HighTalking: Novelist Jon F. Merz on How Social Media is Changing Publishing (Part 1)

I read “The Fixer” after a recommendation from legendary bookseller Kate Mattes at Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge way back in 2002.  The book is a mash-up of the crime and vampire genres and a lot of fun.  Since then I’ve been keeping an eye on the author Jon F. Merz.  Recently, we ran into each other on Twitter.  Jon is way ahead of other authors on utilizing social media to help sell books and connect with loyal readers.

Jon was kind enough to agree to an interview about how social media is changing the publishing industry and how authors can use social media to energize their fans, reach out directly to readers, and, of course, to sell some books.  This is the first of a two part interview.

HighTalk: First of all, introduce yourself and tell us about your fiction and your entertainment company New Ronin Productions (is the name a reference to the Robert DeNiro film?)

Jon: As a writer, I’ve published over a dozen novels including four Lawson Vampire adventures (2002-2003) with Kensington’s Pinnacle Books, the Jake Thunder mystery/thriller DANGER-CLOSE (2004) with Five Star Mystery/Thorndike Press, and eight installments in the internationally bestselling adventure series Rogue Angel (2006-present) with Harlequin’s Gold Eagle line. My latest thriller PARALLAX debuted in March 2009 as an exclusive ebook. My short fiction story “Prisoner 392” (appeared alongside Stephen King in FROM THE BORDERLANDS, 2004, Warner Books) earned me an Honorable Mention in 2004’s Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror edited by Ellen Datlow. And I’ve co-authored two non-fiction books: LEARNING LATER, LIVING GREATER with Nancy Merz Nordstrom (2006, Sentient Publications) and THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO ULTIMATE FIGHTING with Rich “Ace” Franklin (2007, Alpha Books/Penguin/Putnam)

New Ronin Productions, which I formed with my long-time friend Jaime Hassett, is in the business of producing feature film, television, and web properties here in New England using local talent and crews as much as possible.  Our first property is THE FIXER, a television series based on my Lawson Vampire novels.  Next year we’ll be producing our first feature film.  The name “Ronin” comes from a time in Japanese history when wandering samurai owed allegiance to no master.  We felt the name perfectly captured the essence of what we’re doing-owing no allegiance to Hollywood masters and making great entertainment the way we see fit.    We are, in effect, new Ronin.  As for RONIN the movie – great car chase scenes, but it wasn’t involved in the naming of the company.

HighTalk: There’s been lots of talk in literary circles about how broken the publishing industry is.  What is your take on what’s happening in the industry?

Jon: The publishing industry *is* definitely broken.  But this isn’t something new.  I’ve thought there have been many problems for a number of years now.  Up until a couple of years ago, editors had yet to embrace email.  It’s still a challenge to get them to accept e-submissions instead of printing out the manuscript and mailing it off like a cinder block.  (Although, in fairness to them, reading on paper is easier, but still…)  And forget the majority of them being aware of social media…lordy.  Editors no longer have the power to buy a book-they have to pitch it to a committee of sales and management people.  As the publishing houses have been bought by larger conglomerates, the power of the editor has waned significantly.  And that’s rather sad.  The days of an editor finding a hot new talent and then nurturing them to stardom over a long and prosperous career are well and truly gone.

The publishing business model is outdated, woefully so.  Publishers throw gobs of books at the wall and see which ones stick.  The rest get destroyed.  That’s not smart business.  And there’s no real onus on the chain bookstores to sell books.  They know that they can simply return the unsold lots for credit.  Ridiculous!  The publishing industry needs to recognize that bringing a book out is a team effort-a collaboration between the creator, the publisher, and the book seller.  This team effort has one goal: to get the product into the end user’s hands in such a way that they then buy subsequent books by that author.  But too often, what has happened is the writer is shackled by a contract that gives them too small a share of the profit and little to no input.  The publisher then makes plans around the book ranging from no support to some support (for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll leave out the perennial bestsellers).  The book is carted off to the book store and then left to either thrive or die.  Each part of the process is compartmentalized and that’s not smart at all.

From the start of the relationship, authors and editors should become strategic partners, plotting the best way to ensure a life for the book.  They should seek to involve independent book stores in the process as well.  The indies are the only ones who truly “hand sell” anymore. Chains simply have too high a staff turnover for customers to develop a trusting relationship with the sellers. And that’s just for dealing with an actual book.

The larger picture is that publishing needs to embrace the notion that it is no longer about “books” per se, in as much as they publish “content.”  The method for delivering that content to consumers is changing and it’s changing fast.  Publishers need to be up-to-date with every advance in technology to stay ahead of the curve or they just look ridiculous when they hold a panel and ask audience members to help them think up ideas for using social media to sell more books.

HighTalk: The Web has been disrupting businesses – from newspapers to travel.  How do you think the web is changing publishing?

