Experts on Future of Reading and Writing
Revolutions in the book business make headlines day after day. Two years ago, Borders filed for bankruptcy; Amazon, the bane of bookstores, has become a formidable publisher, as well; and, among other upheavals, a dispute over financial terms between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster has led the retailer to cut back on orders from the publisher. What does all this mean for the people who work in the industry, from authors to literary agents, publishers and librarians? The Post’s Style section posed that question to several people who live by the book.
The Aspiring Novelist:
For years, I’ve dreamed of a row of my novels lined up on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, printed by a traditional publisher. It’s a hard dream to let go of, even as I watch bookstores go out of business.
In the past few years of writing my novel, Seeking Georgia, I’ve watched the tide turn toward e-books so rapidly that while no one from my original novel-writing group was considering self-publishing, not one of them would rule it out now. I’m on the fence. I’d still like to find an agent, but with the publishing industry in free fall, there’s no guarantee that if I find an agent, she or he can find a publisher for it. I’ve been reluctant to e-pub — I can’t shake the feeling that e-books don’t count in the same way, that they lack that official stamp of approval conferred by a traditional publisher. I feel this way even as I devour self-published e-books I’ve downloaded to read myself.
I picture novelists of the future as the literary equivalent of home brewers, coming up with small batches of craft brews geared toward a specific taste. The challenge for a novelist lies in connecting our work with those readers who have an appetite for it. I’m starting to catch on to the importance of building that base through an online presence. It’s an enormous joke on us writers: Collectively, we’re an almost comically introverted bunch; yet in order to find readers, we’re compelled to morph into crack marketers and self-promoters.
Lanyi is a writer, mom and health policy analyst.
The Workshop Leader:
The Writing Teacher: Richard Peabody
Sure, I get students who want to be Stephen King by tomorrow, but others want to join the tribe, want to be part of the lifestyle. There were 13,000 gathered in Boston for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual convention in early March. That’s a lot of teachers, publishers, poets and writers. And while the conglomerate book industry aims for bestsellers, I find students who set more realistic standards and want to find alternative ways to get into print. Some are publishing single stories as e-books. Others are buying up antique letterpress equipment and creating beautiful chapbooks.
When it comes time to mentor a student, I teach them self-reliance. You must wean them from the workshop process at some point. They have to trust their work. And then I tell them to send it out into the world. Most writers are introverts, and publishing today favors extroverts. By the end of the day in Boston, watching those 13,000 introverts exhausted from glad-handing and being businesslike was fascinating.
One thing hasn’t changed — a solitary writer plays with words in a room somewhere. If you understand that nugget, then you may have a future in this crazy biz.
Peabody, editor of the literary magazine Gargoyle , teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Program.
If I told you that a debut novel was named a 2012 “Best Book” by Kirkus Reviews and Self Magazine, and it was called a “must-read” in the pages of O Magazine and Glamour, and it received a fantastic review in … (the) newspaper, you’d probably be familiar with the title or, at the very least, have noticed it at the bookstore.
Sadly, no. My debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, received the kind of reviews that a young novelist dreams of. But with over 60,000 titles published each year, it’s a basic fact that if your book doesn’t achieve Gone Girl status within a month or so, then it’s simply gone.
Which is why I’ve spent the last year fighting to keep my book relevant. I produced a book trailer that featured famous journalists like Brian Williams and Christiane Amanpour. I organized an out-of-pocket three-month book tour last fall, and I invented the Novelade Stand: a lemonade stand for books, in which I set up a sidewalk table with colorful signs, homemade cookies and copies of Gadfly. I never anticipated that, when I became a professional writer, I’d also become a marketing strategist, publicist and entrepreneur. But in order to keep being a professional writer, I need to show my publisher how hard I’m willing to work. And I need to connect with my readers in as many creative, absurd and unexpected ways as possible. The Year of the Gadfly was seven years in the making, so I can’t let it fade away after just a few months.
Miller wrote most of her novel in an independent Washington bookstore. The Year of the Gadfly is now out in paperback.
