Saturday, March 20, 2010

Status Quo Vadis?

Or, in English: Where are the old ways going?

I've spent a few weeks helping my friend, Robert Walker, format and upload his books to Kindle.

Incredibly, Rob has forty novels that are out of print. These aren't self-pubbed novels, or small press novels. These are books that were with big houses, which had big print runs and distribution. Some of these books go for big money on the used book circuit.

By the end of this month, thirty of Rob's books will be available on the Kindle, for $1.99 each. I predict he'll do quite well with them. After all, he managed to sell millions of copies when they were in print.

Which begs two questions.

1. Why did they ever go out of print in the first place?

2. Why am I, his friend, uploading these books to Kindle, rather than a publisher?

Part one is pretty easy to answer. More than 95% of everything ever published has gone out of print. Times change. Publishers fold. Bookstores need to move X number of copies per quarter in order to keep books on the shelf, and distributors charge rent for books just sitting there. So if a book isn't paying for itself in real estate, it goes out of print.

But Out-Of-Print does not equal Worthless. There is still money to be made on old books. That's why there's a billion dollar used book industry.

However, used books still involves storing, shelving, and shipping paper. It's the same industry, just at a discounted cut for all involved (and zero cut for the author.)

Which brings us to the second question. Why isn't anyone mining this rich vein?

Previous attempts to grab the out-of-print gold have met with disaster. Google is still in court over its Search Inside the Book program. Amazon first allowed all public domain books to be uploaded to Kindle, then did an about-face on the practice. Big publishers have tried to retroactively grab ebook rights, and are now attempting to add clauses to old contracts, offering a paltry 25% royalty rate.

But I don't see any well-funded, large, coordinated effort to scoop up the rights to out of print material and make it available again. Everyone is so worried about the erights of present and future books (and erroneously pricing those erights at more than consumers want to pay) but no one is taking a used bookseller/antique dealer/eBay stance on all of this material that's just ready to be exploited.

Smart authors are doing it themselves. Among my peers, I've seen Raymond Benson, Lee Goldberg, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Scott Nicholson, F. Paul Wilson, and several others make their older books available on Kindle. But these are a small fraction of the writers I know with out of print work.

What's the hold up?

I think it's a combination of things.

1. Writers are used to the publishing end of things being done for them.

2. Writers are scared if they publish their own ebooks, no one will want to republish them in print (even though that rarely happens these days.)

3. Writers don't believe they can actually make money off of the stuff that's "failed."

My advice to writers: Wake the hell up.

Ebooks are not only here to stay, they're only going to grow in popularity. And an ebook is forever. Your $50 a month now may be $10,000 a year in 2016. You have to an opportunity to make money for eternity on these rights, and eternity is a long time.

But the opportunity won't last forever. Because someone is going to get wise, look at your backlist, and see dollar signs. They're going bribe you to get a piece of eternity, for doing nothing more than providing a cover and an uploading service.

I urge all writers to look at their backlist, and figure out how they can turn those dead tree books into ebooks. This should become a required skill for writers, like understanding narrative structure, or how to write a query letter.

If you're techno-stupid, shop around for a reasonable one-time fee to get your ebooks up and running. If you sign a contract with a e-publisher, make sure the lion's share of the profits are going to you, you have control over the list price, and the contract lasts for a finite amount of time.

Eternity is a long time to share royalties on books that you wrote.

Remember that. Before someone figures out how to screw you out of it. And I'm sure that will happen, very soon. Companies with deep pockets will offer to get your books on Kindle, and the fine print will screw you.

If I were an unscrupulous publisher with a big budget, that's where I'd be putting my money. I'd be approaching name authors with long backlists who don't know any better, offering them pennies on the dollar for what their life's work is worth.

The best defense against this is twofold: education, and hard work.

If you have out of print books, get them on Kindle yourself. If you need help, pay a flat fee for it.

If you do sign a publishing contract for your ebooks, make damn sure it is highly in your favor, and it has an expiration date.

For the first time in the history of publishing, writers have the upper hand.

Don't piss that advantage away by thinking that this is still 1995.


Susan said...

So who gets the sales price for the kindlized books?

Lisa Rusczyk said...

Great post, thanks.

JA Konrath said...

So who gets the sales price for the kindlized books?

The author splits the profits with Amazon.

Vincent Eaton said...

True, true, true, and true. Mine are going POD, ebook and audio, under my small indie company. After seven literary agents and same amount of fiction, it is time to be one's own master.

Anne R. Allen said...

Wow. I've got two OOP books. I didn't even know I could do this (speaking of techno-morons.) Can you recommend a one-time kindlizer? Or tell us where to go to find one (did I mention I'm a techno-moron?)

Thank you, thank you! This is some of the most important publishing advice I've heard in a long time!

Simon Hay said...

This is good advice. I'm not published but I hope authors get control of this. The potential for sales and content in ebooks is unlimited.

