I’ve often commented that Fifty Shades of Grey’s success stemmed from the simple fact that e-readers were prevalent and the time was right for anonymously reading sultry fiction. I certainly can’t count it as riveting literature in the same category as Lolita, though I’m sure author E.L. James has less concerns over literary merit than sales. Fifty Shades serves as an ideal tale of marketing, right-place-right-time, and tenacity.
From a timing perspective, the world was ready for good erotic fiction, and though I’m not an advocate for her writing style, James has an avid fan base. In a recent interview with Time, James commented on her Executive Producer credit, and her stewardship of the Fifty Shades transition to the big screen. Her passion for her work shines through, and it’s clear she has a vision that she’s following through with. Few first time authors can say the same. Continue Reading…
It’s no surprise that the publishing industry is changing; pretty much everyone from the mailman to Aunt Gertrude can sense that bookstores aren’t what they were a decade ago. But what is the industry changing into? A butterfly, or a new form of ravenous beast? The summer’s greatest blockbuster for anyone following the industry was the feud between Amazon and Hachette Books, and just like most summer blockbusters, the show was filled with overproduced spectacle but ended in a fizzle. The behind-closed-doors resolution will impact the industry for years, and we may never know the specifics. Doubtless neither party walked away elated.
I’m a terrible prognosticator; I believed the iPhone would fail, that Avengers would bomb at the box office, and Twilight would never be made into a movie. So if I predict that publishing will be usurped by the prescription drug industry, I’ll understand if you’re cautiously doubtful. Think about it: television ads for new books, complete with fast-spoken warnings! Announcers booming: “Bored with life? Looking for excitement? The latest John Grisham is exactly what you need, ask your bookseller for details! Side effects include: sleepless nights, plot confusion, and subjective exposition. Be sure to read in a well-lit environment, not everyone who reads John Grisham is a fan, paper cuts can be hazardous, always seek the advice of a bookseller before reading a John Grisham. Glaco-Driscoll takes no responsibility for any adverse reaction to John Grisham. Buy your copy today!”
Eh, I could be wrong. Continue Reading…
About a year ago, I wrote about media-enriched prose as a contrived method of storytelling, and I mentioned audiobooks. This is the follow-up, a year late because my day job has so little regard for my free time. Stop judging me.
If the audiobook sub-industry is a barometer for success in the digital age, then things are certainly looking good for the modern writer. Audiobook publications rose from roughly 3,000 releases in 2007 to more than 20,000 in 2013, and a huge percentage of that growth occurred in the last three years alone. Audiobooks currently account for roughly 10% of all industry sales – a figure that’s expected to climb past 20% in the next five years. There are a number of factors driving audiobook sales, and I would be reticent if I didn’t mention Audible. As unfriendly as Amazon is to writers, I find it remarkably difficult to decouple their services from my life. You can cancel my audible account when I’m dead. Founded in 1998, Audible surfed the digital revolution and found that MP3 audiobooks were more than a niche market. When Amazon purchased the company in 2008, it was a natural marriage that tied Jeff Bezos’s e-publishing vision together (until the kindle paperwhite killed the ability to play MP3s, and consequently play audiobooks). Fortunately, Amazon’s approach is mostly hands-off. Audible still maintains a distinctly separate site with their own marketplace that has direct links to Amazon content.
What Audible has done for the audiobook revolution should not be overlooked – the ability to track favorite narrator as well as favorite authors can introduce writers to a whole new audience. And, conversely, stilted reading that resembles Ben Stein’s monotone soliloquy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can kill enthusiasm for fiction. I absolutely loved Rendezvous with Rama, but I could barely get through the audiobook because the performance was suicide-inducingly bad.
The Netflix revolution has inundated society with content. When it becomes possible to watch seven seasons of How I Met Your Mother in one sitting, only to find out the mother was the least important aspect of the show, finding readers willing to invest hours into your work is a tough sell. Audiobooks are not only a brilliant way to spend long car rides, they’re a great way to broaden your readership, and it’s never been easier to self-publish an audiobook. Though you shouldn’t expect any sales elves to shower you with gold. Royalty rates for self-publishing audiobooks are just as dismal as e-books. It’s also worth noting that audiobook contests are taking off, so team up with a rising voice actor today! Ron McLarty had a successful career as an audiobook narrator, which he leveraged into self-publishing The Memory Of Running as an audiobook. Once Stephen King mentioned it, McLarty’s sales skyrocketed.
