Tag Archives: self-publishing

Thoughts on the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

Others have commented succinctly on the inadequately-known details of the dispute between Hachette and Amazon over a new contract to sell the publisher’s books online by the retail giant. But there’s one thing that has seldom been mentioned, and that is what I believe to be Hachette’s (and other publishers’) real problem with Amazon.

My thought is that the real dispute isn’t over what discounts Amazon wants to offer on the publishers’ books, or who controls the pricing, or how much Amazon will charge the publishers for preferred marketing. All of these are important issues to be disputed, but this sort of thing arises between publishers and booksellers all the time, and doesn’t result in the kind of high-profile dustup we’re seeing in the media today. If it weren’t for a completely different issue that makes publishers regard Amazon as The Enemy (albeit also a necessity of their economic survival), these arguments might (and probably would) still be taking place, but we wouldn’t hear about them. Amazon and Hachette would resolve them quietly and there would be no battling author open letters or media storms of protest.

What I believe Amazon’s great sin to be, the thing that sends Hachette and other publishers into a frenzy of opposition, is self-publishing.

Ebook pricing disputes threaten to shave off some profits from one side or the other. But self-publishing threatens the big publishers with extinction.

The problem lies in the way that publishing houses, especially the Big 5, operate or historically have operated. The publishers have, in the past, held control over distribution of books. Authors who wanted a chance to sell their books sought a publisher to publish them because there was no other choice. Publishers could dictate terms to all but the biggest and most successful and popular authors, because they had the authors over a barrel. Sign the contract or fade into obscurity — that was the choice.

To a somewhat lesser extent, the publishers could exercise similar dominance over consumers. They were the only source of books, and readers had to pay what the publishers charged or do without.

Self-publishing with print on demand and ebooks has changed that, and although Amazon isn’t the only company offering that service to authors, it’s by far the biggest, and the main reason why self-published books have become a significant and growing part of the book market.

The reality in today’s literary world is that publishing houses are unnecessary, and none more so than the Big 5. Smaller publishers often deliver a genuine service to writers in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, but the Big 5 act like entitled mandarins or Medieval chartered monopolies, so entrenched in the attitude arising from the choke-hold on distribution that they used to hold that they cannot innovate or adapt, nor can they humble themselves to offer authors genuine value for what they ask.

When readers can buy excellent, well-reviewed books for a fraction of the price the big publishers ask, the publishers lose readers. When authors can enjoy superb distribution of their self-published titles, and retain complete artistic control and a high share of royalties, publishers lose writers. And without readers or writers, they will cease to exist. Because they have always been middlemen, not producers.

More than any other company in the world, Amazon is responsible for this change in circumstances.

Publishers regard Amazon as the enemy for this reason. It’s not because it’s the biggest book retailer in the world. That’s the reason given, but it’s disingenuous in my opinion.

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Farewell to Twenty-Twelve!

mermaid

An end-of-year review seems obligatory on New Year’s Day, and 2012 was an interesting year for me personally, for writing, publishing, and fantasy fiction, and for the spiritual development of humanity. So I’m going to review 2012 in this post from those angles. The world’s political and economic developments have been thoroughly covered elsewhere, so I’ll skip them except as they impact those subjects.

For me personally, it was a year of struggle with marketing. I suck at that. I moved from Facebook to Google+ in terms of social media, which amounted to making a fresh start, and I’ve begun encountering people there who know a lot more about how to create exposure for an author’s books than I do, not that this is saying much. So I have reason to hope that 2013 will be better in that respect. People who read my work all seem to like it, but few know it exists.

Creatively, it will be hard for 2013 to top 2012, though.  I finished and published two novels, The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born, which are the first two books in the projected Tale of Two Worlds collection. I’ve begun work on the third volume, The People of the Sea, and my goal is to have both it and the final volume, Light and Shadow, finished and available by the end of this year. I also started writing this blog and this is my 56th post over the part-year I’ve been keeping it. So far, I haven’t failed to put a post up at least once a week, usually more often.

