Monday, February 28, 2011

More Terms to Know

In the world of publishing, mes auteurs, there are a lot of terms to know. As our digital overlords begin to claim more and more of this territory for themselves, I think an e-update of sorts is in order.

Therefore! I've put together a list of indispensable e-book/Internet-related terms I think you should know. If you think of any more (and I'm sure you will), please don't hesitate to post them in the comments.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). A system for separating a web page's or e-book's style/formatting from its content. For example: rather than putting a tag around every block of text that specifies the font as Garamond, you can just have CSS declare that all text should be in Garamond from the outset.

Think of it as like giving directions from the passenger seat of the car: you can just tell the driver, "go straight until I say otherwise" from the outset, rather than saying, "keep going straight" at each intersection.

E-book (also ebook, eBook). An electronic book available in a wide variety of formats (e.g. AZW, EPUB, MOBI, PDF) on a variety of devices (e.g. Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook).

EPUB (also ePub, ePUB, EPub, epub). The industry standard e-book format. It's basically a zipped-up website.

HTML (HyperText Markup Language). The language used to write websites and e-books. It's currently on version five (HTML5).

PDF (also .pdf). Standing for "Portable Document Format," a .pdf is a file format readable by many (but not all) e-reading devices. Its primary selling point is that it represents documents independent of the machine it runs on, so a .pdf e-book looks the same no matter what devices is used to read it. For this reason, however, .pdf files are not reflowable (see below).

Reflowable content. Content (words, diagrams, illustrations, &c) that can change or "reflow" depending on the device designed to read it. Text "reflows" when you change the font size on your Kindle or when you switch back and forth between devices with different display sizes.

This is one reason e-versions of the same title look different on different devices; another is that different e-tailers do different things to the source files they receive from publishers before making the book available to the consumer.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Basically, this is the idea of improving your visibility via search engines on the Internet. For example: if you Google "[your name] author," you want your personal website to be one of the first few hits. Taking into account how search engines work and what search terms people use, it's possible to move up the list of results (often dramatically).

XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language). A family of XML languages (see below) that serves as an alternative to HTML (above).

XML (eXtensible Markup Language). Wikipedia says it best: "A set of rules for encoding documents in machine-readable form." If you're using Microsoft Office 2007 or later, you're already familiar with one of XML's many uses (it's the "x" in ".docx," ".xlsx," &c).

Friday, February 25, 2011

Round Up of Champions, or Goodbye Blue February

Time for the Friday round up with Laura:

It's almost March, folks, which means one thing: February, the worst month of the year, will be dead to us for 11 months. We've had to use a lot of snow-perbole to explain why the weather was so crappy, but the real answer has been right in front of us. That's right: Jesse James' memoir is causing the end of times. I really hope bad publicity doesn't help sales, because if it does that man is going to be a bestseller faster than Snooki. Who is also a bestseller. Diagnosis: genius. It must be genius hard at work, in the Snook's brain and in Jesse James' Nazi-loving skull—why else would people shell out hard-earned recession dollars for this stuff? Blech, I think I need some book therapy.

I might just wander away from books and play the Waiting for Godot video game, or scroll through Rashkolnikov's inbox, or take a listen to Hamlet's iPod (spoiler: it's not all Dashboard Confessional and The New Pornographers). I might even play Charlaine Harris' video game. Why aren't more novelists writing video games, anyway? It must be because all of the hot girls are in publishing.

Speaking of hot things, have you checked out the hot deals at Borders' liquidation sales? (Great segue, Laura!) They're almost as hot as this description of Henry Miller's last marriage. Which is to say, not hot at all. 20% is not a steep discount, folks. Although you could pick up these essential writings about writing, and take to heart these lessons in teaching writing. Then you too will be prepared to write Vonnegut's bio, or alternately, get rejected as nicely as Tim Burton. Just don't end up one of the top 10 pirated books.

