Sunday, 5 July 2015

You Never Owned It Anyway

In all of the furor over subscription models, it’s easy to overlook the most fundamental part of the eBook system: you don’t own an eBook.

We have never ‘sold’ eBooks. They are merely licensed. Readers pay for the right to read the eBook
Sure, you own the kindle itself but that’s it. The books on there are sold in the same way software is sold. It’s a sale of a licence, the terms of which are defined by the contract. In the case of Amazon that contract is defined in s1 of the Kindle Store Terms of Use which says:

...the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Kindle Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Supported Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. The Content Provider may include additional terms of use within its Kindle Content.

Let’s break that down a bit.

“Non-exclusive” – not just for you

“View, use and display” – read

“an unlimited number of times” – but you probably won’t want to…

“solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application” – you can’t use DRM stripping tools to convert it for another eReader

“solely on the number of Kindles or Supported Devices specified” – good luck finding that in the store. It should be somewhere on the product page.

“solely for your personal, non-commercial use” – just you, not your Mum, not your best mate, and not your dog (sorry, Lassie).

“Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider” – you own a license subject to these terms. You don’t own the book.

“The Content Provider may include additional terms of use within its Kindle Content” – This one I find perplexing. I’ve never seen a publisher add any extra terms. Perhaps I should include some in our next book (similar to Gamestation’s “we own your soul”stunt).

So we now know that instead of buying a book, you’re basically renting it for as long as you want it (or as long as Amazon remain in business; it’s not impossible that you might outlive the corporation providing the content, as big as they seem right now). You can’t flog it. You can’t use it in another format. You can’t lend it to a mate.

Pretty naff, right? If you buy a book you can do what you want with it. You can flog it on second hand. You can burn it in disgust (please don’t!). You can use it as a doorstop (here’s looking at you, Blackstone's Criminal Practice) . Give it away. Recycle it. Whatever.

In the USA, you’ve got the First Sale Doctrine which basically says “Pass it on as you bought it” (not legal advice, I’m oversimplifying).

Of course, books still have some legal blurbage in them. From one on my shelf, chosen at random, the copyright page says:

this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed upon the subsequent purchaser.”

Restrictions are nothing new. I think of it like buying a DVD. I’m buying it to watch at home – but not to use to run a bootleg cinema. It’s not a clear cut issue – there has to be a divide somewhere between “you and only you, alone, in your own home, while no-one else is watching” and “running the new big sceen multiplex”.

With books, that line is well established. There have been numerous cases. You do own a physical book. That doesn’t mean you own the intellectual property that goes with it, but that specific rendition of the words onto that paper? It’s yours. Do with it what you will.
And that works.
But it works because books are hard to copy. Imagine if you had to photocopy every page of a novel (or, if you’re a student, a whole textbook). Nightmare. It just isn’t worth it. And that’s basically been the bulwark against mass-copying. People can’t be arsed.

With eBooks, it’s too easy to copy. I can email you books in a heartbeat. There are cheeky gits selling CDs full of eBooks on eBay for a few pence (perhaps not all of them legal – though public domain books can be resold freely). That’s the fundamental difference. Because you can copy it, publishers restrict your legal rights because they can’t physically stop you.

It isn’t legal for you to decrypt the DRM on an eBook. But it is easy. Ten seconds with a widely available eBook management program and you can take off any restrictions currently employed. The lock is a warning that you’re breaking the rules, but it isn’t much of an actual deterrent.

I don’t use DRM. Dan and I think its waste of time. Pirated copies are already stripped of DRM, so the only people hurt by employing DRM to protect eBooks are those that have actually paid – and you deserve better.

I’m also pretty unlikely to sue anyone lending a book out. It might be technically illegal to email a friend a copy of my book (though there is a ‘Kindle Lending’ option for those who want to stay within the rules) but it’s not going to hurt anyone if you do. I’d appreciate it if people thought of eBooks like books – that lending out your copy to one friend is fine, but emailing twenty at the same time is taking the proverbial (as with a book you couldn’t physically do that).

