2010 Conference Keynote Address

Well, What Do We Do Now?—What the Rapid Changes Facing the Publishing Ecosystem Mean for Writers and Publishers —Jeffrey Lependorf

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

 

That’s a quote from Nicholas Carr, from his 2008 article for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  He goes on to quote Bruce Friedman, a blogger who writes about the use of computers and medicine, who said his thinking:

…has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Carr sites a study conducted by the British Library that suggests as Internet users “power browse” horizontally through what they see online that new forms of “reading” are emerging. The study goes on to suggest that people may be going online to in fact avoid reading in the traditional sense.

 

Has daily Internet use changed our capacity for reading? Providing a larger, historic context for this question, Jonah Lehrer, in a recent essay appearing the The New York Times “Sunday Book Review” quotes Socrates, who in the “Phaedrus” warns that these new things called ‘“books” “create forgetfulness” in the soul. Instead of remembering for themselves, Socrates warned, new readers were blindly trusting in “external written characters.” Lehrer goes on to reference Robert Burton, who in the seventeenth century, in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, warns of the “vast chaos and confusion of books.”

 

Now, books have long since then established themselves as beloved and effective pieces of technology, and reading as a beneficial and essential pastime. Publishing itself—the act of making the written word public—has, for the most part, like the production of books, changed little in the past hundred years. Innovations in typesetting software, and advances in digital printing have altered, somewhat, the physical way books are laid out and printed, but overall the process of writer-to-publisher-to-book-to-reader has remained pretty much the same.

 

Until recently, that is…

 

The past few years have seen dramatic changes and innovations dramatically affecting not only the way books are published, but the way we read them, or at least will potentially read them. E-books have been around since the early 1970s, when Project Gutenberg began making digital versions of public domain books available, though these were largely for specialized, focused audiences and not the general reading public. U.S. libraries started making e-books available through their websites in 1998, but few readers expressed a real interest in reading whole books on their computers. The first failed attempt at marketing e-readers followed soon after, around the same time newspapers began publishing online concurrently with their printed editions.

 

Quite a lot has changed in just a few years, though. Now, some newspapers only publish online and many more will abandon print altogether in the very near future. Kindle and Sony readers and the like have become common sights in cafés and on public transportation. The complaint of “I might read the paper, but I would never read a novel on my computer” has started to vanish as e-readers, shaped like books, become more ubiquitous. This past July, Amazon reported that its Kindle sales outnumbered the sales of hardcover books by forty percent, and that percentage has currently more than doubled. While paperback book sales still reflect how most Americans choose to read books, e-book sales continue to increase their share of the marketplace. The introduction of Apple’s iPad this past April, plus the increasing availability of books through smart phones and PDAs—and increasingly, readers’ comfort reading on these devices—continues to change what will likely be the standard way most people will read books in the coming few years. While many of us may well bemoan what will be lost as more and more books go digital—the touch and feel of a beautifully printed book, exquisite typesetting, the joy of finishing a really big and heavy book—the integration of the digital reading experience, with the ubiquity of the Internet, not to mention Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, may in fact be leading overall to an increase in reading for pleasure.

 

A study produced by L.E.K. Consulting this year shows that although, for now, only ten percent of the book-consuming population owns an e-reader, nearly half report that they buy and read many more books as a result (with only seven percent reporting a decrease in reading). That same study showed that iPod owners spent an average of nine hours per week consuming new media (that is, books and newspapers in digital format), while e-reader owners spent an average of eighteen hours a week.

 

At the same time, more and more potential readers spend much of their time texting, tweeting, and posting on Facebook. Facebook alone reports over 500 million users, with about a third of those users in the U.S. Twitter reports that more than 75 million people use Twitter. The idea of publishing—of “making public”—is changing, with new social networking tools appearing at an ever-increasing rate.

 

The traditional route to publishing included hiring an agent who would then pitch a book to a publisher, who would then market and sell that book to bookstore owners, who would then market and sell them to readers. In this scenario, which still exists, an agent normally earns ten to fifteen percent of what the publisher pays the writers, usually first as an advance, followed by royalties of a retail price—generally of nine to twelve percent, which may or may not ever surpass that initial advance. A book that would then receive good pre-publication press, and that was pushed effectively by sales reps, might enjoy a large number of pre-publication orders. If those books didn’t sell within a year, however, they could all be returned to the publisher, at the publisher’s expense, and then either remaindered at a considerably deep discount, or, even worse, pulped—all of this, of course, meaning even fewer royalties to the writer.

