Articles by Max Rivlin-Nadler

Independent Publishing at SXSW

SXSW, the Austin-based conference that features events base around technology, education and music took place last week and I’ve now finally recovered from all the excitement of having all of these insanely talented minds congregating in one place. While I did not attend the interactive presentations on independent publishing (they were packed!), from outside the convention center, I can tell you that independent publishing and eBooks had a huge presence, as the technology continues to evolve and become even more intertwined with other digital platforms like phones, tablets, and videogames.

In the Publisher’s Weekly roundup of events, you can see how the energy around independent publishing has freed up authors t make more interesting publishing decisions:

“Originally published by small press, Hugh Howey quickly decided to go the self-publishing route generating an enormous word of mouth following that turned his books into e-book bestsellers on Amazon. Indeed Howey said at one point he was generating $30,000 to $40,000 a month in sales and selling hundreds of thousands of e-books.”

The move by established authors to selling books on their own was a huge topic of conversation. For established authors to then use their reputation and leverage a successful independent publishing campaign from it has been a huge development, and lent a lot of credibility to independent publishing.

Another new development has been the discussions over whether you should give away content for free to build your credibility. David Carr, of the New York Times, had some choice words at his presentation,

“Don’t give your shit away for free,” he declared to the hall—emphasizing that “exposure” doesn’t work and free doesn’t lead to paying customers. But he also seemed so focused on the newspaper world—unsurprisingly— that his vision for the future of digital content kind of stops at the New York Times website, now revitalized with an innovative pay wall generating a sustainable and growing level of income. 

It seems like the argument over pricing will go on for some time. However, walking along the convention hall, it was easy to see that the rise of eBooks will continue at its staggering pace. New electronics, like Google Glass, will make reading even more accessible. eBooks will continue to grow and the fact that the leaders in technology are even talking about books, unthinkable only a few years ago, is a testament to this wonderful phenomenon.

Any writers out there make it down to SXSW this year? What did you learn? Any plans to go next year?

Reselling eBooks raises questions for authors

Over the past week, debate has intensified over the practice of reselling eBooks. Amazon and Apple both filed patents last week to make reselling eBooks a reality, and the collective reaction by readers and book-buyers across the Internet was ambivalent. Of course, selling and buying used books has long been a practice in the publishing world, but eBooks provide a series of new issues that need to be resolved before the practice can become widespread.

When you would buy a physical version of a book, you would buy the rights to owning one copy of that book. It could be resold to whomever you chose, at whatever price, but at least there was only one copy of it. eBooks are a little more complicated with their ability to be copied as well as the multiple Digital Rights Management choices out there for authors. Every author’s worst nightmare is seeing their book go out there, become a hit, and everyone reading a pirated copy. Luckily, that hasn’t been the case so far for eBook readers. A lot of readers enjoy buying their books, which is good. But at what price do they want to pay for it?

If the book resells for a dime, wouldn’t it cut into the profit margins of the author, especially if it is being resold right next to the original full-priced eBook? Mark-downs are common for used copies of physical books, but that’s because they physically degrade. A “used” eBook would look just like the original one.

David Pogue over at The Times tries to sort through this complication — physical degradation of a book is necessary for its discount.  He goes through the patents filed by Amazon and Apple and doesn’t quite find a solution, but believes that publishers and writers will find a common-ground that allows for used eBooks to help writers make a living, while also making their work more available and affordable.

What do you think about the possibility of used eBooks? As writers, do you want their to be a secondhand marketplace?

Location, location, location…what’s your perfect place to write?

Writing, for all its wonders, is essentially a frustrating experience. It takes a lot of time putting words on a page before you get anything half-decent, and even then, having written anything  that will satisfy your own lofty standards is pretty difficult.

Have desk, will write.

To ease the process, writers develop routines. However, routines are contingent on something very important for a writer: having a place to write. While Virginia Woolf laid out the very basic truth that a woman needs “a room of one’s own”  to write fiction, I find that a writer of either gender would agree. But how important is that room anymore, especially with the rise of laptops, the Internet, and our endless capacity to multitask?

D.H. Lawrence wrote under a tree, while Hemingway wrote standing up. Which tree? Where was Hemingway standing? The poet Robert Creeley said, “The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner.” I’m that much more comfortable in a cafe surrounded by other people than alone in my room. When I’m alone, in that ideal room of my own, I’m too tempted by my own laziness, my own ability to become sidetracked than if I was at a cafe, surrounded by other productive people, all those humming brains focused on talking, reading, eating, writing. I am most fruitful when I am in the middle of it all.

