A Few Things I Read on the Internet Recently that I Bothered to Write Down and were Related to this Blog

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Dear Kelsey,

Ryan has this theory that lists of things are really only interesting to the list-maker. (He shared this theory when we were coming up with our Recommended Books, so you can imagine how well THAT went over.) Although I disagree on principal (and somewhat gleefully observe Ryan’s desperate search for a new book, taunting him with various Top 100 lists) I’m reluctantly starting to consider that he may have a point. Because the list of articles I want to share is nothing more than “A Few Things I Read on the Internet Recently that I Bothered to Write Down and were Related to this Blog.”

(I know. Can I write a catchy title or what?)

Here we go:

“How to Make a Book Disappear,” by Maria Konnikova for The Atlantic, takes a look at some of the pitfalls of digital book distribution and why and how a publisher can erase the digital record of a book. The comments section delves into further DRM issues before collapsing (perhaps inevitably) into the tired “Tree Books vs. Pixel Books” bickering.

In “Is This Book Bad or is it Just Me? The Anatomy of Book Reviews,” Darryl Campbell writes about what goes into a quality book review and the role such reviews play in our culture. Similarly, Laura Miller’s article “The Dreaded Amazon Breast Curve,” looks at the culture of online reviews—purchased, solicited, and volunteered—and one interesting theory to interpret the whole.

When we say a book is “too long” are we being lazy reviewers or is there something to it? Laura Miller’s “Are Longer Books More Important?” talks about the relationship between genre, tone, and length of a book, and how they determine what a reader can (or should!) sit through.

And, yes, Laura Miller again (what can I say? I have a crush): “Your Brain Loves Jane Austen,” a brief interview with one of the researchers from Stanford’s interdisciplinary study on brain activity when reading for pleasure and how it differs from analytic close reading. (Also, guess which under-appreciated Austen novel they made them read :D)

Anthony Lane’s article in The New Yorker, “Out of the Frame: A New Portrait of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady,” takes a close look at the newest biography of James (a biography on James through the lens of Portrait of a Lady!!) and a quick look at biography as a genre. Also, did I mention it’s a

Finally, on a more political bent, nervana1 looks at “The Tragedy of Alexandria’s Book Market” in an article about censorship in Egypt and the value of literacy as a political tool and as a livelihood.

…What do you think? Internet curation is an interesting business and, since I’ve been seeing a few seminars and panels about it lately, one of growing interest. Are lists or round ups or blogrolls a useful tool or blogger self-indulgence? Is it a way of sharing information or is it appropriating good content to mask your own lack of ideas?

…and can you tell this is one of those long-standing arguments I really want to win?

See you on Friday?

Love,

Maggie Faber

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“Why are textbooks so expensive?” and Other Veiled Questions from Reddit

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Dear Kelsey,

When I decided I wanted to work “in publishing,” I only ever considered working with fiction. I didn’t care what genre (as I said in all my grad school applications) so long as I worked with novels. Hilarious, right?

I think I still fall prey to the notion that academic publishing is like this overlooked stepchild to our glamorous fictional siblings. While I know this isn’t true systematically (in many of our interviews, candidates—unprompted—said they hardly read fiction, they love textbooks, they wouldn’t want to work in trade publishing for anything…??!), I felt it so strongly at one point that I’ve never been able to shake it.

After all, wouldn’t everyone rather hear about the latest NYT bestseller than the Revised and Updated Ninth Edition of Principals of Sociology: An Introduction?

BUT THEN! This morning, Brie sent me a link to a Reddit AMA request for “Someone who works in the textbook industry (publishing/management).” !!! People had actual questions and I could answer them! I know these things!

I had planned to post some surely-insightful-and-not-at-all-redundant thoughts about ebooks tonight (long story short: my e-reading device of choice died and I didn’t have anything to read on the bus home. Horrors. I’m sure you can imagine. It was a nightmare.) but instead, I spent several hours answering the Reddit questions. And then I figured: you know what. People do find this interesting. Some people, at least ; ) So, I am starting a Reddit AMA, going live tomorrow morning. Here are my first few answers. Feel free to read the ones you find interesting, ask more questions, or head over to Reddit to make me look popular ; )

Maggie Faber

How much does it actually cost to MAKE a textbook?

