Monday, October 15, 2012

Go Your Own Way, or Createspace and the new Frontier

Micro. Artisanal. Indie. These have all become trendy names for beer or cheese or any number of other goods. They suggest something made with care in small batches. They suggest a back-to-the-land ethos or philosophy. Yet labels on food, and many other things, can be tricky.

And I guess I should start this by saying that this isn't meant to be an anti-Amazon screed or soapbox. It's more about an issue that is becoming more prevalent and is difficult for bookstores to deal with. Twice, in the past month, books published by authors via Createspace have popped up on our radar. Createspace is labeled as 'an Amazon company.'

The first time involved Lorna Landvik's new novel "Mayor of the Universe." Landvik is an author whose books, traditionally, had been published by Ballantine(an imprint of Random House). For whatever reasons, she decided to do this new one on her own. She has local ties and is quite popular throughout Minnesota. Despite the fact that the book comes to us with a lower discount than usual and is offered only as non-returnable we knew we wanted to offer it to our customers. By blindly avoiding an Amazon title we felt we would be doing a disservice to our customers and ourselves. So we have sold it and do currently have it in stock.

More recently, we received an e-mail from Jon Clinch regarding a new book he would be publishing. I loved his first novels, "Finn" and "Kings of the Earth",and very much look forward to reading the newest one entitled "The Thief of Auschwitz." He is masterful at taking real life characters(or fictional in the case of Huck's father) and weaving them into his own storylines. Ron Charles, who does great book stuff for The Washington Post, did a little story about some of the hows and whys.

Like I said, I'm not here to bash Clinch or Landvik in particular. But there are some specific issues I have regarding these books and some of the very real issues we must deal with regarding them.

Clinch talks about his first Createspace adventure in which he published a book under the name of Sam Winston and sold 10,000 copies. That is a solid showing regardless of who publishes it. But he also talks about creating a Twitter account for Winston and then re-tweeting various things under his own name. It seems, to me, to be very similar to writing anonymous reviews on Amazon. He would then ask Facebook fans to write reviews on Amazon. All of that is well and good, I suppose, but it does start to bring into question the validity of some of what is being said or 'reviewed.' All authors are required to do more self-promotion of their own work now regardless of whom publishes their work, but this makes me uneasy. He goes on to speak of himself as a version of micro-brewery(or publisher). That simply is as much the case as if Starbucks put together roadside coffee stands--under a different name--and called it locavore coffee. It's not true.

He also speaks of this being a time of possible revolution in the publishing industry. That's something I agree with. But Budweiser and Miller are not leading a beer revolution--small breweries are. M. Allen Cunningham is a novelist and short story writer whose previous work I have also liked. He recently decided to publish a collection of stories called "date of disappearance" under Atelier26 This, in spirit and actual fact, is micro-publishing. So far as I know, there is no corporate financial backing running the show.

Createspace might be doing more for its authors than lots of other self-publishing ventures in that they show prospective authors all(or most) of the facts up-front. Directly off of their mainpage an author can find details regarding royalties, editing, promo, distribution and much more. Here again, though, are some slippery facts. They have a calculator that shows royalties based on total pages and trim size. They claim to have professional editors at work yet all of the pricing is based on total word-count. For example, if your finished manuscript runs 75,000 words or less they promise edits within a month. The time is less for shorter works. This kind of rote pricing by page, word and physical book size goes against most of what is good about the world of book publishing. It's impossible, I'd say, to give an exact turnaround time for a manuscript solely based on total number of words written. It might make it seem more quick and clean and easy but that's not how good books are published. Each book is its own thing and necessitates different kinds of work.

Clinch himself states some his feelings about all of this when saying, “I hate that it’s part of Amazon because I love indie bookstores,” he says. “But there’s only one good way I can get books self-published now. And you know what? They do a great job. The books look good. They ship promptly.”

I've spoken with lots of other booksellers and stores about their feelings regarding these issues both specifically and in general. The answers, as one might guess, have quite a range. There are stores that strictly won't carry any Createspace titles and others who will carry as requested by customers, or on a limited basis, but won't do a lot of publicity or events for books that they see coming from a competitor who is actively trying to hurt them.

To borrow from common usage, many authors right now might "have to do what they have to do" to support their books and careers. Likewise, bookstores, have to do the same. Right now I'm just not sure what that is.

There very well could be a part 2 of this as I'm fairly certain I'll get some feedback from authors, publishers, booksellers and the general public. We shall see.

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