Check out these other pages:
Digital Book World
Writing on the Ether
Eat the Monkey
A Writer's Writer
Battle Against the Great Satan: A Report from the Front
New Frontiers in Publishing
Beyond the Face-in-a-Cake
Watch Your Eyeballs
How to Woo the Novice User
This new social aggregator could hold publishing’s entire future in its tablet-sized hands.
The idea of “new” reads as convenience, and in our tech-heavy society new also means consolidation, time-saving, and customization. “New” knows what you want, and must prove clever enough to gain public approval and following through understanding market failings, then how to improve them. Publishing is in desperate need of “new.” The evolutions of portable devices such as smartphones and tablets have changed the way we think about not only “new” but “news.” Enter the social aggregator; enter Flipboard.
Flipboard is a free app for the Android, iPhone and iPad, and what is called a social aggregator. As an aggregator it connects feeds from Facebook, Twitter, you name it, into one convenient location in a beautiful magazine layout. It consolidates various sources of interest from film, news, TV, celebrity gossip, tech, science, food, design, etc., from countless publications and places. Blogs, acclaimed new sources, obscure news sources, areas of pondering wonder you thought were buried deep within the web – all come together in this unique specimen of a customized information feed. Not only can you read your favorite magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc., but Flipboard allows you to create your own customized, online magazine. Watch this video and understand how Flipboard functions to the user lifestyle.
Flipboard, and social aggregators like it such as Feedly, offer a new hope for publishers struggling to attract consistent and loyal readership in the digital age. Digital Strategist and author Rahaf Harfoush, published an article addressing just that – a solution for publishing through the Flipboard medium. In her article, “Flipboard and the Reading Revolution,” Harfoush says many publishers, including magazine publishers, are stuck in paid-for clunky online applications that she describes as “glorified PDF’s.” She says that “by not simply converting their content and putting it online, publishers are missing out on an opportunity to engage with readers on two levels” – multimedia experience and social interaction. Harfoursh sees the potential Flipboard provides readers and publishers, stating: “Flipboard is a positive step towards the next iteration of publishing. Let’s hope others follow to provide readers with a beautifully designed and easy-to-use customized reading experience.”
Consumers are all about convenience these days, and publishing is having a hard time keeping up with this concept. Many argue that there are already apps available from these sources online and in the app stores. This is true, but consumers are interested in saving time and customization, and Flipboard allows more than just what these individual sources can provide. It is the ultimate middle man – a model of what modern publishing is heading towards.
But what is the function of that model? How is it lucrative? And how can not only big publishers, but self-publishers get on the bandwagon? Flipboard currently has 85 million users worldwide, its operational idea isn’t anything new to most in the publishing world – it’s advertising. Yes, advertising brings in the bank. According to an article by Media Post, “Flipboard CEO Explains How Brand Is Monetizing Users,” there are more than 3.5 million customized titles created for the public on Flipboard, and that’s growing.
The article goes on to explain that paid advertising only appears in formal publishing partners like that of Vanity Fair. However, Flipboard offers publishers full-page ads, “…on a share-of-mind basis of up to 25 percent for a given publication in the app, or four advertisers per publication. In effect, users see ads about every 10 pages overall, according to McCue. Publishers can sell those ads directly or through Flipboard. Brands with customized magazines are increasingly using these ads to drive traffic to their Flipboard titles, much as many advertisers on Facebook try to steer users toward their brand pages.”
There is also something psychologically soothing to the consumer on Flipboard when they don’t have to see ads juxtaposed with the artices they’re trying to read. Instead, the full-page ads are witnessed only when readers flip the pages. According to CEO Mike McCue, due to the magazine experience of Flipboard, these full-page ads can sell for an equivalent of that to print ads. This, McCue says, allows for a content monetization of 10-100 times that of banner ads normally seen on websites and apps.
Typical watch time for Flipboard averages 15 minutes per use, with brand magazines witnessing 20-40 pages flipped per session. Publishers may worry about brand or ad reception (a.k.a., strength of the brand), but a study done by Nielsen, a global information and market research company, found that “comparing brand metrics for advertising in the app with the same ad content in other media showed it had higher brand recall and favorability — 80 percent and 70 percent respectively — than on TV, the desktop Web and radio.” As readers, we couldn’t care less about ad statistics, but this is fantastic news for those marketers, publishers, and advertisers trying to survive in the ever-changing publication market.
In a recent Digital Pivot post entitled Three Reasons Why Flipboard is Not Just Another Pretty Face, Lisa Thorell explains that it’s the potential of the platform that has many in the tech world excited. Speaking on Flipboard’s potential ad revenue, the semantic indexing capabilities that allow for consumer/user customization “across their social network based around any ad hoc topic of choice,” she explains how this puts Flipboard in an interesting position. “It is, in fact, this advanced technological competence that will distinguish Flipboard’s position in the ad-value chain, much as Google became an ‘intermediary’ with Google AdWords.”
The growth of ad and revenue expectations aren’t the only thing that Thorell and others mark as extraordinary, but also the potential learning capabilities, similar to Netflix, that could spring from the Flipboard medium. Much like Netflix customizes to your viewing pleasure, Flipboard is well on its way to possibly the same idea function with your reading. While this is still in works, it is a revolutionary concept in the publishing platform.
Flipboard recently raised $50 million, and has gained $111 million to date. Flipboard plans to use this funding for its expansion, hiring people to sell ads, acquiring more engineering staff, and generally growing their offices in New York and Beijing. Needless to say, they aren’t slowing down.
Flipboard users can expect a comprehensive, functional platform. I use it for most of my own reading, an average of more than an hour a day.
Taking a few screenshots of my own Flipboard from my iPhone, individuals can see how alluring and capable a system it is:
These are just some of my own Flipboard subscriptions. If I want to save articles I’ve read for later, I simply add them to my own created magazine aggregator, Illuminated Balloons. Users can create their own magazine aggregators. Up in the corner of each article is a plus sign, which allows you to keep articles you wish to save for later. Other users may then search through your individualized collection of content and subscribe. Many have created genre-specific collectives that make it easier for fans of certain topics (surfing, Game of Thrones, etc.) to find their areas of interest.
Flipboard is a publishing platform that has changed the way we think about reading, finding, and viewing our news and favorite editorials. It plays to our notions of digitally shared content and instant gratification. It’s a treat for users and a solution for publishers.
Tweets by @21stCPublishing
It’s the 21st century, and we’d all like to believe that the human race has evolved past petty racism or ignorance or at the very least a hatred for our fellow men. We have a black president, for goodness sake.
But intolerance for those different from us is still alarmingly present in the world today. Yes, we live in a country without dictators and with the ability to order a pizza faster than an ambulance. However -- as harsh as it sounds -- we’re only here because our settler ancestors kicked the Native Americans out.
Well, that’s in the past, you say. We’re all sorry it happened, but what else is there to do? Actually, you can do a whole lot for a culture of people that is experiencing the same sort of fate, right now. In the 21st Century.
During the Burlington Book Festival, in a quiet room of the Fletcher Free library, a man named Maung Nyeu relayed the story of one morning in his Bangladesh village.
“My mother woke me up by pinching my elbow,” he said. “Every morning she woke me up with a gentle pat on the back. But not that day.”
His mother feared the rising violence of the Bangladeshi government against the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where Nyeu’s family lived. She’d told him that if she ever awoke him with that pinch to the elbow, he should get up quietly and follow her. That day, he got up silently and followed his mother on a 31-day hike through jungles, through marshes across the Indian border, where they became refugees.
The Bangladeshi government doesn’t recognize the Chittagong Hill Tract people as a part of the Bangladesh population, along with twelve other indigenous peoples. The military burned their villages down in a systematic act of ethnic cleansing. When their lands were returned to them later, the CHT people found their home was no longer theirs. Their choice was to become either become indentured servants on their own land or become refugees.
