Monday, March 7, 2011

The book is dead. Long live the book

In the small hours of last night - 2.57AM to be precise I finally wrote this
Which is either monkey-code for 'I am flat on my back' or 'DOG AND DRAGON is finished.'
Unfortunately Roly, my beloved Old English Sheepdog decided to celebrate for me by being not a well puppy (he's 10, not exactly a puppy except mentally). So sleep has been a little short in supply. Today has been spent Spill-chucking, dog caring, dealing with people who can't manage their own account numbers (I bought some scuba gear from a guy who sent me account number... wrong) Couriers who seem to want to pee me off, and not much sleep. So the gifted blog piece explaining the inner workings of the writer's mind and how to make readers love it will just have to wait - probably for another writer.

I've been watching the e-book saga slowly unfold and wondering in my cantankerous way why no-one reads or seems to understand Adam Smith*. As a philosopher, Smith was accused of merely writing down what was common sense, which accounts for him appealing to me more than some others. While I actually believe his first book the more brilliant, with refence to e-books it's the economic principals in the second book that apply. It's all about the value of labor. And anyone who doesn't believe a book is the product of much labor is smoking their own socks. But the value of that labor has been very depressed by the middlemen between the production and consumer. In fact, generally speaking that labor has valued at about a quarter of that of ditch digging or floor sweeping. And that's for experienced writers, because the labor pool exceed the number of employers by several orders of magnitude. This brings one to think about the aftermath of the Black Death on the pay for labor: scarcity drove that to levels not reached (in relative terms) for IIRC 4 centuries when the industrial revolution was well underway, and production increased... and so did a need for labor.

At one time Authors were relatively rare, and earned quite well - our just after the black death period. It went steadily downhill from there. Publishers could, and often did, treat authors as less valuable than a square of toilet paper and as interchangeable. Of course daring to complain, or even to talk about the share of income or even the relative support of different authors - to put this to society's mirror (Smith's first book) was simply not possible.

Along comes the e-book, and publishers in a clash with Amazon force the agency model. Amazon's broadside is to allow authors the same terms. Now one has to think of this in labor terms. Is this going to make less laborers toiling at books? No. More, probably. Publishers can pick and choose from newbies on the same or worse terms than ever...

But only if they are failing to sell on their own or have never sold a book. Otherwise the ordinary publisher has to - in economic terms - multiply readership 250%-700% to be as attractive. Now let's face it, there are plenty of authors who have been made by publicity and marketing who are no different from millions who haven't. But of course that relied heavily on controlling the access to books for both readers and authors. Now, according to Mintel - that market is going to lose 51% of its readers. 51% going... to the e-books they prefer. And that's NOW. In 10 years time expect that to be 70-80% IMO.

In the meanwhile, having to compete in flooded labor pool themselves, it ought to occur to anyone in publishing with a single iota of common sense that all labor is not near equal any more - and that if they're going to pay 12.5% -17% _real_ royalies on selling price, they have deliver -- to compete with 70%(-costs), more than 4-5 times the e-book sales. In other words, if Joe Midlist has a following of 5K e-book buyers, the publisher either needs to find another 20 000 readers for Joe, or he's better off without them. Fred Bigname has a following of 50 000 anyway - they would have to offer him 250 000 readers to stay. Tom Noob has however 5 readers who blundered on his book, and he has no social network. If they can offer him 100 readers he's winning.

They have at this stage no levers that can do this sort of 500% increase. In fact they want Joe's 5000 so they can introduce them to Fred to push his 50 000 up to try and keep him. They have no real interest in Tom's 5 readers...

And there is not much in it for Joe or Fred. So: if the value of labor is to be realistic, the publishers are going to have to up their ante, offer more in publicty and services... That's reality.

I've seen a few tremors already with those with 'following'. "Bonuses" being offered on advances IF a certain threshhold is breached (large bonuses - half again the advance, not the derisory increase in percentage over 100 000 sales etc. bonuses based on last sales numbers being equalled.) At the moment that's it.

But it's going to change the 'flatness' of the price of writer's labor.

*I'm not referring Adam Smith the Zombie Apocalyse magna comic writer but the bloke who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, back in 17 hundred and whatsit. The bloke whose work is the foundation of Capitalism _and_ Communism - who in fact said something very different to 'greed is good' (Actually said greed is very stupid, but that we all work for self-interest, and this works best when it is enlightened - when the self-interest is informed by being cognizant of the effects and feedbacks, which means working at the point where co-operation maximises the reward to self interest of both parties. Why did I start on this...


Amanda Green said...

Dave, congrats on finishing the draft.

As for publishers, Adam Smith and e-books, surely you aren't expecting publishers and the rest of those who fall into the "middlemen" area of publishing to use common sense. If they did, they would have long ago started trying to adapt business plans to embrace e-books and digital downloads instead of trying to stifle them.

Are e-books and the easy ability to self-publish the factors that will save publishing? I don't know. There are pitfalls, as you well know. But it will force the major publishers to adapt or they will find themselves on the outside looking in, begging for customers. Unfortunately, I'm afraid the mid-list authors are going to be the ones to suffer in the short run.

MataPam said...


