Q&A with Anna Valdinger from HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Today Anna Valdinger, Fiction Publisher from HarperCollins Publishers Australia answers 7 questions about publishing we readers have always wanted to know.

Does the designer have to read a book first before designing the cover?
No, and many designers don’t have time to read all the books they’re working on, although certainly sometimes they’ll read some of a manuscript to get a sense of the book’s tone – usually for fiction. The publisher will have given the designer a comprehensive brief which includes where the publisher sees the book sitting in the market and the type of book it is, comparative titles, and often visual motifs from the book that could work on the cover. I always ask my authors for their thoughts as well so that their vision for the book is included from the start. Some authors are very visual and will send over mood boards and others prefer to wait to see concepts that we’ll discuss. It’s a fascinating process to get to something that is artistically in line with the author’s (and designer’s) vision and that will also work commercially.

Anna Valdinger, Fiction Publisher HarperCollins Publishers Australia

What’s the most expensive kind of finishing for a book cover?
Probably a cut out. Those can be easily damaged and I don’t often use it. Flaps are expensive as well, though they look lovely. Foil is probably the more expensive option of the ones I tend to use. Emboss and spot UV on a matt finish are my favourites. I wish I could do more colour printing on inside covers but that can get pricey. Soft touch is amusingly divisive – some people find it quite creepy. (I’m definitely in the ‘soft touch is creepy’ crowd; it also shows your fingerprints quite easily).

Why do so many books have the text ‘A Novel’ after the title?
This is a convention that tends to happen mainly in the US. But sometimes if we are concerned that people will mistake a novel for non-fiction, either because of title or subject matter or the author’s profile, we might add it on. I prefer to make it clear through the cover treatment, title and shout line.

What are the blank pages at the end of a book for?
Books are printed in batches of 16 pages called an extent. So if a book has, for example, 8 pages of preliminary matter (title page, copyright page, dedication, list of other books by that author, and so on) and 383 pages of main text, you’ll have 391 pages plus 9 blanks to take it to a total extent of 400 pages. If you only go over an extent by a page you’ll have 15 blanks which is a lot, so usually you would see if you could save a page somewhere. Typesetters can do a lot to help here! We tend to use any blanks we have for things like ads for other books by that author or reading group questions.

Do readers still send fan mail to authors?
Certainly. Less so by snail mail these days although we do get post coming in for authors which we will forward on. Most people tend to connect with authors now via social media or the author’s website. Authors love to hear from their readers – it can be a lonely process to create a book from nothing, and to hear from someone that they enjoyed or were touched by the work is really special.

How does a bidding war between publishers start? Don’t authors have to submit their work to one publisher at a time? How do they engage in a bidding war?
You definitely don’t have to submit to one publisher at a time but it is courtesy to let people know your work is on multiple submission. If you have an agent they’ll usually submit to the major publishers all at once. Authors can do this too but not every publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts, and agents know which person is the best one to approach for a particular title. If one or more publisher is interested the agent will let the others know – at which point everyone can get competitive!
If more than one publisher makes an offer, then the author and agent will assess them and decide if they want to accept one or take it to an auction. These can take various forms but often include the publishers putting together marketing and publicity pitches to accompany the financial offer and – depending on convenience and geography – going in to meet with various publishers to get a sense of the team and which might be the best fit for them and their work. Publishers then put in their best offer and the author decides which to accept. It’s not always down to the money; sometimes you feel a certain publisher ‘gets’ you better than the others, and the author/publisher relationship is really important, both editorially and because the publisher is your and your book’s champion.

Which book has surprised you the most this year?
The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape. It’s rare to see a financial advice book take off in such a way but this one has sold 300,000 copies and almost all of that through chains and independent bookstores rather than through the big department stores. It’s a really impressive bit of publishing.
In fiction I am hugely excited about a book I acquired that will be coming out in March 2018. It’s a crime fiction novel, the first in a series by Perth writer Dervla McTiernan. It’s incredibly pacy and compelling and heartbreaking and tense – I couldn’t put it down and am still shocked that it’s a first novel and yet is so good. It’s called The Rúin – look out for it!