In addition to the absolute relocation of a whole people, the Bangladeshi government’s education system only recognizes one official language in the schools, Bangla. The indigenous children often speak three or four languages, but Bangla isn’t among them. The dropout rate is over 50 percent, starting at first grade.
Nyeu is working with CCPI’s Tim Brookes and CCPI itself to create textbooks in these children’s languages. They are producing workbooks and storybooks, saving these very precious languages that are rapidly becoming extinct. At the same time, they’ll be educating these children in an environment they can understand.
Nyeu’s schools are constantly in danger of being shut down. The purpose of his speech at the Book Festival was to raise awareness on the struggles of the indigenous people in Bangladesh. The more people who know him and would notice him missing drastically decreases the chance of a silent arrest. CCPI is also taking an active role in promoting Nyeu through social media, email listings, and a website presence.
For more information on Maung Nyeu, visit his nonprofit organization Our Golden Hour.
There, you can learn more about his goals for the indigenous people of Bangladesh and donate to the cause. For more information on Nyeu’s work with Tim Brookes and the Endangered Alphabets project, see this June 2013 National Geographic story. You can also follow Maung on his twitter for regular updates on the Chittagong Hill Tracts Project, public speaking events and to find out how you can help.
So if you’ve had even a finger in winds of the publishing world, you’ve probably heard about the Burlington Book Festival. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a three-day venture into the world of books, publishing, editing, copyediting, blogging, book launches, email listings — everything an up-and-coming author could ever want.
This isn’t to say that only baby authors found help at the festival -- experienced writers pass their knowledge along and even learned a thing or two about this newfangled thing called the Internet. And of course, right in the middle of these revolutionary ideas about the craft of authorship sits Champlain College Publishing Initiative.
We were out in full force on BBF weekend. CCPI Founding Editor and Publisher Tim Brookes kicked things off on Saturday with a presentation of his Endangered Alphabet collection in the Local History Room at the Fletcher Library. Here’s a link to his presentation.
Managing Editor Kim MacQueen was seen out at the Literary Pub Crawl with the Renegade Writers’ Collective on Saturday night. Renegade Rioters boarded the ArtsRiot bus and went to the hippest nooks and crannies of Burlington’s writers’ scene. They started with Janice Obuchowski at Magic Hat and ended with Tony Whedon performing PoJazz at ArtsRiot’s amazing new Pine Street space.
Then we took a trip to the far forests of Bangladesh with a man named Maung Nyeu. CCPI is working with Nyeu, who works tirelessly to raise funds and awareness for the schoolchildren of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Maung introduced his organization, Our Golden Hour (ourgoldenhour.com) and outlined his efforts to publish textbooks, grammar books and storybooks in the language of these indigenous children before their native tongue is lost completely.
On Sunday, CCPI/Champlain alumna Alli Neal and Kim MacQueen gave a powerful two-hour seminar on indie publishing. And this aspiring writer live tweeted the whole thing from the back. For all the tidbits of good, gooey indie-publishing info, check out the twitter page for 21stCPublishing.
Just look at all the happy pub crawlers.
Another Sunday workshop run by CCPI’s Lauren Stevens set introduced Stonehenge to a room full of eager writers. The Stonehenge, invented by Brookes, is a three-sentence prose haiku. The first two sentences create a scene and the third takes the passage in a whole different direction. The name comes from the familiar structure built in the Neolithic period. Stevens led a workshop aimed at introducing Stonehenge Volume One to the world while simultaneously drumming up interest in and submissions for Volume Two.
In the final presentation by a CCPI undergrad, Jeremy Allmendinger presented “Beyond the Boring Blog.” This was a chance for all newbies to the world of blogging, social media, self-publishing and possibly the Internet itself to learn all the do’s and don’ts of blogging. Allmendinger helped users distinguish between useless online blabbering and running a serious, professional blog – a true art form.
And this intrepid reporter could be seen snapping photos, live tweeting, and promoting the awesomeness that is CCPI.
I’m teaching a section of the publishing class this semester. This class of a dozen students will break up into four groups of three to work on client projects for Champlain Publishing. They’ll have to assign tasks and make plans and keep deadlines and wow their clients and stretch their minds and do stuff they’ve never done before.
Why do we do this? Because all of the jobs in the emerging fields of publishing require several different types of skills and the ability to collaborate with multiple colleagues. The publishing class makes Champlain students think about that collaboration, both with the client and with their peers, even encouraging a little competition among friends. It makes them much more ready to take on that complex matrix of responsibilities – and much more responsible for their own education.
So for the first class meeting last week, I gave them an exercise. I split them into three randomly appointed groups, making a point to move them away from the friends they might be sitting next to and throwing those from different majors into groups together. You’re going on a ziplining/camping trip, I told them, whether you want to or not. You’ve got to get together to plan your trip.
I thought since we’re in New England, they’d probably know all about camping and ziplining up here, so I set their imaginary trips in Costa Rica, where I could reasonably assume most of them had never been. I thought that might make it just a smidge more difficult.
It did not. Turns out the exercise was way too easy for everybody in the room. They had appointed leaders in the areas of travel arrangements, food, finances, transportation and zipline training within about three minutes. (Hat tip to Group 2 — they made up an imaginary Costa Rican-based guide named Ted, whom they planned to hire as soon as they got down there and who would be their go-to guy for everything from carting their stuff around to making dinner reservations while taking care of any unforeseen disasters along the way.)
Within about five minutes, it seemed like if they were to take the whole trip out of the realm of the classroom and actually head for Costa Rica, all three groups would probably end up having a pretty good time. So I crept up on each group and threw little bombs at them, hoping to trip them up a bit and make them think.
For Group 1 I said, ok suppose Lara gets sick and can’t go. Who takes over her duties? Turns out they’d already developed a contingency plan for that – a second for Lara so her job would get done if she couldn’t do it. (For Group 2 I honestly don’t remember what I said, because I was trying to quickly think of some task they couldn’t just add to Ted’s list.)
As I snuck up on Group 3, I heard somebody say they were planning to store their food tied up in the trees while they slept. Okay then, I said, let’s say a monkey comes during the night and steals your food. Group 3 took the next few minutes, mostly to humor me, and developed a nice plan to keep their food away from thieving monkeys.
At the end of class, as everybody packed up to leave, somebody from Group 3 said casually, “We could always just eat the monkey.” I waited a beat for the other members of the group to recoil, but they didn’t. They just quietly got the point: The best way to stop a problem you know is going to recur is to cut it off at the source.
This was all very abstract, of course. It’s not like they appointed a monkey killer, and then an assistant to the monkey killer, in case the first appointee fell down on the job. But killing the monkey takes Group 3 from reacting to seeing a problem and working out a solution before it happens again.
It’s a small thing, definitely, and the analogy – even in the pretend world of the classroom – is gross. But you get what I’m going for here. Working in groups for outside publishing clients forces talented college students to think outside the boxes. Soon they’ll face real-world, business-based problems that, at least the short term, they’re not going to know how to solve. And very often, it’s the thoughts they’ll have getting up from a meeting that’s supposed to be about solving the problem that give them the insight that actually helps their group solve the problem.
If not, there’s always Ted.Back to top.
I’ll just come right out and tell you that when I was assigned to write about Jenny Milchman for her alumni magazine at Barnard College – before I met her – her advance press made me a little jealous. Milchman’s first novel, the thriller Cover of Snow, was published by Random House this winter, and my editor told me I’d have to conduct our interview over the phone while she was on a whirlwind, months-long book tour.
Now, here I’ve been hearing for years that book tours are a losing proposition even for the most well-known authors, and that publishers big and small are giving authors of every stripe the high hat and telling them to book and pay for their tours themselves, or just skip them altogether. Here was a first-timer driving 4,000 miles to hit a whole bunch of bookstores with a big publishing house behind her. I thought it would probably take me weeks to get in touch with her.
