Writing on the Ether: Authors Doing the Math

iStockphoto / Roob
iStockphoto / Roob

That’s no New Year, that’s conference season
Authors doing the math: 99 cents
Authors’ triangulation: Quality, quality, quality
An author asks ‘What would I want as a consumer?’
Authoring a shift in ebooks’ price basis
Authors: ‘Is there anything left for me to say?’
Authors in foxholes: Special Forces
Authors in a ‘golden age for writing’
Authors know ‘ebooks aren’t the asteroid’
Amazon vs. the world
Amazon answers the phone
Amazon the Disruptor
Amazon sued by Kindle case-maker
Amazon and Best Buy
Enthrill-ing hope for brick-and-mortar bookstores?
Clash of the publishers: HarperCollins vs. Open Road
Journalism du jour: NY Times vs. its staff
Piracy, apps, and our Mr. O’Leary
Libraries don’t have to be free. Or do they?
‘Social media’ is a very plural term
Just how busy are we online?
In the twilight of 2011

That’s no New Year, that’s conference season

Not until I saw James Scott Bell going over into the mosh pit at the last Writer’s Digest Conference did I really understand the appeal. Revisionist? Who, me? Donald Maass and Janet Reid glided by, wrapped up in their rose-shredding agents’ tango panel. The crowd loved our own Jane Friedman‘s self-publishing session laser show. And the look on those writers’ faces when The Rockettes got in behind Chuck Sambuchino for the “Pitch Perfect” opener. Who knew they could kick that high in garden gnome outfits?

The tote baggers’ secret is that while everybody else gets drunk for New Year, the publishing industry is fortifying itself for ConfabWorld.

Like ferries arriving at Paros from the mainland, these de-iced gatherings barge in to hotel ballrooms, crossing  paths with the worst possible winter weather. The fact that sunny, warm, state-of-the-art conference facilities exist in the Southern Climes (where nothing is Pret a Manger) is of no interest to our badge ‘n’ lanyard faithful. Suffer the Sheraton guests to come unto me. It’s going to be a boffo bunch of bashes.

Dan Blank of We Grow Media and I are planning a series of informational pre-confab pieces for you in 2012, more about that soon. And I’ll be tweet-storming the dramatic recitations and balletic debates, barre the door.

A shot from WDC11 by Dan Blank, who speaks again this year at WDC12.
A shot from WDC11 by Dan Blank, who speaks again this year at WDC12.

Meanwhile, writers are shaking off their Solitude+ accounts and rushing to beat the groundhog to daylight for #WDC12, January 20-22. Code WDCTWEET gets you $50 off your full registration, don’t tarry. Full info is here.

Publishers, so fond of each other, will be pouring into the open road for the colorful Digital Book World (DBW12) Parade up Big Sixth Avenue, hang a left at West 53rd, along with agents-still-standing, editors, and hangers-on-by-their-fingernails. Full info.

White knuckles give way to backpacked herd-drives in sweltering Chicago, February 29-March 3, for AWP12, the academics’ answer — attended last year by more than 9,000 sturdy souls. Full info.

Plus there’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin’s Publishers Launch (don’t they, though?); IfBookThen; O’Reilly Media’s mighty TOC-around-the-block (#toccon); the San Francisco Writers Conference; TOC poco BolognaSouth by You Know What, that yellowed rose, keep it between your teeth, more tangos to come.

Sometimes our conferences seem more disruptive than supportive of prudent, workaday progress. Frequently, the talk seems cyclical and the check-in lines biblical. The party-hardiness of some meetup-tweetup types can go from professional to confessional fast. And sure, we saw at least one keynote misfire last year, between the search for a power outlet and the wonder of wavering wi-fi.

But the major conferences — bolstered by smaller regional and more specialized events — form markers in each new year, the better-lit features of a landscape to come.

And this should be a season fraught with incident. If there’s one constant we’re now getting used to, it’s change in the industry’s dynamics and pressure to push things farther down the road toward utter exhaustion. Shoot up a flare if you get lost out there. It’s in the conferences, particularly the winter crop, that focus and formula may be discovered, even if unrecognized at the outset.

