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How do you judge a book without a cover?

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and with e-books, that’s not a problem. There are no covers!

In today’s New York Times, there’s an interesting article about how, with the rise of Kindles, Nooks and — in a few days –iPads, it will be increasingly difficult to find out what people around you are reading. The days may soon disappear where you can lean over in an airplane, on the subway, or on the sidelines of your kid’s soccer practice, take a look at the book the guy or gal next to you is reading, and then quietly judge them.

For some, that’s a good thing. Many consumers of romance novels don’t appreciate getting disapproving looks because their book happens to have a shirtless man and scantily clad woman embracing on the front. Some don’t want to read the latest best-seller or buzzworthy work just to fit in. For others, though, examining the reading materials of strangers is part of the fabric of their day. They can see if multiple people are reading the same book, what authors have new releases out, and what just looks interesting because of its neon-hued or graphically clever cover.

A lot of magnificent works are hidden behind boring covers (go to Barnes and Noble’s website, type in “classics,” and be prepared to fall asleep while looking at the thumbnails of the results), so perhaps with e-readers, people will focus more on descriptions of books, rather than covers. My favorite covers are the bright, intricately designed ones from books I read as a child (Nancy Drew’s The Mystery of the Fire Dragon comes to mind), but I would still only actually purchase them if I liked the summary. Books are expensive, and just because the cover’s glitzy, I won’t be buying it if it’s going to cost me $20 and I’m not sold on the plot.

So while I am generally a pretty nosy person, I’m OK with the fact that I won’t be able to tell what you’re reading on your Nook. I’m just glad you’re reading something. Besides, when I’m on the subway, the last thing I care about is what someone’s reading. I’m more interested in when I’m going to get a seat and how soon I can use my hand sanitizer after holding onto the fingerprint smeared pole.

What do you think? Will you start asking strangers what’s on their e-reader? Come on, admit it, do you judge people based on the books they read?

'The Lost Symbol' and 'Going Rogue' top 2009 best-seller list

Though it didn’t sell as strongly as The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol moved more than 5.5 million copies to dominate Publishers Weekly‘s just-unveiled list of the best-selling hardcover books of 2009. A few other expected author names populate the Top 15, including John Grisham (No. 2 and No. 6), James Patterson (No. 5), and Patricia Cornwell (No. 12 and No. 14). Stephenie Meyer landed in the ninth spot with her 2008 sci-fi novel The Host, but the lack of a Twilight book was evident, particularly in the ascendancy of two entries from P.C. Cast’s Twi-lite House of Night series, which rose up to fill a vampire-shaped hole. The real surprise, though, is Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which itself was helped by tremendous word of mouth to become the fourth best-selling fiction book of the year with 1.1 million copies sold. On the nonfiction side, it was politics, mainly conservative, that got the cash register ringing. Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue capped the list, but books by Glenn Beck, conservative radio host Mark Levin, and the late Edward Kennedy all made it into the top five.

Whereas sales of albums and movie tickets are tallied virtually in real-time, the figures for the publishing industry are often as closely guarded as the Colonel’s secret recipe, so PW’s yearly ranking offers one of the best snapshots of the literary marketplace. And while the top contenders on both the fiction and nonfiction lists sold millions of copies, the overall list reveals a far less rosy picture of book sales. The number of titles that sold at least 100,000 copies is down by significant double-digit percentages from 2008 in both fiction and nonfiction.

E-book sales figures weren’t included this year (they will be for 2010), but since digital editions rarely exceed 5 percent of a book’s total sales it’s unlikely that the 2009 sales list would have received a big boost from their inclusion. Here are the top selling books of 2009 (since some publishers did not provide PW exact sales figures, several titles’ rankings are based on estimates or sales figures provided in confidence for the purposes of ranking):

