Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Interview with Scott Doornbosch

I first met Scott Doornbosch in 2003.

I was at the Magna Cum Murder conference in Muncie, Indiana, waiting for the elevator with my buddy Robert W. Walker, ready to head up to my room for some Jack Daniels because the hotel bar was too expensive. Scott was standing there in the lobby, looking out of place, so I asked him if he wanted to join us for a shot of whiskey. He agreed, and has been following me from writing convention to writing convention ever since.

Whenever I ran into Scott, I hounded him to finish the book he was working on. I did this for eight years.

I'm happy to say that Scott's first novel, Basic Black, is now live for Kindle and Nook at $2.99, and in print via Createspace for $13.95.

Joe: Let's get the maudlin stuff out of the way first. You were recently diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma. What's the prognosis?

Scott: I started chemo in February but in April they told me it wasn't working. I just started a new treatment that was just approved by the FDA. My doctor has high hopes for this new drug. If anyone else out there is dealing with this same issue and needs to talk, they can always e-mail me at scottdoornbosch(at)aol.com

Joe: Where did you come up with the idea for this book?

Scott: This was actually supposed to be the third in the series, but after completing the first two I went with this one for the first book. I don't really know why for sure. I guess I just liked this story line the best for the debut novel.

Joe: How long did it take you to write Basic Black?

Scott: This book took 5 years to write and it's all your fault. After meeting you and partying at the conventions I let the writing slip. I was having so much fun and meeting so many wonderful people and so many personal obligations got in the way that I let the writing fall by the wayside. About a year ago I couldn't justify spending the money to keep going to all these conventions just to party. I decided it was time to either do it or give the whole thing up. At that point I really only had about 20,000 words. In less than two months I had added another 60,000 and was finished.

Joe: What is your feeling about self-publishing?

Scott: I am thrilled about self-publishing. I know many people might not consider me a real writer for going this route, but I'm very excited about the whole project. I had never given it much thought in the past, but after attending the last writing convention I thought about it more seriously and decided it was the way to go. Mainly because the publishers that were represented at the convention weren't for me. Not one of them were giving advances for the books, some of them weren't even interested in putting up a version on Kindle and there were so many other restrictions and limitations put on the writer that I didn't even bother to pitch my book to any of them at that convention. Then the more I heard about this route the more I was convinced. You of course were one of the first to convince me, but I also found many other authors I know doing the same thing now. I was amazed when I found out how many of them were turning down huge advances to publish their next books themselves.

Joe: Are you working on a sequel?

Scott: There is a sequel in the works called BLACK TIE AND TALES, but it still has a long way to go. Even though it was one of the first ones I wrote, I joined a writers group and found out that I had a lot to learn. So I am in the process of re-working it. That brings me to a bit of advice which was not part of the question but I feel I have to say it. Newbie writers have all heard this, but you really need to find a writers group. You will be amazed to find out how much you don't know. And yes, you need a writers group even though your mother told you your book is wonderful. If it wasn't for joining a writing group, BASIC BLACK would never have been in any shape to be published. Joe, you of all people know how bad that first draft was, and I thank you for not destroying my ego after reading it.

Joe sez: In the interest of full disclosure, I have a personal interest in this situation. When I heard about Scott's cancer, I knew there was a potential time issue involved. Holding your first book in your hands is one of the true joys of being a writer, but if Scott had pursued the legacy route, he might not have had that opportunity. Since he's getting creamed with medical bills, and had no knowledge of how to self-publish, I covered the cost of this and did everything for him, hiring a proof reader, formatter, cover artist, and layout artist. I did this without Scott asking me to, and he makes all the money from it.

I'm not admitting this to show the world what a generous guy I am. Scott simply needed someone to step-up and help.

You can help, too, by buying his book. Kindle and Nook for $2.99. Print for $13.95 via Amazon. Feel free to spread the word.

Scott's a dear friend, and not doing so well. Please keep the comments upbeat.

Attack of the Self-Publishing Memes! - A Guest Post by Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler has posted a number of smart comments on this topic here and on a few other blogs, too, and I asked him if he'd mind pulling them together in a single post. It was either that or another online conversation, and since we can't seem to do those in under 10,000 words and both have books to finish, this seemed the better bet.

Here's Barry:

Thanks, Joe, for the opportunity to pull together some of my thinking on literary agents helping authors self-publish. I see two primary false memes that have emerged in response to agents offering their clients new services. These are: (i) such agents are now publishers; and (ii) the new model creates a conflict of interest with the old. Let me address these in turn.

1. Are agents who assist their self-published clients now really publishers?

The problem here is that many people are conflating two business models: those in which literary agencies are trying to acquire rights in authors' works, as publishers always have; and those that acquire no rights, and instead simply facilitate their clients' self-publishing efforts.

We're still in the early days of digital publishing, and it's natural that there's some confusion about what makes a "publisher." Most of what people associate with a publisher -- editing, marketing, distribution -- are the artifacts, not the essence. The essence of publishing is control of rights.

For the reasons Joe and I discussed in Part 3 of our online conversation Be The Monkey, Amazon's Thomas & Mercer is no legacy publisher. But there's no question that T&M is, in fact, a publisher, because the company is buying the rights to the books it sells. By contrast, no matter who she chooses to hire to assist her in getting her works to readers, an author who retains rights to her works is self-published. And the company she hires to help her is not a publisher.

There's been some silliness along the lines of, "But if the agent uploads your book, she has to have rights to it, and if she has rights to it, she is a publisher, QED!" As David Gaughran has ably pointed out, if this is true, then Smashwords is a publisher. They're not: they're a distributor with a limited right to upload and to collect and distribute the author's earnings. They acquire no rights to a book beyond these and an author can pull his book from Smashwords at any time. For that matter, Amazon and B&N acquire certain rights in the books they distribute, too. So far, I haven't heard anyone make the claim that by ceding those rights, self-published authors have turned Amazon and B&N into their publishers.

http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/major-us-agency-moves-into-publishing-or-do-they/

As the copyright holder, an author can transfer all sorts of rights. It's important to keep them straight in one's mind, and to remember that rights to upload files and to collect money, especially when revocable at the author's discretion, are not the same as publishing rights. For more, see Joe's post on J.K. Rowling's decision to self-publish her ebooks (and the comments to that post).

(Joe sez: Also, we can rightly assume that Amazon has worked with literary agents in various deals. A lit agent could upload ebooks to Amazon for a writer without the writer relinquishing rights.)

2. Are agents who assist their self-published clients faced with a conflict of interest?

Let's start with a definition. According to Wikipedia, "A conflict of interest occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_of_interest

It's hard to see how this applies to an agent who in neither the legacy nor the self-published model acquires rights, and who in both instances earns the same percentage. As long as the agent makes the same 15% whether brokering a sale to a legacy publisher or assisting the author publish the work herself, the agent is incentivized to recommend the route that looks most likely to make the author the most money. So no multiple interests, or at least no more so than has been the case with traditional agenting. Or, to get back to the precise definition of the term, no "multiple interests" in the additional model, nor any way in which one aspect of the business "could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other."

Full disclosure, so that people can judge for themselves whether I have my own conflict here: Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, which is also assisting its clients who want to self-publish with a 15%, no-rights-acquisition model, is my wife.

Here's a thought experiment I hope will lead to some more clarity on this issue. Imagine you're an author, and you have offers of representation from two literary agencies that are identical in all respects save one: one will assist its clients in reaching readers only by attempting to sell its clients' works to legacy publishers; the other will assist its clients in reaching readers by attempting to sell its clients' works to legacy publishers *and* will also help clients self-publish their works if their clients so desire.

Which offer do you accept?

Unless you're sure that: (i) you will never self-publish anything; or (ii) that even if you do, you will handle it all yourself, I think it's pretty clear that you'd go with the agency that offered you the more complete set of services.

Or, to put it another way: which of the two hypothetical agencies I describe above would a writer want for representation as legacy publishing contracts? The one that says, "Sorry, we can't sell your manuscript because there are so few buyers?" Or the one that says, "We can't sell your manuscript because there are so few buyers, but we can help you another way?"

I have a hard time imagining agents nefariously trying to steer their clients to a new model whereby the agent's percentage is the same, but where there is no advance, where the agent has to invest significant additional time and her own money, and where there is no certainty of a return on the investment except perhaps in the very long term. So if anything, I think people might argue that agents who offer both models might be tempted to steer their clients toward a traditional deal because it represents a relatively quick and easy payday. But would this be a conflict of interest? An interesting question, because it ignores the fact that this is what agents have always done simply by default. Still, self-published authors, beware! Your agents might be trying to steer you toward legacy deals.

Actually, I'd go even further (and for this point I'm indebted to Livia Blackburne, who shared this thought at Writer Beware). The real conflict of interest arises when an agent with a single, legacy model has to advise a client who is considering self-publishing. Where do writers think they're likely to get the most disinterested advice: from an agent who can only make money if she sells the writer's manuscript to a legacy publisher and who stands to make nothing if the writer self-publishes it? Or from an agent that stands to make 15% either way?

http://tinyurl.com/3dmckyq

So upon further consideration, I do think that today there is a potential conflict of interest in agenting. It exists among those agencies who can only make money by directing their clients toward legacy deals.

Part of the basis for the conflict of interest misunderstanding is a misunderstanding about the nature of the agent's role. As Victoria Strauss has argued at Writer Beware, "[T]he author-agent relationship... is founded on the premise that the agent's job is to sell the client's work for the best possible advance to the best possible publisher."

http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2011/06/agencies-becoming-publishers-trend-and.html

I would argue that this is defining the author/agent relationship premise too narrowly. Most fundamentally, the purpose -- the end -- of the agent is to help authors get their books to the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success. The means by which this end has traditionally been achieved is a sale to a legacy publisher. Because the "sale to a publisher" route has until quite recently been the only means to the "getting the book to the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success" end, it's easy to conflate the two. But just as railroads were not in the railroad business, but rather were in the transportation business, agents are not in the "selling to publishers" business, but rather are in the "helping their authors reach the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success" business. Agents who miss this fundamental distinction are making the same mistake the railroad companies made, and will achieve similar results.

The saddest thing about these false memes is that they distract from the real and important questions writers need to grapple with: exactly what are agencies going to provide in their new models, and will those services be worth 15%? Whether 15% is worth it is something authors and agencies will have to decide for themselves (I think David Gaughran is asking excellent questions in this regard, and Joe and I talk about it much more in Be The Monkey). But whether a service is worth providing or worth retaining at a given price is a question for the market to decide. It has nothing to do with conflicts of interest, or with the inherent value of agencies finding news ways to assist their clients reach the greatest number of readers and achieve the greatest possible commercial and literary success.

http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/major-us-agency-moves-into-publishing-or-do-they/

There's more to say, but I gotta get back to The Detachment (out September 15, BTW ;) ). But just one last observation. It strikes me that the "If you hire someone to help you run your business, you're no longer self-publishing" meme is the mirror image of the "If you don't go with a legacy publisher, you're uploading unedited schlock" meme. Each is driven less by thought and evidence than by ideology and a weird form of narcissism. Which might be a common reaction in all revolutions, not just in the one we're witnessing in publishing.

http://tinyurl.com/3vntzj6

Joe sez: As I said in the comments of my last blog post on this topic, it's good to be skeptical. But it's also good to keep an open mind until all the facts come it. In other words, don't knock it until you (or someone you trust) has tried it.

I'm trying it. My agent will manage one of my self-pubbed properties. I'll report on how it goes, good or bad.

Until then, let's try to reserve judgement. Anything else is specious.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Estributors Redux

About 18 months ago, I was looking at the rapidly evolving ebook climate, and realized the need for a new type of service for authors. A facilitator who could be a buffer between the author and the business end of self-publishing.

I called this position an estributor.

The more I began to self-publish, the more I realized what a time suck it was to take care of all the non-writing parts of the job. When you go indie, you essentially become a small business, and take on all the responsibilities for running that business. That cuts into writing time. Doing quick and dirty assessment of my time management and my productivity, I concluded that I could make more money if I gave an estributor 15% to take care of the business side for me, because my increased writing output would more than make up for that cost. Plus, I'd be happier, because I'd much rather write for a living than run a business.