 

The Modern Magazine

The Modern MagazinePrint magazines are—contrary to the kind the-sky-is-falling-in predictions that always accompany the arrival of new media—not dead. They’re not even dying. They’re actually undergoing a bit of a vinyl-like renaissance.

Jeremy Leslie has picked up on this phenomenon and penned a solid, gorgeous print book to discuss the magazine industry context and its plays.

Entitled The Modern Magazine: Visual Journalism in the Digital Era, the book is a coffee table tome that pays homage to excellent magazine innovation and design. Organised logically and featuring stellar design itself, it features covers and spreads of some of the best designed, most beloved magazines around. It’s basically porn for magazine lovers’ eyes.

The word ‘magazine’, I learnt from Leslie’s book, is derived from a combination of the Arabic makhzan, meaning storehouse and the French magasin (shop). It also has connotations to magazine as in guns and bullets—that is, the sense that the magazine could explode people’s idea of content etc. through surprise.

As with books, I also found out from Leslie’s book, early magazines were only afforded by the wealthy, but came to become affordable for the masses. Later, the originally purely text-based magazines came to include images—a change that coincided with major 20th century cultural and political shifts. It’s this image-led aesthetic we are now familiar with, and magazines have become rich text and visual records of our times.

As a not-so-closet magazine (and book) lover, I can attest to that. Both timely and often timeless, magazines capture the here and now as well as represent a time capsule of culturally and historically significant events. Leslie documents all this and more.

Leslie’s writing style is brilliant and the information he imparts incredibly readable and salient. But it’s even possible to enjoy this book simply by flicking through its vibrantly designed pages. This is a man who understands communication design.

The Modern Magazine emerged from a blog Leslie writes about magazines and the publishing industry, so he spans multiple platforms and refreshingly doesn’t get caught up in the print-versus-digital dichotomy. New media doesn’t usurp old media, Leslie argues—the relationship and interplay is far more complex than that.

Technology, for example, has improved magazines by facilitating better layout, increased processing power, greater audience reach, and diversification of content in general. For example, Monocle magazine has opened coffee shops and set up a 24-hour radio channel—all of which feed back into, and create new opportunities for, the magazine and brand.

But, Leslie says, shiny, new technology isn’t immediately adopted by magazines—it has to earn its place and be adopted and adapted to suit the magazine rather than being treated as ‘new toy novelty’. Print, it turns out, is a rather robust interface not yet surpassed by superior digital ones.

Nor is Leslie anti-technology, noting, for example, that the newly allowed affordability of software means such wins as it’s easier than ever to produce magazines. We’re subsequently seeing a rise in independently published magazines—meaning things are on the up for magazines in general and innovation is at magazine development primacy.

Which is 500-odd words’ way of saying The Modern Magazine is a fantastic point-in-time examination and prediction of what’s to come in terms of magazines and their publishing and distribution practices and channels. And it offers some handy eye porn candy…

How to Launch a Magazine in this Digital Age

Dave EggersBespoke print magazines are undergoing something of a quiet-but-steady resurgence. At least, that’s the way it looks to me, admiring the works of such magazines as Cereal, Another Escape, and Smith Journal, and a few in between from afar.

(I mean, if you haven’t been following what’s happening with Bristol Independent Publishers (BIP), you’re missing out on envying some seriously cool creatives in a seriously cool, creative place, doing seriously cool, creative stuff.)

Which is why Mary Hogarth’s How to Launch a Magazine in this Digital Age drew my attention. Befittingly published in both print and electronic formats, the book is part textbook, part lay read. And it’s incredibly salient and useful.

The book was penned by a university professor aware of both the interest in publishing magazines but the common pitfalls befalling many magazine start-ups. It is, subsequently, a step-by-step guide to planning, funding, and publishing a magazine of choice.

