Monday, November 2, 2009

Francis Hamit: An Author's Point of View

Author Francis Hamit emailed me recently about a major frustration he recently ran into with Amazon. Although Amazon generally offers a terrific customer service experience, Francis' story sheds light on the challenges faced by authors and other content providers. I asked him to write a guest post about his experience and here's what he had to say:

I’ve pulled the Kindle edition of my novel “The Shenandoah Spy”. Although it was priced at six dollars less than the print version, it sold less than one percent as well as that edition. I saw a post from another author who said he was selling thousands of copies of the Kindle editions of his novels, but at a much lower price. I thought that perhaps if I dropped the price, sales would improve.

One of the problems with distributing your work on Kindle is that Amazon.com makes thousands of public domain classics available at 99 cents each. Forget about your contemporaries, you’re competing with Dickens and Trollope and the like, and they have the price advantage. If you have a print edition at $18.95, you don’t want to compete with yourself by going too low on the e-book edition. There is a previous serialized version of this novel, in 14 parts, still available on Amazon Shorts. I decided to lower the price to match at $6.99.


I also noticed that the text-to-speech version had been enabled. This is something that was not part of Kindle when I uploaded the file last year, and something that I have already said I will not permit in a letter to the ‘Los Angeles Times’ earlier this year. But without notice or permission, there it was. My concern again reached back to that “competing with myself” thing. I’m currently negotiating with another publisher for audiobook rights. If there is a text–to-speech feature enabled for the Kindle version, then that will have a negative impact on the sales of an audiobook version that sells between thirty and fifty dollars a copy. And the Kindle sales to date have been, well, pathetic. Less than one copy per month.


But it’s not the reality but the perception that cheapens your brand in the marketplace. Amazon plays power games with vendors like myself. They induced about 400 authors to participate in the Amazon Shorts program and failed to promote the site even within their own pages. (A search for that term will more likely produce links to underwear.) They created quite an uproar over print-on-demand books, threatening to not distribute any that were not bought from their in-house provider. That left me with interesting choices: create separate editions for Ingram and Amazon with different ISBN numbers or lose significant parts of our distribution. Or, as we ultimately did, get a smaller distributor like Pathway Book Service to provide the book to all comers. That meant an offset print run and greater total cost, but more margin per unit.


When I objected to the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle edition I got this in reply:

Hello from Amazon DTP.

I see that you've entered the new price for your book, however, it is not updated on our website, as your book was not re-published after changing the price. Please note that your new changes will not be updated on our website, until it is saved and published again. Also, note that whenever any book is published / re-published with new changes, it has to go through the review process by our kindle operations team, it takes up to 5 business days for the review to be completed.

Please note that at this time we are not supporting the feature to manage Text-to-Speech (TTS) settings through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP), by default all the books are published with TTS enabled, we are unable to turn it off. We will continue to evaluate options for adding this to DTP customers in the future. If you still have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us at dtp-feedback@amazon.com.

Thanks for using Amazon DTP.

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please send us a new e-mail.

Best regards,
Padmanaban Guruswamy

http://www.amazon.com
That’s a document simply amazing in its arrogance. It makes the simple act of changing a price a bureaucratic nightmare. Uploading the original DTP file took three days, and I won’t say we ever got it right because the interior map that is a feature of the print edition could not be included.

That they will not even try to write a line of computer code that could disable the text-to-speech function is simply another example of their disregard for authors’ rights. But, when I asked, they did take the file down, which relieves me of the burden of filing a lawsuit. Copyright reserves the right to control distribution to creators. If you are distributing a Kindle edition of your own original work, it’s a good thing to keep in mind. It’s yours, not theirs.


Amazon.com did send offers to do that file conversion for me, for the amazingly low fee of $99.00 marked down from $299.00. I was not persuaded that this would be a good investment. And while Kindle only produced about one percent of our sales to date, Amazon.com is responsible for less than ten percent of our total sales. Surprised? I was.


I can’t fault their advertising either. They do try hard with all of their book titles, create author blogs, and so on, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the book itself since I have more than a dozen favorable reviews including those five star ones on Amazon.com. (Click
here to read them.)

The brick and mortar space still generates more book sales than any other channel. We have the good fortune to have done 16 book signings with the Hastings Entertainment chain, which does stock “The Shenandoah Spy” on the shelves of its 152 stores. We’ve been very aggressive about promotion, and we are following a “slow and steady” marketing plan to build word of mouth because it is the first of five books in a planned series.


