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Notes for a future history

When the dust settles, whenever that may be, and the publishing paradigms have completed their shift, the events of the past few days are likely to merit a footnote or two….or maybe they’ll be the proverbial Guns of August.

A quick recap….in case you’ve been vacationing out beyond the orbit of Jupiter:

First, after about a year of rumor and anticipation, Steve Jobs, on behalf of Apple, played with an iPad.  Personally, the iPad is not the convergence device I’ve been waiting for….which is no surprise: I haven’t been an Apple person since they dumped the Apple ][GS in favor of the Mac.  I’ve withstood the seductive advances of the iPod, the iPhone, the iTouch and iTunes….probably for the same reason I still drive a stick-shift car: I’m a control freak and I like making decisions.  OTOH, it’s a much-demonstrated fact that I’m so far out of step with mass-market taste that it’s doubtful I’ve ever even heard a drummer much less marched in step with one.

Anyway, the iPad, which is not really an e-book reading device, apparently connects to the iBookstore and Steve Jobs is caught on-the-record saying that the iBookstore’s prices will be in line with other ebook purveyors — which seemed to be taken to mean that the iBookstore would be more like Amazon than unlike it, at least with regard to pricing and DRM.

Which was kind of odd, because it wasn’t all that long ago that a quintet of traditional NYC publishers (Macmillan among them)made it known that they weren’t at all happy with the way Amazon was configuring the 21st century publishing marketplace and had plans to do something different.

Anytime I encounter “publishers” and “plans” in the same sentence, I cringe.  The traditional publishing business plan (and I’m quoting one of my editors here) can be described as “throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.”  When my first book came out in 1980, a 40% sell-through was considered a success (that is, six out of every ten books in a print run, never sold….maybe never made it to a bookstore).  Five years ago, my editor (at Tor, btw) said they were trying to make peace (and profit) with the idea of a 20% sell-through.

One might have thought that publishing, as a whole, would have embraced e-books which, after all, have a de facto 100% sell-through.  But, no…with a few exceptions, they’re convinced that they live in a zero-sum world where every e-book sold is a cannibalized dead-tree book and their plan is to make e-books inconvenient, restricted, and expensive, in the hope that misguided e-book readers will repent of their digital delusions.

So, I’m not surprised that the big-name publishers would ally themselves with the iBookstore to create expensive product for a device that’s not really an e-book reader.  And I’m not really surprised that Macmillan lobbed the first salvo at Amazon.  Macmillan is owned by a German holding company (Holtzbrinck) that’s made no secret of its antipathy to e-books in general and its preference, if e-books cannot be eliminated altogether, for strong DRM, delayed release, price points at or near DTB levels.  (They’ll tell you that it costs as much to produce e-books as it does to produce DTB books, without taking into account how much anything costs when you’re lucky to sell 20% of it.)

When Tor took tentative steps toward supporting e-books back in 2006, Holtzbrinck said No in unmistakable terms.  Their business is paper and their goal is to get back to 40%.

I’m a little surprised that Amazon capitulated last night and more than a little suspicious of the over-the-weekend timing.  Then again, if Macmillan et. al can make the $14.99 price stick, Amazon wouldn’t complain.  OTOH, almost as soon as Amazon pulled the “Buy Now” button, there were whispers that AUTHORS (that scary, flakey bunch) might have grounds for anti-trust action against Macmillan—‘cause we have contracts with our publishers and one of the few things that those contracts require of the publishers is that they at least attempt to publish, market, and sell our books….and when Macmillan tried to strong-arm Amazon, they were also saying they’d rather not sell their product (our books) in the largest market on the planet.

I already had my breach-of-contract letter written, because it’s not like either Amazon or traditional publishing has my interests at heart, either as a reader or an author.  They may well be willing to go to war with each other (and I read Amazon’s capitulation letter as a clear indication that they plan to fight another day on a field of their choosing), but they share a common perspective: books are bowls of spaghetti, readers are sheep to be herded and fleeced; and authors are wells to be pumped dry.

That’s why CJ, Jane, and I have formed Closed Circle: goodbye and good riddance to everything that stands between authors and readers.  I don’t know if we’re going to be successful (although I can’t see how I can fail worse on my own than I have in the tender care of my publishers), but at least we’re going to be in charge of our own fates (that control-freak thing again) and when you buy one of our books, we’ll do our level best to produce it in whatever format you need now…or in the future.

Our plan is to be small and agile—like mammals avoiding dinosaurs.

