Value to the Reader: Part 1 of The Business of Books

Chameleon Publishing just conducted the first of three market validation surveys: the Writer Survey. We are going to analyze and respond to the first 120 responses. Approximately 55 percent of the responses are from working writers who earn more than $5,000 a year from their writing, and half have published more than five books. The survey is still open if you’d like to respond.

In this series of articles about the business of books, we’re going to use some terms that are very familiar in many industries, but which are generally unfamiliar in the book publishing industry. The first term is value.

Writers may understand value best through the words of another writer: Oscar Wilde. “A cynic,” Wilde said, “is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

Ursula LeGuin and the Amazon BS Machine

On June 1, author and Book View Cafe member Ursula K. LeGuin wrote about the impact that Amazon has had upon the book industry on the Book View Cafe blog. Her objections to what she termed “The Amazon BS [best-seller] Machine” are well-founded; they are all based in her correct observations of the declining value of books and value provided to customers (readers) in today’s commercial marketplace. We’re not talking about sales or cash value, we’re talking about real value. LeGuin’s “only quarrel with Amazon is when it comes to how they market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only bookselling, but book publication: what we write and what we read.” She’s absolutely correct. This is real, it’s true, and objectively, one may map and track “bestsellers” over recent quarters, and find that they fit her observations very well. With every passing quarter, books are becoming ever-more short-term, quick-sell, media-oriented, derivative, and niche audience-oriented. Per-title sales averages continue to decline, from extremely low in the case of self-published books to – despite the herculean efforts of large trade publishers – declining averages in the frontlist titles they release each month. Amazon’s total book sales represent about 7 percent of its overall revenue, or $5.25 billion in 2013, according to Forbes writer Jeff Bercovici and New Yorker writer George Packer (whose overview of Amazon’s history and role is enlightening reading). Pulling down Amazon’s 2014 year end report shows a little bit different picture. They report approximately $10.5 billion in “media” sales and total “product” sales of $70.01 billion, along with $18.9 billion in “service” revenue (so more like 10 percent of their total business, not 7 percent). Their cost of “technology and content” (let’s lump the films, music, etc. in because they do) is $9.3 billion. Amazon’s true cost of goods sold is significantly higher than the level reported to shareholders. They are a multinational retailer and service provider. To compare, though Amazon is a business giant, WalMart has net sales of $473 billion worldwide (compare to Amazon’s gross sales of $88 billion – the “product” and “service” categories together).

The Role of Amazon’s Algorithms

At the 1995 Book Expo America, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told a competitor that Amazon, flying a large banner that said “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore,” that his company

“intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers.”

Amazon’s algorithms are highly sophisticated and ever-evolving. They use big data to track purchases and they present products to readers based on purchase and browsing history. The Amazon customer review system seeks to deliver some measure of value to customers in the form of the 5-star rating system and reader reviews. Much like Yelp reviews can “make or break” a restaurant, reader reviews can “make or break” a book. Even with this powerful combination, it’s all about selling. Some people misunderstand what we are referring to here. The algorithms tell in extreme detail what people have done in the past, but despite the beliefs of some big data and marketing advocates, they can’t force people to buy or read books. The algorithms are of little help in determining reasons why customers buy or do not buy certain products, including books and they are about behavior, not product quality or value. Amazon has all of this information, yet its own direct publishing program, which should theoretically be the most-successful such program, hasn’t shown the most impressive results.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or social scientist to get today’s situation in light of what has not changed about Amazon over the past 20 years. The 7 percent book segment of their business still is a way to gather data about “affluent, educated shoppers.” Amazon is WalMart for this group. They want to win in all their market segments and their emphasis is on price and selling.

Amazon understands the value to its business portion of what it does as a dominant, key e-commerce platform. It continues to misunderstand product value to its customer in nearly all divisions of its business.

