About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Friday, February 28, 2014

I Want You To Want Me, I Need You To Need Me

In the final of my current series of posts about the e-book business, we're going to talk about the food chain a little bit.

The average run-of-the-mill self-published e-book author is kind of at the bottom of the food chain.  This person goes on-line, accepts the terms of service, the KDP or Nook Press contract, and away they go.

We at JABberwocky, I must admit though I hate to do so, are not that much further up.  We get to be in something called the Kindle White Glove program for agents.  We represent many authors, we have the ability to put up books by multiple published authors, we have people we can talk to.

Above us, I'd probably put small publishers that may be able to provide a few thousand titles, that may have dedicated legal teams to negotiate with Amazon, that may have have a few core titles in a particular category that would be important for Amazon to sell.

Then you've got Open Road or Rosetta Books, dedicated e-book publishers with lots and lots of titles, backers with deep pockets, publishing players running them.  They have multiple major programs from multiple major authors or estates.

And then, the Big Five.

From my experience, I think that the fiercest advocates of self-publishing don't always recognize what it means to be toward the bottom of the food chain.

Let me explain a little bit, what it means:


The Kindle White Glove program goes only so far.  If there is a search algorithm that is screwed up that makes it hard for people to find our books, we have someone we can complain to directly, but this person will not generally do anything to overrule the computer.  Because we are in the White Glove program, our books are nominated for Kindle Daily Deals, but the odds that we will ever get one aren't very good, in part because there isn't a mechanism to explain why it might be particularly appropriate to have a KDD at a particular time.  We can complain about how royalty statements are formatted, and our concerns will be taken seriously, and addressed over a two or three year time frame, maybe.  Just like any KDP author, we'll get treated a little bit better if we do things with Amazon exclusively.  We sign the same KDP contract at the end of the day that anyone else does.

Let's talk about Kindle Daily Deals a bit.  

We recently arranged with Open Road for them to publish six of our Simon R. Green titles as part of a package that will include a Simon R. Green short story collection that will come out this summer.  Within a few weeks of Open Road taking over, they got a Kindle Daily Deal for Simon R. Green.  I couldn't have gotten that.  I have someone to talk to, my titles are in the running, but I don't have a realistic chance at this.  All the people that are higher up on the food chain than me have that chance.  Open Road probably provides slates of nominees for Daily Deals as do the big publishers, with dedicated talk-to-Amazon people at the publisher talking to dedicated talk-to-Open-Road people.  It wouldn't surprise me if there are more Daily Deal slots over the course of a year that go to people lower down on the food chain as examples, models, inspirations, whatever.  Kind of like not too many people actually win the lottery, but you want to have winners to get people to play.  I don't have the scope or the scale to seriously compete for one of only 365 Kindle Daily Deal slots over a year, and I'd have to compete with all the other literary agencies in the White Glove program.

Let's talk about contracts.

We are not sure what to do with Barnes & Noble.  As part of the transition from their PubIt program to their Nook Press program (and why is there a transition, anyway; what is the underlying advantage of making everyone migrate from one platform to another, which there has to be...) we notice, which we hadn't paid as much attention to when our e-book program first started up with PubIt, that B&N isn't as helpful on e-book territoriality in their Nook Press contract as other vendors are.  This is now important to us.  We have more books from our partner agency, Zeno, in the UK, where we may have rights to sell a book only in the US and Canada.  Maybe we'll want to do e-books only in the UK for authors who seem likely to sell something there but don't have a UK publisher.  No vendor promises absolutely for sure that they will sell books only in the territories we say to sell them in, but B&N promises less of an effort.  Not a commercially reasonable effort or a best effort, but not much of an effort at all.

Interestingly enough, if we move from a Nook Press contract to a publisher contract, they will agree to pay more attention contractually to territoriality.  And their price for doing so?  A smaller royalty rate than everyone else offers.  

