Ebooks: A personal logic

What thinking got me to here? (Here being four ebooks for Amazon Kindle; two main blogs/sites; a Facebook page; a Twitter presence; the possibility of a couple of minor blogs; several email addresses; a former ‘Work’ website to maintain as an archive until 2015; a drive to keep writing things in notebooks whilst at my usual seat in a city-centre Starbuck’s; and the wish to have enough spare time to do bits of travelling/ lots of reading/ etc ….).

In the previous post we got as far as me flowing, in a staged way, from fulltime paid employment to having ‘Geoff Bateson: the writer’ as a strong part of who I am as I moved forward into different ways of being. I strongly hoped and intended that this ‘writing me’ would have an existence structured around flexibility; a sense of authenticity; a drive on increasing my understanding and capabilities around web-based communicating; being clear why (and why not) I was doing things.

Over the past couple of years I had been looking at how the publication systems work, the economics of traditional publishing, various approaches to marketing, and so on. Some of what I concluded may well have been wrong but, at the time, it determined my next bits of thinking. I will try here to set it out under a number of themes: financial; platforms; timescale; control; values; what works; ….

Financial:

From what I could see of traditional print systems, there were various figures put forward for how the cost of a published book broke down. A common example was something like: A book’s overall cost was split into Retailer (55%); Publisher (18%); Production/Distribution costs (14%); Promotion/Marketing (3%); leaving 10% for the Author. There were variations on the maths but the outcome of ‘Author gets around 10%’ was relatively consistent.

The kinds of things I wanted to write were of the size and style of things priced at £7-£9 in the local bookstores. If I got to the stage of writing published books then each book sold might bring in an initial income of around £0.80.

I looked next at the volumes of sales. Yes, some books sold in very high numbers (well-established writers with large followings of loyal readers, and the very rare book that hit a certain spot and simply took off as a newcomer). Books that sneaked into the bottom of a well-selling list, on quiter weeks, were selling maybe around 2000 books in that week. Even with the additional publicity that came with being in such lists, most books slipped quickly out of the list as the sales dropped. Even at the higher reaches of the market a new writer might manage 5000 books in total – a maximum income of £4000. More likely (and highly likely in my case?) the sales would be at a much more modest level and income unlikely to be above £2000: Always assuming that the book was accepted by a publisher in the first place.

Could I produce an ebook that generated anywhere near the same income? Some very rough maths: If the ebook were priced at just over £4 then the amount to me after Amazon’s 30% commission taken off would be £3 – needing around 700 sales to generate the £2000 mark. That didn’t sound absolutely impossible if I got the other bits right (and if the book were worth reading in the first place). Reducing the selling price (as many e-authors suggest) to £2 or £1 or less would demand correspondingly higher sales volumes of anything up to more than 2000 copies (… straying up towards those ‘best-seller list’ figures talked about earlier…). Given the volume of stuff already up on the Amazon site (and the large amounts going up daily) getting noticed sufficiently to generate high-volume sales sounded difficult compared with going, initially at least, for a middle-priced version bought by a smaller number of people who I might be able to reach by some relatively direct means to let them know that the choice to buy/not buy a book by me was an option for them

Platforms:

My decision was to go with epublishing but this was certainly not because of any sense of the death of print. I owned printed books; I continued to buy printed books; I liked the sensation of reading print. At the same time I had an e-reader. In terms of where to put my own writing, rather than how to read the writings of others, there was still the question of which version or versions of that to go with. I already had a collection of PDF articles and a long list of email connections developed over time. A simple method might be to email documents to people who requested them (in response to some simple publicity), building up to some automated-response delivery system and establishing some kind of payment system. A more obvious route was to look at the many e-reading systems on the market. Again, my decision was driven by the maths at the time. Figures varied but the story seemed to be that Amazon had control of more than 85% of the ebook market already and worldwide Amazon was selling high volumes of ebooks (more than it was selling printed books). In America ebooks were building up to around one third of the market. The comparable figure was around 15% in the UK. 1.3 million e-readers had just been sold in the UK in the run up to Christmas 2011, with 95% of these being Kindles. More than 90% of thekinds of  ebooks I might write had the Amazon kindle as delivery mechanism. Amazon had 164 million registered account holders ie far more than I needed to reach. Ebook readership overall was 60% female/40% male, with the 55-64 year olds being the largest group ie not too far off the kind of people I felt might engage with whatever I may write.

One other main factor was the growing use of tablet computers. It was predicted that, by 2016, one third of all US adults would use a tablet (growth was around 400% increase each year). Similarly, in the UK tablet computers were on a steep growth. Users were at their tablets often for more than a couple of hours a day, often catching up with the news but increasingly reading other material (and enjoying their reading experience even if the ease of checking emails etc might be a distraction for some). With the availability of a link through from tablet to Amazon this was a bonus. By 2012 Amazon was replacing Google as Britain’s highest-rated brand. Things may change in the future as e-readers grow in the Japanese market but, at the moment, the figures seemed to be overwhelmingly pointing to ignoring all other options initially and focusing any energies on understanding how Kindle publishing worked.

Timescales:

Listening to writers they often described a longish process from the finished draft being submitted, through possible rewrites before the manuscript was finally accepted, through the to-and-fro of editing processes, and the printing/proofreading and production cycles, to the end stages of publication scheduling, and eventually to distribution and availability for sale. The statistics were commonly quoted: Hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts were received; tens were selected to be read in detail; for each one finally accepted for publication. Persistent authors (assuming their book  was relatively publishable) often had to submit to many different sources, edging up the chances of being agreed to by someone. This seemed to add up to far less than 1% of submissions that appear as a printed and pomoted product via a recognised publisher. Depending on the book and the publisher, all of this could add up to a considerable amount of time for a writer eager to see the work available to potential readers.

