Manuscript Auctions are anti-literature

As publishers narrow the number of titles they select to put their promotional dollars behind, there is a disturbing phenomenon that is distorting the allocations of funds in book marketing, and consequently, influencing what we read. Let’s talk about the manuscript auction.

Typically literary agents resort to an auction if more than one publisher is interested in a particular manuscript. This front-end loading process can get hot and expensive (the price tags are now in the $millions for the most prized books) if the participating publishers get into a bidding war that is fueled by egos rather than by the intrinsic value of the manuscript under auction. If discernment gives way to greed, the winner standing after the dust settles may have exhausted their funds and be left holding a sub-par manuscript that now needs to be further marketed to cover its costly investment. And the sacrificial lambs: other books in the publisher’s upcoming catalog that have to forego their marketing budgets to help pay for this spoiled child who has edged them out for the wrong reasons.

Auctions unfortunately do not look at literary merit as much as they look at commercial merit. And when heavily marketed commercial books hammer the message: “read this book, read this book,” it skews independent judgement of even the most die-hard reader, forcing them to, at least, take a peek at this latest curiosity that everyone is talking about. Given that time is our most precious commodity these days, such peeks come at the expense of other books that may have grabbed the reader’s attention through non-promotional means. I usually compile a list of books that I have stumbled upon through reviews, word-of-mouth, or fellow-author recommendations, but this list always slips into second place when I have to take detours to check out the latest developments in modern literature, such as Karl Ove Knausgaard writing about his premature ejaculation or E.L James’s kinky punishments in the bedroom (because everyone is talking about them and I don’t want to be left out). And when the underlying motive for this marketing hoopla is a royalty that has been prepaid via a runaway book auction, my detour will have even less to do with literary merit.

I’m hoping that the author whose work was auctioned and who is now left to sign with the winning publisher, would use their judgement, take the long term view, and let the auction be used only as a yardstick to determine the “potential value” of their book. I’m hoping that they will settle on the publisher whom they feel will be the best fit for their career (after all, there will be more books in the pipeline from this author, we hope) rather than going with the highest bidder on just this single auctioned work. For the highest bid also comes with the highest expectation, and an author who does not earn his advance could get dropped for their next book by an “over-generous” publisher.

And as for readers, I hope that they (like me, who has now decided to take my own advice) will stick to their own reading lists, compiled through due diligence rather than hype, and that they will not take those time-wasting detours just because an at-risk publisher has thrown the rest of his money after his moment of weakness at an auction and is touting the compelling but distracting message: “Read this. I put too much money behind this damned book and I need your help to bail me out!”

Is the (good) book review dead?

What is the value of a book review today– can it be trusted? On the surface, it’s one person’s subjective (and sometimes biased) view on a text. Why read it unless that person’s tastes are similar to yours and unless the reviewer has no vested interest in the author’s financial fortune?

I realized that the reviews I was reading in newspapers and journals had gradually morphed into unsubtle sales messages for the books they were covering. I concluded therefore, that the serious impartial reviewer had gone the way of the dodo bird, replaced by the “mutual admiration society”—aka writers helping other writers, especially their friends, a situation created out of necessity, given that publishers rarely paid for reviews these days, and the only person who would sacrifice time to read and write something about a writer’s work would be a friend, potentially another writer; and the chances are that he would write something nice, and expect something nice to be written about him too when the time came to call in the favour.

There was also the “syndicated review”—the one that hogged prime space in all the national newspapers simultaneously to the exclusion of the hundreds of other good books vying for attention. Big money talking here, not big writing, I concluded.

And what about those paid reviews—I mean, author•paid—a service offered by reviewers who were once held in high esteem for their credibility. What sorry times we had sunken into!

Oh, and don’t forget that other phenomenon taking place, mostly on the web and in social media: “hate reviews,” by those wanting to discredit the author for reasons political, commercial or otherwise. We heard of Amazon and other online sites being bombarded by the infamous “1 rating” (aka “very poor”). Even the lofty J.K Rowling was humbled by this onslaught from unseen forces. And how credible were these reviews?

