Friday, September 30, 2011

Drink the Kool-Aid

Yesterday, an agent blogged about a speech she recently gave to Sisters in Crime. Some of the advice was fine. Some was archaic (no, writers don't need to attend conventions or volunteer for anything), but this was just downright awful:

"Do NOT drink the kool-aid on E-publishing. It's too early to be making sweeping statements about any of it. We're all learning this as we go and the right answer to almost everything is "we'll see what happens."

I threw up a little in my mouth when I read that. It's terrible advice, especially coming from someone who should have writers' best interests at heart.

Here are some sweeping statements I'll make, which can be verified:

1. Ebooks sales are going up, paper sales are going down. This trend WILL continue. This means that you need to worry less about who handles your paper rights, and more about who handles your erights.

If you handle your own erights, you keep 70% of the list price (that you set.)

If you let a publisher handle your erights, you get 17.5% of the list price (which they set.)

2. There isn't much a publisher can do for you that you can't do for yourself (or hire someone to do.) In other words, paying a publisher 52.5% to create cover art and do some editing is crazy.

3. More and more self-pubbed authors are doing well. And more and more legacy pubbed authors are trying self-pubbed. On this blog I've had dozens of guest posts, and listed hundreds of authors by name, who are making good money. Some are getting rich. None of them would be making bupkis if they didn't drink the Kool-Aid.

4. Bookstores are closing. The only thing a publisher could do for you, that you can't do yourself, is get your book into bookstores. But with paper sales down, and ebook sales rising, getting into a bookstore shouldn't be the priority.

5. Every day you don't self-publish is a day you aren't making money. This is a tough concept to wrap your mind around. We're used to thinking in analog terms. With paper, there's a release date, then sales eventually trickle down to nothing, until the book is out of print.

But ebooks are forever. There can be a big surge in sales when a book is released, but I've also seen books that surge regularly, like waves in the ocean. Lulls and peaks, over and over. Sometimes it tapers off, but then something happens and it gets new life.

When a book has the potential to not only make money, but to sell better than it did yesterday, it no longer has a lifespan. Which raises the question:

If you have a book that will sell forever, do you want to start earning money today, or next month?

If you wait a month, you won't make-up the month you lost. That month you lost will be income that you never earned.

I can't think of a single advantage to waiting around. Even if you really, really want a legacy deal, I know lots of authors who self-pubbed and then got legacy offers.

Barry Eisler also had some thoughts on this, which he offered as comments to a previous blog post. I'm going to post them here, too, with a few interpolated thoughts:

Barry: "Do NOT drink the kool-aid on E-publishing." What does this mean, other than that the declarant thinks in cliches?

Joe: I think it means, "If you do something without me, I don't get my 15%."

Barry: Then she said, "It's too early to be making sweeping statements about any of it."

Isn't that itself a sweeping statement?

Never mind. As with the Kool-Aid reference, these sorts of massively vague pronouncements are difficult to address because, as articulated, they're fundamentally meaningless. But if you think about it for a second or two, just why would it be too early to come to various conclusions about the nature, trajectory, and speed of the revolution we're seeing in publishing? We have a lot of data, after all, to which we can apply logic while extrapolating from experience. Isn't analyzing broad industry trends, and trying to understand, extrapolate from, and exploit them, exactly what smart businesspeople ought to be doing? If you have to decide -- today -- between a legacy deal and self-publishing, should you just stick your head in the sand and your ass in the air?

Joe: I think it means, "I'm worried about the future, and my livelihood, so I'm not going to think too hard about it."

Barry: Next she said, "We're all learning this as we go…"

Well, no, there are clearly many people who are *not* learning as they go, or learning at all, for that matter. The rest learn different lessons and at different rates. The different lessons people are learning -- that is, the different conclusions people are coming to as experience continues to accrue and as data continues to come in -- are interesting and potentially valuable for anyone who thinks understanding today where the industry will be tomorrow is useful thing to do.

Joe: I've been learning this as I go. And while learning, I've made several hundred thousand dollars. Because I wasn't waiting around to see what happened. I was taking control of my career, experimenting, trying new things, sharing what I've learned with others.

Scores of writers who read my blog also gave it a shot. Some became very successful. Because they tried, rather than waited around.

Barry: Next she said, "...and the right answer to almost everything is 'we'll see what happens.'"

Absolutely! If something that looks like a tiger pops out of the underbrush and is hurtling toward you, it's best not to make sweeping statements. Better to learn as we go and just see what happens. Running for a tree would be foolish.

Same thing in intelligence work. Who really can say where Pakistani nukes are stored, or how soon China might be able to deploy a blue water navy, or who are the true power brokers in Russia? Better to just sit back and see what happens.

And isn't the same inevitably true in business? If you're in the horse and buggy business and you hear about a thing called a car, or if you're in the the candlelight business and you hear about a thing called an electric light, or if you're in the eight-track cassette business and you hear about a thing called a CD, or if you're in the paper book business and you hear about a thing called Kindle, you should absolutely avoid trying to understand -- let alone exploit! -- any of it, and should instead sit back and just see what happens. In fact, sitting back and seeing what happens is the one common denominator of profitable businesses and successful businesspeople. Amazon, for example, became a a hundred-billion-dollar company by doing little else but going along and seeing what happens, while legacy publishers are dying precisely because they've always ruthlessly examined, prepared for, shaped, and exploited industry, technological, and cultural trends.