How to Launch a Magazine in this Digital Age contains plenty of advice and more pressing questions to help you nut out whether your magazine idea truly has legs (or rather, whether you’ve thought through funding opportunities and avenues in order to see the magazine exist beyond the launch issue). The sobering fact that some 80 per cent of magazine failing in their first two years makes this a must-read, must-dog-ear kind of book.

Three of the questions it poses are:

1. Why this? Look at the gap in the market. How wide is it?

2. Why us? What experience can we bring to the new title?

3. Why now? Does the magazine fit with the current and emerging trends?

Those questions are delivered straight-up without packing any punches, but I’ll not deny I spent a considerable amount of time thinking them over and how—or if—I could answer them for a project of my own.

The book talks too about the importance of having a USP, or Unique Selling Point, and of thinking not just what a publication would look like and be now, but what it might need to look like and be in five years’ time.

With the entire publishing and journalism worlds unable to discern a clear picture of the future, that’s a difficult consideration to plan for. But an incredibly important one—nail that and you’ve nailed your magazine’s sustainability.

Peppered throughout the book are a bunch of other standalone statements that make you stop and think. These include that:

  • if the majority of your readers are online during their commute, an online version is a must
  • online versions need to offer fast downloads, extra images, podcasts, and more. They must supplement and complement and differentiate themselves from the print editions, rather than being the print versions plonked online
  • readership and circulation are different and should not be confused. Generally speaking, at least two people read every one magazine published
  • what makes a magazine successful is a great idea that taps into a niche market
  • if your magazine has fewer than three competitors, there’s likely room for your magazine in the market; if no competitors exist, there’s probably a reason for that too
  • never save a good idea for next issue. If you use up all your good ideas, you’ll think of more. If you sit on them, you get constipated. And you could get run over by a bus tomorrow
  • aim to make the first issue as strong as possible, then aim for 10 per cent improvements for each subsequent issue
  • there is always a solution to a problem. You just need to think of it in time (and yes, this is rather relevant to the publishing and journalism industries).

How to Launch a Magazine in this Digital Age is a set text for Hogarth’s students, but it should also be a set text for those grappling with the dynamic wider industry.

It doesn’t provide all the answers, but it asks the right questions and provides the right prompts to begin to steer us on our way to being the masters of our own magazine publishing destinies. I suspect I’ll be reading it more than once.

Life in Publishing

I won’t tell you the following blog is funny. Because that would immediately make it not so. I will say, though, that sometimes you stumble upon content on the interwebs that sums up your daily experience and that completely tickles your inner funny bone.

Life in Publishing is one such example, a (for me, at least) snort-inducing blog skewering the publishing industry from the inside (massive props to my friend and fellow editor, Judi, who first found it and sent it to me).

The blog’s tagline is simple and straight up: ‘I work for a publishing company in New York. This is the life.’ Its posts are wicked and evil and fist-pump-inspiring hilarious. At least, it is if you work in the industry and experience the memes it covers daily. Few blogs I’ve seen to date have nailed the life of an editor as strongly.

Some of my faves so far include:

  • Googling an author for the first time and learning they are attractive.
  • When I walk past an intern and see them staring blankly (truthfully, I just love the paw-waving cat)
  • When a celebrity author is in the building and I’m trying to catch a glimpse (ok, I just love the owls)
  • When I’m riding in the elevator with the CEO (an owl, again = pure gold)
  • When I can finally stop working on a book
  • When I flip through a book at work and stumble on a good sex scene
  • When I’m asked to fix a formatting hiccup and I think it will be easy until I see just how much they f&%ked it up
  • When an author tries to explain their weird idea for a publicity plan
  • When I shut down an author/editor/agent, but know that my boss has my back (ok, maybe it’s the owls that are getting me)
  • When I save a galley for myself but then someone legitimately needs it
  • When someone complains that their net galley request was rejected (lolcats!)
  • When the creepy old guy’s book has a lesbian scene
  • To the asshole authors, agents, editors, managers, etc.
  • When you’re at a party and someone starts to tell you this great idea they have for a book
  • The fact that the merger won’t be called Random Penguin (outrageous! And do they not realise that everyone in the industry will be calling it that nonetheless?!)
  • When my book makes the Times list
  • When I’m cold called in a meeting to give my opinion on a book
  • When my boss compliments my work (goddamn, maybe I’m just in love with owls)
  • How I start every week (the hilarious, kid equivalent of lolcats)
  • How I leave work every day
  • When I hear authors talk about how popular their book is going to be
  • The one perk of publishing: when you’re looking forward to a book and you get it months before it comes out

