Monday, May 23, 2016

Fisking Porter Anderson

There was so much bad information in this piece, Books’ Prices and Writing’s Value: Careful What We Asked For? by Porter Anderson, including cherry-picking a quote from me. Rather than respond in his comments I went ahead and fisked it.

Porter's nonsense in italics, my common-sense replies in bold.

“The biggest issue is one that will be difficult for us to recover from…the degradation of our worth as creatives.”

Joe sez: Our worth as creatives is dependent upon reaching readers. This meme is so damned old I wrote about it back in 2010, The Value of Ebooks.

In that blog post I use real numbers to discuss author earnings, and came to this inescapable conclusion:

The value of an ebook is determined by the overall amount of money it earns, not the list price.

Obvious, right? But let's forge ahead through this...

That line is from a piece here at Writer Unboxed a year ago, in May 2015. Our colleague Heather Webb, in As Writers, What Are We Worth?, was anticipating a groan heard ’round the world.

Last month, when I led a round-table discussion at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum, our topic was “Re-Thinking Ebook Sales and Understanding the Consumers.” But what drew the biggest response was book pricing.

We're in a world now that thinks it can write just as well as you can. It doesn't need your book. It can write its own. It can publish it. And it can lowball it on Amazon.

Joe sez: This nefarious scheme is called "capitalism" and is evidence of something called a "free market". 

Once upon a time, publishing wasn't a free market. Not everyone with a book had an equal chance to reach readers. Amazon, and other ebook retailers, have democratized the process. Which means consumers now have more choices than every before. And many of those choices are priced according to the market, rather than according to the publishing cartel that controlled pricing with their quasi-monopoly.

“The consumer,” one of our publishers said, “is in perpetual confusion. No way to understand what a single book costs or how to value our authors’ work.” And at the influential publishing house Bastei Lübbe AG, executive board member Klaus Kluge is calling book prices “staggeringly low” in an interview with Sabine Schwiering Tert at

Joe sez: When technology cuts out middlemen, costs (and subsequently prices) drop.

Publishers didn't drop prices even when they no longer had to pay for shipping, printing, warehousing, distribution, and returns. They suddenly had more money because they didn't have to pay a myriad of middlemen for ebooks. And rather than share that extra income with authors, publishers kept it all for themselves.

So authors like me decided we didn't need publishers, and now publishers feel threatened. Boo-hoo.

In the UK in January, Penguin Random House CEO Tom Weldon told my Bookseller colleague Benedicte Page: “”One of the biggest challenges in 2016 will be e-book pricing: how do we maintain the value perception of our quality content and maximize revenues across all formats for both authors and publishers?”

Joe sez: Allow me to translate: "How do we get people to pay more for ebooks, because if we drop them too low then consumers will buy the ebook rather than the paper book, and paper books are where we have the distribution oligopoly."

A year later, Webb can see clearly now. Here’s what’s happening on a daily basis to authors’ work in the marketplace:

Heather Webb ‎@msheatherwebb - It's awesome when people brag about how cheaply they got your novel for. NOT. They forget we make our living this way. AKA starvation diet

Joe sez: I'll fix that quote so it makes sense. "It's awesome when people brag about how cheaply they got your novel, because others will then seek it out and buy a copy. I wish every fan bragged about my cheap books."

Perhaps, for some odd reason, Heather would rather sell a $14.99 ebook and earn $2.32 in royalties from her publisher (after her agent's cut) than sell four books at $5.99 and earn $3.64. 

Just saw a study done with Lemurs. Even Lemurs know $3.64 is more than $2.32.

When we chat about it, she tells me, “I’ve been noticing this group of readers who troll all the author Facebook pages and websites, Goodreads, etc, for giveaways and they never buy books. They don’t have to. Makes me a little nuts.”

Joe sez: Holy sense of entitlement, Batman! We also need to close all the libraries! Trolls are getting free books there, too! Reading for free is bad, bad, bad! Everyone must pay!

