Tag Archives: Publishing

Why anyone can succeed at publishing, or why publishing is failing

Just an abstract scenario, because I don’t want to get anyone (or myself) in trouble:

Publisher owns print rights to backlist title. Publisher does not promote said title, resting on the title either selling well on its own or rotting. Publisher has first dibs at electronic rights, fumbles them with a bad offer. Other publisher secures e-rights by offering a competitive deal. New publisher promotes same backlist title, blows it out of the water. Promoting ebook leads to collateral sales of pbook; also gets mentioned in industry news as a huge success. First publisher gets upset about accidentally succeeding, even to a minimal degree, calls the agent that represents the title, and complains about how first publisher didn’t get the ebook rights.

Yes, this really happened, like right just now, today.

Hint, first publisher: YOU DIDN’T GET THE EBOOK RIGHTS BECAUSE YOU WEREN’T PROMOTING THE TITLE AND DIDN’T OFFER FAIR ROYALTIES. Now quit harassing other people for your bad business practices and get back to work, such as it is.

Also, as a note, the phone call from the agency at your bequest to ask why their title was doing noteworthily well led to new business for us. So thanks, I guess.


On all sides, publishers are uncompetitive. They offer bad deals to their producers, pay too much for the internal services they offer to secure those producers, and then can’t figure out how to make peace with their retailers, any retailer. Only one of these facts has been in the news for the last few years, but make no mistake, all three are true.

These facts are the exact crazy-person reasons that makes me think anyone with the slightest business sense can get ahead in this industry, and also, why publishing is going down the shitter.


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Filed under Criticism, Publishing

Amazon.com: Tags Customers Associate with This Product

The “tags” that appear on Amazon product pages are user-generated tags and can be as helpful or spiteful as any user comment. Publishers and individual authors have no control over what tags customers associate with any given product.

The best practice one can do, if one is so inclined, is to navigate to the “Tags Customers Associate with This Product” section of the page and select ONLY the tags that are true or beneficial. This will weigh the selected tags heavier against the malicious tags.

To be frank, if this were going to have any significant impact one way or another, it would require thousands of selections instead of ones or dozens, and recommending this course of action to your authors would probably help them to feel more in control but otherwise waste their time. In fact, the most memorable use of this feature was to flag books as “DRMd” or “DRM-free” to help tech-savvy customers make purchases that reflect their ethical values. People do still flag products this way, but I haven’t known a massive push on this front for years. This makes me feel relatively certain that the impact of user-generated tags on search functionality and product discoverability is minimal.

These user-generated tags are in no way related to the tags publishers associate with their products at submission, which will always play the primary role in search functionality and product discovery. It is likely that your publisher has either good or good enough practices in place for their own distributions, but you may always query your editor about what metadata they’re associating with your book. Like most decisions, however, I would not recommend using your marketing instincts to try any correct their decisions; instead, consult with someone who knows about SEO before reacting to your publisher’s information. Being informed instead of reactive will help everyone involved.


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YM&S: Professional ambitions, part 1 – Publishers Lunch

Now that I’ve found a niche of publishing to call my very own, several professional ambitions have become defined in what was previously a very vague landscape. Planning things out before hand isn’t really my style: one of the reasons that I fared so poorly in academia qua academia—I have habituated myself to solving any problem I find myself, and I can precipitate problem I’ve suffered before, but solving a hypothetical problem that hasn’t actually appeared yet always feels to me like an utter waste of time. Not that doing so doesn’t have its place—I certainly appreciate others who have this tenacity for precognition—it’s just not something I spend time on or could succeed at if I did. Like painting: I love the visual and appreciate what I can understand of what I see, but the rest is lost on me though not without its own purposes outside of my biases.

So then, too, my professional ambitions. Being in publishing for a good many years now and having studied it both as a professional and academic, one of my ambitions is to make it I to Publishers Lunch, the primary form of industry news, an email sent on a daily basis with a summary of the news available on Publishers Marketplace.

This ambition has already split into steps, or degrees. My first goal was just to get mentioned in some way. Well, not only has my employer received several mentions since I started working there, projects over which I’ve had direct professional control have ended up there as well. And I had an increasing level of control over each project, so each mention is more satisfying than the one before it, a pleasant escalation.

So what’s the next step of this single ambition? To get mentioned by name, of course! Something like “The brilliant Greg Freed who has shown an unerring tenacity for generating book-quality books for the ebook market, has hit another homerun with this series, showing e-publishers and electronic producers everywhere that not only can high quality be attained but soon will be expected by customers everywhere.”

Like most of my dreams, an unmitigated delusion of grandeur, of course, that I do my damndest to live up to. And I won’t be sad if I fall a little short: falling a little short inversely implies quite a lot of successful movement. Which connects this next step in the Publishers Lunch ambition to another ambition of mine, which I’ll address in my next post!