Hardcover Fiction

1. The Lost Symbol: A Novel, Dan Brown (5,543,643 copies)
2. The Associate: A Novel, John Grisham
3. Tempted, P.C. Cast (1,141,818)
4. The Help, Kathryn Stockett (1,104,617)
5. I, Alex Cross, James Patterson (1,040,976)
6. Ford County, John Grisham
7. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich (977,178)
8. Hunted, P.C. Cast (931,219)
9. The Host: A Novel, Stephenie Meyer (912,165)
10. Under the Dome, Stephen King
11. Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton (855,638)
12. Scarpetta, Patricia Cornwell (800,00)
13. U Is for Undertow, Sue Grafton (706,154)
14. The Scarpetta Factor, Patricia Cornwell (705,000)
15. Shadowland, Alyson Noel (609,355)

Hardcover Nonfiction

1. Going Rogue: An American Life, Sarah Palin (2,674,684 copies)
2. Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment, Steve Harvey (1,735,219)
3. Arguing With Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government, Glenn Beck
4. Liberty & Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, Mark R. Levin
5. True Compass: A Memoir, Edward M. Kennedy (870,402)
6. Have a Little Faith: A True Story, Mitch Albom (855,843)
7. It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor, Joel Osteen
8. The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow (610,033)
9. Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books Not Bombs, Greg Mortenson (515,566)
10. Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (487,977).
11. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child (487,228)
12. Master Your Metabolism: The 3 Diet Secrets to Naturally Balancing Your Hormones for a Hot and Healthy Body! Jillian Michaels (486,154)
13. The Yankee Years, Joe Torre and Tom Verducci (397,954)
14. Open, Andre Agassi (383,722)
15. Time of My Life, Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niem

Amazon plays hardball with publishers over e-book pricing

The Amazon rainforest is a pretty inhospitable place, where the law of survival of the fittest is taken to a harsh extreme. Amazon.com seems to have taken a cue from its namesake with its latest tactics with publishers to remain king of the e-book jungle, or at least ensure that no Apples grow there.

According to the New York Times, the online retail powerhouse has threatened to stop selling books from certain publishers if they don’t agree to its pricing terms for e-books. (Independent publishers in particular seem to be feeling the heat.) This news comes just before the launch of Amazon’s biggest potential competitor, Apple’s iBookstore for its iPad tablet device. Most of America’s largest publishers, excluding only Random House, will be selling books through iBookstore, under terms that allow them to set their own prices, a concession Amazon has been loath to make. Earlier this year, Amazon and Macmillan got into a big, bad brawl (or at least as bad as fights in the publishing world can get), when the retailer removed the “buy” button from the publishing house’s books in an attempt to pressure the publisher into accepting fixed Kindle-edition pricing. Amazon eventually blinked, but clearly the company hasn’t abandoned this line of attack.

The marketplace is getting pretty heated, and I imagine that as the first true pretender to Amazon’s electronic book throne finally enters the ring, it’ll only get worse. I can’t help but think that Amazon’s strong-arm strategy feels a little like the desperate actions of the king who can hear the restless villagers at his doorstep and knows that his time ruling alone at the top, while fun and super-profitable, will soon come to an end. What do you think? Do you agree with Amazon that $12.99-$14.99 is “needlessly high” a price to pay for an e-book, or is the online giant just throwing its weight around?

Hilary Duff to write a YA series

Lizzie Maguire, author? It looks like it. Actress Hilary Duff has just signed a multi-book deal with Simon & Schuster to produce a series of young adult novels, the first of which is titled Elixir and will hit stores in October.  According to a release from the publisher, the book “combines the overpowering allure of a dangerous love triangle with thrilling international adventure.”

Duff’s protagonist is a globe-trotting photojournalist who is attempting to unravel the mystery of her father’s disappearance. “I’ve always love the escape of a great book, especially one that features a strong, inspiring female character you feel you really understand,” says Duff. The former teen icon will also be writing a nonfiction book about divorce and its effect on children, which is slated for a Spring 2012 release.

Self-publishing: Is it a viable alternative for authors?

Usually self-published authors are either graduate students or first cousins who somehow manage to convince you to purchase six copies of their 600-page novel Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Hungry.

