Run Away! We’re all doomed!

By Dave Freer

RUUUUUUN! The water main has burst under the instant mashed potato factory… or something of that sort.

Oddly several people seem to think that I am about to be overwhelmed by vast gurpling seas of fake mashed potato and that Ewan Morrison is just the fellow to tell me to run to high ground or at least the tender gentle clutches of the nurturing publishing industry.

It is quite possible I will drown in fake mashed potato. Or, as a worse fate, have to learn to eat it.  But I can’t say I have even begun lacing up my running trainers, let alone letting panic wipe out any semblance of common sense when I read his grim forecast for my livelihood and chosen profession. Maybe I’m just a sceptic  or just a nasty blockish brutal fellow who deserves extinction.  But go ahead, read the article and tell me what you think.

Here is my deconstruction:

Firstly before we panic let’s look at where this comes from. Hmm. The Edinburgh Arts Festival (a typical spot for your average unpretentious reader) as reported in the Guardian – the newspaper of the Champagne socialists of the UK. Now it takes all types to make a world, and that’s a good thing, but it is also true that this is pretty much (as in NY publishing) where the bulk of the publishing industry fit.  This is their mouthpiece and they are the establishment.  So: we can conclude this is pretty much their viewpoint, or at least written for them.

And then… Who is it coming from: According to Wikipedia, Ewan Morrison is an Arts graduate, who sometimes writes for the Guardian, who has written three books exploring alternatives to monogamy, and has been in line or won some some literary type prizes, and been a Unesco writer in residence.  In other words – an Arts establishment man, who, to quote him, feels writers deserve to be ‘paid a living wage.’

We differ slightly on this: I feel authors ought to be able to _earn_ enough to live on. But yes, I do think authors need to be able to work full time and not write on cardboard in their own blood while starving and freezing under bridges.

He goes on at length about the demise of the paper book. I don’t think it’ll be that fast, or that complete, but yes, I agree. E-books are the future.

His first point is the Retreat of the Advance and the reaction of writers to it.

Perhaps the world was very different for the Arts establishment man publishing literature: “The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.”

As someone with I suspect far more sales than the average literary writer, I can assure you the framework was pretty dead when I sold my first book in 1999, and it’s pretty close to moribund now.

Let’s just have a quick look at the entire concept of the advance. Why does it exist at all? Well, because back in the days of chipping out books on stone tablets (or about 3 years after) it of necessity took a very very very long time to produce a book and to pay for it.  It was written by hand, transported by horse or mail-coach, hand typeset, printed, and then distributed by wagon. Every six months they would hand count the number of books still in the warehouse, and then manually do the tallies, and write the author a check. And the process could drag on for a long time. Needless to say, the doing away with every one of these impediments has made the time taken to render payment… longer. I’ve had the process take 3 years from signing to first royalty (which only occurs after a full 6 months reporting period – which as they are always 3-5 months late in paying, and a book can have 5 months of the previous reporting period – up 16 months after a book comes out), and it took me two months to write the book.  I know several writers who can turn out a novel in a month – a good book too – deliver it electronically, and the editing and proofing and cover do not need to take as much as another month.  Returns on e-books are immediate, records are immediate… in other words there is no reason why the author should not be paid immediately (even by Amazon, who settle quarterly – much better than most, but still could improve), or at leas monthly.  So: the advance system is a legacy system which exists largely because the royalty system is so bad. Fixing it would go a long way to making life much better for authors. Far more than maintaining the old system. Trust me. Try paying your monthly bills when you get paid erratically in lumps. It’s not fun. Most authors would be much more productive if they could log into their account and see what they’d sold today, and what would be electronically debited into their account at month end. This is not hard, but no publisher has yet even inched towards it.

So to return Ewan Morrison’s bemoaning the shrinking advance on royalty (which as I said, shouldn’t need to exist, and not having it would free books to earn what they earn, not to prove the editor guessed sales right (getting it right is most unlikely. Statistically improbable in the extreme.  Getting it wrong could get you fired. So oddly… it is so often just… Goldilocks! Why do these editors not just pick lotto numbers? They’d be able to publish exactly what they liked and we’d just have no choice… oh, wait…) “In reaction to the removal of their living wage, many writers have decided to abandon the mainstream entirely: they’ve come to believe that publishers and their distribution systems are out of date; that too many middle-men (distributors, booksellers) have been living off their work.”

Come to believe? Hang on. I’ve looked at my Bookscan figures per State.  I KNOW my distribution sucks rocks.  I earn on average 10% (and as little as 6%)  of the cover price of books sold in the US.  My books sold in Australia get me around 2% of the cover price.  Do I perhaps feel that others taking 90-98% of the income generated by my work for seconds per book of often shoddy effort is providing too many middle-men with a living instead of me? What an ODD idea!!!