Jon: Well, I don’t believe that the web is “disrupting” so much as “evolving” businesses.  It’s really up to the businesses at that point.  Darwinism is alive and well.  You either adapt or you die.  The web is a natural evolution of technology, so businesses that have found themselves supposedly “undercut” by the emergence of such technology are really complaining when they shouldn’t be. Any astute business leader will tell you that, like personal safety, awareness is key.  It’s not like the web just popped out last Thursday and said, “boo!”  We’ve had plenty of time to see the coming wave of advances.

But publishing is one of the industries that turned their noses up at it and said it wouldn’t last.  Obviously hindsight is twenty-twenty, but come on.  That’s a pretty silly thing to do.  The simpler something is to use, the quicker it will grow in terms of mass usage.  Back in 1994, I started teaching myself HTML and I was amazed at how cool and how quickly (even back then) I could get a website out there.  Things have only gotten easier.  So more people will naturally flock to it.

Nowadays, people don’t want to go through the traditional publishing hoops of querying agents and editors.  They don’t want to wait.  They want their stories and articles out there fast.  So, instead of even putting a piece of paper into a typewriter, they simply click open MS Word, write their masterpiece, and the save the file as HTML.  Uploaded to the site, it’s instant gratification.

Publishing’s response to this has been something along the lines of, “Yes, but we’re the gatekeepers of quality.  We *know* what the consumers want.”  Bull puckey.  That argument might have once held water, but no longer.

I’ll use myself as an example: my novel PARALLAX is a thriller with Science Fiction/Psychic elements.  In trying to get the book sold, all the editors who read it, loved it.  But because publishing thinks in terms of labels and how to slot books into those labels, the fact that Parallax blurred the lines a bit meant they couldn’t sell it to the committee and the book never got picked up.

Fast forward a few years and I’m tired of having a novel sitting on my hard drive not earning me any money, so I put it out as an ebook.  Lo and behold, reader response has been fantastic.  So while publishing might *think* they know what consumers want, that isn’t always the case.  And Parallax proves that a well-written book will always find a home with an audience if given the chance.

As far as the quality goes, there is certainly plenty of crap out there.  People are impatient and they want to believe that their stuff is gold right out of the gate.  So, sure, there is a lot of junk.  But there are also some really great writers out there making a decent living from self-publishing their own material.  If traditional publishers were smarter, they would take advantage of these ready-made audiences and then look to break that author out into a larger market share.

HighTalk: You are currently experimenting with an ebook called “PARALLAX.”  Why did you decide to go the route of an ebook rather than through a traditional publishing house?

Jon: As I mentioned above, Parallax had been read by most of the New York houses and rejected because it blurred genre lines.  As an author, the idea of my work generating passive income is very attractive.  So having a book on my computer not earning me money was an annoyance.  I finally got tired of it sitting there and put it out myself.

HighTalk: Are you pleased with the results of “PARALLAX”?  What have you learned about the benefits and disadvantages of an ebook?

Jon: I’m pleased thus far with the results, yes.  My biggest gripe about the ebook industry is the lack of standardized formatting.  I wish that industry would wake up and realize that if they all got together and agreed on a format, they’d all make more money because consumers wouldn’t have to wonder if this ereader is going to have this ebook available.  Make it easier on the consumer and they will gladly pony up the bucks.

Here again is a perfect example of traditional publishing failing miserably.  If they’d been smart, they would have gotten together years back and decided on one format that they all could agree with.  Then they would have outsourced a tech company to create the reader.  The focus would have properly been on getting books (no matter the form) into the hands of readers.  Instead, the focus is now on which tech company can create and make the largest profit from the best ereader. Amazon, to me, comes closest to winning this battle because it recognized the goal is to make money from the content and not the platform that delivers it.  The newest incarnation of the Kindle will now offer .pdf support.  Why?  Maybe because most of your self-publishing authors can easily convert a Word file to a .pdf and then be selling it on their website or Amazon inside of fifteen minutes.  Ease-of-use is key.  And Amazon will be right there to gobble up their share of the profit.  Smart.

By selling PARALLAX, I’ve had to convert the book into a half dozen formats and it’s ridiculous.  Sometimes the formatting doesn’t take and the book looks horrible.  Seriously, get a standardized format and everyone agree.  Please!

Read the second half of our interview with Jon F. Merz.

5 Responses to “HighTalking: Novelist Jon F. Merz on How Social Media is Changing Publishing (Part 1)”

  1. Great interview! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Loved the interview! I read Parallax as an Ebook and it was awesome. I didn’t realize the difficulties in formattting an Ebook and yes, there should be some standardizing to make it easier to put Ebooks out there. If you haven’t read Parallax, please do!Great interview, Jon! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Like you, Merle, I learned a lot about what’s happening in publishing from Jon. Stay tuned for our second part!

  4. Thanks Krista & Merle – glad you enjoyed the interview! George, thanks for asking me such great questions!


  1. The E-Book Experiment: Know Your Customer | JA Marlow - May 9, 2010

    […] publishing industry has been described as “throwing a lot of books at the wall and hoping one of them sticks“. And until they know which one sticks, forget about much, if any, marketing dollars going […]

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