Bits of Biz: A Look at the Writing Business
BITS OF BIZ: A Blog from Linda Mickey

Amazon Reminds Me of K-Mart

For some time, Amazon has courted the do-it-yourself publisher; the writer cum publisher who wanted to avoid the constraints of working with a commercial publisher and forge ahead on his own. That included offering writers a viable audiobook option and a way to create audiobooks of professional quality.

Now Amazon has changed the rules.  (Read the full story here from Publishers Weekly.)  Audible, Amazon's audiobook subsidiary, lowered the royalty on self-published work.

The take-away point is that Amazon will force self-publishers to work harder and market better. In theory, self-publishers will want to sell more because they are earning less.  K-Mart tried that philosophy, cutting its margins so close that it nearly went under. It couldn't sell enough to cover its costs, let alone make a profit.  DIY audiobook publishers will be hard pressed to cover their costs in a reasonable time frame because the royalty rate is so much lower.

Publishers Weekly failed to say what the royalty rate will be for the commercial publishers. It stated only that they would have a different one. Therefore we can only assume that they will continue to get the higher royalty rate of 50% to 90%. Why? If a DIY publisher creates a professional level product, what difference does it make to Amazon if the publisher's address is in New York or Pella, Iowa? Is Amazon saying that its audio publication arm does not produce a quality product? Is Amazon willing to lose money in yet another area of its ventures?  These are all possibilities. The Publishers Weekly story doesn't say.

Only one thing is certain - by lowering the royalty rate, Amazon sends a loud message - self publishers go away.  And now there is another decision self-publishers must make as they try to manage their businesses. Is offering an audiobook still a viable option? Will they ever make money at it? How does this affect the bottom line?

These are all things to ponder as we wait for the next announcement from Seattle.

Hemingway Can Help

Run-on sentences, fragments, adverbs, passive voice. These are all terms used when we speak about language. As writers, we are aware of these things and try to avoid them because they can confuse the reader, imply meaning that we did not intend, or slow the pacing.

Grammar is no longer taught in some schools so where is a writer to learn about these things? How can a writer improve her craft if she can't locate the trouble spots?

I'm getting pretty good at finding the adverbs; I just run a search for "ly" words. Fragments are permissible depending on how they are used so I don't worry so much about them. However, I am the queen of passive voice and that's not as easy to locate.

ABC News recently featured a story about an app that can help. (Read the story here.) The key to using an app like this is to recognize that it is merely a tool. It will not write for you. It can only aid in improving what has already come from your creativity.

I encourage writers to employ all the devices available to them. It isn't just the first book or story you want to sell but the second, third or fourth. Publishing does not automatically mean selling. Poor grammar, bad spelling, and questionable structure will not bring readers back to your writing. The Hemingway app sounds like a great tool and I intend to try it myself. Hopefully it will help me get rid of that pesky passive voice.

Is Amazon the Walmart of the Book Industry?

Last week, I tripped over numerous articles blasting Amazon and its methods. One point was repeated by most of them: Amazon is putting its competition out of business and thereby building a monopoly. (Read one of those articles here.)

I'm no lawyer and I certainly don't understand what defines a monopoly in today's world. It seems some corporations are allowed to build gigantic structures and not be considered monopolies while others do the same thing and end up in court.

In reading one of these articles, I suddenly thought of Walmart. The chief complaint about it was that it drove all the competition away and, as a result, gone are many distribution channels. For example, in some communities, Black & Decker or Kraft Foods only have Walmart for distribution. Walmart can pay any price it wishes to its suppliers and the supplier has no choice. Its distribution options are greatly limited. If Kraft and Black & Decker want to stay in business, they are forced to accept Walmart's terms.

As writers, we tend to think Amazon is terrific because it is the "go to" place where our fans can find our work. However, have we substituted one problem for another? Sure, we are free to self-publish our work and we are not subjugated by the commercial publishers but if Amazon becomes the only distribution channel, will it force writers/publishers to accept terms that are as bad or worse than what commercial publishers offered? That appears to be the cautionary flag raised by some of these articles.

