INFORMATION OVERLOAD: HELP! Take, for example, political satire...

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I was just contacted by one of my readers who asked me to bring to your attention an article just posted on the Political Science Degree blog, “The New Town Square: 15 Best Places for Political Satire on the Web”. 
Check it out, it's full of interesting information, although I didn't have time to read everything. BUT I do want to underline something important: in this day of information overload - too much info shooting at us from every direction! - it's nice to have somebody who goes to the trouble to overview websites and takes the time to figure out what's worth visiting!

I'm very grateful to this reader for having drawn my attention to current political satire sites in the US, and it is a wonderful starting point if you're interested in this theme (and I certainly am).

How times have changed!

I've always loved good, hard-punching political satire, but before the Internet, it was something you'd find mostly in printed form. For example, if you lived in France, you simply couldn't do without your copy of  the Canard Enchainé (the Chained Duck in English), a wonderful satirical paper that combines pungent satire, political caricature and investigative journalism. Over time, the Canard Enchainé has been responsible for unveiling a number of political scandals in France, particularly under Chirac's presidency (and involving Chirac himself). As a result it is a widely read paper, one of the few that is not remotely threatened by the digital tsunami. 
Of course, a lot of satire in also on TV and has been so for quite some time. This is the case in the US (see below Jon Steward's wonderful good-bye to Glen Beck in 4 installments) as it is also here in Italy with Striscia la Notizia, a daily spoof on current events, combined with clever bits of investigative journalism and candid camera style video clips.

So, up to ten years ago, I was happy with maybe two or three different sources for political satire. But now, for the US alone, there are no less than 15 political satire online sites worth a visit. FIFTEEN! You could spend a whole day going through each and everyone of them!  Lucky that our friend here gives us a short introductory paragraph telling us the thrust and political color of each site, so, depending on your interests, you may be able to limit yourself to just a couple.

Indeed, in our age of information overload, I'm betting that sites that act as GUIDES to help us zero in on the information we are looking for are going to become more and more important. They are probably the gatekeepers of the future! Just as traditional publishers have acted as literary taste gatekeepers for the last 150 years, we are going to need on-line gatekeepers to cut through the internet-age information overload.

A useful function and (potentially) a dangerous one as well. Because the gatekeeper can easily impose his own view on things and unless you spend the time to go over every aspect yourself, you are at his mercy...

The solution? I don't see any - do you? 

It all seems to revolve around the question of trust: you have to trust that your gatekeeper is correct and giving out the right advice. Sure there are some technological solutions around (see "my6sense" app, article below) but none of them really work - at least so far. Because what's needed is someone's judgment and that is something you have to trust before accepting it!

Any other ideas? 

Punch magazine cover from 1867 shows Richard D...Image via Wikipedia

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BOOK SALES DOWN: A Warning for the Publishing Industry?

MOC-002 Robin Hood CartoonImage by andertoons via Flickr
You bet it is a warning, and a bad one. Time is running out on the publishing industry. Take a look at the latest figures for book sales in the UK and the US (click HERE). Note the steep drop in fiction sales: down nearly 10% in the UK and almost double - a massive 19.3% - in US sales over a year ago. These figures are for the first quarter of 2011 and they do NOT augur well for the rest of the year!

Except for a few -very few- publishers who had "bestsellers" like the paperback of  E. Donaghue's "Room" which helped Pan Macmillan bring up its sales by 3% over last year (and note it was a paperback, not a hard cover), just about everybody else saw their sales slump, particularly in the area of fiction.

So why the drop in fiction sales and why is it nearly TWICE as big in the US than in the UK?

There really is only one BIG difference between the two markets: in the US e-books have taken off and account for 25% of overall sales, while in the UK they're only one or two percent. Though there are discussions on how to interpret these statistics (and whether other numbers might mirror reality better), it is still true that e-books are all the rage in the US and have only just started in the UK. Jonathan Nowell, president of Nielsen Book, had some interesting things to say about this (reported in the Bookseller.com): he surmised that  e-book sales were the culprit, and that they "may be affecting fiction more than other genres".

Nowell pointed to the big challenges faced by US publishers who had lost miles of shelf space with Borders' collapse (Borders is the biggest bookstore chain in the US). He also mentioned the reduction in space for frontlist titles at Barnes & Noble. Both these events have not affected the UK, and "book discovery" at book stores in the UK are (at present!) unaffected. 

To all this you have to add, he said, the effect of the recession: the demand is sluggish because "consumers are keen to save money".  Last but not least, and this is important for publishers always looking for the Next Big Writer to boost their sales, there is at present a certain "lack of a publishing phenomenon", as he put it, to take the place of Stieg Larsson, Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown. He also mentioned "time-poverty among consumers" as a factor  in print book sales' woes.

I don't know about "time-poverty". Does it mean people don't have time to read books, particularly not fiction in paper print form? That is patently untrue if one is to believe the speed with which e-book sales grow in the US (by over 100% every month if not more), and the fact that Amazon.com, the biggest on line library, has recently reported that its e-book sales on Kindle have for the first time outpaced its paper sales.

While e-books are the future for the fiction market, it's not likely to be the same for non-fiction. I may be wrong on that, but my intuition tells me that digital forms of non-fiction will never entirely displace paper books. Non-fiction books are used differently: they are mostly used for reference, they need to be lent out and discussed - all things that paper books are perfect for, and e-books are not.

But for fiction, nothing beats e-books: they are cheap, easy-to-access and portable. Self-published authors have been quick to realize the benefits and if you look at Kindle's top 100 bestsellers, you'll be amazed to discover that self-published authors such as Locke, Amanda Hocking and Konrath occupy (nearly) all the top slots - and indeed, there are few titles from traditional publishers in that Kindle list. Much too few and that should worry publishers.

Why are traditional publishers not present in the digital world the way they are in the physical world? How could they, with all their marketing savvy and brand name, get knocked off  the lists of e-book bestsellers? Well, "knocked off" is a big word, but you know what I mean. They are not doing as well as they could.

If I'm allowed to don my economist's hat for a moment (ugh!), I believe the answer is quite simple. Publishers have made a pricing error. That's an easy error when you try to defend your turf and maximize your returns. The digital tsunami has put them on the defensive. Rather than ride the wave and lower prices on their e-books (as indie self-published authors have done, even launching their books at the $0.99 level), they are trying to build walls against it. They talk about "models", negotiate for high e-prices with the various e-distributors, and in some cases put out e-books at higher prices than paperbacks (much to the anger of consumers)! 

