Friday, July 06, 2007

Idealogical ideas

Mike Shatzkin of the Idealogical Company is a publishing strategist whose thoughts have been recommended here more than once. He tends to make them publicly available, and you can find a list of most of his thought-provoking presentations on the company's web site.

The text of Shatzkin's latest speech has been available for a month or so now, but I have only just got around to reading it. Unless you are very keen on reading stuff on screen, I suggest you print it out. It runs to 21 pages.

The title of the speech is 'The End of General Trade Publishing Houses: Death or Rebirth in a Niche-by-Niche World.'

You can, of course, skip this reading duty if you're just a plain old buyer of books (though what Shatzkin has to say will affect you just as much as anyone else). But if you're planning any sort of business or professional association with the book trade in the next decade or two, I suggest that you give Shatzkin your attention. He doesn't offer an infallible road map into the future, but he will at least get you thinking about how the book world is changing.

If you want a brief summary (dangerous thing), then Shatzkin suggests that general trade publishing will dwindle away, and that publishers will instead cater for much more tightly defined niches in the market than they do at present. And that doesn't mean setting up more imprints (remember Nelson?).

And there's wonderful (?) news for authors. The preponderance of agents, says Shatzkin, think that authors should spend 2 to 10 hours a week promoting themselves online. What fun, eh?

Here's a hint for writers just starting out. Probably the main reason why my 'career' as a writer never got very far was because I never found a tiny niche and stuck to it. I always liked to do different things: mainstream novels, thrillers, police procedurals, all sorts. I also wrote for several different media: books, stage, TV, radio. Hence no big-time success. But I had a lot more fun doing that than I would have had if I'd gone down the niche route for the last forty years.


Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Thanks for the info, Michael.
Have a good weekend. :)

Anonymous said...

You've had fun along the way and kept a sense of humor, to boot.

I like that.

Unknown said...

Thanks again for all of the wonderful links and information!

Hope you have a great day!

Anonymous said...

funny, that's why my father chose to be a GP rather than a Consultant, because he wanted variety

Thomas Paine said...

I can verify that as a writer I do indeed spend an hour or two a day looking for a way to promote my work on the internet. I find it to be enormously tedious (and a labor that yields few fruits). Your blog is one of the few interesting sites I have come across.

On another subject, in the writing lottery, niche writing may lead to greater material success, but it's more likely you'll end up as an embittered employee of some publishing house. Best to be a Master of Your Own Fate, however humble that may be.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I am sceptical about Shatzkin's prediction that publishing, currently in the hands of a major conglomerates, will break apart into a myriad of niche companies.

That would be an exception to just about every other business and capitalism in general, where the trend toward consolidation is only increasing.

Martin said...

I really don't understand what imprints are for. (Or labels in the music industry.) I can't even be bothered to check which publishers have put out a certain book: why would I pay any attention to the imprint? They must just lead to increased costs for the publishers. I keep track of writers.

Is the idea that I might read and like a book from, say, the Snugglebunny imprint and then blindly buy a lot of other Snugglebunny books?

Anonymous said...

Excellent link, Michael, worth the time taken to read all 21 pages.

As one who spends several hours a day building an internet presence via my website and social networking groups like , I'm 100 percent convinced by Shatzkin's predictions.

For the web savvy writer, prospects look very good. Whatever route or niche publishers choose, they'll need the words to drive the engine.

A big historical novel, like those I lean to :-), might be daunting as a stand-alone paper book but offers many options combined with the e-publishing niches seen by Shatzkin.

So, for example, with my novel
Brazil, I've taken a section like the story of the Paraguayan War and built interactive pages with campaign maps, battle illustrations, images of the non-fictional chararacers. See The Paraguayan War

Not much different from what Phiz was doing for Dickens in the 19th century!

Who knows? With the advance of "smart ink" technology, the paper edition itself could have interactive "wireless" pages that given a simple touch open a wealth of links on the author's website.

mscriver said...

I'm in major agreement with these ideas, though it's early in the POD game.

Prairie Mary

Monday, July 02, 2007
I grumble all the time (probably defensively) that the paradigm most people have of writing is the Life magazine genius pattern they developed for Hemingway, Steinbeck and Picasso. Writing is seen to be a great eruction (careful how you spell that) from an inspired secret world that is as valuable as pearls and as self-generated.

Other forms of print, like directions, are treated with contempt. You can tell from the lack of care in writing them. “Ha! Understand THIS, you scum!” seems to be the basic attitude, and in four languages. But surely there must be something in between that is simply basic information carefully conveyed.

