Tuesday, January 27, 2009

POD Publishing: the writer's dilemma

With the start of a new working week ... and an a/c unit that makes it possible to actually get something done! -- well, I guess work is on my mind. Right now, that other four-letter word that ends in K means, to me, 1) marketing books, 2) sorting out whatever is going haywire in the LEGENDS template, and 3) continuing to work on the text of the digital novel.

Since I can't quite bring myself to get to grips just yet with the template (being, the guts behind Blogger ... the css gibberish that makes it go, and sometimes doesn't make it go; and right now it ain't goin' nowhere) I thought I'd do a little book marketing.

And ran into some interesting things before I'd even had the chance to open a file.

I start my book marketing by looking at who my recent visitors are, and how they found me. And several of these readers have been on Google around the world (India, Thailand, France...) searching on a term which took me by surprise -- and would give a gentleman by the name of Mark Coker headaches and/or nightmares! The search parameter is, and I quote, "smashwords writers beware."

The antennas went up, obviously, because I'll soon be intimately involved with Smashwords, to take advantage of their document conversion to the Stanza format (makes ebooks readable on the iPhone, and soon the Samsung Omnia, all being well).

The good news appears to be that these searches are writers around the world doing their "due diligence" -- which we all do; or should, if we had out brains wired properly. I followed the search results and found nothing that would stand as a point against Smashwords. I breathed a sigh of relief there, obviously.

And along the way some other interesting things (for a writer, at least) popped up. Have you ever heard of the IDPF? No, neither had I, till I saw this: http://www.teleread.org/2008/04/23/harlequin-librie-digital-deal-beware-of-drm-traps-harlequin-but-yes-youre-right-to-think-about-interactivity/

Turns out, it's the acronym for International Digital Publishing Forum. Since digital publishing is -- increasingly -- where I live and work, I clicked through with half a mind to join, you know, participate, make my ten cents' worth heard ... until I saw that the membership dues. They want A$1,000 for a year's membership for an individual.

I clicked out again without even touching the ground. That's idiotic. Digital publishing is where the future is going, it'll affect every writer, reader, publisher, distributor, so -- what's the first thing the the high mucky-mucks do? Form themselves into a forum and organize themselves a hierarchy, an infrastructure, that costs so much to run, their membership dues look like this:

...and you notice that their dues are "only" US$1000 for companies with revenues over (!) $5m per year, and go down to US$650/A$1,000 for non-profit organizations!!

A literal translation of this is, "If you're a publisher earning less than $5 million p.a. you fall off our radar ... and "non-profit organizations" are obviously the high-power info honchos who give out free info ... digitally.

And the 99.999% of writers who sell their books on Payloadz and Smashwordsm, Lulu and so on? We would no doubt suffocate in the rarefied atmosphere breathed by the aforementioned mucky-mucks, whose forum activities must take place at five-star resorts over six-course meals ... otherwise, where in hell are the astronomical membership dues being spent?!

It gets worse before it gets better. Amidst their rarefied air, they've already gone ahead and instituted the Epub Standard: http://www.openebook.org/. Let me illuminate you:

What is EPUB, .epub, OPS/OCF & OEB?".epub" is the file extension of an XML format for reflowable digital books and publications. ".epub" is composed of three open standards, the Open Publication Structure (OPS), Open Packaging Format (OPF) and Open Container Format (OCF), produced by the IDPF. "EPUB" allows publishers to produce and send a single digital publication file through distribution and offers consumers interoperability between software/hardware for unencrypted reflowable digital books and other publications. The Open eBook Publication Structure or "OEB", originally produced in 1999, is the precursor to OPS.
For the latest on IDPF standards, sample files and companies who have implemented our specifications, please visit our
public forums. Getting started? Visit our FAQ's.

So far, so good ... but if all the writers, artists, garage publishers and editors, "cowboy" distributors and so on-- who are the life's blood of the growing electronic publishing industry, its meat and potatoes -- are shut out of the forum unless they pay big (and unaffordable) bucks ... what use is a standard? How appropriate is it, to try to force this standard on writers, editors, publishers, who were locked out of the forum? How can you police a standard when it was decided arbitrarily by the high-powered honchos in the stratosphere? Why would the rest of us want to abide by regulations instituted in such a draconian system?!

Having said all that ... welcome to the wonderful world of DRM. Digital Rights Management. I brushed shoulders with this about eight months ago, when I was working long, extra hours to get my novels ready for Microsoft Reader ... only to discover in the nick of time that you might as well paste the text of your novels to web pages and give them away! The LIT file format is fine and dandy, and I actually like the Microsoft Reader interface a lot. But it's the ebook equivalent of "open source." Anyone, anywhere, can do absolutely anything they want to the text -- there are no controls, no safeguards...

