Have you ever written a book review?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

E-Books--What's the Rush? A Contrarian's Take

This fascinating article appeared in my email a few days ago, and I thought it was worth sharing with readers and publishers alike. Enjoy. --tps


Dear Indies,

As a fellow independent book publisher, I can’t help but wonder why I haven’t been affected one way or another by the current e-book revolution that so many of the articles I’ve read assure me is underway. After considering all the hype I’ve read about, I realized that all the parameters for these e-book discussions are being set by those who have financial interests in servicing those indies who wish to jump into the world of digital book downloads. I’m certain that e-book evolution will become an important factor one day; but to my way of thinking, it isn’t today. Because of this, I wrote a column on the topic that was in this month’s issue of Book Business magazine. For those of you who would like to see a less biased take on the topic, I invite you to read my article below.

THE 500 POUND E-BOOK, by Rudy Shur

In many industries, there is a moment that changes everything. For the horse-drawn carriage manufacturers, it was the invention of the automobile. For the telegraph company, it was the telephone. For the music industry, it was mp3 downloads. And for book publishers, it appears to be the e-book—or is it? If I were an outsider looking in at our business, it would seem to me that the e-gorilla has indeed entered the room. All you have to do is read the continuing stream of news stories that deal with the “spectacular” growth of the e-book market—that herald the latest of the Kindle or the introduction of Apple’s iPad—and it would seem that the industry is being turned upside-down. Pity the poor publishers who get left behind clinging to their old-fashioned paper books, because their days are numbered. Or at least that’s what some prognosticators would have you believe.

As someone who has spent more than thirty years in this business, I have a rather different take on the subject. Now granted, if I had been building buggies, I might have considered manufacturing a few of those new-fangled horseless carriages, and if I had owned shares in Western Union, I would have hedged my investment by picking up some AT&T stock. But book publishing is a very different animal, and because of that, I don’t think that our future is as uncertain as many now claim it to be.

Let’s look at the facts. At this time, approximately 3% ($200 million) of total book market revenue ($80 billion) comes from e-book sales. Experts estimate that this number could double over the next two years. Let’s say that in five years, the number triples. This would mean that 18% ($1.2 billion) of market revenue would come from e-book sales, and 82% ($78.8 billion) would still come from books on paper. That certainly would impact our sales, but it would hardly spell the end of the book world as we know it.

To better evaluate the impact of e-books on our industry, it’s important to understand the types of books that are being purchased in electronic form. Strangely, few studies have detailed exactly what books are popular as e-titles. General estimates indicate that e-textbooks represent about 15% of the overall e-market attributing the balance of sales coming from trade titles. But what kinds of trade books are favored by e-book readers? After conducting my own very informal interviews of people who own e-readers, I discovered that almost without exception, e-book readers buy bestsellers. I could not find one person who routinely buys reference or scholarly titles in electronic form. So how does that answer impact the independents?

For argument’s sake, let’s be kind and say that 80% of all trade books sold are bestsellers. The fact is that only twelve publishing companies represent the bulk of all best-selling titles. That leaves a paltry 20% of sales to be divided among the remaining tens of thousands of mid-sized, small, mini, and self-publishers out there. In dollars and sense, that’s not really enough income to sustain a mid-sized house. What that does indicate is the necessity for a major shift in economic strategies for those twelve trade houses. For the rest of us, at least, the pressure is not that great to shift gears immediately. And exactly what do I mean when I refer to shifting gears? I’m talking about independents stampeding to get their electronic book files turned into e-books.

What irks me the most are the dozens of new technology companies and websites that have sprung up to help us poor indies deal with the coming demand for e-books. These folks apparently are the “experts” in the field. After all, they give forums, workshops, and seminars. And they all repeat the same mantra. Convert your books now, before it’s too late. What, you don’t have an e-book program? And you call yourself a publisher? Shame on you, but don’t worry. For a few hundred dollars or a big percentage of your book’s revenue, we will gladly bring you into the Twenty-First century. For me, at least, the answer is, “Thank you, but no thank you.”