Another tidbit from Packer’s New Yorker article details the experiences of Amazon employee #55, cultural critic James Marcus:

According to Marcus, Amazon executives considered publishing people “antediluvian losers with rotary phones and inventory systems designed in 1968 and warehouses full of crap.” Publishers kept no data on customers, making their bets on books a matter of instinct rather than metrics. They were full of inefficiences, starting with overpriced Manhattan offices. There was “a general feeling that the New York publishing business was just this cloistered, Gilded Age antique just barely getting by in a sort of Colonial Williamsburg of commerce, but when Amazon waded into this they would show publishing how it was done . . .”

The rotary phones are gone and thousands have been laid off. Eighteen years later, they (publishers) still keep little to no data on customers, and still make their bets on books a matter of instinct rather than metrics. We have yet to find any industry information in any trade publication, including international associations, that focuses on value to the customer (reader) or makes any attempt to analyze and measure value delivery resulting from the process of making and delivering the product (books).

About the Amazon-Hachette Battle and/or Golden Corral for Books

Packer’s article details the history of Amazon’s relations with suppliers, including early efforts to pressure smaller, weaker publishers to raise their discounts to ruinous levels (60 percent or higher). This strategy escalated over time to the Hachette-Amazon battle over the $9.99 e-book price point. One former Amazon employee told Packer, “If customers grew used to paying just a few dollars for an e-book, how long before publishers would have to slash the cover price of all their titles?” Today, this is seen in the Kindle Unlimited program (All-U-Can-Read for One Low Monthly Price or Golden Corral for Books) and the self-publishing explosion. No negotiation is required with the self-published on Amazon’s part: they have limitless “content” to sell for free and a locked-in customer base that have bought Kindles, or who live too far from a local bookstore to shop and buy printed books in-person.

Amazon Sees Itself as Totally Customer-Centric

For a retailer — it is. According to another former Amazon employee, “Jeff [Bezos] is trying to create a machine that assumes the shape of public demand.” The employee characterized Bezos as a “Shmoo” from Al Capp’s cartoons.

But the critical mistake that Amazon has made is one that is now being experienced by big businesses in many other sectors. It’s a retailer trying to become its own supplier and is more onerous with its vendors and less-interested in basic customer needs or corporate social responsibility (i.e. not being complete and total bastards to the point everyone notices) than even the much-maligned WalMart. Also, it’s entire business model is about giving the customer what they want based on previously-shown interests, which in the case of books, are themselves, based on what they chose out of goods produced . . .

See above: “Publishers kept no data on customers . . . making their bets on books as a matter of instinct, not metrics.”

Amazon as Retailer – Not Manufacturer

Amazon is doing great right now as a retailer. But it struggles to make things on its own and sell them effectively other than its retail and consumer services. What the company makes is its technology and e-commerce platform, its devices and its delivery systems, and its services to individuals and businesses. Its own publishing program is akin to grocery private label programs — but it’s not doing well in terms of product value or sales. The Kindle Fire Phone has, by all accounts, been a failure. The Kindle itself has a fatal flaw that ease of delivery and affordable pricing will find difficult to overcome: its rigidity and lack of adoption of EPUB3 standards. The “customer” served by both devices is primarily Amazon itself by locking customers in to schemes akin to cell phone “free” or low-cost devices and long-term, monthly contracts. These devices were designed and developed to deliver value to the overall business. The choice to use the rigid Mobi and current KF8 e-book standards can only be seen as ones made by a business that values its profits over the customer’s needs and genuine value.

Fundamental Lack of Understanding of Books as a Product and Readers as Customers

The commonly-held belief is that books are a dying form and that fewer and fewer people read. Many thousands more people read George Packer New Yorker article on the history and influence of Amazon than will likely read any of our articles. Packer asserted:

Whatever the temporary fluctuations in publishers’ profits, the long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to—they are too busy doing other things with their devices—but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces.

