The Business Rusch: No Reader Left Behind

From 1991 to 2009, my entire career was about the failure to get my books to the readers who wanted them. Every week, I’d get a letter or an e-mail from a fan:

Dear Ms. Rusch,

Did you know that the fourth book of your Fey series is impossible to find? Do you have an extra copy you can send me? I’d happily pay for it.

Or

Dear Ms. Nelscott,

When will you publish the next Smokey Dalton novel? I love Smokey and want to read more about him.

Or

Dear Ms. Grayson,

Why haven’t you written a novel about Sancho? He’s a great character and I would love to read about him.

To the Rusch fan, I’d write back that yes, I knew that the fourth book of the Fey was hard to find because Bantam books took it out of print before releasing the fifth book. Ever since the fifth book came out, I’d get versions of that letter over and over again. Fans who wanted to read the series never made it to the fifth book because they couldn’t find the fourth.

Or, in the case of French readers, they couldn’t find the fifth book. My French publisher bought and paid for all five books, divided them in half, and published eight of the ten volumes. They didn’t publish books nine and ten (book five in the U.S.) because they’d stopped publishing fantasy altogether. The series had been growing until that moment and they’d spent a considerable sum of money on the series and the final book, but decided to write all that off instead of publishing the last two books.

The Smokey Dalton series was cursed from the beginning. Several traditional publishers bid six figures on the first novel about a black private detective in 1968 only to withdraw their bids when they discovered that I am white. One publisher took a chance on the book, but refused to market it to the African American community because—you guessed it—I’m white.

The Grayson books had better luck but they didn’t stay in print long enough for readers who’d liked the first books to find the later ones.

I have story after story after story like these—how the Fey didn’t even make it to book four in England, how the publisher forgot to put my first Rusch mystery novel into production while soliciting orders for it (see that complicated saga here), how the first Retrieval Artist publisher took the previous books out of print before releasing the next book in the series, and on, and on, and on.

I got letter after letter weekly, sometimes daily, for years from readers who couldn’t find my books. I’d answer as best I could, but generally my answers were about factors I couldn’t control, and things I couldn’t change. I would continually disappoint my own readers because I couldn’t provide them access to the books I had written.

Honestly, I still get those letters. The difference is this: From 2009 to now, I am running as fast as I can to get everything back in print. Everything. I’m also writing my fingers off to complete my last few traditional publishing book contracts and write the series books that fans have waited years, sometimes decades, for.

I’m not the only one running either. At WMG Publishing, a small army of people are putting up my backlist in electronic, trade paperback, and audio. With my help, this army is scrutinizing old contracts, seeing what rights I own, and figuring out how to market those newly reprinted books to countries that they’ve never been in.

As for translations, even though I’ve spoken to six different translators about doing editions of books for the French and German markets, I haven’t acted on it yet; there’s simply too much in English to reprint.

You all know what changed between 2009 and now. Publishing became easier. I no longer had to prove to Traditional Publishing Company Z to take a risk on a series that Traditional Publishing Company A had screwed up. I managed to do that once upon a time—Sourcebooks took the early Grayson novels when the company bought Wickedly Charming—but Sourcebooks is an unusual 21st century company. It understands how to build an author, not how to abandon one.

I’m not telling  you my sorry saga of writus interruptus so that you’ll pity me. I’m telling you this to explain a perspective of mine that shows up repeatedly in this blog:

Make your books as widely available as possible. Don’t rank one reader above another. Don’t leave any readers behind.

For decades, traditional publishing has ignored readers, looking instead at – hell, I don’t know, because I can’t say the bottom line. If traditional publishing really cared about the bottom line, those publishers would stick with writers whose series are building. But those publishers don’t. They’re off chasing the next bestseller, the next bright new genre, the next—oh! Squirrel!

Long before Kevin Kelly posted “1,000 True Fans,” a blog post that went viral in 2008, I had heard that every well known writer had a set number of true fans. Sometimes that number got quoted as 1,000 and sometimes as 500, but it seemed to be the conventional wisdom.

More than twenty years ago, my company Pulphouse Publishing co-published a series of books with Bantam Books. Bantam’s editor and publisher worked with me (as the editor of Pulphouse’s book line) and Dean Wesley Smith (as publisher) in choosing which of our limited edition books would merit a Bantam mass market edition.

I suggested a fantastic book to Bantam’s editor, a book by writer who had won every award in the business and then some, a writer every sf fan knew and loved, a writer who was (next to Isaac Asimov) one of the most famous sf writers of the day.

The editor looked at me with shock and said with great contempt, “Everyone knows that writer has five hundred true fans who buy everything and no other fans at all. That’s why you can sell out the limited editions. We wouldn’t sell a copy.”

And with that, the editor pre-rejected the writer’s brilliant novella, without even reading it, based on the true-fan analogy.

I admit, that was the first time I’d ever heard of true fans, but it certainly wasn’t the last. And usually, those in traditional publishing (or the folks I knew in Hollywood) would mention the true-fan concept with dripping sarcasm.

I understand it now: when you have to recoup $250,000 to 2 million or more in a six-month window, with no real hope of making that investment back after those six months, 500 or even 1000 true fans are a literal drop in the bucket.

In a big media environment, where the next best thing is the only thing, slowly cultivating a fan base a few hundred people at a time means absolutely nothing.

But we are no longer in a big media environment. In all of the media categories from books to music to movies, the gigantic corporate sales machines no longer cough up the huge numbers of sales that they used to manage. Some of that is a proliferation of entertainment—hundreds of TV channels with more programming than I can count compared to the three TV channels of my childhood—and some of that is the internet itself, making it possible for me to find Kevin Kelly’s article years after he wrote it with a few clicks of the mouse.

We consumers have changed our expectations. If I miss an episode of my favorite television show, I look for it just a few hours later on iTunes or Hulu or the show’s own website. If a friend recommends a book in our midnight conversation, I can order said book at that very moment on my phone (if I’m away from home) or my iPad or my Kindle or the office Nook or my laptop, or, or, or…

We no longer know what the Number One Album in the country is because there is no Number One Album any more. There’s a number one album on the country charts; a number one album on the pop charts, a number one album on the R&B charts—and the number one album in the country only becomes that if the album sells on a multitude of charts.

