Monday, August 20, 2012

A Publisher’s Perspective On e-Books and Local Writers

History and storytelling are important to all of us on a number of levels, whether as learning tools, sources of entertainment, or that wonderful, satisfying, nostalgic feeling we get from reawakened memories. All three came into play recently in regional book events held at North Creek, Inlet, and Long Lake. Anywhere from 20 to 60 authors gathered to discuss their work, sign and sell books, and share stories with attendees and other authors.

If you visited any of these―“Rhythm & Rhymes at the Hudson” at the Hudson River Trading Company in North Creek, the Author’s Fair at Adirondack Reader (in Inlet), or the 28th annual “Author’s Night” at Hoss’s in Long Lake―you saw a range of writers spanning the gamut of North Country literature.

Fiction, history, historical fiction, nature, memoirs, guides, and more were available, offering evidence that printed books are still filling our educational and entertainment needs. A few months prior to last Christmas, businesses like Amazon and Barnes & Noble flooded the media with pronouncements suggesting that printed books were doomed, and that e-books would soon replace them.

Whether or not that proves true remains to be seen, but at the time, it was largely a marketing ploy to sell Kindles, Nooks, and other e-readers. After all, buying a Kindle was senseless unless you purchased content, and the stores soon announced huge profits. You may have noticed that the media blitz halted almost instantly when Christmas passed, and there’s no reason to believe that the same thing won’t happen again this holiday season.

This is not a knock against e-books or online content. It’s true that millions of e-books were published, and when it was announced that e-books were outselling printed books for the first time ever, the numbers were used to convince us we were out of the loop unless we owned an e-reader.

Conveniently ignored was the fact that the overwhelming majority of e-books only sold from 1 to 5 copies. That’s right―1 to 5 copies―and at the amazing price of 99 cents for most of them. As it turns out, some authors with already large followings were able to profit financially, but their number was very limited.

Meanwhile, most authors of e-books earned royalties that fell short of the cost of a soda. “Magical” software enables the average person to publish their writing in book form almost instantly, but what the industry ignored was that most of those are no more considered “books” than a can of tuna mixed with a can of soup is considered a casserole-lover’s delight.

As a publisher, I’ve seen plenty of excellent regional work. I’ve also seen a number of submissions that were abysmal by all standards: sentences of more than 100 words, page after page with the absence of commas, and so on. If such work is published, it’s hard to consider it a book alongside the good stuff.

The financial scenario of e-books begs another question: who will bother to write books if doing all that work results in miniscule returns? Why spend months or years to write a book, only to receive a pittance? That question has been addressed by major publishers, and a general pricing strategy was agreed upon for their important (high-volume) e-books to be sold at about half the cost of a hard-cover book (hard-covers have long been the mainstay of publishers’ earnings). Many e-book versions are in the $12-$16 range.

In the meantime, other portions of the book world have yet to develop a plan, and the old business model is still in place. At the above-mentioned regional events, there was ample evidence that local books in printed form are still very popular. The stores I mentioned (and many others) are supporting the work of area writers, and the writers in turn are supporting the stores by writing more books and attending the events. While they’re both looking to earn income, their combined efforts are also helping to identify and preserve history and other stories of value.

The publishing world is going through great change, but on the regional level, the best of the traditional elements remain intact for now. The social exchange, story-swapping, and general chatter at book events presents a fun atmosphere. I’ve written a few books, but this is not intended as a self-promo. When you’re out and about, whether at bookstores, pharmacies, or convenience stores, check out the works of local and regional authors. I’m in the business of keeping up on what they produce, and you’ll find much of it very good.

