When I first read Fay Weldon’s advice that when it comes to ebooks authors should “[a]bandon your dignity and write a racy page-turner,” I got my back up and angrily began typing a retort: typical bloddy snobbery at work here! As I clicked through to Weldon’s blog and gave the issue some thought, I relented a bit. Perhaps the numbers do support the idea that genre and commercial fiction outsells their litrary brethren in ebook form; however, I suspect that this has been the case in paperback too. I recall a few editorial discussion where hardbacks are still viewed by some as having more gravitas than trade paperbacks. Ridiculous, I know. Same for mass-market (pocketbook) editions. And so it seems soom book-types view ebooks through the same lens.
Category Archives: publishing
I recently wrote about Penguin and HarperCollins moving their warehouses to the United States, and that while this is yet another bump in the road for Canadian publishing, small and medium houses can keep our homegrown authors on track and their books in front of readers. There is hope on that front.
Paying said authors, however, has become a problem. I wrote that we have to change our expectations in terms of advances, royalties, formats, print runs, etc. What I meant by that is this: Stop signing eye-watering six-figure deals and reduce them to an amount that ensures you have more money to sign new authors at a living wage. I’m thinking less of the well-known authors than I am of the celebs, starlets, and flavours of the moment found online, such as Anna Todd. She reportedly gained nearly than a billion readers on Wattpad for her romance serial, After, which she wrote a chapter at a time with the help of readers’ online comments: “I could never sit by myself and write and entire book. I’m not the best writer. I can tell a story, so that was why writing socially was really great for me.” Todd signed a six-figure, three-book deal with Simon and Schuster, along with a movie deal with Paramount.
To be clear, I haven’t read Todd’s book, and I doubt I will. My issue isn’t with her ability or the genre or even with how she was discovered; my issue is with the amount she was paid for what was essentially a hobby when people who write for a living must be happy with anything they scrape up. A $7,500 advance for one book isn’t uncommon for new authors. It isn’t a lot when you consider who much time when into actually writing the manuscript, let alone the time for editing, proofreading, and promoting.
When interviewed by the Toronto Star, John Degan, executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, estimated that in Canada, “The average income for authors from book royalties, etc., is about $10,000 a year. . . . There are the bestsellers, but for a lot of writers it’s really supplemental income—they’re also teaching, running writers’ unions or working for newspapers.”
Award-winning author Camilla Gibb opens her Globe and Mail piece with this stark reminder: “When author Richard Flanagan finished his latest novel, relative poverty forced him to contemplate getting a job in the mines in northern Australia. His Booker Prize win has spared him a life underground for the time being, but he did not waste the opportunity to acknowledge in his speech that ‘writing is a hard life for so many writers.’”
Although most authors don’t have to dig coal, many have to work part-time in the salt mines that can be book retail, especially at Christmas when flogging copies of After will feel like salt in the wounds.
On November 4, 2014, HarperCollins Canada announced that it was closing its Scarborough warehouse and moving its distribution to the United States. This move will affect approximately 150 workers in the plant. The corporation also announced that it was laying off president and CEO David Kent. This follows on Penguin’s announcement in September that it was closing its warehouse and distributing from the United States. Random House, given its merger with Penguin, will likely do the same in the near future. As Carolyn Wood writes in her piece for the National Post, this is yet another blow to Canadian publishing. Kent was a high-placed advocate for homegrown writers, so his departure means that authors must rely more heavily on editors, publicists, and other staff to go to bat for them. As for beleaguered booksellers, getting stock from the United States is yet another lag in the supply chain.
Canadian publishing was for a long time a branch-plant industry (see The Perilous Trade by Roy MacSkimming) until the 1970s when a number of small presses were established to publish Canadian authors. In the ensuing years, many of those houses were swallowed up by the big houses. Now we see those big houses swallowing each other. Many reasons are given for this, the predominant one being Amazon. So the big houses are bigger and fewer and seem, at first glance, to control the business. But big doesn’t win. Canadian publishing isn’t about size anymore; it’s about agility; it’s about how quickly publishers can respond to change. Smaller houses are nimble and creative. Many picked up authors left floundering after their publishers went bankrupt. Others, such as ECW, Biblioasis, and House of Anansi have had books on long and short lists for major prizes. They are poking through the apparent rubble that is American-owned Canadian publishing—which is why there is hope
That hope, however, can only flourish if we alter our expectations. Advances, royalties, print runs, formats, sales numbers, prince points, bookselling—all these things must change. Canadian distribution hasn’t disappeared: UTP, Thomas Allen & Sons, and Literary Press Group are still around. Furthermore, we have to stop trying to compete in a game we cannot win. Biblioasis and its ilk cannot go toe to toe with Penguin Random House on the same terms. So don’t. Simply publish good books, grow great authors, pay everyone, and make a profit. There is no need to be the biggest or the wealthiest or the most controlling. Easier said than done, I know.
Recently I completed an online course at Humber College called “Ebook QA: Digital Literacy for Editors,” with instructor Laura Brady. One our assignments (due October 9, 2014) was to “reflect on the behemoth that is Amazon.” This is what I wrote:
As a former bookseller, I see Amazon as a predator in the marketplace. I recognize that it cannot be ignored, but nor can any schoolyard bully with the means to buy any shiny bauble he covets. Having worked in book publishing for a little over ten years, I can view the industry as both an insider and a consumer. Convenience and competitive pricing often makes purchase decisions simple: Oh, that item is so cheap and it’s just a click away. I don’t even need to put pants on! Just pull out my credit card, give my info…
While Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly in online book retail, it is perceived as the first place to go when you want a book and the Kindle the only reader you need. Its influence is so pervasive that many forget the many devices that came before, such as the iLiad (see Robert Sawyer’s blog post with photos). In fact, early on in his book Burning the Page Jason Merkoski Amazon employee and ebook “evangelist” makes no mention of the iLiad, the Sony reader, or the rest; indeed, his scripture extols his boss, Jeff Bezos, as the Genesis of ebooks. Strange: In the 1968 book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick depict an astronaut reading from a digital device. Bezos was nowhere to be seen. An obvious oversight.
