Required reading

 

I don’t even know if there’s such a thing as required reading in the Canadian education system anymore and I say this because I have a weird hypothesis floating through my brain when it comes to reading and young people. (If there is required reading in some jurisdictions, I’d love to hear from commentators because I could be wrong)

You see, we’ve been hearing a lot lately about the fact that fewer and fewer young people are picking up books and reading them. Don’t worry, though, I’m forty-four in three week’s time and they were saying the same thing back in the early 1980’s when I was attending high school, so maybe it’s possible that young people think that books suck? Who knows? Maybe it’s an inter-generational fact that no matter what authors and the book industry do, kid’s ain’t going to read a whole hell of a lot.

I’ll get to the hypothesis in a moment, bear with me.

Anyway, about a million years ago when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was in the public school system, I can only remember one time, in 1979, when I was required to read a book for class. As I recall, I had a choice between three books: Gone with the Wind, The Hobbit and Fahrenheit 451. (I read Fahrenheit 451, by the way. I was twelve and I do remember this much: I didn’t get it. Maybe I should have read The Hobbit.) My son who just turned twenty one this year didn’t have any required reading in class – I know this because I’m his Dad, but also because I asked him this past Saturday and he told me that he didn’t recall a required reading project either.

This might be true for you and your kids – or maybe every region is different. But onto that hypothesis that I’d mentioned. I think kids might read if they are given a choice of stuff to read that has a cool factor. (Or possibly a book that relates to their personal life experience.) Cool factor books could be, for example, books that have magic, time travel, superheroes or maybe even a troll or two thrown in for good measure. Or maybe even a book about sparkly vampires that date teenage girls. (I know, I’m going to get hate mail for typing that, but geez, at least the kids would be reading, right?) In short: genre fiction might capture children’s imaginations enough to make them want to, I don’t know, read another book once they finish the one they’ve got.

Don’t get me wrong – my hypothesis is probably on crack given that books have to compete with text messaging and XBox 360 and iPods and iPads and Facebook – but really, is it possible to use a social networking tool like Facebook to get kids reading and to do it in concert with the education system? I mean, if Facebook is cool and say a school throws its lot in with genre fiction (which is way more interesting to the twelve year old mind that Literary Fiction, I think) is it possible to get kids talking within their social networks about the books they’ve read? (Or would having schools using Facebook to educate kids suddenly make Facebook itself uncool and would this unleash the wrath of Mark Zuckerberg?)

I’m throwing this out the the universe to consider: are there any educators reading my blog today who think this is doable? Don’t get me wrong: I think we all eventually start to read at some point in our lives, but I just think the school system could probably do a lot to foster a love of reading if they can figure out how to tap into kids interests a bit better. (This means that reading needs to be a pastime as opposed to an assignment or homework. The minute reading smells like homework, I think you’re going to lose young people a thousand kinds of fast.) Similarly, is there a culture of reading at home or are parents not reading themselves? We live what we learn, I suppose.

Anyway, this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately and I thought to see what others believe. It’s important, too – I mean, with government austerity measures being implemented globally in the fallout of the world-wide economic crash of apocalyptic proportions we’ve been experiencing since 2008, you just know that libraries are on the hit list for cuts. We’ve seen it in the UK and they’re even talking about it in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city.

So … what’s the solution, dear readers? Can required reading be cool? Can it be done? Do schools want to take this on or is there not enough literary merit in books about sparkly vampires or child wizards at Hogwarts.

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Justin Bieber come quick! I need you!!

I gotta figure out how to get this fellow Canadian to do me a solid ….

Ahhh … book promotion. Who the hell knows what the right formula might be when you’re trying to get the world out about your book? That’s truly what it all boils down to.

Most authors I know have a website, a blog, and are part of a group blog with other authors. Through those venues, they talk about the process of writing, the challenges authors face (like the subject of this blog posting, for example) they post links to reviews of their books and they do giveaways. Lots and lots and lots and lots of giveaways with the proviso being that entries must post links to the contest on all their social networks.