It appears that everybody’s determined to go ahead with this 2012 business, so we’re in the chute, we’re suiting up, getting down, rolling over, and there had better be enough limes this time.

To celebrate the slightly slower speed of the groggy year-end data-stream this week, our first gulp of Ether involves issues-authorial. Amazon can wait. How’s that for a gas? Busy Bezos knows that without the writer, even he’s not ready for Prime time. Just ask Margaret Atwood at your next conference. She prefers cheese sandwiches.

Hm. Bezos country. Seattle. Greatly Northwestern, rainy but replete with convention hotels. I’m thinking an Amazon Writers Conference. Over the air updates. Because we don’t have enough confabs.

You go ahead and read some Ether. I’ll be on the phone with customer service about this.

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Authors doing the math: 99 cents

If an author is self-published through Amazon KDP, he or she earns 34 cents per 99-cent book sold. Not only do authors put time and energy into their writing, there are other associated costs to publishing a quality book, including cover artists ($125-3000), editors ($800-5000), marketing, etc. If you add up the average cover cost of $350, average editing job of $1400, then divide by 34 cents, the author would have to sell 5,134 books just to break even, and that’s nearly impossible without an additional amount for advertising.

That’s author Melissa Foster writing, emphasis mine, on The 99-Cent Debate: How Do We Value Our Writing?, a piece noted by Jenn Webb at O’Reilly Media’s Radar.  It’s an article I’ve been waiting to read, almost as if our writers – they work with words, not numbers, after all – only needed one day to pick up a calculator and do some math.

An author published through a small press that sells 100,000 ebooks at 99 cents, earns an annual salary of $12,000. To earn $40,000 per year, that author would have to sell 333,333 books per year.

Foster takes an admirably fair look at the situation. She checks with authors who have sold at 99 cents and reports, “It would appear that there are many benefits of pricing a book at 99 cents. An author might gain bestseller status…but is this a good method for permanent pricing? That depends upon what the author hopes to gain.”

Foster’s Chasing Amanda is from mid-market publisher Solstice Publishing. And in her own experience, she notes:

I sold over 60,000 copies of Chasing Amanda during the month of October at 99 cents. I changed my price to $2.99 while continuing the same marketing efforts, and my sales dropped to the 20,000 range in November.

She checks with agent Jenny Bent on how traditional publishers – with whom self-published authors might want to work – see a 99-cents pricing structure. “As an agent,” Bent tells her, “I am always interested in a successfully self-published e-book, no matter the price point. I am finding, however, that publishers are increasingly skeptical about how success at .99c will translate into success using their very different business model.”

Foster concludes: “What’s the next step in the pricing debate as it relates to Indie authors’ success? Becoming a bestselling independent author with books consistently priced above 99 cents.”

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Authors’ triangulation: Quality, quality, quality

Enter self-publishing author Jennie Coughlin, whose interest is in seeing Indie Authors Turn Focus To Quality, an optimism we can only hope is realistic.

We need, as authors, to find good developmental editors. Contracting for copy editing, book covers and proofreading services all are fairly easy to find, and fairly standardized skill sets. But finding content editors, beta readers and critique partners/groups can be more difficult. We also need to find review channels that will consider indie books, such as Reader Unboxed. I love what Kathleen (Bolton) and Therese (Walsh) are doing there because they’re putting indie and traditional publishing side-by-side and letting the work stand or fall on its own merits. That’s the only way we, as authors, can get that reputation for quality is if we’re willing to hold ourselves (and let others hold us) to the same standard.

Pricing is another challenge — some authors are now choosing to sell at a higher price because they think it signals to readers that the book is of higher quality. That’s different than the conventional wisdom that the way to indie success is 99-cent pricing.

What Coughlin is getting to is an observation that “2012 looks to be the year that the indie author community starts stratifying based on some of these issues.”

Needless to say, this could mean that the knee-jerk rah-rah legacy-publishers-be-damned noise of the recent past starts to recede into something more practical. We can only hope we get past what Coughlin calls the “teen rebellion phase” that has generated the Konwrath-ful, sneering tone of much debate in 2011.

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An author asks ‘What would I want as a consumer?’

