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99¢ Novels Versus 99¢ Music

An SF author surprised me at Ad-Astra last spring by stating that he’d never buy a 99¢ novel because obviously the author thought it was worthless and so it must be garbage.  A panel on e-books had just wrapped up, so in the confusion that followed I didn’t get a chance to ask him if he owned an ipod.

But he isn’t the only one to tell me that novels must be priced higher.  Rebecca M. Senese told me at a Sisters-in-Crime meeting (yes, I’m a dude, but somehow I became a ‘brother member’) that she charges $4.99 for novels, $2.99 for anthologies and only offers shorts for 99¢.  She warns me that some people might buy my 99¢ novels just because they’re collecting–like hockey cards–and they might never read the novel.

But I come back to itunes.  If a band can spend years playing in sleazy bars to make a name, record their music in an expensive studio, have it distributed, and not be ashamed to charge 99¢ for it on itunes, why is it that novels must be priced higher in order to be judged valuable?

It all comes back to price expectations.  In music, illegal downloads flourished before itunes because record companies did away with the single, forcing music lovers to buy an entire CD for $25 when all they wanted was one song, the rest was just filler.  $25 for one song!  Sort of like $25 for one novel.  No one would consider paying so much for a song now, and even the expensive songs on itunes are still under $1.50.  Apple changed forever what people expect to pay for music.

Traditional publishers are desperately trying to maintain the fiction (no pun intended) that a good novel must be priced above $15, preferably closer to $25, but this will not last.  Amazon and self-pubbed authors are changing forever what people expect to pay for novels.  There’s a huge 99¢ slush pile on Amazon and Smashwords right now, but it will fade away because many self-pubbed authors will become discouraged with low sales and give up.  Amazon will do a little house cleaning and sweep away anything that hasn’t sold in a few years.

That’s when readers will begin to hunt for 99¢ gems.  They’ll want to find them before everyone else does and buy them before the price is jacked up–like being the first to discover a new band or a new wine.

I confess, when I build a following I will raise the price of my novels to $2.99 so that I can get that 70% royalty, but in the meantime, I like being the cheap read in the store, and I don’t think there’s any shame in it.  If I can buy fantastic music for 99¢, I don’t see why I can’t buy fantastic novels for 99¢.


EBook Sales “Only” Double Over Last Year

It’s not often that I can say a newsletter has shocked me.

Publishers Marketplace has an e-newsletter I subscribed to last year at the advice of literary agent Stacia Decker.  While it’s really aimed at publishers, it’s good for authors to know what’s going on in New York too.

Of course I was more interested in e-publishing, so I was surprised that the newsletter tended to report about eBooks with a slightly condescending tone.  You could almost hear the moniker “upstarts” muttered in between the lines.

But as Barry Eisler publicly jumped into self-publishing and then into the arms of Amazon, as Amanda Hocking and John Locke hit the millions in sales, P.M. adapted quickly, holding conferences at BookExpo like eBooks for Everyone Else.

Yet, the tone of their updates on eBooks still occasionally has that disparaging taint, perhaps because it’s written for publishers.  Thus–because P.M. has tried to clamber awkwardly onto the eBooks wagon–I was stunned last week when I read their update on book sales.

They preface it by reminding everyone that the numbers are only from publishers who voluntarily report to the Association of American Publishers, so this is by no means an accurate measure.

P.M. then goes on to  trumpet how hardcover book sales recovered nicely in July 2011 compared to July 2010, going from $68 million to $91 million, certainly good news for publishers.  But what really made me slap my forehead was the next paragraph.  While appropriately reporting that eBook sales were $82 million, making them the second biggest category of sales after hardcover, P.M. states that this is “only double the total recorded last July.”

Only double?  I had to read it over twice to understand what great news this is because “only double” sounds like a failure.  In any other industry this would have been the lead statistic because it indicates a trend.  Could you imagine a stock broker telling a client that his portfolio had earned in July “only double” what it had earned the previous July.  The broker would be screaming from every advertising venue possible that he had doubled his client’s earnings rate.

When I first subscribed to Publishers Market place way back in 2010 ( oh yeah, way back) they were still reeling from the shock that e-books were getting close to breaking double-digits as a percentage of publisher’s sales.  Now P.M. blithely reports that eBooks are 20% of  publishers sales.  Nothing to see here.  Move on.  It’s only double from last year.

Of course I still like Publisher’s Marketplace because I get to read a lot of publishing industry gossip that I might otherwise miss, and it’s good to be updated on lawsuits involving agency pricing of eBooks, etc.  So I won’t be canceling my subcription because I don’t like their tone.

The salient fact is that eBook sales–even just those voluntarily reported to the AAP–are obviously still rising exponentially.  They may not be the biggest chunk of the sales pie, but they’re close and they’re headed in that direction.

Of course, these numbers do not include sales by indie-pubbed authors like Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking or John Locke because they’re not members of the AAP.  I suspect when Amazon or Barnes and Noble release their sales figures we’ll get a better picture of eBook sales, but I can’t wait to read how Publishers Marketplace will describe the numbers.  Will they say that eBooks are now “only” half of all sales?

What if eBooks become 80% of sales.  Perhaps then Publishers Marketplace will drop the “only.”

Why We Launched William Deverell’s Kill All the Lawyers

This will not be recorded in the annals of publishing history as a pivotal moment, and yet William Deverell’s decision to jump into eBooks indicates a fundamental sea change.  More established authors every day are discovering that the barriers to distribution of their words have crumbled and that publishing houses are not the only way to reach the reading public.

