Seattle Mystery Bookshop will be out of business in a year, maybe two

Sorry to say that we cannot offer you a signing. We cannot do anything to support, help or benefit Amazon. Theyre the enemy of independent bookshops and aiding them in any way – mainly ordering their books and selling them and promoting them – would be suicide. Things are tough enough without cutting our own throats. – JB Dickey, owner

via Seattle Mystery Bookshop: Cant Shake the Devils Hand and Say Youre Only Kidding.

Amazon is setting themselves up to be the world’s biggest publisher. They’re starting imprints for every genre. They’re signing big name talent like Barry Eisler and Ed McBain (well, the latter’s estate, anyway). Between their imprints and the indie author/publishers they distribute (myself included), they’ll account for a huge chunk of the “books in print”, perhaps a majority.

And this guy refuses to work with them.

He’s a sole proprietor, so at least he’ll only take himself and any employees dumb enough to stick around with him when he falls. But he’s refusing to carry the biggest publisher of the 20-teens, because they’re “the enemy.”

Hopefully, most independent bookstores will not follow his lead, and instead position themselves as community-oriented service businesses, focusing on discovery and recommendation. Just moving paper isn’t enough anymore.

Launch day jitters

Ebooks are… different.

I know, I know, you’ve heard that a thousand times. But for reals, they are. And even though I’ve been working with ebooks for 14 years, it still sneaks up on me. The conventional wisdom does not apply.

As some of you saw on the Twitter machine, I have a new book out. Between Heaven And Hell: Revelation is the first book in the BHH trilogy, written for NaNoWriMo 2009. In the past 18 months, I’ve written, rewritten, hired an editor, rewritten again, took naps, poked the manuscript with a stick, all the things you’re supposed to do if you’re enterprising/dumb enough to wear a publisher hat over your writing hat (which is only possible because while the writing hat is a smallish fez, the publisher hat is a big, roomy Stetson). And now, finally, it’s available for sale.

*blows party noisemaker, echoing forlornly from the cavern walls*

Admittedly, I haven’t been a whirlwind of publicity. I’ve mentioned it off-handedly, as in passing, on Twitter. I haven’t asked for retweets, and have received almost none. Launch day sales, all told, will buy me a burrito, and maybe, if I’m lucky, an iced tea. Small.

And this is okay.

That’s the part that snuck up on me. I’m still awash in what Kris Rusch calls “produce thinking,” applying legacy publishing standards to ebooks, and getting discouraged for absolutely no good reason.

Print books do need to open big. The produce analogy is a good one. A book has to turn a profit in three months, because the sales it gets in the first three months are the vast majority of all the sales it will ever have. Because not too long after that, it will be pulled from bookstore shelves to make room for the next book. It’s a similar, if a bit slower, phenomenon to what we see in the film industry. In movies, if you don’t make back your production costs opening weekend, you failed. If you don’t turn a profit in three weeks, well good luck with the DVD. Books, the dead tree variety, are almost as bad.

But as I mentioned above, ebooks are different. Ebooks are what Chris Anderson calls the Long Tail. Ebooks are forever.

So Revelation hasn’t made much money to start out. About 50 cents a month over the 18 month production time. But that’s now. In a year, when all three books are available, it will be a very different story. Patience, Grasshopper. Let it grow. Let people discover it, and read it, and tell their friends. It will still be available in six months, a year, two years, ten years.

So for now, I’m working on getting it released on the Nook and on CreateSpace for folks like my mom who still prefer paper, and then I’m getting to work on Between Heaven And Hell: Crusade, the second book in the trilogy. Because the best use of my time right now is writing more books. Promotion comes later.

The coming Author War

I believe there will be a war between the writers who want agents and traditional publishers to “take care of them” and indie writers who want to control their own careers. — Dean Wesley Smith

I’ve been worried about this for a while now. I’ve noticed people choosing up sides on blogs and Twitter. Folks like Smith, Konrath, Hocking, Barry Eisler and myself on one side, and traditionally published authors like Lilith Saintcrow and Maureen Johnson on the other. One side wants, even needs, publishing to change so we can control our own destinies and write whatever we want. The other side needs publishing to remain the same, or at least stable, because that’s how they feed their families. They’re invested in the status quo.

So far, both sides are getting along, agreeing to disagree. But this tolerance is starting to slip. Debates are getting more heated. But it’s starting to look more and more like familiar political structures, taking on the flavor of unions versus freelancers. I fear that like American politics, the two sides will diverge to the point where they can no longer talk to each other, no longer respect each other’s point of view.

