Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Amazon Agenda

I have a few disparate thoughts and observations that I'm going to attempt to coalesce into a single theme.

Amazon was recently the subject of world news when the ever intrepid David Streitfeld, the NYT reporter that gave us the wonder of whale math, did a hit piece on Amazon corporate culture that came to the startling and controversial conclusion; Amazon employees work really, really hard.

Streitfeld has a haterection for Amazon, and while he has yet to make a cogent point, this recent piece got big attention, so much so that major media outlets covered it, and there was outrage and pandemonium on social media, culminating in The Fault In Our Stars author John Green calling Amazon the "worst cult ever" and cancelling his Prime subscription, though his grave disapproval didn't extend to actually showing a backbone by demanding that Amazon stop selling his books. I mean, would you want your work associated with the worst cult ever? I wouldn't. But then, I've been cursed with integrity.

Streitfeld, too, has a book available on Amazon, though his dismal 700,000 rank may be part of the reason he dislikes Zon so much.

Last I checked, the five hundred plus signatories of the latest Authors United bullshit letter also all had their titles available on Amazon. That letter recently arrived at the DOJ, and I'd bet it wasn't a coincidence that it was on the heels of Streitfeld's anti-Zon piece. I can imagine their delicious, mutual self-gratification as Preston and Streitfeld exchanged super-important emails about how to best coordinate their Anti-Amazon efforts for maximum impact, and about how Suzie in Algebra is dating Brad now because he dumped Melissa after she gained weight, and OMG doesn't gym class suck this year 4 realz?!?

If you missed my pointed satire, I imagine them as immature, gossiping middle school kids. The loser ones, not the popular ones.

Here we have all of this vocal, public author disapproval of Amazon, yet no one has the guts to actually pull their books. But why would they? Amazon is making these authors a shit ton of money (with the exception of David Steitfeld). It's much easier to whine in public and hope that Amazon stops trying to disintermediate their publishers, who pay them large advances. Some of them so large, in fact, that they'll never earn out.

Which means it really doesn't matter how many books Amazon sells, because these authors won't ever see a dime of that money.

Hmm. Makes a little more sense why they're attacking Amazon, doesn't it? Because Amazon doesn't pay them. Amazon is harming the publishers that do pay them.

It is highly doubtful the DOJ will go after Amazon. Randal J. Morris looks at some legal precedent relevant to Authors United's six claims, and it becomes pretty obvious to anyone, even without any legal training, that the AU foot-stamping will go nowhere.

But the AU, and its incestuous fuck buddy the Authors Guild, keep petulantly stamping their feet anyway.

CBS Moneywatch wrote about this issue, and I was surprised to see it was a more-or-less balanced piece; something unusual since Zon hating in the media is currently en vogue. I normally eschew interviews, but I liked the questions asked. The reporter painted me in a kinder light by choosing my less-insulting quotes, but to drive home the gravitas of my intent here are my complete answers to his inquiry:

The Authors United letter to the DOJ is an embarrassing joke. I take it apart line by line here and point out everything wrong with it here.

I also fisked their longer letter here.

Amazon has allowed more writers to reach more readers than any other company in history. They’ve done this by innovating, giving readers what they want, and working with authors to offer us much better terms than any publisher ever has, in the past, or the present.

The Big 5 are a price-fixing cartel who want to charge readers high prices. That’s why the DOJ went after them and Apple, and that’s why they lost the suit. They had an oligopoly over paper distribution for decades (the only way to reach readers was through bookstores, the only way to get into a bookstore was through those publishing gatekeepers). Because they controlled who got published, they could get away with giving authors take-it-or-leave-it unconscionable contract terms

Amazon has broken that oligopoly by allowing readers to reach readers via ebooks. 

Because of this, the Big 5 can no longer control book pricing—and independent author can undercut them—and as a result the Big 5 are losing marketshare to Amazon and to indies. 

That’s why they’re pissed. This isn’t altruism on Authors United’s part. It’s greed. It’s wanting to return to the old ways, where top authors got seven figure advances. Great for that 1%, not great for the 99% that Big Publishing ignored, harmed, and/or took advantage of.

Because Authors United is a bunch of entitled rich and famous authors (who should be celebrating the luck they’ve had in life rather than whining like babies about Amazon), they’ve been wooing their media contacts to wage a public opinion war against Amazon by painting Zon as a bully.

There isn’t ONE SINGLE point Authors United makes that is truthful when it comes to their criticism of Amazon or their so-called defense of authors. All of their points are easily refuted. But the average reader doesn’t try to refute their nonsense. They see “Amazon is bad” and take it at face value. Because no journalists dig any deeper, “Amazon is bad” becomes the public sentiment.

Except it isn’t. Readers still love Amazon. Amazon has been voted #1 by customers for 9 consecutive years

More than 500 authors signed that nonsense DOJ letter, and every one of them should be ashamed. I’m happy to call them out for it: If you really can’t abide by Amazon’s nefarious practices any longer, put your money where your mouth is and DEMAND THAT AMAZON STOP SELLING YOUR BOOKS.

Hypocrisy much, Doug Preston?

I’m happy to send more blogs posts your way to show that Amazon goes out of its way to be fair to authors. The problem is that it takes exponentially longer to refute bullshit than it does to spout it, so you’d need a strong background in the DOJ lawsuit and the Hachette situation before you can fully understand how Amazon was being squeezed by publishers, not the other way around (which is how the media erroneously portrayed it).

Authors United are a bunch of greedy whiners who don’t want the status quo to keep shrinking; and it is shrinking, for the good of all readers and the vast majority of writers. So they beat their chests and flail about, trying to spin media, hoping public opinion will make big bad Amazon stop disintermediating the publishers who have made them rich.

