Panel participants were Dave Margoshes, writer and poet, moderator (DM); Angie Abdou, writer (AA); Warren Cariou, writer (WC); and Robyn Reed, Acquiring Editor of Freehand Books (RR).
After a brief introduction of the panel and the topic by Dave Margoshes, each member of the panel was asked to speak. Please note: I'm not an automaton. While I take good notes, these are not direct quotes but rather paraphrases. If you feel I've misrepresented what you said, please get in touch with me and I'll be happy to correct.
AA: We were also going to talk about authors and social media. In terms of ebooks, let's talk first about pricing – they're about $6. But instead of authors getting royalties of 10% for paper books – which means if your book sells for $20 you get about $2 per book – royalty rates for ebooks are much higher – 50%.
In terms of social media – a lot of authors are stomping their feet and saying, 'we don't want to promote our books.' In fact, at the recent Saskatchewan Festival of Words, one well known science fiction writer said he believes in a division of labour: he writes the books; it's the publisher's job to edit and promote them. But the demand for writers to get involved with social media seems to be coming from readers, who want a more active relationship with authors these days. This means there's a lot of potential for engagement via social media, but it's time consuming. [Actually, from everything I hear and see, the demand for authors to get involved in social media is coming from publishers, most of whom don't understand social media themselves and show little desire to learn. There are some doing an amazing job. From what I see, it's less than 10% of those who've plunged into social media willy nilly. And writers have started doing their own marketing and promotion because they've finally realized it's the only way they're going to be able to sell their books, because publishers actually seem to be worse at promotion and marketing than they used to be. Again, there are exceptions to this sweeping statement. Readers have certainly responded very positively to authors who engage well - and more - with them. Whether we were demanding it or not I'm not so sure.]
WC: For the last year I've read ebooks almost exclusively on my iPad and have exclusively bought ebooks. It provides 'a kind of freedom from the encumbrance of the physical weight of books.' This has already changed the way I read. 'There's a cornucopia of books available at the touch of a finger,' and ebooks also give you the 'ability to carry around your entire library.' Those are the ebook pluses. The negatives, if reading on an iPad, include reading on the same device on which you can check your email, which can lead to 'distracted reading.' There's also a lack of connoisseurship factor and perhaps a lack of authenticity due to the sheer availability of texts. He mentioned an article he'd read, written by a musician re the digitization of music and that this had led to songs becoming increasingly trivial. A publisher acts as some guarantee of quality. [See my comments at end of the post on this topic - it ain't necessarily so in the 21st Century. But hear hear for Warren immersing himself in this new delivery system!]
RR: Ebooks are primarily about reproducing rather than producing, that is, they're usually not originals. Available through Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and through publishers' own web sites. She said she was concerned about losing the integrity of design in the transition to ebook process, since some ereaders allow people to choose their own fonts and 'paper' colour. The design process needs to be valued. She then talked about how the role of the writer has changed in the digital age – authors are now a brand and need logos and social media platforms. She said the way we choose what to read has changed and authors have to think about how their online presence changes the way we buy books.
DM: We've talked about how ebooks and social media change how we read, buy and sell books. But we haven't yet talked about whether ebooks will change how we write. Does technological change have an effect on how we write?
RR: Talked about Nicholas Carr's writing about the digital age and said that if you want to find a specific book, you just have to Google it. Carr writes about whether the medium [I'm more likely to consider it a delivery mechanism than a medium, but never mind] changes the way we read or write. We tend to scan when reading digitally and words on a screen are more readily digestible.
AA: Hyperlinks and video included in ebooks will change the way we read.
DM: That's already changed on blogs.
AA: Heard of a piece via Sandra Birdsell about how the typewriter would be the death of writing. [In other words, quality concerns always accompany technological change.]
WC: Word processing did affect the way people wrote – writing multiple drafts becomes naturalized. I tell my creative writing students to try writing without a computer for a change. But it's hard to tell how ebooks will affect writing.
DM: The proliferation of self publishing due to ebooks is scary. There have always been vanity presses that 'don't have professional standards.' Ebooks have really blossomed. I was curious about the ebook self-publishing phenomenon and bought one of Amanda Hocking's books [although he couldn't remember her name] and it was crap. [I don't think Dave Margoshes is part of Amanda Hocking's target market in even her wildest dreams. I really wish he'd bought an ebook by an author he knew and/or actually wanted to read so he could better assess what I think of as an alternative book delivery system. I also wish he'd read a book that had been written by someone other than - you know - a teenager. Conventional wisdom still says poets mature early, prose writers later on, yes?]
AA: The science fiction author at the Festival of Words who advocated continuance of 'division of labour' was RJ Sawyer, who seemed to think author self promotion success stories were all hearsay. She cited the example of Terry Fallis, whose podcasts and self-publishing ventures led to winning the Stephen Leacock medal and to a traditional publishing deal for his two novels.
WC: From a reader perspective, readers can be intrigued by authors [who are self promoting].
