Time to pre-order “Home”!

Here it is on Amazon, with a publication date of April 2!

I don’t really know why you’d pre-order the book instead of waiting until it’s actually available. Maybe you just want to make sure you get it at the earliest possible moment? That’s fine with me, of course. Pre-order as many copies as you like!

Boxed sets

I’m pondering creating a “boxed set” of the ebooks for The Last P.I. series; it would sell for less than the three books sold individually.The mechanism is fairly straightforward; the only real extra work (and expense) is to create a new cover. There’s lots of this going on nowadays. My publisher says that it would make the series more attractive to Bookbub, which is the main advertising channel for ebooks nowadays. One more way to get the word out.

Let me know what you think!

Free ebooks in return for reviews: Some results

It’s becoming harder to get customer reviews for books nowadays.  That’s probably related to the general downturn in the ebook market.  Here I mentioned a program, run by my epublisher, to give away ebooks in return for honest reviews.  Once you sign up, you start getting a weekly eZine containing a list of books you can download for free.  Download a book, read it, and leave a review.

This model seems to be OK with Amazon, which has cracked down on some aspects of the customer review racket.  It appears to be a requirement to state that you got the book for free in return for an honest review.

Anyway, the approach is working for my novel Where All the Ladders Start.  Most reviews are pretty terse, like this one:

I received this book for an honest review. I loved this book. The plot and characters were amazing.

Well, what more do you need to say?  But wait!  It turns out that Laura Furuta has more to say!  Namely:

When I first started reading this story I was not really sure what to expect. I read the description and was thinking it was just another mystery book. I was wrong! This is a story about a P. I. who works in an America that has been changed. Not only that, also there are forces at work that are determined to see he fails with his latest case. I really enjoyed the story from the first chapter to the very ending page. It has the right combination of mystery and plot to keep you guessing. The characters also really shine as well. The main characters are very well written and even some of the secondary ones you will remember and love. This is one book that I recommend if you love mysteries. It will keep you guessing. I received a copy of this book from eBook Discovery in exchange for an honest review.

Even better!  Now all I need is a few more sales . . .

Here’s the cover, in case you forgot what the thing looks like:

Ladders cover final jpeg

My ePublisher weighs in on the state of ebooks

Every once in a while my ePublisher sends out an email giving their thoughts on the state of ebook publishing.  The latest one is pretty interesting. In a section titled “Reality Sets In” they talk about the glut of ebooks on the market:

With the filters removed, the market is flooding with dreck. It’s hard to get an exact number, but there are about 4 million ebooks on the market right now with nearly 100,000 new titles added each month. Shockingly, most will never sell a single copy. Of the remainder, only about 2% will sell at any meaningful quantity.

Unfortunately for many, self-publishing was sold as the easy path to notoriety and fortune; simply publish your story and readers will send you mountains of cash! But many found out the hard way that the only thing more demanding than publishers are readers and their unbridled reviews. A few discovered success, while the masses simply found a harsh dose of reality; this business is tough.

With time, this realization will thin the ranks as the hopeful become discouraged and opt for other pursuits.

They point out one way that Amazon (and other vendors) could help thin the ranks:

The available inventory of ebooks needs to be purged. At some point, natural selection will reign and the purge will happen.

We’ve already seen the first waves in the subscription services, and, at some point, resellers will also tire of being loaded down with dreck and will perhaps begin charging to maintain books in their system. Imagine the income Amazon could draw down if they charged $1 per month per title? Once one eRetailer does it, the others will follow. Then, all books that never sold a sustainable number of copies will leave the system and things will normalize—for a while.

It never made much sense to me that Amazon (and other vendors) would just store everyone’s ebooks on their servers for free.  Sure, storage is cheap, but it costs Amazon something to store millions of books, from most of which they will never see a penny in revenue.  I would certainly pay a storage fee if it would help get rid of the dreck.

My ePublisher’s advice to writers has been constant for a while: quality matters.  So does productivity.  Series are better than individual titles.  Long, complex narratives don’t do as well as simpler narratives.  Attention spans aren’t what they used to be.  Readers have lots of other ways to entertain themselves–often on the same device on which they’re doing their reading.  So get back to work.

Which I will now try to do.

More on e-book price resistance

Via The Passive Voice, I see the Wall Street Journal reporting on the decline in e-book sales from the major publishers.  This is in the wake of the new contracts they signed with Amazon, which allowed them to continue to set their own prices.

A recent snapshot of e-book prices found that titles in the Kindle bookstore from the five biggest publishers cost, on average, $10.81, while all other 2015 e-books on the site had an average price of $4.95, according to industry researcher Codex Group LLC.

