Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A latte and a Ludlum to go, please!

Today, finally, I think I have something nice to say about the POD thing. (Yeah, hold onto your beanie, Lee).

There is a new gizmo out there on the horizon that could be the big saviour of publishing that so many folks have been waiting for. The thing that could wipe out the disgraceful 40 percent return rate on books. The thing that could do away with the need for huge warehouses and antiquated shipping and distribution systems. The thing that could eliminate the god-awful waste in publishing and finally silence the Terminator pulp machines that turn our unsold copies to dust.

Let me introduce you to the Espresso Book Machine.

It slices! It dices! It makes perfect potato hash browns --

Sorry. Been watching too much late-night TV. Back to the point...

The Espresso Book Machine is a real thing. This is a machine that allows the printing and binding a single copy of a book at the point of demand without human interactions. Here is how it would work:

Say someone wants a copy of my new book, "Darker and Stormier Nights." It hasn't exactly been burning up the lists, so it's hard to find. But my intrepid fan could just go to her local bookstore, punch in the title, insert a credit card to pay and less than three minutes later, walk away with a nice copy of "Nights." Kinda of like an ATM at your local B&N.

But wait! There's more!

This machine can produce a 300-page bound paperback with full color cover at a cost of about 3 cents per page. Three cents!

I know. Sounds like sci-fi, right? But I am not making this up. And it's not a pie-in-the-sky someday thing, the print on demand chimera publishing has been chasing for the last decade. The Espresso is churning out books even as you read this and by next year, you could see one in your town.

The Espresso is being spearheaded by Jason Epstein of Random House. Last year he teamed up with some corporate heavyweights to create On Demand Books. The first Espresso Book Machine was installed in April at the InfoShop at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., which has loaded 200 of its titles online for the three-month test period. Two more Espressos will be installed at the New York Public Library and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in Egypt, in September. Epstein, who hopes to have the Espresso available more widely next year, is also now talking with a bookstore chain outside the U.S. about installing the machine.

Why is this a good thing for authors?

For starters, it could save endangered midlist titles, give new life to backlists and just maybe, start weaning the publishing industry off its mega-bestseller dependency. When and if every book is finally digitized, the market will be radically decentralized. The old ways of competing for ever-shrinking shelf space in stores will be obsolete.

Sez Epstein: The chief benefit of the machine is that a requested book would never be out of stock or out of print. Books would be less expensive, he believes, because it would eliminate the need to warehouse and ship books. And instead of the current system of guessing how many books to print -- a game that leaves bookstores stuck with piles of unsold flops and readers unable to find out-of-stock surprise hits --the supply will always be just right.

And get this. The Espresso will retail for less than $100,000. Not only can bookstores increase what Epstein calls "their footprint" but average Joe authors might finally have a presence in everything from airports to libraries to your corner Kinkos.

I won't bore you will all the details here. For a good scoop, go to this article in US News and World Report.

This kind of POD people I can take.

Save the Indy 500

Robin Agnew has been welcoming authors and readers in her delightfully cluttered cubbyhole store in Ann Arbor since 1992. Set down on Fourth Street, hardby the ivy-walled campus of University of Michigan, this is a must-stop place for readers looking for a great mystery -- or road-weary authors looking for some TLC.

213 South 4th Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48104

How'd you get in the business?
My husband Jamie was working for Borders and I was doing art fairs, and he was frustrated, I had a baby and was tired of travel and the physical labor of art fairs (plus producing all that art work was difficult with a baby). I had always loved mysteries and so I suggested a mystery bookstore. Classic case of leaping into the unknown before looking too closely at what it might entail!

Favorite thing about being a bookseller?
A toss up! Either favorite customers to talk books with or meeting all the authors we've gotten to meet over the years. Both are great.

What's unique about your store?
I think our huge backlist of used books. We are able to often supply out of print, hard to find stuff and also find all the books in a series when people want them all, and not just the most recent title.

What's your best advice to writers?
Write a good book, show up on time for events and don't be too pushy or disappointed if there aren't a million people at your signing. We are doing our level best to get the word out, and want writers to succeed almost as much as they do themselves.