So it pleased me to learn that my agents, Dystel & Goderich, have begun to assume this position. Here's their latest blog entry:

Word gets around the publishing industry pretty quickly (which is not surprising since we’re in the communications business). So, we wanted you to hear our news from us first rather than pick it up through inaccurate scuttlebutt in seedy back rooms on the web.

As those of you who’ve been reading this blog for the last few years know, we have been following developments in e-publishing with great interest. As an agency that has prided itself on being a bit of a maverick among the stodgy old guard, we have always been more intrigued than scared about this new world of e-books. The consensus among us, even after listening to the doomsayers, has been that e-publishing will re-energize our business and create more readers. That’s right, instead of bemoaning the death of publishing as we know it, DGLMers have always felt that e-books and electronic media offer a tremendous opportunity to expand our reach and that of our authors.

That said, we have been very clear all along that we are literary agents. We are proud of the job we do, the services we provide, and the help we’ve given to countless authors over the years in fulfilling their dreams of publishing their work. We are also more cognizant than most of the superb work traditional publishers have done and continue to do in producing beautiful, lasting, quality books.

Over the past months and years we’ve come to the realization that e-publishing is yet another area in which we can be of service to our clients as literary agents. From authors who want to have their work available once the physical edition has gone out of print and the rights have reverted, to those whose books we believe in and feel passionately about but couldn’t sell—oftentimes, after approaching 20 or more houses—we realized that part of our job as agents in this new publishing milieu is to facilitate these works being made available as e-books and through POD and other editions.

Right now, you’re thinking, oh, DGLM is going to be another of those agencies that has decided to become an e-publisher and charge clients whose books they can’t sell 50% of their income for the privilege of uploading their work. Some of you may be mumbling, “Uh…that’s a conflict of interest.” We get it and we understand how that can be the perception. However, we have no intention of becoming e-publishers. As we said above, we have too much respect for the work that publishers do and too much respect for the work we ourselves do to muddy the waters in such a way.

Again, what we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next. We will charge a 15% commission for our services in helping them project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work. We will continue to negotiate all agreements that may ensue as a result of e-publishing, try to place subsidiary rights where applicable, collect monies and review statements to make sure the author is being paid. In short, we will continue to be agents and do the myriad things that agents do.

Our intention is to keep on trying to find books we think we can sell to traditional publishing houses, to negotiate the best deal (always), and to give our authors as many options as we can. Because we will continue to be commission-based, we will not be automatically pushing authors into e-publishing. Again, we want to give our authors options and empower them to do what they set out to do all along: have their work read by the largest possible audience.

We are excited about this new part of our business and hope you will be as well. We welcome your thoughts, comments, and concerns.

Joe sez: I'm going to be working with my agents on my upcoming novel, Timecaster Supersymmetry. My goal is to finish the book, then let someone else handle all the heavy lifting.

Some people think it's a bad idea to give away any percentage of income, and that paying a flat fee is smarter. Perhaps. But my hope is that working with D&G will provide me with ongoing support, rather than a one-time service. If I were to pay a fulltime employee for ongoing support, I don't see any difference between that and paying an estributor a royalty percentage. In both cases, I'm paying for a lifelong service. And, as I'd already established, if this allows me to write more, it will be worth the money to me.

Naturally, I'll keep my blog readers posted on how this arrangement is working out. I also invited D&G to visit this blog and answer any questions anyone might have.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Interview with Catherine MacDonald from BookRooster.com

Reviews are important. Customers often look at the average star rating, and the number of reviews a book has, before buying. But getting reviews isn't easy. For my last several ebook releases, I gave away free copies to fans in exchange for reviews, but this is time-consuming and labor intensive.

Now there's an easier, quicker solution to getting reviews that doesn't require having thousands of fans or begging friends and family.

BookRooster.com is a community of over 2,200 passionate readers/reviewers drawn from BookLending.com and other Kindle reader communities. They organize the distribution of review copies of your novel (in MOBI format for Kindle) to reviewers in exchange for their objective Amazon customer review.

I became aware of them about two weeks ago, and gave the service a try for my ebook Flee. (Disclosure: Catherine let me try their service for free.) So far Flee has accrued over twenty new reviews in the last few days, and has climbed considerably in the Top Rated rankings for Police Procedurals and Romantic Suspense.

The service costs $49, making it an affordable solution for authors who would like to have more reviews. If you read some of the reviews of Flee, you'll see they're honest and mostly well-written, and many of the reviewers hadn't ever read my work before, and have said they'll go on to read more of it. So BookRooster doesn't just offer reviews, it also can potentially widen an author's fanbase.

I asked the founder, Catherine MacDonald, a few questions about BookRooster, and she graciously responded.

Joe: Where did you come up with the idea for BookRooster?

Catherine: As the founder of Kindle lending community BookLending.com, I have had the chance to talk to authors and readers and to learn about the Kindle publishing ecosystem. Some informative blogs and articles (your blog, of course, is at the top of my list) brought me up-to-date with the upheaval is happening in publishing.

Then, as a reader starting to read books by indie authors for the first time, I began to realize how many fantastic books are not getting the readers they deserve. It seems that customer reviews are key to ensuring that books get discovered by other readers.

While authors sometimes struggle to find readers, there are huge numbers of passionate readers looking to discover new books -- over 26,000 of them on BookLending.com alone! I had seen authors use various approaches to find reader-reviewers and it just made sense to draw on the enthusiastic community of readers we have to create an easier way for authors to get their books to prospective Amazon customer reviewers.

Joe: Do you believe reviews help sell books?

Catherine: I think good books sell books, but sometimes good books don't get the attention they should, and that's where reviews come in. As a book buyer, I rely on reader reviews, and so I think that it's important for a book to have enough objective reviews so that readers are able to decide whether or not they are likely to enjoy it.

Joe: Can anyone join and review books?

Catherine: Any reader with an Amazon account can submit her name, email address and preferred genres. Depending on demand, she'll begin receiving invitations to review books within a few weeks.

Joe: How long is the wait for authors who would like to use this service?

Catherine: Right now, we're booking review copy distribution beginning the third week in July. Many authors book their spots in advance; we can be flexible about dates as the release date approaches and authors can forward specifics about the book, as well as the file itself, as they become available.

Joe: Is there any policy for dealing with reviewers who reveal spoilers, or are flat-out abusive?

Catherine: Our reviewer guidelines mirror Amazon's customer review guidelines. We read all the reviews written by BookRooster.com reviewers and it's safe to say that if a reviewer breaches Amazon's guidelines by revealing spoilers without warning or posting a dishonest review, he or she would not receive review copies through BookRooster.com in the future.

Joe: Besides Amazon, do you encourage reviewers to post elsewhere, such as Goodreaders, Smashwords, or B&N?

Catherine: Not at this time, but it's a definite possibility in the future.

Joe: As you accrue more reviewers, do you anticipate BookRooster raising its prices?

Catherine: We launched with an introductory price of $49 because we appreciate that this is a new and untested service and we wanted to give our "early adopter" authors an extra good deal to thank them for jumping in with us. Given the amount of work that goes into administering the service, we will likely be raising the price by $10 to $20 sometime soon so that we have some breathing room to develop new features and hire administrative help.

Joe sez: Considering how obsessive some authors are about reviews, and how essential it has become to have reviews, this is $49 well spent. But keep in mind that neither BookRooster nor its reviewers promise to leave glowing praise. If they don't like your book, they'll say so.

Also, I believe this service is different than something like Kirkus Reviews of the new PW Select, where gullible authors pay lots of money for a single review in those journals. As I stated earlier, I always give out free copies in exchange for reviews. That's the same thing legacy publishers do, giving away galley copies. BookRooster just makes it easier.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Your Second Storefront

I just had a long conversation with Barry Eisler (no, we're not writing this one down) and one of the things we touched upon was what makes a bestseller a bestseller.

I've argued that brands, name recognition, and fanbases aren't as important as we'd like to think they are. In short, the authors who are famous bestsellers right now might not be famous bestsellers in the near future. Rather than repeat the reasons why, you can read the argument here.

In the legacy world, the more books you had in print, the more you'd sell, because you took up a lot of shelf space (both in a single store, and in thousands of stores.)

But in a digital world, every ebook has one slot on the shelf. You can increase shelf space by having many ebooks, but there are only a handful of stores (Amazon, BN, Smashwords, iBookstores, Sony, Kobo, etc) rather than the thousands of bookstores and thousands of other stores that sell books.

This is a much more even playing field. And while I disagree that name authors lowering their ebook prices will hurt my sales much (at low prices, people buy more), I do recognize the importance of standing out among the millions of other titles.

It is easier to make a sale in a digital world, but there it is still a multi-tiered process.

1. A reader must discover that your book exists.

2. A reader must be compelled to look at it.

3. A reader makes a decision to buy it.

4. A reader makes a decision to read it, and then possibly buy your other titles.

The first point requires some heavy lifting on the part of the author, building buzz, networking, trying to get some awareness. But the author has some help. Amazon is leading the pack in making it easy to discover ebooks. Their bestseller lists (which have been supplemented with their new best rated lists) and the "customers who also bought" make it easier than ever to find things to buy.

Once a reader realizes a book exists, the author has to make a good impression. A great cover, great blurb, and professional formatting are all subtle indicators that this is a quality product.

Believe it or not, the size of the author's name on the cover can subconsciously signal that the author is important. But there are other indicators, too.

Star rating, and the number of reviews (along with what is said in the reviews) can help sell books. Here's an interview I did with BookRooster.com, which I recently used to some success, and which helps authors get reviews.

But once the ebook is bought (or the sample is downloaded) there is yet another hurdle to overcome. Just because the book is on a customer's ereader doesn't mean it has been read.

In fact, everyone with an ereader has a choice of where to get content. They can go to Amazon (or whatever store they shop at) and look for new ebooks. Or they can peruse the content they've already downloaded, either as a sample or as a full book.

This has some disadvantages, however. Unlike a print to-be-read pile, where a reader can look at what they bought, it isn't easy to read back jacket copy on an ebook.

This means that some ebooks or samples that have been downloaded get forgotten, and it is a minor hassle to figure out what the book is about.

If you own an ereader, no doubt you've looked through the dozens (hundreds?) of titles on your device and probably forgotten why you downloaded some of them.

Here's the easy fix. Instead of beginning an ebook with the copyright page (that should come at the very end--no one cares about reading that) your ebook should start with the same description that is on the product page. That will jog a reader's memory, and make it easy for them to decide whether or not to read that ebook or sample.

That simple trick (which I stole from Blake Crouch) will improve your chances at being read. Then, once you are read, there are some other tricks to use.

First, make sure you have a clickable bibliography, which allows readers to directly access your other content. But this bibliography should be more than just titles. It should also include the product description of the ebooks (if not for all, then for at least a few of them).

You can also have excerpts from your ebooks, and other writers' ebooks. Again with links.

In other words, you've turned a customer's ereader into your second storefront. They can still find you by browsing online, but as more people buy more and more ebooks, more and more browsing will be within the ereader.

Make it easy for these readers to read you and buy you.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

JK Rowling Will Self-Pub Harry Potter Ebooks

Yes, you read correctly.

According to Wired.co.uk, the billionaire author is forsaking her print publishers and releasing her novels on her own.

Whoa.

A few years ago, I was critical of Rowling's decision not to release ebooks of the Potter series. Piracy became the only way to get her ebooks, and those bootleg copies thrived. I wouldn't be surprised if she was the most pirated author ever, simply because fans had no other choice if they wanted to read her on their ereaders. That means she missed out on a lot of money.

Looks like she found a way to get that money back.

Naturally, I think she's brilliant for making this self-pubbing move. She'll be the first superstar to do so, and others will no doubt follow suit.

