How it really feels to close a bookshop

Field's Wattpad profile page.
Field’s Wattpad profile page.

Bookseller Greg Field is an inspiration. While he closed the NSW bookstore he has run for 10 years, Sunset Books, last week in the face of tough economic realities, Field has also posted the first third of his new mystery novel on global story sharing community Wattpad and launched an app business. His is a story that demonstrates what can be achieved as the book industry faces dramatic change, as he explains …

When did you decide to close Sunset Books, how long had you been pondering it, and what were the key reasons behind your decision?

The moment? I’m not sure when exactly but I knew things at the shop had to change by Christmas 2012. By January 2013 I knew it was over. The key reasons for closing my beloved Sunset Books were like this:

  • Given the rapid change in the publishing world recently I was keenly aware that my shop had to stay both relevant and profitable. It stayed relevant but it didn’t stay as profitable as it needed to be. Bookselling is damn hard work; it takes energy, passion, drive, intelligence and business skills just to stay afloat as a ‘bricks and mortar’ bookseller right now (well anytime actually – but right now is harder). I never made a loss as a bookseller but things were getting too hard for me to justify continuing. Bookshops are not public amenities, they have to make money – and mine was making less and less every year.
  • I wanted a change. I’m a person who embraces change and I’ve been working as a bookseller for over ten years now. I’m ready for new ventures – so bring it on!

What would you say to a friend who said they were planning to open and bricks and mortar bookstore in the current climate?

Not all bookshops are in the same position as mine. There’s still a place for relevant and profitable bricks and mortar bookshops in Australia. I have the greatest respect for the lovely people that front up at their bookshop’s every day and try to make ends meet. But – to repeat – bookselling is hard work and to succeed you have to be passionate and inspired. If they had the desire and the business plan right, then I would advise my friend to approach with caution. I would recommend they seriously consider both the state of physical retail and the state of publishing in Australia before sinking their ‘hard earned’ into a bookshop.

Did you consider running an online only version of Sunset? Or going into ebook sales? If not, why not?

I did briefly consider an online only version of Sunset but knocked back the idea because I’m not in love with my own brand. I inherited the name ‘Sunset Books’ from the previous owner and if I did go into an online only business I would consider starting a brand from scratch.

I tried ebook sales but found it difficult. There are a number of obstacles for the average bookseller wanting to morph into an ebook seller. Firstly, you’re taking on a massive market and numerous powerful competitors. Most bricks and mortar retailers need to learn new skills to create a successful online business. Even if they already have those skills, the nature of selling ebooks puts you toe to toe with marketing giants and there are issues surrounding both price (product and platform) and DRM which can inhibit success.

You’ve said you might consider opening another bookstore one day. Under what circumstances?

I’ve always loved dealing with people face to face, and one of the greatest joys for a bookseller is being able to assess a person ‘in the flesh’ and recommend an appropriate book. While search engines and social media are good ways to discover a new book, there is something very human and magical being able to have this type ‘real time’ interaction.

My personal opinion is that ‘bricks and mortar’ retail has to progress to a place where either:

  • Customers are prepared to pay a premium for the physical interaction and experience of browsing. (Currently I don’t think they are.)
  • Or, internet retailers have to expand to include physical experiences for their customers.

If I felt the business plan was viable, I would consider re-opening a physical bookshop under one or both of those circumstances.

You had some fun with the closing down sale by updating us all via social media on which books were last to sell. Did this help boost sale sales? Were there some surprises?

Ummm, no, I don’t think it helped boost sales. But it did help me stay sane and not yell at people when they walked in wild eyed and started the inevitable set of ‘but why’ ‘you can’t’ what’ll I do now?’ ‘what’ll you do now?’ ‘the internet is killing us all’ conversations.

The Twitter hashtag #lastbookstanding was really just a distraction for me as things came to an end. Predictably, children’s books sold out early. I was interested to see that hardcore reference books (dictionaries, etc) sold out even before children’s. I thought Google had killed most of that – but no… not yet.

I was shattered when my two long term favourites (a dog eared Robert Pattinson bio and ‘Your Horoscope 2011’) were knocked out of the running on the last day. For the record, I was left with only three titles on my ‘everything one dollar’ final day: ‘Top Stocks 2010’, Cliff Notes for Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Drama Classics Notes for Ibsen’s ‘The Dolls House.’ I assume the last two were not on this year’s syllabus.

