Monday, January 26, 2015

What is a Minor Character: Understanding the Minor Characters’ Role


Not all characters are created equal.

You must know—and let your readers know—which characters are most important to the story (i.e. the major characters), so they’ll know which are worth following and caring about, and which will quickly disappear
(i.e. the inconsequential placeholders).

So where is the dividing line between major and minor characters? There isn’t one. The different levels shade into each other, and as you master the writing techniques appropriate to each level, you’ll be able to create and define each minor character at exactly the level of importance the story requires.

Walk-ons and Placeholders

Unless your story takes place in a hermitage or a desert island, your main characters are surrounded by many people who are utterly unimportant in the story. They are background; they are part of the milieu. Here are a few samples:

  • Nora accidentally gave the cabby a $20 bill for a $5 ride and then was too shy to ask for change. Within a minute a skycap had the rest of her money.
  • Pete checked at the desk for his messages. There weren’t any, but the bellman did have a package for him.
  • People started honking their horns before Nora even knew there was a traffic jam.
  • Apparently some suspicious neighbor had called the cops. The uniform who arrested him wasn’t interested in Pete’s explanations, and Pete soon found himself at the precinct headquarters.

Notice how many people we’ve “met” in these few sentences: a cabby, a skycap, a hotel desk clerk, a bellman, horn-honkers in a traffic jam, a suspicious neighbor, a uniformed police officer. Every single one of these people is designed to fulfill a brief role in the story and then vanish completely out of sight.

Setting the Scenery

How do you make people vanish? Any stage director knows the trick. You have a crowd of people on stage, most of them walk-ons. They have to be there because otherwise the setting wouldn’t be realistic—but you don’t want them to distract the audience’s attention. In effect, you want them to be like scenery. They really aren’t characters at all—they’re movable pieces of milieu.

The surest way for a walk-on to get himself fired from a play is to become “creative”—to start fidgeting or doing some clever bit of stage business that distracts attention from the main action of the scene. Unless, of course, this is one of those rare occasions when the walk-on’s new business is brilliantly funny—in which case, you might even pay him more and elevate the part.

You have the same options in fiction. If a character who isn’t supposed to matter starts distracting from the main thread of the story, you either cut her out entirely or you figure out why you, as a writer, were so interested in her that you’ve spent more time on her than you meant to. Then, in the latter case, revise the story to make her matter more.

Most of the time, though, you want your walk-ons to disappear. You want them to fade back and be part of the scenery, part of the milieu.

Utilizing Stereotypes

To keep walk-on characters in their place, sometimes stereotyping is exactly the tool of characterization you need.

A stereotype is a character who is a typical member of a group. He does exactly what the readers expect him to do. Therefore, they take no notice of him: He disappears into the background.

If we think that a particular stereotype is unfair to the person it supposedly explains, then we’re free to deliberately violate the stereotype. But the moment we do that, we have made the character unique, which will make him attract the readers’ attention. He will no longer simply disappear—he isn’t a walk-on anymore. He has stepped forward out of the milieu and joined the story.

Minor Characters

There’s nothing wrong with a background character violating stereotype and attracting attention—as long as you realize that he isn’t part of the background anymore. The readers will notice him, and they’ll expect his uniqueness to amount to something.

The audience still isn’t supposed to care much about him; he isn’t expected to play a continuing role in the story. He might be momentarily involved in the action, but then he’ll disappear. Still, his individuality will set a mood, add humor, make the milieu more interesting or complete. The way to make such characters instantly memorable without leading the audience to expect them to do more is to make them eccentric, exaggerated or obsessive.


Remember the movie Beverly Hills Cop? There were hundreds of placeholders in that film—thugs who shot at cops, cops who got shot at, people milling around in the hotel lobby, people at the hotel desk. They all acted exactly as you would expect them to act. They vanished. Unless you personally knew an actor who played one of the walk-ons, you don’t remember any of them.

But I’ll bet that as you walked out of the theater, you remembered Bronson Pinchot. Not by name, of course, not then. He was the desk attendant in the art gallery. You know, the one with the effeminate manner and the weird foreign accent. He had absolutely nothing to do with the story—if he had been a mere placeholder, you would never have noticed anything was missing. So why do you remember him?

