Publishing: What makes a Blockbuster?

P Harry PotterHarry Potter LightiningImage via Wikipedia
What turns a book into a blockbuster? 

The chances for a blockbuster are remote, more like Nassim Taleb's "black swan", swooping in unannounced out of a clear blue sky. 

Yet, history overtime and recent history as well, is filled with striking examples. Take a look at the classics: Shakespeare and Dante, as a friend of mine recently reminded me, were best sellers in their days. People flocked to Shakespeare's play, drawing Queen Elizabeth I 's attention. Bocaccio read on street corners Dante's poems that were in vernacular Italian and not Latin: an absolute novelty at the time. Both Dickens and Balzac were first read in installments in cheap papers. 

Closer to us, Rowling's Harry Potter took the planet by surprise - and to think that the ms was turned down by all major publishers and was eventually published by a small press. Ditto for Stieg Larsson's trilogy. Who would have bet on a Swedish noir filled with political and social considerations? Nobody: too exotic, too narrow, too highbrow, too weird. Yet it was a world-wide success. Same with Brown's Da Vinci Code: twenty years ago, it would have been considered a highly dangerous ms dragging the Vatican in mud. Or consider the extaordinary case of Twilight: vampires and romance for young adults were considered a no-no until Stephanie Meyers' ms turned into a blockbuster, proving everybody wrong on that one.

So what's the next Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code?

Or, if you prefer, what makes a blockbuster what it is? We all know a blockbuster is essentially a "good story". But what makes a story good? The $64,000 question! A question every agent and publisher would love to have answered.  The publishing industry loves to classify books by "genres" - it's historical, you know: it began with blockbusters in a particular kind of story, thus laying the basis for "genre" classification. For example, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte for Romance, Agatha Christie for murder mysteries, Tolkien for Historical Fantasy, Azimov for Science Fiction etc.   I tried to take a poll asking readers whether they read exclusively in a given genre or moved about. Check the poll on my blog: you'll see it's up on the right-hand-side corner...Unfortunately, so far too few people took it for me to put it to scientific use! But please vote if you have a minute, and I'll use the results in a later post. It is already beginning to show something that makes some sense: it would seem that a minority of people (about a third) read exclusively in a given genre. Most people like to change genre or flit about. I certainly do.

So I'm going to try to come up with an answer without the help of the poll. First, let's get a few concepts out of the way. We all know that "genre" is basically a marketing instrument. Your book "fits" into a genre, it responds to certain prerequisites. And they can be very restrictive in terms of length (number of words), pace, story and character "arc": for example, you can't have a "romance" that doesn't have a female POV and a satisfying "she" and "he" embrace at the end. Every genre has its characteristic features like a cooking recipe, and if your book departs from them, woe on you, your book shall fail, the way a watercress soup made with sugar would.

Once a book "fits" a genre, everybody is reassured: it has a given, known "market" - i.e. based on past selling history of similar books, it will sell so many copies in such and such area/audience etc. Gives publishers a feeling of security. And, icing on the cake, it simplifies everybody's life: bookstores know where to shelve the book and Amazon where to stick it in its ebooks classification system. The genre defines the audience the book is aimed at, and therefore it becomes a lot easier to promote in the "right" places...

If this was all "genres" were about - a help in marketing - it might be okay. But the concept is often carried too far, and "crossover genres" or books that don't fit anywhere will often end up in the so-called "literary" genre, considered unanimously to be a difficult market with next-to-no sales (except for the occasional "black swan"). Or more simply it will be thrown straight into the thrash bin. A pity, because, as must be obvious to any rational human being, pushing everything into the thrash bin because it doesn't fit into a pre-conceived category, means that the publishing industry is at risk of freezing up. And by-passing some real gems.

Why have we gotten to this point? Partly because the publishing industry is so big nowadays and so many millions of new titles are published every year that there is an obvious need to approach the situation with a minimum of rational categories. To try to make sense of it all and push off stuff that causes confusion. Nobody likes a mess. 

But, and now I'm getting to my point, it would almost seem like people in the publishing industry are convinced that readers are tied to a given genre and don't move on, nor try anything different. My question is: are they really?  Considering how nothing bores people more than monotony - the same soup served over and over again - this is really surprising and flies counter to everything we know about human psychology. People want change! They crave for something new, different, innovative.

