Juliet on e-Book Rights

The second of Juliet McKenna’s posts on the process of getting her back catalog into e-book form is now live. This one is all about rights. As a publisher, it is something that concerns me a lot. Right now the situation is very fluid, and if a big publisher chose to come after Juliet and myself, even if they didn’t have a leg to stand on, we’d be in big trouble. Thankfully there are people like the Society of Authors who can provide help and support. Also, one of the reasons why Juliet is doing these posts is that they provide a clear trail of evidence of the steps that we have gone through to ensure that we have the right to publish her books. You can read the whole story over at Juliet’s blog.

Juliet McKenna on The Challenges of e-Publishing

To coincide with the release of Turns and Chances, Juliet McKenna has written a series of blog posts about the challenges facing a successful author who wants to make her backlist available as ebooks. Today’s post is all about creating a quality product, as opposed to taking the easy and care-free route which sadly many people are still doing.

There are two more posts to come, and tomorrow’s will be particularly interesting because it deals with the thorny question about ebook rights.

International Day Against DRM

Today is apparently International Day Against DRM. The fine folks at Angry Robot are running a one-day 50% off sale on all their ebook titles, which are all DRM free. There are some fine books in there. There are titles by Lauren Beukes, Kaaron Warren and Lavie Tidhar, plus a couple I have reveiwed recently: The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle, and Debris by Jo Anderton.

You may ask why I am not running a similar sale at my own store. Well, that’s because I don’t have the margins. Almost all the money I take in goes direct to the publishers (which in many cases are the authors). Organizing a sale of that type would require a lot of negotiation. But all of my books are DRM free, and there are lots of really great authors including Gwyneth Jones, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Adam Roberts, Ekaterina Sedia, Nisi Shawl, Catherynne M. Valente and Genevieve Valentine.

Book Sales Figures – Some Local Data

Today I was in my local Waterstones picking up the new Jon Courtenay Grimwood novel (The Outcast Blade). While I was there I had a quick chat with the manager, Sara, about how sales were going. I’d seen reports in today’s papers suggesting a massive decline in paper book sales which, thankfully for authors, has been mostly offset by a rise in ebook sales. How were things doing locally?

Well, sales of fiction here in Trowbridge are down 20%. Yes, really, that’s serious. On the other hand, sales of science fiction and fantasy are up 2.5%. Hopefully that sort of thing is repeated nationally. A lot of it is, of course, down to George R.R. Martin, but I think we can pat ourselves on the back too. It looks like we are buying more books. Well done, people.

Eurocon – Day 2

The convention is now in full swing. Last night Charlie tweeted, “This convention is sort of like a unicorn on anabolic steroids – big, pumped up, energetic, and slightly scary!” I know how he feels.

Friday started quietly. No programming before noon, remember? I’m staying with a Croatian family, and yesterday grandma turned up and made crêpes for breakfast. Lovely people, Croats.

The first panel of the day was one I really wanted to see: “Women with swords, and girl cooties”. Author and translator, Milena Benini turned out to have a marvelous line in feminist snark. She’d been busily mining the Internet for pictures of women warriors and adding little comments to the pictures. For example, she started by reading us the description of Dejah Thoris from A Princess of Mars. As some of you will know, our heroine wears nothing except jewellery. The text makes this plain. The cover, mysteriously, has her clothed. That was the 1950s. Women warrior clothing has gone down hill since. Although the snark was a lot of fun, we did a lot of positive stuff as well, handing out recommendations for the likes of N.K. Jemisin, Laurie Marks, Nnedi Okorafor, Tansy Rayner Roberts and, of course, Mary Gentle.

After that I did two interviews: one for a Croatian magazine called Sirius B, the other for a feminist website.

For dinner Tomislav and I went back to the brewery that we’d visited briefly the previous night. It turns out that they have three types of beer: light, dark and half-and-half. The dark is the best option. My meal was Ćevapi, which is best described as minced meat fingers. It’s not that great on its own (unless, I guess, you have really good meat), but it is served with a spicy relish called Ajvar which makes all of the difference. I wouldn’t recommend the brewery for fine food, or fine beer for that matter, but two meals, and two half liters of beer, cost us around £10, which is ludicrously cheap by London standards.