She’s not alone. If we triangulate our German associates’ concern for the “confusion” in the readership about what a book costs today with a nod to London’s PRH chief Weldon’s worry at the highest corporate level with Webb’s lament as she writes, “We can’t lose sight of what’s truly important,” then something bigger than “perma-free” and the per-page-view payouts of Kindle Unlimited comes into view.

Joe sez: What's truly important is the ability to reach readers, and maybe you can make few bucks in the process. More writers are doing this now than any other time in history. Perma-free and KU are tools authors can use to reach readers and make money. Maybe you should learn how to use them rather than waste time whining about how your cheese was moved.

Everybody’s a Critic. An Author, too.

What have we done to the idea of writing’s value? How fuzzy is this math going to get?

Joe sez: Hang on, it's about to get hysterically fuzzy...

That’s my provocation for you today. How are today’s pricing problems affecting what Webb characterized here last year as “our dignity, our value, and the viability of this industry”?

Joe sez: Oh-no, people aren't buying $14.99 books because they're reading cheap and free books instead! Someone help me pick up my dignity!

Books were always commodities of a kind, and buying second-hand romances by the grocery-bagful didn’t start yesterday.

But the Wall of Content, as I call it, is doing more than loom over us. Digital means never having to say you’re out of print. It also means you’re in competition—forever—with everything since Gutenberg.

Joe sez: Using that logic, we've always been in competition with everything since Gutenberg. Readers have always had millions of choices, many for free in libraries, or for cheap via used bookstores. Trying to get your book to stand out among the millions of other titles is NOT a new problem.

But this isn't competition. Bookselling isn't zero sum. Readers tend to read more than one book in their lifetimes. If we're both thriller writers, a thriller fan won't just read me or you. She'll read me and you.

With both the trade and the self-publishing sectors in rampant over-production as they are today, you’re facing a sheer rock face of competition for every glance your book might get, let alone a read, let alone a sale. Your price is in free-fall.

Joe sez: Porter, have you ever been in a bookstore? Notice how it's filled with thousands of books? Do you glance at every single one before making a selection?

There have ALWAYS been other books. But now, for the first time, the cost is coming down so it isn't prohibitive. Rather than $30 hardcovers, which is a luxury price, readers can get new titles for $4.99. And the $4.99 book is just as good as the $30 book. 

Or do you enjoy paying more for comparable products? If so, I've got some $40 per roll toilet paper I'll sell you. It does the same thing as the $1 per roll toilet paper, but if you buy that cheap stuff my dignity will be in jeopardy. You don't want me on a starvation diet, do you?

And we can look to our cohorts in Hollywood for a little guidance here, too. You may not remember what the advent of Blockbuster video and then Netflix did to film. But those of us who watched those developments roll in know. Suddenly there were films everywhere, peopled with actors who are not quite the stars they look like speaking dialog that’s as wooden as they are, in strangely unsatisfying knockoffs of other films.

Joe sez: Translation: When you lose control over distribution, cheap knock-offs abound and eat your lunch.

I'm fine with you calling me cheap. Why should I care? Your lunch is delicious. I bet you really enjoyed it when it was still yours. 

We can’t entirely blame independent authors for this gauzy focus on pricing in books. As the indie insurgence began to impact the trade a few years ago, authors who had never been able to get past the agents and editors, the dreaded gatekeepers, found that they could self-publish in our digital age. But self-selling was a different thing.

Joe sez: The amount of self-promotion I've done as an indie is 1/10 of what I did when I had trad contracts, and now I'm now I'm earning 50x as much money. Self-selling is much easier than being at the mercy of the painfully slow, eternally clueless, archaic, self-interested legacy publishing machine.

When you have no marketing department behind you, when you’re not even listed in a publisher’s catalog or recommended to a Barnes & Noble buyer—and no one’s ever heard of you in the world of books—the one way you might turn the head of a potential buyer cruising Amazon is offer a low price. Or no price. “For free” may be a grammatically deplorable phrase (“free of charge” or simply “free” is correct), but for a time, it had a happy ring among consumers who could stuff their e-readers with books by folks they’d never heard of: today a lot of those free slush-files still remain unread on those e-readers, which have been supplanted by tablets.

