Smashwords Partners With Findaway Voices

On March 21st, Smashwords announced it was partnering with Findaway Voices to help their Indie authors with the beginning stages of audiobook production. In the blog post, Mark Coker shared the basics of the partnership and his observations on how audiobooks are a growing market and a new opportunity for a wider audience for Indie authors.

It was all great news. What the blog post didn’t share, however, were some additional details I later found in this Forbes article where Mark Coker contributed an interview.

Here’s the deets:

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The Amazon Vise Cinches Tighter

Don’t worry, this won’t be a rant, or an Indie self-pity post. My aim is only to present my observations. A couple of days ago, a fellow Indie author sent me a private message with a link to a blog post talking about Amazon’s latest hijinks. I didn’t think much of it at the time, since I was still half out of my head with the flu, but then I slept on it, and slept on it some more, and the more I thought about it the more it bothered me.

Take a look at the two images below. See if you can spot a difference:

I’ll give you a hint: Look at the green text in the Buy New box. See it?

The first picture is of the original edition of my paperback novel, published through CreateSpace. The second is the newest edition published through IngramSpark. And the two images together illustrate Amazon’s latest policy to disrupt the supply and demand equation to skew it in their own favor. Since they are both print-on-demand, there is literally no difference between a CS and IS book purchase, other than Amazon makes more money on the CS one. But the different ways they are displayed could make a huge difference in which version (if any) a reader will choose to buy.

It preys on a customer’s need for instant gratification

Amazon has built their very successful business model on two things, one of which is their ability to deliver your purchases faster and cheaper than any other retailer. By slapping on a notice that effectively tells shoppers they will have to wait longer for their copy of the book, they are creating an instant subconscious disappointment and dissatisfaction in the product before the customer has even had a chance to get it.

It creates an artificial sense of scarcity

Amazon’s second cornerstone of business is unrivaled levels of inventory. Amazon is Aladdin’s cave of wonders. They have anything and everything, and they have boatloads of it for people to buy. That’s what keeps shoppers coming back. The new notice on the product page sends the message that this particular item is out of stock, which inadvertently reflects badly on the publisher (in this case, the self-published author) for failing to anticipate demand.

It creates unfair competition

Okay, to be fair, this is Amazon’s own store, and they have every right to try to put their own products forward as best as they can. It’d be stupid of them not to. But it goes much deeper than that. Think about it. Amazon now has the largest piece of the market pie when it comes to books and eBooks. Every measure they have taken so far has been aimed to solidify their stronghold on that market share, or to increase it. They do it through exclusivity, through undercutting competitor prices (seriously, their ToS flat-out state that if you publish a book on Amazon, the price has to be equal to or smaller than at any other retailer), and through policies and algorithms that create advantages for those who play along, and massive hurdles for those who don’t. With this new measure, they are basically saying, “If you want to actually sell your self-published print volumes, you need to publish them through us.” This is why other bookstores don’t want to play with you, Amazon.

So where does that leave Indie authors? 

Between a rock and a hard place.

Once again, we are forced to either straddle the fence, or make a difficult choice between going wide, and going deep. If you publish through CreateSpace alone, odds are good your book will never be stocked on store shelves, because no store will want to buy product from their direct competitor. If you choose to publish through a different service, such as IngramSpark, your chances of getting a book into physical stores might be slightly better, but now it’ll have to jump through hoops on Amazon, which is still the biggest bookseller and generates the highest royalties income of all other retailers for most authors.

Nothing says you can’t do both. In fact, the blog I read advised just that: Publish your book both through IngramSpark and CreateSpace, and then contact Amazon and tell them to source the book through CreateSpace so it always shows as in stock.

But I have a problem with this strategy. It as good as flushes a chunk of the money you invested into an IngramSpark distribution down the toilet. It’s like you’re saying, “Hey, I spent a boatload to get these books published through this other source, but you guys don’t like it, so that’s cool. I’m just not gonna advertise those editions where I am most likely to get the greatest number of sales for them. Still friends? Sweet.”

