Editors insight by Cally Phillips

This week we reach our 100th title reviewed on Wednesday and it’s my own A WEEK WITH NO LABELS, reviewed by Julia Jones.

I thought, therefore, I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the state of things in ebook world as I find them now.  For me, what’s particularly interesting in Julia’s review is the acknowledgement that ebooks are doing things that other books may not be doing – for a range of reasons.  In the case of No Labels it’s what might loosely be called Advocacy. No Labels was first put out as ‘episodes’ one free per day, during Learning Disability Week. They were then put together into an omnibus with extra episodes. They are still available in both styles on Amazon, but only the Omnibus is available as epub.  The individual ‘episodes’ are priced at 99p and the Omnibus at £2.99 (so of course it’s cheaper to buy the Omnibus, but you can try an episode and then get the Omnibus still getting 7 for the price of 6) Complicated? Yes. Unneccesarily so? Maybe. But as indie writers/publishers we have to ‘operate’ in a ‘marketplace’ and try whatever we can to get people reading our work.  Giving it away for free is only sustainable for so long. There have to be other ways.  It can be very frustrating as a writer to see hundreds of copies of your ebook fly off the shelf during a special ‘free’ promotion, only to have it slump as soon as you ask people to put their hand in their pocket.  The ‘moment’ of visibility is very shortlived and for many writers, very expensively bought.

There are people who are happy to give their work away for free, and there are many occasions when I can be one of them. BUT. Free can be a double edged sword.  And for many indie writers I know (that is professionals who are shifting base from the mainstream but who have a track record in publishing and therefore do not consider themselves ‘newcomers’ to writing even if we are all ‘new’ to epublishing) the financial imperative is still important. We have earned (or eked) out livings for decades and it’s hard to change and give everything you’ve worked (and continue to work hard for) away for free. There are complex ethical issues involved.  As a reader you have to remember that not all indie writers are ‘hobby’ writers. Not all are ‘new’ writers any more than all are ‘bad’ writers.  But how can one tell the difference?

IEBR reviews writing by newcomers and by time served ‘craftsmen’ and the final decision to review comes down simply to whether a particular reviewer likes the work enough to spend a good few hours reading it then a good few hours thinking about it and a couple of hours writing about it.  We hope that through this site we offer an alternative to what I can only see as ‘cheating’ where people either buy ‘good’ reviews or use whatever sleekit methods they can find to promote themselves and make it look like someone else is promoting them. (The sad thing is probably a lot of good work gets sucked into these nefarious methods simply because writers don’t know how else to achieve ‘visibility.’) IEBR stands for ‘without fear or favour’ honest reviewing and hopes to offer readers the ability to make their own informed choice. There’s no hard sell, there’s no pushy promotion. It’s not about that. It’s about developing a relationship of awareness between writer and reader. It’s more about Pay It Forward than ‘Pay me for it’.

That said, the shifts and changes in this ‘marketplace’ are constant and often for both writer and reader, frustratingly so. Changes I’m noticing at the moment include a potential separation in the market. Many more indie writers are putting up the prices of their books. And coming off Kindle Select. It seems that once you’ve had your share of ‘success’ by giving away your books and rising up through the charts, you gain the confidence to put your work out at a more sensible price.  The backlash is that this sometimes (often/always?) results in a slump in sales.  The reader still wants free. The writer sees that there is a value in the work.  There is a hiatus.  It looks like there’s always going to be lots of FREE stuff available , enough to satiate anyone’s reading desires for a lifetime. But it does depend WHY one reads and what part critical faculties play. I hate to admit it but sometimes free is rubbish. Sometimes it is cheap and nasty. Sometimes of course it is wonderful. But for the indie writer you really can’t win. Give it away and people think it’s worthless. Charge for it and people think you’re being unreasonable. The role of a site like IEBR is to try and showcase work that ‘professional’ writers believe is worth the pricetag put on it. And to remind people that there IS a difference between the indie and the mainstream but it’s NOT fundamentally one of creative quality.

This week I review The Shoreline and the Sea which weighs in at a hefty £5.15 as an ebook. But having read it, I truly believe it’s worth it. (Especially if it’s the kind of thing you like to read.) Would I pay that sight unseen? Probably not. But with a bit of ‘inspection’ and taking reviews (and I mean critical reviews not the gold star fodder of Amazon) into account I’d have enough ammunition to decide whether I should ‘risk’ that much money. Of course it’s always a ‘risk’ buying a book, real or virtual.  But it’s up to the reader to make sure they are well informed. It’s up to the writer not to disappoint reasonable expectations.  (Note the word ‘reasonable’)  The writer shouldn’t misrepresent the work and the reader should at least browse before they buy.  But why is The Shoreline and the Sea priced so high? (Still less than many ‘mainstream’ ebooks are priced!) I suspect because the author deems it worthy of a reader spending at least as much as they would on a mainstream title. And I agree with him. I would buy this as paperback but the limited edition (priced at nearly a tenner) has sold out. And that’s a strong recommendation from me. I’d say it’s worth every penny.

