Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Are Authors Losing Their Special Status?

Even if you love to write, it’s a lot of work to write a book. It takes imagination and creativity to envisage the book you want to write. It takes energy, perseverance, and focus to organize your thoughts and set them down. It takes training and practice to hone your writing skills so your work is readable and communicates what you want to say. Until recently it’s been commonly believed that only a few special people—that revered group known as “authors”—are capable of accomplishing this feat. Most of us knew few published authors, and when we met one, we were impressed.

But it’s different today. Many more people are writing and publishing books. The number of books published or distributed in the United States jumped from 300,000 in 2006 to 400,000 in 2007, according to an essay by Rachel Donadio in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. That’s a 33% increase.

What’s going on? Have thousands of people suddenly figured out that they can write a book? No. Thousands of people have found out that they can publish a book. Lots of people have ideas for books and many of them have manuscripts sitting in their desk drawers. But getting books published has long been an endurance contest characterized by jumping through hoop after hoop only to accumulate a batch of rejection slips. The obstacles to getting published were so well known that many would-be authors didn’t even try.

Print-on-demand technology has changed all that. With minimal investment, authors can start their own publishing companies and have their books printed as needed through Lightning Source, CreateSpace or others. Or, if they don’t want to be publishers, they can have their books published for a fee through subsidy publishers such as iUniverse, Xlibris, and others.

Authors are using these options to get their work published in unprecedented numbers. In ten-plus years of operation, Lightning Source has printed over 500,000 titles from over 5,000 publishers. iUniverse publishes 500 books/month and has 36,000 in print, according to Donadio’s NYT essay. Lulu has turned out over 236,000 paperbacks since it opened in 2002 and its number of new books is rising each month, according to a January 2008 AP article by Candace Choi.

So is writing easier than we thought? No. And that’s the rub. It’s still just as hard to write well as it ever was. Simply writing and publishing a book doesn’t mean it’s a book readers will enjoy, find informative, or want to share with their friends. And unfortunately, now that publishing is so much easier, we are seeing more books that don’t meet minimal standards of quality. I recently searched inside a subsidy-published book on Amazon and found the word “quiet” repeatedly misspelled as “quite.” This is the sort of carelessness that leads critics of non-traditional publishing to label all our books as trash.

Are we all capable of becoming authors? Maybe. But it takes work, training and a willingness to accept and respond to criticism. If those of us whose books are self-published, published by small indie publishers, or published by subsidy publishing companies want our books to be taken seriously, we have to make sure they are well-written, edited and proofread. Take classes, join writing groups, hire editors, do whatever you have to do.

I’ve been a strong advocate for authors whose books aren’t traditionally published. And I will continue to be. I also will continue to insist that books be judged by their merits, not by their publisher. Ergo, to be judged highly, a book needs to have merits.

This brings us back to the question of specialness. I think much of the tearing down of non-traditionally published authors by traditionally-published authors is due to the traditionally-published authors’ fears that when anyone can get a book published, authors lose their special status.

In my opinion authors aren’t special—never have been. Writing and publishing a book doesn’t in itself make someone special. Having a book selected for publication by a major publisher doesn’t make someone special, nor does publishing your own book.

But lots of books are special. And that’s not going to change. In fact, with more books being published, we can expect to see even more outstanding books. So let’s keep our eyes on the ball—or in this case, the book—and honor what really matters.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who Is A Successful Author?

The names that come to mind tend to be famous authors whose books have been published by a traditional publisher, been favorably reviewed by major publications, won prestigious awards, and sold millions of books. A small minority of all the published authors out there. But is this the best or only definition of success for an author?

Success is tricky to define. We seem to have some agreed-upon criteria in our society, mostly involving the acquisition of power and material wealth. But not everyone accepts these definitions. Some people actively reject such worldly notions of success, preferring more personal bench marks.

I became very aware of the difficulty in defining success several years ago when, as part of my day job at Boulder County Aging Services, I conducted a major literature search on factors associated with successful aging. This turned up a major controversy as to what constitutes "successful aging." One popular model used objective criteria, defining successful aging as the avoidance of disease and disability, maintenance of high cognitive and physical function, and active engagement with life.

But others challenged the use of an objective definition of successful aging, pointing out that it omits older persons’ own views of what aging successfully means. To explore this, another group of researchers asked hundreds of older people to classify themselves as either aging successfully or not. Then they compared people's own beliefs about whether they were aging successfully to the objective standards of the popular measure.

