E-Books and Issues of Entitlement

By now, it’s unlikely you haven’t heard of the dispute between Amazon and Macmillan. That dispute and its resolution is important, but a larger issue has come to light: namely the sense of entitlement some readers have with regard to getting e-books dirt-cheap. Part and parcel of this attitude is a basic misunderstanding of the breakdown of costs associated with publishing a book.

For example, one of the biggest faux bits of logic I’ve been seeing is that “If the mass market paperback is $7.99, why can’t I get the e-book version from the get-go at that price?” Well, the fact is $7.99 for mass market paperbacks only works if you’re printing tons of books. It’s also important to note that many authors never get their books published in mass market format because the publishers rightly have estimated that based on hardcover and trade paperback sales, that particular book won’t sell enough copies in mass market. So they don’t reach the $7.99-a-book threshold, which includes the print-a-crapload-of-copies threshold.

Other examples show a basic misunderstanding of distribution, or of the fact that the actual physical printing of a book is a fraction of the cost of producing a book.

But what I find most inexplicable is the level of venom directed by some readers at publishers, and by extension writers, like some kind of scam is being perpetrated upon them. It’s especially ironic given that the book industry is usually dealing in unit sales of an individual book of under 20,000 copies, whereas other forms of entertainment like movies and music are dealing in unit sales of over 100,000 copies. In other words, there’s not much room for price discounts.

What’s led to this sense of entitlement? Here are some possible factors, beyond the basic fact of there being lots of free content on the internet.

—The proliferation of free book downloads offered by publishers and writers.

—The constant attacks on copyright, and thus the overall idea of “ownership”, on highprofile blogging platforms and websites.

—General attacks on software limiting a user’s ability to copy an e-book, especially attacks that don’t do so in the context of respect for the creator’s wishes or need to make money from their work.

—Deep discount pricing of e-books by entities like Amazon to encourage the sale of e-books.

—Google’s book scanning project, which, under the guise of “fair use”, has made significant portions of hundreds of thousands of books available online with no regard for the rights of the writers of those books.

Have these factors led to this sense of entitlement? I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about. It’s also worth noting that we often cause problems for ourselves as authors by thoughtlessly adopting whatever hot new media idea pops up on the internet. In some cases, I think we begin to contribute to our own disenfranchisement in doing so.

If this sense of reader entitlement proves to be pervasive or becomes the norm, then writers will be in a tough position, and the only way to make money on e-books will be to retain the rights yourself and self-publish–meaning you will also have to become your own editor, your own typesetter, your own distributor, etc.

Although you can self-publish more easily today than in the past, it’s not going to help you that much unless you are a celebrity like Wil Wheaton, someone with an existing high-profile platform like John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, someone who is already a bestselling author, or unless you are prepared to basically become your own publishing house (involving a series of skillsets that most people don’t have).

In such a scenario, if e-books do eventually dominate the marketplace and physical books have only a fraction of their current market share, it’s entirely possible that unless this situation resolves itself into a compromise whereby readers actually show respect for the creators of the stories they love that we will see one of the largest mass extinctions of published writers in the history of literature. They’ll still be writing–but they’ll be largely invisible, and also unable to even dream of writing full-time.

My feeling is that it won’t get that bad, but we as writers have to do our best to make sure it doesn’t–by educating readers and doing our part as writers to make sure that our actions don’t contribute to the problem.

(For the best series of posts on the subject, including the Amazon-Macmillan fracas, visit Jay Lake’s livejournal.)

Good For Your Booklife: In Praise of Indie Bookstores

One thing about my recent five-week book tour behind Finch and Booklife that I particularly loved was getting to read in so many great independent bookstores. Indies are extremely important to the well-being of book culture and often serve as strongholds for author events. This month, Indiebound has listed Finch as one of its Indie Notables, something I’m very proud of.

You can find some longer descriptions of indies in my book tour reports for Omnivoracious, but below the cut I’ve written downpersonal impressions of the indie bookstores I visited during the tour–including some little-known facts about each. A huge thanks to each and every one of them.

I’m also rolling out the new Finch negative campaign ad video (see above). Friends and fans from all over the world contributed to the video. After some bugs in moviemaker, Matt Staggs stepped in to finish it, including doing the voice-over. If you like the book, please feel free to post the video and a link to Indiebound this month, along with your own praise of the indies. Thanks.