Photo: Adirondack Reader, proprietor Reggie Chambers, at Inlet, New York

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

12 Responses

  1. Lawrence — Thanks for an insightful discussion of this topic — one that has many of us scratching our “authorial” heads. With all areas of print media changing faster than most of us can do a chapter re-write, writers need all the information we can glean to make wise decisions about publication. I’ll be sharing this post with others. Best, Perky

    • Larry Gooley says:

      Thanks Perky. The “scratching our authorial heads” metaphor is a good one as we all try to solve the problem of how we can benefit from the e-book system.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Like it or not, e-books are the wave of the future.
    I attended and sold print books at both Hoss’s and the Adirondack Reader. Yes, print books do sell and will continue to sell. But the fact of the matter is that I am now selling more e-books online than print.
    I think it is both a cost thing and a convenience thing.
    I retail my e-books for about one third of the print versions and make about the same amount per copy.
    But I don’t think cost is the main reason for the growth of e-books. I think it is convenience.
    I’ll give two examples. Last year I moved. Guess what was the most troublesome thing I moved. It was all my books. They weighed a ton! But if they were all e-books, they would not have weighed more than my computer or some other reading device such as a Kindle.
    Now think of someone coming up here on vacation. They can carry as many books as they want on their reading device.
    Another advantage of the e-book is shipping. No cost to ship and you get it in seconds.
    Are there some lousy self-published e-books out there? Sure. There are also some lousy books published by famous publishers and even famous authors – just as there are some lousy movies made by major studios.
    I say this after reading and reviewing maybe as many as 20 self-published novels over the past few years and finding many of them as good as books published by major publishers.
    The big problem for any self-published author and even for many who publish in the traditional manner is marketing. Without thousands and even tens of thousands spent on marketing, you a just a needle in the haystack.

    • Larry Gooley says:

      All true, Pete, but as you noted, you sell your e-books for one-third the cost of the print version. The financial “rules” that have governed the book world since the 1930s reduced book-authorship to the hobby level for the vast majority of writers. Volume sales are the key to sustainability, and that’s on the national scene, where a very small printing might be 10,000 copies. I’m addressing local/regional books, which come nowhere near the volume necessary to fit that system. Selling e-book versions of local/regional titles at deep discounts plays further into the system that minimizes the author’s value.

      Many of the authors you saw at those events would be thrilled to sell 1000 copies of a book in its lifetime. Generally, if a regional book sells for $20, there might be about $15 of profit built into that price. In the printed realm, authors generally earn $1 to $3 per copy on a $15 to $20 book, so 1000 copies yields $1000 to $3000 in author profits for perhaps one to two years of work. The remaining $12,000 goes to others. And that’s only if you’re lucky enough to sell 1000 copies. Reality is often a much lower number.

      Plain and simple, that’s a hobby from the author’s perspective … a hobby that others profit nicely from, while the writer receives by far the smallest piece of the profit pie. Selling the e-book version of that book at one-third the print price means a much smaller pie, and it risks diminishing the value of local work in one very important way. The owners of regional stores might be understandably reluctant to buy printed copies for resale if a customer can buy the same content online for one-third the price.

      For that reason, on the regional level, the sales strategy you describe can be counter-productive. You have to ask yourself―if you owned a regional bookstore, would you invest $240 (at wholesale, $12 per copy, and retailing for $20) in a dozen copies of an author’s printed book if that same book was available online for $5? You might, but you might also prefer that the author support you by not offering it to the public at a deep discount.

      I’m not knocking the concept of e-books. In the world of limited-sales books, like those on the local and regional scale, I’m looking out for the authors’ interests. It’s not yet clear how those interests will be served by the new technology. Pats on the back at book signings are very nice for many authors, but more of the financial pie into their pockets might encourage them to write beyond the single volume. With my own publishing company, I’ve taken many risks to do just that―retain less profit so that local authors who are self-publishing can invest financially in their own work and have a better chance at success.

  3. Bill Ingersoll says:

    There is also this question:

    If you are going to sell both print and digital copies of your Adirondack book, then presumably the people buying the digital copy aren’t going to buy the print version. But as a small publisher, how do I predict the number of e-books so that I can reduce the number of print copies accordingly? I can’t.

    For instance, I might normally print 1000 copies of a title. Historically, I might know that will last 3 years before I need to issue a new edition. I want to tap into the e-book market, but there is of course no physical limit to the number of e-books that can be sold. So I guess that maybe 25% will be sold digitally, and reduce my print order to 750 copies (which, by the way, makes them more expensive per unit).

