Can You Believe the Kindle is Ten Years Old?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The Kindle turns ten next month. My, how that little baby has grown!

When Amazon’s ereader first came out (November 19, 2007 to be exact), I sensed most people were skeptical about the future of digital reading. The Sony Reader had been around for years but failed to take hold. “Electronic books” were thought to be the coming thing around Y2K. Publishers Weekly even started a section to cover the subject, but later dropped it due to failure to launch.

Clearly, serious readers preferred paper. So the Kindle would probably sell to some early adopters, but likely would not revolutionize anything.

**clears throat**

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey gave the Kindle her endorsement. Talk about a boost! Then people began to realize they could have all the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky on a single device which they could take on a plane or a train or (in L.A. commuter traffic) an automobile. Pretty doggone cool!

And the biz mavens realized that Amazon was (as always, it seems) making a powerful and forward-thinking business move—selling the Kindle as a gateway to their massive bookstore.

Here at TKZ, we were analyzing all this from the start. On Kindle’s one-year anniversary our own Kathryn Lilley wrote:

I think it’s time for all of us to stop mourning the nongrowth of paper book sales, and celebrate the new digital age. It’s the future. Let’s embrace it. For example, last week when I posted, I was freaking out about the changes in the industry. This week, I have decided to reframe my thoughts about the book publishing crisis, and seek out the hidden opportunities in those changes.

Because ready or not, the digital era is here. Kindle products like the Oasis are still going strong. In fact, this review of Oasis is spot on.

And what did all this mean for authors? Well, beginning in 2009 or so, it became apparent that Amazon was presenting a viable new way for writers to get published—by their own selves!

And get this: by offering authors an unheard of 70% royalty split!

The lit hit the fan.

A complete unknown named Amanda Hocking made a cool couple of million dollars publishing directly on Amazon!

This got the attention of many, including TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison, and a mainstream mystery author by the name of Joe Konrath who, via his blog, began to champion the new digital possibilities.

When I went to Bouchercon in San Francisco in October of 2010, everybody was wondering how to get in on the ebook thing without ticking off their agent or publisher. Agents (and I heard several) were warning writers not to “go there” for fear it would jeopardize their careers. Publishers were not at all sanguine about their authors moonlighting with a company they saw as their biggest threat. Some writers even got sued or terminated over this.

But the money was dropping off Kindle trees! That could not be ignored.

A funny thing happened at that Bouchercon. I was sitting with a couple of writer friends in the lobby of the SF Hyatt Regency, talking about all this, when Joe Konrath arrived and made his way to the bar area. He was flocked by fellow authors peppering him with questions.

The next day, at lunchtime, I was outside the Hyatt and spotted Mr. Konrath and one Barry Eisler walking and talking excitedly along the sidewalk. I thought, “What is that all about?”

A few months later I found out. Mr. Eisler, a New York Times bestselling thriller author, turned down half a million bucks from his publisher in order to publish with Amazon!

It was the talk of the industry. I saw it as a real tipping point. In fact, I gave it a name: “The Eisler Sanction.”

Self-publishing was getting serious.

I put my own toe in the E waters in February of 2011. Now I’m all wet.

So ten years after the birth of the Kindle, what have we seen?

1. Kindle devices and apps are awesome. I’m currently reading the two-volume memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, easily highlighting passages I want to review later. The General is bivouacked on my phone. Cost me 99¢.

2. While other ereaders have appeared—notably Nook and Kobo—the Kindle is dominant and unlikely to lose market share. The poor Nook, which is also a cool device, is hanging by a thread.

3. Kindle Direct Publishing has saved the careers of thousands of midlist writers, and created the careers of thousands more who are making good-to-massive lettuce every month. Those who are doing well have mastered some basic practices but also concentrate on the most important thing: quality and production.

4. The traditional publishing industry was hit hard by the digital disruption. There have been mergers, layoffs, shrinking profits and even a DOJ smackdown.

5. But the Forbidden City is still open for business. And while large-advance deals for debut authors are becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby, they still happen.

6. There has been chatter about the “comeback” of print books, but it appears that most of any increase in print sales can be traced to … Amazon. (And here’s a counterintuitive development: Millennials may actually prefer print books!)