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The Perils of Success for Writers

(Always remember to celebrate your writing success…just don’t lose your head. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

Success can be as difficult for a writer as managing feelings of despair at not being successful. For one thing, if your goal was to publish a novel with a major commercial publisher and you’ve suddenly achieved that goal after years of work…what do you do next? You may not have thought past that point, and thus feel at loose ends, drifting, at the very moment when most people think you should be celebrating. Or, you may have spent so much time expecting the worst and having to push up against gatekeepers and other obstacles…that the lack of an obstacle makes you stumble. You literally don’t know what to do without an obstacle in your path. It throws off your balance. Finally, success may go to your head and you may behave like a coked-up rock star for a few months, until reality hits you in the face.

One child prodigy I know had four novels out from Bantam by her early twenties but by the age of twenty-five had literally joined a circus and disappeared into Eastern Europe, never to return — as an author, at least. Another writer achieved great commercial success at the expense of mental health, ever more erratic in emails and face-to-face meetings, and eventually became a recluse. A third writer got a huge deal for three books and, with his day job as an anchor, proceeded to adopt an arrogant attitude, and blow almost all of the money on clothes, books, travel, and thirteen pairs of very
expensive shoes.

Failure’s easy — wrecking your life, not living up to your talent, can be accomplished painlessly over years, or even over the course of an afternoon if you really put your mind to it. But once you’re successful, you have real problems: expectations put on you, readers who correspond with you, and responsibilities you could never even imagine while you were typing away in your tiny office, certain no one would ever read your words even as you hoped
the opposite would be true.

Even a modicum of success can throw you off of your game, especially if there’s an unfair niggling little voice in the back of your head saying you don’t deserve it. Success is a form of praise, and praise can be hard to take, because it requires acknowledging a form of love. We’re generally not good with love, or being as generous to ourselves as we’re told to be to others.

Here are some of the possible untoward results, of success, sudden or otherwise:

• You quixotically quit your day job based on having won a lottery that you may never win again — namely, the big book advance — and run out of money within a couple of years. (Crawling back is much, much worse than never having left, or going part-time and gradually phasing out the day job once you’re assured of future writing income.)

• You turn into a horrible human being, a premature midlife crisis induced by your sudden change in status, and when you wake up from this delusion, you find the wreckage of your life all around you like an airplane’s burning fuselage. (In this case, you will probably have lost the affection of friends and family members, and possibly even the love of your spouse or partner.)

• You have trouble writing your second book because you’re too enamored of your own work, or because you’ve listened too closely to book reviewers or fans, relinquishing your vision in favor of a belief in theirs.

• You never write another book because you discover you don’t like everything that goes with having an actual career.

Can you avoid these outcomes? Of course — you may be the type of personality that is resistant to all the dangers of success; I don’t mean to suggest these scenarios are inevitable, or even likely. But if you are susceptible, you probably won’t avoid problems because of reading these words, although possibly you can limit their impact.

Alas, success is an emotional rather than intellectual experience. No matter what counsel I give you, you may still get the bends trying to adjust to success. All I can advise is that when success comes, try not to make any sudden changes in your life. Try, no matter how hard it might be, to simply enjoy it and incorporate it into your existing paradigm.

As for me, I was the jerk with thirteen pairs of shoes. They still stare at me from the closet, a Greek chorus shouting “idiot!” every time I walk past them.

>>Test this section of Booklife: What other problems does success bring to writers? What have you experienced?

Booklifenow: What Are You Thankful For?

(Mike Brotherton is thankful for being an awesomely creative person. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

We’re taking a break here at Booklifenow, returning with new content next week. But since it is Thanksgiving week here in the United States, we’d like to know what you’re thankful for in your writing and your career. Also feel free to tell us about your upcoming books or other creative projects.

Me, I’m thankful that I have such amazing and creative friends–like my partner in crime here, Matt Staggs–that I am able to do this five-week book tour, and that I’ve had the opportunity to write, edit, and create so many different types of books. I’m also deeply thankful for your patronage of Booklifenow.com, and your acceptance of my book.