Yeah, so pretty much all of them. That’s not to say that Life in Publishing won’t appeal to anyone outside the publishing industry. In fact, I think it tackles some pretty universal themes. Happy reading.

Taking the Nano-vella-wrimo challenge

Do you love books?

Silly question. You’re reading a blog all about things related to these literary objects of desire. Of course you do.

If you’re as much as a book lover as me, you’ve probably contemplated boosting your involvement with books by opening a bookshop (or working in one or spending all your disposable income and then some in one), starting a small book publisher (or working for one of any size), working in a library (or spending all your spare time in one), or writing a novel (or just writing about them as I have done as a literary editor, reviewer and blogger).

I’ve dreamt about becoming a bookseller (with a vegetarian café/wine bar on site), publisher (or commissioning editor) and novelist ever since I can remember.

In my first year at school, I devoured the “readers” (I think we started with a series about a dog called Digger), getting way ahead of many of the others by spending lunchtime in the library (my favourite read in that library was a little book called Lyrico, about a winged horse) and afternoons inside reading. Back then, I looked up to our school librarians, Mrs Goodes and then Mrs Dartnall, and thought I might follow in their footsteps one day.

At around that time, my mother bought a children’s wear shop next door to the original Paperchain Bookshop in Manuka here in Canberra. I used to browse for hours while she worked, pondering which series I’d read next – from Beatrix Potter and the Mr Men books through to Enid Blyton, Elyne Mitchell, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. It was a magical place for me, and may have something to do with my passion for shiny new books. I’ve never been big on second hand books or libraries since, which is great for the book industry but not for my bank balance.

I do still have romantic pipe dreams about owning a bookshop (though these days I’m thinking more of an ebookstore). Hey, I finally work for one at least – with this blog – after all these years. Paperchain never would give me a summer job back in my student days. I’d still love to become a book publisher (and if I play my cards right with my current day job employers just might manage this in the next year or so). And after decades of talking about it, and one or two aborted attempts, it’s probably about time I sat down and wrote a novel too.

That’s where all this is leading. I’m going to try my hand at a lite version of the US’s National Novel Writing Month. The full commitment, to write 50,000 in a month, won’t work for me this year. I have uni marking to do, two magazines to put out, a toddler to hang out with, and blog posts to write.

So I’ve decided instead to focus on writing a novella of say 20,000 words, with as many of these as possible coming during November, and the rest by the end of the summer.

If you’re contemplating writing a longer work of fiction, there is no better time to start than today – November 1 is day one of the international challenge. Check out the Nanowrimo website for details. Connect with fellow would-be churners from all over the world – or just around the corner. Sign up and get writing.

If it Looks Like a Publisher and Smells Like a Publisher – is it a Publisher?

Apple, the world’s biggest technology company, have often claimed that they are at the metaphorical crossroads of technology and liberal arts. Amazon, it could be said, are positioning themselves at a different crossroads: the place where technology and consumerism meet. And Amazon are scarily good at what they do. They’re adept at predicting and exploiting the appearance of that peculiar space where technology and retail meet. And now they want to publish books too. I’ve written before about why I think Amazon might fail at publishing books. But I was wrong. Amazon won’t fail. But they may not completely succeed either.

For the past month or so, Amazon’s publishing announcements have come thick and fast. First it was Montlake (a romance imprint) and then Thomas & Mercer (a thriller imprint). Then they announced they were hiring old-school publishing bigwig Larry Kirshbaum. We can probably expect other announcements to follow. According to the article linked to above, one New York agent summed up the US trade’s response to Amazon’s announcements in one word: “anxious”.

Should publishers be anxious about Amazon moving into the publishing sphere? The short answer is yes, probably. But the full answer is more complicated than that. Amazon seems to hold all the cards when it comes to their newest venture. They have a powerful and vibrant vertical retail presence. They have enviable access to their customers’ personal information – both buying and reading patterns. They are young and technologically adept in a way that big old traditional publishing houses are not.

So why do I doubt they’ll succeed at publishing? The answer is going to sound a bit namby-pamby. But it’s true nonetheless. Amazon lacks passion for books. They may like selling books and they’re clearly very good at it. But from the word go, Amazon have seen books as just another product to drive traffic and make money, along with milk, bicycle tyres and modular arch-shaped window shades (thanks, Amazon!). You only have to look as far as the initial acquisitions made by Montlake and Thomas & Mercer to see this pattern. All of the authors picked up by the new imprints are authors with track records selling books.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with acquiring books that you know will actually sell. Most publishers would probably love to do nothing but that. But there’s not a word about first time authors. There’s nothing in the marketing bumpf about developing or discovering new talent. And as any publisher will tell you, you can’t make a publishing company work long term without finding new authors. Bestselling authors make companies profitable – but if publishers stopped publishing everybody else, there would no longer be an industry.

So here’s how I see things proceeding. Amazon is going to keep the bastards honest. All the people who complain about publishers not tightening their belts will certainly see that happen in the next couple of years. Prices will drop. Print books will go the way of the vinyl record. And it will all be in the name of competing with Amazon. But publishers will survive, and they will modernise. And they’ll continue to find new authors, and develop existing authors in just the same way as they always did. Those authors will still be loyal to the people who found and nurtured them.

Publishing books is not just about selling product, it’s a labour of love, even if sometimes the emphasis is heavy on the labour and low on the love. It’s true that geniuses are sometimes born, but they’re far more often made – an idea that is very unpopular in this new democratised, self-publishing-is-the-future digital world.

So Amazon will keep selling books. They may even keep publishing them. But long term? Until Amazon starts actually contributing to the literary heritage of great authors without just buying them from other publishers or skimming them off the top of the self-published list, I won’t believe they’re anything but a digital clearing house with deep pockets and a really good fake tan.

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.”

If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books

So I watched The Social Network the other day, and there was a particular scene that grabbed my attention. In the scene, Mark Zuckerberg (the inventor of Facebook) tells a group of Harvard grads who are suing him: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” It took me a moment to parse this zinger, and once I did I thought it might just be stupid. But a couple of items in the ebook news this week made me think of it again.

The first was Joe Konrath’s invented dialogue on his blog between an author and acquisitions editor. To spare you wading through the whole thing, the gist is this: digital avenues to publishing have made traditional publishers rip-off merchants who gouge authors to line their pockets. It plays into a deep vein of mythology in the aspiring author world – publishers are out to get authors, steal their work and change it, steal their profits and then dump them when they prove not to be profitable anymore. And to those authors, I say this: if you wanted to self-publish your book, you’d self-publish your damn book. To Joe Konrath’s credit, he has actually done this, and made a very decent living doing so. But a brief flick through the comments of his blog post are a sideshow of authors who agree with him, but haven’t actually found success by self-publishing their work – digitally or otherwise – all beating the same drum: the publisher is dead, long live the self-publisher.

The other bit of news that has been flittering around the blogosphere over the past week is that Amazon is setting up a script assessment arm. Essentially they’re creating a space for writers to critique each other, with the best scripts that float through the system being passed along to Warner Bros in an exclusive first-look deal. There’ll be cash prizes throughout to motivate writers, and any writer that does get their script successfully turned into a film is guaranteed $200,000 from Amazon. Many bloggers, understandably, are seeing this as the death knell for script assessment, and can easily see Amazon turning their vast infrastructure into doing the same thing for book manuscripts.