7. Big bookstores took a huge hit due to e-commerce. The massive Borders chain of stores went down, followed by Family Christian. Barnes & Noble stores have been closing steadily for the last eight years, a trend that will likely continue.

8. However, local independent bookstores may be emerging through the cracks. Oh, and guess who else is opening up physical stores? Amazon.

9. On the other hand, many niche bookstores are closing. The latest is Seattle’s Mystery Bookshop.

10. We’ve reached a period of relative stasis in the “self v. trad wars.” From 2010 to 2014 or so, it seemed like we’d get blogosphere firestorms every week cheering for, or predicting the demise of, Big Pub. There was also a lot of “gold rush” talk on the indie side. Reality, as it is wont to do, has settled things down. There’s a lot of information out there now (e.g., Author Earnings reports) and the savvy players have a better handle on where they stand.

In an episode of Downton Abbey, when it became clear that the old ways of life were on the way out, never to return, Carson the butler mused, “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

Kindle brought the flux. And a decade later, we’re living it.

What do you say, TKZers? What are your reflections on the 10th birthday of the Kindle?

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What Authors Need To Know About the Publishing Industry Today

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

And by today, I mean the date of this post. Because the only constant now is change!claude-vernet-81514_1280

If you’re in the writing game to make serious bank, or at least a good side income (and only “blockheads” never write for some kind of income, according to Dr. Johnson), then you need to keep up to date on industry developments.

Now is a good time to look, as reports about the first quarter of 2016 are coming in.

Traditional Publishing Sales Are Down

According PW, sales of adult print books fell 10.3% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the first period of 2015, and ebook sales in the same category fell 19%. Regarding the latter, industry observer Mike Shatzkin says a big part of the problem is the pricing of ebooks by publishers:

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales.

casino-royale-181How much of this “pain” can the big publishers endure? Economics in a disruptive environment is merciless. Remember that scene in Casino Royale? (All the men do.) But also recall that Bond got out of it.

 

Barnes & Noble Barely Hanging On

The biggest bookstore chain has been closing stores and circling wagons. They’ve been emphasizing vibe (coffee house, browsing chairs) but not expanding shelf-space for books. Thus, says another article in PW:

Sales at Barnes & Noble fell 6.6% in the quarter ended July 30, compared to the same period last year. Revenue fell 6.1% in the company’s retail sector, and Nook revenue fell 24.5%. As a result of the lower-than-expected sales, B&N reported a net loss from continuing operations of $14.4 million in the period, its first quarter of 2017, compared to $7.8 million in the first period of fiscal 2016.

We all love bookstores. We hate to see physical shelf space shrink, and brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. A nice development is a rise in the local independent bookstore. Good! There are many cultural benefits to this uptick. However, the scale is small relative to a large chain, and breakout books by new authors cannot be driven on these tiny islands alone.

Meanwhile, Amazon Opens Another Physical Bookstore in San Diego

This to go along with their first such store in Seattle. And there are plans to open stores in Chicago and Portland.

According to industry observer Jane Friedman, here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s bookstores:

  1. They have a relatively small square footage when compared to Barnes & Noble. The most recently opened store is 3,500 square feet, and the average Barnes & Noble is ten times that size, sometimes more.
  1. All the books are face out, so the emphasis is on curation.
  1. No prices are listed; customers have to check book prices on their phones.

On this last point, a marketing professor quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune says the intent is to “drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system.” The books “act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of [Amazon] Prime membership.”

Amazon has proven over and over again to be ahead of the curve, as they say, even though the curve these days is as formidable as that tossed by Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Amazon keeps staying in the batter’s box making contact.

What Should Writers Do?  

This is a blog for writers, so the key question for me is always what do I and my fellow scribes need to be about in these turbulent times?

My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.

Next, turn your ear to wisdom, and your heart toward understanding (Proverbs 2:2). You need to decide what path to pursue as a writer, and how to do so with eyes open and good business practices. Thus: 

Perspective #1 – Indie Writers

In a comment on the PW site, the estimable Hugh Howey said, in part:

The reality is that acquisitions and mergers have hidden the steady loss of market share by the Big 5, market share gladly gobbled up by self-published authors. Coloring books, plays, and rejected rough drafts have also helped the last two years, but it’s hard to rely on these things going forward. And publishers have to stop believing surveys that say people prefer print books. Yeah, the people who don’t read much do.

