Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Perspective on E-Book Sales Trends

E-book sales in fiction leaped by 42 percent in 2012 over the year before, to $1.8 billion, according to a recent publishing industry report. Non-fiction sales of e-books rose by 22 percent, to $484.2 million, while e-book sales in the children’s and young adult categories rose by 117 percent to $469.2 million, according to BookStats, the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group. The survey included data from 1,500 publishers, including the six major trade houses.

While sales from bricks and mortar bookstores continue to make up the bulk of publishers’ revenue at $7.5 billion, that figure is a seven percent drop. Revenue from online retailers like Amazon, the biggest player in the market, shot up by 21 percent to 6.9 percent of total revenues. This was the first year-long look at the industry since the bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders bookstore chain.

Sales of downloadable audio-books enjoyed a 22 percent increase in revenues in 2012 compared to 2011 (from $197.7 million to $240.7 million). Publishers saw the increase as the result of the widespread use of mobile devices.

None of these numbers should come as a surprise to those who closely follow the publishing industry. Let’s look at what the numbers mean for writers and for readers. For both groups the key words are choice and accessibility. Writers who can’t crack the Big Six (and that’s most of us) have options to publish their work. And those options are affordable. A writer can upload a novel to Amazon in minutes at no cost, though I strongly recommend investing in a book editor and a graphic designer. Readers can read the work of a dizzying array of writers—not limited to the best-selling authors, but talented indie writers.

This is an amazing time to be a writer or a reader (or both). The downside of the ease of publishing a book is that anyone can do it, from accomplished writers to hacks and neophytes with no writing skills. The proliferation of hastily written, sloppy books makes it difficult for good writers to break through all the clutter. For readers, it’s an equally steep challenge to find literary gold in the new online slush pile.

So what does the future hold for readers and writers? Here are a few predictions to consider:

• E-book sales will continue to rise, but will level off at some point. Some experts say they will reach 50 percent of all sales, but I believe e-books will climb even higher than that.
• Dislocation and mergers will continue in the publishing industry, making it even harder for unpublished writers to land a contract.
• Successful indie or self-pubbed writers will be those who are prolific and can create an effective and far-reaching marketing apparatus. Marketing, more than content, is king when it comes to achieving success in e-book sales.
• Bookstores will continue to close. Those that survive will be the bookstores that can deliver value and a unique customer experience that will engender loyalty.

What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry heading in the years to come?

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Book Review: “Dear Life,” by Alice Munro

Critics have said of Alice Munro’s short stories that they have the sweep of a novel told in much fewer words. That’s high praise, given the short story form’s challenge is to capture broader truths in the context of a scene or two. Munro’s short stories have always strived for more.

One of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro’s latest collection, “Dear Life,” published in 2012, features long journeys (both physical and emotional), lost desires, restlessness, sibling rivalries, dreams unfulfilled, and unrequited love. The lessons learned from these tales are often ambiguous, as is the case in “Corrie.” A rich young woman with a bad leg seduces a married man and carries on a long affair with him. Early on, the man tells her they are being blackmailed. The conclusion is both satisfying and morally fuzzy. In “To Reach Japan,” a fledgling poet whose engineer-husband is on a long-term assignment finds herself on a train from western Canada to Toronto (with her young daughter in tow) toward a hoped-for affair with a journalist.

“Haven” explores the fault line between domestic bliss and a sheltered wife’s desire to connect with people outside of her marriage to a rigid, conservative doctor. “Pride” features a protagonist with a physical deformity who leads a cloistered life as an accountant until Oneida, a childhood friend, whose wealthy family loses its dignity after the patriarch steals bank funds for a doomed scheme, breaks through his emotional cocoon.

“Leaving Maverly” is an endearing, sad tale about a police officer and his terminally ill wife. The officer meets a teen-age girl from a strict religious family whom he escorts home from her job as a screen projectionist. While he remains faithful to his wife the girl runs off with the local minister’s son. Years later, he encounters her again after his wife has died and there is a possibility of a connection between the two.

The last four stories are autobiographical and give insight into Munro’s upbringing in rural Ontario province. Her mother, an elegant woman, develops Parkinson’s disease and her father struggles to keep their fox farm profitable. In looking back, Munro is unsentimental and somewhat confessional, but ever the objective narrator. She writes, “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.”

In a recent interview, Munro, 81, hinted that “Dear Life” might be her last book. Here’s one reader who hopes she has more to say.

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Bidding Farewell to The Office

On May 16, NBC will broadcast the final episode of The Office, capping a brilliant nine-season run. It’s an occasion that fills me with sadness. There are so many things I loved about The Office, but near the top of the list was its similarity to fiction. The experts tell us that fiction must mirror reality. Writers must avoid contrived stories and characters who are all-good or pure evil. As writers, we strive to create complex, genuine characters with whom our readers can identify and then we put them through crises that transform them. Ultimately, though, our stories must hang together. There has to be logic and coherence to them. Among the many things a novel should make the reader feel is the sense after completing a work of fiction that the events could really happen.

Too many TV shows lack that sense of realism. Either the characters are not authentic or the stories feel manufactured or overblown. Attempts to create pathos badly miss the mark and feel more like bathos. That’s not the case with The Office. In the tradition of the hit show, Cheers, the writers and producers of The Office have created a show with real people—people we know. Many workers have experienced life in a dysfunctional workplace. Many offices have a Michael Scott, the bumbling, endearing boss, a Dwight Schrute, the baldly ambitious underling, a Jim Halpert, the classic underachiever, and the rest.
Recent articles hailed the show as setting a trend toward humor that makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. If that’s a trend, I hope to see more of it. The original British show, created by Ricky Gervais, set the pace for cringe-worthy humor as the boss of the UK plant, David Brent (played brilliantly by Gervais), became more unglued as the series progressed.

