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5.31.2011

Amazon: the Next Big Publisher?

Giant!Image by freebird4 via Flickr
The evidence is piling up: Amazon is gearing itself to become the next big publisher. Will it make it?

First take a look at the evidence: the drums have been rolling  recently around the birth of two new imprints, Thomas & Mercer for mysteries and thrillers and Montlake Romance, thus bringing the total to five (with Amazon Encore, AmazonCrossing and the Domino Project).

The biggest news last week were, of course, the appointment of Larry Kirschbaum as the new manager, as of July 5th, of a new general imprint yet to be named that will publish an  array of diverse things, fiction and non-fiction presumably known to be high selling. In fact, the announced categories are rather broad: business and general non-fiction, literary and commercial fiction, young adults - to be published in both print and digital formats. Basically this will be the top-of-the-line imprint covering everything except genre. The avowed goal according to Amazon management is to eventually cover everything Amazon's "voracious readers" are reading.  

Why is the hiring of  Kirschbaum such big news? Because as the former CEO of Time Warner's book division and  founder of a highly successful literary agency with 40 agents, he is a heavyweight in the traditional publishing industry. He is bringing not only his experience but an aura of  "legacy publisher" to Amazon. That's important because for many people Amazon is still nothing but an aggressive, upstart mail and digital library. In an interview to the Wall Street Journal, Kirschbaum acknowledged  he had been trying to find a way to do some publishing as an agent, but  in the end realized "it was cleaner to do this working for a company totally committed to digital publishing and that has the resources and structures to make this successful".

Cleaner? Yes, there have been questions raised in the industry about the possibility of conflicts of interest for writers if their agents cease to represent them and instead go straight to publishing them. So Kirschbaum's decision is undoubtedly cleaner from an ethical standpoint, avoiding all possible code of conduct problems.

Is Amazon, as he puts it, "a company totally committed to digital publishing"? Not quite the case, since the imprint he'll manage will publish printed books in addition to digital. But in the sense that Amazon's strength resides in its digital publishing capacity, it is indeed the case. In fact, therein lies its winning card, and I'm sure Kirschbaum knew what he was talking about when he referred to Amazon as "having the resources and structures to make this successful".

Because Amazon, compared to traditional publishers, has an extraordinary winning card that none of them have (at least for the time being) - and neither do traditional bookstores like Borders (hence its demise). Only those who go digital, cleverly combining the physical with the digital, like Barnes & Noble (vide its Nook, a real rival to the Kindle), can look forward to a serene future in the digital age.

What am I talking about? Those of you who have a Kindle will know right away what I am referring to: their computers' capacity to track your digital purchases, memorize them and the next time you turn up in the Kindle shop looking for a new book, to propose new titles to you on the basis of what you've bought. This is a very powerful tool to catch customers. Physical libraries have traditionally used shelf space, organizing them by genres and types of books to help their customers and make new titles accessible.

This possibility is of course denied to Amazon as an Internet company. They have had to devise digital search tools to make books accessible - but in so doing, they've developed an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Much more powerful than the "genre" system used by traditional publishers which is necessarily based on the history of past sales of their stable of authors.

Herein lies the main difference: traditional publishers know what their authors sold (how many copies, when, where, in what genre) but they don't know who bought them. Amazon does - perforce, it's on Internet, every transaction is written, a complete contract between seller and buyer, with credit card and home address. It's not like when you buy a book in a bookstore or at the WalMart with cash. And at the end of the day, knowing who bought what is going to win the race.

Provided, naturally, that Amazon keeps playing the game above board. I know of one person who got upset when she searched for the latest thrillers published by traditional publishers and instead got a whole lot of indies thrown at her. That happened, of course, because in the past she had bought (or looked, downloading a sample - that counts too) at a lot of self-published authors, and the machine, not being intelligent, thought she wanted to keep doing the same thing. Clearly, with the millions buying on Amazon, computers cannot give the required individual attention, but surely search functions can be improved, to respond better to every kind of requests, including the unexpected ones. My bet is that Amazon will be careful about this sort of glitch, it is in their interest.

