What They Fail to Understand…

… is that–in a free market–the customer is always right.

batteringram_18054_mdIt is a concept understood by many a small and large business alike across the globe, but–for some reason–when it comes to the book industry, this ‘golden’ rule is seen as brass, to be plucked from the wall, trampled upon and sneered at with startling alacrity.

The book customer, apparently, does not know what they want and cannot be allowed to choose for themselves. They must be told what to read, where and how they can purchase and how much they must pay, otherwise humanity is doomed.

In his rather well-researched blog post–consisting of many a prediction about the 2016 eBook market–Smashwords’ Mark Coker inadvertently joins forces with elitist relics of the traditional publishing world in decrying Amazon–and KDP Select indie writers–as the bane of the book industry:

“Yet despite the harm KDP-S and KU are causing fellow authors and the rest of the industry, indies continue to enroll in KDP-S to receive these privileged benefits,”

The above sentence surprised me, greatly. Smashwords was apparently founded on the premise of giving indies a place to publish and sell their work. Why not simply state the obvious: “Amazon’s KDP Select Program cuts out Smashwords completely, therefore I don’t like it.”

Coker then referenced a famous poem–on a subject that should not be trivialized by commercial comparison–inferring that KDP Select writers are likened to German intellectuals that ignored Hitler’s hideous path to power.

“No,” Coker wrote, “Amazon are not Nazis, but…”

It’s a free country; we can write what we like. Statements like the above quote, however, are why I’ve repeatedly taught my children that “bias” is the most honest word in the English language.

(I may be an indie writer without an editor on staff, but I think it’s “Amazon is not the Nazis…” or, perhaps “Amazonians are not Nazis…”)

I honestly don’t see how offering the consumer choices–in how or when they buy, or for what price–is somehow rendered as ‘fascist’ in appearance to those the free market has left behind. Neflix users are not considered ‘nazis’ but, somehow, Kindle Unlimited users are?

What many in the trad-pub industry fail to understand is that every revolution, political or otherwise, leaves some carnage in its wake. Admittedly, carnage is a terrible word and–like “hate” or “nazi”–it should not be used lightly. I’ll also allow that the rather vague notion of ‘change’ is not always for the better–as Neimoller and millions of others would no doubt attest–but in the case of the eBook revolution, I am biased in its favor.I am biased not only as a consumer of literature but also as an author.

Independent writers are now allowed to choose where and how their work is presented, as well as for how much; these are choices never afforded us before, let alone having our titles given equal billing with trad-pub authors. It is so, very sad that Amazon alone offers indies access to such options.

Who’s fault is that? Considering their collective years of experience in the industry and the amount of money they pour into advertising, I am astounded that big publishing firms haven’t invented a better mousetrap.

Consider this: I am merely an organic gardener who writes novels part time–with little more than a decade of business experience to my name–but even I know that in any free market one must adapt or go extinct. Perhaps trad-pub companies aren’t hiring creative people, aren’t firing incompetent people, are unable to change their ways or all of the above.

If trad-pubs are–as they are very fond of reminding their dwindling customer base–the backbone of the book industry, then they need to awaken from their slumber and procure new, young professionals to give them a swift spinal adjustment. They must build a platform that offers both the indie writer and the reader what no one else has. Only a re-invention of the market will attract attention away from the savings Amazon offers. And, they must do it soon. For, if they tarry any longer maybe Amazon will clone itself to Nile (with Congo to follow) in order to show some semblance of competition in the marketplace.

If Coker’s rather scary sentence regarding KDP Select writers is even partially true, then why would any writer sign up, or stay with it for more than a month? It’s elementary, Watson. The massive amount of Amazon website traffic is an enormous draw for indie writers… and something that Smashwords has yet to imitate, a fact I happen to have direct knowledge of.

When my husband and I first began to sell our indie-published Epic Fantasy series, we utilized the Smashwords platform. We were impressed with the stringent formatting standards (something Amazon could learn from) as well as the variety of proffered platforms on which we could sell our eBooks. Despite these choices, the small number of visitors was alarming; we made $143 dollars in three months, even with a sizable budget for google adwords, facebook ads, coupled with copious social media posts. We ended up in the red that quarter.

The next month, we signed up for KDP and its Select program, which required us to take our books off Smashwords… and we subsequently made $14,980 in royalties during the rest of the year (2014) with no further spending on advertising whatsoever. To this day we still make a cool $300 a month–on average–in spite the eBook “glut” and the various squabbles over Agency pricing. Like other indies we’ve felt the drop in readership in favor of more visual stimuli.

Money not only talks, but it happens to be the loudest voice in the room at the moment. Until there is a viable option to Amazon’s KDP platform, then most Select writers will (insert shocked gasp) likely stay where the customers are.

Put the issue of indie writers aside, the customer still is always right. In fact, the customer appears to dislike–very much–being told that they must give up choices for the greater good of an industry that largely turned a deaf ear towards them for decades  while simultaneously extracting huge fees for access to literature.

Not surprisingly, a mass migration has ensued. Customers turned in droves to Amazon and many indies, giddy with their initial success, began a short-sighted spiral down to the 99-cent book. Some books might be worth only 99 cents, but the majority of hard-working indie authors consider that number as much a slap in the face as charging $23 for an eBook is to trad-pub customers.

All that posts like Coker’s tell me is that the trad-pubs of the world didn’t learn a thing from the eBook revolution, one so recent the smouldering buildings are yet visible. The bandwagon they snootily refused to board marched merrily by them. Now, like a gaggle of disinherited adult children of Old Money–flung out into the real world of the free market–the trad-pubs sit and whine about the loss of their old life. A few of them might make a valiant show for the shareholders, using outdated methods to try to break back into the market, but so far none seem interested in going out and building a rival domicile.

