October 23rd, 2015
Are Amazon just a vanity press of the worst kind - or are they being paid off?
When Amazon launched the kindle, they offered a great new publishing opportunity to independent authors and publishers. Individual authors and small presses alike could publish their books to kindle and reach the growing audience of ebook readers.
Previously, only the biggest publishers with a high financial turnover were able to market their books to more than a handful of the book-buying public. It is no secret that they controlled the market by buying display space in shops and reviews in the national press, pushing a small selection of books under the noses of readers and tempting them with cheap deals. Small presses, by contrast, could only afford more costly short print runs, only to have their books consigned to the shadowy back shelves of bookshops – if they were stocked at all.
So the opportunity offered by Amazon levelled the playing field for small and individual publishers, allowing them to compete at a price equal to or lower than most mainstream books, along with online forums where authors or their representatives could, within reason, tell readers about their books. This was made available, first in US, then extended to authors and publishers in other countries, and, as each market developed, Amazon tempted small publishers with a larger share of the revenue.
By Easter of this year, many authors and small publishers – especially of the more mass market books - were enjoying a generous and regular income from ebooks. Almost all made their books available in a variety of formats, distributed by different retailers, but, due to the success of the kindle, combined with the opportunity to interact with readers on the Amazon forum, most found that this provided by far the biggest portion of their income. Many authors were giving up their day jobs to write full time, in order to satisfy the demand from their fans for more books. And new small presses – essential for nurturing new talent and launching new authors into the mainstream – were beginning to flourish.
Then, suddenly, without warning, Amazon called time. Forum posters were forbidden to post links to their books or to promote them on amazon.com’s site apart from in a newly-created jumbled author area. Where previously they had been on virtual shelves in a bookshop, sorted according to subject and genre, they were all thrown in a heap into one bargain bin out the back.
And now the same thing seems to be happening in the UK store, although Amazon have not actually announced it.
Due to these changes, during the past 2 – 3 months, the revenue of many independent authors and small presses has dropped by 90%. Of course, Amazon is a business, not a charity, and if new publishers go bankrupt because of their actions, it is neither their concern, nor their responsibility. But for all the revenue lost by publishers and authors, Amazon is losing it too. And this makes their action difficult to understand.
As an independent author and publisher, I might be taking a blinkered view. So I’ve asked the opinion of Amazon customers who have nothing to lose financially by the developments. And their answer is always the same: a look of disbelief followed by a protestation that a business taking action which loses them money, simply doesn’t make sense.
So I’m trying to understand what Amazon are playing at. Did they set out as a vanity press, making false promises to would-be authors, playing on their delusions that they could write? Did they use new authors and small presses, encouraging them to publish so that kindle could acquire and boast a large number of cheap books and so take the trade that may have gone to other manufacturers of ereaders? Did they do this to persuade a large number of authors, small publishers and their friends to buy kindles? Did they do all this knowing they would ruin businesses and lives?
Well maybe they did. But that doesn’t explain why they stopped doing it at a point in time when those authors and publishers were earning them a lot of money.
Maybe forum members complained that they didn’t like all the advertising.
Certainly some did, but judging by the sales and the favourable reviews on independently published books, they are far outnumbered by customers who like not only the availability of those books but the opportunity to interact with the authors. In any case, an astute business wouldn’t pay heed to complaints from a minority of customers whose business doesn’t add up to much revenue when far more money will be lost by responding to it.
Two more points which suggest customer pressure is not the reason for Amazon’s action. Customers in the UK store contacted Amazon and asked them to provide one author/publisher promotion thread in each genre area. An excellent suggestion, which would have kept everyone happy and would be cheap and easy to implement. But Amazon weren’t prepared to listen. Secondly, the sales which arise from an author’s forum promotion are not the bulk but the catalyst for many more sales via Amazon’s automated recommendations. Most customers do not read or post on the forums but the books they buy often come from forum generated sales. So the financial consequences of Amazon’s action reach much further than a few sales from a forum.
