Of good decisions and bad

With summer fast approaching, con season is getting into full-swing and people’s minds turn to vacation. Looking at some of the news coming out about the publishing industry, it is clear that some folks had their brains go on vacation earlier that usual. At least that’s the way it seemed yesterday when I was trolling the internet looking for anything of interest to blog about today. Well, to be honest, not everything was of the shut-off-brain variety, but there was more than enough to have me shaking my head.

The first “huh” moment came when I read that a children’s publisher based out of New England had decided not to sell its titles through Amazon (U.S. and U.K.). If you just read that and then did a double-take, join the club. I did the same thing. Yep, a publisher has decided not to sell its books through what is arguably the largest online retailer of books. This isn’t like the battle between Amazon and the Big Six several years ago when they were fighting over e-book pricing.

No, Barefoot Books isn’t going to work with Amazon any longer because Amazon doesn’t conform to Barefoot Books’ “commitment to diversity and grassroots values.” This isn’t the first time Barefoot has dropped a major market. According to the article, it stopped selling its books through Barnes & Noble and Borders seven years ago. Some of the reasons given are “low ball pricing”, delayed payments and the difficulty they had with the “automated” customer service system.

All of those may be valid concerns. My skepticism about them comes from the fact that we aren’t reading a lot from other small to mid-sized presses about slow pay or problems finding a person to talk to at Amazon. I know from my own experience with KDP that all it takes is an email and I can get someone to call me back if I have a question about something for NRP. Yes, I know that isn’t exactly what Barefoot is talking about, but it does make me wonder.

My next thought is to wonder why anyone in the business would cut themselves off from the largest potential market available. Yes, indie bookstores are making a comeback, but it is slow. For those without a good indie bookstore in their area, they are going to boot up their computer and go straight to Amazon — or BN.com — to order a book. Unless they are familiar with a publisher, they aren’t likely to go searching for publishers looking for a book to entertain or educate their child. Instead, they will look at what Amazon or another online retailer has to offer and buy from there.

I wish Barefoot luck, but I really wonder if they haven’t just metaphorically — and economically — shot themselves in the economic foot.

The next bit dealt with a post I saw linked to on Facebook. It wasn’t so much the linked to post that bothered me, although I do disagree with some of what the author says, but it was the way folks jumped onto the boat to say, “Yes! I’ve been trying to tell folks this all along!” The post itself, discussing some information released by Mark Coker of Smashwords, focuses on how direct e-book publishing isn’t as great as some folks try to make it out to be and how most folks who go into it aren’t going to be successful (yes, this is an over-simplification, but that’s because next week I’m going to do a more in-depth discussion of what Coker said and how it applies not only to Smashwords but to other venues.)

What got to me, as I said, were some of the comments. Many of them were in support of traditional publishing, the sneers at self-published authors or small press published authors clear. One person even commented about how he’d rather get 7% of 10,000 sales than 70% of 10 sales. That comment is where my bullshit meter went off the scale and I knew I wouldn’t be able to let this go without making at least some sort of comment.

The logic of the above statement escapes me. If an author is selling 10,000 copies of something that has been traditionally published, that author has a following. That means he will certainly sell more than 10 copies of something he puts out on his own. Even if he never mentions the title anywhere outside of his dreams, he will sell more than 10 copies. Why? Because folks searching for his name will find that title listed and will buy it. So, fallacy number one.

But the big fallacy with the commenter’s statement is that to receive royalties on 10,000 copies of a title is that he first has to sell through and earn out his advance. All you have to do is read author blogs — and I’m not talking about newbie authors. I’m talking established authors who have been writing and publishing for years — to learn that they rarely, if ever, earn out their advances. Part of the reason for this is they aren’t receiving a true accounting of their sales. How can they when publishers rely upon Bookscan that only reports partial sales and then magically extrapolates the “actual” sales?

Add to this that publishers will then look at those same inaccurate sales figures when time comes to negotiate your next contract, if you are lucky enough to get a contract, your advance will be less than before.