I can see the same thing happening. But I’m not as convinced that it’s going to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if it did. When Authonomy first started, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Get a community of writers together to assess each others’ writing, and the best will surely rise to the top, to then be skimmed off by enterprising publishers. But to the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t worked fantastically well for HarperCollins. And I don’t believe it will work fantastically well for Amazon either.

The thing about publishing books is that there is a massive proportion of people who read who also want to write. Massive. And here’s the other thing: most of them are bad. So while the theory behind getting writers to do their own filtering is enticing, the logic is flawed. You can’t ask bad writers to assess other bad writers and expect them to find gold. This is why the industry uses a pool of readers, editors, agents, publishers and even other writers to help filter out the bad from the good. All of these people are talented and have a stake in the outcome, and work very hard to maintain a standard of quality in published books. And readers still complain that too many bad books are published. And writers still complain that there are too many ‘gatekeepers’.

So, bring on the self-publishing revolution, I say. Let all would-be writers who cannot get noticed by an agent or publisher publish their own work. And let us see if it succeeds. Because I strongly suspect that if these writers and companies were publishers, they’d already be publishing books.

Algorithm and Blues

Image copyright Nick Gentry ©

On the eve of the election, two things I have read this week have combined in my head and I have not been able to stop thinking about them. The first thing is the excellent comment that Dave Freer left on my post earlier this week. The second is this video by music critic Chris Weingarten. The subject of these two influences – or at least the tenuous connection I have built between them – is the conflict between the benefits of technology and the tyranny of numbers.

OK, so even to me that sounds a bit dramatic. But it is true. I’ve touched on this topic before in a previous post, and I came to the conclusion that optimisation of artistic expression by algorithm may well be possible, and even useful, but it’s really bloody depressing. I still feel this way. I was at first skeptical of Dave’s explanation of how mathematical modelling of book acquisition could be possible, but he convinced me. Snip:

At the moment, you have your gut feel and the bookscan figures to decide what you buy. If you had better quality data (ie. laydown, returns, normal sales of that sub-genre and laydown within each geographic area … you could say which … would make your company more money, which had the lower risk, what was actually a reasonable ask for the books in question. It could also tell the retailer which were good bets for their area, and publisher where to push distribution. It doesn’t over-ride judgement, it just adds a tool which, when margins are thin, can make the world of difference.

I am forced to agree with Dave that if such a tool were available it would be of great use to publishers to help decide what to buy, and in a great many instances, what books would sell (if you still don’t believe it, I recommend reading the whole thing). Nonetheless, it fills me with despair. As Weingarten says in the video I linked to, most of us who got into the world of writing did so because we suck at maths. But it’s not just that. There’s a kind of ethical issue at stake here too. The availability of a tool like this would make publishers lazy. I once heard the use of test audiences for TV pilots and films described as being more about ass covering than actually predicting the success or failure of a film. And I have to say the same thought occurs to me about the statistical modelling of book acquisition.

This is not to say the information wouldn’t be useful, but it would mean that when a book that tested well in the model bombed, publishers could throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well, it tested well.” It would be a tool that sales directors and corporate executives would use to dampen creativity in publishing. Presumably (though correct me if I’m wrong, Dave!) the sales of statistical outliers that don’t easily fit into a pre-existing genre or sub-genre would not be easily predicted under this model. And there are a lot of books that don’t fit into genres. I’ve heard it said that when it comes to books there are almost as many genres as there are books. Does that mean that publishers would just use their own judgement? Or would they be even more unlikely than they already are to take on books that aren’t safe bets?

Of course, Dave will probably tell us that this amazing statistical model would only be a tool. It wouldn’t ‘override judgement’ as he says in the quote above. But humans like to rely on machines and numbers – especially when it comes to difficult decisions. Sometimes that comes at the cost of something difficult to quantify. And perhaps on this day, when the leaders of our country are trying to win an election based as much upon the statistically predicted thoughts of a few key voters in a few key marginal seats as any true leadership, beliefs, policies or moral character, I fear that ceding our decision-making to an algorithm has the potential to take away far more than it gives us. What do you think?