But as the Japanese tragic experience with tsunamis show, no walls can withstand a sufficiently big tsunami. And this digital one is gigantic! Look at it from the fiction readers standpoint. He/she's invested in a reader and is determined to read cheap stuff to compensate for the investment. Soon he/she discovers some good stuff on line, mostly the back list of published authors - much of it is often better than the new titles put out by traditional publishers. After all, with limited time available for reading, he/she's not going to use it to read expensive paper stuff when cheap stuff is one click away. We're in a recession after all, and it's never been truer than now that time is money.

Konrath produced a graph on e-book revenue by price, on the basis of his own sales (see below). That is of course a limited basis on which to draw inferences, but it is nevertheless interesting. It is indicative of something important: he found e-book sales fall off very fast after prices are jacked up beyond the $4 level. Ok, that's a small sample, but not that small or meaningless: after all, J.A.Konrath, has sold a lot of books and is a successful mid list "genre" author with a considerable on line following of fans (500,000 hits/year on his blog). 

Konrath Data Ebook Revenue CurveImage by evilgenius via Flickr

If you're a NYT bestseller author enjoying the backing and brand of a major publisher, you may be able to sell around $9 or $10, but not more if your objective is to equal the sales level of someone like Konrath. Yet publishers regularly price their e-titles around $15-17, way too high. Hence, inevitably, the lower sales. And that's what happened to Michael Connelly (he got bashed with bad one-star e-reviews posted by angry readers, see article below).

I am quite certain that soon some savvy publishers out there will wake up, lower their e-prices and ride the e-wave (rather than be smothered under it). And those who do will beat the others!

Be prepared to watch a furious battle in the publishing industry, particularly between the Big Six, and let the best ones win!

But maybe I'm wrong...If you think so, please comment!

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Book Sales: Is Genre driving them or Literature?

Ilustración para un divertidísimo cuento de La...Image by laanfitriona via Flickr
Once upon a time, literature was an art and publishing supported it. Now, everything is changed: publishing is an industry, and it is in the throes - hopefully not death throes! - of a major digital changeover, what with e-readers and e-books flooding the market.  Amazon's Kindle alone has over 750,000 titles and all new Kindle buyers go on a buying spree in the first 6 months of ownership, buying three times as many books as before!

E-publishing is fast changing the rules of the game, and a lot of people who watch the industry are beginning to suspect that e-book bestsellers build on themselves, pushing out of view all other titles. See here for Nathan Bransford's take on this and the Shatzkin Files's thoughtful investigation. In other words, "book discovery" rarely happens on line where you are presented with a screen on your e-reader that gives you a list of the "top best-sellers" and limits you to them. On line shopping is fine if you know exactly what you're looking for (title and author). If you don't, then it's a real hassle. You find yourself wasting time and going back again and again to the same list of 25 books in any given section. Book discovery is still something that happens mainly in book stores, where you can roam around ever-changing display tables and chat with the clerk.

In all this, what has happened to the writer? Faced with a deluge of books, there is little doubt that a new writer has to do something phenomenal to be noticed. If you are non-fiction, you need a "platform" to sell, and as everyone knows, a platform is something that lifts you above the crowds. Nothing new here. But if you're not a celebrity, an actor, a politician, a professor or a scientist, forget it. You don't have a platform, you can't write non-fiction.

Ah, but you say, I'm a very good cook, my friends keep asking for my recipes. Good for you, enjoy your own good food, but don't think you can turn that into a book! No, you have to be a recognized chef, preferably with several Michelin stars, or the owner of a chic restaurant in a trendy place on the Mediterranean or in California...

Harry Potter LightningImage via WikipediaOr...You can be a blogger! A blogger with a (good) following. Aim for at least 1,000 hits a day. How do I know that? I checked Google AdSense, a programme which lets you put advertisement on your site and pays you a tiny percent if that ad gets hit and leads to a purchase. I don't know the details but looking at the numbers Google puts out to explain the system, one thing struck me: if you don't have at least 1,000 hits a day, it just isn't worth bothering (the return is just too small).

So that's the goal: a minimum of 1,000 hits a day or you're nowhere. J.A.Konrath's successful blog the Newbie's Guide to Publishing gets 500,000 hits per year (do the calculation: that's more than 1,000/day!). The post on that blog that I just linked you to (do click it!) tells about a friend of his who's decided, like he has, to leave "legacy publishing" and go down the road of self-publishing e-books. That's what Konrath started doing a couple of years ago to enormous success, as we all know. Perhaps not as amazing as Amanda Hocking, but that cinderella story is one in a lifetime. Don't believe you can repeat that!

Yes, more and more writers are turning on line to build up a fan following and thus, even fiction writers who supposedly never needed a "platform" to launch their books - they "only needed" (though that's not easy!) to produce a stellar story with a unique "voice" - well, now they need a platform too! If you're an aspiring writer out there hoping to catch the attention of a lit agent and (eventually) a publisher, you better join in the bloggers' ranks asap! It takes at least TWO years to build up a blog with a consistent following. And that assumes you have an entertaining and content-rich blog that attracts readers (yeah, better not blog about your migraines and writers' block!)

Even if you have such a wonderful blog, it is not enough  You have to be ready to do all sorts of additional things: twitter, facebook, MySpace, YouTube, video, podcasts, book trailers and run contests and give out prizes and I'm probably forgetting something here. For comprehensive and good advice, click HERE.

Well most people are probably not that marketing-savvy or willing to give up their writing time in order to build up their blog and on line presence. Takes up a lot of time, believe me (I often kick myself for staying too much on the Internet!). In that case, go the traditional route: first a lit agent - next a legacy publisher. But here too there are all sorts of limitations you have to be aware of.

Agents and publishers consider themselves to be the gatekeepers of taste - and I think that's a great idea and a great role for them (I'd add booksellers but alas, most of them, probably pressured by the digital tsunami, seem to have relinquished their gatekeeper role).