When I was working on Locked In, I realised fairly quickly that I wanted to write a series of novels, so I thought about what I would want as a consumer. The first thing is that I would always want book one to be cheap. If I waste a pound or two, then it doesn’t matter. Not only that but, if I enjoy the book, I’ll happily spend more on the rest of the series. I see series of books with 5, 6, 7 or more titles on Amazon and so on, yet the first ebook still costs £6 or £7 and I don’t understand it. As a reader, I might spend £40+ on a full series I like but I probably wouldn’t spend £6 on something I’m not sure about. Surely you use the first title as a taster?

In Q & A: Kerry Wilkinson, the self-published UK author Wilkinson talks with TheFutureBook’s Sam Missingham, having sold the 100,000th copy of his ebook on Christmas Eve. In addition to his strategy on pricing a series of books, Wilkinson’s account of overtures from agents is of interest:

I’ve had a fair few agents come to me. Some have been nicer than others. I’m a very laid-back person but if there’s one thing that’s wound me up it’s the agents who have emailed basically promising the world. Or the ones who are very condescending. I’ve had people offering to release my books through their own in-house agent digital imprint and I just think, “Why would I do that?” I’ve got to number one on the biggest ebook platform in the country and sold over 100,000 books without them.

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Authoring a shift in ebooks’ price basis

Laura Hazard Owen gets in an important prediction, right between the pricing and quality issues authors are facing, in her What’s Coming In 2012: Book Publishing.

I think and hope that we will start to see pricing based on whether or not a book has an obvious “substitute.”…The e-book pricing debate up to now has generally focused on the idea that all e-books should cost the same and that all should be priced low. But why should a self-published or mass market thriller necessarily cost the same as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in e-book form? It doesn’t make sense to me to say that all e-books should cost $9.99 or less…I hope that pricing will depend on the individual title, not on e-books as a whole—just the way you’d expect to pay more for a production of, say, South Pacific at Lincoln Center than at your local high school.

There’s more to read in Owen’s piece, have a look.

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Authors: ‘Is there anything left for me to say?’

“Yes, there’s plenty.” Joe Konrath answers his own question, and launches into his sixth year of Konrath’s Resolutions for Writers.

You scroll down to reach the 2012 material. And what to my wondering eye doth appear than this extraordinary (for Joe) item under his subhead “I’ll Pay Attention to the Market”:

Self-pubbing is not an excuse to be a self-indulgent egomaniac. On the contrary, it’s a chance for you to learn what sells.

Could we just get that bit about not being egomaniacal run up on some throw pillows, please? T-shirts. Boxer shorts. Ship it, Seth, before he edits it out.

Seriously (even gratefully), I give you a bit more from Konrath, points I hope some of our louder scream-writers will check out:

For the very first time, the writer can conduct their own real-world experiments. By trying different things, learning from mistakes, and constantly tweaking and improving, we have more power than ever before to find our readers. A lot of folks know how much money I’m making. But how many know:

  • I’ve changed or tweaked cover art 45 times.
  • I’ve reformatted my books five times each.
  • I’ve changed product descriptions over 80 times.
  • I’ve changed prices on each book two or three times.

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Authors in foxholes: Special Forces

The reality is, to thrive and not just survive, everyone in publishing must be willing to change on a dime and innovate.  My background in Special Forces taught me how to do that.  Also, it taught me that to succeed, I must take risks.  The company isn’t called Who Dares Wins for nuthing (as we say in da’ Bronx).

Veteran and leading self-publishing author Bob Mayer’s Ten Daring Predictions for 2012 from the Indie Author Trenches are along the lines of the more-insightful, less hair-tearing Mayer I’ve enjoyed reading lately. The post is well worth a look. I’d pull 7, 8 and 9 as particularly good:

  • Pricing.  While I believe in the value of the .99 eBook for getting readers, and $2.99 is a nice price for an indie, I think the real value of a novel has to be around $4.99 in eBook format. As a consultant, I’ve learned people don’t value what they get for free or for cheap. I don’t see NY lowering its prices much except that they will start to see the ebook as replacing the mass market paperback and price accordingly as they cut back on the bloated print overhead they no longer need.
  • Royalty rates. The 25% rate is a no go. Not with 70% lurking for indie publishing. I think 50% of gross is fair. Which brings up the dangerous term “net.” Who the hell determines that? Publishers can play games all they want with contracts and terms, but sooner or later someone is going to turn over all three of the cups instead of just one and find out they’re getting conned. I see lawsuits pending over publisher accounting for ebooks.
  • Those who don’t “get it” will be gone … An issue few discuss is the fact there are people inside those (publishing) companies actually fighting change for the better, because they know their very job is threatened. While this is a normal human reaction, it’s costing the publishers, agents, and authors a lot.