This is demonstrably untrue. The long-term outlook is anything but “discouraging.” Packer isn’t a business writer. He’s a staff writer for the publication since 2003 and has covered mostly world conflicts and cultural matters. He therefore naturally makes the same assumption, unchecked, as did most of the respondents to our writer market survey. Well over 70 percent of those who responded thought the reason more people didn’t regularly buy and read books was competition from other media: “they are too busy doing other things with their devices.” This is in the same article that noted that e-books had leveled off at about 30 percent of book sales (an overstatement — e-books don’t really have 30 percent of the book market even today and have leveled off, largely due to reasons detailed above — the vendors, led by Amazon, have zero focus on delivering satisfying product in a timely manner delivering real value to the reader).















Back to Basics: What the Book Market Really Is

Currently, about 20 percent of North American adults, or 70 million people, regularly buy and read books. They are about 54% female, and 46% male. Of female readers, the majority are ages 44-55, have at least some college education, and incomes over $50,000 a year. The majority of male regular readers also fit in this age demographic, and have incomes over $80,000 a year. To this group and the much larger group of occasional readers, more than 1 billion trade fiction and non-fiction books were sold in 2014. This accounted for approximately $15 billion in sales (divide it out – $15 per book gross sales).

Worldwide, the book market is valued at $150 billion. Video games, movies and entertainment do not reduce the book market. Neither do they, strictly, compete in the way that most publishers think and apparently just about every single person who isn’t an independent bookstore owner, teacher, librarian or caring parent. Amazon’s own experience, building its business based on data acquired from its initial and ongoing customer base (and struggles to keep and grow its “other media” content sales) show this fact. The more people who become genuinely literate and recognize the value inherent in books, the more the market grows. Because it is foundational. Books are to the mind and human learning, growth and communication as real food is to the human body.

Book Publishing Market Size












It is this market which the New Yorker’s Packer described as “small and weak.” To compare, the global toy industry was valued at $80 billion in 2013. The global shoe industry was valued at $190 billion. Nobody, particularly not shoe or toy industry experts, goes around writing dozens of reports and articles saying that “children don’t play with toys any longer” or “nobody wears shoes any more.” What about a big industry like beverages? Coke, Pepsi, Scotch, Snapple. The global beverage industry is indeed, about ten times the size of the publishing industry. It is fiercely competitive and rocked by changes in all sectors, many related to increased awareness of health concerns, such as high-fructose corn syrup being bad for you and flavored, easy-to-drink alcoholic beverages.

Out of the entire population (more than 380 million in the U.S. and Canada), nearly 100 percent are literate — i.e. they are able to read and are potential book buying and reading customers. Everyone who uses a mobile device, some 280 million North Americans as of 2015, reads to some extent.

From the New Yorker‘s George Packer to Digital Book World to Publishers Weekly, which just tweeted its amazement and thanks to young readers at the BEA, which “touched” them with their love for books and reading, there is an “I don’t get it” factor five thousand miles wide that only Pew, which doesn’t make or sell anything, seems to perceive.

Oh. And us.

Pew Reading Survey 2013















As to the commonly-heard phrase, “Young people don’t read any longer,” Pew has put paid to this over and over.

Young People Reading Pew










Without question, these high rates of regular readership are attributable to our schools, our teachers, and our librarians. And to the lasting value, importance and fundamental nature of books.


Only 13 percent of those who responded to our writer survey thought that it would be possible that everyone who could read could be a potential book buyer and reader.













Until we actively began to solicit responses from indy-published writers, there was only one “yes” answer under this category (me).

In 2013, Digital Book World and Writers Digest surveyed almost 5,000 writers, including  aspiring, self-published, traditionally-published and “hybrid” authors. All Book View Cafe authors fit in the “hybrid” category, defined as writers who are traditionally published and also self-publish their work. Book View Cafe books are sold directly through the Book View Cafe store (DRM-free), and members also sell the books individually via online vendors.

Social scientist Dana Beth Weinberg analyzed the DBW/WD survey results in a series of articles, concluding, “The hybrid authors surveyed were good enough to break into traditional publishing due on average to some greater talent or marketability that also translates well into the world of self-publishing.”

This is where social science and business diverge. Basic elements found in all genuinely successful books can be identified and quantified. “Some greater talent or marketability.” Writers who are doing well are – with a few exceptions – making products that deliver value to the reader.