This comes on the heels of Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint acquiring the rights to more than forty titles in Ed McBain's backlist. McBain died in 2005, and has sold more than 100 million books. I love the 87th Precinct novels, and they were one of the main reasons I chose to write police procedurals. It will be great to see them in ebook form, and in print once again, even if the Seattle Mystery Bookshop won't carry them.

They also won't carry Barry Eisler, who turned down half a million dollars from St. Martins in order to self-pub. (For those with Kindles, our entire three-part 35,000 word conversation is now nicely formatted and available for 99 cents. Ditto Nook, and free on Smashwords.)

And, of course, let's not forget that John Locke is the first indie author to sell a million ebooks.

Borders recently got a one month extension to find a buyer before they're forced to liquidate.

Barnes and Noble is hanging in there, and sales are up 20% over last year. But this is mostly due to increased BN.com sales, many of which were ebooks.

So what does all of this mean?

More than a year ago I predicted that ebooks won't destroy the Big 6 because readers will abandon print (even though they're doing just that--ebook sales up 157% in March, print books down 22%-40%), but rather it is authors who will render the Big 6 obsolete. The more authors who choose the self-pub route over legacy, the harder it will be for legacy publishers to stay afloat.

Some bookstores will survive if they learn how to adapt. But it'll be tough, and I think everyone agrees that the heyday of bookstores is over. From now on there will be more stores closing than opening.

As I've said before, this is a death spiral.

What happens next is obvious. After more bookstores close, publishers will follow suit. They'll keep ebook prices high to make up for their print losses, but won't be able to sustain their overhead. Since ebooks now outsell print, very few authors are going to sign new legacy deals for 14.9% ebook royalties, so publishers will have to offer more or lose them.

It's only a matter of time before the house of cards collapses.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ebook Sales Down?

I've been asked to speculate about the future in several emails, mostly from panicked authors whose Kindle sales have gone down in June. My sales have also dropped off about 15%, pretty much across the board. I was averaging 831 daily sales in May. So far in June, I'm at 725 a day. On Nook, I was averaging 50 a day. This month, I'm averaging 40.

In the print world, it's normal for sales to slow down. But this is the first time I've noticed a downward trend in ebook sales.

Here are a few reasons this might be happening. Again, this is speculation.

1. June is usually slow. Kids are getting out of school, lots of graduations, people planning vacations, spending more time doing outdoor activities. Buying ebooks isn't their priority.

This may be true, because this seems to be happening across the board for all authors.

2. Amazon had their summer sale and dropped the prices on 600 ebooks to under $2.99, which hurt a lot of authors' rankings.

While that could explain Amazon sales, mine haven't rebounded since their promotion ended. It also doesn't explain my 22% drop in Nook sales.

3. More competition from a huge influx of new ebooks, both indie and legacy, is making it harder for ebooks and authors to be discovered.

Possible, but not probable. If this is oversaturation, it happened really fast. To account for a 15% loss in sales, that would mean Amazon had an influx of at least 150,000 new ebooks in June (Assuming they already have a million Kindle titles.) I say "at least" because that would assume all 150,000 of those new titles are selling well enough to hurt my sales by 15%.

That doesn't seem likely.

4. Perhaps there are too many ebooks for too few ereaders.

Possible again, but there are millions of ereaders sold, and hundreds of millions of devices capable of reading ebooks. Plus, ereaders continue to sell well. It seems impossible to ever fully saturate this market.

Hit books like The DaVinci Code or the Millenium Trilogy or Harry Potter are bought by hundreds of millions of readers, but they still haven't reached everyone. An ebook author should be able to sell several million ebooks before this becomes an issue.

5. While ebooks do sell for longer periods, there is a natural decline in sales, just like print books.

I believe ebooks are forever, but what goes up must come down. Neither Locke nor Hocking have also seen slower sales, based on their rankings.

6. People have grown tired of ebooks, and are no longer interested in buying them.

If that's the case, they must have gotten tired of books in general. Both Borders and Barnes & Noble have recently posted big losses. But B&N had a digital sales jump.

Obviously, we need a few more months of data to see if sales continue to drop, if they stabilize, or if they rebound.

That said, here are my thoughts.

Ebooks will continue to rise in popularity and become the dominant form of reading. This hasn't changed.

Obviously there will be more competition as more authors publish ebooks, but a constant influx of new customers buying new ereading devices (and an eventual global market for ereaders) will continue to drive sales.

Summer is slow. But once the holiday season comes around again, there will be another boost in sales across the board. This year should be bigger than last year, as ereader prices come down and move from early adopters into the mainstream.

In other words, no one needs to panic. No business has constant, unstoppable growth. Sales fluctuate. This is normal.

So what should authors be doing?

1. Keep writing. New ebooks will buoy the sales of backlist titles.

2. Cultivate a fanbase. Make sure they know when you have a new ebook released.

3. Experiment with different marketing techniques. Facebook, Twitter, bundling, putting ebooks on sale, using freebies, excerpts, clickable bibliographies, and so on.

4. Cultivate relationships with the epublishers. This is very difficult to do, but getting in good with the people selling your ebooks can only help your sales.

5. Be patient. I've heard from countless authors who are concerned that they aren't rich yet. Building a backlist, and a fanbase, takes time. Don't expect instant success. As I've said, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

I've also said that ebooks are forever. That's a long time to accrue sales.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Notice to Appear

Once upon a time, years ago, there was a crazy author who spent a lot of time, money, and energy visiting forty different states in the US.

He signed at over 1200 bookstores.

He spoke at over a hundred libraries.

He attended dozens of conventions and conferences.

He went to many book fairs and literary festivals.

He spoke at schools and universities.

In short, he did what he felt he needed to do in order to succeed. Namely, meet as many people as possible, handsell books, and spread his brand.

It cost lots of money to do this. Lots of money and lots of time.

As a result, all of his books are still in print, while many of his peers (who didn't do as much) went out of print.

These days, he does very few appearances. He doesn't speak in public. He doesn't travel.

Yet he's still selling well. Better than he ever sold before.

So are appearances still worthwhile?

Have they ever been worthwhile?

One of the things about being a writer is knowing that in order to continue writing, you have to sell books. Because of this, many writers try to do things in order to boost sales. Some buy ads. Some have contests. Some blog. Some tweet. Some use Facebook. Some give away stuff.

Some make public appearances.

I've always believed that face-to-face time is valuable, and that there is no better salesperson for my book than me. But I never considered myself a salesman. I considered myself an ambassador, spreading information and good will. Often I taught what I learned. Sometimes I got paid, but mostly I dished out money for travel and hotels and convention fees.

And because of this, I've sold more books than I would have if I hadn't done anything at all.

That's the key. Doing something will help you sell more than doing nothing.

But for every book sale, there is a cost to pay.

The cost, of course, if both the monetary cost of travel, and the time cost of making an appearance.

Not too many writers openly talk about the costs involved in self-promotion, though all do it in some form or another. There is a reason for this.

Because all of us are failing. At least, when it comes to tangible returns on investments.

Writing is a solitary profession. But we need people (readers) in order to continue to write. So we try our best to find these readers, and appearances are one way to do this.

A damn expensive way.

I was just at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago. The cost to me was $25 for parking, $10 for gas, and five hours of time.

I sold about a dozen books (paperbacks), and the royalties totaled $7.68.

So my personal appearance left me in the red almost thirty bucks, not counting the five hours I could have spent writing.

Walking the fair, I saw many of my peers, none of them doing any better than I did. Some traveled from out of state to attend. Some dished out major bucks and bought their own tables.

That's a lot of time and money for a few dozen sales.

Rewind to Bouchercon 2010, the biggest mystery con of the year. I attended, but not as an author. I'd just begun my hiatus from public appearances, and I wanted to hang out with my friends without the pressure of having to be "on."

Some authors sold a few dozen books. Most didn't even come close to that. Considering the hotel was $199 a night, and travel to San Francisco isn't cheap, I wouldn't be surprised if some writers were in the red several thousand dollars.

So why do we keep doing this? Why do we invest so much for so little in return?

Here are my thoughts.

1. We feel as if we have to do something. Doing nothing means asking for failure. So even if the costs of doing something far exceed the sales we make, at least we can say we tried.

2. There is a bit of peer pressure and "go with the crowd" mentality. Gathering together with fellow authors is a cathartic experience. We're all in the same boat, and to see others doing what we're doing makes us feel better about what we're doing, even if it is ineffective.

3. We count on intangible benefits. Even if a bestseller goes on tour, they're losing money. Pretend a big shot sells 100 hardcovers at an appearance. That's $300 in royalties--not even close to the cost of plane fare, hotel, and an escort. But meeting a fan once can make a fan for life, befriending booksellers can help your titles sell for years, and giving a good talk could help spread word of mouth, selling many more books than were signed. This can't be gauged, however.

4. We think this will be the "big one" where we sell in huge numbers. And big ones do occasionally happen. Unfortunately, there's no way to know which appearances will be worthwhile and which won't.

5. There's an ego aspect to appearances, especially at the beginning of a career. We want to make fans. We want to sign books. We want to hear how people enjoyed our writing. Having someone hug you and say they love you is a heady experience.

But eventually, like all good things that became spoiled once dollar signs were attached to them, dealing with fans becomes work. It's good work if you can get it, but it has diminishing returns that increase the more fans you acquire.

I do very few appearances these days. And it hasn't hurt my career.

While I don't advocate doing nothing, and I stand by my original position that the more you do, the more you'll sell, I've come to realize that one person, no matter how hard they try, can't make themselves a bestseller. Luck always plays a part.

The harder you work, the luckier you tend to get. But there comes a point where you can spend too much time trying to promote old work, when you'd be better served writing new work. That point can vary, book to book, person to person. But it is something to be aware of.

So next time someone asks to to speak someplace, or when the yearly convention sends you an email asking to attend, try to weight the pros and cons before automatically saying yes. Because while you will sell more books, it will probably come at too high a cost.

Friday, June 10, 2011

MWA(BNSP) - Mystery Writers of America (But Not for the Self-Published)

When I was offered a contract for my first novel back in 2002, one of the first things I did was join the Mystery Writers of America.

As a lifelong mystery fan, I was thrilled to be part of an organization that counted many of my heroes (living and dead) among its members. I wanted to mingle with my fellow crime writers. I wanted to attend the banquets. I wanted to sit at the MWA table at Bouchercon and sign alongside major bestsellers. I wanted to go to the Edgar Awards. I wanted to be included in their many high-profile anthologies.

In short, I wanted to be validated.

The need for validation is often rooted in insecurity--something writers have truckloads of. Insecurity is a wicked thing, and can foster an "us vs. them" mentality. More on that in a moment.

During my first year as a member, I attended a banquet, and had to pay through the nose for it. Sitting at the MWA table at a conference was a job, not an honor. While Whiskey Sour was nominated for just about every mystery award out there, the Edgar wasn't among them. I tried to submit to several MWA anthologies, only to discover the slots had already been filled before I had a chance. As for mingling with my peers, I did that just fine at conferences without needing the MWA.

The only time the MWA got in touch with me was when they needed something--I lost count of the times I was called upon to volunteer for some task or another--or when they wanted me to pay my dues. The dues notices (both email and in person) became so frequent, not only for me but for many of my peers, that it is now a long-running joke in the mystery community. (A friend of mine was even approached during his signing slot at Bouchercon to pay dues, in front of several fans.)

The MWA, an organization that was supposed to exist to help writers, seemed to exist only to sustain itself.

After a few years of getting nothing back (and yes, I aired my many grievances often to board members) I simply stopped renewing. While MWA no doubt does some good things (they rightly fought the Harlequin Horizon vanity imprint, and do various workshops and community events), I felt like I was giving more than I was getting. I was helping MWA, but they weren't helping me.

The annoyance at MWA wasn't only felt by me. The International Thriller Writers came into being at around the same time I quit MWA, and while I would never go on the record to say it was created because MWA was ignoring a large percentage of its members, I can say that ITW quickly figured out how to do things correctly.

While the MWA didn't seem to care I existed (except when they wanted something from me), the ITW actually helped my career. Their first few conferences were terrific. I was involved in two anthologies. I made connections that have served me well over the years. And best of all, the ITW does not have dues. They run such a smart organization, it actually earns money.

