Yesterday, Scott posted the good news that six Bay Area libraries are making audiobooks available as downloads that readers can listen to on their digital devices. At least one other library appears to be jumping on the digital download bandwagon, but this one is providing the mp3 player as part of the deal. The South Huntington Public Library in Suffolk County, New York, is lending out iPod Shuffles preloaded with audiobooks. Right now the selection is pretty limited, but I think the news that libraries are beginning to digitally distribute audiobooks could point towards a burgeoning revolution in the audiobook business. Goodbye CDs 1 through 28, hello davincicode.mp3. (This is especially exciting news for me since this happens to be the childhood library of Mrs. Millions. I’ll have to look for the iPods next time I stop by.)
Lately, critics have been swift to announce the death of print culture, and thus pronounce the end of literacy. Even two technology critics whose opinions usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum – Kevin Kelly of Wired and Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis – agree that culturally, we are now “people of the screen.” True to Kelly’s technocrat leanings, he embraces the screen’s omnipresence in his recent essay in the Screen Issue of The New York Times Magazine. In Kelly’s opinion, the hegemony of the screen will oust the word from its dominance and replace it with the visual image. He contends, “We are now in the middle of the second Gutenberg shift – from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.” Rosen agrees with Kelly, though where he celebrates a new visual literacy, she laments. Rosen’s New Atlantis essay “People of the Screen” admonishes Kelly’s enthusiasm in a previous Times Magazine essay for the possibilities of mashing up and remixing texts (a glorified cut and paste), but she ends by echoing his recent sentiments and committing literacy to its deathbed, “Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen-savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information.”What’s most audacious about their prediction that a screen-based society will stifle literacy, is that they equate a redefinition of form with an end, and in doing so discount the ways that the screen could expand the possibilities of disseminating literature, providing greater access and a more portable form, as well as saving a few trees, to boot. If reading is in decline, then writing is experiencing a resurgence – emails, IMs, and text messages, however inglorious their usual state, show that people are writing prolifically. And the text message, whose condensation would seem a more apt medium for poetry, is now being used to write cell phone novels, which are wildly popular in Japan (an excerpt of one was translated here by Ben last year). There’s no dearth of writers and aspiring writers, either, proven by the increasing number of MFA applicants, who are often willing to pay high fees for instruction, and don’t even mention the millions of blogs, this one included. I have never heard a literary magazine wax nostalgic for the days when they were overwhelmed by submissions. The point is, even if reading long-form narratives or poetry is in decline, writing is robust and print will linger regardless.Will screen culture redefine literacy? Of course. But does this merit the doomsday proclamations issued by Rosen and Kelly? I think not. Rosen writes of her experience reading Dickens on a Kindle, and the inherent difficulties, including her “restless” eyes that “jumped around,” which is the way many people read on a screen, scanning for nuggets of information in an F-shaped pattern. But is this a reaction to the screen itself or to the material that we most frequently find online? If problems with focus and concentration are related to the characteristics of the screen, then perhaps there are ways to make future versions more reader friendly. Surely, the users of the first generation of personal computers could have made similar arguments about portability if arguing against word processing. But modifications and improvements have made the three-pound laptop a reality. And as for complaints about slower reading, you have to take into account habit and custom, and the ways we are educated. Perhaps it’s impossible for some thirty-five year olds to feel as comfortable with reading text on a screen as young children who are now growing up reading online. I, personally, despised attempting to comprehend and analyze the GRE’s reading comprehension passages online and I still prefer to print out long articles, and I find the heft of a book in my hand pleasurable, but children who grow up with e-books and online reading may think nothing of it. Which is much of Rosen’s issue – that screen fluency will end reading as we know it. Rosen seems more preoccupied with the changing conventions and how this will shape culture than technology hastening the true end of reading. The shift from the book to the digital file is more akin to the shift from the LP to the MP3, and although a shift may not be free of consequence, it’s not the great erosion that Rosen and Kelly presage. And such is the predicament for many types of long-form artistic work: the novel, the film, the album. Digital culture allows for greater plasticity and user interaction, while providing a platform for an unprecedented number of voices. The fear that the background noise will make it more difficult to pinpoint specific voices, and that we will become lost in information a la Oedipa Maas, may be more warranted. If we can agree that the future of reading is onscreen, instead of sullenly balking or calling this the end of literacy, we should consider and plan for the possibilities.
More than a few times, my father has waxed lyrical about my future appearance on David Letterman. “You’ll tell him how your dear dad is your greatest influence.” In this fantasy, I’m not an movie star, or even someone with a talented pet. I’m a novelist. “Dad,” I say, “why would Letterman have me — a writer — on his show?” My father doesn’t have an answer. He just shrugs, as if to say, Why not? My father also believes Oprah would take his call. And that he can hand-sell a thousand copies of my (as yet unpublished) novel to people who owe him favors. “Make it ten thousand,” he says. “Show those numbers to your agent.” Sure, Dad. Okay.
But wait. If my father can make good on his promise, and actually sell a decent number of copies of my book — over the phone, from the trunk of his car — then why not do what so many other writers have done recently, and self-publish?
In August, droves of self-published authors commented on my essay, “Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?” about the death of my first book. There was that clichéd rallying cry: “Traditional publishing is on its last legs,” as well as cheerful exhortations for me to take matters into my own hands. E-publishing and print-on-demand, commenters assured me, has made D.I.Y. publishing affordable and easy.
After receiving all this feedback, I decided to talk with a few self-published authors to find out why they went that route, and what its benefits and drawbacks have been. I first corresponded with two of my high school English teachers who have used CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing wing. Daniel D. Victor self-published his novel A Study in Synchronicity after he’d queried agents for some time without success. Victor has already published one novel; in 1992, St. Martin’s put out The Seventh Bullet, which was recently re-released in England by Titan Books. Both of Victor’s novels are inspired by the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the former is a “Sherlock Holmes pastiche” while the new one intertwines a Victorian-era whodunit with a modern-day mystery — it’s a clever tale of fiction-coming-to-life. Victor told me he’s been very happy with CreateSpace, both in the process and the results. “People have told me how great my book looks, how professional. And the procedures, once I got the hang of them, were straightforward.” When I asked him about readers’ response, he said, “People have been very receptive and complimentary. Of course, most all of the books have been bought by people I know. What else would I expect them to say?”
Victor’s colleague and friend, Barry Smolin, has self-published two manuscripts: Wake Up in the Dream House, an image-driven book of prose, and Always Be Madly in Love, a poetry collection. Aside from teaching high school, Smolin hosts a radio show on KPFK and makes music under the moniker Mr. Smolin. After self-producing albums for so long, self-publishing made sense. He didn’t even attempt the traditional route. Like Victor, he found CreateSpace user-friendly. (Or, in Smolin-parlance: “I ended up digging it.”) When I asked how readers had responded, he said he hasn’t received any feedback. “But, then again,” he added, “I didn’t publish them for feedback.”
Smolin later sent me a second email, in which he described his life as an artist:
I… have spent the last 35 years making art (music, poetry, fiction) that absolutely nobody cares about. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t resonate with folks. It saddened me more when I was younger; now I just accept it. That reality has had no effect on my creative output whatsoever. I can’t stop doing it. It’s just a burning need in me. It’s who I am. I am an artist even if nobody else on earth thinks so. I’d be miserable if I was not sitting down each night to write or make music. So, I’ve learned to create without the need for any kind of audience. It has just been a survival mechanism I guess. I can’t NOT write, I can’t NOT compose and record music, but I also can’t just create all this stuff 24/7 and stick it in a drawer… I like knowing it’s “out there” whatever that means, that it’s in the cosmos and available to be received if any are interested.
It’s an intriguing contradiction: the desire to publish a book without an expectation for readers. Neither Victor nor Smolin seemed to anticipate an audience when they decided to self-publish — at least not a large one. Unlike many other self-published authors, they haven’t been tirelessly (some might even say obnoxiously) promoting their work. And yet, both Victor and Smolin maintain a hope for readership. In this regard, self-publishing provides the manuscript with a liminal existence — it’s technically available to the world, even if hardly anyone in the world is aware of it. There is potential, and that’s what matters. Neither of my former-teachers approached the topic of self-publishing from the perspective of platform-building or money-earning, as I’ve seen other self-published writers do. They were both quite noble about the process, actually, and their quiet belief in their own work made me want to read their books. I realized, talking to them, that self-publishing provided a conclusion to their artistic projects. Victor and Smolin are writing other books now; their previous ones have been brought to the world, and are thus finished.
Okay, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: At this point in time, self-publishing lacks the cool factor. It’s… dorky. Go ahead, call me a snob (check), call me the mean girl (check). You can also call me someone who loves a well-made, beautifully designed book that makes me shiver with desire. To me, a good-looking book implies an understanding of the marketplace and how to maneuver within it. Most (though not all) self-published novels look, well, self-published. I’ve met enough self-published authors at festivals and conferences to know most of them aren’t doing things right. Don’t wear a baggy T-shirt with the cover of your book screen-printed across the chest. Don’t wear a cape made of crushed velvet. Don’t refer to your “fiction-novel.” And don’t pay some questionable publicity company to spam staff writers of The Millions with press releases.
There are, of course, self-published authors who actively market themselves, and do it well. Two of my peers — Los Angeles-based writer Matthew Allard, and my former classmate at Iowa, Jason Lewis — have both published their own fiction, and made it seem hip to do so. I’ve actually never met Allard; he and I are friends on Tumblr, where he maintains a thoughtful and amusing blog. Last year, he self-published a collection of short stories, To Slow Down the Time, illustrated by the artist Ian Dingman. Allard produced two versions of the book: a limited edition hand-bound hardcover, and a print-on-demand paperback (published by CreateSpace), and made them both available for pre-order. The limited edition sold out in a week, and these sales financed the production costs. “To be honest, we had profit immediately,” Allard told me. “I didn’t make enough money to quit my day job, but I made more than drinking money. I used some of my money to buy a nice new MacBook Pro (to write another book with). I was very surprised.” I own the paperback version of Allard’s book, and it’s lovely. Many a visitor has picked it up and asked me about it, which proves that you don’t need the letters FSG on your book’s spine to woo a reader. Allard did not submit To Slow Down the Time to agents and traditional publishers. “I am impatient,” he said, “and I liked the idea of turning it around and of having full control over our project.” He will most likely self-publish a second collection of stories, which are notoriously difficult to sell these days. Again, he mentioned the swift turn-around time between finishing the manuscript, and presenting it to readers. Clearly, this aspect of self-publishing is seductive: readers get your work while you’re still passionate about it. After meeting a handful of writers who can’t stand their books by the time they’re released, I can understand the appeal of a faster timeline. However, I worry what that acceleration might do to my own work. For instance, there’s a difference between this blog post and the novel I’m writing now, and that difference is time: to ponder, to revise, and to receive feedback. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.
When I asked Allard about his self-publishing experience, he said:
I learned that this is absolutely a viable option for intrepid, Internet-savvy authors. Self-publishing levels the playing field a bit. There is certainly not the same kind of cachet attached to self-publishing as the traditional route. Maybe there’s no pleasure of saying, “Random House is publishing my book in the fall,” but self-publishing does offer the same quality product (providing your product is quality to begin with) and you get to be in charge. The absence of a marketing budget is the other drawback. You made a book! It’s real! Getting it into readers’ hands is a whole other ballgame. In my case, I was lucky to have amassed a decent Internet following that was interested in what I was working on.
Self-publishing is simply cutting a corner and taking charge of your work from start to finish. You don’t have to sit around waiting for a publisher or agent to notice you and believe in your project. If you believe in it, you can make it. There’s less glamour or paycheck attached, though.
