Francis Hamit on Electronic Publishing
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Francis Hamit is a writer and colleague who has done considerable work in self publishing in electronic formats. I persuaded him to share his thoughts with readers.
I thought this important enough to warrant its own page.
This is the latest in a series that included many letters. I will try to go find some of the previous essays that were published in mail, and put them into this page. Meanwhile, here is his latest. This is mostly on POD publishing; previous essays were on electronic publishing. You may find them by searching through Mail (until I find the references).
by Francis Hamit <http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A3VR9FYMR9ZEX5/ref=cm_dly_apdp> at 1:46 PM PST, December 29, 2007
At this point, it looks like I will become my own publisher for the print editions of "The Shenandoah Spy". Why, you ask?
These days you cannot even present your work to a mainstream publisher without an agent. The days of "over the transom" are long gone. Agents always say that they are looking for new talent, but what they are looking for is the next easy sale, and, to be fair, if I were them, having sold everything from Christmas cards to real estate in my time, I would do the same. They're in business and meeting the "nut" is a constant worry. They can drown in amateur submissions. It's a great way to go broke. So I understand, really I do. I don't much like it, but I do understand. Nothing personal, just business.
And so is the decision of the publishers to abdicate their role as the custodians of the future of American and English literature, which is predicated on the bottom line, as is the death grip that marketing departments can acquire over the the works of even those who do grab the brass ring of mainstream publishing.
Self publishing is decried because it is a real threat to people who view the glass as either half full or half empty. I am far from alone in my quest to reach an audience by the most direct means. Amazon Shorts is one way to do that, but it is a Debbie Fields sampling medium rather than a place where great sales occur. It has its fans and the quality of the work is top rate.
In my search for a print publisher, I found over a dozen little companies that seemed likely, until I realized that their catalog consisted of between one and four authors (who are also owners). I found others who use Print On Demand (POD) to publish books by people who just need to see their name on a book, and who pay royalties, but no advances. (Not for nothing are these outfits called "vanity presses".) However, the dearth of new fiction from the big mainstream publishers has created a situation where new authors with such publishing arrangements do get reviewed. Favorably, if the work has merit.
Electronic publishing is a niche market and probably always will be, unless the new Amazon Kindle device takes off better than all those book readers that preceded it. We have high hopes, but my experience tells me that while the comfortable and familiar may lack the excitement of the new and novel, it sells. And selling books is what this is all about. Writers are just like anyone else in one respect. They want to make a living at what they do.
Print On Demand seems to be the answer here, something which obviously Amazon.com has taken note of since they offer POD service both through CreateSpace and Booksurge. CreateSpace will even give you a free ISBN. You need that to get distributed in all the channels used by publishers.
So what is involved in going to a POD version? Well, we began with a new cover, hiring David Martin to do a full color image of Belle Boyd that reflects the danger and excitement of the novel. The portrait on the Amazon Shorts portions is a real picture of Belle from the U.S. archives and it works fine for that, but a print book cover requires a new design.
Yes, this costs. It all costs. The type has to be re-edited and re-set and the text will be changed as certain repetitions dictated by the serial form are taken out and some new material, based upon my continuing research, is added. The changes will be barely noticeable to most readers, but I believe in the principle of "Kaizan" or continuous improvement.
Historical fiction has traps for the unwary writer. The first is making up things which not only did not happen but could not have happened. Screaming anachronisms. The flip side of that is becoming a prisoner of your own research, and providing such detail that the reader bogs down and despairs of ever discovering the story within. I hope to avoid that and hired a new reader to cast fresh eyes upon it before we reset the type.
If you want to see this process for yourself you have only to buy all the Amazon Shorts sections now and then compare them with the POD book when that is available next year.
The other disadvantage of mainstream publishing is that you end up giving up portions of your other rights in the work, and while that may be a non-issue for most novels, this one has "legs" and I do have a film and television agent.
