Indie Book News Review - December

The strange case of the disappearing ebook

Saffina Desforges photo Saffina Desforges

Just how much achieving a high ranking in the amazon 100 bestseller list - and staying there - is essential for publishing success is revealed in the recent events surrounding 'Sugar and Spice', by the writing duo Saffina Desforges. Having sold over 100,000 copies in the UK and riding high (No. 2) in the bestseller list, a series of technical difficulties changed all that, as reported by one half of the writing team, Mark Williams. The sequence of events went like this:

1) Last summer Amazon removed the subtitle without notice and placed the book in publishing mode for three days. Sales dropped and the book fell out of the top twenty. (David Gaughran raises the possibility that this could be connected with the fact that the book is simultaneously published in both UK and US English versions with different subtitles and, with both available in the UK, Amazon could have been reacting to this.) The book recovered to No. 2, only for the removal of the subtitle to occur again, followed by a period in publishing mode and this time the book did not fully recover its former position,

2) In October, a technical glitch removed all the reviews at amazon from many ebooks, including those for 'Sugar and Spice'. The result was a further drop in sales and position in the Top 100,

3) The book then vanished completely from amazon UK for over two weeks, despite urgent appeals from the authors.

The book is now back up on amazon UK but its sales position (at the time of writing) is No. 692 and has been at this level for some days. Amazon has told the authors that it will not offer compensation for the lost sales. (This parallels the experience of author James Crawford whose book was reduced to $0 without notice after he'd made an extract free on Nook, see Indie Book News Review - November).

It will be interesting to see if 'Sugar and Spice' recovers its position.

One of the consequences of these events (none of which has resulted from intentional acts by Amazon which, as nearly all writers recognise, is an overwhelmingly progressive influence in allowing authors to gain an audience) is that writers achieving success in ebook sales may not be as secure in their career as they might suppose, making planning for the future (like, for example, becoming a full time writer if they are currently part time) quite difficult.

Conversely, this also shows just how important it is for any writer publishing on amazon to break into the Top 100 overall sales rankings if a self sustaining high level of sales is to be achieved.

BBC Radio interview with Lexi Revellian

Author Lexi Revellian gave a very clear account to BBC Radio 4's 'You And Yours' of how self publishing with amazon KDP had allowed her successful writing career to get started when traditional publishers had been unapproachable.

You can hear the interview here. (The relevant segment starts after approx 16.04 mins).

Penguin US self publishing deal mystifies authors

Penguin logo

As reported by The Guardian, Penguin US has moved into self publishing. Based around its 'Book Country' site (where would-be writers publicly display their work in progress – why would you want to do that!), the prestigious imprint offers to epublish your book for a fee ranging from $99 - $549, depending on the options chosen.

But commentators like J A Konrath, coming out of blog hiatus specifically over this, are not impressed. He points out that while there is nothing on offer via Book Country that you can't do yourself for free, Book Country will keep 30% of any royalties earned (or example 30% of the 70% royalty that an author might earn from amazon). The author loses the right to manage their own affairs at amazon and elsewhere. And, to cap it all, the famous Penguin logo will not be associated with the book. Most experienced authors are mystified as to why anyone would want to take up such an offer.

Kindle Owners' Lending Library (KDP Select)

KDP Select image

After a lot of thought I've enrolled my thriller 'Take No More' in the Kindle Owners' Lending Library via KDP Select. This operates in the US only (for now) and is available only for amazon Prime members. (They pay a subscription - $79 - for a number of favours - early free parcel delivery, free streaming video and, now, a free loan of one Kindle book per month). Why the thought? Well, the catch is that amazon demands exclusivity. The book must not be available in any other channel. As expected, this has sparked off a wide ranging debate amongst authors about this leading to amazon becoming overdominant in the market.

However, on balance, I decided to go with this (one main reason being the fact that I'd only ever published the book with amazon). You can view the book as a free loan on Prime here.

But there are wider consequences, summed up very well by David Gaughran in the post How Much Do You Want To Get Paid Tomorrow?.

What is at stake is the possibility of a wholesale change in the way that authors gain royalties for their work. On the current model, there is a generous payment of up to 70% of the sale price going directly to the author. Under KDP Select, there is no such payment. Instead, based on the number of loans made of each book, there is a share of an agreed pot. This looks large ($500,000 for December and $2 million or 2012) but if a very large number of loans are made, the revenue paid any one author for the loans made on their books may be much smaller than would have been achieved with a straight royalty system. Some estimates claim that there may be as many as 10 milllion Prime members. In the limit, if each borrows a book in December, the royalty per book would be as low as 5c, compared with a likely average of over $1 now!