Come to think of it: that's precisely the quality of every blockbuster. They've broken new ground, they've served up a watercress soup with...yes, with sugar, why not? That would be different, right? Back in the late 1950s - early 1960s, I remember the sudden success of the "Nouvelle Vague" in French fiction : these were novels without any plot at all. They rejected reliance on past forms of the novel, feeling that readers had been subjected to a dictatorial plot-line and that had to change. So the writing just went on and on, meandering Proust-like, for 300 pages and more of slow-moving description of living though, say, a dinner party. The exact reverse of pace and suspense. Yet, for a while, those books sold like hot cakes, and they had a lasting effect on the cinema, with notable results in the hands of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Chabrol.

So, what do you think is the true nature of a blockbuster? And how should the publishing industry equip itself to look for them?

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Bin Laden Dead: A Victory or More Terror to Come?

Osama bin Laden Killed; ID Confirmed by DNA Te...Bin Laden ID confirmed by DNA testing...

President Obama has announced it, the news are all over Internet: bin Laden has been killed and buried at sea.

Understandably, to avoid any political complications, Americans did not want to catch him alive. Big moment for America. A symbolic victory.

Mission accomplished?

Yes, insofar as it goes. But the blogosphere is already abuzz with news of people doubting that he is really dead. Next there will be cries for revenge. Al-Qaeda will get started again on yet another round of terroristic killings. Actually, many Americans expect this, starting with Leon Panetta, the current CIA Director.

So, yes, I'm pleased America has achieved its goal of decapitating al-Qaeda. But will it slow down Islamic integralism and the more extreme forms of violence?

Quite frankly, I don't think so. Since al-Qaeda is a highly fragmented organization, with lots of terrorist cells sprinkled here and there, cutting off its head is not likely to affect its effectiveness.

On the other hand, the situation facing al-Qaeda hasn't changed significantly in recent years: it hasn't been playing a noticeable role in the on-going "Arab Spring" movements - not even in Yemen where it is supposedly very active. Not only that, but it appears that Osama bin Laden  had already lost - or was losing - public support in Muslim countries, according to a recent Pew research. Moreover, while he was a charismatic leader to his al Qaeda followers, no doubt about it, he had, it seemed, passed over effective leadership to various people in his entourage. The fact that the house he lived in was devoid of any internet and phone connections is ample proof that he was no longer a day-to-day military chief.

Does all this spell the end for al-Qaeda? Not really. The killing of bin Laden could give al-Qaeda some cards to play, reviving the more extreme, violent fringes of terrorism. There could be "lone wolves" ready to act, just about anywhere.

What do you think will happen?
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How would you write about the Frankenstein monster?

A portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster, using p...Frankenstein Portrait Image via Wikipedia

Some literary themes never die, and one of them is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster. To think she was just a sweet 18 when she dreamt up this horror! It's been visited many times and most recently by  Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in London this spring. But what I wanted to talk about was Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein that I just finished. I found it a very interesting revisit of the Frankenstein theme, even though I can see Andrew Motion may have had some good reasons to bash it when it came out in 2008 (click here the UK Guardian).

But I think it is largely undeserved criticism. It is still a very good read and a remarkable reconstruction of a kind of gothic early 19th century English that puts you straignt into a dark, ghoulish mood. Peter Ackroyd has had te bright idea of setting up Victor Frankenstein as a real person and writing from his point of view.

He imagines Frankenstein as a mad scientist born in Switzerland and a personal friend of Shelley's. This is a bizarre man Shelley's wife Mary might have met. Ackroyd recounts the travels of the three with Byron to Lake Geneva in 1816. We are shown Victor Frankenstein, who is Swiss, acting as a guide for the group and leading them through a frightening storm on the lake and an ill-fated tour of a ghost-ridden castle. Ackroyd leaves us to surmise that these events inspired Mary Shelley to conceive her famous monster.

What I personally didn't like in this book is the way it slows down in the middle: one keeps expecting Victor Frankenstein's creature (a corpse he has electrified, natch) to somehow haunt our travellers through their trip in continental Europe, but that doesn't happen. Instead, we are offered insights into the complex relationship between Byron and Shelley, while Mary helplessly watches on the sideline. This is all very interesting, but a little too intellectual perhaps, and certainly not scary stuff. A bit of a letdown for horror fans!