I have written a lot of book reviews over the years, myself. I started writing them when I began forgetting the plot lines and characters of the many books I had been reading. I felt I needed to keep cheat sheets on them. Soon, I had over 200 reviews and that number has grown. In a desire to share and engage, I placed these review on the web. A few websites liked what I was writing (Goodreads and e•Zine Articles among others—even mighty Amazon deigned to publish some of my reviews as long as they weren’t too controversial and did not adversely impact sales), and so I began posting my reviews for the wider world to read via these sites, for free. Although I was interested in the books themselves, I had no personal interest in the authors as I did not know any of them— many were dead or too famous to bother with little me. And none of them were going to reciprocate by writing reviews of my books (Imagine reviews written on my books by the likes of Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan et al? Dream on, Shane!), so I did not have to pull any punches. And now, over the years I seem to have gathered a small but loyal flock of readers of my reviews, ones who will be influenced to pick up a copy of the book after reading my review on it. Likewise, I have compiled a list of independent reviewers whose opinions I hold in regard over all the others I skim over in my weekend newspaper.

So in order to restore credibility to the book review, we must reduce it to a DIY industry, it appears. In future, serious readers will follow self•selected reviewers, in small flocks, not in hordes via mass media or on those websites that are used as weapons of mass author•destruction. The Book Review is not dead, the good ones are just a little hard to find amid the myriad wannabes cluttering up the Book•o•sphere today.

Who are your favourite book reviewers? Do share…

The Anthology Editor – a rising player

As writers struggle for a spot in the literary limelight, as traditional magazines and publishing houses discard box loads of submissions, and as supply outstrips demand at increasingly higher rates, there is a niche player ascending like a Phoenix, one who may offer relief, especially to new writers in search of a publishing credit: the anthology editor.

Anthologies have existed for a long time but they hitherto focussed on the “best of the best” work that had already been published elsewhere. The new kind of anthology that I am referring to is made up of the work of writers who (a) do not have sufficient material for a stand•alone body of work (b) have written about a narrow subject area that can only be noticed if highlighted in a collection with a similar theme (c) belong in a region or collective whose output is being showcased or (d) a combination of all of the above.

Indie publishers find this a convenient way to build a stable of writers who may go on to produce stand•alone work in future – catching them young, so to speak. The anthology’s niche theme also allows for the book to be finely targeted to interested audiences, and competition from bigger houses rarely comes into play. Also, if many of the authors in the collection are first•timers, they are likely to buy dozens of personal copies to sell or gift to their families and friends and “build their platform.”

This makes the editor of such an anthology a new power player in the publishing chain. Given the many authors who are involved in a collection of this nature, the publisher typically sets broad guidelines and offloads content selection and author negotiations on this editor who is often not from among the publishing staff but a person of influence (he may even be one of the contributing authors) within the anthology’s trading area.

Sounds good? But here are some pitfalls to be aware of, especially if you are a contributing newbie author. Check out how many authors will contribute to this anthology. “The more the merrier,” the publisher will say, for more books will be sold (or bought by the growing number of contributors) but “the more, the lesser” also comes into play, especially for the individual author. Try getting noticed in an anthology of 100 authors! And what level of writing prowess do these 100 others possess – will they drag you down or lift you up with the quality of their contributions? And how will you split royalties between 100 others? Would two cents a book satisfy you? Oh yes, on the subject of royalties, beware of the publisher who only pays the royalty to the editor who then keeps it all for himself, for after all, did this editor not have to curate the content, deal with a bunch of egotistical authors, meet deadlines etc….etc? And the authors get – well, they get the glory of having been published!

As in any commercial transaction, “Buyer, beware” applies. If you are purely contributing to get a publishing credit, then ignoring the above might be okay. However, if you are moving up the chain and are protecting your brand as well as building it, then checking out the anthology’s credentials before making a contribution would be prudent.

