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too many books?
( publishing )
by m.j. rose
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For years, unpublished authors have complained that traditional publishing houses do not look for, support or grow new voices. Recently, many of those same authors have taken to the web like lemmings and published their tomes through online publishing cooperatives that release manuscripts via e-books or Print on Demand softbound books.

But on May 23rd Time Warner Publishing announced that it too will take to the web and starting in January invite all those unpublished authors to submit their work to iPublish.com.

This is the first time in over a decade that a major publisher has opened it's doors to authors without agents. Claire Zion, editorial director of iPublish, expects to e-publish 20% of all submissions.

If you are wondering who is going to slip and slide through the thousands of unsolicited submissions iPublish gets -- just think Zeotrope -- All Story.com.

In a similar vetting process to that well known literary magazine, authors who submit work to iPublish, will also have to critique others author's work.

After this initial selection process, iPublish's editorial staff will take over. Most books will be only published in e-format. The best of the best will also make it to print.

In an interview, Zion was excited about the idea that for the first time editors would not be the dictators of what should be published, but rather the arbiters.

There is no question -- this is great news for authors.

But what does all of it mean to readers?

How many of the hundreds of thousands of new e-book and POD titles will be read? How will they be discovered?

Everyone I've asked -- from the Chairman of iUniverse.com to the President of Simon & Schuster -- has said that cream rises to the top. But how will this work with so many new titles on the market? Sophisticated search engines? Maybe -- but only if you already know what you are looking for. Word of mouth? PR and promotion? Perhaps, but that takes more time and money than most authors have.

As we sit on the dawn of a new digital book age, one wonders about the upcoming proliferation and democratizing of the book biz.

Are readers currently unhappy about what is currently being publishing? Are readers complaining that there aren't enough good books out there and combing the web to find the hidden gems?

I recently spend 100 hours (not in one sitting) talking to readers at AOL's Book Report chat room - Bookaccino. (AOL keyword: TBR)

Unlike other chat rooms, there is nothing unsavory going on in Bookaccino unless you consider talking about Hannibal Lecter at 2AM unsavory.

According to Carol Fitzgerald, creator of The Book Report Network , Bookaccino is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by book obsessed volunteers who keep the conversation on topic, greet chatters and offer reading advice.

The thousands of book lovers I talked to online are not unhappy readers. They are discerning, dedicated, have their favorites and are not easily persuaded to try anything unproved.

What's more distressing is that they are already overwhelmed by the amount of traditionally published fiction already on the shelves.

Their main complaint is an oft-repeated phrase "Too many books too little time."

When I asked these fans of authors as diverse as Anne Perry and Brett Easton Ellis if they would be interested in e-books by new authors I'd recently heard about on line, they scoffed in unison.

"Too many books too little time as it is," they replied.

In fact one night they were down right rude to one author who came in to chat up the novel she had just published with Xlibris.com. Fans may flock when a traditionally published author does a chat -- but a self-published author garners no respect from these bookaholics.

When I asked the Bookaccino readers if they felt they were being spoon fed the same old, same old by NY's publishing houses, they disagreed vehemently. "Too many bookstoo little time," they repeated.

These readers threw out new books and new authors at me faster than any search engine could. They listed newcomers in both commercial fiction and genre categories. In fact they even recommend dozens of new literary voices -- current favorites included: Charles Frazier, Chang rae-Lee, Jumpa Lahiri, Zadie Ha Jin, and Jeffrey Lent.

These readers were not interested in the titles coming out of web based publishing ventures.

No e-publisher I interviewed was willing to talk candidly about sales. The best information I got was from one source that requested anonymity. She admitted selling 500 copies of any single title would be very significant.

After all, a mere 55 copies sold in one week can get an author on the e-book bestseller list.

"99% of our titles sell a few dozen copies at best," another e-publisher told me. "No one I know in the business is making any kind of profit."

So it's no surprise that when you talk to these same e-publishers about marketing you get even more dire information.

Few e-publishers have plans on how to get individual titles to the reading public.

Too many books, too little time. Add to that too little money to put into marketing individual titles.

What's a writer to do? Especially a writer who is sure that his or her manuscript was passed over unfairly.

Well, to be fair, in the traditional publishing world some great manuscripts do get lost in the vetting process.

A typical NY agent gets over 25,000 submission letters a year. Of those, about 1200 lucky writers get their SASE's back with a note asking to see the full manuscript. Of those 1200, about 5 will get offers of representation. Multiply that by all agents and you get about 350 new authors a year who are chosen for representation.

Of those, about half get published. That leaves about 150,000 authors who don't get representation.

Which is where the new author as auteur theory comes into play.

Now that self-publishing or cooperative publishing is as easy as e-mail and just as free, many authors are trying the do-it-yourself route. Even authors who are currently published by the NY houses feel they have to supplement their publisher's publicity budgets.

Authors were in fact, the original auteurs, long before movie directors were pinned with the label.

When a movie director is called an auteur it means that he or she is just doing in a film setting what any prose writer does on paper naturally and must do (which is why the task of writing a novel is greater than the task of directing a movie). But for some reason many of these movie auteurs have been great at promotion and publicity.

The book world still has not seen any title come close to the Blair Witch buzz.

To succeed auteur authors must take marketing and publicity on as their second jobs and moonlight in the shameless world of self-promotion.

A handful of authors have tried it only to discover that self-promotion is not for the faint of heart. It requires not only chutzpah but also brass balls and a thick skin. And most important -- more time than most can spare.

But it's all cyber-speak.

The real page turner is: Who is going to concentrate on readers and figure out how to introduce new authors to the public in a substantive way? Who is going to apply creativity to the problem and offer up a break through solution?

Collaborative filtering is always mentioned but no one has made it work as yet. Someone had better hurry up. By the end of next year estimates are there will be 500,000 new titles available via the net.

That's too many books for readers who currently have too little time and not a whole lot of curiosity.

Copyright © 2000 M.J. Rose All Rights Reserved

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