It also ignores the fact that print runs are not what they once were. Pre-orders and publisher push (ie, anointing Author A as the next big thing while Author B is not given the same push) determine print runs as well as the number of books sold vs. the number printed for the previous book by that author. Most authors, if they are being honest and aren’t some place where their agent or editor will overhear, will admit that their print runs decline from title to title and they have yet to “earn out” their royalties.

So, the commenter dissing those who decide to self-publish to get the higher royalty rates is exactly the same person, generically speaking, that the original blogger said we shouldn’t really be listening to — one of those who are successful and who are, as a result, the exception in this industry and not the rule.

Is this my way of saying everyone should publish on their own and they’ll be successful? No, absolutely not. What I’m saying is that when you take raw data and try to make it fit your premise, it doesn’t always work. For one thing, the sales figures don’t take into account if the author has one title or 100 out there. It is data from only one outlet. It doesn’t break down how much money an author is making based on whether their titles were sold only by Smashwords or through the “premium catalog”. It doesn’t break down sales based on genre, or fiction v. non-fiction. It doesn’t take into account print sales either and how digital sales may or may not drive those sales. Simply taking a couple of raw data graphs to prove a point, even if it is a point I agree with, isn’t good math or science.

Writing is hard work. To be successful at it, you first have to define what “success” is. Your definition quite possibly will differ from mine. What I’d like to see is a break down of authors who self-publish one or two titles and then nothing else. They get discouraged because they don’t get rich quick or get lousy reviews, etc. They don’t understand writing is more than just putting the words down on paper, so to speak.

What brought all this on this morning? Probably a comment on Sarah’s blog yesterday where someone who was oh-so-superior, in his own mind at least, than the rest of us. First of all, he made the mistake of saying Heinlein wasn’t a good writer. Then, when folks didn’t agree with him, he came back and asked if we ever read anything that wasn’t published by Baen or self-published. Yep, he went there. Yep, he was a troll. But it simply underscored the problem we still have in this industry. There are still those who have been so protected by their publishers, so “cherished”, that they have forgotten — if they ever knew — how hard it is for the rest of us to break in to traditional publishing. It isn’t that the talent isn’t there. It isn’t that the desire isn’t there. But legacy publishing can only put out so many books a month. That’s the way their business models are set up. The ability to get our books and short stories out there on our own or through small presses has been our path to success — and yes, a number of indies have become successful.

So, figure out which path you want to follow and do it. But take this piece of advice: hedge your bets and do your research and never slam any door until you’re sure you don’t want back in.


  1. More and more authors are taking the old advice about not putting all their eggs in one basket. Too many traditional publishers fail to realize that they (as a whole) are no longer the only basket around. And some publishers need to think about that, before limiting the markets where their product is available.

    _I_ need to get off my duff and take my own advice. My first try at Kobo was . . . less than impressive, but I need to not just give up. I need to get all my books onto Kobo, and B&N. Check into the iBook requirements . . .

    But a small publisher dropping a major market is . . . unbelievable. A nice example of Real Life being able to get away with doing things that would _never_ fly in a work of fiction.

    Really. Can you imagine your heroine getting into trouble while out job hunting, because her old company was failing due to ceasing to sell through Amazon? Because, you know, Amazon wasn’t socially conscious enough, or some such. Nope. You’d have to come up with a _believable_ cause. Like, she thinks the Boss has become a werewolf or maybe a Vampire, because they’ve switched to all night hours, which is just killing business.

      1. It wasn’t difficult. Just a bit different formatting requirements. But I just put up a single book. Three months, zero sales. So I yanked it, put it into the Amazon select program and took it free. I figure once it’s had exposure, it’ll sell better elsewhere.

        I need to do it with my old series, that’s pretty well saturated the “Free on Amazon!” market.

        Right now I’m doing Create Space. My usual “Learn by doing it wrong until it finally works” method is going quickly, since the manuscript is already cleaned up for kindle.