Both the MWA and ITW have membership requirements, and these are based around signing contracts with traditional publishers. I understood why this was necessary years ago. By allowing publishers to vet members, the organization would be populated by professionals.

The fact remains that most self-pubbed work isn't very good, and would never have been traditionally published.

But the times have changed. Now it is possible for authors to circumvent the legacy gatekeepers by choice (rather than because they had no choice.) Self-pubbed authors can sell a lot of books and make some real money. Full time salary money.

In my mind, that equates with being a professional.

The ITW maintains a progressive approach to accepting members. They review applications on a case-by-case basis. So even if you don't have a legacy publishing contract, you aren't automatically dismissed. This is because they understand that an organization for writers isn't an "us vs. them" venture. Exclusion doesn't make an organization better. It makes an organization self-important.

So when MWA recently changed its submission guidelines and issued a press release, I was intrigued. Had they finally gotten the hint? Were they looking at this untapped resource of self-published writers and realizing the potential to make their organization relevant again?

Alas, no.

From their release:

Self-published books, whether they are published in print or as e-books, still do not qualify for MWA active membership.

In crafting the criteria below, we had to strike a balance between including books published using those new technologies while also maintaining our high professional standards and our commitment to protecting our members (and writers in general) from the less-than-reputable publishers who seek to take advantage of them.

Now, I'm all for protecting members from less-than-reputable publishers, and I'm all for maintaining high professional standards.

But according to these rules, someone like John Locke, who has sold close to 1 million ebooks, isn't eligible for MWA membership.

How many MWA members have sold 1 million books?

I've sold close to 300,000 self-pubbed ebooks. But apparently that doesn't equate with "professional standards" according to the MWA.

Professional standards apparently mean "You're only worthy if you're vetted by the industry."

This shouldn't bug me. I gave up on the MWA years ago. It's no skin off my nose whom they include among their ranks. In fact, I might someday start an organization for writers who only earn $500k or more annually, and the overwhelming majority of MWA members wouldn't make that cut.

So if it shouldn't bug me, why does it?

Because I see this same casual dismissal of the future of our industry from the Big 6. They don't see the threat self-pubbing has become, and they're going to go extinct because of their denial.

Seeing a similar attitude coming from writers--folks who should know better because they've worked hard and struggled and gotten screwed over and over again--makes me shake my head in absolute amazement.

There are a lot of self-pubbed authors earning more money than a lot of MWA members. Certainly the MWA could use this new blood to teach longstanding members how to thrive in this brave, new world. And they NEED this information. MWA members have backlists and trunk novels and are getting repeatedly shafted by the Big 6.

How much could John Locke teach them about ebooks and marketing? How about 200 John Lockes, attending banquets, speaking at conventions?

But in their quest to maintain "professional standards" the MWA have shown themselves to care more about the validation of being a traditionally published author than what they should really care about: actually helping writers. (Which is ironic, because their noble stance against Harlequin Horizon helped newbie writers who wouldn't be allowed to join MWA.)

This is from the MWA's mission statement: "Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field[...] MWA is dedicated to promoting higher regard for crime writing and recognition and respect for those who write within the genre."

Perhaps they need to add: "Unless you self-publish."

"Us vs. them" has a longstanding history in organizations. It's ingrained in the human genome. Sports. Fraternities and sororities. Secret clubs. Unions. Belonging to something exclusive makes you feel special. In worst cases, it makes you feel superior.

Newsflash: no writer is superior to any other writer. Some may have more talent. Some have had more luck. But if you toil away at your computer, day after day, month after month, and finally reach that magic "the end", you're a writer.

If you want to have a group of writers, you include everyone. If you want to have a group of professional writers, you can look up Merriam Webster's definition for "professional":

a : participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs
b : having a particular profession as a permanent career
c : engaged in by persons receiving financial return

According to the dictionary, I believe there are a lot of self-pubbed writers who qualify as professionals.

MWA also mentions in its mission statement that they accept: "aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre." Which means newbies and fans. That's fine, but these people can only get an associate membership. Which means they pay, but aren't allowed to do many of the things that regular members do.

Can you say taxation without representation?

Again, I can understand why these rules were formed. The MWA rightfully wanted to be an organization of pros.

But it seems to me that the new pros are the ones succeeding in this emerging, self-pubbing ebook world. When legacy published authors begin turning down Big 6 contracts, it says something loud and clear about the direction the industry is headed.

In the past, you needed to be validated by gatekeepers (i.e. get fucking lucky) in order to make money.

Now you can bypass the gatekeepers and reach readers directly, making a greater percentage of money than any time in the history of fiction writing.

I busted my ass trying to get published. But I don't feel that I deserve success. I have no sense of entitlement. Hard work is mandatory in any career. It doesn't guarantee anything.

I realize I was lucky to land some legacy deals, and I'm even luckier that self-pubbing has become so lucrative.

That doesn't make me worthy. It makes me fortunate.

If each and every member of the MWA realized that their careers and their legacy deals were the result of good fortune, I doubt they'd exclude self-pubbed authors from joining.

Now, I don't advocate letting anyone at all join. There should be standards. An organization for writers should be filled with writers, not posers.

So what would my membership requirements be if I were running the MWA?

I'd have just one. Prove that you've sold 5000 books. Once you do that, you're in.

I'd say that selling 5000 shows a dedication and commitment to this business that qualifies as "professional", without any arbitrary gatekeeping dinosaurs intruding. Let the readers be the gatekeepers. They ultimately are anyway.

Popularity is truly the only equalizer when it comes to publishing. If you manage to sell 5000 books, you're doing something right. The current MWA guidelines are elitist--they only accept those who are chosen by a few dozen gatekeepers in the establishment.

The majority of writers I know got offers from a single house, rather than competing offers from multiple houses. Eliminate that one house, and they would still be unpublished. That's luck. If the publishing gatekeepers really knew quality, a truly worthy book would get bids from every major house. That never happens. In fact, many houses pass on books that go on to make millions and win awards.

The gatekeeping system has long been broken, and it's a very poor determiner of quality. The fact that I'm on track to sell more of my rejected novels than I have of my legacy pubbed novels is more proof they have no idea what people want.

But the readers know what they want. They have the ability to choose what they want to read. And if 5000 people choose to buy a book, that carries a lot more weight than some self-important editor (who may or may not be having a good day) being the sole decider on whether to buy or pass.

We all work hard. We all write one word at a time. Some of us succeed. Most of us fail.

But all of us are writers. We can all learn from each other, and help each other.

And we don't need any organization that says getting a $500 advance means you're a pro, and making $500k a year self-pubbing means you're not.

Legacy publishers are quickly becoming obsolete. If the MWA doesn't change, they'll be close behind.

Before posting this blog entry, I gave the MWA a chance to respond. According to my contact, "they very much appreciate the offer to respond, but politely decline."

That's a shame. But I'm allowing anonymous comments, so hopefully some members will engage in debate. I have many friends who are members, and this blog post isn't meant to hurt them. It's meant to help.

Ignoring the future has never been a smart move.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Guest Post by Raymond Benson

Raymond Benson has been a buddy of mine for years. He wrote nine James Bond novels and a slew of others, including tie-ins for the the video games Homefront and Metal Gear Solid, and a few Tom Clancy spin-offs.

He's made his backlist and a few unpublished novels available as ebooks, but they aren't selling as well as they could.

So what's going on? He's a name author with a fanbase, his covers are decent, his formatting is professional, and his ebooks are priced right.

Here's Raymond to talk about it...

THE ELUSIVE REWARDS OF E-BOOK PUBLISHING
By Raymond Benson

My good friend Joe Konrath has become the poster boy of e-book publishing. I really admire him. I step back and watch him and shake my head and say to myself, “Good for him. It’s so amazing that he’s had such success with e-books.” And I think: “Maybe I can do that, too!”

So, like many of Joe’s other author buddies, I have uploaded several of my titles to Amazon Kindle and Smashwords. I figured that if Joe, who produces a new, wonderfully entertaining Grindhouse-style horror or crime novel every day (it seems) and earns oodles of cash, then why can’t I?

But I don’t write the same kinds of books Joe does. Mine are straight thrillers, for the most part, although one of the new books I uploaded has a supernatural slant.

I’m mostly known for my James Bond novels published between 1997-2002. Unfortunately, these titles are owned by Ian Fleming’s literary company, so it’s up to them to make the books available in digital form (supposedly they’re coming soon). Other work-for-hire books for which I’m known are available but, again, I don’t own them.

The way to do it, Joe says, is put all your books that you own up there, even ones that were stashed away in a drawer long ago, price them at $2.99, and sit back and collect 70% royalties. So I did that. I have ten titles up there now—seven novels and three short stories. Five of the novels and one short story were published “traditionally” in print a few years ago (and are still somewhat available in that format). Only two novels came from the “vault,” so to speak. They didn’t sell originally but I personally thought (and my agent thought) they were sure-fire winners. So they should be selling well, right?

It hasn’t worked out that way. Not yet, anyway.

I did all the things Joe says to do. Get good covers, generate some buzz on the Kindle message boards, announce their availability on Facebook and the like, and market them the best I can. And yet, my sales are puny. As the author of twenty-five published books, and one who has made money from traditional publishing, I am now scratching my head and rubbing my chin and looking at my friend Joe and asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Here’s what I have available. The two books from the vault were written in 2006. The first, Artifact of Evil, is a thriller with historical fantasy elements. A prehistoric relic has become a coveted object of destruction, and it’s up to “Rusty” Red River, a freelance forensics consultant from Texas and his ex-girlfriend, a Jewish expert of Hebrew myths and legends, to solve a series of horrid crimes that stretch from Iraq to Chicago.

The other one, Torment, is about love, obsession, and voodoo. Our protagonist is on a business retreat in Jamaica, where he becomes simultaneously “cursed” and “protected” by two different voodoo charms. He also meets the love of his life, who mysteriously vanishes the morning after. Tracing her steps backwards, our hero must undergo unimaginable torment to find her.

Previously published novels available as e-books are my two rock ‘n’ roll thrillers—A Hard Day’s Death and Dark Side of the Morgue. These feature Spike Berenger, a P.I. who works in the rock ‘n’ roll world, which, of course, has been skewed to be a very dangerous place. With lots of references to music, cameos by real rock stars, and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, these are simply a lot of fun. There’s a Spike Berenger “hit single” (short story), too, entitled On the Threshold of a Death.

My early novels Evil Hours and Face Blind have been available as e-books for years. Evil Hours was written back in the late 90s while I was doing the Bonds. It’s “Larry McMurtry meets David Lynch”; in other words, it’s a crime thriller about the underbelly of a small West Texas town. Inspired by true events that took place when I was in junior high and high school, Evil Hours remains a favorite among my own novels. Face Blind concerns a young woman with “prosopagnosia,” or “face blindness,” a real neurological condition that prevents a person from recognizing faces. It’s “Wait Until Dark meets Memento”!

All of these titles are $2.99 or less in all formats. Other books of mine, for which the e-book rights are owned by different publishers, are also available at slightly higher costs. That’s standard for every author out there who still has books with traditional publishers—and despite what Joe says, I do believe that traditional publishing is still an important and necessary means of distributing one’s work.

In fact, I am extremely grateful and excited to work with the independent publisher Oceanview Publishing, which is publishing my thriller The Black Stiletto in September, both in hardcover and as an e-book. The first in a series featuring a female vigilante working in 1950s New York City, The Black Stiletto is very close to my heart. For a sneak preview, check out the ultra-cool video I recently wrote and produced in Hollywood at www.theblackstiletto.net. (Joe sez: best book trailer I've ever seen.)

But back to e-books. From what Joe and a handful of other author friends tell me, this is the future of publishing. I had a long talk with fellow authors at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago this past weekend about the subject. Most everyone is having the same kind of luck I am with e-books, i.e., it’s nothing to write home about. A couple of folks are selling books “okay,” but nowhere near Joe’s range.

