Posts Tagged ‘E-books’


(For the last few months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to many of our subscribers. This is a slightly revised post from 2016. Unfortunately, it’s even more pertinent today than when it first appeared.)

Why Your Reviews Matter

by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Your Amazon and Goodreads reviews matter to small publishers, probably more than you realize.

There has been a drastic decline in the numbers of magazines and newspapers over the past two decades, and an even more drastic decline in the number that carry book reviews. The number of daily papers in the U.S. dropped roughly 15% over the past quarter century, and a great many of those remaining have reduced or entirely eliminated their book review sections. (This is in line with their overall reductions in news and feature coverage during the same period due to huge, presumably Internet-caused, revenue drops.)

The status of weekly papers is perhaps even more dire. Forty years ago there were independent weeklies in almost every major and mid-size city in the country, and a great many carried reviews. Since then, those that survived have been, and are still being, gobbled up by media conglomerates, the New Times chain being emblematic. That chain bought weeklies in half of the country’s largest markets, and the New Times papers I’m familiar with (and probably all of the rest) do not review books.

The situation here in Tucson is a case in point. In 2010, Arizona’s oldest daily newspaper, The Tucson Citizen, went under. The remaining Tucson daily, The Arizona Daily Star, now devotes only a half-page to reviews in its Sunday edition (no space at all in the others), and the formerly independent Tucson Weekly has been bought twice over the last 15 years by small media conglomerates. It used to carry weekly in-depth reviews of books by local authors. No more. Following its most recent sale, it stopped carrying book reviews and almost everything else that made it worth reading. It’s now little more than an advertising sheet of use only as bird cage liner (which is, literally, what I use it for).

Magazines are also in bad shape. Circulation (especially news stand circulation) has been declining simultaneously with the ascent of the Internet, and revenue has been plummeting: from $48.3 billion in 2007 to $27 billion in 2015. Two specialty magazines, Guitar Player and Bass Player, owned by the same company, are a case in point. From their glory days in the 1990s, their circulation has dropped by roughly half, and a few years ago they combined their staffs in a cost-cutting move. The end result of all this is that magazines have cut back their coverage, and it’s harder than ever to get reviews. (Bass Player and Guitar Player are exceptions to the rule, and are still very good about reviewing books.)

Compounding all this is the explosion in the annual number of new books over the past 25 years or so. The number of new titles reported by Books in Print, the best source for information on physical books, more than doubled over the last 15 years; the current total of new print books exceeds 300,000 per year. Add in e-books, and the number is likely over 1,000,000. (No one really knows how many e-books are published annually.)

Add this all up, and you have far more books competing for far fewer reviews in the remaining magazines and newspapers (the situation is similar with online review sites, which are overwhelmed), and for what little shelf space remains in bookstores.

The number of independent bookstores, where readers in decades past could discover books that received few or no reviews, has declined drastically over the past half-century. At present, they account for only 10% of the book market. So, that channel for readers to discover books has all but disappeared.

To make matters even worse, the large-circulation magazines tend to ignore books from small presses and to review primarily, often only, books from the half-dozen conglomerates that dominate the book publishing industry, and both television (and syndication-dominated) radio talk shows tend to book only the authors published by those same conglomerates.

What’s left for small publishers? Reader reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Kobo, B&N, and other online retailer sites.

If you read a book that you like issued by an independent publisher, please consider writing even a one- or two-sentence review for Goodreads or any of the online book retailers. It’ll help both the author and the small publisher. And it’ll help other readers discover books they would enjoy.

Your reviews are more important than you think.

 


(The following interview with See Sharp Press publisher Chaz Bufe appeared on November 11 on the Entropy Magazine site. We thank them for their kind permission to reproduce the interview here; we’ve edited it slightly for the purpose of clarification. The information on Amazon appears about halfway through the interview in the answer to the question that begins with, “We used to ask . . .”)

 

How did See Sharp Press start?

An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front coverSee Sharp Press started as a self-publishing project in 1984 after I escaped from graduate school (music theory/composition) and asked myself, “What can I do out in the real world with all of this education?” The answer was “write and publish a good book on music theory for pop, rock, and jazz musicians.” There was nothing on the market that fit that description; the very few theory books aimed at nonacademic musicians were confusing and unnecessarily convoluted. In short, I found a need and I filled it. An Understandable Guide to Music Theory is still in print and over the years has sold in excess of 10,000 copies.


Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front coverFive years later
 I compiled and edited a second book, The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations, which again is still in print and has sold in the low five figures. Two years after that, in 1991, I wrote and published Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?, which is still the only critical history and analysis of AA. It also sold well, is still in print, and over the years outsold the two previous books.

In 1992, See Sharp began publishing books by other authors, and shortly after that signed a deal with a now-defunct small press book distributor. We’re currently distributed by IPG.

Tell us a bit about See Sharp Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission? 

There aren’t any influences that I can think of. Similarly, no esthetic other than producing attractive, readable books. As for a mission, here’s the statement on our web site:

See Sharp Press is a cause-driven small press. Our mission is to make available radical books and e-books in the standard commercial outlets, especially books/e-books in the areas of anarchism and atheism. We want to live in a free, sane (that is, in part, religion-free) world, and feel that this is the best contribution we can make toward that goal.

We publish books, pamphlets, and e-books in other areas for three reasons: 1) We have some expertise in those areas; 2) we feel that the materials we publish in them are inherently worthwhile; 3) they help to support publication of anarchist and other political books that often do not pay their own way.

Our primary book publishing niches are music instructional/reference, anarchism, atheism, science fiction, psychology, and modern (non-12-step) alcohol/drug abuse self-help. In recent years we’ve been focusing almost exclusively on music, anarchist, atheist, and science fiction titles.

Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?

We have three books scheduled over the current and coming publishing seasons:

1) Venezuelan Anarchism: The History of a Movement, by Rafael Montes de Oca. Translated from the original Spanish-language title, this is the first history of the anarchist political movement in Venezuela.

2) Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science (revised and expanded), by John Grant. Hugo and World Fantasy Award winner (both for nonfiction) John Grant examines political misuse and distortion of science in this timely and greatly expanded update of his 2008 title.

3) The Wake of Leviathan, by T.C. Weber. The second book in Weber’s “Sleep State” trilogy. The first volume, “Sleep State Interrupt,” was a nominee for the 2017 Compton Crook Award for best debut science fiction novel.

We plan to continue publishing books in the niches mentioned in our mission statement.

We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.

Nothing excites me about the current small/independent press publishing situation other than that it’s much less financially risky than it used to be, thanks to POD and e-books, to publish new books. This encourages publishers to take a chance on books they’d otherwise turn down. There’s little else to be excited about.

The number of books published annually has skyrocketed (over 800,000 self-published titles with ISBNs in 2016). The number of review publications, and the number of reviews in surviving publications, has plummeted. Market concentration, starting with the rise of the chains, their subsequent downfall, and the current dominance of Amazon, has had a devastating effect on sales.

The gate-keeping function formerly provided by the indies, and to a lesser extent the chains, is almost totally gone. (Independent bookstores now account for only about 10% of book trade sales.) As a result, huge numbers of terribly written, terribly (if at all) edited, and terribly produced books — which would never have appeared on the shelves of indies or chains — have flooded Amazon, making it extremely difficult for high quality books produced by small publishers to rise above the noise.

Similarly, word-of-mouth sales are all but dead. Decades ago, the indies would keep books on shelves for months, sometimes a year or more, and as a result readers would see them, sometimes buy them, and then recommend them to others. As a result, even books that received few or no reviews still had a chance to sell as a result of word of mouth. No more.

A further result of all this is that publishers are dependent on an extremely small number of retailers for their sales, and the actions of those retailers can have dramatic effects on sales. Market concentration has all but killed our three best-selling titles. Here’s how:

Front cover of "The Anti-Christ" by Friedrich NietzscheIn 1998, I noticed that H.L. Mencken’s translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s final, and arguably best, book, The Anti-Christ, had been out of print for decades. The book was in the public domain, so See Sharp published a cheaply priced trade edition in 1999 expecting to sell a few thousand copies. For once, I was pessimistic about sales: between 1999 and 2011, we sold over 30,000 copies.

