Welcome to the blog of the Consulting Editors Alliance. This is our forum for sharing views on the wonderful, bizarre, enormously frustrating and satisfying (depends on the day) world of book publishing and our roles in it as freelance editors, writing collaborators, and ghostwriters. Please join the conversation!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

E-Books Rising

A couple of interesting book stories in the news lately. First, an announcement from Amazon that its sales of Kindle e-books have surpassed its sales of hardcover books for the first time. This is measured by unit sales, which makes a significant difference: Most e-books are priced at $9.99, which is a lot less than the typical hardcover. So hardcover sales are still a bigger fraction of Amazon's bottom line than e-books.

Nonetheless, this is a meaningful milestone, which, together with other recent events (including continuing strong sales of the Kindle device itself as well as the positive response to Apple's iPad), suggests that e-books are in fact here to stay.

I happen to like my Kindle very much, although I don't use it for all my reading. Perhaps partly for this reason, I don't share the fears of some that the rise of the e-book spells the ultimate doom of printed books, either in hardcover or paperback form. History shows that people like their entertainment and information delivered in many different forms depending on the specific content, circumstances, and other factors.

For example, live theater was invented thousands of years ago. Much later, similar content began to be delivered through movies, radio, and television. None of these new technologies led to the demise of any of the earlier ones--in fact, all still exist and each has its unique role. In the same way, the birth of the paperback book didn't lead to the demise of the hardcover. I strongly believe that my great-grandchildren will be well acquainted with electronic books, printed books, and probably a few other ways of delivered verbal content, and that they will use and enjoy them all.

The other news story I enjoyed today is this article from BBC News Magazine about the art of typeface design. As an editor and writer I am not involved in this aspect of the book business--in fact I am often not even consulted about the design of my books--but I am fascinated by it and have an amateur's hankering to dabble in the field. (One of my retirement dreams involves running a little one-man letterpress operation printing fine limited editions of poetry and other artsy stuff. Don't hold your breath waiting to receive my catalog in the mail.)

If, like me, you are intrigued by the esthetic and psychological impact that various typefaces have on readers and their responses to books, you will enjoy the story. And if you haven't already seen the recent documentary film Helvetica, check it out--it appeals to the same rather specialized taste.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Yes, We Still Need Libraries

In the Wall Street Journal, Cynthia Crossen writes about the budget crisis now hitting many public libraries. It's easy for many of us to assume that free libraries are less important today than in the past, but they play incredibly important roles for millions of Americans, from school kids who might otherwise have no place to encounter a wide range of books and senior citizens on fixed incomes who want to nurture a lifelong love of reading to immigrants studying for their citizenship exams and unemployed people who need a place to scan the want ads, read advice books, and work on their resumes. To say nothing of the fact that, in towns and neighborhoods across the country, the public library is often the only place where community events (speeches, lectures, conferences, meetings, exhibits) take place that are centered on books, literacy, and learning.

Supporting public libraries is one of the best things every book lover can do to maintain our society's culture of the word and transmit it to future generations.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Laura Miller on the Brave New Self-Publishing World

It has taken me a little while to get around to linking to it, but Laura Miller in Salon has written a decent article about the rise of self-publishing and its potential impact on the art and commerce of literature.

Read it for yourself and see what you think, but for what it's worth I think Miller is right about some points, a little off-base on some others. She's right, of course, about the abysmal quality of 99.9 percent of the material that finds its way into book publishers' slush piles. It's simply not true that there is a sizeable universe of unpublished masterpieces languishing in obscurity because of the blindness of the editorial gatekeepers.

She's also right, I think, when she says that, over time, new kinds of gatekeepers will inevitably develop to help readers sort through the flood of newly self-published manuscripts being enabled by the new online technologies. We don't yet know what form those new gatekeepers will take, but they will identify the blockbusters of the future and, by their neglect, consign the vast majority of self-published books to more-or-less complete oblivion.

But Miller is a bit off-base, I think, in taking a somewhat monolithic view of book publishing and readership. She writes, in effect, as if the entire industry consists of novels (and perhaps memoirs) that are suitable for a broad, general public and that are competing to attract that kind of readership. In reality, many, many books are nonfiction works aimed at very specific niche audiences--and this is where the new self-publishing technologies can play an important positive role.

There are thousands of topics that are of interest to small but devoted groups of readers who would be willing and able to buy books about those topics, generating sales not in the tens of thousands but in the hundreds. The new technologies make such "long tail" offerings more economically viable than in the past. And the Internet should make it possible for interested readers to find out about those niche books quickly and easily--without having to randomly wade through the flood of slush that Miller envisions as the brave new world of publishing.