Have a great day doing whatever it is you do, and DREAM LARGE. Share your ambitions in the comments below.

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Filed under Professional ambitions, Statement of purpose

Virgin Pulp

How many of us are inclined to give publishers a little leeway when it comes to what products they choose for their production? Publishing is a low-margin industry across the board, so if the businessmen have to cut a few corners here and there in order to bring us the books we want at a reasonable price, shouldn’t we cut them a little slack? Should we still cut them that slack if we learn, as MOBYLIVES (an excellent source of publishing news) reported on this report (covered in the San Francisco Chronicle) that some of the paper comes from virgin Indonesian pulp?

But what we’re talking about in specific is children’s books from publishers across the board, and the children’s market across all industries is unhappily tainted with reports of corner-cutting. Perhaps we wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a children’s book printed in China used that same ink mentioned in The Name of the Rose or a cheaper variant with the same implications. I suppose, all things considered, we’re lucky the books aren’t printed with lead ink!

Now I haven’t done the research on this, but I can’t really believe that the use of Indonesian pulp is an unsolvable problem. Any given forest is a renewable resource, and I don’t have many reservations about using wood, especially in the creation of paper. But I work under the assumption that if an action can be a sustainable practice then it should be. Is Indonesian paper cheaper because of the cost of labor? Then pay them to make a sustainable tree farm.

I’m not even advocating bringing the work back into the States, although perhaps I should. Keep it cheap to keep your margins, but people will pay for books that don’t promote deforestation. Make a cross-industry marketing initiative with a little foil sticker and a cute banana-eating monkey with proud wording that says, “No virgin pulp!” (It’ll be about as true of your copy as your pages, but that’s off topic.) On the other hand, if you just get your jollies from cutting down rainforests in order to print a book about conservation for children, well, there’s really nothing anyone can do for you.


Filed under Criticism, Features, Publishing

A letter to a client

This is part of a letter I wrote to a client and friend last night that I thought a few of you might benefit from. It concerns writing in the fantasy genre and how one ought to maneuver in order to find success.


I was thinking about your project this evening and came to a question that should have an answer: What does your project say that your audience needs and wants to hear? The closest answer is a given, that you speak to a child’s sense of wonder. However, that’s genre-broad and won’t on its own seize a publishing deal, no matter how successfully you fulfill that objective. The fantasy genre is so flooded with books that in order to succeed one much find a niche, much like an sponge grabbing onto a crevice in the ocean floor. Otherwise any book is just a floating homeless thing waiting for an opportunity to root, which necessarily comes before flourishing.

Take the Harry Potter series, which I know you like, as a case study. The popularity of the series did not start with the first book nor the second. Both were fairly run-of-the-mill stories that were lucky to find a publisher; they had symptoms of something larger, such as Harry’s distrust of authority via Snape, but the driving force of the series was wholly undeveloped and ephemeral.

The third book held the foundations for what really made the series work later on. Larger branches of authority than school administrators were offered; real-world weight became attached to the consequences of Harry’s failure or success. The Prizoner of Azkaban stepped beyond the scope of the schoolyard into the world at large, and a fairly metropolitan world at that, offering students what they so long for in an age whose marketing and art are so overly focused on them: importance and a place in the world’s troubles. Children can sense, in my opinion, that the world is shrinking before them, and even if they can’t, it’s certainly a message that their parents would want them to hear.

After the development of the Ministry of Magic and the mythology behind the characters, stepping into problems of the culture became the order of the day, such as Hermoine broaching classism (or perhaps slavery, depending on which side of the pond you’re addressing the question to), awkward social dynamics, and tools through which one can challenge authority. That all of these structures were well developed and paralleled feasibly actual-world problems simply heightened the draw of readers of all ages into the story.

The problem is not one of artistry but of thoughtfulness. If you see how your world connects with the real world, you can exploit it in your writing to the delight of your fans; nobody how poorly this is done, your readership will appreciate the effort and the depth.

For another example of this same point, take Terry Goodkind, a favorite of my adolescence (alongside Heinlein and Barnes) whose books have been mentioned as offering one of the best-developed fantasy worlds since Tolkien. To whatever extent that claim may be true (his world, perhaps in the beginning, was seen to a limited extent, but by the fifth book had grown too large and unwieldy), I would argue that his success hinged on his ethical messages inside the text. Indeed, the title of the first book in the series was The Wizard’s First Rule, clearly outlining that the books would focus on a series of rules dictating how one ought to live ones life. This caught my attention easily according to my nature, but I suspect that many adolescent boys just like me clung to the masculine figure of Richard Cypher and the short, too-the-point rules he came into contact with. That this episodic tool failed Goodkind in the end by becoming too demanding and dogmatic seems inevitable in hindsight, but it’s just the sort of depth that the audience will be looking for, hence that an editor will be looking for. It is that well-discussed but seldom hit-upon force called the niche.