Currently, a variety of different electronic platforms are being used by competing e-book readers. This is akin to the video wars that once raged among producers of Betamax, VHS tapes, and laser disk formats. Electronic book technology is moving so rapidly that it’s impossible to know where the dust will settle. And based upon my meager e-book income as described above, I see no major gain to jumping into what appears to be a Wild West show. Personally, I’m also not too keen on giving up 50% of my revenue to have my titles converted into e-books for free. To my way of thinking, that would cheat my authors and hurt my company’s bottom line. For independents, the existing e-business environment clearly gives preference to the converters and e-book distributors. I believe that it is just a matter of time that numerous publishing partners and services will emerge to shift the balance more in our favor. When it does come to pass—and it will—there will be better options to choose from and time enough to make informed decisions.

As I see it, independent publishers are spending too much time worrying about the future impact of e-books, and are spending too much money partnering up with companies that are more hype than substance. We all know that change is coming. By 2025, technology will be providing us with new gadgets to run our businesses and sell our books, and e-books will be a significant part of the book trade pie. But right now, we independents need not worry about missing out on the imaginary wealth that awaits us in the e-book market. What we need to do is keep our eye on producing titles for the 97% that comprises the traditional markets. When the time is right to make the move it e-books, we’ll know it.

So, is there an e-gorilla in the room? Sure, there is. But it’s a lot smaller than you think.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What do Manuscript Submissions and Iron Maiden Have in Common?

A very interesting take on this "relationship" from a reader (hat tip to Kevin). Agents and authors, take note. As an acquisitions gatekeeper, I can testify that his observation has substantial merit.


"It's got a good beat and I think I can dance to it," used to be the American Bandstand review.

But Savas says, "The vast majority of their songs are about historical events--battles, wars, explorations, philosophy, and so forth."

Indelibility becomes Metaphor = TRUTH. With their very first note, Maiden delivers 'Indelibility'.

So must a manuscript.

"It's very well written and thoroughly researched," is American Bandstand's way of thinking.

Maiden doesn't riff through a couple of songs before going where only they can go. Right off, from the first note, they take you to their THERE.

A manuscript must do the same.

"What's INDELIBLE about your proposal?" is THE question to ask.

The answer begins at Word One.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Iron Maiden Concert Review (since several people have asked. . .)

I have seen Maiden several times, and they are my favorite band, period. The best concert they delivered, in my opinion, was on the 2008 Somewhere Back in Time tour. They were perfect from the first note, the sound was unbelievable, the guitars crisp and clean, and the tempo perfect.

Positives: Great set list, great stage presence, lighting was outstanding, and special effects were very strong.

Negatives: Last night's show at Concord was a mixed bag. It is always great to see Maiden, but from the very first measure the tempo was . . . off. At least half of the songs were played so fast that Dickinson had problems keeping up, and I could see Harris slurring some fast runs intentionally because on a few songs he simply could not play them. Even my brother, a diehard IM fan, leaned over several times and said, 'Jesus, are these guys all on speed tonight?!"

The sound was also iffy at times. For much of the show Dickinson's voice alternated from perfect to not audible at all--completely different from the 2008 tour. Our seats were great, so I can't attribute the muddy sound (it went from crystal clear to muddy in the same song, over and over--very odd) to our seating location. Also at times it was SO LOUD that you could not make out individual instruments--again that is not a Maiden trademark. They are always LOUD, but not a wall of mud ala Aerosmith in the 1980s. This was one of the first concerts I can recall where the opening act (Dream Theater) had better sound than Maiden in terms of balance and instrumental and vocal clarity.

Overall, how can you not love Maiden live? They give it there all on every song, and never let down. They work hard, please hard, and are perhaps the greatest hard rock band to ever grace a stage. Last night was not their best performance, but . . . I am looking forward to seeing them again, where ever I can.

