Opening Acts is a collection the first chapters from twenty-five different genre novels from members of SF Novelists. I think the idea is outstanding and quite brilliant, which is the reason why I wanted to share this with you. A quote from their marketing material follows and includes the Table of Contents.
Twenty-five First Chapters from Twenty-five Writers
Every reader knows that the trouble is not finding something to read, but finding something you want to read. Sometimes, it’s something familiar, something known. Sometimes it’s something new, something unexpected.
SF Novelists proudly offers you twenty-five teasers, twenty-five first chapters across the spectrum of SF and F. Twenty-five tastes, to tempt your appetite for adventure… to lure you into unknown worlds…
I finally started adding my music library to iTunes yesterday and noticed that there were a few beloved albums I had to have. Pandora has been fantastic; there are several artists and albums I discovered through there. So, I went over to the dark side and bought the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, The Seldom Seen Kid album by Elbow and, of course, the remastered radio edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
BOOOOOOOOOM! Thirty dollars later…
I also added several podcasts that I’ll be listening to. iTunes has two ways to subscribe, so if you have any recommendations let me know. I’m brushing up on my French and Italian as well, so if you’ve fallen in love with any podcasts from France or Italy, feel free to suggest those, too. I’m not quite ready to mention what I liked and didn’t, but there are a few I’m looking for related to yoga (an audio podcast as opposed to video), jewelry-making and pretty much anything comics, game or fiction-related. I’ve already subscribed to a couple of podcasts in geekdom, but there’s sooooooo many it’s hard to know where to begin.
Needless to say, I’m in podcast heaven. I’m very happy I can take classes, listen to audio fiction, and get different perspectives on the things I’m interested in. W00t!
Spending money with iTunes is even easier than shopping at Amazon, which got me to thinking about the iTunes model and the sheer tenacity some publishers use to think about pricing their books at ninety-nine cents. The funny thing is: I didn’t spend ninety-nine cents. Yes, I was buying albums, but even when I looked at songs, I was thinking about how many songs I could get instead of buying just one to build a playlist. Songs are something I can immediately consume. Download and play right there. I can’t “consume” an entire novel in the same time I can play a song. Even then, one novel differs so wildly from another one that I don’t buy books in volume.
Volume, in my mind, is the key to ensuring the iTunes model is successful. That is also what I feel is missing from the “Hey, let’s copy iTunes because they were successful” conversations. Every graph I’ve seen, every story I’ve heard is the same. In order to have profitability increase on a low-priced item, you’d have to move a lot of that items or similarly-priced items over a longer period of time.
Recently, I talked about the difference between marketing and selling your books. When you start mucking around with pricing, that falls under the retailer umbrella, even if you don’t own the shopping cart. The thing is, pricing an item appropriately is difficult to learn on your own because the issue of why people buy anything is very complex. Sometimes demand has absolutely nothing to do with your book; other times it does.
Just as one example, I’ve been looking at audiobooks more often lately. I have two primary concerns. Price and adaptability. If I can’t listen to an audiobook (or fiction podcast) on my iPod or my computer, then I probably won’t buy it. I’ve had several issues trying to listen to audiobooks on CD and I’m pretty much done with that. Most of the CDs won’t allow me to copy the audiobook for that purpose, because it’s considered just that. Copying. I don’t want to distribute it or share it with anyone else; I just want to listen to it in a format I choose. Add pricing concerns on top of that and for books that don’t warrant the higher price tag (e.g. audio performance sucks), then I’ll look for books within a particular range.
It’s a lot easier to make decisions about what music I want to buy, because I can quickly listen to a sample and make a snap decision. With a novel, even if there’s a sample, I’d have to read a preview before I bought it. Music I impulse buy. Books I don’t. Usually, when I buy a book, I already know I want to pick up a copy. I rarely take a chance on an author I don’t know unless it’s a personal recommendation. While I have made snap decisions to purchase a book in the past, it’s nowhere near as fast as how I buy music.
