Thursday, October 08, 2015


Random stuff that's bugging me lately.

1. Emails from newbie authors asking if I want to review their book.

Look, I'm a writer. I know how hard it is to get reviews. In years past, I've asked readers who follow me on Goodreads if they'd like to review my books. I may have even asked readers who have signed up for my newsletter if they were interested in reviewing me.

But I don't spam people.

I don't know what list I got on (Maybe because I used to be an Amazon Vine reviewer? Maybe someone compiled a list of top Amazon reviewers?) but I get asked to review free books every day.

You might not think it's spam because you're offering a free read, but if it is unsolicited, if I have no idea who you are, if I never followed you on Twitter or Facebook or Goodreads, then it's spam. If it annoys me, it most certainly annoys others, and if you keep doing this you're going to get some really unflattering reviews. Not from me; I don't cut down my peers' books, and I pretty much stopped reviewing on Amazon. But a friendly word of warning; some reader is going to get annoyed and the only person you can blame is the one in the mirror.

2. James Patterson's Masterclass.

Maybe it's awesome and helpful and will teach a whole new segment of writers how to write a 60,000 word novel in just 150 chapters. Maybe, if you pay extra, you can co-write Jim's next blockbuster. I don't like a lot of the stupid things Patterson says in public, but I don't begrudge him his success, and if he can buy another summer home in Languedoc-Roussillon with the extra money he makes from this endeavor, more power to him.

But get out of my cookies, man!

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, your browser stores data known as cookies which can carry info from one website to the next. So I click on Patterson's class once, and see ads for it everywhere I go, unless I delete the cookies or use an ad blocker. Which annoys me.

To recap: I'm not mad that Patterson is getting even richer selling hope to the clueless, I'm ticked he paid for a website that infects my browser with his face every time I try to surf porn.

Also, my free advice to newbies; writing tips, books, websites, and classes can help you become a better writer. But they don't beat reading and writing. When I taught writing, I always told my students they should be home, writing, instead of being in class.

3. Amazon sales figures.

In a previous blog post about KU 2.0, I wrote about Amazon sharing sales data with authors (this carried on into the comments). Amazon knows where readers stop reading, if they ever pick the book up again, how many borrows per pages read, and other figures that authors could really benefit from, but they aren't sharing.

They don't have to share that stuff, and I'm not going to reiterate that debate. But I would like to have access to cumulative sales figures, which is a much more reasonable and rudimentary request. This hit home the other day where I wanted to see how many unit sales, and how much money, a particular title of mine had accrued over the years, and I realized I had to add it up month by month myself.

Come on, Amazon! I should be able to press a button and generate a spreadsheet that lists all the sales data for a title for any given time period. Can we have that option, please? I've been asking since 2009. It irritated me that I couldn't just pull up those figures. It's not like they're top secret, or that it would require a lot of work for you to do. Just let me know how many damn ebooks I've sold.

 4. Pinheads who claim ebook sales have plateaued.

I shouldn't care about this, because one person's misconceptions are another person's opportunities, but I admit that it irks me whenever some publisher or survey or periodical crows about how ebook sales aren't growing. Even ignoring the burgeoning global market, ebook sales are destined to grow. Younger generations have learned to read without paper, and they're going to consume nearly 100% of the written word electronically as they age. My generation will be retiring in 15 to 25 years, and we grew up reading novels. We're going to defer to them when we have more free time.

Technology keeps getting better, and cheaper, and we still haven't tapped the hidden potential of ebooks as a unique, and superior, storytelling device. I'm working to do some tech stuff with my new horror thriller, WEBCAM, that should enhance the reading experience and make it more fun because ereaders can do more stuff than dead trees. Plateaued? Ebooks haven't even gotten started yet.

Okay, rant over. Now stop reading blogs and go write something.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Maybe You Suck

Some people don't like me preaching on and on about how luck is possibly the single most important factor of success.

Some of these folks insist that good writing will always find an audience.

Some say those with success deserve it.

Some say my insistence that luck is important is a form of humble bragging, since I've sold a few million books.

Some don't like the fact that luck is beyond their control, and they believe talent and hard work always win out.

Some think they make their own luck.

I'll bite. Let's say I'm wrong. Let's say luck isn't as big of a factor as I think.

Have you reached the level of success you want? If so, and you don't believe luck was involved, good for you. I suppose you can make a case for yourself, the same way every self-made millionaire makes a case when they write their inevitable "How I Did It" books. I don't know how many people have read the Essays of Warren Buffet and then became billionaires, but perhaps a lot have. Maybe good, solid advice, a strong work ethic, and loads of talent, coupled with a how-to template, can make anyone a raging success.

But what if you aren't a raging success, and you still don't believe in luck?

Well, maybe you suck.

Maybe your writing isn't as good as you think it is.

Maybe those covers you bought on Fiverr look like they cost $5 and are scaring people away.

Maybe you were wrong to think that Loch Ness Monster LGBT BDSM Amish Space Opera was the next big thing.

Maybe you need a better editor. Or an editor, period.

Maybe you signed your rights over to someone else who sucks.

Maybe you published before you learned how to write well.

Maybe you'll never learn how to write well.

Maybe you spend too much time whining online about how everyone is against you, and not enough time putting out good books.

Maybe you're incapable of putting out good books, no matter how much time you spend at it.

