Posts Tagged Kindle

Stop Scaring Me!

For the second time in recent months, Barnes & Noble is making a move to protest Amazon electronic exclusivity.  Salvo number one was fired back in October when Barnes & Noble pulled a significant number of DC comics off their store shelves after Amazon made an exclusive distribution arrangement for those titles on the Kindle Fire.  This resulted in particularly nasty press when they removed Sandman comics, and thus set themselves opposite Neil Gaiman and his more than 1.5 million Twitter followers.  At the time it struck me as a potentially self destructive move.  In order to protest not being able to sell DC comics through one distribution method, they’d refuse to sell them through all distribution methods.  It was a fantastic boon for independent comic stores, however, who were more than happy to absorb that customer base.

In the end, it was fine.  Whatever.  I’m not actually sure how much of the comics market Barnes actually holds versus the more tradition comic book store venues.

Now we’ve got Amazon looking to expand their new publishing empire.  The first move was opening the Kindle store to self published authors.  The second was to lure these self publishers into exclusivity agreements by dangling money in front of them, a clear move to undermine self publication to the Nook and iBook stores.  Now Amazon has an new venture: print publication.  This isn’t a Lulu POD set-up that Amazon is doing, rather they are taking the form of a publishing house, vetting and selecting manuscripts, and giving the ones they feel deserving a print run.  It’s an intriguing move, and one that has the potential of turning the Big Six publishers into the Big Seven in a hurry.  If anyone has the clout to muscle into such a long standing fraternity, it’s Amazon.  Or, rather, they could provide the muscle behind their publication partner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to assail the Big Six.

What’s standing in the way?  Barnes and Noble.  Survivors of the great bookstore feud, the company that is still standing after Borders crumpled and shut down.  Really, the last bastion of the big chain book store in America.  They’ve decided they will not stock copies of the books published by Harcourt in their partnership with Amazon.

For the second time in six months Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest brick-and-mortar bookstore is refusing to sell books.

I’m not taking Amazon’s side in this fight.  Exclusivity bothers me, as I suspect I made clear when deconstructing their new KDP Select practices.  Clearly authors have the right to do with their stories as they want, especially when self publishing, but using corporate might to pressure for exclusivity strikes me as a stepping stone towards monopolistic practices.  However, even though I can understand Barnes & Noble’s position in wanting to protest exclusivity so their Nook is can compete on hardware quality rather than catalog depth…well…their methodology concerns me.  It creates a question of whether they’re using their might in the brick-and-mortar world in the same way Amazon is using their might in the digital world.

My concern comes out of my love of Barnes & Noble.  Even before Borders went under, Barnes was my clear favorite.  Oh, sure, they didn’t partition their fiction nearly as well as Borders, opting for broader genre categories, not shelving a horror section, but their stores were always more welcoming, more inviting, and better stocked.  Really, I guess my concern here is an entirely irrational and selfish one:

I’m terrified we’re going to lose Barnes & Noble, and that these are the first two steps along the way.

I’ve long said that Barnes & Noble is in a better long term position than Borders ever was.  They embraced the internet early, rather than allowing Amazon to control their web presence.  They’ve created an eReader on par with the Kindle.  Now Amazon is striking at them with a two pronged attack of exclusivity and print distribution.  I’m not sure what the best course of action is for Barnes & Noble here, and I’m not here to create a new strategy for the chain.  Rolling over and taking it will just embolden Amazon to expand its exclusivity, but refusing to stock titles for the second time is worrisome.  Certainly they’ll have plenty to stock their shelves with, but it makes me wonder what will happen if one of the Big Six enters into any kind of eBook exclusivity arrangement with Amazon, will Barnes continue to cut of their nose to spite their face?  It’s a disturbing pattern.

Two last little bits of interest.  First, clearly Barnes & Noble is only so unwilling to deal with Amazon, as the Nook is carried on Amazon.  However, the Amazon search engine is also salted so that a search for “Nook” returns the following products, in order.  Kindle Fire, Nook Color, Kindle Touch, Nook Touch, Kindle eInk, Nook Wifi.  No really, go see for yourself.  This is going to be a tough fight for the future of bookstores, and while I still don’t think Barnes is going anywhere anytime soon.  But I’m scared.

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The $0.99 Dilemma

I’d like to dip my toes into some dangerous waters.  Dangerous because I know there are strong emotions around the issue.  And dangerous because I’m largely an outsider to the issue.  But it’s an issue that’s been floating around various writing blogs, and that I have my own thoughts on: the 99 cent eBook.

There’s a recent school of thought that 99 cents is the natural price for a writer trying to break into the market, someone trying to make a name for himself.  Some have even suggested it’s the “proper” price of all eBooks.  The argument goes that it’s the lowest allowable price, which makes it the lowest investment purchase for a reader while still giving the writer at least some money.  It’s also a step above free, which clearly leaves nothing for the writer who has put effort into this work of fiction, and is often viewed by readers as an admission of poor quality (public domain works notwithstanding).