From the 2014 survey, which included nearly twice the number of respondents, results showed that the majority preferred traditional publishing, likely a result of diminishing sales via self-publishing routes.

This survey asked respondents what was the most important thing they hoped to achieve in publishing their book. The majority, 60%, said “to produce a book that people will buy.”

And that — is a start. As noted, all genuinely successful books, whether fiction or non-fiction, have qualities that can be identified and quantified. Popular writers do this on their own. They know what they’re writing, they have a good sense of their audience, and they write books for those readers.

As to our writer survey, the overwhelming majority, almost 90 percent, said that they had written a book they thought a large number (we defined this as 50,000 or more) people would enjoy buying and reading.














As to whether or not this belief had translated into reality — the answers were different.















Our next posts will be about marketing and book production with value to the reader in mind.

Not “selling.” Marketing. Not price. Value. Books are more important, more essential, than athletic shoes or soft drinks or alcoholic beverages. Everyone who can read is a potential book-buyer and reader.

The primary reason more people who can read do not regularly buy and read books is they are not presented with books they’d enjoy or want to read in market channels to which they’d respond. Library use is up, and continues to rise among younger and more diverse audiences. Millennials are quickest to say that the information they need is less-likely to be found on the internet than it is … in the library.

Ursula LeGuin said of Amazon’s impact on book publishing, “Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.”

Food is still in the process of changing but it proves that change can and will occur.

In 2000, there were only six organic, grass-fed beef producers in North America. Today, there are more than 2,000. In 1980, when Whole Foods Market was founded by John Mackey, there were only 6 organic, natural food grocers in the U.S. Today, Whole Foods is a $14.9 billion annual business and the fastest-growing company in its sector worldwide. Retail sales of organic food topped $83 billion in 2012 in North America. Natural/organic foods occupy at least 15 percent of retail store space in traditional grocers in the U.S., up from minimal shelf space only ten years ago.

As to “the food packagers” and purveyors, McDonalds’ profits were down 21 percent 4th quarter 2014, sales down 9 percent worldwide – CEO Don Thompson resigned January 2015. Much like WalMart, everyone keys on McDonalds as the biggest industry player in fast food. Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, took a 68% percent hit in sales in 2013 after a serious Chinese health scandal, and is only showing modest profits in 2014 because of “restructuring” – i.e. closing stores and laying off people.

Thirty-five years ago, nobody had heard of “kombucha” and no one thought organic, grass-fed beef or “free-range chickens” would ever be seen again. Thirty-five years from now, this person who’s drinking out of the hose on the loading platform at the store like Whole Foods founder John Mackey, thinks people will be laughing at the system that thought 50 Shades of Grey was the best type of book a waning, not growing, readership wanted and the only way to get someone to buy and read a book was to out-shock, out-gamify and hoodwink the customer.

PS: Our value of the week is Fire by Alan Rodgers. Scope, plot, character, voice, intellectual content: an end of the world story about which J. Michael Straczynski, visionary creator of Babylon 5 said, “Every so often, a truly seminal book is published in the horror field. Blatty’s The Exorcist, King’s The Stand, Barker’s Books of Blood. Alan Rodgers’ Fire is such a book. It is a tale of amazing sweep and scope, uniting Biblical prophecies and hightech, ancient horrors with new ones cobbled up from labs and shadows. After this book, everything changes.” $4.99 Amazon, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, GooglePlay.

A version of this post appeared June 5, 2005 at



Value to the Reader: Part 1 of The Business of Books — 20 Comments

  1. Pingback: Value to the Reader | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  2. “Eighteen years later, they (publishers) still keep little to no data on customers, and still make their bets on books a matter of instinct rather than metrics.”

    Yet, what Ms. LeGuin bemoans as the decline of literature is somehow Amazon’s fault? I’m sorry, but this line of reasoning makes no sense whatsoever.