If you’re writing, you should be reading. Audiobooks are a great way to fill the gap in your reading schedule. I regularly burn through 60 and 70 hour work weeks, which doesn’t leave much time for writing or reading. I keep up with my backlog by sneaking audiobooks in the car (40-minutes a day to and from work means I can churn through a book in about two months), listening to them at night (I’d rather fall asleep to a good audiobook than re-runs of How I Met Your Mother – just don’t listen to Stephen King unless you like creepy dreams), and listening while I’m doing things around the house. I will forever equate NOS4A2 with parmesan-encrusted shrimp.
But you’re not there yet, you say? You’re still working on that ending where your protagonist delivers a 40-page rousing speech? Well, you are reading your work out loud, right? If so, you’ve already realized that a 40-page speech doesn’t work. I’m not even sure why you brought it up.
A battle is raging, a fight between two behemoths who will wreck the consumer landscape. The war between Amazon and Hachette Books is diminished among greater headlines, and let’s face it, practically everyone is more interested in the Game of Thrones season finale. I cancelled my cable, so if anyone tells me what happens, I promise a gruesome and painful death possibly involving moldy gummy bears.
In one corner, we have Amazon. As a writer, I’m supposed to despise Amazon because of their shady business tactics and penchant for mowing over small press. In the other corner, we have Hachette books, publisher of great works from authors such as Malcom Gladwell and Richard Russo. At the core of the argument, as with most arguments, is money.
Amazon wants Hachette to re-negotiate the profit margin for selling the publishers books, wants the right to discount unsold books, and demands Hachette pay for advertising. Hachette thinks the current arrangement is just fine, thank you. Amazon’s defense, however, is more than just a firing shot across the bow. Amazon has conveniently cancelled pre-orders for any forthcoming Hachette titles, and although the digital bookstore insists already in-print Hachette books are just as available as they always were, searches simply don’t agree. When pressed, Amazon’s response for finding Hachette books is to simply shop for them elsewhere.
The battle between creators and retailers is as old as commerce itself, and about half as interesting. It’s easy to side with Hachette because Amazon is resorting to bullying tactics, and bullies are too cowardly to fight fairly. The truth is never so simple, and while I won’t argue that Amazon is abusing their power by affecting Hachette’s bottom line during the price negotiation, the big publishing house isn’t exactly innocent either. Hachette refused an offer to fund half of an author pool to mitigate the impact on authors through the dispute. Agreeing to the pool isn’t agreeing to any negotiating tactic, it’s simply agreeing that authors are unfairly affected by the issue, and Hachette’s refusal sounds more like sour grapes going off to the garden to eat worms.
George Packer’s article sums up Amazon nicely; an online retailer who didn’t mind excess inventory, Amazon was a boon when the publishing industry needed it most. While it’s easy to point at Amazon’s tactics as slimy and underhanded, the truth is they’re doing nothing other retail companies aren’t doing, forcing manufacturers to let retail sell for the lowest amount possible. The publishing industry is broken, and Amazon is taking advantage of that fact by forcing publishers like Hachette to the negotiating table. While Amazon isn’t the only game in town, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
While Amazon started as a bookseller, publishing was always a secondary goal to becoming a retail powerhouse. Achievement unlocked, Bezos. Books were a way to track purchasing habits and gain user information, which is the holy grail for any retail establishment. Amazon’s expansion into media, marketplace, and partnerships with other content providers like HBO has created a powerhouse that’s not nearly so easy to categorize. Bezos, like most tech dictators, knows how to focus the company on profit and how to build something consumers want.
Unfortunately for some, the publishing industry may suffer. The problem with the argument is, in my mind, that it masks the true problem. Publishing is broken and desperately needs a cleansing. Like the music industry, publishing has been slow to adopt electronic formats and has suffered. Amazon’s greatest achievement in the literary world may simply be the widespread adoption of the kindle. While there are better e-readers on the market, the kindle as an inexpensive device is pure genius. Problem is it’s only a small part of Amazon’s ecosystem. As a global retailer, Amazon wants its customers locked in. Buy an Amazon device and you shop in the Amazon marketplace, download Amazon goods and services, view Amazon-sponsored videos. It’s what made the iPhone so attractive; Steve Jobs recognized what could be accomplished by latching a consumer device to a marketplace of vetted applications and content, and that is the holy grail of retail in our modern age.
Avatar had a bland (at best) story, but was packed with enough special effects and eye candy to keep you rooted to your seat. OK, I admit I was trying to find all the scenes with blue alien boobs. 3D films aren’t exactly new to Hollywood, and even though they’re catching on, I doubt anyone will intentionally make an award winning masterpiece in 3D unless it has elves, robots, and/or blue alien boobs. It’s a gimmick, and the jury is still debating whether an extra dimension truly improves a film. It didn’t help Prometheus from becoming a beautiful but vapid film. And yet I confess I’m a sucker for technology. You could put the Home Shopping network in 3D and I’d watch. I’d be bored, but that 16-piece knife set is sticking right out at me!
Fiction is now available complete with companion CD’s of music you should listen to with each chapter. Some e-books are stocked full of pictures and video clips. Online novels exploit all sorts of features to tell the story. You can find animated e-books that bleed words onto the page, books entirely in html, books written on twitter, the list goes on. If there’s a way to add technology to prose, it’s been done, or soon will be. In some circumstances, leveraging technology makes complete sense. I love some of the new digital magazines; tapping a page to animate a picture or visit a link with more info offers a fantastic user experience. Take that, Johann Gutenberg! A cookbook where I can see a short video could help my cooking, though I’m still likely to burn the soufflé. There are new media novels so complex they have an entire cast of producers aside from a traditional story author.
Examine the graphic novel as a natural comparison. Using visualization, the author and artist work to enrich a story by bringing us details that might be a bit unwieldy if conveyed solely in prose. It’s not as if Batman has an overly complex plot – villain comes, batman punches him, Gotham is saved. But examine some of the more intricate stories like Arkham Asylum that delve into the heroes psyche. The art enhances the story by bringing the reader further into the experience. Graphic novels, even newer digital variants, embrace the essential form of author and artist telling a story, and the story is paramount.
With new media prose, it seems as if we’re aiming for something more. There’s a fundamental need to create that underlies the foundation of everyone with an artistic nature, which is how artists can build a career out of trash. But isn’t it all just a gimmick? With fiction, in any format, story is essential. You can add a soundtrack, HTML-5 rich visual presentation with fluid animations to flesh out your story, but if you can’t include basic story elements, you’ve failed. At the end of the day, no matter what media you choose to work in, story is essential. Characters are paramount. Plot pulls in your audience.
Regardless of what you write, or what hooks you use to pull in your audience, if the story isn’t something that can be explained with an elevator pitch, if the characters aren’t identifiable and realistic, then you’ve failed as an author to create a living work of fiction. All the flash and glam in the world can’t save your work. Though you could try adding some blue alien boobs. It may not help, but it couldn’t hurt.
I’ve had more than a few people ask why I haven’t embraced digital publishing and started uploading books to Amazon. While the idea is certainly enticing, I don’t think it’s the quick road to international readership Amazon wants it to be. Not yet. I think I’d have more success standing naked on a street corner waiving a sign to encourage people to buy my book. The sign wouldn’t exactly work, but the local news story of the crazy naked guy would grab reader’s attentions.
Self-publishing and e-publishing will always have a remarkably high signal-to-noise ratio. E-publishing has made it so painfully easy that Amazon is filled with everything from Twilight ripoffs to books like “Ten women I’d like to pork”. I have yet to read a great self-published book. Some are good, sure, but great? No – not yet. And the reason for that is the “George Lucas Syndrome.”