Joe sez: I sold nine novels to legacy publishers. Being listed in a publisher's catalog is about as effective a selling tool as putting your book cover on your car bumper and driving around the neighborhood. The only books that actually get marketing money are books that have giant advances. The other 99% of authors get zip. I remember asking various people at various publishers what the value of a book press release was, and no one could tell me. But they all spent time and money on those stupid press releases, laboring under the delusion that they were promoting that book.

As for TBR piles--does Porter think these are a new phenomenon brought about by the digital age? My paper to-be-read pile is bigger than the list on my Kindle (which I still prefer to read on over my tablet, and I'm not alone).

If the trade was aghast at Amazon’s institution of $9.99 as a viable price for the ebook version of a hardcover hit, it’s tempting to mutter “all is forgiven” now. I know many authors who’d love to get $9.99 for their ebooks. Free downloads by the hundreds might feel exhilarating, but your take-home pay? And while it’s popular to hunker down in the bloggoria and shoot the breeze about the “sweet spot” between $2.99 and $4.99, what frequently is not mentioned is frequency: how many of those things do you have to sell at $3.99—even if you’re getting 70 percent—to put together an income?

Joe sez: I've given away hundreds of thousands of ebooks, for free. And I've sold over two million. So I'm pretty pleased with my take-home pay. I also don't know any author who only gives away ebooks. It's a means to a sale, not its own exclusive behavior. If you see a deer licking salt do you think that's what it solely subsists on?

As for how many books you have to sell at $3.99 to put together an income, it's a metric fuckton better to earn $2.70 on a self-pubbed title (paid monthly, and you keep your rights) than it is earning $2.27 on a $14.99 ebook, which is what authors get paid after trad publishers and agents get their cuts.

Guess which pricing point will sell to more customers? You're the one who brought up frequency. Go on, guess.

Indie/hybrid icon J.A. Konrath, doing a terrific job last week at BookExpo America on a panel about authorship, might have surprised some of the fight-club followers of his blog posts when he said, “If you want to reach the most people possible, you sign with one of these big publishers…. [But] most of us don’t get that invitation to the big show.”

Joe sez: Notice I didn't say "If you want to make the most money, you sign with these big publishers." 

Landing a huge publishing deal is like winning the lottery. We would all love to win the lottery. But spending all of your income on lottery tickets isn't a wise financial investment. Chances are you'll go broke long before you win.

The vast majority of authors will make more money by self-publishing. It is only the 1% of the 1% who get huge advances and gigantic marketing campaigns.

Very few authors would turn down a multi-million dollar pub deal, and very few are offered one. 

But a whole lot of authors sell authors sell their rights to publishers forever in exchange for shitty royalties, bad treatment, and no chance at ever making what they could have as an indie.

My quote is about reaching readers with paper books. Signing with a publisher is the only way to do that. It is not my endorsement of publishing deals. If your goal is to reach people via brick and mortar bookstores, fine, but know what you're signing and what you're giving up.

And nobody forced the industry to follow the self-publishing sector in driving the car right on over the cliff. 

Joe sez: Thankfully, a big pile of cash cushioned my car's fall.

For a time, a UK publisher staged a 20-pence promotion on some of the hottest titles of the year. Now, the bigs are in “new-agency” pricing contracts with Amazon that somehow have them charging high “this price set by the publisher” prices for ebooks at the very moment that the industry needs to energize its digital investments, not price them out of reach.

Joe sez: I agree with Porter here. The publishing industry should lower prices.

As painful as pricing issues may be in the marketplace and in authors’ efforts to put together a living, the real question, as Webb has suggested, is what happens in the public mind when pricing goes through the floor?

Joe sez: What happens is middlemen--and publishers are middlemen--are no longer viable. 

"No way to understand what a single book costs or how to value our authors’ work.”

Joe sez: You know who understands the value of authors' efforts? Amazon. Amazon knows exactly the sweet spot for selling books. But rather than allow Amazon to price ebooks to sell, publishers would rather shoot themselves in the feet while whining how unfair it all is. Fail. 

In the readership’s collective mind, the bottom has fallen out. The digital decoupling of price from assumptions of aesthetic and artistic value may, in the long run, prove second only to the Wall of Content, itself, for its impact on publishing’s new context. 