The researchers found that lots of older people who didn’t measure up to the popular definition of successful aging thought they were aging successfully—50% of them believed they were aging successfully, but only 18% met the objective criteria for successful aging. And more than a third of those who the popular measure judged as aging successfully disagreed with their rating. They didn’t rate themselves as aging successfully.

Furthermore, nearly half (47%) of those the popular measure classified as not aging successfully disagreed with that rating. They rated themselves as aging successfully.I concluded that the concept of success is multidimensional, and I have come to believe that people’s success is best measured by whether or not they achieve their goals. This view of success is the same one I use in my work as an evaluator of the outcomes of social programs. Start with the program’s goals, then assess whether or not they have been achieved.

Similarly, it is far too simplistic to decide whether or not an author is successful by applying objective criteria like numbers of books sold, awards, numbers of positive reviews by prestigious reviewers, or whether their book has been published by a traditional publisher. If these benchmarks are the author’s goals, then achieving or not achieving them is a measure of that author’s success. But for authors who have other goals, and who are satisfied with their progress, it is presumptuous to tell them that they are not successful based on the number of books they’ve sold, and/or the profit they’ve made on their books.

Authors who self publish often have goals other than profit and fame. Some of these include:

  • Getting the satisfaction of having their book printed and bound for themselves, and perhaps friends and family.

  • Testing the waters to see whether there are buyers for a book. It’s hard to do that when all you have is a manuscript that you’re spending your time sending out to agents and publishers.

  • Making specialized or technical information available to a small niche market.

  • Speaking out on a controversial topic.

  • Learning about publishing and marketing a book by actually doing it.

My view is that it’s up to me as an author to decide whether or not I’m successful. Outside evaluators may judge me by their own criteria such as how many books I’ve sold. But I don’t have to accept their judgement.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Ghostwriters Attack Self-Published Authors

A couple of weeks ago The Penn Group posted a blog trashing books they call self-published. It began with the statement, “Self-publishing companies are the dumpster-divers of the book world.” Of course the bloggers incorrectly used the term self-publishing when they actually meant subsidy-publishing, but either way their allegations are cruel and unfair.

They asked rhetorically, “So, what makes a book so bad that its author has to resort to self-publication?” Then they selected four books that they said answer that question. In other words, they see these four as true dumpster-diver books that exemplify all that’s wrong with self-publishing. They even went so far as to put up cover images and titles for the books—so as, we assume, to publicly shame the authors of these books.

So who is The Penn Group, I wondered, and why are they qualified to make these judgments? I Googled them and to my surprise found this self-description on their website: “The Penn Group is the largest and most successful ghostwriting firm in the country. Our work can be seen in bookstores, libraries, and homes all around the world.” Really? They’re ghostwriters and they’re criticizing self-published writers?

Here’s some of what they say they can do for you: “If you have a truly original story or idea and wish to transform it into a novel, nonfiction book, or screenplay, then you have already taken the first step towards success. The Penn Group's ghostwriter service has a proven record of transforming ideas into published, critically acclaimed works. Our clients are celebrities, top businesspeople, and other exceptional individuals.

So hiring someone else to write your book and then putting your name on it is better than writing and publishing it yourself?

They charge $18,000 to $26,000 to write a full-length novel for you.

This holier-than-thou group of professional writers also has a college-preparation arm that “matches applicants up with writing specialists who guide them through every facet of the essay writing process, from brainstorming to final editing,” and also will “prepare all of your applications with an eye towards communicating what the admissions committee wants to hear.” As someone who has spent most of my life in academia, let me say that this makes a mockery of the college admissions process.

So what about the four horrible books they gave as examples of books so bad that their authors had to resort to self-publication? I was able to find three of them on Amazon. Two of those were published by AuthorHouse and the other by Trafford. I was able to look inside all three using Amazon’s search-inside-the-book feature.

One of the books had no customer reviews and was in need of serious editing. But the other two, while they would appeal only to very specific audiences, looked to be reasonably well-written and edited. One was a very academic analysis of Miami Vice, written by someone with degrees in Art History and Radio and TV Arts, as well as post-graduate degrees in American Culture and Communication. That book had 14 customer reviews, with an average rating of 4.5 stars. The other book was a personal story dealing with issues of sexual identity between two gay men. It had 21 customer reviews, with an average rating of 4.5 stars.

Maybe all the ratings were written by friends of the authors, and maybe the two books aren’t very good. I can’t say because I haven’t read them. But I think I’ve seen enough to be able to say they aren’t dumpster-diver quality.