It won’t work. Authors United knows this. Their argument doesn’t hold up to US antitrust law, logic, or majority opinion. But they are seeing their livelihoods slip away because their corporate masters don’t control the book world anymore, so they’re throwing a public tantrum.

All of those so-called “Author Organizations” need to be publicly chastised for their continued disservice to the authors they purport to represent. 

I’ve negotiated many times with Amazon, for contracts with their various Amazon publishing wings. I’ve always gotten much better terms than I had with any of my trad publishing deals. Not only more money in my pocket, but more control over my work.

To my knowledge, Amazon hasn’t used its alleged monopsony power to shut out any suppliers. In the Hachette instance, Amazon offered to compensate Hachette authors on three different occasions, to keep them from being collateral damage during the contract negotiations. Hachette dragged their feet for many months before negotiating, and their contract with Amazon had expired. amazon was under no obligation to sell ANY Hachette titles, but it did anyway. In the previous case of Amazon removing Macmillan’s buy buttons, this was in response to Macmillan colluding with Apple and four other major publishers to illegally force the Agency model upon Amazon. And again, Amazon compensated authors afterward.

I’m sure Amazon is a fierce negotiator. But under the Agency model, Amazon earns 30% of the ebook price. Authors earn 17.5%. Publishers earn 52.5%. Why should publishers earn more than the author who wrote it, or the retailer who sells more copies than anyone else?
With this new Kindle Unlimited compensation model, Amazon is rewarding good writers. My KU income doubled under their new terms.

I’m pretty tied into the indie community, and the thousands of writers I’ve encountered are smart, and aware. Sometimes they draw incorrect conclusions, or feel persecuted, but the difference between dealing with Amazon and dealing with the Big 5 is like the difference between and honest, open, friendly relationship, and being beaten up by a group of muggers.

There is no wrong way to do business with Amazon. Authors can opt out of Kindle Select after 90 days, or opt out of Amazon completely. Authors keep their rights.

The authors who are getting screwed are the ones with publishers. Publishers charge $12.99 for an ebook on Amazon. They do this in hopes readers will instead by the paper version—remember that publishers have a paper oligopoly they want to protect.

Readers don’t like paying $12.99 for a non-tangible ebook. So a lot of midlist authors don’t sell well. When they do sell, they only earn $2.27 on that sale. I earn $2.74 on the sale of a $3.99 ebook on Amazon, and I keep my rights.

The publishing industry wanted to slow the public adoption of ebooks. The Big 5 were fine with loss leads as long as it was for paper books. But once Amazon began to discount ebooks, with lured people to digital media, the Big 5 were willing to lose money to slow that transition down.

So that was my full response, and the CBS report quoted my less inflammatory bits. He also quoted some nonsense from the increasingly moronic Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild.

"We have one company that is virtually controlling the terms of publishing in many, many ways. They have the power to force publishers to accept their terms."

Okay, stop. This is the Authors Guild, remember? The ones who are paid dues by AUTHORS to look out for AUTHORS. Not PUBLISHERS.

Let's change two words to show what the Authors Guild should really be concerned about.

"We have one cartel that is virtually controlling the terms of publishing in many, many ways. They have the power to force writers to accept their terms."

Amazon allows any author to publish on their platform, and earn up to 70% royalties while still keeping their rights. The Big 5 pay shitty royalties, keep rights forever, and are exclusionary.

Yeah, that's the kind of guild I want representing me. 

Rasenberger goes on to spout more bullshit:

Rasenberger says that while "everyone loves low prices," the result is to eventually devalue books. "You're causing long-term harm that will be very difficult to recover from," she said. "Publishers have less money so they have less money (for) authors, they buy fewer books, and they offer lower advances." 

Ok, for the zillionth time, low prices DO NOT DEVALUE BOOKS--see Zombie Publishing Meme #2. And again with the Authors Guild playing mouthpiece for publisher concerns. 

Guess what, Mary? If publishers buy fewer books, authors can still make money BY SELF-PUBLISHING ON AMAZON. Need an advance? Try Kickstarter or Indiegogo. But stop perpetuating the bullshit that the Big 5 are the only way for authors to get paid and reach readers.

Other nonsense in the piece:

Eleanor Fox, a professor of law at the New York University School of Law and an expert in trade regulation. "What it did to Hachette a year ago was really outrageous, withholding books for sale. It was to me definitely an abuse because it was using its power to get a better price on its contract by holding off the market books that people wanted to read.

This is a meme that won't die: Amazon didn't withhold any books for sale. Not one. 

But, I suppose, if you keep repeating the same lie over and over again, people start to believe it. That's a cornerstone of propaganda. And that's what Authors United, the Authors Guild, and the NYT are doing; engaging in propaganda.

But to what end? Why are all of these folks, and me, going on and on about Amazon? What is the agenda of all interested parties?

The NYT Amazon-bashes for traffic. Anti-Amazon stories are incredibly popular.

Authors United and the Authors Guild are doing it to try to harm Amazon's image in the public eye, so Amazon is more favorable to their corporate master; the Big 5.

I'm doing it to help newbie authors, who might inadvertently believe all of the anti-Amazon nonsense because that's what the media keeps parroting, and in doing so miss out on an opportunity to find readers and make a few bucks.

Amazon keeps doing what it has always done; work hard to be the most customer-centric company on the planet.

Even though the public seemingly loves all the current Amazon hatefest, they vote with their dollars, and spend those dollars on Amazon.com.

