Sunday, 17 June 2012

Kindling Some E-Books

Regular readers may have noticed that some of the stories once posted here have disappeared.  This is because I have been introduced to published e-books for free via Amazon.  Whilst they are aimed primarily at the Kindle electronic book reader market, you can download a tool which allows you to read it on your home computer or laptop.  I was introduced to this system known as KDP - Kindle Direct Publishing by the woman in my house who is a novelist and had been encouraged, once the publishing house who produced her books collapsed, to transform her books into e-books.  The advantage is that you keep control over the books and you get a far higher royalty.  She used to receive 10% of the cover price of each printed book she sold which usually came out at 80p (€1.01; US$1.24).  On KDP you can either have 35% or in some regions, notably the UK, USA, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, and at some book prices you can get 70% of the price you set.  This means that prices are cheaper.  They are based on the US$ rate you set so even if you put the book up at the same US price at different times you will find it translates into to different £ and € prices.  If you set the book price at certain levels and a royalty of 35% it can be 'borrowed' and you get a share of a fund each time the book is taken out.  However, as yet none of the books I have set to being borrowable has been borrowed even once despite being up for 3 months now.  You can put your book up for free if you like so that it simply gets out there and you can also take part in a promotion period run for your book by KDP.  The one drawback of the promotion period is that when you come off it and go back to full price you are likely to then attract lots of negative feedback.

As with a lot of online provision, people basically want stuff for free or a nominal price.  This is not helped by a lot of writers charging incredibly low prices.  As regular readers know I enjoy alternate history books and you can pick full length alternate history novels with good reviews for 77¢ or US$1.19 (£0.77;  €0.98).  I value my time and effort higher than this, but I guess they are working on the 'stack them high and sell them cheap' principle.  As on eBay and even trading on 'World of Warcraft' it is incredible how few people have even the basic grasp of trading and unfortunately it makes it hard to command even a price which would have been incredibly cheap for a printed novel, let alone one that can make more than pennies, even though the work that goes into them is no less.  There is a lot of advice online about marketing your stuff through KDP and one suggestion from 'Let's Get Digital' by David Gaughran is to start at around US$5 for a full-length novel and something like US$2-3 for a novella.  As he notes, it is far easier to reduce a price if you are not selling rather than raise it.  However, I have seen some authors do that when their sales have risen.

The material on the KDP service varies considerably.  There are categories you can put your work into, to help prospective readers.  When I checked a few weeks ago there were 3 books classed as being 'sea stories' and 44,000 classed as 'erotica' of all kinds.  Some people simply put up short stories of 20 pages and charge for these.  This is one issue which seems rather to be overlooked.  I have put up full-length novels and they have sold nothing or only a handful.  However, short stories and collections of essays fly off the 'shelves'.  In terms of what interests readers I have found a big difference between the site and the .com ones.  The latter is not simply for US customers but anyone elsewhere in the world who does not have a nation specific Amazon site so you can get customers from India or Sweden buying through it.  Surprisingly I have sold a range of stuff to Germany but not enough to see a clear pattern of demand.

It is quite easy to understand why even at a time when novels are selling much more than in recent years due to the numerous book clubs, that through KDP it is short stories and essays that sell best.  This is really about how the Kindle is used.  Its key benefit is its portability and I imagine a lot of usage is while people are travelling or are waiting for someone.  The functionality for returning to where you were before is not yet great and there are not numerous 'block tags', i.e. sections that you can jump straight to, which have been around for over a decade within publishing documents and is even now a feature of Word if you set it up correctly.  Thus, quick satisfaction, things you can dip into and out of as you would with a magazine are favoured.  Thus, ironically I have sold tens of copies more of my collections of 'what if?' essays through KDP when the woman in my house, despite being a well-reviewed author, has only sold a handful of her full-length novels.  Saying this, the erotic novel, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' by E. L. James (2011) is reputedly the best-selling product on Kindle.  This probably stems from who owns Kindles and I guess middle-aged women are in the majority.  Something sexy and elicit seems to fit with Kindle usage and reading a novel like that next to a partner or in a public place is akin to the adult version of reading comics under the bed covers with a torch when you are supposed to be sleeping.