Up until this point the convention had been taking place in a large hotel, and it felt very much like a Eurocon: maybe a couple of hundred people, from all over the continent. On Friday evening it moved into the main venue for SFerakon, the annual Zagreb convention, in a nearby university building. Suddenly all of the dealers turned up, and hundreds more Croatian fans. You can get some idea of the dealer tables from Monique’s posts on the con blog. I’m eying up the jewellery.

The evening GoH talks for Tim Powers and Dmitry Glukhovsky took place in a lecture theater. The seats were uncomfortable, of course, but it was a big room with built in tech and good views for all. Tim was interviewed by John Berlyne (of course) and was his usual entertaining self. The best story he told was about his German translations. When he got the books he found that they all had a section in the middle in a different font. He can’t read German, but eventually he found out what was going on. In the middle of the book, when the characters were placed in some urgent situation, one of them would say,

“Do we have time for soup?”
“What sort of soup?”
“It’s xxx soup, it’s very quick and easy to prepare.”
“Really, what flavors do you have?”

And so on. Once the soup had been made and eaten (and it was indeed very good soup), the characters got back to saving the world (or whatever else it was they urgently needed to save).

It turns out that Tim wasn’t the only author to have his work added to in this way. William Gibson had suffered similar treatment. Probably other authors did too. I’ve redacted the name of the soup company that paid for these ads, but the books are now a legend amongst translators and a prized collector’s item.

There was a brief power outage during Tim’s talk. I guess that proves that God is a Jehovah’s Witness, and still hasn’t forgiven him for the accidental Bible burning.

Glukhovsky turned out to be a very interesting guy. Born in Moscow, he has a degree in journalism and international relations from Jerusalem. He’s lived in more countries than I have, and is a committed internationalist. When his book, Metro 2033, became an international hit (partly on the back of the video game adaption) he was pestered for endless sequels. Not wanting to get trapped into a Robert Jordan like career, he started a shared world system in which authors from all over the world get to write their own books in the Metro universe. The basic idea is that a nuclear war has left Earth devastated, but small groups of survivors exist in underground locations around the world. The original book is set in the Moscow Metro, but lots of other major cities have underground railways too, so franchising is easy.

Today I am heading off to a TV studio where I will be interviewed about conventions and e-publishing for a popular culture show. After that I have a panel on online fiction with, amongst others, Glukhovsky, who was pioneering free online fiction in Russia around the same time that Cory Doctorow was doing so in North America.

Also today is the Eurocon 2014 site selection vote: Ireland v Romania. ESFS uses an electoral college system, with two delegates per country. Fluff Cthulhu is complaining loudly on Twitter that there are no votes for Elder Gods. Apparently Dave Lally has ruled that they are not part of Europe. This can’t end well.

DRM-Free and the Indy Bookstore

The big news today is that Tor, probably the best known SF&F publisher in America, will be going DRM-free on their ebooks by July. You can read wise words about this from two of their authors, Charlie Stross and John Scalzi.

Charlie and I, together with Bella Pagan of Tor UK, will be on a panel about e-publishing at the Eurocon over the weekend. I’m sure this topic will come up.

Why is this happening now? Well I guess it may have something to do with the ongoing unfriendliness between Macmillan (Tor’s owners) and Amazon. Being DRM-free makes it much easier for Macmillan to sell books outside of Amazon. Why? Well for an independent bookstore like mine implementing DRM is a major expense. I just couldn’t do it. People like Weightless Books and Webscriptions can’t do it either. Angry Robot don’t do it, and I suspect that the problems of implementing DRM is one of the main reasons why Gollancz doesn’t sell books directly from SF Gateway.

By going DRM-free, Tor is removing one of the main obstacles to selling their books through independent bookstores like mine. And they can then encourage people to buy from those stores rather than Amazon.