And now the long tail, which our Arts Establishment writer believes is just so bad for writers…  Well, if you were one of the cool kids, the darlings of the publishing establishment, who got you books into every bookstore, on the every shelf, and who lavished money on promoting you in an environment they controlled… it must be pretty awful. You see the long tail is wagged by word of mouth, which, yes, they can influence. But it’s a lot harder than their command economy model. “Ve vil decide vot you vil read, Ja. Unt how many copies ve  vil print Ja. Und take it or leave it!” (which, of course has resulted in many readers leaving it, to the detriment of authors, the industry, society and even the human race).  For the rest of us… well, it means we get a small chance at succeeding on merit. And yes, word of mouth can still spread to a lot of people.  Also, if I don’t get 2% but say 70% of the income, I don’t need to sell as many copies to earn a living without sharing it with people who add little value to my work.

But of course according to Morrison we must live in fear of the demon ‘free content’. He starts by quoting examples of various legacy industries where the primary producers have carried a vast weight of other beneficiaries, who very often added little value for their cost, and who are now in trouble – largely, in my opinion, as a result of this.

Firstly the standard pirate bogey. Quoting: “The Motion Picture Association of America lost 6.1 billion (75% higher than they expected).” Really? How _do_ they arrive at these figures? I’m only a statistician,  I’m sure these geniuses would never assume that 1)they could actually predict sales without cheating. 2)that piracy represents lost sales. As we OUGHT to know piracy is a bunch of Somalis taking over your ship at gunpoint, but petty data theft is only a loss if the thief would have bought the product. And that, considering the price and often quality and nature of the product, is a lot less than likely.

Then the music bogey-man. I had to laugh at these.

“shows that for a musician to earn the minimum wage in the US, per month, he or she would have to sell either 143 self-pressed CDs, 1,161 retail album CDs or 4,053,110 plays on Spotify (with a 0.0016 percent royalty.”

So – after costs – the muso would have to sell 10% to make the same money? I’d heard they were often lucky to see 2%. Doesn’t prove his point well does it?

Martin Hodkinson states that “Hundreds of people have ‘downed their tools’ in the music business, through no choice of their own. The total income of the industry dropped by 25% between 1999 and 2008 and is expected to fall by 75% by 2013.”

So… run this one past the maths department. The industry, which at best paid the muso 10% is supposed to drop to 25% of it’s 1999 position.  I suppose it would be naive to say to the middlemen well, as you were taking 90% + of the income, and without the musos you get a nice zero… and they can make a living on their own, maybe you need to face taking 15% instead of 90%? Or even 10%.

and so on.

Then we go a Google-bashing (because that’s what the cool kids do.) It’s not about quality content it’s about advertising – this has to be one of the stupidest misinterpretations yet made.  Duh. If the content is good the readers will… you know, do this weird intolerable thing. Tell others they liked it.  And then you know… that bit of content will attract readers and that in turn… will never get noticed by advertisers. Give me a break!

Which leads of course to the big pet zombie always fished out as the final get out of jail free card by the various middlemen in every industry.

“Piracy and competitive discounting – the race to the bottom

Back again to books. In all of the cases above, digital industries have been pushed towards zero price by two factors: (1) mass piracy and (2) the consumer demand for massive discounts. Book piracy has only just begun but it is now very simple to break through the DRM protection systems set up by publishers and to illegally download books in less than 60 seconds.”

Sigh. 1)Piracy is work. Almost no one knocks off a cheap, easy to get legally, well-supported product. See Baen webscriptions for proof.  Yes, there is a bottom limit to what people are prepared to work at and hassle for.  And no, no matter how discounted your prices are… when you reach those thresh-holds, it’s too much like hard work.  Anyway, a vast amount of the cracking is done to ‘take the challenge’.  If there is no challenge, and the book is available in good order, easily, and at a reasonable price – say under $5 for a novel, and you’ve done your homework as the publisher — made sure that the reader knows what share goes to the author, and made sure that readers know ‘no money-no writing happens’, and each reader feels like a patron. And they feel good about it too. But you can’t do this if everyone but the creator — the only person valued by by the consumer — is taking 90% of the income.

2) If DRM can be cracked in 60 seconds (and costs a fortune and stuffs up the product) why bother?

Which brings our friend Ewan to conclude that there are no simple answers…

Which not my conclusion at all. I can see a number of ways, even in his Arts Establishment world, to make the system work.  Of course it would have to change (oh the horror!). Publishers would have to compete with Amazon et al. Authors could do serial books again. Publishers could start working on finding out what readers really wanted and trying the weird… actually nurturing it in partnerships that were worthwhile to stay in for authors. And those are just a few possible ideas.

And the awful future: “it will contain millions of would-be-writers who will labour under the delusion that they can be successful in the way writers were before, in the age of the mainstream and the paper book.”

Iffen  Ah don’ laff, I’s sure as hail gonna cry. No. The cool kids were, Ewen. The rest of us did a thankless job, largely for the benefit of others, who treated us like replaceable widgets.

