The ebook future’s so bright that I gotta wear shades

By P.J. Parrish

I am constantly losing my sunglasses. This is a big deal when you live in South Florida where people wear them even in winter. Double big deal for me because I need prescription lenses.
Plus I like looking cool, you know? And as any woman of a certain age can tell you, sunglasses are the way to go if you want to jazz up your look and can’t afford an eye job. (Stay with me here, you men out there, I am getting to what this has to do with writing, I promise).
But I lose my glasses. Have left them all over the world.  So when a girlfriend told me about this great online glasses maker Warby Parker I went to check them out. Nice shades! At prices I can afford! And I don’t have to go to LensCrafter at the mall!
Then, as I was reading about this new online company, I had an epiphany about -– wait for it! –- my ebooks.
Warby Parker is one of many new upstart online-only companies that are finding great success by bypassing the traditional retail model. Which is exactly what all of us writers are trying to do with our ebooks these days, right? 

Brief background: The four geeky guys behind Warby Parker (the name is from two characters in a Jack Kerouac journal) were trying to figure out why designer glasses cost beaucoup bucks and discovered it’s because everyone in the process was taking a cut — designers, manufacturers, brands, wholesalers and retailers. So they eliminated the middlemen, lowered the prices and built their reputation and customer base via the internet.

Sound familiar? In the traditional publishing model, think of all the folks who get a cut before you the author does — agents, editors, designers, copy editors, bean-counters, printers, binders, warehouses, distributors. And that’s before we even get to the bookstores. This is why royalty rates for hardcovers usually range from 10 to 12.5 percent, with 15 percent for big authors. Paperback is even less. Everyone along the book line has their hand out.

Back to Warby Parker for a sec. They seem to be pretty inventive. On their site, you can upload a photo and do a virtual try-on. And they’ll send you five frames to try on at home free. Isn’t such agility also one of the hallmarks of good ebook authors today? Every author I know who is succeeding at ebooks is thinking outside the old marketing boxes.  We are packaging our books in boxed sets. We’re offering short stories and novellas. We’re being flexible with pricing and even — gasp! — giving our products away. (It’s called sampling in business and it’s been a successful practice since the 19th century.) How many of you have tried to get your traditional publishers to do some of this? Maybe drop the price of your backlist ebooks to help catapult your new book? Show of hands for those who succeeded? That’s what I thought…

So what about that epiphany? Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s not an epiphany so much as an affirmation of something I already knew in the back of my brain. I am new to the ebook self-pubbing business. I’ve only put one backlist title out there, Dead of Winter, and one novella, Claw Back. I know I have a ton to learn and some catching up to to do. (I mean, I can’t even figure out GoodReads, for corn’s sake).

What I have figured out is that I need to be a better business person. Yeah, I am a writer first and the creation of the story will always be paramount. And I want to keep a foot in traditional publishing because I still believe there is a place for actual books you can hold and actual bookstores you can visit. (even the Warby Parker guys figured this out — they opened a couple boutiques because they realized people still want to touch things before they buy them.).

But my real epiphany is this — that if I don’t pay attention to Parrish Inc. no one will. I have to get rid of any illusions I still might have about some nice big paternalistic publisher being there to always watch over me.

I may need glasses, but I’m not blind.


11 thoughts on “The ebook future’s so bright that I gotta wear shades

  1. Well and rightly said, Kris. Every writer these days needs to approach the options with a business-like attitude. But I know many writers for whom this is like saying you must learn nuclear physics. I try to get them to break through that barrier because the principles are not that hard (I put what I know in Self-Publishing Attack!). But there is still resistance, which translates into letting go of substantial income.

    It’s ironic, too, because a traditionally published author is expected these days to shoulder most of the marketing, which requires….planning. If they would put that same effort into understanding the business dynamics of self-publishing, they would be 80% of the way toward a healthy and ongoing income stream.

    • James,
      That’s the rub, what you say about authors who are traditionally pubbed having to do the heavy lifting marketing and promotion now. Most of us are doing all this anyway with little to show for the effort. Except for the time lost to writing. For this reason, I have stopped doing many signings and events because, unfortunately, the time-investment isn’t worth the results. Ditto for going to conferences. I don’t like having to do this but there it is.

  2. The problem with a lot of the “new model” is that it requires the writer to a whole bunch of things besides write.

    Just as we don’t expect to write for free, so too do editors, typesetters, formatters, coverartists, marketers, proofers and promoters all want to get paid. Could we do that all ourselves? Sure. But that means mastering skill sets above and beyond the skill set we already work to master: writing.

    While I appreciate that perhaps traditional publishing may be taking too much of the cut, I’ve seen many self published efforts completely fail in fantastic ways because they were managed by people who didn’t realize the real work of all those other talents.

