Nook + Microsoft = Big Six Love

The New York Times is reporting on a deal between Microsoft and Barnes & Noble: the former is buying 17.6% of the Nook unit of B&N for $300 million. Though the Nook part of B&N’s business has been growing fast, apparently the tech investment it requires has been a financial drain on the company, which has been looking for just this kind of partnership.

What interested me about the Times‘s report was the bit at the end:

Publishers appeared to be cheered by the news. [B&N CEO William] Lynch said that he had received encouraging e-mails Monday morning from chief executives from five of the six major publishers in the business.

“These publishers are completely aligned with Barnes & Noble,” Mr. Lynch said. “Publishers are going to like this deal a lot.” (accessed 4/30/12)

I can see why. A decade ago, Borders and B&N came along and wiped out most of the country’s small, independent sellers of new books. Now ebooks and internet retailing of paper books are putting the pressure on the mega-stores. The publishers’ eggs are mostly in two baskets, now, for paper sales: Amazon and B&N. The last thing publishers need is B&N going the way of Borders.

Here’s an example. I’m living right now in a town of 70,000 people. It had a Borders. Now it doesn’t have any dedicated outlets for new books. You can buy a best-seller at Wal-Mart or a supermarket, but that’s about it. There are certainly people here who might browse in a book store and find some paper books they like, but now their options for that are mighty limited. So instead they’ll go to Amazon. And what’s a really, really good deal on Amazon, compared to those paper books at Wal-Mart? You got it: ebooks.

So anything that keeps B&N healthier is going to make the big publishers feel a bit better about things, eh?

MM: “Blond” vs. “Blonde”

There’s an error I see all the time — in traditionally published books as well as indies. The mix-up? “Blonde” vs. “blond.” “Blond” can be a noun or an adjective. When it’s an adjective, you always spell it without the “e,” whether you’re talking about a man or a woman:

I saw a little blond boy going down the slide.

Look at that leggy blond chick over there!

But when “blond” is a noun, its spelling changes depending on the person’s gender. If you’re referring to a woman, you’d say,

Look at that gorgeous blonde in the red bikini!

If you’re referring to a man, there’s no “e”:

Dan Quayle was the original dumb blond.

MM: Mechanics Moment

I definitely have a leg-down on some indie authors, but perhaps a leg-up on others: while I’m pretty new to storytelling (plot gives me fits), I have a lot of experience with writing mechanics. I went to school for-e v v v v v-er (Ph.D. in English literature) and have been teaching college-level literature and writing classes for fifteen years. That means there aren’t a whole lot of grammar and punctuation issues I haven’t had to suss out. A lot of writers don’t have the benefit of that much experience with “mechanics” — the nuts-and-bolts stuff of writing.

It occurs to me that I can help indie authors on this blog by addressing some of the most common errors I see in the ebooks I read. So I’ll just start knocking them off, one by one, making the explanations as quick and easy as possible. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section of each post, if I don’t explain successfully.

Hold on … my first “Mechanics Moment” is coming up now!

Indie Networks

When I first began considering independent authorhood, I worried I’d feel isolated. Yes, there are lots of other indie authors out there, but I didn’t know any of them personally. And even if I did, would knowing other authors make a difference when I faced that long  publishing to-do list? How would I get it all done, and done well?

As it turns out, being indie doesn’t mean having to go it alone. The more I investigate other indie authors’ experiences, the more I see something like networking going on: an indie author contracts with a professional editor, with a graphic artist, with an ebook formatter. Then she reaches out to bloggers to help market her book. And so forth. Everyone involved is independent. They may come together temporarily to provide all or most of the services provided by the traditional publishing industry, but afterwards they separate and are free to recombine in new networks.

Right now, networking provides the best way of getting good indie product to market, and bringing to product to market is essential — otherwise we’ll be stuck forever with the old stigma of self-published novels as poorly written, poorly edited, and unappealingly designed. And not only is networking good for authors, but it’s also good for all the other people out there trying to make independent livings. So, that money you spend on your editor? It supports the indie movement in a larger sense, and that’s a good thing.

