Friday, February 19, 2016

Fisking Lee Child

I like Lee Child. He's a generous guy, pleasant, smart, and a decent writer.

But Lee has aligned himself with the pinheads of Authors United, and though his views differ enough to be considered on their own merits rather than instantly dismissable like the majority of AU alarmism, Child's continued anti-Amazon stance is getting boring.

Yes, I know he wants to defend the crumbling establishment that has made him a gazillionaire, and suck a few more bucks out of it. But be honest that's the intent. Don't spout self-interest under the guise that Amazon is bad for readers, or writers, or the world in general.

I'm very open about my pro-Amazon bias. Amazon has allowed tens of thousands of authors who were screwed or spurned by the legacy publishing industry to make a few bucks. It has brought down the price of books, allowing more readers to enjoy them. I've personally benefited from Amazon's policies, but so have the majority of readers and writers. And the only reward I get for my pro-Amazon activism is thousands of thank yous from writers who have self-pubbed and can now pay bills with their writing income.

Who is thanking Lee? Doug Preston? Scott Turow? James Patterson? It's good to have friends. I'm sure it's rosy at the top, and those megasellers want to keep it that way. But at some point you maybe need to do some soul searching and admit your success is fueled by a corrupted, archaic machine that is ultimately bad for society and culture. And luck, of course. A lot of luck.

Which brings me to Child's piece in The Guardian, Lee Child on Amazon’s real-life bookshops – and why we should be worried.

Don't you love that title? I mean, just think of how terrible the world would be with--gasp!--more bookshops!

The stuff of nightmares, it is. Let's fisk.

Child: In December, Amazon US released its 2015 in-house all-format all-category bestseller list. They also published other lists, for bestselling paperbacks on Amazon in 2015, regardless of publication year and a Kindle list too. Then the newspaper USA Today came out with its own industry-wide all-sources version. What was the difference? Two words: The Martian (good movie, but the book was better). It was number four on USA Today’s list and number four on Amazon’s Kindle list – but it was number 16 on Amazon’s physical book list. There were other titles in the same anomalous situation. Why?

Joe sez: Don't get me started on the WTF factor of bestseller lists. USA Today compiles a list based on surveys of polled outlets. Since publishers don't release actual sales figures to the public (or even to their authors, according to the many who have called for--and won--audits), comparing paper sales of The Martian on USA Today's list and on Amazon's list is apples to oranges.

But for the purpose of this post, let's say that both USA Today and Amazon have bestseller lists that accurately reflect true sales figures.

Child: Because, even now, for most books and most people most of the time, the biggest spur to purchase a physical book is seeing that actual book in a physical place.

Joe sez: That's one interpretation. While I fully believe in the power of the point-of-purchase sale, and I personally believe shelf space and distribution are what has created the name-brand bestselling authors who have dominated bestseller lists for decades, there could be other interpretations of the discrepancy.

Maybe the publisher of The Martian didn't pay Amazon as much co-op as it paid other retailers, so it wasn't as prominently displayed on Amazon.

Maybe people on Amazon prefer buying ebooks, which is evident in The Martian's #4 standing on the Kindle List. (Which would beg the question, where did The Martian fall on USA Today's ebook bestseller list, and why?)

Maybe some publishers paid Amazon more co-op than The Martian's publisher, and so their books had better placement on Amazon and thus sold better.

Maybe some Amazon published or self-published books--which aren't tracked by USA Today--sold better on Amazon than The Martian did.

As I said, I know point-of-purchase is a real thing. Because that's how I believe I've sold two million books. Readers have no idea who I am. I'm not a name brand. But my books are visible on Amazon, and visibility sells books on Amazon the same way it does in airport bookstores.

Child: Because for most people most of the time, reading is a take-it-or-yawn-leave-it activity. Books are not quite distress purchases, but neither are they exciting enough for enthusiastic online hunting. (Again, for most people most of the time, which I’ll stop repeating now, but only if the e-fanboys agree to discuss the real world, not their pretend version. Deal?)

Joe sez: No deal.

Lee, for your audience--like the audience of most mega-bestsellers--book buying may be a take-it-or-yawn-leave-it activity. I won't argue with that. But you're a rare bird. You're the 1% of the 1% of the 1%. Your books are everywhere, so you sell everywhere, and I don't doubt that the vast majority of your buyers are those who read occasionally, picking up a book while on vacation, or for a long flight, or as a gift for the in-laws.

I also have no reason to doubt that the majority of book buyers are casual readers. I can believe that a few hundred bestsellers per year sell far better than their few million competitors, and that most books sold are bought by those who buy fewer than five books per year.

But the majority of authors don't subsist on those type of readers. We make a living from the solid core of medium-to heavy readers, who go through more than a few books per year. This may be a fraction of your audience, but it's still a billion dollar slice of pie to split up among us.

As a legacy fan-boy, you seem to think that unless an author is making an eight figure deal, they're a hobbiest. That is not the "real world" as known by the tens of thousands of our peers who are making a few bucks for the first time ever. Your world is a fairy-tale that you seem to think is the norm (or worse, that you somehow earned).

Congrats. You got really lucky, and won the publishing jackpot. Enjoy it, but stop talking down to us e-fanboys who are making ends meet, because you come off sounding entitled and elitist.

Child: So why would a physical book be number four on one list and 16 on another? Nothing sells physical books better than physical displays in bricks-and-mortar locations.

Joe sez: I can agree with this. It would sure be great if I could get some of that love. Bookstores tend to boycott me, however.

But your argument hasn't even attempted to show why paper sales are somehow better sales than ebook sales for anyone other than the 1% of 1% of 1%. "We" don't need to be worried about this phenomenon. You and Patterson do. And even then, not really. You may lose your eight figure advances as the publishing industry changes, but I'll bet you'll still be able to pay the electric bill if your paper sales disappear.

