Friday, February 27, 2009

My response to Neil Gaiman Part 2
(plus Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton)

There are some new posts today on the text-to-speech controversy, most notably by John Scalzi, Wil WheatonCory Doctorow and a second by Gaiman. Doctorow makes some interesting points on copyright law (I concede that all of these people are far more technologically adept than I am. In fact, part of me feels silly for even trying to argue against these guys who are all pretty highly regarded in the tech arena). But for the most part the other arguments can be summed up as, "Text-to-speech doesn't sound as good as a professional audiobook, so there's nothing to worry about."

This is true. However a Big Mac isn't quite as tasty as a filet mignon, yet Big Mac sells a few million more burgers every year not because it tastes better than the filet, but because $2.99 fits into the average person's budget a whole lot better than $40.

And before anyone thinks I'm a Kindle basher, it's quite the opposite. I hope this device revolutionizes the industry. I hope it gets millions more people reading because books can now fit their lifestyle, budget and schedule to a greater degree. I hope it becomes the iPod of reading devices, and I hope that a few million more hours will be spent reading books on a Kindle than wasted catatonically drooling over "The Real Housewives of Orange County." And I hope, more importantly, that it encourages young people to read more. Granted I don't think I'll ever be able to stop reading physical books, because the one thing the Kindle will never be able to replace or replicate is the joy of walking into my favorite bookstore and browsing the shelves. 

Right now, the Text-to-Speech option is too primitive to fully challenge the audiobook in terms of quality. But the Kindle has been on the market for less than 18 months. 18 months. What spectacular advances do you think we'll see in the next five years? Ten? Perhaps, as Gaiman suggests, there will never be software that can duplicate every single tone and voice inflection that a human being can inflect. But even if that is true, there will ALWAYS be a market for an inferior product that can be purchased much cheaper or had for free. Just ask the movie industry which has lost hundreds of millions of dollars to pirated downloads. Sure watching a shak-i-cam version of "The Dark Knight" doesn't compare to seeing it in IMAX. But if the choice is between paying $30 for a ticket and snacks versus popping some Orville Redenbachers and watching in your underwear, you just might go Orville's route. If a professional audiobook gets an 'A'  grade and TTS is a 'D', yes, people are likely more willing to pony up the extra dough for the audiobook. But in time, if TTS can get to even a 'B-', you're kidding yourselves if you don't think a lot of people won't choose to save $20 bucks by buying the all-in-one E-book and TTS option. But you want to know which audiobooks are least likely to be impacted by TTS? Celebrity memoirs. Sigh.

Not to mention the impact this could have on audiobook producers. did a bang up job producing an audio version of THE MARK. And while Amazon does own Audible and, as Doctorow suggests, they likely didn't buy it to let the company suffer, there are many other terrific audiobook producers who don't have that kind of life raft. It would be a shame if companies like HighBridge, Listening Library, Recorded Books and Brilliance had to cut back on their productions because of unfairly lost revenue.

Most New York Times bestsellers are priced at $9.99 on the Kindle. Audiobooks tend to go for anywhere up to $60 depending on the length of the program. So for a book like, say, Ken Follett's WORLD WITHOUT END, which is sold for $59.95 on 36 CDs or $31.95 for a download. Either way, by going the TTS route, you're saving a chunk of change. And consider this: I believe most authors receive a royalty rate 10% of the list price for audiobooks, and up to 15% for print editions. So for every Kindle copy of WWE sold, Ken makes about $1.50. For every audiobook, he makes between $3.19 and $6.00. For every sale the reader saves money, Ken loses a few dollars. Now multiply that by a few thousand, and potentially a few million as E-books gain popularity, and you're talking a potentially seismic shift in potential revenue not just for Ken, but for all authors, publishers and audiobook divisions.

I don't consider myself a stick in the mud and I'm not suggesting millions of dollars be spent on a lawsuit that would, as Gaiman says, be better spent promoting the wonders of books (print, audio, etc...). But there must be a middle ground, a compromise. Perhaps readers can pay a extra, small fee for the TTS option on their Kindle. Perhaps, down the road, readers will be able to pay a flat fee and have access to both the electronic and professional audio versions. But simply saying this issue doesn't matter is lazy. And saying it doesn't matter because the software can't currently compete with audiobooks is, as I said in my previous post, remarkably shortsighted.