I’m struck by how clear-eyed Allard is about the process. He understood self-publishing’s limitations, and the work required of him to render the book a success. He’ll be in fine shape if he sells a book to a publishing house down the line. The publicity budget for a traditional published book usually isn’t huge, and nowadays the writer is expected not only to be an artist, but also a talented promoter of that art. Allard already knows how to tap-dance for his dinner, and to do it gracefully.
Like Allard, Jason Lewis has published an atypical book. His novel, The Fourteenth Colony, comes with an album of songs written from the perspective of John Martin, the book’s main character, a musician who returns to his hometown in West Virginia to try to put his life back together. Lewis wrote and produced all the music, and funded the project via Kickstarter. As with Allard’s, Lewis’s book was financed by readers, and he has a guarantee of an audience, however modest, by the time the book goes to press this month. Any copies he sells on top of this will be profit. This is in contrast to the traditional publishing model which puts money up front in the form of an advance, and sets about building an audience for a work that’s already created. It’s not hard to see which model offers greater risk.
Lewis used to have an agent, but she left the business a few years ago, and he had trouble finding representation for The Fourteenth Colony. He began writing new work as he sent out the manuscript to agencies, but he couldn’t get his first novel out of his head. “In another era, that might just have been the itch I couldn’t scratch while I moved on,” he said. “But in this era, indie publishing has really very quickly become a viable option.” Notice that Lewis uses the phrase “indie publishing” — a smart move, in this fraught moment in books.
Although Lewis has enjoyed the outpouring of support from family and friends, and from strangers who are simply enthusiastic about his unique project, he admits, “It would still be great to have someone else to take care of a lot of what I’m doing for myself.” Allard, too, envisions publishing a novel traditionally some day. “For me and my career as an author, it is a goal to have a publisher take interest in my work and back it. There is a different sense of accomplishment in selling a book that way, obviously. I want that.”
This intrigued me, though I wasn’t surprised. Even writers who self-publish well, who successfully produce books that don’t fit into the publishing industry’s rubric of what’s marketable, let alone categorizable, still want entrance into the established world they initially turned away from. If only for assistance with production. If only to say, “My book’s for sale on the front table at Barnes and Noble.”
Even in 2011 that value can’t be denied.
For some self-published authors, the traditional industry may be dying, superfluous to their needs and success as authors. But many of the self-published authors who commented on my initial essay suggested that I publish my own book as a means to get the industry’s attention. They seem to be saying: Screw the industry… that is, until they recognize my genius!
Matthew Allard self-published a book that probably couldn’t have been produced by a large house, but the story of that book, and the attention it’s received, could no doubt help him get representation and sell another book down the road. Daniel D. Victor might amass a following for his second novel, proving to those gun-shy agents that his subject matter is indeed of interest to a wide readership. In my estimate, self-publishing won’t replace traditional publishing, but it might supplement and influence it. There’s another trajectory for an author’s success; alongside the debut novelist who’s an MFA graduate with publishing credits in The Missouri Review and Your Mom’s Journal, there’s the writer who proved herself with self-publishing and now has a book deal with Random House. But to think every self-published author makes it big is as foolish as thinking every MFA grad does.
In a recent New York Times article, Amazon executive Russell Grandinetti said, “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” It’s a good point. Self-publishers essentially cut out the middle man (except, of course, outfits like Amazon…), and in shouldering the burdens of editing, design, publicity, and so on, they stand to reap all the benefits of that work. It’s how Amanda Hocking made her millions. It’s also how many, many other self-published writers spent a lot of time (if not money) putting out a book that no one bought. With my first novel, I suffered rejection from editors. The writer who self-publishes sidesteps that rejection, only to face possible rejection in the form of readers’ silence.
