Publishers, bookstores and self-published writers in the 20-teens

Publisher’s Weekly had already pretty much decided 2014 was going to be the year that self-publishing was going to mature, and to a large extent, it did.

Self-published books regularly crack the top ten sellers in e-books, and are beginning to poke at the best seller lists in the paper categories, at least, when they are recognized. Many of the more traditional press functions try to dress it up by calling it “indie.” Self-publishing has lost a lot of the stigma of the old “vanity press,” where people paid hundreds of dollars to print 500 copies of a book that ended up in someone’s attic and no one in the family ever read.fivestar

Publishers are finally wising up to the fact that self-publishing is a fertile ground for finding already proven authors, giving them hefty advances, and moving them into the more traditional publishing world. Which, by the way, has yet to die as predicted over the past decade.

“Traditional” press, however, is not what it it used to be, although it can be deceptive on the face of it. While it looks like many of the old imprints are out there, they are collapsed into six big publishers now. Only two are owned out of the U.S., Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins. Random House is owned by Bertelsmann, and Macmillan by Holtzbrinck, both out of Germany. Bertelsmann publishes under Dell, Doubleday, Knopf and many more, and Holtzbrinck’s imprints include such names as St. Martin’s Press, and Faber & Faber as well as many others. Hachette acquired Time Warner Book Group, and is owned by Lagardere Publishing, the French media giant. The Penguin Group is a division of Pearson PLC, the British corporation, and owns the Viking imprint.

Publishers certainly don’t want to disappear, and they don’t want print books to disappear, but the interesting question is, why? Publisher profit margins are considerably higher on e-books; New Republic estimates e-book profits at 75% vs. 41% compared to hardback. The reason may well be why bookstores aren’t dead yet, either. After watching Borders and Waldenbooks‘ death throes in 2011, it’s pardonable to wonder whether bookstores and, thereby, paper books will, in fact, die.  However, it may well be that whole browsing experience that is so undefinable, and that consumers seem to want and need at different levels. But publishers appear to believe it’s necessary.

It’s hard to feel bad for the big-box bookstores, when they did so much damage to the little guys.  But according to the same article, the little guys are actually rebounding, as well.  There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky articles about what’s going to happen next.  I think the small stores will always have their market–much like the stores that specialize in vinyl records–for books that can’t be obtained easily in other ways, or for those who don’t want to wait for shipping, and for textbooks and others with imagery. Millennial students have already proved they prefer paper to electronic textbooks.

However, my personal opinion is that the big box bookstores are going to experience the same thing that Walmart, Target and some of the other big box general retail stores are experiencing. It’s time, if they haven’t already, they pay attention to reviews and promotions, and snag a piece of the e-book market. It’s been proved that customers using smartphones in stores spend 25 to 50 percent more than those who don’t. The last purchase of an appliance I made in a store was a Keurig clone, and I chose the one with the lowest price for a 4.5 or higher average review. That’s pretty much my baseline. I think that’s how people will be working with bookstores as well–they’ll be on their smartphones checking the reviews for the book they’re thinking of buying in the store. We no longer believe the reviews on the jacket. And we won’t buy something no one else likes anymore–we’re crowdsourcing our initial opinions.

And those opinions are something that publishers desperately need. Publishers have always drowned in the dreck–the over-the-transom flood of stuff they get from the wannabes, those who want to write, and are trying to write. And publishers have paid someone to wade through that tsunami of awful to find that one little pearl, the one writer who papered their attic walls with rejection slips, but ended up being J.K. Rowling and making billions for themselves and their publishing company.  Honestly, self-publishing is no different. There is an awful lot of dreck out there, it’s just a different transom.

However, here’s where the synergies can happen–if publishers and bookstores pay attention to reviews, and work on the promotable aspects, the public will wade through the dreck for them. Publishers can cherrypick the writers who are already getting the best reviews and put a publishing machine behind them. The bookstores, publishers and writers can ride that serialization wave the movies are so fond of these days and feed the continuing, if not growing demand for e-books the consumer hasn’t seen yet. The consumer gets to touch the paper books in that browsing mode in the store, and check their smartphone for the review.

Then, if the reader likes it, they’ve got a customer for the series of 17 books already written and the next ones to come. The store can sell the collaterals, the non-electronics, the books that don’t translate well to electronic form. Consumers still want books. They still want to browse.  They just don’t necessarily want to walk out with a bag full of books.