If the Big 5 are going to continue to guide their businesses by personal editorial tastes, celebrity tomes, and the whims of those who read (but probably don’t finish) 2 – 3 books a year, they’re in trouble. The real market for publishers should be the voracious readers who consume several books a week.

***

For authors, this time of flux is critical. As bookshelves dwindle, and B&N appears on the verge of going the way of Border’s, now would be a terrible time to take a work of art that lasts forever and sign it over to any publisher for term of copyright. The new standard has to be 5 to 7 years of license, or self-publish, until things shake out.

One ongoing debate is about whether an indie author should go exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities (such as limited free pricing), and the page payouts of Kindle Unlimited. I think this is a great option for new writers who need to get eyeballs on their pages so they can begin building a readership. See the substantial discussion and links in the section on Kindle Unlimited in Jane Friedman’s post, mentioned above.

Perspective #2 – Traditionally Publishing Writers 

For those writers in the midst of––or are hoping to land––a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed. You need to know what to accept, what to reject, and where to compromise.  Which also means knowing what your leverage is. If you are being represented by an agent, this is a conversation to have with them. (Oh, are you looking for an agent? Well, maybe one is looking for you. Keep track of the new agent alerts and other info at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.)

Big tip: Don’t do any of this with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite and businesslike. But as the great Harvey Mackay counsels in Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, you need to know when to “smile and say no until your tongue bleeds.”

Mackay also says, “Make your decisions with your heart and what you’ll end up with is heart disease.” Don’t be so dreamy-eyed about being invited into the Forbidden City that you fail to make rational, long-term decisions.

A place to start is with attorney David Vandagriff’s book, The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract. Not only are important clauses explained, but Vandagriff (who is also known as the Passive Guy blogger) offers you strategies on how to make them better.

As I have stated several times, authors with a modicum of business sense (which is why I wrote How to Make a Living as a Writerare the only corks on this roiling sea of change.

Be a cork. But be a smart cork. Subscribe to the Publishing Trends blog, which posts links to the “Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week.” Also consider a paid subscription to “The Hot Sheet” the twice-monthly industry dispatch written by the aforementioned Jane Friedman and journalist Porter Anderson.

Because information is now the coin of the realm. Get the info, digest it, use it. But don’t ever let it freak you out. Remember:

keep-calm-write-on

What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry going? How are you, as a writer, dealing with constant change?

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In Praise of Henry Pritchard

  

And who is Henry Pritchard? He is, among other things, a self-published author in the truest sense.

There is a British rock band named Temples that is currently touring the United States. They are quite popular in their native England and in Germany, and a few other places. Temples is currently attempting to replicate that success in the U.S. by climbing into a van every day or two, driving a medium to long distance, unpacking their gear and setting it up, playing a set or two at a small venue, then unplugging, loading up, jumping in the van and doing it all over again. They are assisted in this endeavor by a gent named Henry Pritchard, who is their driver and guitar tech. The latter job involves a bit of knowledge of sound acoustics, engineering, electricity, and the occasional use of duct tape and a glue gun when things go FUBAR in the middle of a hot guitar solo. It’s definitely a job for a young man who has an old and experienced soul.
Pritchard is also an author in the truest sense of that word. He writes what my daughter Annalisa calls a “zine” and I call a “chapbook” (“Oh, where did this chapbook come from?” “It’s a ‘zine, Dad.” “No, it’s a chapbook.” “No, Dad, it’s a zine.”). Regardless of what we call it (and Pritchard also calls it a zine), the title of Pritchard’s publication is applecore. It is a digest-sized paperback publication consisting of around seventy-six single-spaced pages, held together by a pair of small but sturdy staples in the middle of the spine along the crease. applecore is not entirely unlike the broadsides that Richard Brautigan used to give away or sell on the streets of San Francisco before he became unhappy and famous, or the Pocket Poets series that City Lights (the publisher and the bookstore) publishes and sells. Pritchard has been publishing it since around 2001. He’s up to twenty-three issues (which I suppose qualifies it as a ‘zine, if it’s numbered and issued on an irregular basis) as of this date. The content consists of his memoirs though he’s about ten years behind at this point (note: if you’re going to write your memoirs, start when you’re in your late twenties, so you can remember everything). Pritchard divides his first person narrative into chapters (which I believe qualifies it as a chapbook) and it’s not uninteresting. As one might expect when one hangs around with and is employed by musicians, Pritchard drinks and uh, smokes quite a bit but some interesting things have happened along the road of his life, from being unemployed to attending university to landing a pretty good gig as a band road manager.