Does that mean that I’ll be selling Tor books soon? Well, I don’t know. I’d like to, but the Tor folks will be making their own decisions as to where to put their books on sale. There are other issues to consider. Here are a few.

Firstly, selling through ebook stores is still a pain in the butt, because there’s no sensible distribution system. With paper books all a publisher has to do is sign up with one or more of the major distribution companies and then sit back and wait for orders. With ebooks the relationship is generally direct with the store, and each store is different. Crucially all the big stores have their own, idiosyncratic submission systems and contracts. So a publisher won’t want to deal with a new store unless they think it is worth their while (which means they expect big sales).

Some of the existing distributors are trying to provide an ebook service, but the one I have looked at requires that all books have DRM. There are aggregation services as well, that offer to submit your books to multiple stores, but they seem set up to prey on independent authors rather than provide services to small publishers.

Another issue for big publishers is region restrictions. That’s something else that an independent bookstore can’t afford to implement. Any book I sell has to have worldwide rights. That may preclude Tor from working with me, at least for some of their catalog. But I think it also means that region restrictions will start to go away more quickly.

Finally there is Amazon to consider. They don’t back away from a fight, and if Tor starts selling books through other outlets you can bet that Amazon will go after those outlets aggressively. I don’t know how, as yet, but I know they will. So a big publisher will want to pick their allies carefully.

Sales by Genre

Today I’ve been busy on the day job, but I have found time to nick some interesting content from elsewhere. The excellent Andrew Wheeler has found a chart showing total sales by genre in the USA. Like he says, this is a point that can’t be made often enough.

sales by genre

And if you check out the NYT article where Andrew got the chart you’ll see that 91% of those romance readers are women.

Notably missing from the chart, of course, is the military/thriller genre. Anyone have data?

Random House Gets It Right

In these days of instant information access, the old idea that authors might, if they are lucky, get an obscure and hard-to-understand royalties statement once every six months is increasingly outdated. I was pleased to see via Nicola Griffith that Random House has jumped into the 21st Century with a very nice looking author portal system.

Of course now people will be expecting the same sort of thing from Wizard’s Tower, which means I have to write it. That may take a while.

That Bestseller List Thing

Some of you were a bit skeptical when I posted about Seanan McGuire’s problems with her book release date last month, assuming that the book trade couldn’t possibly be that daft. Well, Alan Beatts, who is a far better bookseller than I will ever be, and has years of experience, wrote about this sort of issue in the latest Borderlands Books newsletter. To read what he has to say, click here and scroll down to the “From the Office” column.

Please note that this is monthly newsletter so if you are reading this after about mid-April 2012 the post will probably have gone away.

This Is Piracy

A few rather interesting posts on the subject of literary piracy have come up in the last couple of days.

Firstly CNet explains how the publishing in the USA was built largely on acts of piracy. Sadly it doesn’t mention how Ian and Betty Ballantine built their business on the back of being the people with a legitimate right to publish The Lord of the Rings. It was Ace that pirated it.

Then there’s the case of the French government who, doubtless prodded by lobbyists, are trying to steal the rights to the back lists of huge numbers of authors and give them to the French publishing industry.

Finally John Scalzi is quite rightly fuming about an Australian company (part-owned by Microsoft) that is giving away thousands of ebooks that it doesn’t own (with follow-up here).

Personally I’d just like authors to get paid for their work. Not to mention publishers and booksellers. How we are expected to persuade Joe public to behave when governments and businesses set such a poor example is beyond me.

SFWA Takes A Stand

The ongoing war between Amazon and the rest of the publishing industry took a new twist today when SFWA announced that it would be replacing links to Amazon with links to other booksellers.

Most of my Amazon links vanished when the fuss about their deleting LGBT books happened, but of course they now own The Book Depository so I should do something about those links too.

I have actually just developed a piece of code that will allow me to remove all links to a specific bookseller quickly and easily. You can see it in action at the foot of this review. I need to implement that everywhere I have a book review, and sign up with a few folks like IndieBound and Powells. But it takes time, and I don’t have any right now.

