Tech Dirt ran a great article last week (which was a reaction to this New York Times article) about the struggles Hollywood is facing as it attempts to ‘remain relevant’ while important content seems to be moving to cheaper, faster-to-market television.

From the article:

“The industry really only has itself to blame for continuing to churn out expensive remakes and sequels, rather than investing in quality—the continued quest for ‘$100 million films’ rather than figuring out how to make good movies for less money.”

It’s the same argument I feel like I’ve been making for years to the book publishing industry: If you want to compete, compete! I’ve seen (and written) so many articles for TeleRead about what the problems are, and about the specific issues that are turning paying customers away from Big Publishing and onto emerging alternatives. And every time I do so, I get at least one comment from someone who claims to work in publishing, and who goes on to explain why the situation is the way it is, and why it cannot possibly be changed. And so the problems don’t ever get solved, because nobody in the industry has the creativity to break the mold and actually think about doing something different.

For instance: 

♦ Customer complains that they want to buy a book, but can’t because it’s geographically restricted and the publisher won’t sell it to them. Commenter gives lengthy explanation about how rights are sold, and how contracts work, and so on. All of it may be true, but the bottom line is, the customer still can’t buy the book! How can an industry that is losing market share, and that fears it is in decline, possibly justify turning away a customer with money in his hand?

Yes, rights and contracts have been, up until now, sold on a per-country basis. Does that mean they must be sold that way forever? Does it mean there is some command from on high that we all must suffer under such a system, upon pain of death? Of course not! If there were, then why is it that indie authors can sell to whomever they choose? For that matter, why do stores like Amazon and iBooks allow authors to turn off region restrictions at their own choosing?

The only reason this system continues to perpetuate is because of the apathy or helplessness on the part of those with the ability—or the authority—to change it.

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♦ Customer bought a book on the Kindle. Now, they have a Kobo and want to transfer their books, but they can’t seem to open them. Commenter gives lengthy explanation about DRM and how authors and publishers use it to ‘protect’ their books from piracy.

The truth? If you’re a big-name author and people really want to pirate you, they will; the DRM is easily circumvented and if that fails, they will scan it from paper. And if you’re not a big-name author, your problem is more likely obscurity. People can pirate you if they wish, but they probably don’t care to (or if they do, they do it in a bundle of 5,000 books zipped straight from their hard drive, and people are downloading it for the big-name authors—not for you).

So, the net result? Legitimate customers are frustrated and confused, and piracy never really goes down anyway.

How about, instead, taking a page from iTunes and making it so easy and so affordable to buy legitimately that people will make your legitimate store their first stop? Or how about offering incentives for your DRM-free content that make people want to get it from the source? I once purchased an e-book where the author had a minor character in the story whose name he would customize with your name if you bought from his site. I also once purchased a bundle where a portion of the proceeds went to charity. Yet another author gives away the download when you go through his website to purchase a paper copy for a school or library.

Innovate, people! Make people want to buy from you!

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♦ Customer bought an expensive e-book that was filled with OCR errors and other proofreading mistakes. Commenter gives lengthy breakdown on the price required to hire freelance editors, and the process they use to edit work at a professional level.

Bottom line? There are easier and cheaper ways to do it, and we all know it. I promise you, if Stephen King put out the call that he wanted a reader to proofread the e-book edition of his new novel in return for an obviously early peek at the book and a mention in the acknowledgements, he would have takers. We’re not talking about major editorial process stuff here, we’re talking about a read-through just to tag the typos.

Amazon has a very popular program (Amazon Vine) for people who want to read advance copies and review them. There are enough people who want to read books for free that you would have a willing army of volunteers. Hire an intern for it. Let college English majors do it for $20 an hour. There are ways. The cost of not fixing this problem is to great not to find one.

The bottom line is, it’s competitive out there in today’s entertainment jungle. Whether you’re a major Hollywood studio competing with an edgy low-budget drama or a major publisher competing with the $0.99 Kindle authors, your customer always has somewhere else they could go. So my advice to you is, if you want to compete, then compete! Innovate. Change the way you do things. Otherwise, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourselves when your customers take their dollars and run.

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  1. Publishing is changing. Some of the major publishers dropping DRM is a good example.

    The problem is that the major publishers are giant corporate barges loaded with old contracts and law obligations as well as a small profit margin which allows little innovation or added expense. Some of the barges are slowly beginning to turn in the awkward way of giant boats, while the crews of others are busy arguing about which way to go and others on barges are fighting to keep the same old route.

    To expect the big publishers to turn like they are driving speedboats, and at the request of people who don’t have a major clue about publishing and aren’t prescient enough to know the future is ridiculous.

  2. BAEN sells early eARCS. Fans of an authro can buy the eARC and then crowd-source finding errors. That certainly worked for the latest Lois Bujold book, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. I don’t see why bigger publishers can’t do this, and make their customers pay for the privilege.

  3. The last Macmillan novel I bought for $9.99 had grammatical errors and missing words in it. I highlighted them all, so it should not be a problem for Macmillan to refund me part of the purchase price in exchange for my highlights, right?

