Friday, August 26, 2011

Who Wants Whom? - A Dialog Between J.A. Konrath & Blake Crouch About Who Has the Power in Publishing

Joe: So my friend and collaborator Blake Crouch and I are in Ohio, working on Stirred, and naturally we started talking about ebooks and the future of the industry...

Blake: Shouldn’t we be writing our book?

Joe: Look, I'm just happy to be avoiding monkey and frog videos...

Blake: Yeah, that scarred me for life. Be the monkey!

Joe: We seem to have hit upon a less-offensive analogy to represent our thoughts on this matter. But let's start back at the beginning. And by that, I mean going back to working for the Big 6, and what they represented.

Blake: Back in the day, writers were hampered by a crucial component to getting their work to the reader: The means of distribution. We could write the best thing of our lives, but the only profitable method to getting a copy of this to the public was via legacy publishers, who were the only source for getting books into bookstores and non-bookstore outlets. This is why self-publishing used to be such a terrible and vain option for the writer.

Joe: Sure, you could self-pub. But you'd pay a fortune for sub-standard books that were non-returnable--or if they were returnable, you ended up with 3000 books in your garage because they were too expensive and the cover art was terrible. So bookstores wouldn't stock your book, and if they did, it probably wouldn't sell. Before ebooks, self-publishing was basically a one-way ticket to epic faildom.

Blake: Then along came Kindle, the first runaway hit in the ebook revolution. A few things made this momentous. First, the Kindle represented the first reader-friendly e-reading device that wasn’t clunky. It was light. Sleek. And even at the opening cost of $399, reasonably affordable. But what made Kindle truly successful was the platform that supported it. Namely, Amazon’s Kindle store. Never before had such a powerhouse of interconnected algorithms--geared toward leading the reader to niche content--been available to the book buyer.

Joe: Amazon created the Kindle, the proprietary format for the Kindle, and the store which directly linked to the Kindle. If it became successful, it could control distribution. Which it is currently doing.

Blake: But now, as we write this in the summer of 2011, Kindle isn’t the only moving force. We have Kobo’s ereader, the Barnes and Noble Nook, Apple, Sony...each creating their own proprietary format, their own online content stores.

Joe: But let's talk about the content provider. The writer. People like me and you.

Blake: You and I have had a good deal of experience with Big 6 publishers, and something we’ve come to understand is that, up until now, “content provider” hasn’t meant a whole helluva lot. And it's not even a question of respect. There is a palpable disdain for writers that seems to permeate a lot of legacy publishing. You can even follow a number of "anonymous" twitter accounts from publishing insiders to get a view of how much the content providers are despised. Writers have been treated like mentally damaged children, incapable of providing input on basic elements such as cover design, title, product description, and even, God forbid, the next book we should write. Considering what's happening with ebook distribution these days, no writer should ever have to put up with that BS again from people who peddle the written word.

Joe: The Big 6 would come on to writers like a very attractive woman would come on to an eligible man. A crude analogy, but an apt one. They could pick and choose who they wanted to get into bed with, and the men were always grateful for the opportunity. After all, when a cute girl chooses you, you're flattered, excited, and you go for it, no questions asked.

But that ship has sailed. Now, the attractive woman isn't the Big 6. She is now the ereadermanufacturers who sell content on their online stores. Amazon, B&N, Sony, Kobo, Apple...

Blake: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Joe: Sort of, but not exactly. The new boss offers more. Better royalties, more control, faster turnaround, non-exclusivity. There are some things that used to be included in the package but that the author is now responsible for, such as cover design and hiring an editor, but overall it's a more favorable deal.

Blake: Though maintaining control of things like cover design is actually huge gain.

Joe: Agreed. Sticking with the dating mentality, this new woman is better for you than the last woman was.

Blake: Absolutely...the difference is profound. All these benefits you just mentioned....it’s like dating a woman who cares more about your needs and wants, is willing to try harder to make the relationship work, and who recognizes your value--what you're bringing to the equation.

She won't ever drop you. She'll let you make mistakes and forgive you. She'll take everything you have to offer, and give you more in return.

Joe: So now we have many writers deciding that the Big 6--which often have a love 'em and leave 'em mentality--perhaps aren't as preferable as other partners.

But I've also heard a lot of other rumblings in the writing community, from those who are afraid that Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Sony, Apple, Google, etc. are going to cut royalties as soon as they have a lock on more content, getting a bigger share for themselves and not treating the writer as well as they currently are.

Blake: They're going to cut off the nookie?

Joe: That seems to be the fear. But is it a good idea to bank on this fear? Should writers be afraid in a Cold War kind of way? Should this paranoia accelerate to the point of building bomb shelters?