This is what they call an ethical bribe. It’s a standard marketing tool that has been around forever and while it works for a Slap Chop infomercial, I’m not entirely convinced there’s any evidence that ethical bribes work for authors. Not that I am against doing book giveaways, I mean, we authors do want to spread the word, of course.

I’ve been researching successful book promotion strategies and I’ve come to the conclusion that it truly is a crap shoot. I’m on Twitter (which I love) Facebook (which is okay, I guess) and I blog here and at Dark Central Station. I enjoy blogging and interacting with my readers as well as fellow authors, but I’m not convinced that it translates into sales. DCS alumni author Wayne Simmons might disagree, though. He’s had remarkable success in promoting both is fantastic novels on Facebook – FLU and DROP DEAD GORGEOUS are both bestsellers.

Me? I don’t have a bestseller. It might be due to the fact that I am with a small publisher that doesn’t have the capacity to get my books into North American bookstores, but it might also be due to the fact that what I write (urban fantasy) is a pretty flooded marketplace already. Therefore, it is entirely possible that book promotion challenges are compounded further by similar titles in the same genre – that makes it harder and harder to get your book noticed.

The market is changing, though. Brick and mortar stores are closing all over the place and ebook sales are skyrocketing. The age of the affordable ebook reader is upon us and I predict you will be able to purchase a Kindle or a Kobo for under a hundred bucks by year’s end. This means the online marketplace will be expanding and authors have to look for new ways to capture the attention of readers because that online marketplace will be global in scope as opposed to the physical limitations inside the four walls of a brick and mortar store.

Increasingly, social networking is going to be key in book promotion – and the challenge for authors will be how to get that social network buzzing about your book. I also believe that certain kinds of books have a built-in capacity for social networking. Romance, for example, is a good one. Men generally don’t read romance. Women do. Women are far more socially adept than men and more importantly, they’re linked to one another globally because women are defining the social networking phenomenon. Actually scratch that – social networking isn’t a phenomenon – it’s a new paradigm for our culture. It’s a new benchmark.

How an author can successfully tap into social networking is the new voodoo science of book promotion, I think. Because while the social networking infrastructure exists, the way in which an author can utilize that infrastructure to build his/her brand is the ultimate challenge.

I’m still trying to figure that out and it’s a huge learning curve for me because while I am probably far more “connected” than most of my friends in my social circle, social networking isn’t central to my life – it isn’t a primary method of communication for me though it certainly is central to those who are a generation behind me. Like my son, who doesn’t call me – he texts me or “facebooks” me a message by posting something on my wall.

And so I think I will start there. The facebook wall. Just for the hell of it, I am going to do a giveaway – want to win a copy of SHADE FRIGHT and FUNERAL PALLOR? Get my titles onto as many of your friends walls as you can and tweet this blog posting on Twitter. Pass on the giveaway, too. I want to see if I can crack the voodoo science enough to get a glimpse at what is possible. Post your the names of those walls you posted to in the comment section as well as your tweet back to this blog posting. The one with the most entries will get a signed copy of both books as well as great thanks in helping me get the word out about my books.

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Rebooting of the website…

Hi all,

Bear with me as I reboot this website using WordPress. My old site was Movable Type which simply didn’t have the functionality I was looking for, so in the days ahead there might be a few different incarnations when it came to posting and social networking, etc. If you have any ideas about what works and what doesn’t, drop me a line at info@sean-cummings.ca!

All best,

Sean

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E-Books and the Struggling Author

I have a Sony PRS-505 and it’s my preferred choice when reading books. It also has a hefty price tag as does the Kindle and pretty much 99% of all e-readers on the market. I acquired my e-reader shortly after I’d published my first novel, an e-book, with a start-up e-book publisher in the U.S.

I didn’t carry any illusions into my decision to sign with them, I was just bloody glad that someone out there thought my novel about a 40-something superhero was entertaining enough to publish. That was back in 2008 and now flash forward a couple of years to a slightly wiser and slightly more successful author, the question arises: would I do it all again.

Probably not.

