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Terra Firma: Trinity University Press blog

Meet the Intern: Reagan Herzog

by Reagan Herzog on

Hi! I’m Reagan Herzog, and I’m the newest marketing intern here at TU Press.

Anyone who knows me will not find it very surprising that I ended up working somewhere surrounded by favorite thing, books! Ever since I learned to read, it has been nearly impossible for me to stop. In school I read at recess and lunch, and I even got in trouble multiple times for reading my own books instead of listening to the teacher (which isquite possiblythe tamest thing to get in trouble for).

As I've gotten older, there’s less and less time for recreational reading, although I’m still guilty of neglecting my responsibilities every once in a while for a good book. However, working at TU Press gives me a whole new way to surround myself with books. I may not be getting paid to just read books recreationally all day (if that job exists, someone let me know, because that’s my dream), but I do get to discover a whole new side to books and the publishing process. I already know that I’m passionate about books, but working at TU Press allows me to explore other interests of mine, including marketing and social media.

When I’m not here at TU Press you can probably find me working with my service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, studying, or watching Netflix (The Office!).

I am so excited to be working here, and I can’t wait to see what experiences and opportunities I’ll have this year!

Necessity of Disruption

by Tom Payton on

I have a confession: I’m a publishing geek. Many a Saturday night is spent at a coffee shop studying the latest stats on book buying patterns and consumer reading. I consider myself lucky, though; after twenty-six years in the business, I can say I’ve never been more challenged but also excited about the future of books.

I recall my dad’s advice from decades ago, when I was having a moment of teen angst: “Consider yourself lucky if you get what you want in life. Be happy if you get what you want, even if you don’t get it in the ways or in the order you expected.”

That describes much of the book business right now. In other words, from a publisher’s perspective, be careful what you wish for, and know what to do with it when you get it.

It sounds crazy. Be careful what you wish for? Some writers would say that being an author is harder than ever, is in chaos or changing in ways they don’t like.

Every author should ask themselves what they wish for. To be successful? But is success defined as simply getting published, or achieving bestseller status, or in some other way?

I’m interested in the state of the book from three different but related perspectives: the culture of and need for disruption, how we define books today, and our need to focus more on reading and less on books.

You’ve probably heard that we live in an age of disruption. Some don’t know what this means, and others consider it a fad or technology jargon of no relevance to them.

There is change, there is invention, and then there is disruption.

Examples of change in the book business might be the mid-twentieth-century emergence of niche genres like romance or science fiction or chain stores’ impact on the shifting retail model in the 1990s. Examples of invention might be improved printing technology enabling great expansion of the business, the creation of Amazon built on new online capabilities, or the reemergence of ebooks in 2009.

Disruption turns things upside down or inside out, realigning traditional ways of doing things. Sometimes disruption is born of necessity or even survival, and at other times it’s born of perceived opportunity, leading to expansion of profit, audience size, and meaningful engagement, interaction, and even social change.

We need disruption in the book business now more than ever. In some small ways it has already begun, but just barely.

Disruption is ubiquitous in our economic, social, and cultural life, even when we don’t see it. Businesses, industries, and cultural organizations are facing revolutionary changes in how they do what they do, and they face great opportunity if they’re smart about how they do it.

All of this, of course, is rooted in the ways our lives have become digitally driven. I’m not talking about the latest app or website. Disruption runs far deeper.

A core social disruption has been a fundamental shift in how we’re influenced to discover, consume, and engage with the world. This trend has been unfolding for decades, but the spark of digital technology ignited it.

Relative to books, it has become clear that the traditional newspaper, magazine, radio, or television coverage that used to sell books really does not anymore—especially the traditional book review. I’m sorry to say this.

The idea of the critic as authority simply does not carry the same weight with the consumers today. We’re past the tipping point in the social shift to influence based on social interaction. It permeates everything from what shampoo we use to what we do, or read, for entertainment. The disregard for traditional authority can especially be seen in the political arena.

The digital age has fueled a renewed drive to connect with one another, removing “middlemen” when possible—or so it seems, though their profitable presence is still there. While social media and marketing models may aid us in meeting face-to-face, they have also created virtual relationships and communities that many dismiss as “less than.” I believe otherwise.