Maybe you dwell too much on defending your publishing decisions, when you should be questioning your publishing decisions.

Maybe you've bought into what the media says about ebooks waning in popularity, because you're stupid.

Maybe your spouse and Mom telling you they like your book doesn't qualify as constructive criticism.

Maybe you're reading too much about publishing and not experimenting enough with publishing.

Maybe your drop in sales isn't about the marketplace; it's about readers not liking your work.

Even if you do account for luck in your definition of success, you might still suck. Maybe it isn't bad timing and crummy breaks that have stalled your career. Maybe your writing is the problem.

Yes, you can self-publish.

That doesn't mean you should.

And it certainly doesn't mean the world owes you a read.

If your sales suck, it might be because you suck.

Maybe you deserve that 1 star review.

Maybe you deserve that #2,543,677 ranking.

Maybe you should go bury your nose in the Elements of Style.

Maybe you need to workshop your next story with a writing group before trying to publish it.

Maybe proof reading isn't an option; it's a necessity.

Maybe all of your excuses are bullshit.

Maybe you're 100% to blame for your depressing career.

Maybe you should quit.


Maybe you can do everything right, and still not reach your measure of success, because you haven't gotten lucky yet.

But I'm willing to admit I might be wrong.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Gentle Reminder

This post goes out to no one in particular for no particular reason. Maybe it will motivate some. Maybe it will make others think a little bit. Maybe it will irritate you. But it's good, tested advice, and worth repeating.

1. Nobody owes you a living. I'm old school, and I busted my ass to get where I am. But I don't feel any sense of entitlement. Yeah, I worked hard. Maybe I've got talent. But I don't deserve readers, and neither do you.

2. Success is mostly due to luck. You can do everything right, and still not be satisfied with the state of your career. That's life. No one ever said this would be fair, fun, or easy.

3. Stop whining. The internet is forever. No one likes a person who constantly complains. Even if you feel that bemoaning (insert whatever here) is justified, it will always be linked to you if someone Googles your name.

4. Don't Google your name. What people think of you is their business, not yours. Remember, one of life's greatest journeys is overcoming insecurity and learning to truly not give a shit.

5. Never respond to criticism. It will make things worse. And if you apologize, it will get even more worser. Keep out of any discussion about you and your work. You may think you know better, but you don't.

6. Remember your Serenity Prayer. Fix what you can change, accept what you can't fix, and learn to know the difference between the two. If it is beyond your control, drink a beer, do yoga, go for a run, or bitch to a close friend where it can't be seen online. And if you can't stop dwelling on your bad fortune;

7. Quit. The world will keep turning without your work. If writing and publishing is so traumatic, go use your time doing something else you can derive some pleasure from. Life is too short.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Guest Post by Gary Ponzo

It’s been over a year since Joe invited authors to use his characters in a collaborative story with their own protagonist. The offer came at a time when I was searching for a writer to collaborate with and this seemed like a perfect fit. His Jack Daniels character is a no-nonsense detective with a sharp wit and a penchant for fashionable clothes. It seemed there was plenty of meat on that bone to chew on. Also, Jack has issues with bloated government agencies and it made the relationship with my FBI agent Nick Bracco character even that more appealing. Who wants a puppy-dog cop following agency instructions?

That’s when the idea of a rogue terrorist came to mind. What if FBI agent Nick Bracco’s team, including his mafia-connected cousin Tommy, came to Chicago to track down a terrorist cell about to set off a bomb in downtown Chicago? And what if Nick invited Jack to join the task force to help find a teenage terrorist who was considered the main threat? This sounded like an intriguing concept.  Especially when Jack doesn’t believe the kid wants to carry out the attack. Jack believes the kid was being manipulated into performing his tasks. It’s something she can’t prove so she has to go out there and find this terrorist on her own. Behind Nick’s back. This is a risky proposition since the threat of a detonation is almost guaranteed by agency intelligence.  This was the juicy part of the collaboration for me.

Fast forward a year.  The book is finished. I contact Joe only to discover his plate is full, Kindle Worlds being one of many projects he’s juggling. So my choice was to add this project to the Kindle Worlds platform, or release it as my own book writing in the world of JA Konrath. When discussing this with Joe he showed support for either direction, so I decided to release it as a standalone thriller. That’s when this became a Nick Bracco/Jack Daniels Thriller titled A Touch of Tequila, currently on sale on Amazon. 

Since all my Nick Bracco books start with A Touch of . . . it was easy to keep that theme going along with using Tequila in the title which is the name of a character from one of Joe’s earlier books, A Shot of Tequila.  I am the author of the project, but make no mistake about it, people will feel Joe’s presence on this book and hold him accountable should the writing be subpar. That’s where he showed a leap of faith, even writing the foreword for me.

Although I wasn’t able to collaborate with him, I felt a responsibility to make sure Joe’s characters were properly portrayed and behaved within the realm of their personalities. I read and reread many of the Jack Daniels thrillers for research and feel confident my work will resonate with his readers. At the same time, my own readers will definitely welcome the return of Nick, Matt and Tommy Bracco.

If you’re a fan of either of ours, or just a thriller fan--take a look.  It took a year to accomplish, but I had fun playing in Joe’s sandbox and I think the wait was worth it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Zombie Publishing Meme #4: Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free.

This is the fourth in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.

