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Discussion Starter #1
I've seen several writers on KB talk about moving to trad if indie gets tougher, so I thought I would offer a little tale.

Kensington Books published The Home in mass market paperback in 2005 (my fourth book with them and the first in a new three-book contract.) It was my lowest-selling paperback ever, and fool that I was, I failed to see I was already in the dreaded death spiral by the time I'd signed that contract (where bookstores order only the number of copies sold of the previous book, guaranteeing you will always sell fewer copies each time, barring a bizarre development.) This was despite my first novel The Red Church having a phenomenal sell-through rate of around 96 percent (meaning almost every copy that hit a store sold, when the industry standard at that time was around 50 percent--I think it's lower now.)

Of course, The Home quickly went out of print and sat there dead for about 5.5 years of the seven years of the license. Kensington did have the right to publish an ebook version at 50/50 split but never did. I patiently waited for the term to expire, then had my agent of record ask for formal reversion (Kensington had an option to print 5,000 more paperbacks to keep the license). Their window to respond passed and I published The Home in October, hitting #49 (briefly) on the Kindle list. About a month after that Kensington's own version of the Home ebook miraculously appears.

(Apparently the "Your reversion is in progress" got altered to "Let's pirate the book" somewhere along the way. Anyway, their copy is down now and it's a pretty clean break, and I have to credit the agent for gently firm handling of it--I know I give agents a hard time but this was sticky--no way in h*ll was I ever dealing with Kensington again but the agent still has to pitch other books to them. Also made sticky because it is under option and a script is actively being shopped, so while unlikely, a film deal could have happened at any time.)

That's not really the point of the story, although it does show the frustrations that can arise when matters are largely out of your control. The real lesson was that in six weeks on my own, I sold more than Kensington did in SEVEN YEARS. More importantly, while my book dropped from the low hundreds to low thousands in rank, the Kensington ebook version hung out in the 300K-400K range for a month. Which of course meant it probably sold two copies a week at a slightly higher price than mine. And that would probably have been The Home's permanent fate if they had acted to keep the license.

I'm not much of a numbers guy, but the simple reality is that Kensington having control of my books for all those years and leaving them dead has probably cost me six figures of income. And they must be wholly unaware that I am a middling indie success, or surely they would have published the ebooks. (They do have a US version of one of mine that sells horribly and I ignore it, and because they have non-exclusive rights outside US/Canada, it has created the odd situation where there are two legal versions of the book on the market--of course, I undercut and outsell them, although that book just sucks.)

So, okay, this isn't pure data, but you won't get many situations where an indie book competes against the exact same trad book.

My takeaway lesson is the publisher will never care as much as I do. Some publishers will do more than others for some books (almost always decided by the advance, because no one wants to look like they made a poor decision so they throw money at the largest potential mistakes). I would suggest that believing a publisher is going to sell more books, bring you more money, build a better career, and give you more options may be a mistake. If you go that route, good luck to you, and if it is a dream of yours, you should go for it.

But I expect the divide to grow even wider: as tough as it gets for indie books, it will be even tougher for non-blockbuster trad books to get visibility. Remember, you're still going to do all the marketing but your royalty will be down to around 21 percent after agent cut.

Others have different experiences, but that's mine. I am staying indie until somebody backs a truck of money to my door and lets me negotiate my own deal.
 

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" I failed to see I was already in the dreaded death spiral by the time I'd signed that contract (where bookstores order only the number of copies sold of the previous book, guaranteeing you will always sell fewer copies each time, barring a bizarre development.)"
Interesting system. It seems designed to generate a continual turnover of authors. If an author had a sell-through rate of 80% for each book, then sales of book-5 cannot exceed 50% of sales of book-1.
 

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Great story, Scott. Well, great in that we can learn from it. You have a ton of experience so I always click on a thread to see what you have to offer to the conversation. This story has been told quite a few times lately, of previously tradded books dead in the water getting a new life as self-pubbed. It makes me wonder about all the amazing books out there that languished without ever getting in front of us.

I've got a question. Do you feel that same way about Amazon imprints? Or do you consider them a class of their own?

Personally, I know that Amazon Publishing has made my career as successful as it is. Sure my stuff keeps getting better as I learn to hone my craft, and I spend a lot of time marketing to build my platform and gain readers, but without the power of the Great Zon, I'd never have seen the amazing sales I saw this last year. Out of my 6 titles, only 2 are Amazon Pubbed but I'm sure those titles bring the sales to my indie titles too.
 

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Terrence OBrien said:
Interesting system. It seems designed to generate a continual turnover of authors. If an author had a sell-through rate of 80% for each book, then sales of book-5 cannot exceed 50% of sales of book-1.
In theory, new releases could generate interest, causing new readers to pick up book 1, but not if it's out of print.

I know it doesn't seem fair at all, but I do see the stuffed shelves at the book store, and all the new books coming out each month. It's difficult to physically stock everything there's *some* interest in. Digital, however, is a game-changer. As we've all discovered.

Is it as big a shift as moving from monks writing on scrolls to the printing press? It certainly is a big jump up in ability to meet demand easily.
 

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Yes. They would have to have a feedback mechanism where they kept some of the 20% that did not sell. That might cost money. Im not sure exactly how long a bookstore can hold a book without paying for it. Does the ability to return a book to the publisher have a cutoff date? Anyone know?
 

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Discussion Starter #6
It used to be 60 to 90 days was all you had for the average mass market paperback. Good sales would trigger re-orders, and sales well above expectations would trigger reprinting of the book. (After all, they only print and ship as many as they expect to sell, based on advance store orders. Again, most of this is determined by the advance--the more the publisher pays, the more the sales force pushes the book, and then there are the afterthought genre books that are largely ordered as lumps--like, "We sold X of that haunted house novel of yours last month so we'll take X of the new one..." where the author truly, truly does not matter. Interchangeable. And quickly, please.)

Of course, my experience is five years out of date and I am sure things have gotten much worse now, because I see only two copies of books by the established authors where I used to see five to ten. Last time I was in a chain store, the book selection had seemingly been cut in half and replaced with beanie babies (and now, I suspect, ebook retail, but I haven't been in a chain store in a couple of years because I have zero reason to go there. Even the ego tug of "Wonder if one of my old books is still stuck in there?" has become boring. Yeah, in the old days we used to move our books around the store so they couldn't find them when the little "Send back" flag came up on the computer.)

If you think of mass market product lines, the entire system is constructed on dynamic rotation of stock. In the 1980's, paperbacks were in every checkout aisle and convenience store and even the trash sold 100,000 copies. Now there really isn't a mass market to speak of. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks get much longer windows, and the returns are different--for mmpb's, stores only need to return the stripped covers for credit. For the rest, they must return the entire books. All done on credit. No bookstore could afford to actually pay wholesale up front. It's ALWAYS been a terrible and tenuous business model, but it was the only way publishers could have a place to sell books.

Kay, yes, I love Amazon because they can do what no one else in the world can do--make you a bestseller in a matter of hours. I am very happy to work with Amazon--but only because I got to negotiate my own deal and didn't have to use an agent. Amazon is now buying entire publishing houses so signing is no longer an automatic--so many other pressures come to bear. While every Amazon title used to be a Kindle Daily Deal at least once, now they have so many that they do them in bundles. Also of particular interest for my genre (and romance writers) is the Dorchester acquisition--they now have hundreds or even thousands of books in my genre that they need to push. Those books will be pushed ahead of me whether I am trad, Zon, or indie, so it really is beyond my control--and falls into the area of "I don't worry about what I can't control." I also suspect they are giving some books--not mine!--preferential algorithm treatment by giving them multipl categories instead of the usual two. I have seen some topping three or more category lists...and that ain't no accident.

Terence, usually the third book is the death knell for the typical author, the point at which you didn't become one of those once-in-a-generation word-of-mouth breakouts and so they move to the next writer. There are only two types of trad writers now--blockbuster bestsellers and those about to be ditched. And, you know, it was ALWAYS the writer's fault, never the publisher's.

And yes, Dalya, it has changed a lot with ebooks, which goes back to my original point--what can trad possibly do that you can't do better (if they aren't going to let you be a bestseller, that is.)
 

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Dalya said:
In theory, new releases could generate interest, causing new readers to pick up book 1, but not if it's out of print.

I know it doesn't seem fair at all, but I do see the stuffed shelves at the book store, and all the new books coming out each month. It's difficult to physically stock everything there's *some* interest in. Digital, however, is a game-changer. As we've all discovered.

Is it as big a shift as moving from monks writing on scrolls to the printing press? It certainly is a big jump up in ability to meet demand easily.
Stuffed shelves? When the few remaining major book retailers have slashed the number of books they carry? How is that stuffed? What percentage of the B&N shelves now even contain books?

Other than that, if I tell my opinion of the trad publishing system, Julie will come yell at me for sure, so I'll shut up.
 

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Terrence OBrien said:
Interesting system. It seems designed to generate a continual turnover of authors. If an author had a sell-through rate of 80% for each book, then sales of book-5 cannot exceed 50% of sales of book-1.
You are ignoring the fact that if the book sells well, they will order more stock. Their initial order will be based - logically - on the author's previous sales performance, but that is not the end of it. Many books have multiple print runs if the sales support it. I don't see anything unusual or alarming here. It has always been this way.
 

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I know at least two previously traditionally published authors that are going 100% indie this year (by choice, not because they got dropped) because of these same types of issues. One of them had a new book come out this year with a publisher and it didn't even make it into bookstores. She's a NYT bestseller by the way. The ebook is priced over $10. That book is never going to make its advance. And there is nothing the author can do about it. So yeah, going with a publisher requires some careful thinking.

I have long been frustrated with bookstores. Seriously? Why do they never have book 1 and 2 of a series when book 3 comes out? I can't tell you how many times I've come across an interesting book to find out it was #3 and the rest of the series was no where to be found. Had all three been there, I woulda bought all 3. Instead, I bought none. It's ridiculous.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
But there is no way bookstores could do it any differently. They CAN'T carry all three books of a series unless it is a bestseller series.

In many ways, James Patterson was the perfect achievement of traditional publishing--one brand to push that cranked out a new book every two weeks and dominated the front of the store. Perfect machine of distribution, delivery, and and marketing. And absolutely ruinous.

The story of print publishing is that its crowning achievement is what killed it.
 

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Deanna Chase said:
I know at least two previously traditionally published authors that are going 100% indie this year (by choice, not because they got dropped) because of these same types of issues. One of them had a new book come out this year with a publisher and it didn't even make it into bookstores. She's a NYT bestseller by the way. The ebook is priced over $10. That book is never going to make its advance. And there is nothing the author can do about it. So yeah, going with a publisher requires some careful thinking.

I have long been frustrated with bookstores. Seriously? Why do they never have book 1 and 2 of a series when book 3 comes out? I can't tell you how many times I've across an interesting book to find out it was #3 and the rest of the series was no where to be found. Had all three been there, I woulda bought all 3. Instead, I bought none. It's ridiculous.
Book stores are not libraries and have limited shelf space. The early books in the series will have been returned/remaindered to get rid of non-profitable stock and make room for potentially profitable stock.
 

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u are ignoring the fact that if the book sells well, they will order more stock. Their initial order will be based - logically - on the author's previous sales performance, but that is not the end of it. Many books have multiple print runs if the sales support it. I don't see anything unusual or alarming here. It has always been this way.
Sure. I'm ignoring everything other than what Scott wrote about sell through. I'm not alarmed either.
 

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scottnicholson said:
But there is no way bookstores could do it any differently. They CAN'T carry all three books of a series unless it is a bestseller series.

In many ways, James Patterson was the perfect achievement of traditional publishing--one brand to push that cranked out a new book every two weeks and dominated the front of the store. Perfect machine of distribution, delivery, and and marketing. And absolutely ruinous.

The story of print publishing is that its crowning achievement is what killed it.
James Patterson books are no longer best seller because James Patterson books are no longer best sellers. :)
 

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JRTomlin said:
Stuffed shelves? When the few remaining major book retailers have slashed the number of books they carry? How is that stuffed? What percentage of the B&N shelves now even contain books?

Other than that, if I tell my opinion of the trad publishing system, Julie will come yell at me for sure, so I'll shut up.
We have a nice little sci-fi/fantasy bookstore in my 'hood. It's jammed. Our big chain in Canada is Chapters, and while they do have too many pillows and candles for my taste, they have a lot of books as well. WORSE STILL, Chapters is cutting in on my business by selling the things I make my living off of (and I don't mean books).

My main business is similar to publishing--a games store. In the last 11 years we've been in operation, we've had a sea change in game publishing. Publishers are using a principal that I have given a name too--a name I cannot repeat on the forum, but it hints of reproductive technique. Instead of nursing a few select games through a process and then investing in advertising, they simply toss out as much product as possible and hope something picks up with word-of-mouth. That's not to say the quality of packaging hasn't improved--it really has--but none of the publishers or game designers has a reputation you can hang anything on. The review system is bogus and constantly being gamed. There are few gatekeepers and not enough time in the world for our person in charge of ordering to test everything himself.

Eleven years ago, we were crying for more product. Today we're begging them to slow down. They'll put out an expansion for a game at the same time the first game comes out. People will see the expansion and assume "it must be popular." Customers make all these leaps, reading the clues, because that's how they make decisions.

The whole thing is actually quite depressing. The only thing you can do is stand back and crowdsource your information--let people ask you for something before you order in the first copy.

We used to order at least one copy of EVERY game the trusted publishers put out. Now I see them come in and I think, "Oh, something for next year's clearance sale." About a year ago, we stopped automatically ordering everything, because that was how these companies were making their money--one copy to every client=sold out print run.

(In board games, you cannot send back unsold copies; nor is the industry big enough that they pay for co-op advertising.)

My experiences in that realm of a publishing-adjacent-industry has shaped my strategy for being an ebook publisher. I know that if you build up a good brand name, people will be able to put their trust in you. Even though I have a few pen names, I try to make each of them a solid brand, and I die a little when I discover missed typos.

The challenge for today's consumers is sifting through too much choice.
 

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yep. it's a system designed for failure. and once you realize that 99% of writers will fail in traditional publishing, and that the death spiral will come no matter what, it's depressing as hell. crash and burn, get up, do it all over again. over and over and over.  and the carrot always reappears, and even though i know it will be rotten, i find myself reaching for it anyway.  i started seriously self publishing a little over a year ago, and i've made more money in a year than i ever made in a year (or two, or three) writing for a traditional publisher, but at the same time there is something that's crushingly depressing in a different way.  maybe every bit as depressing as the death spiral. maybe it's the fact that all i used to do was write. my days were just about creativity. for 25 years. now i actually have very little time to write, because i'm always formatting, uploading, promoting, thinking about what i need to do next that has nothing to do with my WIP. i miss the days when all i thought about was the book i was working on. okay, enough whining from me.
 

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scottnicholson said:
But there is no way bookstores could do it any differently. They CAN'T carry all three books of a series unless it is a bestseller series.
I know, and I understand the way the business works. I'm suggesting the system is flawed. There has to be a better way. If I were shop owner, you can bet I'd order a few of the previous books when another one in a series comes out because each new book drives sales of the previous ones. But there aren't any to order because all the unsold ones are destroyed, or the publisher chooses not to order another print run even if they sold out because they don't think it's worth it.
 

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There is a better way. Ebooks. The shelf constraint disappears. Forget about authors and consider how much better the eBook system is for consumers. They will vote with their wallets.
 

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Discussion Starter #18
Fear not, Anne--and I do mean this kindly--there are three or four years to make good money here in ebooks, and then the goose is pretty much cooked, and we can ALL go back to "just writing," just writing what we love, like we did back before we worried about sending stuff off. I enjoyed writing a whole lot more back before I had to plan a release date while typing chapter one.

Here's another thing many writers like to joyfully ignore--New York doesn't WANT all the good books. They only want ten of them. If the best 100 books ever written in English turned up in New York the same week, 90 would still get rejected.

I now have zero envy and not a whole lot of admiration for someone getting a trad deal, because I know there are so many X factors, engine machinations, timing, and industry politics and gamesmanship behind it all. I am happy for those writers (because I assume they are happy, or they wouldn't take the deal) but I never wish I was in their place and I never assume they are substantially "better" than the thousands of other writers who didn't get the deal. Never. I really like this weird little path. I've paid all my debts and socked away every dime so that when this all goes away, I will just stay on the path.

That's the journey, and that's really all we have. All the rest is headed for OOP one way or another.
 

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Terrence OBrien said:
There is a better way. Ebooks. The shelf constraint disappears. Forget about authors and consider how much better the eBook system is for consumers. They will vote with their wallets.
Or you do what I always did: Go home and order the print books on Amazon. It was never because Amazon was cheaper. It was because I could find what I wanted to read. I used to take a list to bookstores and come home with hundreds of dollars of books. About two or three years ago that changed when I realized I usually could only find one or two things on my list of about a dozen or so. I stopped going to bookstores because they never had what I wanted. I'm not an obscure reader. I read romance/fantasy/paranormal/anything people rave about. Still I could never find anything. It's a shame, because I love bookstores. Love browsing. Love the feel of the books. Everything about it.

But in my mind, this is the main reason bookstores are in trouble. They stopped catering to readers. And why they can't afford to stock books. And why print runs are down. Which directly effects authors' careers.
 

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scottnicholson said:
Fear not, Anne--and I do mean this kindly--there are three or four years to make good money here in ebooks, and then the goose is pretty much cooked,
i think this is why i feel a dark cloud looming over me even as things are going well. i know it can't last. and i wonder what will be left in five years. i think i miss the security of contracts even though i'm better off right now. in this moment, i'm better off.
 
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