Who’s Afraid of Very Cheap Books?

CheapthrillsA common meme in publishing is that cheap books are destroying the world or literature, and that low prices are undermining the viability of publishing or writers’ ability to make a living.

I’ve long thought this position is nonsense – a narrative which plays on misplaced fears of change and a confusion of price and value, which is also based on flawed assumptions and analog, zero-sum thinking.

And, if anything, the opposite is true.

Why So Cheap?

Self-publishers are fond of 99c pricing for a number of reasons. It’s the lowest price you can set at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo without making your book free, and it has an obvious impulse buy appeal to readers. This price point is particularly popular for the first in a series or a limited-time sale in conjunction with an ad spot, but some have used it more aggressively.

I launched my latest novel Mercenary at 99c (logic here) but plan to raise it to $4.99 this week. Authors like Joanna Penn went further and kept that launch price for several months (reasoning here, stunning results here). And, of course, lots of writers like Amanda Hocking built enormous readerships with perma-cheap pricing.

The obvious downside of such an approach is a financial one. Amazon pays 35% royalties, instead of 70%, at prices below $2.99. Apple pays 70% on 99c books (curious how Amazon gets charged with encouraging a race to the bottom, rather than Apple) but the iBookstore simply doesn’t shift books in the same quantity – and particularly not for self-publishers.

As such, 99c is no magic bullet. The royalty rate disparity creates a very real chance that it can backfire in financial terms, particularly these days when more authors experiment with pricing. However, critics of aggressively cheap pricing don’t tend to center on results for the author, but rather the effect on the market as a whole. Continue reading

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Launching A Book By The Seat Of My Pants

mercenaryI’m launching Mercenary today and you can grab it from Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords for just 99c, and you can add it on Goodreads here.

I recommend grabbing it now because the price will be jumping to $4.99 in a few days. The reasoning behind 99c is below, but first here’s the blurb:

Lee Christmas gets drunk and falls asleep at the throttle of his locomotive, plowing straight into an oncoming train. Blacklisted from the railroad and his marriage in tatters, he flees New Orleans on a steamer bound for the tropics.

In Honduras, he begins a quiet new life. But trouble has a way of finding Christmas. With unrest sweeping the countryside, he’s kidnapped by bandits. Soon, he finds himself taking sides in an all-out civil war–as leader of the rebellion.

MERCENARY is the story of the USA’s most famous soldier of fortune: the hard-drinking drifter who changed the fate of a nation.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords $4.99 $0.99

And if you want to spread the love, here’s a tweet you can use:

The paperback will be out in a month and Apple should go live later today – it was rejected yesterday for breaching Apple’s trademarks. For the first time, I uploaded vendor-specific editions via Draft2Digital so that the Apple version would have direct links to iTunes instead of my site.

But I made the mistake of putting “Apple Edition” on the copyright page – one of those weird things which only Apple doesn’t seem to like. Lesson learned, and not the first lesson I learned with this launch… Continue reading

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The Case Against Author Solutions, Part 1: The Numbers

authorsolutionsPRHThe more you study an operation like Author Solutions, the more it resembles a two-bit internet scam, except on a colossal scale.

Internet scammers work on percentages. They know that only a tiny fraction of people will get hoodwinked so they flood the world’s inboxes with spammy junk.

While reputable self-publishing services can rely on author referrals and word-of-mouth, Author Solutions is forced to take a different approach. According to figures released by Author Solutions itself when it was looking for a buyer in 2012, it spent a whopping $11.9m on customer acquisition in 2011 alone.

This money is spent on:

I could fill ten posts on the various deceptive ways that Author Solutions gets customers, but the idea should be clear enough. The sum of all these efforts is an impressive number of leads: in 2011, Author Solutions managed to capture the phone numbers and email addresses of 475,000 writers.

Some complain that prospective customers of Author Solutions should do more research – caveat emptor and all that. This is a little unfair for three reasons.

  1. Quote from Phillips "All our marketing is permission based... and our website is very clear that we offer a range of imprints so we are not trying to deliberately confuse anyone."

    From an article by Alison Flood which will appear in the summer issue of The Author – the UK Society of Authors quarterly journal. Read it here.

    The deceptive practices outlined above.

