Guest Post by Elizabeth Baxter, Author of The Last Priestess

TheLastPriestessCoverToday The Active Voice is celebrating the release of The Last Priestess, a fantasy novel by author Elizabeth Baxter. Beautiful cover, eh?

There is a name that is uttered only in whispers. The Songmaker. A ruthless rebel mage, he is bringing civil war to the once-peaceful kingdom of Amaury, enveloping all in a tide of violence. For Maegwin, a tormented priestess, the path forward lies in forgiving her temple’s enemies—but she dreams only of revenge. For Rovann, a loyal mage haunted by his failures, salvation might be found in the unthinkable: defying the very king he swore to protect. If they are to succeed they must form an unlikely alliance. For someone must stand against the Songmaker. Someone must save Amaury from his dark designs. But first, they’ll have to learn to trust each other.

And so a magical fantasy of darkness and redemption begins.

Read an excerpt:

Maegwin de Romily woke with a headache on the morning of her execution.

As she roused from dark dreams she became aware of smells first: damp stone, the skitter of rats, the hushed voices of the other prisoners. Then finally, sight. Dawn sunlight fell through the barred window so brightly it brought tears to her eyes and made her head pound like a drum, beating out the rhythm of her heart.

About Elizabeth Baxter:

I’ve been a bookworm since I was five years old. The first book I ever read was about a boy going shopping with his mum. I picked it up from my brother’s bedroom floor and suddenly those strange shapes on the page made sense. I could read! Hallelujah! I was soon working my way steadily through the school library and it wasn’t long before I realised that stories about dragons, elves and great big talking lions were by far the most interesting. And that was it, my obsession with fantasy fiction was born.

I wrote and published my first book when I was six. This was a rip-roaring adventure tale called “The Golden Pheasant,” about, well, a golden pheasant. I wrote out three copies on bits of paper pulled from my school books, bound them in covers made from old cereal boxes, and gave them out to my teachers. And that’s it. I was a writer!

When I’m not writing I enjoy playing tennis (badly), playing the guitar (very badly) and watching cricket whenever I can. I’m also intent on cramming as much world travel as I can into one lifetime. Funny, but my list keeps getting longer. You can never see it all can you?

EBaxterprofilepictureYou can connect with Elizabeth Baxter on her blog, her Amazon author page, Facebook, and Twitter.

Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the 70% Royalty

I’ve read a few recent articles that make things sound pretty damn ominous for Barnes & Noble. The company’s been closing storefronts all over the country, so perhaps it’s no surprise that revenue from that segment was down almost 11 percent in the last quarter of 2012. What’s more surprising is that the Nook segment’s revenues were down over the holidays as well — by 12.6 percent. (These numbers are drawn from the article in Publishers Weekly.) It sounds as though the Nook is not competing all that well, at this point.

The closure of B&N would be a bummer for many readers. The majority of people still prefer paper books, and many people enjoy shopping for them in bookstores (though perhaps quite a few of them actually buy the books they’ve found through Amazon). I myself love browsing in B&N. I’ve always loved the big-box bookstores. Even back in the 1990s, I wasn’t one to think they were wicked for driving indie bookstores out of existence. I was too busy being excited about the ability to walk into a bookstore and walk out ten minutes later with exactly what I wanted — Book 5 out of eight in a fantasy series, a piece of literary theory, an obscure magazine, a map of a foreign country, whatever — instead of having to special-order it. That was what made the big stores attractive to me: selection, selection, selection. And they let you drink coffee around their merchandise. That was nice.

Then along came Amazon and put everyone else’s selection to shame; as you might expect, that’s where most of my book-shopping dollars began to go, especially after I moved to a small, rural town and signed up for Prime. Poor B&N.

But when I take off my reader hat and think like an author, I find B&N’s position not just sad but alarming. Here’s the thing: Amazon has recently opened virtual storefronts in Brazil, Japan, and India that do not permit authors to receive the normal 70 percent royalty on books unless they’re enrolled in the exclusive KDP Select program. (Books enrolled in Select may not be sold or given away in electronic form through any other site or vendor.) Amazon has not made membership in Select a precondition for the 70 percent royalty in the U.S., Canadian, or European stores. In those stores, any book priced between $2.99 and $9.99  is eligible for the 70 percent royalty.

