Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book-selling wars

I have been following the dispute between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group with interest. It almost certainly signals a shift in the way the book business is run—hopefully it will be a shift away from both Amazon and the Top Five traditional publishers and toward a more independent industry controlled mostly by the authors.

In a nutshell, Amazon thinks that publishers do not deserve as much of the retail price of e-books as they get for paper copies. On the one hand, this makes sense because there is no paper or ink or trucking fees to pay. On the other hand, it is the same book as the paper copy, which has been through an expensive editing, proofing, and formatting process—not to mention an e-book formatting process, which a print book does not need. The retail price of the book also, of course, includes the cost of keeping the CEO of the company wealthy beyond dreams.

Amazon—because it is the largest distributor in the world—wants more of a percentage (currently 30 percent of the suggested retail price) than it has now. Publishers such as Hachette refuse to agree to this, especially since it has the current number one bestseller in Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm.  As of this date, June 25, 2014, here is what the book is selling for by some of the mega retailers.
Barnes & Noble is selling the hardback copy of the book, which has a suggested retail price of $28.00, for $16.80, a 40 percent savings. They are selling the e-book, which has a suggested retail price of $14.99, for $11.00, a 20 percent savings.
Apple’s iTunes sells the e-book for $9.99.
Kobo also sells the e-book for  $9.99.
But of course Amazon refuses to be outdone by anyone and is selling the hardcover for $16.79 and the e-book for $8.99.

This cutthroat policy of Amazon’s is reprehensible, but no surprise. In addition to being the largest retailer on the planet, they are also the largest predator. Let’s face it; as long as Hachette wants to sell their books to Amazon for distribution, Amazon has the right to price them whatever they want to, even if they lose money on every sale. Who are the winners and losers here?
Winner: Hachette, because they get the price they want from Amazon.
Winner: The authors, because they get the same percentage of the suggested retail price despite what Amazon ends up selling their books for.
Winner: The customer. Anytime there is a fierce competition to sell a product, the customer stands to gain by the existence of lower prices.
Winner: Amazon, who will get the lion’s share of the sales, despite a lower percentage of profit. Because the more sales they get, the less their competitors get.
Losers: B&N, Kobo, Apple, and anyone else who competes with Amazon as an e-book distributor. But this has a caveat. Owners of Nooks, iPads, or Kobo readers will probably buy their e-books from B&N, Apple, or Kobo despite the difference n price. Buyer loyalty works both ways.

The above was the situation before Amazon decided it wanted a larger slice of the pie. Because almost everyone was a winner except Amazon’s competitors, it is difficult to see why Amazon would want to change things. Anyone who knows Amazon, though, knows that 1. Amazon will never be satisfied with its current profit margin, and 2. Amazon does not like it when it is not the only winner. It treats as competitors not only Apple, et al,  but also publishers and editors and yes, even the poor authors  If they could create a program to actually write the books themselves, they would do it in a heartbeat.

But let’s say that Hachette refuses to let Amazon distribute their books.—or, conversely, Amazon refuses to distribute them. Who are the winners and who the losers then?
Loser: Amazon, who will not reap any sales at all on certain titles.
Loser: The customer, who will not get quite as cheap a price on e-books from that publisher.
Winner: Kobo, Apple, B&N, and many other e-book retailers who will not have Amazon as a competitor for these titles.
Winner: The book industry, because any time Amazon is thwarted, the industry gains.
If this situation results in the publisher selling fewer books because of not having Amazon as its main distributor, then both publisher and author are also losers—at least initially.

But remember, this battle is between Amazon, who says that the distributor should get the lion’s share of the profit, and the publisher, who says that production is more important. Where does the author fit in all this? Well, nowhere; and that’s a bad thing.

Essentially, Amazon seems to want a monopoly. They will first corner the market on everything and then raise the prices. This is indisputable given their past performance. Yet the Big Five publishing houses (of which Hachette is one) remain annoyingly pompous when it comes to their own self-importance, and uncompromisingly thrifty when it comes to paying their authors.