It wasn’t that he had a foreign accent. In southern California, a Spanish accent would not be out of the ordinary; he would have disappeared.

It wasn’t his effeminacy. Again, he would disappear.

But the effeminacy and the accent were combined—and so the audience remembered him. What’s more important, though, is that the accent was an eccentric one, completely unexpected. Pinchot based his accent on the speech of an Israeli he once knew; the accent was so rare that almost no one in the audience recognized it. It was a genuinely novel way to speak. He was not just a foreigner; he was a strange and effeminate foreigner. Furthermore, Pinchot’s reactions to Eddie Murphy—the hint of annoyance, superiority, snottiness in his tone—made him even more eccentric. Eccentric enough to stick in our minds.

And yet, though we remembered him, we never expected his character to be important to the story. He existed only for a few laughs and to make Murphy’s Detroit-cop character feel even more alien in L.A. Pinchot managed to steal the scene—to get his promotion from walk-on—without distorting the story. He was funny, but he made no great difference in the way the story went. He simply amused us for a moment.

Because he was a minor character, that was exactly what he needed to be. Likewise, in your stories you need to realize that your minor characters should not be deeply and carefully characterized. Like flashbulbs, they need to shine once, brightly, and then get tossed away.


Another way to make a minor character flash: You take a normal human trait and make it just a little—or sometimes a lot—more extreme, like the character Sweetface in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch and the Kid are in a brothel; the Pinkerton detectives ride up on the street below. There we see a pudgy-faced character who looks like the soul of innocence and believability. Butch tells Sundance a brief story about him—that with Sweetface covering for them, they’re safe because everybody believes him. His innocent look is an exaggeration, but sure enough, when Sweetface points out of town, as if to say “they went thataway,” the Pinkertons take off in that direction.

A few moments later, the Pinkertons ride back and confront Sweetface again; Sweetface panics and points straight toward the room where Butch and the Kid are watching. His panic and betrayal are as exaggerated as his innocence was before. He sticks in the memory, and yet we never expected him to be important again in the plot.


Let’s go back to the example I gave of Nora’s cabby, the one she paid $20 for a $5 ride. The stereotypical reaction—“Hey, thanks, lady”—is so ordinary we can omit it entirely. But what if the cabdriver is obsessive?

“What is it, you trying to impress me? Trying to show me you’re big time? Well, don’t suck ego out of me, lady!
I only take what I earn!”

Nora had no time for this. She hurried away from the cab. To her surprise, he jumped out and followed her, shouting at her with as much outrage as she’d expect if she hadn’t paid him at all.

“You can’t do this to me in America!” he shouted. “I’m a Protestant. You never heard of the Protestant work ethic?”

Finally she stopped. He caught up with her, still scolding. “You can’t do your rich-lady act with me, you hear me?”

“Shut up,” she said. “Give me back the twenty.” He did, and she gave him a five. “There,” she said. “Satisfied?”

His mouth hung open; he looked at the five in utter disbelief. “What is this!” he said. “No tip?”

Now, that’s a guy who won’t let go. If you saw that scene in a movie or even read it in a novel, chances
are you’d remember the cabdriver. Yet you wouldn’t expect him to be important in the plot. If he showed
up again it would be for more comic relief, not for anything important.

For instance, when the story is all but over and Nora is coming home with Pete for a well-earned rest, it could be funny if they get in a cab and it turns out to be the same driver. The audience would remember him well enough for that. But they would be outraged if the cabdriver turned out to be an assassin or a long-lost cousin.

This would not be true, however, if this were the first scene in the story. At the beginning of the story, all the characters are equal—we don’t know any of them at all. So if in fact you wanted to tell the story of how Nora got involved with this obsessive-compulsive cabdriver—or how the cabdriver managed to get Nora’s attention so he could start dating her—this would be a pretty good beginning.