I have some problems with the 99 cent price point.

Is 99 Cents the New Free?

Apple did this.  Amazon did this.  They set 99 cents as the cheapest an item could be, whether in the App or Kindle store, while not being free.  This was, in part, to prevent a race-to-the-bottom.  With this pricing scheme, two people with competing apps or books can’t leapfrog each other on the race to be the cheapest offering by shaving off two cents at a go.  If you want your impulse buyers but still want buyers rather than takers, the floor is 99 cents.  These are companies looking to make money too, and while they’re willing to support free apps and books as loss leaders, using their resources of hard drive space (though that’s basically free anymore) and bandwidth, they’re not willing to work out a revenue split on a nickle or penny.

And who can blame them, really.  It’s easy to forget the middlemen in the modern microtransactional marketplace, to feel that we’re buying directly from developers or writers, but this isn’t the case.  If anything, the need for middlemen becomes more important with digital transactions.  It protects both the creators and the buyers.  But that’s not the point of this post.  The point is that, through these decisions of 99 cents as the absolute price point floor, they’ve created a new reality in which 99 cents feels nearly free.

And isn’t it?  Have you ever paid for something out of your pocket change and had it felt free?  Have you ever cashed in your coin jar and felt like the resulting money was somehow a windfall, found money?  Inflation has created a modern America where coinage has less of a value than in the past, it’s what was left over after we paid for something.  There’s also psychology at play, the same psychology that’s always been at play with prices that end in 99 cents.  Going from $99.99 to $100 is, in terms of percentage, a minimalistic increase, but in terms of a human animal predisposed to look for round numbers and thresholds, the difference between “Under $100!” and “Only $100!” is a surprising chasm.

So if 99 cents is “Under $1!” and we’ve come to devalue change, doesn’t this price point become essentially free?

And if it’s the new free, the new ultimately disposable price point, doesn’t it have the same issues as free always has?  Doesn’t it become the mire through which someone has to dig to find the gems, the legitimate loss leader books that will hook you on a new series hidden among the books that have been thrown up in haste and cynicism.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I love that the new digital marketplace for goods and ideas has opened a door that never existed before.  It’s the idea that literature can be microtransactional.  There are now places to buy and sell short stories à la carte, which opens up ways for writers and readers to connect to each other in new ways.  By transacting in units of one short story, readers can pick and choose who and what they’re reading.  By selling units of one short story, an author can try something new or even, as I’ve discussed before, expand their world for the most curious and devoted of fans.

This has also reopened the novella market, traditionally the hardest length of fiction to sell because it has the fewest markets. They’re not long enough for separate publication in the eyes of most traditional print publishers, but they require serialization in a magazine or a lion’s share of an anthology, which asks a lot of the editors of either.  However in modern ePublication, length doesn’t matter like it once did.  Because there aren’t limited resources, like page numbers, to fight over, and there aren’t super-skinny spines to hide among the novels on store shelves, novellas can stand their own.

But with the 99 cent price point for novels, these two markets get squeezed again.  There’s no way to go down from 99 cents, so there’s a situation where novels, novellas, and short stories, all works of differing lengths with various expectations, end up lumped together at the same price point.  And that’s unfair not just to the short stories and novellas, but to the novels as well.

Pricing Proposal

So if we’re stuck in a marketplace that sets a floor at 99 cents, and allows for publication of fiction at any length the author chooses, shouldn’t 99 cents be the proper price point for a short story, rather than a novel?  This price point isn’t far off from most print journals or anthologies, it only looks cheaper because you aren’t “forced” to buy stories you “don’t want.”

Please note I put both of those in quotes.  I don’t ascribe to that theory.  I’ve had several instances where my favorite stories in an anthology weren’t the ones I bought it for.

Next step up.  Novellas.  Longer than short stories, requiring more work from the author and often entered into with more expectations from the readers.  Since the market place requires prices that step up in whole dollars, the next cheapest price point allowable is $1.99.  Step up a dollar again for novels, and you’re at $2.99.  Which in my thinking really is the magic number.

Not only does $2.99 create space for shorter-form fiction in the marketplace, it’s also an important threshold in Amazon, the point where the self publishing author jumps from a 35% share of the revenue to a 70% share of the revenue.  Now, I know that a lot of writers who are hanging out in the 99 cent price point aren’t there for the money.  But…they are.  If they were there for just the exposure, they’d be pricing things for free.  At 99 cents, they’re calling their product something worth paying for, something that they want to see monetary gains from, even if they will be minimal.

The Fiction of Exposure

But the exposure.  99 cents gets you exposure!

