Last month (March 2015) I passed a milestone* As a treat I decided to gee myself up by looking at what some people earn in the industry. This led me to Author Earnings. While looking around, I was reminded that a strident tone often hides uncertainty. The site looks at the Indie side of publishing and this post will primarily be of interest to publishers.
Traditional Publisher Outlook
The hollowing out of the profitable low-brow markets continues.It has become increasingly difficult for big name publishers to justify premiums on that product when e-distributors can offer equivalent product at vastly reduced prices.
Correspondingly, the changed landscape for published writers continues to evolve. He or she faces the prospect of competition. This is a particular issue if their product is undifferentiated. Low-brow entertainment is a weak point in the offerings of publishers as new writers continue to take matters into their own hands. The standard delivery mechanism is more and more via self-publishing. Indies are expected to cannibalise what’s left of the cheap end of the market and in due course most traditional publishers will be driven to the wall, other things being equal. Gresham’s Law will prevail. This scenario will leave Amazon’s Kindle in a commanding position.
Mickey Mouse – we all loved him as kids. We grow up but the pure escapist delight lingers. It’s out there, populating the Amazon top titles. Publishers are scared. Its purveyors aren’t; they’re raking it in.
As a rule my thought processes run in parallel, skipping and hopping from tangent to tangent. I rule in, or out alternative readings. My views are informed by a long diet of literature in my field – Mars, Space, Colonisation, Victoriana, Drug altered Reality… when I read something, I expect a plausible framework. The author of SF / Fantasy has more to do – he / she’s gotta help suspends the reader’s disbelief. Mickey Mouse works don’t do this.
Is all e-pubber output poor man’s product? or just some? Where does your book lie? Who knows the comparative stats?
Top sellers I’ve peeked at are, at best, patchy. I checked the home-team, which for me is SF. So first stop, highly ranked Kindle SF. And it’s… a big plot fail on the first page! Mars Invaded!! At the heart of a human space empire!!! ?? Why would I read this? Has it been anywhere near an editor? If I’d read this at my local SF writer group…
Where I come from words aren’t minced. Grace and manners suggest I rephrase my knee jerk response from ‘what’s this crap?’ to ‘please edit the trash’. Would I buy? No.
This read cast me back in time to a Water Stealer Yarn. Never mind that ice bearing asteroids are all over our system, they’re coming to Steal Our Water! The novel got an industrious number of four star ratings. I wanted it to be good and I’m sure that somewhere out there, something is. But I draw my own conclusions. Group think is for others.
Would I review? Interesting question. Style-wise the Mars Invaded tale was more direct, the Steal Our Water text felt a more mechanical trudge. Ultimately the answer has to be no. I get direct, but the story has to stand up. Why review something that hasn’t been properly edited? But hey! That sounds like I’m sneering. I’m not. I’m merely making the point that cartoon narratives are okay for some but those who demand more can hardly be expected to take them seriously. This is the kind of nonsense Plato railed against in his (lobotomised) critique of writing. On the other hand, someone’s gotta service that market; good luck to ‘em, I say. It’ll keep mainstream publishers honest.
I now split indies down into Self-pubbers and Indies. Self-pubbers are on the the base of the pyramid and do the bare minimum to finish product. The result is draft quality. Whether poorly written, poorly finished or derivative, it could be better. It’s product, it’s pumped out and e-book marketing wheezes do generate sales, regardless of quality. Wheezes game the system but get found out. Self-publishers take note, traditional methods of publishing involve alpha / beta readers, edits / restructures, & proofreads for a reason. Do-it-yourself flies in the face of focus on your strengths. This writer has dabbled in all these; but the old adage applies, concentrate on your strengths. By comparison, indies go the extra mile to give a bit more to the discerning reader.
Bringing us to sales figures. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant proportion of e-sales is from self-pubbers who, by definition, don’t feature in industry estimates of activity. My thanks go to the dudes on Author Earnings who put in the effort to whack this out (yep including you, Data Guy). On one level their conclusions may not be comfortable reading but you have to realise they’re harvesting data from the absolute base of the publishing pyramid; the base by number of titles, authors and quality. Of course not all that stuff will be trash; but if top genre sellers are self-evidently crap, it kind of crystallizes things.