I would like to see trad-pubs stop complaining about Amazon and try to outfox them. Maybe they could streamline and offer readers something other than another price hike. Maybe they could offer indies a free platform to upload their work for evaluation–including throwing out their obsolete elitist system of biased, redundant scrutiny–emphasizing to potential authors quality of service over Amazonian quantity.

Customers do want good literature, but they also want the best deal (especially in an economy that is barely recovering) and in such a market as this they will invariably flock to wherever the best deal is, regardless of past loyalties, nostalgia or the misapplication of the ‘nazi’ label.

The book market landscape will likely change again when the US economy begins to show signs of full recovery. For their own sake, may the trad-pubs be ready–in that moment–to emerge from their tired cocoons to display a wonderful inclusive, innovative platform with which to dazzle indie writers and readers alike.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is a KDP Select author with Belator Books

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The Power of Picture Books

children reading under a treeChildren’s reader books, or “picture books” tend to be somewhat overlooked in the busy Realm of Literature. I was guilty of such oversight myself… until I began to have children. But, even then, I simply read through “readers” like most parents would, patiently enduring the infantile prose until the children moved on to more interesting material.

Several years ago, however, one of my middle children began kindergarten and my husband and I discovered–to our utter consternation–that she strongly disliked reading. Now, she loved stories and hearing them read aloud; she’d follow along with me as I read to her; she’d trace and draw letters on paper just fine and she likewise understood the correlation between the letter’s shape and the sounds each made. The action of sounding out letters out loud, however, made her balk–every time–to the point that she began to resent the action of reading altogether. Her father and I were baffled, to say the least; our two older siblings hadn’t any trouble with phonics reader books at her age.

Our daughter’s teacher was not as concerned. Test results showed that she had no ‘learning disabilities’ whatsoever.

“Every child learns differently,” the teacher told us. “Just spend extra time reading with her, until she gets comfortable with it.” And so I did. We read together in the backyard garden, away from the hearing of others. I watched as she would gulp, swallow and fight her way through the sentences, until I finally had an epiphany. My daughter had no problem understanding the words, nor recognizing them, nor seeing them. Her problem was she didn’t like reading for herself. The rather infantile phonics books that her older siblings had used held absolutely no appeal for her… not on little bit. I spent the next day trying to come up with a solution, looking for phonics games or flash cards, but my searches yielded little results for help with “normal” children who just don’t like to read out loud.

Early the next morning however, I realized that an obvious solution already lay within reach.

“I could write her a story,” I thought, as I poured out my first cup of coffee. The idea seemed almost too easy. Children’s picture books were not something I’d ever considered writing, due to their assumed simplicity. However, as I sipped my coffee that morning, a plot began to form in my mind. I squinted out the kitchen window, catching sight of far-off rolling hills, just visible over the industrial buildings on the outskirts of our city neighborhood. A story might work, I thought, if it focused on a little girl  going on a journey, using as many colorful descriptions as possible, and also if I mentioned  some the things she most liked. If I could capture my daughter’s imagination and tap into that inherent Narcissistic strain–a thing all humans possess–then she might just want to read for herself. If the story could somehow hint that avoiding one’s problems was not the solution, that would be icing on the proverbial cake. My husband liked the idea immediately.

I began crafting a story for Sara that day, using the recommended spelling lists provided by her teacher, as well as consulting numerous online articles by children’s book professionals. Late the next night, I carefully copied out my scribbled story and stapled the pages together. My oldest daughter was charmed by the story; she inked a little drawing on the front of it, one picturing her little sister in her favorite dress and backpack, walking along a road with flowers growing along it.

The next day, as my middle daughter sat down with a phonics book–with that same, pained expression–I sat down with her and held up the stapled papers.

“What’s that, Mommy?” she asked.

“It’s a new book,” I told her. “I’m going to read it to you.” My daughter gave me a wide smile. She snuggled up to me and looked at the words on the ‘cover’.

“That’s my name!” she said, sitting up again; her eyes grew wide. “And, that’s my backpack… and that’s my red dress!”

I smiled.

“I wrote this story, just for you. It’s called Sara and the Land of No Letters.

My little girl gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen, and I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of this book sooner. We settled in to read. When we were finished, I gave her the story and told her we could read it again, if she took care of it. She carried it to her room and put it on the special shelf where she kept her precious paper dolls and jewelry box. The next day we read it again, but this time, she wanted to try to read her story by herself. With some whispered hints from Mommy she managed to finish the whole thing, without a grimace, a swallow and nary a gulp. In school, she drew pictures of the scenes of her book from memory and brought them home. She read her story twice a day for a week and gave the family an unprecedented performance, with hardly a mistake in pronunciation, showing confidence in reading for the first time. Mommy hugged her and gave compliments, blinking back tears of real relief.

The teacher was highly impressed; she listened to my daughter read through her story and gave her high praise. Later, she told me that the story was engineered perfectly–as it encouraged parents to read it with a child first; she also liked that it included the right blend sounds and ‘everyday’ words children would need in order to “springboard” them on to other books.

“You should publish this.” the teacher told me. “And, you should more of them.” At the time my husband and I were in the middle of writing our Epic Fantasy fiction series, so I put that idea on the shelf and let my daughter keep her story for herself. True to prediction, she branched out to other books with ease, borrowing her older sister’s C. S. Lewis books (sometimes without permission), pouring through The Hobbit and asking for me to find her some more reading material online.

Today, my little girl’s Reading Comprehension scores on annual tests place her three grades ahead of her peers in aptitude and vocabulary. Likewise, her scores in math, science and social studies began climbing the moment she lost her ‘fear’ of letters, and her teachers couldn’t be happier. As I watch her now, sitting in the corner happily reading from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I know that my respect for the ‘simplistic’ picture book has grown exponentially.

Sara and the Land of No Letters was just published this week, and is available on Amazon. My oldest daughter did the colored illustrations for her sister’s book, a thoughtful gesture we appreciate very much. We have two more Sara books planned for publishing: Sara and the Land of No Numbers, and Sara and the Land of No Rules.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

The “Death” of Reading?