But if Amazon’s largest epublishing competitor founders, who will provide pressure to keep royalties up? I’ve read that Amazon is currently pursuing the holy grail of same-day deliveries to major metro areas. To pull that off, it’ll need more major new distribution centers. That’s expensive. Really expensive. And Amazon has always operated with a tiny profit margin.

I can think of one place where huge profit margins are available. Ebooks. Sure, Amazon has some costs in running the KDP publishing platform. It’s a good platform, so it must’ve cost a chunk to develop it. KDP provides has pretty good customer service for its authors. And I’m sure it needs a whole bunch of servers and so forth. But surely the costs don’t compare to those incurred by traditional publishers, which provide editing and design and distribution of a physical product. Not to mention remaindering. If Amazon begins to pay royalties on ebooks similar to those paid by traditional publishers, a whole lot more of that income will represent profit.

As part of the general entity of “authors publishing on Amazon,” I suddenly feel a bit like a goose with a golden egg in my nest. (Well, my personal nest has something more like a brass gumball in it, but there are thousands of indie authors out there who sell a shitload of books.) Amazon’s too smart to kill its layers. But it could well take a much bigger bite of each egg. A 65 percent bite, to be exact. We’re already feeling that bite in three storefronts. It’s hard to believe Amazon wouldn’t like to impose it universally.

That’s why the possible loss of B&N alarms me so deeply. Amazon is an amazing company, but it’s already dominant enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. Once it becomes the only mass distribution point for paper books other than super-sellers, that dominance will progress from heebie-jeebie territory to the land of shaking-like-a-bowl-of-Jell-O. If the Nook goes under along with the brick-and-mortar stores … well … I can’t come up with an adequately quivery metaphor. It’s scary.

We call ourselves “independent” authors, but we’re only independent in some senses. In many others, we’re highly dependent. By and large, Amazon is what we’re dependent on. With every alternative publishing venue that proves unable to compete with Amazon, that dependence grows. It’s not a good feeling.

So come on B&N! Come on Nook!

(Of course, what do I own? Two Kindles. Sigh.)

Shane Jones, Borders, and Book Culture

Novelist Shane Jones has an article about Borders in Salon (thanks to The Passive Voice for the link). It’s about how much he liked Borders as a book-centric hangout and workplace, how he met and fell in love with his wife there, and how the company floundered as sales began falling in the mid-aughts. Jones sadly wonders, at the end, whether bookstores will still exist when his unborn child comes of age.

You know, I don’t think they will. With a few exceptions for used books, kids’ books, and niche markets, I don’t see how dedicated brick-and-mortar bookstores can compete. I can foresee a time in the not too distant future when paper books are sold 1) online, perhaps increasingly through POD, or 2) in mass quantities at supermarkets and Walmarts, if they happen to be mega-sellers.

And yeah, that does make me a bit sad. I worked at a Borders in 1999. It was a great experience. I was never one of those folks who hated the big-box bookstores for driving the little guys out of business. To me, being able to walk into a huge bookstore and be pretty darn sure I was going to walk out with just the book I wanted was heaven on earth. Borders epitomized that. Not only did it have a ton of literary fiction, but it also had a deep selection of theory and philosophy — one of the sections I shelved — and a whole lot of poetry. Not many people bought those books, but they were there anyway. It felt like Borders was standing up for them.

I remember this one time when a middle-aged guy came storming up to the customer service counter and demanded to see a manager. The manager arrived, and the guy started yelling at him about the sexy gay book his (clearly unsupervised) little boy had picked up in the erotica section. I remember the guy, all red in the face, waving the book around and shouting, “You call yourselves a family bookstore, and you stock this filth?!” And the manager, cool as a cucumber, said, “Borders isn’t a ‘family’ bookstore. We serve the whole community. The whole community.” It was awesome. The people who worked there were terrific. That was a good place.

In the end, Borders died by its own sword: it beat the little guys by making exactly the book you wanted available immediately for a low price while providing hundreds of other titles to browse … and you could do it while drinking a latte. Then Amazon came along and did the same thing better … and you could do it without leaving home.

Yeah, it does make me sad. But let’s not forget that the rich book culture Jones talks about in his piece hasn’t disappeared. It’s moved. It’s on Goodreads and Facebook and the Amazon forums and authors’ websites and countless other places. Book-lovers will always find “places” to congregate. They’ll always build networks.