It comes down to respect. Authors and publishers need to respect that readers consume content how they want to consume it – and will pay accordingly. Readers in turn will appreciate that authors need to earn money for their work. Writing a book is a labour of love, but paying the bills isn’t, so there has to be a fair bargain.

For us, that’s simple. Here are our rules for trying to be fair to readers:

1.  First book free. Every series we publish we try to work on a ‘first book free’ basis. Obviously, this applies to series – so the first one is only the first (and thus free) once a second book exists. That gives you a fair, free, no obligations chance to find out if you like it.
2.     No DRM. Who are we to tell you which device to use?
3.     No part-works. No cheating by selling you 1/3rd of a book for free, and then extorting you on parts two and three.
4.     The best books we can write. That doesn’t mean they’ll be perfect. No book nor author will ever be loved universally, but we’ll give it our best shot every time.
5.     Clear, fair pricing. We want to charge a fair amount. We need to cover our costs (which are basically: editing, art, promotion, translations, audio recording, formatting, and, most of all, time). That’s it. We keep note of the time taken to produce a book, ascribe that a notional hourly rate and thus come up with a ‘Total cost’ figure which is what we aim to get back. It’s then a case of working backwords from there to determine what we can reasonably charge that fits that goal and makes it fair for you. We’ve gone with £1.99/ $2.99 (after the first one free – so right now the two books in the DCI Morton series will set you back a whopping £1.99 total!).

Or you can read for free with Kindle Unlimited. It’s a subscription service. You don’t buy a book. But you do rent access to a whole collection. The author then gets paid on pages read (at about half a cent a page by the looks of things). I’ve had a few people say “I’d rather own my book” – in which case, print is still the medium of choice. KU is a rental – for the duration of membership. Then again, eBooks are just rentals too – for the duration of Amazon.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Sky Is Falling

Once again, Kindle Unlimited has changed – at least for authors.

As with the last lot of changes, people are up in arms either in favour of or against the new regime. Well, tough. It’s changed. Them’s the breaks. Deal with it. Moaning about it doesn’t help. Either adapt to the new model or don’t. I doubt it’ll be anywhere near as dramatic as some of the predictions online – and you can’t do much about it anyway.

For those unaware how KU works, it’s like this:

Step 1: Readers buy a subscription for $9.99/month (/regional equivalent). See this post for our take on whether you should subscribe.

Step 2: Readers can have as many or as few books from the Kindle Unlimited selection as they like from a selection of over half a million books.

Step 3: Amazon takes the proceeds, put it into a pool and divvies the money up among the authors of the works.

It’s still like this. The experience for readers is exactly as it always was. The bit that’s changed is step 3.

Under the old rules, the fund was divvied up by ‘units’. A unit was any title read beyond the free sample (which is 10% of the book). That meant if a reader read beyond 2 pages of a 20 page short the author was credited with a unit. If a reader read past 30 pages of a 300 page novel, the author was credited with a unit.

Each month the number of ‘units’ earned were then given a proportional share of the fund which has averaged approximately $1.30 per unit.

Unsurprisingly, this meant authors who wrote short works made more as there was nothing to differentiate between a reader taking a 400 page novel or a 10 page short story (and because the shorter length meant unfinished works given up after a chapter could trigger payment for short stories but not for novels).

Authors of longer works moaned to Amazon they were being unfairly treated, and so Amazon changed the pay structure.

Now instead of units, the fund is divided by pages actually read. This is really two big changes:
  1.         Shorter works no longer benefit from being considered equal to longer works.
  2.         Books that are borrowed but don’t make it to the end lose money
That’s it. Books are now paid in proportion to length (so ten readers completing a ten page story is the same as one reader reading a one hundred page story), and books people don’t finish won’t get paid as much.

This latter point is a bit of a change because a large proportion of books don’t get finished. It’s the elephant in the room in the publishing industry. A mere 28% of readers on Kobo finished Ten Years a Slave despite it being critically lauded.

As an aside, not all bought books are ever opened - something like a third of books remain untouched after purchase, so the combined effect of "Opened + Read" is a much higher standard to hold books to than under a simple sale model.

