Why I Never Trusted The Big Publishers with Ebook Agency Pricing

This subject has become my hobby horse lately. While we’ve got it out, I might as well ride it until I get splinters in my butt.

One of the rationalizations from the Big 5 publishers who are doing agency pricing with the ebook editions of their books was that “they would be able to better respond to the marketplace and adjust prices accordingly.” Macmillan’s John Sargent, he of the opposing side of the infamous Amazon delisting crisis of 2010, made a post to his blog that included this paragraph:

For physical books, the majority of new release hardcovers are published in cheaper paperback versions over time. We will mirror this price reduction in the digital world. It is too early to estimate the timing of the price reductions for those cases in which we do not issue a paperback edition. If we do issue a paperback, we will drop the digital price to $9.99 or lower at publication date (if not before). The price differential between the book and the e-book will become smaller at the lower price points.

That sounds great, if it were actually to be happen. My faith in that was close to zero. One of my takeaways of the whole struggle as someone totally on the outside is that the publishers wanted more control of the retail experience in the case of ebooks, and that this probably was going to end poorly for them. My take was and is that publishers think they understand their customers, but in fact have spent the 20th century isolating themselves from them through the layers of distribution. (For writers, add one step further away from the endpoint of the customer.) Their self-image of an industry is that they understand the customer and have a relationship with them, but in practice they don’t. Here’s an example – suppose Macmillan wanted to get in touch with people who have purchased a Macmillan book in the last year and offer them special deals. Could they do that? No? OK then. Could Amazon or Barnes and Noble? To some extent they could, the latter if you were a B&N club member I’m guessing and the former for books bought through them. The publishers, not so much.

Here’s another concrete example of price policy gone awry, since I’m enjoying presenting these. I’ve been a fan of Max Allan Collins since I was 12 years old and he was writing the Dick Tracy comic strip. His mystery novels are some of my comfort reading – not high art but they don’t have to be. I just enjoy them. I happened to notice that his novel A Killing in Comics is available on Kindle at the price of $11.99. This is a book that was published in 2007. Worse than that, I bought a paper copy in remainders for $2.99 right at two years ago. Whatever it’s reasonable print life might be, that is over enough that the publisher sold it to a book discounter for less than a quarter on the dollar yet at time of this posting the ebook is still priced at $11.99. Now, this book is Penguin so I’m not blaming Sargent or his organization directly as responsible for this particular instance. I am pointing out that agency pricing was sold by the big publishers as A Thing That Will Happen and It Might Smell Like Medicine But Is Good For You, You Fussy Children AKA “our customers.” It doesn’t take too many of these examples where I begin to build a brand contempt for the companies who claim they are ultimately helping me while clearly price gouging me.

I never believed Sargent’s statement because I doubt anyone at these publishing houses 1) cares much about lowering prices 2) is getting paid to lower prices of books or even make sure they are appropriate with the lifecycle of the print version or 3) even have that much control over their catalog. If I hazarded a guess as an uniformed outsider, they splat it out there and then generally leave it for all but the most high profile writers. The midlist writers like Collins probably don’t get a lot of attention in that process.

One of the big debates is “if books are self-published how do I know they aren’t crap?” Well, big publisher books can also be crap and the Kindle version can cost four times what a lot of the self-published books are. Maybe you come out to the good by getting four rolls of the dice for your money. That’s why the sample was invented.

Separated at Birth?

I’ve blogged recently about comic book artist, publisher and teacher Stephen R. Bissette. This post is an exorcism of sorts because I just want it out of my system. As long as I’ve known Dan Conover, I’ve thought he and Bissette looked a lot alike. Dan is screwing this comparison up recently by losing weight and getting trimmer, as well as clipping back the facial hair to less mountain man proportions. I’m using a picture of Dan that is a few years old just because it makes my case stronger.

I now present, for your enjoyment, “Separated at birth? Dan Conover vs Stephen R. Bissette”:

I once had a conversation at Dragon*Con with my friend and Subgenius luminary Susie “the Floozie” and she was telling me a story about a guy she knew. She said he was a big lumberjack looking guy, “You know, kind of like Steve Bissette.” There ain’t that many people that you can use that as a referent and have them understand, but she happened to be talking to one of them. Rock on, nerdosphere.

Steve Bissette and Dave Sim Chat

Yesterday I got my Steve Bissette Captain Beefheart sketch from the post office and also read the purportedly last entry of the exchange between Steve and Dave Sim about self-publishing, comics in general and many other topics. That’s kind of a shame. I’d like to see the two of these guys go on long enough that there is a book that can be published out of the exchange. Illustrated by both, of course. That would rock.

My fallouts as a reader of this exchange include buying the above sketch, becoming a regular viewer of Cerebus TV, and buying from ComiXpress all the issues of Cerebus Archive published since the title was dropped by Diamond. I was already a regular purchaser of Sim’s glamourpuss comic, which is hard to describe but is one of my favorite things being published today.

Sim had a quote in one of the missives that I love so much for a variety of reasons. The context he used it in was self-publishing and giving up on things preemptively. I find it applicable broadly and think it gets even better if you strip the context away:

Never commit suicide – always make them kill you
Dave Sim

Amen. Truer words were never spoken.

You’re the Goofa Man Now, Dog

I’ve been lucky enough to know Mike Fisher since I was a teenager in Augusta GA. I’ve blogged about him before, how cool it was when I saw Chris Gore on Attack of the Show pumping the Goofman Productions DVD collection of his CGI animated films. I’m enough of a spaz to have jumped up and said “Hey, I know that guy!”