But that is certainly not be the case for all writers. Joan Didion took manuscripts to bed with her so she could make corrections in the middle of the night. Toni Morrison wakes before the sunrise so its light can energize her writing. Other writers go for public spaces like libraries. I spent several weeks writing in the beautiful main branch of the New York Public Library before the silence drove me mad. But, still, while I was there, I was productive. Other writers belong to organizations that provide “writers rooms,” rooms geared specifically towards the act of writing.

With a new generation of writers writing solely on laptops and tablets, the need for power outlets has become that much more crucial in finding a space to write. Maybe D.H. Lawrence’s tree won’t be a possibility for writers of fiction anymore, now that many have become accustomed to the rhythm and formatting of writing on a laptop.

Where do you write? What makes a great writing space? Do you still need a room of your own, or does a cafe or library work just as well? Let us know!

How to make a great science eBook

Science journalism has always been at the forefront of innovation — the first to utilize diagrams in reporting, the first to experiment with the advantages of digital books. But what makes a great science eBook? Download the Universe, a wonderful new website devoted to reviewing science eBooks, has highlighted the best eBooks of the past year, and shared some of what makes them so great.

One of the things that they point out is something we take for granted in a lot of science books: get your facts right and include a lot of them! A lot of the books they disliked this year were thin on backing up their argument, and left a lot unexplained. As readers of science books know, they can sniff out a weak argument from a mile away. One of the advantages of publishing an eBook and not an article online, is that you’re working with a little more of a deadline — make sure you’re taking advantage by backing up your facts. Once it’s out there, it’s tough to edit your eBook.

Another tip they give is to take full advantage of the medium of eBooks (this might depend on your ability to code, however). If you’re writing about the body, interactive features help a lot, while if you’re writing about geography, maps are obviously the way to go. As the famed theorist Marshall McLuhan noted, the medium is as much the message as the book itself. Take advantage of the eBook’s ability to complement your science writing with some truly exciting animations, images, or audios.

Download the Universe gives high marks to book publisher The Atavist, which published a series of eBooks that took full advantage of the eBook medium, including some wonderful illustrations, audio features, and diagrams. Look for more, smaller publishers in the future to offer software that will allow independent authors (like yourselves) to put together simple interactive features that will not only enhance your eBook, but allow readers a much better understanding of what can be, at times, very difficult content.

The future of science writing is as bright as a supernova! Just make sure you’re using eBooks to their full extent with a wonderful assortment of features.

What have you used to enhance your eBook to better explain an idea or discovery? What do you wish you knew how to do with your eBook?

Unleashing the TED Talk Within

Over the last few years, there has been a single high-profile destination for leading thinkers and experts to share their ideas: the TED Conference, a four-day festival of ideas and the arts, devoted to solving the largest problems our society faces. Featuring the career-altering opportunity to talk in front of today’s thought-leaders, speaking at TED is a dream-come-true for idea leaders, and one of the most coveted slots in professional speaking. Not only that, but it has become a prime opportunity for authors to promote their books and brand. Authors are already incredibly adept at turning their ideas into a narrative. At TED, the people who tell stories the best are often rewarded with attention and the chance to make a huge impression on the movers and shakers of our changing world. Through TED, excellent authors are able to establish themselves as leaders in their field, as well as bring a huge amount of attention to topics that have a great impact on the way we live.

The format is simple: presenters are given 18 minutes to share their expertise. Presenters range from the high-profile, like Bono, to young and rising thinkers like music blogger Amanda Palmer. Experts can discuss topics of all sorts, from the design of community gardens to the proliferation of cheap technology across Africa. The main requirement for participants is that it has to be something that can change our world for the better, usually by solving a problem with innovative thinking.

TED, and idea-based conferences like it, believe in unconventional ways of solving problems. That means looking for inspiration in different places, bringing smart people into the room together, as well as letting experts have their say in the plainest way possible — no jargon here, basically. The TED Talk within you is one that will make your highly complicated expertise seem simple to a general audience. The TED Talk within you will inspire other smart people with ideas and leave with their own “aha!” moment — as in, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

Cloe Shasha, who works at TED, has found that in her own opinion, “The best speakers’ talks are the ones whose content is driven by what they do. The theme emerges out of one’s experience, work and goals in a way that tells a story.”

In that spirit, here is a step-by-step guide to developing your own TED-caliber talk:

Small problem, global scale: When thinking about how your expertise can change the world, think about how your knowledge can solve a huge problem with a simple solution. For example, Tristram Stuart turned his expertise into a book, Waste, about food waste across the globe, and then into a popular presentation on how we can eliminate food waste across the globe. His hypothesis was that if we make clear just how much food is being wasted, people would demand that we no longer waste as much. By simply showing people how much food was wasted (a small act), he has been able to work against a global problem, and has become a successful TED presenter in the process.

