Mark Coker ebook workshop, Sept. 29

Mark Coker

The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club hosted Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, for a presentation in January that I wrote about here:

Now we’re having him back to present a nuts and bolds workshop on ebook publishing and marketing. The date is September 29, time is 9:30-3:00, and the location is convenient, just off a major freeway.  Price is $45 for CWC members and $55 for non-members.

Here is the description:

“How To Produce, Distribute & Sell Your Work In The Evolving Eworld” is a September 29thworkshop being offered by the California Writers Club, Sacramento branch.  Presenter Mark Coker, Founder and CEO of “Smashwords, ” is a leading expert in the field of creating and marketing ebooks in the evolving digital age.

Here is the brochure:

Unfortunately, I have another commitment that day.  Isn’t that always the way?  I’m sorry to miss the event, for I have a lot of respect for Coker and the clarity of his explanations and suggestions.  If you aren’t too far away and have every considered indie publishing, I’m sure this will be worthwhile.  The brochure says space is limited and suggests early registration.  I’d take that advice.

An Author’s Guide to Publishing in 2012, by Amy Rogers.

Those who have followed thefirstgates for a while will be familiar with Dr. Amy Rogers.

Amy Rogers

I reviewed her excellent first novel, Petroplague, in September, 2011  In March of this year, she contributed a two part guest post detailing some of the rapid changes in today’s publishing landscape, an issue she follows in depth  Last Friday, Amy gave an updated presentation on  publishing options to the Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club during our monthly breakfast meeting.

Not long ago, there were only two publishing choices:  traditional publishing and the so called vanity press.  Now we have a spectrum of possibilities which keep getting harder to navigate.  Hybrid arrangements are multiplying:  traditional agencies offering ebook options, and agented independent publishing companies.

Rogers began her presentation by stressing the importance of every writer evaluating their individual goals.  Why do we want to publish this particular book?  How will we measure success?

Do we seek the implied approval that selection by a traditional publisher confers?  If so, do we have the time to invest in the process, knowing there is no guarantee of ultimate success?

If we choose to go the independent route, are we ready and willing to spend the time and/or money on five key tasks required for any book to be successful:  editing, cover design, layout, getting an isbn number, and marketing/distribution?

With a sense of our goals, Amy Rogers presentation, posted in full on her blog, will prove especially valuable.  A downloadable pdf version, is available too

After reviewing the presentation, take the time to explore Ms Rogers’ website,  With a Ph.D in immunology, teaching experience in microbiology, and a writing career that began in grade school, Amy is uniquely qualified to write and review thrillers involving the depredations of “wee beasties.”  ScienceThrillers has grown to include reviews of books in multiple genres, publishing news, book giveaways, notices of writing contests, and her own quarterly newsletter.  It’s a site I’m very happy to recommend.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Files for Chapter 11

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after reaching a deal with creditors to wipe out more than $3 billion in debt.  This will be the second major restructuring for Houghton in two years.

The Journal calls Houghton a major textbook publisher, and the company says it’s been hurt by state and local budget cuts to K-12 education programs.

Fans of Tolkien know Houghton as the American publisher of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Several books I treasure are Tolkien  editions illustrated by Alan Lee, artistic director for Peter Jackson’s movies, whose drawing and paintings shaped the films, and in some cases, served as the the actual backgrounds for outdoor scenes.

These are kind of books I treasure as print editions.  At the same time, it’s easy to imagine a transition to ebooks could be a business saving move for the textbook division.  Industry watchers knew Houghton was in trouble as early as 2008, when it temporarily suspended new book acquisitions.  It’s hard to believe they are the only traditional publisher that is struggling for survival.

A Bookstore Expedition

Lego Indiana Jones

I called it an expedition to motivate myself.  “Bookstore” these days means Barnes & Noble, and I don’t like to go there very much.  I think you’ll see why in the course of this post.

I went to look at their middle-grade fantasy books.  It’s time for summer reading, and some of the classics in this genre weave just the right spell of imaginative escapism:  books like Inkspell, Spiderwick, and  The Emerald Atlas.  Imagine my dismay when I got there and found the middle-grade section gone!  For years these books lived in the right-rear corner of the children’s section, but now all the signs said, “Young readers, grades 3-6.”  I looked through the children’s section and found a few familiar titles, but the group as a whole was no longer on display.

“Explorer” by Stephen Noble,

The rationale became clear when I left the children’s section. Right at the entrance were two large racks of “Teen Paranormal Romance,” sporting the best display of any genre in the store – trade paperbacks with covers, not spines, showing. Marketing must have decided that closing the middle-grade commons would motivate younger girls to move up to a more lucrative market. Apparently books like Garth Nix’s Arthurian stories for boys, or Newberry winners like Lois Lowry and Madeline L’Engle, no longer warrant shelf space. A book or two might have been stuck in between the 3d grade readers, but if so, I missed them.

