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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

selective reading

The Wall St. Journal had an article this week about the slow return of guns to the shelves at Wal-Mart. (no link, since hides behind their pay wall.)

Ordinarily an article like this would meet with my scorn and approbation. I am not a gun person.

But there was a sentence in the article that I enjoyed very much reading. It said that Wal-Mart -- and for all its power Wal-Mart has struggled a bit in the US in recent years, trying to broaden its appear without particular success and then struggling along with its customers during the economic difficulties of the last two years -- was starting to return things like guns and sewing cloth to its stores because it came to realize that these slow-moving items were more important to generating customer traffic with its core customers than they had appreciated.

And this made me feel better about one of my passionately held beliefs about Borders, that the major blow to the chain came in spring 2008 when the company reduced title counts at its stores. How can I possibly think that dropping titles that might have sold so few copies would be the killing blow? But I did, I do, I always will, and it's that sentence in that WSJ article this week that sums it up. No, the books hardly sold worth a damn, but the customers who did buy deep into the catalog were important customers.

Some differences which I think made this effect even more important to Borders. I think the customers who didn't buy the books still kind of noticed them, and that their presence enhanced the overall impression of the brand, more than is the case for these items Wal-Mart is returning to the shelves. And more important, there are still guns and sewing cloth to sell so Wal-Mart can turn back the clock and stop selling them. The deep catalog advantage at the best Borders was built up over a fifteen or twenty year period, and many of the books Borders stopped selling went out of print and bye-bye without Borders to sell them, making it harder to just put them back on the shelf after a year or two away. It's also one thing for books that don't sell a lot of copies to justify continuing to sell them here or there as a matter of happy inertia, and another thing to decide to get back in the business of selling books that don't really sell all that well.

Bottom line is that when George Jones was saying on conference calls in the quarters following the reduction in title count that he ordered that same store book sales were down by 13% and we think a few points of it is from overdoing the drops in title count, I think he was underestimating the real impact of what he had done.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Statement Night Fever

One of my clients anxiously sent me a link to a recent Business Rusch post from Kristine Kathryn Rusch regarding royalty statements. "Is this something I need to worry about?"

Well, let me give some perspective from my end...

In some ways, yes, because e-book royalty reports are particularly susceptible to problems right now.

E-book sales may be somewhat more receptive to problems because

(a) the publishers are reliant on third party royalty reports which are of varying qualitfy. As an example, Amazon's Kindle platform for the general public won't as yet generate an author-sorted royalty report. Why should they, because it's for authors who are putting up their books so they're by that author. Well, not quite. We use this platform, other smaller agents and publishers use this platform. Lack of author sort means we have extra steps as we get more things on Kindle to sort everything by the correct author. Extra work means a temptation to shortcut. What kind of reports and sorts do they provide big publishers, who might have over 10,000 titles they need to properly allocate to the correct royalty account.

(b) the reports lack the audit trail of having physical copies go places. Everything is an electron. If you think it's tough to audit a publisher's records for print sales where they have physical books that can be tracked, imagine if a major publisher tries to audit Amazon's records. The amount of computer forensics that would need to be done is staggering.

(c) the business is still relatively new, and any time you have something new you have kinks to work out. As an example, the Penguin royalty reports and Harper royalty reports are designed to give each ISBN its own royalty statement page, and for the first several years of e-book sales each e-book format had its own ISBN, which meant five or seven pages reporting sales for different e-book formats. That's a staggering amount of paper being generated. Now they are doing "only" three e-book ISBNs instead of five or seven, but anything put into e-book prior to Fall 2009 will still have the several ISBNs assigned. Even for the more recent books, a title that might once have just had a one page royalty statement for a mass market paperback will still have that one page, plus three e-book pages, plus a summary page. Better than eight pages? Yes! Better than one page? Hell's bells no!!

So yes, we've found some major e-book reporting errors. One of our books was somehow assigned the same ISBN for one e-book format as a Dean Koontz book, and our author received credit for thousands of e-book sales that belonged to Dean Koontz. It took us multiple tries to get the problem corrected, to the point where we even asked the author "hey, we told them about this six months ago, they still haven't fixed it, they must be saying it's correct, so do you want to keep $5K of Dean Koontz's money, or having tried to fix this from the publisher side shall we now go and let the Dean Koontz people know about this." Our author was very ethical, and told us to inform the Koontz camp. In another instance, this same publishing conglomerate had two books with the same title by different authors and gave our authors e-book sales to the other book. We had to threaten an audit before they finally got down to brass tacks of looking at it. How did we notice this? Well, when you look at the royalty reports for a series of books and see e-book sales of 7K, 6K, 1K, 6K, and neither I nor the author are getting angry e-mails asking why there isn't an e-book of the third book in the series, you get to thinking maybe there is an e-book, maybe it too sold 6K, and you wonder where those copies are hiding.

