What It Takes

What It Takes

The Things You Complain About are the Things You Could Be Changing

By Shawn Coyne | Published: August 22, 2014

In the dream, the writer and reader need no publisher or retailer. There’s no pooh-poohing gatekeeper or everything store keeping a writer in the wilderness or hiding his gems in the stockroom.

It ain't just a song

There is no front table. No cooperative advertising.

It’s simple. In the dream, the writer and reader are connected. One creates. The other supports the creation.

The writer writes something. He publishes it by working with other artists (editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, cover artists, book designers)…not as an employer demanding 40 hours a week of obedience and having to offer a salary, health benefits, and possibly a 401K for that servitude (overwhelming expenses that can take the fun out of anything).

Instead, the writer negotiates a fair fee for the piecemeal work and the supporting artists deliver.

The way this publishing works doesn’t require that the writer hand over his work to a corporation just to get Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble or an independent bookstore to carry a copy for couple of weeks.

Instead, the writer uses a virtual network to let the people who like his work know when he has something new available. Over many years, the writer attracts readers to his corner of the universe.

And one day, subscribers to his network reach a level that sustains the writer. All of the capital he invests to build the network comes back to him. And then some. Enough to finance another book. And then another one. And so it goes.

There is something magical in the relationship between a writer and a reader. The debt we readers have to writers who’ve brought us to catharsis is immeasurable. It’s not like the relationship between a guy who needs to have his car’s oil changed and the mechanic who takes care of it for a price. Or the feeling we get playing a video game.

It’s personal. Priceless. A great book has zero competition.

So given the following retail experiences, which do you think readers who feel personally connected to their favorite writers would prefer?

  • Getting a great deal for a deeply discounted book from a retailer looking to sell “everything” that is also enough to keep an international publishing conglomerate’s return on investment steady…as it keeps the writer’s payment percentage at the same level it’s been for half a century?
  • Buying the book at full price directly from the writer (who sets that price himself) who gets to keep all of the money… not pennies on the dollar sent to him six months after they’ve been collected.

This is the question of our time. I think the answer’s pretty obvious.

Today, generally out of every dollar of a paperback’s retail cover price, here’s where the pennies land:

For every 100 cents of Suggested Retail Cover Price,

Set by publisher.

42 and ½ cents go to Publisher (Hachette for example)

50 cents go to Retailer  (Amazon.com for example)

7 and ½ cents go to Writer

Okay that’s the old school “wholesale” model where the retailer (Amazon.com) could charge whatever they’d like as long as they paid half of whatever it is the publisher decided the book should be worth in the retail marketplace.

Guess what…that model is still in place for over 60% of books sold, the physical copies with paper in between laminated covers.

So what’s the big debate between Hachette and Amazon.com?

EBook…the virtual book that requires no additional capital investment once one copy of the book has been written, edited, designed, and coded. It’s a fixed cost, not one that has to be paid for every single copy sold.

Here’s the general model in place right now:

For every 100 cents of Suggested Retail Cover Price,

Set by Publisher.

45 cents go to Publisher (Hachette for example)

30 cents go to Retailer  (Amazon.com for example)

25 cents go to Writer

The bone of contention, as best I can surmise, is whether or not the publisher (Hachette) or the retailer (Amazon.com) gets final control of the price point to consumers. That’s really what it comes down to.

Who gets to name the price of the book?

Here’s where I come out…It just doesn’t matter.

Not to the writer and not to the reader, the only real players in the literary trade. (Everyone else is supposed to be serving these two groups) They have no control either way, but it’s they who are least served by this clash of the titans.

The writer won’t get one penny more or less after this dispute is resolved (and really guys, you’re acting like Dr. Seuss’s North and South going Zax). And the reader won’t get any great price break either. Both have said that they generally agree that $9.95 is the right price point for an EBook. Just when the price reaches that point is the question.

Snore.

This argument is entirely about control and power and money. Which is fine. I love control, power and money. Who doesn’t?

But make no mistake, neither Hachette, nor Amazon.com are in business to connect writers and readers. And that business is the business of the future…a future so quickly approaching that in five years (probably much less) this will all seem silly. I remember watching Star Trek as a kid and never imagining that there would one day be a thing that you could flip open and use to call someone thousands of miles away…

Why aren’t Hachette or Amazon.com trying to directly connect writers and readers? Hey, Facebook was started only ten years ago… And I’m not talking about Goodreads, which seems to me to be a place where our inner critic can go to town and where we can also score some free galleys, not somewhere to find out where Harlan Coben got the idea for his Myron Bolitar series.

Because when writers and readers connect, they don’t need Hachette or Amazon.com.

So all of you wonderful writers who work on Maggie’s Farm (be it for her Pa, or her Ma…it’s all one farm and you are not the owners no matter how well paid), I have a suggestion.

Between the two groups of you who are signing petitions for Pa or for Ma, you’re 2,500 of the most popular writers in the world.