Now, those are some of my buying habits, and I’m assuming they’re probably different from yours. I wanted to share them with you to show how demand is often different for books than it is for music. Yeah, there are exceptions. There’s a reason why Water for Elephants is selling really well right now — the movie. Same phenomenon happens with comics, too. A movie debuts and the comics get a boost in sales. For a few examples: Wanted from Top Cow, Thor and the upcoming Immortals graphic novel from Archaia based on the movie of the same name.
If you want to read some of my past thoughts on the subject, check out weighing in on e-books and your business model is not your neighbor’s, which was reprinted at SFWA.org. I don’t feel my core message has changed at all, but I do feel that it’s becoming a lot clearer to me that there are distinct differences between looking at price from a retailer’s perspective versus a consumer’s or a marketer’s. No matter how much you may read about pricing, it’s often a challenge to understand how it works until you play around with it yourself. Even then, I’m finding out more and more that it can depend on your inventory (e.g. how much you have to offer people for sale) as well.
I’m confident that the publishing industry will sort itself out, and I think it’s pretty exciting that some authors are learning what works and what doesn’t for them. Still, I wish certain people would stop bashing retailers and publishers. I don’t feel that they’re evil. They simply have their own set of expertise that may be different from an artist, musician, etc. These are fascinating times and I can’t wait to see how the dust settles from digital delivery, internet retail and ever-changing buying habits. The stars only know what the right business model is. For me, that is.
It’s been a little over a year since I announced the The Queen of Crows debut, so I thought it’d be a good time to take a look back and share with you some of the highlights and low points from releasing it.
The full color edition was first published on DriveThruHorror.com in early March 2010. Released as an e-book, we designed it in a PDF format because that allowed us the flexibility to provide a full color illustration from Leanne Buckley, period artwork, and a magazine-style layout. We did not release a low-res version for the Kindle or the Nook, in part because we had to reformat the entire piece and strip out all the images. That heavily influenced where the book was going to be available for purchase; DriveThru simply allowed me the opportunity to do what no other site would.
The Price of Innovation
I went back and forth about pursuing the black-and-white, low-res edition, but at the time it felt like an afterthought, so I waited until this Fall to put it out. The novelty of the book, which was a selling point for a few reviewers, decreased significantly when I eventually formatted it for the Nook and the Kindle. The Queen of Crows at Amazon.com fared better than the version of The Queen of Crows at Barnes and Noble, but not by much.
Combined, I feel that the release of The Queen of Crows pre-dated “what e-books can do” in both the minds of readers and leveraging new technology by a year, maybe even two or three. Remember, at the time the iPad and the Nook Color wasn’t even out yet. So people weren’t thinking about enhanced e-books at the time, not until highly experimental things like the Alice in Wonderland iPad app came out. The lesson I learned was that while e-books and e-book readers continue to evolve, what can be done with an e-book far exceeds the technology at this time. e-book publishing still, even with what’s available now, has a long ways to go.
The Importance of Reviews
Reviews and interviews did help out tremendously getting the word out about The Queen of Crows. I’ve included a list of what’s out there at the moment at the bottom of this post so you can see the evolution. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten many reviews on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, which I know has affected the sales.
Reviews are becoming more and more crucial from a reader’s perspective because it helps get the word out about a book and ensures them that a product — in this case creator-owned — is a quality one. I’ve had several people tell me that this past weekend at OddCon. Which was bizarre, because some readers were saying that authors can just bypass a publisher directly and sell a thousand copies (not exaggerating on that number, by the way). Even if that were the case, priced at $4.99, an author would only make roughly $3,500 off of a book that sold that many copies. Remember, retailers get their cut, too, which right now teeters around the thirty percent mark. So in order to break poverty level, which is around $18,000 a year, an author would have to publish–not just write–six novels a year and expect they’ll sell that many copies. I know a lot of authors talk about word count and whatnot as a way of measuring scale, but remember authors aren’t robots. While we continue to write, it’s impossible for every author to maintain that frenetic pace and not have their work suffer as a result. Some authors are more prolific than others; some, like myself, don’t write the same word count every day. We’re all different and the answer to the publishing industry changes shouldn’t be to work harder and add marketing acumen on top of all of that, too.
