A Letter to Doug Preston and Authors United

Dear Mr. Preston, et al,

You don’t know me. Still, I feel like we have something in common: we love books.

I’ve been a voracious reader ever since I was a little boy. I read detective stories, science fiction, and fantasy novels by the hundreds. While I haven’t read any of your books, I have read many of the writers listed in the Authors United letter and I’ve greatly enjoyed the vast majority of those. I feel confident in assuming that they, too, love books. I’ve found it’s a largely universal reason why writers write.

Yet, it is here, with that very love of books, where the disconnect begins.

Along with loving books, you, Mr. Preston, also love your publisher — and why not? Your publisher has made your tremendous prosperity possible. In your shoes, I’m sure I would love and admire the entity that gave me such an opportunity just as strongly. If I felt they were being wronged, I would come to their defense, just as you have done. I understand your feelings and the actions that resulted from them.

What I don’t understand is this: equating books with publishers.

Why do I make that leap, you ask? Let me explain. The letter you originally penned claimed you were not taking sides in the debate between your publisher and Amazon, even though you only called on Amazon to take action to stop hurting authors. However, when Amazon made proposals to compensate the injured authors, the first of which MacMillan agreed to after their heated negotiations with Amazon a couple of years earlier, you dismissed them as being unfair to the publisher. You even called the idea “blood money”. Suddenly, the focus shifted from authors being harmed to the publisher. The underlying idea becomes what’s good for the publisher is good for the authors and their books.

Is that really true?

The big publishers have recorded larger profits for the last year or two. Random House even gave bonuses to all their employees because of the success of the Fifty Shades novels. Did authors get better terms in their contracts across the board? Was more money spent in marketing the slower selling titles because of the windfall publishers received from strong ebook sales at high profit margins? Were a larger number of new authors taken on to grow and nurture during this time of prosperity? The answer to those questions is no. You might point out that some authors, like yourself, received bigger advances for upcoming work and that is certainly true. At the same time, however, advances for new authors have shrunk to shockingly low levels. Would you sell your book to a publisher today for $5,000, paid over the course of a year or more? It would take more than twenty such advances to pay for the ad Authors United placed in the New York Times recently. Think about that. Twenty new books that those authors toiled over for months or even years. I submit that the economic gulf between you and the authors in harm’s way you purport to advocate for is much wider than you realize.

Mr. Preston, Amazon is a business. So is Hachette Book Group. This fact does not make either of them good or evil, sinners or saints. It simply means that both are trying to win a deal they feel is best for their company. End of story.

Now, I could ask you and your organization to use your influence and champion better contract terms, royalty rates, and accounting procedures for all authors from big publishing, but I won’t do that because it’s not a cause you believe in, as evidenced by your words and actions to date. What I will ask is for you to be truthful. Quit hiding behind straw men and come out and say what you really mean. The dispute between Hachette and Amazon is hurting your sales and you want it to stop. Accept your, and every other Hachette author’s, role as the child in a messy divorce case where there are no winners, only losers. Authors United has taken a side, despite your protestations of not doing so. Own it. By not asking Hachette to be equally culpable in settling their differences with Amazon, you have sided with your publisher. Your stance is emotionally understandable, as I stated earlier. Stop acting as if you’re championing authors everywhere by wielding your fortune and clout to rail against Amazon.

I love books. Books are created by writers, not agents or publishers. Certainly, editors, illustrators, and proofreaders can make a book better, but the book itself is written by a writer. Who, out of all the people I just listed, should receive the lion’s share of money from that creation? I think anyone who loves books will have a similar answer to that question.

I’ll say again, you don’t know me. I’m nobody. You’ll probably never see this letter, but if you do, I hope you’ll take into serious consideration some of the things I’ve said. Books don’t need publishers to exist, in fact, it’s the other way around. It seems to me publishers have forgotten that fact. Maybe you have too.

Sincerely,
Alan Tucker, Lover of Books
(written in response to the Publisher’s Weekly article “Authors United Preparing New Amazon Initiative”)

Content Is King

Twitch_Logo_thumbnailAmazon just spent nearly a billion dollars — yes, that’s with a Carl Sagan “B” — to acquire Twitch.tv. What is Twitch? It’s a site used mostly by gamers to live stream and record videos of themselves playing video games. Some of the users have hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their channels and sometimes tens of thousands of people watching at any one time. Not only can you watch the action, but there is a chat function as well where the streamer can interact with his/her viewers and the viewers can interact with each other.