Is it the same? No, not really. But in some ways it’s better. A bookstore could never provide what I’ve found on Goodreads — a worldwide community of urban-fantasy readers. And of course, Borders never would’ve stocked my book. That book culture was far less open and inclusive than the one we have now.

That’s not to say the end of the bookstore doesn’t entail real losses — just that how the gains and losses balance out probably depends on who you are and what you’re looking for.

Stephanie Laurens and the Next Generation of Publishing

Stephanie Laurens’s terrific keynote address from this year’s Romance Writers of America conference is really worth reading. I won’t say it contains earthshaking revelations, but it does lay out the current state of publishing and its prevailing trends in a very clear way — including some great graphics. In so doing, it makes reassuring points about the new centrality of the author.

Laurens does seem somewhat of two minds on the future of the traditional publishing industry — what she calls “offline publishing.” On the one hand, she emphasizes the herculean task that lies ahead of such publishers as they try to adapt:

offline publishers are, unsurprisingly, seeking to transition into the online industry. To successfully transition, a previously offline publisher needs to accomplish two feats — first, refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business, and second, convince authors of their worth in what is emerging as a fiercely competitive field. Those two feats form the challenge that lies squarely before offline publishers wishing to transition into the online sphere.

Two aspects of that challenge deserve special mention. First, remember how things were in the offline industry — author sells her work to publisher. In the online industry, publisher sells its services to author. That is a 180-degree turn around in relationship.

I know many authors are having difficulty getting their heads around that, and unsurprisingly offline publishers are having an even harder time grappling with the change, but to claim a position in the online industry, offline publishers must embrace and internalize this attitudinal switch. (accessed 7/27/12, my emphasis)

Pretty tough tasks, eh? Especially the one I’ve highlighted, which demands alteration of the entire publishing business model. Ouch. How many of you got to “refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business” and thought, Hot damn, is that all?!?

On the other hand, Laurens closes with the idea that authors of the future will have a variety of distribution choices:

author –> readers;

author –> retailers –> readers;

author –> publisher –> readers;

author –> publisher –> retailers –> readers.

See the word “publisher” cropping up a couple times in those options? The speech has just done an awfully good job of explaining the wrenching changes publishers will have to make to stay relevant … and yet they’ll remain a viable distribution option?

Well, maybe. Or maybe the publishers Laurens envisions participating in these future distribution chains are not the same entities that lay claim to the “publisher” title right now, and she’s just too nice and tactful to say so. Perhaps the publishers of tomorrow will be the patricide offspring of today’s struggling industry — companies that don’t have to change themselves because they’re brand new.

Mark Coker, Agency Pricing, and The Indie Surge

Check out Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s blog post on the big sales/profit advantage indie authors now enjoy (thanks to The Passive Voice for the link).

One thing Coker says raises again for me the question of whether the agency model, with its artificial inflation of traditionally published ebook prices, may actually have been a good thing for the growth of indie publishing:

If an author can earn the same or greater income selling lower cost books, yet reach significantly more readers, then, drum roll please, it means the authors who are selling higher priced books through traditional publishers are at an extreme disadvantage to indie authors in terms of long term platform building. The lower-priced books are building author brand faster.  Never mind that an indie author earns more per $2.99 unit sold ($1.80-$2.10) than a traditionally published author earns at $9.99 ($1.25-$1.75). (accessed 7/26/12)

Indies are selling a lot of units because their prices are so much lower. That means they actually account for a far bigger part of the book-selling pie than you’d realize if you quote the usual 30% share, which is based not on units sold but on sales in dollars. Selling more units = introducing more readers to your brand. Add to that benefit something Coker doesn’t mention — many indie writers are able to put books out there (i.e., grow their product line) much more quickly than they could were they publishing traditionally — and you end up with a pretty big head start over traditionally published competitors. Especially during a quasi-global recession.

So wouldn’t anything that magnifies that advantage be good for indies? And hasn’t the agency model done just that by artificially inflating the prices of traditionally published ebooks? I think the only way to believe this hasn’t happened is to think that books simply don’t compete with one another. And you know, I’d love to think that books are somehow outside the competitive marketplace, that readers don’t purchase on a budget, weighing our precious artworks thusly: Hm, I could buy this book for $12.99 or these four books for $2.99. Sure, I wish books transcended such base calculations, but I really doubt they do.