Consider a few examples of obvious, large yet individually scaled disruptions:

Social media. Facebook has more than a billion users and $17 billion in revenue. It, and others like Instagram and Snapchat, have changed how we interact, share, market, and impact social change. When successfully employed, Facebook has become an extremely effective marketing platform for books and authors. In a major study of so-called “power readers,” 89 percent reported learning of their “next read” via social media—not the newspaper or radio but what their friends told them to read.

Crowdsourcing. The fundraising world is being reshaped by crowdsourcing, which has grown exponentially to represent more than $5 billion a year in the United States and has unleashed the power for each of us to fundraise by appealing more efficiently to large networks of friends and colleagues while allowing small donations to add up to major impact.

Ridesharing. Today the ridesharing concept, which did not exist four years ago, represents more than $2 billion of the local individual transportation economy, with Uber and Lyft together claiming more drivers than the entire taxi industry.

Lodging. Now eight years old, Airbnb lists more than 1.5 million private home lodgings in 34,000 cities, posting $1 billion in revenue last year. It’s just one of many players jumping into this new lodging model.

Online retail. One of the original disruptors in a new 1990s Internet age, eBay showed us that selling peer-to-peer was destined to become a core part of the consumer-empowered economy. Hitting a peak $16 billion in revenue, eBay is down to $8 billion today amid explosive growth in alternative peer-to-peer online retail, including Amazon.

None of this is to suggest that peer-to-peer is new. We’re social creatures and have been renting rooms, offering rides, and swapping book recommendations forever. But the technology has enabled the formulation of those social experiences into business models with both a substantive and superficial sense of authenticity, attracting unprecedented business growth, capital investment, and profit.

Of course, most business models operate on relatively thin margins, usually less than 10 percent. Impact that business in an ongoing way and you threaten established business models and perhaps an entire industry. This is why brick-and-mortar retail, hotel, taxi, journalism, music, and other industries are powerfully impacted, facing major reinvestment and structural change in order to survive. And established industries are resistant and slow to change—just look at the book business.

Four core by-products of this seismic disruption are here to stay and directly relevant to what we love—books.

The social element. The digital age has given us tools of great scale and reach at minimal cost. It should be no surprise that people like the way it feels, and even feel energized by it. And this social element is what books are all about. We can embrace it and even redefine it.

An age of consumer empowerment. The digital age has produced a consumer culture with more product options and competitive pricing, and people are beginning to recognize their power. Consumer reading and consumption patterns will drive our industry in ways that undermine our traditional business models, but it doesn’t have to be that way for those on the publisher side of the equation.

An expanded sense of community. The data-driven age has given us the opportunity to identify, analyze, and build relationships directly with readers. Companies at every scale, including book publishers, are refocusing their marketing departments on building in-person and online communities with specialized niche strategies for direct engagement and reader retention.

A redefinition of authenticity of experience. The digital age has, oddly, created new models for sharing meaningful experiences. For books and authors, this means authors must engage socially beyond what might normally be considered marketing and must create supplemental content to give readers a broader experience and sense of relationship.

***

It’s worthwhile to ask what a book is in the minds of many readers today.

Clearly the book’s fundamental element is the written word, which is critical to recording our history, teaching, telling stories, documenting how to live, and celebrating and entertaining. But that does not preclude changes in the product—the book—as well as its marketing and how we define reader engagement.

Some describe a book in experiential terms—an immersive reading experience with a beginning and end. Is it a book because of a certain editorial style, written structure, or word count? Others describe a book in terms of packaging—printed on paper, bound between boards, made available or distributed in certain ways. But if packaging defines a book, are ebooks not books?

One could argue that the earliest written cave communications or glyphed transcriptions on papyrus rolls were books. Medieval times saw books as manuscripts hand-copied by monks, with a literate population of less than 1 percent. The Gutenberg press and movable type quickly advanced mechanical production of books in the premodern era, fueling literacy rates of 30 to 40 percent. Our modern age has driven mass production, book distribution, and world literacy rates of 70 to 99 percent.