Other readers were way more realistic and understanding, advocating that the publishing industry as a whole is still important to readers because of its ability to ensure a baseline of quality. With creator-owned publishing, there’s no guarantee the book won’t be rife with typos, grammatical errors and other issues.
Emotion Trumps “Buy My Book”
What fascinated me about these discussions, and I’ll talk about this more in an upcoming post, was that the readers were less likely to try any creator-owned product if they had a couple of bad experiences with self-publishing. I feel this dovetails into what I’ve been saying about book marketing all along; you can tell someone until you’re blue in the face how awesome your book is, but it’s not as powerful as when another reader shares their connection to the book in some way.
Mind you, the e-book incorporates the Native American Navajo from the 1860s, which is a niche for storytelling. It’s also one of the reasons why Lori Devoti recommended that I create an alternate cover for The Queen of Crows so that people aren’t turned off by the Native American theme before they open the book.
I knew that this project was going to be unique when I wrote it. To a point, I’m a big believer in market research. Here, I specifically created this e-book for a reason. The Queen of Crows is the origin story for Mahochepi, who is a central character in my modern urban fantasy novel, and it’s a preview of things to (hopefully) come. Yes, I have been revising my urban fantasy novel for a while now. Here’s why. First, I knew I was writing on spec, so I prioritized my life and career accordingly. Then, day job didn’t get in the way, but emotional mojo did. Now, I’m saying “Screw you, Mojo Jojo” and working on it regardless of what I’m doing and what schedule I have. I want, very much, to give an agent or editor the best story I possibly can. I want to pen a tale many people will love.
Look Back to See Ahead
And we’re back to the retrospective. One question that continues to come up from readers is: “I love the short story, could you please write a sequel?” I’ve thought about this a lot, because in my mind readers are the kings and queens of ages past. The short answer is that I want to, but I’m not sure if writing a trilogy of tales — which is what it would have to be — would be best for me right now. The bulk of the marketing has been on me for this project, and I’ve done a lot to spread the word, but now I need to scale back a bit. I have to focus on readers, not marketing, and to do that I need to write like hell, have fun, and hope something comes out of it. Offering another creator-owned property for me right now may not be the best route to go, but I’m not sure. For something like that, Kickstarter might come into play.
A sequel isn’t out of the picture, it’s just not something I plan on doing right now — unless a large portion of you storm this post and demand one. The funny thing is, the “Will there be a sequel?” question tends to pop up with a lot of my short stories. It certainly did with Pie in Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas and it just did with Tomorrow’s Precious Lambs in The Zombie Feed, Volume 1. Um, yeah…and I expect that’ll happen with Fangs and Formaldehyde, too. These requests are awesome, because it tells me a reader wants more, more, more. Well, I’d like to fulfill that request. Plenty of new stories in the old noggin, so we shall see.
The Queen of Crows has taught me a lot. Timing is important, but so is a self-awareness of where you are as an author. Readers are royalty, no matter what anyone else says. Market research is crucial to understanding what your expectations should be. Collaboration, when done well, can turn out awesome and amazing things. New marketing campaigns for new books work better than existing ones, because people want the shiny.
And, of course, this experience has reaffirmed my faith in my own work. I’m a pragmatist by nature, but I have to tell you, I have dreams. Big dreams. No idea how or when or what or where, but it doesn’t matter. One day I believe I’ll get to where I want to go, even if it takes me a lifetime to do it.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t take that long.
A Word of Thanks
Before I leave you all, I would like to say a few words of “Thanks.” For everyone who purchased, reviewed, spread the word or interviewed one of us for The Queen of Crows, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of Mahochepi’s ancient and crusty heart. Your support is deeply appreciated.
