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.

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

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L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books