Mike recently emailed me to let me know about some of his recent animations up on YouTube. He’s possibly the most committed fan of Star Trek: The Original Series I’ve ever met, and I spend a lot of time with SF fans of all stripes. Even back when we all lived in Augusta, he did a lot of cartoons about Kirk and Spock for Starlog.

I’ve always been a fan of Mike’s 3-D Pete character. There was a stretch of time in the 1980’s where he did topical strips about the comic industry every week for The Comics Buyer’s Guide. At a one day con in Columbia SC I got Keith Giffen to pencil a sketch of 3-D Pete and Ambush Bug together, and Mike inked it. Fun times and he could say he inked Giffen. Win-win!

It was an exciting time back then in Augusta comic book fandom. I worked in the comic book shop, local artist Tom Lyle was just beginning to work regularly at pro gigs and Mike was doing 3-D Pete in the comic industry’s weekly paper of record.

I see from his web page that he was at Dragon*Con last year. That makes it an even greater bummer that I couldn’t make it. I think the last time I saw him in person was in maybe 1991 or 1992 when I stayed with him and his wife Margi outside of Charlotte and we went to HeroesCon together for that weekend. Good gravy time flies.

Mike has been doing computer graphics for just about as long as I’ve known him. He did both eras of the computer generated logo for Reality Break, the radio version and also the updated podcast era logo. If you want graphics or animation done, check him out. He’s a great cartoonist and a great animator.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

Since this week I made some waves about ebook pricing, I wanted to blog while it was fresh another example of exactly what I was talking about, how money I was willing to toss a publisher’s way stayed in my pocket.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

This morning I listened to Edward Champion’s Bat Segundo Show #367, on which he interviewed Susan Straight. Her new book is Take One Candle Light a Room. From hearing this very interesting interview, I learned the novel is set in and around New Orleans before and after Katrina, and deals with troubled people trying not to screw up their lives. If you know my life history, my interests and taste in reading, you know this is basically a made sale. I spent a few years in Lafayette LA going to graduate school, visited New Orleans frequently and have a great affection for the region. Also, as a barely functioning fuck up myself I love stories about fuck ups. OK, let’s light this candle.

I went to Amazon, searched on her name and pulled up the novel. The price for the hardcover is $17.13, the (not yet published) paperback is $15.00 and the Kindle edition is $14.27. Oh boy. I was so willing to buy this book and now I won’t. The odds of me ever remembering to check back later when the price is more reasonable (if ever) are so small you can assume it is zero. Pantheon Books could have gotten some money out of me but the $14.27 is just too ridiculous.

At the time of this writing, the sales rank for the hardcover edition is #184,115 and the Kindle edition is #38,665. I don’t know what expectations were for this book and how it has performed for them in the 3 months it has been published but I think you can safely assume this is under the blockbuster level. For promotion that was to them effectively free – a podcast interview – they could have made a sale to me on a book that is not burning up the Amazon charts. Because of the pricing policy, they didn’t. There’s money that fails to go to Pantheon Books and Ms. Straight. Sorry, y’all.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

“Would you like to buy a box of Thin Mints from the Girl Scouts?”
“Sure.”
“OK, that will be $8.25.”
“Ummm …”

I can afford $14.27 for the Kindle novel and I could afford $8.25 for a box of cookies. Will I pay that? Barring some freakish external circumstances, no, not either. If I were desperate for either, maybe my perceived value would rise. As the 200th novel bought on a whim on a Kindle chocked full of stuff to read – no thank you.

After the thought that went into this weeks previous pricing blog post, as well as the comment thread on Teleread’s republishing of it, I realized there is an important flip side to my data argument. If I don’t like the pricing policies of electronic books, it’s really incumbent on me not to pay them. Otherwise, I become one of those data points on the higher end and I become part of the reason justifying the higher prices. I spent a lot of time and words telling publishers they should analyze that data. If I want to like the conclusion they reach, I have to make my tiny portion of the data match that conclusion. So, rather than loosening up I’m clamping down on the perceived value argument.

Ms. Straight, your books sounds wonderful. I wish your publisher did better by you. Good luck out there.

PS – Want to read a really great book that is reasonably priced? Try by Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge. You’ll be glad you did.

Other Quick Ebook thoughts

All ebook self-publication discussions eventually include the phrase “If it isn’t from a major publisher, how do I know it is any good?” It’s like the ebook version of Godwin’s Law. The people who say this are adorable, and have clearly read fewer shitty books from the Big Six publishers than I have. How do you know self-published books are any good? The same way you know those Anne Rice, Piers Anthony, Dan Brown and V.C. Andrews (TM) books on the best-seller lists are good.

The literary world wants you to know two facts: 1) If you open an independent, non-chain and non-corporate bookstore you should be supported. 2) If you publish your own work as an independent, non-chain and non-corporate publisher the book is clearly bad and should not be supported. It’s so obvious. Hustling to sell other peoples books == good. Hustling to sell your own books == bad – but only when you are making most of the money. If you hustle to earn 15% of retail price, then it is back to good again. Authors hate money or else they wouldn’t be authors. Otherwise they’d spend that time doing something more lucrative like … anything.