Now before anyone decides to throw trash at me because I’m besmirching the good name of e-book publishers and of course their stable of authors, I want to make a couple of things clear. First off, e-books represent about 5% of sales in publishing. That number is expected to grow in the coming years and over the past twelve months, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of print publishers starting their own e-book imprints. This is an anticipatory move, in my view, because while e-readers are still pretty damned expensive, they’re starting to drop in price, and they’re now for sale at that great North American mecca of retail shopping, Walmart.

Yes, digitized books are slowly but surely becoming destigmatized and as the price of e-readers drops ($150 for a Kobo reader as opposed to $350 for a Kindle) the likelihood of middle class bibliophiles purchasing one will increase dramatically.

But …

What about e-book publishers?

There’s a large number of e-book publishers out there – some are scams and some aren’t. Some report their sales figures and some don’t. Some have brand identification and consistently put out a good product while others, not so much. If you’re an author, you really do have to put on your thinking cap and do a little bit of research into an e-book publisher because they’re not all created equally and as a result, you can expect low book sales if your novel isn’t a torrid erotic romance. This might have to do with the quality of the books at a given publisher, but in actual fact, my gut tells me it’s about marketing and brand.

You are an unknown author and if you choose to accept an offer of publication with a little known e-publisher, the chances of your book making any money are pretty damned slim. Even if you accept an offer from an established e-publisher, how do they market your book? Print publishers work very hard to ensure product placement at major book stores, but e-publishers are still pretty much unknown to the book-buying public who actually own an e-book reader. That’s why Kindle, despite it’s high price tag is a resounding success – you have to be living under a rock not to have heard of Amazon, and this is one of the reasons Amazon has started its own publishing arm.

Mind you, if you sign with an unknown e-publisher, they’ll probably get your book listed on Amazon, but will it sell? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it.

I’ve been able to end my relationship with my e-book publisher because my book wasn’t selling. No, the book didn’t suck – it’s just that I was (and still am) an unknown author struggling to get his book noticed with a largely unknown e-book publisher in a market where e-books make up about 5% of books published in a world where e-book readers aren’t owned by the vast majority of consumers.

And that’s really the critical factor I’d recommend any author to consider before they decide to submit to an e-book publisher: does my novel have a ghost of a chance of making any money at all?

Yes, there are some e-book authors who’ve developed a following and make a fine living writing e-books, but remember: they’re the exception and not the rule. Even if tomorrow morning a Kindle drops in price to $50.00, does this mean that readers are going to buy an e-book from a largely unknown e-publisher? I doubt it: they’re going to buy from an established retailer like Amazon and they’re probably going to purchase something from a bestselling author whose book is published by a known print publisher who just so happens to digitize their books and who sells them on Amazon or Chapters or Barnes and Noble.

I’m going to make a prediction and it might not be a popular one, but here goes:

I think that in five years, we’re going to see a ton of small e-publishers disappear. I think we’re going to see measured growth for e-publishers who are a known quantity, and I expect that large publishing houses are probably going to buy them out if they’re profitable. In ten years, I expect we’re going to see e-readers as being mainstream and affordable, and that the major print publishers will have an e-book imprint and will be selling e-books direct from their own corporate websites as well as online venues like Amazon.

What this means for the struggling author is that the small independent e-publishers will probably be gone and that e-books having become mainstream will follow the same rules as print books from a major publisher – get an agent.

It ain’t pretty, but in truth, there’s a helluva lot of bad e-books out there. There’s a lot of scam publishers and there’s a market flooded with e-books from e-publishers nobody has ever heard of before. That’s the reality of e-book publishing in 2010.

I’ll close by stating an old rule of sales: people buy from those they like and trust. People trust major publishing houses and they know established brands. This is bad news for small e-publishers, but publishing has always been a risky venture. Authors still face incredible hurdles on their way to publication, but as the price of e-readers goes down, the more mainstream they will become. When the average Joe can afford one, he’s going to buy his books the same way he buys print books: from someone he knows and trusts and from an author he’s probably heard of.