26 comments to Notes for a future history

  • Eristone

    Hi Lynn,

    Color me a naive reader but wouldn’t it make sense to work with a company like Baen where they do at least “get it” with regards to e-books? Some sort of partnership? Or does it work better through Amazon or ?

    • Lynn

      Not naive. What Baen is doing is quite interesting, but Baen Books is a partner/subsidiary of Simon & Schuster which is owned (or was owned, I lose track sometimes) by CBS. It’s not a true “stand-alone” company and, despite its success/interest in digital prose, it remains, above all else, a standard-model publisher.

      Because of that–in part–it’s not possible for a random author (i.e., yours truly) to walk up to them and say, “I like your attitude regarding e-books. Let’s do business together.”

      Today.

      The answer could be different tomorrow. I fully expect that a cadre of standard-model publishing employees is going to break lose (voluntarily or otherwise) from the structures in which they now operate and come up with some truly innovative business models that serve both authors and readers much better than the standard model is serving them.

      Baen’s brain trust is one of many logical candidates for that role. In the meantime, I’ve set myself up on the high ground (I hope!) with Closed Circle.

      • Because of that–in part–it’s not possible for a random author (i.e., yours truly) to walk up to them and say, “I like your attitude regarding e-books. Let’s do business together.”

        Actually, lately it more sort of has been possible. After Meisha Merlin and Embiid folded, authors from the Meisha/Embiid fold such as Sharon Lee & Steve Miller and P.C. Hodgell were essentially able to walk up to Baen and offer to do business together—and they did, first with bundle packs of their previous series work sold via Webscriptions alone (which, given that Meisha and Embiid hadn’t been paying those authors for ages represented some of the first actual money they saw out of their work in some time), and subsequently with new sequels published in both print and e.

        Also, Webscriptions carries some e-book versions of print books from other presses (such as NightShade Books) as well. You might want to drop Toni Weisskopf a line and at least ask about the possibilities.

        • Lynn

          You might well be right. I’ve opted to wander out onto a different limb, though, with Closed-Circle. Maybe it’s scars, maybe it’s bitterness, but I feel as though I’ve finally chewed my way out of a trap and I’m not inclined to go back where I’ve been.

          Baen is definitely doing some interesting things and I, for one, am delighted that they gave P.C. Hodgell a home after the Meisha Merlin collapse. I’m seriously addicted to Jame!

  • Alli

    Lynn-

    First of all thank you from your fans. I have been an avid reader since I was about 7 and like many readers I want to be able to read my books in the format that I prefer without having to pay extra because publishers are feeling threatened. It is great to see some of my favorite authors taking matters into their own hands.

    I was pointed to your blog by a thread on the kindleboards where this debate has been raging back and forth. Needless to say on a board full of die hard readers all with eBook readers of some type (predominately Kindles) the publishers are not coming out ahead. Too bad we can’t get them to read these boards and see that in the long term they are only hurting themselves.

    Thank you for your committement to your readers.

    • Lynn

      Thanks (and thanks to Elaine for cross posting!)

      I’ve become a big fan of “disintermediation” — getting rid of the mess in the middle, which, from my author’s perspective includes both Amazon–because of its DRM and exclusivity clauses–and conglomerate-based publishers–for more reasons than I can list here.

      I don’t have a fly on the proverbial walls of any NYC publishers or at Amazon, but I respect their intelligence: they know what they’re paying us as a percentage of what you’re paying them. And if it’s one thing that’s in their mutual interest, it’s making sure authors and readers never find a way to communicate economically.

      I make about $.04 on the cover-price dollar per book (sometimes less…and nothing until my advance “earns out”). I make about $4.50 on a $5.00 e-book that I package and sell myself.

      That’s the REAL game-changer.

  • Geoffrey

    I just read your blog based on the link from kindleboards. I’m happy I now know this site and I’m happy to be reminded that some authors get it.

  • Adrianne

    Thanks for posting this. It’s the first time I’ve seen a blog entry by a pro author that was in support of authors true needs, not what authors have been brainwashed to believe that they need.

    I want DRM free eBooks for a reasonable price. If I can get them direct from the author and know that the author gets paid? I’m in heaven. As a reader, it’s in my best interest for you to have enough money to write me another book.

  • Tina

    I am happy to see a more pragmatic take on the situation. Since I read all the authors on the Closed Circle page, I have bookmarked it and will hopefully add to your success.

  • You totally get it! I’m bookmarking your site and am totally embarrassed that this Fantasy junkie doesn’t have you on my Kindle shelf(It must be that 20% thing). Believe me, that will change.