I’ve been publishing e-books, mostly recycled trade magazine articles, since 2004. I have to say that this is not the financial bonanza that everyone thought it would be. Although available in multiple channels, these titles are very low demand and produce only a trickle of revenues.

That’s true of the fiction as well as the non-fiction.

We continue to experiment with e-book publishing, but it’s no longer a priority, and any future Kindle offerings will be through Smashwords.com.

14 comments:

Karen in TN said...

I can see where this author isn't making a mint on ebooks, as he believes he should. Unfortunately, it's no doubt a combination of of overpricing (yes, even his "discount" is too high - it's at the level of a well-known author in paperback, so mainstream, high distribution, not at a level that will stimulate sales for an unknown author) and lack of marketing.

TTS won't impact audiobook sales - those who enjoy them generally don't use TTS, as it's not the same experience. Those that need TTS are often the ones who get the audiobooks at no charge anyway. That leaves those that experiment with TTS (and, btw, bought his book, increasing his sales), but who would not have even remotely considered at $35-$50 audiobook (and is he kidding on this price? that's more than nearly anyone but family would pay for other than a top-10 bestseller).

Even funnier that he complains about the inability to disable TTS on the Kindle, then says he's going to Smashwords, which has no DRM at all (and works just fine with TTS on the Kindle). They do give the author a larger cut of the book price (and access to two more DRM'd stores), but are just one avenue to pursue, not perhaps the only one.

As to those "99 cent public domain" books, they aren't actually being offered by Amazon (theirs are free, all 18K or so), but by enterprising "publishers". They do clutter up searches if all you look at is price, but with 300K+ books, that's the least of the problems with being found for a relatively unknown author (although I do wish there was a way to exclude them from searches, it appears it isn't a priority at Amazon).

He's stuck with his high price on his book on shelves, simply because he doesn't have the volume (or a deep pocketed publishing house) to get any discounts on his costs - but with an investment of time to market the book (but not spam the boards where such are discussed; hit and run authors don't see much benefits for their efforts) and a price that snags in impulse buyers (and incentives such as a limited-time intro price), he could be seeing those thousands more sales in the Kindle store (assuming, of course, that his book is as well written as he believes - one downside to free samples is that it's much easier to reject a book that's badly written or edited than it is to return one that you waited to show up in the mail).

For now - 99 cents is the intro price of choice for self-published authors, with subsequent rises to the $2-$4 range common either over time or with books later in the series. As many have found, 100 times the sales at a dollar pays better than sales at $10 (although if you ego is tied up in the "value" of an individual cost of your book, you may prefer the starving author route traditionally taken).

Paul Story said...

"...although I do wish there was a way to exclude them from searches, it appears it isn't a priority at Amazon..."

Go to the Kindle book store.
Type -domain in the search box.
Select Price: Low to High

Francis Hamit said...

Dear Karen:

When I started publishing e-books in 2004,I mostly recycled legacy material and used Ingram as my distributor, which meant buying a thousand ISBNs because you need one for every variation. I have more than sixty titles in the e-book bookstore channel, and I started out pricing them low, only to have some retailers mark them up to very high prices. Well, if that was the case I wanted my cut, my 45% of that price. So I raised prices. The impact on sales volume was nil. Regardless of price, this is not high demand material and Zipf's Principle of Least Effort tell us that most buyers purchase what they want the first place they find it. Time is money after all. All that raising the prices on the non-fiction did was increase net revenues.
As for fiction, I've always priced that low when only an e-book version was available. My novella "Sunday in the Park with George" is 24,000 words for 49 cents. It is the Amazon Short of mine that has sold the least copies. "Buying Retail" which is a weird kind of detective story, is available in multiple channels and for 49 cents and sells much better, but again, not many copies total. Pricing alone is not the answer here. Most of my non-fiction is the kind of thing you wouldn't download unless you need it, even if it were free. The fiction, on the other hand, has wide appeal, but it's not where I've made a big rep so far. I'm on Smashwords.com and I see a lot of sampling and very few purchases. Again, at very low prices. My highest sales volumes are on Sony Reader. Still a trickle, just a larger one.

Francis Hamit

Francis Hamit said...

