(Mis)Adventures in Publishing

Confessions and Random Observations

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Ten Lessons for Ten Years

As I come close to celebrating my tenth year of US citizenship, I started thinking about when I first came here in 1989. Despite having traveled extensively around the world before that, I still had some serious cultural barriers to understand. Here are ten entertaining cultural lessons I learned during my first year in the states:

1. “What’s up?” is not, despite how it sounds, a question -– it’s just a way to say hello. It is also acceptable to just echo the sentiment right back -– resulting in two questions, neither of which requires an answer. In fact, actually proceeding to tell the asker all that is indeed “up” provokes great awkwardness and confusion.

2. A “party” does not always entail the usual things you find at parties such as music, food, and entertainment. Among younger people, a party just means there’s cheap liquor and a stale joint or two. I was frequently disappointed the first few times I was invited to “party” only to show up and find seven guys crushing beer cans on their foreheads.

3. It is not rare at all to find rabid sports fans who are grossly overweight.You would assume that a sports fan would stay fit and in shape by actively playing the sport that he or she is such a fan of. But no, you don’t need to play the sport to be a fan. You can admire and tout the athleticism of others without having any urge to be athletic yourself. This disconnect does not surprise many Americans.

4. Despite what you see in many movies, only white people seem to high-five one another. Also, you should never actually ask for a high-five because that removes the coolness quotient and makes you look odd. Standing there with your open palm in the air and an expectant grin on your face while waiting for someone to execute the second half of the high-five, however, doesn’t look odd at all, apparently.

5. Losing weight is considered a laudable achievement. The ability to deny oneself excessive or unhealthy food is considered admirable. This is not to say that losing weight is not a healthy and good thing for many people; it’s just odd that such an act is worthy of celebration.

6. People who have lots of crosses and crucifixes tattooed on their bodies aren’t necessarily strong Christians. Having such tattoos or even wearing clothing or jewelry with crosses is considered a style statement and little else. In some cases, excessive religious iconography can be found on some decidedly un-Christian people.

7. Just because two people are “roommates,” it doesn’t mean that they actually share a single room. People who share a house but have their own bedrooms and bathrooms are still called “roommates.” For the longest time, I thought the majority of single Americans lived with other single Americans in one-bedroom domiciles.

8. On hot days, people –- mostly women –- like to put on bathing suits and lie by a swimming pool. Even though they are wearing swimwear, it’s hot, and they strategically place themselves next to water, they will never actually enter the pool. They just need to be in proximity of it. I had never before experienced a scenario where people would be crowded around the pool but with barely anyone actually in the pool.

9. Though Americans get a lot of flak for generalizing people of other geographical areas and being ignorant of various cultural and political borders, most people outside of the United States do the same thing to Americans. Americans are generalized as a single population who all share a common culture, but the truth is that some subcontinents divided by large oceans share more common values than Americans in different parts of the nation do.

10. People will tattoo just about anything on their bodies as long as it is not of their culture. East Asians never tattoo Chinese or Japanese characters on their bodies, but others do. Tribal tattoos are popular, but only with people who don’t come from any of the lands the tribal tattoos originated from. South Asian Hindu iconography or Sanskrit will rarely be found on anyone of actual South Asian heritage.

But I’ve also made many wonderful discoveries about this great nation. Here’s just one (and my favorite):

No matter how well they know (or don’t know) you, if you do not have a place to go on Thanksgiving Day, countless friends and acquaintances will insist upon inviting you into their homes, where you will meet all those odd relatives and family members they told you they never wanted you to meet. And they will feed you until you are bursting and send you home with enough food for a week. It’s an unspoken rule: no one spends Thanksgiving alone if you can help it.

Filed under Cuture publishing books society United States

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Seven Business Books That Need to Be Written

I doubt anyone on here has an interest in business books, but I guess I’ll just make this a venting exercise. I have had more experience working with business and management books than any other type — so much so that it starts to grate on me a bit. The themes and ideas start to flow into one another while other trends and “hot topics” just start to annoy me.

So, I’m annoyed, and so I present the antidote to our current business-book obsession, the seven books that actually need to be written:

1. You Are Not a Leader: The Delusional Culture of Leadership Development: 

Business books make people believe that anyone has the potential to be a leader, but that’s a myth. You can’t change who you are, and you can’t become what you’re not, and no end of coaching and consulting can change that.  When was the last time you actually heard of some crappy executive who suddenly became a company savior after reading a book? Most people aren’t good leaders but somehow we want to believe that we all have strengths that can make us top management material – much in the same way all parents think their children are brilliant and every mother is certain that her boy in jail is innocent.

