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PUBLISHERS!

How would you like to guarantee stagnant sales from the moment your book dropped in stores?
Do you want your books to have a sameness that will allow them to be lost on table displays?
Are you tired of actually having to pay designers to think?

Why not use this revolutionary new tactic proven to cause book buyers eyes to glaze over in stores all across the country?

USE WHITE!

That’s right, the most brilliant of colors (or absence of color, depending on whether we’re talking spectral or reflected light), white is the cure-all for all your design woes!

Nothing projects the image of newness like white. Nothing says “this is the future, this is NOW!” quite like white. Nothing focuses the attention on the fact that your book looks like hundreds of other new releases (and ignore the political implications!) like white!

YES, WHITE!

Granted, this has been proven on cover after cover in the non-fiction genres of science and business, but there’s nothing to stop you fiction publishers from trending into white! Start with that hot area of Young Adult fiction and watch your sales plummet like a boulder in a pool full of clear gelatin! Then kill sales of that hot new author and keep yourself from the bestsellers list with a simple serif font (Helvetica, no!) and maybe a splash of wingdings to separate the title from the author.

Nothing says generic, bland, boring, thoughtless and vapid quite like white!

GO WHITE!

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It’s a very simple equation, one I’m sure others have come across elsewhere, but it struck me with an arrow of truth last week. If there is a problem with the publishing industry as it stands it comes down to the disconnect between the motivations of the writer and the publisher.

I came about this a roundabout way. I happened onto a marketer’s blog post discussing what made Steve Jobs, and by extension Apple, so successful. The crux came from a quote from Jobs at the end of his recent biography:

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.”

Many companies have this upside down, or if they start as innovators they quickly switch over to a profit-first mentality to maintain their position. The idea is that if you innovate, people will come, and profits will grow, allowing you to innovate further. This lead me reconsider what I felt about Steve Jobs last year when he died, how I had come to think of him as the Edison of this century. But that’s not exactly a good analogy, because where Edison may have refined existing patents he is credited with creating the technology that is still with us. Jobs did not invent nor is he credited with inventing the computer, the phone, the television, or the music playback device. He didn’t even invent the MP3 file technology that the iPod uses to store and playback music. What he did was take what was familiar and ask the question: How can I make this consumer product more friendly, inviting, fun, and turn it into a brand people can trust?

Essentially, Jobs is the Disney of our age, not the Edison.

Walt Disney did not invent movies, animation, or the amusement park. Hell, he didn’t even create new characters or stories to tell in his animation once he started making feature films. What he did was insist on instilling passion into great products that people would enjoy. He may have been a tyrant to his employees, as has been reported, but he was no petty dictator. He pushed his people to innovate and his legacy of creation continues nearly fifty years after his death. People don’t often remember (or know these days) that he mortgaged his personal property and his entire company to create Disneyland. Had that gamble failed it’s difficult to imagine what would have happened, but Disney was passionate and he was certain that if his people were motivated to make something great, then success was assured.

In reading about the history of publishing in America over the years I have come to believe there may have been a time when publishers were more in line with Jobs and Disney than the corporate entities they have become. There was a time when author and editor were both striving for something great, that profit was not the determining factor. Editors built stables of authors and nurtured talent because they believed in them, and in return that quality generated profits. Today, the profit-first model prevails, and a movie-tie-in complete with residual merchandising trumps the notion that quality is a motivating factor.

Are writers similarly motivated by profit in creating a work, or are they more interested in the quality of storytelling first? This gets tricky, as writers are now expected to market their works and to nail that sales pitch before anyone will bother to look at it. In many craft books there are instructions for plotting a narrative arc only after the summary has been honed as a guide stone. Lord help the writer who can’t rattle off their elevator speech at a convention even before they’ve finished their first draft!

It’s reductionist to insist that all writers, publishers, and editors behave as a unified front, but its hard not to wonder if all parties have lost their way.

“Traditional” publishing (or “Legacy” publishers, if you buy into Amazon’s propaganda machine) will most likely need to revert back to their old ways in order to survive. Editors will need to operate free from the chains of corporate acquisitions and, more importantly, spend more time personally guiding talented people toward great ideas. The motivation to publish books will then fall back in line with the writer’s motivation.

Great books will be written and published when both parties can’t imagine doing anything less; the profits will sort themselves by-the-by.

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I’m going to try desperately to stay as on-topic and positive as I can here.

This past weekend I had to do some research that required visiting my local independent bookseller.  I was doing some recon on a couple of areas, to see what was out there and available.  My local store has a decent (not stellar) children’s department and you can learn as much about sales and trends by what isn’t on the shelves as much as what is there.

