Clutching at Relevance

As some of you may have noticed, my blog has been rather quiet of late, especially in terms of addressing digital publishing. Lots of reasons for that, like Wasteland 2, Secret Project #1, Secret Project #2, conventions, teaching classes, figuring out how to do two POD books for conventions, and so forth. I’ve been kind of busy, which is good, especially when you’re a freelancer.

Today, however, I read something which really demanded I comment on it.

Before I launch in, let me point out that I almost didn’t. The essay which I will comment about is in the currently rising, Second Wave of arguments floated by Traditional Publishing to justify their existence. We went through the First Wave a couple of years ago, with the attack phase of it laying into indy writers about a year ago. That subsided over this last holiday season when everyone was hoping that Amazon’s Fire would save us all. Now that it hasn’t, the Second Wave starts rolling in.

In an essay titled “Making E-books is Harder Than It Looks,” Andrew Zack (agent, editor and now publisher) holds forth on why ebooks actually cost publishers more to make than any of us believe and, therefore, why ebook prices should not fall. In fact, they likely ought to rise.

To put it kindly, Mr. Zack’s understanding of business is why the money-men in every industry just wish that “creatives” would shut up and let the adults get down to business. He offers no new insight into the problems of production or its real costs. He fully betrays his ignorance with the nuts and bolts of producing an ebook, making it available for sale, and the economics involved therein—at least on an indy scale, though he notes his company’s efforts are classified as “self-publishing” as far as Tradpubbers and Amazon are concerned.

There are dozens of problems with his arguments. I’m sure smarter people than I will point them all out. Three, however, are so demonstrably false that I couldn’t resist.

1) The cost of production software:

Adobe software, used to create e-books, doesn’t come free. In fact, one copy of InDesign is $699. Add in Photoshop and other software required to create and edit e-book files and you’ll easily be spending thousands just on the software.

He’s right. Solution?

Don’t use InDesign or Photoshop.

There are hundreds of graphics programs other than Photoshop which cost a fraction of it—not to mention all the free, trial copies of parts that come with any scanner you buy. In terms of software to actually make ebooks, I do quite well with Michael Zapp’s Legend Maker. There are plenty of other open source and free software packages for making epub files. Publishers like Amazon and Smashwords and B&N all have conversion software that doesn’t cost a cent to use. People like Michael Zapp will even do the conversion for you (he at $15 a book if you don’t want to buy his software), all without you having to shell out for InDesign.

Likewise you can purchase rights to art from an artist and get them to do the graphic design for you, probably faster and cheaper than you could do it yourself. There are tons of talented artists who are willing to do covers for ebooks. Or there are other authors with graphics skills who will barter editing help for graphics work.

2) The price of internet commerce.

Then, of course, you have to host the e-books somewhere so they can be sold. Large publishers may be able to buy servers and maintain them themselves (more tens of thousands of dollars), but many publishers and small publishers in particular use third-party hosts with experience in ecommerce and pay four- or five-figure set-up fees and then a piece of every eBook sold (twenty percent to twenty-five percent is not uncommon) via that host. Now this does not include Amazon or Barnes & Noble or other sellers. This is just for sales directly by the publisher using a third-party hosting service.

Let me state this clearly: only a moron who hates money would pay “four- or five-figure set-up fees and then a piece of every eBook sold…” for hosting and commerce.

First off, the vast majority of ebooks hosted by Amazon, B&N, Apple and other retailers, so never incur a hosting cost. The books are sold of their servers, which they maintain, etc.. Second, if a writer does want to retail his own books he can do what I do, which is to run my own store off my website, for which I pay a whopping $10 a month, unlimited storage and bandwidth, and no set-up fee. Or, third, if you want something in the middle, you go to a place like 3dCart.com (which my friend Brian Pulido uses), which charges a reasonable monthly fee and doesn’t take a piece of the action.

In all seriousness, someone who can’t find a good, inexpensive and effective ecommerce solution just isn’t trying.

3) Who is to blame for the perception that ebooks are too highly priced?

Self-published authors. That’s right, he’s looking at you. You’re the reason we can never have nice things.

In a brilliantly twisted series of passages, Mr. Zack notes that while ebooks do save publishers money, and that ebook sales actually do produce better royalties for authors even through the traditional publishing system; that the savings do not justify the appropriate reduction in prices. Why? Because those lower prices hurt publishers. And who is hurting publishers? All those self-published authors who are pricing their books lower than the prices which the Traditional publishers are charging.