But now a two-time PEN/Faulkner winner and National Book Award finalist is stepping into the mix. John Edgar Wideman will be releasing his latest collection of short stories via Lulu, a self-publishing company that releases submitted work either as an e-book or printed-on-demand. Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind, available starting March 14, will be one of few works from an already established author to bypass the mainstream industry entirely. Another is JA Konrath, who, after having a collection of his stories rejected by publishing houses, turned to the Internet and self-published his own  Kindle ebook. Less than one year later, Konrath has sold nearly 30,000 copies and he expects to earn as much as $43,800 this year on that e-book alone. Proof positive that profit is possible with this model.

If self-publishing becomes a more acceptable practice for big-name writers, it could lead to an interesting shift in the landscape of the book industry. Authors would clearly exercise greater control over their work, its distribution, and, importantly, its price. There may always be a need some sort of intermediary like Lulu, which takes a 20 percent cut of the revenue, or Amazon, which will double its royalty rates for self-published authors beginning in July, but those mechanisms are negligible when compared to the established industry. It could even make the market more Darwinian: Without advances or heavy advertising, success or failure would  be wholly dependent on whether or not people are willing to pay to read your words. Clearly, established authors would have a leg up here, which is why it’s remarkable how few of them aside from Konrath and Wideman are willing to try to establish some vertical integration for their own output.

How about you? Do you support self-publishing? If this practice caught on, do you think it’d end up being a good or a bad thing for books?

What's an e-book really worth?

Oh, if only Johannes Gutenberg could read the Amazon message boards, he would probably be…horrified. Readers turning against authors, publishers, and each other; readers lamenting $10 price tags because new books just aren’t worth that much; readers admitting that they read more from a screen than they ever would on paper. The value of the printed word that Gutenberg invented, some 500 years ago, just isn’t what it used to be.

Until the iPad came along, that is, and breathed new life into a wilting publishing industry. The device’s iBook store follows an agency model approach to selling electronic copies, meaning publishers can set their own prices (from $12.99 to $14.99) and keep 70 percent of the profits. Naturally, five of the country’s six biggest publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, the Penguin Group, and Simon & Schuster—cut deals with Apple to be part of its new e-book marketplace even before the iPad launched. These newly empowered publishers also began rethinking their deal with Amazon.com, which has dominated the e-book market since the Kindle’s 2007 debut. Despite competition from Barnes & Noble and Sony, the company still enjoys 90 percent of the e-book market, thanks to a $9.99-per-book mantra that helped lure millions of customers to the Kindle store (and also pissed off publishers, who had to settle for a much-slashed “cover” price until the iPad’s promise of pricing autonomy went public).

So the publishers took their post-iPad bargaining chip—their revalued content—straight to Amazon and demanded more per e-book for the Kindle. First it was Macmillan, who won their case when Amazon agreed to raise consumer prices; and then it was HarperCollins and then Hachette Book Group. All of them argued for higher price points that, as Hachette CEO David Young said, “reflect the value of our authors’ works.” In other words, something that the Amazon.com bargain-basement prices do not.

Another wrinkle in the saga, according to last Thurday’s New York Times, is that Apple may have added its own discounting terms into their contracts to keep its competitive edge. Which begs the question at the heart of this pricing melee between publishers and Amazon (and now, frustrated readers and authors): What is an e-book really worth, when you can’t share it or store it on a (physical) shelf once you’ve finished it? Does a higher price tag validate an author’s craft, or just make it more inaccessible to the audience?

If you just looked at the Kindle store, and examined which titles are flying off the virtual shelves, books would seem to be one of the company’s least valuable commodities: 15 of Amazon’s top 25 e-book bestsellers are free, and eight more cost less than $9.99. There’s no doubt these deep discounts also help sell the Kindle itself—the lower the book prices, the more useful the device is, so more people buy the e-reader and the company can compensate for the lower per-book price. It’s great for the devoted reader—many commenters on the company’s Macmillan deal discussion thread say they read way more on a Kindle than they ever did before.

What do you think, Shelf Lifers? Do you think that e-books devalue the published word or promote authors and reading itself? Would you pay $14.99 for an e-book?

