Archive for June, 2011

Northern California Independent Booksellers Score Big Victory Over Amazon

June 30, 2011

the Winners

Yesterday California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill      into law that requires Amazon.com to collect sales tax on all sales made to California customers. The state stands to collect $200,000,000 owed by Amazon for unpaid back taxes. Amazon countered by cutting off all their  California affiliates (people with those nifty click -throughs on their websites that funnel sales to Amazon).

This was a long fight, and it was pretty much carried by the Northern California Booksellers Association. Although paradoxically, they did have some –uh– bigger allies. Like, for instance, Walmart, and later Barnes and Noble.

California followed some other states in this: notably New York and Illinois.

I’ll try not to bore you too much with legal theory, but here’s the somewhat simplified back story. The controlling Supreme Court decision on Internet sales tax collection is a case called Quill v. North Dakota, decided in 1992 before there was such a thing as Internet commerce. The court ruled that under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution states could not require out of state corporations to collect state sales tax. Of course, the devil is always in the details, and the big question is what exactly is an out of state corporation. All tax experts agree that if there is some sort of substantial presence by an out of state corporation in the state, that is enough to trigger the sales tax collection requirement. Sometimes it can be as simple as teachers selling books to students from the Scholastic Book catalogue or even a commissioned sales rep wandering into the state periodically to collect some orders.

The Losers

I think this all started with a meeting of Northern California booksellers in 1999. The meeting was attended by Hut Landon, Bill Petrocelli, myself, and George Kiskadden. Also attending was a particularly supercilious lawyer from the California State Tax Board. Bill had done some pretty intense legal research and laid out his theory about “affiliate nexus”. It was pretty much the theory that New York, Illinois, North Caralina, and now California have used to justify Amazon’s tax collection requirement. The supercilious lawyer responded superciliously that tax policy is extremely complicated and should be left to the tax policy experts.  He looked at us, more in sadness than in anger, and told us it was a pity, because he agreed with our sentiments.

At the same time on the federal level, an unholy alliance of small business people, huge commercial real estate corporations, and big box stores were at work attempting to get federal enabling legislation that would accomplish the same goal. This has never happened.  But there was a national debate raging at the time, and Internet-mania was dominating public discourse.  I remember being on the same talk shows as Internet gurus who were saying that the Internet was the most important invention since the wheel (I’m  not kidding!).

Amazon had 3 or 4 arguments about why they shouldn’t be required to collect sales tax. The 2 most cited arguments were: 1)Internet commerce was a frail bird that needed to be protected from the crushing weight of sales taxes  and 2) Internet commerce was the economic juggernaut that was driving the “New Economy” and creating jobs and wealth. I liked to point out how puzzled I was about how Internet commerce could at the same time be both a frail bird and an economic juggernaut.  I never received a satisfactory answer.

The national alliance of big and small businesses needed a public spokesman who could engender warm and fuzzy feelings. This excluded the vice president of Walmart who was the key figure financing this endeavor. They decided that they needed a colorful small shop keeper and so chose me.  I remember they sent  me off to Washington to debate Grover Norquist, a truly despicable person and anti-tax nut, at the Federal Society. I had no difficulty dispatching Norquist’s shabby arguments by showing that government tax policy should not be picking winners and losers in the marketplace by allowing some favored businesses to sell tax free. It was a perfectly respectable conservative position and it was true and fair. My dirty little secret that I have never admitted until now was that my expenses for that trip were paid for with a check from Walmart.  Strange bedfellows, yes?

Anyway, this has been one of those David and Goliath stories.  In  America the Davids haven’t been having much success these days. I hope California will take Amazon’s $200,000,000 and put it back into the educational system of the state.  An educated population is a book buying population. In the long run,  it will prove a good investment for Amazon and all of us.

It’s nice to know that in this age of economic giantism, sometimes little people are still able to do big things.  Thanks, Northern California booksellers.

Harper Lee: Kung Fu Master

June 28, 2011

In a recent 60 Minutes /  Vanity Fair poll, 53% of all respondents couldn’t recognize Harper Lee. Others misidentified her as a famous chef (5%), a martial arts expert (5%), or a comic book hero (2%).

