Strange Magic at B&N

Things have been very strange in the land ‘o Barnes and Noble this year, particularly on the indie side. It all started with an update to the dashboard in December of last year, presumably to accommodate the additional variables for distribution in the UK. As per the norm with these publishing portals, none of the changes were documented and there was no call to action from authors to verify that books were published well.

Plus there were weirdisms in this update. For example, when publishing a book, there is always the option of defining the territories where the book can be sold. This metadata mirrors traditional publishing – traditional publishers don’t always buy world rights. Rights are sold on the basis of territory, language, medium and format. So, a publisher might buy US English print mass market rights, or Commonwealth English rights (which would include print and audio, for example) or German hard cover print rights. As a result of this, when rights revert to an author, that author might not have all rights revert at the same time. So, it makes sense for the portal to allow authors to select territories for the English language edition they’re uploading for distribution. Some portals have a very comprehensive list of territories, but B&N did not. They offered US and World with nothing in between. The thing was that in December, when they actually began to distribute outside of the US, all of this data was automatically reset to US. Authors had to verify again that they had the right to sell the work in question outside the US, i.e. in the UK. While this seems like a prudent and cautious step, B&N didn’t mention this to any of us. Checking your rights options is not something that people ever do once it’s been set and the book has been published.

Secondly, there was metadata lost in the December change. Keywords for search engines were deleted, for example, and the indication of whether the book existed in print was lost (along with the page count of the print edition), etc. etc. There were lots of bits and bytes dropped in December, again with no notice, documentation or call to action.

Thirdly, they changed the conversion engine. If a book was updated or published in December, chances were very good that something messed up in that conversion. I was updating my editions then, substituting lovely formatted editions from professional formatters for my very rudimentary formatted editions. They all looked great in the files from the formatters. They looked great in the Nook preview. They even looked great when I downloaded a copy. Unfortunately, a lot of people who bought one of them got a book of blank pages. Finally, the engine was updated and I got my files republished in January, but there are lots of reviews on B&N for unhappy readers who got the blank editions. (Incredibly, B&N shows no desire to remove these reviews, which are a/ referring to a previous edition of the book and reflect an error which has been fixed, and b/ could be detrimental to sales. There’s a reason why some authors believe B&N wants to go out of business.)

Then came NookPress in March. In the migration of titles from the old portal PubIt to NookPress, more strange things have happened. Rankings have obviously changed and also-buys seem to have lost connections. My sales on B&N have plummeted since March, to the point that the portal might not be worth my trouble. Again, there is no documentation and there are no calls to action. There are also no replies to queries made through the dashboard. My books are no longer listed in the Nook UK store. They were in December. I had very low sales through Nook UK in first quarter, which is odd because I sell well in the UK through all other portals, so didn’t notice they had dropped to nil.

I talked to a B&N person at BEA who checked on this – here’s my last B&N weirdism for today (although there are lots more). Evidently the books are available for sale there, but Nook UK’s own search engine doesn’t find them. (Now we know the Secret of the Disappearing Sales.) I have to wonder if this is a result of the conversion from PubIt to NookPress, because the only title I have that returns as a search result is one that was published after the conversion, and published through NookPress. It also is the only one that’s selling at a volume I’d expect, so its ranking, temperature and also-buys must be correct. (This isn’t absolute, though. I have a second title published after the transition, also through Nookpress, which is completely invisible. I also republished everything through NookPress, which made exactly no difference but chewed through a day of my time.)

The B&N person sent me all the direct links and I spent this past weekend updating my sites with direct buy links for Nook UK – that’s the only way you’ll find my books there. The bizarre thing is that even if you follow in one of the links, you still won’t find the others – they’re not in a secret room where all is revealed once you find your way in. They’re just hidden. This isn’t good for sales, and I’m not getting an answer, which tells me that I’m not special – there are lots of authors with this issue. Again, you’d think that someone would notice that sales had gone away and wonder why.

There is btw an additional issue with my Dragonfire titles on Nook UK which is still being sorted out. It’s possible that the metadata from NAL is incorrect, or the glitch might be at B&N’s end. When I have direct buy links for those titles, I’ll add them to my site, too.

They do have another weird glitch that they say is being fixed – under the books of mine that do appear on Nook UK, there’s a strange line that they are “digitized from the 1920 edition” or the 1910 edition or similar. I’ve no idea what’s up with that. B&N admits they’re looking into that, so I’m not special there, either.

When I learn more, or hear of a solution, I’ll let you know. The adventure continues!

