Author Archives: Peter Grant

It’s time to face facts: online lending and streaming media is, increasingly, the future of books.

(If you’re thinking deja vu, yes, this post was scheduled to appear on Friday, and accidentally came out on Thursday for a while before being rescheduled. Apologies for the confusion!)

I’ve written before about the threat that streaming media poses to traditional book sales.  I’ve had a certain amount of pushback about that, particularly from those who don’t like the thought of their income from writing declining to such an extent.  Some have even refused to make their books available on streaming services such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.  Now, however, the signs are clear.  We have to face up to the reality of streaming media in our future – or be swept aside.

Those signs are most clear in other areas of the entertainment industry.  Let’s not forget, that is our industry, too.  We’re not selling books.  We’re selling entertainment, and our products (books and stories) are competing with every other avenue of entertainment out there – movies, TV series, music, games, the lot.  If we don’t offer sufficient entertainment for consumers’ dollars, they’re going to spend them on another form of entertainment – and we’re going to starve.

The recent release of Taylor Swift’s new album brought some very sobering figures with it.

… in the three years since Ms. Swift’s last album, the music industry has changed so drastically that much of the old playbook no longer applies … what counts as a hit when all the traditional goal posts keep moving?

In 2014, when Ms. Swift released her last album, “1989,” streaming accounted for only 23 percent of music consumption in the United States, according to Nielsen, and it was still seen as unproven format. Ms. Swift snubbed Spotify as a “grand experiment” with unappealing economics, and “1989” sold 1,287,000 copies in its first week, better than any album in the previous 12 years.

Now, streaming is 63 percent of the market, and the success of subscription platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have turned the fortunes of the entire industry around. Last week, shares of the French media conglomerate Vivendi rose after Goldman Sachs valued Universal Music, a Vivendi division, at $23 billion, almost triple the size of a takeover bid four years ago.

But with streaming on the rise, sales of CDs and downloads — the most lucrative formats — are plunging fast. So far in 2017, the market for single-track downloads is down almost half of what it was three years ago. The question lingering over the industry is whether Ms. Swift can match her last sales number, and how.

“For the right artist, there is gigantic demand out there,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen. “But in order to reach that same level of success, there are different levers today to push and pull than there were the last time.”

There’s more at the link.  Interesting reading for all entertainers (like ourselves).

The changed market for music (which, the Financial Times claims, has saved the music industry) is mirrored in the changed market for movies.  Consider these headlines over the past year:

I might add that movie theaters are in no doubt as to their competition:

“Our competition is not Netflix. It’s not the internet. It is sporting events, it is bowling, it is nightclubs,” Tim Richards, CEO of leading U.K. movie theater chain Vue Cinemas, told CNBC last week.

That quote was from 2016.  Just look what’s happened to the 2017 box office.  There were other factors in play, but I think Mr. Richards was right.  Competition from other sources of entertainment meant that when Hollywood didn’t deliver a sufficiently entertaining product, its consumers simply spent their dollars elsewhere.  We, as writers, face the same dilemma.

Since we’re part of the entertainment industry, and also subject to the vagaries of that market, writers are going to have to get used to making much less money per copy of their work than they’re used to.  I’ve been analyzing my own sales since I started releasing my books in 2013.  There’s a very clear decline in the sales of each book, both older titles and new, as Kindle Unlimited ‘borrows’ ramp up.  Combining the numbers, I’m moving a similar number of copies, but earning much less for each.  Today, I’d guesstimate that I’m going to make between one-third and one-half as much per book, in total, as I did back in 2013, and that figure is continuing to decline.

There’s another important factor, and that is the level of competition we face.  When I started publishing my own books in 2013, Amazon.com’s Kindle Store had just over two million titles available, both paid and free.  Today, as I write these words, Amazon.com reports that there are 5,533,182 publications available in the Kindle Store.  The number is increasing by 50,000 to 100,000 per month – I’ve checked it over the course of this year.

Do the math for yourself.  There are more and more titles chasing approximately the same number of consumers – and those consumers have probably got fewer entertainment dollars to spend today than they had four or five years ago.  The economy hasn’t improved.  Ergo, each title we offer has to be that much more attractive to consumers than the multitude of competing titles out there, if we’re going to make a living from our writing.