So for me, at this moment anyway, the e-book thing is an enigma. It’s the jewel inside the puzzle box that one can’t seem to open. It’s the carrot dangling on a string that pulls away just as one grabs for it. As a result, I don’t trust it. I’m not convinced.

Hence, I’ve come to the mountain to seek the wisdom of the shaman who lives in the Forbidden Cave.

“Hey, Joe!” I call out. “Toss me a rope! I’m coming up!”

Joe sez: Raymond can write.

I like Raymond's Bond novels more than I like the Ian Fleming and John Gardner novels. They're a lot of fun.

Faceblind is a wonderful novel that needs to be made into a movie.

That both Torment and Artifact of Evil couldn't find homes with the Big 6 is criminal. They're terrific thrillers that should have sold.

So what's the deal?

Armchair quarterbacking Raymond's career, I believe he should have written a spy novel right after his tenure with Bond was up. That's what his fans were expecting. Instead, he delved into noir with Evil Hours and Faceblind, and while those are good books, he lost some momentum and still hasn't recovered.

His Spike Berenger Rock and Roll P.I. books are great, but they were released by Dorchester. Anyone who knows anything about Dorchester's history can understand why the books didn't do well.

The tie-in novels are all well-crafted and a joy to read, but Raymond wasn't writing those for his fanbase, he was writing them for hire.

But that's all in the past, a remnant of the legacy publishing world. In the brave, new world of digital, Raymond should be able to find the wide audience that has eluded him since Bond.

Let me reiterate some tips that I've successfully used to sell ebooks.

Trading Excerpts in the Back Matter. Not only with your own ebooks, but with other authors. Every ebook should have three or four sample chapters from other work by the author, and by work by similar authors (who can then do the same for you in return.)

Linkable Bibliography. At the end of your ebook should be links to buy your other ebooks. You can also link within your narrative text, like I've done with Banana Hammock and did with Black Crouch for Serial Killers Uncut.

Collaborating. Sharing and swapping fanbases is always a good idea, and with Google Docs and Dropbox, stories can be written in less than half the time.

Professional Formatting. You wouldn't serve a fine filet Mignon on a paper plate. Presentation is almost as important as content.

Compiling. Several 99 cent short stories can be combined into a $2.99 collection. Two $2.99 novels can be a $4.99 omnibus. This increases your shelf space, and gives you price points for several demographics.

Deluxe Editions. The collaborative novel Draculas, which has over 80,000 words of bonus features, is a great way to offer the reader more than plain old vanilla text.

Putting Ebooks on Sale. I've had a bit of success dropping prices on ebooks, getting high on bestseller lists, then returning them to the regular price. Sales and revenue inscrease.

Print Editions. Some people still want paper. Give it to them inexpensively, using Createspace.

Multiple Platforms. Make sure your ebooks are available in all formats, wherever ebooks are sold.

Tie-ins. Readers like a series. But there is nothing stopping you from taking characters from stand-alones and putting them in new stories with other stand-alone characters. Serial Killers Uncut has more than 25 characters from my books and Blake Crouch's books. This is fun for fans, and helps sell your backlist to new readers.

Different Genres. While you shouldn't try to chase what's hot, if you enjoy reading different genres there is no reason you shouldn't try writing those genres. All of your fans may not follow you, but this can introduce you to a whole new set of readers.

Some of these Raymond has already done. Some he hasn't, but should try. The one thing that might be the most effective is putting ebooks on sale. If he's not selling well, it can't hurt to drop everything to 99 cents for a month and see what happens. It's a risk, but it often works in jump starting sales, which gets books on the bestseller lists, which spurs more sales. (Note to Raymond: If you try this, do it on the 13th of June, two days before Amazon's current Sunchine Deals Sale is over, because those books will all fall off the map when they go back to full price, leaving room for others to take their places.)

I've also been begging Raymond for years to write another spy novel. His upcoming Black Stiletto is pretty close, but if he did something in modern times similar to Fleming or Ludlum, I think he could lure back his Bond fans.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the one thing all writers hate to rely on: Luck.

We all have to keep plugging away, story after story, book after book, and hope that lightening strikes.

The more you write, the more you keep at it, the greater your chances at finding success.
I got lucky. That's why I'm selling so well. Events played out which allowed me the perfect opportunity to exploit a new technology. Sure, hard work and talent play a part. But luck is the linchpin. If Amazon never invented the Kindle, I'd be writing sci-fi novels for $6k a pop, working two extra jobs to support my family.

Remember that this isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. Ebooks are forever. Forever is a long time for fans to discover a title. What's selling poorly now could be a hit in ten years. When shelf-lives and shelf-space are infinite, all we can do is keep chugging away until we reach that critical mass/tipping point.

I know it's discouraging. I have a few titles that aren't selling up to my expectations, and I have no idea why. The goal is to keep feeding the machine, to never give up, and to constantly be open to experimentation.

Also, try not to compare yourself with other writers. Others can inspire you with their sales, because this proves high sales can be achieved, but the whole "why him and not me?" mentality only leads to misery.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Ebooks and Self-Publishing Part 3 - Yet Another Dialog Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath

Joe: Many exciting (and some strange) things have been happening since we chatted about ebooks in our first and second online conversations.

Barry: Something with monkeys and frogs?

Joe: The frogs are losing, man. Losing bad.

Barry: Might be worth mentioning here that for anyone who’s interested, in addition to the blog posts linked above, in about a week (around June 7), the whole three-part conversation, fully edited and with headings and a table of contents, will be up on Amazon, B&N, and at Smashwords under the new title, Be The Monkey: A Conversation About The New World Of Publishing Between Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. We wanted to make it free, but because it’s self-published, we can’t charge less than 99 cents. Which is still a pretty good deal for a 35,000+ word conversation containing so much interesting commentary, much of it made during intervals of sobriety.

Joe: And also containing so many monkey and frog links. In the interest of keeping this installment under 10,000 words because we both have deadlines, let's curtail the monkey business for a moment.


IS IT HYPOCRITICAL FOR AN AUTHOR TO SELF-PUBLISH AND ALSO PUBLISH WITH AN AMAZON IMPRINT? AND WHAT’S IN THAT CONTRACT, ANYWAY?

Joe: You made big news at BEA with your announcement that you've signed with Thomas & Mercer, the new Amazon.com mystery imprint. The same imprint I just signed with for Stirred (with Blake Crouch).

Barry: Yes! I’m thrilled about the deal. And fascinated by some of the commentary on Kindle Boards and in the Twitterverse.

Joe: Seems like a lot of people have responded without thinking things through.

Barry: The most common complaint goes something like, “Eisler said he was going to self-publish, but now he’s just with a legacy publisher again! Hypocrite!”

Joe: Funny how they were quick to jump on that without having read your contract.

Barry: From what people were claiming, you would have thought they’d read not just the contract, but my mind, too.

Joe: Why don’t you give a quick rundown of what’s in the contract?

Barry: The gist of it is, it’s the best of both worlds, legacy and indie. The advance and marketing muscle you (might) get in a legacy contract; the kind of digital royalties, creative control, and time-to-market you get with indie.

Joe: I think this is a good place to give everyone a friendly reminder of what our goals are, because a lot of people seem to think that going with Amazon means our goals have changed.

Barry: Let me take a crack at that.

I've said many times that "publishing is a business for me, not an ideology" and that the right deal could certainly lure me back to the legacy world. That remains true. What's more important, though, is the nature of what could conceivably lure me back. And what could lure me back is precisely what I've never been able to get from any legacy publisher--not the two who have published me; none that I've negotiated with, either. Specifically:

1) A much more equitable digital royalty split.
2) Full creative control (packaging, pricing, timing).
3) Immediate digital release, followed by paper release when the paper is ready (no more slaving the digital release to the paper release).

As it happens, all these terms are available to a self-published author, so I decided to self-publish. What some people might be missing in that simple statement, though, is that it's the terms that are important to me, not the means by which I achieve them. If these terms are a destination, self-publishing is undeniably an excellent vehicle for getting there. But it isn't the only vehicle. And if another vehicle comes along that offers all these terms, plus a substantial advance, plus a retail wing that can reach millions of customers in my demographic... then, as a non-ideological businessman, I'm going to change rides.

But "change" is a somewhat misleading word under the circumstances, implying as it does an overall either/or dynamic. And here's another misconception I've been seeing a lot: this notion that authors must somehow be classified into indie, legacy, or whatever. Reminds me a bit of apartheid South Africa's obsession with classifying citizens by their race--equally strange, though admittedly the authorial version is less invidious. Anyway, here's the thing: what really matters is that we're not living in an either/or universe. I now have four low-priced, self-published digital works, and if Amazon blows out the marketing for The Detachment, those other works (and the ones to come that I plan on self-publishing) will benefit enormously. In the face of all this, why would anyone want to argue for some sort of either/or approach? It would certainly foreclose a lot of potentially lucrative business opportunities.

For a single title that doesn't incumber my ability to self-publish or otherwise publish anything I want, Amazon offered me all three of the items I list above (except for pricing, but regardless of what the contract says, we agree that digital books should be priced far lower than legacy prices), plus a massive, uniquely Amazon marketing push to its retail operation and otherwise, plus an advance comparable to what SMP had offered me (note, though, that the Amazon deal is for one book; the SMP advance was predicated on two books. When I say "comparable," I mean on a per-book basis, and sorry everyone if I wasn't clear about that in my announcement at BEA). In exchange, I've given up certain digital retail channels because the Amazon deal is exclusive to Kindle platform devices. And Amazon will sell paper versions through its retail stores and through wholesale channels to other retailers. Anyone who thinks this sounds like a legacy deal has been talking to legacy publishers I've never heard of.

Okay, your turn.

Joe: It's a brave new world, and someone has to be first.

But it's more than that.

I wasn't the first person to upload my ebooks to Amazon using DTP.

However, I was the first person to start posting my royalty figures. This helped to inform other authors so they could make their own decisions. I've lost count of the number of people who have thanked me (over a thousand) because I was transparent in what I was doing, and because I actively disseminated the information.

Still, my main goal has been to sell books. That doesn't mean I can't help some authors along the way.

We owe no one explanations. While the self-pub culture has become pretty open about sharing figures, the legacy-pub culture is still closed-lipped.

Closed-lipped doesn't help anyone. The more information we all have, the better off we all are. Which is why we continue to talk numbers and disclose what we're doing.

My goal isn't to save the world. My goal isn't to take down the Big 6. My goal is to make a good living doing what I love.

But if I can also help a bunch of writers, and help destroy a greedy, bloated, ignorant industry, it's an epic win for writers and for readers.

Be the monkey! Remember the old saying, monkey see, monkey do? Monkeys tend to teach each other what they've learned.

The first thing you did, mere minutes after signing the Thomas & Mercer deal, was do a live interview and talk at length about contract terms. You didn't say, "sorry can't discuss that" over and over again. Instead, you broadcast (and continue to broadcast) how this deal is better than any you’ve ever had before. Not because of money. But because of the great terms it offers you as an author.

Barry: Just to be clear, it’s not just the substance of the agreement that I think is so excellent. It’s also the structure and style. It’s an amazingly clear, easy-to-understand document, and it’s free of the kinds of punitive provisions legacy publishers use to maintain dominion over writers. I love that Amazon gets that its publishing contract is a key sales tool.

Joe: Which will no doubt bring more authors to them.

Barry: Yes. Exactly the kind of competition we need in the industry, but that we’ve never had.

Joe: If the Big 6 were smart, they'd begin offering authors similar terms. For decades, the only way they competed with each other was through bidding wars, offering the largest advance. But Amazon's author-friendly contracts are about more than just the advance. Wouldn't it be great for authors if every legacy publisher suddenly realized, "We're going to lose our authors! How do we woo them back?"

Which is what will happen, but I haven't seen any wooing. I haven't even seen any acknowledgement that there is a problem.