 

Now any self-proclaimed writer can directly upload a newly minted book to Kindle through Amazon’s website in a couple of relatively simple steps, and the author, who in this case is also the publisher, keeps seventy percent of sales. But what does this actually mean economically? Let’s take, for example, a first novel with a print run of 7,000 copies. Let’s say we have a highly regarded small press that can offer the author a royalty of $15,000 to publish it. After the agent’s cut of 15%, the author will receive $12,750. Not a bad start. Now, let’s assume the direct printing costs come to $8,500, or $1.21 per book, and that the cover price of this paperback is originally $14.95 a copy. The distributor, who will make the book available to buyers as varied as indie-booksellers, libraries, university bookstores, and Amazon.com, will offer each of them a discount of 40%-50%, so these booksellers can make a profit. This leaves a net of $7.48 per book. The distributor will subsequently take their cut of approximately 28%, leaving a gross return of $5.33 per book. That’s where the author’s 10% generally comes from. After some number of books, let’s say 250 of them, will be given away for marketing purposes, and at least 30% of the books sold will likely be returned (and we’re lucky if that’s the extent of the returns), providing a total royalty to the author of roughly $1,168, but since that’s against the $15,000 advance, none of that goes to the author at this point. Let’s say foreign rights for the book are then sold to three countries at $12,000 each, and in that case, the author gets half of those proceeds after the agent’s cut. In this very positive scenario, the author will end up making around $30,000. And, if the book at this point is still getting press, it might very well be reprinted and continue to generate income.

 

Now, let’s compare that to the same number of sales through Amazon’s Kindle for a self-published book. There are no returns here, no agent, no publisher, and no distributor other than Amazon. There are also no foreign rights being sold as the book is already available on Kindle internationally—and note that the book can’t be purchased other than through Amazon. The book will likely be priced at $9.99 and the author will get 70% of sales. So, if readers in this scenario likewise purchased the same number of copies of the book as in the traditionally published print paperback scenario, that would give the author around $33,000 after Amazon’s cut. Sounds pretty good, but is that really a reasonable scenario? Will that Amazon Kindle title actually sell that many copies? Can it? And what does a traditional publisher need to do to sell that many for that matter?

 

That’s really the question. Note that neither of the scenarios I’ve outlined contained a penny for marketing or publicity. Both the traditional publisher and the self-publisher now face a new landscape, one in which the ways books are made known to readers—how they are marketed—has already changed dramatically and will likely change even more in the next few years.

 

So, what do we do now?

 

Let’s go back to what publishing really is: making things public. In other words, marketing itself isn’t simply something that goes along with the publishing of a book—it may very well be the single most important part of publishing. Without a book being marketed (and I’m loosely using the term here to include PR) it really hasn’t been published, it’s merely been printed. A book uploaded to Amazon.com for Kindle doesn’t really exist until readers know it’s there and have a reason to risk paying for it.

 

So, how are books made known to booksellers and readers? This used to be done primarily through two means: first, advance reader copies—or ARCs—would be sent to booksellers and trade publications, with the resulting reviews helping to sell these not-yet-published books to booksellers, who might also be visited by sales reps from either the publisher or their distributor, as well as receive publisher or distributor catalogs, as well as things like bookmarks and other marketing swag to entice them to sell the book in their stores. Subsequent post-publication reviews—those read by general readers—along with these books being featured by booksellers who might put them on tables, or face-out on shelves, or even in their store windows, then sell the books to consumers. That still exists today, but it’s changed and is changing. We all know that newspaper reviews of books continue to dwindle, and those in the publishing business know that with the creation of the large chain bookstores—who essentially owned real estate that could be populated by books—came the creation of “co-op.” That’s the now routine charging for the privilege of a book being face-out on a shelf, placed on a table, or featured in a store window. Many independent booksellers still only feature the books they really love and don’t charge co-op, but even in the world of indie bookstores, economic necessity has been changing this. Most readers see books singled out in a store for them to buy because those books have marketing dollars behind them.

 

The traditional newspaper book review, while some still exist, has largely been replaced by a number of things: first, book bloggers—whose credentials may be nothing more than that they write a blog and review books—and a variety of social networking sites, from those devoted to rating and sharing information about one’s personal catalog of books being read—such as Shelfari, Librarything, and Goodreads—to the digital word-of-mouth and marketing possible through things like Facebook and Twitter. And these are all supplemented by author and publisher websites and online ads.