The number one album is no longer that important to us as consumers—where, as recently as thirty years ago, even the folks who didn’t listen to much music could tell you who was hitting the top of the list because that music was everywhere.

The big media stranglehold on distribution is gone, so you can now read my opinions on my blog without having to wait for a magazine or newspaper to decide if I’m columnist-worthy.

Because our consumer expectations have changed, we no longer tolerate limits. Now when I get the Dear Ms. Rusch letters about my traditionally published books, the letters go like this:

Dear Ms. Rusch,

I live in Italy and I would like to order an e-book copy of your novel Diving Into the Wreck from a source other than Amazon. Can you tell me where I can find a copy?

Sometimes I can, and sometimes I can’t. Because my traditionally published Diving novels are limited to certain territories, and if you live outside of those territories, then the book is available only through paper editions or highly expensive e-book editions that come through a select few vendors.

Weirdly enough to old-timer me, my independently published books are much easier to find worldwide than my traditionally published books, partly because I control all of the rights and, more importantly, I exploit them. I make sure that the English-language version is available in Japan as well as in Italy. I also have the books on Smashwords, so that non-US readers can download a PDF or epub file for their computer, even if they live in a country that places a huge surcharge on the online stores (like Amazon or iBookstore) that makes e-books much too expensive for casual reading.

In his article, Kevin Kelly talked about the 1,000-true fan thing as something a new artist can build, slowly, one fan at a time, and for those of you who are relatively new writers, you need to pay attention to that, cultivate it, and continue to grow your readership.

But I find myself wondering about the old version of the 1,000 true fan thing. Did that Bantam editor really hold the Famous Science Fiction Writer in contempt for managing to maintain 1,000 true fans despite having every book out of print, despite the fact that it was nearly impossible to find backlist anywhere?

For the past twenty years, most traditional publishers did not cultivate artists whose growth was slow—a few hundred books in each release. So no one knows whether that Famous Science Fiction Writer had more than 1,000 true fans—or could have had many, many more than 1,000 true fans had publishing been more supportive.

And how are true fans counted? I know that to the Bantam editor, those fans were people who bought everything the Famous Science  Fiction Writer bought the moment the book came out. The key word here is “bought.” The Bantam editor never considered the more financially reserved fans, the ones who haunted used bookstores for the Famous Science Fiction Writer’s backlist or got every book the moment it arrived in the local library.

Are true fans people who read everything the writer wrote over time? Are true fans the people who recommend one book by a writer to a friend? Are true fans bloggers who mention each new release on their blogs?

We don’t know. And now that books don’t have to go out of print within six months, we might actually have a chance to see how 1,000 true fans who buy the book on first release might become 10,000 true fans who buy on first release ten  years from now.

Of course, it’s not that simple. I got my start in magazines. Magazine subscriptions have a baseline level that they rarely fall below, even with no publicity. But subscription drives can grow subscribership as much as 100% for a year. Then there’s a natural fall-off.

There’s also two other kinds of attrition. The first is death: the subscriber who has subscribed every year until her death. Estates never renew magazine subscriptions. The second attrition is financial and/or personal: eventually the long-term subscriber realizes that she no longer reads the magazine (if she ever did), or can no longer afford to buy the magazine, and declines to resubscribe.

For a magazine’s circulation to remain stable, the magazine must replace the subscribers lost by attrition every year.

For a magazine’s circulation to grow, the magazine must somehow find new subscribers in quantity, not just the subscribers who will replace the old ones.

For the past fifty or so years, book sales have not worked on this model (except [here in the US] through Harlequin).  A hundred years ago, most hardcover books were sold by subscription.

The internet’s algorithms make a pseudo subscription model possible. On any online bookstore, you can click a button so that you’ll be notified when a new book appears from your favorite writer. That’s not quite the subscription model, but it’s close. You don’t have to troll bookstore shelves to find your favorite writer’s latest or watch reviews hoping someone mentions your favorite writer’s book when it’s released. You can get an e-mail with a Buy-It-Now link that will enable you to get the book the moment it’s announced. Preorders have become easier too.

And it isn’t just online bookstores. Truly organized writers have an e-mail list that fans have signed up for, so that the writer can notify her fans when the next book comes out. (No, I’m not that organized yet. I hope to have something like it next year.)

In doing this, readers are creating their own subscription service. And readership growth becomes that much easier. A simple click of a button gets the reader a notification which might turn into a sale that might not have happened in the old world of five years ago.

I find all of this exciting. The fact that I can now write back to my readers and tell them that they’ll be receiving the next book in the Retrieval Artist series in paper in December, about the same time the entire backlist of the series will also hit paper, excites me. I’m not complaining about a publisher any more—I’m giving a concrete, constructive, positive response.

If there’s a bottleneck, that bottleneck is generally me, and I’m writing as fast as I can. It’s always great to know that readers want the next book—even if it’s just one reader.

Because unlike so many writers out there, I believe each reader is very, very important, whether they buy through Sales Channel A or get the book from the library. Readers build word of mouth. Word of mouth attracts more readers. More readers build sales.

I have spent my entire career cultivating readers despite the efforts of my publishers to frustrate my readership base.  It’s truly debilitating to write a letter to a reader informing her that she can’t read the next book in a series because no publisher wants to publish that book or because some idiot at a publishing house decided to take a book out of print before giving it a chance to sell.

This is why you hear such passion from me when newer writers (and some established ones) comment on this blog about the benefits of exclusivity. Yes, there is occasionally a marketing reason to be exclusive for a month or two. But only for a month or two and only for one project.

Because to do otherwise pisses off readers. Readers don’t avoid a writer because they get angry at the writer. Readers have short attention spans. If a friend recommends a book at midnight, and a reader can’t find that book online or in her favorite bookstore, the reader might not remember the name of the author or the name of the book a week later.

The sale is lost.

As someone who has fought for more than twenty years to get her books to as  many readers as possible, I find it sad to watch newer writers limit their sales from the get-go. These writers are doing to themselves what I railed at my publishers for doing to me against my wishes and those of my fans.

If you’re thinking about short-term numbers, if you’re thinking about reviews and marketing and “online presence,” then you’re thinking the way that traditional publishers do. And traditional publishers have never been reader friendly. Sometimes traditional publishers aren’t even bookstore friendly.  (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on a publisher-sponsored book tour only to have no books to sign when I arrive at a bookstore because the publisher didn’t make the book available.)