My “day job” consists of writing freelance for various clients, and the business continues to grow slowly. That’s not where my heart is, though it pays the bills. I’ve had a delay in my long-term goal of paying a long visit to the island of Corsica, which I had once hoped to do by the end of 2012 or in early 2013; it will be a few more months minimum.

On the subject of publishing, the big news for 2012 is the growth of the e-book, the continuing shrinkage of what we must now call the Big 5 publishing companies (it was the Big 6 through most of 2012), and the continued rise of self-publishing. Self-publishing has now become the default for most writers. Another thing we’ve seen is the rise of new small publishing companies. American Publishers lists 2660 publishing companies in the United States alone. For a writer of any sense, if self-publishing is the default option, seeking a small publisher who isn’t part of the Big Declining Number is or should be the first step up from that default. One common quality of the small publishers that are springing up today is that they offer a writer help with marketing to readers. (Remember I said above I suck at marketing? This is something I should consider for the future.)

Regarding fantasy fiction, well, let’s take a look at what’s selling well in the Amazon Kindle Store in fantasy fiction as of today.

The no. 1 seller is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. I haven’t read this. I don’t know what it’s about except that obviously it’s a fantasy take on the Kennedy assassination. It’s published by Simon & Schuster, despite which it goes for the very reasonable price of $3.99. Maybe that’s because it’s from 2011 and the price has dropped (although for a Big 5 publisher to drop e-book prices that far is almost unheard of), and maybe it’s because if you’re Stephen King the publishers pay attention to what you want. Either way, it looks like a decent deal and King is always good.

Second is Cold Days by Jim Butcher, a new book in the splendid Dresden Files series. I love that series. But I absolutely refuse to pay $14.99 for an e-book, knowing that the author will receive a grand total of $2.54 out of that. Bah. Mr. Butcher, on the off chance you read this blog post, take note. You could make the same money per volume  if you self-published with Amazon and sold the book for $3.65. And then I’d buy it.

No. 3 is A Different Witch by Debora Geary, self-published, $3.99. It’s a contemporary fantasy about a witch, one of a series that looks amusing and I may have to check it out. (The Harry Dresden series by Butcher is also contemporary fantasy, about a wizard detective.) Remember that as we skip over the next few titles, which are George R.R. Martin’s things and Tolkien.

Justin Cronin’s The Twelve is also contemporary fantasy of the apocalyptic sort.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is next, and is quite difficult to categorize, but could be uncomfortably considered contemporary fantasy as well.

One has to come to the second page before encountering a book that isn’t contemporary fantasy or historical fantasy (other than the aforementioned Martin and Tolkien stuff) and that is a new volume in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth/Confessor series, ho-hum.

Past that, and we do begin to see a mix of contemporary with other-world fantasy, but the trend here is that contemporary fantasy is on the rise in the world of fantasy fiction. It isn’t effacing other-world fantasy, which is a good thing, but it is pushing its way into our consciousness. Magic is asserting its place in our lives alongside of advanced technology. We no longer consign it to a world other than this one, wistfully imagined, knowing such things don’t happen in real life.

And that brings me to the final observation about 2012. This was a year in which those who do not belong to any established religious tradition decide the course of an American presidential election. (See, politics did intrude, but in this case it’s relevant.)

According to the Pew poll on religious affiliation in the United States, the category of “unaffiliated” rose to 16.1 percent of the population. This category includes atheists and agnostics, but they make up only a small minority of the unaffiliated, most of which are religious believers of some kind, but do not consider themselves believers in any faith’s teachings in particular. I fall into that category myself. What’s more, Gallup found that Americans’ confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low of 44 percent.

The interesting thing about this in terms of the presidential election is that this demographic, although it constitutes less than twenty percent of the population, voted for Obama by a margin of more than 70 percent. That’s a bigger win than the president had with any other demographic except African-Americans. Obama lost the votes of both Protestants and Catholics, but the huge margin by which he won the unaffiliated made up for this and gave him his reelection.

