Since I’m a big e-book guy who believes in sparing the trees and making electrons race instead, many will be surprised by the headline. Hey, so am I, but I had to do it. I had to go print.
Category archive: Self Publishing
Mark Lefebvre, Director of Self-Publishing and Author Relations at kobo, didn’t just come to chat with us at The Toronto Indie Publishing Meetup, he brought us solid information about e-books sales, and he didn’t sugar coat it. Despite indie-publishing potentially throwing book sales wide open, a small number of authors still make a big chunk of the change, just like in the traditional publishing world.
When I decided to form the Toronto Indie Publishing Meetup group, I was warned (by Meetup) to expect only two or three people to attend the inaugural meeting. I figured that would be okay, so I boldly took Meetup’s suggestion to have a get together within the month, and I booked the first event smack in the middle of summer. So what if our Meetup consisted of just two or three die-hard fans of indie publishing having a beer?
The technophobia, true and angry anti-technology, the complete fear of new things, shocked me at Word on the Street in 2011. As part of my role as Regional Vice-President of the Crime Writers of Canada, I took a turn running our booth, and for fun, I put two e-readers on display so that people could do a side-by-side comparison.
Authors should be paid for their writing, just like musicians should be paid for their songs, but it’s a crazy competitive market out there, and newbies need to get noticed. Musicians do it by playing crappy clubs for next to nothing, sending demos to record producers, and a few high-tech pioneers even build websites that allow free downloads.
I’ve watched with fascination over the last four years as self-publishing changes. In the early days (2010), when many authors still feared self-publishing, selling novels on Amazon was much easier. My short stories used to go at the rate of one or two a day. Now, even getting people to download your free novel by the thousands (which also used to be easy) is a challenge because the market is so crowded.
Blogs live and die on content, and I admit mine has been pretty dead. The challenge is that I like to write quality posts about what I read or what’s happening, but life just won’t give me the four hours it takes me to grind out a blog. I know that sounds like a lot of time for six-hundred words, but
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.
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¢.
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.