Deverell approached me just after I’d concluded a panel on eBooks at the Bloody Words Mystery Convention back in June.  As the most outspoken member of that panel, I’d upset an editor from Orca Books enough that I’m pretty sure she will never publish my work.  Perhaps that caught Deverell’s attention, because he asked if I’d be able to help him publish one of his backlist novels, Kill All the Lawyers, originally published by Random House.  I was completely gob-smacked to have the guest of honor of the conference approach me for advice, especially since I’m a big fan.

Deverell–a lawyer himself–has won many awards for his novels, including the Dashiell Hammett award for literary excellence and an Arthur Ellis award for best novel.  His most recent work I’ll See You in My Dreams was just published by McClelland and Stewart.

The sea change part is that Deverell–who has done well in traditional publishing–was not only open to eBooks, but excited about the possibilities.  Until that day in June, I had it in my head that only newbies like me and a few outliers like Joe Konrath would really be interested in self-publishing their work, but now I know better, and publishers should pay attention.

Deverell went the traditional publishing route for Dreams because it was far along in development by June, but next year is a whole new era–one in which a Kindle Touch is $79, and the Kindle Fire is $199.

I can imagine families opening their Christmas presents: “See Gran, you can make the text any size you want so that you don’t have to buy large print books.”  Or to a special grandchild who is struggling with reading, “It’ll make reading fun, like video games because it’s electronic.”  Enhanced eBooks certainly will make reading fun, and a lot of young readers will get Kindle Fires for that reason.  A whole new world of possibilities has opened up.

So the big question publishers should ask: when eBook sales start to beat print numbers, will authors like William Deverell continue to accept a paltry royalty on eBooks or will they go it alone?  And here’s the real problem: if publishers lose their great authors and replace them with less well known authors, will that not damage a publisher’s brand?  What if an indie-published Deverell garners more critical acclaim than M&S’s replacement author?

This would totally upend the public perception that only big publishers can assure them good reads.  That’s the real danger.  If indie-pubbed books are by top authors, the public will care less and less about who an author was published by and more about what the customer reviews say.  My advice to the big six: when Deverell comes knocking to sell you his next novel, offer him a fat eBook royalty.  You don’t want him deciding that he’d be better off without you.

Kill All the Lawyers is a hilarious romp with three dimensional characters and a complex plot woven so beautifully that it is effortless to follow.  I’m humbled by Deverell’s writing and aspire to be that good.  That’s why I’m proud to have helped launch Kill All the Lawyers as an eBook.  It shouldn’t be out of print as demanded by the old model of publishing.  It’s still a great read and it’s only $4.99. The best part though is that Deverell is making the full 70% royalty on his novel, and he should.

Full disclosure: Bill insisted on paying me to help put up Kill All the Lawyers, although I offered to do it for free as my part in the e-revolution.

Publishers Should Be Watching Kodak’s Bankruptcy

Kodak or Fuji?  Whenever I landed a gig as a camera assistant back in the 90s that was the first question we’d ask.  Which film stock would we be shooting for a TV show or a movie didn’t really matter because both products were essentially the same, although some camera assistants swore that Fuji was louder in the camera.

But the real difference between the two companies became obvious as HD video came online.  Fuji’s response was to dive deep into this new technology.  Kodak dug in their heels.

Now as a lowly camera assistant, I shouldn’t have been more tuned in to the future than Kodak executives, but apparently I was able to see from the ground floor what they couldn’t see from the boardroom.  At the end of the work day on a TV show like Due South, I’d hand off ten $800 rolls of film.  The production still had to pay to process this film and then pay again to transfer it to video for editing.

So imagine my surprise when I got a daily on Earth Final Conflict, which was shooting HD.  I walked onto the camera truck, took one look at their rushes on the HDTV and said, “Oh, oh.  That’s the end of film stock in television production.”  That wasn’t the half of it.  At the end of the day I handed off two $100 HD videotapes, all ready for editing–no processing required.

Kodak reacted to this new technology by pouring R&D into the old film technology under the mistaken assumption that if film was still much better quality than HD that producers would continue to use it.  Kodak churned out one fantastic new film stock after another, culminating in the amazing 800 ASA film stock.  But the problem is that the price differential between HD and film was just too great, and the average TV viewer didn’t care if the blacks were crisp.  Film is still used on feature productions, but the majority of TV has switched to the much cheaper HD video.  That is a big chunk of the film stock market.

Kodak eventually got with the program and moved into digital, but they’ve had to go through some gut wrenching reorganizations while Fuji’s CEO was busy collecting an award for leading one of the best managed companies in the world.

I thought Kodak had survived, but on Friday their stock dropped by half after it was announced that they’d hired a law firm that specializes in bankruptcy.  Oops.  Too little.  Too late.

The publishers should be watching because they’re making the same mistake.  Kodak believed it was in the film stock business, but in reality they were in the image capture business.  Fuji understood this, and when a better technology came along they simply began hunting for ways to profit from this innovation.  I know purists will argue that film is better quality than HD, but some people also argue that a vinyl record album is better quality sound than an ipod–just try to go running with a record player.

Publishers believe they are in the printing industry, but they are in the book industry.  Books no longer need to be delivered to customers in the form of dead pulped trees.

I’m not saying paper books are going away forever.  Film is still used to shoot major Hollywood movies, but how many people use a film camera for their family photo albums?  I can tell you that very few TV series still shoot film, but back in the 90s they almost all did.

Publishers–rather than resisting e-books by trying to artificially hold the prices high and offering authors pathetic e-book royalties–should be looking at how to profit from e-books.

I’m on the ground floor of publishing, like when I was a camera assistant, but I’ve got that same feeling that I had back in the nineties when I wanted to run up to Kodak’s boardroom and scream, “Don’t you guys see what’s happening out there?”

Today I want to do the same in the boardrooms of the six major publishers.  I want to scream, “Don’t you guys see what’s going on out there?”