Child: Millions of people passed by bookshop windows or airport bookstalls, and saw The Martian, and some vague impression clicked in and they said, “Oh yeah, that’s supposed to be cool”, and they bought a copy, and enjoyed it. Same for the other anomalous titles. That is still how books get sold.

Joe sez: No. Nope. Nuh-uh. This is how paper bestsellers get sold.

None of my books have sold this way. Granted, I've only sold two million, not half a billion. And I'm as much of an anomaly to most self-pubbed authors as you are to me. But you're using The Guardian to preach to the Everyday Joe (unless I'm wrong and The Guardian's circulation is limited to members of Authors United), and Everyday Joe simply doesn't have your concerns. The vast majority of writers can't relate, and readers just don't care. Both the casual and the power reader find their books however they find them, and will continue to do that even if the retailers change and the format changes.

Child: Research bears it out. Physical eyeballing is way ahead of any other prompt, be it word of mouth, spam, social media or other kinds of advertising.

Which is a problem for Amazon.

Joe sez: Sure. Except for, you know, the billions of things they sell due to people physically eyeballing You may have heard the Internet terms surfing and browsing. One does not need to be standing in a shopping mall to impulse buy.

In fact, you may have noticed that Amazon is pretty good at recommending items for customers to buy. The airport kiosk has your latest, a Stephen King, a Nora Roberts, a James Patterson, and whoever took over for poor, dead Michael Crichton. This limited selection ensures that you'll sell a fuckton of paper. I'm sure you like that a lot. I sure would.

But I'm stuck with Amazon, which democratizes that limited shelf space into equal unlimited space for all writers (except for that co-op thing, which we'll get into shortly).

Amazon doesn't have a problem, here. Brick and mortar stores do. Because they have limited space.

You know this. And this is a big reason why you're concerned about Amazon opening 300 stores. Because Amazon could attempt to democratize physical shelf space the same as it has done with virtual shelf space, and that would mean readers would have more than you and six other old white guys to choose from (No disrespect to Ms. Roberts, but old white guys have dominated the bestseller lists for decades.)

Child: Classically it uses books to hook customers and then data-mine them. But it gets only dedicated book buyers.

Joe sez: I have no doubt Amazon is data mining me. Google data mines me. Apple data mines me. My own government data mines me, except they're trying to arrest people without due process rather than sell them stuff. But I don't understand your "dedicated book buyers" comment.

Amazon does get the heavy readers who buy more than a few books a year, and Amazon certainly has loss leads and incentives to get customers to shop for more than just books--they do call themselves "The Everything Store".

Sure, there are more cases of someone grabbing a Red Bull and some M&Ms in an airport and also grabbing your latest paperback at the same time than they are of seeking out a specific Konrath title on Amazon, but what's your point? You sell more so your way is better? You sell more so your way is what the Common Man really prefers?

I think you sell more because you're everywhere. And you're everywhere because you got lucky and won the Big Pub Lottery and could plug into a gigantic distribution network that allows casual readers to find you.

That doesn't make airport impulse purchases the better way to sell books, or the only way. But it certainly discriminates against the vast majority of authors.

Some shoppers look for something specific, like a predator on a game trail. Some graze and devour whatever is in front of them. Most of use do a bit of both. But there is no superior way to buy a book.

Child: Browsing on Amazon isn’t great as a casual experience: fatigue sets in.

Joe sez: Have you ever gone to the mall on Black Friday? You really want to argue fatigue?

Child: (How do you make something totally invisible? Put it on page 17 of an internet search.)

Joe sez: How do you force a midlist legacy author to take a day job? Don't give her a six figure marketing budget.

You're being either myopic or intentionally disingenuous. I'll wager Amazon has allowed many more authors to reach readers in the last five years than the Big Publishing has since 1950.

True, Amazon hasn't created another Lee Child. But I think most people will settle for a hundred Hugh Howeys instead.

Child: And Kindle hasn’t taken over the world. It has settled into a solid niche, like those tiny tubes of toothpaste – essential for travel, but no one uses them at home. (Down, fanboys! Real world!)

Joe sez: Ah, the real world. Do you even remember what that was like, Lee? Worrying about bills? Self-promoting to reach fans? Being paid twice a year and budgeting to make that money stretch?

I like your toothpaste tube analogy, though, even though you intended it to be insultingly dismissive. There are a lot of companies making a lot of money selling travel sized toothpaste. And it may be a niche, but I can subsist in that niche, along with tens of thousands of my peers.

Of course, I really don't believe it's a niche. I believe it's a shadow industry that is a lot bigger than you and your cronies think. It may not have hurt your bottom line, yet. It may never. But my career path doesn't require paper books to fail for me to succeed. My path doesn't require paper sales at all.

Here's a simpler way to explain it. Is it better to have ten people feast until they're stuffed, or for a whole village to eat enough to not starve?

Right there is the difference in our ideologies.

Child: So there is no way for Amazon to replicate that happy, random encounter with a physical bookstore window. Yes, there are bots and algorithms, but those casual millions of three-books-a-year people never see them: they don’t buy books online.

Joe sez: You're proving my point, here. Other than incorrectly romanticizing the selling process of paper books (I debunked paper infatuation way back in 2010), you're preaching to a crowd of a hundred authors, and the bloated industry that has made them rich. The majority of writers don't agree and don't care. Neither do readers. Because those casual three-books-a-year readers will find those books elsewhere if the current paper source dries up, or they'll do something else with their leisure time, like Angry Birds.

Your argument is like saying people truly enjoy the experience of going into a 7-11 and impulse buying a Twinkie. Lots of people certainly do that. But it is far from the only way people choose to snack. And if the Twinkies were gone, these people will find something else to eat, or search elsewhere.