  • From an Archival perspective, your books (and those without DRM) will be the only ones to continue forward – everything else will be left behind, lost, forgotten. Digital migration from device to device is impossible or extremely difficult, so it doesn’t get done. This turns the book into a disposable commodity rather than something to be kept, passed on, referenced. Unless somebody hacks the book, it will be inaccessible simply to changes in technology, and certainly lost before the copyright expires.

    When it all comes down to it, the authors who allow their works to be published with DRM will be the ones only available in hardcopy, 50 years from now.

    • (only in hardcopy, I meant to say)

    • Lynn

      Interesting.

      I have a side project that involves digitizing the paper archives of my chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America. A lot of the material was self-published to begin with and, through attrition and death, we’ve lost contact with the creators. Among my arguments in persuading the EGA hierarchy that this is a job that has to be done now are the fragile nature of paper in Florida’s climate (which, I’m finding is even harder on our old Kodak Carousel slide collection) and that the bridge between the women (they’re pretty much all women) who created the archive and those of us who learned our craft from them is narrowing as the students themselves are aging…oh, and the fact that the most recent archive that I’ve taken under my wing bulked out at a bit over a cubic yard and weighed 91 pounds!

      When I digitize, I’m saving in a mix of PNG and PDF files (depending on the source), because I convinced myself that as those formats become out-dated there will be companies that step forward to convert them to whatever’s replacing them. As I see it, the first hurdle is the biggest one: going from analog to digital. After that, it’s going to be a question of endowment–setting something aside in my will to see that my archives live on, one bulk conversion after another.

  • I see things a little differently. I first began working on ebooks in 1989. In 1992 I was working for the Voyager Company. We licensed books from Random House (including the Modern Library) and published mainstream fiction and non fictions, including Douglas Adams, John Grisham, Asimov, . . . Hundreds of books. I know and love ebooks. And we were owned by Holtzbrinck. Who were supportive and enthusiastic. Later I worked for another multimedia ebook company, Calliope. Who were owned by Macmillan. Who were enthusiastic and supportive, and were super in terms of licensing content that was DRM free. Later still, I licensed books for UCLA to do custom multimedia books for humanities instruction–from Macmillan, Bedford, St. Martin, and others.

    Regarding migration of files from device to device, the eReader books I bought from then Peanut Press/Palm Press/eReader now in 2000 to work on my Palm PDA still work now on my Palm TX, my iPhone, my Mac, Windows, and several other cell phones and PDAs,

    I want an iPhone. In part, I want it because I want to work on multimedia rich content. I want to create ebooks that have more, that are typeset for the screen, that reflow, and that include images, video, linked audio, annotations, glosses, and sophisticated note taking ability.

    These were things we were doing in 1992. The iPad, and Appple’s support for it in terms of the underlying technology gives me hope for ebooks that are more than a shell.

    Finally, DRM isn’t an archive problem. DRM is just stupid; they’re all crackable. DRM isn’t even a publisher problem; it’s just a way to annoy readers/users. And Apple, by the way, has at least twice officially opposed DRM. I note that at the Apple World Wide Developer’s conference in 2007 Apple employees repeatedly argued against DRM and for open standards. I note that one of the issues in rights negotiations with publishers is over the issue of sharing content with local users on a local network; Apple sees this as a key strategy for the way users want to use media. Even the very first version of iTunes allowed you to share with five users. iTunes Plus has no DRM.

    The iBook file format ePub does not have DRM by default; it must be added, and while I’m probably unrealistic, I am hoping that the reason Random House has not signed on as an iBook publisher is that they want DRM–which suggests that the other five and Apple might feel differently.

    • Lynn

      All good points…and good to point out that we’re continuing a discussion that almost twenty years old.

      One thing that I’ve personally learned in that time is how changeable everything is. The first computer I bought–I scheduled it as a 7-yr depreciating asset on my business taxes! Some things migrated pretty well (I used Compu-serve to e-mail myself chapters of the books I’d written on Apple ][ floppies for retrieval on my brand-new 386x/DrDOS PC) but I lost others largely because I wasn’t keeping watch over the changing formats.

      Some businesses have migrated better than others, too. In 1992, as I recall, the idea was that digitization would settle the microfilm/microfiche format war. The Internet existed, but the World Wide Web part of was still in the nursery; and it wasn’t that long ago that no one seriously believed that Amazon would ever show a profit (or that General Motors would go bankrupt).

      I think all the players are more wary now–we live in a Rumsfeld reality where unknowns come in flavors, like quarks: known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns. It makes everyone reflexively protective.