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Authors in a ‘golden age for writing’

As publishers become more aware of the need to be seen as a trusted business partner, we see ‘Author care’ becoming the ‘flavour of the month’ and offering greater transparency of information to authors and maybe even speedier digital royalty payments.  Promotion and marketing authors within a growing social direct marketing network will remain a significant challenge. This isn’t just about engaging with current fans but finding new ones and growing the base. It is also about publishing collaborations to create genre groupings which cross publishing houses and channels.

Martyn Daniels at TheFutureBook in the UK has posted his 2012 Digital Perspectives: The Author with probably the most straightforward and balanced assessment of 2011 for writers you could ask: “2011 often demonstrated that Authors were starting to ‘do digital for themselves.'”

The key driver for change is digital awareness and we see increased media coverage on digital author options being a major catalyst. We are not only in a digital age but also and importantly we are now entering a golden age for writing. Accommodating this creative explosion of new as well as old material is the real challenge. Managing authors expectations and ensuring that they are fairly rewarded and recognised is now the goal for all.

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Authors know ‘ebooks aren’t the asteroid’

In a post on Google+ simply headlined THISGuy LeCharles Gonzalez references a strong piece from John Scalzi with his editor from Tor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Scalzi’s post argues Dear Readers: Publishers Think of You as Customers I SWEAR. The write works well to point out that “the so-called Big Six didn’t get to be the Big Six because they’re run by nincompoops who pay no attention to the world.” I recommend you have a look.

And as Gonzalez sums it up, there’s a distinct parallel in my own hope that the self-publishing community can see itself less as a melodramatic holy insurgency and more as people whose opportunity in self-production carries a massive burden of professionalism, decorum, and quality assurance. Here’s Guy:

Perhaps 2012 will see some of the over-the-top DOOM Pundits muted a bit as reality sets in and they realize ebooks aren’t the asteroid that ends it all, but a new format that expands the playing field for all kinds of books and the business models that help publish them?

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Amazon vs. the worldAmazon Infographic

As we discuss our friends in Seattle this week, allow me to offer you an infographic from Nii A. Ahene for CPC Strategy, which covers a lot of Amazonia in a vivid, interesting way.

The Amazon ahead

I’m glad to be referred by Joe Wikert, whose Kindleville blog is important for all of us who use the Fire, to Peter Pachal’s crystal-balling at Mashable on Amazon 2012: What the Future May Hold for the Web’s Largest Retailer

Fueled by spiking market penetration of the Kindle Fire, Amazon Prime — the service that bestows free two-day shipping, Netflix-like access to some movies and TV shows, and a few free books — will really take off. In turn, Amazon will enhance the program with more premium services, possibly things like free access to select apps, music or magazine subscriptions. The rise of Amazon Prime, fed by the Kindle line, will be a key way Amazon extends its platform and changes its customers into users. It’ll definitely need more incentives beyond some lousy videos, but as Netflix stumbles over its attempts to separate DVD rentals from streaming, now is the perfect time.

And another interesting Amazonian prediction for 2012 this time comes from Laura Hazard Owen at paidContent in What’s Coming In 2012: Book Publishing:  

Amazon and Barnes & Noble make a deal, sort of: As Amazon becomes a full-fledged publisher, it has not yet dealt with its bookstore distribution problem. For now, bricks-and-mortar bookstores are still an important place of discovery of new titles. While some have argued that Amazon will simply ignore these bookstores, that the company always takes a long-term strategy and that it won’t care if it misses some physical store sales, I think the company’s recent beefing-up of its force of sales reps suggests it does consider bricks-and-mortar stores at least somewhat significant for now.