The Self-Published Author: Cerece Rennie Murphy
I am the independently published author of a sci-fi novel trilogy. The first book was released in paperback and e-book in September 2012. Even though I am new to the book industry, I’ve seen so many of the established rules being changed or broken as some new, far-fetched success story emerges. To me, it is an equally scary and exciting journey.
On one hand, there are more opportunities than ever before to create your art and put it out there, but while it’s tempting to try to be everywhere, I’ve found myself more inclined to focus on a limited number of things that I can do well. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn — everywhere you look as a writer these days, there seems to be someone telling you what you “have” to do to make it. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned in all this turbulence is that there are at least 1,001 ways to get where you want to go. Less than a year ago, I was told that if I couldn’t get an agent, my story would never find an audience. Now, I know that simply isn’t true.
When I was looking for an agent, all I really wanted was someone to save me from all the marketing and logistical hassles of producing and selling a book. I just wanted to be the shy writer and let everyone else take care of me. Today, I am actually grateful I didn’t find one.
Looking back on where I was a year ago, I would have signed almost anything an agent put in front of me. Now, if I ever get the opportunity, I know better. Becoming my own publisher is one the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I value the freedom and control that I have to represent myself and my work.
Murphy is the author of Order of the Seers .
The Literary Agent:
I could give you the glass-is-half-empty publishing story, from the demise of retail chains to the jawdropping acquisition of Penguin by Random House.
But no, this glass is more than half-full. Books from the mainstream publishers still drive national conversation and keep us up at night, turning pages or swiping screens. Writers still really want a deal with Harper or Crown or Knopf or FSG or S&S or Little Brown. Indie bookstores are thriving. Amazingly good books keep coming and selling amazingly well, from Gone Girl to George Saunders, from Daniel Kahneman to Kate Boo.
Like every agent, I’m deluged with submissions from the “slush pile” — the aspiring novelist with the next Da Vinci Code, the memoirist certain his story is utterly unique and bound to sell. My staff and I browse them, hoping for a jewel.
Late last year, we were fortunate to find one: a business visionary with a blog, a “big idea” and a proposal that won a large, six-figure advance. But the barriers to entry have never been higher. And electronic publishing is a fantastic option with fantastic, albeit few, stories of million-dollar success. (To pick one, in case you don’t know it, search Wool by Hugh Howey.)
One question dominates the conversation in mainstream publishing. Will it sell? Agents make that call every day: Is this an idea and a writer I’ll devote two years of my time to representing? The big-time publishers make similar calls at ed board meetings each week, deciding if this proposal or novel gets “thumbs up” and, if so, for $10,000 or $100,000 or, in Lena Dunham’s case, more than $3 million.
For “traditional” publishing, it’s a simple but very complicated equation: a writer who passionately believes in his or her work; an agent who says, “I’m with you”; and a publishing company that writes a check, ideally a six-figure one.
As for the retail marketplace, it’s a not so simple question: Will it sell 1,000, 5,000 or 50,000 copies? That’s a subject for another day.
Sagalyn is the managing director of the literary agency ICM/Sagalyn.
For years, book publishers have relied on a rich ecology of media to present authors and their ideas to readers. Magazines, journals, newspapers, radio and television partnered in ways that were mutually beneficial. They needed fresh ideas and voices; we needed audiences to learn about those we were publishing. They had content that fit into books; we had access to channels they did not. Everyone had a clearly defined role, and we all reaped the benefits. The Washington Post was a newspaper, Island Press was a book publisher. End of story.
As we stumble our way through the Great Disruption, we’re learning that the digital world is quite different. The first irony turns out to be that, while “word of mouth” is the holy grail of book-selling, we publishers were never very involved in the conversation. As newspapers, magazines and journals move online, they, too, are focused on connecting closely with readers. Unfortunately, you readers have only so much time and attention to give. Whether it’s Penguin Random House, with thousands of titles aimed at just about every possible audience, or Island Press, with about 40 much more narrowly focused titles, publishers now must connect directly with readers. Increasingly, we need to create word of mouth ourselves.
The second irony is that the ecology of media is becoming a convergence of competitors. If once our products were cozily distinct, when digitized they become frighteningly alike. Newspapers and magazines are able to publish successful e-books without us. The journal Nature recently published an online biology textbook quite successfully without any help. TED isn’t just producing talks, but publishing print and digital books.