50012_library_mdSales of many independently-published eBooks have taken a marked downturn in recent months, one that–to the average indie writer–seems almost as sharp as that of the price of crude oil during the same period.

Authorearnings.com recently posted, in its January 2015 earning report, that “U.S. ebook sales have plateaued — or are even declining, relative to print — declare some widely-cited industry statistics.”

Many an industry expert seems baffled by “the slowdown” in eBook sales and none of my writing contacts seem to really be able to explain why, exactly, nor how to remedy the problem. Format and medium diversification strategies don’t seem to be as effective, nor do social media promotions, paid advertisements, pricey PR campaigns nor the old standby of limited-time Free eBook promotions.

Despite our break-out success last year post launch, compared to last year’s eBook royalties for March, this last month was downright dismal ($250 VS $5700)… and worse, this statistic is also suffered by 90% of the indie writers I have queried on the subject.

Apparently many traditionally-published authors–backed by media departments with wide advertising budgets–are also going through a kind of sales ‘funk’ of sorts. Some of the more well-known authors have turned to desperate measures, such as awkwardly hawking their ‘new’ books on badly-scripted television spots.

Smashwords’s Mark Coker recently blogged about the slowdown of 2014 eBook sales, as well as the slower “growth projections” for 2015:

… most authors experienced a slower growth year – especially when compared against the go-go days of exponential growth from 2008 to 2012. The causes for this slow down include a new equilibrium between print and ebook formats; immortal ebooks published by publishers and indie authors alike that will never go out of print; the continued growth of self-published titles; and myriad low-cost and free non-book alternatives competing for slices of consumers’ time such as social media, Internet video and games.

In the same piece, Coker also predicted that many indie writers would drop out of the self-publishing market in 2015, after finding dwindling sales too steep a precipice to descend.

While my own experiences and observances, regarding the indie eBook glut and increased traditional-publisher price slashing, seem to corroborate Coker’s predictions, it does not allow for a rather ugly market variable: decreased interest in leisure reading.

Recently, I found myself in a library–yes, the building kind–a place I had not visited in nearly two years.

My seventeen-year-old wished to use her new library card and read through C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series, as well as get free materials to brush up for the SAT with. As my daughter bustled around the quiet, bookish smelling aisles grounded in comforting gray carpet and well-used stepping stools, I moved–as if my instinct–over to the “Classics” wall and selected one of my favorite weighty tomes The Count of Monte Cristo, unabridged.

Having procured my book, I settled in one of the many vacant reading chairs by picturesque window and began to read. A few pages along, however, I reflected on how long it had been since I spent a considerable length of time reading for leisure. I began to count the minutes–during my average day–that I really read. Between fellow writer’s blogs posts on eBook advertising strategies, articles on digital publishing industry trends, articles on the stock market and oil futures, and well as various sources for world news, I spend–on average–three to four hours a day just reading. But, hardly any of my daily reading has to do with personal enjoyment, let alone expanding my personal bank of consumed literature.

I am not alone in this modern reading ‘vacuum.’ Writing and editing expert Judy Goldman responded to my query on the slowing market of leisure reading:

I know I would be one who falls into that category. My ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to what I read these days is to respond to it somehow, not just read to absorb and enjoy.

I write about and respond to what I read, I don’t have time or desire to read for enjoyment and that is coming from someone who wouldn’t be caught dead without a book in her hands…

Adults are hardly the majority in the Reading Vacuum. Looking up from The Count of Monte Cristo, I saw (as I did upon my last library visit) quite a number of warm bodies sitting in front of the dozen-or-so library computers. Every computer was occupied. Unlike my last visit, however, the users were all young, ranging between the ages of fourteen and nineteen.

As discreetly as possible, I got up and moved around the stacks by the PC section and utilized a particular quick glance (the kind most mothers nowadays are experts at) at what each young person was so engrossed in.

SAT studying? Negative.

Applying for summer jobs? Nope.

Reading a free eBook at Project Gutenberg? Wrong again.

teens watching streaming videosEach young person was either chatting on social media, watching streaming videos or playing an online game. Each and every one. Those sitting and reading books–digital or paper–were all my age (late 30s) or older, my daughter’s presence notwithstanding.

The Reading Vacuum expanded as I walked around the library. The children’s books section in my last visit had been nearly full of moms reading to their young children. Now, it now boasted just two toddlers  playing with toys–or pulling books off of shelves–while their mothers were (I kid you not) busy swiping the screens of smartphones nearby, oblivious.

Not to sound all ‘Andy Rooney’ here, but libraries used to be the springboard for learning reading and leisure reading in off-school/work hours. Certainly there is room for technological moderation in our lives, but I don’t think pointing at gadgets/devices is helping to really identify the root of the problem.

In 2013, Robert Rosenberger posted an article in Slate magazine, pointing to the distractions present on tablets as the culprit for declining eBook sales. The theory, then, was that eBook sales matched the sale of dedicated eReaders, a device that has rather fallen from gadget grace in recent years.

While eReader stats may be a factor, the problem that I became aware of in the library points to something far more sinister: lack of interest in leisure reading at all.

Next generation of readersLong ago–in a decade far, far away (1991)–Mitchell Stephens, an NYU journalism professor, wrote an article for the LA Times titled The Death of Reading. In said piece Stephens outlined how distractions abounded in the modern home, that libraries and reading nooks were overrun with televisions and Nintendo and that architects had largely scorned bookshelves in favor of “media” centers. He blamed distraction and said the move away from reading sounded the death-knell of thinking civilizations worldwide.

Ironically, but not coincidentally, reading has begun fading from our culture at the very moment that its importance to that culture is finally being established. Its decline, many theorists believe, is as profound as, say, the fall of communism, and some have taken to prophesying that the downturn in reading could result in the modern world’s cultural and political decline.

