Threading The Needle

Threading The Needle

Picking projects, choosing which anthology to release next and forecasting which novel has the right stuff is always a roll of the dice, but over the last four months, it’s been more like threading a needle while wearing mittens, in the dark, and with a stiff breeze blowing.

Hello Monster Hunters, please forgive my being scarce – it’s not for lack of wanting to post. It is because every time I’ve hovered fingers over the keyboard, I simply haven’t had anything tangible to report. Amazon has again dramatically changed the publishing game (as was suspected in July when the new royalty plan launched) and there has been nothing for it but to hit the brakes on projects and wait to find out how all of this turns out.

It is still very early in the process, but it’s past time for an update and we do have four month’s results in, so here’s what I know so far:

More Emby books are being read through Kindle Unlimited and similar programs than are actually selling. Amazon now compensates for this by paying for each page read and so far, that seems to come in around 30% less than the royalty from a straight sale.

But, because Amazon does not guarantee a same month-to-month payout rate, it’s impossible to know if this will stay the same, rise or decline. That means you can toss the old business plan out with the rubbish, and there’s no point in making a new one until there is some trend or foundation to base it on, hence the aforementioned brakes being put upon projects.

Before we go any further, I’d like to be clear that Emby will continue, so no worries there. I’d also like to apologize (or commiserate, whichever is more accurate – this sucks and we’re all suffering it) to everybody who is waiting to have a story published or waiting on notification of a submission. I’m not cancelling any projects. But… I don’t have a schedule for when they might happen. When the majority of your revenue gets clipped by 30%, it does tend to put a cramp in one’s style.

You might be losing your cool at this point and maybe want to throw your drink across the room (I’m not condoning this type of behavior, but it’s possible that my walls have a few dents and the room an air of whisky about it) but please know that I fully understand and share the frustration that surrounds this thing.

For those that have submitted a story and are waiting on word, I feel it is better to hold of on responses until I have a clear picture of when that particular project is going to move forward. Having said that, I completely understand if you have another market you would like to sell it to and as always, I support the author making money from their work. If you’ve done so by the time the project rolls around, I have no problem with reprinting it if that is an option.

Books that are in production will move along first, and the queue on the website will be updated over the next week to reflect this.

I’ve spoken with a great many of you about this and know from experience how confusing all of it sounds, so I’m going to get into details about what has happened. You may want to add a splash to that drink – this is going to take a minute.

For a proper perspective, we start from the beginning. Most authors already know that over the last two decades, Amazon has revolutionized the publishing industry, giving birth to modern small presses and indie authors by making ebook sales easy and distributing print (including POD) books throughout the lands.

What once required an army of people and an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing costs, marketing and distribution can now be accomplished by an ambitious individual on a shoestring budget, hence the proliferation of silly but ridiculously cool things like a press devoted to monster hunting.

For my wonks (and just because it’s interesting), Amazon began as an online bookseller in 1995, so books have always been their jam. However, and most importantly for us, the Kindle device and ebook library were introduced in November 2007, a mere 8 years ago, and that changed everything.

Since that fateful day, Amazon has owned the ebook game. There have been and are other companies that sell ebooks, but their sales and reach pale by comparison.
For a small outfit like Emby, there are a handful of reasons to deal only with Amazon, the foremost being that they demand ebook exclusivity to enroll your book in the Kindle Select program.

And, in 2015, enrolling your ebook in the Kindle Select program is one of the most powerful marketing moves that a publisher or author can make. In addition to better placement and your book being recommended to readers (as opposed to other, similar titles that are not), enrolling in Kindle Select makes your book available to be downloaded through Amazon programs like the Prime membership lending library and Kindle Unlimited.

This can be viewed as a blessing and a curse, but there is no question that it greatly increases awareness of your ebook, hopefully leading to additional print book sales and ensuring that many more readers have access to the author. As a publisher, I’ve always looked at it as an obligation to the authors that I put the Emby books in front of as many eyes as can be, and this is the most effective way to do that.

Frankly, I’ve tried many other marketing methods and come away wanting. Press releases, blog tours, post cards, social media presence – I’ve dibbled and dabbled with all of it and wound up facing the reality that Amazon is a better marketer than I am. Go figure.

The trick is, doing business with Amazon is tricky.

Amazon, being the innovative maverick that they are, does not work with publishers and authors so much as they just tell you how things are going to be. After all, 1 hour deliveries and drop-offs by drone don’t come cheap, and when you are one of the world’s largest business empires with an eye toward growth, you’ve got to be a bit ruthless about how and where you can accomplish this.

