Rework Attack ad on Karl Rove

March 17th, 2010


The founders of the website 37signals.com are also the developers of Ruby On Rails, the hottest new technology for building websites available. In addition to being innovative programmers, they are shrewd business people and www.37signals.com offers a variety of web collaboration tools for managing contacts, content, and tracking projects. Anyone can try these cloud applications for free and upgrade to paid services as business grows. We’ve used these cloud applications at the Grayson Agency since the first version to lower cost and improve productivity.

Now they’ve written a book on business innovation: Rework. It’s on my must read list, but today they innovated some book marketing; they released a gorilla marketing meme for their book (already a success) in the form of an attack ad on Karl Rove’s book: Courage and Consequences. I plan to read Karl’s book too, right after I finish all the books in the other great fantasies: Harry Potter, Twilight, and Kitty Norville. In case you’ve been living in Grand Fenwick or Narnia for the past decade, Karl is the popularizer (if not the inventor) of the angry political attack ad that plays fast and loosey with the truthiness of content. Check out these links. This is modern book marketing at its best. Hey, it got me to post their PR for a book we don’t even represent.

Stay tuned. This blog will shortly return to its regular program of revealing the real secrets of publishing.

Order your Apple iPad tomorrow for delivery April 3 – UPDATE

March 11th, 2010

Elizabeth Woyka, writing at Forbes.com, reports on a report that Apple has refined their e-book categories. Visit the Forbes site for the whole story, but the book specific information is this:

AppSlice’s findings point to a highly organized approach to bookselling. Apple has designated about 20 “top-level” categories for books, including “Fiction & Literature”, “Reference,” “Romance,” “Cookbooks” and “Comics & Graphic Novels.” Below those categories lie more than 150 sub-categories, including some very specific genres, such as “Manga” under “Comics & Graphic Novels,” “Special Ingredients” under “Cookbooks,” and “Etiquette” under “Reference.” Some sub-categories, such as “Fantasy” and “Science Fiction & Literature,” even have sub-sub-categories (“Historical” and “Paranormal,” for example.) There are also two sections for “Erotica” books; one under “Fiction & Literature” and one under “Romance.”

We don’t know if the iBookstore will become visible tomorrow or on April 3, when the actual iPads will be in Apple stores, but there’s lots of speculation and hand wringing. Commentators range from the enthusiasts (like me) who think the iPad will increase e-book sales to the Apple haters who assure us the device will flop. You can follow the flop predictors at iPad Death Watch. Great fun. One of the doom crieers, John Dvorak, has shown how great it is to be a writer. He’s almost always wrong, yet keeps getting paid for his opinions. My favorite was his column almost three years ago today, when he commented on the announced but not yet delivered, iPhone:

I’d advise you to cover your eyes. You’re not going to like what you’ll see.

Clearly people did like what they saw as Apple sold over 8 million iPhones in just the last quarter. Although Amazon won’t release sales numbers for the Kindle the most optimistic estimates are about 2 million sold to date. That means that in the three months over the holidays, Apple sold four times as many iPhones as Amazon sold Kindles in two years. Anyone going to buy an iPad?

UPDATE It’s Friday March 12. The Apple online store came online exactly at 8:30 EST and is taking pre-orders for all iPad models and Apple accessories.* Orders for the WiFi models are marked “for delivery on 4/3″ so we assume you will receive an iPad on that date. Some accessories are marked “ships on 4/3″ and others have less specific info, so they may come later. The 3G models peg delivery as “late April.”  All orders made at the Apple Online Store ship directly to you (free standard shipping). If you have an Apple ID or iTunes account, you can use that identity to order and everything happens instantly. If not, you can create an identity while placing an order. If you want to RESERVE an iPad for pickup on 4/3 at an Apple Retail Store, all you do is select that option from the main iPad page at the Apple web site. You can’t reserve from inside the online Store website. All reserving does is to add your name and information to a list, you must pay at the store like any walk-in purchase. Reserving should eliminate waiting in line on April 3. Since none of the WiFi models require any AT&T setup, delays should be minimum.

* The iPad Camera Kit,  which includes a USB connector and SD card reader is not available at the Online Store, but a VGA cable that allows connecting an iPad to an external monitor or TV has appeared. The other new item is the AppleCare extended warrantee (equivalent to the AppleCare for iPhone) at $99. Unlike dealer extended warrantees on electronics, AppleCare is a good investment since it includes unlimited phone support for two years from people who speak English (or your local language).