Review: Be the Monkey — Ebooks and Self-Publishing

Be the Monkey — Ebooks and Self-Publishing: A Conversation Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath (2011)
By Jack Kilborn (one of Konrath’s noms de plume)
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.
Also available for free on Eisler’s web site.

book cover imageIf you’re an indie author, you likely know about Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath.

Eisler is famous (in the publishing world, anyway) for having turned down a half-million-dollar contract with St. Martin’s in 2011 in favor of self-publishing.

Konrath is the granddaddy of self-publishing. Reading his blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, from Day 1 to the present is highly recommended for anyone thinking of going indie. That’s what I did, and it convinced me to ignore traditional publishing from the get-go.

Such a reading will take you on a journey something like this:

  1. You can make a living as a writer of genre fiction, but man, it’s a helluva lotta work. Here are all the things I’ve done to become moderately successful.
  2. I thought of a fun experiment: I’ve been giving away all these old publisher-rejected novels for free on my web site. I’m going to put them up on Amazon as ebooks and see what happens.
  3. What do you know … people are buying them. Shows you how much the publishers know!
  4. Still, if you’re just starting out, I recommend trying to get a deal with a publisher.
  5. Holy cow, people are really buying those ebooks. Suddenly everyone is more interested in my work and my ideas.
  6. You should think pretty carefully before accepting a traditional publishing deal.
  7. Wait a minute, here. I’m making hundreds of thousands of dollars as an indie author, and I have complete control over my product and marketing. Screw traditional publishing.

That summary of seven years’ worth of posts obviously paints in wildly broad strokes, but I think it catches the general gist of things. It’s a fascinating and extremely informative read.

So, if you’re interested in indie publishing, hearing Eisler and Konrath chew the fat is not to be missed. And the book doesn’t disappoint, so long as you go into it expecting it to be what it claims to be — a “conversation,” not a carefully structured, thesis-driven argument.

The book is a compilation of three conversations Eisler and Konrath carried on electronically using Google Docs. Each conversation covers wide ground. In general, the first treats the traditional-publishing vs. self-publishing issue broadly; the second takes on various counterarguments generated by the first; and the third focuses largely on Eisler’s decision to publish a book with Thomas & Mercer, Amazon’s thriller/mystery imprint.

Each conversation is interesting and enjoyable in its own right. Rather than trying to cover everything, I’ll just mention a couple items I found particularly arresting.

The authors explain that although traditional publishers’ contracts commonly offer authors a 25% royalty on ebooks, what the author actually gets is 14.9% of the retail price, after Amazon and the author’s agent take their cut. In contrast, the publisher gets 52.5% after Amazon’s cut. Why, Eisler and Konrath wonder, should the publisher get such a big cut when the cost of producing, shipping, and storing ebooks is so much lower? (Kindle Loc 155) In the end, it’s not an attractive model for authors. “As bookstores close and digital readers proliferate,” Eisler remarks later, “more and more authors will decide that what legacy publishers take from them in digital sales isn’t worth what legacy publishers earn for them in paper sales” (Kindle Loc 712). (Incidentally, the term “legacy publisher” is Eisler’s coinage, and Be the Monkey explains what it means [Kindle Loc 1585].)

Eisler and Konrath do a lot this sort of thing in the book — rebutting counterarguments and tracking down fallacies. They’re terrific at finding the problems in others’ reasoning. For instance, a $500K advance sounds like a lot, but digital is forever, whereas many print books only get a few years on the shelves, then fall out of print. What if your ebook sells well for thirty years, and you make a 70% royalty on every sale? Does $500K sound like so much, in comparison? And why is it that the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t include indie books? And why do people think that piracy cuts into sales so much, as though every person who pirated a book would buy that same book if she weren’t able to pirate it, rather than just stealing something else? Basically, the pro-traditional-publishing crowd puts a lot of waist-high fastballs over the center of the plate, and Eisler and Konrath have a great time stepping up for BP.