Yeah, I’m stubborn, and not much of a team player (which is probably why I will never make any real money from book sales…). I deliberately priced my IngramSpark editions slightly lower to play Amazon’s algorithms so that the new versions would show up on top. I did this, because I want those gorgeous new covers to show up in search results. I didn’t want all that effort, months and months of hard work, to drop into obscurity. But I’m also not an idiot, and I am keeping an eye on this new development and making sure to let my readers know 2 things loud and clear:

(1) My books are absolutely 100% available at Amazon, and there is 0% difference in shipping & handling time between the CreateSpace and IngramSpark versions; and

(2) Those same books can also be found at other retailers, often times at a discount that might be a better deal than Amazon.

A Potential New Player(?)

By now, everyone has heard of Bitcoin. Bitcoin is all the rage. For a few days in January, even the news reported on the massive spike in value of Bitcoin, and Warren Buffet came out with a statement predicting its downfall (article here). To be honest, I rarely pay attention to the stock market, and I was only aware of the concept of Bitcoin in the vaguest possible way of it being a “fake currency.” Well, when that article came out, I started paying attention. I found a few more, read up on it a bit, with most of what I found going way over my head, but what I retained was this:

Bitcoin is like an apple tree. It’s one of several different kinds of trees, that just happens to have grown the biggest. But all those trees are rooted in a framework that is very, very interesting to me. It’s essentially a new system of virtual accounting that adds a third entry to the standard double-entry style of bookkeeping. That’s already confusing, so let’s break it down:

In traditional accounting, every time money changes hands, two entries have to be made in the books. The first is the money going out, and the second is something else coming in. That way, there is always a record of how much money is being spent and what it’s being spent on. In this new way of accounting, the third entry marks the transaction, which adds additional details. It’s not just what was bought and for how much, it’s who bought it, when, and where. As long as the purchased item stays within this realm, this record keeping then continues down the line each time it changes hands, so you can track a particular item from its most recent buyer all the way back to the production facility, and farther back to the facilities where all its different components and ingredients came from. It essentially records the total life of that item.

As soon as I read this, it hit me that this could potentially be the solution all authors have been waiting for: an end to digital piracy. If every single eBook were to be tracked this way, then every single pirated eBook could be tracked back to the original pirate. Not only that, the system could identify every single pirated copy and there is a lot we could do with that info, starting with disabling those copies and making them unreadable, and ending with having hard evidence for prosecution.

Fast forward about a month. I received an email newsletter from IngramSpark, telling me they will be featured as an exhibitor at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference. Since that’s in my neck of the woods, I checked out the event, browsed through the exhibitors, and found something I never heard of before. I clicked the link, and discovered that someone out there had the same thought I did, and is actually putting it into practice. There is this platform called Publica, which doesn’t seem to be open to authors just yet, but will be soon. It is built on, and will operate on the concept of cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), and promises the elimination of the middleman, taking an author’s books directly to the reader.

Of course, in practice, that just makes Publica another self-publishing platform. It’s still questionable whether they would be able to compete with Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other eBook platforms, and I still have a lot of unanswered questions. I submitted those questions to them, and am waiting for a response but, if I understand this correctly, and if it actually works, then I want in. Now.

The concept of this new system of accounting is still in its infancy, but more and more companies are embracing it, and each time a company announces it, their stocks go up. The problem is, each of them has their own cryptocurrency, which is going to cause issues in the future, if every time you want to buy a product from one of them, you have to do a currency exchange first. My prediction, however, is that cryptocurrency will be the future. Once enough companies jump on board, the normalization will begin, and a unified currency will replace all the others.

For now, I see Publica as a pioneer. Whether or not they’ll be able to make it work in the long run isn’t even the point anymore. Could be in six months someone else will have put Publica out of business with a better, more streamlined, more accessible system. Could be this is a sign of a brand new industry being born. Publica is opening new doors, forging the path for others to follow.  The point is, the possibility is now there, and it is real, and I really, really hope it’ll help right some imbalances for authors, artists, musicians, and others who rely on the sale of their own unique products for a living.

It will also upset a whole lot of people for whom this means an end of an era, and those people will fight tooth and nail to keep it from coming to fruition. The ultimate potential for all of this is an end to money as we know it, which would put a lot of banks out of business, and majorly disrupt our stock markets, etc. (Plot bunny, anyone?)

Then again, it could also be nothing. Reminiscent of the dotcom era, it could all be a massive bubble that will eventually burst. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I will definitely be keeping an eye on this, for sure.

