The BookNet Dictatorship

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The Booknet Dictatorship

Stephen, thanks so much for doing all the work that was necessary to get this important information together and available to readers and writers. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realized why I was having so much trouble getting agents and bigger publishers to even look at my third novel -- they were rejecting it sight unseen. Then an agent in the U.K. told me about BookNet. It is great to have an intelligent exploration of this issue to which I can refer other mid-list writers who are facing similar difficulties. I've linked to this article in the most recent post on my Militant Writer blog Thanks to the new technology, we now have alternatives. Our fates do not need to rest in the hands of those who decide which books to publish on the basis of previous sales figures rather than writing quality.

Mary W. Walters more than 11 years ago

To further these comments

To further these comments about BookNet I will add that BookNet is merely one of numerous recent changes in our ever-evolving publishing world as publishing adapts to our ever-evolving technology and ever-evolving human needs.
When printing presses first saw use during the Middle Ages, ironciall, many of those early printed books used fonts which looked exactly like the handwriting the presses were attemtping to supersede. Such is change at times, forwards but backwards.

Gregory F. A. Ross more than 12 years ago

I'm an acquisitions editor,

I'm an acquisitions editor, and I can assure you that BookNet does not play a role in my acquisitions decisions. Quality of the manuscript does, and how it fits with our list, and how well we might be able to edit and promote it. But sales figures of previous books? No.

I'm hardly one to defend BookNet, though it is a boon to publishers in many ways: it helps us make reprint decisions, and to track the success of marketing efforts, and to anticipate returns. In an era where every publisher's finances are precarious at best, this is invaluable. But of course I dislike how it brings to the fore publishing's age-old conundrum of balancing art and commerce. The pickle is that literature must be 'commodified,' or made into books, to be 'consumed' (e-publishing changes this somewhat, but it's still mostly the case). And that we all need to pay the rent.

It's not just the publishers who've shifted the vocabulary. The most common words I hear at any literary gathering are not 'metaphor' or 'character' but 'agent' and 'advance.' I'm not suggesting that authors shouldn't try to make some money from their hard work, not in the slightest. But when the size of the advance takes precedence over the all the other elements of publishing (editing, production values, good marketing, etc.), as it frequently does, then the game has shifted to being about money first and foremost. And if publishers have to pay bigger and bigger advances, of course financial viability (and, possibly, for some, BookNet figures) becomes a bigger part of the equation. It's an uneasy relationship that literature and money have at the best of times, which we could argue these aren't. But let's not pretend that it's only the publishers who are worried about the dough.

Alana Wilcox more than 12 years ago

Stephen, yes, corporations

Stephen, yes, corporations appear to be feelingless machines which should never be allowed near people, let alone be allowed to handle art such as writing. But, I certainly hope my writing is someday published by a large corporation.
Meanwhile, the solution is simple. Become your own publisher. If you have faith in your writing, publish and distribute it yourself. It takes all of about 15 minutes to obtain a block of ISBNs from the ISBN office in Ottawa, and to register yourself as a Canadian publisher. I publish my own chapbooks of poetry and essays because no publisher has yet picked up any of my book-length manuscripts.
Small-scale publishing/self-publishing gives readers an artsy alternative to dealing with large publishers, which is appreciated by some readers.
I write, edit, give the writing a title, and give it its isbn from Ottawa, print the chapbooks, and sell them at such places as farmers markets. People buy them, read them, and regularly later tell me they enjoyed them. People pay to read my writing and that's the name of the game. I am honoured when they buy a book, and further honoured if they actually read the book. My writing is art, and no publisher will ever convince me it is not good art, not good writing, not worth publishing, or not literarily worthy. Numerous famous writers began their careers by publishing themselves. If your writing is good enough, you and it will find ways around such problems as BookNet.
I hope this instils hope where there appears to be none.

Gregory F. A. Ross more than 12 years ago

The intellectual element of

The intellectual element of readers is somehow distorted. We have
poster that quote Pandoras Box and we have readers that miss the actual contents of the myth. We also fail to credit reading as entertainment, more so than education, lierary reading may be very good to some of the mental giants of the world, maybe even to some of the lesser giants. Wrters like Tom Clancy, de Mille, Wilbur Smith or Patterson prove to us, Literature also has to show profit. A good story is to be told to all, it is entertainment as it is a book. Unless you can create a new category of books, one strictly for Literary it on the cover, the outside jacket, you will see the entertainment value is getting paid a hell of a lot more.
Book Net is doing what we all do, do market research and let the supplier know what he can expect in rewards. This is nothing to do with culture, marketing is a culture of its own, this has everything to do with avoiding financial losses. Maybe we need a few more editors with courage, a few less Masters of Literature, maybe we should all sponsor a new section of new Authors promoters and all the so called Literary Magazines like Geist should once in a while, once in each issue, set aside a few pages for a good story, forget the literary value, the readingt public like it plain without frills, how else could the E-Bokk have so exploded?