Amazon answers the phone

According to customer experience analytics company ForeSee, e-commerce giant Amazon once again topped consumer satisfaction in online retail after taking the top spot in 2010. However, Netflix, which had a dismal year, plummeted in customer satisfaction. For the past seven years, Netflix and Amazon have been competing for first place in ForeSee’s Index, but this is the first year where one of the e-retailers saw a massive dip in sentiment.

Amazon climbed two points to score 88 on the study’s 100-point scale, which is the highest score from any retailer in 14 consecutive studies.

Leena Rao at TechCrunch gets the rundown from ForeSee on how Amazon, Apple Soar In Customer Satisfaction In 2011; Netflix Plummets. I should disclaim here that customer service is especially important to me, I’m a terror when it doesn’t go well. It’s a pleasure to have another bit of ammunition handed over by Rao in this piece for the next time I’m lecturing some poor supervisor:

Analysis of top e-retailers in the United States has shown that, on average, a one-point change in website satisfaction was found to predict as much as a 14% change in revenue generated on the web.

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Amazon the Disruptor

If it wasn’t apparent before, Amazon’s publishing intentions became plainly obvious this year. The wave started out small, with a host of expanding self-publishing tools for authors, but it grew to tsunami proportions as Amazon launched imprint after imprint, from romance to science fiction. Amazon also hired industry heavy-hitter Larry Kirshbaum, who “is charged with building something that will look like a general trade publisher.'”

Jenn Webb at O’Reilly’s Radar chooses Amazon for the first of her Five things we learned about publishing in 2011. And she pulls in O’Reilly’s Joe Wikert on the problem of how Seattle set up its Kindle Owner’s Lending Library’s compensation to publishers and authors:

As Amazon stated in its press release, “For the vast majority of titles, Amazon has reached agreement with publishers to include titles for a fixed fee.” So no matter how popular (or unpopular) the publisher’s titles are, they get one flat fee for participation in the library. I strongly believe this type of program needs to compensate publishers and authors on a usage level, not a flat fee. The more a title is borrowed, the higher the fee to the publisher and author. Period.

There are more reasons to read Webb’s piece, as well, including nods to HTML5, DRM and its “unintended consequences,” and the rampant popularity of ebooks.

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Amazon sued by Kindle case-maker

Brian Heater at Engadget writes up M-Edge suit accuses Amazon of corporate bullying, patent infringement over Kindle cases.  “According to M-Edge,” writes Heater, “the company signed a three-year agreement with Amazon in November 2009 for a 15-percent sales commission, only to have the retail giant demand a new contract with a 32-percent cut a mere two month later.”  

I found it unsettling to see the online world jump onto the news, in some cases with an eager assumption that Amazon is in the wrong. And maybe it is. Or not. Every allegation may be proved true. Or not. That’s why we have a judicial system. I was in touch by direct message on Twitter with one blogger, for whom I have a lot of regard, to ask why he had written his post in such a way as to convict Amazon, himself. He softened his piece. The words are “allegation,” “claim,” “assertion,” “accusation.” But his headline? Still reads: “Amazon Caught Bullying Suppliers (Again).” There is no ruling. There’s been no litigation. Amazon has been “caught” at nothing unless the lawsuit prevails against the retailer. And that “again,” at this stage, tells us more about a blogger’s bias than about the case at hand.

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Amazon and Best Buy

To venture into a Best Buy during these last days before Christmas is to see land-based retail hastening in its own demise, as if lambs were born with jars of mint jelly tied around their neck.

There are some nice bits of writing in David Streitfeld’s look at “our friends in Seattle” and that certain big-box store, in Amazon and Best Buy: Uneasy Partners. As he says, “I went to a Best Buy to look at how it is selling Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet and assorted e-readers, which the chain is promoting despite the fact that one of the goals of the tablet is to make sure that its buyers never have a reason to go to Best Buy again.” And Streitfeld proceeds to make it quite clear why no one in her right mind would want to go to Best Buy again.