Puzzling out why, I came to realize that the unaffiliated, although a majority of us are spiritual or religious, do not accept the authority of religious organizations. Among those who do accept that authority, some will be persuaded by the arguments of the religious right and some will not. Either way, their votes may be swayed by some other political factor, so that (for example) a pro-choice voter may vote Republican, or a voter opposed to gay marriage may vote Democratic, but statistically it will go the other way. But it’s safe to say that none of the unaffiliated will see the religious right positions as anything but the authoritarian stances that they oppose viscerally. With the Republicans coming out so strongly in support of cultural-right positions last year, it should come as no surprise that the unaffiliated opposed them by huge margins.

If this category of voter continues to grow, it will not mean a permanent victory for liberal and progressive politics, except in this one respect. It will mean the end of religious authoritarian right-wing politics, that bizarre aberration in the American political environment.

I also firmly believe that it is a step forward in the spiritual evolution of humanity. In an age when information about religions not one’s own is available in seconds on the Internet, the mental isolation that allowed sectarian exclusivity is a thing of the past, and the growth in the ranks of the unaffiliated is predictable. Religious authority has served as the greatest barrier to spiritual enlightenment. Break that authority, and the barrier is gone. Other barriers exist, but this is a big step forward.

With all that in mind, we bid farewell to 2012, and face the new year with cautious hope and optimism.

Image credit: volkoffa / 123RF Stock Photo

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Vanity Publishing

As if we didn’t have enough reasons already to loathe and despise the Big 6 publishing companies, now they’re dirtying their hands with vanity publishing scams, and to add insult to injury this foray into the even-darker side of the publishing world is being described in press releases as publishing companies getting into “self-publishing.” Both Penguin and Simon & Schuster have bought or partnered with a vanity publishing company to lure writers into giving them their money.

Despite the press releases saying they are, Penguin and Simon & Schuster are not getting into self-publishing. Vanity publishing is not self-publishing. The Big 6 publishers will never support self-publishing in any way; self-publishing (the real thing) dooms their control of distribution, on which their profits depend, and is their death sentence. But they don’t mind fleecing would-be authors that might otherwise genuinely self-publish their work. If this isn’t final proof of just how much contempt the big corporations who control traditional publishing have for authors, what would be?

A review of the history of vanity publishing might be useful here. Vanity publishing is an industry that arose in the old days, before the internet, before real self-publishing existed, when books were marketed almost exclusively in brick-and-mortar bookstores. There was no such thing as an e-book, or print on demand, or even the ability to order books on-line for delivery by mail. Printing a book was expensive. It required a large capital investment. Distribution was limited, and reputable publishing companies had it under lock and key. It was not completely impossible to self-publish in those days, but it was expensive and extremely difficult and hardly any authors succeeded at it. If you were a writer and you wanted your book published, you submitted it to publishing companies because there was no alternative.

Although it was easier in those days to get your book published with a publishing company than it is today (in those days, publishing companies weren’t threatened with extinction, there were more of them*, and they were more willing to take a risk on a new author because they were a growing business not a shrinking one engaged in cannibalism), it still wasn’t easy. Since publication was expensive, publishers could only publish so many titles a year. They were selective. Authors typically piled up rejection notices for years before finally having a book accepted for publication. Naturally, many authors found this frustrating.

Enter vanity publishing, a dubious business model created to take advantage of that frustration. Vanity publishers were not selective the way standard publishing companies were, because they made the authors pay for all the costs involved rather than paying those costs themselves — and then some. And not only that, but once you had ponied up thousands of dollars to see your book in print, you didn’t own the books, the vanity publisher did — you had to buy copies from them, and they paid you “royalties” just like the big boys, taking a hefty share of any proceeds of sale, even though the author had shelled out the capital to produce it and should, by any reasonable judgment, own all of it!

Of course, with no promotion and few to no bookstores willing to carry vanity titles, sales would be meager to nonexistent anyway. Vanity publishers made their money from author payments, not from sales of books. Vanity publishing came with a heavy load of stigma and rightly so, because an author would resort to it only because he could not find a conventional publisher, and usually that meant bad writing, poor editing or none, and poor judgment on the part of the author. (Some of that stigma transferred to real self-publishing, but that’s changing.)

There’s a very simple rule of thumb that can tell you whether you are dealing with a genuine self-publishing platform or a vanity-publishing scam. If they want your money before they will publish you, DON’T!

