Category Archives: publishing

Pollyanna Patrick versus the death of publishing

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom this week in discussions about the future of the publishing industry, much of which was spurred by a presentation by Ewan Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which he said that the industry was doomed and that writing as a profession was doomed along with it.

Wow. Way to bring the mood of the party down, Ewan.

Morrison brings up a lot of interesting points, but he takes a very pessimistic stance in his article. I think he’s done so to get people talking and thinking, and that’s important, but so is maintaining some optimism and some perspective.

Here’s a rebuttal of sorts by writer Lloyd Shepherd, which provides facts and figures to argue that while the publishing industry isn’t what it was, it’s premature to sound the death knell yet. I don’t have that degree of recourse to facts – not that that has ever stopped me – but speaking as a writer, an online self-publisher, and a commissioning editor at a major publishing house (albeit in education rather than fiction), three things in Morrison’s article leap out at me.

Avast, and here are some free Dan Brown books!

Piracy – and look, I say ‘pirate’ rather than ‘file-sharer’ or ‘unauthorised copier’ because it’s shorter and pithier, okay? No value judgement. Anyway, piracy of straight-up fiction is not that big a deal. Pirates focus heavily on sharing electronic media, music, movies and games; they generally don’t care about books, and book readers generally aren’t pirates. Even those publishing arms that are hit harder by piracy, usually fan-media or roleplaying, are seeing data that suggests piracy isn’t hurting them as much as they thought, because many people who torrent scans and PDFs generally wouldn’t have paid for that product anyway; they would have simply gone without. Over in fiction publishing, piracy of things that aren’t mega-bestsellers is minimal, because most pirates don’t want to read/share that stuff, and the people who want to read it are generally happy to pay for it. Maybe books would make more if piracy was impossible, but they wouldn’t make that much more.

The death of the mid-list and the loss of advances – yes, this is true, this is happening. More precisely, it’s been happening since the 1990s; it’s not as new as Morrison implies. Much like in film, publishers are under pressure to produce nothing but blockbusters – they want to publish either JK Rowling or the next JK Rowling, and that gives less room for writers that will never be JK Rowling but will produce good books nonetheless. This has been the case for years, and it sucks, but at the same time it’s not exactly a surprise. And for all the pressure on them to produce high-selling books, most publishers – the people, not the companies – care about good books, and will push to get worthy-but-lower-selling books out there. If anything, it’ll be interesting to see how the success of ebooks affects this – midlist titles are starting to find a larger audience, and the value of establishing writers who continue to sell, but never need to be reprinted, is becoming more obvious.

The race to the bottom for pricing – okay, this is a real concern. Books shouldn’t be priced as low as the market will bear, and 99 cents is too little to charge for a book. But there’s a growing realisation that digital products are priced too low, not just in publishing but in the more commercially powerful world of iPhone apps, and the prices are starting to bounce back. Are there consumers who will balk at paying $4.95 for your ebook when they can get someone else’s ebook for $3.95? Yes. But those are generally not the consumers you want – these are people to whom books are essentially fungible, and often they just want extruded word product to fill up their Kindle. I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book. Many readers are prepared to pay more sensible prices for books they want to read from authors they respect, and we should see that happen more often within the next couple of years.

(There’s been a good discussion recently of e-book pricing and the .99 cent model over at Terrible Minds; go there to see some more and different takes on the topic.)

This is just what the offices at Penguin look like. Honest.

This is a time of transition, and it’s one where things are happening quickly and the old order is being torn down faster than it can adjust. It’s all very much like Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga – THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED! – except that we don’t have any villains as cool as Darkseid.

I’m not saying it’s the Golden Age of publishing, because it sure as hell ain’t. But it’s not the End of All Things either. Large established presses will either adapt and survive or sink, but they won’t drag everything under with them. Small and independent presses have the chance to craft something new and be at the forefront of change. And for writers, there are opportunities that there never were before, even if we have to work harder to get money from those opportunities. So less doom and gloom, and more optimism, please.

The New Gods may yet come. If we believe. And keep writing.

Numb3rs (see, it just looks dumb)

One of the things I’ve set out to do with my e-publishing efforts is to be transparent about the process and to share what I learn with others. That way, even if my books don’t set the world on fire or pay for a car (or even busfare), I can help other writers learn from my mistakes and successes and get off to a better start.

So, since Godheads has been on sale for a little over a week, and there’s a new free story clogging up the internets, let’s look at how the numbers are shaking out.

Over on Smashwords, Godheads has sold 10 copies since release, and another 5 sample downloads have been made. That’s a significantly slower rate of sales than Hotel Flamingo, which did 14 copies in the first day and 7 more over the course of about a week. Similarly, Flamingo attracted 250-odd page views on release, while Godheads got only 80 or so. Both of them got the same kind of push through Twitter, LJ, Facebook and just emailing everyone I knew and asking them to buy it, but Godheads had a much weaker result.

