Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pods, Blogs and Books

An article of mine in The Sunday Times today about literary blogs, new publishing technology and the love of the book has stirred extraordinary levels of interest. This rather proves my point that enthusiasm for the book far exceeds the deluded and banal dreams of marketing people, who claim to understand only the 'mass market'. In fact, they seldom understand even that. Bookshops have so badly failed to grasp this that much of my correspondence seems to consist of anti-bookshop venom. Real readers don't like being seen there any more.


  1. In your article, you mention that a lot of people still enjoy browsing the bookstores. My local B&N and Borders are both filled with patrons sitting in plush chairs while flipping through pages. Part of book-buying, in a bookstore at least, is the shopping experience. Can POD possibly replicate that?

  2. 'POD will put power back where it belongs, with the publishers.'

    I would rather POD put it back where it really belongs, with the authors.

  3. You make such an excellent point, and I'm really surprised that it hasn't been made with such force before. In this spectacle of the Fall of Traditional Publishing, the bookstores have put on the expression of an hapless bystander, and I don't think they can wear that mask any longer.

  4. Okay, my imagination is running wild (no need to comment on that), so I'm developing a business plan.

    An environmentally sound business model. There will be a separate entrance and exit to the Starbuck's, of course. On the way out, the paper cups and napkins will be dropped into a special machine that instantly recycles and produces the paper the books will be made out of. Perhaps 1 out of 100 customers request a book, so far so good; and for those special occasions, such as the publication of a Pynchon novel, we'll be sure to have our storage room stocked with plenty of paper.

    One more thing, perhaps more seriously, is that I do not understand this need to have something right now, this second, or forget about it. I wait years for a book to come out from one of my favorite authors. Sometimes, when I can't find a book here in the USA, I order it from Amazon in the UK or some other country. Oftentimes, it is weeks before it arrives in the mail so that I can hold it in my hands and start reading.

    Chain bookstores have become as offensive as suburban malls, but so have the consumers.

  5. Your article today is very interesting. I believe the internet is a huge benefit in all sorts of ways, and have been using Amazon and Abebooks for some time. The financial advantages of POD, as you outline, are indisputable. Your article fails to mention, however, one of the delights of a bookshop. What are the significant number of us who like to browse through the pages of books in a bookshop before purchase going to do?

  6. Although I believe that bookbuying will undergo a revolution in the future, I think you underestimate how profitable POD really is. The reason why book-buying is still so popular on the high-street is that there are a lot of impatient book-buyers out there who would much rather walk away with a book immediately than have to wait for it to arrive in the post. Bookbuyers love browsing and thumbing copies in their hand - looking for human interaction and suggestions from the booksellers in store. I don't think many would welcome having to wait any longer than they would normally have to in Starbucks for a POD unit to download and print and bind War and Peace or Infinite Jest or the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. Surely it would be easier for bookbuyers to go into a store and browse their selection in the same way that grocery shoppers still prefer to go into supermarkets than take advantage of home delivery.

    My experiences of POD thus far is poorly formated and bound texts that take weeks to produce and high price-per-page figures and I can't see costs coming down any time soon.

  7. I have just read your today's piece in the S.T. By far and away the most incisive summing-up of the situation that I have come across --- "what oft was thought" etc. It is direct, angry, yet full of feeling for books. Thank you.

    I discovered a few years ago that I now hate going into bookshops. They have been the solace of my life since a boy, they have grown bigger, brighter and better, I have had my moments of glory in them, yet as an author I now find them humiliating, and so discouraging that I come out clutching my flame of belief in the purpose of writing at all. I haven't been able to articulate this to my friends. You have done it for me. Again, thank you.

  8. "A recent post of mine on Jeffrey Archer and Paris Hilton received fewer hits than one on the use of metaphor by the American poet Wallace Stevens."

    I find this, as I'm sure you do yourself, deeply disturbing. What's gone wrong with the kids of today?

  9. Bryan , What a cracking article in todays ST. Thank you for all the web addresses....I am going straight to AbeBooks...I am sick of the greedy bookshops.