At the same time, please keep in mind:

1. There have always been problems with royalty statements. Twice in my life with different publishers distributed by different publishing conglomerates, I noticed that there were no Canadian royalties being reported for two straight royalty periods. Once I will forgive, because maybe there's some lag in the big publisher getting the reports to its distribution clients. Two periods in a row, that's a problem. Or there are games being played with the reserve against returns. Or sub rights money that hasn't shown up. Or the royalty rates have been set up incorrectly.

2. As hard as it can be to find e-book problems because of the paper trail/audit trail issues, they can be found if you look carefully, no different than that it's hard to notice the Canadian money is missing because it isn't there to be noticed. You find that series of books where one book in the series has a number that doesn't belong with the others. You find numbers that don't seem to dovetail with the Kindle Store ranking you've been assiduously checking.

3. Sometimes there are innocent explanations for things that seem impossible. Real world examples, Barnes & Noble put a mixed Tanya Huff "Valor" book floor display into all of their stores last summer ahead of the hardcover release of Truth of Valor, and in Fall 2009 when Charlaine Harris had nine books at once on the NY Times bestseller list stores were taking in stunningly huge quantity of her books for the 2009 holiday season. I could go into stores that sticker books many many months into 2010 and still see large numbers of Charlaine Harris books from October 2009, I can go into B&N stores now that still have 2/3 of the Valor books they got for that special floor riser promotion last summer. Going back twenty years, the Scott Meredith agency represented The Stud by Jackie Collins, and almost like clockwork we'd get one statement when lots of copies went out tied to the release of one of her newer books, and then see negative or small numbers the next time out. So yes, you can have royalty statements that report sales less than your Bookscan number for that period, the first question you need to ask is whether that holds if you look at the full year of reports, instead of just the one six month period.

Some of the examples above were offsetting errors, and sometimes an error is made in the author's favor. That said, the errors do over time trend in the publisher's direction, kind of like how you play the slot machines long enough over time the casino will win.

The message to take from Kris' post isn't that the game has suddenly changed and authors must enter full-blown panic mode because authors are now being cheated like they've never been cheated before. The message to take is that you need to be very confident that you and your agent are looking carefully over your royalty statements. Your literary agent can get several hundred pages worth of royalty reports, some maybe even a few thousand pages or more. You don't want to assume even the best agent can look as closely at those as you can look at the few pages or few dozen that might belong to you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tourism Done Weird

Even as the success of JABberwocky in recent years has expanded the horizons of what I can afford to do, my world seems to be shrinking.

The multiple Borders bankruptcies fill me with a deep sadness not entirely because of the lost places to buy books. The entire business can become electronic but people will still want to read a good yarn and I will still have some role in that business. No, as much or more is the knowledge that these closures will make it harder to fight back against this shrinking world of mine. 

It was 1993, I think, when I first headed out to Long Island on my birthday to visit Borders stores. And over the years, they've been my excuse to see the world. Lots of people went to WorldCon in San Jose. I saw the entire Bay Area from Los Gatos in the South to Fremont to Dublin to Berkley to Emeryville to Sunnyville to Milpitas. It came to be that way in areas around the country.  I know the usual thing is to go and never leave the convention hotel or to leave and visit the museum that everyone goes to. Neither of those is for me, but yet I've seen the world.  

1999 wasn't just the first year of my visiting London Book Fair as I discussed here. It was also when I first went to Australia and was the dawning of the international expansion of Borders into those two markets. Some things like a day trip from Glasgow to Edinburgh I think would have taken place regardless, but not getting out to the Glasgow suburbs. Parramatta in Australia has the first government house and the first sheep farm, but it also had a Borders. 

I feel foolish even writing this because I am talking about behavior that isn't what "normal" people do which is go to the museums, but in actual fact I know plenty of people for whom normal is the inside of the convention center and whatever you see in the cab to/from the airport. So I hold my head high and proudly proclaim I have seen the world one Borders at a time. 

