Friday, January 29, 2010

"Completely negative and pessimistic"

I recently read a manuscript that I loved and offered the author our contract which the author then submitted to the Authors Guild for review. The author wrote back to say that the response was "completely negative and pessimistic." In light of this, the author, although still enthusiastic, understandably had a few questions for me. Here they are, along with my response.

Dear _________,

Thank you for your enthusiasm in the face of the "completely negative and pessimistic" response of your advisers. These are all good questions and I want to give you a substantial response. Before I do, I'd like to establish a context. The ability to print small quantities of books, aka "short run" or "print-on-demand" or POD, has long been associated with so-called vanity presses and other self-publishing operations that offer a menu of fee-based services. They are all disparaged by the publishing establishment. While namelos also takes advantage of print-on-demand technology and, in one of our divisions, offer services for a fee, we are based on a different, hybrid business model and have a somewhat better reputation. Ironically, I faced the same attitude from the establishment when I launched Front Street, which, at the time, was as radical a business model as namelos is today. The skepticism implicit in the response to our contract is understandable but, to my mind, lamentable because it ignores the revolution taking place in the publishing industry right now. If authors can find a traditional publisher, that's great. If they can't, the skeptics seem to feel those authors are just plain out of luck. namelos is our attempt to create a viable alternative that, looking forward, accommodates the evolution of publishing and offers competitive terms.

On that note, I'll take your questions in order:

(1) Could we limit the contract to a term of two or three years after which time it can be renewed or terminated? I have read that the kind of termination provision that is found in other POD contracts allows the author to terminate after giving “notice.”

namelos is a publisher, not a manufacturer or a vanity press. We are making an investment in the author and in the book. We need to recover that investment and, hopefully, make a profit. If we successfully develop and publish the book only to have the author terminate the contract when a better offer comes along, we'll go out of business in very short order. Therefore, we are not prepared to reduce the term of the license or allow it to be terminated on "notice". The contract includes a clause specifying that sales of a certain level need to be achieved to keep the contract valid. Incidentally, this is increasingly incorporated in trade publishing contracts now that print-on-demand technology has made the old “out of print” clauses irrelevant.

(2) A few POD books have received positive attention and subsequently a traditional publisher has acquired them. Could this contract allow for the acquisition of “hard copy-traditional” rights by another publisher? Would you see this as a plus in that hard copy would support electronic sales rather than compete?

The contract already allows for the licensing of print rights to another publisher, and we are certainly open to that option. We will split the proceeds of any such license on the same basis, 50/50, that we split any and all profit. We believe that hardcover, paperback, and ebook sales are critical segments of the market moving forward. That is why we are publishing the books we originate in all three formats simultaneously.

(3) Most of the concerns about POD publishers involve marketing and promotion matters. What is your experience so far? Are bookstores ordering copies of POD books to have on hand even though unsold copies cannot be returned to the publisher for a full refund? Are reviewers accepting POD books? Do they require/prefer a “traditional” or POD copy? If so, will that be at my expense as author? Both of us want to attract readers. How will they learn about my book if it is not available in bookstores or reviewed by major reviewers? Although I do understand that you are sending copies to a selection of places. Are they accepting them for review?

We have spoken to the editors of the major review journals. They have agreed to consider our books for review (nobody will ever guarantee that they will review a book, only that they will consider reviewing it). I am pleased to say that they did this in spite of implicit and, for some, explicit restrictions, based on our reputation for publishing high quality books and, presumably, the recognition that things are changing. I am confident our books will be reviewed. We have provided reviewers with print copies unless they specifically request electronic copies. I anticipate more and more will request ebooks in the future.

Our first title has an official publication date of April 1, 2010, so we'll know pretty soon if my confidence is well placed. Our books are carried by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc. and are listed in the Bowker databases, including Books in Print. In addition, we will use the marketing techniques we have used over the years at Front Street and elsewhere, adapted to and incorporating the new opportunities provided by the internet. In short, we will market our books the same way everybody markets their books.

Incidentally, most publishers send advance reading copies (ARCs) to reviewers. These ARCs are virtually all manufactured using short run, i.e. print-on-demand, technology. Relatively few people can tell the difference between a print-on-demand book and a book printed using traditional offset printing.

In all likelihood bookstores will not stock copies of our books because they are non-returnable. Most will only order our titles when a customer requests it. The bookstore model is in transition and I think in the future there will be more ways for booksellers to work with electronic and non-returnable items. A point to consider is that bookstores stock very few hardcover juvenile novels, and those are almost exclusively by brand name authors or classics.

(4) All costs of editing, producing and marketing this book are mine – or 50% mine? I have no control over what those costs will be. In other words, it appears that I will bear a significant part of the costs of production. This isn't standard practice in other contracts I have seen. I would like to have some idea what those costs are projected to be and if they exceed a certain amount, could we agree that I be consulted or the costs shared?

Answer below.

(5) If you don't sell enough books to make up for those expenses, do they become your loss? Or would I be required to pay Namelos the balance?

namelos will invest the cash required to publish the books. The author will incur no out-of-pocket cash expenses except for books they choose to purchase at the manufacturing (plus shipping) cost. When we start to sell books or license rights and there is income, we will recover the direct costs incurred by namelos first, then we split anything above and beyond that. Authors will receive itemized statements of expenses, which will only be book specific, i.e. not including any overhead charge. (To date, these "pre-publication" or "fixed" costs are running in the $2500-$3,500 range. I fully expect they will increase.) If we never recover those costs, the author will not have to pay anything. namelos will take the loss. We will consult with authors on extraordinary expenses—this is a partnership— but, because we will incur the risk, we reserve the right to make the publishing decisions. So, to answer your question, yes, half of the expenses will come out of your share of revenues, but you will receive a much higher than traditional share of profits once those costs are recovered. All publishers build recovery of costs into their budgets.

(6) What are the advantages for Namelos to acquire rights in all languages and for all countries? Does the phrase “dramatic and non-dramatic visual…” refer to audio books? Movie or video rights?

namelos is asking for the cluster of rights traditionally assigned to a publisher. We have long term relationships with a great many publishers, domestic and foreign, as well as with an array of companies that license other subsidiary rights. If there are specific subsidiary rights that an author would like to retain, e.g. dramatic rights (i.e. "movie and video"), we can discuss what they are. The question you will want to ask yourself is, if you retain them, how will you exploit them?

I hope I have answered your questions. namelos is a new thing and all I can guarantee is that you will get our best efforts to publish your book successfully. I regret that your advisers are so negative and skeptical and I certainly don’t want to try to convince you to participate in a venture that makes you feel anything but excited. If I didn't think your book is very good, I wouldn't offer to publish it. Therefore, I would be surprised if you couldn’t find a traditional publishing house to take it on. If you choose to go that route, I wish you the very best of luck and every success.


Stephen Roxburgh
President & Publisher
namelos llc

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Publishing the new, old way. Part II

Enormous changes are taking place in publishing even as I type. Last Tuesday Publishers Lunch broke a story that Apple has been negotiating with the Big Six (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins) to supply content for what we all assume is the imminent arrival of a tablet device, possibly to be announced this Wednesday. The next day, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon was changing the deal with its Desktop Publishing clients (individuals and small publishers), from a 65/35 split in Amazon's favor to a 70/30 split in the client's favor, starting in June. It's worth noting that the current Amazon deal with the Big Six is reported to be a 50/50 split. A day later, the news broke that Amazon was releasing an SDK (Software Development Kit) for the Kindle, thereby inviting developers to generate apps (applications) for the Kindle, akin to the enormously successful Apple App program for the iPhone and iTouch. What does it all mean? It means that Apple and Amazon are wrestling, and when Titans struggle, the world shakes. Meanwhile, the Gaea (mother of the Titans) of the techno-cosmos is Google, which will launch a Google Partners program in the first or second quarter of 2010 offering a 70/30 (in the client's favor) split to deliver books from their cloud to any device. IMO, this is the game changer. In any event, when corporations the size of these move this quickly, something big is happening. We live in interesting times.

For those of you who found everything I wrote in the previous paragraph either incomprehensible or noxious, there is good news. From my perch on the bleeding edge of the lunatic fringe, as volatile and unsettled as the publishing environment is these days, some fundamentals are adamantine. Let's review the basics. Publishing is a mechanism for "making public." That's not what writers and artists do. They "make." That is not changing. Editors are not publishers. Editors help writers and artists "make better" what they "make." That is not changing. When writers and artists and editors are done making what they make, then publishers do what they do. If you are a publisher, these are truly interesting times, because the old model is in deep, deep trouble in the face of economic and technological developments. If you are a writer or artist, it's the same old same old. You just need to make the best book you can make. If you are an editor, you need to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of the gate keepers entombed in the old publishing model and the brave new world of the unfiltered (read "unedited") deluge enabled by the internet. If you are a publisher, you need to look deep and hard at what is happening, and fish or cut bait.

