Monday, November 2, 2009

Slow tide rising

"There is a tide, which, if taken at the flood..."
Yeah well. At the moment I must admit to feeling like I am walking along a huge sandspit of very soft sand, textured and shaped by the waves and currents of the past - the landscape of publishing and book-buying. There are some magnicent sandcastles on it, built on the hillocks, commanding all that they survey.

But lately I've noticed the ripples of sea-water edging into the lowest points. Not a surging wave... just a foam-edged trickle... electronic publishing. A new tide and its waves are coming to affect that landscape. If it is the full tide I think it's going to be the builders of the castles had better start piling sand or prepare to move to new shoreline.

It's taking various forms: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2009/10/kindle-numbers-traditional-publishing.html (and an answer to that http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/a_writers_life/2009/10/you-can-become-a-kindle-millionaire-part-joe.html )

or as a different approach http://www.cherryh.com/WaveWithoutAShore/?p=406

and I am sure some of the tide will falter, and at least that parts of it will change nothing. The keeper of the castles are building little ramparts as fast as they're able. And they are the only ones on the beach with spades (and in some cases, steam-shovels). If they build fast and clever they could still survive the tide. We'll need gatekeepers and promotion. Websites like Amazon have huge traffic to sweep the sand up around them. Publishers have accumulated sand (or capital and contacts). Big bookstores have dug quite large moats.

But I don't think anyone knows where it is going. All we know is the landscape is going to change.
So how best do we-- the writers -- navigate that? How do we avoid being swept away completely?
How are we to adapt?
What should we be doing?
What do we need to avoid?
Thoughts, gentle-folk?

28 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Very interesting, Dave.

What will happen next? I remember CJ Cherryh from thirty years ago!

Dave Freer said...

The interesting part about CJ is that historically our backlist was an author's pension. Thanks to the Thor powertools ruling and the chains short shelf-time and poor re-ordering it is no longer the case. It meant that for all but a very few - that vanished, and so did their books for their fans (a lose-lose). CJ Cherryh wrote some great books I'd be glad to give my grandkids, let alone my kids. The steps she's taking see that I will be able to, and all the money will go to her (which makes me glad) and once again we writers have a possible 'pension scheme' of sorts. I'm expecting publishers to start tying up e-rights and POD for new writers in a slew of harsh defensive contract practices. I think we need to be braced for these and resist as much as possible, or at least get as best a deal as possible.

EvMick said...

I'm a reader. I read a LOT. Several hours a day typically. Instead of TV I read.

For the last few years I only buy EBooks. I avoid DRM.

Dave Freer said...

EvMick DRM is the equivalant of scoring an own goal and shooting yourself. Like proprietary formats it is totally against the interests of authors. It punishes and penalises the honest customer, and does sod-nothing to the crooked. What's more it adds to costs and rturns nothing of value for those costs. But as an intensive reader - tell me how do you find authors and their e-books?

matapam said...

The two traditional ways to mess up in business are to grow too fast and find oneself unable to handle the work load. The other is to be under capitalized so you can't grab opportunities when they appear.

I only have to look at the Baen slush pile to see where being overwhelmed would be easy. How will a writers' coop find the new talent?

The lack of ready money, on the other hand, means you are competing with established publishing houses who can give advances, where all you can say is "Honest, you'll get more money in the long run."

Now if the publishers go for the defensive contracts, writer's coops will have a chance. As they say, never underestimate the power of stupid.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, I could - within a day - scare up at leat 10 (and more likely 50) good quality midlisters who have proposals or finished books, which right now aren't selling, or with out of print and not re-selling books. The industry isn't buying much right now, and there are always authors being 'let go' - sometimes with reason, and sometime not with so much book selling reason, but because the helm has changed. Some of these are really good. Most of them have SOME audience of diehard fans. That's not an issue. Especially midlist authors have more books than they can sell, and most are pretty touchy about rejection, and would love to thumb their noses, and most have day jobs because midlist pay sucks- they'd be happy as co-op members getting a substantive share not a mere 8% advance. It will take a few bigger names (and they're not all happy either) to help the draw but this is going to happen in a number of places, soon.