Once you master the POD process, you may well not go back. Jerry Pournelle suggested I do a book about that, but we are not quite there yet. Jerry's motto for his computer user columns is "we make stupid mistakes so you don't have to". Yeah, what he said. We're not there yet. As time and experience permits.
Because there are advantages to this as well as problems. One advantage is you keep your rights yourself. Publishers, even the tiny ones, want half, even of they give you no money up front for your work.
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The filter on hardbounds for reviewers existed when I was doing all those reviews for the Los Angeles Daily News. (1) We got thousands of books and I personally got hundreds, but no publisher ever sent a trade paperback because that was normally a secondary edition, not a first. It has to be a new book to even be considered for a review because if it's not new, it's not "news" either.
The recent advent of Print on Demand has changed that a little bit, but old habits die hard and every reviewer gets an order of magnitude more of review copies than there is time and space to review. The big dogs have the advantage here; big name author, big publisher....hard to resist because reviewers are only human and want to read the latest best seller too. (2) all the Print on Demand publishers (meaning those with actual plants) provide economical hardbound options and you can roll out multiple editions at different prices for different markets. Especially if you don't figure to make the cut from brick and mortar bookstores. Those houses that provide only trade paperbacks are for folks that don't figure to get many reviews anyway. (3) there are all sorts of instances where the above is wrong.
Finally, the regular paid book review is rapidly disappearing and this has been a subject of much discussion and not a little hand wringing in the journalistic community. Authors are required these days to be their own publicists, which is hard to do and takes you away from the core mission of writing more books. Added to that is the growing number of people who don't read and are proud of it.
A follow up on review copies which you can add to that last I sent.
The only way to get e-books reviewed is to provide a paper copy that is bound. I did this with "The Shenandoah Spy" and have gotten a few reviews. The logic is unassailable here; if you are a reviewer, which book are you going to review? The one that requires you to download it and squint at a computer screen for hours on end, or has to be printed out, or the one that is printed and bound like any other book? E-book products, in my experience, have not sold well because they require extra effort on the part of consumers that few are willing to make just to satisfy an impulse. Zipf's Principle of Least Effort says that people will buy something they are looking for at the first place they find it. That need has to be measured against the costs of acquisition and the more trouble that is, the more likely the customer is to move on and look elsewhere.
We are trying the set up a web store page for Brass cannon Books. So far, it has not been a good experience. We tried using Homestead Storefront with templates. Thing is a total kludge; very slow and very limited. When our local tech support guy, who charges $35.00 per hour, couldn't make it work I canceled the account. It looked good going in but is anything but intuitive or easy to use.
Then I tried signing up for Amazon's Webstore. I never got to the design part because it kept sending me back to the start page and there were major problems just getting registered. Also, they did not disclose in the FAQ that you cannot set a link to another outside site such as CafePress.
CafePress is where we have our "affinity merchandise", which is a fancy term for coffee cups, t-shirts,etc. This , too, is Print on demand, and a major part of our marketing strategy, or at least a way to recover my costs for that fancy cover. This is an easy site to set up, although we are replacing the images with new ones that provide a better graphic.
I also fished around for a better deal on larger runs of the book in case I get a deal with a big retailer. Seems that Lightning Source has huge economies of scale and no one can beat their price either for short run or longer runs. I tried to contact Amazon Booksurge, but they never got back to me. That whole company is in bad need of a shakeup. No one knows how to do business and they often , for all their rhetoric to the contrary, forget who the customer is with their "forcing behavior" tactics and "don't call us, we'll call you" e-mail policies. I sold my stock months ago.
I guess I'll have to do a custom web site that will let me link into these other site. Off the rack solutions for e-commerce suffer from too many geek "everyone knows that" assumptions and bad documentation and site design which does not encourage confidence. CafePress has done it right. The rest, not so much.
