Monday, November 22, 2010

NZSA Publishing for authors - the whole picture seminar

On 29th October 2010, along with well over 100 other people, I attended the New Zealand Society of Authors’ (NZSA) one-day seminar, Publishing for Authors – the whole picture.

I’m not sure it was ‘the whole picture’ about publishing, as any critique of the traditional publishing industry was implicit rather than explicit, but it was the best attended NZSA event I’ve ever been to; and it was obvious from the packed room, and the level of attention given to the presenters, that NZSA had responded to many of its members’ interests and needs. The overwhelming message of the day was that authors need to embrace new opportunities provided by digital publishing, print on demand technology, and the marketing and distribution possibilities of the internet.

The high point of the seminar was the first presentation by Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords, an American epublishing and distribution platform. Mark spoke about three trends: book buying and selling is moving to the web; authors are bypassing traditional methods of publication and becoming their own publishers and; reading is moving to screens (with smart phones and ipads leading the way).

While he emphasised marketing and distribution as the key to successful epublishing, he cautioned authors not to expect instant success or money. What they do achieve, he said, is more control over the publishing process, and a much greater percentage of money from each sold book.

Among his many ‘secrets’ for success the following stood out:
• write a great book – a quality product gets better readers
• build a backlist – create trust and relationships with readers
• maximise distribution - use a distributor to create a relationship with ebook retailers
• have patience – ebooks sales start small and grow slowly; sales rank on Amazon depends on good reviews by readers
• marketing starts yesterday – focus on social networking, create networks and communities, don’t spam
• maximise virality – eliminate barriers for readers.

After lunch, Steve Messenger from Astra Print, an enthusiastic supporter of print-on-demand books, highlighted the pitfalls of the traditional publishing model with its high cost and high profit paradigm, and emphasised the advantages of DDP – distributed digital print, or print-on-demand. These advantages include: no inventory; changes can be made to documents in real time and; the book is always available. He also spoke of Printernet, the local – and therefore cheaper - printing of global books.
The advantages of print-on-demand seem obvious and not just for self-publishing –someone in the audience asked if traditional publishers were taking advantage of it, and if, by implication, were prepared to take on more new and emerging authors because of much lower print run costs but, alas, the answer still seems to be no.

The other afternoon speaker I was impressed with was Sarah Gumbley, a PR and social networking spokesperson. ( )
Her key messages included:
• Readers use the new media landscape and expect to interact with authors
• Authors need to create a name and ‘brand’
• Online tools are the fastest and easiest way for authors to build readers.
Overall the seminar was informative and positive, without pretending there are any magic bullets – after all, you still have to write a good book - and NZSA should be congratulated for organising it. In contrast to recent dire warnings from traditional publishers of shrinking markets and an almost total lack of opportunity for new/emerging writers, most of the presenters encouraged authors to use new technology and take their publishing futures into their own hands.

The seminar would have been even more interesting if it had included discussion of David Haywood’s suggestion ( that, given how little writers make under the current publishing and distribution model, creating an online, collectively owned bookshop could significantly improve the financial lot of NZ writers - an idea surely worth thinking about.

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