Monday, July 04, 2011

A Whole New Ball Game

This is an exciting time to be a writer. It is also a frightening time to be a writer. everything is changing. Some things are changing slowly and ponderously and everything else is changing at light speed.

Case in point: J. K. Rowling jumped ship from Christopher Little's literary agency and Little is calling foul. There may even be litigation in the future. It seems, Ms. Rowling and Mr. Little were negotiating their future together when Neil Blair left the agency to create his own agency and Rowling went with him.

The way I understand the author-agent relationship is that when one or the other of the parties is dissatisfied with their agreement, one or both can walk. Rowling took the option and walked. Little is considering suing her. Unless there is some ethics breach, I don't see that as anything but a nuisance suit, but it may likely result in scorched earth. Play nice, people.

Everyone wants to get in on the ground floor of the digital revolution. Authors are self-publishing work that publishers and agents have rejected, usually with a fill-in-the-blank form, or with a generic form, literary agents are turning into publishers and muddying the waters, and university bookstores are crying foul on professors and lecturers who are posting their notes and lectures online. Said Iain Finlayson, manager of Blackwell, a university bookshop, "Anybody who works in academic bookselling would be extremely concerned if the material in textbooks is posted elsewhere for free. Lecturers posting notes online is harmful for us and I believe it discourages students from reading around their subject area. I would discourage it. It is certainly not helping book sales, but lecturers might think differently."

Lecturers have been posting lectures and notes online for ages, at least ever since the Internet made it easy for them, so why is it only now that booksellers are complaining? Oh, right, because they are posting fewer profits, and of course the fault is lecturers using technology to give their students immediate access to lectures. At this rate, everyone will stay home and party, waking long enough to pop a pill, read the lecture and go back to partying until time for exams. I'm surprised that booksellers didn't complain when students taped lectures to listen to at their leisure and consult when studying for exams. Once again, it's more a matter of not moving with the times than the Internet doing booksellers in.

How about pricing books so they are affordable or offering digital versions of textbooks at a reasonable price in these hard economic times? When parents and students are already paying £9000 a year to go to university, it's time to make textbooks and source material affordable. The digital age is here. Embrace it and profit.

Of course, booksellers are considering lobbying the government to encourage students to use some of their bursary funds for textbooks, and that brings to mind non-compete clauses and all of the other governmental shenanigans that Ayn Rand predicted would bring economic downfall in Atlas Shrugged, and here it is in all its me-first glory.

Why not, like South Korea, consider phasing out backpacks and books and moving into the digital age? South Korea has moved boldly into the digital age and is remaking education in wired fashion. According to "...the country’s education ministry [they] will spend 2.2 trillion won ($2.06bn) to convert existing school textbooks and develop cloud computing systems to provide digitised content for learning." I don't hear -- or read -- booksellers complaining about their profits in South Korea. Maybe they have already shut their doors or moved to a new business model where they sell tablets and provide cloud computing systems, or even offer digital books to download directly to tablets.

Before the age of backpacks to carry books, people in my generation carried armloads of books to and from classes and home. In poundage alone, tablets and digitalization will save many young people from back problems and biophysical stress.Ultimately it is about what works and what doesn't. Clinging to old business models and considering litigation to keep things the way they were will not profit businesses or the public. It's not as if manufacturers of dish detergent wept into their beers and whiskey when people began buying and using dishwashers. They retooled and manufactured a line of dishwasher detergents to work with the new machines. It's called progress and moving with the times. There were still people washing dishes by hand, but automatic dishwashers provided a new avenue of business and a new arena in which to play. I do not understand why bookstores aren't catching on and finding a way to fit in.

How about putting an Espresso Book Machine in the store. As wonderful as ebooks are, being able to print a personal copy of a book that has been out of print for decades, or longer, would be worth having, and the books wouldn't have to be high priced. Profitable, but not out of pocketbook range. Print a book while you wait.

But what would they do with all that extra space? How about forming new partnerships with computer manufacturers to put sales models in the stores or offer free wi-fi and sell computer time like digital cafes? The possibilities are endless and it doesn't have to be all about books.

Training classes on how to self-publish. A department to help aspiring writers edit, polish and self-publish. Connections to cover artists and illustrationists. A place to hold training sessions on every aspect of the self-publishing business and even marketing classes to help maximize sales.

There are always the old standbys of author book signings, readings and meet and greets. The possibilities are endless. Instead of whining about the decline in profits, how about using the move to digitalization and find gold in the digital rush? Anything is possible for a business owner not stuck in the past and willing to move forward with the times.

It's a whole new ball game and most poor suckers are stuck in the nose bleed seats without binoculars. The only answer is to buy binoculars or get there early to get better seats. This is the winnowing time and only the visionaries will profit and succeed.


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