A more typical book has something like a 50% completion rate (i.e. half of those who begin reading will eventually finish). That’s a respectable, normal, figure.

The effect of this will be that books readers love (as demonstrated by actually reading the book) will earn more than those where readers stop part the way through (where previously going one word beyond 10% triggered a full unit – which would be very early on for ten page shorts).

I still have reservations about KU. The selection won’t suit everyone. The long term downward pressure on author earnings is considerable ($10 split up between Amazon and all authors means no one is going to earn a fortune – unless readers pay but don’t use the sub, which doesn’t seem fair either).

As a reader, I don’t like my reading being tracked. It’s a real invasion of privacy… But Amazon have always done this (as have the other major eBook retailers to be fair).

The flip side of this is that some readers will choose to download and then side-load their books (/read offline)… which means those reads will never be reported as 'read' to Amazon, and thus never paid. I can only hope that these ‘shadow readers’ will be proportionally spread out among all authors (which would mean they have negligible impact – as the fund will still be the same, so the division would remain unchanged).

There we go. Yet another crisis averted by not panicking. Books need to be written. Readers deserve fair prices for quality books. Authors deserve to be paid for the value they add. Now authors will have to prove they deserve it – because if what they write isn’t good, it won’t be read and they won’t get paid.

Seems fair to me.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Advance Reader Copies - Ten Guilty Men

As you may have spotted on our Facebook page tonight, we now have 'Advance Reader Copies' of Ten Guilty Men available for those who would like to read it early (and for free) in return for an honest review.

We're not doing printed ARCs simply because of the cost of printing/ shipping which would force us to choose who gets a copy. We wouldn't be able to give everyone who wants a copy a free paperback without ending up on Carey Street (which, for those not familiar with legal London, is the street where the old Bankruptcy Court is located).

But we can supply your choice of PDF, Mobi or ePub which between them should cover all the major eReading devices, as well as being readable on a PC, laptop or tablet.

The book will launch on September 1st so we'll be giving away review copies from now until the pre-order page goes live in mid-August. To get yours, drop us an email on authors at 90daysnovel dot com.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Ten Guilty Men Cover Reveal

We promised you a cover reveal today for Ten Guilty Men. This is it.

Ten Guilty Men is the third DCI Morton novel (though as with Dead on Demand and Cleaver Square, it is self contained so it the books can be read in any order). The cover was designed and digitally painted by the lovely Nadica Boshkovska. This is the third DCI Morton novel that she's covered, and I think it might just be her best design yet.

An anonymous tip leads DCI Morton to a detached house in Richmond where he finds the body of Ellis DeLange, celebrity photographer and socialite extraordinaire.

Morton must investigate the details of Ellis' private life while keeping the baying mob of journalists out front away from the investigation, dealing with Ellis' highly secretive celebrity friends and trying to answer the one question that keeps on nagging at him: who called in the anonymous tip?

The investigation takes a bizarre turn when a key witness reveals she saw a man fleeing from the crime scene in the dead of night - without any clothes on.

Ten Guilty Men will be released on September 1st 2015.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Stock Images - Control, Copies and Context

In today’s Irish Independent, there’s a small article about stock images. A family agreed to have their images taken and used by the photographer for stock in return for a free family photo-shoot.

Their image has then been (perfectly lawfully) licensed out, and used on a website for an Australian law firm, and by an Irish fertility company.

The latest sale, however, was a group called Children Deserve a Mother and a Father which campaigned unsuccessfully in the recent referendum on same-sex marriage.

All three of the above used the image legally. The couple signed a model release, and agreed to the sale of stock images using that image. They didn’t anticipate that would mean their images were used for political purposes with which they don’t agree.

This isn’t a new problem with stock images. If you want to sell images to specific individuals, then standard licences (as used by .e.g. Shutterstock) are not the way to protect those images (and actually, the copyright owner here is the photographer – who plainly did intend to sell licences on those terms as it’s part of their intellectual property portfolio, and they have every right to monetise it).

