Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Exclusive Interview: Norman Savage, author of Junk Sick: Confessions of an Uncontrolled Diabetic

Just a few short months ago, Greenwich Village author Norman Savage was on the verge of earning a book deal with a large New York publisher for his memoir, Junk Sick: Confessions of an Uncontrolled Diabetic.

Then in October, the market crashed, consumer spending seized, and the publishing industry was suddenly less willing to take risks on unproven authors. The deal disappeared.

It's a story we'll likely see played out over and over again as talented authors learn they no longer have a home in the highest caste of authordom.

Norman Savage is an author who deserves to be published. His storytelling is vivid, raw and unforgettable. In Junk Sick, he chronicles a life of addiction, diabetes and hard living that at age 62 has left him with deteriorating health, the scars of quadruple bypass surgery and four amputated toes.

But Savage doesn't want our sympathy. No, he wants something else.

I'm proud to present an interview with Norman Savage, who last week published Junk Sick on Smashwords. In our interview, Savage spoke openly about a life lived teetering on the edge of euphoria and oblivion.

Warning: This interview contains mature language and subject matter not suitable for children.

[Mark Coker] - Describe your new book, Junk Sick: Confessions of an Uncontrolled Diabetic.

[Norman Savage] - Junk Sick is my attempt to bring all that was fractured in my life--family, diabetes, drug addiction, alcoholism, women, jobs, madness, mayhem, ecstasy and suicide ramblings--into a coherent and readable whole. It tries to explain how and why I married two different conditions--diabetes and addiction--into one unitary structure, me. Both acts--the taking of insulin and the injecting of dope or the drinking of booze--implies intent and desperation, each of them uses a syringe to bridge one world into another and all the substances are short-acting.

[Mark Coker] - How long did it take you to write the book?

[Norman Savage] - About 20 years, though I've been writing most of my life. I began publishing my poetry in little mags and presses in the 1960's. In fact, Susan Graham Mingus, the wife of the late bassist Charles Mingus, first published me and had Andy Warhol take the pictures for the spread. The first draft of Junk Sick was written circa 1985 and then from a kind of cowardice brokered by booze and dope it was shelved. From time to time, I would re-engage and edit it, but not until Thanksgiving of 2007 did I really begin to edit and update it.

[Mark Coker] - When you first contacted me, you had just lost out on a potential book deal for Junk Sick with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. What happened?

[Norman Savage] - In 2007, I was invited to the Thanksgiving dinner of an old friend who I'd met almost thirty years earlier at a bar where I worked. I'd always declined previous invitations because I'm never really comfortable around most people I don't know and am not much a fan of polite chatter. I never really know what to say. But I'd lived a solo life for a long time now at that point and thought I needed the company and a home-cooked meal. Joanie was, and is, a terrific cook.

It also was a kind of challenge to myself to see if I still had the "chops" to engage the human race in social situations. She, too, had become a bartender in a pretty famous saloon in the West Village and so I thought there'd be other barflies as well, which made it easier to rationalize. As it turned out I met a woman that evening who had been an editor at Doubleday and was most interested in biography and memoir--she helped Brando pen his. I told her that I, too, wrote, and had written a memoir. I'm sure she was being polite by offering to read the first chapter of what I'd written and gave me her email address.

Within a week she contacted me and was very enthusiastic about what she'd read. She wanted to read the entire work and thought that three agents who she knew would also be interested. After reading the work she called with encouraging news. She thought that Cynthia Cannell, a very prominent literary agent, once a VP at Janklow Nesbitt and now owner of her own boutique lit agency would be the person to best represent it.

Right after New Year, Cynthia called me. She, too, thought the work terrific and wanted to meet. After meeting, she suggested I edit three sections which she would send to senior editors she knew. Sometime in March one of those editors at FS&G called and said she'd be interested provided I was better able to "marry" the diabetes with addiction. This to me was wonderful news. It gave me an opportunity to go back into the work, update it, and use the cutting edge of "new" psychological advances in making sense of what I and every other addict and diabetic experiences on various levels.

I returned the newer version back to her late July, early August. She read it and liked it. She told Cynthia that she was giving it to another senior editor and should he like it as well she was moving it up to the marketing and sales division.

Then we didn't hear. And didn't hear. I felt in my bones there was something wrong. That "something" began to become clearer as the economy began to unravel. At the end of October she called Cynthia to tell her that FS&G was not going to go ahead with new writers and unknown material. A few weeks after that, Cynthia learned that she was let go after many years of service. Cynthia suggested that I keep working on my new novel and then she'd revisit the "scene" with my work after the new year. But that didn't sit well with me. I began to look for alternatives.