George Lucas was a visionary, and the original Star Wars film remains a cinematic masterpiece. But what about those prequels? They’re kind of like cinematic supermodels. Pretty to look at, but vapid and boring. Sure they sold plenty of tickets and DVD’s. I think you could film a Jedi opening cans of tuna for two hours with a light saber and still make millions. Fans love Star Wars. But the stories in the new prequels were beyond terrible. They made very little sense. Stilted dialogue from actors we know can act, cheesy lines, retarded comic relief tropes no other film would ever be able to get away with. How the hell did this happen?
All three original Star Wars movies had producers. In movie terms, a producer is a lot like a good editor. The producers job isn’t to make the movie, it’s to make sure the movie gets made well. Producers help shape the story, construct scenes that flow together, and build a coherent film people will want to watch. With the new prequel, George acted as the sole editor. He funded the movies himself, skipping the big studios altogether. There was nobody to tell him “Hey, George, why does the trade federation want to blockade a planet? Wouldn’t that stop trade?” Or “I know you want to sell toys, but do we really need a twenty minute pod-racing scene?” In the end, the Star Wars prequels have become effects-laden soulless films. And the truly sad reality is that there is a good story in there, buried under all the crap. A story desperately in need of an editor. You could argue that my point is invalid since the prequels made a lot of money. But consider this: if George made the prequels first – if “Phantom Menace” came out in 1977, the series would’ve ended there.
Self publishing authors become mini-George Lucases. Lucasi… whatever. Without good editing, you’re writing in a vacuum. Stories just don’t work that way. It’s great if you’re writing just for yourself, but then why are you putting your work on Amazon? We write to be read, and that means writing the kinds of things people want to read. And not just friends and families and your great aunt Gertrude who sends you Tonka trucks every Christmas even though you’re no longer five. Some e-pub authors actually do hire editors, and as a result their work has less grammatical problems and tends to stand out. But few for-hire editors help a writer shape their story. Telling your clients their 400-page opus about elf-torture set in a dungeon is unreadable crap? That’s not a very good business model.
Not everything in the e-publishing world suffers from George Lucas syndrome. There are plenty of folks who can write well and don’t need much (if any) editing. What happens to those books? That brings me to my second point. When you self publish, not only are you the editor, you’re also the marketer and publicist. You need to actually go out and sell your book. That means blogging, tweeting, posting on forums, and if you’re really willing to spend some dough, buying ads. Doing all of those things requires a lot of time. Time you’d be better off spending writing and polishing your story. Most writers aren’t independently wealthy. We have day jobs, which means at best 2-3 hours a night writing with a few nights off every week so you can pet your kitty and save your marriage. If you’re spending most of that time self-promoting, how much are you actually writing? What about editing? There are plenty of anecdotal stories about authors who churned out a book in a couple of weeks only to have it become a bestseller.
First, that’s extremely rare and it’s usually significantly impacted by luck. When the Amazon e-publishing platform was young, there was less crap to churn through, so a few decent novels managed to grab significant sales. I’m willing to bet those novels wouldn’t have made it if published today under the sheer volume of titles clogging up the digital bookstore. Secondly, some of those books only made it because they latched on to a gimmick: teenage vampire drama right when vampires were a hot item and the market didn’t have enough. Or badly written lusty sex books because, let’s face it, we giggle when someone says penis.
Amazon isn’t a nonprofit. Providing infrastructure to electronic self-publishing is a brilliant business model because it costs them so little and brings in so much revenue. The Kindle is finally cheap enough to have a wide install base (and consequently, I’m convinced that’s why Fifty Shades is so popular – nobody has to be seen with the book open, but if it’s on a Kindle, then nobody knows what you’re reading unless you tell them). Amazon isn’t going to promote you, which means you’ve got to do it. Self-promoting is damn hard work, and you see very little return on it. Ewan Morrison wrote a really good article on pitfalls of relying on social media to sell. In short, social media sells social media. When was the last time you got a tweet or read a facebook post about something, then immediately ran out to get it? Worse, unless you’re a star blogger, you probably have a limited circle of social contacts. You can try asking friends of friends to go buy your book, but frankly that comes off as a mild step above door-to-door Amway sales.
Frankly, I’d rather spend my time writing. If I get desperate, I’ll stand on the corner, naked with my sign: Buy my e-book about vampire elf-torture!