Closing Arguments: Or How We Will Never Agree

So in my last post I tried to start a blog fight between me and JD of Book Bee. I even got Darryl from Oz E-Books to chime in. And JD responded. It would be easy to frame my response here as flogging a dead horse (or milking a cash cow), but I do think many of the points from these two worthy gentlemen are worth responding to.

First of all, there are two distinct issues here that are generally related (in that they are about books in Australia) but not fundamentally connected. These are basically: Why are books so expensive in Australia and why are we so behind the US in terms of ebooks availability?

I’ve discussed the parallel importation issue in other posts before, so I won’t go into a massive amount of detail here about it. But it should be mentioned here for the record that the economies of scale, when it comes to dead tree publishing and distribution, are vastly different to the UK and the US. Books are more expensive here because it is more expensive to make books and get them into stores. Both of those countries have Australia’s population several times over and relative to this have a much smaller amount of area to spread their distribution networks. They also have healthier competition between retailers than Australia, where the vast majority of our books are sold through a couple of chain stores and department stores. Despite this we do have a healthy publishing industry, and unlike many other small countries have a stable of homegrown authors who make their living from writing books. The decision of whether to end the protection of Australian publishing is a complex one, and I don’t pretend to be an authority on it. But it is not intimately connected to the ebook issue JD originally posted about, and it does not mean there is an Australian publishing conspiracy.

JD contends that his theory (that publishing companies have strategically stopped the rise of ebooks in Australia in order to skim profits from the dying paper book industry) has been confirmed by his publishing insider. Not only do I think that a single insider is not in a position to confirm an industry-wide practice that basically amounts to a price fixing cartel, I have asked multiple people in the industry since this discussion began and all have denied it and are utterly confused by the accusation in the first place. Quite aside from that, it’s just common sense. Publishing companies are businesses and are constantly seeking new revenue streams. People can argue all they like that publishers are slow to the ebook party, but there is not a conspiracy against ebooks in order to retain the ‘cash cow’ of paper book publishing. There is no cash cow. Book profits in Australia are just enough to retain a local industry, whether or not you think books are overpriced. Publishers would never ignore a potential revenue stream. There isn’t enough money in the industry for them to ignore ebooks, but there also isn’t enough money in ebooks for them to have invested heavily in it.

That’s right – there’s no money in ebooks right now, and Australian publishers are not on the raggedy edge of the worldwide ebook frontier. Most Australian publishers only employ one or two people to work on the digital side of their business. They could have invested more a lot earlier, but, for the same reason that our books are more expensive, the economies of scale here in Australia are different. No Australian retailer invented an ereader or pushed it to consumers like Amazon did with the Kindle in the US. Sony still doesn’t distribute their first-to-the-party ereader in this country. Publishers may be slow to change and slow to embrace new technologies, but they need to have a foundation on which to build. Despite the assertions of early adopters like JD, there is no massive grassroots demand for ebooks that has been ignored wholesale by the publishing industry. Until last November, when the Kindle arrived here, there was not even a device that more than a handful of people actually owned. Many Australian publishers have made their books available digitally to the book buying public for years, but they have barely sold a single copy, even through ebook stores that have been open for years (like Dymocks and Ebooks.com). That’s because there are not enough people out there buying ebooks – and there have not been devices to read them on. Until this year, the vast majority of ebooks sold in Australia to Australians were read on laptops. And that was a vanishingly small number.

So to summarise – chill out. The world is changing. It’s just not changing fast enough for some of us. But that’s OK. Ebooks are taking off in a big way, and everyone in the industry realises this. Those who haven’t moved fast enough up until now will fail. There is no need – or grounds – to blame any single group for how things are. We can look forward to a day in the very near future where we will be able to buy in seconds virtually any book ever written electronically. That is enough of an achievement for a very short decade.