Books! This week!
Lots of heads were shaking about a story in the New York Times this week: Veteran author gets rejected by 13 publishers, then she adopts a pen name and the book sells in three days.
Now, it’s easy to chalk this one up to the fickleness/stupidity of publishers, as lots of people have done in the past week, but it’s not quite that simple. Yeah, publishers definitely look at the sales track of an author, but that’s because booksellers are doing the exact same thing when they place orders. It’s really, really hard to go to booksellers with a new book by an author with an established sales track and convince them to order drastically more copies. And reviewers and even readers can be lured in by the cachet of a hot new writer on the block. So chalk this one up instead to the modern bookselling culture.
A culture, incidentally, that’s going to change very much as online bookselling and e-books continue their ascent.
Meanwhile, publishing industry sage Mike Shatzkin has some very helpful context on why publishers are so reluctant to let libraries lend e-books. This is definitely a tricky issue for publishers, and I don’t envy them being on the wrong side of public sentiment on this one. Publishers are looking at a landscape where library patrons don’t even have to go to the library to borrow an e-book – they can do it from home. Why would anyone buy an e-book once they figured out how to legally get tons of books for free just as easily?
People tend to act like the new e-book world should operate exactly like the print world when it’s convenient – people should be able to give away their book when they’re finished and there should be no DRM whatsoever, they should be able to borrow them from libraries. But I don’t think you can ignore fundamental physical differences. With e-books you can give away a million copies all at once and download an e-book from the library in your pajamas. It drastically changes the economics of publishing, and I think the industry should be cut some slack as everyone works it all out.
And lots of agent advice this week: Mary Kole has a great post on questions you might be asked when offered representation, Rachelle Gardner has 13 ways to impress an agent, Writer Beware talks about why poets shouldn’t seek literary agents, and Alan Rinzler talked to four great agents about why writers still need to have an agent.
This week in the Forums, when is the best time to start a blog, people are sharing their daily word count output in February, what to do when your hero is the bad guy, and advice for a nonfiction writer.
Comment! of! the! Week! Goes to Josin L. McQuein for her comment on writers as magicians:
A step that a lot of people miss with writing is to realize that they’re capturing 3 dimensions in 2, like those posters of dots that become 3-d images when you look at them right.
Writing is the evolution of the tribal storyteller and the wandering bard, both skills that required movement and tone – the occasional flourish of hands or dance or tossing of sparking powder into a fire for effect. Writers don’t have those luxuries, so they have to trap those breaths on the page.
Telling a tale is taking the reader’s hand and dragging them behind you like an excited child who can’t help but point out every unexpected delight as they run along. You’re wanting to show them what happens, they want to explore, and intend to come back after their first read to see what wonders they missed.
It’s a thread that connects the past to the future, and the voices of those long since dead who continue to live through the words they spoke into being. Their breath catches the next voice and the next until they’re spoken out 2,000 years later.
And that, most definitely, is its own kind of magic.
Have a great weekend!
As soon as I read that comment by Josin I thought what a perfect comment of the week it would be. Josin knows how to do it, man. She is the MVP of the commenters.
Ted Fox says
An established author's sales record potentially working against her/him when trying to get a new book published does make sense since, as you point out, booksellers have something against which they can project.
At the same time, it feels like the bizarro Seinfeld. As unpublished authors, we can spend years trying to build a platform so a publisher will take us seriously. And now here's someone who did all that finding success by reverting back to being anonymous like us.
(That was a bad Seinfeld reference, by the way, not an angry way of ending this comment.)
Lisa Shafer says
I hadn't heard the Kate Allcott story. Thanks for posting about it. 🙂
Josin L. McQuein says
The sales rank trail is one of the reasons I want to sell as many things as possible before any books hit the shelves. There's no rankings to track yet. 😛
(and thanks for the comment shout-out, Nathan, but I kind of cheated. I'd posted something on the same topic before, so I already had the words ready 😉 )
Tht Kate story was interesting
Thanks for the heads up, Nathan (employed by C-Net). Forget Chrome! I'm sticking with Firefox!
Also, about the person who found a publisher under a pseudonym–couldn't there be other factors at work? Such as, that the MS landed in the hands of just the right person this time.
Chase March says
I love books . . . but I rarely buy them.
Pretty much all of my reading comes thanks to the public library.
I fear a day when printed books won't be as accessible and ebooks will be the norm. If you still can't access those books for free from the library, it would be a great shame.
People who can't afford to buy books will be out of the reading loop. Avid readers who simply can't buy everything they read would also lose out.
Making ebooks equivalent to paper books is the best option. Libraries can buy the same copy of an ebook every few years like how they'd have to replace bound books that start to fall apart over time. I'm sure we could come up with a formula to make it work and everyone would be happy.
Rashad Pharaon says
I'm glad Ms. O'Brien was able to sell the book under a pseudonym, however I must disagree with her approach. Yes, it worked, but a different name doesn't change her voice or track record.