And now what?  The joy of seeing the world one Borders at a time was the maddening inconsistency of the brand. You never quite knew what each new Borders would bring. Who would travel the world to see the boring sameness of each "new" Barnes  and Noble? I like Costco, but so many of those are stuck far from the bus routes in the car required parts of town. Visiting the world one Whole Foods at a time would be very fattening. True joy is still finding there is a Wheaton IL where you can find a Borders and Whole Foods sharing a parking lit, and sadness knowing that this is no longer the case  in San Ramon. 

Even right here at home, I remember how I went six months without stepping foot in lower Manhattan after 9/11 because there wasn't anything to bring me there. Will it be that way again, the entire part of the world south of Houston St. no longer part of the world I inhabit?  

I do like to see the world, and by that the suburbs where people live and the power centers  and strip malls where they exist as opposed to the places where the impressionists and the cubists stare down from the white-walled galleries. I guess I will find some way of doing that still. I hope so. But I'm just not sure. 

And yes, I am sad knowing there are fewer places in the world where Jig the Goblin and Guards of Haven can be found, but that doesn't leave the same emptiness in my heart as does the sense that each shuttered Borders from the Jam Factory to Colleyville and Watford to White Flint closes off a small part of the world

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #7; London Book Fair Now

OK, so the first time going to London Book Fair in 1999 wasn't a perfect experience, but there was little doubt that I was going back.

I might not have known it in the earliest months of 2000, but that was the year when I finally moved my commission needle from the low 30Ks into the middle 30Ks and started the upwards trend after five long years of investing in the business for returns not all that much more than break-even. I did feel comfortable enough to upgrade to a snazzier looking Hilton that I walked jealously past in 1999 on my way to and from the Fair. I had a few more appointments that year than the year before, and a higher percentage of those were appointments worth having, and you could say the same for each year thereafter. I got a new computer which allowed me to migrate the catalog to AppleWorks, which was slightly more advanced and did away with the cut-and-paste of images into the catalog, which slowly grew more pages and which went from Staples and me stapling to a local print shop that would staple it for me and by the mid 2000s to having somebody else desktop publish it, though it was quite a long time before we finally updated the last page that still retained touches of the original WriteNow 1999 appearance. There was the one fun year of 2001 when I got campyllobacter somewhere in London, which started to make its full effects felt on the plane ride home. I had a fun visit to the bathroom the moment I got through customs, and was in the ER getting rehydrated a few days later. That was also the last year pre-9/11 when you still got a hot snack in coach for the second feeding on the evening flight home. There was the first year when somebody actually sat down at the table and made an offer for something at the Fair, which I don't go to the Fair expecting but I'll never complain when it does. In 2002 or 2003 I introduced the "Dead Until Dark Chocolates" to the table, and then a year or two after that I got a year or two out the Speed of Dark Chocolates, and now everyone knows that there will be chocolates waiting when they visit the JABberwocky table.

The first year I attended, the International Rights Centre (IRC) had fewer than 200 tables. That number crept up over time, as did the bookings for publisher booths, and in 2006 the organizers decided that the event had outgrown the Olympia convention centre and moved it to the Excel Center in the Docklands, a more modern facility that Reed Exhibitions had been using for other things like conventions of arms dealers. That year is worthy of special note. For the Docklands was a miserable and ugly and awful experience. Essentially, Excel is a big convention center surrounded by a hotel village and very little else. Imagine having the event someplace like Bayonne, NJ, and that's kind of like this. The only transportation is the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), small trains that run without human intervention. Maybe arms dealers liked this, but publishers did not. The DLR was horrible to take back in the evening when everyone was heading back from Excel to the civilized parts of London all at the same time. It wasn't much better in the morning. It was much further to travel back to a good restaurant at night or to do other kinds of things that people in my line of work want to do with their evenings. The convention center might have been newer and shinier than Olympia, but that didn't make it very nice. The particular thing I will always remember is that the closest bathrooms to the convention hall with the IRC weren't in the hall or even on the same level as the hall. You had to walk out of the hall, downstairs, past the staff locker room, and only there could you find a men's room. I felt pretty strongly that this was as miserable a design decision as when the Newburgh Beacon Bridge was built with only one lane of traffic in each direction.

This was also the first year that I had company with me for the Fair, as the agency's first full-time employee Steve Mancino went along. Steve had no experience having LBF in a civilized setting and didn't mind the Docklands all that much. But let's just say that other than for Steve most publishing people enjoyed finer things in life than arms dealers. There was such a rebellion against having the LBF at ExCel that the people who organize the Frankfurt Book Fair started to arrange a competing event for LBF in 2007. Reed Exhibitions felt that this was not a good thing. They somehow managed to sneak in and take the dates at Earl's Court out from under the competing event and it came to pass that London Book Fair moved from being Sun-Tue in March to being Mon-Wed in April.