If you self-publish a book and it doesn’t do as well as you’d hoped, does it hurt your chances to sell a novel to a traditional publisher in the future? Maybe in an industry that’s changing so rapidly, it’s too early to answer that question. Talking to these self-published writers certainly opened my eyes to the various reasons why one might try it, and how gratifying it can be. These are writers I admire; how their books came to me doesn’t matter. That was an important lesson for me to learn.
Even so, I’m not running to the press with my first book. In a second essay, I’ll further explore why not. I’ll also examine what self-publishing means for readers, and what traditionally published authors think of all these D.I.Y. developments.
My last post, on Google adding maps to its Google Books pages, generated some interesting discussion about digitizing books in the comments. I can think of many reasons why digitizing books is a good thing, while the motivations of the publishing houses and the Authors Guild in suing Google seem confused at best and craven at worst.One of the reasons why digitizing books is important is that it preserves the knowledge contained between the covers. Our libraries are filled with fragile books that require tremendous upkeep and are not as useful to students, scholars, and readers as they could be. This rationale is behind a new $2 million digitizing program at the Library of Congress that will focus on “brittle books.” Among the books slated to be digitized are “American history volumes, U.S. genealogy and regimental histories that hold personal collections from the Civil War period, and six collections of rare books including the Benjamin Franklin Collection.”Some may argue that this is apples and oranges, that publishers and Authors Guild are only interested protecting writers working now, but the lawsuits have in fact targeted the Google Books Library Project, not the Google Books Partner Program, which they are largely on board with. Those attacking Google charge that the company is running afoul of copyright law by scanning library books in their entirety even if Google only makes snippets of them available to the public, and, as Jeffrey Toobin’s insightful article in the New Yorker makes clear, these suits threaten to cause a ripple effect that might not be in the public’s best interest. Whatever the outcome of these suits, let’s at least hope that our most fragile books get saved for posterity.
Bryan Gilmer of Durham, N.C., teaches newswriting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes for institutional and corporate clients. Until 2003, he was a reporter at Florida’s largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He has just independently published a crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz.Last week, I created a Kindle version of my indie crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz, using the tools at Amazon’s Digital Text Platform. It took about nine minutes, a “why-not” side project alongside my trade paperback, which I published using Amazon’s print-on-demand company, CreateSpace.My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I’d sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, “If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It’ll generate sales and reviews.” So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:As of 5 p.m. Friday – about 36 hours later – Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers – the only title not by huge names like John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and Elmore Leonard in the top 25. Its overall Kindle sales rank was as high as 133rd out of all the 283,000+ fiction and non-fiction titles available in the Kindle Store.I thought, now that I’m in the rankings, I shouldn’t have to be so cheap. I bumped the price to $4.99. Sales continued, but at a slower pace, (and Felonious Jazz has slipped in the rankings. I probably should have stuck with $1.99 longer). I also drew in some people who just buy cheap Kindle offerings who don’t normally read the genre, though they may have been less likely to enjoy it than fans of similar books.But overall, what a no-budget way to gain visibility. A few big lessons here: Readers expect Kindle books to be much cheaper than dead-tree books (because they know it costs less to publish them and they can’t share them and worry they won’t have them forever). A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign. Now that there’s a free Kindle app for iPhone, the potential audience for a Kindle title is not just the half million people who spent $359 for the device but many times that large. It’s surprisingly comfortable to read book text on the Kindle iPhone app. If you haven’t tried it yet, get the app and grab my free sample from Amazon, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s transformative to have a book you’re reading (or several) on your phone to pull out whenever you have to wait in line or for an appointment.More worrying for conventional publishers is that Kindle board posters don’t think big publishers are pricing their titles cheaply enough, and when prices get above $9.99 they get angry about it. I’m not sure whether the high prices are due to higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales. (But the advantages! Near-zero production costs. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns. New edition at any moment. Never out of print. And the Kindle makes people read and buy more titles.) Could big publishers go from being at a tremendous advantage to competing for top-25 sales rankings – if not profits – with a guy in his home office? Will a Netflix-like company launch without the expensive legacy infrastructure of the big New York houses and take advantage of elasticity of demand at much lower price points? As I type this I realize – maybe that’s Amazon.A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.