Now, there are two services that may be offered to an author for which up-front payment is appropriate. These are editing and cover design. To add to the confusion, publishing companies (large and small) normally include these services for any book they accept for publication without charging the author up front. A company that charges for these services isn’t necessarily a scam, but two questions must be asked. First, can you publish with the company without making use of these services, at no charge? And second, is the price involved appropriate given the market rates for freelance editing and cover design? If the answer to the first question is no, my advice is not to consider using that service for a split second. If the answer to the second is no, then obviously you should look elsewhere for these vital services. (There are actually ways to have both without paying a cent — which is not to say that professional editors and designers aren’t worth what you pay them.)

Here’s the baseline. You can publish an e-book or a print-on-demand book with many different on-line retailers directly. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (for e-books), Amazon CreateSpace (for printed books), Smashwords (e-books only, also acts as a distributor), and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit! are probably the most important ones, but there are others. For all four of these genuine self-publishing outlets, you can upload a book that meets their formatting guidelines and sell it on-line through the platform’s web site at no charge to you whatsoever. Of course, you’re responsible for the quality of your book, and far too many self-published authors cut corners here that they shouldn’t, but the fact remains that as far as making the book available to readers, no genuine self-publishing platform charges for this service. Instead, they each take a share of the proceeds when the book is sold. (A small share. Smashwords takes 15%, Amazon slightly more than 30%, and Barnes & Noble 35%.)

One could go into a lot more detail, but if you follow that one rule you can’t go wrong. If they want you to pay up front to have your book published, that’s vanity publishing. If not, that’s self-publishing. Know the difference, and don’t be fooled.

 

* Let me qualify this statement. As the advent of self-publishing causes a revolution in the publishing world, a lot of small publishers have begun mushrooming to accommodate the new reality. When I speak of publishers in this article’s context, they’re not the ones I’m talking about; I’m referring to the major corporate-owned publishing companies. Please excuse any confusion that arises as a result. These are confusing times.

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Where is Publishing Going?

The publishing world is in upheaval. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that. The upheaval in publishing, like so much else going on in our world, is driven by developments in technology, in this case print on demand and e-publishing. But as always happens, there are ramifications of these technological changes beyond the technologies themselves.

Consider the impact of a much earlier technological development, the printing press. Printing with movable type first emerged in Europe in the 15th century. The first book printed with the new technology was of course the Bible, in the officially approved Latin. Nothing revolutionary there, right? But as printing spread in use, the price of reading material dropped to the point where ordinary people could afford books, and that meant literacy held advantages suddenly for people who were neither scholars nor wealthy. As a result, literacy spread widely. With the ability to read came the demand for reading material, including the Bible translated into local languages, and from this demand arose in less than a century after Gutenberg issued his printed version of the Vulgate the Protestant Reformation and the sundering of the monolithic Church. But that was only the beginning. In addition to books, newspapers and other periodicals, and political tracts and pamphlets could be printed and widely distributed. Dangerous ideas spread among the people and sparked a wave of revolts against entrenched hereditary privilege, leading eventually to the downfall (either entirely or by reduction to figurehead status) of all the monarchies of Europe. What’s more, widespread literacy increased the pool of talent from which scholarship could be drawn, and this eventually sparked the scientific revolution, which led to the industrial revolution, which completely transformed the character of civilization. All that from an invention consisting of nothing but metal letters arranged on a tray and coated with ink.

The Internet and its associated features (social media, e-publishing, and on-line book distribution being the important ones for purposes of this article) are perhaps as important an invention or cluster of inventions as the printing press, and we haven’t seen all of the ways in which the changes it brings will play out. Nor am I going to go into here all the thoughts I have about how that will take place (which is not to say I don’t have any). But the ways in which these inventions have changed publishing (and also music, and perhaps film) are clear enough. They have democratized it. They have removed control of distribution from the major publishing houses and bookstores. It’s now possible for an author to bypass both publishing houses and bookstores and e-publish a book for on-line distribution, keeping complete control of the process in his own hands.

