on fairness: authors, libraries, and our future

January 27, 2013

kids reading

I’ve been reading tweets from the ALA midwinter meetings, and before that catching tidbits from Digital Book World, and of course hearing daily from librarians about the various ways that the ebook models emerging from the head offices of publishers are bizarrely borked. A few days ago I was trying to explain this tangle to a blogger who wonders what people can do to support the ability of academic libraries to satisfy multiple student learning styles and preferred reading platforms. The example he gave was a book he wants to assign in class that comes from Harvard Business Review, which won’t even allow faculty to assign articles in journals the library licenses for the campus. That site license only applies to articles you don’t have to read. If a teacher says you have to, somebody has to pay per semester, per students. And we’re supposed to police all this nonsense. It’s enough to make a pacifist a little stabby.

The combination of insanely complex limitations being placed by different publishers on what libraries and the communities they represent can acquire and share and the general perception that libraries aren’t good for the book business is frustrating. But it’s equally frustrating to hear from my fellow authors that librarians have to be patient. This is just a bump in the road until the industry figures out what’s a fair business model.

I ended up ranting a bit when this came up on a discussion list populated mainly by writers. This idea of chilling out until the fairness thing gets worked out pushed a button, the one at the top of the keyboard with an icon of a mushroom cloud on it. Funny how often that button launches a blog post. So here is my discussion list response, tidied up from my morning not-enough-coffee-yet, too-much-excitement sprawl.

on fairness

Full disclosure, I am a librarian, though I work at an academic library, where we don’t generally get to buy fun books. This issues we have with digital books are different than those public librarians have (which is itself a bit worrying, the gap between trade publishing and scholarly books growing even wider, but that’s another issue for another time). My beef here is more as a reader and writer than as a librarian.

Here’s my question: Is it unfair that libraries can loan print books until they fall apart and don’t have to throw them out when publishers say so? Is it unfair that libraries don’t have to pay three or four times the cover price for a book? Is it unfair that libraries are allowed to loan out frontlist and popular titles? All libraries want to do is what they’ve done in the past – pay a reasonable price for a book and let one person at a time read it. Publishers say that’s not fair. Not enough friction (a fancy word for artificially-induced inconvenience), not enough profit. Could bring the business to its knees.

Really? Then the survival of publishing is a freaking miracle. People have been reading books borrowed from libraries for quite some time. Going to a library is not so full of friction that hardly anyone does it. A majority of Americans have library cards and have checked out at least one book in the past 12 months. That hasn’t ruined the book business, it’s helped it. Being able to check out digital books from home – or, more commonly, fill out a form to get in line to borrow a book as soon as the 47 people ahead of you have had their turn – isn’t going to suddenly mean borrowing a book is so insanely easy that nobody will buy books in future, anymore than being able to check books out of a library before the Internet was invented  led to the sudden collapse of all bookstores. Also, bear in mind there wasn’t a button on the library shelf where a checked-out book had been saying “if you want to avoid waiting in line, push this button and you can buy it instantly.” There is a button like that on many digital library shelves. And it’s still not fair enough for publishers.

The only threat libraries pose to the book industry is if they are prohibited from fulfilling their role of introducing new authors to readers and developing an appetite for reading among young people, which is what will happen if publishers get to define “fair.”

Library users are book buyers. This isn’t anecdote, there’s hard data to show this is true. Publishes are unwilling to consider existing evidence that libraries are a keystone species in the book ecosystem. That’s an inconvenient distraction from the new power they wield to control how and what communities can read, and from their understandable obsession with Amazon’s power.  Libraries are the dog they can kick when the Department of Justice tells them to stop bullying Amazon.

But forget that data, let’s just do some simple numbers. If libraries are required to pay three or four times as much for an ebook so that publishers get their “fair” price, that means libraries will buy one ebook and will not buy three other books. Three sales gone, three discovery opportunities lost. Those books not bought are likely to be the ones library patrons aren’t already begging for. The ones ripe for discovery.

Some publishers want to “window” library use by selling access only to backlist titles. If libraries can’t stock a variety of frontlist books, readers won’t have the opportunity they’ve had in the past to discover authors who are not already well-established or have published a blockbuster best seller. If you are a traditionally published author who hasn’t spent a few weeks on the bestseller list, the public library is your best customer, because it will introduce your work to a lot of people who won’t hear about it otherwise. And if they like it, they will become your customers, too.

You can’t pay for this kind of word of mouth. But you can price it too high or make it wait too long to matter, long after you tried to get a contract for your next book but couldn’t because your sales record wasn’t strong enough.

As citizens and taxpayers, ask yourself if it’s fair to let publishers redefine who gets to read these days, and under what conditions. As business people … well, I hate to break it to you, but book publishers are not really that clever at figuring out what’s best for the book industry. So it’s not just whether it’s fair, it’s whether it’s good for the business they claim to represent. If you care about the future of the industry, don’t let publishers cut libraries out of it. We’ll all be sorry.

So endeth the rant. Peace be with you. Go forth and read.

photo courtesy of courosa

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SinC into Great Writing, #3 (final)

September 30, 2011

Ellen Hart spoke next, giving a practical outline of what is involved in putting a book online, steps she had to figure out when she decided to convert her backlist titles of the Jane Lawless series into ebooks.