Or, to break it down into a simple argument that I think even Mr. Zack could comprehend: ebooks are priced too low because indy authors, who are in competition with traditional publishers, have priced them that low.

The concept here is, wait for it, price competition. When publishers were the only game in town, they set prices that suited them, which covered their overhead and the like. They were content. Kind of the way Detroit’s carmakers were complacent back before the 1970s gas crisis. Now that there is competition, the traditional publishers are feeling the squeeze. So, instead of cutting fat, moving out of Manhattan, learning to run a leaner machine or actually adding a retailing component to their business; they lobby to keep prices artificially high.

Or did more than lobby. Ask the DOJ how that strategy works.

Mr. Zack should learn that asking for higher prices isn’t going to mean anything when he spends thousands on software where he could have spent tens of dollars; spends thousands of dollars plus a percentage of his business where he can get away with a flat fee; and spends valuable time lamenting the passing of a system that did not serve him in the past over well, nor is positioned to help him at all in the future. Stupid business decisions are stupid business decisions.

Do you want to publish Ulysses or do you want to make a profit? Sure, you can do both, but it requires that you run lean; and learning how to do that may take more creative effort than ever goes into a novel.

Why this new wave of criticism retreading arguments that we’ve all debunked countless times before? Because traditional publishing is now faced with the crisis of finding relevance in the new market. They seem to have forgotten that they, by giving the big chains favorable terms, drove independent bookstores out of existence by and large. Why did they do that? Because it was easier to sell to a handful of buyers for chains than it was to have a sales force that visited every little store on the planet. And then they, fearing the power of the chains, encouraged Amazon, so it could be a counter-balance. Not only did Amazon move product, but it returned very little of it. All sorts of win there.

And by encouraging all us authors to do our own publicity via blogs and Facebook and Goodreads.com and Twitter; they put writers in command of our audience. As I’ve noted before, the digital revolution is less about sales than it is about determining who has access to the community of my readers. Tradpub forced me to build that community, but they don’t want to pay me to access them. That doesn’t fly, and by going independent with some work, I’m able to capitalize that asset for my benefit, not their benefit.

But there are some people out there, Mr. Zack apparently among them, that sees a benefit in promulgating the myths of a dying business model. I can’t imagine why. I certainly can’t imagine his belief in such patent nonsense bodes well for his clients or business. But, then, I guess folks will say all sorts of silly things when they’re clutching for relevance and find it slipping softly from their grasp.

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16 Responses to “Clutching at Relevance”

  1. Scott Ellsworth 21. Jun, 2012 at 2:06 am

    My brother in law runs a small publishing and book service house (geniusbookservices.com), primarily focussed on editing and ebook prep. Prices vary according to the services he has to provide – it is a lot cheaper to package a completely written book than to do several deep edits.

    As an author, you have to make a call – learn the skills and buy the tools, or pay someone who already has the tools and skills. For Dean Wesley Smith, and for you, learning the skills has paid off. For others, hiring someone to do the things you would prefer not to do makes sense. I imagine that an indie working on a first book might want to hire out more than someone on their 70th.

    What I still do not get is how the the author’s guild, and Mr. Zack, can be so completely oblivious to the reality that the services major publishers provide can be bought by indies. Major publishers provide editing, planning, infrastructure, advances, relationships with major booksellers, but at the end of the day, all of those can either be learned by an author, or bought for often reasonable fees.

  2. Mr. Zack is quite unfashionable, sporting last year’s arguments like this.

    The part about needing expensive software is especially funny. (I choose to laugh at this kind of thing.) Not only are there free tools out there, there are free guides for how to use them. Scrivener costs money, a whopping $40, and can handle formatting for .mobi and .epub after it helps you write the book.

    Yeah, no one should do business with this guy. He’s either dishonest and stupid (google isn’t a secret, anyone can find this stuff) or just has no idea what he’s talking about.

  3. Hello Mr. Stackpole.

    I am both a reader of your work and an admirer of your fight against the practices of the paper publishing industry. Another author (Elizabeth Moon) that I read and thought well of has written an impassioned defense of practices of the publishing industry and the price gouging for e-books that they engage in. I had thought to respond but thought perhaps you would be better suited.

    http://e-moon60.livejournal.com/443403.html#comments

  4. All sounds spot on, Mike.

    I’m no expert in publishing, but the moment Zack started ticking off all of his expenses, I knew it was headed south…

    Even your point about lower cost programs aside, the first thought I had when I read ‘InDesign is $700′ was “yeah that would really suck if you have to buy it for EVERY book you produced, but it’s kind of like saying a bakery needs a $2000 oven to bake cookies so they have to be $2000 each to cover the cost.”