What’s a “hardcover e-book?”

March 2nd, 2010

Check out this interesting essay on TUAW, Macmillan trying to sell ‘hardcover’ ebooks, which gives a technologist’s view of the e-book controversy.

John Reed, had a little list

February 28th, 2010

John Reed as Koko in The Mikado

Today’s New York Times, carries a nice obituary for John Reed, one of the great word guys of the century. He wasn’t an author, yet I mention him here because of his performances, which unlike most singers, depended on his masterful delivery of words. He was the leading performer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs at the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Here’s his performance of Willow, tit-willow, the love song from The Mikado on youtube.

Reeds characters were always the antithesis of romance novel heros, un-macho but not without yearnings. As Judge Scaphio explains in Utopia Ltd:

Never!  I have often marveled at the fairy influence which weaves its rosy web about the faculties of the greatest and wisest of our race; but I thank Heaven I have never been subjected to its singular fascination.  For, oh, Phantis! there is that within me that tells me that when my time does come, the convulsion will be tremendous!  When I love, it will be with the accumulated fervor of sixty-six years!  But I have an ideal–a semi-transparent Being, filled with an inorganic pink jelly–and I have never yet seen the woman who approaches within measurable distance of it.  All are opaque–opaque–opaque!

A fine singer and actor who can deliver such lines and be understood in the last row of the second balcony.

The ultimate agent query, NOT!

February 8th, 2010

Aspiring book-deal-seekers are aggressively refining their query letters, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Here are two recent email queries that I received that demonstrate the energy with which people seek agents and want book deals. Notice: I didn’t say they were authors. What is becoming evident, is how focused and minimalist queries have become.

The first sender opened with this line: “Fiction books in general have always been and will continue to be a favorite in the world of books and reading.” That’s an exact quote. I replied that “fiction books are called novels,” and declined to pursue the query. I quickly got a snarky reply: “Didn’t ask for your critique on it – FICTION books in general are not necessarily NOVELS!”

This illustrates two key aspects of publishing today. First, people yearning for book-deals, presume that the act of submission is a demand for acceptance, not an invitation to critique. I guess I didn’t get the memo. Second, while not all fiction is of novel length, authors are generally picky about words, and always say what they mean. Book-deal-seekers really don’t know what books are or take the time to use the appropriate word for the idea they think they have.

My second example of the new minimalist query, is actually a composite one, inspired by this morning’s query for a collection of short biographies. The query sender was actually quite literate and sensible and proposed a not bad idea. But the query was formed of three parts:

1.) A pretty catchy title, 2.) a brief author bio and 3.) the request to “imagine a bestselling book here.” No hint of an approach to the topic or content was included.

This got me recalling an increasing number of novel queries I’ve seen in the past few months. These unhappy queries exhibit this pattern:

1.) A brief selection of familiar scenarios from the genre, or “important” themes, like isolation, grief or love, if the novel is literary.

2.) Micro character bios of the major characters and sometimes a list of the cities in which the action takes place.

3.) The exhortation to “imagine a great story here,” but no actual hint of a story or plot.

I decline this sort of query, because I don’t have time to look for unexpressed virtue in prose. Nor do I enquire at a Sushi Resturant if they serve fish. I expect the author and chef to know what they are about.

Sad to say, I’m also seeing this trend appear in published novels. Usually hot-genre, trendy novels, bought for marketing purposes by Publishers so they can have a certain kind of book on their lists. In the novel form, the appeal to the reader becomes: “imagine some great dialog here.”

I’m tempted to respond with: “Imagine wild-eyed appreciation for your work, which alas, we cannot take on for reasons totally unrelated to the words you wrote.”

Amazon concedes

February 1st, 2010

Gilda Radner on SNLIn the words of Gilda Radner, “Never mind.” (Clic the pic for sound.) However, let’s not fool ourselves that the war is over. This is only a skirmish. There are some new insightful blogs on the underlying causes of the conflict. We suggest you check out:  Scrivener’s Error and Charles Stross’ blog for a legal perspective and a supply chain analysis respectively. Great stuff.

UPDATE: A biting and appropriate summary by John Scalzi on his blog.