Amazon has already started to put this knowledge to good use. For example, in publishing international literature in English with its imprint AmazonCrossing,  it is careful to pick the winners on the basis of customer feedback from Amazon stores worldwide. Result? Its first title, the Hangman's Daughter, sold 100,000 copies in the first six months after publication. And it seems AmazonCrossing is fast becoming a roaring success in the US market that is not particularly given to reading foreign authors.

Then you have the example of author Barry Eisler who just signed up with Amazon's imprint for thrillers and mysteries, saying it was the best, most straightforward contract he had ever signed (remember, he's the guy who walked away from a $500,000 advance with St Martin's Press, saying he wanted to self-publish). His advance was "comparable" to traditional deals and his royalty rate would be 70% since his book would first come out in digital edition (with the standard low royalty on the printed edition to follow). This too is interesting: the traditional model followed by legacy publisher (come out first with a printed edition then follow with digital) is here reversed: first digital, next printed.

So is this Brave New Publishing World going to be a paradise for authors and readers? Hard to say. Some of my friends worry that the craze of self-publishing on Kindle, particularly at the 99 cents price, will create an unmanageable slushpile that will demean the art of writing and turn off readers.

Maybe so but so far it hasn't happened. Amazon makes money on every title sold (even at 99 cents) because it costs next to nothing to deliver it by whispernet and the rest of the expenses (editing, book cover, marketing etc) is the author's, not Amazon's concern. And if the book is bad, the reader will blame the author, not Amazon and simply stop buying books from that author. So the slushpile stays there, unread, invisible, hidden somewhere in an internet cloud.

On the other hand, if a self-published author starts selling a lot of copies, Amazon will necessarily notice. They let famous Amanda Hocking walk away. Remember her? The paranormal romance writer who made such a splash last year, when she signed up with St Martin's press for a reportedly $4 million deal. But now they're not likely to let others get away. A friend of mine noticed recently that a self-published thriller author who'd acquired a consistent following and ranking on Kindle made it into their Thomas & Mercer imprint. More are sure to follow.

So, as blogger Jane Friedman said, will self-publishing on the Kindle replace the query letter to agents? Will publishing on one of Amazon's imprints become a goal as important for writers as reaching one of the Big Six publishers?

My guess is yes.

What do you think?
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5.25.2011

The EURO Crisis: Is Greece the Culprit, a Victim or a Scapegoat?

Euro ManImage by rockcohen via Flickr
With the Euro crisis we're back to where we started a year ago: Greece is being battered from all sides.

Let me count the ways:

(1) By the credit rating agencies - but that's no surprise, those agencies are basically in the pay of big banks and multinational corporations all out to cover their backs as investors;

(2) By the biggies in the Euro-zone, in particular France but especially Germany - nothing new here, Ms. Merkel has piled up nasty comments, knowing how well they resonate back home and she needs votes at the next election;

(3) By neighbouring countries, Italy and Spain - and that's something new, although not very surprising: both the Italians and Spaniards are worried that Greece's pains will ricochet to them, as investors realize they share the same kind of troubles (high debt, high unemployment, no or little growth);

(4) By the EU that is asking for Greece to reform asap, in particular pursue privatization of telecommunications, electricity and the port of Athens.

(5) By the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - Dominique Strauss Kahn, reputed to be a friend of Greece, is no longer at the helm, but that doesn't change one iota in IMF demands for policy reform and austerity;

(6) By the European Central Bank (ECB), aligned with the IMF: it will not hear of any form of debt restructuring.

Where does that leave Greece and the Euro?

Athens clearly risks default if it doesn't get more EU funding. Adding insult to injury, the IMF won't release its June aid payment if funding support is not guaranteed by the Europeans (this was announced by the Greek Finance Minister).

The privatization measures the EU is so keen on will bring relief (some €50 billion), but surely this is not the best of times to sell the crown jewels and results might be far less than expected. And in any case, sales will take time.

So can Athens avoid default if nothing is done?

Greek debt stands at €327 billion, 150% of gross domestic product, and is expected to reach 160% in 2013 - patently unsustainable. This is a fact, and a solution MUST be found.

But it doesn't look like the one major European institution that should be concerned is reacting with any sense of either rationality or responsibility: the ECB is adamant it won't accept any Greek debt as collateral in its refinancing operations. That sounds very technical but it means simply that Greek banks and insurers will go kaput under the weight of their debts. And, as we know when Trichet (the head of ECB) walked out on European finance ministers in Luxembourg last Monday, the ECB won't hear about any "soft restructuring" proposal. Greece must follow the EU/IMF programme completely or else!