[Mark Coker] - What led you to Smashwords?

[Norman Savage] - Serendipity. I was researching how to serialize my memoir and/or novels online when I came across a forum where some person spoke about your site as a publishing tool. Curious, I took a look and liked what you had to say about it. I didn't decide to actually publish there until I fooled around--for a couple of days--with my own blog. Deciding that a blog was not the right way for me to go in getting an entire serialized on it, I then contacted you. I've never had much faith in the publishing industry, or industries in general. Their existence is by and large for one purpose: to make money. How that's done is usually dictated by what they think the marketplace is, or what they can manipulate the marketplace to be. And that's usually the lowest common denominator.

We've all heard stories of some of our finest artists never seeing the light of day--in their lifetime--because the powers that be didn't believe that their audience was either ready or could appreciate the work of these people. At one time, and not that long ago, if a senior editor at a publishing house thought well of your work they could (though it still could be a fight), get it published. Some of the best publishers and editors could take risks, and they did.

Now, before a major publisher takes a chance on a "new" voice, they have to run it by the sales and marketing department and they try to see whether or not it will sell 25,000 copies or else they usually won't take a chance on it. They try to crunch numbers, but usually go by the past in making decisions: what used to sell. They can no more discern that than Hollywood can predict what movie we go to see. Everyone plays it "safe." It's like never falling in love because you never want to get out of your own hip pocket. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

We know, of course, that most of the stuff that gets to us is dull, mind-numbing. Whether it's in print, on a canvass, film, or music hall. It's repetitive shit and, for the most part, having nothing whatsoever to do with our lives as we know them. In order to get published you now have to go to and come out of "writing workshops"; actors and directors come out of "film schools" or "acting workshops"; painters out of "A Fine Arts" program, etc. How many writers or actors or painters that are in the public eye today come out of the streets, madhouses, jails? How many were vagabonds, hobos, trapeze artists, merchant seaman, janitors, dockworkers, street sweepers? How many talk a living language?

Thoreau once told a young man who wanted to learn river navigation not to go to college, but to get his ass on a ship. You learn by living. Drink, have a few bad love affairs, drink again (or shoot some dope), get up at 5 a.m. and go to a job you hate, come home to woman you can't stand being with, but can't stand being away from, hit the keys like you're in a heavyweight fight--because you are--and get up the next morning to do it all over again, and do it for many many years. Go on welfare, food stamps, grab on a rope tossed over, think it's going to save you only to find no one on the other end and just go until the living stops. And it will, soon enough.

I know there is good stuff out there that's being overlooked by the mainstream boys who will continue to publish safe shit: diet, gardening, how to, celebrity, and formulaic fiction and non-fiction that fits their idea of what writing is. It rattles their balls and their hearts when something different comes along.

However, there's a problem that you face as well: since this is intended to be the most democratic medium to get stuff up on, how does the reader evaluate all the stuff that floats in this ether world? How much do we have to wade through to get a kernel of what we're looking for? We complain, bitch and moan about critics, but the good ones filter some of the shit and saves us god awful time. Beside, some of the best fights are between critics; sometimes they're better than the "art" itself. Hard to draw the line.

[Mark Coker] - How important is it to you to reach an audience?

[Norman Savage] - All writers/artists want an audience. We're all "talking" to somebody, even if it's to ourselves. Even Emily Dickensen, not the most outgoing of gals, had this one guy who she was hot for. Her poems were directed toward him. In a way it's only to prove that we're not mad and all this breathing and pain was not a waste of time.

[Mark Coker] - What's the connection between diabetes and addiction in Junk Sick?

[Norman Savage] - I wrote Junk Sick after completing a heroin detox and then, faced with no job prospects, but living with a generous woman who loved me and was paying the rent, decided not to let all that I knew about diabetes and addiction, up until that point, go to waste. I knew that there was not a book that tackled the diabetes from an emotional perspective (there's still very little of that today). I did not want it to be a "how to" book or one that just gives a very clinical definition on how to cope with a chronic illness, psychopathology, or a new diet.

Diabetes implies deprivation, sacrifice. I was diagnosed at age 11, and for a kid, coming into and going through puberty, that's a high wire act without a net. I wanted the book to represent the chaos of growing up in a crazed Jewish family in Coney Island, coming down with a disease that no one was equipped to handle or cope with intelligently and, left to my own devices, how I managed to assuage the feeling of being "damaged." I thought that other people, diabetic or not, who try to cope with life's madness, could gain some insight as to what governs them and maybe, in one way or another, get some insight into how they're feeling and acting.