“There is no simple solution. All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content.
Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to “go it alone” in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.
This is something that publishers are well aware of, but still seem powerless to do anything about. As Sarnoff, CEO of Bertelsman has said, “… as things switch to digital there is the danger that a lot of value can leak out of the industry, and that our authors, our artists won’t have enough revenues there to pay for their best work and that we won’t have enough revenue to pay for our own infrastructure.”
Yep. And that’s it. They won’t have the money for things that add no value to the reader’s appreciation of the book.  Like a NY office.  I’ve broken down as best as possible on Steam Powered Cuttlefish what the vital parts (editing, proofs, covers) of publishing actually cost. Those need stay. The disposable bits… like, um, CEO’s and NY offices don’t. Guess what they’ll try and keep. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
“If the connection between publishers and writers splits completely, if they fail to support and defend each other, then both will separately be subjected to the markets’ demand for totally free content, and both shall have very short lives in the long tail. The writer will become an entrepreneur with a short shelf life, in a world without publishers or even shelves.”
SHORT? Well, it’s easy. The part that gets 10% can’t crimp and don’t have to.  So that leaves the part that gets 90% and needs the creators… maybe an office in Detroit’s rust belt for the CEO? I hear they’re very cheap.
“The only solution ultimately is a political one. As we grow increasingly disillusioned with quick-fix consumerism, we may want to consider an option which exists in many non-digital industries: quite simply, demanding that writers get paid a living wage for their work. “
Oh boy. What a Guardian solution.  Political.  Can you imagine just who would the official writers getting the mandated wage? It wouldn’t be me.
Can you imagine what we’d get to read?
And you thought the choice used to be bad?
UPDATE (this is Sarah Hoyt) — Welcome Instapundit readers and thank you Glenn Reynolds for the link.
Update to the update — those wondering if Dave is as much fun in his fiction as in his non fiction, look here  http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_1_10?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=dave+freer&sprefix=dave+freer  Dave is an amazingly layered and underappreciated writer.  Go look at this books (and stories.)

70 Comments

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70 responses to “Run Away! We’re all doomed!

  1. Dave, thank you. I bow down before you. You have said much clearer what I’ve been telling folks for a long time now. When I saw The Guardian article, my first thought was “Oh look! The Chicken Littles are starting to come out from under their rocks.” This is just the latest in the attempts to scare readers and to justify the suits’ existence at the cost of the author. So thank you for reminding us that the sky isn’t falling and pirates aren’t going to take over the world.

    • Actually I think it’s at least in part a shill game saying 1) Authors mustn’t desert their only possible savior, the publishing industry. 2)The publishing industry saying they need to keep the lions share (Mr Sarnoff’s veiled threat that if they don’t all the good things publishing does will have to go.) and authors will just have to make sacrifices…

  2. If I had enough money, I’d try to commission you to write a Young Adult novel that has this kind of logic in it. I believe that a lot of our problems come from people not understanding business realities.

    There is a sad shortage of resources to help kids grow up into good capitalists.

    • Ori you might struggle to find other sponsors ;-). While my Adam Smith derived philosophy (and I mean this. I’ve actually waded through both of his books, and found the first more valuable than the much misunderstood second) may contain some germs of common sense (small germs!) it doesn’t fit very well well with the tenets of modern capitalistic thought (this is the guy who suggested above that the CEO needs an office in Detroit ;-)) and that the value of a product is commensurate to the amount of labor and skill of that labor, adjusted by the demand, and also believes that deflation is actually economically necessary, and that trust funds should be illegal.

      • ” it doesn’t fit very well well with the tenets of modern capitalistic thought”

        You mean the modern capitalistic thought that included investing in junk mortgage backed securities? The kind that requires bailouts from the government? Somehow, I don’t think that’s what we want kids to learn.

        I may disagree with you on specifics, but I’m pretty sure my kids will take anything they read as gospel(1) anyway.

        (1) We’re Jewish. When we take something as gospel, we try to evaluate any part of how likely it is and argue with everything.

  3. FrancisT

    Ori, I’ve always felt that in the ebook world the best way to get decent work is some variant on patronage. And yes that may be 1000 people chipping in $10 each or one person writing a check for $10,000 or any number of other ways. [And I might indeed be willing to be a part sponsor an author who wrote a book like this. So are there 9 other people with $1000 to commit?]

    Indeed it seems to me that the grauniad bloke seems to be tiptoeing towards asking the government (i.e. the taxpayers and the fools who lend money to govts) to be the patron. Of course he’s only tiptoeing to this point because it is clear to even an arts graduate that the governmental sums don’t add up to positive numbers and that therefore adding another group of governmetn leeches isn’t going to work.

    • There is a web site for that ( kickstarter.com). But you already proved you can do the job yourself with Save the Dragons.

      Lets do a short feasibility study. Dave, how much would you charge to write a Young Adult novel that is fun and choke full of business lessons?

      What premium items can we offer to big donors? Tuckerization rights, I assume. Anything else?

      • Arguably, I’m being rude by even assuming Dave wants to write this kind of story. However Dave Freer doesn’t like high fantasy that much, but he did a good job of it with Dragon’s Ring. So I think it is doable.

      • Replying to Ori – I write for a living, although I choose what I do and won’t write. If Hamas called me tomorrow and offered me 10 million dollars to write a glorification of suicide bombing, I’m not available. I’m fairly flexible, turning the project to my own interest. That said it would be very hard to write something like this with that sort of sponsorship that did not simply read like a paid advertisement, or was not interpreted that way by every Tom, Dick and Harry dissing it. This would probably stop it selling (even though the philosophy in it might be solid common sense) and probably damage my overall selling of books — so to do something like this, well, I’d have to factor in what it was worth doing it for. And the answer is: ‘a lot’. I’d be possibly wrecking my earning potential for years (under a psuedonym, more plausible). Anyway: My business skills are non-existent. The Save the Dragons project was a success in that Francis and Walt did almost everything.