We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a free downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme yourself and don’t see it listed here, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles on these or related topics, please refer us to them so we can include links. The complete list of zombie memes we’ve addressed so far appears at the end of this post.

Self-Publishing is Costly and Risky; Legacy Publishing is Guaranteed and Free

This meme takes a couple different forms. Sometimes it expresses itself as a comparison of the worst possible example of self-publishing to the best possible example of legacy publishing. Other times, the comparison is between the typical reality of self-publishing and the rare ideal of legacy publishing. Either way, the framework is misleading.

The meme is customarily introduced by someone claiming she explored self-publishing and was shocked to find it involved such high costs--$4000 just for editing, for example. The writer paid anyway, then was disappointed to discover that her ebook, which she was selling for $14.99, sold poorly and seems unlikely ever to recoup its costs (for more, see this shocking Wall Street Journal discovery that higher prices can lead to lower revenues).

The writer then compares this unfortunate state of affairs to the possible ease of mailing out a few query letters, landing a six-figure deal with a Big Five publisher, and having all publishing services delivered smoothly and expertly.

In fact, many authors self-publish for nothing (both in ebook and pbook). They do it themselves, or barter for services (I'll proofread yours if you proofread mine.) There are also many affordable freelance editors, artists, proofers, and designers (here is a partial list). So the notion that self-publishing necessarily costs thousands of dollars upfront is chimerical, akin to wild stories of hundred-dollar melons told by western travelers returning from Tokyo. Yes, such specimens can be found in the gift departments of certain high-end Ginza department stores, but they are far from the norm, and certainly not representative of what food actually costs in Japan or how the vast majority of people go about nourishing themselves.

But regardless of what a self-published author chooses to spend on publishing services, it’s critical to understand that the author keeps her rights and the majority of revenues (typically 70% in digital). In other words, the costs of self-publishing--whether the self-published author prefers to spend a few dollars or a few thousand--are generally upfront; the payout is over the long term.

By contrast, the upfront costs of the legacy route tend to be relatively modest (if you don’t include time spent mailing out query letters and manuscripts, and waiting, perhaps permanently, to hear from an agent or editor). If you do land a legacy contract, you can expect some sort of advance (probably a few thousand dollars) and a promise that you’ll receive all relevant publishing services. In exchange, you’ll have to give up approximately 85% of revenues and you’ll almost certainly be surrendering your rights forever. The costs of legacy-publishing are therefore long-term; the payout, in the form of whatever advance you are offered, is upfront.

If a writer is lucky enough to get a gigantic advance--which Joe guesses only happens in less than 0.1% of legacy contracts--royalties don't matter because they won't ever be earned out. The advance is the only money the writer will likely ever see. But any advance less than life-changing money functions as an ridiculously high interest loan.
If you were a genre author offered a $100k advance earning 17.5% royalties off of the digital list price, and your ebook is priced at $4.99, you earn $0.88 per ebook sold. You need to sell 113,600 ebooks to earn out your advance. And when you do, you're stuck with 88 cents per sale, FOREVER.
The same ebook, self-published, earns the author $3.49 per copy sold. If they sell 28,653 copies, they made the $100,000. Every copy they sell after that, they make 4x more money than they do on a legacy ebook.
Which seems like a better deal for authors?
Not only is the loan high interest, it's also forever, because the author will never get those rights back.

So while it’s technically not inaccurate to note that self-publishing isn’t free, it’s more accurate--and useful--to note that this is because no form of publishing is free. To discuss the costs of only one system while ignoring the costs of another is fundamentally misleading. To be empowered to make good decisions for themselves, authors need to be able to compare. To be able to compare, they need information about the costs and benefits of both systems.

For more on the unfortunate tendency to compare the reality of self-publishing to the ideal of legacy publishing, we recommend Publishing is a Lottery/Publishing is a Carny Game. The general idea is that all publishing systems are, statistically speaking, lotteries, and that to make good choices for themselves, writers need information about four things: (i) the cost of a ticket; (ii), the odds of winning (iii); the size of potential payouts; and (iv) the nature of opportunities for influencing the lottery’s outcome. It’s rare that legacy publishing boosters are willing to discuss all these categories. More commonly, the boostership consists of discussion only of the size of item (iii), in which to date the legacy lottery has the clear advantage. Anyone who is trying to sell you on one system or another without including information about each of the four categories is not providing sound advice.

But even the lottery metaphor can be unnecessarily limiting. Which system is right for you will depend on many other factors, as well, including the size of the advance (if you receive a legacy offer), how important digital is to you vs paper, how much you value control over business decisions vs how comfortable you are delegating, how much you value time to market, etc. For more on how to develop a proper framework for evaluating which publishing route makes the most sense for you, we recommend this summary of a keynote Barry gave at the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in 2013.

Previously addressed zombie memes:

Friday, September 04, 2015

Shocking WSJ Discovery: Higher Prices=Lower Volume!

Barry Eisler here. Joe, thanks as always for the guest slot. I was going to mock this Wall Street Journal article somewhere, and there’s no better place than A Newbie’s Guide for that…

So okay, today the Wall Street Journal ran a piece headlined, E-Book Sales Fall After New Amazon Contracts: Prices Rise, but Revenue Takes a Hit.” The article is behind a paywall, but you can access it by cutting and pasting the headline into your browser and clicking on the result of the search.