There’s are a couple of lessons here for authors.

Firstly, those people on your erotica cover? They might not be too happy with the way they’ve been depicted. A quick glance on Amazon reveals all sorts of, ahem, niche content. I can’t imagine that when a model posed for a provocative pouty photo that she contemplated she might be shown as a consort to a dinosaur on the cover of Dinosaur Orgies 4.

Secondly, unless you buy exclusive rights then you’ll probably find other people using the same images. That can and will dilute your branding – because whatever you’re using won’t be unique to you. It also takes a lot of control out of your hands as you could see ‘your’ stock image associated with a controversial brand or cause.

I’ve seen a few authors get more than a little upset when they’ve found books with similar images. There are a number of popular stock images that I’ve seen dozens of times, particularly on pre-made sites where the temptation may be to create the most popular cover templates, and the most popular images are one way of doing that.

So how do you get around it?

  • Option #1 – Modify your stock so it isn’t recognisable. Any designer worth hiring should be able to combine three or more stock images, and render them into a unique design. I don’t mean flipping the photo or tinting it with a new colour either.
  • Option #2 – Buy exclusive rights. Some stock image sites sell exclusive use licences (for a heck of a lot more than a non-exclusive licence). Read the terms carefully with these – as many are exclusive from now on, but many licences may already have been sold so you won’t have sole rights to the stock in that case.
  • Option #3 – Custom shoots. Either hire a photographer, or if you have the skillset and kit, create your own image that then belongs to you. This isn’t going to be cheap – especially if you want models, but if you’ve got a series to brand then having one shoot for all the poses you might need from a cover model can be pretty effective.
  • Option #4 – Custom illustrations. Have someone paint or draw your design from scratch. It’s not cheap, and it doesn’t suit all genres/ titles, but it will allow you to get exactly the image you want and ensure it’s completely unique.
  • Option #5 – Don’t use images. This is more common in non-fic, but textures, colours and fancy font-work can create a striking unique design without needing any photos (stock or otherwise).
And there we go, 5 ways to avoid the pitfalls of stock imagery. Remember that you’ll want to keep to genre conventions as far as possible – and the bestseller lists are the strongest clue as to what the current conventions are. There will be outliers who do their own thing successfully, but if you want to do the same you’ll need a substantial branding plan and plenty of existing readers to spread the word that this unique new concept means you.

PS - We'll be revealing the cover for the third DCI Morton novel exclusively on this blog on July 1st so keep your eyes peeled for that post.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Three Years, 250,000 words+

Today marks three years since Dead on Demand was first published – and what a roller coaster it’s been!

We started out, two idiots, no writing experience, and thought it would be great idea to see if we could write a book. We tried to run before we’d learned to walk. And yet we ran. Sort of.

I have no doubt that we have a long journey ahead of us as writers, and that our journey will be a very public one. The wiser writer might have spent years toiling away in private before casting their net out into the world of kindle.

We made as many mistakes as you’d expect from two rookies, and a few extra for good measure.

In 2012, we started with a very minimal number of sales. Most newbie self-publishers get an initial spurt of sales from their family and friends – and then sink… Which is exactly what we did.

Go take a look back at our sales trajectory and you’ll find we had a ‘summer slump’ in 2012 where every sale was precious. Books are like rolling stones – they take a while to get going, and to gather momentum.

But when they do, the trajectory can be quite impressive. In September 2012, we gave away 55,000 copies of Dead on Demand hitting #1 in free eBooks as a result.

The next week, we took it down and re-proofread it. That cost us momentum. At the time it came off sale, we were #168 paid in the UK kindle store and on the up. There’s every chance that without the pause in sales, we would have continued into the top 100.

But the book wasn't ready for the big time, and neither were we.

We only had one book. Freebies worked back then because they counted as a fraction of a sale for the popularity charts on Amazon (at roughly 1/10th of a sale). That meant we were visible immediately after the free run.

But we didn’t have a second book to sell. 55,000+ readers, many of them clamouring for a second DCI Morton novel, and all we could say was “We’re working on it”.

Pretty daft, right? Anyone who has worked in sales would love to have that sort of audience clamouring for more. But we couldn’t give it to them because it didn’t exist.

Cleaver Square took until late 2013 to finish. We uploaded it a week before Christmas. We were desperate to get in by years-end lest we become those authors who don’t keep up with one a year.
It did well. It’s continued to do well. In the UK we’ve typically been ranked between 500 and 6000 ever since publication (~1200 at the time of this post). That was 17 months ago now, so it’s not been a flash in the pan. There’s been continued, on-going and prolonged interest in our books (for which we’re hugely grateful).

We made the decision to make Dead on Demand free in 2014. We’ve gone into why at length in the past, but the reason we did so is that it gives you a fair free sample. Readers can try us out, and decide if they want to buy another book from us. No DRM, no time limits, no tricks where we give away part of a book and charge for the ending. You get a book. We get a chance to show you what we’re made of.  If you don’t like it, delete it. That's as simple, fair and honest as we can make it.

And we’ve kept the second book affordable too at £1.99 / $2.99. We’re not giving this one away for free (as we do have to eat). We hope you agree that the total cost of £1.99 for two books (over seven hundred pages total) is a bargain.

Our pricing strategy isn’t changing. Many publishers are asking £6, £7, £8 or even £10 for a single eBook. It’s absurd. The difference in cost between print and eBook is enormous and the price should reflect those differences (though I will point out that eBooks are subject to 20% VAT while printed books are not).

If anyone is particularly interested in how the numbers work, email us and we’ll go through ‘em. We think £1.99 is a fair price, so we’re sticking with that for now (which means that books 1-3 will cost a grand total of £3.98; less than a beer in most London pubs!).

Book three, which is called Ten Guilty Men, has taken even longer than Cleaver Square. We’ve had interludes – to do non-writing work in my case, and to study in Dan’s, that have delayed publication. 

We wanted to release it in 2014 – in keeping with a one a year minimum release calendar.

That didn’t happen. 

We’d rather delay the book than give you a half finished work. I hope you’ll agree Ten Guilty Men is worth the wait. It’s in the editing stage now, and will be released on September 1st. We'll be making Beta and ARC copies available in due course, and we'll post on this blog once the eBook is available for preorder.

In other news, we took Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell down from all retail outlets a while back. We’ve had a few emails about this. We never wanted to charge for it. It just made sense to put it into a book format rather than a series of digital articles. Over time these have become less relevant. Kindle Free Days don’t work like they used to. We now have subscription services. We have Kindle Countdown. The industry has changed rapidly in the last three years – and we’re not comfortable leaving outdated advice live.

We would love to re-write CSWS, but it’s not something that makes us a return on our time so it’s way down the pecking order. I may just put up the whole thing on this blog, and let you guys pick over what remains useful.

Finally, you might have noticed a push on our part towards exploiting subsidiary rights. Cleaver Square has been available in Spanish for a while now (thanks to our excellent translator, Cinta Garcia DeLa Rosa), and we’re going to bringing Dead on Demand to audio in Q2 2015 with the help of Irish voice actor Nicholas Jackman.

We’re also looking into further opportunities here – but for commercial reasons, we can’t discuss specifics. As ever, we’ll put news up as soon as we have any.

Thank you for your support over the last three years. You’ve turned a drunken bet into a wonderful journey.


Sean and Dan

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

VAT Hike on eBooks - from midnight

Tomorrow, January 1st, the VAT rate on eBooks is changing. It’s changing because the rules used to be that VAT was charged where the vendor was which meant retailers could be legally resident wherever they liked (within the EU) and pay VAT based on their location. This was called the ‘Place of Supply’ rule.

Naturally, they chose the countries with the lowest VAT rates. For a few years now, that’s been Luxemburg at 3% VAT on eBooks.

From January 1st, the Place of Supply rule dies (as far as eBook publishers are concerned). The new rule is ‘where the customer is’ under Council Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1042/2013).
That means sales of eBooks are going to attract variable VAT rates in all EU member states. 