Why follow a model that alienates your fan base when you’re trying to grow your writing business? It makes no sense to me.

Of course, new writers haven’t had the sad task of writing back to fans who can’t find books or fighting a publisher to publish the last book in a series, a book the publisher has paid for but no longer has room for on its newly revised list.

You’ll always hear me argue that it’s better to have your books in the hands of as many readers as possible. My argument comes out of twenty-plus years of being unable to do that.

Now technology and the changes in distribution have made getting books to readers very easy. So don’t make it hard.

Value all of your readers—the ones who buy your books as well as the ones who borrow them from libraries or from friends. Readers who borrow generally become readers who buy. Even if they don’t become readers who buy, they will probably recommend your book to someone who will buy a copy. Or they’ll demand that their library order a copy for the shelves.

Your readers are your greatest ally and your very best friend.

Please treat them with the respect they deserve.

I value all of you blog readers. Most of you contribute in a variety of ways, from financial to personal. I appreciate your comments and your tips and your e-mails. I love the lurkers and the folks who recommend this blog to friends. Thank you all for the interaction. It makes this blog fun.

I put the donate button on here for two reasons. First, I have a lot of fiction writing to do, and 3,000 nonfiction words plus per week could be the difference in finishing a novel that week or not. Second, I do have to make a living at my writing, and this is the only writing I do that may not have a paying secondary market.

So, as always, if you feel inclined, please leave a tip on the way out.

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“The Business Rusch: “No Reader Left Behind,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

 

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62 Comments

  1. Oh, man, you just described the thing that used to leave me curled up, gibbering in a closet. As a reader and a writer, I hated the very idea of having this thing you loved TAKEN from you, with you powerless to do anything about it.

    I now break into a cold sweat only because I can’t write fast enough, and can’t do other things to get my books out there in wider forms fast enough (paper, translation, audio).

    But to the no reader left behind: if you turn out to be a reader who does only have 1000 true fans, then you can’t afford to lose any of them by limiting your offerings to one vendor, or one platform.

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  2. “Of course, new writers haven’t had the sad task of writing back to fans who can’t find books or fighting a publisher to publish the last book in a series, a book the publisher has paid for but no longer has room for on its newly revised list.”

    Actually, a few of those writers got emails from me when they chose to go “Select” and Amazon only. Since I boycott Amazon, it meant I wouldn’t buy their books anymore.

    One of them got it that I was a “true fan” of hers, and I get to read the books nonetheless, but that’s far from all.

    Reply
    • And folks like you are the best argument for making certain that you’re in all markets. I’m not real fond of the interface on the iBookstore and use it only when I have no other choice. I don’t boycott, I just have preferences. I think we all do. Thanks!

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  3. Hey Kris

    Really interesting post (as always).

    Got some thoughts to share and a question.

    Firstly the 1000 True Fans meme.

    This meme definitely holds water as far as I’m concerned. In my ‘day job’ I teach online (the discipline is irrelevant). And I’d say I have about 450 – 500 ‘true fans.’ Those 450-500 true fans provide the lions share of an income over 100K. If I could get to 1000 True Fans I estimate I would have a very nice income indeed!

    Secondly – the email list. From a marketing point of view (and in my day job I spend maybe 50% of my time teaching and 50% marketing – and I like to think I know a lot about marketing online) this isn’t just an asset – it’s absolutely essential.

    The reason that Amazon are toasting the Big 6 (is that now Big 5 – or are we waiting for Monopolies commissions to judge?) is that they’ve been collecting a massive database of BUYERS (who are also readers). Whereas the Big 5/6 have been selling to distributers and not readers.

    So if John Sandford is your bag, and you bought a bunch of his books (like I have) from Amazon…then the next time he has a book out you’ll get a notification via email (unless you opted out of receiving them).

    Combine that with the efforts Amazon put into Customer Service and you have a high number of loyal buyers in their database….their primary business asset in my opinion. (A good story could be written about Database Thieves – could be cyberpunk, straight SF, even contemporary thriller).

    And now a question if I may.

    What do you think a newbie should do? I’m publishing my first story (a novella) around the 4th December. Should I immediately ‘go large’ and get it on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble et al.

    Or I should I ***start*** with path of least resistance, publish to Kindle (as the major player) and then focus on the next story in the sequence and worry about the marketing further down the road?

    I appreciate there’s no wrong or right answer…but would be interested in your thoughts.

    TIA.

    JJ

    Reply
    • The answer is simple, JJ, but remember, it’s just my opinion. Go large. Then write the next book, and go large. And keep going large. Grow your audience everywhere because each platform is different. Good luck with it all.

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      • Heck – get the book written, and then hire someone else to cross-format it and get it uploaded to the sites. Sure, that *used* to be part of what a publisher did – but well, yeah. Do it as a hire, instead of as a cooperative contract, for one specific role, and I suspect your fall backs legally are much better.

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        • Formatting and uploading is the easiest part of the process.

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      • I’m launching a collection of short stories in late November or early December and I’m going big – Amazon, B&N, and Kobo. Can’t really lose anything. And I hired someone to do the formatting for me this time. I’ll learn to do it myself later, but I thought that for the first run, I don’t want to turn off readers with formatting glitches that I might miss.

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      • Go large with Amazon, only, and write the next book.

        If you’ve ever subscribed to the 80/20 rule that’s where you’ll focus. The other sites will be a distraction in the beginning. Most, and there can be exceptions, especially experienced authors with backlists, reported sales I see for people spread through multiple channels is 80%+ of their sales come from Amazon.

        Another way to think through this: If you sell eight (8) books a month on Amazon during your first year, can you afford to spend time grappling with the other half dozen sites trying to get two (2) more books a month sold? Certainly, when you get fortunate to grow to $80k/year on Amazon, then boosting another $20k/year bump with the other channels can mean something.

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        • I completely disagree. An Amazon exclusive is only good if you have a lot of other books already published, and only good as marketing in the short term. Amazon exclusives are for promotion, and if you use your only book to promote your only book, you know nothing about marketing.