What do you wish publishers knew?
That ALL the titles in a series should be in print! Mystery readers like to read series in order. Also that they should give good writers a bit of a chance to get some "legs" and word of mouth. A recent example which drives me crazy is M.G. Kincaid; she wrote two fantastic books and her series was picking up some momentum when she was dropped. That's a real waste of talent!

Three books in your store you wish more folks knew about?
SATAN'S LAMBS, Lynn Hightower
THE WOODEN OVERCOAT, Pamela Branch (these are subject to frequent change!)

What's on your night stand right now?

If you were an adult film star, what would your name be?
I have no idea!


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I LOVE the sound of this, Kris. In addition to all the things you mentioned, it might make it easier for new authors to break in, since publishers won't have to gamble with costly traditional typeset print runs. Truly revolutionary!

11:27 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I know there are a few out there who will be appalled, but I've thought this was a very good thing, and here's why (just to emphasize a few of your points).

The publishing/bookselling business is insane. The returns policy complicates bookkeeping, screws up royalties and only seems to benefit UPS. This could eliminate warehousing (savings for publishers), eliminate returns (savings for bookstores), and, here's a concept: a celebrity or politician or ax murderer with no track record of publishing does not have to be given a huge book advance and only sell 40% of their books. The publishing industry can give more modest advances and then pay royalties for books THAT ARE ACTUALLY SOLD!

I know, authors, it hurts to think we might have to focus on royalties and not advances (not that my advances are doing much for me but feeding the PR machine), but think of it!--a publisher might ACTUALLY FIGURE OUT HOW MANY BOOKS THEY SELL AND HOW MUCH MONEY THEY MAKE!!

On the other hand, the $100,000 price tag is going to put a real crimp into small bookstores, those little storefront indies, which may just push them further out of business as the major chains buy a hundred Expressos and instead of stocking their shelves with multiple copies, stock them with single "display" copies. On the positive side, if they're not ordering multiple copies, everybody's backlist and all those others by small presses, etc., might actually be stocked as "display" copies, rather than not being there at all.

Now, face out or spine out?

8:49 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

You make some very good points here -- saved me from doing so!

It will be really interesting to see what impact, if any, this technology will have on bestseller lists as well. With stores and publishers able to immediately tabulate ACTUAL BOOKS SOLD, there is no longer any excuse for the elements of guesstimates (based on store sampling) and subjectivity that creeps into the New York Times' list right now.

God forbid, we might actually see lists that accurately reflect sales to PEOPLE instead of stores.

As for spine in or out? I'm thinking the bookstore of the future might look a little like a video store...with one sample cover. Maybe we can ALL be face out for a change!

1:13 PM  
Blogger Bryan D. Catherman said...

Let's see how it does in these test places. It could be hit, or the next "New Coke."

12:37 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

On the other hand...

Thinking in the shower this morning that this could be a boon to small indies, because it might level the playing field. Convince a bank to bankroll your Espresso and you should be able to compete with the bigs, because not buying in bulk will decrease (in theory) the discounts the chains get or insist on with publishers. But what will it do to distributors and truck drivers?

8:51 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Mark asks, But what will it do to distributors and truck drivers?

The publishing distribution system underwent a huge change back in the late 80s early 90s when the regional distributors gave way to centralized giants like Ingram and Baker and Taylor. Before this, it was possible for an author to make an impact by getting on regional bestseller lists (which helped propell them to the next levels). It also helped feed the careers of many authors who became solid regional stars because stores could count on sales reps (who were clued into their territories) to push the books of local interest.

I know this because this is how I got started in romance. Back in the '80s, my second romance made the regional SE list because the woman in charge of the distribution really liked it and touted it to her clients. But that system doesn't exist anymore, sadly.

I suspect the POD revolution (I think it WILL happen; it is just a matter of when) will bring similar wholescale changes to the entire system. I'm not smart enough to predict how.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Throbbing Agnew would be a good porno star name.

11:37 PM  

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