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Monday, March 05, 2012

An Author Remembers A Poet

I've often said that there are two distinct kinds of poetry; good poetry and most of it. A man whose work fits into the first category was one of my first inspirations. He later became my teacher, and my friend.

One day, when I was about twelve years old, my sister lent me a book, Irving Layton's Collected Works. I can still recite my favourite poem from that book.

On my way to school
I used to pass
A Baptist church
And fields of grass.

"Jesus Saves"
Above the gate
Would comfort me
If I were late.

The church is gone,
The street is paved,
The Home Bank thrives
Where Jesus Saved.

When I went to York University in Toronto, my English professor was Irving Layton, I was thrilled, and more than a little bit intimidated. 

On a September morning, I was walking down the hall past Irving's office. As I past, I heard him shout a great cheer. I looked in, and he beckoned me to enter. On the corner of his desk sat a small black and white television. The picture wasn't great, but all you could expect from the small antenna. Sitting in the cramped office, along with Irving were two of the other lecturers from the course, Eli Mandel and Dennis Lee, both were also poets of renown. Amid the piles of books and papers, I managed to find a place to squeeze into the small office to watch the remaining moments of the 1972 Canada-USSR Hockey Summit. 

With just 34 seconds left to go in the game, Paul Henderson scored what has come to be known as "The Goal." Cheers erupted throughout the Ross Building, but I doubt that any were louder than the ones coming from three poets and a freshman.

Irving Layton was an incredible lecturer and he filled his students with a love for the writing that was coming out of Canada at that time. Our lecturers were the people he could cajole into coming into the lecture hall, including a young Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, and many others. 

Over bottles of beer that afternoon, Irving assigned me to Dennis Lee's tutorial classes. Dennis, who would later be the poet laureate of Toronto, and the lyricist for Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock TV series, was exactly the sort of person I needed to foster my love of writing.

Irving and I would become friends during the remainder of my stay at York. He once told me that I should be out writing and not sitting in lecture halls studying other people's writing. I took that to heart, and tucked the idea away for several years, while life got in the way between me and my career as an author. I am pretty sure he would be happy that my name is now appearing on best-seller lists, knowing that he is one of the people who helped me get there.

I owe Irving a lot. From the earliest inspiration as a child just becoming exposed to writing that didn't involve the Hardy Boys to my first publication credits, Irving was always a part of my life. Sadly,  Alzheimer's disease  took his mind and then in 2006, at the age of 93, it took him from us. I miss him.

This weekend is the 100th anniversary of Layton's birth. Poets are gathering across the country to honour him. I will honour him in my own way, and in a way I think he would appreciate. I'll raise a glass to him, and remember that day with three poets and a freshman cheering at a snowy picture on a tiny TV screen, watching "The Goal."

Thank you Irving. I wouldn't be where I am today without you.

MisunderstandingBy Irving Layton

I placed my hand upon her thigh.
By the way she moved away
I could see her devotion to literature was not perfect.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Pricing E-books For Fun And Profit

Melissa Foster recently wrote an excellent article about the various pricing options being used by independent author/publishers and the commercial publishers for e-books. (Read it here.)

I price my back list titles at $0.99. These are the four collections of humorous essays published between 2005 and 2009. They are priced this way to attract new readers to some of my older material, and to encourage them to purchase more of the newer material, which is priced at $2.99. I price my novels at $2.99 as well.

These price points seem to be working well for me. While the average independent author/publisher sells fewer than 100 copies of an e-book, I have sold thousands, and I have heard from a lot of new readers that wouldn't necessarily have found me if the price points had been higher. Many buy one book, then return for the rest of the ones available.

I will admit though, it was a bit of a gut wrenching decision to let books go for $0.99, but in the end, the quantity of sales and the new dedicated readers has made it worthwhile.

My first two books were published by commercial publishers. I have tried to regain the electronic rights to those books so that I might add them to my e-book catalogue, but in both cases was refused. They say that they will publish them as e-books "someday." One tells me they intend to set the price for the book at $14.99 (the paperback is $18.99.) When you consider that these books were originally published seven and thirteen years ago, their pricing seems out of wack.

In addition to this, my books are all available to Kindle Prime members through the Kindle Owners Lending Library. Participants are allowed to "borrow" one book per month from the library at no cost. Amazon pays me from a pool of money they set aside each month. That pool is divided equally by the authors in the pool based on their percentage of total number of books borrowed.

We are all still in a learning mode. We have to walk a fine line between what we hope to earn in royalties and what readers are willing to pay for our books. The most important thing is to put the best possible product forward, so that readers will return to buy more books whatever their price might be.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Customer, Not the Boardroom Will Decide Who Wins The Bookselling War

The decision to refuse to carry Amazon published books may well prove to be one more nail in the coffin of the brick and mortar bookstores. Barnes & Noble and Books A Million (and Indigo in Canada) are making this decision at the boardroom level. The small independents in the American Booksellers Association are not making their own business decision, it is being made by the few elected members of the association’s board. Those people do not have a vested interest in the business of any bookstore except their own.  I hope some of the better book stores around the country, stores like Left Bank Books in St. Louis and Third Place Books in Seattle, will see that this decision does nothing to improve their bottom line. It could very well harm it. Part of being ‘independent’ is having the ability to make your own business decisions.