I wish her the best and hope Ms. Alcott does indeed garner strong sales. After all, marketing is half of the battle.
Evangeline Holland says
You also cannot ignore the fact that O'Brien/Alcott's book featured a significant event of which this year is its centennial (the sinking of the Titanic). The timeliness of the submission and the enthusiasm editor who acquired the book, via the Cameron film, is a testament to that.
Robin Coyle says
I look forward to this newsy post. Thanks!
Very interesting links!! Thank you, Nathan.
abc, I had the same reaction when I read Josin's comment – that it would be a perfect comment of the week. Beautifully written.
In terms of the author rejected 13 times until she used a pen name, I hope this gets people thinking. I think most authors get better over time as they hone their craft and gain experience. That's important to think about in terms of human resources.
Also, discarding those authors encourages them to self-publish. I would imagine the last thing publishers need is more authors with skill, experience and backlists self-publishing, especially if they do so because they feel dumped and discarded. Publishers don't seem to worry about this type of ill will at all, but I think they SHOULD.
Why not think out of the box with these folks? If bookstores won't buy them, e-publish them until there is a record of sales and then sell them in bookstores…would that work?
In terms of libraries, I guess I don't understand the economic threat…? If publishers give 4 e-books to a library, then four people at a time can read them. If it's a book in demand, won't most people tire of waiting and go out and buy the book?
And there are benefits to library loans – those who read it at the library, if they like it, might buy a copy, or recommend it to their friends. Plus, publishers keep public goodwill. I guess I'm not seeing the downside, but maybe there's something I'm not understanding…?
I did like Shazkin's article and his point about the threat to publishers of print being sold on-line. ie. Amazon. Fascinating. I still think the bigger threat is e-books replacing paper, but his point is really insightful.
Okay, that's it. Hope everyone's having a nice weekend! It's gorgeous here, and it's FEBRUARY!!
Karen A. Chase says
Read the book, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain." It's about a bear that finds a manuscript and wanders into New York with it. Publishers woo and fall all over him. Reading about what happened with Pat O'Brien/Kate Alcott, made me realize that the book was more true to life than ever. They'll buy a book from a nobody, and then become "incredibly fond" of a person that doesn't exist when the book does well. Perhaps I'm making a mistake in attempting to create an author platform before going to a publisher.
Ishta Mercurio says
Yeah, I'm with you on the whole Publishers and libraries-lending-e-books thing. But people like convenience more than they like fairness a lot of the time.
As you pointed out Nathan, it's unfair to point to the fickleness/stupidity of the publishing business.
But..I think it IS fair to point to oft-mentioned *intractibility* of the publishing business.
The problem is this is yet another example of the publishing business' inability to see possibilities.
The same way the failed to see the possibilities in e-books and indie authors is the same way they allowed a name and a previous sales record to completely blind them to the quality of the book.
Nobody expects publishers and agents to have a crystal ball. But we would hope they'd have the next best thing; the ability to take a chance and roll the dice on an opportunity.
After all, writers do it all the time.
Nathan, I'm not sure if you're actually unaware of the library ebook model, but just in case: libraries cannot instantly give away a million ebook copies to pajama-clad patrons. Ebooks can only be "checked out" to one verified library patron at a time, so it's the equivalent of print book circulation. Yes, patrons can check out ebooks from home, but chances are the ebook will be checked out and have a months-long wait list.
The ebooks being offered to libraries are far inferior to the print versions: they're way more expensive, the library doesn't own them, publishers can remove the books from the library's collections (see Penguin), they can't be sold or transferred to another library, and there are widespread technical issues with the DRM. Publishers have already built in so many barriers to library ebook lending that most reasonable people of any means would just buy the book. Meanwhile, publishers are demanding even more "friction", like having to go to a physical location to check out or ebooks that self-destruct. At this point, it's hard to justify using taxpayer money to pay for a product so fundamentally broken.
Given all these barriers to use, I fail to see how ebook library lending is more dangerous than print lending to the economic health of publishers. Libraries and publishers have co-existed for 150 years or more. Publishers may be concerned about their bottom line, but they should think carefully about the long-term effects of monetizing every reading transaction. Libraries have been integral in creating and supporting the reading culture. If publishers cut libraries out completely, that culture will weaken, and their customer base will shrink. Fewer readers equals fewer book buyers.
Nathan Bransford says
I'm aware of the model but thanks for the background issue for others. I honestly don't know the reasoning behind the publishers' actions except what Shatzkin has said, though even with the one-at-a-time model I think there's a big difference between having to go to the library to get a print book vs. downloading an e-book in your pajamas. Yeah, the e-book you most want to read may be checked out, but instead of having to wander around the stacks you can just find another in a few clicks. It's a very different experience, and I think publishers are probably right to be careful about it.