Books Aren’t Worth the Paper They’re Printed On

Got your attention?

I’m a writer. How could I possibly, truthfully express the sentiment in that headline? Well, let me tell you a story…

My mother is an avid reader, mostly of thrillers and mysteries, and she had a number of bookshelves, stocked with her favorites from over the years. Recently, she had the carpet replaced in her home and, rather than going to the trouble of reshelving most of those books when the new carpet was in and she could return her furniture to the rooms, she decided to sell the majority of those books to a used book store.

About three years ago, she made the reluctant plunge to ebooks. I say reluctant because she didn’t think she’d stick with it initially. Now, you’d have to pry her kindle from her cold, dead fingers. She’s discovered dozens of Indie authors (it helped that her son is one of them) and spends far, far less money on reading material than she used to, all the while enjoying the activity just as much as she ever did, perhaps more.

dreamstimefree_122041The paper books from her dusty shelves, which included pristine, hardback copies of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and Jonathan Kellerman best sellers, didn’t hold the nostalgic value they once had. She had no interest in rereading them, so it made sense to take them to a used book store and get a few bucks for them.

Billings, Montana isn’t a huge town by most standards, but we have a number of used book stores. We stopped by one on our way to lunch, thinking to drop the books off, quickly collect a few dollars, and hopefully pay for our meal with the “windfall.” Our visit was indeed quick, but not for the reason we supposed.

“We’re not buying any books,” the clerk explained. “In fact, we’re having a big sale right now to try to pare down our inventory.”

Hm. Okay. No big deal, we thought. We’ll just try another store.

We accumulated strikes two and three faster than Casey from the Mudville Nine.

Resigned to not being able to pay for our lunch, we visited the library after we’d eaten, seeking to donate the books.

“Could you bring them by when we have our big book sale in the winter?” the lady at the front desk asked. “We really wouldn’t have any place to store them until then.”

The library doesn’t want books? It’s not like these were outdated software manuals. Tom freaking Clancy!

We ended up dropping them off at our local GoodWill. The attendant took them with a slight frown on her face.

Being a relatively well informed writer who’s steeped in ebooks, I knew the digital world has been gaining ground on the world of dead trees, but this experience really drove the point home. I remember buying and trading used books as a kid — and as an adult — for many years. Proprietors were always happy to see me come in with a box of books, because they knew I’d be trading them for more reading material and they’d generate some churn in their inventory. Now? Those stores wouldn’t even take books in trade, because their shelves were already packed to overflowing.

And people wonder why the big publishers are doing everything they can to keep ebook prices as high as possible. Their businesses are built on paper. When anyone can publish a book in electronic form and have it appear on the virtual shelves of the largest bookseller on the planet, right next to Tom freaking Clancy, where is the incentive to spend years playing the agent-to-acquisition-to-publication lottery? Especially when the payout for that particular lottery is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day.

Before long, paper books will be a novelty item, only sought out by collectors, much like vinyl records are today. Vinyl aficionados claim digital is too clean. They like to hear the hisses and pops that records produce. I suspect the same sort of folks probably like ink smudges on their fingers from printed pages as well.

Personally, words carry the same impact for me, whether displayed on a screen or paper. A good story carries me off to another world, regardless of the medium in which it’s presented.

Books are worth much more than mere paper and ink.

What Is The Authors Guild’s Endgame in Its War With Amazon?

In case you’ve been living under a publishing rock for the past few weeks (and, seriously, who hasn’t? They have great wifi!), a number of groups, including The Authors Guild, Authors United, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives, have taken up arms against Amazon. (Yes, that’s a staggering number of “A”s in one sentence. Damn the torpedoes! Full alliteration ahead!)

A lengthy letter has purportedly been sent to the Department of Justice in the wake of last year’s contract dispute between Amazon and publisher Hachette, calling for the DoJ to investigate the online retailer for “derail[ing] the benefits of a revolution in the way books are created and sold in America” among other things. Never mind that Amazon was at the forefront of the revolution in question.