As book people, what we’re about at our core is the written word, not books per se.

At a presentation I recently attended, the speaker argued that the evolutionary stages of the written word are the creation of writing itself, the mechanization of writing or invention of movable type, and the digitization of writing, or hypertext. Each stage is essentially disruption on a massive scale, radically changing the product, the user experience, and the social impact.

Consider the following.

  • There was a time when publishers controlled which books were published. Today the economics of short-run print-on-demand and other digital solutions make many options viable.

  • The once dominant big publishers now produce a shrinking fraction of what is sold, about 35 percent of books published. Self-publishing, in turn, has grown to 20 percent of the overall market, a majority of which is ebooks. There are so many business models and pathways to publishing today that market access is no longer a barrier.

  • After a brief appearance in the late 1990s, the ebook came back strong a decade later, and today it represents about 30 percent of the overall market, ranging from 20 percent for some genres (such as academic books) to 50 percent for fiction and more than 80 percent in other genres. Despite these market shares, big publishers control just 20 percent of the ebook market. Ultra-small press and self-publishing defines much of the remainder.

  • There was a time when almost all books were sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Today about 40 percent of books are bought in bookstores and 41 percent are bought online.

  • There was a time when the number of books published was quite limited, and access to them through bookstores was even more limited. Today more than 1 million books are published annually in the United States and Google reports more than 129 million books published overall.

  • There was a time when books did not fully represent the cultural diversity of the human experience. Though improvement is still needed, today the range of the human experience is documented and more widely available.

This is all revolutionary and recent change.

Some still ask if book sales are down. This begs honest assessment.

  • Gross book unit sales in general are down slightly but far less than much of the general public believes them to be—down overall by 30 percent, higher in some genres.

  • Gross book dollar sales and profit margins have been more seriously impacted given demand for lower consumer price pressures, high book component (paper) costs, and a culture of retail discounting as the norm.

  • Ebook sales, around 30 percent of the market, conceivably make up for some loss in print, but the differences in product economics and profit margins drive lower net dollar volume.

Are print books better than digital, publishers and authors ask. Should books be bought in brick-and-mortar stores or online? Which genres are most worthy of attention?

If we’re honest, the debate is a waste of time and resources. We’re ignoring more concerning trends and avoiding decisions about strategies in our immediate best interests—both writers and publishers.

What we do depends on a literate and engaged reading public, but there are realities about our reading culture that we do not honestly embrace, potentially at our own demise. For example,

  • the population overall is reading fewer books

  • almost one-third of the population does not read one book in a year, up from less than 10 percent over the past three decades

  • we read less immersively, and the time we spend reading books has decreased 20 percent over the past fifteen years to less than twenty minutes a day on average

  • reading is increasingly defined by income and education level

Let’s take a moment to dispel some myths and share some highlights.

  • The number of books read annually by those labeled millennial curiously read on average the same number of books a year today (9) as they did prior to the age of digital distraction. 80 percent of millennials report reading books in the last year, higher than the overall population.

  • 72 percent of the general population reads books, but only 20 percent are so-called power readers who read at least one book a month.

  • Those in suburban areas read slightly fewer books a year (11) than those in urban and rural areas (13 and 14 respectively).

  • African Americans and whites read the same number of books a year on average; Hispanics lag by approximately 40 percent.

  • Gender continues to be a defining issue in book sales and reading, with 77 percent of women and 67 percent of men reading books; men read ebooks at a higher than expected rate, likely due to the privacy this offers.

I started off by saying be careful what you wish for.

Perhaps we publishers and authors are our own worst enemy, asking the wrong questions, maybe even publishing the wrong way. People read differently today, and that will not change. They discover what to read in ways that do not align with how publishers spend time and money marketing, and that will not change. They move from print to screen and back again, and that will not change.

Why are publishers wed to a limited plate of retail and distribution models, with minute geographic availability? Is our failure to provide a more meaningful experience beyond the book, to expand our audience and market, to transform how we help customers find our books—part of the problem?

We say that the pie of readership is limited, that we’re stuck fighting over larger and smaller pieces of that pie. We complain that there is no data to tell us which marketing strategies drive book sales.