Why don’t you open up your own store and directly connect yourself to the people who support you…your readers? Put your relationship to them first, not with any of the forces that come between you.

Posted in What It Takes

17 Responses to “The Things You Complain About are the Things You Could Be Changing”

  1. Mary Doyle
    August 22, 2014 at 4:23 am

    Finally, the right question – brilliant! Thanks for this Shawn.

  2. Kent Faver
    August 22, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Thanks Shawn. I love your perspective, and appreciate you sharing it.

  3. August 22, 2014 at 6:44 am

    Well said, Shawn, but what writers need first is discoverability. It’s incredibly easy to get lost amongst the millions of books out there, and independent writers face the daunting task of taking on even more roles and responsibilities than they can comfortably handle. This is supposed to be where agents and publishers come in. Some writers just aren’t very savvy at marketing and promotion, which is a key point in discoverability. I’d love to see a day when all sides; writers, publishers and retailers, sit down at the table and work co-operatively and fairly to bring the writer’s work to the masses. I’d love to see a day when writers are highly valued for their work, not just in pats on the back, but in real terms of honest pay for honest work – just like in every other business sector. Will we see that day? I don’t know. Maybe if the big boys stop fighting in the sandbox for that same pail and shovel, it will happen. Writers also have to come together to voice our expectations. If writers began to refuse to accept poor working conditions and pay, well, that would be something. The bottom line is, writers and readers are the only players who really count, but like with any business, we can learn to work co-operatively with other industry professionals to provide readers with what they are seeking; our stories, our insights, our how-tos, our inspirations. Whatever happens in the Amazon/Hachette dispute, this I know for sure; it’s an exciting time to be a writer. Thanks for posting this article Shawn, and giving us all food for thought.

  4. August 22, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Bravo, Shawn! Speaking from the perspective of a reader and a writer(albeit still on the margins of the industry) I love what you’re saying here. All the stakeholders bring value to the table, including publishers who invest money into a project and retailers who provide convenience to the reader, but it sounds like this is a battle between sides that are afraid to loser their quickly-eroding positions.

    Business and life work in cycles, smart folk adapt when necessary. I hear too much complaining over a model that is slowly phasing itself out. An industry that exists to sell words, thoughts, and inspiration, is being held hostage by the intermediaries who want to have the biggest piece of a pie they didn’t bake.

    Readers are getting smarter, they will support their favorite writers directly if that’s best. And the smart writers like yourself and Steve are building your own bridge to your audience. We will gladly pay you the toll to visit your land of inspiration, instead of paying the establishment for a bridge it didn’t own to begin with.

  5. August 22, 2014 at 7:55 am

    Bravo, huzzah, and amen.

  6. August 22, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for your thoughts and insights, Shawn.

    As someone with one traditionally published book, it is hard to imagine fully implementing your vision for a good long while. Building that base of readership is a joyful goal, but it is a long way from complete!

    I know I need to partner in marketing, but can I really take on the whole process on my own? Hard to imagine writing and building a readership while also running the store myself. It seems really helpful to be able to depend on the publisher’s retail channels and the omnipresent Amazon.

    Your thoughts?

    • Shawn Coyne
      August 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

      Hi Gary,

      What if there was someone like a combination of Mark Zuckerberg and Seth Godin? Seth may even be that guy, but he’s got a very full plate of projects and this one would require a full court press to get off the ground. He does more than enough for all of us, so I give him a pass.

      He/she builds a store for all writers who control the rights to their own work. He/she takes a commission for every sale (hey, we’re not communists) but sends all of the rest of the revenue to each author…at the end of every month…directly into their bank account. He/she even provides all of the tools to self-publish so that it’s a plug and play kind of situation.

      He/she promotes the store as the “place to buy direct from the writer…XX% of all revenue goes to the writer.” And they deliver on that promise elegantly, transparently explaining it all for the most number challenged among us.

      But more importantly, they provide the email address of the people who buy the book directly to the authors. They don’t withhold that information! They share it with the writer. In fact they promote the fact that the writer will know that you bought the book directly from him.

      When someone buys a copy of your book they are asked if they’d like to be on your mailing list. They sign up and you begin a conversation with them…for as long as either of you’d like.

      It’s a technology puzzle…not a hard one to figure out either.

      The thing though is third party validation. Is it better for the ego to be published by Random House? Absolutely. But how much is that worth? 92.5% of all the revenue you create with your work?

      For most people…it is. For now.

      But for how much longer? If a Big Fish did this even just for one book (King, Grisham, Roberts, Rowling), better yet a whole bunch of Big Fish did it for one book, all bets would be off…

      All the best,
      Shawn

      • Mary Doyle
        August 22, 2014 at 9:02 am

        How about you Shawn? Maybe you’re “the guy”…in your spare time, of course.