Why is this significant? Other than the huge chunk of cash, it shows a glimpse of where Amazon is headed. They recognize that content is king. The more content they have available on their devices (Kindle, Fire TV, Phone, etc.) the more Amazon becomes a destination for their customers. Rather than creating the bulk of that content themselves, Amazon is looking to the grass roots — Indies— to fill their gadgets with fun and interesting things to see and do.

Twitch streamers are almost directly analogous to Indie authors. They are creating content and trying to find an audience. Each has their own personality, talent, and unique ideas on how to present their channel.

Books aren’t special snowflakes as some have bandied about recently. They are entertainment. As such, they compete with every other source of entertainment out there for the attention of the public. Writing a good book is a difficult task. So is writing a song, or creating a video or a game. We’re all vying for eyeballs. The big difference these days is we don’t have to have middlemen (publishers, record labels, distributors, etc.) to make it happen. We have direct, immediate conduits to those eyeballs and I, for one, am immeasurably grateful for those conduits.

Windowing: Why Big Publishers Can’t Jump On Board the Ebook Train

I really should be writing, but the misinformation and outright lies being tossed around the Interwebz drives me to distraction.

Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch responded in Digital Book World to all those who answered Amazon’s email plea and sent him a message this weekend. He said several questionable things, but I want to focus on the last bullet point in his letter:

• The invention of mass-market paperbacks was great for all because it was not intended to replace hardbacks but to create a new format available later, at a lower price.
As a publisher, we work to bring a variety of great books to readers, in a variety of formats and prices. We know by experience that there is not one appropriate price for all ebooks, and that all ebooks do not belong in the same $9.99 box. Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish—hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and ebook. While ebooks do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.

This bit: “create a new format available later, at a lower price” is referred to as windowing and it’s something readers have railed against since mass-market paperbacks were first introduced. We all know the drill. Our favorite author writes a new book. First, it gets released in hard back. Then, sometimes more than a year later, it finally is released in paperback. Why do the publishers do this? Profit.

Let’s look at a typical bestseller hardback new release. I am going to use generic, made-up numbers for this example. There are always exceptions to every rule. Most new hardbacks these days are priced at about $28. Publishers sell them to distributers/retailers (like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Ingram) at a 50% discount, meaning the publisher gets $14 for the book. Mr. Pietsch states above that print books have production costs of $2-$3 per book attached to them, in addition to the fixed costs he states, such as editing, design, etc. (We’ll ignore the fact that he uses warehousing and shipping twice in his argument) Those fixed costs, in normal accounting procedures, would get amortized over the projected sales of the book. For argument’s sake, I’m going to use a figure of $6 per book to cover those “investment” costs — and I think I’m being generous here. Remember that the author’s royalty is baked within that figure because the publisher has paid the author an advance already, so about $4.20 of that $6 is being used to pay down that advance. That leaves $1.80 for the other costs. If the book is expected to sell 100,000 copies, that’s $180,000 for editing, design, marketing, blah, blah, blah.

So, we have a final “cost” of the hardback book at roughly $9 and the publisher gets $14. Pretty good deal. Here’s the problem though. The paperback version of the book retails for around $10 these days. Meaning that the publisher gets about $5. That figure doesn’t look so good against the $9 cost we established earlier, yet Mr. Pietsch claims they recoup those fixed costs he mentions from “sales of all the versions of the book that we publish—hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and ebook.” Even if we assume the production cost of a paperback is a little less than the hardback, it still doesn’t make financial sense. What are we missing?

Windowing. Because the book is only released in hardback initially, the publisher guarantees it sees that nice number for the first several months to a year of the book’s existence. Contrary to what Mr. Pietsch is claiming, the publishers don’t amortize those fixed costs over all formats — at least not equally. They make their money with that initial hardback release.

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

Now, ebooks enter the picture. People expect to have access to the ebook version of a new release at the same time as the hardback. To make that happen and still get the profits they want from a new release, publishers have to jack up the price of the ebook beyond reason. Let’s look at the numbers. We had a figure of $9 for production/fixed costs of our hypothetical new book, but we can take out that $3 needed for printing and distributing the paper version, so we’re down to the $6 fixed cost figure. Amazon would like to sell ebooks for no more than $10 ($9.99), of which, they take 30% instead of the 50% for paper copies. That leaves $7 for the publisher. Profitable, but nowhere near the $9 vs $14 we saw with the hardback. Ah! But if the publisher says, “Let’s charge $15 ($14.99) for the ebook,” then we have something. Now, they are getting about $10.50 from Amazon for that book vs. the $6 cost, which is nearly the same as the hardback profit margin. (This doesn’t take into account the lower author royalty dollar-wise for the ebook, which amounts to about $2.65 instead of the $4.20 we showed earlier, meaning the publisher actually does better on the $14.99 ebook than the hardback.)