Amazon made a small acquisition this week, picking up Michigan-based audio books publisher Brilliance Audio. The move shows the increasing potential for the audio format in this era of digital distribution — after all, you don’t see Amazon making an effort to buy any traditional publishing houses. And digitally distributed or not, sales of audio books are growing much faster than the industry as a whole. In 2006, sales of audio books were up 11.4%, while sales of all books were down 0.2%, according to the Association of American Publishers.I suspect that the growing popularity of audio books has more to do with the proliferation of iPods and and two-hours-each-way commutes than any decline in appreciation for the written word. It’s also likely that in response to these trends there are more titles than ever available in the audio format. As someone who’s about to become a commuter after working from home for a while, I may soon join the growing percentage of the reading public who are audio book consumers.
If you visit a book-focused startup online these days, chances are Amazon owns a part of it. On August 1st, the online bookselling behemoth snapped up yet another, the online used book marketplace AbeBooks, perhaps the service most widely used by online booksellers putting their wares online, also bringing into the fold two smaller and very visible book-related sites that AbeBooks owns.It’s a very smart move by Amazon, whose profit margins are higher for its Marketplace third-party sales as compared to its traditional business. While it may seem counter-intuitive that Amazon happily lets used book sellers “compete” with it by offering cheaper copies of almost every book it sells, it’s actually an amazing business. Whenever a used book sells on the site, Amazon gets 15% of the selling price plus additional fees amounting to a bit more than two dollars (and less if you sell a lot). The only thing Amazon has to do is kick back a “shipping credit” to the seller, $3.99 for standard domestic shipping. (Incidentally, this is how people get away with selling used books for a penny on Amazon; what profit there is in that case comes from the shipping credit.) What this means is that Amazon uses its existing infrastructure to let people sell books on the site. All that extra revenue comes at very minimal cost – in fact, less cost (and thus more profit) than if Amazon sold you the book itself. The purchase of AbeBooks brings as many as 110 million books from AbeBooks into Amazon (though in practice, probably a fair amount fewer, since many used booksellers listed their inventories on both sites.) All in all, a very shrewd buy for Amazon.But Amazon doesn’t just get AbeBooks. AbeBooks also owns bookfinder.com, easily the most comprehensive used book search out there, aggregating results from dozens of used book listing services. Perhaps even more interesting, AbeBooks was also a minority investor in LibraryThing, the very successful book cataloging community, and that stake will pass on to Amazon. Like many in the online world of books, LibraryThing, its founder, and its users have aften looked somewhat warily at the bookselling giant, and so it will be interesting to see how LibraryThing adjusts to its new big investor (if it adjusts at all).One of the big selling points of LibraryThing is its impressive recommendation system, which plumbs the community’s vast array of individual libraries to come up with book suggestions. The unique element of LibraryThing’s recommendations has been that they are based on what you own versus Amazon’s, which are based on what you buy, which can be very different things. I would imagine that Amazon would be very curious to dig into those recommendations, and it will be very interesting to see if it ever has the opportunity to do so. For the time being, it won’t, and it may never. LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding wrote on the LibraryThing blog, ” Abe gets only anonymized and aggregate data, like recommendations, and they can only use it on Abebooks sites. Nothing has changed here.”Amazon’s reach doesn’t stop there, it is also an investor in LibraryThing rival Shelfari.Finally, while we’re on the topic of Amazon, there has been much speculation on how many Kindles the company has sold, blog TechCrunch did some digging and was able to come up with a number, 240,000.Doing a little back of the envelope math, that brings total sales of the device so far to between $86 million and $96 million (the price of the device was reduced to $360 from $400 last May). Then add the amounts spent on digital books, newspapers, and blogs purchased to read on the device, and you get a business that has easily brought in above $100 million so far. (Each $25 worth of digital reading material purchased per Kindle, add $6 million in total revenues).