Thursday, May 29, 2014

I have a Dog in this Hunt

The battle between Hachette and Amazon over their new contract is about one thing and one thing only – money. And then there’s the power thing and Hachette being the first in line to renew their contract thus setting the precedent for the other big publishers to follow. So maybe it’s more than money but not much more. Oh and it’s also about fear. Just read the numerous articles found in the national papers and foreign press (who think we Americans are all troglodytes anyway), spouting off about mind control, agendas, and censorship as if the NY Times is such a paragon of broad mindedness (good summery here by Jeremy Greenfield at the Atlantic).

The last person at the table (and we were never asked to attend) is the author and the consumer. Just remember that everything in between the pen of the writer and the eye of the reader is parasitic. All the editing, design, production, distribution, sales, and marketing feeds off the words of the author. Here’s where I puff up and say, “Without us you guys would be nothing!” And of course their answer is, “Without us you would still be writing cheesy books and selling them from the back of your van at writers fairs” So in reality the relationship is less parasitic and more symbiotic. Sadly we need each other.

But so does the farmer who needs everything from food distribution to the local grocer. It’s where a fifty-dollar bushel of grain results in five hundred dollars worth of value and food. As I said, symbiotic.

The last five years have seen a shattering of old publishing models and the invention of new publishing prototypes. It will take years to sort them out and most will fail. In many ways Amazon is a new era dinosaur, they still buy and distribute products to the consumer just like Safeway and Costco and Macy’s and Bloomingdales. They just deliver the goods while we stay safe in our castles. Massive million square foot distribution centers are sprouting up all over the country (and world), hoping to squeeze every dollar out of every mile your book or toaster costs to get it to you.

If Amazon could deliver a coffeemaker to you through the Internet it would. But for now it’s media content that moves over the wires and fibers: books, audiobooks, music, and movies. Whole industries have had to retrench or die and it’s not just books; music is now consumed differently than just five years ago thanks to Apple, the iPod, and the Internet. Netflix now consumes more of the bytes flying about the Internet than any other user except for some Chinese and Iranian hackers.

I just finished a week long jaunt through the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri. I listened to complete Bruce Springsteen concerts he did in Houston and Australia just a few weeks ago, non-stop (as any Bruce concert is) and with great fidelity over SiriusXM. It was a miracle if you think about it. Hours and hours of brand new content while I plowed along I-80 and backcountry roads. This would be unheard of just five years ago. Content was immediate, coverage was seamless, and quality was excellent (and not to mention the other 120 some odd other channels that offered the same).

Streaming books (audio) will be next; subscription electronic book services are growing from Scribed and Oyster (I remain reserved about their models for now). But at the same time Sony just pulled out of the ebook business and pushed their subscribers to Kobo (who promptly pulled out of the U.S., whatever that means). Who will be left standing remains to be seen.

I have my books at Amazon and all the other current ebook outlets, but my print books are through Amazon’s CreateSpace. While not a big dog I do have a dog in this hunt. Over the next five years a lot of what will happen that will have a direct impact on many of us self-publishers. That’s also why I’m going to expand into Ingram-Spark and their similar model as Amazon-CreateSpace. It’s a good idea to be in as many hunts as possible.

It is still the Wild West out there and to extend the metaphor it’s like Amazon stopping a stagecoach full of bankers demanding, “Your money or your life.” The bankers look back at Amazon and pull out their guns and respond, “Your money or your life.”

More Later . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Random Thoughts on the Book Industry

Barnes & Noble
This last national bookseller is in the news again. There are rumors that it will close all its doors by the end of the year, that its sales are down 10% year-over-year, and that the Nook is not the product that they'd hoped it would be (a life-saver thrown from the Titanic). Its investors are running for the exits. But there are bright spots: increasing on-line sales (I assume ebooks), a brightening economy, and greater expansion into the college market (they operate 696 shops on college campuses). They, like all brick and mortar retailers, need to change and meet the expectations and demands of their customers. May I suggest greater involvement with their customers through in store classes and book signings, educational programs, and in store compartmentalizing of genres – they have done that with children, how about science fiction, thrillers, romance, etc. Experiential and touchy-feely, try and shed the notion of just a store. The small independents survive doing this, why not the big boys. If they close it will be a sad result of changing markets and stultified management. Such is business. Remember that the customer is supreme. When management thinks they know more than their customers is when trouble starts.

Book Delivery by Drones
Most readers are layback and reflective. We never consider time with a book as wasted time. We learn, we dream, we revel in our fantasies. But there is seldom the need to have a new book dropped on our driveway by some Terminator spawn whirlybird at some ungodly hour of the night no mater what Jeff Bezos thinks. Me, I think drones are fun, even cute (that is unless you are a terrorist). But I don’t get it. If I want instant gratification I go to my iBook and Kindle accounts and in seconds have the latest and greatest. The whirly things have limited lifting capability, demanding power supplies, spinning blades that make a blender jealous, and what about that eerie sound they make as they flit about. I for one believe they are a solution looking for a problem. (Checkout my urban blog here)

From my spot in the last aisle of the bookstore I see some interesting things on the front shelves. With the public acknowledgement of a gay college football player being drafted by the NFL look for more LGBT/NFL books. We saw this a few years ago in the teen LGBT market, so why not. I see a shift away from the mil-tech thriller just as there was a shift from the spy world of the cold war. I think the future may swing to nourish urban thrillers in the Baldacci mold, ex-military trying to find their way in a non-military world. Not as harsh as Jack Reacher though. Not surprisingly with movies from books such as Divergent, The Hunger Games, and the Ender' Game, look for more young adult mystery/thriller/dystopian books – its one way to get even with the complex world we live in – blow it up. Romance is always popular ask billionaire Nora Roberts who hasn't been off the best sellers list since 1932. It's wide open out there – good books (with good marketing, publicity, celebrity endorsements, and a dash of sex and sin) sell.