One way that Amazon does is by adding on value, or “value added” for short. Value added is when a company sweetens the pot with a tasty little offer that pushes your decision to buy into the “let’s do this thing” category.

Your Amazon Prime membership will run you $99 bucks a year for what is primarily marketed as complimentary two-day shipping. But wait, there’s more – they also add on “free” videos (think Netflix) and “free” books through their Lending Library.

And that’s the crux right there. You see, when they allow their customers to read your book for free, it changes the game. And by compensating you in a way that cannot be predicted, they eliminate your ability to plan. Before we go further, going into any business without a business plan is a bad, terrible, just-don’t-ever-do-it kind of thing. But what are you supposed to do when you can’t plan?

And by “can’t”, I mean this: back in the day, a publisher would print 10,000 books and have a record of what happened to each of them. Say they cost $1 apiece. Come auditing time, you either have $1 for each book sold or a pile of books that didn’t. Either way, you know what happened to all of them and you benefited from the data that you gathered from the experience.

These days, you agree to let Amazon sell or distribute your ebook in any way that they see fit and you agree to be compensated through their Global Select Fund, which varies from month to month, cannot be predicted and is subject to any number of different forces, all of which are up to Amazon.

A couple of points here, the first for the sake of disclosure:

I’m an Amazon Prime member and I love it the way the desert loves the rain. This is not an Amazon bashing post, but rather a treatise on modern small publishing and how to avoid losing your shirt in a very quickly changing environment.

Every author has the ability to decline the Kindle Select option and deal with straight sales only. I do enroll in KS and this post is about that.

Now back to that whole “can’t plan for the future” thing.

Without a plan, there are no goals to reach. Without goals, you’re left with kind of a lottery system – you just wait for the ping-pong balls to settle and get what you get – and while it’s fun to throw a few bucks at a Powerball ticket and the chance to win millions, it’s not a good idea to spend thousands on producing books in hopes that you make a profit or at least break even.

Emby has always operated under a very firm plan and set of goals, the idea being that part of a publisher’s responsibility is to stay in business and to remain as capable as possible to sell books.

So what does an enterprising small press do when the industry titan changes the way everybody does business? You wait and see which way the wind is going to blow and adapt. Simple enough, right? But what about when these changes are spread out over a multi-year period and when there is no way to know what comes next? We’re in the middle finding out, but part of that answer is that you become very careful with the books that you release so that you don’t lose money. A couple of years ago, I might have released a book that I had a good idea would sell and then take a chance on another. That is no longer an option in the current marketplace.

The Amazon Prime program began years ago but truth told, their Lending Library and Match program (free ebook with a hardcover purchase) never did represent more than a blip on Emby’s radar, and the compensation that they included for the books they gave away did not factor heavily into the bottom line.

Kindle Unlimited is a much different story. For $9.99 a month, you download books to your heart’s content and happy reading to you.

Kindle Unlimited made its debut in July 2014 – just a year and a half ago. It’s a genius product and I’m sure it has made many a reader very happy. Sure, they give a lot of books away and pay you 70% (so far) of what an actual sale would have netted. But, it also offers a lot of potential for a small press with a niche theme…

Look at it in terms of an open bar – when you’re paying for your own drinks, you stick with your budget and that limits what you’ll have. When you’re at an open bar, you’ll drink stuff you’ve never even heard of and price is no object.

Same thing with KU – if you have to choose between the latest bestseller (a known quantity) over a Legends of the Monster Hunter anthology, odds are you’ll go with the bestseller. But, if you can download both books for free, you let it ride and download those suckers.

Sure, the publisher may lose a sale because someone (with exceptionally good taste) that already reads the LotMH series and would have purchased it will now download it for free. But, a lot more people that didn’t know about the series now have a greater chance of discovering it.
And that’s all good. I like the potential I see so far in terms of numbers of pages read. But it earns less money and there is no telling where the payout system is going to go.

This is how the Global Select Fund works:

In July 2014, along with KU, Amazon introduced the aforementioned Global Select Fund. This is the fund that all of the KU and lending library downloads are paid out of.

When it began, Amazon compensated the author based on the person that downloaded your book needing to read at least 10% of it. Until that much was read, you got bupkis.

Needless to say, the Novella Revolution quickly commenced. Logic has it that if you can bust out 20,000 words (of which the reader must only read 2,000 words for you to be paid) or a 150,000 word classic (of which the reader must read 15,000 words for you to be paid) and get paid the same amount for either, your ass is going to start chopping up that classic into books 2, 3, 4, and 5 with a quickness.

The system was gamed and Amazon wasted no time in changing it. This past July they announced an all-new payment plan – they now pay by the number of pages read. Fantasy authors rejoiced and the Novella Revolution ended as quickly as it began.