Up the Irons.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Yes, Iron Maiden fans, it is "Up the Irons" night in Concord, CA!! Finally. A dozen hours from now I will be rocking with thousands of others to the greatest, smartest, and most amazing rock band to ever take a stage. Thirty-two years they have been performing, and it is hard to believe some of them are older than me and move around like they are 25. (I suggest reading this entire blog post before going back to hit the links.)

I first saw Maiden in 1982, but then life (and law school, marriage, kids, and a mortgage) got in the way. I saw them on their Somewhere in Time tour (sort of a greatest hits extravaganza) in 2008 in Concord, and tonight it is The Final Frontier tour.

If you are unfamiliar with Maiden, they are an acquired taste, but nothing like most people think. Forget the speed metal pure noise crap so many heavy metal bands these days put out. The vast majority of their songs are about historical events--battles, wars, explorations, philosophy, and so forth.

The guitarists are amazing (and love to play in minor thirds), and their founder and bassist Steve Harris is simply jaw-droppingly good (as a bass player myself, I find it very challenging to come close to repeating what he does.) How six guys can play so tightly, so crisply, every song, song after complex song, is a real mystery. Listen to most bands live and you see immediately what I mean.

One of the Iron Maiden classics is Aces High, about the epic WWII air battle of Britain against Germany in 1940. Click here to see Maiden open with that song, kicking off the 2008 tour in India. It has some great behind the scenes footage as the band prepares to take the stage. They start with Churchill's spine-chilling speech about defending the beaches, etc. I recommend reading the lyrics so you can see how deep the band gets into this. Other great tunes include Alexander the Great, The Trooper (Crimean War), Run to the Hills (about American Indian Wars), and one they will play this tour, Passchendaele, about the terrible WWI battle.

One of my favorite live songs is one absolutely remarkable 13-minute opera-like masterpiece called The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (based upon Steven Taylor Coleridge's magnum opus poem) about a lost ship of souls. Maiden performed it in 2008 (they rarely do it live) and was a stunning spectacle (especially part 2). You can watch it here: Part 1 and Part 2 (at 2.00 minutes in Part 2, when Steve Harris starts the resurrection of the souls on his bass, I always get shivers. It is simply breathtaking to see live.)

They have only released one song from their new album (which won't come out until August) called El Dorado, about the search for the lost city of gold. It is the only song they will play on this leg of the tour from the new album.

The lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, is a commercial airline pilot and flies Maiden's 757 jet. In the picture below, he is in the Space Shuttle simulator at the Houston NASA space center. He got to fly it. One of the lead astronauts and many of the people there are huge Maiden fans, and they invited the band for a private tour. You can read about it here.

I might not be in Monday. . . . OK, I will be in, but I won't be at full throttle. But I am confident Maiden will be tonight.




Monday, June 7, 2010

Authors Take Note: Part 2

Recall that in my last post about "Scott," I emailed him with a few options on how to proceed back on May 10. One of the choices was to shred his manuscript. Of course, I did not get even the courtesy of a reply.

Today, nearly one month later, I received a SASE for the return of his "manuscript." Were the enclosed instructions a carefully composed letter thanking us for our time and trouble?


Did it say I am sorry I can't send you what you need to evaluate the manuscript at this time?


Instead, it was a sheet of blank paper with a hand-scribbled note that read: "Please return the XXX manuscript priority mail. Thank you."

Handwritten. No "Dear Publisher," or "Dear Mr. Savas," or whatever else would suit the occasion. He did not even sign it.

I won't even tell you what I scribbled back across the bottom.

Authors--please do not emulate this person's social skills when asking to have sometime take hours and evaluate your work.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Authors Take Note: Yet Another "How Not to Get Published" Story

An author (let's call him Scott--not his real name) sent a query to us through the proper channels about a Civil War manuscript he had been working on for quite some time. I won't mention the subject, but let's say it is on a topic long overdue. He claimed to have conducted extensive firsthand archival research from coast to coast, and that his work was, he hoped, as definitive as possible.

