Posts Tagged ‘ebooks’

The eBook Tsunami of Crap is Crap

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on July 9th, 2011
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Some folks say ebooks will foist a terrible problem upon readers–they’ll soon have to wade through mountains of crap to find a book to read. It will be a terrible chore. J.A. Konrath gives his answer to this lament. Kris Rusch gives hers.

Here’s mine: there will NEVER be a tsunami of crap facing a reader looking to buy ebooks or any other kind of book. Ever.



Buyers REFUSE to look at seas of choices–crap or otherwise. Shoppers always seek to limit choices (too costly to look at everything) and use a number of methods to immediately narrow those choices down: recommendations, reviews, what’s on the shelf, etc. (For a fascinating look into a few facets of how we make choices, listen to this Radio Lab espisode.)

For example, when shopping for vanilla you don’t go searching through the 500 brands available online and in various stores–Mexican, Vodka, American, Rum, organic, generic, brand, etc. It’s just not worth the time. Something on the shelf is usually GOOD ENOUGH.

Likewise, nobody cares to look at 150,000 titles to find the best. They don’t have the time. In fact, they don’t need to. They can usually find a number of books that are intriguing enough in the “smaller” selection any given vendor sets before them.

In the case of Amazon ebooks, that selection is the best-sellers, the ads, and the this person bought that.

Nobody ever sees the 4 gazillion books. Ever. They don’t want to.


Vendors can’t display a gazillion choices, even if they wanted to, which they don’t (studies have actually shown that providing shoppers too big a selection leads to FEWER sales).

And no, just because Amazon says it have 2 quintillion titles for sale that does not mean they’ve been displayed. You only see a handful of titles at a time.

Even if you scroll through the various lists, you are rarely looking at more than a dozen choices at a time. You’ll probably see less than 200 titles total any given time you go shopping.

Vendors NEVER display a tsunami. EVER.


Readers have MORE THAN ENOUGH leads to fill their capacity for reading.  Even if they wanted a sea of options, they wouldn’t wade through them because they don’t have to–it’s too easy to find something to read.

Leads are everywhere. There are recommendations from friends, family, reviewers, celebrites, and Amazon’s this person bought that.  There are leads from best-seller lists (another type of tacit recommendation). Leads from browsing.

Readers have leads coming out their ears.

This is important because the number of leads any given reader has far excees that reader’s capacity for reading.

How long does it take you to find one book that looks interesting? From browsing or recommendations or whatever?


Maybe if you’re having a really bad day, it takes an hour. But it takes so much longer to read one story than it does to find one you want to read.  That’s why we all have two year’s worth of books to read in our queues.

So. There is no sea of crap. There NEVER was or ever will be one for any given reader.

Buyers avoid selection seas like the plague. Vendors don’t provide such seas anyway. And readers don’t need them–they have more than enough leads which turn out to be exciting enough to fill up all their reading slots and more.



Who Will Play in The eBook Supply Chain?

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on June 30th, 2011

I was reading this Konrath post by Barry Eisler on the “Attack of the self-publishing memes” in which he argues that there isn’t an inherent conflict of interest for agents to also help authors epub their books. This got me thinking about the steps (tasks) in the current supply chain, who was going to provide them, and where the biggest value lay.

Here’s the process right now as I understand it from manuscript to reader. The numbers are only task identifiers and don’t represent sequential order in every case, although I did try to sort them that way.


1. Promote manuscript to editor at publisher
2. Negotiate contract with publisher

3. Story edit manuscript
4. Revise for story edits
5. Copy edit manuscript
6. Revise for copy edits

7. Create cover design and art (a marketing/advertising function)
8. Obtain ISBN
9. Typeset book
10. Print book

11. Establish book selling hierarchy (lead book, second lead, etc.)
12. Obtain reviews from trade publications, newspapers, websites, authors, etc.
13. Create sales catalog and other sales documents
14. Contact book buyers and promote books (calls, visits, conferences, etc.)
15. Take orders

16. Ship to retail outlets and wholesalers
17. Warehouse book
18. Process reader purchases & returns

19. Publicity, including free copies
20. Advertising
21. Co-op display purchases


1. Story edit manuscript
2. Revise for story edits
3. Copy edit manuscript
4. Revise for copy edits

5. Create cover design and art (which you could lump under marketing)
6. Obtain ISBN
7. Format book for ereaders and POD services (CreateSpace etc.)