Joe: "Daddy, those lights are coming straight for us!"

"Don't move! Just remain standing in the middle of the street, and we'll wait and see if they run us over or not."

Barry: "Drinking the Kool-Aid" means "to become an unquestioning believer in some ideology, or to accept an argument or philosophy wholeheartedly or blindly without critical examination." Who's really doing that here? And the phrase is derived from the Jonestown massacre, where cult members followed one another into a massive group suicide. Again, not a bad metaphor for following "advice" like Janet's, which consists of nothing but cliches, sloppy thinking, and bromides.

It's one thing to be not very good at making predictions yourself, and Janet's track record is not the best:!/trow125/status/51355244587794433

But to advise that everyone else refrain from trying to understand where the industry is going and how we might profit from how it's changing? That's just irresponsible.

Joe: Barry, I meant to ask you about that above tweet. Now that The Detachment has launched, do you regret working with Amazon and not taking that $250k St. Martins deal?

Barry: Let me put it this way. Amazon sold more digital copies of the Detachment as preorders than Ballantine sold digital copies of my previous book, Inside Out, ever. After that -- that is, apart from and in addition to all those preorders -- the book surged to #6 in the Kindle Store, stayed in the Kindle Top 20 for over a week, and currently (two weeks in) is at #57. Yesterday it was at #3 in the UK Kindle Store. The paper version doesn't even come out for another two weeks, and they're planning another big push then. I've earned more money from this book in two weeks than I've earned from some of my titles to date -- and I've had eight previous novels published, starting in 2002.

Joe: The money you've been earning since The Detachment was released makes the money I've been earning on Kindle look paltry.

You hear that, NY Publishing Industry? You thought Barry was silly, turning down a Big 6 contract. In two weeks, he's made more money than he did with any of you.

You hear that, name brand authors? You want to know who to sign your next contract with? It's Amazon.

Barry: And that's just The Detachment. Sales of my backlist have surged, too. Since April, my short story, Paris Is A Bitch, has been earning me about $1000 per month. This month it's going to be more than three times that -- as of today, it's sold 1677 copies in September, at about two dollars profit per unit. Sales of my other short story, The Lost Coast, are up, too, though I did drop the price of that one to 99 cents, which obviously affects the experiment. But even sales of my legacy-published works are significantly up -- at one point, my first book, Rain Fall, was at #146 in the Kindle Store, which is insane for a book that's coming up on ten years old. The other Rain books are all up significantly, too, though not as much as they should be, because Putnam insists on pricing them at $7.99, the same as the paperback. If I had control of those books, I'd repackage them, drop the price to $2.99… and I can't even imagine how many I would have sold in conjunction with The Detachment.

Joe: Golly, why doesn't Putnam do that itself? It's leaving a ton of money on the table.

Barry: Heh. You know why. Legacy publishers aren't primarily interested in maximizing profits from digital titles. They're primarily interested in preserving the position of paper and retarding the growth of digital. To that end, they price digital books artificially high and hold back the digital release until the paper one is ready. And that hold-back, by the way, for the reasons you discuss above, costs the writer a ton of money -- the money she would have been earning if the digital book had been made available earlier.

Let me preempt the response I know is coming from the Reidian antediluvian naysayers out there: "But you didn't self-publish The Detachment, Amazon published it! So all this success, all these massive sales, none of it counts!"

If that's what you think, read the section on either/or and other erroneous thinking in Joe's and my free ebook, Be The Monkey. My goal isn't to make any one of my titles a success. It's to make *all* my titles, collectively, the greatest possible success. As I've said many times, I think my best strategy in that regard is a mix of self-publishing and Amazon publishing-- not an either/or approach. And I think my experience so far suggests I'm right.

Since walking away from the St. Martin's offer, I've self-published two short stories, I've self-published a political essay, and I've self-published (with you) a short book on the changing landscape of the publishing industry. And I've published a new novel with Amazon. What I haven't done -- what's conspicuously absent from my business strategy over the last six months -- is a new work with a legacy publisher. And I'm doing far better than I ever have before. Maybe that's a coincidence. Maybe it's all just dumb luck. Maybe I would be doing even better if I'd gone with the legacy deal (though we wouldn't know yet, because if I had gone the legacy route, The Detachment wouldn't have been released until spring 2012).

Or maybe there are some principles in my experience that are worth pondering, and that might be applied by others who don't believe business is best conducted by just waiting to see what happens.

Joe: I look back on the past few years, and all the bad decisions made by legacy publishers, along with agents who think they're working for those publishers rather than for their authors, and I keep wondering at what point they're going to realize they aren't in a Jacuzzi, enjoying a luxurious soak, but actually in a stew being boiled alive.

High ebook prices, low ebook royalties, windowing, poor formatting and conversions, the agency model, retroactive erights grabs, DRM--each of these are bad decisions on their own, but add them all together and it's one huge crock pot of fail that they're now marinating in.

But we authors have more opportunities for success than ever before.

Legacy publishing is a vestigial organ. And it's about to be cut off.