Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy the Book: Is It Author Spring?

Dear Readers,

In my continuing series on e-books, backlists, and self-publishing, here's my new Huffington Post. Please post and pass around. I will continue next week with cover design and how to find the right cover for your e-books. Some more tips on the book trade.

Occupy the Book: Is It Author Spring?

Posted: 10/26/11 11:23 AM ET  HUFFINGTON POST

In the 1970s, when I was an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine -- and getting many rejections -- I used to fanaticize about being my own publisher. "Give yourself ten years to finish a book," one of the revered New Yorker editors advised me. "Think of it as an author's apprenticeship."
After five years, I left the magazine to publish my first novel, River of Light with Knopf. To support my writing, I took a lowly job as a typesetter, so I could complete my working knowledge of books -- from creation to production. My second novel, Becoming the Enemy, was even set at a fictional publishing house. I worked for decades as an editor and taught writing.
After publishing 16 books with traditional houses -- from Norton to HarperCollins to Penguin -- I believed I was finally ready to become my own publisher. But there was still a stigma against the "vanity press" of self-publishing, no distribution, and little consumer demand.
I would have to wait until the 21st century when digital technology, direct distribution channels like Amazon, iBooks, and Nook, plus the popularity of inexpensive e-readers have finally made it possible for authors to become publishers. My first task was to bring my backlist into print as e-books. The journey into self-publishing is like discovering a new territory with evolving rules and a swiftly tilting culture. This is one of the most exciting and innovative times to be an author. Everything is in flux.
An esteemed editor said recently at a national conference of Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), "It's the Wild West out there for e-books. And publishers should not be afraid to embrace them."
With the proliferation of e-books and self-publishing will the book business become more sustainable and egalitarian? Will we finally see an end to the bloated advances for celebrity memoirs -- those non-books for non-readers written by non-writers? Will we see the re-education of the bottom-liners who turned this once genteel profession of publishing into corporate Raiders of the Lost Authors?
Another editor at the SCBWI publishing panel commented, "Authors and readers now have many more options. Big publishers must be more flexible, nimble and responsive." Like independent and small presses always have been.
Will big publishers invest now, not just book-by-book, but instead in an author's whole body of work -- supported and developed over time? Will publishers realize that today's long-ignored backlist is tomorrow's steady life support?
And for their part, will self-published authors develop their craft and practice rigorous revision, what one of my editors calls, "the soul of genius," and employ the same expert editing and production standards of traditional presses? Or will we see a glut of unprocessed and unedited prose? Who will be the new gatekeepers and ensure quality control? Who will be the trusted reviewers, as newspapers and their book critics disappear? As we zoom into the future of books, will blogger-reviewers be sheriffs or outlaws?
Beloved librarian and author Nancy Pearl writes in a recent PW interview, "One concern I have is that the relatively healthy balance of book-related information that can be found on the Internet now might evolve into a Wild West solely of personal opinions." She credits GoodReads and LibraryThing with their enthusiastic peer reviewers. In the future publishing milieu, Pearl also looks forward to hearing more "new voices" and credits the enduring, independent presses as they continue their tradition of rich, literary quality books.
In the next decade, who will be left standing at the OK Corral of book publishing? And will authors finally make a living wage with their 70 percent royalties on self-published e-books -- or will we again be enslaved by the corporate greed of conglomerate publishers, some of whom might as well be selling shoes as books? What is the book culture to come?
Are we now seeing the power shift from publishers to authors? A kind of Occupy Publishers' Row by enterprising authors? Or perhaps an Author Spring?
Many predict that by the 2014, e-books will be the main revenue stream for authors and publishers, with paperback and hardbacks demoted to sub-rights. This is a huge transition -- as readers and authors are directly connected and the conversation continues online, the pages turning digital. Big publishers, if they don't play catch-up with this revolution, will be Titanics. Smaller presses may flourish if they can keep their loyal readers and develop their own niche. Libraries are already lending e-books. Authors are now more at the center of it all.
Along with sharing power, authors also have to take more responsibility for what we create. We will have to learn how to find the best e-book formatters, so our books don't look amateurish and reveal sub-quality production values. This means employing cover designers, experienced editors, proofreaders, and reaching out to our readers via social medias and blog tours. And let us never forget or forsake those independent bookstores who have valiantly kept authors alive and in touch with our readers.

