Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bookstores vs the Digital Bazaar

So recent rumblings on the rigors of writing - or some other alliterative way of saying people talking about Highly Important Matters Pertaining to the Publication Process - have had this author in training pondering the age old debate:  print versus ebook?  Perhaps age old isn't the proper descriptive for something that's only been around less than five years total, but let's not quibble over semantics.

Lately there's been a bit of a hullabaloo about upstart authors making millions by forgoing the traditional publication route.  Instead they're just releasing Kindle editions of their manuscripts themselves for a much lower price point than major publishing houses offer ebooks for.  They're able to do this and turn a profit by cutting out the middle man.  That is, the dozens of employees at the major publishing houses who are active participants in getting your book from emailed manuscript to glossy covered book in bookstores.  Let's face it.  Paper is really not that expensive.  Nor is the art of printing on paper.  The reason books are so expensive is the same reason publishers aren't offering digital versions of those books for vastly reduced prices when common sense would dictate that releasing something electronically would require virtually no capital at all. 

That is to say, when you buy a book or an ebook from a major publisher, the price isn't just meant to reflect appropriate compensation for the author's labors plus the price of printing/packaging.  No, there's all kinds of overhead built into that price point.  You're also paying towards the salaries of all the editors who worked on that book.  The artists whose work was used on the covers.  You're paying for distribution fees, and marketing, and proofreaders and ARC copies and galley copies and even the rent for all the buildings the publisher uses for their offices.  These are all parts of the publishing package, and money that needs to be recouped for the publishers before they can turn a profit from a book or ebook.  And the publisher has to recoup their investment and show a profit before the author can, otherwise its simply not cost effective for the publisher to act as the middle man between author and audience.

This then, is why e-publishing independent style can potentially be so lucrative.  Cut out that middle man, the big honking publisher and all his built in fees, and you can charge a VASTLY lower price for it, take home the lion's share of the profits after paying off your much smaller, individual overhead, and get a lot more sales based on the economic principle known as People Like to Buy Cheap Things.

However, you see the catch here, right?

By cutting out the middle man, and all his built in fees, you're also cutting out the benefits of the services the publisher charges those fees for.  So what are the pros and cons of this?  You're cutting out editors, but you can find quality editors on your own, probably have friends who could do just as good a job, right?  You're cutting out cover art, but you can probably commision quality cover art on your own, right?  So far doesn't seem like a problem, no?

But then you have to consider the intangibles.

Just to focus in on one aspect, you're also cutting out all the publishers' contacts.  You're cutting out its distribution model and its ability to get your product in the hands of a LOT of people on a very large scale.  You're cutting out its marketing department and its ability to get a LOT of people hearing about your product and seeing why its something they absolutely should be shelling out their money for.  You're talking about taking this Monolithic Titan with literal decades of experience and thousands of employees dedicated towards constantly finding the most efficient and expansive ways ways of making your work reach the maximum number of people possible - and doing all that work yourself. 

Marketing your book, building interest, spreading word of mouth, these are all things PUBLISHED authors constantly comment on and even complain about taking up such a large part of their day to day work schedule - time they'd much rather spend writing.  And that's with Mammoth Marketing Departments and distribution managers all doing a lot of the legwork for them.  And that's all a part of the industry that's never going to change, whether people are buying their books on paper or e-readers.  It's the nature of commerce and an industry built on consumers' disposable income.  You have written a book.  And it might be a great book, its probably an amazing book, I'll lay down Vegas odds that its actually THE BEST BOOK EVAR!!!!  But its still just one book.  In a sea of millions.  And to the average consumer who's got a limited amount of disposable income and a VAST array of choices on what to spend that income on, enticing that little fishy to come chow down on your baited hook instead of all the others is easier said than done.

For a time, as in RIGHT NOW, while the publishing industry is in the midst of major change and people are trying to figure out how best to colonize this new frontier, the entrepreneurial sort has a major opportunity in going it themselves.  Being able to offer the same quality product for anywhere from five to ten bucks less than the competition is an INSANE incentive when it comes to enticing little fishy consumers to try your product over others.  But what happens when enough people see how lucrative that is and decide that's the way to go?  And suddenly you have hundreds of like minded authors releasing their works themselves for a paltry 1.99?  And once again, the little fishy consumer is faced with a sea of baited hooks and no way to differentiate, and more, the fishy consumer has decided it finds that 1.99 price point far more reasonable than anything else, and he's not going to be suckered in to paying more than that ever again.  Well, suddenly, some bigshot calling himself a 'publisher' telling you for a share of your profits, he can package your stories in a way that'll reach more people and appeal to a wider audience and set you apart from all the other authors shooting their works into the BIG BIG VOID that is the internet and hoping for the best - well suddenly, that publisher guy is going to look VERY appealing.  However, giving that publisher a percentage of 1.99 ebook price point vs an 8.99 ebook price point....not quite as appealing.

