Business Musings: Some Thoughts on the International Market
This morning, I found out through the magic of Facebook that four of my sf novellas, translated into Italian, are four of the five bestselling titles in my Italian publisher’s bookstore. As I mentioned in my blog on translation a few weeks ago, that’s not due to me. That’s because I have an excellent translator. It’s a good marriage of translator and story, because books in translation don’t receive acclaim (and sales!) if the translator is poor, no matter how well the book did in its original language.
The Italian books came about because I don’t have an agent. I know that’s counterintuitive for those of you still wedded to traditional publishing myths, but things have changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Or rather, my eyes have been opened and things have changed.
For many years, I had sold many titles for translation in other countries. Then I switched agents, went to a much larger agency, one with a dedicated foreign rights department, and the sales of my books to foreign publishers for translations decreased. I switched agents again, to an even larger and more prestigious (and older) agency, and my foreign rights sales stopped completely.
What happened? It’s very clear in hindsight.
Agent #1 embezzled from me. His preferred area of embezzlement? Foreign rights royalties. He paid the advances, although I never saw the contracts (a problem right there, because who signed them? I never gave him power of attorney). I have no idea if he skimmed off the top of those advances. I suspect he did, but I didn’t audit him.
When I realized just how shady this guy was, and believe me, it took years because he (still) has a sterling reputation in the industry, I fired him and moved to the much more prestigious and much larger boutique agency with the dedicated foreign rights agent with an office in the basement.
My sales started drying up then, because she would turn down deals if they were too small. Embezzler Boy would take those sales, because he knew he would get more in royalties, but she was (in theory) above board, and thought the deals too small.
Since Boutique Agency handled (and handles) some big New York Times bestsellers, my deals were small in comparison to those offered to the big names. And apparently, not worth the agent’s time. She turned down the offers without consulting me. Yep, she and the agent I had for my U.S. rights often turned down “too-small” offers on my behalf without consulting me.
How did I find this out? Only when I went overseas as the guest of honor at an international science fiction convention and publisher after publisher who had published my work in the past pulled me aside to ask why I had gotten so focused on money. I mentioned changing agents, thinking these publishers had simply contacted the wrong person, and the publishers told me they knew I had changed agents and as politely as possible, told me that the change prevented my books from seeing print.
When I fired that agency, after discovering lots of things that I won’t go into here, and hired yet another agency (Bigger! Better! Older! Wiser!), the foreign sales stopped altogether. I had gone to this agency specifically for their foreign contacts. God knows what happened there, because I didn’t investigate. I was getting tired of firing agents anyway, and even though I ended up firing that agent too—in part because he sent me copies of letters in which he badmouthed me when I made him write to editors he didn’t want to contact on my behalf (I kid you not) — I hired one final agent. He was ethical, and did the best he could for me, but I shouldn’t have hired him. Because, by then, I had learned I could do so much better on my own.
I parted ways with him in a manner that allows us to still have a relationship, should I ever need an agent again. I won’t, because I do things much quicker and better on my own.
Except for one thing…I’ve been too busy with other matters to contact traditional publishers overseas, like so many of my writer friends do. I still haven’t contacted those publishers who spoke to me at that convention all those years ago. I’ve been too busy.
However, if publishers contacted me, I would respond. I would negotiate the deal myself, and take deals that were “beneath” that horrid foreign rights agent. Surprisingly, my final contracts were always much better than the ones she negotiated. I got a smaller advance, but the important things, like term limits on the contract and the royalty percentage, were always larger. I’ve been making steady royalties off the foreign deals I’ve negotiated, without any embezzling that I’ve caught. (Another foreign agent, a partner agent to Boutique Agency’s agent, embezzled as well. It’s so easy for “trusted advisors” to put their sticky fingers into a writer’s finances, so easy it’s scary.)
The Italian deal, above, with the novellas, is one I negotiated. I’ve done plenty of others, and I know I could have even more if I simply queried the older publishers. I’m sure I will…eventually.
But there’s another change as well, an important one.
One of the biggest overseas markets for my work twenty-five years ago was Great Britain. Back then, getting British books here in America or getting American books in Great Britain was a real chore. There were some booksellers, including friends of mine, who specialized in getting first edition British books into the States. That involved tariffs and taxes and expensive shipping or traveling with the books themselves. And then there was no guarantee of instant sales.
The best way for book dealers to handle British books was to deal with British writers who had become popular here. British writers like P.D. James would first publish their books in Great Britain, so the first editions in English were always British. Plus, they were released six months to a year in advance of the American edition. If you couldn’t wait for your next P.D. James fix, you either had to travel to England yourself, cultivate a British bookseller, or buy books from one of these American bookseller/brokers.