Blake: Remember Y2K? When certain groups thought the world would lose critical power grids which might lead to mass hysteria? Some people bought assault weapons, stored up on years’ worth of food. And mistrusted everybody. And what happened?

Joe: Not a damn thing. Paranoid is not a good way to live.

Blake: So walking around worrying that the hot chick is going to lose interest and dump you--to stick with the dating analogy--is equally a useless waste of anxiety. In reality, we have zero control over what corporate giants like BN, Amazon, etc., choose to do, particularly when these decisions may issue from boardrooms which have concerns far removed from those of independent authors.

Joe: I love working with Amazon, both through Kindle Direct Publishing and through Thomas & Mercer. Maybe I'll sign another deal with Thomas & Mercer, if the offer is right. But if it isn't, I'm not worried. I can still use KDP.

And if KDP decides to cut royalties, then there will be other places to go. But not back to the Big 6--if Amazon cuts royalties for authors, they will for publishers as well, which would mean an even smaller cut signing with a legacy house.

But worrying about anything beyond your ability to influence is pointless. Instead, we need to change the things that are within our control.

Blake: We need to make smart choices about the women we're dating.

Joe: Exactly. I like this dating analogy, so let's clarify it.

At first, the hottie was one of the Big 6, willing to plunk down an advance to publish your book, which we needed because they controlled distribution. They called the shots. We meekly obeyed, and were just thankful for the attention and the confirmation.

Lately, the hottie is the ereader manufacturers, who sell our content on their proprietary devices and give us more money and freedom than we ever had before.

But let's really think this through. In either case, the Big 6 or the ereader manufacturers, when we get paid, who is the one that is ultimately paying us?

Blake: The reader.

Joe: Exactly. The reader is the one who wants to go out with us. They're the one who ultimately pays us, by buying our writing. The store they buy it in, or the platform the buy it from, is secondary to the actual content they are procuring. First, they got our book in a bookstore from a Big 6 publisher. Then they got our book online from a website. But it is OUR books they're buying. We're the writers.

Blake: This isn’t to say the platform, be it Amazon, BN, etc., isn’t at the moment serving an incredibly useful purpose. They’re facilitating two critical aspects of the reader-to-author transaction:

1) Convenience. The one-click, send-a-book-directly-to-your-personal-ereader has revolutionized reading in the 21st Century.

2) Visibility. More people discover writers on major retailers like Amazon and BN than anywhere else. In other words, you can go to one of these retailers looking to buy Lee Child or Stephen King, and, “accidentally” through customer recommendations and niche-focused best-seller lists, come across the work of J.A. Konrath or Blake Crouch.

Joe: If a hottie wants to date you, she has to know you exist, and that you're available.

In some cases, depending on how attractive and/or how eligible you are, she'll try harder to land you.

But we need to ultimately remember who the hottie is, and why she wants you.

Blake: The hottie isn’t the Big 6 publisher. And she isn’t the online retailer. She’s the reader. That is ultimately who the author needs to connect with. Up until recently, the author has needed an assist in this area, but things are quickly changing. Here’s a hard question...does a writer have to deal with an intermediary in this transaction?

Joe: Yes and no.

I think we all need to be assisted to a certain degree. Even J.K. Rowling, who is launching Potterville on her own, would no doubt sell more ebooks if she invited other retailers to sell her ebooks instead of doing it exclusively.

Blake: So why do you think she isn’t partnering with other retailers?

Joe: Because attraction is mutual.

Blake: What the hell are you talking about?

Joe: I'm taking the analogy through to its ultimate conclusion.

A hottie is looking for you for one purpose: to get some. You can be flattered. You can be paranoid. But ultimately, they want what you have.

However, you also have what they want. You have the content.

We began this analogy by saying how much we wanted the hottie, whether it was a Big 6 publisher or an online retailer.

Then we realized the real hottie is the reader.

But the fact is, the hottie also wants us. Attraction goes both ways. Readers want books, writers want readers. We're hot for each other.

The writer is a hottie, too.

And we don't need anyone interfering in that relationship, because we're the only two parties who are actually needed in this equation. Everyone else is a middleman.

Blake: Yep, a dating service. The content, for the most part, has been relegated to a supporting role. But in reality, the content is the movie star.

Joe: No Big 6 without us. No online retailers without us. Those who sell the book exist because of the book, but the book can exist without those middlemen who sell it.

Blake: Don’t we need retailers? Vetters? Publishers? Sellers? Not only to make work better, but to bring it to the attention of the masses?

Joe: We get our money from the masses. They're the ultimate hottie. Not the retailer. Not the publisher. Not any gatekeeper. Those second-tier hotties cannot exist without us. And their existence takes money from us. Perhaps they are worth the money they take, because they help us reach more readers, or help us release better content. But, ultimately, it is the readers who pay us, not those second-tiers.

