Lunch at Mimi’s Café

By JIM MCNIVEN
April 7, 2014 

Mimi’s is a restaurant chain in the southwestern United States that my wife, Jane, and I like for lunch. It has a good soup and sandwich combo within a kind of French décor. Last week we went there for a bit of a celebration. The occasion was my signing of an agreement with a company in Arizona, Wheatmark, to publish a book of mine entitled The Yankee Road. It is non-fiction history, and I have been working on it for a long time. Sort of a hobby that I’d like to see pay off.

The reason for mentioning the lunch is to mark my experience with book publishing, and how it has changed and is changing as Moore’s Law and Jeff Bezos keep changing it. I consider that the former is the main driving force in our global society and will keep on being that for at least a couple of decades more. Look it up on the web, if you want, just as all the others who pay their respects to Gordon Moore do. Bezos runs Amazon.com, the direct descendant of the Yankee peddlers on the frontier and Richard Sears of Chicago marketing fame. Bezos started by selling books over the Internet around 20 years ago and branched out into many other items. Besides selling e-books and print-on-demand books, Amazon has gradually set up its own publishing system, from manuscript to home delivery. Far from killing the book business, it has spawned a host of competitors, from full-service publishing that links the author to both physical and electronic distribution systems to specialized services over the web, such as marketing, editing and cover design.

Let me explain what has happened to publishing based on my own experience. Before Bezos and the internet, nearly all books were published by a relatively small number of companies. Today let’s call them the ‘legacy’ publishers. The legacies worked generally on a model that consisted of signing an author to a contract on the basis of a concept for a book in the case of a non-fiction title, or a manuscript in the case of a novel. The non-writing process was and is slow, perhaps taking a couple of years, especially in the case of university presses.

The book is assigned to an editor, who walks the author through alterations designed to enhance the saleability of the book. The author, having signed her rights away, has to accede to the editor’s and the company’s control. The company gets a cover design, copyedits, and comes up with an interior design. It sends the lot to a printer, and contracts with book distributors to see that the various bookstores, mostly independents until recently, get copies. The legacies also would undertake the job of marketing the book, perhaps contracting out this function. Once the author had signed the contract, his part of the process was largely over and he could just wait, if she had received no ‘advance’ on royalties, until the cheques rolled in — maybe.

In this world, the author signing with a legacy would give up the intellectual property rights to the work, and has little influence over the final product and the marketing. As well, given the demand for the next new thing, if sales were not strong and rather immediate, after a few months of post-publication the book might be pulled off booksellers’ shelves and returned and destroyed or remaindered. The next new book would replace it on the shelves. If the book went out of print, then the author might request the rights back to do whatever with them.

The alternative to this process was DIY, do-it-yourself. There have always existed a number of people and companies that could help an author, let’s say someone who has written a memoir or family history, to publish a book DIY style. An author could contract with a copyeditor, a printer, a book designer and have the whole thing done under his control. Then he could distribute it to interested booksellers, friends and relatives, libraries and the like. He could even hire a company to solicit reviews of his book.

A middle ground has been the ‘vanity’ press, which would bundle these functions and produce what the author wanted for a price, leaving him or her to market the book in whatever fashion was preferable. The company’s job was simply to provide a book that met the author’s specifications and purposes.

I have been going to the Tucson Festival of Books (TFOB) for a few years now, and I have seen things related to book publishing change radically. TFOB attracts about 120,000 people over a two-day span. It is quite a crowd. There are a lot of sessions devoted to famous and successful authors talking about their books and ideas. CSPAN videos a lot of these and puts them on over their channels on weekends. As well, there are 500+ booths where individuals and companies sell everything from local history and travel books to novels, while bookstore operators try to sell their wares. Besides the famous author sessions, there are a number of what I would call technical sessions, where literary agents might talk about what they do, small publishers discuss the state of the industry and promote their companies, and marketers give some useful tips. In 2013, a largish, different kind of company made an appearance that left me, at least, startled.

The company was Smashwords, which, in the words of one author I heard that year, is an ‘Indie’, or the descendant of the ‘vanity press’ gone legit. An Indie publisher is one that will help an author put together a finished product, or whatever parts the author needed or desired, and would take the finished product and put it through its ‘meatgrinder’ program which would make it acceptable electronically to the e-book companies, such as Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and the like. You kept your rights; you had to cough up some money, but the company and you split the royalties. If you did little or no marketing, or if the book was not appealing to an audience, the book would still remain in ‘print.’ For paper junkies, there was the possibility of print-on-demand by the major book distributors.

By 2014, there were few legacy publishers hanging around TFOB. There were a number of small publishers with booths, but they wanted to sell what was on their shelves. What was there was a whole series of sessions on selling to Amazon, marketing your ‘Indie’ book, how to use social media, and the comparative experiences of authors with different kinds of publishers. Smashwords claimed in 2013 that a third or more of books published in the world were e-books; by 2014 some others were claiming e-books are now half. Eight million books were in ‘print,’ it was said, all fighting for readers. Pricing points for e-books were anything from $0.99 to $10.99. You can see where the extravagant University textbook prices are going to go, where the poorly funded University presses are going to go, and where the legacy presses are going to go: down. Already, many of the legacies are beginning to offer their own hybrid services, and academic journals are reconfiguring themselves under this onslaught.

Anyway, I never had an interest in going with what once was the legitimate route for my manuscript. A big consideration was the credible observation that I was too old for the legacies. They wanted authors that, if successful, would be around to do lots of follow-on books for them, like a Michael Lewis after Moneyball. At TFOB, it was hammered into me that I would be responsible for marketing my own book: no one would do it for me without pay. So, what was the point of signing my ‘baby’ away for not much at all? I heard and talked with some authors who had been successful with Wheatmark, I talked with their president and with a couple of people after their sessions, and now we are off, with a fast three-to-four -month publication date, in part because I had already used a great copyeditor.

So, the manuscript is done, and a second part of the Yankee story is being researched and written — but now Jim McNiven, author, will have to fight for the attention of Jim McNiven, book marketer. Maybe, my wife Jane could be enlisted ….  ? That conversation will surely require another lunch.

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

Contact: j.mcniven AT dal.ca

Further reading:
Smashwords site: http://www.smashwords.com/
Wikipedia page for Moore’s Law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law

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