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.