Joe sez: Translation: Readers are figuring out you can get good books for cheap or free, and they're flocking to them. And along with lower prices, readers also love more choices. But neither of these things bode well for the Big 5.

This has happened in other industries, of course. In news, in music, in freelancing, as many of us discussed in a recent look at the Huffington Post’s use of writers it doesn’t pay.

Webb’s phrase was “degradation of our worth” as creative people. A difficult devaluation is under way. 

Joe sez: No one owes you a living. Especially if you think people should pay $14.99 for an ebook when comps are priced at $3.99. 

‘Tis bootless to exclaim, as Marshall McLuhan told us so long ago, “All media work us over completely.” We knew nothing of his genius then. Sadly, we do now.

Joe sez: First of all, I'm pretty sure McLuhan was recognized as a genius back in his time. Also, you're wrong.

Joe sez: The quote you used is about how media is needed to understand society, not about how media prices should be artificially inflated so middlemen can keep their expense accounts. It isn't about pricing, or devaluing, or anything at all to do with the points you're lamely trying to make.

Far beyond all those craft considerations of how to keep your protagonist dry when it rains, this question of how the world sees literature’s value (in every genre), writers’ value, writing’s value, is about as unfocused and queasy a quandary as you’ll find in publishing.

Joe sez: Pricing is extremely simple. You find the sweet spot between selling the most units and making the most profit. The only group that has pricing problems is the group that lost their paper distribution oligopoly to ebooks and can no longer force consumers to pay lockstep high prices because those readers now have a choice.

We’re in a world now that thinks it can write just as well as you can. It doesn’t need your book. It can write its own. It can publish it. And it can lowball it on Amazon, leaving your would-be readers clicking right past your beautiful books.

Joe sez: So maybe you should lower the price of your beautiful books.

Say what? You’re asking an outlandish $9.99 for the ebook it took you four years to write and thousands of dollars to produce responsibly?

Who do you think you are?

Joe sez: I have nothing against $9.99 ebooks. If you can command that price, go for it.

But publishers are charging $9.99 for titles which don't command that price. Readers will pay premiums for bestselling authors. But they won't pay a premium to take a chance on a new author. 

Here's the solution for authors: don't sell your books to publishers who charge $9.99 until you get a giant advance.

Here's the solution for publishers: lower your ebook prices on authors who can't command those prices. There's a sweet spot. I bet, if you ask Amazon, they'll happily tell you what that sweet spot is.

Here's the solution for everyone who feels they are being devalued: go do something else. The world will never value your work as much as you do. Find a different career where your genius will be appreciated.

If you need me, I'll be here, with no expectations, but somehow still managing to eek out a living in the shadow of this daunting and scary Tower of Content...


Smart Debut Author said...

"I'll be here... somehow still managing to eek out a living in the shadow of this daunting and scary Tower of Content..."

What terrifies Porter's constituency is that you aren't alone in that. In fact, more writers are earning a living now than at any previous point in history.

And most are doing so now because they don't have to pay a useless 85% tax to feed overpriced middlemen as the price of the dance.

Amazing how math works.

Patricia Lynne said...

Books are a luxury that people don't need to survive. Sure, they enhance your mind, let you escape, and are good for you, but you won't die if you don't read. Therefore, I have to convince people to spend money on my books. I go to craft shows and fairs, and along with my crafts, I always bring my books. The thing that always sells there: food. Why? People need to eat. If only I could make my books edible. You read it then eat it. How's that for an idea! LOL

What always gets me about these articles is these people talk like they are creating something humanity can't live without. I wish, but it's not so. Accept the fact you're in an industry that isn't essential to survival and that you're going to have to change and work to earn your pay.

Mirtika said...

Heather is made "nuts" by the fact that there are people "trolling" for free reads? What world does she live in? One where everyone has endless disposable income?

If there was a place I could go to and get free cherries or chocolate mousse or pens, I'd be trolling that place. Everyone likes freebies. I bet Heather loves freebies. And if some online place let me have a solid shot at free cherries and chocolate mousse and pens EASILY and FREQUENTLY, I'd have those sites bookmarked and wear out the keys to visit there daily.

