The Business Rusch: Content is King
This week came the news that Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program will offer its content providers a 70% royalty on all sales made in India—provided the content providers go with Kindle Select only. For those of you who don’t know, Kindle Select requires exclusivity from anyone who joins it. You can’t market your work on the iBookstore, for example, or on Kobo if you’re part of Kindle Select. Only on Amazon alone.
Writers who put novels up on KDP in India will get 35% of the price of all sales made in that country, regardless of whether they’re in Kindle Select or not. And, because of the restrictions, I for one will be getting only 35% on any work of mine that sells there. It’s my choice, and I choose to make my work available on as many platforms as possible.
Yes, you Kindle Board people who will run over here and defend Select as if it’s the be-all and end-all of all programs ever devised by mankind for any reason, I know Amazon provides the biggest platform for e-books right now. I stress the “right now” because that will change. The issue of Vanity Fair that I’m reading (about three issues back from the current one) has an article I have not yet read on why Apple has eclipsed Microsoft, a fact that would have been inconceivable twenty or even ten years ago.
Things change, and they change quickly.
Plus, my own beliefs about maintaining different platforms for my work got reinforced this week after WMG hired someone to input the sales figures for the last six months. We looked at those numbers yesterday. I sell a lot of books on Kindle, but my biggest selling title, a short story called “The Moorhead House,” sold a grand total of one copy on Kindle from January to June.
Every single one of “The Moorhead House”’s rather surprising (to me) sales came on the Nook. For some reason, Nook readers either like or have found or continue to find that one short story. And they buy it more than they buy anything else of mine offered through Barnes & Noble.
If I had joined Kindle Select with that story, I doubt I would have made comparable sales. If my years in this business have taught me anything, it’s that readers determine what sells and what doesn’t, and trying to figure out why one reader buys a story when another reader won’t is largely futile. All I can do is write the best story possible, and move on to the next. Worrying about why someone buys this and won’t buy that will simply drive me crazy—and has in the past.
Amazon’s move, however, makes a lot of sense to me. Amazon is doing everything it can to have exclusive content. As I prepped for this column, I scanned the tech news and immediately got overwhelmed.
Last week, it was the iPhone 5 launch. The week before, four new versions of the Kindle. Plus there are all the devices I don’t pay attention to (being an Apple/Kindle consumer), like the Nokia and Motorola smartphones, the Samsung smartphone, the Toys R Us tablet (yes, Toys R Us!), and the anticipated Nook update for the fall. I’m sure I missed something. I know that there have been dozens of articles about smaller tablets being the newest coolest thing, but I’m getting overwhelmed. I’m an early adapter, a gadget freak, and I’m beginning to have gadget fatigue.
Which is neither here nor there. I’m sure this is what it felt like in the 1950s as televisions went from being a luxury item with one or two manufacturers to something everyone owns at least one of.
The key really isn’t the device any more.
The key is the content.
And if you know that, then you understand why I’ve been so adamant in all of my summer posts about contracts, deal breakers, and scams.
We writers are content providers. Theoretically, we’re in the catbird seat. We should be the ones getting rich or at least more financially comfortable from this tech boom.
Instead, we’re lining up to get screwed.
I saw a horrible example of the queue recently. There’s a major epublishing company, started about three years ago by one of the biggest names in the publishing industry, that has signed some of the biggest writers in the world. Most of these writers have been at the business so long that their contracts do not include e-rights, which they’re now selling to this particular company.
Its contract is one of the worst examples of a rights-grab I’ve seen. As I’m writing this, I have my iPad open to the company’s website, and I cringe at the names I see there—folks I respect greatly, whose writing I admire, who most likely signed a version of this contract that will guarantee they make very little money on their content for the rest of their careers.
Let me be clear here: “Very little money” in the context of the new world of publishing is probably twice what these writers would have made from their traditional publishers (provided, of course, that the epublishing company keeps accurate records and reports everything). But it’s a lot less than these writers would make if they hired a flat-fee company to do the same work. A lot less—as in ten to one hundred to (as the years progress) a thousand times less.
And that doesn’t count the rights grab inside this contract, that will allow the company rights to everything from audio to television to any other invention ever devised. That rights grab financial split is significantly less than these authors would have received from any traditional venue, and is probably where this company will make most of its money.
The fact that rights grabs have become commonplace in the publishing industry in the last three years is precisely because content has become king. Publishers used to be manufacturing and distribution companies. The publisher would manufacture a book from a manuscript and then distribute that book to bookstores.
Back then, writers did not have easy access to the manufacturing process, and even if they did, they couldn’t get their books into the distribution system without some kind of help. The monopoly that publishers had existed for a very good reason. They provided an actual service that writers couldn’t do themselves.
Now, writers can hire copy editors and line editors and cover designers as well as a flat-fee company to upload a book to the various sites, including print on demand. Yes, it takes time—generally about an hour or two to upload if you already know what you’re doing, but is that time worth spending 50% of your lifetime earnings for, as the writers in this epublishing company are now doing?
We’ve had this part of the discussion before. You all know how I feel. Keep control of your rights, and don’t sign anything for a percentage unless you completely understand your contract and know what you’re gaining and what you’re losing. At worst, hire an IP attorney before you sign anything. At best, hire an IP attorney and investigate every avenue for publication before you sign away all but a small percentage of your earnings.
It’s time to think outside of the publishing bubble for a moment. I mentioned television above. I’m barely old enough to remember what a big deal it was when one of our neighbors got the first color television set on the block. Think Mad Men, think of one of those neighborhood parties in which everyone—including the kids—came to ooh and ahhh at the contraption in our neighbor’s living room. My family didn’t get its own color television for at least three more years, and even now I remember the brand: it was an RCA.