Amazon pulls Macmillan titles from online store

January 30th, 2010

Amazon will still allow customers to buy Macmillan titles from used book resellers as part of their partners program, but no longer displays the “Ships from and Sold by Amazon.com” text. The biggest impact is the elimination of royalty generating sales for authors on the web’s largest book retailer. The New York Times reports that the reason is the ongoing dispute between Amazon which wants to drive down the cost of e-books to $9.99, and publishers who want to hold up the price.

Technically Amazon is justified: book prices have risen due to increasing costs of manufacture and transport to place physical books on display in local bookstores. Ebooks have no cost of production, delivery or (shudder) returns. So ebooks don’t “need” to cost as much as paper books. Publishers, of course, don’t want to see revenues drop and want to continue the business-fiction that books are valued by the “format” of the book, rather than by the content. They are historically justified, because a hardcover costs more to produce than a paperback. But when there’s no physical object involved, the argument collapses. Alas, while my sensibility as an agent, makes me want to see strong, healthy publishers, there’s no good guy in this battle. And the only loser is the author.

Facilitators of delivery like Amazon and Apple don’t need the same margins as brick and mortar bookstores because they have no fixed costs for stores (not that Amazon doesn’t spend a lot of IT dollars on their computers). That’s why Apple’s iTunes and App stores have always passed 70% of the consumer price on to the rights holder. Amazon used to require 65% of the take for ebooks sold for the Kindle, but scared purple by the iPad, they dropped their share to match the Apple business model.

This fight, and the pulling of the Macmillan titles, is over the list price of the e-book. Publishers have been demanding agents and authors accept 15% of the ebook list price or sometimes a larger percent of the “Net receipts.” Our agency has been fighting the unfairness of publishers holding high percentages of e-book revenues for years. The problem is that 15% of the list price is not profitable for authors if business partners (say, Amazon and Macmillan) decide to price the e-book at $2.99. Likewise, the apparent niftiness of a 25% net receipts royalty is a bad deal if the delivery facilitator decides to collect 65% of the sale price, which Amazon used to do. Too many contracts have authors incomes tied to the publisher’s ability to artificially inflate the price of e-books; a fight I don’t think they can win.

It’s time to rethink the business model for publishing. Print runs are falling, even NYTimes bestsellers are being stocked in big chain bookstores in smaller quantities, and consumer spending is falling. Arguing over the wrong things for the wrong reasons and arguing against technological reality is not the way to improve the world. I’m concerned, but not worried; I love all the editors we work with and want them to have long careers, but my fiscal duty is to the cash flow of our authors. I think I’m the only literary agent who is also a computer software guy; someone who can edit books and refactor software. (They are very similar activities). I was in the BBN network control center the night the Internet, then called ARPAnet was first turned on. I’m pretty sure I’m the only agent with the iPad development system running on my laptop. All this e-book and web stuff is fun and it is not going away. So to Amazon and the Publishers, I want to say: stop fighting kids. The author, and agent–at least this one, is your friend. You can’t fool me; but you don’t have to.

One Last Note on the iThingy

January 27th, 2010

Apple will begin their iThingy presentation in just two hours, so here’s the last minute roundup of speculations. Philip Elmer-Dewitt blogs at Fortune as Apple 2.0, and offers a sensible roundup of rumors with a business slant. It’s good work.

Fellow agent and E-Reads publisher, Richard Curtis, offers his thoughts at Start Your Apps.

Technology blogger, John Martellaro, reminds us to embrace surprise with a very thoughtful essay, Say What?

My own final note is that however well the iThingy works as an e-book and or e-magazine reader, and the CEO of McGraw-Hill assured us yesterday that it will do these things, there’s still got to be the surprise. Everyone expects it to continue the Apple iLife activities of managing, buying and sharing images and music through iTunes. All Macs to this and so do iPods and iPhones that are also hand held gaming devices. If the rumors of the touch interface being surprising are true, and the iThingy builds local networks among other iThingys (iPhones and other smart phones can do this now), perhaps it will also act as a musical instrument. A new harmonica or concertina that anyone can learn to play well enough to jam with their friends. GarageBand, an application within iLife, is already a great studio mixer for real and electronic instruments. Why not offer a general purpose input device as well.  Just a thought.

After the announcement, we will get back to Publishing and talk about why the current publisher’s business model is dead and how authors and agents can thrive in the new world order.

