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

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 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.

lion-head_1_md

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Indie Writer & The App

Way back in March of 2012, Forbes columnist Alex Knapp wrote an article called “Are Apps the Future of Book Publishing?” in which he voiced marked enthusiasm for ground-breaking eBook apps. 80,000+ hits on said article notwithstanding, there isn’t much being penned these days about throngs of authors diving into the app fray.

One may very well still ask: “will apps indeed take over the ePub/Mobi mainstays of individual eBook titles?” Many an author on my considerable list of contacts wonders if the effort/expense of making their titles into apps is even worth it.

Take, for instance the most popular apps downloaded on the iPhone, free or otherwise. According to several websites I visited (Googling “most downloaded apps 2013”) a few apps that find free eBook titles for you were among the top ten. There are apps that categorize eBooks, read eBooks and promote eBooks, but I had a hard time locating eBooks-turned-into-apps on any general popularity list. I did, however, notice a blurring of the already-thin line between “enhanced” eBook ePubs and eBook apps, a trend that seems to be gaining strength among younger consumers.

A handful of traditional publishers have branched out into creating apps from books, from re-doing classic novels–with manuscript notes and author interviews–to redefining novels entirely by including story-board like images, interactive pages and audio along with the prose. Authors with Amazon already have a kind-of, sort-of app for their titles via the Kindle-for-PC app, Kindle-for-iPad app and others.

As an indie author, I love the idea of making each book title into an app. Such individualization—to me–really helps focus on the feel and tone I envisioned for each book when writing it. Just being able to include a soundtrack, font and old-school decorative printing flourishes makes my mind whirl with ideas, and such is the case for many of my fellow authors. Feedback excitement for branching out into Novel Apps is almost palpable when I send ’round my queries on the subject, but the tangible evidence for such work being done is sadly lacking.

I’d love to get my ebooks into apps!” a fellow writer wrote back. “Tell us how that goes!”

Another wrote: “I’ve heard of companies that can do it for you—for a truckload of casheroo. Let me know if you find a good DIY app maker…”

Truckload of “casheroo” indeed…

I found several dozen companies that can take my eBooks and make them into apps for me at a hefty price. The cheapest reputable company I found was approx $350 per title (extras like interactivity aside) and only if I did ten titles. That’s approximately $4K out of pocket–which might be nothing to a publishing house–but is actually quite a bit of coin for a couple of virtually-unknown indie writers using free-yet-time-consuming services like WordPress & Twitter to market themselves.

That being said, what are some options for cash-poor, plot-rich indie writers that want to leap into app-making?

To start, you’ll need to take stock of your current sales and download data, free and paid alike. A platform I’ve found lately—that does just that—is App Annie. I was able to link my Amazon Kindle storefront and Kindle novels to this platform and get a one-glance graph by title and month to help me determine the most popular novels and the most active weeks. And…. it’s free. (Huzzah!)

Once you’ve soaked in the myriad data you can determine which titles should be apps and which you can feasibly ignore ’til later.

DIY app-making is an industry still in its infancy. Platforms without strings are limited–to say the least–and sparsely populated. It seems—to the average indie writer—that this void in self-service is some kind of publishing house-led conspiracy… but there are good reasons why app-makers charge so much. The work is time-consuming and exacting. Folks that purchase apps want a svelte, professional product thus—as in DIY eBook producing—scathing “bad” formatting reviews appear like great gobs of guano let loose by the Seasgulls of Snark wheeling overhead, cackling to themselves as writers run for cover.

But, hope is not lost. Meandering around the net–looking for an answer to my app problem–I thought I discovered a “bridge” solution, for lack of better word. ePub Bud touts to be a free DIY platform for writers to create ePubs of their work, and convert it into various forms… not unlike Calibre, but–apparently–a little less complicated. The ePubs created with this system should resemble apps and–when formatted “correctly”–behave like apps on tablets. Albeit bare-bones in appearance, and only offering a slender array of fonts, ePub Bud seems to give indie writers a DIY solution to their “do we make an app” problem . Books are compiled in chapters. Drawbacks include a loss of formatting, which must be redone once each chapter is copied and pasted. I was however, able to keep my pretty little divider image at the end of each chapter, something that touched my old-school-publishing heart. Whether due to my being a novice at app creation, or the rudimentary nature of the platform, I was not really able to make anything that was better than the ePubs I generate with Calibre.

After tinkering around with Epub Bud for two weeks—working on one title—I stumbled across a generous loophole in the Adobe InDesign system.

Like most indie writers/designers I’ve often looked wistfully at Adobe products, dreaming of the day I could afford such gorgeously professional software. Someone brilliant at Adobe figured out that–while they make a lot of coin on the few folks that can afford their software–they were missing out on a greater pool of consumers willing to pay a monthly fee for cloud access to the Creative Suite. Students, high school or college, can get fairly cheap access to a lovely modern invention called Creative Cloud, for a mere $19.99 per month. My oldest daughter is a junior in high school and interested in a career she can tele-commute to. I suggested learning InDesign, bought her a Student pass to CC and an account with Lynda.com and promptly hired her to do an eBook layout . Under the periodically curious eye of her mother, she began converting one of our ePubs into an much-better enhanced ePub within in a matter of days, with embedded fonts, anchored images and the correct formatting for a polished eBook. The main issue was the ePub format itself; the chapters flow together,thus—as in Epub Bud—one is required to make separate documents for each chapter. InDesign further requires separate documents for covers, meta data, TOC (Table of Contents), copyright info and image files. I will say that the Lynda video course on using InDesign to make an ePub (while slightly outdated) still proved detailed and extremely helpful.

Apps however are a different animal. The Folio Producer part of Creative Cloud proved challenging, even for the combo of my savvy teen’s mind and my old-school-eBook mentality. After a week of tinkering and watching a library of you-tube how to videos, we got a workable app, with suave user-interface, a tasteful number of interactive photos and charming publishing embellishments, but the layout issues gave us pause. Before apps can be created on this system, they must be “approved” by the Adobe Folio Producer platform. Now, I agree with this , as no company would want inferior/ non-workable apps floating around with their name attached to it. The only frustrating part is the denial message does not tell which document(s) have the issues, thus requiring a hunt & peck type strategy which eats up a considerable amount of time.

But, Time—that capricious ally–is what I have to spend. When said issues are resolved, I will post the completed project links up for perusal.

~ L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Update: Since posting this article, a flurry of ensuing remarks have shown up in various parts of The Web, more against the idea of eBooks apps than those in the “pro” category. The quips and outright request of readers especially caught my attention, decrying the use or need for eBooks apps. An issue we’d not even considered came up as foremost in the arguments for giving up our app quest: storage space. Limited device storage space makes it a precious commodity, one that app designers would do well to consider. We have and after a series of grave discussion have put our eBook app plans into the “it was a good idea, but…” box on a dusty shelf in the closet.