I just want to make sure I’m the first to congratulate the Wall Street Journal on its shocking discovery of a correlation between higher prices and lower demand. And, while I’m no economist, I’d like to humbly propose that the WSJ call its discovery something like, “The Demand Curve.” If this doesn’t win the newspaper a Pulitzer, I have one more suggestion: an even more radically new article on how a round object fastened to an axle can work as something called… a wheel.

Apologies for the snark, but where else but in publishing could a notion like “higher prices lead to lower revenues” even be controversial, let alone newsworthy? But the publishing industry is notoriously special, and Joe has been beating this drum for years. Five years ago, he wrote:

Naturally, people would rather pay less for something than more. And in a digital world, like we’re rapidly becoming, consumers have shown consistently in other forms of media that they place less value on downloads than on physical products.

When companies price digital content too high, consumers respond by pirating that content. That’s the ultimate in “devaluing.”

So what is truly the value of ebooks? Is it free? Or is it the publisher’s price, which seems inflated, and which in the agency model gives them 52.5% of the list price of an ebook for doing nothing more than providing a cover, editing, and putting it up on Amazon?

If an ebook is free, the author gets screwed.

If an ebook is priced high, it won’t sell a lot of copies, and the author gets screwed.

If an ebook sells for a small amount of money, the author makes 17.5% of the list price. That also seems like the author is getting screwed.

Publishers are currently talking about going 50/50 with authors [BE note: hah, this was five years ago, the talk never ends does it?], so an author will make 35% of the list price. But it’s still the price the publisher sets, which is inflated, which will lead to piracy.

By setting the price, the publisher is pricing ebooks so they won’t sell well, and then taking 35% of what little money will come in.

Joe has also pointed out many times that authors will be the ones who kill legacy publishing, because they’ll go elsewhere as they figure out the New York Big Five’s pricing strategy is costing them money. Though whether this is Big-Five-Death-By-Authors or Big-Five-Death-By-Suicide is an interesting philosophical question.

Anyway, back to the Wall Street Journal’s big discovery. The headline itself—again, E-Book Sales Fall After New Amazon Contracts: Prices Rise, but Revenue Takes a Hit—is interesting. The way it’s written, you might think it was Amazon that caused the high prices that produced that shocking revenue hit. In fact, Amazon has consistently tried to price ebook prices lower, even publicly explaining last year why everyone—authors, publishers, and retailers—makes more money from lower ebook prices. Higher so-called “agency” prices have been forced on Amazon by the Big Five, and were at the heart of the price-fixing conspiracy New York and Apple engaged in to keep ebook prices high.

And that subtitle is amusing, too. Prices rise, BUT revenue takes a hit? How about AND takes a hit? Or THEREFORE takes a hit?

I can’t help it. It’s too much. The Wall Street Journal—one of the world’s leading business newspapers—doesn’t seem to understand, or even know the existence of, an Econ 101 concept as basic as this:

In economics, the demand curve is the graph depicting the relationship between the price of a certain commodity and the amount of it that consumers are willing and able to purchase at that given price.

What is it about publishing that makes otherwise intelligent, educated people lose sight of even the most axiomatic things? One day, someone’s going to write a dissertation on that topic.

Publishing industry analyst Mike Shatzkin provides this helpful quote: “Unfortunately, it may be that consumers aren’t happy with the higher prices.” Okay, I admit that my first thought was, “Those pesky consumers, always insisting on decent value for their money! If we could just figure out a way to keep ‘em happy about coughing up $25 a book, we’d all be in clover!”

And then I thought, “Unfortunate for whom?” Because there’s demonstrably more money for everyone in lower priced ebooks. But wait, here’s a clue:

“Publishers said the current pricing model involves some sacrifice but they felt it was worth it to keep Amazon in check.”

Always interesting when someone casually reveals his true motives. Though this one might have been stated more clearly as, “Publishers said sodomizing readers was worth it to keep Amazon in check. A Big Five spokesman added, ‘Sorry, readers, we know it hurts but it’s for the greater good. And by ‘greater good,’ I mean the good of the Big Five, who are above all else intent on preserving the problem for which we are the solution.’”

And here’s another clue: “What’s more, they have noticed a bump in sales of physical books that is possibly related to the higher price of digital books.”

I’ve been saying for years: the prime imperative of the Big Five is to preserve the position of paper and retard the growth of digital. They’re willing to lose money to accomplish this. They even just described it as good news.

I also love how the cripplingly high prices the Big Five has fought for are now described as “the Amazon deals” and “the Amazon pacts” (“pact” is such a great word. The west has a North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Only Communists have things like a Warsaw Pact. We have factions, they have tribes; we have detention centers, they have gulags; we might build a security fence but never a Berlin Wall...wait, sorry, I know I’m digressing but propagandistic language is endlessly fascinating to me. Remember, It’s Just a Leak!).

Why is the Wall Street Journal trying to hang around Amazon’s neck a money-losing price structure dictated by the Big Five? Because it’s bad. And if it’s bad, and it’s happening in publishing, it must be Amazon’s fault. Quod erat demonstrandum.

A paragraph later: “Publishers succeeded in preventing Amazon from lowballing prices…”

Lowballing: “a per unit price that maximizes overall revenue.” I guess it’s time to update the dictionary.

“Hachette cited fewer hot titles and the implementation of its Amazon deal as reasons that e-books fell to 24% of its U.S. net trade sales in the first half of 2015, from 29% a year earlier.”