  2. Author Solutions keeps launching new brands (20 at last count) with similar prices and practices, but without the internet baggage. This makes a mockery of Author Solutions CEO Andrew Phillips’ recent claim that “we are not trying to deliberately confuse anybody” (pictured right, and more thoroughly debunked here).
  3. Finally, it appears that most prospective customers do actually research the company thoroughly and step away. Out of the 475,000 leads, Author Solutions only converted approximately 5% into customers.

Now you can see why Author Solutions needs to adopt the spamming business model. It knows that if a prospective customer starts googling thoroughly, it is going to lose them – so it must work on a giant scale. And this is probably why they spend so much on Google ads and SEO – it certainly doesn’t want people scrolling through those search results and reading the horrific experiences that customers have had (and the class action the company is facing). Continue reading

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This Is The Kind Of Competition Publishers Want

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

Since the huge shift to online purchasing and e-books, a common meme is that there is some kind of “discoverability” problem in publishing.

The funny thing is readers don’t seem to have any problem finding books they love. Any readers I talk to have a time problem – reading lists a mile long and never enough hours in the day to read all the great books they are discovering.

The real discoverability problem in publishing is that readers are discovering (and enjoying) books that don’t come from the large publishers. What these publishers have is a competition problem not a discoverability problem.

Amazon regularly gets slated for purported anti-competitive actions, but it has done more to create the digital marketplace than any other company. It has also done more to open up that marketplace to vendors of all shapes and sizes than any other company. Small publishers and self-publishers, for the very first time, have a level playing field with large publishers.

In other words, Amazon has fostered huge levels of competition that rarely get spoken about. Because Big Publishing doesn’t want actual competition. It hates actual competition.

What Big Publishing wants is the faux-competition that existed before the digital revolution – when they had a lock on distribution, reviews, chain stores, supermarkets, and airport bookstores. (Seriously, does anyone aside from James Patterson want a return to those days?)

Today a small publisher or self-publisher can publish e-books cheaply and match the distributive reach of the largest publishers just by uploading to a handful of sites. This is what an open market looks like and Big Publishing hates it.

They have reason to. I had a stab last year at estimating how much of the e-book market self-publishers have grabbed in the US, pegging it at around 25%. The much more rigorous Author Earnings reports have confirmed that estimate, showing that self-publishers had captured 30% of the unit sales on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Big Publishing might like to think it’s a special snowflake (to which the law doesn’t apply), but its speech and actions follow a very familiar pattern that is witnessed any time a cosy club is being disrupted. By ushering in the digital revolution, then opening the marketplace up to anyone and creating a level playing field, Amazon has poured cold water on this garter snake breeding ball.

Large publishers have proved adept in one area: getting their message out. Sometimes it feels like they spend more on corporate PR than breaking new authors, and you need a bullshit dictionary to parse their statements.

So when large publishers say that the discoverability puzzle hasn’t been solved online, they are really expressing despair at retailers recommending books not published by them.

And when large publishers say that online retailers haven’t matched the experience of buying in physical stores, they mean that they wish there was some way to relegate all that stuff from small publishers and self-publishers to the warehouse, and have tables piled high with James Patterson and Snooki. Continue reading

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Why Is The Media Ignoring Author Exploitation By Publishers?

prhasiThe Amazon-Hachette dispute has caught the media’s attention. But what about the story the media refuses to cover?

The media is more concerned with one-sided accounts of Amazon’s perceived actions – when no one really knows the exact nature of the dispute.

The media is more concerned with what Amazon might do in the future, than actual author exploitation by the world’s largest trade publisher: Penguin Random House.

Penguin Random House owns the world’s largest vanity press – Author Solutions – which is currently subject to a class action for deceptive business practices, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violation of business statutes in California, New York, and Colorado.

The court papers cover the same ground that I’ve been blogging about for the last three years, that Writer Beware has spent even longer documenting, and others like Emily Suess and Mick Rooney have covered in extensive detail.

If you are new to the Author Solutions story, and how Penguin Random House has aggressively expanded its scammy operations since it bought the company in 2012, this is a good starting point (also this and this). From Emily Suess:

The short list of recurring issues includes: making formerly out-of-print works available for sale without the author’s consent, improperly reporting royalty information, non-payment of royalties, breach of contract, predatory and harassing sales calls, excessive markups on review and advertising services, failure to deliver marketing services as promised, telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars, ignoring customer complaints, shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories, and calling at least one customer a ‘f*cking asshole.’