I’ll mention one other point: Eisler and Konrath devote some time to the idea of agents becoming “estributors” (Kindle location 1880). There’s a market, they point out, for someone who will charge a smallish percentage of a book’s profits — say, 15% — in order to take care of editing, formatting, cover design, uploading, and so forth. And fielding those offers for film rights, right? For what it’s worth, I think they’re right, and I bet their prediction of how agents’ roles will change is on target. Unlike the big publishing houses, agents aren’t weighed down with the vast apparatus of paper-book production. Those who are flexible and far-sighted can adapt to an increasingly indie publishing world.

I have just one bone to pick with Eisler and Konrath. The two of them clearly have a great rapport, and they’re really funny. But the book’s title, Be the Monkey, actually strikes me as misleading.

The title’s drawn from a series of YouTube videos that show monkeys knowing frogs in the biblical sense, which Eisler and Konrath find hilarious. Now, my sense of humor is, I believe, every bit as sophomoric as these guys’, so I don’t object to the frog-molestation jokes on moral grounds. But Eisler and Konrath’s point (if someone has to be the frog and someone has to be the monkey, make damn sure you’re the monkey) doesn’t get at the genius of the indie-publishing movement, which is that no one has to be the frog, and no one has to be the monkey. Indie publishing is a win-win for readers and authors: readers pay less while authors make more and have greater control.

Admittedly, it’s not a win for the big publishing houses, but as Eisler and Konrath point out, those companies are actively monkeying it up by overpricing ebooks to support the flagging paper market. That means they probably don’t deserve to win.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted on Amazon.

Review: Palm Sunday, by R. J. Fisher

Palm Sunday (2012)
by R. J. Fisher
Available on Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imageI loved this novel and, at the same time, found it frustrating. What’s to love? The meat. What’s frustrating? The seasoning. Or invent your own metaphor: the characterization, setting, world-building, and plot are strong, but a solid round of professional editing is very much needed.

The strongest element, I think, is the main character, Dewey McShane, who joins the already small cadre of male urban-fantasy heroes. But unlike the typical example of that group, Dewey isn’t macho sex-on-a-stick poured into a tight pair of leather pants and adorned with a fancy Japanese sword and a bad-ass gun. No, he’s a short, paunchy, mixed-race gay guy. Yeah, he’s psychic, but other than that, he’s wonderfully, humanly, charmingly normal. I fell in love with him immediately and rooted for him hard. I really, really wanted him to live. Moreover, he’s lonely, and I wanted him to find peace and happiness.

Not that Fisher gives us a pat HEA ending. Urban fantasy is a hybrid genre, but it hybridizes in a number of different ways. Here we’re getting fantasy melded with thriller, not romance. Perhaps we get to see Dewey in love in later books in the series (I see Fisher has Books 2 and 3 out already, but I’ve yet to read them). But in Palm Sunday, the focuses are mistrust, confusion, moral gray areas, greed, craziness, back-stabbing, and demon-world politics.

Dewey works for a “travel agency” that arranges for demons — here conceptualized not as devils, according to a Christian paradigm, but as a species that lacks yet yearns for the experience of true existence — to visit New Orleans for a brief vacation by allowing them to possess a “rental” body. Distressingly, the rental bodies belong to brain-damaged senior citizens. So, while you love Dewey and root for him, he’s no saint — he’s involved in something creepy and discomforting. Dewey’s job becomes massively complicated and potentially deadly when he has to figure out why some demons have been able to possess bodies outside the sanctioned vacations provided by the travel agency.

This is all carried out quite well, plotwise. Dewey finds himself in increasingly scary and confusing situations as the novel progresses, and there’s a well placed and satisfying climax. I wonder if the “now everything gets explained” moment could’ve been staged in a way that didn’t have people standing around explaining themselves and one another so much, but it’s hard to wrap up a thriller without some of that. Big Baddies have a tendency to monologue — as an author, what can you do?

