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This Week's Fish-Wrap №45: This Daft Publishing Life (A Primer)

Early last week, the Canadian Distributor of Atomic Fez titles – Author’s Choice – received an order from Chapters /​ Indigo /​ Coles for a substantial number of copies of Terribilis and Dirk Danger Loves Life. Huzzah! Exposure in shops at last!

Metrotown location of Chapters/Indigo
Metrotown location of Chapters/​Indigo

Well, actually, possibly not; plus it might not be the best time to break out the champagne and caviar and dispense with the beer and hot dog budget either. You see, this isn’t anything quite like a “guaranteed river of money” situation. In years past I’ve sometimes been surprised at the seniority and years of experience which authors and readers alike might possess, yet they’ve not much idea of the business specifics of the retail selling of books. So as to further the understanding of all, here’s how things come top play in this daft publishing life thing. Besides, it’s something that I have to remind myself of in order to keep in mind how insane this whole notion is to begin with.

Also, please note that all Atomic Fez books have been in the Chapters/Indigo/Cole’s catalogue since the agreement with Author’s Choice about a year ago (click here to see the titles). Due to the same agreement, you can also locate Atomic Fez books in the Amazon.ca (click here to see the titles) and Amazon.com catalogues (click here to see the titles). So, this isn’t a change, except for the actual quantity of copies ordered.

Here’s how these things work: Chapters calls the distributor in Ontario with orders for books they’d like in the warehouse, and then either the distributor tells me to ship them a big shed-​​load of boxes like last week, or – more frequently – the distributor parcels-​​up the four copies of some title and those get sent to Chapters’ warehouse. Typically Author’s Choice has no more than one box of anyone’s book in stock, as they are only a small distributor, and not a warehousing or storage firm. Once the books head to the warehouse of Chapters/Indigo/Cole’s for their inventory, anything can happen and I’ll not know a thing about it. Yes, copies could be sent to some of the 247 Indigo, Chapters and Cole’s stores across Canada, or they could merely hang-​​on to them in the warehouse to supply their on-​​line orders through Chapters.Indigo.com (the same as I do through this site’s ordering), or they could do a little of both. Again, I have no idea what they’re doing, and I won’t ever know until either someone stumbles across copies on a shelf and tells someone, or I stumble across an inventory entry on their web-​​site (and that would take a concerted effort of experimentation with searching through the item’s status using major population centres). So, basically, if someone sees some copies, they really ought to take a picture of them, then send me a copy.

This is the first time – as far as I know – that a shop has ordered copies ‘on spec’ of an Atomic Fez title. I’ve sent occasional copies to wholesalers and shops both in the UK and in North America, but as they’ve been very small amounts, they’ve probably been ordered by customers. I’ve never, never seen any book I’ve published on a store shelf, either in person or even in a photo, with both outfits I’ve worked with. So this is an excellent thing.

WH Smith Train Station shop (c. 1933)
WH Smith Train Station shop (c. 1933)

But.

Here’s where things get stupid with this publishing industry thing.

All 268 books that were just sent to Ontario could very well be returned to me come April. Because all Atomic Fez books are “returnable” by retailers (as most publishers do), shops are more interested in carrying them, because their risk having them is eliminated. Likewise, their costs are further reduced by the fact that I pay for the shipping there and back, plus they get charged 40% or so less than the RRP so that they can sell at a profit (which is a business-​​like idea, obviously). Likewise, shops pay when they’ve actually sold the books; although not by design, but due to the delay in paying happening to fall outside the point at which they’ve returned the un-​​sold ones.

now keep in mind that I’ve not only paid for those books to be printed months ago, plus get them shipped from the printers to the house here, I’ve also just paid about $300 to ship a bunch of them to Ontario to the distributor. the distributor will now get those boxes to Chapters/Indigo’s Distribution Centre, at a cost which will be deducted from any sales earnings. Once the books are decided to be “too old” and the remaining amount is sent back, once again the cost of transport is borne by the Distributor and Publisher. Yes, I get to pay for shipping in both directions, and that’s an industry standard arrangement for a large chain. You should hear the sorts of things that Amazon.com fully expect to be done at a minimum for them by the bog houses like Random House, Simon & Shuster, and so on. It’s a wonder there’s not sacrificing of pets and virgins involved sometimes, given the lengths of demands.

