Ebook Territorialism

First up, some links and friend-promo…

  • While I was at Worldcon, I had the pleasure of meeting Julia Rios and Sofia Samatar. Julia interviewed us for the Outer Alliance Podcast, talking about “Changing the Conversation” around things like diversity in fandom and at conventions. She also interviewed Nnedi Okorafor and her daughter Anyaugo, and spliced the whole thing together into a podcast you should all run out and listen to RIGHT NOW!
  • My friend Saladin Ahmed has self-published his first collection of short fiction. Engraved on the Eye [Amazon | B&N] collects eight of his short stories together in one easy-to-digest file. Rumors that these stories will cure ingrown toenails, warts, and goblin-breath have not yet been confirmed, but my brother’s sister’s roommate says she bought the book, and her pet monkey totally stopped flinging poop at the mailman.
  • Another friend, Violette Malan, also has a new book out. Shadowlands [Amazon | B&N] is sitting on my TBR pile, but because I’m the world’s slowest reader/reviewer, I haven’t gotten to it yet. So please take this as a temporary “placeholder” blurb. “If my house was on fire and I could only save my kids or this book, I’d save my kids. But I’d be REALLY REALLY SAD about leaving this book behind!!!” -Jim C. Hines

Okay, now on to the meaty bits of the post. (For those who are wondering, the podcast was the mashed potatoes, and the books are cookies and ice cream, respectively. Yeah, I don’t always eat terribly healthy meals…)

I’ve seen a number of unhappy comments about the e-book of Libriomancer [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] being unavailable in other countries. This frustrates me too, since in my perfect world, everyone who wanted to read the book would be able to do so. (Also, my perfect world would have six seasons of Firefly and zero-carb hot fudge sundaes.)

It’s doubly annoying since there are ways to get the print edition in other countries. (See Book Depository, which has free worldwide shipping.) If they can ship a hardcover anywhere in the world, what’s so hard about sending an electronic file?

The short answer is that it’s all about territories. I sold North American rights to Libriomancer to DAW, who published the book in English in the U.S. and Canada. We sold German rights to a publisher in Germany. In some cases, the author sells worldwide rights to their publisher, and the publisher then sublicenses the book to other publishers in other territories.

There are some advantages to breaking Publishingland into territories. For example, it turns out not everyone speaks English, and even those who do sometimes speak/read a different style of English. (Violette always insists on wedging an extra “u” into every other word when she emails me.) So territories allow publishers to tailor their books to their audience’s linguistic preferences, as well as changing cover art where appropriate. I imagine shipping and distribution also played a part in the development of these borders.

And then, along come e-books into a world built for print. Ebook and print rights are pretty much bound together. (I.e., I can’t sell DAW the North American print rights but also give them worldwide electronic rights.) I suspect there’s also fear about undercutting other markets. Thus the sale 0f e-books gets restricted in the same way as the print.

So why can Book Depository sell print books anywhere in the world but a similar company can’t do the same with e-books?

I don’t know. I’m hoping smarter people will jump into the discussion to clarify this point. I’ve read one theory that it’s all about point of sale. Book Depository sells physical books that they have in stock here in the U.S. That sale is considered to have taken place in the U.S., and thus everything’s nice and happy. With e-book sales, there’s no physical stock. Point of sale is the end user’s computer, and if the user isn’t in the U.S., then those territorial restrictions come into play.

ETA: Someone pointed out that Book Depository was a U.K. company, not a U.S. one. Sorry about that!

Like I said, I’m fuzzy on this one, and I hope someone else can help me out.

This will all continue to evolve, but I recognize that it’s incredibly frustrating in the meantime. I wouldn’t mind seeing a shift toward selling language-specific rights instead of territory-specific, but there might be drawbacks to that model too. What I can tell you is…

  • Authors want to be able to sell you books as much as you want to be able to buy them!
  • Self-publishing isn’t necessarily much better in this area. (I’ve got three self-published collections. I selected worldwide distribution, but Amazon and the other online retailers still restrict sales by territory.)
  • This is one of those areas where authors have very little control. (I.e., please don’t yell at us about this one!)

