Editors as Book Shepherds in the Digital Era

Date: Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Forum speaker: Bonnie Britt
Forum organizers: Karen Asbelle
Summary notes: Christopher Disman and Karen Asbelle

The publishing industry is undergoing the most far-reaching transformation since Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type more than 500 years ago. The Gutenberg Press led to the replacement of hand-printed books with machine-printed books. Today, the proliferation of digital and print-on-demand books has sparked changes in the roles of everyone in the publishing industry. While big publishing houses are merging, many book retailers are closing their doors. Some retailers have become printers and even publishers, while some literary agents have become digital publishers. The number of small publishers is growing, and the need for editors is apparent.

Editors can feel confident in the changing landscape because they are needed, Bonnie Britt told members of the Bay Area Editors' Forum in November.

Print-on-Demand and E-book Publishing

The self-publishing industry needs editors. More books than ever before are being published yet readers are articulating their disappointment with poor writing and editing. Editors have a potential role as book shepherds, she said, in guiding authors toward marketing strategies to reach their audiences.

Bonnie described two kinds of digital publishing: one is print-on-demand (POD) books, which are manufactured on paper in smaller quantities than a traditional offset press usually prints. The second is e-books, which are electronic books destined for reading on computers, hand-held or larger.

Authors have an unprecedented opportunity to publish their own books, or they can try the traditional option of seeking publication through an established company. The latter offers the advantages of distribution channels and, possibly, access to book reviewers at shrinking news outlets. With the traditional option, the publisher supplies the ISBN (International Standard Book Number), sets the book's list price, handles distribution, and pays a royalty based on sales to the author. A self-publishing author handles the business aspects of getting a book into print and, when successful after the initial investment, can reap a higher financial reward than one who goes the traditional route.

Two companies own the print shops that dominate the print-on-demand landscape: CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon.com, and Lightning Source Inc., which is owned by Ingram, the largest wholesale book distributor in the U.S.

Print-on-demand lessens the need for warehousing books, either in a commercial facility or, as is often the case with self-publishing, in a spare bedroom or a garage.

Over the last decade, Amazon had contracted with Lightning Source to ship books directly to customers in Amazon envelopes. Amazon encourages use of its own printer (CreateSpace) and publishers who don't are finding delays of several weeks in the delivery of their books purchased by Amazon customers. The solution for publishers, and the book shepherds who help them, is to use both printers: CreateSpace for distribution on Amazon, and Lightning Source for distribution everywhere else.

Bonnie recommends Aaron Shepard's Publishing Page for strategies on using CreateSpace and Lightning Source to best advantage. Shepard replies to queries at this discussion group.

For the purposes of print layout, Bonnie recommends Pete Masterson's Book Design and Production: A Guide for Authors and Publishers.

Self-Publishing Authors and Book Shepherding

Today's self-publishing scene—outside of vanity presses—opens the market to authors who wouldn't have had a chance of seeing their work published in earlier years or seeing it displayed in space as public as Amazon.com. Many authors can earn more by publishing their own books than they could earn in royalties paid by traditional publishing houses.

E-books can be formatted with software you already own, such as Microsoft Word, or with free or inexpensive software. E-books require no warehousing and can be dispatched quickly and electronically to customers.

POD and e-book publishing involves the wearing of many hats. Writing a book is hard, but marketing it is often harder because marketing is less familiar. Editors who assume the role of book shepherds can assist authors in marketing by preparing early advance review copies for distribution. Early praise for a well-written and edited book helps the author reach the intended audience. A book shepherd helps writers through the process of bringing a book to market and keeping it in the public eye, sometimes by setting up blogs and connecting the client-author to other bloggers with similar interests.

Bonnie described her own path to becoming a book shepherd. After teaming with other writers and editors from Berkeley and Kensington, CA, to form a small publishing collective, she realized that the cost and liabilities were too great. She didn't want to go the route of becoming a vanity press where money flows from the writer to the press. For that reason, Bonnie decided instead to work as an independent editor and book designer helping authors achieve their publishing dreams. Having worked as an editor for more than a dozen years, she felt that the next step was learning several programs: InDesign, Photoshop, and Acrobat Pro in Adobe's Creative Suite.

As a book shepherd, Bonnie works with authors through editing, publishing, and marketing phases to reach the intended audience. She knew nothing about marketing, although careful consideration about the first question for any manuscript—Who is the audience?—helped changed her attitude about marketing. The answer can never be "everyone." A book shepherd can help authors identify potential readers. Identifying an audience and assessing its reading level and interests are familiar to most editors. A former news reporter, Bonnie knows that the writers of press releases must get to the point quickly in describing what is newsworthy. Editors working as book shepherds can help writers find their likely audience and they can develop marketing skills to help authors release engaging prose into the world and publicize it.

Working with Self-Publishing Authors

It's important to assess whether the book hits the right notes in appealing to its intended audience. Bonnie advocates diplomacy with authors who are in love with their poor writing or with faulty reasoning. With Track Changes in Microsoft Word, she gives the writer the last word on whether to accept changes. While alerting authors to major mistakes that she sees in manuscripts, she said authors are ultimately responsible for the prose they distribute. One diplomatic way to couch criticism is to ask, "How will your readers react to this?" That is often more effective than a subjective comment by the editor.

Editing Pays the Bills

Editing requires more time and effort than other phases of the shepherding process, and that means editing pays the bills. But that doesn't mean editors should abandon clients after the editing is complete. To help with marketing, editors can come up with keywords for an author's blog and learn how metadata improves search engine rankings. We can also learn how to set up blogs on WordPress to promote books. An author having a platform, such as a blog, is central to a book's future success. Presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be important, too.

After a book is published, a blog can be a valuable forum where fans can interact with the author through email and with one another through online comments. Online interaction is replacing bookstore browsing as a way in which readers learn of new books. Blog tours are replacing newspaper coverage as a way to gain book publicity, mostly because newspapers are shrinking and have less space to devote to books. News outlets also have fewer reviewers. A book shepherd can encourage an author to visit the blogs of others who have written on similar topics, and in that way, encourage blog touring with trackbacks (links) to the author's own blog. More links result in higher search engine rankings. With each thoughtful post online, an author can renew visibility and credibility with potential readers.

Becoming a Book Shepherd

Bonnie uses Adobe InDesign to lay out print books. She uses Jutoh to convert text for use on Kindle and other hand-held devices. The city colleges in San Francisco and Berkeley offer classes in InDesign and Photoshop. Software is significantly less expensive when purchased as a student. Editors unprepared to do layout can partner with graphic artists to form a book shepherding team.

A search of the Bay Area Editors' Forum database of editors turns up 18 members who use InDesign. This comprehensive handout includes tips on where to learn InDesign and how to convert text to e-books. It also includes links to resources for print and electronic design, formatting, and book distribution, including discussions of the future of brick and mortar bookstores.

* * * * *
Bonnie Britt has worked as an editor for 15 years; before that, she worked as an "ink-stained newsroom wretch." These days, she helps writers identify their audiences before polishing and sometimes reorganizing their manuscripts. After editing their manuscripts, she guides them into print and e-books and advises new authors on marketing efforts. Twice a year, Bonnie teaches a seminar on copyediting at Media Alliance.



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