Sunday, October 25, 2009

On the road


My wife and I are on the way to Ireland for a week. It's the first trip to the country for both of us. We'll be based in Galway, but immediately head to the Aran Islands for a couple of days. I was infatuated with John Millington Synge's plays in my youth and I very much look forward to going to the remote islands that he wrote so much about.

On the publishing front, this week brought a number of significant developments. There is so much going on that it is easy to miss the forest for the trees and I am disinclined to regale you with every twitch and jerk of the process that is transforming publishing. There are some very smart people out there who spend far more time than I do attending to all of this. One of them is Mike Shatzkin and I highly recommend that you take a look at his more recent thoughts on his blog, The Shatzkin Files.

One of the most exciting developments of the week was the announcement by Barnes & Nobles of a new ebook reader, the nook (yes, it is a lower case “n” … but no relation to namelos). I, of course, had to order one because I am a habitual user, perhaps even an abuser. This will be my sixth ebook reader: a first generation Kindle, two second generation Kindles, a Kindle DX (which is my always with me), an iTouch, and, now, a nook. I’m fear I’m headed down a slippery slope. Intervention may be needed. There will be probably ten or more new e-readers on the market by the end of the year. A good friend assures me that I’ll be all right, it’s the deniers who are hardest to cure.

I am curious to see what Ireland offers on the ebook front. More anon.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—Of cabbages—and kings …

October 18, 2009

Of books: For many authors, a hardcover copy of their own book has a totemic significance that has nothing to do with the thing itself, das Ding an sich. It connotes an achievement on the order of being allowed to put Dr. before or Esq. after your name. On a shelf in a bookstore or a library, it is a public testimonial of achievement. All of this, I believe, is what Moses was so cranked about when he destroyed the golden calf. Be aware that when the object becomes detached from its meaning, it becomes a false idol. The ne plus ultra for an author is having his or her words in the mind of a reader and the more readers, the better. Paperback and ebook editions are ways to achieve that end. So, with all due deference to the hardcover books we adore, welcome and embrace the evolution that will extend and expand your readership.

Of Google: This week's announcement that Google will start selling books from the "cloud" early next year is cause for celebration, not because Google is the be all and end all of anything, but because it means that a major competitor has entered the marketplace to temper the dominance of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. When Apple releases it's much-anticipated tablet (possibly in early 2010), another major player will enter the fray. This competition is good for the consumer and what is good for the consumer is good for those of us who want to put our words in their minds.

Of Amazon: I've been talking with a neat group of people at Amazon this week. We hit a roadblock when we uploaded our first few titles. Amazon, burned by the Orwell incident, sought confirmation that we, in fact, had the right to sell those books. We received a form email asking that we send our contracts to the desktop people. Well, contracts contain proprietary information and publishers are loathe to share such information with disinterested third parties, especially anonymous ones (i.e. Amazon.com). With the help of a well-placed friend I was able to speak with the head of a new team established by Amazon to address author/publisher relations. These folks, at least the ones I spoke with, come from traditional book publishing and were very sympathetic to my concerns and came up with a way to resolve the situation. Amazon is enormous and, as was pointed out to me, is not a publisher. It sells stuff and sells it as well as or better than most other retailers in the world. They deal with an astronomical number of authors, publishers, and books. Their systems need to be scalable at a level that is incomprehensible to me (remember we publish only "a few good books"). Bridging the gap between their needs and ours presented a hurdle for them and for us. They could easily have ignored us: it's not like we're the tipping point. But they didn't and thanks to their new support team we've cleared the hurdle. I applaud their effort and thank them.

Of reviews: As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have been discussing our business model and our forthcoming books with reviewers, major and minor. I am very happy to say that, without exception or abstention, they have agreed to allow us to submit our books for review. And that is all anybody can ever do. So now we just need to publish a few good books.

Of cabbages: … and other fall vegetables. I volunteer every Friday at my son-in-law's farm stand, hawking vegetables and swapping recipes. The cabbages aren't in full shriek yet, but the rutabagas, beets, potatoes, and kale are to die for. And the turnip soup I'm making will bring you back to life.

Of kings: … and queens. Norma Fox Mazer died this week. A sad loss. An enduring legacy. Requiescat in pace.

Extraordinary Publishing Delusions and the Saneness of Crowds

October 11, 2009

I'll take a break from namelos to rant about the trade book publishing industry. From my perspective on the lunatic fringe, it seems ripe for a Gibbon's-like treatment (you remember The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). In other areas of publishing, e.g. medical/technical and scholarly, publishers are adjusting their business model to accommodate the array of challenges we all face. Trade book publishing seems to be clutching its braces, puffing out its chest, and shouting we're going to keep on doing what we've always done the way we've always done it … and even more so.
A case in point. I'm a life-long reader and rabid fan of genre fiction, primarily mystery and thrillers, and I'm a big fan of Dan Brown. I've read all his books. I have a prized first edition/printing of The DaVinci Code that I bought before it became a mega-bestseller. I thought at the time that it was very good, although not as good as his earlier books. I was surprised when it became so enormously successful. Subsequently people sought out the other books and the whole thing seemed like an example of what publishing is all about. You publish someone until, if you're lucky, a book breaks out, and he/she builds an audience, the back list flourishes, and everybody is happy.

