The New Digs

A quick 5-minute walkthrough of our new offices in Oakland. Snide commentary does not represent opinions of Berrett-Koehler or its (other) employees or affiliates.

Ten Years A Citizen: Ten Learnings

As I come close to celebrating my tenth year of US citizenship, I started thinking about when I first came here in 1989. Despite having traveled extensively around the world before that, I still had some serious cultural barriers to understand. Here are ten entertaining cultural lessons I learned during my first year in the states:

1. “What’s up?” is not, despite how it sounds, a question -– it’s just a way to say hello. It is also acceptable to just echo the sentiment right back -– resulting in two questions, neither of which requires an answer. In fact, actually proceeding to tell the asker all that is indeed “up” provokes great awkwardness and confusion.

2. A “party” does not always entail the usual things you find at parties such as music, food, and entertainment. Among younger people, a party just means there’s cheap liquor and a stale joint or two. I was frequently disappointed the first few times I was invited to “party” only to show up and find seven guys crushing beer cans on their foreheads.

3. It is not rare at all to find rabid sports fans who are grossly overweight.You would assume that a sports fan would stay fit and in shape by actively playing the sport that he or she is such a fan of. But no, you don't need to play the sport to be a fan. You can admire and tout the athleticism of others without having any urge to be athletic yourself. This disconnect does not surprise many Americans.

4. Despite what you see in many movies, only white people seem to high-five one another. Also, you should never actually ask for a high-five because that removes the coolness quotient and makes you look odd. Standing there with your open palm in the air and an expectant grin on your face while waiting for someone to execute the second half of the high-five, however, doesn’t look odd at all, apparently.

5. Losing weight is considered a laudable achievement. The ability to deny oneself excessive or unhealthy food is considered admirable. This is not to say that losing weight is not a healthy and good thing for many people; it's just odd that such an act is worthy of celebration.

6. People who have lots of crosses and crucifixes tattooed on their bodies aren't necessarily strong Christians. Having such tattoos or even wearing clothing or jewelry with crosses is considered a style statement and little else. In some cases, excessive religious iconography can be found on some decidedly un-Christian people.

7. Just because two people are “roommates,” it doesn’t mean that they actually share a single room. People who share a house but have their own bedrooms and bathrooms are still called “roommates.” For the longest time, I thought the majority of single Americans lived with other single Americans in one-bedroom domiciles.

8. On hot days, people –- mostly women –- like to put on bathing suits and lie by a swimming pool. Even though they are wearing swimwear, it’s hot, and they strategically place themselves next to water, they will never actually enter the pool. They just need to be in proximity of it. I had never before experienced a scenario where people would be crowded around the pool but with barely anyone actually in the pool.

9. Though Americans get a lot of flak for generalizing people of other geographical areas and being ignorant of various cultural and political borders, most people outside of the United States do the same thing to Americans. Americans are generalized as a single population who all share a common culture, but the truth is that some subcontinents divided by large oceans share more common values than Americans in different parts of the nation do.

10. People will tattoo just about anything on their bodies as long as it is not of their culture. East Asians never tattoo Chinese or Japanese characters on their bodies, but others do. Tribal tattoos are popular, but only with people who don't come from any of the lands the tribal tattoos originated from. South Asian Hindu iconography or Sanskrit will rarely be found on anyone of actual South Asian heritage.

But I've also made many wonderful discoveries about this great nation. Here's just one (and my favorite):

No matter how well they know (or don’t know) you, if you do not have a place to go on Thanksgiving Day, countless friends and acquaintances will insist upon inviting you into their homes, where you will meet all those odd relatives and family members they told you they never wanted you to meet. And they will feed you until you are bursting and send you home with enough food for a week. It’s an unspoken rule: no one spends Thanksgiving alone if you can help it.

