Tag archive: new technology

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.

I Just Found My 1999 Website

It even has a pre-YouTube book trailer starring a friend who thought the idea was fun.  Here it is in all it’s 1999 glory: The Book of Bertrand

It’s so antique it’s quaint.  I built the site as a marketing tool aimed at publishers and agents, thinking they’d like a quick and easy way of finding out more about my novel.  I didn’t know back then that the publishing industry is extremely conservative, and I’m referring here to the Webster’s definition of conservative: “tending to oppose change.”

I kept track of the page views of the site, expecting that some agents or publishers might visit it a few times, perhaps impressed that I was ready with such a great marketing tool.  Guess how many even looked at the page?  You guessed it.  A big fat zero.  In hindsight this should have allowed me to predict how the publishing industry would react to eBooks.  The internet is something that even back in 1999 a lot of people wished would just go away.

I even wonder now if having a website hurt my chances of publication.  The internet is a big and scary place if you’re resistant to change.  I love the internet because it’s changing all the time.  Imagine if I’d had Youtube back in 1999.  I wouldn’t have had to put up a tiny low res video trailer under the assumption that some people might still be on dial-up with a 56k modem.  Yeah, remember that?

I’ll work on a new book trailer with apologies to my friends Mark (who helped shoot it) and Gord (the star).  But the times, they are a changing, and they’re going to change again.  Who knows what the internet will bring in another decade?  My bet is that it’ll be fun and very cool.

Oh, and that very unprofessional voice over: that’s me.

Why I Chose Not to Get into a Fight at an SF Convention

What most people don’t know about science fiction conventions is that a lot of them are not about actors or TV shows but about SF writers, and the discussions at the panels are educational, lively and provide a lot of insights into the publishing world.  But yesterday I discovered that sf cons are not immune to the controversy over eBooks and indie publishing.

I attended a panel about “The Business of Writing” at SFContario in Toronto.  The con was winding down, and I settled in expecting to hear the usual advice for want-to-be authors: get an agent, write short stories, and don’t pay reading fees to agents.

But instead author Robert J. Sawyer inadvertently dropped a bomb on me.  When asked what the biggest business mistake a newbie writer could make he replied, “self-publishing or self-ePublishing.”   He might as well have said, “Michael McPherson has made the biggest mistake of his career.”  While Sawyer recognizes me at cons and remembers that he has mentored me in the past, he probably has no idea that I’ve indie-published.  The comment was not just directed at me.

What he said (forgive the paraphrasing) is that only outliers have been successful in self-publishing either in print or electronically, and that you will have “vanishingly few sales” and never succeed as a proper science fiction author if you go the self-publishing route.

Yet, as I listened to this I was surprised to discover that I was encouraged and even more certain that indie-publishing is the road I want to travel.  I know that sounds crazy, and I was reminded of a line from the movie Hoffa, so smartly delivered by Jack Nicholson.  When several different people told him he should call off a strike, he replied, “If everyone says I’m wrong, I must be right.”

I know that this is the height of arrogance and conceit, but I also know what Mr. Sawyer had said earlier at his Kaffeekaltsch: it will be increasingly difficult and perhaps impossible for a science fiction author to make a living just from writing.

An indication of the direction the industry is going can be found in the subscription numbers of Analog Magazine: at its peak back in the seventies it had 160,000 subscribers, but now it has around 28,000.  I’m also willing to bet a lot of those are older boomers, so as that generation goes on their ultimate adventure, Analog will probably also go down forever.

I’m sure Sawyer’s career will be fine because he’s so well known and has won every important science fiction writing award at least once, but a newbie like me–fighting to break into a dying industry–has nothing to lose by taking the road less traveled.  The big six are struggling to adapt to eBooks, and their desperate throes are creating market opportunities.

If I landed a contract today with any publisher, my debut novel would have to compete head-to-head with Robert J. Sawyer’s umpteenth novel–one $10 paperback versus another.  But I’ve checked the prices of Sawyer’s Kindle editions and discovered that they’re priced between $10-$13, with many of them more expensive than their paperback editions.

Wow!  That means Vampire Road at 99 cents is less than one-tenth the price of most of Sawyer’s novels, and when I launch the prequel, The Book of Bertrand, at $2.99 it’ll still be less than a quarter of the price.  This cut-rate is the only hope for a newbie author trying to seize a piece of the incredibly shrinking pie.

I considered putting my hand up and debating this with Mr. Sawyer–starting a lively old fight–but most of the authors were enjoying the last panel of the conference, and I knew there was little hope of swaying hearts and minds.  The proof will come in the next couple of years, but even if I have “vanishingly few sales,” I suspect it will be more than if I was still desperately waiting to hear back from a publisher.  And I’ll make this promise, if I haven’t had any luck by SFContario Four, I’ll volunteer for a panel: why ePublishing may not be for you.  I love being on panels.  Either way, it’ll be an interesting ride.

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?”

Will Publishing Streams Reverse?

There’s a shift going on in publishing that publishers and agents should be discussing over their lattes in the boardrooms of Manhattan.  I have a friend who is a well-published, successful author, but his publisher is putting the screws to him on a new contract, refusing to budge from a very miserly e-book royalty that they’ve decided is “industry standard” in a fledgling e-book industry.  This ridiculous “industry standard” mantra has so upset this author that he is considering walking away and self-publishing his next novel.