Barry: A last thought about what one author owes others. While I certainly am guided by self-interest, I’m also profoundly motivated by the desire to make publishing a better industry for readers and authors (for anyone who doubts me, see the For Writers section of my website). During the course of our negotiations, I worked hard to persuade Amazon to jettison various legacy provisions that gain publishers little and that authors loathe. It's a huge credit to Amazon that they listened to my arguments and changed their template accordingly, and it's satisfying for me to know that other authors will get the benefit of the more enlightened template I helped forge--both from Amazon directly, as it expands its publishing wing, and from legacy publishers, who will be forced to compete with Amazon's more enlightened terms.

Joe: What about the fact that your deal with T&M is exclusive?

Barry: Right, it’s a world deal for digital, paper, and audio rights. The ebook, again, will only be available on Kindle-format devices. My calculus was: on this one title, I’m giving up something like 20% or 30% of my digital retail channels, but Amazon’s marketing muscle will mean I sell more Kindle copies with them than I could have sold all-format copies on my own.

IS EXCLUSIVITY BAD FOR THE INDUSTRY?

Joe: You don’t think format exclusivity is bad for the industry?

Barry: I love when you play devil’s advocate.

Though I think I understand why they’re doing it, I think Amazon is making a mistake with the format exclusivity. I also think they’re going to change the practice and allow Nook and other devices to download books from the Amazon store. The store itself offers a first-rate customer experience, so I think they’d make more money giving more devices access to it. Plus it would be good for authors, too.

But on balance? I would argue that the kind of pressure required to improve legacy publisher performance and practices can better be exerted by Amazon and self-publishing together than by self-publishing alone. Because I believe legacy performance and practices are a much bigger hindrance to readers than the unavailability of this or that title on this or that platform, I do think that on balance readers will be better off in the presence of deals like mine than they would be in their absence.

Joe: Exclusivity is the new currency. Look at the videogame wars. Each system (Wii, PS3, 360) has exclusive games that help the customer determine which system to buy. This is good, not bad, for consumers, because it promotes competition. The more competition, the more technology improves, and the more prices drop.

Thomas & Mercer will allow us to reach more customers, even though it isn't an epub release. The paper distribution will be much farther reaching than we could achieve on our own, and the level of marketing Amazon does will let us peak higher on the Top 100 list, selling more ebooks (at least initially) than we could with a self-pub release, even taking into account fewer sales to Nook, Sony, and Kobo customers. I say fewer rather than zero because we're releasing without DRM, meaning the files can be formatted to epub for free.

But let's think farther ahead. Technology has become disposable. When we upgrade a cell phone or printer or iPod or TV, we dispose of the older one. We suffer from abundance.

When I was a kid, we had one black and white television. Now my family of three has seven flat screen monitors in the house, plus two laptops. We each have an iPhone. We have five iPods. I just got an iPad. And we have a Wii, a PS3, and a 360, so exclusivity doesn't matter to us. We buy the games we like.

I can see a day where it isn't a choice between a Kindle or a Nook. People will own both a Kindle and a Nook. The concern of many who haven't bought an ereader yet is exclusivity, and losing purchased ebooks if the format changes.

But ebooks are digital. While you can't play an 8 track on your iPod, right now, using free software, you can format Kindle mobi files into epub files, playable on Nook, Sony, and Kobo. You can also strip DRM and format epub into mobi, if you know what you're doing.

Exclusive is more good than bad, and there are ways around the bad.

A WORKING DEFINITION OF “LEGACY PUBLISHING”

Barry: You know one thing I think has been missing in all the online conversation?

Joe: More monkey/frog video links?

Barry: Don’t tempt me. A simple definition of what “legacy publisher” means.

Joe: We were both at BEA this week. I heard the term dozens of times. Which amused the hell out of me, since you coined it.

Barry: And you popularized it. It’s really a perfect descriptive term (and by the way, there’s a great discussion about it going on right now on Lee Goldberg’s blog). This is Wikipedia’s definition of “Legacy System:”

A legacy system is an old method, technology, computer system, or application program that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users' needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available. A legacy system may include procedures or terminology which are no longer relevant in the current context, and may hinder or confuse understanding of the methods or technologies used.

Joe: Amazon doesn't fit that definition. They're innovators. They pretty much single-handedly popularized ebooks, which had been around for years without taking off with the public. Funny that publishers complain Amazon has too much power in this area, when nothing prevented them from inventing a popular ereader, or selling ebooks from their websites.

Barry: Also, have you ever heard of a traditional publisher with a powerhouse retail wing?

Joe: Or a traditional publisher who actually listens to their authors? I've been screaming about how legacy publishers need to step up their game, and have even told them how to do it. For years. None listened. Except for Amazon.

So let's put this misconception to rest: Amazon is NOT a legacy publisher.

Barry: Reasonable people might differ and we can argue at the margins, but here’s what a legacy publisher is to me. It’s a publisher that offers authors a shockingly low digital split--17.5% of retail, or 14.9% after the agent’s cut--while keeping 52.5% for itself; that insists on controlling packaging, pricing, and timing decisions; that slaves the digital release to the paper release because its business imperative is to retard the growth of digital and preserve the position of paper. Am I missing anything?

Joe: The legacy system is based on an ineffective, archaic business model. The shelf life of paper titles is getting shorter, it's getting harder for authors to make money, returns are a terrible waste, and not all books are treated equally. The few with large coop budgets and widespread distribution don’t enhance reader reader choice; they restrict it.

Barry: That’s the gist of it, anyway. If your business model revolves around: (i) maintaining the primacy of paper (in significant part, by delaying the release of digital books and pricing them too high); and (ii) offering punitive financial, creative, and other terms to authors, you’re probably a legacy publisher.

We should come up with a ten-part questionnaire or something: “If you answer more than four of these questions ‘yes,’ we’re sorry to say that you’re probably a legacy publisher.”

Joe: Another one I'll add is the inability to deal with change. It's the music industry all over again. They should be embracing new technology and innovating ways to improve their business model. I'm not seeing this. I'm seeing fear, anger, and denial.

Barry: Agreed. Anyway, I wanted to have a working definition to be clear that whatever else anyone might claim about my decision to publish The Detachment with Amazon, one thing I haven’t done is gone back to legacy publishing. Not that I wouldn’t, by the way; I’ve always been clear that for the right terms, I could go back (assuming they’d have me, and assuming there’s anything to go back to). But the right terms are what Amazon offered me. That’s the point. That, and the fact that legacy publishers, because they’re trapped by their own infrastructure and mentality, seem incapable of offering those terms.

IS AMAZON A LEGACY PUBLISHER?

Joe: Here are some quickie comparisons between legacy publishers and Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint.

Legacy publishers set their prices for ebooks. Amazon went with the list price I desired.

Barry: Gonna chime in here to say that in my contract, Amazon has the power to set the price.

Joe: Yes they do. No publisher will ever give up pricing control. But so far they've honored my wishes.

Barry: Based on my discussions with them; on the dynamic of their battle a year and a half ago with legacy publishers over ebook prices; and on your experience with them, I know we’re philosophically aligned: ebooks should be priced far lower than the legacy norm. So I have no problem with their contractual right to set the price. I understand why they want it and they’ve demonstrated they’ll use it wisely.

Joe: Legacy publishers demand DRM. My Amazon ebooks have no DRM.

Barry: That’s good to know. Someone just asked me that today on Twitter and I wasn’t sure. Agreed that DRM is stupid.

Joe: Legacy publishers pick the cover and the title. At Amazon, I pick the cover and title.

Barry: Right, same here. This one is huge for me. Too many olive-green garage door covers in my past. Amazon was fine with my choosing the cover and making all other packaging decisions, though because they’re smart, experienced, and thoughtful, we’re already organically collaborating on what would work best. If your publishing partner is smart, you want to collaborate with them, regardless of what’s in the contract. And if they’re enlightened, they want to collaborate with you.

Joe: Legacy publishers insist on windowing the ebook release until after the print release. With Amazon, the ebook can be released first--as it should be, because it's easier to create than a paper version.

Barry: Again, same here. Thomas & Mercer and I talked about timing and they were totally game for releasing the digital book first.

Joe: Legacy publishers take from six to eighteen months to release a book after it is turned in. My next Thomas & Mercer book is due in August and coming out in November.

Barry: I think my turnaround might be even faster than that.

Jeez, better turn in that manuscript.

Joe: Legacy publishers offer lousy ebook royalties. Amazon's are much better.

Barry: I don’t want to get too into specifics, but my new digital royalty split is nothing like what legacy publishers insist on. And the paper splits are all comparable. Though even there, Amazon is showing their innovative DNA--we’re discussing a lower cut of paper sales for both of us as a way of boosting brick and mortar paper margins. As you have blogged and as Mike Shatzkin has pointed out, paper is becoming a subsidiary right--but a special kind of subsidiary right, with a lot of advertising value.

Joe: Yeah, I was talking about that a year ago. Whoever gets their name on the most pieces of paper, wins.

Barry: So there’s a great play in here for smart bookstores and authors: sell paper rights for less, achieve more paper volume, and sell more digital via the advertising value of paper.

Legacy publishers, by the way, would find such a notion heretical. Amazon looks at it and says, this could be good.

Joe: Legacy publishers have convoluted royalty statements and cut checks twice a year. Amazon has easy-to-understand royalty statements, and pays quarterly.

Barry: I’ve noticed that. I have two shorts up (The Lost Coast and Paris Is A Bitch) plus a political essay (The Ass Is A Poor Receptacle For The Head), and the royalty statements are completely transparent.

Joe: The imprint statements are also transparent. And the payments are on time. I know several authors whose legacy publisher royalties have been delayed, and the delays are getting longer.

Barry: The timing of advance payments is terrific, too. Execution and publication, half and half. Simple, fair, easy to track.

I have to emphasize again the fact that these entirely sensible and obviously better business practices have never emerged in legacy publishing is further evidence (as though further evidence were needed) that legacy publishing has always functioned as a quasi-monopoly. If there were competition in the industry, new entrants would force improvement.

Joe: Well, that new entrant is Amazon.

Barry: Indeed.

Joe: Legacy publishers often do little promotion. Amazon promotes like crazy.

Barry: That’s the bet I’m making. Fundamentally, I’m giving up certain retail channels in exchange for Amazon making a huge push on all its retail platforms and through the paper wholesale channels its developing.

Joe: Legacy publishers have one-sided contracts. Amazon's are the smartest (and best) in the business.

Barry: The contract they sent me was the best publishing agreement I’ve ever seen: short, transparent, easy to understand. And the really bitchin’ part? Former licensing attorney that I am, I had a ton of suggestions for how they could make it even better, and they listened. They get that treating authors well confers on them a significant competitive advantage. I’m telling you, their new template is a wonder to behold--substance, structure, and style. A lot of authors are going to benefit--directly, as Amazon expands its publishing business; and indirectly, as the Amazon contract pressures legacy publishers to do better or die.

Joe: I just spent a few days talking at length with various members of the Amazon team at BEA. They're smart. They're efficient. They understand what they're doing.

Barry: And man, they like beer.

Joe: All smart people like beer.

Also, as you said, they listen. Really listen. Having a publisher who actually pays attention to what I'm saying, and acts on requests I make, is incredibly fulfilling. Especially after years of my raging against the machine.

Barry: We could have included “ignores author input” as one of the definitions of legacy publishing.

Joe: Timecaster, my sci-fi novel with Berkley/Ace, was released yesterday. I signed a two-book deal with them, and pretty much begged for them to concede on a few marketing and pricing issues I had. They flat-out refused. So I bought back my second book and am releasing it myself (for $2.99 and without DRM).

The "my way or the highway" attitude has sent me to the highway, where I'll sell a lot more books and make a lot more money.

Barry: As you’ve said before, if you're selling eggs, don't piss off your chickens.

Joe: Amazon treats their chickens well. The Kindle Digital Platform and Createspace programs are expressly for self-publishing, so there are no more barriers to reaching readers. And their various imprints now give authors some of the benefits of the legacy system (advances, no author costs, widespread distribution, marketing) without the many disadvantages we've discussed over and over.

When each of us signed with Thomas & Mercer, we weren't turning our backs on self-publishing and embracing legacy ways. Instead, we were getting much of the same control we have with self-pubbing, but with a powerhouse behind us that will ensure we sell more books than we could have on our own.