Build your argument. Set the scene for your presentation: state what the problem is, what the solution is, and how your idea can achieve it. Often, if you work backwards from your great idea, you’ll lose the momentum of your presentation, and the audience won’t be as well acquainted with the problem you’re solving. By building to it, you make your solution seem inevitable.

Keep it simple. Your visual presentation should be simple, and only act to help highlight what you’re saying. “Nothing distracting you from the true message. Crazy effects on PowerPoint? I’m not a big fan. Something that gets your point across visually and verbally and through sound and movement can be very powerful,” Shasha says.

Practice, Practice, Practice. Who should you give your presentation to? Everyone.  “Use your friends! Your colleagues! Your family! Practice a version of a talk in the form of a story at The Moth, as long as you think it would fit the theme! Maybe even try an Open Mic Night and tell a story,” Sasha recommends.

Try to keep in mind however, that the presentation is still going to be a massive simplification of your expertise and what you’ve spent so much time writing about. Make sure people see how complex your field is, enough so that, of course, they’ll want to read your books. As Salon’s Alex Pareene reminds us, TED specializes in “drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.” So don’t think you have to solve everything in one PowerPoint. Just get the audience excited enough to look into your field, and see an old problem in a new way.

Should you just give it away?

What’s better than free?

It might seem irrational, but one of the best ways that authors have found to gain popularity and profitability for their eBooks has been to, well, give them away. Authors have found that dropping the price of their books to $0, at least for a short time, leads to dramatically better sales when they do raise the price.

[Recommended Reading: How Free Books Build Your Brand as an Author and Authority]

Speaking on The Self Publishing Podcast, independent author David Wright found that this type of promotion works, especially with writers who work in genre fiction. “Free downloads drive sales,” he said. “Especially with the serialized fiction model, where if our readers get our first episode for free, they want to read on, so they buy the next episode or the full season.”

[Recommended Reading: How To Serialize with Lulu]

Dropping the price of your eBook can help raise your sales rank and visibility, while, at the same time, promoting other books you’ve written. Of course, the lost revenue can sting a bit, but who knows if readers would have taken the plunge on your book if you hadn’t taken the cost-free promotional plunge?

But is a free promotion right for you? For serialized fiction, the answer is yes. Get readers hooked, and then get them to buy the rest of your series or your other titles. For experts and speakers, the answer is also yes. You want to spread your brand and name, and an eBook is even better than just giving out your card. Use your eBook mainly as a promotional tool — not a revenue stream.

Here’s who this promotion might not work for: writers of long, literary fiction who depend on sales to make up for some of the painstaking work that went into their novel. It might also not work for historians, who also put in a tremendous amount of time and energy and whose specialized knowledge has a place in the marketplace and should be able to find a readership despite its cost.

Either way — it always helpful to experiment with different marketing tools. Dropping your price to zero might feel weird, but the eventual reward could be huge. If it doesn’t work out anyway, it’s just as easy to start charging more for your book, and go back to the drawing (or writing) board.

Have you tried this technique? What was your experience?

iBookstore showcases indie books in new Breakout Books section

You might notice something new on your next trip to Apple’s iBookstore: You! Independently-published books will be prominently featured as part of Apple’s new “Breakout Books” section. Featuring titles from independent authors, the section will work to highlight books that have been highly rated, regardless of how they have been promoted or who published them. In short, taste will rule. And for independent authors, that is incredibly good news.

The books that will be featured will be broken down into four categories: Romance, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Mysteries & Thrillers, and More to Explore (we’re guessing that encompasses everything that can’t be easily put into a genre). This kind of attention, putting a book front-and-center in front of millions of prospective readers is a huge opportunity for independent authors. In the past, publishers would fight over this “front-of-the-store” space, usually reserved for books with huge initial print orders and authors with highly established reputations. Now, just by writing a quality book, authors can find their book with the type of promotion that usually comes with a high sticker price.

According to the New York Times (Apple to Highlight Self-Published Books), one of the main motives for getting behind independent publishers was their pricing: independent authors sell their books at significantly lower costs than major titles (those produced by major publishers). This pricing model encourages readers to buy more independently published books than they would more expensive ones, further democratizing the marketplace.

While “Breakout Books” will not always be the center of attention on the iBookstore, it marks a major change in how digital booksellers are respecting independent authors and how quickly the marketplace is changing. In what was once a field dominated by six major publishers, there are now thousands of people each acting on their own, letting the quality of their work act as their best publicity.

As readers, would you buy a book that has been highly rated by other readers? As writers, how do you think this will change independent publishing? Do you know of any other digital bookstores that have this type of promotion? Let us know!