Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book View Cafe embraces the Kindle

When you read a lot of news about the Kindle it's easy to get discouraged about the attitudes of publishers and authors, some of which are finding themselves being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Ebook is a four-letter word to many in the business, and digital distribution is seen as the road to piracy and bankruptcy.

Fortunately there are those who "get it" -- who see the benefits of delivering their books via ones and zeros as opposed to pulp and ink. One such group is The Book View Cafe. Part online publisher, part bookstore, the BVC consists of a group of best-selling authors who assembled in 2008 with the goal of building a web site to deliver their works digitally directly to their readers.

Recently they announced a new project called Book View Press, which will consist of works written and edited by BVC members and distributed not only via the BVC but also via the Kindle and Sony eReader stores. Their first offering, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, is a sci-fi anthology from thirteen authors.

Kindleville recently chatted with Sarah Zettel, the Project Manager for Book View Cafe, about eBook publishing and their new support for the Kindle.

Kindleville: For most readers e-books are still a relatively new phenomenon, but it looks like you saw the shift coming a couple of years ago. What made you want to move toward e-publishing?

Sarah Zettel: Sheer practicality. Publishers, no matter how good, can only keep so many books in print, and bookstores, even the huge chain, can only stock so many on the shelves. Ebooks allow an author to keep their books in print and available for their readers, and to constantly attract new readers.

Did you see e-books as the future of publishing, or were you just dissatisfied with traditional publishing?

I've been around long enough to have seen several waves of attempts at ebooks, and ebook readers, and each time I've said to myself, «when the hardware is finally truly workable, this will take off.» Then, along came the Kindle, and I said, «Okay, now.»

What was the initial response from readers when you first launched BVC?

We have had very good response from readers and the media right from the beginning and have experienced a gratifying steady growth in user traffic and sales since we opened our virtual doors.

Has reader reaction changed over the years?

Where we've witnessed the biggest change has been mostly within the writing and publishing community. We were met with a great deal of skepticism when we first started out. With the continuing growth in the e-book market, that skepticism has started to turn around.

Book prices at BVC are quite low. Was it a conscious decision to keep prices down or just a benefit of e-publishing and skipping the middle man?

It was a conscious decision. As a cooperative organization without outside investors we need to keep happy, we have the luxury of being able to be somewhat experimental in our pricing.

Some major publishers have said publicly that they disagree that e-books should by definition be cheaper than physical books. What is your opinion on that?

From what I have seen, it is cheaper and easier to produce and distribute a good e-book than it is to produce a good paper book. They are also a more disposible product than, say, a hardback book. All this says to me in makes sense to price them lower.

Some feel that publishers are destined to repeat the failures of the recording and motion picture industries by fighting digital content rather than embracing it. Do you agree?

It's very possible. But I also think that money talks very loudly in these cases, and the data show that the market for e-books is growing by leaps and bounds, especially with the development of the new generation of personal reading devices like the Kindle.

Why do you think so many publishers fear e-books?

Traditional publishers have a multi-billion dollar investment in the production and distribution of paper books. They operate within a system that has been refined for at least the last 100 years. Frankly, it would be surprising if they weren't resistant to change.

You have quite a wide variety of genres represented at BVC. How do you choose your authors?

We need a wide variety of books because we hope to appeal to the full diversity of the reading public. Our authors must all be professionals, that is, they must have at least one book published with a traditional advance-and-royalty paying publisher. Other than that, they have to have the time to volunteer to help with the work of BVC. We operate on what might best be described as a shoestring, so everyone has to pitch in.

How has your experience dealing with Amazon been?

From the beginning, Amazon has proved to be expert at designing infrastructures to get books into the hands of readers. The Kindle support infrastructure is as seamless and easy to use as the system for ordering paper books

How could Amazon improve the Kindle experience, either for readers, authors or publishers?

Zettel: For authors and publishers, I'd say perhaps some additional support could be available for formatting books for the Kindle. For readers, I'd like it to be a little easier to browse new titles and authors, For readers, I'd like it to be a little easier to browse new titles and authors, beyond the «you might like» and «also bought» options.

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

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.