I don’t begrudge Barnes & Noble its marketing efforts, but it’s been many years since I discovered anything new in their stores.  Discovery used to be part of going to bookstores.  “Browsing” once was the order of the day, and some of those discoveries changed my life.  Like the time when I was 18, and on pure impulse, bought a copy of Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads.  The spark that title ignited still burns.

Now I make most of my book discoveries online.  This morning, Amazon sent me an email, based on my search and reading preferences:  “Best Middle-grade books in May.”  Where am I likely to go to read sample pages and shop?

I went on my expedition a week ago, two days before Barnes & Noble and Microsoft announced their partnership to champion the Nook.  As I sat down to write this post, their merger seemed huge.  It’s not about the big six publishers anymore, is it?  The future belongs to the big three – Amazon, Apple, and B&N / Microsoft.

The big six had their chance to open ebook divisions, or even join ranks in a partnership, but sticking to rear-view vision, that boat has sailed.  Now its hard to imagine any business model that can save them.  Their mantra has been, “People will always want paper,” but will they?  I don’t know.  What follows is speculation as I look at the books on our shelves.

Books that are read only once – meaning the vast majority of paperbacks, will do fine as ebooks.  Most textbooks for most grades of school should do well as ebooks too, and lighten the load of student backpacks.

Coffee table books might warrant larger readers, which will probably soon be embedded in coffee tables.  You see desk mounted touch-screen computers on shows like Hawaii Five-O.  I bet it won’t be long until they appear in furniture stores.  Same with fine art prints for the walls – think of a blend of existing digital picture frames with wall mounted HDTV’s.

So what books do I really value in paper?  Books like Lord of the Rings and Wind in the Willows, books I treasure and read again and again, yet those are pretty rare purchases and won’t keep printers in business.

Spiritual books of all sorts, for I underline those and fill them with post-it notes.  How-to books, on subjects from  gardening to computer programming texts.  I used the latter until they fell apart at work.  Any book where I write notes in the margin.  Right now, ereader bookmarks and margin notes are inadequate, but this should be an easy fix in the future.  Software that lets me use my laptop keyboard when I plug in on USB will fix much of the problem.

I don’t want print to go away.  I don’t want to see used bookstores close or raise their prices to “antique” levels.  There’s magic in turning pages, in the smell of ink and paper.  I’ve read so many stories that begin when someone finds a mysterious, yellowing book of lore, that I can’t go into an old bookstore without wondering if “today will be the day.”  It’s hard to imagine those stories with mysterious, yellowing, kindles!

No, I don’t want print to go away, but it’s hard to imagine any other future for the printed word.  Can you?

Mark Coker on the Justice Dept. vs. publishers

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, is probably the best known advocate of ebooks as an alternative to traditional publishing, yet he doesn’t want those publishers to disappear.  He made this clear in an article on on Sunday entitled, “A dark day for the future of books.”

Mark Coker

The Justice Department launched an anti-trust suit against Apple and five large publishing companies for adopting “agency pricing” and allegedly forcing Amazon to comply.  At the time, Amazon was pricing many books below cost, a move the other publishers feared would harm their print book sales. Three of the publishers have settled, while the remaining two, plus Apple, are going to court.

Coker seldom sides with big publishers, but in this case his reasons are clear:  he fears the Justice Department’s intention to protect consumers could actually harm them by harming the publishing industry by “forcing them to comply with onerous conditions…including restrictions on collaboration with fellow publishers and increased federal auditing and reporting requirements — [which] will increase publisher expenses and slow their business decisions at the very time when publishers need to become faster, nimbler competitors.”

Coker says that although agency pricing raises ebook prices, it “prevents deep-pocketed retailers or device makers from engaging in predatory price wars to harm competitors or discourage formation of new competitors. It would enable the marketplace to support more retailers, which would mean more bookstores promoting the joys of reading to more readers. And it would force retailers to compete on customer experience rather than price. Customers are best served when we have a vibrant e-book retailing ecosystem.”

As I understand Coker’s argument, if ebook prices drop too low, print publishing, the staple of brick and mortar stores as well as libraries, will become a money losing proposition.  I think we all know a certain “deep-pocketed retailer or device maker” who isn’t above “predatory price wars.”  Much as I love my kindle, I don’t want Amazon to become the only game in town.