The other side of that coin is that if the cabdriver is supposed to be minor, you could not begin the story with this scene. If these were the first five paragraphs of the story, we would naturally expect that the story was going to be about Nora and the cabby, and when Nora goes on through the story without ever seeing or even thinking of the cabdriver again, at some point many readers are going to ask, “What was that business with the cabdriver all about?”

As you use these techniques to varying degrees with the many characters in your story, an unconscious
ranking of the characters will emerge in the readers’ minds, starting with the least-important background characters, moving up through the minor characters, to the major characters, and finally to two or three main characters or a single protagonist—the people or person the story is mostly about.


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Monday, January 19, 2015

The New Yorker’s Dreck Problem

The New Yorker called my writing dreck.

"As an indie author, I don’t mind The New Yorker taking a hard stance against a form of creative expression it finds distasteful. But as a reader, I find it worrisome that the publication I rely on...has too much contempt for a contemporary phenomenon to provide balanced coverage. " 

Full disclosure: The New Yorker called my writing dreck. It did not level the slight directly at me but lobbed it wholesale at the self-publishing community of which I’m a member. Here’s the actual quote: “The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich.” It was in an article examining Amazon’s business practices, some of which are deplorable, such as its warehouse conditions, and while the teaser promised a thoughtful consideration of the self-publishing industry (“Amazon is good for customers. Is it good for books?”), it delivered a cursory condemnation.

As far as insults go, dreck, with its harsh K and garbage-at-the-bottom-of-the-rubbish-pile implication, is a particularly cutting one, and I’m sure many indie authors took offense. I did not. Instead, I marveled at its audacity and longed for the day when I would be self-actualized enough to consign millions of anything to the trash heap. I sometimes fear the moment will never come.

Failing to take affront at the slur, however, is not the same as failing to take note of it. I’m a faithful reader of The New Yorker. For eighteen years, I’ve read every issue from cover to cover with only the most highly selective curation of musical reviews and short stories. I’ve read through vacations and lapsed subscriptions and nursing newborns. I know The New Yorker and how it works, delving into topics I never think about and somehow relating them to the meaning of life. Six years on, I’m still talking about Nick Paumgarten’s paean to the elevator.

Since I am so familiar with the magazine, I know that dreckiness is not the usual standard by which its subjects are measured. The New Yorker I read positively delights in putting commonly scorned topics front and center—Saban Entertainment, Nora Roberts—and explaining their relevance to the contemporary world. It doesn’t judge if the product is good or bad because it’s not the quality that matters but the cultural impact.

This neutrality has been particularly evident in its coverage of disruptive technologies. The New Yorker has a general pattern: Introduce an innovation, identify a few standouts, explain its influence on its industry. In October 2006, it published a thoughtful and informative piece about YouTube. Ten months after its launch, the video-sharing site had more than six million videos and 65,000 new ones were being uploaded daily. If there was any dreck in that heap—and it seems unlikely there wasn’t—the article did not see fit to mention it.

Eight years later, its modus operandi hasn’t changed. Just last month, the magazine explained Vine—“an app of looping six-second videos”—to non–digital natives. Just as it did for its article on YouTube, the magazine highlighted some superstars of the new medium and wrote about their experience in a straightforward, nonjudgmental way. Digital Marketing Ramblings estimates that 8,300 Vines are shared every minute, but rather than question the quality of those videos or suggest their potential degradation of filmmaking, The New Yorker chose to write flatteringly of one of Vine’s most successful practitioners: “an ingenuous Frenchman with an arresting smile.”

In the same way, The New Yorker was full of admiration when it reported on keitai shosetsu, serialized novels written by young Japanese women on their mobile phones and uploaded to media-sharing sites: “The medium—unfiltered, unedited—is revolutionary, opening the closed ranks of the literary world to anyone who owns a mobile phone.”

In 2008, unedited is revolutionary; by 2014, it is dreck.

As an indie author, I don’t mind The New Yorker taking a hard stance against a form of creative expression it finds distasteful. I really, truly don’t. But as a reader, I find it worrisome that the publication I rely on to explain the economic and social forces that impact the world I live in has too much contempt for a contemporary phenomenon to provide balanced coverage. In an exhaustive, 11,936-word article dissecting every aspect of Amazon’s business, the magazine devoted less than 1,500 words to assuring its readers that self-publishing was indeed the end of literature they always feared it was. Looping six-second videos got more than six thousand thoughtfully considered words.