I’ve spent years interview authors via radio, podcast and print trying to help sell their books. I love authors and I want them to make as much money as possible. For approaching two decades I’ve been hearing stories of publishers failing to fulfill contractual obligations, pulping unsold books rather than offering them to the writer, failing to deliver on promised promotion and marketing, paying slowly and sometimes never. Despite all these kicks in the teeth, authors sit down and write their novels again and again. Their resilience is admirable, their spirits indomitable. And after all that, they still would rather deal with the publisher/distributor/retailer supply chain taking 85% of the money and are contemptuous of making 70% of the money for themselves. I admire them and I weep for them at the same time. Stay strong, you tough minded and underpaid beautiful bastards.

Ebook Pricing vs Revenue

Konrath Data Ebook Sales Curve

It’s amazing how often I see some variant of the phrase “We can’t afford to price our ebooks lower because we have costs to recoup.” 10 minutes ago I saw that in the current Locus magazine interview with John Picacio. He in general seems like someone who gets it, both here and in the Sidebar podcast interview with him that coincidentally I listened to last week. This is not to single him out, he is maybe the 10,000th person I’ve seen say this, only the most recent before I type this up. In his interview he says:

If pricepoints for e-books are forced down, do publishers simply slash budgets to achieve their margins? Does that inevitably mean a dramatic slash in quality of experience for the reading audience in terms of things like cover art, copyediting, and other services that readers take for granted?

This reflects a point of view so common in the publishing world that is received wisdom. No one questions whether or not lowering the prices of ebooks will make them more money in the end. They all know it makes less money.

I’m attaching to this post some graphs I generated. I did this early in 2010, based on then recent data that J. A. Konrath had posted to his blog. He’s a decent test bed for these numbers, as he had a number of ebooks out, some self-published and some published by a major publisher. These were priced all over the board. At the time, he was pricing his self-published books at $1.99, and the major publisher books were as high as the $8 vicinity. The commonality here is that none of them were getting much of a promotional push. There was no book tour, no advertising campaign so these numbers should be a realistic look at how price affects unit sales. It must be noted that I dropped two data points. He had two self-published books at $1.99 that sold so anamolously well that they blew out the chart. I dropped data to make the curve fit but the data I dropped would have biased this even farther to the low end of the curve. At the time, even Joe had no real explanation for why those books sold so well. He has since raised his price to $2.99 which is the same conclusion my data would lead you to. He’s a savvy cat, I’m guessing that sometime between then and now he also ran these numbers and raised his prices accordingly. (Update: yes, he did raise prices based on his observation of data.)

Konrath Data Ebook Revenue Curve

Let me disclaim my analysis by saying I am not an MBA or a business guy. I am however a scientist, once a chemist and now a computer scientist. I know a little bit about numbers. If you think I have a flaw in my analysis, please tell me where you think I’m wrong in comments. Civilly. Don’t bother flaming for I have a hard heart and admin rights.

Every single time I’ve heard anyone defend higher ebook prices, they cite the fact that “just because the publication is electronic, that doesn’t eliminate costs.” This fact is what I like to call “true but useless.” Yes there are costs associated, but all costs in ebooks are fixed. The publisher does whatever they need to do editorially, formatting wise, etc. When that is done, they push a file to Amazon/B&N/Smashwords et al and that is that. Whether there is 1 sale or 1,000,000 unit sales, the costs are identical. I’m treating promotion as a fixed cost although I can be argued on that. Regardless, the costs of promotion do not rise as a function of sales. They may drive sales, but if you sell 10x what you estimate, your promotion costs don’t expand ten-fold.

Since all costs that go into creating the publication ready file are fixed and there are no variable costs associated with providing copies to the market (from the publisher – Amazon et al are paying them) by my understanding the only factor that should be important is total revenue. If you lower the price of the book, you run the risk of pricing lower than a purchaser might have been willing to pay. That is an opportunity cost but not a hard cost. It’s not like in the paper world when publishers sell the remaindered book at less than the hard costs associated with the manufacture and shipping costs of those copies. That’s not possible in the digital world. Instead what is important is pricing the books so that the total revenue is maximized.

I took the Konrath data and did a logarithmic regression. You’ll see that the R^2 = 0.96, which is a pretty darned good fit. Then I used that equation to plot out the line that predicts the sales at any price point interpolated or extrapolated across the range and a little higher. I then made a second graph of the price multiplied by the unit sales (aka gross revenue) against the price. What you’ll see from the graph is that just a little over $3 per copy is where revenue maximizes. When you get under that, the per unit sales rise exponentially, but the price is low enough that the revenue drops. Around $3 is the sweet spot, again which I stress is for the data set that I have.

Now, I acknowledge the limits of the data I used for this analysis. Even better would be if I could get all of Konrath’s data for his history but a publisher or e-retailer could do much much better. Let’s suppose the standard price for a given Kindle book is $9.99. Have Amazon show 55% of the users that look at that page the $9.99 price. Randomly assigned, 5% of users each would see a price from $0.99 to $8.99 in $1 increments. Analyze that data for the conversion rate to sales at each price and you could generate much better statistics than I have because all of those numbers will be for the same book at the same time. This is ultimately my larger point – in digital sales, this kind of experiment is possible. If the major publishers haven’t done this and don’t understand what this curve looks like for their books then they really have no excuse for stating definitively why they can’t lower prices.

The assumption under all those statements is that the demand for these books is inelastic. If you price it at $14.99 you’ll get about the same sales figures at $9.99 or $6.99 or $2.99 so pricing it high maximizes revenue. For certain well known marquee writers this might be true but my suspicion is that the market is far more elastic than any publisher would like to think. I think that’s the root of this mindset. Publishers and authors ultimately have a worldview that is the opposite of this analysis. They don’t want to believe that they have a commodity product that is price sensitive. No one sits down to spend a few months or years writing a novel thinking “wow, if this book is priced too high the Kindle readers will just move on to another book priced more reasonably with which they’ll be just as happy.” I feel for them as a person who has tried to write fiction and will do it again. That’s a hard fact to face but I think accepting it would make everyone more money.

Let me state this one more time: I don’t think lowering ebook prices costs anyone money unless and until they drop under that magic point. I think authors and publishers would make more money if they’d understand these principles, experiment to determine the revenue maximizing points and then price accordingly.

Here’s a real world example from my life on how this principle worked for me and how I hypothesize it works for more of my fellow Kindle and Nook readers. I am interested in Greg Graffin’s book Anarchy Evolution. I heard the interview on Skepticality and went to buy it for my Kindle. At the time I looked, it was priced at $14.99. I came, looked at that and said “Well, screw this. That’s more than the book is worth to me. Pass.” I closed the tab in my browser and never thought about it again until today. When I needed a book I had previously passed on for high price for this anecdote, I thought of this one. Until assembling this post, I hadn’t even realized the price has been lowered to $9.99 for the Kindle version. HarperCollins had my attention months ago, got me to the page to purchase it but an excessively high price kept me from buying it. Iif the average book is priced above my impulse buy threshold, the purchase ain’t happening. If it were not for writing this post right now, I wouldn’t have ever thought about the book again so the one and only chance to flip me to a paying customer would have passed without conversion.

Publishers seem to fail to understand the low friction digital marketplace for ebooks. This is an impulse-buy driven mode. I am a reader of books and a lover of books but my wife has threatened physical violence if I bring in any more paper books without getting rid of some of the thousands that fill every available bookshelf in a house too big for two people. You will not sell me paper books except for those very few novels by special writers I must have in paper. On the Kindle, though, it’s fair game. The sad truth is that for my whole life, in any given time period I have always purchased more books than I read. Even though my physical capacity is exhausted, I still want to buy them. Even though I have every single Anthony Trollope novel you can get from Project Gutenberg on my Kindle, I still want more books. I’m a hoarder. Publishers have a chance to get my money even though I have more paper books and ebooks than I can reasonably expect to read in this lifetime. They have one and only one way to blow this, when I come to look at the page and there is a price above my impulse buy threshold for that item.

Publishers and authors continue to try to make this a moral argument. “What, you cheap bastard ebook readers don’t think we should get paid for our work?” I think if they suppress the ego driven umbrage reaction and instead get down to the realities of the market they are in, everyone can make more money and be more happy. The artistic goodness of the work isn’t tied to the price point, so don’t be offended if you make more money at $2.99 than $9.99. Instead, shut up and cash the check, friend.

I listened back to the first few minutes of a panel I moderated at Balticon 2010, and in my introduction I used the phrase “I’m done begging people to get in the lifeboats. If they don’t want in, that’s on them.” I’m not beating my head trying to evangelize to publishers why they should price appropriately. Some are and some aren’t; some will and some won’t. I have enough faith in the marketplace that in the long term it will all shake out. The question is, how much money are you leaving on the table while you get your shit together?

There are people who understand the dynamic of this marketplace, J.A. Konrath being one of many. He periodically posts about some of the other self-published authors who are following the same path, pricing reasonably and moving thousands of units per month. (Side note: the Nathan Lowell mentioned in that Konrath post was also on that Baltcon panel with me. He’s a talented, hard working guy.) That translates to thousands of dollars per month in the pockets of these writers, since they are keeping the full 70% of the retail price by self-publishing. These people are out there, they are filling niches in the marketplace. Established writers, you could be doing this. Existing publishers, you can be pricing to fulfill this demand and bringing in more money. There will be a day in the future where I will be one of those self-published authors. Will my book be as good and successful as Joe’s and Nate’s novels? I hope so. I’m willing to fill that niche at that end of the pricing scale. Are you?

Updates: Paul Biba at Teleread asked for permission to reprint this post, which I happily granted and that is online here.

It’s a failure of clarity in my original article, but I’m not advocated for $2.99 as the perfect One True Price for all ebooks forever. That was true for this data set, which is already a year old. This might well change over time, differ from author to author, genre to genre or publisher to publisher. What I do want injected into the thinking is that these numbers are calculable and measurable. No one needs to say – as did Lou Anders later in the Locus Magazine I reference above – “We can’t lower prices because we still have costs.” How do you know you don’t gross more money if you lower prices?

The other big point is that unless your price is so low as to be left of the curve, you lower your total revenue by raising prices. J.A. Konrath was to the left of that curve at $1.99. I highly doubt HarperCollins is left of that curve with any $11.99 books.

Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge is Back in Print

I’m not shy about letting people know that Kelley Eskridge’s debut novel Solitaire is possibly my favorite book I’ve read in the last decade. It was shocking to me that it was her first novel because it was so firm handed that I’d have easily believed it was her dozenth. She had opportunities to soften the blow and let her protagonist off the moral hook and she never did. I was impressed with her courage as an author to never take the easy way out and the book is stronger for it.

I wrote up a review on this very blog in 2002, and now that book is back in print from Small Beer Press. I own the hardcover of the book but I bought the Kindle copy yesterday as well, just to always have it with me. I never reread books and I’m going to reread this one.

Kelley is one of my favorite people in this world and she is one of my favorite writers in this world. I strongly urge anyone with an interest in science fiction or tough minded psychological fiction to pick this book up. It is a tour de force. In fact, I’ll go ahead and offer my money back guarantee – if you buy it and don’t like it, I’ll buy the book from you. I stand behind it that firmly.