There’s an excellent dissection of these organizations and their motivations in this article on TechDirt. I think it’s pretty clear, despite having “Author” so prominently in all of their names, that these groups truly have only a small number of actual authors among their constituency. Namely, those authors whose interests align with the Big 5 publishers.

The Authors Guild states, on a page devoted to the Hachette dispute (bolding mine):

It is to protect this value of books that we have spoken out against Amazon’s tactics in the Hachette dispute, its monopoly in the book market and its unfair treatment of independent authors. At the same time, we have also challenged the major publishing houses to revisit the parsimonious stance they’ve taken on authors’ e-book royalties. Though the Amazon-Hachette dispute was resolved in November 2014, the issue of fair compensation for authors remains a central concern.

Again, never mind that Amazon attempted on three different occasions to compensate the affected authors during the dispute. Saber rattling is an effective tool for drowning out logic, isn’t it?

Interesting is the attempt to include and welcome Indie authors under the AG’s umbrella of its actions. Indies have been vociferous in their defense of Amazon against the AG et al. They see a window of opportunity with the recent change to the Kindle Unlimited payout method, which has had many Indie authors up in arms. Maybe the AG is looking to boost its membership since they begrudgingly agreed to start admitting Indie authors who can successfully jump through a number of barrier-to-entry hoops.

But that can’t really be their endgame in all this. So, what do they hope to accomplish? Lee Child offered some insight in a comment on The Passive Voice blog recently:

The end-game I would like to see is a gentle nudge to remind them [Amazon] to behave like a fabulous retailer – equal and normal (by all means tough, combative and adversarial) treatment of all book suppliers, without the weird Gazelle Project agenda in the background, which is explicitly designed to bankrupt incumbent players to Amazon’s advantage.

The Gazelle Project he refers to comes from a book published in 2013 by Brad Stone, called The Everything Store. In it, Stone described Amazon’s attitude toward small publishers.

Mr. Bezos said Amazon “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” A joke, perhaps, but such an aggressive one that Amazon’s lawyers demanded the Gazelle Project be renamed the Small Publishers Negotiation Program.

Many would view that as harsh, or ruthless, but those qualities are also often admired in business circles.

Child also says, in another comment from the same blog:

This isn’t about how Amazon treats products, or my book vis-a-vis yours. This is about a specific antitrust obligation that says a dominant retailer who chooses to also become a competitor must henceforth negotiate within an altered framework when dealing with a pre-existing supplier of now-competing goods.

The competition he refers to isn’t Indie authors, but rather Amazon’s own imprints — subsidiaries operating as essentially autonomous publishing companies in their own right — which include Thomas & Mercer, 47 North, and Montlake Romance, among others. These subsidiaries seek out and acquire books in much the same way that other publishers do, although, by all accounts, they offer much better contract terms to their authors than the standard New York fare. Child’s argument, or worry, seems to be that because Amazon is a direct competitor, as well as the largest single retailer, that their dealings with the Big 5 and other, smaller publishers, falls into a different category than it did before 2009 or 10 when Amazon started establishing itself as a publisher.

The concern is a valid one, I think, and something worth looking at, but if that is what the AG et al are really after, why not say that?

Here’s the list of main concerns from the Authors United letter to the DoJ from July 13, 2015:

In recent years, Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society.

    • Amazon, to pressure publishers over the past 11 years, has blocked and curtailed the sale of millions of books by thousands of authors;

    • Amazon, during its dispute with Hachette in 2014, appears to have engaged in content control, selling some books but not others based on the author’s prominence or the book’s political leanings;

    • Amazon has used its monopsony power, and its ability to threaten punishment, to extract an ever greater share of the total price of a book from publishers, which has resulted in less revenue to support midlist authors and certain kinds of books, effectively silencing many voices;

    • Amazon routinely sells many types of books below cost in order to drive less well capitalized retailers — like Borders — out of business. This practice, known as “loss-leading,” also harms readers by reducing the amount of revenue available for publishers to invest in new books.