Trouble is: once something is a matter of taste, it becomes subjective and you have to be prepared for a lot of rejections. J.A.Konrath (still him) claims he went through 500 rejections for his first 9 unpublished novels.
That shows remarkable determination and patience! But short of that, you won't get anywhere. A tough road, and he was at least in a well-defined genre. In the end, that's what helped him land a deal: he came up with a nice humourous twist on the police thriller with a Chicago police woman protagonist named... Jack Daniels (great name, and very enjoyable reads!).

Yes, because that's the other interesting thing about his experience: he wasn't in a well-defined genre from the beginning. His first book was a mixture of several genres and he couldn't sell it. Beware of such "cross-overs". The first thing agents and publishers will tell you is that they don't fit into any particular shelf at the bookstore. If your book doesn't fit into a well-defined genre, you're in trouble. There are lots of genres out there: sci-fi, thrillers, romance, fantasy, horror, YA=Young Adults, MG=Middle Grade etc etc and then there are sub-genres, complex things like dystopian urban fantasy or paranormal romance. And let me add that if you're Stephen King and you've added magic and mutants to your story, that doesn't put you into a crossover genre mixing fantasy with horror. You're still a master of the horror story, period. Fantasy is an element in your story, it's not what defines its genre. That is defined by its overall purpose: in the case of the horror genre, the aim is to scare you silly, that's what!

But if you happen to be special in some way, say your writing is "stellar", you have a "unique" voice and an "original" take on the human condition - basically you're the next Tolstoy and Dickens rolled into one, well then you're going to end up in the "literary" category. Nice? No, that's the least marketable and the hardest to sell.

Yeah, if anyone of you thought literature was at the top of the pyramid, think again! Sure, some literary masterpieces "make" it, films are made from them and everything is fine in the best of worlds. But it happens very,very rarely. Can you quote one such recent book? I can't really. Not even Booker Prize or Nobel winners come to mind - I mean the kind that turned into major blockbusters. The big blockbusters are Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code or Stephen King's latest, and notice that all these are quite clearly well-defined genres. No wishy washy cross-over stuff...

My point is that "genre" sells. Actually it's the industry's shorthand to indicate what the market consists of. For example, "chick lit" is a genre on its way out (too fluffy and soft) and "women's fiction" is on its way in (more serious and tough). And if you want to fit in a given category, you better write exactly within the parameters: for women's fiction, the protag is obviously a woman and the length shouldn't exceed 90,000 words. If you're into Young Adults, then aim for 45,000 to 60,000 words and keep in mind that a female protag is better (meaning "easier to sell") than a male one (does that mean teen-age boys don't read? Mmmm....). And if you as a writer feel constricted in your genre box, that's your problem. Your agent and publisher will tell you they know better than you what sells and you should toe the line...

Books that cross-over into other genres exist but they are like those categorized under "literature": nobody knows how they will fare. They are NOT safe bets. Because publishing is an industry and it looks at past sales to figure out where the market is headed. Someone famously said (I don't remember who, sorry about that) that it was akin to driving with only the rear-view mirror as a guide. It certainly is. And it explains those sudden success stories that come out of the blue, most famously J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter series and Stieg Larsson's trilogy, both of whom had been rejected by major publishers and eventually came out on small presses (yes, they do have a role in spite of their modest size: they are often pioneers and willing to take risks the bigger ones won't).  If the publishing industry had not been using its rear-view mirror, it might have seen them coming.

So how could the publishing industry improve its chances of spotting the Next Big Writer? I have some ideas about that and I'll put them in a future post. In the meantime, let me throw a question at you:
are you a habitual reader of a given genre or are you willing to try different genres?

I know that I can't stick to a given genre. I might read a lot of thrillers, and then I give up. I need a change of pace and start reading completely different books (including a lot of non-fiction).

How do you read?

Is the publishing industry right in assuming that genre is a major key to successful marketing, or are they missing out on a lot of people who "switch" genres at the drop of a hat?

Do let me know! I've added a POLL up on the right sidebar: please vote!
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The Motto of the French Republic Liberty, Equa...Image via Wikipedia
Of the 20,000 illegal immigrants that have invaded Italy since January, most are Tunisians and most want to go to France: they speak French, they have family there and they are (mostly) young men who want to work. In Italy, for them there's no work (the recession is still on-going). And of course they don't feel at home, they don't speak Italian.

But France won't have it. Unbelievable! What has happened to the country of "freedom" and "equality"? Where has the French cultural heritage and revolutionary motto of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" gone to? Not to mention the deep-seated cultural linkage with Tunisia, a one-time colony of France that has had its values shaped by France's liberal heritage...

True, the French were slow to respond to Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution". Does anyone still call it that? Since popular uprisings, starting from Tunisia and spreading to Egypt, have eventually overwhelmed the whole of the Middle East, the tendency now is to talk of the "Arab Spring".

Well, the calendar says it's springtime but the French will have none of it. They are determined to stay in winter and they've tightly shut their doors against what Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi likes to call the "immigrant tsunami". They've already sent back to Italy some 1700 illegal immigrants that had managed to cross into France since the beginning of the year, presumably from the Ventimiglia bordertown. At this point, I'm pretty sure that if the immigrants are smart,  they're flooding into France from other places because French border police patrols have turned the whole area between Nice and Ventimiglia into a well-guarded military zone.

And now other European countries are following France in this bunker mentality: Germany and Belgium! Expect more countries soon as everyone takes the stance that the illegal immigrant emergency is Italy's problem, and Italy's alone...Actually not quite. Today Germany declared that they are more willing than the Italians - "ten times more willing!" - to receive immigrants and they have taken in...100 Africans who had taken refuge in Malta. One hundred as compared to the 20,000 (more likely 22,000) now milling about in Italy? And they pretend they are "more willing"? I can't believe this: what is Europe and the European spirit of cooperation coming to? Actually, it is clear that there never was any, and Ms. Merkel who is one tough lady couldn't care less about Europe (as she's amply shown when Greece got into deficit). All she thinks of is Germany first - without realizing that by weakening Europe she is in the end weakening Germany too. But I'm getting carried away: that would be the subject matter of another post...

As of now, the fact is that Fortress Europe has been breached on its southern border. 20,000 immigrants in 3 months is clearly more than any single European country can handle, even a big one like Italy.  But it seems that the rest of Europe prefers to jettison Italy rather than try to help it solve the problem. Do you think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. The Italians have justifiably complained now for months that they are alone in bearing the brunt of the invasion. And so they are. Europe won't hear about it and in Brussels the European Commission has gone mum on the subject. The Commission has yet to develop a common policy to address the issue of immigration, and that's a policy that should have been developed BEFORE we ever got into the mess we are now in.