What will happen to Sunset’s social media channels now?

I’ve switched my Twitter handle from @sunsetbooks to @GregPField and I’ll close down the shop’s Facebook page.

You’ve been an early adopter of new technologies (social media, apps etc) while bookselling. Has this played a role in your decision to move on?

I guess so, I’m excited by the possibilities opening up via the ‘digital revolution’.

How did Lazy Dad Studios come about? Any upcoming apps we should know about?

Lazy Dad’s was the result of my quest to create an app. I started investigating ebooks about the same time I got my first iPhone and I immediately realised ebooks could be apps and vice versa. From that point I’ve used many apps and started investigating how to build them.

Recently, I got together with an old uni friend of mine who is now a full time coder and we started Lazy Dad Studios. Our first app, Words4Cards is about to be released, it’s a collection of occasion appropriate quotes and sayings categorised into ‘Funny Birthday’ ‘Inspirational Birthday’ ‘Get Well Soon’ etc. Each quote has a direct link to Twitter, Facebook and email. Just for fun we also threw in a ‘shake for random’ feature which ended up working like ‘Magic 8 Ball’ except instead of – ‘concentrate and ask again’ you get Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde.

You’ve used Wattpad to publish your novel Death on Dangar Island. Why Wattpad? How have you found it as a platform for promoting your work?

I’ve posted the first third of Death on Dangar Island on Wattpad so far. Posting publicly has helped me focus on editing the manuscript to the best of my ability. I love writing and hate editing, so I can get lazy when it comes to going over my work and tightening it up. Posting on Wattpad in small sections helps me get through that.

The story is a murder mystery and I would love people to start reading it and trying to figure out who the killer is, but promoting my work and building a platform using Wattpad is actually secondary at this stage. The user interface on Wattpad is good, they make it easy to post and edit your story. I think of it as a working version of the manuscript available for public scrutiny and comment.

Are Lazy Dad Studios and writing your main gigs these days? Any other work/projects on the cards?

Yes, at the moment. I have some ideas about the future of book retailing that I would be interested to work on down the track.

I reckon booksellers are exactly the kinds of people who can succeed in the world of digital publishing. Would you agree, and if so, why?

Experienced booksellers could make ideal digital publishers; they have business skills, the marketing skills and an eye for a decent book. Many traditional booksellers would have to make an adjustment to the digital world if they wanted to participate, although there are some I can think of that would be ideally suited to the role.

Many of us feel torn between lamenting the demise of the book world we’ve known and loved, yet embrace emerging opportunities in the sector.  What will you miss the most about your ten years running Sunset, and what do you look forward to most about this brave new era in your life?

The smell of the place, the splendid, slowly moving panorama of covers and titles. Friendly customers sauntering through, stopping every now and then to inspect a title that’s taken their fancy. Little children laughing with glee as they run through the doors. The warm, intelligent people that have been my colleagues and peers. That’s the good stuff.

I look forward to working hard at something fresh and new and to the challenges and opportunities that arise from my current projects.

(Phew – that was a cathartic experience.)

 

 

New Direction, New Momentum

Plenty of things have been happening in the world of ebooks over the past few weeks, but for the first time I’ve been too busy working on an exciting project of my own to post about them. That project is Momentum, a new digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia, which was announced today. As a publisher for Momentum, I’ll be looking for books to publish globally, from writers who are digitally savvy, switched on to the possibilities of electronic publishing and, perhaps most importantly, know how to tell a good story.

Momentum will be launching in February 2012 with a truly amazing stable of frontlist authors. I am honoured to get the chance to work with each of these writers, and I look forward to the opportunity to work with new and established authors alike in the future.

We also want to hear from authors who have older titles that are out of print or yet to be digitised who want to inject new life into their old books. There are potentially thousands of books out there that can no longer be accessed online or off and no longer provide an income for the authors who wrote them. Momentum will give these writers the opportunity to breathe new life into previously published work and make them accessible for a new audience of digital readers.

Accessibility is going to be the name of the game for Momentum. Momentum ebooks will be available globally and at an affordable price. The Smell of Books has provided me with a wonderful excuse to listen to digital readers, and I think there is a lot I can do to make the relationship between readers and publishers as open as possible. This is going to be a tremendously exciting time, so I hope you’ll spread the word and contribute your thoughts, ideas and hopefully your books!