I don’t blame the magazine or its editors for their double standard. Few venerable print institutions have written about self-publishing with equanimity. The New York Times’ coverage of Amazon’s standoff with Hachette was so unbalanced, the public editor had to take its reporters to task. What I do blame the magazine for is its inability to see beyond its own concerns. For more than fourteen years, The New Yorker has been covering the Internet’s disruption of the music industry with remarkable insight, clarity and consistency—from its first article on Napster, in 2000, when the music-sharing site was only nine months old, to its examination of Spotify published just last month.

Clearly, it’s easier to report on the barbarians at someone else’s gate.

Joe Nocera, writing about the Amazon-Hachette dispute for the Times in October, freely admits his stake in traditional publishing. “The old system,” he writes, “in which the writer gets an advance and the publisher markets the final product, works for me.” No doubt it works for a lot of established journalists as well, and although their antipathy to change is understandable, I think they owe it to their readers to disclose it.

But what do I know? I’m just dreck.

Lynn Messina grew up on Long Island and studied English at Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media), TV Guide, In Style, Rolling Stone, Fitness, ForbesLife, Self, Bloomberg Markets and a host of wonderful magazines that have long since disappeared. She mourns the death of print journalism in New York City, where she lives with her husband and sons. She is author of seven novels, including Fashionistas, which is in development as a feature film and has been translated into 15 languages.

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The New Yorker called my writing dreck.

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The New Yorker called my writing dreck.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Bibliotherapy: Can you read yourself happy?

by Hephzibah Anderson 

In a new column for BBC Culture, Hephzibah Anderson explains that it’s not just self-help books that can improve our well-being – fiction can cure us too.
For authors of self-help guides, no human problem is too great or too small. Want to become fitter, richer or happier in 2015? There are books for it – shelves upon shelves of them. Hoping for increased efficiency, decisiveness and creativity in the months ahead? There are titles for that too.

As we knuckle down to our New Year’s resolutions, we’ll turn in droves to self-help books, hoping to find our own best selves in their pages. But a book needn’t hector or lecture to leave its imprint. The truth is that all good literature changes us, and a growing body of research suggests you might do better browsing through fiction for support in battling life’s challenges. Think of it less as self-help than ‘shelf help’.

Reading has been proven to sharpen analytical thinking, enabling us to better discern patterns – a handy tool when it comes to the often  baffling behaviour of ourselves and others. But fiction in particular can make you more socially able and empathetic. Last year, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology published a paper showing how reading Harry Potter made young people in the UK and Italy more positively disposed towards stigmatised minorities such as refugees. And in 2013, psychologists at the New School for Social Research found that literary fiction enhanced people’s ability to register and read others’ emotions.

We think of novels as places in which to lose ourselves, but when we emerge, we take with us inspiration from our favourite characters. A 2012 study by researchers at Ohio State University found that this process could actually change a reader’s behaviour. In one experiment, participants strongly identifying with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote proved significantly more likely to vote in a real election.


They may not promise transformation in seven easy steps, but gripping novels can inform and motivate, short stories can console and trigger self-reflection, and poetry has been shown to engage parts of the brain linked to memory. Sometimes an author helps by simply taking your mind off a problem, immersing you so fully in another’s world and outlook that you transcend yourself, returning recharged and determined.

As Aristotle noted in his Poetics, poetry – by which he meant fiction in general – is more serious than history. While the historian is preoccupied with what happened when, fiction allows us to see what could happen, exercising our imaginations and often our sense of morality along the way.

A story needn’t lift your heart in order to lift your mood. As author Jane Smiley confides in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book”. Experiencing the trials and tribulations of a fictional character can even open us up to problems we’ve been ignoring, sparking rewarding conversations – or offering a way into one that’s proving daunting or difficult. And whatever the fix you find yourself in, there’s always a book to remind you that others have been there before, it’s just a question of finding it.

