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Bren MacDibble alerted me on Facebook to  some grumblings about HarperCollins’ Authonomy site.

Authonomy participant, Alexander McNabb, fought his way to a top 5 ranking on the site, spurred on by the promise that each month HarperCollins would read the Top 5 ranked manuscripts. What he got was not what he expected.

But the HC review of my book (next to the gold star on the book page) was slapdash and odd. And many other writers who’d got to the top of the ‘greasy pole’, as some called it, got the same feeling. Now, over 25 chart-topping reviews, five months, into the exercise, HC has not asked for ONE full read from a writer whose book reached the top, let alone taken anything further to any degree.

Yesterday, HC sent me a note offering me the chance to put my books up as POD (Print on Demand or Publish on Demand) books on authonomy. Soon, according to the email, all books on authonomy will be available as POD books but for now only ‘a few early adopters’ have been offered the opportunity – and a ‘gift’ of the first 10 books free.

For those who’ve not discovered it yet, Authonomy is HarperCollins UK’s social networking experiment for authors. Authors can upload all or part of their manuscripts to an online community. The best ranked submissions, based on the community’s votes, are read by HarperCollins editors. Members also have  chance to converse and swap critical feedback.

I’m not a member of Authonomy and am certainly not in a position to judge whether Alexander’s account is accurate. But regardless of whether HC editors are reading full manuscripts or not, the move toward POD sales of members’ books is disquieting.

My best friend‘s favourite adage is “It’s all about managing expectations.” HarperCollins have clearly encouraged certain expectations among aspiring authors flocking to the site.  Authonomy’s tag line is “Beat the Slush” which holds out to authors the promise of catching the attention of publishers who are seeking fresh new talent. In the original media release that accompanied the announcement of Authonomy, HarperCollins stated:

For aspiring authors the site is both a new route to publication with a leading publishing house and a genuine base from which to build a long-term following online.

Authonomy also reinforced this expectation on the site itself, both in the FAQs and in its own “HarperCollins response” thread on the forum:

We thought this would be obvious, but perhaps we need to spell this one out: Our editors _do_ browse the site looking for manuscripts that meet their requirements and if we like something we follow up directly. (To pre-empt the sceptical who seem to doubt everything we say – yes, we’re in dialogue with a number of authors from authonomy).

HarperCollins have at no point promised any author any outcome at all, other than to read the most popular content posted to the site. But all of these messages create a very strong expectation: that Authonomy was set up as a pathway to publication for aspiring authors.

If it’s true HarperCollins will now be offering members the opportunity to sell their work to the community via print on demand (presumably for a fee, or by ceding some rights and sales revenue), members would be justified in feeling their expectations have been betrayed. Many Authonomy members have posted their own reactions on the site’s forums. Here are a few:

“Authonomy has moved from potentially innovative to concretely exploitative.” Richard P-S

“Slow-moving slush pile is one thing… but captive market and preying on our desires to be published is another thing. It’s just cruel. Lulu already exists… and at least you know what you’re doing when you sign in there.” macdibble

“If I wanted to POD, I’d have gone (as I think Diane said) to Lulu by now. I don’t. I thought that, no, was led to believe that authonomy was a genuine effort to create a peer-reviewed, community based filter for publishable writing. And by publishable, I don’t mean POD.” alexander

I will emphasise not all responses from Authonomy users on the forums are negative ones. For balance, I recommend you read through the threads yourself to assess what the reaction has been, but to me it appears the majority of users (at least those bothering to voice their thoughts on the forum) are feeling misled.

At the heart of this anger and disquiet in the Authonomy membership is HarperCollins’ failure to understand online communities. Authonomy has all the trendy social networking bells and whistles. It’s got well-trafficked discussion boards and user-generated content. But social networking platforms at their most vibrant cede control to the community, they don’t (in fact can’t) hoard it for the platform developer. (Which is why Facebook is having trouble monetising itself) Authonomy users came to the site because of an expectation they were sold by HarperCollins. Having built up a successful community, those users don’t now wish to be told by HarperCollins to do or be something else especially when it’s transparently about making money for HarperCollins. Or, as put by an Authonomy member:

‘Hidden agenda’? How about a rollout plan that hasn’t been shared – an intent to create a site in phases without sharing with, or consulting, the people that populate that site? How about misrepresenting the site to those people as you do your rollout? What does that make you? alexander

I wonder what HarperCollins’ answer will be?

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Nick CaveVia Booksquare, Scottish publisher Canongate has announced it will digitise its entire back catalogue and make 450 titles available as e-book downloads by the end of this year. One of their more interesting digital projects is a simultaneous physical and e-book release of Nick Cave’s first novel in 20 years, with added extras such as a soundtrack and unabridged audio book narration by Cave.

Canongate has gone from strength to strength since Jamie Byng rescued it from near-bankruptcy in the mid-90s. It has acquired some big titles in the last few years, including UK and Commonwealth rigths to the Obama memoirs.

But for me, this Nick Cave project is the most exciting recent news. It perfectly exploits Cave’s multiple talents and reaches out to several audiences simultaneously, with the possibility of introducing new consumers from each to Cave’s various music recordings and novels, not to mention his poetry and films.

In many ways, Nick Cave is the perfect example of an artist in a position to commercialise digital content for modern audiences, a Renaissance man for the 21st century. He produces content across a range of media and artforms, he has an established and loyal fan base, he can derive additional revenus streams from touring and merchandise opportunities and he can cross-pollinate audiences from books to music to film.

Kudos to Jamie Byng and Canongate for a well-considered digital product.

“We’re doing some really cool stuff that will turn some heads and break ground in the area of e-books,” said Jamie Byng, the managing director. “We are using the medium, not just replicating content. That’s where the real opportunities lie.” Jamie Byng quoted in Sunday Herald article

Alphabet SoupI’ve been too busy with Clarion South to be able to write longer posts, so here’s a round-up of a few interesting tidbits I’ve seen around the interwebs lately.

Winnie the Pooh to the Rescue
Apparently a Pooh sequel is in development. PersonaNonData quotes a Times article: “Michael Brown, for the trustees who manage the affairs of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, said that he had been hoping to give the green light to a sequel for a very long time.” This intrigues me since I was fairly sure A. A. Milne’s works entered the public domain in 2007.

Self Publishing Continues to Grow
Martyn Daniels over at Brave New World comments on the continued rise of self publishing as an option for authors finding it hard to be published. It may be cheaper and easier than ever before. But watching my members’ experiences with POD and self-publishing at QWC, it seems the only ones making money out of it so far are the service companies Daniels mentions, like Authors Solutions.

Canadian Wine Meet Canadian Content
Mark at Index//mb has a nifty marketing idea: pair Canadian books/authors with Canadian wines. Mark, Australian Coriole Wines did a brilliant promotion using exactly this idea a few years ago with Adelaide poets. Poetry and poet bios on the labels, attractive limited edition half-cases with royalties to the poets, and even “Poets in the Vineyard” events with readings and music. I hope Canadian wineries can follow the example!

Do publishers still dream of electric books?
Brian Joseph Davis, guest blogging at the Globe and Mail, has a short, sweet with Soft Skull‘s Richard Nash about the state of publishing.

There are two fixed points in the cultural economy of books; the writer and the reader. Everything in between is up for grabs. And everything in between will need to earn its piece of the action by providing valuable services to writers and readers. Publishers especially have shown little regard for readers and most will need a radical change in culture in order to create a strong enough service culture.

So folks in a 2019 publishing office will be connecting writers and readers with passion, elan, humility and respect. Or not at all.

Map of Australia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jess Haberman has been musing about where to base herself as a publisher. I find this fascinating because I live in a large Australian state that is very decentralized.

Quick geography lesson: Australia is about the same size in land area as the continental United States, but with only six states and two territories. This makes most of our states extremely large, but Queensland (my state) is the second largest. In fact, at 1,852,642 km2 Queensland takes up one quarter of the total area of Australia. It is further from Brisbane to Cairns, cities both in Queensland, than it is from Brisbane to Melbourne, three states away.

Despite being the third most populous state, we are also decentralised. In nearly all other states and territories a high percentage of the population (65% or more) is clustered in and around the capital cities, such as Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. In Queensland this figure is only 45%.

Quick publishing industry lesson: Similar to London and New York, Australia’s publishing industry is concentrated in one major city, Sydney. At least, that’s how it is for the major trade publishers, the big six: HarperCollins, Hachette Australia, Pan Macmillan, Random House, Allen and Unwin and Penguin. By extension, that’s also where most of the literary agents are.

But here’s something interesting… some of the most innovative and energetic publishing in Australia is taking place outside of Sydney, and outside of traditional industry networks. At the mid-size level of the industry, a swag of publishers are really performing above and beyond what might be expected for their size, particularly UQP (Brisbane), Scribe and Text (Melbourne) and Fremantle Press (Western Australia). Melbourne is also the locus of a vibrant, exploding small press scene, with small independents flourishing in every other state, such as Small Change PressTiconderoga, Wakefield Press, eatbooks and Pulp Fiction Press.

There are any number of conclusions you could draw from this spread of the publishing map. For publishers, I would suggest that it doesn’t matter if you are located close to the hub of industry activity or not. There are now few if any barriers to publishing damn fine books wherever you are. Jess Haberman offers good arguments for not being based in the city at all, adopting a friendlier small town lifestyle which is likely more supportive of small businesses. But more than this, I wonder if the evidence in Australia demonstrates you’re actually better off not being situated in the swirling vortex of the publishing industry at all. If the publishers listed above are anything to go by, perhaps the distance lends some kind of perspective or inspiration for excellence and new innovation.

For writers, I think isolation is a tough burden and geographical isolation in Australia can be acute, especially in Queensland. Writers don’t need to be physically close to agents and publishers to sell a book, nor do they need to be physically close to other writers to participate in vibrant social networks. They just need a reliable internet connection (that’s a whole other story)

But I’ve seen the lightbulbs go on over authors’ heads when they attend a seminar or panel with publishers and agents and hear directly from industry professionals how the business works. I’ve seen the spark of new connections and relationships. I wonder if the mushrooming of small publishers in regional towns across Australia could, in turn, further support the development of writers in those communities.

What are your thoughts? I’m keen to hear from publishers and regional readers on this one.

[Note: Here’s some bonus material on the Australian tourism debacle that inspired the title of this post]

Every now and then I use Google Reader’s recommend function to find me a list of blogs I might add to my feeds. My list of regular feeds changes over time so it’s good to reach out for new content based on what I’ve been reading lately. When I did that today, Google Reader recommended the Puffin Blog.

I hadn’t come across this one before but, despite my interest in young adult fiction, I will not be adding the Puffin Blog to my feeds. This is an example of the all-too common “blog as marketing channel”. Most companies fail dismally at this, and publishers are no exception.

You can spot a “blog as marketing channel” a mile away. Firstly, there are no comments.  A blog is a social media platform. You know it’s achieving its purpose when you can see evidence of social behaviour, of conversation, of engagement. Regardless of how many people may be subscribed to your RSS feed, if you’ve got zero comments your readers don’t care enough to engage with your content or with you. That’s bad news for a company hoping to use a blog to reach out to customers. It’s also a waste of time and resources.

Another telling feature of the blog as marketing channel is the ubiquityof product mentions. On publisher blogs, this means almost every post is a book plug. Sometimes this is dressed up with witty banter or disguised within a personal anecdote by a company executive. Sometimes, in an attempt to show that the organisation is staffed by real, flesh and blood humans, you’ll see a variety of employees posting, everyone from the book designer to the receptionist. You’ll rarely see real analysis or opinion, or a sense of the company’s understanding of its place within a community of customers, readers, authors, and industry players. The result is pervasive sense of PR fluff and lightweight content.

It used to be common wisdom that content is king. But the popularity of social media has demonstrated that what internet users are really seeking is connection. A blog may be a cheap and easy way of publishing web content but its biggest strength is that it is a platform for conversation.

Are there publisher blogs that get it? Over at the 26th Story, I think HarperStudio has understood the opportunity and challenge of a company blog very well. There is real opinion, meaningful engagement with issues relevant to the HarperStudio brand and active encouragement of community discussion. The same is true of Soft Skull News and Abbeville Manual of Style.

These are blogs that still manage to showcase their authors and upcoming titles, but also maintain a place in a lively community of readers and other bloggers. Most importantly, these bloggers realise that conversation is taking place everywhere simultaneously. There’s no way to control it, only to participate in it.  I don’t need to take a sneaky-peek at these blogs’ Google Analytics results to know they’re more effective than a “blog as marketing channel” promo site.

Sorry I’ve been away from the blog for a few weeks. More travel and even, selfishly, some carefully hoarded time away for my own writing, joy! I’ve got some meatier blog posts brewing but here are some links to some fantastic articles to keep you going until then.

From Print to E, Some Items to Consider – Booksquare
Kassia Krozser has some fantastic suggestions for publishers who want to get e-books right. I particularly support her ideas regarding royalties and rights. Authors are wary of e-boook business models because the profitability for publishers (whether some or none) is so opaque. Open it up, show you’re about collaboration and sharing, and authors will follow.

Target, Serve and Adapt: A Simple Model for Audience Development – Tools of Change for Publishing
Living as we are in an attention economy, it’s useful for publishers to think about how they can target niches. This article from TOC looks at two examples of publishers – Politico and myballard.com – who are getting big by thinking small.

Bookkake; Or, putting my money where my mouth is – booktwo.org
James Bridle of booktwo has launched an admirable new project called Bookkake, a print on demand publishing service of classic literature. The new website is fantastic – simple, elegant with excerpts, introductions and multiple e-book editions available for free download. You can order p-book editions on the site which will be printed and shipped directly to you. Fingers crossed for this one! This is exactly the kind of model that the Literature Board of the Australia Council could adopt to return classic Australian literature to readers, instead of whinging that publishers don’t support unsustainable traditional print runs of it.

Author Questions: Distribution – Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog
Joe Wikert has a neato series going about questions authors should ask their publishers. Joe says,”Far too frequently it seems like the critical discussions between author and editor focus on things like writing schedules and compensation packages.  While those are certainly important subjects there are plenty of others that need to be covered as well”. The first topic he deals with is distribution.

I was sure that I wrote a blog post about Penguin UK’s Spinebreakers website when it was launched, but a quick search of the archives reveals I only dreamed I did. Nevertheless, I’ve been meaning to write another (first) post for a while. The site has been operating for more than a year now and it has really grown into the lively online space for young readers that it always promised to be.

Here’s what I love and admire about Spinebreakers:

  • it’s an online book community for teenagers… run by teenagers. The editorial team is aged between 13 and 18 years and clearly changes and refreshes regularly. I’ve seen at least one call out for new contributors and editors since I’ve been following the site.
  • Spinebreakers welcomes your content, instead of just talking at you about books. The site is chock full of opportunities to contribute content, whether it be writing book reviews, submitting video poems, making book trailers,  or writing an alternative chapter for your favourite book.
  • The editorial team are fantastic curators. This not a my Space-style social network. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we have plenty of them already!) The Spinebreakers Crew of more than 30 teenagers keep up a constant stream of quality author interviews, writing tips, book info, short stories and, yes, commentary. I have the RSS feed in Google Reader and would probably get more than a dozen items a day from Spinebreakers. It’s fresh.
  • Spinebeakers is an experience not just a website. The best part of all (except for me living in Australia) is that Spinebreakers have branched out into live events such as author talks and writing workshops. The first Spinebreakers Live, on July 25th, was a muster of more than 50 teenagers who worked with mentors on film creation, music production and creative writing. (As I so often do these days, I found myself whingeing “they didn’t have anything that cool when I was a teenager!”)

I wrote a while back about deep niches and the potential for publisher-driven sites to realise the value of vertical channels. Spinebreakers, along with the new Tor.com website, are examples of exciting initiatives in this direction. Of course, I can’t know if or how Spinebreakers has impacted on Penguin’s book sales of YA fiction but I do know they have attracted a loyal and active audience, including me!

Arts Research Monitor notes two recent reports relevant to authors and publishers. The research is from the Canadian industry but is of general interest.

Book publishing industry
Statistics Canada has released its most recent summary of the Canadian book publishing industry, noting that total revenues were $2.1 billion in 2006, down 1.2% from the previous year.

The Impact of Digitization on the Book Industry
The title of this report is self-explanatory. Commissioned by the Association of Canadian Publishers, the report recommends strategies for Canadian publishers to stay abreast of the changes wrought by digitization and adopting emergent best practice.

There are some strong recommendations, not all of which I agree with, but then I’m more author than publisher. There is some quite detailed discussion about rights, acquisition and ownership of digital files, as well as some interesting thoughts about the challenges of contract negotiations and balancing the needs of publishers and creators.

I think it’s odd that the ACP report doesn’t touch on DRM at all, nor Creative Commons. It is telling that the report is made available for free only in a web-based PDF viewer (one that you can’t search), yet can be purchased on the ACP’s website for $75. Definitely worth a read, especially by authors and agents looking for clues about what publishers are thinking about rights.

I laughed myself stupid over this tale of woe from John Warner of TOW Books. Nobody ever made failure sound so bloody funny.

How badly are we struggling? Well, we’ve released four books. Their Amazon rankings at the time of this typing are:

170,374
388,165
706,198
1,033,377

The most distressing part is that last number belongs to a book I wrote, So You Want to Be President? — a book that should have been especially relevant and timely given that it’s a guide to running for office when totally unqualified. I hope it’s in Governor Palin’s briefing materials.

But there’s a hopeful ending. John has actually hit upon a fantastic strategy for attracting new readers and spreading the word about TOW Books. It’s so appealing, in fact, that I’m heading over to the site now to get my free book. Who knows if it will help, but Warner doesn’t sound particularly worried:

When asked about how he intends to generate revenue under this new model, Warner scoffed. “Revenue! This is publishing we’re talking about. Everyone says we’re going down the tubes anyway. I’m just delaying the inevitable by having us lose less money more quickly … or something like that.”

Read the full story
[via Booksquare]

Bob Stein has published a brilliant piece over at if:book about the paradigm of the book in a networked world, and the role authors/ readers/ editors/ publishers can play in generating and curating ‘book’ content. I place those quotation marks deliberately because Stein interrogates the notion of the book as artefact, whether print or multimedia, and discusses how this concept has changed as we’ve evolved into a networked society. 

GavinBell

Image: GavinBell

“Reading and writing have always been social activities, but that fact tends to be obscured by the medium of print. We grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in his garret. The most important thing my colleagues and I have learned during our experiments with networked books over the past few years is that as discourse moves off the page onto the network, the social aspects are revealed in sometimes startling clarity. These exchanges move from background to foreground, a transition that has dramatic implications.”

This is essential reading but Bob is also encouraging comments and discussion.

Link to article: A unified field theory of publishing in the networked era by Bob Stein
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