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

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

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.

slender floral divider

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.”

 ~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books