ETA: Here are the responses I received to my questions:

1. Publica is a distribution channel, so where does it distribute to?

Authors can use Publica and blockchain to publish their books. Authors can sell their books to Publica tokenholders / platform users and protome a book to their existing customer base. Once a book is published on the platform, readers will be able to find a book using search or by entering a direct link (that can be promoted by author). Authors can continue to use their existing promotional channels.

2. If my books are already published through another platform, will there be a conflict?

No, it’s not a problem. If there are no legal limitations that allow an author to publish a book only on a specific platform, a book can be distributed through several platforms.

3. Do readers need a special app to access the books? If so, what format will it support/require?

We are currently developing e-reader app that will serve double duty as wallet and e-book reader. The app will support popular e-book formats (like ePub).

Feel free to check our live AMA session, CEO Josef Marc answering question about supported formats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjAZg8_i8fo&t=2872s

4. If everything is done in PBL currency, how does an author redeem earnings in real currency?

Authors will be able to exchange PBL tokens to fiat money (for instance, USD or EUR).

5. Does the platform have protection measures against digital piracy?

By using a token as an access key to digital content, only actual tokenholders can access their purchased content. Readers (tokenholders) can give away or sell their tokens, and ownership/access to the content will be transferred to the new tokenholder. Blockchain technology is making the whole process transparent and decentralized.

Opinion: Pricing eBooks Free

This is something that popped up in my Facebook memories. I was going to reshare, but then realized it might be a good discussion topic for this blog, so here we are.

The Background

Two years ago today, Kristen Lamb posted this article on her blog: A Culture Addicted to FREE—How FREE is Poisoning the Internet & Killing the Creatives. It’s worth a read if you have a few minutes. When it went live, I shared it on Facebook with a long comment which I don’t want to repeat, but which you can read here. The free book I was talking about was The Beast, my very own twist on the classic fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The Here and Now

Well, two years have now passed since Ms. Lamb’s blog post, and not much has changed, except that fewer people are willing to talk about it anymore. Smashwords CEO Mark Coker recently released the 2018 updated edition of his Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, in which his advice to authors still includes a strategy of pricing at least one book as free, and if you have a series, price the first book as free, despite his gloomy 2018 Publishing Predictions blog post, in which he predicted an increased glut of high-quality, low cost eBooks, and the demise of independent publishing by a rising, Amazon-dependent model.

It would seem like the two ideas are counter-intuitive. Why tell authors to play into their own downfall, rather than rally the troops to make a unified stand against it and demand fair treatment and recompense? But really it’s only a progression of cause-to-effect, and Mr. Coker is only doing what he feels will benefit authors most in this new climate.

How did we even get here?

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Opinion: Author vs. Publisher Branding

I posted a question on my Facebook profile yesterday that I didn’t expect to get as much attention as it did. I am still getting and answering comments today, and it’s drawing me away from the novella I was dead set on writing today and into an internal debate I am slowly unraveling into something that might come close to a coherent opinion on the matter. The question was:

What is your opinion on authors having their own logos?

By “logos” I didn’t mean a specific, uniform way their name appears on their books, websites, and other marketing materials. I literally meant a symbol that represents the author’s brand (something like the Nike swoosh symbol) as separate from their publisher logo, or series logo. Opinions were fairly evenly split between those who believe it’s tacky, to those who believe an author’s brand is absolutely worth marketing and logos are a powerful way to do that. Some back-and-forth happened, and the discussion turned to traditionally published authors vs. self-published authors, and author brand vs. publisher brand.

Of course, every self-published author is, in fact, a publisher. Therefore, one argument stated, a self-published author can absolutely have a logo, because they are their own imprint, and just as valuable as any other publishing house out there, so they deserve to brand and market that.

I don’t disagree with any of that. However, I do draw a solid distinction for myself as a self-published author between what I do when I write, and what I do when I publish what I write, and that distinction dictates what it is I want to brand and market in the first place. What follows is my own personal opinion, not to be construed as word of law, or any sort of authority on the matter. I welcome any counter arguments and commentary in general. Please do chime in in the comments below.

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2018 Industry Predictions

Every year, Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords puts out a long post of predictions for the near future of the Indie book industry. He is usually pretty spot on, so every year, I spend a few minutes reading what he has to say. Today, there are two posts I want to share:

2017 Year in Review and 2018 Preview

2018 Book Industry Predictions

My main take-away from this post is perfectly summed up in this one sentence: “Fair competition at Amazon does not exist.” 

