More competition, more opportunity

Two articles caught my eye in recent days.  One slots into what I spoke about last month;  the other opens up new possibilities for those willing and able to entertain them.

Last month I pointed out that a sea change was underway in the market for independent authors.  I noted that Amazon.com had just changed the payment structure for its Associates program, and speculated that similar changes to its independent publication terms and conditions could not be far away.  It looks like the publishing industry is taking exception to another new Amazon policy.

Amazon finds itself in the crosshairs of authors and publishers once again — this time for a new “buy” button on its site that allows book re-sellers offering cheap books in new condition to get top billing — ahead of original publishers.

Until last week, the primary “add to cart” buy button has always belonged to the original publisher, the Authors Guild points out, with Amazon paying the publisher 45 percent of the list price.

. . .

Re-sellers, who are offering books that claim to be in “new condition,” often at steep discounts, don’t kick back anything to the publisher or authors after a sale.

. . .

Amazon counters it has embraced competitive pricing in most categories for years.

“We have listed and sold books, both new and used, from third-party sellers for many years,” a spokesperson for the e-commerce giant said. “The recent changes allow sellers of new books to be the “featured offer” on a book’s detail page, which means that our bookstore now works like the rest of Amazon, where third-party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items. Only offers for new books are eligible to be featured.”

There’s more at the link.

This makes perfect sense to me as a consumer.  In many cases, where a book’s not available from the original publisher, or the publisher’s price is too expensive, I’ve gone ahead and bought a used copy from a third party on Amazon.com.  Just last week, I bought a like-new copy of a much-sought-after book that’s long out of print, “Two Wheels to Adventure: The First Overland Journey from Alaska to Argentina“.

Cover image 'Two Wheels to Adventure'

It was very expensive, too;  but it was in mint condition, and signed by the author.  Given the book’s scarcity, I wasn’t about to complain!  However, that was for a book no longer available from its publisher.  It looks as if Amazon’s new policy will apply to all books, whether currently in print or not – and some publishers appear to be crying foul about it.

I’m not sure they have a case.  There will always be those who buy on price as a primary criterion – I’m one of them, most times.  I buy a lot of books, particularly as research materials for my own books.  If their new price (even in e-book format) is significantly higher than the price of a used print edition (many being available on Amazon.com for as little as $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping), I routinely buy the used copy.  If a third-party seller comes into possession of a book at a low price, and passes that saving on to the consumer, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s a win for the reader.  Only if the copy(ies) is/are stolen will there be anything to worry about.

Nevertheless, the new policy proves yet again that Amazon will put the interests of its customers ahead of all others, including those of the author and/or publisher.  We aren’t the company’s primary focus, and we shouldn’t expect to be.

The second article reports on the success of an Australian illustrator in China.

When it was suggested to Indigenous Australian author Bronwyn Bancroft that her picture books for children be translated into Chinese, her first thought was the size of the population.

“Being able to take a story, especially the images, to another country that large,” she recalls.

The Mandarin translation of Big Rain Coming, one of 30 children’s books Bancroft has created, was launched on Thursday as part of Australian Writers’ Week in China.

Cover image 'Big Rain Coming'

On her first morning in Beijing, she said the reception had been “just crazy”. She was moved to tears at the response to her bright images of bush and home at a Beijing primary school.

Seven and eight year-olds gasped at photographs of giant eucalypt, and family anecdotes of swimming in creeks, watching out for the platypus.

But it was when her paintings of life as a Bundjalong woman were projected onto the big screen that spontaneous clapping thundered in the Fangcaodi school hall.

She told the children she created them with a tomato sauce bottle. “What!” they shrieked.

. . .

A look at China’s book sales figures explains why Australian publishers are beating on Beijing’s door. Book sales in China rose 12 per cent in 2016, to reach 70 billion yuan ($13 billion), according to the Publisher’s Association of China. Children’s books surged 29 per cent.

Xiao Liyuan, the deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Literature Publishing House, said online shopping was the main driver of the surge, making up 70 per cent of book sales.

. . .

To compete with online sellers, and boosted by government tax breaks, book stores are transforming into cultural hubs and designing new spaces that appeal to the cashed-up middle class.

Bookseller Zhongshuge attracted a queue of 20,000 people when the independent chain opened a new store in Hangzhou inspired by an amusement park.

The grande dame of state publishing, Xinhua, will launch a 4000-square-metre store in Shanghai in September designed by Japan’s most famous architect, Tadao Ando.

The CITIC book chain says it will open 60 new stores this year.

Again, more at the link.

It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of penetrating so large a market… but how many of us are considering it?  I suspect that most indie authors are daunted at the prospect of translating our work into a language we don’t understand.  There are also cultural implications, as well as possible plot and setting changes to accommodate local sensitivities.  (For example, if your villains are exclusively Chinese, who always lose, and your heroes exclusively Americans, who always win… you might not do very well in the Chinese market!)  For that matter, what are the odds of being ripped off by local imitators?  To mention just one example, there are – or were – upwards of a dozen fake Harry Potter novels circulating in China!  You can find details of some of them here.