With the upside-down of book publishing, authors and publishers are serving a new apprenticeship. And it won't take a decade. It's warp speed. But we still have to learn publishing all over again, from the bottom up. Laborious, yes. Daunting, yes. Exhilarating, yes.
Authors and readers and publishers unite. Occupy the Book!
Brenda Peterson is the author of many books, including the novels Duck and Cover, a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year" and Animal Heart, which she has just brought back into print as e-books. For more on publishing and writing, see her blog at

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

From Author to Publisher: The Future of Books

Today I begin my promised series on the future of publishing, especially bringing out an author's backlist into e-books and also the prospect of self-publishing. It's hot news, the fact that publishing is in such flux with the proliferation of author-to-publisher opportunities on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook. In fact, there's a fascinating article in the 10.25.2011 edition of The New York Times with a lot of savvy commentary from authors about self-publishing at this link:

And having just brought my own two out-of-print novels back into e-books, I want to share with my readers this exciting but often laborious process. The pitfalls and the possibilities. 

First, for those authors who have already published books but seen them languish in publisher's backlist or haunting themselves on Internet shelves where no one ever sees them anymore, don't despair. These books can be reborn as e-books. I just reissued DUCK AND COVER, my New York Times "Notable Book of the Year," which was a critical success. In 2003, I was one of the first authors to publish in paperback via the Author's Guild program.
e-book is now available on at this link:

But in paperback, royalties were as minimal as hardback publication, 10 or 15%. It was the old publishing model with the author receiving very little. When I started tracking the 70% royalties available via Kindle, iBooks, and Nook, I decided to venture into the publishing business myself. Here's what I've learned:

                 E-Book Formatting: Don't Listen to the Ads

All the technologies have changed so quickly that a Quark format from Adobe's InDesign, which most publishers used for many books, now must be translated into either WORD or pdf before it can become an e-book. 

There are two main e-book formats. The first, used by Amazon, and the easiest, is MoBI. The second, used by iBooks and Barnes and Noble, Nook, is e-pub format. If you remember nothing else about this first blog on e-books and self-publishing, remember this: Don't translate into e-book formats yourself!

Even though all the e-book publishers advertise that it's easy to translate your WORD or pdf files, you'll soon discover when the book goes up for sale that it is full of weird font problems and spacing gaffes. Sometimes there is dropped copy and unintelligible squiggles that look like an alien landed right in the middle of your story. 

Trying to get a lower cost for e-book translations led me to several very quaint and courteous conversations with e-book formatting entrepreneurs around the world, especially in India. While their emails were polite and professional, most of them were full of grammatical errors. And though they offered formatting at prices as low as .25 per page, this did not include hand or "human" proofing. It would all be done by machines. The chances of errors goes up exponentially.

After much research, and more than a little bewildering exchanges, I finally found myself on an online forum via Digital Book World on Linked in. Digital Book World Group

I've never in my life been in a chat room. But suddenly I found myself conversing with total strangers about formats, pricing for e-books, and cover designs. My author peers and some small, independent publishers were extraordinarily helpful. It felt like writers had at last found a kind of union -- all organized around How To.

Another forum that was helpful was on Linked In, which has a very lively conversation about e-books and the future of self-publishing -- everything from children's books to YA to memoirists.

It was through Digital Book World that I discovered one of the very best e-book formatters -- Data Conversion Laboratory at

 They do e-book formatting for When I contacted them by e-mail, they set up a phone call with real, live people. They informed me that they not only translate from Quark, pdf., scanned pdfs, and WORD, but they also proof with a hands-on process.

In about two weeks, DC Labs sent me my beautifully formatted novels in both MOBI and e-pub. I hired a professional proofreader, just to make sure they had translated the book well. I found only two errors in over 300 pages. This is quality work! I give them my highest recommendation.

