Stephanie Laurens and the Next Generation of Publishing

Stephanie Laurens’s terrific keynote address from this year’s Romance Writers of America conference is really worth reading. I won’t say it contains earthshaking revelations, but it does lay out the current state of publishing and its prevailing trends in a very clear way — including some great graphics. In so doing, it makes reassuring points about the new centrality of the author.

Laurens does seem somewhat of two minds on the future of the traditional publishing industry — what she calls “offline publishing.” On the one hand, she emphasizes the herculean task that lies ahead of such publishers as they try to adapt:

offline publishers are, unsurprisingly, seeking to transition into the online industry. To successfully transition, a previously offline publisher needs to accomplish two feats — first, refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business, and second, convince authors of their worth in what is emerging as a fiercely competitive field. Those two feats form the challenge that lies squarely before offline publishers wishing to transition into the online sphere.

Two aspects of that challenge deserve special mention. First, remember how things were in the offline industry — author sells her work to publisher. In the online industry, publisher sells its services to author. That is a 180-degree turn around in relationship.

I know many authors are having difficulty getting their heads around that, and unsurprisingly offline publishers are having an even harder time grappling with the change, but to claim a position in the online industry, offline publishers must embrace and internalize this attitudinal switch. (accessed 7/27/12, my emphasis)

Pretty tough tasks, eh? Especially the one I’ve highlighted, which demands alteration of the entire publishing business model. Ouch. How many of you got to “refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business” and thought, Hot damn, is that all?!?

On the other hand, Laurens closes with the idea that authors of the future will have a variety of distribution choices:

author –> readers;

author –> retailers –> readers;

author –> publisher –> readers;

author –> publisher –> retailers –> readers.

See the word “publisher” cropping up a couple times in those options? The speech has just done an awfully good job of explaining the wrenching changes publishers will have to make to stay relevant … and yet they’ll remain a viable distribution option?

Well, maybe. Or maybe the publishers Laurens envisions participating in these future distribution chains are not the same entities that lay claim to the “publisher” title right now, and she’s just too nice and tactful to say so. Perhaps the publishers of tomorrow will be the patricide offspring of today’s struggling industry — companies that don’t have to change themselves because they’re brand new.

Mark Coker, Agency Pricing, and The Indie Surge

Check out Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s blog post on the big sales/profit advantage indie authors now enjoy (thanks to The Passive Voice for the link).

One thing Coker says raises again for me the question of whether the agency model, with its artificial inflation of traditionally published ebook prices, may actually have been a good thing for the growth of indie publishing:

If an author can earn the same or greater income selling lower cost books, yet reach significantly more readers, then, drum roll please, it means the authors who are selling higher priced books through traditional publishers are at an extreme disadvantage to indie authors in terms of long term platform building. The lower-priced books are building author brand faster.  Never mind that an indie author earns more per $2.99 unit sold ($1.80-$2.10) than a traditionally published author earns at $9.99 ($1.25-$1.75). (accessed 7/26/12)

Indies are selling a lot of units because their prices are so much lower. That means they actually account for a far bigger part of the book-selling pie than you’d realize if you quote the usual 30% share, which is based not on units sold but on sales in dollars. Selling more units = introducing more readers to your brand. Add to that benefit something Coker doesn’t mention — many indie writers are able to put books out there (i.e., grow their product line) much more quickly than they could were they publishing traditionally — and you end up with a pretty big head start over traditionally published competitors. Especially during a quasi-global recession.

So wouldn’t anything that magnifies that advantage be good for indies? And hasn’t the agency model done just that by artificially inflating the prices of traditionally published ebooks? I think the only way to believe this hasn’t happened is to think that books simply don’t compete with one another. And you know, I’d love to think that books are somehow outside the competitive marketplace, that readers don’t purchase on a budget, weighing our precious artworks thusly: Hm, I could buy this book for $12.99 or these four books for $2.99. Sure, I wish books transcended such base calculations, but I really doubt they do.

Would indie publishing have made such amazing strides over the last few years if traditionally published ebooks had been more reasonably priced, starting in 2010? Dunno, but I suspect the vast price differential has something to do with The Indie Surge, and that the agency model may have been busily putting the nails in the coffin of traditional publishing these last few years — quite the opposite of its intended effect.

There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Writing

I mean this very literally, and it’s something I tell my students all the time: there’s no such thing as “good” writing. Sometimes they’ll nod and say something like, “Yeah, it’s all subjective. Every person likes different stuff and interprets things differently.” But that’s not what I mean. Writing does have quality norms, and those norms matter. A lot. But norms are not the same as “good” and “bad” as essential labels.

Here’s what I mean. We all know what I’m talking about when I say “writing,” but it’s actually not all that practical to think of writing as a single thing. In actuality, writing is contextual, situational — it’s writings, plural. Business writing is quite different from literary writing, which is quite different from a cell-phone text, which is quite different from journalism, which is quite different from scientific writing, which is quite different from ad copy. A piece of writing that’s labeled “good” in one of these areas might be considered “bad” if it gets uprooted and plopped down in another. This specificity explains why it can be so difficult to transition from one kind of writing to another: writers internalize the norms of the kind of writing they usually do and then bring those norms with them to new situations in which they may not work so well.

Sure, you may say, the big things may differ, but the same basic mechanical rules apply across the board.

That’s reasonably (though not entirely) true, but mechanics are not the most important stuff when it comes to writerly success: if the mechanics of a piece of writing are a mess, it’s not going to be readable, but a piece of writing can be mechanically clean and still suck. In short, reasonably solid mechanics are essential for a high-quality piece of writing, but they’re not what make a piece of writing high-quality. The more global features are what do that, and global features are highly contextual.

Why does all this matter? Pragmatically speaking, it matters when you try to write in a new discipline or genre. If you import norms from your old genre, you might get burned, so make sure you analyze your target genre and pick up any important differences. Also, it means new kinds of writing come with learning curves, so you shouldn’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the swing of things. Philosophically speaking, it’s nice to recognize that talking about writing as “good” and “bad” (which we all do) is merely a shorthand for what you really mean: “good” writing is writing that satisfies or exceeds the needs or expectations of the target audience within its genre or discipline, and “bad” writing is writing that fails to do that.

So, what does it mean to be “a really good writer”? In my book, a really good writer is someone who can identify and adjust to the norms  and expectations of different kinds of writing. That means the essential characteristics of a “really good writer” are perception and flexibility.

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 2

Here’s a quickie, and it’s actually about prefixes, not words: bi- and semi-. The old way, now dying:

If you wanted to describe something that happens every other year, you’d say it’s bi-annual or biennial.

If you wanted to describe something that happens twice a year, you’d say it’s semi-annual.

Bi-annual (and other bi- words … bi-monthly, bi-weekly, etc.) is replacing semi-annual, which is too bad, since the word is also retaining its original “every other” meaning. That means we’re losing the ability to distinguish quickly and easily between two rather different temporal characteristics. Nevertheless, it is happening — c’est la vie.

But it hasn’t quite finished happening yet. Some people still follow the old ways, so think before you bi-!

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 1

Today’s topic: words that are experiencing definition drift, but aren’t yet fully unmoored from their original meaning. That means you can “misuse” them without most people realizing it, but some pedantic subset of readers/listeners will snicker up their sleeves at you.

Here are two prime offenders:

1) Nauseous. Most people think of this word as synonymous with “nauseated,” as in, “I’m feeling nauseous this morning.” What does it/did it actually mean? “Nauseating,” as in, “I passed a nauseous car accident on the way to work.” So every time someone says, “OMG, I’m so nauseous today!” the pedants might think, “with that kind of vocabulary, you sure are!”

2) Disinterested. Many people think of this word as synonymous with “uninterested,” but it actually means “unbiased.” This one isn’t as far gone as “nauseous,” so beware.

That’s all for now, but I’ll probably rinse and repeat as I think of new examples.