I'm reminded that in the UK amazon has recently acquired Lovefilm where DVDs and computer games are available on a monthly subscription of up to £15, depending on the number of discs that can be held at any given time. It must be straightforward for amazon to see how the land lies with DVDs. How many customers wish to buy and own and how many wish to borrow for a subscription charge. My guess is that many prefer the subscription model. After all, how many times do you want to watch a movie. Enough to own it? Significantly, Lovefilm (like amazon Prime in the US) also offers streaming video. That's essentially the same as downloading a book to Kindle. So will readers, given the option, prefer a subscription model. If they do, it will change completely the current financial relationship between authors and amazon. Heady stuff and certainly a case of 'watch this space'.

Amazon – a step too far?

amazon price check app image image
amazon price check app

The general feeling of caution over the exclusivity issue and the posibiliy of amazon coming to unduly dominate the market was not helped by Richard Russo's piece Amazon's Jungle Logic in the The Opinion Pages of the New York Times.

'I FIRST heard of Amazon’s new “promotion” from my bookseller daughter, Emily, in an e-mail with the subject line “Can You Hear Me Screaming in Brooklyn?” According to a link Emily supplied, Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items). Books, interestingly enough, were excluded, but you could use your Amazon credit online to buy other things that bookstores sell these days, like music and DVDs.'

This really does seem to hit brick and mortar stores beneath the belt.

OK, So where's the balance?

Despite all this heavy weather surrounding amazon, it's worth recalling just how great the opportunity is that the company has handed to independent authors, freeing them from the restrictive practices of the traditional publishing industry. Two recent stories illustrate this:

1. Indie Author sells 400,000 copies of book that mainstream publishers rejected

Darcy Chan image
Darcy Chan

The Wall Street Journal reported on the success of Darcy Chan's novel, 'The Mill River Recluse", which has now notched up 400,000 ebook sales after a five year period of being rejected by the mainstream publishing industry.

"Nobody was willing to take a chance," says Ms. Chan, a 37-year-old lawyer who drafts environmental legislation for the U.S. Senate. "It was too much of a publishing risk." ......The novel took her 2½ years to write. After seeking feedback from family and friends, she sent queries to more than 100 literary agents. Most rejected it as a tough sell. "It didn't really fit any genre," Ms. Chan says. "It has elements of romance, suspense, mystery, but it falls into the catch-all category of literary fiction, and of course that's the most difficult to sell." She finally landed an agent, Laurie Liss at Sterling Lord Literistic in New York,....... Ms. Liss submitted the manuscript to a dozen publishers, all of whom turned it down. Ms. Chan stashed the manuscript in a drawer, and buried herself in her legislative work. Five years passed. Then, this past spring, she started reading about the rise of e-book sales and authors who had successfully self published, and decided to give it a shot.'

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It's worth recalling just how often mainstream publishing responds in this way. And to point out that, before self publishing on Kindle and the other platforms, there just wasn't any other alternative. And the clincher, Darcy Chan hasn't been able to find a better deal from a mainstream publisher despite having so much success!

2. Back to the Saffina Desforges story

Darcy Chan image

Despite the trials and tribulations of 'Sugar and Spice' (see above), where would the writing duo have been without self publishing and amazon in particular. In a follow up blog post, they make it clear just how unhelpful mainstream publishing has been despite their ebook success. In an official announcement of a publishing deal finally agreed with a French publisher, the blog post tells of the lack of satisfaction they found with approaches from US agents once they'd sold 50,000 copies of the book:

'...One of the biggest agencies on the planet, came cold-calling. Months earlier we couldn’t get an agent to give us the time of day. Now New York’s finest were coming to us! Could this be our big break in the American market? Sadly not. In fact their representative had not even read the book, and when they finally did she wanted so many changes (to a book that by now had sold 60,000 and was still topping the charts!) it would have been unrecognizable. And this just to get them to approach a publisher, let alone whatever changes the publisher might demand.'

'When the agent demanded changes in their next book. ' we realized this and many other agents were living in some fantasy past world where writers were nothing more than an irritation in their all-important lives. When writers had no other options......... Other agency and publisher offers followed, with contracts ranging from merely unreasonable to downright despicable.'

Once again, this is a snapshot of what it was like before epublishing on platforms like Kindle opened up market for authors to have control over their own affairs.

So, need for balance noted!

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