      • Dave: “This would probably stop it selling (even though the philosophy in it might be solid common sense)”

        Ori: Good point. No point in writing the world’s best book, if it’s not read.

    • The thought of government paid writers does make my blood run cold, especially if they’re the only game in town. However there IS scope for government fostering of the arts. 1) More funding for libraries and more public lender funding (whereby the author gets a small royalty on the number of loans his book has) – if this was echoed to the library itself, giving funds for book purchases and possibly even a small bonus for library-staff lending more than a certain ratio per population of their catchment-would have a very positive effect. 2)the area of copyright law needs a serious revist to remove it from exploitation without original creative input (a la Disney). This takes a vast amount of money out of the system and gives it to a bunch who add no creative material, and deserve no protection at all. 3)Projects like ‘One book many Brisbanes’ encouraging regional pride – so long as they focus on popularity not merely ‘literary’ qualities, and are sold, are woth sponsoring, 4)The creative arts add value far beyond your tax base and to your tax base. Reflect this in the way you tax them.

  4. “Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors …”

    _YES!_ (I’m thumping the table) I _demand_ a good editor!

    If I ever find another one for hire at a reasonable rate (One offered to do my book for $5000) I’ll just respect the H**l out of him her or it.

  5. Dave — I bow deeply to you. You, sir, are clear and concise and fearless.

    Pam — the going rate is 1500 and you can get beginners cheaper. And make sure what you’re getting for that is EDITING, not just proof reading, which is yet much cheaper. (And do I need to do a post on the difference?) And editing is as much a vocation as writing. It might take you time to find an editor YOU PERSONALLY can work with. (It’s all about the compatibility — not that you’re difficult to work with )

    • The price quoted made me doubt the experience claimed . . .

      Don’t mind me, I’m at the kvetching stage where the fun work is done and the hard work mostly done, the learning new things is being resisted, and where’s my Muse with a kick ass Idea to take me away from all this?

    • CONCISE? Sarah ;-) Here’s my concise analysis of the article: ‘BS’.
      says it all, dunnit?

      Editing – good editing is beyond rubies. Unfortunately it’s about as rare. I did (and I won’t ever again) do some structural editing. It often ran to longer than the piece edited, and may have taken longer. I suspect, however, that good editors are going to become more available in the near future. Common sense would have them offering to work on a percentage basis with authors who have potential. Sort of like ‘publishing’ or something. Or like it was once.

  6. One of the funniest misconceptions at the heart of the Guardian screed was this:

    …be subjected to the markets’ demand for totally free content…

    There are no markets in “totally free” goods. Implicit in the conception of a market is the notion of actual, you know, value exchanged for value.

    • Very neatly pointed out, Sir. :-)
      Oddly enough most of our concepts of value are self-defined – an item is worth what we were prepared to pay for it. If the item–be it a book or pork sausage–gives us satisfaction according to our expectations for the price, we feel we got a good deal. And the expectation for the price is relative, and not just to other sausages or books. People know 99 cents is cheap for almost anything.

  7. In other words, what we are now trying to figure out is how best (most efficiently) to establish value in exchanges involving stories in the dawning digital age.

    • I’ve heard that Kindle owners often avoid the free and $.99 offerings, assuming them to be virtually unreadable. I don’t think this guy is quite in sync with the buyers.

      • Of course not. There’s nothing like raising the specter of people insisting you give them the result of your hard work free to send the nervous nellies stampeding back to the safety of the known.

        They use this to train animals. Put an electric fence around the boundary you want them to stay inside (“You need us! Those Evil Pirates will steal your stuff if you don’t have us!”). Eventually they stop even trying to get out, and will cower within the “safety” of their little enclosure even when the electric fence is gone.

      • Sigivald

        I avoid $.99 offerings (as a Kindle owner).

        I read lots of free books, but they’re all the old public-domain stuff; I have no faith that the $.99 or $2.99 version will actually have improved formatting or scanning errors corrected.

        (Which is a shame – I might be willing to pay a dollar for that, but lacking the trust factor, I won’t risk it.)

  8. Alright first the post….

    Dude…

    The Sky is Always Falling….

    It’ll stop when it hits the ground, don’t worry.

    Quality content would be nice.
    I’m not going to buy some “socially responsible” piece of dreck if it’s not worth reading. If publishers, and/or self published authors, want me to buy their product then GIVE ME SOMETHING WORTH BUYING. I don’t even like e-books, so I’m not going to pirate a GOSH-DARNED THING!!!! I don’t even do the free stuff that I can get legally because I like the feel of an actual book in my hand.

    Now….

    Speaking of quality content…

    Where can I find a complete list of everything you’ve had published. I’ve read SOME of your stuff and I love it. You’re one of three authors that I’ve read that actually get dragons right.

    Ok, so you do other stuff well too, but the dragon thing is a BIG thing for me…

    I don’t usually check authors websites because they never seem to update them. (BIG PET PEEVE) Check John Ringo’s website if you don’t believe me. I happen to own several books that he has written that aren’t listed there. So is there a complete list somewhere?

    • Jim -hopefully very soon there will be a shiny new wordpress davefreer.com, with links to all the books and e-books. It’s a problem. One of the areas I have to work on, don’t get paid for (directly – I know it earns me money. But it earns 10% for me and the rest of the chain 90% — but I get to pay for it, and it’s my time, which is time out of writing, or family or sleep) don’t have the expertise or the time to fiddle with it. I just don’t have the cash to hire someone to do it and maintain it. I’ve got a couple of friends working on it for me, in their spare time.

      • Dave,

        This is my problem. My stie calls out for a clean up, but… TIME is so scarce.

      • I actually like the web stuff, and I just built a site at wtquick.com that will be devoted to writing. In large part I created it as a marketing device for my own writing, since I am typecast as a political/cultural commentator at my big blog, Daily Pundit.

        But you’re right. It’s time, which is money when it comes to making a living writing. I’m trying to get myself positioned for What Comes After the Great Crash, though. At another site, somebody took issue with me saying that the Big Box Bookstores knocked off the corner book nooks, and now the Big Boxes are going down. “But no,” I was told. “I can still find little bookstores.”

        Which led me to respond with this dismal news:

        Independent bookstores fighting chains, Internet to stay open – USATODAY.com

        Not only that, but even as 200 to 300 independent book stores close a year, the number of independent book stores opening is creeping up.

        “For a long time, from 1992 to 2002, you literally could count on two hands the number of openings,” said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. “In the last three years there are 60, 70, 80 stores opening” each year, he said.

        That’s welcome news for an association that’s watched its membership plummet from 4,000 to about 1,800 since the early 1990s.

        That’s welcome news for an association that’s watched its membership plummet from 4,000 to about 1,800 since the early 1990s.

        So…200-300 closures per year, 60-80 openings, following shrinkage from 4000 to 1800? Would you invest in that industry if it were selling…say…buggy whips? Do the math. Net loss of 200 or so per year, starting from a base of 1800 – in nine years, they’ll be gone.

        Which turned out to be even more dismal than I wanted to deal with. But it makes me more determined to find some way to survive as a professional writer on into this brave new digital future. Gives the quest a greater urgency, too.

  9. Excellent job. I didn’t have the patience to work through every single idiocy like you did, but have a post entitled “Will the World End When Publishers Stop Paying Advances or Immediately Afterwards?” at http://www.thepassivevoice.com/08/2011/will-the-world-end-when-publishers-stop-paying-advances-or-immediately-afterwards/

    • Thanks Passive Guy. I’m one of your regular blog readers BTW (I like reading well-laid out common sense based on knowledge :-), and just loved the post about Agents and irrational trust). I left a lot of demolishing the idiocy out. I didn’t think anyone needed to read 50 pages to realize it was protect the publishers scaremongering.

  10. Ric Locke

    OK, I’m an outlier.
    Pam liked my book, or said she did. Jim didn’t, or not well enough, and the same later for Toni. It sat on my hard drive for years, with nothing happening.
    Then one day I suffered a whim. I spent the rest of the day getting formatting &ct. right (didn’t do so well at the first try) and uploaded it to Amazon.
    Now, I comment a lot and blog a little, and there are quite a number of people ’round the Internet who know my name with positive connotations. Some of them were kind enough to recommend or reference my book.
    Result: coming up on 11,000 sales in three months, with sales now trailing off but currently still hanging in there at a rough average of 2 – 3 per HOUR.
    They say Publicity is All, and I certainly enjoyed (and took ruthless advantage of) some good publicity. But the anecdote about the dog food company works both ways: if the dogs will eat it, there will be continued sales after the first try. The publicity helped enormously, but I’m arrogant enough to think the book itself is good enough to stand on its own once the publicity died down.
    So it is possible. It remains to be seen whether or not it’s easy enough, systematically, to support a decent number of authors. My experience suggests that it at least might be.
    Regards,
    Ric

    • Synova

      I bought your book and liked it, Ric. I’m glad you decided to make it available.

      I’m pretty sure that the only problem with selling it to a publisher was them worrying about marketing something that long.

    • If MataPam hauled it out of the slush it was a good book.

    • Ed Patterson

      Ric,
      I used your link to Amazon. Looked over your book. Loaded Kindle for PC. (I read my Baen books on my PC.) Bought your book and look forward to reading it.

      FYI to Dave: I followed a link from Instapundit to this site.

    • Another sale here. I’ve enjoyed reading your books in the slush pile in Baen. I love that it’s in memory of Michael, I miss him too.

      Looking forward to the read.

      Tania

  11. Pirating was a problem for me, but then the hardback and paperback (and eBook) price was high. By the time my publisher finally took it seriously, 16 full Google pages of bit torrent downloading sites offering my book for free had blossomed on the Internet. And together they boasted something like 150,000 downloads. Bad news for me. Anyway, I agree with much of your take.