Child: Which is a defeat for Amazon. It prides itself on going where the customers are, and doing what the customers want. And it needs to. Its growth demands all the customers there are.

Joe sez: You have the first part backwards. Amazon's strategy thusfar has been to lead customers to it, not to go where the customers are.

Child: So now, rumour has it, Amazon plans to open another 299 physical bookstores (it already has one, in Seattle). The rumours are denied – or at least, not confirmed – and at first glance they appear economically insane. At the best of times, books are low-velocity, low-margin items, and commercial rents are geared to the opposite – clothes, handbags and other high-profit stuff. But then, for 20 years Amazon has proved willing to eat losses, and investors have allowed it to.

So, what if? And suppose those 300 stores were only the start? We’d quickly approach a de facto monopsony.

Joe sez: And here were go again. I'm so tired of debunking this one. And I'm also tired of repeatedly stating that the Big 5 are a de facto oligopoly; a cartel that fixes prices and censors books. But as much as I debunk the monopoly/monopsony argument, no one has ever challenged my accusations about the Big 5.

Child: Amazon would become the only practical route to market for 1,400 US publishers and a million US self-publishers, for either digital or paper product.

Joe sez: Currently Amazon is the only practical route for millions of self-publishers. Your point?

I've blogged about this before, but can't find the link. In a nutshell, once a company becomes powerful enough to dictate terms for consumers or suppliers, it still has powerful incentives to play fair. That's why Wal-Mart, when it opens in a new town and destroys all the Mom and Pop stores, doesn't raise prices when the competition is killed. If they did, it would allow the Mom and Pops to return and compete. So they have to keep prices low.

The same thing works with suppliers in a digital world. We're not talking oil barons owning a limited amount of land. We're talking the Internet. If Amazon starts screwing authors (you know, maybe like slashing their ebook royalties to 17.5%--who would do something so awful?) then that's just asking for competition to step up and lure authors away with better terms.

And unlike the Big 5 cartel who don't compete on terms (for us mere mortal writers they only compete on the size of advance), Amazon isn't ever going to go the oligopoly route and collude with competitors. Amazon wants to have the widest selection, and they don't want to share. They incentivize authors with Kindle Unlimited in order to offer readers the widest selection. This alarmist notion of "Amazon Will Slash Your Royalties" has no basis in reality.

Or does it? Let's see what Lee digs up...

Child: The history is worrying. Amazon has already tried to use its power in a punitive fashion, as if determined to hurt publishers financially.

Joe sez: Uh, no it hasn't. Anyone who followed the Hachette nonsense on this blog knows what that was really about; publishers wanting higher ebook prices. Which has harmed publishers, and lots of authors (though not Lee Child because he sells buttloads of paper books.)

Child: All kinds of fees and “contributions” are required. “Pay to play” was openly the name of the game, until Amazon’s lawyers suggested a less explicit description. One publisher resisted, and a senior Amazon executive boasted: “I did everything I could to screw with their performance.”

Joe sez: As if Amazon invented co-op. C'mon, Lee. Stop being disingenuous. Publishers have always paid to play. Hint: the reason your books are front and center at Barnes & Noble is because your publisher paid out the ass for it. I don't hear you bitching about those "contributions".

Child: Already, self-publishers have only “terms and conditions”, which change capriciously – so far only to Amazon’s advantage. Is it good public policy to allow one corporation to have total power over a nation’s published output?

Joe sez: Give me "terms and conditions" over the greedy, moronic, inept fuckers who wanted my rights, forever.

You keep demonizing Amazon for things that Big Publishing has already done, and done to a much worse degree. They had total power, and the exercised it lockstep, and fixed prices, and kept millions of books from reaching readers, and screwed authors.

Amazon can never have total power, because they don't own rights, and they can't censor other sales outlets for authors. The Big 6 could and did censor, because they controlled distribution.

You said earlier that the Kindle is niche. So pick an argument, Lee. Does Kindle cater to only a small percentage of the book market, or does it command total power over everything published?

And why, exactly, should we be worried if Amazon opens 300 bookstores? Didn't you say that readers prefer that "happy, random encounter with a physical bookstore window"? What's wrong with 300 more windows?

Oh... wait. I know.

Those are 300 windows that your books won't be prominently featured in unless your publisher pays for it. And how could your poor publisher hope to afford that when they keep giving you eight figure advances?

My my, this is a dilemma.

As for me, who has had zero physical premise in brick and mortar bookstores since Shaken was published in 2010, I'm hoping Amazon does start opening stores and giving those casual readers a broader choice than that same handful of old white guys. And I'm not worried about Amazon having "total power" because, unlike you, I have an understanding of how Amazon works. Every Amazon imprint, every section, functions as its own company. It has to bid for co-op just like publishers do. That's how it avoids any DOJ problems. Amazon will sell used products alongside new ones, for less, via third parties. Amazon allows third party vendors to sell things that Amazon doesn't even carry. Consider that. If you're really worried Amazon will boycott your publisher, Amazon will still offer your publisher's titles on via third parties.

Probably not at the discount you'd like, though.

Amazon won't ever have "total power" because it competes with itself. It wants to sell everything to everyone. Even at the expense of its own profits and shareholders.

The Big 5 want to sell certain books to certain people in certain ways. They want higher prices, and will collude to get them. Except for 1% of 1% of 1%, they pay they authors much less than Amazon does. They keep rights. They demand unconscionable clauses like non-compete and next option.

Amazon has allowed me a career. But I'm only pro-Amazon for as long as they are pro-author.

I said "pro-author" not "pro-Joe."

The Big 5 are not pro-author. They are pro-Lee Child.

That's awesome for you. But--down legacy fanboy!--the rest of us live in the real world.


Ken Hagler said...