There are a lot of factors here—some high profile authors get advances, but even with standard books the costs vary based on the length of the book, the quality of the manuscript (whether there will be a lot of corrections/fact checking), and whether or not the book has an art program—and, if so, if it needs 4-color printing and high-gloss paper. The art, especially, makes a huge impact on the price.

For example: we print all of our textbooks in 1-2 colors (standard black ink is considered 1 color, while full color printing is 4), usually on fairly inexpensive paper. Our “average” budget for a standard-length book with no art (scare quotes because the average is wildly estimated) would be $4,500 to $6,000, where the costs for a book with a large art program would be $35,000 to over $40,000.

Then consider that most big text publishers always print in full color on the glossy paper with a lot of “free” ancillary materials (teacher’s manual, test banks…) that also need to be produced and printed and bound and…yikes.

How much does a bookstore profit from selling a textbook? Renting?

I can’t speak to textbook rentals, but publishers sell books to bookstores at a 20% to 50% discount, and we’re usually obligated to take returns on the product that doesn’t sell. The discount can vary, but a general rule for most publishers is 20% to university bookstores and 50% to trade stores like Barnes and Noble.* Bookstores set the price at their own stores, usually marking it up to full price, but occasionally selling at a small discount or—in cases where they don’t want to return the books, at a loss.

I only worked in a bookstore for a few months, but they have ridiculously small profit margins and make -very- little money. It’s an incredibly tough business.

*Not Barnes and Noble college stores, though

How much does the company take away from the sale of a textbook?

The bookselling business is pretty convoluted, so I can’t quite give a straight answer. The publisher pays all the upfront costs for the book: paper, printing, binding, as well as all the editing, typesetting, and production costs. We use a lot of freelancers, and pay them their hourly rate within 45 days of invoice. This is usually well before the book is an actual product. Once a book is printed, we fill bookstore orders, but don’t receive any money for the books until much later (to give the store time to actually sell copies), often 3-12 months. Once the store pays, the publisher gets all of it (at the set discount), but we still need to give some of the money to our distributor (our distribution invoices are $15,000 to $30,000 per month) and hold a % for author royalties. We also have to give credit to bookstores if they later send back any returns.

Many, many books are unprofitable, or barely cover their production costs.

How much would an author make from selling a book through your company?/How much does an author make on producing a textbook? All of my professors have written their own for class.

Our authors get between 8%-10% of each sale. Which is only 50%-80% of the retail price.

Textbook publishing is tricky, too, because many authors are asked to offset some of the publishing costs themselves—if they demand an expensive cover photo, for example, or we have to pay them an advance. We usually book these costs against their royalties rather than making them pay upfront. However, since most textbooks aren’t runaway bestsellers, many authors actually carry a negative balance. Of the authors that do earn money, our average royalty payments are probably between $150-$1,000 a year.

Admittedly, we are a very small company. An average print run for is probably 1000 copies and we all get pretty excited whenever we sell 50 copies to a course at once.

Regarding professors adopting their own books: some universities require that their professors not get any personal benefit from adopting a text. We have a few authors at such schools who do assign their own books, which means we have to subtract the amount earned from copies sold to their own students from their royalty payments (and while I support and admire the schools with these regulations…it’s an accounting nightmare). As to where their royalty money goes instead? A few of our authors have designated a preferred charity, but it depends more on the rules of their particular university how much control they have over it.

How long does it take to publish a textbook?

I’m going to answer this with probably far more detail than you intended. Brand new textbooks (all new nonfiction, usually) are contracted long before the book is written. Authors either write and submit a proposal or (more likely, with textbooks) publishers hound/beg well-known scholars to write a specific book. Either way, the book is contracted and the author(s) have between 6 months to 3 years to write it, depending on the material already available (we’ll often pick up textbooks from other publishers where the contract was cancelled after the book was written) and the availability of the author. Once a full manuscript is submitted, the editor will either go back and forth with the author for a few months trying to implement changes and revisions, send the book out for review, or, if it’s in good shape, send it off to production. In our company, it takes about 7 months to get from word files to a book. It goes through copyediting, proofreading/fact checking (this is how we caught a largely plagiarized book only a few weeks ago), typesetting, proofs, and printing. Several stages involve further approval from various author or editors. Most university presses also have a double-blind peer review process, which can add a lot of time on top of that.