Now that you're all caught up on the super important news of the week, ponder to yourselves if you can write across gender, and see what gender you write like. And for those of you school-goers and paper-writers, remember: always make your phone write your citations. This message has been brought to you by the letter L.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Prithee, Inform Me: Retailing Versus E-Tailing

Remember, writers and readers, when I said that the decline of brick-and-mortar chains could spark an indie bookstore renaissance? Well, it turns out that Paul Carr over at TechCrunch just said the exact same thing. Great minds! &c, &c.

The point being: while Borders may very well emerge from bankruptcy and go on to survive for years, their current store closings (numbering 200, or a little less than a third) will generate storefront vacancies. Some buildings will turn into something else entirely, but I'm betting a fair number will house independent bookstores.

As Paul mentions (and as I've said), there are a number of functions brick-and-mortar stores serve (specialized knowledge, author events, cafés, the experience of physically browsing, and so on) that can't be duplicated by on-line vendors.

That said, I'm sticking with my long-standing belief that independent booksellers will make something of a comeback this decade. As for you folks: do you agree? And what would draw you away from the convenience of buying books in your living room and out to your local bookstore?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy President's Day!

As you've no doubt by now guessed, mes auteurs, Abe Lincoln and George Washington teamed up to get me the day off of work. (I hope they did the same for you!) Come back on Wednesday for a brand-spanking-new, sweet-baby-Jesus-February-is-almost-over post!

Friday, February 18, 2011

February Thaw Round Up

Round up time with Laura:

Happy Friday, friends and foes. I am currently torn between frolicking in the heat wave (it's 60 degrees, people!) and digging myself a bunker—New York released its official apocalypse guide. It might be timed to coincide with the new Atlas Shrugged trailer, which signals the end of the world in its own way. Say goodbye to the world, 200 Borders-es. Also say goodbye to novels with Sookie Stackhouse, who remains the most annoying character on television. Anna Paquin, you're fine—Sookie Stackhouse, you are really irritating. Perhaps she should try and get some modern lessons from the Kama Sutra—since it's HBO it's 50% sex, 50% Sookie dialogue, and I'd rather not listen to her talk, thank you very much.

Speaking of oldies but goodies, Disney found out their backlist sells best digitally. Out of the vault for 30 seconds—get your $100 bills ready to buy 2 pages of the novelization of Sleeping Beauty. Oh, Disney, why are you so good at parting me from my money? I would also give my money for the 10 best Roald Dahl books, but not for Stieg Larsson's partner's memoir. I'm sure Vonnegut has a relevant quip for this. Imagine I included it here.

What else is new? Well, gym class helps kids read better, and romance still rules the roost. Barnes & Noble (you know, the big chain that hasn't filed for bankruptcy) is trying to poach Amazon affiliates, and Kathryn Stockett is being sued by her brother's maid for using her image without consent in The Help. Sue for more than $75k, Abilene! That book made a mint!

I'm off to frolick, dear readers—enjoy your 3-day weekend if you've got it, sulk about working on Monday if you have to, and I'll see you next week for more super fun adventure time!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


If you haven't yet heard, mes auteurs, Borders Group has filed Chapter 11. While this means a lot of things for the industry, I'd like to follow up on Monday's post and list just a few potential changes/repercussions you might see as authors.

In unimpeachable Bullet-O-Vision™:

· Borders will continue to operate. As I explained on Monday, Chapter 11 bankruptcy doesn't necessarily entail liquidation. Although Borders plans to close many individual stores, the chain itself will still do business while under bankruptcy protection. This means you can still buy books there and, just as importantly, your books can still be carried there.

· Borders will likely be even more cautious about investing in midlist authors. While their new loans from GE Capital will allow them to finance, among other things, the purchase of new stock, Borders is not in any position to gamble. They're likely, in my opinion, to skip more midlist titles than usual and to only spend their money on names they know they can sell. This will be exacerbated by the aforementioned store closings.

· Publishers may offer lower advances, especially on midlist titles. The industry has depended on Borders as a major market for new titles. If the publisher can't trust Borders to take a sufficiently large number of copies of a given title, this will factor into their profit and loss statements. As a result, they may advance less money to authors in order to increase the odds that any given acquired title will earn out.

· Electronic titles will probably be largely unaffected. Borders was quite the Johnny-come-lately to the e-book scene, and as a result their sales in that sector are dwarfed by their competitors'. Further, even if their sales were a large subset of the market, brick-and-mortar store closings wouldn't really affect their ability to distribute titles electronically via their on-line storefront.

· Local author events may be canceled. Fewer stores means fewer venues for readings, signings, &c. Towns in which Borders is really the only bookstore will, as you might imagine, be the most affected. You can switch to buying books on-line if your local Borders store closes; not so with author events. At least, not yet.

A lot remains to be seen, however, so I'll post periodic updates on Borders' bankruptcy filing and its impact on the industry as events unfold.

Monday, February 14, 2011

There's Broke and Then There's Broke

Before we get started today, cats & kittens, I'd like to point you to a rather fantastic interview conducted by Alexia Chamberlynn with yours truly. You can learn more about her on her website, and you can learn more about me right here.

Speaking of learning!

In case you didn't hear and/or do not follow me on the Twitters, Borders Group is set to declare bankruptcy this week. What does that mean for the publishing industry and you, authors/consumers?

It can mean one of two things, depending on what bankruptcy paperwork is filed.

Under Chapter 7, Borders would essentially undergo liquidation. A trustee is appointed to figure out how best to disburse and redistribute assets and property to creditors (the people to whom the business owed all that money). Once the process is over, the business is no more. Kaput. Gone.

Because I have no insider knowledge of the situation (and couldn't share it with you even if I did), I can't really sketch out the details of Borders' case for you, nor can I describe what a potential liquidation for them would look like. All I can tell you is: it's the least desirable option from the industry's perspective.

In the event of Borders' complete dissolution, a lot of their former business would redistribute to other retailers (Barnes & Noble, Amazon, independent bookstores), but a certain fraction would just be lost.

Under Chapter 11, however, no trustee would be appointed on Borders' behalf, and they would continue under their own steam as "debtors in possession." A Chapter 11 filing would enable them to reorganize the company while under the protection (and supervision) of the court, which may include (but is not limited to) securing new financing/lines of credit and shedding underperforming stores or departments.

They would also benefit from what's known as an "automatic stay," meaning that creditors would be unable to collect from Borders during the term of their restructuring.

Borders could potentially continue operations largely unhindered and then emerge from bankruptcy in a few months or years (Kmart did this about ten years ago), and while their current stock would (as in a Chapter 7 filing) basically be rendered valueless, they could begin trading on the NYSE again under a new listing if and when they officially emerge. Sort of like a phoenix emerging from the ashes, only with a major brick-and-mortar chain bookstore instead of a bird and a pile of debt instead of cinders.

In short: bankruptcy isn't necessarily the end of Borders. There still remains a lot to be seen.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pre-Valentine's Day Round Up

1. 400th post!
2. Friday round up time, with Laura

Hello, friends and foes, and welcome to just-about Valentine's Day (the most important of days). Have you bought me a present yet? Have you re-jiggered your diet to account for all of the candy you'll be inhaling? Have you decked out your homes in pink and red? If not, maybe you should spend less time Internet-ing and more time preparing for the third greatest consumer holiday America has to offer (trailing behind Christmas and Halloween, but firmly ahead of Fourth of July and Thanksgiving). Or you could not do any of those things—excepting buying me a present, that's mandatory—and read this round up. Either/or.

Are you in the mood for love? Perhaps you need these V-Day love poems, or this love advice from romance writers. Maybe you love the OED—I know I do—or are waiting to see how Jeffrey Eugenides deals with marriage. As for the kiddies, I hear they heart e-readers, and they can join the Lisa Simpson book club, the greatest of clubs.

Have you stolen someone's heart recently? I'll have you know that piracy is bad for New York, although it may be good for Neil Gaiman. If you are engaging in high seas piracy, you can always put that in your quirky author bio, and hope it doesn't lead to a literary fight.

If you do get in a famous fight, people might ask you to sign their e-readers, or host a BEA breakfast with Mindy Kaling. You might even get to stand next to Bristol Palin, memoirist at a book signing. Oh joyous day! The attention some get over others is baffling, as this discussion of Franzen v. Goodman shows.

So hey folks, go out and buy my presents, raise a glass to Brian Jacques, and remember: all the really sexy stuff is in the Bible.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Anatomy of an E-book

I've gotten a few questions from the more tech-oriented among you, fair readers, as to what, exactly, an e-book file looks like. So! Allow me to illuminate... the EPUB format.

If you're looking for the short (and somewhat inaccurate) story: The EPUB format is the industry standard, and the file is sort of like a zipped up website. The book itself is written in the same code used to write web pages, and fancier books have extra files zipped into the final package.

If you're not familiar with the idea of "zipping up" a file, just imagine it as packing up all the stuff in your room. Your unpacked room represents all the various files and formats you'd like in the finished product; the single box you end up with that contains everything from your room is the zipped-up file.

For the more involved (and more technically correct) story, a basic EPUB file consists of the following:

· A bunch of pages written in XHTML that contain the written content of the book;
· CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to provide formatting;
· An XML file with the extension .opf that contains the book's metadata (title, the language it's written in, &c);
· An XML file with the extension .ncx that contains the book's hierarchical table of contents.

These last two XML files are what really separate an e-book from a website: they provide a linear structure to the book that require (for the most part) that it be read in a certain order. (Many books do contain hyperlinks and allow you to skip from page to page this way.)

Now, although EPUB is the standard by which the industry operates, not all e-book retailers use it (and those who do generally modify the files they receive from publishers or individuals to suit their particular standards). This is why e-books often look different from device to device.

The most visible example is that of Amazon's Kindle, which pretty much reads anything except EPUB (e.g. MOBI, PRC, AZW, PDF). Because Amazon needs to convert EPUB files before it can sell them to consumers, e-books may not always appear as publishers intended (due to the translation process in general, how the two coding systems handle different objects like tables and captions, and so on). What is possible via EPUB may not be possible in, say, MOBI, and vice-versa.

While I think that formats and devices will consolidate over time, I very much doubt we're going to see a one-format, handful-of-devices scenario for awhile. The good news is that there are ways to convert almost any file type to any other file type and many devices can either cross-read or run apps that are capable of doing so, so your library hopefully won't be (too) fragmented for the time being.

That's it for today, amigos and -as. Friday: the pre-Valentine's Day round-up!

Monday, February 7, 2011

What I Learned at AWP

For those of you who aren't familiar, AWP is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, and their annual conference was this past weekend in Washington, D.C. I had a great time and met a lot of wonderful people, and in the spirit of reliving the experience and imparting any and all wisdom I may have gleaned in the process, here's what I learned about AWP (and writers/conferences in general):

Check in early or late. I picked up my badge on the second day and completely avoided any and all lines. I hear the folks who arrived on the first day had to battle epic crowds (one of the few things that instantly gets me in a bad mood).

Introduce yourself to people. I thanked/spoke with editors who had published my work in literary magazines, chatted up folks running tables for journals I really admire, and mingled with professors, writers, and publishers who seemed cool. Who knows when a connection you make will turn into a career opportunity?

Exchange business cards. There were way too many names and faces for me to recall even a tenth of the people I met, and I'm sure everyone else felt similarly. Cards help refresh your memory and provide much-needed contact information.

Go to the hotel bar. Everyone worth talking to is there. Everyone not worth talking to is somewhere else. Everyone who doesn't want to talk to anyone is holed up in their hotel rooms.

Budget carefully. Many writing conferences have a lot of awesome books for sale, and the temptation to buy everything is pretty strong. If you're not paying attention, you could end up spending way more money than you intend (and will then have to lug 30 pounds of books home with you). That said—

Make sure you walk the floor on the last day. In this case, many publishers wanted to unload as many copies of books/journals/magazines/t-shirts/&c as possible so they wouldn't have to lug/ship them back. This resulted in a lot of great deals (and even free stuff!) on the last day of the conference.

Were any of y'all at AWP, as well? If so, please feel free to share your stories in the comments!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Round Up Like an Egyptian

Yet another Friday round up with Laura:

I know you're all keeping up with the protests in Cairo, friends and foes, because you are active and aware citizens of the world. And if you're not, probably Google it. It's kind of important. While you're at it, you can check out translations of Tahrir Square dispatches, or read books about uprisings and revolts. You can't go to the Cairo book fair, as it's canceled, and you'll have to wait for ElBaradei's memoir, but you can read from this reading list for the Egypt crisis and appreciate the Egyptian youths protecting the libraries.

In other and much less world-shaking news, Jimmy Carter is being sued for not being absolutely right all of the time, and Tyler Perry is going to play Alex Cross, because he is absolutely right. All of the time. Jane Lynch is writing a memoir and James Franco is teaching a college course on James Franco. I kind of love him of late, not gonna lie. I also love the joy of indefinite numbers and these Random House staffers with crushes.

Chris McDougall, whose book I loved, gave a TED lecture about running. He did not, alas, contribute to these doodles by famous authors. Perhaps all this doodling is all a way of avoiding using Twitter as a public writing exercise, or Twittering backlist to the top of the lists.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone's talking about their favorite swears, to which I say: WTF (which, as my dad tells me, means "Where's the fries?" The lack of fries explains the emphatic nature of the exclamation, or so I hear). So read your college books, worry about Apple's stance on apps, and start your Kindle singles. Until next week!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Brand Management, Revisited

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

Now that the exchange of greetings pertaining to the World's Stupidest Holiday are complete, I'd like to revisit a topic I brought up last month: publisher branding and brand management.

As Andrew Wheeler brought up in the comments (and later in in his own blog post), it may not be in publishers' best interests to push their overarching corporate structure on consumers, but rather let their individual brands speak for themselves. And I quote:

I'd say your advice is exactly backwards: publishers need to understand the power of specific brands and strengthen the ones they have... This is exactly parallel to the way that SC Johnson isn't a brand, but Glade, Drano, Windex, Ziploc, and Raid are brands.

This is true! However, do we not all know (most likely via some sort of creepy post-hypnotic subliminal messaging) that S.C. Johnson is a family company? (Thanks, television!) Like MomCorp of Futurama fame, should publishers not maintain some hulking, terrifying presence in the consumer's brain? (I kid, but you get the idea.)

Andrew makes a good point, and so let me resolicit your opinions, fair readers. Should consumers not be made aware of the publisher's branding (e.g. Penguin Classics, Ace) as much as the author(s) in question? Granted, authors are the the primary brand because they're the ones attracting followings, producing content, &c, and liking one of their previous titles is generally a better indicator of whether you'll like a new title, but what of the début novelist? The gal or guy whose branding might, for the time being, rely exclusively on the house brand to which (s)he belongs?

Andrew may be right that our awareness of specific brands and imprints belonging to a larger publisher are more important than our consciousness of the publisher itself, but I think it's for precisely this reason that the "flagship" imprints to which Andrew points have lost their steam and vision over the past several years (the eponymous Penguin imprint and "Little Random" being prime examples).

The question, I suppose, is this: should the larger corporation brand itself as, in a sense, a creator of myriad brands (imprints), or should it stick to those specific imprints and not try to brand itself (vis-à-vis the "flagship" model)?