How does one acquire applecore? While the world has moved ahead since applecore #1 was published some fourteen years ago, Pritchard is content to be very low tech in both the format and dissemination of his work. He sells issues of applecore for two dollars from the “merch” table (where one can buy music, tee-shirts, bumper stickers, and other band memorabilia) at Temples’ concerts. In a reluctant nod to the times, Pritchard also “markets” it from his Facebook account  and accepts payments through PayPal through his email address. And that’s it. No Amazon, no Barnes & Noble, no Hachette. Pritchard’s other writings can be found for free on his blog, if you want to sample his work before laying down your cheddar for a physical copy.

One takes the sense from the vignettes contained on Pritchard’s Facebook page, blog, and applecore that he leads what might tactfully be called a nomadic existence, one in which a fixed abode is not an element. One also, upon reading applecore, gets the feeling that Pritchard likes it that way. He is only responsible for himself, and does not have a home or apartment which owns him. Somehow, however, moving from town to town and couch to couch, Pritchard gets it done, and gets it done pretty well. His narrative moves ever forward with occasional side trips, and friends move in and out the scenes without warning, explanation or transition. It gets confusing, sometimes, but it also puts you in the moment in the best kind of way, even if the moment occurred a decade or so ago. The important thing, however, is that he runs his whole show. There is a downside to that, of course. I doubt that Pritchard sells enough copies of applecore to earn a living; he probably clears enough to buy some liquid refreshment, or, uh some other substances (if his stories in applecore are any indication). The important thing for our purposes, however, is that he cares about his art, and it shows. He has four people proofread his work; his writing is coherent, interesting at worst and (occasionally) riveting at best. Issues of applecore don’t feature a die-cut dust jacket, but they are functional — they can fit in your pocket, and don’t crack when you sit on them — and turning a page won’t leave ink on your hands or the feeling that you need to reach for the handjel or the Phisoderm.

No, what Pritchard does is tell a story without worrying about whether he’ll get an ‘A’ or four stars from this or that reviewer. He is pleasing himself, and hopefully the reader as well. Isn’t that what it’s all about, ultimately? And getting it done? I recommend that you check out Pritchard’s blog and Facebook page, see what you think, and buy an issue or two of applecore from the guy. It’s almost four times the page count and half the price of a new Jack Reacher short story, if that puts things in perspective.

While Pritchard may be unique, and not so much off as around the radar, I don’t think that he is alone out there in the backwoods of the lo-tech, primitive do-it-yourself world. Do you know of anyone else who is doing something similar? And are you? If the answer to either question is “yes,” please let us know how we can sample the goods.
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The Dispute Continues…

The author debate over the Amazon vs. Hachette business disagreement proceeds apace. The latest volley is an impassioned though civil discussion between J.A. Konrath, a staunch supporter of Amazon, and Lee Child, a very visible signatory of Authors United, and which was featured as an entry on Konrath’s blog on Thursday, September 25. It is worth reading, if you are at all interested.

