Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla

Question – Where does the eight hundred pound gorilla sit?
Answer – Anywhere it wants to!

The Amazon-Publish America imbroglio is achieving a melt-down-and-drop-through-to- the earths’ core degree of nuclear passion. The implications of Amazon’s recently announced policy of requiring that small independent and publish on demand (POD) presses who want to sell through Amazon must print their books through Amazon’s “Booksurge” publisher-printer are being chewed over like a mouthful of rubbery and vile-tasting bubblegum through this weekend.

Print on demand technology allows a printer to print up copies of a particular book as they are ordered from a formatted electronic text file. Because they are usually printed in small batches, not in 10s of thousands at a whack, the cost of the individual copy is higher, but not all that much. And because they are printed to order, the matter of warehousing thousands of copies doesn’t come up; all very ecologically sound. It allowed writers who couldn’t or didn’t want to publish through a traditional publisher and couldn’t afford to pay for a print run from a so-called vanity press to pay a small set-up fee for their text and cover, which would be available to the printer. Whenever orders came in for their book, the printer could run off as many copies as needed and drop-ship them to the customer. Sensing an opportunity, a whole host of new publishers sprang up or morphed from their previous incarnation. Most of these are internet-based: Author House, iUniverse, Booklocker, Booksurge, Publish America, Lulu: just check out the IAG books and members page to get an idea of the range. A fair number of authors set up as publishers themselves, since the actual printing of the books was now relatively inexpensive and accessible. While a good many of the resulting POD books are just as much vanity publications as ever were and pretty dreadful besides – quite a few are not. In fact, the best POD books are as quirky, literate and as high quality as anything available from the big traditional houses – and those authors who took it seriously have reached a wider audience. As another IAG member pointed out, readers don’t much care how a book that they love to read was published – they just want to read it. Nothing is in stasis for long – POD publishers grew, or were absorbed by others. purchased the POD publisher Booksurge in 2005; not a large publisher or a particularly well-regarded one. In fact the worst POD book I ever reviewed was a Booksurge product, although that seemed to have resulted from author stubbornness rather than Booksurge incompetence. Still, it didn’t seem to be terribly out of line for a book retailer to be also in the book publishing business – and Booksurge books didn’t seem to be given any special favors among all the other POD books available from Amazon… until this last week. If anything, I thought it might indicate that the bright sparks at Amazon thought that POD published books were the wave of the future.

The main printer for many, if not most POD publishers is called Lightning Source; it’s owned by Ingram, the mega-huge book distributor. It’s essential for POD books to be included in the Ingram catalogue; it’s a main line into brick and mortar bookstores; otherwise you might just as well be back in the vanity-press days, with a garage full of copies to hawk around. But it’s also essential for your books to be available on-line and on-line means – the proverbial eight hundred pound gorilla of internet book marketing. If it’s published - anywhere! it’s available from Amazon. Over the last couple of years, has been relatively welcoming to readers and writers alike; offering opportunities to review and blog about our books, to do Kindle reader editions of our books, to do wish-lists and recommendations, to set up discussion groups; as a matter of fact, the Independent Authors Guild started as an Amazon discussion group.

So last Friday’s action by, demanding that POD publisher, Publish America now and henceforward have their books be printed by Booksurge, or else their authors books would not be sold directly through Amazon comes as a rather thuggish slap in the face. (Publish America’s news release is here.)

Worse – as reported by Angela Hoy at Writers Weekly – it looks like other POD publishers are or will be getting the same treatment. (there’s a long bloglist of other reactions to this at Writers Weekly)

In essence, POD writers are being told to make a choice between doing business with our chosen publisher and printer…or being sold through Amazon. Amazon might be able to make this stick – they are, after all, the eight hundred pound gorilla. But pissing off people who bought as well as sold a fair number of books through them is perhaps not as good a business model as previously assumed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shifting Publishing Paradigms - On the Cusp: In Conversation with Hal Zina Bennett