The CEO of Author Solutions, Andrew Phillips, was given a chance to address all of this by the Alliance of Independent Authors, and he instead chose to use it as an opportunity to dissemble, spin, and shill.

I’m curious as to why the media spends so much time publishing negative stories about Amazon, no matter how ridiculous, but spends zero time covering this story.

Take the New York Times for example, which broke the story on the Amazon-Hachette dispute and has published several follow-up pieces since. You won’t find any mention in its pages of Author Solutions’ exploitative practices. You will, however find plenty of stories showing Author Solutions in a positive light (like hereherehereherehereherehere, and here).

And the trade press is no better. The last big anti-Amazon push in the media was led by Publishers Weekly who whipped up a storm about Amazon’s affiliate arrangement with the LA Times Festival of Books, and completely ignored the real scandal of author exploitation happening at the event – despite my repeated attempts to get them to cover the story, or comment on my piece. Continue reading

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Amazon v Hachette: Don’t Believe The Spin

amazonhachetteThe internet is seething over Amazon’s reported hardball tactics in negotiations with Hachette.

Newspapers and blogs are filled with heated opinion pieces, decrying Amazon’s domination of the book business.

Actual facts are thinner on the ground, however, and if history is any guide, we haven’t heard the full story. Here’s how it started.

In a historical quirk of the trade, publishers and booksellers negotiate co-op deals at the same time as the general agreement to carry titles. (For those who don’t know, co-op is the industry term for preferred in-store placement, such as face-out instead of spine-out, position on end-caps, front tables, window displays, and so on.)

At publishers’ insistence, the same practice has continued in the online and e-book world, namely that negotiations regarding virtual co-op (e.g. high visibility spots on retailer sites) take place at the same time as discussions over general terms and publisher-retailer discounts.

There is a lot at stake in such negotiations – for both parties. Either side can lose millions and millions of dollars depending on what cost is agreed for co-op and what percentage discount off list price is agreed for the retailer. Negotiations can be particularly hard fought, as is often the case with large companies and huge sums of money. And the stakes are much higher since the price-fixing trial.

The Case Against Amazon

A friend of mine is published by Hachette. His latest came out this month so I’ve been aware of this dispute for while. We noticed some strange things happening with his Hachette book pages on Amazon – stuff that only appeared to be affecting his Hachette titles. A quick check confirmed that all Hachette books seemed to be affected, and, indeed, only Hachette books. At this point, Hachette hadn’t started contacting its authors or briefing the media, but it was clear there was some dispute between it and Amazon.

First, Amazon began displaying competing titles in a bar across the top of Hachette’s books’ pages. No doubt this exercise was intended to show the value of Amazon’s real estate. Next it was reported that Amazon had become inexplicably slow at fulfilling orders of Hachette books. Following that, it was claimed that Amazon had removed Hachette books from sale altogether. Continue reading

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NoiseTrade: Build Audience While Boosting Your Mailing List

noisetradeWhat if I told you there was a cool new way to share your work with the world that could help you build audience, boost your mailing list, and make money at the same time?

Welcome to NoiseTrade.

The idea is simple. Authors can upload ebooks (and audiobooks) and NoiseTrade’s community of readers can download them for free – for as long as the author wants. There is a tip-jar, and you can suggest a figure, but it’s not compulsory.

So it’s pay what you want, but with a killer twist. In exchange for the download, the reader provides their email address to the author (in full knowledge they will be contacted in future).

In other words, it’s a smart way to boost your mailing list, with the possibility of making a little money on the side too.

NoiseTrade is quite well established in the indie music scene. Artists like Aimee Mann, Josh Ritter, Sufjan Stevens and The Civil War have all used it to give away bonus material, b-sides, samplers, live recordings, and full albums too. Fans have the option of spreading the word about the free music, and also to leave a tip from between $1 and $100. But tipping isn’t obligatory at all. Fans can choose to donate nothing.

The artists get the fans’ email addresses – you can download a spreadsheet at any time – and 80% of the tips. NoiseTrade doesn’t charge either readers or artists, so the 20% covers their end.

NoiseTrade moved into books a few months ago, and the site is starting to get a little traction. It’s still much smaller than its music site, but I think it has huge potential – one of those rare ideas that benefits everyone involved: the company, the artist, and the fan. Continue reading

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