It’s no big surprise that industry sales figures ignore these – they’re hard to estimate and they represent a market which they holds little interest to them, beyond the cannibalisation of their own, better written but still cheap, trashy offerings.
Out of interest I downloaded the spreadsheet to see if I could spot one of my books.
Stat time. Three of my ten plus books are on Kindle (I’ve withdrawn experimental stuff). Sales figures are interpolated so I couldn’t use those.
I plumped on date of publication + genre. No luck.
Not to worry, the principle is fairly sound – I do spreadsheets for a living and the interpolations look reasonable.
The conclusions however are self-serving. Is that a big deal? Well if enough shout out “The Sky is Falling!” some will be panicked. Publishers, by and large, have a functioning business model – the requirement for a steady hand on the tiller still holds. Where does that leave us? The same place, albeit with a more nuanced appreciation of the here, the now and the future.
Heigh-ho, enough of that.
Strategy Point – What can traditional publishers do?
Writers shouldn’t be expected to understand business strategy, product development and unique selling point, but it’s reasonable to suggest that the writer who wants to develop his art and leave behind old, worn plot devices, instinctively understands this. In the context of current technological changes, the publishers who resist become architects of future failure.
Failure doesn’t need to be planned and you can’t go back.
Milking a market (cash cow) only works while other things remain equal. In an economic sense, mass-market low-brow stuff has been long overdue for a sort out.
So what can traditional publishers do? Specialisation is part of the answer. A stable of stable of authors willing to embrace change is also good. Authors that this writer has spoken to, have expressed frustration with a model which ties them to producing the same formulaic fiction, over and over again. They are controlled by a couple of levers: the contract, and the financial justification offered by the publisher. They are told what to write.
Serving niche markets well, is also good. In general, those with a grasp of strategy will be better placed to size up the lay of the land; the rest will have to make do with imitation – that is pretending there is something unique and worthy in their writing stable. This brings to mind groups of well-organized, like minded self-pubbers who give each others’ works three and four star ratings – a kind of extended sock-puppet family. Eventually they get found out.
Do publishers really need to understand business (their business) and other non-Arty things like strategy?
The answer to that isn’t necessarily obvious. Boutique press, Specialist press and those set up to deliver a specific project – e.g. via POD (print-on-demand); aren’t always driven by commercial considerations. The object there is to do the work and be done. The trigger point to determine this is: does the publisher have to generate a profit / surplus, or not.
Money clouds the issue both ways; a publisher seeks to maximise earnings / minimise losses; successful writers like to grab a larger share of their success.
The End Game
While we’re talking strategy, how about the end game? (A business narrative :-)). Amazon has recently secured a deal with one of the big hold-outs Hachette – the terms are irrelevant; the fact is there is a deal against which conduct can be compared, leaving Amazon free to crush the small fry. Once this is under control, Amazon will be free to concentrate its power on getting a more favourable deal; at which point they’ll discover a technical snag that will make renegotiation necessary. i.e. we’ve more clout so it’s time for change ☻.
Tomorrow’s Brave New World Beckons.
The activities of the likes of Amazon are a bit of a worms’ nest. They headline a 70% royalty rate for authors; and as deal sweeteners, allow promotions such as Countdown and Free Book. There are catches. The 70% applies to product between $3 and $9.99; thus distorting pricing. Any price you set is manipulated by Amazon according to hidden algorithms. Go back after a week, or a month and the price you set has moved. You’ve done nothing; that’s Amazon’s work. The $3 and $9.99 are trigger points for countdown and free book. If the price of your book drifts outside them, Amazon welches on your deal. For example you set your book price at $3.00. Nice round figure. Later you plan a countdown deal for it. Days pass. The deal period begins, you check your product; it’s not in countdown. Why? The price has dropped to $2.92 but you’ve changed nothing. Amazon don’t let you rebook that deal; your deal-credit is used up.
Outside the $3 – $9.99 band, author royalty rate declines to 35%. Amazon get 30% and the middle-man is pruned. What does that mean? This is classic PR. The question begged is: What are Amazon doing for their 30%?
let me see – alpha / beta reading services? nope
editing / restructuring / proof reading? nope
author PR? only if you use their tools (bring your own schedule).
Oh wait there’s an electronic marketplace.