I’d also recommend Seanan McGuire’s post on the same issues and this comment from Patrick Nielsen Hayden over at Scalzi’s blog.

Discussion is welcome, as always.

Agents as Publishers

There’s been a fair amount of discussion in writing circles about agents taking on the role of publisher, stepping in to help clients self-publish their work. When I published Goblin Tales [Amazon | B&N | Lulu], I did the majority of the work on my own, but my agent posted it for sale at Kobo and iBooks (taking their usual 15% commission on sales through those outlets).

Joshua and Eddie at JABberwocky have a post about the issue here, wherein Eddie says, “I think the decision to help an author self-publish a book, after failing to place it with a real publisher, is rooted in hubris.

Keep in mind that JABberwocky has e-published several books already. The difference being that JABberwocky is publishing out-of-print backlist titles as opposed to releasing original work. Is that a significant difference? I think so. Does it eliminate any ethical conflicts or problems? That’s a better question.

Joshua asks about the agent’s role in the ever-evolving world of publishing. Personally, I want my agent to do several things for me:

  • Negotiate with publishers on my behalf for the best possible deal.
  • Work on those lovely foreign sales of my work.
  • Help me build a long-term and successful career.

That first point is huge, especially when agents go into self-publishing. If an agent e-publishes a client’s original work, is that really the best possible deal? Personally, if I have a book that doesn’t sell, I’d be tempted to wait a few years and come back to it. For the most part, I’m skeptical that self-publishing an original book through your agent is the best possible deal for the author.

Some of the questions I’m asking as I try to sort out the ethics and potential conflicts of interest for myself…

  • Is the agent charging an up-front fee for self-publishing, or are they working on commission?
  • Is this service limited to clients, or are they offering to self-publish the work of non-clients as well? (The latter suggests they’re moving much more into being a publisher, and I want my agent’s primary focus to be representing clients.)
  • Does the agent threaten former clients with legal action for describing the agency’s “assisted self-publishing initiative” as digital publishing? (Read this one and draw your own conclusions.)
  • Is the agent pressuring clients to use their self-publishing service? (This would push me toward “Run away” mode.)

People have asked, “Why give your agent a cut for something you could do yourself?” But that holds true for agents in general. If you’re savvy enough, you can represent yourself, negotiate your own deals, sell your own work overseas … all it takes is time and expertise.

Some of us don’t have the time. Others lack the expertise. While I enjoyed putting together Goblin Tales and Kitemaster, I want to spend most of my time writing, not publishing. That means hiring someone else to do the work.

There are services out there that will do it for you. Is it better to keep those services entirely separate from agents? Maybe … here are a few things to consider in any case.

  • If the agency is acting as publisher, is there a contract? Who’s negotiating that contract and checking to make sure your interests are protected?
  • What happens if you and your agent part ways?
  • Has the agent demonstrated that they can do this job well? (Being an author doesn’t mean you can typeset or do cover layout or the rest. Neither does being an agent.)

I think it’s an important conversation, and as always, I’d love to hear thoughts and discussion from other folks.

Kitemaster Cover Evolution

When I prepared Goblin Tales [Amazon | B&N | Lulu] I had two pieces of cover art in mind, and had a relatively easy time getting permission to use one of them. Working on Kitemaster & Other Stories has been a very different experience. The image I originally hoped to use was unavailable, so I decided to commission a piece. I spent a long time browsing DeviantArt. A lot of artists weren’t taking commissions, but I found one whose portfolio looked good, and it turned out he was someone I knew who had done some goblin fan art a while back.

So I contacted him, gave him a description of the project, including a copy of the story “Kitemaster,” and we were off and running. I wanted something light-hearted, since these would be some of my fun stories, and something that clearly positioned the collection as fantasy. Within a few days, he sent me four sketches. (Click on any of the thumbnails for larger views.)

All four had their charm. I decided against the lower left sketch, because it looked like my protagonist Nial was sleeping. Too passive. The top two were nice, but lacked a fantasy feel. So I went with the lower right pic for a starting point.

The next sketch showed up with a built-in block for the title text. I liked the picture, but thought Nial looked like she was falling instead of running or flying. I also looked at the birds from the first sketch and asked about putting some dragons in their place, to emphasize the fantasy feel.

