Thursday, March 14, 2013


One of my greatest challenges as a teacher was always that I assumed people learned as I did.  For example, the first time I taught the DOS class (yes, we really did teach that operating system back then) I taught it pretty much straight out of the book--here's a command, here's what it does, and here's how you can modify what it does.  It was a good class, taken by the IT students in their very first terms.  I enjoyed it, and they seemed to as well.

Then, over time, my own curiosity with the exercises drew me to learn a great deal more than what even a long-term normal user would have cause to know.  Of course, I incorporated those lessons into the class; who wouldn't want to learn all sorts of cool and fancy new tricks?

Unfortunately, the students didn't want to learn all sorts of cool and fancy new tricks, at least not till they'd mastered the less cool, less fancy, and less new ones.  I was assuming they were in the same learning phase I was, which is a dangerous assumption for any teacher to make.  They weren't, and I eventually had to go back to the more straightforward approach to teaching the class. 

Writing, both as a craft and as a business, is much the same thing.  I've been at it for a couple of years, now, and I've learned quite a bit along the way.  Why, then, can't everybody else know all that too?

I got that sensation this morning when reading an article a friend of mine linked in Facebook:
Self-published authors hit by Amazon online royalties cut
G'head--go read it, and also spin through the comments underneath it. I'll wait.

What an outrage!  Amazon is stiffing us!  That horrible huge company that now owns a majority of the e-book business--they're big, so they must be evil! And they're trying to control e-book prices!


I was going to reply to the article on the Telegraph's site, but two things kept me from it: 1) I couldn't come up with anything nice to say that hadn't already been said, and 2) one of the posters had already started the ad hominem that anybody who posted anything favorable to Amazon had to be just an Amazon employee.  You're here, though, and you know I don't work for Amazon, and I also don't feel the need to be nice over here on my own e-turf.  So here, then, I go....

So the chief argument is that Amazon is being a big fat meanie by setting the royalties at 35% for books priced over $9.99.  It's also that amount, incidentally, for books priced under $2.99.  It's looked at by the article's author as a penalty you as an ebook author incur for the crime of wanting to sell your work of wisdom at a high price.

Now, 35% is still more than twice what you'd make for the book going through traditional publishing, but apparently it's unfair, the reasoning goes, to be limited to that when you'd get 70% of the proceeds of every sale at $9.99 and under.

Okay, I'll admit that I think it's kind of silly for Amazon to try to manipulate pricing that way, if that is in fact the reason they set the price range where they did.  Their pricing pages don't say; they just say that you're only eligible for 70% of the selling price under certain conditions, and price is one of those.

While we're getting outraged, how about the evil requirement that the book be enrolled in KDP Select (giving Amazon exclusivity to the title's sales) in order to qualify for 70% royalties in Brazil, hmm?  I've never sold a book in Brazil, but if I did, I sure would want to make 70% instead of 35% of the R$ that the sale generates, right?  How dare they put requirements in the way of that? Granted, it's their site, their system, their marketing, and so on--and yes, this is the company that went without a profit for five years while pumping all revenues back into development of the engine they are driving to market dominance today.  Still, we authors oughtta be able to dictate the terms.  

*sigh*  Yes, that previous paragraph was written with my tongue squarely lodged in my cheek.

See, there's this thing called math.  There's also a less-scientific topic that starts similarly, from a spelling standpoint, called marketing.  Marketing says your product is only as valuable as your customers agree it is.  Math says it's better to sell 1000 copies at $2.99 (total earnings: $2070, roughly) than to sell 1 or even 100 copies at $19.99, no matter how much Amazon takes out of your sales at the higher price.

I've said it before, and I'll repeat it here: it does not matter how valuable you think your book is.

$2.99 and $3.99 are prices right in a sweet spot for e-books, it seems.  How do I know?  Well, some people who sell a lot more copies than I have said so based on their own sales experiments.  The truth of the statement is also borne out in my own sales.  For example, I was thrilled a few weeks ago to offer the "boxed set" of Return of the Gods.  I'm offering it for the low, low cost of two of the three books, which is low indeed but still well over $3.99.

Hey, three for the price of two--who wouldn't want that?

Most people, apparently, wouldn't want that, at least as far as the sales are indicating.  Granted, I think I'm doing other stuff wrong on it, and I'll get around to fixing things once this experiment has run its course.  Still, there's a pretty resounding chorus of "no" going on, while the individual books are still selling well.

And then there's the other argument that grates on my ears: "My book took seven years to research....  If you want the benefit of the research you'll have to pay more than $10."  Well, if it's technical non-fiction, then sure, people are used to paying more than $10 a book--often, much more.  But people are also used to relying on technical non-fictions to have gone through the review process of an academic publisher.  For other non-fics--if your brilliant book of brilliance contains Yet Another Story of the Wright Brothers, for example--then you may want to reconsider your pricing if you think you're going to sell a lot of copies at over $10 each. 

For fiction, though--and yes, I've heard the argument in that bookstore section as well--nobody gives a crap how long you researched the book.  You're expected to have done some, sure, but the amount of time you spend researching adds no value to the story contained.  If it did, that would be the blurb on the back flap or in the e-book description: "The author researched this book for 98 years before writing it" rather than "Come on, cozy up and read this amazing story about...."  A book that was researched for six years is not necessarily any better, much less twice as good, as a book that was researched for only three.  So put away that soapbox, okay?  Nobody gives a crap how long you researched your story; they only care how engaging/entertaining it is.

Something else about business that some authors miss: the idea of sunk costs.  Some things we shell out bucks for really do add value to the story; paying for quality editing is one.  Problem is, once you pay for it, that's a sunk cost.  It's done and gone.  You either recoup it or you don't.  All costs, in fact, other than advertising, that are involved in self-publishing are sunk costs.  There are no marginal costs.  Once your e-book is on the market, it costs you nothing to distribute an additional copy.  Too many authors get wound up around how much time they invested, how much it cost to have their baby edited, how much the cover designer charged them, and so on, and they want to see dollar signs in the black right away.  They'll use all those things to justify a high price on the book.  Now you can see the folly in that, yes?  You'll recoup the book's sunk costs much faster selling a thousand copies at $2.99 than a dozen copies at $9.99, yes?

New authors, take heed: it doesn't matter how much you believe your book is worth.  It only matters how much you can sell it for.

Another "take heed": every minute you spend worrying about Amazon's evil practices of evil evilness is a minute you didn't spend writing your next masterpiece.  

Now, off my own soapbox and back to work I go....


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