Wednesday, July 27, 2011

E-Publishing's Dirty Little Secret

I've never been good at being a team player. Don't get me wrong. When I was in the corporate world, every decision I made was based on what was best for the team. I was 110% loyal and fought like a mother tiger protecting her cub for whatever team I happened to be a part of.

But a rah-rah cheerleader and follower of every new plan implemented I was not.

Management, I found, would do well to play more chess. In chess, you need to be able to think 10 moves ahead. There's little luck to do with chess. Every piece is on the board, visible, and every piece has hard-and-fast rules by which it's played. It's all cold strategy. The only variables lie in how and when those pieces are moved.

I was not beloved of management. I was outspoken -- often about pet projects that, while the instigators lauded instant gratification and short-term gains, 10 moves ahead looked like trouble. I was an albatross around management's neck.

So why would I change now that I'm retired?

I've been hanging out a lot lately with authors who have taken the e-publishing route. I read their blogs and I participate a bit in the Amazon and B&N e-pub forums. And more and more I've been seeing a huge gap among the haves, the have nots and those who haven't yet.

First of all, there seems to be a sense of entitlement out there. "Amazon owes me. When I sell books, they make money. They should promote the hell out of my book, and if they don't, then Mr. CEO is going to hear about this! They've taken tagging away from us -- that's all we indies had as a way of getting noticed. Doesn't Amazon realize when they screw over the independent author selling 5 copies a month, they're screwing themselves!" Um, Amazon doesn't care whose books it sells, and if a greater percentage of readers buy Author A's book than Author B's based on the same number of impressions, you can bet if Amazon can figure out a way, it's going to up the number of impressions Author A's book gets. It's simple economics.

Second, there are a handful of big players in the field who are quite evangelical. It's easy -- so easy -- to get swept up in their religious awakening over e-pubbing. It's seductive. Like the motivational speakers a handful of years ago who wanted to help YOU make your first million in real estate or with dot-com stocks, they play on hopes and dreams and offer promises that, like the lottery, only come true for a minority of the folk being preached to. It happened to them, it can happen for you. Come worship with us at the Church of the Average Joe.

I lured you into reading this with the promise of a dirty little secret, right? Well, here it is: The e-commerce platform today's bestselling indie authors built their names on is ALREADY changing. And you know what? E-pubbing is NOT an egalitarian industry. It is NOT a democratic playing field. But try to introduce the business equation into conversations on certain blogs and boards, and you're going to be met with fingers firmly inserted in ... ears.

Those of you watching from the back may not have noticed but Amazon is *shock* tweaking its business model. The traditional publishers are starting to cave to the notion that ebooks are here to stay. Surprisingly, traditional publishers want to stay in business, so they are working with the biggest book distributor in America and soon-to-be the world. And Amazon, after having set up the indie publishing and distribution model, is turning traitor by actually helping traditional publishers sell books. Twice this summer Amazon has partnered with the enemy and run sales featuring books from *gasp* traditional publishers. As a consequence, a lot of indie authors have seen a fall in sales. Most of those affected are the ones who haven't yet gotten good traction in the sales engine that is Amazon. "Just have to hold out till this sale ends, then things will be back to normal," seems to be the common thinking. Only normal today isn't what it was yesterday. Normal now IS monthly Summer Sales, Back-to-School Bargains, Fall-Back Pricing, etc, etc. Normal IS Amazon catering to publishers who speak in the language business understands: money. Want to be a part of these sales? Ante up.

I've posited in comments elsewhere that I believe Amazon will continue tweaking its sales model and its algorithms as it learns more about the new world being forged. But evangelicals don't want to hear that. They WANT to believe Amazon is on the side of the little guy and that the internal promoting it does will democratically elevate every newbie's book published into an eventual bestseller. Heck, some of these evangelicals have built their own platform promoting that idea, so they have a personal stake in keeping the dream alive.

Currently Amazon's sales engine is a self-feeding model. The more sales a book has, the more Amazon's internal promotions kick in to help sell more. Ad-based Kindles and monthly sales of already popular titles are just the beginning. I'm predicting algorithms in the near future that skew the titles readers see in the "also bought" lists to authors/publishers who fund a certain number of impressions for their books. The outcry I hear against that is that readers won't stand being advertised to.

Here's a bonus secret: Those "also bought" lists are ALREADY skewed in favor of better-selling titles and readers are already being manipulated by them. Do you actually believe Amazon is presenting an unbiased list? To appear in the list of an associated title that's selling a lot of copies and where such an appearance has a chance to drive sales of your book, your book has to cross a certain threshhold of copies sold (or maybe amount earned - 100 copies? $100? Who knows?). Until then, it doesn't help much if your book that's selling 3 copies a month is cross-promoted with another book that sells only 2 copies a month, does it?

The gulf is already widening. A look at any of the discussions around "How many copies have you sold this week, month, ever" shows a whole lot of people despairing over just 3 to 4 sales a month. YOU don't hear about those struggles because how many folk are willing to admit those sales publicly? Even on the boards, a lot of folk are reluctant to talk in real sales numbers. If you see authors mentioning their sales have doubled or that sales are down by 50%, you can just about bet doubling sales means going from 2 books sold in May to 4 books sold in June. Many of these books probably don't deserve even the few sales they are getting, but some of these books are decently written and formatted with good reviews and/or cheap prices. They may or may not ever hit their strides.

The wisdom that says "E-books are forever" is likely shortsighted. Right NOW Amazon may not be kicking off the books languishing on their site, but when the database doubles and the buyer's experience is compromised because the search engine is slow or the site can't display its lists quickly enough or update them as frequently, what's the easiest, most economic solution? Hmm?

I've said it elsewhere in comment sections where I felt I was getting the same reaction as back in ye olde corporate conference room pointing out the inherent flaws in management's new go-forward plan. Yes, everyone will still be given the opportunity to publish in the future -- in just the same way every native-born citizen in the U.S. has the opportunity to become president. We're all born equal, but to have any hope of succeeding, you have to have the proper grooming, the right schools, popular support and -- the real deciding factor -- the money to fund your campaign.

Some people seem to think Amazon isn't learning new strategy and becoming a better player here in the middle of the game. That its sales model today is what it will still be when Christmas rolls around. That they can count on Amazon's support no matter what. They aren't looking 10 moves ahead. And they'll be the ones to cry foul the loudest when Amazon quietly announces, "Checkmate."


Landra said...

Great topic and awesome examples. I love your chess analogy and it's true. When you operate in any type of business, independent or corporate, it pays to be away of the market and trends. It pays to think like a chess player and see the different ways the pieces can move.
Those with faith in the system staying the same make too many assumptions. Leading to one of my favorite quotes:
"Assumptions are the mother of all fuck-ups!"

Thanks for the info Phoenix.

Masako Moonshade said...

Fantastic post-- and you're brave for saying it. A lot of people are probably going to go kicking and screaming about how the industry was supposed to make it so everything's fair for everybody...

But I think on some level, we've got to be fair to the reader, too. You said it yourself, some books don't deserve more than three or four sales a month. Agents and publishers act as a filter to keep a good chunk of the garbage off the shelves, and currently when you buy a self-pubbed e-book, you're taking a big gamble. I know some people have the money to do that every time they want a book, but I don't.

I was always a bit wary about the e-pubbing route, just because it seemed too good to be true, and I was waiting for the hammer to fall. Of all the hammers that could have hit us, though, I think this is one of the softer, plushier ones.

R. Doug Wicker said...

Great analysis. But instead of chess, think contract bridge. It's actually more complex (you have to think thirteen moves ahead), requires the ability to play as a team with a partner, and is actually three games in one: Bidding, offensive play, and defensive play.

Michelle McCleod said...

Lots to think on here. I do think things will be in flux and what is done today may be completely different tomorrow.

Going to retweet this.


Anonymous said...

I remember the first few years of Amazon after they started up, when they were losing money year after year and the experts said that was no way to run a business ... and they'd never make money.

Well! Look who's laughing now!

Whirlochre said...

Glad to see someone hasn't drifted off to sleep on the unremitting slog that is...Hoop Watch.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Landra: I think you've given me a new favorite quote. Thank you!

@Masako: I think you're right about the burden now falling on the reader to be the filter. They didn't ask for it, did they? Quality costs. In this case, it means investing money {because even small dribbles of 99c and $2.99 add up!) or time in reading samples more critically for basic formatting, grammar and continuity that can generally be taken for granted with a trad book. Will the reader get tired of the investments before long?

@R. Doug: You're right, of course, that the whole business play is more complex. And we have to be honest that's there's always some degree of luck in play, too, eh?

@Michelle: Thanks for the tweet!

@Dalyamoon: It is interesting to see that people keep under-estimating Amazon.

@Whirl: Wide awake here, as ever :o)