Barry Eisler’s defection to the indie side has shaken a lot of people in traditional publishing. When a New York Times Bestselling author walks away from a half million dollar advance to go indie, it makes indie publishing real. We’re not the lunatic fringe anymore. We’re the competition. The disruptors. The heretics.

Not that it’s all smiles and bunnies in the indie camp, either. There is dissension in the ranks. While some indie authors race to the bottom to sell their books at 99 cents before they lose their competitive price advantage, others decry how 99 cents “devalues” the book as an art form and demand their peers price their books higher, lest readers get too accustomed to paying a buck a book. I suspect this argument will settle out when the 99 centers figure out that they can’t sustain that price, and that their market dries up too fast. But I hope we get it ironed out before traditional publishers, along with the authors that depend on them, mobilize against the threat indie publishing poses.

The sustainability of 99 cents

Jennifer Mattern on has an interesting interview up today with indie phenom Zoe Winters. They discuss something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, the sustainability of the 99 cent price point.

I think almost no one can make a solid living with 99 cent ebooks because you have to have huge volume for that. When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut. — Zoe Winters

This is what bothers me. The Between Heaven and Hell trilogy — which comprises the first halfish of the Unification Chronicles, so this is already complicated — is somewhat genre-bending. Here’s the elevator pitch for the first book, Revelation:

When Daniel Cho sees a dead man walk away from a car wreck, he becomes the catalyst for a final battle between angels and demons.

What genre does that sound like? If you picked “science fiction,” you’d be right, only you didn’t pick that, did you? As the story develops, it turns out the angels and demons are really humans with a purely technological basis for immortality, and over the millenia they’ve inspired our myths of gods, angels and demons. In book five of the series, we’ll find out how and why they became immortal in the first place, and what that means about humanity and our place in the galaxy. But to start out, this book seems like urban fantasy or horror. We only find out it’s really science fiction later.

This genre ambiguity means the niche for people who want to read my books is on the smaller side. I will never pull down numbers like Amanda Hocking because paranormal romance just isn’t what I write. I have to accept that my niche is finite, even with the ebook market expansion accelerating.

And given that, 99 cents is troubling. A sale at 99 cents makes me only 1/6, or 16.7%, of what I make at $2.99. Hocking, Locke and others like them can get away with that because their pool of potential customers is so much larger. But if I want to make a living at this, 99 cents can only be an occasional promotional price. $2.99 or even $3.99 has to be the default.

A year from now, when the entire Between Heaven and Hell trilogy is available, plus two stand alone novels and my novella “Do Over!“, I’d have to sell about 500 copies of each book a month to sustain myself. Even that seems high to me, although I’m probably underestimating the size of the overall ebook market by several decimal points. Those will slide down the long tail over time, and be replaced by new books as I keep writing. As long as I stay around 3,000 copies overall a month, I can make my living as a writer. In theory, that’s sustainable.

At 99 cents each, on the other hand, I’d have to sell 13,000 copies a month to make the same amount of money. 13,000 new readers every month, 12 months a year. That’s more than the population of the whole town where I went to high school. Every month. In my niche, I just don’t see how that’s possible.

I’ve seen claims that standardizing on $1 is inevitable for ebooks, and their math is compelling. And while I’m not one of those who frets that $1 is “devaluing” the book, I can’t deny that under the current royalty conditions, $1 doesn’t work for me.

(If Amazon extends the 70% royalty to 99 cents and I’d only have to sell 6,000 copies a month, well, that’s a horse of a different color.)

Authors aren’t ronins, they’re masters

Mur Lafferty, one of the pioneers of podcast fiction, has posted on her blog about her decision to go indie and not seek another agent after the one she had decided they should no longer work together. She likens it to being a ronin, a masterless (and often disgraced) samurai. While that’s a romantic image, I think she has the analogy turned around.

Agents are great. I know people who swear by their agents, talk to them daily on chat, would not make any career move without them. I met a fantastic agent at WorldCon, a very knowledgeable and kind guy. But for me, where I am right now, and what I’m looking to do in 2011, I think the ronin way is the way to go. I’ve been busting my ass for six years, trying build an audience hungry for my work. And now I’m going to attempt to grow that audience, get more readers, and encourage people to buy my books. If I have to do that without an agent, or even without an editor, so be it. I didn’t have plans to be an independent author for the long haul, but it seems that’s where I am.

