JK Rowling, Pottermore and the Future

As far as moments in publishing go, the launch of Pottermore is massive. But what makes it momentous is that, for the first time in contemporary publishing, an author has dictated to the biggest names in book-retailing. To put not too fine a point on them, she has told Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble exactly where they can shove their DRM. That kind of authorial power is rare and truly magnificent in its scope.

The watermarking system of the Potter books is a much nicer approach to treating readers like trustworthy human beings rather than the Draconian (mm, puns) hammerlock of DRM. If the book is pirated, it can be traced. It’s probably more effort than its worth but at least Rowling is not treating her readers like criminals. I have discussed book piracy before, and my friends have offered superb links in the comments thread there, so this is an interesting and refreshing approach to DRM.

To be fair, there are maybe ten authors alive that could pull off something as big as this. My bet would be that if James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Jeff Kinney and that ilk decided to get their own online stores and sell their books directly, there’s not much outside a watertight publishing contact that could stop them. And big money means big lawyers to break those contracts. So where does that leave the humble bookseller? And publishers?

For booksellers, the doom and gloom is unnecessary. Most authors don’t have the wherewithal to be able to bypass the retail chain. Honestly, JK Rowling is a rock star amongst writers. The Telegraph shares these facts:

69 Different languages that the Harry Potter books have been published in.

400 million Copies estimated that the Potter books have sold worldwide. It is considered the fastest selling book of all time.

200 Countries in which the books have been published.

Her record-breaking sales and allure as an author gives her power that 99% of the world’s authors do not have. The reason self-publishing hasn’t been able to put a dent in the publishing world at large is because publishers still give authors a platform and help they would not have alone. (Selling your own books is much like door-to-door insurance selling. Thankless, tedious and with pitiful payoff.) Amanda Hocking and the untalented EL James of Fifty Shades notoriety are still the only examples of self-published authors gone big. Rowling had to start with a publisher. Now she has outpaced them and given something back to her incredibly loyal readers.

I like to see this momentous occasion as a wonderful snub to the big baddies in book retail. It is remarkable to see an author empowering her readers by treating them like people. The books are fairly priced at R90 and can be bought with South African credit cards. This is a great time for readers, and inspiring for other authors. No doubt, the publishing industry needs an overhaul. It still screws the authors, and the book retailers screw the buyers. This is a brave new world of author power; I can’t wait to see what happens from here.

The Price of Books

Everyone loves to complain about the price of things without really thinking about what it costs to make it happen. How can a book cost R200, wails the consumer (nearly always while spending the same amount on silly cocktails).  How dare the bookstore charge this! How disgusting, knowledge and stories should be free to all!

This happens to me at so many dinner parties and similar arbitrary gatherings that I thought it would be best to set my thoughts down once and for all on the matter. I am tired of people complaining about how their latest copy of some tawdry romance cost them more than a meal, and then focusing that petty anger on me as some convenient representative of the book industry as a whole. I know I’m not the only one to get it in the neck; book reps get asked why the covers are so shit (and therefore drastically reducing the book’s chances of success) and store managers get scolded for painting the store the wrong colour. (I shit you not, this has happened.)

So, this is a handy guide to why books cost what they do, and why one should be grateful they don’t cost more.

The Birth of the Book

Of course, books don’t fall from the sky into the laps of publishers. First, a story must be written. Once that’s been done (in anything from six months to ten years), it gets picked up by a literary agent and/or a publishing house. If the book is pitched at a major book fair, there may be an auction for it. Sometimes these auctions run into 6-figure sums. A page hasn’t been printed and the publisher is already in debt. Usually though, the manuscript is selected and the author is usually paid an advance, and will get royalties once the money spent on the book’s production has been paid back. This seems to average around $15,000, but it can go much higher. Or lower. If the author is a megastar, then they draw a regular salary that needs to be paid. Ultimately, publishing companies need to charge just for the text to defray publishing costs.

This is just for raw product; words on paper. The words then need to be edited, covers must be designed and galleys must be printed. Now there are more people involved, and who need to be paid for their services. Marketing must be done. PR must be paid. Printing must begin! The price of printing books doubled last year, by the way. My contacts at Penguin tell me that an average-length book averages about R60 just to print and bind. It was R30 in 2009. A print run can be anything between 500 to 5 million copies. The opening print run of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was 750,000 copies, for example. Victor: My Journey has a print run of 34,000 copies. And that’s just for a rugby biography. And if the book has colour, then that price is going to double. This is why cookbooks are so expensive.

Now the book, and all its attendant finery of flyers, decals and posters, is ready to go. This is just a top-list book, never mind mid and bottom list books that don’t even get flyers. Ag shame.

Oh, the places this book will go!

 Unless the book is locally produced either by a local publishing house or a local arm of one of the Big Six, it must travel here. Now, the only books that get air-freighted to meet worldwide release dates are books like Harry Potter. Otherwise, everything is shipped to South Africa over the course of several weeks. This is why we always get books late. But before they can even get on a boat here, those books have to be paid for somewhere. The publishers pay to have them printed and shipped; this gets worked into the price that distributors buy them for. And, you guessed it; those prices are negotiated according to the exchange rate. So, if the Rand has been somewhat slapped about by the big boy currencies, then those books aren’t coming in cheap. Since we get about 60% of our books from the UK, we have to trade in the almighty Sterling. Yay.

And that’s before they’ve even gotten to our shores and airports. Our friends at Customs continue to slap an import tax on the books. You know, as punishment for bringing them here and the audacity of teaching children to read. (This is partly why textbooks are so expensive.) From the ports, those books go to warehouses by truck. Add on transport fees, and then feel free to work out how much it costs to get thousands of books all over the country, including hellholes like Kimberly. (On a sidenote, apparently Kimberly is the only place that could sell its stock of that awful Jock of the Bushveld gaffe.) If the price of petrol has gone up like the hemline of a teenage girl’s miniskirt, then add that onto the price too.

Adoption and Home

Finally! The book has arrived at the store after birth and travel. The boxes are opened, the booksellers reverently arrange the bestsellers at the front of the store in the hopes of snaring in customers. The ones with pretty covers glisten in the windows, and the big names are piled high. But the floors and tables don’t come cheap.

Rent has becoming an increasingly bigger nightmare for all store owners, but few get hit worse than stores with lots of shopliftable product and cheap-ass customers who will read an entire book and then leave it behind. Rent inJohannesburg, for example, averages between R700 to R1000 a square metre in the big shopping centres. When you extrapolate the size of your favourite bookstore, and start factoring in rent, it starts to look a bit more sensible. Now that the book has come to its first temporary home, its shelter costs a fair bit. Electricity, staff pay, music licences (it is illegal to play music without a licence from SAMA), stock purchases, banking fees with each credit card swipe, theft and insurance are all built into that price. Add to this the plastic bags that keep your book safe until it gets home. What about general upkeep and maintenance? Then there are book launches, where people often drink and eat free without buying a single book to ease off some of the costs.

So, when you pay for that book, you are paying the author, the publishers, the printers, the transport companies, the South African government for customs and VAT, the bookstore’s rent, Eskom, the banks, the salaries of the people that work there AND for the thoughtlessness of those who thieve books each and every day.

Suddenly, R180 for a novel doesn’t seem quite so outrageous, does it?

Publisher on Author Crime

Because I’m almost permanently wired into the world of books, publishing and writing, I am coming across more and more stories of writers being malaligned by their publishers. More writers being strong-armed into ridiculous contracts and made to feel grateful for it. It is ridiculously competitive and based less on quality as marketability. As Sarah A. Hoyt mentions on her blog here,

In fact, if your book had been completely blank, or a compilation of nursery rhymes, it would have got exactly the same distribution and sales as it got with your words in it. You didn’t choose the cover. You didn’t choose the price. You didn’t choose the push. You didn’t choose the distribution.

More importantly and more than likely, the person who chose these things chose them NOT based on the book – which they might or might not have read – but on YOU and their perceived marketability of YOU. (And let me tell you, as a reader, that’s many shades of wrong.)

Most people don’t know your book even exists, and therefore they can’t ask for it. And if they do, they might get told it can’t be ordered.

(The whole post is fascinating, and an excellent shorthand for what’s wrong with publishing in general.)

Then there are the authors I spoke about in my post on the opening Amazon’s publishing branch. Add to this the story of Doranna Durgin, who is being forced to buy ALL of her books in the warehouse if she wants the rights back.

What’s going on here? Without authors there is NO publishing industry, and yet most of them end up languishing in the mid-lists forever despite being brilliant. This attitude seems a little self-defeating in the face of what might be the death spiral of publishing as we know it. I usually read mid-list titles as those are the ones that proof copies are provided for, and more often than not it is far superior to the majority of the top-list crap. I mean, credit due where it is, but James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer and Danielle Steel don’t produce great literature. (See their ranking on Forbes in my post here.) I’ve beaten that poor horse to death in the previously mentioned post, so for now I’d like to deal with how authors are being conned and guilted.

The best examples of the pitfalls of the publishing industry are made clear on the Writers Beware page. There are impossible clauses buried in the contracts offered by the major houses, more commonly in the littler houses trying to entrap good authors. So many people are desperate to get published that there are numerous vultures waiting to feed on their desire without giving them the credit they deserve. People who ask for a small ‘consulting’ or ‘reading’ fee and who promise to get the book published. Agents who swear they know the right people and charge either a consulting fee or demand 30 printed manuscripts. Usually the author pays the fee rather than the printing cost. Luckily my fingers were saved from some burning thanks to published author sisters and dear friends, Molly and Joely Burkhart, who warned me that no author pays upfront to get their book published. Agents and publishers take the fee off sales, never off the author directly.

Which is why book piracy makes me sad. The author is already making so little (3-8% of the cover price), it just seems cruel to snatch even that from them after all their hard work. I once read a pirated copy and felt so terrible that I have long since stopped the habit. (Also, the quality is just so bloody awful.) The only free books I take now are proof copies from book reps and from Project Gutenberg. And the more I read about how publishers treat any author that isn’t a mega-star, the less enamoured I grow of the industry. So, follow the buzz (right here, of course) and support the authors that write fresh, bright fiction so that one day the Forbes Top Ten doesn’t read like a litany of mediocrity.

For further insights into publishing from a self-proclaimed Penmonkey who made it and writes about it, visit these posts from Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds.com

Toxic Tempers and Fevered Egos in Publishing

Writers are the 99%

(His site is truly a treasure trove of insight and coffee-snorting humour, and he deserves his success as a writer.)  

Sorry, straights only

Unfortunately, we often forget that the publishing industry is as much a gatekeeper as it is a place of rebellion. It can be both, but it is sad when it is the former.

Two authors wrote about their book being rejected because they would not change a gay character into a straight one. Mail and Guardian reported on it further, noting that it isn’t an isolated case and that the publishing industry doesn’t see YA with gay elements being publishable. While there are books being published with gay characters at the centre and doing well (Song of Achilles being a case in point), there are no YA books that approach this issue. With gay teens already so maligned by their schools and communities in a very straight, religious world, there should be books that have gay characters in them so that they have something to relate to.

I cannot pretend to understand the persecution so many gay teenagers must undergo at some point in their lives. Society is generally heteronormative and Christian, and sometimes that means that there is aggressive legislation against gay rights in some countries. (For further info, please read Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality” to really get the meaning of that term.) In the States it is not new news that gay students are often denied the opportunity to form support groups. Now they don’t have the choice of literature starring gay heroes. Just as women still have to sit through movies where the heroine ends up being saved by a guy at the end anyway, gay readers don’t get to see a character that isn’t hetronormative, white and typical.

I am glad that there is some author backlash against these decisions. I just hope that the appearances of gay characters doesn’t become token. Look at JK Rowling and her post-publishing announcement that Dumbledore was gay. Never mentioned in the books because it might hurt sales, but its safe now that the books have been published. It reeks of tokenism because let’s be honest, all the heroes are white and straight. It’s a bit late to throw in a gay character once the money is banked. I know it started as a children’s series but it most certainly became too dark for that around the fourth book. So why not announce then that there was a gay headmaster who was powerful, intelligent and kind? The religious groups were upset anyway, so that wasn’t a factor. Is it just such anathema to have a gay character anywhere? In any case, I am glad that the announcement was at least made, and for as long as Harry Potter stays in the public domain, Dumbledore will be gay. (And in a sidenote to the above article, I am proud of the kids who were excited about it. Pity about the sanctimonious Christian mother, but she’s only one person and the fans are truly legion.)

Albus Dumbledore

The obvious answer is to write and publish more gay-themed YA books, but it should always be done tastefully. How to do that is a discussion for another day, but it is also the place of authors to be the vanguards in shifting perceptions and trends. We don’t have to, but we should when we can. After all, being able to write well is a gift, one that should never be used to further the status quo when it is already so unfair. Besides, it would be a great challenge to write a gay character that isn’t an awful stereotype.

For the love of the (e)Book

An interesting article on the potential change that eBooks will bring to reading:


I truly enjoy digital reading. If one is to be fussy about the format of the book, then that is to be selective about reading altogether. I am currently working my way through all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, of which there are 48 short stories and four novels. I am about two-thirds through, and dreading running out until House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz’s authorised contribution to the canon.

I am reading it my iPad 1, and I love that I can read it in any light, under the covers and on my side without having to hold the pages open. I can annotate passages, highlight them and call up a dictionary on the odd occassion. While it is an occasionally distracting medium with the errant hand movement flicking the page, the pages move as quickly as they would if they were paper.

But at the end of the day, I am still reading. There are the hundreds of thousands of Gutenberg press titles, as well as the hundreds of thousands of books that will not be converted or published as eBooks. What many publishers see in eBooks is less money on printing and more for marketing. Yes they can be pirated, but haven’t we all got a loaned book that the owner has forgotten to reclaim? With eBooks there is far less risk in publishing new authors, and a little more of the profit can go to the author. A new author currently earns about 3% on the book price, depending on the publishing house. Of course there are titles like The Language of Flowers, which the subject of a nine-publisher bid. But most authors have to have day jobs, and it is only the super stars that can live off their writing.

eBooks may also be the best chance we have of mass-distributing academic texts that are expensive and often hard on student and school budgets. One day eReaders will be cheap, and children will have access to thousands more books, both fiction and non-fiction. Isn’t this a wonderful thing?

Of course I love paper books; that much will not change. And many places in the world don’t even have stable electricity or food, never mind eReaders. For them, a paper book will still be precious. Perhaps, when the rich West gets tired of paper books, we should give them all away to anyone who wants them. Language barriers aside, it would be a fine use for all those books that have been replaced by their coded friends.

Bring on the eBook, I say, but let’s never forget the joy of a fresh book or the comfort of our most dog-eared friends.