[Mark Coker] - In Junk Sick you write about how music, literature and art served as salves to calm your "crazy fascistic masochistic impulse of creation." What do you mean by that?

[Norman Savage] - It's scientifically and psychologically proven that when a person engages the arts--reading, writing, really listening to music or looking at a painting--our minds secrete a certain amount of endogenous opioids--the bodies natural morphine--to soothe the system. It is not something we're conscious of, but we do feel the effect. Why, we must ask, do we engage with those things if we derive no pleasure from them? We actively seek pleasure in our daily pursuit to avoid pain. Artists are no different, except that in their art, when it's going really well, those same hormones are triggered. Every artist at one time or another got in "the flow" and usually that's what they mean. Eugene O'Neill, that quintessential alcoholic expressed it this way, "Writing is a vacation from life."

But this is where it starts to get fucked-up. You can't be "in the flow" all the time. Shit, sometimes the gods are not good, the words don't come, the paint has no color, the sentences make no sense, the kid is crying, the wife needs to talk, or fuck, the water is stopped up, the landlord is screaming for his rent, the car has a flat, your tooth just broke, your shoelace snapped...

You know that in order to do this shit you need "time" but you never have enough of that--there's too much shit to do. So what do you do? You deny yourself pleasures. You don't do things that normal people do all the time: movies, TV, sex, companionship, food, etc. Now I'm not saying that you become a fucking monk, no, but that you try to give yourself enough time to try and let whatever art you have from whatever word gods sit on high to get through. So the artist is a bit "fascistic."

"Masochism" is, in a way, the flip-side of that: somewhere in your insanity you must enjoy whatever hell you're putting yourself through. There has to be some secondary gains. You do have some kind of hidden agenda that you're not aware of or copping to. And, of course, you do remember those times when the work was going good, even though your life was in the shitter. Those pockets of peace are worth a great deal of madness.

[Mark Coker] - Which authors or artists inspire you?

[Norman Savage] - All writers/artists are inspiring if they're not bullshit artists because even the bad ones you learn from. You know some of them are pretenders, phonies, fakes, frauds, but they give you some courage and anger to do it your way. But the few who've been where you have get you through some hard days and nights and others, especially at the beginning of your writing allow you to be who you never thought you were allowed to be or are. They opened up, dynamited, gone over and around, what was or wasn't there before: Hubert Selby, Jr, Jones/Baraka, Ginsberg, Eliot, Pound, Miller (Henry), Roth (Philip), Pynchon, Pound, Bukowski, Celine, Purdy, Hamsun, Morrison, Marquez, Crews and others, of course, many others. And, then, you got around to what the painters and musicians were doing and saw color and rhythm and tried to marry that, too. It's style, man. You create it; you swing to it. It's yours and yours alone. It can't be copied and it can't be faked. You just know it when you see it, hear it, or read it.

[Mark Coker] - What drives you to write?

[Norman Savage] - Mostly biology. It's not a big thing; it's much like pissing--when your bladder gets full, you just have to empty it because if you don't the whole goddamn system implodes. Toni Morrison said in one of her great novels, "Sula," "if a writer doesn't practice his craft, that craft will eventually turn against him." I don't know if I got the quote exact, but it's close enough. It is very difficult for me not to think a certain way, in a certain style, to a certain music. If I deny that--and I've tried to do it, sometimes for many years--I've usually wound up fucking myself.

I'm sure it's a selfish thing, too, bound up in ego and all manner of forces, some of which I know and others I have no idea about. I suppose, when it comes down to it, it's about "fucking" as well. I was always good with the women, but in the short term. Writing has most of the time satisfied my libidinal urges: striking hard at the keys, blasting letters onto a white sheet of paper, penetrating a canvas or the airwaves. And now, as my body betrays me, writing has not, my mind has not. The gods have certainly been gracious and have given me more than my right share.

[Mark Coker] - You write openly about your various addictions to a laundry list of legal and illegal drugs. Do you regret or treasure these experiences?

[Norman Savage] - "Regret" and "treasure" are two words that are not easily addressed. Each usually contains some of the other. It's like a woman saying she loves you and you are unable to respond, whether you love her or not. It's never that cut and dried. I know that people would like "simple" answers, but for them there will only be hard days and nights.

I "regret" wasting a lot of time tethered to a habit, but then again, I regret wasting a lot of time going into another ridiculous job. Alcohol and drugs opened up ways for me that were unsuspected, and they led me to other things that I wouldn't have come across without altering my normal sense of reality. They helped make sense out of things and provided different ways of seeing and experiencing, not necessarily all good.

But, as I've said earlier, there's a lot to be said for "bad" experiences, too. They are part of the whole, whatever the "whole" is or becomes. They have also fucked-up and altered certain relationships, and given others pain, that never did them or myself any good. But then, again, without them, I might have bitten the bullet before I had a chance to sort some of this out.

When I first started to experiment with drugs, I was lucky enough to be around some people, smarter than me, who used drugs as a tool and they taught me ways to work with various substances. For me, though, they finally became a way for escape, escape from what was really best in myself and, after losing what control I had, I had no way of returning to my previous state.

But, to answer your question, I do treasure many experiences--from making connections with things when alone and thinking, to experiences with others in the most common situations--and regret the dishonesty, to myself and others, that bordered my own particular cowardice and what fueled it.

[Mark Coker] - How is it that you're still alive after struggling with diabetes for 50 years and nearly continuous drug addiction for 45 of those years?

[Norman Savage] - Luck, brother. Never underestimate it. Yes, we work and plan and scheme and pray and think we're on top of our game, but dumb providence makes the difference in a great many respects. And fear, don't forget down home gut-wrenching fear; that will get your attention. My memoir makes clear just how helpful "luck" and "fear" were and are.

My genes, except for the "diabetic" one (if my disease wasn't psychosomatically orchestrated), are apparently good. Also, within my madness and mania, I never missed an insulin shot, ever. The doctor, who became my friend, and took care of me for a long time, was a past president of The American Diabetic Association, wasn't judgmental, and always was not only in my corner, but gave me other docs to sort out other ills.

Women were always far better to me than I was to them and kept me going long after I should have "stopped." I've been clean for a couple of years now and stopped on my own. I kicked junk three years ago by going into a looney bin and then coming out and getting on a public Buphenorphine program, then stopped going there after being clean for a year, and stopped drinking two years ago because I wanted to.

I do not like the word "recovered" or "recovering." I used to go to a lot of AA meetings and never liked all the hand-holding, sharing and higher power kind of thing, but I did like, and needed, the social lubricant. But I stopped going at a certain point. What exactly am I recovering from? Desire? How the hell can you recover (and why would you want to?) from "desire?"

People drink or drug because there is an absence inside us, and we "desire" to fill that absence. We fill it with drink, drug, sex, others, TV, gambling, eating, working, or praying. But that kind of desire remains, always. Usually it's the misguided desire for the other: mother or father. And that "other" is dressed in drag, disguised. It's finally false and utterly impossible to reproduce. But we still search.

I believe, it's only when you try to come to grips with that that you get on with it and go on. There was a huge study done by NIAAA comparing what mode of "therapy" worked best for the drug addict/alcoholic. They compared AA, therapy, and pharmacological interventions. Each of them were dismally inefficient. Most people who do stop using alcohol and/or drugs and who were really addicted (not those fakers who go on TV or to meetings wanting to meet people and get laid, published or "networked"), do so by "spontaneous remission." They just decide one day that they'd had enough and quit. Quietly.

[Mark Coker] - What's your day job? What are some of the other jobs you've held over your lifetime?

[Norman Savage] - I'd rather not mention my day job. It's legit and it's hard, but it suits my purposes. Aside from being a bartender from time to time and before I had four toes amputated, I was a non-profit whore. Whoever wanted me, I lifted my skirts for. I taught, wrote grants, counseled kids and adults in alcohol and drug treatment settings, taught nurses and interns about diabetic management and skills (circa, 1984), drove taxi', worked supermarkets, administered grants in major medical institutions, and worked with kids who had ADD & ADHD.

[Mark Coker] - When I asked you for ten things about you, you listed, "the impossibility of not lying." Do truth and fiction blur to you? Is your memoir truth, fiction, or both?

[Norman Savage] - Yes, "words" are a construct. They're made up. It's like trying to tell someone your dream. Yes, you can almost, almost describe it, but you can never quite get the colors right, the texture right, you can never really say what you mean. Some, of course, are much better at getting at the right word than others, but, brother, that takes a whole lot of work. "Words," too, are straightjacketed; they strain and crack under the weight of too many tongues.

I try to get it right, at least as "right" as I know it, but I'm sure if other interested parties were to describe the same experience they had with me they'd remember it, see it, and word it in other ways. Truth and fiction indeed do blur. My friend, Jack, calls it "friction." Melville, too, in his great work, "Billy Budd," (or was it "Benito Cereno"?) says this about the rainbow: how can you really tell where the blue ends and the orange begins, and then to red, to green, to yellow, to fuscia, to purple, to gold? How do you really tease those things out?

