Sunday, January 24, 2010

What the New Kindle Deal Means for Writers

by James Scott Bell

You've no doubt read up on's bold play this week to shore up its Kindle market share (estimated already to be 90% of all e-readers). They announced a new program, taking effect June 30, which offers a 70% royalty on Kindle editions priced between $2.99 and $8.99. That's double what they have granted before (and was timed to come just before Apple's announcement of a similar plan for their new iTablet. For more on the coming "price wars," see this article in Fortune).

This represents quite a nice chunk of the pie, even though the price point is low. For authors, it works out to be a very good deal, when 10% of list is not an uncommon number, especially in mass market.

Which is the point I want to make, one I have been pondering ever since the Kindle broke out wide: we authors may be entering an era that is very much like the mass market explosion post World War II.

What that ushered in was a golden age of paperback fiction in the 50's. Names like Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson. Some of the old pulp writers, like Erle Stanley Gardner, found new life and sales. While the old pulp magazines dried up, there was a market for good stories among the slicks—e.g., Collier's, Saturday Evening Post. The better writers got stories published there and made some extra scratch.

So what do we see now? Another mass market platform, this time electronic. The price points are equivalent to what people in the 50's would have paid in the drug store. True, publishers could actually get into the drugstores, on racks and spinners. But we have that analogue in the e-world. Buyers on amazon, for example, are directed to other titles they might be interested in, and so forth.

For authors, especially commercial authors—those who deliver an entertaining read—the prospects are intriguing. If they write great stories, word of mouth will spread, just like it does in traditional publishing. But now there's a 70% royalty, which is a whole lot better than the pittance the paperback writers of the 50's got.

But there's more good news, especially for writers like myself who have a ton of stories and concepts we'd like to write. We will be able to write different varieties of fiction––short form, novella and novel length, and see them brought to market in a fraction of the time it now takes to get one book out the traditional way.

I can see nice prospects for publishers and writers teaming up to take advantage of this new platform, even if it's just to supplement the traditional print model.

The short story especially interests me. I love doing them, but the short story market has long been a dead letter. Suddenly, there's new life. In fact, my colleagues and I here at Kill Zone are going to soon release our own anthology: Fresh Kills. It's been a matter of only a few months, from idea generation to writing to editing to e-publishing. And we don't have to print or warehouse the book.

Now, the temptation, especially for new writers who are thinking in terms of self-publishing, is to start throwing up (and I use that term purposely) their stuff before it's ready. We're going to see a lot of that. But a kind of Darwinism will take over, where the weak will be weeded out. The idea is to become one of the fittest and survive, even thrive. I would therefore advise new writers to hire a good freelance editor. You will only hurt your long term prospects if what you offer is junk.

How are traditional publishers going to react to all this? I don't know. Random House has entered an agreement with Apple, and that will change the landscape. The landscape will keep changing. We're in a whole new ballgame here, and the rules get updated almost daily. But as I said, I think there is a great chance for publishers and authors to partner up and make the best of this situation. I don't know that we're ever going to go back to hardcover prices. The production costs are too great, and consumers are rapidly being taught they don't have to pay hardcover prices, even for a new book by a celebrity author.

What that means for you, writer, is to keep concentrating on doing what you do, making your stuff the best it can be, then going to market. If you can write short stories (which are, in my mind, the hardest form of fiction), so much the better. Bottom line: if your stuff is killer, people will find it. If you write it, they will come.


  1. The Amazon deal may appear to be a great deal on the surface but we have to remember that Amazon is paying the publishers 70%, not the authors. The author will only receive what is stipulated in his contract. The best e-book clause in a publishing contract usually pays the writer 25% of net proceeds which is $1.57 whereas authors can collect between $2.50 and $3.50 in royalties for the sale of the book in hardcover. The author could lose as much as 50% of his royalties on hardcover sales with this deal if someone chooses to buy the e-book only.

    The exceptions would include authors who contract directly with Amazon on out-of-print books or self-publishing.

  2. Yes, Joe, author-direct is one way, and that's why the warning on throwing up stuff that's not ready.

    With publishers, I mentioned partnering to "supplement the traditional print model." There are innovative ways to make this win-win for that model. This would be outside the standard contract.

  3. I've been thinking about this new publishing model quite a lot lately, and I'm beginning to see more opportunity than disaster in it.

    As I understand the history of commercial publishing, for the first couple of hundred years, books were luxuries, obtainable only by the wealthy. The original opportunity for common writers to break out came not in the form of books, per se, but through stories published in various serials and periodicals. As late as my teen years, most of the magazines my parents subscribed to carried short stories and serialized novels.

    If you wanted to read a hardcover book, you got it at the library, but if you wanted to own a book (which I always did, and still do), you bought a paperback. Other than the shelf of encyclopedias and the big Webster's Dictionary, I don't think we had any hardcover books in our house. We had hundreds of paperbacks, though--not one of which was purchased at a "bookstore." I'm not sure we even had a book store, per se, when I was a kid. You bought your paperbacks from everywhere OTHER than a bookstore.

    I found it interesting in reading Stephen King's ON WRITING that when he published CARRIE, his big money came from the paperback deal, not from the hardcover. Apparently the hard/soft deal had not yet been invented.

    Paperbacks made reading accessible to the common man with the common income. Then, in the nineties, I recall several momentous events. One was the birth of the Hollywood-style big-money deals for authors, with special largesse bestowed upon anointed first novelists. As money flowed out the publishers' doors seven figures at a time, huge pressure was put on everyone to have a hit right out of the gate. If you flopped, you were done. The patience for "developing an author" had begun to erode. Quickly.

    At the same time, the entire distribution market for mass market paperbacks fell apart for reasons that I never quite understood. Drugstores and grocery stores and newsstands still carry paperbacks, but only a tiny fraction of what they used to carry. In fact nowadays, the big houses with the big-name authors have gone to this new large-format mass market paperback, presumably as an excuse to charge a couple of extra bucks for the book. more and more, if you want to read something other than a NYT bestseller, you have no choice but to go to a library or a Big Box Bookstore.

    So, now here we are, returned to the top of the circle. As choices diminish and prices rise, how can it not be obvious to the publishing industry that they're killing off their own business?Books are becoming unaffordable in their original form, and market forces are responding with cheaper alternatives. The old business model is on life support, and while the publishing elite are left scratching their heads, nerdy kids who likely don't know Shakespeare yet fully understand high-tech entertainment are devising a whole new delivery mechanism for the kind of old-fashioned entertainment that we writers produce. More affordable products alwys result in a larger market, and that larger market spells opportunity for all of us.

    The Achilles heel of e-publishing and self-publishing continues to be quality control and marketing (and ancillary rights sales, which is beyond the scope of this post). As the market floods with unedited, talentless crap, it remains difficult for good writers to be discovered.

    I have every confidence, however, that there's a nerdy entreprenuer out there who will discover the solution.

    John Gilstrap

  4. Just as I was about to get my new Kindle from back order, came all the publicity about the new Apple tablet. After some debate I decided to stick with the Kindle, because for the moment, it's the leader of the e-reader pack. Five years from now, though, the terrain will probably look very different. It's almost impossible to stay on top of the e-technology curve as a reader at the moment. As an author, I'm very excited about the Brave New E-World.

  5. I think the huge boon will come when they treat e-readers like cell phones and give them away or sell them for a reduced price with a service plan or subscription to require to buy a certain number of books per year. Once they do that, people will flock to buy them I think.

  6. Jim, do you see Amazon and other eBook providers as the new drugstores? And do you see any real future for the novella in this scenario? I ask you this only because lately here, I seem to be completely unable to write anything over 50,000 words.

  7. Mike, the answer is yes. Why not a novella? Why not 40k words offered for a little lower price? The challenge for a published novellas was always that people couldn't see the value in the small sized book and publishers couldn't charge enough to justify them. But with an e-reader, it's just a matter of the content.