Saturday, February 21, 2009

Throw Down in Poets & Writers!

You have to look for it, but the March/April edition of Poets & Writers contains a wee bit of controversy. First is the outraged, almost bitter letter, aghast at the notion that authors should be responsible for any aspect of book promotion: I would think agents would want their writers holed up in a shack in the boonies typing away at their next project, not wasting precious moments plying the very superficial talk show circuit. Book promotion belongs to the publisher, who seems to be tossing off many of its duties these days. I say let's let writers do what they do best and leave sales to the people in suits.

Then, on page 57 there's a terrific interview with four editors, and Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press articulates the opposite opinion: Get out into the world. And if you don't have the personality to get out into the world, then you have to ask yourself, "Why does everybody else have to have the personality to get out into the world, but I don't? What makes me so special that everybody else has to go out and bang the drum for me, but I don't?" I have a fairly limited tolerance for people who assume that it is everybody else's job to sell their books while they get to be pure and pristine.

It's probably obvious if you have ever read this blog that my heart is with Nash, but the opinion of the unhappy author (whom I won't name, but you can identify at the above link) is quite common. Authors imagine that their publishers don't care, that they haven't tried, and that somehow it's someone else's fault if the book fails to find its most perfect (usually identified in authors' minds as "largest") audience.

Most publishers play their hearts out, authors. And a tip of the champagne glass to those of you who understand that, and who do what you can to help your own books find their homes on shelves, and in hearts.

A quote that's either funny or depressing

From a Publisher's Weekly interview with Charlotte Roche, a German television presenter who has just published her first novel, Wetlands:

PW: Who are your [literary] influences?

HM: I don't read at all. Since my daughter was born six years ago, I've only read one book, and that was because my best friend pushed me to read her favorite book, "The Great Gatsby." But I think not being a big reader makes me freer in writing; I always hear that authors who read lots also get blockages -- they have these idols and they try to be like them. I don't have that problem at all.

The novel is reportedly an increasingly uncomfortable meditation on bodily functions. A bestseller in Germany, it will soon be printed in 27 countries!

Friday, February 20, 2009

What libraries' buying patterns mean for you

If you're an academic author, you're familiar with the same old problem: the university press prices your book at $90 or $100 and releases it in hardback only, to profit as much as possible from academic libraries. Many of you have shaken your fists in frustration while telling me that your publisher "won't listen" when you beg for a more affordable price. Elsewhere in this blog I've explored alternatives (negotiating a special, lower cover price only for your students at your academic bookstore, for example -- something some presses will do if they want you badly enough, as long as they are protected by the assurance that you won't open these sales to others), but the process of educating academic authors about university press financial realities is always with us.

Now along comes a report from the Association of Research Libraries about what may change in acquisitions during the economic downturn. Libraries are facing acquisitions budget cutbacks that may be permanent. You may not have known it, but some publishers have structured book prices differently depending on the size and budget of the library. From the report: Large libraries have also been subject to a novel form of inflation pressure as some publishers have implemented new pricing models, such as tiered pricing, that shift revenue generation to larger institutions that are required to absorb significant price increases to compensate for discounting to other customers. Publishers implementing changes in pricing models that provide discounts to small customers by balancing them with increases to larger customers will be especially likely to force large institutions into cancellation decisions.

Whoa, that's deep. The upshot is that the report calls for university presses to consider cutting prices. But don't pop the champagne just yet. After many university press visits, I've become convinced that the price structures have their place -- the margins are so thin at so many places that if they couldn't get this guaranteed money from research library acquisitions, some books couldn't be published at all.

Any trainwreck usually results in the little guy getting thrown into a cowfield somewhere, and guess who that is? Yep, the author. If the engine (research libraries) cut back, and the middle cars (university presses) lower prices, the caboose (those academic authors who have niche audiences) may just find themselves fishtailing wildly and hurled from the tracks.

It's my job to look out for all of my academic authors, but especially the caboose. I'll make recommendations as I can (how about "Look out!"). But this key recommendation has always been true -- be bold, and write a book with a measurable audience. You don't have to turn yourself into a trade author and you shouldn't, but now more than ever it is important that academic authors ponder along with their future editors about who the book serves and why -- what makes it essential. And if you're getting feedback from editor after editor that your book looks fascinating but just doesn't have a demonstrable audience, listen to that and think about what you as an author can do to help. Then come talk to me, and we'll try to sort through this together.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

James J. O'Donnell at the Smithsonian Associates

Provost Jim O'Donnell's evening with the Smithsonian Associates is just a month away, and it's selling briskly so reserve now if you want to attend. Wednesday, March 18, 6:45 p.m., at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on the National Mall, and he'll be speaking about his new book, The Ruin of the Roman Empire.

The Smithsonian Associates program is one of the most elegant ways to see authors in Washington. I'm a huge fan, and the range and depth of classes and presentations is amazing. While you're at the website, be sure to browse their other offerings. It is one of Washington's jewels, and one of the best benefits of living in this great city.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Questions from the most recent, um, webinar

It amuses me that after having once made a bit of a name for myself as an outspoken critic of distance learning, I've gotten roped into teaching something called a "webinar," but it was for the best of reasons -- alumni! -- and it actually turned out great. Yesterday I had the privilege of spending an hour with 40+ Georgetown alumni on the web, discussing nonfiction book publishing and how to get a literary agent. Next week we'll meet again for a one-hour session on publishing fiction.

The best part of leading one of these seminars is the Q&A afterward, because the questions always surprise me. One author with amazing media credentials wanted to know if a literary agent would help her place articles in national magazines as a prelude to creating a nonfiction book proposal. For most people the answer would be no, because there isn't any money to be made on a percentage of the fee for an article. However in this questioner's case the answer is "It depends." A literary agent who happens to have a background as a subsidiary rights director in a publishing house (and there are a few of those) might have strong contacts at national magazines, so it might be worth asking.

Author credentials are the key, and this potential author had extraordinary ones. If you have them, great, but if you happen to be a mere mortal (aren't most of us?) then you will still want to land those major magazine or journal pieces, but you probably won't be able to enlist a literary agent's help. I'm not 100% certain that Ms. Media who asked the question will, either, but in her case I do think it is worth an ask.