I leave the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Resources for Finding Literary Agents

June 24, 2011

 

I get a lot of  unsolicited queries from writers, most of which I must respectfully reject. Many of these writers ask me if I can refer them to another literary agent. Usually I tell them to find a reputable and well-vetted website that has a data base of agencies and that includes information on whether an agency is currently open to new authors, the genres that they are specifically looking for, and whether the list is searchable  on some of these fields. These lists are all free. Here are a few of them that I like.

 

Association of Author Representatives   .  The Association of Author Representatives (AAR) is the trade association for American literary and dramatic agents. It has a searchable data base that includes important information about genres an agent works in, whether she is actively seeking new projects, submission guidelines, and other relevant information. The AAR list is very selective, only 350 agencies are listed members. In order to become a member of the AAR, you must have sold at least 10 books in the 18 months prior to your application (this is a significant hurdle).  You must get a written  recommendation  by 2 other AAR members, and you must agree to a rather stringent code of ethics. A lot of the members are from large agencies. But many are not. If an agent is a member of AAR, you can usually assume that the agent is a fulltime and reputable agent. However many good and successful agents are not members of AAR. So you need not limit yourself to this small list of agents. (I’m a member of AAR and proud of it!)

Agentquery.com  . This site has a much larger list of agents than AAR.  It has over 900 agents listed. It is also vetted, so most, if not all, of these agents are reputable and full time. It has a great searchable data base, and it is all free. It also has lots of other information that writers want including lists of agent blogs, information about writing effective query letters, how to identify scammers, and information on self-publishing options, I like this site.

Preditors and Editors.   This is a very unusual site that has a long list of agents annotated with cautions against certain agencies. P&E  frequently gives details about why these “not recommended” agents have received this dubious honor. Some of these examples are pretty gruesome. The site explains criteria for including a negative rating. Some of those criteria are: agent charges fees, has burdensome engagement agreements, has tie-in arrangements with other fee charging entities, and a whole lot more. Some agencies have special “recommended” notations. But it is unclear what the criteria is for these qualifiers.

Querytracker.net.   Querytracker has a decent agent data base and some good information that will be useful for writers. It also has some interesting tracking information with statistics about how responsive a particular agent is with unsolicited queries. I’d take these statistics with a grain of salt. It is usually based on a very small sample by writers who take the time to report back to this site. Example. My report is based on 14 responses sent to the site. That is about as many queries as I receive every day. So this is not a particularly robust sample.  They also have some nifty chat rooms for authors. For $25 per year, you can receive their premium membership that offers some more reports and services. I generally advise against spending money on any of the sites. The information is usually available for free elsewhere.

Writer Beware.   This is not a list of agents. Rather it is a very good free resource that gives comprehensive advice on how to avoid scams by agents, editors, and publishers, along with good legal advice on your recourses. Some of this information is also available on other sites that we discussed above. But this one is particularly complete. It is on the site of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but the information applies to all writers in all genres.

Publishing Literary Fiction (in Charts and Words)

June 18, 2011

I went to New York City a few weeks ago and spent 3 days talking to editors at Random House, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. I try to do this a couple of times every year to pitch upcoming projects and to get a better idea what editors are looking for. Since  I have been doing more work representing fiction, mostly literary and young adult,  I decided to speak to a number of literary fiction editors  and try to figure out the  elusive secret key to publishing the perfect literary novel. I am sad to report that this key continues to elude me.

The editors, with whom I spoke, all told me that they were looking for “fresh new voices.” This is commendable and reassuring, particularly for debut novelists. And I also believe that this is true. We often  scold commercial publishers for failing to take risks. Not to sound snarky though, sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing those fresh new voices from the stale old ones.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that trade publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. This is no less true of the decision to publish that most artistic of book genres, the literary novel. The acquisition decision is rarely based on simple aesthetics. In fact there is a vast amount good fiction writing out there, most of it heavily vetted and edited by agents before even reaching the desk of the literary editor. Good writing is a given. Publishers want something more.