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A freelancer’s beginning

On August 24, 2006, Emerson College sent me a letter asking me to take part in their Graduate Certificate in Book Publishing. They had denied my application to their Masters of Arts in Book Publishing but judged that I would fit in with their certificate program. I saw the program as a distinct end to my post-college unemployment, my living off near-to-minimum wage in combination with parents’ gratuity while I tried to find my place in the world. Hell, the program could define my place.

Also, I had wanted to leave Texas since I was a child and had made many frustrated attempts throughout my life. I was determined that my exodus to graduate school would not be denied, however.

When I received the news, I shouted, actually screamed for the joy of it. I called my mother and father, who had not been home when I opened the letter. I called Justin and Steve, two of my high school friends I still kept in touch with. I called Sarah and told her all about it, told her about how this meant no more jobs at coffee shops and no more crying about the worthlessness of Texas. I told her that this meant everything would be all right.

It wasn’t until later, when she had asked me if I would come to Waco for her birthday or if I wanted her to come to Dallas, that I realized this meant leaving her. In hindsight, it’s strange to think that neither of us recognized that immediately. But Emerson started on September 12 that year. I had to get up to Boston somehow with at least my clothes and Kallion, my dog.

How does one completely disassemble their life and relocate to Boston within two weeks of receiving the news that he could go if he wanted? I mean, I didn’t have to accept Emerson’s invitation. I could’ve stayed in Dallas, living in Steve’s parents’ house and working at Starbucks while I scrounged for gainful employment unsuccessfully, resisting Sarah’s insincere invitations to move in with her back at Baylor instead.

My parents had kicked me out after six months because my dog sheds a ridiculous amount. Part Husky and part German Shepherd, she sheds year round, her short coat when it’s hot and her long coat when it’s cold (Texas only has two seasons, hot and cold.). They asked me to keep her outside all of the time, even when I was home and when I was asleep. But I sleep with Kalli in my bed. She lies on the couch next to me when I write. She loves me and trusts me, and all in all I’m more of a parent than an owner to her. I would no sooner leave my four-year-old child outside all day, and I flatly refused. So away I went, and I took my dog with me.

My parents had hoped that kicking me out would give me the spark I needed to find a job, as if my unemployment had come by choice rather than circumstance. My Bachelor of Arts in Great Texts of the Western Tradition, while being a great conversation starter (General response to hearing it is, “What?” Never “Huh?” always “What?”), looks worthless on a resume. I also listed the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, which–despite how it’s sold to freshman–no one actually cares about outside of a collegiate environment. I had zero office skills, zero contacts worth pursuing, and zero prospects. Hence, I put my college degree to work at Starbucks.

Dallas is a tech city, and I am not a techie. While I’m fascinated with computers and video games to a point where I know computer languages simply to make me a better player, I couldn’t finish a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science at Baylor. Dallas has almost no art scene and actually no writing scene, and I stood out like a sore thumb among the resumes of my more technically proficient colleagues.

The one job interview I received was for a proofreading and copywriting position at a young health insurance company, and I misspelled guarantee in a sample they had me write on the spot. They caught it; they questioned my proofreading skills over it (fairly), and that was the end of the interview.

I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, and Concise Rules of APA Style. I was determined to find freelance work by cold contacting companies and just asking. They can’t reject you until you ask, after all.

I found two freelancing gigs through Gmail, Google.com’s email service. As one by one my cover letters to Dallas companies found their way back as rejections, the language used in the conversations prompted Google’s adbot to list a series of self-publication and editorial companies for amateur authors. A light went on in my head.

ProofreadNOW.com had taken me on staff because the owner, Phil, had a daughter attending Baylor when I contacted him. I told him that I had no proofreading experience and that I was still browsing the style guides I had bought with minimal understanding. He took me on anyway. After two months he fired me, saying that my proofreading skills weren’t par with their expectations.

A-1 Editing responded to my query with an editorial test. I completed the reading section with some light proofreading and editorial queries, and apparently my effort pleased the owner, Nicole. She sent the first manuscript about a month afterwards. I worked on it slowly and carefully, attempting to maintain my good first impression. I returned the manuscript to her on deadline and promptly received another.

Nicole wrote one of my letters of recommendation to Emerson, one of the few tokens of proof that I had some experience in publishing. My acceptance into the certificate program probably rested largely on her merit alone. She lifted me out of unemployment and creative stagnation, a shift in my life for which I’ll never quite be able to repay her.