So Amazon and Kobo want to be Publishers, eh?

The recent announcement by these players to advance up the book industry value chain from retailing to publishing comes as no surprise. In an industry which has many handoffs in its delivery process, and many players, each player muzzles for maximum turf over time. The ones upstream (i.e. the creators) try to advance down the chain like oil companies muzzling into retail gas stations. Those at the tail, retailers like Amazon and Kobo, try to move into the middle currently occupied by publishers, and those in the middle try to go both ways like departments stores that create loyalty programs at one end and private label merchandise at the other.

Success will depend on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon and Kobo, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, globally, without the shopper having to leave the comfort of his home. In becoming a publisher, one has to be selective (also known by that dreaded term “editorial integrity”) and promote only “the selected.” This is a different stance from the presently held “come one, come all” position of these online retailers. So what would Amazon and Kobo do in their new roles as publishers? Provide two•tier distribution: a premium level for authors who self publish through them and a more basic level for all books coming from other publishers? Start a separate branded line for their own publishing streams of books? Cherry•pick the best•selling authors and offer lucrative one•shot deals? Or hire an army of interns to wade through miles of slush piles should every unpublished author want to self•publish through them? This new move is surely going to raise questions about the altered value propositions that these two players now bring to the reader, and to the author.

The danger when two or more bed mates jostle for elbow room on the same bed, especially if one has a lot of muscle, is that the muscular one gains at the expense of the others. The ones with less and less room, risk falling off the bed altogether and may leave to sleep elsewhere with other bedfellows. And there is no fun in sleeping in a bed with one big elephant – be that a major publisher, a retailer•turned publisher or a distributor turned one•stop•shop. In this incestuous game, many bed mates, each having equal space, is good – it’s also called competition, in case I was stirring orgiastic imagery in you!

The wild card for everyone is the technology that is making these moves possible. And technology, while enabling bigger and newer entrants to muzzle in for space, can also scuttle the best made plans plans. In this case, the new technology also allows the story•teller, (aka – the author) to reach his audience directly, for it is no big deal to publish a book these days, be it in trade book format or e•book format, if one is reasonably adept at word processing and has access to some conversion software. And it’s no bigger deal to distribute it directly from one’s website with no intermediary hand•offs. All the author needs is a facilitator who can help his audience find, sample and endorse him. The reader needs the facilitator too, to point him to good reading material. This facilitator role is the one going to be prized both by readers and writers in the future – not a big bully who keeps the lion’s share and offers poor quality in exchange, but a big brother who makes it happen for the writer and the reader.

I am keen to see whether Amazon and Kobo will truly transform into Big Brothers or lose both authors and readers because they ended up being Big Bullies.

Is Writing like Farming?

I was trying to find an analogy for writing when farming came to mind. A new novel is like a farmer’s new crop. Consider what goes into getting the novel to that stage: first there are the seeds of an idea, then the first drafts, then the feedback, the hunt for a publisher, chasing the market by promoting the work, and later, counting the pennies as royalties roll in (if they roll in!). Finally, wiping the slate clean and writing the next book.

Farmers too plant seeds of various kinds: tried•and•true varieties like canola, soy and corn, or specialty organic seeds, just as the writers develop their ideas in either mainstream or literary fiction. Aren’t trial crops like drafts, isn’t the weather at times just as hostile as literary criticism and rejection letters, isn’t the hunt for buyers of farm produce in a commoditized market difficult, and aren’t the pickings slim? Isn’t the harvest like a book launch? Isn’t Fall the most lucrative time of the year for a farmer as it is for an author? Is letting the field lie fallow over the winter before re•planting in spring like letting the imagination rest and re•invigorate itself for the next novel?

