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E-Readers or Dead Tree Books?

by Libby Sternberg

Note: This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on January 5, 2011 under the title “From Papyrus to Gutenberg to Kindle.” It has been updated for this blog.

When the Kindle and other e-readers first made inroads into the book market, they were treated with derision by steadfast lovers of DTBs (“dead tree books”). These readers value books as objects, not just as a means of communicating a story. Despite the Kindle’s popularity, some people still refuse to use them, loving the feel and smell of regular books. Perhaps some historical perspective can help these holdouts adjust to our new era, when electronic reading devices exist side by side with books as objects:

***
From a fifth-century A.D. Sumerian clay tablet discovered in the Euphrates delta, remarkably intact except for the salutation and signature:

“A thousand pardons for hitting young Jezebel in the head with my last note.

I am sure no one will notice the scar after it heals. You do keep your tent very dark; she will still find many suitors. (Editor’s note: It is unclear if the writer is saying “suitors” or “donkeys” here as the words are very similar in cuneiform.)

Please do not worry about the new papyrus we have heard so much talk of. The clay tablets we provide for the village elders are far more durable. They have a rich earthy smell and make for heft in one’s hands. Papyrus will never take the place of clay.

So confident am I that clay will never be replaced, that I have taken a loan from Old Fatima-mae to make some improvements to my tent. I will be able to pay it off quickly with the delivery of our next set of tablets.

But please stop using the clay to write down what you are calling ‘poems.’ It is a waste of precious material, my cousin. No one wants to read those when they can hear them round the fire at night.”

***
The following appears to be a clandestine letter written by an Egyptian scribe to his wife. Although the date is missing, experts peg its provenance somewhere between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D.:

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: Look at both ends of the scroll to see which one is the beginning of the story. It’s no wonder that Nanatu, the Story Seller, would not buy my latest effort. You presented him the scroll with the ending first!

And no, my dearest one, I refuse to try that product they are calling parchment. It is thin and one must use many separate sheets of it, which can easily become lost. If one scroll confuses you now, what will you do with many single pieces? I can see it clearly—parchment blowing every which way in the wind like the petals of a flower during a sandstorm, and you giving Nanatu one of my stories with half the pieces missing.

Nanatu is temperamental enough as it is. If I hear him say once more that he wants a story with a boat journey in it like the one that Homer fellow told, I will scream. Putting my stories on parchment will not make the difference; getting rid of the likes of Nanatu will.”

***
Fifteenth-century epistle from an older monk at an Alsatian monastery, Schwer-an-Bier, to another younger monk in a nearby German abbey:

“Please try harder to color within the lines, dear Frère Aefle. Your latest efforts were a strange mess of colors in odd cube-like forms that reminded me of images seen through shards of glass. But I must say at least it was better than the blurry pictures you did on the previous manuscript. That one created mere impressions, rather than a specific image. It made one feel as if one were viewing a landscape through wine-besotted eyes.

Abbot Pierre exclaimed after seeing it: Je vais chercher du bon vin à la cave. (Editor’s note: The loose translation for this phrase is: “Wine is good. Very good. Very, very good. Is it five o’clock somewhere?”) Such shoddy workmanship on your part will only feed the talk that our efforts are useless decoration and unnecessary toil, especially now that villagers are all in a fever over the printing machine you described.

Gutenberg, Schmutenberg, I say, Frère Aefle. Even your most pitiful illumination efforts are more vibrant than the cold black and white letters I’ve seen coming from his machine.

Rest assured, nothing will replace our artistic efforts. And even if Herr Schmutenburg’s device takes hold, I have been told by Friar Chuck that such ‘presses’ will still need laborers like us. He has devised a plan to work together with the Gutenbergs, something he is calling ‘the agency model,’ providing manuscripts to the presses for distribution. It is very complicated. But the important thing to remember, mon Frère, is to keep toiling away, perfecting your craft and trusting Friar Chuck and all the Abbots to look after us.”