If we add that increased competition to the reduction in “pure” sales caused by the rise of services such as Kindle Unlimited, we face a real problem.  The Amazon.com sales ranks achieved by my independently published books rival, and frequently exceed, those achieved by my work published commercially by Castalia House and, most recently, Baen.  However, that’s cold comfort when I have to work harder for every sale, and I make less money per sale or ‘borrow’.  That’s reality.

This means that we, as writers, are going to have to do more to promote and sell our books.  I know we’ve hashed out the implications of an Internet presence, mailing lists, etc. ad nauseam.  I won’t repeat all that again.  Nevertheless, if we’re going to make less per book, we’re going to have to sell a lot more copies – in the face of greatly increased competition – in order to make a living at the writing game.  That means we’re going to have to look into new methods of promoting and advertising our work.

Mike Shatzkin points out that cooperative marketing and support has the potential to be a much more important factor for authors.

One expectation I’ve had that has never become manifest is a “United Artists” for authors. Although the original vision didn’t last long, UA was formed in 1919 by the biggest movie stars then alive: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Another example of artists joining to manage their own business, and one that has lasted a lot longer with its original vision, is Magnum Photos, formed in Paris by Cartier-Bresson and several other photographers.

Since the digital age began, I have been expecting a handful of major authors to form a publishing house. It has never happened. A few, notably Stephen King, did some experimentation (remember “Riding the Bullet”?) but true commercial use of independent publishing has not tempted the authors who have been working with established publishers to strike out on their own.

But Trelstad made clear that authors are talking to each other about marketing and organizing themselves to help each other. With modern digital tools, this is easy. It is also very hard to track. There is one effort that has gotten some notoriety called the Tall Poppies, a collection of writers organized and spearheaded by author Ann Garvin. Their mission statement explains that “Tall Poppy Writers is a community of writing professionals committed to growing relationships, promoting the work of its members, and connecting authors with each other and with readers. By sharing information and supporting one another’s work, we strive to stand out in the literary marketplace and to help our members do the same.”

According to Trelstad (who is herself a “Tall Poppy member”), this kind of collaboration among authors is becoming increasingly common under the radar, like with her “masterminds” groups. It makes sense. The Trump and Sanders supporters didn’t need the party apparatus to get themselves together in common cause. Using the same tools and techniques, authors can also unite in their own interest without needing a publisher or agent to facilitate it for them. And apparently they are.

Again, there’s more at the link.

In one sense, I suppose those of us who write here at Mad Genius Club are an “author collaboration”, but it’s not primarily marketing-oriented.  Similarly, a number of authors living in close proximity, including yours truly, have formed a small cooperative in north Texas.  At present, we promote each others’ books on our blogs and social media accounts, but it’s relatively informal.  I suspect we may get to the point, over time, where we invest money together in joint advertising and promotion activities.  It’s certainly something I’m considering.

That’s just one potential approach.  There are others, such as producing more work – perhaps in shorter formats – in order to appeal to more readers.  I’m also trying my hand at different genres, in the hope of broadening my market.  So far, I’ve written science fiction and Western novels, as well as a volume of memoirs.  I’ve just launched my first fantasy novel, with a couple more planned in that genre, to test the market.

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If I can gain a profitable foothold in the fantasy genre, I’ll continue to write such novels.  If I can’t make enough money in that genre, I’m going to have to make a cold-blooded business decision to write where the money is.  It’s as simple as that.

There are many other potential approaches.  We’ve explored some of them here in the past, and I’m sure we’ll explore more in future articles.  The main thing is, we’re faced with market reality.  We have to respond within that reality . . . or be shut out of it. What do you plan to do about it?  Please let us know in Comments, so we can all benefit from the discussion.

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The best education for a writer?

I’ve seen the growth of specifically writing-oriented university courses and qualifications (e.g. a Bachelor or Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing or Creative Writing, offered by a number of institutions).  I can’t help but think that these courses and degrees are putting the cart before the horse.  They may be able to teach you to write, or write better – but they can’t give you a broad-based foundation on which to ground your writing, and on which to build.  They can give you training, but not education… and there’s a BIG difference between the two.  (If you doubt that, ask yourself:  would you prefer your pre-pubescent daughter to attend sex EDUCATION or sex TRAINING classes in school?  I think that illustrates the difference right away!)