Something else Lee Childs doesn't seem to have considered: Those people who only buy three books a year also don't read newspapers except for the sports and celebrity gossip sections. The people who would be reading his article are the very same people he repeatedly insults and dismisses as irrelevant. As one of those people, his approach leaves me generally unwilling to buy any of his books. Funny how that works...

Gordon Horne said...

B&M presence. Limited shelf space. Even more limited window space.

As I read this fisk it occurred to me that I have never seen a bookstore window with one of those LED promotion display panels. The ones fast food restaurants use to rotate pictures of their menu items. The ones travel agencies use to rotate pictures and videos of exotic locations. The ones shoe shops use to show slide shows of what an awesome runner their high tech shoes will make you. The ones all sorts of retailers use. I've never seen one in a bookstore window. Have any of you?

There are 3000 ten second intervals in a typical business day, give or take. If a small book shop had room for 12 books in a window display (2 across, 3 down on either side of the door) and replaced 1/3 or those spots with book sized LED promotion displays it would provide 12,000 ten second window slots.

In place of four book-sized screen, install one screen four times the size of a book. If running a cookbook event, show a large picture of cookbook cover for 3 seconds, cookbook cover #2 for 3 seconds, cookbook cover #3 for three seconds, cookbook cover #4 for 3 seconds, then all four cookbook covers at once for 2 seconds, then 16 covers for 2 seconds, then 64 covers for 2 seconds, then text "Cookbook Event on Now" (3 seconds), "Big Savings on all Cookbooks" (3 seconds). Total run time 24 seconds.

Bookstores could charge for LED display time in lieu of window space, and could require publishers/distributors/authors to provide the media. Does any bookstore do this? If not, why not?

Alan Tucker said...

More and more, here and over at TPV, Lee's arguments against Amazon and for Trad Publishing seem to be centered around the handful of authors like himself: the Ultra-Mega-Best Sellers. And that you'll never reach his level if you don't try to sign with a Big 5 publisher. While that's most probably true, that approach, as a business model for an author, is like a retail shop owner buying a Powerball ticket every week, knowing that his shop will be a success if he hits that jackpot.

Real world? Winning the lottery is not a real world plan.

Randall J. Morris said...

If Authors United and Lee Child are thinking the Robinson-Patman Act is going to help them shut down Amazon Books, I still think they're mistaken. I know this has been dealt with by The Digital Reader and Teleread. I wrote a commentary on all of this a while back as well.

Since you get treble damages, you have to prove 7 things in order to get monetary damages under the Robinson-Patman Act. Good luck with that, AU. I hope your legal briefs aren't as embarrassing as the one you wrote for Apple v. United States because that one was simply ridiculous.

shugyosha said...

Child: "At the best of times, books are low-velocity, low-margin items"

40% margin. Low. They use the same excuse here (Spain), with fixed price.

BTW, Amazon's supposed to open a store 5 min from where I'm typing this. Walking. We'll see.

Adult: "But as much as I debunk the monopoly/monopsony argument, no one has ever challenged my accusations about the Big 5."

They'd have to acknowledge those "accusations" [aka, facts].

"Child: Amazon would become the only practical route to market for 1,400 US publishers and a million US self-publishers, for either digital or paper product."

I assume he's chastising the traditional route for not offering alternatives in, say, the last 50 years?

Child: "Amazon has already tried to use its power in a punitive fashion, as if determined to hurt publishers financially."

They were only catering to their S/M leanings. The publishers', I mean. Apparently, Hachette forgot the control word.

As if the Big 5 could teach morals.

Child: "Is it good public policy to allow one corporation to have total power over a nation’s published output?"

Use your next advance to prop an alternative. They do exist. Finance them. Put your money where your mouth is.

Take care.

John Ellsworth said...

"Is it good public policy to allow one corporation to have total power over a nation's published output?"

In this country, public policy does not dictate what is and isn't allowed commercially. Laws dictate that. And right now those laws don't dictate against Amazon and its genius retail machine.

BTW, laws are oftentimes based on public policy. Those laws are drafted and voted on by the duly elected representatives of the people. The people have spoken. Amazon is good.

So if you really hate Amazon, do what all good corporations (don't tell me you're not one) do and hire a lobbyist and change the law. It's a faster way to DIY justice than continuing to lobby the DOJ.

JA Konrath said...

So if you really hate Amazon, do what all good corporations (don't tell me you're not one) do and hire a lobbyist and change the law. It's a faster way to DIY justice than continuing to lobby the DOJ.

Even simpler: tell your publisher to pull your books from

Stop the hypocrisy. You hate Amazon? Don't sell your books on Amazon.

I dislike the Big 5. Since I began to blog about my dislike of the Big 5, I've NEVER SUBMITTED A BOOK TO THE BIG 5.

I stand where I sit.

Authors United does not. How about, instead of full page NYT ads, you actually boycott Amazon?

Like that will ever happen. Why throw light on something when the heat gets so much ink?

ABEhrhardt said...

All of this keeps Mr. Child's name in the paper.

Add a bit of perception that he is on the side of readers (false, but who reads deeper?), and what he's getting is massive publicity for his NAME. Which sells books - with his NAME on them.

Of course he does this. All publicity is good publicity.

I wish I had the same access to publicity.

A.G. Claymore said...

He's keeping his name in the papers, but the comments on that last article prove it's not such a good strategy. The vast majority are in opposition. Ken was on the money with his comment - Lee was preaching to the wrong audience.

Or perhaps to the right audience but accidentally chose the wrong channel.

Either way, the Guardian harvested a butt-ton of email addresses from all the folks who got angry enough to sign up and register their disagreement. Probably the reason they ran the article in the first place...

A.G. Claymore said...

Meant to say Sharticle.

Instead of just wind, he ended up moving some real-estate...

Stacey Cochran said...