If you’re at all serious about being or becoming an author, whether you are traditionally published or self-published, do yourself a favor and read these two posts.

IngramSpark Part 3: The Little Things

For my last trick, I have a few little details and opinions to share about IngramSpark. They are all things I either contacted IS about, or researched online because I had lingering questions after I read their guidebooks and FAQs.

A note to start: IngramSpark’s online chat is great if you have questions. They’ll ask your account number and ISBN for the book you have issues with, and they’ll be able to help you then and there. It’s the most efficient way to get assistance. Email takes a few days for a response, which isn’t ideal, and I haven’t tried the phone support yet.

Since this turned out somewhat longer than I originally intended, I sorted it all into sections again.

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IngramSpark Part 2: Interior Layout

Because of the printing and formatting details discussed in the first part of this series, I made several judgment calls for my own books’ setup:

1. I changed the trim sizes from the original 6″ x 9″ to 5.25″ x 8″. I think the smaller size is more fitting for a paperback book. It’s also more practical and easier to hold/carry around.

2. I changed all the covers. This was both for aesthetic reasons, and more practical ones, since my old covers didn’t always print very well, and I couldn’t afford to do seven iterations of each (the way I had done with CreateSpace) to get it right.

3. I updated the interior formatting (a necessity because of the smaller trim size), spruced up the chapter headings, and made the fonts smaller to cut down on page count, and thus printing costs and unit price.

4. I set my prices low enough to be attractive but not net me negative royalties. Going along with this, I also set my books as non-returnable, because that would definitely have bankrupted me. More on this later, if there’s time.

This post deals with the technical aspects of formatting a book interior. It’s a lot of information to share, so prepare yourself. I won’t have one for the covers, because there is only one hard and fast rule to stick to there: If you want to stock your book in stores, the book price MUST be printed on the cover as part of the bar code.

Ready? Here we go!

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IngramSpark Part 1: Homework

You may have noticed I haven’t been very active here recently. Part of the reason is that I made the decision to switch my print book distribution from CreateSpace to IngramSpark. I did this because…

1. CreateSpace closed its online store, now only allowing authors to sell through Amazon and its Expanded Distribution. This not only affects how authors will earn royalties, but also distribution strategies, like the one I had planned, which now got flushed.

2. IngramSpark is the go-to distributor for Indies and small publishing houses because, unlike CreateSpace, it is not in direct competition with the bookstores and libraries that order through them, which increases the likelihood of getting a physical book onto store shelves.

3. My print sales through CreateSpace were almost nonexistent, so I figured a change was in order. Whether it pans out or not is yet to be seen, but doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is not in the stars for me.

I figured, since I have this website, and it’s meant to help other authors, I would document this journey for posterity. Frankly, I didn’t realize until I started how much work it would actually be just to shift 8 existing print titles, so this is going to be a series of posts, rather than one big one.

This being the first, it’s naturally about homework. Because I actually did months of it before I took a single step toward my ultimate goal. When the idea took shape in my head, I was hesitant to do it, largely because of the cost involved (Spoiler Alert: the cost is steep). So I didn’t do anything for months, thinking I was fine where I was, and there was no reason to change. But, me being me, I couldn’t leave well enough alone, so I started reading up on IngramSpark. What follows is what I learned…

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Enhancing Your Author Website

Multiple writing projects have kept me busy lately and I haven’t had a chance to update this blog (or my author one, for that matter), but I came across this article just this morning and had to share, because I couldn’t have said it better myself. Yes, as an author, you absolutely do need a website. But just having one isn’t enough, if you don’t have it properly set up to inform your readers and capture their interest. The Book Designer’s “Top 10 Ways Your Website Leaves Readers, and Leads, in the Dust” aptly summarizes the basics of how your website should work.

Because it’s geared more generally toward fiction and non-fiction authors, I offer one caveat for fiction writers specifically:

You don’t need to, and likely shouldn’t, post too much contact information on your website. Unlike non-fiction writers whose books usually support their other career, and who want people to contact them for business reasons, you probably don’t want strangers and fans blowing up your phone and showing up on your doorstep uninvited. That can get super creepy and becomes a privacy/security issue. What you do want is to provide your email address and your social media links.

If you’re making your own website, the best advice I can give you is Google your favorite authors, check out how their websites are laid out, and try to emulate the features you like best.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!