Thankfully, it’s up to retailers to levy this on behalf of publishers (so Amazon collect and pay it). If they didn’t, it would make selling eBooks ridiculously complicated and decimate low volume sellers with high admin costs (as well as potentially making <£81k turnover businesses lose UK VAT exemption).

So, for publishers this means a change in how they price. To take Amazon as the obvious example, the change means publishers will give Amazon ‘Inclusive’ rather than ‘Exclusive’ pricing.

So today, I might be £1.93 exclusive. With 2014 VAT at 3%, that’s £1.99. I’d then get paid £1.93 minus the delivery fee (circa 5p per copy for most average length eBooks with no extraneous images) and minus Amazon’s cut. That’s about £1.31 to the publisher per £1.99 sale.

From tomorrow, I could be pricing at £1.99 and paying 20% VAT. Thus Amazon would work backwards [(£1.99*0.8) – Delivery Fee]*Royalty rate. So £1.99 becomes £1.59 exclusive of VAT. Then the delivery fee comes off the top to get £1.54. Then Amazon take their cut which leaves about £1.07 per £1.99 sale for the publisher.

That’s a loss of roughly 18% of net royalties on UK sales. Small publishers will therefore be left with a horrible choice – hike their prices by passing on the added tax or cut margins.
Obviously, we’d all like to see prices stay the same. But to keep the same income in 2015 as in 2014, you either sell 20% more or up your prices by about the same.

Except, it doesn’t quite work out that neatly. Prices are almost always going to end in that magic .99. 

It doesn’t look ‘right’ seeing products priced anywhere else.

But £2.99 is a huge hike from £1.99. The question will be ‘Can you maintain the same sales volume at the higher price, and if not, how much do you lose?’

It’s all well in good asking for £2.99, but if you now make half the sales you did before then the total income will fall (and with eBooks, there are no ‘unit costs’ as sunk costs like production should be amortized over time which means there is little downside to volume).

Static pricing means a need for greater volume to offset the per unit loss. For low sellers (e.g. non fic, older titles, niche fic) where the demand curve isn’t so resilient, this might be challenging.

I however suggest small publishers take heart. That 24p you’re going to lose on the £1.99 sale? It’s much less than HaperCollins & Penguin RandomHouse have to eat on their £7.99 books. A £7.99 book (assuming static pricing) will go from a mere 24p in VAT per copy to a whopping £1.59 which makes it much more likely that prices from big publishers will have to go up.

The observant among you might be thinking ‘but Amazon will be swallowing some of the rise, won’t they?’ and yes, they do. Tax comes off before the retailer/publisher split, so on a 70% royalty category Amazon get to cover 30% of the VAT hike (or 5.1% of the total). On 35% royalty sales (i.e. those prices under £1.99) Amazon will be taking a 65% hit on that VAT hike.

That all makes it much easier for small publishers to tank the hit.

And the best part is, Amazon are automatically hiking prices by the appropriate percentage on Jan 1st. Those who change back down will get an immediate price advantage over those who do not do so. To make a change, just login and set a new, VAT-inclusive, price for all EU regions (but note that not all countries have their own price – Ireland will use the UK price as it does now, which can make pricing look funky; alas, there is nothing that you can do about that as there is not yet the granular control required to normalise everywhere).

I’ll be making the change in about an hour and fifteen minutes. Hopefully, Amazon will process that before consumers wake up tomorrow. Sure, I’ll make a little less per copy but now the differential between my book and the others vying for purchases is going to be even bigger which should mean more overall units.

It’s up to you how you price, but in the long run more readers is almost always better than less. 

Within genre fiction at least, volume pricing is here to stay.

NB - this all applies to eBooks only. Print has never been subject to VAT (in the UK at least) and that isn't changing. A few people have asked why print is exempt but eBooks aren't - I don't have a good answer for you there. The technical response is 'governments have a limited number of exemptions from EU VAT rules and ours does not choose to use one of those on eBooks'. In short, it's up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get with the times and either VAT print or exempt eBooks. It is wholly absurd to tax them differently.