Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A more positive spin

I feel like I've been complaining a lot lately. I've decided to post something positive, though dubiously connected to stated purpose of the blog.

No matter the long-term effectiveness of social media, the future of book publishing, the cost issues around multimedia, or the chances of getting maimed or killed by a person rolling around in a mobile desk, kittens and puppies will always be cute.

Bunnies, too. I like bunnies.

Have a great Tuesday, y'all!

Why publish?

I worked for a book publisher for nearly ten years early in my career. During the time, a lot of my romantic preconceptions about book publishing were smashed.

  1. Photo thanks to svenwerk on FlickrI found out that acquisitions editors were often given lists of books that they needed to find authors for. Rather than reading anything that was sent in, they developed "hit lists" of people who were already famous... so that marketing costs could be brought down. An unknown author without some kind of existing fame getting published is a million-to-one shot.

  2. I found out that book publishers work on razor-thin financial margins and are constantly scrabbling for something -- anything -- that will make money with minimal investment. This will, on occasion, lead to questionable ethical decisions on the part of the publisher.

  3. I found out that publishers only aggressively market the books predetermined to sell big. The other books are left to do the best they can on their own merits (reviewers or the unpaid marketing efforts of the author).

  4. I found out the there is a complex economy of relationships (financial and personal) between book publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores -- particularly the monster chains like Barnes & Noble or Borders. This was in the old days before Amazon existed but I assume the relationship model still exists. These relationships had nothing to do with the quality of books. The publishers need the books that aren't New York Times bestsellers put on shelves that don't require people 20 minutes of searching to find. The big bookstores (many of which are also working on pretty tight margins) just wanted to sell as many books as possible and didn't much care what they were. The bestsellers got each and every visible spot. The books that aren't big bestsellers get stuck wherever was left.

  5. I found out that anyone who isn't a part of this economy of relationships (small publishers or individuals) have no hope of ever seeing their books in a big bookstore chain. Small, independent bookstores are an exception to that, but they are few and far between these days.

  6. I found out that authors -- if they are very, very lucky -- get seven or eight percent of what each book sells for. For an average $20 book, the hardworking author gets a royalty of about $1.50. If the author had an agent to get the manuscript read and published, the agent's payment comes out of that $1.50.

  7. I found out that for $1.50/book, an author will likely sign away all copyrights to the book... "in all media, current and future, in perpetuity". Even if a publisher prints 100 copies of the book and then glues the books together to use as furniture in their office, the author can't take that book to another publisher or do something with it herself without another contract negotiation. The contract negotiation would likely involve the author paying for any publisher investment (editing, book cover design, etc.).

I look through this list and, as an author, this looks like a bad deal to me. Why should I sell my manuscript to a publisher if I'm going to have to do all of the marketing myself anyway? I am pretty much set up from the beginning to have no hope of making enough money to do more than buy a new laptop unless I'm the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown.

I've self-published two books. I haven't made a dime on either one, but I still own the copyrights. They will never see the light of day from a Borders bookshelf, but they are on Amazon. When technology changes and unexpected opportunities pop up, I'm much more agile than a thin-profit-margin publisher.

I have a third manuscript that I've shopped around unenthusiastically, but why should I self-publish that as well? As an author who hasn't had a book "published" before and who hasn't done something so crazy or horrible that I got a few moments of widespread fame, I just don't see the advantage of a traditional publisher.

Can anyone set me straight on this?

I read some interesting predictions on the book publishing business by Richard Nash here. I don't know if his predictions will come true, but they seem pretty logical.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When multimedia makes your head explode

My husband and I attended a lecture recently about digital storytelling. (Having this sort of thing local almost makes dealing with Washington, DC traffic worth it.) The speakers represented two extraordinary storytelling organizations: National Public Radio and the National Geographic Society.

Honestly. If any two groups can do this stuff, it's got to be them. Right?

Well, yeah... kinda.

I typically walk out of these lectures a little disappointed. I don't think it's because I'm jaded... quite the opposite. I am an eternal optimist. I keep thinking surely someone has figured this stuff out so the rest of us don't have to just keep...


As of last night, nobody's got it figured out. These two groups have lucked into some success. I'd wager the success is based more on the brand awareness and audience built over decades than any social media effort to date. That said, it was a very interesting evening filled with beautiful pictures projected 20 feet high and some interesting thoughts and insights about how to use multimedia to tell a story.

The current model seems to be one key story complemented by side stories, using different kinds of multimedia, to either give broader context to the key story or to dive deeper into detail. By doing that, you can actually get enough value added to your storytelling to justify the effort.

There's a lot of effort involved.

Andrea Hsu is a producer for All Things Considered on NPR. She described how, on top of thinking about the details of getting the best possible audio for All Things Considered, she was now carrying around a camera and looking at her situation for opportunities to take good photos. Keith Jenkins, also of NPR, said that the photographers he manages are encouraged to learn about audio and collect that as well (though he didn't exactly say they are actually doing that on a daily basis).

So I'm thinking about this as I'm driving up 16th Street, avoiding the crazy cab drivers and random pedestrians walking in the middle of the street. So you've got people working at NPR who are very good at their jobs. People who are very good at their jobs keep a thousand details in their brains... that is what makes them so good. They've also got egos so they'll apply that level of detail to anything they do: writing the story, recording audio, and taking still photos and video.

At what point do their heads just explode?

I've worked in book publishing, print journalism, Web, and television production. Of all of those experiences, the only one that comes close to what it would take to create consistently focused, high quality, robust multimedia is television. Television production assumes a lot of teamwork: writers, graphics people, directors, producers, technicians of many kinds, and "talent".

Television production is ridiculously expensive. Information on the Web wants more and more to be free. Does anyone else see a fundamental problem here?

If nothing else, just figuring out how to make multimedia pay will make your head explode.

Monday, November 2, 2009

…And now for something completely different….

It’s not been the best of days so this diversion from the day (thanks to Lisa Gold: Research Maven) was a delight. The original of this delightful index of supernatural collective nouns is at Wondermark by David Malki and it inspired the poet in me.

Keeping Your Problems In Perspective

Should a dignity of dragons ever darken your door,
with a clangor of robots that crash in the night…

Should a fondle of unicorns find you famished
Or an opulence of succubi blot out the light….

Should a compass of cherubim sing loudly (off key)
Or a quiver of geniuses find themselves lacking…

Should an audacity of gargoyles go for a swim,
And send a gossip of mermaids angrily off packing….

Should a hustle of brownies, in childish malevolence
Bring out the badness of an indulgence of leprechauns…

Take a look at your problems, for what they are
They can’t be nearly as bad as a tangle of Gorgons.