Five Facts About Publishing and Books in China

Jim Bryant is the CEO of Trajectory, Inc. and has negotiated some of the biggest distribution deals for books in China. Here are five myths he dispels about the book market in China:

Myth #1: Except for small urban pockets, the majority of Chinese rarely access the internet and so e-books are just not viable. 
With over 600 million people using the Internet and 80% or more are accessing the web through their smart phones, the digital marketplace is impressive to say the least. A majority of people in China prefer to read on their mobile devices, research shows (especially since the average smartphone screen in China is considerably larger than standard iPhone-size screens -- which makes for a much easier read).  

Myth #2: The government's censorship process stops a lot of work from getting through.
The Chinese government has recently become receptive to importing a larger volume of foreign published titles. The official policy on international engagement is summarized in this simple statement :

qing jinlai, zou chuqu (welcome in, going out).

It is true that all titles imported into the country must be submitted to a government agency for approval, and that can be problematic, but there are ways around it. At Trajectory, we process our titles through a Natural Language Processing engine that helps us identify troublesome topics. By filtering obviously objectionable titles and highlighting titles that contain marginally controversial subjects, we have been able to accelerate the approval process.

Myth #3: My titles need to be translated into Chinese since no one speaks English there.
While there is an advantage in having the titles available in Simplified Chinese, there is a large market for English language editions. Another fact to consider is that more people speak English in China than in the US

Myth #4: Books are priced so low in China due to competition, local economies, and the exchange rate, that earnings will be paltry.
The prices of books have actually been going up since 2005. Actually there are advantages to competitive pricing in light of the potential demand and scale of the market. The potential volume of sales will often more than compensate for lower individual unit sales income.

Myth #5: Online piracy is a serious problem in China that people should be concerned about.
While China does not have the same level of copyright enforcement as in the United States and other countries, the Chinese Government has, in tandem with some of the largest national service providers, been taking steps to mitigate piracy. The Chinese Government recognizes the reciprocal responsibility in protecting foreign publishers’ rights as it is encouraging Chinese publishers to export their titles to new markets where they obviously need to be protected.

What are the big new book trends are in China? Open Sesame on all fronts! The market for imported books is growing exponentially along with the expected migration to preferred digital formats. There are certainly first mover advantages to be realized as well as the unique opportunity to build brand recognition while the volume of content is comparatively low.


Five Lessons from the 2014 London Book Fair

by Johanna Vondeling

Subsidiary Rights Director Maria Jesus Aguilo, Senior Subsidiary Rights Manager Catherine Lengronne, and I recently returned from the 2014 London Book Fair, which BK staff have been attending every year since 1996. While there, we met with 62 publishing partners from 23 different countries, as well as with scores of digital partners and other collaborators from across the globe.  As always, we enjoyed doing business and raising a glass of wine with old friends and new acquaintances. This year’s fair was bittersweet, in that it’s the last time the fair will be held at Earl’s Court, which the city is demolishing to make way for residential and retail development. Next year, the fair is moving to Olympia London.

Johanna amidst the hustle and bustle
Here are five things we learned this year in London:

1. Translation Market On the Mend: Since the global financial crisis, we’ve noted a fairly gloomy attitude among our international publishing partners. This year, we detected a refreshingly upbeat attitude. Advances, which had been dropping for several years, seem to have found their new normal.

2. You Never Know: We learn this lesson over and over again every year.  It’s impossible to predict what’s going to catch international publishers’ attention. This year, the most requested BK book was the forthcoming personal development title, “Your Life Isn’t For You,” by blogger Seth Adam Smith. But this wasn’t indicative of any particular trend.Titles on subjects as wide-ranging as personal optimism, rebalancing society, and motivation in the workplace were nearly as popular. So it pays to never stop pitching!

Dinner with folks from Gabal
3. UK Education Shakes Up: Despite heated protests, the UK government in 2012 voted to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year for annual tuition. Savvy, price-conscious students are now shopping around, and the race is on to attract these paying customers.  To compete, universities are now increasingly bundling course materials (including e-textbooks) into the tuition package. As a result, publishers’ academic target audience has changed. No longer is the professor the “decider.” Now, licensing to the institutions themselves 
is the holy grail of revenue.

