Category archive: e-books

Is Self ePublishing in a Bubble?

Since the mortgage crisis of 2008, all the pundits are looking for the next bubble, probably because most of them are embarrassed that they failed to predict either the dotcom bubble or the housing crash. That’s why I’m wary of doom forecasters, because the disaster that’s on the way is rarely the one they’re predicting.

So I admit I was skeptical of a bubble-forecasting Guardian article brought to my attention by my friend and fellow writer, Stephen Kotowych. I gave it a read though because he and I spent a couple of years critiquing each others short stories in our writers group, the Fledglings, established by author Robert J. Sawyer. You get to know someone after reading a dozen of their stories and, even more telling, hearing their critiques of your own. I trust Stephen’s judgment.

In a nut shell the Guardian article tries to compare the ePublishing craze to a financial industry bubble, but the author, Ewan Morrison, has to jump through some pretty tenuous hoops to explain why prices aren’t increasing, which is standard for a bubble–think house prices or dotcom stock prices. He states the the actual devices–eReaders, iPads, are the price increase in this analogy, although all of these have been dropping in price. I assume he means the upfront cost to the consumer who could buy books without an eReader before, but then the article is supposed to be about self-publishers.

Yet, there is some validity to his contention that we are in a self-publishing bubble, one where people who are not authors believe they can make a million bucks on Amazon. I know of one example: a man who’d never even tried to write a book before in his life, but suddenly self-published a short non-fiction self-help book. I think he truly wants to help people, but I also believe that he expected to rake in lots of cash doing it. His book sales are non-existent if Amazon’s bestseller ranking can be believed, and I predict he will never write another eBook. But I’m willing to bet that he bought an eBook, probably with a title like How You Can Make Trillions and Trillions of Dollars and End World Hunger by Self-Publishing an eBook. Hey, maybe I should write and publish that!

Sadly, I saw this gold rush coming but I was too late. I first considered self-publishing in September of 2009, and I would have beaten the tsunami of crap, but I waited until the spring of 2010, and by that time Amanda Hocking had taken off. When I read articles about her millions of sales, I knew that every dusty manuscript in a desk drawer would be out there with a quick cover and no editing. What I didn’t predict (and should have) was that every self-styled guru would be out their selling books on how to get rich ePublishing.  These are like the guys selling bent shovels and treasure maps to prospectors in the Klondike.

Any writer (or publisher) could have predicted this bubble, because it’s actually been around for a long time. The general public just didn’t know about it. For the last ten years I’ve heard one editor after another, one agent after another, groan and complain about the massive depth of the slush pile. For years people have been sending in manuscripts, certain that they’re the next J.K. Rowlings or John Grisham, hoping to make millions. Publishers should be delighted with ePublishing because the slush pile can now be sorted by readers at 99 cents a pop, sometimes even for free. And ruthlessly sort they do–just check out the one star ratings that some books earn on Amazon.

As for the scammers, they’ll peak this year and fade into the background. Like spam, they’ll always be with us, but people will get very good at recognizing them.

Yes, a lot of people have jumped into self-publishing because they think it’s easy. When they don’t sell and realize that it’s hard work to learn how to write, to promote and to write more, they’ll walk away because these are also the type of people who give up quickly. Wait for the howls of outrage next year when Amazon announces that they’re dumping every self-pubbed title that hasn’t sold in two years. Contrary to popular opinion, server space is not free. Authors like me will still be there because we’re writers and that’s what we do, even if we don’t sell millions.

But where I strongly disagree with the Guardian article is the suggestion that the government should bail out publishers. They deserve a hand out from the tax payer even less than the big banks, and they’ve adapted to new technology about as well as the record companies. In other words, kicking and screaming their way into the 21st century. But unlike the big banks, publishers can easily be replaced by smaller, better publishers without much pain for the average person.

The next few years will see publishers reluctantly adapt, and the self-publishing bubble will burst, but don’t expect the industry to return to pre-eBook days. True self-publishers, like Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, will still be out there along with many other successful self-publishing authors. They may not be making millions, but they’ll make thousands. In fact, I’m looking forward to the end of the bubble. It’ll be cleansing.

I am a Hardcore Zombie Apocalypse Survivor

I win! I survived! I get to be the one who carries a shotgun and slays zombies, preferably using a Winchester 1200 Defender with the barrel sawed short for close quarter action.