My frustration with the novel comes from its lack of editing and proofreading. Fisher can write — there’s no doubt about that. There’s nary a semicolon error in sight, and Palm Sunday offers some wonderful passages of tight genre-fiction prose:

“Groovy.” I closed my eyes and let my head fall back. “Anything else I need to know?”
A pause. I heard the answer long before I heard the lie.
“No,” she said. (Kindle Locations 2554-2557)

That is some fine dialogue supplemented wonderfully by the narrative voice. It’s so economical. And how about this?

I picked at the white paint on the holding cell bars … making sure to keep a distance from Jerry in order to give his ramblings plenty of room to breathe. (Kindle Locations 2387-2388)

That’s a really nice metaphor — short and subtle, but with a punch and enough wryness to help build Dewey’s narrative voice. But then in the very next sentence, we get:

I tried to bring my thoughts to an appropriately morbid placed, but instead they insisted on playing a game of hopscotch. (Kindle Locations 2388-2389)

The book has several dozen of these kinds of typos, the ones spell-checker won’t catch. It also has quite a few that spell-checker would’ve caught, such as “ahir” for “hair.” “Your” and “you’re” get mixed up, as do “blonde” and “blond.” Many words get left out (“I could still [hear?] her determination”). There are instances of misused vocabulary, such as “circumvent” used to mean “encircle”. Almost every time Dewey uses a “Joe-and-I” kind of structure, he should be saying “Joe and me.” Hyphens are used where we should get M-dashes. Extra spaces creep in, periods get left out. None of the compound modifiers are hyphenated. There’s just a lot.

Lastly, many sentences lack the powerful, spare directness of the ones I’ve quoted above:

Now, I am more than aware that a tongue has no olfactory system housed within its flesh. (Kindle Location 166)

Sentences like this lose the taut, spare (yet subtly rich) directness that marks Fisher’s best prose. Writing that advertises itself, so that the reader notices the prose style more than what’s happening (“I had the pleasure of watching shock work its way through her epidermis” [Kindle Locations 3527-3528]), is generally not a good fit in genre fiction. Our readers don’t come to be wowed by clever or unusual sentences; they come for the world-building, characters, and story. There are exceptions to the rule, but not many.

In short, this is a very good book that would be a great book if Fisher dropped a few hundred bucks on a professional editor — not just a proofreader, but a real book editor who could not only catch errors, but also suggest ways to tone down the wordy or florid passages. This is one valuable thing a traditional publisher is supposed to do for authors — provide editors. Since we’re indies, we have to do it for ourselves, but that does not mean doing it by ourselves: almost every writer has blind spots (including me, I’m sure) and it’s very, very hard to proofread your own writing.

Palm Sunday‘s formatting is fine, though the book lacks an assertion of copyright. If Fisher hasn’t applied for copyright, he certainly should. It only costs $35 to do it online at http://www.copyright.gov/. The cover? Okay, but not great. Editor first, then maybe a graphic designer for the whole series, once this very good book brings in the big bucks it deserves to make. I will certainly be reading the rest of the Dante Travel Agency series and following Fisher’s career as it develops. There’s tremendous promise, here.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Indie Authorship + PayPal = Scary Vulnerability

What PayPal Did

In February of this year, as part of an effort to “aggressively enforc[e] a prohibition against online retailers selling certain types of ‘obscene’ content,” PayPal tried to force Smashwords to stop selling books containing incest, bestiality, or rape (accessed 4/17/12). PayPal finally ended up backing down, but the story is worth pondering because it highlights the vulnerability of indie authors and their platforms.

First, keep in mind that PayPal’s threat to Smashwords didn’t say that its service couldn’t be used to pay for “obscene” content; rather, they said they won’t do any business at all with a retailer that sells such content. That’s bringing out the big stick, and Smashwords, which apparently would’ve had a hard time separating itself from PayPal’s payment services, was justifiably spooked. Founder Mark Coker emailed all Smashwords erotica authors on February 24 saying that incest, bestiality, and rape were no longer permitted under its Terms of Service. Books with such content would have to be removed immediately.

