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Confessions of a Book Reviewer

Confessions of a Book Reviewer is a guest blog, written by John Valeri, popular with thousands (and thousands) of writers and readers as a reviewer with the Hartford Books Examiner. Don’t miss John’s thoughts on spoilers and certain Amazon reviews – and his use of the word salacious! Thanks John!
John Valeri's reviews can be found online at Examiner.com.

John Valeri’s reviews can be found online at Examiner.com.

What Mark (probably) didn’t know when he ever so generously invited me to contribute a guest post on the topic of writing book reviews is that this month marks my sixth year of doing so as the Hartford Books Examiner for Examiner.com. Time flies when you’re having fun!

I have a confession to make: I am as daunted by the task of doing so now as I was when I first began. Maybe even more so. You see, I’ve built up a loyal readership through the years, and knowing that these folks might read a book (or not read it) based upon my opinion is … well, heady. While reading is typically a solitary endeavor—and a subjective one, too—I feel a certain responsibility to guide readers accordingly. [Read more…]

Q: Will E-books Ruin Book Publishing?

Q: Will e-books ruin book publishing?

A: Of course not.

Okay, let me qualify that. If by ruin you mean “bring an end to” and if by book publishing you mean the “careful and professional preparation and dissemination of long form intellectual property expressed in words” then I stick by my answer and say, of course not.

Will e-books ruin book publishing?

Are paper-and-ink books dying?

Now if by book publishing you mean the above definition but specifically and predominantly in a paper, ink, and binding medium, then I guess the answer is possibly. Probably not, but possibly. Maybe the readers of the world will gradually or spontaneously decide that we don’t need to kill any more trees and that electronic dissemination and acquisition is the only way to go.

But paper and ink aren’t what make a book. As has always been the case in book publishing content is king and packaging secondary.  So if paper, ink, and binding do some day go away, I would simply say, no big deal. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon as the latest research (the PubTrack program from Bowker) indicates that 82% of Americans – who represent one third of the book publishing market – still prefer printed books exclusively.

For updated stats see my blog How Many People Are Reading on E-Reader Devices, which shows much more robust numbers for e-readers – but still indicates that paper and ink will be around a good while!

In his book Business At the Speed of Thought Bill Gates asserted that we tend to overestimate the amount of change new technology will cause in its first two years but underestimate the amount of change that will occur in the next five years. How long has Amazon had the Kindle and Sony its e-book reader in the market? If Gates was right then it will be 2012 or 2013 before we have a pretty good idea where e-books are going.

Now if by book publishing your definition is closer to “long form intellectual property expressed in words” no matter what media is used to distribute the material then I would say for that to come to an end some entirely different dynamics other than an e-book reader would have to be involved. Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson and my former boss, raised the question of what the Internet is doing to our brains in relation to its impact on long form reading. He cited Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr’s observation is that as the Internet has become his universal medium, concentrating on longer pieces for more than a couple of pages has become increasingly difficult. Carr says:

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

Since an e-book, at least in its most popular hardware expressions, is designed to essentially look, feel, and behave like a a paper, print, and binding book, you can’t blame it for any for any widespread impact on people’s ability to apprehend long form content just because it’s in a digital format.

Again, citing the most up-to-date research from Bowker’s PubTrack data, in 2007, 164 million Americans over the age of 13, about 75% of the population with discretionary spending power, purchased at least one book. Book consumption is greater with age but still relatively constant. And for those who assert that junior readers simply won’t read unless the content is wrapped up in a digital sight, sound, and interactive experience, I’d simply point to the Harry Potter phenomenon where seven- and eight-year-old kids could suddenly read 800-page books! There is an ongoing voracious appetite for books across ages and within all the niches of the human marketplace. And America won’t always account for one-third of all book consumption.

So will e-books ruin book publishing? Absolutely not. Will they change book publishing? Over time, most likely, but not in its essence.

So is book publishing, a medium brought to the masses by Johannes Gutenberg through his invention of mechanical printing almost 600 years ago, safe for at least another millennium?

Now that’s an entirely different question! Give me a sec and I’ll see if I can google an answer!

Q: Why Does It Take so Long to Publish a Book?

Why does it take so long for a traditional publisher to publish a book?

Why does it take a whole year to take a book to market?!

Q: Why does it take so long for a publisher to publish a book once they’ve bought it from your agent?

A: For traditional trade publishers, schedules are built around the selling cycle of key account retailers.

Start backwards. Pretend your book hits the shelves at Barnes & Noble on September 5. Why did it take a year to get there? (And yes, publishers would prefer to have a full year from the point when they purchase a manuscript from an agent until the time it hits the shelf.)