This is the thing to keep in mind. The agent — and the editor, and the publisher if you go that route — work for you. Without you, there is no book. Period. We are the masters, and the agents and editors are our samurai. They perform valuable services, but you must never forget that without the author, there is no book. It’s easy, the way legacy publishing is structured, to forget that. To feel like you work for the publisher, or worse, you work for the agent that got you the deal with the publisher. After all, these are the people that hand you money (after they take their substantial cut). And in other lines of work, the people that give you money are in charge of you.

Writing is different. Publishers aren’t doing you a favor by deigning to publish your little novel. You are providing them with a way for them to profit off of your work. They add value by editing, distributing and marketing the book (or at least, they used to, which is why so many of us have decided it’s no longer in our interest to work with them, but that’s another rant), but without you, without the book, they have nothing to do.

So keep your heads high, authors. You are storytellers, maintaining a tradition that predates our species. You are the base of the whole pyramid. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Is 99 cents clear cutting your ebook sales?

Switch11 over at Kindle Review has an interesting article up about why you don’t have to be Amanda Hocking or John Locke to be a successful indie author. He lays out three levels of success, with the bottom being “solid indie authors,” those that only make tens of thousands of dollars a month rather than hundreds of thousands or millions.

This level is very important if you’re an author because it’s a level you can hit even if you don’t get every single thing right. Perhaps you can’t write paranormal romance or thrillers. Perhaps you refuse to join any social networks. Perhaps you don’t have the energy to both write great books and do great promotion. Those are all negotiable – The $1 price isn’t. However, everything else is.

The bit about the $1 price got me thinking. I know Konrath is running an experiment to see if he can make more money selling The List at 99 cents and a 35% royalty than he was making at $2.99 and a 70% royalty. So far, it seems to be working, in that he’s selling more than six times as many copies, and thus making more total revenue. It’s encouraging, especially if the pressure towards the $1 price point intensifies. And I know I’ve said on this very blog that pricing ebooks lower doesn’t cannibalize sales because you bring in more readers that wouldn’t have purchased your book at all at a higher price.

But I wonder if this rate of sales is sustainable. I have absolutely zero evidence for this. This is just my intuition talking. But to me it seems like selling all your books at 99 cents is like clear-cutting a forest. It’s quick and initially very profitable, but it’s not sustainable and leaves you with an empty, worthless asset once the original burst of profts passes.

I’m in this for the long haul. I want to make my living as a novelist, month after month. And I worry that the rate of sales people are seeing at 99 cents is chewing up their potential market — contrary to my own previous statements, the market isn’t truly infinite; I’m not going to start buying romance novels at any price, and know others feel the same way about the stuff I write — faster than the market for ebooks overall is growing. People aren’t planting new trees fast enough to keep up with the clear cutting, in other words.

I could be wrong here. The ebook market may be a tide rising fast enough to raise any and all boats. But it sounds too good to be true, and I’ve long since learned that things that sound too good to be true almost always are.

So I wonder if I might be better off keeping my prices for most of my books at $2.99, even if that means fewer sales and less money overall, at first. Let the fire burn dimmer and cooler, but for longer time, long enough to pay my bills while I write more books.

Because that’s the other thing to consider. While Konrath is right that indie ebooks are assets, things you own that continue to generate money without additional work on your part — let’s set aside promotion for the sake of argument — sales will taper off over time as your market reaches saturation. This is what Chris Anderson calls the “long tail.” The demand for any book will slide down the tail towards just a trickle of sales, but never stop so long as the book remains available. The key is to keep writing, adding book after book until all their long tails stacked up provide enough money for your needs.

I doubt that 99 cents will give me time to do this, but I’m willing to give it a try. The first book in my Unification Chronicles series, Revelation, will start at 99 cents and stay there. I plan on releasing the other six books in the series, along with any follow on novels — there exists a 20 year period between books 5 and 7 in which I could write for the rest of my life — at $2.99, using the first book to get new readers hooked on the story. Time will tell if I’ll be able to keep to that plan, but it’s going to be an interesting ride.

The power of impulse pricing

I had a really interesting conversation this morning on the Twitter machine with Lilith Saintcrow, an urban fantasy novelist I’ve liked for a few years now. Lili was linking to another post on Nathan Bransford’s site, this one explaining why, sometimes, an ebook just has to cost more than the paper version. As I’ve explained before, Nathan’s math is fatally flawed because he assumes that post-scarcity goods like ebooks still conform to supply and demand economic theory. They don’t.

