Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Writing — View From the Bottom and Outside, Part II

On Monday, Amazon was highlighted here for the revolution it started in the book business. Barnes & Noble saw the threat, quite late in the game it seems. Nonetheless it developed its own on-line bookstore where you could pick a book and have it in your mailbox in 48 hours without leaving your home.  We asked what else could the book lover want?

It turns out, a whole lot more.  The best, in terms of options, was yet to come.  Amazon, who might have done a few victory laps as they rose to the top of the international bookseller business, was doing nothing of the kind.  They were busy developing a little device about the size of an early cellphone. Readers could pick out a book from the vast array Amazon offered from their on-line bookshop and have it instantaneously on their Kindle. They found a book, pushed a button and in seconds, the product was in the customer’s hands.  Literally.  They didn’t have to have a café in their bookstore, they could have the bookstore in their café.  And in many cases, the cost of the e-book was significantly less than the discounts the Big Boxes and Amazon’s hard copy bookshelves offered.  While hardback fiction bestsellers were going for just under $30 and would take two days to receive, you could have the just released bestseller for $12.99 or less instantaneously through the Internet.  What’s more, while the bookstores had to worry about space and the shelf life of the book, Amazon had no such worries with electronic data.  Many, including the major players in the publishing and bookselling business, pooh-poohed the notion of the electronic book and, I suspect, saw it in the same way they saw audio books — something for a small, specialized market — supplemental but not mainstream. They couldn’t have been more wrong

No one, except Amazon apparently, saw it coming.  Where were the high-paid executives at Borders?  Did the board of directors of the huge publishing houses think their business wouldn’t be affected by the digital revolution?  Maybe they thought they had more time.  Even Apple’s stylishly clever folks, who harnessed the music business, couldn’t and still, to some extent, can’t figure out what’s going on when it comes to books.  What we do know is that all these businesses who depend on books or want a piece of the book publishing market, however, they might be configured, are scrambling to catch up.

The results so far have lawsuits and injunctions flying around. Apple, a company that should have been at the forefront of the e-book wave, is playing catch up. What it has done is attempt to partner with the largest book publishers to work out some sort of an arrangement that would put them back in the game.  Unfortunately, the Feds think there’s something a little funny about that. A couple of publishers have paid fines based on this kind of business practice.  Apple and a couple of the major publishers are willing to have their day in court.  Win or lose, Apple’s emersion in the book publishing business has to be like swimming through mud.

While Borders crumpled, Barnes & Noble did two things that kept them afloat.  They too were playing catch-up; but they did two very smart things.  One is they developed their own on-line purchasing system and two, they created the “Nook,” an e-reader, a better-late-than-never alternative to the Kindle. Even so, B&N closed many of its stores and has now has a new best friend, Microsoft, in an effort to compete with the mystical and perhaps mythical strength of Apple and the vast head start the pioneer, Amazon, had in the book business.

But so far, none of Amazon’s competitors have shown they understand publishing from all the essential angles. Barnes & Noble, Apple and Amazon all have e-book platforms.  Barnes & Noble had made it pretty easy for anyone to publish and order from their platform.  Apple has done the same, but absolutely counter to their reputation, could not or would not make it user friendly.  Nor do they have as much product directly available through their respective devices.  The advantage that Apple still has is that the i-Pad and i-Phone are multi-taskers and infinitely more popular. Even so, the clear winner here is Amazon.  Even Apple product users are downloading a Kindle app.

Another reason for Amazon’s dominance in this particular product line is, I believe, that Amazon has decided to be all things to all readers — and writers, for that matter.  That’s not always a winning strategy, but it seems to be working for Amazon. If you are a writer, Amazon, for a remarkably low fee can publish your next novel for you.  If you want more control over your product, they can support that approach as well. (I’ve reissued my own early books in the Shanahan series as Life Death and Fog Books, essentially using Amazon).

Just as Amazon did to compete with brick-and-mortar bookstores, it makes small business publishing possible by taking out much of the backroom expense.  If you are just publishing e-books, there’s very little cost and little to do.  If you want to offer a book on paper, print on demand (POD) is doing nicely these days and the process is in line with the trend away from hard backs and mass paperbacks toward quality trade paperbacks. The print quality of POD has improved dramatically.  In addition to Amazon eliminating the need to have a distributor, they simplify the accounting.  They handle the charges, returns and provide detailed reports along with a check or a direct deposit for your royalties.  Their take is pretty low.  I found Barnes & Noble easy to work with as well, making it easy to make e-books available on their site with equal back-room capability.  Apple, not so much.

But Amazon is never done innovating.  Not only do they have appeal for the self-publishing writer and the small publisher, they have become a major publisher themselves.  While talented editors at the big publishing houses are trying to determine whether or not they are on the Titanic, Amazon is offering a life raft.  Come work for them.  Amazon’s new publishing imprints are courting popular and talented writers themselves. Amazon has its own imprints for various categories, including crime fiction.  

Tomorrow’s news could turn all of this on its head (I would never count Apple out), but to me, Amazon appears to be several strides ahead and while their competitors are still trying to figure out who or what they are and how they will adjust, Amazon is still innovating.  They have recently announced they will publish Kindle Singles, short works of fiction and non-fiction.  These are inexpensive e-books that are longer than short stories or magazine articles, but far shorter (less than 30,000 words) than the 600,000-word thriller.  Amazon, I think correctly, is looking at fiction or nonfiction that can be devoured while aboard a commuter train coming into the city or a jet ride from LAX to O’Hare.  Good news for those of us who are most comfortable writing and reading novellas, a form most major publishers ignore.  It is Amazon’s willingness to be unconventional that might keep it ahead of the others.

Then there is Google. They are doing something with books that is making a whole bunch of people nervous. I can’t figure out exactly what that is. I suspect that they are secretly scanning the DNA of every human on the planet and will announce a new marketing plan that will produce completely personalized books for its customers that you will read on the inside of your skull. I may be kidding; but seriously, is that inconceivable?

Now all of that is exciting, but where is publishing going?  Which of these teams has the right mix?  Amazon?  Apple plus traditional publishers? Barnes & Noble plus Microsoft?  Google and its Android OS?  As writers, we are trying to figure it all out not because we have tons of money to invest in stock, but because our royalties, reputation, artistic control, quality control and exposure in the marketplace are all mixed up in this mess.   

How important is the traditional publisher to the writer?  The support system — of distribution, marketing, reviews etc. — is still tied to the old world. If we publish ourselves and can we get beyond the vanity press stigma, how do we get our work noticed without becoming full-time promoters?  (Personally, I love the idea of working with artists and designers; but I hate the technological interface to get books in the appropriate format. And I am extremely uncomfortable promoting my own work.) How does an individual writer or a small publisher get noticed?  And for that matter, will a competitive company like Amazon continue to serve its writers and small publishers once they become big-time publishers themselves? Will they still be concerned with a writer who sells 3,000 copies when they can focus on books that sell in the millions?

Thinking about what’s happening, wonderful old words like topsy-turvy, willy-nilly and tizzy come to mind.  And worse, if there is intelligent advice on how to proceed in this environment, you can bet something has occurred or soon will that makes or will make this advice obsolete.

Here are three other views on the subject:  The Financial Times, The New York Times and, by way of Ed Gorman, author Libby Fischer Hellmann’s blog, Say The Word.

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