It used to be that books could prove themselves on the shelvesas being “something that sells” through a three-​​month period or longer, which would permit reviews as well as ‘word-​​of-​​mouth’ to drive sales, plus the staff would get to know the book at least by reputation. Early this year Chapters/​Indigo changed their period to only 46 days, which doesn’t even give books a chance to actually gather dust. Honestly, the notion that this is enough time for someone to read a review, decide they want a copy for their birthday/​Christmas, tell a relative, the relative then gets time to go to the store, then remembers the name of the book… it can easily be out of stock in the store. This is another reason why the on-​​line reviews excellent people do works wonders, as the text on various web-​​sites – Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and many of the new Canadian public library sites – acts as further advertising and proof that ‘someone actually read this book’, thus encouraging others to try them out.

Bottomless pit of books
Bottomless pit of books

The reason Chapters/​Indigo changed the length of the shelf-​​life for titles, in my opinion anyway, was due to reduced floor space for books when they switched to being a Home Design Shop as well as a book store. Thus, inventory they haven’t invested money in building themselves (as all the rugs, clocks, pillows, candles, etc. are designed and created by Indigo) needs to work harder to keep their space, or ‘earn their space’, if you will.

And therein lies the under-​​pinning problem of the whole thing that really needs a re-​​think in not just publishing, but just about any manufacturing industry. Publishers pay authors, artists, printers, distributors, shippers, eBook formatting people, and everyone else in advance of even taking a single order, never mind making a sale. The best comparison here is the lottery: you buy some quantity of tickets and hope that one will return more than the amount you spent, but there is no guarantee of any return. I publish books with the hope they will sell, but I front the cost of printing as many copies as I can spend money to get, and then do what I can to ensure people will part with their cash so that I can then publish some new titles, with exactly the same principle guiding the manifestation. That’s fine, really, and it’s the same as if you were paying the ante for a poker game, and that is another good comparison to this. 

But, when the big retail stores get involved, it’s even more serious an ante, as the combination of shipping charges and wholesale discounts on large orders (which may not ever sell a single copy) mean that I not only pay for the production of the books that never sell, I get to pay for moving them all over the place because they didn’t sell, thus losing even more money than just the cost of manufacturing. Remember, once a massive order is placed by Bob’s Big Book Box, say 1,000 copies (which is insane compared to my situation), then those thousand are tied-​​up in the warehouse of the store, leaving me with whatever I got printed over and above the thousand I just sent to Bob’s. So, do I run another 250 or 500 copies of the books, and gamble the thousand at Bob’s won’t all return to me in a few months’ time so I then have 1,500 books filling the basement, or do I run the risk that a bunch of people will order copies from me direct and I’ll not have any more left because I didn’t order a new run of copies? Besides, those thousand copies  Bob’s won’t pay me for any sooner than about four months from the day they take delivery, and even if they did pay me for the whole lot immediately, if they all get returned un-​​sold, then I have to return those funds as they were for “books sold” which didn’t happen in the end. See?

Books heading for the trimmer at MPG Biddles
Books heading for the trimmer at MPG Biddles

The entire thing is a daft notion. Lord knows why anyone would want to even try this, never mind keep at it, which is obviously why I need to get a day-​​job. The ‘cost of doing business’ is always something that makes or breaks a business, but it really feels like the book trade has it staked against itself even more than others do.