    But it turns out that demand for the digital copies is greater than I expected, with 800 e-books sold and 750 expensive print copies collecting dust. And since people are getting me books cheaper online, stores like Hoss’s and Old Forge Hardware are dropping my titles.

    So this reluctance to move towards e-books is not about a dinosaur resisting the relentless march of technological progress. It’s about the business model not making any sense.

    • Larry Gooley says:


      Exactly my point. The business model makes perfect sense to distributors and retailers because they assume almost no risk. The self-published author must pay to ship his books to the distributor (another expense), who then fills orders to the stores. For any books sold, the distributor earns 15% of the retail price, and stores earn 40%. If the books don’t sell (which might sometimes be simply due to placement and display), they can be returned to the distributor for credit.

      All parties involved handle many titles (stores handle hundreds, distributors sometimes thousands) except for the author, who has only his/her own book as a source of revenue, and in that scenario (plus the cost of shipping books, traveling to events to drum up interest, etc.), the author gets the lowest amount of anyone.

      For many authors entering the new world of self-publishing, much of that information comes as a rude awakening when I describe how the business has long operated. Often, the reply is, “They why would anyone do that?” Early on, that was my question as well, which is why I chose a different path for marketing and selling my work.

      I love modern technology and I love books, and from my perspective, it’s not an argument in favor of one or the other. As you point out, we already gamble on how many to print, what retail price to use, etc. Now, thrown into the mix is the e-book, which carries the same questions and makes the choices perhaps even more difficult. If volume sales are not a likely end result, selling only printed copies often works best because it can produce the same profit on one-third or one-quarter the number of e-books sold.

      There are many perplexing issues to address, and the last paragraph of your comment says it all.

  4. Bill Ingersoll says:

    And frankly, if digitial distribution is the wave of tomorrow and print copies are being phased out of existence, then why insist on the e-book format at all? Why make the digital product resemble the physical object that supposedly nobody is going to want anymore? Just issue your new novel in the form of a pay-per-view blog or something.

  5. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Somehow this interesting debate recalls to me the story of Henry David Thoreau on his writing of, if I recall correctly, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”. 500 copies were printed and he lamented that he still had 498 copies stored at a friend’s house. It would be nice if all printed books were sold and authors were rewarded financially for all their hard work, but regardless of the book’s format, I am not sure that this has ever been the case.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    I doubt, in fact I would hope, that most people who write a book (unless they are already famous for something) do not do it with the idea they will become rich and famous.
    For most, it is a hobby. For some, they get lucky and do make a substantial amount of money.
    The same is true for any of the arts. You do it because you like to do it, maybe even feel compelled to do it.

    • Larry Gooley says:

      True, it’s a hobby for most people who write, but it does result in financial earnings from the sale of each copy, even if only a few are sold. One of my main points is that a larger slice of those earnings should go to the author. That provides the encouragement to do more.

      Certainly there are other payoffs―preserving history, sharing stories, personal satisfaction, the social interaction with the public and other writers, and more.

      But the financial component is still there, and fueling the entire process is the author who created the product and is most likely the sole investor, spending several thousand dollars in bringing it to market. Even if it’s a “work of love,” others in the system still earn the standard high percentages of any profit (and with little or no financial risk).

      The internet has brought new hope for authors selling printed copies. While the national system based on high-volume sales has long been imposed on books with limited markets, the potential to sell online has at least created an opportunity for authors to sell directly to customers and earn more of the benefits … if they can solve the issue of developing online sales.

  7. Marianne says:

    Great conversation and thank you for this post, Lawrence.

    I’d love to be on a mailing list for these events in Inlet and North Creek – I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know they were going on…! Any recommendations on how to be in the know?

    • Larry Gooley says:

      Thanks Marianne. If you search online each summer for things to do, the book events usually appear in the listings provided on many websites, including those of newspapers. North Creek happens each year on the first weekend of August, and Inlet’s event came on the weekend before Hoss’s, which is held on the 2nd Tuesday of August.

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