My 2011 Essays

Here is a quick rundown my best writing from 2011 that has appeared across several sites.

The major theme is that book publishing is amidst a major transition. Bookstores don’t know how to compete. The media is overly prone to hyperbole. And your customers don’t know what a book is anymore.

The challenges I wrote about this year are still with us and I predict 2012 will be another year of similar upheaval, the final year of a five-year disruption that started in 2007 with Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle, peaked with the 2009 Macmillan/Amazon shootout, and in its wake has created Amanda Hocking and bankrupt Borders.

Here’s to more good times in the New Year.

Spoken Word

James Parker, writing for the New York Times Book Review, has constructed my favorite sentence of the year.

At the very moment the poor old book-object dissolves before our eyes, pecked to pieces by the angry birds of Kindle, iPad and the rest, we are renewing our primary contract with the author by offering him our ears.

Parker’s essay, along with John Schwartz’s accompanying piece, make the case for the underappreciation of the audiobook (something the audiobook ads surrounding the articles want you to appreciate as well).

Part of Parker’s case for rise of audiobooks comes from Peter Osnos’s piece on The founder of book publisher Public Affairs claims a coming renaissance in audio. Osnos is accurate in his statistics when he says audiobooks sell “somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the book’s total sales.” His forecast for digital is bullish, claiming bits are going to be a real game changer for the audiobooks as people subscribe using Audible and download on iTunes.

I don’t see or believe audiobooks will actively gain market share from print books, but two things struck me reading these two devotionals to the category:

  1. Movies, concerts, theater…and reading aloud–humans love listening to human perform. Parker mentions Rob Inglis’ reading of Lord of the Rings. Two Grammys punctuate the acclaim Jim Dale has received for narrating the Harry Potter series. I can still remember listening to on cassette tape Tom Peters brilliantly read his own classic In Search of Excellence.
  2. The original form of the art is usually the best. This American Life and RadioLab are conceived to be listened to; reading the manuscript is not the same. Movies derived from books always lack the depth of the prose. I wonder if an audiobook original would be more successful? Has there been any audiobook originals?


Another view of the Paperless Book

Clive Thompson in his Wired Magazine column this month has another take on the paperless book. He believes the paper part is not going away anytime soon.

I agree.

You just have to look around my hometown of Portland, Ore. to see it. Publication Studio has largely built its premise as a publisher around only printing a book only when there is demand for it (and yes you can read it online, often for free). At the Portland State Bookstore, Odin Ink offers the capability for anyone to walk in with $10 and a manuscript and walk out with a book. And for the DIY crowd, The Independent Publishing Resource Center lets you learn how to create paper based media of all shapes and forms.

We underplay too much how well bound paper works as a device.

Creating Confusion

We are all confused.

The way I can tell is by the words people are making up to describe the current state of publishing.

Christine Onorati, owner of Brooklyn bookstore WORD said at the BEA’s independent booksellers panel “one of the hardest things is we want people to know ereading is not poison to us…. We support you if you want to eread.” Ereading? I have problems with the word ebook, but I have enormous problems with a prefixed word that distinguishes the kind of reading I am doing. I don’t remember elistening when iTunes launched? Or ewatching when Netflix introduced streaming. In all of these cases, the activity doesn’t fundamentally change based on the mechanism you use; the product is what changes. We read digital books, but that might not be descriptive enough either.

A.V. Club published an article last week titled “Rise of the super-books: Is interactivity the future of reading?” Super-book? Really? What’s interesting here is they didn’t use the term in the article itself and instead referred to the products they reviewed as interactive book apps. An editor must have wanted some extra hype with a the catchy headline.

This combination of word, image, sound, and motion lacks a descriptor in modern language and we are left to bucket everything into the poorly termed ebook category. Saying the animated Alice in Wonderland on the iPad to the illustrated edition on the Nook are both ebooks does a disservice to both.

We are living through a time of incredible disruption in book publishing, and we would all help ourselves if we talked about how we should talk about the future of our industry.

The Marketing Responsibilities of An Author

On Saturday, I spoke at the Write to Publish conference that Portland State’s student run Ooligan Press hosted for writers trying to better understand the the publishing industry. The panel I was a part of was titled “Marketing Yourself As An Author” and from watching the faces of the audience, they took most of our messages as pretty grim news.

We told them they would largely be responsible for the promotion of their book or as my publisher told me “I can’t get your mom to buy your book; only you can.” We told them every book is a network of people, places and perspectives and that the author’s job was to find people in that network who would be moved by their work. We told them the most important one of all–publishing is a popularity contest, meaning you must know people who will buy your book and tell others to buy your book.

It was interesting then to see Neal Pollack, an author with a national profile, announce in the New York Times Book Review that he is self-publishing a short novel called Jewball soon. Sharing this news on the back page of the Review is a PR opportunity that any author would welcome for his next project, but one few have the means to secure.

The network Pollack has developed over the last twenty years gave him the access to present that piece for consideration. His existing popularity makes it another story of an established author experimenting with other business models to make money from their work.

The most important point is the idea that Pollack took responsibility for the success of his next work. The New York Times didn’t call him to ask what he has been up to lately. No, he certainly pitched an editor and said “I think I have something interested to say about what has been going on in publishing and why I am choosing to try this book on my own.”

So, before you start lamenting his popularity (or what you might mistakenly perceive as his luck), start thinking instead about the steps you need to make to get that shot at writing the Essay piece for The New York Times Book Review. There might be quite a few of them, but unless you figure out what the first step is, you aren’t getting any closer to getting the gig.