    I’m with Joanna: geographical restrictions have forced me to find other means of finding a specific book or song I wanted in the past. Fom a potential customer’s perspective, geographical restrictions are nonsensical in a digital age, and I really don’t care why they exist; I just know that they prevent me from legally acquiring content I want, and that they force me choose between not ever owning the content, or finding it on a file sharing site. Whose loss is that?

  4. The argument that you cannot do something because of contracts is ridiculous. A contract is an agreement between two parties wherein each of the two parties agree to trade. They can agree absolutely anything they like, as long as something goes each way. (If it is one way only, it is a Deed.) What happens is, when a new deal comes up, the lazy industry reaches for the standard form in the drawer. The answer is, negotiate and redesign the form. Existing contracts can also be renegotiated, so, no excuses. Do something!

  5. The problem I have with ninety-nine-cent e-books is that the poor author (poor meaning pitiful and also, therefore, meaning impoverished) is reduced to competing price-wise with dollar-menu fast food items. Usually that’s a clear indication of the book being just as substantive as the junk-laden mystery-meat burger. But maybe there’s a good chance — all right, not a “good” chance, but a remote possibility nonetheless — that the ninety-nine-cent e-book isn’t all that bad, and the author is just trying to get some attention and/or quick sales the way s/he has been told is the best way of doing so.

    Likewise, ten bucks is still competing with a pair of “five-dollar foot-longs” from Subway. Both the burger and the subs took no more than, say, ten to fifteen minutes to whip up on an assembly line. A book — a good book, that is, and not the birdcage fodder that the self-pub market still seems to be drowning in — probably takes a year or more to fully complete AND polish to near-professional quality. If third-parties are involved, such as editors and/or designers, those come at a premium. The author is lucky to earn back what s/he spent on either or both of those. Now examine the median income for an average “day job” and compare it with the pittance that one can only hope to earn selling his/her wares to compete with drive-through sandwiches and you’ll either break even or find that the “day job,” though probably less intrinsically rewarding, is a safer and more lucrative economic bet in the long term.

    Doesn’t sound to me like going fully “independent.” You’d still be stuck in a cubicle crunching numbers in Excel rather than making a full-time living as an “author.” So much for it being a real good way to make a living as a paperback (or Kindle-back) writer.

    Fifteen to twenty dollars might seem a bit much for a book or a movie ticket, but movies aren’t what they used to be, and those CGI action flicks — however idiotic they might be — are pretty damn expensive to make. (Guaranteed no money goes to the screenwriter because chances are there isn’t one.) Plus, there are more people involved than in making a book — the actors, their agents, the producer, director, and the 99,999 unionized behind-the-scenes workers ready to strike at any given moment and blackball the scabs. Still, the time frame involved in creating a book one hopes is of more than passable quality and that people will hopefully want to read is roughly the equivalent of even the most complex of Spielberg productions. (The quality is probably never as good — it is Spielberg, after all — but the man does not make crappy YouTube cat videos in twenty minutes or less, and a “good” writer doesn’t just whip up a “good” book in a lunch hour either.)

    Shouldn’t one hope to be compensated fairly for the effort involved in developing a product? Compensation for effort and ability — isn’t this capitalism at its core, and the reverse downright socialist, “equality for all” regardless of effort or ability, just paid to show up (and peanuts at that)? Are readers — never mind the so-called Big Six (R) — being selfish in finding any way possible to force writers into bottoming out at sweatshop salaries comparable to “food” products at their local Mickey Dee’s if they want to sell? Salaries that would make Chinese toddlers seem comparable to American ballplayers? Why shouldn’t a self-pubbed book cost the same as a Macmillan, Random House or Penguin offering? Why would readers balk at $9.99 for a good debut title (there is, after all, a “preview” function) but not ten percent of that? Bah humbug!

  6. Guest, it’s called mass production. Only one person can buy and eat all of that foot-long, but any number of people can buy and read a 99c ebook. See Joe Konrath’s blog for how setting lower prices leads to higher total earnings.

    Also, cheap eBooks are not necessarily bad eBooks. Geolims have restricted my access to the big publishers, so I’ve gone to indie and self-pub eBooks, and discovered many good, new authors. Temporarily free eBooks have led me to buy the rest of that series or of the author’s output. 99c eBooks have done the same: often the series adds a dollar with each title. Quality is not necessarily reflected in price.

    I really thought I’d seen the last of geolims, now I avoid the big publishers, buy indie and self-pub. However, yesterday SF small-publisher PhoenixPick advertised the latest in the multi-author Stellar Guild series: When the Blue Shift Comes, by Robert Silverberg. I’d bought and enjoyed the preceding titles, and other titles from their site (multiformat, no DRM). However, Silverberg’s ebook was “not available” to me when I pressed on the Amazon ebook link (only Amazon and B&N links were available). I emailed PP, who said Silverberg would only agree to participate if the ebook had geolims. *sigh*

    What possible advantage accrues to an author when people AREN’T ALLOWED to buy his books? Also, this puts me off the rest of the series. Is that good business?

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