In reality, the TTS option will likely not have a large impact on either the print or audio editions of books in the immediate future. But with technology improving on an almost daily basis, and the likelihood of technology changing the industry down the road, for once the industry should step out in front of this issue rather than waiting for it to smack them in the head with a 2x4. Especially if, as rumors suggest, a Kindle 3 could be available by Fall 2009.

So let's come up with a solution that works for both parties, that allows Amazon to grow and develop new technologies while making sure authors and publishers are fairly compensated. And then let's take those few million dollars both sides would have spent on a lawsuit and put it towards literacy campaigns and school outreach programs. That's the only thing 100% guaranteed to increase readership while keeping the industry healthy and vibrant for a long time.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

In response to Neil Gaiman

Having just read Neil Gaiman's take on the controversy surrounding the Amazon Kindle 2's use of text-to-speech, and whether or not it infringes on audiobook rights, I couldn't help but throw in my two cents. And I have to say, with all due respect (seriously, I think he's a brilliant writer), I thoroughly disagree with Mr. Gaiman.

In my mind, this issue is similar in a lot of ways to the recent writer's strike. A large stumbling block of that work stoppage was the issue of writers demanding to be paid for their work that was broadcast over the Internet. The argument was that the potential for profiting off of digital media would increase dramatically over time, and writers were being cut out of the revenue pie. Now, taking Gaiman's response, that a book is a book is a book, one could argue that when you write a script (tv, film, etc...) you are creating it, in essence, for the whole universe. You are selling the right for it to be broadcast anywhere--television, movie theaters, internet, etc...for essentially a flat fee, or one royalty regardless of rebroadcast potential. But the writers claimed, rightfully so, that many people were, or would be, seeing greater profits off of their work without the writers seeing increased compensation. Studios were taking in revenue off of internet advertising and other streams, and writers claimed those alternate revenue streams would increase as years passed. And if they did not do something about it, they could be paid less and less (as t.v. viewership decreased) while studios made more or at least broke even via other revenue streams (advertising, iTunes, etc...).

What I argue in regard to this issue is that the book market is beginning to segment dramatically. An author's piece of the financial pie is being carved up into many smaller slices, with e-books beginning to take on a larger role and audiobooks still a potentially lucrative market. The Kindle is profiting from this text-to-speech option. That is not debatable. And this being the very first Kindle with the new voice option, there is no doubt the quality of text-to-speect will improve over subsequent generations. The bottom line is that down the road, as voice quality improves (or even if it doesn't), people will buy the Kindle for its ability to essentially double as an audiobook player. And in all likelihood the voice narration will improve. And even if it does not match the total quality of professional audiobooks, there are a whole lot of people who would be happy to save $30 for a slightly inferior version. Don't think that's true? Tell that to the music and movie industries which have had to deal with pirated product. All of this adds up to more revenue streams for the publisher (i.e. Amazon), and less revenue for the author. If the Kindle cuts into audiobook sales, it means simply less potential revenue for authors.

Ten years ago, we would have never imagined the technological breakthroughs that would have had people listening to music digitally (preposterous!), on a business card-sized player that could hold up to 800 albums at once (absurd!) and even doubled as a cell phone and Internet browser (ridiculous!) on which you could also watch entire movies (nobody will ever watch movies on their computer!). Saying "it's not a big deal," in my opinion, is remarkably shortsighted.

Now, again, all respect to Mr. Gaiman, but this kind of market segmentation works in the favor of more successful authors. Due to the current economic climate, bookstores are cutting back on orders and taking fewer chances on unproven commodities or risky commodities. Perhaps rightfully so. Major bestselling authors have less to worry about because the bookstores (and audiobook producers, and all other tributaries) can expect a certain number of sales. As tides rise, people with bigger platforms will be able to keep their heads above water. But the situation is different for authors who must squeeze out every bit of potential book revenue to stay afloat.

