Category : Deep Thoughts

  • March 14, 2014

    What's wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?

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    Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing, so let me offer some background…

    Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle. Last fall he was accused of plagiarizing the words of another author, Peter Jones, in his latest book, and in addition there were other examples given of him plagiarizing, including pages of text recreated  word-for-word from a Bible commentary and stuck into one of the church’s publications. The people at Driscoll’s church made the situation worse, first claiming it was okay because one of the obviously plagiarized documents had never been sold, then changing their story when it turns out it had indeed been sold, but saying they hadn’t made much, then blaming it all on un unnamed research assistant (even though it had Mark Driscoll’s name on it), then taking pains to criticize the “haters” instead of owning up to their own ignorance and laziness. The whole thing was a mess. Driscoll clearly plagiarized (whether you want to cut him slack and call it something else), and his publisher examined the book and released a statement that admitted there were “inadequate citations,” but defending him for handling the situation well. In the end, the entire mess faded away. I was a bit surprised, since I’ve seen books get cancelled and editorial careers get ruined over less than this. Still, we all moved on.

    Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use

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  • February 22, 2014

    Author Earnings, Amazon, and the Future of Ebooks

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    There has been a ton of discussion over a report on author earnings  by ebook authors (which you can find here: http://authorearnings.com/the-report/), the response to it (http://tinyurl.com/pcebsd5), and the responses to the responses (two of the best are http://tinyurl.com/kbjts5s and http://tinyurl.com/omkjz6v ). If you follow this discussions in our industry, you already know what’s going on: successful self-published author of Wool, Hugh Howey, did a bunch of research and came to the conclusion that self-published authors are selling more books and making more money than those publishing with traditional publishers. It was quickly pointed out that there were some problems with Howey’s work — he sells his books on Amazon, did all his research on Amazon, and (surprise!) came to the conclusion that Amazon is a great place to do your ebooks. Nevertheless, there were really some interesting things that showed up in his research:

    —Indie-published ebooks have generally higher ratings on Amazon than Legacy-published ebooks.

    —Indie-published ebooks generally cost less than Legacy-published ebooks, possibly leading consumers to the sense of getting better value from indies.

    —Indie-published ebooks may be outselling Legacy-published ebooks (this is more inferred than proven).

    —Indie-published ebooks constitute a larger percentage of books sales than we’ve been led to believe in the past (Howey estimates it’s more than 50% of all book sales, though his methodology lacks stringent validity testing).

    —Indie-published authors of ebooks are earning more per book than Legacy-published ebook authors. (Though his argument that Indie-published authors are making more overall is based on very shaky evidence.)

    It’s all fascinating stuff, and I believe his conclusion that publishing’s brightest days are ahead is spot-on. As an agent, I’ve never felt I was one of the people who needed to protect the status quo — the fact is, I believe in authors self-publishing.. Unfortunately, the debate that arose after Howey released his findings was considerably less than insightful. It’s become a fairly

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  • February 19, 2014

    What does a writing budget look like?

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    A couple of people read my Tuesday blog and asked me, “What does a writing budget look like?”

    Here’s the basic idea…

    1. The author sets a financial goal for the year. It’s got to be something that is livable (if the writer is attempting to make this a full-time job) and reachable (so there’s no setting a goal of “a bazillion dollars”). Let’s say, for someone just moving into full-time writing, the goal is $24,000 per year. Skinny, but a real wage for most writers. So figure out how much you need to earn in a year from your writing.

    2. I encourage an author to break that annual figure into monthly chunks — so in our example, the author’s goal is $2000 per month.

    3. The next step is to add up what the author expects to earn on the writing they are doing. How much in contracts does she already have? What other writing does she know she’ll be doing and getting paid for? That will help her figure out how much money is coming in, and how much she needs to add. Let’s say an author has a royalty check coming in May, expects to have completion money on a book contract in July, has a couple of self-published books releasing in April and August, and is expecting to sell a project in October. All you have to do is to figure out the amounts and write them onto your writing calendar. Nothing will give an author more clarity than hard numbers written down on a calendar — it’s a way of saying, “I’m making this… so now I need to work to make that.”

    4. The obvious thing to do next is to match up dates and amounts. If you know you’re going to be working on a book in March/April/May, you can write down how much you’re making on that project. By

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  • February 14, 2014

    Will the publisher lose money if my advance doesn't earn out?

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    I was on a long plane flight last week, and the guy next to me found out I was an agent, told me about the lousy book contract he’d received for his non-fiction book, and asked me, “Does a publisher lose money if a book doesn’t earn out?”

    I get this question a lot, and to answer it I need to beg your forebearance… Let me answer this with hard numbers, so that I can make my case. It will take a couple minutes to run the numbers.