What's the solution? Any ideas?  Before you say with glee "I told you so", the Euro was always ill-conceived and cannot survive, please consider that if Greece pulls out of the Euro, the solution will be worse than the problem. Because the Greek financial system - and all payments throughout its economy, from the bank to the small store owner - will necessaily grind to a halt while Greece sets up a new currency. Establishing a new, functional currency takes time, and, though Greece is a small, peripheral country,  it still means destabilization for the Euro-zone for an extended period.

And a destabilized Euro is dangerous for the whole world! Personally, I think Europeans have no choice but give the IMF the required guarantees before June and cough up the necessary funding, embark on "soft retructuring" and/or do whatever is needed to save the Euro.

In my view, Greece is not just a test for the Euro but a scapegoat: a reason not to take the measures that SHOULD be taken, including fiscal reform, pension reform etc and  not just in Greece but throughout the Euro-zone!

What do you think?
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5.22.2011

Young Adult Fiction: is it really a "genre" that sells books?

Cover of "The Shadow of the Wind"Cover of The Shadow of the Wind
The publishing industry has always relied on "genre" as a marketing tool to push its wares, and among them, the most bizarre is YA.

How to reach out to Young Adults is of course a legitimate concern but lately, with Rowlands' winning Harry Potter series, everybody from literary agents to editors to publishers just drools about it. YA is growing fast. YA is where money is made. YA is the place to be. Even as an indie: look at Amanda Hocking and how she became a publishing wonder with her YA trilogy published on the Kindle.

So about six month ago, since everybody seemed so excited about it, I thought I should try to "break out" with a YA novel. But first I did some research to try and figure out what YA meant.

First surprise: YA is not a genre as such. It is a cross-cutting genre by definition: it means different things to different people. A YA novel can be a romance, a dystopian fantasy, a historical, a paranormal laden with vampires and werewolves, in short, just about anything, one, several or all of them together.

What makes all these sub-genres (also found in adult fiction) particularly YA? I dug in further and ...

Second surprise: nothing in particular, not even the age of the protagonist. Yet, that's what (according to Wikipedia and all the pundits) is precisely what defines YA: young adults are people between the age of 12 and 18. Thus, characters should be within that age bracket.

How pervasive this view is within the publishing industry was confirmed to me about a month ago in a conversation I had with a savvy literary agent. It was amazing. I was trying to pitch my newly-minted YA trilogy Fear of the Past - by newly minted, I mean I'd just rewritten it for the American market in English (it was originally published in Italian in 2007 and meant as a historical/paranormal romance for the adult market). She asked me the age of my protagonist, and I said my Tony was 19. She shuddered, I thought because he was male (a lot of agents are firm believers that female protags have more market value than male ones because more women than men read fiction). No, I was wrong. She shuddered because he was 19. "That's too old," she said, "for a YA Main Character".

I was astounded. Too old? How old should he be, I asked. "Not over 18", she replied with confidence, "especially if it's going to be a trilogy". Presumably that's because he's going to be older in the next two books, so if you start him at 18, he could be 20 or 22 by the time you finish. I opened my mouth to tell her that my time arc was much shorter than that, that this guy was on a self-quest that resolved itself in the course of a single year: by the end of the trilogy, he'd be just about one year older. Then I shut my mouth again.

What could I say? That some of the most successful  novelists who write for YA audiences in recent years have protagonists that are both young and old?

Actually, their characters begin young and then grow old - damn it, that's life! I won't go down the list, but look at Carlos Ruiz Zafòn's books, starting with that absolute masterpiece, Shadow of the Wind, set in a dark, mysterious Barcelona touched by Gaudì craziness and a magical cemetery of Forgotten Books. How I love that book! And all the others he wrote...

I can't see where YA differs from great literature for so-called "adult" audiences. Recently, someone pointed out that Romeo and Juliet was a YA tale. Have you ever thought of Shakespeare as a YA author?! And classified as a YA only because his protags - especially Juliet - are so tender and young, in their teens...