***
Just as well-meaning scribes adjusted to papyrus and the printing press, so too have authors, publishers, readers and agents made the change to a publishing world where e-versions of books are now a must. The reading and publishing world marches onward. To paraphrase a famous playwright, “the story’s the thing,” not where or how you read it!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose books are available in print and on e-readers. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

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Do’s and Don’ts of Self-Publishing

(If you’ve come to my blog looking for the post on what Christian fiction should not contain, it is here. I’m grateful to all those who’ve found it interesting enough to read.)

I’ve been published by traditional houses (Harlequin, Dorchester, Sourcebooks, Bancroft, etc.), and I’ve self-published, a process I’ve enjoyed. After reading an article in the Atlantic by a woman who is in her tenth year of submitting manuscripts (unsuccessfully so far) to traditional publishers, I was scratching my head as to why she didn’t self publish.

She covers that briefly in her essay: “I’ve yet to meet an author who felt their self-published literary novel or memoir generated enough sales to make up for the amount of time and money spent marketing them. And as a literary critic, I know that very few editors are willing to run book reviews for self-published works; I don’t want to spend years writing and revising a book if not even my local paper will cover it.”

I would argue that you’re going to spend a lot of time and money marketing a book published by a traditional publisher. And not every advance is enough to cover that and let you quit your day job. As to reviews…well, they’re getting harder and harder to get even in traditional publishing, and surely an author can scare up some reviews in very local papers or reading blogs. So I don’t quite understand her reluctance to try self-publishing, instead letting her manuscripts languish.

For those who do choose to self-publish, though, it’s good to be realistic about possible outcomes and the process itself. Here are my tips for writers considering self-publishing:

DO be realistic about your goals.

Self-publishing can mean earning more money from your books, reaching more people, and/or snagging more attention for your writing than you’d get if you let your book languish on a computer. Sometimes it means better outcomes than if you are traditionally published. Sometimes. But not always. You shouldn’t go into self-publishing thinking it’s going to make you a millionaire or even allow you to quit the day job. Think hard about your goals as you get ready to self-publish and ask yourself: Do these goals make the entire project worth it to you?

DON’T think you’re going to zoom on to best-seller charts.

When I first self-published some books, I went into the exercise with high hopes. I’d read the stories of other authors making much more money in self-publishing than in traditional publishing. After all, traditional publishing’s royalty clauses often mean writers don’t see a dime outside the advance for at least a year, and good luck earning out that advance unless you’re a mega-seller. So, self-publishing, where you earn higher royalties in real time, seemed a better deal.

But as time wore on, and I read more, I came to understand that most big sellers in self-publishing fall into several categories (as the author of the Atlantic article noted): they were well-known authors already, with big followings; and/or they wrote in several genres where authors have more success self-publishing than in others.

If you don’t fit into those categories, you have to realize at the outset that it will be a steep hill to climb to find your readers. But if you’ve been published by a traditional publisher, you might already know that. Few authors are best sellers even in traditional publishing. Just don’t go into self-publishing thinking it’s an instant ticket to bookselling success.

DO take care with your manuscript.

In the early days of self-publishing on Kindle many authors just smacked up MSWord manuscripts on to the Kindle platform, resulting in books with funky formatting, odd spacing and sometimes garbled text. Readers would note these things in reviews but were fairly understanding in those pioneer days. They might not be so patient now, and you’re likely to lose readers if you’re not careful and thoughtful with your presentation.

This means you might need to invest in a few things: a good copy editor, for example, maybe a cover artist, and even a digital upload specialist. It all comes down to how much you can and want to do on your own.

DON’T spend money needlessly.

When you self-publish, you are highly unlikely to get your book into stores unless you work with individual shop owners on a consignment basis. So my advice is to be careful not to throw too much money at cover design for a cover that will most likely only be seen online and often as a thumbnail.

That doesn’t mean you should go for shoddy designs, but you’d be surprised what you can do on your own, buying stock art (for around $50 an image or less) and using design templates available through Amazon and CreateSpace.

