Archive for August, 2011

Writing 5 Star Book Reviews for Fun and Profit

August 22, 2011

There was an interesting article in The New York Times by David Streitfeld talking about the new business of selling 5 star reviews.

Customer reviews are   important as marketing tools, so  the fine line between criticism and marketing has become fuzzy.  Given the power of these reviews to drive business, it was inevitable that this would happen. Hell, I do it when I look for one of 500 different brands of headphones.  Doesn’t everybody? So it makes a lot of business sense to amass these 5 star reviews (or I suppose one star hit pieces for your competitors).  Check out Fiverr,  for instance.

There is a 90 page  academic study coming out of Cornell that analyzes the system at and comes up finding it wanting.

Of course, the objection is that reviewers for the serious media are paid very well, indeed. The difference is that they are paid to tell  the truth about their experience of reading the books, whether they choose to give it  a 5 star rating or no stars at all.



The Future is Now…No, Wait a Minute…Not Yet

August 21, 2011

For the last 12 years, there has been so much buzz about internet bookselling in general and in specific that you would think  community-based bookselling (bricks and mortar) was dead. At the cocktail parties in Berkeley and Silicon Valley, when the conversation turns to books, the subject seems to be: Amazon, Amazon, Amazon, and Amazon.  The demise of Border’s this year and the ongoing decline of independent bookselling that has been talked to death in the media would tend to confirm this opinion. The conventional wisdom seems to be that a revolution has occurred in retail and that the vast majority of books are now purchased on-line.

Similarly in the last two years book lovers inside and outside the industry have been talking, almost exclusively, about the rise of e-books. E-book gurus and digital cheerleaders would lead us to believe that the 500 year Gutenberg era has ended and that print on paper books are dead.

A few weeks ago I did a blog post about the first report of Bookstats, the new statistical survey commissioned by the Association of American Publishers. Before Bookstats, book industry statistics were pretty sketchy and generally limited to a few top publisher members of AAP. The new Bookstats report was based on sales from 1963 companies with a combined sales of $15.3 billion.

And what we learn from these statistics is really rather astonishing. Just looking at trade book sales by channel, we learn that online sales are 14.3%.  In contrast, sales in physical retail stores (which includes, indies, chains, mass merchants and others) are 40.8%. The statistics also list sales to jobbers and wholesalers (who in turn sell books to retailers, mostly physical store retailers) as 30.1%. These figures tell us that online bookselling has a long way to go before it catches up with bookselling in the physical world.

That said, it should be noted that sales at retail bookstores declined 7.8% between 2009 and 2010, while online sales have increased 46.1%. So we see that  changes are afoot and the future will likely be quite different. Looking at the rise of e-books, we see a similar disconnect between the statistics and the conventional wisdom.  The report shows that e-book sales in 2010 were only 6.2% of market share. But again we learn that while almost all physical book formats have declined between 2009 and 2010, e-books grew by 201%. The figures show that the future is not yet…but maybe soon.

The statistics don’t include sales of self-published titles, either in paper or e-book format. Again the gurus have announced the end of “legacy publishing”. They tell us that the great commercial publishers are dinosaurs from another era and are collapsing as we speak. In fact the number of self published titles has grown in the millions, and self-published e-book downloads are growing at an astounding rate. It is not clear exactly what the market share of self-published books is. We do know that most of these titles sell in the hundreds or even less. In today’s New York Times Bestseller List of the 30 bestselling books combined in all formats, none are self-published. Of the 50 bestselling books in the ebook format only 4 are self published.

It would seem that the death of commercial publishing, paper based books, and physical bookstores  has been greatly exaggerated.



Forbes Lists the World’s Highest Paid Authors

August 17, 2011

Forbes Magazine just released it’s newest list of the world’s highest paid authors. The estimate is for the period ending May 31, 2011.  I’m not sure if this list will inspire struggling first time novelists but it is an indicator that there is still life left in commercial publishing.

James Patterson ($84 million)
Danielle Steel ($35 million)
Stephen King ($28 million)
Janet Evanovich ($22 million)
Stephenie Meyer ($21 million)
Rick Riordan ($21 million)
Dean Koontz ($19 million)
John  Grisham ($18 million)
Jeff Kinney ($17 million)
Nicholas Sparks ($16 million)

Mary Jo McConahay Talks About Maya Roads and the People of the Central American Rainforest

