Another Perspective on Amazon as Publisher & Bookseller, Plus a Contrarian View on Disruption in Publishing

I can’t seem to stay away from articles about disruption and disintermediation in the publishing industry, and especially those about Amazon’s role in it.  So here are a few articles of potential interest, and some comments on them.

In “The Trouble With Amazon“, author/publisher/consultant/etc Thad McIlroy opines about Amazon’s recent foray into vertical integration and publishing.  In this article, Thad suggests that the real danger Amazon presents to the publishing industry is not their mucking about in the publisher’s playground, but their bread-and-butter core business of bookselling.  The problem, he suggests, is that Amazon is systematically devaluing books.  His article includes this painfully true zinger:

Writing has become badly debased when a $4.99 e-book is thought overpriced, but people will line up at six in the morning in front of an Apple store to pay $499 for the skinny tablet to read it on.

Thad outlines a number of other problematic practices of Amazon – censorship, remote deletion of books, contrarian e-book format support (and opposition to industry-accepted standards), and so on.  All of these problems boil down to one over-arching concern: market power.

Thad concedes that “Amazon does not have a monopoly on selling e-books”, though it has much of the power of one, and then suggests perhaps Amazon is an “oligopoly”.

This is where I part ways, somewhat, with the article. Continue reading

Last Call in the Great E-Book Debate

I’ve written quite a lot in recent weeks about e-b0oks and self-publishing and La Revolucion! (Links abound at the end of the article for those who are painfully interested and didn’t catch them the first time.)

It’s funny.  I don’t even own an e-reader.  The dang things are expensive.  And e-books aren’t really that cheap – unless you want to read $0.99 or $2.99 e-books by no-name self-published folks (which is what this is all about, I guess), whereas I mostly want to read books by authors whose names I know and recognize, whose books I am assured to like.  As I mentioned when I wrote about my “to-read list” (here, here, and relatedly here), I’m not so overflowing with time that I can waste it on an e-book that I may or may not enjoy.  That’s right: the limiting factor isn’t the few bucks an e-book might save.  It’s the time to read them all.

So e-books might be marginally cheaper: but to recoup the cost of an e-reader I’d have to read so many books, and from where I stand there’s simply no way I’ll ever have time to read that many books.  I foresee that I am doomed to die and pass from this mortal life with a to-read list that still piled high.  I’ve blogged about this problem before, with respect to the e-book revolution

So, in some ways, as I talk about e-books it’s a tad hypocritical, or self-serving, or whatever.  I don’t own an e-reader, and I’m not likely to in the short-term at least unless one mysteriously ends up in my lap at no cost to me.  Do I want one?  Oh yes.  I am a geek, after all.  Gadget lust runs in my veins.  But I’m a practical geek.

My interest in e-books and the related digital self-publishing revolution relates mainly to my interest in building a hypothetical career as an author.  (I say hypothetical because it remains to be seen whether I have the chops for it.)  Is self-publishing the right path for me?  That’s a question I’ve struggled to answer – even as I acknowledge that it’s not a question I need to answer for a good long while to come.  Write first.  Worry about publishing later.

Given the facts on the ground, as it were – that being that I have yet no novel to worry about publishing – it would probably behoove me to shut my yap about digital self-publishing, for the time being, wouldn’t it?

Maybe so.  I don’t plan to stop learning about it, though. Continue reading

Digital Self-Publishing Revolution Again: Knowns and Unknowns

Okay, the last post now, for a while, on the digital self-publishing revolution.  Here is an article that lists a number of known facts about the changes in the industry and things presently unknown.  Interestingly there are a few things that digital self-publishing cheerleaders tout as known facts that are, in fact, far from certain at present.

It’s an interesting piece.  Give it a read.

The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution Part 2

Last time I started talking about what I called “the seedy underbelly of the digital self-publishing revolution”, by which I mean all the things I’ve been learning about it that leave me feeling uneasy.  Specifically, last time, I talked about Amazon’s proposed e-book subscription service, and my general unease with Amazon’s hegemony in the digitial self-publishing world.  But that’s not the only part about this whole thing that makes me worry about it.  Here are a few more posts that gave me further pause.

