Sales and Licenses

Via Charles A. Tan on Twitter I discovered this report of what might be a very significant legal ruling in the USA. The decision relates to how MP3 music files are sold, but as the article notes it could apply to any sort of download.

The issue is that traditionally content creators have been paid different royalties depending on whether their work is sold outright, or licensed for restricted use. Royalties for licensing are normally much higher. Lawyers acting for Eminem have argued (successfully now) that online downloads of their client’s work is licensing, not selling, and that therefore the higher royalties are due.

The key point here, however, is not that the music is sold (or licensed) online, but the terms of that transaction. If, like Amazon, you “sell” a book with DRM, and reserve the right to take it back at any time, that’s a license. If you sell it without DRM, and allow the customer to keep it forever, sell it on, load it to friends and so on, that’s a sale.

Of course what will probably happen is that media companies will start re-writing their contracts so that works sold under license no longer earn high royalties. So in the long term it won’t help your favorite authors or artists much to buy digital.

Of course you could always opt to buy your ebooks from stores that offer them DRM free and take a small cut of the sale price.

Time is Money

I’d been planning to post today about ebook pricing because I’d be grateful if you could take a look at this poll which Neil Clarke is running on his LiveJournal. The more information we get the easier it is to provide people with what they are willing to buy.

Had it been me doing the poll I would have asked a supplementary question to the people who said they would buy from big stores but not direct from Neil or myself. It must be pretty obvious that we get more money if you buy direct, so what is the attraction of big stores? Is it the convenience of Amazon’s one-click purchase? Is it the payment method? (Taking credit cards costs money, so you need a high turnover to justify it.) Is it concerns about security or reliability? This is, I think, a major issue in the online marketplace.

While I was thinking about this, however, a light bulb went off. A week or so ago, during the debate on $0.99 ebooks, Cat Valente asked why people are prepared to pay $6 or so for a latte, but not $3 for a book (the exact amounts are probably wrong, but the idea is there). I think I might know the answer.

When you buy a latte (or a movie ticket, or a CD, or whatever) you expect to get the enjoyment out of it almost immediately. There is no major investment on your part. When you buy a book, however, you only get the enjoyment out of it if you spend the many hours necessary to read it. We all live very busy lives these days, and our time is valuable. Many people I know (including myself) already own more books than they can hope to read in the rest of their lifetime. So when you buy a book you are not asking yourself “can I afford $3?” (or however much it costs), you are asking yourself “can I afford 10 hours?” (or however long you estimate it will take you to read it). If you are going to read it, the cost is much less of an issue, and you may well be prepared to pay a lot more given the amount of time it will amuse you for.

Does this make sense to people? Because if so it suggests that the only effect of cutting the price of books is to try to encourage people to buy books that they won’t read.

[I note that the same does not apply to Clarkesworld and Salon Futura. What is happening there is that we are trying to find the price people will pay for the convenience of having an ebook edition of something they can get for free online.]

Publishing Follow-Up

It occurred to me this morning that one of the main reasons why I get annoyed with authors who describe themselves as “published by Amazon” is that it muddies the question of ownership of the work.

When you sign up with a publisher one of the things you do is give them the right to market your book. You might be able to get some author copies to sell yourself, but you are not supposed to conclude your own deals with retailers. The publisher does that.

Because the publisher is not a retailer, the company will do its best to get your book into a wide range of stores, giving the consumer plenty of ways to buy. But Amazon is a retailer, not a publisher. And just like any other large, successful business, it wants to be the only game in town.

I’m meeting an increasing number of people who believe that if you produce a book for the Kindle you can only sell it through Amazon, and that books for the Kindle can only be bought from Amazon. This simply isn’t true, but Amazon does its best to encourage the idea because it helps it secure market dominance. Authors should be very worried about this. You really don’t want a single company taking the place of both publisher and retailer.

Of course not everything that Amazon does is bad. The new loan facility is an excellent idea, because it restores a right that people had with physical books and ebooks appeared to be taking away. I suspect that some big publishers are fuming about it, but that’s business.

Finally, thanks to Jason Eric Lundberg, I found this wonderful article in Granta by Daniel Alarcón. It describes the book piracy industry in Peru. And I mean book piracy, not ebook piracy. Give it a read.

Jim Hines on Ebook Marketing

A couple of days ago SFWA published an interesting article about ebook publishing by Jim Hines. I have a few issues with some of the terminology Jim uses — Amazon is a retailer, not a publisher, so if you create an ebook and sell through them you are not “published” by Amazon and you don’t get “royalties” from them, you are self-publishing — but it is a very interesting article all the same.

Basically Jim tried self-publishing some of his backlist as ebooks retailing through Amazon and B&N. In the course of 2 months he sold 37 books for a total income of $75. That’s not a viable business. What went wrong? Well partly Jim acknowledges that the choice of book was poor, but mainly it is a question of marketing.