An added note; it took me three tries to get out of Amazon Webstore deal. After I unloaded on their tech rep he needed a confirmation web mail. The e-mail I got can not be replied to directly and requires a link be activated and form filled in. Apparently no one reads these because I got another automated reply and when I said, yeah, i really do want to cancel, finally one acknowledging the cancellation but asking me if I wanted to fill out a survey. Your comments about the Iron Law of Bureaucracy came to mind as I recalled that to get anything up on Amazon Shorts, I have to have a third party verify that it indeed my work. My verifier is Leigh, who, of course ,works for me.
I went back to bed.
Regarding Bob Sproul's complaint about e-book formats. As an author and publisher I was dealing with this from the other end. As you know, I started doing e-books back in 2004, recycling old magazine articles to test the market, which turned out to be very tiny. At least for that kind of thing, which is usually found in abundance on public library databases for "free". "Free" isn't really free. The libraries each pay large annual subscription fees for each of these services. Your tax dollars at work. They also get Federal money for new computers every year or so which gives even those without computers at home access to the Internet and the technology a "free" way. The average cost per citizen is pennies per year. The average cost per use is less than two dollars. It is one of the things that government can do that the private sector can't. The "Digital Divide" between rich and poor has been abolished.
I'm all for programs like this and these libraries carry a lot of e-books in their virtual catalogs as well. I also realize that authors and publishers can't collect at every turn, although I do favor the adoption here of the "Public Lending Right" scheme they have in the UK and other nations now. It pays a micropayment for every time a library book is checked out and caps the total so that best-sellers don't suck all of the money out of the program. Since is it based on usage, it is not some kind of arts welfare program; just recognition that the work has value to the community. We have the "First Sale" doctrine, meaning royalties on a book are collected only on initial purchase. That is, if the book is sold as new and not a remainder that exists because the publisher printed twice the amount that expected to be sold and took back the rest as returns, which were then sold (First sale) to a dealer who shipped them back to the same bookstores to be sold at a fraction of the original price. Mr. Sproul buys a lot of used books. These return no author royalties either. Neither do the sales samples which are put into stock by bookstores nor the review copies which are flipped on Amazon Marketplace and eBay. I am so competing so much with myself that I find it miraculous that anything sells at all which pays me, but it does.
Back in 2004 when people first began touting e-books as The Next Big Thing, it was a way to get product on Amazon.com and other online sites, including those run by brick and mortar bookstores. You had to buy ISBNs and give the same 55% discount on this virtual product as you did on the physical one; they even demanded that you design "book covers". Amazon.com then greatly complicated things by trying to force people to use a format (mobi-pocket) that they own. That caused some of us to NOT follow suit because there are plenty of competing sites that still distribute the other formats. Amazon then created the Amazon Shorts program but let it die from neglect after getting me and about 400 other name authors excited about it. And there was that whole episode with print-on-demand (POD) books where they would only sell what they printed or charge you an extra fee for having your books in their warehouse and in their catalog. That whole mess was the main reason I went with a conventional offset run and a distributor who could also get me into the brick and mortar stores when it came time last year to publish a print edition of "The Shenandoah Spy". At the same time we stopped putting up new e-books because they were a pain to format properly and the formats we use are only a small segment of the market. Not to mention that the sales were pitiful and not a good return on investment. Good thing I called it an experiment going in. I'd be embarrassed to call it a business.
And people bitched that we had DRM and wouldn't just give away the store. This is not an easy way to make a living at the best of times, even when you have a big publisher giving you advances and pushing your books. We don't have that. Last year you asked me about Smashwords.com, which is so new that it is still in beta. Mark Coker, another novelist who couldn't get anyone to read his stuff (there are an amazing number of those these days) created this service, which automatically formats an e-book into all ten formats, including iPhone. And iPhone is the obvious future of e-book publishing because it has attained the kind of critical mass; the installed base, needed to produce significant sales. There are over 15 million iPhones and ten percent of them already have e-book readers on them. Compare that to the putative numbers for the Kindle and the Sony Reader. Then compare the price and the additional functionality and you see that the market advantage of IPhone will continue to dominate this new market. Not that it matters with Smashwords because it puts you stuff in EVERY format. It also has no DRM. You can print it out, e-mail it, whatever. Some of the e-books on Smashwords.com are free and other allow you to set the price. Otherwise you have to pay what the author wants for the first copy.