Like its British forerunner, the U.S. version is filmed with a single camera and no laugh track or studio audience. The premise of both the British and American versions of The Office is that a film crew is doing a documentary on life in an ordinary office setting. Many of the scenes are followed by off-camera interviews with the participants that often reveal their true feelings—the equivalent of interior monologue in a novel.

One might look at Michael Scott and wonder, how could any boss be such a buffoon? In his own peculiar way, he was a great leader. His constant clown act distracted the workers from the mind-numbing boredom of working in an office for a company that sold paper. He made himself the butt of jokes to take the workers’ minds off the drudgery. He made their office environment fun.

Another winning aspect of The Office was the motivations of the characters. Everybody was working an angle. Dwight wanted the boss’s job. Creed Bratton wanted to do as little work as possible. Angela set out each day to prove she was more virtuous than any of her co-workers. Even the lovable Pam had an angle–she had a crush on Jim.

The Office wasn’t afraid to tackle workplace taboos topics in a way that only it could. The sexual harrasment episode was a prime example. In fact, Michael Scott routinely violated acceptable workplace behavior in the most inappropriate fashion, and got away with it.

There are a handful of other TV shows left where the writers are in touch with every-day life. Modern Family and Parks and Recreation come to mind, but I will really miss The Office.

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Book Review: News From Heaven, By Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh’s first short story collection, News From Heaven, traces the slow decay of the fictional Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Bakerston, through 10 linked stories. Introduced to readers in her fine 2005 novel, Baker Towers, Bakerston was a typical mining town. In its heyday in the middle of the 20th Century, the Baker Brothers mines employed virtually every able-bodied male in the town and even built the workers’ cookie-cutter homes. The workers made good wages and the town grew into a tight-knit community where everybody knew everybody else’s business. Or so they thought.

When an explosion toppled one of the mines and killed a number of the miners, the dramatic climax of Baker Towers, it rocked the town forever. By the time the 21st Century dawned the company had extracted every bit of coal it could and it closed the mines. Workers went on unemployment or moved South for new jobs, while some suffered worse fates, their lungs scarred by decades in the mines.

While on one level the stories present a microcosm of the nation’s economic woes, their true power lies in the exploration of the inner lives of the families–bound by their daily struggles and the yearning for a better life. Haigh’s characters are a diverse lot, from the disturbed heir to the Baker fortune, living in squalor, to the restless son of the Novak clan, who leaves Bakerston far behind but can never quite escape its grip.

Haigh brings these characters alive with a perceptiveness and eloquence. While the characters know intimate details about their fellow townspeople, there are long-held secrets, hidden mostly out of love. In “Beast and Bird,” the opening story, a Bakerston family sends its young Polish teen-ager to work as a live-in maid for a wealthy Jewish family in New York City, where everything is unfamiliar and nothing makes sense to her. “A Place in the Sun” and its twin story, “To the Stars,” focus on Sandy, the youngest of the Novak clan, who struggles to find a new life on the West Coast, but cannot outrun his demons.

There are tender moments as well. In “Thrift,” 50-year-old Agnes Lubicki, destined to be an aging spinster, unexpectedly finds love with a much younger man. In “The Bottom of Things,” Ray Wojick returns home from Houston as a successful businessman to attend his parents’ 50th anniversary, triggering memories of his troubled brother’s death and his guilt over whether he could have prevented it.

Haigh is the author of four critically-acclaimed novels. In addition to Baker Towers, her works include Mrs. Kimble, The Condition,and Faith.

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Are You Aiming Too High?

Ask most unpublished fiction writers about their goals and they’re likely to tell you they want to land a publishing contract and secure a spot on the bestseller list. The odds are heavily stacked against that kind of success, even for writers who produce a high-quality novel. High expectations can lead to disappointment and dejection.

My expectations have shifted over the years–not that I ever got deluded into thinking I would get on The New York Times bestseller list. It’s not that I don’t believe I am capable of writing a bestseller, but I’m a realist. Goals and expectations are two different things. A writer should set realistic goals and work to achieve them. Expectations are a different animal. Writers in many cases set realistic goals and unrealistic expectations. There is a school of thought that if a writer puts in the time and effort over a period of years, success will naturally follow. In short, a writer could do everything right, from learning the craft to producing a gem of a novel, and still struggle along as an unpublished author.

I’ve read numerous blog posts by writers (accomplished or not) who seem stunned and hurt that they have not gotten published. It’s a numbers game. By some estimates a million books (traditional and self-published) are produced each year. Publishers select books that they believe will sell. I know unpublished writers who are probably in the 90th percentile among traditional and self-published authors in terms of the quality of their writing, but they have not succeeded in attracting a wide audience for their work.

My expectation is to produce and publish a novel each year. My goal is to eventually achieve sufficient revenue from sales to support my writing habit–enough to hire a book editor, designer, marketing support and maybe attend a writer’s conference or two. About ten grand would be nice, but I’m nowhere near that now. That is clearly a “stretch goal.”

Some might describe these as low goals and expectations, but unreachable goals only produce frustration and disappointment.

What are your goals and expectations?

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