Then came the long interim between The DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol. Rumors would surface, mention would be made of when the new book might be published and what it might be about, and the back list titles would show another little bump in sales. Then came the frenzy and hysteria of the launch. The revelation of the jacket alone was cause for headlines. A first print run in the millions was announced. Much speculation ensued regarding how Amazon would price the ebook version. Security usually reserved for presidents and popes surrounded the printed copies. Finally, the book was published and set a first day sales record … a million copies or some such figure. I've read somewhere that the first print was 5 million and, based on the first day's sales, the publisher went back to press for 600,000 more copies. The marketing team was on steroids, pumping out smoke. Their fun-house mirrors slimming, trimming, and glittering. The book world was all aquiver. The Lost Symbol was going to save the industry. Beautiful!

But there is a problem. The book just isn't that good. To give it its due, it has all the allure of a particularly engaging crossword puzzle. But, as fiction, the characters are one-dimensional and the plot is transparent, at least the bit that involves characters. The fat lady sings well before the book ends. The long coda is reveal-ation (you have to read the book to get that reference) of the esoteric puzzle that informs the book combined with some philosophical speculation. Okay, I didn't like the book. Enough already. I'm not alone in that assessment: read Maureen Dowd's review in today's The New York Times Book Review and of the almost 1000 readers' reviews on Amazon, the majority are negative. These are people who bought the book and were disappointed enough to feel compelled to post a review!

However, the point I'm making is not about Dan Brown's success or failure. He wrote the best book he could and maybe his reach exceeded his grasp. Following an enormously successful book is always rough. I'll buy his next book and hope he hits his stride again. My real point is about our industry which is counting on the sales of this book to offset a disastrous year. We're looking for salvation to a book that is disappointing a great many of its readers. These are loyal fans who have been hyped to rush out and buy a book that does not deliver. When those 5.6 million copies don't sell through, when the mountains of them in bookstores stand undiminished on Dec. 26th, and booksellers start returning them in the new year, it will be a sad day in Mudville. This was inevitable in the biggest-is-best (whether it's any good or not) mentality that pervades trade publishing these days. Everybody is just doing what they get paid to do. But if this kind of publishing is what is supposed to save the industry, then we're in terrible trouble. If we save ourselves by disappointing our customers, we aren't worth saving. Our operating principle should not be caveat emptor. That's what I'm saying.

Reasonable Questions

October 4, 2009

The last two weeks have been busy and productive and not without frustration, but that is to be expected. We are talking about publishing, which has a lot in common with roller derby and rugby, albeit in a more psychological context. We are preparing to publish our first two titles, both first novels: Pod by Stephen Wallenfels, and Departure Time by Truus Matti. (By the way, in this case, Pod is not the acronym for print-on-demand, although it is an amusing coincidence.) To that end I have been talking with the book review editors of major and minor media, describing our business model and answering any questions they may have regarding our program. These are smart, experienced professionals and I thought it would be worthwhile to share a few of their questions and my answers. So, with no further ado, here goes.

Q. Are you self-publishing?
A. No. With the exception of my wife, Carolyn Coman, none of us are writers. Although I have published all of Carolyn's books, first when I was at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (long before we married), and then at Front Street, Carolyn's next book, The Memory Bank, which she co-created with her long-time collaborator, Rob Shepperson, will be published by Arthur A. Levine at Scholastic in the fall of 2010.

Q. Are you publishing books for a fee?
A. No. People ask us if we would publish their project for a fee and we decline. We do work with a number of authors/artists on a fee-for-services basis. If we determine at some point that a project is one we would like to publish, and the author wants to be published by namelos, we end the previous arrangement and move forward on a partnership basis.

Q. Are you an ebook publisher?
A. No. We are a publisher. ebooks are a format, just as hardcovers and paperbacks are formats. We are format independent. This means that when we publish we make the book available in whichever format the customer orders including hardcover, paperback, and ebook editions. We are pursuing a partnership that will enable us to offer our books in audio editions as well.

Q. How will you submit titles to reviewers and awards committees?
A. The same way everybody else does. We'll send ARCs (Advanced Readers Copies) to all and sundry several months prior to publication date.

Q. Will libraries be able to purchase your books?
A. Yes. Again, the same way they always purchase books. They can place an order directly with us or, more likely, they can place an order with their regular wholesaler or supplier. Our books will be available through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Follett, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

Q. Will bookstores be able to order your books?
A. Yes, through the same suppliers. However, our books will not be returnable and our trade discounts will be lower than booksellers are accustomed to receiving. This will impact on how we do business together but publishers and booksellers are working to sort this out and I anticipate a solution will be found in the not distant future.

