Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pricing My Books

With the additional interest in ebooks caused by the Kindle and the ebook reader programs on the iPhone, the topic of valid prices for electronic books vs the price tag on a paper copy has been circulating around the net. Many big name books have the same price on the downloadable version as you'll find on the bookstore shelf, and that has gotten some people angry. While I've never taken the protection route, I can understand it. Some publishers would certainly want to protect their physical book sales from being undercut by the e-versions. Probably others have contractual reasons for keeping the same price. It's definitely hard to tell other publishers that they're doing it wrong because this is such a chaotic business. Practically every single title has it's own break down of costs and expenses and contract rules. You have to remember that, as a rule, every new book is a fresh negotiation. Publishers have their standard contracts, but everything is flexible.

But back to my own prices. In 2006, I tried an experiment. I took one of my unsold novels off the shelf, Emperor Dad, formatted it as a PDF and put it on my website with a PayPal button to buy it. I asked around, but got no solid advice on what to charge for it -- other than from my daughter who said it had to be cheaper than a paper copy. I chose $3 as a nice round figure, $2.99 with PayPal taking 0.39 as a transaction fee for a $2.60 net. Some friends and relatives bought it, and I had my introduction into the wild and crazy world of ebook formats. It seems some versions of PDF would text flow when loaded into a Palm Pilot, while others wouldn't. I experimented. I also decided I really needed cover art, even going so far as to chase down an artist and pay to have one created. Still, there were no significant sales.

Forward to 2007 and my discovery of Lulu. I had the itch to produce a real book, you know the kind with paper pages. Part of the incentive was personal. My parents were getting older, and although I had printed a few titles for them on my printer and ring bound them into nice packages, it still wasn't quite real to them. So, taking the same title, and my new cover art, I went through the free setup process and paid the fee for an ISBN number and distribution through Amazon. There was also the option to distribute an ebook version, a PDF just like I had been doing before, so to simplify matters, I shut down my private ebook webpage and just used theirs.

I chose $5 even for the Lulu ebook price, which gave me a net of $4. On the paper side, pricing was uncomfortably high. After running several spreadsheet trials to get a price point high enough so that an Amazon sale would actually produce a return, I chose $19.95. With Lulu's high cost per unit, that gave me $2.11 for each Amazon sale. I could also get $7.66 if anyone tracked down the Lulu bookstore and bought it there. Since Amazon always discounts, there wasn't much incentive for anyone to buy on the Lulu store. I could also buy copies in bulk for myself for $9.31 which I could then hand-sell.

A real book in hand was a revelation. My parents sat up and noticed. It became real for them. I had a book to show at conventions. Somehow one of the early copies got to Memphis and was nominated for the Darrell Awards. It won the 2008 Best Novel category.

2008, and I realized Lulu was unsustainable. Each copy was too expensive to manufacture. I asked around and discovered LightningSource. Maybe because I had done some homework and had already purchased a block of ISBN numbers and had plans for several titles, I squeaked through their vetting process and was accepted as a publisher. I pushed through two titles at the beginning. Roswell or Bust, and a second edition of Emperor Dad, with better layout and fewer pages than the first (the story was identical except for a few typo corrections). With LightningSource's better economies of scale, I could get my wholesale costs down to around $6 per title. That original $19.95 had to come down. More spreadsheets, and I set the prices at $12.95 with a 40% distributer discount. That was a mistake.

I took a road-trip around New Mexico to introduce Roswell or Bust to bookstores where it could be considered a local interest book. I quickly discovered that some bookstores wouldn't buy because when they went to Ingram to order, it was offered at 25% discount. I knew bookstores needed the 40%, so that's what I had set it at, but I had neglected Ingrams's cut. I went back to LightningSource and changed the list price to $14.95 with a 55% discount. That meant I had to change the price everywhere, so on my own webstore page, I increased the list price, but added free shipping to compensate.

So, at my current pricing, I get about $1.70 for each Amazon or B&N online type sale, and much better for anyone who buys from me direct with the offer of autographing, free shipping and no questions returns. The direct sales aren't huge but they do help compensate for all the free books I send out to reviewers (it's a big expense for me).