Linda Seed said...

The problem for people like Porter is that we self-published authors are party crashers. We weren't invited, but now we're eating the hors d''oeuvres and drinking all the free booze.

Dan DeWitt said...

Maybe I'm just a bit petty, but these articles never fail to make me smile. It's not the fisking per se, though they're always a fun read. It's knowing that I'm a small part of a bigger thing that causes people like this such aggravation.

Then again, when the guy says something about his "beautiful books" being passed over, and that it costs thousands of dollars to "publish responsibly," well, he's just asking for it.

Joseph Ratliff said...

Filed in the "Why Books Aren't Special Snowflakes" dept.

Veronica said...

Joe, awhile back you asked "What other product (than books) has the price printed right on it?" I've been paying attention and I finally found one!

Potato Chips

Utterly random but sure enough, the price is printed right on the bag.

Nirmala said...

Just curious Joe...which is bigger: a metric fuckton or a mega-shitload? I have never been very good at the metric system :)

Chris Walters said...

I have wondered for some time: Do you think there is a market for a new format of publisher? Perhaps one who knows the purpose and marketing of e-books, but gives some delineation between good and bad for the average reader? I think there may be, but I am not sure what it would look like. I think most of us, as authors, would be happy to pay agency commission to a company who marketed our work, and us as authors. I know some companies who are close to trying this, but they are pretty scammy. One notable, and un-named one, won't quit bugging me to "self-publish" with them for $25K up front and a percentage of profits. I keep telling them, I have published two books since I accidentally incurred their endless email sales scam, and wouldn't need them anyway. But, they continue to harass. Oh, well.

But, seriously, can you think of a publishing model that would actually work for authors and readers?

BigMindLooseBolts said...

Always interesting, sometimes provocative, but usually right on. Alas… I still remain, a starving author, happy to have his day job.
D. Owen Powell

Jaime_sama said...

Are we (blog followers) in fight club? I've never heard anyone talk about... Oh.

David Mouser said...

You have probably had this suggestion before but publish your blog as an Ebook, each year another Newbie's guide year 2xxx!

Also love your comment;)
I'm fine with you calling me cheap. Why should I care? Your lunch is delicious. I bet you really enjoyed it when it was still yours.

Mackay Bell said...

Chris, I think actually the new format for a publisher might be BookBub (which is about the only book promotion service that everyone seems to agree works). They don't actually publish, but they do curate (by refusing books without enough good reviews and professional covers, etc.) and they charge a simple fee which most writers are happy to pay. And it results in a win/win for everyone.

Joe, great piece as always! I'm glad you weighed in since Porter misrepresented your quote.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

David, I laughed out loud at that one :D

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Joe, I'm not following you on this statement:

Perhaps, for some odd reason, Heather would rather sell a $14.99 ebook and earn $2.32 in royalties from her publisher (after her agent's cut) than sell four books at $5.99 and earn $3.64.

Isn't this the appropriate comparison?

Heather gives her book to the Big5 publisher, who sells it for $14.99, netting her $2.32. OR
Heather publishes herself, sells four books at $5.99 each, for a total of $23.96, and earns almost $16.80, or about $4.20 per book...

Or did I somehow misunderstand what you meant here?

Joe Konrath said...

You're right, Patrice. I should have added an "each" as in "and earn $3.64 each."

Scott Wilcox said...

Joe, when I got my first Kindle both you and Blake Crouch had almost all of your back catalog up for free. I grabbed them all. I read them. I loved them. Now I preorder all of your (and Blake's) new titles when they are announced. I'm sure I wouldn't have taken a chance on either of you at $10+ a pop.

I realize some people just grab free books, and whether they read them or not never spend any money. Just wanted to give some anecdotal evidence that in my case the free books as promotion made me a fan (and purchaser) for life.

joylene said...