Like you, my stories and books (digital and print) are for sale through Amazon.  They are also available elsewhere. That was a business decision I made knowing that many of my fans own e-readers that are brands other than Kindle. To reach all my fans, I must make my work available to them and that precludes Amazon exclusivity.

As you release your work into the marketplace, you become the publisher. Distribution decisions are yours to make.  Amazon is important but it is not the only option. Before you sign any contract (even the digital ones) be sure you are getting what you need to grow your writing business. 

Do You Have A Thoughtful Place?

How do writers write? An author friend recently shared a Michael Connelly interview that addressed that question.  (Find it here.)  For those of you who are not familiar with Connelly, he is a mystery/suspense writer who crafts the Harry Bosch and Mickey Holler novels and he has some unique habits.

Connelly writes in a blacked-out office, ingests gallons of ice tea, and works on a laptop on a couch. In another interview, I read that Dean Koontz goes to the desk in his office in the early morning and writes for a full day.  Sue Grafton, author of the alphabet murder series, goes to her office and answers emails to get the words flowing. Then she works off and on for the rest of the day.

The common thread for all these writers is that they have a place to which they go to write and they follow a routine. They "go to work." They approach their writing as a job and work hard at it every day. Grafton said she works seven days a week because she doesn't want to get disconnected from her writing. I don't advocate 24-7 but when I go into my writing place, I am mentally ready to put words into sentences.

What we can learn from Grafton and Connelly is that a writing place is an important thing to have. It may be your office or it may be your back deck but it is a spot in which your brain knows it is about to go to work.  No video games or Candy Crush allowed.  When you are in this place, you are separated from the rest of the world and you focus only on your writing.  I address this in Chapter One of Dollars and Sense when I ask if you have a place to conduct your writing business. This business spot is not necessarily the same one you use to create.  Your writing space should be for writing, whether that is at the local coffee house or in your home.

The key point is that you should establish a special location in which to write where you shift into work mode and can put words together in stories, poems, or articles. Even Winnie the Pooh had his "thoughtful spot." Whatever you write, you may find it easier if you have a designated thinking place.

Are Print Books Dead?

The answer to that question is a resounding No, according to recent survey results posted in the New York Times.  (See the data here.)

It seems that different people prefer different media at different times and use that media for different purposes. It certainly applies to me. I have a smartphone. I download both audio and ebooks to it.  I also have an e-reader. And, next to my favorite chair, is a printed book. In fact, I've been so focused on reading lately that I haven't written as much as I should.  The point is: to attract readers, publishers will have to provide material in whatever format the buyer wants. So, contrary to what was thought just a year ago, the printed book will survive. How it gets to the reader will undoubtedly change but the desire for print on paper will never go away completely.

What does this mean for our writing businesses? It means that our editors and publishers will offer us contracts that cover all types and manner of publishing. Our work can and will appear in a variety of formats; sometimes in only one and sometimes in multiple. Evaluating those contracts may be more difficult and require us to be especially diligent. In addition, if we self-publish, we will have to make decisions about whether or not to offer our work in multiple formats.

In October, I addressed this on a personal level as we made the decision about whether or not to release the second edition of Dollars and Sense for Writers as only an ebook.  (Find it here or here or here.) It has been an interesting experiment.

I am currently working on the fifth mystery in the Kyle Shannon series and we will have to make another decision.  Based on the Times article, it may not be a difficult one.

Do Writers Ever Take Vacations?

You may have noticed that three weeks have passed without a new posting.  We were on vacation and I took a break from all forms of writing. Well, not quite. An analyst lives inside me and so I spent a small portion of the trip taking notes about our experiences. When we returned home, I converted those notes to details about each aspect of the trip. Eventually, I will share the tome with the family.

My point is that writers write. We can't help ourselves. We may not write for publication (my trip report is not for general consumption although my brother is urging me to post portions of it) but we find we must do it. Some part of our being requires that we document and share what we experience whether we fictionalize it or report it as it happened. My subconscious mind worked on my scribbles throughout the trip and full sentences emerged when I finally sat down at the computer. 

The other thing that writers do is observe. We see the exhaustion of a parent responding to a demanding child, a man's irritation when trying to avoid being hit by a motorized scooter, or the unbridled joy on upturned faces when the sun breaks through the clouds. Writers notice these things and we think about how to describe them. We make notes in our smartphones for later use. Was that a scowl or a grimace? Is the sunset red, orange, yellow or burnt sienna?

Words are a writer's tools.  It felt good to leave those tools on the workbench for a couple of weeks but I missed them and am happy to use them again.  Curious about where we went and what we experienced? Stop by my blog Reflections to see specific thoughts about the trip and come back here for more business-related postings coming soon.

Want Me to Buy Your Book? Don't Steal Mine.

You probably think piracy doesn't apply to you but it is a growing problem and this form of theft deprives you of income you should receive. In September, the LA Times included an article about it.  (Read it here.)  Verrier focuses on movies because the losses in that medium are enormous yet books and music are also experiencing rampant piracy. Sure there are professional thieves behind much of it but those criminals need buyers. I submit that many good people don't understand that piracy is a bad thing. They simply view their purchase as getting something for next to nothing. They are taking advantage of a good deal.  However, simply stated, using works that you should pay for and don't is stealing.

Sadly, I have run into the piracy issue personally. I once attended a workshop where the handouts were clearly chapters copied from a book that had not been written by the lecturer. A few paragraphs might be considered "fair use." A whole chapter? No way. Then there was the student who admitted to using a pirated copy of a textbook he had downloaded from an Internet site. His excuse was that the book was expensive and the publisher could afford the loss of that sale. Perhaps the publisher could but what about the writer who gets paid only on the basis of actual sales? 

Intellectual property piracy is certainly a moral issue. However it is also an economic one. In order to complete the circle, create my product/sell my product/buy your product, I must earn income and that comes from royalties resulting from sales.

So how does this affect our writing business? First, do what you can to protect your work.  Second, accept that there will be some theft of your work and your income will not be as high as it should be.  Third, do unto others as you want them to do unto you.  Always pay for your movies and books.  Don't want to pay or can't afford it?  Use the library.

Finally, if you see piracy, talk to the person about it. They may not realize how their actions directly harm you and other writers.

Google Wins, Writers Lose-Part 2

After eight long years, the court finally made a decision in the Google case. Simply stated, according to the court, Google is now allowed to copy anything and everything and offer it for sale or public viewing.

Google claims that this is allowed under the fair use portion of copyright law because only a small portion of the material can be viewed at any one time. I can attest that is not true. I have successfully read an entire book without being stopped until well into the final chapters. I accomplished this by logging off Google and then back on. When Google finally stopped my read, it was a simple matter of switching devices and then I was able to finish the book. I read an entire book without paying for it. The writer received no royalty.  Multiply this by the millions of additional books Google plans to digitize and writers can say goodbye to their incomes.  You can read more about the case here.

Google claims that it only copies material that is out of print yet much of the case hinged on its digitization of books that were still under copyright and whose authors are very much alive. It is important for all of us, including judges who will hear similar cases, to remember that Google is a corporation and its sole reason for existence is to make money. It doesn't do anything that doesn't further than effort including helping itself to copyrighted material.

This case proves that it is better to ask for forgiveness than to request permission. Google got away with it because judges don't realize that very few writers are rich. If we are lucky enough to earn $2 per book in royalties, we are a long way from making a living off our sales. Now that Google has been allowed to help itself to the product we create, we have to ask ourselves how much this will hurt our earning power.  If we earn nothing at all, is there any point to writing for publication?

Back in 2006, a lawyer involved with the case told me that Google would win eventually. It had enough time and money to guarantee it. How prophetic those words proved to be.

Too Many Books?

