Thursday, December 28, 2006

How Bad Books Get Into Print

Three chapters into the novel you bought yesterday you find that you just can’t go on reading it. The characters are wooden, the writing is stilted, and the dialogue is unbelievable. Viewpoints shift and the action leaps through time and space without benefit of transitions.

You know you can write better than this in your sleep. How did this mess get into print? you wonder. Did someone sleep with an editor, or what?

Actually, some books are published because the author slept with an editor (or a publisher). But that's not the only reason bad books see print. Sometimes a badly written novel slips into print because an editor has a vacant spot on her list and a writer friend or relative who needs work. And it has happened that a bestselling author falters (or doesn’t care any more) and turns out a poor novel that gets into print because of the author’s reputation. And although I don't know of any instances, I'm sure that bribery has gotten a few books into print.

Some questionable novels are “contract breakers,” poorly-written tomes intended to barely fulfill the terms of a publishing contract. The hope is that the publisher will reject the manuscript and release the author from her contract. An author may do this after signing a multiple-book contract with a publisher who proves to be less than proficient in the marketplace. A contract breaker may also be used to get around a common book contract provision that gives the author’s current publisher first refusal rights on his next book.
If the author is lucky, the publisher will drop the book. But the publisher might take the book anyway, in which case another bad book is born.

Why put such a book on the market? This may be done out of spite, or because the publisher figures the author’s name will sell the book.

A tight publishing schedule can also propel a contract breaker onto bookstore shelves. If the title is already scheduled for publication and there’s nothing available to replace it, the publisher has no choice but to put it out there.

All of which may seem illogical, but the nature of book publishing is such that most publishers would rather put out a bad book than miss a publishing date. Once a book is scheduled and announced, money is spent and irreversible processes are set in motion. At the very least, a publisher faces embarrassment by not releasing an announced book. But there are worse consequences to not fulfilling the expectations of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, including but not limited to reduced orders on future titles.

Time-sensitive titles (such as movie tie-ins or books linked to news events) can also fall victim to publishing schedules. These books are often written on nearly impossible deadlines, and the quality reflects it. But agreements with studios or other entities require that the book be published by a certain date, and marketing often takes precedent over quality.

Many books are scheduled for publication before the author completes the manuscript, and it sometimes happens that what the author turns in is not what the editor expected. Still, the book is scheduled to go into production, and there’s no time to make changes. And so the disappointing manuscript becomes a disappointing book.

Then there are late manuscripts. For whatever reason, a novel isn’t ready when it’s due. So the editor puts out a call and grabs the first complete manuscript she can locate that fulfills the genre requirements of the missing work. The replacement may be of minimal quality, but the publishing slot is filled.

Finally, as you may suspect, some bad books are the result of poor judgment on the part of an editor or publisher. One or the other may be so enamored of an author's writing style that they are blind to its poor plot. Or maybe wishful thinking fools them into thinking that a really well-written book has substance that it lacks.

Obviously, just making it into print doesn’t mean a work is “good.” Remember that the next time a bad book makes you wonder if your own work is on the wrong track.
Copyright © 2006, Michael A. Banks

Monday, December 18, 2006

Collaborating with Non-Writers

Every writer hears it sooner or later: "Hey--I got a great idea for a book! You write it and we'll split the money!"

There are a couple of problems with such a proposal. First, ideas aren't difficult to come by; they occur naturally. The person proposing the collaboration usually offers nothing more than a subject or situation, and perhaps some information. Nothing the writer couldn't work up on her own.

And the non-writer has no idea of the time and effort writing a successful book requires. Otherwise he wouldn't propose "splitting" the money with the writer, who is the one who will do all the work. Doing so is like demanding half the money after pointing out to to someone else that a certain corner is a great spot for a restaurant, have them build and operate the restaurant, then demand half the money.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Writer's Digest: Down the Drain?

"Writer's Digest isn't read by professional writers, but it is written by professional writers." --Jerry Pournelle

It was a real surprise to see Writer's Digest go bi-monthly last Spring. I started reading the magazine in 1971, when an editor friend gave me some back-issues, and I wrote for it throughout the 1980s. (I got to writing for it so often that I was identified with the magazine; for two years I was paid to endorse their companion annual market directory, Writer's Market, in full-page ads.)

Back then, when someone asked me what kinds of magazines I wrote for, I would say something like, "Oh, several. Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, computer magazines, Writer's Digest ..."