This all leads, as does seemingly everything this week, to a prediction:

Amazon’s revenue this quarter will top all expectations. But its fulfillment costs — the dollars they swallowed to get me my books in time and clinch the sale — will be much higher than forecast as well. For a decade now, Amazon has been burning money to gain market share. No wonder the clerks at my Best Buy have the sullen look of people wondering what their next job will be.

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Enthrill-ing hope for brick-and-mortar bookstores?

You see, where things really begin to break down with purchasing direct is in the discovery – consumers don’t know they want until they see it or ‘discover’ it. They can only buy it direct if they know it’s there. For years, consumers relied on good old brick and mortar retail stores to help them discover content. It was the act of shopping that exposed them to new titles, new releases, remainders, backlist, new authors, new genres and new ideas.

An Enthrill display under construction
An Enthrill display in a store will feature book cover “cards” for ebook orders. (Photo courtesy Kevin Franco)

Kevin Franco in his post eBooks for the Masses starts with format wars of bygone days. Then he hands you the echo of your own chamber in terms of shopping direct “via online or through a reading device.”

There consumers, he writes, are “unable to discover anything beyond the display of four or five titles on their tiny E Ink window. What’s more, their curation is self-induced by their own keywords. With each word they search, they are narrowing the field of discovery to the point where ‘choice’ is a misnomer.”

A usefully sobering break between the ho-ho and the huzzah:

What consumers need, what publishers need, what the retail industry needs… is one powerful voice pushing for content over device. Don’t lock customers into an environment where they’ve got no choice. If you want an ebook, you should be able to buy it from anywhere and put it on whatever device you want. A device-agnostic format and the ability to buy ebooks anywhere (online or in a retail store) puts the control back into the hands of the publishers and out of the device specific realms.

Pay special attention to what Franco is building up to: His Enthrill ebook distribution rollout. He’s outlooking his launch before Calgary’s winter turns to spring. There’s a video here for you.

What you’ll see is “a new avenue for sales,” as the video puts it. Remember in Blockbuster (are you old enough?) the empty VHS cases displayed on shelves? This is a bit like that. In one of our beloved terrestrial bookstores, you pick up an Enthrill card, which bears the cover art of a an ebook. You buy it. And then you can download your book in any format you want.

As Franco tells me, “The QR code on the (in-store) display links any purchases made in the system back to the point of interest. We have a patent pending on this as it rewards brick-and-mortar booksellers for being the discovery point, even if the purchase is made online. This is really cool and opens up all kinds of avenues for use, but what’s important right now is that we are able to capture as many sales as we can for our brick-and-mortar partners, in-store and online.”

The video offers a lot of promise for a program that should be announced officially, Franco says, within a few weeks. Meanwhile, the video’s voice-over puts it this way:

Retailers can fit 90 ebooks on a shelf that previously held 12 – 200 ebooks where there were no books at all…Enthrill ebook cards are the bridge between traditional print books and ebooks, a midpoint in both product and price. This new avenue for sales has never been done before…(Bookstore customers) will be able to touch an ebook, hold it in their hand, buy it…using the very same retail sale model as print books.

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Clash of the publishers: HarperCollins vs. Open Road

Many people have long suspected that the only way to clarify the status of electronic rights for older, so-called “in dispute” works is through litigation. Just before Christmas, late in the day on Friday, December 23, HarperCollins says they filed the first suit in this unresolved area against Open Road Integrated Media in Federal court in the NY’s Southern District, alleging copyright infringement in their ebook edition of Jean Craighead George’s 1971 classic, JULIE OF THE WOLVES. (Other cases so far have had negotiated solutions, or led to standing but un-litigated disagreements.) Open Road is, of course, the company founded by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman in 2009.

Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch moved the word last Friday, Harper Sues Open Road for Infringement Over “Julie of the Wolves” eBook, ensuring that visions of plum cases for attorneys danced in everybody’s heads. This has the potential to be a major and reaching move.

Jane Friedman and Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman, left. And right.

Special note for Ethernauts: In case you don’t know, there are two Jane Friedmans in publishing. One is our own #JaneFriedman, hashtag unto herself , czarina of the eponymous @JaneFriedman site – newly named a Top Ten Blog for Writers – and my brave, teeth-gritting host here at Writing on the Ether. The other is the Jane Friedman mentioned by Cader, who was HarperCollins’ CEO from 1997 until a leave-taking on June 5, 2008. The company Friedman founded, Open Road Media, is a large and growing digital publisher and producer of multimedia content.