But in a digital age we can access the data to know our customers and build relationships with them. We’re able to sell direct and control our own retail, format, and pricing. We can craft targeted campaigns to build communities around our editorial niches or author “brands.” I could go on. My point is the readership pie is capable of growing.

Our industry needs disruption!

Despite corporate attempts to control the Internet, this is an age of digital democratization. Our goal should be to ensure that people engage with what we write and publish. If we’re sincere in that, once the writing is done our job is to make sure the work is available whenever readers want it, wherever they are, however they want to read it. (Yes, all while addressing issues of intellectual property protection and piracy.) This means being better students of where readers hang out and how to find them.

At our core, we are in the word business—that is, the written word business. Ultimately, how the text is edited, crafted, published, packaged, priced, and promoted may matter to us, but much of that is no longer under our control or doesn’t matter to consumers. We must be package, platform, publicity, and sales agnostic.

If people read, books will be fine. If people are reading less, then no discussion we can have will fundamentally “save” books.

We all need to begin a fundamentally disruptive discussion about how to rejuvenate a reading culture. We need to redirect much of our energy toward expanding reading and literacy. That is the true critical challenge.

If we can disrupt in these areas, books—however they are defined and whoever defines them—will be just fine.

​Historic Effort Between Trinity and Monte Vista

by Tom Payton on

Recently TU Press author Susan Toomey Frost (Colors On Clay: The San José Tile Workshops of San Antonio) staged a fundraiser to restore a historic planter in the Landa Gardens in San Antonio's Monte Vista neighborhood. More than a hundred people participated in event, which included a glorious enchilada dinner and lecture on the South Texas and Mexican decorative tile traditions and a walking tour of homes featuring these internationally acclaimed works. 

The team surpassed its fundraising goal, and restoration of the garden planter will begin shortly. It was a perfect example of collaboration among community groups and nonprofit organizations. TU Press was proud be part of this effort in the neighborhood we call home. Read more. (photo by David Smith)

 

Gemini Ink Conference

by Alexandra Vandekamp on

Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s center for the literary arts, launched its inaugural Writers Conference July 21–34 at the historic El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel. The conference, whose focus was the state of the book, created a space for more than 170 writers and readers at all levels to engage in a dynamic, multicultural conversation with authors from around the country.  

Attendees could take workshops with five master writers in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; choose from twenty-seven panels; browse a small press book fair; and attend evening readings and after-parties. The rich array of panels addressed everything from trade paperbacks and e-books to the genre-bending world of contemporary nonfiction and the cutting edge of LGBTQ literature.

The conference kicked off Thursday evening with a reception at El Tropicano featuring a performance by San Antonio spoken word poet Rooster Martinez. Friday’s keynote address by Tom Payton, director of Trinity University Press, laid the groundwork for a stimulating discussion on what the book is and might become.

Gemini Ink was thrilled to host visiting writers Tim Seibles, the new poet laureate of Virginia; Janet Kaplan, an award-winning New York poet; novelist and memoirist Reyna Grande, from Los Angeles; Tim Z. Hernandez, a performance poet and historical novelist; and John Phillip Santos, the first Mexican American Rhodes Scholar. Each writer taught a three-hour intensive workshop with practical advice and new sources of inspiration for writing.

Free evening events included readings by visiting and local authors and music with DJ Rynel on Friday at Viva Tacoland, an open-air lounge along the River Walk; and an author event Saturday evening with Rynel at the Southwest School of Art.

The conference had an inclusive, fun, creative, and relaxed vibe and offered a wonderful opportunity for writers to network, make new literary friends, and gain stimulating new ideas for their work. We’re excited to do it all over again next year.

Alexandra Vandekamp is a writer and the Creative Writing Classes Program Director of Gemini Ink.


Athabaskan

by Tom Payton on

I just returned from a seventeen-day trip to Alaska, the longest vacation I’ve taken in more than a decade. Throughout the trip I found myself reflecting about my life in the book business. Like many booksellers-turned-publishers, I have always believed passionately in the importance of books to culture, both broadly and personally.