Others, like Stuart Ayris, whose The Bird that Nobody Sees is reviewed this week, are adopting the POD strategy. I’ve always found it quite hard to get my head round this pricewise, but Stuart (and others) is using Createspace.  It’s the latest must have Amazon add on (for writers and readers?)  I’m always interested as to why writers choose the strategies they do, and looking at this shift I worry that there may now be a rush towards POD simply because writers are being told by people who won’t shell out £3 for an ebook, ‘I want to read a paperback’.  If only this were true. My experience is that you can offer to write it in blood on your leg if that’s what someone claims to desire and they still don’t buy!  What I mean is that it’s sometimes dangerous to think that you are not servicing a customer need, when really people are just looking for a good excuse NOT to buy your work.  Because the mechanics and the costings involved in putting out a POD paperback mean that it’s pretty hard to make anything back on it if you price it under £7.99 – and that’s if it’s a book of around 200 pages. Many ebook writers/publishers are currently struggling with the age old problem that in paperback printing HOW MANY PAGES you print determines the cost. This is the same with POD and standard print runs.  It’s one of the joys of ebooks. Price is not determined by the length of book. It’s why ebook is a good format for EPIC stories and for niche appeal stories.  I mean, I’d love EVERYONE in the world to read A Week with No Labels, because I think it is every bit as important in explaining Learning Disability to the world as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. But I’m also realistic and I know that whatever I do I don’t have the clout to get the kind of ‘visibility’ that will make it a ‘bestseller.’  Julia’s review gives me more confidence that I have ‘hit the mark’ in what I was trying to do through the book but as to getting it ‘visible’ for many more people to choose to read (or not), I don’t have the financial or personal attributes to achieve that.  I can just hope that others spread the word and that whoever does read it both enjoys it, learns something and recommends it to others. I know I’m a minnow in an ocean. I don’t mind. At least I’m an independent minnow and I can sleep at night. But I’m not sure how much I ‘believe’ in things going ‘viral’ or ‘word of mouth’ as a way to sell anything. I’m a bit too long in the tooth and cynical for that. We live in a market dominated world.  Independence is not something that makes money for the market.

I’ll come clean. I love paperbacks. I’d always choose a paperback over an ebook. I don’t travel much and I don’t have a real ‘need’ for an ereader (apart from to read books I can’t get as paperbacks – which ‘need’ is self created but very significant for me as editor of IEBR) but paying a tenner for a paperback regularly is something I can’t afford to do. I made myself a pledge on embarking in the whole ebook ‘experiment’ that I wouldn’t spend more than £10 a month on ebooks.  So far I’ve kept up with this. Because yes, I download free ebooks. And yes I get free copies of ebooks for review. (I don’t feel bad about that because reviewing an ebook takes approximately 10-12 hours of my time all told and I do that for free) When I ‘choose’ an ebook of my own volition, I pay. When someone wants me to read theirs, if I like it, I’ll ask for a free review copy. But I like to pay for indie ebooks because I know the economics the indie writer is working under. (I’m never going to pay £7 for a mainstream ebook though, believe me!) But generally speaking I can’t afford to buy the kind of paperbacks I would like to read. They are not usually on special offer at Tescos, lets just say that. I use libraries where possible.

And knowing that I find it hard to justify paying more than £5 for a paperback book has an impact on my own publishing of them.  I’ve had to set my own prices higher than I’d like to pay and that doesn’t sit well. Even when I think the book is worth it.  Currently you can get Brand Loyalty for £9.99 including postage DIRECT from HoAmPresst (or pay less through Amazon). Either way I don’t think I make as much as £1 per copy.  And I don’t sell a copy a month never mind a copy a week.  If, as I hope, I publish A Week with No Labels either side of the New Year, I want to put it out at £5.99 or £6.99 tops. But I know I’ll spend several days doing ‘maths’ to try and justify how to do this and not be paying people to read it!

Setting prices on ebooks (for full length works) at £2.99 is something that seems to be becoming more prevalent for indies (I’m glad to say). And personally I’d like to see a world where we could charge £3.99 for an ebook and £5.99 or £6.99 for a paperback and have the reader feel they were getting a good deal. But pricing isn’t really as under the indies control as the reader might think, (if they do think about it and I wish they would!) It depends far more on what a market dominated by ‘big boys’ and ‘mainstream’ decide to do.  And they are all about making money for themselves not about trying to make sure that indies who write really good work can find their audience and get paid into the process. But then why would they?  We are either their competition or their cash cow.  We are far from being equal partners. And worlds away from all being part of a ‘cultural’ community.