Month 12
To have a book on the shelf on September 5, B&N probably needs the book to start delivering to their distribution centers on August 5. It will take them a week or so to get it organized to ship to their 700-something stores; another week or so for it to arrive at all locations; and the next two weeks for local stores to get on the shelf. Remember, they have only so many inches of book shelves dedicated to your book’s category, so it’s likely that some slow-selling titles are getting removed from shelves and returned to publishers. If you have a real, bona fide marketing plan, you now do your thing this month and in the next few months. Pray that the retail buyers believed the sales person who told them what the marketing plan would be so that books are in the market when you tell people about it on radio interviews and internet blog tours.

Months 10-11
Printer ready files of your book were sent to the printer. The printer needs a week or two for the make-ready process. They will have ripped ‘blues’ of interiors and covers that were sent to publisher for approval. They were probably forwarded to you as well – or at least a pdf file was emailed to you to read over. It takes each of you a week to do your final quality checks. It can sit a week or two in a long line of projects before it hits the print line and it might even get bumped because a new novel by Stephanie Meyers or John Grisham is selling so fast that the printer gave your spot in line to another publisher. (Sad to say but true – it happens.) It takes another week or two for the book to get shipped to your publisher’s warehouse or distribution center and yes, it takes them a week or two to ship it to B&N.

Months 8-9
You might find out that your editor is now assigning you to a copy editor. A copy editor gets into the nuts and bolts of grammar and syntax and punctuation. You get an edited chapter every day or two and you are given 24 to 36 hours to respond! Not fun. Finally, in week 7, you see a final cover; you like it better; you might love it; you might have Exhibit A when you explain 16 months later to your family and friends why your book really didn’t sell. You get a final edited manuscript and are told you have three business days to make any final changes. A week later you get a typeset copy of the book. It’s amazing how much better your material reads when it is professionally typeset. You have another three business days to mark any mistakes or changes.

Months 6-7
You don’t hear much the first three weeks but the publishing team is very busy getting sales and marketing tools prepared for sales conference. In week four you get a cover you don’t like. You protest. You might even have won the argument but you have a friend who comes up with an even worse cover and you tell the publishing team how much you like it because you had more of a say in it, ruining your credibility. The publisher finally says that catalog drop dead date is here and they’ll have to use what they’ve got but they’ll consider revising prior to publication. An improved version gets used with the sales sheet. You wonder why a publisher does a catalog if the real presentation is done with a sales sheet. He or she doesn’t know why either. In addition to key account presentations, your manuscript is sent to trade and consumer outlets by the publicist. We’ll come back to this time period later.

Month 5
No one is real happy with the state of the manuscript but someone from the marketing department needs to write catalog copy and uses what they have. Another marketing person calls to get your list of influencers who need a pre-publication manuscript. You tell them that it’s not ready to be read by reviewers but the marketing person explains that everyone in the publishing industry understands it won’t be a final edited copy.

Month 4
In the second week of this month you’ll get a long conciliatory call from your editor with a list of things you need to rewrite. You have two weeks to get everything done.

Month 3
You turn in your manuscript and hear nothing. You start calling the editor who has been assigned to you and don’t hear back. After a couple weeks of this you call your agent. Your agent calls the publisher. The publisher assures him or her that you’ll hear from your editor in just a couple more days. Six weeks later an assistant calls and sends an email and lets you know that you’ll hear from your editor in the next couple days.

Months 1-2
It takes the whole month for you to get a first draft of your contract, which is probably 13 to 15 pages long and is organized with the logic and layout of a 3,000 square foot house that started out as a single-wide trailer. You have a bunch of questions that your agent will patiently cover with you. Your agent wants to impress you with his or her knowledge of arcane publishing nuances and negotiating acumen so he or she will start insisting on contract changes. After a couple of center lane head-on chicken rushes, the parties will finally settle on the few things that actually have to do with business. Your agent will tell you the story and you’ll be impressed.

Bottom line, go back and look at months 6 and 7. This is what is driving the schedule. Reviewers need their review copies and this is when retail accounts, like B&N, Lifeway, Family Christian, Wal-Mart (and their book buying distributors A-Merch and ReaderLink), BooksaMillion, Mardells, and others expect (and demand) publishers to present new lists. There are three main selling seasons:

  • Fall books (August through December release) need to be presented by March;
  • Spring books (January through April releases) need to be presented by August;
  • Summer books (May through July) need to be presented by the middle of November.

Are there exceptions? Yes. They are called ‘drop ins’ and that works great with big, time-sensitive book concepts. Emergency land a plane in the Hudson River and save a couple hundred lives as the captain of an airline and be assured someone can and desperately wants to have your book in the market in the next two months. But there needs there to be a compelling reason to rush to press. Otherwise, you can do a lot more harm than good and seriously damage your sales.