There are other issues as well, maybe four or five things where B&N's Nook Press contract offers language that is inferior to other people in the e-book space.  I haven't fully joined the battle and am not sure where it will all shake out at the end, but I am 99.99% certain that we are having problems negotiating our contract that wouldn't exist for people higher up in the food chain.  I can't imagine that a Big Five publisher has to take a smaller royalty rate in order to have B&N respect territoriality.  Another of the clauses we are fighting about, I know we don't have the provision B&N wants from us in most of our contracts with Big Five publishers, so those Big Five publishers can't be agreeing to what B&N wants us to agree to.  If the publisher doesn't have it from us, they can't give it to B&N.

I had lunch with an editor this week.  I mentioned how our last couple of checks from Kobo were bigger than our last couple of checks from Apple.  In fact, we just got our biggest ever Kobo check.  Not big, but twice or more what we were getting from Kobo two years ago.  The Big Five publisher this editor works for is doing a much bigger percentage of their business with Apple. We think, this editor and I, that the difference is almost certainly a marketing difference.  The Big Five publisher can get books promoted in different places on the iBooks store where we cannot.  Impulse buyers can find their authors and titles more easily than they can find ours. 

We would like to sell our books via Google, but in order to do so we would have to set up entirely with self-serve via their on-line system without any human intervention.  I'm not willing to do that; I think I'm big enough and important enough that I should have someone to talk to.  Nook and Kobo don't have White Glove programs, but we do have people we can e-mail, and get responses from.  I am 100% certain that the Big Five publishers can talk to people at Google, while for me, selling books on Google is supposed to be as automated and inhumane a process as trying to get human help for using Blogger or Gmail.

And finally...

Rather quietly, Audible just announced that they are reducing royalty rates for self-published audio books done through their ACX program.  Audible is an Amazon company.

What leverage do the authors have?  None, really.

The bigger you are, the more attention you get.

The bigger you are, the more you can go "mano a mano" with the Amazon lawyers.

The bigger you are, the more marketing you can get.

And the bigger you are, the less likely it is that you'll be forced to take a cram-down on your royalty rates.

And there's a reason for this.  

Amazon and the Big Five publishers may argue with one another from time to time.  Amazon removed all the "Buy" buttons from Macmillan titles.  There was a time a few years ago when Penguin stopped providing new releases to Amazon, including things like a #1 bestselling Sookie Stackhouse title.  But at the end of the day, Amazon can get away for a short while not selling Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance when it comes out next week, but they can't go for an extended period of time not selling major #1 bestselling books from major authors.  Over time, there are lots of other places to buy e-books, but only one publisher in the US to sell Words of Radiance.  Amazon wasn't entirely incorrect to declare in a statement at the end of the Buy Button Battle with Macmillan to declare bitterly that Macmillan had a monopoly.  But for the JABberwocky e-book program, I don't really have a program if I'm not selling through Amazon somehow or other.  I might have a program without selling through B&N, but I don't have one not selling through Amazon.  

So what will we do if Amazon does ever do with Kindle royalties what it just did with ACX royalties? Will we all decamp to selling only on Kobo, B&N and Google? Will Hugh Howey use his self-publishing fortune to set up a site for selling e-books direct to consumers that will be an open platform for anyone wishing to sign the HHDP publishing agreement? Or do we just have to suck it up?

There is no guaranty, no tablets from Sinai, no fine print in the contract, no law, no nothing, that says that we shall always receive a 70% royalty as the sellers of independently published e-books.  There is more room for that rate to go down than for it to go up.  And if Amazon wants it to go down, the Big Five publisher that has a monopoly on selling Words of Radiance next week has a big advantage in holding the line over the agent that represents the book or the run-of-the-mill KDP published author.

Much as I love the ability of any author to publish their own e-books, I am also self-aware of what I can and cannot do as a provider of e-books.  Heretical as it might seem to say this, I believe on the most holistic global level that the bigger publishers add value to the publication and sale of e-books, because they are bigger and have clout and can get marketing and go mano-a-mano with Amazon and Apple.  And I can say this and say at the same time that their royalty rates are too low; it's simple math that I don't believe the value they add is equal to the percentage they take.  It's also simple math that makes me want to stick with the JABberwocky e-book program, to give us leverage to get those royalties up and because globally I can do better across the full range of JABberwocky clients by offering e-books from a full range of our clients.  Individual results may vary.  Some authors are going to be better off being self-published.  The math may change, if publishers offer a higher royalty rate or if the big companies we deal with to sell e-books make it easier to do business with them just like the Big Five do. 