Some farmers sell out to conglomerates and co•operatives and work for guaranteed prices and quotas, much like contract writers or journalists. Others take their chances at selling their wares at country fairs and friendly co•ops like self•published authors do. Some writers even peddle their work at weekend farmers markets, rubbing shoulders with their buddies•in•hardship? There must be an unexpressed kinship and bonding taking place at these venues among these silent types. Oh, and lest we forget, Canada Revenue likens farming to writing as the only profession in which the practitioner is not expected to make a profit during his lifetime!

The only difference between these two vocations I find is that as farms wane and farmers exit their industry today, writers are entering theirs in droves and we are awash in new literature delivered via traditional and non•traditional forms. Writers are at a different end of their cycle than farmers, it appears. But cycles do go around. The recent rise in global food prices is a harbinger of what happens when farmers are not given their due respect. Perhaps faming will return to its once held place of pre•eminence among the trades once global food scarcity levels hit a higher notch, if we aren’t there already. It be nice to see writers return to their once lofty pedestal too, being provided just reward for their sincere toil, for unreservedly sharing their imaginations with the world. Ah, but then I am a dreamer.

There is another glitch to realizing this dream. Farming produces stomach food while writing generates soul food. And in the human hierarchy of needs, farming will always come first. We have not evolved as a society yet to recognize that soul food is as important as belly food. I wonder if I would be treated with more respect the next time I introduce myself not as a writer but as “a farmer of soul food?” Would I be embraced graciously or would I be asked a dumb question like “Can I buy your stuff at the grocery store? Which aisle?”

Changing Publishing Models

I’ve begun to see the “small publisher” (SP) value proposition diminish. In cutting back on editing and marketing support, in losing ground to technology that makes it possible to go direct from author to reader today (i.e. e•books), in having no better alternative to online distribution offered by the likes of Amazon, and in still sticking to an outdated compensation model that pays an author only 10% in royalties despite its diminishing contribution, the small publishing house has to go the way of the dodo. Sure, some arts subsidies may hold SP aloft for awhile, but shrinking government support for the arts makes that lifeline no better than hanging onto a deflating life vest in a giant flood.

On the reverse side, I see another SP gaining traction: Self Publishing is getting its second wind. Yes, savvy self•published authors are now having their work vetted and edited, and even designing fancy covers for their work; they have come a long way from the early days when self•publishing was slammed by adherents to the traditional model for the movement’s obvious lack of “quality.” Self•published authors are settling in for the long term and doing it “for love of the art” and are getting comfortable with the notion that they may only end up selling a few copies of their books even if they work hard at it in this ever widening tsunami of written material out there today. And they hold out in hope that they may yet get “discovered” one day. How long will this idealism last?

I’ve also seen the author•as•publisher model emerge. Given the technology that is available today, and the narrow doors into the brand name publisher portals that makes entry difficult but for a chosen few, these writers (the savvy ones) are starting their own publishing companies, anchored by their own books and supported by others who have struggled to get published in the traditional way. Outsource everything but editorial selection, is their mantra.

When water is plentiful, it will find ways to flow through any crack, and written material is plentiful these days; it will find a way to get out, even if limited to 140 byte driblets. However, it is not supply, but demand that is hard to generate. The successful publisher is the one who can create demand and make the proud claim—either on the back of its own brand or on that of its authors—“Read this book, for it is good!” and have readers comply. I am not sure that any of the three models mentioned above can achieve this level of reader obeisance unless they cultivate niches that they have experience in.

Therefore, could these small publisher, self•published author, and principal•author•anchored publishing company models be setting themselves up for a smart aggregator to muscle in, offer them an exit strategy, snap them up at a bargain, cut out non•selling titles in their back lists, and retain only ones whose authors have built a reader platform for themselves through personal sweat equity? This aggregator•type reminds me of those leveraged buyout vultures in books like Barbarians at the Gate who dismembered companies to extract only the valuable and re•sellable parts, dumping everything else without any compunction towards the industry they were raiding. What value will aggregators add to authors, and what will they destroy?

In this fluid situation, what does the author, who does not have access to the big brand publishing house with its embedded marketing machine, do?