Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Publishing a Lie?

Conspiracy theories may be common with Mulder and Scully, aliens, the Illuminati, and Bigfoot, but we don’t often get them in the erudite world of books and publishing. This week, however, we did.

As you are probably aware, in 2014-2015, Amazon engaged in a negotiation showdown with Traditional Publishing, most prominently Hachette. The common view was that the Big 5 wanted the right to set prices for their products when sold on Amazon–agency pricing. Everyone thought the outcome was that the Big 5 won the right, increased their prices, and made more money.

This week, several stories broke suggesting that everything we thought we knew was wrong.

Mike Shatzkin is a prominent publishing analyst who writes the Idea Logical blog. Based on conversations with publishing executives and even a source at the Department of Justice, Shatzkin claimed that although the Big 5 publishers wanted agency pricing in 2010, by 2015 they realized it was not to their advantage but were forced to accept it–by Amazon.          “[T]he big publishers had no choice about sticking with agency. Amazon insisted that they stick with agency.” Amazon also wanted and got a more favorable split of revenues.

Another analyst, Phillip Jones, agrees. Quoting other industry sources, Jones says that since Amazon dominates the eBook market, allowing publishers to overprice their books was a smart strategy that shifted sales from Big 5 eBooks to Amazon eBooks, allowing Amazon to rapidly grow its self-publishers and Kindle Unlimited market. Conversely, another blog, The Passive Voice, says this “revelation” is just propaganda designed to smooth over an imminent publisher reversal on agency pricing.

Perhaps even more startling is Shatzkin’s claim that the articles claiming “print sales rising in the US” last year was simply based on the fad for adult coloring books–which some people wouldn’t even consider books.

I will admit that Shatzkin’s “revelation” makes sense to me. I expected Amazon to fight to the death for what they wanted and to have the clout to win. Instead Amazon seemed to grant agency pricing to any publisher that wanted it. The story makes more sense if Amazon wanted the Big 5 to set their prices (higher) and focused instead on revenue stream. In any case, one thing seems clear–the agency pricing that seemed like such a must-have before looks like an albatross now.

What do you think?

See the debate continue at Idea Logical: http://www.idealog.com

Nate Hoffelder: http://ow.ly/Z7XRh

Philip Jones: http://ow.ly/Z7XNe

How Do You Define “Book?”

If you’ve followed publishing news this week, you know there are a host of new fiction forms in cyberspace. As a writer, you can decry change or embrace it, but I see little downside in new opportunities for writers, especially opportunities that involve innovation and equal access. The Big Five largely control the books that go into bookstores, but they do not control the digital universe.

Here are a few of the new forms “books” are taking:

  1. Apps. Several new phone apps that are basically novels in disguise are getting media attention. The most successful is The Pickle Index, a SF dystopian novel that also pushes pickle recipes to your phone (to get you to return to the app). Other similar apps are The New World and The Silent History (the best of them in my opinion, discounted to 99 cents as I post this). And apps aren’t just for novels. A writer named Prerna Gupta has created an app called Hooked that provides short fiction for young adult readers. According to Gupta, 80% of all YA novels are read digitally.
  2. Phone Fiction. If you’re thinking no one would ever read a book on their phone, think again. Phone fiction is huge. The most successful platform is Wattpad, which has over 35 million users and publishes 100,000 new stories per day, primarily romance, SF, and YA. Despite the glut of material, some works have broken out, such as MJ Gary’s Flawed, a SF YA thriller compared favorably to Divergent, and Brittany Geragotelis’ Life’s a Witch, whose Wattpad success led her to a three-book deal with Simon & Schurter.
  3. Twitter Fiction. Same idea, different format. Yes, Dickens serialized many of his novels–but not in installments of 140 characters. Of course, you can post more than once a day to maintain interest. Phillip Pullman and Margaret Atwood have both done it. David Mitchell has built a strong following for his work on Twitter. Poets have done it successfully too.
  4. Serialized Fiction. Serial Box offers readers original fiction in digitalized installments (eBook or audiobook format) delivered directly each week. An online HBO for book readers.
  5. Red Sneakers App. I would be remiss if I did not mention that we have a Red Sneakers iPhone app. It’s free. Put it on your phone and you’ll be notified every time I post to this blog, add a new writing seminar or retreat, post updates on the fall writers conference, etc.

Here’s a link for the Red Sneakers app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/red-sneaker-writers/id1078933125?mt=8

Serial Box: https://www.serialbox.com

Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com

 

 

Is Your Amazon Book Description Doing Its Job?

At my writing retreats, one of the hardest assignments I give is this: Write a 100-150 word description of your book. Like a synopsis, only harder. I give this assignment for good reasons. First, focusing on the core of the story, its strengths and target audience, often helps students finish the book. But today there is a second reason–the brief Amazon-page book description may be the most important 100-150 words you ever write. Studies show that, more than any other element, those descriptions sell the book. If you self-publish, you’ll have to come up with the description yourself. Even if you use a traditional publisher, you may be asked to write it, and at the least should be asked to provide input or editing.