No matter what your preferred method was, you would always pay a premium for that first edition and the chance to read that book before everyone else.
Amazon started to change that when it opened its Amazon U.K. store years ago. Other online businesses sprang up that had partners in various countries, which somehow reduced the tariffs and duties. (I don’t even pretend to know all the legalities.)
But the real groundbreaker, as you all know, was Amazon’s Kindle, which led to the rapid rise of electronic books.
Electronic books have existed for more than twenty years. I had short stories in Fictionwise long before Barnes & Noble brought it out. My first contract with Fictionwise was in 1998. Back then, Fictionwise curated its own website, and many of the buyers were from overseas.
The Kindle was the game changer, though. The big splash in the U.S. was from 2009-2011. My books have been in the Amazon U.K. store since Amazon made it possible to sell English-language books in the U.K., and the one thing I always noticed was that the British market lagged a few years behind the American market. (I like to say five years behind, but it’s probably closer to three.)
The arguments against e-books were the same in Great Britain as the ones against ebooks in the U.S., but Great Britain was having the arguments years after the U.S. had already settled them.
The British market remains years behind the U.S. market, and the British market added some twists to protect paper books. For example, the U.K. market charges a Value-Added Tax (VAT) on all ebooks, which it does not charge on paper books. I’m sure there are other things that I’m not aware of that are currently hindering some of the growth in the U.K. ebook market.
But the market is a viable one. For years, for my work, Amazon’s U.K. ebook sales were always second to Amazon U.S. ebook sales. That’s no longer true. A number of other retailers both here and in other countries now scoop Amazon U.K. in terms of sales for my stuff. But we all know—or should know—that anecdotal evidence isn’t really evidence at all. It’s just proof that one writer’s career works one way.
We are starting to get some statistics, though, from the U.K. market, thanks to Data Guy and Hugh Howey. Responding to inquiries from BBC News about the U.K. market, Data Guy and Hugh have started to train their eagle eyes on Amazon statistics from the U.K.
One note: In the way of the chronically unsatisfied (and/or being that person who looks at the mouths of gift horses), I do hope that Hugh and Data Guy will eventually look at all of the retailers servicing the U.K. market—and maybe even the Eurozone—to get a bigger snapshot of the world market.
But, hey! What they released today is much more than we had earlier.
As Hugh and Data Guy state, there are some surprises in this report. The one they highlight is that self-published writers sell better in the Amazon marketplace than traditionally published writers do. Significantly better.
Now, for the record, I’m not sure what some of Hugh and Data Guy’s categories are. I’m not a self-published writer. (What Hugh and Data Guy call indie-published, which I find confusing, all by itself.) Back in 2010, Dean and I formed a publishing company as a corporation to handle our works. That corporation, an outside entity from us, is run by others now, although we have a controlling interest in it. That company publishes many authors other than ourselves, and has its publishing fingers in a variety of pies that are monitored by the folks who run the company, not by me.
By traditional publishing standards, that corporation is a medium-sized publisher, given its output. But I don’t know where Hugh and Data Guy slot it. Do they slot it in “Uncategoriezed Single-Author Publisher” (which I would call Indie Publishing)? Or in Small to Medium Publisher?
I don’t know, and can’t really tell from their descriptions. In other words, there are still unclear areas in the way they harvest their numbers.
But unlike most “studies” done of publishing, Hugh and Data Guy slice the entire market. Yes, they do it over a limited period of time, but they don’t discriminate as to type of book. And, unlike most “studies” done of publishing, Hugh and Data Guy also provide the raw numbers.
Honestly, I just got Data Guy’s email this afternoon, so I didn’t have time to delve into the raw numbers. But I like what I’m seeing.
Because it shatters myths.
Not just the myth that the Big 5 Publishers can make you an international bestseller, but also some smaller ones—some of which were niggling at me (having been raised in the pre-internet days).
Here are a few of the myths:
Myth 1: The markets are substantially different. “Everyone” used to say that the different cultures make certain books appeal to the British audience that won’t appeal to the U.S. audience and vice versa. The quote that captured this as a myth for me was this one:
More than 75% of indies selling in the overall UK Top 1,000 also appear in the US Top 1,000, compared to fewer than 25% of the Top 1,000 Big Five titles.
Why did this quote capture me? Because indies don’t really think about the outside markets in the same way that the Big 5 publishers do. To indies, the British market is simply one more click of the mouse or maybe two more, so that the price is set appropriately in a different currency.