What kind of society do we live in, where it is acceptable to pay someone $20,000 to write your book for you, but it’s not acceptable to pay someone to publish a book you wrote yourself? Is everything all about image? Should all books be molded to fit the standard-issue mainstream publisher criteria?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—it’s wrong to tar all subsidy-published or self-published books with the same brush. Books should be judged by their merits, not by their publisher.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mainstream Publishing Takes A Giant Step

Unexpected news came out this week from NYC publisher HarperCollins. The company plans to launch a new book imprint that won't accept returns from bookstores and will pay little or no advances to authors. The new HC imprint is an experiment that will try to fix everything that’s wrong with the publishing business, according to the 51-year-old publisher who will head it—Robert S. Miller, founder of Disney’s Hyperion adult books division.

Wow. Fix everything that’s wrong with the publishing business. That’s a big chunk to bite off. But HarperCollins seems to have more of a future orientation than many mainstream publishers. I visited their website and found the following self-description, “Consistently at the forefront of innovation and technological advancement, HarperCollins is the first publisher to digitize its content and create a global digital warehouse to protect the rights of its authors, meet consumer demand and generate additional business opportunities.”

So HC is already using POD printing, at least for their backlist. Now they’re going to experiment with eliminating other sacred cows of the publishing business.

Instead of paying author advances, the new imprint will share its book sale profits with authors, possibly offering a 50-50 profit-sharing. It also plans to release electronic books and digital audio editions of all its titles.

The changes this imprint plans for bookstores are huge. Not only will the books be non-returnable, the imprint plans to focus its sales efforts on the Internet rather than paying for premium display space at the front of bookstores.

Not surprisingly, authors whose books are published by traditional publishers aren’t looking favorably at this HC experiment. Criticisms that I’ve read on group discussion lists and blogs include:

  • This shifts the risk to the author away from the publisher. If your book doesn't sell, you don't make a dime.

  • Bookstores won’t stock these books unless they are by big-name authors. Why would the bookstores treat this HP imprint any differently from other publishers who don't take returns?• Bookstores will order fewer of these books, which means fewer will sell and authors will make less from their books.

  • This is not a new publishing model, it’s a scam on authors.

  • A 50-50 split of profits is complicated because it depends on how “profits” are defined.

  • The larger the advance, the harder the publisher works to recoup it. Publishers who lay out nothing for a book have no vested interest in pursuing its success.

But I think HC’s new imprint is great news for those of us who are small, independent presses and /or self-publishers. It goes a long way in blurring the lines between us and them. The publishing business is morphing into a new entity as quickly and quietly as the faces on one of those websites that lets visitors click and combine two faces into one new one. Sure this is a small imprint that plans to release maybe 25 titles a year, according to articles announcing the move in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But is a move by a major publisher. HarperCollins’ revenues top $1 billion annually.

This trial run will surely make the old guard sit up and take notice. Now some authors published by an imprint of a major publisher won’t meet the criteria for awards, reviews, and conferences that require that authors receive specific levels of advances for their books and that the books be returnable. And who knows, HC may decide to use digital printing for some of these non-returnable books. If so, these authors wouldn’t meet some minimum-print-run requirements. How long can the old guard stick with these criteria when a major publisher is ignoring them?

And this could be the beginning of the end of the inefficient return system favored by bookstores who can order huge quantities of new titles and then send them back if they don’t sell quickly. If we didn’t have that system, books sold would actually mean books sold. When we get a big book order, we could rejoice instead of living in dread of having dilapidated books bounce back at our expense. And booksellers who have purchased the books they have in stock are probably more likely to hand-sell them.

Stay tuned. The tipping point approaches.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Amazon Power Play

This Monday, Amazon unleashed a firestorm with its announcement that it will now require that all print-on-demand (POD) books be printed inside Amazon's own fulfillment centers by its own print-on-demand subsidiary, BookSurge. Why? In a March 31, “open letter to interested parties” Amazon justifies its decision as follows:
“Modern POD printing machines can print and bind a book in less than two hours. If the POD printing machines reside inside our own fulfillment centers, we can more quickly ship the POD book to customers—including in those cases where the POD book needs to be married together with another item. If a customer orders a POD item together with an item that we're holding in inventory—a common case—we can quickly print and bind the POD item, pick the inventoried item, and ship the two together in one box, and we can do so quickly. If the POD item were to be printed at a third party, we'd have to wait for it to be shipped to our fulfillment center before it could be married together with the inventoried item.… Simply put, we can provide a better, more timely customer experience if the POD titles are printed inside our own fulfillment centers. In addition, printing these titles in our own fulfillment centers saves transportation costs and transportation fuel.” 