    • Amazon routinely uses its market power to steer readers toward its own books and away from books published by other companies;

    • Amazon dictates pricing to self-published authors, requiring them to price their books within a specific range or be subjected to a 50 percent cut in royalties.

Six items there, the first five of which are directly related to how publishers and Amazon’s competitors are treated by the company, with authors only obliquely mentioned. The last bullet point, about how self-published authors should price their books sold on Amazon, neglects to mention that the “50 percent cut” still comes out to be about twice the royalty offered in the standard Big 5 contract to their authors. Point five hints at Mr. Child’s objection, but is more of a complaint about unequal advertising and promotion rather than concern about how the company treats with someone who is a competitor as well as a supplier.

The last several paragraphs of the letter drone on about Amazon somehow controlling the flow and content of ideas on the Internet (really?) and ends with:

…no temporary price cut can compensate for the costs to free expression and the health of America’s book industry that have resulted from Amazon’s abuse of its dominance in the world of books. Accordingly, we respectfully request that the Antitrust Division investigate Amazon’s power over the book market, and the ways in which that corporation exercises its power, bearing in mind the very special constitutional sensitivities that have historically been applied to any business that has established effective control of a medium of communication.

Price. Amazon is pricing books, and more specifically ebooks, too low for the tastes of AU/AG/AAR/ABA/and all the other “A”s (read Big 5 Publishers). The biggest book seller on the planet, who got to that position by selling books at lower prices and making more money for publishers and authors in the process than they’d seen for the previous two decades or more, has somehow become the bad guy to several groups who claim to have the best interests of authors at their heart. Come again?


But let’s get back to my original question: what’s the endgame? What outcome do Authors United and the Authors Guild see as a benefit from the DoJ presumably finding Amazon guilty of some, or all, of the nonsense they proposed?

The two antitrust cases I can find that even remotely correlate to this (one of which AU mentions in its letter) are Standard Oil and AT&T. In both cases, the government decreed the break up of the companies in question into several smaller companies. In both instances, however, years later, through mergers and acquisitions, the end results were nearly the same as when the whole process started. Technology disrupted the phone industry and Exxon eventually gobbled up many of the Standard Oil pieces to become one of the largest corporations in the world.

If Amazon was broken up into a number of smaller companies, would that enable and foster more competition? How would that even work for books? Would they propose splitting it up by fiction and nonfiction? Maybe by genre? I know! Let’s have a separate store for each section of the Dewey Decimal System!

Coming back to pricing, which we must because that’s the real cornerstone to the house of cards the AG and AU have constructed, control, and even fixing, is the desired result here. They can’t come out and say that, of course, because price fixing is illegal and is essentially what got the Big 5 in trouble, in cahoots with Apple, a few years ago. Publishers regained some control over pricing in this last round of negotiations with Amazon, resulting in higher prices for many ebooks and subtlety denoted by Amazon on its site by the “price set by the publisher” appellation which now appears on thousands of books. Evidently, whatever control they wrestled away from Amazon wasn’t enough, otherwise I’m sure Hachette would be quietly advising Doug Preston to pipe down and go sit in the corner.

The bottom line is: all these people want you, the reader, to pay more for books. And especially ebooks. Because reasons, and logic, and, and, and because they said so, dammit!

My personal take? Don’t trust any group with the word “Author” in its name. None of them speak for all, or even most, of us.

Snips, Snails, and … Technology?

Hey everyone! I’m over on the Emblazoners blog today, wondering what the heck a snip is…

Books Parallel Music Once Again

If there’s one thing that Amazon’s better at than selling books, it might be stirring up controversy.

For those who don’t know, last year, Amazon unveiled a subscription reading service called Kindle Unlimited (KU). For a monthly fee of $9.99, users can download and read as many books as they want, ten at a time. Once you “return” one of those ten borrowed books/stories, you can download another. For voracious readers, the service is a godsend, saving them tens, or even hundreds, of dollars a month on books, depending on their reading habits.

But, where does the author stand on this? While I do have a book that is available for free, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to have all my books available for free. Call me old fashioned, but I’m rather fond of eating and having a roof over my head.