So what other explanation could there be?
Very simply, that if Amazon are losing a considerable amount of revenue, they must be being compensated with significantly more. Where might this be coming from and why does it require their dispensing with the smaller publishers?
Here’s one possibility. As mentioned earlier, by purchasing display space in shops, the big publishers are able to control the print book side of the publishing industry. They are able to ensure that, irrespective of quality, the books they produce sell in larger quantities than those from smaller presses. Amazon’s ban on author advertising in US coincided with the kindle release of many cheap backlists from large publishers. Could it be that they don’t want the competition and they are prepared to pay to have it removed? Or might it be that Amazon is preparing to sell advertising space, for a price, to the big publishers, and that free promotion must therefore go? Or simply that Amazon don’t want competition with their own publishing imprint?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that most US independents have not been hit as hard as those in UK – perhaps because they’ve had longer to get established. But this makes me even more concerned. Here we are in Britain. We have no British retailer of ebooks or manufacturer of ereaders (certainly none that will make any difference), the books available to us are being increasingly chosen by a US company and our hope for nurturing new talent, both for authors and publishers is seriously under threat.
What is going on and what are we going to do about it?
As usual, sensible responses are welcome. As per my blog policy - no sales figures please.
I’ve read a number of indie/self-published books now. All of them in print, because I don’t have an ereader, and almost all of them ones of my choosing – that is to say, they were ones I particularly like the look of from the description and sample chapters and was lucky to get the opportunity to read.
And now I’m asking myself the big question: would they be better if they were mainstream published? This is the question to which many (especially the indie authors amongst us) hope the answer will be no but fear it will be yes.
Now, remember I’ve been very discerning in my choice. I haven’t bought anything on a whim because it’s cheap; and I’ve only read in print. I suspect that, making a book available in print, with all the hassle and expense it entails, makes the author/publisher check the details that bit more meticulously. Also, I know a bit about the production background of each book – some were almost entirely DIY by the author, with edit suggestions from friends; some went through expensive self-publishing services; some employed editors of varying degrees of professionalism – similarly for cover design; and some were lucky to get editorial suggestions from top mainstream publishers even though they didn’t eventually take the books.
In all cases, the books were beautifully presented. There were no garish covers or low quality print or typesetting. In that respect I don’t think they’d be produced better by mainstream, traditional publishers. They’d be done differently – by the publishers’ regular designers and to their own house styles, for reasons of marketing. But not better. You trade in a bit of individuality in order to make the book look more like others on the same list and therefore sell more copies.
Regarding structure (in which I include plot and subplots and organisation of material), this is a difficult one. All were expertly paced. But could they have been improved with the addition or removal of characters and scenes? Or with a different ending? I thought one of the books was a bit weak on plot. But it wasn’t my preferred genre and not a book I’d have chosen, had it not found its way into my collection. That said, I still enjoyed it as a calm undemanding read. If it were mainstream published (which I don’t think it would be because the plot isn’t strong enough) then, almost certainly, it would be spiced up, which would be an improvement. The others, I enjoyed as they were.
So, if signed to a big publisher, would these books be changed? I suspect the answer would be yes. And experiences of other authors vary greatly, ranging from hardly any editorial input to insistence that you change your book so it is effectively the editor’s book with the author ghost writing. It would seem to depend very much on the common vision and partnership of the author and the editor to whom they are assigned. The editor might work with the author or against them, either to make the book appeal to a wider audience, or to allow the editor to impose their vision of how they see the book. I know one or two traditionally published authors who felt the changes they were required to make spoiled their books. And, more worryingly, many of their readers felt the same way. A friend who works in the production end of the music business tells me it’s very similar and that, once signed to big labels, musicians are required to make changes deemed unnecessary by many of those concerned.
But, after all this, would the books be improved? Probably not. They’d just appeal to different people.