So the middleman is pruned? Hmm
Classics on the cheap
Literary repute. How easily acquired? What are the economics of offering Classics for free on an iDevice. The argument: cannibalise physical book sales as an inducement to lock in target audiences appears compelling until it dawns on you that, despite the rhetoric, digital is only ever loaned. When the iDevice goes kaput, so does your copy. Cue long debate about self-IDing and technology (thus ploughing the furrows of SF 🙂 ).
To dwell on the contribution of those long-ago authors – e.g. Aristotle & Plato were pretty much the founders literary theory – cheap or freely acquired literary rep seems a one-sided equation, especially by organisations perceived as greedy. Could e-distributors or publishers put something back into the pot? What if things were balanced out? How cool would it be if the founders of literary theory were appropriately recognised. A gesture such as a column or a bust in Athens is well off the radar in this day and age, but could have huge clout —something for the idea people to dwell on.
What could e-distributors do? For example: metrics on new, unsigned writers could inform agents / publishers of promising talent…
Writers with paying publishing deals, face a different dynamic. Toying with self-publish risks their current arrangements, which pretty much locks them in. Do they stay hopeful and compromise their art after struggling to get: first an agent, then a deal?
Questions for the publisher
What is my model for acquiring / growing talent?
Maybe I don’t want to grow talent.
Maybe I see new, successful self-pubbers and my eyes light up. Ready made cash-cows. Just air-lift into a mutually beneficial, money spinning deal.
Initiative, but what’s the cost. Are artistic objectives deprecated?
Questions for the nervy author
Do I trial my own publishing arrangements? Do I make my own publishing decisions?
The author has experience of how the publishing process works to suppress his creative force. Yet he has to handle the process from draft to completion. How? Most self-pubbers don’t bother.
Questions for the new author
Do I trial my own publishing arrangements? Do I make my own publishing decisions? How far do I push the envelope? Stick or Twist?
The new have other choices. Tread the long trail of agent / publisher with its small odds of success. Step into mindless, grey repetition?
Ultimately I suppose it’s where you pitch your tent
Where are we now?
From Magic Realism to Magic Cartoons in one easy step, or
Please give a big hand to the return of the Pulp Era.
Let’s make that e-Pulp.
Publishers need to up their game (still).
* 400,000 words.
What of? Writing. Stories and themes that interest me. Fiction. Since I started in 2009. It excludes rewrites and edits, only the final word count counts.
Currently I’m working on novel sketches. A sketch comes to about 20k words; in it plot outcomes are implied, but aren’t made explicit. The fantastic mixed with the mundane. Call it SF.
This genre has moved from technology driven, solution based themes, to pastiche. The ideas in early SF were often implausible but good storytelling often carried the day. Most of that early stuff is now a ‘fail’ due to poor characterisation.
In principle, I could find the social side side of pastiche appealing; in practise, this doesn’t happen. Is pastiche bad? What I’ve read doesn’t enthuse me. I expect difference, realistic social commentary & extrapolations…. I’ve read earlier stuff and I’ve seen what can be attempted, and done. I expect more.
Is it enough to critique? No. To mangle a metaphor, put your words where your mouth is. SF is a core mentality with which to examine different facets of our world.
On Self Publishing
Self-Publishing boils down to self-promotion plus mechanics. If you don’t care to big up your own work, you aren’t self-promoting. The mechanics of self-publishing are a time-sink but they’re useful for learning the ropes.
Bigging up your own work is a mixture of skill and luck whose ultimate objective is to influence ranking and get reviews. Ranking + Reviews = Sales. The ether is full of snake-oil masquerading as tips; few make it work. It’s as well to note that some skills blur into darker areas; Amazon’s metrics can and have been ‘gamed’. Amazon’s message boards show how heavy-handed they’ve been in attempting to weed out tricks. Reviews power sales. There’s a whole industry geared to reviewing Indie books ranging from sock puppetry to sympathetic reviews by teams of like-minded writers. With a few four stars under the belt, group mentality sets in which is how we get sparkling reviews of tripe. Amazon has automatic processes to weed out the various abuses… which tells you just how severe the problem is.
This writer’s interests, in no particular order, are History, Eastern Mysticism, Classical Greek Philosophy, Myths & Folk Tales, Fantasy, Science Fiction and American Comic Books. In another life, he does business strategy, management accounting, finance and spreadsheet stuff.