Ori Pomerantz said...

matapam: The lack of ready money, on the other hand, means you are competing with established publishing houses who can give advances, where all you can say is "Honest, you'll get more money in the long run."

Ori: That's not as one sided as it appears. If you're a beginning author, you typically make a living doing something else. The advances offered to such new authors aren't all that great, either.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, you're right, and not only with the new authors. A lot the midlist - some of whom you would recognise and be surprised they were midlist - are day-jobbing and their advances are under 10K, so they're not gambling a lot. It's more tricky when it is your whole livelihood, and you really don't want to sour relations with your publisher.

Brendan said...

The backlist is a problem that e-books seem the obvious solution too. I have so many authors on my shelf that I love and that it is impossible to get copies of their works.

Dave is right. Don't let yourselves get conned into bad e-rights contracts. Time to get a real slice of the pie imo and I would consider limiting the time any publisher can hold your e-rights before coming back and negotiating with you or your agent. You don't want to be stuck with a publisher you aren't happy with simply because your e-books continue to be available from their web site.

On the issue of e and copyrights I have had thoughts about how things may look that I have written about Ownership and copyright in the digital age

Dave Freer said...

Brendan, one of forms of sheer bliss would be if sensible authors (and on this issue alone I think I am one ;-)) settled for an affordable return on their backlist - making it possible to give a friend a copy of an otherwise precious and irreplacable book cheaply. After all - if I can get a dollar for it, and the reader get it for 2 and I would have at best got 64 cents, and more probably nothing for it otherwise, a dollar is not a bad deal. I bitterly regret having lent out many books in past - but when I am enthusiastic about an author, I'll do it. I wonder if a sort of cheaper 'second copy' deal for readers who want spare copies might be worthwhile. I have found people can actually be remarkably honest when given the opportunity.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, what concerns me is the potential that the "big boys" in publishing will try to tie up not only e-rights but dead tree rights to books in perpetuity because a book is never "out of print" regarding ebooks. There's been some chatter on the blogs about this possibility over the last year or so, but I haven't seen anything solid come out of it. I think the answer is to put a time limit on e-rights, or a set number of e-editions to be sold during a period that would determine if a book is still in print for contractual terms. And, of course, not to let the publishers tie e-rights to dead tree rights with one not reverting to the author unless both do.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I wish more publishers would take the tact Baen has with its e-books. From a consumer point of view, I love the fact they sell the e-books in multiple, non-DRM formats. Also, from what I've gathered talking to you, Sarah and others more familiar with the author-side of the equation, Baen treats its writers well.

I also feel the co-ops will be showing up more and more as the industry continues to evolve. Hopefully, this will be a win-win situation for both writers and readers. Frankly, if the larger publishers don't start adapting to the changes in the economy and in how readers read, such co-ops may be the only thing to survive, at least in the near future.

Brendan said...

Amanda, I noticed Book View Cafe have launched Book View Press devoted to selling online. Good luck to them.

Kate said...

I think that ebooks are approaching a tipping point. From what I recall, a new technology will go from small market share to damn near ubiquitous in a very short time once it gets to the level where everyone knows someone who's got one and it's got clear advantages over the alternatives. Usually that's somewhere between a 5% and 20% market share, depending on what it is and what the advantages are.

Right now, I see ebooks as having the advantage of portability (even the most avid reader can carry enough for a long trip on a single reader), convenience (the hotlink to an online store plus instant delivery), and space savings. DRM and format wars are disadvantages - but those will go away during the process of gaining ubiquity, the same way DRM for music has been mostly abandoned by the big boys - something that started around when the ipod was really gaining ground.

Once ebooks 'tip', the most likely end-point I see is a smallish hardcopy market for special edition hardbacks (possibly with SD cards containing the ebook or an access code for the ebook), coffee table books and the like, with the vast majority of books moving to e-format (think how music has moved almost entirely to CDs and how movies have gone via TV and VCRs to DVD and DVRs).