          You have no idea where your readers buy their books. Go to the other sites. It takes little time to upload, and then it’s done. If you can’t be bothered doing much work, do the uploading through Smashwords only. Then write your next book.

          Advice like this makes me crazy, because it is not based on good business or good marketing. Get your work to the most readers you possibly can from the beginning.

          And, by the way, J. Gordon, Amazon is no longer 80% of the market if you’re talking about the worldwide market. It’s going down rapidly. Please read the other comments here as to why people in Europe and Asia and other markets outside the U.S. prefer to buy their e-books anywhere but Amazon.

          And remember, everyone, do a print edition as well. (That takes a bit of a learning curve. We’re offering an online course in design (with Allyson of WMG) for those of you who want to learn that, and also a workshop in the spring on how to do POD.) Remember, as many readers as possible, folks.

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          • Yes. This. Thank you so much for clarifying. I’ve followed yours’ and Dean’s blogs for ages now, but this is the first reply comment you’ve written that’s cleared things up for me.

            I’ve struggled with online promo of the 3 books I have available. I’ve used KDP Select to no greater sales results. I wanted to know why having my book available in paperback and on sites besides Amazon was the best way to publish, thanks to your reply comment I now know.

            It’s finally clicked in my brain! Thank you a million times! You don’t know how confused I’ve been every day for the past year.

        • This is written as if getting into the other channels is difficult. It isn’t. The only one I grit my teeth about is Smashwords but that’s because I have such a smooth template system for all the other ebook formats. Same HTML source file, and then it’s just a matter of converting into all the other formats. The Word doc for Smashwords tends to drive me nuts, but I do it for the channels I can access through them. For ease of upload, I find Kobo and Pubit in some ways easier than Amazon.

          As for 80%, that’s going to vary not only between authors but also between book to book. Last big numbers about Amazon’s total ebook market share was around 60%, not 80%. We’ve talked about that before on this blog and others (Dean, Passive Voice, and others). You never know what particular story is going to take off on each platform or country. You cannot second guess it. Some of my stories are 80% Apple. Other nearly 100% other channels other than Amazon.

          Overall, I’m between 45% and 75% Amazon, depending on the month. To turn that around, that means I’m between 25% to 55% other channels. Do I expect this percentage to be the same for other authors and releases? Nope, and that’s the point.

          WE CANNOT SECOND GUESS WHAT WILL TAKE OFF WHERE AND WHEN AND FOR WHOM!

          So, why take out that element of luck in this by not even arriving at the party? Why not have a standard business practice of being everywhere to catch that ride when/if it happens?

          The answer, there is no reason not to. Not if you are in this for the long-term.

          (As an aside, I’ve found something odd. My most vocal fans are in other countries (that Amazon isn’t friendly to) and platforms, so while I do sell on Amazon, those are oddly not my most vocal fans. For general word-of-mouth marketing, it would be suicidal to go only with Amazon for me. Go figure.)

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  4. I am always amazed at the way some publisher treat their authors. It makes no sense the way they act sometimes like dropping a book at the last minute or “forgetting to do something”.
    I agree that you should put your stuff everywhere and I will hopefully in the new year. My ownly pet peeve with Amazon and Smashwords is their paying out to non Americans. Amazon wants me have an American account so they can pay me in US dollars. I’m going to lose money in the exchange rate so I will not be doing free or 99 cent if I want tp make anything. That’s my biggest complaint in the self publishing as a non American trying to sell books.

    Reply
    • A lot of non-Americans have issues with the various services, Vera. Other services are popping up overseas and are worth investigating. You might want to go to Kobo direct, for example. And there are many other services which folks can put up here if they have the time.

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  5. Dear Kristine,

    Thanks for another great post. FWIW, in my (very limited) experience your comments are right on. I’ve been self-publishing for only 18 months and I’ve been extremely lucky, but almost 100% of my marketing efforts revolve around interaction with readers. I don’t blog enough, and my social media skills are abysmal (and honestly, I don’t enjoy social media).

    What I have done is append a ‘thank you’ to the back of both of my books inviting folks to contact me — and they have. Not a torrent, but a steady stream, and I now have regular one on one contact with many of them, and a mailing list of just under 500 ‘true fans.’ It is a bit of struggle to keep up with the correspondence, but I usually devote at least a couple of hours a day to doing so, and I feel that effort is much more beneficial than other pursuits. These folks have kept my books selling as a steady pace, month in and month out.

    By Dean’s standards, I’m probably closer to the ‘author’ than the ‘writer’ profile, and I write pretty slowly. By rights and conventional wisdom, I should probably email less and write more, but this seems to be working for me. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it continues.

    It seems to me that a core of enthusiastic readers is key, and success in that arena will compensate for short comings elsewhere.

    Just my opinion.

    Thanks for another great post and keep’em coming.

    R.E. (Bob) McDermott

    Reply
      • I’ve always suspected this was more than a small part of Piers Anthony’s success – the author’s notes at the end where he explained what else he was working on, what was going on in his life while writing the books, particularly noteworthy comments from his readers that they sent him. Of course, he also had a secretary sorting through his mail, sending out form letters in reply for most of the stuff. That might be a good program for someone to write, to support a writer – drag the e-mail being replied to onto the icon for the right form reply, and let the program do the appropriate search & replace stuff.

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        • I like answering the mail myself. But I suspect it might become too burdensome one day. I’m waiting…. :-)

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  6. What I’ve long found more frustrating than the nonsense of the “x true fans” meme in publishing is some of the overt discrimination implicit in that meme. If there are only x true fans who really will buy a given book, one does not have to provide a cover that actually represents the contents — and, therefore, does not have to read the book to market it. The real hope is that among those x, one will find the chain buyers for the chain bookstores… as appears to have been the explicit expectation for that work.

    Further, if there are only x true fans who really will buy a given book, there is no incentive whatsoever to publish anything except series books with sunk costs. Neither is there any incentive to edit a work to make it better and reach outside the existing “fan base.” Neither is there any incentive to actually provide marketing support for works that are not squarely within the narrowest possible description of an author’s reputation… because the true fans will find them anyway, and nobody else will care.

    Then, too, if there are only x true fans who really will buy a given book, we can compress our internal accounting and profit measurements from the traditional (and, I might add, still built into the contracts, although it’s not visible unless you know what you’re looking for) three royalty period earnout LD50* down to one royalty period, and even (for the narrowest commercial categories) base it entirely on prepublication ordering. And if it’s based on prepublication ordering only, then publishers feel entirely justified in not caring about anything that happens after publication, and treating things like Oprah selections as “nonrecurring events” that do not fundamentally change x.

    Finally, if there are only x true fans who really will buy a given book, publishers have no incentive to improve experienced authors, but instead can/should be hiring inexperienced ones off the street because they’re cheaper. Demographics will do the job for the publisher, because absent improvement some of those true fans will “leave” every year, resulting in a steadily diminishing x (and the consequent “justification” to rein in author payments). Hidden in this rationale is the assumption that nobody becomes a true fan off the backlist — that is, that true fans always start with what is presently (and foolishly) available only in the costliest, least-portable packaging. <sarcasm> The Lord of the Rings is an obvious counterexample, but that’s obviously a nonrecurring event. </sarcasm>

    In short, the x-true-fans meme is an exclusionary factor that is believed in an effort to avoid taking risk when risk is defined not as “loss of investment”, but as beta — the variability of return and return velocity. It makes sense from a management perspective if, and only if, one’s managerial perspective is not just informed by, but tunnel-vision confined by, quarterly reports (which, I might add, don’t match up with “traditional” publishing accounting periods…).

    * Borrowing from epidemiology; the LD50 is the dose lethal to 50% of the studied population in a preestablished period. It’s a meme that has been adapted to scientific/technical/professional publishing for a long time, too: The price/sales point in which one anticipates that at the end of the third royalty period, half of the books have fully earned out their author advances (and become profitable for the publisher some time before that, but that’s for another time).

    Reply
    • Okay, CE. That took me two reads to figure out you were talking about traditional publishing and the true-fan meme. But you’re right: that’s how the game is played there. :-) Traditional publishing stopped thinking about building long ago, and only thought about throwing work out there to see if it would stick. It threw so much work out there that the odds worked in its favor and it occasionally got lucky with big sellers. But even if you talk to the big bestsellers, you’ll hear most of them complain about the lack of innovation from their publisher five books down the road. Even then the publishers think of the fan base as finite and don’t try to grow it. [sigh]

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  7. To be an independent author may be to give up the idea of a bestseller, despite outlying success stories which we are all familiar with. But if 1,000 loyal fans bought one of my books a year, I would be doing okay. Yet one sale to a traditional publisher might result in an advance of the exact same amount, say $20,000. Even then, I would still be engaging with one reader at a time, and not necessarily making a fan. The key to the thing is good writing in a popular genre, and of course time must pass. I wish I had started younger. The odds of success would be greater.

    Reply
    • Louis, I’m beginning to think our measure of bestseller will change over time. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s been very hard for me to wrap my brain around total book sales as a measure of success rather than the sales of one book in a short period of time. So if all of my books sell 1 million copies total, but only one of my books sells 10,000 copies six months after release, in traditional publishing parlance, I am not a bestseller. But over time, I’m earning more, building a bigger base of readers, and having a longer-term career.

      I don’t see traditional publishing changing its bestseller definition any time soon, but I’m watching the TV industry do it. First it was people who watched live, then people who watched live + 24 hours after on DVR, and now it’s live + 7 days DVR. The LA Times just discussed the possibility of live + 30 days (because of shows like Revolution and Fringe which have a huge fan base). And the TV industry is beginning to count live + DVR + DVD sales in calculating success. So all of that is a very slow change in their version of bestseller status, which I think we can anticipate in our industry in the next ten years.

      As for age and time, I think we’re all short-timers. (My best friend from high school died at 38.) The other nifty thing for writers is that we can prepare our estates so that our heirs will continue to benefit from our work. I’ve really got to write that series soon…

      Reply
    • To be an independent author may be to give up the idea of a bestseller, despite outlying success stories which we are all familiar with.

      I’d argue that tradionally published bestsellers are outliers, too. The vast majority of books, whether published traditionally or independantly, are not bestsellers. So I think an indie has just as much right to dream of being a bestseller as a tradpub author.

      Of course, dreams are great. Can’t control whether or not one becomes a bestseller, though. So best just to keep putting out more books.

      Reply
  8. “No Reader Left Behind”… I’m waiting for the logo and T-shirt!

    Reply
  9. “A hundred years ago, most hardcover books were sold by subscription.”

    So Kickstart isn’t such a new idea at all, is it? :D

    Reply
    • Nope. Only back then, a bookstore usually published the author and sold her work by subscription. Times change, then change again. :-)

      Reply
  10. I spent ten years chasing the traditional model (back when it was the only model) and growing increasingly frustrated because I had readers who’d read my short fiction and wanted the novels no publisher would take a chance on. I even considered compiling lists of pre-orders and sending them with manuscript submissions (because at the time, working in product marketing and doing business plans for businesses that work more logically, that’s the sort of thing that would have convinced people to take a chance on a proposition…!).

    What a relief to finally be done with that world. Now not only can my fans ask me for a book, I can consult with them to see which one they want me to work on releasing next. Real-time marketing data? Yes please! :)

    Reply
    • Yeah. I agree, MCA. However, I also have to reserve time to do what I want to do because I work for me, and I want to surprise my readers occasionally. It’s a difficult balancing act now that I’m the one in charge, but I’m happy to do it. :-)

      Reply
      • I use that data not to write to order (things I don’t want to do), but to figure out which project to do next. Very handy tie-breaker if I’m in love with all of them. “Hey, which world do you folks want to go to next, I’m ready for all of them!” will often get me some useful data. Or “I have these three unpublished novels I could get out, but it will take me this long to do so. Which one do you want to see next?”

        That’s the sort of situation I used to salivate over in product marketing when I worked it. Having customers so excited about the multiple product lines in the company that I could usefully discover which one more people wanted first? *shaking head* Oh brave new internet world. You bring distraction and squee in equal measure. -_-

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        • What a great idea! The tie-breaker. Perfect. You solved an issue for me, MCA! Thank you! (I’m going to run out of exclamation points.)

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          • I like this tie-breaker idea too! I’m fast reaching the point where the stories clamoring for my attention NOW far exceed my capacity to write them all NOW. It’s a good problem, yes, but deciding which to chose is hard!