A reading cure

That’s where bibliotherapy comes in. Practised around the world by psychologists, social workers, and counselors along with librarians, it’s become something of a buzzword in the past few years, drawing scholarly researchers and bloggers alike. Alain de Botton’s London-based School of Life even has a quartet of resident ‘bibliotherapists’, including Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, whose book The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies is a thrifty alternative to the school’s £80 ($120) consultations.

Yet the notion of books as remedies for emotional disorders isn’t as new-fangled as you might imagine. The ancient Greeks posted signs above library doors, informing readers that they were entering a healing place for the soul. And in the 19th Century, doctors and psychiatric nurses doled out everything from the Bible to travel literature and works in ancient languages.

Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary first acknowledged bibliotherapy in 1941, defining the term as “the employment of books and the reading of them in the treatment of nervous diseases”, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first popped up in print in 1920, in Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop.

Set in a world still reeling from World War One, the novel pairs a screwball rom-com involving a young adman and the heiress to a prune empire, with a German plot to blow up the US president. It’s a period piece, really, but its backdrop – a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn called Parnassus at Home – remains a bibliophile’s paradise, fragrant with the scent of “mellowed paper and leather” and tobacco from the pipe that its owner, Mr Mifflin, puffs away on day and night.

Mifflin is not just a bookseller, though, he’s a “practitioner of bibliotherapy”. As he explains it, “My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms... There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.”

Mifflin already knew what researchers at the University of Sussex have since attempted to quantify: that reading is a more efficacious stress reliever than listening to music, going for a walk or sitting down with a nice cup of tea. After just six minutes with a book – any book – their subjects found stress was reduced by up to 68 per cent. With the right book, that really could be time well spent.

That’s why we’re launching our very own bibliotherapy column. Send us an email to tell us what ails and what irks you, be it broken resolutions or a broken heart, whether you’re feeling lost in life or stuck in your career. I’ll recommend you some books old and new, mostly though not exclusively fiction, that are sure to speak to your predicament, offering insights and encouragement as well as a little escapism. And at the very least, you’ll discover some great new titles. To quote the sign in Mr Mifflin’s bookshop, “Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing. Let us prescribe for you”.


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Monday, January 5, 2015

eBook Piracy: Can You Say “Yo Ho Ho?”

Kindle Direct Publishing gives writers the option to apply DRM – or not – when they upload a book. Smashwords doesn’t support DRM at all.

Australia’s “The Age” reported on November 17 that “A submission to block websites that host or link to copyright infringing movies and TV shows could be before cabinet by Christmas.“ This followed a similar move in September by London police. (See October report in IR.)

Once again, the focus is on music and movies rather than eBooks. But why? Aren’t high-value books just as attractive to pirates? Let’s take a look at Digital Rights Management (DRM) from the POV of the author or publisher.

For starters, many eBooks are intentionally left unprotected by their creators. Kindle Direct Publishing gives writers the option to apply DRM – or not – when they upload a book. Smashwords doesn’t support DRM at all.

“DRM-free” advocates often focus on “interoperability.” They want to freely move eBooks between devices, without technical hassles. For example, after my iPhone was stolen last year, I was unable to read my Kindle-for-iPhone books on my Kindle device without a lot a bother.

Others argue that DRM should be left to the device manufacturer rather than the author, publisher or bookseller. Apple in particular intentionally makes it difficult for users to get content off its devices. Some object that this forces consumers to “upgrade” operating systems, and even buy new devices, more frequently. But the point is that iBooks effectively applies DRM to eBooks, even when the author or publisher does not.

Another factor is the fact that most eBooks command low prices, averaging perhaps $6. How much time are pirates willing to invest to steal a $6 product? And with the recent advent of “all you can eat” eBook subscription programs (Kindle Unlimited, Oyster, Scribd) they are falling even lower.