Blake: And in a perfect world, the content provider, us, would sell directly to the reader, the content receiver.

Joe: Believe it or not, there is a way to do this, while still allowing for the assistance of the retailers.

We can emulate clouds.

Amazon.com is one website with loads of content.

www.JAKonrath.com and www.BlakeCrouch.com are two websites, with specific, niche, limited content.

BarryEisler has been working with his web designer on a PayPal store that automatically delivers ebooks to anyone who wants to buy through his website. Which got me thinking.

If I gave Barry two of my titles to sell on his website, we could split the money 30/70 on any he sold. Then I could sell two titles of Barry's on my website.

If I did this with a hundred authors, making sales from their books on my site, making sales from my books on their sites, I'm doing something analogous to cloud computing. I'm selling my books via a network rather than a specific location.

Blake: I'm also talking to a company right now who wants to do this very thing. They sought me out, because they saw a huge opportunity here to turn author websites into storefronts with the maximum amount of profit going to the writer. Their demo is mind-blowing and so smart. A reader can register their device on an author's website, and with a 1-click, have an ebook delivered straight to the device, the convenience factor has suddenly made shopping at a writer's website no different than shopping at Amazon or BN.com. And don't you think readers want to spend their money where the maximum amount goes to the writer?

Joe: Earlier, I talked about the ereader itself being a storefront. But web sites are also a storefront. They're the purest type of storefront as well, because they are a direct link between reader and writer. No publishers taking money. No retailers taking money (other than a small PayPal fee.)

Writers need to have their own PayPal stores. And it's a smart idea to say, "If you like my books, here are some others you might enjoy," and then offer other authors' books, as well.

If you were selective, choosing only books in your genre with similar appeal, you'd be helping readers wade through all the ebooks out there by giving them specific recommendations.

Let's look at the broader picture.

On Amazon.com, or BN.com, readers who are looking for my ebooks can find them. They can also find my ebooks by browsing, which accounts for a lot of my sales.

But those sites are only one URL, and they have a million other titles on them.

JAKonrath.com is also one URL. Readers who visit my site already know who I am, so why not make $2.60 on a $2.99 sale instead of $2.04? And since readers are on my site, why not sell your ebooks and give you 70%?

Then you can do the same for me on BlakeCrouch.com.

Now we're for sale on two URLs, mine and yours.

Let's add another dozen authors to the mix. Let's also cross promote by having one-page ads for each other's novels in the backmatter of our ebooks.

Now we're not a website. We're a cloud.

Blake: According to Wikipedia: Cloud computing is the delivery of computing as a service rather than a product, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices as a utility (like the electricity grid) over a network (typically the Internet).

By providing fans (readers, hotties) direct access to our works, and the works of others we recommend, we're providing a service.

Joe: It's not about what you have to sell. It's what you have to offer.

Blake: They're coming to our websites already, so they already know us and want to buy us. We're making it easy, and offering suggestions of other authors to buy. With fifty authors all in the same cloud, doing the same thing, we can reach a lot of people, and sell a lot of books.

If we choose these authors carefully (good writers with decent followings who write in similar genres) we can expand our brands, and our fanbases, exponentially.

Joe: I only have 10,000 people on my mailing list. You only have about 6000.

But put them together, that's 16,000.

Add more authors, more newsletters, more websites, more Google hits, and we have a niche cloud store that attracts fans, makes us higher profits, and is easier to find things than on Amazon.

We signed with the Thomas & Mercer imprint of Amazon because they can do a huge email push that sells a lot of ebooks for us.

But once a writer has a fan, that writer doesn't need a middleman anymore. They can sell an ebook directly to that fan. And if they also sell similar books by similar authors, that they believe they're fans would like, it's win-win.

Blake: I'm not ready to say the writer doesn't need that middleman anymore. He certainly doesn't need a middleman once a fan knows about him or her. But what Amazon and BN.com provide is the best possibly opportunity (as of August 2011) for readers who have not heard of me to discover me.

But...looking down the road, if enough writers with similar material were to have this "cloud," then other author websites would step in and serve the purpose online retailers like Amazon now serves. In other words, someone unfamiliar with me would discover me on Barry Eisler's website, or Brett Battles, or Ann Voss Peterson's, and they would have the option to buy me there. That's the future.

Joe: It would provide additional ways for readers to discover us, over a wide network of interconnected writers. Not competing with the browsing features on Amazon, but supplementing it.

Plus, we'd also make money being the retailer, selling each other's ebooks.

We would become our own middlemen. Sort of like United Artists, escaping the studio system and making their own movies.

Blake: All that's left is for a bunch of writers to band together and start selling their own ereader.

Joe: Let's call it the Konreader.

Blake: Let's not.