Monday, July 16, 2012

Zero Sum

I've blogged about the so-called Race to the Bottom before, a few times.

The argument du jour seems to be that if publishers do collapse, then all the current bestsellers will have their ebooks available for $4.99 or less, and that will be the end of self-publishing. I've blogged about an eventual bestseller shift, which we can argue is happening, has happened, or will happen, depending on which stats you want to support.

But now I think it's time to put them together, as well as do some Q&A.

1. Ebook sales aren't a zero sum game. A sale of one ebook doesn't preclude the sale of another, because this is a burgeoning global market with hundreds of new customers introduced daily, and people naturally horde more than they need. 

Let's say there are currently 100 million ebook readers, and 1 million ebook titles on Amazon. In ten years, there will be billions of ebook readers (following the path of mp3s). But there won't be a corresponding 100 million ebook titles available--there aren't that many people writing ebooks, and never will be.

If I can currently sell a few hundred ebooks a day in the US alone, what will happen when ebooks become popular in India, China, Japan, Europe, Russian, and South America? There will be a bigger demand than unique supply, and I believe my position will improve.

2. Legacy bestsellers now may not be bestsellers in the future. If all Lee Child ebooks were $3.99, an avid reader could buy and finish them all in a month. Then what? Wait six months for him to finish another, and not read a thing until then? I think not.

Let's say the reader then went on to other bestselling thriller writers in the same vein as Child. How many current NYT bestsellers write series thrillers? I have no idea, but I'd guess a few dozen, tops. But does likign Child mean liking all NYT thriller bestsellers? I'm sure there are readers who love Child but don't like Brad Thor or Vince Flynn, but even if all an avid reader read was bestselling thriller authors who did a book or two a year, they would eventually run out of books to read.

BTW, I know a few avid readers. They lust for more authors to discover, and get excited when they read an unknown gem and find out that author has twenty more books in the series. I'm one of those types. I've read all Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, and still managed to find new gems by Jeff Shelby, Brett Battles, Harry Hunsicker, and Jude Hardin, written in the same vein and style. 

If bestsellers like Child and Thor came down in price, it wouldn't matter to me much, because I already have read all of Child and I don't care for Thor. But if Child were $3.99 instead of $12.99, I can easily see myself buying his latest AND a few others. The money I'd save would be spent just the same.

Ever go into a store to buy a big ticket item, expecting to may more than you did? Let's say you research an over and find it for $699. When you go to the store, it is on sale for $499. And they also have a great toaster oven for $99. You probably wouldn't have bought the toaster oven originally, but now that you're saving money on the oven, the toaster oven becomes attractive.

If all ebook prices came down, more ebooks would be sold across the board.

3. The reason bestselling authors are bestselling authors is because of distribution. Nora Roberts is available EVERYWHERE books are sold. So, by default, she sells a lot, because readers wanting that particular type of book have no other choice--they buy her, or nothing.

When publishers collapse, Nora will have the exact same amount of shelf space and exposure as any indie author. Sure, there will be some name and brand recognition for a while, but that will fade when not being constantly reinforced by massive print distribution.

It also remains to be seen how Nora will price her ebooks when her publisher goes bankrupt. Will she stay at the $9.99 price point she's selling at now? If so, I predict fewer sales. If she does price reasonably, then the reader with $9.99 to spend can buy one of her ebooks and one of my ebooks with change left of.

The market is getting bigger. People with ereaders tend to buy and read more. And authors can make a very nice living selling 100 ebooks a day for $2.99 each. Across multiple platforms, on a global scale, I see this as not only possible, but likely for decent, prolific authors. 

And as far as bestsellers go, they tend to fade when distribution changes or dries up.

Mickey Spillane (whose books I love) has sold over 225 million books. 

Check his Kindle ranking now, only six years after his death. Lots of indies are outselling him. Even though Al Collins is doing a great job continuing the Mike Hammer series. 

Check ranks on some Louis L'Amour titles. He sold over 300 million books. Mediocre kindle sales.

Sidney Sheldon has sold more than Stephen King. Look at Sidney's rankings on Amazon these days. He also is still producing books after his death, via ghost writers, but he's nowhere near the powerhouse he once was.

Harold Robbins has sold 750 million books. More than twice JK Rowling. And many of his Kindle titles are less than $2.99. Check his rankings. Mine are better in many cases. One of the best selling authors of all time, but he isn't in the paperback racks anymore, and that means no more bestsellerdom.

4. There is already a tremendous abundance of choice, not only with media in general, but ebooks in particular. I believe Amazon has over 1 million Kindle titles for sale. Yet people still find me, and I was hardly a bestseller in print.

If bestselling authors all dropped their prices, I believe I'd sell more ebooks, not less, because more people would buy ereaders and have more money to spend on content. There's enough room for 300 cable TV channels, and four billion videos on Youtube.

Sure, some YouTube videos won't be watched, just like some ebooks won't be read. But quality does seem to eventually find an audience. Maybe not to smashing success, but authors don't need smashing success. They need 100 sales a day at $2.99 to live very well.

What do you need to do to reach that 100 sales a day?

1. Write good stories. As many and as fast as you can. They should be edited, proofed, and well formatted I use for formatting, and they do better work than any of the Big 6. The more you have out there, the better you'll do.

2. Make sure you have a great product description and a professional cover. My cover artist, Carl Graves, has 24 new covers on sale on his website for $200 each. A bunch of them are awesome, and $200 is a great deal (he charges me $500). Check them out, first come first serve, at

3. Find the sweet spot between price and quantity sold, where you make the most profit. Currently I'm $3.99 for novels, $2.99 for novellas (over 10k words) and story collections, and 99 cents for short stories. But this isn't set in stone.

4. Experiment with different ways to promote. Some things I've tried to varying degrees of success are giving away free ebooks to get reviews, announcing sales on ebook websites, having sales, making titles free for a limited time, partnering with different platforms, and guest blogging.

What don't I bother with?

1. Advertising. It doesn't work on me, so I don't use it on other people. That's a cardinal rule of mine. I only use something or believe it works if I do it as a consumer.

2. Social media. Occasional tweets of Facebook announcements are fine. At most, once a week. Maybe once a day if you have a new release, but end it after a few days. Otherwise people get sick of you.

3. Publicity. I've already blogged that getting my name in the press doesn't lead to sales. You probably don't need a publicist. 

4. Spamming. I have a newsletter, and use it a few times a year. I don't use it everytime I upload something new to Kindle. And I don't pimp my work on other peoples' blog or forums unless invited to do so, or there's a section for it.

I want to end this blog entry by telling writers: Don't Be Afraid. Yes, the future will be different. Yes, things will change. But there will always be a need for storytellers, and if you hold onto your rights, you'll be in a good position to exploit those rights no matter what the future holds.