What can Italy do? Not much. So far, it's done everything it can to wiggle out of this uncomfortable situation. First it has had to solve its own internal problems (I've blogged about this before, see here). Nobody in Italy wanted refugee holding camps near their own hometown, and some still don't. Such as Alemanno, the Mayor of Rome who claims Rome has had its "fill of problems" and can't take anymore - not a very Christian position, and certainly not in line with the Catholic Church.

Second, Italy turned to Tunisia, the major source of the problem, to see what could be done.The first politicians to go there were the Foreign Affairs Minister Frattini and the Interior Minister Maroni. Remarkably, the latter belongs to the anti-immigrant Lega Nord or Northern League but he is a very practical individual - not someone given to wearing ideological goggles. While most of the work was likely done by Maroni, Prime Minister Berlusconi took a last trip early this week to try and gather the laurels for himself. Regardless of who managed it, some positive results were in fact achieved.

In exchange for Italian investment support to Tunisia (the exact terms of the agreement are not available as I write, but possibly some €150 million were offered) and an agreement not to expel the first 20,000 immigrants that have landed, Maroni obtained from Tunisia that all additional immigrants that might be coming in Italy would be returned home and that new migrant sailings would be stopped. In return, Maroni issued temporary travel permits (up to 3 months) that in principle allow the immigrants to travel within the visa-free Shengen Area that covers 25 countries in continental Europe - including France and Switzerland, thus opening a wide swath of frontier between the three countries. As of today and keeping to its side of the agreement, Tunisia has started again to patrol its borders and is said to have stopped a boat from sailing off to Italy.

Problem solved? Not at all. Paris is furious and sent yesterday its Interior Minister Claude Guéant to Rome. Germany and Belgium are equally furious and several officials have said so publicly. The day before coming to Italy, Guéant issued an order to his prefects that no one was allowed in France without a proper passport (something illegal immigrants don't have) and demonstrated income for self-support (at least €62/day - something immigrants dream of having !). On top of that, they can be expelled if they "disturb the public peace" - something very easy to provoke and a perfect basis for expulsion. To make matters even more complicated, there is a 1997 Italo-French treaty, the so-called "Chambéry agreement" signed a few weeks before Schengen and thus effectively putting a lid on Schengen. This agreement enables France to return to Italy any and all immigrants as it sees fit provided it can prove they came from Italy - thereby negating the very spirit of the Schengen treaty which was supposed to provide European citizens with the kind of freedom across state borders that Americans enjoy without even noticing it.

Indeed, the Italian Interior Minister Maroni was quick to point out that France's move is equivalent to a suspension of Schengen. To his accusation, the Belgians and Germans were equally quick to point out that it is Italy who has "broken" Schengen - because it wasn't able to "defend" its frontiers and "manage" the wave of illegal immigration (remember: 22,000 in 3 months - that's 7,000/month. Who can "manage" such numbers when these are people without papers or money?) I really believe that France has turned anti-European, and with it, so has Germany and Belgium.

Everybody would like to see the Italians resolve the immigration problem for them. And if they don't, that's because the Italians are hopeless, and Berlusconi is a buffoon, right? Wrong! I'm really angry because what's behind all this anti-European stance is nothing but self-interest and parochial politics. President Sarkozy is worrying about getting re-elected in 2012: he is playing to the extreme right, trying to win back votes from Marine Le Pen's party (she went to Lampedusa a few weeks ago and has created a storm over the immigrant issue). Ditto for Ms. Merkel who's just lost regional elections and is in a very precarious position. If they can get votes at the expense of Europe, what do they care?

Oh my Europe, where have you gone? 

Okay, today France and Italy have supposedly resolved their "diplomatic disagreement". Maroni and Guéant have agreed to jointly patrol the waters to stop migrants from Africa. But how France will deal with the temporary permits issued by Italy to immigrants is a bit befuddled in the news. Both countries said they would "deal" with this problem. But how?

I have a suspicion - and I only hope I'm wrong. Would you believe that what is facing illegal immigrants, rather than liberté, égalité and fraternité,  is  "la mort" - death? If you don't believe me, look at the French Revolution motto I put up at the top of my post. It very clearly says: "la mort"! All right, I'm kidding: it's not actual death. But it is the social equivalent: people won't be allowed to stay on, full stop. And that's what Sarkozy's France means - regardless of the stance he has taken on Lybia and the kudos gained for being the first to protect civilian lives in Benghazi with air strikes and the first to recognize the Lybian opposition's government. In other words, the doors are shut!

And of course, Germany is not far behind. Just watch their anger against Italy unfold and expand!

POST SCRIPTUM  Monday 11 April 2011 is the day Italy was proved wrong by its European partners in Luxemburg, at the meeting of internal affairs and justice ministers. The idea that North African migrants could be allowed to spread throughout the Schengen Area was killed. And Europe is back to turning itself into a fortress: everybody agreed that strong patrolling of the Mediterranean is what's needed to push off illegal immigrants.

The Schengen agreement actually means nothing since you have to have a passport to cross borders. Where is the European spirit? Schengen is like asking Americans to exhibit their passport when they go from New York to Connecticut!

Good-bye Europe!

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Is Traditional Publishing Headed for a Blow-up?

A stereotypical caricature of a pirate.Image via Wikipedia

The sales of e-books  have outpaced printed books for the first time this year at Amazon, the number one on line bookseller in the world. People are talking about the digital revolution being something as big, nay, BIGGER than Gutenberg's invention of the printing press around 1440.  We're into a new age, the possibilities are infinite, everything will change!

Does that mean that the printed book is dead and that traditional publishers are on their way out?

No, I don't believe so. I am convinced the future of publishing is anything but bleak! By the way, I'm looking at it as an economist and political analyst - not as an aspiring fiction writer (which I also happen to be, but that's incidental - for that matter, I'm also a painter - which has nothing to do with the argument at hand...).  I just wanted to point out that I'm trying to evaluate the situation in a detached, scientific way (hum, gasp, cough).

The first thing to realize is that e-books are NOT going to eat into the current market. The pie, with the advent of digital titles, will expand. E-books will add to the book market in general, bringing in lots of new readers - people who after a first jolly experience on their i-pad or kindle will go on to buy paper books for the first time in their lives! And remember, digital editions are forever. They're not like printed books, sitting on your local bookstores shelves for a few weeks and then gone. E-books are FOREVER! Which means they are accessible, ready to be downloaded on your e-reader anytime. You don't have to go to the book store to order and then wait for the book to be sent by mail. No, e-books are just a click away!

Second, as with any BIG change in an industry's parameters, expect a wave of bankruptcies and consolidations. The biggest bookstore in the US, Borders, has gone into receivership which means, inter alia, that traditional publishers have lost miles of physical shelf space for their books. Talk of a tsunami! You can expect that over the next few years, even the Big 6 (the main American publishers) will have to reconsider their marketing strategies, their costs and do everything they can to ensure their survival - perhaps even move out (gasp!) of Manhattan! And expect some to go under. That may not be fun for those involved, but it's physiological. When structural change comes to an industry, only the fittest survive.

Bookstores, however, are at this moment taking the brunt of the storm (as shown by Borders). They need to react ASAP and become more imaginative to turn themselves into welcoming places, like Starbucks and provide coffee to attract clients or organize conferences and local contests to engage the community. There are a number of bookstores of that sort in Europe, places that straddle the Internet and offer a haven to the local community, and they seem to prosper.  Advisory services could also be provided to their clients, things like advice on e-readers, the best apps, and help them locate interesting stuff to read on Internet - that is, turn themselves into "gatekeepers" of sorts, to guide people in the jungle of e-books.

Because it's fast becoming a jungle: there are lots and lots of titles out there. If you look at the top 100 best-selling titles on Kindle, you'll be amazed at the BIG proportion of self-published books - I didn't count, but at a glance, it's much more than half! To find "good" authors (in the sense of "good read") is becoming a well-nigh impossible enterprise. I know because I do that repeatedly for my mother who's 97 and an avid reader (she loves her Kindle). You get the feeling that the famous "slush pile", all those manuscripts rejected by publishers and literary agents as "unfit to print", all of them are suddenly on sale. And, perhaps more surprisingly, they are finding customers! Yes, people do buy these books! Sure, they're priced at $O.99 so that's probably why people buy them. But the more successful e-authors who started at that price, have found they could jack up their price to $2.99 and more (but always well under the $9.90 borderline established by traditional publishers) and still make money...in spite of the lack of editing, poor plot structure and typos... Which goes to show that a good yarn sells more easily than "literature".

That may be a depressing thought for some but it's definitely a golden opportunity for others: with the expansion of the book market, a lot of "unsophisticated" first-time readers have been drawn in, and they're the sort of people who enjoy a good story and don't care too much about how it's told. 

This means that one of the traditional roles of publishers of printed books, i.e. being "gatekeepers" to ensure a "minimum" level of "quality", has been seriously weakened and others could jump in the void. Magazines and papers and blogs with a big following that review books are doing that job now, but why not bookstores? And the big bookstore chains could consider providing print-on-demand services for all things digital. Indeed, that's where the real competition for printed books might yet come from...

To sum up: with the digital revolution, everybody's role is changing, and it's not just bookstores that have to rethink themselves. Publishers also need to reconsider their role. They often give the impression of being on the defensive as they progressively tighten their contracts with writers and lower advances. Six-digit figures are a rarity nowadays. Publishers even cut advances up in 4 parts, meant to follow the different stages in the publishing process, and that means you  get only 1/4th of your "advance" upon signing the contract.  Sure, this is a tough business, they try to get the most out of every deal. But writers are publishers' natural allies: writing is the source of their business. So publishers need to realize that if they stop scraping authors naked, and instead treat them right, they will make of them faithful allies. I am willing to bet that the first publishers who realize this will see their prospects turn for the better real fast. And the first thing they should consider doing is giving authors a better deal on e-book royalties and making a better job of providing supportive book marketing. Because in this Internet age, the buzz word is king, and authors, through such important blogs as Writer Beware learn real soon who are the publishers to avoid...

Because e-rights are forever and more and more writers are realizing this. And more and more are unwilling to give up returns on their books forever  when all the publishers have done is a one-time investment in them. After all, the money you have to put up front to get yourself e-published is relatively small - just about anyone can afford to do it. Of course, not everyone has the necessary on line presence and the desire to spend all that time into marketing one's book.

Most writers would still prefer to spend most of their time writing...

So there's a glimmer of hope for traditional or "legacy publishers". There will be more Amanda Hockings who after establishing themselves as self-published wonders (she made one million dollars in her first year of digital self-publishing), will be coming back into their fold. And there will be probably fewer Barry Eisler walking away from them. Remember him? He is that feisty writer who refused a $ 500,000 advance from St.Martin's Press for two books. But then, on closer examination, it wasn't really such a good deal: $250,000 per book minus the 15% going to his agent, plus the fact that he'd get next to nothing for his e-rights. And, remember, e-rights are forever!

The real challenge for legacy publishers will be the midlist authors who can make a big buck turning their back list into e-books. Joe Konrath's success is an example for all midlist writers. Publishers will just have to figure out a way to get into that juicy market - and they won't get into it unless they bend their position on e-rights. They want too much for far too long. They really should consider another model, for example putting a time frame on e-rights and allow authors to regain them after, say, 5 years, but - and that's an important "but" - with a renewal clause for another 5 years on condition that the publisher agrees to engage in some additional marketing. That would encourage writers to sign up with them rather than go the self-publishing e-route.

AND they need to provide a service of value to the authors, in particular marketing support (that's something writers normally don't like to do: if you're a writer, let's face it, you're an introvert, you really don't have a salesman personality...) Publishers could easily make sure their authors get reviews, and not any kind of reviews, but good ones from respected reviewers with a known and proven following.

And they could consider doing something else too, something no one talks about much because it's scary: I'm referring to piracy. Yes, publishers could try and provide more effective means to fight off piracy. Individual authors are not well-placed to defend themselves and few are internet-savvy. To fight off piracy requires experts. Pirates - I mean hackers - are getting better all the time and a lot of people out there, a writer's regular readers, don't even think that downloading a book for free is a form of criminal offense. The author has sweated over writing his book and deserves a fair $ return for his pains. Let's face it, pirate are pirates and should be jailed. Now, in the digital world, that's hard to do and it requires huge means to properly police the Internet. And it means publishers and e-book sellers will have to work together.