I think this would read a little more clearly as “Hachette cited fewer hot titles and the implementation of THE PRICING STRUCTURE THE BIG FIVE INSISTED ON as reasons that e-books fell to 24% of its U.S. net trade sales in the first half of 2015, from 29% a year earlier.”

Nah, that’s crazy talk. If there’s a problem, it must be The Amazon Deal Pact that caused it.

And this: “Pricing e-books is a Goldilocks problem for the book giants: For years they worried that consumer prices were too low, and now they are seeing the disadvantages of bumped-up prices.”

“To figure out how to set prices, a team of data specialists at Macmillan’s Manhattan offices in the Flat Iron building sifts through a database of 74 million transactions looking for trends.”

Oooh, sounds impressive. But it occurs to me the crack Macmillan Team of Data Specialists could have saved themselves some time, and Macmillan some badly needed revenue lost due to high ebook prices, if they had just read Amazon’s announcement about this a year or so ago, or Joe’s post from five years ago, or if they had at any point just used the Google to search for something called the Demand Curve

“Amazon was willing to buy a title for $14.99 and sell it for $9.99, taking a loss to grab market share and encourage adoption of its Kindle e-reader.”

It’s amazing that someone could write this article and describe the strategy as “grab” market share, rather than as, I don’t know, “grow” market share. Is Jeff Trachtenberg psychic? Was he in the meeting rooms where Amazon devised its “grab” strategy? Serious question, Jeff: on what are you basing this assertion? And why do you not at least consider the entirely logical—and substantially better supported by common sense and data—possibility that lower prices don’t necessarily cannibalize a market for the benefit of one, but might instead grow that market to the benefit of all?

“Publishers worried that such discounting kept Apple Inc. and Google Inc. from emerging as competitors, as those companies might not want to lose money on e-books.”

This would read better as “The Big Five didn’t think everyone would agree to subsidize the Big Five’s high-price, low-volume, paper-first strategy.”

“Apple, which denies wrongdoing, was found liable in a civil case and subsequently lost an appeal in June.”

Ah, the little professional courtesies oligarchs extend each other. After all, it’s always relevant to note that the convicted defendant continues to deny wrongdoing. Plus it was just a “civil” case (I’m not even sure this terminology is accurate. Does the government bring civil cases prosecuted under US criminal laws?), which doesn’t sound all that bad.

In other Wall Street Journal news, “Chester Frot, who denies wrongdoing, was found guilty of burglary and arson and subsequently lost an appeal in June. You can reach him by mail for the next twenty years at San Quentin Correctional Facility.”

“Publisher e-book sales have been stagnating since 2013, when they fell 2.5%…”

It’s journalistically negligent, or willfully propagandistic, to say this without clarifying that you’re talking specifically about legacy publishers. And without pointing out that in the same timeframe self-published ebook sales have been exploding. If you don’t understand this point, you can’t understand what’s really going on in publishing. Which means either that Trachtenberg himself—the guy who writes these articles—doesn’t understand what’s going on in publishing, or that he doesn’t want his readers to.

“One high-level publishing executive disputed that the Amazon pacts are behind the e-book sales decline. ‘This is a title-driven business,’ he added. ‘If you have a good book, price isn’t an issue.’”

Did Trachtenberg grant this publishing exec pernicious anonymity because the executive didn’t want to be ridiculed for saying something so stupid? Did Trachtenberg ask for anything like, I don’t know, supporting data before agreeing to publish an anonymous quote that violates the laws of Econ 101, all available data, and even common sense?

If a book is “good,” whatever that means, price isn’t an issue? Okay, anonymous publishing executive, why aren’t you charging a hundred dollars for your “good” books? You’d be making bank! Could it be that books are a little more fungible than all that? That consumers find books fungible not just with each other, but with other forms of entertainment, as well, meaning that you can very easily suppress sales of a book with a non-issue high price? In fact, it seems you can even suppress sales of an entire market. Bravo!

And then, almost as an aside, in the second-to-last paragraph: “Amazon says e-book sales in its Kindle store—which encompasses a host of titles that aren’t published by the five major houses—are up in 2015 in both units and revenue.”

A tiny note of insight and relevance! But no analysis of why that is and what it means. Wait a minute, are you saying lower priced book sales are growing in both volume and revenue, while higher priced ones are shrinking by both measures? Is something going on here? What might it mean for the industry?

Nah, why discuss any of that? We know legacy publishes are having a hard time because of the Amazon reason. Anything else goes in the second-to-last paragraph and merits no discussion at all.

I’m not sure why Amazon declined to comment on the article. They could have just said, “Um, we told you so.

As a commenter over at The Passive Voice puts it:

The Big Five really painted themselves and their authors into a corner with agency. They’ve screwed their authors royally for at least the next two years, just like they’ve screwed themselves.

1) If they keep their ebook prices high:

– Their ebook revenues (and market share) continue to shrink fast.
– Unable to discount Big Five ebooks, Amazon discounts Big Five print books even more steeply (as they are now), hastening the demise of chain brick-and-mortar bookstores that can’t compete at those prices. The Big Five ends up more reliant on Amazon for the Big Five’s (less-profitable) paper sales, while the far more profitable ebook market passes them by.