          • My pleasure. Many things I am inexpert in, but the whole crowdfunding/crowdsource-marketing for artists thing I’ve been experimenting with for quite a while. :)

  11. Kris, regarding the availability of your ebooks to the readers, I agree to your points, but I would like to know your opinion about distributing ebooks to libraries. How should it be done ?

    Joe Konrath did two posts on that subject (the last : http://jakonrath.blogspot.fr/2012/10/e-books-in-libraries-they-still-dont.html).

    For me, I would not like them to be downloadable too easily for free, with the exception of permafree ebooks : a waiting queue or a restrictive process would be OK. I would want people who cannot afford my ebooks (which are very cheap, by the way) to read them, but in a way they would have to prove their motivation.

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  12. The sort of publishing gaffs that you describe in this essay–which gaffs damage books, series, and careers, and which leave readers behind–are also SO MUCH MORE COMMON than readers (and aspiring writers) ever realize. I know hundreds of professional writers, and it’s very hard for me to think of even ONE who doesn’t have at least one story like that in their career. Most of them have MULTIPLE stories like that, if they’ve been around any length of time.

    I have several, but I’ll stick to telling just one here:

    I started a contemporary romance trilogy way back when I was writing (as Laura Leone). Well, the publisher dumped me after the second book in the trilogy, so no third book ever appeared, even though a third book was clearly being set up by the first two books.

    A year or two later, I revamped that third book as the first book of a new trilogy and sold it. THAT publisher laid off my editor, closed down the imprint, and dumped me after just one book, so that book, too, became an unfinished trilogy–and the book disappeared overnight.

    A few years after that, I sold a reprint edition of that book to another publisher, and looked foward to the opportunity to write and publish the remaining two books in that trilogy. Well (you can see it coming, can’t you?), my editor left, and the publisher released the hardcover edition of the novel riddled with hundreds of productin errors. I pointed this out and proposed fixing this before publishing the paperback edition. They said that would be “too expensive,” cancelled the paperback release, and dumped me. (They did this, I should add, shortly after my departed editor had informed me that my only other book for them had been one of their best earning novels of the previous year… which would perhaps make you suppose–oh, you naive, silly thing!–that they’d want to develop a working relationship with me, rather than kick me out the door as soon as my editor left.) Needless to say, without only a handful of badly-produced copies released, that book once AGAIN disppeared immediately.

    So here’s a book I wrote for three houses, sold to two houses, and which resulted in two unfinished trilogies and a canceled release.

    And almost every longterm pro has =multiple= stories like that. Through sheer bad business practices, sloppiness, incomptence, and inertia, most publishers make it very hard for a writer to make a living in the publishing industry, make it hard for the books they publish to earn money, and make it hard for readers to find the books they’re looking for.

    Reply
    • P.S. Since then, I have released an ebook of that novel, FEVER DREAMS by Laura Leone. Finishing that trilogy (as well as finishing the previous trilogy of which that was once upon a time to be book #3) is on my To Do list… but I have a busy frontlist schedule as a fantasy writer, more backlist I’m still releasing in ebook format, and a lot of other stuff on my To Do list, too. So there’s no ETA on that To Do item.

      Reply
  13. One thing I’d wonder about with the “1000 true fans” is this: what if it only applies to a particular point in time? Say, in 1990, there were 1000 die-hard Arthur C. Clark fans. In 2000 there might still be 1000 die hard fans, but some of them are new because they just found Clark, and some older fans have died or have become true fans of Victor Vinge. So at any given time there may only be 1000 people who pant for the next volume, or for the back list, but that 1000 changes over the years. Which would tend to favor authors and publishers who (gasp! shock!) think long-haul rather than by the fiscal quarter.

    Reply
    • I think that’s true, TXRed. Only I suspect if you have a constant presence instead of an intermediate one, you will build more true fans over the decades. It won’t correlate exactly because of attrition–1000 in 1960 won’t be 2000 in 1970, maybe 1500. And in some decades, you might have something that gains you a bunch of fans fast, of whom a goodly percentage remain, so suddenly your 1000 true fans from 1960 becomes 100,000 in 1980, and levels at a constant 25,000 fans by 2000. That’s what I suspect we’ll find out due to these changes. Maybe someday we’ll be writing about the 10,000 true fans as if that’s something everyone can achieve through the methods Kevin Kelly talks about.

      Reply
  14. Read today’s Business Rusch. Excellent, as usual, and it’s always so reassuring for me to see someone with a lot more experience than I have often voicing the same things that get me crazy looks on particular websites wherein I voice those views.

    Even many self-publishers seem to be missing just how big the world is.

    Some people give me a hard time about, for instance, using some UK grammar in my writing. (I prefer UK rules for commas and periods with quotation marks. They make more sense, and the result is more accurate.) Or about my willingness to write things that are “experimental” in English, but less so in other languages.

    Their complaints always focus on US readers. US standards. US expectations.

    The bulk of my fans that communicate with me aren’t in the US. (Not that I have all that many fans, yet, but the principle holds, methinks.)

    With the Whispernet fees, Amazon is not friendly to international buyers. I was playing one of those browser games one day when I was sick, and I just so happened to have joined a guild. One other player just so happened to be on, and he and I started chatting. I mentioned my name, and he was shocked. Turned out, that Greek—as in, in Greece!—guy had just heard about one of my short stories from one of his friends, and he immediately went and read it. He loved it.

    That story had only sold 6 copies at the time. And 2 of them were to that guy and to the friend who had recommended the story to him.

    I can read Spanish. (Er, to some degree. Enough that I often find myself understanding the gist when I see something in Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese.) I want to read Spanish novels to practice, but most books I’m interested in reading in Spanish aren’t available in Spanish.

    That’s understandable. Translation is expensive. What’s more frustrating is when one book is available in Spanish, but its sequels aren’t. I doubt English speakers are the only ones who often wait until there’s more than one title available before they start reading a series.

    Plus the e-book often costs more than the print version, sometimes by twice as much.

    And that’s after you often have to dig, and dig, (and keep digging) to even find the Spanish versions.

    And folks wonder why Spanish speakers, despite a strong speculative fiction tradition in their native literature, aren’t reading the translated books? Duh, much?

    Reply
    • A lot of times, the foreign language publisher translates and publishes the first book in a series and then sees how that will do before buying the remaining books. If the sales are poor or if they’re not to expectation (a different thing), then the other books don’t get purchased. I’ve only sold two series all at once, both in France. The Fey, and my Kris Nelscott novels. The Kris Nelscott novels are all coming out, but the Fey stopped, as I mentioned above, even though it was all bought and paid for, so that’s not even a guarantee.

      I do understand the economics from the publisher–good translations are expensive, and we can’t move into them yet, even though we’ve been talking to great translators. That’s going to be a down-the-road project, which will be costly, even with all the reduced indie expenses. It’s very very very frustrating, as a writer, and as a reader.

      And I love your comment that most indie writers have no idea how big the world is. Most US writers have no idea how big the US is either, and think that doing a few signings at a local bookstore will improve their career. I think the biggest struggle I have as a writing teacher is forcing my students to think about the size of the world and to think bigger.

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  15. I’m a reader who has no desire to write, but I absolutely loved this post. Right now and for the forseeable future, spending money on new books is just not gonna happen for me. Sometimes I feel bad that I’m getting to read the books without the money going to the authors.

    But I read everything I can get my hands on, and if I like it I’ll recommend it to anyone who’ll listen. (Which is a surprisingly high number of people, considering my near evangelical fervour.) So, thank you for reminding me that I’m not cheating or pirating peoples’ work.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Liz. I’ve been where you are, and I found a lot of my very favorite authors through used bookstores and libraries. In fact, I still haunt them both. I think all readers are valuable. Those who share their enthusiasm are absolutely the best. You provide the word of mouth we all rely on. So thank you!

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  16. I get such an education from reading your posts, Kris, and the comments.

    In fact, I’m sure which is more educational, the post, the comments or the re-blogs and commentary.

    Thanks to everyone for taking me from a utterly clueless, newbie writer, to merely a newbie writer.

    Reply
  17. I have a mailing list of over 300 fans who want to be notified of new releases. I then have my email posted in the backs of my books. It’s amazing how many readers contact me immediately after finishing a book directly from their cell phones, Kindles, or tablets. I have built up another mailing list of over 900 book bloggers, and fans who have read my books, written me or commented about them elsewhere (courtesy of the bloggers themselves and/or Google alerts.)
    I have fans that started a Facebook page, one made a sample movie poster (with his friends posing as the characters, and another sent me a mock cover he had designed.
    I’m grateful that in this internet age we can connect so easily.
    If I can continue to release books and build a fan base at my current rate, I can make a living doing what I love. That’s a win-win for me and my readers.

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  18. This post really resonated with me, because over the years there have been many series that I loved and that just suddenly stopped with no resolution in sight. In earlier times, I often spent a long time looking for the missing books. I used to carry a multi-page list of books I was looking for everywhere I went, many of which had – unbeknowst to me – been out of print for years or decades. In more recent times, I usually knew that that series I loved and had recommended to everybody I knew had been cancelled, because it didn’t sell well enough or the publisher had changed their direction or whatever other excuses there were. Didn’t change that the story remained unfinished. Now, thanks to more and more authors going indie, those dangling series are finally getting closure.

    As someone who doesn’t live in the US or UK, I’ve all too often been the reader/customer who doesn’t count. I missed a lot of SF in the 1980s and early 1990s, simply because some publishers regularly exported books overseas (where I could then find them on the shelves of stores that sold English books), while others didn’t. Del Rey, Ace, Tor and Avon (back when they still published SF and fantasy) exported overseas, Baen, Roc and DAW didn’t. Of course, you could special order the books, but you can’t order a book you’ve never heard of. And even today, some publishers and retailers refuse to sell their products to me, simply because I don’t live in the US.

    And since I’ve been the reader/customer who doesn’t count all too often, I try to make my books available as widely as possible. Why would I treat other readers the way I’ve been treated? And it always depresses me when I hear other indies say, even after it has been explained to them that Amazon is unfriendly to many international readers, that those people don’t count, because they don’t read English anyway. Or those who believe that the only overseas sales are to US expats?

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for this, Cora. I noticed the English language bookstores in Germany, Italy, and France had great sections, but never full runs of series. And I know that a lot of my European fans read my stuff half in translation and half in English for the very reason you named. Your comment “Of course, you could special order the books, but you can’t order a book you’ve never heard of” points out why the internet has become so valuable. You can keep track of your favorite authors, even if they have a static website (updated only when the new book comes out). And that helps some.

      I suspect you’re still running into problems buying e-books because of territories and licenses, particularly through major publishers. This is something that will have to shake out between authors, publishers, and the worldwide market. It’s such a huge topic that I haven’t tackled it, but it’s an important one, and I don’t know the solution.

      Great stuff here. I hope everyone reads your comment.

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      • I’ve had two series that were canceled after one book in Germany, and one series canceled after one book in the Czech Republic. I’ve never heard from any Czechs, but I do hear from Germans asking if there’ll ever be German editions finishing those series.

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        • I run into this quite frequently, when I try to recommend a series I’ve enjoyed (or maybe even buy the first book as a gift) to a friend who would like the series, but doesn’t read English all that well and thus needs a translation. In many cases, the books have never been translated or only part of the series has been translated. Sometimes, books have been chopped in half and issued in two volumes for length issues due to translation (German is wordier than English and translated texts are approx. 20% longer), but the publisher does not inform the readers of this and so I end up having friends tell me that the book I got them for their birthday was really good except for the damned cliffhanger and I wonder “What cliffhanger?”

          This isn’t limited to German publishers BTW. A few years ago, I met a woman who runs a website for French romance readers and she told me that the French publishers would publish series out of order or omit books altogether and tell her, when she contacted them about that, that she was unusual, because she was a “true fan” and that regular readers wouldn’t care. After all, romances were just disposable entertainment.

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  19. Kris, you’ve inspired me!

    I realized that I had not included iTunes links to my books on my website. In fact, I had not been rigorous about being sure to include all links to the e-tailers of each story.

    It’s been a busy evening and morning! Who knew that one can track down iTunes links? (I didn’t, but now I do.)

    Still have to figure out Diesel. Last time I tried, I couldn’t even find the store, let alone my books there!