As an aside, I have to say I find this shipping-everything-in-one box justification strange. I recently ordered (in one Amazon order) five items for my three-year-old grandson (one book and four toys). The items were shipped in four separate shipments, within a day of each other. I saw this as a huge waste of packing materials and fuel—which bothered me not only because it’s bad for the environment, but also because (full disclosure here), I’m an Amazon stockholder.

It looks like the Amazon move is aimed directly at eliminating competition from the largest print-on-demand printing company, Lightning Source (LSI).

Publishers who use LSI to digitally print their books and don’t want to switch all their printing to Amazon’s BookSurge are offered two choices in the Amazon letter:

  1. Use BookSurge just for those units that ship from Amazon and continue to use a different POD service provider for distribution through other channels; or

  2. Use a different POD service provider for all your units, and pre-produce five copies of each title and send those in advance to the Amazon Advantage Program for in-stock inventory.

Publishers who choose option #1 (use Amazon’s POD company, BookSurge to print all books that ship directly from Amazon), face an unpleasant situation.

  • BookSurge has a reputation for printing low-quality books, with pages falling out, missing pages, etc.

  • BookSurge’s printing prices are higher than LSI’s, so the publisher and/or author will earn less per book sold.

  • Publishers will have to modify the files they have set up for LSI because those files aren’t compatible with BookSurge’s specifications.

  • Because BookSurge does not offer Ingram distribution, which is virtually essential for bookstore sales, publishers will want to continue to have their books available for printing though LSI, which provides the Ingram distribution. Using two printing companies means extra formatting and extra fees.

Publishers who choose option #2 (stay with LSI for all their book printing) would have to participate in the Amazon Advantage Program to sell books directly through Amazon. To do that, they will have to print and ship copies of their books to Amazon for them to warehouse and ship to customers. And they will have to pay Amazon $29.95 per year plus 55% of the list price of each book sold.

It not clear at this point whether Amazon intends to impose the new requirement on all publishers that use POD printing, which would include thousands of small presses, or if they are primarily targeting the subsidy (author services) publishing companies that use digital printing. I haven’t heard yet of any small independent publishers that have been affected by the new Amazon policy.

The story was originally broken by Angela Hoy, co-owner of, in her ezine, She has continued to follow the story with frequent updates on a special WritersWeekly page. One of her most recent updates says that AuthorHouse/iUniverse has reached an agreement with Amazon to allow Booksurge to print their books.

Apparently AuthorHouse had originally refused to comply with Amazon’s demands, with the result that their book listings on Amazon had their buy buttons removed. This meant that a customer who wanted to buy one of the books would have to buy it from one of the marketplace vendors and the book wouldn’t qualify for Amazon’s free shipping offer. I checked some AuthorHouse book listings on Amazon earlier today (Wed 4/2) and the buttons were gone. Then after I heard about AuthorHouse reaching an agreement with Amazon, I checked again and the buttons were back.

My tiny publishing company has three books printed through the POD printing company, Lightning Source (LSI). I haven’t heard anything from Amazon saying that I should switch to BookSurge for printing, and the listings for our books are unchanged. I did get an email letter today from LSI President & CEO, J. Kirby Best, which said that LSI is following the discussions about Amazon requiring publishers to use BookSurge for their POD books in order to sell on Amazon, and reassured LSI cutomers that our titles are available to for shipment within 24 hours.This situation is changing way too fast to draw any conclusions. So what can we do besides follow the story and hope for the best?

  • Some authors and publishers are circulating an online petition "Stop the BookSurge Monopoly," that has 600+ signatures. Personally I haven’t signed it, because the originator is anonymous. But some of you may want to.

  • Some authors and independent publishers are removing links to Amazon from their websites and sending customers to instead.

  • Some are trying to work through the professional organizations PMA (The Independent Book Publishers Association) and SPAN (The Small Publishers Association of North America) in hopes they will join together, question Amazon on behalf of their members, and advocate for their members’ interests.

  • • Some are contacting Amazon officers and directors to express their displeasure and to let the directors know they will no longer buy from Amazon.

I’m still in the watch-and-wait camp right now. And maybe I should sell my Amazon stock?