Hal Zina Bennett is the author of over 31 books, both fiction and non-fiction, including Write From The Heart: Unleashing The Power of Your Creativity. He has taught and coached writers for over 30 years. Among his success stories are dozens of best-selling authors and more than 200 published authors. He presents seminars throughout the United States and coaches writers one-on-one. We are fortunate to have him as our guest today discussing the shift in the publishing paradigm in the 21st century--JGR

Janet Riehl:

Hal, as we’ve discussed what’s happening in publishing today—from traditional mainstream publishing to small presses to university presses to Print on Demand (POD) technologies that author-assisted publishing makes use of, you’ve consistently argued that what we’re seeing here is a paradigm shift in how books are made and distributed, and by extension, how each of the players—author, publisher, and so on—are now regarded. Could you say more about this?

Hal Zina Bennett:

We need to be saying, "Look, technological change has always spearheaded new paradigms in every society they've touched. Think in terms of how the world was changed by Gutenberg's printing press, by the sewing machine, the cotton gin, railroads, the internal combustion engine, the splitting of the atom, chemistry and so on.

Technological change doesn't just change how Bibles are printed, fabric is produced and stuck together, how people move around on the planet, or how we produce energy and manipulate our biology. It totally changes how we all live, how we think—it produces huge consciousness shifts.

It's no different with Print on Demand (POD) or the digital production and dissemination of the written word. In the world of writing and publishing, POD and ebooks are spearheading huge shifts in our consciousness. Defending these technologies, and independent publishing, as being better or worse than the old paradigm represented by commercial publishing, misses the point by a country mile—or more.

Janet: What’s your sense about most of the deeper, more important questions we, as authors and publishers, need to be asking at this point?

Hal: We've got to look deeper at what it means to be able to produce and distribute the written word in these new ways. We can't just take the position that people took with the advent of the internal combustion engine, who argued in favor of the horse versus the horseless carriage. That's blind and unimaginative. It prevents us from exploring the wider scope of what these new technologies mean to us all. You know, these technologies are not going to go away. In fact, they are growing at a tremendous rate.

We need to dare to be prophetic. How does the technology change society? How is it revolutionizing the way we think and act and feel? What new creative freedoms do these technologies promise? What’s the downside—and I don’t mean simply comparing what’s self-published to what’s published by corporatized publishing companies.

Janet: Where does the dialogue need to go to become effective?

Hal: My position is that you've got to shift the dialog entirely, from a defensive posture, of saying indies are "better than," or that commercial publishing has its limits, too, to a more fully proactive position of envisioning a very new paradigm.

iUniverse's Diane Gedyman and Susan Driscol, in their book “Get Published!” have articulated a path that is at least pointing in the direction of the new paradigm.

Trouble is that a lot of people who don't know the realities of commercial publishing are basing their arguments for that old paradigm on sheer fantasies about publishing that way, and most of what's said is naive, uniformed, and mostly silly. Take it from someone who has made an excellent living working in that industry for the past 40 years!

The world is already moving way beyond comparison between traditional commercial publishing ala NYC and these new delivery systems for the printed word! Anybody still caught up in the old defenses of self-publishing versus commercial publishing is living in the dark ages.

Janet: What do you see as some of the advantages of this shift in the paradigm?

Hal: At the very least, POD and ebooks democratize the dissemination of the written word, in ways that are probably at least as dramatic as the way that Gutenberg's little invention made it possible for millions of regular people to own Bibles (at the very least) for the first time in human history. That's a huge shift of consciousness! There are some who still argue whether it's a good thing for people to be reading their Bibles without the "quality control" and the "learned interpretation" of the high priests, of course. I suppose the same could be said for those who argue that putting control of the printed word into the hands of multi-national corporations is a good thing.

Janet: There’s currently a debate that we can tag “quality control.” What would you say about that?

Hal: Is it a good thing to let just anybody publish their own books? What about quality control? Do we trust just anyone—rather than Bertelsman (a multi-national corporation) and his ilk—to screen what our society makes available to readers? Is it too idealistic to think that maybe it's a good thing for readers to have more choices?

Janet: What kind of trends do you see emerging?

Hal: The road ahead still isn't very clear with these new technologies, but just as with Gutenberg's printing press, the genie is out of the proverbial bottle, swimming around in the ethers, mixing it up in the collective consciousness in ways we are only barely beginning to realize. Watch carefully! Even commercial publishers are getting into POD to try out new writers, build their backlists and hang onto books whose sales fall below 500 or so copies per year.

As recently as six months ago, Publishers Weekly was predicting that ebooks were just a fad that was withering on the vine, and soon it would go away. Meanwhile, Sony has stepped into the picture with a pretty decent ebook reader and a large program that by now lists even front list books by mainstream publishers. A few months after that Amazon announced its Kindle program.

Amazon has invested over a billion dollars on Kindle, and they've signed up 60% of the big publishers, as has Sony for their ebook reader program. And Amazon also has launched a program inviting independent publishers to join the Kindle program.

Look carefully, There are over a dozen successful ebook distributors around, some of them, like, doing very well with the rather old-fashioned (by now) Rocket ebook and Palm technologies.

And nearly every computer company is now making their aftermarket documentation available in Adobe Reader and Palm formats—with some introducing Kindle and Sony reader formats.

Janet: What does this paradigm shift mean for authors and readers?

Hal: It gives a creative boost and new freedom for authors. Readers having a greater range of choices. More widely, the world consciousness is profoundly affected by the explosion of independent publishing that these technologies produce. Take a look at the parallel changes in independent film-making, made possible by the digital revolution; independent films now dominate that industry. Similar things are happening in the music industry; the old guard has all but disappeared in the recorded music world. Will the same picture repeat itself in publishing? I think that corporate publishing will continue to dominate, and that’s okay. But I also see expanding education programs, and independent services such as editing, distribution, and PR, to help authors make the most of these technologies. Think potential parallels between publishing and the music world—with iPods, etc.—and the independent film world’s Netflix and Spiritual Cinema Circle. Independent distribution is happening for books on the Internet, and I don’t mean just with Amazon. Explore the ebook world on the Internet. There’s a whole world there that seems to be ignored by the media, even the independent media.

I think we’ll always have paper books. I love them, and most of the writers who are around today have a special love affair with printing on paper. It’s not easy to cozy up with an ebook reader, for example, but I’ve got to confess that I have a certain fondness for my “old fashioned” Rocket ebook reader. You know, there’s something rather nice about lounging in bed late at night, staring into the glow of its screen and reading a good mystery. And in that little handheld device I have, let’s see, ten other books that I can instantly switch to if my interest wanes on the one I’ve been reading. Hmm. You see, those simple pleasures are part of what’s driving the digital revolution.

Visit Janet Grace Riehl's blog "Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century" at for more thoughts and information about making connections through the arts, across cultures, generations, and within the family. You can also read sample poems and other background information from "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" on Janet's website.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

When the going gets weird...

...The weird turn pro, and apparently write a memoir about it, which is all very nice when it sells a LOT of copies, and the writer becomes FAMOUS and sells a mega-jiga-million copies, and everyone remembers that they knew you when… maybe. Journalistic fabrication is so last year (Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, whatsisface at the NYT), the current flave of the moment must be the memoir. One’s own life, but with with improvements.

The fun begins when everyone who knew you when--- the people next door, brothers and sisters, employers, co-workers, ex-spouses, friends and former friends score a copy and begin to realize that there is a whole ‘nother reality reflected there, one with which they were completely unacquainted. In light of a couple of fameous and fraudulent memoirs in the news this week the lesson should be for memoirists to linger meaningfully in the general vicinity of verifiable facts, either that or wait to write it all when everyone else is dead and can’t argue the point with you. If you really can’t wait that long, perhaps it would be less embarrassing to just call it fiction, loosely based on your own life. Even if the stuff that really happens is sometimes stranger than you can ever make up.

About two years ago, there another such a case of a writer with a dicy memoir --- somewhat less well known since Oprah didn't personally have to rip him a new one on national television--- who wasn’t a Native American at all. What is it with wanting to be a Native American, all that mysticism and wilderness wisdom? And Timothy Barris wasn’t the first, ( Grey Owl, anyone?) only being a porn writer may have been a little less embarrassing than the resume and club membership of this best-selling but unfortunately fraudulent Indian. Carlos Castenada and Rigoberta Menchu still have passionate defenders willing to deny or discount certain uncomfortable findings.

