Friday, October 16, 2009

I Should Finally Say Something on E-Books

Since I got a Sony e-Reader for my birthday, my parents have been utterly dedicated to cutting out clippings from newspapers about e-books and either mailing them to me or leaving them on my desk when I come home for some family event. When I came home last night I was met with about 7 clippings, and there was a front page article in today's New York Times that was already highlighted for me before I came down for breakfast. They all pretty much say the same thing, which is that e-books are new and awesome and libraries are using them to reach digital readers and Sony and Amazon are lowering their prices to battle for the market in e-readers (finally). A lot of the articles have noted that people can't get library books or Google books on the Kindle, which is exclusive to Amazon and the reason I got a Sony. Very few articles have much to say about the publishing industry other than this must be good somehow, because all things internet are good until they're bad and destroy industries (music and, slowly but surely, movies).

I would have reported on my e-Reader early but honestly, I don't use it that much. I own a lot of books. Way too many books. I have too much to read in book format at the moment, and I haven't been on any vacations where carrying 503 books around in one slender case in my backpack would have been helpful. That's how many books I have on my e-Reader, by the way - 503. How much did I pay for them? $0. I read a lot of public domain books - classics, translations of classics where the translation is in public domain, and non-fiction books that were written earlier than 1932. Google Books could literally provide me with millions of these if I could afford that many memory cards. Oh, and that's just if I stay legal, and don't take advantage of the fact that people have been massively digitizing their private collections (mostly sci-fi) for years and posting them as torrents. So far I've had no reason not to stay legal, but to be honest, sooner or later some book is going to come along and it's going to be overly expensive and a used copy isn't going to be available, the library copies are not going to be available, and because I hate the author or something I'm going to download it to read it.

There are some kinks to the e-Reader. The version I have seems to drain its battery if you don't use it for awhile, so when you turn it on after a couple weeks it barely has enough life left start up. Sony's having some software problems with the book version of iTunes, and the books won't sync properly to my computer and I have a lot of doubles on my memory card. Books scanned by Google instead of being designed for the reader can be hard to read, as in the text will be small and up in the corner of the screen if it's a .pdf or if it's an .epub, not all of the text will translate. The software that translates it will pick up some old fonts as different letters and some dirt on the ancient pages of a library book as marks so the text you're reading is only 95% there and your mind has to make some jumps. And frankly, I'm not as impressed with the e-Ink technology as I first was. It looks a lot like text, but the screen is still glass/plastic and therefore there's a glare from bright lights or sunlight. It's obviously not a book. Still, 503 free books on a single device? I'm going for it.

This device will not destroy publishing, but it will reshape the industry as we know it.

The biggest issue I see here is the market for classics. Publishers make huge amounts of money on public domain books, and once the e-Reader becomes advanced enough to feel more like a book (like they finally decide to put in a second G-ddamn screen so you can open it like a book) and becomes cheap enough, the market for classics and other public domain works will fall out. Not entirely, but it will take a large hit. Some imprints dedicated to these books will fold. Also once publishers digitize more of their own books, more will be leaked (I've never heard of drm technology stopping anyone) and you'll be able to download thousands of current books with torrents or whatever the next generation of downloading software is. Current publishing (new books) will take a hit. Textbook publishers, who have been screwing over students for years by publishing a new edition of everything every year to make sure nobody just hands over their old copy to a new student, will insist that schools only have licensed copies of their e-versions, and charge a lot for the licenses. Like, thousands of dollars, like Adobe does for photoshop. After many years of enjoying the program, I actually went to buy photoshop in gratitude, only to discover it was a thousand dollars. How the hell was I supposed to buy that? How was anyone who does photoshopping for fun?

In the end, the book market will survive because its essential medium is not something that cannot be digitized, unlike music, tv, and movies. It's paper. In your hand. But man, will it take a hit. And from the looks of all of these articles, nobody's ready for it.

(PS I'm out a lot this weekend so on top of Shabbos, most comments won't be approved until Sunday because I won't be around to approve them. But by all means, leave them for approval)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Misleading Demographics

Dear Rejector,
I have written a memoir about my experiences as a military brat living overseas (Vietnam). I've been sending out query letters and receiving mostly rejections (got one request for a MS from BIG NY AGENCY -- they passed), but I haven't been including any demographic info about my primary target audience: the approximately ten million former US military brats living around the US and world today.

These brats (sometimes called Third Culture Kids) form a large, but mostly invisible sub-culture that has gotten little attention in the literary world. It seems like every week there's a new book about heroin addicts and child abuse victims. I know that I would love to read about the experiences of other military brats, but the shelves at B+N never have such books.

Question: Should I include this demographic info in my query? It seems to me, that if an agents is looking for something to sell, it might be good to make them aware of the huge, mostly untapped market for this type of memoir. On the other hand, I don't want to oversell the MS.

If even one half of one percent (or so) of the former military brats still living wanted to read this particular book, the sales would be in the 40-60,000 range. Does that make sense to you?

A lot of people like to put demographic information in their queries even when they don't belong there. In one case, someone had written about driving around in his RV and said that all 3.4 million (or whatever the number is) RV owners would obviously want to buy his book and that's why it would be a bestseller. That's something not to put in your query. That's something that's so funny that I might mention it two years later in a blog post.

In your case I would say giving a statistic isn't bad. Statistics are good if they're not well-known; I didn't know how many army brats there were before you told me despite knowing a couple. Other cases include rare diseases and other things we might have heard of but not know a lot about. However, it deserves a line and nothing else. It's not a selling point so much as useful information for us.

The reason it's not a selling point is that we know that 40,000 army brats aren't going to buy your book. The truth is some people don't like reading about things they already know; it's a turn-off. I don't care for reading about Crohn's Disease. Someone's saga of doctor visits and bowel resections and screaming, "$39 a pill for Zofran?!?" isn't news to me. People for the most part read books because the things contained in them are new and interesting. In the case of non-fiction it's usually because the topics are things they want to know more about. True, some army brats would probably buy your book, but not a whole lot. We wouldn't lean on that demographic for sales. We would lean on a demographic of people who want to know more about army brats, and off the top of my head I have no idea what that demographic would be.

The story sells your book, not the demographic. Exceptions are made for doctors writing books for patients and the like.

Also, Zofran is worth every penny.