Because, let's face it, the biggest danger the digital revolution brings to the publishing industry is PIRACY! It might yet bring together everybody: Amazon.com, traditional bookstores, e-book platforms and publishers, both those into "legacy" publishing and e-books, for the greater good of authors and their readers...But then I'm an incorrigible optimist!

 PS: I apologize to my readers for my silence this week-end: I was away at a fabulous writers' 4-day retreat  in Matera, an amazing art town you should visit on your next trip to Italy. The retreat, aptly named "Brainstorming at the Spa" because we were lodged in a lovely hotel with a thermal pool, was organized by Elizabeth Jennings , an energetic lady who happens to be both a successful romantic suspense author and founder of the Women's Fiction Festival in Matera, the best writers' conference on continental Europe. Imagine me with 18 fellow writers, some newbies like me and others who are respected veteran published authors with more than one pen name hanging from their belt (one pen name for each genre published, like Elizabeth Edmondson and Rosemary Laurey - and to think I'm only on my first pen name!).

There we were, all day long, huddling together in a honey-colored, vaulted troglodyte cave, brainstorming about our WIP (jargon for "work-in-progress", the novel each of us is writing), under the benevolent eye of dynamic, market-savvy agent Christine Witthohn of the Book Cents Literary Agency. (Click here for pictures). I know each of us walked away enriched by that experience, with a clearer idea of where we are heading, and strengthened by the wonderful new friendships made (yes, a writer's life can be very lonely indeed...)

Let me hasten to add that the article I wrote above is entirely my own and reflects what I think will happen at this most dangerous moment for the publishing industry. So please, those of you who disagree with me, do come forward and make comments! I'd welcome a rousing discussion on where YOU think the publishing industry is headed! 
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Protest March (Afghanistan 2009)  oil on wood by Claude

Should children accompany their parents on protest marches?

I guess the answer would be: "it depends". Yes, on whether there is any danger or not. That seems fairly obvious. Yesterday, on the small island of Lampedusa, the local population (5,000) beset by waves of immigrants that are now more numerous than they are (over 6,000), decided to protest. They stormed public buildings and blocked the road to the port. Women and children joined the protesters. One can understand them: so far the Rome government has done precious little, the local structures for welcoming immigrants have collapsed long ago, and there are reports that over a thousand immigrants are going hungry because there's not enough food for them on the island! Today, Berlusconi is reportedly taking a trip to Lampedusa to survey the disaster in person. He really could have done that a little sooner, and more importantly, not wait yet another day (till tomorrow, for the Council of Ministers) to take a decision and start solving the problem.

Yet in spite of the mess in Lampedusa, security conditions were not really (or not yet) an issue. So it made sense for women and children to join in with their protesting husbands, brothers and fathers.

It would seem equally logical and a no-brainer to argue that children should not be involved if there are risks of violence. Yet, people in Egypt and Tunisia - the "early Arab Spring" countries - took that risk and nothing happened. It seemed that no child got hurt. Now that we are in a "late Arab Spring", violence has increased, and as you may have probably noticed, there are no children involved in the current demonstrations in Syria or Yemen - at least, none that I noticed. Bahrein seemed to have been an in-between case: there were children at first, particularly when people camped out on Pearl Square through the night, but none in the last days of protest, since the army kicked in - including troops from Saudi Arabia . And of course I'm not mentioning Libya here, that's a case apart.

So, in general, parents are responsible and concerned about their children's safety. But...There's always a but! Is it fair to involve children in an adult political issues, including hot ones like revolutions and regime changes?

I am not so sure. The spectacle of children screaming slogans along with their fathers disturbs me. What do they know or understand about this? Aren't the parents turning them into instruments of their protests? To protest is a quintessentially adult thing to do. You have to understand the ins and outs of a problem, evaluate the solution and make a decision which could have consequences - a decision that could change the life of your family. How can you involve your children in this? Is it fair to them?

All those questions were at the back of my mind when I painted the protest march (picture above). That's why I picked the purple color as a background - to me purple is a complex color and vaguely menacing. I also zeroed in on the child riding his father's shoulders and made sure the child was screaming harder than his father. Actually, I'm quite certain he is enjoying the ride and the importance his father is giving him.

But is that enough to justify taking children along on protest marches? What do you think?

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The south coast of LampedusaSouth Coast of LampedusaImage via Wikipedia
Italy is at the forefront of the Tsunami of illegal immigrants invading Europe as a result of the "Arab Spring". That was the immediate unwanted effect of the upheavals in the Middle East (from Europe's point of view).

The small Italian island of Lampedusa - the nearest to North Africa, off the coast of Sicily - is particularly hit by this new wave of immigrants: as I write, the island's native population - some 5,000 people - are up in arms blocking the port where immigrants are landing. Since the start of the year, some 20,000 immigrants have arrived and there are more immigrants milling about on this rocky island than there are residents. Just last night 1,973 new immigrants landed! No wonder they are fed up! The local people are panicked: their touristic season about to begin with the warm season - the main source of income besides fishing - is clearly at risk.

Since about two days, the Rome government has made a small move to help (very small): it is now sending a ship everyday, capable of transporting up to 800 immigrants on each trip to the mainland. Clearly not enough. Tomorrow the government will have a "council of ministers" (read a meeting with Berlusconi, at which the President of the Sicilian Region is expected to attend) that will decide on measures to take. Not a minute too soon! In principle, it is expected that more ships will be used for transporting the immigrants to more refugee camps strewn about Italy, including near Pisa and possibly some other place up North. But most of them are still in Sicily and the South that is left essentially alone to bear the brunt of the new arrivals. And southern Italians aren't too happy about this. Speak of Italian Unity after the recent 150 years celebration! Berlusconi, who is a northerner, has been remarkably slow to move and help the southerners' plight. For those of you who speak Italian, check this blog: it will give you the flavor of the bad mood that is gripping the South...

And it is a perfect reflection of the bad mood that is gripping Italians when they consider how indifferent the rest of Europe is to their plight. Since the start of the "Arab Spring", Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has warned of a coming "exodus of biblical proportions". The United Nations refugee agency added its own grain of salt, predicting a wave of 350,000 immigrants about to flood Europe. Others in the media even spoke of ONE MILLION refugees!