What to make of that? Did all my friends hate the last book and decide to just ignore the new one? Well, possibly, but I’m not going to assume that. In the end, it’s about what else people have on and what catches their attention, and perhaps May is just busier than November. But I also do think that perhaps some of the novelty has worn off, as has some of the utility of word-of-mouth from the dedicated readers, and that just reinforces the need to start promoting more assertively. I’ve been almost-deliberate-but-mostly-just-lazy avoiding promoting Flamingo until Godheads was done, but now that I have two books, it’s time to bounce the attention back-and-forth between them to build the combo meter.

Speaking of Hotel Flamingo, it got a sudden uptick of 40 page views when Godheads came out, which was also around the time of my EWF panel. Not sure which one of those things was responsible – it’s hard to synch up events when the recording body is on the other side of the IDT – but either way it’s good. Those 40 views led to a grand total of one new sale, though, bringing the total through Smashwords to 50 copies. That’s not wonderful; at this rate it’ll be another six months before the book breaks even. Again, promotion may help.

My free stories, on the other hand, are doing just fine. ‘The Descent’ has clocked 350 downloads from Smashwords, 30 through Sony for its ereader and more than one thousand through Barnes and Noble! None of which earns me a goddamn cent, true, but it’s nonetheless gratifying to think of that many people reading my stuff – and, perhaps, contemplating spending money on other stuff one day. ‘Watching the Fireworks’ has only been up for  a few days, but it’s been downloaded 24 times, and should keep gaining attention – and, since it’s a completely different genre to everything else I’m doing, may get some attention from a different reader group discovering it through tags and metadata.

Alright, so that’s Smashwords. But what about the big dog, Amazon and the Kindle Store? For months I waited for Smashwords to finalise their negotiations and distribute to the Kindle Store, which is the number one marketplace for ebooks; eventually I got tired of waiting, created new versions through Amazon’s epub services and put them up their myself. Godheads is currently (let me check the site quickly) the #40 957th most popular book in the Kindle Store; Hotel Flamingo is a more disappointing #114 820. But still, that’s out of a list of more than 750 000, so that’s pretty cool. And what kind of numbers do those rankings reflect? 4 copies of Flamingo and 5 of Godheads. The bar, she is not set especially high. A lot of books on the Kindle Store are just rotting away in a server, unloved, untouched, never to be downloaded again. Gloomy, really.

Furthermore, those sales don’t do me as much good as the Smashwords one, as I discovered today while checking my royalty details. I published both books on a 70% royalty rate, which is standard, but looking at the sales figures I saw that some of the sales only attracted a 35% royalty. I thought something was screwy with the settings, but they were fine; then I dug further into the Terms and Conditions (you know, the stuff you never bother reading) and discovered the truth. That 70% royalty is only available for sales into Amazon’s home territories – the USA, the UK (amazon.uk) and German and nearby countries (amazon.de). Sales to anywhere else in the world only qualify for a 35% royalty, which is kind of a kick in the balls if you’re an Australian writer writing about Australia with a predominantly Australian audience. Apparently the lower rate is to offset the cost of Whispernet, Amazon’s ‘free’ 3G delivery system that sends books to your Kindle; outside those territories, someone’s gotta pay for that bandwidth, and apparently the writers are the ones who take it in the shorts.

I’m annoyed about that, and more so given that it’s not something you realise until you do some digging, but it’s not as if I’m going to yank the books out of there. I’ll just encourage people to go with Smashwords instead, if possible, which pays a higher royalty and is a lot more transparent about the whole process. They’re far from perfect, and I’m not always pleased with some of the formatting of their ebooks, but they do a lot more to keep their writers informed about how it all works and to do what they can for them, which has more appeal than Amazon’s hands-off approach.

For that matter, I plan to take a bit of advice from Chuck Wendig, who sells his ebooks Irregular Creatures and Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey through both the Kindle Store (as .mobi files) and through his own site Terrible Minds (as PDFs). Sales of the PDFs are lower than the ebooks, but they’re respectable and he gets all the cash, rather than a variable cut. So I’m following his lead and putting together my own PDFs of Flamingo and Godheads that people can pick up directly. Not sure how I’m going to arrange that as yet – whether using a Paypal widget or just telling people to shoot me an email – but I’ll get it worked out soon enough.

(For the curious – my Smashwords files use Times New Roman, my Kindle Store files use Book Antiqua, and I was using Century for the PODcom files but am switching to Adobe Garamond Pro because the punctuation marks in Century are awful. These are the things I think about during lunch breaks.)

Anyway, that’s what I’m working on this week, along with uploading some updated files to Smashwords, sending out copies to reviewers, and working on a new flash piece about doll heads. And talking about genre and gaming at Continuum 7 over the weekend. More on that later.

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