Monthly Archives: June 2011

What makes a writer a writer?

What makes a writer a writer?

Is it that they have three dozen notebooks full of story ideas? Or thirteen unfinished novel drafts in the drawer? Or maybe it’s the way they think about words so much of the time? Are they the ones with the extensive vocabulary? Or perhaps I’m on entirely the wrong track?

I have a counselor friend who has made it one of his missions getting me to loudly and boldly proclaim that “I Am A Writer!”. I only noticed this a few days ago but as soon as I saw it I knew he’d been at it for weeks. We have deep, introspective conversations about my life journeys and writing has come up in the last few months as a significant passion of mine. But with a certain special group of friends I call myself a storyteller because that’s what kind of writer I am aspiring to be.

We don’t tell enough of the right kind of stories in this day and age. Story telling is how children know that monsters can be defeated. Story telling is how the handsome prince knows to go looking for his fortune. Story telling is how the princess knows the prince loves her. Story telling is how we shape our culture and the lives of those that come after us. Story telling is what I’m doing right now.

My sister has picked up on it, too. I was fumbling through an introduction with one of her arty friends a few months ago and she overrode me with “You’re a writer”. She will probably not remember the accolade, but I do. I’ve helped my sister learn how to write university essays in the last few years and can see her getting better. She may not see that her art essays necessarily tell a story, but it is writing and like all essays, there is a narrative.

But my counselor friend is on the money: I shouldn’t need other people to categorise me as a writer for me to accept it. I should be able to identify as that by myself. And I’m a writer because I write.

So how do you know you’re a writer?

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I’m not buying an e-reader, after all.

Okay, I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to go and buy an ebook reader. Not for some time. It just doesn’t suit my reading habits.

I came to this realization yesterday when I had a good fiddle with a Sony Pocket E-Reader in a local Myer store. This is the 5″ e-ink reader that is nowhere near as popular as their 6″ reader. As it happened, it had a pretty decent sample book on it, Pride and Prejudice, which is a lot more readable than (say) the reader’s instruction manual, or something from Ancient Greece. More, I’m familiar with it.

The Sony reader’s have one big thing going for them over other readers: that clever touch interface. Flipping the page and navigating menus are both intuitive. Unfortunately, it’s not fast. Faster than the older Kindles, I grant you, but not on par with an LCD based reader (of which there are quite a few). And I’m not convinced the e-ink refresh has all that much to do with it. I flip pages much faster than that on a real book.

One alternative is an iPad or one of those new Android tablets. Both have two major disadvantages: they start at twice the price of the Sony reader, and I really don’t need Yet Another Portable Computer, though I’m sure I’d find other things to waste time on it with. Plus the iPad comes with buying into the Apple Ecosystem, which I have a philisophical problem with*. True, the Android devices have a similar problem, but it’s considerably lessened. Basically, these are way too powerful and much too expensive just for reading ebooks. When I accepted this, I also had to accept that the reason I was interested in an ebook reader in the first place was because it was new technology.

But the other reason I’m not going to buy an ebook reader is because I’m just not buying ebooks. Buying ebooks from authors in the traditional publishing system is generally more expensive than buying paperbacks, as I discovered recently. And it’s more annoying because the publishers haven’t been watching the music industry and are putting DRM on the files. This is annoying because the DRM clients do not have Linux versions**. Yes, there are lots of new authors who are self-publishing ebooks without DRM, which I will investigate once I find some copious free time. Which may be a while.

Meanwhile, I must have easily a thousand real books in my bookshelves. I had cause to estimate this because I moved some of those said shelves so decided to sort them. And quite a few of which are still on the floor, still unsorted. What was obvious to me is most of them I haven’t read in years and could easily re-read. And I’m still buying new ones.

Ebooks are an exciting new technology. The market is maturing rapidly, to be sure, and e-ink readers are doing a lot to help.

However, I’ve had to face up to the fact that the shift from a physical object to an electronic object is actually an astonishingly big step for me. I’ve bought software over the ‘net for years and still do. But I’ve very rarely bought music like that. The reasons are complex. I’ve never gotten used to using my computer to play music, for a start. Dislike of iTunes is another. Ebooks seem to be in the same category. Admittedly, I have at least acknowledged the attraction of a single purpose device for that.

So, for now, the few ebooks I buy will be read on a PC. And I’ll continue to buy real books.

* Curiously, I loved the first tablet device that Apple had success with into the mass market: the Newton MessagePad. And then Steve Jobs came back. :-/

** Yes, WINE is a solution. But it’s not a good solution. Besides, the support forums are filled with people having authorization issues. This suggests the DRM is getting in the way more than it should be. And that’s a Fail.

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Publishers don’t like ebooks.