I will be away next week seeking celebrity endorsements – have a reflective Memorial Day.

More Later . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How Long is Your Book?

A small portion of my library - all sizes to be sure
Anne R. Allen in her blog of last weekend posted an interesting thought about the strength of shorter books and the novella and that our audience's habit's are changing. She supported her thoughts with some fairly strong remarks from others about the current state of writing and that we authors no longer exist, we are now nothing more than producers of content that is schlepped out to ebook sites, POD suppliers, and reviewers to help shill sales. Maybe.

But on the other hand Mark Twain, Dickens, and even Hammett found good markets in the serial magazines of their day – all to hump up sales. So let's put that whole pandering to our marketplace to the side. Me, I'll pander away if it will sell books and stories. After all if we don’t sell we are just like all the other writers out their pounding away at night wishing upon a star. Sales do matter.

But what I found to be intriguing in her post is the changing form of the book itself, and I think this is across all the popular genres, romance, YA, and mystery/thriller, and even science fiction. This I have found not in my own books but in the dozens I read every year. We now see books written for readers with shorter attention spans habituated by tweets, texts, and emails. I often wonder if a twenty year old with ten years of texts and emails under their belt can even complete a full sentence, let alone read a 155,000 word novel that is replete with said sentences and punctuation. Daunting to say the least.

Even when I offered my 165,000 word historical novel to a few agents I was rebuffed. "Traditional publishers won’t touch it, too long. The market is for shorter and crisper stories –cut it to maybe 85,000, then we will talk." And they may be right. Most authors, self-published or traditional, want sales and if the market is 65-85,000 words so be it (220 to 300 pages). Alan Furst's Mission to Paris goes 255 pages and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby went a scant 159 pages. I won’t argue that many books out there are long and well received, some even win awards, but considering that what the late Elmore Leonard wrote almost never was more than 250 pages who am I to argue.

In Allen's blog she points out that sale's god writer James Patterson, with more than 300 million books sold to date, now uses the physical structure of the page as his driver, more white space, more dialog, short chapters, keep them interested. And while I'm going to parallel Anne R. Allen with the following, I have to admit I use these same techniques in my own books.

Short Chapters
Drive the story forward with scene after scene standing alone as a chapter, when a chapter has three or four connected scenes, separate them – it increases the book's pace. There's a failure point to this I'm sure, but you have to admit that the late Robert Parker's scenes would barely fit on one page if you took out all the one line dialog. Short may be the new long in sales. (What this says about the reader I can only guess, but we have been brought up on eight minute scenes on everything from Law and Order to Castle – so why not?)

Start with Dialog
This used to be a no-no, never start a chapter with a character talking. While Ms. Allen takes the view this may not be customary, it is changing and now dialog moves to the start of a paragraph. My point is that its wide open, first lines of a book to chapters to paragraphs, if it works try it. Often, profanities may take the lead with an occasional question to start the chapter. A long first paragraph slows the reader from the cliffhanger you dropped at the end of the previous chapter – off-putting. Drive the story with an opening question, exclamation, shock, whatever you need to keep them reading.

Kill Long Paragraphs
Open a book and when you are faced with the first long (meaning half page or more) of a solid block of text you tend to skip it – right? I mean it, don’t you skim over it to get back to the dialog and the action. Sure we need narrative to explain why the bomb didn’t go off under the ice cream truck surrounded by kids, but try to stick to the facts. How many people passed away from boredom reading a Faulkner novel, just asking? The structure of the page – even an ebook page – is obvious to the reader; they will skip over the dense wordy stuff. Believe it or not, the open white areas of the pages are as critical to the book as the words.

Anne makes a great point in her section on "Don’t paint a picture, sketch." There are some wonderful writers out there with huge followings that absolutely ignore this viewpoint. They are proud of their research, their extraordinary detail of every scene and location, they spend days walking the moors of Scotland and the alleys of Paris, then describe every stone and bistro they pass. Good for them, but I suggest that it is a dwindling market. A good example is Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoos Calling. Ms. Rowling told an excellent detective story here with a character as hardboiled as any by Hammett or Chandler, unfortunately it has the heft of a James Michener epic. To be honest I skipped a lot of the big paragraphs, I've been to London, I didn’t need the bus schedule.

We write to entertain – period, full stop. If you fail, the book fails, reviews are terrible, sales fall (or never start), you begin to look for a job driving for UBER. Most everyone's life is boring, full of the usual boring stuff day after day. Write to excite (kinda like that), maybe that's why porn is so successful – fantasy mixed with whatever. We want our Jack Reachers and Travis McGees, we want Cara Black's Aimee Leduc, single and pregnant, to solve the case, we need to have Connelly's Harry Bosch succeed.

I mix my book lengths  - and it's the story and the characters that make it happen. My new character Tony Alfano is a detective on the 1933 Chicago police force, the books will never be longer that 62,000 words. The Sharon O'Mara Chronicles drift around at 75,000 words, and the historical novels start at 105,000. Variety is the spice of life for book readers and writers.

More Later . . . . . . . . .