I hope that this will be a new avenue for short story and especially essay writing.  Of course, there have been magazines, but short stories tended to be limited to publications for elderly women rather than more broadly.  Blogs and other sites are another source, the author Margaret Atwood raves about Wattpad a free online source of stories, many of which have more youthful and contemporary themes such as supernatural aspects.  As I have noted before, there is an issue of quality, but in this context the customer is all powerful.  On KDP you can even return purchases and be refunded if it turns out that they are not what you thought.  Of course the prices are very low compared to buying a book from a shop, but some people seem to want even their £1 back.  In some cases I am sure they have read and returned rather than bothering with the Kindle library.  People seem to like doing that no matter what the context as the woman in my house knows from clothing bought through her online business and then returned worn.  I suppose it is simply characteristic of our society in which everyone feels they are being cheated unless they can squeeze every last gramme of advantage out of the seller.  Customers then, can walk away, not simply before purchasing but even afterwards.  Of course, there will be wonderful writing that will be missed in the morass of stuff being published and conversely poor quality stuff may sell by the bucketload.

Feedback does not really help because as with voting in the Eurovision song contest, it is so abused in any online context.  As I have noted before, trawling the internet to comment negatively on things seems to be a hobby in itself.  Often the commentators simply expose their lack of understanding of the topic being discussed and usually are using it to exercise this need to be indignant which is the most incredibly pervasive trend of contemporary society, more on that in subsequent posts.  Indignation is proving to be a bigger driver even than lust.  In additon, there are marketing dirty tricks, authors slagging off rivals in their genre.  There is no honour, it appears, in the world of online publishing, but again that reflects our society in which no trick seems to be too low to be seen as acceptable business practice these days.  Feedback can help guide the reader, but it needs to be used carefully; good work may be concealed behind indignant or undermining comments and bad between false praise.

There are a couple of things that need to apply if you are putting your work online.  One is good spelling and grammar.  Even though I see even official documents with such errors, the e-book buying public is incredibly intolerant of them.  The advantage as a writer is if you spot something, it only takes a few hours, 12 hours at most if you write in English, to substitute a corrected version.  In one of mine I had written 'Belgian' when I meant 'Belgium' and I spotted it before any readers commented on it, not that I have had any comments on my books, for some reason.  Poor grammar and spelling will not stop sales but may dent subsequent sales.  I advise use all spelling and grammar checking tools you can; leave a period between writing and submitting your work to allow your 'eye' to become sensitive once again to errors in the text you know so well; read it aloud and if you can, get someone else to read it whether in person or online.

The other thing is the cover.  You can go with a default cover that Amazon assigns but it makes the book look like a West German text book from the 1970s.  Invest in a cheap graphics package or photo manipulation package and start trawling the internet for copyright free images.  This can be incredibly hard as search engines send back images from sites that sell pictures for hundreds and hundreds of the responses you find.  It may be easier to take shots yourself.  Another source are people's home snaps on websites, Facebook pages or blogs, especially if you edit or tint them.  I know a lot of artists these days work with 'found' images, but I am uncertain about the morality of this, especially as they are usually derived from collections put up by ordinary people as they do not have the software to block copying; though this is easy on a system like Flickr.  Personally I am not averse to seeing a shot from one of my French cycling trips appearing on someone's book cover, but others might not be so happy, especially if it turned out to be something in the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' genre.  Anyway, whatever you do for the cover, look what colours are used for your genre.  Interestingly some of these seem influenced by the old Penguin covers for books, so crime has a green tinge and there is a lot of red in erotica it seems, or grey or blue now.  Books on warfare have tanks or aircraft on and alternate history has a lot of flags.  Make sure that there is clear text that can be seen even when the image is at thumbnail size.  Remember it is harder to sell the concept of a novel from the cover than something like an essay collection.

I have found that e-book publishing has reinvigorated my writing but has pushed it in certain directions.  Maybe it will not revolutionise publishing but it will sit alongside print books, self-publishing and website material as another way to access stories.  The thing is, it works for a certain sort of writing and if you want to succeed in it, rather than simply getting your stuff to a small audience this way, then you may have to recognise that only certain types of book will work for this market at the moment.  Saying that, I suspect many changes in the years to come.