This reminds me of a sign in the lobby of the Chicago Art Institute. "You may pay what you want (to enter), but you must pay something." The advocates of "free" theorize that some people, out of the kindness of their hearts, will chip in anyway, or buy the print version. What if you have no print version? Amazon Shorts sold everything for 49 cents each and gave 40% of that to the authors. They did very little to promote the site nor did they have a real staff. Come to that, they didn't even have a t-shirt that people could buy to promote it. Will "free" work for e-books? Especially in this economy? Personally I think that "free" or competing on price devalues the work in the eyes of the buyer. It's like giving the book away to friends and family, something I never do. I don't want it to be put aside and become "that book that Francis wrote", never to be read and ultimately discarded. If people pay, they will read it and may even review it. I think that Amazon Shorts made a big mistake with their price point. It made everything too cheap.
Some printed books are now being priced at $100.00 or more because they have limited audiences and the authors and publishers need a short path to "break-even" Most will end up in libraries at that price, to be shared around, but at least something has been paid for the effort of producing these books. You won't find an e-book version of any of them. That would be giving away the store. A physical product can only be read by one person at a time; a virtual one can be instantly made into an infinite number of copies and distributed with very little effort. That is the rationale behind DRM. Call me cynical, but most people will never pay for an item they can get for nothing. That's just not part of our culture.
Yet I do free stuff all the time, like these blog entries. That's promotion; a way to keep the brand alive. Mark Twain wrote letters to the editor for the same reason. Part of the theory of Smashwords is that e-books should not cost as much because they are not a physical product. Perhaps so, but if you already have a physical version, you're not going to give much advantage, price-wise to the virtual editions, simply because you have costs connected with that inventory and want those sales to predominate. Physical editions will always have greater appeal. E-books are a niche market based on convenience, but any book you have to plug in is at a market disadvantage just because of the price. There is an entire genre of "cell phone novels" that has risen in Japan, but it's an apples and oranges comparison (See the article by Dana Goodyear in the Dec 22-29, 2008 issue of The New Yorker). The best of those end up in printed books. There is a big potential market out there. It will be years in coming to a point where we can make real money on it.
So why am I publishing now on Smashwords.com? Well, it's part of the Virtual Commons, for one thing; a place to test my text, build my brand and create interest in my other work. We have a mountain of old material, never published, which can be dusted off and put up to see how well readers like it and if they want to see more of that story or those characters. In every format, with very little effort. Amazon charges to convert files to Kindle; Smashwords does not. Suddenly my front-end costs are so low that all it takes is a little additional effort and I can expand my catalog. I choose the price and some might be "free" but at the "Set Your Own Price" level so that those who really like it can chip in a little.
I don't own any part of Smashwords, but it strikes me as the right idea at the right time for authors and self-publishers. They give back 85% of the net payment to the authors. That's a great deal. So the experiment continues.
February 20, 2009
In Partial Response to Francis Hamit's take on e-books.
Mr. Hamit states that 2004 was when everyone started saying that e-books were the next big thing. Baen books started taking a hard look at it well before that way back in 2000. Eric Flint has a series of essays regarding his take on the whole e-book/DRM/electronic publishing situation. You can still find them on the Baen website under the heading of Prime Palavar in the free library section. The result of that was Baen's current system of e-books which involves a mixture of selling bundles (webscriptions), individual books and E-ARC versions of books before official release. So far from the outside it appears to be quite successful since they have continued the format virtually unchanged for the past eight years or so.
There appears to be several points to this apparent success.
