Saturday, December 17, 2011

Frida Fantastic on Ebook Hell

Here's the thing. I know that most of you only want to read some good books. You don't care much about how the sausage is made. You just want it to be free of typos. I understand that. Your lives are complicated enough. Kicking back with a cup of coffee and a novel is supposed to offer an escape from the chaos. It's supposed to be a bastion from the madness. But there is a running street battle going on behind your e-reader's screen, and everyone's involved, from e-retailing giant Amazon to niche e-distributor Smashwords, from bestselling authors like King to indie authors like me, from Big 6 publishing houses like Random House to the small independents Ridan. Even independent bookstores have joined the battle—and Congress is trying to 1984 us all.

Most of these battles are are fought by lawyers behind closed doors. Only the occasional fact or snippet of dialogue ever leaks out. But if you take the time to assemble them, they paint a moderately distressing portrait. So much so that I thought even readers might like to hear a bit about it...


In the same unpleasant month that SOPA (the tiny little act that will allow the US Government to prevent you from visiting websites) was in committee and then abandoned by the committee and then double-secretly reopened for debate by said committee, Amazon unleashed a war of roses.

First, Amazon began to squeeze the Big-6 on their wholesale pricing. They want a bigger cut of the retail price, and they want a bigger say on how their content is presented.

Second, Amazon released a price checking app. This mobile device app allows consumers to enter brick and mortar stores, scan these stores' products, and instantly get better offers on the same products on Amazon. Not only that, but some are given Amazon store credit as a reward.

Finally, Amazon announced a new KDP Select program. KDP-S is a new contract for indie authors that offers some perks in return for the indie author pulling their books from competing online retailers' shelves. If I accepted their terms, you would not be able to get my book on your Nook. Heck, you would not be able to get an EPUP or PDF version of my novels at all. But I would get to exploit some of Amazon's incredible marketing muscle. I could expect better positioning for my books, the ability to 'rent' books to Amazon Prime customers, and the opportunity to set my books 'free' for 5 days out of 90. I turned it down, but the deal proved too tempting for many indie authors. Over 40K indie-titles went Select in the past week alone.

So how did the publishing industry respond?

Let's just say that the members of the book industry are not known for calm and poise. The backlash against Amazon was quick and furious. The Big-6 began a passive aggressive campaign that involved having their writers spread the word that Amazon is actually means Satan in Gaelic. (For instance, the NYTimes published an Op-ed by Richard Russo lambasting Amazon's price-checker ap.) Competing retailers screamed anti-competitive practices. Mark Coker, head of Smashwords, alleged Amazon was attempting to clear competitors' shelves of Ebooks. Ron Charles argued in a Wash Post editorial that Amazon was bribing it's own customers to gain an advantage (an odd concept, no?). And, of course, the American Booksellers Association announced that, as usual, Amazon was playin' dirty, and remained the spawn of the Great Unholy.

But she's clearly going for the ball!
And that's not even referencing the cluster-F that was raging on KindleBoards. Over in the Writer's Cafe we authors reinacted this scene for our fans:

Then, when the self-inflicted head wounds had just about ceased oozing, Farhad Manjoo of Slate preformed one of his famous rabble-rousing cannonballs. In 'Don't Support Your Local Bookseller", Farhad argued that independent bookstores are unnecessary vestiges of a paper book past, that they harm the environment, that they are inefficient, and that they are full of pretentious scum undeserving of your nickels. The 1.5K comments on that piece indicate that the shit, as it were, had entered an apparatus with spinning rotors.

Amazon's response to the storm and furor was priceless. Famous for never revealing sales numbers, they announced they are selling about one million Kindle e-readers every week.

My E-ink brings
all the readers to the yard
I have no clear moral opinion on all of this. I turned down the KDP Select contract because I didn't like the terms, not because I was fighting against the man, man. IMHO, this is a battle between a number of big boys who already have plenty of toys. And I'm not Luke Skywalker. I'm just a humble Nerf herder. But Frida Fantastic did a great job expressing some of my long-term worries for readers and writers over on Adarna SF.