"Julie of the Wolves" as published by Open Road Media
“Julie of the Wolves” as published by Open Road Media

In a November post, Publishers adding value on the marketing side, Mike Shatzkin wrote about Open Media this way:

Open Road is an ebook publishing company founded by former Harper CEO Jane Friedman which has been an annoyance to the big publishers. Jane has been in the business for more than four decades in high positions at major houses (at Random House before Harper). She knows the agents and she knows how the game of signing up content works. So she moved against the establishment by offering a standard deal of a 50% share of ebook revenues, when the major publishers are holding the line at 25%…She used her understanding of the ambiguities in legacy publishing contracts to sign up backlists from both living authors and estates, including William Styron, Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen, Alice Walker, and others.

And in an ongoing discussion about the lawsuit this week, Shatzkin makes a key point, which I quote with his permission:

If this problem gets compounded by other similar suits, it could expose another problem. Open Road is funded by investment and probably needs more. These lawsuits can be very expensive, as the big publishers themselves are experiencing on the agency-versus-wholesale question. Deep pockets are highly advantaged in situations like this, regardless of the merits on either side.

Writing in London at TheFutureBook, Martyn Daniels in The Ghost of Christmas Past notes, “Sometimes one has to take a firm stand to protect one’s rights and ensure that your investment is also protected. Other times one has to recognise that time has moved on and the intent you entered into in an old contract has long changed. The exercise can become more about flexing muscles and posturing to influencing others than about the individual case.”

And pointing out that Open Road “has published e-book versions of the backlists of Pat Conroy, Alice Walker, Rebecca West and other authors,” Emily Witt at the Observer, labors to put across details under the headline Thrown to the Wolves! HarperCollins Sues Over Julie of the Wolves E-Book Rights.

Other authors in similar situations, including J.K. Rowling, who intends to publish her own e-books, have thus far tended to arrange a revenue-sharing agreement with their print publishers to ensure they will not violate non-compete agreements in their original contracts. Julie of the Wolves might end up setting an important legal precedent!

I didn’t put that exclamation point there. It’s Witt’s end.

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Journalism du jour: NY Times vs. its staff

We have worked long and hard for this company and have given up pay to keep it solvent. Some of us have risked our lives for it. You have eloquently recognized and paid moving tribute to our work and devotion. The deep disconnect between those words and the demands of your negotiators have given rise to a sense of betrayal.

In an open letter to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Times publisher and board chairman, close to 400 New York Times employees and guild members appeal for the restoration of pension benefits to non-American employees in overseas bureaus and for a reversal of the pension freeze and continuance of independent insurance on the domestic side. The timing is interesting, considering the reported sale by the Times of its regional newspapers for $143 million (in Laura Hazard Owen‘s write).  One of those papers is the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which hired me as a critic during the Times’ acquisition of it in the early 1980s. I have no connection with the company now.

One of our colleagues in senior management recently announced her retirement from the paper, which is reported to include a very generous severance and retirement package, including full pension benefits. All of us who work at the Times deserve to have a secured retirement; this should not be a privilege cynically reserved to senior management. We strongly urge you to keep faith with your words and our shared mission of putting out the best newspaper in the world.

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Piracy, apps, and our Mr. O’Leary

If the downloads are concentrated in Spain, Etxebarria might test an earlier decision to publish only in print.  In the Guardian, she had noted: “We decided against publishing it as an eBook because that is easy to pirate. It would have been like throwing it straight to the lions.” Clearly, a print-only strategy is not working as a barrier to piracy.  In practice, it may be the case that the absence of a digital option has even helped create a pirate market. To evaluate that possibility, it is worth testing a digital option in Spain.

Brian O’Leary, in a post sympathetic to Spanish novelist Lucía Etxebarria’s distress over pirating and her resulting decision to stop writing, notes that “the data on which she based her decision has some gaps.” His post is titled Competing with pirates and is based on Spanish novelist Lucía Etxebarria quits writing in piracy protest in the Guardian by Giles Tremlett.