  • […] a recent post on her blog, author Lynn Abbey goes into her own reaction regarding the Amazon/Macmillan feud—and it is […]

  • Hi Lynn: I found a link to your site via Chris Meadows. I appreciate your reader-friendly perspective. That said, I’m finding it very hard to credit 20% sell-throughs as the actual state of play in the business. I can believe that, five years ago, publishing people were trying to model it just in case, and I’m sure SOME books do that badly, but everything I’ve seen on the webs this weekend suggests that 60% sell-through is still the aggregate norm.

    Running a quick mental calculation: I see a lot of substantiation for per-book hardcover printing costs being in the $2.50-3.00 range. At that price, a 20% sell-through means that each net sale runs me $12.50 in printing costs. With wholesale prices for new hardcovers in the $12-15 range, that means spectacular losses to the publisher. It just can’t be the norm, right?

    • Lynn

      I, too, was taken aback by the 20% number, but it came from a very reliable source from deep inside the publishing world…a source who, unfortunately, died suddenly a few months later. (If we were still having our weekly conversations, this would be a much livelier discussion!)

      The only way I could/can make sense of the situation (and one which is more or less confirmed by what I see on my royalty statements) is that cover price is a best case/rarely achieved benchmark and that even the wholesale prices are often seriously reduced by bulk transactions. They might be ranging as low as $8 – $10, though without my mole (whose friendship I miss more, not less, as time passes), I can’t confirm this.

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by torforgeauthors: Lynn Abbey: Notes for a future history http://bit.ly/duO92u

  • I just wanted to say that I agree with you. I think Scott Westerfeld is sensible but wrong on this. If book production costs are not significantly lower individually (on the theory that one book’s distribution and physical production costs are a small percentage of its total cost because the costs are spread over many books) for digital editions, then they could still be much lower on the whole for a publishing company. However, the main problem I have with pricing ebooks over $9.99 (or even AT 9.99, given that paperbacks are at least 2.00 cheaper in general) is that I am not purchasing a book. I am renting one. The ability to make an investment is what has me buying tons of books in the first place. They have resale value. I can do pretty much whatever I want with them. When publishers won’t extend those same rights to ebooks, than I expect the price to be the equivalent percentage as a DVD rental is to a full price DVD purchase: 50 percent.

    I’m glad you have the guts to take the next step and I look forward to perusing your online store.

    • Lynn Abbey

      The “big six” publishing model is working for some creators. I’m not advocating the demise of any of the “big six,” (frankly, they don’t need my help); I am advocating alternatives.

      The whole DRM thing makes me crazy. You’re getting a license of a license…isn’t that how the mortgage security meltdown started? DRM is companies being afraid of their customers. And if that’s the way they feel, then I start thinking they’ve got something to hide.

      (It’s not guts, though thank you for the compliment. I’ve been diced, sliced, spindled, and mutilated…I really don’t have a whole lot left to lose. I find it’s a very liberating feeling.)

  • Peter

    And thank [deity of your choice] for alternatives, especially ones that manage to be rewarding for both readers and authors!

    One of the great pleasures I discovered back in the computer Paleolithic was being able to tell authors (at least the ones who were active in the same bulletin boards I was) “Thank you for writing. You’ve provided me a lot of pleasure over the years.” Now I have a chance to do so in dollars as well as words, and know the money is going directly to the source.

    As for DRM, it’s worse than companies being afraid of their customers. It’s companies *paying* to be afraid of their customers, and then arguing prices need to go up because of high production costs. Adobe (or Amazon or Apple or…) aren’t giving away their malicious software for free, after all. Want my sympathy on narrow margins on e-books? Stop throwing away money on snake-oil with no function other than inconveniencing your customers.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by torforgeauthors, Heidi Cautrell, Joseph B. Hewitt IV, Glinda Harrison, Kirk Lowery and others. Kirk Lowery said: A couple of articles on the Amazon vs MacMillian ebook dispute that make a lot of sense: http://bit.ly/aQ2ndt, http://bit.ly/aGBEni. […]

  • […] The human mind looks for patterns; that’s why we see shapes in clouds. It’s also why conspiracy theories are so popular. It’s much more satisfying to believe that the publishers are out to get you than it is to believe they’re apathetic or just clueless. But even some published authors believe that publishers want e-books to fail. […]

  • Good post Lynn. It was really interesting to read an author’s perspective that wasn’t pro Macmillan. Thanks for that.

    I wrote my own reader oriented post over here that I suspect that is more clearly made by Chris Meadows elsewhere.

    Also, I just discovered that I read a book by you about ten years ago, before I started keeping a list of what I’ve read. I don’t remember it very well but will definitely read something else by you at some point, possibly in ebook format. 🙂