Leanne, James, and Shari if you’re reading this post, know that I never forget a kindness. Ever. Hopefully I’ve made some headway in that regard. Matt? Thank you for helping me to continually move forward. It is your encouragement and faith in me that has allowed me to be who I am today and dig deep into my storytelling.
The PR Round-Up
Now that that’s over with, I leave you with a round-up of interviews, design notes, reviews and the trailer. Thanks for reading my one-year retrospective on The Queen of Crows. For those of you who haven’t picked it up, I hope you’ll do me the honor of reading it some day.
Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Jason Thorson – “Valentinelli’s writing is well-researched and vividly executed. Her world pulls itself from the pages of history books and comes to life, fully realized and described in concrete detail.”
Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Jess Hartley – “I’d recommend The Queen of Crows for anyone who has a soft spot for hard topics, who likes their historic fiction a bit on the dark-and-yet-beautiful side or who is looking for a glimpse into the creation process of a darned-good read.”
Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Bill Bodden – “Buy this ebook for the story; you won’t be disappointed. Consider the additional features a very large bonus, making the pittance paid for this work seem trivial indeed.”
Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Preston DuBose – “Having read the final (much different) original story, some readers will be fascinated to read the original and see how much has changed, while others will undoubtedly wonder why they’d be expected to read anything other than the final, most polished version. In other words, if you’re the kind of person who eagerly consumes all the bonus content on a DVD then you’re likely to enjoy this book. If not, you’ll still enjoy the short story but you’ll likely skim over the extra content.”
Review of THE QUEEN OF CROWS by Stephen Jarjoura – “This just screams “fearless author” to me, someone who’s not afraid to say “here’s my story, here’s my inspiration, here’s some character notes, and here’s an early draft so you can see how far it’s come.”
The Zombie Feed, Volume 1 is now available in several e-book formats. My short story entitled, “Tomorrow’s Precious Lambs” is included in this tome and I’ll be reading it at OddCon in Madison, Wisconsin this weekend.
I hope you’ll do me the honor of picking up a copy.
I’ve been in a lot of discussions recently with other authors and a few game designers about pricing. Over and over again, I hear comparisons to the iTunes model or whatever Amazon is doing. If “free” is not the golden calf, then ninety-nine cents is the deal of the decade.
From my perspective, pricing right now is being determined not based on the content that is being created, but by its ease of distribution and the potential market reach a website has. The iTunes model worked for music, and now it’s being applied to fiction and games, too. While I understand why this is happening, I’m disappointed that the pricing is based on availability rather than its intrinsic value. Impulse buy? Sure, but in my opinion, some things are worth paying more than ninety-nine cents for.
Just for the sake of argument, say that it takes a composer as much time to write a good song as it does an author to write a short story. Should they be priced the same? From a consumer standpoint, you listen to a song, regardless of what you’re doing. You can consume this song over and over again, and don’t have to drop your activities to listen to it.
Ninety-Nine Cent Pricing Should Work for All Publishers, Right?
Readers who purchase a story are making an investment because they are committing their time to the product, much like a movie. Games are another beast entirely, because they often require a larger time investment depending upon the type of game. Also, many games require multiple players and have a much higher production value in terms of formatting than a story does.
Just for a second, take a game and price it at ninety-nine cents. Is it text-based? Typically, no. There’s often art, tables, borders and even color. What happens to your sales when you strip out all of that formatting? I honestly don’t know. Phil Reed was recently speculating about that, too. Would you pay the same price for two products that are identical in every way, with the exception of the formatting?
Now, to be clear, I am not advocating that hobby games publishers shouldn’t experiment with their product offerings. However, I am suggesting that ninety-nine cents is too low for the standard price of a game. If I had a hobby game company and my production costs were low, I would experiment with structuring themed games for four to six players with a suggested running time and package/develop/market it like that. (Renting, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely and I don’t want to get into that here. And yes, some publishers, like WoTC, are already going with boxed sets. My idea is nothing new. I just like the idea of playing around with a streamlined digital version.)
Lastly, a publisher’s inventory also comes into play. Say I own a gaming company and I have a total of twenty products. Would it make sense for me to price them that low? What if I had two? Or five hundred? What then? Of those products, how long are they? Core books or supplements? What value do they provide to my players?
Now, one thing that fiction publishers are doing is offering short stories from an anthology as individual downloads and then bundling them together in an anthology. This is interesting to me, because now instead of having one product to sell, you have eleven or thirteen. In this way, the “singles” idea from music increases a publisher’s inventory. Even though singles have always been sold, traditionally we have purchased albums or CDs from musicians or, in other words, an anthology of an artist’s music. Here, there’s a loose correlation to fiction based on how a product is structured.
I have also heard some use “piracy” as a low-price argument. My two cents: Pricing your products at a lower price because you think they’re going to be stolen is not a business model. Why? Because you are defining your sales goals on either making more than nothing or generating revenue to cover losses you have not experienced. To quote Spock: This is not logical. By structuring your business around whether or not you think your product will be stolen, you’re predicting that your potential customers could all be thieves. Ugh. That’s a crappy way to treat your customers. (On the receiving end, too. Went to two, different businesses for returns this holiday season and I felt like a criminal.)
But Biff is Doing It, So Why Can’t I?
I have never talked to a creative professional that deeply and truly did not love to write, design, paint, program, photograph or draw, but I have talked to people who hate running and owning a business. When you write or edit and sell that work, even if it’s in your spare time, that’s pretty much what you’re doing. Many people, including myself, are thrilled that the internet gives them the chance to collaborate or see what the next guy is doing to keep up on the trends. However, what works for your neighbor may not work for you, which is why I strongly encourage you to think before you leap. Yes, you have to take risks and believe me I understand that now more than ever. This is where your business acumen comes into play. Run the numbers. Do the cost analysis. Ask yourself those important questions. What percentage do you need to increase sales by at a lower price to break even? Do you know what your production costs are? Can you look at historical trends? Is there a segment of your business you can safely experiment with? How long can you offer this promotion before it hurts your bottom line?
To be clear, I am not saying that some sort of industry standard for pricing is bad. What I am saying, is that I believe the standardization of a popular business model is not a healthy or reasonable expectation for any business. You can’t take a template and mold businesses that have been around for a year, five years or even ten years and expect them to change overnight just because something is working right now. Unfortunately, like offering things for free, the market (e.g. customers) may react that way even if the reality is very different. Take social media for example. It’s the hot thing that everyone’s talking about, but no one knows why. Does every business need to be on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? No, because like any other business venture there are pros and cons to doing it and social media doesn’t always equate to sales. Does it mean that that business is evil? Not at all. They’re doing what works for them. Same is true with ninety-nine cent pricing or offering free product, etc.
Can You Give Me An Example?
Recently, I brought up this topic with Jason Sizemore over at Apex Book Company. What I told him was, that even though Apex publishes science fiction, horror and fantasy books and may be the same size as other small press publishers, he has his own modus operandi, goals and future. It’s great to talk shop and be inspired by like-minded businesses, but no one should immediately run out and change their business structure because someone else is doing something that appears to be successful without thinking it through. I feel that Apex has a better chance of emerging as a leader because Jason is concerned with forging his own identity and he has good people to help him do that.
One big change that I recommended, was to stop offering the magazine for free and go to a subscription-based model. This was in place already, after a fashion, but I had suggested the semantics were confusing. Many creatives use the word “support” when talking about their artwork or music or whatever. You support a team or a cause. You buy from a business or you purchase something you want. In order for the magazine to be profitable, the donation suggestions needed to be removed and the subscribers rewarded. This was a great example of how free stuff works for some businesses, but too much free can distract a reader from converting into a buyer. In the end, Jason’s decisions aren’t solely based on his gut or my suggestions, they’re inspired by data, which gives him something to work from.
For extra credit, here’s some additional reading material and tools on the subject that pinpoint different issues through the past year: