Friday, January 29, 2010

iPadding Down to Friday

This week was ridiculous, folks. Laura is here from Combreviations to round it all up:

This week really enforced for us the cycle of life and death, reader types. We lost Howard Zinn as well as JD Salinger, which are two big blows to us all. Papercuts says goodbye to Salinger, Slate brings us a number of critics discussing the relevance of his work today, and you should also check out this history of Salinger reviews. And please, keep your Catcher in the Rye scripts in your pockets for at least a week—to do otherwise would be oh so gauche.

This week brought us the birth of the iPad, which Eric likes and I think is kind of meh and not that exciting. The Bits blog at the NYTimes liveblogged the release, and wished that it supported Flash (but that's Adobe's fault because they are terrible with all mobile devices), had a still or video camera, included phone service (I disagree on that one, I am not Zach from Saved by the Bell), had a removable battery (for when you are going to be away from a charger for more than 10 hours), and had removable storage. Gizmodo also throws a resounding nay in the iPad ring, citing the lack of multitasking (no music while you surf the Internet!), the awkwardness of using it to type, the lack of any HDMI or USB slots, and the inability to install any of your own software. Lifehacker likens it to a Franken-laptop, over which you have no software control.

That said, I think generally speaking the kind of people who want an iPad (and Apples at large) aren't going to be hooking this up their TV or a second monitor, installing intense software, using it to model data in Excel, etc. This is not for uber-techy people who like to customize their experience—Apples are popular because they are easy, user friendly, and almost impossible to mess up by accident (unless you drop it in the tub or something. Note to you: do not shower with computer). Farhad Manjoo at Slate loves the iPad, plus Stephen Fry is behind it, and Jezebel lists 5 reasons to get behind the iPad (among them digital magazines and online comics).

But then, none of us care about the iPad as a concept—we care about how it works with books. Hurrah, books! Shelf Life does a roundup of what the reader needs to know about the iBooks app, some publishing experts weigh in, and eBookNewser has some reactions to the launch. The consensus is that Apple is great for using ePub, a format that is not exclusive to the company, and so it's possible that you could read books you haven't bought through iBooks if they are in the same format. The iBook store is supposed to be set up a lot like the iTunes store, so it should be easy to navigate for those already in the Church of Apple. However, the 10 hour battery life is low compared to other e-readers, and the inability to turn off the backlight will make it feel like reading on a computer (because, essentially, that's what you'd be doing).

Although the iPad rocked our world Wednesday (what do you mean, the State of the Union was on? Is that what we're calling Jobs' reveals now?), we can't forget the rest of the internet in its wake. The Millions did an interview with an e-book pirate that's worth a read, and there are rumors that people who read e-books use them to supplement print books (shock! shock!). And we also shouldn't forget dear old Amazon, which is now releasing its own books.

Layoff lit is taking off, although those writers will not be particularly interested in the age old conundrum: where do you read during your lunch break in the winter? California has unbanned the dirty dictionary, which teaches children about boning, but prisons have banned Dungeons and Dragons for encouraging nerdiness behind bars. Those prisoners clearly never read these books that epitomize teen spirit (but they may have read these classics of steampunk).

That's all for today—see you all next week!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

PMN: iPad Me Now

I'm going to regret the title of this post.

Now, I know what you're thinking: enough with the e-readers, already. But this is no e-reader, folks. This is... how did Steve put it? Ah, yes. MAGICAL.

Suffice it to say: I want one.

Now, I'll leave you to discover the vital stats on your own (lest another commenter believe I am somehow receiving kickbacks for blogging about various e-readers), but it seems to be affordable, lightweight, and (most importantly) very, very shiny. I'm not going to buy one until the second generation of devices is available, since I prefer to allow people with more disposable income than me to figure out what features should be added/removed and where there are bugs (not to mention the nice price drop that comes with waiting). But what about you, gentle readers? Are you swayed in any way?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Borders Revisited

There have been a few changes since we last visited Borders back in August. They've got a new (interim) CEO to replace the outgoing Ron Marshall (who took over for George Jones about a year ago), they're in danger of being delisted by the NYSE (last I checked, their stock was trading at $0.92 a share), their holiday sales are down 14% year-on-year, they may be in deep water if Apple and Barnes & Noble have paired up over the much-awaited "iSlate" (due to be unveiled today), and the Internet backlash initiated by their destruction of unsold books has been great enough to cause them to change their minds (the books will now be donated or recycled instead of destroyed).

Competition with other major brick-and-mortar retailers (like Barnes & Noble) and Internet megastores (like Amazon) has made an already rough economic climate even rougher for Borders. They were forced to close 200 Walden store locations this month, freeing them from burdensome leases on mall space but further contracting their sales base and general visibility in the market. Even if the Borders chain emerges from this dip relatively unscathed, it's not clear how their mall stores (Borders Express and Walden) will fare.

It's not all bad news in Ann Arbor—Borders has reduced shelf space for less profitable merchandise and revamped their rewards program—but, as you can see, they're far from out of the woods yet.

What do you think, fair authors? Will Borders regain their footing as the economy recovers? Do you think mall-based book retailing is still effective? Do you shop at Borders regularly, and if not, why not? If so, why?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


In the case of the former, a Public Service Announcement; in the case of the latter, another heretofore mysterious aspect of the Sales Side (patent pending): the Per Store Average.

When sales folk (in any industry, not just publishing) talk about PSA, they're referring to the number of units sold, on average, by any given store in a chain. For example, if Joe's House o' Books has 100 store locations and sells 1,000 units of a given title over a given length of time, their PSA for that interval is 10 units per store (1,000 / 100).

PSA is important to the sales force because it allows us to make direct comparisons between national accounts that have different store counts; it's not exactly fair to tout Book-O-Rama's superior net sales and market share against Joe's House o' Books if Book-O-Rama has 500 store locations and Joe's only has 100. Compare:

Book-O-Rama: 2,000 net copies sold of Disaffected Teen Vampires.
Joe's House o' Books: 1,000 net copies sold of the same title.

Assuming these two are the only competitors in the market, B-O-R outsells Joe's 2:1 and has superior market share (67% to 33%), but their PSA is suprisingly low: only four units per store (2,000 / 500) compared to Joe's ten units per store (1,000 / 100). Why the discrepancy, you might ask? If so, congratulations: you're thinking like a salesperson. We'd be asking the exact same question. Low PSA can be indicative of anything from problems with store location (the stores are in low-traffic or low-population areas, or are in areas not heavily populated by their target client) to insufficient market penetration (though not always, as we've seen that low PSA can be accompanied by high market share).

What does this mean for you? As with market share, not a huge amount, since these comparisons are designed to provide information to publishers and retailers, not individual authors. However, a low PSA could be the result of your title not being in promotion at a given account, so it's always good to ask your agent a few weeks or months before on-sale whether (s)he knows where your book will be placed in-store at various locations.

Tomorrow: PW reports and another management shakeup... what's in store for Borders?

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Word on Awards

With the recent announcement of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, I thought the time might be ripe for a brief discussion of literary awards.

Some of you may have wondered, in the process of querying various agents, when and whether it's appropriate to mention any awards you might have won for your writing. Since I don't have time for an awesome flowchart, I'll just give you a few general "Do"s and "Don't"s:


· Mention any significant awards you've won for your writing (anything from placing in contests judged at conferences to Pushcart Prizes). Obviously if you've won a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a Hugo, an Edgar, &c, list it. (Although quite honestly, if you have, you probably already have representation.)

· Mention any significant awards you've won for things outside your writing so long as they're relevant to your topic. (E.g., if you're writing a medical memoir, mentioning your professional qualifications and awards is not only germane, it's expected.)

· Mention any previous publications you have, excluding self-published work or work published in a magazine or anthology for which you make editorial decisions. Try to stick to short stories (mentioning where your poetry or journalism has appeared might be helpful if they're really well-known markets, but otherwise, it's just superfluous). Note: if you're submitting non-fiction, any non-fiction or journalistic credits you've got are fair game.


· Mention any writing awards that are not a big deal. This includes that ninth-place award you got in your hometown (population: 200) newspaper for your short story about a cat and a dog who become bros despite the biological and social forces working against them.

· Mention any writing awards you won as a child (unless you are still a child or that award is a big deal; see above). No one cares that you got a "Most Thoughtful Essay" award in fourth grade for your three-paragraph treatise on Betsy Ross.

· Try to trick the agent. (Fun fact: everyone in the industry knows that anyone with $50 can nominate themselves for a Pulitzer. Telling us you're nominated won't fool us.)

· Mention where you earned your undergraduate or graduate degree(s), except maybe an MFA, and even then, be judicious. Agents are interested in your book, not the school(s) you attended. (This is not the case if your professional credentials are part of your platform; see above.)

In short: if you've won an award or otherwise earned some kind of recognition that you believe sets you apart from 90% of the crowd, include it. Otherwise, don't put it in your query; when push comes to shove (and it will, gentle authors), agents and editors only care about your novel and your willingness to promote it (in that order). No more, no less.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Funday Friday

Laura visits from Combreviations to round up the week:

I have important, world altering news: writers skew liberal. Almost as liberal as professors. Dum dum dummmm. However, that doesn't stop publishing from postponing a children's book about smuggling dolls onto planes (but not bombs, and not in crotches!) or from having racist moments. Again.

Now, Amazon isn't racist (as far as we know), so that's a plus, but they have been a little "sketchy" and "monopoly-ish" in the past. Now that the Apple tablet is coming, Amazon is trying to play nice by opening the Kindle up to apps, offering iTunes-esque royalties, and removing the Kindle DRM. Next thing you know they'll be all about book rentals. And sure, it's still really difficult to get e-books to Africa, and no one really knows what enhanced e-books are (they're coming, I swear!), but maybe these are steps in the right direction?

I hope amateurs won't be in charge of these e-books, because Susan Hill will be so, so angry. Next thing you know, she'll be trying to give Emerson the boot from the canon, and fighting with the many heirs to the Sherlock Holmes franchise. And maybe supporting book trailers. I have been pretty straightfoward in my hate of book trailers, but there are some people that like them (go figure). Other things I hate include Second Life (sorry Jonathan Lethem) and text abbreviations.

See you all next week!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The 6... Er, 500 Million Dollar Man

I found the comments in yesterday's post particularly enlightening, so thanks to all of you who posted about where your industry news comes from. I'm pleased to report that I've added Bookslut and Author! Author! to the blogroll section of PMN. (Sidebar: please feel free to always recommend new news sources to me, since I'm constantly looking to learn as much about this crazy industry as you are.)

If you haven't been reading the New York Times recently (and honestly, who could blame you? It's effectively turned into a lifestyle magazine), they've got a nifty article on the book machine that is James Patterson. Some fun facts, in tried-and-true patented Bullet-O-Vision™:

· Since 2006, one out of every seventeen novels purchased in the U.S. has been written by James Patterson. This includes 51 NYT best sellers, 35 of which went to #1.

· His recent book sales (in dollars) exceed those of John Grisham, Dan Brown, and Stephen King. Combined.

· According to Forbes magazine, Patterson apparently earned $500 million dollars for Hachette over the past two years. (The publisher disputes these numbers.)

· Patterson's current average: nine new hardcovers per year.

· In order to keep up this manic pace, Patterson has a stable of co-authors (at least five) whom he pays out-of-pocket to write many of his books (based on his outlines, of course).

Now, before you rush off to build your own sprawling media empire, it's important to note two things:

1.) You are not James Patterson. Repeat after me: "I am not James Patterson."

2.) Patterson has been steadily building his own massive media presence over the past 35 years, and while he did start off quite modestly, he has succeeded because he's been so relentless about marketing himself.

If you read the article, you'll see just how far Patterson goes and has gone to promote himself and his books: he's involved in virtually every step of the process, effectively serving as a member of his own publishing team. While you almost certainly won't be expected (or even necessarily allowed) in your own publisher's marketing and sales meetings at first, I cannot stress enough the importance of taking interest in the financial aspect of your career. Think about your current day job: do you ignore your paycheck, your stock options, your 401(k) statements? Being a writer who desires to make a living as such but eschews the business side of the job is no different.

In short: writing is art, ladies and gents, but if you want to make a living doing it, it is also necessarily a business. Be relentless. Take an active interest in the advertising, sales, and marketing aspects of your book(s). I'm not asking you to let your writing take a back seat to the, shall we say, "pimping"—I'm just asking you to be on your own publicity team.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: Where Do You Get Your News?

And I don't mean all your news, bros and she-bros (although feel free to comment about that as well, since I would find it interesting). Rather, I'm curious to know where you get your industry news. Is it from the inimitable Mr. Bransford? The no-nonsense Ms. Janet Reid? Laura C. Ombreviations? Moonrat? The mysterious Intern? The "Scary Lady"?

Come, share with us your industry news (re)sources. Bonus points if you introduce me to one SO INCREDIBLY AWESOME that I add it to my "Notable Blogs" (see far right).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Word on the MaFiA

A few of you have asked me over the past few months whether I have an opinion on MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing, and (surprise!) I have several. It's really kind of a mixed bag and my theories/advice as to who should apply for admission to such programs and who shouldn't vary greatly based on individual circumstances, but hopefully I can dispel a few rumors and offer some very general guidelines.

For those not in the know, the MFA is a one- to three-year terminal art degree (the majority take two years to complete). By "terminal" I mean that you're qualified to teach college with said degree (until a few years ago it was also the highest degree in the field, but the growing popularity of the creative writing Ph.D. has muddied the waters somewhat). The degree can generally only be earned in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (memoir), playwriting, or screenwriting, with the former two being the most common disciplines. Many Very Fancy Writers™ these days do, in fact, hold MFAs from some very prestigious programs (the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, the University of Texas, &c).

So the main question: do you need an MFA to be taken seriously as a writer?

The very short (and, I hope, obvious) answer: no. No one is handicapped in this industry by not having an MFA, and the actual degree itself will probably do very little in the way of securing representation or book deals for most writers. The long(er) answer is as follows, in patented Bullet-O-Vision™:

· While the physical degree may not be tremendously useful in terms of getting you an agent and a six-figure advance, your writing will likely improve tremendously as a result of taking two or so years to do nothing but read, write, and workshop fiction. If your prose is currently promising but purple, the kind of immersive study found in an MFA program could polish your writing to Very Fancy Writer-level lustre (complete with British spelling!).

· Additionally, the network of professors, mentors, visiting agents, and classmates you'd be likely to form in an MFA program can be of huge help down the line. Your professor or classmate might refer you to his or her agent; a visiting agent might take special interest in your novel-in-progress; you may end up making friends with several future agents and editors. You get the idea.

· And now, the caveats: active participation in an MFA program will almost certainly improve your writing, but most (if not all) programs are geared toward literary fiction. If you're writing young adult/children's fiction or genre fiction of any kind, the degree won't really give you the opportunity to do substantial work in those areas.

· Mentioning your MFA in a query letter to an agent probably won't impress them, unless it's from a top-tier program like Iowa or Columbia (and possibly not even then). There is simply more supply than demand when it comes to MFA graduates, and to be honest, agents are interested in your novels, not your alma maters.

· While not all graduates of MFA programs go on to teach, the degree often includes a teaching element and assumes, to some extent, an interest in academia or an academic career. If you have no such aspirations, you might want to think twice before applying.

· Finally, even though the economy seems to be recovering somewhat from the recession, it's still a very tough employment market out there. If you've currently got a good job, it might not be the best time to give it up to pursue graduate studies. True, there are several part-time and low-residency MFA options out there, but those are often unfunded, meaning you would be paying the school for your degree and not the other way around.

So, basically, my view is: if you're doing literary work, you think you might want to teach college, and you don't already have a decent job, go for the MFA. Otherwise, you might want to think twice. No one needs a license to be an author, and if you're considering pursuing the degree purely for some perceived recognition or sense of legitimacy as a writer, you might want to find a new line of work.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

I have the day off work today, mes auteurs, and so PMN will be taking a one-day hiatus as well. Feel free to frolic in the comments, and I'll be back tomorrow!

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Dad Lunch Round-Up: Redux

Laura is unavailable this fine morning, ladies and gents, so I will be in charge of the frivolity and general broings-on today. What does that mean? Well, a round-up, but one that is less informative and more ridiculous than my last one (since it wasn't "fun" enough, according to some people).


While having a drink with an industry professional or two last night, the subjects of (surprise!) literature and poetry came up. So, in the spirit of including you all in my after-hours life, I ask you: what do you think of bad poetry jokes? (Answer: all of McSweeney's lists are pretty great.) Twitter now sports the longest poem in the world, and (because I actually can't help but be informative), an NEA survey (warning: long .pdf) says that poetry reading is on the decline. O, fie! O most wicked speed!

In more mash-up news, the quirky folks who brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will be releasing Android Karenina in June. (Do you hear that? That's Tolstoy hitting 1,000 RPM in his grave.) I am delighted to report, however, that the Internet (hallowed be Thy name) has recently gifted me with a brilliant non-mash-up parody, The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, which is what The Big Lebowski would look like if Shakespeare had written it. Pure comic genius.

In case you missed The Rejectionist's posts on what not to write about, Vice Magazine has a few more ideas. Caveat: I guess you could write about these things if you were to do it in a new and interesting way, but since almost nobody does, best to steer clear.

Finally, in the miscellaneous-and-mildly-soul-crushing category, the slush pile is dead (so get an agent!), the French are trying to socialize e-books (that ain't ne'er gon' happen here in 'MERICA), and some poets are murderers.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Terms to Know: Embargoed Title

Those of you who have worked in book publishing or journalism will know what I mean by "embargo" (hint: it has nothing to do with Cuba), but for those of you not privy to the strange ways of the print media/publishing industries, an embargoed title is one that contains information (usually time-sensitive or previously confidential) that cannot be disseminated to reviewers, buyers, or (sometimes) even the sales force for fear of a premature leak.

Some embargoes are stronger than others: for example, a title might be available as a galley or ARC only to those industry professionals who have signed non-disclosure agreements, legally binding contracts prohibiting readers from discussing the contents of the book to anyone who hasn't also signed the agreement. Others are so colossally secret that galleys and ARCs are never produced, and virtually no one knows the contents of the book until the on-sale date. (An example of the latter would be the later Harry Potter novels.)

Now, embargoes are routinely broken, and I've actually never heard of a book that made it all the way to the on-sale date without having something sensitive leaked by a media outlet. The reasons for this are myriad, and range from the occasional errant bookstore that puts the title on shelves too early to the unscrupulous reviewer to the intentional-but-made-to-look-accidental leak by the publishers themselves. (This last measure can be surprisingly effective in terms of garnering additional media attention.)

If you're wondering if any of your titles have or will ever be embargoed, cats and kittens, the answer is: unlikely. Unless you're a corporate whistleblower, former Michael Jackson bodyguard, former CIA agent, or J.K. Rowling, publishers probably won't worry enough about the content of your book(s) to keep everything under wraps. Yes, they'll probably be miffed if a book store puts your title on shelves too early, but that generally has more to do with the timing of reviews, co-op, &c than fear that something groundbreaking will accidentally be released too soon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It's been awhile since I've run a poll, and since 1.) I've noticed several new followers as of late, and 2.) I'm gearing up for another round of genre-specific sales smackdowns, I figured I'd offer you, gentle readers, the following poll:

Have at it!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Importance of Negative Reviews

A slight departure from sales today, mes auteurs. I've been discussing the virtues of negative book reviews with a few friends lately, and as we have differing opinions, I figured laying everything out in the Court of Public Opinion™ might help each of us see things from the other's point of view.

There are some people who subscribe to the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" school of reviewing. I am not one of those people. I've written my fair share of book reviews, a few of which were less than favorable (the word "scathing" has been suggested). Although I generally ended up reviewing books I disliked simply because they were assigned to me by an editor, I've occasionally written reviews of books I detested because I felt they were so flawed that they deserved public treatment rather than silence. And that's one of the principle reasons why, à mon avis, the negative review should be written: to help correct the bias generated by solely positive reviews, since such reviews are oftentimes met only with silence by those with dissenting opinions. The fact that we so often don't finish books we dislike only compounds the problem.

More importantly, though, is this: rarely do we question a positive or even neutral response to a book, but as soon as someone indicates that they didn't like—or even flat-out hated—that book, we immediately want to know why. What didn't the reviewer like? What worked and what didn't? Was it the writing? The pacing? The characters? The list is endless, and a well-written negative review is often just as illuminating as a positive one, if not moreso. Think of it this way: you rarely question what it is that makes your car or refrigerator or laptop work while it's running properly, but as soon as it breaks, you want the nitty-gritty on what's gone awry. The same goes for books: we don't know what makes good fiction until it's missing.

There are a couple of caveats here, though, and I hope they're somewhat intuitive. First, the review should be about the book and not about the author. As I've said before, a bad review is (or should be) an expressed opinion of a given book, not an indictment of the author's character. To cross the line and malign the author of a book for what he or she has written—even if it's clear from the writing that the author is a raging misogynist, a blatant racist, or worse, a member of Congress—is beside the point. All reviewers (myself included) have strayed from this point from time to time, but it's important to remember that book reviews are exactly that: book reviews. Not author reviews. Not ideology reviews. Book reviews.

Additionally, the review needs to explain why the reviewer didn't like the book. Going back to my earlier car/fridge/laptop example, it doesn't do you any good to simply know that your property is broken; you want to know what, exactly, is wrong. You can't fix something without knowing what's wrong with it, and authors can't avoid their previous pitfalls (or the pitfalls of others) without knowing what reviewers find lacking in their work.

I'm curious to know what you think, though, auteurs and... auteuses? (My French isn't as good as it used to be.) Do you think the negative review has a place in contemporary criticism? How would you react to a negative review of your own work?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: Best and Worst of 2009

Now that 2009 is... well, last year's news, I thought I'd open up a discussion on the very best and worst of 2009: books, transformations in the industry, e-readers, you name it. Although I'm interested in hearing about your publishing-related thoughts, deviation from the proposed topic is, as always, welcome.

My vote for Best of 2009: The overwhelming attention paid to the e-book format. The future is coming, people!

My vote for Worst of 2009: The Target/Walmart Price War. The future will be terrible, people!

Have at it!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday Round-Up, 2010

For the first Friday in close to forever, Laura is visiting from Combreviations to round-up the week:

It has been a long time, folks, and I pined for you all. Plus a lot of things have happened since we left good old 2009 (parts of which seriously sucked but, hey, it's over!). As we leave yesteryear, there were some lists of the past and resolutions for the future you may want to check out. There are some books to watch for 2010 here and here and here, and you can start picking them up at Sam's Club, if you're so inclined (or your book might get picked up for their book club, if you follow these rules). 2010 might see the resuscitation of Kirkus, and will be the year for women in comics, but will the big houses fold in the next five years? And will authors ever learn to stop talking back to reviewers? Because this is what they get when they sass.

Ursula LeGuin is one of the few classy sassers, and she's leaving the reviewers alone and instead resigned from the Author's Guild over the Google Books settlement. Maybe there isn't much point to blurbs, but I would pick up something she recommended. She's so classy, I bet she doesn't need this chart to correct common misspellings, or ever mispronounce words she's only seen in print. If only AbeBooks had thought to pair her with a literary pet.

This all might be because she's a lady—I hear that literary success is based on being a dude. Also, if Alan Moore is anything to go by, you have to know a lot about pornography. This of course all ties back to Kate Rophie's essay on how white men write about sex, about which Steve Almond shares some choice words. Is this too sexy for you? Is it getting hot over there? Perhaps you should buy some of these fireproof books then, for safety.

While you're all riled up, I guess we should talk about the recent e-book shenanigans, of which there are many. A number of e-readers were presented at the Consumer Electronics Show, which has filled the Internet with both gleeful and angry nerds. You can write on some, some have two screens, some can flex, and you can take a video tour of the new Sony, oooh. Of course there are all of the Apple tablet rumors swirling around, and Jonathan Galassi started some tiffs over what publishers give to e-books (which some people had responses to).

That's all for this week, I'm sorry to say. I'll leave you with the most important things of all: The Babysitter's Club reboot, the academic study of The Big Lebowski, and how The Wizard of Oz should have ended. Five dollars to the person who can do the best job tying those three things together!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Word on Market Share

When I talk about market share in the book publishing industry—or, more specifically, with regard to national accounts—what I'm referring to is the market segmentation observed in the sales figures of any given title. For example, The Time-Traveling Vampire's Daughter might sell 1,000 copies: 200 (20%) at National Account A, 350 (35%) at National Account B, 300 (30%) at Online Retailer A, &c. (The data are always expressed as percentages.) Market share analysis allows both the publisher and the individual retailers to view how sales are distributed throughout the marketplace and to address any discrepancies or opportunities that may emerge from that analysis.

Market share analysis is a handy tool for a couple of reasons. First, it allows publishers to discuss competitors' sales figures with an account without giving away confidential point-of-sale information (e.g., "your life-to-date market share for this title is only 16.2%, compared with Competitor A's 22.8%"). To be clear, I'm not using "Competitor A" in my usual tongue-in-cheek way; we actually don't reveal the names of the competitors whose sales data we're citing, simply because the account in question clearly has access to their own sales data and could reverse engineer the competitor's sales data from those numbers if they were so inclined. (For example, if I were to tell Barnes & Noble that Borders had 20% market share against their 15% for a given title, Barnes & Noble could simply look up the number of copies they sold of that title and calculate how many Borders must have sold.)

Second, market share analysis provides context for the discussion of a title's sales record. Saying "Chain A sold 4,282 copies of Boy Wizard and the Impossible Task" at a publisher meeting or telling Chain A that they sold 1,421 copies of Comp Title One during a sales call isn't very effective if you don't provide any data that illustrate the size of the overall market. Those numbers might be great if they constitute 30% market share, but disastrous if they work out to 4%. You get the idea.

Third, trends in market share allow publishers to see how various accounts are selling (either overall or by format, genre, &c) over any given interval of time. Is National Account A losing market share to National Account B overall? What about just hardcovers? Are both A and B staying roughly even, but losing proportional amounts of market share to Wholesale Club C? Is this largely due to a few titles or an entire format (e.g. mass market paperbacks)? The list goes on.

What does this mean for you, gentle authors? Well, not a lot, to be honest—market share discussions are much more salient for publishers and retailers than they are for individual authors. That said, it might be helpful for you during the publication process to think about how and where your book might be sold: do you see it as a grassroots-type literary epic that will take hold by word-of-mouth and primarily sell at independent bookstores? A mass market paperback paranormal romance that will sell thousands in the $8 rack at Walmart? A cyberthriller that will take off on Amazon? There's a different sales model for each, and the way the market divides those sales helps determine how your book will do and how your career as an author will evolve.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Battle for the Future of E-Books

Since e-books came up in yesterday's comments and I have yet to talk about our upcoming E-lysium/new e-reading devices this year, I figured I'd take a moment to tell you what I really think the future is: this.

Now, before I accidentally incite a PC/Mac war, let me be clear: I'm not necessarily putting my money on Apple as the leader of the New World Order (Microsoft will be a contender, along with the canonical trifecta of Amazon, Google, and Walmart). What I am saying is this: as much as we hear about eyestrain and the doom associated with backlit screens, this is not a dealbreaker for all of us, and further, I'm fairly certain the all-in-one package will soon beat out the dedicated device.

Imagine it: a Mac or PC tablet that integrates full-color books into the existing super-device that is the smartphone (Internet browsing, calling, texting,, you name it). My bet is that this model will be far more popular than a black-and-white device like the Kindle that only serves one purpose. Sure, Apple (or whoever becomes the Tablet King) will have to overcome obstacles like existing market/mindshare, infrastructure, DRM, &c, but they're a smart bunch. As a result, I don't think Amazon will be quite as monolithic in the e-book industry in five years as they are now.

