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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To Each {Writer} Their Own

Writers That Cook.fwThere’s a very good reason why many a writer has–at one point or another–chosen to shrug on the mantle of “recluse” and then acted accordingly. Whether it was Hemingway closeting himself in an attic with a dozen cats and a few cases of booze, or Thoreau living off the grid, sleeping in fields, wandering and mulling lines aloud to himself, or the prose-wielders that merely shielded themselves behind pen names and wrote under the seemingly innocuous employ of “housewife”… writers know that they are susceptible to distraction. And–in this–I am no exception.

Being a recluse would indeed be a relatively easy solution to today’s distractions, but it has several unromantic drawbacks. One could disappear and refuse to answer emails, phone calls, or do anything else other than write, pretending the outside world does not exist… however, one then runs the risk of isolating/ignoring family and loved ones, possibly resulting in not being present for important occasions or–Heaven forbid–a tragedy. Hemingway–to name but one example–could probably have wallpapered the walls of his attic with several sets of divorce papers.

Also, there is the lack of accountability; left to one’s own devices, one could conceivably fritter away the time on non-writing endeavors. Against such arguments a writer must weigh the merit of a distraction-less environment to complete a book (which is by no means a guarantee). For me, the responsibilities of Family, Home and Garden are far more weighty than gaining a small amount of notoriety for myself, or even procuring more of the slim amount of the eBook market that my husband and I already possess (approx. $250 a month in repeating royalties).

All compare and contrast of writers in isolation aside, less-extreme measures do exist; several of my fellow authors embark on writing ‘trips’ once or twice a year, during which they blog almost constantly and–more often than not–return refreshed, with a fair amount of real work accomplished, as well as an impressive slew of photographs. Not everyone can afford such inspirational trysts, however.

My husband and I frequent a nearby Panera restaurant, once a month or so when our oldest daughter  can get away to babysit for a few hours. In an empty corner, we sip hot coffee and munch pastries, sharing a set of earbuds and listening to my recording of the latest book-in-progress (we use Audacity to record). Doing so allow us to edit, prune and graft more quickly and with less distraction than simply reading a word file out loud. In lieu of taking our attention away, the people in the restaurant around us merely galvanize us to work harder; they might be fans, after all… or future types thereof. Our presence acts as a curiosity in of itself; a few discreet inquiries by members of the nearby knitting club moves the needle of hourly web stats a bit further to the right.

In my daily writing grind, however, I cannot boast of rising early in the morning in order to write. Indeed, we do often awaken in the dawn-lit hours, but at that time of day it is difficult for me to form spoken sentences, let alone written ones that would successfully pass the hawk-like gaze of our editor.

The house must be routed from bed, fed and sent on their way, whether for schooling or to work. My ample vegetable garden requires a morning watering schedule and weeding that eats a good hour up. Then comes laundry, washed carefully and hung outside to dry in keeping with our smaller-carbon-footprint goals (which saves us $50 a month in electricity)  and then comes vacuuming, dusting and mopping. I have found that I rather like having a clean home, for not only ourselves but the odd impromptu guest, which seem to appear in tandem with the tomatoes ripening.

Finally, I come to the writing hours. Each day I get 3-4 hours of uninterrupted writing moments. It is then that I delve into the carefully-woven realms, spiced with humanity and action, tears and laughter, work and play all wound about  a column of reality… but not quite touching it. It is absorbing work, and if I did not glance at the clock every so often, my family would arrive back home to find me still under the pergola typing away, with the cleaning not completed, the laundry half-done, the garden wilting and dinner not even begun.

It is with reluctance that I stop writing to work with my hands, but it is essential to the books that I do. My main characters are nearly always common, working folks that are frankly familiar with rain, dirt, sweat, discomfort and disappointment. None know what it is like to be idle, and likewise none are arrogant. If writing what you know is essential to good fiction, then I could not know, unless I worked alongside such imagined companions with my own two hands.

Call my other work distraction, call it experience… call it what you will. I remain yet unashamed of not being able to devote all my time to writing. The books my husband and I write are few and far between; indeed, it takes us a year or more to produce one, but each title is sprinkled with reality, real experiences and poignant, tangible details that most folks–regardless of age, culture or creed–can relate to.

They are written with care and envelope within their twists and turns many a weekend discussion on the merits of one plot point or another, before both writers arise from the booth to return to the role of Parents, Husband and Wife.

To each his own. What works for you, so do… and let neither the scorn nor scoffs of another deter you.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is an author and co-author of fiction 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

A Surreal Evening at the ‘Swedish’ Big Box Store…

A few nights ago, upon embarking on our quarterly trip to the local Swedish-themed big-box store–to purchase cheap napkins and European-designed coffee mugs (made in China)–we stopped at the cafeteria as we normally do to purchase some inexpensive-yet-mildly-tasty meatballs, unaware that that night the store was playing host to a “Swedish Crayfish Party”… featuring aOur Surreal Dinnern all-you-can-eat crayfish buffet bonanza.


We made our way to the line between tables full of crayfish munched, crunched and slurped upon by a throng of folks. Tweets must have abounded ’round the Asian community as they made up 95% of the diners present. Having never even seen crayfish before, our kids stared wide-eyed at the ruby-red creatures; their limp claws hung over the sides of galvanized serving buckets in the center of each table. We watched, fascinated, as kids the same age as ours happily twisted and tore at the creatures, expertly drawing out the tender tail meat. Piles of broken red shells sat on each table looking like so many spent cartridges littering the ground–around a machine gun nest–after a 3-day battle.

We meandered our way through the line out of sheer morbid curiosity. The frenzied employees behind the counter shoveled cooked crayfish onto paper plates (they’d run out of the ceramic kind) doling them out to waiting hands as fast as humanly possible, arguing over who’s turn it was to go out and refresh the buffet troughs. We picked up a plate of crayfish to let the kids try and managed to wrangle some real plates for the other food items present. Just getting to the buffet tables took some creative jostling, for competition among the serving plates proved fierce.

Apart from the ubiquitous “Swedish” meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, odd, new items met our gaze, ones not normally present in the Swedish-themed cafe: a yellow soup with baby octopus floating in it, whole slightly-gray shrimp in the fetal position, still steadfastly in their peels, cooked fish-heads, whole red potatoes coated in bits of greenery, a sort of salmon seviche (that gave off a powerful odor), plates of cold ham, plates of crackers–of all make and grain–and above all, a giant bowl of cheese cubes. The moment food was replaced in the serving dishes, a feeding frenzy of sorts occurred whereupon tables emptied and folks came running back for more. The shrimp and octopus soup appeared the most popular items–apart from the crayfish–but  most left the cracker and cheese plates untouched. Finding the cheese cubes muenster of good quality, we gladly partook.

After finding an empty table we sat amid a cacophony of slurps, cracking, gurgles, crunches and smacks. The image of one entire table of people with red legs protruding from their mouths, sucking in unison will forever be burned into my memory. The crayfish intrigued us, and taking a cue from our enthusiastic fellow diners, we attempted to twist one open. It exploded, sending mustard-yellow matter of unknown origin over the table. As we ate I noted the large canvas pictures on the adjacent cafeteria wall; the images depicted a peaceful Swedish village populated by accordion-playing folks in lederhosen, standing in fine contrast to the strangeness present in the dining room.

We did not find the cold crayfish pleasing to eat, but slathered in lingonberry sauce (or as Daddy calls it ‘dingleberry’ sauce) they weren’t so bad. After our rather surreal dinner we strolled the marked aisles of the warehouse-like store, trying to work off the ribald mixture of food in our stomachs. We grinned widely while encouraging each other not to vomit, yet eyeballing which vase might accommodate such an action, if necessary. We found ample distraction in listening to Daddy’s critique of the drinking vessel handle designs, debating whether or not one could indeed lift a full cup of coffee with one finger as well as listening to his remarks on the fluff-challenged pillows proffered by the bedroom section.

Finally free of the maze, we left the store and headed home–still reeking of crayfish–wondering when that little voice in the very back would say: “Mommy… I don’t feel good…”

 
slender floral divider
L. R. Styles is an author of Belator Books