Stephens went on to cite another work Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman:

We are losing a sort of psychic habit, a logic, a sense of complexity, an ability to spot contradictions and even falsity.

I thought on these things as I sat in the library, with Dumas’ complex and contested work sitting forgotten in my hands, gazing woefully at the young blank faces intermittently lit by the flickering media upon opposite screens.

But, all hope is not lost. A few young people–my resident teenagers have informed me–are still interested in a particularity type of leisure reading, or at least talking about it. Of the many YA book ‘fandom’ sites, chats and boards still in daily use, fully 1/3 of the people posting have actually read the title being discussed… according to my own brood of ‘experts'(whom also haunt said sites.)

“One out of three?” I thought, frowning at the nearly empty Fiction aisles across the quiet, gray room of the library. I glanced again at the PC users and shook my head, wondering if Prof. Stephens was being proven right faster than even he anticipated. Were the next generations doomed to forget how important literature and leisure reading are to civilized society?

At that moment, just such a young person flopped onto the empty chair beside me.

“I found it,” my daughter informed me, holding up a worn copy of one of Forester’s seafaring books. As she thumbed to “Chapter One,” her side pocket buzzed. Drawing out her phone, she glanced at it, shut it off and slipped it back in her pocket. She settled back in her chair and immersed herself in a world of sun-bleached, salty deck planks harboring borderline-scurvy-ridden crewmen unfurling sailcloth and scampering about under the hawk-like gaze of the captain, high up on the quarterdeck.

She was–of course–blissfully unaware that her mother was at that very moment gazing at her dewy-eyed, struggling not to weep aloud in sheer joy at what had just occurred. She was distracted, but not by digital screen nor any pixelated thing, but by a scene composed by a great writer long deceased, powered by nothing more than a fingertip and movements of the eye.

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the foresight of people who had encouraged me to read daily to my young children, from toddler-age onward, and not leave such a weighty responsibility in the hands of under-paid, overworked teachers at school. That effort on my part, which then seemed like a chore (and intellectually stunting to repeatedly read sentences such as “the fat cat on the mat”) paid back enormous dividends in that tiny moment, there in the library. I went back to my own book, feeling a bit better about both the younger generations and the recent slowdown of eBook sales growth.

Is leisure reading truly dying? It may be in a distraction-induced coma, perhaps, but it’s not entirely dead.

Children Reading

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

You Might Be a Good Writer If…

… someoBook Piratene pirates your books.

I’ve spent much of the morning sending out DMCA Take-Down Notices to not one, or two, but three torrent sites this morning. So far, two have responded with partially-heartfelt apologies and expressed an intention of removing the offending links ASAP.

This is not the first time such a thing has occurred to us. Since my husband and I launched our novels on Amazon in late February of 2014, our books have popped up on torrents and sharing sites loquaciously dubbed “The Kingdom Saga;” the latter word rather amused me as we are neither Icelandic–or spoken word artists–but, I digress.

As much as I actively work to remove these illegally-posted copies of our work, a small part of me is slightly flattered by distinction. It took some effort on the part of the pirate to copy the work, format it, post it, type out our names and copy the book’s description from its legitimate Amazon page. As an added bonus, on such sites our novels sit next to the pirated works of wildly-successful authors like Stephen King and John Grisham, imparting to me a sort of surreal sense of accomplishment, however temporary.

Such flattery quickly fades, replaced by the full force of the initial insult. Each time I see a torrent, I see the number of downloads and shake my head at the lost revenue. Rather than inspiring anger, however, such feelings merely fuel my understanding of the DMCA language, and how to apply which sentences to whom.

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

It Pays To Be Swayed

An indie writer is a strange creature, even by the standards of today’s market with the ingrained expectation of ‘multitasking’ members.

Ten years ago, when my husband and I began to devote the majority of our free time to writing novels I did not think I would need to learn marketing, social media, make connections, maintain an online presence or delve into writing genres that I otherwise would have even looked at in a bookstore. But, I have been swayed to think otherwise and–more importantly–to do all of the above.

Marketing on the cheap is a hard sell, but to the average indie writer/publisher it is often the only option until they get more sales with which to pay for better services. It is a huge amount of work, and getting data with which to formulate your marketing strategies takes up even more time and effort. Books sales statistics are hideously expensive but a here and there kind organizations reveal little hints of said information to sort through and glean from. These gems among the rough swayed us to keep looking, gathering and polishing until the beauty of applicable data revealed itself.

To traditional business folk, this sounds all backwards.”They told me to get a business loan”might be found written on the tombstone of many a failed entrepreneur. Perhaps that worked for some businesses, maybe most, but not everyone is in a position–nor harbors the inclination–to shoulder a large amount of debt before their product has been proven profitable.We were swayed to launch our books ourselves, without a loan and without expensive PR services, paying for prepossession editing out of the profits.

A flooded eBook market has its benefits, such as a glut of data. To us, the trends are little more defined as more indie writers enter the market, showing up as trampled digital pathways pointing to what consumers really want. Studying our slowly-garnered free stats, we noticed the alarming dive of literary fiction, the pop-trends of supernatural-type fiction and the rather stagnant line historical fiction wound itself into over the recent years. Epic Fantasy showed promise however, so we were swayed to drop our other novel projects and dust off my husband’s EF series. We sank our time and effort into making those books as good as we were able.

The results surprised us… greatly. After launching in the last week of this February, we’ve made more in royalties int he months since than we thought possible–a little over $14K–utilizing free self-marketing, social media, blog posts and non-obtrusive (no spam) ads.

We’ve been swayed to branch out into other genres as well, to help our brand gain more recognition. Romance Fiction has captured our attention as the rising genre; we’ve released just such a novel for that vast audience in the same month as our 18th wedding anniversary. This winter we’re planning to release the third book in our Epic Fantasy series and have a sci-fi time-travel novel ‘in the works’ for release next year.

In this crowded market, struggling indie writers need to sway themselves to become super business folks: capable of altering their business model in a single season, able to recognize and adapt to the ever-shifting book market, write both relevant and opinion-laden blogs on the industry, search out more free corners of the Web to post unobtrusive ads and, finally, entice (not drive) new customers towards their desired platform profile.

slender floral divider

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

Amazon: an Indie Writer’s perspective

In reading numerous articles, blogs and comments related to or about Amazon over the last four-five years–both pro and con–I found myself discussing the issue this last weekend with my husband and fellow author. In our minds, the various aspects of the Hachette kerfuffle, the anti-trust arguments and rather vitriolic opinions on the subject came to a head.

What is this issue really about, we pondered while sipping our morning cups of coffee. Why are publishing houses, their contractually-obliged authors and adjacent talking heads so upset with this one company?

Simply stated, it boils down to Control or–more accurately–the loss of it, an issue heavily debated and fought over throughout history.

Take the invention of the printing press, for example, a device that took the idea of mass-producing literature—initially the Bible–and put it squarely in the hands of the consumer. It’s presence provoked an instant catharsis among the mainstream idea-producers of the time, who lost no time in decrying the printing press as “evil” and actively sought to repress its influence.

While this may seem ludicrous—even criminal—to readers now, at that time the printing press was merely a thing that suddenly–and irrevocably—shifted control from one party to others. The press changed when and where the Bible could be read, as well as who could get their hands on it… a truly revolutionary notion. Over time, the initial animosity lessened as literacy and learning increased. More books followed and newspapers cropped up. Ideas flowed and were shared, all because of one invention that—at the time—was heralded by those in control as a bane to humanity.

Utilizing a more modern example, the Internet became a sort of modern reincarnation of the printing press—subsequently giving birth to companies like Amazon–by inducing yet another series of control shifts within the free market. Almost overnight, average consumers could buy a varied array of items online and have them shipped to their doorsteps. These items included books, once strictly available through tightly-controlled displays at brick and mortar stores, or temporarily at libraries. At first, the big publishing houses thought online platforms were merely a niche market, but an intriguing one; some willingly struck deals with the fledgling Amazon.

Quite a few commentators online today seem to forget that the oft-vilified tactics that Amazon now employs were then used by publishing houses, most notably (to me) over the issue of indie writers and control.

Just as the future of the eBook market seemed rosiest, the Kindle Direct Publishing platform rolled out… and the entire publishing industry gaped in yawing horror. For the first time, almost anyone could upload a book without the interference of a literary agent and/or publishing house… and sell it directly to consumers, rejoicing in a royalty that–even in the paper book publishing’s heyday—most authors could only dream about.

“Sacrilege!” publishing houses/firms cried.

“Indeed!” the mainstream media assented.

Even worse—in the minds of such conglomerates–these ‘independent’ writers were given algorithmic equal billing with traditionally-published authors on the new platform. Suddenly, consumer spending was the main determining factor as to whether or not a title rose or fell in popularity, which—on Amazon at least–eclipsed the efforts of publishing house PR departments and/or marketing firms.

Another thing that many commentators today seem to have forgotten is that before Amazon, a handful of huge conglomerates dictated not only what was being published but also forced authors to accept a paltry percentage of sales in exchange for the privilege of being published. These houses & firms would cherry-pick what they thought the public should see, and repressed what they didn’t think would sell, or didn’t agree with, etc.

What happened next is a mixture or rumor and conjecture, gathered from the far-flung corner of the internet, via message-board-trolling and discreet inquiries. Apparently, several large publishing houses banded together and outright demanded that Amazon make a clear distinction between indie writers and ‘real’ authors, or create a separate platform for indies altogether. Bezos refused… and as an indie writer, myself, I’m glad of it. Clearly, Amazon’s team could see the sales potential (for them) in allowing a massive number of new writers to flood in, upload their work and sell it. Many indie writers hopped on board, from starry-eyed new writers to folks embittered by rejections from the traditional publishing industry. These optimists created a self-perpetuating production engine of new material to sell, one that continues to this day, a few titles of which have broken out into the realm of Ridiculous Popularity.

After Amazon did not concede to the separation demand, the traditional publishing houses—apparently as one voice–threatened to walk, a threat that included pulling their titles.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Whether by the fleet-footed competence of their internal number-crunchers or the fact that, by that time, Amazon had surpassed them in consumer popularity the publisher’s bluff was called, and the relationship between them and Amazon has been rocky ever since. If all the above really happened then I don’t really blame Bezos for turning such tactics back upon the folks that tried (unsuccessfully) to strong-arm him into agreeing to their demands.

The perceived victory was bittersweet, however. A maelstrom of one-sided opinions flooded the mainstream media (another industry that stood to lose control of content in such a consumer-driven market) with talking heads and contractually-obligated authors disgorging snark and fear into the market, postulating that literature itself was being threatened by a glut of ‘toilet-paper’ writers.

Just for fun I’d to remind the audience that—at the time–scores of book industry experts kept insisting that eBooks were a novelty, that hardback sales would rocket back to life after the recession and nothing would ever, ever dent paperback sales. If true, this was more cause for celebration on their part than slander, but I digress.

Like or dislike Amazon as you will, but what the KDP platform accomplished for the consumer and the independent writer alike is nothing short of revolutionary. That is the main reason many an indie writer feels rather unwilling to join the “here be monsters” refrain when referring to KDP’s owner.

Now, I don’t consider the company in question on equal footing with the Gutenberg Press, nor does it somehow ‘enlighten’ the masses. It’s a business—and a substantial one at that–claiming a smidgen less than two-thirds of the online book market, according to a recent report by the Codex Group. Admittedly, that’s a scary amount of power for one group to hold, but the change of control from one party to another was not unexpected. Judging between the traditional publishing houses/firms and Amazon, the latter appears to listen more to the consumer and evolve itself accordingly, for now at least.

As a consumer, however, I like the current book market, in so much as seeing a wide choice of books available to purchase. I likewise enjoy knowing that–when I buy a self-published book–more of that sale actually goes to the writer. Even better, I like that if I cannot find a book that I would want to read, I can write one myself, upload it, put it into paperback, ePub or audio form and share it at a price that I stipulate. Whether said book sells four copies a month or fifteen-hundred, I’ve won either way.

Most other consumers I’ve queried about Amazon likewise revel in the proffered variety and like knowing that their purchases matter in determining an item’s rank. Even more consumers feel that the prices of eBooks (given their rather marginal production cost) should change to reflect demand; many also argue that eBooks should not be sold too cheaply.

All the feedback that I’ve received so far on the eBook pricing wars subject, however, strongly agrees with my own view, that prices should not be set by the overhead-driven, antiquated whims of the more obsolete sectors of the book market… especially ones intent on dogmatically consulting the golden bones of the past to determine their business model.

All the pros and cons and subsequent rebuttals aside, no one company is ‘untouchable.’ If history be our teacher, we know that conglomerates aplenty have risen and fallen, replaced by others that performed the similar function of catering to the desires and/or needs of the masses.

Considering the rather harsh lessons that traditional publishers have recently endured (i. e. the failure to recognize an evolution in their own industry) should they choose to ignore history they will invariably repeat it, leaving even more of the market share for another to absorb.

L. R. Styles

(Originally posted today on LinkedIn)

What is it about Books, really?

I read a particularly heartfelt essay in early 2011 that explored a writer’s personal book memories, expounding on the many reasons why paper books were important in spite of the modern-day acceptance of their digital counterparts. The essayist listed some of her fonder memories of packing books in a suitcase to read over the summer and climbing a tree with a paperback wedged in her back pocket.

After I finished reading the essay, I noted how the writer’s musings paralleled my own experiences. Nearly everyone I know–who has ever read a good book–remembers when they first read it, where they were sitting (or standing) while they read it and most remember all the characters and (most of) the minute details the good author penned.

While I enjoyed reading the essayist’s delightfully varied book memories, she came just short of really explaining why many folks cling to the paper medium in a sort of desperate nostalgia. I’ve heard the “book smell” argument, the tactile-feel-of-the-page rebuttal, the defense of the cover, the full-page illustrations argument, the ease-of-use pleas and the cases presented for paper books being one of the last “unplugged” items. I have not, however, heard or read about why a physical hold-it-in-your-hand paper book really appeals to humans.

To me, it is because the contents of a paper book defies the physics of its appearance. Without the aid of electricity (and with little to no fanfare) what seems to be a bunch of squiggly lines–on pieces of pressed wood pulp, slapped together with industrial glue—is in actuality an invisible treasure chest, just waiting to let that golden glow out onto the face of the reader upon being opened. A good book is the closest thing to real magic that a logical person can experience. Opening this unassuming recyclable shape sets the imagination loose… no film, soundtrack, digital screen, online platform, remote or batteries needed. It is a self-contained, self-perpetuating parallel universe that can contain knowledge, opinions, poetry… or an entire realm of fictional creatures entirely consumed in their own lives, waiting to begin or continue their respective journeys.

Just the act of reading provokes the most profound memories, which is something I’ve not only witnessed in others but have experienced, myself. My first memory of books was of my father reading The Hobbit out loud–to my brother and I–by the flickering light of a campfire (a thing which just made the trolls and goblins all the scarier.) The Lord of the Rings followed in the summers—and winters–to come, interspersed with the Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess & The Goblin, Robinson Crusoe and many other tales. My parents gave us paper and colored pencils to draw with while we listened at home, or laundry to fold; my mother would knit or sew as the stories filled the air, while the television–in the corner of the room–sat dark and silent.

In middle and high school–during which I discovered how heartily I disliked the company of my fellow youngsters—my parents remedied my abject loneliness with piles of books; Austen and Forester; Peters, Wodehouse and Shute; Stevenson and Defoe; Doyle, Dumas and Durrell… such minds were these! Such stories did they write on this strangely bland medium of paper and ink. I began to look upon these writers first as visionaries, and then friends, teachers and finally, muses. Like the essayist at the beginning of this piece I, too, began carefully selecting books to take with me various places and even scaled (numerous times) a nearby alder to sit among the breeze-blown branches and read.

That is the reason many are so disinclined to stop regarding paper books as “real” books despite the advances of technology, social movements toward anything labeled “green” and the very real threat of younger generations growing up with all-digital libraries. It is not a thing so singular as ‘smell’, or ‘touch’ but it is rather the entire experience of opening printed paper pages—with no flash animation–and yet one is still able to ‘see’ a full realm billow out of the object, the details of which (if the writer knows their stuff) engage all of the senses… and is powered only by the brain.

Books are literally the stuff dreams are made of, only tangible.

Can eBooks ever really capture that unique experience? As an eBook writer and proponent I can only say “I hope so.” EBooks continue to sell globally in the billions of dollars, so I assume at least a few million folks-with-money think they come “close enough.” It is true that most eBooks need assistance in order to make up for the loss of paper smell and physical page-turning, such as swiping animation, music, digital bookmarking, images, re-flowable text and other bells and whistles.

But, hope is not lost, for there be one more asset in the digitized book industry’s arsenal… a transition between the old and the new: the audio-book.

It is a category within publishing that seems to still sell extraordinarily well, and in this I am not surprised. The voice carries a weight to it, soulful inflections that digital text (nor computers) cannot plausibly imitate… yet. Handy to load on one’s music player/phone and listen to during commute/ travel/ waiting-in-line, audio books seem to be the most popular when read by someone with a voice that can spark the imagination… one that re-captures that ethereal, memory-laden notion of “real” books being read aloud.

It is that still-burning desire for paper that led several of our epic fantasy series fans to request that we offer our series in paperback. Once considered a daunting quest–for a small operation like ours–the POD system proffered by CreateSpace made this dream fulfill-able, helped along by the somewhat recent decrease in printing costs. For about $11 retail we were able to put out the first of our Kingdom Isle series in a 304 page paperback last week, doing the formatting with InDesign and Fireworks for the cover art. We are not only pleased with the result as it appears online, but once the first proofs made it to our doorsteps, we experienced that unique sensation of holding the full weight of our work in our hands.

You can see (and buy) our very own out-of-book experience Here.

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L. R. Styles is an author at Belator Books

Amazon VS Hachette, Round 7

prime parry~ August 9th, 2014 ~

Like many a KDP author, my husband and I checked our emails over a Saturday morning cup of coffee. A lengthy email from the Amazon Books Team took center stage among the others and we dove in. Impromptu messages from our global distribution partner are rare, unless something is amiss or some new program has been launched. A “reader” version of this email can be viewed here.

The email began with a well-worded history lesson, harkening back to the birth of the paperback and likening its poor reception to today’s ongoing issue with Hachette. Apparently, the traditional publishing industry has prior offenses in marshaling authors to exclude a particular reading medium which it views as a threat. The paperback–now the bread-and-butter darling of the paper book industry–was once painted with leper-like status and bookstores refused to sell them, saying that it would cheapen literature as a whole. Several independent publishers, however, rejected that idea and printed them anyway–as they were very cheap to produce–and sold them at news-stands and drug stores. A huge demand for the humble paperback ensued and–contrary to the book industry’s dire predictions–literacy rates exploded. Yes, garbage was printed along with the good stuff, but the point Amazon’s email extrapolated from its mini-history-lecture was that the price of the paperbacks was in proportion to its production cost.

My husband and I glanced at each other over our coffee cups. My raised eyebrow was answered by his sage nod. A familiar scenario, indeed. As authors we, naturally, don’t want to see eBooks get so cheap that it doesn’t make business sense to keep writing them. To us, charging less than $2.99 would not just be insulting, it wouldn’t be worth the effort considering the amount of time the average writer spends on the actual writing (6 months-1 year per title) let alone the expensive editing services ($900-$1200 per title) and artwork/formatting services, as well as the subsequent website/marketing.

Our books are on the lower end of the scale simply because we self-market and utilize high-quality software for formatting; if we hired those services out we’d have to charge a little more per book. Though we like the control aspect of setting our own prices, we agree that prices should not be raised or lowered across the board, as if they are all alike. Books, like every other commodity is subject to supply and demand. We also strongly feel that $.99 for a full-length novel is just too low, unless used on a temporary promotional basis… which is another thing consumers seem to like, so it stays.

Whether or not you agree with Hachette’s argument or Amazon’s–or have a foot in both camps–most folks agree that the eBook revolution came about because of one industry’s blatant refusal to evolve. The demand for eBooks is there because consumers want them. End of story. Consumers also don’t want to pay paper prices for digital books. Folks are smart, publishers… they know eBooks are far, far cheaper to produce than paperbacks. Consumer knew this long before Amazon’s Saturday email… and yet Hachette seems to be insistent that consumers pay $9.99-$14.99 for their eBooks.

I admit I let out a rather mocking snort upon reading that bit of information, knowing full well I could walk into any bookstore right now and purchase a tangible, paper book for that same price. Having made and formatted my own eBooks for some time, I know that the cost of self-publishing an eBook–for us–is about $2. For Hachette to charge such ridiculously high prices for eBooks brooks of greed.. and arrogance; even worse, it is the kind of arrogance that appears deliberately ignorant of the lessons other companies were able to learn over the last ten years: 1. eBooks are here to stay, 2. publishers must evolve or go extinct… and 3. the customer is always right.

The entire argument boils down to this: in the past traditional publishers refused to give consumers what they wanted… so, they migrated. Amazon was more than wiling to extend a hand to self-published writers in order to meet demand, and then went a step further in letting said writers control what prices they wanted to set their books at. Consumers responded in droves, and still do… and are likely to continue to flock to the mega-online retailer for some time to come, despite its rather mysterious PR system and cloaked industry data.

Dislike or like Amazon as you will. Agree or disagree with Hachette’s many gripes. From the perspective of actual writers, however, my husband and I love getting 70% royalties from our own work, something I bet a Hachette author would just love to have for themselves, and this despite pressure from their contracts/agents forcing them to voice a feeble opposition.

I admire Amazon Book Team’s endeavor to garner the ire of its vast array of indie writers by pointing out anti-trust-like collusion between companies and encouraging both writers and readers alike write to Hachette’s CEO and voice said feelings. I doubt it will do any good. History shows us that most mega-publishers have an ingrained habit of not listening to consumers until its almost too late.

I am certain many self-published writers view the entire Amazon VS Hachette debate with a ponderous grimace. They give a rueful shake of the head, let out a half-sighed remark on the stubbornness of human nature and then move on to check their latest hourly sales figures… whereupon the smiles return once more.

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L. R. Styles is an author of The Road to the King series, On the Way to America & The Inheritance

A Bridge Across the Yawing Chasm

Many indie writers that have been self-publishing since the early 2000s harbor semi-angry feelings toward most, if not all, aspects of the traditional publishing industry. I am one of them, and the formerly-mentioned feelings are–for the most part–nowhere near unjustified.

The disregard that most titans of book publishing displayed towards the eBook industry–when it was in its infancy–erased much of respect and regard that many writers had for the entire process. Many of our own fellow writers leaped towards Amazon’s Kindle platform when it came online just because of the perceived arrogance on the part of the book publishing conglomerates. The vitriol and blame said companies leveled at eBooks, and the indie writer alike, in the years after merely solidified those injured feelings into a heart-felt grudge.

