Have you ever written a book review?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reply to Reader Question: What are you Interested (or not Interested) in Publishing?

Paul Taylor, whose biography of Civil War Union General Orlando Poe is due out this October, published by Kent State University Press, posed an interesting question in his longer comment to this post. Here is Paul's question:

"[W]hich got me thinking, with regards to the Civil War, can you give a brief overview as to what type of subjects you're interested in - and for that matter, not interested in?"

Savas Woodbury (and then Savas Publishing), ca 1991-2001, was focused on Civil War titles. We did a few others, but our bread and butter and expertise was the American Civil War. Savas Beatie began with an emphasis on Civil War titles (again, our expertise and deep knowledge base), but I always intended to expand into several areas of history including Current Events, one of my favorite areas of study.

We worked hard from 2004 to the present day to firmly establish our bona fides in the American Civil War with several award-winning titles, many national book club selections, and a ground-breaking map study we call the Savas Beatie Military Atlas Series. We are thankful our customers have supported and welcomed our books.

We believe (and hope) we are now well entrenched with a firm foothold in several other areas, including the American Revolution, Napoleonic history, and military science/self-help. The latter category overlaps into Current Events. The successful publication of Once a Marine, by Nick Popaditch, and the forthcoming New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah, by Richard Lowry (Spring 2010) is our effort to announce that we intend to compete in that arena. (Note the New Dawn cover that appears where Mr. Lowry blogs is a placeholder only, and not the cover we will be using for his book).

Now, back to Paul's question: What are we interested in, and what are we not interested in?

My standard general answer is this: I am always seeking original, deeply researched manuscripts on topics that have not been covered well, or at all.

Once that threshold is met, we have to access whether we can sell the book. We do very well inside and outside the book trade, but selling books today for a profit, with the publisher and author at the bottom of the food chain, is a real challenge. So . . . can we sell it? Here is what I have to ascertain:

1) Can we sell X number in the general book trade within twelve months?

2) Can we sell another Y number outside the book trade (to the author for resale, to specialty markets, to the state and federal parks, museums, etc.).

3) Can we sell it to one of the national book clubs?

4) Can we sell Z copies overseas in the UK and Australia?

5) Finally, can we sell it into a foreign language?

It is not necessary that the answer to all these questions be yes, but we need a combination of these possibilities to convince us that if we put what amounts to the cost of a car into an author's book, we can get our money back and turn a profit. If so, we move on to the next level of inquiry: do we want to work with this author.

Publishers not only have to sell the book, they have to sell the author, and by extension, work WITH the author closely to make a successful partnership. I have said this over and over: Publishers and authors are joined at the hip in their interests. Publishers take the vast bulk of the risk to forward a large amount of time and money. If an author stumbles, refuses to promote his or her book, becomes difficult to work with, unpredictable, etc., it can and often does become a disaster for sales--and for the credibility of the publisher. So the author's credibility, likability, attitude, general demeanor, and so forth becomes very important to publishers. Many people and authors never consider this important angle. (Keep in mind that authors need to consider the same thing before choosing a publisher: do they have a good reputation, do they market their books, are they easy to work with, do their books win awards, do the authors have good things to say about them, etc.)

In the end, I am sometimes forced to go with my gut. For some reason I have developed the ability to sniff out good manuscripts and authors quickly. I can see what the final book looks like, and see how it will read from a digital manuscript on screen after a few minutes of perusing it. It's just intuition, and I have been very fortunate in that regard.

And, on occasion I will accept a book that almost certainly will not turn a profit, but is one I think we need to flesh out our brand and our line. Consider it the long term view.

In terms of specific topics, I think we do battle books and biographies the best. I prefer the former to the latter because they generally sell better and I like them.

I hope that helps answer your questions, Paul. Thank you for asking.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

We would like your assistance.

Please watch this video, produced by the townspeople of Sesser, Illinois, in support of Gary Moore's "Playing with the Enemy."

The good folks of Sesser made this YouTube video to get Oprah to come to Sesser (a very small town where about one-third of the book takes place) and do a show in the Opera House, which they will rename the Oprah House, and hopefully have Gary on her show.

Please share this with your email list, twitter it, blog about it, etc. It is pretty funny even if you don't know about the book or haven't read it. And if you haven't why haven't you!


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why Publish with Savas Beatie?

That question came up today in a phone conversation.

This is an on-the-fly post, written after hanging up with a potential author. It was an interesting call that boiled down to why he should publish with us and not with a larger East coast press. He had submitted his manuscript to us recently and was thinking of doing the same to the big guys.

AUTHOR: Typically, a larger publishing house has more financial resources, more marketing clout, a more established reputation, and often lots of big name authors. Do you agree?


AUTHOR: But I love the books you do, and your authors have lots of good things to say about you and the company. So in one minute or less, tell me why I should publish with Savas Beatie and not XXX?