      • August 22, 2014 at 9:52 am

        Shawn,

        What you’ve just described exists in almost the precise form you detail for us. But it’s in another highly personal creative business: winemaking. NakedWines.com acts as a funding, marketing and distribution entity for its coalition of independent winemakers, all while providing 100% transparency between winemakers and customers. I’ve asked them in the past (jokingly…sort of) if they had any plans for putting such a model to work for writers. It can be done!

        • August 22, 2014 at 10:01 am

          BTW, I forgot to mention that I have no affiliation with NakedWines other than being a happy member (or, in NW parlance, Wine Angel). Please don’t take my effusive comments on their behalf as a self-serving plug!

      • Kara Lane
        August 22, 2014 at 2:51 pm

        The store for writers that you described sounds like Utopia, Shawn. I especially liked the suggestion that the author can see the email address of book purchasers. It’s kind of hard to build a readership base when you don’t know who your readers are!

        You mentioned the store could provide all the tools to self-publish. I’m assuming you’re including all aspects of publishing (cover design, interior formatting, etc.), but do you also envision the store doing any marketing for its authors? In “the dream,” that would then allow the author to do what they do best…write.

        I could see how the writers store would be ideal for authors who already have fans of their work. Does your vision include a place for unknown authors, too? If so, how might that work? Would you do away with the whole “review” process, which can be rigged to the detriment of readers and other authors? Or do you have ideas on improving the review process? Do you have any thoughts on a process that might allow the best-written books by new authors to rise to the top, instead of just those that are cleverly marketed? I am all for doing away with gatekeepers between writers and readers, but it would be nice to have a legitimate curator of sorts who can at least recommend promising new authors to readers.

      • August 26, 2014 at 7:45 am

        Shawn, thank you so much for replying. Sorry it took me so long to click back in and find it.

        This is a fantastic idea. You offer a solution to the problem I named and several others.

        It would be a great new direction for Black Irish.

        Pretty please?

        Gary

  7. Christine
    August 22, 2014 at 9:20 am

    From the musical that honours a fair deal for workers:
    “Seven and a half cents doesn’t buy a helluva lot. Seven and a half cents doesn’t mean a thing. But give it to me every hour forty hours every week and that’s enough for me to be living like a king!”
    Seven and a half cents an hour was ok a few decades ago, but that much per book means little in 2014.

  8. August 22, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Shawn,
    Thank you for clearly outlining the issue between Amazon & Hachette. I’m no pinko either, but 7 1/2 percent is simply criminal. Landlords and serfs.

    I like the comment about Naked Wines as well–and I think you’re right that the technology isn’t that far off.

    Here is only one caveat that I’d like to mention.
    o It must be easy-button.

    We (and by ‘we’ I mean Gen-X, Millennials, Gen-Y) are totally used to ‘one-click’ shopping, multi-platform access, ease of use with gadgetry.

    I’ve been an audio book listener for the past 15 years–started with a long commute and talk radio sending my blood pressure into the stratosphere. Since then, I consume about 50 books a year via my iPhone. At first it was CDs, then my iPod, now it is my phone–which is attached to me all waking hours (and I have a sleep app, so it is under my head at night…). I listen to a book or podcast while I’m feeding our cats, cleaning litter boxes in the morning–mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, in the car, long slow runs…it is what I do when I’m alone doing mindless stuff.

    My point is that whether it is Audible.com or OverDrive (Library application), the files are seamless. Download & play. Easy Peasy.

    I do not know the technology that Audible or Overdrive uses–is it the app or the file–but they are awesome. Start & stop where you want, book mark, review 30 seconds etc.

    I want to give my dollar to the author. I also want to make the purchase decision, download it to my app (whether a kindle reading or audible listening file), and for it to work without hangups.

    This tendency needs to be considered as well. I prefer to give my money to the YMCA over LA Fitness–but if the YMCA didn’t open until 0800–I’d reluctantly choose to workout at LA Fitness.

    The hard part is writing. That is the Art. The technology savvy is now ubiquitous, I bet a community college computer science kid could likely write the code needed to make the appropriate apps/files to make the purchase/use as easy as the big boys. Maybe not quite that easy–but not 92% expensive.
    bsn

  9. George
    August 22, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    This is exciting stuff. My 72 year-old heart doubled its rate for a bit.Since I’d already decided to do the ebook route, this helps my focus. Thanks!

  10. August 22, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Sounds like a call for a workers’ collective. A beautiful sound to an old commie hippie’s ears, like mine.

  11. August 28, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Sorry I’m late to the party on this one, but your post, Shawn, reminds me of a new development that’s getting a lot of attention. It’s called the “sharing economy,” and features the likes of Uber and Airbnb.

    It’s about providing a service on the one hand (a ride, a place to stay), but also about connecting people — pretty much what you’re talking about. Although the “sharing economy” is generally attributed to millenials, there’s no reason it should be limited.

    Thanks brainstorming the idea, and here’s hoping there’s a Brian Chesky or a Zuckerberg out there who will follow through.

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