Realizing the topic had not been covered for decades, and that Scott's work would fill a giant void in the literature, I promptly replied and asked to see his manuscript. Truly, I was excited to read this one.

Scott thanked me for the quick reply and asked if I wanted a hard copy or digital. I asked for the former.

One month passed without a word or a manuscript.

I emailed and asked the status of the manuscript, always of course using "Dear Scott" and all proper etiquette as is appropriate in formal business communications.

His reply, without a salutation or a signature, read simply:  "I've been really busy. Thanks for the continued interest. I will send it to you on Friday. Thanks again."

OK, I thought, a bit casual (it has long bugged me when people don't use a name or sign an email), and a month had passed, but this manuscript sounds worth it. Now . . . I know what you are thinking. No salutation or signature? Big deal! So what!

Well . . . having been around the block a few times, I can spot the tiny red flags in the distance that tend to signify small issues that invariably usher in larger ones. Seriously. At this stage of a business relationship, it signals a type of a personality that can be . . . challenging. At least, that has been my experience.

I sent back a slightly more casual reply to put him at ease (though always with a signature) that he should not sweat typos, and that we are simply reviewing the manuscript in a more general sense.
Five days later, this arrived (same format): "Manuscript in mail. Look for it Wednesday."

Again, too flippant and off-the-cuff for my tastes at this stage of the relationship, but . . . a good manuscript would make up for that. And, I tried to convince myself, I was reading too much into a couple emails. Still, something did not feel right. Somehow this was not going to end well.
The manuscript arrived. Suffice it to say I was shocked when I withdrew it from the envelope and found it rather . . . thin. What he had been touting as the Second Coming should have been several hundred pages. It was but a fraction of that. I glanced through it with grave disappointment, read a few pages here and there, and then checked the notes--or tried to. There were none. Nor was there a bibliography. Nor was the manuscript the full study (as best I could tell). And worse still, it was a polemic, not a balanced treatment of any kind.
So after all that, I spent my time reviewing a partial "I am going to set the record straight" manuscript with no documentation. Worse, much of what I did read was wince-worthy. I sighed, clicked open email, and replied by explaining that no publisher can evaluate a partial work in this field without seeing the notes and bibliography, and he did not advise us that he would be withholding them.
Instead of an apologetic reply and an offer to submit what he had, he shot back a rather terse (unfortunately I accidentally deleted it) answer that he was not willing to share his research in fear it would "get out," or words to that effect. He then asked where his physical copy was located.

Again, I took the time to try and help explain to him how this process works, and offered him a choice on how to move forward. My reply:

Dear Scott,

It is sitting on my desk and not going anywhere.

We don't evaluate manuscripts piecemeal, David. You have an outstanding opportunity to produce the book on Rosecrans that deserves to be written, but if you make it a polemic, the original research you performed for so long will be lost the negative reviews you will receive about forming an idea and then crafting a book to support your thesis.

At this point we can:

1) review your entire work;

2) Shred what you sent us;

3) You may forward a SASE and we will return it to you.

That was May 10. I have yet to receive a response. On June 10, the manuscript will go into the shredder.
Author Lessons:
  1. Use the name of the person you are addressing in any and all correspondence--especially when you don't know them, and don't have a contract!
  2. Don't waste an editor's time by promising or implying to send one thing, and then playing it cute and sending something else altogether different. This burned a few valuable hours of my work day, and I don't look upon that very kindly.
  3. Finally, reply to all emails/correspondence politely, timely, and thankfully. The historical publishing world is a much smaller community than most people outside the industry understand or appreciate. If this author submits this work elsewhere, I will almost certainly hear about it or be asked about it--or even  be asked to review it (I do that on occasion).