Somethin’ Happening in Here

Hey all. Gerry Boyle here.  And I’m feeling sort of nostalgic. This is partly because I’ve had a lot of interest from publishers of late in my backlist, AKA my early books that are hard to find. Gratifying to know that your work lives on.200px-Original_New_Yorker_cover

More about that soon when the ink is dry, as they say. But all that retrospection has me not only thinking about the way I started writing mystery novels, more than 20 years ago, but also about the book world I entered at that time. Reviews from newspapers across the country. Word of mouth from independent booksellers, lots of them, with thriving stores in communities large and small.

Ah, but you’ve heard about that before. How the book business has changed right before our eyes. How big-box stores drove out the independents. And then Amazon turned that business model on its head and started driving out the big-box stores. You’re aware of this but you may have the whole picture, unless you read a story by George Packer in The New Yorker.

The piece is called “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” It came out last week and I started reading it thinking I knew the answer. I was wrong. I’ve read the story twice and I’m still learning. If you like books and writing, you best do the same.

amazon-logo-10It’s a long story. It traces the evolution of Amazon from the earliest days to the present, with big-box stores on the run, Kindles on the rise, Amazon Publishing moving into the turf of traditional publishing, algorithms dictating what books are recommended for us.

I won’t try to summarize it here. I will say that it’s got all the elements of a good mystery novel. Heroes, villains, tension, suspense. Nefarious characters working behind the scenes. Heavy hitters putting the muscle on smaller players. And, in the end, we the readers (of the story and books) have to pick sides. Or do we?

I’ve played both sides of this game. My biggest supporters have been the owners of independent bookstores, who read my books when I was starting out and endorsed them for their loyal customers.  But I like the idea of getting my books out to as many readers as possible. And I have to say that I sometimes feel a little guilty about the $26.95 hardcover.

And as we speak, I’m considering an e-book first publication for a stand-alone book I’m now trying to sell.

But my next book deal will be with a publisher made up of real people, who love good writing, care about books, want to put them in the hands of as many readers as possible, and know that authors don’t do this just for fun.

So is the book business changing? Fast enough to make an author’s head spin. Where is it headed? Read Packer’s story and tell me what you think. Really.

Is Amazon good for books? I’m still mulling that question. But while we mull, the publishing world moves on. With us or without us.

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11 Responses to Somethin’ Happening in Here

  1. kim dunn says:

    Is the book world changing? You bet it is. (And I still miss my old typewriter.)
    While I resisted the intrusion of the e-book, my husband forced the issue with my new Paperwhite Kindle for Christmas 2012. I was unconvinced. Until I discovered the benefits of the virtual over the “real” thing.
    Since most of my reading is at night, not annoying my husband with the light, the page turning, the THUNK! as my (favored) hard cover hits the floor when I drift off, were quickly appreciated.
    And then there’s having to reread half a chapter to find my place.
    Call me a modern girl. I will always be a reader. And such a fan that I will still have the hard covers of my favorites.

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  2. Right after I read this I saw an email from Amazon in my inbox with book recommendations. I usually just delete them but decided to take a look. Every one of their recommendations were from their digital publishing service. Some of the books were 170 pages. Thanks for the insight!

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  3. Richard Goutal says:

    Now if Amazon could deliver oil to my car without having to go through the publisher (oil refinery), they will REALLY be pleasing the customer. I fear that, instead, they will only succeed in knocking out the bookstores (retail gas stations) when they figure that out. And perhaps if they really do find a way to deliver books by drone, they will indeed deliver oil someday. Love / hate. I get a lot of books from Amazon in both print and Kindle. But usually only after checking the regional library consortium for borrowing it. [Perhaps the library will find a way to deliver and pickup by drone!]

    Anyway, the Amazon monolith and the Comcast-AOL monolith are, I think real concerns with regard to content control.

    But on the flip side, supporting the “publisher as archaic gate-keeper” and spendthrifts on luxury office space as suggested by Amazon in the article, there was a report recently released that suggests that writers, of all levels of quality, can stand to make more money going the self-published route. Maybe you have seen it. I think it provides data even though it had to extrapolate it with the help of new software.