Really, I feel quite sorry for people who begin with a little fib, a touch of exaggeration and eventually wind up believing it… some of them do not take contradiction well, and and for some it is way too late in the game to administer very painful cross-examination... like to writer and memoirist Lillian Hellman. (But Mary McCarthy tried, anyway.)

Fraudulent memoirists like Frey and Barris may be a passing evil, best selling or not. Grey Owl and Asa Carter although not as advertised, were possessed of a lovely and sympathetic writing style. They may even have done good with their output, in the long run. But Menchu and Hellman, with the deeply politicized aspect to their writings and public personas probably have not.

After contemplating how their books inflamed or warped the perceptions of certain public issues, it is a positive relief to contemplate Ern Malley and Penelope Ashe, two last literary frauds which were done for no more reason than to make a point, and for their perpetrators to have a little fun putting one over. A self-consciously literary magazine called “Angry Penguins” is just begging to be sent up. As for “Naked Came the Stranger” - it was proved in 1969 and for a hundred years before and ever since, that trash with a naked woman on the front cover will sell.

I do, as matter of fact, have my own little memoir still in publication, with the following corrections noted: Mom says the Toby-dog got stuck on the fence in the morning, not evening... and Pippy says that her rabbits' name was Bernadette Bunny. Not just Bunny.

(The original version of this was posted in January 2006 at the Daily Brief)

Friday, March 7, 2008

Blogging Basics 101: Getting Started and Keeping Going

Four generations of Riehl-Thompson-McCarthy authors

Blogging basics on how easy it is to get started, but how it takes passion to stay going. Mission drives your blog to stay the course.

1) Blogging experience

Q: How long have you been blogging?

A: Riehlife's blog birthday is January 13, 2007.

2) Starting a blog

Q. Was it difficult to get started?

A. No, it's not hard to get started. The difficult thing is to have a focus and to keep going. If you're going to have a blog, you want to maintain it. While my blog is in fact my website and took some doing to get designed and up and running, it's also possible to get blog going for free in five minutes on blogging sites like Blogger.

3) Amount of technical knowledge needed

Q: Do you have to be a real computer whiz to blog?

A: Absolutely not. If you can send an email, you can blog. There is a bit of a learning curve, but truly, it's not overly difficult and it's pretty intuitive. The technical side is the least challenging part of blogging in my experience.

4) Blogging frequency

Q: Do you blog every day?

A: Mostly, yes. I view Riehlife as a magazine I edit that includes content by others as well as myself. I don't want to let my readers down. Since my blog is Village Wisdom, in some sense it is a collaborative blog, though shaped and run by one person. I feature authors, published and unpublished on my blog.

5) Focus

Q: Do you have a particular subject in your blog?

A: My theme is "connection." More specifically my mission is to create connections through all the arts (writing, visual and performing) and across cultures and generations. I frequently feature the work of my 92-year-old father on my blog and both he and my readers get a kick
out of his wisdom and wit.

6) Audience

Q: Do you have a target "audience" when you blog?

A: I write my blog for people with similar sensibilities and yearnings. Somehow, that's created a niche for me.

7) Benefits

Q: What is your favorite thing about blogging?

A: Just as the theme of my blog is connection, that's also the part I enjoy most: using Riehlife as a tool for connecting thoughts, disciplines, and people. Since I'm in St. Louis I've been doing a
series on African-American fine artists and that's been helpful in forming friendships here and becoming part of the arts community.

Folks blog for all kinds of reasons. Some use their blogs as a marketing tool, others as an on-line diary (web-log = blog) without a lock, others for for friends and family, and so on.

The most important thing you can do before you begin you blog is to understand what your purpose and mission is.


Visit Janet Grace Riehl's blog "Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century" at for more thoughts and information about making connections through the arts, across cultures, generations, and within the family. You can also read sample poems and other background information from "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" on Janet's website.