Prior posts on this subject from recent weeks:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ebook-olution in action

Two interesting developments in the e-book marketplace in recent days.  One of which shall be used as a springboard today, this being the announcement that Richard Curtis has sold his e-Reads business to Open Road.  Like myself and several other leading agents in sf/f, Richard is an alumnus of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, around twenty years prior to my time there.  He started e-Reads in 1999 when the e-book business was barely in existence, and interestingly, I've traveled in some familiar circles with agents with an interest in the e-book business.  My boss for 15 months at Scott Meredith after Scott died was Arthur Klebanoff, who founded Rosetta Books a couple years after Richard founded e-Reads.

The reason Richard Curtis gave in the press about the sale was that there was a perceived need to do more marketing of the e-Reads list, which would have meant stepping up the investment in the business, and that it seemed better to find a company that could do that rather than to make that investment or seek the investors that would make that investment feasible.

In some ways, Richard Curtis' decision has no bearing on what JABberwocky does with its e-book program.  e-Reads was a separate enterprise from Curtis' literary agency, publishing books by authors who weren't all Richard Curtis clients, designed to make money as a separate entity.  JABberwocky's e-book program is a service to JABberwocky clients, where we take our standard commission of 15% on most of the books in the program (we only take 50%, which is the Open Road model, if the author wishes to have us pay all conversion costs and limit us to recouping those costs solely from within the e-book program) rather than the 50% cut that often prevails with smaller e-book publishers or the 75% cut that often prevails with larger.

And one of the biggest limitations to our e-book program, though not to ours alone, is that we under-market it.  We have one staff person who devotes a good chunk of time to the e-book program, and especially as we have vastly increased the number of books in the program, most of that time has been spent on dealing with authors on sign-up issues, with the conversion house on the file conversions, with our cover artists and cover copy writers, actually getting the books up, and dealing with vendors.  (The vendor issue is a second limitation, which we will look at in another blog post.)

Since we are taking such a small cut, smaller than pretty much any other e-book publisher, I can forgive myself the under-investment in marketing, but it is nonetheless my hope that eventually we can devote more time and energy to this, either by re-tasking as we slow the pace of new books into the program or as part of an overall expansion at JABberwocky.

These are things our marketing person might do:

Send out review copies of our books.  Many of our titles predate the explosion of websites dealing with sf/fantasy, and those sites might cover our releases more or even review some of the books, which came out long before the websites themselves started.

Coordinate more sale pricing, including analysis of the effects of sale pricing.

Help willing authors (and not all are willing to put too much promo energy into their twenty-year old books) to do guest blog posts.

Maybe set up a separate Twitter account or other social media devoted to the e-book program.

Improve the website we have for the e-book program.

Have a small budget to begin experiments with on-line advertising using Google AdWords, Facebook, or other programs.

Videos.

There's lots more that could be done, and I could easily spend close to $50K a year on salary, benefits, and other expenses for a full-time marketing person, even at entry level.

Absent making that marketing investment, our e-book program generally relies on reflected marketing for its success.  Simon R. Green, Tanya Huff and Jack Campbell all do very nicely with reverted backlist and/or collections of short fiction that are included in our e-book program. That is almost certainly because they have books being marketed and distributed by Big Five publishers, have had this for many years, and can rely on an audience that comes along from the Big Five books to discover ours.  In the next tier would be Rick Shelley, a deceased author who had fifteen books published by a Big Five publisher and who writes in an established sub-genre, military sf, that has loyal core readership.  Thereafter, the success of our e-book authors kind of tracks the success of their print books, and considering the nature of our program this isn't a surprise.  But it is limited; we don't have a good way other than word of mouth or reflected marketing to bring someone to a higher place.

Clearly, marketing would be a good thing!