8. Upload book to retail and library outlets
9. Warehouse the bytes
10. Process reader purchases & returns

11. Obtaining reviews from trade publications, newspapers, websites, authors, etc.
12. Publicity, including free copies
13. Advertising, including website display etc.

There are actually two channels here–physical audio books (CDs) and downloads (Audible, etc.).

I would assume the physical audio would follow the marketing, distributing, and promoting aspects of the paper channel tasks and add in the audio production tasks. Downloadable audio would follow the marketing of the ebooks and add in the audio production tasks.

I’m sure I’m missing some key steps somewhere. Somebody please supply them if you see gaps.

As for the future, here’s what I see. The paper channel tasks aren’t going to change much. Nor do I think the people performing the various tasks will either. For example, I just don’t think POD machines are going to catch on in stores and wipe out distributors. They may take out printers (#10) of trade and mass market paperbacks. But I haven’t seen a POD machine that can do hardbacks. Maybe the PODs will move to the retail outlets. But I don’t think so. Somebody disabuse me of the notion.

However, I do think there will be some interesting developments in the ebook/POD channel.

Right now a lot of authors are spending time performing tasks 6, 7, and 8. Some literary agencies are wanting to charge 15% forever for those steps with maybe a little cover design. But tasks 6-8 are the tasks that require the least amount of skill and will soon be automated.

Formatting for ebooks now is like coding html was for webpages 10 years ago–people in the code spending hours tweaking crap. Right now it takes you about a day to learn how to format a novel for the various ebook readers. Once you know how to do it, you’ll spend a day, maybe two, formatting your novel and uploading it. Or you can pay someone else to do it–any responsible teenager will do.

But within the next year I predict an application coming (if it’s not already here) that will hook into Word and other programs that will make the labor obsolete. Creating a Kindle document will be like creating a PDF document in Word today—you just click Save.

Uploading could be automated as well across various sites with some application. But it’s fairly easy now.

So for which tasks are these ebook distributors wanting to charge 15% forever? Obtaining an ISBN?

I don’t even think they even do that.

Amazon and the other ebook retailers have a lock on 9 & 10. It would be incredibly hard to dislodge those gorillas. So I think the place where literary agencies and others who want to play in the indie ebook/POD supply chain are going to flourish is in the other tasks that require the most skills–editing, cover art, and marketing, which I’ve marked in blue.

Authors interested in the indie ebook/POD channel are going to want service providers who can deliver great editing, cover art, and marketing. They’re going to want folks who can help them sell into traditional domestic and foreign paper distribution channels. They’re going to want folks who can help them sell rights to other buyers–audio, film, etc.  And they’re going to want help with their contracts.

If I were an agency, graphic artist, editor, intellectual rights lawyer, or some other entrepreneur trying to serve indie ebook/POD authors, that’s where I’d spend my time.

Dystel & Goodrich literary agency recently announced they would do something like this . . . almost.

Over the past months and years we’ve come to the realization that e-publishing is yet another area in which we can be of service to our clients as literary agents. From authors who want to have their work available once the physical edition has gone out of print and the rights have reverted, to those whose books we believe in and feel passionately about but couldn’t sell—oftentimes, after approaching 20 or more houses—we realized that part of our job as agents in this new publishing milieu is to facilitate these works being made available as e-books and through POD and other editions.

Right now, you’re thinking, oh, DGLM is going to be another of those agencies that has decided to become an e-publisher and charge clients whose books they can’t sell 50% of their income for the privilege of uploading their work. Some of you may be mumbling, “Uh…that’s a conflict of interest.” We get it and we understand how that can be the perception. However, we have no intention of becoming e-publishers. As we said above, we have too much respect for the work that publishers do and too much respect for the work we ourselves do to muddy the waters in such a way.

Again, what we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next. We will charge a 15% commission for our services in helping them project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work. We will continue to negotiate all agreements that may ensue as a result of e-publishing, try to place subsidiary rights where applicable, collect monies and review statements to make sure the author is being paid. In short, we will continue to be agents and do the myriad things that agents do.