In July of 2014, indie publishing advocate Hugh Howey published an “Author Earnings Report” that concluded “Indie titles without DRM sell twice as many copies each, on average, as those with DRM” as shown below:

Yet another influence – especially among undiscovered writers – is that many want readers more than money. Some are actually pleased to see pirated copies of their stories circulating the Internet. For career writers, it’s a different story… but we face the same dilemma when deciding whether to use DRM.
Last but not least, there is no bulletproof way to prevent piracy. Recall that Stephen King’s eBook novella Riding the Bullet was hacked within 48 hours of publication, in spite of the fact that it employed the best DRM available in the year 2000. While DRM has improved since then, the reality remains that a determined hacker can almost always unlock a song, movie or book, even now in 2014.

My own eBook, “” (co-authored with self-publishing guru Dan Poynter) was released without DRM in 1999. I was worried about piracy, but Dan wasn’t. “Consider pirated copies as free advertising for the next edition,” he quipped… and he was right. Today, nearly all of Poynter’s books are available from Smashwords, sans DRM, and his revenues are still impressive.

So what we see today is a convergence of factors that mitigate against DRM. Just the same, it can be unsettling for those who write for a living to discover their work pirated. And it’s happening with greater frequency in the book world every day. Just last month, The Bookseller ran a report headlined ‘At least 20’ French publishers in Scribd piracy tussle.’

As is often the case in today’s world, the ultimate solution will probably involve new business models more than new technologies. As distasteful as it may sound, it’s possible that authors and publishers may eventually be forced, like newspapers and Web sites, to rely on advertising income in lieu of revenues from sales.

The current popularity of “all you can eat” eBook subscription programs, while threatening the per-unit earnings of authors and publishers, might eventually swell to the extent that writers can earn a living wage from eBooks that are downloaded at little cost to consumers. But at current levels of payouts from eBooksellers, the term “living wage” might be better expressed as “minimum wage.”

What’s ahead? IR predicts that law enforcement agencies worldwide will take an increasingly aggressive stand against sites that distribute pirated content, rather than the pirates themselves, who upload torrents of copyrighted material without permission. That isn’t really fair, but since it’s virtually impossible to prevent pirates from jailbreaking movies, music and eBooks, it may be the only option. That is, until someone devises a way for everyday people to share what they like whenever they like… and yet somehow fairly compensate those of us who create what consumers want to share.

And by the way: do we need to point out that IR has conveniently placed widgets on this page for you to share this report with fellow readers and writers, free of charge? We’ll thank you if you do – and so will our advertisers.

Danny O. Snow is the editor of Self-Publishers Monthly, a worldwide e-Book series for indie writers and those who follow the fast-paced world of self-publishing. Follow him on Twitter (@SelfPubMonthly) or at “The Self-Publishing Boom” community page on Facebook. 

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Kindle Direct Publishing gives writers the option to apply DRM – or not – when they upload a book. Smashwords doesn’t support DRM at all.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books? A Future Tense Event Recap.

By Ariel Bogle 

The unfortunate Fire Phone aside, the glut of opinion pieces and blog posts about Amazon of late have really been about one thing: books.

So, is Amazon really as bad for book culture as we fear, or could the company of “1-click” sales, Kindles, and two-day shipping in fact be leading us to a golden age? A Future Tense conversation that included voices from bookselling and publishing, authors and readers, moderated by Nicholas Thompson, the editor of the, tackled this question in New York on Wednesday evening. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.)

For some of the panelists, Amazon’s challenge to the publishing industry is nothing new. “Publishers have always hated their biggest accounts,” Hugh Howey, author of the best-selling Wool series, said. When his book first came out with Simon & Schuster, he remembered, it wasn’t carried by Barnes & Noble because of an ongoing disagreement with the retailer. “My sense is that Amazon might be crushing the former predator,” he added. Sarah McNally, owner of New York’s McNally Jackson Books, recounted that when she opened her store 10 years ago, Amazon was beginning to be a force, but independent bookstores were already on their knees because of aggressive competition from chain retailers.

There is nevertheless something different about Amazon, Lucas Wittmann, executive editor of Regan Arts and the former literary editor of the Daily Beast, argued. Amazon is pushing publishers not only on pricing, but also on the key thing that they do—create content. While Amazon’s marquee publishing ventures have mostly failed, it’s making serious advances with self-publishing and genre fiction like romance and crime. “Publishers are always deluded in many, many ways,” Wittmann said. “Whether it’s how many copies of a book they’ll sell or how to market it or how great it is.” But if Amazon is going to challenge them on the creation of content and on pricing, then perhaps their fears are not entirely misplaced.