In order for Amazon, or any other subscription service, to have content available to the consumers, they must compensate the content provider in some way. Initially, Amazon chose to utilize a system where, if a reader downloaded and read a book up to a certain point (10% of the text), they paid the author a portion of a substantial “pot” of money each month. That piece of the pot (which started out around $2 and eventually landed in the area of $1.37) was the same for each qualifying download, regardless of length. A short story received the same slice as an epic doorstop.

Naturally, many authors saw this as an opportunity to put out tons of shorter works, be they single short stories or novels transformed into serials. Less reputable folks uploaded short Wikipedia articles and ridiculous non-fiction “books” to take advantage of the 10% payout trigger. Readers began to complain about having a hard time finding something of quality to read. Longer form authors complained about not being compensated fairly.

Now, Amazon has upset the KU apple cart and updated the payout system to a slice of the pot for each page read. Length of the whole work no longer matters. Authors get paid for engagement. If the doorstopper-writer loses the interest of the reader after 20 pages, they earn the same amount as the short story-writer whose 20-page work is read clear through.

Understandably, short form writers are upset by this change. To earn the same $1.37 they got before from one download read to 10%, they have to accumulate approximately 240 pages read — according to the best guess at the pot slice we have at the moment which is $0.0057, or a little over half a cent per page. Novel writers will get paid more than the previous $1.37 if their book gets read all the way through. Writers will now be rewarded for reader engagement.

To all those up in arms about the change, let’s step back and look at the music industry.

Say you hear a song on the radio and decide to purchase it. You see that the artist has a number of other songs available as well. (Us old folks used to call those “albums”) You certainly wouldn’t expect to purchase all the songs for the same price as the one, right?

“Okay,” you say. “But purchasing is different from renting or streaming.”

You’re right, it is. So, let’s look at how artists get compensated for streamed songs.


Taylor Swift showing her support in the ALA Celebrity Read campaign from 2014. Learn more about the American Library Association at

Spotify is currently paying approximately $0.006 per play (sound familiar?) according Spotify (the artists get much less than that depending on the contract with their label, much like traditionally published authors are paid a small fraction of the money earned from a book). We can argue about whether the number itself is fair or not, but how does this model apply to books?

Think of a page read as a song play. If the listener/reader likes what you have to offer, they’ll listen again (i.e. read more). Then they get to the end of the chapter, or the short story, and think, “Man, this is really good! What happens next?” Just like if you’ve listened to a particular song from an artist a few times and wonder what else they might have available. That performer has made a fan out of you. Our books have the opportunity to do the same thing for readers. If we catch their eyes and engage them with interesting characters and plot, they will come back for more.

Many of you authors out there are probably still not convinced, so let’s look at it from one more angle. Everyone in the equation has to be compensated somehow. Namely, the readers (who get content to consume), the authors (who provide the content to read), and the platform (who creates the method of getting the content to the consumers). Spotify and Amazon have chosen to be compensated directly from the end consumers in the form of a subscription fee and they, in turn, compensate the artists/authors for product consumed.

Another company, YouTube, has taken a different approach. They provide all their content for free, but compensate themselves and the artists through advertising. Imagine if Amazon went this route. Would you want your book to be interrupted every 20 pages by an ad? As a reader, I know I wouldn’t put up with that for very long, even if it was free for me. Take a look at this brilliant info graphic, at the bottom of this article from the Guardian, to see how many more views/listens a song has to have on YouTube for an equal level of payout from the streaming services. It’s quite eye-opening.

What does this all mean? I think subscription services are here to stay. Spotify and Netflix are popular with consumers. The battleground is content and how much to pay those content providers. Scribd’s model for books, while attractive to authors and publishers, is clearly flawed as we’ve seen with them eliminating much of their most-read content this past week. We are only guessing at Amazon’s payout at this point in time. We won’t know what the actual number is until mid-August and the number will undoubtedly fluctuate over the next several months and settle at a point that Amazon is comfortable with. Whether authors will be comfortable with it remains to be seen, but books are only locked into the program for 90 days. If you aren’t happy with what you are seeing, drop out and try other avenues.