Then I read the press materials again. It wasn’t a bunch of bookstores, it was hundreds. It wasn’t just a couple of months, it was most of 2013. And it wasn’t 4,000 miles. It was 40,000. I thought that last one had to be a misprint. It wasn’t.
And then I got to talk to Jenny Milchman (in fact, she got back to me immediately, and was unfailingly helpful and kind), and it all made sense. First off, Cover of Snow isn’t her first novel at all; it’s just the first one of the eight she’s written that sold after 11 dogged years with three different agents in pursuit of publication.
She didn’t spend all that time writing and waiting. She networked like a pro the whole time, building online friendships and making connections with a host of other writers and blogging about their work on her website. It doesn’t hurt that she’s warm, friendly and genuine, a real writer’s writer. We started off with a 30-minute phone conversation that was ostensibly my interviewing her for the magazine, but I let it slip that I wrote novels too, and several times she turned the conversation around to ask about my experiences – as if I was the one giving interviews from the front seat of the car in what might be world’s biggest book tour.
She thought about self-publishing, she says, but wanted the reach to lots of readers that she knew only a Big Six house could bring her. So once she finally sold her book to one, she hired an independent publicity firm and immediately started planning the tour and as a reward for all the time and effort she’d put into the whole enterprise, all the hours logged in the converted closet in her New Jersey home that serves as her office.
Milchman, who says she’s always loved long family road trips anyway, now car-schools Sophie, 9, and Caleb, 7, while they sit in the back seat on rides between bookstores, while her husband Josh pulls out three computers and works remotely as an IT guy on breaks from the drive. She calls the tour “the most fun I’ve had in my whole life.”
“Do they think I’m nuts over at Random House? Probably,” Milchman laughed when we talked. “But I knew there was no way a big corporation like that would be able to wrap their heads around a tour of this magnitude, and especially not for a baby author. The reason I stayed on this road so long was because I wanted to be able to walk into bookstores and meet my readers. I also wanted to put faces with the names of these other writers I’d only met online. I wanted to build relationships with these people. And now I get to do that every day, for this book that nobody wanted to publish for so long. It’s really a miracle.”
She didn’t come right out and answer yes to this last one, but let me just share some concrete examples that might tip you off:
- She visited Vero Beach Book Center in Florida, whose management she met in person the previous summer. They’d started hand-selling Cover of Snow in the months before she arrived. When she got there it was #1 on the bookstore's bestseller list, ahead of Harlan Coben and Jodi Picoult's just-released blockbusters.
- After the book came out, it landed on the independent booksellers' bestsellers lists in each region she visited.
- The book just went into a fourth printing in hardcover, thanks to word of mouth by booksellers and talk about the tour.
As for her response to the larger “is a book tour worth it” question, I liked it so much that I’m just going to post the whole thing right here:
“Okay, to start, I never conceived of The Tour as being about selling books. The best-selling author in the world may have 1000 people come to an event, and sell perhaps 400 books. While this is a nice piece of change, it won't cover airfare, hotel, and food for said event. And my numbers at this stage of the game are clearly not going to be...those.
“But that's okay. The reasons behind this tour are all about connecting. With readers, with people who supported me during the long road to publication, with booksellers and librarians and book club leaders who are helping me to launch a career. I think that you can connect in person in a way the most heartfelt Tweet or FB status update -- and I am not being ironic; I do think those things can be heartfelt -- can't duplicate.
“Now, I fully understand that the above 'but that's okay' might sound awfully flip and breezy. I don't mean it in a let-them-eat-cake way. I feel immensely blessed to have a house we can rent out for supplemental financing, and a husband with a career he can do remotely, but we have also taken a financial hit in order to be able to do this. We've lived small to prepare; we've put off saving. But it's a privilege to be able to make those compromises, and I know that not everyone can.
“Do I think it's worth it? For me, 100 percent. It's not only the fulfillment of a dream, which would be enough; I've also discovered that it's the way -- a way, anyway -- that I love to live. My family around me, a new adventure every day, surrounded by books and people who have become some of the most meaningful in my life.
“Do I think it would be worth it for other authors? That depends. I suppose that unless someone has my particular blend of nuttiness, um, preferences, probably seven months is going to be a non-starter. But should one month of real time, face-to-face connection be undertaken? Two weeks of in-person introductions to local bricks and mortar bookstores and other places where people love to browse and talk books, online substitutes notwithstanding? I think that if an author can make room for that in his or her life, the dividends, both tangible and intangible, will be hard to overestimate.”
We've got some wonderful new clients at Champlain Publishing right now. They're novelists, memoirists, and children's book authors with unique new projects that CCPI's crackerjack summer staff is all pretty thrilled to work on.
I noticed last week, though, that all our clients had pretty much the same question: Publish with CreateSpace or one of the many other options open to self-publishers these days?
We've used CreateSpace at CCPI for various projects with great success. First-time authors are understandably drawn to it because it's owned by Amazon.com (we at CCPI like to call it the Great Satan) and they want their books to be instantly available through the world's largest retailer.
CreateSpace has also beefed up their customer service and redone their website to make it a lot easier to use than it's ever been before. Time was CreateSpace was just a bland website with little direction and with no way to get your self-publishing questions to a live human being. But last month when I had a question about a client's project, my five-minute foray to the site yielded three followup emails and two calls to my cell phone from some really nice guy named Sean. Of course he's in sales, not customer service, but still. He was definitely human.
I wondered if CreateSpace/Amazon's cleaning up its act extended to how it treats local bookstores. (You'll remember how a few years ago Amazon asked book buyers to walk into their local bookstores, take a photo of a book they wanted and then go back home and buy it on Amazon for less; bookstores didn't appreciate that.)
It turns out they still don't. I sent an email to the manager of one of the awesome local bookstores here in Burlington asking if bookstores were warming to Amazon/CreateSpace lately. His response was thoughtful and direct: they'd deal with CreateSpace if they had to, if a local author they wanted to promote absolutely insisted. But otherwise…no.
Have you been following Amazon in the news lately? Those people have been having a time. This is what we say in the South when things are not good. And they are not super-great for Amazon right now. As it turns out, even first-time authors are turning away from the book behemoth now, because it's just not a great corporate citizen.
Bet The Bard wouldn’t have
thought much of The Great Satan
There's a reason we call it the Great Satan: Publishers large and small are beginning to sever all ties with the company, citing its big-box-style business practices. A trio of indie bookstores joined forces to bring a lawsuit against the company and Big Six publishers, charging them with price-fixing for ebooks – and that's just one of a whole lot of lawsuits lately. The company was singled out as one of the world's worst tax dodgers. That's just in the last couple of weeks.
But still. My nine year-old, Rose, is into the Charlie Bone series' of children's books. So when she came to me last weekend and wanted the next in the series, I searched the local library website for an available copy. There were two. I told her I'd change and we'd head down there in a little while.
That's when she looked pointedly at the Kindle on my nightstand, and asked if I couldn't just buy her the ebook. That's $9 sent to the Great Tax-Avoiding Satan for something she'll read in four hours, versus a free copy from the local library. I said no way. It's got to be the library.
But Rose was persistent. I'm loathe to leave the house on Sunday anyway unless some part of it is on fire, and I really wanted to just stay there and read the paper. Plus it was my birthday. So I bowed to convenience – no wonder William Shakespeare called it “the devil's argument' -- bought her the e-book, and went back to reading the paper.
Score one for the Great Satan.
Back to top.
Endangered Alphabets cover photo by Glenn Moody.
One of the stellar acts of design by our CCPI students was my book Endangered Alphabets. Lindsay Webster and Emily Regis, both seniors at the time (2010), created a layout that breathed calmly, a photo insert full of rich color, and a cover that was like a carving in itself.
Their work made such strong portfolio material that Lindsay won a highly competitive internship at Penguin and then landed a full-time design job in New York City; Emily moved back to Maine and also got a full-time job, straight out of college.