    RE: Equating Books to Food — Yes, if we eat unhealthy foods, our bodies will become fat and unhealthy. But it does it really follow that if we read books that some consider “junk food”, we become less smart? No. The act of reading itself is exercise for the brain, regardless of what is read. Thinking otherwise is nothing more than intellectual elitism. Be grateful that people are reading.

    • Alan, part of this is coming from my experience as a college teacher. I always ask students if they read for pleasure. Only a handful usually admit to this, but surveys like Pew show this is not the case.

      The fundamental basis right now is that books are made either to editorial (or agent) taste in the case of established publishers, or to what individual authors can best come up with on their own (indy-publishing). Especially with non-fiction, there is only a small amount of material written and published that has “legs.” It’s because the time and effort and number of people necessary exceeds “one” and it’s really not best-suited to individual authors with a mania for whatever nonfiction topic it is to hire their own editors, hire their own book designers and navigate everything they have to in order to get the book published and out to the public. Meantime, most established publishers are strongly engaged in what they think are the best business strategies. These don’t involve anything in book development related to readers, for the most part (with limited exceptions – not all divisions of major publishers buy “finished product” then slap it between covers). It’s not easy, it’s very difficult. You can see it on the NY Times bestseller list every week. A few months ago, it was the presence of several books about “art thieves.” I was able to link this to a series of art thefts and articles about it about 18 months prior. If you’re an attorney or related to a bestselling author or editor, your chances of being on this list are very high.

      Other companies took decades to mature away from doing business this way. All we’re saying is that it’s time for book publishing to start.

  3. Is there a polite way for me to ask if this post has a point?

    I ask because I don’t understand the point you are trying to make.

  4. In here you say Amazon has zero focus on value delivery after making a point that they’re trying to learn more about about their customers to serve them better. Pardon my saying so, but these things seem contradictory.

    • Liana, we define “value” with a book as a book which is able to consistently meet reader needs over time — in our case, we’re arbitrarily using an 8 year life cycle. The books with the highest value are those who consistently meet reader needs over generations. The #1 bestselling novel of all time is Don Quixote, first published over 400 years ago. That is value.

      I use “50 Shades of Grey” as an example because everyone is familiar with it. It made money, but in terms of it still being read 400 years from now – I find that doubtful though I’m always willing to be wrong (and yes, I have read the book).

      There are a lot of barriers and disconnects in the process right now and what we are all about is trying to take those down and reach more readers. It’s my belief that Amazon would also like to do that – but they are a retailer. Can they be a vertical? Well, there are some retailers who are, but right now, at least 99% of their merchandise comes from suppliers. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, do me the simple courtesy of acknowledging this – not insulting me, as it’s me and my partners who are spending our time and effort to improve the experience for readers and writers.

  5. This is a rehash of the Ursula LeGuin argument that Amazon bestsellers are trash and that readers buy them because they are sheep. The fact is, Amazon’s bestseller list directly reflects what people are buying of their own free will. LeGuin decided to blame Amazon rather than give agency to readers because she would then have to admit that readers might just not want to read what she thinks they should.

    Every other paragraph of this post either fails to make any cogent point at all (which is why commenters are asking you to point one out) or blithly ignores reality, such as this lovely – “the vendors, led by Amazon, have zero focus on delivering satisfying product in a timely manner delivering real value to the reader” — really? Amazon will send you almost any book you want at an eminently fair price, as quickly as it can. What, then, do you define as “value”? Curation? Amazon does not curate, it does not see that as it’s mission, and most consumers are very happy with that. Go curate your own purchases and stay out of ours.

    • OK, I’ll say it again. About 20% of North American adults currently regularly buy and read books. There is fundamentally 100% literacy. People perceive the ability for self-publishing as being “freedom” but is in fact, a short cut around what it really is to make a book of lasting value. Value we define as a book that has enduring qualities (definable, quantifiable and measurable, which we will cover in future posts) that enable it to communicate effectively with readers over time. At present we are using an 8 year cycle, not a 6 week cycle.