          1. I’ve just redownloaded, after my first proof . . . well, by the time I finished going through it, red pen in hand, it looked like it was bleeding. Some of it was formatting issues. More of it was being a better writer than when I wrote it. Better dialog tags and such.

            It was pretty easy (AKA, tedious and nitpicky) with Word. Custom sized paper, mirror indents, and then figuring out how the scene breaks, page numbers and headers commands worked. I just submitted it as a .docx and the conversion went fine. The third time, after I got everything out of the trim area.

          2. I got it down to a *system*, she said smugly. Really! I can get the interior AND cover done in about 3 hours now. Would be happy to babble about it if there is interest.

    1. Now you have to write that book, Pam. You know it. You planted the seed and it is yours πŸ˜‰

      What were your issues with Kobo? As for iBooks, they do have a little different requirement re: internal images and you do have to have a Mac with a certain OS or higher to do a direct upload. Otherwise, you have to go through Smashwords or another third party.

      1. Let’s see. IIRC, it was no blank lines. No hard page breaks. No active table of contents and so forth. Just a matter of finding what has to be removed from the basic manuscript that was just right for Kindle.

        The worst problem I had wound up being a glitch with my computer. It simply won’t download some things. Still haven’t figured it out. But if I stick the file on a thumb drive, and connect through my little notebook . . . no sweat. Proof positive that computer run on magic. πŸ˜‰

          1. I see I’ve got an EPUB file as well, so I must have converted the word file. Although, knowing my methods, I probably tried uploading first one and then the other. Sorry, it’s been three months, so which method worked for me? Who knows? No doubt I’ll learn all over again, next time.

            1. I always upload the format that is sold in the store. That’s led to fewer headaches over all for me. Ping me when you get ready to do Kobo again and I’ll see if I can help.

              1. If it doesn’t go up quick and easy, I’ll whimper for help.;)
                The first one looks good on my Nook. What other reader(s) would you recommend for checking?

                1. Check it on your computer using Adobe Digital Editions and then, if you have access to a tablet, with the app on it, Apple or Android.

  2. My biggest issue with this was comparing apples to oranges. Forget even the number of books any given author has. Most of the people self-publishing right now are the equivalent of what I did for thirteen years, sending out short stories and novels that no one bought. They’re newbies, earning their stripes. How much money did I make in those thirteen years? Well, I sold a short story… for $15. Which the magazine never paid. I daresay at that, just law of averages, a writer is MORE likely to make more than that in 13 years going indie.
    But what I mean is, the vast majority will almost not sell, because the vast majority is not just unknown but still trying to figure out the craft.
    If you eliminate those, and go with people who’ve been writing long enough to know how to tell a story and that it’s more than pretty words… Your luck comes into it, of course, and how much your story appeals, but most newbies I know are AT LEAST breaking even over three years or so tot he 3k advance that new books now offer. They’re not going to get rich, but they also don’t have to live in fear of being cut for reasons they can’t control. (Such as 9/11 destroying book buying the month my first book came out.)
    But then if you add in the people trying to sell their first story (sell, meaning real money not pays in copies and not “royalties” that never materialize) traditionally, you’re going to come up with worse figures for traditional published. The chances of even getting bought are ten to one, and well… of my “class” in SF/F — people published for the first time that year — I can count on one hand the ones still writing. And I WILL NOT need every finger.
    And then it’s from Smashwords. When I started out at SW, it made me about half what Amazon made. Since then they’ve done something to their algorithm, and they’re now pegged at about 1/4 the Amazon revenues and falling. It’s more though their outlets, but that comes in irregular and weird chunks and the grumbling is more and more — among writers — that it CAN’T be right because none of it adds up.
    So you take figures from SW at your own risk. (Besides, what kind of outlet subsisting from Indie tries to discourage indie? Is it exculpation? Does not compute.)