Earl's Court is much more civilized for we publishing folk. You are steps away from the Tube to get to the restaurant or party or cultural event of your choice in London. It does mean that the airfare and hotel aren't going to be as value priced because it's more during the peak season than mid-March, but I can roll with that punch now.

As the business grew, we expanded our presence at the Fair. We started to split a second table with Baen Books, and in 2011 we took the second table all to ourselves. After an ill-fated attempt at having three people from JABberwocky attend in 2010, which turned into two of us getting there by way of Paris and one never making it because of the Icelandic volcanic ash crowd and two-thirds of our appointments not making it either, we did have the entire office over for 2011. We had close to 80 appointments over the course of the week including around 75 at the Fair itself. Where most of the appointments used to be about going over and introducing our list to people, now there are markets like Germany and France where we've sold the JABberwocky list so extensively that we can spend time on other things, discussing what's happening with the authors someone's publishing, or maybe gossiping, or kind of whatever. Almost all of the appointments are with people that we are doing business with or could be doing business with, in 1999 one-third of the appointments were with people not worth scheduling again and this year it's certainly no more than two or three of the 80 people we met with that we wouldn't try and meet up with again. I now know and accept that almost everyone will be late, so I'm much better at taking advantage of the time to get through some of the day's paper.

I can't take all the credit for the much more substantial amount of business we're doing. I started to attend LBF in 1999 just as it was beginning to cement itself as the spring supplement to the Frankfurt Book Fair that takes place in October. From fewer than 200 IRC tables in 1999, there were 575 in 2011, and they were sold out a couple of months before the Fair. I was surprised this year by how many people we were meeting with from China or smaller Eastern European markets or Scandinavia where we've hardly had any appointments and certainly not productive ones in prior years, and that is certainly a combination of greater attendance and broader relationships.

I hate to say this where the people at Reed Exhibitions might see it, but LBF is important to our business. Over the early months of 2011 I've had this nagging sense which I haven't totally researched by checking year-over-year activity that we've not done as many deals as I'd like in translation for people not named Charlaine Harris. After the experience of 2011 when we were making many first-time contacts with publishers in all corners of the world and renewing our acquaintance with many people whom we did not get to see in 2010 because of the ash cloud, I am reluctantly forced to ponder that the deal volume in early 2011 may have something to do with the lack of an LBF in 2010 when 80% of overseas visitors didn't make it in and 65% of our meetings vanished with mostly only UK and French publishers making it to our table.

There are agencies bigger than ours with client lists much longer than mine that don't have the presence we do in London. Some of this business, some of it, has fallen into our laps. You represent a Charlaine Harris who was one of the top ten or twelve authors in the US in 2009 and has that TV thing going and will continue for many many years to be a major author, you can sit back and deals will happen. But I always thought there was too much of that when I was at Scott Meredith, and I've had this missionary impulse to go out and make things happen for JABberwocky in the translation markets. I can understand why others don't. Nobody makes a lot of money selling rights in Slovenia for $1200. And while there's this little voice that says I'd be just as well off not to spend the energy and effort to set up that appointment with the publisher in Lithuania that contributes to the second table and the second and third employee going to LBF, I can't shake the belief that the agency ends up being bigger than the sum of those individual deals. All of us working at and represented by JABberwocky have come a long way since 1999.

Monday, April 18, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #6; London Book Fair Then

In the earliest years of JABberwocky I was not making much money, but I was making a little teeny tiny bit each year. My break even for my first year was somewhere at maybe $24-25K in gross commission and I ended up doing something like $30-32K. And I did that for my first year, and my second and third and fourth and fifth years as well. Sometimes I'm not sure I'd have started the business if I'd known it would take so long to start growing it.

Nonetheless, it was still a tiny bit more each year than the bare minimum necessary, and as the years progressed I never wavered in the belief that if I was making enough each year and building a backlist and creeping toward having royalty income as well as advance income that I could let out the belt and spend an extra dollar or two.