With regards to Lee's argument, I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and shit a better argument than that.

Joshua Simcox said...

Joe, you and I will always differ greatly on matters of God and Douglas Preston (and I will always cringe violently every time I see the word "fisk" pop up on your blog), but I was pleased to receive the newsletter with word of your upcoming releases. I look forward to them.

More stories, less fisking--I hope that's the future for Konrath.


Mackay Bell said...

I think your Twinkie analogy is pretty correct. I've never read his work, and increasingly have no interest in reading it, but it sounds like he created a Twinkie with his series and it sells really well if you put it everywhere people can buy it. Great for him. He's making a lot of money.

But he's not exactly an artist who is taking creative risks, which to many writers is more important than pure money. His "advice" is useless to anyone approaching writing from the point of view of artistic expression first.

He also obviously has a career that can't be easily mirrored, because there are only so many kinds of Twinkies that are going to get prominent placement. So the advice is kind of useless to anyone trying to get started as a writer.

Also, he makes a lot of money, but hardly as much as Steven King and barely anything compared to J.K. Rowling or a Michael Crichton. His focus on one series has limited the scope of how much money he can make (and really made him dependent on those Twinkie distributors) and since the film version wasn't a big hit, it seems like a fading franchise. The Walking Dead Comic is probably generating more money. So I don't know if he's really the guy to tell people how to get rich. If I could trade places, I'd rather be the writer of the Martian. I think he has a stronger future with many more books on new sci-fi subjects which will almost instantly be produced into new movies. It wouldn't surprise me if long term Hugh Howey beats him once a couple films get produced from his wide swath of work. And all you need Joe is for David Fincher or whoever to one of your Jack Daniels series to jump ahead to the next level and take him on in airport racks.

So… why is he going on about this? Is attacking Amazon required to keep the Twinkie distributors happy? That's the only thing I can understand.

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Oh, Lee.

I've had some nice responses from him in one of his discussions on TPV, but hey... he really doesn't seem to understand how the rest of us live. I'm not even talking about Indie writers, but the average reader. Who is quite likely to find their next new book via the Amazon algorithms or bestsellers lists.

I don't want to diss Child for being an older guy, but one does have to wonder if he's aware of how widespread digital reading is. He seems to be under the impression that the Kindle is designed only for vacation reading, a la baby toothpaste tubes. Won't he be surprised when it turns out that many of the "young folk" are reading on their phones now!

I would ask Lee Child one thing. Let's balance the few megastars built by the past glories of the trad pub machine, versus the thousands of working authors with legacy contracts (and I DO mean working--because nearly all of them had to keep their day jobs to have enough money to eat) who made advances of between $5k and $50k, and never earned out, and gave their agents 15%, and got paid over three payments. Maybe there are 100 in the Lee Child range and... I don't know... 5,000 in the "elegantly poor" range. And many thousands who were rejected while running the gauntlet from getting an agent to getting a publishing contract.

Now, in the brave new world of Indie publishing, there are 2,000 (??) in the over-six-figure-per-annum range, and 5,000 in the $25k-$100k per year range, making real money, often enough to live on and raise a family.

Common sense proves that more people are making more money from writing books than at any time in history. If that isn't progress, what is?

John Doppler said...

Oh, how I love to see a good fisking.

Lee Child seems like a good guy, but his best seller status and blind devotion to the Big 5 have blinded him to the realities of mid-list and indie authors.

Take this loosely-coiled comment left steaming on the lawn of The Passive Voice:
"In-house, publishers have re-balanced e-books, higher prices, and print sales very nicely. Everyone’s happy. I made out like a bandit in 2015."

The disconnect is jaw-dropping. Everyone is clearly not happy with ebooks priced higher than print, as the plunge in the Big 5's ebook sales shows.

But rather than deal with that uncomfortable reality, the Big 5 flock stick their heads in the sand, then complain when someone boots their exposed asses.

Keep swinging those size 12's, Joe.

NickerNotes said...

Why would I buy a best-of-a-limited-selection book in the airport when I can download one I actually want to my phone or Kindle within a few seconds? I get cranky if a book I want is *only* available in paper.

Anonymous said...

I love the Reacher series, but I don't know if I'll ever read another one again. That would require too much cognitive dissonance on my part. Child clearly has no idea how voracious readers purchase their books and very clearly has no idea how midlisters can make a living these days.


JA Konrath said...

Child clearly has no idea how voracious readers purchase their books

He does, but voracious readers aren't the group that buys the majority of his books, or books in general.

The paper industry is supported by the casual reader. Casual readers kill more trees than voracious readers buy ebooks.

Amazon has allowed thousands of writers to earn a living without needing casual readers. Amazon also poses a very real threat to the casual reading industry. Lee seems to think that because consumers buy his paper books, that's the way people want to buy books. It's a logical fallacy. Just because something is happening, does not mean it is the only or preferable way for it to happen.

I've made this analogy with food. Let's say you could buy a machine that could instantly create any gourmet meal by pressing a button. What would that do to the world?

Well, you wouldn't need a refrigerator, oven, or microwave anymore. You wouldn't need any cooking equipment. The companies that made that stuff would be in big trouble. So would supermarkets, and restaurants.

Now, some people might still cook for fun, the same way some people still ride horses for fun even though the car replaced the horse as a means of transportation, and some people still enjoy archery even though the gun replaced it in war. But horses, bows and arrows, and cooking would be niche markets for hobbyists.

Paper will become a niche market. Ebooks are the equivalent of the machine that instantly creates a meal. Newspapers are shrinking. Analog music overall is shrinking. Various groups have bragged about how the print book market is growing, but that small percentage can be explained in other ways. Yes, there are more indie bookstores than there were last year, but how many of those are used bookstores? How much of the rise in paper sales is due to novelty items like adult coloring books? Every year it seems that some anomalous blockbuster is responsible for keeping the paper industry afloat.