"Reader's Digest, hey? Wow--lot of people read that!"

And I would explain that Writer's Digest was a magazine for writers. Eventually I stopped mentioning it--not out of embarrassment, but because talking about it was a waste of time unless the person who asked was a writer or would-be writer.

I stopped writing for WD in the 1990s, just as it began to decline, a bit after Bill Brohaugh moved from being the magazine's editor to become editor of Writer's Digest Books. Tom Clarke made an effort to keep the magazine on course, but he wasn't in the position of editor long enough. After Tom a succession of editors struggled to change the magazine's look, feel, and content--but none approached the quality of the magazine under Brohaugh, John Brady, or Kirk Polking.

When Richard Rosenthal decided to retire and sell the company that published WD (F&W Publications), the magazine reflected that change. It became less personable and more hobby-oriented.

Why? I heard that the new owners were pushing to double the company's revenue, and the magazine's design and content seemed to reflect that. It was as if they were striving find a formula or package that would push readers' "buy" buttons. (One approach was to link a book to every article ... a bit too in-your-face, folks!) The emphasis was more on using the magazine to sell books and other products than providing content that would make readers want to buy the magazine.

In the meantime, many of the company's best people left. And apparently a lot of readers decided they wanted something other than a catalog.

I won't be very surprised if WD folds, or is sold off to a private company. Then again, maybe the management will realize that the writers and would-be writers who make up WD's audience buy the magazine for its own sake, and bring back usable content.
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]

Will They Steal My Idea? Unethical Writers and Editors

Many writers and would-be writers worry about someone stealing their work, or stealing their ideas. I always encourage the writers to not worry about such things, to concentrate on their work, instead.

Still, one can't ignore the possibility of theft of intellectual property completely, and I know that many of you are curious about how this stuff happens. So I'll relate here some of my experiences with certain unethical (or simply ignorant) scum of the Earth.

Note that my brushes with these matters were not as high-profile or dramatic as those involving J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown. There wasn't near as much money involved. But they serve to illustrate not only how theft can happen, but also how to deal with it.

On to cases ... my one verifiable instance of plagiarism involved someone lifting my work in big chunks and publishing it under someone else's name. That was a fairly straightforward incident; one had only to look at certain parts of the works involved to see the plagiarism. The problem was resolved by my publisher's attorneys contacting the offending publisher, after which the latter pulped thousands of copies of the offending work.

More subtle were certain cases of someone taking an idea and running with it. Before you start wondering whether you should have kept quiet about your idea for novel that resembles a certain film now showing, let me explain what I mean by an "idea." Or, what I don't mean. By "idea," I don't mean, "I have an idea about this evil galactic empire that existed long ago and the only person who can stop the spread of evil is a young man who has no idea of his heritage, special powers, and destiny ..."

This particular idea, which you'll recognize as "Star Wars," was the foundation for scores of novels and short stories published long before George Lucas was born.

It is a plot situation, not a firm idea or story. As such, it is not copyrightable, and not protected by law. Specific works, in their content and very order of words are what copyright protects. So you are free to write a novel about an evil galactic empire whose only salvation is a dispossessed, unaware prince. Just as anyone is free to write a novel about aliens destroying the Earth's economy with matter duplicators (the plot situation in my first novel, The Odysseus Solution, written with Dean Lambe).

Doing so is no more plagiarism than Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (it's King Lear all over), West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), and Forbidden Planet (The Tempest). The same is true of Pygmalion-based tales such as My Fair Lady which in a way became Pretty Woman and bunch of novels and a television series. If plots were protectable from "theft," there would be only one locked-room mystery, only one time travel story, only one story about an African-American who commits justifiable homicide in Mississippi, and so forth.

What is protected is what you do with an idea. Thus, you can query a magazine editor about doing an article on the subject of garage bands in the Midwest, and the editor can turn you down and ask another writer to do an article on that subject--with impunity. Such action is ethically crummy and a ripoff, but there's nothing illegal about it. I've had it happen, and I'll be glad to tell you who did it--privately.

But if you write an article about garage bands in the Midwest, send it to the editor, get turned down, and then see the unique spin you gave the subject in the same magazine under someone else's name, you probably have cause for action. If your sentences or paragraphs are copied, you definitely have cause for action.

