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Good News and Bad News

Today in the literary world, there are bookshops closing down, publishers desperately trying to keep up with changing readerships, and 100-year-old manuscripts found. Enough to be getting on with in one blog post!

To start, Suw Charman-Anderson interviews Mark Coker, founder of the eBook publishers Smashwords, on Forbes this week (original article here).

In its first year, 2008, Smashwords published 140 books. Last year Smashwords helped authors publish more than 92,000 books, and in 2012 the running total is already at 130,000.

In his interview with Charman-Anderson, Coker discussed the changing attitudes to self-publishing: “The stigma associated with self-publishing is quickly disappearing as we see more and more indie authors becoming commercially successful on their own merits, and as some of the problems with traditional publishing become more apparent.”

“What we’re seeing is that most successful authors are those who are adopting many of the best practices of the best traditional publishers. These are the authors who honour their readers by producing high quality books that are as good or better than what the big New York or London publishers are putting out. They’re hiring professional editors and proofreaders to make sure that the books are high quality. They’re hiring professional cover designers, and their books are starting to become indistinguishable from what New York is putting out.”

As can be seen from Pearson (the parent of Penguin) buying out Author Solutions last week, the race now is for traditional publishing houses to find new ways of adapting to the increasingly self-publishing-friendly industry. In an article in the Guardian last Sunday, Vanessa Thorpe outlined the repurcussions of eBooks:

Further proof of the onward march of ebooks comes from BookStats, which has collected data from 2,000 publishers across America, including fiction titles, as well as higher education, professional and academic publishing products. It found ebook revenues for US publishers doubled to more than $2bn in 2011.


Of course, one of the greater disadvantages of all this change is that bookshops are suffering. The Willesden bookshop that inspired Zadie Smith is about to close.

Figures from the Booksellers Association showed there were 1,094 independent bookshops left in the UK by the end of 2011, down from 1,159 in 2010 and 1,289 in 2009.

As outlined in the Guardian article,

Helen Sensi, who has worked at the shop since it opened, called the latest closure “heartbreaking”. Sensi is also known as the mysterious “Helen” from Zadie Smith’s recent New York Review of Books article in which the novelist lamented the shop’s closure and praised her as the woman who “gives the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted. Smart books, strange books, books about the country they came from, or the one that they’re in.” […] The bookshop is being forced to close by Brent council’s redevelopment plans for the area. The council believes the current centre, which also houses a museum and a library, is “not fit for purpose.”

Owner Steve Adams is trying to find alternative space which could be used. We can only wish him the best of luck.


However, it’s not all doom and gloom in the literary world. Last week, a PhD student, Chris Mourant, was rifling through the archives of the ADAM International Review (published from c.1903-1995) — a literary magazine published in English and French, its title an acronym for Arts, Drama, Architecture and Music — when he alighted upon four short stories written by Katherine Mansfield that have been lost in those archives for almost a hundred years. As outlined on the King’s College London website,

One short story, ‘A Little Episode’, written in 1909, is arguably the most poignant, as it sheds light on an important year of Mansfield’s life of which little was previously known. Chris explains: ‘The narrative conveys Mansfield’s bitterness and disillusion following her abandonment by the musician Garnet Trowell and her subsequent marriage of convenience to George Bowden.’ Having burned all records of her life during this period Mansfield hid these details from biographers and ‘A Little Episode’ now grants researchers access into her experience during this time.

The four stories will be included as appendices in The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield, due to be published in October by Edinburgh UP.

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Changing Times: Penguin’s profits drop, The Writer is on hiatus & Classics are rewritten

After 125 years, The Writer magazine will cease printing.

Editor Jeff Reich sent an email to his subscribers on Thursday to break the news:“I’m sorry to announce that The Writer magazine will go on hiatus after the October 2012 issue, which is in production now. Kalmbach Publishing Co., which owns The Writer, is currently looking for a buyer for the magazine, and our hope is that The Writer will re-emerge under the careful stewardship of a new owner.”

The Writer magazine was founded in 1887 by Boston Globe reporters Robert Luce and William H. Hills who outlined nine goals for the magazine, including, notably: “To collect and publish the experiences, experiments and observations of literary people, for the benefit of all writers.”