Sweet Valley High Sequel: What I'd Love to See

Brush off your Droids cassette and put on your lavalieres – the Wakefield twins are back. And I don’t mean in Diablo Cody’s movie adaptation of the series.

No, according to  St. Martin’s, Sweet Valley High‘s Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield – the identical twins with blonde hair, eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean and “perfect size six” figures – will return to bookstores, possibly as soon as early next year, in Sweet Valley Confidential, a book chronicling their lives as twenty-somethings.

Rumors have swirled for years that SVH creator Francine Pascal was working on a book focusing on the twins and their friends several years out of high school. Late last month, the SVH world went into a frenzy when an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s confirmed the existence of the novel, giving  Shannon’s Sweet Valley Blog a tentative publishing date of February 2011. While there is no word yet on what characters will appear in the book, there is a plethora to choose from. I think it’s safe to say that Lila Fowler, Jessica’s rich frenemy and my personal favorite, will make an appearance, as will Porsche-driving Bruce Patman and Elizabeth’s moody on-again off-again boyfriend Todd Wilkins. Continuity has never been one of Sweet Valley’s strong points, so I won’t really mind if the book pretends Sweet Valley Senior Year and Sweet Valley University never happened, focuses on just SVH characters, and retains the same fabulous campy quality as the original series.

So, what plots/characters would you like to see in Sweet Valley Confidential? Are there any other YA series that need to reappear with the characters grown up?

Amazon capitulates to Macmillan's e-book pricing demands

As many of you know, the e-book pricing wars came to a head on Friday and Saturday, when Amazon stopped selling Macmillan titles (St. Martin’s, Holt, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux books), though customers could still purchase books on the site from other sellers. Macmillan CEO John Sargent issued an impassioned plea on Saturday night to explain his company’s position, and last night, Amazon gave in, posting a statement to customers on its Kindle page that said, in part, “We want you to know that ultimately, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative. Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!”

As someone who has been following this drama, and reading all the comments on this and many other books blogs, I’m alarmed that so many people seem to see Macmillan as the villain here. It’s not that simple. The book business has never had high profit margins (I believe 3 percent is considered fairly healthy, which ought to give you some idea.) It costs an enormous amount of money to produce a book. The author is paid an advance; the book is edited and copy-edited and often put through a legal check; a jacket is designed; the publisher pays for marketing (ads!) and publicity (sending authors on tour, or, if they’re lucky, paying to bring them to New York so that they can appear on a national TV show). The printing, binding, and shipping of a title are not the real expenses involved in publication. The issue that Macmillan had with Amazon is a very real one: Given the punishing terms that Amazon insists upon (most e-book profits are going to Amazon, not to the publisher or author), publishers literally are often losing money on their e-book ventures with the company. What Macmillan wants to do is what it calls “agency pricing,” that is, offer the e-book for more money when it first comes out, and then decrease the price as time passes — much in the way that a book is first available in hardcover and then in paperback.

This is a gross oversimplification, but what it comes down to is this: Unless all publishers negotiate better e-book pricing deals with Amazon, the number of books being published will decline. You won’t see a book like The Help. It will never see the light of day, because companies just won’t be able to take a chance on unknown authors. And small literary novels and short-story collections will suffer the most. They are often money-losers anyway, subsidized by companies’ bigger commercial successes. As the percentage of e-book sales rises, publishers simply will not be able to continue putting them out unless Amazon agrees to different terms.

As of 8 a.m. today, the “buy” buttons at Amazon have not been reinstated on any Macmillan titles I checked.

Amazon is no longer selling Macmillan books; Macmillan CEO John Sargent issues statement

Amazon has pulled books from publishing giant Macmillan, according to the New York Times. Authors — and book buyers — began to notice last night that Amazon was no longer selling any of Macmillan’s titles (although they can still be purchased on the site from third-party sellers). The skirmish is most likely the latest chapter in the bitter war that Amazon and publishers are waging over the cost of e-books. Along with other companies, Macmillan has been pressing Amazon to raise the price of e-books, while Amazon is keen to keep prices low to promote its reader, the Kindle. (The $9.99 e-book prices advertised during the holiday season were a special point of contention.) So it is any coincidence that Macmillan is emboldened to make such demands  just days after the unveiling of the iPad from Apple? Probably not. Apple, after all, made it clear it will allow publishers more freedom to set their own prices for e-books. And when Steve Jobs was asked at the iPad press conference why customers would buy an e-book for $15 from Apple if they could get it for $9.99 on Amazon, he replied, “That won’t happen…Publishers are actually going to pull their books from Amazon because they’re not happy.”