After an uproar from the blogosphere, petitions, anti-censorship advocacy, and so forth, PayPal rewrote its Acceptable Use Policy. From now on it will

focus this policy only on e-books that contain potentially illegal images, not e-books that are limited to just text. The policy will prohibit use of PayPal for the sale of e-books that contain child pornography, or e-books with text and obscene images of rape, bestiality or incest. . . . In addition, the policy will be focused on individual books, not on entire “classes” of books. Instead of demanding that e-book publishers remove all books in a category, we will provide notice to the seller of the specific e-books, if any, that we believe violate our policy.  (accessed 4/17/12)

This position strikes me as much more reasonable, if still potentially subject to abuse. Whatever — it’s a huge improvement, and Coker and the others at Smashwords are to be commended for negotiating for the change. And all those whose outcry strengthened Smashwords’s position are to be commended as well.

Visa Made Me Do It

Why did PayPal pursue its initial assault on Smashwords? According to another publicly posted email from Coker, PayPal was forced into it by credit-card companies. At first, I found this awfully hard to believe. If credit-card companies wanted to target “obscene” material, why on earth would they begin with independent authors publishing low-cost or free erotica on Smashwords? What about looking to the porn industry? No one really knows how big it is, but Forbes.com conservatively estimates it at $2.6 billion to $3.9 billion a year. Even these low numbers are enormous compared to the amounts being spent on Smashwords erotica. Furthermore, credit-card companies as arbiters of public morality? Really? If you asked me to name an outfit whose No. 1 concern was making money, whatever the social cost, I might well answer, “a credit-card company.” It’s hard to believe that American Express is all upset about Jane-Doe-40-something-working-mother purchasing the occasional rape-fantasy erotic novel for $1.99 on Smashwords.

Dollars and Sense

Erotica author Selena Kitt blogged about PayPal’s actions early on (before it started in on Smashwords, PayPal hit several other sites with the same threats), explaining that it really does come down to money. Kitt discovered that retailers specializing in pornography, sex products, and so forth are charged higher fees by credit-card companies because it’s more common for the charges to be contested. You know, your husband notices the $49.99 charge to Extra-Large Dildos, Inc., and instead of fessing up, you say, “I don’t know how that got on there! It must be a mistake.” Hubby calls MasterCard, and MasterCard has to eat the $49.99. That’s why credit-card companies might conceivably be interested in whether retailers are selling naughty-but-legal merchandise. It’s not a question of morality; it’s a question of dollars and cents.

Keeping that in mind, it makes perfect sense that at least one credit-card company, Visa, denied putting any pressure on PayPal, saying that “Visa is not in the business of censoring cultural product” and pointing to “PayPal’s recent blog post where it states that its own policies drove the decision” (accessed 4/17/12). According to Visa, you can use its cards to pay for anything that’s legal in the country in which the purchase is being made. They recognize that obscenity is hard to define, legally (accessed 4/17/12), but they don’t seem too worried about it.

This attitude is exactly the one I’d expect from a credit-card company. After all, if some state government thinks Joe Schmoe Cartoonist’s work is obscene and would like to see it banned, it goes after Joe Schmoe, not the issuers of the credit cards consumers have been using to buy Joe Schmoe’s graphic novels. So long as they don’t lose money accepting charges from the shops that sell Joe’s work, they don’t have any reason to worry.

So, if credit-card companies really did motivate PayPal’s actions, I’m guessing the link was quite indirect — much more related to PayPal’s in-house fear of being charged the higher fees credit-card companies extract from sex-merchandise retailers, and much less related to moral qualms or legal fears about obscenity.

Vulnerability

But here’s what’s really disturbing about this whole thing: setting aside the question of PayPal’s motives, what’s clear is that the providers of sexual content being targeted — indie authors — were highly vulnerable. Smashwords’s independent authors have no major publishing company standing behind them. Jane Schmoe, an indie author putting her erotica up on Smashwords, probably can’t afford a big legal team and doesn’t have a PR department.