Say goodbye to that mutually supportive media ecology.
The Washington Post was once a newspaper. Island Press was once a book publisher. What we are all becoming isn’t nearly as clear as it used to be.
Miller is the senior vice president and publisher of Island Press.
From the perspective of an independent bookstore, I don’t think the pressures of the marketplace are very different than they’ve been for a long time. We saw the advent of the big-box superstore, online discounters and, now, e-publishing. Change, amounting to added pressure, has been ever-present.
Technology has made it cheaper and easier for self-published authors to introduce their work, but only a very few have made noticeable impact on a large scale. That same technology, though, has made available publishers’ backlist titles as well as many “out of print” titles people are still looking for. Many can be printed fully bound in the store. That, I think, is a truly revolutionary development that is only beginning to be realized.
While we don’t have the same market penetration as the brand name e-book retailers, independent bookstores can (and most of us do) sell e-books from our Web sites. This is important, because many of our customers enjoy the convenience of e-readers but also want to support us. It’s this customer loyalty that we can never take for granted and have to constantly keep in mind as we offer programs, classes, trips, author events and anything else that can’t be fulfilled by a national chain or an e-retailer.
Social media has had an effect on promotion, but I confess it’s still pretty mysterious to me. When Deb Perelman came to Washington’s Politics & Prose Bookstore to promote her Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, we expected a good audience, but we were overwhelmed by nearly a thousand people trying to come into the store. Why does social media sometimes create a sensation and sometimes fall flat? I haven’t a clue.
While we can’t ignore the trends, it’s most important that we continue to just be a great bookstore, providing friendly and intelligent service, offering a rich and diverse events calendar, stocking the titles our customers expect, as well as others that challenge and inspire.
LaFramboise is responsible for buying most of the adult titles at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.
The Book Reviewer:
For nearly a decade, I’ve been reviewing books, almost always with a pen or pencil in my hand, ready to underline a sentence, scribble a margin note or, if I’m particularly struck by something, dash off a trio of exclamation points. I don’t think of this as something I do in addition to reading — it’s how I read. So something always feels a little off when I read a book on my Kindle or iPad. There’s a lot to like about e-books; my aging eyes particularly appreciate the ability to increase font size. But note-taking on the Kindle is cumbersome at best, and I’ve yet to ⅛use⅜ an iPad book app that facilitates it. E-books promise all sorts of frictionless interactivity, except the one I really want.
Note-taking is just one problem. Books aren’t just in conversation with readers but with themselves: What happens on page 362 harks back to something on page 15 that foreshadows events on page 144. Noticing these connections is part of my work, and it wasn’t until I began reading e-books that I realized how much bouncing back and forth I do in a physical book, something e-books don’t easily facilitate. Readers enthuse about being immersed in a good book, but e-book progress bars encourage us to read only one way: straight ahead, at a sprint. It’s unnatural.
I don’t trust the e-books I own to last — technology and business interests shift too much to convince me that the bundle of pixels I bought two years ago will be accessible a decade from now. I can’t read an e-book without thinking about its impermanence, its disposability. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It raises the book reviewer’s age-old question with more insistence: Is this book built to last?
Athitakis, who blogs about fiction at markathitakis.com, has contributed reviews to The Post .
The Academic Librarian:
I notice that patrons become frustrated when they can see that a library owns a particular e-book, but that it’s “checked out” and they have to wait. Or, another example: An academic library will license an e-book, but since that material can only be used by members of that particular institution, services on which patrons rely, like Interlibrary Loan (provided by most academic libraries that share resources) are not applicable. The model for e-books isn’t anytime, anyplace, anywhere; it’s fairly limited to users who meet very specific criteria.
The tradition of libraries is equitable access. E-books illustrate the exact opposite. I hope their use forces people to think about aspects of access they’ve never had to confront before — that they recognize there’s a huge difference between a printed book that can be read by everyone and an e-book that’s only accessible to privileged people.
Tina Plottel is a reference and instruction librarian at George Washington University’s Gelman Library.