For us, the challenges will be avoiding the big publishers trying to lock us into the same kind of terms for something much cheaper for them to produce and distribute (the last I heard, Tor was planning to offer 8% royalties on their ebook line - I sincerely hope that has changed), rights grabs, and possibly the biggest issue of all - what will we sign at signings?

matapam said...

The Devil's Advocate can think of two problems, off hand.

Dave's midlist writers have enough fans to keep the pot boiling, and hopefully expand. But how does someone who is completely unpublished balance between losing all rights and never getting published? How hard will it be to get started, when there's no book with a flashy cover sitting on a shelf in the bookstore?

And what about young readers? I remember scrounging up the money for paperbacks when they were priced under a dollar. How does the average thirteen year old do when he can't come up with a hundred bucks for a used reader?

But that problem is well in the future, when the majority of books are available only in e. The first problem is obviously one that concerns me.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Kate, I agree absolutely with your thoughts on the "tipping point." If there's any doubt, look at MP3s and MP3 players -- which, contrary to the claims of the RIAA, likely saved the music industry. I have no doubt that the "trickle" Dave spoke of is on the verge of becoming a full-blown flood.

Granted, there will be those who get swept away when the flood hits, but it will be the poor souls whose minds can't switch gears between paper and electrons, who think they can hold back that tide with a couple of paper cups: one marked "DRM" and the other marked "Stupid Pricing Tricks." Sure, they work fine with a little trickle, and they've been able to keep it at bay for years.

But that trickle is growing, the pressure is building, and that dam is going to burst at any moment. And who do you think is going to fare the best: the folks with the dour looks and the Dixie cups, or the folks with sh*t-eating grins of anticipation standing next to the kayaks, surfboards, and jet-skis, who look like they're getting ready to party?

Thought so.

Oh, and if you pay particular attention to that second group, you'll notice a large percentage of them sporting Baen logos on their clothing and equipment ;-)

Ori Pomerantz said...

Matapam, the 13 year old will probably read on his/her computer (or the family computer when it's not used for other things). That's what I do with my e-books.

For new authors, it will be necessary to figure something out. I'd be willing to give a new author recommended by Dave Freer a look, simply because I trust his judgment. That might be enough.

Kate said...

Matapam,

The readers are likely to hit "Xmas/birthday gift" once they get to that kind of price point. I can also see at the 100-150 new range libraries renting them. There are already ebook library services out there (DRM'd out the wazoo so your library loan self destructs after the loan term ends, but they exist).

That or kid gets own reader after mom or dad have chased theirs down - again and reclaimed it from kid a few times too many.

Brendan said...

Matapam

e-book readers come in all shapes and forms and there is increasing competition in this market, this will probably bring prices down. There are also the new generation phones and devices and if you "print" in an open format like .epub almost everything can read it. Don't forget that while the initial outlay may be higher once you start loading it the price drops per book.

Joe Konrath on his blog Kindle Numbers: Traditional Publishing Vs. Self Publishing runs figures on his sales figures although at the bottom he does suggest newbies still work towards publisher contacts.

Kate: Cory Doctrow seems to be going the route you suggest already. Cory Doctorow and the Freemium model

Dave Freer said...

Amanda -one ofthe big boys (can't remember which) already tried it. Got shot down by their authors, but they'll b-a-a-ack!