E-books set to drive publishing in 2010

January 26th, 2010

All the signs say publishing will change significantly by Noon, California time on Wednesday January 27th when Apple announces the iThingy. Speculation about what this iThingy will be sounds like publishing genres: from Romance (it will be love at first sight), to Fantasy (it will be a full color e-book reader that provides total laptop computer capability with a touch screen interface that plays games) to Religion (it will be the Jesus Tablet).

I don’t know any more about the product than anyone, but I can offer a few observations about Steve Jobs and about Publishing.

Today’s rumors report that Jobs thinks “it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.” This supposed quote feels genuine and if so, and from what we know about Jobs’ Apple, should tell us something about the product. When Apple introduces paradigm-shifting products, the speculators and pundits always predict they will somehow encompass a whole bunch of historically desirable features and support traditional activities. What really happens is that Apple removes features and simplifies use. The immediate response of the Apple haters is to say, “Well no one will ever buy a product without that feature” and dismiss the Apple gizmo just long enough for Apple to dominate the unseen market that never cared about that feature anyway. For example:

The first iMac (thebrightly colored gumdrop), lacked a 3.5″ floppy drive. Pundits fried the iMac for its lack of backward compatibility. However, consumers appeared not to notice it was missing, and the line sold well.

The iPod completely revolutionized music players and electronic devices in general by replacing individual buttons (and the documentation required to explain them) with the click wheel. The iPod was the first all-digital device with an analog control. The iPod also simplified use: with “1,000 songs in your pocket” the iPod user had plenty of music available at all times. Of course today’s iPods hold many times the music, games and videos.

The same story unfolded with the iPhone. Most positive speculation of the iPhone design expected an iPod click-wheel that somehow turned into a rotary dial or some slide out keyboard that other vendors had done poorly. The iPhone offered a completely new interface that changed up the game for smart phones. The speculation that predicted the failure of the iPhone is now as faded as the earlier speculation that the iPod would fall to the superior resources of Microsoft and their partners. Remember the Zune?

So will the iThingy wipe out the Kindle and all the other, newly announced e-book readers? Technically, it probably will. From the business point of view, it has already caused change.

Here’s how music players, like the iPod, are different from e-book readers, like the Kindle.

First and foremost is the user experience. Music players, including the iPod are out of sight and seldom touched while being listened to. The minimal click wheel is all that’s required to control the iPod. iPhones and the iPod touch are highly visual and the touch sensitive screen is key to the usability. Reading a paper book is entirely a visual experience with a subjective tactile quality: the feel of the book.

So e-book readers must survive being looked at a lot and they must be good to touch. Many existing e-book readers certainly provide convenience, but beyond the steadily improving quality of e-ink screens, many are ugly and distractingly covered with keys. So any Apple e-book reader will have to do lots better.

The second aspect of e-books is the source of content. Music players were originally introduced to acquire songs from existing sources and make them available in your pocket. People seem to have forgotten that iTunes was free on all Apple computers for almost a year before the iPod was released. iTunes was a digital jukebox presented with the slogan “Rip. Mix. Burn.” It allowed users to move songs they already owned to music players and burn new albums as CDs. Personal creativity was not creating music (that’s hard and requires talent) but choosing how to combine music and share the playlist with friends. Piracy of music was well underway long before iTunes and the iPod, but with the iTunes Music Store, for the first time, consumers could purchase legal music, and they did.

But e-books are a different story. Despite advances in scanners, there’s no book reader to move an existing library onto any form of e-reader. To scan a book today, you either have to devote a lot of time to holding the book down on a scanner, or destroy the book to feed the pages into a scanner. So the only way to get content legally on an e-reader, other than texts that are in the public domain, is to buy each book as an e-book at published prices. This is fine for brand new front list titles, but the book business, before the “hits” model that developed in the 1980s, was a backlist business. Older books sold every year and good books could stay in print for decades. The very essence of publishing, backlist bestsellers, hasn’t driven e-books and e-readers; but it should.

How to make an e-book market explode?

The missing bit of technology that could explode e-books is the $200-300 book scanner that would read a paperback or hardcover book in less than an hour of clock time and spit out the book no worse for wear. For mechanical reasons, this would be a hard product to build. Lacking this device, e-book retailers and publishers could announce that anyone who bought the paper book (non-returnable paper book and some proof of sale required) could download the e-book edition for free or a nominal cost like $0.99.