What Carlos Ruiz Zafòn himself has to say about YA is extremely interesting. When asked what he thought were "the most important differences" when writing for adult readers and young adult readers, his answer was an eye-opener and I can't resist quoting him (you'll find the whole interview on his Amazon page):

I don't think they're that many differences, really. You just have to write the best possible story in the most efficient way you are capable of. It is all about the language, the style, the atmosphere, the characters, the plot, the images and textures… If anything, I believe that younger readers are even more demanding and sincere about their feelings about what they're reading, and you have to be honest, never condescending. I don't think younger readers are an ounce less smart than adult ones. I think they are able to understand anything intellectually but perhaps there are emotional elements that they have not experienced in their lives yet, although they will eventually. Because of this, I think it is important to include a perspective in the work that allows them to find an emotional core that they can relate to not just intellectually. Other than that, I think you should work as hard as you can for your audience, respect them and try to bring the best of your craft to the table. My own personal view is that there’s just good writing and bad writing. All other labels are, at least to me, irrelevant.

Do you think he's right? Are young readers more demanding? Do you agree when he says YA is not a genre as such, but only a matter of including "a perspective" that allows Young Adults to find "an emotional core that they can relate to".

Just let me add as a footnote: many people suspect that the Harry Potter series was as much of a success with adults as with young readers. That says something about YA, doesn't it? The best YA novels happen to be damn good stories well told - and a YA classification adds nothing to that. Or does it? What is your view?

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5.20.2011

Genre as a Marketing Tool: Does it really Work?

Barnstar of Harry PotterImage via WikipediaThe publishing industry is battered by the digital revolution - and in particular by the 99 cent e-book that blows to smithereens the economics of traditional publishing - yet everyone holds on to "genre" as the one, major, solid, reliable marketing tool.

Do you think that's reasonable? Do you really read in one single genre or are you like me, the genre-flitting kind, moving from paranormal to historical to romance to whatever, damn it, is a real GOOD story? Please take the poll (top of the right-hand side column) and let me know!

Yet traditional publishers rely on genre classification not only as a basic way to direct book distribution to the "right" shelves in bookstores - because that's what works best in the real world to ensure "discoverability" of a new title - but to track the size of the market. Everybody knows that romance is the biggest selling genre, it generated nearly $1.4 billion in sales in 2009. That's where it's easiest for new writers to break in, that's where the biggest advances are paid (most of the time - but the advance question is another one that needs to be looked at: it has taken a tremendous beating with the digital revolution...).

Genre therefore is an easy-to-use marketing tool: it classifies books and places them in nice little boxes, giving a sense of order. And woe to writers whose works don't fit into a genre: their literary agent may kindly speak of "crossover genre" but s/he knows it means it's going to take twice the effort to sell such a book to publishers. Nobody likes people who rock the boat!

In short, genre makes life simple, it neatly divides up the readers in predictable segments. Thanks to genre, publishers (and literary agents) can track past performance of any given market and predict the future with a fair degree of confidence.

You come to them with a romance, sci-fi, thriller or what not, and they feel they know exactly where they're going with it.

Or do they?

It's easy to blast the publishing industry pointing to all the numerous occasions when a book suddenly made the NYT bestseller list and no one expected it, starting with Rowland's Harry Potter series, going on with the Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner and ending with Stieg Larsson...Nassim Taleb famously labelled such books as "black swans" - those unexpected events that occur on the low tail of the Bell curve and that statisticians can never predict (mainly because they can't tell you where you happen to be sitting on that Bell curve).

What do all these "unexpected" black swan bestsellers have in common? Adherence to the requirements/features of a given "genre"?

Not at all: they were hard-to-classify, "cross-over genres" at the time they came out. But they had one thing in common: they were all damn good STORIES.

So what made them so superlative?

Is it a question of "voice" (or what used to be called 40 years ago, "writing style") ? Yes, it matters but that's not the whole of it. You could even argue that the writing shows shortcomings. For example, Stieg Larsson's books can be overly long and plodding, and I'm sure you can think up all sorts of writing defects in bestsellers you've read...