The bookstores that are refusing Amazon published books are forgetting the most important element in their business – the customer. If a customer wants a specific book they don’t care whether the bookstore doesn’t like the publisher, they simply want that book. If one bookstore won’t sell it to them, they will go to the competitor who will. Odds are they will return to that competitor for other books, even if they are available at the bookstore that wouldn’t sell to them previously. 

It would be like a customer who wants Crest toothpaste being told that it is not available at the pharmacy where they usually shop because they don't like Proctor & Gamble. The customer will find a store that sells Crest, and will probably buy other products while they are there. They will probably keep returning to that store, even if they are not out of toothpaste.

If publishers think that Barnes and Noble or the others are their new allies, they had better think again. None of those stores give a rat’s hairy tukas about the publishers. It wasn’t that many years ago that the smaller publishers were railing against the Barnes and Nobles, Borders and Indigos of this world, because of the way they were being treated. Delayed payment of invoices and massive returns were killing the smaller and some larger publishers.

I’ll use the Canadian example of Stoddard Publishing and General Distribution Services as an example of what good friends the big-box bookstores are to smaller publishers. In 2002, Jack Stoddard the owner of both companies was forced into bankruptcy, not because he ran his business poorly, but because Chapters/Indigo were putting long delays on paying their invoices, and excessive returns. It was reported at the time that when pushed to pay a bill they would ship back enough books to cover the invoice with returned (often damaged) books. As an article written at the time said:

             “Among the very specific things that sunk GDS [General Distribution Services] was a practice among booksellers designed to get around the new game rules set by the Federal Competition Bureau. Stoddart provided a basic outline of the practice in his affidavit, implying that both Chapters/Indigo and some of the independents were employing it. It involved the bookstores returning books within the 90 day return period, and then reordering those same books again—thus extending Chapters/Indigo credit beyond the 110 day period, and leveling the playing-field slightly for a few independents, in effect enabling a few of them the privilege Chapters/Indigo already had, of paying only for the books they’d sold. But it worsened the warehouse and accounting logjam for GDS, and set an ugly precedent for the future.”

(Read the entire article at

What other retail sector can get that kind of advantage from their suppliers? I have written before about the looks I got when I asked a florist if she could return unsold roses for a credit.

Stoddard was far from the only publisher that was hurt by those events. General Distribution Services served over 60 publishers. When it went under its creditors were owed over $45-million. 

This also had a huge impact on the authors. Royalties owed to them also disappeared in the bankruptcy. Ten years later, many of them have still not fully recovered. In my case, this was all occurring in the first couple of years after my first book was published. When it received the Stephen Leacock Award of Merit for Humour in 2000, it should have been a huge shot in the arm for my sales. My publisher at the time was experiencing the same business practices from Chapters/Indigo as Stoddard, and was refusing to ship books until bills were paid, mine included. The book made its way into smaller independents, but not into the largest retailer in the country.

Barnes & Noble Indigo and Books-A-Million are behaving like schoolchildren, telling Amazon, “You can’t play in our park.” Amazon can either fight them for control of the park, or make the smarter move and build their own park. Having $6-billion at their disposal, you can be assured that the new park won’t just have a basketball court and a couple of swings.

I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg from Amazon when it comes to finding new and better ways to serve the customer. Remember the customer; that person who actually lays down their credit card to buy the product. As I said earlier, that’s who is being forgotten by the bookstores like B&N.

Some publishers and booksellers are forgetting that B&N and BAM bullied them a few short years ago, but now they want to hang out in their park because they think that the bullies will protect them now. That thinking doesn’t work in the playground, and it sure as heck isn’t going to work in the business world.

The mantra of independent booksellers has always been that they can provide the customer with better service and a good knowledge of books. That is something the minimum wage employees at the big box bookstores lacked. The smart booksellers will realize that there is no point tilting at the Amazon windmill like some latter day Don Quixote. They will look for ways to promote themselves as being the better choice over Amazon, B&N and the other big box sellers. (We haven’t even mentioned Walmart and Costco in this discussion yet.)

Publishers need to show authors why they are a better choice than Amazon for book publishing. It will take a lot of creative thinking. The book promotion model that many of them use will need to be altered significantly. The royalty formula will have to be reworked significantly. (Many publishers will have a great deal of difficulty with that one.) The timeline between completed manuscript and book release will have to be significantly reduced. They will also need to look at the pricing of electronic versions to bring them more in line with the reality of that marketplace.

You can be sure that Amazon expected this sort of reaction from the other booksellers, and planned for it. If you can make your opponent focus solely on defense, you are the one in possession of the ball. They cannot score and you have every opportunity to do so. Amazon is drawing their focus away from the customers, and therefore away from what will keep them in business. 

The people who actually buy the books will decide how and where they want to shop. They don’t care about the battle going on in the background. The companies that recognize that and use it to their advantage will in all likelihood be the ones to win the war. At present Amazon is in the position to keep their eye on that prize, because everyone else is trying to keep an eye on them.

In reality, booksellers and publishers have a lot less to fear from Amazon than another group of players in the industry. If companies like Ingram and Baker & Taylor don’t see the writing on the wall, they had better visit an optometrist. Distribution, and finding the most practical and cost effective manner to quickly put the product into the hands of the customers will be the key to victory.

Gordon Kirkland At Large

Writings and Wramblings from the Wandering and Wondering Mind of Gordon Kirkland