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Why readers have it more difficult today (writers too)

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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader
The convergence of several trends leaves the book-buying public out in the cold.
by Colin Robinson, co-publisher of OR Books.


“TO read a novel is a difficult and complex art,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a 1925 essay, “How to Read a Book.” Today, with our powers of concentration atrophied by the staccato communication of the Internet and attention easily diverted to addictive entertainment on our phones and tablets, book-length reading is harder still.


It’s not just more difficult to find the time and focus that a book demands. Longstanding allies of the reader, professionals who have traditionally provided guidance for those picking up a book, are disappearing fast. The broad, inclusive conversation around interesting titles that such experts helped facilitate is likewise dissipating. Reading, always a solitary affair, is increasingly a lonely one.


A range of related factors have brought this to a head. Start with the publishing companies: Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years, declining 6 percent in the first half of 2013 alone. But the profits of publishers have remained largely intact; in the same period only one of what were then still the “big six” trade houses reported a decline on its bottom line. This is partly because of the higher margins on e-books. But it has also been achieved by publishers cutting costs, especially for mid-list titles.


Read the rest of this article at the NY Times.



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This article is so on point.  Needless to say, everything this writer points out as a problem is hyper-exaggerated in the Black community. 


I see a few indications that things may be turning around; (1) eBooks sales appears to be slowing down.  for example, eBooks sales as a percentage of total books sales, on AALBC.com, for 2013 looks like it will be lower than 2012.  I'm still compiling my information, but I've already read other articles suggesting that eBooks sales have flattened out; (2) readers may be suffering from social media fatigue, which will pick up as social media platforms ramp up on advertising, and readers realize that the “mirroring” of existing tastes hamper the discovery anything new (which the author writes about); (3) more complaining by people about the adverse impact of the domination of the book industry by a handful of corporations is raising awareness among readers which may prompt more action.


But this is very little.  In my opinion, the short term prospects, especially in the Black community, are grim.  I'd love to be proven wrong, but I suspect things will get worse before the get better. 

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Comments from Facebook:


  • Chris Burns It is a hard task both writing and reading. The author is correct, but the primary problem IS the large publishing house. They created a hierarchy in the publishing world. The process of publishing through traditional methods with a book that isn't Fifty Shades of provocative, or self help is becoming harder and if you literally don't know someone, even good work goes in the slush pile. It's very hard to build a career. Even if your writing shows growth and direction, without gaining access to publishing you are left trying to figure the world out. Self publishing is not a help when so many books are available and the person with the most time becomes the most successful. I keep telling myself to get dedicated to the business, but when there are only losses and no monetary benefits, it's hard to remain interested in the literary world.
  • Claxton Graham Great points, Chris Burns. There are very few, if any, major houses today that even accept submissions unless they come through an agent. And although the proliferation of e-readers has made it much easier for writers to get their work published, it has also subjected readers to work that shouldn't have been published in the first place. Much as I'd love to pursue publishing a novel, you're right that it's darn near impossible to do so unless you know people int he business. It's disheartening.
    Melody Guy There are fewer places to sell books as well. No Borders, fewer indies, B&N closing locations. And that in turn affects what gets published. But I think there is a lot of opportunity in terms of writers being able to connect directly to the reader. But that is an investment of time and resources.
    Chris Burns Melody there in lies the problem, time and resources. If you have any sort of responsibilities it becomes very difficult to spend the time "networking" to get people to take a chance on your book. To advertise and then send copies to bookclubs or to publishers for getting published traditionally, it's expensive on both fronts. Like Claxton said, it's disheartening. I can't speak for others but in regard to my "writing career" I've been at it since 95. I even did what is consider correct: BA in English, MFA in Creative Writing, practiced my craft and studied... and ready voraciously. I even had an agent, but I have never really made a dent in this industry. Eventually I became a professor and then I stopped teaching and left the arts completely other than running the blog on a very part time basis. I know for a fact that my writing is good, but I could never catch a break and life got in the way. If you are self publishing it takes money, if you are submitting to publishers and agents, it takes money. I guess I'd like to end this on a positive note; some people are making a living and my inability to do so does not diminish the fact that some people are doing well.
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"Writing is a lonely profession", somebody who knew what they were talking about once said. Today, if you are an aspiring author, you are your brand and your words are your product.  In current lingo that's the name of the game and its a tough game to make the cut for.  In the economical world, there has to be a demand for the supply.  And one has to keep up with the times.


Original  plots seem to be more important than good skills, and selling your manuscript can be equivalent to selling your soul, what with there always being a chance that the draft will be revised and adapted and transformed into what will make it more appealing to the mass reading audience. How else to explain the success of trash like 50 Shades of Gray? 