The session was then opened up to the audience, with first comment/question coming from Aritha Van Herk. I'll identify the questioners/commenters when I can, but since the event was open to the public, I didn't know everyone in the room.
Aritha Van Herk: Really it's the editors who will be the new arbiters of quality. Editing is the key part of the publishing process, and if a self-published book is edited by someone you trust, you'll invest money to buy it. Sadly there are very few editors being trained or paid.
AA: We're talking about substantive editing here, not copy editing, by the way.
RR: We've entered a different phase in the creative writing process – accessibility is the issue. Printed books take a minimum of eight to 12 months to produce – ebooks can take far less time.
Andreas Schroeder asked, but will ebooks change the way writers write? That was the original question, yes? Will they change writerly decisions? Will interaction with readers lead to choice of one ending rather than another? [Apologies to Andreas here – my cryptic notes read something like 'enc. cmd. response' but as I recall, this is what he was getting at.]
DM: The film world has been using audience market research for years.
AA: Some aspiring writers are being encouraged to get onto Twitter long before their books are even published, since there's often a two-year lag between manuscript sale and the book's appearance. My advice is to start using social media in the time between final edits and actual appearance of the book. But sometimes I feel like I spend all my time doing Facebook updates. [I disagree with this advice, actually, for a variety of reasons, chief amongst which is that there is no 'one size fits all' strategy for either social media or for marketing books. In my experience, already-established authors can afford to wait to engage with social media because their following will grow very quickly - they're already household words, the publication of a new book still drives backlist sales, and the effect of public relations and marketing is cumulative. New or lesser known authors need to engage early and in different ways with social media. I would also put Facebook at the very bottom of the list of any social media efforts an author is making. The demographics that Facebook provides can't be easily used by authors trying to sell books because there just aren't any stats available on who buys which books based on age or gender – all the data you get is going to be anecdotal and from live sales in actual bookstores – good luck gathering that information. Furthermore, I don't think readers flock to Facebook. It might well be useful to target books with regional appeal only. But publishers who've used Facebook ads say they've had far greater success using Goodreads ads. And you're looking at a built-in platform with more than 5 million readers on Goodreads. I'm not sure what you're looking at on Facebook – the great unwashed?]
RR: Social media can distract from writing efforts and can lead to abuse of social media platforms. [See my comment above. My biggest pet peeve with publishers these days is their insistence that authors establish a social media platform and presence when they themselves have not done so. No wonder publishers think readers don't buy books based on a publisher's brand – most of them don't even seem to understand the concept of branding. They've obviously never seen me at the Hurt Penguin or the Virago sales, where I buy bagsful of books by authors of whom I've never heard, based on my faith in the publisher's brand. Remember the Vintage Contemporary Classics series that was introduced in the 1980s? I bought most of that line too. Of course, McClelland & Stewart's New Canadian Library was a triumph of anti-branding that was reminscent of Soviet-era 'art': they managed to make every novel in the series look like a colonial yawn that could substitute for a sleeping pill.]
WC: What about the current bestseller Go the F*** to Sleep? [whose success was fuelled by an unintentional viral marketing campaign – see article here.
DM: Will enhanced ebooks include reviews, for instance?
RR: Publishers are giving 25% royalties for ebooks, not 50%, due to lower production costs - 50% royalties would just destroy publishers. Ebooks are edited carefully as well (when produced by traditional publishers] but ease of distribution leads to streamlining of the production process and how quickly books can be produced.
Alison Calder then demanded that the panel talk about 'the book' and talk about writing, not about marketing, selling, or producing books. She seemed a little upset.
WC (who is Alison Calder's husband): We value the book.
AA: I try not to push my obsessions onto my creative writing students, but rather to help them achieve their goals.
Tom: On the subject of writing and social media – we're facing a difficulty – the absence of readers of books. Creative writing students now think they should write, and other people should read.
AA: It's the reality TV generation.
Tom Wayman: Is there any hope that there are still/will continue to be people who read critically and carefully?
RR: I'm worried about ereaders leading to skimming rather than actual reading, especially for the young adult market (those aged 14-19). All the writing aimed at that market seems to be about vampires, and narcissism on the writing front has been enhanced by blogging.
Gordon Sombrowski (who was in my workshop and whose first book of short stories will be published by Oolichan Books this fall): Skimmed reading leads to skimmed writing – we need to read critically.
RR: But there are still good educators who are teaching people to read critically.
WC to Tom Wayman: There's the danger people are not engaging as deeply with the text when reading online or on ereaders. But this allows other ways of approaching a text, especially for things like sound poetry, which is enhanced by the technological potential of being read online. Sound poetry like that produced by bpnichol demands to be heard, not just read. [Fairly substantial paraphrasing going on here.]
Sid Marty talked about James Keelaghan's songwriting course – he doesn't accept musicians into his course unless they already know at least 80 songs. How to translate that to creative writing classes and not let people who don't read into them. 'If people don't read, they don't know how bad their writing is.'
A member of the audience who identified himself as a software developer working on iPod, iPad and iPhone software said that there is always resistance and fear in the existing marketplace when technological change occurs, and that he was hearing a lot of fear from the panel and from audience members – the notion of music self-publishing led to fear that a 'sea of rubbish' would be created and distributed by 'bedroom artists.' He also talked about the gaming market: games used to sell for $40, but are now selling for $2.99 per game. But, he said, the quality of the games hasn't diminished with the price cut – what's fuelled the price cuts is the fact that so many more people are buying and playing games [i.e. economies of scale have kicked in as market base has increased exponentially]. Ebooks and self publishing means there can be zero friction between you, the author, and your audience – but you need to find the right price, and it is not going to be $20. App developers are selling a lot more apps for a lot less to a lot more people.
I'm not sure when I made my comments, but I did want to challenge some of the things the panel had said. I said I was glad Angie had brought up the higher royalty rates for ebooks and she replied that some publishers were offering only 7% royalty rates now – while 10% was standard and it could rise to 12% or 15%, overall the royalty rate was decreasing rather than increasing. I talked about the fact that ebooks are ephemeral and that the larger publishers are completely missing the boat by pricing them far too highly. I said that while opinions re the 'sweet spot' ebook price point ranged from 99 cents to $6.99, larger publishers were shooting themselves in the foot by pricing ebooks at anything higher than the price of a mass market paperback because these are ephemeral objects, not tangible ones (and that most of the larger publishers in Canada and the US seemed oblivious to this]. I also talked about how Harper Collins in the US has essentially announced that by allowing only 26 'lends' of its ebooks, it's transformed the transaction from a purchase to a rental.
DM: I'm glad someone mentioned fear. We're afraid not only of ebooks but of all technological change. He asked Robyn Read if some publishers were angry about ebooks.
RR: I was at a conference recently where I hoped everyone would be excited about ebooks, but instead everyone was scared. We resent software. We comment on blogs etc. but we don't comment fairly. We're living in the age of snark – and it changes the way some people write.
Another audience member said the discussion reminded him of the way the introduction of the printing press was received - as well as radio and television. 'A story is still a story.' There's no reason to fear new technology. What we're missing now is acceptance of the fact that the role of traditional publishers will become even more important – and that that was also the role of traditional (rather than etail) bookstores.
AA: To play devil's advocate: has writing today become not about good writing, but rather about celebrity?
WC: Poetry writing is very strong in Canada. But it has never been a money maker.
AA: Does poetry work on ebooks?
RR: Fear is necessary.
Another audience member suggested that the panel wasn't giving readers enough credit – that the inclusion of many classic novels free on ereaders and available online through Google Books was leading to an increase in reading the classics by young readers.
That was a lovely note on which to end, and whoever the young woman who raised that point was – thank you.
A few thoughts of my own that I wasn't able to express during the panel discussion (in addition to those appearing in square brackets after the panel members' remarks):
- No one talked about the sheer volume of books being published these days or about the fact that publishing a million books per year will inevitably lead to a crisis for bricks and mortar retailers, who simply cannot afford to rent larger and larger spaces every year – it's just not realistic.
- Aritha Van Herk was really the only commenter who rang an alarm bell that needs to be rung at five-minute intervals: publication by a traditional publisher no longer represents (if it ever has) any guarantee of quality whatsoever if there are no longer any editors working at publishing companies. And there are, indeed, fewer and fewer skilled editors working at traditional publishing companies.
- No one talked about the horror stories of books being rushed into publication to meet imagined or real market demand without any editing whatsoever. And I can certainly attest to the fact that this does, indeed, happen, and not to first-time authors either.
- And there was a certain irony in hearing so many poets in particular at the conference expressing fear and loathing of all self-publishing and not really distinguishing between vanity press publishing and self-publishing that involves actual substantive editing and is, in many ways, one response to a publishing model that everyone seems to agree was handicapped to begin with in small markets and is becoming increasingly enfeebled and confused as time goes on. What about all those little poetry chapbooks, chaps? Did all those poems benefit from editing before you started selling them at your readings and on your web sites? Until you can all say yes to that, I'm thinking, hold back on sweeping dismissals of everything that's self published. And don't assume that just because one of the big Canadian publishers put their stamp of approval on the self published novels they picked up to make a quick buck that they actually assigned an editor to work on it. Because I'm pretty sure, in the case of one author mentioned in this post, that that really didn't happen.
- Not to be TOO bitchy, but I found it rather irritating that the word 'curation' wasn't once mentioned by the panel - Warren Cariou came closest to it when he talked about lack of connoisseurship and market research. I cannot imagine a similar panel of US or UK authors and publishers who would not have focused on this concept in a panel on authors in a digital age.
Here's a good article I found today that supports my contention that your social media efforts have to start earlier rather than later and gives you some idea of where you should focus your efforts.
Here's an article I wish I - and the panel members - had read.
And apparently there's a UK psychologist named David Galbraith who's working on the way writing influences creativity, so he might be a resource to answer the question none of us could answer, whether ebooks will affect the way we write.