But, my friends and colleagues, take comfort from the fact that writers and artists do what they do and editors do what they do and nothing about that has changed. All that is in play is who gets paid for what by whom. It is not my intention to suggest this is not important, but it isn't the most important aspect of what we do. This is good because it is definitely not in our control, and, I submit, you should never let the most important thing you do be in somebody else's control.

So, new models are emerging, but elements of the old model remain. Now anybody can publish, i.e. make public, anything. But readers won't settle for anything. Incoherent ramblings won't cut it, however freely available. Quality—however you define it—is as valuable as ever. How you get paid for that is in play. The upheaval we are living through is about marketing, sales, and distribution, not content. I take great comfort in that.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

namelos annual report: a toe-hold on the lunatic fringe

We launched namelos a year ago on Inauguration Day, and we're still here. I consider this a resounding success. I promised to be forthcoming about how things are going—in the spirit of transparency and in service to the publishing community, which has been enormously supportive and encouraging. So here goes.

In the first phase of our launch we announced our "services" division, designed to help authors and artists by offering a substantial (average length: 1500 words), objective editorial evaluation in a timely manner (two weeks) for a modest price ($200). This generated some controversy and skepticism and still does. Be that as it may, we provided evaluations for 77 clients in 2009. I know of only two who felt our services were unsatisfactory, and most have expressed great satisfaction. I find this approval level acceptable. Of these 77 clients, 10 have engaged our ongoing, higher level editorial services. I find this conversion percentage acceptable. Half of our higher-level clients have agents and several have publishers. They have come to us for our editorial expertise, which pleases me. Our growth is driven by word-of-mouth. It is slow and that suits us just fine.

In September, we initiated the second phase of our launch, consisting of three new divisions.

Our ebook store went live, stocked with ebook editions of approximately 80 titles—the entire Front Street list of fiction and poetry—that we licensed from Boyds Mills Press. Moreover, we are actively seeking and acquiring rights to titles that have gone out of print and are republishing them in both print and ebook formats. I am especially pleased to be republishing Carolyn Coman's first novel, Tell Me Everything, that I originally published at FSG in 1993. The conversion process from print to electronic formats has proven interesting but we survived it and most of our titles went live on Amazon on Christmas Eve. At this point the titles are also live with Ingram and are posted in partnership with Google. We are systematically loading the books into a wide array of ebook venues. And, mirabile dictu, we are even selling books from our website as well. I want to emphacize that we (i.e. namelos and the authors) make much more money from sales on the namelos site than through other on-line stores, so if you are interested in acquiring any of our ebooks, please buy them here.

We launched our publishing program launched with Pod by Stephen Wallenfels, the first volume of a science-fiction trilogy. The first review is in: 11-year-old Robert declared it the best book he has ever read. The official publication date is April 1 (the same day I launched Front Street in 1994) but the book is available now from our website. We are breaking from the traditional publishing model by offering our books simultaneously in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats. Pod is out with all the major reviewers (who need more lead time than Robert) and we are orchestrating the distribution of materials to the rest of the review media over the next two months. I'm very excited about the book and expect good things for it. Just this week I've sent contracts off for four new books: The Forbidden Land by Betty Levin, The Sundown Rule by Wendy Townsend, The Punk Ethic by Timothy Decker, and No Name Baby by Nancy Bo Flood. In addition we have three books in the pipeline from our long-time Dutch partner, Lemniscaat: Departure Time by Truus Matti, Ramiro, Child Soldier by Ineke Holtwijk, and It's a Wonderful Life by Jesse Goossens. We are seeing more and more exciting projects coming our way.

The third division we launched is our "development" program. Our business model does not allow us to publish full-color picture books at this time, but we love to work on them. So, very, very selectivey, we have entered into agreements to develop and attempt to place some picture books with publishing partners. To date we're working on only three new projects. This year we were able to place Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson's The Memory Bank with Arthur Levine at Scholastic, and Donna Diamond's The Shadow with Joan Powers at Candlewick. We've also successfully introduced three authors to agents who have taken on their representation.

All well and good, you say, but what about the money? I'm not prepared to release our financials (and probably won't go quite that far, even in service to the community) but I will say that we've recovered the cash invested in launching the company, paid all our bills including fees to contributing members of our consortium, and there's enough left over to invest in the next phase of our growth.

So, there you have it. I'll close the report by saying that I haven't been this excited or challenged by publishing since my time as an editorial assistant at FSG in the late 70's and the launch of Front Street in the early 90's. We are publishing at the most elementary and fundamental level—finding authors, editing books, and bringing them to the public, and using all the skills we've acquired over decades. We are learning new things on a daily, almost hourly basis. Our authors are excited by our partnership and by the opportunities we see in the evolving publishing world. This is what publishing is all about. We're making a few good books and, maybe, just maybe, we'll make some money at it.