When one traditionally-published author decided to digitally self-pub some short stories her publisher decided she’s in breach of contract.  The Passive Guy relates the tale here and here.  The long-story-short of this tale: making this move on her own spooked the publisher – rightly or wrongly is not the point – and apparently on some level the publisher was offended.  Many of the most prominent cheer-leaders of the digitial self-publishing revolution will take stories like this as further evidence of the EVIL nature of the traditional publishers – a point that must surely be bolstered by the fact that some agents have written in support of the publishers in this case, as opposed to the author.  I don’t take it that way.  I take it that publishers are human.  And that they’re beginning to buy into the rhettoric of the digital self-publishing cheerleaders that this is an existential dilemma for them. 

The story, itself, wasn’t the least surprising to me.  I’ve heard warnings from established, traditionally published authors warning of something like this well before I read this story.  Self-publishing, they have said, is the kiss-of-death in the traditional publishing world.

The real point, then, that I wanted to make was this: if in the long-term, traditional publishing is your goal, is now the time to rock the boat and go-it-alone, in the hopes that later the traditional publishers will overlook your self-published history? Continue reading

The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution

So, I’ll start by saying that I see the arrival of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution as largely a good thing.  It’s more confusing than the old world – now instead of a comparatively straight-forward process of submitting to agents and editors and hoping for the best while expecting the worst, you’ve got a thousand different possible levers you can try and pull.  (Some of them you can’t actually reach.  Some of them don’t actually do anything when you pull them.  Some of them have an effect, but it’s hard to figure out what that effect is.)

But, largely, it’s a good thing because it gives writers and readers both new options that they didn’t have before. 

Still, I’m put off by the revolution’s cheerleaders who shout hurrahs: “The Revolution has come! Publishing is disintermediating! The Traditional Publishers are dying, and good riddance for they were made of EVIL and soon it will be complete freedom for writers and readers and puppies and kitties will rain from the skies forever! Amen!  P.S. And we’re all going to get so rich by writing!”

That’s hyperbole.  But the basic message is the same.  If you move in writing circles, you can’t help but read one or two such blog posts on various blogs per week. And that’s if you don’t actively follow Joe Konrath or Dean Wesley Smith or others like them.  But their message puts me off, not only because I think it’s an unrealistic vision of the future, but because something about this vision seems a little off to me.

In the past few weeks, I’ve come to understand a little better why I’m vaguely uncomfortable and unsettled about the digital self-publishing revolution.  There is something dark, something unspoken, something critically unexamined staining the underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution.  I don’t think these are things talked about enough, yet. Continue reading

Books of a Certain Length

Author’s Note: This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  Thinking about yesterday’s post about the rise of YA fiction as a force majeure in the SF&F publishing world, it wasn’t far for me to start thinking about book length.  Also, to be entirely honest, Dear Wife suggested both topics.  I’ll also note: this is a very meaty (i.e. wordy) and at times contentious topic.  For that reason, I am going to do something I rarely ever do on my blog: I’m implementing sectional subtitles.  Why?  Because this turned out to be a real, long, in-depth, even semi-scholarly article on the topic of wordcount length, with quite a bit of data and market analysis.  Your conclusions will be your own, but I’ve tried to synthesize a lot of information for this article.  I considered splitting the article into several posts, as I often do when a single post grows this long, but I felt that it would weaken the analysis to have the disparate elements separated onto different pages.  So, instead: one long post with sectional subtitles.  Finally, you’ll find I prefer the compound word “wordcount” as opposed to splitting the word into two: “word count”, which is the more common usage.  The reason for this is that when I refer to “wordcount” I’m referring to a single, distinct idea: that is, the total number of words in a manuscript.  Splitting the word into two diffuses this unified notion. 

~

Books of a Certain Length

If you look around on the internet, it won’t be hard to come up with some solid advice for how long your book should be – depending on which genre and market you are writing for.  I encountered advice on the issue in this post on the Magical Words blog – where you’ll find me entering the fray in the comments.  There’s also this post on The Swivet.  I won’t quote all the genre length guidelines these two posts suggest (which are mostly in accord).  But if you’re either a fan of meaty Epic Fantasies or books like the Harry Potter series, and write in anything approaching a similar vein and genre, you might find some of these guidelines a trifle… strange.  Epic Fantasy is given a high-end wordcount length suggestion of around 120,000 words.  For YA it is suggested you stay under 80,000 words with some flexibility up to 100,000 in special circumstances.