This is another reason that the entire supply-​​chain of books needs a complete re-​​think, as well as who knows how many other manufacturing cycles for goods. As far as I’m concerned, the eBook is perfect to replace the obscenely wasteful production standards of the Mass-​​Market Paperback, for which many publishers pre-​​determine the amount of copies in a run which will be pulped at numbers typically around 33% and 45%. Yes, they actually budget throwing away nearly half the run, knowing that they’ll be damaged on shelves, and then not be bought, or they’ll get dinged in transport to and from various distribution centres and warehouses. the additional reason is that the price for running ten-​​thousand copies of a title can actually sometimes be less than printing 7,500 copies (or at least it’s often a good third or more per unit to run the larger figure), thus making the throwing away of part of the run actually cheaper than printing less of them in the first place.

There’s so much in this industry which works on the basis of the economics of supply and demand of the late-​​1800s, as well as the levels of available resources of that period, it’s a wonder that books are even still available in the same form as that time.

But, we continue. Onwards!

“This Week’s Fish Wrap” is an on-​​​​​​going series of posts summing up the news of the previous seven days in the publishing industry, and/​or announce the latest news Atomic Fez has about the publishing house, and appears here each Monday. It’s also quite possible that the posts merely serve as a dumping ground of links so that Atomic Fez Proprietor Ian Alexander Martin can find articles later to include in his occasional rants about how ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS ENTIRELY WRONG’ about various things.

Things You Missed Last Week (№42): Competition is Competitive

For about a couple of weeks now, I have been predicting my own demise. Not too surprising, the usual estimate for each human being’s chance of death is 100%, after all. However, I’m speaking of ‘me’ as a publisher.

Scribner’s submissions readers deciding what to do with latest arrivals (Parker Brothers Ouija Board advert, Dec. 1969)
Scribner’s submissions readers deciding what to do with latest arrivals (Parker Brothers Ouija Board advert, Dec. 1969)

No, no; I’m not making some heavy-​​handed statement of portentous variety regarding lack of sales, quality of submissions, or the economy in general. I’m thinking in realistic terms about the likelihood and viability of publishers as ‘literary gate keepers’ or ‘curators of quality books’. I don’t foresee this as being something which either the reading public or the creative authors considering as tenable in the years to come.

Ever since someone said to Homer (no, not the yellow guy, the ancient Greek poet) “that’s great writing, but I don’t think we’ll be making copies of that story for people… try Demonites down the road, maybe he’s got room in his catalogue”, the Publisher has had control over what the public can read. Yes, there have been some notable exceptions to this power – DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, TE Lawrence’s (no relation) Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, and James Joyce’s Ulysses–but mostly due to either “unprintable words” or the fact that publishers thought no one would like to read a book about people living in Arabia. Publisher’s aren’t alone in making foolish oversights: the man at Capital Records, UK must still bemoan his note stating “people no longer are interested in Rock & Roll bands” after listening to the audition tapes for The Beatles, to the great gain of EMI.

As a side note, the nasty aspect of this attitude of “only we can declare what is ‘worthy’ of your reading time” manifests itself in murmurings such as the recent decrying of “readability” as something the Mann Booker Prize Jury considered as part of their deliberations. Apparently when deciding what is good fiction one isn’t supposed to ask questions like “is it fun to read?” and one should limit oneself to “is it good for you?” Poppycock, say I, and so does Graham Joyce, the currently Acting Chairman of the British Fantasy Society (but then, he would, wouldn’t he?) in his piece titled “Don’t Confuse ‘Readability’ with ‘Dumbing Down’ ”. As much as I’d like to take a piece out of the attitude that “fun” is akin to “low brow” or even “sinful”, the real problem here is that it’s thought to be ‘of reduced quality’. I’d be hard-​​pressed to locate a musician who can play much of the music of King Crimson, Queen, or Steely Dan, but it sure is fun! Complicated, complex, intricate, and brilliant, absolutely! But don’t confuse it’s “fun quality” with it being ‘easy’, or ‘popular’ with being ‘sub-​​par’!

Just after the start of the millennium, there was a big resurgence in the “why can’t we just print copies ourselves?” school of thinking, and three things resulted directly from this:

  1. small press formed in the vein of the Bloomsbury Generation style where everyone ran their own house and acted as launderers of literary works by their friends, or published works they truly believed in and nurtured them to perfection
  2. people truly self-​​published (sometimes using an editor but frequently not, more’s the pity)
  3. unscrupulous bastards started “author’s fulfilment houses’ which basically sucked every single cent out of the authors who innocently handed over all their worldly assets in order to see their name on the front cover of a book

I don’t see this as a bad thing (with the exception of the third, which is all bad plus a bag of chips). Some suggest that “it’s good for people to release crap that ought to have been edited, never mind proofed, as then the readers will understand just how valuable the publisher is!” This is the argument of the grumpy, self-​​important, and bitter. The reading of low-​​quality writing isn’t anything but harmful to everyone who writes, for this can only lead in the long term to people being ‘turned off’ to the joys of reading. I decry this situation and those who see it as good even in the short-​​term. Self-​​publishers should be encouraged to use editors and proof-​​readers for the simple reason it makes their work better in the same way it improved the works of  Dickens, Joyce, Christie, Atwood, and every other writer you can think of.

The principle that I see being served is that of “providing an increased choice of material”. There are only so many books I can publish, no matter my desire. There are only so many books Simon & Shuster or Random House can put out each week. The more books which are made available, the greater the selection available.

Around the same time as the above three points came to pass, there was a common view that a narrower and narrower variety of books were being released; especially in the UK bookshops. There were oodles of new books coming out, have no doubt! But they were all of a piece: homogeneous in style, length, story, and often even in their cover art. The notion that “fantastical fiction” (SF, Fantasy, Horror, or amalgam of all three plus some other things as well) might see the surface of a shelf in a store was anathema to the large-​​house publishers, as the Big Boys® were of the opinion that ‘people aren’t buying those sorts of books any more’ and then they’d chuckle in that superior way of someone who had all of the answers.

However, obviously the large houses’ eschewing of SF&F titles was correct in one simple way. People such as Orion, Spectra, and Del-​​Ray were keeping things going as well as they could, but if you don’t release lots of SF&F titles, then it’s quite difficult for anyone to buy lots of lots of SF&F titles. QED.

So, a large number of people who loved ‘those sorts of books’ decided to do something about it and started small presses in the UK and North America so as to release either their own work, the work of others whose writing was in many instances excellent, as well as long out-​​of-​​print titles which couldn’t be found in anything but the rarest editions. Things were furthered by word-​​of-​​mouth and the development of superior “digital printing techniques” which made the printing of books in quantities as small as 200 the same wholesale cost per unit as doing a run of eight hundred or a thousand using traditional lithographic /​ offset techniques. Hooray!

Fast forward to today, and the matter gets a great deal easier for the author or “hobby” publisher to release works, as well as those such as myself who make this a full-​​time concern.

The main benefit to the author or “hobby” publisher is Amazon for various reasons, but they all come down to being a single source of solutions to every imaginable problem: electronic books (Kindle Direct Publishing, née “Digital Text Platform”), as well as paperback and hardback books (Create Space) can be had easily as well as providing a place to sell them to the world (Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.jp) and the author/​publisher can keep a piece of the retail action if they set-​​up their links correctly (Amazon Associates Programme).

The side-​​effect of this is that Amazon has essentially destroyed the necessity of the “bricks and mortars” store, especially the independent book shop. There is no conceivable way for even a ‘big box’ book retailer to have close to the selection of titles that Amazon has on its sites. Even Chapters.Indigo.ca has a far larger selection than the biggest location you can walk into. The average small– or one-​​location bookstore owner has to compete in the only way they can: by specialisation in a particular content type.

There are other ways, obviously, as WH Smith has started to do recently, as their deal with Kobo looks far more to the future than simply making space in their stores for the hardware and their site for the eBooks by connecting with the largest eBook catalogue in the world. Again, the approach here is the re-​​gain the customers both through their stores as well as individual homes or offices (or wherever they’re using their computers).