Aha! Unless you lay down a few hundred more dollars to buy a DRM system for the Reader program. This was -- months ago -- wrangled by an online company called OverDrive. I looked into it, and it was going to get expensive, with the fee and then registration to pay on lots and lots of individual projects (I have a long backlist), all to have their rights "managed."

Once again, the system was set up to facilitate DRM for big, big publishers whose revenues are more than high enough to rationalize the fact that there's a digital monster with its pseudopod in your pocket, and it's insinuating a tentacle into your wallet while chatting with you.

And ... the rest of us, the cowboy operators, whose sales are too modest to pay and pay again? Those of us who just want to use our time and talent to earn an honest living? Well, in a word, we're screwed -- and that's two words.

So I ditched the idea of issuing my novels in the LIT format, and went with Adobe PDFs which were formatted two ways -- large screens, and keyhole screens for the ebook viewers. So far it's worked out quite well. A lot of readers have a use for ebooks; a lot don't. And those that don't won't buy an ebook no matter how you format the little buggers. (There's also a disturbingly large percentage of customers who don't know how to open a ZIP file, and I still don't know what to do about the question they raise. I'm working on it.)

Right now, DRM is back in the mixmaster: a new system is out, and OverDrive is being left behind. Urk. Something called Libre Digital is flying the flag of the new technology ... and without even looking at it, I can tell you, manging your digital rights via these guys will be expensive. It's not for self-marketing writers. It's for publishers. Big publishers.

Which leaves the rest of us right back where we started! In the coming months, I'll be experimenting with Smashwords, and the reason I'm going that way is because they can get me onto the iPhone and the Omnia ... and the sales of these smart little gadgets are so vast (running into the tens of millions in a year) that the sales of ebooks have to rise accordingly.

The one reservation I have about Smashwords at this point is that there's no file encryption on the product served to readers -- and how can there possibly be?? You have to be reasonable here -- even I have to be reasonable! -- and admit that a lot (a majority?) of ebook customers are reading on Very Cheap Devices which can read TXT files, or HTML or RFT at a stretch of the imagination. These machines, you can buy for $150 or so; therefore there are a lot of them out there. However, these cheap devices don't, can't read PDFs; fancy-shmantsy files, with formatting and encryption/protection and all, are off the list for these customers.

Here's the dilemma -- and it's a beauty. To get sales, you have to make your work available literally on a platter. You have to hand your work out in a format that anyone and his dog can copy, manipulate, resell. If you try to protect your work, you cost yourself sales ... but how many sales? Would you sell 1000 copies at $5 each, for an HTML file? If so, the income would be high enough to make it not so damaging if/when your work is pirated and other potential sales fly away like smoke.

It's an experiment, and I'm going to run with Smashwords for a couple of extremely good reasons. One: they're high profile, high visibility, and industry recognized. What this means is, if I put THE SWORDSMAN on Stanza for the smart phones, and LIT for Microsquash Reader, and so on, and three months later the book is available as a torrent on 10 different pirate download sites, I have the proverbial leg to stand on! I can go to the torrent site owner and show they my Smashwords agreement, which is dated and reliable, and would actually hold up in court. I can have them kill the torrent, fast. The second reason I'll run with Smashwords is that they're high visibility, and can only get higher: sales should be there ... and it's all an experiment. Lots of sales and no torrents? This is what we're hoping for! Moderate sales and controllable torrents? This is okay too. Poor sales and too many torrents to handle ...?

You're never going to know unless you try -- like anything else in life. But at the very least, Smashwords gives you something to go to bat with. You can come out fighting, knowing you have a high profile Internet presence as your platform.

At this time, I routinely have readers swinging by my websites after having searched on "mel keegan torrent." Meaning, the little darlings were hoping to find somewhere where they could just download me without even offering a dollar to help pay rent and bills. (A lot of readers also also searching on "josh lanyon torrent" and landing on my blog, because Josh and I are cross-linked, and a search for one will sometimes pop up the other! Nice, that.)

However, Smashwords is growing, and as the profile gets higher there will almost certainly be oversight here: an automatic system that pops up an alert when the names of their writers appear on the torrent sites -- this is the most obvious place to start. (Obviously there are many more ways for pirate copies to be circulating, but you gotta start somewhere.)

