Over at the SFFWorld.com forums, an author looking at different ways of proceeding in fiction book publishing asked for information regarding a number of basic questions about book publishing. You can check out that discussion thread here, and the conversation is not necessarily done as I’m sure more questions may come up, but I am also going to reprint my responses to various questions here. While many may find the info basic, it ended up being a decent foundational outline of things authors have to understand and consider in business decisions in fiction publishing. And so it may be of some interest to writers navigating the waters or those simply curious about how the odd industry of fiction publishing operates. Part 1 below:
Tag Archives: e-books
First up, a very succinct explanation of the e-book price developments from Salon.com. I had thought that Amazon did not have enough juice to get the DOJ interested in blocking agency pricing and that it was other factors. But apparently it actually was Amazon, trying to keep their virtual monopoly on the field.
Second, I am constantly dealing with new writers who are obsessed with grammar and who seem to believe that book and magazine editors are too, as if trying to publish was like sitting for an English exam. There seems to be difficulty understanding that there is not just one working grammar for the English language and that fiction writing is not concerned with grammar at all, but with sound, rhythm and flow. Stephen Fry tackles this problem head-on with some lovely graphics in this video. (You have to go to the article to get to the audio/video recording on this one, but it’s worth it.)
Third, the Orchard Gardens school in Massachusetts got themselves a principle who decided to stop treating his troubled elementary school like a prison, as has been the wont the last few decades as far right politicians continually slash and steal from school budgets, releasing the security guards and hiring art teachers instead. It has created a remarkable turnaround in the school. My favorite part is this quote from the article, which I intend to drag out during people insisting that there are rules for fiction writing despite all evidence to the contrary:
Eighth grader Keyvaughn Little said he’s come out of his shell since the school’s turnaround.
His grades have improved, too. Keyvaughn says it’s because of the teachers — and new confidence stemming from art class.
“There’s no one particular way of doing something,” he said. “And art helps you like see that. So if you take that with you, and bring it on, it will actually help you see that in academics or anything else, there’s not one specific way you have to do something.”
Lastly, not so much interesting as potentially disastrous: Pearson Penguin and Bertelsman Random House got approval by the DOJ to merge (meaning the Big Six are now the Big Five.) This creates the largest publishing company in the U.S. out of the two largest, completely foreign owned, a global behemoth that will put out 15,000 books a year through various imprints, educational and retail. It means that authors have fewer places to sell to if they want partner publishing (which still brings in a lot more money to a lot more authors than self-publishing and will for quite a long time.) It means that they have fewer recourses if a particular title doesn’t do well, creating a black mark in the not very astute sales computer systems. (And as the article notes, Hachette bought Hyperion — which had been owned by Disney — also increasing their size.) Overall, it will mean more opportunities for more title licenses, but fewer resources given to each title, meaning fewer sales possibly per title.
Random House already had 3o percent of the U.S. market. I’m guessing that this takes them near 50 percent at least. And yet the DOJ okayed it, after pinging all the publishers for the agency price contracts. So this is exceedingly strange, but the deal has been in the works for awhile now. This is likely to have a far greater impact on book publishing than e-books did in the long term.
So I’ve been down in the depths and now coming upwards, how about you?
Things that have happened recently:
1) The Oscars, which I did not watch on the grounds that I never remember who won the year before anyway, though I’ve seen some clips. Show host Seth McFarlane, ordered to bring in the young male viewers, satirized sexists by using incredibly sexist humor, which mostly just made him look sexist, (when he wasn’t forced to pay tribute to musicals because the Oscar show producers wanted to put on a Chicago number because they also produced that movie and apparently were annoyed they didn’t get to go onstage when the film won the Oscar years ago.) So in a year in which women rocked the house, we got “We Saw Your Boobs” as the Oscar musical opener, and jokes that George Clooney was waiting on a 9-year-old black girl to grow a tad older for sex as the definitive commentary. I am choosing to view this as a sign of the trickle effect. The females may have scared Hollywood just a little bit there, as they emerge as a more powerful force in the industry.
2) Random House has apparently launched several e-book only imprints (Random House is owned by Bertelsmann.) Contracts for these imprints have been coming to light, and they are a cross between a vanity press and a scam artist. The contracts offer no advances against royalties, which isn’t an enormous surprise as bigger publishers have been running various no advance “experiments” for years, looking for ways to get out of that particular business arrangement. The bigger surprise is that there doesn’t seem to be any royalties to base an advance on. The publisher’s contract seeks payment from the author for production costs, marketing costs, editorial services, cover art, etc. — all the things that publishers are suppose to be putting up as the partner in a licensing deal, while demanding well and above the usual licensing rights of a standard publishing contract. The model appears to be borrowed from the more predatory side of the music industry, an industry that has actual money and that has to produce actual varied physical products and placement services, not just an e-file as with e-books. The goal seems to be to horn in on Amazon’s various turfs. Now, Amazon hasn’t exactly been a friend to new authors. They take way too big a cut of the profits for doing little for self-publishers, they charge for various services, and their contract is vaguely worded enough to give them something of a rights grab. But even Amazon didn’t conceive of pulling this sort of operation on new, desperate authors who don’t understand the weird business of book publishing. So the author groups are very upset. Tune in here for what’s happening from the SFWA on that. If this is the new business model that’s going to emerge more widely, then yes, publishers are sending themselves out of business.