Macmillan is, of course, one of the biggest book companies in the world and its imprints include Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt and St. Martin’s Press, which publishes Janet Evanovich and Augusten Burroughs, amongst many others.

UPDATE (6:00 p.m.): Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Macmillan CEO John Sargent issued this statement moments ago, addressed to Macmillan authors, illustrators, and the literary agent community:  “This past Thursday I met with Amazon in Seattle. I gave them our proposal for new terms of sale for e-books under the agency model which will become effective in early March. In addition, I told them they could stay with their old terms of sale, but that this would involve extensive and deep windowing of titles. By the time I arrived back in New York late yesterday afternoon they informed me that they were taking all our books off the Kindle site, and off Amazon. The books will continue to be available on Amazon.com through third parties. I regret that we have reached this impasse. Amazon has been a valuable customer for a long time, and it is my great hope that they will continue to be in the very near future. They have been a great innovator in our industry, and I suspect they will continue to be for decades to come. It is those decades that concern me now, as I am sure they concern you. In the ink-on-paper world we sell books to retailers far and wide on a business model that provides a level playing field, and allows all retailers the possibility of selling books profitably. Looking to the future and to a growing digital business, we need to establish the same sort of business model, one that encourages new devices and new stores. One that encourages healthy competition. One that is stable and rational. It also needs to insure that intellectual property can be widely available digitally at a price that is both fair to the consumer and allows those who create it and publish it to be fairly compensated. Under the agency model, we will sell the digital editions of our books to consumers through our retailers. Our retailers will act as our agents and will take a 30% commission (the standard split today for many digital media businesses). The price will be set for each book individually. Our plan is to price the digital edition of most adult trade books in a price range from $14.99 to $5.99. At first release, concurrent with a hardcover, most titles will be priced between $14.99 and $12.99. E-books will almost always appear day on date with the physical edition. Pricing will be dynamic over time. The agency model would allow Amazon to make more money selling our books, not less. We would make less money in our dealings with Amazon under the new model. Our disagreement is not about short-term profitability but rather about the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market. Amazon and Macmillan both want a healthy and vibrant future for books. We clearly do not agree on how to get there. Meanwhile, the action they chose to take last night clearly defines the importance they attribute to their view. We hold our view equally strongly. I hope you agree with us. You are a vast and wonderful crew. It is impossible to reach you all in the very limited timeframe we are working under, so I have sent this message in unorthodox form. I hope it reaches you all, and quickly. Monday morning I will fully brief all of our editors, and they will be able to answer your questions. I hope to speak to many of you over the coming days. Thanks for all the support you have shown in the last few hours; it is much appreciated. All best, John.”

More on e-books:
Apple’s iPad is officially here
Amazon says e-books outsold physical books on Christmas Day
Kindle’s popularity fires up

'The Baby-Sitters Club' returns this spring

This April, Scholastic plans to reissue the first two volumes of its once-ubiquitous tween fiction series, The Baby-Sitters Club, according to the New York Times. The publisher is repackaging and updating the books (e.g., a “cassette player” will become “headphones”), and also releasing a prequel, The Summer Before, written by the series’ original author, Ann M. Martin. The original Baby-Sitters Club books, published from 1986-2000, grew to 217 titles and became a huge tween phenom, with 176 million copies in print. Now, Scholastic hopes to reignite fervor for 12- to 13-year-old heroines Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey — while pitching the books to a slightly younger audience than it did originally. (As the Times notes, the publisher has had significant success with its 2008 relaunch of another dormant franchise for young readers, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series.)

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