I'm impressed by the way founder Mark Coker is proactively marketing Smashwords ... to the point where he's on writers' forums. This doesn't always work out as intended and expected -- I've been very leery, myself, about getting involved in forums, because they're all different, with the tendency to be cliquish; they all have their own graven-in-granite rules, and you can put your foot right in it without ever even realizing you're doing it. This is both interesting from a writer's perspective, and a perfect illustration of what I mean: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=123538 ...

...how to get in dutch on a forum without knowing you've done anything ... and then investing hours and sweat and maybe even a few tears of utter frustration, trying to ameliorate the situation, only to discover that when "they've got their hooks into you," nothing in this world will make them let go ... and the thread will go on and on, as long as you continue to try to do the amelioration thing! (Now you know why you don't see Mel Keegan on forums (yet). You can trip and fall into the swamp sooooo easily, and you'll come up smelling weedy, no matter what you do or say. Not good news.)

The other side to this is that "any publicity is good publicity," and I take my hat off to Mark Coker for the way this was handled. He might not have known it at the time, but he was in a no-win situation from the get-go, and one can only applaud both his restraint and his eloquence. Personally, I've been in and around the publishing industry for almost 30 years, have been pro-published for 20 ... and User Groups scare the willies out of me. If there's a "writer beware" caution in any of this, it would have to be along the lines of, "Writers, beware of forum rules and regs, because no two are alike, all turn into cliques sooner or later, and you shouldn't really say anything that could be in any way construed as promotion or honest debate to the local paradigm, much less a rational argument based on "Research Not Currently Known to This User Group" until or unless you've become a qualified insider in the clique ... which can take weeks or months, and a whole lot of posts. Urk. I don't have the time to go there.

On my travels around the book-marketers' web this morning I stumbled over this:

National novel writing month: http://www.nanowrimo.org/ ... looks interesting, and I must investigate further! Now, if there was a similar site where two hundred POD publishers with tip-top lists got together, pooled resources and ingenuity to market books ... I could get excited. Because the marketing part of this is far harder than writing the books.

Still, at least I am the Master of my Fate and Captain of my Destiny -- in other words, I'm out there working for myself. Get a load of this: Reading in an Age of Depression

And on that chill-inspiring note ... back to work!



Mark Coker said...

Hi Mel! Very interesting post.

I think you're right - a lot of people are checking us out, and many writers are justifiably wary about any new publishing company, especially one such as ours that promises 85% net royalties.

All we can do is prove ourselves one author at a time, and one reader at a time, and that's what we're doing.

I think one thing that really sets us apart is the transparency with which we run the business. We tell our authors, for example, they're not going to sell much (in fact, it's fair to say we beat them over the head with this claim). After all, the site has only been up since last May and although our usage and membership are growing quite nicely, I think it's fair to say we'll still early in our development, and ebooks too are still in an embryonic stage in terms of mainstream awareness. Besides, it's dang tough to sell a book anywhere. Just because a book is in a bookstore doesn't mean it will sell. Someone needs to market it. And that someone is the author.

It's funny you found that one forum. Yes, I had no idea what I stumbled into on that board. In retrospect, however, I'm glad I stepped into that minefield because it gave me a better appreciation of the fears and prejudices of authors who have been burned so badly by other publishers. I also learned that what we represent - indie authorship - is anathema to the upbringing of many authors.

There's a lot of fear in publishing right now. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of authors have been taught if they work hard and persevere, that a golden ticket is waiting for them at the end of the rainbow in the form of a commercially published book. Unfortunately, the world of media is undergoing wrenching change, and that dream is becoming less attainable for many talented authors. In the next few years, it's quite likely that the book publishing industry will consolidate further and publishers will become more risk averse (less willing to take big chances on new, unproven authors). We will likely see fewer bookstores and fewer mass printings of books on spec, especially here in the US, which means fewer traditional selling opportunities for authors. This brave new world means authors will need to assume more personal responsibility for their own publishing, and will need to pursue the development of digital shelves for their books as the physical shelves disappear.

Books aren't going away. It's only the method of publishing, marketing, selling and consumption that will change.

Mel Keegan said...

Mark -- absolutely. I've been saying these things for years, and the evidence is right there before your eyes, so long as you're willing to look, and believe what you see. Yet you'd be amazed by how many neophyte writers -- otherwise intelligent and talented individuals -- can't or won't see the truth for what it is. They've been too thoroughly indoctrinated by an orthodox publishing industry that, 15 and 25 years ago, wanted to protect itself from the POD at all costs, to safeguard its market share and its profits.