Then everything changed. Sales had gradually been tailing off, but in mid-2011 we were still selling about 100 copies per month and were close to being out of stock, so I ordered another printing of 3,000 copies. Borders had been selling roughly 90% of the copies of that book, and two months after the new printing arrived they went under. As an unsecured creditor, we were stiffed for the hundreds of copies which they had taken, left with nearly the full 3,000 copies of the new printing sitting on our distributor’s shelves, and left with monthly sales of roughly 10 copies per month. We ended up pulping half of the books, and the remaining copies are still selling at about 10 per month.

That was small potatoes compared to what Amazon has done to us. (I do not ascribe any ill intent to Amazon. Rather, their actions were the equivalent of an elephant stepping on a flea.)

In 2003, we published The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition, by Upton Sinclair. This was the virtually unknown version that had been serialized in 1905, was the version that Sinclair tried desperately to get in print, and which he subsequently gutted in order to make it acceptable to commercial publishers. That gutting resulted in the much shorter version published by Doubleday in 1906, and that’s still the version familiar to the vast majority of readers.

Our “Uncensored Original Edition” was 30% longer than the standard commercial version, contained the gut-wrenching and politically cutting material Sinclair had excised, and also contained lengthy introductory material: a scholarly introduction and foreword explaining what Sinclair had removed and why, and The Jungle‘s checkered publishing history.

The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition received rave reviews across the board (including a starred review from “Library Journal”), and over the next eight years sold over 50,000 copies.

During that time Amazon’s dominance of the bookselling trade skyrocketed. Current estimates are that Amazon sells over 50% of physical books—with some estimates being as high as 70%—and roughly 70% of e-books.

In 2011, someone (not a book publisher, but someone simply using Amazon’s CreateSpace label) published a knockoff edition of The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition, using the same subtitle, but without the explanatory introduction and foreword, and without the explanatory footnotes with which we had peppered the book; they added no explanatory material whatsoever to their edition.

They apparently grabbed our text, reformatted it, deleted the scholarly introduction and foreword, and the explanatory footnotes, and put the book out with smaller type and with a much smaller page count (216 pages versus the 352 pages of the See Sharp edition), with a cheap black and white cover and a lower cover price. They also falsely claimed copyright of the book. In short, they published, in my view, a poorly produced book, bearing a dishonest copyright claim, that would almost certainly never have been carried by the indies nor the chains because of its appearance.

Amazon’s reaction? They put the CreateSpace edition at the top of the page, assigned both the industry publication reviews (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal) and the in excess of 1,500 overwhelmingly favorable reader reviews to it.

Our sales tumbled immediately and drastically. They tumbled even further when Amazon took our edition off the first page, and made it accessible only via the tiny other-editions link on the CreateSpace listing. Things reached their nadir earlier this year when readers couldn’t find our edition via the other-editions link, and could only find our edition on Amazon by typing in the ISBN.

Amazon has mostly but not entirely rectified the listings (they still assign the reader reviews of our edition to the CreateSpace edition), and our edition now comes up first on the page. However, the damage has been done. During the book’s first eight years, we sold over 50,000 physical copies and were selling a steady 500 to 600 copies per month prior to 2011. Over the last six years, we’ve sold 5,000 copies total.

Front cover of The Drummer's Bible Second EditionMore recently, Amazon, through its listings policy, badly damaged one of our other best-selling titles, The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, a book/2-CD set, which we published in 2004. The book received very favorable reviews in drum and percussion periodicals, and sold very well for a music book: 19,000 copies during its first eight years; monthly sales (a large majority via Amazon) were increasing at the end of that period.

In 2012, we let the original edition go out of print and issued an updated, considerably expanded second edition at very nearly the same price as the original edition. Sales immediately plummeted.

Why? Amazon transferred neither the magazine reviews nor the dozens of favorable reader reviews of the original edition to the updated second edition. As well, they placed the out-of-print edition—which has a very similar cover to the second edition—at the top of the page, where readers would see the  out-of-print designation, and likely go no further. To make matters even worse, some of the older Kindles wouldn’t play the embedded audio tracks in the e-book version of the Bible, and we received a number of one-star reviews of the new edition from readers who mistakenly concluded that the problem was with the e-book rather than with their Kindle devices (or Kindle emulators running on PCs).

The end result was that sales immediately dropped from 200 to 250 copies per month (of the original edition) to 40 to 50 copies per month of the second edition, where they’re still sitting.