So when a piece of direct mail showed up in the box talking about London Book Fair in March of 1999, I started to ponder if maybe I shouldn't finally see London. There were some things to do first. One was to check with my co-agents in translation markets that some of them did in fact attend the Fair, so that I would have a few people to meet with if I went. Another was to see if I could do an air/hotel package for under $1000, which I felt would allow for a total budget including the fee for my table and my incidentals, that wouldn't creep too much over $1500 total for the trip. On that account, it helped greatly that the Fair took place in March in those days, because March was off-season and the package rates were cheaper, and this I knew because that was still a time when AAVacations advertised in every Sunday's NY Times Travel section (print ads in newspapers, who ever heard of such things!). It also helped that the Fair went Sunday thru Tuesday back then, so I could do it in just five nights, arrive on Friday to have some time for the jet lag, and leave on Wednesday. So yes, I would have some people to meet with, I found my air/hotel package for under $1000, and I pulled the trigger.

I knew I'd need a catalog, so I put one together myself using an extremely primitive word processing program, maybe hadn't even moved to AppleWorks yet and was using WriteNow. To add some imagery to the catalog, I had to print out images, and get out scotch tape and tape them into place in the catalog. It wasn't the snazziest thing, it was run off at Staples, but it was my first ever rights catalog and I was very very proud of it.

The AirTrain JFK hadn't opened, and I didn't have much money. Getting to the airport meant hopping on the subway with a relatively big suitcase since I had to pack three ensembles with sportcoats, and then squeezing into the Q10 bus for a long ride to JFK during the middle of rush hour so the bus was very very crowded and not really designed for going to the airport with luggage, but it was the option one had.

The hotel experience was not pleasant. I got what I paid for. I was in the top eaves-y floor of a tourist class hotel near Marylebone Station. The single rooms on that floor had a small bed and a small aisle next to the bed and a small bathroom and shower with hardly any closet space or desk space. The TV hung over the bed. The phone was on a niche over the headboard. I learned that I was never again going to take the airport transfer as part of my package, after waiting in Heathrow for an agonizingly long time for my van to depart, and then having it meander through London dropping everyone else off first, even with limited geography realizing at one point that we were very close to my hotel and then having the van head into Bayswater to drop off someone before finally doubling back to drop off yours truly.

No Google Maps or Mapquest back then, but I had carefully mapped out as best I could that I was within reasonable walking distance for Joshua of the Olympia exhibition center, which meant around 50 minutes. But a pleasant 50 minutes, a chunk of it cutting on the diagonal through Kensington Gardens. When in London, I kept my map book with me at every moment, as the streets had this habit of curving, or changing their names every few blocks and then changing back.

I had something like 22 appointments at the Fair, and maybe a third of those I shouldn't have even bothered with because there was little in common with the publishers I was meeting with and the JABberwocky list. Everyone was late for their appointments, and I was antsy, and I interpreted late as meaning people would not show up at all. So I spent a lot of time sitting at my table stewing waiting for people to show and not getting anything done. I spent a lot of time worrying about appearances that everyone would wonder if I had a right to be at the Fair because I just had 22 appointments and spent half the day doing nothing while everyone else was engaged in very very important business. I had lots of time to walk around and see who else was at the Fair and if anyone might perhaps be willing to accept a catalog that I didn't actually have an appointment with. I had lots of time to go downstairs and roam the aisles of the Fair looking at all of the stands from all of the British publishers that would surely want to be in business with me if only they had a better idea of what wonderful things I had to sell them. Right!

But for all of that, the Fair was clearly better than this makes it sound. Sure, a third of the appointments weren't worth it but that did leave two-thirds of them that had some merit, getting to meet for the first time some of the agents in overseas markets that had been working with my list for only a very short time in some cases or in others dating back twelve years to my earliest sales at Scott Meredith. I was getting to see actual bookstores in another country and educating myself a little about the marketplace in the UK. And of course it was London. And I have to say that it was pretty much love at first sight for me and London. The city seemed to have something interesting on every block, and seemed to be full of life on virtually every block, and it was all knitted together with an extensive tube system. And all those helpful markings at the crosswalks that told you to "look left" and "look right," and everybody jaywalked or crossed when it was safe regardless of what the light said just like at home. I loved walking around the West End.

It's just twelve years since that first trip to London Book Fair, but it seems like an entirely different life. We'll take forward to the present in the next Musing...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Things from England retailing

One of the problems with modern agriculture is that of monoculture. A particular type of corn or banana or tomato might be wonderful but if everyone grows only that one wonderful thing and that one wonderful thing meets but one determined enemy then there goes your entire crop. 

Sitting back after London Book Fair, I worry that the biggest threat from the ebook isn't so much that it in and of itself will wipe out the print book but rather that it will lead to a monoculture for the retailing of the print book, and that it will be the monoculture that kills.  And the UK may be leading the way.