Bezos sees himself as an innovator not unlike Steve Jobs. In an interview with Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition , journalist and author Richard Brandt (One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon) disputes this, comparing Bezos to Walmart founder Sam Walton. A difference I would make between Amazon and Walmart is that while Walmart wants to sell lots of stuff in exchange for money, Amazon wants to sell lots of stuff in exchange for information. The company got into the book business because books are easy to ship. In his New Yorker article, “Cheap Words,” George Packer writes, “Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet. (Amazon says that its original business plan ‘contemplated only books.’).” And they did. As Packer states, “Bezos had realized that the greatest value of an online company lay in the consumer data it collected.”
Amazon has gone on from selling books to publishing them. There is no “gatekeeper” rummaging through her inbox or slush pile looking for the “voice of a generation,” “an epic saga,” or a “gripping, unputdownable page-turner.” No, there is simply an upload button. Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s not as hard as having a manuscript acquired by a traditional publishing house. Indeed, you don’t even have to edit the thing! That’s a lot of books. Wait, scratch that. That’s a lot of content. All of which can be yours for a low, low price. And so easily, too. Just 1-ClickTM away on millions Kindles around the world.
That is, of course, if the content is in MOBI format. Otherwise, you’re cut off. No libraries, no PDF manuals, no borrowing an ebook from your mum who uses a Kobo, or your American cousin who scored a Nook on Black Friday. Amazon’s proprietary software has not only changed reading, it has changed book culture. It sought to change that when it bought Goodreads. (Full disclosure: I’m on Goodreads. I joined before it was bought out because it has great mobile interface.) There is another similar site called LibraryThing. In May 2006, AbeBooks (specializing in used and hard-to-find books) bought 40 per cent of the company. In December 2008, AbeBooks was swallowed up by Amazon.
Publishers have to play nice with Amazon, too. If not, Amazon will take its bat, ball, and buy button and go home. Hachette’s just the latest victim of this tactic.* When Macmillan dared to question pricing in 2010, its buy button disappeared. With Melville House, a small publisher in Brooklyn, things got sinister:
In 2004, when Melville House was just getting started, [co-owner, Dennis] Johnson’s distributor called him and described his negotiations with Amazon as being “like dinner with the Godfather.” Amazon wanted a payment without having to reveal how many Melville House books were sold on the site. (Amazon rarely makes its sales figures public, using bar graphs without numbers in presentations.) “‘Fuck you’ was my attitude,” Johnson said. “‘They’re bluffing—I’m going to call their bluff.’ I’m a working-class kid. I come at this from ‘This is my company, you don’t come in here.’” Johnson, who remains one of the few people in publishing willing to criticize Amazon on the record, contacted reporters, and Publishers Weekly ran a story. By the next day, the BUY buttons had disappeared from Melville House’s titles on Amazon.com. Not long afterward, the Book Expo was held at the Javits Center, in Manhattan. Two young men in suits approached Melville House’s booth and pointed fingers at Johnson. “When are you going to get with the program?” they asked. The men were wearing Amazon nametags.
Before the impasse, Amazon had represented eight per cent of Melville House’s sales, more than Johnson could afford to lose. So he capitulated. “I paid that bribe”—he wouldn’t disclose the amount—“and the books reappeared.”
As I mentioned, I am a former bookseller. For nearly ten years, I worked part-time at Book City in the Beaches. It had its ups and downs, but sales numbers always sent a chill. I lost count of how many times customers (not regulars) would compare our prices with Amazon’s or would ask to pay the US price. One particularly galling Christmas, some customers would come in and scan the books to compare with the Amazon app, then buy it online right there in front of the staff! The logic being if Amazon could sell books so cheap, then it must be a scam and the fat-cat publishers were making millions on the poor readers’ backs. Low-ball ebook pricing simply contributes to this myth. (Meanwhile, I had just been laid off from Key Porter Books, which went bankrupt.) In March 2014, eighteen of us were laid off from Book City—eighteen of thousands of “elitist” minimum-wage bookshop clerks
Now I’m a freelance editor (I can’t lay myself off, right?) who’s trying to write a novel. I’m also trying to write short stories destined for ebooks. My normally clear-eyed view of things is jaded by Amazon. Yes, many if not most readers have a Kindle. It’s almost the only way to get an ebook out there; Kobo simply doesn’t have the same market share. I want to play ball, but unless a bunch of open-source code monkeys break in, the only kid in the schoolyard is the bully and he owns all the gear.
*Hachette and Amazon have since come to an agreement.
By Carol Harrison
How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a big fortune.
Pretty gloomy, huh? Well, when stalwarts such as Key Porter Books (2010) and Douglas and McIntyre (2012) go bankrupt or must sell off their assets, it sends shivers up the spines of not only established authors but also those wanting to get established.
You can self-publish your book, but anyone who’s done so knows it can be a big financial commitment—even if you create an ebook to avoid PP&B (paper, printing, and binding) costs. The thing still needs to be edited, proofread, and designed. (And, yes, many ebooks have “covers” to gain visual marketing traction.)
Many authors (or, better, entrepreneurs) are now turning to crowdfunding. In a 2011 study published by the Journal of Service Management, “‘crowdfunding’ is a collective effort by people who network and pool their money together, usually via…
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