    1. I needed that kick in the reality. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. Here I am thinking I’m a failure because I haven’t sold anything for going on twelve years. But, before that, I was earning ten times SFWA’s minimum word rate for ten-to-fifteen columns a year. So, really, I’m just going through a slow patch. ::grin:: Keep buggering on, Alger!


      1. That’s right, Mark. Keep on keeping on πŸ˜‰

        And you pointed out another issue I have with the graphs and those using them to justify why they don’t self-publish and no one else should either. They don’t talk about those writers who try to sell to the legacy publishers and can’t get through the door. It isn’t because they aren’t good writers. At least not usually. It’s because they don’t have an agent or the agent doesn’t send the book to the right publisher or the publisher isn’t looking for that sort of book just then. How many writers have given up because they couldn’t get an agent and, therefore, couldn’t submit to most publishing houses?

      2. And that’s why I waded into the FB with both feet and I’m now somewhat quiet — because otherwise I’ll kill someone — because people spreading nonsense about indie are spreading fear.

    2. Absolutely.

      The other problem is that the graphs used in the blog I referred to — and that are causing such an uproar on Facebook right now — are only two of a number of graphs Coker released. So you really aren’t even getting the full picture of what Coker was trying to say. Add in that these are only for Smashwords and not other outlets and, well, the problems just keep on growing.

      As I noted in one FB thread about this, folks have to make their own decisions about whether to go indie or traditional press. Do you go legacy publishing or small press? And what are the benefits of each. Then add in the time it takes to look for and find an agent, and for them to then submit and hopefully sell your book, and weigh that against being able to put it up much quicker on your own or through a small press. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just because self-published works don’t hit best seller levels right away or you might get discouraged. Do your research and remember that the publishing landscape is changing, whether the old guard likes it or not.

        1. Indie is amazingly freeing. I stopped going “Is this acceptable to a publisher?” to just tossing it out on Kindle and finding out if it’s acceptable to readers. _And_ I’ve got stuff with a small press. I will, pretty soon just give up on the big traditional publishers altogether and part, hopefully peacefully, from my agent. :: Ahem :: One suspects he’ll be relieved . . .

  3. Has anyone tried the Draft to Digital distributor?

    It’s fairly new, but it’s supposed to do what Smashwords does, without nearly as much hassle. I’m considering testing it with a volume of poetry, and seeing what happens.

    1. Yes. Just for iStore distribution, since I don’t have a Mac. This also means I only checked the formatting with their online tool, but it seemed decent to me (N.B. I am not as anal about kerning/centering/etc. as I am about spelling, gratuitous Strange Symbols, or sudden font changes so keep that in mind).

      Already got some sales so it seems to be working. Much easier to use than Smashwords in my experience.

    2. I haven’t used them but have a couple of reservations — of course I have the same or similar reservations for any third party provider like this. But the main concerns I have are that part of the information on the site refers to it as still being in beta. I can’t tell for sure if that is still the case or not.

      Also, when you upload your Word document to them and they convert it, they choose the style of formatting, not you. That says two things to me: cookie cutter formatting (where all ebooks look the same) and no special formatting allowed.

      Another concern is that if one of the retailers they put your book into doesn’t pay for sales, they have no responsibility to you to try to get payment. While this is standard boilerplate, it is something to consider since most of these third party retailers will tell you they can’t deal with you since their contract is with the distributor.

      They can also change the metadata for your ebooks, which can effect search results. Their limitation of liability also pretty much tries to put them in a no loss position. Again, that is pretty standard, but it still bothers me.

      All that said, they do give you ownership of the files they create. Or at least that is how it seems on a quick read through of the Terms of Service. So, right now, I guess I see it as a crap shoot. And, since most of the retailers they distribute to allow you to upload a Word doc direct to the site for conversion, I’m not sure why anyone would go through them, unless it is to get into iBooks/iTunes if you don’t have a Mac.

      But then, I am particular about how our ebooks look and want to have the final say so before they go live.

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