The Business Rusch: More Distribution Changes
This morning, my iPad Los Angeles Times app informed me that the creators of the TV show Veronica Mars had started a Kickstarter project. They wanted two million dollars to jump-start a movie, using the original cast. I clicked the link to Kickstarter and donated. At the time, the movie hadn’t yet reached its goal. As of Wednesday evening, it had. I have my browser open as I type this, and the number of supporters goes up by two or three every ten seconds.
Some fascinating things about this Kickstarter program. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars’ creator, is quite aware of the copyright implications of what he’s doing. As he says in the Kickstarter promotion itself, “Of course, Warner Bros. still owns Veronica Mars and we would need their blessing and cooperation to pull this off. Kristen and I met with the Warner Bros. brass, and they agreed to allow us to take this shot. They were extremely cool about it, as a matter of fact. Their reaction was, if you can show there’s enough fan interest to warrant a movie, we’re on board. So this is it. This is our shot.”
As Lisa de Moraes, the TV columnist for The Washington Post, commented later in the day, “Speaking of the good folks at Warner Bros., you can imagine how silly they were feeling Wednesday afternoon for having set the greenlight threshold at a mere $2?million.”
Yeah, they were feeling silly, and other auteurs were feeling hopeful. The Post interviewed a few of them. I’m sure others are watching this with interest. I know I am.
Veronica Mars had about 2.5 million viewers in its first season back in 2004. A little more than one percent of them have pledged to donate something so far. The show’s viewership grew in later years thanks to DVDs of all three seasons. Which means that in the 29 days remaining in the Kickstarter project, the VM team has even more potential than it seemed just two days ago.
From Amanda Palmer’s successful Kickstarter project last year to this Veronica Mars project, Kickstarter, crowd-funding, and the internet itself have changed the way we consume entertainment. I’ve been writing about this change for years, but the one thing that readers don’t seem to get is this:
What’s changed are the distribution methods.
Had Veronica Mars barely made its two million dollar threshold in 30 days, Warner Brothers would probably have released the movie direct to video or with a limited release in a handful of theaters. (It still might do that.) One of the things I’ll get when my rewards come in is a digital version of the movie a few days after the theatrical release. In other words, I won’t have to go to a theater at all to see the movie. And, if you pledge, neither will you.
How you see a movie depends on the movie’s distribution. Back in the dark ages, movies got released to a limited number of theaters and slowly spread across the country, like a virus. (Those flu charts from January? That’s how movies got released.) Then, thanks to Jaws and the blockbuster revolution in the 1970s, movies got released on as many screens nationwide as possible. Then video came about and we all had VCRs, to be replaced later by DVD players. Then came On-Demand movies, streaming video, and all sorts of devices on which to view that movie. I can even watch on my phone if I’m so inclined (and the battery life holds up).
Theoretically, all of this means more revenue to the creator, but of course, that changes depending on the contract terms. Rob Thomas made his deal with Warner Brothers back in the dark ages, before most of this stuff existed, and now he’s working in a new age—of distribution.
We’ve been watching the distribution revolution hit publishing. Once upon a time, the only way to get your book to the masses was to go through a traditional publisher. Print on demand and e-books have changed that. Now, self-published novels can sell millions of copies, just like novels put out by traditional publishers.
Those self-published novels have hit e-book bestseller lists, including the prestigious New York Times list, but so far, none has hit the print bestseller lists. The one place that traditional publishing continues to hold its advantage is with print books.
There are a couple of reasons for that. First, self-publishers can’t do presales through Amazon or any other distributor. Many books, particularly later books in series, receive preorders and those preorders are counted as sales in the first week of publication. (In other words, they’re not counted on the day the order is made, but on the day the book is shipped.)
Secondly, Amazon, the largest seller of self-published titles, keeps its sales numbers secret. It won’t give the Times raw data, calling that proprietary. Amazon will only release a vague formula, which invites many national bestseller list compilers to either ignore the gigantic retailer or downgrade the information in the formula the list uses to figure out what’s actually selling.
At the moment, then, traditional publishers are right: if you want to hit a bestseller list that doesn’t have the word “electronic” in the title, you need to go through a traditional publisher.
By this time next year, that might be different.
This has frustrated me from the beginning of the indie revolution. Getting books into bookstores is a labor-intensive job that requires not just finesse in dealing with the booksellers, but giving booksellers things that they expect from ordering convenience to good discounts.