The rise of independent publishing will be the sorting out of the Amazons versus the Hachettes. Just look at the price Hachette is asking for The Silkworm: $14.99! For an e-book that has no collectible value, no resale value, and in fact, no physical form at all! Under the “guidelines” followed by most major traditional publishers, the author gets 25 percent of net sales. So if a copy of The Silkworm is sold at that price, the author would get no more than $3.00—and probably less. An independently published book selling on Smashwords (who gives the author up to 75 percent of gross sales) for $4.99—$10 less than Hachette—would get the author about $3.75. Something is wrong here.

In my opinion, then, the future of book publishing will have to incorporate some of the procedures of Amazon, the Big Five publishers, and Indie authors. But they all will have to change some if they want to survive at all.
Amazon has proved to be bad for publishing, and worse, bad for literature. They need less of a market share and less profit margin. They need to pay more attention to their customers and their authors and less to their shareholders and to Jeff Bezos. They won’t, of course, so they will have to be forced into it.
Top Five Publishers (hopefully followed by the majority of all publishers): need to build their own storefront websites for both printed books and e-books. With their own sites—and not having to pay a middle party, like Amazon, they could afford to discount books for customers. They could also afford to charge less and pay their authors more. If they don’t, their authors will pay someone like me $100 to format their e-books so that they can get three times the money they are getting now on each new sale. This will happen anyway.
Authors:  need to retain your e-book rights. It’s not hard to publish an e-book yourself on Smashwords, Amazon, Apple, Nook, or any of the other major e-book retailing platforms. You will pay a small fee only on each sale, but will receive 75 percent of all gross sales. No more money to pay the CEO. You are the CEO. Some authors and publishers are self-important enough to deserve each other’s company. But they better enjoy it now, because it will soon be a very small party 

Monday, March 3, 2014

North Florida Trilogy

The recent publication of Time Piece, the third book in The North Florida Trilogy, puts an end not only to the series, but to the 30-year story surrounding the books. Here is some of that story.

In the mid-1980s, I was editing vocational materials for the state of Florida. One of my co-workers was Anne Petty, a woman who was just beginning to dabble in creative writing after publishing a nonfiction book on J.R.R. Tolkien. I had published a couple of handfuls of poems as well as a book of short stories. I also had three full-length novels completed and stored away in a drawer.  It was natural, then, that Anne and I became friends and we often talked about what we were working on at the time. Sadly, I was in a severe and protracted writing slump and had produced very little over the preceding few years.

One morning, Anne came to my office and showed me a picture she had taken the weekend before. It was a snapshot of an old, abandoned country church near her property in Crawfordville. You could almost hear the creaky front door, smell the mold creeping along the damp walls, and feel the dusty bat dung on the bell rope. "This would make a great setting for a horror story," she told me.

I agreed; in fact, as the day wore on, I became more and more captivated by the idea. Here at last was something new that I could sink my fangs into.That night, I went home and wrote five pages of the first chapter along with a several-page synopsis, complete with events and a preliminary cast of characters. I don't think Anne actually thought that anything would come out of her little photograph, but when she saw how excited I was about the idea, she became as enthusiastic as I was.  Somehow, over the next six or eight months, we crafted a novel around that little church featuring a shrimpboat captain named Carla Conway and a menagerie of rural misfits. Although no longer a horror novel (we agreed that the description "literary suspense" was more accurate), the novel is a rich and exciting adventure that tells many stories,not only about the characters, but about North Florida itself. But this novel, like most novels written by anyone before 2010, went into a drawer.

For a while we were content with this single novel; its creation had gotten us both off  our creative tookuses. But then we got to talking about a bizarre museum near Panama City that we were both familiar with. It  dealt in the most esoteric junk--widgets and postcards and knives; even a mummy and a cigar store Indian. Outside, a giant statue of a gorilla could be seen for miles on State Road 20. So, yes, we had to write another novel about this. The scene had changed from near Apalachicola to Panama City and the characters changed, too. This one featured P.I. Vicky Rankin, her husband Rick (a failed Western writer), and son Rusty (a teenage weirdo who liked fire and knives). It also dealt with Snag Black, a hunchbacked homosexual whose father owned the odd museum. Snag turned out to be the person who offered Vicky her first detecting job, one that would cause her to solve a 500-year-old mystery. The novel was finished and it, too, went into the drawer.