And the authors I'm trying to inform are either paying attention to my harsh fisks, or more likely they're ignoring all the drama and using Amazon to their advantage. Self-pub ebooks now outsell Big 5 ebooks, much to the chagrin of the former status quo. And even old school legacy authors seem to be taking notice. As Barry Eisler just observed:

Did you know Authors United signatories have gone from 1081 to 575 in under a year?

So much for the propaganda. Heads up Authors United: When you can't even convince your own constituents to sign your nonsense, your cause is doomed.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Zombie Publishing Memes #2 - Low Prices Devalue Books

This is the second in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.

We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a free downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme yourself and don’t see it listed here, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles on these or related topics, please refer us to them so we can include links. The complete list of zombie memes we’ve addressed so far appears at the end of this post.

Low Prices “Devalue” Books.

The premise behind this zombie meme is not only wrong; it’s also exceptionally strange. After all, if you love books, why would you focus on their monetary worth rather than their worth in society? Isn’t what makes books valuable how widely they’re read, absorbed, and discussed, rather than how much money they make? And if books cost less and more people can afford them, doesn’t it stand to reason (assuming everyday experience is valid and what they teach in Economics 101 is correct) that more people will buy more books (in fact, they are doing just that)? If books are indeed valuable for society and we don’t want to devalue them, shouldn’t we look for ways to make books less expensive and therefore more widely accessible?

But even if you think the sole value of a book lies in how much money it makes, it’s silly to believe higher prices automatically mean more revenues. As a thought experiment: it’s unlikely anyone would maximize revenues with a five-cent price point, but then why not charge a hundred dollars for a book instead? Wouldn’t that $100 price point value the book even more?

Of course not. So intuitively, we all know there’s a sweet-spot price -- the price at which volume x unit price maximizes revenues, and logically, this would seem to be the price that derives the greatest (financial) value from the book. If we make more money from our books at a five-dollar price point than we do at ten (not a hypothetical for us, by the way, but empirical fact), which is the price that’s “devaluing” the book?

It also stands to reason that different authors with different brands will have different sweet-spot prices. What seems clear is that only exceptionally strong brands will maximize revenues at a per-unit price of $9.99 or higher. The legacy industry’s attachment to those high prices has little to do with maximizing revenues for most of their authors, and a great deal to do with trying to retard the growth of digital and preserve the position of paper. But that’s an uncomfortable truth for the legacy industry to acknowledge, so instead they prefer the counterintuitive narrative of how lower prices, which make more books accessible to more people, are in fact “devaluing” books. It seems unfortunate that some people seem to believe books should be like diamonds -- high-priced status symbols, accessible only to the few -- rather than a vital everyday item available to everyone, like food, water, and other nourishment. But self interest produces strange arguments.

For further reading, we recommend The Value of Ebooks and Race to the Bottom.

Previously addressed zombie memes:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ten Days of KENP with BookBub Boost

So this was unexpected.

First, some background. Because I've been devoting my time to other things, I haven't published a solo novel in over two years.

Whiskey Sour was my first legacy pubbed novel, and the hardcover came out in 2004.

In 2010, I got my rights back and self-pubbed it.

This was my first book in the Jack Daniels series. It has remained one of my best sellers for me, and in June under KU 1.0 payout of $1.38 per borrow I loaned out 362 copies and earned $500. I also sold 215 copies and earned $589.

So in June I made $1089 from Whiskey Sour in KDP. Not bad for an 11 year old that I haven't advertised in a long time.

Then Amazon rolled out KU 2.0, which paid according to pages read rather than per download. Again, I didn't do any promos, or release any new work.

In July, under new terms, I had 204,295 KENP borrows at $0.005779 per page, which equals $1180. I also had 602 sales, earning $1648.

So in July I made $2892 from Whiskey Sour. I can understand why I made more in KU--this book has gotten over 1400 reviews, and people seem to like it. That means they tend to finish it, and I benefited more from being paid per page than I had being paid per borrow.

I can't figure out why my sales also went up. People who borrowed it liked it and bought it? Someone the ranking went up, so it became more visible and sold more copies? The jury is still out.

So the next step was to try a BookBub for Whiskey Sour, which I did on August 13. I reduced the price to $0.99 on August 12, and the Kindle Countdown ended August 17. The BookBub ad cost $800 for the Mystery genre.

I'll be honest here; while I've never lost money on a BookBub deal, I was a little concerned how it would work out with KENP. Has KENP become so popular it would hurt my sales? Did BookBub send their email ad to a lot of KU subscribers who would borrow it rather than buy it?

I needn't have worried. Here are my sales and page reads for those days.

United Ordered:
On August 11, prior to the BookBub and KDP Countdown, I sold 10 units at $3.99
Aug 12 - 118 (first day at $0.99)
Aug 13 (BookBub) - 5593 (I reached #11 in the Top 100)
Aug 14 - 1091
Aug 15 - 619
Aug 16 - 482
Aug 17 - 376
Aug 18 - 349 (back to $3.99)
Aug 19 - 78
Aug 20 - 78

KENP Read:
On August 11, prior to the BookBub and KDP Countdown, there were 4444 page reads
Aug 12 - 6325
Aug 13 (BookBub) - 7551
Aug 14 - 20,456
Aug 15 - 21,793
Aug 16 - 35,131
Aug 17 - 49,682
Aug 18 - 51,007
Aug 19 - 54,156
Aug 20 - 55,803

So, thanks to the BookBub ad and KDP Countdown deal, I made $5550 on $0.99 cent sales from August 13-17. As of this writing, Whiskey Sour's ranking is #170, which helped me earn another $1383 from August 18-20. $6933 is a pretty good return on a $800 investment.