With me so far? Everything sounds like it works out just fine for the publisher, right? Except for one thing: people get really pissed off at paying $14.99 for an ebook.

Amazon knows this. People leave nasty one-star reviews by the droves whenever a book gets priced over $10.  People also get pissed off when publishers have tried to window ebooks — in other words, not release them at the same time as the hardback. The publishers can’t stomach the $9.99 price point because their business model falls to pieces.

Guess what? It’s time for a new business model. Ebooks aren’t going away and neither is the average reader’s desire to not pay more than $9.99 for it. Until the big publishers grasp this concept, they are going to continue to butt heads with Amazon.

The Indie Authors’ Guild, or Cat Herding For Fun & Profit

Like thousands, or maybe even millions, of others, I received an email from Amazon explaining their side of their dispute with book publisher Hachette this morning. In it, Amazon tells us they’ve set up a website called ReadersUnited.com (I imagine in response to the “Authors United” group, championed by Douglas Preston, et al) and ended with a call to action of emailing the CEO of Hachette to voice our opinions regarding ebook pricing and two or three other issues.

I have my views about this dispute and have posted them here in the past, but I’m not going to talk about this latest salvo in the Amazon vs. Hachette heavyweight bout. More accomplished pundits than I will hash it out in blogs and forums over the coming days. And I have no doubt that you are capable of forming your own opinion regarding this latest letter and the dispute overall.

No, I wish to expound on an observation I made while reading initial reactions to this letter over the last couple of hours. (Time I probably should have spent outlining the back half of my next book, but the Internet is soooo SHINY!)

Until now, this debate has largely fallen along “party” lines. Established, traditional authors (like Preston, Patterson, and the signatories of the Authors United letter) have tended to side with Hachette, while the Indie rabble rousers (Konrath, Howey, and many others, who forged their own letter at Change.org) have tended to side with Amazon. On first blush, one might assume the Indie author group would, by and large, embrace this latest tactic of Amazon’s to reach out for support from the Kindle community.

That reasonable assumption, however, would be dead wrong.

In perusing my Facebook author groups, a blog post from the Passive Voice, and the first ten pages of comments from the Writers’ Cafe thread about this on the Kindle Boards, I saw a surprising diversity of reactions from my peers. On display were everything from abject apathy, to disgust, to disappointment, to unabashed outrage. Mixed in with these were also voices of support, both modest and wholehearted. After recovering from my initial shock at the huge range of opinions and emotions on display, my thoughts turned to another subject which has been bandied about in these same forums over the past several weeks and months: that of an Indie Authors’ Guild.

An organization calling itself the Authors’ Guild has been in existence for over 100 years, yet it is anything but what its title purports it to be. Often, it has been a mouthpiece for publishers, rather than authors, and is arguably more selective in its membership than the Augusta National Golf Club. Many Indie authors have expressed a desire for either the current Authors’ Guild to reform and allow Indies membership, or to create a new organization which is Indie friendly. Such an organization might provide legal advice, help in finding independent contractors for things like editing, cover design, etc., and be an advocate for the thousands of Indie authors if companies like Amazon or Barnes & Noble ever changed the terms of their distribution agreements to be less than favorable. All of these sound like laudable and worthwhile objectives.

Yet, I feel it’s workable in ideal only. After seeing the multitude of reactions today to Amazon’s plea — a company that has almost single-handedly given writers an opportunity to make money doing something they love and many never thought possible — how on Earth can anyone expect this diverse, opinionated group to come together to form a cohesive guild, union, or treehouse club? There’s not enough money in the world to pay someone to head up such an organization. You’d have more success herding ten thousand cats without the use of milk, tuna, or catnip. Every decision would be lambasted by some, lauded by others, and greeted with disinterest by still more.

I do think a directory listing site for those contracted services, along with some educational help for those new to self publishing, is doable for someone willing to put in the work to gather up that information, but I just can’t see a unified voice ever coming about for a group who, by definition, are a bunch of free-wheeling mavericks who march to the beat of their own drums.

What do you think? Is establishing a cohesive Indie Authors’ Guild an achievable goal? How would you go about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Book Signing!

Just a quick note to let everyone know I’ll be at Hastings Books & Music in the West Park Promenade in Billings, Montana this coming Saturday, July 26th from 3-5 PM. I’ll be signing books, passing out bookmarks and other goodies, and ready to chat about all things books and writing. Stop on by if you missed your chance to go to San Diego for ComiCon!