All I had to show for one year out of college in Texas was Starbucks and two freelancing gigs, one a failure and the other a success. My parents had kicked me out of their house. I couldn’t afford to move out of Steve’s parents’ house because my Starbucks wages only covered my credit card minimums, car payments, and student loans, not all of which had come out of their grace period yet. Unemployed, broke, and homeless with my dog in tow, I could’ve stayed.

I still can’t explain how I fit all of my most important possessions in my little two-door 2000 Honda Accord. I knew how to break the computer chair down with hex keys, but even in its component parts the base of the chair, a five-point plastic star with a wheel on each leg, never quite fit anywhere. I ended up shoving it into the floorboard in front of the passenger seat. Kalli took the passenger seat herself, eyeing the base distrustfully. Three heavy, book-filled boxes took the back seat and rested on a comforter and a few bedspreads to protect the leather. In the trunk, my computer (but not a monitor) sat next to the space heater and my one bag of clothes.

The whole time I packed, alone over the boxes and still more alone carting the heavy items to the car, I kept asking myself how it was going to work. How could I, broke and alone and afraid, make it to Boston? I had $700 to my name, which included my last check from Starbucks (Stephanie had gotten corporate to print it early so that I wouldn’t have to have them send it to me later on.). How could the next few days of my life play out successfully? How would fate find yet one more way to bring me back to Plano, dejected and frustrated?

I determined that while I wasn’t sure about a single moment in the rest of my life, I was sure as hell gonna head to Boston and find out.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Features, YM&S

Oh yeah, I talk about publishing, too

I forgot to mention in my purpose draft that I intend to use this blog to critique the publishing industry as well, particularly book publishers.

My largest critique of today’s book publishing industry (though it obviously applies to media across the board): Bumping up money on marketing and publicity while draining funds from editorial. A direct metaphor for this situation, imo, is draining a lake to flush your sewage system: at the end of the day, you’ll still have shit to flush but nothing to drink.

Listeners often react to this criticism by saying that it’s paradoxical or ideal. The idea is that there’s a line with good books at one extreme and good business on the other extreme, and they suppose that ne’er the twain shall meet. They say that is good business and that, especially in an industry whose sum value is worth less than Paramount Pictures (at least that’s what they told me at Emerson), good business trumps good content.

But I disagree. While in the short term marketing and publicity are able to sell books that people buy without a second thought, the books that sell on publicity and marketing don’t prosper into their later years. They, like Marguerite Duras’ face, age prematurely; or perhaps, as the industry saying goes, they have the shelf-life of yogurt.

Our industry does not sell dairy, though, nor stuff that expires at all. We sell knowledge; we sell mental value. If we can’t maintain that one primal distinction– primal because it sets us, book publishers, apart from other media distributors–then readers will not continue to prefer books over other content, other that is more exciting, other that is more stimulating, other that is more entertaining. We know that movies catch us out on the one, that theater on the second, that television on the third. We’re educated people with the intelligence to know where we’re beat. But what we have that others don’t, the force that both defines reading as an event and as an industry, is an insight into the psychology of characters that no other media can even approach. As long as we have that, we have sales.

But we no longer have that, nor do we promise it. We promise excitement and all the other things, because that’s what makes good marketing. So we sell one book powerfully up front, but it neither backlists nor works to maintain consumers as readers instead of moviegoers, instead of theatergoers, instead of televisiongoers. And if we can’t convince them to enjoy our product over those others, then they won’t.

Take, for example, this news from Publisher’s Lunch about Simon and Schuster’s latest marketing drive on Stephen King’s behalf: unsolicited text messages sent directly to cell phones.

1) It’s Stephen fucking King. You pay him million dollar advances because each of his new books sell themselves, at least for six months so that you can make back your advance. I won’t rag on Stephen King–he’s an entertainer who consistently generates a low quality of work that has a market (the man calls himself the McDonald’s of publishing for a reason)–but people that know about him know about him. Those who like his books will buy them, and those who don’t won’t. In America, there aren’t many book consumers who don’t fall in either of those categories. He doesn’t need new marketing ideas at this point in his career; just put up your posters, maybe have a TV commercial, and call it a day.

2) Spam mail is one thing that customers will look at. It came in our mailboxes, and we groaned. It came in our email inboxes, and we struggled a little. I guarantee you, marketers, that the day you start sending spam to something I have in my pocket with me all day long, I will take that cellphone with me to your office place, clench my fist tightly around it, and punch you in the face until its plastic mold breaks. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals doesn’t think I’m alone on this one. I guess since the lower court ruled in favor of you, it’s not so sad that you tried to defend yourself on this ridiculous count of foolery, but why you ever ran with this idea in the first place, I don’t know. It’s a good marketing idea, bad business idea. Two words: Ill will.

That’s enough for today. Leave comments, even if it’s just a smiley face. Thanks for visiting!


Filed under Criticism, Publishing, Statement of purpose