The third sketch fixed Nial’s pose and added dragons. I gave the okay, and it was time to start filling in some detail.

This brings us to sketches four and five below, where Nial’s clothing gets colored in, and we start to see the finer details. Some of the things I e-mailed about at this point were the kite’s frame and maybe changing the dragons from green to red. I also asked him to remove the kite’s tail, because it looked a little too cutesy with the pig-tail curl.

At this point, I’ve been staring at this thing and poking at it in Photoshop so long I’m having trouble seeing it anymore. I think I like the red dragons better, but I’m not 100% sure. Here’s a mock-up of a possible cover design:

It doesn’t feel like a traditional commercial cover … somewhere between that and a comic book cover, I think. I like it, but like I said, I’ve been staring at it for too long. I’m happy with the font. I like that the title and name are legible at small sizes. Overall, I think the image accomplishes what I wanted.

So what do you think? Details like the kite string over the title will get cleaned up in the final version. I’ve got at least one more round with the artist, so I can request further tweaks as needed. Red dragons or green? (ETA: Or each one a different color, as suggested by a friend?) Would this image make you look closer? Any and all feedback is welcome and appreciated.

E-book Updates

Yeah, I know. Jim never posts twice in one day. But I had a lot to babble about, and I’m going to be gone this weekend for Constellation, so figured I’d get the latest e-book data up now.

Let’s start with an update on Goblin Tales [Amazon | B&N | Lulu]. The book came out on March 15, and the March sales were pretty darn good, in my opinion.

Amazon: 130
B&N: 55
Lulu: 20 (18 print and 2 PDF downloads)

The book is also up on iBooks, Kobo, and Wizard’s Tower Bookstore (which will hopefully help international readers). However, I don’t have sales data for these sites yet.

Overall, that’s close to $400 in sixteen days. Nice, eh? Especially for short fiction. So the short term results are looking nice indeed.

The long term? That’s harder to say. April sales for the first week show 20 copies sold at Amazon, 12 at B&N, and 5 at Lulu (4 print, 1 download). Not bad, but a definite dropoff. I’m not going to make any confident predictions here, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the same sales curve I get with my print books, where there’s an initial spike in sales followed by a dropoff to a lower long-term rate.

Moving on to overall e-book sales, I received my royalty statement from DAW, which had some interesting data. I graphed e-book sales of the goblin trilogy and the first two princess books below. (Red Hood hasn’t been out long enough to generate multiple data points.)

E-book sales jumped in July – December of 2010 for all five books. Even for Goblin Quest, which is a four-year-old book. Not as dramatic an increase for the goblins, but a noticeable one. A number of people have commented on a spike in e-book sales around the end of last year and the start of this one. I’m guessing some of that is due to the holidays, and all of the people who received e-readers and gift cards to spend.

I have no idea if this trend will continue. It would be rather silly to base predictions on a single-period jump. But it’s interesting.

All total, e-book sales make up about 4.3% of total goblin sales and 6.8% of princess sales, but those percentages appear to be increasing over time. For Red Hood’s Revenge [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which came out in July of 2010, e-books represented 6.7% of total sales.

So there you go. I’m happy to say I’m continuing to earn royalties on all of the goblin books and the first two princess books, and Red Hood should start paying out as well once the reserve against returns goes away.

Is Amanda Hocking the New Christopher Paolini?

Someone on Twitter asked for my opinion on self-published author Amanda Hocking, and whether she was the new Christopher Paolini.

My gut response? No. She’s Amanda Hocking.

Hocking is very much a self-publishing success story. She wasn’t previously published with a commercial publisher. She’s self-published eight novels and one novella as e-books. She reports having sold close to a million books, and she’s been on the USA Today Bestseller list.

Paolini was also a success story, of course. (I’ve written a little about his story here.) But his path to success with Eragon was very different than Hocking’s. Paolini’s parents owned the small commercial press that first published his book, and they devoted themselves pretty much full-time to publicizing it. More importantly, Paolini broke in almost a decade ago, and publishing is in a very different place today than it was then.