I’m right on the edge of shifting to ebooks. Well, that’s misleading. I should say adding ebooks to my reading. I have no intention of abandoning my hundreds, if not thousands, of paper books in my posession. But ebooks are becoming respectable. There are authors now making a living selling almost entirely ebooks. New authors mostly, a fact which will become important later. There are reports Amazon is selling more ebooks to Kindles than sending real books in the post. Even up against Amazon’s Kindle, I see Sony having trouble keeping it’s flagship ereader in stock and, due to the open formats, many small players have surfaced. No doubt about it, readers are embracing ebooks.

But I think publishers are seriously struggling to grasp this change in the marketplace.

How much do you normally pay for a paperback in your local bookstore? This will vary across the world, but I’ve watched the prices rise considerably over the decades here in Australia. A typical mass-market fantasy paperback now retails north of AU$20, sometimes as high as AU$35.

So, go for an ebook version instead, you say? Ebooks are supposed to be cheaper, you say? According to whom, pray?

I recently purchased “Rides a Dread Legion” by Raymond E Feist. He’s a good example for this because Feist is an established fantasy author who has been around for several decades. This particular title is barely two years old and there are two sequels already on the shelves. I paid AU$20.99 for a small paperback version in a chain bookstore. Although I usually like Feist’s writing, I think he’s been off his game in some recent works and I may find this to be another. I haven’t bought a book like that for months because I don’t like that risk at that price. But I have the earlier ones in that series. So.

I don’t have an ereader quite yet, so buying it as an ebook would mostly be just an intellectual exercise. But I was curious as to what it would cost as an ebook. So I went looking.

Angus & Robertson have it on their website for AU$30.95. Yes, that was the ebook version, complete with odious DRM. The very same website has four paperback versions, three of which were less than that (the fourth is bizarrely $71.95 – I joked on Twitter that it must be handwritten on parchment). The cheapest was $15.95. That’s right: half the ebook version.

Why? Ebooks do not have printing costs, nor delivery costs.

There are clues. The same book on Barnes & Noble is US$3.99 — but B&N proclaim an 85% discount right in the listing. Yes, the official publisher’s list price is US$27.99. That’s suspiciously close to actual Australian pricing.

A series of very interesting posts by Dean Wesley Smith about self-publishing (Think Like a Publisher and Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing) gives us a lot of other clues. It turns out that there are lot of funny numbers in setting book prices at the retailer. Publishers rarely expect to sell their books to the distributor or retailer at the list price. Instead, they give huge discounts for almost any reason, including returning unsolds. This means retailers can sell “below list price” which is about all the consumer really sees but doesn’t realize they never know why. I’m simplifying hugely, though it gives you a way to see why B&N can “discount” at 85% and still make money. Go read Dean’s writings: he is a successful self-published author and he used to run a publishing house so he definitely knows what he’s talking about.

Another clue is the fracas that blew up with Apple and ebook publishers and then with Amazon and pretty much the same publishers. It is difficult to follow the numbers the whys and wherefores, but there was an awful lot of percentages being thrown around and about who was getting what and for why. The details aren’t important for this discussion: what is becoming clear that publishing houses have been for a very very long time pocketing the majority of the price of a book. Even with all those byzantine discounts. People in that sort of position will charge as much as they think they can get away with (do I really need to list examples?). Clearly, they want to keep doing that for a title published as an ebook.

Truth be told, the actual printing and delivery is quite a small percentage. CreateSpace can print you one book (depending on the length) for $6.50 – and that’s a Print-On-Demand price. Imagine how cheap a 25,000 run could be at a more conventinal printhouse — I say imagine because these kinds of quotes are really quite difficult to get. This shows that ebooks probably should be priced only slightly less than paper.

What has been seen is publishers setting ebook prices between the hardback and the trade paperback version. That not only removes mass-market paperbacks from the picture, but also all the discounting that goes on. Clearly they are fighting to protect their income. And are using ebooks to do it. And I haven’t even mentioned author percentages yet. Or tilted contracts.

I titled this piece “Publishers don’t like ebooks” but now I’m suspect it’s more like “Publishers don’t like paperbacks”.

As readers, we have to do two three things:

  1. Don’t purchase ebooks at exorbitant prices. And I chose “exorbitant” deliberately. 
  2. Complain directly to publishers — not to bookstores! — that ebook prices are too high. Sooner or later one publisher will buck the system and make a motza on volume instead of markup.
  3. Buy from new authors who are bypassing this system. The ebook prices are cheaper and the authors make more. 

When I finally do get an ereader, my book choice is going to be driven by the above three points. I’m still going to be buying paper so long as authors I want to read are still publishing in the old system.


Filed under ebooks, publishing