2) But if they lower ebook prices back to where they were in 2014, during the pre-agency days:

– Maybe the erosion of their ebook sales slows. But NOW, under agency, those discounts come out of their own pockets (and those of their authors), instead of Amazon’s. The average discount Amazon was underwriting on Big Five books was 20-25% pre-agency—that’s a hell of a subsidy, and it’s gone now. So under agency, the same discounted 2014 ebook consumer prices and sales will mean 20-25% less revenue for the Big Five than it did in 2015.

– And those lowered consumer ebook prices will once again accelerate the nationwide reader migration from print to ebooks, hastening the demise of chain brick-and-mortar bookstores.

What did Schopenhauer say? “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Although if the Big Five continues to adhere to a high-priced ebook strategy, and continues to rely on insights as fresh and useful as those in this Wall Street Journal article, the more relevant rubric might be Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross’s anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Zombie Publishing Memes #3 - Without Legacy Gatekeepers, No One Will Be Able to Find Good Books

This is the third in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.

We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a free downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme yourself and don’t see it listed here, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles on these or related topics, please refer us to them so we can include links. The complete list of zombie memes we’ve addressed so far appears at the end of this post.

Without Legacy Gatekeepers, No One Will Be Able to Find Good Books.

We’ve been talking about this one since at least 2010, and Joe debunked it in a post called The Tsunami of Crap in July 2011. Yet it staggers on even today.

The thrust of the argument is this: without legacy gatekeepers carefully curating the slush pile and winnowing choice for consumers, the unwashed hordes of self-published authors will unleash a deluge of worthless books that will engulf the good ones, preventing readers from finding anything worthwhile.

Of course it’s true that when there’s too much choice for consumers to sample individually, we need third-party systems to help us winnow the choice down to manageable levels. But it in no way follows from this that legacy publishing is the only or even the best such third-party system.

Here are few things to consider. First, when was the last time you sampled every single book in a bookstore before making a selection? Even in legacy’s heyday, the industry was publishing something like a quarter million new titles every year. Whatever winnowing function legacy provides, it therefore seems not a particularly stringent one.

Second, are there existing third party systems you primarily rely on to help you select the books you want to try? Recommendations from family and friends? Newspaper, magazine, and blog reviews? Search terms? The bestseller racks in bookstores? Amazon customer reviews? Do these means of winnowing choice seem more or less important than the traditional gatekeeping function that results in hundreds of thousands of new titles every year?

Third, can you think of any area in which consumers face more choice than they can reasonably manage themselves and in which there are no third-party systems to help them? Television (which, by the way, has grown from a handful of channels a generation ago to hundreds today -- and yet somehow, people can still find the good stuff)? Movies? Music? Restaurants? Travel? Too much choice creates a need for new systems to help consumers winnow that choice, and we’re unaware of any industry that has collapsed because people couldn’t find the good stuff for all the bad.

Fourth, if consumers really needed gatekeepers to help them manage their choices, the Internet itself would be useless. After all, for any given person, it’s a safe bet the Internet is 99.99999999% crap. And yet somehow, every day, each of us manages to find the good stuff amidst all that crap, all without any gatekeepers keeping the unwashed masses from putting their stuff on the Internet. If “tsunami of crap” proponents really believe the Internet would be better with gatekeepers screening out 99.99999999% of it, they should have the intellectual clarity and honesty to say so, or at least to explain why the immeasurably vast Internet works without gatekeepers while the more finite world of books would collapse in the gatekeepers’ absence.

Fifth, everyone has read books by legacy publishers which they didn't enjoy. Maybe they can point to bad writing, or editing, or formatting, or cover art. Maybe they just didn't like it. If a publisher failed you, they cannot be the sole arbiters of what constitutes a good book. Snooki, anyone?

Finally, the notion that we need legacy gatekeepers to build dykes lest we drown in a tsunami of crap is an instance of a logical fallacy whereby people conflate an important function (here, winnowing choice) with the entity that has traditionally provided this function (here, legacy gatekeepers). In fact, the entity that has provided a function is a demonstration of one way of providing that function. It doesn’t follow that the entity is the only or even the best way of providing that function.

The notion that “the old way is the best or only way” is such a common fallacy in publishing (and in life--see Theodicy and the Best of All Possible Worlds) that we’ve decided to give its own heading. We’ll return to it in a future entry and will cross reference individual instances like the Tsunami of Crap.

Previously addressed zombie memes:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Amazon Agenda

I have a few disparate thoughts and observations that I'm going to attempt to coalesce into a single theme.

Amazon was recently the subject of world news when the ever intrepid David Streitfeld, the NYT reporter that gave us the wonder of whale math, did a hit piece on Amazon corporate culture that came to the startling and controversial conclusion; Amazon employees work really, really hard.

Streitfeld has a haterection for Amazon, and while he has yet to make a cogent point, this recent piece got big attention, so much so that major media outlets covered it, and there was outrage and pandemonium on social media, culminating in The Fault In Our Stars author John Green calling Amazon the "worst cult ever" and cancelling his Prime subscription, though his grave disapproval didn't extend to actually showing a backbone by demanding that Amazon stop selling his books. I mean, would you want your work associated with the worst cult ever? I wouldn't. But then, I've been cursed with integrity.

Streitfeld, too, has a book available on Amazon, though his dismal 700,000 rank may be part of the reason he dislikes Zon so much.