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

P.S. I was writing in

P.S. I was writing in response to (hilarious) comments made by Sean Cummings...

Shauna more than 12 years ago

Lol! Thanks for raising this

Lol! Thanks for raising this point in the most awesome way. I believe the problem is not BookNet, but rather a confusion of expectations. If money is the objective, then that "hack" reading a line of data will always come out ahead. But if the ultimate achievement is to nurture literary pursuits for the sake of culture, then BookNet should be no threat whatsoever...

Shauna more than 12 years ago

Let's take this opportunity

Let's take this opportunity to embrace story telling again. There are other mediums for storytelling - many of them new, and interactive. Book publishing is a struggling industry, and so long as writers tie themselves to a medium, they'll live and die with that medium.

I think most readers pay for stories, not mass-produced blocks of pulped boreal forests. Just as many people don't pay for cars, they pay for transportation. If a better mode of transportation comes along, they'll ditch their cars, just as they ditched their horse-drawn carriages.

Rallying against BookNet feels a bit like rallying against expensive horse-stabling rates in 1910.

Writers are like drivers - we take our readers places. I'm sure, when cars came along, there were drivers who swore they would never get in one of those newfangled contraptions. But some drivers did make the switch - they learned how to drive and care for these new vehicles. And those drivers were able to take their riders to more places, further places, and able to get them there more quickly.

So we could spend our time getting angry at BookNet, or we could spend our time exploring the exciting new opportunities that the digital age presents for bringing stories into our readers' lives.

Mark Freeman more than 12 years ago

"We should acquaint ourselves

"We should acquaint ourselves with what can be eaten in the forests," says an award-winning author who survived the war after fleeing Poland. "Writers need to know which plants, mushrooms and berries are edible and also have in store equipment to cook with fire, and pills to sterilize water."
As canned goods supplies dwindle, she pred...icts, all writers will need a small gun "to hunt rabbits, wild pigs and edible birds. Also dogs for protection and a horse for transportation."
Recalling her childhood in a refugee camp, she says: “Except for rations of bread and tea with raisins, we had nothing to eat. I had an egg once, when I was sick. There were no medications and no food except at very high prices, so my mother went and bought a bit of butter, milk, an egg and some sugar and made for me a so-called Gogel Mogel -- a heated concoction."
As grants dry up, even high-profile writers may end up turning in desperation to Gogel Mogels.

Ann Diamond more than 12 years ago

I came acoss Stephen

I came acoss Stephen Henighan's article and was thrilled to hear, from outside, the thoughts I've been living with inside. It was a fantastic exposition of the way sales departments hold sway among publishers in all parts of the world.
Having successfully had my first seven novels published by major publishers in US and UK in the past, my last two novels were rejected. I thought I must have become a hopeless writer. Then at last I realised what was happening. I was never a big seller, although I was given good reviews, so who would take me on? Time to get going on my own behalf. Self-publishing is an option, but once your nearest and dearest buy a copy out of the kindness of their hearts, readers are hard to come by. The marketplace is vast. A lone author's voice is unlikely to be heard. So I dreamt up a website which bypasses entirely literary agents and conventional publishers. (Am I allowed to advertise?) is not self-publishing. I want to maintain standards. All submissions, which carry a £5 non-refundable fee (or equivalent in any currency) are vetted. If accepted, the work is converted into an ebook on site. Writers get a 2/3rd royalty payment for each download which is priced from £1 to £3.
There are lots of ebooks being produced. Many are entirely free so lack quality control. Others come from the digital branch of an established publisher, which means a writer still has to get past the sales department to get a print edition in order to have an e edition.
This is why I was moved to reply to GLW's comment of 26 Jan. Yes, let's take back control!

Susan Barrett more than 12 years ago

This article is soooo old

This article is soooo old school it would be funny if it weren't so sad. Brilliant bohemians vs Daddy Warbucks. Puhleeease! It is absurd to think BookNet "buries" books. Data is just data. Wouldn't you rather know? It is so typical (and predictable) for authors to bury their heads in the sand as if by spurning the very market that may eventually (and they pray will) pay them a living they somehow gain more credibility. Publishers are not idiots; they know their bread is buttered by the talent they find and foster. All that said, there is a hint of something interesting in here, something about disintermediation, authors connecting more directly with audiences. For them, BookNet could be useful tool. 'Course they'll have to figure out how to use it first. Mr. Henighan might better turn his genius to that end.

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

Sorry, that comment above was

Sorry, that comment above was a direct reply to the comment that defeating BookNet is akin to defeating Stephen Harper. Pathetic.