Baen have boxed reasonably clever so far. Let's hope they keep it up, because that way they should make it (although IMO all publishers are going to change beyond recognition, distributors will all die, and bookstores are likely to remain as indies with POD facilities. Some of the chains (Amazon and B&N my bet) may try and muscle in on what's left of publishing, cutting publishers out entirely.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, the tipping point needs to come very fast, or it'll be very messy for authors (and yes, I am biased, they're ones - as far as I am concerned - we need to preserve, because they, not publishers, distributors, bookstores are originators of material. Authors cannot do without readers, and readers cannot do without authors. Both sets of us have in general terms very little loyalty to the other parts of the chain. Yes Baen have tried to become a trusted brand, and some indies do their best for you - but that's maybe 5%. For the rest - honestly how many readers even know who published a book (or care?) and how many authors feel they have been so well-looked after by one publisher that they would entertain no other offers? How many readers buy from the nearest/cheapest book seller. Yes, where there are indies that really take us to heart and try to oblige some of us support them, but really brand loyalty to chain bookstores? Zero. And from the authors point of view it's if anything worse. Whereas a co-op I will have ownership.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam -the entry of new writers is a major issue - because that is where, frankly, publishing houses hold all the cards. NOBODY IN THEIR RIGHT MINDS WANTS TO READ UNFILTERED SLUSH FOR PLEASURE. And from a position of total control of the gates Publishing may have lost control of those INSIDE the gate, but they're sure as shooting going to try to tie down new entrants. And all I can say is this is where writers inside have to find ways to step up to the plate. SOME Writers do give hugely generously of their time (which is their money)to nurture support noobs. Of course those who could afford to actually put money into publishing wannabes - Enid wotsername, the one with the teenage wizard, who likes to sue people, and conspiracy theory Dan have really led the way ;-/. I know that I'd be willing, but not to wade through slush to find it. It's a problem. Kids- that's less intractable. More of them have mp3 players than adults, no?

Brendan said...

Especially since most chains are doing their best to push down prices, not to make things cheaper for the consumer, but for additional profit. And cheaper prices means less money for the author too:-(

Dave Freer said...

Bob the third- stonking big -cup is 'tie down new entrants' which may mean the landscape changes but the castles still remain and start building up after a reverse. I want - bluntly - the bulk of income to go to the author, and the bulk of the saving to go to the reader. I'm quite happy for any surviving parts of the chain to make a living, but the equation where the producer of the original material is the person who benefits least from the copyright has to change, unless we accept that almost all writers need to be part time amatuers(yes that is a starting point).

matapam said...

In worrying about kids not being able to afford reading material, I may be equating my childhood with a _very_ different modern childhood.

Kids these days do have more "stuff" and more available cash than I had until I was old enough to work. Certainly I see a lot of them, including my own, who take e-anything for granted, and seem to pull the operating instructions right out of the collective subconscious.

So odd to think of my childhood as low tech, yet I saw men walk on the Moon.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, the problem with 'recommended by' is that most authors simply do not have the resources (or strength of character) to wade through slush to find recommendations.
Maybe time for the readers club to arise with recommendations?

matapam said...

Dealing with slush.

I shudder to think I might be an expert.

An open slush pile, along the lines of "Authonomy" could work. Most readers can spot the bad ones. So let the public do the first cut, drop the 75% that are complete no-hopers.

That leaves the decent writing and idea that comes to a bad end as the most common hazard. A group of trusted volunteer slush readers could probably crop that back and give the writer some good advice.

Then the professional writers would have to figure out how they would pick the ones they wanted to join the co-op, and whether there would be further checks of their next work(s). How many good books until you stop checking?

Dave Freer said...

Brendan "Especially since most chains are doing their best to push down prices, not to make things cheaper for the consumer, but for additional profit. "

- well yes. I'm afraid I see the whole parallel importation issue in Aus as the chains attempting to gouge a better slice out the publishers (who, as they give a percentage of retail cover price to the authors pass on part of the loss) I am sure the chain retailers have no interest in 'cheaper books for readers' but it is a publically acceptable front. Likewise I am not convinced that authors are not being used in a similar fashion by publishers to retain the status quo. That said I am in favor of cheaper books. And I am willing to put my money where my mouth is - I'd be willing to accept 10% less of the 8% royalty I get - if those getting the other 92% ALSO cut their share by 10%. Hello, funny they want me to cut my miniscule share, 'to make books cheaper for readers' but they don't want to cut theirs. They want to import remaindered books (from which I get nothing and they get cheap) and sell them at full price.

Brendan said...

Dave, it is one of the reasons I come to this site and read other blogs like it. Authors I trust, talking about the craft and letting me know about their favourites and discoveries.