So is it the plot, the suspense? Sure, the book has to be a "page-turner". But above all, in my view, a black swan bestseller brings something new on the table: it is always chock full of IDEAS - yes, ideas, things people had never thought of in that particular context. Take the Kite Runner: it opened up new vistas not only on the war in Afghanistan, but on war in general, and on cultural differences that in the end are no differences at all, but merely aspects of the human condition. And I could go on and on about what makes a story really GOOD: relevance to our lives, to the issues that matter to us, to our fears, to our hopes, to everything that makes us up as human beings. The closer to the human condition, the better.

So no wonder readers are titillated, happy!

Do you agree with this analysis? And if so, what should publishers do to improve a book's "discoverability"? Genre works up to a point but it is obviously nothing but a gross tool. Much more is needed, and maybe (what a frightening thought for traditional paper book-lovers), in the virtual world of publishing, you can twist genres so that they become cross-over genre monsters that encompass every possible choice. As Passive Guy so aptly pointed out and I quote him:
Amazon has just begun the process of creating a million genres with its categories – Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Spy Stories & Tales of Intrigue. We’re already beginning to see genre busters and there will be more. Look for Historical > Zombie > Arab > Arthurian > Cookbook

A million genres! Wow, what do you think of that?!

5.16.2011

IMF Chief Arrested for Sexual Assault!

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director, Int...Image via Wikipedia
Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrested for attempted rape!

Here's a man who had everything. As the Chief of the IMF he had done what was universally asckowledged as a superb job of helping the world to navigate out of the Great Recession (though in my view we're not out of troubled waters quite yet).

As one of the major exponents of the French Socialist Party, he was ahead in the polls of all other candidates for the next presidential election in France (to be held in May 2012). He hadn't yet declared himself, but everybody expected that he would and that he'd be able to trounce Nicolas Sarkozy. People on the left were rubbing their hands in anticipation.

And then, this!

What amazes me is that a 62 year-old man could blow it all away like that. In a single moment of folly, bursting out naked from his bathroom (or so the press reports say). At 62 - and he does look all his years and more --, you'd expect a person to have acquired a certain degree of philosophy on such frivolous matters as one-stand sex. And he's undeniably an intelligent man, a capable economist (but then economists are not to be trusted: they never get a single prediction right!).

Why would he ever do this? Ok, maybe he didn't.. This could be all a conspiracy against him, and if you believe in conspiracies, go ahead (I don't).

But one thing is certain, innocent or not, his political future is gone, evaporated, kaput!

There's talk that people will occupy the centre of the political spectrum - maybe, maybe not. But there's one person likely to benefit for sure and that is Marine Le Pen, the head of the rightist National Front. And she wasted no time coming out with criticisms - the only French politician to do so at this point in time - but if the accusations against Strauss-Kahn turn out to be well-founded, just watch all the other politicians join in!. She charged him with "damaging" the image of France (!) - quite frankly, that is something I don't believe. Did Bill Clinton with his games with a pretty young thing in the Oval Office damage America's image? I don't think so.

She also said "she wasn't surprised" given the way he "treats women". That is a more serious charge: back in 2008 there was a scandal with a pretty Hungarian economist, who had to leave the IMF. Add to that the fact that it all happened in a $3,000 room at the Sofitel in mid-town Manhattan, you have a pretty damning picture, even if the rape turns out to be (partly) an invention (after all, the woman could have agreed to his advances, how do we know that didn't happen?) .

The $3,000 room immediately brought up in the press other similar news about his luxurious apartment in Paris and a riyad in Marrakesh and his driving around in a Porsche.

If nothing else, here's a man in love with money and sex...Bizarre tastes for a Socialist!

What's your take on this?

   
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5.12.2011

To Self-publish or not Self-pub? That is the Question!

Question book-newImage via Wikipedia
Is self-publishing a viable alternative to publishing with a big publisher, say, one of the Big Six? For unpublished writers, otherwise known as newbies, that's the big question.

Any new writer worth his salt dreams of publishing in New York with one of the Big Six. But Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing wonder who's suddenly made it big in one single year winning a $4 million deal with St Martin's Press, has changed that dream forever.

Self-publishing has just about lost most of the stigma it ever had, and Barry Eisler, who walked away from a $500,000 deal with a legacy publisher to follow down the path of self-publishing has put the last nail on the coffin.