Amazon has finally, for the most part, fixed the listings situation, but the damage has been done. It’s worth noting that our distributor made repeated requests to Amazon to rectify the problems with the listings for both books, and that for years Amazon simply ignored those requests.

As for “what needs to change?”, we need a much greater diversity of bookselling outlets, both brick and mortar and online. I don’t see that happening any time soon, if ever, but it is what’s needed. Until that changes, small publishers will be in an extremely vulnerable position, where a single bookseller can all but destroy a book’s sales.

How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at See Sharp Press?

We keep costs to a minimum by doing almost everything in house and, unless advance sales justify an offset run, doing titles via POD. E-book sales are a help—after your initial small investment for conversion, there are no additional costs other than paying royalties—but they’ve leveled off at about 20% of sales.

We continue using the standard contract model—paying advances and paying royalties—and wouldn’t consider any other type of publishing structure. The publisher should pay all costs. The author should never pay a dime. Period.

My advice to authors would be to run the other way if an agent or publisher charges a reading fee.

Rising book costs aren’t a concern. Most people consider books a luxury item, and the two dollars or so that you have to bump the cover price for a POD title have little effect on sales.

Recent releases from See Sharp Press:


by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Your Amazon and Goodreads reviews matter, probably more than you realize.

There has been a drastic decline in the numbers of magazines and newspapers over the past two decades, and an even more drastic decline in the number that carry book reviews. The number of daily papers in the U.S. dropped roughly 15% over the past quarter century, and a great many of those remaining have reduced or entirely eliminated their book review sections. (This is in line with their overall reductions in news and feature coverage during the same period due to huge, presumably Internet-caused, revenue drops.)

The status of weekly papers is perhaps even more dire. Forty years ago there were independent weeklies in almost every major and mid-size city in the country, and a great many carried reviews. Since then, those that survived have been, and are still being, gobbled up by media conglomerates, the New Times chain being emblematic. That chain bought weeklies in half of the country’s largest markets, and the New Times papers I’m familiar with (and probably all of the rest) do not review books.

The situation here in Tucson is a case in point. In 2010, Arizona’s oldest daily newspaper, The Tucson Citizen, went under. The remaining Tucson daily, The Arizona Daily Star, now devotes only a half-page to reviews in its Sunday edition (no space at all in the others), and the formerly independent Tucson Weekly has been bought twice over the last 15 years by small media conglomerates. It used to carry weekly in-depth reviews of books by local authors. No more. Following its most recent sale, it stopped carrying book reviews and almost everything else that made it worth reading. It’s now little more than an advertising sheet of use only as bird cage liner (which is, literally, what I use it for).

Magazines are in somewhat similar shape. Circulation (especially news stand circulation) has been declining simultaneously with the ascent of the Internet, and revenue has been plummeting: from $48.3 billion in 2007 to $27 billion in 2015. Two specialty magazines, Guitar Player and Bass Player, owned by the same company, are a case in point. From their glory days in the 1990s, their circulation has dropped by roughly half,  and a few years ago they combined their staffs in a cost-cutting move. The end result of all this is that magazines have cut back their coverage, and it’s harder than ever to get reviews. (Bass Player and Guitar Player are exceptions to the rule, and are still very good about reviewing books.)

Compounding all this is the explosion in the annual number of new books over the past 25 years or so. The number of new titles reported by Books in Print, the best source for information on physical books, more than doubled over the last 15 years; the current total of new print books exceeds 300,000 per year. Add in e-books, and the number is likely over 1,000,000. (No one really knows how many e-books are published annually.)

Add this all up, and you have far more books competing for far fewer reviews in the remaining magazines and newspapers (the situation is similar with online review sites, which are overwhelmed), and for what little shelf space remains in bookstores.

The number of independent bookstores, where readers in decades past could discover books that received few or no reviews, has declined drastically over the past half-century. At present, they account for only 10% of the book market. So, that channel for readers to discover books has all but disappeared.

To make matters even worse, the large-circulation magazines tend to ignore books from small presses and to review primarily, often only, books from the half-dozen conglomerates that dominate the book publishing industry, and both television (and syndication-dominated) radio talk shows tend to book only the authors published by those same conglomerates.