You may not want to hear this, but in the blogging world you are a god. Thanks for putting these thoughts in writing. These cretins are so off the wall they have no concept who their readers are. Ordinary people trying to find a momentary escape inside a good book without breaking the bank. I'm an author and I buy free books through Bookbub every chance I get. I quickly became hooked on Alex Sokoloff's novels when she started offering her books for free, and it only took three chapters. As Mr. Wilcox noted, that wouldn't have happened if she hadn't offered some freebies.

You, and thinkers like you, are serving up hope for the rest of us. Being an author doesn't automatically make you someone ready to tackle these issues, and yet, even I am working at buying back the rights of one of my books so I can offer it as an ebook for an acceptable price before the sequel is released next fall. How? By studying your archives. From one Jo to another, thanks, eh.

Dana Stabenow said...

I spent $14.99 on the e-edition of the latest book in one of my favorite series. The book was only so-so. Hey, we all have those books and it won't put me off reading the next one, but no. effing. way. will I ever spend that much money on an e-book again no matter who wrote it.

In the meantime, I'm downloading 99 cent e-books all over the e-book marketplace. Many of them are junk but at least buying them never makes me feel ripped off. And some of them? Aren't junk, and I then go on to pay real money for other books by that author. Publishers...oh hell no, I can't even finish that sentence.

On another topic, Joe--what is it going to take for publishers to start sharing the wealth? My traditional publisher won't even discuss it. "If we give it to you we'll have to give it to everyone."--Constant Writer will fwow up if she ever hears that again. Quite aside from my belief they SHOULD give it to everyone, I find it unconscionable and indefensible that the packager/marketer gets three times what the creator does, into infinity with e-books, which is even more irritating. Why don't publishers just do this instead of being forced to by a judge or god forbid, a jury? A jury would bankrupt them on the first settlement. Why can't they see this and get out ahead of it? It's not only the smart thing to do, it's the right thing.

[She whined. Thanks for the opportunity to do so, and please don't hurt me for hijacking the discussion.]

Pale Rambler said...

"We're in a world now that thinks it can write just as well as you can."

Wow! I never realized how presumptious a bastard I was for thinking I could write books and share them with friends and strangers, maybe even daring to ask for a few pennies along the way to help cover the costs of my hobby.

For some of us self-publishing isn't about making a living or cutting out the middlemen; it's simply about access to a small corner of the playing field so we can feel like we've played the game. Rather than bemoan the degradation of the system, the truly ingenious, adventurous and entrepreneurial should see this as a new renaissance from which to draw inspiration and possibly even find diamonds in the rough.

Jeff Ezell said...

Joe - Thanks for "always being there for us." And sharing the truth. Borrowing from the bible, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31b-32 NKJV)

Many of us reading your blog might consider ourselves "disciples of JAK" when it comes to independently publishing books as authors, and now audiobooks. Your teachings have set us free from the whole Trad Pub rip-off and allowed many voices into the world of reading entertainment.

Periodically when drinking a quality brew and consuming a chip or two I think of your help to us. "Here's to you, Joe." My almost communion ceremony. The more ceremonial consumption the better I feel about being your "disciple". Amen.

Earl Tower said...

Thank you for a candid and honest post. It encourages the wife and I. It should encourage other writers as well to not despair if they collect lots of rejection slips from publishers. The nice aspect of the e-publishing market is it gives out lets to more voices.

Sean McLachlan said...

Well done. If you're in the mood for shooting a fish in a barrel with a Panzerfaust, check out this article. My favorite line: "My suggestion is for all major online bookstores that take submitted indie content to create their own sections for self-published writers. . .I think segregation is the only answer for the publishing industry."

Scott Dyson said...

I often read these "how do we determine the value of an author's work?" comments (Passive Voice seems to occasionally link to such articles, too) and think that the easiest way to determine it is by how much money customers are willing to give to the author for the book.

By this metric, it would be whoever was getting paid the most. So Stephen King and Lee Child and others, well, their books are worth a lot. But other authors' works are worth the amount of the advance that the publisher gives them and, by many accounts, they never receive another dime.

It isn't the retail price of the book, it's what the author gets. Your example with Heather punches the point home. The indie's work's value is determined to be higher, simply by the amount of money the indie is paid for it every year...