  • First, you need to be sure you have the publication rights or work to get rights reverted from the original publisher. This can take some time. She found that dealing directly with the publisher was the most efficient way.
  • You need to get the printed book scanned (she had hers done by a company that does this using a device that looks like “a tiny tanning bed for books”) – or you can work from a digital file. Make sure any editorial changes that were made are reflected in the digital file. If you use a company to do this step, you’ll want to get the scanned files back in mobi, ePub, and pdf formats. Mobi is the format Amazon uses; most other ebook vendors use ePub. Among such companies are 52novels, BookBaby, and Booknook. (Ellen was very happy with Kimberly Hitchens at Booknook.)
  • Cover design  is important. Ellen said that words have to be relatively HUGE and graphic has to be simple and sharp in order to stand out when only postage-stamp size. She recommends The Book Designer as an interesting blog on the topic of cover art.
  • She recommends giving each book an ISBN, which can be purchased at www.isbn.org. This is expensive, so buy in blocks if you plan to do more than one book. Because an ISBN is so commonly used to identify books, it’s extremely important for distribution. (NB: This is the key to why Amazon started selling books. There was no other widely-used consumer product with a standard inventory control system. I forget where I read that. Maybe it was just something I dreamed.) You can’t use the ISBN of a book already published, because it’s specific to the edition.
  • Metadata will help people discover your books. Make a list of all the words that people might be searching for – setting, subject matter, genre, etc.  Before you get ready to upload, also be sure to have review quotes and blurbs on hand, because these will be entered as you upload and will help readers make up their mind about your book.
  • DRM (digital rights management) is optional. It makes copying difficult and is designed to discourage people from sharing your book. Unfortunately it can frustrate users and is easily cracked, so Ellen prefers to go without it. This will be a choice you’ll be asked to make as you upload your book.
  • Pricing is complicated. It’s easy to lower a price, but hard to go up—because customers get irate. Amazon’s royalty structure encourages prices at $2.99 and up. Low prices may be harmful for the business in the long run (and your percentage is much lower). Good job, Ellen!

Marcia Talley followed , giving detailed step-by-step instructions on how to clean  up and upload a document to Amazon and other ebook platforms. She had a lot of examples; here are some random notes (I was getting tired):

  • Need to have a Word document – scanning may be best if you have been edited; otherwise you need to work every edit into your original manuscript. Even so, you need to proofread scanned text, because the OCR (optical character recognition) can go wrong. She showed some amusingly garbled phrases to illustrate this point.
  • In Word, use the “show” icon to tidy up the invisible problems of  extra spaces or tabs or hard returns where they don’t belong. (Do you still put two spaces after a period, just like you were taught in typing class. Don’t do that!! Your typing teacher lied. You’ll have to delete that extra space.) Take out all of the contents of headers and footers, including page numbers.
  • Ctrl+A and make sure the format is consistent throughout – with properly indented paragraphs, etc. Use standard fonts and avoid any fussy special fonts; they won’t work in ebooks. (A short editorial comment here: the absolute lack of design is one of the things I despise about ebooks.) Use find/replace to take out double spaces – need to be one space between sentences only. Yeah, that typing teacher was a sadist. Set your manuscript to have curly, not straight, quotes. Use page breaks rather than section breaks.
  • Have your bank account info ready – it will be needed to set up your account – not to spend money, but to earn it.
  • Make sure the cover art is 72 dpi – if the upload doesn’t work, it won’t tell you why it didn’t work, but chances are your cover wasn’t 72 dpi.

There was a lot more detail in her presentation slides.

The dinner speaker was Meg Gardiner. Her talk was followed by a panel on marketing and consisted of a self-published author, an agent, and a staffer from Open Road Media. I didn’t take notes for this, but the message was “use technology to build personal relationships with readers” and the tools are twitter and interactive websites that tie into the story.

The writer suggested writers look for readers outside the usual genre circles; connect with interesting people and then let them know what you’ve published. Traditional publishing gives you visibility only briefly, when the book is newly released, which doesn’t give it time to build buzz; Open Road does this for authors, continuing marketing campaigns long after the launch. The speaker from Open Road said they don’t see any reason to have book trailers, but they do use video more in a documentary sense – filming short pieces that tie a book into current events or hot issues. The agent sketched out a way for an author to build an interactive website that invites readers into a character’s world, an alternate universe where the site acts like a “wormhole” between the real world and the fictional one, creating a stronger bond of intimacy between the reader and characters. All agreed that authors need to develop an ongoing relationship with readers, which may not take a lot of money but does take time. Although each one described work that could be material for two full-time jobs, they all agreed that writers need to find a balance between market-oriented relationship-building and writing.

All in all, it made for a very interesting day. Eventually there will be some video highlights of the sessions available, so you can see all the bits I left out.

photo courtesy of jm3


true confessions

August 4, 2007

I wrote a guest post for the lively crime fiction blog, Poe’s Deadly Daughters – “When We Were Orphaned.” Yes, that is a play on Kazuo Ishiguro’s title. Maybe my next theme song should be his more recent title, “Never Let Me Go.”


Bad News

April 14, 2007

There’s an excellent, if scary, article by Eric Klinenberg in the most recent issue of Mother Jones. In “Breaking the News” he reports that the FCC chairman wants to lift the cap on media cross-ownership – so badly that his office destroyed a study that found it would be bad for society. Case in point: Tribune Media, exempt from the FCC rules. It gutted its subsidiary, the L.A. Times.

The number of newspaper employees has dropped 20% since 1990; in-depth news and investigative reporting is becoming a luxury even though newspapers are profitable – with many publicly-traded chains raking in 20-25% profit margins.

As Dean Basquet, formerly of the L.A. Times, says in a sidebar – this is bad news.

We are not a regular business . . . We insist that the mayor and governor meet us when we want to meet with them. We insist that the military let us travel with them; we insist that the president has press conferences. There aren’t a lot of companies that can make those kinds of demands of the government or even private business. In return we’re going to act a little bit like a public-service institution. We can’t pretend we’re like just another private business, because we’re not. We get too many benefits from government and have too much responsibility to act like Microsoft.