But that industry just isn't sustainable. Not when everyone carries a digital media entertainment center in their pocket that can instantly access and almost unlimited number of cheap or free ebook downloads.

Here's another analogy. Lords used to believe serfs actually liked being serfs, because there were so many. But serfs didn't have a choice. It wasn't a preferred lifestyle for serfs. It was a lack of any other options.

There will always be paper books. And there may always be huge bestsellers in paper. But that industry won't be able to sustain its current output, or command its current marketshare.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Joe. I'm the same anon.

It's such a damned shame. I want to like Child. The story of his rise to fame writing thrillers is pretty inspiring. He got canned, decided to write a book, and here he is today. I love his writing style and have learned a lot from reading his thrillers. I also enjoyed the Cruise movie and was looking forward to the sequel.

But as someone who gets to supplement (hopefully replace some day) his income through selling ebooks, reading his article pisses me off to no end. Stop railing against Amazon, whose business model has made the dream of writing much more attainable than anybody else, and instead spend your time trying to improve the Big 5 and traditional model, where midlisters are REALLY struggling.

Anonymous said...

Same anon - His position is akin to complaining about working conditions in America, while condoning the effing labor camps in Qatar.

William Ockham said...

I think Joe's getting soft in his old age. This would have been a lot more fun if he'd fisked the original version of Child's article. Before the correction about how "The Martian" really was on Amazon's bestseller list. I'm kidding. Sorta.

Anyways, the difference in that book's relative position on Amazon's vs. "The USA Today" list is really simple to explain. A fairly well-known characteristic of American markets for every type of good is that there are often retailers who appeal to different types of customers. No one would raise an eyebrow if I claimed that different types of jewelry were popular at Wal-Mart vs. Tiffany's.

To the surprise of essentially no one in the entire world, Amazon is known for being better at selling ebooks than any other retailer. Does anyone dispute that? Because if you do, you may want to consider seeking professional help.

Now, let's try to reason this out. What type of customer will be attracted to a retailer that is exceptionally good at selling ebooks? I would posit that such a retailer might, if they were reasonably successful in the marketplace, attract customers with a stronger preference for purchasing ebooks vs. print books than other retailers. Especially if a large portion of those "other retailers" only sold print books.

It seems to me that if Amazon has a substantial portion of the ebook market and a much smaller portion of the print market, Amazon's sales for a particular bestseller might skew disproportionately towards ebook sales. But what do I know? I'm just one of those e-fanboys who lives in a pretend world. A pretend world where, you know, actual statistics and facts are more important than sticking to an outmoded view of the way things are.

JA Konrath said...

Lee is smart. And a decent guy.

Everything anti-Amazon he's done publicly--and this also goes for Authors United and the Authors Guild--has accomplished nada. The public doesn't care; they still love Amazon. Lawmakers don't care; with all the accusations pointed Amazon's way, if something illegal were going on it would have been litigated by now (like when Amazon tried to force everyone to use Lightning Source and Booklinker hired lawyers to fight this--Amazon backed down.) New authors are still self-pubbing in droves.

But when Lee does public stuff like this, I think it does still harm some writers. Maybe not the newbies who have sought out information and talked to other self-pubbed writers. But the struggling legacy midlist and the old-school agent-hunters, still hoping to have Lee Child's career, listen closely. These authors are pro Big 5, and when Lee or AU or the AG take public stands denouncing Amazon, it reinforces the mindset of those midlisters and wannabe midlisters.

That's good for Lee and company; legacy publishers need midlisters to get those breakout hits that keep them afloat, which allows them to keep paying those giant advances. Publishers need The Martian and Twilight and Dragon Tattoo and FSoG and Hunger Games and so on. If midlisters stop submitting, the house of cards collapses.

Paula Gatwood said...

I for one would like to send a great big thank you to Lee Child. No, really, I don't think he understands how important it is for an author of his standing to use Andy Weir as an example of the impact Amazon Readers can have on the career of writer.

For those that don't know the story,Andy Weir's first novel began as a free serial on his website.

The story became more popular, and some readers started asking for an e-reader copy. So Weir made all the individual chapters available in one file. He eventually put it on, and sold it for the lowest possible price — 99 cents.

That's when the floodgates opened. More people downloaded the 99-cent Amazon version than had ever downloaded the free version, Weir said , and readers started leaving positive reviews.

In just a few months it skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's best-selling science fiction list.

Then a book agent got in touch with Weir. Shortly after that, the publishing company Random House called — it wanted to publish a hardcover. Four days later, Hollywood called for the movie rights, Weir said.

So yes, Weir scored a book contract and a movie contract in the same week — both in the low- to mid-six figures, The Washington Post reports.

So THANK YOU Lee Child, for pointing out the opportunities that are available to new authors using Kindle Direct Publishing.

Norm Cowie said...

I've questioned Lee Child's rationale ever since he allowed Tom Cruise to play Reacher in the film.

Norm Cowie

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Joe, for the fisking...and for this great blog. Please can someone call out the fact that THE MARTIAN sold hundreds of thousands of copies as an e-book before it was picked up by Crown as a paper title? And that an audiobook publisher was the first publisher to spot the e-book's success...

Maybe the discrepancy between paper sales and e-book sales for the Martian is: the true fans of the book bought it before it was in paper or in movies!

J. Nelson Leith said...

A couple of years ago, Child sneered nastily about Amazon's pricing analysis (for every 100 who will buy at $15, 174 will buy at $10): "There is a very specialized branch of science that you can examine these propositions with. It’s called arithmetic."

He then went on to utterly mangle the numbers, treating alternative pricing schemes as if you could add them together, making all the money from the $15 scheme, then go on to make all the money from the $10 scheme.