4. Disruption in the Library Space: Local governments and universities are building fewer libraries and buying fewer books, but there’s still a lot of money in the pot. Libraries are increasingly spending that money on digital content, which is helping to lure younger readers back into the library space. As a result, the marketplace is in flux.  Proquest just acquired EBL, while Overdrive and EBSCO are battling it out for market share.  Meanwhile, new entrants are crafting new business models to better serve the unique and cost-conscious needs of libraries in the US and around the world. Prediction: more consolidation ahead.

Maria Jesus and Catherine hold court
5. Where’s My Wifi?: On a tech note, LBF organizers have made good strides in recent years, but it’s still a struggle to get consistent, ready wifi access in the hall when we want to show partners cool videos (like this one) to help sell new titles. I enjoyed better wifi access in the cheap pizza joint where I ate dinner one night than we did in our hotel. For a world class city, some sites could still stand to step it up a bit.  We’re looking at you, Best Western!

Personally, we three love attending LBF in no small part because it’s both an opportunity to reconnect with our international friends (we shared a lovely — if jet lagged -- meal with the stunning women from our German partner Gabal) and to savor the annual ritual of breaking bread with our local Bay Area friends at North Atlantic, whom we rarely see at home.  Renewing these friendships at the fair always makes our annual stay in London fun-filled and memorable.

With our North Atlantic pals
In the end, our deepest impression of LBF this year was one of gratitude. We’re deeply appreciative of all the hard work our print and digital partners across the globe do to help create a world that works for all. Thank you!


The Inaugural Writing for Change Workshop (20th February, 2014 in Perth, Australia)

A few notes by Maarten van der Wall

The Setting:

In a magnificent old timber-lined room on the University of Western Australia Claremont Campus inPerth, on a typically hot summer’s day, fifty fellow travelers embarked on a journey of exploration to support the emergence of this Writing for Change collaboration with BK and its author community.

The People:
There to set the scene for the attentive audience were BK author Jennifer Kahnweiler, who was visiting from the US, local Perth writer and poet, Annamaria Weldon, and the facilitation team of Michael Prince, Renu Burr and Maarten van der Wall.

The First Conversation:
The first course of this writer’s feast was rich fare, as we enjoyed an exhilarating conversation between Jennifer and Annamaria, convened by Michael, during which they shared their wisdom and experience and responded with a refreshing honesty and clarity to questions from the audience.

 Opening a Space:
Following a very welcome mid-morning break for refreshments, and for some escape from the heat (our air-conditioning had taken an unfortunate break for the holidays), it was time for the audience to play its part.

 Maarten facilitated a series of Open Space conversations that were given depth and meaning by the wholehearted and thoughtful contributions of all concerned. They listened attentively to each other, were appreciative of the power of the spoken and written word in bringing about change and (above all) showed that they knew how to have fun while doing it!

And, for a few exciting and energy-filled hours together, we all enjoyed the experience of being part of the Writers for Change community!

What’s next?

Writing for Change is an emergent story in our West Australian context, as demonstrated by the number of people who attended the workshop and expressed interest in being part of this continuing narrative. With that clearly in mind, the organizers look forward to building a continuing and energizing collaboration with BK and its author community and to being an influential part of the local writing scene for many years to come.

Our Thanks:
We are grateful for the ongoing support and encouragement offered by Johanna Vondeling and the BK author community and for the provision of the venue by Terri-Ann White of UWA Publishing. And many, many thanks go to Gourmet Ganesha, Meenakshi Burr and Judy Shearwood for the wonderful refreshments.


Ten Lessons Learned at Forty-Four

I turned 44 some weeks back. Dammit.

I’ve come to realize that getting older, for me, is about recognizing that everything is ultimately about moving to the opposite end of your previous station. Here are ten examples:

1. When you’re younger, you never seem to gain weight, and if you do, you can lose it over a weekend. When you’re older, you can gain weight over a weekend and never be able to lose it.

2. When you’re younger, you dress down on week days and dress up on the weekends. When you’re older, you dress up on week days and dress down on the weekend.