The publishers may be well aware of the value of labor. They just see their labor as worth so much more than the labor of an interchangeable writer. If the e-books simply raise the awareness of the publishing houses to the value of the individual writers and their own mishandling of marketing it will be a big plus.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, what I suspect will happen is that the midlist and newbies will be sacrificed to try and keep the 'big' sellers. The big seller will get a deal which is not quite as generous as going direct, but less hassle. The others will be offered... very little but to lose long term ownership of their rights. Many midlisters - especially those with day jobs - will just walk away. At which point publishers will find out if their bignames have the drawing power they think (answer - Draw = exposure X appeal.) If For example you are prize winning literary darling of the publisher... and have sales of 100 000K because your book is in every bookstore and gets great exposure, and you actually have appeal to 0.05 - as an e-book you'll sell 5000 copies. If you're a midlister selling 10K but your appeal is high - which it has to be if you're a midlister and still in business - you're likely to sell 2-5K... making the difference between 'we made you a bestseller' and 'we left to sink or swim' very small. May see some serious reality being injected into their bottom line.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, there are good editors and CE and proof readers in publishing. The trouble is at moment there is no real way of selection to authors, so their labor all has a de facto equal value to writers. In a more open marketplace some of them WILL be more valuable than interchangeable writers, and command incomes accordingly. Many won't.

Chris McMahon said...

It's hard to read this stuff without getting depressed. I certainly hope it's possible to carve out some sort of niche in the new landscape.

Talking about couriers - did you get your books?

Kate Paulk said...

Common sense is the rarest commodity on this earth, and apparently the most undervalued. Changing that will be "fun", since minds are probably harder to change than anything else - an awful lot of people will break rather than admit they got it wrong.

Stephen Simmons said...

I'm with Kate: the technical term for "common sense" seems to be "unobtainium", in my experience. As for the traditional industry structure adapting in time to salvage anything ... my father was a recovering alcoholic for more than twenty years. One of the things I heard him say most often was, "People never change until the pain of change becomes less than the pain of staying the same."

The problem is, we readers want good stuff to read NOW. And unlike many of the folks in the industry, we readers clearly understand that we're buying *stories*, not bundles of tree-fiber that happen to have ink-smudges on them. We'll find the Authors we like, regardless of the avenue those stories travel to us. And if the publishers make it more attractive for their prospective authors to tunnel around them than pass through the gate ... as a reader, I'm loyal to my Authors, not to the troglodytes populating the business offices of their publishing houses.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I'd like to figure out how to reach more readers -- but you are absolutely correct. The problem is publishers have been dealing with readers as popcorn kernels -- throw a bunch in a pot, if one pops (because he's in a more favorable spot, or what? Who cares?) then savor that one to the hilt. Meantimes, throw out the ones that didn't pop, try again with another batch. Well, that model is dead. Publishers don't seem to understand it, but it is. The picking of a winner and putting everything behind the winner (as opposed to cultivating a robust mid-list that in turn makes your imprint valuable) is gone. People who are mega bestsellers, whether "natural" or "pushed" there, don't NEED publishers. Unless they're unusually loyal or unusually simple.

Lucius said...

Stephen, we're buying both the physical object and the intellectual property when we buy a book.
I have an e-reader.
I like it a lot.
That said, I'm never going to pay the same price for a data file as I'd pay for the actual book.
[shrug] From my perspective, around 60-65% would be the optimal price point, but I'm admittedly just spitballing. (I'm sure Amanda has put a whole lot of thought and work into this. It would be interesting to hear her take.)

But back to the topic at hand, overall a good thing. Middlemen exist to add value to the product, get the product in front consumers who might be interested in buying it, and absorbing risk. The status quo isn't very efficient on at least two of the three.
Editing is going to be problematic. Organizations like might somewhat fill the gap, at least short-term.
Breaking into the field will be difficult. (Not that it isn't already.) I think most first time authors will still want to hold (and treasure) an actual physical product with their name on it, even if it's clearly against their best short-term interests. (Increased exposure *might* make up for it long-term, but who really knows? Especially if Amazon takes a direct interest in promoting their stable of independent contractors.)

;) As to why you started on this, for the same reason I've spent the last couple years fuming about schemes Keynes specifically argued against being advanced in the name of Keynesianism. (I have many disagreements with the old boy, but he never did anything to deserve *that* level of abuse.)
You just can't help yourself.
"If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools," an a' that.

(The last bit was definitely one oblique reference too far. But I'll inflict it upon you anyway. Because I care.)

Dave Freer said...

Yeah thanks Chris - got them and many Brisbanes on monday - the had been in the PO a bit, but I hadn't seen daylight and B was working.

You shouldn't be depressed by it. Your work sets you above the ordinary. We just need to promote it properly

Dave Freer said...

Kate, who right you are. My trouble is I climb, dive, and go to sea in small boats. No common sense doing these, but if you don't use common while doing them, if you can't say "Okay this is dumb" and adapt your strategy rapidly - then you will end up dead. So I expect people faced with dire consequences to develop this... and you're right. Most of them will continue to decieve themselves.

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - what gets me is the panic that alternates with denial. And yes: readers don't care. They want good stories. If you give them a marque that makes that likely - be it an author name or say Baen... they're very likely to follow that.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, and it approaches the point where if you have a name - let alone bestseller name - you don't need them.

They CAN turn this around. But 1)it relies on major drawcards staying loyal (and unless Names are stupid, that means paying them accordingly, and using those to advertise other books, and building a reputation (as a publisher, for doing good books) and working every other avenue - newsletters and free samples to customers for example. But business as usual is just slow death.

Dave Freer said...

Lucius - I am a Kipling fan
And a'that sounds like Burns A man's a man - which I think is on my web-page.
And e-books should be cheaper than paper - My own gut-feel is 5 dollars is the psychological cut off. But that could be me being as mean as cats-wee.

Lucius said...

Aye. Throwing Burns on top of Kipling was entirely too much.

;) But I failed my Will save.