Not sure where in arithmetic it says you can turn mutually exclusive variable values into an addition problem, and not sure when it's appropriate to impugn other people's intelligence about a subject you clearly fail to grasp.

Which suggests that he is neither as "pleasant" nor as "smart" as assumed.

Nirmala said...

The one bright spot for paper book sales is......Amazon! Why would you rail against the largest retailer of your product expanding their reach? As big a transition as digital media is, there is also this shift going on to buying physical goods online, and Amazon does that better than anyone.

And who benefits if Amazon finds they can do brick and mortar book sales better than anyone else? Publishers and authors of all stripes. I am sure Amazon will carry Lee Child's bestseller in their store and probably sell a lot of them. Of course, they will sell self-published and Amazon imprints also, which is what scares Lee Child. But as long as he writes books people still want to read, he should be grateful to Amazon for all the ways they increase book sales across the board.

As many have said, if he truly thinks Amazon is so bad, then campaign to get his publisher to stop selling his books there. Anything else is hypocritical.

JA Konrath said...

I've questioned Lee Child's rationale ever since he allowed Tom Cruise to play Reacher in the film.

I thought Cruise did a good job. That said, I'm guessing Lee didn't have veto power there. And why would he veto? If Tom Cruise wants your series, sell it to him. Seems like a no brainer.

JA Konrath said...

for every 100 who will buy at $15, 174 will buy at $10

Amazon's Beta Price program says I'll make 5% more if I raise ebook prices from $3.99 to $5.49. But I'll lose 25% unit sales.

I'm sure Amazon has the data to back up their suggestion, but it seems wrong to me. Lose a quarter of readers for a minor sales gain? Does that factor in that those extra 25% of readers may go on to buy more of my books? Does it factor in the potential word of mouth sales from those extra readers?

There's always a sweet spot between unit sales and profit. But I believe more exposure makes up for a slightly lower income. Plus, I don't believe ebook prices are as inelastic as others believe. My wife balks at spending over $5 on an ebook. That's just her upper limit. Might not be logical, but it is what it is.

I'd rather have more people paying less than fewer people paying more. I don't want to throw up roadblocks between my books and my readers. If price is a roadblock, I want to make it as painless as possible.

That said, I don't charge $0.99 for every book. I would no doubt sell many more, but earn much less.

But I don't think I could sell an ebook for $14.99, unless it was a box set. That doesn't mean I don't think my work is worth $15. It means I just can't see making my work exclusive to only those who can afford it. I'm not saying my way is the right way, but it's how I fee.

Nirmala said...

"There's always a sweet spot between unit sales and profit. But I believe more exposure makes up for a slightly lower income. Plus, I don't believe ebook prices are as inelastic as others believe. My wife balks at spending over $5 on an ebook. That's just her upper limit. Might not be logical, but it is what it is. "

Everything is so relative and there are so many interwoven factors in even the simplest question like how much do I charge for my ebook. Therefore, there is not and does not need to be a formula that works for everyone.

I give away most of my books for free because I value the added readers much more than the income I am giving up. And yet, since I started giving the books away for free and also asking for donations to my non-profit organization, my income has actually increased. My situation is unique as I am a spiritual teacher and the donations are also tax-deductible, so again I would not suggest this as a formula for anyone else given their unique needs and values, but it works for me.

On the readers side of things, I would guess that there is no formula that can predict the behavior of even most readers accurately, or if there is, it would be a very complex formula that would also have to evolve as things changed. Six years ago, your wife might have gladly paid $9.99 for an ebook, but things changed and she may have found there were lots of good books now for less. So now her limit is $5.00.

shugyosha said...

J. Nelson Leith: "Not sure where in arithmetic it says you can turn mutually exclusive variable values into an addition problem"

Walithmetic. It's a new set of numbers, where Z no longer means integers but Z-ceans.

Take care

Rob Cornell said...

Yes, I was amused that Lee used THE MARTIAN as an example. Is he so incredibly uninformed that he didn't know the only reason that books is EVERYWHERE is because Weir self-published it and it took off on...Amazon?

That factoid alone dismantles his entire argument.


I’ve been reading novels since I was fourteen. So that’s about…twenty-seven years. In all that time I can count on my right hand how many novels I bought through browsing. Now I’ll admit I’m a niche reader. I have favorite authors and buy mostly their stuff unless a trusted friend recommends someone new. I read a couple of hundred books a year, mostly novels. Of those books 99.9% are either from fav authors of referred by a friend, NOT from wandering a book store. And you know I love books stores. I love libraries but when I enter those places I’m on a mission. The last time I actually entered a book store without a bee-line to a specific section I found Steve Hall’s The Raw Shark Text. Great novel but in twenty-seven years one great find doesn’t constitute consistent sales for any popular author in my book. Great post Joe!

Peter Spenser said...

From Joe: “There will always be paper books. And there may always be huge bestsellers in paper. But that industry won't be able to sustain its current output, or command its current marketshare.”

That is the most sane, succinct assessment of the future of publishing that I’ve heard in a long time.

Rex Kusler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I used to think that kindle was just a niche. But over the past few years riding the NYC subway system, I've noticed that, while the kindle crowd used to be the minority, over the past year they've become the (ever so slight) majority. And not just with the young folks either. Even older people are using it.

Your blog really encouraged my decision to self-publish, and I expect I'll have my first book out within a month or so. Thank you.

Traci Hohenstein said...

It's been a while since you've done a good fisking. Would love to see a reply from a Lee.

JA Konrath said...

Would love to see a reply from a Lee.

Lee's position has remained pretty consistent. If a writer wants to make huge Lee Child-sized money, you need a legacy publisher. That is correct.

The problem with that argument is it assumes everyone has an equal chance. Which is untrue. It's not like a writer can choose between self-publishing or an eight figure deal. Eight figure deals are almost unheard of.