The magazine’s website is still up and running with its huge resources of writing aids, such as writing prompts, tips on getting published,  advice for the many common stumbling blocks of bad writing, and support in not losing hope.

More financial difficulties were met by Penguin in the first half of this year, as reported by the Bookseller. The company is down 4% compared to its sales from the same period last year; however, its e-book revenues are up 33% and now represent almost 20% of its total revenues.

The online magazine GalleyCat maintains that this drop in sales is due to the overwhelming success of Vintage Books’ Fifty Shades of Grey and Scholastic Press’ The Hunger Games.

Looking to the next six months, Pearson, the new parent of Penguin Books, said: “We expect Penguin’s publishing and its competitive performance to be stronger in the second half of the year, and we expect the structural change to continue.” It also said that over the next six months, Penguin will “continue to take action to adapt to the rapidly-changing industry environment”, and will over that period be expensing integration costs associated with its acquisition of Author Solutions. (For more information on that controversial business move, click here).

(Illustration by Dale Stephanos)

It may be a sign of the times, and needless to say, the influence of E.L. James, that even the Classics are getting rewritten for commercial benefit. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (both with gay themes) and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey inaugurate the series, titled “Clandestine Classics.” For more, see here.

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Self-publishing comes of age?

The news and social media have been buzzing lately with updates on how self-publishing is turning over the literary industry.

The Alliance of Independent Authors (AIA) is making huge ground in self-publishing, having given Goodreads.com a full endorsement as the site of self-published authors to advertise, and engaging the help of the literary agency AM Heath — the agency that represents Hilary Mantel — to establish translation and international rights for independent authors. This agreement between AM Heath and the AIA is the first of its kind, and marks a turning-point in the path of self-publishing. Why is this so significant? The AIA’s blog is the perfect place to find out.

Only a few days ago, there was another huge move forward for self-publishing when Pearson, a global education and learning company, announced its acquisition of Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI), a leading provider of self-publishing services. ASI works in tandem with Penguin, which contributes, “design, editorial and sales skills, and its strong international presence”. This essentially means that independent authors will have the opportunity to market their work under Penguin’s banner, with the support of two global companies. The CEO of Penguin, John Makinson, released a statement to coincide with Pearson’s announcement, in which he outlined that this acquisition will allow Penguin, “to participate fully in perhaps the fastest-growing area of the publishing economy.”

He also said, “Self-publishing has moved into the mainstream of our industry over the past three years. It has provided new outlets for professional writers, a huge increase in the range of books available to readers and an exciting source of content for publishers such as Penguin. No-one has captured this opportunity as successfully as Author Solutions, which has rapidly built a position of world leadership on a platform of outstanding customer support and tailor-made publishing services.”

Neill Denny, Editor-in-Chief of the Bookseller Magazine, outlined that this announcement marked the day self-publishing came of age.

However, some people were less enthusiastic at the prospect of Pearson, ASI and Penguin joining together, as one commenter on the Bookseller article protested that, “Author Solutions (owners of Author House, Trafford, Xlibris, and iUniverse) is one of the worst self-publishing ‘service’ companies out there. […] [They] continually over-charge for their services (both in the form of huge up-front fees AND taking a huge chunk of authors’ royalties), have an awful service record, and industry watchdogs such as Writer Beware have received a litany of complaints over the years. What is Penguin thinking?”

The Print-on-demand publishing site, podpublishing.org, wrote a controversial article when ASI took over Xlibris  in 2009, and outlined the pros and cons of Xlibris under its new parent company. Glassdoor.com, the website dedicated to analysing how well jobs and companies work, gives ASI quite a negative review, with only 18% of employees recommending the job to a friend.

*Edit*: Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, criticised the acquisition in a recent essay. Carla King also wrote out against the move on PBS.

While the ambiguity surrounding ASI seems to differ from person to person, what can absolutely be said is that this move has heightened awareness of self-publishing in the industry, and with the support of Penguin, Pearson may herald a new momentum of success for independent authors.

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