Sunday, April 3, 2011

Change in an Industry: an ongoing process

I've been debating whether to blog this next bit, because at first it sounds somewhat negative. I think, though, that it's actually bang-on-topic with the way the publishing industry is morphing around into a new thing, and some parts are lagging behind other parts. I am very happy with iUniverse in the main, and sometimes blogs give the impression that everything has suddenly changed when it has not. This is just a bump in the road, not a general characteristic.

By the way, if you haven't read Eric Raymond's essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" about how the democratization of writing tools affected the programming industry, you might find it informative. There are a lot of parallels to the publishing industry and the struggles it's going through.


iUniverse offers several evaluation steps during the publishing process, which they cast in the form of awards. Basically, they're reasonably objective industry-quality evaluations of the work from several independent perspectives. "Winning" one gets iUniverse to invest some of their company's resources into your book without charging you for it. In essence, it's a winnowing down of the books they're working on to help iUniverse direct some gratis effort toward making your book successful: they put some of their skin in the game.

One of the awards is called "Editor's Choice". This award is a reflection of the topicality of the work, and the quality of the writing. Since this choice is made after your editing pass, you can add "your willingness to take professional direction" to the end of "the quality of the writing". Fair enough. If you're a first-time writer with a good idea but terrible grammar, iUniverse's editing department can help pick up the slack, and the award is based on the quality of the goods the reader eventually sees. Everyone wins. Having lived through this step personally, I know this isn't just a case of them wanting to sell you services. The editorial advice is professional grade- they're not just soaking you for your money. "Winning" this award means that iUniverse will stand behind the quality of the writing when it's being offered to publishers, book reviewers, etc.

The next award is something called "Rising Star", which is a similar evaluation of your marketing plans. While I had been moderately confident that I would get the Editor's Choice award, I was doubtful about Rising Star. I've said in this blog (and many, many times to iUniverse) that I know nothing about how to market books. My marketing contact, when he called, wanted to know several things: first, did I know anything about marketing books? No. Second: had I taken any action (even blindly) in the marketing area? Yes. Third: Did I plan to hire a professional or go it on my own? I planned to hire a professional. We talked for a while and he and I scheduled a followup.

The day after I spoke to my marketing rep at iUniverse, I got a note from the Rising Star evaluation board. It included two "fill in the blanks" documents. They wanted me to fill them out get them sent back in "tout suite". If I dawdled, I would be ineligible for the award.

The first form was no problem, a 3-4 page bit with blanks like "short author biography", "describe your target audience", and "name three other books that are comparable to your book". I filled this one out and sent it in.

The second form gave me problems. The blanks that weren't duplicates of the first sheet were either impossible to fill in (ISBN, which I understood, but which hasn't been assigned yet) or completely opaque to someone unfamiliar with book marketing "Keynote" (what is that?), "Publicity" (done? planned? paid for?)

No problem: I'm a noob, they deal with noobs all the time. I sent them an email, explaining that I didn't know the terms, but would be happy to fill them in if they'd kindly send me some more information. Their response was unhelpful in the extreme:
The Rising Star Marketing Evaluation and Title Information sheet are questionnaires based on your knowledge of how you intend to market, promote, and sell your book. Each point is open to interpretation. Please feel free to decipher these questions in your own way. If there are any you feel you cannot answer, please feel free to leave them blank.

If you choose not to return your Title Information Sheet by the due date, you will not be considered for the Rising Star Program.
So: We're not going to help you, and your eligibility is on the line. I had been CCing my marketing contact throughout this exchange, but hadn't heard from him. I sent another email to a wider audience, including my prior base-touching contacts, explaining my position. I enumerated the marketing steps I'd already taken, and then moved on:
Given the amount of "Garbage In" your team must face, I understand that you must establish timelines to gauge author willingness, etc., in an effort to whittle the incoming torrent down to a few people your team can feel comfortable working with.

That said, I find your Title Information Sheet "Fumble through our foreign-language Rorchach test, on our timetable, or get lost!" attitude to be very, very inappropriate given my previous interactions with iUniverse. In short, this is Not Funny.

I have been completely honest about my capabilities and knowledge since day one. It would be a shame if the ignorance I've been professing all along were to stop my progress cold. Please explain your terms, [accept my submission without this form], or refund my money.
The board made no response.

My marketing contact called me the next day. He said the problem was his fault: that he had intended to walk me through filling out these forms, but that after talking with me for a while, had come to the conclusion that I knew enough to do it on my own. Even though he's been honest (to his own detriment and credit) in the past, the fact that he's in a commission sales position makes me take his acceptance of "fault" that with a grain of salt.

End of the story: We got the entire thing explained over the phone in about 3 minutes. "Keynote" was another term for "Elevator pitch", which was a term I did know, "Publicity" meant "Your current plan of action to publicize your book", etc. I submitted the form, properly filled out, ten minutes later.

In short: iUniverse almost lost a customer because of a vocabulary issue. Really.

The lesson: Companies are not monolithic entities, and change propagates through them unevenly. In some ways, the "Rising Star Evaluation Board" hasn't kept up with the rest of iUniverse. They apparently see themselves high on a pedestal, deigning to judge the work that comes before them by a rubrick both arcane and opaque, answerable only to themselves. I'm guessing that will not be a common characteristic in the evaluation boards of successful self-publishing companies going forward.

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