3) My t.v. show Grimm finally came back on the air, to finish out its second season, after being taken off for three months by the stupid NBC network. The show got a special debut for several episodes on Monday nights, but that was not a permanent change, as I’d thought, and it’s remained on Fridays, at 9:00 p.m. in North America. The last episode back in November was the first installment of a two and a half parter, leaving us with a cliffhanger. SPOILERS: The break left us with the magical, deadly romance spell ensorcelling Nick’s amnesiac ex-girlfriend Juliet and Nick’s police boss Cpt. Renard, who is a Wessen illegitimate prince involved in various schemes including an alliance with a Wessen rebellion force, and the discovery of that problem by the rest of the gang, which was rather hard on poor Nick. A showdown emerged, back at the big bad wolf’s ivy covered cottage where the show originally started off, leading to a big new plot direction for the series going into their back half and another cliffhanger for the episode ending involving counterspells and political intrigue with the European royals. All in all, it was a satisfying if soapy return for the gang, with some great comic moments, the full return of Rosalee, and the chance of Juliet being brought finally into the fold of knowledge and even getting her memory of Nick back. The actors playing Juliet and Renard had great fun playing psycho steamy and we got to meet a new type of Wessen — an owl one — who was a locksmith. Claire Coffee also did beautifully as scheming, de-powered Wessen sorceress Adalind.
The episode did very well in the ratings, pulling a number one position for its slot in the desired demographic and doing better than its last mid-season return despite the longer break. So loyal fans stuck it out and came back to watch. Since NBC has been having shows end or tank all over the place and they need to have something on Friday nights, here’s hoping Grimm will get a renewal for a third season and they will really get to rock out. If you want to jump in, again, they do lay things out for you and mostly it’s a police procedural show, so next week’s episode on March 15, “Natural Born Wessen,” which finishes off the big storyline and starts a new crime problem — bank robberies — would be a good one to dive into. If the show gets a third season, then I’ll recap blog that one.
We’ll see if I make it to the surface for spring!
In regards to Nila’s comment on my DRM post, here’s some explanation about what’s involved with e-books for publishers from Michael Hyatt at Thomas Nelson, a large to medium sized press. Every one of the things that he’s talking about here requires personnel to do it, and tech support personnel and production and accounting systems developed and maintained to do it. It can be done with a small number of people — the smaller the press, the more that’s needed which is why small non-electronic presses have been slow to digitize their lists — but first you have to get to that point. It is a vast infrastructure that had to be hastily built. When I put this material up at SFFWorld, the general reaction was enormous denial that this involved costs and human power and most importantly, planning. One thing that has been increasingly clear over these early years is that people do not want to deal with the business realities of e-books on a large scale. It says something, I think, to the fact that the Internet up until maybe six years ago or so has successfully presented the image of being a free party where every wish is provided with ease, when in actuality it all costs money and requires people who either are paid or who give the cost of their labor for payment in other forms. We pay a lot for our Internet and the tech to access it — way more than we ever did for movies, television, libraries, etc., but we don’t want to look at that cost. I’m going to touch on this more later because I think it’s going to be a major issue of our future now.
The transition to ePub as the standard — again which tech people have been predicting would happen for the last several years — is going to solve a lot of the issues Hyatt is talking about below. It will allow publishers to greatly streamline their e-wares. But not completely as different vendors will still have different protocols and platforms. But it’s definitely going to make it easier if the market can move from six main formats and various stragglers to one main format and various stragglers:
Digital preparation. Granted, most new books start out as a digital file. If they aren’t already digitized, then they have to be scanned or manually keyed in. But that’s only the beginning. Publishers must then format the books, so that they work on all the various e-Readers.
Currently, there are about six major formats. Some are similar, but each has its own nuances and quirks. In addition, publishers must collect and add all the relevant metadata so that customers can actually find the books when they search for them.
Quality assurance. Once the publisher gets the eBook formatted for a particular eReader, he then has to take it through a quality assurance process (often referred to as “QAing” the book) to make sure that each of the major eReaders renders the pages correctly. This is a time-consuming and laborious process.
This is fairly easy with books that are straight text. But few are this simple. When you add epigraphs, pull quotes, tables, charts, graphs, illustrations, footnotes, etc., it quickly becomes complicated. In this sense book publishing has become much like software development. At Thomas Nelson, we have seven full-time people managing this process, and we’re currently looking for three more.
Digital distribution. Once publishers have finished the QA process, then they have to distribute the files to the various eRetailers. You might think Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Sony are the only ones out there. They’re not. We are currently distributing our eBooks to more than twenty separate accounts.
Each of these has a different upload protocol and digital asset management system. When something changes in an eBook (e.g., simple corrections or a new edition), publishers must re-distribute the new file and ensure that each eRetailer has the current version. Publishers must also collect payments from these accounts, ensuring that they are getting paid for each download, so they can, in turn, pay their authors.
One of the issues in trying to have discussions about the emerging retail e-book market is that many people have difficulty understanding what the word emerging actually means. We are so used to viewing technology as rapid that when versions of tech and products impinge on our consciousness, many people expect everything to be fully in place, fully available, fully operational, etc., as if all it took is the wave of a magic wand as soon as we realize we want something. In reality, technology percolates for years, being refined in research labs, academia and through governments into a more and more workable product for the general public while infrastructure and personnel begin to be built slowly and sporadically. Start-ups explore possible options of a market for the tech. Tech people and wealthy, tech savvy early adopters buy crude and expensive versions of proposed products. Then a major retailer undertakes to break the market out in a large way in general retail and enlists major suppliers to help. If it’s successful, then the rest scramble to catch up, with infrastructure being thrown up like a hastily erected fort, new companies coming into being, frantic contract and international trade negotiations, and new applications hastily devised.
E-books went through this exact same process. E-books (electronic text,) and various concepts of portable devices for reading them have been around for thirty years, used widely by academia and the education market, the subject of countless experiments and small operations. Then Amazon, the major retailer, decided that it would open up the market and try to dominate it for as long as possible by creating the Kindle, a workable e-reader that would have Amazon’s full infrastructure and tech support behind it. Book publishers, having been burned for millions in the first go-round of e-books back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, were faced with a problem — they didn’t have the tech personnel, infrastructure, ability to digitize and knowledge of the consumer electronics market to throw themselves into the market willy nilly. So they went with what Amazon wanted, which was a DRM which locked customers into the Kindle platform, and which would be different for each major vendor, out of fears of piracy, lack of technical control with vendors and many other factors.
All the way back to 2008, I was pointing out that DRM was temporary, an unwieldy stop gap measure done out of caution and immediate demand that would be removed once the emerging market was on its feet and had enough vendors come out to play. It soon became clear that ePub, the open source electronic format that was heir to past platforms, was going to be the likely most workable general and transferable format selected and become the standard, which would certainly be easier for publishers as they dealt with a growing pool of customers with different sorts of devices and a much needed increase in the number of retail vendors. Once Apple, Barnes & Noble and Indigo came in enough to puncture Amazon’s monopoly, and it became clear that the main market for e-books would soon become not e-readers but all sorts of computers, including smartphones, publishers would have enough leverage and enough of a retail market to go forward without DRM. This didn’t set well with many people, however, who screamed that if DRM wasn’t removed right this minute from every e-book format, the publishers would find that they had no customers. Point out that the e-book market was growing at 200% with DRM, so that was sort of a worthless threat, and you’d get a fusilage of unrealistic views on e-book production, contract negotiations, and how e-book piracy meant nothing and would kill us all at the same time.
Back in 2009-2010, I said give it five years and the e-book market will be fully established and by that time I expected DRM to be largely gone. And so it seems to be coming to pass — Macmillan, who has been in the forefront of the large publishers dealing with the emerging market, is now putting out large chunks of their list without DRM, including the Tor/Forge list, and the other publishers are quickly following suit or likely to be. What’s also remarkable is that they’ve gotten Amazon willing to go along with this idea, but this is presumably because Amazon has seen the writing on the wall and knows that being able to sell e-books and print content to people with other devices than a Kindle and multi-device needs has become the far bigger market than the Kindle that launched it all. Now that e-books is a big emerging global market, the training wheels are coming off, though I’m sure retailers like Amazon will still find uses for DRM in some areas.
Does this mean that you can have a sane conversation about the e-book market now? Probably not for a few more years yet. But it does mean that the emerging market is transitioning towards established market pretty much right on schedule. SF author Charles Stross has done several blog posts on this and related topics recently that are cogent and informative, including the issues of Internet revenue, Amazon’s spiderweb strategy with e-books, and feedback that he gave when requested to Macmillan about their DRM removal plans. Worth checking out, especially this one. (Yes, I’ve fixed my linking problem.) You can find Macmillan/Tor’s announcement here at Tor.com.