Plus, while popular opinion is saying that bookstores may be going the way of the dinosaur and the dodo, that by no means we in any way want to contribute to that Extinction Event.  Amazon's algorithm based search functions and hand-picked 'If you like this, you might also like THIS' links can't yet replace the push your book can get from sitting alphabetically on the shelf next to the Big Bestseller a person went in to buy when your bright shiny cover happened to catch his or her eye.

Hey, that rhymes.


In essence, what I'm saying is this:  I don't think a lot of people complaining about the Big Bad Publisher and the Outrageous Prices of Ebooks and talking about STICKING IT TO THE MAN are quite understanding what stick it to the man means.  Or how certain precedents can be dangerous in the long run.

HOWEVER.  Note the capitals.  That means I'm emphasizing a big BUT here, for those of you playing along at home.

HOWEVER.  This is not to say that the independent route doesn't serve its own purpose.  This is something that I've pondered a lot with indie writer friends.  This is not to speak in absolutes, PERIOD.  This is only to say that you can't just be a writer, you also have to be a business person, and you have to look at the big picture.

We writers, as a People, are an incredibly warped lot.  We all, every last one of us, have Issues.  Lots and lots of them.  That means that occasionally, we write VERY VERY WEIRD THINGS.  The kind of things that while they may appeal to us to write them, will never appeal to more than the small group of readers out there who are similarly warped in very specific ways.  Likewise, we writers, as a People, tend to be very very FULL OF OURSELVES.  Wait, what do you mean, no?  That's just me?  Hmm.  Regardless, there are those stories that are simply too precious to us, too personal, too closely intertwined with our core beliefs, values, ideas, to ever respond well to a major publisher's attempts to tailor or even neuter them to make them 'more marketable'.  There are those stories where the very suggestion of such a thing is enough to make us reach for our hand carved shivs and shank a bitch. 

Now these books then, are ones that are never going to benefit from a publisher's intangibles.  All the marketing in the world isn't going to get your 'The Greek Gods Were Actually Genetically Modified By Martians To Star in The Extraterrestial Reality Television Show: As The Earth Turns' historical romance trilogy to move in bestseller numbers.  The book that describes the (mostly) true story of your passionate high school romance with your One True Love is never going to benefit from a well-meaning but market-obsessed editor suggesting that maybe adding a vampire and making it a love triangle would move a few more copies.  But that doesn't mean they're not good, quality works.  And that doesn't mean that if you publish them yourself on the internet for a much lower price point and virtually no overhead, you can't find enough readers for them that you can still turn a profit.

So my question then is....why not do both?  Why must it be one or the other?  Why can't you sell your Epic HarpiesAretheNewVampires Trilogy to the masses via a major publisher, while going the independent route with the novel idea your agent told you was too niche to get publishers to take a chance on, or too 'last year'?

There is a certain DANGER WILL ROBINSON DANGER risk in the latter, of course.  There's the chance of seeing the internet flooded with authors' trunk novels and books that simply couldn't make the cut at publishing houses due to quality concerns.  And a plethora of crap can sour the consumer and hide the bright shiny bauble that is your independent novel.  But it can also make your Bright Shiny Bauble novel stand out all the more.

So my question then is, who out there has novels or stories worth telling that they know are quality enough to publish, but just not something a major publishing house would be interested in at the moment?  And do you think you could find ways to release them yourself and market them in such a way to at least turn some profit, while at the same time still going the conventional publication route on your more mass market appropriate stories?

And how would you differentiate between the two?

PS - A certain author named Katey should not feel the need to answer this question.  It's all her fault in the first place, after all.

PPS - These thoughts were also a major inspiration for the Great Grassroots Novel Experiment.  I'm interested in seeing what kind of numbers my own humble internet marketing can produce in regards to readership of a free ebook - and if that can be translated into future ebook sales with a dollar or two dollar price point for any other novels I have in me that turn out not to be suited for conventional publishing.

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