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The Critical Eye

Looking_Back_at_2014

Looking Back at 2014

With the calendar year about to quickly come to an end, I’ve been giving some thought to positives and negatives in the book trade, and personal lessons learned. So here are a few musings.

The All-Too-Common Plot

One thing that has highly surprised me this year is how often I’ve seen novels – virtually all written by women writers, which have been built on the same plot structure. It’s a bit odd to have seen at least tens of books using a very similar story line in 2014. Here’s the story: Judy Johnston has been away from her hometown for years. She is estranged from her family and her old friends, but returns due to the death of a parent, a once-close relative, a one-time good friend and/or classmate or an old flame. While back in her old stomping grounds, she discovers that her family has a deep, dark secret. It’s something major which, when she discovers and releases it – and she, no doubt, will do so – will either fix the family or utterly destroy it.

I have no problem with a writer finding a good story line and using it, even if others have done so. But I have been surprised that publishers don’t exercise more effort to prevent the recycling of an over-used, if fictional, tale.

Facebooking It

It’s clear that more writers, especially debut authors, are participating in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I see author pages on Facebook as being quite helpful. In fact, when I receive a new book from a publisher one of the first things I do is to check to see if the writer is on Facebook. Why? This viewing gives me a quick sense of his or her personality.

They say that first impressions count and one’s Facebook page often makes one seem likeable or not. Arrogance on the part of a writer is probably the biggest negative on social media; Facebook makes it easy to come across as humble and excited. (One of the best things about debut authors is their use of exclamation points on Facebook, which demonstrates their genuine excitement as “newbies” to the publishing world!)

I think it’s hard to “fake it” and appear to be something you’re not on Facebook. You either love working with other others or don’t; you love cats and dogs, or don’t. You either can handle criticism or you can’t. Again, one’s personality shines through for better or worse.

What’s my point here? Simply that I’m more likely to read and review a book by a writer whose personality and experiences I like and identify with. And the more I know about new writers, the more I’m likely to bond with them. (Which translates into my being more likely to read their current and future work.)

Everything Changes

Most of us have had the experience of listening to a record album for the first time after decades and wondering why we liked it in the first place. The reverse also occurs… I was never drawn to the music of David Bowie when it was originally released; however, now I find it fascinating. Why this happens is unclear, but this year I learned that what one thinks of a book can change with the times and circumstances.

As an example, I offer The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I first read the book when it was released and my reaction was, Meh. It had no impact on me, and I decided not to write up a review. Recently, I happened to pick up the book and learned to my surprise that I now found it engaging and extremely well-written. I initially missed the clue that Parkhurst was writing somewhat in the style of Joan Didion – the connection between The White Album by the Beatles (and the book by Didion) and The Nobodies Album title is made clear early on. And then there’s the fact that the story is set in San Francisco – a place I’ve come to better know, and Parkhurst’s scene descriptions are true and realistic.

The Nobodies Album (audio)

And so I went from having no opinion on The Nobodies Album to viewing it as a 4.5 star novel.

Falling Off A Cliff

The final trend that I, and my wife, discovered this year is an unfortunate one. This is when the initially successful author writes a second or third novel and it flows quite well, until… It quickly and abruptly ends! Ends so suddenly that the story seems to have fallen off of a cliff. I suspect that this happens because the publisher wants a follow-up to a successful book and sets a strict timeframe for its delivery. I’d like to optimistically believe that in 2015, publishers will display a bit more patience and allow their writers the time it takes to bring a story to its natural conclusion.

Looking Forward

Let’s hope that in 2015 we see more originality, increased social networking on the part of authors, and novels with well constructed endings. And, as readers, let’s remember that one benefit of owning a book is the chance to re-experience it at our leisure.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the San Francisco Book Review site:

http://sanfranciscobookreview.com/2014/12/looking-back-at-2014/

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Publishers Versus Authors?

Why Book Publishers Hate Authors by Michael Levin

Michael-Levin11

It seems so…  unliterary.   But publishing houses despise authors and are doing everything they can to make their lives miserable.   Here’s why.