    Reply
    • Great! I know that WMG is trying to do that for all its books. I tried to do that for all of mine from all of my publishers, and got completely overwhelmed. I defaulted to writing the next book and hoped that announcements on the website(s) would suffice. ;-) But if you can do it early enough where it doesn’t eat your life, then do so. I think that’s best.

      Reply
    • Found the Diesel store this time. Yay!

      Amazon, B&N, Diesel, iTunes, Kobo, Smashwords, Sony . . . got links to all of them for each book or short story.

      (Except for the newest ones that are waiting for Smashwords to distribute.)

      Once the POD editions go live (in December, I hope), I’ll track down and post those links as well.

      Right now . . . back to writing!

      Reply
  20. I wonder if publisher shenanigans like this contributed to the falling number of readers that was observed in recent decades? How many readers dug into an author’s first book in a series or trilogy only to have the story left unfinished? I can imagine the amount of reader frustration that would cause. Did it create diminished confidence in traditional publishing and cause readers to be more reluctant to try new series and authors? Seems likely, at any rate.

    Reply
    • You know, Sarah, I hadn’t thought of that and it makes a lot of sense. I know I don’t buy a series until all three books (or five) are out, and I’ve been doing that for about a decade now. Before e-books became big, I bought all of the books at once so that I was sure I would have them. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

      It’s a small thing, but I think you’re right: I think it made a huge difference.

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  21. This post is the perfect example of long term thinking that many newer writers (and some longer term writers) miss because they’re always thinking the short term on books. (ebook, trade paper etc). The true freedom of this new world is books never go out of “print” now. The life of the copyright is the time for the book to generate income for the writer not until the publisher decides to revert the book into the writers dead file. When you think about how long a book will generate income these days it blows your mind.

    In the traditional world the life of the book was weeks or months and I think NY is discovering to their horror this isn’t the case anymore. This is why they are creating such onerous contracts now and trying to hold on to the licenses for such a long time.

    Your comments about respect for the readers is important and many NY houses really don’t understand this one at all.

    Thanks for another great post.

    Reply
  22. Love this post, Kris. I publish on Smashwords and Amazon and my biggest fans are in Australia and have discovered my books on iTunes. Never would have gotten them if I’d gone only with Amazon. (I even made the top ten list for Apple iBooks in Australia last January. I was right between Steve Jobs and the Smurfs. Still smiling about that one.)

    I regularly get emails from readers telling me they loved my 100K book and read it on their iPhone! Because they were asking for the next book in the series, I decided to work on that next instead of other projects.

    I have a newsletter, but subscription is small right now. Probably need to work on that. :) I need to write faster, too. Though your husband’s posts really help with that.

    Reply
  23. I know this is a bit off topic, but what’s funny is that I haven’t given the whole distribution and exclusivity thing a second guess. Neither marketing, as I am only about to publish my sixth book and don’t have enough product out there. My biggest issue right now is price. When I priced everything at $4.99, I sold probably about 10 books (give or take) a month. Then I dropped pricess to .99 for the first fantasy book, and $2.99 for everything else as an experiment for 2 months. First month, about 25 books. Second month, about 5 or 6. Raised my books to $5.99 and $6.99 since then, and sold 7 books last month. It’s been the first time this year that I’ve sold no books on BN two months in a row.

    After reading Mark Coker’s email blast yesterday, I’m tempted to go back to five bucks with the first book three bucks, but I also think about what you and Dean say about underpricing. Maybe I’m just jumping the gun and need to sit tight. Perhaps my problem is what you (or was it Dean) said about having access to sales info on a regular basis. It’s so hard not to look!

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  24. Baen Books clearly uses the “True Fans” idea. They will offer e-ARCs

    An eARC is an Advance Reader Copy…an unproofed manuscript … well in advance

    These cost far more than the finished e-book but folks buy them. Then later those same folks will purchase the proofed e-book.

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  25. “Did it create diminished confidence in traditional publishing and cause readers to be more reluctant to try new series and authors?”

    I know a lot of heavy readers who wait until ALL the books are out in a series before they start reading. Mostly, it’s because they don’t like waiting a year between each book, and want to be able to read the next one right away. If the series doesn’t get finished, they won’t read it at all.

    It’s a strategy to reduce frustration. And another reason why sales go up as additional books come out.

    Reply
  26. How often have I recommended books to friends and then had to go: ‘Oh, wait a moment. It’s out of print.”
    And even with the internet (don’t get me started on times before the internet) it was sometimes hard to find out-of-print books that were never translated into German or where I didn’t want the German translation. Or some were re-published in an omnibus with a different title or re-published under a different title, so ordering could become a game of chance. (Is that a new book or is that an old one with a new title??)

    These days I see that more and more of some of my longtime favorite writers are getting their rights back and have started publishing their backlist. In one case I had the German translation of the first book and the three following books in English. Once the series became available as an ebook I bought the whole series again just so that I had a) the first book finally in English and the whole series in a nice ebook-format. And now I can once again happily recommend that series to my friends because after decades it’s finally available again.

    For me as a reader that’s a really, really good thing. And I have spend days hunting after one book or finding someone willing to ship it to Germany at a resonable price.

    Unfortuntely not all writers are there yet so that there are still a few cases where I have to decide if I’m going to buy a used copy or not.

    I also remember times when used copies of specific books were sold for $300 or $400. Not special editions, normal paperbacks. And no I didn’t sell my editions ;-). Maybe I should have :-D but I liked rereading them too much to part with them.

    Reply
  27. I was the kid with the list. In fact, the list was re-published ever 4 months and sent to friends and relatives in other states with instructions to buy anything they find on the list and ship to me immediately, along with how much it cost and I would send them money.

    I remember spending years trying to track down a series that had been published in the late 70′s (several years before I was born). I called every used book store in 5 states trying to track it down, tried to special order it, had relatives combing book stores in 3 more states, asked on a listserve to see if anybody had it and was willing to sell it to me. A year later, I got an anonymous email with a Word copy of each book in the series out of the blue and I was dancing with joy. The series was re-released about 2 years ago, with the ebooks costing $15 each. 15 years ago, I would have paid that without thinking twice.

    I don’t ever want someone to have to go through all that work just to read one of my stories. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been trying to talk some of my fellow writers out of going exclusive to one platform.

    Reply

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