A Key eBook Law Suit

It isn’t often that a law suit taking place in New York has the potential to directly impact my business, but this one has me a little worried. HarperCollins is suing an ebook publisher called Open Road, and the basis of their suit is that the phase “in book form” in a contract automatically includes ebook rights. If they win, then authors who have separately sold ebook rights to their back list can expect to get rude letters from their print publishers.

It did take a bit of provocation for HarperCollins to take this step. Open Road was founded by Jane Friedman, a former CEO of HarperCollins, and they very deliberately target high profile books for which to believe the paper publishers do not own ebook rights. Friedman will know the HarperCollins back catalog well, and is therefore well placed to exploit it. But this case has the potential to affect lots of people. Given what they have done with SF Gateway, I don’t suppose that Gollancz are too pleased about it.

I should note that this won’t affect authors’ ability to re-sell their back catalog if the rights to those books have expired. It is only cases where the paper publisher still claims rights over the paper edition(s) that are affected. But it could affect the Ben Jeapes books I have published, and many of the books that I have on sale in the store. I’ll be watching this one closely.

Last Flight

Last night brought the sad news that Anne McCaffrey had passed away. There are plenty of obituaries online, so I don’t think I need to add to them, except to note that she and Michael Moorcock bear significant responsibility for my teenage interest in SF. I wanted my own gold dragon (and, of course, a group of bronze riders vying for my attention).

What I would like to note, however, is this post from Juliet Wade, from which I was reminded that “Weyr Search”, the story that won McCaffrey a Hugo in 1968 and was eventually expanded to form Dragonflight, was first published in Analog.

Yes, Analog, that bastion of hard SF. The Pern novels have, of course, long been cited as a classic example of genre mixing. While the books do famously feature dragons, it is made clear in later volumes that Pern has been settled by human space travelers, and the dragons were genetically engineered from the smaller indigenous fire lizards.

Fans can and will argue endlessly about how the books should be classified, but the point I want to make is that I think, had the books been published now, they would be sold as YA fantasy. Equally I think that had a book like Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads been published in the 1960s, it would have been sold as science fiction. Publishers assign books to categories based on how they think they can best sell them at the time, and that decision changes over time as different genres become more or less popular.

A Con From The Past

While I’m off finding out about Egyptian SF, here’s something to keep you amused.

A month or two ago I received a DVD in the mail. It was a selection of recordings from the 2004 World Fantasy Con. “Why now?”, you must be asking. Well I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that Mike Willmoth and his pals are bidding for a NASFiC using the very same hotel that hosted that WFC.

I have to say that the Tempe Mission Palms is one of my favorite convention hotels, despite the fact that one of my abiding memories of it is trying to interview L.E. Modesitt by the rooftop pool while aircraft roared overhead on their way to and from Phoenix airport. The occasional noise when the flightpath is overhead is more than made up for by a good bar, a fabulous courtyard, and the proximity of a large number of cheap, good quality restaurants.

That convention also has particular memories for me because it was the first time I ever tried live-blogging an award ceremony. This was long before we started using Twitter. You had to refresh my blog regularly to see if a new category had been announced. But I immediately saw the power of the concept. I innocently emailed Liz Hand to tell her that she had won best Collection for Bibliomancy, and thereby ruined Ellen Datlow’s day — Ellen being the official acceptor for Liz — because she didn’t get to make that magic “you won” phone call. Sorry again, Ellen.

Five years later the World Fantasy Board devoted part of their annual meeting to trying to work out how they could prevent me from live-blogging their awards ceremony. How the world moves on, at times.

“But what of the DVD?”, you ask. Well, it is a mixed bag. Some of it reminds me forcibly of why I rarely go to programming at WFC, even when the official topic is “Women in Fantasy & Science Fiction”, but there are a few things that are really good. Jennifer Roberson makes a fine Mistress of the Toast. Paula Guran’s interview of Ellen Datlow is hilarious. And best of all, there is Betty Ballantine.

