Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel...?

Nine years ago, I got a phone call early on a Saturday morning. It was from my then-agent, telling me that she'd sold my first novel, LILY'S GHOSTS, a middle-grade mystery. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I don't tear up over much but particularly poignant cat food commercials. But that morning? Yeah.

As of today, LILY'S GHOSTS is officially out-of-print. (Maybe it would make more sense to cry over that). But, you know, LILY had a good run. Got great reviews. Sold well. Won some awards and was nominated for others. And LILY has a chance to be reincarnated once I get rich and famous with some other blockbuster book (which will totally happen any minute now, right?) In the meantime, LILY will quietly become, well, a ghost.

At least, that’s the way things used to work.

Now that we're all flailing around in the face of the e-publishing revolution, nobody seems to be quite sure how things are supposed to work. The headlines, the articles, and the predictions about the future of book publishing are coming fast and furious. On the apocalypse end of the spectrum, there are stories about closing and/or struggling brick and mortar bookstores, like the Mystery Book Store in LA and Borders.
Publisher’s Weekly reported that B&N made a bunch of cuts in its buying group.

But on the maybe-the-apocalypse-won’t-come-till-I’m-too-old-to-care end of the spectrum, there’s cheerier news for those who believe that a story is a story whether it’s on paper or onscreen. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Amazon sold 7.1 Kindles last year, and could sell 12 million Kindles next year. Publisher's Weekly reported that Apple sold 7.3 million iPads in the last quarter of 2010. USA Today declared that holiday sales of ebooks outpaced that of print books. Also, The New York Times reported that it's going to start ranking ebooks in 2011.

Publishers are scrambling to try to regroup. The CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers posted six e-book trends to watch in 2011 including a rising number of ebook clubs and a prediction that publishers might experiment with e-book bundling and "in-book advertising." (Yikes!) Richard Curtis, longtime agent, saw all this coming ten years ago when he started, a publisher that reprints OOP books as ebooks and paperbacks.

Despite the efforts on the part of publishers and agents to get a handle on a rapidly changing marketplace, there are authors who are choosing to go it alone. According to thriller writer JA Konrath, who’s now being quoted all over the web, there are many authors selling hundreds or thousands or umpty-jillions of ebooks and making bucket loads of money by self-publishing via the Kindle, Smashwords, Lulu, and other platforms.

And he's not alone in his self-publishing evangelism. Cory Doctorow, author of the teen novel Little Brother, has spoken a lot about his own forays into self-publishing.

And debates rage at conferences and on blogs whether to abandon traditional publishing entirely.

So, what to believe? The publishing biz is dying? The publishing biz is already dead? The publishing biz is alive and kicking and evolving to meet a new digital future full of rainbows and kittens and cash for everyone?

Though it feels a little like the Wild West — or the coming plague, depending on your point-of-view — it seems we are living through a pivotal time. And yet, most of what's been written about the e-revolution addresses the changes in adult publishing. A January 3rd Publisher's Weekly article asks, "how accessible will apps and e-books be to kids in the near future, beyond playing with a parent's iPhone or iPad?"

But this ignores the fact that ereaders designed especially for younger children are already available. And it ignores the fact that tweens and teens are already used to reading on small screens. How long will it take for those tweens and teens to get their own Kindles? Or begin reading books on their own smart phones? (In Japan, some print bestsellers got their starts as cellphone novels.)

And then there are the adults who read kid and teen lit. Gatekeepers like teachers, librarians, and parents, sure, but also people who simply enjoy children's books. (Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, just to name a few crossover titles*).

"Children's eBooks represent a largely untapped market for trade publishers," said Dev Ganesan, President and CEO of Aptara, in a press release announcing that the company will be digitizing bestselling backlist titles for Candlewick and Walker. "As children are raised in an increasingly digital world, it won't be long before we see generations more accustomed to eBooks than printed books."

For the consumer, all of this is good news. Glorious new apps with amazing levels of interactivity. More choices. Inexpensive books for every age group and for conceivable device.

But for the children's book creator, all of this presents a conundrum. If you can get the rights back to your OOP titles, should you dive in and self-publish, or do you wait for success with a newer title, and hope your publisher will see clear to reprint? Should you fight to keep your erights in future deals? What sort of clauses need be in new publishing contracts? Can the picture book hold its own against all those fancy new apps? Is the future of the novel the so-called "enhanced" book, that is, a book with a level of interactivity too difficult for an author or illustrator to pull off on his or her own without the support of a publishing house?

When I talk about this stuff to some of my writer and librarian friends, a lot of them sigh and wax poetically about the lovely, comforting smell of printed books. As the proud owner of about two thousand books packing shelves all over my house, I sympathize. The truth is, I like traditional publishing, out-of-print titles and all. Then again, I don't really want LILY'S GHOSTS to become a ghost, not if I can resurrect her myself. Yesterday, I bought a block of ISBN numbers in preparation to reprint LILY as an ebook and a softcover on my own.

So, what does the future hold for all of you? Are you pursuing the rights to your OOP books? What your plans for your own backlists? Is this exciting, galvanizing, terrifying, or all three? Is it the end of the world as we know it, or...?

-- Laura

Further reading:

PW on the digital revolution in children's publishing.

Interesting suggestions for must-have clauses in new contracts. Comments are also interesting.

Author Seth Godin goes it alone.

*Controversial The New York Times article on the explosion of romance ebooks, including the hypothesis that the ereader acts as the proverbial "brown paper bag," hiding what the reader is reader from a judgmental public. If this is true, could the ereader operate this way for adult readers of children's and teen lit as well? (Not that anyone should be embarrassed to read romance OR kidlit!)