On the ebook side, I put Emperor Dad into the Kindle store almost as soon as they opened it up, but there were no sales for quite a while. Then Touch Tomes asked about making an ebook iPhone App. When we talked pricing, I suggested $5, since that is what I had used for the Lulu PDF and the Kindle version. It worked. Sales began picking up on the ebook side. I acquired Mobipocket Creator and made mobi versions of my titles and put them into that distribution chain as well, also for the $5/$4.95 list price.

The results, after considering store discounts, and partner splits are remarkably similar. Amazon Kindle discounts to $3.96 and then takes their cut leaving me $1.73.
On the iTunes store, the $4.99 has 30% going to Apple, and I split with Touch Tomes giving me 35% or about $1.75. Mobipocket sales give me $1.73, but that varies by the euro/dollar exchange rate. All of these are right in line with the net of a paper sale through a distributer, so I really have no problem with e-book sales vs paper sales.

My target price of $5 for e-sales list was just a shot in the dark, but I'm quite pleased with how it's worked out. Yes, I'd prefer to sell you paper copies direct and chat with you personally, but I still have hopes of becoming wildly popular and I would rather not spend all my time packing and shipping books.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rattlesnake Dance

When Mary Ann's computer crashed this morning, we decided to go for a drive in the country. Checking for wildflowers is a good alternative for sulking over a blank screen. We visited many of our standard locations, and while crossing county dirt roads near Round Mountain, Texas I stopped and backed up. "What did you see?" she asked.

"Rattlesnakes having sex."

I pulled up close, and sure enough, those were rattlers. Not wanting to get out of the car and limited by my cell phone camera, I did the best I could. The rest of the images are uploaded here. Play it in slideshow mode.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

InDesign vs Pages for Catalog Creation

Spring has come, and it's time for another book catalog for Wire Rim Books.

Last year, I did my fall and spring catalogs with the Pages software from Apple. It's part of the iWork software suite. While some have referred to Pages as a word-processor program, I've always thought of it as a page layout program. You start from a template and drag out your text boxes. Using it was relatively easy, and I had no difficulty producing those first two catalogs. They were essentially a flyer, front and back of a single sheet, which I could fold in half like a booklet. The first only had two titles and the second had four, so I really had no difficulty getting everything to fit. By nature, I'm not a template user, so I had started from a blank sheet. I did look at all of Apple's suggestions, but none of them worked for me.

When I started on the Spring 2009 catalog, I first reached for the previous catalog with the intent of just adding the additional title. Two things stopped me. First was that with five books, I was running out of room for a single sheet catalog. They wouldn't all fit, not without shrinking the postage stamp sized book covers down even more and giving each fewer words to go with it. Second, I had come to the conclusion that each book needed its own page. With five pages for the books, one for series and author info, the front page splash and the last page for contact and ordering information, that meant eight pages, double the size. I wouldn't be able to re-use much of the previous version at all. Plus, more books are in the planning stages, I really needing a design that could grow easily. Again, I looked at the Pages templates. Nothing really matched what I wanted.

Spending so much time in InDesign for my book layout projects, I was inclined to see how well it would do with this kind of task. Once I started, by creating my blank, 8-page document, I began to see that I had quite a few more options than I had with Pages. I did the splash page, and then experimented with putting photos I had taken during my book research down as transparent back drops to the text. I put a small down main-street image behind the information about my Small Towns, Big Ideas series. I put the Mackinac Bridge behind the page where the novel Lighter Than Air was featured, and so on. It looked nice to me, and maybe it would get across to somebody the idea that those stories were rooted in the real world.

Everything was going smoothly, until I added the little tables with the ISBN numbers and the prices, etc. The first one worked, and then I tried copy and paste to duplicate the table to the other pages. Evil magic happened. It wouldn't work. I tried and tried, using different techniques and spending quite a bit of time on the Adobe forums looking for hints. After a day or so spinning my wheels, I came to the conclusion that I had garbaged up the layout with too many accidental text blocks. It's far too easy to lay down multiple identical invisible text blocks in the same place. Plus, I'd made the mistake of, coming from my book layout experience, of having all the pages as one 'story', all linked together. Bad starting design had messed me up.

So I started over, clean. I kept the same design ideas, but each page was now independent, and wonder of wonders, I could copy and paste the tables with no problem. I turned my efforts back to laying out the covers and the blurb text and even had space for clips of good reviews to fill up each page (too many good reviews, luckily). In very little time, comparatively, I had my finished 8-pager and uploaded the PDF to my catalog page. A trip to Kinkos and I'll have a stack for mail-out use.

You can see the results. Visit my Catalog download page here.

Pages vs InDesign? I'll keep Pages for one-page flyers and quick turn-around uses. It is very easy to use. But for bigger projects, I'll go with InDesign. There's a learning curve, but it is a very powerful tool that I am more comfortable with day by day.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sci-fi, Syfy, and Forry

It seems the Sci-Fi channel is changing its name to Syfy. The stated reason for the change is to make something that can be trademarked, a name that can be owned. I guess it's as good a business reason as most. And I can't get too upset at renaming a channel that has wrestling as one of its staples.

But the outflow of indignation from (us) geeks is a little fun to watch. It's as if the network officials saw Sci-Fi as a market to attack, so they put on the costume, swooped in, and when they were sated, they changed clothes again. Hey, it could be true.

But I've been around the ghetto long enough that it's all old news. When I was selling my first stories to Analog, I was told "Don't use sci-fi, it's science fiction. Sci-fi was made up by Forry Ackerman as a riff off of hi-fi." This wisdom was handed down with the implication that one of fandom's legends was just a little too pandering to the masses for the true believers. The advice probably didn't take as well for me, because Forry had bought my very first story as a filler in the back of the Perry Rhodan series of translations. (Don't look it up. It's forgettable.)

But sci-fi wasn't the only attempt to name the genre. There was scientifiction and when the tide was turning away from science, it was speculative fiction, and it's derivitive, spec-fic.

There are certainly others, but these are the ones that come to mind. I guess the whole question about "Syfy" is whether it will have anything to do with literature of the mind. Certainly not if they use the opportunity to add more wrestling.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

TV Shows: Miss Parker

I watched just a handful of "The Pretender" when it was on. I was mildly intrigued, but not enough to schedule the time. The gimmick, a genius able to step into any role and pretend to be a pilot, a surgeon, etc. was fun, but it didn't sustain my interest. It didn't help that there had been a real life models of people, various scam artists, who had also been gifted with the same talent. The TV version with a big scary secret organization, The Centre, seemed a disappointment.

But then Hulu offered up the chance to catch up the series for free (you have to watch the commercials). Even though they don't have all the episodes ( a scattering of season 3 and 4 episodes are unavailable because of music rights issues) it was certainly good relaxation time in the evenings to pick up two or three episodes. Although, like I said, there are episodes missing, seeing the shows back to back certainly changes my perception of the show. Jerod, the Pretender, and the title character of the show, is just the foil. The star of the show is Miss Parker.

Seen as "The Centre, a soap opera", Miss Parker is the center of everything. She is the character most driven to find Jarod, with the most in-depth back story. She grows and develops most. With costumes out of a dark graphic novel, and with "Anger is my religion" showing in practically every scene, she is a vivid, memorable character. Jerod is a cardboard vigilante in contrast. Once his childlike fascination with pez and ice cream got old, it was the story of Miss Parker and her gothic family that kept me watching.

If I were to make a list of most all-time memorable TV characters, I think she might be at the top.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Falling Bakward on Kindle

I've been checking regularly for about a week now, waiting for Falling Bakward to go "Live" on the Kindle store. They advertise 12 to 72 hours from upload to being active on Amazon, but the consensus is a week if there's no problems.

The particularly nice thing about having the book there as a Kindle offering is that, with the introduction of the Kindle on the iPhone app, anyone who has an iPhone or iPod Touch can go to this link and download a 'sample' for free. In this case it's the cover and just over four chapters from the beginning of the book. So it's a nice way for people to try out the story and see if it grabs them or not.

I am also offering the book in "mobi" format through a number of on-line ebook sellers that specialize in this format. So, as of today, I have all five titles up as ebooks as well as trade paperback.