Our intention is to keep on trying to find books we think we can sell to traditional publishing houses, to negotiate the best deal (always), and to give our authors as many options as we can. Because we will continue to be commission-based, we will not be automatically pushing authors into e-publishing. Again, we want to give our authors options and empower them to do what they set out to do all along: have their work read by the largest possible audience

However, from what I understand they’re not offering to perform the necessary tasks for 15% forever, only the project management of the tasks. Which means the author will still be paying for the editing and cover art and marketing.

15% forever for project management (a list of to-do’s in this case) and a service provider contact list? Where the author still pays for the editing, cover design and art, and marketing?

Ummmmm, no.

Others like D&G will pop up. But the ones that indie authors will eventually go to will be those that deliver on the high-skill tasks for reasonable rates.  Those will be the ones playing in the ebook supply chain of the future.

Many authors will contract the tasks separately themselves.  But a lot of authors won’t want to do that. They’ll want a one-stop-shop. Or one that does most of it. Some of those one-stop-shops will charge an upfront fee and will probably accept anyone who can pay. Others will make most of their money on a % of the sales to readers and libraries, footing the initial costs of the tasks, and will only work with clients they think will pay out, which if you think about it isn’t really an idie (self-pub) model at all. That’s the space traditional publishers play in right now.

But in the ebook/POD world distribution is no longer a key barrier to entry for new competitors. And so I expect to see a whole bunch of new publishers coming to play in that space. Those that select, edit, and market well will flourish.

Meanwhile, I don’t think most of us authors care which road we take and who we play with. Well, as long as they play nice and don’t poop in the sandbox. We just want to get our stories in to the hands of massive numbers of delighted readers.

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JB Speculates: eBooks, Book Contracts, Agents, and Libraries

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever, On Writing  by John Brown on February 6th, 2011

I’ve looked in the crystal ball I hide under my desk and caught a glimpse of what ebooks will change in the next few years. Specifically I saw what will happen to:

  • Book Contracts
  • Literary Agents
  • eBook Aggregators and Libraries

After showing me the vision, the ball thanked me for shopping at Walmart. Weird.


The only reason to have a print publisher is to get distribution you cannot obtain on your own, or to get it more cheaply than it would cost you if you tried to get it on your own. That’s it. Now, it’s true publishers have excellent art departments and story editors. But you can contract out cover art, copy editing, formatting, and even story editing yourself.

Distribution is the main thing publishers offer that you can’t get anywhere else.

BTW, when I’m talking about distribution, I’m talking mostly about getting the books out to places people can see and purchase them. For example, publishers can get your book into hundreds or thousands of books stores all at the same time–Barnes & Noble, Hastings, Walmart, Costco, indie book stores, airport book stores, grocery stores, drug stores, etc. Publishers can get you display in those stores so consumers see your book. One form of that are the racks and new book displays. Another is one that Scholastic does so well, i.e. displaying and selling titles in tens of thousands of classrooms with its book catalogs. A single author just can’t do that. 

It’s also true publishers can convince some platform venues, that would never look at a self-pubbed author, to spotlight your book.  For example, it’s unlikely a self-published author will be able to convince Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal, which have huge platform for library book purchasers, to review a book.  But publishers have no problem getting their stuff in there. Likewise, it’s often much easier for publishers to get endorsements from other authors or people with platform than it is for a single author.  Of course, there are so many places that have some kind of platform, that publishers don’t have a lock on them all, e.g. Goodreads and Amazon reader reviews.  But for the sake of simplicity, let’s just look at the distribution end.  

Because 90% of book sales are still hardcopy, the only way to have HUGE sales numbers, right now, is through a print publisher. I’m talking about the numbers you see in the Publishers Weekly top selling books, where you have to sell at least 100k copies in hard back, 500k copies in mass market, to even make the list.

Publisher’s lock on this ability will erode. We can see signs of this in the USA Today Top 150 already. I consider this to be the most accurate picture of what truly is selling the most. Here’s why. And ebooks are starting to be the best selling format for a number of books. On that list, they add up sales of a title in all formats and then list the best-selling format. So when you see an (E) at the end of the listing, you know it’s selling more ebooks than any other format. E’s are starting to pop up all over and we’re still in the early adopter stage for ebooks and ereaders.