You can buy it from Amazon, from Weightless Books in electronic format, from Barnes and Noble or from your local store. However you choose to go out and get it, I suggest that you do it. This is a book that will leave you with a different world view coming out than you went in with. The number of authors who’ve done that to me is vanishingly small: J. G. Ballard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kelley. Read the book, you’ll be glad you did.

How to Kludge Together a Flattr based Podcast Payment System

I had a brainstorm tonight on how to hack together a way to automatically pay the podcasters that you listen to. I’m not exactly sure the best way to implement but here is the basic principle. It might have too many moving parts to be feasible but it is interesting to think about.

  1. Both you the listener and the podcaster need to have Flattr accounts and also Last.FM accounts.
  2. The podcaster must create good ID3 tags for artist and unique ones for each episode, so that every single MP3 has one and only URL associated with it at Last.FM.
  3. The listener needs some form of scrobbling software that automatically records their listens into their Last.FM.
  4. The podcaster publishes a new episode of their show. At the same time they do, they submit a Flattr for the URL of the Last.FM on top of whatever other thing they might. I submit the permalink of the blog post but this way I would do both of them for each episode. (Question: Is submitting a Last.FM URL within the terms of use for Flattr? )
  5. Now, with whatever mystical system in the middle, which could be any kind of script or a webservice or an application or even a plugin to the scrobbling application, you map the two things together. Periodically you go out and read your recent scrobbles from Last.FM (or do it at the same time you scrobble) and for each of those URLs you call the Flattr API to find that item and submit a Flattr to it from your account.
  6. Profit!

That’s really all it would take. The rest of it would happen automatically. If any of your podcasts exist, they get a Flattr from you for each episode you listen. You don’t have to remember to go out and Flattr anything, and you can control how much you pay podcasters the same way you do anything on Flattr – you pick your monthly budget and let it ride.

It all makes sense to me. The only question is does the Flattr directlive to “only submit your own items” prohibit you from submitting an Last.FM URL, since that isn’t your site or does it allow it because that URL does actually represent your work? If it does, then gluing up all the stuff in the middle is pretty trivial. The problem is that when you get this down to the set of people that have Flattr accounts for both podcasters and listeners, then also require Last.FM accounts and also engaging the glue in the middle (installing an app or plugin or setting up a webservice) it might get down to such a vanishingly small set of people to be silly. However if this is viable from Flattr policy, I’m willing to set this up. I’ll take automated Flattrs from my nerd listeners gladly. If the proof of concept, uhhm, proves the concept then maybe other podcasters and listeners would be willing to put this money plumbing together.

Patton Oswalt on the Death of Nerd Culture

Via a link from Tom Spurgeon, I saw this article Patton Oswalt wrote for Wired.com. It reads like a remix of points from Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, ironically enough. I’m just not sure I buy it from either of them. They mythologize the era when information was hard to come by, which is the classic aging crank construction. Patton decries how easy it is to learn about things with:

We’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.

Now, with everyone more or less otaku and everything immediately awesome (or, if not, just as immediately rebooted or recut as a hilarious YouTube or Funny or Die spoof), the old inner longing for more or better that made our present pop culture so amazing is dwindling. The Onion’s A.V. Club—essential and transcendent in so many ways—has a weekly feature called Gateways to Geekery, in which an entire artistic subculture—say, anime, H. P. Lovecraft, or the Marx Brothers—is mapped out so you can become otaku on it but avoid its more tedious aspects. Here’s the danger: That creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix.

The question I have is whether Oswalt decided that creating output based on existing pop culture was bad before or after he wrote the comic book Serenity: Float Out in Joss Whedon’s universe? It’s a pretty unconvincing argument when put forth by someone who is an engine of the very thing he asserts is weak tea. I find this cut from the same cloth as when I heard Harlan Ellison proclaim that his writing is better than younger writers because he does it on a manual typewriter that “takes foot pounds of pressure to operate.” He did in fact say that, in an interview on the Writers Strike Chronicles podcast a few years ago.

I work hard to fight the urge to decry other generations for doing things differently than mine did. I grew up hearing from Baby Boomers that every god damn thing we did was wrong because they did it all different at Woodstock. The punk generation explicitly rejected their predecessors, and then turn around and mock their successors for not rejecting them. Who cares? Do what you want, next generation. It’s not my job to like what you do, rather the opposite. Patton Oswalt wants pop culture to get off his lawn and he shakes his internet cane in rage. Have at it son, good luck with that.

Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for January 9, 2011 – “Doubling Down on Communities”

Here is the direct MP3 download for the EGC clambake for January 9, 2011. I play a holiday song from Jill Sobule that is actually almost an anti-holiday song; I talk about the various communities that I’ve been in over my lifetime and how I’m retreating somewhat from the frenzy of social media into some of my oldest surviving online communities; I talk abut getting jealous with my time and withdrawing from projects and sites that aren’t doing it for me; I play a song from Alejandro Escovedo; I talk about loving the new Love and Rockets comic; I talk about my blog post about Colleen Doran vs. digital piracy; I discuss Dave Sim, Cerebus TV and Locus Magazine; I play a song by Jaill and call it good.

You can subscribe to this podcast feed via RSS. To sponsor the show, contact BackBeat Media. Don’t forget, you can fly your EGC flag by buying the stuff package. This show as a whole is Creative Commons licensed Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5. Bandwidth for this episode is provided by Cachefly.