Betty was 85 at the time, but by far one of the sharpest people on program. She and her husband, Ian, were involved in bringing the paperback book to the USA, and the ructions this caused were probably very similar to the “ebooks have killed publishing” nonsense that we are getting today. Back in those days a paperback sold for 25c, of which the author got 1c, but they could sell 20,000 copies of each book.

Copyright was an issue back then too. Ace produced a pirate paperback edition of a much-loved UK import written by a chap named Tolkien. Ian and Betty got involved in helping get a legitimate edition published. The Professor waged a letter-writing campaign to his American fans urging them to boycott the Ace version, and that seemed to work. The pirate edition is now a collector’s item.

The DVD is apparently available for sale ($25 in the US, $30 in Canada, $35 beyond). I don’t think you can buy it online, but comment if you are interested and I’ll send you the details.

A Sign of Ebook Quality?

Via Nicola Griffith I found out about the QED Seal, which is designed to act as a sign of quality for ebooks. Interestingly the web page starts with a quote from my friend Pablo Defendini:

A well-crafted ebook is essential both from the reader’s perspective, as well as the publishers’—a reader will respond to a well-crafted, beautifully designed ebook. They will feel like they got their money’s worth when they interact with a professional-quality product. A quality ebook is going to be increasingly crucial as a component of a publisher’s brand going forward.

I love the sentiment, Pablo, and I very much hope that the final sentence is true.

This is something I would very much like to be able to say about the ebooks I publish, and ideally about all of the books I sell. Unfortunately, to get the seal, you have to enter your book for the Publishing Innovation Awards. That doesn’t (at a brief glance) appear to cost money, but the awards are only open to original digital content, and I’m not sure what that means. That is, is it content originally presented in digital format, or original content presented digitally?

In any case, I don’t suppose the people running the awards want people entering just to get the seal. It seems to me that there’s quite a bit of work involved in ensuring that you qualify. I’d love to know that my books did (and if not where they failed so I could fix it), but I don’t want to take advantage of someone’s contest just to get them to do a free check on my production quality.

FYI, the criteria against which ebooks will be judged are as follows:

  1. Front matter: the title does not open on a blank page.
  2. Information hierarchy: content is arranged in such a way that the relative importance of the content (heads, text, sidebars, etc) are visually presented clearly.
  3. Order of content: check of the content to be sure that none of it is missing or rearranged.
  4. Consistency of font treatment: consistent application of styles and white space.
  5. Links: hyperlinks to the web, cross references to other sections in the book, and the table of contents all work and point to the right areas. If the title has an index, it should be linked.
  6. Cover: The cover does not refer to any print edition only related content.
  7. Consumable Content: The title does not contain any fill-in content, such as workbooks and puzzle books, unless the content has been re-crafted to direct the reader on how to approach using the fill-in content.
  8. Print References: Content does not contain cross references to un-hyperlinked, static print page numbers (unless the ebook is intentionally mimicking its print counterpart for reference).
  9. Breaks: New sections break and/or start at logical places.
    10. Images: Art is appropriately sized, is in color where appropriate, loads relatively quickly, and if it contains text is legible. If images are removed for rights reasons, that portion is disclaimed or all references to that image are removed.
  10. Tables: Table text fits the screen comfortably, and if rendered as art is legible.
  11. Symbols: Text does not contain odd characters.
  12. Metadata: Basic metadata for the title (author, title, etc.) is in place and accurate.

As you can see, not all of these are things that easily lend themselves to checking via a tool like the wonderful epubcheck. Some of them could be included though, and that would help a lot. (Sorry Lisa, my Java is not up to doing it myself.) But the rest of it is time-consuming manual work along the lines of proof-reading, and that you should probably pay someone to do.

Lawyers + Ebooks = Trouble

Today’s news brought word of a troubling development in the USA. Hagens Berman, a “consumer rights firm”, has filed a class action lawsuit against Apple and several major publishers over the “agency model” system of ebook pricing. They allege that the publishers are Apple colluded to force Amazon to sell ebooks at an unfairly high price. In particular the suit says:

While free market forces would dictate that e-books would be cheaper than their hard-copy counterparts, considering lower production and distribution costs, the complaint shows that as a result of the agency model and alleged collusion, many e-books are more expensive than their hard-copy counterparts. According to the complaint, the prices of e-books have risen as much as 50 percent since the switch to an agency model.