3. When you’re younger, you dread having a weekend with absolutely no plans.  When you’re older, you cherish weekends with no plans.

4. When you’re younger, sleep is a necessary break in the path towards your goals.  When you’re older, sleep is the goal.

5. When you’re younger, you think you’re mature for your age.  When you get older, you realize how ridiculously immature you really are.

6. When you’re younger, you hate the boomers for "selling out." When you get older, have kids, a mortgage, health issues, and loans, you look everywhere for opportunities to sell out.

7. When you’re younger, your mind has to keep up with your body.  When you’re older, your body needs to keep up with your mind.

8. When you’re younger, you have a growing variety of friends with different personalities all across the world. When you’re older, you downsize your friends according to maintenance effort required and proximity of residence.

9. When you’re younger, you use facial hair and hairstyles to appear older. When you’re older, facial hair and hairstyles are to conceal the flaws of aging.

10. When you’re younger, you think people who are weird or eccentric are smart.  When you’re older, you realize that there is no correlation between weirdness and intelligence.


Six Things You Should Expect from Your Literary Agent

We’ve worked with several literary agents and agencies, and we have seen some exemplary agenting -- and some downright rotten practices as well. Here are six things you have the right to expect from your agent:

1. No requests for money up front
A proper literary agent asks for no money up front. We have heard of countless variations on the money-up-front scheme, including “administrative fees” and “reading fees” and such. We're not buying it. In the many years we’ve been publishing books, we’ve never dealt with an agent who asks for anything up front from authors. An agent gets paid only when you get paid. (And that cut is rarely more than the standard 15% in this industry.)

2. Success stories and greatest hits
We’ve seen too many authors who are just so happy for representation that they sign with an agent who really has no weight in the industry. It takes nothing to call yourself an agent. And there is no governing body, so authors need to do their homework and discern quality for themselves. Ask potential agents about their successes and bestselling books as well as what publishers and authors they’ve worked with. A good agent will always be forthcoming and may even let you speak to other authors he or she has represented.

3. An expiry date — just in case
Once you sign with an agent, you have given that agent the exclusive right to represent you and your work. You have to then trust the agent to place the work somewhere, but you also need to protect yourself in case your agent -- whom you are contractually obligated to -- isn't working too hard on your behalf. We’ve heard stories of authors who got so fed up with their agent not doing anything that they signed a contract from a publisher themselves, only to find out later that the agent, contractually, gets 15% of the take even if he or she did absolutely nothing. So be sure your agreement states that if a particular number of months pass with no offer of a contract, you have the right to dissolve the agreement with your agent.

4. Personalized representation by an agent who knows you
Whether the agent is a one-person operation (many great ones are) or part of a conglomerate, each agent represents a certain number of authors. You have the right to ask how many authors the agent is actively representing. This is a case where more is not better. Many agents will take on hundreds of authors and projects because they play a numbers game by throwing all the projects against the wall and seeing which one sticks. Usually, the more successful an agent is, the smaller the number of clients he or she will have (although the clients themselves will often be ridiculously high profile). But there are always exceptions to this rule, and there are no magic numbers here. Just be aware.

5. Bargaining on your behalf
Agents should bargain for the best deal for their client — not just for money and royalties but also for marketing budgets and ad placement and provisions like that. Sometimes, however, agents try to justify their role by overreaching and bargaining for rights that really aren’t in your best interests. So you’ll get an additional 30% royalty for Mongolian rights? Well, that’s lovely, but we’re talking about $12 or so — and that’s if someone in Mongolia wants your book. Why not haggle for a bigger ad budget instead? An agent should tell you what he or she is negotiating for and why.

6. A dissolution clause in your agreement
Your agent is your agent for the life of the book and will continue to get a 15% cut for that length of time. But even great friendships often end and sometimes author-agent partnerships also end. So be sure you have a clause in the contract that allows the two of you to dissolve the partnership without any financial backlash. Even famous authors have suffered without having these terms clearly defined in an agreement.