Now, down to the level of line edits. There are many people who will state categorically that you can’t self-edit your own book. From what I’ve read, I would have to disagree with this – both at a general and more detailed level. It requires a different set of skills, and most writers will get a lot of feedback from readers at different stages, but it can be done. There is no evidence, from what I’ve read, that employing a professional editor produces a more perfected finished product – if anything, I’m seeing the opposite, with the most precise prose coming from the DIY authors. Would the books I’ve read be improved in this respect by mainstream publication? For those who’ve really learned the craft of editing: no. I’ve noticed that only the top literary mainstream authors seem to have perfectly proof read books. If every mainstream book were given that attention to eliminate every typo or overused word then I might say yes. As it is, the only thing standing between the top indie books and perfection is the cash to upload a corrected version.
As a summary, I’m going to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Because I’ve considered how books might be improved, but not what they would lose. To illustrate this I’m going to refer to Birmingham Girls, a memoir by Carol Arnall. It’s a book that has immense charm. Much of its appeal is in the way it wanders off at tangents, the way your thoughts do if you’re browsing through a box of old photos. Also appealing is the language – which is very much a spoken language, with a hint of regional dialect. Now, in the hands of a mainstream editor, I’m quite sure these idiosyncrasies would be seen as faults to be corrected. Yet, if they went, you’d lose the essence of the voice. There are parallels in music and art too. It is not human to be absolutely perfect. And artists often prefer to forgo computerised perfection in favour of the human factor.
Would the indie books I’ve been privileged to read be improved by mainstream publishing? No. There is always a trade in. Some would gain as much as they would lose. But for others, I’d rather read them complete with their ‘flaws’ because sometimes, safe predictable and sanitised use of language doesn’t make up for losing that individual human factor.
Are reader pricing expectations and retailer royalty rules influencing how authors structure their books?
Before I begin this blog, I would like to state that it is in no way meant as a criticism of authors who are making business decisions about how and what they write. Neither is it a comment on any individual person or persons, but is rather a general observation.
There is growing concern amongst authors that increasing ‘race to the bottom’ pricing of 99c for ebooks is devaluing books generally.
But my concern is a little different. And it is this. I believe that the pressure to set a book at the lowest price accepted by a retailer is driving authors to write particular sorts of books in a particular sort of way in order to stand a chance of earning a living. And this in turn is determining – or will do, as these books become available – the sort of books readers have to buy.
A short background for those unfamiliar with ebook pricing and royalty. For most authors, their biggest market is reached via Amazon. If you price an Amazon book at less than $2.99 (or UK equivalent) you get 35% royalty. If you price it between $2.99 - $9.99 you get 70%. So if you price a book at 99c you will need to sell 6 times as many to earn the same return as pricing it at $2.99. A discouragement, you may think. But Amazon’s algorithms for advertising mean that the more copies you sell, the more your book will be recommended to others. And authors are competing to reach the most customers.
Now, back to the original problem. An author can spend a year or more writing a full-length, intricate novel (general and historical fiction are usually the longest) and price it at $2.99. But this is a huge investment of time for a huge risk. It’s very difficult to get new work noticed. Even if you already have one successful book, you will usually need your second to be very similar or preferably a sequel to the first in order to benefit from the first book’s success. Meanwhile, writers of traditionally shorter genres (eg romance, paranormal) can write 2 books a year and still price at $2.99 (pricing above $2.99 now works for very few indie fiction authors unless they already have a big following).
But what if your book isn’t getting noticed? Especially when, for so many readers, 99c is now the expected price? So you drop your price to 99c (you can price between 99c - $2.99 but it’s something of a no man’s land, being lower royalty). But if you’re going to set the same price and get the same royalty for a book that takes you 6 months to write as one that takes a year, then surely you’re better writing 2 shorter books and getting double the income.
And it doesn’t stop there. If you plan that your book will be priced at 99c then why write as much as 50K words? Surely you would be better to write 4 books of 25K words each. But isn’t 25K words a novella, you ask? Well, yes, if it’s a stand-alone book. But if it’s part of a series then maybe it’s just a different way of dividing a book up, like publishing it as 4 or 5 short sections rather than one full length work. And there’s the added advantage that if readers don’t like the first book you’ve only wasted 2 months’ work.