I've not had submitted articles stolen, nor short stories. Just about any magazine editor is glad to buy what you write, and credit you, so as to get more of your work. But I have had book ideas--and more--stolen.

The first time this happened, a manager at a publishing house asked me to submit a book proposal on a certain subject to a specific editor, which I did. After waiting five weeks I telephoned the editor to ask about the proposal. Yes, the editor had received the proposal, and "... I folded it in with some other proposals on the same subject to give to another writer who will be writing the book."

WHAT? Hold everything!

My stomach lurched. Invectives and vulgarities rushed to the tip of my tongue, and I bit them back with an effort.

"You can't do that!" I said instead. "I was asked to submit the proposal on the understanding that I would write the book."

"Well," came the reply, "isn't that how everybody does it? Just take the best of all the material to create the book?"

Yeah, sure, lady! And when I need some lunch money I'll just go through your pocketbook, and take your ATM card for later.

"No, that is not how everybody does it." Some of the invective spewed forth at that point; I'll leave that to your imagination. I later learned that this was the editor's first job in publishing (no surprise). I suppose the editor thought I was doing this for fun. Or maybe the publisher thought they could just steal from anyone with impunity.

I contacted the president of the company, who gave me an apology and a few hundred bucks. But never again will I submit anything to that company.

A couple of years later I was asked to submit a proposal for a book to a publisher with whom I'd worked in the past. This was an outfit I trusted. As with the incident just described, I waited a few weeks, then telephoned to inquire as to the status of the book. "Oh," said editor B, "we contracted for that book four months ago."

What madness is this? "Then why solicit a proposal from me?" I demanded. My shoulders were hunched. My right hand clenched the phone so strongly that it began to ache. "Why ask me for a proposal when you had someone signed to write the book?"

"Well, my boss said to ask you."

I called the boss, editor B, who declared that he didn't know the book had already been signed when he told editor A to solicit the proposal. A blatant lie; the other author was well into the project, and there was no way editor A could not have known about the book because he had to approve the contract. The only questions was whether both editors thought it was a good idea to "help out" the author by taking my ideas, and if the author was in on it.

I managed to raise enough fuss with management to get one of these jerks fired, and was given a tiny financial compensation. None of this made up for the loss of time and effort on my part. (Editor B doubtless went on to pull unethical stunts on other writers.) And then there were the anticipated book credit and earnings. I suppose I might have brought suit over that one, but I was too busy writing to bother. And, even though I'd won civil suits in the past, I wasn't anxious to get into another one.

Needless to say, this is another publisher I avoid and warn others away from.

So, yes: plagiarism happens, and ideas are stolen. And the best way to deal with them, short of threatening suit, is to go over the offender's head.

But when you consider that I've had so few incidents in a career that includes publishing over three dozen books and 1,000 magazine pieces, you can see that they are the exception rather than the rule.

Still, the low probability doesn't make such events any less disturbing.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]

Sunday, December 17, 2006

We're All Best-Selling Authors on this Bus!

Used to be, if a book was labeled "bestseller" or an author "bestselling" (or "best-selling"), it meant something. A true bestseller sold more copies than the average book, and made the New York Times bestseller list.

And, it followed, a bestselling author was the author of a bestseller--a book that had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, maybe even millions of copies.

Assuming that making a bestseller list is a valid endorsement (and whether that's true is a subject for another blog entry), it's natural to let potential readers know (on second and third and nth printings) that the book sold enough copies to make such a list, and therefore might be interesting.

Where a new book by a previously bestselling author is involved, it's equally natural to want readers to know that this writer has sold a lot of books, since it is assumed that knowing the author has sold a large number of at least one title will motivate readers to by her new book.

But both bestseller and bestselling lost any real meaning years ago, thanks to the terms being applied indiscriminately. I've seen books that I know didn't sell 6,000 copies labeled bestselling. Sometimes the cover on a writer's first book lauds him as a "bestselling author." What?

When I was writing cover copy 20 years ago, I refused to use either term with any book that hadn't made some sort of list. Still, quite a few books that hadn't even made a grocery list ended up with something like "a new thrilling bestseller," or "Sylvanus Spatula, bestselling author of Picking a Molecule," splashed on their covers. (Editors and publishers have the final say on such things, after all.) Observing this, I learned to disregard best-anything in book descriptions. I suspect that the typical reader has done the same, even when the writer in question really has had a bestseller.