“Since book buyers expect the price of a Kindle e-book to be well under $9, once you get to over $10 consumers start to say, ‘Let me think about that,’” said Codex CEO Peter Hildick-Smith

Hachette cited fewer hot titles and the implementation of its Amazon deal as reasons that e-books fell to 24% of its U.S. net trade sales in the first half of 2015, from 29% a year earlier. Declining e-book sales contributed to a 7.8% drop in revenue in the period.

Then there’s this paragraph:

One high-level publishing executive disputed that the Amazon pacts are contributing to the e-book sales decline. “This is a title-driven business,” he said. “If you have a good book, price isn’t an issue.”

This is, of course, insane.  Price is always an issue.  Maybe you’ll pay more for a new Stephen King book, but there is a price at which you won’t bother to buy it.  And how much money are big publishers leaving on the table by not appropriately pricing their backlist?  The novelist James Salter died recently.  I had heard of him but never read anything by him.  I went on Amazon, and all his ebooks were $9.99 or more; recently one showed up on BookBub for $1.99, so I scooped it up.  As the Passive Guy says:

Since Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world, one which obsessively collects and analyzes data concerning customer behavior, it is much better qualified to set optimum prices to maximize revenues from the sales of ebooks than a bunch of provincial publishers who have never run any sort of store and have virtually nothing in common with a typical reader.

If you give a kid a stick of dynamite, why would you expect anything other than trouble?

Another author complains about the new digital world order

This one is Tony Horwitz, who wrote the wonderful Confederates in the Attic. He recounts his tale of woe in a New York Times op-ed.  He got an offer from a new digital media outfit to write an e-book about the Keystone pipeline.  They in turn contracted with an ebook publisher to produce and market the book.  But the digital media outfit collapsed before he got his advanced, and the ebook publisher collapsed after the book was published.  He now has little prospect of getting sufficient revenue from the ebook to make the months of research and writing worth while (although the publicity of a Times op-ed is going to help).

But now that I’ve escorted two e-partners to the edge of the grave, I’m wary of this brave new world of digital publishers and readers. As recently as the 1980s and ’90s, writers like me could reasonably aspire to a career and a living wage. I was dispatched to costly and difficult places like Iraq, to work for months on a single story. Later, as a full-time book author, I received advances large enough to fund years of research.

How many young writers can realistically dream of that now? Online journalism pays little or nothing and demands round-the-clock feeds. Very few writers or outlets can chase long investigative stories. I also question whether there’s an audience large enough to sustain long-form digital nonfiction, in a world where we’re drowning in bite-size content that’s mostly free and easy to consume. One reason “Boom” sank, I suspect, is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers.

It’s a sad story, but Horwitz’s main problems seem to have been shaky publishers and the lack of demand for long-form journalism, not the ebook model itself (which let him publish his story within days of its completion, while it was still in the news).

And you don’t have to deal with shaky publishers to have a tale of woe.  I sold my novel Senator to an enthusiastic editor at William Morrow, a well-established publisher.  But my editor subsequently left the company amid rumors that Morrow was going to be acquired.  The book was therefore an orphan, assigned to a foster-editor who had no stake in its success. Without any publicity or editorial push, it sank without a trace — until I resurrected it as an ebook.  These things happen.

Parents, don’t let your children become authors.  Teach them Java and C++, and let them write code, not books.

Slate weighs in on Amazon vs. Hachette

This article makes a couple of interesting points.

First, mainstream publishers are screwing authors on e-book royalties:

“Look at Harper’s own numbers,” DeFiore wrote. “$27.99 hardcover generates $5.67 profit to publisher and $4.20 royalty to author. $14.99 agency priced e-book generates $7.87 profit to publisher and $2.62 royalty to author.”

Looks fishy, doesn’t it? And the same basic math holds throughout the industry, including at Hachette.

The 15% royalty on hardcovers has always been justified by the costs of manufacturing, storing, and shipping the physical object.  Those costs disappear with an e-book.  But apparently the publishers are not passing much of that savings to the author.  And Amazon knows this.

By leaving royalty rates where they are, publishers have left their nice digital margins hanging out there for everyone to see. And when Amazon sees someone else’s healthy profits, it’s like a dog smelling a steak. As Jeff Bezos has said, “Your margin is my opportunity.”

The other point the author makes is that reduced profits for publishers means a brain drain as fewer people decide to write books:

If publishers make less money on every book, they are going to pay people less to write and edit them, and talented people will decide to do something else with their time. Consider that it takes at least five years, and usually more, to write a definitive presidential biography. If an advance of $100,000 exceeds the budget that an Amazon-dominated world will allow, then the only author who can write such a biography must be either independently wealthy or subsidized by a full-time job, probably teaching at a university.

