Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The cut

Much chatter has been generated by the recent announcement that Penguin and Random House will soon be joining corporate forces. I don't know enough about the details or what will become of it to say anything other than it is another(big) symptom of the book industry being very ill. Another(smaller) point to illustrate this fact has popped up for us in the past month.

Sometimes a publisher will offer signed copies to stores if they pre-order in carton quantity. This works for the publisher because stores will order a larger number than they normally would and it works for stores in offering their customers a bonus of sorts. We've sold more copies of Michael Chabon's new novel because we participated in this type of offer. When we bought copies of Louise Erdrich's "Round House" we bought cartons of signed copies. When the release date came we didn't have our copies and had several customers in the store/calling us to purchase the book. We called HarperCollins, the publisher, and were told that they had over-sold the signed copies. Our order, in industry terms, had been cut. We weren't notified and were left with no copies the first few days the book was available.

Last week a customer inquired about a book entitled "The Where, The Why, and the How." Tom had bought seven copies of the book based on the catalog and what our sales rep told him about the book. It was well-priced and seemed like the type of book we could sell pretty well through the holidays and end of year. When Karen checked Ingram's Ipage all the warehouses were out of stock. I guessed, incorrectly, that the book had been delayed. That happens, from time to time, with books that have a lot of production and color and, frequently, come from Korea or China. The very next day I found myself at the Mall of America and wandered into Urban Outfitters. Among their great stacks of books were copies of the book. I resisted the urge to grab five copies and run. We, again, checked with our sales rep and the publisher and were told that the book had been over-sold.

Our seven copy order had been cut and, again, we were not told of this. Seven copies, for us as a small store, signifies some kind of optimism and support for a book. It means we will display it and, most likely, actively try to sell it. In the larger scheme of things it is a small order. Chronicle Books saw it in another way. They took orders from a lot of other places(Anthropologie? Urban Outfitters? Other gift-type stores) and had placed copies with places that ordered larger numbers.

The problems regarding this are numerous. First, we didn't have the copies we had ordered and potentially could have sold. The second is akin to airline seating--meaning things get sold not always in line with what is available. And I understand the need for publishers to sell as much as they can to whomever they can. More upsetting to me is the fact that, in both cases, they saw no need to notify us of this fact. Intended or not the effect is that our orders don't matter. The reality is that if they hadn't pre-sold books in huge numbers we would have gotten our expected orders.

It leaves me to wonder: how many other stores had orders cut? Why should we trust that orders from these publishers, in similar situations, will actually arrive? All too often small stores are told that the overall numbers of their sales are dropping. Part of that is the availability of books in other stores and in various(and often cheaper) formats. But how can we attempt to compete when we aren't given the opportunity to sell what we ordered? The simple fact is that many customers who don't find what they're looking for at a store will turn to Amazon(who, I've been told, is also out of stock on "The Where, the Why, and the How) to get a copy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Some questions and answers with the Revolver Mafia

Revolver is the newest of the new literary journal/mag kids on the block. Their electronic home is here

1) I know a little about the reasons behind starting Revolver but the question still must be asked: why start a literary magazine right now?

We started Revolver because we had a fire in our collective gut about writers and artists with a certain energy.

Why start now? Why not? Some of the best things in life come to those who recklessly pursue. It only took us a year of hard work to get it ready for the public.

2) How do you see the digital-you fitting together with the print-you?

The internet is a place that can be more open to experimentation, to failure, to surprise--we have a strong brand, but we don't let it get in the way of a good piece. The internet is a great place to do that flexing. The print publication will be a perfected version of that experimentation, failure, surprise.

3) You had 700+ people at the launch party--how do you try to continue to bring those people(and more) into the mix?

We won't do another blow-out party for a while, and our next event in the spring is going to be even better. More visceral, more intense, more story-focused--but smaller. We’re really excited. All we can say now is that we’re calling it Confess.

We're also looking to cultivate an online reading and writing community. Every two weeks, our home page will have entirely new content, and we want to create a space for people to participate, to write with Revolver, while we continue to publish high-quality work.

Two ways we are doing that: Shots with Strangers, which has already launched with a few pieces, and WANTED, our micro-writing contest, which launched last month. We have quite a few other experiments in the works. Think trust-falls into a bookstore moshpit.

4) Outside of the Twin Cities (with Paper Darts and thirty two doing similar--yet not the same--things) are there any journals you look to for inspiration? Or is this a totally new thing?

Both Paper Darts and 32 are great, as well as the amazing small presses in town. There is a groundswell around the lit scene here in the Twin Cities. The music scene hit its stride a while ago, and now the lit scene is becoming bolder, too.

In terms of publications we enjoy, Vice, A Public Space, N+1 are great. McSweeney's is obviously influential. The New Inquiry and Thought Catalog are two younger publications we enjoy.

But honestly, we didn't look too hard at any publication as a model. We didn’t want to end up copying something that already exists. New whiskey into new whiskey barrels, we say. We’re doing our damndest to retool the magazine for a new century.

5) Is there a clear division for Revolver in terms of poetry/fiction/non-fiction/reportage? Or will it change with every issue?

No. It's Short Range (under 1000 words) and Long Range (over 1000 words). Readers will be able to sort by genre, but we don't want that to be the focus. Revolver is gunning for the art and beauty of writing, and we're working hard to tear down the artificial distinctions that get in the way of that.

6) The demographic you seem to be aiming for is one that is accustomed to free content--how do you get these people to pay?

We'll have various options for different sorts of readers and writers: electronic and print subscriptions, events, T-shirts, journals, writing contests, etc. People will want to support the publication in different ways and we want to be ready for that.

We're also in discussion with a number of businesses who want to advertise on Revolver. Currently, the site is self-sustaining on Google Ads, thanks to our readers clicking on the weird stuff Google dumps into the slots we give them. We’re excited about moving toward advertising businesses we have a relationship with.

7) Publishing, in general, is in a great sea change. How do you guys fit into this sea of madness?

We want to blaze a new trail. We’re going to experiment and publish a lot of audacious writing. Some experiments will be wildly successful. Some will be soul-crushing failures. This is a good thing.

We hope our approach to the publishing elements--print, online, social media, etc.--will keep our readers at the edge of their seats (and/or continually refreshing on their smartphones).

This ride is going to be wild, and part of the rush is that we don’t know where we’ll all end up.

8.) A boxing gym? How? Why? Will the relationship continue?

It had that special sort of energy we were looking for. Seemed right.

Maybe we'll return for our 10th Anniversary Party.

- Revolver Crew

Alexander Helmke, Ben Barnhart, Emilie Robinson, Esther Porter, Luke Finsaas, Marcus Anthony Downs, Ross Nervig, Thorwald Esbensen

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.