But where is that marketing money going to come from?

Forget about what the JABberwocky cut is, but the total annual royalty revenue from our entire e-book program is under $100K.  Even if you say that we could increase overall revenue by 50% if we had better pricing, and then by another 50% if we had better marketing, the total royalty revenue might just scrape past the $200K mark.  No matter how you look at it, we'd be spending an enormous percentage of gross royalty earnings for the e-book program on the marketing, so where's it going to come from?

If I took a poll, I wonder how many authors in the JABberwocky e-book program would choose to give me another third of their income in exchange for having dedicated marketing, and would feel like they would come out ahead in that process.  Their sales would need to increase by 70% in order for them to break even.

And for the authors at the lowest end of our earnings scale, would it be worth their time and energy to self-publish their own e-books?  We make their decision to have us do it a little easier by taking a small cut of their earnings.  But a lot of our e-books earn less than $20 per month in gross royalty revenue.  How much time do you want to take to self-publish your e-book to save $250 or less over a year vs. having someone else do it?  Can all of those authors even find someone else to do it when the cost of setting a book up for an e-book can be $400, which can take several years to recoup?

Even though I want to spend more on marketing, it is magical thinking to say it will automatically pay for itself.  You can see why Richard Curtis would say he wasn't up for doing that.

From the perspective of the aspiring self-publisher, you must reflect on the fact that marketing expense is a real expense that comes from somewhere.  I am sure we can find examples of self-published authors who managed to succeed by word of mouth alone, just like we can find examples from Big Five publishers of little under-the-radar novels that went on to become something big.  But otherwise, someone has to do the marketing, and it has both a cost and an opportunity cost (what else you could be doing with the money).  When you realize that many people have day jobs, have children, have family or social or volunteer obligations, you can see why many people don't want to do that.  They want to have a publisher put some time and money into marketing their work.  Even if it's going to be one of those Big Five publishers that is very likely to under-market, it will likely be better than they can do on their own.

From the perspective of even the very successful author, let's look at a JABberwocky client like Brandon Sanderson.  He self-publishes his own e-books, and has the staff and support capability to do it.  At the exact hour of this writing, his self-published Kindle edition of The Emperor's Soul and of Legion are both in the 5000s on Amazon.  He makes real money at this.  Before we placed print rights with Emperor's Soul with Tachyon we had a long talk on the cost-benefit of different publication models.  We did this for his Hugo-winning novella The Emperor's Soul, we did this before selling two new Mistborn novels to Tor, and we will continue to do that.

Because even though Brandon Sanderson is underpaid for his e-book royalties, as all authors with the Big Five are, the low royalty rate isn't the only thing the Big Five offer.

Let me demonstrate this very clearly:
In 2013, Brandon Sanderson had two major NY Times bestsellers published, The Rithmatist and Steelheart, and these were among the things that his Big Five publishers did to support those books: outing to the Random House sales conference; major events at BookExpo America including booth signings, official autograph sessions, and the audio tea; national author tours; ads in magazines like Entertainment Weekly, and not just a couple but in a dozen or more; a reciprocal campaign with DC Comics; tens of thousands of books put into mass merchandisers like Walmart, Costco and Target; books on the most prominent "stepladder" displays at Barnes & Noble; other placements in endcaps, section tables and elsewhere that have been running for one book or another almost non-stop for the past nine months and with the release of Words of Radiance in two weeks may end up running for a year or more; a major promotion at dozens of Hudson Books travel locations.  I don't know the exact costs for many of these things, but can any of us doubt when you look at all of this that the publishers have spent well into six figures marketing Brandon Sanderson over the past year?

So we chose a hybrid model for The Emperor's Soul.  Tachyon Press doesn't offer the size of marketing spend that the Big Five can do, but it markets very heavily toward a different part of the sf/f audience than the usual Brandon Sanderson crowd.  And this was a very successful book for Tachyon, even without having e-book rights.  Brandon Sanderson has something for his self-publishing pipeline.  We send a message to the Big Five that we have alternate ways to do some things, and gives us some leverage there.  But should Brandon Sanderson test what would happen if he withdrew from the Big Five ecosystem entirely, and never had a year like 2013 with all that third party marketing investment behind him and his work?