Mind you, this kind of slowdown seems to happen to a lot of novels these days... oh woe to us, writers! It is so hard to keep up the pace through a book. In a perverse way, I would argue one could learn a lot from reading Ackroyd's book - I mean in terms of story-telling techniques and how to keep up the pace.

Speaking of story-telling: one might also have expected more about what is the true meaning of Shelley's Frankenstein story. Just glance at the article I listed below which pulls together the various meaning of Frankenstein for modern-day readers. Amazing! There are about a dozen different takes on what the monster means, from a warning on the dangers of failing to raise children properly to the dire consequences of circumventing maternity in the birth process (!). Add to this the surprising fact that I mentioned above: this terrifying monster - the greatest of all literature - was invented by an 18 year-old girl, living her first love with the poet of her dreams...Shelley must have been a hard man to live with!

And yes, another very important point: the summer of 1816 when Shelley and his wife Mary travelled to the continent with Byron was the time Europe was suddenly plunged in a terrifying climate change caused by the explosion of  Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia. It was the biggest volcanic explosion ever: it sent stuff up 30 km in the atmosphere, changing the earth's climate for decades, plunging it in a cold wave that caused untold deaths in Europe from hunger, because there never was a summer that year. It rained incessantly and no crops grew in the unseasonal cold temperatures. There were extraordinary colours in the sky - unusually bright red and yellow sunsets - and those were the colours that inspired Turner. And the strange feeling of impending doom and masses of hunger-stricken individuals, dying left and right, both terrified and fascinated Mary Shelley, probably leading her to the creation of her Frankenstein.

Of course, if the volcano - and that ghastly "non-summer" of 1816 -  inspired Mary, then Ackroyd's novel is left with no legs to stand on. Which is perhaps why the strangeness of that summer is largely downplayed in the novel. And that I think is a real pity, it would have made his book so much more interesting...Which goes to show that if you're into historical stuff you better do your research very carefully! And why couldn't the turn in weather have affected both Victor Frankenstein in Ackroyd's novel and Mary Shelley in real life in the same way? That would have given the book an interesting twist!

Bottomline, Peter Ackroyd did a pretty good job revisiting the Frankenstein theme but there was perhaps space to do an even better job. Did you read Ackroyd's book? Did you like it?

Given half a chance (and the time!), how would you write about the Frankenstein monster?

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Nuclear Energy: Yes or No?

Image of a nuclear explosionNuclear ExplosionImage via Wikipedia
With the Fukushima disaster, the 25-years commemoration of Chernobyl yesterday and Berlusconi announcement that Italy will buy nuclear plants from France's AREVA, the question of nuclear energy has come to the fore like never before. And by the way, Berlusconi's annoucement flies in the face of his own government decision a week ago to shelve nuclear plans and scrap the referendum asking Italian citizens whether they want it or not. Thus Berlusconi goes ahead without even bothering with the referendum!

Clearly France that has bet on nuclear energy, with most of its energy needs coming from AREVA nuclear plants, wants not just Italy but the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world to follow suit. India has just agreed with Areva to build the biggest nuclear plant ever. And Italy is poorly placed to resist French demands, when Berlusconi gives up on just about everything, most notably on the Shengen Treaty...

Before the Italians - or anyone else for that matter - start buying French nuclear plants, they would be well advised to WAIT and SEE how the Chinese are doing with their new type of nuclear plants. I blogged about this before (click here) but I want to draw your attention to this again.

It's very important that we be all aware of what is really going on: every nuclear plant producer, Chinese included, are trying to foist on the rest of the world a nuclear technology that is supposedly "proven" (because it's been around for 50 years) but still highly dangerous.  While AREVA claims it is focussed on ensuring nuclear safety and using a "third" and "fourth" and maybe "fifth generation" technology, there is no reason why we should believe them.

How is nuclear energy dangerous?  It's a very complex matter, but let's try to make it simple. We all know it's dangerous in two fundamental ways: with the so-called "proven" rods-based technology, accidents can easily happen as we have seen with the Japanese desperately battling at Fukushima. Once a nuclear reaction has started inside a reactor, it is very, very difficult to stop. The other aspect is disposal of nuclear material after the plants have run their course. In the long-run, this is probably the greater danger. With thousands of nuclear plants on this planet likely to pop up in the near future (there are over 500 now), I really don't know how anybody thinks that the disposal problem is solved.

