meanwhile, at Bouchercon – SinC into Great Writing, #1

September 24, 2011

I’m interrupting my participation in the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary challenge to post some notes from a workshop held the day before Bouchercon 2011 , which, by the by, was extremely well-organized and fun; got to a lot of excellent panels and enjoyed the roomy and well-stocked book room. Previous SinC workshops had focused on the craft of writing and, according to a member survey, have been well received.

This year, the focus was different, partly because there were plans for the Mystery Writers of America to run a session of their MWA University at the same time (though in the end that didn’t happen). But it also seemed like an opportunity to do a program focused on the business of writing in an era when things are changing so fast. The issues tackled in this workshop were where is the publishing industry headed? how does an author decide whether to invest her time in trying to publish the traditional way or self-publish? and what is actually involved in creating self-published e-books (with a particular focus on writers recovering rights to previously-published books and turning them into ebooks) ? It’s shape was a bit of an hourglass, with broad issues, first, becoming narrowly focused on how-to before dinner, and then back out to a broader picture at the end when three speakers tackled marketing.

The first speaker was David Wilk, CEO of Booktrix, who teaches a course at the NYU publishing school on marketing. The last time he taught the course he was surprised that none of the students plan to work in traditional publishing. He cited a survey reported in Publisher’s Lunch that found readers of ebooks don’t know or care where they come from. The author is what matters, not the publisher, when making a choice.  Most publishers don’t have brands other than their authors (who might switch publishers). Small publishers are much better at developing a coherent niche and identity for their lists.

By offering self-publishing tools, Amazon is becoming a publisher; David pointed out that it’s not exactly true that you’re “self” published when another entity has control over making the connection between the customer and the book. He recommended reading MJ Rose’s essay, “The Writer as Willy Loman” about writers as business owners. Writers need to balance the time used up in public contact online with actually producing books.

He said that unlike other products, there is no predictable product line for publishers; each book is unique and has a unique audience – though this explains why series and big names are so well-liked – the marketing for a known entity is much simpler than developing an audience for an unknown quantity.

There’s a shift in the way that consumers see companies; they want to have a relationship with the companies they patronize. It can’t be broadcast, one-way communication. In a crowded market, this makes things more complicated – to be a bestseller you need to sell more, but the old “megaphone marketing” no longer works in most instances. “It’s not about promoting the next book,” he said. “It’s about an evolving relationship with readers.” He warned against relying on massive companies as intermediaries; they are bad for the ecology of books. If we trade dependence on the big six publishers for dependence on the big two—Amazon and Apple—is this truly healthier? (Interesting that Google didn’t make it onto his list – maybe with the settlement faltering it’s seen as less of a player.) He mentioned that booksellers and librarians have always been strong defenders of intellectual freedom, but they are cut out of the picture when the intermediaries control both the content and its access. Think about the long-term consequences of letting businesses control content, access, and the preservation of culture. (Insert my loud cheering and whistling here.)

He feels we’re at a Gladwellian tipping point and the plethora of new platforms and the changing relationship between reader and writer will alter things significantly. “Print publishing is in a lot of trouble,” he said. Economies of scale in printing favor big print runs. Now there are much smaller print runs (which are more expensive in per unit costs) as a cost-savings measure, which is an indication that the major publishers are not doing well. He predicted there we may have a big three in a few years instead of six.

He said that, when it comes to print on demand options, he feels Lightning Source is a better option for authors than other digital short-run publishers because they are owned by Ingram so can  distribute books more efficiently.  (They do have setup costs that other options don’t charge, and they don’t automatically distribute your books; someone has to want them enough to make it worth it.) He believes the thing that has been keeping the hardcover alive is Amazon’s deep discounts. People will buy a harcover if it’s discounted to the price of a trade paperback. The agency pricing dispute, he says, is really about fending off the ebook future for as long as possible – sustaining the current model by keeping prices high.

When planning for a long writing career, a major question is how much a writer wants to do for herself. DIY or purchase services? Publishing is becoming a service industry. The cost of services is in flux: trending downward, but there’s a range of prices, depending on what you want and whether you want to deal with an upfront payment or postpone spending money by sharing a percentage of sales.

That was just the first speaker. More to come – though you may be relieved to know that my note-taking slowed as the day wore on.

photos courtesy of koalazymonkey and jacktwo.