  10. I have just read with considerable interest your Sunday Times article on Print on Demand technology. I also look forward to a seismic shift in publishing which will not only drive a coach and horses through the tyranny of bookshops and the incestuous practices of the conventional publishing houses, but will also empower new authors who will be able to publish directly to the reader. In future the reading public should be able to choose from a whole new range of Indie Books overlooked or rejected by conventional publishers for reasons which often have nothing to do with the quality of the work. A great deal of rubbish will be published through POD, but a great deal of rubbish is already published by conventional means and, as you say, interesting and innovative books are all too often rejected. So I look forward to the revolution. In the meantime you can check out my first novel, The Devil's Whore, which is concerned, amongst other things, with immortality, at , but which does not find favour with publishers (or the precious literary agents who seem to have the unique skill of judging books without reading them) because university novels are not currently fashionable, especially those which deal with sex, sadism and sorcery in obscure Welsh colleges!!! Since I am retired academic who writes for amusement rather than profit I can bear the slings and stones of unsubstantiated rejection. If I was an ambitious young novelist who wanted a career in writing I would have shot myself long ago. POD offers a halfway house through which new work can be tested at no great cost. The sooner the household names in publishing sign up to it the better.

    So how about the Times devoting some space to reviewing Indie Books from POD publishers? The results might be interesting.

  11. Sheila O'FlanaganOctober 16, 2006 10:12 am

    Hi Bryan

    I've just read your comment piec e'A novel use of technology' in this week's Sunday Times magazine.

    Like you, I agree that the advent of POD is a good thing.

    However I am deeply disturbed by the intellectual snobbery of your observation that the displays of bookshops contain nothing more than 'chick-lit, celeb pap and footballer's lives'.

    It's certainly true that among all types of literature there will be poorly written books, or books that are not interesting to vast swathes of the population. I, personally, am not a fan of celeb pap but I don't think that it is up to me to judge either the booksellers who sell it or readers who like it.

    However, I am an author who writes what you so dismissively call 'chick-lit'. This perjorative and lazy journalistic term now seems to cover any book written by a woman which deals with contemporary issues.

    Many of the novels which you call chick-lit tackle subjects such as bereavement, rejection, career-choices, relationships and addiction and do not treat these subjects in any lesser way than more portentious novels simply because, at the same time, they entertain their readers.

    Just because a book is written with 'literary' aspirations doesn't make it any more deserving of either space on a bookseller's shelf or a POD download.

  12. Can I just say: Not all bookshops are chain bookshops in the thrall of 'red top' publishing.

    Secondly, as a bookseller, I am becoming daily more and more bemused by the torrent of crap being promoted by self-published authors, misguidedly benefiting from the new technology that allows for cheap yet presentable publishing.

  13. How sad I am to learn that you ceased buying in terrestial bookshops long ago, you poor darling, you must have had a bad experience. Perhaps you could write an inspirational memoir on the subject.

    Thankfully, many terrestial independent bookshops are far more pleasurable to visit than is suggested in your (high street) put-down article.

    As a bookshop proprietor who works bloody hard seven days a week to give a discerning customer base the old fashioned service and catholic selection of titles for which they yearn, I found your rather pretentious article full of piffle. Bookshops driving publishers - who the heck have you been speaking to : you need to change your medication.

    I trade books - be they newly published, secondhand (including antiquarian), or publisher's ends ; I do not think that you either understand the market or the sort of service which is still highly sought-after by many end customers.

    The worldwideweb, yes I have a presence there, but I know (and this is confirmed by other shopkeepers) that there is a movement away from the internet and back to the terrestial quality bookshops.

  14. Bryan, I am ordering up a lot of books from OUP at the moment, for my MA.. most of them are academic theology and history. Last week I got one which, like many of same, is POD. In the catalogue 5 years ago it was 25.00.. allow for inflation, call it £30. One copy, POD was EIGHTY THREE POUNDS and was so badly bound the pages fell out when I started to use it.

    Unless they bring POD down to the same as a book now and make them better this is not the ipod moment. Ipod is brilliant. POD, so far, is not - and very expensive.