I pointed out that with ebook supply being effectively infinite, it doesn’t make sense to price the books high enough to drive away anyone. That it’s better to price the books as low as you can, 99 cents to $2.99 on Amazon, depending on what royalty rate you’re looking for. Over time, you’ll pull in more total income at a lower price because of the Long Tail effect and making the purchase an “impulse buy.”

Lili disagreed, stating that the ebook market is bounded by the cost constraints on buying an ereader, that not everyone had a laptop, Kindle or Nook. While this is partly true, Amazon makes it possible to read their Kindle books on just about every platform available, from phones to ereaders to tablets to full computers. There are people in some parts of the world who have cell phones but not electricity (they charge at the village market, which does have power, or at least a generator). I would argue that the ratio of humans to ebook capable devices will approach 1:1 in my lifetime.

But don’t listen to me. I’m a Pollyanna futurist, after all. But it’s not just me saying this. Amazon started selling more ebooks than hardcovers last summer, and recently, they announced that they’re selling (not giving away public domain works, but selling) more ebooks than they do paperbacks. The world’s largest bookseller is selling more ebooks than paper books. Somebody has to be buying them.

Maybe it’s a technological filter thing. Obviously people who already buy their books online will be more inclined to read on one of the various Kindle-friendly platforms. But not everyone lives digitally. A lot of people still walk into brick and mortar bookstores and buy stacks of good old-fashioned wood pulp, right?

Do they? Mall bookstores like B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks faded away a while back, and now Borders is going out of business, leaving Barnes and Noble as the only national chain bookstore in America. Independent bookstores like Powell’s in Oregon and the Tattered Cover here in Denver are seeing a resurgence of sorts, but then again, so are record stores now that Tower is gone. And for the same reasons.

Paper books, by the end of this decade, will be collector’s items, like vinyl records are now. There will be a market for them, and they will sell, but mostly to pretentious hipsters who like to show how analog they are. For the vast thundering herds of humanity, sitting on busses and beaches, shuffling through airports, ebooks on a convenient handheld device will be the order of the day.

Lili doesn’t see that, and I understand why. She’s blogged extensively about her life as a single mom supporting her family through her writing. She has literally bet everything on the publishing system as it exists today, or rather as it existed five to ten years ago. Feeding her children depends on that system remaining viable, so she can’t afford to doubt it. When I pointed out that it was better to sell 1,000 copies of an ebook at $1 than 100 copies at $5, she disagreed, stating that those thousand copies would cannibalize the market, resulting in lower overall revenue. To her eyes, the market is fixed and unchanging. There are only x number of people willing to buy her books, so she needs to make as much off of each of them as she can.

The ebook market is still growing, and that growth is accelerating, not declining. And with ebooks, the supply may not be truly, mathematically infinite, but if your market of potential readers is x, then the supply is always x+1. There are always more readers, unless you’re JK Rowling, whom I believe does actually have 6.5 billion sales. She would have to start beaming books into space. But for everyone else…

Ebooks, in fact, make discovering new writers easier and more tempting that ever. And this is really why impulse pricing is so important. I already buy more Kindle books than I can possibly read, even having my Kindle read them to me while I’m driving. When I see an interesting book in the “Recommended” or “Buyers also bought” lists on Amazon, if it’s under $3, I just buy it. Even if I don’t get around to reading it, it’s worth such a low amount of money to have it handy in case I want to. But if the book is more than that, I’ll click the Sample button instead. This sends the first few chapters to my Kindle as a “stake in the ground” in case I come back to the book later. And you know what? I almost never do. Unless the sample is hella compelling, why spend more money on Book A when I already have all of Book B on my Kindle? Both are the same genre, both look interesting. Convenience wins, because humans are lazy when they can get away with it. And impulse pricing is what buys you that convenience.

In fact, that’s how I found Lili in the first place. I hadn’t read much Urban Fantasy, but had the first book in her Hunter series on sale and I decided to give it a try. I was put off at first by her obvious pseudonym, but that was before I learned about who she was as a person and that she kept her real name on the down low to protect her kids. The book was gripping and exciting, and I’ve been hooked ever since. But without that impulse price, I never would have given her a second look.

And this is the danger that authors who have built careers on print ignore at their peril. Their worldview, their paradigm, is based on a publishing industry and more importantly a publishing market that doesn’t really exist anymore. If they can’t adapt to new realities, like Amazon selling more ebooks than paper books, all they’re going to be left with is a pair of dimes.