And in another good post from O’Leary, he looks at some survey work done on mobile magazine readers. “Texterity worked with publishers of 25 magazine titles, gathering over 5,000 responses to a variety of demographic and behavioral questions,” he writes. The results convinced him that we’re looking not at “either-or” but at an imperative for “Either-and” publishing.

Surveys like this consistently underscore that apps are (for the most part) part of a content consumption continuum that includes print, web and app delivery of information. The 18% who are “app-only” may be an exception, or they may also be new readers who have yet to migrate their content consumption to other platforms.  Picking one solution likely loses some or much of a potential audience.

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Libraries don’t have to be free. Or do they?

I suspect many library users would be willing to pay a small fee of $3.00 or less for the convenience of borrowing of a book that automatically expired after a defined rental period, or alternatively support a limited borrowing queue similar to the old Netflix model. In fact, New Zealand libraries typically restrict the number of items that can be borrowed at any one time, in addition to charging for frontlist books.

Peter Brantley looks at the New Zealand experiment with pay-per-borrow charges and considers it for US libraries. In When borrowing isn’t free for Publishers Weekly, he does note that “charging for library book borrowing is not a popular activity in the country (New Zealand): a 2010 poll on the New Zealand public libraries website reveals that around 97% of residents dislike fees and believe that borrowing should be free.”

As it stands, contemporary public libraries in the U.S. are not wholly removed from the world of commerce: part of every library circulation system is a module capable of handing fines for lost or overdue items, supporting holds or placements, billing, and recovery procedures. Many libraries already charge for video, computer games, and audiobook rentals. Therefore most libraries are positioned to support some form of per-loan fee without extensive modification of their software. And more importantly, if a central coordinating agency for libraries existed, then public libraries could rely on it to coordinate the acquisition of content and charges for borrowed items.

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‘Social media’ is a very plural term

For years, every post, column, or article written about Twitter would have comment after comment making fun of a service where people “told the world what they had for lunch.” …But what those mocking Twitter were missing is that in between the tweets about pizza and pita were posts about politics and poetry…comScore has Twitter’s monthly users at ~170mm people worldwide, up >60% in the past year. That makes Twitter one of the top twenty websites in the world and it is growing faster than most of those twenty websites. That is what I call “breakout success.”

Fred Wilson takes the victory lap for investors, users, and others who like to side with “companies and services that are Mocked And Misunderstood.” It’s worth noting that a lot of “mocked and misunderstood” companies have not and will not become Twitter-size successes. But if you’re Brian Williams, it might be smart not to tick off Fred.

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Just how busy are we online?

In 60 seconds, there are:

  • 98,000 tweets (and only 40,000 or so are mine);
  • 1,700 Firefox downloads and 70+ domains registered;
  • 1,500 blog posts put up and 370,000+ minutes of Skype voice calls made;
  • 510,040 comments made on Facebook (entirely about cat pictures) and 168 million e-mails sent (110 million of them to my inbox).

These dizzying facts are brought to you by Gus Lubin at Business Insider in Incredible Things That Happen Every 60 Seconds On The Internet.

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In the twilight of 2011

In 2012, my novel will find a publisher. I kind of know this.

I’m going to do something with my Twitter stuff. I just wrote a short story based on a tweet. First time. I’m going to do more of that. I have a screenplay starting to get mapped out based more or less on the Twisters. I want to find an awesome illustrator and perhaps do a little book with them. My wife also wants to make coffee mugs with the tweets on them.

I’m going to finish the TV treatment I’ve half-written based on one of the stories in Squishy.

These are among Some Insignificant Thoughts As 2011 Comes To A Merciful Close from Montreal’s own Arjun Basu (of the 140-character short stories he calls Twisters). In a year as redolent with the ridiculous as this, we could ask for no better send-off.

2011 was interesting for all the wrong reasons.

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Porter AndersonPorter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, and a producer and consultant formerly with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome and INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. As a journalist, he has worked with media including three networks of CNN, the Village Voice, and the Dallas Times Herald. He reviews literary fiction at Reader Unboxed, and is based in Tampa.

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