Big numbers, supported by the notion that since Italy and Libya had signed an agreement in 2009, Qaddafi effectively policed the Mediterranean and prevented immigrants from fleeing. With the battle for Libya this would stop and open the gates to flows of immigrants - and that was something Qaddafi repeatedly threatened would happen.

Did it happen? Not quite. Of course an immigrant wave did hit Italy and also Malta and Greece - while the rest of Europe looked on, or rather keeps looking away, busy with its own local elections. With both Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel's parties losing ground, much to the delight of the left (socialists and Greens), northern Europeans are much more interested in their own little problems than in waves of illegal immigrants descending on Europe.

Yet they're wrong. The French are particularly wrong: most of these immigrants are Tunisians who (being French-speaking) have but one goal, reach France and work there.

Because that's the BIG surprise: in spite of what Qaddafi said, most immigrants are NOT Libyans. So far, there has been an "exodus", not doubt about it, but the "biblical proportion" applies to Tunisians: they started arriving en masse about a month ago. Up to now (but of course that may not last), only some 500 Libyans have arrived - perhaps less ( of course, it's always hard to figure out who's who since they land without passport). Most of those coming from Libya in fact are not Libyans at all. For the most part they are complete foreigners to the region (mostly black Africans) who held menial jobs in Libya and are now escaping (after their Libyan bosses threw them out - most of these poor souls have lost all their savings while waiting for a boat to sail out, and none of those arriving in Lampedusa had any intention of seeking work in Europe). One may assume that Libyans are presently busy liberating their country from Qaddafi, taking advantage of the no-fly zone and related bombings from NATO/coalition forces - I've added "coalition" here since it has support from some Arab League members - including Qatar that notably joined France in recognizing the CNT, the new government of the Libyan rebellion.

So what happened? Why so many Tunisians? You would think that fewer would try to escape Tunisia since they kicked out Ben Ali, the hated tyrant, and succeeded in establishing a more open regime that should eventually lead, on hopes, to a working democracy with freedom for everyone. Right? Wrong. What happened of course is that the border controls put in place by Tunisian authorities under Ben Ali's rule collapsed. Desperate young men in search of a job jumped aboard ships, paying anywhere between $2,000 to $5,000 to try and land in Europe. Yes, because the Arab Spring has a lot to do with the Big Recession and the huge level of unemployment in the Middle East - and may have more to do with that than all this wonderful talk about democracy.

Have you ever wondered how come the young in all those countries - Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrein, Jordan, Syria etc - had so much time on their hands to go out and protest in the streets, day after day for a whole month or more? It's because they're unemployed, that's why! And of course, understandably angry at the lack of future for them when they see their governing elite basking in luxury and privileges...

A couple of days ago, the Italian Foreign Minister Frattini, accompanied by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni offered help to the Tunisian government in return for the re-establishment of border controls. He was fairly generous, offering to help the Tunisian government fight illegal migration with aid of nearly 80 million euros ($113.3 million) and setting up Tunisian border guards. In addition, credit lines of 150 million euros would be extended to help revive the Tunisian economy. And finally, Frattini aired the idea of giving immigrants who had landed in Italy a bonus in cash - up to €1,700 - to agree to return home . That was something you will recall that had been done with the Roms who left France last year. In fact, as Frattini pointed out, it is a European policy even though Bossi, the head of the Lega Nord, immediately cried foul, and demanded immigrants be kicked back home without a cent. He and others on the right clamored that if we gave in to this kind of policy, we'd soon be faced with a tourism of premium-seekers, going back and forth across the Mediterranean.

Quite frankly, I don't think that will happen. Premium seekers? Only a tiny minority, if at all. Overall, I think it's a pretty neat idea.

But it's only half of an idea. Much more ought to be done to try and genuinely kick-start those North-African economies. Italy's proposal to extend a credit line to Tunisia is a good idea, provided one has a clear idea of what the credit is for. Lady Ashton's proposal to support the Egyptian move to democracy with money - a sort of mini Marshall Plan to create jobs in Egypt - is probably also a very good idea.

But - and it's a big but!- we're facing there, in the Middle East, the same problem we have here at home with our own youth: an unbelievably high level of unemployment. Have you noticed? On average the young are twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the working population in any given country.

Why is that? All sorts of reasons, not least of them an education system that's too academic and doesn't correctly prepare one for working in the real world. And an economic system that does not favor innovation and start-ups. Politicians talk a lot about giving support to medium and small-size enterprises but actually do very little that is actually effective and likely to be a game changer. For example, a tax holiday would be a great game-changer for a start-up but what is our political class doing about it? Talking about curbing budget deficits, that's what! The idea that government should help young entrepreneurs is anathema to them. Just listen to Cameron and Osborne: these guys are convinced that if they cut back on government, the private sector will take over and solve everything. For the moment, all we see is a UK economy in free fall...

Let's face it, we don't have the answers to solve their economic problems since we're not even able to solve our own. We don't have job openings for 350,000 immigrants, it's as simple as that. Europe is still in recession for Goodness' sake, and Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain (not to mention Italy and the UK that are a little better but not much) are struggling!

What should we do? Well, it's a little late in the day, isn't it? The amazing thing is that anyone could see this immigrant tsunami coming - actually it's been coming on and off, big waves followed by smaller waves, over the past twenty years or more. How come no one has come up with a solution? Well, no use crying over spilled milk, no one has - that's how imaginative and provident our political class really is. Awful. And giving illegal immigrants a bonus for returning home is only an emergency solution.

Long-term, we ought to do something more and better. Like:
(1) invest over there to help them develop their economy and create jobs for their own citizens (everybody agrees on that one, though little is actually done and what is done rarely give the expected results...);

(2) check out what jobs are available in Europe that no European wants (nobody discusses this nor does it, yet it would be of immediate effect). Indeed, it would be both helpful and relatively easy to do: check out the immigrants' education and skill levels and match them with available job opportunities. For example, nursing of the aged: that's an area where there's rising demand in a fast-aging society such as ours, yet available nurses are scarce and perhaps some of the immigrants may have medical or nurse training. There are probably other areas. I remember here in Rome a baker who was lamenting to me the fact that he couldn't find a young man willing to get up in the middle of the night to work on the dough - yet that's the only way to bake good bread (other bakers have solved the problem using industrial frozen dough - very much the case in France where bread has become as a result very, very mediocre, believe me). Related to this, one could envisage providing complementary training whenever necessary to bring their skill level up to (European) par. And I don't mean big training: just short stuff, like recycling and refresher courses.