They also have included CDs with several hardback releases that included all the free library content and all the books published in that books series at the time of publishing. Overall I have been very pleased with it to the point where I have purchased several hundred dollars in e-books from their site over the last eight years.(e.g. Fallen Angels) A quick count indicates sixty four e-books purchased.
One point I can't emphasize enough is how important not having any DRM involved has kept me as a customer. Every time I have had to deal with DRM in electronic publishing of any kind (Books, Video, Games) I have come away feeling its a hassle and in some cases, such as Apples iTunes, I have actually ended up loosing money after doing an OS re-install and realizing that I could not recover my purchased television episodes from iTunes. Something I kind of assumed would be possible after my experiences with Baen. To put it another way if DRM gets to the point where the customer feels like saying "Oh come ON!" then the seller is making a mistake and is loosing more then he is saving.
My current reading includes Hobbes's Leviathan, Herodotus, Thucydides, Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and a collection of Aesop's Fables. And I read fiction, mostly science fiction. Not long ago I finished Exile -- and Glory. My thanks for that. Loved it.
Hobbes and Herodotus I read in hardcopy (paperback books), but I have not found Thucydides in my local haunts, so I read The History of the Peloponnesian War online. I find this substantially less rewarding an experience than reading the printed works of Hobbes and Herodotus. I have highlighted selected text in Leviathan and Herodotus and penciled comments in the margins. I cannot do that with Thucydides.
I estimate that 80 to 90 percent of my reading is straight history or political philosophy or hard science. I read mathematics texts for enjoyment. (Yeah, I'm weird that way.) With the singular exceptions of Exile -- and Glory and my much treasured copy of The Green Hills of Earth, every book in my possession has highlights and comments. That includes my Jerusalem Bible.
When e-books offer me the opportunity to highlight text and enter comments to a given passage and search for those highlights and comments, then shall I give serious consideration to buying a reader. Until then . . .
Live long and prosper
[PS As to the 'Stimulus', Proverbs says 'Without deliberation plans come to nothing.' Is President Obama wiser than King Solomon?]
Project Gutenberg and e-books reminder
Jerry, With all the talk on e-books, it seemed like a good time to remind people that Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/ can be a good source. E.g. I checked and Thucydides is available for free. And regarding Escape From Hell, I see that UPS's website claims that my pre-ordered copy has status of 'Delivered' !! Although it will have to wait a bit, I am on the road to Aztlan with Lord Sandry and Burning Tower....
Please stay well,
Gutenberg certainly has a number of classics in eBook format. I expect that ends the bookstores that sell "The Works of Aristotle" and such like. Actually those stores are pretty well gone along with darned near all the other book stores. Authors have mixed emotions about used book stores. We don't get any revenue from used books, but people do read our works and more readers is a good thing. And I used to like browsing through the dozen or so used book stores concentrated along Hollywood Boulevard near Highland. They're gone now. The best one, Pickwick, became a B. Dalton back when B. Dalton was a powerful chain. I haven't been there in years.
February 20, 2009
Rudy Rucker on Self-Publishing | Self-Publishing Review
Henry has come up with another great interview that links to science fiction.
February 23, 2009
That link above is to something new I am trying. A novel written specifically for cell phones and e-readers, designed to be read in short bites (or is that "bytes"?). The novel itself is about a squad of homicide detectives in a dystopian setting a few decades in the future. In this first episode a new man arrives, except he's not really a man, or is he? Because of the short length and the experimental nature of the work I am using the "Set your own price" option at Smashwords.com, which means, yes, that can be zero. But naturally I hope it won't be. Not to pull a Stephen King here or anything, but the pace of delivery on future chapters will be accelerated by the amount of money each previous chapter earns.
Obviously. Not a path I intend to follow, but I remain interested. The paperback market is collapsing; something will replace it but we don't know -- at least I certainly don't know -- what will replace it. In my case subscriptions have made an enormous difference.