The Bookends, Pt. IV

….continued from previous entry

In this maddened and maddening stream of real-time communication, from which occasional works of startlingly genuine value do surface, are authors required to engage a community? Is this community-building a keystone service for publishers seeking to survive by adding real value for authors? Can publishers thrive by providing community-like engagement with the book, even if the author moves on to other works? The answer to all these questions is that there is no single approach to writing a book, marketing a book or building an enthusiastic word-of-mouth community. Many authors and publishers will find the investment in engagement pays dividends, perhaps with increasing returns for each title that builds on initial success. Publishers can offer to take up the technical and financial burden of these communities, which can be slight when aggregating dozens or hundreds of audiences, as part of the new service they provide authors, who naturally want to focus on the books they write (books, however, will not be just text, as we’ll see later).

To our peril, we live in the golden age Erasmus described as he joined Aldus’ Academie and reveled in the revival of culture and humanist debate of the early decades of the 16th century: He felt world peace and prosperity was at hand because of the energetic dialogue erupting all around him, very much like techno-utopians see the Internet-connected world in 10 to 20 years. As Erasmus found out by the 1520s, when the Reformation had wrenched his world apart, launching the schism that would kill millions during the 30 Years War, freedom was a messy and dangerous business. After learning that his friend Thomas More, the progenitor of the concept of “utopia” latter canonized a Catholic saint for his refusal to declare Henry VIII the head of the newly formed Church of England, had been beheaded, Erasmus lamented that his times had become “the very worst century” ever, a declaration that anticipated the ironic critique offered up for contemporary contestants for pop cultural supremacy by Matt Groening’s The Simpsons.

The Shack may be the last of a new incunabula, print books that succeed wildly based on online word-of-mouth without providing its own branded online experience. Publishers have discovered how to market with the Web, but not how to extend the experience of reading on the Web. This time around, because technology has distributed opportunities to innovate in authorship, publishing and marketing, there will not be one Aldus, there will be many Aldi.

Even though William P. Young had built many Web sites as a part-time developer, his personal engagement with community once the The Shack hit the best-seller lists has been cursory at best. Yes, his book rocketed up bestseller lists on the tidal wave of emails sent by readers, but the greatest contribution to the word-of-mouth phenomenon was the more than 3,200 customer reviews on Amazon.com, and comments posted on his blog and at the book’s Web site, which is primarily a place to order The Shack with a forum where approximately 9,000 readers have posted 135,000 times about more than 5,300 topics related to The Shack, individual chapters and personal testimonies. Even the 500+ bad reviews on Amazon seem to have helped propel the book forward, because they are cast as polarizing responses to the 2,500 or so positive reviews that a browser must test by reading The Shack themselves. And it doesn’t hurt that, as Motoko Rich of The New York Times put it, “Sales have been fueled by a whiff of controversy.”[i] Young is surprisingly quiet online, investing much more of his time Continue reading

The Bookends, Pt. III

….continued from previous entry

When William P. Young wrote The Shack in 2005, he intended it as a Christmas present to his friends and family. Unlike Fra Franceso Colonna, he didn’t have to consider the challenge of getting copies made, because he had Kinko’s to duplicate and spiral bind the book before his personal release deadline, December 25th. The publishing world at that late date, on the verge of a crisis, missed one of the biggest best sellers of the decade because the author no longer needs a printer or marketers to take the first steps to winning readers.

Young’s book, the story of a man who, after losing a daughter in a grisly murder, receives a note from God asking the grieving father to join the Holy Trinity for a weekend in the shack where the little girl was killed, has struck a chord with a wide range of people, capitalizing—albeit unintentionally—on the increasing dissatisfaction some Christians feel toward even Protestant church hierarchies and a general sense of victimization in American society. But as Young has said in interviews, it is a work of fiction, not theology, and the attacks on the book as “heresy,” which have come from some quarters of the evangelical community, because The Shack challenges fundamentalist assumptions about Judgment Day and the value of acts of faith based on Biblical rules, such as the Ten Commandments, only helped sell the entertainment as a theologically challenging read.

Young makes up his theological universe with the same creative license Colonna did his portmanteau Italian. God is portrayed as a stout black woman named “Papa,” with Christ turned into a wood-shaving covered Semitic carpenter with a big nose, and presenting the Holy Ghost as an Asian woman, Sarayu, who glows and levitates when speaking. He told The New York Times that he recast the Trinity in order to shake readers’ preconceptions about God: “I don’t believe that God is Gandalf with an attitude or Zeus who wants to blast you with any imperfection that you exhibit.” Young is no theologian, nor a great writer. His reasoning, in the mouth of the Holy Ghost, runs along the lines of Sophistic and Stoical cliché: “Mack, if anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again.” However, the questioning of church hierarchy and recasting of dogmatic rules, laying heavy emphasis on the suffering and faith of the individual, make The Shack feel like a mainline injection of Martin Luther’s preaching, if Luther had had a sense of humor and the worldview of a 21st century Oregonian grief counseling program facilitator.