August 16, 2011

 Today I am going to interview Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest. The book was published this month by Chicago Review Press and has been receiving rave reviews.  Don George of National Geographic Traveler said in his review: “Every once in a while I stumble upon a book that is so beautifully written and infused with so much intelligence and heart that it leaves an indelible mark on me. Mary Jo McConahay’s Maya Roads is such a book. In its hungry passion and wide-eyed wonder, it’s an extraordinary literary journey and a moving testament to a region and a life.”
Mary Jo has led an extraordinary life. She was a correspondent in Latin America during the Eighties and covered the insurgent wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. All of her work, but particularly Maya Roads, is imbued with her love of the region and its people and a fierce and courageous commitment to social justice.
Andy: Mary Jo, will you describe for us in your own words Maya Roads?
Mary Jo: Maya Roads is my story of falling in love with the rainforest and things Maya as a young woman, then returning to them after a career as a war correspondent, seeing the world of ancient and modern Maya in Central America through my own new lens of experience, investigating their recent history of violence, but never losing my wonder at their world view, customs and resilience as a people, and new discoveries about their beginnings.
Andy: What led you to write this book?
Mary Jo:  I had been “saving string” on the Maya for years, reading and writing, listening, travelling to their places, much as anyone might do with the object of an obsession. But as a freelance journalist I felt I never had the time to put it all together in a book. One day I woke up and said, “When exactly do you think you will start this book?” Hemingway said if you answer the phone you can stay in journalism forever.  I stopped answering the phone.  Fortunately, it worked out.
Andy: What strikes me most about this book and what differentiates it from so many other “travel books” is that it really has a political bite to it.  Tell us a little about this.
Mary Jo: I am a journalist by profession, and where others may see politics I see history.  The reader can’t be expected to understand the context of the violence in some chapters without knowing about key events, such as the 1954 C.I.A.-organized coup that overthrew a democratically elected president in Guatemala and began a 30-year nightmare reign of the military.  The reader won’t truly understand the significance of the revolt of thousands of Maya peasant farmers in 1994 — Zapatistas — without some account of decades of official Mexican corruption.  We can’t speak honestly about the current drug networks operating in Maya geography without saying they exist to serve the United States market. I don’t consider writing about such facts politics, but as providing the whole picture.
Andy: But what is even more remarkable is that the book is never preachy and and your observations about the   exploitation of the Maya is always told along with your amazement at the beauty of the land and your love and fascination with the sadly disappearing indigenous culture.
Mary Jo: Should the indigenous culture truly disappear it would be a tragedy, but I don’t think it’s inevitable. Now that certain dangers of the civil war are over, some Maya in Guatemala are more open about their identity. In Mexico, there is pride among many indigenous, Maya and not, in the Zapatista uprising and the way some communities are progressing independently of the government. When I interviewed Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche Maya, on the day she won the prize in 1992, she told me there was no reason why Maya could not enjoy the good things of modern life, even participate in scientific and technological advancement, and still maintain their ancestral culture. “Look at the Jewish people,” she said.
Andy: Do you think there is a possibility of a “happy ending” to your story?
Mary Jo: The Maya view of time is cyclical, not a straight line as we might think of it.  Thus there is no “ending,” happy or not, to the greater Maya story, but moments of transition and change.  What is clear is that the Maya have survived not only the decimation of the European conquerors, but centuries of racism and violence, and in Guatemala, recent incidents of genocide perpetrated by their government, which was supported by ours.  Today the Maya have recovered their pre-conquest numbers. They participate in political life and go to university. In southern Mexico, indigenous Zapatista revolutionary communities are raising a generation of literate young for the first time in history.  This is all “happy” stuff, but an ending it is not.
Andy: Are there any works of travel journalism that have particularly influenced you? Any that have as much focus on social issues the way Maya Roads does?
Mary Jo: I think it was a certain era of travel writing, rather than any particular book, that put me on the track.  In college I studied English Literature with a focus on the Eighteenth Century, which among other things was the period of trade and empire expansion. Readers were fascinated by descriptions of new lands and cross-cultural encounters, and in the best work, led to examine who they were in relation to other people and landscapes. Think Johnson and Boswell, Captain Cook, educated women on the Grand Tour.  So from the beginning, I never considered travel writing a secondary genre. I believe in what I call deep travel, knowing as much as possible about the people I’ll be among, especially their recent history.  To me it makes for a richer experience, a way to make connections with other ways of life., California Thanks You for Potholes

August 11, 2011 ruined my day today. I was walking around Lake Merritt, as I do every day with my friend, Susan Southwick. I was approached by a dweeby looking guy with a clip board asking me to sign my support for an initiative that would allow to continue evading the collection of California sales tax, as they have done since their inception in 1996. The dweeby guy said that the initiative would lower taxes and create jobs. Instead of walking away, I decided that I would scream at him and proceeded to do so for 10-15 minutes. I accused him of …well, I won’t bore you….pretty much everything in the book.  I felt really great and  energized when I finally told him that I had nothing but contempt for his pathetic, impoverished, morally bankrupt life. I had a few more nuggets to tell him after that, but Susan had become embarrassed by the scene and had started briskly walking away down the path.