Links mentioned in this episode:

New Years Means Nothing

I’ve drifted away from the Merlin Mann hero worship, but today I saw a really good post from him about changing habits and making resolutions. This is one of the reasons I stopped making resolutions years ago. Creating a change you want to see in yourself and then tying it to a resolution is a kiss of death for it. It’s an admission that you will perform the puppet show of pretending you care and then forgetting all about it. Independently the other day I started assembling the list of projects large and small in my life that I want to make progress on. It was a shockingly long list which also explains why I don’t make progress. It occurred to me days after I started that I was leaving off projects for which I have web sites up and running. I registered domains for these things, set them up on my Hostgator account and even so it took a few days to remember I even had them. This signifies that I have too many projects in my life.

The sad thing is that I’d love to move on all of these projects. It’s true about me as about most people that I love starting projects and concluding them but I’m far less interested in executing on them. Although New Years and resolutions is not a triggering event for me to re-evaluate, the imminent birth of my daughter is. I can pretty much guarantee for the early part of 2011 we will barely be holding it together. We will be old parents dealing with a newborn at first, then trying to integrate working my day job with being the dad of a young baby. I know I will barely have any time, so I have to jealously guard whatever little bits of time come my way. This requires thinking through that list and making the hard decisions.

I want to work on all these projects. That’s why they are on the list. I just physically can’t work on them all so now it becomes the Sophie’s Choice model. If I could take one and only one project and work it all the way to successful completion this year, which one would it be? I think I know (although I’m keeping it to myself.) Now the question is how in the next week or three to do all the groundwork necessary so that I can decompose this into something I can achieve in bursts of 15 minutes of time stolen away from my life. It will be hard to put most of these things I care about into cryonic suspension as if they were going on an interstellar voyage. However, they will all still be there later if and when I ever get back to them.

I am already in the process of divesting myself of AmigoFish. Originally I was planning to shut it down but a white knight has emerged to keep it alive. The transition is under way and around the time my daughter arrives I should have only the minor role we specificied contractually in providing emergency system administration help. That’s painful because I’d loved to have made this more of a success but making the hard choice to no longer pursue it feels good. I can’t adequately time slice between 20 different things, so I’m keeping active the one or two that I care most about and everything else goes on hiatus. With luck 2012 will be a great time of refreshed enthusiasm and reinvigorated process. Possibly, it could also be a time of purging my metaphorical project pantry of the cans of beets I know I’ll never eat. Either way, I feel good about it.

May all of you have a successful year of making the hard choices and moving your individual ball down the field of your lives.

Still Drunk, Still Seeing the Junk

I was pleased over the holidays to see this post on the Beatnik Turtle blog. Tom, aka the guitar player of the band and one of the primary co-conspirators with me in inflicting the song “Drunk Man’s Junk” on the internet noticed that every scotch mentioned by name in the song was available in the Heathrow airport duty free shop. This is was a great and fun note on which to end 2010. I love Beatnik Turtle as a band, I love all the guys I’ve spent time with, and I love that song. It’s gratifying that after 15 months, it’s still the highest ranked song in their popularity list. I didn’t even commit voting fraud!

For 2011, may all you out there keep your heads up but your kilts and your liquor down.

Dealing With the Post-Scarcity Digital World

When I write a long post that gets any sort of traction in the blogosphere, invariably some drive-by commentor will refer to it as “rambling.” Generally they do this on posts where I try to tie together multiple different stories into a larger meta-story. This will be one of those. Don’t bother bitching about this post rambling, you have been warned.

About six weeks ago I along with the whole online comics world read the post that Colleen Doran made about online piracy. I’m old enough that when I was a teenager I bought a complete run of the black and white magazine sized A Distant Soil published by WaRP Graphics. I’ve purchased sporadic issues of her more recent issues of that series, both when it was self-published and via Image Comics. I’ve got about as much affection for her and her work as any comics fan. Even so, I found her piece full of assertions as fact that just didn’t seem to hold water to me. She lost me in the second sentence of the piece:

Like many artists, I’ve seen my sales figures chipped away as the print market shrinks due, in no small part, to rampant online piracy.

I agree with a lot of her sentiment and desire to control her own work. It is her work, she should be able to make the decisions. However, I think laying sales woes on online file trading is probably incorrect but definitely unproductive. Here is my take on Colleen Doran’s sales woes. I mentioned above that I’ve been buying her work on and off for 27 years. Between 1993 and 2008 I was not buying comic books regularly. I’d pop in to a shop every 6 months, buy what looked interesting and leave. However, since 2008 I’ve been pre-ordering them, going through Previews each month and going into my local shop almost every week. After two solid years of comic shop trips and perusing the catalog closely each month, I had no idea Collen Doran was still in the comics business. I hadn’t noticed any work of hers, I hadn’t read any news stories about her. I had no idea that she was publishing a webcomic version of A Distant Soil. I’m friendly to her work and willing to buy it, but didn’t even know any of it was being published. It wasn’t online piracy keeping me from paying her, it was having no idea she had purchasable work. I’d say when people like me are so far outside, that’s Colleen Doran’s true problem and it is a systematic, catastrophic, long-term one.