Make those all-important words count. Make them sell your book.

Here are your goals:

1) Quickly summarize or hint at what makes your book intriguing or unique. Tantalize the reader.
2) Define the genre (or subgenre). Readers must know what kind of book this is.
3) In most cases, suggesting similarity to bestselling books in your genre is a plus.
4) Integrate keyword phrases that readers might type into the Kindle search bar when looking for their next good read.

One good place to get ideas for your description is the Kindle Bestselling Books list in your genre.  (Ignore books that are free. They may only be “selling” because they’re free.) See what makes those descriptions work. See if you can create the same effect for your book (without copying). This approach may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how few writers actually do it. Too many writers blow this description off with a few cursory lines that don’t inspire anyone to read, much less buy.

A few more tips for writing this all-important description:

1) Start with a riveting blurb about one or two sentences long. Why? Because initially, Amazon only shows the first bit of your description, followed by a hyperlink to “read more.” You need a compelling opening that will inspire readers to click on the “read more” to get the rest of your description.

2) Include some reviews of your book. If you don’t have any yet, you can add this later. If you have writer friends, see if you can persuade one to give you a blurb. You can’t control what others post in their reviews, but you can control what goes into your description, and potential buyers will see this first.

3) Show your first drafts to critique partners, friends, fellow writers, readers, anyone who will look. Ask them honestly: Would you buy this book? Listen to their input and revise accourdingly.

I know you’d rather be an artist than a salesperson. Me too. But like it or not, an author is, in addition to being an artist, someone selling a product to a consumer. In a field with much competition. A brilliant description can separate your book from the pack and give you the attention your deserve.

Are Ebook Sales Declining? Do Indie Titles Dominate the Market?

The publishing industry has always suffered from poor data control. Accurate sales information has been hard to come by, in part because no one is gathering it systematically, and in part because publishers and Amazon typically do not release raw sales data. As a result, we currently have a split of authority. The legacy publishers are claiming that ebook sales are declining, while independent publishers claim they dominate the market. Who’s right?

I will not pretend to be an expert data analyst. Rarely have I heard anyone wax nostalgically about their college Statistics class. Personally, I’d rather have a colonoscopy, or root canal, or watch Toddlers and Tiaras. But a few facts are clear: First, the traditional publishers’ claims are based upon AAP (Association of American Publishers) stats, meaning the data contributors are traditional print publishers, which of course skewers the outcome. Second, Authors Earnings has tried to fill the gap, using sophisticated computer analysis to divine Amazon sales, probably imperfectly, as they have a clear bias toward independent publishers. Third, Amazon is getting rich while Barnes & Noble is going broke, and most of Amazon’s sales do not relate to print books.

Here’s another fact: Amazon paid $140 million dollars in Kindle Unlimited (subscription book borrowing) payouts directly to authors in 2015, and not a penny of that is included in the AAP stats. Does that affect the bottom line? Obviously. Add in that plus traditional ebook sales and you have the tail wagging the publishing dog.

Personally, I don’t see it as a competition, so I don’t care who’s “winning.” If you can get a traditional publishing deal and you want to travel that path, go for it. But I’m pleased there are alternatives for entrepreneurial sorts who don’t want to wait or don’t want to work for someone else. Last year, ebook sales at Amazon generated $1,756,000 PER DAY in author earnings, and more than half of that went to independent authors. Self-publishing is not the only option, but for the first time ever, it is a viable option.

For those interested in delving deeper into the battling methodologies and earnings reports, here are a few links:

Authors Earnings: http://authorearnings.com

Publishing Industry Rebuttal: http://ow.ly/Yj670

Creating Conflict

In my book Perfecting Plot, I discussed the three levels of conflict you can use to enrich a story. They are:

External conflict: the protagonist in conflict with the world

Personal conflict: conflicts arising from relationships

Internal conflict: mental problems, personality faults, spiritual issues, phobias, etc.

Yesterday, I was reminded how popular–and how successful–this approach to story and character is as I saw Kung Fu Panda 3 with my kids (which includes my wife and myself, the oldest kid in the family). Despite being a sequel, I found it enormously entertaining and not just for five-year-olds. Part of the reason the story works is because, instead of relying on bodily function humor and silliness, the writers baked multi-layered conflict into the scenario.

It breaks down like this. To save the world as we know it, Po, the Dragon Warrior panda, must defeat:

External conflict: the malevolent bull who wants to take over the world

Personal conflict: an identity crisis arising when his biological father appears and wants to take him away from his adopted father

Internal conflict: to fulfill his destiny, Po must become a master of Chi (just go with it).

These layers of conflict may not speak to the children in the audience, but they speak volumes to the parents paying to take them there. I thought the personal conflict particularly astute because it metaphorically addresses the modern blending and redefining of the family unit. The two dads of course eventually work together, giving younger viewers a model for unconventional families, blended families, stepdads, adopted dads, gay dads. This is not only clever conflict but a good example of a well-developed and effective theme that doesn’t club you over the head with obviousness or forced morality.