If book cover copy is going to brag, I'd much rather see it brag appropriately. Perhaps with a line like one proposed by the late Martin Caidin (bestselling author of The Six-Million Dollar Man) for one of his novels: "Forget bestselling: this book grabs you by the balls and drags you screaming through 320 pages of terror!"
The definitely-selling author of The eBay Survival Guide, Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation, and other titles.
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Obnoxious Self-Promoters

Some writers carry self-promotion to obnoxious levels.

Consider a series of postings by writers in a bulletin board memorial to someone who recently passed away, and who counted a large number of writers among his friends and acquaintances.

It was disgusting to see the number of writers who added a list of their novels to each message. I know, I know--those were signature lines. But it still makes the in memoriam statements read like:

"Wow--he was a great guy. I'll miss him. By the way, buy these books that I wrote!"

I wonder if these writers hand out book promo at funerals, and maybe take advantage of such captive audiences to do a reading?

It can get worse. Back in the 1980s a well-known SF fanzine published a special issue to honor a certain legendary writer. Included in the issue were solicited tributes by fellow writers--one of whom hijacked the tribute and turned it into a personal promotion.

How? By jamming the "tribute" with references to the offending writer's own work, such as "... and I'll never forget [honored writer]'s [book title], which inspired my own [egotistical writer]'s [MY BOOK'S TITLE with publisher and date appended]. And my character in [ANOTHER BOOK'S TITLE with publisher and date appended] was inspired by [honored writer], as was the protagonist in [YET ANOTHER BOOK'S TITLE, etc.]" The writer (whom I will not identify even by gender, lest I inadvertently add to its "fame") did this for each and every book it had ever published!

Someone died; it’s about them, not you. Leave your ego--and insecurities--at home.

Copyright © 2006, Michael A. Banks

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Online Sellers Promoting Digital Rights Theft

I recently discovered an online ad (and several online auction postings) offering an e-book version of a novel that was made into one of the powerhouse movies of the year (by way of saying it was a big bestseller). Not only was the e-book offered as a download for less than a dollar, but you also got "full resale rights" to the e-book!

Whoa! Does that mean you can put this very popular copyrighted novel on CD and sell it on street corners, and offer it on eBay and Yahoo! auctions for download?

Hardly. The copyright still exists. The truth is that if you buy an e-book from one of these sellers you are receiving stolen property.

You can't convince the sellers of that. Some ads carry official-sounding statements about such non-entities as "the compilation & International Media policy" and "the Downloadable Media Policy." Others state that they have "Reseller Rights." One announced, "I am an author seller of this e-book and I can provide proof." Some even go so far to imply that this novel is "in the public domain."

Could this be true? Hell, no! What's happened is that a few dishonest people got ahold of copies of the e-book by buying it, and then invented a bunch goobledegook about "reseller rights" and "Downloadable Media Policy," knowing that there were enough greedy and ignorant types out there who wouldn't look too closely at a Web site offering resale rights to such a well-known property.

I asked a few of the sellers whether you had to pay extra for the reseller rights, or apply to the publisher. Without exception, each replied that she had bought resale rights and thus anyone who bought from her automatically received the resale rights. I'm sure that's what the person each seller bought the novel from told them. Thus the myth is perpetrated.

So, how are these sellers getting away with it? Either the publisher and author of this novel don't know about it, or they just don't want to bother with it. None of the sellers are making big money on this, so maybe they're not affecting legitimate sales enough to bother the publisher. And maybe the publisher realizes that as soon as a squad of attorneys swatted a dozen of these clowns twice as many more would pop up.

Now, if someone was offering an MP3 version of a hot new rap or rock tune, you could count on recording company attorneys making short work of them. But I don't think the book publishing industry is as excitable as are music people. And I suspect that most book publishers still don't have a handle on electronic publishing and just don't understand that the rights associated with this novel--not to mention the entire notion of copyright--are being undermined.

On the third hand, it could be that this book's publisher (the largest in the world) covertly started this to publicize the book.

I hope this isn't a trend.
Copyright © 2006, 2007, Michael A. Banks

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

About "The Long Tail"

The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson (the editor of Wired Magazine) seems to have confused a lot of people. Many discussions and reviews of the book are themselves confusing. That being the case, I'll take a shot here at explaining what the book and the idea are all about.

In a virtual nutshell, Anderson's thesis is that a huge cumulative market for poor-selling items exists on the Internet.