Now, for those of us who write. Should the self-published writer focus on traditional publishing as the light at the end of the tunnel? There are a number of opinions on that one out there, but I’d say, keep writing.

But then, you were going to anyway, weren’t you? 🙂

Preparing for the future of writing

There are pros and cons for 140-character limits

Even if Twitter goes away someday, writing short statements with a clear point is good practice.

But me, I’m just not a 140-character kind of girl. I’m only now beginning to utilize Twitter, and to this point, only as a way to point to my blog or to a LinkedIn post.  But, as a very smart guy pointed out to me, it’s not necessarily a vehicle to express yourself; it’s a place to point to the place where you express yourself.  Even so, I still have to write and rewrite anyway, because restricting myself to 140 characters makes me crazy.

Why? Because I write like I speak, and I talk in run-on sentences.  Sometimes you have to wave a hand in front of my face to get me to shut up, as I get verbalicious.  I also have a tendency to invent words.

But Twitter, to me, is pretty much always going to serve as “Hey, hey! Look over there!” It’s a tool to point elsewhere. One big reason is because I find those 140 characters dangerous—I can’t explain my way out of terse statements—and how many terse statements have you seen get companies in deep trouble on Twitter?

I have lots to say. I’m a writer. Comes with the territory.

Specialize to monetize

I think all of us have a lot to say. And if you’re not already, it’s time to become the world’s greatest expert in something, whether it’s underwater basket weaving, writing, finance, marketing, technology or some other favorite subject.

People simply won’t follow a blog that’s all over the place. I know this, because I’ve had a personal blog for years that I’m remodeling now. My plan is to think about it in terms of exactly the specialties I’m talking about here—to drink my own Kool-Aid.  My 24 followers just won’t cut it in a world where 24,000 is seen as chump change.

Why would that be again? Because the last part of that heading is “to monetize.”

There are a lot of ways to add passive block advertising to a blog, from Google AdSense to Amazon partnering, and a lot of people who explain that better than I ever could. However, without followers, the big companies are never going to knock on your door, either.

And, if you don’t specialize, you’re simply not going to get followers—so go where they hang out. What do they want to hear? Ask them. Start figuring it out. Start reaching out to the people who might be interested in what you’re writing, and getting the right content in front of them.

Speak to your reader, but don’t exclude new readers

Lastly, blogs and content for the web in general just aren’t textbooks. Write like you speak. Stop worrying about complete sentences.

Don’t get me wrong—you need to spell everything correctly and use reasonably constructed grammar; you don’t want to sound like a complete goober.

I tend to use odd grammar constructions and Southern speech patterns for comic effect, but that’s my persona. I try to use it sparingly in the business venues, but in my Texas community newspaper articles, it’s much more liberally sprinkled into the text, and much closer to my personal daily speech.  Different writing venues mirror my speech patterns in my personal life and my business life.

Wherever you write, you need to know who you’re writing to and for, and specialized, informational blogging is no exception. Keep your voice consistent, and speak to your reader in ways that make them comfortable, and makes them want to hit that “Follow” button.

I pick one person to write for most of the time, and write as if I’m talking directly to him. It happens to be my husband. I also don’t cuss every third word in my daily speech patterns, so my blogs could easily get a G rating.

A lot of the millennial-focused blogs have writers who are comfortable cursing when they speak, and when they write.  I’m not their audience, and when I stumble into one accidentally, they make me blink rapidly and leave even faster. But is limiting your audience that much really a good idea? Bluntly, who’s got more money to spend? My generation? Or theirs?

If I don’t leave, it’s because the content in and around the cuss words is amazing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often—all the f-bombs fuzz my ability to decide whether the rest is worth sticking around to read.

My writing doesn’t exclude the millennials, but their writing often excludes me.  Choices abound. They lost me because they chose to lose me.

Keep it short, but don’t make me jump for nothing

This post is over 800 words, and that’s pushing it. More than a thousand and you’ve definitely lost your reader.

But my biggest pet peeve right now is if you give me a paragraph or two, then make me go to page two for a key piece of information. It’s just transparent clickbait, as we all get more Internet savvy.  Annoys me.

So, what annoys you?

What makes you go back?

Avoid the first one, and adhere to the second one.

It’s that simple, or as complicated as you want to make it.

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Feel the fear and do it anyway

(Published on LinkedIn April 15, 2015) The printed proof of my first book will be in my hands in a few short days (okay a few long days!) and the reason it took this long is me. Nothing else. It is vaguely possible that I am a big goober.