Furthermore, Jane Schmoe Indie Author is vulnerable because she’s not really “independent.” None of us are truly independent. A truism, I know. But indie authors are really in quite a difficult position — we’re trying to be independent, but inevitably we have to partner with retail sites, such as Amazon (which has already banned the content PayPal went after), and those sites have power over us. Even those who stick to sites like Smashwords (as non-corporate a platform as you’ll find, I think) can find themselves at the receiving end because Smashwords isn’t a stand-alone entity, either. It has to — or has chosen to — partner with sites like PayPal.

Indie authors’ vulnerability may be exacerbated by their edginess. After all, major publishers aren’t going to publish your erotica if it’s likely to get them sued for obscenity. There are no such restraints on indie publishers. No one is vetting our work to ensure it passes legal muster. That’s a good thing, I believe, but it creates challenges. Mark Coker gets to the heart of it:

Indie authors are the biggest publishers of erotica. Already, one retailer/distributor, Bookstrand, decided to drop all indies from their store. I can only assume they decided the angry authors were more trouble than they were worth. … The campaign at hand goes beyond erotica authors. It’s an indie issue. Indies are breaking the boundaries previously set by large traditional publishers. This boundary-breaking scares people. (accessed 4/17/12, ¶13)

If not for the internet uproar, would PayPal have backed down? Maybe not. The story got some coverage in the mainstream media, but perhaps not enough. Targeting one indie ebook platform at a time, they might very well have gotten away with it.

(FYI, Bookstrand had actually been subjected to the same PayPal threats as Smashwords — here’s one author’s account. So had All Romance Ebooks, according to Kitt.)

Indie Authorship + Savvy = A Way Forward

Perhaps some lessons can be learned from this whole mess. First of all, it’s important to try to understand what motivates a company like PayPal. Personally, I think the motivation in this case was money — specifically, fear of potential high fees being imposed by the credit-card companies for which PayPal serves as middleman. If it all comes down to money, we need to know it. If bad PR and moral arguments about the evils of censorship and the importance of free-speech don’t work, we can move to a brass-tacks approach: how much bigger do we need to make your slice of the pie in order to convince you to shut up and leave us alone?

It’s also to our benefit, I think, not to hold exaggerated ideas about how independent we actually are. We’re more independent than traditionally published authors in some ways, yes, but we still have dependencies. We need to know what those dependencies are and be able to assess the risks they pose.

Lastly, we need established mechanisms of resistance that can be kicked into gear as needed, ones that will function well in the leaderless, chaotic environment we inhabit (the web). When something like this happens, blogs need to get the news ASAP, we need to get the word out to mainstream media, a petition needs to be started, and so forth. In other words, exactly what happened this time needs to happen every time.

So thanks, PayPal: lesson learned? Maybe.

Amazon & Libaries

Several ebook-related articles, here, from the New York Times. The first reports that Amazon, in the wake of the Justice Department’s recent antitrust action, is bringing ebook prices back down to $9.99. The second examines the difficulties libraries face in serving patrons who would like to borrow ebooks. According to the Times,

Five of the six major publishers of trade books either refuse to make new e-books available to libraries or have pulled back significantly over the last year on how easily or how often those books can be circulated. And complaints are rampant about lengthy waiting lists for best sellers and other popular e-books from the publishers that are willing to sell to libraries. (accessed 4/14/12)

Apparently, most major publishers will not distribute ebooks to libraries because they think borrowing an ebook, which you can do from the comfort of your own home, is much easier than trucking down to the library and picking up a hard copy. The article includes advice on ebook borrowing for various devices. It also includes this interesting statistic:

Three years ago, 2 percent of American adults owned an e-reader, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and only a few had a tablet. By January, in the latest Pew survey, 28 percent of adults said they owned an e-reader or a tablet, or both. (accessed 4/14/12)

Twenty-eight percent. That’s something like 80 million people, right?