Before you complain that stock art is recognizable as such, keep this in mind: many traditional publishers use stock art. You might have even seen these images pop up across publishers and books over the years. Even so, there is so much art available these days that you can avoid overly used images if you choose wisely.

Below are two of my favorite covers (of my own books). I designed them myself using the Kindle and CreateSpace templates, after buying the stock art images. They might not be to your liking — that’s okay – but they do have a professional and evocative look that is in line with the content of the novels. I confess that I like them more than I like some professionally designed covers I’ve received from traditional publishers.

If doing covers yourself isn’t your thing, seek design services. I just wouldn’t pay an exorbitant amount for them when most people will only get to see the covers online, possibly only thumbnails, as I mentioned earlier.

The same is true for other services. I am fortunate to have a critique partner who is a freelance editor as well as author. We usually work out barter or exchange agreements when we need editing services from each other.

Whatever you do, set realistic expectations for these elements of self-publishing. Recognize that even in traditional publishing, stock art gets used. Even in traditional publishing, a copy editor or proofreader doesn’t catch everything.

These aren’t excuses for poor work. But don’t hold yourself to an unrealistic high standard that not even traditional publishers adhere to. Be respectful of your readers and their expectations, yes. But don’t think that a bespoke cover design is going to make a significant difference in sales over a nicely done cover you put together yourself using stock art. Don’t think that spending thousands on editing services is going to catch every flaw.

DO spend time on promotion.

The sad truth of today’s publishing business is that all authors must spend time and even money on promotion. Traditional houses will send out your books for review, will distribute a press release about your book, and will possibly — not always — buy space in bookstores to get your book on end caps, or facing cover out or on tables of new releases.

Other than the special placement in bookstores, though, you can do those other tasks on your own. And even if you are traditionally published, you still might end up doing some of them, sending your book to some reviewers not on your publisher’s list, reaching out to reader blogs, Facebook groups and other social media venues. The point is that if you’re holding out for a traditional publishing contract because you don’t want to do the promotion yourself, you’re likely to be disappointed. You’ll be doing it anyway.

A note about reviews: Publishers Weekly will review self-published material now, through their BookLife program. It’s a highly competitive program (but so is getting a review in traditional publishing these days) and takes a while, but the option is there.

DON’T spend too much money on advertising.

I’ve heard it said that the book business is the only part of the entertainment industry that rarely advertises directly to its consumers. Why is that? Tradition and the challenge of finding readers without spending a heckuva lot of cash on the exercise.

Traditionally, those in the book business have for many years thought of themselves as purveyors of art and culture, not base entertainment. So spending money on advertising seemed base, as well.

If you do get past that mental hurdle,  the challenge becomes finding who your customers are, how to reach them effectively with the right ad, and how to move them to a “buy” once they view the ad.

To be honest, I’m very stingy with advertising dollars. I’ve used ads on Amazon (which do move the sales needle on certain books) and on Facebook (no movement there). And I recently bought an advertising package, splitting the cost with a small press that was publishing me, on a radio show targeting Christian listeners, since my book tells the story of a Christian couple struggling with fidelity and faith. This also moved the sales needle.

Again, your challenge here is no different than if you were traditionally published, though: finding the most effective way to reach your readers. And when you’re doing an ad, no one’s going to care much if you’re published by Simon & Schuster or Your Name Books (whatever name you give your self-publishing imprint).

In Summary

Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. But it no longer carries a stigma of being “less than.” It takes effort, yes. But in today’s publishing world, a lot of that effort (promotion, in particular) is going to fall on your shoulders even with a traditional publishing contract. Authors need to have realistic expectations about both forms of publishing — traditional or self-publishing. For me, a combination of the two approaches has worked best, allowing me to continue to be in front of readers with material that didn’t fit neatly into traditional publishing niches while still pursuing traditional publishing contracts.

Libby Sternberg’s latest novel Fall from Grace is published by Bancroft Press (traditional publishing) and available wherever books are sold. It has been called a “novel for our times…that will linger in the mind and memory” by Midwest Book Reviews.

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