How do I know? I took a test.

Google would you survive a zombie apocalypse, and you’ll find dozen of quizzes, most them simply aimed at getting you to a website so that you might see other advertising.

This quiz wasn’t on the first page of the search results, but it caught my attention because of the video with it. I assume that author, Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, had something to do with this, but the only evidence I have is that it mentions his book, The Zombie Survival Guide, in the last question, and Brooks’ name is the answer. If he wasn’t involved in putting together the quiz, he’s the luckiest author of this year because it’s a great promotional tool.

Any author who wants to succeed already knows that the web is more than just words: it’s video, audio and audience participation–interactive was the buzz word back in the 90s that had everyone breathless. Even TV execs desperately tried to find a way to make news shows interactive, usually by having a provocative question that viewers could vote on by phone–not exactly the internet.

Most authors know they need creative ways to connect to their audiences, so they’re active on twitter and facebook, and they write blogs like this one.  But I think the blow out successful authors will find unique ways to connect, like this quiz.

Better yet, I bet that it’s not too hard to score survivor, which is what we all want–to survive the apocalypse, whatever form it takes.  On another quiz I even scored as a savior, a rather weighty title that commends me for choosing to bring the grandfolks along when we fled the city.

Suddenly I want to buy the book, because it’s about survivors and I’m a survivor.  I know because I took the test.

The Secret Reason I’m Trying KDP Select

The literary world is in an uproar.  Again.  Amazon, the company that publishers love to hate, is trying to steal all the–wait for it–self-published books.  I had to do a double take at this Huffington Post piece by Mark Coker, the driving force behind Smashwords, to believe what I was reading–especially the bit when he compares indie-authors to farmers during the Irish Potato Famine.

Amazon wants books for its lending library for its Prime customers, and it has put together a big pot of money, $500,000 per month, to be split among the authors whose books are borrowed through the Amazon library.  The big catch: your books can’t be available for electronic download anywhere else.  And it’s a three month commitment.  Paperbacks and hardcovers aren’t part of this exclusivity clause, those you can still sell anywhere.  We’re just talking eBooks here.

I like Mark Coker because he has been an ardent supporter of indie-pubbed authors and has worked diligently to get their work up on as many platforms as possible.  I certainly don’t blame him for decrying a marketing tactic that is clearly aimed at undercutting his business.

But I think he’s wrong to worry that indie-pubbed authors will abandon Smashwords wholesale.  What’s more likely is that authors will launch a book with Amazon, choosing KDP Select, but will drop out of the program after the three month period ends.  It’s not a lifetime commitment here, and authors will want to see their novels available for the iPad because it’s the coolest device ever invented, let alone all the other eReader platforms.

Coker has some good points about losing sales rankings if you pull your novels, which is why I’m not enrolling Vampire Road in KDP Select.  It took months for this novel to appear in the search at B & N and others, something Coker has promised to try and speed up, so I won’t be pulling it out of Smashwords now that it’s finally available everywhere.

But the prequel, The Book of Bertrand, will launch on Friday (if the editor and cover artist deliver on schedule) and there is absolutely no hope that Smashwords can get it to the other platforms before Christmas.  I know because they gave all us indie-pubbed authors a November something deadline for Christmas distribution.

Amazon says they’ve been selling a million Kindles a week for the last couple of months, and some of those will be going to Kindle Prime members, who are going to want to borrow a book because they’ve blown the budget on Christmas, so why not get The Book of Bertrand in front of them?

But now for the big secret: Summer of Bridges, my anthology of coming-of-age stories, the ones that were first published in Storyteller Magazine, turned out to be a perfect candidate for KDP Select.  While I love these stories, I hadn’t got around to loading the anthology onto Smashwords, so I figured I’d enroll it in KDP Select to see what happens.

Someone borrowed it the very next day.  Now this anthology hasn’t been selling well, I figure because they’re short stories and they’re very Canadian.  The very name of our country induces yawns from most other countries–not a bad thing.  But here’s the surprise: the sales ranking on Amazon popped up as if it had sold a copy.

Which got me thinking: the higher the sales ranking, the more I sell.  Any chance that I can pump TBofB’s sales over the Christmas to New Year’s buying week is a good thing, especially if I also get a piece of a $500,000 pie to boot.