But that doesn't include KENP. From August 13-20, Whiskey Sour has had 295,582 KENP reads. At $0.005779, that's an additional $1708.

Plus, remember that a rising tide lifts all boats. People who like Whiskey Sour go on to read more of my books. On August 20th, I had 167,942 KENP reads across my backlist. So I made $970, in a single day, just on borrows.

Your mileage may vary. In fact, your mileage will vary.

One of the problems with any sort of promotion is the inability to repeat results. There are so many variables and factors, and no experimental control. I'm sure some authors can blow these numbers away. I'm sure other authors won't do as well. Many authors tell me they still get denied by BookBub. For the record, I also get denied by BookBub. They say no to my titles that don't have enough reviews, or haven't been out long enough.

I'm sharing these numbers to show that, in this case, with this book, BookBub worked for me, and the boost it gave my KENP for both Whiskey Sour and my backlist is obvious.

  1. I'm a lucky SOB. 
  2. I'm grateful for these opportunities, which didn't exist a few years ago. 
  3. KDP Select Countdowns are a good way to gain exposure. 
  4. When coupled with BookBub, the results can be very impressive. 
  1. Writing novels that people tend to finish and enjoy leads to big KENP numbers. 
  2. KENP also works better than being paid per borrow, both with and without BookBub. 
  3. Having a series might also help boost sales during a promotion, as other titles benefit from the one being advertised.
  4. I looked up my last BookBub, which was May 8 of this year for another Jack Daniels title, Cherry Bomb. The BookBub ad drove 3142 Countdown sales, and 488 at full price, earning $2678 for that month with that title. There were also 488 borrows, which earned me $586. But when the BookBub ended, the sales and borrows went down. With KENP, when the BookBub ended, my sales went down by KENP numbers are still continuing to rise. I'm writing this at 3:26pm on 8/21, and I'm already up to 120k KENP reads for the day. I expect it to get near, or surpass, my all-time high of 168k reads yesterday. 
That means, for my particular situation, a promotional effort has longer lasting KU benefits under KU 2.0 than it did under 1.0. Seems like I've hooked a few people on my series, and they're burning through them.

I wrote this post a day early because I'll be out tomorrow, but I'll check in with an addendum to let everyone know what my final KENP reads were for the 21st. I'm curious to see if they keep rising, plateau, or begin the inevitable decline.

8/22 Addendum - I had 166,746 page reads yesterday, so I dropped by 1000.

8/23 Addendum - Spurred on by a free ebook, Endurance, and a BookBub ad for The Complete Fifty Shades of Alice in Wonderland, I hit a high of 203,688. It is 10:14am CST, and my KENP is already 125,185.

8/24 Addendum - 234,026 KENP reads. That's $1352 in KU for a single day.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Guest Post H. L. LeRoy

First, a giant thank you to Joe for allowing me to guest post about my Kindle Worlds’ stories on his blog. I’ve been a longtime reader of A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing and I’m absolutely thrilled to be here.

When Joe offered the opportunity to write in Jack Daniels’ world, I jumped at the chance. Since my other works are in the mystery/thriller/action/adventure genres and tell the stories of strong female protagonists confronting impossible situations, I knew it was a perfect fit.

To that end, I've written three novellas (ONE EIGHT SEVEN, REMEMBER THE DEAD, and POOLED BLOOD) published through Amazon's Kindle Worlds' platform. These are licensed tie-ins with Joe’s serial killer hunter par excellence, Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels, and I hope people enjoy reading these as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Although loosely tied together, the stories are stand-alone reads and fit into the 2005-2006 Jack Daniels timeframe. Longtime fans as well as first time readers will be able to drop right in and not miss a beat.

Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels’ mom doesn’t just enjoy guilt trips she buys your ticket, packs your bag, and stamps your passport. Now she has Jack reluctantly heading to San Francisco in an effort to solve the murder of a drag queen superstar.

Teamed up with a tough-as-nails local P.I., Jillian Varela, Jack figures it will be an easy case. But what her mom didn’t tell her was that she would be helping a Mafia don with a long list of enemies.

As the bodies begin to stack up, it becomes obvious that Mom’s “simple job” has turned into something both dangerous and deadly.

In the world of serial killer hunters, Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels is a legend and well known in every cop shop in America. But when one gruesomely posed body after another are discovered in the middle of Chicago, ambitious politicians and an aggressive press are threatening to derail Jack’s investigation.

And with her partner Herb on an extended second honeymoon in Mexico, it doesn’t look like help is on the horizon.

Then a friend from California, P.I. Jillian Varela, shows up on a job that parallels Jack’s case. Together they pursue the killer into a nightmare world of obsession, torture, and murder where no one may survive.

After barely surviving the horror of the Parkside Strangler, Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels and her friend, P.I. Jillian Varela, decide to head to Cancun for a little well-deserved R&R.

But instead of a relaxing two weeks at a five star, luxury resort, a grisly death lands at their feet, and a young girl is arrested.

It should be simple, but in Mexico, you are guilty until proven innocent. And if the Policia Federal find out what Jack and Jillian are up to, they'll be spending a long time in less than luxury accommodations.

Joe’s Jack Daniels franchise is sharp, witty, suspenseful, and scary, and I’m privileged to be able to write in her world. She’s truly a once in a lifetime character. If you have a Jack Daniels story you’ve been dying to write, check out Joe’s Kindle Worlds page. It couldn’t be easier.