Thompson hazarded that perhaps people wouldn’t hate Amazon quite so much if they thought Amazon really cared for or understood books. As Wittman said, “at the end of the day for Amazon, a book is a diaper, is toilet paper, cars, refrigerators.” The widget argument is particularly controversial when it comes to the low pricing Amazon demands. McNally told the audience how David Shanks, the former head of Penguin, said once that the most painful thing about the e-book pricing fight is that he just didn’t think romance novels should be the same price as a history book that the author researched for 10 years.

But then many of the publishers are also part of giant corporations with responsibilities to shareholders. “We don’t talk about how Harper Collins is owned by News Corp. How Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS,” Howey stated.

All the panelists agreed that the book industry needs to change, and perhaps has already begun to. As a publisher, Wittmann said that he now sees plenty of book proposals from agents who picked up titles that had first got popular on Goodreads and other group reading sites. This new era might also prompt publishers to get smaller and a bit more focused, he said, like independents that are able to be more creative. And bookstores like McNally Jackson have some advantage because they’re still far superior to Amazon when it comes to discoverability, mostly because Amazon’s algorithms still fail at search. “My philosophy since I opened the store is that book sales are never finite,” McNally said. “[The industry] will sell as many books as it inspires people to buy.”

So could the perfect publishing industry in fact be right now? After all, as Thompson noted, we have vibrant publishers, self-publishers, Amazon, and great bookstores. Howey agreed emphatically, concluding that “there’s never been a better time in history to be a reader or a writer.” But perhaps the golden age is always the one that came just before our own. As Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s New Tech City, asked: Wasn’t the true golden age of books the heyday of Oprah’s Book Club?


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Monday, December 22, 2014

Wolff: Real books can defeat Amazon and e-books

by Michael Wolff , USA TODAY 

The book business believes that Amazon is unfair in the way it sells books. It believes, in fact, that Amazon in its sales practices — pressuring the book publishers to lower their prices and profits — is the enemy. Amazon's ultimate design, publishers believe, is to ruin them or to wholly shift the center of gravity in the business from the creators of books to Amazon, the dominant seller.

And this seems to be truer than not.

The book business response has been to protest hotly and try to wage a moral war against what it sees as an immoral competitor — having, for instance, its writers sign petitions and ads. To its credit, few believed usually inefficient publishers could ever mount such an impassioned defense. But if the adage about not being able to win at the negotiating table what you can't win on the battlefield is correct, book publishers don't have much of a chance against Amazon's dominance. In fact, their efforts to fight what they perceive as the Amazon monopoly have only succeeded in getting publishers charged with antitrust practices in their combined effort to have Apple help bail them out.

No, it would seem that the only clear avenue to fighting Amazon is for publishers themselves to do the one thing that they have, to their consistent disadvantage, wanted someone else to do: sell books.

Indeed, while Amazon may be the worst thing to have ever hit the book business, dealing with Barnes & Noble, previously the dominant book retailer, was hardly a walk in the park. B&N used its real estate and its right to return books to publishers for a full refund with as heavy a hand as Amazon now uses its ability to speedily — or slowly if you oppose them — fulfill orders.

Books, alas, will always be at a marketplace disadvantage if book publishers lack the leverage to control the way they are sold.

But publishers have been out of the retail business, with which once they were intimately connected — maintaining their own stores and close relationships with independent sellers — for so long that they surely feel there is no coming back.
And yet, between that and oblivion, is there another option? Amazon now controls, by some estimates, more than 40% of the physical book market, and 70% of the electronic book market. Its power is increasing, not diminishing. Were the book business to win a moral victory now, it would only later face another certain comeuppance. Amazon not only does not see books as a product different from any other — it sees the transformation of books into electronic products, ultimately far from the nature of a book, as a unique opportunity for the advancement of its own reading device, the Kindle.