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The Divide over the Canadian Book Industry

This column by the Toronto Star’s Michael Geist grabbed my attention. In it, Geist does a pretty decent job of pointing out the contrast between The Association of Canadian Publishers and foreign publishing interests. Of note, the following passage clearly articulates why, in my opinion at least, the Canadian publishing industry needs to get it’s head out of the sand:

Geist writes:

“The Association of Canadian Publishers argues that the rules should remain unchanged as it is hard pressed to find any redeeming quality about foreign competition or any relaxation of the rules. It maintains that the current restrictions are “effective, practical, flexible and fair.”

The association is dismissive of foreign publishers, arguing that head offices in New York or London invariably make the decisions based on “assessments of return on investment and shareholder value.”

By contrast, it suggests that Canadian independent publishers do not answer to foreign executives or shareholders and are more likely to publish Canadian authors. Moreover, it believes that Canadian booksellers and distributors are also more likely to understand Canadian customers than are foreign-owned companies.”

You see, this bugs me for a host of reasons. Chief among them is the presumptuous notion that Canadian publishers seem to *understand* Canadian readers far more than those vile, profit-driven foreign publishers. What I’m about to say here is likely going to piss off the purists who are addicted to the status-quo, but here goes: spoken like an industry that’s addicted to government subsidy. Seriously, when you’ve got grants from the Canadian taxpayer helping you remain *competitive*, there’s no burning need to focus on profitability and the bottom line, now is there?

Sure, Canada is next door to the United States and yeah, I get that the US publishers have far more financial clout than small Canadian publishers. Yep, they can flood Canadian bookstores (and really, in Canada just as every where else in the world, independent booksellers are closing every day. Most Canadians shop at Chapters-Indigo, Canada’s big box chain) with non-Canadian titles, but here’s a thought: those US publishers are publishing books that people actually want to purchase! By that I mean that US publishers have a very diverse line of books that range from serious literary fiction to a hell of a lot of genre fiction, and folks, genre fiction is pretty much taboo in the Canadian publishing industry.

Case in point? Moi! I write an urban fantasy series that is uniquely Canadian. It’s filled with everything from Tim Horton’s references to Canadian history and one of the main characters is the ghost of one of Canada’s Prime Ministers. How ironic, therefore, that I had to go to a UK publisher (read foreign publisher not in touch with what Canadians want to read because they’re not from Canada) to publish a series of books that take place in Canada!

I know a lot of Canadian genre fiction authors and every single one of them is looking for a literary agent right now. They’re looking to publish outside of Canada because our heavily subsidized publishing industry whose sole focus is on literary fiction (which simply does not sell anywhere near the numbers that genre fiction sells) won’t even consider looking at a query letter from them. (Did I mention the vast majority don’t take email submissions? Another bee in my bonnet!) Apparently, Canadian readers don’t want to read books about vampire romance or zombie outbreaks written by Canadian authors that often take place right here in our own back yard!

I might sound like a heretic for this, but just what the heck is wrong with a publisher wanting to make a profit? Lots, apparently.

You see, government subsidies are kind of addictive. There’s a natural assumption that they’ll always be there and as a result, you can pursue acquiring books of high literary merit that just aren’t going to sell anywhere near what genre fiction sells. The authors in my circle of associates are damned good writers with damned good stories to tell. It burns my butt that they, like me, are forced to pursue their writing aspirations outside of their own country because their own country doesn’t do vampires, erotic romance,or basically anything that has a cover with a hot bare chested guy and a doe-eyed female in a corset.

There are a few glimmers of hope out there. Canada produces world class kid’s lit and publishers like Edge Publishing in Calgary or Bundoran Press both produce some of the best science fiction and fantasy on planet earth and neither (to my knowledge) receives a penny of government help.

I’ll get off my soap box for now because ranting brings up my blood pressure and I’m up to my ears in line edits for Unseen World. I’ll close by pointing out that my beef isn’t with authors of literary fiction or that literary fiction can never be profitable. It’s just that decades of government subsidy ultimately produces an industry that refuses to embrace change. And folks, change is coming. Big time. E-Book readers are dropping in price. People are shopping online and cutting out even the big box stores like Chapters-Indigo. Technology is driving change and publishers who don’t focus on profitability and the bottom line are going to be in a world of hurt in short order. Don’t believe me? Two words: Dorchester Publishing.

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