Waterstones is the print book retailer in the UK. There are supermarkets with a couple of hundred titles or HMVs or WH Smiths that have book departments of varying size.  But if you want to find a few thousand books to choose from instead of a few hundred, there is only Waterstones. 

So at this point in time, virtually the only books selling at bookstores in the UK are the ones being carried at Waterstones and Waterstones is ailing. 

It is currently owned by HMV, the music/video chain that is ailing. It is for sale, maybe to some Russian tycoon, maybe with participation of someone from the Waterstones family. Will it be sold?  Will the new owners have the cash and ideas to bring the company forward?  

If not them, who?  A few Foyles stores in central London, a Blackwells, not much else left. 

Even now, the merchandising at Waterstones is hideously boring, every store filled with the same pastel-signed mix-and-match 3-for-2 tables and bays. No sign of the theme tables selected by local stores that were there a year ago. Barnes and Noble can be boring in the same way but at least doesn't have blaring pastel signs that suggest the only reason to buy a book is because it is 3-for-2 and books aren't subject to VAT. 

Two years ago Borders was still around with a broader range of US imports, which Waterstones now has in lesser quantity.  Bad that "illegal" US imports are less likely to introduce an author to the UK, good that prospective sales to UK publishers less likely to be dampened by loss of sales to imports, bad that Amazon still does "illegal" imports on anything it can so if no print book chain is providing a range of in demand US titles it drives more sales to the Internet and away from physical stores.  And Borders/Books Etc. had sufficient mass to maybe give a book a physical presence without Waterstones including a much wider assortment of imports from the US.

Happily for my business we have Charlaine Harris who is carried to a degree at HMV, Smiths, other places that sell a small range of books. And the Brandon Sanderson and Jack Campbell books are very big business at Waterstones as is Peter V Brett with a smaller # of books out. Three years ago Elizabeth Moon was our top seller, and she sells as well as she ever did and has a presence at every Waterstones while our overall business in the UK is much bigger. 

But there is a cost. Overall I think the typical UK store may carry fewer of our non-Charlaine titles than a few years ago. The rich are getting richer but if in 2008 I could say it was a publisher excise to say they could only buy things they could afford to promote now it seems genuinely the case that a smaller book will have a hard time fighting is way to the fore. The retail environment is boring, not much reason to get excited about entering any one store and no other store to go to for some variety. 

And I fear it may only get worse. And if this one kind of boring chain to stop isn't there, the market is dead. Dead. It will be Amazon. And Amazon. And Amazon some more. 

There is a cautionary lesson for publishers in the US. Publishers don't want to resume trading with Borders on standard trade terms and understandably so, but they should want a Barnes and Noble monoculture even less. 

I do not know if the Kindle has any big box retail partners in the UK. In bookstores, the Sony eReader is much more prominent than in the US which makes it more annoying that Sony doesn't seem to be very open to a range of content providers the way that other eVendors are. There are other readers like the iRiver and Elonex that we are unfamiliar with in the US that also have substantial UK bookstore presence. We need to get Sony to return our calls and explore some of these obscure vendors if we are to have the penetration in the UK market for the JABberwocky ebook program that we have in the US. 

Quantity wise the biggest title counts non-Charlaine for our clients were around two dozen books, the worst stores more like 12 or 15. Forbidden Planet, which imports with abandon, had around 100. 

I stopped by two old Borders in outer London that were still empty 15 months after closing, the one on Charing Cross at the Borders HQ is a TK Max store, the Oxford St flagship had been sold to a fashion retailer to raise cash ahead of the company going under and the Oxford store now a Tesco Metro grocery store. 

In Australia, 16 Borders are closing (9 will remain open) as part of the REDGroup bankruptcy along with dozens of small format Angus and Robertson stores. There are dueling lawsuits between REDGroup and A&R franchise stores that want to break away.  Like unhappy families each Borders chain has gone bankrupt in it's own unhappy way. 

Here in the US would you go to work for Borders right now?  Since most sane people would say no, the need for the bankruptcy court to approve some kind of bonus and retention plan for Borders execs is real. I hate to say so, don't like these plans at all as a rule, but here it does seem necessary. 

Bottom line here is that I'm not encouraged by what I see in the UK, and have deep fears that we're heading in the same direction in the US.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

On Earning Out

A wise man recently was asking me about that old canard of how his first novel would be doing nicely if it earned back it's advance. It took me more time than I thought to explain to wise man why this is not correct. 

Let me try here in the best way I can think of. 