So what does this mean?

If I put on my author business slacks (why does it always have to be hats we change?), I’d be crazy to turn down a publisher that wanted to offer me monster distribution. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You offer me $500k now, I’m taking the money and running all the way to the bank and then the $6.99 Indian all-you-can-eat buffet.

Of course, I’m not likely to get that kind of an offer. We new writers are more likely to get an offer for, what were Hines’ numbers? $6k – $12k? And for that the publisher will want all our ebook rights and will tie them up for years and years and years. And then they’ll try to give us a fraction of what we could get selling directly. Furthermore, they don’t provide such books the same push to garner platform spotlight. They don’t spend the money to give them the prime display in bookstores. This means the difference between what they bring to the table for us smaller authors and what we can do on our own is much less. And the ebook has narrowed that even further.

How much further? Well, how many books would you have to sell to make that advance of $6k – $12k? If you’re selling your books for $2.99 for the Kindle, you get about $2.00 a book. That means you’d have to sell 3k-6k copies of an ebook to earn as much as that average advance. 

Do you think you can sell 3k – 6k copies of an ebook at $2.99?

Some authors will be able to do this. Some won’t. If you wanted to do that in three years, you’d have to sell about 150-350 books per month. For a more in depth comparison between traditional publishing and self-publshing ebooks, see Dean Smith’s blog on cash flow.  

Maybe you don’t think you can make those numbers. But maybe you can. The point is that if you think you can, then you can make as much on your own as you can with a publisher. This means there is absolutely no financial reason on earth to take the publisher’s deal. None. Now, if you have non-financial reasons, that’s another thing, but when looking at dollars and cents, it’s fairly clear the publisher’s ability to put you into their distribution channels isn’t worth what it will cost you. Especially since the ebook is forever and may keep selling for years to come AND because the market for ebooks is still in the early adopter phase–it’s only going to grow massively over these next years.

But this doesn’t mean paper publishing is dead. It’s not. Nor will it be for some time. Just because SOME authors can make as much in the ebook market on their own as they can with a publisher through their distribution channels doesn’t mean all of them can. Furthermore, publishers with distribution have something to offer even those who successfully publish ebooks themselves.

Let’s say you have an ebook series that starts to sell well for you, 1,000 per month. That’s $2k per month, $24k per year. If a publisher wanted to buy the rights to that from me, they would have to pay me MORE than $70k as an advance. MORE. Because I can make that on my own in three years selling it myself. In fact, since ebooks are forever, I have to look at the present value of all of those years of sales. That income stream is going to be a LOT MORE than $70k, even if we think sales will taper off after five or six years.

How many big publishers are going to want to pay that?

Probably none. Or, at least, I suspect those deals will be few and far between. But there is money to be made in paper, even if that market is shrinking. There will be some smaller publishers who, for the right price, will offer paper distribution. And if they can get me distribution that I couldn’t get myself for paper, or do it at a lower cost, then I’d want to sell them paper rights. Why not?

And so what I see in the crystal ball are some authors, the ones who do well selling ebooks, being able to sign contracts with publishers that sell paper rights only. I know the big publishers probably won’t go for that in the near term, but smaller publishers will see the value and step up to the plate.


What about agents? Are they going to die?

I think if we remember that literary agents are SALES agents, then their future becomes clear. The only reason to get a sales agent is because doing so makes my property worth more (same reason for getting a publisher, btw). If, by letting them focus on sales and letting me focus on getting more product out the door, I make more money than I would if I tried to do BOTH the selling and the producing, then I want an agent.

I want to sell as many rights as I can to as many people as possible–gaming, film, audio, foreign, merchandise, etc. I’d be a fool to say, well, no, I’ve got this little ebook gig going. I’m not going to sell any of these many other rights to anybody. No, I’m just going to let them sit in my basket and earn me nothing. Let them go to waste.


A good agent should be able to sell more than I could on my own because they have a better ability to reach AND close editors AND other people that are in the market for purchasing rights to my property. They’ll also allow me to sell more because all the time I would have spent selling, I can now use to create more product. So not only do I have more books, and therefore rights, to sell, I can hopefully sell them for a better price and terms than I could on my own.