    WHY, is everyone to do with the book trade wanting it to die, urging it to die, longing for it to die? Music shops are very uninteresting places to browse in - racks of CDs do not tempt. Bookshops for real book lovers wil;l always be places we want to go.

    I investigate POD, from a publishing point of view. Astronomical.

  15. My Dearest Bryan,

    I think it is only fair (sniff) that we let the reading public know MY version of our heartwrenching book affair:

    Yours truly,

    Daniel Scott Buck

  16. Bryan,

    I've been told POD is a dirty word, not meant to be uttered in polite society -- or perhaps muttered at all. And, just look at you! How many times did you type it? My goodness, you are a brave soul.

    Okay, now that we all have to meet for a group confession (your article is everywhere on the web this morning!)... At least let me make the trip to the confessional worth it by saying to you, "Bravo!"

  17. There should definitely be something called Ballard's Law, which states that:

    Almost every time humans try to make things better with technology, they actually make things worse.

    The case of digital photography and personal printing is a perfect, if minor, example. We each now pay much more, per photo, than we ever did before, now that we individually buy our own printers, ink-cartridges, and photographic paper. I suspect exactly the same thing will happen with Print-On-Demand publishing: we'll all end up spending much more per book, precisely because the books won't be printed and bound in bulk.

    Like Susan, I also have some POD books. You can tell which ones they are because the print on a number of the pages is smeared, the lines of print are not necessarily parallel with the tops of the pages, and the binding is cheap. And, like Susan discovered, these were not cheaply priced books either.

    Economic theory suggests that in the presence of competition, the price of any product or service will be driven down towards the cost of producing that item. Well, the cost of producing and distributing music has plummeted, but, for some reason, we seem to be paying more money than ever per record...

    Ballard's Law.

  18. A thousands amens to your complaints about chain bookshops. I recently posted thus when I read that Borders was planning to open a store in Dubai:

    "It's a shame our friends in the UAE have had to wait so long for corporate-dictated shelving policies, aisles crowded with book-related products, severe understaffing, and polite, even perky employees who know zero about the products they stock.

    If Arabic has no word for "mid-list," it certainly won't need one now that Borders has arrived."

    I have a favorite local secondhand bookshop, and the last time I counted my orders from AbeBooks, the number was over 100.

    Together, we can break the chains!

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"

  19. And, on the subject of 'chick-lit', could I thank Sheila for correcting all my misapprehensions of the genre by pointing out that it tackles, amongst other profound subjects, "career choices," and that it does so in a fashion which is in no way inferior to that employed by more "portentious" (sic) novels.

  20. Marydell and others have already said similar but I think this the major point the 'brave new world' vision of POD at Starbucks fails to take account of: that book-browsing (evaluating books by browsing the book's content) is still a major part of book-buying decisions, and that is very hard to replicate yet via the Internet or a terminal in Starbucks.

    What do I mean? Well, not just the common mantra that book-browsing is a pleasurable experience, but more acutely, that the purchasing decision (the committal to buy) is often made by flipping through a book and hitting on something you really like - whether it's a recipe you really like the sound of, the way the author describes a particular scene in a novel, the piece of advice on p113, the photo that grabs you on p76. With the amount of content in any individual book (and the mismatch in formats), that is something that at the moment it is very hard for the Internet or a Starbucks terminal to replicate.

    Internet shopping is commonly written about as if it will revolutionise every single high-street sector. Amongst the hype, I like to remember that Internet shopping is only a glorified form of mail order with an electronic catalogue - and we have had mail-order shopping for decades before the Internet, without it wiping out the high-street.

    Whether Internet shopping succeeds or fails in a particular sector seems to me to depend in large part on how well the product can be 'evaluated' (previewed) over the Internet before buying - does browsing the products via an electronic catalogue suit this kind of product as a way of making a purchasing decision?

    To take some examples... Purchase and download music online? - success, because evaluation is easy - thirty-second audio snippets of each track are probably enough to tell if you want the album - and it is instantly deliverable. Clothes online? - tried and utter failure (certainly in terms of impacting the high-street) - people want to be able to evaluate clothes in person.