However, publishers were left with the same problems from the old system and a few new ones.

First, Amazon does not tell you when the book is downloaded. They only tell you when the pages have been read. That means that marketing efforts and dollars can easily be wasted. What if a large number of folks already have the book, but are planning to read three others before they start yours?

In the past, sales numbers were the way to know if a title was successful. The more sales, the more interest, the more chance that the publisher would ask the author for a sequel or announce another anthology.

In the current system, people might be downloading your book, but all you hear is crickets and your attention turns to other projects. Or, maybe you plan to drop a few bucks to target market your audience and stimulate sales when in fact, they already have your book and you just don’t know it.

Even worse is trying to figure out how to explain this to the authors of novels. As you may have guessed, an accounting nightmare was born and instead of “you sold 10 books this period” it turns into “I have no idea how many books have been downloaded because Amazon doesn’t tell me that (which is maybe why you see reviews but have received no royalties, because if they read the book out of range of their network, they’d never know and you won’t get paid). But, I can tell you that 100 pages of your book have been read, to which you have earned such-and-such amount. Please keep in mind that this amount will not be same month-to-month as the GSF is different each month and Amazon does not ever project it, but reports it after the month’s sales. Which is to say, it looks like your book isn’t selling at all, but it might be on fire and we just don’t know it yet. Or it might be tanking. Either way. Keep the faith and stay cool!”

It’s problematic and at some point, we all have to look at each other and admit that we’re flying by the seat of our pants. But that’s the price we pay for surfing the Amazon wave. It’s not a system that you want to bet too heavily on, but we’re all in it from the indie author to the Big 5. Nobody controls Amazon but Amazon.

That brings us to another point – Amazon wants to be your publisher. That’s a whole different kettle of fish and we’ll tackle that one in another post, but you’ll notice a trend in all of these points that highlight the declining roles and powers of a press in general, and make it easier and easier for the author to decide to self-publish through Amazon. Which means more money for Amazon.

The Kindle Scout program already offers a better deal than most small publishers and when you factor in that as the author, you have complete control over your own schedule, complete control over your cover art and you receive statements directly from Amazon, the odds are not in favor of the small press. Once you realize that most of today’s marketing muscle comes from Amazon anyway, that’ll push a decision over the edge. There’s more to it, but like I said, we’ll cover that in another post.

Back to where we started, my observations can be summed us as follows:

Amazon is the industry giant and to not sell with them would be a disservice to the books by greatly limiting their availability. The best chance an author has of selling a book or being discovered is through Amazon.

KDP Select is equally unavoidable. To not list with KDP Select would be a disservice to the book by making it compete with “free” books. Readers have a larger selection of titles to choose from than ever before. Don’t be the title that costs $3.99 surrounded by a handful of others that are free – you’ll never sell any books.

There is no way to know in advance what Amazon will pay through the GSF. That means there is no way to make a basic business plan. Maybe they’ll pay more next month – maybe they’ll pay less. You can plan to be paid something and make smart bets as to how much to invest in a title, but for the small press where pennies count, treading with care is the order of the day.

Again, on a large scale, this does not matter much as much. But for a small press or an independent author, a few dozen books moving makes a difference.

And so, Emby finds itself on the slow-and-careful path. I’m not abandoning any projects as my initial passion and interest have never wavered. But I’ll be being much more careful as to how and what I release.

For instance, I planned The Ghost Papers as a 4 volume project – a big passion project for me. Now I have to look at it through different eyes, and while the first volume is still on, I need to wait to see if it sells before moving forward with the others. My best bet on a Volume 1 release is next summer, but again, that’s a bet.

I will be mixing the themed books in to other releases. Revolver and Wasteland will need to wait as I promote a new project, an easier to grasp and back to the basics concept that I’ll be announcing before Christmas.

There will be novels. The third adventure in the Royal Occultist series is close to release and the sequel to Coppertown Red is in production. There will be other anthologies. Vol. II of The Occult Detective Monster Hunter is on the way along with a shared-universe project team-up between Emby and Thom Brannan that is currently accepting subs @ darktomorrow.net .

Novel submissions and Monster Hunter Quarterly are on hold for a while, at the least until I have a good number of months to track the GSF and to figure out how to make this work at the lower margin.

And that’s the long and short of it. I wish it was better news, but it is what it is. We’re in the middle of a crazy time for publishing and book selling and I’m going to predict that we’ll see further innovation sooner than later.

I’ll continue to post updates as to the GSF and how things are going in general and I’ll post more about the self-publishing phenom that seems to be shaping up and how I expect that to shape the marketplace.

Until then, my best.

Miles