2. Best Practices, Worst Ideas: Why Learning from Other Companies Is Stupid

Someone stumbles around trying to make a strong glue but instead invents something that can’t even hold paper together. But then someone else creates Post-Its from that glue and then the company wants to pretend their “culture of innovation” gave birth to such products. What rubbish. All the best creations from the microwave oven to life-saving vaccines came about because of mistakes or people just randomly doing something that just happened to work (after doing sixty other things that didn’t work at all). Suddenly, these isolated episodes are considered “case studies” that prove that simply replicating what someone else did decades ago in an entirely different company that made entirely different products and had entirely different departmental structures and practices can work right here and now for you.

3. Failure Really Isn’t an Option: The Reality of Corporate Cultures that Encourage Experimentation

Every company wants you to know that they like people who experiment and try new things. They apparently want you to fail and try again – what they like to call “failing forward.” And yes, you can do that if you are the boss or are sleeping with the boss or in that upper echelon of executives who don’t even know their assistants’ names. But try being anyone from a working grunt to a mid-level manager and you’ll see just how excited your superiors will be when you fail. Repeatedly.

4. Kindly F*ck Off: What Millennials Think About Being “Managed”:

Boomers are obsessed with cataloging and inventory (the fact that they are proud of using words like “inventory” when talking about business skills proves  this), and they really want to understand the younger generation. But instead of recognizing each person as an individual, they decide to just stereotype them all by rendering an entire generation of millions with a pat set of qualities that could just as well apply to border collies (“they need structure and discipline but they value their freedom – and they need to have time to play”).

5. Holier Than Thou:  Why No One Cares About Your Corporate Ethics:

Most companies that value themselves as conscientious and ethical are run by the type of people who share two common traits: 

a. They made their fortunes in old-school corporations that operated like plantations and now that they never have to worry about money again, they want to tell everyone else how money isn’t important. 

b. They were the flag-weaving freaks of the love generation who basically bought the hippie credo of fighting against “the man” – at least until they realized that they were out of drugs, the music sucked, and they were broke. Then they decided to become “the man.” 

In short, they’re hypocrites in Birkenstocks whose property and investments should be redistributed to all those in need in keeping with their whole “up with people” ethos.

6. The Myth of Win-Win: Why No One Wins When We All Try To

Business literature is always trying to promote the idea of win-win scenarios where everyone comes out ahead, but why not call it what it really is? The accurate term is settle-settle, because I can’t get what I want without you giving in, and you’re not going to, and you can’t get what you want because I don’t want to give in. So let’s settle on something that makes neither one of us happy but at least gives us some satisfaction that the other party is as unhappy about the outcome as we are.

 7. Snake Oil: Appropriating Science to Support Half-Baked Management Theories

Not a single book comes out these days that isn’t supported by some form of science or concepts from nature. The problem is that these books aren’t written by scientists but rather by management types trying to lend some validity to their own theories. If there’s any scientific fact that can be thrashed to bits and then misquoted and thoroughly taken out of context for the purposes of proving some lame point, it has been done. Many mammals survive only as a pack and so we should all view ourselves as members of a team and not an individual? Sounds good, but what about the bit where the pack will sacrifice the weakest for the survival of the whole? Yeah, Bob in sales is a bit slow because of that disability of his, so let’s feed him to the gators at the watering hole next time so they stop coming after us, yes?

Filed under books publishing authors business books

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Accusations Publishers Are Tired of Hearing

Accusation #1: “You don’t want quality writing, you just want what sells — even if it sucks.”

Here’s the thing — who told you that publishing is an intellectual meritocracy where good writing automatically gets recognized and rewarded? It wasn’t anyone in publishing, I can assure you of that. People like to think that publishing is a cerebral industry that celebrates blah blah blah, but that’s not true. Publishing is a business just like any other, which means sales and profit margins, not good writing, keeps a publisher in business. Think about the number of well-written books you’ve read that never garnered the sort of acclaim they should have, and now think about those huge bestsellers you read but couldn’t understand what made them so successful. The former inevitably outnumber the latter at least three to one — because good writing does not mean good sales, and publishing is not a charity industry or nonprofit.

But let’s talk about quality here: Apple could make its iPhones out of titanium and sapphire crystal which would make them much higher quality, but they don’t because they won’t profit off that kind of quality unless they raise their prices significantly to cover the workmanship and materials. But who wants to pay $1,500 for an iPhone when you can buy something almost equally good for far less? In the same way, we can take the time and effort to work hard on a book that has high quality writing and serious potential and make it really shine — inside and out. Then we would need to price the book at over three times what the market would pay for such a book  to be able to cover the costs of materials and staff expenses and salaries. And who will buy that $70 paperback when all of the other paperbacks in the same genre are priced at $19.95?