Of course in a perfect world as indies we’d like to offer our work as paperback and ebook to any and all readers we can find. There’s a cost to the indie involved in all of this however. We need to stay smart and not get fleeced.  This is why I have a somewhat cynical feeling that maybe right now we are being seduced away from ebooks (where the income may be slight but the cost is also minimal) into POD where (as far as I can work out) the cost is slightly higher (all round) and the income similarly minimal Of course it’s up to each indie writer to find their own path, follow their own conscience and know exactly WHY they print publish if and when they do so. It’s one part of our ‘armoury’ (or should that be platform?) but I can confidently predict that no more ‘millionaires’ are going to be made out of indie writers who print publish than who publish ebooks.  I’ve been print publishing independently for 10 years and believe me, the sums are much better with ebook publishing.  It’s not the format that is the real problem, it’s achieving visibility.

Which is another reason why reviewing is important to me.  I believe it’s really important that indie writers take a stand and help each other where possible.  All we can do is try to raise visibility for what we believe in. I believe we can all always do more of that and that we need to keep our eye on our own ethical principles when we do it.

So. If you are an indie writer I suggest you buy other indie writers books (e or paperback) and if you are a reader who likes what you find outside the ‘mainstream’ then please SUPPORT indie writing by buying indie ebooks and by recommending them to other people to buy, as often as you can;  and by opening your eyes to the fact that while we all like things for free, it’s kind of cheeky to expect that a whole section of the ‘workforce’ should labour for free.  While money isn’t the value that should ever be placed on creative work, real people spending real time being creative is something that we should value and if we don’t pay for it we may end up with less ‘quality’ and less ‘choice’.  As long as a writer is happy to give their work away for free that’s great. But just remember that many indie writers do not have ‘proper’ jobs because being a writer is their proper job. And as such they do hope, and often expect, to be paid for what they write (if someone likes it). Remember that writers not working in mainstream genres are looking at hundreds not thousands of pounds a year in income from ebooks, if that.  We are definitely not getting rich at the readers expense.

We are learning to engage with a new market and taking more responsibility for doing so, you can play your part by waking up to the realities of indie publishing and paying for something you want to read, not waiting for it to be free so you can ‘grab a bargain.’  For me, I find the notion of a ‘bargain’ as offensive a thought in creative endeavour as I do the ‘gold star’ system of reviews.  Of course I’d like you to buy my work. I’d like you to like my work. That’s why I write it. But more importantly I’d like you to BE HAPPY to pay for writing you DO like. Look at it this way. Every time you pick up an ebook free the writer is giving you a gift. Probably worth at least a fiver.  Now maybe you don’t want to read their work even if they pay you… but surely most of the time you download books you do want to read? That you do think are good enough to pay for? Or why are you downloading them?

Well, all I’m saying is, if you think it’s worth it then please pay. And if you don’t know if it’ll be worth the money, do some research. It’s the only way you’ll find out what’s out there because the finest oysters are not always sitting right in front of you on the beach waiting for you to scoop them up. Sometimes you have to hunt a bit for what’s worth having.  Here at IEBR we’re engaged in the ‘hunt’ and we hope you’ll join in with it. There may well be no such thing as a free lunch. But we can feast on fine fare if we all work together and share what we find.

Cally Phillips

(And that’s two hours of my writing time given away free in this article. It may be therapy but it may have a value beyond that. That’s for you to decide.) And if you want to buy my ebooks it’s really easy. Just a couple of clicks away. And with the wonders of technology I’ll be able to tell whether there’s a ‘spike’ in sales – or any sales – as a result of today’s article! Don’t worry. I’m not holding my breath.) 

Amazon UK or Amazon US or Kobo (epub) 