Maybe this long-winded A to your Q will make the wait for your book to reach the market seem more bearable!

10 Reasons NOT to Write a Book

10 reasons not to write a book

Before you start on chapter one …

So you want to be a writer? Most people you tell that to are going to say something to you like, “very cool” and “you can do it.” But I’m here today to dispense reality. Before you start on chapter one let me give you 10 reasons NOT to write a book!

1.  Everything there is to say has already been said. Leave it to no less of an expert on writing books that have sold well than King Solomon, who said: “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.  Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, NLT). If that’s not enough to discourage you, keep reading.

2.  There are already more books published than people will read. Bowker, the company that dispenses ISBN numbers, reports that more than 1 million new titles are being released in the US alone each year. That doesn’t count the number of independent books being PUBLISHED without an official ISBN number. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) estimates there will be 1,761,280 books published worldwide this year. (See my infographic on the top book-producing countries.)

3.  The average number of units each new book published will sell is 250. As low as that number is, it is still inflated by books that sell hundreds of thousands and millions of copies. For most authors, writing will not pay the bills and will be a labor of love. (Do you want to know how much authors make?) [Read more…]

Q: My Book Has Not Sold Many Copies. Can I Get Rights Reverted Based on Poor Sales?

Q: My book has not sold many copies. Can I get rights reverted based on poor sales?

A. If that is not stipulated in the contract (and it rarely is), then not without some help. Take a look at your publishing agreement to see if there are sales performance requirements written into the terms. But if you don’t find a suitable condition, you can still ask your publisher nicely.

How can I get publishing rights to my book back?

My book didn’t sell many copies – and it’s going downhill from there!

Most publishing agreements have several provisions that allow you to get your publishing rights back.

For example, most agreements have a time frame within which the publisher must publish your work after acquiring it. Eighteen months is not atypical. In other words, a publisher can’t buy your book and just sit on it. Now, if you turned in your manuscript late or it has not yet been made acceptable through the editing process or there are some other extenuating circumstances, they (the publisher) are probably protected from surrendering rights back to you.

Another example of a rights reversion clause is most agreements have an in-print provision. If your book is not available for purchase and you bring it to the publisher’s attention – in writing – with a specific request to rectify this by reprinting the book, the publisher must send the book back to press within a defined period of time or return publishing rights to you. Just to repeat, the onus is usually on you to initiate the process in writing.

This has increasingly become a point of contention between authors and publishers in the digital age. Why? In many agreements, offering a book in a downloadable e-book form is all that is needed for a book to be considered in-print. And further, digital publishing means that the publisher can economically transition from offset printing to print on demand. In other words, your book will technically never be out of print even if nothing much is currently happening in the area of sales and marketing.

Third, a few agreements have qualifiers like a set time period for publishing rights or a minimum number of annualized sales or the requirement that it be included in a printed catalog. If you don’t remember this coming up when you were negotiating a contract, then this probably doesn’t apply to your agreement!

My book was printed on time and is still in print. It just isn’t selling like I thought it would. This is so disappointing.

Even if none of the conditions apply, go ahead and ask to have your publishing rights reverted, but don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Or if the publisher encourages you to do some marketing activities that will help rekindle demand for your book in the marketplace.

Now, if sales of your book have steadily waned to next to nothing, if you have earned out your advance against royalties (or you are willing to pay back unearned advances against royalties), if inventory levels are low (and especially if you’re willing to buy the remaining copies in stock), and if there isn’t sufficient demand to warrant an offset print run (let’s say about 1,500 copies), then your publisher just might shrug his or her shoulders and say sure, you can have your publishing rights back. Often, the publishing agreement specifies that in such cases the publisher will let you have any plates, films, and files free or at publisher’s actual cost to retrieve them. With plates and films basically being obsolete there is usually no or little cost associated with retrieving the electronic files. (Though that doesn’t mean anyone can easily put their hands on the most up-to-date print-ready iteration.)

But again, even if all the circumstances of the previous paragraph are present, many publishers (self included) are loathe to return rights. Why? They (we) have invested a lot of money into publishing your work and as distribution technology changes and morphs into podcasts, e-books, print-on-demand solutions, and more, they don’t want to lose opportunities to recoup their investment through new means of exploiting your work.

And one final question for you to ask yourself. What can you do to promote sales that the publisher hasn’t done or won’t do? If the answer is “a whole lot more” then get busy and drive sales without the manufacturing and inventory hassles. Or, if you have an iron-clad way to sell your own books directly, like a speaking schedule, ask nicely for your rights to be reverted and hope for a yes answer.