SAVAS: Lots of reasons. Large presses are generally over-committed and are not in love with their books. It is pure business and numbers to them. The decision-making process is agonizingly slow in almost every department, including marketing. It often takes six months or a year or more just to get a contract offer. Once the decision is finally made, it often takes 2-3 years before your book finally sees print.

Smaller presses like Savas Beatie provide more personal attention, almost always bring projects to market much faster, and your book could become the lead title instead of a project that is buried on page fifteen of a large catalog. Why not be one of ten new books instead of one of 125?

Smaller presses only take books they have a passion for and know they can sell and sell well. Larger presses throw a lot of books out there, and see which take off and then reinforce those, discarding the rest into remainder bins. (I am generalizing, but it is generally true.) Just ask someone who has worked with a large press whose last name was not Clancy, Rice, Cussler, or Rowling.

[One author who was with a larger house and now with Savas Beatie told me he worked for three years on his last book, and his "large" publisher got him a grand total of one radio interview and one book signing, and then told him he was on his own and stopped returning his calls. Typical.]

AUTHOR: So it really depends what you expect as an author.

SAVAS: There are pros and cons either way you choose, but smaller vibrant houses with a firm track record ideally suited to your trade project niche are almost always a better bet than a Penguin or a Random House, and usually even a university press.

[If I could share my email from some of these disappointed authors, more writers would understand why that is true.]


Friday, September 11, 2009

More on Google Book Settlement

Google Tells Congress They'll Let Anyone Sell Settlement Books

(How nice of them.)

(That light at the end of the digital settlement trial is a train coming, publishers.)

Google svp and chief legal officer announced before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday (in parallel with a posting on the company's public policy blog) "that for the out-of-print books being made available through the Google Books settlement, we will let any book retailer sell access to those books. Google will host the digital books online, and retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore will be able to sell access to users on any Internet-connected device they choose. Retailers can also pursue their own digitization efforts of out-of-print books in parallel. In essence, this extends our initiative announced earlier this summer -- which allows publishers in our Partner Program to market their in-print works through Google Books -- to out-of-print books included in the settlement."

The WSJ and NYT had brief follow-up interviews with Drummond and came away with the vaguest descriptions of the revenue splits on such an arrangement: Retailers could get the "majority" and/or "much" of the proceeds with Google keeping "only a small slice" as the papers describe it. That's about as clear as the revenue splits as expressed so far for the retailers Google wants to enlist in their Edition program for in-print electronic books.

Drummond also indicates to the Times that Google is "thinking about how to make those books available to others in bulk, in case any were interested in selling subscriptions to libraries." He said, "If people really want to get access to orphan books that we have, they can do it." And he tells the WSJ that the new announcement "should put to rest concerns that 'Google and only Google will have the ability to get the full portfolio' of digital works."

Indeed it's a pretty clever way of blunting arguments that the settlement is anti-competitive and provides Google a de facto monopoly on the sale of orphan works, while not actually making Google's major competitors happy. The testimony mentions "retailers such as Amazon [and] Barnes & Noble" but neither of those companies currently partner with Google Book Search on any of their other initiatives.

As Amazon vp for global public policy Paul Misener (who also testified at yesterday's committee hearing) said, "We don't need anyone between us and rights holders."

P.S. If a book is out of print, and an author manages to convince a publisher to reprint it, I am still unclear how Google's scanning and dissemination will impact that event.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Google: The Fix is In. Publishers and Authors Lose

From Publisher's Lunch:

Congress Has No Questions for Publishers As Copyright Office Protests

In what could be viewed as a signal that Judge Denny Chin is ready for resolution on the Google Books Settlement case, yesterday he quickly denied two motions from opponents. In both rulings, Chin emphasized the view that there has been plenty of time for investigation and expression.

Judge Chin swatted away efforts by Lewis Hyde, Harry Lewis and the Open Access Trust to formally intervene for the second time (they were first turned down in April), writing: "This case was filed some four years ago and has been conditionally settled; it is simply too late to permit new parties into the case." He did add that "the Court will, however, consider the objections raised by the proposed interveners."

Chin also denied the "various discovery requests" of the Bloom Objectors, saying they "have had ample time to seek discovery" and adding that "the Court will not, at this late stage, allow the proceedings to be delayed."

At the least, reasonable people could conclude that this same attitude means the Judge will probably not be swayed by the many objections of publishers from other countries that notice of the settlement was inadequate.

Today the spotlight is on the House Judiciary Committee on Competition and Commerce in Digital Books. We were fascinated to see that the list of eight witnesses does not include a single publisher. (AAP vice president Tina Jordan tells us that the "AAP did in fact suggest to the judiciary committee staff that a book publisher should participate in the hearing.") Scheduled to appear were: David Drummond of Google; Paul Misener from Amazon; Paul Aiken from the Authors Guild; Marybeth Peters from the US Copyright Office; Marc Maurer at the National Federation of the Blind; John Simpson from Consumer Watchdog; Randal C. Picker from the University of Chicago Law School; and David Balto at the Center for American Progress.