    It is very worth reading in conjunction with the New Yorker article. Here’s the report: http://authorearnings.com/the-report/ (I think it was released a few days ago – 2/12/14)

    In the mystery/thriller genre, one thing not mentioned in the Report, is the role of the Mystery Writers of America in supporting traditional publishing and “the gatekeepers.” In other words, self-publishing might be more lucrative but you might have to miss out on the chumminess of the MWA, not to mention possible Edgars.

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    • Gerry Boyle says:

      Thanks, Richard. I’ll check that out. I may be going both ways—traditional and self-published e-book—in the near future so it will be interesting to see how the profits and exposure compare.
      Thanks for the link and food for thought.

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  4. Gerry, thanks for the link. Fascinating (and scary) article. I tend to think of Amazon as being like global warming. You keep hearing about the danger but people don’t really take it seriously until it’s too late. I obviously watch too many bad disaster movies on the Science Fiction channel. On the other hand, way back in the beginning, writers who belonged to Novelists Inc and other writers groups sounded the alarm to publishers about the dangers inherent in offering to sell used copies of brand new books right next to the button to buy the royalty-paying version. Our petty little concerns were pooh-poohed, even when statistics showed that Amazon Marketplace sellers (and Amazon) made a nice profit on every sale . . . even when they priced a used book at a penny. As a person who buys a lot of out of print books for historical research, I have to admit there are things I like about Amazon, but the way they treat books as “content” (or widgets, as the New Yorker article put is) is not reassuring.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn (who nowadays reads most novels on an iPad that also has apps for both Kindle and Nook)

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    • Gerry Boyle says:

      You’re right, Kathy/Kaitlyn. There are benefits to both, for readers and writers. I think that’s why the headline of The New Yorker story was a question, not an answer. All very interesting, and scary as well.

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  5. Gerry, there sure are lots of changes. Amazon can help, but a great way to discover your work remains good-old word of mouth. I was talking about your books to our McKay Library Mystery Group, and you’re a featured author for this month. We’ll be discussing you a week from Wednesday.
    And best of luck getting the backlist out! But how can you do that? According to power-agent Don Maass in a recent posting, the publishers are relieved to be finally dumping their midlist backlist.

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    • Gerry Boyle says:

      Thanks, Dale. I still believe word of mouth is the most powerful way for the word to spread. Thanks very much mentioning my books with the library readers, and for the featured author pick! If the group would like, I’m glad to Skype in. Re: the back list, I guess it just goes to show that power agents aren’t always right. More on that in my next post, I hope. (the back list, not the power agents).

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  6. Barb Ross says:

    I’d started this article a few days ago and your post got me to finish it. I’m a veteran of these wars, having been among the first to talk to college text book publishers about internet-based technology, and the article brought PTSD-style flashbacks.

    I kind of agree with the statement that Amazon isn’t happening to publishing, the future is happening to publishing. Bezos may not be a nice guy, nice guys rarely build multi-billion dollar companies. It takes an absolute megalomania antithetical to nice-guyness.

    It would be a fine debate if anyone in a major publishing house had a single better idea. They’ve always allowed themselves to be disaggregated from their customers, which is why the entity controlling the distribution channel, in whatever era, the independent bookstore in the 30s, or the chain stores in the 70s, or Amazon now, has been able to call the tune. All companies run on either fear or greed, and I’ll put my money on the ones running on greed, every time.

    It is what it is. The best way to survive is to be observant, flexible and fearless.

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  7. Gerry, I’d suggested the Skype previously, and they said they’d check into it. Let’s see if they can get things done in a week. If we can get it going, I’ll let you know. Thanks for the offer.

    Barb, I saw my daughters carrying backpacks of 40-lbs of books, and said “Why don’t they put them up as ebooks?” One tablet and they don’t hurt their backs anymore. And don’t need one at school and one at home!

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  8. Karla Whitney says:

    Thanks for pointing out that article Gerry. Reminds me of Pogo when he says something like ‘I have seen the enemy and he is us.’ Barb nailed it when she commented on the need to be observant, flexible and fearless.
    Your post also nudged my tangential mind to last year’s New Hampshire Writer’s Project. Our instructor showed us this clever 2 minute youtube produced by DK books. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Weq_sHxghcg

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