Here’s the problem. It is all very well having your book available on Amazon, but with millions of other books also available, how is anyone going to find it, let alone buy it? There are things you can do. Good covers, good associated blurb, having more than one book available: all these help. But even so the haystack in which you are trying to get your needle noticed is very large indeed.

This is a problem for anyone trying to sell ebooks. How do you get your wares noticed? It is a problem that bugged me when I was thinking about setting up Wizard’s Tower. That’s one reason why I have Salon Futura: it gives me an opportunity once a month to tell a lot of people about new books. It is also why the bookstore sells books by other publishers. The more good material I have there, the more people will visit and the more chance I’ll have of selling my own books. But that’s probably not enough.

The good news is that December looks like having twice the turnover of November. The bad news is that still means little over £100 in sales which, given the generous terms I’m giving other publishers, is less than half what I need just to cover the hosting costs.

Yesterday Neil Clarke tweeted to ask people where they found out about good ebooks to buy (because he wants to sell books too). I didn’t see many responses, but one person mentioned “blogs and the front page of Amazon”. The Amazon reference isn’t as daft as it seems, because they do recommendations, but even so it illustrates the point. Left to their own devices, people will buy from Amazon. They will only buy from elsewhere if people blog or tweet or whatever about those other places. So I’m very grateful to Hal Duncan and Ekaterina Sedia for pointing people at my store. I’d like other people to do so as well, but there’s a limit to how often you can bug people and at least one person has already decided I’m being too pushy.

It is, however, a feedback thing. If you don’t sell many books, people won’t bother to sell through your store and you’ll sell even fewer. If you do have good sales, more people will want to sell through your store, more people will talk about it, and the more you will sell. Getting that positive feedback loop going is a skill. Over the next few months I’ll find out whether I have it.

And just in case you have forgotten, all Prime ebooks are on sale at the bookstore through to the end of the year.

E-Books: Two Sides of the Coin

These days it is necessary for me to take note of debates about the effects of ebooks on the publishing industry. I therefore took the time to read recent posts by Paul Cornell and Gary Gibson. They take very different positions. Paul explains how illegal downloading is theft, and is killing the ability of creative people to make a living. Gary explains that piracy has always happened (though in the past we called it things like “second hand bookstores” and “libraries”) and always will happen.

Now Paul is a good friend of mine, as are Lou Anders and John Picacio who supported him in comments. And as someone trying to make a publishing business cover its costs (not make any money for myself right now) I have a great deal of sympathy for what they say. Equally, however, I find myself in agreement with much of what Gary says. This is not a simple matter. I shall now make a fool of myself by trying to navigate these difficult waters.

Firstly I have to say that some of what Paul’s commenters said is very odd. How can someone simultaneously complain that published ebooks are of very poor quality and that there is no cost to the production of an ebook? Really, there is a disconnect there.

On the other hand, Gary is right. Much of the current rhetoric against “piracy” by big corporations is aimed at exactly the sort of behavior that second hand bookstores and libraries indulge in. Your modern media company wants every consumer to pay for every work that they consume, in every different format that they consume it, preferably each time that they consume it. As far as Amazon is concerned, you don’t buy books from them, you borrow them, and they can take them back any time they want. Yet you are expected to pay as much as you pay to own a paper book, sometimes more.

Because of this, we are all pirates in some way or another. One particularly annoying example is that in the UK it is still illegal to copy a CD that you own to a computer disc, either for backup, to play from your PC, or to download to an MP3 player. Anyone in the UK who has done this is a pirate. Mea culpa. And, as Gary says, things that used to be perfectly legal to do with paper books are held up as terrible crimes if you do them with ebooks. This is unhealthy, and I’ll come back to it later.

The problem with what Gary says, however, is one of scale. A given copy of a book can only be resold to one person; it can only be in one library, and loaned to one person at a time. A pirate copy of an ebook can be downloaded by thousands of people, and potentially cost thousands of sales.

Here, however, there’s another problem. Someone like Paul tends to see every pirate download of his work as a sale lost. Equally the defenders of illegal downloading see every pirate as someone who would never have bought the work in the first place, and is therefore simply an additional reader. The truth, inevitably, is somewhere in between, but we’ll never know exactly where because a) it can be very different for different books; b) it is very hard to measure; and c) because this is Internet debate we are talking about, no one wants to take the middle ground.

So on the one hand people are pirating books and feeling OK about it, while on the other desperate industry professionals are trying to persuade them that they are doing something morally wrong and should stop. Here’s where things get really murky.

Remember what I said about “unhealthy”? Here’s the problem. Lovers of authoritarianism like to push the line that the law is the law and that breaking it is always wrong. That, however, doesn’t really work. Copyright law was not handed down from on high on tablets of stone, it was written by humans, and like anything else to do with running human society it requires negotiation and agreement to work.