You can follow glimpses of testimony via Twitter for now.

A Reuters article previewed David Drummond's argument that "We believe anyone who wants to re-use abandoned works should have a fair, legal way to do so. In our view, the settlement helps."

Early posts indicate Representative Zoe Lofgren commenting that we wouldn't be here if Congress got orphan works right--but we failed, and also saying she was distressed to receive testimony from Copyright Office only this morning. Lofgren later reportedly reiterated that Congress could solve orphan works by repealing the Sonny Bono term extension, while acknowledging that won't happen. Committee Chairman, Representative John Conyers is said to have remarked that this could be the greatest innovation in publishing since the Gutenberg press, and also noting that while the proposed settlement would give Google has exclusive access to orphan works, that can be remedied by legislation.

But Marybeth Peters at the Copyright Office is cited as complaining that "Key parts of the settlement are fundamentally at odds with the law." In a letter to the committee, Peters says in multiple ways that Congress should be concerned about the settlement's attempt to resolve issues that Congress itself has not acted on: "In the view of the Copyright Office, the settlement proposed by the parties would encroach on responsibility for copyright policy that traditionally has been the domain of Congress.... We are greatly concerned by the parties' end run around legislative process and prerogatives, and we submit that this Committee should be equally concerned." Peters reiterates the position that it "would inappropriately interfere with the on-going efforts of Congress to enact orphan works legislation in a manner that takes into account the concerns of all stakeholders as well as the United States' international obligations."

At the same time Peters goaded Congress to act, Representative Melvin Watt is said to have expressed reservations about the separation of powers issue with Congress holding a hearing about a pending court case.

Meanwhile, though the court's filing deadline has passed, their electronic document system continues to add additional papers. Among them the Center for Democracy & Technology noted their support of the settlement, while Questia filed a complaint along the lines of Google-is-ruining-our-business-and-won't -even-link-to-us.

An informal group called the Privacy Authors and Publishers--including Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Jonathan Lethem, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Cory Doctorow, the EFF, and the ACLU and Cleis Press filed an objection, saying the settlement "fails to safeguard reader privay." Stretching their argument to fit as an objection from within the author and publisher classes, they "believe that the lack of privacy protections in the current settlement will deter readers and thereby harm their expressive and financial interests in sustaining and building a readership that browses, reviews, and purchases their works."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Will E-Books Kill the Hardcover Book Trade?

A provocative article appeared a few days ago in the Financial Times entitled Hachette Chief Hits Out at E-Books. The thrust of the article boiled down to this:

Arnaud Nourry, chief executive of the French publishing group (Hachette Livre), said unilateral pricing by Google, Amazon and other e-book retailers such as Barnes & Noble could destroy profits and kill the lucrative trade in hardback editions.

Is this true? Well, time will tell and no one has a crystal ball. But I really doubt it.

One of the things people overlook when thinking about E-books is that almost everything needed to produce a traditional hardcover (or paperback) is also required for a digital book--except the printing and shipping.

In other words, publishers still have to acquire books (that takes time and money), accept and schedule (time and money), developmentally edit (time and money), proofread (time and money), format (time and money), arrange for photos, charts, maps, etc. (time and money), and other internal endeavors (time and money) just to have the right text in the right format with the right bells and whistles at the right time by the right author.

Oh yes, add in all the traditional overhead costs (rent, salaries, taxes, etc.) and the fact that authors have to be paid a royalty, and in some cases, an advance against royalties.

E-books can be made available today for $9.99 or thereabouts only because there are wider and more profitable margins available elsewhere (i.e., hardcovers) to cover the costs of producing the final product (which let's face it, is information and not a "book") for the intended audience. The entire pie (all traditional print sales outlets) subsidizes one very small slice of the publishing model (digital books).

Mr. Nourry continued:

"On the one hand, you have millions of books for free where there is no longer an author to pay and, on the other hand, there are very recent books, bestsellers at $9.99, which means that all the rest will have to be sold at between zero and $9.99,” Mr Nourry said.

Again, I find this difficult to swallow.

If the dominant gorillas Google (there is something evil about that company) and Amazon drive down the pricing and slash the margins for publishers, at some point the laws of economics come into play. Who is going to be able to produce E-books for that retail price (zero to $9.99) and still be able to slice off all the production costs and have a viable operation? I don't know how to make that business model a viable one.

Publishers won't be able to do it. How much can you pay bestselling authors in advance if the book tops out at $9.99?

Just like one leg needs the other for a body to walk, I don't see how the world of E-books exists on its own without accompanying hardcovers, paperbacks, specialty sales print books, and so forth. Perhaps some publishers could make it work, but I think the vast majority could not possibly do it.

If hardcovers eventually die a very visible death from this digital axe to the neck, the cataclysmic event will take down a large percentage of publishers with it. That would leave Amazon and Barnes and Noble in the unenviable position of having killed off the many geese that used to lay the golden eggs that allowed everyone to thrive.