Nic Boshart more than 12 years ago

What the hell? BookNet is an

What the hell? BookNet is an organization dedicated to promoting open standards. God.

Nic Boshart more than 12 years ago

Publishing isn't profitable,

Publishing isn't profitable, so let's make it even less so by dropping useful sales tools in favor of more esoteric, niche titles?

Fred more than 12 years ago

Publishing hasn't been a

Publishing hasn't been a profitable business in a long time, if it ever was, those who pretend it can be are fooling themselves. Fewer and fewer people read novels, genre or otherwise, so the attempt to find a 'new business model' are doomed to fail and only leave us with a bunch of mediocre books. Be prepared for the predictable 'sour grapes' accusations that are thrown at Henighan because he dares to criticize the sad state of English Canadian literature.

R Gelling more than 12 years ago

Wow. I’m a new­bie to Geist,

Wow. I'm a newbie to Geist, so I won't judge based on one article. But my initial impression is that Geist is dedicated to allowing elementary school students to work through their 'logical self-defence' unit by publishing utterly laughable examples of how not to structure an argument.

By the second paragraph, it becomes readily apparent to the reader that Mr. Henigahn has a personal beef with BookNet. The rhetoric* employed is worthy of a political campaign, or a Dear John letter. I'd be willing to bet my RRSP ($0.00) that the author has had one of his books rejected on the basis of BookNet figures.

The final paragraph woefully attempts to poke a clear thesis (" . . . dis­credit the util­i­tar­ian approach to pub­lish­ing.") through the haze of emotion that went into this missive - but then the term 'BookNet' shows up 5 times in a single paragraph.

Mr. Henighan - I believe the point you TRIED (but failed) to make is that publishers shouldn't value BookNet data as highly when making decisions on what to publish, as it can harm emerging authors. Instead, you relentlessly attack a third-party company that doesn't actually publish books...

SPH more than 12 years ago

This strikes me as a very

This strikes me as a very important article. I am grateful to Stephen Henighan and Geist for its publication. I see about 100 works of fiction from BC writers every year. Those from the larger Ontario branch plants get by far the most respect/attention. We have gone backwards. First Chapters, then Booknet. It's a numbers game. Quality is subjective, and can't be measured.

Alan Twigg more than 12 years ago

Our literary culture is

Our literary culture is inseparable from our political culture. The struggle to "defeat" BookNet is inseparable from the struggle to defeat Stephen Harper in the next election.

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

You are being pedantic, here.

You are being pedantic, here.

Jean more than 12 years ago

So... in a highly competitive

So... in a highly competitive industry, the distributor should be promoting the author's more mediocre works with the promise of better things to come once the author has had enough practice? Come on now. Tell me in what industry there are no judgements based on previous standards of performance. Booknet is essentially a tool by which independent retailers can evaluate the potential likelihood of product sales based on past performance. It's risk management 101. Perhaps the target of your scathing article should be the retailers who choose not to promote crappy writers with the potential to get better. This article feels to me like it is shooting the messenger. And incidentally, I found your constant references to dictatorships or "iron fists" pretty darn offensive. Clearly, you have some issues that cry out for resolution.

JOANNA more than 12 years ago

"Canadian lit­er­ary cul­ture

"Canadian lit­er­ary cul­ture will be mor­tally wounded "

What literary culture?!! That should have been the starting point.

I don't find the piece particularly insightful, nor understand the gushing pouring forward under it while Henighan rubs his proud belly. An indication of the standard of critique we are also regularly subjected to.

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

As a working book editor,

As a working book editor, this alarmist scenario starring BookNet is unrecognizable to me. Sure, we think hard about potential sales, but we have been doing that since Gutenburg and we have had good methods for assessing sales long before BookNet came along. In fact BookNet is not that helpful; many publishers have quit subscribing because they found it is not accurate enough. And while it's true that the financial squeeze on publishers caused by big retail,declining reading rates, bad economic conditions etc has made us ever more sales conscious, we are not so brutally stupid that we think sales can only be predicted by past performance. It's not just Carol Shields: every season books that shouldn't do well take off and vice versa. There are thousands of examples. We know this truth better than anyone else because our companies live or die by it. That is why we will never just go by the numbers and will look at every good manuscript that comes before us and try to figure out if this is going to be this season's unexpected hit. The accountants would like the world Henighan imagines to be true, but by the time they have been through one publishing season they learn with absolute finality that it's not and never will be as long as writers are writers and readers are readers.

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

Thanks I think.

I was with

Thanks I think.

I was with you until the last paragraph with the solution. I agree the stats need the warning you so brilliantly argue.