    Electronics online? (hifi, computers, washing machines etc) - well, sure, you can't touch/see/feel the product online, but most of the evaluation about these products is done by the written technical specs anyway, by peer consumer advice, and by brand reputation - and that is done just as well on paper, internet, or whatever. So success. Foreign travel online? - similar.

    And books online? - well, without online selling or a POD terminal somehow offering the ability to evaluate the finished product in the same way a bookshop does, I'm afraid I don't see the bookshops being wiped out. Internet book-selling and POD have other great roles to play - not least in bringing a huge breadth/diversity of selection to a wider audience - but "The effect will be seismic, almost certainly more radical than the impact on the record industry of MP3 technology."? - I wouldn't be so sure. Books are not nearly as evaluable, or as instantly deliverable, as music is, via a terminal.

    (writing as a disinterested party - not as an employee for any bookshop - although I worked in book publishing for 10 years)

  21. Referencing other comments above - PoD is not expensive, if the correct model is used. Please note that subsidy or vanity publishing is *not* PoD - they may use PoD, but their model is completely different. A true PoD book, though costing more to print than an offset printed book, has advantages in avoiding distribution and 'bricks and mortar' retail costs. For example, consider the following costs (overly simplified, and depending on page count - PoD certainly suits small to mid-sized books at this point - 400 pages or less - due to costs per page):

    To print: Offset $1 / PoD $4.50
    Retail Price: Both $13.99
    Cost to put in retail store or Amazon (distribution costs and retail profit): Offset 65% of $13.99 = $9.10 / PoD 25% of $13.99 = $3.50
    Total Cost: Offset = $10.10 / PoD = $8.00
    Publisher Profit per book: Offset $3.89 / PoD $5.99
    Returns from retailer: Offset yes / PoD No

    What Brian's article is pointing out, is that PoD circumvents some of the real nastiness in the publishing/bookselling business - which is, frankly, archaic. An author may make $1 per book sold (minus returns), whereas distribution and retail eats up $10 of that same book.

    PoD also offers other benefits, such as fast turnaround publishing (most authors will know that the publishing process usually takes 1 to 2 years). I don't think Bryan was arguing against all bookshops - we all love to have a nice browse of some quality books - I think he was referencing more the problems in the current paradigm which PoD can get around (especially in the case of 'special interest' books which make up the long tail, versus the mass market titles).

    I discuss many of the benefits of PoD (and other ways of publishing yourself) at my website titled (extremely imaginatively) Publish Yourself.

    Kind regards,
    Greg Taylor

  22. As a blogger, writer and publisher, I have published books traditionally and through POD.

    I'm losing faith with POD at present because of costs.

    e.g. Amazon demand 60% discount on a POD book that costs £3.66 to produce

    I have to pay for the POD books to be delivered to me and then again to send them to Amazon and they only order one or two at a time

    They pay me £4, printing costs £3.66, cumulative delivery costs are around £1.40 = equals a loss of at least £1 per book

    and the quality of the POD book is OK but only just up to the quality of a mass-market paperback that sells for £3 or £4 retail in the aisles of Tesco or Asda

    When these magic printing machines are available who knows how the revenue will be divvied up? I suspect a small royalty to the publisher, a few pence at most, an even smaller one to the author and the rest to the outlet.

    POD is not commercially viable now and it's difficult to imagine how it ever can be.

  23. Skint Writer wrote:

    "I'm losing faith with POD at present because of costs.

    e.g. Amazon demand 60% discount on a POD book that costs £3.66 to produce"

    Hi SW,

    All I can say is, it pays to shop around. See my previous comment regarding Lightning Source PoD - if you go through them, you can list on Amazon at 25%...which is much more profitable than 60%. LS is true PoD - as the publisher, you have to purchase your ISBN etc - but the profit margin makes the model workable.

    See my article on printing with Lightning Source for more information.

    Kind regards,

    -- Publish Yourself
    -- The Power is Now in Your Hands

  24. Its very interesting and enjoyable.

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