The tables have turned now; the profits are dwindling away, and major publishing houses are locked into a system that's quite literally cycling down to extinction. Conglomerate publishers = fewer brands = few titles being printed = fewer "impulse-buy" readers = fewer bookstores = fewer books being sold = more mergers between struggling publishers = more conglomerates. The vicious cycle will run till it can't run any longer; the image is of a snake eating itself by the tail. In this publishing environment there's little space for an unproven writer: the risk factor is too extreme go be borne by companies already skating on thin ice.

Alas, numerous "wannabe" writers refuse to be told how things are. They continue to believe in the "golden ticket" as you termed it. The truth is very different. Speaking from my own experience, I watched conventional publishing shoot itself in both feet about 30 years ago -- sadly, the time when I was just clambering aboard the treadmill. It took me several years to find a publisher, and when I did sell my first novel, I was paid A$2,000 all-up, to secure a contract that commandeered my rights for 10 years. You grit your teeth and press on, at the same time locked into the "right of refusal on the next book" clause, which effectively prevents you from seeking another publisher! And then one day, your publisher finds that the market is imploding; they sell out to a publishing combine that's much more interested in publishing magazines, and which promptly closes down the paperback line ... and there you are, with a long backlist of published works, 55,000+ copies of your books in print, -- no publisher, and a challenge: start again on the submissions treadmill, in a faltering industry in which profits are king and marginalized writers loom like plague carriers!

There are thousands of writers just like myself, in this position. If we can't get a squeak of sense out of the conventional industry, even with a long list of publications and perhaps some literature awards behind us, what chance do the real beginners stand? Yet they are so thoroughly indoctrinated, when you try to talk sense to them, they go on the attack ...almost as if they do know the truth, deep down, and feel a desperate need to defend a position which has actually become indefensible!

I read your discussions on that one forum -- and over the space of a couple of dozen posts you could see it swiftly degenerating into what was about to become a lot of ill tempered, ill mannered hogwash. I've been in this position myself. Every word you say has to carry a Harvard notation citation, and woe betide one if the provenance isn't sound through five generations of citation! Such forum members concede ground grudgingly, if at all. I once spent six weeks defending some statement I'd made, and in the end all parties agreed to disagree.

In a few weeks I'll be coming to Smashwords to reach readers who use Stanza, LIT, and the formats for Palm, iLiad and so on. I'm looking forward to this development.

And as to the pea-brains who want to know why Smashwords pays 85% (net) instead of 100% (gross) ... I'd ask them where they got the idea that Smashwords pays for itself by magic! The rest of your service is free and gratis -- you have to earn your dues somewhere. Other companies even charge for uploads! It costs you money every time you upload a file, and more money to register the project, more to host covers, and so on. (Companies like Lightning Source can get very expensive, very fast, especially where a writer like myself has a long backlist, 20 or 30 titles to process through.)

Many thanks indeed for commenting. Go ahead and link to any posts on this blog that you feel might be useful. My very best wishes for your business plans in 2009!

Aricia Gavriel said...

This is all totally tight. Even *I* am looking at buying a smart phone or something to read ebooks ... don't get me wrong, I love paper, but I had a birthday recently and a friend got me a paperback that was OVER $30!! It was a good book but I read it in an afternoon. Okay, I read fast which is probably my fault for reading fast [!] but books have reached a level where they cost, per hour of reading, about the same as a movie ticket costs per hour of viewing! That can't be right. (Think about it: the movie cost a hundred million dollars and has a cinema lifespan of about ten weeks flat. The book cost 50c to print and can be sold on Amazon or something forever.) Something went wrong somewhere and in this day and age you have to look seriously at ebooks as an alternative because you just can't afford thirty bucks for an afternoon's read.

Speaking of Smashwords -- I'm reading one of their titles right now. I'll be reviewing it on my book blog -- the copy was a complimentary review copy from the author, using Smashwords's new "coupon system," and I can report that this works perfectly. I had no problem with redeeming the coupon, and the downoad was easy. The book is VERY good so far -- am about 30% finished and am going sloooooooooowly with it now because of the heatwave ... it's too hot for my computer, I'll melt down my poor little laptop if I use it more than about 20 minutes at a time. 115 degrees? Sheesh.

So I'm your more or less typical reader, and I'm ready to confess to counting the pennies. Mel -- I know the used book vendors and remainder stockists do hurt publishers of new books, but not everyone can afford a new book. Like me! But if ebooks are affordable, I'll be in it. I just wish the proper machines you use to read the books were cheaper. I want a Sony, but they're way out of my budget still, so I'm on the laptop till they get more affordable!

Aricia "AG" Gavriel

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