SinC into Great Writing, #2

Libby Hellmann was the second speaker at the Sisters in Crime pre-Bouchercon workshop and the catchy title of her talk was “To E or not to E.”

Libby thinks the way publishers are behaving with electronic rights is ignorant and blundering.  But don’t rush out to make your own ebooks until you have considered the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing.

Advantages of traditional publishing: don’t underestimate their marketing support. Though they may not offer much personal support except for a small number of books they are promoting heavily, they do send out advanced reader copies and their distribution channels are strong and broad. Having physical books on retailers’ shelves helps get the word out in a different way than online chatter can do. Contrary to rumor, publishers still perform editing. Booksellers are valuable for the handselling they do, and traditional publishers get books into those stores. Awards tend to go to traditionally published books, though that is changing. Reviews, which tend to favor traditional publications, also give authors a valuable third party endorsement. It’s much hard to get reviewed by influential reviewers if you’re self-published.

Disadvantages: the percentage of ebook sales offered to authors is too small. Publishers tend to be inflexible. They are slow in reporting sales and royalties and slow in paying them. The marketing they’re good at is very short-lived – no more than six weeks for a new book, after which the next group of newly-published books is given the spotlight and your book is no longer promoted at all.

Advantages of self-publishing ebooks: control is in the hands of the author. This is attractive to a lot of writers. There is no need to go through intermediaries – agents and publishers. Libby recommends paying for critical services: cover art (which is different than traditional cover art because it is small and has to “pop”); editing – either copyediting or copyediting plus a developmental editor who can help shape a book. Conversion is a cost. Amazon is where her books sell most strongly, but they have so much control in the industry that it’s worrying.

Disadvantages: Amazon is bad when it is bad – which is often (meaning frequent technical problems when uploading ebooks and their associated files and metadata). There is little available at the moment in the way of third-party recommendation mechanisms (such as respected and widely-read reviews). Since there are no gatekeepers, every ebook has to distinguish itself while in the company of some awful dreck. It’s very difficult to know what works for marketing and very hard for readers to discover what’s good. Pricing is tricky – it’s a buyer’s market right now and Libby’s experience is that low is the most powerful price point. She pointed out that you can’t easily move up in pricing without sales plummeting. Moving down in price is another matter. However be aware that you pay a steep price for going low; Amazon pays a much larger percentage on books priced at $2.99 and up in order to discourage the 99 cent book price point expectation.

She also spoke a bit about marketing and the changing role of agents, who can’t make the income they did when advances are dropping so low. Incidentally, she’s a good speaker – very relaxed, yet energetic.

Next, there was a conversation between author Cathy Pickens and bookseller/publisher Jim Huang. Cathy made the scandalous announcement that Jim actually has read ebooks. (He’s a well-known defender of printed books.) That, of course, gave him an opportunity to talk about why he loves print, which was a good addition to the mix. Jim then made the point that authors don’t have to choose between agent and Big Six publishers and self-publishing; small houses offer a third way. Small publishers have the same distribution potential as major publishers so long as they are represented in the Ingram distribution system. What you need to know in choosing a small publisher is its “access  to market” – and that means the terms of sale are critical. These conditions for retailers (in this case, booksellers) have to match the industry standard (including discount and returnability) and be advantageous enough for booksellers to carry them; that’s what access to market means for authors. Beware of small publishers that can’t provide retailers the conditions that they need to make selling their books a realistic business proposition; you will lose a major advantage of having someone publish your book. Jim also argued that .99 cent pricing is bad for business, not just because the revenue is low but because it makes it seem all books are fungable – when each is actually unique and each choice should be based on the book, not the price of it.

photo courtesy of BMeunier and  MorBCN

5 Responses to SinC into Great Writing, #2

  1. Maxine says:

    I never had a problem buying/downloading ebooks from amazon (uk). There are occasional formatting glitches but it isn’t usually possible to know what they are caused by in the conversion process.

    Electronic rights and restrictions, now, that is a big issue!

  2. Barbara says:

    I think the retail side is robust – but Libby and others said they sometimes had difficulty with things like uploading cover art; it turned out the art had to be of very particular dimensions, but those weren’t obvious and were not included in any error message. (I had a similar frustration once with Lulu – there were two conflicting messages in different places about requirements, and anything that wasn’t exact would crash.)

    The formatting problems are conversion issues, I believe. And because that conversion is not a matter of pushing a button but requires a lot of proofing and fiddling (for each format) it’s labor intensive. Which is why our heads explode when anyone argues “ebooks shouldn’t cost anything because they don’t cost anything to produce.”

  3. An interesting and thorough report, thank you. And much more balanced than so many things that are written about both ways of publishing these days.

    NB: talking about SinC, I read and reviewed your first Anni Koskinen novel the other day. Such a pleasure!

  4. Gerard says:

    I encourage authors who are self-pubbing to also look into selling through Overdrive.com. Overdrive has such a large part of the public library market and seems to make it easy for established authors to have their books listed.

    Libraries are big buyers and if an author, like Hellman, has a strong following the libraries will buy the eBook versions as well.

    Go Gusties!

  5. Barbara says:

    Good point, Gerard. I asked and was told by someone (??) that Overdrive is selective about what it will carry in its catalog, but I agree with you and I asked in part because how often does someone want the first books in a series that is no longer available on the library shelves? I also made a pitch for libraries as an important incubator for book culture. How many readers will we have if they have to pay every time the read a book?

    DJ – thanks! since I’m on the board of Sisters in Crime, I was in on the initial brainstorming about the content for this workshop. I think it was a good thing to look more closely at the options writers face today, particularly as traditional publishers grow more cautious about what books they take on.

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