Monday, March 09, 2009

First Review in for Falling Bakward

I'm still in the process of mailing out review copies of my latest novel, Falling Bakward, so I was surprised when Google Alerts offered up the first review on it.

Bettye Baldwin posted an embarrassingly positive review on Associated Content. But I'm no so embarrassed that I won't show it off to all and sundry. I especially liked the bit where she opened the book to glance through it and got caught.

Henry Melton
A review of Henry Melton's Falling Bakwards.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Kindle on iPhone -- Big News for Publishers

This morning's news had a single item that made me drop everything. I flipped over to iTunes and downloaded the Kindle on iPhone free app and immediately attempted to download one of my ebooks.

I entered my regular Amazon login, and then found that the 'storefront' capabilities of the reader are very crude. You go to a web browser to find and buy your Kindle books. The builtin Safari will do, but I was too excited to wait and went immediately to my desktop version.

When I located the Kindle version of my Lighter Than Air, I was surprised to find that there was a button named with my phone's name (Obsidian) that I could download to.
I bought, went back to the Kindle App on the iPhone and it immediately began to download the book, just a couple of seconds at 3G speeds.

Finally! I can now see what my ebooks look like on a Kindle! I've been publishing blind, and I can see that in this case, the books reads fine, but the cover art is missing. I'll have to rework that, now that I know it's a problem.

As a reader, it's different from the Stanza version, but roughly equivalent. You swipe to turn the page and tap to get a slider to move to different parts of the book. Changing font size actually works better than Stanza and happens quicker.
My daughter looked at it and said, "Oh, it's just another ebook reader." Yes, that's the point. It'll be familiar and usable.

I expect the bookstore features will give the App some poor reviews and Amazon would be stupid not to push out an update to fix it. But everybody has an Amazon account and people are tired of opening new accounts everywhere.

240,000 titles meet Millions of iPhone owners.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Kindle 2 Audiobook Thoughts

I've read several of the commentaries on Amazon's change of plans concerning the ability of the Kindle 2 to read aloud the e-books that it holds. I can see both sides of the issue. As an author and a publisher, I'm well aware that the only way a writer can make a living in today's technological climate is to carefully manage the infinite facets of that legal edifice called copyright. I'd rather not, but I also want a way to keep eating and keep producing the stories I love. The only other course is to find a wealthy patron, but unfortunately, those are in short supply right now.

Many jokes have been made about Authors Guild's comments about the legality of having the Kindle read aloud an e-book, as well as some ridiculous analogies to a parent reading a book to a child. To an outsider, it's easy to ridicule. But most of the articles I've read miss one critical point: The Kindle 2 isn't a general purpose book reader. It's a book store in your hand. Buying an ebook and then playing it aloud is exactly the same as buying an audiobook. Maybe not a good audiobook, but it is one all the same. Amazon was offering to sell two formats for the price of one, with out the copyright holder's permission.

Look at a different version of nearly the same process. I am typing this on my Mac. I could go to one of the many different ebook vendors, buy a story, say a PDF version, and with only the built-in functions of Adobe Acrobat Pro and the operating system, I could play out that story aloud.

As far as I can see, the only difference between the book on the Mac and the Kindle 2 is that the Kindle 2 is marketed as an arm of Amazon and what I can do on my Mac is just plugging general purpose programs together to achieve new functions. I think iTunes Store, should it attempt to sell, say PDF books, might also fall into the same permissions mire.

It's sad, but authors and publishers didn't ask to be put at odds with the very people they want to make happy, the readers. But it will be up to us to find a way to keep the engine of creation running. Readers (in general) don't care where the words come from and the copyright system is just another technology put in place to encourage creation, but it evolves much slower than software. I'm glad the Authors Guild spoke up. They saw a technological/legal conflict and brought it to light. Amazon looked at their contracts again and said "Oops".

But there is no solution, yet. Of course, the Kindle should have a way to speak text aloud. Every computer should. It's obvious. Perhaps now is the time for audiobook creators to step up and do some serious advertising to make it plain as day that text-to-speech is a very poor cousin to their offerings. I'd love to see some of the faces of some of the better voice actors. They should get some of the media glow their work deserves.