Here are the facts: there are over ten times as many incredibly well-written, quality books that failed than there are crappily-written books that capitalized on a trend or a celebrity that sold successfully. Those are the odds publishers are working with. So, yes, we actually know that a lot of our books aren’t so well-written. Yep, we also know a lot of them plain out suck, but this is the system we are working with. And if authors recognize this and worked with us instead of attacking us, it would mean much better writing and higher profits all around.

If nothing else, keep this in mind: publishers give the public what they want to read. If the public wants stuff of mediocre quality and insist they want to keep paying the same prices as they did over two decades ago despite inflation, that’s what publishers will give them at the price they’ll pay Don’t blame the servants for the masters’ demands.

Filed under publishing books authors writing

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Five Things That Used to Help Sell Books But No Longer Do

The bookselling space is in constant flux but I don’t see enough authors (nor even some publishers) making an effort to switch from these antiquated modes of bookselling. 

Specifically, these five methods — which did work once but now don’t as much — come to mind:

1. Book Reviews in Print: It used to be that getting a positive review in a major newspaper would launch a book on to bestseller lists and let it sit there for many weeks at least. No more. Publishers Weekly conducted research on the books featured in the New York Times Book Review sections in May 2012 and how sales were impacted following publication of the reviews. Of course, book sales were positively impacted somewhat (this is the New York Times after all), but on the whole there were only a few hundred more copies sold the week of the review than usual. And after the week was up, the number dipped back down radically. And that’s if it is featured in the New York Times.

2. Appearing on Radio Shows. It used to be that radio shows could help launch books, but not so much any more. Blame it on the infinite number of podcasts and internet radio stations and shows as well as other mediums, but the average radio show now barely budges book sales. The only exception is radio shows with a devoted following, and these shows  are not the ones you would think would make a book successful. Fresh Air on NPR is popular but its fan base is not devoted, so getting a book featured on there is not quite the hit-making tactic it used to be. On the other hand, Coast to Coast (on AM radio) comes on at weird hours and they talk about alien abductions and ghosts, but their followers are rabid and featured authors consistently rack up big sales.

3. Bookstore Tours: Unless you are a hugely popular author, a national bookstore tour doesn’t do much at all. Depending on the bookstores, they may not even do much publicity to announce your appearance (it doesn’t help that bookstore events coordinators are notoriously poorly paid), and because these appearances are usually timed to take place during work hours or just after work, people aren’t going to attend unless they’re huge fans. Your expenses in traveling around to do these events can often outweigh the sales income from such tours.

4. Paid Promotions in Stores: By now you know that every book in any chain or airport book store that is placed on a special table, “favorites” bookshelf by the front, by the cash register or even just face-out occupies that space because the publisher paid for that placement. Such placement costs thousands of dollars and there is no guarantee that all the bookstores in a chain will even follow through. Given how few sales come through actual bookstores (versus online) and how much it costs, paid store promotions have little impact and can often lose money.

5. Jumping on Trends: When The Secret came out, suddenly everyone was an expert on the laws of attraction. When 50 Shades… came out, everyone jumped on the hausfrau erotica trail. Jumping on the bandwagon worked somewhat when there were only a certain number of publishers in the marketplace, but not any more. Now, with online and self-publishing models cropping up everywhere, there are a thousand imitators to any successful book where there were previously perhaps only fifty. When everyone jumps on the same trend, it ceases to be a trend.

Filed under authors publishing books book selling

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Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing

 All credit for this to Steve Piersanti, publisher and general badass.

1. The number of books being published every year has exploded. 

According to the latest Bowker Report (October 9, 2013), over 391,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2012, which is an amazing increase of 422 percent since 2007.  The number of non-self-published books issued annually has also climbed over the same period to approximately 300,000 in 2012.  The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 400,000 since 2007, to approximately 700,000 annually.  And since 2007, nearly 10 million previously published books have been reissued by companies that reprint public domain works.  Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely oversaturated. 

2. Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published.

Adult nonfiction print unit book sales peaked in 2007 and have declined each year since then, according to BookScan (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014, and previous reports).  Similarly, bookstore sales peaked in 2007 and have fallen each year since then, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 12, 2014, and previous reports).

3.  Despite the growth of e-book sales, overall book sales are still shrinking.

After skyrocketing from 2008 to 2012, e-book sales leveled off in 2013.  Unfortunately, the decline of print sales outpaced the growth of e-book sales, even from 2008 to 2012.  According to BookStats data reported by the Association of American Publishers (May 15, 2013), revenues in the entire U.S. book publishing marketplace fell again in 2012, to $27.1 billion.  The total book publishing pie is not growing—the peak was hit in 2007—yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of digital and print books.

4.  Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast.

Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title.  According to BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 225 million books were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014).  The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.  And very few titles are big sellers.  Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

5.  A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space.  For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to up to 1,500 (superstores).  Yet there are several hundred thousand business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

6.  It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.

Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic.  It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out.  Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time.  Result: investing the same amount today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a far smaller sales return today.

7.  Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any.  Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read.  There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

8.  Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.

Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales.  In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books.  Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

9.  No other industry has so many new product introductions.

Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold.  Yet the average new book generates only $50,000 to $150,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these new product introduction expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense.  This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

10.  The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.

The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing (such as the bankruptcy of Borders and many other stores).  Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

Filed under publishing books authors book sales

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Why I Hate Bucket Lists

Barely a week goes by without a book proposal coming in that is some version of the whole “bucket list” phenomenon. The bucket list, for those of you who don’t know, is that list people maintain (usually in their minds) of all the things they want to do before they die — like skydiving or a threesome or whatever.

Our culture encourages bucket lists because our culture encourages the culture of ME. You see it in books all the time — especially in the personal growth genre — the idea that you are special and important and a child of the universe (possibly true, but the universe is a philandering bastard who has many children with billions of mothers and doesn’t even know your name). Whether it’s the whole “Eat, Pray, Love” thing or something else, we are raised to serve ourselves and our needs, and the bucket list is the ultimate symbol of unwarranted and unearned self-importance.

Here’s a better idea: help someone else do something they have always wanted to do but is far more modest than most things on your bucket list. Whereas you may have always wanted to swim with the dolphins in some exotic locale, there is someone else who has always just wanted to enjoy a real pedicure and manicure, a nice meal in a nice restaurant, or just have one pair of shoes that didn’t come from the thrift store or Payless. These desires may seem incredibly unsophisticated or lacking in aspiration to you, but they are very real to others — as real as any of yours.

Realize that many of the things you take for granted are the items in some other people’s bucket list. You are their bucket list. I can guarantee you that the satisfaction you’ll receive from helping others will far exceed your giddy dolphin endorphin rush.

Filed under bucket lists book proposals rant

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Don’t Give Readers the Entire Truth

I doubt you’ve heard of Olav Hauge, the Norwegian poet. Not many people know him, but he was a master of minimalism. He wrote one poem titled “Don’t Come to Me With the Entire Truth” which I have quoted (literally) hundreds of times to convey to authors how really powerful writing doesn’t “force feed” the reader but supplies just the basics. A skilled writer makes the reader think for him or herself, and if that writer does a good enough job of conveying the core idea, the reader can infer the rest without having to be told it.

You don’t need to explain an idea and then spell out how that idea can be used in one’s personal life, one’s professional life, one’s spiritual beliefs, etc. If you do a good enough job of explaining the core premise, the reader can figure out for him or herself how to apply it wherever else.

Too often authors write these awful hefty tomes where they feel they have to account for and explain everything — and the more justification and explication I see, the less I believe that the idea is strong enough to stand on its own. The result is a force-fed bland gruel of mediocrity and tedium. Supply just the essence, and let the readers’ palates interpret, experience, and savor it. Don’t give them the entire truth, let them discover it.

Here’s the poem:

Don’t Come to Me With the Entire Truth

Don’t come to me with the entire truth.
Don’t bring me the ocean if I feel thirsty,
nor heaven if I ask for light;
but bring a hint, some dew, a particle,
as birds carry only drops away from water,
and the wind a grain of salt.

—Olav Hauge

Filed under Publishing authors writing books

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"But Did You Read What I Sent You?"

This is one of the most common responses from authors when I tell them that their project proposal is a no-go. Their argument can be summed up (sarcastically) as follows: “My work is brilliant. If you read the whole 350-page manuscript I sent you, you would know of my brilliance. But you didn’t, and I know you didn’t because you clearly don’t see my brilliance.”

They’re right. I didn’t read what they sent me, because I don’t have the time to read manuscripts when I have to review over 800 of them a year. Also, by now I can tell you within the first two-three pages if the work is any good. The majority aren’t. Sorry, it’s just the truth.

But more importantly, I shouldn’t have to read the entire manuscript to determine quality. You see, people are not going to buy books that they think may be good but aren’t sure but will spend their hard-earned money just to see if it is. If I have to read a manuscript or book to find out if it is any good, then you have not done your job. (Also, you can’t be standing by in bookstores just so you can accost potential readers and ask them to please buy your book and give it a chance.)

Simply put: don’t think readers will come to you. You have to go to the readers. You have to make your proposal packet exciting, your work appealing, your pitch compelling, and your premise intriguing. You’ve got to make me want to read your manuscript, not demand that I need to read it.

Filed under books publishing authors readers