You know what’s not there?  Poetry.

One shelf for poetry, shared with nursery rhyme collections.  Half of that shelf was Shel Silverstein, with a face out of Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Two Jack Prelutsky’s, one recent collection edited by Mary Ann Hoberman, a Douglas Florian, a Patricia Boynton, and an Edna St. Vincent Millay collection.  I think any adult with a passing familiarity with children’s literature could name at least one book or author not represented, if not a dozen.  Put all of us together and we could fill a store with what wasn’t on the shelves.

I’m pretty sure I saw this question come up recently.  Kids love poetry, they love wordplay and the fun of what poetry can do, so where are all the poetry books?  Is it simply a question of shelf space in a store, of low sales demand?  Have the children’s poets exhausted all possible subjects?  I’m so full of thoughts and ideas I can barely think straight.  Here’s some of what’s in that jumble of a head of mine.

Poetry books are too expensive to produce, or purchase. When the children’s book market shifted its focus from institutional sales (libraries, schools) to retail, few consumers (parents) saw the value in a book that would be read while waiting in line to purchase it or might not be reread.  Hardcover poetry in particular has the feel of a “gift book” in the children’s market, and unless each poem is accompanied by full color illustrations the perceived value of words-to-page versus cost is too dear.

Let’s set aside the fact that a poem shouldn’t require an illustration at all if done correctly.  I mean, talk about painting mental pictures, poems should produce whole galleries of images to the reader.  Why can’t these be simple line illustrations on the page?  That takes care of production costs right there.  Ditch the hardcover until a book has proven itself worthy of “gift editions,” and make them portable enough to be carried everywhere.  If a mass market paperback can hold 200+ pages and come in under $10 there’s no reason a 48-page chapbook of poems with line illustrations can’t be sold at less than half that.

Think about all those series books kids gobble down (and parents purchase) like Magic Tree House and the like.  You expect me to believe a series of poetry chapbooks the same size and cost as those books can’t be as successful, given the same marketing emphasis?

Editors and agents actively discourage children’s poets. I think there is a fear, perhaps rightly so, that there is a lot of bad poetry in the world, and editors and agents already have a tough enough time with lackluster submissions as it is.  Fair enough.  It would be nice to go back to the golden days when Ursula Nordstrom and William Cole would put together showcase collections of poets that could serve as trial balloons for what readers respond to, but those days are behind us.

Or are they?

Recently I came across an interview with an editor who suggested that poetry collections should be pitched as picture books.  This seemed like a novel solution for the serious poet looking for a way past the “no poetry” edicts handed down: if you could sell the theme of the collection as a picture book then clearly you’ve considered the market and understood what is and isn’t saleable.  The problem with this line of thinking is that a picture book is an expensive undertaking – color pages and all – and poems on a particular theme don’t have as wide appeal as omnibus collections.

The solution: bring back the poetry collections.  Let the houses put out trade paper editions twice a year – fall and spring – edited in-house from submissions taken during limited windows.  Put some interns to work sorting, discover some new voices, encourage children’s poetry. Something akin to the way the Evergreen Review used to be, with an editor at the helm.

Poetry is marginalized and destroyed in schools. First, it’s segregated late in the school year during National Poetry Month, and after third grade poetry is “taught” to the extent that the joy is removed from it.  Once reading moves from pleasure to purposed – around the fourth grade – poems (and fiction for that matter become object lessons in simile and metaphor and theme and structure.  This is where the joy of wordplay is beaten out of kids, and right about the time kids start to lose their interest in poetry.

So first thing we need to do is turn National Poetry Month into National Poem of the Week.  I think Robert Pinsey tried to do this when he was poet laureate, with a weekly syndicated column in the national newspapers.  Maybe one of the duties of the Library of Congresses Children’s Poet Laureate would be to select the weekly poems to be featured and sent to educators so that there’s a national dialog about poetry going on, in addition to filling in those lessons with poems selected and shared by kids.  Yes, meter and structure and the finer points of poetry should be taught and discussed, but more time should be spent in reading and sharing in the schools.

Ultimately, I think the real solution will come from e-readers.  Once they become cheap enough that kids are downloading books, the e-book market will be ripe for consumers of poetry (like kids) hungry for poems. Publishers could hardly claim that poetry collections are too expensive to produce as e-books, but by then they might have totally alienated the poetry market altogether; it’s already easy enough to upload chapbooks to Scribd or as Kindle original books.  And it isn’t like it’s hard to break into the kidlit poetry market when it hardly seems to exist as it is.