That was the pinnacle of design at the time; since then, though, publishing has moved at accelerating speed. And as I'm pledged to work at the prow of that particular ship, I've been thinking about what the next edition of the book should look like.
The Endangered Alphabets Project has also grown at a startling pace—in fact, one of the reasons why I need a second edition of the book is that the Alphabets will be featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., this June, with a whole boatload of carvings that weren't included in the 2010 edition. So the question is: what is possible now, in the highbrow-coffee-table-book line, that was not possible three years ago?
The answer, in a nutshell, is iBooks Author.
This second-generation interactive ebook software, which I'll abbreviate to IBA, allows me all kinds of opportunities. It comes with several layout templates, which for a design-impaired dude like me is a considerable bonus. I can keep Lindsay and Emily's gorgeous cover, pour in the edited and expanded text, and then add all kinds of what is called rich content.
· I can use the picture-in-the-middle-of-the-page field to insert a sideshow of photos that scroll the reader through the research/text transfer/carving/painting/finishing steps of a particular carving.
· I can add click-on captioning to explain points of interest in particular endangered scripts.
· At no extra expense I can include photos, individual letters, words, whole alphabet charts, graphic spacers—all kinds of elements that would have taken hours and hours of design time and cost a small fortune in printer's bills.
· I can set my own price, and…
· …I can sell it through iTunes, thereby bypassing the Great Satan, which is what we at CCPI call Amazon. And in fact, given that IBA was originally developed with textbooks in mind…
· …I can even include the multiple-choice Endangered Alphabets Quiz.
The first edition will still be in print: people just love the feel of a book, especially a beautiful book, in their hands. And there's no way of telling, of course, whether going via IBA will sell as many copies or make as much money as a conventional-format ebook sold through conventional channels.
Luckily, I don't care. If I were in it for the money, I'd be mass-producing endangered letters in mold-cast resin and selling them in airport gift stores. No, I'm in it for the adventure. I want to do whatever is most interesting now, and in three years' time, when the world has changed beyond recognition once more, I'm going to do what's most interesting all over again.
Back to top.
There’s a wide range of new technologies available to foodies online, and publishers need to pay attention.
Photo of delicious ribs courtesy of Cakewalkr.com
Searching for recipes online has become popular in one very surprising way: It's a great tool for teaching digital literacy. It makes sense. For adult learners who haven't used the Internet much, and who aren't too sure if they want to start now, these searches are the hooks to get them engaged. The lesson that the digital literacy crowd takes from this phenomenon is that classes should lead with something fun. The lesson that publishers can take from it is that food writing is a gateway into new technology.
Okay, it takes a few steps to see how this would all work out, but let's start with the basic recipe search and go on from there.
You know the search I'm talking about -- type the name of a dish ingredient into any search engine and you'll get back enough free recipes to fill a whole cookbook. But within this quantity of information, there are some limitations:
- The sites that usually show up at the top of the search list are places like The Food Network or AllRecipes.com that offer simple and reliable recipes. That's great. But “simple' can be a code word for a little bit boring, or not very authentic, or something I already know from my Joy of Cooking.
- Blog posts offer more spark – they're set up to have their own personalities and that can lead to original ideas, usually with interesting stories. But unlike the Food Network-type sites, their recipes can be unreliable (not all of them, some of them).
- Browsing through recipes online is usually a logical progression of links based on your search pattern. That works if you know what you're craving. Except I usually don't know, and I rely on thumbing idly through a cookbook, looking for something to catch my fancy.
We can get around these shortcomings in some ways. For example, my biggest concern is the boring and/or not-authentic factor. I happen to be easily bored and like to eat weird things. But there are lots of other reasons why someone would want to look beyond standard recipe-search fare. Immigrants or first-generation Americans want to find recipes for the foods they or their parents remember from home. Older cooks are interested in having food just like it was in 19-whenever. Kids might be interested in what dinner tasted like for their great-grandparents – just to name a few examples.
When I want to really get down to the business of cooking something interesting, then I go to Million Short. Million Short is not designed for cooks, it's simply a search engine that knocks out the top million (or 100,000, or 10,000, etc.) most popular websites. Think about it as indie searching – you get the quirky stuff.
When you use Million Short to search for foods from a specific country or region, the result is a lot of “food from home”-style blogs that prize authenticity above all else. The only note of caution is that it doesn't hurt to cross check some of these recipes against each other if you have doubts about the accuracy of the instructions.
Million Short is one modification to a familiar online tool to get home cooks new and interesting information. We can take that one step further to look at tools that have been around for a while, but are just now becoming available to your average computer user.
One of these tools is the virtual meeting. Once upon a time, you needed special equipment for a group to interact via remote video. Later, simpler services became available for businesses to use. Now, it's easy for anyone to convene virtually -- there's no special equipment to buy or expensive software programs to download. Google+ Hangouts is a platform that lets people use their webcams to interact in a private virtual meeting, or in a virtual meeting that's broadcast publicly for anyone to watch. The food-loving world quickly took up this tool for their own use, organizing informal, virtual cooking classes in their home kitchens. The professional world wasn't far behind. Now, home cooks can pay ChefHangout.com to access virtual classes from master chefs.
Another tool that's just starting to become commonly available is multimedia publishing. We've seen websites that embed video, audio, pictures, and text, but it's been difficult to publish e-books this way. New platforms like Atavist are changing this with multimedia books for e-readers (e.g. iPads, Kindle, Nook, Kobo). Atavist is a startup that both publishes its own material and offers tools for self-publishing. Their nonfiction integrates text, pictures, audio, video, maps, timelines, and online annotations.
Multimedia books could well get their broadest following when food writers start taking real advantage of the platform. I predict an explosion of cookbooks with videos of techniques, links to the science behind each step, maps of a cuisine's birthplace, links to suppliers of hard-to-find ingredients, and some basic audio to get us in the mood – sounds of a summer picnic, a whistling kettle, a sizzling steak, ice cubes rattling in a cocktail shaker.
We can take our line of thinking about technology one step further from basic (search engines), through technologies now entering into popular use (virtual meetings, multimedia production), to technologies that are available, but are several stages of development away from use by the average consumer.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Edoff, http://lisaedoff.blogspot.com
Printing in food is one example of this kind of technology. You may have seen the edible pictures for cake decorating, where you can make a photo image appear on a thin sheet of icing. The nearest large grocery store likely has this in their bakery. Well, 2-D printing can happen with a range of foodstuffs, not just sugar.
Actual 3-D printing is an even more exciting possibility. To go into three dimensions, machines load in an ink that can be extruded in thin lines according to a computer-generated plan that details the dimensions of the final object. Plastic is a common ink, but food can be one too. The machine would lay down something like bread dough in the shape of an octopus – a trick that's been used to demonstrate the process. The Huffington Post offers a somewhat-long video demonstrating the process of 3-D food printing posted here.
When you think about the steps of making a technology like printing in food into something that's generally useful, not just a nifty trick, there's a role for publishers to play. We need the engineers to produce the technology and the businesspeople to sell it, but someone is going to have to help the average person understand and explore its potential. Why not a food writer or a cookbook author?
Food writing is a particular kind of subject – one that lends itself to new platforms (like the multimedia cookbook) and also one that draws consumers into using that technology. It's literally trendsetting. . . and who doesn't want to be a giant step ahead of everyone else?
Resources for Exploring Further:
- Million Short – Search engine for getting past the most popular sites to find the recipes you've never heard of
- Creatavist – Atavist tool that lets anyone publish easy-to-assemble multimedia books.
- Splendid Table Stories – A quick way to test whether a blog recipe is well written (here) and an interview on the Google+ Hangouts for cooking (here)
- James Beard Awards – Showing off the best of all different kinds of food writing, including online
- 3-D Food Printing –I wrote a Vermont Public Radio commentary on this topic (here), and can't get enough of the food technology TED Talk by Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche (here)
- iPads in the Kitchen – If we're going to use the Internet as a giant cookbook, there are some practical issues. Like food in the keyboard. I'm particularly fond of this TechHive article explaining how to make a previous all-purpose iPad into a permanent kitchen tool.