What’s left for small publishers? Reader reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Kobo, B&N, and other online retailer sites.

If you read a book that you like issued by an independent publisher, please consider writing even a one- or two-sentence review for Goodreads or any of the online book retailers. It’ll help both the author and the small publisher. And it’ll help other readers discover books they would enjoy.

Your reviews are more important than you think.

 


 

TVA Baby front cover(TVA Baby, by Terry Bisson. Oakland: PM Press, 2011, 170 pp., $14.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

While preparing to write this review, I was musing on how many good small press books fall through the cracks, and how many execrable books from major publishers sell well. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to TVA Baby eventually.)

A recent example of that is the dreadful California, which Stephen Colbert enthusiastically pushed on his show, and which was issued by a major publisher, Hachette, not coincidentally also Colbert’s publisher. (He was open about this.) The book sold tens of thousands of copies and in July reached #3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a somewhat special case, due to Colbert’s heavy promotion, but it’s also symptomatic of the inherent advantages held by major publishers.

What creates those advantages? A number of things. First, major publishers have more money for promotion than small presses, often much more. Second, major publishers have on-staff publicists who already have good contacts with the television industry and print media. Third, almost all major publishers are based in New York City, and there’s a very real New York bias in important parts of the media.

(If you’re a small, non-NYC publisher, good luck on ever getting a review in The New York Times or The New York Review of Books; also check out the publishers of the authors who appear on The Daily Show and [while it was still on] Colbert Report. In fairness, the standard book industry review journals–notably Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist–are good about giving small press books a fair break; but this doesn’t cancel the NYC bias in other parts of the media.)

In contrast, small publishers usually have small advertising budgets, few if any contacts in major media, and have to hire outside publicists (if they can afford it–many can’t) who’ll put in nowhere near full-time work.

Recent trends in the bookselling industry have only exacerbated this problem. Half a century ago, before the rise of the national chains and then Amazon, booksellers by and large were independent bookstores. Such stores routinely would order books and leave them on their shelves for a good three to six months, sometimes a year, before returning them. This ensured that books that received few if any reviews would be seen by large numbers of possible book buyers, and so would have a chance of selling well eventually due to word of mouth.

No more. Independent bookstores currently account for only 10% of book sales, and they have to be lean and mean, so no more leaving books on the shelf for six months. The chains? B. Dalton, gone. Waldenbooks, gone. Borders, gone. And Barnes and Noble has been cutting the number of its stores for years, and even more drastically cutting the number of titles its stores carry. And the length of time new books are on the shelves is down to perhaps four to six weeks. So, goodbye to the word-of-mouth ray of hope for small publishers. And goodbye also to the gatekeeping function independent bookstores  used to provide. (The independents tended not to carry poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced books.)

Compounding matters, over the last decade or so it’s become very easy and very cheap to publish both print-on-demand (paperback) books and e-books. This has resulted in a huge increase in the number of available titles, many of which are awful. Combine this with the current predominance of online bookselling, with its near-total lack of gatekeeping, and it becomes very, very difficult for even the best small press books to rise above the noise.

Then add in the tanking economy (for most people–Wall Street is doing fine), with its continuing unemployment, low-paying jobs, and declining median income (down an astounding 12% since 2001), and times are tough for small publishers and their books (which many financially stretched potential buyers regard as luxury items).

Which brings us to TVA Baby. It’s one of the deserving small press books that have fallen through the cracks.

It’s a collection of 13 short stories by longtime science fiction (and nonfiction) author Terry Bisson, and it covers a wide variety of topics and genres. Stories in it range from noir (“Charlie’s Angels”), to purely comic (“Billy and the Circus Girl”), to ’30s pulp sci-fi (“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”), to sappy (“A Special Day”), to hallucinogenic (“TVA Baby”).

In most of the stories, Bisson’s dark humor is at the forefront, particularly in “TVA Baby,” which is grotesque but laugh-out-loud funny. Other standouts include “Pirates of the Somali Coast” and the other stories mentioned above, except “A Special Day.”

As with nearly all short story collections, there are some hits and some misses in TVA Baby; but the ratio of hits to misses is higher here than in the average collection. So . . . . .

If you enjoy concise writing and mordant humor, you’ll enjoy TVA Baby.

Recommended.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover