The Nameless Horror

The new gatekeepers

It’s an oft-stated fact about self-publishing that “there are no gatekeepers”. No one stopping your work from being out there and finding an audience. No one to tell you sorry, your book doesn’t meet our criteria at this time.

This, though, is only partly true.

It is true that there’s no one stopping you making your book available for the world to see through whichever channel you choose to put it. It’s not true that there’s no one who decides whether your book finds an audience. (At least, not readily.) Without passing these new gatekeepers, your odds of finding significant readers are greatly diminished unless you already have a large following of your own. These gatekeepers are the cheap/free book promotion sites like Indie Book Bargains, Awesomegang and Pixel of Ink.

Even after the minor massacre wrought by Amazon’s changes to its affiliate income rules (whereby, as I recall, most of an affiliates click traffic earnings had to be for paid items, not free), having a book listed on these sites’ daily deals can make an enormous difference.

Unremarked and unmentioned, either of the Rourke novels on a three-day Amazon freebie weekend picks up a few hundred downloads at most. (I don’t have them in front of me any more, but they’ve varied, probably due to holiday time/not holiday time, between 400-600 on the occasions I’ve tried. Hardly boat-rocking numbers, but consistent.) The last time I put TDI on free I also submitted it around the various freebie list sites, which cost nothing but time. It was picked up by two of them that I know of, and saw about 1,700 downloads, enough to pitch it up to around the #250 mark in Amazon’s free list and into the top 20 crime. TTOG did even better and was picked up by three sites (again, that I know of). It saw 2,600 downloads and peaked around #130 overall, #9 in mystery and #5 in crime.

Clearly getting listed makes a vast difference, but it’s not a given. Unless - in some cases at least - you pay to do it. Otherwise, the sites’ owners pick ones that look/sound good, or, sometimes, filter by review numbers and overall star rating, both of which are very difficult to achieve honestly without first having a large readership already. (Note that this is not a gripe; I quite understand the need to filter from what must be a large number of posters.)

I was genuinely dubious of the effectiveness of listings on free/bargain Kindle sites, but I was wrong. These sites are in many respects the new gatekeepers of self-publishing. You may be able to pay to get through more easily, but they still hold a lot of the keys.

There is a drawback, of course, and that’s the issue of price. Unless the same lift can be provided for ebooks you need to pay for, to some extent free downloads offer an illusion of readership reach. While some people are browsing for something to look at now, many others are just hunting for bargains that they may or may not get around to. I’m no different; I have two books by friends to get round to once I’ve finished the dead tree Jack O’Connell I’m reading (slowly), and only then could I look at the sea of random freebies and bargains and all the rest that have accumulated in various forms and various formats over the past few months. Unless I’m sent to jail or find myself laid up in hospital for a long time, my chances of reading all of them are basically zero.

Still, be that as it may, the numbers are concrete. Twitter doesn’t put books in front of eyeballs. Blogging won’t win you a quick audience. But an acceptance from the right bargain site can. Next up in the experimental numbers stakes would be determining if the same happens for paid books, and seeing what fifty bucks of guaranteed mentions will get you.

(3NJ deliberately unmentioned due to youth of service, only tangential relevance to a gatekeeping discussion since it’s open to all, and obvious conflict of interest.)

Apple, Amazon, and all that

There are numerous opinions of the Apple ebooks trial verdict. This one by Adam Engst is well worth reading as a summary of Cote’s ruling. Equally worth reading is Philip Elmer-DeWitt’s look at its strengths and weaknesses for CNN, linked to in that piece.

What is not worth reading is this one in the Guardian by Dan Gillmor. Gillmor is clearly a massive fan of Amazon’s, to the point that he’s able to eat up inaccuracies and bizarre personal interpretations.

So, [publishers and Apple] decided to work together against their common enemies: Amazon and genuine competition.

… The way they eliminated competition – for a time – was to insist on changing the terms of bookselling online. Before, publishers had sold digital rights, mostly to Amazon, as it was by far the biggest online retailer, based on the wholesale model that physical bookstores have used

There was lengthy testimony from B&N making it readily apparent that the agency model for ebooks was not an Apple invention. B&N had used it themselves for the Nook store in 2009, before Apple. (And, as far as I’m aware, the flat 30% charge has been standard iTunes practice for music and apps since the year dot.) The reason B&N used it was the same reason Apple used it: it was more attractive to publishers feeling squeezed by Amazon. Apple had also originally intended to use a wholesale model, according to Eddy Cue at least, but publishers, led by HarperCollins, wanted an agency model.

[Publishers wanted to get away from the wholesale model because] Amazon was going to monopolize the ebook market.

It already was. Most pre-iBookstore estimates had Amazon with 90-95% of the market.

They agreed with Apple to do things this way – and to a contract that forbade them from working with retailers that sold books at lower prices. Hence, Amazon had to go along or not get its books in the first place.

No, they didn’t. There was an abandoned draft terms sheet requiring publishers to use agency pricing on all accounts used in negotiations between Apple and the publishers, and a never-sent (presumably because LEGAL ADVICE), email from Steve Jobs saying they could sell with Apple only if they forced Amazon to switch to an agency model. The actual sent email said nothing of the sort, and the terms draft was dropped fast as being unenforceable. What replaced it was a ‘most-favoured nation’ clause allowing Apple to price-match regardless of what publishers had set prices at - which is standard; Amazon has one, Kobo has one, etc. etc. Apple were seeking to protect themselves from being priced out of the market by Amazon. The MFN did that, and they were happy.

The publishers, who come off a lot worse in the trial than Apple do, went to Amazon after agreeing to the iBookstore terms and demanded Amazon offer them a similar deal. But not because they were forced to. They did it because it would mean they could raise prices, as they were deeply concerned about the public’s perception of ‘fair’ ebook price levels and Amazon’s discounting often to the point of loss leading.

(And it worked. Prices went up. Amazon, ironically, earned more under the agency model. Publishers, equally ironically, earned less. People bought less because ebooks became more expensive. But it allowed publishers to keep the perceived average cost of an ebook up for a time.)

Apple and Amazon use draconian DRM (digital rights management) to restrict how buyers can use what they’ve bought – namely, by restricting which devices will display them. If the publishers ditched the DRM and sold directly to the public, they could charge a fair (that is, lower) price and make more money.

Oh dear. Publishers can choose with both sellers whether to protect their books with DRM. (See Tor for an example of a publisher who’s gone DRM-free.) DRM policy is not set by the retailer, but by the publisher. I agree that publishers are nuts for using it, and that it doesn’t achieve its stated aim, but they are under no compulsion to use it outside their own paranoia.

Amazon’s DRM has no device restriction; it has a software restriction. You can only view DRM-protected Kindle books in your Kindle app. But since they’re free and cross-platform, there’s no device limit per se. (Technically the same is true for iBooks, but since that’s limited to iOS devices only, until OS X 10.9 brings Macs to the still-Apple-only party, it’s more or less the same thing.)

There is also nothing stopping them from selling directly to the public, and this has nothing to do with DRM. Penguin, I know, actually used to do so for a time years ago. Why they haven’t built their own online selling brands for ebooks is one of the things about publishing that I least fathom.

(Other than, these days, Amazon’s willingness to instantly stop selling a publisher’s books as a bargaining tactic. See Hachette, Macmillan, et al.)

Second, Apple might consider backing off its “my way or the highway” view of the world. This is even less likely, but worth a mention anyway.

One might say the same for Amazon.

I have no particular dog in this race, though I’m not a fan of the Amazon approach to doing business, but, y’know, be choosy what you read on the subject.

It’s obvious, and has been for some time, that discovery is the tough nut to crack in the brave new world of publishing, for traditional and self-publishers. Traditional reviews used to be a key source of readers, but mainstream media book review sections have been squeezed for years and largely only cover big releases. Online reviewing has fragmented into a sea of book blogs (which I think is largely a good thing, to be honest; I like the idea of releasing a stranglehold on popular opinion previously held by newspapers. It just makes it hard to know who to listen to and where, even, to find reviews). Bestseller lists have only ever perpetuated sales for books on those lists.

There was a brief golden age for self-publishers when promotion via social media actually worked because it was a novelty and when offering a book for FREE was mind-blowingly freakish, crazy behavior that deserved retweeting to the nth degree. Now it’s everywhere and most people are jaded by it. I think anything that tries something new to get around this issue has a chance at making waves. So far the majority of the feedback I’ve had has been of the “Wow, this is such a cool idea! At last, something new!” variety. Whether I’ve executed that idea well or not, only time will tell. If I haven’t, someone else will do, because behavior needs to evolve.

I am interviewed (and witter away at great length) about 3NJ and book discovery, promotion, the wilds of the internet, and eyeballs at Critical Margins.

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Some notes on 3NJ

As you may know, on Monday I set something loose on the world. Here are some notes, thoughts, and numbers, in no particular order.

  • By Thursday, 3NJ had nearly 12,000 unique visitors (not including those blocking Google Analytics, which I would never criticise anyone for since I do it myself). 9,000 of that was on the first day, though; since the initial surge numbers have stabilised.

  • Time and pages per visit are hard to judge by since content was so thin at launch. Notably though, both have been rising steadily.

  • While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, the idea/execution seems to have been very popular with a lot of people. It seems to have really hit a spot.

  • At launch, there were just the 10 beta test entries on 3NJ. As I type this, there are 134 published posts, 86 scheduled, and 25 waiting for me to check. (I’ve not checked them because they’re all from one publisher who has uploaded samples from what must be most of their catalogue and since I’ve OKed probably 50-60 today already, spread over a couple of days of schedule, I figure the rest can space out a little.) (Sunday, if I’m remembering the queue right, may be gay erotica day on 3NJ, boys.) There are a couple of dozen waiting for formatting issues to be fixed.

  • The majority of users submit with no format issues at all. Since I tidied up one piece of admin UI on Monday evening (making a proper, clear ‘Source Link’ box instead of the WordPress default ‘Custom Fields’ on) the most common issue is including ‘Chapter One’ and the like. Where that’s the only issue, I just delete the header and publish.

  • There are 183 registered users on 3NJ at the moment.

  • Launching with limited content and near-zero existing users seems to have worked nicely.

  • Clearing the post queue twice a day, one of the main worries from Test Monkey feedback, has turned out to be pretty straightforward. Answering email has taken up more time.

  • A surprising number of people seem to assume the 3NJ set up is a lot more pro and web startup-y than it is. It’s just me. It runs on a very hacky WordPress install. There was no seed money and it generates no revenue.

  • There are some rough edges to smooth out. Chief amongst them are (1) changing or removing the next post/previous post nav links from posts reached via the randomiser and (2) giving myself the ability to email a user direct from the post screen to say that a submission has issues.

  • On launch day I had an email from a digital content manager for one of the Big Six, asking if the site took an ONIX feed that’d allow them to pipe their catalogue over direct. (I had to google ‘ONIX’.) Which is nice, though obviously not possible given how low-tech the back end is. He certainly seemed very keen on the concept.

  • I’ve had email from people in France and Germany asking about either the likelihood of setting up localised variants there, or asking advice on setting up a variant themselves. Which is awesome. I don’t have the time to do it myself, but I’d be very happy to see it spread and I’m happy to help out, share code (or, given my PHP skillz, “code”).

  • Entirely expectedly, much of the content on 3NJ is self-published (I think; it’s not like I’ve checked each entry). Self-published authors are probably more of a mindset to seize opportunities for discovery themselves, as quickly as possible.

  • I’ve seen maybe one submission that on first glance (I skim through looking for links or formatting oddness, so I don’t read per se; take that as you will) would fall foul of any filtering for basic technical accuracy. (Meaning “reasonable grammar” rather than “perfect grammar”.)

  • Next week I aim to get to emailing publisher PRs, hoping to see more traditionally-published content appear on 3NJ, because it’d be nice to have a good mixture.

  • Numerous people have tweeted about 3NJ/shared it on Facebook, and that’s been great. Anything that helps bring readers in is sweet.