The solution must be some new business models that get the publishers making money. Let's put our creativity together to come up with some ideas.

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

Here is another important

Here is another important book on the disaster of the publishing industry:

The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2000).

Sadly, the bean counters and efficiency experts have destroyed a lot of things which determine the quality of life and civilization. Education has been lost to job-training, universities to badly run businesses, and medicine has been lost to greedy pharmaceutical companies. And scientific research . . . has almost been completely lost to humanity.

How nice it would be if there were a cultural revolution and we stood up to the world of top heavy administrators, with their fat paychecks for paring culture down to nothing.

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

Here is another impor­tant

Here is another important book on the disaster of the publishing industry:

The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2000).

Sadly, the bean counters and efficiency experts have destroyed a lot of things which determine the quality of life and civilization. Education has been lost to job-training, universities to badly run businesses, and medicine has been lost to greedy pharmaceutical companies. And scientific research . . . has almost been completely lost to humanity.

How nice it would be if there were a cultural revolution and we stood up to the world of top heavy administrators, with their fat paychecks for paring culture down to nothing.

Anonymous more than 12 years ago

Kind of makes me glad that I

Kind of makes me glad that I don't write literary fiction. My publisher and my agent are in the UK - not sure how BookNet impacts genre fiction since it generally sells more than literary. There's also the elephant in the room: eBooks. Chapters might control 70 % of the market when it comes to brick and mortar but they're a fart in the breeze when compared to Amazon. The book buying market is changing and increasingly it is online. BookNet might be a threat to an author's prospects, but a greater threat is the centralization of book buying under the great Amazon tent.

Sean Cummings more than 12 years ago

I wish we all could live in

I wish we all could live in the literary dream-world mourned by Stephen, where every talented author would have the opportunity to find their audience and be published by a respected, devoted Canadian publisher. Unfortunately that dream died an eon before BookNet came along, when the average Canadian decided that foreign mass-market imports were preferable to local stories and voices. Now domestic publishers, for the most part, can only compete and survive to publish ANY authors, no matter how big or small their sales might be, because of the welfare-style arts grants we are so blessed to have. Since that funding is tenuous at best (we all know how happy Harper is to give the cultural industries such a big checque every year), I am grateful to BookNet for giving Canadian publishers the tools to make smart, sustainable publishing decisions so that they can keep bringing voices forward for the years to come.

There is a place for the literary-high-brow, there is a place for number-driven commercial publishing, and there is a place for a combination of the two.

ChelseaT more than 12 years ago

"And yet, in con trast to the

"And yet, in con trast to the indie musician, who can build a career without dealing with a record company, sell­ing CDs at gigs or through web sites, writers still need

Thank you for this illuminating article.

It seems that art, as a commodity, loses it's essential art-ness by pandering to sales statistics. Where is the reverence for the art itself? Perhaps the answer lies in a revolt by the artists, where they take back the control of the message.

I disagree that an author needs a publisher more than a musician needs a record company. With the do-it-yourself media age, anyone can stage a public (in person or on line) event, self-publish, sell their own books, etc.

I know this route is often poo-pooed - vanity press is not a pretty label - but what choice is there when the big machine breaks down? Follow the advice of Peter Gabriel - DIY

GLW more than 12 years ago

Just a quick word of thanks

Just a quick word of thanks for Stephen's great work here. We need more voices to fight the anti-intellectual, anti-artistic effects of a robotic allegiance to numbers.

Trevor Cole more than 12 years ago

So the gist is that

So the gist is that commercial interests are overriding artistic concerns? When has that ever not been the case? Publishing is a business, and while it gets into trouble when it tries to act like <i>any other</i> business, it would be foolishly short-sighted to ignore sales data and an author's past performance altogether. It would be lovely if all great writers could have wealthy patrons like Alfred A. Knopf, free of financial constraints and dedicated to Art with a capital A, but that isn't a terribly practical (or common) model. The problem isn't BookNet; the problem is relying on BookNet to the exclusion of all else. But equally problematic would be ignoring sales and market analysis entirely; you might publish some great work, but you would need a lot of luck, or a lot of money to burn, to stay afloat. Publishing needs to find a balance, with an eye on the bottom line but also on taking risks. BookNet needs to be one tool of many.

Fred more than 12 years ago

"No Pandora can be returned

"No Pandora can be returned to her box."

Perhaps I'm being pedantic, here, but surely this isn't correct. Pandora didn't escape a box; rather, the evils of the world escaped from the vessel she carried. Returning Pandora "to her box" wouldn't accomplish anything.

Jordan more than 12 years ago

Thanks for this cogent

Thanks for this cogent analysis. It was long overdue. I hope publishers and agents will read it, and remember why they went into this business in the first place.

Susan Glickman more than 12 years ago