Friday Night’s Alright for Downloads
At first I thought the Amazon sales report was a mistake. How did the number of downloads get so high so fast?
At first I thought the Amazon sales report was a mistake. How did the number of downloads get so high so fast?
Within 24 hours of launching Apocalypse Revolution, I got two sales and one good review. Yeah! I was on my way with this one. I wasn’t predicting millions of sales, but I thought they’d start to trickle in, so I was surprised when there was nothing. Not a single sale for the following two weeks.
Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? This rather antique view was held by my grandparents’ generation, which apparently equated milk with sex and women with cows. You can see what I mean by antique. This warning for young women implied that all men wanted from marriage was sex, and this was a commodity that must be withheld until he was trapped with a marriage certificate. But people have been more free with love since the sixties, and they still get married and have children. Apparently there are more reasons to get married than just sex. Dare I say love?
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.
Vampire novels are everywhere. You can find them in bookstores, at the library and on the electronic shelves of every eBook retailer. They’re populated with sexy vampires, conflicted vampires and murderous (as opposed to vegetarian?) vampires. The blood suckers can be found in space, alternate universes and historical fiction.
So why am I launching a vampire apocalypse novel now? I first thought of the idea of vampires having a communicable disease back in the eighties, but that theme is so ubiquitous now that it’s now far from an original concept. My novel is a unique approach, but so are a lot of novels in the genre, those that aren’t simply quick rip offs of Twilight. I could also point out that vampires are still hot, that the majority of the eBook reading public is under thirty years old and that there’s always room for one more vampire, but it’s not really why I wrote this novel.
It’s all about the 1000 Souls. I came up with this concept, this new religion, when I met a Russian in Bokhara, Uzbekistan. The man owned a small hotel. He was smart, professional and a master at supplying tourists with everything they could need at fair prices. He reminded me so much of a South African caterer in Canada that I was stunned. It was as if the two men had the same soul, even though their DNA had taken very different routes down through evolution. These men didn’t look at all alike, but they were the same guy in different bodies.
So as I wrote my vampire novel, the religion of Erics (yes, plural) and the 1000 Souls was born, the concept that there are only 1000 souls spread between 7 billion humans. Ever meet someone and swear you’ve met them before even though it’s not possible? Well maybe you have, but you were shaking hands with a different host body for the same soul.
So each living human’s body is playing host to 1/seven millionth of a soul, meaning you could meet quite a few people with the same soul. It also means that the souls are pretty thinly spread, which is where the vampire apocalypse comes in. Kill off billions of people, and the remaining host bodies now contain denser souls. This makes their human hosts more passionate and daring than our thinned-souled present day humans.
Confused? Like any religion, the devil is in the details. The Book of Bertrand is just the beginning, and religions evolve over time. A quick check of the first centuries of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alone prove that the formation of a new religion is a tumultuous time.
But why vampires? Why not a less dramatic plague like bird flu? Because every new religion at its beginning needs to confront pure evil.
But the biggest reason I’m adding another vampire apocalypse novel to the world, is because I enjoyed writing it. I believe it was J.R.R. Tolkien who stated that he wrote novels that he would enjoy reading himself. I enjoyed reading (and re-reading) the Book of Bertrand. I really like Bertrand and his friends, and I can’t wait to write what happens in the next novel.
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 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 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.
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.”