As part of this new direction, I’ll be shifting the Smell of Books to a new independent location. I’ll still be blogging on all things bookish, digital and tech, but as the demands of Momentum will be a bigger drain on my time, I’d like to make room for new voices here at Booku. If you’d like to keep up with the Smell of Books, please head over to www.thesmellofbooks.com where I’ll continue to post rants, analysis and news about the digital publishing world. You can also follow me on Twitter @joelnaoum. It’s been a blast, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the people here at Booku and Boomerang Books, especially Clayton Wehner and my fellow bloggers over at Boomerang.

To find out more about Momentum, visit the website at www.momentumbooks.com.au and follow Momentum on Twitter @momentumbooks.

 

The Reader Symposium

About a month back I attended the Queensland Writers Centre’s The Reader symposium.

I’ll admit that I had to look up what a ‘symposium’ was, precisely, having assumed it was a fancy word for a conference or conversation but, not actually having attended one before, not being entirely sure. Thanks to the Macquarie Dictionary, I can now confirm that it is, as I suspected, a fancy word for a conference or conversation.

I was also intrigued as to how this symposium was going to approach the topic of the reader—the third but oft-forgotten figure in the trifecta that includes the writer and the publisher. It is, after all, a fairly elusive concept, especially in the current Chicken Little climate, which is seeing the publishing industry run around like headless chooks claiming that their sky is falling down.

The ridiculous panic is another blog altogether, and one I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm for right now. Let’s just say that as a Gen Y on the cusp of Gen X and nowhere near the Baby Boomer age bracket, I see ebooks not as the death knell for life as we know it, but as another reading opportunity that will see us read more and might even get some non-readers in the door.

But, given that I didn’t know what to expect from said symposium, I came away with some food for thought—not least talk about how we could play a ‘reader’ drinking game, knocking back shots for every mention of such words as ‘physical book’, ‘game changer’, ‘ebook’, ‘the smell of books’. It earned a few chuckles, as we all hunkered down for a day of debating the apparent reading revolution.

Some of the other gems I learned included (in no particular order):

  • The future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed (this is a quote, but from whom I’m not sure).
  • A few years ago, electronic publishing was daggy—Stephen King abandoned his experiment in it and Amazon was originally mocked for the Kindle.
  • Authors no longer need publishers, but neither authors nor readers have abandoned the traditional publishing model—they’ve just expanded on the spectrum, if you like.
  • There’s still a publishing gate and gatekeepers—it’s just that the gate is no longer attached to a wall.
  • There’s been a shift towards community, which is why we’re talking about readers.
  • We have an ingrained need to tell stories that pre-dates the invention of the book and that will post-date it too.
  • The conversational style of Twitter leads people to say things in public that they shouldn’t.
  • Social media is about conversation—it’s not a one-way broadcast system—and readers expect it to go both ways.
  • The invention of the book allowed for private reading, as opposed to public, communal reading.
  • Health professionals used to consider reading novels the main cause for uterine disease (another example that truth is indeed stranger than fiction).
  • Our reading habits have changed. We used to be scuba divers, but these days we’re jetskiiers who skim and have a broader knowledge. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
  • We read websites like the letter F. If it’s important, don’t put it in the bottom right corner.
  • With the advent of technology and wifi in our homes, we have very little actual need to go out.
  • We’re attached not so much to the book, but to the sentimental values and memories and experiences we have while reading it.
  • As we’ve seen with Borders, books are not potatoes (teehee).
  • Libraries and bookshops have never really cannibalised each other before, and this is likely to continue.
  • You leave a little bit of yourself behind in a book (ewww).
  • Book buying can be determined by location. For example, if you’re in a physical book store, you’ll likely buy the physical book in front of you. If you’re at home and can’t be bothered going out, you’ll buy and download the ebook.
  • The book is a new technology—it’s just been around long enough that we don’t tend to think of it that way.
  • How do writers change the way they write for the digital environment? Write less (it got a laugh, but it’s true).

The symposium didn’t necessarily provide me with the answers I’m after about how the ebook war will turn out, but then nobody yet has them and we’re all kind of watching from the sidelines and waiting for the war to end and the dust to settle so we can move on. It’s frustrating for someone like me who doesn’t see this so much as a war but as an opportunity.

But, as I said above, that’s a blog I can’t be bothered writing right now. Until then, I’ll continue to ponder the gems the symposium threw out and remind myself that I now know what a symposium is.