– Helen Labun Jordan
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I -- and probably you -- have spent a fair amount of time getting familiar with the practical reasons why I might want to share information online. Not social security number type information, but the sort of information that goes into articles or books. There’s almost no production cost, you can update instantly, your marketing options expand and diversify, etc.
Many of us get our information primarily online. But aren’t we forgetting something? What about the romance of the Internet age?
There’s real excitement in being part of building a system of limitless information online. After all, that allure was at the heart of the Internet’s first revolutionary promises: endless new connections, up-to-the-millisecond information, and obscure ideas that never would have been published before the arrival of the almost-free platform of the web. We should be at the brink of infinite knowledge.
The bad news, though, is that we aren’t even close to information utopia. The worse news is that you may be working against a better-informed world without even realizing it.
Here's what I mean by that: Almost all of us have a false impression about the breadth of information we’re finding online. We feel like we’re exploring a vast universe, when in fact we’re being directed around a particular neighborhood. And this happens even when we go onto sites designed specifically to help us explore the Internet’s available information.
Think about Google. If there were ever an example of a gateway to everything the Internet has to offer, that would be it. Its algorithms bring us answers to any question in an instant. But there’s a hidden catch 22. Google is set up to recognize my computer. It remembers I’m a Vermont resident with a penchant for fancy food, so when I start to search for Food Montp- it automatically pops up spendy restaurants in my Montpelier, not recipes for the cuisine of Montpellier in the south of France. It’s a feature that’s great for quick results that are likely to match what I want to know. It’s not great if I want to explore new frontiers beyond what my past habits have conditioned the algorithm to predict.
Another option we use for exploration is relying on the creative insights of an individual. Brain Pickings is one popular example. It’s a site maintained by Maria Popova that brings together what may be the web’s most dizzying quantity of quirky ideas in a single place, describing itself as “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” The amount of time Maria spends combing the web for interesting tidbits is -- I think she would admit -- unhealthy. But this is only one person. She may have more things to pick through than editors from fifty years ago, but it’s still a collection of what’s interesting as seen through her lens, applied with the same 24 hours in a day we’ve always had.
Some sites use popularity to decide what information to promote, while others use what our friends recommend, and sites without any filters at all would overload our ability to process new information.
I’m not terribly surprised that the Internet’s promise of limitless knowledge turns out to be, for practical reasons, limited. But I am surprised at the speed with which we’re losing the Internet’s usefulness on the other end of the spectrum: being a place to get a specific piece of information.
Okay, super-specific information isn’t so hard to get – things like the hours for my favorite restaurant or the name of Elizabeth Taylor’s first husband. But what if I wanted something a smidge more complicated, like the best computer to use for the online research behind this post? Here, we get into some fundamental problems in how information-providing sites are conceived.
The people building websites have designed them to keep you online. That’s how they usually get paid, by page visits. It’s not the same goal as getting you that computer recommendation pronto. I knew this basic concept, but had never paid much attention to the ways it affected my online life until I heard a Spark interview with Brian Lam.
Lam is founder of the technology site The Wirecutter, which reviews consumer products, mostly new technology. In the interview, he explains that his site is designed to let you “. . . get in, get out, get the information you need and get the tools you need to get on with your life.”
The “get in, get out, get on with your life” goal is opposite from Lam’s previous site, Gizmodo, another source of technology news and one of the most successful “suck you in and keep you there” sites on the web. The following graphics highlight some of the differences Brian describes between a site designed to get you only the information you need (The Wirecutter) and a site designed to keep you online indefinitely (Gizmodo).
There are simple warning flags on the Gizmodo site: headlines that scream “entertainment” not “information,” constantly refreshing highlights to bring me back throughout the day, and articles, games and pictures that veer wildly off topic. Gizmodo also brings us back to the original problem: on this site, it feels like we’re explorers, tripping from link to link finding, something new at every turn. We’re really following selected and promoted links to get around to the same Willie Nelson quote on marriage equality and the same advertisement for reducing belly fat with one simple rule.
We need to become conscious explorers online -- not passive link-clickers.
You can help raise our exploration awareness in your own site design. Draw a line between information and entertainment -- informative content should be engaging, but only after you’re clear on what the substance is. Explain the goal of your site, tell us where your content came from and the perspectives it reflects so we understand the framework being applied. Offer resource sections that show folks where they can learn more, but don’t add on unnecessary links. If your goal is a revenue-generating site, think through how the system for generating that revenue does or does not mesh with your underlying goal of offering good information (the Lam interview has more on that).
And don’t forget that the best outcome may be your readers getting offline and getting on with their lives.
Additional Information on Being Smarter Web Navigators – is your site helping or hurting? Do your own online reading practices reflect smart ways to explore information?
- Full interview with Brian Lam
- Interview with Howard Rheingold on getting Net Smart from Spark – it starts with writing down what tasks you intend to do online before firing up the computer
- Eli Pariser on The Filter Bubble - what I described as Google’s catch 22
- Interview with travel writer Pico Ayer on unplugging from On Point
- Interview the MIT professor Sherry Turkle on conscious technology use from On Being
- The National Day of Unplugging
– Helen Labun Jordan
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If you’re publishing work online, have you considered an audience that doesn’t use the Internet? I don’t mean: Have you considered an offline equivalent of your online content. I mean: Have you thought about how to bring those non-users to your online site?
Okay, there are a lot of good reasons why you wouldn’t have considered that. But if you’re currently (or soon to be) publishing online, it makes sense to think about the world of Internet beginners. A lot of the people who haven’t used the Internet much before now are being pushed into the online world – and that’s creating an audience you might want to think about.
In recent years, a sea change has turned the Internet from a convenience into a necessity. Over the next few years, a new wave of users will be arriving on our virtual doorstep. According to the 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Report Digital Differences:
- 60 percent of adults over 65 years old don’t use the Internet – but medical information, Medicare enrollment, and applications for state benefits are all moving online.
- 40 percent of adults in low-income households don’t use the Internet – but both unemployment benefits and many job applications are switching to online-only formats.
- 57 percent of adults without a high school diploma don’t use the Internet – but next year, anyone taking the GED exam needs to do it online.
When they finally show up online, a lot of them will be grumpy. Some will be suspicious. Others will be happy to finally be there. Not everyone will want to woo these Internet beginners to their online content, but I’m seeing more sites try out strategies that can attract these newly arrived users. Here are two examples, from BBCWebWise and the Campaign for America’s Libraries.
BBCWebWise, which teaches digital literacy, is an example of a site that’s built to be easy for beginners to use. Check out some of its features:
For digital natives like me, online tools are a part of daily life. They go hand in hand with my offline activities – scheduling lunch with friends, coordinating a meeting, planning a vacation, etc. For people new to the Internet, it’s easy to see that virtual universe as something separate from the “real world” . . . since it has, in fact, been separate until now. The Campaign for America’s Libraries does a great job of breaking down the barriers between online and offline worlds. Here’s how the site works:
There’s a lot more information available on making the online world friendlier to Internet beginners. If you want to learn more, here are some recommendations:
- Vermont Public Radio Commentery (by me) On a more beginner-friendly Internet
- Designing Beginner-Friendly Websites – A toolkit for designing beginner-friendly websites
- Pew Internet and American Life Project – Offers studies on Internet use
- Federal Communications Commission – Reports on efforts to get every American online
– Helen Labun Jordan
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There is a burning sensation that starts behind the ears and bellows down through your insides when you discover that your haul of used textbooks costs more than rent. Sure, money-minded students can easily lose sight of the manpower and expenses that go into a publishing a textbook, but the real problem lies in the vast mismatch of bang for your buck.