I was inspired to think about this by an article titled ‘Majoring in History to Become a Writer‘.  Here are a couple of salient paragraphs.

If you want to write you’re going to need experience writing and a history degree, even at the undergraduate level, is nothing if not rigorous when it comes to writing. My freshman western civ class required a fifteen page paper on the Roman Civil War. Frankly, I didn’t do that much writing again until grad school where we were expected to produce twenty to thirty page papers every semester. The heart of history is writing, and writing in a clear style.

. . .

Second, you’ll learn to do research. That’s important because as a writer of fiction you’ll have to acquaint yourself with things you’re not necessarily knowledgeable about. In fact here at Uprising we often talk about research and how you can write what you know, by learning what you don’t know then writing about it. You can educate yourself on other cultures, places, geography and so forth. Whether you want to write historical fiction, genre fiction such as sci-fi, or steamy romance, you’ll have to learn about things you’re not really familiar with.

There’s much more at the link.  Recommended reading.

I understand the author’s reasoning;  but I don’t think he goes far enough in his analysis.  I was raised in the British academic tradition, if I may use that phrase, by parents who each obtained a Doctorate in their respective fields (my father in Economics, my mother in Sociology) in the 1950’s.  Each went on to command respect in their fields in South Africa, where they’d settled.  However, for both of them, their post-graduate ‘specialist’ degrees were built upon a ‘generalist’ Bachelor of Arts degree.  They regarded the latter as ‘education’, and the former as ‘training’ after becoming ‘educated’.  Their professors (in the immediately post-World-War-II generation) taught that approach, and recommended it.

My parents, in turn, influenced me.  I began by tackling a generalist BA degree as well.  Given the ongoing external wars and internal civil unrest in South Africa, it took me ten years of part-time study to complete it, but I managed it in the end.  I did a dual major in English and History, with sub-majors in Economic History and Philosophy.  I followed that with a post-graduate diploma in Management, plus a Masters degree in the same field;  then the good Lord decided to change my career path, and I started all over again by studying Theology to become a pastor.  I ended up with four university degrees, and a very broad spectrum of courses.

That turned out to be a blessing for my writing career, along with some very varied and extensive life experiences.  I had enough background to be able to tackle almost anything that came up;  and, more importantly, I knew how to research areas about which I understood nothing at all, because I’d had to do so many times before in my secular education and career.  I don’t think I could possibly have learned as much, or experienced as much, by tackling a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.

Another very important aspect of my education was that it was all part-time.  I never had the funds to be able to afford full-time study.  All my degrees were obtained by correspondence, studying in the evening after working during the day.  It meant that my progress was slower than it might have been… but there were no academic ivory towers involved.  I was rooted in and grounded upon the reality of earning a living, staying alive in a sometimes very heated combat zone, and not getting airy-fairy, artsy-fartsy, idealistic ideas about how the world should be.  I was too busy ducking and running from what it was!

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I think that educational background has served me far better, as a writer, than the more specialized, limited education offered by today’s universities in the field of creative writing.  I daresay many of the authors who contribute here would say the same.  To cite just one example, Dave Freer is very highly qualified in ichthyology, an intensely practical science, and has also experienced military service, farming, emigrating to another continent, and what have you.  I’m sure his writing would not be nearly so interesting without all he’s learned from those different backgrounds.

What say you, dear reader?  How have your life experiences and education affected your writing?  Have they helped, or hindered it?  Please let us know in Comments, with as many details as seem appropriate.

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Sorry!

I’ve been so swamped finishing my fantasy novel that it completely slipped my mind that I had to post an article this morning.

I’m working on it, and I’ll put one up in an hour or so.  Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here’s the magnificent cover Cedar Sanderson designed for my new book.

 

Kings champion - blog size

 

It’ll be published in ten days or so.  I hope you enjoy it!

Peter

 

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So… why do we write, and who is our audience?

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time, following the Hugo Awards brouhaha in recent years, and the growing debate over ‘message fiction’ in various genres.  I thought I’d put some ideas out there, and let you, dear readers, continue the discussion in Comments below.

The Hugo Awards imbroglio (see here for one side of the issue, and here for the other) demonstrates what happens when (to use battle imagery) a clique captures a strongpoint and won’t let go.  They fortify it against all comers, and refuse to yield ground even when their continued occupation becomes meaningless, because the battle has moved onward from the position to which they cling so fiercely.  To them, the message they espouse and proclaim is the genre – or, rather, they’re going to make sure that the genre continues to proclaim it, and nothing else.  The genre serves the message, rather than the other way around.  In other words, the genre is nothing more than a tool to be exploited in a wider ideological battle.  As one commentator noted recently about the Hugo affair:

The Marxists infiltrated at almost every level except the one that really mattered. That was the readers. The big problem was that, unlike countries where Marxism was the rule, the infiltrators, some of whom didn’t understand that they were supposed to be Marxists in the first place and went right into creating the same old propaganda that and stuff that nobody wanted to read. The stuff might [be] PC, but it’s also mind blowingly dull, filled with porn in the idea that the sex might replace actual story telling.

He’s right, in my opinion.  Overwhelmingly, ‘politically correct’ science fiction (of the sort embraced and celebrated by the Hugo Awards in recent decades) sells very poorly indeed.  As a result, the genre is increasingly dominated by independent, non-politically-correct authors, publishing their own work through outlets like Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct program.  The mainstream publishers in the SF field (with the notable exceptions of Baen Books, which dominates military science fiction in particular, and more recently the fast-growing Castalia House) are increasingly being ignored by SF readers (presumably because the message they preach in their preferred fiction is unpalatable to many).  Author Earnings pointed this out recently.

Author Earnings - science fiction sales 2016.png

Author Earnings - fantasy sales 2016.png

The numbers say it all.  Independent, self-published authors are increasingly dominant in the SF and fantasy genres. If their sales growth continues, they will shortly occupy the largest part of the market.  Traditional publishers, particularly those who hew to the ‘politically correct’ line, are steadily losing ground.

The question then becomes:  if traditional science fiction and fantasy publishers are concentrating on their message (to the detriment of their actual product), what are independent authors doing?  Are we writing to a ‘message’, or are we writing to and for our market?  Are we even consciously aware of this dilemma when we write?  I suspect many of us aren’t.  Let’s consider a few possible approaches.

First up is the artistic approach;  those who write because they feel driven to it as a means of artistic or personal expression.  To them, writing is a labor of love, an expression of themselves, a creative art.  They may not take their potential readership into consideration at first;  they’ll regard themselves as successful if they put out a book that expresses what they want to convey, even if readers don’t like it very much.  It’s like an artist who puts his heart and soul into a painting.  To him, it’s part of his very being, and a lack of public appreciation for his painting (much less criticism of it) amounts to rejection of himself.  (The well-known saga of the novel ‘Empress Theresa‘, and its author’s reaction to criticism [do, please, follow those last three links for details of truly extraordinary authorial hubris], is an extreme example of this attitude in the literary world.  The currently available reviews of the book are a tiny fraction of the hundreds, even thousands, that greeted its initial publication.)

Then there’s the combination of a message-oriented, but market-driven approach.  This requires that one’s message be tailored to what the market will accept and/or tolerate.  I’ve heard it described as the ‘camel’s nose’ approach.  If one sneaks in just enough of one’s message to get one’s audience accustomed to it in broad outline, one can (hopefully) add more of it to subsequent books, just as a little of a new and unfamiliar seasoning in a meal can lead to more being used later, as diners become accustomed to it.  I know a number of authors with personal religious beliefs have used this approach to mention God and faith in passing, knowing that many readers have no interest in the topic, but hoping that such innocuous references may make them think about the subject.  Opinions are divided as to whether or not it can achieve success.

