Amazon’s “Kindle Singles”: saviour of the genre short fiction scene?

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

Hard to say for sure, really, given that it hasn’t even launched yet, but Amazon’s plans for the “Kindle Singles” service – which in essence appears to be ebooks of the long short-story to novella length – certainly has the potential to put money in the pockets of genre fiction’s clade of short story writers. The shrinking circulations of the Dead-Tree Big Three aren’t looking like a long-term prospect for the short form’s survival, and hell knows that recent experiences right here have demonstrated that making the free-to-read webzine model sustainable is no picnic, either (though I hold hope for better-funded projects such as Lightspeed and Tor.com going the distance, alongside established non-profit outfits like Strange Horizons).

The real (and as yet unanswered) question is whether people would read (and pay for) short stories if they knew where to find them; the search-term browsability of a platform like Amazon certainly offers the potential to put short stories by known names in front of potential readers who might otherwise be ignorant of the form, and there’s plenty of good (albeit as yet entirely theoretical) arguments that short stories are better suited to the when-you-get-a-moment reading habits of the modern reader. I suspect the most important factor will be pricing, with a splash of gatekeepering and/or curating to filter for quality; if a writer hits the right price point and has a bit of luck with word-of-mouth, the potential is there to cut out the magazine middle-men and reach an untapped audience.

My concern (as a fussy reader and a critic) is that the market’s definition of quality will probably differ wildly from my own; the success of Dan Brown is a clear indication that this is inevitable. But if big digital sales of awful literature support an ecosystem that lets the little guys make a living, well, I think I’ll be able to live with it. Plus ça change, non?


Will ebooks vindicate vanity publishing?

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2010

Still plenty of flux in the publishing industry, and I doubt it’s going to settle any time soon. Here’s the latest development: Amazon has raised the percentage of cover price it pays to self-published authors using the Kindle store [via PD_Smith]:

This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.

The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. “Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon,” Mr. Nash says. “If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?

That’s a pretty enticing slice of the profits… at a first glance. Consider, though, that any author with sense will still need to hire an editor, get the script copyedited and proofread, converted to the correct file format and so on. They’ll also need to eat up the publicity and promotional costs themselves as well, except in those rare cases (Stephen King, say) where news of a new book will spread itself with little help… so it’s far from a universal panacea, especially not for a new author.

And as P D Smith remarks:

But if all the big names self-publish e-books via Amazon, publishers will have less money to take a gamble on less well-known authors. Hmm.

Indeed – there’s a good argument to say new authors should be worried by this development in equal measure to being excited about it. Change cuts both ways, and easy fixes are rarely what they seem. The initial financial outlay for self-publishing may be much smaller these days, but that doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to the big leagues any more than vanity publishing ever has. Indeed, now it’s so easy and cheap to step onto the playing field, your competition is that much bigger (at least in numerical terms).

Question is, will that change? If the gatekeeper authority of publishing houses is undermined sufficiently, will new crowd-sourced curatorial systems emerge in response, alongside independent gatekeepers who carve out a reputation for themselves? (I’m sure Amazon would very much like to become that curatorial system, and I expect that’s one of the many reasons they’re cutting deals like the above.)

A lot of the stigma against vanity published works comes from the fact that a great deal of them are self-published because they’re simply not very good (e.g. Mister Riley and his cash prizes for readers). But is the desire for quality literature (a deliberately nebulous concept) something that we’ve been trained up to by the perfectionism and foibles of commissioning editors and publicists over the years, or is there something measurably objective about it? Will ubiquitous self-publishing produce a “race to the bottom” in writing quality?

I certainly don’t see that happening in the music world, which is probably as close to a test-bed of the situation as we’re going to get. As a music reviewer, I certainly see a lot more self-released albums from bands who simply aren’t up to the job than I used to just a year ago… but the playing field has widened enough that amongst the blatantly amateur, there’s a lot of very talented people releasing work that would have been considered too marginal for a record deal a decade ago. I guess I’m still fairly sold on certain aspects of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – not necessarily the hard numbers side of it, but the notion that the age of the hit and the megastar is over, and that the lowering of economic barriers to entry at the niche end of the graph is letting a lot of marginal creators find their audiences, no matter how small that audience might be. Might the same happen with novels, short stories? Perhaps the rapid colonisation of web publishing by genre fiction (itself an inherently niche industry) is a sign that things will move that way for subcultural literature…

… unless you want to be a real pessimist, in which case you might say that genre webzines are just rats leaving the sinking ship and clinging to whatever flotsam they can find. I don’t believe that, obviously – I wouldn’t be running this site otherwise. But what do you think?