Can I tell you without checking what the brand is on the television we bought last summer, the one which I stare at almost every day? No. I do, however, have a page torn from Entertainment Weekly on my refrigerator with all the fall television show premiere dates on my refrigerator, returning and possible new favorites circled. I can tell you without looking the names of all of those shows.
Content. Content, content, content.
Whoever owns the content is the person who will make the money. I’m not the only one saying this. In an article last week, The Washington Post quoted a former head of CBS News and digital media consultant, Andrew Heyward who said, “The platform increasingly becomes a commodity, and the content increasingly becomes the only place to create a premium.”
That’s Kindle Select, folks. That’s iTunes. That’s all of these this epublishing company I just disparaged. If you can control the content, then you can control the money.
But here’s the problem with content: it’s not easy to create. If a bunch of monkeys at typewriters could write novels, don’t you think the publishing industry would have conscripted the little buggers decades ago? And, as I said, it’s really hard to predict who will buy what in industries that have their basis in the arts. Yeah, just because New Show A shares the same elements as last year’s Surprise Hit doesn’t mean New Show A will succeed. Maybe the audience is so over that topic. Or maybe the audience doesn’t like the actors in New Show A. Or maybe the time slot sucks.
The best solution is the one that media companies have had from the beginning. Buy as much content as possible, own as much of it as possible, and make sure that the content providers work on flat fees or salaries.
I’m trying to get you to reverse that thinking. You’re a content provider. Make the company, like that epublishing company I mentioned, take a flat fee or a yearly salary. Distribute through all venues you possible can, even if you have to take a smaller percentage of the distribution money.
(Maybe some day, we can distribute without the conglomerates in the way as well. But for now, we need B&N, and Amazon, and Apple to get our content to as many places as possible. However, if you don’t want to work with them, then just put the material on your website and drive traffic there through whatever means possible.)
Here’s the difference between now and ten years ago. Content has become easy to distribute. We can do it without a middleman.
Let me quote The Washington Post article again:
In the digital age, anyone with a camera can upload a video, just as anyone with a laptop computer can self-publish a book or collection of songs, or anyone with a few journalists and some smartphones can start a news service. No longer, said Columbia University business professor Bruce Greenwald, do potential rivals need to buy expensive printing presses or movie studios; nor do they need to build elaborate distribution networks for the content once it’s made.
“If you can’t keep people out of the business,” he said, “you never are going to make any money.”
Exclusivity. Theoretically it creates brand loyalty—to Kindle Select or iTunes or whoever controls the content. So you need to be the exclusive provider of your content. And you have to make that content good enough that other companies want it.
Say no to the exclusive deal.
Remember that content is king, and you are the person in charge of content that only you can make.
As one of my creative writing professors once said, there are only seven plots. What makes those plots different is how you handle them, your voice, your style, and your way of thinking. That’s all. People can mimic your style, but they can never achieve your unique point of view.
That’s what content is all about.
Do you really care whether you watch next week’s Castle premiere on a Samsung, a Sony or a Panasonic TV set? Or you might watch on your computer. Or on your smartphone. You have choices now. But do you care if you’re watching it on a PC or on an Apple? On an iPhone or a Razr? Yeah, you might—a little.
What you really care about is Castle and Beckett and what happens next after last season’s cliffhanger ending. You’ll consume that content in the best way for you at the time.
Take that kind of thinking, turn it toward your own writing, and stop giving away exclusivity for a momentary gain. You want people to come to you for your stories. You want to make sure your readers have choices, so that they don’t have to think about the hardware when they consume your writing. You want them to be able to read your books on any device, anywhere at any time. Or you want them to pick up a paper copy so they can read without a device at all.
Let your readers choose their platform. You write the best content possible, and then make that content exclusive to you. Your readers can get your latest book on all platforms, but the next book? That happens when you write it.
If you sign an egregious contract with some of these agents or these publishing companies (e- or otherwise), you might be giving these companies the rights to your characters and your worlds. If you do that, then you’ve given them permission to have someone else write stories with your creations. Some of these contracts give these agents, publishing companies, and media companies control of your very name. They can make the readers believe that you actually wrote something when you didn’t and, chances are, in that circumstance, the readers will think you got worse as a writer.
Many of these companies also limit how much you can write and how often. It’s another way of protecting the brand, of making sure there’s exclusivity. Your work will only be available through their company, when they say so, when they want.
If you’re grateful to be published, you’ll sign this stuff away.
If you’re too lazy to find a flat-fee company to do the work that you’re not comfortable doing (like, say, covers), you’ll sign this stuff away.
A lot of you have told me you don’t have the money to pay someone to help you. Then save money to afford that fee. Forgo the latte every day. Cancel cable, for god’s sake. Put some money aside until you can afford to pay up front.
Yes, it might take years. I know that if I had to do this twenty-six years ago, it would have taken me months and a lot of personal sacrifice to save a hundred dollars. Isn’t your writing worth the trouble?
Don’t think short term. You’ll lose if you do. You’ll lose control of your content, at the very least.
If you figure you can let one book or a series go, then fine. But realize that no writer is known for all of her work. Just for some of it. And if you let some of your content be owned by someone else, you might have let your Harry Potter series slip through your fingers.
Personally, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Content is king.
You’re in charge of your content.
Make sure you stay that way.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the best way to understand how to control your content is by reading The Copyright Handbook published by Nolo Press. If you’re new to my blog, look at the summer’s posts; they’ll make this post clearer.
I write a blog post every week on some topic in publishing. I make my living writing fiction, so this blog must pay for my time away from my fiction career.
If you’ve learned something or gained a new perspective, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “Content is King,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.