Writing on the Ether | JaneFriedman.com

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By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson


From Feb­ru­ary 23, 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

Authors: Like lambs to it?

Is this industry ready to talk about its writers yet? You’re invited to start chatting it up.

On Friday at 4p Eastern (1p Pacific, 2100 GMT), I’ll be joined by Dan Blank of We Grow Media in co-guest-hosting the weekly #FollowReader Twitter chat, at the invitation of Kat Meyer, co-chair with Joe Wikert of the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change Conference (ToC) just held in New York last week.

Our theme will be the wide-open question “How are authors faring in the new world of publishing?”

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This is not a gripe-‘n’-snipe fest, nor a Kumbaya campfire about the glory o’ story. No, this is business, exploratory business, and it’s open to anybody who has a stake in publishing. I hope you’ll consider coming by and hashtagging with us.

Here’s one thing I’m wondering: Can real sense ever be made of the digital disruption of publishing — mothership retailers hovering in cyberspace over flocks of woolgathering independents in pastures below — if the core industry’s relationship with writers isn’t addressed?

During discussions of the new incident between Amazon and the Independent Publishers Group (more on that below), I’ve been reminded by our colleague, Andrew Rhomberg in London, of the phrase “creative destruction” from economic theory.

Wouldn’t it be smart to take advantage of the fact that the wheels have fallen off the publishing wagon? New models and vehicles are being tried and tested. Why not embrace this question of the industry’s dependence on a class of workers who don’t always feel recognized as peers by publishing professionals? — and sometimes live down to that condition?

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Rich Adin, in The Failure of the Gatekeepers at An American Editor, writes this week:

The…function…of nourishing new writers, has been falling by the wayside in the last decade. Financially, traditional publishers are struggling…the competition has turned fierce. … Fewer blockbusters are being published so there are fewer blockbusters available to generate the kind of income needed to nourish non-blockbuster authors. And authors are increasingly going their own way because they get to keep more of the money and don’t need to worry about publisher rejection.

As I wrote in last week’s Ether, I left ToC concerned that the best discussions about the industry’s future are going on largely without the authors, the people who might form an unprecedented robust and innovative part of the answer to publishing’s dilemmas if they had the chance to engage in the conversation.

Writing community specialist and University of Cincinnati professor Jane Friedman, who hosts the Ether here at her site, posted her excellent warning, Authors: Don’t Pay Money for BEA Book Promotion, just as I’d been reading an arresting series of comments on a blog post titled Who Controls Your Amazon eBook Price?

I’ve seen, first-hand, what Friedman is warning writers about. I’ve had self-published authors approach me at BEA, asking me to take a copy of their book to review – because even in the best spot in the outback of BEA’s perimeter, nobody “can ignore 10,000 other things happening at the same time,” as Friedman puts it. Your book may as well lie under the brightly-colored carpet of one of the Big Six pavilions.

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And in Jim C. Hines‘ piece on Amazon ebook pricing, you meet an author who writes fantasy, both in traditional and self-publishing circumstances — the “hybrid” publishing approach.

What Hines describes is a relatively mundane but annoying experience at Amazon. The price of a self-published ebook title selling for $2.99 at other outlets was reduced inexplicably by Amazon for some time to 99 cents, although no rival site was underselling it.

A couple of points are involved here:

(1) Amazon’s contract apparently allows the company — to quote Hines on the Kindle Direct Publishing terms — “sole and complete discretion to set the retail price at which your Digital Books are sold through the Program.”

And (2) the famous 70-percent royalty an author is paid in this setting by Amazon seems to be figured on the actual price of the sale (in this case, 99 cents) rather than the author’s list price ($2.99), despite the fact that the author didn’t know about the discount that doesn’t seem to have been in response to any competitive price pressures.

Hines explains that KDP responded promptly to him and restored the list price he had set, once he pointed out to them that there was no low-ball seller requiring the 99-cents sale price. However, he writes:

Self-publishing puts you in charge of every aspect of your career. Meaning when Amazon messed with one of my books, it was on me to challenge them and get it fixed. They did restore the price, as I said, but what exactly would I do if they said “Deal with it.” Sue them?

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My purpose in bringing this to you is not to focus on Amazon’s terms and conditions with self-publishers. I’m more interested in what I see in reading through the 54 comments lodged in a couple of days’ time on Hines’ post.

Here are authors, some angry and bewildered, some savvy and sardonic, some represented by agents, some not, some traditionally published, some not, but all of them engaged, either questioning Hines further to follow his arguments, or offering guidance, or worrying aloud for their own publishing situations. Some phrases:

…they are the best game in town for selling my backlist. Still, with terms such as these I start to twitch when some authors sing their praises with such enthusiastic fervor…

…I’d like to expand on your statement about anyone thinking Amazon is in it for authors being a fool…

…They fixed the price. They have not fixed the royalties, and according to their terms of service, they don’t have to…

…I think we authors should advocate (and I have) that Amazon give us more control over our promotional pricing, so that this happens less often. Kobo is infuriatingly slow to change…

…While this sucks, I see the same thing in traditional publishing contracts all the time….

…Actually, regular contracts ARE better because the publisher is constrained from changing the rules as it goes along…

…Do you have a publishing contract that actually specifies the price your book will be sold for? Because I’ve been around awhile and I’ve never seen such a thing…

…It’s a competitive environment, and if you believe otherwise you have spent too much time on Joe Konrath’s blog. Amazon, however, controls 70% of the ebook market…

…Jim do you know if other self-publishing platforms (Smashwords, Lulu, etc.) have had the same issues?

…I’m working on my first novel and self publishing was the route…

…I have published 15 books through traditional publishers. Never once was I asked what price I wanted to set for my books…

It takes a lot of time to wade through the whole raft of comments. But taken as a whole, they offer a striking, alarming overview of how profound is the confusion among writers, including authors published many times over, about (a) where they stand in the industry, (b) what the new “freedom” of digital publishing really means for them, and (c) how the core industry is debating the business’ future.

I seem to be on an Arthur Miller jag of late. At some point “attention must finally be paid” to this Internet-swollen army of talent. So come talk with us Friday afternoon. #FollowReader.

Don’t make me send the sheepdogs out to round you up.

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Click to read this week’s full Writ­ing on the Ether col­umn at JaneFriedman.com.

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