KDP Select and a Not-So-Speculative Jaunt into Ebook Hell

I love the ebook revolution. It’s fantastic that it’s easier for authors to be read more than ever before, and I heartily endorse ebook adoption across the world. My dream is that we will have a truly global reading and publishing culture, where stories will be read because there are readers for them, not because of the arbitrary decisions made by a small bunch of Americans in New York.

While this revolution can march into a better world, it can also descend into ebook hell.

This is my personal vision of hell:
  • ebooks are only available in .azw and they’re DRMed
  • Amazon is the only company that sells books in the world
  • the retailer takes at least 70% of the cut
  • all your ebooks only exist in the retailer’s servers (in the cloud), because you can’t back them up to your hard drive due to DRM
  • the retailer can continue to pull books from its digital shelves without elaborating on how the book had violated its terms of conditions or responding to its customers, because it has an unexplainable beef against gay characters in fiction (because hetero smut is okay, but somehow LGBT smut isn’t)
  • readers in “international” countries must continue paying an arbitrary surcharge
  • there are no more public libraries, because all ebook lending is done through Amazon if there is any lending to be done at all
  • and everything is YA paranormal romance

Frida's post and the comments that follow outline some of the concerns both authors and readers should have in the back of their minds as these battles play out. Personally, I love what Amazon has done for e-publishing. Amazon took a floundering industry (Ebooks had been out since the mid-90's), infused it with some breakthrough e-ink technology, and showed everyone how to use search algorithms to generate additional sales. I also respect what Smashwords has done for indie distribution (even though I can't seem to get my own manuscripts uploaded onto their site). And I've had some great experiences with indie bookstores—I especially like the ones that focus on a single genre—and I'd like to see a future ecosystem that can afford them all. Chances are, however, that the real jungle of free market capitalism will surprise us all.



ME Kastner said...

And that's why I only read hard copies.

Clinton Lewis said...

Interesting and informative post. My personal opinion is that the book reading population is changing but as with anything the question becomes what. To many theories from it will all be electronic to all books will be bought online. Every power in the book business is banking on what they think will happen and are aggressively trying to make it a self fulfilling prophecy. That is what it is really about they want their vision of the future and seek to derail any other future alternate futures.
I love ebooks and I love paper books I don't see a time when either of them will be obsolete but I do see the percentages in flux with more and more content being ebook only.

Thanks for the heads up and love your books.

B. Justin Shier said...

"And that's why I only read hard copies."

For me, concern over what may come is why I read DRM-free digital novels that are backed up off site. (and why I only sell DRM-free books to my readers). I feel this method is more secure. A single house fire can destroy my entire print book library, but nothing short of thermonuclear war could wipe out my digital one. It's the same reason I don't purchase CDs anymore. I've lost more money to damaged disks than I've spent on MP3 players.

that's not to say I don't purchase print books. Some content lends itself better to a print format. Review books for medical topics, for example. I've tried reading them on my Nook Color. The learning experience just isn't the same without a highlighter.


BaronThundergoose said...

My nook thanks you for rejecting amazons offer!

Frida Fantastic said...

Thanks for the link and plug to my post! Glad you liked the discussion it generated. Mark Coker popped in with his response! The comment thread is 30 responses now and hopefully still growing, because you know, this conversation is only the beginning.

I love this post. The images are hilarious, and your description on the publishing industry's response is insightful. The bottom line is: Amazon is ass and will lead us to the ebook hellopocalypse, but these retailers are mostly standing around and BITCHING instead of talking about how they'd improve their retail user experience and STEP UP THEIR BLOODY GAME.

I have nothing against Mark Coker and Smashwords. I actually really liked his article on Huffington Post, but the best way to convince authors not to go down the exclusivity-Amazon-hellopocalypse route is to have a convincing on-the-ground business case. Not a concept. Not guilt. But SALES. These not-Amazon retailers + Smashwords don't need to best Amazon on an individual level, but at least account for 15% of the average indie author's ebook sales total. Not after two years, but after one year at maximum!