On the quality issues with text-to-speech on the Kindle. I was a trade magazine reporter covering various new technologies for many years and I observed that market demands create better products. I assume that, in time, Amazon.com will adapt the kind of natural voice systems already used by telephone companies and other oral communicators to provide an enhanced customer experience. If I sold such products, I would be knocking on their door. My concern is not now, but next year or the year after.

On price advantage, there was an interesting article the other day about how retailers in Europe are not allowed to discount publisher's list prices. Margins are important. I maintain mine on my non-fiction recycled magazine articles because organizations like Lexis-Nexis charge comparable amounts for comparable products. If you need it, you will pay a reasonable price. On the other hand, selling at a severe discount to generate more sales volume is ultimately self-defeating because it brings less revenues for a finite market and cheapens your brand.

Dr Plokta said...

If you want to sell your books, then sell them. If you don't, then don't sell them. But don't tell people who want to buy them "But by the way, you can't do this with the book you've bought." Text-to-speech does not constitute an audiobook, it's simply the customer exercising their right (which should be inalienable) to run the text they've paid money for through the software of their choice.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Doctor,Copyright law, which is global, as well as national, says the opposite. The right to control where and when a work is distributed and copied and any derivative works (which would be what a text-to-speech application creates since it's transformative) belongs solely to the author or other creator. These rights, with certain limited exceptions, can only be transferred by written contract.
Your view of the matter may be the popular one, but it is also very incorrect in law. Copyright is a property right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution

Don said...

Amazon can be terrific to work with if you're an established publisher with an open print book account through a "real" publisher or distributor.

If you're not, you're stuck with Amazon DTP which not only charges rapacious prices/discounts but also provides next to no service to vendors.

Mr. Hamit's experience is unfortuately more common than is commonly known and, unless improved, will be a real barrier to AMZN's efforts with non-traditional publishing.

mktackabery said...

I certainly understand Mr. Hamit's upset over the DTP structure, the audio-to-text problems violating copyright -- although I don't, as a reader, think this feature competes with audiobooks, has he ever listened to one? -- but as a reader and as a marketer, my first reaction to his piece was, why can't you market better?

Simply lowering the price on an item is not going to produce sales. The most interesting thing about the rise of the e-book at last is that it's going to force a return to traditional marketing, albeit in our new, non-traditional venues like the internet, mobile phones, etc. To get your e-book sold, you're going to have to Tweet, set up a facebook page on it, blog about it, get other people to blog about it, post reviews on Amazon, offer free excerpts, have contests -- in short, market. Amazon is a distribution channel out to get your money. Punishing your public by refusing to offer your e-book through Amazon.com is not going to fix the issue - it's just going to make it even harder for them to find your books.

Francis Hamit said...

I agree that price is not the only determinant of whether or not someone buys a book. The problem here is that lower price seems to be the main reason that people buy e-books. Amazon.com , on their pages,markets everything together...and that is the only place you can get a Kindle edition of a book. The print edition of "The Shenandoah Spy", offered, side by side and at a higher price (and I don't include the tird party vendors who are also there in this) sold ten to twelve times better over time than the Kindle one. This not a marketing problem. The real issue is ease-of-use and there print editions have the edge. More portable, easier to use, and don't need electric power to function. It's an apples and oranges comparison, because what you really want is a cheaper edition. Since every book, and especially every novel, is unique, you have a Hobson's choice. Buy the edition offered or go elsewhere and read something else. The genesis of Copyright law was the taking of intellectual property with compensation for its creators. The Statute of Anne in 1710 was the first such law and that's specifically mentioned. My view here is that this is my property and that it is best presented in the form of printed book, as is. Given the many problems with formats and electronic piracy, I'm not inclined to create another e-book edition at this point.

Francis Hamit said...

As for our current marketing, we have Facebook and LinkedIn pages and a toll free number (1-800-345-6665)at Pathway Book Service where customers can order the book at a discount if they use one of our targeted promotional codes. One of those codes is in our ad in the current edition of Civil War News. We are also experimenting with a Lending Library promotion and we always are open to sending a review copy. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

mktackabery said...

I completely understand what you are saying when you say that the best format for this particular book is print. And I can agree with you that most people buy e-books for the price. But be careful when you lump readers into one big conglomerate of people who don't appreciate quality. What is happening to the publishing industry now is exactly what happened to the music industry, and the poor response of the creatives doomed a lot of them for a long time and killed off a lot of fine labels.

As a music collector and an avid reader who is usually found in a bookstore at least once a week with my husband (we both purchase probably six books per month and have a huge collection), I can tell you that I still purchase CDs, but not as many, since quality downloads have been available on portable devices. I buy downloadable content because it is 1) portable and 2) cheaper.I have been buying about 95% of my music digitally for eight years and I buy MORE music now than I ever did, because I can afford more now. Would you like more readers? That's what e-books can offer.

For the past ten years I was buying FEWER books as the prices of hardbacks climbed and climbed and climbed, independent bookstores started dying out and the chains began to rely heavily on remainders to bring people into stores. Before I bought my Kindle, I was primarily resorting to waiting for trade or mass market paperbacks of new books and buying remainders of books due to the high price points of new editions. Occasionally I would buy a brand new hardcover if I just could not wait, but that was usually on the condition that I could trade it with my sister for something new she bought at the same time so we'd both get value. Frankly, $25 to $35 is a lot to pay for something I may really not like. Publishers bitch about people not buying their books, but continue to put out loads of crap on a regular basis - same as the music labels were doing. It has become an over-saturated, overpriced market. But NOW I have a device in which I can literally TRY OUT a major portion of a book before I buy it, and I have gotten back to buying brand new titles, often when they come out, of high quality reads, and there seems to be no shortage of high-quality books to find. Since I bought my Kindle I've been averaging buying two new titles a month and two additional samples, and I've suggested almost all of those books to other people. I've also tweeted, facebooked and blogged about those books.

Maybe self-publishing via a service like Lulu would work out better. It seems to work with several writers I still buy print from, like Wil Wheaton, Warren Ellis and Henry Rollins - alternative publishers who seem to make a decent living selling direct. Their prices are a lot lower than retail, and often I get my books signed.

Francis Hamit said...

If the issue is one of convenience, then what about mine? It literally took months to get out the print edition, but it has the happy aspect of being within my control. Why should I invest more hours of time undercutting my own product by producing a cheaper edition that lacks the same quality? And that lesser quality is a combination of the presentational format and the horrendous problems associated with creating e-books of any kind. The book's text is unique. If you want to read it, then buy one. I don't control retail price except when I sell direct. There are retailers who offer it for as little as twelve dollars and there is the aftermarket in used copies, from which I get nothing but competition. However, every copy so sold is rendered as I intended it to be, for the pleasure of the reader. As for sampling the previous version was a 14 part serial on Amazon Shorts, available still at 49 cents each. Part One is still the big seller there. so apparently some people use that as a sample rather than the free "Look within the book" feature Amazon insists upon. One of the interesting things is the way that Ingram Digital handles their Sony Reader distribution. They offered to convert all the files for free. And they sell. They send a check every month. This is how all distributors should deal with e-books. Pay us promptly for what they sell and don't make us do the heavy lifting of converting files. Until the format hassles go away, not many people will be offering e-books. Too little reward for too much effort. If you want to change that, buy them.
But if you want a quality product and enjoyable reading experience, then be prepared to pay a bit extra. This is part of the "moral rights" of a copyright; the right to control not just where, but how a work is presented to the world.

Henry Baum said...

Francis, we "work" together over at Self-Publishing Review but I don't really get the problem: "Why should I invest more hours of time undercutting my own product by producing a cheaper edition that lacks the same quality?"

Isn't the answer: to be read? Yes, ebook formatting is currently terrible compared to the typesetting of a print book, but personally I don't care if it means getting it in the hands of more readers. Which is why I've set my book price at $1.00. I'd rather sell books than worry about formatting.

And speaking of apples and oranges, I don't think a text reader could ever compare to a live actor - think that's even more different than a print book is to an ebook.

Francis Hamit said...

Henry, you are correct but the Kindle edition sold less than a copy a month. As for the quality of text-to-speech natural sounding artificial voices are already in use in telephone systems and it's only a matter of time until they are used in this application as well. Give it a year or two, max. I've been publishing e-books since 2004 and have some out there where I just put them up without difficulty. They don't sell very much, but they don't bother me either. There are only so many hours in a day and right now those hours are dedicated to research for the next novel in my Civil War series; mostly on Google Book. I'm not very interested in more readers if they want to pay little or nothing. I don't think it helps anything if I make no money. Rather it makes me out to be a chump. And let's face it, one of the appeals of e-books is the low price. I found with the e-books I put up that sales did not increase if I lowered the price and that some retailers were marking them up and keeping the extra money. So, I'm rethinking the entire e-book market, but not making any moves there soon.