Wednesday, May 20, 2009

E-Books, or Why Kemble Scott is Publishing his Second Novel on Scribd

On Tuesday, a new on-line publishing company entered the e-book business in a serious way.

Readers are already buying books for the Amazon Kindle or Sony E-Reader,

but Scribd has a different business model.It allows authors to post their books on their site

and charge whatever they think the market will bear.With 60 million visitors a month, that could

add up to a lot of pennies. But publishing on Scribd ratherthan going through a traditional

publisher means a writer gives up many of the perks associatedwith putting out a

traditional book: the prestige of being selected by a well-know publisher, distribution

in book stores, and probably book reviews in newspapers. I asked Kemble Scott,

the best-selling authorof SoMa, a novel, why he is publishing his new novel Sower

on Scribd. It costs $2.

Why did you decide to publish your second novel on Scribd?

The world is changing and people are experiencing books in new ways. Amazon says its digital books now account for 35% of recent titles sold. In Japan, 86% of teenagers are reading novels on their cell phones. E-books aren't a thing of the future, they are happening right now. Scribd has already established itself as the top site for sharing the written word. They have 60 million unique users per month. They offered me a chance to sell my book so it can be read on any computer or mobile device - no special gadget required. It's an incredible opportunity to reach out to a whole new universe of readers.

What are the advantages to on-line publishing?

I read recently that people who read on-line literature are much more likely to become avid readers. It kindles a passion for reading, and they end up buying books and going to libraries. That's very exciting.

As an author, publishing my first edition of The Sower on Scribd gave me the opportunity to try something brand new with a book: immediacy.

In traditional print publishing, a book is typically done months or years in advance. Then like an airplane that must queue for its turn to land, a book waits for its spot in the publishing cycle. As a result, you can't really write a book that's set in the present. As a novelist, you end up writing a period piece.

The Sower is set in a fictionalized version of the present. It taps into the current national mood. We're fed up with corporate greed, damaging right wing ideologies, and hate-mongering religious agendas. We're living with the fallout of eight years of that crap.

When I wrote The Sower, all of that was on my mind. The novel is ultimately a darkly comic commentary about the moral hypocrisy of the past eight years. With traditional print publishing, I'd have to wait a year or so to get The Sower to readers. Would the national mood be the same then? Would we still be in a recession? Would we still despise George W.?

How will you get the word out? Are you concerned that it is such a new medium that distribution will be small?

As most published authors know, launching any book is challenging. Especially novels. Authors hope they'll get a nice review, or if they're very lucky their publisher will sponsor a tour of bookstore appearances. The options for getting the word out have always been extremely limited.

With my first novel SoMa, I was the first author to launch a novel on YouTube I did these very earnest, black and white videos that took people to the real life places that inspired the novel. Since the novel is set in San Francisco's sexual underground, the videos were remarkably effective "teases" to get people to read the book. SoMa hit the San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers list the first week it was for sale in local stores.

So I'm open to the idea of trying something new to launch a book. The Sower will be promoted on Scribd to its 60 million readers. That's more than twice the size of the audience of American Idol. Novelists don't usually get that type of platform.

Your last book, SoMa, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. You are a former television producer and journalist. The publication of Sower on Scribd carries none of the prestige or weight of your previous endeavors. Does this concern you? Is Scribd's really just a new-fangled vanity press?

I love being appreciated as much as the next guy. But you've got to have a thick skin to write fiction. If you care too much about “prestige” then you're going to be terribly wounded by the hecklers who inevitably emerge. I write provocative books, and I expect them to be polarizing. Prestige is the last thing on my mind.

As you know, "vanity press" is an insult used by people in the publishing trade to describe books that people publish on their own because no one else wants them. The truth is The Sower received what's called a “pre-empt” offer. The first publisher to read it immediately offered to buy it (he got a copy of my manuscript from a very enthusiastic author who read it for a blurb). It was such a surprise to get that call unsolicited, and really flattering, especially since I had not done the submissions process. The publisher was convinced The Sower would be the first book to go “viral” because of certain twisted ideas and scenes involving the Catholic Church and the president of the United States.

But that deal eventually fell apart. The delay meant I couldn't start the submissions process until earlier this year. As fate would have it, that's when the Scribd project emerged. I had to make a decision.

I wish I could say it was difficult. It wasn't. That's because I see The Sower on Scribd as the first edition. I have retained all rights. I can sell hardcover, paperback, foreign language, audio, other media, Kindle, etc.

The print door isn't closed to me. To the contrary, it may be open wider than ever. If Scribd creates new buzz for my work, then I suspect there's at least one print publisher who will sense an opportunity. Let's face it, it's so difficult to get people talking about a novel. That's the hard part in this age of information overload. Hardcover, paperback, digital, audio - those are simply different readerships. I'm enthusiastic about all of them.

Your cover illustration is eye catching. Does Scribd's help authors with art or layout? How about editing? All books can be improved by editing. Did you skip the process or find your own editor?

I'm glad you like the cover. I came up with it myself. Because this first edition is on Scribd, there was no print book cover to leverage. The title The Sower is derived from The Parable of the Sower from the Bible. That's a lesson about a guy who's thwarted trying to plant seeds for growing crops. The novel The Sower is about a guy who becomes the sole carrier of a manmade supervirus that appears to be a cure for all diseases, and the only way to pass it to others is through sex. Translation: planting his seed. Oh, and he's very thwarted. So I knew I wanted to use the metaphor of seeds, so I got piles of different types of seeds, bought some colorful paper backdrops, and shot pictures with my cheap digital camera. I also did a version with bright white seeds and a red background, but that looked just a little too dead on like a guy's seed… if you know what I mean.

Authors always complain about their covers. It's like a rite of passage when being published. With Scribd you are completely on your own. I decided to have fun with it, and by taking the photo myself I own the copyright 100%, which you must have if you publish on Scribd.

As far as editing is concerned, I'm part of a dynamic community of writers. I host a writers group, and attend the San Francisco Writers Workshop I also have an office in the Sanchez Annex , a writers “grotto.” Ten of us share a workspace. Combine all that and it's fair to say that every word of The Sower has received more editorial scrutiny than most books ever get. It's no coincidence that so many successful, published books have emerged from our little home-grown process.

How long was the lag time between finishing SoMa and publication?

SoMa is set in San Francisco in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, 2002 to 2003. That's when I started writing it, which took a while since I had to figure out how to make the switch from journalism to fiction. I sold it in 2005, and then it was published in 2007.

How long was the lag time between finishing The Sower and publication?

There's a great story I tell at the very end of the novel about how The Sower was written. I won't ruin it by spilling the beans here.

But because of the immediacy offered by publishing with Scribd, and my desire to make my version of present day feel as current as possible, I was able to make changes to the book so it's as topical as today's newspaper. The first edition has references to swine flu, British singing sensation Susan Boyle, and

So the time between finishing that additional writing and publication was, I dunno, maybe three minutes. How's that for fast?

And keep in mind that as an electronic book, I have the option to go in at any time and update cultural references so they are constantly timely. Frances, if you win the next season of Survivor, perhaps I'll add that into pages.


Harriet Chessman said...

Wow! Thank you for this rich and inspiring interview. My eyes are opened!!! I love Kemble Scott's energetic and creative attitude toward the craziness of traditional publishing today.

One question I have is -- what does Kemble's agent think of this? Is there an agent involved?

Frances said...

Good question Harriet. Kemble sold his first book without an agent, so there is no agent involved here.

Erika M said...

Great interview about the Sower!
and I too am a Donner Party fascinatee, and am friends with a woman named Tamsen in honor of the Donner mom.