Even though I love marketing and want to do more of it, I am extremely dubious of the Open Road business model.  When I look at the cost of marketing vs. the likely return for my own little e-book program, how can Open Road justify itself?  As they say on their website "Open Road creates connections between authors and their audiences by marketing its ebooks through a new proprietary online platform, which uses premium video content and social media."

To be sure, Open Road can gain benefits of scale in its marketing.  If I have a marketing person who markets 100 books by 20 authors and Open Road has 4200 books by eight hundred authors...  At the most basic level, any website they are in contact with for marketing or any social media anything they have for marketing can be used for many more authors.  It doesn't take much more time to us an email to Pat's Fantasy Hotlist to pitch ten giveaways instead of one or two.  Another benefit of scale:  shortly after we transferred several Simon R. Green titles to Open Road, they were able to get a Kindle Daily Deal for Simon, and in all likelihood we at JABberwocky could not have.  Amazon pays more attention to Open Road because Open Road is bigger, has deeper pockets, many more prominent authors.

However, you also start to come up against limitations of scale.  The acquisition of e-Reads will bring Open Road's catalog to over 4,000 books.  If they scale up their marketing by 30% because e-Reads scales up Open Road, they can.  But ultimately, the marginal cost of hiring an additional publicist, an additional sales person, an additional whomever, is going against the marginal author and the marginal book.  So they have to make choices just like the big publishers do.  Even at JABberwocky, we have to make choices.  When I first went to London Book Fair in the late 1990s, I could include every JABberwocky author in a catalog that I could put together myself, and which was a few dozen pages at most.  The current layout for our 2014 catalogs is over 100 pages divided between a main catalog, YA/middle grade catalog, and special mini-catalogs for our two biggest clients.  How can we feature important backlist which we feel is undersold in the translation markets, major #1 bestselling authors, ongoing bestselling series a level or two down, deserving new clients, and still have room to mention the books we sold in 1997 that are now long out of print?  The bigger we make the catalog, the less impactful it becomes for everyone, and the added expense of going from 100 pages to 120 pages would be allocated against the books we sold in 1997 that are now long out of print.  The expense cannot be justified.  I and the Big Five and everyone else could choose to allocate things differently and say to ourselves the new marketing spend is dedicated to the top of our eco-system, but that isn't how economics works when trying to run a profitable business

The bigger Open Road gets and the more selective it has to become, the more it becomes like the Big Five publishers, only with a better e-book royalty rate.

So we will look closely at how well the Simon R. Green titles do, because we are very curious to see what happens to the sales revenue for those titles.  If Open Road can't increase sales revenue by at least 50% from what we can do on our own, there isn't any good reason to consider having other of our books with Open Road or with other third-party vendors rather than keeping as much by our clients within the JABberwocky program.  If Open Road can increase sales revenue considerably, then we want to have more books with Open Road or other vendors.

But that creates another problem.  Third party vendors will exercise more selection over the books they choose to include.  They will happily take our best and most successful authors, but the JABberwocky e-book program then becomes a little like the health insurance marketplace, subject to adverse selection risks.  We have fixed costs that now have to be allocated against our least successful titles only.  That makes it hard to justify even as a service, and ultimately could force us to stop offering the service for the authors who could most benefit from it, or to increase the subsidy.  (Or, to turn it into e-Reads, scale it up as a separate entity, and be able to offer it as a package.)

This blog post has come rather far afield from a discussion just of e-Reads or just of the marketing of e-books, but I've also tried to approach it with some real rigor, and to give an understanding of how an easy real world question like "JABberwocky should spend more on marketing" which is a simple and inarguable truth, just like it is for all the Big Five publishers we deal with, gets very complicated very quickly when put into the real world.  Not just for us, but for all the authors we deal with, who have many options themselves for publishing and marketing their books.  You'll also see, or I think you will, that I'm not asking and answering these questions from a pre-conceived agenda that there is only one way to do things.  The goal is to go where the evidence leads.  But it takes a lot of trial-and-error with different approaches for different sorts of authors and different sorts of books going down different paths to find all that evidence, so even the search for the best way to make money doing this ends up being a costly one.

