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One of the biggest problems for small presses and self-publishers is distribution. Most small publishers in Australia cannot attract a distributor because their print runs are too small. Yet the economics of a higher print run in Australia don’t really work, the market size doesn’t warrant, for example, a print run of 1500 copies for a poetry collection or short story anthology. So small publishers do the hard slog of selling the book themselves, usually direct to market through their website, personal networks, literary events or through relationships with independent booksellers wherever they can.

This means two things: firstly, small publishers (or in this post I really mean micro publishers) must handle the physical process of distribution themselves, keeping boxes of books in their garage, handling invoicing, returns, etc. Secondly, they are usually restricted to a local market geographically (sometimes even within one state let alone one country) because they don’t have the resources to develop distributor relationships with retailers further afield and because customers start to pay prohibitive amounts for shipping.

What if these two things could be magically solved by a fulfillment service? Enter Amazon Fulfillment Web Service (Amazon FWS).

Amazon Web Services

As ReadWriteWeb reports:

FWS offers two APIs (application programming interfaces) – one inbound and one outbound. That means developers can now progromatically send physical goods to an Amazon warehouse (fulfillment center) and then have Amazon do the shipping of those goods out to customers when items are purchased through 3rd party sites. Amazon has offered other businesses access to its fulfillment infrastructure for some time through the Fulfillment by Amazon service, but today’s announcement means that the whole process will be automated. It’s a webservices world!

This could be an amazing opportunity for some publishers to expand their geographic markets and streamline their businesses. For example, a small Australian publisher could more cost-effectively offer books for sale to US and UK customers without those customers having to pay international shipping, and without the publisher having to handle the physical goods.

It’s not without its challenges. Firstly, a publisher may need to make a substantial investment to get a programmer to set up the web interface between their site and Amazon’s Fulfillment Service. And while the web APIs might be free, Amazon do charge for the physical storage of goods and shipping costs. But I would think this need not be any more expensive than a publisher would pay in percentage margin to a book distributor to perform exactly the same functions, and could well be a lot less.

Since small presses and self-publishers are usually working unpaid, they are limited in the time and energy they can devote to all the functions of publishing books. If they could alleviate even a portion of that workload through something like Amazon FWS they’d have more time and energy for marketing and promotion, lifting their overall productivity and, ultimately, book sales.

Harlequin are once more proving how ahead of the game they are in the digital space, compared with other publishers. Dear Author reports that they will be distributing Harlequin manga titles to mobile phones in the Japanese market.

Japanese audiences have already shown that they are interested in consuming narrative in text form on their phones. For those who missed the wide reporting of it, 5 of the 10 bestselling novels in Japan in 2007 were originally written and distributed on phones. Furthermore, this is an audience that are strong consumers of romance or content with strong romantic themes, and a lot of manga targeted at women has succeeded on this basis. Finally, the demand for mobile content in the Japanese phone market (like some other Asian markets) has boomed because of flexible phone plans which enable unlimited texts and access to a large menu of content.

This is bold and smart and I think it will pay off in spades for Harlequin.

Penguin UK have launched their much-anticipated We Tell Stories project.

We Tell Stories (Penguin) 

This is a new locative storytelling project produced in collaboration with alternative reality gamers Six to Start. Six Penguin authors will publish new digital stories, inspired by six Penguin classics, over six weeks. The first, launched on Wednesday, is 21 Steps by Charles Cumming, inspired by the famous 39 Steps and set in Google maps. It’s interactive, fun and, as I’m discovering, a little addictive. Plus rumour has it there’s a mystery seventh story for users to discover somewhere on the site. Mmmmm… sticky content.

I love this project. It’s not a boring PDF of an out-of-print book. It’s a switched-on publisher genuinely embracing new forms of storytelling in a native digital context, but supported by a platform that enables them to promote their authors and books. I look forward to seeing how successful it is but I’m also a little chuffed since this is not far distant from two of the regional writing projects for new media we’re working on at QWC with the support of Arts Queensland.