So self-publishing has become an acceptable option even for published authors, particularly mid-list authors (those that never made it big on the New York Times list of bestsellers but have reasonably satisfactory sales). Also big authors might (and do) find the idea of self-publishing their back list (all that stuff out of print) as rather appealing. Especially since they can get a lot more out of their royalties than from their publisher (Amazon gives them 70% if they keep their book price below $10 as opposed to 30% at the very best from their publisher - but usually a lot less than that). There's still the problem that the NY Times does not list self-published e-books, but no doubt that will change (especially after Amanda Hocking's splash that was so big that she outsold NYT bestsellers!).

Add the fact that publishers stubbornly stick to pricing models for e-books that are guaranteed to slow down sales. Consumers have heard that it's cheap to produce digital versions of books and can't understand why a Kindle version can cost as much and sometimes more than a paperback. In fact, everybody expects e-books to cost less than $10. And we all marvel at how Amanda Hocking made her fortune selling her books at 99 cents - an experience comforted by J.A.Konrath's clever "List experiment" (updates on his sales after each change in price).

Add also the fact that publishers' traditional distribution channels are fast disappearing - I mean the bookstores. With Border's bankruptcy, the writing is on the wall for all those bookstores that haven't gone digital. Of course, books are still distributed elsewhere, like Wal Mart and airports, but undeniably the channels are fewer. And surely lots of bookstores will rally and rise up to the challenge - but the downward trend is here.

Then, last but not least, a bizarre bit of news that has lately emerged: publishers, it seems, don't give fully reliable reports on royalty returns. That leaves one very, very uneasy. What, they keep money against the advance, and that's normal but they don't tell you exactly how much they make on e-sales? And apparently only use estimates? Could that really be so? One wonders and begins to lose trust. Who's lying and why? Who's telling the truth? Whatever the answer, it doesn't help the case for traditional publishers!

That's it, folks, self-publishing - particularly ebooks - is in, traditional publishing - mostly printed books - is out! But is that a reasonable conclusion? Does it mean that self-publishing is a viable option?

Let's count the ways.

Pro: You, the author, are in charge, you can publish right away, you don't have to wait all that ghastly time: one year to get an agent (if you're lucky - it can take a lot more!) plus two years for the agent to sell your book to a publisher (again if you're lucky) plus at least one more year to polish it up and get it out there in the bookstores, published at last! Add it up: 4 years on average. With e-books, you can get it out there in a matter of weeks or less - a little longer if you aim for a printed version of your book, but still out there a long, long time before you'll ever manage it going down the traditional publishing road.

Con:  being in charge of the actual publishing process, means you have to dip your hand (and be good at it!) into all sorts of demanding (and often boring!) procedures: (1) proof-reading, (2) editing, (3) cover design, (4) preparation of your docs for uploading on the various e-book publishing platforms (Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Noble's Nook, Apple's iPad etc) and printed versions (from Lulu to Smashwords); (5) keeping track of your activities as a publisher, including accounting files, tax files etc.

Yep, it's going to cost you time and money (not much if you're careful and do a lot yourself - but you have to be very, very careful or else you look like...a newbie!). All this turns you into a small business and that eats into your writing/creative time...Yikes, you didn't get into writing to become a businessman!

Pro: You are in charge of your own marketing too. Not distribution (thank God!): that's the business of Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc. But marketing is a tall order and only if you're particularly internet-savvy will this work out for you. You need a good online presence, a website cum blog, a Facebook page, lots of tweets on Twitters and lots of followers everywhere on the Internet. If you're comfortable with that, great. If not...But don't think that if you're published traditionally, the publisher will do this work for you. They don't and won't. They (and literary agents too) expect you to have an online presence and that means you need to have started your blog, FB comments and tweets etc long before you published your book.

Con: Don't count traditional publishers out quite yet. They have a major card to play: they are the gatekeepers of literary taste. In terms of marketing, they might do a lot less for you than they used to do in the past, before the digital revolution and before the (still on-going) recession: less book presentation in prestigious locations, less book signing events, less conferences etc But they still can give you something an indie/self-published author is at pains to get: critiques from top-notch reviewers and support in major prize-winning competitions.

That's at the heart of traditional publishers' literary gatekeeper role. That's what helps readers distinguish the "good reads" from the bad. Indeed, publishers are well aware of this and at least three of the Big Six have recently tried to regain the upper hand in this area: they've established Bookish, a new website that sounds a little like it's out to compete against Amazon et al. This has drawn guffaws from bloggers who know how foolhardy it would be for an upstart to compete against Amazon's distribution power - and surely it would be if the sole purpose was to sell their books through that site. But my reading of Bookish is that it's main purpose is to inform readers about authors and their books and even direct them to distribution/sales channels.