7 thoughts on “Editors insight by Cally Phillips

  1. As ever, a post which raises so many interesting issues which it would be good to discuss! I’ve bumped my prices up a bit, recently. But I can also say, hand on heart, that I practise what I preach and – although I will go for the odd freebie if one catches my eye – I pay for the vast majority of my eBooks. But when I analyse my behaviour, to my shame, I find that while I will happily shell out up to £5.00 for an eBook without thinking about it, I often buy paper books in charity shops, although usually long after they were first published. I used to feel guilty about this, (and I try never to buy newly published books in charity shops on principle!) but then I analysed my behaviour some more and realised that many of the books I buy in said charity shops would probably not be traditionally published now – they are mid list novels. And it is still possible to go into a big chain bookshop stuffed with new books and find very little I want to read, which sounds unreasonable, but is the truth. Isn’t it fascinating, though, that people who would claim to be deeply shocked by the idea of piracy will happily tell you that they have lent your paperback to ALL their friends! Last week I overheard two contrasting snippets of conversation which gave me pause for thought. One was a woman in a charity shop (browsing the books, as it happens) telling her friend that her husband ‘loves his Kindle, just loves it, reads all the time now’. A few days later, I sat among an audience of literary ladies, listening to an excellent poetry reading after which some members of the audience (not the reader) expressed a certain faint distaste at the very idea of eBooks and talked about the smell of paper. China Mieville was sadly wrong when he said ‘We are leaving phase one of the ebook discussion during which people could ritually invoke the smell of paper as a call to the cultural barricades.’ But then he probably moves in different and perhaps more enlightened circles! Anyway, I would lay bets the paper smelling lady doesn’t buy everything she reads. Not that she should, of course. I’m all for spreading these things about. I suppose it’s the pious attitudes that get to me!
    The single biggest advantage we have in all this is – I think – one of speed. We can respond to the changes in the market far faster than the bigger companies. But that means that we have to do our research in all areas of our business – book buying, book selling too.

  2. Yes, I think the term ‘analyse your buying behaviour’ is a telling one here. We all need to wake up and smell some coffee (I’ve just finished mine) in this respect. Writers and readers alike.

  3. As Catherine says, so much to discuss and an underlying logic that’s very persuasive. I’m pretty confident that most readers would see the sense of your argument and agree with it but it’s when those readers are also identified (or identify themselves) as ‘target markets’ that considerations other than reasonableness and common sense intrude and honest responses are compromised. Profit, when it’s enabling a writer to earn a living – or at least contributing towards that – is a necessary aim of the publishing process. It’s only when it becomes a balance sheet entry aimed at shareholders and is determined by things other than quality or value that it distorts responses – and those are the principles on which mainstream publishing has been operating for years.

  4. Great post, Cally and I agree with everything you say. In the main I try to buy my ebooks, although there is always temptation round the corner. I’ve also bought my share of paperbacks in the bookstores but have also been known to acqire a second hand copy, usually of something that is no longer available. However, I wonder if the lady who likes the smell of paper would be quite so keen if her book had stunk of tobacco, as did the copy of Ira Levin’s ‘A Kiss before Dying’ which I acquired at the swap table at Harrogate crime festival. I did finish reading it though, because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get another copy. Then it went in the bin – sacrilege!

  5. Wonderful and beautifully reasoned article Cally! In response to the Print On Demand part, I decided to use Createspace to publish Tollesbury Time Forever for a couple of reasons – a) It’s free to do (except the proof copy) and b) there are people in Tollesbury who don’t have a Kindle or equivalent who really wanted to read the book. You have to bear in mind that on the Tollesbury village sign (produced by Essex County Council) is the line ‘welcome to Tollesbury. Please turn your clocks back 200 years.’ Yep – it’s that sort of wonderful place!

    In terms of the money I make off a £5.99 paperback it is probably no less than if I had a traditional publishing contract and I retain the ability to change things at will just the same as with KDP Amazon. For a bottle of cheap wine (which aids my creative process no end) I need to sell either 10 paperbacks or 2 eBooks. Now I don’t mind where the money comes from, as long as the wine stays cheap…

    • Stuart – yes, of course you’d be even worse off under a trad publishing contract! Interesting sum that you need to sell 10 paperbacks per 2 ebooks. That’s the sort of figure people should bear in mind. I do think POD has a great part to play in the whole process because yes, not everyone reads on ebooks (and I treasure my paperback copy of Tollesbury and am looking foward to owning the whole Frugality set) I can work with a ratio of you need to sell 5 times as many paperbacks as ebooks to get your return! It’s something folks should just factor in when they do print their books – I wasn’t suggesting you were being duped by doing it but on the old social media at the moment the wilderbeast rush seems to be ‘away from ebooks – towards POD’ from those looking for a magic way to become a millionaire. There isn’t a magic way in indie publishing folks (or in publishing in general) Like all things in life if you have the right connections and the right ‘profile’ it’s like throwing sixes all the way up the snakes and ladders board. The rest of us throw ones and twos and spend a lot more time sliding down snakes. BUT the fact that we’re STILL HERE and STILL PUBLISHING is the main thing. Write good work. Commit yourself to the process and do what you can to raise your visibility. You can’t avoid life’s snake squares, but you can avoid snakeoil salesmen. I’m nearly, nearly, nearly convinced to try Createspace for A Week with No Labels. Just need to find the time to DO IT.

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