Modern societies have all sorts of laws, some of which are more successful than others. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many children are killed, we can’t stop drivers from breaking the speed limit. We can’t even stop them from driving when drunk. Heck, we often can’t even get effective prosecution of people who kill through driving when drunk. Everyone (except possibly Jeremy Clarkson) knows it is bad, but vast numbers of people think it is OK when they do it.

For a law to be successful it has to be accepted as reasonable by the vast majority of people in the society in which it is being applied. If you try to criminalize actions that people think are only sensible, if you try to criminalize things that used to be perfectly legal using older media, people are not going to respect that law. They are going to think that it is OK to break it, and they will break it.

Back in the Middle Ages large portions of farm land were owned communally and any local person had the right to graze animals on them. Through the 17th and 18th Centuries (roughly, I’m not an historian, so please excuse my lack of detail) much of this land was enclosed by rich landowners. The country people were very unhappy about it, but in the end they lost and many of them ended up moving to towns and working in factories. Something very similar is happening now. We used to be able to own books and movies. Big media companies want to put an end to that. They want ownership of entertainment to reside only with them, and for us to have to pay them every time we want to be entertained. This is making people very unhappy, and disrespectful of the laws that media industry lobbyists are busy pushing though various national legislatures.

It is hard to say what will happen in this fight, but history, sadly, is not on the side of the little guy. What’s more Julian Assange, bless his little anarchist socks, has just given national governments all over the world the perfect excuse to try to clamp down on Internet use in the name of “national security”. You can bet that the media industry lobbyists are rubbing their hands with glee.

So what can we do about this? Well keep an eye on what our governments are doing for starters. But that’s hard. After all, as every anarchist knows, no matter who you vote for, The Government always gets in. We can, however, vote with our credit cards. We can make a point of buying books if we can afford it, not pirating them because we can. We can try to buy books that are not protected by DRM. Even if you have a Kindle you can buy DRM-free books as long as you don’t buy from Amazon. Buy books direct from the publisher, or from stores that sell DRM-free. (Yes, that does include mine, but it also includes many others.) Buy direct from the author.

In addition I think we need to think long and hard about how the creation of art is funded. It is tempting to think that the idea of full-time writers who make books that individuals buy has always been true and always will be true. The novel, however, is a relatively recent invention, and other forms of art don’t work that way.

When the creators of The Illiad or Beowulf sat down in some great hall to perform they didn’t require a ticket from everyone who attended. Some people may have thrown coin, but the poet’s wages were probably paid mostly by the local lord. Great musicians like Mozart and Beethoven didn’t live solely off the proceeds of concert tickets, they had wealthy patrons who commissioned them to create new works. Even today, very many science fiction and fantasy authors have day jobs that keep them from poverty, or have a spouse with a day job who can pay the mortgage. And when someone like Anthony Gormley creates a work of public art, it may be paid for out of local government taxes, but it would never happen if every person in the street had been asked to stump up their share.

The whole process of funding art is very complicated, and it seems that in many cases the better you are the less likely your work is to be understood or liked by the bulk of the population. Sometimes the public will buy books by the likes of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman in huge quantities, but often what they really want is the new Dan Brown novel, or the next installment of Wayne Rooney’s biography.

I don’t pretend to have any answers here, but I’m pretty sure that demanding that everyone who wants to consume a particular piece of art should pay their fair share of the cost is only going to result in lowest common denominator art. If we want better art to thrive, then those of us who appreciate it have to find ways of financing it ourselves. If the government is not prepared to do so, and in this country at least arts funding is being brutally decimated, then we have to do it ourselves.

What’s In Store – The Magazines

Aside from Dark Spires, the only things I have in store at the moment are copies of Clarkesworld and Salon Futura. I don’t expect this state of affairs to last. I’m actively talking to small presses and individual authors about stocking their books. In the meantime, however, let’s talk about the magazines, because I’m sure that there are some people out there who are thinking: “Charging money for something you can find free online? What an outrageous ripoff!”

Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it. The other way is to say that it is giving you an opportunity to pay for something if you can afford to do so, because if nobody pays then it won’t keep going for long.

It helps to understand the situation better if you also read this post from The Hill, a blog about things to do with Congress, which people were linking to on Twitter today. In it Colleen Doran explains some of the bad things that are happening to comics creators right now, which she sees as a direct result of piracy: people scanning comics and posting them online for free.

There are all sorts of arguments that could be made about this, and I’d prefer it if the comment thread didn’t degenerate into a flame war about piracy. There’s not much new to be said on the issue these days. I would, however, like to make two points.

Firstly, laws are not going to stamp out piracy. Prohibition did not stop people from drinking alcohol; the “war on drugs” hasn’t stopped people smoking dope or snorting cocaine; “just say no” campaigns don’t stop teenagers from having sex. If something is possible, and it looks like fun, people will do it.