New editions are supposed to be less involved, but in our company, that’s not quite how it works. We try to schedule new editions about 3 years apart from each other. This gives us time to sell the first edition, do some market research, surveys, &c with adopters to see whether a new edition would be valuable and what kinds of changes would be useful, and do some sales analysis and projection on our end. Then, with the authors, we come up with a proposal for changes to the book, bring on a coauthor if necessary, and sign a renewal contract. It doesn’t usually take more than a year to update the information, and then it’s another 7 month in production from that point.

Why do publishers come out with an unnecessary new edition every year?

A lot of this is market driven. The textbook market is incredibly competitive, and publishers produce a lot of free materials (test banks, instructor manuals, custom materials, power point slides, suggest readings…the list goes on and on) just to convince a professor to adopt their book. With such competition, most professors refuse to teach a book over 2 years old, even when the basic concepts are the same. And with the rising need to make the content trendier and more “relevant” to students, the fluff/flavor does date the books pretty quickly. Nobody is really going to want Lady Gaga on the cover of their textbooks in a few years.

Also, of course, the flood of used books on the market makes it impossible for the publisher to keep selling it. And since it usually takes two or more editions before a book finds a market…we have the constant, constant updating.

Local Bookstore, National Treasure

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Dear Kelsey,

I was in college when I realized Powell’s was a Big Deal. I know, I know, it’s Powell’s. How could I fail to see that? But although Powell’s wasn’t our local bookstore when I first learned to read, it was just down the road by the time I acquired enough spending money to spend recklessly. My mom would drop me off and I would wander the impossibly tall stacks, treading a well-worn path to my favorite authors or genres so I wouldn’t get lost in Biographies or trapped in Current Events.

I grew up at Powell’s…sort of. I still can’t reach the top shelf, but I’ve gone boldly past Easy to Read through Series Fiction and Young Adult to Romance and Fantasy and on into Literature, Criticism, Pop Culture, Graphic Novels—even *gasp* Biographies and Current Events. My well-worn path now looks like a map of the entire store.

But even though I knew Powell’s was awesome, it wasn’t until I took Writing and Culture my sophomore year that I realized other people thought so, too. We had an assignment to visit three bookstores—at least one chain and one independent—and write a paper about our experiences. When we were discussing our essays in class, several people started talking about Powell’s. And it wasn’t any particular thing they said so much as it was that my classmates from Hawaii, Colorado, New York, and Florida were all saying Powell’s in these hushed, reverent tones as if my bookstore was some kind of Mecca.

What?!

To see something that had always felt so local and personal have such national prominence was…strange. I had my own seven stages of grief for the childhood vision of Powell’s—Horrified (“What!?”), Confused (“What??”), Possessive (“Mine!”), Outraged (“I beg your pardon”), Resigned (“Ugh.”), Grudgingly Impressed (“My Powell’s?”), and Delighted (“Mine!”).

Now that I’m away from my favorite bookstore, I take a peculiar pride in that traumatic day. Sure, it was a room full of massive book nerds in the Pacific Northwest—obviously Powell’s would come out with good reviews. But even as I fall in love with new stores such as the Tattered Cover, I still find myself thinking “Well, I’d never heard of it before today…” which simply renews my inevitable conclusion that Powell’s is the best.

…Nostalgia coupled with Trendiness is a hard combo to beat 😉

Anyway, Powell’s is celebrating its 41st anniversary this week and I thought I would join in remotely : ) Authors are writing sentimental blog posts, there’s a new twitter hashtag, and (I imagine) all of Portland is in raptures. If you’re in town, there’s a list of festivities here, and it sounds like they’ll be an absolute blast.

Buy a book for me, okay?

Love,

Maggie Faber

This Post is Relevant Because I Work in Publishing. So There.

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Dear Kelsey,

We’re still in the process of interviewing for my former position, and I think the endless question-and-answer has started to affect my brain. I’m thinking in interview answers and—and I don’t know if I can stop. For example, this was the actual beginning of my post before I got myself under control:

Over the past year in an office, I’ve gained a clear sense of my work style and habits. I’ve learned what organizational techniques work most effectively for me, and I’ve learned which ones fall apart under stress. And I’ve learned that when I’m stressed, I tend to drop everything that is not causing me stress in order to focus on and resolve the stressful aspect of my life as quickly as possible.

