Don’t ever enter the Amazon Break Through Novel Award if you’re prone to anxiety. The contest starts with 10,000 entries in March and whittles them down through a series of cuts to one grand prize winner. The names of the five lucky semi-finalists in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Kitchen Sink category were announced today.
Category archive: Traditional Publishing
I don’t necessarily believe that all change is good even though that’s the fashion these days. We’re all supposed to embrace change and love change, as if everything that already exists is inferior, but sometimes change isn’t for the better, or is sideways. Our school board changed how they taught math, and that’s resulted in lower scores on standardized tests for kids in grades three to six, not exactly a good change.
Authors are snobs. It’s about numbers and status. It’s about competition. There are so many of us at so many different points in our careers, which could totally tank on one poor-selling novel, and there are even thousands more people who feel they, “have a book in them.”
World Fantasy Convention in Toronto was sparklingly well organized, and I had a great time, but I was surprised to hear these two words popping up repeatedly: flux and chaos. I first noticed them during the eBooks panel, which was packed.
I attended this panel expecting to hear the usual: eBooks are evil, they’re a fad, we need traditional publishers as “gatekeepers,” a paternalistic and condescending concept. Instead, I heard industry professionals state that eBooks are here to stay, and that the publishing industry is in a state of flux and chaos. One of the panelists expressed the desire to leap ten years into the future so that he could again live in a stable world, although I did get the impression that he would’ve been even happier to jump twenty years into the past.
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.
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.
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.
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¢.
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.”