I've hinted above at some of the benefits of scale which an Open Road offers vs. JABberwocky, and that is the thread I'll pick up on in my next post on these topics.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Missionary Impulse

So if all of the people who are so committed to the idea that the whole wide world of writers should be self-publishing their books on Amazon would devote just a wee bit of their energy to getting some more of the developers near our current office to shovel the sidewalks of their development sites so my employees don't slip and fall on ice sheets, I'd be very happy.

Where does one begin to dissect this incredible piece of self-publishing "science" by Hugh Howey...

First, the science doesn't rest on actual figures of how much anyone is making.  Rather, the starting point is to look at a list of Amazon bestsellers, and to determine the future from this list, and this list alone.  Ugh!  I had my first experience with bestseller list quackery in 1990, when a book that I knew wasn't selling very well in hardcover somehow managed to appear on the Locus bestseller list for multiple months.  More recently, Myke Cole has been aiming for the #1 bestseller in the Space Marines category for a book with no Marines in it.  I've seen books appear on the NY Times bestseller list with very little correlation, especially on the mass market side, to their hard sales numbers as reported on Bookscan.  So any article that starts out with breathless promises of answering all questions by analyzing a trove of Amazon bestseller information is looking a little dubious to me.

Then, there is a very beautiful chart putting the average review score of a book next to the average price for the book, with little bars based on whether the book comes from a big five publisher, an indie publisher, etc.

Even assuming that we want to consider Amazon reviews the be-all and end-all of qualitative analysis, this data is questionable.  For one, how do you categorize the many books that are currently from one type of publisher but used to be from another?

But Amazon reviews don't correlate necessarily with quality.  There are the one-star reviews because the e-book costs too much.  There are the one-star reviews because the book that says "graphic novel" in the description is a graphic novel.  I didn't know for sure until I got the manuscript, but I was a lot less surprised than a lot of the one-star review givers that Sookie chose Sam, because the vampires -- hate to break it to anyone -- weren't exactly princes of kind-heartedness and generosity when dealing with Sookie.  Yes, there are some cases where I'd like to take a client of mine, point them in the direction of their Amazon reviews, and say there are some lessons to be learned, but there are way too many cases where the Amazon reviews are not indicative of anything.

The article then jumps from there to saying that the better average reviews for books priced less expensively suggests that readers are grading on a curve and perhaps giving better reviews to cheaper books from self-published authors because e-book prices are too high.

There is a logical fallacy here.  One second, it says Amazon reviews are reliable.  The next second, it says Amazon reviews are graded on a curve where readers are more inclined to be generous to books that offer better value.  A reliable review shouldn't be given on a curve.  It shouldn't have the moral relativism of a politician that likes filibustering judges until either the majority party in the Senate or the party affiliation of the President changes, when all of a sudden night is day and day is night.  The logic is circular, fallacious or both.

Also, ebook prices are not too high.  Compare the value of reading a book to multiple other entertainment options.  The average price of a movie, of an album, of a magazine, of a ticket to a concert or a show -- all of these things are more expensive than books, and usually of shorter duration.  Yes, there are some things like getting Netflix for a month that are cheaper than the price of a book, but on balance, a book give solid value for the money in whatever format you buy it in.

Another thing to keep in mind -- this study basically starts out by saying e-book prices are too high without any underlying rational, other than to say that cheaper e-books get better Amazon reviews.

So we move on to Act Two of the essay.