    Plus, those other people can also help protect you from doing serious damage to yourself (and them by proxy) when things go Pear Shaped ala Foyt and Save the Pearls: Finding Eden.

    • Rob…absolutely! Writers now must amass a group of sub-contractors (cover designers, copy editors, formatters). And we have to manage the team. The question is: Is the control we get worth the time invested? The first question any writer contemplating self-pubbing has to ask herself is: Do I have the mindset and the stomach to be an entrepreneur? It’s like being a landlord — do you really want the hard work and grief?

      Not sure what you mean by “protect you from doing serious damage to yourself.” 🙂

    • Well……. My take on the Foyt-gate is that if she had gone with a traditional publisher they would have a) told her to change the names of the “races” and to probably try some other way of dealing with the whole ‘pearl’ thing, b) stopped her from talking to the press when it all went to Heck ala Handbasket, and c) tried to keep her from dragging down anyone else with her when it did.

      I think she was so sure of her work’s quality that she needed an outsider to step in save her from herself.

  3. One thing I’ve come to learn: when a bunch of guys are sitting around saying “this is just a fad,” it’s time to jump on the fadwagon. Yes, it means we have to change our way of thinking and marketing. But this is true of any industry. To sit still is to die on the vine. Embrace it, brothers and sisters. And learn how to take advantage of it.

  4. Khris, everything you say is true about the self-publishing model, but as I’ve indicated in the past, I believe it to be the most punishing and least-rewarding way to conduct business. To illustrate my point, I’ll posit some assumptions:
    1. The sweet spot for self-published e-books is $2.99;
    2. The standard self-pubbed royalty is $2.09 (70% of $2.99)
    3. The staff/support costs for e-books (editor, cover, formatting assistance, etc.) runs in the neighborhood of $2,000 (I suspect this is a low number, but let’s run with it).
    After all the labor to write the book and then prepare it and launch it, the first thousand units sold don’t put a dime in the author’s pockets. Instead, those sales merely reimburse monies already spent. Of each additional $2.09 in royalties for each additional book sold (roughly 35% of which goes to taxes), some portion—significant in the early days of the book’s life, and then diminishing over time—goes to ongoing marketing and promotion efforts. Meanwhile, if the author wants an audiobook, he has to pay for it out of pocket. I don’t begin to know how translation rights would be handled in the self-pubbed world.
    By comparison, let’s look at the traditional model:
    1. The sweet spot for traditionally published e-books is $8.00
    2. The standard ebook royalty (based on the $8 price) is $1.96 (35% of the publisher’s net, which is roughly 70% of cover price)
    3. Net of the 15% agent fee, the author’s royalty is $1.67.
    At a glance, with these numbers, self-pubbing seems like a no-brainer, and all too often, that’s where the analysis stops. But there’s more. The traditionally published author was paid an advance for his book, meaning that he’s already pocketed serious coin. Here numbers vary, but $25,000 is common for an established author, and $50,000 is not a stretch, and that money is his to keep, allowing him to pay his bills as he writes the next book. He doesn’t have to hire anybody, and he’s been able to concentrate on what he knows: writing.
    For folks who have been around the publishing block a few times, the advantages and disadvantages of self vs. traditional publishing are well-known, but I worry sometimes about the rookies who wander into these sites and think that the traditional system is their enemy. It’s really not. It is, I believe, the most reliable route to success in an industry where any success is unlikely.

  5. John,
    You make a compelling case and yes, there’s a definite siren’s call for those who’ve never been published. Too many folks make it sound too easy and the reality is that most writers who self-pub won’t see any real income. But self-pubbing makes real sense for someone like me whose backlist is out of print. By reissuing one title myself (my cost was almost nothing and I put no money into promotion), I made more in one month than I had for my two previous advances from my traditional publisher. I am readying other titles for self-pubbing now. It’s not just about the money, it’s about getting my books into readers’ hands.

    A side note: Writers also see royalties from Amazon’s lending library averaging for me so far about $2.80 per book. My sales for Dead of Winter have leveled off but I am still getting a lot of borrows each month.

  6. Treating self-pub as a business, with all the requisite sacrifices and associated costs, is indeed the only way to do things. And like JSB has pointed out in previous posts and in his book ‘Fiction Attack!’ it should be approached as a lifetime project if one expects to make much out of it (just narrated that part last night so it is fresh).

    I’m one of those who tried to get into the traditional dominion but for various reasons didn’t make it to the payout I was looking for, and therefore gave this self-pub thing a whirl. It’s been great ride and one I intend to keep riding unless and until someone out there decides to pay me more. It does take focus, and making friends with folks like you all said, and some investment. Cover artists and copy editors aren’t cheap if they’re any good. But it is well worth it in my opinion.

    And if you’ve already got a backlist of titles no longer under contract…well what’re you waitin’ fer?

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