What Paolini and Hocking both have in common, aside from their impressive success, is that they’re both outliers. So are J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, for that matter. All four of these authors are hanging out at the extreme end of the curve, and I think that’s important to keep in mind. Consider it a “RESULTS NOT TYPICAL” disclaimer.

I was reading Hocking’s blog, and I’m impressed with her take on things. She seems very down-to-earth about her success, and much more realistic than many authors I’ve read. From one of her recent blog posts:

“Self-publishing is great, but it’s not easy. Most people who do it will not get rich, just like most authors signed up at Scholastic books aren’t billionaires.  Traditional publishers are not evil any more than Amazon or Barnes & Noble are evil. Things are changing, hopefully for the better, but it is still hard work being a writer.”

She also touches on something I’ve pointed out before, which is that holding up someone like Hocking as an argument for why you should self-publish makes exactly as much sense as holding up Rowling to prove you should go with a commercial publisher. (See “outlier,” above.)

I understand why so many people are talking about Hocking. I’ve seen analyses of exactly how many Twitter followers she has, how many Facebook friends, how often she blogs, her cover art … authors scrutinize every  move she makes, because most of us would really, really like to duplicate her success. I know I’d love to make it onto the USA Today Bestseller list, and the money would be awfully nice too.

It doesn’t work that way. There are certainly things I can learn from Hocking, but I’m not her. I can’t follow her path and expect the exact same results.

So no, Hocking is not the new Paolini. She’s someone who has worked very hard to make her own path, and continues to do so. I would recommend reading her blog and getting her own thoughts on her success and the state of publishing. I found her comments both smart and … refreshing.

Harper Collins and the Expiring E-book

From Library Journal: “In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.”  The idea is that this matches the average number of times a print book can be checked out before it falls apart and needs to be replaced.

As you might have guessed, this has not gone over well.  There’s the usual cry to boycott the publisher, lots of anger, a Twitter hashtag, and plenty of accusations that HC is stuck in the past and doesn’t understand the future of publishing.

My agent weighs in here: “I’m of mixed emotion on this. I don’t think it’s prima facie a heinous thing to do because businesses do need to adjust to changing business models … On the other hand, it pisses off customers.”

I came across one author suggesting that the idea itself wasn’t necessarily bad, but 26 copies was too few.  I.e., it’s not the principle of the thing, but the numbers.

I’m still thinking about the implications.  I love libraries, both as a reader and an author.  Libraries buy my books, and they allow readers to discover my work.  Realistically, unrestricted e-book lending could decrease the number of my books libraries buy.  If those books never wear out or expire, a library could keep all of my work in circulation forever.  Which would be really, really cool on the one hand … but could also cut into sales, and I like being able to pay my mortgage.

Two things I’m pretty firm on are:

  1. Authors deserve to be paid fairly for their work.  So do publishers and agents.
  2. I like libraries very much, and I don’t want to lose the service they provide to the community.

I keep coming back to the Public Lending Right (PLR) system used in a number of non-U.S. countries.  Basically, PLR is an author’s “legal right to payment from government each time their books are borrowed from public libraries.”  Such a system would eliminate the source of contention, at least from the authors’ perspective.  If I get paid for each checkout of my books, then by all means, keep all of my e-books forever!

I think it would be fair to split such payment with the publisher and agent as well.  And we’re probably not talking about a huge amount of cash here, at least for nonbestselling authors like myself.  But I really like the principle of the thing.

Actually implementing it could be a problem.  Libraries, like many public services, continue to be targeted for massive budget cuts these days.  I asked a librarian friend for her thoughts, and she suggested it would require some sort of tax to cover those PLR payments.  Not likely to happen any time soon, given the current political environment in the U.S.  (If things continue, I imagine a lot of libraries will have to close, which could make the whole thing moot.)

I don’t know the best way to be fair to libraries and their patrons as well as to authors and publishers.  Maybe it would be better to switch to a rental model where libraries pay an annual fee for the right to lend out a certain number of e-book titles from publisher X.  Older books could be removed from the list over time, replaced by newer and more popular releases.

I’m sure there are flaws with that plan, too.  I don’t have the answers.  But I’d love to hear what other folks think, particularly my author and librarian friends.

Jim C. Hines