Eliminating the need to ship heavy paper books around the country, e-books should be highly profitable for both publishers and authors whenever the pricing gets right. In the past two decades the price of all formats of paper books has risen to levels that drives down consumer book purchasing. Now, when e-books as a format, have the ability to remove the high price levels, all we hear from publishers is their intent to keep prices high. But trends can reverse.

With the recent announcement by Amazon that they are conforming to the iTunes model and dropping their share of the consumer price as well as the target price, Apple has already influenced publishing while having no product in the space.

Let’s see what Wednesday brings…

Authors, treat your work as an investment

January 25th, 2010

The Ashley Grayson agency believes in the Berkshire Hathaway approach to business: we select our clients and their works as long term investments, not just for the drug-like rush from a hot sale. This year we will be more open about our approach, so read on to see how we think. And how you should be thinking about investing in yourself and your own works.

Last week, CNN Money ran an article derived from a new book by Professor Burton Malkiel (Princeton, economics) and author Charles Ellis, titled The Elements of Investing. For some reason, the article didn’t mention the publisher, which is Wiley. I haven’t read the book, but if it has even 10% more value than the article, it will be worth buying. While not new advice in any way, it’s smart. The 6 biggest investing mistakes should be read by every author. Click on the article title and enjoy the wisdom of Malkiel and Ellis (not our clients), which is all about finance and the stock market, but here are the key points, restated for authors.

The six biggest investing mistakes for authors are:

Overconfidence

Surveys show that everyone feels he or she is above average in most things. Authors are no different. Authors develop real confidence over time as they master their voice and craft. New authors should not expect to get everything right with their first work but have no recovery plan when faced with the reality that their book needs more work. The biggest external sign of overconfidence is self-publishing. Self-publishing is a valid tool, but it is best wielded by an experienced author to achieve a financial target, not as a way to get noticed. If Big Experienced Publisher (or agent) doesn’t feel they can make money with a book, why does the author so frequently assume they can?

Following the herd

Herd following investors can make money, and their willingness to pay ever more for stocks drives up overall shareholder value, but there is a top to everything and the big rewards belong to those who get in before the stampede. Herd following investors are often said to subscribe to the “bigger fool” theory: If I will pay $100/share for this stock, some bigger fool will pay $115 and then I’ll sell. At the moment, the herd-following authors are frantically turning out sparkly vampire novels and DaVinci Code-type books. Some trend-following books will sell, but when the market is saturated, there will be no place for those books to go; and unlike the herd investor, they can’t unload their investment at $80/share because an author can’t get his or her time back

Timing

Knowing when to get in and when to get out is key to success in both stocks and books. Often tied to herd following, timing depends on what the author feels about the nature of his or her work. Timing is frequently a danger for non-fiction authors. Offering a truly unique book that’s way ahead of the buzz may produce the “there’s no category for that” response from publishers, while developing a book to join six other robust titles may fail because the category is over published. Generally, if the author feels the book is likely to lose value in the short term, it is not a good writing investment as a book, but it might be a hot blog.

Control

Investors who are making the control mistake place too much faith in their system, be it day-trading, technical chart analysis or guru-newsletters promising hot bargains. Again, self-publishing teases authors with the illusion that with control of their sales, they can somehow outperform the big publishers at selling books. Our advice: don’t get obsesses with control. The author’s job is to write the book, not make the sales.

Fees

Even cautious investors who seek the security of funds and portfolios managed by certified professionals  can end up with low yields or even losses if the management fees are too high. Authors have some protection in the standard 15% of agent commissions, but a dozen other pseudo-professions have arisen to suck up author assets: self-publishers,, publicity services, editorial coaches, and even fee-charging find-an-agent services. Good advice is always worth something, but paying for some information, like, “you are up in a balloon” doesn’t pay any return.

Trusting stockbrokers

Stockbrokers make money on every trade whither you make or lose money. They want you to trade because they make money either way. Traditional agents are different, we only make money when you do. But faux agents who charge a marketing fee, representation contract fee or other fee still thrive.  Be careful in who you work with, even if they are apparently working for you.

Here’s the really interesting part. The six big investing mistakes for publishers are exactly the same.