Amazon trying to bypass publishers, acquire ebook rights direct from writers and agents

Paul Raven @ 05-03-2010

Here’s an interesting new development in the Amazon ebooks scramble – the online retailer is apparently trying to obtain Kindle publishing rights for some older and otherwise unlicensed titles direct from authors or their agents in the UK [via @DamienWalter]:

UK literary agents and authors have been approached directly to sell e-book rights to Amazon as it builds its Kindle e-book arsenal ahead of the UK launch of the iPad. US e-book publishers including Rosetta Books are also approaching UK agents and authors to buy backlist e-book rights, with Rosetta favouring an exclusive Amazon deal as part of the package.

[…]

A second UK agent said the approaches were being made by Amazon department Kindle Evangelist. “The way they represent themselves is, ‘We are following this big author, he/she is not available in e-book form, why not, can I do anything to expedite that?’ You may say ‘E-book rights have gone to Random House’, in which case they’ll accept that. But if you say ‘No deal has been done’, they might try to be more proactive—engineer a way to encourage the marriage [with the publisher], or even look to acquire the rights themselves.

That should stir up the kerfuffle again, I’m guessing.


Amazon vs. Macmillan: ebook armageddon!

Paul Raven @ 01-02-2010

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a large rock that blocks wi-fi and cellphone signals for the last three days, you’re probably already aware of the Amazon/Macmillan ebook pricing spat that kicked off late last week. We’re hearing a lot about it in the sf-nal blogosphere, what with Tor Books being a Macmillan subsidiary as well as one of the biggest genre fiction publishers around. [image by tvol]

But just to bring you up to speed, here’s a few bits of commentary from the author’s side. First, Cory Doctorow points out that the war between these two businesses will end up harming writers and readers most of all:

If true, Macmillan demanding a $15 pricetag for its ebooks is just plain farcical. Although there are sunk costs in book production, including the considerable cost of talented editors, copy-editors, typesetters, PR people, marketers, and designers, the incremental cost of selling an ebook is zero. And audiences have noticed this. $15 is comparable to the discounted price for a new hardcover in a chain bookstore, and it costs more than zero to sell that book. Demanding parity pricing suggests that paper, logistics, warehousing, printing, returns and inventory control cost nothing. This is untrue on its face, and readers are aware of this fact.

If true, Amazon draping itself in the consumer-rights flag in demanding a fair price is even more farcical. Though Amazon’s physical-goods sales business is the best in the world when it comes to giving buyers a fair shake, this is materially untrue when it comes to electronic book sales, a sector that it dominates. As mentioned above, Amazon’s DRM and license terms on its Kindle (as well as on its Audible audiobooks division, which controls the major share of the world’s audiobook sales) are markedly unfair to readers. Amazon’s ebooks are locked (by contract and by DRM) to the Kindle (this is even true of the “DRM-free” Kindle books, which still have license terms that prohibit moving the books). This is not due to rightsholder-demands, either: as I discovered when I approached Amazon about selling my books without DRM and without a bad license agreement for Kindle and Audible, they will not allow copyright owners to modify their terms, nor to include text in the body of the work releasing readers from those terms.

Next up, a pretty good economic deconstruction of the situation from Charlie Stross:

From the point of view of Jeff Bezos’ bank account, Amazon is the entire supply chain and should take that share of the cake that formerly went to both wholesalers and booksellers. They do this by buying wholesale and selling retail, taking up to a 70% discount from the publishers and selling for whatever they can get. Their stalking horse for this is the Kindle publishing platform; they’re trying to in-source the publisher by asserting contractual terms that mean the publisher isn’t merely selling them books wholesale, but is sublicencing the works to be republished via the Kindle publishing platform. Publishers sublicensing rights is SOP in the industry, but not normally handled this way — and it allows Amazon to grab another chunk of the supply chain if they get away with it, turning the traditional publishers into vestigial editing/marketing appendages.

The agency model Apple proposed — and that publishers like Macmillan enthusiastically endorse — collapses the supply chain in a different direction, so it looks like: author -> publisher -> fixed-price distributor -> reader. In this model Amazon is shoved back into the box labelled ‘fixed-price distributor’ and get to take the retail cut only. Meanwhile: fewer supply chain links mean lower overheads and, ultimately, cheaper books without cutting into the authors or publishers profits.

Amazon are going to fight this one ruthlessly because if the publishers win, it destroys the profitability of their business and pushes prices down.

And here’s Tobias Buckell trying to explain the situation to people who think authors are being greedy by having ebook versions of their books available at high price points (as if they had the choice). It’s a lengthy post that goes into considerable detail about the costs of publishing ebooks, and takes on the perspective of both readers and writers in a down-to-earth way, so do go and read the whole thing.

… price fixing is not the answer to the eBook dilemma. Letting volume grow from the single digit percentages it is, while giving publishers the flexibility to experiment and play is not the end of the world some claim it to be.

So Amazon has the right to pull the list. It’s part of the negotiating game. They did this to Hachette UK earlier this year in the same manner to force Hachette to play the game according to Amazon’s rules, as it set them up when Amazon first started selling Kindle books. Hachette folded, Amazon views this as a way to get publishers to do what they want.

The reason Macmillan is asking for a change in the way things are done, is because Apple has released an new program, and it offers publishers a program more in line with what they think will work: including some flexibility in early release prices. This now means Kindle is not the big kid anymore, as many are assuming Apple will pull a repeat iTunes store.

Whether or not that happens, I don’t know. But Amazon seems to find the nuclear option okay, and after years of working to send them a lot of business, this is a reverse blow. Because of my online presence, over half of all my print and eBooks are sold via them. Just as they have the right to do this, I have the right to be pretty friggin’ pissed that they think this is the way to negotiate, or build good will in any way.

And here’s some high-snark disparagement from John Scalzi, who points out that – regardless of economics, fairness or anything else – Amazon’s poor handling of the whole fracas is a public relations SNAFU of massive proportions that may well end up doing exactly what they didn’t want it to:

Amazon apparently forgot that when it moved against Macmillan, it also moved against Macmillan’s authors. Macmillan may be a faceless, soulless baby-consuming corporate entity with no feelings or emotions, but authors have both of those, and are also twitchy neurotic messes who obsess about their sales, a fact which Amazon should be well aware of because we check our Amazon numbers four hundred times a day, and a one-star Amazon review causes us to crush up six Zoloft and snort them into our nasal cavities, because waiting for the pills to digest would just take too long.

These are the people Amazon pissed off. Which was not a smart thing, because as we all know, the salient feature of writers is that they write. And they did, about this, all weekend long. And not just Macmillan’s authors, but other authors as well, who reasonably feared that their corporate parent might be the next victim of Amazon’s foot-stompery.

[…]

And all of this is why a final, ironic bit of Amazon fail will come to pass:

7. Because Of the Idiotic Events of This Weekend, People Will Just Want an iPad Even More.

Again, Amazon: Well played. Well played indeed.

I’ve no idea how soon this matter will be settled, but the economics behind the situation aren’t going to go away, and ripples from this particular rock-in-the-lake will be washing ashore for some time to come. Personally, I want a fair deal for the authors first and foremost… and as much as I’ve long been an advocate of the free-to-read and freemium business models for publishing, I find myself worrying for the first time as to whether or not there’s enough expendable money in the system to support the literary ecosystem as it exists today. Here’s hoping.


Amazon, ebooks and piracy – tipping points ahoy?

Paul Raven @ 21-01-2010

Sticking with the piracy theme for a moment (yeah, I know, so out of character, right?), here’s an article at TechRadar that features an interview with one George Walkley, head of digital developments for publishers Hachette UK, talking about ways in which the publishing industry has tried to learn from the spectacular blunders and ostrich impressions of the music recording industry – the issue of file format compatibility, for instance. [image by Eirik Newth]

Says Gary Marshall the journalist:

Digital downloads weren’t cheaper than CDs, and for now at least ebooks probably won’t be cheaper than print. That’s partly because most of the costs apply whether you publish a book on paper or on an iPhone, and it’s partly because of tax: “printed matter” books are zero rated for VAT, whereas electronic ones have to charge the full 17.5%.

It’s a weird anomaly, and if we were in the book business we’d be lobbying Alistair Darling like crazy to get electronic books treated the same as printed ones.

The challenge for publishing is to avoid being seen as greedy. In music, the debate quickly became characterised as The Man versus The Kids, where The Man was Bono, his celebrity mates and their filthy rich record companies.

In reality, most musicians are struggling to pay the rent, but that’s not what the average file sharer thinks.

This is very true… as is the article’s revelation that the book-buyer demographic and the music pirate demographic are very very different. But as a side note, I’d point out that almost all musicians (and, I suspect, the vast majority of novelists) have been struggling to pay the rent for decades, and that the exceptions to that norm – the Bonos and McCartneys and Rowlings of the world – have been enthroned on their disproportionate mountains of cash by the same business models that are now collapsing under the pressure of filesharing.

I’d even go so far as to say that the business models in question have gone some distance toward ensuring that the smaller names in music and writing can’t make a reasonable living wage at it; if there’s [x] amount of money sloshing round in the economy that people are willing to spend on entertainment, then the way that money is divided up between the entertainers is controlled by the distribution and publicity systems of the industries that publish them.

The utopian promise of The Long Tail is that the more obscure artists will have a better chance of being discovered by readers or listeners who will enjoy (and hence purchase) their work, while the megastars will wane to a more modest brightness as the monopoly control their publishers had over the formerly-limited channels of publicity and sales frontage is eroded. Whether that utopia arrives or not remains to be seen; personally, I think we’re headed in that direction, but it will take hard work from the publishers to avoid creating the black-market demand that buried the big record labels. I want to see the artists I enjoy get paid, and I’m happy to pay them… but the price has to be right, as does the share that goes to the creator. Walkley is wise to this, it seems:

“Copyright infringement cannot be prevented altogether, only reduced,” he says. Speaking personally, he says he’d like to see action against the most egregious offenders – but he also says that the key is to give consumers what they want.

“One of the most important things we can do is to make the purchase of legitimate ebooks as easy and as convenient as possible and produce a broad range of titles in digital formats,” Walkley says. It’s a lesson that took the music industry more than a decade to learn.

Amen. And right on the tail of that article comes an announcement from Amazon, wherein they try to sweeten the deal on Kindle-based ebook pricing for publishers:

Amazon.com […] today announced details of a new program that will enable authors and publishers who use the Kindle Digital Text Platform (DTP) to earn a larger share of revenue from each Kindle book they sell. For each Kindle book sold, authors and publishers who choose the new 70 percent royalty option will receive 70 percent of list price, net of delivery costs. This new option will be in addition to and will not replace the existing DTP standard royalty option. This new 70 percent royalty option will become available on June 30, 2010.

Delivery costs will be based on file size and pricing will be $0.15/MB. At today’s median DTP file size of 368KB, delivery costs would be less than $0.06 per unit sold. This new program can thus enable authors and publishers to make more money on every sale. For example, on an $8.99 book an author would make $3.15 with the standard option, and $6.25 with the new 70 percent option.

It’s a generous offer, but it looks to me like Amazon wants to be the iTunes of books – which is an understandable business goal, certainly, but hinges on locking publishers and consumers alike into one proprietary and intrinsically limited hardware platform. I suspect that once Steve Jobs has delivered his next sermon to the Fapple faithful, and the much-vaunted Tablet paves the way for cheaper and more open equivalent hardware, the range of affordable and open devices upon which ebooks can be read comfortably will mushroom.

Will the publishers be ready with the right formats at the right price? Will the book-buying demographic be more willing to compromise than the BitTorrent kids? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

[ Full disclosure: I have done freelance work for Hachette UK, and George Walkley is an acquaintance of mine. ]


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