When we first began our writing journey, more than ten years ago, we pursued all the normal, traditional avenues. We sent out query letters and manuscripts to the acceptable addresses. We had a literary agent for two years. The best royalty rate we were ever offered was just under 10%. We were told to change our content to suit more “progressive” audiences. When our agent’s contracts ran out, we did not renew them and work on our novels ground to a proverbial halt.

Then, when all seemed blackest, the self-publishing and eBook industries took off… and the tide was turned irrevocably in the favor of The Writer and The Reader. Folks trolled writer’s sites–looking for new fiction to try–using PayPal to buy and downloading humble PDF novels by the megabyte from authors they’d never even heard of.

Eager to jump aboard the eBook bandwagon, my husband and I learned all we could about the industry, about cover design trends and how to make our books more sell-able. At first we tried to enlist help from the cast-offs of the flailing traditional publishing industry by contracting professional editors among our online business contacts. We offered an affordable rate as well as free advertising on our website in exchange for proofreading services. Such a thing was almost insulting a few years ago; we were accused of “feeding off the carcass of the industry we’d slain” and quoted ridiculously high prices for freelance editing services.

So, whether by our own rebellious nature or by the scarcity of funds–or, a combination of the two–we skipped that part in the process. Instead, we enlisted beta-reading help from friends and family and kept writing, knowing that the yawing chasm between the self-publisher and traditionalists would not be easily bridged.

In February of this year we launched our novels on Amazon and were subsequently amazed at the popularity of our Epic Fantasy series. Despite a few remarks about the lack of professional editing, the books continued to sell beyond our expectations until the summer doldrums slowed the sales a little. Taking some of the eBook revenue, we once again looked around for freelance editing services. Expecting more elitist snark and jibes we were pleasantly surprised to find that the editing climate at least has evolved to match changing consumer demands and fill in the gaps of quality among indie writers.

Throwing off the perceived mantle of snobbery many professional editors have raised their own flag upon the self-publishing hill, offering reasonable rates in lieu of curt quips and polite attitudes instead of ridicule. After garnering several quotes we selected a highly-recommend freelance editor from among our LinkedIn Contacts and were charmed by amount of attention and scrutiny our manuscript received. Looking more polished and honed than we’d imagined possible, our new eBook was uploaded to KDP on August 1st. We utilized the rather mysterious service Amazon provides to select writers to alert one’s former customers by email if “significant changes” have been made to a book. We sent them a lengthy list of said changes, which were enough to convince the good folks of the Kindle Store to send forth the desired emails.

Not all aspects of traditional publishing are spurned by today’s self-publishing indie writer. Industry standards and quality are important to any serious wielder of the pen and–as we’ve proven–good money is still spent on services designed to preserve said standards. Formatting challenges were met and overcome by utilizing Adobe’s Creative Cloud and copious training videos… and a great deal of late night trial and error.

That being said, it is not likely we’d even consider any other option but self-publishing, now. Not only are we in control of the process, but I highly doubt we’d get a offer better than our current royalty of 70%… let alone a consumer platform to rival the one we currently sell from.

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L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Fair Weather Writing

woman writing under a tree

Almost since the publishing industry’s inception, it seems, book sales have suffered drastically during the summer months.

Fine weather is—rather unfairly—labeled the sole culprit, but it is more its effect on people that is to blame. The golden rays of the sun seem to induce strange actions in humans all over the Northern Hemisphere, causing them to burst into song or give into the sudden inkling to find a field of flowers and run through it–when they think no one is looking—perhaps accompanied by an indiscreet whoop and holler. And… despite a bevvy of trendy commercials–picturing folks sitting by the seaside in a curving chair, swiping their way through a good digital book on their dedicated devices–eBook sales drop just like those of their paper counterparts.

Large online platforms try to remedy this seasonal slump by cutting prices across the board so that the pain can be borne by many shoulders. I cannot really blame companies for slashing prices, though—to me–it brooks of desperation. Surely there is a better way to garner the attention of folks other than promising rock-bottom prices for literature slaved over by its writers, but I have yet to find a better solution to offer. Folks do love a bargain…

The consumer is the big winner in summer, able to cruise the lists of freely falling book fares and stock up on reading material until the winter holiday sales begin. Such is the climate in which the indie writers and self-pubbers of the world finds themselves in summer. Most writers I know remedy this odd state of being by writing feverishly so that they have a brand new book to offer come autumn.

Fair weather holds little sway over many wielders of the pen. Oh, most writers appreciate nature, and utilize it’s beauty to color our scenes and set some of our stages… but it is often viewed with an outsider’s eye. Through a window–or under the protection of a pergola–writers sit and watch and make notes… smiling at the folks charging over a city soccer field… shaking one’s head at the bold youth diving off a bridge trestle into the murky river waters below… messily writing down every little detail of the witnessed frivolity, much like a painter trying to capture the effect of changing light on leaves.

Why not join in, one may well ask. A fair question… one that could similarly be asked of the cameraman who records the film that wins an award statue. Some are made to stand on the outskirts and see, notating or filming as they go. Indeed, some prefer to step back and observe life as it happens rather than be constantly in its midst. I’m certain many writers and artist have felt as I do, and yet find it hard to explain “why.”

My oldest daughter once asked me how the world looks to me, as writer. I told her–without hesitation:

“It’s like being in the eye of human hurricane, an eerie calm surrounded by varying winds speeds and raw displays of power… and yet there are moments of beauty and unrivaled color.”

Her surprised expression led to a more gentle explanation, but… she did ask. She dove headlong into music, I am happy to say; I don’t feel all that sorry that the pen held little allure for her, or the others. My children all have the care-free ability to play in the golden sun, not feeling that pull to stop, to look and whisper a few lyrical lines to themselves in order to solidify the moment in their mind. They merely run and shout… and wouldn’t even think of reading a book, until later, when the sun has set and their limbs are tired.

I watch them in contented silence, writing away… not minding in the least that my fingers muscles are the only part of me anyone would label “dexterous.”

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L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books