Nevertheless, we should be thinking about such opportunities.  If we’ve achieved local success, why not consider expanding our horizons, and our marketing?  There are already deals available to produce audio versions of our books, with no payment up front and a 50% sharing of revenue with the narrator.  Are there similar deals out there for translations?  If not, are we prepared to take the initiative and try to set up something on our own?  Could we form alliances for mutual support with Chinese indie authors who’d like to break into the US market, so that we help each other translate and market our works?  Are we prepared to look for IP lawyers who understand the market(s) in question, and can guide us with respect to local laws, particularly concerning copyright?  The potential rewards might make such steps worthwhile, particularly if a group of indie authors were to get together to share the costs, as well as what they learn, jointly and severally.

We need to invest time and careful attention into studying the state of the market.  It’s always changing, and for those who keep abreast of the changes and look for opportunities in them, there’s money to be made – even as a small-time indie author.  On the other hand, if we ignore the changes, we’re likely to be left behind, stranded like a beached whale, when the tide that’s currently floating us moves on to new shores.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “More competition, more opportunity

  1. paladin3001

    Market penetration in China is a risky thing. One other thing to look at all the cheap knockoffs is that they are a portion of all sales. Think it’s time to start looking at my stable of “translators” and see if they are up to it. One piece of advice for getting things translated into Chinese, make sure your translator is NOT a native of PRC. Their translations tend to be a little…odd… Not to mention inconsistent. I can’t recall how many bronze plaques I ran across in Beijing that had bad grammar, or spelling, cast and mounted.

  2. “Are we prepared to look for IP lawyers who understand the market(s) in question, and can guide us with respect to local laws, particularly concerning copyright?”

    Given a dozen fake Harry Potter stories, it sounds like local copyright law is ten bucks in the right Party official’s hand.

    People I know who do business in China say it’s completely Wild West over there. Lots of drinking to excess and so forth, and the bigger the deal the more drinking and “so forth” goes on.

    A decent Chinese translation and selling your e-book from a reputable company would be difficult, I think. Possible, but not a walk in the park.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      There was a translation effort for a particular Chinese novel that got stopped partly because of issues with licensing the English translation. It was obviously inspired by WH40K, even if wildly different in tone. Chinese market doesn’t seem to have had a problem over the IP issues. I infer that a translation into English in a US or British jurisdiction would have run into issues with how litigious GW is.

  3. Peter:
    Guess I’ll have to learn Mandarin.
    On a side note do you know of any timetable for a paperback or hardcover edition of your western sequel?
    Regards

  4. Interesting on the sellers. Wonder if this will drive prices down from the big 5?

  5. *Little head shake* It feels odd to be thinking about the Chinese market when I’m having to limit distribution elsewhere because of laws about speech and censorship.

  6. BobtheRegisterredFool

    There’s penetration going the other way, Chinese fiction being translated into English for profit. Some lessons from that.

    1) Translation is tricky, but translators are available.
    2) Companies like Qidian seem to be reputable efiction retailers.
    3) Some of the translation into English websites claim to have set up licensing agreements with Chinese retailers. The one I’ve heard a little about was set up by a guy who travels to China for business, who seems to have handled the deals of the sort that you’ve mentioned.

  7. Uncle Lar

    One of the authors I support and I were taken aback when we saw that the day her latest book went live in print on Amazon there were already resellers offering it at a discount. The book is full indie with POD through Ingram Spark so there was no way they could actually have a copy to sell. After some thought we realized that these were operations with a wholesale IS account who simply offer every new POD on Ingrams available list. They don’t actually place an order with Ingram until they receive one from a customer. Mostly what they are doing is discounting the cover price and making up the difference in shipping charges, or in some cases willing to make a smaller profit on a product that they have no investment in.

    • Dorothy Grant

      The main source of upset seems to come from authors and publishers aimed at vendors who are reselling unmarked remaindered books as new. (Which they are; they’re still in original packaging and crating, most of the time, especially hardcovers. So if a publisher dumps a lot of remainders on the market before it officially takes the book out of print… People may buy the remainders ahead of the “still in print” books.

      For example, let’s look at some politician’s book that was way overprinted, with huge numbers remaindered. Hard Choices is being sold in kindle for $13.99, in hardcover for $10, and paperback for $11.52. However, the hardcover “buy new” button is actually for a reseller, not for Simon & Schuster or Amazon buying direct from the distributor. So even if the hardcover is still in print, they may be directing you to a vendor selling remainders instead. If it’s not, the remainder price is still undercutting the direct-from-publisher profits.

      If publishing were logical, they’d take this as a good hint that it’s time to stop pushing bestsellers by flooding bookstores with books that won’t sell, and remaindering the rest. But… publishers.

  8. Interesting on the new buy button. It makes me wonder whether it would be worth the hassle to get at least some of the books back up on Amazon.

    OTOH, the negatives from the scammers are still there, and will linger indefinitely, which means I’ll be vulnerable to similar pressure unless and until I can get enough positives to render them irrelevant.

    And there’s the stress and anxiety of dealing with Incredibly Picky Customers that was always hanging over my head.

  9. One of the people in the local writers group, who ahs interactions with China, observed that according to his contacts over there English is no longer taught as a foreign language. It is taught as a central skill, like arithmetic. As a result, China apparently has more English-speaking or reading people than any other country in the world, or so it was claimed.

  10. TRX

    I predict for every customer who wouldn’t consider buying a new book, there’s a matching customer who wouldn’t consider buying a used one.

  11. @TRX . . . who wouldn’t consider buying a used one

    But the new Buy Button rules are for ‘new’ books. Nothing changes for those sold as ‘used’ even if the same books.