That said, I'm still interested in the new e-ink models coming out this spring. Sure, you can't watch a video on them or use them to look up that obscure literary reference you just read, but some of them (such as the Skiff and the Que) look pretty sweet. I don't think they'll last in the long run, but I think they're a key part of the ongoing print-to-digital (r)evolution (analogous to Zip disks, laserdiscs, HD DVDs, and so on).

Basically, it comes down to this: I think the Kindle and other dedicated e-readers are necessary to the future of publishing, but they are not going to be carrying the torch for very long; e-books will outlive these types of e-readers by a significant margin.

Next up: dozens of angry commenters who got or gave Kindles for Christmas thronging the comments section! Details at 11:00!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ho Ho Holy Returns, Batman

Now that the frivolity of the holiday season is over, cats and kittens, it's time to face the cold, hard truth: there are a lot of books out there that various retailers (book store chains, grocery stores, independent book stores, wholesale clubs, &c) couldn't sell over the holidays, and with consumer spending and mall foot traffic receding to pre-Christmas levels, accounts are taking a more critical view of their stock situations. In short: they've got way too many copies of several titles and are preparing to ship them back.

If you're just tuning in, you may have missed the part where I pointed out that book publishing is a 100% returnable industry, meaning that any stock a retailer takes on can be returned to the vendor (i.e. publisher) for full credit if they're unable to move it. If Joe's National Book Chain takes ten thousand copies of Sue Celebrity's new hardcover diet book, Lose Weight By Perhaps Eating Less And Going to the Gym Once in Awhile, but only manages to sell two thousand (far-fetched, I know, given the title), guess what? Eight thousand copies are going back to the publisher. Not all at once, mind you, but if the book came out in time for the holiday season, a sizable portion of the overstock will go back to the house in January, with the rest following by the time the paperback comes out eight months to a year later.

If the fiscal fourth quarter is the champagne and caviar of the publishing industry, the fiscal first quarter is the hangover and stale fish egg taste in its mouth. January and February usually see heavy returns and lower consumer spending (President's Day is not the new Christmas), and with the holiday rush over and the beach read wave not yet begun, the industry feels the weight of each and every one of those returns. As I've mentioned before, publishers hate to keep returned stock around, and so most of what gets sent back either gets remaindered or destroyed.

The bad news: your book(s) (if you have any out there) will probably suffer this fate sooner or later (sooner if your book hit the shelves this past fall). The good news: unless you're kind of a big deal, most accounts probably didn't order a huge number of copies of your book, so there aren't that many to return! (It's books by big, fancy authors like Patricia Cornwell, Dan Brown, James Patterson, &c who will constitute the bulk of returned stock). So take heart, gentle readers: if your book gets eaten by the Great Cantankerous Pulping Machine™, it's going to be keeping good (or, at least, commercially successful) company in its stomach.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Out With the Aughts, In With the Teens

Christmas turkey: consumed, tenth anniversary of the apocalypse: celebrated, and now our regularly scheduled programming: back in full force. Thanks again to our three guest posters from last month, and I hope you all had enjoyable holiday breaks!

I figured I'd ease back into the publishing biz with today's post (it is, after all, the first Monday of the new year), partly because I don't trust myself to write a thoughtful and engaging industry-related post so early in said new year (I'm still accidentally writing "2001" on all my checks), but mostly because I am distracted by 1.) all the cool toys I got last week and 2.) the mounting feeling of dread associated with coming back to an overflowing inbox at Ye Olde Publishinge House. Therefore, I present to you my resolutions for the new year and humbly request that you do the same in the comments:

1. Read all the books on the Modern Library Best 100 Novels list that I haven't already read. (Ambition level on a scale of 1 to 10: 7.)

2. Get back to exercising regularly. (Ambition level: 5.)

3. Drink more wine (hopefully learning something about it in the process) so I can make a cool bulletin board out of all the corks. (Ambition level: 3.)

4. Make good on my threat of buying myself an Xbox 360. (Ambition level: 2.)

5. Finish the Current Novels-in-Progress—yes, sirs and madams, I am a noveliste as well! (Ambition level: 12.)

What about you?