Anonymous said...

I just blogged about this today! HarperCollins and Random House are already trying to do this-- they are sending out conracts to their authors, trying to get the authors to sign over e-book rights for 25% of the e-book royalty. That sucks.

I paid for my Kindle book to be formatted professionally. I used Ebook Architects-- they did a great job and it cost $200 bucks to do the entire book and the index. I've already earned that back, so the rest of my Kindle sales are profit.

Joshua Tallent, the founder of E-Book Achitects, also published a book this year on how to do your own Kindle formatting. It's less than 20 bucks on Amazon.

There's really no excuse NOT to do it.

Dawn said...

Very good.
Seems like there's another untapped mine---what about folks who do the flat fee Kindle upload stuff for the techno-challenged. Heck, I'd do it. [and very noble of you to help your friend.)
Insightful blog.

Ruth Francisco, author said...

I got an email from my agent, of all people, who suggested the same thing, which got me thinking--why aren't agents doing this for their clients and taking a percentage. They have the most to lose in the ebook revolution. I wonder why they aren't being more proactive.

Ruth Francisco

Anonymous said...

By the way, since Joshua Talent is mentioned here as an ebook converter, there is a fascinating interview with him on This podcast is ALWAYS worth listening to.
My brother-in-law in England has self-published two novels of ancient Rome. I'm going to see if I can get them on the Kindle for him.

And my sister in law is a poet. I'd love to see her poetry on the Kindle as there is so little.
Rick Askense

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I sometimes am surprised to learn that some of my favorite mid-list authors (usually from the early to mid-1990's) are out of print. Why do publishers allow moderaely successful books to go out of print, when they could easily publish them in print on demand and e-formats? Surely the up-front costs would be covered by just a few sales.

Sheryl Nantus said...

Here's a question for those in the know (and Joe too!) - who owns the cover art? Do you have to come up with new cover art for your OOP books or can you use what's already there?
I have an OOP book that I'm thinking of putting up, but I don't want to get into trouble by using the original cover art from the original publisher.
thoughts? comments? Bueller?
thanks in advance!

Likari said...

Natalie Winters does cover art for Samhain and also on contract for independent authors. Her site is here:

She did the cover for Theresa Weir's Bad Karma, which is being reissued by Samhain next month.

JA Konrath said...

The cover artist owns the cover art. Unless you get written permission to use it, you have to make new covers.

Unknown said...

I love my kindle, and I love ebooks, but I have found one flaw, that perhaps hasn't been brought up, and I wonder if perhaps Joe or someone else could enlighten me?

Why are some ebooks (on amazon and various other ebook sites) not available to buyers outside of the US? "Seriously!"

This includes your free ebook Joe, Serial. I live in Ireland but can't avil of your generous offer of a free ebook. :(

So this begs the question, why are publishers/writers restrciting their markets via Amazon and the like? Is it do to with legalities or something else, that I may not be aware of.

This is something authors who are about to self-publish ought to be aware of I think... please dont alienate your non US (potential) fans! :)


Anonymous said...

Xealous, go to the stories page on my website,, and you can download a beautiful pdf of SERIAL for free.
Blake Crouch

Unknown said...

<3 Blake - thanks!

Quick update... was about to buy Afraid, but have the same issue lol -.- Luckily though, I've found out that you can change your kindle location, so now I will be "borrowing" a US buddies addy while I try and work the system to beable to buy whatever book I want, without copyright restrictions. \o/

(Imagine those that dont do that^, and instead go the piracy route. Publishers really just are shooting themselves in the foot)

Theresa Milstein said...

I love following your blog because you always seem three steps ahead of the game.

Christopher Hopper said...

Joe: my friend and co-author, Wayne Thomas Batson, and I just returned last night from our annual Writer's Gettaway Weekend...a time to write, hang out, and talk shop. He raved about you and I was so excited to learn more. Needless to say, I'm going to treat your back posts as my tutorial in self ePublishing. Thanks for posting all you do! ch:

Morgan Mandel said...

I agree. An author goes through a lot of work to get a book published, and often that book isn't on the shelves that long afterwards. Why waste all that effort? Why not make more money?

Morgan Mandel

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Joe - You are always three steps ahead, and this weekend I was trying to convince my friend to give a go to self-publishing her book via e-book, using your column as an example. And here you are with more awesome advice.

Something that always hangs me up is cover art. Where do you find cover artists (I saw one link in the comments above)? How much is reasonable to pay, esp when you're trying to keep costs low? Does it pay to invest in professional cover art for a low priced e-book?

Thanks for all your help!

Zoe Winters said...

All this continues to beg the question why doesn't everybody just do this? Not just people who have already been "vetted."

A corporation saying your work is good shouldn't be the only thing you've got to hang onto.

Even if you want a traditional publisher for whatever reason... they're going to mismanage your ebook rights. They will screw you financially on E.