Is Kindle Scout For You?

Kindle Scout is a “crowdsourcing” book selection program Amazon launched last year. Readers vote on unpublished titles based on excerpts, and in return receive free copies of the books they voted for—if those books are selected for publication. Amazon considers the number of “nominations” each book receives, but never reveals the basis for their final selections.

My novel The Game Master was one of the first Kindle Scout selections, January 2015. Writers continue to ask me if I think Kindle Scout would be a good idea for their book. That all depends on the book, your personality, and your overall career plan. Adult genre fiction works best on Kindle Scout. Some people like marketing better than others–but all writers must deal with it. And you should understand that Kindle Scout is a starting place, not a ending place. It should be part of a larger plan, not a replacement for having a plan.

To make Kindle Scout work, you should:

  1. Spend the month your book is up relentlessly working for nominations. You must get a dynamite cover. You must work social media. Tell everyone you know, everyone you see. Call in all markers.
  2. After your campaign ends, Amazon sends everyone who nominated your book a message telling them whether it was selected. The email includes a thank-you message written by you. Use that note to make a good impression, and in the event that your book isn’t selected, to tell people how they can obtain your book elsewhere.
  3. Amazon provides great feedback on the people who voted for your book.  You can see where page views come from, the number of page views, when your book was hot and trending. Use this! Knowledge is power. Even if your book is not selected, you just obtained great analytical information to guide the promotion of your book.

Writing Dialogue “Off-the-Nose”

DialogueOne of the hardest aspects of writing for me to grasp was the idea that characters shouldn’t always say exactly what is foremost in their mind. After all, we don’t always do that in real life, right? Often we beat around the bush, or make elliptical comments designed to elicit information without asking for it, or make provocative suggestions hoping for a revealing response. The cliche about “the elephant in the room” reflects that often what is not being said is paramount, not the trivia that is spoken.

The preference for off-the-nose dialogue is much like the preference for showing rather than telling. When a character says, “I’m sad,” it seems obvious and, frankly, boring. The savvy writer will use an off-the-nose comment which, coupled with what the reader already knows and perhaps a bit of suggestive action, reveals the character’s true thoughts. Yes, the reader has to work a bit, but they always do in more profound works, and that causes the reader to have a more profound literary experience.

Here’s an example from my book Dynamic Dialogue:

Beth peered over the rim of her coffee cup. “I think maybe this year we shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.”

Her husband did not look up from his newspaper. “I thought you loved putting up the tree. You always make such a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anyone cares but me.” She took a long drag from her mug. “Especially now that the kids are gone.”

“What about the stockings? The Christmas lights.”

“I can do without them, too.”

“The wreaths? The crèche?”

“Why bother? Better to make a clean sweep of things.”

He laid down his paper. “And me?”

She held the mug in both hands, treasuring the warmth.

Looking Back on 2015–and Ahead to 2016

Everyone is saying that the two biggest trends in publishing for 2015 were adult coloring books and the surge in audiobook sales. If you’ve been reading the Red Sneaker newsletter for long, though, you knew audiobooks were hot a long time ago–and since you write books with words, you may not care much about coloring books.

Here are some more useful predictions for 2016:

  1. Two Worlds, One Family. The articles declaring that “print is winning” or “ebooks have stalled” are based upon sales data from the big NYC publishers–excluding Amazon and independent publishing sales. If you look at the whole picture, ebooks are huge and getting huger. Penguin’s recent decision to fire dozens of employees is probably due to the failure of their ebook program. The Big Five fought for agency pricing, got it, and now that they’ve raised the prices on their ebooks, the books don’t sell as well. Is this a surprise? No. But bear this in mind: according to Author Earnings, 45% of all books sold by Amazon Kindle are independently published. In other words, there are now two parallel markets, both almost equal in size. One is traditional Big Pub, which dominates print. The other is nontraditional Indie Pub, which dominates ebooks, primarily with adult genre fiction.
  2. Children’s Publishing is Poised to Explode. Audiobooks will continue to grow, but what you may not know is that children’s publishing has provided the biggest growth sector for traditional publishers for the past 3-5 years. Last year, the US market children’s book market grew by 13%. The Big Five will expand on this, not only in book publishing, but also by seeking media and licensing deals based upon children’s books. If you’ve got an idea for a children’s book, this is the time to market it.
  3. Rights Management Becomes Critical. As the Big Five become more dependent upon big authors, licenses, and multimedia partnerships, they will attempt to retain every right possible. Too often, authors have been willing to sign away rights for the thrill of getting a book in print. This has always been a mistake and will become even more so in the future. Never sign away rights unless you’re getting something of value in return. Never sign away rights unless there’s a term limit clause or a fair provision for the eventual reversion of your rights.