Last I checked, the five hundred plus signatories of the latest Authors United bullshit letter also all had their titles available on Amazon. That letter recently arrived at the DOJ, and I'd bet it wasn't a coincidence that it was on the heels of Streitfeld's anti-Zon piece. I can imagine their delicious, mutual self-gratification as Preston and Streitfeld exchanged super-important emails about how to best coordinate their Anti-Amazon efforts for maximum impact, and about how Suzie in Algebra is dating Brad now because he dumped Melissa after she gained weight, and OMG doesn't gym class suck this year 4 realz?!?

If you missed my pointed satire, I imagine them as immature, gossiping middle school kids. The loser ones, not the popular ones.

Here we have all of this vocal, public author disapproval of Amazon, yet no one has the guts to actually pull their books. But why would they? Amazon is making these authors a shit ton of money (with the exception of David Steitfeld). It's much easier to whine in public and hope that Amazon stops trying to disintermediate their publishers, who pay them large advances. Some of them so large, in fact, that they'll never earn out.

Which means it really doesn't matter how many books Amazon sells, because these authors won't ever see a dime of that money.

Hmm. Makes a little more sense why they're attacking Amazon, doesn't it? Because Amazon doesn't pay them. Amazon is harming the publishers that do pay them.

It is highly doubtful the DOJ will go after Amazon. Randal J. Morris looks at some legal precedent relevant to Authors United's six claims, and it becomes pretty obvious to anyone, even without any legal training, that the AU foot-stamping will go nowhere.

But the AU, and its incestuous fuck buddy the Authors Guild, keep petulantly stamping their feet anyway.

CBS Moneywatch wrote about this issue, and I was surprised to see it was a more-or-less balanced piece; something unusual since Zon hating in the media is currently en vogue. I normally eschew interviews, but I liked the questions asked. The reporter painted me in a kinder light by choosing my less-insulting quotes, but to drive home the gravitas of my intent here are my complete answers to his inquiry:

The Authors United letter to the DOJ is an embarrassing joke. I take it apart line by line here and point out everything wrong with it here.

I also fisked their longer letter here.

Amazon has allowed more writers to reach more readers than any other company in history. They’ve done this by innovating, giving readers what they want, and working with authors to offer us much better terms than any publisher ever has, in the past, or the present.

The Big 5 are a price-fixing cartel who want to charge readers high prices. That’s why the DOJ went after them and Apple, and that’s why they lost the suit. They had an oligopoly over paper distribution for decades (the only way to reach readers was through bookstores, the only way to get into a bookstore was through those publishing gatekeepers). Because they controlled who got published, they could get away with giving authors take-it-or-leave-it unconscionable contract terms

Amazon has broken that oligopoly by allowing readers to reach readers via ebooks. 

Because of this, the Big 5 can no longer control book pricing—and independent author can undercut them—and as a result the Big 5 are losing marketshare to Amazon and to indies. 

That’s why they’re pissed. This isn’t altruism on Authors United’s part. It’s greed. It’s wanting to return to the old ways, where top authors got seven figure advances. Great for that 1%, not great for the 99% that Big Publishing ignored, harmed, and/or took advantage of.

Because Authors United is a bunch of entitled rich and famous authors (who should be celebrating the luck they’ve had in life rather than whining like babies about Amazon), they’ve been wooing their media contacts to wage a public opinion war against Amazon by painting Zon as a bully.

There isn’t ONE SINGLE point Authors United makes that is truthful when it comes to their criticism of Amazon or their so-called defense of authors. All of their points are easily refuted. But the average reader doesn’t try to refute their nonsense. They see “Amazon is bad” and take it at face value. Because no journalists dig any deeper, “Amazon is bad” becomes the public sentiment.

Except it isn’t. Readers still love Amazon. Amazon has been voted #1 by customers for 9 consecutive years

More than 500 authors signed that nonsense DOJ letter, and every one of them should be ashamed. I’m happy to call them out for it: If you really can’t abide by Amazon’s nefarious practices any longer, put your money where your mouth is and DEMAND THAT AMAZON STOP SELLING YOUR BOOKS.

Hypocrisy much, Doug Preston?

I’m happy to send more blogs posts your way to show that Amazon goes out of its way to be fair to authors. The problem is that it takes exponentially longer to refute bullshit than it does to spout it, so you’d need a strong background in the DOJ lawsuit and the Hachette situation before you can fully understand how Amazon was being squeezed by publishers, not the other way around (which is how the media erroneously portrayed it).

Authors United are a bunch of greedy whiners who don’t want the status quo to keep shrinking; and it is shrinking, for the good of all readers and the vast majority of writers. So they beat their chests and flail about, trying to spin media, hoping public opinion will make big bad Amazon stop disintermediating the publishers who have made them rich.

It won’t work. Authors United knows this. Their argument doesn’t hold up to US antitrust law, logic, or majority opinion. But they are seeing their livelihoods slip away because their corporate masters don’t control the book world anymore, so they’re throwing a public tantrum.

All of those so-called “Author Organizations” need to be publicly chastised for their continued disservice to the authors they purport to represent. 

I’ve negotiated many times with Amazon, for contracts with their various Amazon publishing wings. I’ve always gotten much better terms than I had with any of my trad publishing deals. Not only more money in my pocket, but more control over my work.