Long story short, my e-book was up on Amazon two years ago, under a pen name, and I wouldn’t even put my face with it on the Facebook page I built for it…just the book cover as the image.

Why? I was scared. Scratch that. I was terrified. And sure enough, the moment (and I mean, the moment) I got a semi-negative review for the book on the Amazon page, I yanked that book down, and it has moldered in the digital ether ever since.

Why? What was I afraid of? I still don’t know, looking back down these last two years.

But some switch flipped somewhere in the last few months, and I came scrambling out of the gate with it this time. To say that the difference is liberating is really underestimating what that word actually means. I’m not writing this to advertise it, cross my heart–although I will be putting the information at the bottom of every one of my posts from here until I kick over the traces.

What I am here to say to you, and to everyone who reads this, is that I made a mistake and I’m hoping you don’t.

If you’re stopping because of rational fears, like you want to jump out of a plane using only an umbrella and a peanut butter jar for aerodynamic support and you’re afraid you’ll die, well you’re right, don’t do that.

But if it’s a whole bunch of what-ifs like mine, well, honey, it is time to get over it and get on with it. I wasted TWO YEARS because one person didn’t think well of my book. Well, at least that’s what I told myself anyway. I was scared when I put it up, and I was scared when I took it down, and I probably breathed a sigh of relief the day I did.

As of this writing, however, the e-book is live and the printed book will follow as soon as I’ve finished reviewing it and my actual name is all over it. My website’s up, Google+ is screaming along nicely, and Twitter’s roaring in its wake; I have a Facebook book page up, my friends are probably all sick of me already (I did warn them), and if I get any happier, seriously, I’m going to have to sit on my hands to keep from waving at people.

What happened between 2013 and 2015?

I got over the fear. For me, it was much like the high dive at Balmorhea.

If you ever drive up Interstate Highway 10 in West Texas on a hot summer day from San Antonio to El Paso, it may feel as if it that journey never ends. But stop in Fort Stockton for lunch, and stop at Balmorhea about an hour later. It’s a genuine oasis in the desert, a freshwater spring that pretty much comes out of nowhere. There are just a few signs for the town, but almost no advertisements for the State Park or the amazing swimming and diving pool, so you have to keep your eyes open.

I went a few years back, along with much of my extended family. We all took our bathing suits, even though it was November, but it’s the desert, and it was still warm… it’s a huge pool that goes on forever of natural spring water, with fish and natural rock sides.

All the teenage boys and girls were daring each other with squeals and giggles to jump from the high dive.

I don’t like heights. Oh, I’m not terrified of them, like my ex-husband was, but not fond of them. Don’t like getting my head under water, either, especially my nose. And my ears. But when I realized I was scared, I also realized I had to do it. And when I knew had to do it, I didn’t take my time, and I certainly didn’t take two years. I walked out to the end of the board and I leapt.

And then I did it again, and again and again… until that fizzy, hurty feeling in my chest stopped catching at my breath every time I stopped at the end of the board and looked down.

I won. Oh, not over the folks who were in the water, looking at the lady in the matronly bathing suit above–I think that ruffle helps, don’t you? And not over the teenagers elbowing each other with their dares to get up on the diving board.

Over me. My fears. The voice in my head. The one that says. “You can’t, you’re too old, you’re too this, you’re too that… what if someone sees, what if someone laughs, what if someone points, what if you die?” It’s a fast talker, that one.

In terms of that fizzy, hurty feeling in my chest about the book? It’s still there–with every post on my book page on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, post on Google+ or my own website.

It will get less with every day, every post, every book that sells. It will come back with the first negative review (and there will be some, it’s inevitable, I know that now). It will lessen again with each positive review (and there will be some).

I’m doing it anyway.

I may not make a million. Heck, I may not make a hundred. I don’t know. But it wasn’t about the money–it was about not giving in to the fear.

Look, we all have that voice, though the what-ifs differ for each of us and the situation. “What if my business tanks, my employees quit, my customers quit buying, my suppliers can’t make inventory, my designers go crazy,” whatever your particular fears are.feelit

Here’s the deal.

You can make that fear eventually go away, but only if you do what you most fear–because if you don’t, I am here to tell you–the fear never, ever goes away.

Here’s the only one of the what-ifs that snarky little voice in your head never seems to offer up, and the only one you need most.

What if you win?

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