With my personal approach I would reach the end of a long piece of writing, having spent time getting it as well-written as I could, and spent more time editing it as well as I could. At that stage the book may not be 100% perfect but I would be able to get it to 95% good enough or more. Would that be an acceptable tolerance? If so the ebook/ Amazon kindle route would allow me to put the book out for sale almost immediately (once I got to grips with how to do that).

Control:

Agents, editors and publishers understandably exercise large degrees of control over whether or not a manuscript is accepted. They heavily influence what kinds of books are in favour and which are unlikely to sell in any volume; how a book might need to be changed to more clearly fit into one genre or another; changes to the plot or character or structure etc. All of these are vital parts of the publishing process and are valuable in improving a book (or, at least, improving the book’s marketability).

There are, of course, well-known examples of highly popular books that were turned down time and again by the ‘experts’ but there are far more manuscripts that were rightly judged to be not up to market standards. If I took full responsibility for getting the book to as close as possible to publishable standard (whatever that meant), I would be taking on all the frustrations of endless spellchecking, typo-spotting, tidying up grammar, correcting the inconsistencies in storyline, testing it with trusted impartial readers etc etc – but all would be within my control. Would I be up to that?

Once in print, via traditional routes, a text is fairly well fixed. I intended that a lot of what I might write (particularly as articles on a website) would be emerging, changing, developing to reflect new thinking as my ideas unfolded. Doing the publication via a blog-based site would allow for easy and immediate amendment of the text. This was not a way of settling for sloppy initial writing (because it could always be revised later) but was a reflection of the fact the, for me, editing was as interesting a process as that of doing the initial writing. The end result was likely to be a mix of a variety of books for Kindle plus a larger volume of writing available via an open website.

Values:

The purchase price of a printed book has to include (as above) the contributory costs of editing, printing, marketing etc. The residual amount left for a fairly unknown author might be seen as little reward for the effort put in. Most beginner writers are well advised not to give up the day job and to see writing as a low income/no income activity until things change for them or until their book strikes lucky.

The internet is full of writers who are pricing their work at almost nothing. Some are making a good living, on the basis of a high volume/low cost business model. At the same time I would have put in hours of time, lots of intellectual energy (hopefully). Costed at anywhere close to the national minimum wage (say £6 per hour) then the ‘worker’ cost would certainly be close to the £2000 figure – a figure hopefully going to be recouped from sales … maybe. I strongly believed that to charge less than £3 for a book of moderate length (even if there were high sales through low costs) would be to devalue the effort put in. Lower prices might be appropriate for booklets, short reports, things put together from other sources etc but not for a substantial text that had been worked on for months, was fairly well-written, fairly robustly edited and appealing to a reasonable group of readers. Setting a realistic cost would not prevent the ebooks being offered at a reduced price occasionally as part of a one-off push to develop a wide readership.

My logic on value went something along the lines: What is there in my everyday life that would be equivalent, in terms of value/pleasure, to me downloading and gently reading one of the books I had written? The nearest thing for me was the idea of sitting in my usual coffee place with a regular coffee (that I could get refilled later), with a medium pastry to nibble at whilst leafing leasurely through the pages of my newspaper and doing the easy-version crossword. That was some small activity that I valued. Skimming through a book on my e-reader whilst relaxing at home would be about equivalent to me. The cost of the coffees, cake, newspaper was around the £6.50 mark.I had no problems with paying that amount for the experience, time after time. Pitching in somewhere not too far below that value would be what I therefore felt justified as a fair price for the books. I decided that any of my ebooks was at least the value of a couple of medium-size cappucinos. Whether or not potential readers would be happy to recognise the same value was yet to be seen.

What works? – Or what might work for me?

The approach decided on (after quite a bit of research and thinking about what was realistic as well as what I would feel to be ‘fair’) was based around:

  • Writing. Obviously, but in the sense that more and more time would be dedicated to that as an activity, that I wanted to do as well as feeling driven to do; with timescales/goals for amounts to be written etc
  • In addition to time spent on writing, spending an equal amount of time on revision, checking, editing – taking responsibility for getting the final version as good as possible; seeing editing as an enjoyable necessity: as a puzzle to be solved rather than a chore to be tolerated.
  • Learning how Kindle publishing works so that I could concentrate on writing without worrying about the epublishing mechanics any more than necessary
  • Holding back from trying to get one book up and promoted before starting on a second. To create some momentum through volume I would aim for at least three books going up at the same time so that any potential reader visiting kindle to buy one book might opt to choose another one or two as well. Also, with several books available there was more chance that I might think of myself as ‘a writer’.
  • Setting a fair price for the books and be happy if others shared the same views about value (without getting too hung up on having to sell large volumes to make a living).
  • Looking at how social media and more traditional modes of promotion might get people knowing that the books were up there on Kindle and worth buying; without getting into heavy-push promotion.
  • Feeling that whatever the form of writing, it needed to be done carefully, sensitively, accurately, professionally. This would  be the judgements by which I would self-judge any books written but would equally apply to writing any freely-available articles (available via one or more blogs) and updates/postings/tweets on Twitter or Facebook …
  • Staying as interested in what was being written, why it was being written, and so on and not just focussing on selling … less emphasis on simply ‘driving traffic to the product for purchase’ as one marketing article put it.

Getting going ….

The approach was laid out in my head, as well as on numerous sheets of paper. Various ways forward had been discounted as not the right way for me. I had two books written that needed editing and revising; I had more than eighty poems that could be edited down to a smaller number; I had the same number of short Tales that again could be edited and revised. Those were my four books. I worried about getting the Kindle publishing bit right until I got the best bit of advice: ‘Geoff, just get on with it and give it a go. You can’t break things’. The reasons for using each different communication method was falling into place.

It was time to get going …

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