Could ebook piracy boost sales?

Piracy is the bane of the digital content business, whichever way you look at it. If it didn’t happen, content producers wouldn’t spend so much time and effort pursuing it in a fashion that is almost as ethically dubious as the act itself. And if producers didn’t go to such lengths to protect their content, it’s likely piracy would be less of a problem.

Content publishers, be they music producers, movie studios, newspaper companies or book publishers, all seem to be virtually unanimous in their view that piracy is bad for business. These industries, via industry organisations like the RIAA, have spent millions of dollars trying to pursue illegal downloaders and ‘educate‘ people that piracy is bad through advertising.

Despite all this, people continue to pirate content. This in itself proves nothing except that people are greedy and willing to go to great lengths to get free stuff. Ethical problems aside, however, there is mounting evidence that piracy might actually encourage sales of certain digital products.

In a recent interview with Forbes Magazine (titled ‘Steal This E-Book’) Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, explained this argument:

… let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits.

The argument is basically this: the people who pirate content are not necessarily customers who were it otherwise would have paid money for what they downloaded. Given this, content producers can’t count each pirated download as a lost sale. If this is the case, in what way should content producers consider piracy?

Are content consumers who are not paying for content adding value? O’Reilly would argue they are. Utilising social networks and good old fashioned word of mouth, people who read pirated content help sell ebooks, in much the same way lending books and secondhand book stores help sales of paper books.

O’Reilly is not saying that piracy never hurts content producers, however. He argues that the damage is mostly focused on people (in this case authors) who have a ‘very desirable product’. We’re talking big name authors here who sell hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of copies. O’Reilly has actually written a paper about this called ‘Piracy is Progressive Taxation’, in which he posits that the trade-off from making content more available and visible is that the most desirable products are pirated more often (in the same way that tax brackets should – in theory at least – take more from the wealthy than the poor).

In a similar way, the exposure that you get from free content actually helps drive visibility and awareness for people who are unknown. So we’ve always sort of taken the approach that on balance it’s OK, and we’ve also taken the approach that it’s more important to establish social norms around payment. The way that you do that is by honoring people and respecting how they act, people pay us because they know that if we don’t get paid we don’t do what we do.

This business model seems quite flawed to the kind of publisher who stresses out every time one of their author’s books is discovered on a filesharing website. But there’s more than a grain of truth to it. Books in particular have always been a product that has subsisted on passion: passion from its producers (be they authors or publishers), passion from its sellers and passion from its consumers.

At the very least this issue deserves re-evaluation. Particularly at the low-end of publishing, as book publishers face increasing cuts to their midlist and more authors are dropped. In the case of these authors, at the very least, publishers and agents need to be forward thinking about piracy. As O’Reilly says: “If people wanted 10,000 pirated copies of a book, the publisher and the author would be very, very well off. If 10,000 people are willing to pirate it, there’s a very large number willing to pay for it.”

The Wisdom of Crowds

The inimitable Cory Doctorow‘s latest project, With a Little Help, is a self-conscious attempt at creating a book that not only bends the traditional rules of publishing and distribution, but of editing, marketing, sales and just about every other aspect of book publishing you can think of. Like a few of Doctorow’s other books, With a Little Help will be available as an ebook in various formats from his website for free (you can download it for free or buy a paper copy here). What’s different about this one, though, is that it is the author’s first foray into self-publishing. There’ll be a low-price print-on-demand paperback version, a special high-price limited edition hard cover, an electronic audio edition for free, and a low-price CD audio edition.

There are a lot of very interesting things to be learned from this project, and I could go on about it for hours, but what I’d like to concentrate on right now is one of the ways Doctorow was able to put the project together, which is laid out in the title of the collection: with a little help. But he didn’t just get help from his friends – he opened up donations in time, money and expertise to the open web in a way that is usually described as crowdsourcing.

Just a few examples: he offered one reader or group of readers the opportunity to commission one particular story for the collection (for the princely sum of $10,000), fans from other languages or who use unusual ereaders can translate or convert his books and have them posted up alongside the official versions, he crowdsourced proofreading (giving typo-spotters a shout out in the endnotes of the book), web design, cover design (there are multiple covers) and even book packaging (he’s using discarded burlap coffee sacks to cushion the high-end hardcovers en route!).