Make-believe sagas are holding their own because teenagers primed by computer games are receptive to reading fantasy fiction about wizards and mesmerizing vampires and futuristic adventures and dragon tales. 


But the competition posed by reality TV is tough because it  offers up enough  trash and melodrama and mushy romance to satisfy those more amenable to visual rather than printed entertainment.


The future doesn't look bright for authors or hard cover books.  This genre may be reduced to cult status.  A new wave is sweeping us along in its tide and adjustment on many levels seems to be the only option.  Change is inevitable.

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More from Facebook.  It is so pathetic that I have to copy conversation from Facebook here so that I can maintain an archive of the conversation. Oh well...


  • Guichard Cadet Publishing acquired too many middlemen (stakeholders) as we gained technological advances.


    Troy Johnson Guichard how so? Traditionally, in addition to the writer, you had the agent, publisher (marketing/promotions/advertising, editorial, design, accounting), printer, delivery, distributor, bookseller. In today's world, due to technological advances, the author can do everything, which is not working out in our favor.

    Guichard Cadet Let's use Amazon as the example since they're the ones that really shook up the industry. My first encounter with Amazon was around 1998...but it might have been as early as 1996. I used to operate La Caille Nous at the time. So, I was both a publisher of other writers and of my own writings.

    As the web became populated with websites, a lot online stores and publications sprung up, as well as marketers (reviewers, bookselling events, book clubs, etc...). Each of these individuals were working from a fee or percentage basis, none of them had done as the publisher or a brick & mortar store; in that, none had made a financial investment to receive profits from the book.

    A publisher was still grossing no more than 45% to 50% from each book sold to a distributor, large retailer or Amazon. Yet, each new stakeholder introduced a new cost into the selling (marketing) process of a book. The first to fall was the independent bookstore, the print reviewers, Borders, etc...These new stakeholders segmented the marketplace with most of their sales being channeled (un/knowingly) to sellers like Amazon, Wal-mart, etc...

    Troy Johnson I'm still really not clear on what you mean. But I will agree that Amazon shook up the industry it is one of the reasons I stopped selling books direct -- people just wanted the lowest price and really did not care about anything else. We are rapidly approaching a point where books will only be available online, from Amazon. Given our behavior it appears this is what most of us want--that is until Amazon starts to increase prices due to the lack of competition.

    Initially technology was an enabler, today technology is used a a means of controlling the vast majority of us. We used to have a choice. I'm on Facebook contributing content here for free not because I want to be here, but because this is where everyone is now. We enrich Facebook and Amazon at our own expense.


    Guichard Cadet As you know, Amazon and Facebook operate differently. FB is killing print advertising or independent online advertising. Amazon had a long-term plan though it was not obvious in the beginning, or they came up on it by accident. In the beginning, there was "Amazon Advantage" for small publishers. The cost was $45 per year and they handled everything except shipping. From there they created, this new costlier model for which and many other small publishers bailed. When they saw our initial response, Amazon turned to the Affiliate Model where anyone could sell a publisher's book...that was the beginning of the end.

    I still have that account but have never bothered to set it up though I have links to them on blogs, etc...It was at this time that many of the new stakeholders had a choice/chance to take a stand. Why affiliate with Amazon, when you already had a database of contacts with nearly all of the new independent Black presses and writers?

    For example, I still have my catalog of books. I still could use a tech-savvy person to restart, as can many of the former presses and writers who are still trying to make it happen. Imagine your company being the the exclusive online channel for dozens of independent presses...and Amazon having to contact your company to get our books.


    Troy Johnson Guichard, we both go way back. I still have your old page online: http://aalbc.com/writers/lacaille.htm (though I need to update it). Your idea is an excellent one and seemingly a no-brainer. Basically we have exclusive products that Amazon can not under cut because they don't have them. Here is the problem. Please will not buy from us. They will simply buy a different product from Amazon.

    I've been down this road before. Indeed I trying to execute on this strategy now with embarrassingly dismal results. We have a site called the Power List we research on African American reading habits and publish a bestsellers list each quarter, which is taking more time than I hoped to gain traction, but that is another story. At any rate after the second list we went with a Black book seller to fulfill online book sales. Guess how many people transacted after sending over 1,500 potential customers--zero. When I was using Amazon, B&N and Indiebound. 8% of the visitors converted (purchased books). All of the sales from Amazon-- from B&N or Indiebound.

    I could go on. But the issues are profound -- even this conversation would have taken place on my site today I serve at the largess of facebook, without compensation..
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