I’m already seeing authors plan their genre novels as series of very short reads. It makes good business sense to do so. Now, if it were an artistic decision to write books in this way because that’s how you want to write and it’s how readers want to read, then that’s fine. But if it’s a choice, very much influenced by the best way to earn a living, then that isn’t so good. If reader expectation of pricing, and retailer contracts on royalty are persuading authors to structure their writing in this way, then what future is there for the intricate, complex, full-length novel with plots and sub-plots? Will the writing of this traditional fiction be relegated to a hobby for the comfortably off?
Comments in response to this post are very welcome. However, comments containing detailed author earnings or sales figures will not be displayed as I believe the constant publication of this data is not helpful to new writers and has probably helped cause the pricing issues we now have.
As more authors make the decision to go indie, there are a number of discussions going on about the best way to get your book in print. Having researched this pretty thoroughly over a period of about 6 months before publishing my first novel, here are my thoughts on it.
Please note that I'm a UK author and intend the print version of my book primarily for the UK market.
Firstly, there are a number of questions you need to ask yourself. These might include
1. How do you want your book to be available? For sale through retailers (online or physical) or will you be selling it personally?
2. Where do you want it to be available? Locally, nationwide, worldwide?
3. How much are you willing/able to pay upfront for your publishing?
4. Is this a one off or are you planning to publish more books? In addition, might you want to publish books by other authors?
5. Are you intending to produce a small number of books eg for an organisation, or are you hoping to sell as many as possible?
6. Do you want to take full responsibility for your books or would you prefer someone else does it for you?
7. Do you want your publishing to include editing, proofing and formatting services?
Having considered the above questions, you should be able to decide whether you want to produce your book POD (print on demand, where each book is printed and sent out as it is bought) or by an offset run (you would usually need to produce at least 500 at a time to make this worthwhile. POD is generally cheaper to set up but more per copy while offset is more expensive to set up but subsequent costs are cheaper.
You will also need to decide whether you want to go with a self-publishing service (eg Lulu, Create Space, Completely Novel) or a printer (eg Lightning Source). Self-publishing companies usually offer a variety of packages and services. They usually cost more even if the cost is passed directly to the buyer. Printing companies give you more options of control over distribution and pricing but you will usually need to produce print-ready files and provide ISBNs if necessary.
I'm not going to suggest that any particular option is best, though I would urge authors to carefully consider the importance of producing something that is good quality physically, and competitively priced. And those factors will vary depending on what country you live in/who you envisage selling your books to. Don't just look at the big companies but consider eg small press publishers and smaller printing companies who are offering these things.
It's also interesting to note that the distinction between printer (especially if they are a printer/distributor) and self-publishing service is becoming blurred.
Many different publishing options are becoming available. If you want to produce a book, don't automatically do what you've done before or what your friends have done but take the time to research what is best for you.
And good luck!
Going to the book club.
Back in the summer, my novel, The Girl on the Swing, was chosen by a nearby book club as their summer read. In September they met to discuss it and last week they invited me over to talk to them about writing and publishing.
Of course, it was a privilege to have my book chosen and to be invited to meet them, but equally important it was an opportunity to chat to a group of keen readers and see how they perceive the UK publishing industry.
Firstly they wanted to know how you learn to write a novel in the first place. And they have a point because while there lots of creative writing classes and writers' groups, they seem to concentrate almost entirely on short stories and poetry. In my case, learning novel-writing skills was a long process of trial and error. However, there are now more online critique groups, 'how to' books and distance learning courses available.
Then it was onto publishing and marketing and book formats. They knew virtually nothing about kindles or other electronic readers. To be honest, this doesn't surprise me. Most of my friends who've heard of them have done so through me. Only a couple of my friends are seriously interested in them as yet - one because she reads so much and the other because she has sight problems.