    • Warren, while I realize this is probably scant comfort, ‘piracy’ is a kind of progressive tax if you like. I’m unlikely to lose a lot to illegal downloads because I am not a best-seller. JK Rowlings is, and will be a target, no matter if the price is reasonable (although I believe it will reduce it) and it is convenient and generally available. But she has the money to combat it on her own steam, not mine. For me, I’m willing to bet 95% of the illegal downloaders wouldn’t have bothered to buy my book – not for 5 cents, let alone $5. So they’re not much lost money. If I get a 1% return as a future customer by way of this, it’s found money

      • Ric Locke

        The entire text of my book PLUS a complete alternate ending is available on my Web site, and has been for over a year. People bought the book anyway. I don’t think “piracy” a.k.a. unpaid downloads is a big problem for authors. It may be a huge problem for those who want a corner office with a view of Central Park.

  12. Dennymack

    I love how those threatened by the digital era laud the stability, the fairness, of the Old Way. I am old enough to remember reading about how tough it was to be a writer in the paper only age.

    I wonder if the problem of disruptive change is less the point of the article than the solution: “I would like my fellow citizens to pay writers, and I want my peers to chose which writers.”

    I imagine a lot of folks have already read this, but if one needs a good primer on how the recording industry was before digital media took the bread from the musician’s mouth, this is pretty illuminating:
    (Rated PG13 for Occasional Language)

    http://www.negativland.com/albini.html

  13. Dave, what about an alternative patronage model?
    If, say, David Weber or John Ringo (you get the idea) published a “call for advance buyers” saying “OK, you want a new installment of the Honor Harrington/Legacy of the Aldenata/… series? If [say] 20,000 people sponsor it at [say] $10 each I’ll write it, and you’ll get e-copies before everybody else” I’m fairly sure they could make it work.
    Basically, a patronage twist on the Baen ARC model.
    Of course, such a model would work much better for established than for beginning writers, and much better for “more of the same” writing than for writers trying out new genres/series/…

    • Would work without a shadow of a doubt. And it would be easy to ‘piggy-back’ new writers in by the same system. I plan to post on alternatives next week. ‘The advice publishers will be ignoring.’

      • Hm. I like that notion. I also like the notion of serial novels. I’ve been turning that one over in my mind in case the Massive Trilogy doesn’t make it through the trad-pub gatekeepers.

      • William there are a bunch of possible ideas which we need to work on. I’ll get to posting on it sometime in the next few weeks, and would interested in your opinions.

    • Synova

      Steve Miller and Sharon Lee did something similar when they wrote the first draft of Fledgling and Saltation on-line. The next chapter came out only when a set level of “donation” was met. When the book was done a POD was promised to those who had paid, but the ongoing work was available for free to anyone to read on the web-site. Later they sold them to Baen and those who donated got their paper copy of the final version that way. (as I understand it)

      And yes, there was a relatively small but stable and dedicated fan base to support it all.

      A single data point related to “getting things free”… I never did donate during that on-line part of it all, but I did purchase both books as ebook ARCs when they became available. Sometimes you’ve got the funds, and sometimes you don’t.

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  15. The bold/not-bold text in your post is confusing my poor li’l brain. I would normally expect your words to be in regular type and the quotes in bold (or italics), but it’s the reverse. Any particular reason you did it that way?

    • TomDavis

      It’s weirdly formatted, poorly written, and full of musings that were already cliches a decade ago. All this stuff was thoroughly hashed out, turned out and wrung out on your average web message board by the time Napster had been around for six months. Yet the first couple of comments here are all like, “I bow down to your incredible insights, my God what amazing revelations, your bravery has brought me to tears.” Er… what?

      • You’ve missed the point Tom Davis. Or rather, almost all of them. This is a writer’s site, for writers and readers. The post is a response to ‘a dire warning’ in the Guardian about the awful fate that e-books and authors abandoning their traditional publishers will cause, and that government ought to intervene to assure writers of a ‘living wage’. It is only peripherally about piracy (as this was the awful monster authors would be protected from) ergo your Napster comment. An area that is old hat to you perhaps, but very little to do with most of us regulars here, and the publishing arena and e-books share only some of the same issues. The traditional publishing world is a very small closed shop, in which, if you step out of line, ‘you’ll never work in this town again’. And they mean it. You do not criticize it, or, as many a better selling author than I am has found out (see John Norman as an example), you are unable to sell to publishers, get distributed (if you go alone) or get into bookstores. It is an industry with an absolutely opaque financial area, in which authors will and do take the fall for their publishers, distributors and retailers. As in the music industry of 20 years ago, very few people are aware what percentage of the cover price goes to the author. A quick poll we did a few months ago showed that most readers assumed the author got 50% or more of the cover price. I am a traditionally published author (please don’t buy my books, you won’t like them). I’m not supposed to tell the great unwashed public, or the hopefuls, the actual percentages, because they don’t make the industry look good. Nor am I supposed to let out to air the other fact on costs used to justify prices. If you bother to research them you’ll discover they’re very hard to find from credible sources. Amazon is offering 70% of the cover price, on quarterly settlement, on e-books – which is what the publishers and indies and self-pubs are getting. Most traditional publishers are offering authors – at best – 25% of net on e-books (and I could explain net – but the movie industry manages to gross 100s of millions and still have net losses to show where this is going), and as little as 6% of cover for paperbacks. Bi-annually, up to 16 months after the book is released. These bits of information are in this post, and to those who would love to talk about this… understand that I’m sticking my neck out and doing it. You, er… don’t. There is quite a lot more, but never mind.

    • Hmm. Good point. I did it that way because – late to post – I started at the butt-end of the post (where I just finished), where my input was sparse. By the time I got to the other end I was very late, so instead of starting again, I just hit publish. However, you make a viable point and I’ll fix it.

  16. Gail

    I would never pirate an eBook. Maybe because I’m older. It’s not right; it’s stealing. I have learned how to hack the NYT but stick to my 20 free articles a month. I refuse to pay them for their content but that’s just me. It’s a shame authors get so little of the price of their books; if they got more, it might encourage them to write more!

    • Gail, Jim Baen came up with ‘Our customers are not thieves’. And he was right. Theft happens when 1)people think they’re being Robin Hood, 2)they think it’s a victimless crime 3)they’re a nasty piece of work – and would not buy it anyway. Most of the sort of people who would enjoy my books seem to have ethics. I wonder why?

  17. mhjhnsn

    As you point out, the current arrangements are the product of particular technologies and other circumstances, and everything changes—my suggestion to Mr Morrison is that rather than get the government to take food from my family’s mouth at gunpoint, he figure out what people are willing to pay for and go do it. And if that isn’t exactly what he would like to be doing (poor baby), as a hobby he can write what he wants to write–and maybe that hobby will surprise him (and the publishers who aren’t paying him a big advance) and be lucrative.

    • He lives in the UK, mhjhnsn. He already is eligible for government money to do precisely what he wants to do – the dole. He just wants it to equal his old time advances methinks. I agree with you, as to what what he ought to do, though.

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  19. Fiona

    I own a Kindle and regularly buy the 99 cent stories and books in search of new and interesting authors. Usually the second and onward books in series are higher priced. I appreciate this – if I don’t like the first one, I know to avoid the remainder. (I read through Baen on my PC). However, some authors could benefit from at least proofreading and some minor editing, even by friends or relatives! I have often had the inclination to write an author and offer my proofing services free, just to improve the quality of the author’s output. How is it that some authors don’t even do this before sending out on Amazon? Sometimes the read is so painful and the errors so distracting I find it hard to enjoy the work. Any ideas how this function of the publishing business could be inexpensively made available to authors?
    I have my own version of the strike – if the ebook is priced within a couple of dollars of the published version, I won’t buy it. I need to see significant daylight between the versions. I think this will become more common as time goes on. I like the idea of an on-line auction to become a “patron” of a particular author – lots of fans subscribing in advance to whatever their favorite author writes!

    • Fiona,
      The problem when you do your strike is that the publishers assume it’s the author’s fault. If you don’t know this … it’s always the author’s fault. I completely understand and I sympathize with you. I’ve taken to not buying outrageously expensive ebooks but then I make it a point not to buy the paper copy too. But what we need is to inform the publishers we’ve had enough and we’re JUST not gonna take it anymore. For years all their shennenigans have been blamed on the author. The author changes name and you can’t find her anymore? “Why are authors always changing their pen names?” When asked, the author has to mumble something about it being more appropriate to the new series, because otherwise they have to admit they failed. Your favorite series stopped being published? The publishers say (I’ve HEARD this from one of mine) that the author lost interest. The author can’t contradict them — only game in town — so they say “yes, indeedy.” And the writer gets awful angry letters and quite possibly loses half a dozen readers who now “can’t trust them”. In both cases, of course, it was the publisher’s decision. Yeah — as you can tell from my post today (and Dave’s on Monday) we’ve decided to break the code of silence. We’re mad as h*ll and we’re not going to take it anymore. Will you join us as a reader, and put the blame where the blame belongs?

      • Chasm

        One advantage the author has today is that it is very easy to inform his or her readers about changes.

        You do have a website, do you? If not no cookie. ;)
        If you have no time or not the inclination to learn the tech side yourself, there are people who sell that service. Heck, there are probably a few who will do it for being credited on some obscure sub page…

        • Chasm,
          Of coruse I have a website, though the content management thingy has er… gone bad, so now we’re switching sites, which means I need to sit my husband down long enough to tell me how to design a site I can then just take live. Right now I have tangles of links, because it’s been up forever. And my website tells you all my names. What it doesn’t tell you is WHY I have that many names, etc. Look, Ric is right in a way, but it doesn’t even need to be in the contract. All you need to know is that there are five houses (overarching houses) not counting medium publishers (I have a contract extant with one of those, and don’t know how they’ll treat me yet.) The big guys can make “you’ll never work in this town again” stick. And the reason doesn’t need to be that blatant. We have a friend who was blacklisted and to this day has NO clue why, but we have indications it was for a crime of lese-agent, back when agents had a lot more power (and hers was an 800 pound gorilla.) So, are you going to tell readers that the publisher did it? Sure. If you don’t want to work for them again! Also, there is the APPEARANCE. If you tell the reader “My book didn’t sell well enough to continue the series” for those who don’t know the realities of distribution, this is the same as announcing “I’m not that good.” I’m perfectly willing to admit I’m not Shakespeare. Heck, I’m not even Austen. On a good day, I might be fit to polish Dumas’ shoes. But I also know that admitting that in public, at a con, or even a blog, usually puts you on a “I’ll ignore this author” category in reader’s minds. At best it sounds like sour grapes. At worst it sounds like “I suck”. So… no one says anything. And the madness continues. Which is why I don’t care anymore and I’m talking.