But there's more to it than that, beginning with the 80/20 rule in retailing, which says that 80 percent of profits are generated by 20 percent of items stocked by a retailer. This is generally accepted and has been demonstrated to be true. If you make a sales-by-units graph of all items offered by a retailer (Wal-Mart, Stero Barn, or with the x- or vertical axis being units, and the y- or horizontal axis begin individual products, the bestselling products would make a tall, narrow hump at the left (the top 20 pecent), while the products that don't sell well make a "tail" to the right, dropping down as the number of units sold decreases with each product. Hence, "the Long Tail."

As a consequence, retailers stock as much of the top-selling 20 percent as they can, and ignore most of the other 80 percent of items they might stock--on occasion giving one or another a trial (due to to manufacturer or distributor pressure, or just to see whether a particular item will sell).

Thus, while you can find a copy of The Da Vinci Code in nearly any bookstore, you cannot find The Odysseus Solution because it doesn't sell well. Moving at most one or two copies per year, it sells so poorly that it's not worth keeping in stock. Why have The Odysseus Solution in shelf space that could be used to stock The Da Vinci Code or The Year of Magical Thinking, either of which might sell anywhere from 30 to 300 copies in that same year.

This situation seriously limits the consumer's choices to the most popular items--the "hits," if you will. It's why you can't get that brand of jelly you love at Winn-Dixie; they dropped it because it wasn't among the top-sellers. You have to satisfy yourself from the six other brands offered, do without, or go elsewhere (and you still may not find it).

For the same reason you don't see Blood, Sweat and Tears' first album, The Child is the Father to the Man, on store shelves, though you'll probably find a BS&T greatest hits album. Again, your choices are being limited.

According to Anderson, there are people who would buy Brand X jelly or The Child is the Father to the Man if jars or copies were in stock. But they aren't, and won't be, because the return on the investment is less than it costs the store to stock the item. According to Anderson's theories, this condition does not obtain on the Web, especially where downloadable media products are concerned, as there is no "stocking" charge. All that needs to be done is to let the customers know the item is there.

With no stocking cost, a retailer can stock a near-infinite number of products. This, in turn, means that the retailer can reach the market for items that a brick-and-mortar store could not serve. Potentially, there is a large cumulative market there, supplying thousands of buyers with things they can't get out in the real world.

What tipped Anderson off to all this was a study of the online music markets, where nearly everything can be stocked--including The Child is the Father to the Man and every tune ever put out by a garage band or Indie label. He learned that 98 percent of everything sells at least once in a year. Which means that the online music retailer was raking it in more than the brick-and-mortar music store, because she is able to sell same the big-profit 20 percent that the brick-and-mortar store sells, plus the other 80 percent.

Anderson follows this to its logical conclusion: there are large cumulative markets that conventional retailers are ignoring because it doesn't pay them to stock items that will sell once in a year or so. But on the Internet, where you have no stocking expense ... Which is only one way of presenting the idea.

Anderson takes several runs at explaining the concept, which got him skewered by several reviewers for being redundant. Anderson also talks about ways of capitalizing on the long tail, and the implications on business and culture. (For example, he foresees a market that is less-driven by "hits" than by personal recommendations, which I don't see as happening to a great extent, due to the power of advertising.)

While some reviewers have made a big deal out of the fact that Anderson's long tail concept exists under other names (like Pareto tail), this doesn't invalidate his message, which is, again, that huge niche markets exists among those who are willing to serve them.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Is Amazon Going After the Long Tail?

As detailed in another post (and in many other places), is about to legitimize e-books. Or give it one helluva try.

Why is Amazon doing this? Well, you can count on statements from Amazon along the lines of "level the playing field" (gawd--what an absurd statement!) and "give every writer the exposure she deserves" (nobody "deserves" nuthin', mister--they gotta earn it!) But such sentiments will be little more than public relations squibs.

The real reason is money--dollars, bucks, ducketts, simoleons, squeeze, cronkites, jack, lucre, loot--cash! Amazon will make $149 from anyone who wants to publish e-books, because you have to use the proprietary Mobipocket software if you want Amazon to sell your wares--and the Mobipocket creator costs $149.

In addition to the entry fee, Amazon will, if it continues the business plan already in place at Mobipocket, take 60 percent of each book's cover price.

