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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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The Nook Color Review

This holiday season many readers are going to decide whether to purchase either an Amazon Kindle Fire for $199.00 or a Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet for $249.00.  But there’s another option, which is to buy a Nook Color e-reader for the newly discounted price of $199.00 (at sellers like Target, Wall-Mart and Staples, in addition to Barnes & Noble).   Since I’ve owned a Nook Color device for a few weeks, I decided to write-up my impressions – for what they’re worth – here.   Maybe my experience will assist someone who is attempting to make an informed decision about the pluses and minuses of owning this 7″ tablet, with a small “t”.

With any reading device the strongest impression is going to come from the quality of the viewing screen.   The screen on the Nook Color, made by LG, is bright, sharp and offers great depth when viewing color scenes.   The depth is so noticeable that it seems to be a 3-D type of effect, and will be greatly appreciated by avid photographers.   When it comes to devices smaller than the now almost standard 10.1-inch tablets, the Nook Color’s screen is second in quality only to the Samsung Galaxy Tab in the 8.9″ Goldilocks-sized version.   Buying the Samsung involves spending $449 to $549.   So, the high quality viewing experience on the Nook Color is literally a bargain.

I’m not able to read books on a PC because of eye strain issues, but eye strain has not been a problem with the Nook Color.   This may be because the screen has been treated with an anti-glare solution, or because it is remarkably easy to adjust the brightness at any time to compensate for a change in lighting conditions.

The web browser on the Nook Color is very, very fast – and definitely faster than when one’s browsing pages on a netbook, low-priced laptop or an antiquated BlackBerry “smart phone” made by RIM.   If you have an opportunity to test a Nook Color, try calling up a Wikipedia page on almost any subject and you’ll see that it loads wickedly fast.   Of course, since the Nook Color is a Wi-Fi only device, actual speeds will vary depending on the capacity of your home wireless network.

I tested the public Wi-Fi feature in a restaurant in downtown Oakland, CA where the system required a log-in password, and it worked effortlessly and flawlessly.   And, of course, you can use the Nook Color in any Barnes & Noble store, where the device automatically connects to the bookseller’s network.   Downloading a book that you’ve ordered from the Barnes & Noble shop takes just seconds (and always less than 10 seconds), and you can read a sample preview of almost any book that’s offered for sale.   With the bestseller Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the free sample is an excerpt of the first 118 pages!

If the Nook Color trips on occasion, it’s when it comes to memory.   In theory, you can stop reading a book at any point and return to it hours or days later and the device will remember the last page you were on.   However, in practice, this only works about 75 percent of the time…  The more hours/days that you put the Nook Color down, the less likely it is to remember where you were last.   The device is also supposed to let you select a home page of your own, but even after following the very specific directions needed to set your personal home page, the Nook Color will periodically forget your selection and open with the staid Barnes & Noble page.   Sigh.

Battery life seems to be fine while you’re reading or surfing the web, but if you let the device run down to 5% or so of its remaining power, you’ll be sad to find out that it will take a full three hours to recharge it fully.   Three hours seems like an eternity now when the best smartphones can recharge in less than half an hour.

The build quality on the Nook Color seems to be admirable, and it’s a small device with some heft.   On the flip side, it often feels a bit too heavy when one’s spending a good period of time holding it while reading.   The new Nook Tablet is 1.7 ounces lighter, which seems like a positive development.

If the Nook Color were a book rather than a technological device, I’d rate it on the borderline between Well Recommended and Highly Recommended.   As a practical e-reader and web surfing machine, it gets the job done 98% of the time, and the price is just right at $199.00.   But today, for an extra $50.00, you can have a Nook Tablet that’s lighter, faster (with a dual-core rather than single core processor), and has a longer-lasting battery.   All that’s needed now is for some boy or girl genius to develop a turbo-boosted charger for the Nooks that will recharge them in 20 minutes instead of 3 hours!

Joseph Arellano

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