I also think that the most money to be made from the KDP Select program will be in the early days, when Amazon’s still fighting to lure authors into the program.  Remember that the money is split between participating authors, and a lot of authors will be reluctant to pull down work already for sale elsewhere.  I bet the biggest pay outs will be in December, January and February.  After that, word of mouth about good payouts will cause a stampede, and then the payouts will drop when they have to be spread to more authors.

It’s good to be ahead of a stampede, but you’d better run fast.

My Boycott of Agency Pricing

My library card had expired.  Gasp!

I’ve been reading eBooks for the last few years, either on my ancient Sony ( two year old technology) or on my spiffy new Kindle, but thanks to agency pricing, I have renewed my card and started borrowing dead-tree books again. That’s right, me the big eBook fan, has had to crack open some weighty volumes to get all the information I crave.  But the publishers made me do it.

In an effort to fight the rising tide of eBooks, the Big Six publishers adopted the agency pricing model, where they set the price and no one is allowed to discount, and they’re setting the price of eBooks higher than paperbacks.  So an electronic download, which doesn’t require logging companies, pulp mills, trucks, printing presses, more trucks and heated bookstores are now priced higher than dead-tree books.  Let’s not even get into the incredibly environmentally unfriendly paperback returns policy, which sees the cover of an unsold book ripped off and returned to the publisher for credit, and the rest thrown into the recycling bin so that more trucks, pulp mills and trucks can get rev up their engines.

But what really gets me steamed is that great authors are being squeezed by the new “industry standard” on eBook royalties.  This cartel of six has decided that they will not sign a single contract that pays an author more than 17% of the list price of a novel.  Their stated claim that they must have this deal in order to make a profit on eBooks doesn’t ring true when you read Publishers Marketplace, which reports on each publisher’s financial statements as they’re released, and it turns out they’re all making a good profit on eBooks.  It’s reduced hardcover and paperback sales that are hurting them.  So they’re using eBook sales to subsidize the old industry at the expense of authors.

So I’m boycotting agency priced books, and it’s really easy to tell which books are subjected to this policy.  If it costs more than $9.99, and more than the paperback, it’s an agency priced book.  If Amazon can’t sell you a discounted copy, it’s an agency priced book.

For instance, a friend recommended The World Without Us as essential reading for all apocalyptic fiction authors.  Amazon’s  price for a Kindle version is $11.20, but the paperback is $10.20.  I’ve seen far more glaring examples, where the Kindle edition is near $14 and the paperback is around $10 dollars.

This won’t last, of course.  Someday one of the really big authors will say goodbye and indie-pub (or worse, sign with Amazon) so that they can collect the 70% royalty.  When that happens others will follow suit, and the publishers claim that they have the best authors will melt away.  Then they’ll want to lure someone like John Grisham back, and they’ll offer him a 35% eBook royalty, and every publisher after that will not be able to claim that 17% is the “industry standard.”

Meanwhile, out of the millions of indie-pubbed books, some cream will rise to the top.  These authors will keep selling under $9.99 to get the 70% royalty, and as they build their careers and become in demand, they’ll eat into sales of books from traditional publishers.  The only solution for the Big Six will be to lower the price of eBooks in order to compete.

But for now, I’m off to the library.  I got an e-mail notice that the hold I placed (via the library’s website) on The World Without Us has been filled.  Oh, and I’ve been loaning eBooks from the library too for my Sony eReader.  Thank you public library.  You’re a forward looking institution.

Amanda Hocking is Not a Fluke

Amanda Hocking is an outlier and a fluke, writing only for flighty teenage girls.  I heard this many times and one day decided to find out for myself, so last week I downloaded a free copy of Hollowland through Amazon.  Right away I was impressed with Hocking’s business sense because she clearly knows that hooking an audience is more important than earning a few 35 cent royalties.

But I approached her novel with suspicion and preconceived bias.  The title seemed suspiciously close to The Hollow Men by T.S. Elliot, and a quick check on Wikipedia proved that Elliot chose the title of his poem by combining the title of William Morris’ romance, The Hollowland, with Kipling’s poem The Broken Men.

So did Hocking know what she was doing when she chose that title?  Then I read the opening line:

This is the way the world ends – not with a bang or a whimper, but with zombies breaking down the back door.