Now, back in the 1960s and 70s, there had been several experiments in Germany, the US and elsewhere, with a different approach, not using rods but uranium-enriched "pebbles" coated with protective graphite. For various complex reasons (economic and political), the experiments were abandoned before an actual "test" nuclear plant using "pebbles" had been built. As I write, the Chinese have decided to pick up on those experiments and build a couple of new plants using this technology, whose main advantages are (1) easier control over nuclear accidents because the "pebbles" that are smaller and less prone to radio-activity than rods ; (2) easier disposal with a much shorter "life".

I am no expert and I am simplifying the arguments, but the point should be clear. We should follow the UN Secretary General's five-point call for a moratorium on nuclear energy, until we realize clearly what we are getting into. And we should let the Chinese finish their experiment with their "pebbles" nuclear plants before we decide to go ahead.

That means waiting 3 to 5 years: isn't worth the wait to save the planet and the human race?  
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Political Caricature: 'Go Away, Little Man, an...Image via Wikipedia

Much of the construction of Europe had been in the hands of France and Germany until Sarkozy and Merkel erupted on the scene. These are two politicians more interested in their own political fortune than in the idea of a United Europe.  I should say the ideal of a United Europe that was born after World War II: a brave attempt to prevent once and for all the return of the wars that devasted the continent and pushed Europe to the rank of a third-rate power, behind America and the Soviet Union.

Politicians have changed, and people with vision, the likes of Winston Churchill, Jean Monnet or Robert Schuman, the founding fathers of Europe, are no longer around. Now the new generations have no direct knowledge of either those politicians or those wars - and, alas, no empathy: to them, it's all past stuff, buried in the history books. The young are concerned about employment, about making money, about building the good life for themselves - and who can blame them in these recessionary times?  Even older people have stopped being concerned about Europe. Savvy politicians like Merkel and Sarkozy have been quick to latch on to the new zeitgeist. Their political future depends on it: they are both facing re-election. Neither is willing to defend the European idea, it would cost them too much in terms of votes.

Or so they think.

Edvard Grieg caricatureMusic for the Pigs Image by Bergen Public Library via Flickr

If you believe I'm exaggerating, just look at the recent news: the bailout of Greece first, and then Ireland and now Portugal. A scandal! Every time the Germans dragged their feet, until (in Greece's case) it reached the point of near-collapse for the Euro. And for the moment, nobody's rushing to save Portugal, and everybody's saying things are getting worse in Greece (but austerity programs famously make matters worse). The Germans don't want to pay for the "sins" of their "profligate" Euro partners. They have forgotten, or pretend to ignore that Southern Europe's economic woes has its source - or at least one major source - in Germany's insistence on establishing the Euro as an exact replica of the Deutsche Mark. I'm sure those of you among my readers who lived through the introduction of the Euro in Southern Europe in 2000 will remember how we all suddenly felt poorer. The Euro caused an immediate loss of income for the average consumer (particularly pensioners and fixed-income earners), while giving intermediaries (distributors of consumer goods and services of all kinds, from restaurants to fish market stalls) an unexpected boost, as they played on everybody's confusion about the real value of the new money. That did not happen to Germany, and so far Germany has been the real winner from the introduction of the Euro.

It's simple: before the Euro's introduction, Germany had a small trade deficit; now it has a huge surplus. This is not an opinion of mine, it's a statistical fact: Thanks to the Euro, German exports have remained highly competitive and that's why they've soared.  If those exports had been priced in Deutsche Mark, they would have been hard to sell because the Deutsche Mark would have risen. But the Euro hasn't risen, so prices for German exports were  kept down. And if the Euro didn't rise, that was because of the other (ailing) Euro-partner economies...

It would be about time that Germany consider repaying the moral debt it has incurred with its Euro-partners. Instead the Germans have invented a "carrot and stick" approach: they will help rescue the Euro, provided all 17 euro-partners commit themselves to "more fiscal rigor". We'll help you, ya, if you tighten your belts! That, of course, is easy to say when you yourself have a roaring economy and no belt-tightening to do...