      In terms of mismatch between the CURRENT market and what’s out there for purchase that people can see and buy and get hold of, about 54% of the current market are women ages 40-59. The number of books featuring a main character in this age group is definitely not 54% of what’s out there. In fact, we could find only one bestseller fitting this criteria in recent years. That’s not because this age group does NOT want books about women similar to themselves, it’s because they’re not being published. They are certainly being written. In terms of another demographic, African Americans have the highest rate of readership of any group — 80 percent (please see above chart). Again, the number of books published that would be of interest to this group is much less than the rate of readership.

      E-book sales have leveled off, and it’s because of this. Everything is marketed based on what has been published and sold in the past. The facility to meet emerging readerships isn’t there. With all the young people (the other highest demographic in terms of regular readership) who got engaged in reading in recent years – the amount of books that genuinely meets their interests isn’t enough to furnish the demand.

      Amazon knows this. But they are presently engaged in selling to the SAME customer group and their means to grow it is by selling more devices. Yet these devices aren’t being adopted or used at a high enough rate to support the necessary growth. Students don’t want to use them because they make studying or other tasks difficult even as they make actual reading easier in some regards.

      In terms of figuring out how to list books on all the different, busy marketing channels on Amazon, we’ve noticed some efforts at more basic criteria out there (“Was this book fast-paced?” “Is the author’s voice good” and so-on). It’s definitely drawing from words used in reader reviews.

      But it’s still not the real criteria. Which we will discuss in future.

  6. It also wouldn’t hurt if you linked properly. You wanted, not

    I mean, geez.

  7. The point is right up front. 20% of North American adults regularly buy and read books, yet almost 100% CAN read. The true market for books is much larger than that which is currently being served. The current system is fragmented and has zero facility to consistently develop work that is interesting to a broad range of readers over a significant period of time.

    All commenters are “assuming” that the only criterion is somebody buys a book and reads it or not. Right now, per-title sales averages are declining (i.e. less than 12K per title – it’s actually much lower than that if all books are factored in). If indy-published is factored in, then it’s an extremely low per-title average. The way to grow is to serve more readers and to take a long perspective. It is better to have a book that sells consistently over time and has lasting value than one that sells for a short period of time, then loses its value.

    Here is the current NY Times bestseller list –

    I can do this over and over, week after week. It reflects a very narrow segment of interests and topics.

    Thanks for your careful reading. This article mentions Ursula Le Guin’s correct observations, but it’s from a business perspective, not a cultural perspective. To the commenter regarding “elitism,” we are saying the exact opposite.

    Under the present market channels, only people who can afford to work basically for free are those who will be able to write books. In the case of self-published authors, they must pay for all aspects of the product themselves – cover, editing, production, as well as the time involved in writing and making sure the book is the best it can be. The same is true of traditional publishing. Work only comes to them from a few sources, and it’s unlikely people who have to hold down full-time jobs and support a family can afford the number of hours required to write an interesting book, especially not many books, year after year, day in/day out.

    I tell people, “imagine if a neurosurgeon had to work for free for years before one of his surgeries finally paid him.”

    This is about doing it better. The actual process of developing books, start to finish. From idea to writing to editing to preparing for sale to actually selling. 90% of marketing should be done by the time the book is finished. Because the audience and reader is considered from the start and throughout the process.

    • Thank you, Amy.

      I found this via The Passive Voice, where many are erroneously assuming that you have an ulterior motive. This read (to me) like a scholarly article (or the first part of one), I was confused, so I asked.

      Apparently I did not see the forest for the trees.

      • Haven’t seen the Passive Voice but there is no ulterior motive. This is the first of a series of four posts based on the first market validation survey done for our publishing company, which is a start up in proof of concept phase. It could be seen as “scholarly” but it’s from a business perspective. We are endeavoring to do publishing differently than others, and we do not have all the answers. We have questions and are answering them as we are able through market research, lessons learned (successes and failures) and addressing all parts of the process.

    • I’m intrigued to see just how you define a book’s “value” in your future pieces, but I’m skeptical about anyone’s ability to project a current novel’s longevity in the marketplace.