Would indie publishing have made such amazing strides over the last few years if traditionally published ebooks had been more reasonably priced, starting in 2010? Dunno, but I suspect the vast price differential has something to do with The Indie Surge, and that the agency model may have been busily putting the nails in the coffin of traditional publishing these last few years — quite the opposite of its intended effect.

There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Writing

I mean this very literally, and it’s something I tell my students all the time: there’s no such thing as “good” writing. Sometimes they’ll nod and say something like, “Yeah, it’s all subjective. Every person likes different stuff and interprets things differently.” But that’s not what I mean. Writing does have quality norms, and those norms matter. A lot. But norms are not the same as “good” and “bad” as essential labels.

Here’s what I mean. We all know what I’m talking about when I say “writing,” but it’s actually not all that practical to think of writing as a single thing. In actuality, writing is contextual, situational — it’s writings, plural. Business writing is quite different from literary writing, which is quite different from a cell-phone text, which is quite different from journalism, which is quite different from scientific writing, which is quite different from ad copy. A piece of writing that’s labeled “good” in one of these areas might be considered “bad” if it gets uprooted and plopped down in another. This specificity explains why it can be so difficult to transition from one kind of writing to another: writers internalize the norms of the kind of writing they usually do and then bring those norms with them to new situations in which they may not work so well.

Sure, you may say, the big things may differ, but the same basic mechanical rules apply across the board.

That’s reasonably (though not entirely) true, but mechanics are not the most important stuff when it comes to writerly success: if the mechanics of a piece of writing are a mess, it’s not going to be readable, but a piece of writing can be mechanically clean and still suck. In short, reasonably solid mechanics are essential for a high-quality piece of writing, but they’re not what make a piece of writing high-quality. The more global features are what do that, and global features are highly contextual.

Why does all this matter? Pragmatically speaking, it matters when you try to write in a new discipline or genre. If you import norms from your old genre, you might get burned, so make sure you analyze your target genre and pick up any important differences. Also, it means new kinds of writing come with learning curves, so you shouldn’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the swing of things. Philosophically speaking, it’s nice to recognize that talking about writing as “good” and “bad” (which we all do) is merely a shorthand for what you really mean: “good” writing is writing that satisfies or exceeds the needs or expectations of the target audience within its genre or discipline, and “bad” writing is writing that fails to do that.

So, what does it mean to be “a really good writer”? In my book, a really good writer is someone who can identify and adjust to the norms  and expectations of different kinds of writing. That means the essential characteristics of a “really good writer” are perception and flexibility.

Can I Just Be Annoyed for a Minute?

You know, critics of indie publishing are very fond of pointing out that most indie authors don’t make much or any money. Proponents usually respond that the vast majority of traditionally published authors don’t make much money either — many traditionally published books “fail.” While that’s certainly true, I don’t think it’s the most effective response.

In judging the money-making potential of  indie authorship, the real question is this: “How many authors who could publish their books through traditional routes but who choose to publish independently end up making as much or more through self-publishing, compared to what they would’ve made if they published traditionally?”

Books that could’ve gone the traditional route are the only books that can be used in comparing indie success rates to traditional success rates. Why? Because all the other books — all those that were rejected by traditional publishers or would’ve been rejected, had they been submitted — could only ever make exactly $0.00 through traditional publishers. If those “not good enough” books, when self-published, make a single red cent, that’s 100% gravy because they never would’ve gotten the chance to make anything if indie weren’t an option. And boy have some of those “not good enough” books made a whole pile of red cents.

Given the fact that you have to remove all the foolishly-rejected-by-traditional-publishing, Mill River Recluse-type books from the scale before you weigh indie vs. traditional, it seems very likely to me that authors are more likely to make good money as self-publishers, especially if they write in the genres that tend to sell well as ebooks. But we’ll never know for sure because every book that could be traditionally published has to go one way or the other, and it’s impossible to know how it would’ve done if the author had chosen the route he or she didn’t choose.

FYI, this is the weak analysis that ticked me off. Thanks to Kindle Boards for the link.