I have one series in KU and one not. I’m looking forward to see the dynamics of how all this plays out through the rest of the year. In the meantime, I need to get busy writing. This next book isn’t going to finish itself!

Please let me know your thoughts on KU, Spotify, how much authors and musicians deserve to be paid, or anything else that comes to mind in the comments.

Technology: Ally or Anchor?

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

I stumbled upon an airing of Starman this weekend on one of the movie channels and sat down to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. I was shocked to realize this movie came out in 1984, during the middle of my sophomore year in college. It was an instant favorite and had many lines my friends and I repeated to each other for months afterward. Jeff Bridges was amazing and I had a serious crush on Karen Allen. (Kids, think Emma Stone, but not as prolific)

As I watched, with my bowl of microwave popcorn, I enjoyed the reminiscence, but was also struck by some things that were missing. Chief among these were cell phones and the Internet. These items are so ubiquitous today that it’s shocking to think of a time when they weren’t part of our everyday lives.

1984. That’s just over 30 years ago. The first cell phones (analog) were introduced in the US in 1983 and calling them “mobile” was a stretch of the word. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the devices really became practical for the average consumer. The Internet didn’t become something used by anyone other than scientists and other academicians until the late eighties and early nineties. Boundless information has only been available to us at the touch of a few keystrokes, or the swipe of a screen, for a little over 20 years.

My two daughters, born in 1990 and 1995, have never known a world without cell phones and the Internet, just as my generation never knew a world without television. And my parents never knew a world without radio. What revolutionary piece of technology is in its infancy today that my grandchildren will grow up never knowing a world without?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember (or conceive for those my daughters’ age) a time when communication and information weren’t instantly available to us. My childhood would have been vastly different had I grown up today, as opposed to 30 years ago. The technology has become an integral part of our lives.

A few weeks ago, a storm blew through and knocked out power in my neighborhood for several hours.

I had no idea what to do with myself.

Eventually, I decided to be somewhat productive and use the time to make a trip to the store I’d been putting off (I’m certain grocery shopping exists as a form of torture in one of the mid-to-lower levels of Hell). I grabbed my shopping list and hopped in the car, soon after looking for a parking place in the asphalt behemoth outside my nearby Wally-world. After finding a spot, I strode to the store entrance, only to find a handful of people milling about with bewildered looks on their faces. I walked past them and almost ran into the automatic door that refused to open at my approach. It was only then I noticed the hastily written sign taped to the door: “Closed. No power.”

The bastion of all things retail had been shuttered by a lack of electricity.

The simple act of buying and selling could not be performed without computers and the Internet.

And, more importantly, I couldn’t restock my cupboard with cheese puffs.

This got me to thinking, after I got my breathing under control — no cheese puffs! — what would people do if the whole grid suddenly went down with no hope for speedy recovery? How would my daughters cope without texting, Instagram, and Snapchat?

512181main_rbsp-orig_fullTechnology helps us in countless ways, makes our lives easier and richer, but we don’t often consider just how fragile the whole system is. Approximately 1,100 satellites orbit the Earth, governing everything from basic GPS to nearly all our communications, including television, cell phones, and the Internet. The basic structure of the power grid in the US uses elements that were first developed in the fifties and sixties and haven’t been significantly updated since that time. A catastrophic event, either in space, such as a giant solar flare, or widespread weather disaster, could render huge sections of the country without power or communications for days or even weeks, depending on the severity of the catalyst. Would we be able to manage life without these things we deem essential nowadays like our phones and computers? What about light and heat?

Of course, part of my preoccupation with these ideas is a kernel for a new story I’m working on, but I’m curious to hear what you think. Could you survive without your electronic devices for an extended period of time? What would you do? How would you live? Would you enjoy living “off the grid” or would it drive you crazy?

Give me your answers in the comment section below, and I’ll choose one to receive a paper copy of either A Measure of Disorder or Knot in Time (your choice) and you’ll also receive an e-copy of my new book (tentatively titled The Devil You Know) when it comes out later this year.