At Pulphouse Publishing, it took us years to develop a list of 200 booksellers who ordered from us regularly. Dean got them onboard one bookstore at a time, and often spent much of his day dealing with them.
Many independent presses join with several independent distributors to get their books and e-books on the market. The problem with all of those distributors is a glaring one: they expect exclusivity. One of them—the most famous one—existed twenty years ago. When Dean saw the contractual terms the distributor wanted to take on our little publishing company, he threw the contract in the trash, preferring to build our own little list.
As we became hybrid authors in this new world of publishing, I made a list of all the bookstores who had contacted me about getting my books. I had a dream that someday those stores would be able to easily order my books. At the time, those stores could order my books through Ingram’s and Baker and Taylor. Createspace offers a way to get into those catalogs. Bookstores have ordered my books through those large distributors, but at a small discount, which many booksellers balk at.
Dean and I got talking, which is always dangerous, and we realized that there was a gaping hole in getting independently published books to bookstores. Most publishers didn’t want exclusivity with their distributor and most booksellers didn’t want the small discounts being offered through larger venues.
So we asked what if someone took on a non-exclusive distribution of the paper books of indie writers, provided a good discount for booksellers, made money for the publishers, and offered pre-orders.
The idea was too good to ignore. So we, crazy people that we are, backed Ella Distribution, which officially launched this week. Let me be clear: Dean and I are not running Ella. We’re the initial idea and the initial funding behind it, but it’s so much bigger than anything we imagined.
Right now, the bulk of Ella’s catalogue comes from us, from other beta-testers, and from collectables. Eventually, there will be a lot of other writers involved. Ella’s beta testers are all established, hybrid writers who have had at least one New York Times bestseller or a demonstrable fan base.
Why? Because Ella’s goal this year is to bring as many bookstores as possible on board. Booksellers will order a book by an established author through a new imprint. Once the bookseller is on board, he will thumb through Ella’s catalog and at least look at books from authors he doesn’t recognize.
The more bookstores, the more books sell. The more books sell, the more Ella grows. The more Ella grows, the more opportunity there is for writers outside of the traditional publishing model.
In other words, within five years, preorders through Ella to bookstores might actually lead to a New York Times print bestseller for an indie-published novel. To hit the Times print list, a book must sell rapidly through a group of bookstores known only to the Times. Which means that said book must be in many if not most bookstores to get on that list.
See why I’m hopeful?
Mostly, though, I’m happy that there’s a way to reach booksellers with proper discounts. Ella is offering books on a non-returnable basis, with a 50% discount and free shipping, provided the store orders a minimum amount.
Ella will also work with libraries on similar terms.
It’s a new distribution model and an old distribution model all at the same time. In other words, Ella is a distributor that gets books into bookstores, just like Ingrams or Baker & Taylor. But unlike those larger companies, Ella has a system to work with independent publishers outside of the Createspace model.
For those of you with questions, and I know that’s a lot of you, most of the answers can be found on Ella’s website. The answer to your first question is this: you may not blindly submit your print novel to Ella. They’re not interested at the moment. They’re working on getting bookstores.
But you can prep for the day when they will be interested by looking at their terms, which are here.
The best thing you can do, though, is point out Ella to your favorite retailer and your favorite library. As I said, the more bookstores and libraries Ella gets online, the better for everyone involved.
If you see a book you want, then order it. That will also help Ella on the beta test. Or click around the site and see what you can find. Again, beta testing is all about making sure everything works and everything grows.
Right now, hundreds of people in Hollywood are watching Rob Thomas’s Veronica Mars Kickstarter project, wondering how his success can translate to their projects.
We want a lot of people to help get Ella Distribution to the level that it can challenge the one peg left standing in traditional publishing’s hold on writers. If Ella Distribution ends up with a wide range of bookstores who then preorder the next print book in some indie writer’s series, then that writer has a very real chance of hitting all the major bestseller lists.
Just like e-book writers have done this past year.
The e-publishing revolution started in 2009. It took to 2013 to challenge the supremacy of the bestseller lists when it came to alternative media (like e-books). That’s less than five years.
Wouldn’t it be fun if the distribution revolution happening in print makes the same kind of challenge to the print bestseller lists in 2017?
I think so. I hope you do too.
2009 feels like just last week to me. Exactly four years ago this spring, I ventured into the world of nonfiction blogging with great trepidation. I have yet to miss a Thursday. That consistency has built a readership that I greatly value. Thank you all for coming here week after week.
“The Business Rusch: “More Distribution Changes” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.