      Though I would not hold up Fifty Shades as a hallmark of literature, and you yourself say you can’t imagine it being read 400 years from now, it has already stood strongly through half of the 8-year span (it was published in May of 2011) you cite as one of your criteria for establishing “value”. Does that support or deflate your position? I’m asking honestly, because I’m still not clear on what you’re trying to achieve. Books written for a large, generational market of readers seems to be what you’re after, but you scoff at Fifty Shades which seemingly has done exactly that.

      In a comment above you said, “E-book sales have leveled off, and it’s because of this,” referring to the fact that main characters in novels don’t represent the largest reading demographics. Aside from the fact that you’re only looking at traditionally published numbers for sales in your data (take a look at if you haven’t for a broader picture of the ebook market), your conclusion is based on what? Do you have studies saying that readers wanted to see more stories about middle-aged, financially successful characters? I’d love to see those studies/surveys if you have them.

      Lastly, while I’d love to have written a best-selling blockbuster right out of the gate, that isn’t how it works for most people. Just like most people aren’t Doogie Howser, to use your neurosurgeon analogy above. Neurosurgeons spend an average of 15 years in school, subsequent to high school, before graduating and entering the workforce. I’m pretty sure most of them would be capable of performing surgery well before they finish their schooling, but there are reasons for going through the process. Writing is much the same, it’s just that writers aren’t required to follow a regimented schooling process to hone their craft. These days, at least, writers have it better than neurosurgeons because they have a way of monetizing their practice time, to varying degrees, by publishing their early works as they master their craft.

      • Robert, I think you are misreading what I am saying. Regarding 50 Shades of Grey, these books’ sales have a 90% year to year dropoff. You are giving them a bit more time in major release than they actually have been, and we can’t get at current period numbers – it’s firewalled. It remains to be seen how the new book by E.L. James will do. But this is akin to comparing the Kardashian reality show and its viewership to a classic TV show that’s still earning residuals 20 and 30 years after it was first aired. I really don’t have a problem saying that 50 Shades is going to be more like the Kardashians 10 years from now – and that the real success will be a book that’s still getting lots of readers, just like “Star Trek” and “Cosmos” still have big viewerships.

        I am familiar with the reports you cite. It’s clear to see that in the e-book sector, independently-published authors are able to compete and excel strongly and are taking market share. I’ve pulled down the raw data and it could have busted our strongest computer while trying to work with it. It’s also based on one day of sales extrapolated from Amazon sales only. If you look above, Amazon’s total book sales, which encompass e-books as well as print books, are not 100% of all books sold, either in North America or worldwide. I think you’re keying on this as somehow being against Amazon or against independent authors, and it’s far from that. I’ve made the simple, yet obvious on the face of it, point that Amazon is a retailer, not a manufacturer (except of its devices – and I believe I made the point that they are well-developed in that regard, although – it will absolutely hurt them over time, exactly as I said, in terms of the format issues with the Kindle). Again, as I noted above, we are not looking exclusively at popular novels that are easily published on the Kindle and for which these format issues are minor.

        From a business perspective, there are a number of areas in which established trade publishers are weak. Gearing up to sell massive amounts of copies in a short time (like 50 Shades) isn’t one of them. By the same token, Amazon has a system that is so robust it can accept almost limitless product and successfully make money.

        There are elements of books that go beyond the simple inclusion of text in e-book form. There is a place for a book editor and a book designer, and most of all, it’s time to look at what can be done to increase revenue to make writing a genuinely viable profession, and to look at how money can be made producing books that deliver value to the emerging reading market over time.

        I understand that people do not understand what I am talking about. The entire massive “Author Earnings” website and its popularity is all about what those compelled to write want to have. It’s about the thought or hope and dream that the writer would be able to “find an audience” and make money as a self-employed entrepreneur. There’s a mismatch between what’s sold via the Kindle and what’s sold overall because the people putting print books in real bookstores (and continuing to sell via Amazon) are serving one type of market customer with the products they’re used to making. The Kindle “audience” has verifiably different tastes, and a lot of these are emerging from independent authors, like romance, thrillers, mysteries, and sci-fi/fantasy.

        Did you know, for example (as noted above, I think) that the highest rate of daily readership is among young people ages 16-30? The highest rate of e-reader ownership is among an older demographic – ages 30-49.

        I know from physically talking to people 30 and under that they LIKE PAPER BOOKS and prefer them for many purposes to e-books. When individual authors can match publishers in going through the whole process from start to finish in fulfilling mass print runs, then the Author Earnings report will be quite a different story.

      • Here is your “sneak peek” Alan. For the record, I think 50 Shades is running on plot and “intellectual content.” We are so non-snobby that sure, they seem “low-brow” but really, they took a known successful plot and characters (the Twilight books) and added the extra element of the sexual content. I read all the initial material from the fanfiction websites, including the messages where E.L. James was encouraged to change the character names so she could publish these addictive stories to a wide range of readers.

        So – even with 77 million copies sold, worldwide, it’s not like 100% of readers bought these books. 100% of women did not buy these books. They were a known quantity with pretty easily identifiable “sales” figures and I think the runaway success surprised everyone involved – just as it seems to invariably do. Could others follow this recipe?

        So maybe I should phrase this differently. It is fine when authors do this, either individually or with an established publisher. But as I put a while back, “For which established fan group was ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ written?” How about “Gone With the Wind”?

  8. Thanks, Amy! A lot of good food for thought. From my observations of several years of teaching university creative writing, I agree that reading mostly poorly-written “junk food” books tends to lower expectations of quality writing and lead to more shallow writing. It also fails to stimulate and challenge readers intellectually, leading to lazy thinking and unwillingness to be challenged. Many students are tempted by the free or 99-cent books online, the same way they’re tempted by empty calories of junk food. (Many admit they don’t care if the books are well-written; they just want a fast-moving plot or emotional stimulation.) We should be serving more, better choices.

    • There is significantly more money to be made in publishing books of value as well. It’s about long-term business stability as well as long-term reader value.

  9. Speaking as a reader, it’s never before been so easy for me to find something to read that fits my current mood. I used to browse the shelves, asking myself “is this worth the money? is this really the sort of book it looks like?”

    Now, I can go to the listing on Amazon for a book I know, and browse through the “people also read” listings until something catches my eye, and then read the positive and negative reviews to evaluate whether it’s something I would like – and if I’m still on the fence, I can read a few sample chapters on my Kindle before buying!

    For me, this is pretty close to heaven. Amazon provides a highly valuable customer experience, and makes it very easy for me to find the books that *I* find valuable, rather than whatever someone else decides has traits that will “consistently meet reader needs over generations.”

    As a reader, I couldn’t care less about what future generations will still be reading. I will buy the books that provide value to me, today. Some I will treasure for the rest of my life. Others, I’ll enjoy and never read again. But they all have value – to me, and to the other readers who enjoy them. (And the ones I put down as unreadable might be a treasured favorite for someone else – or even for generations to come.)

    And yes, I eat burgers and pizza too! 😉

  10. Speaking as a writer… I was reading the FAQ for Creative Professionals on your website and have a question – or rather, a few related questions. (

    If your “Author Partners” are paid “based upon 1099 independent contractor and consultation contracts from other industries,” then who holds the copyright to the works they create and you sell? Are the books considered works for hire? Can they license international, audio, and movie rights separately, to other vendors? Is there a non-compete or first refusal clause, or are they free to work with you on book or series A, license book B to a traditional publisher, and self-publish book C?

    If the relationship winds up not working out as they hoped, what are the terms for an author to dissolve the partnership? Do you retain any rights to the books in question?


  11. I can understand why only one person answered question 19 in the affirmative. It’s poorly worded. The question asks about “every person”. That has to be answered no, no matter what follows the every person part. I can’t imagine 100% of people wanting to do anything.