Personally I would much rather see dozens of new poetry books published for children every month, simple books with nice line drawings, designed with care by inexpensive, given the same marketing as other books.  I’d like to walk into a book store in my home town and find dozens of titles and hundreds of poets crammed into that one shelf of space.

As long as we marginalize poetry, give it short shrift on the shelves, and provide no incentives for reading or owning poetry, how can we ever expect children to accept, much less enjoy, poetry?

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I would like to propose a moratorium on the following topics and methods being used or included in books for children and young adults.  Indefinitely.

Capers, as opposed to true mysteries that follow the conventions. The caper might seem clever to adults but I have never felt that a caper read like anything but an adult’s idea of what they imagine a kid would write.

True mysteries that are solved by kids without adult assistance. Mind you, not an adult to the rescue, but also not a kid possessing the ability to solve a crime that adults could not.  Kids will enjoy trying to figure out the mystery, and seeing the main character in peril, but you lose them the minute the become unbelievable supersleuths.

And speaking of super, no more superheroes. Not until there are more stories of real, grounded heroes.  If the idea of stories about true heroes sounds like repulsive morality plays, then superhero stories should viewed as super morality plays. And doubly repulsive.

Opposite-gender sidekick. It’s both an insult to the main character and the reader.  The fact that the sidekick either is there to round out the dynamic, help solve the problem the main character cannot, or more shamelessly appeal to a wider audience suggests that the writer does not trust their story to retain readers without this narrative “crutch.”

Defining new vocabulary words within the text, especially with the explanation about how the word was learned in a class, from an eccentric relative, or obscure book.  Kids love words, and are intoxicated by slang and the sounds of new words, but there’s a line – often crossed – where the intrusion feels like a teacher butting into the narrative.  Either let the context clue a reader in or let the reader learn how to use a dictionary or ditch the word altogether.

Boys who get the girl – or any girl – in the end, and vice versa. I realize there are no new stories in the world, but this convention is so old and creaky that readers who want this sort of story have an entirely separate genre at their disposal: it’s called romance.

Adult buffoons. In broad comedies, sure, you can sometimes use an adult buffoon to heighten the humor, but to a young reader the adult world is a mystery, and everything adults do makes no sense to them.  Real adults making real decisions and saying real things can be played to all kids for effect.  If books show nothing but a world full of adult clowns then why are we surprised they don’t take adults seriously?

Star football players, or any star athlete, either pro- or antagonist.  Tired, overplayed.

Cheerleaders, good, bad or otherwise.

Nerds, geeks, stereotypical drama cliques and their ilk, empowered or otherwise.

Underwear for humorous purposes, believing its inclusion automatically makes a story funny and gives it boy appeal.  For Captain Underpants, yes; everyone else, no, you missed the boat.

“White” as the default.  If you have multiple races, identify them all.  If you don’t have multiple races, you’ve got a problem.  Kids might be colorblind when it comes to making friends but that doesn’t make them see the world as all one fleshy hue.  Let’s show them books that accurately represent the diverse world they live in and recognize.

The color pink on the cover.  I don’t care if it is a book intended for girls, why do we need to keep reinforcing the stereotype of color?  There’s an entire spectrum of colors out there that aren’t pink; you want me to believe girls will only respond to one color?  Sheer design laziness.

Dogs, dead or otherwise.  Find another animal.  If it doesn’t work with another animal, do we really need another dog book?  Seriously?

The phrase ‘graphic novel’ to describe books that aren’t graphic novels. Word balloons don’t make it a graphic novel.  Illustrations in sequential panels don’t make it a graphic novel.  Information in a cartoon format doesn’t make it a graphic novel.  With books intended for children, the same rigorous standards for any novel should apply: character, conflict, rising action, complex narratives.  If the story alone without pictures would be considered a short story, biographical outline, or historical reinactment, then call it something else; call it what it is: a short story with illustrations, a biography, an illustrated history, etc.

Reluctant readers.  The term, the marketing, and the type of books that are specifically written and occasionally referred to as “hi-lo” for their high interest and low reading level.  To a lot of kids, these books are just another way of stigmatizing reading as an activity that marks them as somehow lesser – both as readers and as books – from more “standard” or “regular.”  This is a can of worms, I realize, but I think the term is used too casually these days (not unlike the way people are quick to label and treat students as ADHD without actually testing them) and fails to address real issues regarding reading and the way books are used.  Especially true with “graphic novels.”