But then what? I had the inside of my book ready to publish. But what about the outside? That little thumbnail cover that appears on your computer screen. The first thing a potential reader sees? Again, even though Amazon, iBooks, and Nook offer you a fairly inscrutable process to create your own cover -- please don't do it yourself!Stay tuned for my next blog in this continuing series -- Cover design. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Post-Marriage Bed: Can this Mattress Be Saved?

The Post-Marriage Bed: Can This Mattress Be Saved?
Every morning when I awoke with a lower back ache, I still denied the truth: This mattress, like my relationship, no longer supported me. So why stay in a bed that sagged under my spine like sorrow?

When my decade-long, unofficial marriage ended, I spent a year sorting through shared belongings. At last in the bedroom, I parted with the Hawaiian quilt stitched with dolphins; I recycled our comforter -- now worn with the happiness of desire, our winter coziness, the startling confession of an affair. But it never occurred to me to let go of the spacious mattress.

Every morning when I awoke with a lower back ache, I still denied the truth: This mattress, like my relationship, no longer supported me. So why stay in a bed that sagged under my spine like sorrow? Every night I was sinking deeper into a foam-filled valley, next to an empty gulley. Could this mattress really be saved? I took a first step: check out what's possible.

"Let me introduce you to some splendid beds," the elderly department store salesman swept me into his huge boudoir. He seemed like a favorite uncle dressed for a wedding, dark suit with bright bowtie and his silver hair shorn in a respectable crew cut. He waltzed me through a bonanza of beds until my mind was numb from too many -- King, Queen, Super Lumbar Support, Firm to Pillow Top to Plush.

"So, will there be two of you?" he asked discretely, noting that I still wore a black pearl on my ring finger."No," I said softly. "We're....well, separated."

"Oh," the salesman nodded, then asked with a detached gentleness. "Are you having trouble sleeping?"I nodded, turning away quickly to hide my sudden sadness. I tried to recover my composure by plopping down with what I hoped looked like consumer cheerfulness to test yet another bed. It had a surprising suppleness and bounce.

As it happens, I had landed on a twin bed. It was a modest, firm, no-nonsense single bed, the kind I hadn't slept on since childhood when I graduated from sleeping with siblings to my own room.

"This is so comfy," I said, bouncing a little more. "But then, I'm sure it's too small for...." I fell silent. "Did you know that for every ten years, four of them are spent on a mattress?" The salesman waited patiently.

A radical idea took hold of me. It was as if the bed reached up through its individual coiled springs zinging a new synapse into my brain. A single bed for a single woman! After all, I was sleeping alone and unexpectedly enjoying it. I did not have the slightest intention, for now, of starting another relationship until I'd thoroughly sorted out and understood what went wrong. I knew I needed to learn to trust again after such an intimate betrayal. And until I healed, I would not be a good mate.

"Can I just buy just one twin... like a closed set?

"Certainly you can," he said sensibly. "A twin is always good for kids, guests, you....whatever."

Here was my second epiphany. I could afford a much more expensive and supportive bed if I bought a single version of the Queen Size posturepedic I'd been eyeing. I jumped up and turned to lay both of my hands, palms flat, against the strong twin bed. It felt so sturdy and somehow self-possessed.

"Sold!" I said and smiled giddily.

I was quiet as he neatly wrote out the order and delivery date. When he handed the paperwork to me with a warm smile, my eyes met his. I had not noticed how dark and kind his expression until this moment. He concluded the deal by saying almost tenderly, "You'd be surprised how many of these, single beds I sell these days. It will last you...when other things don't."

As I walked away from the bed department I noted a young couple testing a King size, already arguing over plush or firm. I imagined their bodies adjusting to a young marriage and another body. Surprisingly, I did not envy them. All I wanted was to be home in a new, slim and stable bed -- dreaming alone. I saw myself on this bed for the next four out of ten years sleeping contentedly in monastic poise. If and when I ever do take another mate -- well, there is always the matching twin.

Brenda Peterson is the author of 16 books, including the recent memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which The Christian Science Monitor named among "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010."