I can’t name this author because the contract negotiations are on-going, but I can say that he has a big enough name that he wouldn’t have to worry about being lost in what Joe Konrath aptly named The Tsunami of Crap that is flooding e-book stores like Smashwords and Kindle.  My friend already has an established audience that will seek him out and buy his novels.

So if the publisher calls his bluff and he indie-pubs, who will they publish in his place?  Who will accept a horrible contract to make a name?  A newbie like me, of course.

Right now we newbies put up our e-books on Amazon, desperately market them and hope to make enough sales to get the attention of the publishing or film industry and make the big sale.  Even Amanda Hocking, who could probably live on her e-book sales for the rest of her life, signed with St Martins.

But if the publishing industry continues to empty their stables of successful authors and runs instead with untested talent, it will come with an unintended consequence: self-publishing becomes more respectable.

For over a century publishers have maintained that only they know good work and that self-published novels must be crap.  They’ve been right often enough that this mantra has played well with the public.  But if publishers drive away their authors then a lot of high quality indie-pubbed novels will hit the market.  Worse for publishers, it means the public will not be so afraid to take a fly on a indie-pubbed e-book.  Note that it  won’t be self-publishing anymore, it will be indie-publishing.  Even J.K. Rowlings has placed a toe in that water.

So the streams would reverse: newbies would be with the publishers.  Established authors would indie-publish.

Of course it’s going to be a lot messier than that.  Newbies will still indie-pub first, get a small following and then take the lousy industry contract.  After their first bestseller, they’ll say goodbye to their publisher and go back to indie-publishing so that they can get the 70% royalty.

Watch out now for publishers trying to force authors into ten-book contracts to lock in long-term, cheap content providers.  This will hurt publishing in the long run, because sometimes acquisition editors make mistakes, and so a publisher could find themselves forced to publish one poor selling novel after another when an author doesn’t perform as expected.

In my humble opinion, publishers should just offer a better e-book royalty and keep their talented authors.  My friend deserves it.  Otherwise publishers may discover that they’ve made things worse for themselves by giving credibility to indie-published authors.

Is the Writers Union Living in the Past?

Sometimes little birds speak to me at this blog.  The latest nugget that dropped in my lap concerns the Writers Union of Canada, a great organization that provides its members with contract advice and more.

What surprised me is that apparently the Writers Union believes a 17% royalty on the retail price of an e-book is a fair royalty, even though the author will only net $1.70 on a $9.99 novel.

Now what I don’t get is that any author who indie publishes their novel on Amazon at $9.99 will get the 70% royalty on the retail price, which means we’re talking about $6.99 per copy sold.

How can the Writers Union think that $1.70 on the retail price is fair compared to $6.99?  I understand that a publisher doing a print run is adding a lot of value to an author’s novel by getting the paper copy out into the Walmarts and Targets of North America.  That’s actually good advertising for an e-book, and I can agree that the publisher should earn a nice cut of the e-book sales as a result, but I would suggest that the author should at least receive 40% of the retail price, so $4 bucks on a $9.99 novel.  That still leaves the publisher picking up $3 bucks a copy, and they don’t have to hire a truck driver or pay for ink each time an e-copy sells.

I know I’m just dickering about numbers here, but the spread is big, which is why I’m shaking my head in disbelief at the Writers Union.

I tried to confirm this stand at the Writers Union website, but my search only produced some out-of-date warnings about e-book publishers offering only 10% of net.  I’m not a member so I can’t ask advice myself.

My source, however, is very reliable.

So I’m left to wonder: when will the Writers Union change their tune?  Because they will.  They can’t live in the past.  Their members won’t let them.

The Verdict on Amazon Gift Cards

Promoting a novel through give-aways is a great idea, but I learned a lesson recently.  I was heading to the Bloody Words Mystery Convention in Victoria, mostly to hang out with a bunch of fun-loving authors.  But I knew there would be lots of mystery readers there too, so I decided to give away some e-copies of my anthology, Summer of Bridges, because it has an award-winning mystery short story, Railroaded, among the other Sioux Rock Falls stories.

So I went to Amazon and ordered fifty gift cards and took them with me along with a fistful of postcards featuring the anthology’s cover.  I’m not pushy, so I only handed out the gift cards to people who said that they were very interested.  I also made sure that they either owned a Kindle or were comfortable with downloading the Kindle app for their computers.

Then the real mystery began.  The week after Bloody Words my novel, Vampire Road, began selling copies but Summer of Bridges showed no spike at all.  What the heck?  What were those mystery lovers doing buying a vampire novel with their gift cards?

Then a few of my short stories started selling, and I thought the mystery was solved.  Perhaps they were using the gift cards to buy the short stories.  All of those stories are contained in the antho plus three new stories, so I was surprised they were blowing the gift cards on one story when they could have had them all with one free download.

Today I checked the status of the gift cards with Amazon and discovered that not one single, solitary, gift card from Bloody Words has been redeemed.  The sales for Vampire Road, White Metal, Railroaded and the others all came from book-lovers surfing Amazon.  None of those sales came from my gift card promotion.

I still think that gift cards can be useful, but next time I’ll say, “Show me your Kindle and I’ll give you an e-book.”  I’ve done that twice since Bloody Words with better results.  Both fans had Kindles and both used their gift cards.

So the verdict: the Amazon gift cards are a great way to introduce people to a novel.  Just don’t give them to people who may not be comfortable downloading the Kindle app or buying a Kindle.