Authors are admittedly a strange lot.   There’s something antisocial about retreating from life for months or years at a time, to perform the solitary act of writing a book.

On top of that, authors are flaky.   They promise to deliver a manuscript in April and it doesn’t come in until October.   Or the following April.   Or the April after that.   This leaves publishers with several options, all of them bad:  revise publishing schedules at the last-minute; demand that authors turn in projects on time, regardless of quality; cancel books altogether; or sue the authors (as Penguin has begun to do) for undelivered or poor quality work.

Authors are also prickly about their work.   There are few jobs on the planet in which people are utterly free to ignore the guidance, or even mandates, from their bosses.   Yet book authors are notoriously dismissive of their editors’ advice.   When I was writing novels for Simon & Schuster back in the late 1980s, my editor, Bob Asahina, used to tell me, “You’re the only writer who ever lets me do my job.”

Also, annoyingly, writers expect to be paid.   Maybe not much, but something.   The Authors Guild produced a survey in the 1970s indicating that writers earned only slightly more, on an hourly basis, than did the fry cooks at McDonald’s.   Publishers were still responsible for paying advances to authors, hoping that the authors would turn in a publishable manuscript – which doesn’t happen all of the time.

So it’s understandable that publishers might feel churlish and uncharitable toward authors, on whom their entire publishing model depends.   But since the 2008 economic meltdown hit Publishers’ Row, the enmity has turned into outright warfare.

The three R’s of the publishing industry, the strategy for survival, quickly became, “Reduce royalties and returns.”   Returns are books that come back unsold from bookstores.   Printing fewer copies typically ensures fewer returns.   Reducing advances and royalties – money publishers pay writers – was the other main cost that publishers sought to slash.

And slash they did.   More and more publishers moved to a minimal or even zero advance business model.   They said to authors, “We’ll give you more of a back-end on the book, and we’ll promote the heck out of your book.   We’ll be partners.”   Some partners.   Zero advance combined with zero marketing to produce…  that’s right.   Zero sales.

And then who caught the blame for the book’s failure?   Not the publisher.   The author.

Today, any time an agent or acquisitions editor considers a manuscript or book proposal from an author, the first place they go is BookScan.com to get sales figures.   These numbers used to be proprietary to the house that had published the book; now they’re out in the open for all to see.   And if an author’s sales numbers are poor, no one thinks to blame the house for failing to market the book.   The author’s career is essentially over.   One and done.   Next contestant, please.

It’s completely unfair, but destroying the options of a writer actually has some benefits for publishers.   Which leads me to think that publishers are actually happy when authors fail.

As authors gain traction in the marketplace, their fees go up.   They can charge a publisher more money for their next book.   The problem is that there’s no guarantee that the next book will sell well enough to justify the higher advance the publisher had to pay the author.   So if publishers can turn writing into a fungible commodity, they no longer have to worry about paying more, or potentially over-paying for a book.

If publishers can commodotize writing, they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable, and unpredictable writers.   They can lower the costs, they can guarantee that their schedules will be adhered to, and they can keep the trains running on time.   The problem is that they destroy the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book.   As the quality of books diminishes, book buyers are less likely to turn to books the next time they need to get information about a given topic.   They’ll go to Wikipedia, they’ll do a Google search, they’ll phone a friend.   But they won’t buy another book.

Publishers have begun to hate authors.   But seeking to squeeze out the individuality and admittedly the eccentricity of authors is just one more reason why book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.

Book publishing process chart

New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank survivor Michael Levin runs www.BusinessGhost.com, and is a nationally acknowledged thought leader on the future of book publishing.

This opinion piece reflects the views of its author.   It does not represent the opinions or views of Joseph’s Reviews, and is presented in the spirit of fostering public discussion on key, important issues.