      • Ric Locke

        Replying to Chasm (as noted above, it only goes three deep)

        The problem with that is contracts. Entertainment-related contracts — film and plays, music, publishing — are rife with “nondisclosure” provisions that stifle the author, while placing no such burden on the publisher. The only time a writer or performer can confidently tell the audience what’s going on is if the contract is about to be broken anyway, and that’s pretty rare. They’ll sometimes tell you over beer in the rear-most booth of a nondescript bar, but doing it in a public forum can be a form of self-careericide.

        Regards,
        Ric

      • Chasm

        @Sarah and Ric

        Of course things are complicated. ;)

        There are things you can’t (NDA, …) or shouldn’t (because it would be utterly stupid to do so) tell your readers. OTOH there are many positive things you can say.

        Still – Nowadays there /is/ the option to communicate with your readers on a large scale. We are not any longer in the days of snail mail letters.

        I do not necessarily mean a highly interactive site, rather the opposite for the most part. The “usual” author stuff does not change that often. Who am I, which book have I written, where can you buy them. Also, now more important than ever: How can you contact me (or my agent if I have one) if you want to license stuff.
        Put all the interactive stuff in a blog, one Facebook or where ever.

        But then I’m preaching to the choir. ;)
        Ok, Sarah’s site has currently issues, but that is nothing that can’t be fixed in a weekend or so. Transferring content is mostly a c&p job, writing something that explains the many names also. – If Sarah skips writing lengthy blog posts for a day or two . ;)
        [Rule number one: Always let someone else do the content generation. ;) ]

        @NDA: I saw one for a US publisher a while back. Yuck. Thankfully that cup passed me. (Because I wasn’t in the right place at the time.)

    • Fiona – you’ll find a lot of authors (both indies and on traditional contracts) who will happily accept you as a first reader if you write to them and say you picked up typos in their work and would like to (many of them happy to send you a free pre-publication copy – I do this with a group of first readers). :-) My first readers, I know by now, have become some of my best customers (despite getting the book for free) and best word of mouth advocates, so it’s worth it for any author. The other services ARE available – sometimes beyond the means of the author – editing, proofing, and layout and cover, shopping around you could probably do a better job than most midlisters get from their publisher job for about $2.5K… But at 30 cents a copy, that’s a lot for a new writer to recover. For some folk, that’s small change. For me… it’s about a month’s income. Yes, I would do better flipping burgers. But unlike Ewan watsisname, I do not believe the world owes me a living for pursuing my chosen path.

      I believe online auctions and serial novels will happen. And the sooner we get readers to see themselves as the patrons supporting their fave authors the better. But – given Baen as an exception where readers DO support the house – most readers are happy to support the author. Not the publisher, or the distributor. The retailer… somewhat. We all have our favorite book stores we want to see succeed and be there.

  20. I don’t know Dave. I get a kick out of this “free content doesn’t pay” then I read http://www.daybydaycartoon.com; Chris Muir is totally reader supported with a fund drive once a year. Maybe its a liberal mindset that prevents one from thinking outside the box to find ways to make money writing, or creating art?

    • Hi, Lev,

      I think you’ll find that like the other reader-supported webcomic artists around, Chris Muir spent a LONG time plugging away without much of anything until he had enough of a loyal readership to be able to support himself with a fund drive. The same goes for Howard Tayler and Schlock Mercenary and some of the other longer-running webcomics.

      Most of the ones I follow are still working a day job and fitting their comics in around that – Howard is the only one I know of that’s been able to make his comic his job.

      For someone who writes novels, you’re talking about in some cases a year or more of work, which mostly can’t be written and published as you go because of the way narrative operates in novels (It’s not accidental that many of the serialized novels were complete before they started being serialized: the ones that weren’t are loaded with loose ends, strange coincidences, and all manner of other messy plot devices).

      It’s a model that’s worth investigating – but not one that’s worth quitting the day job for.

    • Lev – it can be made to pay. The coinage is not always direct cash in hand. There are many possibles, that I plan to discuss in about 2 weeks time. But it is, mostly, a lot of work. That I don’t have a problem with. What I do have problem with is ‘you do all (or 90%) of the work, we’ll support you to the extent that it piggybacks for free or minimal investment on the full effort we put into our current cool kid (See http://madgeniusclub.com/2011/08/31/he-beats-me-but-he%E2%80%99s-my-publisher/ for Sarah’s breakdown of bookstore marketing for the midlist), and we’ll claim 94% of the income.’ Thank you. I’ll have 70% – or 100% where I sell directly, and pay for the services I need. I do not need to carry your historical model of business.

  21. Oh I so love a good rant, and I have to say, Dave, that was one of the best and feistiest I’ve read in a long while (and most coherent and well written).

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