I suggest everyone with an interest in writing, publishing, and ebooks read Coker’s article, the latest installment in a very convoluted drama.

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer: A Book Review

Update, July 31, 2012.

On July 30, author Jonah Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes in Imagine. He resigned his position as staff writer for The New Yorker, and Houghton Mifflin suspended sales of the book. You can read my full post on the topic here, which contains a link to the newspaper story.

It is with much sadness that I’ve decided to remove the text of my review. Some of Lehrer’s observations on creativity remain insightful. At the same time, I think it is vital to stand up for ethics wherever we can find it in public life.

Justice Department Goes After eBook Price Fixing

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Justice warned Apple and five major publishers that it plans to sue them for “allegedly colluding to raise the price of electronic books.”

The publishers include Simon & Schuster, Hachette Books, Penguin, Macmillan, and HarperCollins.  The suit centers on Apple’s plan to move ebook pricing from the “wholesale model” to the “agency model,” as it prepared to release the first iPad.  Biographer, Walter Isaacson, quotes Steve Jobs:

“We told the publishers, ‘We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway,'”  

The publishers were then able to impose the same model across the industry, Mr. Jobs told Mr. Isaacson. “They went to Amazon and said, ‘You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books,'”

William Lynch, CEO of Barnes & Noble, testified in a deposition that abandoning the agency model would effectively transfer even more power to Amazon, since they can afford to sell ebooks below cost to build market share.

Everyone who intuitively knows that an ebook is not “worth” as much as a physical book must wonder why the two are so often priced within a dollar of each other.  If ebooks were “fairly” priced, would traditional publishers fall farther behind?  Would more brick and mortar stores disappear?

I don’t know…

But I do know that everyone who has a stake in the issue, or is just curious about the upheaval in publishing, should read this article to keep up on the latest events in the ongoing drama.

Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson – An Appreciation

Twenty years ago, Mary and I got our first real home computer (the Commodore 64 didn’t quite count).  With an Intel 486 processor, 500k of ram, an 8k external modem, and AOL memberships, we were wired!  Full-fleged members of the information age, at least by the standards of the day.

The same year, 1992, Neal Stephenson published a visionary novel called, Snowcrash. In retrospect, it merits the word, “prophetic,” for its sketch of life in the metaverse – a word Stephenson coined – and in the inconvenient world we call “reality.”


In Snowcrash, Stepenson posits a world where nation states have transferred most of their power to corporations. Most people are corporate citizens and live in corporate enclaves, or less prestigious burbclaves.  The hero of Snowcrash, Hiro Protagonist, is a citizen of “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong.”  Military power belongs to private contractors, as do the roadways, which vie for driver/customers.  The post office is gone; private couriers deliver snail-mail.  The United States occupies a smallish territory centered in the Mohave Desert, and keeps it’s employees busy with make-work projects.  The former United States economy hinges on two industries – computer microcode and high speed pizza delivery, which has been revolutionized since the Mafia took control.

Though Hiro is a citizen of Hong Kong, as a pizza driver, he can’t afford to live in their enclaveclave.  Home is a self-storage unit under the flight path at LAX.  Like most of his hip and cyber-savvy generation, he spends most of his time online in the guise of his avatar, navigating virtual worlds.  But something is happening in the online world.  A strange new computer virus, when opened, generates a graphic pattern that scrambles the brains of the user.  They are dazed and speak in tongues.  With a young woman named YT, for Yours Truly, Hiro sets out to unravel the mystery.

The villain turns out to be a charismatic preacher.  In his attempt to secure both temporal and spiritual power, he has tapped into the ancient Sumerian glyphs that first scrambled human speech patterns in the event known as the Tower of Babel.

It’s been 20 years since I’ve read Snow Crash, so I’m writing this from memory.  I’m not necessarily recommending the whole novel.  The first jaw-dropping 100 pages, where Stephenson built his world, flew by and still leave me in awe.  I remember the rest of the book dragging in parts, but I still think of the story all the time.  Most futuristic fantasies prove as silly as the 1930’s movie shorts that show humans zipping along in their air cars between high rise buildings, happy and without any accidents.  This book is different.

In 1992 there were no virtual worlds.  Now there are, and you have to create an avatar to negotiate them.  These days, it isn’t so hard now to imagine a bright young man living in a self-storage shed.  But above all, Snow Crash comes to mind because in the wake of “citizens united,” it’s so easy to see corporate power growing while government power wanes.  With Super Pac money rolling the election year dice, does the government control corporations or do corporations control government?  Neal Stephenson saw this and other aspects of our world coming 20 years ago.

Snow Crash, is a visionary novel that all lovers of fantasy should know.