One such reflection came to me as I hiked in Denali National Park. It took more than four hours to get close to Denali and view the 20,000-foot summit, which plays games with your mind and eyes. The glistening ice block set amid snowcapped, lush green mountains is a study in extreme contrast. When the winds from the west strike the ice, this highest point in North America jumps from sunlight into snow through clouds of its own making. In one turn it is gone, and in another it overwhelms. Seemingly close, you learn you are still ten miles away. Size and vastness quickly become relative ideas.

Later in the day, during a hike along the Savage River trail below the alpine trail I’d just climbed, I stopped by the water to take a break. To my right, seagulls, now hundreds of miles inland, sat on their eggs burrowed in a rocky sandbar. I wondered about their perilous nest placement in a river one rainstorm away from loss of life. But such storms are unusual at this time of year, and they know that.

To the left, on a sandbar thirty feet away, two young caribou with velvet antlers lazed, one asleep and the other looking intently downstream. The thirty-four-degree waters were ready for the king salmon to return, all framed by rocky mountains dotted with slow-moving white Dall sheep. Mesmerized by the water bouncing off the rocks, I noticed a large bird soaring overhead, too fast for me to see what it was—a falcon, perhaps. I’m content not needing to know.

It was a perfect moment, one when I remembered that there are far more questions in life than answers. All was in balance in an otherwise out-of-balance world, one in which I was a visitor grateful for the invitation to intrude.

Shakespeare’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” entered my mind. “Thoughts finished when the time is right,” a writer friend once told me on a backpacking trip in Ireland. This sentiment explained why she felt it necessary to remove herself from the modern world occasionally.

I later read about the history of the name Denali, about the Athabaskan native peoples and their beliefs and traditions and the subsequent American colonization and ironic politicization of the name Mount McKinley. I found myself thinking about history, place, and time and how relative they are. Of course, Denali is the right name—and McKinley clearly isn’t—but either way the place is so much larger than human labels and their often silly manipulations.

The advent of mass-produced books and the subsequent five-century extension of literacy to those beyond the elite led to a larger awareness of our world. The ability to learn about other cultures is a blessing, but like all knowledge the real power is in how we embrace it, what we learn from it, and what we do with it. Some in political circles these days like to characterize these discussions as elitist, but an understanding of the written word is core to our survival. I’m proud that I’ve made my career in the tribe of those who exalt books: writing and reading are sacred and powerful.

During the trip a tour guide entertained us with the names of landscape features and the legends behind them. Later I had an opportunity to tell him about TU Press’s book Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscapeedited by Barry Lopez, and it turned out that he loves Lopez’s work. I’ll send him a copy knowing it will guide him to new stories to share on his tours.

As I sat by the river that day, I felt a bit guilty. Was I right to be here simply because I could? How does our increasing human presence in places like this change them? For me to be allowed this intrusion into this place means that anyone and everyone should have the same opportunity. Despite the fact that modern travel and disposable income allow some to go almost anywhere, should we? These questions frame so much of the ecotourism and adventure travel debate. 

Books share stories that are lessons for the future or bring a place or a moment to life for many who will never be able to experience them in person. The written word does this with depth and meaning like no other medium. Just like the river did for me that day, books remind us that there are more questions than answers and that there is always more to be learned or a different way to see things. This is a good thing.

As I write this, I see a news story online that a grizzly bear attacked a hiker just a few days ago in Denali on the alpine trail near where I was. The bear will be killed—as if it is the intruder—to give tourists and a headline-driven culture some false comfort.

I find it curious that the bear, for whatever reason, knew to attack and then walk away, leaving the human able to recover. I crave an essay by one of the many nature-philosopher writers I admire exploring animal instinct, knowing when to stop, and lessons we can learn from animals. I’m now reading Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. I think about the peoples who inhabited these places for eons and their respect for animals, and about how lives coexist within a place.

I’m fortunate to work with a group of colleagues who share my passion for books as armchair exploration—in every sense of the phrase—and as a vital tool for advancing knowledge and promoting debate. Understanding our relationship to place is critical in our increasingly homogeneous world. Time and again, books are the travel that takes us there.