Update 1: After publishing this post, I went back and reread some more Colleen Doran writings. The more I read, the less I understand her position. She’s putting most of the series online herself. It’s out there both published by her and in bootleg versions put online by others. Other than a loss of control I don’t really see an effective difference either way. Anyone who wants can get it either way. This just doesn’t seem to be worth the mental energy she puts into it. She also makes much of “getting depressed” when she saw 145 different sites sharing it. Out of curiosity, I googled for “a distant soil bittorrent”, opened up the torrent for the top hit. It’s been sitting there for 15 minutes and there are no seeders for it. Is it possible that of her 145 sites none of them have any active seeders and so the entire thing is a phantom issue? Seems possible to me. End Update 1

Update 2: As an experiment after the above, I tried to find an active torrent or download of A Distant Soil. in 15 minutes I couldn’t find one that worked. I found bogus links and bullshit sites and torrents with no seeders but no successful downloads. So why does she care so much if there are 145 different sites with dead torrents or if some of her webcomic traffic comes from those looking for torrents. Take your traffic where you can find it. The more I dig into this, it just seems churlish to declare a feud against those people who care enough about your work to search for it or who know your name and care to look for it. That seems like a rare enough occurrence to be something to be enjoyed rather than hating them for having the wrong intentions. Most people don’t care about any cartoonist at all of any stripe. End Update 2

Not long after reading her piece, I saw this interview with Mark Waid about his current views on digital comics. He has basically the opposite take as Ms. Doran. He’s a lot more like J. A. Konrath is on the topic of Kindle sales. Rather than fighting the future, he’s trying to find a way to get in front of it and use the ease of digital publication along with the ubiquity of devices that can read comics as a way to make money and rekindle the waning reader base.

Waid also cited in that interview the case of Steve Lieber engaging with 4chan community when his series Underground was being bootlegged on the site. As a result of his constructive engagement, sales on the series went way up. This is the part that feels to me like a missed opportunity over and over in these types of exchanges. Teachable moments are allowed to pass over and over, so good on Lieber for actually turning this into something positive.

Last Balticon I was on a panel that dealt with a topic sort of like this. (You can download the audio here.) There was a question from the audience about how to deal with it when you put art online and someone else takes it without authorization and sells unauthorized merchandise. My answer was that they are making the merchandise and either making money or losing money. If they lose money, that’s what the bastard deserved. If they are making money, then they are taking value that is rightfully yours. However, if you were not previously filling that market with authorized merchandise, this was a problem and you probably should. As much as it sucks to have others fooling with your creative property, they also demonstrated to you the market exists and you need to be in it. If you do have legitimate merchandise out there and the bootleggers can outcompete you with your own fans, you need to understand what has gone wrong there and fix it, post haste.

In the time since I began writing this post (24 hours and counting), I listened to Webcomics Weekly episode #71. In it, they mention Doran by name as having an approach that they find as counter-productive. Scott Kurtz described his ideal approach – not necessarily what he is doing but what he hopes to do in 2011 – as “giving away the infinite and charging for the scarce.” This show contained much discussion about that topic and how to find the scarce to charge for. The working principle is that when this is achieved, all the infinite that you give away serves as free advertising for the scarce. As an example from another participant on that show, Dave Kellett’s Sheldon webcomic has a link under every single comic that allows you to buy the original art. The strips that gain some virality tend to get snapped up, but without being precious Kellett has a built in income stream directly from the art and independent of any other merchandise or advertising. He charges $125 for daily strips and $155 for color Sunday strips. Obviously they don’t all sell, but this means that he has an income stream that could be as much as $45K a year just from original art if he actually sold all the pieces. In this way, Kellett has an incentive to get as many people excited about the strip as possible because then he has potential customers for his art, the books and all other merchandise. The daily strip, the infinite, is given away. The scarce he charges for.

One time comic book artist and now teacher and rabble rouser Stephen R. Bissette blogs at least once a day, sometimes many times. He also puts up for sale a sketch every week. Judging from the prices he probably nets around $5K a year just from these sketches. I’m not solely flapping my gums (or fingers) on this topic. I’m a long-time fine of Bissette’s since he did Swamp Thing in the 1980s. Last week his sale sketch was one of Captain Beefheart and I liked it, so I bought it. I do actually support artists and try to give them my money especially when I can get something cool for it.

Bissette has been going through a long slow exchange with Cerebus creator Dave Sim about the responsibilities of creators and particularly collaborative teams. I watched Sim’s odd but fascinating Cerebus TV episode about Bissette where he discussed these issues and how creators should strongly lean towards self-publishing and not trusting companies or other creators to manage their interests for them. As Sim stated in the episode “Creators should take care of their own business because it is their business to take care of.” His context was more about co-creators such as Alan Moore deferring from decision making but it is equally applicable in the context I’m discussing. I highly recommend anyone interested in this topic watch the episode. It appears that after one episode rolls off there is no way to see it again so time is of the essence, friends.

Bissette is also responding to Sim via his blog. Because Sim has no computer and has never used email, this correspondence is taking the form of Bissette replying by blog to missives that Sim types up and faxes him. It’s downright adorable. SRB’s end of the conversation includes Sim’s faxes so it is easy to follow along with the thread and I eagerly await each new entry.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Back to where we started, with Colleen Doran blaming widespread digital piracy for lowered sales figures. That’s an assertion that fails the test of Occam’s Razor. The comic book industry, from publishers through distributors and on to retailers, is a systematically screwed up and dysfunctional affair that has spent 20 years slowly driving the customer base into spending its money in other places. Via Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter (the only comics blog I follow regularly), I see directly or via Tom’s links much discussion of the long slow crisis of making money in comic books. One recent example was this extensive interview with commentator David Brothers. It included a what Brothers sees as a prescription for fixing the ailing market:

Publishers need to start thinking long-term. Marvel publishes too many comics. DC publishes too many comics. At one point this year there was what, 19 separate Batman-related titles? How many series are out right now that star Thor? I would slash and burn their lines.