Imagine that there are two books that are in every way identical. Each has a $7500 advance. The publisher spends the exact same amount of money on each, ships the exact same number of copies, absolutely everything the same. The book is a $7.99 mass market paperback and sells the exact same 15,000 copies. 

Only difference is that one author has a 6% royalty in his contract, the other author has an 8% royalty. Both rates are common.

Now do the math. 

7.99x15000x.06=$7200 and the book has an unearned advance of $300. 

 7.99x15000x.08=$9600 and the publisher writes out a royalty check above the advance for $2100. 

If you believe that your book becomes profitable only when you get royalty checks you are forced to believe that the publisher of these two otherwise identical books has a profit on the book that cost more total money net of author royalties and a loss on the book that cost less. 

Since that is obviously not correct, safely ignore anyone who attempts to say that the bottom line on a book is the earn-out status of the advance.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Battle LA

So having seen this as part of a group outing with Peter V. Brett, Myke Cole and a friend of Peter's let me not add it to the list of movies I've seen that I want to review and never do.

Peter's friend hated the movie. The rest of us were debating the fine points of its aspirations to mediocrity.

For those of you who can't figure it out from the title, if from nothing else, the movie is about a battle. Set in Los Angeles. Well, most of it is actually set in Santa Monica, which is worth setting foot in now pretty much just for the excellent rugelach you can get here since both the Borders and B&N on the Third Street Promenade have closed in recent years.

So if aliens want to destroy Santa Monica, just so long as they leave that one block on Montana Ave. with the good rugelach untouched they can really do as they please.

So the thing is that the movie kind of delivers pretty much what it wants to deliver, which is just unadulterated war porn military action. The opening fifteen minutes of the movie (after the kind of prologue that I don't like very much when I'm reading fantasy novels) sketches out the most archetypal characters collected from every war movie ever known to man. The USMC Sgt who's ready to call it a day after losing men in a recent military operation, the fresh-from-school lieutenant he'll be serving with, the guy who's buying flowers for his wedding. And then the aliens attack, and we quickly get into two hours of decently lively military action (I must leave it to Myke to comment on the accuracy of the action, as he's the military man in this movie-watching crowd) that is filled with more cliches from military and other movies. As an example, when an alien is shot, falls into a pool, and a marine starts poking around in the pool, if you have seen any horror movie in the last 35 years you will not be surprised -- no, you will be expecting -- to find that the alien isn't actually dead.

Well, no, let's not just rely on Myke for the military accuracy. Sure, he's entirely right to say afterward that one the good guys call in for an artillery strike on the bad guys that maybe, just maybe, the guy at the other end of the line would ask another question or two, or maybe the code would be something a little harder than I think it was "one-two-zero" which isn't even as many digits as for my ATM card. But Myke liked 300. And how accurate was that, did the blood in ancient Greece really spurt so artistically? And if you think there's a force based in midichlorians that can help Luke nuke a Deathstar you can think the military will send artillery when you call up and say "dude, artillery, one two zero, we'll have it lasered up like a Pink Floyd Laser show, ciao!"

Enhancing our enjoyment of this 1:35 of military action was that we were seeing this on one of the AMC ETX screens. This is where they take a really really big auditorim in a multiplex and make the screen as big as they can make it in the auditorium and gussy up the sound, so the bass notes made me feel like I had gone back 38 years or so and was watching Earthquake in Sensurround. Detracting from the enjoyment is the $4 upcharge to experience the movie in ETX. Which I won't complain about too much, I like in London when they charge an extra pound or two to see a movie on the big screen at the Leicester Square multiplexes because I know then that I'm getting the big screen experience.

As a completely unrelated note, AMC auditoria with ETX, apparently people spent all their money going to ETX instead of buying books because the Block at Orange CA, Tyson's Corner VA, the Metreon in San Francisco, Aventura FL, and Century City LA all have ETX in the vicinity of a recently closed or closing Borders.

On the other hand, if you go see ETX at the Yonge and Dundas 24 in Toronto, Ontario you are just steps -- steps!! -- away from The World's Biggest Bookstore, where Jessica Strider helps to run the best sf/fantasy section a chain bookstore has to offer.

So getting back to the movie for a moment, it's just so replete with cliches that the fight scenes have no emotional content to them. You care about people, it's a lot harder to care about living breathing cliches, and that's what all -- all -- of the people in this movie are.

And there is more humor to be found in this blog post than in the movie.