Do you buy this argument?  I suppose it could be true for mainstream non-fiction.  It certainly seems untrue for fiction — or, at least, it would be balanced off by an influx of talented writers who are simply bypassing the barriers put up by mainstream publishers. If I earned more from my writing I could quit my day job and write more, but that’s fundamentally a function of success in the marketplace, not advances from a publisher.

Thoughts on Amazon vs. Hachette

Amazon is apparently playing hardball in negotiations with the publishing conglomerate Hachette, and as usual people are outraged.  As usual, I find it hard to understand what the problem is.  Certainly some Hachette authors will be hurt in the short run, but that’s not really Amazon’s concern.  Authors are always buffeted by changes in the marketplace. There is certainly a possibility that Amazon will become something of a monopsony — the only place to which publishers can sell their books.  But the remedy here is legal, not calling Jeff Bezos an extortionist.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times sums things up like this:

No matter what you think of Amazon’s tactics, they surely don’t violate any laws. It is acting the way hardheaded companies usually act — inflicting some pain on the party in a dispute to move it toward resolution. On some level, the book industry has never fit comfortably in the contours of big business. But over the years, as one house after another was bought by conglomerates, as they merged with each other, as they tried to increase profits with the kind of regularity that pleases Wall Street, they began the process of commoditizing books.

Jeff Bezos? He’s only taking that process to its logical extreme.

One other thing: Nocera mentions Walmart and cable companies as examples of big companies that squeeze its suppliers.  But books are not fungible, the way air conditioners and other things you buy at Walmart are; if you want J.K. Rowling’s latest book, you’re not going to accept a substitute.  And there are way more suppliers for books than there are cable providers for your home.  If Amazon makes it hard for you to buy a Hachette book, Barnes & Noble will happily take your order — and, if they have any brains, they’ll give you a special discount.

The only issue here is that Kindle users are more or less tied to Amazon for their e-books.  But if they find that they can’t get a lot of their favorite titles on the Kindle, maybe they’ll buy a different e-reader.  This is no different from Netflix, which has a large but incomplete selection of movies and TV shows to stream.  If their selection doesn’t satisfy you, you have to go to Hulu or some other vendor.  Not having their books available from every conceivable bookseller is not great for authors and their readers, but it’s also not the end of the world.

Why give away an e-book?

The Portal continues to be free on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  The main idea here is to generate customer reviews, because reviews are what stimulate e-book sales.  As my publisher says:

The more reviews, the more sales. In other words, “people are interested in buying what other people are interested in reviewing”. This is the basic definition of Social Engagement.

Reviews are hard to come by, actually.  I don’t know what percentage of readers leave reviews, but it can’t be very high.  Giving the book away for a while increases the pool of readers, which increases your odds of getting reviews.

My publisher is more interested in the number of reviews than how positive the reviews are, but obviously that matters to the author!  It also matters to some potential advertisers, who aren’t interested in promoting books unless they have received a certain number of reviews at a certain quality level (e.g., at least 10 reviews, average higher than 4.0).

Here are the first couple of (five-star) reviews that have come in as a result of this promotion. Both readers have a similar reaction — which is exactly the reaction I was hoping for, actually. This one is titled “A Lot of Heart”:

I thought at first this was going to be another YA gimmicky novel with kids complaining about their lives and using the device of dimension travel just to come up with random quirky things, but this book is much more than that. You really get to know and care about the characters, and things move along quite well and not predictably. The really surprising part is the life lessons learned by the characters – they really leave you with something more than just a fun little read. Glad I read it!

And this one is titled “Very Enjoyable”:

Really enjoyed this book. At first I thought it was going to be kind of silly but it didn’t take long till I could hardly put the book down. I found myself identifying with the curiosities of Larry.

Really hope there is a second in the series coming!

So, thanks to these readers, and everyone else who takes the time to leave a review.

What does Barnes & Noble know about me?

I occasionally look at a liberal-leaning website called Talking Points Memo. It displays ads in the right column of their web page.  One of them is for Barnes & Noble, and it features four books I might be interested in buying from http://www.bn.com.  Today, three of them were thrillers or mysteries by authors II’d never heard of.  The fourth was The Portal, an alternative history novel by Richard Bowker.  Hey, that’s me!

So, how is B&N figuring out what books to display in the ad?  They could be looking at my sales history, but that would tell them I have already bought The Portal from them. (I know that sounds pitiful, but I wanted to goose the novel’s sales rank when it first came out; I promise I won’t do it again.)  Surely that should factor into their algorithm.  Are they tracking which pages I visit on their web site?  But I have never gone anywhere near the other authors whose books they want me to buy.  Is my publisher paying B&N to improve the book’s ad placement generally?  If so, they didn’t bother to tell me.

I find it very mysterious.