Literary fiction editors are just like the rest of us. They get hooked on a novel in the first few pages, they fall in love with the story and the characters, they are seduced by the language, they stay up all night reading it, they laugh and cry,  and   decide they must publish  this book. But then the decision moves on to the acquisition meeting. Every week a group of editors meet with the publisher of the imprint, the marketing director, and the sales manager. Questions come up. Will the chains buy this book? Is the novel too much like one that flopped last year? Is the voice really fresh and new? Is the voice too fresh and too new? Is it too dark for the book group readers (That happened to one of mine). Is it too literary?

Too literary! Wait a minute. That’s what publishers are looking for, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. All of the literary editors told me that they want books with good writing, strong characters, original themes and compelling plots. How is this any different than a commercial novel? After all thrillers have to be well written too these days. 

So I took out a little piece of paper and started sketching a kind of literary-commercial continuum chart.  Most of the editors agreed that such a continuum exists and that the lines separating the genres are pretty fuzzy. They all agreed that the books they are looking for are not at the far end of the literary continuum. They are closer to the middle. Some editors and some imprints have sensibilities a tad to the left or a smidgeon to the right. 

So here is my chart. Study it, literary fiction writer, and you will get published.

Actually, that isn’t true. You probably won’t get published. Now those of you who lack courage and self confidence should not read on. The chances of getting a publishing contract are still pretty small, even for authors of talent and with fresh new voices.  I asked one of the editors to tell me how many manuscripts she considered in a year and from those how many ultimately got published. She looked at her log and said she had gone over about 250 manuscripts. Two were ultimately acquired and  put into print. This is a sobering statistic. And remember, all of her submissions were prescreened and heavily filtered by agents.

Here is the chart.

So I ask myself why am I spending so much time trying to make deals that seem to have less chance of happening than winning the lottery. I guess it is just that I love this stuff (and I got a pretty good feeling that my number is coming up soon).

 

The Explosion of Self Publishing

June 14, 2011

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a number of literary agents here in the Bay Area. All the talk was about  self-publishing in general,  e-book self-publishing in particular, and what is the role of the agent in this Brave New World.  Sad to say solutions were not at hand but there was much hand-wringing and talk of the sky falling.

Self-publishing has exploded in the last 10 years as a result of the advent of new technologies and distribution channels  that allow writers to cheaply publish and distribute their own books. Print on Demand publishing (POD) began about 10 years ago. Companies like Lulu, Lightning Source,  and Book Surge offer  a complete publishing package to the aspiring writer/publisher including cover design, formatting, editing, printing, and distributing POD books, all for a very modest price. The quality of the perfect bound paperback POD book is as good or often better than a similar paperback by a trade publisher.

Distribution is mostly done through Internet booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Most bookstores have been reluctant to stock POD titles. And, of course, the author/publisher is responsible for marketing and promoting her own book(s). The term that is often used for this new model is “disintermediation.” It’s an impressive word that you should learn and throw it around at the next cocktail party. It means getting rid of the middle man, in this case commercial trade publishers. The good thing about that is that it is a democratizing force in the world of ideas. The bad thing is that there are no filters to separate wheat from chaff. And, gentle reader,   make no mistake about it. There is plenty of chaff out there, a veritable ocean of mediocrity.  In this respect it is consistent with the new culture  of information on the Internet where everyone is an expert.

  This easy entry into book publishing is reflected in the numbers.  In 2009 the number of books published by traditional commercial publishers was 302,000, a number that had been holding steady for many years. In 2010 there was a modest 5% growth to 316,000 titles. POD titles, which didn’t even exist 10 years ago, shot up from 1,033,000 titles in 2009 to 2,776,000 in 2010. Wow! It seems like almost everyone is a published author now. (These figures are compiled by W. W. Bowker, the publisher of Books in Print.)

Of course, e-books are now the talk, even the obsession, of everyone in the book business. E-books are still an emerging technology. Things seem to be changing almost every day. I just came back from meeting with publishers in New York. E-book sales are continuing their exponential growth. In the last few months a number of genres have had e-books sales surpassing print sales for the first time. Amazon.com reported last month that Kindle Editions sold more copies than all print on paper editions combined (at Amazon, at least). Surely the second coming is at hand.

Self-publishing e-books has become the new enthusiasm. It barely existed a year ago. Now  it  has emerged. It is even easier and cheaper than POD. It can be created and distributed virtually for free.  We’ll talk about that some more later.


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