Then there’s the thesis approach to writing. One of my fellow students in seminary averaged ten footnotes to every page. Talk about covering your butt. I tried to launch out into some original theory but, partly because my life experience was so different from everyone else (esp. faculty), I was squashed in a hurry. The point of a thesis is not to be original -- it is to flatter one’s advisors.

There ARE books that are bought, not because they are works of genius, but simply because they are needed and useful. The people that want these books will go in search of them -- no need to beg for reviews except enough information for people to buy them. With search engines, little escapes notice.

Though I originally started out with the idea of the works of genius myself, life has taught me that genius is usually a matter of long, hard preparation -- finally presented with an opportunity. And I have the strong idea that many pearls of genius never get out of the oyster, so to speak. To publicize and sell is quite different from writing -- which is why publishing houses will probably go on existing -- just greatly changed. Now that they have shifted from trying to assess the writer to trying to survey and analyze their readers, they only have to broaden their understanding of what a reader is. So far, the conviction seems to be that readers are not quite genius enough to write books, but still exceptional enough to wish they did and to read the kind of books they would write if they could. Mostly living in college towns or Manhattan. The publishers haven’t changed their “paradigm of privilege” -- just slid it over to the readers.

When I was in the UU ministry and trying to “grow” congregations, which was what everyone insisted was the duty of the minister in the Eighties and which was defined in terms of member numbers, we used the rule-of-thumb that one in a thousand people would be a natural Unitarian. There were only two cities in Montana that even approached a hundred-thousand people and they would yield only a hundred people. Not enough to sustain a minister and building. But there are two cities in Alberta that number over a million citizens, which would predict a thousand Unitarians. Yet each supported only a modest 300 member church plus a small splinter. Still, as a rule of thumb for the commodification of an ineffable (religion), it was useful. So a publisher could think in those terms.

When Vine Deloria, brilliant rabble-rouser, had a new book about Indians coming out, he asked his publisher how many copies they expected to sell on Vine’s home reservation. “None,” said the surprised publisher. “There are no bookstores there.” Like children, assuming that books are sold only in bookstores and shoes sold only in shoe stores. But maybe some shoe stores would sell books, if they were about Nike! Shift from selling the book qua book to selling the book by content.

So Martin Murie sells his gentle conservation stories in bait shops, service stations, bars, general stores, and whatever else kind of establishment in northern New York might intersect with people of the right sort. The principle is exposure to an assortment who will self-select, rather than zeroing in on only the largest cut. (The Big Box stores in Montana say they will not stock MAC products because they are only 10% of the computer users. I tell them that if they would set aside a corner for MAC products, they would gain 10% more customers. But they are controlled by corporations far away. I buy on the Internet.) I didn’t know until recently that Ivan and Carol Doig started out selling “This House of Sky” from their car while driving around Montana. That was twenty-five years ago and it was necessary to impress the publisher by guaranteeing sales themselves.

We’ve gotten way off on the “best seller” conceit, believing that a book that’s not a best seller is not worthy. People check the lists in The New York Times Book Review or The Globe and Mail or Amazon, and think that tells them something about the value of the book. “If everyone else is reading it, I should read it!” So the point is not the book, but chatter about it. Maybe that’s a leftover from being in a college class where everyone reads the same thing at the same time. The great thing about this “long tail” notion is that it ought to help break up this prejudice, which is really a way to sell the entities who make up the lists. Can’t reading be a private and unique affair? Aren’t there many books that I love dearly but wouldn’t suggest to others because I strongly suspect they wouldn’t strike the same chord?

After I was fired from teaching in Heart Butte and stranded on my mother’s sofa in Portland, I went down to the library and checked out every book I could find about how to get a job. One of the most useful said this brilliant thing: “Half the people out there will not hire you. Your task at this point is to figure out where the other half are and how to make contact with them.”

With my books, I’m clearly aiming at Blackfeet and the people who visit the reservation or who love the people or who are part of the 8,000 member Blackfeet diasphora. Useful books about history and place. Local shops, schools and blogs seem to be the natural methods. The newspapers are afraid of political implications. These books are not appealing to the tides of wealthy and romantic white people who surge through the state, buy slick magazines that advertise hot tubs and McMansions. The writers who do sell to those latter folks are a circle that doesn’t really like to admit newcomers anyway.

The old advice about “write what you love” still holds true. Let’s hope the people who respond to that will find out the book exists.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to Shatzkin's text, Michael. He has a compelling argument but whether or not it is "true" is another matter. What he posits is the atomization (even annialation) of society, of the collective. OK, the mass market may be at risk but it is also undeniable that mass movements (like adoption of the iPod for instance) also occur. In any case, I hope we have the breadth of vision (and breadth of interest) to look across the entire landscape rather than bury ourselves in a niche. Sounds like a euphemism for "grave" to me! Cheers. -- Gerald Jackson