And while many publishers may not make a deal with someone at all who would keep e-rights, well, I thought we all said publishing was a long haul game. The money right now is in print, but the money WILL be in E.

Putting all your eggs where the money is now without the power to put any of them where the money will be in the future, is stupid business. It's why people go *out* of business in other industries.

I'm just saying.

This, among many other reasons is why I'm indie. Sure, if I'd had work ready to be published ten years ago, I would have probably gone the traditional route, at least initially until I got annoyed with not being in charge. But NOW is not a great time, IMO to be entering through the gates and losing control of your e-rights.

Anonymous said...

"All this continues to beg the question why doesn't everybody just do this? Not just people who have already been "vetted.""

Zoe - I've tried to resist responding, and I just can't any longer. I read Joe's blog and have read your comments, or at least enough of them (you've posted a novel's worth).

How will it help humanity for Amazon's Kindle store to turn into Xlibris? I understand you're happily "indie" and have no desire to be "trad" published and turn down lucrative offers from lit agents on a regular basis to maintan your indie cred and because you like physically making books.

That's fine, but I think before you post anything else on this topic, you should have to judge a writing contest of no less than 1000 entries, and then come back here with a straight emoticon and tell everyone that the vetting process provided by NY publishing is meaningless.

Books aren't vetted by corporations. They're vetted by underpaid editors, many of whom are very good at what they do. They're not always right, and maybe they've been wrong in rejecting your work, but they're right a vast majority of the time.

I agree they don't really know what to do with e-rights, but trad publishing is still without a doubt the very best way to break into the business of writing (as opposed to becoming your own publisher/publicist/art department/editor/copy editor/sub rights department/literary agent, which is what most people reading this blog do or want to do.

That other stuff takes time away from writing, which I hope, we can all agree is still the most important part of the equation.


JA Konrath said...

you should have to judge a writing contest of no less than 1000 entries,

Dude, I've read over 10,000. And 1 of them was worthy of publication, in my professional opinion.

Jude Hardin said...

Well said, Blake.

10,000:1 sounds about right, Joe.

Of course, everyone who self-publishes probably thinks theirs is the "one."

Nick Kelly said...

You're on to something here, Joe. Who wouldn't pay to relive their childhood by being able to download and share their favorite comic books with their kids?

We just watched the movie, want to see the original story? Maybe that graphic novel is long gone. Maybe it's your favorite story from a resurrected hero (Iron Man, anyone?). Who knows.

Great stuff as always!

JD Rhoades said...

Well, Joe, you finally convinced me to take the plunge. My novel STORM SURGE is now "live" at the Kindle store...suggestions welcome.

Stacey Cochran said...

To do exactly and/or similar things to what you've done for Rob, I am:

Officially Announcing the Launch of Stacey Cochran Books

Stacey Cochran said...

Dusty, I'll get you a quick couple dozen sales by posting a notice on the Kindle Discussion Forums.

JD Rhoades said...

Thanks, Stacey. I already posted on a couple, but the more the merrier. Which ones do you suggest?

Stacey Cochran said...

Dusty, I posted here:

Steve White said...

Fantastic stuff, as always, Joe.

On the one hand: DIY erights, yay! On the other, 1 in 10,000, eeeew.

What's a talented but unpublished writer to do? Back to agent-hunting, I guess. Gotta keep their slushpiles up.

But at least, when I finally see that contract, I'll be reading that efine eprint.

Jude Hardin said...

What's a talented but unpublished writer to do? Back to agent-hunting, I guess.

Exactly, Steve!

Glad to know there are still some unpublished writers out there with their heads on straight.

Cunningham said...

Joe, the reasons you outline above are the reasons I started my own publishing imprint PULP 2.0 PRESS. I was online searching for books that were out of print and I realized I would have to spend a ton of money to get the books I wanted...

There had to be a better way - especially with today's print-on-demand and digital reader technology.

I licensed 14 books from Don Glut and applied my skillset in movie marketing and design to book publishing. Our first title BROTHER BLOOD is out in print and soon in epub and Mobi.

There's a lot of stuff out there that good old fashioned pulp and horror enthusiasts such as myself want to read. It may be old, but it's new to us!

In addition we're starting our own line of new pulp with new characters and adventures. We're working with new writers using the TV writer's room model.

I couldn't agree with you more that the digital age has brought a lot of opportunity with it.



Victor said...

I disagree that writers "now have the upper hand". What I see is that writers are now urged to become publishers who bat out new material and resuscitate old.

This is a bitter point with me. Writers should write; if they feel like it, they can assume as much of the publisher's function as they wish, but I HATE the presumption that marketing and selling ARE PART OF WRITING.

Writing should be for writers who love their work. You don't have daughters to turn tricks on street corners to support you, do you? How about loving your writing more and finding some other way to make your living?