Robert B. Parker had this to say in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal

The changes in publishing are good for the likes of me. It's ever more a business dependent on the chain bookstores and less on the full-service bookstores, and the chains tend to stock the best-selling authors. If I were new, I'd bemoan this. It's probably bad for publishing and for literature, but it doesn't hurt me or the likes of Stephen King or John Grisham.

Exactly right. For these authors, and authors with similar platforms, revenue is not a problem. They don't much worry about their next contract, and whether or not they sell subsidiary rights will not affect their ability to pay rent or put food on the table. But what about an author who makes $60,000 a year, $10,000 of which comes from audio sales? What if, down the road, the Kindle cannibalizes his/her audio sales to the point where another contract is not offered? Audiobooks are more expensive to produce than print books and carry a higher price tag, so the author loses out on a certain dollar amount for every audio sale lost. Saying this issue is no big deal is like a politician claiming we're in a "mental recession" while riding in his private jet, unaware that below him there are people losing their homes. At some point perspective is lost, and while arguing dollars and cents may seem silly to some, to others ceding it completely may at some point alter their career.

Just like the writers strike, what authors fight for now will not have a dramatic, immediate impact on their revenues. But what they fight for now could drastically impact their revenues down the road. It means authors will be able to maximize their revenue streams, and for many this could be the difference between publishing and not publishing, between making a living writing versus looking for work elsewhere.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Next Up...

Today I officially turned in the fifth book in my Henry Parker series, currently titled THE DARKNESS, in to my editor and agent. And now begins the all-important editing process. I think the two books coming out this year (THE FURY--October '09) are my best work yet. Of course, in the end, the reader's opinions will likely be the judge of that, and I sincerely hope you agree.

Next up: book six in the Parker series. And perhaps the side project I mentioned earlier. And then, if there's time, maybe a trip to Home Depot.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Mystic Arts of Getting a Literary Agent

During this month's "Love is Murder" conference in Chicago, I sat on a panel with several editors from different publishing houses. I was assigned this panel, presumably, because I spent several years as an editor, dealt with many authors and agents, and was able to offer some thoughts about editing, agents and how to get published. I wasn't surprised to hear that many people in the audience had much to learn about this process, yet I was surprised to hear some of my fellow panelists offering thoughts that were totally counterproductive when it comes to landing an agent. So in an effort to demystify a process that is often shrouded in darkness, here is a list of practical things you should--and should not--do when trying to get a literary agent:

--Always follow an agency's submission guidelines. This was a point contested by one of my LIM panelists. His reasoning? Bucking the guidelines will get you a quicker response. Of course that response for him, and for you, has been and will always be 'No'. If an agency's submission guidelines say not to email submissions, DO NOT email submissions. If they ask for double-spaced, 12-point font, send it in that format (even if you wrote it in single-spaced 10 point). Look at it like this: agencies receive literally thousands of submissions every year. By stating right off the bat you think you're above the rules, you're telling the agent you're going to be a pain in the butt. Not exactly the way you want to start a professional relationship, and an easy way to find yourself in the rejection pile, albeit quicker.

--Wait until the allotted time period ends before checking in. If the agency's guidelines say to wait 4-6 weeks for a response, feel free to send a (polite) follow up after that window expires. 

--DO NOT slag other authors in your query letter. Telling an agent how much more talented you are than Bestselling Author X is really just telling the agent how much of a bigger head you have than Next Submission in the Pile.

--It's fine, and even expected, for you to compare your work to other authors. Not in a derogatory sense (see previous item), but in a way that gives the agent a sense of who your audience is and how they might pitch it. Good: "I write layered mysteries in the vein of George Pelecanos." Bad: "I write layered mysteries in the vein of George Pelecanos, only better."

--You're the only one who cares what your mother thinks. I've read enough queries over the years to fairly ascertain that 100% of all mothers and fathers think their child's book is fantastic. Telling an agent this in your query letter does not speak to the quality of your manuscript.

--Write your query letter like good jacket copy. It shouldn't reveal too much, and it should leave the agent wanting to read more.