What I love about this project is the sheer audacity of it. There are so many moving parts, so many different levers and buttons that Doctorow decided to press for the hell of it along the way that will make it a very interesting prospect to track as it makes its way into the marketplace. The crowdsourcing aspect means that all of his readers and helpers are all sharing a little in the outcome of the book (though not, it is to be assumed, in the financial outcome – if there is one). It is a grand experiment – the kind of thing that a major publishing company should be able to do, but usually doesn’t. My question for everyone today is this: what do you think of all this crowdsourcing? Is it inevitable that the quality of the book will slip? Would you proofread a book for free if you got a credit at the end for any typos you found? What do you love or hate about this project? Let loose in the comments.

Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2

The following is the second part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor. You can find the first part here.

So, things are changing. But there are a lot of things we as editors can do to prepare ourselves.

We need to move away from the mental definition of a book being a printed object. Books are going to be different. Nobody knows exactly in what way, but the only way we can know what is going to work and what isn’t is to try new things. We need to experiment with publishing things that are probably not going to make much money, in the same way that we buy authors who aren’t going to make money because in three books’ time they might write a bestseller.

We also have to experiment with different kinds of reading. Below is a comment on a blog post I read recently about why someone would never want to start reading electronic books.

There is something about folding a paperback to snuggle down into the covers of a night. There’s something about being able to underline and use a highlighter for parts that stand out to you when reading and being able to put a date next to those. About being able to write notes with thoughts that have occurred when reading passages …

ALL this will no longer be possible if we lose the traditional book.

Books are my friends. Have been ever since I was young. They are an escape from life for a few hours to a distant land. A chance to grieve and mourn with others of a time long past when we read history …

Books in their printed hard or soft cover form also have something over the Kindle and other electronic forms of ‘books’. They will never run out of battery right in the middle of a really captivating part of the story, they can be read by anyone who can read the written language, so you don’t have to be up on the latest electronic gadgets. There is also the cost of a book compared to these newer readers.

Libraries also are WONDERFUL places to visit. The smells of the old books and the newer books as well.

I SO HOPE the paperbacks and hard covered books NEVER get taken away.

When I read this, I thought – what an idiot. And it’s not just because you can use a Kindle to write notes and highlight passages, or even that nobody is going to try and take printed books away  from anyone. It’s not even that line about books being the commenter’s friends. It’s because this kind of thinking is really common in the publishing industry, especially among editors.

And it is hubris to think that there is a right way and a wrong way to read books. Especially if you’re in the publishing industry. We are not passive consumers of books. Our choices help to define what a book is.

I know a whole lot of editors have ereaders already. But if you’re like the editors I know, you only use them so you don’t have to carry manuscripts around. When you want to relax with a book, you still curl up with the paper version.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for paper. There’s nothing wrong with this nostalgic, rosy-tinted view of books and reading. There’s also nothing wrong with thinking that books are your friends, either. But if you’re in the publishing industry, especially if you’re an editor, and you think of books in this protective ‘from my cold dead hands’ kind of way, then in less than five years time you’ll be ignoring the experience of a third of readers. And editors are supposed to be the reader’s advocate.

If we want to remain relevant, we need to innovate faster than our readers. We need to understand what readers want before they want it. Part of that is working out what kind of stories and content people want to read, and that’s something editors and publishers are already pretty good at. But another part of it is understanding how people want to read, and that’s not something we’ve had to think about for a long time. And if we start letting Amazon and Apple work that out for us, then we are going to end up working for Amazon and Apple. So we need to seek out new reading experiences, and try to understand them before they overtake us.

In our roles as author wranglers, we’re going to have to become, for some of our authors at least, the technology interpeter. If you’re not already familiar with the way Facebook and Twitter work, then it’s worth playing around with them. You can’t break the internet. Most authors in the next few years are going to have to develop a deep social networking presence, and if we want to remain relevant to them we have to know the answers before they start asking the questions.

Most of all, we need to learn to look past the limitations of technology and embrace the benefits. We no longer have the luxury of being precious about technology. It’s not worth focusing on the fact that you can’t read an ebook in the bath, or that you prefer the smell of paper books. The readers of the next ten years aren’t going to care about that. And if we want to publish books for those readers we need to know what they do care about.

And so to finish in the spirit of the structural edit, I just want to remind you that this is just my opinion – this is your industry. I eagerly anticipate your revisions.