In addition to adding eBooks to the shop, the other way a ‘high street’ operation can compete with the vast selection of titles offered on line is to install the Espresso Book Machine, something which has been around for a number of years now, and seems to arrived at an iteration which offers both decent-​​enough quality and reasonably good value for reader, store-​​owner, publisher and author alike. Next week I’ll babble about that here.

Next week will also see the announcement of winners in the two “get your book signed to you by the author!” contests, so head over to order your copies of Dirk Danger Loves Life and Terribilis today! This week is also your final opportunity to get both printed editions and eBooks on sale, so head to the Book Catalogue to fill your basket. 

“This Week’s Fish Wrap” is an on-​​​​​​going series of posts summing up the news of the previous seven days in the publishing industry, and/​​or announce the latest news Atomic Fez has about the publishing house, and appears here each Monday. It’s also quite possible that the posts merely serve as a dumping ground of links so that Atomic Fez Proprietor Ian Alexander Martin can find articles later to include in his occasional rants about how ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS ENTIRELY WRONG’ about various things.

Library Thing bookpage for “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (click to enlarge/close)

How to Have a Library Three-Way (or: "Multiple Account Fun")

So, you think you want to get involved with these on-​​line book social networking sites, but aren’t sure which is for you? Why bother choosing when “all of the above” is possible? Why not register an account on LibraryThing.com, Goodreads.com, and Shelfari.com as well?

There are a number of sites on the web for keeping track of your library of books, no matter what form those books may be. It’s entirely possible to use them as ways of discovering authors and titles you’ve not heard of before; even as a way of promoting works that you love or have actually written yourself. For a run-​​down on the reasons why you would want to bother, head over to this post on the “No Spin PR” site. After explaining the “why” of it, she starts specifically dealing with what Goodreads.com offers the Author in the way of effective, non-​​pushy promotion methods, information which is worth looking at, as well as checking back later for the other sites’ options.

Three Sites, One Common Approach

According to Ruth Seeley of No Spin PR, the best procedure to follow involves an alphabetical approach to these three most popular options: Goodreads, Library Thing, and Shelfari. Personally, I started at Library Thing; then added Goodreads about three years later; then finally ended up also doing things on Shelfari, albeit solely as a publishing entity. For those of you interested in the specific Atomic Fez information on those first two sites, then either click the little corresponding doo-​​dads in the right-​​hand column or go here for the “Atomic Fez Publishing Discussion Group” on Goodreads, or here for the “Library Thing for Publishers” page.

Now, back to the practicalities of the matter: how do you do all this back-​​and-​​forth-​​ing without going through the complete process three times in its entirety? Certainly, many of us are obsessed with the books we own, but typing them all into the computer once is probably enough; thrice is nigh-​​on frustrating. The solution is simple: exportation of data-​​tables, followed by importation of the same.

Many of you might read the above statement and understand it about as much as if I had instead stated: “εξαγωγή των πινάκων δεδομένων, που ακολουθείται από την εισαγωγή του ίδιου”. Trust me, it’s far easier than it might seem to you at the moment.

First, Get Those Books Into a Database.

Cuecat1
PHOTO: Tomkinsc at the English language Wikipedia {GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)}, from Wikimedia Commons

If you want to do things as quickly as possible, then you might actually want to spend a tiny amount of money on one of these ultra-​​cute bar-​​code scanners in the picture on the left called “CueCat”. It might seem a bit weird to want a device to scan the little bar-​​code on the back of all your books, but if you’re determined to get all of your titles into the database to reflect your entire library, and you’ve got oodles of books, then ask yourself this simple question: do I have enough time and/​or patience to type in every single ISBN or title of every single book I own?

Yes, think about that for a moment. You might not actually want to have every single title listed on-​​line, but if you leave any out, then there’s a chance that your taste won’t match-​​up as well with someone else’s who matches your own, thus you’re missing the possibility of reading books you’ll enjoy but haven’t yet heard of. Granted, perhaps there’s some things you would rather keep to yourself? Fair enough, really; not everyone is open-​​minded.

