BEFORE I get to today’s topic, a note about the road we’re starting down. To return to the dinosaurs and daffodils analogy, genre fiction publishing is an ecosystem (a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment). In this ecosystem, authors, readers, publishers, distributors, librarians, booksellers, mavens and reviewers and all others involved are ALL players. None of us exist in isolation. We all interact.
I sometimes get the impression that self-published authors think they are not connected in any way with Big6 publishing. I have news for you. The Big6 impact on you, and you impact on them. That’s how an ecosystem works. None of us are entirely and completely cut off or independent from the rest.
So here we are, in the very early stages of our (r)evolution. The key aim we all share is for our ecosystem to thrive. It’s not an easy ecosystem to manage, based as it is on the commercialization of a product that is constantly evolving and changing itself (quite aside from the ecosystem changing). What we need to aim for is a nurturing balance that keeps all the vital systems of the ecosystem functioning at their best.
No one can say, at this point in our revolution, whether or not our brontosauruses will survive. It is perfectly possible that some many evolve - slim down, become more agile and nimble, and turn into really expert gardeners nurturing the daffodils. Others may mutate in some presently impossible to predict way. None of us can know. But given that ours is a commercially-based ecosystem, only the commercially-successful evolutions and mutations will survive.
There’s no benefit to authors in focusing our energies, positive or negative, on the brontosauruses. Their evolution and their future is in their own hands. As a group, authors need to focus on our needs and wants, on what we need to best thrive in the new world. We need to work this out as best we can, then articulate it clearly - so that we know, and everyone else in the ecosystem knows, too.
That’s one thing we can and should do, and that’s what this blog is designed to foster.
MY SHORT TERM AIM is to have a rational conversation about E-book pricing. However, as soon as I started structuring such a conversation, I realized there were a number of other elements in the equation, and without first bringing those elements to the forefront of our minds, any rational conversation on pricing wasn’t going to happen.
So the four posts of which today’s is the first are all leading to a discussion on pricing. Each of the four posts will address some aspect of our business that impacts on, and is impacted on by, pricing. I’ve started with the Bestseller Lists because they are a straightforward issue, and a very visible one. And one that can be and should be addressed quickly.
ALSO, to help set a frame of reference for this blog, I’ll make five quick points:
a) Authors and business are intrinsically not a good match. To create and craft our works, authors must have a passionate soul. Business, OTOH, to be successfully negotiated, requires cold and analytical reasoning - passion plays a part, but it’s not the same creative passion we work with every day. So to succeed, past, present and future, an author needs to learn to wear a pragmatic hat, and to put on that pragmatic hat and deal with the business, and protect and reserve our passion for our works.
b) A guiding principle I’ve used throughout my career: “I am a storyteller. For me, audience is everything. To gain audience, I need distribution. To grow audience I need increasing distribution.” As a storyteller, reaching my audience is paramount, so distribution of my work is key. Distribution has always been the final deciding factor in all my career decisions.
c) With respect to both the above, ask yourself this: Would we have the market we presently have, the one we’re all so keen to sell into, if we hadn’t had publishers large and small working alongside us over the past centuries to get our works to our audience? To grow and nurture that audience? Give credit where it’s due, and in that respect, tread gently. What for authors is shaping as an exiciting, if sometimes scary, brave new world is for publishers large and small a minefield they may not be able to negotiate.
d) What the world of publishing is going through now is not a de novo creation, but a transformation of something that’s existed for centuries. Transformation is always more difficult to manage than de novo creation because you have to deal with what already is along the way to transitioning to what works best on the new playing field. That said, in a situation where there’s an existing and long-established product and market in place - as in genre fiction - then jettisoning the old wholesale and trying to start up as if de novo is...unwise doesn’t come close to describing such an act of business folly.
e) Ultimately every author will have to make their own business decision about how they are going to best reach their audience in the new world that’s taking shape. Hopefully via this blog we can explore some of the aspects that may influence that decision. Key among those aspects is the question of where each author’s audience actually is. More on that 2 posts on.
At the time of writing:
USAToday: now includes e-books, including those from self-published authors, in its list, ranked on units sold, all formats included on the one list.
NYTimes: have started a separate E-book fiction list, self-published excluded, ranked on unit sales.
Amazon, B & N, and other online stores: currently have various lists - main, genre-specific, live-time - ranked on unit sales. Inclusion of self-published works appears to vary.
Our first question has to be: why have lists at all?
It’s a marketing tool. We all know that hitting a list will lead to better sales - better positioning in the store, more exposure (physical or virtual store, it’s the same). Until recently I believed that the better sales came from that better positioning and greater exposure - more potential readers saw the book, right?
But in the online world especially, whether with p-books or e-books, that’s not the whole of the equation. Overwhelmed by choice, readers are increasingly using the readily available lists to choose books, especially from authors they haven’t read before.