P.P. 16/07/2012
I have noticed something else that happens if one of you books sells quite a few copies.  I have my books at a particular set of prices, usually US$5.00 and US$3.50 depending on the length.  These are translated into £ and € at different prices depending on the current US$:£ and US$:€ rate, so if you price them at the same US price even a day or two apart, they can appear lower or higher in price in these other currencies than the book you put up previously.  This is not the only changes in prices, however.  Whilst 'behind the scenes' in terms of what I can see the prices do not change, I have noticed, as I sell more of a particular book, its price to the customer falls.  In some ways this creates a vicious circle as the books that were selling well anyway now look better value and when compared with your less popular books, these increasingly look over-priced.  I have no idea why Amazon does this, but it does attract readers to particular books and can leave others to wither.  As I have noted, my essay collections sell better than my novels and as they become cheaper, my novels look increasingly like a poor deal.  I guess it is Amazon's intention to encourage prices to fall even further using this method, but I cling on as I think my labour is worth at least something and in fact I put more effort into the novels that the essay collections anyway.

P.P. 02/09/2012 - It's Mainly For Americans
So aftwe the last few weeks I have been selling literally hundreds of books via the KDP system and I am wondering when I am going to get paid.  Then I realise I have not read the small print.  Most of my sales are with which sells in dollars, being based in the USA.  The laws of the USA mean that 30% of all royalties earned by people who are not Americans are held back by the US government which means I now find myself funding the wars the USA is perpetrating around the planet to the tune of hundreds of dollars.  A further problem is that Amazon will not send funds to non-US banks.  This contrasts with sales in the EU which even if in euros get sent to my UK bank account.  I cannot set up a US bank account so they will only send me a cheque or 'check' as they call it.  Now to get royalties sent electronically you only have to earn US$10 per month, but to get one of these checks, you have to earn US$100, which means the money is sitting longer with Amazon and gaining interest and of course 30% of it goes to the US government even for sales which are made outside the USA such as to say Argentina or South Africa or Australia.  Thus, I now find myself earning money from my books not for myself but for Amazon and the US government.  It is clear that unless you are a US taxpayer, the system in place for these Kindle books primarily benefits someone other than yourself.  I hate the fact that my books are paying for bullets killing Afghans and missions leading to ordinary US citizens to be mutilated or killed, let alone the nuclear weapons I am paying to maintain.  I feel utterly dirtied by this and wish I had read more carefully before going into this.  Yes, I have read how you can get a deal if your home country has a tax treaty with the USA.  Being unemployed I will have to give it a go.  However, will be hampered by the US demands for me to prove my identity as I cannot afford to renew my passport.  It is always those struggling who are made to struggle harder, the rich just laugh.

P.P. 14/11/2012 One Mediocre Review Can Wreck Your Sales
I had been a bit disappointed that none of my books had had any reviews from readers.  However, I then realised that I should have been more careful about what I wished for.  I had a review of 'Other Paths' which up until then had been my best selling book.  The review gave it only 3 stars out of a possible 5.  The review is reasonably positive, but the reviewer is Finnish and took offence at my portrayal of Finland during the Second World War, so marked the book down.  He saw my portrayal as an 'error' when in fact it was just a difference of opinion from his viewpoint.  I have noticed this problem on reviews for other 'what if?' history books, people tend to rate them by whether they agree with the conclusions contained in the book, rather than the quality of the writing or the research.  However, it is clear that many people shopping for books online simply look at the star rating without reading why that rating has been given.  As a consequence of this single mediocre review sales of 'Other Paths' have dropped abruptly by two-thirds, losing me US$60-70 per month (after tax) and halting the rising popularity of the book.  Someone could utterly destroy my sales simply by posting mediocre reviews on them.  I can understand why so many leading authors indulge in 'sock puppetry', i.e. adopting fake identities and then reviewing their own work positively.  Without positive comments you might as well abandon selling the book as readers will not touch it, if it lacks the magic 5 stars.

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