There’s the more specifically market-driven approach.  This is one I’m forced to follow myself, as those who’ve read the tale of why and how I became a fiction author will understand.  I have to earn a living.  Most traditional avenues of doing so were closed to me by a disabling injury.  Therefore, I’m going to write what I think readers want to buy, because my livelihood depends on it.  Sure, I’m going to write in genres I enjoy, and where my background gives me ‘writing fodder’;  but at all times, I have to keep in mind that I can’t afford (literally) to go off on an artsy-fartsy tangent.  I have to write to the market, because I can’t survive without it!  That may seem appallingly mercenary to some authors and readers, but for me, it’s the exact and literal truth.  The food on my table is only there because readers buy my books.  That’s a heck of a motivation, believe me!  It’s why I’ve (so far) written, or am writing, in no less than four genres;  science fiction (specifically the military sub-genre), fantasy, Westerns and memoir.  If I can find others where I think I have something to bring to the table, and which readers will enjoy enough to buy, I’ll write in and for those genres, too.

There are plenty of other reasons to write, and motivations for authors.  I can’t possibly go into all of them in a short article like this.  Nevertheless, it behooves us as writers to be aware of why we write, because that directly and immediately affects what and how we write.  It also affects who will buy our output – a not unimportant consideration!

So, dear readers:  why do you write?  In the same light, why do you read?  To what extent are you consciously aware of your motivation, and how does that motivation affect your book writing and/or purchasing decisions?  (That’s not as simple as it might sound.  You might buy a book because you know the author, even if you don’t particularly like it, because you want to show your support;  or you might buy it because everyone’s talking about it, and even if you don’t enjoy it, you want to be able to take part in the discussions.)

Let us know your reactions in Comments.  This could be fun!

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Lessons from Harry Potter

This month marks twenty years since the publication of the first book in the Harry Potter series, which by some yardsticks is probably the most successful young adult series in literary history.

Cover image - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

All kudos and congratulations to J. K. Rowling for her success, and for her determination to persevere in the face of what must have seemed, at first, like overwhelming indifference from publishers.  That’s our first lesson.  If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying.  If your book is worthwhile, it may well find its readership sooner or later.  Today, when you can publish it yourself rather than have to fight with the ‘gatekeepers’ (a.k.a. publishers) for access to an audience, that’s both easier and more difficult than ever.  It’s easier, in that anyone can do it, but also more difficult, in that standing out amongst the flood of author-published books, so that potential readers can find one’s work, is more and more difficult.  One wonders whether Ms. Rowling would have taken that route, had she appeared on the scene a little later?

For all that literary agents are often demonized by their disappointed clients, Ms. Rowling seems to have been fortunate in hers.

It’s hard to imagine a world in which the books (and films, and video games, and personality quizzes) might not have been published. But, according to J.K. Rowling’s first agent Christopher Little, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was not an easy sell.

. . .

“When I received the submission from Joanne (as she was known at the time) Rowling, it just came in as an unsolicited submission (of the first three chapters) and was picked up by our then office manager who was looking through the slush pile,” he said. “She liked it and bought it to my attention. Once I read it, I had no reservations whatsoever and in fact felt very excited about it.

“It was clearly presented as a fully realized world […] I don’t think I recall reading anything so immersive since The Lord of the Rings many years earlier. We quickly wrote back to Jo asking to see the rest of the manuscript as soon as I had finished those initial chapters.”

. . .

“Over a period of nigh on a year, the book was turned down by more or less every major publishing house in the U.K. Various reasons were given including the story being too long, the fact that a story set in a children’s boarding school might feel too ‘exclusive’ to many readers, etc.”

There’s more at the link.

To me, one of the more amusing features of the Harry Potter series has been the life lessons people have drawn from it – lessons that I’m sure were not intended to be taken as such by Ms. Rowling.  For example, Niklas Goeke suggests that Professor Lupin’s anti-boggart spell is also a useful lesson in productivity when facing daunting tasks.  (His analogy reminds me of an old African proverb:  “How do you eat an elephant?  Mouthful by mouthful!”)

To celebrate the anniversary of the first Potter publication, Huffington Post is bringing out a series of articles all this month about Potter-related subjects.  Some are dire, but others are fun reads.  I think they’ll repay browsing from time to time as more are published.  (For example, you might be relieved to know that “True ‘Harry Potter’ Fans Will Never, Ever Drink Unicorn Frappuccinos“.)