  1. Wow, Laura, so much great into in this post! The item about ebook clubs is interesting... ebook clubs for kids sounds like a perfect project to promote literacy. Hopefully we'll hear more about such initiatives as we go along.

  2. Great article, Laura. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and links. I look forward hearing about your success with LILY'S GHOSTS. Good luck!

  3. Thank you, Laura. Informative and empowering. Can't wait to see Lily's next incarnation.

  4. Thanks, guys! Thinking about all the ways in which creating books, publishing books, and distributing books will change because of the erevolution is overwhelming, but I do think there are lots of opportunities here. And I don't see publishers going away (I don't want them to; I'm a heck of a lot less entrepreneurial than I am hide-under-the-bed). I just see publishers doing some regrouping. So, we have to regroup as well.

    Re: Lily. You know, I wrote that book so long ago, I don't even have a Word file! Yikes.

  5. LOVE this post, Laura. I particularly like this, which pretty much say it all:

    So, what to believe? The publishing biz is dying? The publishing biz is already dead? The publishing biz is alive and kicking and evolving to meet a new digital future full of rainbows and kittens and cash for everyone?

  6. In particular, I'm looking forward to the kittens.

  7. Great post, Laura. I really believe the balance is shifting toward creators finally -- have we ever had that before? What a great thing for our readers!

  8. All this ebook talk is both scary and exciting. I am being urged to self-publish my picture book, but I submitted it to publishers the old-fashioned way. I really want to see my book in a bookstore. But I can definitely see my story as a short animated film, which would be perfect for the ipad. Maybe publishers will starting producing print and electronic formats simultaneously. Then we really would have the best of both worlds.

  9. I understand wanting to get published the old-fashioned way. I, myself, am officially 200 years old, and would rather do things the old-fashioned way. But I wonder if we won't see more ebooks published at differing levels of interactivity and extras, perhaps at different price points.

  10. LOVE this post. Really rocking! Thanks Laura.

    And about old fashioned -- In addition to wanting to make my own ebook, I actually sort of want to MAKE some physical books myself -- you know, Etsy-style, with needle and thread. Use some beautiful end papers. I think publishers -- a long time ago -- used to make truly beautiful books, and now? Well, hardcovers are heavy, recycled paper is actually sort of cheap-feeling (to my fingers) . . . so there's a part of me that hopes publishers will return to making fewer, but more beautiful books.

    Clearly, I won't make a cent on my Etsy book creations . . .

    Thanks for this -- GREAT post!

  11. Tons of great info - thanks!

    I strongly urge writers to pay close attention to what Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin have to say, as they're both geniuses at the very thing authors must master in the new digital age: community building and relationship marketing.

    The future belongs to those who use social media, blogs and other media to connect with readers in an ongoing and meaningful way, who can develop real relationships and who can provide a dependable stream of quality books -- electronic or on paper -- that become a part of a reader's life.

    The job of the writer has become far more encompassing than the old paradigm of "sell a manuscript to a publisher, sit back and collect royalties" (if such a thing ever existed). Today, it's about cultivating a community and developing a meaningful back and forth. The successful 21st century author will be one who understands "the long game" of building for the future.

    Frankly, that's an exciting prospect, and authors should embrace it. You have an opportunity to enrich lives in ways far beyond a single book can provide. And you will, in turn, be enriched by the friendships and connections you will make amongst your readers.

    Jon Bard
    Managing Editor, Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers

  12. "You have an opportunity to enrich lives in ways far beyond a single book can provide. And you will, in turn, be enriched by the friendships and connections you will make amongst your readers."

    Thank you for this vision, Jon.

  13. Thanks, Jon. I'd say that "sell a manuscript to a publisher, sit back and collect royalties" is less a paradigm and more a fantasy, at least for most writers. Connecting with readers has always been important, but now it's more important than ever.

  14. True Laura. But, in the past, connecting with readers was more or less limited to live appearances and answering fan mail. There's so much more of an opportunity now and, as you rightly point out, it is more important than ever.

    The good news is that, as writers, this is right in our wheelhouses! We're communicators first and foremost, are we not?

    What an exciting time to write!


  15. My question is this: if students start using e readers and e books, how are librarians going to serve as readers' advisors. It's a huge part of my job, and I'm having trouble getting my mind around not handing children actual books!

  16. Ms. Yingling, I wonder why it would be different to advise on a title that's being read electronically? Are you talking about something technical like page numbering?

  17. I just sent her this email:

    ”Thank you for your comment on E is for Book, we love to hear from librarians. Just wondering if you had any further clarification such as is it more difficult to browse and become familiar with ebooks, or show them to students, there are too many different devices, etc.? We're interested in your insight.“

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  18. Ms Yingling- Perhaps librarians might think about "advising" and suggesting books through their own library BLOG or Facebook page.
    If you can't beat'em- join'em.
    It may even be a good way for these e-book lovers to discuss books online and maybe even have the kids review them.
    You will become a famous cool ONLINE Librarian.

  19. Ms. Yingling, In my opinion, librarians like you are going to become even more important in this age of the digital book. Just as the challenge for authors and illustrators will be to 'get found' in the potential sea of apps and ebooks, it will be just as important for readers to 'find' good books. Reviewers, hand sellers, and librarians will become key in wading through all the options and picking out the best choices. You may not be holding an actual book in your hands when you recommend it, but for that reason, your recommendation will be more valuable than ever.
    My 2 cents, e

  20. I agree with Elizabeth: your recommendation will be more valuable than ever!

    I just read on the YALSA blog about a YA librarian who caved and got herself a Kindle after her library started lending Kindles to students (who were enthusiastic about them). She was able to get net galleys -- online galleys -- of new books easily this way. She was also able to carry around a large number of books loaded on the device.