By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From March 8, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays through the kind (and brave) benevolence of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Before we begin to gnash our teeth over industry and insult this week, I’m pleased to offer you an embedded stream from Q2 Music. That’s the 24-hour NPR–affiliated contemporary-classical service I’m always gassing about on Twitter.
Music may have nothing to do with your work, I realize. No problem. And this music, most of it created by the world’s top living composers, may put your muse right through the windshield.
But I hope you’ll consider hitting play while you’re here today — catch an echo of the Ether in spaces that lie light years beyond our words. Today’s programming includes a playlist curated for Q2 by David Byrne (2pET), opening a three-week American Mavericks festival.
And Q2 is always there, always ahead of there, actually: The fearless and relevant music you crave. Free tunes. Most of which you couldn’t hum to save your life.
And now, dear Ethernaut, shall we tear our hair together?
The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word — over.
That’s Godin to authors: You have no right to make money anymore. Thank you, Seth.
The crucial principle at work (is) …your real competition isn’t the book or news outlet that is better than you; it’s the one that is good enough for a majority of your audience. …Maybe those vampire books by Amanda Hocking or the detective novels from million-selling author John Locke aren’t as good as yours, but for hundreds of thousands of weekend readers they are probably good enough.
Heart sinking yet? I should have offered you a drink, not music.
In the ongoing debate about how to price ebooks properly, it can seem that the author — whose personal investment and effort usually tops everyone else’s — is being overlooked, swatted aside. And Ingram, as right as he is, does nothing to soothe the savage breast:
Godin’s point isn’t that you can’t make money; it’s that you have to think differently about how to accomplish that task.
Let’s get past Seth (where is the duct tape?) and hunker with Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives, where he’s asking the comparatively handsome question, What’s More Fairly Priced at 99 Cents, Nonfiction or a Novel?
Nawotka begins by noting that in many nonfiction books, “a single chapter or two supports the whole enterprise.” That’s a nice way of saying there’s one idea and 250 pages. Nawotka goes on:
To me, selling a “digital short” nonfiction piece for 99 cents or even $2.99 is a much more valid commercial transaction than buying a fiction title for the same price, especially if it is vetted and edited by a proper publisher.
And your little manifesto, too, Seth. (Sorry, I don’t know what came over me. It’s all this violent modern music, that damned Q2.) Nawotka soars on:
To me, fiction — properly vetted and edited fiction — is something that should go for more. It’s often a far bigger investment in a writer’s time than a magazine-length nonfiction piece.
Splendid fellow, this Nawotka, isn’t he?
As for the 99-cent novels, well anyone in their right mind would tell you that it is purely marketing. My bet would be that very few novelists honestly want to see their books sold so cheaply (yes, it works for some, but it remains to be seen if you can build a long-term career on such foundations).
And how softly Nawotka has landed me at another of the better reads to be overlooked by most people lately.
In the recently released second part of Brian O’Leary and Hugh McGuire’s Pressbooks project, Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, Kassia Krozser’s A Reader’s Bill of Rights establishes with committed vivacity the alliance of author and reader.
I am here to say it is the publishers who are doing their own product the most harm. Every time a publisher allows a print book or ebook to be released with poor editing, poor proofreading, and poor quality, the value of books in general diminishes in the mind of readers. We deserve better.
Krozser is pretty splendid, herself, you see. And I hope you’ll spend some time this weekend with her excellent essay, as well as others in O’Leary and McGuire’s growing book. It can be read free (not “for free,” damn it) online.
But there’s one point I’ve put to Krozser after reading her essay, and she’s been generous in coming back to me on it.
I’ve explained to her that I’ve had reservations about her discussion of ebook pricing when she concludes, “ebooks cost too damn much.” I’ve wondered if she had taken into account the fact that nothing about the author’s commitment changes for an ebook.
In this digital revolution, the one element not digitized? — is the author. She or he must still go through the years of nightmarish work; the divorce when the neglected family falls apart; the custody battles; the forfeiture of all social life, up-to-date clothing, and mental health. Just take a good look at the next author you see.
First and foremost, I am a writer. I am an author. I am a publisher. I am that weird person who is torn between the “oh yeah” of angry authors and very real realities faced by anyone who goes into publishing as a business…So. I do not believe that, barring the rare JK Rowling, there is ever a way to fully compensate an author for the price of his/her creative labor.
Well, then, how do we reconcile the Reader’s Bill of Rights with what Margaret Atwood terms the “cheese sandwich” that every writer must have to keep churning out the stories? Basically, Krozser answers, we don’t.
There is absolutely no correlation among advances paid or sales or price or buzz or anything and talent. If there were, Paris Hilton would not have received a dime from a publisher. Publishing is, first and foremost, a business. Yes, it sometimes pretends to be a creative industry — especially when it comes to the disconnect between advances and actual sales — but the bottom line is very much the goal (well, that and executive bonuses).
I’ve asked Krozser what’s wrong with the $9.99 that Amazon made its original, general Kindle book price? Is an author’s life’s work truly not worth ten US bucks?
For traditionally published authors, there is an agree-upon fair pricing structure, so authors are being paid for their work. However, publishers continue to correlate print and ebooks, without regard to the limitations of the latter. People seemed happy with a $9.99 ebook that didn’t come with the same rights and material as the $23.99 hardcover. They are less tolerant of a higher-priced ebook that is incomplete or poorly treated by the publisher.
And so what of the self-publishing authors who seem bent on bounding from 99 cents to $2.99 to free-giveaway promotions?Aren’t they driving down the whole market?
For self-published authors, they aren’t really driving the cost of the market down as much as they are driving their own worth down. It’s pretty clear that readers are happily paying higher prices for quality books, though there is a tolerance point. I cannot say if these authors feel their pricing is worth it to them — I guess some will offer up an emphatic yes. Me? I disagree.
So when I look at the author as the one step in the production chain not digitized — for whom nothing is streamlined other than a little word-processing software and thank God for Dropbox — maybe I’m not looking at someone forgotten, but at someone who easily can become self-defeating in a marketplace of opportunism.
I want Krozser to play us out here:
Being a writer is a creative endeavor. Being an author is a business. The authors who price themselves at .99 are, in my opinion, bad business people. They are banking on the general cheapness of humanity. They are hoping they’ll win because people will buy their books in droves.
This is bad business because the royalties are lower. This is bad business because we (the readers) equate cheap with lower quality. This is bad business because, well, it tells the world what you really think of your work product, your talent, your worth. This leads to a marketplace flooded with crappy stories, and these authors are going to be increasingly lost in the mire.