It was more than a year after Museum Piece that we realized that it and Hell and High Water should be part of a loose trilogy. But for this third book, we had to change the scene yet again, setting the novel in Pensacola, a bit west of Panama City. The main character, Melanie Truslow, had appeared as a minor character in the first two novels and in fact is the only character to appear in all three. She had moved to Pensacola to get to know her father, who had divorced her mother before Melanie was born. But his mysterious death left her alone in a strange city and a large  house, rife with secrets. I  had visited a Vietnamese Tent City near Pensacola at the end of the Vietnam war and we used some of what I had experienced there in the book. Anne used her experiences of having to put her mother in a nursing  home because of an unusual type of dementia. And then there were the watches. We called the book Time Piece, and I have always considered it the most literary and the most important.

And there we had it. We finished the last book in the late 1980s. I left my state job to open a bookstore and concentrate on poetry, which seemed easier to publish than fiction. Anne, too, went in her own direction, becoming fairly well known for her dark fantasy novels and Tolkien criticism. The North Florida Trilogy languished. Every few years I would take one of them out of its drawer and begin to submit it to agents or publishers, but nothing ever came of those efforts. And every decade or so we wold undertake a revision of each one. And after every revision, the works got tighter and tighter.

In 2012 we did a final revision of the trilogy and began our independent publication of the series with Hell and High Water. In 2013 Museum Piece was published and finally, this week, Time Piece became available. All exist in both paperback and e-book form. An interesting sidelight is that the books--which we wrote as contemporary fiction--have become historical. Much that we wrote about is no longer there.

Unfortunately, Anne did not live to see the last book in the series published. Cancer took her just after Museum Piece came out last year. I think, though, that like me, she was always proud of the series, the work we both put into it, and the experience we gained from it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A formatting invitation for lesbian mystery authors

I am a professional e-book formatter as well as a huge fan of lesbian mysteries. And, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I also have a vision impairment that prevents me from reading the relatively small type of normal,  printed books. I can, however, still read books in electronic format due to the ability of most e-book reading devices, like my iPad, to enlarge the print. Unfortunately, I have found that many--most perhaps--lesbian mystery e-books are either priced too high or do not exist in e-book format at all.

There is a reason--although not a good one--for the high e-book prices.Many authors of lesbian mysteries have let publishers do the work for them: formatting, bookkeeping, etc. Unfortunately, the publishers also claim the lion's share of the sales; that is, what is left after Amazon or the other e-book retailers take their cut. This is true not only for mainstream publishers but also for some of the independent counterculture presses--Bella is maybe the best example but there are several more. Bella regularly sells their e-books--backlog as well as new releases--for $9.99 to $10.95. In my opinion, these are ridiculously overpriced and are doing harm to the authors by not only keeping them to a small royalty but also a small readership. Those prices are simply higher than most buyers--even hard-core aficionados such as myself--are willing to pay. Although I am not privy to any actual contracts, I suspect that an author gets less of a royalty from a publisher selling their book at $9.99 than they would if they published it themselves and priced it at $4.99 or less.

But I am also saddened by the complete absence of e-books by some of the most interesting authors in the lesbian mystery genre. It's like they lave either been forgotten or are balking at giving themselves over yet again to a publisher who will control more aspects of their work than they feel comfortable relinquishing.

So here's my offer. I would sincerely like to help some of these authors without e-books get their work back out--not only to new readers, but to the world at large. I charge a small up-front fee of course (usually $100 or less for full-length works), but the formatted book would then be under the total control of the author, who can then decide what retail distributors to use, what price to charge, and the like. Most important, they will then be able to receive up to 70 percent of each sale. Believe me, nobody gives a flying fruitcake whether an e-book publisher is Simon & Schuster or Auntie Lute or a name that the author makes up themselves. Or no publisher at all. They all look the same on an e-book reading device.

I'm talking to you, Vicki P. McConnell. And to you Alma Fritchley and M.F. Beal and every other writer of lesbian detective fiction who does not presently have their books converted to an electronic format. Let's get your work back in the public eye, and let's do it in a manner that is professional and affordable and that will win you not only a little cash, but a well-deserved n audience as well.