Monday, July 19, 2010

My adventures with Cassandra and the ex-Soft Skull

I was up in Hobart last week, although with the Cassandra GPS leading me from traffic light to traffic light, and then up and over Grasstree Hill, it felt more like Hobart was up me (and it was not a pleasant experience) at a seminar on digital publishing. I was there to give input as an author who had actually done it, and took it as an opportunity to point out Baen to an Australian audience.

This was a lot more interesting than I'd expected, to be honest. The Guest Speaker (besides me as a sort of minor aside) was a fellow called Richard Nash, formerly boss of Soft Skull Press. If you'd asked me if I'd have more time than basic politeness for a largely literary press editor... I'd have told you avoid buying stuff on that particular street corner in future. I'm a pragmatic ex-scientist, who likes empirical evidence, logic and common sense, appealing to readers and selling books because people love them... ideas which sometimes seem to be outré in the larger world of publishing, and let's be frank, particularly in the literary fringe. The Luvvies know that us dirty Great Unwashed don't really know what is good for us, and they network to make sure that we'll get a choice from Ms Hobson. Why, the Great Unwashed might read books by people like David Drake or Weber or even Kratman, which besides being that sf-trash, might influence them or support their worthless ideas, which are not right and they ought not be allowed to have.

Of course, being a lowlife simian myself, with lowbrow tastes, I assumed this to be the case. I thought I'd hear a lot pro-establishment stuff about how publishing was fostering the arts, and how necessary high prices for DRM loaded, leased media were. (As the official rebel I came and I am still the same: The establishment these days may largely be run shall we say 70's liberal arts college grads who labelled themselves as anti-establishment... However: When you are in charge of the system: you are are the establishment, no matter what your back-history was. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish their conduct from that which they once loathed. ‘Be good little proles and stick with our status quo, because we know what is good for you'... which has never been something I was much good at accepting.)

Okay so I was wrong. Sorry.

Both Kate Eltham's (from the Queensland Writer's association) presentation and Richard's made a lot of sense. And Kate was possibly less flattering about DRM than I would be (although more professional and dispassionate about it. Hey, I'm just an author, outspoken, opinionated and really silly). And Kate is even more enthusiastic about the need for REAL data than I am. I LIKE that!

I am still not sure just how Richard hopes to make money out of his company, Cursor, but I found a lot of common ground, and some refreshing ideas. I was amused to see his ideas of about advances and the negative effect these have on both sides of the equation (which I wrote about only last week). His idea of copyright only being for a 3 year period was... stunningly refreshing. (3 years as an initial grant and thereafter renewed annually -- makes sense to me -- my publisher is doing a good job, I'll renew. The book has taken off -- let's look at new terms. The publisher demanded every right under the sun and sold none of them, wasting opportunity and reducing my income? Goodbye. The book didn't make much, and is barely selling -- they want out? Fair enough.)

Perhaps because he was talking to writer-audience he was pitching this at making business sense for writers -- and in an electronic publishing world where traditional publishers are not, shall we say, offering much added value for what they want back, and appear lining themselves up to be the weakest link for most established names... perhaps he is the future -- publishing where publishers make themselves attractive to writers for reasons other than just access to retail space and an advance.

I think he was quite similarly taken aback that Baen had years head start on many of the ideas, and that yes, his ‘new' ideas were Jim's ideas. But he seemed to be taking notice.

Some of the concepts - like there is not enough piracy :-) - are startling enough to make me sit up and take notice. And I have been saying some of the same things for years too -- we're NOT getting most of the potential market out there. True - he was talking in price points, I'm talking about ‘what various reader niches want to read' and matching them to writers - but that too he does start to address by the idea of social recommendation networks (Something Ori has brought up here).

So: how long should copyright be sold for?
How long should it be?
How can publishing move to be an essential part of recognised names business (besides, well, making cutting them out illegal or collaborating with retail - which seem to be the possibilities being explored, eh)
How do we get those social recommendation networks up?


matapam said...

I wonder how many people frequent the Bar? How many are there daily? I discovered it twelve years ago, while searching for information on Lois Bujold. And that led me to AIM. And then to Facebook. (And to a lot of other authors, including Dave.)

The Facebook Network is huge, and I get dribbles of stuff from outside my own Friends sub-network when they comment on a not-mutual friend's post. I suspect a lot of clumping has and will continue to occur there, and Twitter and all the new things that seem to pop up every other day.

For the reading public, I suspect known authors will be the biggest draw, and then within each clump, known posters who offer their first work will draw some readers, expanding if the quality warrants raves inside the clump, then networking outward as mention spreads outward to other clumps.

Now, starting a readers/writers network from scratch, I think you'll need those known writers even more. And you'll need cross pollination, lots of fans regularly putting a link to your site or network on other networks, to draw people in.

This will be easy on Facebook, but awkward on the Bar, as Baen isn't in the business of advertising rivals. Although, even as I type that, I remember Jim saying that the more SF titles published, the more space it took up in the the store, the more people would try it for the first time and keep buying it. That competition creates more consumers, and helps all publishers.