That said, I'm still self-pubbing like crazy. I'm not going to give that up.

IT HAS TO BE EITHER/OR... AND OTHER EXAMPLES OF ERRONEOUS THINKING

Barry: This is another widespread misunderstanding. It’s not either/or, everyone! I’m still self-publishing short stories and essays and I don’t know what I’ll do with future novels. But every low-priced, self-published digital work I have available will get a huge boost from Amazon’s promotion of The Detachment. Again: publishing is a business for me, not an ideology. And self-publishing is a means, not an end. The end is fortune--the financial kind and the happiness kind both. For that, a mix of self-publishing and the Amazon models seems perfect to me for now.

Joe: Seems obvious. But there are a lot of people out there who don’t get it.

Barry: Some of the most misguided thinking I’ve seen on this issue came from an otherwise good editor I’ve worked with myself, who said of my deal with Amazon, “So much for self-publishing.” But... I’m still self-publishing lots of other works, all of which will benefit from the Amazon deal! And suggesting that because I’ve decided to publish The Detachment with Thomas & Mercer rather than self-publish it means self-publishing isn’t real... come on. What’s most significant about everything I’m doing now is what’s missing: a legacy publisher. Thinking that one author’s decision to publish a single title with Thomas & Mercer means he’s turned his back on self-publishing, or that self-publishing isn’t real... well, let’s just call it wishful thinking.

Joe: It’s not about either/or--

Barry: Wait, I gotta tell you one more amazing comment I came across.

Joe: Go ahead.

Barry: This one’s from Susan Petersen Kennedy, president of Penguin Group USA. The New York Times quoted her this way: “‘There’s a tendency to think that the other guy’s piece of the pie is so much easier, and you can just jump in and do it,’ Peterson said on Tuesday afternoon with a hearty laugh. ‘It’s good for Amazon to go into publishing. Maybe they’ll develop some respect for how hard it is. Come on in, try it. Go ahead. It’s not so easy.’”

Joe: That's similar to something you often say, in a slightly different context. Just because someone knows something, doesn't mean she can execute.

But here's a newsflash, Susan. Amazon CAN execute. They published my Jack Daniels thriller Shaken as an ebook in October 2010, and in paper this past February. I've made more money on that book that I did on my last two legacy books, and soon Shaken will make more money than any of my other legacy novels.

So I don’t know about easy, but they are doing it in a way that's smart, efficient, and beneficial to the author.

I've worked with Penguin. I don't anymore, because I left. I paid them so I could leave.

I don’t see myself leaving Amazon anytime soon.

Barry: Again: treating the chickens right... not a bad practice if you’re in the egg business.

Joe: Or to use another food analogy: Smart businesses don't try to take your piece of the pie. They make the pie bigger for everyone.

Barry: The thing that struck me was Peterson Kennedy’s thinking, or purported thinking. I mean, is it true that people go into new businesses because they think it’ll be easy? Is that why Amazon got into book retailing, because it looked easy? Is that what drew Peterson Kennedy to publishing?

My take on why Amazon is getting in to publishing? The same reason Michael Dell got into computer retail: they recognize legacy publishing’s quasi-monopolistic practices are so screwed up that a better way will create a devastating competitive advantage. That, and the fact that through their “agency model” pricing policy, legacy publishers were forcing Amazon to charge too much for digital books. It’s like Del Monte insisting on pricing a can of green beans for $10.00. Sure, the grocery store will stock it, but they’ll sure as hell also develop a store-brand canned green bean, too, because they know there will be a bigger market for the lower-priced option and they’ll make more money with it.

I’ll tell you, if publishing looks easy, it’s probably because legacy publishers are so screwed up they’re making it hard.

And wait, as long as we’re on the subject of denial, here’s another one--a tweet from a Curtis Brown literary agent: “so the Eisler story meant nothing. he eats at Amazon table for his supper instead of St Martin's.”

Joe: What the hell does that even mean?

Barry: You have to deconstruct it a little. I think he’s saying my decision to leave legacy publishing is meaningless because ultimately I decided to publish The Detachment with Amazon.

Joe: Sounds like he needs to turn Amazon into something comparable to what he's used to dealing with (St. Martins) in order to fit it into his worldview and dismiss the threat. Weird terminology, though. Makes you wonder what’s going on in his head.

Barry: Yes. It’s another instance of an apparently powerful urge to believe, “Amazon’s just like a legacy publisher! So if an author decides to publish a book with Amazon instead of self-publishing it, it means self-publishing is no threat to legacy publishing after all!”

Joe: Denial.

Barry: In fairness, it’s not just him. Here’s another, this one from an author: “So Eisler isn't really going it alone, he exchanged one corporate master for another. Better terms, apparently, but not a revolution as such”

Joe: You have a corporate master? Does he have a leather hood and make you wear a ball gag?

Barry: When I ask nicely. And all this time, I thought I ran my own business and was hiring distribution partners who worked (albeit often ineptly) for me. Who knew?

The comments about supper tables and corporate masters reveals a lot about the worldviews of the people who are making them. The first suggests a kind of serf mentality; the second, one of self-slavery. But aside from the psychological projection at work, which is interesting, the substance of these arguments is just silly. I depend on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords to distribute my self-published works. I depend on my web hosting company and on PayPal to fulfill orders through my website. Am I therefore eating at the “supper tables” of these companies, and are they my “corporate masters,” in this context, too? Why the one but not the other?

Joe: As I’ve heard you say in related contexts: when the voices in someone’s head get too loud, he can’t hear what’s actually being said.

Barry: Yes, and he loses the ability to tell the difference.

We’ve talked in our earlier conversations about how some publishers are in denial, some agents are in collusion, and some authors are in the grip of a weird combination of Stockholm Syndrome and a peasant mentality. The quotes above are evidence--anecdotal, yes, but still suggestive.

Joe: I can’t get over the “exchanged a corporate master” one. How about: “Exchanged a crippled horse for a new Ferrari.” That works better.

I used to call working with legacy publishers a partnership, back when I thought they were smart enough to know how to make money. My take was that if I made money, they made money, and we'd help each other to that effect. But then I started to realize how hidebound they were, that there was this whole set of infrastructure and a worldview that was actually inhibiting them from making money. Then I began to think of them as backers or investors, but with too much say so and power. The one thing I never thought was that I was working for them. Usually when you work for a company, they show a minimum concern for your base needs and future security. An editor works for a publisher, and as a result get things like an office and health care and a 401k plan.

So now I think of them as assailants who force you to thank them after they beat you up.

Barry: The terminology reveals the mindset. A lot of writers think of themselves as employees of the publisher, not as CEOs of their own companies, with the publisher as their customer/investor/distributor.

Joe: Well, at least those folks offered some humor value. And the psychology is interesting, too.

Barry: There is that. Mind if I mention just one more?

Joe: Fire away.

Barry: This one is from a literary agent. She says, “I'm keeping a very close eye on a couple things: the reaction from Minotaur; the reaction from Dan Conaway; and what term Eisler will now use to describe Amazon since ‘legacy publisher’ appears to describe everyone else.”

Joe: Dan was your agent, right? With Writers House?

Barry: Yes. We parted ways after I decided to self-publish The Detachment because we couldn’t come up with a model for self-publishing that worked for both of us. And Minotaur was a reference to St. Martin’s Press, the publisher that offered the deal I walked away from--Minotaur is an SMP imprint.

Anyway, I thought, “That’s it? Your big concerns aren’t about these seismic shifts in the industry and how they’ll affect your clients, but are instead about gossipy, personal stuff? Are you a literary agent, or a staff writer for Us Magazine?”

Joe: She writes that blog to impress her existing clients and attract new ones, presumably?

Barry: Presumably.

Joe: Wow. Hey, isn’t this the same agent who when you first announced you were going to self-publish said she wasn’t optimistic and people should see how it was working out for you in a year?

Barry: That’s the one. Apparently she thinks the appropriate finish line for measuring whether an author has been successful in digital self-publishing is one year, as though after the first year you stop making money or something.

Joe: Does she maybe have a personal issue with you?

Barry: Not that I know of. Anyway, I’m just responding to the substance of her thinking--not because it’s unusual, by the way, but rather because it’s representative of other erroneous thinking I’ve come across. And there’s a tendency out there to treat the personal stuff as more relevant than broad industry dynamics, just as there’s a tendency to think a self-published book only makes money for a year or something, when in fact it makes money forever.


BRIEFLY RETURNING TO THE QUESTION OF: IF THE BIG SIX ARE LEGACY PUBLISHERS, WHAT DO WE CALL AMAZON?

Joe: So what do you call Amazon?

Barry: That’s a good question, and I haven’t come up with anything that feels entirely right. Again, there’s a good discussion on Lee Goldberg’s blog on this topic and I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on what would be the most appropriate nomenclature. Speaking of which, I think the right way to approach the question is this:

Are Amazon and, say, Random House, which are clearly both publishers, the same in all relevant aspects?

If not, what are their relevant differences?

And how can we reflect those relevant differences in the nomenclature we use to categorize them?

Trucks and sedans and sports cars are all just types of automobiles. Yet no one would say, "Why do we need all this new nomenclature? They're all just automobiles, right?" And before the Internet, stores were just “stores.” But then we had online stores, and the previous variety became known as “brick and mortar” stores, so that we could distinguish.

At a sufficiently high level of generality, everything is the same. All matter is, in the end, made of molecules. Yet we don't refer to people and chairs and trees as "molecule conglomerations"--and that's because the similarities are less relevant in everyday conversation than the differences. So noting the presence of similarities isn't really the proper way to approach the nomenclature question. The nomenclature question exists because of the presence of differences.

If you believe that Amazon and, say, Random House are in all relevant respects identical, then you won't find any use for a system of nomenclature that distinguishes them. If you believe that in various relevant respects they're different, you'll search for a nomenclature that conveys those essential differences. For the reasons I note above, I think "legacy publisher" perfectly conveys the essential differentiating qualities of what are also colloquially known as The Big Six. I haven't come up with an equivalent for what Amazon's doing. But I'm working on it, and again would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the topic.

Joe: For now, I'd just call Amazon "much better than anyone else."

Barry: Can’t disagree with that.

AND NOW BACK TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED ERRONEOUS THINKING TOPIC

Joe: Getting back to that literary agent’s quote, if I were an agent, my thinking would be: “Great! I now have another publisher, Amazon, to whom I can sell my clients' work.” But I suppose watching and waiting to see what other people say is safer than acting.

Barry: Anyway, sorry for interrupting. Just had to mention those. You were talking about the thinking behind your overall publishing strategy.

Joe: Yes. Right now, self-pubbing has incredible advantages over the legacy system.

That does NOT mean I'm a "self pub or die" evangelist.

Self-pub was a terrible business model prior to 2009. It may someday be a poor choice once again.

I change my opinions as new facts come in, and I change my tactics as new opportunities become available. Anyone married to a single ideology, who doesn’t constantly test it and question it, is an idiot. A big idiot.

Barry: Let me approach the either/or issue this way. If Thomas & Mercer wanted to release all your books, would you do it?

Joe: No. I like self-pubbing too much, and I dislike deadlines. I'm thrilled to be working with Thomas & Mercer, and a book a year fits perfectly into my schedule while still allowing me freedom to do whatever I want, when I want.

Barry: Plus T&M’s marketing push for the book you’re doing with them boosts all your self-published books, too. In the face of all this, only an ideologue would suggest an author’s approach should be either/or.

HOW DO BRICK AND MORTAR BOOKSTORES SUCCEED IN THE NEW PUBLISHING LANDSCAPE?

Joe: Let's veer slightly and talk about bookstores.

Barry: Good. We haven’t been veering enough.

Joe: When Amazon announced the launch of the Thomas & Mercer imprint, some independent bookstores in a Yahoo group refused to carry my titles. Blake Crouch and I recently blogged about it, and our post has gotten close to 400 comments.

Barry: Hey man, one of those was mine.