So ultimately, you can sit back and enjoy the movie at a certain level, but pretty much only at a certain level. If none of us were willing to go along with Peter's friend that the movie was just awful, none of us were prepared to say it was actually good, either. There's a subset of people who like military action and who'll love that this movie does its best to dispense said military action without stopping for characterization or comic relief or plausibility. And for the rest of us, we could do better or worse.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thieves & Robbers at Hilton

UPDATE 6 April: This is one time where some good came from complaining. The webmaster for the Nebula event was told to add the fine print on the deposit to some of the pages (though I don't see those changes put in as yet). I was able to explain to Hilton why their disclosure isn't as good as they think. I will admit there is a decent chance someone filling in their credit card info manually in the guarantee area might notice that the deposit is being taken right away, but for an HHonors member signed in with the info pre-filled "we will charge $145 one night's room and tax right away" doesn't look much different than "we will charge $145 on night's room and tax if you don't cancel" if you quickly check over things on a 3-page reservation screen en route to the final "accept" button. That needs to be better. The payment of the deposit needs to be indicated in the reservation confirmation. There should be a receipt-like substance in the process. Finally, since they are taking a deposit, the fine print needs to be more clearly state what happens to the deposit. Right now it says you can cancel the reservation 72 hours ahead, it doesn't clearly say if the deposit will be refunded or not once you do so. This isn't a good place for ambiguity. I also do not like that this is yet another example that right now the only squeaky wheels that get the grease are the ones who use Twitter. If I hadn't written this letter, posted it, and tweeted to it, I'd have been stuck with the see/hear/speak no evil monkeys at the phone customer service or waiting a very long time to get a response to a letter. An e-mail complaint would probably have been handled with the same smug complacency as my phone call. So I want to give SFWA and Hilton some credit for their response, but I'd still give Hilton an incomplete until they address some of these issues on a corporate level instead of on an individual basis with me.

April 2, 2011

Mr. Christopher J. Nassetta
Hilton Worldwide
7930 Jones Branch Dr., #1100
McLean, VA 22102

Dear Mr. Nassetta:

I am extremely upset with how Hilton handled the taking of a one-night deposit on a reservation I made at the Hilton Washington for the SFWA Nebula Weekend event in May.

When I visit the event web site, and click their hotel booking form and am taken to the Hilton website for the event page, see attached page, there is no indication that deposit will be taken.

When I click on “Terms & Conditions,” there is no indication that a deposit will be taken.

When I go to the “Select Room & Rate” page, the Rules & Restrictions say nothing about a deposit being taken.

When I go to the Guest Information Page, the prominently displayed “Your Pending Reservation Details” does not say that a deposit will be taken.

In the 2nd page of the Guest Information, the depost information is indicated in the Hotel/Guarantee section. Unfortunately, this screen is pre-filled when you sign in with your Hilton HHonors account, and I think a lot of people aren’t going to look again at a pre-filled screen.

In the 3rd page the deposit is hidden in very very small fine print that nobody reads.

Finally, after burying the information after multiple places where you DO NOT inform guests that you will be taking a deposit, you send an e-mail confirmation for the reservation which says nothing -- nothing -- about the fact that you have been charged for the night. No acknowledgment, no receipt, no nothing.

And then when I get my credit card bill, the only identifying information is the hotel, there’s no information regarding the confirmation # for my reservation, and the arrival date is given as February 24 instead of in May when this reservation is actually booked for. So even after I’ve been charged, it’s impossible to tell what the charge is for.

When I called customer service to complain about this, everyone was annoyingly smug in acting like I should have of course noticed the deposit was being charged, wouldn’t anyone! And when I asked for the address of corporate HQ so I could write you a letter, I was given the customer service address in Texas. Even after I specifically asked Johnathan Shorters in Guest Assistance “that’s the corporate HQ, you didn’t move to Virginia, I thought you moved to Virginia” he continued to insist that he had given me the corporate HQ.

Well, since you’re shading the truth of the deposit multiple times during the reservation process, why not lie to me when I call Guest “Assistance" and ask for the address of your corporate headquarters.

If you want to take a one-night deposit, it should be abundantly clear that you are doing so. The fact that you are taking a deposit should be prominently indicated in the exact same place where I give the final click to confirm. And after you have taken the deposit, you should clearly acknowledge with a receipt and in the e-mail confirmation that you have done so. You did none of that. The information regarding the deposit could have been provided in at least three or four different places where it was not. The disclosure near the final click is hidden in fine print. And you do nothing to acknowledge or receipt the transaction afterward.

This is a miserable excuse for how to run a business.