--Only include information in your query bio that pertains directly to the book itself. If you're writing a non-fiction proposal, include your credentials and make the case as to why you are the right person to write this particular book. If you're writing a novel, include any writing awards, advance quotes from notable authors, or story publications. What not to include: your resume.

--Unless the guidelines request it, never paste your manuscript/proposal in the body of an email. You know that friend who send you emails that seemingly go on forever and have you hitting the 'scroll down' key for hours? Well, multiply that by a thousand.

--You may be "the next great New York Times bestselling author," but that's dependent on factors well beyond you, me, your agent and often even your publisher to decide. Let your work speak for itself, and hope for the best.

--Don't sign up with the first agent who offers you representation just so you can say you have an agent, just like you wouldn't hire the very first employee to send you a resume. Take your time. Make sure this agent is the right one. Look the agent up on their website, or see their sales at If your agent does not have any sales to a reputable publisher, let's just say the odds are not in your favor to be the first.

--If an agent offers you representation, you have every right to ask them for a list of recent sales. If they deny your request, think long and hard about why. Would you hire an employee who refused to offer any references?

--Don't waste your time by throwing your manuscript at the wall and hoping that it sticks. By sending out random queries to every agency in the book without researching what each agent represents, you're going to end up wasting a fistful of dough sending your cookbook proposal to agents who only represent literary fiction.

--Do not pay any fees to the agent upfront. Period. If the agent asks for money, they are not a real agent. Agents get paid on how much your work earns. You make money, then they make money.

--Research agents. There is far too much information out there for any author to be in the dark when searching for representation. Check out the aforementioned Publishers Marketplace. Other resources include Publishers Weekly, Literary Marketplace, and of course Google. If an agent offers to represent you, Google the crap out of him/her.

--Don't go chapter by chapter through Writers Market guides submitting to the 'A' section first, then 'B' then 'C' then so on. Compile a list, say your top 25 agents, and query them accordingly. Don't waste your time or money querying Apex Literary Agency (not a real agency) which hasn't sold a book since 1997.

--Blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, Flickring and Friendraising is all well and good, but if it takes time away from your manuscript that is bad, bad, bad.

--Finishing a first draft is the easy part, it's how you revise that makes you a writer. Sending a first draft of your manuscript to an agent is like going on a first date without having showered in three days. Clean yourself up. Anybody can spit out 80,000 words, it's choosing the right 80,000 in the right order that will get you published.

--You might think submitting your manuscript on green paper written in red ink tied in a bow is pretty, but I can guarantee you the agent will not.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

What I'm Up To

I thought I'd give a little peek into what's on my project board these days. 

--I'm currently finishing up the fifth book in the Henry Parker series, currently titled THE DARKNESS. The fourth book, THE FURY, is finished and scheduled to come out in October (the wrong cover is currently posted on Amazon et al). These two books are specifically meant to be a two-part series, and I'm incredibly psyched with how they're turning out. They shed a great deal of light on pieces of Henry's past that have only been hinted at in the first three books. We learn that there's one massive skeleton in Henry's closet, but this devastating secret also reveal something much larger and far more dangerous (am I being vague? Maybe...). All I can say is that after THE DARKNESS, things will never be the same.

--What I'm perhaps most excited about is a side project I've been working on, putting together bits and pieces here and there, slowly forming a whole. For the last few months, I've been outlining a Young Adult series. Growing up, I inhaled the fantasy sagas of Brian Jacques, Terry Books and Piers Anthony. I loved the journeys of Shea Ohmsford and the Druid Allanon, felt chills as Martin the Warrior battled the evil Queen Tsarmina. And deep down I've always dreamed of writing one of those big fantasy stories, only a more of a contemporary bent featuring characters who exist in our world in our time. I've got my cast of characters and the series arc planned out through three books. The first part of book one needs a fair amount of research, and between my surgery and finishing the next Parker novels it's taken more time than I would have hoped. Still, as much as I love the Parker series this is something I'm really excited about sharing when the time is right. Just to give a little sneak peek--the first book in the series is tentatively called:

Book 1 of the Firebrand Chronicles

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Running to Stand Still

Regular posting will resume shortly, as I race to hit my deadline for Henry Parker #5 (#4 is in the can). Briefly, I had a great time at Love is Murder. Met some great folks, saw lots of familiar faces, and though the conference is taking a hiatus in 2010 I imagine I'll be back when it restarts in 2011. Also, I've been having some email issues, so if you've emailed me in the past week rest assured I don't hate you, I simply cannot access my inbox for the time being.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Love is Murder 
(and so is the weather)

Around 6:30 am tomorrow, I'll be on my way to the airport for the Love is Murder conference in Chicago. This will be my second time in the windy city in six months, and though the wind chill is supposed to fall below zero this weekend, I'm looking forward to seeing some old friends, meeting new ones, and hopefully seeing Rod Blagojevich as he trolls the halls looking for a literary agent for his sure-to-be opus.

I'll try to check in from the conference, in the meantime here's hoping my pilot tomorrow is somehow related to Sully.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Thanks to all Contributors

Thanks you to everyone who contributed to the Future of Publishing discussion. There were some great responses, some provocative points, and hopefully some good discussions will come from it. It was interesting to see points from across all spectrums of the industry, and there's no doubt that despite the tumult in publishing there are still a whole lot of people who love books and want to ensure their long-term survival.

Regular, and likely more irreverent, posting to resume shortly.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Future of Publishing
Part 5

Read here to see what this is all about.

What is one thing you would you do to change book publishing for the better?

My first point on saving publishing is this.
You CAN NOT eliminate returns. By doing so you would effectively close almost every independent bookstore, shut out all mid list authors and seriously change the way big chains order. In two years time we'd all be buying our books from Amazon because they wouldn't be any where else. Because of returns small bookstores can take a chance on a book and order ten or more copies of something that is unknown to them. If it doesn't sell, no harm no foul, send it back. If they have to keep the books they might only order one, if any. Chain stores will only order what they think they can sell. They are finicky enough about ordering books now. There is a reason a lot of stores don't carry some smaller publishers and self published books, it because they can't return or the returns are a pain in the ass. I'm sure something could be done to rework the return system, maybe a minimum amount of time before returns are accepted should be longer and nothing after one year. Another problem may be the huge advances. There is a reason why some really big numbers are handed out. If a publisher gets a reputation for not paying very much for books people will stop bringing them books. But maybe a change in the money flow. Less up front and more per book sold. It gives the author and publisher reason to sell books.
Here's what I've seen on the back of some arcs to explain the marketing plan:
Email blast
Online promotion on websites and blogs
podcast interviews
What I see is this- "We're not spending very much money on publicity"
Web marketing is fine, but switching exclusively to web marketing or relying to heavily on it is not the answer. People who buy books read and that means print advertising. But it should also be a focused print advertising and not always in big media. Instead of a huge sum paid to USA Today, maybe a number of ads with bookstore newsletters and in smaller papers. I'm guessing the typical Onion reader buys more books than USA Today readers. There is no magic answer here because if there was someone would be doing it. but it seems obvious its time to try something new. What would help sell books by an established author? Cheaper paperbacks. No one wants to start a series midway so the new hardcover is impossible to sell if people can't get the backlist. If some one has never read AUTHOR X and can get paperbacks at 4.99 they will be more willing to try the books. They get hooked, they buy the new one. Offer free downloads of first books for E readers. These are just some ideas. the system is not totally broken, just a bit out of date. Everybody had a bad year and it doesn't mean publishing is screwed. The econimc problems are hitting everyone.

Eliminate the lavish, gold-foiled embossed catalogs and allocate for reps, or heck even folks in NY themselves, to connect with booksellers and folks further down the food chain in a more intimate/direct/authentic way. Furthermore, worry less about what, say, the Times is going to think and more about whether or not anyone that actually pays $$$ for books will do so-as such, more TPB originals, less production per year.
Russ Marshalek, former Marketing/PR Director for Wordsmiths Books

Read Part 1. Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. If you work in publishing (author, editor, agent, critic, bookseller or reporter) and would like to participate, email me at with your response to "What is one thing you would you do to change book publishing for the better?" and I will post it.