Joe: I'm disappointed that some bookstores would rather blame authors for signing with Thomas & Mercer and point fingers at Amazon for hurting their business instead of responding to some of our suggestions as to how they might improve their sales.

Barry: Yes, what people need to understand is that a lot of the problems bookstores are having are caused by legacy publishers. I know this will sound cold, but in business you have to identify opportunities. And right now, there’s a huge opportunity for retailers to disintermediate the publishers who are inflating the costs of books. Amazon is already doing it. If B&N is smart, it will, too. And, as you and Blake suggested (pleaded, in fact) in your blog post, there’s no reason indie booksellers can’t buy direct from authors, too. Promise to sell a lot of our books and we’ll even sell ’em to you cheap, knowing we’ll make it up on volume and in the advertising power of paper.

Joe: Capitalism is about competition. But indie bookstores (or all bookstores, for that matter) need to realize Amazon is only doing well because they're giving customers what they want. The customers are the ones who are changing their buying habits.

If you're a young bride and your husband is cheating on you, you don't blame the other woman. You blame your husband. He's the one who should have been loyal. The other woman doesn't owe you any loyalty, and doesn't have to play fair.

Don't want him to stray? Make him want you more.

There is a lot of talk about "unfair business practices." Is business fair? Is life fair?

Barry: The frog would say no.

Joe: The frog should have said no.

Barry: Um, I don’t think it could say anything, under the circumstances.

Joe: Hard to talk when your mouth is full.

Barry: Mmmmmmph, maybe?

Joe: Well, the monkey wouldn’t have listened regardless.

Barry: Hey, let’s not include a link this time. I think we’ve done enough damage.

Joe: How about just this one? This isn't about a monkey taking advantage of some poor, helpless amphibian. It's about thinking outside the box.

Barry: I have to admit, I clicked on that link with substantial trepidation. But it was totally safe for work. And interesting.

Joe: And therefore probably disappointing to anyone who’s clicked on any of the other monkey links. Sorry, guys.

The thing is, customers are speaking with their wallets. The one who gives the customer what she wants is the one who gets that customer dollar. That means thinking, and innovating, and listening. You don't make money pointing fingers.

Barry: You make it by solving problems and adapting to situations, like the monkey in the link.

AND HOW DO LITERARY AGENTS SUCCEED?

Joe: But you don't have to figure this stuff out all on your own. There are folks who can assist you.

Dean Wesley Smith recently had a blog entry about how some unscrupulous agents are adopting the estributor model and charging clients 50% to perform publishing services (cover art, formatting, uploading) that Dean insists should be one-time costs.

Barry: I just want to jump in here and beg anyone who’s reading to come up with a better term than “estributor.” That is one butt-ugly word.

Joe: You know you love it.

Barry: I know we need something to distinguish the “agent helping authors self-publish” model from the “agents helping authors sell publishing rights” model, but please... not that.

Joe: Heh. I think it’s too late, my friend.

Anyway, I respect Dean, and understand his argument, but I don't agree with him. Here are some reasons why.

I know a few agents who are becoming estributors. They cover all costs, and only take 15% (and they don’t recoup their investment first).

Right now I’ve got 32 self-pubbed books available on 8 platforms (soon to be 10). It’s a full-time job just dealing with properties that already exist.

I just released a new ebook, which took dozens of hours to launch–hours I could have spent
writing.

I don’t have a problem giving an agent 15% for negotiating a contract. That’s worth it to me.

Doing the cover art, formatting, and uploading, along with all of the potential benefits of a vetted imprint, is a lot more work, and also worth 15% to me.

It isn’t worth 50%. That’s a rip off.

But I already hire folks to help me: My cover artist, and formatter, and proof reader, and then I upload them myself. This is a time suck. More importantly than that, even though other people are doing the work, I was still forced to learn an entirely new skill set in order to understand who I was hiring.

I wish I didn’t have to deal with all of that. I wish I could just write the book then pass it on to an estributor.

Which, in fact, I’m going to do. And the time it saves me should more than make up for the cost.

One day, I plan on building a house. I have a specific idea in mind of what I want to build. But I DO NOT want to micromanage the building process and hire/oversee every individual contractor. The thought of spending all that time doing mundane things like picking out PVC pipe or getting permits would make me want to shoot myself.

Barry: One thing I know you will micromanage is the choice of bidet.

Joe: Inside joke, people. I just bought a bidet (because I tried one at Barry's--monkey see, monkey do) and am now experiencing a level of clean that I never knew existed. It even has a blow dryer.

I love my life.

Getting back to building a house, I’ll hire someone I trust to do the overseeing. It’s worth it to me. That way, I don't have to immerse myself in doing the hiring myself and learning the construction business.

Of course, you could do it all yourself, and take even more time away from your writing (as well as hurt your sales because you won't do as good a job as an expert.

Barry: Definitely there are estributors who charge an unreasonable amount, take advantage of authors, do a poor job, etc. That doesn't mean some aren't worth what they charge. You don't avoid going to a doctor (and you certainly don’t perform surgery on yourself) because a certain number of them are quacks.

Joe: Right now, I’m making so much money, I’ll gladly pay someone to do the things I hate and that eat into the most profitable use of my time, which is writing. And just as there are unscrupulous agents who will rip you off, there are most certainly unscrupulous independent contracts who could wind up costing you more money. It's not as if all agents are bad and all cover artists are honest and know what they're doing.

It's also worth noting that there isn't a conflict of interest if an agent becomes an estributor. Agents are there to sell rights to books that their clients write. Is there any difference between selling to a Big 6 publisher, or helping the client upload to Amazon? As long as the agent does what her client wants, it's all about offering a service.

I know agents who have hundreds of authors with projects they couldn't sell, or backlists that are out of print. If publishers don't want those books, Kindle and Nook and Smashwords and Kobo and Sony and Apple and Google and Createspace and Scribd do. An author could do it herself. But an author could also negotiate a deal with Random House on her own.

Barry: For me, the way to put to rest the suggestion that authors should never pay anyone a percentage is this. What about an excellent estributor who charges only one percent? Still too much? Even if that one percent would come to less than a flat fee for the same service? What about if you could clone yourself and hire the clone for 15%--not worth it? Okay, but then I'd say this is starting to be a matter of an ideology against percentages, which means there’s no room for further discussion. But if the problem is the amount of the percentage, then, to paraphrase Churchill, we're just haggling over price.

Joe: I suppose I could hire someone full-time to oversee the freelancers and run the ongoing business, but I believe the estribution model will allow for greater ongoing opportunities and ultimately higher income. Group advertising, imprimatur, excerpt exchanges, marketing, and a centralized author hub, to go along with continued subsidiary rights sales and translations, is worth 15%.

If you don’t think it is, don’t do it. But understand you’re taking time away from your writing to do it on your own, which is a very high cost indeed.

Barry: For me, the argument really comes down to, “Don’t pay more than you have to.” If you can pay a low flat fee instead of a percentage, jump on it. If the percentage is 50%, don’t touch it. If it’s one percent, jump on it. If it’s somewhere in between, maybe. It’s all just a matter of, “Make sure you’re getting value for the price, and don’t pay more than you have to.” Not really so controversial, I think.

Joe: Also, like any business relationship, know who you're dealing with and what you're buying. Get recommendations and references, ask for samples, become informed, don't be afraid to negotiate terms.

Barry: One more thought about agents and... damn, I really wish we had something better than estributors to call them.

Joe: Muwahahahaha. I coined that a few years ago and it seems to be gaining traction.

Barry: If Amazon’s approach--an easy-to-understand and fair contract; simple, transparent royalty statements--becomes the standard, some of the value traditional agents have offered as interpreters in these areas will diminish. Smart agents will find ways to offer new value to offset what’s been lost. So the move to an estributor model will become even more important for agents.

Joe: This is all happening pretty quickly, so don't feel bad if you don't know what you're doing. Just try to avoid snap judgements and acting without thinking. Right now the publishing world is in a state of transition.

Barry: AKA, “State of Confusion.”

NEXT STEPS IN THE EVOLUTION OF EBOOKS

Joe: Which leads me to something else I noticed at BEA. Though ebooks are now outselling paper, the ebook section of the convention was minuscule--by my rough estimation not even 1/10 of the overall floorspace.

If I were a Big 6 publisher, I would have put an extra booth in the ebook section. There were tens (hundreds?) of thousands of paper books being given away, yet I lost track trying to count all the ereaders and iPads in the hands of attendees.

Why wasn't there an ebook signing booth? The technology exists. Why weren't publishers pushing this new ebook format, which on Amazon is now outselling paper?

But then again, if I were really a Big 6 publisher, I wouldn't have blown all that money attending BEA in the first place. It was like Mardis Gras, but the currency was denial instead of beads. The gigantic booths (meant to broadcast prosperity?) seemed to me more like whistling past the graveyard. What a waste of money and manpower.

However, in the Digital Book section, Blake Crouch and I met with several smart, hungry start-ups in small, modest booths. Among them Overdrive, Kobo, Vook, Autography (where authors can sign ebooks), adboku, Bookrix, and Smashwords. They see where the future is headed, and they're innovating to ensure their place in this future.

These are the companies working to make the pie bigger.

Ebooks are by some measures now outselling paper, but they’re still an early adopter product. The general masses haven't embraced them yet, as they have with DVD players and iPods, though all signs point to that happening.

When a technology reaches that tipping point and becomes a "must buy" for folks, innovation increases dramatically. Right now, ebooks are basically text in an electronic format. They don't do much more than print books do.

Barry: The car was known as the horseless carriage. Initially, television was talking head radio.

Joe: Soon, ebooks will be more than just a replacement. We've talked about what the future of ebooks might be. I believe it will change the way people think about fiction, and bring people to fiction who might have avoided it in the past.

What's your opinion about the book as a social network?

Barry: I think it’s another example of you thinking so far ahead of the current state of affairs that initially a lot of people won’t understand what you’re getting at. But yes, I think it’s a great idea, and I was knocked out by the way Amazon not only listened to it over those disco fries, but by the way they refined and expanded on it, too--all while taking notes. Again, can you imagine a legacy publisher ever having a skull session like that with its authors? Let alone listening and adding value along the way?

Joe: I could imagine a legacy publisher doing that. But it would remain strictly in the realm of imagination. Also, for the uninitiated, disco fries are poutine--French fries with cheese and gravy. I'd been searching my whole life for a way to make fries unhealthier.

Barry: Heh. I swear, you want to get Amazon’s attention? Say, “I have a new idea.”

Joe: Years ago, I proposed that ebooks would someday be free, supported by ads. But whenever I mentioned ads in ebooks on my blog, I got a lot of resistance from people, just as I did when I proposed that books could be social networks. Well, this is exactly what adboku is trying to do.

BE THE MONKEY

Barry: One thing I’m learning from the whole changing publishing landscape is that a lot of people just don’t like change. Their arguments--their perceptions--flow from that.

Joe: The legacy publishing world seems to offer up similar resistance to change, and makes a lot of the same excuses as to why the old ways are the good ways.

It's natural to dislike change. Change is scary. It's also natural to assume that because you don't like an idea, no one will like an idea.

But the reason we live in such a cool world now, and why our lives are so much better than our grandparents', is because of change.

So here are some parting words for authors resistant to ebooks, booksellers resistant to Amazon's imprints, and even Big 6 publishers who want to survive the next five years.

Barry: Assuming you’re going to offer fewer than a thousand parting words, I just want to congratulate us for getting this bad boy in at under 10,000 words.

Joe: Yeah, at 9400 this one is a little short. But I think it covers what needed to be covered.

Barry: We probably should have included a few more monkey links. Maybe next time.

Joe: Here’s the thing. Change will happen. The more you fight it, the more you'll fall behind to those who embrace it.

Your goal shouldn't be to fight over a larger piece of the static pie. Your goal should be to make the pie bigger.

That means paying attention to what readers--and writers--want. It means innovating. Experimenting. Learning. Embracing change, and thinking up ways to utilize all of this incredible technology that's coming at us.

You don't want to be the last dinosaur. You want to be the first primate.

You want to be the monkey.