Teachers hardly graze the surface of these 500-page behemoths, and students can hardly stand to carry them. Furthermore, what about all the Internet articles, YouTube videos, and professor’s input that fill the gaps anyway? Why should the education system suffer hell paying the middlemen?
Scott Hasbrouck, Founder and CEO of GinkgoTree, doesn’t think there’s any need to gnash teeth, having created what Audrey Watters of Hackeducation Inside Higher Ed calls, “…a beautiful solution to the problems of licensing, copying, and sharing readings.”
“We don’t like questionable pricing,” says Hasbrouck. “Students spend six hundred dollars each semester on materials.”
And he would know. Fresh out of Spring Arbor University with a BA in chemistry, Scott is the whiz kid who made his big break after inventing a note-taking app for the iPad. A proclaimed cyclist and Italophile, he funneled his frustrations with the educational system into a company, stylized “GinkgoTree.”
GinkgoTree is a new interface for students and instructors that may soon replace traditional programs like Blackboard, Angel or Canvas. Beyond the usual course pack planning, it allows “instructors to seamlessly merge free stuff on the Internet with copyrighted content” (New Learning Times).
How does it work? Say an instructor only wanted to cover chapters 6,7,9, and half of 14 in the textbook. He can mail the book in to GinkgoTree, who will then convert it to digital and post it on his account within the week. Otherwise, if it already exists in electronic format, he can search it directly on the GinkgoTree interface and edit it in minutes.
Yes, edit. Rewrite a line of text, substitute a section with a better source, embed a video or audio file, upload images and links, or share readings. Create a continuum of educational material perfectly catered to the class with minimum effort – coupled with a minimal fee.
Participating institutions shell out a whopping $10/month per course. So no more bookstores purchasing inaccurate bulk orders or plotting skeezy “rent-a-book” schemes to cover the collateral. The gristle has been trimmed off and the meat of the book sold directly to the consumer.
How is this possible? Students pay the copyright fees per page. No middlemen, no shipping costs, just the materials you want and nothing else. For example, if a particular copyright is 15 cents per page, and a particularly wicked instructor posts 300 pages of reading, it will only cost the student $45. Compare that to the $150 I paid to rent my textbook.
Some of the many complaints of educational portals are the eye-gouging design work and flaky, labyrinthine usability. Non-existent here. Creating a course pack or finding a link is now so easy the usual hunt has almost become disappointing. Contents are tabled into designated headings, and clicking on a box will scroll you through a contiguous feed to your location. Instructors will also have no problem searching for any text or media within GinkgoTree since it has been enhanced by Google. Furthermore, the elegantly popped fonts and sleek, silver-and-green atmosphere are actually soothing.
Another feature that will win over students and instructors alike is the feedback option. One of the tiring aspects of teaching is not knowing if you are really reaching students whilst counting down the days to student evaluation. At the end of every segment, students can comment on the material, ask questions, make suggestions, or simply chat. This way, even the mousiest student can claim a voice, and the instructor no longer is lost in some far off self-delusion.
GinkgoTree is still seeding and may take some time to fully grow into the marketplace; however, one thing is certain and cannot be stressed enough – this company is young and unafraid. It has made a point to create its own future, and it is one bold enough to upturn the realm of publishing in education.
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Just think how many lawyers went into making
all these books.
Doom hangs over the publishing industry. Forbes’ Colette Martin writes that fewer books are published traditionally every year, even as print magazines and newspapers collapse. However, Martin also notes that as traditional publishing declines, new blogs are spawned at a rate of more than fifty thousand per day.
On Amazon, eBook sales have outpaced hardcovers — the dusty bookshelf veterans replaced by a new vanguard of 1′s and 0′s. If traditional publishers are like ancient trees struck by the blight of digital media, then certainly new greenery springs from the forest floor.
There is hope for publishing. Unfortunately, the monolithic publishing house model that is struggling today was more than just a method of printing books. Centralized publishing meant an industry with defined interests and the resources to defend those interests in court.
For instance, Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) fought Nation Enterprises (a.k.a. The Nation magazine) in a landmark United States Supreme Court case that clarified “fair use” within copyright law. The Nation tried to print excerpts from a Harper book verbatim, claiming that since the excerpts in question were written by Gerald Ford, they qualified as fair use. Harper sued, SCOTUS sided with Harper, the publishing industry rejoiced, and everyone learned a valuable lesson about respecting intellectual property.
Somebody sues J.K. Rowling, her publisher’s
attorneys back her up. But what’s a small,
relatively lawyerless publisher to do?
Disney lobbies for the so-called Mickey Mouse Protection Act, extending copyright to nearly a century after a work is created. J.K. Rowling gets sued and Warner Brothers leaps to her defense because of their Harry Potter movie deals.
If traditional publishing goes into decline, then who will fight these kinds of legal battles? Which organizations or individuals will look out for industry-wide interests when the industry is fragmented into a million micropresses, cranking out digibooks for audiences of a few hundred each? Who among these new creators has the time, motivation, and money to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court?
Certainly, writers and publishers alike are concerned about the way the legal wind blows. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America list ten stories on the front page of their blog; four are about legal cases. Anyone who worked in the comic books industry before the early 2000s remembers the draconian “Comics Code” — a voluntary censorship undertaken by the industry to avoid legal restrictions on comic book sales that exterminated generations of noir and horror comics. Even with the best of intentions, meddling courts can devastate entire genres — or pick winners and losers in the constant balancing act between creators, producers, distributors, and consumers.
Official seal of the Comics Code
Where there is oppression, there will be resistance. The Comics Code was met with mewling acceptance by mainstream publishers, but also spawned a tradition of rebellion within the comic book community. In the 1960s and 70s, while the Code was in full effect, underground creators printed “comix” that flouted the Code with graphic depictions of drug use and sex. With changing social mores, the Code eventually fell into disuse, but its legacy engendered a “never again” attitude amongst comic book creators. Given this history, it is no surprise that the comic book industry offers up one vision of the future of publishing’s legal advocacy.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is a nonprofit organization that provides legal services in cases that have industrywide importance. It specializes in First Amendment cases, and is supported through donations from individuals and corporate members including DC Comics and Random House.
Wait, what? In the weird world of the new publishing frontier, even Random House is outsourcing its legal department. The CBLDF is a marriage of interests, living in the Venn diagram overlap between the needs of the different groups that make up the comic book industry. This is a boon in that it can receive funding from a broad range of sources; it is a curse in that the organization is constrained to only support cases that appeal to all of its constituents.
For instance, the CBLDF recently defended a man whose laptop was seized by Canadian customs when it was found to contain Japanese horror comics which the Canadian authorities called “imported child pornography.” (Shades of the Comics Code — I didn’t know jackboots were fashionable in Canada.) The man faced a prison sentence and having his name placed on Canada’s sex offender registry. Also, his conviction would have set a dangerous precedent for anyone transporting similar material into Canada.
Recognizing that danger, the CBLDF contributed over $20,000 to the man’s defense. All charges were eventually dropped, leaving him with good standing for a civil case against the Crown. More importantly to the CBLDF’s supporters, the distribution of comic books containing horrific or sexual content was not curtailed.
As one CBLDF supporter, Mike Pascale, put it: “Some may only see the high-profile ‘obscenity’ cases and wonder why we should support defending so-called ‘trash,’ but even there, the two old adages apply: one, Voltaire’s ‘I disapprove of with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it,’ and two, Martin Niemöller’s famous ‘First they came for the communists…’ statement.”
Save the perverts, save the world.
Publishers whose publications include nothing of the cape-and-tights variety have their own organizations, many of which also try to influence court decisions that affect their ability to do business. The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), for example, was part of a coalition of groups that resisted a “pornography” ban that would have prevented Maryland’s public libraries from carrying any books containing sexually explicit material. The IBPA is also one of the largest organizations for small publishers, with about 4,000 members.