I see strengths and weaknesses with the positions of both sides. Where I am having a problem, however, is the proposition that Amazon is doing something wrong or evil by refusing in some cases to sell Hachette books by pre-order (or at all). Permit me to draw a comparison with another product: there is a type of breakfast food that my wife likes; let’s call it “Flavored Cardboard to Go.” Six-count boxes of multiple flavors of this product were readily available at all of the supermarkets within a three mile radius of our home. I would buy a box or two during the course of my weekly shopping trip with the result being happy wife, happy home. That is, until one day when…it wasn’t available. I asked at each supermarket and was told that the item had been discontinued. But that wasn’t exactly accurate. The grocery supplier that serviced the supermarkets locally to me was no longer carrying it because…well, they just were no longer carrying it. Being the resourceful type, I checked the website of the company which manufactures the product and discovered that a certain national chain which I normally don’t patronize (let’s call it “Bullseye”) carried the item. They don’t have a store near us, but there is one I pass occasionally while out and about causing trouble. I will accordingly stop in every six weeks or so, stock up on Flavored Cardboard to Go, and all is well in the House of Hartlaub. Have I been a bit inconvenienced? Yes. But big whoop. There was no evil involved, however. A company and a distributor stopped doing business with each other and another company filled the vacuum. Nothing more or less was involved. 
I don’t see any difference between my experience in my role as hunter-gatherer and the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette. One can go to Barnes & Noble (or visit its fine, sparkling website which leaps to one’s command at a keystroke or two) or Wal-Mart, or, as they say, wherever books are sold (including Hachette’s own website) and buy or order any Hachette book you want, so long as it’s in print. Amazon hasn’t choked off the supply. You just can’t purchase certain Hachette books there at the moment. There was actually a similar dispute between Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble last year — bet you forgot about that, didn’t you? — where Barnes & Noble was cast as Simon Legree because they stopped selling S & S books when the two entities couldn’t come to terms. Again, Barnes & Noble didn’t shut off the supply. One could buy from other outlets. One DID buy from other outlets. The dispute was ultimately settled and things rolled on, until now.

Word: what is happening is a business dispute. It will get resolved at some point. It’s not a hero vs. villain issue, and casting it as such is a diversion, pure and simple. My questions for you, however, is…have you had trouble buying books published by Hachette? Has the dispute, and its fallout, changed your book buying habits? Other than in the abstract, do you even care?
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Quirky Ramblings on E-Books, Self-Publishing and the Consumer

USA TODAY had an interesting article on authors who have struck it big with their self-published e-books. The article featured 26-yr old Amanda Hocking of Minnesota who got tired of being rejected by traditional publishers and self-published last year. In 2010, she sold 164,000 books, with most priced between $0.99 and $2.99 per digital download. And in January, 2011 (after many readers got e-readers for Christmas), she sold 450,000 copies of her 9 paranormal titles, with three of her titles making their debut on the USA TODAY’s Bestseller list.

Her percentage of that sales price range comes in at 30-70%, respectively, but she’s making money at it. And she promotes on Facebook, Twitter, and word of mouth—and credits the popularity of the paranormal genre for much of her success.

And another paranormal e-novelist, who sold 70,000 copies since July 2010, got noticed by Random House and just signed a three-book deal.

I bring this up because of a talk I had with a neighbor this week. She got me thinking about digital download books. My neighbor had received a Nook for Christmas and was downloading books online. She was feeling pretty tech savvy, for sure. And she wanted a trip down memory lane when she used to read simple sweet romance novels, easy reads that made her happy.

Instead, she bought erotica by mistake. Now her online booksellers are sending her recommendations for the same steamy stuff she just purchased. (I’m chuckling as I write this. If you knew my neighbor, you would too.) She actually had to call the online bookstore to see if they could stop sending those recommendations to her Nook, but since it was such a new product, they couldn’t help her. But she was willing to download a book that she knew nothing about other than it was a romance and she had virtually no knowledge of the plot. She only knew it was a bargain. And she’s not alone. I’ve heard on blog posts and other places that many readers are willing to try a new author for $0.99-$2.99/book.

Now I’ve resisted buying an e-reader so far. I’m not sure the technology is there yet and I like the feel of a book in my hands. Plus I spend way too much time in front of a computer writing that I think reading off a display might make my quirky eyesight worse. But I can see why a reader might like the option of downloading a book quickly, read it immediately without paying shipping, and maybe get it for a bargain. And I also have a couple of manuscripts “under my bed” that are only playthings for my cats. Maybe it’s time to do something with them and test the new marketplace of e-books.

I’d like to hear from anyone who has an e-reader. How do you like reading off it? Has owning one changed your book buying habits? Do you still buy print books? And is there a price point that might tempt you to try a new author?

And if you’re an author who has sold your e-books online through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble’s Pubit, Lulu, Smashwords, and other locations—how has that worked for you?

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