Thank you for your interest and support. Please, stay tuned.

Publishing the old, old way. Part I

December 27, 2009

A recent experience on the bleeding edge of digital publishing made me realize that my business model is more akin to Gutenberg's and Newbery's than to that of the international conglomerates that dominate the industry in these early days of the 21st century. This will be the first of several posts on various aspects of new/old publishing.

I spent much of the last few days fixing some book files that I discovered were badly broken after having them go live on Amazon and elsewhere. In one file the capital letters were dropped about a third of the time. In the other, the entire book was set in italic. These things happen because the conversion process from p- to e-books is neither exact or standardized. Because there are a great many more e-readers being used now than there were just a few days ago, I felt it was important to correct the files before too many people downloaded them. I'm not an expert or a geek when it comes to this stuff, so the learning curve is vertical for me. Using InDesign, Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive, PDFXML Inspector, Adobe Digital Editions, Calibre, and two pieces of hardware—a Kindle DX and a nook—to proofread, I dug around in pages and pages of XHTML source code for hours. I discovered that a single keystroke can wreak havoc on how a text displays. I discovered the key to the kingdom in the CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) files and was able to fix the files. Eventually I was able to generate new .pdf, .epub, .mobi, .lit, .rtf, .pdb, and .asc4 files, and re-upload them to their various repositories. Then I called it a day.

This effort reminds me strongly of my experiences 30-odd years ago handsetting lead type from trays using a type stick. Each font and point size of type was different. The letters were all reversed, i.e. mirror images, because the process was direct transfer, and kerning and work-spacing a line involved inserting thin slivers of metal—and, occasionally, a piece of paper matchstick—into the tray to justify each line of type. Nowadays this level of attention is called "granular". Back then it was just painstaking. Looking for a single keystroke in a page of HTML code is very much the same. Working at this level of granularity puts you into a book in a way that has long been lost, especially if you are also the editor and publisher of the book.

The file in which the capital letters were lost was The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff. The book was orginally published in the US by Henry Z. Walck in 1965. I read it then—I was fifteen years old—and it changed my life. It depicted a model of heroism, loyalty, and sacrifice that inspired and thrilled me. I went on to read almost everything Rosemary Sutcliff wrote and, to this day, I consider her the best writer of historical fiction I've ever read. Many years later, when I was the publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I was able to republish many of Sutcliff's historical novels, most notably the Legionnaire's Trilogy, and, I was able to publish The Shining Company, Sutcliff's last book. In 1985 I personally collected, on her behalf, the Phoenix Award, given to The Mark of the Horse Lord by the Children's Literature Association. The book didn't become available for me to publish until 2006, when I brought it out in paperback under the Front Street imprint. Now, it pleases me immensely to be publishing the first digital edition under the namelos imprint. These last few days, while many people were opening presents, eating wonderful things and, generally, kicking back, I buried myself in the source code, i.e. the words, of a story that has held me in thrall for almost 45 years, reading it very, very closely, comparing it word for word to my copy of the first Walck edition, to make sure I got it right. Who would have thought that the perils of publishing ebooks would bring me back to the core of story that I find so immensely satisfying? What a gift!

Our first title is live!

December 21, 2009

I am very pleased to publish Pod by Stephen Wallenfels as the first title on the namelos list. Pod is Steve's first novel, and there is nothing an editor finds more exciting than discovering new authors and publishing their first books. I met Steve when he participated in a Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop, taught by my wife, Carolyn Coman, and Tim Wynne-Jones. I didn't know anything about what he was writing but over dinner I learned that he and his son have an annual holiday tradition of rewatching Die Hard and I knew then and there that he was someone to keep an eye on. (You can take that any number of ways, but I mean it positively.) Subsequently Steve let me read a draft of the novel and I knew immediately that I wanted to publish it.

I’m all cried out. I’m still alone. The sky is full of giant spinning black balls that kill anyone stupid enough to go outside.

Pod is the story of a global cataclysmic event, told from the view points of Megs, a 12-year-old streetwise girl trapped in a hotel parking garage in Los Angeles; and 16-year-old Josh, who is stuck in a house in Prosser, Washington, with his increasingly obsessive compulsive father. Food and water and time are running out. Will Megs survive long enough to find her mother? Will Josh and his father survive each other?

Pod is the first book in a trilogy and is now available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats on our website.