Unlike the CBLDF, however, legal advocacy is not the primary service provided by the IBPA. Steve Carlson, one of the IBPA’s directors, noted that the “IBPA has sometimes been criticized for not storming in with lawyers to fight against clear injustices.” He went on to explain that the IBPA offers all the support that it can to cases where small publishers’ interests are at stake, but that it does not have the resources to pursue protracted court cases.
Partly this is because there are other, much larger forces at work in any case that has the potential to redefine an important point of law. Despite their early successes protecting speech, it remains to be seen whether small organizations like the CBLDF or IBPA, even acting in concert with similar groups, can win the kind of watershed cases that they must if they are to become stewards of their industry.
Google has just settled the lawsuit brought against it by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) over its digitization of several university libraries’ collections. The AAP, representing most of the major publishers in the United States, was able to bring Google to the negotiating table — after seven years of litigation. It is doubtful that any coalition of small presses could accomplish the same feat, if only for lack of resources.
The uncomfortable truth is that the publishing industry, taken as a whole, is not the biggest player in information. Companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google are the new titans, and they have shown that their interests are not the same as those of publishers of any scale. While legal funds and small press trade associations have won significant victories, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the decline of major publishers does not result in a commensurate decline of influence for the industry as a whole. Furthermore, most of the victories won by small organizations are First Amendment cases that the big players tend to support; there is no strong track record of small organizations winning cases that clearly further the interests of small publishers.
Saving the perverts might not be enough. If decentralized publishing is to exist independently of traditional publishers and still defend itself against the predation of wild Googles, the defense fund concept will have to be greatly expanded. As things stand, it looks like the decline of traditional publishing will only result in a power vacuum that companies like Google will quickly fill. — Evan Sehr
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Fishing Boats #1 by J.G. in S.F. on Flickr
If you’re a self-published author, does it make any sense for you to mount a traditional book launch, like so many traditional publishers do for their authors?
Sure it does. Here’s how I recommend you do it: Make a list of everything traditional publishers do for their author launches – book tours, banner ads, launch parties, giveaways, contests, the whole bit. Treat this list like a really sensitive, classified government document. By that I mean take a Sharpie and cross out most of it, because most of it’s probably not going to work for you.
Let’s take the idea of a launch apart. Your publisher pumps out hardbacks for you in the exact same way they do for all their other authors. You just hope your newly minted publicist has a second to send out some press releases far enough in advance of your launch date that newspapers will help you out with a review, or at least a calendar listing for your launch party. After that you just hope you can sell a few copies at readings while your book is still new and fresh on everyone’s minds. Because the publisher is footing the bill for all this targeted PR, and you already know that by the first of next month no one will remember your name or your book. For self-published authors – or even authors published traditionally by small presses – the traditional launch idea makes no sense.
What is going to work? Not some list developed for Every Author. Not even the word “launch.” What works is for you to sit down and think about what marketing means to you, what you are and are not willing to do in the name of selling your book, and what you want your outcome to be (how many books do you want to sell, in which marketplace, in which format, and to whom)?
It’s a lot of thinking, but remember you’re relieved of the bane of the traditional author’s existence. There’s no big push of corporate PR money to make the most of, so there’s no need to line all your efforts up to one magical date. There are no piles of hardbacks on the first table anybody sees as they walk into the bookstore, so there’s no need for a critical mass of people to go and buy those loss leaders before the bookstore sends them back to be pulped. And rather than a quick-burst launch that annoys everybody, your marketing can be one long, smooth, sustained ride on a boat built just for you.
Traditional launches are all about the beginning. Presumably your brand-new book hits the stores the same day you’re on Oprah talking about it, then you fly all over the country for a couple weeks on a book tour and series of readings. When the tour’s over — whether successful or not — so is your book. You’re yesterday’s news. If you’re lucky, your local bookstore may agree to have you once or twice more for small readings, if you already spend lots of money there and promise to pack the place with every friend you’ve had since the third grade.
If you’re not with a Big Six publisher, it doesn’t work this way. There’s no launch, no Oprah, no tour. But what you get in return is complete control, the opportunity to design the ride your book will have from its birth until you decide to lay off promoting it. The upside is that you can plan and learn and direct the whole marketing experience… and the downside is that you have to plan and learn and direct the whole marketing experience. Like it or not, you’ve got your own ship now. You need to learn not only how to launch it, but also to navigate it through uncharted waters and bring it in for a safe landing.
If you’re publishing today, you need a holistic approach, one that gives marketing as much import to the overall book experience as plot or character development. This is true whether you’re trying to get just your friends to read your book or you want to make 600,000 new friends to buy it. It’s true whether you like the thought of selling books or would rather clean out the cat box than try to sell anybody anything.
Also my BFF Kim made this amazing cake.
This holistic approach means you control when things happen. This is probably the most important part, and when I self-published my novel, this is the part I absolutely did not get. When my book came out, I had a party at a tiki bar owned by my friend Don. Dave came down from Kentucky to do a live performance at the party, which my friend Bayard filmed, and we called it my trailer. Diane, one of four friends who had worked for free as my developmental editor, wrote a fantastic review, which Kati, features editor at our local Gannett daily, ran in the Sunday Books section because I’ve known her for 25 years.
And that’s it. I did a couple of readings after that, but nothing sustained, nothing thought-out. I sold a few hundred copies, but basically my novel went nowhere – not surprising, because I’d never planned out where I wanted it to go.
At the time I was reading articles by Steve Almond, who appeared on a panel about DIY Publishing at the Brattleboro Literary Festival last fall. Almond traditionally published some of the best short stories I’ve ever read for 10 years, then had an idea for a craft book of essays and short fiction at which his agent and editors turned up their collective noses.
At the panel, Almond told the audience he got tired of “waiting for the bad parents of NY to say yes to me.” So he self-published with the Espresso Book Machine at the Harvard Bookstore, and wrote about the experience for Poets & Writers and other magazines. He was writing about becoming disillusioned with traditional publishing, about breaking out of the box, at precisely the time I was starting to think about not bothering to get into the box in the first place. I thought if somebody as cool as him could do it, it might work for me. I used his pieces as my own personal guide to self-publishing. (Notably, he didn’t write much about marketing. When I asked him about it at the panel, he said he hates it and spends a little time on it as possible.)
Almond funded his last book tour himself by loading boxes in the back of his car and hitting bookstores within driving distance of his house and his (traditional) publisher’s; offered pre-launch discounts to diehard fans; and makes sure to send out email updates with the latest news in his career as well as DIY publishing and political/literary news. He treats his self-published books like the little works of art they are, selling them in person, at readings, for $10 using what he calls the “Drug Deal Model.” He’s good at marketing different types of books in completely different ways, and leans a lot on literary magazines for support.
Almond’s approach is just that: his. It’s not the marketing prescription so many people at the panel were clamoring for. It’s his boat. We all need to build our own.
Here’s what I could have done with my book: Instead of one launch party, I could have had six parties a year, in ever-widening circles around my hometown, in bookstores or bars or people’s houses. Or I could have saved all the marketing stuff up for a month when I could afford to focus solely on that one thing, and put books in the back of my car and finance my own reading series under the guise of visiting friends and family. Or I could have refused to travel at all and created a blog tour, Skyped any book group that would have me and done video readings. Or I could stage parts of the book as a one-act play and film friends acting out parts of it for a new trailer. Or I could have tweeted as my characters or something – anything really, so long as there’s a plan.
So much is happening in both the printing and marketing of books so fast that I have more options now than I did just a year ago. For my next book, there’s a new service called Plympton that I just backed through Kickstarter, that I could use to serialize chapters and build my book’s fan base before ever publishing. Let’s say I have a fictional character I’m not sure what to do with. There are about a dozen sites now that use crowdsourcing to inform what I might do to or with that character – and that can’t help but build my audience for the novel just a little bit.