In addition to the three Lt. Jack Daniels/Jillian Varela novellas, I've self-published STREET CRIMES, a mystery anthology also featuring Jillian Varela, SUDDEN END, a prequel to my YA dystopian novel THE FOUNTAIN OF THE EARTH. Coming soon are: HERALDS OF JUNO, book two of The Fountain of the Earth series, a full length Jillian Varela thriller CENTER FIRE, and MALIBU BLUES, a hardboiled noir set in 1947 Hollywood.


Ashley looked in the mirror while she brushed on the finishing touches of her smoky night face. Cat eyes and high gloss nude lips. She worked a small round brush and a hair dryer through her blue streaked pixie cut. With a pair of nail scissors, she snipped away a straggle dangling on her forehead. 

Blowing on her black-painted nails, she spent a minute or two deciding on glitter or rhinestones for the tips.


Drenched in a fragrance that smelled like sex, she tugged on an expensive pair of tight-ass jeans and buttoned her silver see-through top. Stepping into a pair of red spikes, she turned in front of the mirror.


She slipped on a fur lined bomber jacket and looked out the window. The cab was already waiting. The ride to Chicago from Lake Forest was going to be expensive, but she didn’t care. Daddy was going to pay for it whether he knew it or not.

“Where to?”

“Pink Paradise, but I need to stop first.” She gave him an address in Uptown.

“Your funeral,” the cabby said.

He dropped her on the corner and waited.

The wind had started whipping across the lake, specks of ice picking at her face. Going to snow, she thought. Fortunately, it didn’t take her long to find the same sketchy asshole she’d dealt with before. 

She bought an eight and rubbed a little on her gums, as she hurried back to the cab.

The cab hissed through the Chicago streets to West Addison where the Pink Paradise sat, gaudy and loud. A wet snow had come, still thin, it spattered the windshield. Puddles in the road reflected the blues, pinks, and purples of neon lights and oil sheen. Slush drizzled off the awning edges, sheeting into the gutter.

She paid the cover, slipped past the crowd, heading straight to the lady’s room where she did a couple of lines on the toilet tank lid.

A little more on her gums, and she took another look in the mirror. 

I hope he’s here.

The dance floor writhed with bodies, the rave in full swing. While a shirtless, tatted up DJ worked a constant, steady assault of nosebleed techno, Ashley wove into the crowd.

After an hour, she broke away and headed back to the bathroom for a recharge. On the way out, she felt a light touch on the back of her neck. Turning, she slipped her arms around the man standing there, lights playing across his face.

“You came.”

“Told you I would.” He slipped a blue pill between her lips. “A little helper.”

They danced for a long time, finally taking a moment to grab a beer.

He slipped another pill in her mouth. “Let’s leave.”

Ashley swallowed. “I’m not ready.”

He frowned and reached for her arm.

About the Author
H. L. LeRoy is an American short story writer and novelist. He writes mysteries, adventures, and thrillers. Born in San Jose, California, LeRoy currently resides in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with his family.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Zombie Publishing Memes #1 - Amazon is a Monopoly

This is the first in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.

We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a free downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme yourself and don’t see it listed here, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles on these or related topics, please refer us to them so we can include links. The complete list of zombie memes we’ve addressed so far appears at the end of this post.

Amazon is a Monopoly.

This meme is incoherent, mistaken, and perverse.

Incoherent, because the “evidence” of Amazon’s monopoly power is always that Amazon is hard on its suppliers, not on its customers (no one can argue with a remotely straight face that Amazon is anything other than exceptionally customer-centric). If the evidence is that a company is squeezing suppliers, it might be evidence of something called monopsony, not of monopoly.

Mistaken, because Amazon has numerous competitors, including Apple, Google, Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Kobo, Smashwords, Scribd, Oyster, and more than 2000 independent bookstores (with new indies opening all the time, and sales at indies strong).

It’s important to remember that US antitrust laws were adopted to protect not competitors but competition. Monopolies (and monopsonies) are not themselves illegal -- what is illegal is abuse or unfair acquisition of monopoly power. Ultimately, antitrust laws are intended to protect the consumer, and it’s difficult to argue that low prices, innovation, and an ever-expanding variety of products are bad for consumers (though valiant efforts are constantly made).

Indeed, the best anyone seems able to come up with in support of the monopoly accusation is what Amazon might do in the future, rather than anything the company is actually doing today. The possibility that a company might one day become a monopoly and abuse its power is no more a crime than is the possibility that a person might one day acquire a gun, might one day get angry, and might one day use the gun in anger to kill someone. Outside Minority Report, the law just doesn’t punish hypothetical future crimes.

Perverse, because it fails to point out there actually is a monopoly in publishing -- or call it a quasi-monopoly, or oligopoly, or cartel. This is the New York Big Five (the cartel is right there in the name). The Big Five actually was prosecuted by the Justice Department for price-fixing under the Sherman Act. The Big Five settled; Apple fought and then lost. For any lawyers out there, note that price fixing is per se illegal under the Sherman Act. Meaning it is the very definition of abuse of monopoly power.

Of course, even if we didn’t know about the per se price collusion, we might surmise by its singular lack of innovation that the Big Five is functionally a single entity. Until Amazon pioneered online bookselling, digital books, and self-publishing, the Big Five was content to subsist on monopoly rents, developing nothing new or disruptive in generations.

In describing the Big Five as a cartel, by the way, we don’t mean to be insulting. We doubt even OPEC looks in the mirror and sees a cartel. Most likely, OPEC perceives itself as a humble organization beneficently managing prices for the good of society overall. This is just human nature, and there’s no reason to believe the Big Five views itself less attractively than does any other cartel.

Moreover, the Big Five has always itself functioned as a monopsony, abusing its author suppliers. How else to explain the forever-term contracts, the twice-yearly annual royalty payments, the lockstep low digital royalties, the outlandish rights grabs and draconian non-compete provisions? Could practices like these persist except by the abuse of vastly asymmetrical take-it-or-leave-it power exercised by a Big-Five controlled system against authors?

One of the more curious aspects of the “Amazon is a monopoly” charge is that it’s rarely made by anyone who’s a lawyer or economist, and indeed the people making the claim almost never bother citing relevant law or even economic theory. Instead, what seems to be happening is that certain people find Amazon both powerful and frightening. They therefore dislike Amazon and know Amazon must be bad. And what do you call a bad company? A monopoly.

A good example is this piece by Matt Stoller, who writes for Salon. In a near 3000-word post arguing that Amazon is a monopoly, Stoller fails to cite any antitrust law. His argument instead rests on his claim that “Amazon is a tyrant, it rules through terror.” This is a strange claim. We suppose it’s possible there are polls demonstrating that the majority of Amazon’s customers shop there because they’ve been terrorized into doing so, but it seems more likely that people shop at Amazon because they like the store’s price, selection, convenience, etc.

Note too, that in lieu of citing any legal basis for his “Amazon is a monopoly” claim, Stoller refers to an equally bombastic and legal-reference-free New Republic article for support. The tendency of some writers to draw support for the validity of a zombie meme by citing previous manifestations of the same meme might offer some insight into the resilience of zombie memes generally. Zombie memes are based on emotion, not on evidence or logic (in fact, they are contravened by evidence and logic). It may be that finding other people who share your fears and prejudices has the effect of validating and reinforcing those fears and prejudices. After all, it’s easier to ignore evidence and logic when you can point to other people who seem to be feeling the same things you are.

For another illustrative example of the inability of people propagating the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme to support their position with references to any relevant laws, we recommend this Paul Krugman piece arguing that Amazon is a monopsony hurting America, authors, and readers because it “has the power to kill the buzz,” and our discussion of it and related matters here.

Negating many of these monopoly claims, and citing US anti-trust precedent, Randall J. Morris has a thoughtful piece that shows how Amazon is in no danger of being sued by the DOJ.

The coherent (though far less scary sounding) version of the “Amazon is a monopoly” argument would be that Amazon has become a kind of utility -- an essential public service, such as electricity and water, for which consumers have no alternative and which therefore must be regulated by the government. While an “Amazon is a utility” argument would at least make some sense in a way the “Amazon is a monopoly” argument never has, it would still be mistaken. Even assuming that books are as essential to life as water and power, if the electricity company cuts off someone's power, that person will have no choice but to sit in a cold, dark house. If a book isn’t available in Amazon, it can instantly be obtained from almost any other bookstore, whether in person, by download, or by mail order. People buy books at Amazon not because they have no choice, but rather because they like the choice Amazon provides them and choose to shop there despite the presence of other available venues. The same can’t be said for, say, water and power. So even the “Amazon is a utility” argument, while somewhat more thoughtful and less incendiary than the “Amazon is a monopoly" version, remains at odds with reality.

Ultimately, the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme is attractive to some because it seems to paint a veneer of objectivity and reason over what is fundamentally a subjective emotional reaction. So just as the US and UK governments tend to call all people they dislike (even journalists) terrorists; just as some people opposed to Obama call him a Marxist/Socialist/Muslim/Kenyan/Anti-Colonialist because they find these labels presumptively bad; so too, in a corporate context, do Amazon detractors reflexively attach the bad word monopoly to the objects of their fears and prejudices. In another culture, this mindset might produce accusations that the hated party is a witch, or an extraterrestrial, or possessed by the devil, or in the grip of a psychological disorder (Google “Snowden Narcissist” to see a pristine example of the “I don’t like what he did so he must have a psychological disorder” reflex). The dynamics are broadly similar; in a corporate context, the reflexive verbal manifestation of hatred and fear just comes out “monopoly.”

Previously addressed zombie memes:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ebooks and Libraries and Self-Pubbed Authors

In a recent blog post, I briefly mentioned that the ebook library market is currently devoid of any key players as far as indies are concerned.

I've known this for a while, and came up with a business plan to fill this void. But it hasn't been easy.

Well, technically, for me it has been pretty easy. I brainstorm ideas, occasionally do some promo, and fun stuff. For my business partner, August Wainwright, it's been one challenge after another. For over a decade, the ebook library market has been the wild wild west. Each library or library system has been forced to reinvent the wheel in order to offer their patrons ebooks. They've been given one-sided deals by big publishers and distributors, have no universal way of buying, cataloging, hosting, or lending ebooks, and have been hamstrung by a myriad technological, business, and monetary roadblocks.

And that's just the library end of things. The indie author has also been unable to quickly and easily get titles into libraries. Many authors want to reach library patrons so much they're willing to give away their ebooks for free (even though the company that does so charges libraries for those same books--is that insane or what?).

To help authors understand more about the current dilemmas facing libraries, August and I did a long post on www.ebooksareforever.com. Here's an excerpt, along with some Q & A.

As EAF gets closer to an official launch later this year, we wanted to take an opportunity to weigh-in on a few of the more important aspects of the relationship between indie authors and libraries.

Something we’ve continuously attempted to convey during our beta period is that the consumer marketplace and library marketplace are two entirely different entities, and as such, need to be approached from different strategic angles.

This article discusses a few of those details, and is meant to be a first step towards building a knowledge base that both indie authors/publishers and libraries can reference in pursuit of a long-term, sustainable relationship.


Librarians have told us that they are slightly overwhelmed with the idea of having to discuss ebook acquisition with indie authors. We’ve heard stories about how libraries will set up booths at conferences and trade shows, and a vast majority of the people who seek them out are indie authors wanting to get their books into the library.