It’s true that there are a lot of Kindle readers who are willing to buy books at that 99 cent price point without a second thought, who will read authors they wouldn’t have read before because the book was nearly cheap-as-free.  There are two problems here.  First, there’s already a sampling process within the Kindle Store, one that any author must take full advantage of.  Second, exposure only works if the book is worth being exposed to.  I know there are stories online of people who have had a lot of success with 99 cent books, who have seen their titles shoot up the charts, and who perhaps even made an appreciable amount of money 35 cents at a time.  Not enough to retire on, but perhaps enough to vacation on.

And people have successfully offered the first book of a series for 99 cents to get someone hooked.  Remember the drug dealers in the old after school (and sometimes during school) specials we used to watch?  The first one’s always cheap, get someone hooked, then jack up the price.  It’s a legitimate marketing strategy, and some authors have used it with out-of-print back catalog titles of ongoing series.

But the trick with exposure: it’s only exposure.  It’s not inherently good.  It lays you bare and lets people see you for what you are.  And if they don’t like what they see, they aren’t going to want to see any more.  To put it simply: 99 cents is not a license for bad writing.

Be Worth Your Price Point

Why are we willing to pay more for the new Stephen King book?  Because it’s a known quantity.  We also know that it’s been vetted, edited, revised, and cleaned up.  All by professionals.  Mr. King didn’t just finish 11/22/63 then stick it on Smashwords the next day.  The self published writer looking to make a name on the Kindle store finds himself in a store that also offers King, may even find himself in the same list of search results as a King novel.  But he doesn’t have the name, doesn’t have the promise of a professional publishing house, so he uses the only tool in his arsenal: undercutting the price.

But just because he’s able to put his book up there for 99 cents, or even $2.99, doesn’t mean that it can be of clearly inferior quality.  Because readers will be turned off.  The success stories that have come out of authors self publishing on Kindle don’t come from people who have slapped up their Nanowrimo novels and called it a day, they’re from either established writers who are self publishing their rights-reverted back catalog, or from writers who have busted their asses making sure the product they’ve created is as indistinguishable as possible from professionally published novels.

Need I remind you, Amanda Hocking eagerly signed a publishing contract rather than staying self published.

Any novel presented to the public at large should be worth at least $2.99, because if it’s only worth 99 cents, then the writer is cheating his reading audience, and in turn is really cheating himself because the negative exposure will stick.  I learned this first hand with my one venture into self publishing on Kindle when I did put up something that wasn’t worth the $1.99 I was charging for it.

Looking at this from another angle: My wife is the fastest reader I know, and even then I’ve never seen her go through a novel in less than four hours.  At $2.99 that’s only asking 75 cents per hour of entertainment even for the speediest reader.  But it’s also asking for hours of a readers life.  This is a contract that goes both ways.

In Conclusion

There are legitimate uses for 99 cents in the Kindle store.  Getting people hooked on a series.  Offering books for limited period sales prices.  What I don’t agree with is the notion that it’s somehow the “right” price for the self published writer, or any writer, by definition.  You as a writer are worth more than that, and if your book isn’t, then it shouldn’t be published to begin with.  Is that harsh?  Yes.  Do I stand by it?  Yes.

It’s a new market out there.  And with any new market, there is going to be some growing time, and some learning time.  I suspect (at least I hope) that this 99 cent period is a fad and that the market value for a self published novel ends much higher.  Because novels are worth more than that.  They are an investment of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours of the writer’s time, and still stand as the best ratio of cost-per-time of any entertainment form on the market.  The 99 cent price point really devalues all of that.

So be worth it, and people will buy, even if the book costs a little more.

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Playing Dirty vs Playing Stupid

First, some required reading.  The Chicago Tribune has an opinion piece up looking at how publishers should be tackling declining print sales in the light of eBook readers.  Give it a read, it’s what I’m about to talk about.

Back?  Okay, good.

There is so much I reject about the premise of this piece that I hardly know where to start.  Perhaps breaking down my objections into a list.

Point the first.  Publishers don’t act as a monolithic force.  They just don’t.  They haven’t.  And I suspect they won’t.  And there’s never in my memory been a campaign generically for books.  That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be, but it’s such a vague thing to be selling to the American public.  The comparison made in the article is to the pork council sitting down and raising pork’s public acceptance with their “Other White Meat” campaign.  But here’s the differences.  Pork is a much more specific product than books.  And there is a single monolithic entity that represents the entirety of the pork industry within the United States.  Books are not pork.  If anything books are meat, or perhaps food stuffs in general.