For more on this topic see the article, “Ten Ways to Save the Publishing Industry,” by Colin Robinson:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/12/ten-ways-to-save-publishing-industry

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Publishers, Weakly

What the Penguin/Random House Merger Really Means by Michael Levin

When I saw the word “synergies” applied to the proposed merger of publishing giants Penguin and Random House, I laughed out loud.   “Synergies” is Wall Street-speak for “Let’s merge two failing companies, fire half the employees, run the resulting business more cheaply, suck out all the money we can as quickly as we can, and then leave the wounded, gasping beast that is the resulting company to die a miserable, public death.”

Which is exactly why “synergies” best describes the merger of two of the biggest names in the publishing industry, which is wringing its hands over the immediate consequences of this deal, which really represents one more death rattle of the once thriving book publishing trade.

Here’s what happens now:  lots of editorial, marketing, and other jobs will vanish.   Agents will have fewer places to sell books.   Fewer books will be published.   Authors will get even less money (if that’s possible, since some publishers are paying zero advances whenever they can get away with it).   And the pontificators will pontificate on what it all means to society (not much, since most of society has already given up on reading books).

Here’s what happens next:  the remaining major publishers will find it harder to compete, because the resulting publisher (Penguin House?) will be able to produce books more cheaply.   So they’ll fire people, merge, fire more people, and eventually roll over and die.

All because publishers never figured out how to deal with the Internet and how to sell books in a wired world.   All because publishers considered themselves “special” and thought they could get away with selling products they didn’t market.   All because publishers are English majors wearing Daddy’s work clothes and pretending to be business people, running their businesses on whim and gut feeling instead of figuring out what people want and giving it to them, the way smart businesses work.

I have no pity for the fallen publishers.   In Wall Street terms, there isn’t enough lipstick in the world to make these pigs kissable.   They had the responsibility to shape society by providing it with books worth reading, to create a cultural legacy for our generation and generations to come.   And instead, what did they give us?

Ann Coulter, Navy SEALs, and Fifty Shades of Gray.

The publishers will blame everyone in sight for their predicament, but this is a self-inflicted wound; what the Brits would call an “own goal.”

You can’t run a successful business passively waiting for people (in this case, literary agents) to tell you what you should produce.   You can’t run a successful business by throwing 10,000 strands of spaghetti (or 10,000 books a year, in Random House’s case) against the wall of public opinion and seeing what sticks.   You can’t run a successful business selling information in the form of printed books by putting them on trucks to distant cities, hoping that booksellers (anyone who can fog a mirror, run a cash register and repeat the phrase, “We don’t have it but we could order it for you.”) will actively sell your stuff to people.

Bottom line:  You can’t run a successful business when you are essentially competing with yourself.   If Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell a Simon & Schuster book within three weeks, it sends the book back to Simon & Schuster, at Simon & Schuster’s expense, only to have that same space on the shelf filled with…  wait for it…  a different Simon & Schuster book.   That’s not marketing.   That’s masochism.

A New York editor who worked at Penguin once told me that his boss called all the employees into a meeting and said, “If there’s any merger talk, you’ll hear about it from me and not from The New York Times.”   A few days later, he was reading The New York Times on the subway on the way to work, and read that Penguin was merging with another publisher.   Here we go again.

If it weren’t for Fifty Shades of Gray, Random House (and Barnes & Noble, for that matter) would have been on life support.   There would have been nothing left to merge.   Penguin’s owner, Pearson LLC, is the smartest guy in the room, dumping off Penguin’s trade publishing on Bertelsmann, a German conglomerate which somehow still thinks it can make money selling books.   And now a few thousand more publishing employees are going to leave the world of books and hit the bricks.

So let the hand wringing begin.   The collapse of a once proud industry has taken a giant step backward.   And there ain’t no synergies in that.

Michael Levin is a New York Times bestselling author and Shark Tank survivor.   He runs the Business Ghost website, and is a nationally acknowledged expert on the future of book publishing.

Note:  This opinion piece represents the views of its author.   It does not represent the opinions or views of Joseph’s Reviews, and is presented in the spirit of fostering public discussion on key, important issues.

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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