What Have You Done For Me Lately?

February 17th, 2008 · 20 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

I am not worried about the future of the book. I am not worried about the future of reading. I am not worried about the future of spelling (I am almost-but-not-quite ready to accept the “spelling is relative” argument, !@#$ British and their extraneous use of “U”). I am worried about the future of publishers.

Your competition is not who you think it is.

By publishers, I mean traditional, bound-copy based, royalty-paying publishers. Oh, I don’t think they’re going away for a good long time, but I do think we’re seeing the beginning of a serious challenge to the status quo. This means a slow (publishing being a very slooow business) shift from authors who are grateful for any crumbs thrown their way to authors who will ask “So tell me again, what can you do for me?”.

Authors who expect a serious, detailed, ready-to-execute plan from the publisher…otherwise, baby, options exist. Options galore.

While I buy the argument that authors should do what authors do best (write) and publishers should do what publishers do best (distribute and market), I am realistic enough to know that the marketing love is bestowed on a relatively few number of authors. I don’t want to scare anyone (lie, lie, lie), but product is being thrown at the market at an alarming pace. This month’s hot title is next month’s forgotten title.

This year’s Tools of Change for Publishing Conference emphasized the need for the publishing industry to, uh, change. To develop passionate (for those playing the ToC drinking game at home, that’s one chug) readers. To build strong, loyal communities. To make books findable. To keep the conversation on the books while convincing the readers that free doesn’t mean free as in beer (please do not ever allow me to say that again).

Very few publishers have managed to achieve these rather simple goals (Harlequin being the most obvious example of a house that got the social before the social was hot). There are a lot of reasons for this, the first (and probably most important) being that publishers don’t sell books to readers.

Heresy, you say? Nope. Publishers sell books to distributors who sell books to bookstores who sell books to readers. For publishers to do what they need to do — passion (two chugs), community-based, social, findable — they need to find a direct connection with readers. This means asking, now more than ever, “what can I do for you, dear author?”

Alison Norrington, a chicklit author from Ireland (man, I hope she’s from Ireland; if not, it’s, like, one of those countries with a “U” problem), published three novels. Like all authors, she wants to publish a fourth. Norrington, however, was working on her master’s thesis while getting said fourth novel off the ground. No problem! Write the book online (a chapter a day, daunting, no?), market it online, chart progress and effort, sell book, continue the conversation.

Norrington was very, very successful with her project. She still hasn’t sold that fourth book, but, given the line of publishers waiting to say “Hi” after her presentation at ToC2008, I figure that’s more a matter of time than not. Of course, if I were sitting on the publisher side of the equation, I’d be hiring her for a corner office job. Norrington’s kind of creativity doesn’t come around that often.

Her presentation “Web 2.0 to Publishing 2.0: How do you want your stories?” chronicled her experiences in online fiction — and by fiction, I mean multi-level, faceted, deep character development online. For those who have had the pleasure of hearing me babble about this topic, effective online fiction development requires far more than throwing up a blog and hoping for the best (especially since, as Norrington noted with just enough wryness mixed with exasperation, breaking into the blogging clique isn’t easy. I sort of feel bad for her experiences and sincerely hope I wasn’t one who rebuffed her advances!).

Effective fictional blogging requires building and maintaining character from blog to Second Life. It requires Facebook, MySpace (unless you’re clever enough to avoid it), Flickr, Twitter, and a dozen or more social networks. It requires building a life for a character that extends beyond the blog. It requires a multi-channel effort. It’s requires good tagging and good search engines.

[Stop. Don't. I know you're thinking "I can do that". Chill. You know who you are. We'll talk later, I promise; I have plans. Remember, it only works for the right kind of fiction -- sometimes you have to mix your own.]

Norrington spent an inordinate amount of time creating the fictional world of Sophie, a columnist who has vowed to stay single for a year. Note the inordinate part of “inordinate amount of time”. You think Facebook for your real life is too much? Try doing it for someone who isn’t corporeal. As Norrington learned, you get so deep that you find yourself crossing the lines between real and fiction.

So what does this have to do with the future of publishing houses? As I said to poor Alison Norrington when I accosted her, if she’d known what she was doing, she’d be dangerous. We’re talking about a relative Internet novice who managed to hit all the right notes (yet missed one of the most obvious pieces of the puzzle. See first link for this author.). All the notes the publishing business is still trying to reach.

The only thing she didn’t manage — and I chalk this up to the focus of her project rather than ability — was to figure out how to monetize her fourth novel. Yeah, she’s looking for the advance/royalty model, but given how much the average novelist makes these days, it’s not a stretch to imagine that self-publishing done her way can be lucrative.

As I listened to Norrington speak, my mind couldn’t help but consider the many, many authors I know who are doing exactly what she’s doing. How they’re putting so much of their creative energy into promotion. They’re doing an incredible amount of work to sell books to make money for themselves and their publishers. Without serious support from their houses.

Smart, savvy, entrepreneurial authors are going to wonder why they’re giving away an average (a loose average) of 90% of net income for what amounts to very little support, though I hope they consider the expense side of the equation before saying ta-da to the traditional publishing business. It seems rather odd that so many authors are busting their butts to reach a magical sell-through rate in order to achieve the golden ring of another contract, yet the actual support provided by their publishing house, the other half of an ostensible partnership, ends at dumping the book into a huge pile with the masses of other books released that month; how long before they realize that they’re doing the work, someone else is making the money?

I am not asking idle questions. Radiohead, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, others are finding success without the support of major labels. Maybe these are exceptional examples, maybe they’re indicative of a movement. Time will tell.

A very wise man asked me what signs of hope I saw at the Tools of Change Conference. Still processing, I pointed out that there was a strong realization that today’s youth really do read. Maybe not the way we believe reading should be done, but, hey, I, for one, do not read the way my mother does. Had I had another hour or two, maybe I would have pointed to Alison Norrington’s presentation.

Which gets back to the role played by publishing houses. Obviously, publishers are not writers. It’s probably just as obvious to understand that online character development requires intense author involvement. But tomorrow’s publisher (for those wondering, tomorrow started about ten years ago) needs to be positioned to make the process of reaching and maintaining the social aspects of the book business as effortless as possible for authors.

Because I have seen the future and her name is Alison Norrington…your competition is not who you think it is.

Update (2/19/2008):

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File Under: The Future of Publishing

20 responses so far ↓

  • Nicola Griffith // Feb 18, 2008 at 10:18 am

    I really wish I’d gone to ToC–but reading your posts is a fine substitute. Lots to chew on here. Thank you.

  • Lee // Feb 18, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    ‘…effective online fiction development requires far more than throwing up a blog and hoping for the best…’

    True, and true again about online cliques, but it all depends on how you define success. The sort of approach you suggest requires an enormous amount of time, time which would cut drastically into my writing and reading. Therefore I accept that the 50-100 downloads of my YA fantasy novel MORTAL GHOST per day suffice, plus the 15,000+ podcasts downloaded to date. Later this year I’ll begin serialising my new YA F/SF novel, and though I’ll do a bit of online publicity, nothing like a seious effort at promotion. How many readers does it take to make someone a decent writer? 50? 500? 5000? 50,000? The numbers game doesn’t much interest me.

  • Clive Warner // Feb 18, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Dear Kassia,
    If it had not been for some dumb-ass early immigrant that couldn’t spell, and thought everyone else should be dumbed down to suit, Americans would still spell colour with a ‘u’.

    Rather similar is the quaint usage in the USA of “Imperial” measure (with the exception of the short-measure gallon, quart, and pint) while the rest of the world moved on. It would be rather funny had it not led to the loss of the Mars lander a few years back due to the inability of US astro-physicists to see that they were the only ones calculating the required fuel using feet, inches, and gallons, while all the others were using kilograms, litres (haha liTRes) and metres..

    I notice that the USA is the home of the “picture menu” in restaurants, so alas, the future of literacy looks dim on this (US) side of the Atlantic… “special” English, anyone?

  • Clive Warner // Feb 18, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    (Continued)
    However, I have to sincerely thank you for putting this idea over – the one about the Web 2.0 novel. I’m going to start one immediately. And the protagonist is going to be so unspeakably awful that I am not even going to describe the dreadful things this person will be doing … in case anyone connects him with me.

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  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 18, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Now, now, Clive, I know how the British get their backs up about the whole “U” thing. I always figured it had something to do with the French . And don’t be so hasty about making fun of menus with pictures on them. One too many glasses of wine and a good visual aid can prevent a serious faux pas (not mention, if we were in Japan, without the plastic food — another great visual aid — some would die of starvation). I cannot defend the Imperial versus metric thing; they made us learn all that metric stuff and then, well, nothing. It’s really the only place we’ve gone wrong (okay, not the *only*)/

    I think it’s a good idea to separate your character (whom I trust will be even more awful than you’ve described) from the real you. Sort of breaks the magic to know a real human is pulling the strings.

    Do tell about your experiences.

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 18, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Lee — You are so right that all of this takes a lot of time and effort. I hope I made that clear in my post. All authors need to find the right balance between creative writing and creative promotion. And if you go the fictional blogging/other fictional creation route, you need to be prepared for the time suck aspect.

    Nicola — It was a great adventure (how are you doing?) and I’ll hopefully find a few hours to roll out more thoughts and impressions. I love an event that leaves me inspired to think about the big ideas.

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  • bowerbird // Feb 19, 2008 at 11:55 am

    if you ask me,
    you’re five times
    smarter than brantley
    and/or o’reilly,
    since they’re still
    trying to prop up
    dinosaur publishers,
    while you spell out
    how mammals win.

    -bowerbird

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 20, 2008 at 8:16 am

    Oh, I do have to disagree. Both Peter Brantley and Tim O’Reilly are working hard to find ways forward (and, frankly, I get lots of my ideas from both of them — I wish I had that kind of brain!).

  • BM // Feb 20, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Dear Kassia,

    First, I thought your post was very insightful over the future of the publishing business related to the online novel. The Internet has certainly made it easier for people to ‘showcase’ their work, although if this work is actually seen by a wider net is another issue. And to be quite honest, having only recently become acquainted with the blogosphere and its domains, I was quite surprised to see that such things as ‘online novels’ existed. I have to fully agree with you when you say that “today’s youth really do read” – and not only Harry Potter. I for one am part of this youth and the amount of time that I spend on the internet, reading short stories, articles and now blogs, is an “inordinate amount of time”.
    However, since I am new to all this, I was wondering why is it that “Effective fictional blogging requires building and maintaining character from blog to Second Life. It requires Facebook, MySpace (unless you’re clever enough to avoid it), Flickr, Twitter, and a dozen or more social networks”? Is this an aesthetic characteristic of online fiction or a way to raise its value of art? To me, this ‘requirement’ seems to be a tool of promotion and marketing of the work and if that is the case, it is definitely a creative way to do it. But what deeper impact does it have on the actual literary work? Once again, I really enjoyed reading your post, as it enlightened me in several topics I know feel compelled to explore further into!

  • Chris Gribble // Feb 20, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Loved the post, but wondered if it is really the case that while what writers do best is write, that what publishers do best is ‘distribute and market’.

    This leaves to one side editorial (in its brand form as well as actual, physical form) – key to the brands and identities of publishers/imprints and particularly so in the ‘literary’ subset of the market. Actually, marketing and distribution are two things that a lot of publishers do badly, which is the clear subtext of your post anyway…

    In addition, publishers do not simply sell to distributors (at least not in the UK). They sell to chains, bookshops, wholesalers, distributors and others, most of whom employ key buyers, all of whom spend serious amounts of time (well spent or not is another matter) trying to figure out what ‘their’ (ha) book buyer will lift from ‘their’ shelves or the shelves of their customers (independent book shops, for example, all of whom use wholesalers as well as regular distributors).

    Just thinking while typing. Sorry it’s a bit random. Love the blog.

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 20, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, Chris, some publishers do sell directly to retailers (and even customers), but that would have made for a less fun sentence. And of course the point is that generally publishers don’t have a direct connection with readers. Which is what makes this changing paradigm so much harder — it’s not just changing business models, it’s changing relationships.

    I do believe that publishers are very good at distribution and marketing. I am less enthused these days about the editorial side, but mostly because I have seen a decline in quality control. Of course, I am picky, picky, picky. However, getting back to the distribution and marketing — if you consider that publishers do get the product to their customers (distributors, retailers, etc) and they do very well when it comes to selling to those same customers. The mere act of getting physical (and virtual) product to customers is remarkably effort-intensive.

    Do I think it can be better and more effective? Absolutely. This gets back to the paradigm shift. I also think it gets to today’s ramble (you’re not the only who thinks while typing!) about reading and social activities.

  • Kassia Krozser // Feb 20, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    BM, so many answers, so little time. I’m going to start with your specific question about, uh, hold on, right

    “Effective fictional blogging requires building and maintaining character from blog to Second Life. It requires Facebook, MySpace (unless you’re clever enough to avoid it), Flickr, Twitter, and a dozen or more social networks”?

    This is a side effect of creating character. While some blogs are clearly acts of writing a novel using a blogging tool, there are also stories that are meant to blur lines between reality and fiction. In the case of Sophie (Alison Norrington’s character), “she” was writing a first-person blog as if she were a real person. To be a real person in this day and age, you naturally leave an online trail. You participate in social media. It makes sense that a person her age would participate in these venues.

    It’s probably not wholly clear to participants in these social networking sites that Sophie is a fictional character, but once they get back to the blog, they will likely understand what’s happening. Of course, there are examples of deeper fiction where the reality/fictional divide is not made as clear (nor is it intended to be). This gets somewhat into ARGS (Alternate Reality Games) where the goal is to be more immersive.

    As for the impact on the actual literary work, that gets back to the author’s goals and the story.

  • Jack // Feb 20, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Dear Kassia Krozser:

    Good article but, in my view, the subject is rather difficult from a human perspective. We live in a rapidly changing world whose parts, including the publishing business, are constantly being affected.

    Publishing houses that don’t sell books have to close down. Success is measured in mass appeal. Publishers must push what people want… which is_______________________________ or even convince readers of what they desire.

    Writers who want to be published must do the same.

    Perhaps this didn’t sound very good.

  • Tracy Pfau // Apr 17, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Wow all of you sound so ‘with it.’ I’m the wife of a talented writer who’s written several screenplays and is now trying his hand (no pun intended) at getting his first novel published. I found this blog because he just got his first rejection notice today and the little ditty rejection said:

    “Thank you for your query to our agency. Due to
    the current status of the publishing industry…and the selectivity that the market now demands, we regret that we cannot consider your material at this time.”

    ….so….with that read –”state of the publishing industry…” made me google “current state of the publishing industry” and I found this blog. After reading all this stuff (very compelling) –I still think it’s about who you know and of course how good you are as a writer. But do you have any additional perspective on my perspective? Do you think I’m just a dolt or that I’m correct? My husband is a published writer with recommendations by mainstream people in Hollywood and his book (fiction) is about Hollywood. I know that sounds really general, but I would really like to learn about your world as writers and try and help my husband. Thanks.
    Oh and sir from Britain – don’t put America down. We may have picture menus, but we also have INDIANA JONES, STAR WARS, and a zillion talented up and coming writers here.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 17, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    Tracy,

    I sympathize with your plight. Your husband got a fairly standard rejection letter. They’re phrased to be polite. It’s a tough, tough business (as is Hollywood), and finding an agent who connects with your work takes a lot of time and effort. All I can say is that you keep knocking on doors and listening to constructive feedback.

    What’s wrong for Agent A might be perfect for Agent Z.

    It is about who you know, sure, but all business is about who you know. Writers make contacts by attending conferences, joining writer organizations, writing for publications, and contacting agents until you find the right one. As much as we as writers like to think we’re alone out there, agencies get queried all the time and have to be selective. Or, if you’d rather, they have to connect with a writer to represent him or her.

    Publishing is changing — all entertainment media is changing — but good writing tends to find a home. However, it’s hard work. Believe me, I’ve been there.

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