My memoir is as close to "truth" as I know it for me. I did not make-up or fabricate any of it; I didn't have to. Dizzy Dean, a once great baseball pitcher, once famously remarked: "It ain't bragging if I done it." Other people would disagree with some or all of it. That's O.K. Let them write one of their own with their own take on things. What is always fiction is how I put the words together; one word, one sentence after the next. In that respect, it's entirely up to me.

[Mark Coker] - Have you been truthful in this interview?

[Norman Savage] - Yes. Today. But as this cat Zizek said, "I'd rather be inconsistent, than inconsequential." If I learn of something that makes more sense to me, then I'd be a fool not to entertain that.

[Mark Coker] - What do you want written on your epitaph?

[Norman Savage] - There's a writer who I'd admired long before I came to correspond with him briefly, Harry Crews. There's something he said that I'd like on my gravestone. And, Mark, since I don't know many people these days, maybe you'd be so kind? Here's what I'd like on the rock: "I never wanted to be well-rounded, and I do not admire well-rounded people nor their work. So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design." I want to leave a stain, Mark, I want it to say that I was here and lived it through.

[Mark Coker] - Thanks Norman!


Where to buy Junk Sick:

Junk Sick: Confessions of an Uncontrolled Diabetic is available at Smashwords for $2.99 as a multi-format, DRM-free ebook. Visit

To learn more about Norman Savage, visit his Smashwords author page at

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tools of Change Conference Notes

I just returned late last night from the O'Reilly Media Tools of Change conference in New York City. This was my third year at the conference. The first year I attended as a reporter for VentureBeat, and then these past two times as a speaker.

For the benefit of those of you who didn't attend, I'll share some of my personal highlights, in no particular order:

Twitter Forever Changes the Conference Experience - Thanks to Twitter, conferences will never be the same. For every session of the three day conference, hundreds of TOC attendees were Twittering real time quotes, analysis and conversation. I found myself monitoring the Twitterstream (check it out here) as I listened to the speakers, and it added another interesting (though distracting!) perspective on the conference. Twitterers held nothing back. If the speaker started giving a sales pitch, or made questionable statements, the Twitterers were merciless. If the speaker said something interesting (or not), Twitterers would tweet it and then that would cause a cascade of retweets. For three days straight, TOC was in the top five most discussed subjects on Twitter. Thousands, if not millions, of people who weren't at the conference were getting a taste of the not only what was happening but what people thought about what was happening. Many of the Twitterstream participants weren't even at the conference. One of the most profuse and entertaining Twitterers on the TOC Twitterstream - and he wasn't at the conference - was Mike Cane (@mikecane for you Twitterers), a self-described "ebook militant" and writer who lives near Staten Island. Twitterers from around the world tweeted their friends at the conference and had them convey questions to the presenters.

At one great panel on social media in publishing, moderated by Ron Hogan (@ronhogan for you Twitterers) of MediaBistro/GalleyCat, Ron actually introduced his panelists by their Twitter handles. Is Twitter going to become a secondary form of identity? I think yes. I think it'll also forever change the dynamic between conference presenters, attendees and wannabee attendees.

At some points, the Twitter echo-chamber reached heretofore unknown limits of, well, echo-chamberness. During the Blogging and Social Media Workshop led by social media guru Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan) who told attendees he considers Twitter the new phone, session attendee Chad Capellman (@chadrem) uploaded a YouTube video of Chris speaking. When Chad told Chris about it, Chris logged on to YouTube and the audience watched Chris watch a big screen projection of the Chris video taken minutes earlier, and then Chad or some other attendee joked they could take and upload a new video of this special moment as Chris watched a video of himself that we could all then watch.

Several times during his three hour workshop, Chris checked the Twitterstream to gauge audience impressions of his live performance. At one point after he walked on stage drinking from what looked like a beer bottle, Susan Danzinger (@susandanziger) of DailyLit tweeted she thought Chris was drinking a beer onstage, then yours truly (@markcoker) retweeted it because I was wondering the same, then Kat Meyer (@katmeyer) set the record straight, as did Chris when he saw the tweetstream on the big stage monitor.

Twittering while watching Twitter while listening to and participating in a conference while the presenter talks about Twitter and is the subject of a Twitterstream while he himself Twitters makes for a very surreal experience.

Peter Brantley on Literature as a Driver for Services - Peter Brantley directs the Digital Library Federation, and he's one of my favorite thinkers about the future of the books, and about the sacred place books occupy in culture. In a keynote address, Peter challenged the audience of publishers to consider how moving books from print to digital can change the nature of reading, and how the move to digital can open up new business opportunities for publishers. "What's published will be less about the book and more about the people who read them," he said. He talked about how books will become networked and empower more participatory methods of reading.

Cory Doctorow Eviscerates DRM - In a keynote, author Cory Doctorow (@coreydoctorow) had the audience in rapt attention as he proceeded to disembowel Amazon and all those who would seek to perpetuate the short-sighted practice of DRM. He challenged publishers to step up to the plate and demand Amazon accept their ebook files DRM-free. If anyone knows where I can find a transcript of his talk, let me know so I can link to it here.

Chris Baty of Nanowrimo Says Authorship has Bright Future - One of my favorite presentations came from Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, which just completed its tenth year of operation. Although Steve Jobs says people don't read books anymore, Chris made clear that you can't stop writers from writing, and for this reason alone books face a bright future because the process of writing helps writers appreciate books. "Novels are not written by novelists," he said, "novels are written by everyday people who give themselves permission to write novels." At least one Nanowrimo participant has landed on the New York Times Bestseller lists, and several have earned book deals. The international Nanowrimo challenge has grown from only 21 participants in its first year, 1998, to 119,000 participants in 2008. Chris spoke at length about how the success of Nanowrimo has been driven by the powerful community that develops between writers as they share the deeply emotional experience of "meeting the book inside them."

The Rise of Ebooks - Ebooks were a big theme of the conference. The first year of the conference in 2007, there were maybe one or two ebook-themed sessions. Last year there were maybe three or four. This year, ebooks reigned supreme with at least ten sessions squarely focused on ebooks and with most of the other sessions touching on related themes. I moderated the "Rise of Ebooks" session. I admit, I'm biased, because I think my panelists (Joe Wikert of O'Reilly Media; indie author advocate and Publetariat founder April Hamilton; David Rothman of Teleread; and Russ Wilcox of E-Ink) did a kick *ss job of surfacing and debating some of the most interesting trends facing ebooks today. We covered a lot of ground in just 45 minutes, including:

  1. What's driving the rapid sales growth of ebooks? (Answers: better screen display technology; availability of more titles; Oprah; lower prices; e-reading becoming as, or more, pleasurable than print; DRM starting to slip away)
  2. How long until ebooks go mainstream? (Russ predicted 2-3 percent of American households will own a dedicated e-reading device in the next 18 months [this is huge, and even if he's off by half, it's still huge], and most of the panelists agreed the ebook market will be dramatically larger in the next couple years.
  3. Screen technologies, present and future (screens will get faster, cheaper, better color, different sizes)
  4. Print vs. ebook, complementary or competitive? (most concluded they're complementary, though I don't think we'll know if they're a net positive or net negative for a few years - I suspect the latter)
  5. Supply chain implications for ebook intermediaries (new supply chain models forming, may not look exactly like print model; publishers and authors likely to get closer to consumers)
  6. Rich media ebooks, integrating video, audio, sensory feedback such as vibrations (lots of interesting stuff happening; a worthwhile opportunity to leverage traditional "book" content to offer readers a more engaging experience)

Artist Nina Paley Argues, "Give Away the Content, Sell the Containers." - Artist Nina Paley closed out the conference with a thought provoking talk in which she argued that artists and writers should give their content away for free but sell the packages that add value to their content. For example, she argued, water is free from the tap or filter, yet people will pay for water in a bottle for the benefit of the packaging, the brand, and the perceived benefits of that bottle or brand. Customers will pay for free content that is packaged in such as way that it adds value to the consumption of the content. She showed a trailer for her new animated feature film, "Sita Sings the Blues," which she plans to make available online for free. She plans to make money (and pay off the debts incurred to make the movie) by selling the film to theaters, and by allowing publishers to publish coffee table books of the movie and its art. She also plans to sell value-added packaged versions of the movie, such as the limited edition DVDs she sold at the conference (Corey Doctorow was the first buyer).

Amazon Announces the Kindle 2 - Amazon tried to steal some of the thunder of the conference by choosing to announce the Kindle 2 a few blocks away on the first day of the conference. Amazon, however, was conspicuously absent from the conference. While attendees generally praised the new device for it's faster screen refreshes (enabled by new E-Ink technology) and improved user interface design, as mentioned above in Cory Doctorow's keynote and repeated by other keynoters, presenters and conference-goers, Amazon was ridiculed throughout the conference for its adherence to DRM on the Kindle.

Download O'Reilly's Free "Best of TOC" Ebook - There was a ton more of interesting opinions and news from the conference, and I couldn't possibly capture it all here. O'Reilly put together a good ebook (it's free) that captures the best of the show (its only big omission is it doesn't mention the Rise of Ebooks panel!) you can download it as long as you don't mind jumping through all the convoluted hoops necessary to register for, and "purchase" the free ebook. Check it out here:

Watch TOC Videos - O'Reilly has created an online archieve of some of the videos from TOC 2009 and prior years you can access here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Exclusive: Dan Poynter on the Future of Books

It takes courage to write a book. It takes even more courage to blaze your path as an indie author.

Dan Poynter, the subject of this exclusive interview, has singlehandedly inspired thousands of authors to self-publish. Along the way, he has sold tens of millions of dollars of his books on subjects ranging from skydiving to self-publishing. Dan is perhaps best known as the author of the Self- Publishing Manual, the best-selling guide to indie authorship, published continuously for the last 30 years.

This week, Dan published on Smashwords the new sequel to the book, the Self-Publishing Manual Volume 2, which covers the latest technologies and techniques for book publishing and promotion. The book is so brand spanking new it won't be available in print anywhere for another two weeks. Smashwords is also the first digital publisher and online bookstore to carry the ebook.

Dan was advocating self-publishing long before it was fashionable, so no doubt he's pleased to see the world finally catch up with him. But where to next? In our exclusive interview, conducted today via email, Dan speaks about the past, present and future of indie publishing.

[Mark Coker] - Last year, Writer's Digest Magazine referred to you as the godfather of self publishing. Your books have sold millions of copies. For the benefit of indie authors everywhere, what's the secret to building a successful career in self-publishing?

[Dan Poynter] - Write what you love and sell to your colleagues. This could be the definition of social networking for books. Go where your heart is. Write about your favorite subject: The one that gets you so excited, you wake at four in the morning to find your eyes are wide open and your head is spinning with ideas. You are so jazzed, you can't sleep. So, you get up and head for the keyboard. I started with books on parachutes and skydiving. Sell your book to people who have an interest in your subject. They are easy to find with online searches and social media. I've been self-publishing since 1969. Because many publishers approached me for my secret for selling so many books, I wrote and published The Self-Publishing Manual in 1979. It has been through 16 revisions and 20 printings since. I just published a volume 2 which describes using social networking to gather information and to promote the finished book. My books, speaking and coaching have launched thousands of books. That sort of makes me a godfather - many times over.

[Mark Coker] - What do you make of the turmoil we're seeing in publishing today? What will the industry look like in two, three or five years, and what are the implications for authors?

[Dan Poynter] - Changes. And the changes are long overdue. The large six publishers in New York have not altered their business plans since 1947. The downturn in the economy did not cause their problems but economics are making them reexamine the ways they do business. Brick-and-mortar store sales are decreasing. Online sales are increasing. We will see smaller advances, the elimination of returns, the abolishment of the three annual selling seasons and the proliferation of eBooks. pBook (paper) sales are decreasing. eBook sales are increasing. With change comes opportunity. The 86,000 self-publishers in the U.S. are prepared because they are closer to their subject than a large publisher and, being more nimble, are quicker to adapt to trends, conditions and changes. It takes a large publisher 18 months from manuscript to shelf. Smashwords can get your book out at the speed of light.

[Mark Coker] - What role will eBooks play in helping to launch and sustain the careers of authors?

[Dan Poynter] - We still hear people say they like the look and feel of a paper book. They will get over it. (: I do not know of one of these detractors who has actually read an eBook. They may have glanced at a page but they have not tested the concept. I have been publishing eReports and eBooks since 1996. Because I fly more than 6,000 miles/week, I read a lot of eBooks (mostly historical fiction). So we can argue about what the customer wants but the deciding factor will be economics. pBooks cost too much. Their list prices are higher and their actual costs are much higher when you consider printing, trucking, inventorying, processing the order, picking, packing, licking, sticking, wrapping and shipping. eBooks require little or none of these and Smashwords takes care of the delivery, billing, paying and customer service.

[Mark Coker] - You write about the importance of authors taking personal responsibility for their own marketing, yet you note that most writers are introverts. How can indie authors reconcile the two?

[Dan Poynter] - The challenge is not that most writers are introverts (like me), it is that most writers believe that the only way to promote books is with public appearances: radio, TV and autographings. As a result, they do nothing at all. Whether you sell out to a large (NY) publisher or publish yourself, the author must do the promotion. Publishers do not promote books. Ask anyone who has landed a book contract. People purchase nonfiction to learn something or to solve a problem. Book promotion is simply letting people interested in the subject know that you have a book. Social networking is the ideal way for authors to promote their books. You can get the word out while discussing your favorite subject with colleagues all over the world. BTW, social networking has been around since the campfire. It is simply discussing your favorite subject with your friends. Today we have social media. We can reach our colleagues via the Internet and mobile phone systems. People anywhere in the world can join the campfire.

[Mark Coker] - Chris Anderson, author of the Long Tail, gives authors hope they can achieve success in niche markets. Yet his forthcoming book, Free, advocates pricing some digital goods at zero. How do authors compete against free, or should they even try? And how should authors approach pricing in this environment where there are free alternatives to nearly everything that is paid?

[Dan Poynter] - Chris Anderson is selling magazines and probably gets paid for speeches and consulting. Free eBooks can bring attention to the author and the author's other services. That said, there are many case studies of authors giving away their eBook only to find that this promotion increases the sales of their pBook. It seems that downloading an eBook is similar to a brick-and-mortar bookstore shopping experience. The shopper sees the title, "reaches" for the book, looks at the front cover, reads the description of the contents on the back cover, opens the book to review the contents and then makes a buying decision. Chris Anderson is right and "The Long Tail" confirms what I have been doing for 40 years. I started with a line of books on parachutes & skydiving. I sell these into the parachute industry. Reaching my colleagues is easy with social networking. I am currently at the International Parachute Symposium in Reno. We expect nearly 1,000 industry people from 32 countries. It will be easy to sell individual books and to make new dealers.

[Mark Coker] - Thanks Dan!

Be the first to own the first edition of Dan Poynter's new Self Publishing Manual Volume 2 by purchasing it now on Smashwords.

To learn more about Dan Poynter, visit his Smashwords Author Page or visit his publishing company, Para Publishing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Publetariat: New Community for Indie Authors

Author April Hamilton, a long time friend of Smashwords and advocate for indie authors, has launched Publetariat, a new online community for self-published authors. Check it out and get involved.

April thinks it's time the word "indie" carry the same street cred for authors as it does for indie musicians and filmmakers. It's a goal I share as well.

While other online communities such as AbsoluteWrite serve authors who aspire to go the mainstream publishing route, Publetariat will serve authors who aspire to remain indie.

From the Publetariat site:

Why Publetariat?

The indie author tide is rising. Every day there are new stories of authors taking their careers into their own hands and choosing, not resorting to, self-publication and forming their own imprints.

Even the struggling titans of the mainstream publishing industry can't ignore it anymore. There's an increasing level of genuine interest in, and respect for, self-publishing and small, independent imprints on websites and in publications that would've sneered at the very idea a decade ago. For far too long, indie authors and small imprints have fought an uphill battle against an industry and a community of writers determined to marginalize us and our efforts. Now, as indie authorship stands poised to become the 'next big thing' in publishing, our time has come at last.

Several indie authors and indie author advocates, myself included, are supporting the project:

Bill Aicher - author

Alan Baxter - Blade Red Press

Mark Coker - Smashwords

Nick Daws - freelance writer/consultant

April L. Hamilton - author

Jude Johnson - Scorched Hawk Press

Kallysten - Alinar Publishing

Hugh McGuire - Bookoven, Librivox, earideas &

Joanna Penn - The Creative Penn

Dana Lynn Smith - The Book Marketing Maven

Joshua Tallent -

Zoe Winters - author

Visit Publetariat today at

If you're attending the Tools of Change Conference next week in New York, I invite you to attend the panel I'm moderating Tuesday titled "The Rise of ebooks." April is one of our distinguished panelists.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Smashwords an Official Sponsor of Read an E-Book Week March 8-14

Smashwords today announced its official sponsorship of Read an E-Book Week, to be held March 8-14. I encourage readers of this blog to get involved at a local level by hosting ebook read-ins and ebook device demonstrations at schools, libraries, bookstores and coffee shops.

At Smashwords, we're going to work with our authors to create special ebook promotions during the week, including free books and discounted books. Stay tuned.

From the press release:
"The mission of Read an E-Book Week is to raise international awareness about the benefits of ebooks to authors, readers, educators and the media," said Rita Toews, founder of the non-profit event. "As a sponsor of the event, Smashwords will help promote the initiative, and will work with its authors to develop special Smashwords book promotions during the week."

Digital reading is on the upswing. According the IDPF, ebook sales in the United States grew 108 percent year over year for the month of November alone. The dramatic sales increase came despite weak overall book industry sales (for in-depth analysis, see our previous post on the rise of ebook sales).

"We're pleased to sponsor and endorse Read an E-Book Week," said Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. "We hope to introduce thousands of new readers and authors to the joys of ebooks. Thanks to advances in e-reading devices such as the iPhone+Stanza, the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, electronic reading is often more enjoyable than paper reading. Once book lovers try ebooks, they're hooked."

Click here to read the rest of the press release.

Click here to visit the web site for Read an E-Book Week, and to learn how you can get involved.