A few even admitted their response eventually defaulted to “Add your books to Smashwords, and we can look for them through Overdrive”, when in reality, the likelihood of that process ever playing out is very small.

This is eye-opening for many different reasons.

First, because it demonstrates the true amount of work required for librarians to interact with indie authors at scale.

Think about it like this:

If a librarian is asked about a popular title by a few patrons, he/she may attempt to source the book. Let’s assume the book was published by a small independent press. Within a few back-and-forth conversations, the librarian will not only be able to inquire about the desired book, but will also gain insight and easy access to all of the other books available from that small publisher.

This effect is amplified the larger the publisher is. If they target a publisher with thousands of titles, a relatively small amount of effort could result in many new books for their patrons.

However, when looked at in reference to indie authors - all of which act as individual publishers - each of these interactions is completely separate of all others.
This presents a HUGE hurdle for libraries.

Second, multiple librarians have said they are more than a bit dismayed that they are approached so many times with the same common pitch by indie authors. This pitch, from what we’ve been told, amounts to “You should add my books to your library.” or “Patrons would love my books.”, and nothing much else.

No marketing materials. No thought-out plan. Not even a summary or description of their titles or series.

This obviously doesn’t represent libraries’ interactions with ALL indie authors, but indie authors need to have a tight presentation to be taken seriously by libraries, as well as an easy route into those libraries, just as libraries need an easy way to attain wanted titles for their catalogs. Reducing friction as much as possible should be a priority.

Right now, we’re working closely with acquisition librarians to create this framework, and we’re working to make the process simple for both parties.


Discoverability is a common buzzword right now. Every conversation pertaining to indies and their success (or lack thereof) will contain discoverability as a major point of interest.

Many of the authors we’ve spoken with rightly look at libraries and their patrons as an opportunity to extend readership into new areas. Additionally, some have noted that they’d be willing to forego royalties because what they’re most concerned with is discoverability.

However, foregoing royalties in an attempt to gain traction with libraries misses a large portion of what the goal of librarians truly is.

Part of the job of librarians is to assess their specific patrons’ needs. What works at a large metro library, may not work at a smaller rural library. What’s popular and read often at a suburban public library will often be very different from that of a local community college or large university.

These individual needs are what drive librarians to speak of the need for multiple solutions.

But in all the time we’ve spent talking with librarians, not one has ever implied that libraries wish they could offer their patrons great content without having to pay for it; or that being able to do so would solve any of the acquisition problems they face. Every single librarian we’ve talked to about licensing, pricing, and discoverability has shared the same mindset: “Authors deserve fair pay for the work they’ve produced”. In our interactions, this sentiment appears universal.

Furthermore, the librarians we’ve worked with are not only HUGE fans of indie authors, but massive advocates for sustainable writing careers.

The long-term answer to the indie author’s discoverability problem is not FREE; not in the consumer marketplace2, and not in the library marketplace. If the ebook is produced professionally, has compelling cover art, is well edited, and patrons choose to read it, then the author deserves to be compensated. Librarians certainly agree with this.
Discoverability and royalties are not, and should not be, tied directly to each other.

There’s a lot more to read over on the EAF Blog. Click here to read more.

Q: What’s taking so long with EAF?

EAF: We’re still in a beta testing period, due almost entirely to the fact that an overwhelming majority of libraries in this country don’t have access to the infrastructure needed to host their own ebook collection.

Vendors have controlled this aspect of the digital library since ebooks started to become popular.

Because of this, if we want to give libraries the ability to host their own content and allow patrons to quickly and easily interact with the ebooks they purchase, then we have to invent the technology they need from the ground up. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

For eBooksAreForever to be judged as a success for both authors and libraries, we feel it’s important to not only deliver the necessary technology, but to create a community around that tech that benefits everyone involved. So we want to make sure that when we launch nationwide later this year, that authors and librarians will be blown away by the features, ease-of-use and simplicity of eBooksAreForever.com.

But that's only ⅔ of the whole equation. Many libraries don't have any existing infrastructure to offer ebooks to their patrons. So EAF is working to create one, and make this available to libraries and patrons for free.

Joe sez: Compare ebooks and libraries to other media markets. Let's equate writers with videogame developers. Creating the game isn't enough. There needs to be a way to get that game to consumers. There also needs to be a way for consumers to play the game.
In the retail market, you can reach consumers via Amazon, Google, etc. But in the library market, which is global but decentralized, every library and library system has a different way of acquiring and cataloging titles (and cataloging is a big one--a library can't offer any materials to patrons unless it has a method of sorting, shelving, and keeping track; with digital media this means integrating with a myriad of different cataloging and hosting software, and in some cases being the host.)

Then, once the library has a way to buy and lend ebooks, how are patrons supposed to read them? Amazon and other retailers have invented their own ereading devices for this purpose. While some libraries may have the funds to purchase and lend out dedicated devices, most don't. Which means EAF has to not only integrate with libraries, but with the devices that patrons already have, such as computers, tablets, and smart phones.

This isn't something that happens overnight.
Q: Who do you see as competition for EAF? What are they doing right or wrong?

EAF: The only real competition to EAF at this time is Overdrive via their connection with Smashwords. Although, comparing the sustainable indie platform we’re building to a vendor that serves big traditional publishers, and which was just purchased by Kobo’s parent company for half a billion dollars, doesn’t seem like an apples-to-apples comparison.

Overdrive/Smashwords is the only other avenue that indie authors and publishers can utilize to get their ebooks into libraries AND get paid for doing so. In that respect, they’re doing the right thing by paying indies royalties when libraries purchase their books.

However, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing this with librarians and, while a few admitted their response to indies eventually defaulted to “Add your books to Smashwords, and we can look for them through Overdrive”, in reality, the likelihood of that process ever playing out is very small.

You can read a more in-depth reason for why that is here (in the “Library Interest and Marketing” section), but it boils down to 2 main factors:

  1. Most of the popular indie content isn’t available via Smashwords
  2. It’s far too daunting of a process for them to take on the Overdrive/Smashwords process for each and every indie author who approaches them

More importantly, indie content just doesn’t seem important to Overdrive. And why should it when they have ebooks from the Big5 (as well as many other traditional publishers) priced at huge markups above the retail price.

We feel the goal for indies and libraries should be to build upon the already harmonious relationship that exists between the two groups. Finding ways to create a sustainable community is something that nobody else is even attempting right now.

Joe sez: The problem of discoverability for authors is much more difficult on a virtual library shelf than it is on Amazon. First, libraries must be aware of titles; they aren't going to buy something they don't know exists. Second, patrons need to be aware of titles; they aren't going to borrow something they can't find.

My biggest goal as a writer mirrors the goal of many of my peers; we all want to be read. Simply getting your ebook into a library is no guarantee anyone will read you, or even find you.

One of the ways we're working to make EAF valuable to libraries is to make it valuable to library patrons. That means a way for readers to find, read, and discuss titles.
Q: What are the greatest ebook challenges facing libraries?

EAF: Among the hurdles that libraries must overcome are:

  1. Shrinking budgets; They simply don’t have the budgets to purchase everything they would like to add.
  2. Licensing models that strain that budget; High prices for ebooks, combined with unfavorable licensing, create a very unfavorable environment for libraries. For example, a library must pay for extension of time-limited licenses of old ebooks AND purchases of licenses for new ones. All kinds of sustainability and predictability issues arise.
  3. Cost of technology, which again strains their budget; An overwhelming majority (I’d guess more than 97%) of libraries don’t have the ability to host digital content on their own. This limits what they can offer their patrons to those vendors who are providing third party services. Most of these vendors charge high platform setup fees.

There are plenty of other concerns regarding ebooks, such as patron confidentiality and security (like when Adobe was caught collecting data on library ebook users), censorship and filter requirements, and changing demographics, but the shrinking budget sticks out as a major problem because of how enormously expensive ebooks are from major publishers.

Joe sez: I'll add another hurdle: the time and money involved in curation. Which brings us to the next question.
Q: Is EAF ever going to invite all authors into its catalog? Why the exclusivity?

We’re working on ways to allow ALL authors access to eBooksAreForever and, with input from librarians, are considering different solutions for different challenges at various types of libraries.

In a perfect world, curation wouldn’t be necessary. In general, I’d say curation is completely unnecessary in the consumer space. Putting up walls (as many indies are familiar with) and falsifying “best-seller” lists to limit consumer access to certain titles is simply wrong.

But the important thing that we need to know to initially build and grow EAF is that the consumer marketplace and library marketplace are two different entities. There are many things that would be expected when it comes to Amazon/B&N/Kobo/Apple/etc that just don’t work the same way for libraries. Mostly, this is due to the fact that the consumer reader market is growing (depending upon who you ask of course), where as library budgets are shrinking – and they’re shrinking while ebook prices are continuing to climb for them. We’re dealing with far more limitations and completely different needs.

Additionally, librarians have asked for this curation, as it’s something that makes the acquisition process far easier for them. We want to deliver upon that request.

To finish all necessary testing before our official launch later this year, we need to control both quality and quantity of titles, as well as the number of titles per genre. We can’t go to launch with 80% of our titles being mystery titles, or romance titles; which may lead to someone who passes all of the internal criteria we’ve set being temporarily denied at this point.

Being denied access now doesn’t mean you’ll be denied in 2 weeks, or 2 months. Overall, there are various factors that go into the curation process, of which number of reviews, quality of reviews, number of titles, whether your books are in a series, estimated sales figures, cover art, book description, current genre saturation, library interest, and overall availability are just a few.

We’ve come across books that are obviously of high quality that have few sales, and fewer reviews. And we’ve accepted some of those titles. We won’t automatically turn authors away because of lack of reviews. Likewise, we also can’t automatically accept books based entirely on hitting certain thresholds.

Joe sez: In a nutshell, curation is necessary to make EAF's catalogue valuable to libraries.

With the sheer number of indie titles already available, and tens of thousands more released every year, only the largest library systems can afford to pay a fulltime employee to sort through them all.

The work-around is simple: EAF does the sorting for libraries. Our business plan focuses on making it simple for libraries to buy our entire catalog all at once, rather than parsing through each individual title.

This means the titles we offer have to be vetted. EAF's collection is only valuable if the titles in it have already proven popular with readers.

Think about an all-you-can-eat buffet. It costs $9.99, and has a hundred different foods to munch on. How long would that buffet stay in business if eighty out of a hundred foods weren't ever eaten? Or if a handful were really low quality?

Our launch model is focused on working with libraries to get them desired indie content without wasting their time or money. We're also working to incorporate both erotica and non-fiction in our launch.

For the future, we're developing different ideas to allow more writers to reach libraries, while also fairly compensating them, even if they haven't had big sales yet.

I didn't start this business because I wanted to get rich quick. I started it to help writers get their self-pubbed work into libraries. This means all writers. But that's going to take some time, and there will be some smaller steps EAF needs to take before that happens.

We appreciate your patience. It'll be worth the wait.