Open Dockets

Some of you may have heard that B&N changed their publishing portal this week. PubIt, their previous portal for indie-published authors, is being phased out, and a new portal called NookPress has been launched. There’s lots of happy chat from B&N  about all the new functionality available to authors on NookPress, but many writers (like me) seem to be underwhelmed by it all.

The new portal appears to be intended to become a community, in which the creators expect authors to compose their books, have their books critiqued and discussed, then copy-edit, edit, format and publish their books through the same portal. This has some similarities to existing communities like BookCountry and FastPencil. (NookPress was apparently created in conjunction with FastPencil.)

To me, this new portal and its added functionality is creating a lot of open dockets for B&N instead of solving the issues that already existed – never mind keeping the focus on their core business of selling books (print or digital).

For example, I would have liked if they had just made their PubIt interface more robust (and maybe solved its tendency to corrupt book files arbitrarily and without warning). But one of the first things I discovered while exploring the new portal’s features was that ebooks that have already been published through the portal can’t be updated. They must be unpublished, removed, recreated and republished. Not only is this a ton of work that has to be duplicated by the author, but I’m pretty sure this will nix any existing reviews or ratings for the book. Updating an existing book’s file is pretty commonplace stuff – a number of authors I know update the booklists and links in ALL of their published books each time they publish a new title. Not only is this basic functionality unavailable, it’s harder to manage content on NookPress than on PubIt. Taking a step backward in a rapidly evolving environment is just weird. (At this point, authors can update a book file by using the PubIt interface, but there’s no telling how long that portal will remain open and functional.)

The thing is that this perspective – more is more! – is endemic in this brave new world of indie publishing. How many writers are dashing off, opening new dockets by launching new books, new series and new pseudonyms, before they finish what they’ve started? How many authors are publishing like mad before getting the groundwork of digital publishing right – or even the nuts and bolts of writing well? How many of us are afraid to miss an opportunity, so over-extend ourselves instead? We all think we have to do everything, when the reality is that we’d probably be better off to focus on a smaller goal, delegate and decide.

For example, I have far too much on my plate right now. The main reason for this is that I’m trying to finish what I’ve started – but I’m trying to do it more or less at once, while republishing backlist titles, too. (There’s that impatience at work!) So, I have the urban fantasy fallen angel romances to repackage and reformat, Tupperman’s story to revise, edit and publish to complete that series, another Dragon Legion novella to write, format and publish, the Dragon Legion anthology and two more Dragonfire books to write, format and publish, three more medieval romances to complete the True Love Brides series to revise, write, format and publish, and the linked novellas of the expanded Coven of Mercy to write, edit, format and publish. That’s a crazy amount of work, in wide variety of sub-genres – and my list will only stay that short if no other rights revert to me.

The difference is that I have my end goal in mind. My goal is to sell books. That means making my backlist titles available in new editions for readers. It also means completing series that I’ve started, in order to keep the faith with my readers. Only when I do those two things can I move forward, relying upon my audience to follow me. I have a lot of series to finish up because publishers don’t have the same idea of keeping the faith with readers, but that’s okay. I’ll get there. I figure by the end of 2014 (maybe sooner), I’ll be all caught up on everything, with all my series done, all my circles closed and dockets filed. Then what? I’ll have to choose where to focus, and return to a more characteristic writing schedule. This crunch is a fairly short term crisis that I’ll steadily work through.

In contrast, I don’t understand B&N’s end goal. I thought they were in the business of selling books and Nooks. It would seem to me that the most important way to do that would be to build their consumer base for Nook, expand the content available on Nook by improving their portal and services, and ensuring quality on Nook by fixing that buggy PubIt software. NookPress looks as if B&N is aiming for the self-help market for aspiring authors, which is a different niche from the publishing business. It makes some sense for Penguin to have launched Bookcountry, a similar site, because they (as publishers) are always looking for content and content providers. (Their choice can also be argued to make little sense, because they could acquire content the way they always have done, from works submitted to them for consideration – and they could strengthen their appeal to authors by doing a better job of publishing the books that they do acquire. It would make most sense to me for a writers’ group or an organization geared to helping aspiring authors to build a portal like this one, not a bookseller or a publisher.)

So, I’m curious to see where B&N is going with this new portal and why. Once upon a time, B&N did have a publishing arm, through which they mostly republished older books that were out of copyright. Are they intending to become publishers again? We’ll just have to wait and see how B&N’s role in the market shapes up from here.

One thing about the brave new world of publishing – it’s never boring!