With anyone able to be an author, the field is likely to get very crowded. So crowded, in fact, that it will be difficult for writers who aren't already established to get noticed. A lot of books will sell a few copies, and a few books will sell a lot of copies, just like in the real world.

Which is okay from Amazon’s viewpoint, because they are going to make money on the poorest sellers, and it will be pure profit.

To explain: As has been demonstrated by Chris Anderson in his book, The Long Tail, 20 percent of the goods offered by a given retailer generate 80 percent of the profit. The remaining 80 percent of goods generate decreasing profits, and in general aren't worth stocking when the space they take up could be used to stock more of the top-selling 20 percent of products.

However, as Anderson shows us, when it comes to downloadable products there is no "space" taken up by virtual stock. So it's possible to stock literally everything. Further (as his studies demonstrate) if you stock everything, at least 98 percent (ninety-eight percent) of all items will be purchased at least once in a year.

With no cost for stocking items, it’s profitable to stock the 20,000 virtual books that could not be justified in a brick-and-mortar bookstore because they sell one copy a year. So, you (Amazon) stock those 20,000 books, and 19,600 of them rack up sales because there is a market for anything and you’re serving not only the market for “hits,” but also the niche markets. Markets for books on subjects like aerial photography that interest only a few people. Even markets for books that people don’t know they want until they see them.

So, if your haul is $3.60 per book (net on a sale price of $6.00), your poor sellers still bring in $70,560. If the next 20,000 low sellers have “only’ 3 sales a year, you have another $211,680. And so on, up into the millions.

So, in allowing anyone to put up an e-book for sale (and charging them for it) Amazon is serving those niche markets and scoring sales that those who stick with the 20/80 rule lose.

As a bonus, the Mobipocket business model allows the company to hold back royalties amounts under $150. Since the majority of books are going to be small sellers, Amazon is going to have one heck of a float--all the more reason to encourage people to become “authors.”

What Does the Spirit Drive?

Don't Fight With Yourself

''Don't fight yourself." That certainly looks like it has the potential for being advice of great moment, doesn't it?

I came across this in Edward Teller's memoirs. It was part of a goodnight wish: "Good night. Sleep tight. Don't fight with yourself." The intent was probably something along the lines of don't worry over things, don't toss and turn and keep yourself awake.

Being an insomniac I can appreciate that, for I've spent endless hours battling myself over everything from worries about family to grand ideas about the turning of the wheel and why and how we're here--not to mention why the hell can't I get to sleep?

I also perceive "Don't fight with yourself" as a reference to paying attention to what I like to call "intellectual instinct." Intellectual instinct is that part of us that questions things--stories, votes, rules, statements, conventional wisdom, whatever. Too many people suppress the instinct to question an established order or icon or way of doing things for fear of being criticized, not being "cool," or even out of fear that their own thinking might be faulty.

When your intellectual instinct prods you on an issue, don't suppress it, don't fight with it. Take the time to explore the issue--including the "sides" that don't appeal to you. There's something about the issue that's making you uncomfortable, and you need to find out what it is.

You might want to dismiss this as 1960s counter-cultural wisdom that isn't needed today, since the counter-culture that preached questioning authority is now in charge--but you shouldn't.

Speaking of today's authority group: "We have met the enemy and they are us" is more than a clever statement. The generation in charge today (and I am a part of that generation) doesn't want its policies and rules questioned any more than the gang in charge in 1970, or 1950, or 1860, or any other time. And today's establishment are using the same disinformation and social engineering tactics that have always served to control thought: "If we get enough people saying and thinking such-and-such is bad, then they will pressure the rest into submission." File the media under "people," because the professional media, the hip media, the conservative media, the underground media, and any other media are just as capable of delivering misinformation as ... well, as a blog.
Consider the words of Steppenwolf's "Monster."

Amazon E-Books: Good for Writers?

When I first heard that Amazon was getting behind e-books, I thought, “Great! If anyone can move e-books into the mainstream, it’s Amazon!” This could be a very good thing for writers—a potential market numbering in the millions, as opposed to an exposure of a few hundred thousand for a paper (hardcopy) book.

It sounded good. And Amazon was offering its very own e-book creation software to help with the publishing process, though one could choose other programs to create e-books in other formats--or so I thought.

When I started checking into the setup, my enthusiasm waned. What I learned convinces me that Amazon will be about as helpful to e-book writer/publishers as the 19th century coal companies were to West Virginia and Kentucky landowners, company stores and all.