So while Pork: The Other White Meat worked, I don’t think that Meat: It’s Made of Animals or Food: That Stuff You Eat is as workable of a campaign.  And that’s partially the problem with the idea.  The piece is looking to create an awareness campaign for a broader category of commercial goods than has ever been made before.  Perhaps the closest example is Microsoft launching general “buy a PC ads,” but in the end those still boil down to being ads for Windows, not ads for PCs in general.  Any attempt to more generally advertise a broad market sector is typically done buy a retailer.  You don’t have a conglomeration of companies saying Movies: Come Watch Them!  No, you get AMC Theaters advertising.  You don’t get Electronics: Plug them in and Use them!  No, you get Best Buy or HHGregg ads.

Which really comes into point the second.

Point the second.  This isn’t a publishers issue, this is a book sellers issue.  The fight here is not publishers vs Kindle.  Publishers ARE Kindle.  Yes, there are now channels open that allow for easier direct publication of titles onto the Kindle, but those are a miniscule share of the market right now.  Books are made available for Kindle by publishers.  And in the end, publishers still make the money from them.  In some cases they’re making MORE money due to slightly less overhead.  So there is absolutely no financial advantage to a publisher advertising against the Kindle, much less publishers as a broad category doing so.

This is a book sellers issue.  If you want people advertising FOR books and AGAINST Kindles, it’s going to have to come from the brick and mortar stores.  This isn’t Publishers v Kindle, it’s Book Sellers v Amazon.  Just as it has been for the last decade.  Sure people are buying books directly from the Kindle, but I see no solid evidence that the sales losses are coming predominantly from retail sellers rather than from Amazon themselves.  If it is, as I suspect, “hurting” Amazon paper sales more, then it’s a net wash to the book sellers, and it means Amazon is probably pushing more product in the end (don’t over estimate the power of impulse buying).  If it is coming from the book sellers, the remaining behemoth is already fighting back with the Barnes & Noble Nook.

So in the end what we’re left with might not even be book sellers vs Amazon, but independent book sellers vs a tag team of Amazon and Barnes.  Which really has been the state of things, again, for the last decade or so.  And it’s a fight a lot of them initially lost.  But plenty have their niche, but that doesn’t mean that books are a niche product, which brings me conveniently to point the third.

Point the third.  Books won’t become vinyl unless they’re treated like vinyl.  Yes there’s still a market out there for records, actually honest to god literal records rather than “records” as a term for any music.  And the piece talks about them.  Talks about the audiophiles that love them.  But here’s the trick.  Even with audiophiles loving records, they’re a niche market.  Super niche.  You don’t have big box record stores anymore.  Big box music stores maybe carry a few dozen, usually hidden where only the chosen know where to find them.  Modeling books after vinyl when trying to craft a campaign to “save” books really just says that books have already lost.

They haven’t.

The death of Borders isn’t the death of books, it’s a result of years of mismanagement and ignoring problems at hand.  It could have happened to almost any company.  However, since it happened to a big box book store at the same time as the rise of Kindle makes it easy to paint this as Electronics-1, Books-0.  But that’s not right.  That’s not the score at all.  Barnes and Nobles, which actually approached the change in the book selling market intelligently, is doing just fine.  Their stock isn’t where it was, but it certainly isn’t falling into the abyss.  Those independent stores that survived the advent of the Big Box are fine.  Books are fine!  People want them, people buy them.

Do they buy as many?  Perhaps not.  But let’s get back to impulse buying.  People now have the ability to buy books right at their fingers.  Someone with a 3G Kindle can, on a whim, buy a book almost everywhere.  This is going to increase sales.  Yes, they’re electronic sales, but people are going to be reading, and they’re going to look for books when they want to continue on a certain subject or author and it’s not available electronically.  This isn’t the death of books.  Books aren’t in trouble.  Books don’t need some slick new pro-ecology message to stay alive, some new ad campaign.

Books: Those Things You Read.

Book sellers just need to be smart, they need to recognize that selling electronic readers is selling books.  And many have.  And they’re doing fine.  Borders killed itself, but the industry lives.

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Housekeeping

Just a few housekeeping things.

Thing the first: I have decided to discontinue my 200 Years blog.  It was interesting when I started it, but I was starting to drift away from the project and felt it was cutting into my writing time more than I wanted.

Thing the second: I wanted to wait until I had some good momentum going before making this blog available on the Kindle.  Well, I feel I have that momentum, so it’s available.  You can search for the little known actual title of this blog “Writerly Words” or you can just click this link.  I swear I’ve uploaded images that’ll show up in a day or two so it’s not just the generic “No image available” thing.

That is all.

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Apparently I’m Huge in the UK

I was putting together various e-commerce links for the Rust tab up there.  While linking to the Kindle edition on Amazon UK, I found this:

#4 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Crime, Thrillers & Mystery > Thrillers > Technothrillers
#5 in Books > Crime, Thrillers & Mystery > Technothrillers

Holy crap, when I discovered it yesterday it was 12 and 22.  I love you too, UK!

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