Let’s back up. Recently California passed a law requiring Amazon to hand over the estimated $83,000,000  in  uncollected sales tax revenue for 2011  and to start collecting from California customers  going forward.  A number of states have decided that it is time to have Amazon do its duty. After all Amazon benefits immeasurably from the maintenance of roads which   allows Amazon to deliver their goods to customers. The company profits  from the sales tax support of public education that creates consumers of books. And let’s not forget that sales tax help  pay for police, fire, and emergency services that give us the basis of an orderly society, without which no commerce – no civilization even — could exist.


 When the new California law was passed and signed by the governor, Amazon within hours cut off the thousands of “associates” in California, many of them PTAs and non-profits who direct sales to Amazon and get commissions to fund their good works. In a breathtaking exercise of shameless chutzpah, Amazon claimed that by allowing  the world’s largest online company to evade sales tax so that they can unfairly compete against local business, the state is  harming small businesses and killing jobs in California. Many of the associates who  unceremoniously had their commissions from Amazon cut off with 12 hours notice seem to be buying this argument. A classic example of victims identifying with the executioner.


Which brings us back to the dweeb at Lake Merritt. Not content with pulling the plug on the associates, Amazon has bankrolled a ballot measure with a sort of Orwellian name like “tax fairness initiative”. And so the California initiative process, originally created to give power to the people, once again is being manipulated by big out of state business to harm the people in  the state.


Let’s engage in a mental exercise. California claims that Amazon owes $83,000,000 for sales tax for 2011 alone. Let’s estimate that in the last five years Amazon has evaded conservatively $300,000,000 in sales tax collection. Here is what California could have done with the money.


  • Hired 3000 elementary school teachers.
  • Hired 2000 police officers
  • Funded music programs in 1000 schools
  • Fixed 3,000,000 pot holes
  • Hired 2000 university professors
  • Provided academic scholarships  for 7500 students
  • Saved the lives of 1,500,000 puppies
  • Funded 1000 homeless shelters
  • Paid for school lunches for 300,000 needy kids
  • Bought 10,000,000 books for schools and libraries (And if those books were bought from local independent book stores, it would create thousands more jobs for people who pay taxes to California. And I might add allow those stores to survive and thrive and offer a richness to local communities that Amazon cannot match.)


Tax fairness, indeed!

Helping small business, indeed!

More jobs in California, indeed!


More Book Publishing by the Numbers

August 9, 2011

The Association of American Publishers came out with its first report from Bookstats  today. It is the new method adopted by the book industry to analyze its sales. The previous methods were so flawed in methodology that no one in the industry took them very seriously. We hope that the statistics being offered by this  new methodology are more robust. There is a good analysis of the new numbers in Publishers Marketplace    today.

The new statistics show that trade publishing grew modestly between 2008-2010, about 4.5% in units. Both adult fiction and non-fiction grew 3.5%. Juveniles fared better with a growth of 7.1%.

 The analysis in Publishers Marketplace was considerably less positive. In removing the category of religious books from the equation (a category where there was considerable growth), the remainder of trade publishing declined slightly, even considering the exponential growth of e-books.

 The statistics on e-books themselves were surprising. With all the buzz about them, and with the constant drumbeat  by publishers, media commentators and gurus, one would think that book publishing had been hijacked by this new format. Previous AAP estimates were showing e-book sales of 20%. I spoke with a number of editors at the large trade publishers who told me that their own sales in e-books were reaching 20% or even higher in some months. The new figures from Bookstats tell a different story. They show e-book sales growing from an infinitesimal  .6% in 2008 to 6.4% in 2010. Clearly e-book sales from the smaller publishers are considerably less than the majors. The statistics do not include self-published e-books which now number in the tens of millions. Still the growth in e-book sales is continuing unabated. The future seems to belong to them.

Will Apple Buy Barnes and Noble

August 2, 2011

There is a bizarre rumor floating around financial circles that Apple Computer may be interested in buying Barnes and Noble. Actually this may not be quite as farfetched as it sounds at first hearing. Check out the story on Investor Place.  The cost of acquiring BN is estimated at between $1 and $1.5 billion. This is pocket change for Apple. They are sitting on $76 billion in cash. In purchasing BN, Apple would have access to the huge selection of  BN electronic books and Nook customers   and enhance the Apple iBookstore that is struggling against mighty Amazon. Additionally Apple could use many of BN’s 800+ physical bookstores as locations for their own Apple retail stores. And, not insignificantly, Barnes and Noble is the largest owner of university book stores in America. Control of this would be very valuable to Apple for whom the college market is important.

What this means for us book lovers down here on the ground is hard to say. As a general rule I always think that any development likely to erode Amazon’s almost monopoly power over e-books is a good thing. Stay tuned for more information.