Why the dreary prediction? Because writers have to pay to be published. And because Amazon would make money whether or not a given author’s titles sell well, giving the company little incentive to help build sales.

If Amazon builds it, they will come
First, understand that Amazon will legitimize e-books. Not that e-books are illegitimate--but consumers have to learn to trust some products. (It’s like the early days of radio, when most people avoided buying radio receivers because they didn’t understand radio and thought it was some sort of trick.)

Readers will flock to Amazon because it’s a trusted brand name, has a terrific selection, and has earned a reputation for value. Independent and e-book-only writers will go along with the plan in order to get the world’s largest bookseller behind their product. Trust me; there are few writers who will pass up the opportunity to put their work in front of tens of millions of readers, no matter what they say about not being in it for the money. Whether their motivation is money, a cause, or just getting “in print,” writers want their work to have as much exposure as possible.

How will writers make money?
If Amazon adheres to the Mobipocket business model, it will make a fair profit on each e-book it sells--50 percent of the cover price. That’s not out of line, as most brick-and-mortar bookstores make 40 to 50 percent of a book’s cover price. For authors who are also publishers, it’s a bigger piece of the pie than they get from conventional publishers.

But the author/publisher would not receive 50 percent. Under the current Mobipocket/eBookBase contract, author/publishers are charged a 10 percent “affiliate fee.” Which leaves them with 40 percent of the cover price of each book sold.

That’s still a greater percentage than a typical author gets for a paper book. But sales aren’t going to be on the same level as paper books. (More on that in a few paragraphs.)

“You have to spend money to make money ...”
Here’s an element that really bothers me: Writers have to pay to be published. No, it’s not a per-book or stocking charge or anything like that. It’s more like an admission fee: Anyone who wants to see their work in Mobipocket form (thus backed by Amazon) has to buy Mobipocket Creator Publisher Edition, currently priced at $149. There’s a cheaper personal version, but it doesn’t offer security or Digital Rights Management (DRM) features--which turn out to be very important because you can’t sell books without DRM.

For $149 you get a license to use the creator on one computer. I assume commercial publishers will get some sort of site-license deal. Now, the $149 isn’t a big chunk of money, but my motto has always been “Writers don’t pay—writers are paid.”

The hard part
Once you put your book into Mobipocket format, there will be a submission process to go through with Amazon. It will probably involve providing some promotional material about you and the book, and maybe breaking out a sample. Hopefully it won’t involve a fee. Then you’ll sit back and wait for the royalties to roll in.

But those royalties may not roll in for quite a while. Mobipocket pays quarterly, but retains royalties until they reach $150. Mobipocket also holds all proceeds from retailer sales until the amount reaches $150. This means that Amazon could hold 100 percent of the proceeds from every book for months or years.

Combine this model with Amazon’s scale and the company is guaranteed to make money whether or not books sell well. If an e-book sells a lot of copies, Amazon makes out with its 60 percent share. Plus, it gets to hold the money a few weeks before releasing it to you (this is called “float”). If a book sells only one or two or five copies every month or quarter or year, the gross proceeds go into the float, money the company can invest or use for operations.

With the number of books Amazon is likely to have in stock, the float will add up to serious money. And Amazon will attract a lot of writers. People who never even thought about writing a book will be inspired to put together e-books to offer on Amazon.

What are you worth?
Right now you can buy The Da Vinci Code in e-book format for $6.99. The book has probably sold a goodly number of copies. Whether they’ve read it or not, most people will feel it’s worth the price. But what about The Odysseus Solution, by midlist writer Michael A. Banks, or Ghosts of Futures Past, Anton Katzenskeller’s first novel? Are you, the average reader, willing to take a gamble on one of these for seven bucks? Not likely. But you might go for one at $3. If you buy Anton’s book, he will net $1.20—actually more than he’d get as a royalty on a paperback novel.

This means Anton has to sell 125 copies of his novel before he gets paid--assuming Amazon retains the Mobipocket/eBookBase setup.

Now, how likely is unknown writer Anton Katzenskeller to sell 125 copies in a quarter, with tens of thousands of competing titles fighting for readers’ attention? Not very. And as long as Anton sells fewer than 125 copies, Amazon is using his money for nothing.

Hm ... this sounds almost as bleak as conventional publishing. At least the publishers don’t make us pay to get into print. Not real publishers, anyway.