    Thanks for the blog, great stuff!

  5. Great stuff. Thanks for the reminder that these issues really are answered and that relevance to a reading audience is key to continued success.

  6. Here’s the thing. In the old model the artist/writer/creator had to give up the rights to the thing they owned just to get it into the channel and get it sold. Selling things back then took a lot of effort, and blah blah.

    Fast forward, and none of that makes any sense. There are big retail outlets who are willing to work with small vendors to sell their products directly for them in just about every genre. They are about moving product, not about owning your rights to produce it.

    This is VERY good news for the artist/writer/creative who made something. It’s very bad for the people who made a living controlling things without doing much actual creating. You see a lot of this from all the middle tier industries, about how they were the gatekeepers, and controlled tastes, did marketing, helped artists, blah blah blah. But it hasn’t been true in years, every one of those middle tiers has been scaling back the services they provide as the pool of resellers for their products shrink without apparently understanding what that meant to the people who actually created the products they appropriate to sell.

    It’s very disturbing. I love how if an individual has a job that’s been supplanted by technology, we are encouraged not to feel outrage when they are fired and ‘allowed to realign themselves to the modern workplace.’ However when an entire industry is rendered obsolescent? We get lawsuits, power grabs, PR campaigns, and for what?

    Should I honestly feel sorry for an industry which demands I give up my rights to the work I’ve created, just so they can sell it for me? Why?

  7. I took a look at the essay you cite. My takeaway from it was that Elizabeth Moon wasn’t arguing that ebook prices need to be high, but that they can’t be as low as some folks think they should be. Sure, she cited some of the faulty reasoning Mr. Zack did, however, her main point was that all books can be free or 99 cents.

    I’ve always maintained that $1 an hour for entertainment is a good value, and I base my pricing on that philosophy. (Of course, I just got my health insurance bill today, with the premium being adjusted upward, so I might have to modify my thinking.) I believe that good writers should be paid for their work, paid fairly. If we can cut out the middleman’s percentage and pass the savings on to readers, I’m all in favor of that.

  8. …or split it with them. :)

  9. $5 is great value for a whole book. Discounting to $1 wouldn’t even double your sales, let alone increasing by 5 times. If every author is required to sell books for $1, there would be less authors and less books to buy.

  10. Just used Legend Maker for the first time on a 9000 word short story. Took me ten minutes to read the tutorial, fifteen minutes to modify the manuscript, five minutes to set up and check the software AND one freaking’ second to make the epub and mobi files. Already had the cover (about forty minutes there). And that was the first time.
    What costs? Seriously.
    Now I can spend my $ on editing.
    Zack’s whining is the death rattle of the old guard. We all better get used to it ’cause there’s probably another year or two before it goes away.
    I can probably write and publish (no ‘self’ there thank you very much) a couple of novels in 2 years. Let the good times roll.
    Ian.

  11. Great essay, Michael.
    Thanks for putting in the time.

  12. Christopher Choi 28. Jun, 2012 at 1:58 am

    I apologize in advance for commenting not specifically on topic but in a related note, I was wondering how you and other authors feel about Kickstarter?

    I’ve personally backed a couple of projects that went towards publishing obscure books from other languages and I feel that Kickstarter could be a way from the peanut gallery to not only act as an advance from the fans but also for those contributors to have direct input on what they think the story should have.

    I know you talked about such input in your “Talion Challenge #2″ post and I feel that if you’re looking for the money necessary to spend time on Talion:Nemesis, a Kickstarter project would be perfect for the aforementioned reasons.

  13. I think Kickstarter is a great tool. I’ve backed a boatload of products and will continue to back more, especially literary efforts.

    Where I balk at backing projects is when a) the person putting the project up hasn’t backed products before and b) I see nothing in the proposal that proves to my satisfaction that the person can deliver the product. There’s a difference, say, in funding the research, development, writing and delivery of a novel, than there is funding the printing of a novel that’s already written. I like the idea of funding dreams, but I want the person requesting the funding to have invested time and work such that the Kickstarter pushes them the last mile, not starts the marathon.

    I have looked at Kickstarter project funding for things like Talion: Nemesis. I need a longer post on why I’ve not done with that project, or any other so far.

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