A chart shows us that Big Five publishers account for just over a quarter of the bestseller days for the most popular e-book categories.  One thing I can agree with -- romance, sf/f and mysteries are among the most popular categories for e-books.  The chart shows that the Big Five publishers account for just over one-quarter of the bestseller days, that this is under-representative, and suggests that the Big Five publishers are therefore under-publishing in the most popular genres.   I might agree with this.  It would be good for my business if there were more sf/f markets, that's for sure.  But the implication that publishers aren't doing anything with this data is flat-out wrong.  In the UK, multiple new sf/fantasy imprints have started up in recent years, we have several clients who are selling in the UK only on account of those new options and imprints, and the e-book business to be had by doing sf/fantasy has to be the motivating force for those imprints, because it sure can't be the Bookscan sales for print editions of these books, which are often below 1,000 copies for the home market.

The next conclusion drawn is that publishers should lower e-book prices.  Which isn't a conclusion that follows automatically from anything else.  Maybe that is why I have seen publishers react to this news by publishing more sf/f in the global English marketplace, but not by lowering their prices.

Next chart.  Daily unit sales by category of publisher.  Again, the category of publisher is a hard nut to crack.  Every book published in the JABberwocky e-book program was once published by a bigger publisher.  I will concede that it is possible to get an approximate sense of sales by looking at Amazon rankings, but it is only approximate.  As an example, being #5 on an Amazon bestseller list on December 23 means more than being #5 on that same list on August 23.  There is then the "eye-popper" of a revelation that indie authors are outselling the Big Five.  Is this an eye-popper?  The Big Five aren't big because of the volume of titles they publisher, they are big because of the revenue they generate for the titles they publish.  In 2013, Simon & Schuster had sales over $800 million.

Then more breathless reporting of news that isn't news, which is that e-book sales in the major e-book categories are higher than the overall sales percentage for e-books.

Run this by me again.  You have one number that is an average, then you have the people that are above average, and you are shocked to find out that the above average people are above average.  This is like breathlessly reporting the discovery that the average GPA is a 2.5, and the Phi Beta Kappa students have a higher GPA than that.

This isn't a secret.  I don't take out ads in the NY Times, but I think I have mentioned in blog posts or on twitter or on panels or in conversation with people that e-book sales were reaching parity, then at parity, then surpassing.  Which isn't to say that plenty of people studying up on the e-book business won't find this to be newsworthy, but it isn't news, or isn't a secret.

From there, Hugh Howey's blog post goes on to discover that big publishers make more profit from e-book sales than print news.  Not news.  Hugh could have read a blog post entitled "Do The Math" that reported this news two years ago.  Two years ago.

After a lot of fuzzy math and bad statistics that occasionally intersect with the truth, Howey comes up with this conclusion:  "Our data suggests that even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published."

Sorry, Hugh.  There is absolutely nothing in your blog post that justifies that conclusion.  This is not the same as saying that your conclusion is wrong.  Maybe it's right.  But if it's right, it's not because of anything -- anything! -- in your blog post.

Your post fails to look at the revenue big publishers can generate from sales other than e-book sales.

It fails to look at the opportunity cost for the writer of having to self-market books rather than have a publisher do so.

It fails to look at the present value of a guaranteed advance vs. royalty money that may or may not come along down the road.

Your advice to publishers is for them to (a) lower e-book publishers (b) give a bigger share of their lower revenue to the authors they publish.  Obviously, the publishers are not going to take this advice.  There is no business model for them in taking in less money while simultaneously giving more to the authors.

I don't say these things because I am in bed with the major publishers.  I fight with the major publishers all the time, including fights to get reversions of rights so the authors can self-publish or utilize our e-book program to publish those same books.  JABberwocky offers e-book services to our clients in part because we want to demonstrate that there are alternative publishing models, and hope that those alternative models will lead to higher e-book royalties.  But that certainly won't happen if the publishers also price every e-book at -- well, what price?  The entire Nightside series by Simon Green is available for $5.99 per book.  Myke Cole's just-published Breach Zone is $5.99.  The entire Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, under $14, and his Way of Kings $8.  Should that be $2.99, $4.99, what lower price?

And what then happens when everyone has lowered prices as you suggest?  If every e-book is $2.99, what price does the self-published author go to in order to present as a bargain?  $1.99?  $.99?

How elastic is the demand for books?  Yes, at the margins, you can increase sales some by lowering prices.  But after a point, that stops working.  There are only so many people who like to read with only so many hours in the day to do it.  You can't have a never-ending price war.