    Remember, every business can lose money. Retail shops, service business, even publishers. I mean, if you own a shoe store, you order in shoes that don’t sell, and you have to drastically reduce prices, you can lose money on each pair of shoes sold. Publishing is no different. The publishing house pays out advances, they pay an editor, hire a cover designer, buy ink and paper, then pay a printer, and cover overhead such as the light bill and the editor’s long distance phone calls. A lot of expenses are involved in every book. I like and respect publishers, and as a longtime agent, I WANT them to make money and stay in business. So I’m just answering a question, not writing a polemic.

    That said, the argument put forth that an unearned advance equals a loss for a publisher just isn’t true. (Or at least not the whole truth.) All you have to do is look at some math…

    Let’s take some big book the publisher is doing with a celebrity. She’s created a $25 hardcover book, and the publisher has paid her a $100,000 advance. The average discount a bookstore gets when ordering a book is roughly 50% — so they’re paying the publisher $12.50 for that book. (In reality, it could be less, and there are a thousand factors determining that amount, but let’s use a conservative 50% for

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  • January 1, 2014

    My Publishing Predictions for 2014

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    I sometimes hate reading people’s predictions for the new year, since they tend to be incredibly safe (“a new author will arise and start selling well”) or so obvious a moron could have guessed it (“it will rain a lot in Oregon”). But I enjoy the notion of trying to guess what will happen, since I’ve spent my life in this business, and I tend to try and stay ahead of the curve. So here are my un-safe, non-obvious thoughts on what may happen this year…

    1. Amazon is going to start a chain of stores. Maybe it’ll be in airports, maybe they’ll start micro-stores like the kiosks you see selling headphones and chargers in airport terminals, but Amazon NEEDS to find an outlet for their Amazon-branded books. No brick and mortar store will touch them, and they need a presence in paper somewhere.

    2. Barnes & Noble is going to be sold but remain in business. Okay, I don’t have ANY insider information, even though my wife worked for them for years. We all know B&N is struggling. They may sell off their Nook business (and I’m a huge fan of my Nook, as I’ve noted on this blog several times), but I don’t think America’s largest book retailer will go under. Instead, I’m wondering if the good folks at Microsoft (who propped up the Nook with an infusion of cash two years ago) might buy the entire chain. Someone will.

    3. We’re going to see a bunch of publisher mergers. Hear me out: the rise of ebook readers led to a flood of category novels. That in turn led to the creation of countless smaller publishing houses — start-up companies that focused on one genre. But with ebook sales gone flat, and dedicated e-readers failing due to tablets, a bunch of those semi-successful smaller houses are about to be taken over by the Random Houses and HarperCollins of

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  • December 31, 2013

    What were the biggest publishing stories of 2013?

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    So we’re in a state of revolution in publishing — a season where everything about books is changing. The writing, the editing, the production, the marketing, the sales channels, even the way we read books is different from the way we did five years ago. In the midst of all that change, there has been a lot of debate over the state of the industry, with some people decrying the changes and other embracing them. Some folks (see the letter from Richard Russo that I shared on the blog last week) are worried about the decline of bookstores and the takeover by a handful of conglomerates. Others (see Konrath’s harangue via the comments section) are celebrating that power has begun to move from publishers and bookstores to writers. There are strong feelings on each side, and no doubt some truth to be gleaned from several sources.

    In the midst of all the noise, I thought it would be good to review some of the biggest publishing stories of the last year (before we all start making predictions about what will happen in 2014).

    Before I offer my thoughts, let me just state that I’m of the opinion there’s never been a better time to be a writer. There are more readers than ever before. There’s moire training available than ever before. The industry is producing more books than ever before. And the web has created more opportunities for writers than ever before. So consider me an optimist when it comes to the publishing future. With that in mind, here are what I consider the ten biggest publishing stories of 2013:

    1. Flat sales for ebooks. While it’s true we’ve watched ebooks capture a huge percentage of the market over the past five years, the expected rise to a 50/50 split between print books and ebooks hasn’t materialized. Instead, ebooks make up about 20 to 23% of all books sales… and

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  • December 30, 2013

    What's the best book you read in 2013?

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    As we wrap up 2013, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the top publishing stories of the year, make some predictions for the upcoming year, and get back to answering your questions. But first, I’d like your input on one question:

    What was the single best book you read in 2013?

    It could be fiction or nonfiction. It could be a new book that released this year, or some great book from prior years that you just discovered. But I’d like to know what your best read was in 2013.

    My list of the top ten books read this year:

    Heartbreaker, by Susan Howatch — A fascinating look at the good and evil that resides in us, told through the story of a young woman raising money for a healing center who meets a male prostitute looking for meaning in life. Perhaps the best book I read all year.

    Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker — A gritty, clear-eyed look at four victims of a still-at-large serial killer on Long Island. Great research and writing.

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer — The moving story of a nine-year-old boy who lost his father on 9/11, and who is determined to find out why and how. I was in awe of the writing.

    The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach — A wonderful novel about friendships, determination, acceptance, love, success, and baseball. (I’m a sucker for a great baseball story, and the story of Henry Skrimshander is one of the best novels I’ve read in years.)

    Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson — I love a book that makes me laugh out loud, not just smile and nod. This book by a longtime blogger will make you snort coffee through your nose. Hilarious.

    Drift, by Rachel Maddow — You won’t agree with all her conclusions, but this story of how US Presidential

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  • December 25, 2013

    A Christmas Emptying (a guest blog)

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    I’m sitting on the deck in shorts and a sleeveless blouse on an uncharacteristically warm late- autumn day, while Chevy, poodle-king of the mountain, surveys our three sloping terraces, content to sit quietly until a squirrel skitters by, tempting him to follow. He can’t resist.

    A gust of wind tempts the ash tree to shed her leaves. She can’t resist, and a cascade of sun-shot gold showers around her, a pooling lamé peignoir, a sudden denuding, a complete surrender.

    I’m undone.

    This tree, unlike our umbrageous oaks, whose leaves cling tenaciously, sometimes even after crisping, shriveled on branches, frees her foliage brazenly, willing her leaves to take simultaneous flight. One day, lush leafage shapes her sumptuous silhouette; the next, her bare, angular bones protrude in starkness. She stands unabashedly disrobed. It happens that quickly.

    There is so much I need to shed, so much I long to let go, quickly, without thought, without hesitation, without looking back. And yet, year after year, I struggle to shed my leaves. The longer I think about it, the longer I postpone, the more I cling, the more I’m immobilized, the more I’m overwhelmed. I have too many books, CDs, files, photos, unused make-up, outdated clothes—worse yet, too much fear and frenzy, worry and weariness, doubt and discontent, distraction and disorganization—too much left undone like letters to write, calls to place, visits to make, fences to mend. I make half-hearted attempts, or more promisingly, occasional pulled- up-by-my-bootstraps, full-throttled ones, but somehow, somewhere I ease up, disengage, switch gears, and my cumbersome accoutrements and careworn attitudes proliferate again. I’m back to square one.

    Baring and paring down . . . would that this could be my modus operandi like the autumn ash tree’s. Would that I would allow the fresh wind of God’s Spirit to blow through my life, rattle my bones, release my leaves, and relieve my excess—empty all that is decorative, superfluous, trivial,

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  • December 13, 2013

    An Open Letter to my Fellow Authors (a guest blog from novelist Richard Russo)

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    It’s all changing, right before our eyes. Not just publishing, but the writing life itself, our ability to make a living from authorship. Even in the best of times, which these are not, most writers have to supplement their writing incomes by teaching, or throwing up sheet-rock, or cage fighting. It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.
     
    Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here. Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that
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  • December 9, 2013

    The Care and Feeding of a Muse (a guest blog)

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    Three years ago, I was at the end of a multi-book contract. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next.  I only knew I wanted to write something different. I didn’t feel lost; I felt blank. My muse was restless. If I wasn’t going to write another book immediately, I needed a plan.

    My dear friend, author and radio host Michelle Phillips, says: “When you don’t know what to do, go serve someone else.” I took her advice, and decided to serve young adults who dreamed of becoming working writers. Working with a public middle school in Atlanta, I founded a Young Authors program. My goal was to teach them everything I knew about writing. (After that first class, I’d have to wing it.)

    Walking into middle school for our first meeting, I felt slightly nauseas. Middle school was not a season of my life I wanted to revisit. Yet here I was, about to enter that world again. I feared I still wouldn’t be cool. I feared the kids would dismiss everything I said. Or worse, that I wouldn’t say the right thing at all.

    Within five minutes, I realized that they were far less interested in what I had to say, than in my willingness to listen. I ditched my lesson plan and followed their lead.

    Now, every week, I listen to their stories. I listen to their dreams and nightmares. I get to be the adult who says, “There is beauty and power and truth in your story. No one can tell it but you. Ignore the critics. Ignore the bullies. Tell the world what you see.” What an incredible privilege. And my muse? She’s never happier than when a kid dares to read a deeply personal tale. Witnessing an act of courage is powerful stuff.

    I don’t worry about whether any of these kids will go on to write professionally. I am sinking an anchor

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