(3) Make job information widely available to the public so that everyone becomes aware of job opportunities - not only Europeans but also people abroad who think they can come to Europe and find a job.

Illegal immigrants are desperate people who live by myths, and one of their undying myths is that economic well-being is to be found in Europe for anyone willing to take the risk to cross the water. That myth needs to be re-dimensioned. Indeed, it should be killed with a serious information campaign across all of Africa (and other places in the developing world). It's a myth that misleads people, causes them to squander their savings and take unwonted risks with their lives. So many have died in the pursuit of that myth! It's just not fair and we should invest all our energies in spreading around credible, trustworthy information about the real job situation in Europe. And stop that myth of an Europa felix once and for all.

What do you think? What should we do in your opinion?

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Warning: Digital Tsunami Over the Publishing World!

Digital RevolutionImage by charlesdyer via Flickr
This week NYT bestseller author Barry Eisler walked away from a $500,000 advance from his publisher, St. Martin's Press, because he's going to self-publish his next book (one of a successful series) in digital form. And within days, famous indie publisher Amanda Hocking who made more than one million in self-publishing her YA paranormal trilogy on Kindle and other e-readers, got an advance of over $2 million for her next 4 books from... guess who? The St. Martin's Press.

That caused an unprecedented tsunami both in the printed media and the blogosphere. All aspiring writers and newbies are salivating and publishers are pulling their hair. I've listed some of the more interesting blogs and articles below, and here is my own take on it.

Can publishers prevent the likes of Eisler from walking away? No, I don't think so. Is this a real problem? Probably not. Let's face it, not too many authors are like Eisler. You can walk away ONLY IF you have an ESTABLISHED MARKET for your books, in short lots of fans that make it worthwhile for you to walk away.The rest of us, especially newbies that have no particular presence online (or elsewhere) will always need to go the "legacy publisher route", at least for their first few novels.

Non-fiction is another story: if you have a good "platform" (for example, you're a university professor, a well-known researcher,a successful actor, in short an authority or a celebrity), you can jump straight into e-book self-publishing.

Does that mean it's the end of legacy publishers? Not at all. Setting aside for a moment our fascination for all things digital, let's remember that traditional books in paper have several advantages over digital books, and will retain them FOREVER:
1. they're nice objects to own and decorate your home with (they feel good to hold in your hands, they can have pretty covers); you can take them with you in your bathtub;
2. you can use them for gifts; you can get them signed ;
3. they're much easier to share with friends and family than e-books;
4. they're testimony to your tastes and show everyone who you are through what you read; nobody can bandy about e-books and for some people that's a distinct disadvantage for the digital;
5. they're easy to use as reference: just flip the pages and come to your favorite quotation, or (woe!) write in the margins, underline, stick a note in, fold the corners; this is especially true for non-fiction but even "great" novels are nice to have around for easy reference...

Publishers (and literary agents) take heart, your days aren't over yet! And look at Amanda Hocking: here is a tale to warm your hearts. Like in the song "Pretty Woman", she's walked by you, but no, there she stops and changes her mind: "Yeah! She's walking back to me!!!"

So we get to the next big question: can we expect unpublished authors, i.e. newbies with no legacy and zero Internet presence, to earn more money going the self-publishing route? No, I don't think so.

Indeed, I am convinced e-publishing is a lure, a mirage, a false promise and newbies should beware!

Consider those who've "made it" digitally: they are either (at a minimum) so-called "mid list authors", i.e. people who have published fairly successful books without ever reaching top rankings but who, overtime, have developed a loyal following of readers and managed a fair online presence; or extraordinary, meteor-like new authors that punch through unexpectedly, like Amanda Hocking. But Amanda Hocking is a self-confessed avid Twitter! She has a big on line presence! People who make it this way all have a strong online presence and, above all, Internet social networking savvy. These are people who blog, face-book and twitter all day long (or seem to). Hardly ordinary folks!

Sure, if you're a successful blogger, twitter etc, you can make it.

But what, at a minimum, can be considered a "successful blogger"? Look at Nathan Bransford's blog numbers, and you'll get an idea. See how many fans he's got (and had before he became a YA author himself). Ok, you don't need as big a blog as his - and indeed Google gives you an idea of what size needs to be reached to "have an online presence". Along with their Adsense (a gadget to allow advertising on their site), they give out numbers that are very interesting: from them, it is possible to evince that a blog makes a (small) amount of advertising money only if it reaches 1,000 hits a day! So, all ye bloggers out there and would-be authors, get ready to reach 1,000 hits a day! Btw, that means having at least 100 pageviews a day - a different statistic: it means people have actually stayed on your site and read something! And out of those 100, not everyone will go out and buy your book...

Just thought I'd mention those numbers to make it clear how difficult it is to emerge from the mass of e-book publications: it's already a tsunami out there (Kindle alone has well over 500,000 titles!)

Then there are other necessary strategies to "make" it into digital publishing: (1) pick a genre that sells well and stick to it; (2) be ready with more than one title - five or six is best! Amanda Hocking started with a clear successful genre and had a trilogy going just for starters; (3) work out a pricing strategy: $0,99 to launch the book, then raise the price up incrementally to around $4 and then lower again if your perceive your sales slowing down...You have to be real good at gaging what the "traffic will bear".

Hey, newbie, are you ready with all that? And its a lot: you need to belong to a fast-selling genre, to have half-a-dozen books ready, to have a fair and rising on line presence, to exercise marketing control over your sales...I can't say I am!

Do check out the following posts and articles on the subject that are all extremely illuminating:
1. Jane Friedman's:
2. The Shatzkin files
3. Zoe Winters on e-book pricing
4. Mary Kole (Andrea Brown Literary Agency) on role of literary agents
5. Carolyn McKray's Tips for making your book a success on Amazon
6. New York Times article: Amanda Hocking sells book series to St. Martin's Press
7. What it takes to become a brand name: Wall Street Journal The Case of the Best-selling Author
8. Dean Wesley Smith: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: the Myth of Security

Happy reading!
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