In other words, publishers are back into their gatekeeping role, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. And expect them to keep doing this, it's their one big chance to survive the digital revolution! Don't think good reviews make no difference, they certainly do! Remember that when you go on, say Kindle, your book is competing against another...one million titles! And that could easily double over the next couple of years, if not sooner. A day will come when there will be more titles out there than readers (I hope not!)...

So what should a writer do? For published authors with a good following, there is no question that it makes economic sense to self-publish their back list. For a newbie? I'm not so sure. What do you think?

Personally, I've opted for a Solomonic solution: a little bit of both, hedging my bets.

I'll keep looking to publish my latest book (it's women's fiction) with a traditional publisher, while I'll try the self-publishing road with a trilogy that is totally different, aimed at Yound Adults. Based on a romance I wrote a few years ago (which came out in Italian, Un Amore Dimenticato), it's called Fear of the Past. It's about Tony, an American computer whiz kid who travels on a self-quest to Sicily, the homeland of his father, and runs into the ghosts of his ancestors waiting for Judgment Day in an abandoned palazzo. In book One, Forget the Past, Tony learns about love when he meets the Duchess of Floridia (a real historical character who married the King of Naples in 1814). In Book Two, Reclaim the Present, he learns how his family's fortune collapsed, after centuries of prosperity. In Book Three, Remember the Future, he tries his hand at making his own money against all odds, including a group of ruthless Russian hackers.

How about you? If you have come up with ideas and solutions to this conundrum we are all facing as writers, I would love to hear about it! And get your advice!


QuestionsImage by elycefeliz via Flickr


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5.10.2011

War in the Middle East: Libya yes, Syria no, Yemen forget it!

Violence!Violence Image by Rickydavid via Flickr
Western intervention in the Arab Spring is a study in ambiguity.

War in Libya? Yes. Qaddafi is an obvious bloodthirsty villain, worse than Saddam Hussein, opening fire on his own people, using them as human shields, murdering the sick and wounded, women and children. Besides, Libya is just across Italy and Southern Europe - too close for comfort to allow it to go to the dogs. Libya has to be controlled for everyone's happiness across Europe. And Germany's no at the UN Security Council vote on Libya - which led to the establishment of the no-fly zone for humanitarian reasons (to defend the rebels) and NATO intervention - did not help Ms. Merkel and her Foreign Affairs Minister Westerwelle: they have both lost consensus in Germany and their political future is, to say the least (especially in Westerwelle's case) uncertain.

War on Syria? No, Assad is too powerful, his army too well-equipped, his country too central to stability and balance in the region. So the talk at the UN and elsewhere (and measures taken) is all about sanctions and investigations in the killings (that's UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon's suggestion).

War on Yemen? Forget it! Too peripheral, too mountainous, too tribal and while its president Saleh (in office since 1978) is a good ally for the West, the country is basically Saudi Arabia's problem: it's sitting in its courtyard.

Is the Western policy in all this clever? No, as I said, it reflects ambiguities (many of these tyrants used to be allies against muslim/terrorist extremism) and more than that: it reflects deep uncertainties.

Nobody knows how the Arab Spring will play out. Everybody hopes democracy together with a healthy respect for human rights will settle in.

But there are some early signs of trouble in Egypt that are extremely worrying. With the collapse of Mubarak's police and his forcefully imposed "stability" on the country, sectarianism is rearing its ugly head. Last Sunday sectarian violence left at least 11 people dead (6 Christians and 5 Muslims), 220 people wounded (including 65 struck by bullets) and two churches in flame in Cairo after a night of violence. Egypt's Coptic Christian minority of some 10 million people (10 percent of the population) is at bay, apparently increasingly threatened by bearded Salafis. These are people who adhere to an ascetic form of Muslim fundamentalism and tend to be highly militant. Whether such people will end up controlling the situation is anybody's guess.

I hope not, but then I'm a born optimist. What's your view?


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5.05.2011

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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5.03.2011

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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5.01.2011

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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