There’s been a lot written about that from the point of view of the author in terms of how to best take advantage of it. That ground’s been well covered and I don’t see any point in going over it yet again. Instead, I want to consider the likely impact on the publishing industry, by which I mean companies in the business of getting books from authors to readers. I haven’t seen much written on this outside of angry (and fully-justified) diatribes by authors against the publishing industry and predictions that the whole industry is going to die, which — while that would be poetic justice — is in my opinion not very likely.

Here are the facts feeding into the future as I see them.

  • E-publishing will come to dominate the publishing world more and more, until paper books become a niche, so that when we think of “publishing” we will think of e-publishing. Many books will be published in electronic form only, and even those published in print as well will see e-book distribution as the bulk of their sales.
  • The default assumption for authors will be self-publishing. Publishing companies will never regain the lock on distribution that existed before on-line marketing. As a result, authors will always know that they can publish anything they write themselves, and do not have to sell their work to a publishing company.

Those are the facts, but in terms of the future what do they mean?

First and foremost, they mean that the entire paradigm of traditional publishing (print runs and distribution to bookstores) will become increasingly obsolete. The new paradigm of publishing will be formatting of e-books and uploading them to online distribution outlets. This is much less capital-intensive than the old paradigm and so is necessarily decentralized, with authors fully capable of doing it all themselves or hiring out the parts they can’t do for an affordable price.

Secondly, and following from this, it means that publishers will need to woo authors by offering them something they can’t easily do for themselves, for a cost (in shares of royalties) that they will feel is justified by what is offered. With the obsolescence of the print-runs-and-bookstores paradigm, printing a book and getting it into bookstores (which is what publishers have offered in the past) obviously won’t do it. Nor will the attendant services such as cover design and editing that publishers have offered up to now; those are important but authors can obtain them for a few hundred dollars (or in some cases even free) and so publishers aren’t competitive when offering these services. Instead of looking at a publisher as someone who controls the future of his book, and therefore someone whose approval must be sought, an author will know that he can self-publish his book, that this is the default and the baseline, and evaluate the publisher in terms of what is being offered and what it will cost — as an option, not a necessity.

In other words, the bargaining strength between the two parties has radically shifted in the favor of the author.

We are already seeing an interesting change in the behavior of publishing companies. Where in the past they waited for authors or their agents to send work for them to choose or reject, publishers are beginning to scan the work of self-published writers and try to obtain for themselves either existing self-published books or new ones by authors who have done well. This makes sense from the publisher’s point of view, because it’s a low-risk enterprise. The successful self-published author has a proven track record and an established fan base.

The question is whether it is a good move for the author. As things stand today, the answer is usually no, in my opinion. But will things stay that way? Will the Big 6 publishers all go bankrupt because their current best-selling authors get old and die and they can’t find anyone to replace them?

One can find this prediction out there. I think it’s probably wrong, and that, given the financial resources of publishing companies and their parent corporations, they will have the time and space to change their paradigm of operation once they’re convinced that they have to. (Which, of course, they do.) There is, in fact, one service that a publishing company could offer an author which is very difficult to do oneself (although not impossible in this age of social media): marketing.

This is in fact sometimes touted as an advantage of going with a publishing company now, but at least with regard to the big publishers it isn’t one; all of the “marketing” efforts of publishers for anyone except their best-selling front-list goes into getting bookstores to order the books, which is declining in value towards worthlessness. Publishers who actually market to readers, though, will be offering a service that is worth a reasonable share of the revenue. Not, to be sure, the preposterous share that the big publishers take on e-book sales today — but a reasonable share, say twenty-five or thirty percent of net (so that a publisher-published e-book on Amazon would earn the author somewhere around 50% of the sale price rather than the 70% he earns as a self-published author). In return for that, the publisher would provide guidance on use of social media, help in website design, a host for the website itself, presentation of the book to reviewers, and a certain amount of paid advertising, all of which a self-published author must do for himself.

The scornful authors out there who have been  burned by Big Publishing before may scoff at the idea of publishing making these changes to the way it does business. But it seems to me that, when faced with the choice of change or extinction, business has proven itself willing to change in the past, and I see no reason to believe that publishing will be any different. This is the only model of the industry that is viable in a world where authors don’t need publishers, but I believe it is viable, and therefore it will exist.

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