Colour me bubbly… the new Tor Books website will be ready soon. I am all anticipation over this one. I have high hopes that this will redefine what a publisher’s website can be, not just for its authors, but for its customers. eHarlequin have already understood the power of harnessing community among romance fans. Tor is about to demonstrate the same thing in science fiction and fantasy, I expect. And there’s no genre more naturally suited since spec fic fandom is ALL about community.

You wouldn’t have needed to give me free wallpaper downloads and e-books to get me to sign up for the newsletter, but I’m glad they’re smart about using incentives to increase their pre-launch marketing list so they can hit the ground running.

Brave New World reports that PFD Literary Agency in the UK is entering a print on demand agreement with Lightning Source. Through this enterprise PFD will be able to republish out of print works by its authors and literary estates.

This clearly throws the gauntlet down on rights reversals and opens up all sorts of potential opportunities for both authors and agents.

By bringing these works back they effectively block publishers wakening up and doing it themselves and also are one step away from securing the full digital control of these works. It is unknown what the deal is with the authors and their estates but it is obviously better than no sales and is with little if no risk. By selecting the free to play channels they also are well placed to pick up ‘long tail’ sales.

Brave New World ponders what this means for the role of literary agents in the publishing value chain in the future. I also question what sort of business structure a liteary agency will have to maintain under this model. If agencies are looking for long tail economies from out-of-print back lists they’re going to need to aggregate a large list. But a single owner-operator literary agent couldn’t hope to gain advantages this way with a (relatively) small client list. I’d estimate more than half the agents in Australia are small single-agent businesses. Can sole agents survive in the near-future publishing paradigm?

HogeTown is deflecting criticism for saying that it’s not a smart idea to have a book launch and not tell punters where and when it is. He mentions my post on author platform:

Also, I’m surprised to see one launch being promoted as a mystery, where we have to keep an eye out for clues as to when/where it will be.  Sometimes there are reasons these things aren’t known a week out from the con. Often they’re out of the control of the publisher. It happens. But if that’s the case tell us and let us know when we can find out. Otherwise it’s just as likely we won’t come because we won’t know when the bloody launch is on! As Kate would say on Electric Alphabet, it’s not good ‘platform.’

I thought I would make a few points here. Firstly, this is not quite what I meant when I talked about author platform. The book launch in question is for 2012, a small press anthology edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne from Twelfth Planet Press.

Arguably, Alisa has excellent ‘platform’. She is deeply embedded in the Australian speculative fiction blogosphere. Her online review site, ASif!, attracts healthy patronage. She is a prolific publisher, critic and blog journalist. All these things add to her platform, that nebulous term which describes a combination of profile, reach or influence to particular audiences. Attempting to exploit that platform in order to promote her new publication is smart, and exactly what I hope more Australian authors will do, firstly by paying attention to how they can improve their platform, and then thinking about ways to use it to connect with readers and book buyers.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s a smart promotional strategy keeping the basic details of the launch (time, place etc) a secret, not for a small press book launch at a science fiction convention. This is a function of the kind of event a fan convention is. At any one time there are several program items competing for punters’ attention, not to mention the social pull of the bar, the traders room etc. It’s a content free-for-all. Being subtle and clever in this context doesn’t make sense. If you want people at your launch, you need to tell them where and when and give them compelling reasons to be there otherwise they’ll plan to be somewhere else. I understand that Alisa is trying something different and new, trying to get away from the boring old formula for book launches by using vague clues to create curiosity, buzz and anticipation. That’s to be applauded, and without that experimentation, we won’t know if a different approach could be more successful. But it needs to be coupled with clear information about how the mystery will be solved, what the pay off is, how tension will be resolved for the punter. This is not, after all, an episode of Lost. There’s a clear end game: to sell books.

I’m reminded of the time we were in Edinburgh during the Fringe and the basic method of promoting the dozens of shows going on across the city every night was for people from those shows to walk the Royal Mile with flyers and signs and comic performances to attract attention. This isn’t as chaotic and random as it may seem. The performances were designed to engage tourists and create desire to attend the show, much like Alisa’s mystery clues. But there was still a tangible item – the flyer, the sign – which said where to go, what time, how much.