A writer acquaintance of mine recently went on a rant about the number of "books" that are published annually. One comment came from Bob Mayer and he stated the case perfectly. We must deal with the market as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Businesses must be fluid and react to a changing marketplace in order to suceed and survive. And, like or not, the moment writers accept any kind of payment for their work, they are in business. Look at Marshall Field's and Selfridge's. They gave their customers what they wanted. Well, writers. That's what we must do and what is wanted today is content and plenty of it.

In this age of instant gratification, readers are one click away from new material. They polish off a short story in thirty minutes.  If they don't like what they are reading, they don't bother to finish it. They merely click to something else. Asking them to wait while you craft your next novel is being unrealistic.

Three forces are at work in today's marketplace:
1."Books" aren't just books. Any title with an assigned ISBN, everything from college essays to short stories to reference works, is included in the count. Thanks to e-publishing, anyone can publish anything. In today's world, writing and publishing go hand-in-hand. Is some of that work of dubious quality? Of course. Just as it is in any business.

2. Riches and fame are part of the writer mystic. Can I blame people for wanting some of that for themselves?  Reality will set in eventually. Business is hard work and that includes the writing business.

3. A writing instructor once said that everyone has at least one story to tell. Once told, the author may not care what happens after that. Nevertheless, one story per person is a lot of "books" and all of them are just a click away.

Are there too many "books?" Undoubtedly. Do many of them need editing and rewriting? Absolutely. But I cannot tell people not to write or publish their work; I cannot silence their voices. They must find their own way in the same jungle all writers currently inhabit.

Electronic publishing has been around for nearly twenty years. It's here to stay and I, for one, am happy to be a part of it.  I just wonder what's coming next.

J K Rowling, Elmore Leonard and Me

Elmore Leonard passed away recently and among the many tributes to his talent were articles that repeated his famous ten tips for writing.  An article in Publishers' Weekly recalled those tips and added a few more from other well-known writers. Although the article's title says these tips are for self-published writers, they apply to all of us.  (Read it here.)

The lists got me thinking. For every tip, I could name at least one well-know writer who doesn't/didn't follow it.  For example: Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. 

I am currently reading a P. D. James and am in Chapter Ten with no murder but a clear vision of the county manor house and its occupants. Thanks to J. K. Rowling, we all know enough about quidditch to play it ourselves. And when I read James Lee Burke, I perspire in the Louisiana heat. His representation of a post-Katrina New Orleans brought tears to my eyes and I've never been there.

Do all those adjectives make these, and others like them, poor writers? Absolutely not. What we have from Rowling, James, and Burke is their special and unique voice, their way of telling us a story that includes a lot of description. On the other hand, some writers use few adjectives and we are left to entirely imagine the people and places about which we are reading. Jane Austen tells us little about how Darcy looks other than to say he is handsome and that seems to be more than enough. For two hundred years, readers have had no problem imagining the man who won Lizzy's heart.  (Although for many of us, he now looks a lot like Colin Firth.)

As a reader, I want enough narrative to create a mental picture of the person or place the writer creates.  As a writer, I try to find balance between too much and not enough.  It is a struggle we all share and hopefully one that we win with practice.


April 2014

Recent Posts

  1. Amazon Reminds Me of K-Mart
    Sunday, March 16, 2014
  2. Hemingway Can Help
    Sunday, March 02, 2014
  3. Is Amazon the Walmart of the Book Industry?
    Monday, February 24, 2014
  4. Do You Have A Thoughtful Place?
    Sunday, February 16, 2014
  5. Are Print Books Dead?
    Thursday, January 23, 2014
  6. Do Writers Ever Take Vacations?
    Saturday, December 21, 2013
  7. Want Me to Buy Your Book? Don't Steal Mine.
    Wednesday, November 27, 2013
  8. Google Wins, Writers Lose-Part 2
    Monday, November 18, 2013
  9. Too Many Books?
    Tuesday, November 05, 2013
  10. J K Rowling, Elmore Leonard and Me
    Wednesday, October 23, 2013

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