There’s a number of options the people at Library Thing and the other two sites provide for you to add to the details you enter for your copy of each book, depending on what you remember or want to bother about:

  • date you acquired it
  • date you started /​ finished reading it
  • a rating for the book, using a 5-​​point scale (no half-​​marks permitted)
  • if the cover graphic doesn’t match the one on the front of your copy, you can replace that either with your own, from one provided by other members, or a different one from Amazon’s data-​​base of images.
  • categories can be assigned to the title
    • “have read”
    • “own”
    • “to be read”
    • you can also assign your own to suit your needs
  • if you have a “Book Crossing” number assigned, then you can add that as well; the books don’t have to be in your possession anymore
Library Thing bookpage for “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (click to enlarge/close)
Library Thing bookpage for “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (click to enlarge/​close)

However you do it, and to what extent of completeness you do so, you enter your library’s titles in the on-​​line data-​​base of – for the sake of example – Goodreads.com. Have a look at the image on the right, and you can see what sort of “tag” data can be added to just one book on Library Thing (and the other sites have similar functions).

Keep in mind, however, the amount of information and data on your “1st stop” which will survive the importation on other sites is a bit minimal. There may be a way of ensuring more than merely titles, authors, and ISBN, but it’s almost guaranteed that ratings, dates, and especially comments and reviews, will not. I’d recommend using one specific site for that sort of thing, and make it the primary site you use, should you even wish to bother recording such literary minutia.

Grand; all done. “Done and dusted”, if you will.

Export All of Your Book Information

On Goodreads, head to this page and select the second link on the right-​​hand side to “export your books > export to a CSV file”.

Simple enough, really.

In my experience, Shefari is an absolute pain in the ass to bring a library into, but this may be due to the number of “Limited Edition” and/​or “Small Press” titles in my collection*, and Shelfari is heavily tied to the Amazon.com databases where these ‘rarer volumes’ become nigh-​​on invisible, making it necessary to go through your newly-​​imported ‘Library’ and adjust things accordingly.

I would have suggested beginning with Library Thing, as they permit you to export in both the “Comma Separated Values Format” (CSV) as well as a “Tab-​​Delimited Text Format” (which they render as an XLS file), but Library Thing’s free accounts only permit a maximum of 200 titles at any given time. To record more that number requires either a ‘yearly membership’ ($10/​year) or a ‘lifetime’ one (one-​​time cost of $25). Actually, you can pay them whatever you want beyond that amount, but those are the lowest ones.

Import All of Your Book Information (or Some of it, Anyway)

Once you’ve got your Goodreads file, you need to import the file into the other sites. To do that, head to this page for Library Thing, and this page for Shelfari, and then follow the prompts there to up-​​load the corresponding file of book data. You might have to wait a bit as all of that information is processed. Obviously, the bigger the list of books in your collection, the longer it’s going to take for the information to be “parsed” as the tech-​​heads say. “Grocked” as the SF-​​fans would put it. “Processed” would be something a bureaucrat would describe it as. You can call it anything you want, and feel free to come up with your own description while you wait for that to complete.

After the site is finished, you’ll probably be told how many of your books have and haven’t been added – 800 of 1,000 – and you shouldn’t be surprised if there’s some “drop off” caused by you either having a typo in a title of a book, or perhaps a rare edition of a book, or even something so wildly popular and old that there are 18 different books with similar names or editions that you have to sort through a list of. Relax, and possibly decide to do this tomorrow, but do it. Accuracy is the best aid to the thing, because you can’t wave your copy of the book at the screen and expect it to suddenly be identifiable as a result.

After That, and Ongoing

The more poke around the sites and partake in discussions, comment on other people’s collections, and recommend books with cogent reasoning, the more you’ll benefit of the site you’ll realize. Additionally, if you’re an author, you’ll improve your reputation as being someone who isn’t a nit-​​wit, and whose works are worth the price and time of reading. WIN!

* Thusly, your mileage may vary, all statistics are approximate, void where prohibited, close cover before striking, obtain written permission before distribution, please refrain whilst train is at station platform.