I’d be a fool not to increase my revenue. I’d be a fool not to have a good agent.

So as long as there are people who want to purchase these non-ebook rights, and an agent can make a sale I couldn’t or can make it for less than what it would cost me to do it on my own, then agents will be useful. Because of this, because we’ll always have more than ebook rights to sell, I don’t see a role for good agents ever going away.


When more and more people begin reading ebooks what happens to the libraries?

Ebooks cost less. So a lower price per book would simply allow libraries to purchase more books and expand the collection. But wait, they don’t need rooms and rooms to hold all the paper. You can store the world’s library in one computer room. Shoot, this means that housing the collection on a server instead of on the shelves would cost less. This would allow for an even bigger collection. But why maintain a server and manage your own collection if you can network to the collection down the road?

In fact, what if there were a mega service with millions of titles you could subscribe to? That would be even cheaper. Then you wouldn’t have to pay book purchasing agents or IT folks to keep your server running.

Enter the ebook aggregators–the Netflixes of ebooks (I know somebody somewhere is working on this business plan; is it you?)

I’m betting the whole library system goes national. I’m betting you’ll have some government aggregators, but they’ll probably be dwarfed by the private companies. You’d subscribe to the aggregator’s service just as you do Netflix today and many university libraries currently subscribe to electronic periodical collections.

The aggregators will probably charge users as Netflix does for a certain number of books checked out at the same time. If a large entity like a library wanted to subscribe, I bet the aggregator would charge access to the collection based on number of users at the library. The library would pass some of that fee onto patrons. The rest of the fee would be paid by the community’s tax dollars, just as those tax dollars pay for the current collections. You might even have device manufacturers coupling subscriptions with purchase of the product as incentives to buy their devices.

When the aggregators step in, we suddenly end up with a different mix of distribution channels that will coexist:

  1. Author –> ebook retailer (Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, etc.) –> reader
  2. Author –> subscription aggregator –> reader
  3. Author –> subscription aggregator –> public and school libraries –> reader
  4. Author –> publisher –> subscription aggregator –> then option 2 or 3 above
  5. Author –> publisher –> current distribution channels

Surprised by #5? Well, the current distribution channels are not going away until every book can be read on an ereader and everyone who reads has and wants to read on such a device. That’s going to take some time, if it happens at all.

Why would readers buy individual titles ala distribution channel 1 above? Some people just want to own. Other readers will be happy to purchase the books because they don’t want to wait for a checkout slot to open up, e.g. I already have my allotted number of books checked out and I really want this one on hand all the time because it’s Suzie’s favorite. Other readers will want to customize a book with highlights, margin notes, links, etc. just as many of us like to mark up paper texts. We’ll need our own copy for that. Still, I think the bulk of reading will move to the subscriptions. For example, right now I purchase DVDs I love, even though I can get them from Netflix. But the number of DVD’s I own are a fraction of those I watch. Most TV and film I watch once and it goes back to Netflix until I want to see it again. And this checking out becomes even easier where there’s nothing physical to send through the mail.

Please note: there will probably be some form of gatekeeping with the aggregators. I doubt they will carry every scrap of anything ever written. They’ll carry a lot of stuff, but not every written word. Furthermore, when you have hundreds of thousands of titles, you’ll need mechanisms for helping your subscribers find great content suited to their tastes. A lot of “people who read this read that,” review services, etc.–the next generation of Netflix recommendations, Goodreads reviews, and Pandora like tools. 

Aggregators won’t be the only gatekeepers, however. The key is in getting notice. And there will be many places with platform that will be able to shine a spotlight on a book. Think about all the places you find out about movies today—radio movie programs, TV movie reviews, Rotten Tomatoes, Newspaper Reviews, Yahoo viewer and critic review summaries, Kids-in-mind, and on and on. Look at all the ways you find music. There will be just as many ways to find books.

As far as paying authors, I suspect aggregators will pay authors each time a book is checked out, or, if it’s a must-have name author, they will pay to list the title plus a per use payment.

So that’s the future I saw in my strange little ball. Feel free to comment or add your own thoughts.

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