I don’t think we need to go back through the economics of publishing argument again. There are plenty of places online that explain why paper, printing and distribution are not the major costs in (most) book production. Anyone who doesn’t believe that now doesn’t want to believe it.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely true that many ebooks are on sale at a higher price than the hardback edition, which to most consumers must seen absolutely crazy. Why is this?

Well, the “agency model” thing is essentially an agreement that means the publishers have the right to tell Amazon what price they want their books to be sold at. The same agreement does not apply to paper books. So when a new book comes out the publisher sets a price for the ebook, and Amazon puts the hardcover on sale at a lower price, which makes the publisher look bad.

How did we get into this mess? Well, when you sell a paper book through Amazon they have to buy it from you. You can suggest a higher price for the book, but Amazon reserves the right to sell the book for less. That’s OK, because they are paying you for the book anyway, so if they discount the price below the amount you charged, they take the hit rather than you.

So far so good, but what about ebooks? I don’t know what happens with bigger publishers, but when I upload an ebook for sale Amazon doesn’t have to pay me a cent unless they sell copies. I can recommend a sale price for the book, but they reserve the right to sell it for whatever they want. If they decide to put it on sale at $0.01 there is nothing I can do about it, save perhaps withdraw it from sale.

What’s more, while Amazon says I have no right to decide what price they sell my books at, they insist on telling me how much I can charge for them. Specifically, I am not allowed to offer the book for sale anywhere cheaper than it is available on Amazon. (Practically speaking, that means I have to charge more for them, because I don’t have to charge VAT on the books I sell and Amazon does.)

This law suit is all about market power. It claims that the publishers, and Apple, are conspiring to fix the price of books. Well, quite possibly they are. But so are Amazon. The suit claims that Apple wanted to keep the price of ebooks high while the iPad was still struggling to gain market share. But equally Amazon wanted to sell ebooks very cheaply in order to encourage people to buy kindles. Specifically, they wanted to sell them much more cheaply than publishers were comfortable with.

There are, I hope you will see, points to be made on both sides. The publishers, Amazon and Apple are all vying for market dominance in the rapidly burgeoning ebook market. From a consumer point of view, we don’t want any of them to attain dominance. As a small publisher, I don’t want any of them to do so either.

What worries me about this suit is that it sounds very much as if it is being brought on behalf of Amazon. It might not say that, and some people who bought expensive ebooks will get money back if they join in the action. The ultimate beneficiaries, however, will be Amazon, because they’ll be able to go back to a position of selling ebooks for whatever they want.

This is the way business goes in America at times — it is fought, not in the shopping malls and on the Internet, but in courts. The way that this case goes is likely to be in part a function of which side manages to fix the state in which the case is heard, and the judge who hears it. It is going to be very expensive, and it is going to result in a whole lot more flame wars over ebook pricing. And ultimately the people who suffer will, I fear, be authors, because this is going to make it even harder to make a living from writing.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere in Publishing

The summer issue of the fabulous Mslexia magazine arrived today. Flipping through it over dinner, I noticed two things of interest.

First there was an article titled “The Price of Fame”, in which industry journalist Liz Thomson reveals how much publishers have to pay in order to get their books promoted by chain stores.

Those 3 for 2 offers in Waterstones? It costs £1,000 per book to get included. As for the Richard & Judy Book Club (now a promotion through WH Smiths rather than a TV Programme), that will set you back a cool £20,000.

And no, that does not prove that publishers pay me thousands of dollars to get their books into the Locus Recommended Reading List.

The other item of interest was an article by author Elizabeth Chadwick on writing historical thrillers. Apparently there are several women making a name for themselves writing books that are similar in style to those written by Bernard Cornwell. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at their books. Chadwick’s top tip for success in the field is as follows:

Change your name. If you write a swash-buckling romance choose a gender-neutral name — men are less likely to buy books they think are by women.

No, I am not making this up.