I'm not an author, I'm just a reader who's geeky and enthusiastic enough about ebooks to blog about this stuff. From the reader's end, we can't be guilted into supporting other retailers if they suck or offer an inferior service. And this is coming from a sci-fi/fantasy reader who makes a point to buy from indie+local book retailers in paper copies, and buy from not-Amazon retailers in the ebook format. Heck, I'm on vacation right now and I'm hitting up an indie sci-fi/fantasy bookstore tomorrow (Borderlands) !

I probably care about the future of this industry more than your average reader, but seriously, the ideals of competition won't be enough to sustain the other competitors if they're not actually going to be competitive. The need to step up their game, improve their retail experience, be responsive to the needs of indies, and get some sales.

Kobo/B&N/Apple/etc... it's in your interest to make money off the indies. They're the future and they're not going away. If you're not going to make money off them, Amazon will, and Amazon will own the entire bloody industry in the future.

I swear, with the exception of Smashwords (for now), these fat cats are asleep at the wheel, and they need a swift kick in the ass.

B. Justin Shier said...

@Frida: I had a really cool reply and blogger ate it. Yea. On my own site.

*hair out* BLOGGGGGEERRR!!! *fist shake*

I'll try and add a reply over on your site instead.


B. Justin Shier said...

There we go. And a repost of it here:

Moses said: “The most common sentiment I’ve seen is that Amazon does so much more for indies (and this is very true), so the other companies need to up their game if they want to keep indies happy. If you’re an author hoping to make any kind of decent living at writing, it does make sense to focus on Amazon (unless you write romance or erotica, as those books do seem to do well at B&N and iBooks) because Amazon is where almost all of the action is for most indie authors.

And at the same time, this sucks for all the reasons you gave in this post. But I think the hard reality is that as long as Amazon remains the only place giving indies a real shot at selling ebooks, we’re headed for an increasingly Amazon-dominated marketplace–at least for indie titles.”

Hard to add much to Moses’ comment, but I’ll try : )

Amazon does an absurd amount to assist indies. They respond to author queries in less than 24 hours. They’ve given us a royalty rate of 70% (that compared to the anemic 6-8% first time traditionally published authors were offered). The also-bought algorithms they support are equivalent to thousands of dollars in advertising. They give us full control over our blurbs and covers. They let us link to our blogs and twitter streams via our author hubs. And lets not forget that they let us do all of this for free. Zero down, people. They do all of this for zero down.

And to those people that worry about Amazon’s motivations? Amazon is a giant multinational corporation. Amazon’s goal is to provide profit for their shareholders. They’re not evil. They’re just doing their job better than other retailers.

Personally, I haven’t signed up for KDP Select. I have my reasons (and I think they are valid ones), but they don’t matter to anyone but me. Amazon has yet again nailed the sweet spot of author needs with KDP Select. Moral arguments aren’t going to win the day on this one. We’re dealing with a bunch of starving artists here. Within a week of KDP Select firing up, 40K+ indie authors jumped on board. They didn’t join because they suddenly caught crazy. They joined because they hoping to pay the rent.

Mark and others warn about the long term dangers of stacking all of one’s eggs in one basket, but some of these folks need to eat. I don’t think everyone made the correct decision signing exclusive deals, but three weeks later, I know of at least 10 authors that were selling miserably prior to Select and are now having very happy holidays.

I read Mark’s post above. It is moving and impassioned. I don’t believe he is being motivated by his own financial interests. I believe he is motivated by his love of books. As a reader, I too am worried about Amazon’s dominance—but as a small businessperson I am beyond frustrated with the alternatives. I personally generate every B&N sale that I make. I can’t get clean copy through Smashwords ‘meat grinder’. What options do I have left? I’m in a secure profession and write for the love of it—but even I’m tempted to go Select. No wonder many authors are taking their chances in the jungle.


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