The curious thing is that while Amazon is undercutting publishers (suggesting, in the case of Hachette, its most forceful antagonist, that both Hachette and Amazon forgo e-book profits, handing them directly to writers), publishers actually have much greater leeway to undercut Amazon.

Amazon is still buying books from publishers at something around a 50% markdown for physical books. Discounted beyond that, Amazon begins to lose serious money, whereas publishers have further room to discount and yet still profit.

Publishers have, for a long time, mostly agreed not to compete with booksellers — in fact, monopolistic booksellers have grown so strong they've insisted publishers not compete (or else!). Now, however, seeing the ultimate outcome, all bets and accommodations should be off.

And why not go into selling books? The remaining few, consolidated, publisher houses are all surely in a position to create and fund physical bookstores that might compete with Amazon, in sensibility, taste, style and pricing. Let us imagine seed investing in a new wave of independent bookstores, in an artisanal selling, a kind of Brooklynization of the book business — surely an idea whose time has come. But a way to buy books in a more salubrious environment than Amazon, and at cheaper cost, is just part of the attack.
Amazon is trying to control the book business through e-books. It wants to control e-books not least of all because they are not books. Migrating people to this medium means Amazon will own a potentially unlimited new entertainment platform — which, along the way, will have compromised the very form and meaning of a book. Indeed, publishers, one might suspect, want not so much to protect the book, but to also enjoy the upside of wherever the new e-book form will lead.

But their future, if they have one, will only be in real books. In rebuilding a market for the physical object. Making better objects. Rebuilding the culture of books (for which an actual bookstore is necessary). Children, in new research, gain much less from reading (or, in the new word, accessing) books on a screen than they do reading actual books. Perhaps adults do too.

Publishers, it must be said, have been poor stewards of books. Their restlessness with the form has turned books into a bastard entertainment product, with every celebrity a credible author. It is an easy jump from there to a multimedia screen, far from the world of a printed page — which is the publishers' world, whether they like it or not.

Amazon does not care about books, a minor part of its business. It cares about using books as the malleable form that opens the way to new technology and hardware and entertainment products, in the end leaving books and publishers as cultural detritus.

Publishers, if they are to prevail and, in fact, if they are to save books, have to start using the physical book, the true book, to undercut e-books, these unreal books, a form and business in which publishers will in the end have no place.


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Monday, December 15, 2014

Authors prefer traditional publishers to self-publishing. Surprised?

Writers prefer to be published by a traditional publisher over self-publishing. Go figure.

More than 9,000 authors responded to questions about the publishing industry in a report to be issued next week. Of the writers surveyed, 57.8% said they'd rather go the traditional route with their next book than try self-publishing.

These aren't just old-fashioned authors. That percentage includes writers who have been both self-published and traditionally published. What's more, the survey was conducted by Writers Digest and Digital Book World -- which certainly captures people interested in digital publishing.

Of course, traditional publishing houses publish e-books too. They'll be among those at the Digital Book World Conference, which takes place in New York next week. That's where the report will be presented with its full details.

Thursday, on the Digital Book World Site, Dana Beth Weinberg provides a preview of the Digital Book World and Writers Digest 2014 Author Survey. She writes:

"Despite the rise of self-publishing and the enthusiasm with which self-published authors celebrate its ascendance, overall, the authors surveyed are more interested in traditionally publishing their next book. The greatest preference for traditionally publishing was reported by traditionally published authors (87.2%) followed by not-yet-published authors (76.8%). Among authors who have self-published, more than half hoped to publish with traditional publishers -- 53.5% of self-published authors and 57.8% of hybrid authors."

A graph on the site shows more information. Most authors and aspiring writers are open to a mix of traditional publishing and self publishing; very few are dedicated to self-publishing only. Even among those who define themselves as self-published authors, more than half -- about 53% -- would prefer that their next book be published by a traditional publisher.

This is the second year that the survey has been conducted. It's a self-selecting survey of interested parties, so, Weinberg warns, the numbers aren't scientific. But it does show that traditional publishers are doing something right -- authors still like them lots.