At a convention, like a festival, there many things competing for attendees’ attention day and night. Why risk those people being distracted or captivated by something else before you can deliver the most important information – how to attend the launch, how to buy the book. And at the end of the day, number of people who showed up and number of books sold are going to be the measures of success.

Speaking of viral platforms for promoting and selling books, at the expensive end of the scale HarperCollins is going all out on a promotional campagin for Prince Caspian in a “Read the book before you see the movie” push. Tools of Change for Publishing blog notes:

The Facebook and widget components are notable because they represent a clear effort to engage the target audience (kids) on familiar ground (social networks, blogs, etc.). Back in the day, a program like this would have been relegated to a microsite and maybe a few text ads. Now, the openness of Web 2.0 creates all sorts of new engagement opportunities — both for companies and the audiences they seek.

Given the extent of Alisa’s ‘platform’ which I mentioned above, and which is largely based in online social media, I wonder if a well-constructed social network campaign wouldn’t give a better payoff for her time and energy in promoting 2012. I’m not talking having someone program her own widgets of course, but as this Guy Kawasaki article notes, you don’t necessarily need the bells and whistles to make word-of-mouth networks work harder for you.

Over at BookEnds, literary agent Jessica Faust is answering the question:

If you were pitching a novel and looking for an agent, what are some agent qualities that would be absolute “musts” for you?

Jessica lists a range of qualities including, among other things, honesty, strong negotiation skills and contacts.

I was very happy to come across this because, along with trying to advise aspiring authors about how to get an agent, I am also often trying to warn them about the shonky players in the industry. More than this, though, is the idea that a good author-agent relationship will be like a successful marriage. It should be a long-lasting partnership that benefits both parties. So many writers are simply desperate to have an agent they don’t worry about considering whether an agent is a right ‘fit’ for them.

Check out the rest of Jessica’s tips for a desirable agent.

My husband loves his iPod Touch. He’s entirely smug about how much more advanced it is than my modest little 2nd generation Nano. And while the blogosphere is musing about whether Steve Jobs was just misdirecting us all when he said Apple had no plans to develop an e-book reader, the iPod Touch may well have been quietly prepping the market right under our noses.

In this article, BusinessWeek ponders whether the iTouch is really the vanguard in a new breed of consumer media devices that blend computing and productivity functions with entertainment – in other words, convergence.

Yet even if Apple does actually have one in the pipeline, I’d say that a reading device alone would be thinking too small. If the iPod Touch is indeed the vanguard of a new family of media devices, any larger-screened descendant would have to do much more than simply add the ability to read digital versions of the printed page.

Currently, the iPod Touch doesn’t stack up next to the Kindle in terms of screen size, but it does bring a host of features that make new versions easily adaptable. Its multitouch screen gives it a natural advantage over the Kindle in terms of manipulating documents, not just reading them. While it has wireless internet, the addition of Bluetooth (which the iPhone has but Touch currently does not) would make the use of wireless keyboards a cinch too.

The conjecture and speculation about what devices the iPod Touch may spawn will certainly be interesting to watch in the coming months. Given the signals it’s sending, Apple is just starting down what looks to be a fascinating path.

Link to article.

Science Fiction vs Literature

I adore this image. Love, love, love it. I found it via this Wordsy post. But I’m having trouble tracking down the name of the illustrator to attribute it properly. If anyone can help me track down the original source I’d appreciate it. This is the kind of lovely image I wish I could find at Threadless.

UPDATE: The lovely Peter has chimed in to let us know that the illustrator of this marvellous image is Tom Gauld, who illustrates and publishes at Cabanon Press. I have just spent 20 minutes on the site looking at Tom’s other work and, oh, how I love it so! Go check it out and buy things. Thanks Peter, and kudos Tom!

I mean, wow. There’s a reason Booksquare is fast becoming my favourite blog. Kassia Krozser just keeps pulling out post after post of brain-bleeding insights. Every writer go read this. Now.

 The Book is Not the Territory.

Contact Kate Eltham

kate.eltham {at}

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