In that two years since I came back to comic book buying as a regular customer, I’ve grown unbelievably weary of the market saturation, the ridiculous company wide “events”, that last for a few months or a year and are immediately followed by another event. Marvel Comics goes from Secret Invasion to Civil War to Dark Reign to Siege. I can see how this presents an impediment for new customers jumping onboard. I’m a 35+ year reader of Marvel Comics and it presents an impediment to me. DC is just as bad with Blackest Night/Brightest Day. I just don’t care. I hate these things and I think these publishers are killing their own companies and industry with them.

Comics retailing is also it’s own weird world with logic that nowhere else would you hear. For example, practically anytime I’ve gone to any comic store and asked for a series I didn’t see on the shelf – my regular store or any that I visit – I will hear “We don’t carry that because no one buys it.” It’s like clockwork. This item that I want to buy, for which I have money in my wallet and a desire to purchase isn’t stocked and it isn’t stocked because no one buys it. That’s why I can’t buy it right now with the money in my hand, because no one buys it. This makes sense in comic book world, mainly because there are so many titles published by the big guys that no shop can afford to sink in the capital to stock everything.

Personally I think every comic shop should always buy at least one issue of every comic that comes out so they never have to turn away customers because “no one buys that.” Most grown up retailers in normal businesses have tight enough inventory controls to know when they have sold out of an item that has become popular and the ability to get more in. How can you grow your customer base if you don’t carry what new customers want? How can you get your current customers buying new and different products if you don’t have them in? This, Ms. Doran, I think is a far worse threat to the sales figures of A Distant Soil than any amount of digital piracy could ever be. It’s that stores won’t stock your comic even if and when it comes out because “no one buys that.” I would be willing to buy it, except if I don’t pre-order it specially I’ll never see it.

Just for historical fun, I dug out my copy of Ultra Klutz #6 from 1987. Jeff Nicholson printed the circulation figure in each issue of the run. I picked one far enough in that any first issue effects were gone so it would be a more typical result. Issue #6 had a circulation of just under 10,000. This was a weirdo, oddball self-published comic and 23 years ago it sold just barely under 5 figures. A print run that size today would outsell almost all indie comics and some of the offerings from Marvel and DC. The market has shed enough size in one generation that the previous era’s outlier would be today’s solid performer.

Let me close this off with the story of the one and only time I have illegally downloaded online comics. In October, the Walking Dead television show was getting ready to debut on the air. I’ve had people recommending the Walking Dead comic book as one of the best (or the very best) ongoing series. I never doubted any of the recommendation, but the comic was a long-running series already in the 70s. From all accounts, it was a series with meaningful deaths and ongoing spoilers such that I wouldn’t want to read it any other way than starting at the beginning and reading all the way through. There are collections of the series available but the first volume wasn’t in stock anywhere convenient to me. I wanted to read some of the series before watching the show, so I ended up looking for (and finding) a bittorrent of the scans of the first 76 issues. Within 20 minutes of finding the torrent I was reading the first issue. By the time I had read the first 10 issues, I was hooked and the next time I went into my regular comic shop I added it to my pull list. I watched the TV series and enjoyed it quite a bit. I’m now involved in the franchise in all media.

I had several options for getting involved in the series but all of them presented barriers to entry of price or convenience or both. Once I tried the frictionless no-risk proposition, I got immediately hooked and flipped to a customer. More than practically any other product, comic book fans are completists and spazmos. Although I have digital versions of the first 76 issues, in the long run that won’t satisfy me. I’m buying the series from here forward and either via collections or single issues I’ll end up owning the whole run one day. Yes, I violated Robert Kirkman’s copyright with the download and I suppose he could be angry about it, possibly sue me or even bring legal action. The other option would be to shrug, say “F it” and be happy that in a world absolutely awash in ways to spend my discretionary income and leisure time he managed to capture any of it by any method.

That’s where I’m going to end this long and discursive entry. I did wrong with my download and those who share Ms. Doran’s work are doing wrong. However, this tale of sin has the possibility of redemption and if she desires it and is willing to deal with the present reality I think she can still make money and still be happy in this new world that is a mix of digital and corporeal. It requires dialing down the umbrage, dialing up the pragmatism, putting out product that is available for the fans you nurture and engage. Give them a better experience buying the legitimate from you and they will. Give away the infinite and sell the scarce. May Colleen Doran and Steve Bissette and Dave Sim and Dave Kellett and Steve Lieber and Scott Kurtz and Alec Longstreth and Jon Chad and every other cartoonist who spends their precious days at a drawing board or computer make the living they desire and get the happiness they deserve. Amen.

Weightless Books Sitewide Sale

Indie ebook retailer Weightless Books ran a 25% off sale for the week between Xmas and New Years Day. However, they still have the sale banner up and I made a purchase yesterday and was still able to use the coupon code, which is “25off” . There is some good stuff in here, particularly for fans of fantasy, science fiction and romance genres. If you like ebooks yet decry the Amazon hegemony, there is no better way to fight the power than doing a little business with the little guys.

For most books, you can choose to download in ePub, Mobi, Lit or PDF formats, and they are all DRM free. Even though I have a Kindle I download in ePub and put them in Calibre to let it convert them. Thus far, it has turned out great every time.