Yes, obviously - but why? Because a reader sees a bestseller list position as meaning: lots of people bought this book - and from that follows: perhaps I should try it. They get the sample, and hopefully you’ve made the sale.
Lots of people bought this book.
The critical elements in that statement are: “lots of people” and “bought.”
This is where I think the currently available lists are shortchanging readers, authors, and everyone else. The current lists, based solely on unit sales, correctly reflect the “lots of people,” but they do not adequately reflect the “bought.”
Let me pose this: On Kindle, Book A sells 1000 copies @ 9.99, while Book B sells 3000 copies @ 0.99.
If readers are using lists as a “hard cash vote of confidence” (as I believe they are), then which of our two books should rank higher? Book A, for which other readers have plunked down $ 9990 in a given time, or Book B, for which readers have offered only $ 2970 over the same period?
On the current lists, Book B ranks significantly higher than Book A.
You might fool consumers once, but we all quickly learn to distrust information sources that steer us wrongly. As I recently read somewhere about marketing in general, trust is what it’s all about. If consumers lose trust in a source, they won’t pay attention to it - they will actively turn their backs on it. If Bestseller Lists do not continue to meet readers' true needs, such lists will soon become worthless - which is not to anyone’s benefit.
Amazon, are you listening? Also B & N, USAT and NYT.
Yes, I know the prices are shown on most lists, but readers are not about to waste their time doing the comparative maths. And anyway, they can’t - the lists are rankings, not absolute # sales, and to do a Best Grossing List you need the actual sales figures.
Apple already address this on their App store - their lists are Top Paid (#), Top Free (#), and Top Grossing (# x $). And yes, the Top Paid and the Top Grossing are significantly different. And Apps are very like e-books in this respect - a downloadable product with a wide range of prices.
When lists were originally set up, most products on any list were of similar price (for instance, the current NYTimes Mass Market Top 20 are all 9.99 or 7.99). Not necessarily identical, but close enough. Except for USAT, which has always been a purely numbers ranking, but everyone using that list for anything meaningful pulls it apart into its price-limited segments - mass market, trade, hardcover, etc. Whenever I have a USAT listing reported to me from within publishing, it’s always as “number 3 in mass market” or similar - which illustrates the point. To be useful, a bestseller list based on unit sales alone has to compare like products (e.g. books) in a similar price range (e.g. print mass market).
The reason the NYT fiction list was split into Harcover and Mass Market Fiction many years ago was because as the NYT adjusted to more accurate reporting of unit sales, the mass market books routinely weighed out the leading hardcovers, leaving said hardcovers struggling to gain a mention. That is an example of a change in how lists are compiled that was driven by price difference. Likewise the NYT Trade list.
My contention is this: with fiction e-books ranging in price from $ 0.99 - $ 20.00 +, we need to revise the relevant bestseller lists to make them more reflective of what readers are actually voting for with their dollars.
NOTE: I have no quibble with continuing to have a list based purely on unit sales (as the lists currently are), but I believe we need another list alongside, a Best Grossing List ranked on unit sales x price.
Put both sort of lists up, and let readers decide which they find most useful in successfully helping them choose books to read.
Amazon already has a Top Paid, and a Top Free. A Top Grossing needs to be added, and that shouldn’t be a big deal.
Why do I think this point is important here and now? Because bestseller lists should rightly remain an important and potentially effective marketing and positioning tool going forward into our (r)evolution, and it will benefit none of us - publishers, distributors, authors or readers - for the concept of bestseller lists to become tarnished and ultimately rejected by readers.
So that’s my current view on the vexing question of the bestseller lists in our new world.
And there must be something in the ether, because I posted in the comments that this would be today’s topic on Sunday, then Mike Shatzkin made a comment in the comments section of his previous blog, then touched again on the issue at the end of his blog post of Feb 22nd. His comments and mine align. We need the Top Grossing List.
Why do I consider the bestseller lists important with respect to e-book pricing? Because price currently significantly influences the ranking on bestseller e-book lists, and for some/many self-published authors getting on those lists is the primary if not sole motivation driving their low pricing. IMO, this is the wrong reason for low pricing, but more on that anon.
Meanwhile, the unintended consequences of e-book bestseller lists based solely on unit sales are disrupting and destablizing our emerging ecosystem in ways that are not healthy for ANY of the inhabitants, especially not in the long-term. Everyone will ultimately lose, and I don’t think it’s too alarmist to say that if not rectified, this issue could ultimately send our ecosystem into terminal imbalance.
We need those lists brought back into balance. Yesterday.
What say you?
Topic of next blog post: will be posted in comments below on Sunday.
Next blog post: will be posted next Friday
CAVEAT: Nothing posted on this blog, or in its comments, should involve commercially sensitive information. Contracted authors please exercise due diligence in your comments.
All blog posts by the author should be viewed as postulation. I love playing devil’s advocate, but I can guarantee my opinions will alter to reflect changing facts.