For myself, raised as I was on a diet of many classic children’s and young adult book series, even though I read Potter as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m glad to see that the art of writing for that audience is alive and well, despite everything political correctness can do to homogenize it.

Among the series I remember from my youth with great pleasure are:

What series do you remember from your childhood and younger adulthood?  Which inspired and shaped and formed your reading preferences?  Let us know in Comments, so that, if so inclined, we can look them up and sample them for ourselves.  Even in later life, I still thoroughly enjoy a well-crafted book for younger readers, and I’m sure many of you do the same.

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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.

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Writers, take heed: a sea change is under way

The term “sea change” means “a metamorphosis or alteration“.  That’s what we’re facing right now in the publishing market – not just traditional publishing, but indie publishers and authors as well.  I’ve mentioned it several times in previous articles, but it’s becoming so clear and so powerful that I think it deserves an article all to itself.  Some of you may disagree with what I’m going to say, but I think I can provide abundant evidence for my arguments.  We’ll see who’s right over the next year or two.

The “sea change” is our ability to make a living as authors;  and that, in turn, is driven by the changing nature of the market.  Book sales continue to decline in traditional markets, even though supplemented by “officially unrecorded” sales of independently published books that don’t use ISBN’s or other traditional tracking measures.  What’s more, traditionally strong markets such as children’s books are also suffering – see, for example, Scholastic’s poor results.

What’s more troubling – nice for independent authors right now, but troubling for the future – is where book sales are happening.  Author Earnings pointed out, in its keynote address to Digital Book World earlier this year:

 

 

There’s a reason why Amazon’s dominance is a potentially worrying factor.  We’ll come back to that shortly.

Last Monday, in his weekly article here at Mad Genius Club, Dave Freer wrote:

Given that the current is running counter to the direction traditional publishing and much of the establishment direction [are taking] … the issue for the working writer … is ‘how best do I survive?’

. . .

The answer to failing appeal is not more failure, any more than the answer to communism’s failure is more communism. Swimming harder against the tide, kicking swimmers going across or down would be futile, exhausting, and make those swimmers ready to drown you.

On the other hand if you are in this situation… you can 1) learn to swim with the current or at least not straight against it … It’s that, or find a rock to cling to. There will be some rocks … But the rock or rocks will be small – and the biggest ‘names’ are going to claim most of the space. 3) Swim across the current. Build yourself an independent brand, try not to alienate too many people in the process. 4) Catch the wind – use Patreon and Indigogo and the likes to find like minds and fund you to push you against the current.

I was pleased to see that Dave’s also aware of the “sea change” we’re currently experiencing.  It makes me feel less out on a limb, if you know what I mean!  Thanks, Dave.

Let me provide a few more examples of the “sea change” that’s washing up against authors’ shores right now.  The first comes from the music industry, where “Gold Records [are] a Thing of the Past as Streaming Is Now 51% of All Sales, Passing CDs and Downloads“.

Streaming from Spotify, Apple, Pandora, even Tidal now accounts for 51% of all music sales according to the RIAA.

The gold record? A thing of the past. There is nothing to frame for the walls of rock stars. Maybe you get a digital wall now, too. In a virtual mansion.

. . .

There are 22.6 million paid streaming subscriptions. (This means everyone else is listening to ads.)

But the bads news is for the artists. Royalties on streaming sales are much lower than downloads or CDs. The artist is suffering. The execs are not. So the Industry is happy.

Note that bit about streaming services and royalties.  It’s already affecting authors like us, as we’ll discuss shortly.

Next, Captain Capitalism points out that “You Will No Longer Be Able to Make a Living Off of YouTube or Amazon Affiliate“.

Last week the content creator community of YouTube went into full sperg mode when they found out YouTube was demonetizing their videos, among other things such as throttling traffic, taking away subscribers, and other behind the scenes digital media hanky panky. Amazon affiliates were also treated to similar news as they heard Amazon was lowering the commission they’d make from around 6% to 2-5% on various products. But regardless of which company was doing what, the result was the same – it was increasingly harder, if not impossible, for people to make a living on YouTube or Amazon affiliate.

. . .