Really?!  

What I intended to say is that work is absolutely crazy. I’ve been going to academic conferences and author events every weekend, the interview process is exhausting on our end as well as theirs, we’re additionally understaffed from everyone taking their summer vacation time, and next weekend I’ll be going to New Orleans for another conference—which is (needless to say) tremendously exciting, but was also dropped on me very suddenly and requires a lot of advance preparation.

And, as I indicated in my false-start beginning, when I’m stressed I tend to let my hobbies and personal correspondence lapse…entirely. I got a few snarky texts last week about being AWOL even though I had time for my blog, so I thought I would fess up. I wanted to keep up with the blog if only to exert some control over and connection with my personal life while I’m so frazzled. 

…It’s definitely not because I’m starting to think that the consistency of my posting schedule clearly demonstrates a deadline-oriented perspective in my personal as well as professional life. I take my responsibilities seriously and, as you can see, work effectively when I am self-directed and self-motivated.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my blog post,

Maggie Faber

A “Novel” Experience: Dear Esther and Experimental Storytelling

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Dear Kelsey,

Although I may not have seemed appropriately impressed by your argument in our prior discussion on the narrative structure of video games, I definitely internalized your point. Of course predetermination is a huge factor in novels. Of course! The only control the reader exerts is whether or not to continue reading. While I am always attracted to the places where sharp delineations begin to blur (I’m looking at you, “enhanced” ebooks!), the engaged passivity of the reader seems to be a pretty essential piece in experiencing novels.

With that in mind, I want to add another example to our video game discussion. Dear Esther, an award-winning, experimental video game, feels (for lack of a better word) novelistic. There is no real game-play: you cannot interact with anything, speak, pick objects up, shoot, bash things, or even jump. You aren’t even able to kill yourself—the screen fades to black, whispers “come back…” and places you back on the path. All you do is wander slowly through a deserted island and experience bits of a story.

Nothing will jump out at you, try to scare you, or startle you, but even knowing this beforehand (because I refused to get near it until I was assured, repeatedly, that nothing would happen), I was unbelievably tense. Like a ghost story, it’s eerie and atmospheric, and I think a lot of my tension came from an awareness of cinematic conventions (something behind you, danger in the darkness…) juxtaposed with the relative safety of written narrative.

One of my favorite reviews described the gameplay thusly: “Dear Esther is, in a very real sense, boring. It is supposed to be. Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection. Ever walked along an empty beach at night? Sat alone on a hillside on a cold winter morning? Where did your mind go? Wherever it was, that’s where Dear Esther can take it. If you let it” (Source). 

But before you begin to imagine it’s some creepy isolated horrorscape, let me show you something:

Dear Esther is beautiful. A Hebridean island off the coast of Scotland, it’s got rocky crags, shipwrecks, lighthouses, wildflowers, bioluminescent caves, underground waterfalls…every scene is breathtaking (or maybe I was just holding my breath).

The story, told through fragments of letters, is nonlinear and fractured. I know how much you love postmodern narratives, but the game’s focus on abstract language and interpretation is absolutely in this literary tradition. The “random” elements of the game—for some letters are variable and others are not—reflect the themes of a constructed personal reality (as opposed to a concrete or objective one) perhaps even better than a novel, which is necessarily the same words every time.

Let me take a moment to acknowledge how demoralizing it is to find myself so completely outclassed in literary analysis by a video game review blog before I pass over the reins again: “I found Dear Esther to be a broadly magnificent and genuinely moving experience, and that was almost entirely on a sensory level….I do not believe Dear Esther is the search for an answer, or even for a meaning. I believe it is an experiment with the senses and the emotions….It is a journey through morbidly beautiful emptiness, a maudlin cocktail of sight, sound, implication and metaphor designed to conjure up a feeling of purposeful despair” (Source).

Kelsey, I genuinely don’t know how to classify the experience of Dear Esther. Despite the graphics and soundtrack, this game felt more like experiencing a novel than any enhanced or experimental ebook I’ve come across. Despite the partially-randomized letters and open world exploration, I felt completely under the control of the author/development team. And despite the fact that it’s a video game, okay, not a novel!, I might need some help marking those delineations again…

Will you play it and help me decide?

Love,

Maggie Faber