Having read my book, they readily accepted that getting a regular publishing contract is neither easy nor straightforward, neither is it much to do with with how good a book is, providing it meets a certain level of competence. I was quite surprised to learn how savvy they were regarding the way all mainstream promotion is bought. Apparently word had got out that a large fee was required to secure consideration of books discussed in a popular TV book club.
A positive from this was the fact that, once they have read a book, readers judge it on its individual merits, not on who published it. I would encourage all authors to look for opportunities to meet groups in this way - or indeed to meet readers in any way. Because for everyone who does, it sets off a chain that chips away at the old ideals of the traditional route being the only way and raises awareness about the growth of indie publishing, hopefully making the way easier for future indie books.
Now that the kindle store in UK is beginning to trade, amazon have alerted customers to an 'agency model' of ebook pricing. This is effectively a cartel of several major publishers who come to an agreement, rather than to compete, to fix their digital download prices at an agreed high rate. This is already happening in US and I believe amazon.com indicate books produced by participating publishers so readers can consider their option to buy.
At first sight, this may appear like a greedy way to ensure high profits. These publishers claim that their costs of editing, advertising etc are so high that it costs them as much to produce an electronic book as a print one. But I think it's more than that, I think it's about control.
Over the years, the biggest publishers have almost entirely gained control of the publishing industry. They've been able to do this because they buy not only advertising in the media but also virtually all the display space - and even shelf space - in high street bookshops. With very few exceptions they also control what books get reviewed in the national press. Very simply, the big publishers decide what books readers will buy and read (even though many readers don't realise this) by ensuring these are the only books readers get to see or to hear about. Of course, many more books are produced independently by author/publishers or small presses. But however respected these small publishers are, readers will find it a challenge to find their books, relegated as they are to the back shelves (if they are stocked at all). Similarly, the big publishers command the stock routinely bought by libraries.
Now, whilst the biggest publishers have control over the market of printed books, their domination of the ebook market is not guaranteed. For the first time, books from all sources are equally and affordably available. Readers are no longer restricted to the small percentage of books displayed to them in the high street, neither are reviews restricted to those written by the national press, any customer can write one.
The response of some of the big publishers to e publishing is to agree, among themselves, to fix their prices. And while this drives up the average price of an e book and raises the cost readers expect to pay, it also does something else. If their is no financial advantage to buying a book in electronic form then many readers will buy it in print. And if they can ensure the demand for a high volume of print books, the big publishers can maintain their control of the publishing industry.
Or, to put it another way, if you're an indie author, how tempted would you be to take a regular contract, if it were offered?
OK, so I know there lots of factors in this, with lots of different answers. So let's narrow it down a bit.
I recently read a blog that was talking about literary agents who were interested in taking on self-published authors. Sounds great so far. Then it seems they have a criteria of your having sold at least 5K books in the previous year. Hmm, a bit more difficult. I'm guessing if you're selling e books at 99c they're going to want to see considerably higher sales than that before they take an interest in you.
So, assuming I can sell that many books (sounds optimistic but with the e book market growing you never know) would it be worth my while going down that route?
Let's think about this from different points of view.
Let's assume they mean 5K sales at a price that gives you a royalty of at least £1 per book, ie an annual income of £5K. That allows for a slightly higher return at the magic price of $2.99 on 70% royalty but nets down allowing for expenses. That's still a higher royalty per sale than you'd get with most publishers. Let's assume your book is currently selling well. So, if you meet their sales criteria, to make it financially worthwhile, given that you'd probably have the book off the market for at least a year, and thinking about projected increase in e market and therefore your expected self-published income over the next 3 years etc etc, you'd realistically be wanting an advance of at least £20K.
This is without factoring in all the extra work you might be required to do on rewrites etc when you could be writing your next book which will earn you another £5k per year. Plus, you might not like how you are required to rework it. Not such a big deal when it was an embryonic ms maybe but more like invasive surgery further down the line.
So, what's in it for the agent/publisher?
Money. You've found a way to make it, you've already done all the hard work, so now they want some of it.