A few publishers might jump in and get it right. Their websites are improving and could expand to include social networking. I still see writers as the central draw, and searching for them, the most likely entry point for new people.

Chris McMahon said...

It would be great to have a few internet sites you could visit for book recommendations.

At the moment the place I go to sniff out new books is reviewer driven - LOCUS (the paper version). Rowena was recently talking about blog reviewers, but I do not visit these or other internet SF review sites. I tend to rely on LOCUS and personal recommendations, or perhaps a book someone mentions on MGC. I have regularly been disappointed by books short-listed for Awards (and those that have won), so have backed away from using short lists for new fiction.

I would certainly be open to a recommendation site, but as with any community it would probably end up being dominated by one or two individuals. So then its down to whether you share their taste or not. Maybe I'm missing the point.

matapam said...

Chris, I think from the Authors, POV, the best thing would be a site that has a lot of people popping for a sample. If they like the sample, they'll be back.

So word of the author's or authors group site needs to be advertised. Networks either existing or future would be useful, probably. Something like Facebook is probably too big to be useful, although links between cluster of Friends may be larger than I think.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I'm okay with copyright for life of writer. Kids can write their own d-mn books. But I agree with selling it for a limited time, because I just HAD to sign a contract with that "in any format yet to be invented" clause and there truly is not enough pepto bismol or sleeping medicine to keep me happy.

Stephen Simmons said...

One of my small-press publishing friends posted a link from her blog today to a list of facts about books and publishing. Among other things (like the distressing datum that 1/3 of high school graduates, on average, never read another book after graduation) was the statement that the runaway leading factor influencing consumers' decisions for book purchases is word-of-mouth. The second factor is author loyalty.

Armed with that knowledge, the social-network marketing strategy becomes paramount. This is the Holy Grail of bookselling, I would think, the ultimate mechanism for getting the right supply connected to the right demand.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, I'd love to see bar figures too. I suspect it is a little off its hey-day some 5 years ago when it was a bit more of a broad church. Now I think a few conferences get a lot of traffic and the rest not so much. Wherein lies the lesson: segment and do not allow dissention to wreck everything

Facebook... I really have to get a better grasp of.

But I think you are right: authors remain the principal draw with feeds off that.

Dave Freer said...

Chris, well, the issue of trust and bias comes into this. At one time awards were a good indicator - and then many of them became in-group nepotism, or special interest group agenda rallies -- which rapidly eroded their value. When Nebula awards went to Lord of Light and Dune... well _I_ paid attention. Now - having seen the nominees nominating each other, In-groups of friends all appearing on the nominations... and just how few people even participate, I don't. So even if they are recommending brilliant books, the award has lost its primary aim: - to serve as a commendation. So far the Australian awards seem to have stayed clear of this, and wisely. But anyway - Locus for eg is quite coloured by likes and dislikes of individuals (I've been lucky in the past and got some very nice short reviews. Other people who write better than I do, sell far more... and never get reviews) So you'd have to know and like the tastes of the peer group you were turning to.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah..."in any format yet to be invented"
gah. Unclean. Thieving evil greedy... Such a clause comes in the 'you have me by the private parts and are squeezing or you have paid me a very large fortune with around 7 noughts after the digit. I'm betting it wasn't the latter.

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - yeah - if we can tie those two together constructively, AND (as one does for e-books) get reasonable distribution, I'd say you have a good chance of success.

Mike said...

Weird thought for the day -- is there anything to be gained by borrowing the "blind reviewing" approach that most academic conferences use? I mean, I've gotten a stack of 70 or 80 articles with names stripped off, with a short set of criteria for judgment, and had to rank them all in a couple of days. It's actually fairly easy to triage into "no way," "maybe with work," and "yeah, good stuff" and the lack of names does help avoid some kinds of bias. Would a "blind review" site help?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Dave. KRK book has already turned up pirated in two places. I should be flattered!

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, it's advertising you didn't have to pay for :-). Seriously - has it stopped the book doing well? No. It's a sign that it is.

matapam said...

"In any format..."

Yipes. And you can bet the publishers as a whole won't go for the limited time lease on the copyright, either.

Until they realize that (1) writers have found a new route to connect to the readers and (2) all writers are not equal in the eyes of the readers.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It wasn't even close to the later. It was "insult to injury." Makes me want to bite things. And all, btw, in the service of a company that is trying to stop ebooks -- is that what they plan to do with sensies or hollos or whatever the future brings? Do they realize they can neither stop time nor take us back to the 1920s?

Mike said...

Hum... the question here really is how to market your "right to control reproduction and distribution" if I remember right? At present, the language basically says "the publisher gets the whole thing for X period of time" or until the book goes out of print or whatever. Might be amusing to try to get a more limited transfer of rights -- "the publisher purchases the right to sell 5,000 copies. Anything over that must be renegotiated." And watch the publishers explode. It really is a question of how to slice-and-dice the rights to fit into the marketing/production/distribution process. Interesting to ponder...