Testimonials. Those little quotes from other authors telling you how great the book is?  Yeah, kids don’t care.  They’ve either never heard of the authors quoted, don’t like those author’s books (and thus negatively taint the touted book in question AND books by the testifying author), or are skeptical that no one thinks the book is any good without someone else saying so.  Kids turn to the back of the book to find out something about the book they didn’t learn from the cover.  Testimonials read like low budget ads on TV with actors pretending to be users of the product.  If you really want testimonials that work (and I’m exactly not advocating for this) you might have a better chance getting famous non-authors (movie stars, comedians, pop stars, star athletes) touting a book… rather than writing them.

Am I missing anything?  Suggestions and digressions?

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So it looks like the Kindle is making people in the book industry a bit uneasy. You’ve got hand-wringing and even ol’ Ray Bradbury himself declaring that e-books smell like burned fuel.  Yup, that’s what he said.

There’s always a bit of a disconnect when a technology introduces itself in a threatening way.  The problem is that most of the time people are looking at the wrong things.  Movies took a hit when television was introduced and there was much hand-wringing in Hollywood, but ultimately they came through by delivering the type of spectacle television couldn’t.  The reality was that television wiped out radio.  And I remember when pocket calculators becomes small enough and cheap enough that everyone could own one, but the math classes resisted because there was a fear that it would make students lazy and they wouldn’t learn the processes.  Turns out that the calculator liberated students to accelerate their studies and focus more on complex processes. If there was a downside to calculators in schools I haven’t heard it.

The fear of the e-book replacing regular books seems absurd to me.  You can drop and step on a book with no fear of ruining the contents.  I have dropped books in massive puddles in the rain and, with the exception of page bloating, still been able to access what’s inside.  A book doesn’t require batteries, recharging, a clear wi-fi signal, blah blah blah.  Can you imagine a picture book on a Kindle?  Are libraries and classrooms going to install large screens for storytime, with their artificial page-turns complete with sound effects to mimic books?  Does anything feel as satisfying as the heft (or portability) of a book?

No, what the e-book readers represent, however, is an opportunity for smart publishers to figure out how to best manage this new technology.  Rather than worrying about how Amazon’s going to use their sales figures to leverage against their profits, how about biting back and finding a way to undercut the Kindle?  If the device is proprietary then maybe the publishing industry should use its muscle to fight for universal access devices.  Amazon is only trying to back a market into their servitude, why should the publishers allow that to happen to their product?  Does anyone really want Amazon to control access to content (and why does this sound so much like Microsoft to me)?

What Amazon is attempting to do, as I see it, is create the iPod of books.  The idea of the e-book isn’t new, just as MP3 players existed before Apple jumped in the market. And the idea that you can take music you already own and upload it to the iPod became a huge jump in the way we listen to music.  The technology of the MP3 made it portable, iPod makes it cool, and the music industry eventually came around. I say eventually because Steve Jobs had a difficult time getting some music company heads to understand that “ripping” didn’t mean “stealing” and they’d still get money from these downloads at iTunes.

But the reason it worked out so well for the iPod is because of how it addressed the experience of the end user.  If there was a way for me to upload the books I already own without having to buy new, or even trade them in for digital versions, then maybe we’ve got something.  But what the Kindle and other readers want me to do is buy their device and pay for the privilege of loading something I can get for free at the library in printed form?  See, that’s the problem.  The flexibility between media doesn’t work and all Amazon wants me to do is give them money, not enhance my experience as a reader.

Let’s assume that books will always be around, but that down the road there will be two formats side by side, the book and the e-book.  Publishing houses could continue to make and distribute books as they always have, but why not set up distribution of e-book direct from their own sites, available in an open-source format that undercuts Amazon and sends the money directly to them?  If an industry can unify on just this much then there’s no need for them to ever have to deal with Amazon again.  Instead of worrying about how the e-book is going to eat their profits why aren’t they secretly meeting to figure out how to eat Amazon?  Stop letting the tail wag the dog.

If publishers are worried, and if they still possess any of the good sense they occasionally display in providing quality content, then they need to move extremely fast if they wish to stay in business.

Growing up, my dad used to tell me that computers were the future and that one day everyone would own one.  Seeing as a computer back then took up the entire floor of an office building and required thousands of programming cards to execute a simple calendar with Snoopy on it, I was doubtful.
I’ve never been a big fan of early, unquestioned adoption of technology without fully understanding the ramifications; televisions and computers in the classrooms I don’t think have ever been studied for true efficacy, and in fact our schools appear to be performing worse than ever. So for me the jury is still out on the e-book.

Although if someone wanted to give me a Kindle with free content

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