The book? Probably irrelevant, though if you've got more on the way you can give them more money.
Remind me again what's in it for the author.
Fame, fortune, national press reviews, book displayed in bookshops, reaching a bigger audience, being 'properly' published.
So, assuming you meet the criteria that a mainstream agent/publisher would be interested in signing you, tell me what your criteria would be to consider signing with them.
A publisher by any other name.
I am an independent author and publisher and as such I'm proud of the fact that, with the help of friends, I've learned and put into practice the whole process of writing, editing, designing and publishing. And that includes setting up my own publishing imprint, Standing Stone Press, with ISBNs assigned to it.
Of course, before I started, I checked for other publishers with similar names and changed my original choice (Artefact Books) because there was already something like it in US.
I then went ahead and published my first book, registered under my imprint, and with this name printed on the cover and the text inside. I set up a personal website (this one) but I didn't upload a separate site for my imprint because at this stage I'm only publishing myself (though of course this may change) and I didn't want to be accused of trying to pretend I was published by an established press.
So imagine my surprise when, a few days ago, I received an email from a friend in US, saying she'd been looking at the Standing Stone Press website! I googled it and sure enough, there it was, Standing Stone Press, an imprint of Ridley Park Books, offering a self-publishing service to authors.
At first I thought it was some sort of sick joke. There is strong feeling against independent authors by a few people, maybe even strong enough for something like that. But a quick investigation revealed that the domain name had been registered over a year ago, though it seems the site was uploaded very recently. Needless to say, I was more than a little concerned. Not only would potential readers be likely to see this site and assume I had published with this press, but being a self-publishing service, it was likely there would be little if any quality control.
However, I assumed that, although a very basic website had been uploaded, the chances were, no books had been published as yet, because surely Nielsen (the UK ISBN agency) and Bowker (its US counterpart) wouldn't register two publishers with the same name. I emailed Nielsen and told them of my concerns and waited for their reassurance.
But this is what I was told. Nielsen and Bowker link to one anothers' registered books and Nielsen had no record of another Standing Stone Press when I registered. However, they allow more than one publisher to register with the same name, distinguishing their accounts by country or city.
So if you happily register your long-awaited autobiography to Joe Blogs Books, thinking this will somehow make it unique, think again. Tomorrow, an unlimited number of publishers calling themselves Joe Blogs Books may appear. Otherwise, it seems you would have to somehow register or copyright your name as a brand (I believe Paul McCartney has done this) to prevent others from using it.
In the light of all this, I've hastily secured a domain name and uploaded my own imprint site. It will probably need tweaking and should be picked up by google in a few days time.
This weekend, in UK, many people are having their first experience of e-publishing as the first pre-orders of the kindle were delivered during the past few days. Of course, in US, many people have been using e-reading devices for more than a year, but in UK the idea is only just catching on.
This seems a good point to consider the implications electronic publishing has for readers, authors and those in the publishing business.
For readers there are obvious benefits. Besides the space-saving, font size-changing capabilities, for those avid readers who come to enjoy reading on an electronic device, there are financial advantages. Most books are cheaper than their print counterparts, public domain books (the classics) are free and many books by independent author/publishers are a fraction of the price of best sellers,
For independent authors there is the opportunity to publish their work at no cost (many will employ editors etc but there is no cost to actually publish). This means that more niche books, or those aimed at a small select audience, can be published rather than the mainstream tendency to accept only mass market books.
So, if it's so good, why am I suggesting it's a double-edged sword?
There is always a downside to everything. For readers, they will find that not all the books they want are available (yet) and if they want to take a chance on new independent authors they will have to spend time downloading and reading book samples.
And of course, for independent authors, there is the opportunity to publish their books which didn't meet the mainstream mass market criteria. The double-edged sword here? I believe the uncertainty in the industry created by the advent of e-publishing (and not just the current economic climate) is the reason many of these authors have not been signed to mainstream publishers in the first place.
I'm Ali. I'm an author and musician, living in Devon, and I teach guitar.