But as bad news as this is for the thousands, likely, millions of people who derive some kind of income from this new economy, there’s some vital economic lessons to learn from this “YouTube/Amazon” bubble bursting. Because if you don’t learn these vital economic lessons, you’re life is going to be infinitely worse going forward.

First, understand the days of making a living on YouTube or Amazon’s affiliate program was a bubble. Just like the Bakken oil field, just like the gold rush of 1849, just like the Dotcom bubble, there was the boom and then the bust. The good days are OVER. You may not like this fact, but it’s reality. This new digital economy is not immune to the natural forces and laws of economics that all of human history has been subjected to, so you must come to grips with reality and accept this.

. . .

Amazon, and especially YouTube, are responding to changes in the economy so that they may (in YouTube’s case) remain profitable and thus in business. Matter of fact, if you bothered to look at their income statements (they are available) both YouTube and Amazon operate on negative/razor thin margins. In other words, this current business model was not sustainable.

. . .

… since YouTube and Amazon are monopolies they can literally do whatever they want because you have no other option. The real issue is whether you’re going to accept this and realize it.

You can protest, argue, write letters, and make all the videos in the world, but none of that changes the fact YouTube and Amazon have all the power in this relationship. And if you don’t realize that, you’re going to waste more time trying to change the inevitable, which is wasting precious time, energy, and resources you don’t have.

Captain Capitalism points out an uncomfortable truth, which many of us have been reluctant to accept.  Whether we like it or not, Amazon is effectively a monopoly.  Oh, yes, I know it doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a monopoly, and if an effective challenger came along tomorrow, it could conceivably be dethroned;  but the simple fact remains that today, and for the foreseeable future, it’s the only game in town for independent authors.  All – and I do mean all – other outlets for our work, combined, pale into insignificance compared to Amazon.com.  That’s reality.

Amazon has just exercised the power of its position to reduce – sometimes drastically – the income that its Amazon Associates partners earn by referring customers to its products.  It did so because it’s so big, so powerful, with so many Associates, that it can do so without fear of the consequences.  It’s effectively saying to its Associates, “We want to keep more of the profit from each sale for ourselves.  Take it or leave it.  If you don’t like it, there’s the door. Don’t let it hit you where the good Lord split you.”

If anyone thinks that Amazon won’t do the same to independent authors like us, one of these days, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn, NYC that I’d like to sell you.  Cash only, please, and in small bills.  I have little doubt that in the fullness of time, our payouts from Amazon are going to decrease.  We’ve grown accustomed to 70% royalties in the KDP Select program, whereas authors contracted to Amazon’s own publishing imprints make 35%.  I expect first a reduction in KDP Select payouts, probably to 50%, and possibly, in due course, equalization with Amazon’s imprints at 35% across the board.  I hope – oh, how I hope! – that I’m wrong… but I’m pretty confident I’m not.

Amazon has the power, and we have no realistic alternative to Amazon whenever it decides to use that power.  It’s Amazon’s playground, and if we want to play there, we have to play by Amazon’s rules, like it or not.

Not only can we expect a reduction in royalties, there’s also the “double whammy” of more lower-revenue subscription readers and fewer higher-revenue purchase readers – just as the music industry has experienced with listeners who stream, rather than purchase, songs.  An excellent example of this is Amazon’s launch of its Kindle Unlimited subscription library service.  It already appears to have at least 2½ million subscribers, who between them are reading up to 12½ million average-length novels every month.  That’s 12½ million books that are not earning a traditional ‘royalty’ or payout for their authors, but instead a reader ‘fee’ that’s typically half or less than half of what the author would have earned from a sale.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that Amazon will keep the payout for KU reads at their present levels.  It can adjust the payout as and when it pleases – and I expect, as it seeks more profit opportunities, it’ll do so at authors’ expense.  KU is already big enough and popular enough to make its own rules, whether or not we like them.  We can register our dislike by not entering our books into the KU program, if we wish – but that also means we have to forgo some of the other benefits of the KDP Select program.  Amazon can make such abstention more difficult (and more costly) in future, simply by changing the rules – which it has every right to do.  It’s Amazon’s playground, remember?