Like Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, The Shack mines deeply a shaft of a Continue reading

Writing improv as service

Name Your Tale, a site operated by writers Nick Faber, Jeremy S. Griffin and Jenny Nicholson, introduces a novel approach to engaging readers: They write stories in response to suggested titles submitted by the audience. It’s improv performance brought to the (Web) page.

The group writes 100-word stories for audience titles including, at this writing, “I’m Banging a Chinese Chick,” “Her Hair Always smelled of Crayons,” and “Laser Heart.” The writers also promote “microfiction” and “flash fiction” at the site. I’m not a fan of the “flash” label for fiction or groups, since they are simply forms of improvisation brought to new media and venues, but they can call it whatever they want.

It is easy to imagine on-demand books generated by a session at the site or by readers who assemble their favorites, including titles they suggested, for permanent collection in a paper book. I’ll be writing more about this “event publishing” this afternoon.

Clever idea. I think they can grow this into an interesting and strange imprint.

via GalleyCat

Agents, advances and the “long tail” going negative

Mike Shatzkin has an excellent piece today on the evolving role of agents in publishing. His notion of the writer and agent as business partners is important to keep in mind as authors seek the help of an agent. Business tends to be focused on the short term, quarterly results; in publishing, the advance has been the focus on the agent’s efforts, since most books never earn back that advance and it represents the only opportunity for the agent to share in revenue. That needs to change in the midst of a radical realignment of the industry. Long-term partnerships with adequate rewards for everyone involved will have the time and energy needed to solve new publishing challenges.

I’ve never used an agent and am fairly satisfied with the result, because I have not seen much creativity in deal structure in comparison to the agreements I’ve made with publishers. As long as an author is willing to pay attention to the details of a contract, up to date on the current standard for a deal in the market, and uses a lawyer to review the contract, I think the agent can be a wasted expense. However, if an agent can find creative ways to multiply revenue streams and increase the author’s share, they can be invaluable.

The alternative, of course, is to self-publish, about which Shatzkin makes an interesting observation:

But in addition to shrinking, publishing advances are taking on much more of a power law configuration, with concentration at the top and a long tail of books getting less and less (and extended by mushrooming self-publishing where the “advance” is actually negative; it’s a cost!)

The “long tail” of book publishing used to end closer to the base of the X axis of a graph and north of the $0 line (fewer authors made a minimum of positive revenue). Now, it goes on twice as far and dips well below positive revenue, with authors spending their own money to start sales of their books. Too often, when authors follow Chris Anderson’s “long tail” thinking, they envision a positive contribution to their bank accounts no matter where they fall on the power curve. The reality is that nothing is free, as Malcolm Gladwell explains in a devastating critique of Anderson’s new book, “Free,” in the latest issue of The New Yorker. How to exploit “free” transactions to drive real revenue is the problem Anderson misses and Gladwell dismisses.

For many authors today, the “advance” is their investment in the book. If they fail to embrace that investment with the support of marketing and sales efforts it deserves, they are simply throwing their money away.

How not to handle bad reviews, ever

Reviewers are the bane of writers’ existences, even when they are good reviewers they find something not to like about one’s work. So, it’s a good idea to engage the smart ones who want to be in dialogue with writers and ignore the bad reviewers and their bad reviews. Don’t do what Alice Hoffman did, according to AlleyCat.

Hoffman tweeted today in response to a Boston Globe review she did not like: “Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman [the freelancer who wrote the review]?”

She went on to tweet the reviewer’s email address and phone number and commented in another tweet that The New York Times Co. is selling The Boston Globe because it read its reviews and decided they were bad.  It looks petulant and is a losing proposition, because the argument moves away from the question of the book reviewed to the credentials of the reviewer.

Non-reviewers (that would be ordinary readers who have the guts to write and publish their opinion about a book) are often idiotic, but so are professional reviewers, even when they are established writers. Attacking an “amateur” reviewer is attacking the principle widely held that everyone is entitled to their opinion and now has the right to publish it. I write “widely held,” because Andrew Keen has written extensively about how amateurs ruin culture. Some people agree with Keen, though he forgets that all art begins as amateur endeavor.

No great book is universally welcomed as an accomplishment of genius. And reviewers have every right to dislike a book they took the time to read, because they are proxies for the reader, who must judge the review—and the book—for themselves.

It’s always easier to write a negative review than it is to write the book that received a poor review. Why, then, should the writer who put so much into the book rise to respond to a critic who spent a day or two with the book? Constructive engagement can add to the perceived worth of a book, but a vehement response like Hoffman’s is only going to take time away from positive promotion of her book.

Where games are going, books will follow

Follow the gamers, they know. Electronic Arts COO John Pleasants told VentureBeat: “If you believe all games will eventually be services — as I do — then the idea of game teams that make a game, ship it, and then do something else goes away. They will now ship and day one begins when the customer gives feedback to the live service. The way you distribute will be different. The way you charge will be different. There will be more permutations in pricing. Merchandising will be much more important. Co-marketing will be much more important. You have to have persistent identification and entitlements for a user, no matter where they are or in what game they’re playing.”

This is the prescription for book publishing. Not all books will be online services, but all books can tap Web services to connect readers to more than just the text. Think Books-as-a-Service (heck, let’s call it “BaaS” and go fishing).

Authors can accomplish much of this on the Web Continue reading