The gatekeepers are very good at selling paper books, and there is a lot of money to be made in paper books as a writer... if you're Lee Child.

So his argument isn't technically incorrect. It's just inapplicable to 99.99999% of us.

Smart Debut Author said...

Lee’s forgotten his roots.

He wouldn’t be airport wallpaper today, selling to that 3-book-a-year crowd he keeps talking up, if fifteen years ago voracious readers — readers like me — hadn’t been willing to try out a book by an unknown midlister named Lee Child, selling spine out off the back of a bookstore shelf. We only gave Killing Floor a shot back then because we’d already torn through all the Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, and other mega-selling authors we liked, and we were still hungry.

Back then, we prowled the bookstore aisles for new authors to try. Today, we’re reading reasonably-priced ebooks to find them, instead.

Which is why, if you want to “aim high” as a writer now, you go the Andy Weir route not the Lee Child route. The career path Lee took and now keeps pimping is dead. Bridge out ahead, hoss. Road closed. Unless you land a seven-figure deal right out of the gate. Because tomorrow’s Lee Child isn’t some unmarketed trad-pub midlister, struggling to sell enough overpriced $15 ebooks that her publisher doesn’t drop her, dreaming that she’ll somehow “break out”.

Tomorrow’s Lee Child is publishing indie right now, and building their own career from the ground up.

JA Konrath said...

Tomorrow’s Lee Child is publishing indie right now, and building their own career from the ground up.

I don't like a lot of today's music. I look at these kids, dressed funny and dancing funny, and wonder what happened to pop.

My grandparents thought the same thing when my parents were listening to The Beatles.

It's tough to change with the times. There are few hurdles harder to overcome than "That's not how it was years ago."

But if memory serves, Lee got co-op with Killing Floor. He personally did a lot back then to build a grass roots following. But he didn't do as much as I did (no one did as much as I did), and I never got the publisher support he did.

He jumped from bestseller to mega-bestseller when he switched publishers, and it was gutsy, shrewd, and in hindsight a very smart move.

I'm not that shrewd. I don't think I've ever had that confidence, and don't think I ever will.

That said, Lee was able to make good business decisions because he had opportunities that the rest of us just don't. As much as he can claim his writing, and business savvy, are what allowed him those opportunities, that's a far cry from deserving success. Lee was right place, right book, right guy, right time. So were King, Clancy, Patterson, and all those old white guys. If his publisher(s) had dropped the ball, he'd be self-pubbing along with the rest of us.

Or maybe, in every alternate universe imaginable, Lee Child is always successful because nothing could ever stop him.

Even so, that doesn't make his way applicable for the majority of authors.

Jeff Carson said...

Yeah ... Child just lost a fan (boy). Child was among the authors who inspired me to read (and ultimately write) and when I followed the link and started reading the article, I thought, "The misinformed, juvenile, sub-millenial (I don't know what kids call themselves these days) who wrote this article needs to shut up and get to Child weighing in already." Then, scroll back up, oh, wait ... this is WRITTEN by Lee Child?

Very nice job of picking apart his nonsensical rant (which oozes hostility toward self-pubbers and ... technology?).

Rex Kusler said...

I hadn't read the article until just now and I have to say I don't feel one way or the other about it. It didn't make any sense. And then I remembered reading Lee Child's confession in the Daily Mail: ‘I’ve been smoking weed for 44 years, five nights a week,’ the author confessed. ‘I’m the poster boy to prove it doesn’t do you much harm.
‘I have a guy on speed dial in New York who comes over with a huge range of marijuana. I smoke it in a pipe because I’ve never been any good at rolling my own joints.’

Anonymous said...

Lee's position has remained pretty consistent. If a writer wants to make huge Lee Child-sized money, you need a legacy publisher. That is correct.

I dunno. Some guy name AG Riddle and some lady named Bella Forrest seem to be doing very well without a legacy publisher. They're the exception to the rule, of course, but then again, so is Lee Child, isn't he?

Jack D. Albrecht Jr. said...

I'll take $0.07 per copy if Amazon would sell my books in their physical stores.

TT. said...

Child: Because, even now, for most books and most people most of the time, the biggest spur to purchase a physical book is seeing that actual book in a physical place.

The truth is, I can't even count the times I've gone to a bookstore to buy a physical copy of a new book I'm excited about only to find some shoddily bound piece of junk printed on terrible paper. More often than not, it's the physical book itself that spurs me to buy the e-book.

kathie said...

As usual, brilliant, Joe. I can't believe you're still having to argue these same points. It's like trust-fund kids/adults: It's awesome to be born into luxury, but to pretend that such a lifestyle represents "most" people is silly. I can't believe the lack of self-awareness from writers who make their living crafting stories and characters that require the author to understand motivation and circumstance. You must be exhausted from having this "conversation" over and over. Yet, I thank you for doing it. Selfishly, I hope you never stop. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

kathie said...

Oh, and I just took a plane ride and noticed that everyone had Kindles/Nooks--even the retired crowd. Ebooks are not just for the tech-savvy these days.

Anonymous said...

Joe you still are and I believe forever will be... an inspiration to us all.

Anonymous said...

Naw.. his comments are coming from being on top for so long. I will still devour his stuff, and learn from him, however will go Indie, cause many of us do not have the time... to play the games legacy publishers and agents play.

Anonymous said...

Who are the "six other old white guys to choose from (No disrespect to Ms. Roberts, but old white guys have dominated the bestseller lists for decades.)"?

Unknown said...

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Leah King said...

Well, interesting. Lee does have a Kindle Single up for $1.99 and the blurb contains a pre-sell for a new novel in the Reacher series.

So, evidently this platform is not "beneath him" when it serves a purpose. /smh