There are now a couple of different options for me to use to make mp3s of me reading chapters that I could sell or serialize as the book’s audio version. Maybe I could use a new service called Oyster, which picked up $3 million in venture funding a few months ago to grow into the “Spotify of ebooks.” Or I could use a service I just found for public radio where you can upload mp3s to try to get them noticed by producers. At the moment I’m fascinated with the idea of renting a storefront for a month that’s decorated like the world of my novel and using the space to do readings, sell books, show videos and throw themed dinner parties.
And/or I could use another service called Writer Cube – it’s in beta testing now and looks kind of amazing. Writer Cube offers online tutorials on publishing, public relations and the business side of writing as well as a way to track my book sales on an interactive U.S. map. I can also use Writer Cube to track my personal writing and selling goals and get coaching and advice, and I can use its “My Audience” tab to keep track of my facebook and twitter stats. Looks like there’s lots more to come, too.
The next book might also be a good time to take advantage of the fact that print books and ebooks are so different that they probably require completely different marketing approaches. For instance, it might be just fine that my print books only sell a couple of hundred copies to friends who pick it up in indie bookstores — if my ebook is making a killing online because I’ve suddenly gotten so good at getting reviews, doing blog tours and skype interviews and selling on my website that the pdf it cost me nothing to produce is bringing in big bucks (maybe not likely, but could happen).
But only holistic planning and sustained effort are going to get me any of that. The days of following somebody else are gone.
Here’s one thing I know for sure. For our next books – whether we’re self-published, traditionally published, ebook-only or broadsheet printed out of the back of the garage — all of us are going to need the same thing: bigger, better boats. (Note to self: also cakes.) —Kim MacQueen
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Writers’ magazines exist to help us deal with rejection, to create engaging characters, to congratulate/commiserate with friends. They don’t exist to see into the future. The trouble is, these days, we don’t really need more information on how to deal with rejection. We’ve actually got a lot of information at our fingertips about plot and character and get plenty of notice when people we’re jealous of publish books we wish we’d written. These days we need that future. And the writers’ magazines…they’re not up to the task right now.
Case in point: When they sent me last November’s issue of Poets & Writers in the mail (which is nice of them, because I forgot to pay for my subscription again), I saw there on the letters page a lovely photo of Emma Straub, who was profiled in the October issue. She’s a young novelist and the friend of a friend.
The letter is from one Leslie McIntyre of Brooklyn. She points out that the Straub feature “painted the author as an energetic, proactive, and unflaggingly optimistic writer whose experiences have much to teach writers in their pursuit of publication” — things P&W editors know we need to hear over and over again because it so soothes our poor wretched writer souls: Keep sending out your work, be professional, Straub got plenty of rejections before making it big, frame your rejection letters, keep your chin up, etc.
But. It would have been nice, McIntyre continues, to know a little bit more about what Straub did after publication. She apparently knows her way around a promotional campaign, as P&W praised her “exhaustive legwork” on it — but didn’t ask her what it was she actually did.
McIntyre noted that the Straub feature “offered few specific details regarding Straub’s efforts, but inquiring minds want to know: What can authors do to pick up the slack where their publishers leave off? And in a world where self-publishing is a cheaper, easier and more widely accepted venture than ever before, how can authors reach their readers without the guidance and funding of a publishing house?”
I know MacIntyre’s asking for a lot here, but wow. We natives are getting restless. I want to know all that stuff too.
That’s why I subscribe to P&W — and I think it’s also why I keep forgetting to pay my subscription bill — I pick the magazine up for insight into the publishing world, but I tend to put it down after a few minutes, after one too many stories about writers who toiled in obscurity until they finally entered that contest, finally met that agent who clicked with them, finally did that last magical thing, whatever it was, after so many years of scraping and hoping, and the door of the publishing world finally opened for them. The message is: Here’s the door, keep knocking, eventually someone’s got to open the damn thing.
But we know where the door is, see. We can see the door, and we can see it’s closed way too often, and we get that we need to keep knocking, we do. But at the same time we can damn well see there are lots of other doors on that same street (self-publishing, micropublishing, digital-only, etc., if you’re following along with this very labored analogy so far) and they’re looking pretty good.
What we readers need is more information about happens when we get through one of those doors. Any of them. Even if we land a traditional publishing contract, we know by now that if we really want to sell books, a lot of that legwork falls on us. We just would like to know what that legwork is exactly. If we want an online presence that’s worth a damn, we will probably need to float that as well, as traditional publishing still seems to view author websites as annoying trifles nobody really needs to deal with. Cool. How do we do that?
We know we’re supposed to go on book tours, but we have also heard through the grapevine that they’re really expensive and publishers don’t like to pay for them anymore and nobody shows up for book tour appearances anyway. We’ve got that information — we just don’t know what to do with it. We need a plan. A good one.
If, say, we don’t all land traditional contracts, what then? What criteria are best to use when actually making the choice to go indie, and once we’ve made that choice, how do we know what to do? How do we know who to hire to help us get our books together and who’s just trying to rip us off? (And: Are any of those contests important? What’s an ISBN and why do I need one? etc.) This is all assuming we’ve already figured out what our books are going to be about and how we’re going to write them.
The future of publishing isn’t bright — it’s deep and dark, kind of like a black hole. That’s why we’re bringing you the SETI blog — The Search for Intelligent Life in the Publishing Universe. We’d like this site to be an oracle of sorts. Ask us a question, and we’ll look into the crystal ball for an answer.
Sometimes that’s just a matter of looking just down the road at somebody who’s doing publishing in a whole new way, and sharing their stories. Sometimes it’s a matter asking people with loads of traditional publishing experience what they see when they look into the future. More often than not we will ask Champlain College students, and more often than not they’ll have spot-on answers. (Of course, sometimes we’ll just Google your question and see what kind of answer we can come up with. You just never know. That’s how the oracle works.)
We can guarantee we won’t tell you to frame your rejection letters, though. You already know that. — Kim MacQueen
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Five years ago, a first-year student in the Professional Writing Program named Kayleigh Blanchette put up her hand in the first-semester Introduction to the Writing Profession class.
“I have an idea for a writing business,” she said, not exactly timidly, but not exactly boldly, either. She, after all, had been at Champlain for maybe five weeks.
As the teacher, I was delighted to hear one of my students thinking so entrepreneurially so soon, and asked her about her idea.
Well, she said, the nursing homes and retirement communities and long-term care facilities in the area were full of people with a lifetime of stories, but in many cases they had nobody to listen to them–and, perhaps more importantly, nobody to record them so they wouldn’t be lost.
“I love asking people about their lives, and listening to their stories,” she explained. Her proposal was to go into such residential settings and invite people to tell her their life stories. She would be their amanuensis, their scribe, their stand-in granddaughter. She would use her listening, interviewing, writing and editing skills to pull their memories into a book–which could be sold, if it was intended for a mass readership, or simply passed on to children and grandchildren. My mother, in the waning months of her life, did something very similar, and left copies for each of her grandchildren.
As we discussed the idea in class, it struck us that this project might lead to an entirely new kind of book: a multigenerational, aggregating book. The original text could be passed on to the members of the family’s next generation, who could add their own stories in turn, like recipes being recorded in the family Bible.
Another option would be a wedding story album. When the wedding invitations are sent out, they could include an invitation to send the writer stories of one or both of the happy couple-to-be. One memento of the wedding, then, might be a photo album; another might be a collection of stories. And again this could be passed down generation by generation to create a family history that unfolds like a concertina of postcards.
Well, now I have an update, an idea and a history coming full circle. Over the next few weeks, the aforementioned Kayleigh Blanchette, now a graduate of our program, will be contacting the nursing homes and retirement communities and long-term care facilities in the area. When invited, she’ll be going into these settings to run life story-telling workshops on behalf of the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. She’ll finally have the chance to ask people their life stories, and people will finally have the chance to tell them.
For more information, contact Kayleigh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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