Those music industry figures I referred to above?  More than half of all pop music sales now take the form of music subscription libraries, either paid for by the listener, or funded by advertising.  What makes you think that book sales – particularly fiction – aren’t going to follow the same trend?  We’re not there yet, but every year, we get closer.  Consumers who grow accustomed to free and/or low-cost streaming of music and video media are going to look for the same benefits in their consumption of reading matter, whether we like it or not.  After all, their dollars are spent, not on books, or music, or videos, but on entertainment.  Books are just one element of that, and they have to compete against every other element.  If they’re too expensive by comparison, they’re going to lose.  Why do you think Amazon established KU in the first place?  It knew that, because it listened to its customers.

(Oh – and please don’t try to tell me that I’m being unduly alarmist, and that there’s no evidence Amazon is planning anything of the kind.  I daresay Amazon Associates program members would have said precisely the same thing… right up until last week.  The evidence is as plain as a pikestaff.  Amazon will act in its own interest, and/or the interest of its customers, before it considers our interests.  We aren’t its priority.  Its customers are.  That’s simply the way it is.)

Written Word Media offers some thoughts about KU’s implications for authors like us.

  • The KDP fund just keeps growing. Month over month the KDP fund gets bigger, which means that plenty of readers are actively reading the enrolled titles. If you can sell your book to this audience, then you’ll get a portion of that pot. The growth of KU means it’s here to stay, it’s no longer an experiment.
  • Romance authors benefit greatly from KU. It’s hard to argue with the fact that 88 of the top 100 romance books on the bestseller charts were enrolled in KU. Romance readers are avid, and will gladly read through enough books in a month to make the $9.99 subscription fee worth it.
  • KU readers are incredibly active. KU readers read more books and review books at a higher rate. It’s safe to assume they are more active generally than their Non-KU counterparts.
  • You can use KU enrollment strategically. There is an opportunity to use KU enrollment as a strategy to acquire readers who then purchase your other books. If 77% of KU subscribers go on to purchase books outside of the program, then one reader acquisition strategy is to put some titles in KU, allowing those readers to read them for “free”, and then converting those readers into paying customers on your other titles.

Those are all positives.  The negative – and it’s undoubtedly a negative – is that we’re going to make a lot less money, per book, from subscription readers of our work than we’ll make from buyers of our work.  Remember, too, that we’ll make less from buyers as well, if Amazon’s royalty rates are reduced (as I expect they will be, in time).  We need to begin planning right now for how we’re going to address this “double whammy”, and change our way of offering books to potential customers so as to maximize revenue opportunities.

One way is to play to KU’s strengths.  If we publish longer books, the KU revenue from each ‘rental’ will be higher, per book, than for a shorter book.  On the other hand, if we offer lots more shorter books, we’ll make less money off each one, but make more money through more of them being rented out (provided, that is, we write well enough to make our readers want to rent more of them!).  We can also use our books in the KU program to offer non-KU titles to our readers, in the hope that they’ll click on the links we provide.

There are other options.  We may seek to monetize our blogs or social media accounts in one way or another – but this runs the risk of alienating those who’ve come to regard them as free until now, or who resent the increasing commercialization of everything in sight.  (I’m among those who feel that way, which is why I haven’t monetized my blog at all, and probably won’t.)  We might also look to Patreon and similar services to generate a supplementary income stream from our strongest supporters, as some authors are already doing (for example, N. K. Jemisin or John C. Wright).  Trouble is, we have to have enough enthusiastic followers to make this a viable proposition.

We’re in the middle of a “sea change”, folks.  Whether we like it or not, it’s going to be thrust upon us sooner rather than later.  Are we going to be ready for it?  Are we going to be proactive in preparing for it, and learn to ride the tide of change as it swirls around us?  Or are we going to be like traditional publishers when they first noticed the rise of independent author-publishers like ourselves?  They dismissed us as a passing fad, of no real interest or importance.  We all know how well that worked out for them…

We can no longer count on making a living from independent book sales alone.  We have to contend with the ‘streaming economy’, whether we like it or not.  If we don’t do so right now, before it’s too late, then the ‘streaming economy’ will contend with us.  Depend upon it.

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