Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Adapt or Die

I attended a webinar this morning hosted by StoneHouse Ink, publisher of my novels, THE LONELY MILE and PASKAGANKEE. Featured was Thom Kephart of Amazon, who gave an online presentation titled, "Maximizing your book and Kindle sales on Amazon."

The presentation was interesting and informative, and after the two hour session was over, I started thinking about how the subject matter dovetails perfectly with a fascinating blog post I read a couple of days ago by one of my favorite authors, Lawrence Block.

In his post, the entirety of which can be read here, Block talks about his foray into self-publishing, and how quickly the literary world is changing:

But bookstores were closing, and sales were down. Authors of mid-list books, many with lengthy backlists and no end of flattering reviews, found themselves cast adrift. Some of them were trying to do something about it.

I thought this was interesting. But I wasn’t having trouble getting published. I’d been doing what I do long enough, and had built enough of a following in the process, so that first-rate publishers were still willing to print and distribute my books, and to pay me decently for the privilege of so doing.

Still, I could see changes. My advances were down. And my books were getting harder to find. The new ones got shelf space, but the mass market backlist titles did not; for years my paperbacks filled two shelf sections at a Barnes & Noble, and then one day I stopped at a B&N and could only find one copy each of four titles. And it’s been like that ever since.

"My advances were down...my books were getting harder to find..."

These words weren't written by some newbie nobody struggling to find an audience. This is Lawrence freaking Block, a guy who has made a living by making stuff up and writing it down longer than many of us have been alive. A guy who has won awards, written bestsellers, created more unforgettable characters than any ten other authors.

Lawrence Block.

If Lawrence Block is having trouble maintaining a foothold in the traditional world of publishing/bookstores, what chance do the rest of us have? But here's the thing - Block may be advancing in age, but he's no dinosaur. Here's more from his post:

I moved very tentatively into self-publishing...The ebook of THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC went live the last day of September [2011]...The book covered its costs within the first month or so, and continues to sell well. It seems to me that I’ve already netted more from it than the modest advance a publisher might have shelled out, and from this point on I can market the book at least as effectively as a publisher would, can keep the price point where I think it should be, and will receive a significantly higher portion of every sale than would ever appear on a publisher’s royalty statement.

I realize you're not stupid, but I'm going to emphasize this statement, more to illustrate my sense of wonder than anything else: "I've already netted more from it than the modest advance a publisher might have shelled out..."

THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC is a book of Matthew Scudder short stories, and if you're a crime fiction fan, I need say no more. If you're not a crime fiction fan, I can only illustrate the enduring popularity of Matthew Scudder with the following numbers: He has been featured in eighteen separate books over the last four decades.

Again, if a guy like Lawrence Block could expect a "modest advance," and declining shelf space, for a book featuring a character like Matthew Scudder, what chance do the rest of us have in the world of traditional publishing?

Sure, some authors will hit it big, but for every Lee Child, there are a hundred or more Boyd Morrisons, who traditionally published THE ARK after phenomenal success self-publishing the same book, but who was cut loose by his U.S. publisher after more modest success with a couple of other books and is now back to self-publishing. If recent history is any indication, it will probably work out to his benefit.

All of which brings me back to my original point: This morning I attended a webinar designed to help me maximize sales at Amazon.

Amazon is a lightning rod, the eye of the storm when it comes to the disconnect between the proponents of "traditional publishing," and the proponents of "indie publishing."

These two groups view each other with a seemingly deep-seated mutual suspicion - when they're not openly hostile to each other - and I've never really understood why. I've always felt that more opportunities for writers can't possibly be a bad thing. And the more often well-known writers begin to realize they can make more money and have more of an impact by maintaining more control over their output, the more the barriers between the two worlds -I believe - will continue to break down.

On the other hand, as more bookstores close and more bestselling authors desert their traditional publishers, things may well become more nasty, not less, at least for the short term. As a book lover, I'm not happy to see bookstore after bookstore close.

But here's the thing: There's nothing I can do about that. I've tried to interest bookstores in my work, with absolutely no success. I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over the increasing irrelevence of an institution which has demonstrated zero interest in me. I'm not happy to see bookstores close, but on the other hand, I'm excited to welcome new readers, as Amazon and other e-retailers help me do that.

Adapt or die. Lawrence Block knows that. Other big-name authors are realizing it, too.

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