Secondly, the proposed new law that Doran is talking about is not targeting individual pirates, but rather piracy as a business. It is one thing to share your ebooks with your mates. It is quite another to make a business of pirating thousands of ebooks and making money off advertising on your web site.

So one way of looking at what is happening with online magazines is to say that we are pirating our own stuff. Given that it is inevitable that anything worth having is going to appear for free somewhere, we might as well get the traffic coming to our own sites, so that we get the ad revenue instead of the pirates.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Because what we really want to do is pay creators — writers and artists — good money for good work. Clearly not everyone can afford to pay. That may be because they are kids, because they are out of work, or because they come from poorer parts of the world where they can barely afford to get online. I’m OK with that. Salon Futura has readers in places like Vietnam, Bosnia and Egypt. I don’t know who those people are, but I’m pleased they are reading my magazine and fairly sure that they would not be doing so if they had to buy it from Amazon.

Some of you, however, can afford to pay. I’ve lived in California. People there think nothing of adding 15% to restaurant bills, or dropping a couple of bucks to a bellhop or maid in a hotel. Is it really too much to ask to pay a few dollars a month to keep the likes of Clarkesworld and Salon Futura going? Possibly it is, but now you have the choice. You don’t have to pay “too much”, but you don’t have to pay “too little” either.

Sorry if I’m banging the drum a bit here, but this is the way the world is going. If we want writers, artists, musicians and so on to continue to entertain us, we have to give them money for what they do.

Buying and Borrowing

Paul Cornell was asking on Twitter this morning why people hate DRM so much. I can see both sides (I do own a publishing company now, after all), but from a reading point of view my complaint has always been that I prefer to own my books, not borrow them from a publisher who may be able to take them back on a whim, and who cannot be guaranteed to support the hardware and software needed to play them.

This distinction — that DRM’d books and music are effectively only licensed to the consumer, not sold — is a probably at the heart of a potentially explosive court decision that Nicola Griffith talks about here. The full story is in the Wall Street Journal (because big money is involved).

The case, brought by a group of producers who work with Eminem, argued that because the music on iTunes is licensed rather than bought outright a different, and much higher, schedule of payments to the artists should apply. A court in San Francisco (yay!) has agreed.

This being the American legal system, all sorts of shenanigans could take place before the defendants (Universal Music Group, not Apple) have to pay out any money. However, it could cause publishers (of books as well as music) to think twice about their contracts and exactly how they present their products to the public.

Adventures in EPUB

I have spent most of today working on an EPUB version of Salon Futura. I have been playing with EPUBs for a while now, but this was the first time I have tried to do anything clever with them (as opposed to just entering and formatting text).

One of the problems with ebooks is that both the tools and the standards are very much in a state of flux. There are very few specialist tools for ebook editing, and I wouldn’t call any of them professional. By far the most useful is Sigil, which allows direct editing of the EPUB file, and has tools for editing the meta data and ToC file, but as an HTML/CSS editor it is pretty sucky.

I found this out the hard way today when I entered an HREF tag that Sigil thought was invalid. To my horror, it not only flagged an error, but refused to display any code in that file from the error onwards. As far as I can make out, it deleted the rest of the file. Fortunately it only did that in memory, and I could recover a version at the last save by exiting the program, but even do that’s pretty dumb operation.

Of course no decent code editor should ever alter your code without permission. Sigil does it all the time.

The error, by the way, is rather interesting. I pasted in a URL that queried some PHP code. So it included a ? followed a bunch of parameters. Something in the XHTML validation doesn’t allow more than one “=” in the SRC field of an HREF tag. And I don’t think it is just Sigil. Other editors objected to it as well, though they handled the error much better. This seems very odd to me. It isn’t like such URL syntax is at all unusual.

Meanwhile I have been looking at alternative tools. I need an HTML/CSS editor that won’t mess with my code without permission, but will have good source highlighting, will validate my code and so on.

I used to use Dreamweaver a lot before I started using WordPress to build web sites. My old copy still works, but it is poor on CSS because it is very old. So I checked out the latest version. Annoyingly upgrade pricing isn’t available for my version. Worse than that, however, Adobe have made the program so bloated and complicated that it needs 1Gb of disk space to install and won’t run on my laptop because the machine doesn’t have good enough screen resolution. That’s just silly.

Fortunately there are plenty of alternatives. I have checked out quite a few. The best I have found so far are TopStyle and phpDesigner (thanks Kyle!). The latter looks very impressive, and I would be interested if I didn’t already have a PHP editor. TopStyle, on the other hand, is more of a specialist HTML/CSS editor, which is pretty much what I needed. Hopefully I can do most of my editing in that, and only drop stuff into Sigil when it is ready.