My answers seemed to satisfy their concerns. In response to my question, Will you allow us to submit our books for review? the answer was, Yes. This is all a publisher can ask. Then it comes down to the quality of the books, themselves, and my confidence in the titles we are publishing knows no bounds.

That was the week that was

September 13, 2009

This week brought much appreciated attention to our launch. In a substantial article in Publishers Weekly, Karen Springen reported on our business model and discussed it with veteran industry player and observer, Richard Curtis. Curtis' comments were insightful, albeit, to my mind, skeptical. In particular, he said “namelos is open to Joe Blow, and the way it appears is that Joe Blow will be financing the development of these packages. The reading fee can be a sore point in the author community.” Yes, Joe and Jane Blow are welcome to submit to namelos and their work will get our full and undivided attention. No, I only wish the $200 income from evaluations would finance our development. And, yes, the reading fee is a sore point. I speak to the issue of why we charge for this service more fully here. I can only add that the people who have received evaluations from namelos overwhelmingly have felt they received value for their money.

But fair enough, skepticism is reasonable. Digital publishing is the new frontier and it's risky out here, as others are finding. Most notably, in a surprise announcement Quartet Press, which launched a few weeks ago and planned to publish romance digitally, pulled the plug this week. Kassia Krozser, one of the partners explains some of what they learned in "How I spent my summer vacation." Her “pain points” are illuminating.

As it happens, I, too, spent my summer vacation—actually most of the past year—the same way and, admittedly, the view from where I'm sitting is "through a glass, darkly." However, I recognize it as the same view I had when I started Front Street fifteen years ago, and I find it no more or less daunting now than then.

Many friends out there—authors and illustrators and publishers—are cheering us on. Thank you all. We will forge ahead.

To reiterate what I've already said, the old model is crumbling. The gatekeepers are still the major publishers, the so-called "Big Six", but the walls are coming down. Think of the ancient gates scattered around the centers of old Italian cities. They are lovely … and abandoned. Publishing is not there, yet, but publishers are struggling to come up with new models to accommodate the changing economic, technological, and competitive environment. namelos is our best shot.

And, so, we are stocking our shelves. Within the next few weeks we expect to have all of the books up in the three primary ebook formats—.epub, .mobi, and .pdf. If someone needs another format, let us know, and we'll convert the file. This fall we will publish our first three original titles, Pod by Stephen Wallenfels, Departure Time by Truus Matti, and Ramiro: Boy Soldier by Ineke Holtwijk. These books will be available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats. Finally, by the end of the month we expect to have our development site up and running with a few good books to show interested parties.

My intention is to post comments here on Sunday nights. I'll close each one with a question for you. I'm looking for an independent bookseller who will talk with me about ways that we can do business together. The old model doesn't work for us, and ours will be difficult for you. But we need to work together and namelos is open to any fair and reasonable arrangement. So, please, if you are or if you know a bookseller who is interested in tackling the nitty gritty of electronic and print-on-demand publishing, please contact me.

What is namelos?

First and foremost, namelos is a publisher of books for children and young adults. You can see our publishing credentials on the "About us" page, but, short form, we have been editing and publishing books for over thirty years. At namelos we will continue to do what we have done in the past: we will find, develop, and publish the best books for young readers. In this respect, we are traditional.

In all other respects, we are not traditional.

We will be format independent, publishing digital editions of our books as soon as they are ready, printing copies on demand to fill orders. In summary, our intention is to provide high quality content and let the market dictate format. We are out of the manufacturing, shipping, and storage business. Our books will not be returnable (unless defective or damaged).

Our authors and illustrators will be partners in a profit sharing contract. We will recover direct costs (exclusive of overhead) from gross revenues and split the balance 50/50.

Initially we will not publish full-color illustrated books because print-on-demand quality for full-color work is not yet where it needs to be for our business model. Therefore, we will enter into an agreement to develop picture books and place them with publishing partners. We will retain 15-25% of the revenues from such licenses.

Our marketing will be a combination of traditional and non-traditional. We will print copies for reviewers and anyone else who prefers paper to screens. We will also use social networking and web based marketing strategies, exploiting all of the new tools available on the Internet.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions but we do offer evaluations and editorial guidance through our publishing services division for a fee. All projects that we evaluate will automatically be considered for publication.

namelos is a new business model in an old business. Many of our practices are innovative. Some will be controversial. Our intention is to be as transparent in our operations as possible. To that end, and in service to the publishing community, we will post weekly a summary of how things are going. We are eager to engage in public dialogue with people in the field and we invite you to contact us.

Thank you for your interest in our venture and, please, stay tuned.