Or consider another recent event:  the wave of illegal immigrants that has flooded Italy, over 25,000 since January 2011. What could Italy do? They came in by the boatload, some of them sinking and losing their lives. Should one shoot them? Put them back in boats and push them out to sea? Of course not. A minimum sense of decency and Christian charity require that something constructive be done. Not easy, and an expensive proposition, no matter what solutions one might come up with: short-term (for example, find job openings suitable for immigrants and not in competition with Europeans) and long-term (invest in new industries in the immigrants' home countries in order to create jobs for them).

Confronted with such a problem, you'd think the European Commission would make constructive proposals. But no, nothing has come out of Brussels except for references to European rules etc. Because naturally, the European structures in Brussels have no solutions to offer, even though the immigration problem is nothing new. All we have is Frontex, a very small and essentially negative start, based on the idea of "border security management" - read: control and rejection of immigrants.

Making matters worse, France, instead of helping Italy, has flatly refused to sort this problem out, beyond of course the usual assurances of helping Italy patrol the seas etc. It has even done worse: it has threatened to suspend the treaty of Schengen - not exactly a perfect arrangement since to cross borders in Europe you still need a passport, but nevertheless a start with the removal of customs barriers. France's refusal is something close to a moral scandal: it simply ignores that it is the natural target destination for most of the immigrants since they are Tunisians, speak French and often have family in France. No surprise considering Tunisia is an ex-colony of France and its middle class has been brought up in the French language and values of freedom, fraternity and equality.

Today Sarkozy met Berlusconi in Rome to discuss the immigration question (and a few others, like the French "hostile" Lactalis OPA on the Italian Parmalat). The results of that meeting have been just as expected: our great politicians have agreed to ask Brussels to "reform Schengen". Sarkozy told reporters with a straight face: "We want Schengen to survive, but to survive it must be reformed." Reformed? It is already quite insufficient as it is (imagine how Americans would feel if to travel from New York to Connecticut they had to take their passport). But now, as Berlusconi added, under "exceptional circumstances", the Schengen treaty can be "suspended" - all in the name of the "rule of law"...

Ha, where is freedom, where is equality, where is fraternity, WHERE IS EUROPE?

My only hope is that a new generation will wake up to values other than making money...

How do you feel about this? Are Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi right? Shouldn't these "exceptional circumstances" be the reason to move forward on Europe rather than backwards? Shouldn't we work on creating common policies to deal with immigration and budget deficits rather than dismantling the few European structures we have?

To tell you the truth, I'm indignant!

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Piss ChristAndres Serrano's Piss ChristImage via Wikipedia
You'd think that question was settled now that buildings in most major urban centres - New York, London, Paris etc - have been cleared of graffiti. 

But, no, it isn't!

In Los Angeles, an on-going graffiti show in the Museum of Contemporary Art is credited with having caused a wave of graffiti in the neighborhood. The police are understandably upset. 

And art critics? They're happy, cavemen painted on their walls, right? So graffiti have a long history, from the cavemen down to us. 

Interesting, because I always sort of felt graffiti were a rather primary, low level of expression... 

Of course, contemporary art has a way of regularly getting itself in trouble - most recently in France, in a show in Lyon, where a rather famous contemporary artist, Andres Serrano, showed a photograph of  a Crucifix drenched in urine, aptly called "Piss Christ" (see pix).  There is nothing new about this "art" and back in the 1980s when it first came out,  it irked American "conservatives" (for lack of a better term to describe those attached to "pre-contemporary" art and objecting to Federal government funds being spent in support of "obnoxious" contemporary art). And, btw, remember? The same was said of Chris Ofili's depiction of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung and female genitalia when it was shown in the Brooklyn Museum. 

This time around, it provoked the ire of catholics in Lyon who vandalized Serrano's work with a hammer and a screwdriver.

Are we sinking into an age of religious militancy? 

After all, when a Danish cartoonist lampooned Mohammed back in 2005, he unwittingly unleashed a wave of attacks that have caused reportedly some 200 dead up to now, directly or indirectly, in clashes between Muslims and Christians, from Nigeria to Pakistan and all sorts of other places in between. 

Now it would seem that intolerance to art that is viewed as blasphemous has extended to Christians and a civilized/secular country such as France. Amazing!

But isn't our real problem with graffiti and contemporary art somewhere else?

I don't know about you, but I'm fed up being "shocked" by contemporary art. One of the people who commented on Dave Meir's thoughtful article in 3QUARKSDAILY.COM (see link below) put it in a striking way and I can't resist the pleasure of quoting:

The progress of avant-garde art is measured in its shocks to bourgeois taste, its criticisms of the middle class. The only problem is: after a century and a half of being shocked, the middle class is feeling pretty numb. There’s not much that can shock us anymore. But the artist is left with a conundrum: If it’s not unpleasant, it isn’t art. 

Indeed, if it's not unpleasant, it's not art. But should art aim to please?

How do you feel about contemporary art? Does it excite you or does it numb you?

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The E-book market: like a Bull in the Publishing Industry's Porcelain Shop!

Start Your Summer Reading EarlyImage by Enokson via Flickr
What is the e-book market all about? Who are the people who read e-books? Nobody really knows for sure. Yet it would be nice to know a little more about this new digital bull threatening to break every glass and porcelain cup in the traditional publishing industry. And, to further mix metaphors, it's not just another butterfly about to die after summer is over (see pix!)

If you knew who buys e-books, you might be better able to aim titles (and "genre" - I'll get back to that in another post: please vote the poll on your right) and hit the jackpot. At this point in time, it's still very early in the e-game and one can only make conjectures.

A few facts are fairly certain. The buyers of e-readers are people with a certain amount of personal means - particularly buyers of the i-Pad which is still fairly expensive. I suspect that the i-Pad market is somewhat different from that of other e-readers. The i-Pad with its jazzy touch-screen technology and bright colours is bound to appeal to fashion-conscious and technology-savvy people while e-readers based on electronic ink in its various shades of grey can only attract "serious" readers, the kind of people that don't care about images or music and just read books, period.

The i-Pad opens the door to "extended" e-books, based on a multi-media approach, with colour illustrations,  music, video-clips and all sorts of extras. Not "real" books, at least not in the traditional sense. Extended e-books are still fairly experimental, and so far they don't really threaten the traditional publishing industry. They could, though, in the not too distant future once they get going in a big way, particularly in the children's book market. But we're not there yet.

Where we are now is with e-books in electronic ink. They are similar to paper books in every way, plus they are highly accessible and portable. On the minus side, you can't autograph them, lend them or resell them (although all these drawbacks are close to some sort of solution sooner or later - for example, it will soon be possible to autograph books on the i-Pad).

Another important fact so far: most buyers are Americans. The big e-market is in the US and that's where some interesting number-crunching can already be done. Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords has made a laudable effort (see HERE) which suggests that e-books' primary market might be in places where people are far away from bookstores. While there is little doubt that accessibility is a major factor and one of the clear advantages of e-books over printed books, enabling distribution problems to be overcome with a single click on an e-reader,  it is probably only an indication of how e-books spread in the early stage of introduction.

This accessibility aspect is also likely to explain the early spread of e-books to the rest of the world - at least in the English language - while e-book in local languages still have to take off, as Meredith Green has shown in her interesting article (see below).

But what about the next stage of the e-book market? No doubt this is a bullish market, growing at exponential rates. E-book sales have already topped paperback sales, suggesting that e-books are likely to replace paperbacks in the not too distant future - particularly considering the exponential speed of growth of the e-book market (at 200% a year, and possibly much more, like tripling or quadrupling over the next couple of years). Actually growth in e-book sales surpasses print sales in all trade categories, fiction and non-fiction. If you consider that e-books on average are cheaper than any form of printed book, then it is probable that the number of book titles sold in digital form is higher than in printed form, although actual figures so far are not available (I haven't seen any - if you have, please let me know). Since printed book sales are headed down, it would appear that people are shifting from printed books to e-books.

Another important point: driving this e-book growth is the fact that people are re-discovering back titles, classics etc, all sold at generally low prices. Lots of people are stocking up like mad as soon as they acquire an e-reader. One of my friends confessed that she's bought some 250 titles since she got her Kindle last year! I haven't, but I suspect that I'm a particularly finicky reader and probably not "in the norm": I don't go for "genre" reading and tend to download samples before deciding to buy, and very often, after twenty pages, I just delete the sample.

The real question becomes: with e-books, is the reading market actually expanding or is it just undergoing a shift onto a new reading platform?

To begin to answer that question one would need to know WHO is buying all those titles. If one can assume that it is your basic group of "core readers" (that famous 20% of readers who buys 80% of titles), and that they just happen to joyfully stock up on classics and back titles after they've acquired their new e-reader, well then, it's just a bubble in sales that won't be maintained over time. A bubble will eventually burst and we need not worry. And it certainly is not indicative of an expansion in the overall market, particularly for new titles.

Let me don my economist's hat for a minute (ugh!) and consider the structure of the e-reading market. First, let's remember that e-readers are bought by people who can afford them, i.e. people with a "comfortable" income, presumably with a steady job and belonging to the cultured middle classes. Second, judging from the spike of e-reader sales at Christmas, a lot of e-readers - perhaps as many as half - are bought as gifts. Presumably (again, nothing is certain) these are gifts for the family, in particular teen-agers. Since teen-agers have generally limited pocket money, one may assume they are the ones buying e-books at the low end of the price range (from $0.99 to $3.99) and possibly downloading free titles.

And this is where (perhaps) the book-reading market might be expanding: for the first time, adolescents everywhere are in full charge of their book purchases. They don't have to go to the bookstore with Mum and Dad to buy books and have their choices dictated by adults. They learn for themselves the pleasure of reading, and hopefully that pleasure will remain with them for the rest of their lives. This might help explain the extraordinary success of Amanda Hocking's paranormal romance titles - clear emulations of Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" which, as we all know, is currently all the rage with teen-agers. Amanda Hocking's e-books became blockbusters last year and turned her into a millionaire in less than 9 months because in the e-book market there is a vast, new Young Adult audience looking for just this kind of book.

The success of such self-published authors seems to have a lot to do with the price-range at which they reached success (always under $10, but mostly between $0.99 and $3.99). That particular price range seems to be decisive for other highly successful self-published authors, such as Locke and Konrath (whose popular thrillers are actually aimed at older audiences).

All this suggests there's a sea-change in the e-market's price structure. This is caused in turn by a sea-change in the kind of readers coming now to the e-market. And since all readers' markets are connected, the printed book producers - i.e. traditional publishers - would ignore such changes in the e-market at their own risk.

Yes, a SEA-CHANGE! Something like Japan's tsunami, without the terrible loss of human life, naturally...

And remember, readers vote with their dollars, whether they buy an e-book or a paperback!

You know, come to think of it, probably the most intelligent thing about e-books is that famous $0.99 selling price that scares so many people in the publishing industry! There's just been a fascinating tit for tat between two bloggers that specialize in commenting on the publishing industry: Nathan Bransford vs. the Passive Voice. You can get the whole thing by reading HERE, or I'll tell you in a couple of words. The Passive Voice calls that price the most "disruptive" price there is - and of course, Nathan Bransford agrees, indeed he goes one step further: $0.99 is going to kill the publishing industry business. At that price, says Nathan Bransford, you might as well give everything away for free, you can NEVER recover your costs!

Well, yes and no. As the Passive Voice points out, this is a reaction that belongs to the traditional book publishers's frame of mind. If you think in terms of $20.00 paper/hardcover books, $0.99 may well look like a big marketing mistake. But this overlooks a very simple fact: a printed book is ALWAYS read by more than one person - and if it happens to be in a library, that book could be lent out 100 times before it falls apart! That, as pointed out by the Passive Voice, works out to about $0.20 a reading!

Because after all, that's what e-books really are: ONE reading each! Even Amazon that allows Kindle readers to lend their books has put limits on it: not more than two weeks and only once! So you can easily imagine that lending e-books is not exactly in the cards...I don't know the numbers, but I'm willing to bet that only a tiny minority takes advantage of that e-lending service. I know that I certainly don't!

PLUS the fact that at $0.99, you are really into the realm of impulse purchases: a lot more people will buy books at that price than at $20.00...

So we are really into ANOTHER world, and something as big as this hadn't happened since Guttenberg's days, 600 years ago!

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

WWW's "historical" logo, created by ...
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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