 

When a publisher takes on a new author it generally asks the writer to fill out an “author questionnaire.” Here the publisher routinely asks questions such as, “Who is the audience for this book?” “How many contacts do you have?” and “How do you plan on marketing your book?” Authors are often taken aback by these questions—isn’t it the publisher’s job to market your book? Well, yes and no. For a publishers to effectively market a book they first want to know who you, as the author, wrote the book for—what kind of reader—the theory being that nobody knows your books as well as you. This makes sense, and so it’s extremely important that authors understand what kind of book they have written and who will really want to read it. Many authors will answer the question “Who would enjoy reading your book?” with the answer, “Why, everybody!” This is the wrong answer. While many books do appeal to many readers, no book appeals to everyone. Not one. In fact, the more that you can narrow—really zero in—on the kind of reader who will most likely enjoy your book, the more likely your book will effectively be marketed to that specific audience, and the more likely your book will sell. Sometimes these narrowly focused books go on to become books enjoyed by a larger public, but it’s the rare “book for general readers” that has an easy time finding its audience.

 

Publishers themselves have been affected by recent economic downturns as much as individuals—and in many cases even more so—and most publishers have an expectation that authors will partner with them in the book marketing part of publishing. Just a few years ago this may have meant something as simple as doing a few readings and perhaps having a personal website, but these days it generally means actively promoting one’s book using all digital means available. In fact, whether being published or self-publishing, the tasks remain largely the same: at the very least have a personal website, ideally one that features an active blog. A blog with followers equals an audience already inclined to buy the book of the blogger.

 

In addition, good bloggers tend to know, or will soon get to know, other active bloggers, including those who routinely review books. The fact is that many of the self-proclaimed book bloggers online today are excellent book reviewers, a number as good as any “professional book reviewer” from the days of newspaper book review sections. Many of course are also terrible, but it’s easy to tell who the good ones are, simply by reading them and seeing how many posted comments they have on their blogs. Most of them also link to one another, so reading any one of them generally gives a reader access to almost all of them. Entering this network as a fellow active blogger may provide the very best way to reaching the largest possible audience directly, but simply being actively present, digitally, can do quite a lot. For example, every writer and publisher should have, in addition to a personal website, a “fan page” on Facebook. Remember also that websites show up in search engines based largely on the number of times they are linked to and linked from. If one also has a Twitter account, or a Facebook fan page, all of these things should communicate with one another to help drive traffic to each. A Twitter feed, for example, can easily be put on one’s Facebook page and personal website. If maintaining a blog, tweet that you’ve uploaded a new post. Most importantly, comment on others’ blogs and “re-tweet” others’ tweets. This is the simple way that you build a community of readers on the web.

 

Flip cameras and most smart phones also provide an inexpensive and simple way to take video. Be sure that anytime you do a public reading, you create a small clip, upload it to YouTube, and embed it on your blog or webpage, and of course announce the posting of the clip with any social networking posting. By the way, a good rule to follow in posting or tweeting is the “four-to-one” rule: for every time you write about yourself, post four things about others (re-tweets count!). Other free online tools, like Tumblr, which can aggregate a variety of feeds on topics you select, also provide an automated way for your online presence to have changing content without you posting a thing. The goal is to communicate and encourage communication into your online sites as much as possible.

 

For many, the idea of maintaining a website, engaging with Facebook, Tweeting, posting, etc., is not only daunting, it’s objectionable. The thing to remember is this: marketing is not a dirty word. It’s how people know your book exists. You are not annoying people by letting them know your book exists; you are providing them with the opportunity to read it. Also, remember the secret of how to do a million little things is: one at a time. Social networks and online marketing are now the way of the world. You can choose not to participate, but then you also choose to be invisible. You should start small with what makes you comfortable and then take it from there. When you have published a book, for example, put a link to purchase your book directly in your email signature. And don’t forget that many of the tried and true ways of marketing your book can still be effective. Postcard printing has become almost free these days; always have a few featuring your book to hand to anyone you meet. Most people are pretty thrilled to meet a real, live published author. When you visit an independent bookstore that has copies of your book, offer to sign them, and definitely let your local bookstores know you have a book out. Perhaps you can do a reading there.

 

For those who are seeking to publish their first book, I have two pieces of advice: first, to the extent you can, have a presence on the web, and secondly, get yourself published first. While the latter may seem like a tautological impossibility, the fact is that the very best way to get a book published is to already have had a number of smaller pieces published. That’s where literary magazines come in. Submit regularly to them. Be patient and don’t be discouraged by rejection. No publisher ever puts out a poetry book or a short story collection by a first-time publishing writer where at least a few of the pieces haven’t already appeared in literary magazines, and it’s rare for a non-fiction book to be published without the author having already established a platform through prior publication.

 

No matter what route you choose, one thing hasn’t changed. Whether you choose to self-publish or seek out a publisher, and whether you learn all the ins and outs of marketing or don’t do a thing, the very most important thing is to write the very best book you can and publish the best book you can. All the rest comes second.

 

I’ll conclude with this poem created by the staff at DK Publishing, a British division of the Penguin Group. It’s a palindrome: http://youtu.be/Weq_sHxghcg