Comparisons to the music industry don't help.  The publishing industry has offered a wide range of products at a wide range of prices, and most of those prices reasonable.  The music industry tried to sell $14.99 albums to people who wanted $1.49 singles.  But most people want full novels, not the A side or the B side of the single.  And even in 2014, a typical paperback book costs half or just over what a CD cost in 1989.  Also, authors can't tour.  Unless readers want to go to pay-by-the-panel conventions, authors are stuck making most of their money from writing, so if the publishing business ever does become like the record business, authors are cooked.  All the $1.99 e-books in the world won't be able to keep the typical author going.

More e-book posts to come...

What does the sale of Richard Curtis' e-Reads to Open Road say about the e-book business, e-book marketing, and the costs and benefits to the e-published author.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

So the first 2014 movie I saw in 2014 was Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Took me a while.  Even by the standards of January/February movies, this year has been off to a pretty shabby start.  Not many movies I wanted to see, not many new movies coming out that I was anticipating seeing, so I could keep shoving this aside in favor of other things.

I enjoyed it.

For one, I like Chris Pine very much.  He has "it," that special movie star quality.  He radiates charisma and likability, much like Denzel Washington over the course of his entire career (the two of them together in Unstoppable is a casting coup central to an excellent movie), or Tom Cruise twenty or thirty years ago, or Ryan Gosling when he doesn't do bad indie movies.  He is very Chris Pine here!

I have a soft spot for Kenneth Branagh.  Oh, he's not one of the great directors of the past thirty years, but his Dead Again was a movie I liked enough to see twice, he's done some good Shakespeare movies, he did the good Thor movie.  He knows how to direct actors with charisma, he doesn't get in their way, he let Chris Hemsworth shine outside of the Thor suit in Thor, and he lets Chris Pine by Chris Pine.  And he's a solid enough actor himself.

So all in all, it works.  It's a little bit similar to the last Mission Impossible movie, but not as big a budget so things happen on a smaller scale, and the movie's short and moves briskly, which isn't a bad thing.  There's one major action set-piece in the middle which the film builds to nicely, and one major action piece at the end which impressed me for doing a good enough job of faking NYC without being in NYC that I was willing to buy into it even though I knew the geography was unfamiliar.

Branagh isn't as good, always, at directing women.  Not much for them to do in Thor,  Keira Knightley has a pretty thankless role to play.

Nothing great, but as January releases go this was a pleasant way to pass the time.

Saw two Broadway shows on the same day.

Machinal at the Roundabout's 42nd Street Theatre was good for a nap.  When I was up, I was quite impressed with the set design and the costume design and the creativity and beauty of the physical production.  And the play, some decades old and based on a real life murder case, is a decent enough choice for revival because the play and the case it comes from anticipate quite nicely a lot of today's celebrity culture, enough so that we have to reconsider if today's celebrity culture is really just today's.  We'd like to think so, but the 24 hour news cycle may just be an accelerant and not the flame and fire itself.  I can't exactly recommend the play, because it's clear I got enough out of it from staying awake for a third or a half, which suggests half of it just kind of sits there. But I've also stayed awake for many a play that's given far less back to me.

Little Me is a 1962 musical with a book by Neil Simon and a Cy Coleman score that was originally intended as a star vehicle for Sid Caesar.  It's an old woman narrating her life story, which consists of a series of short-lived marriages, with the husbands all played by one actor.  It's got a juicy role for the old woman, another for the young woman, and a very juicy role indeed for the man.  Here, Sid Caesar's shoes are filled by Christian Borle, a Tony Award winner for Peter and the Starcatcher and a star of the TV show Smash (male half of the composing team).  I was glad I saw this.  The first act goes on too long, but the play starts off with charm and humor enough to almost allow it to coast over the dull hills later in the act.  Christian Borle was perfect in his role, Broadway veteran Judy Kaye was excellent in her role as the old woman who narrates, and the supporting roles well cast as well.  Part of the Encores series, the show had one week, seven performances, and is gone.