To my knowledge, Amazon hasn’t used its alleged monopsony power to shut out any suppliers. In the Hachette instance, Amazon offered to compensate Hachette authors on three different occasions, to keep them from being collateral damage during the contract negotiations. Hachette dragged their feet for many months before negotiating, and their contract with Amazon had expired. amazon was under no obligation to sell ANY Hachette titles, but it did anyway. In the previous case of Amazon removing Macmillan’s buy buttons, this was in response to Macmillan colluding with Apple and four other major publishers to illegally force the Agency model upon Amazon. And again, Amazon compensated authors afterward.

I’m sure Amazon is a fierce negotiator. But under the Agency model, Amazon earns 30% of the ebook price. Authors earn 17.5%. Publishers earn 52.5%. Why should publishers earn more than the author who wrote it, or the retailer who sells more copies than anyone else?
With this new Kindle Unlimited compensation model, Amazon is rewarding good writers. My KU income doubled under their new terms.

I’m pretty tied into the indie community, and the thousands of writers I’ve encountered are smart, and aware. Sometimes they draw incorrect conclusions, or feel persecuted, but the difference between dealing with Amazon and dealing with the Big 5 is like the difference between and honest, open, friendly relationship, and being beaten up by a group of muggers.

There is no wrong way to do business with Amazon. Authors can opt out of Kindle Select after 90 days, or opt out of Amazon completely. Authors keep their rights.

The authors who are getting screwed are the ones with publishers. Publishers charge $12.99 for an ebook on Amazon. They do this in hopes readers will instead by the paper version—remember that publishers have a paper oligopoly they want to protect.

Readers don’t like paying $12.99 for a non-tangible ebook. So a lot of midlist authors don’t sell well. When they do sell, they only earn $2.27 on that sale. I earn $2.74 on the sale of a $3.99 ebook on Amazon, and I keep my rights.

The publishing industry wanted to slow the public adoption of ebooks. The Big 5 were fine with loss leads as long as it was for paper books. But once Amazon began to discount ebooks, with lured people to digital media, the Big 5 were willing to lose money to slow that transition down.

So that was my full response, and the CBS report quoted my less inflammatory bits. He also quoted some nonsense from the increasingly moronic Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild.

"We have one company that is virtually controlling the terms of publishing in many, many ways. They have the power to force publishers to accept their terms."

Okay, stop. This is the Authors Guild, remember? The ones who are paid dues by AUTHORS to look out for AUTHORS. Not PUBLISHERS.

Let's change two words to show what the Authors Guild should really be concerned about.

"We have one cartel that is virtually controlling the terms of publishing in many, many ways. They have the power to force writers to accept their terms."

Amazon allows any author to publish on their platform, and earn up to 70% royalties while still keeping their rights. The Big 5 pay shitty royalties, keep rights forever, and are exclusionary.

Yeah, that's the kind of guild I want representing me. 

Rasenberger goes on to spout more bullshit:

Rasenberger says that while "everyone loves low prices," the result is to eventually devalue books. "You're causing long-term harm that will be very difficult to recover from," she said. "Publishers have less money so they have less money (for) authors, they buy fewer books, and they offer lower advances." 

Ok, for the zillionth time, low prices DO NOT DEVALUE BOOKS--see Zombie Publishing Meme #2. And again with the Authors Guild playing mouthpiece for publisher concerns. 

Guess what, Mary? If publishers buy fewer books, authors can still make money BY SELF-PUBLISHING ON AMAZON. Need an advance? Try Kickstarter or Indiegogo. But stop perpetuating the bullshit that the Big 5 are the only way for authors to get paid and reach readers.

Other nonsense in the piece:

Eleanor Fox, a professor of law at the New York University School of Law and an expert in trade regulation. "What it did to Hachette a year ago was really outrageous, withholding books for sale. It was to me definitely an abuse because it was using its power to get a better price on its contract by holding off the market books that people wanted to read.

This is a meme that won't die: Amazon didn't withhold any books for sale. Not one. 

But, I suppose, if you keep repeating the same lie over and over again, people start to believe it. That's a cornerstone of propaganda. And that's what Authors United, the Authors Guild, and the NYT are doing; engaging in propaganda.

But to what end? Why are all of these folks, and me, going on and on about Amazon? What is the agenda of all interested parties?

The NYT Amazon-bashes for traffic. Anti-Amazon stories are incredibly popular.

Authors United and the Authors Guild are doing it to try to harm Amazon's image in the public eye, so Amazon is more favorable to their corporate master; the Big 5.

I'm doing it to help newbie authors, who might inadvertently believe all of the anti-Amazon nonsense because that's what the media keeps parroting, and in doing so miss out on an opportunity to find readers and make a few bucks.

Amazon keeps doing what it has always done; work hard to be the most customer-centric company on the planet.

Even though the public seemingly loves all the current Amazon hatefest, they vote with their dollars, and spend those dollars on

And the authors I'm trying to inform are either paying attention to my harsh fisks, or more likely they're ignoring all the drama and using Amazon to their advantage. Self-pub ebooks now outsell Big 5 ebooks, much to the chagrin of the former status quo. And even old school legacy authors seem to be taking notice. As Barry Eisler just observed:

Did you know Authors United signatories have gone from 1081 to 575 in under a year?

So much for the propaganda. Heads up Authors United: When you can't even convince your own constituents to sign your nonsense, your cause is doomed.