BANG!  What a great opening line.  She shows me right away that she knew exactly what she was doing when she chose that title, and she has a great sense of humor to boot.  From this point on only people in love with that sense of humor will keep reading, and they’ll love the novel too.

Now I’m not saying that Hocking has replaced Elliot, or  that Margaret Atwood should be fearful of the competition, but I read the novel and liked it.  I admit I’m big into post-apocalyptic fiction so I’m an easy sell that way, although there are a number of indie ePubbed books in that genre that I’ve started and given up on.  They were also cheap, but they just weren’t that good.  That’s why they’ll never sell thousands of copies.

That’s my point.  Hocking’s writing is actually good.  It pulls me along and has me wondering what’s going to happen next when I should be concentrating on my own work.  So in my estimation, she’s not an outlier or a fluke, she’s just a good writer.

The unfortunate piece of news is that the publishing industry rejected her many times, failing to see that she could make them money, failing to recognize that she was good.  I don’t blame them because the slush piles are huge and it’s difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.  The happy news is that indie ePublishing allowed Hocking to prove herself.

If I were a publisher, I’d trim my acquisitions department and follow the Amazon bestseller list to find new talent.  This is great for them. Why sign a contract with an author if they haven’t proved themselves in the real world?

I can’t wait for the next “outlier” or “fluke” to sell a million indie ePubbed copies on Kindle.  I’ll buy their book.

Thank You Publishers for Agency Pricing

Publishers are my enemies.  Okay, not really, but the obvious finally did occur to me the other day: publishers are my competition.  I’d never thought of it that way simply because those corporations are so big that they operate in a totally different league, one so stratospheric that I couldn’t imagine that little me and my eBooks were anywhere in the same ballpark.

But then agency pricing came along.  Those rascally publishers are forcing the price of eBooks higher than paperbacks, gradually moving away from the $9.99 price point that Amazon set and pushing prices up to twelve dollars and more.  What drove this home for me was seeing that Amanda Hocking’s new eBook, Switched, published by St. Martins Griffin, will be nearly $12 while the paperback is around $10.  Now my memory isn’t the best, but I’m pretty sure I missed a chance to buy Switched for 99¢ when Hocking first self-pubbed it.  She’s very popular, so I was surprised to see the whole Trylle series off the market until next February when the paperbacks are ready.  How many sales have been lost in the months since I first considered buying Switched?

That’s when it hit me.  As long as Hocking is with St. Martins, her books will be far more expensive than mine.  Thank you St. Martins.  It’s like opening a coffee shop across the street from Starbucks and finding out that the corp back in Seattle has decided to charge $12 for a regular coffee compared to my $1 price point.  You couldn’t ask for a more accommodating competitor.  It’s like they want me to undercut them and sell.

Great!  Thanks Big Six Publishers.  You’re helping many writers like me along the road to indie-publishing success.

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¢.

 

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?”

I Got My Name in the National Post – Two Times

And I didn’t even have to get arrested to make that happen.

Membership has it privileges, and for years I’ve been a member of the Crime Writers of Canada, ever since my editor at Storyteller Magazine (alas, gone now–the magazine, not my editor) told me I should join.  She’d just picked up my short story, Railroaded, which was certainly about a crime, although it was not a who-dunnit, but more of a what’s-he-gonna-do-about-it.

Now even though I’m not really a crime writer, I’ve stayed with the CWC because there are many great writers in the organization, and they nurture, advise and encourage newbies like me.

But last Saturday they went above and beyond the call: I opened the National Post newspaper here in Toronto and saw an advertisement for the CWC booth at the Word On The Street Festival this coming Sunday.  There was my name in the middle of the ad–they even got the accent over the “e” in Andre, something I’ve left off over the last few years just to make things simpler.

If that wasn’t enough, the ad ran again today.  Does it make me famous?  Okay no, but it’s a little step on the way and it’s a lot of fun.  Maybe someone I knew in high school but lost touch with will recognize my name.  Out of nostalgia perhaps they’ll show up and decide to buy a book.  That would be good.

Either way, if you live in Toronto and you’re going to Word on The Street, stop by booth 148.  I get a seat between 11 and 12, but I’ll be there all day.  You can shake my hand.  I got my name in a major newspaper–twice.

Many thanks to Catherine Astolfo and the CWC board for all their work to make this happen.