For those of you unfamiliar with relative wordcount lengths, you may consider that and say to yourself: “Okay, so, what’s the big deal?”

The Challenge of a Verbose Writer

Let me first start by offering this full disclosure: my writing style tends toward the robustly wordful.  For example, I’ve participated in several “Flash Fiction” challenges during the history of this blog (with most results posted  here) with the goal of turning out a super-short story under 1,000 words in length.  I rarely reached that goal.  My first attempt at a novel, “Project SOA”, had reached the two-thirds complete mark at approximately 140,000 words before I abandoned that version of the story.  I’m planning on my current novel project, “The Book of M”, to be about 125,000 words… but I fully expect it to be closer to 175,000 (based on my experience of planned length versus actual final length for other, shorter works).

Of course, I’m no professional, as yet. Continue reading

Rational Numbers

One of my biggest beefs with all the alarmism and loud voices shouting about this and that and the other thing relating to the changes in the publishing industry is the lack of available, actual data.

In one corner you’ve got Joe Konrath and his henchman spreading the specious claim that you too can make a six-figure income in digital self-publishing.  (In three easy steps, I’m sure.  Step 1: Write.  Step 2: ???? Step 3: Profit.)  Their cheerleading efforts for the new world order of disintermediated publishing always bothers me because the big names on this side of the fence are largely pro writers who previously were published in the traditional model, benefited from the marketing efforts of traditional publishers, developed a platform and capitalized on that publicity, and now are making more by eschewing those publishers and going it alone.  Well yeah you’re doing fine self-pubbing.  You have a built-in audience.  Congratulations.

I mean, sure, it’s an astute business decision to dump publishers when the numbers are more favorable if you self-publish.  When you’ve got a branded author name, that’s a strategic decision you can afford to make.  But for an unpublished and undiscovered author, this a whole different ballgame.

And then along comes Amanda Hocking.  And now we’ve got living proof, tangible evidence that an unknown really can make it big.  Only wait, now that Hocking is doing fine with the digital self-pub regime, she switches sides and takes a traditional deal.  And then John Locke, he of the first digital self-pubbed author to cross the million-sales on Kindle threshold.  Last I heard he was sticking with his Kindle platform.  No traditional deal for him, no thank you.

But these are what we call statistical outliers.  We get those in the traditional publishing industry, too.  J.K. Rowling?  Stephanie Meyer?  Outliers happen.  There should be a big fat “Your Mileage May Vary” label on this bill-of-sale.  Because it will vary.  A lot.

And then you’ve got the other corner, filled mostly with traditionally published authors and their teams who are quite happy with their current deals.  They’re usually those that are making a living.  They recognize the value that traditional publishers bring to the table, and how that value has filtered to their own bottom lines.  A lot of them don’t like the new paradigm of digital self-pubbing.  It threatens their comfortable status quo, and challenges the long-standing industry prejudice against self-published work.  It’s not a stance wholly without merit, but it does seem to ignore the reality of the changes that are occurring in the industry – whether they like those changes or not.

Neither side has often been terribly keen in referring to actual, objective, and verifiable data.  But you do have a few gems: a few good souls who, like me, believe in good data.

So, all that said I’ve been keenly interested when those good souls share their data so the rest of us can see, and judge for ourselves.  In that vein, I thought I’d share some data recently made available by a digitally self-pubbed speculative fiction (sci fi, specifically) author by name of Ken McConnell on a year’s worth of his digital sales.  Link here.  (And a small update here.)

You can compare and contrast that with data like the sort provided by Tobias S. Buckell (here and here) and Jim C. Hines (here and here).

The upshot? While Ken’s figures aren’t magically phenomenal or anything, they help provide a clear view that cuts through the clutter of marketing hype.

Enjoy.

ETA (09/12/2011):

Another Digital Self-published author posts her speculative-fiction sales numbers: http://overactive.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/one-year-of-indie-publishing/