more books. Book publishing is not a zero-sum game; thank goodness. The challenge is, with half a million new books coming out every year, how do you as a reader find the ones you’ll like? And how do you as a writer find your readers?


San Francisco Book Events, November – Free & Open to the Public



Wednesday, November 19 is the Indie Publishers’ Working Group’s gala year-end publishing party and panel discussion at SF’s Mechanics’ Institute Library. Four authors will talk about New Tricks for 21st-Century Readers and Writers, followed by a Q&A, a book raffle, and an opportunity to look at and buy memoirs, novels, poetry, and more by MIL’s diverse and gifted members. Come celebrate the group’s fourth and final anniversary with books and ideas, wine and snacks, from 6 to 7:30 PM in the 4th-floor cafe and meeting room, 57 Post St. (near Montgomery station).




Sunday, November 23 is the Telegraph Hill Dwellers’ celebration of neighborhood authors at Naked Lunch (504 Broadway, formerly Enrico’s, legendary hangout of 20th-century North Beach writers). Listen to local poets, novelists, historians, and more read from and talk about their work; soak up the literary vibe; eat, drink, schmooze, and be merry; and maybe you’ll wrap up your holiday shopping in one mellow afternoon!