To the Big 5 Publishers, the British market is different, substantially different, and it shows in their book sales.
Who knows—because I don’t, and the Big 5 don’t publicize this stuff—how different the marketing is between the Big 5 books published in the U.K. and the Big 5 books published in the U.S. But I do know that the marketing is different, substantially different.
One difference? Covers.
Myth 2: British book buyers want different things on their covers than American book buyers do.
Frankly, I’ve been worrying about that on some barely conscious level for years now. In fact, when Dean and I started publishing our work in the U.K., we discussed having different covers for different markets. Then we realized we simply don’t know enough about those foreign markets to figure out what an effective cover would be.
I know that most indie writers don’t think about different covers for different markets, and yet indie writers are doing significantly well in the U.K. without changing covers at all.
Which makes this one of those “We’ve always done it this way, so it must be true” kinda things that have come out of traditional publishing.
Myth 3: The Big Five Publishers here in the U.S. can get better overseas sales for their writers.
Simply not true at all. The entire study that Hugh and Data Guy did points to this conclusion—and frankly it surprised them. It didn’t surprise me, because my own personal experience has been that the ebook revolution has made my own English-language sales grow exponentially.
I’ve had some other experiences though that help this detail be unsurprising for me. I’ve traveled overseas as an author a number of times, and I was the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction before this ebook revolution hit.
I constantly got questions back in those days about making F&SF available for an international audience. After all, the major SF awards are mostly focused on short fiction and until the last six years or so, getting the issues of the various short fiction magazines into the hands of readers outside the U.S. has been difficult at best. Those readers had heard of all of these stories and authors, but weren’t able to sample them.
Now readers can, and can easily.
The same happened with novels. I can’t tell you how many people I met overseas who had heard of my work but had never read it. They wanted copies of the work, but couldn’t get their hands on it.
Then the ebook revolution happened, and I got email after email from some of these same readers, ecstatic that they can now get books they had only heard about before.
Some of my books that are unavailable overseas are traditionally published. In some cases, I got English-language rights reverted to me, so there are different editions for the overseas work and the U.S. work. But in others, I signed some bad contracts that took translation rights as well as World English. Those publishers have not exercised any of the overseas rights. Not a one, but they would come after me if I did so.
Yes, I’m working on extracting those books from those idiot publishers, but it’s taking time. I even sicced my remaining agent on one of those projects—and guess what? It vanished down the rabbit hole. I’ll have to do it, probably with lawyer in hand.
(To be fair, the agent makes no money on handling this for me, so why should he? In fact, in theory, he loses money—if the books were in print overseas, which they are not.)
The other thing that Hugh and Data Guy mention that I hadn’t thought of with the Big Five publishers is the pricing that they’re doing here in the U.S. Of course, they’re not doing it in the U.K. That price-fixing case was a U.S. case. The U.K. already had some protections against price-fixing. In fact, the protections in the E.U. against the kinds of monopolistic actions being taken by the Big 5 companies are much stronger than in the U.S. (Those protections are also biting Amazon in the butt on some of its business practices as well.)
So, of course, the lower U.K. prices on Big 5 books would have an impact on U.K. sales. What surprises me is that the impact the lower Big 5 prices has is less than I would have imagined.
In the ebook landscape, books are books are books are books. No one, except maybe writers or the deeply political, cares who publishes what.
The fact that Amazon is the bigger piece of the pie than the other retailers in the U.K. is also no surprise. Amazon’s footprint is very big there, older and bigger than it is in other outside-of-the-U.S. markets.
As I said above, I can’t wait to see some statistics on other marketplaces. I also can’t wait for the super-duper all-inclusive report on the U.K. market, after seven quarters of data, like Hugh and Data Guy had done with the U.S. market. I can’t wait to see the trends.
This is great information, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into it.
There are some surprises for me—like that marketing aspect—just like there were surprises when I learned it was easier and more lucrative to sell my own translation rights. I had no idea how badly my agents were hindering me on that, and until the ebook revolution, I had no idea how welcoming the overseas market would be to non-bestseller American books.
In fact, until today, I had no idea how welcoming the U.K. market was to non-bestseller American books. It’s even more welcoming than I thought.
Now, because I’m me, I have to point out one other statistic from Hugh and Data Guy’s report. They cite an International Publishers Association report on global book sales, with a nice juicy statistic in the middle of it. Rather than paraphrase, let me quote:
According to the International Publishers Association, the United States makes up 30% of the global book publishing market. In other words, $3 out of every $10 (or perhaps more appropriately, £3 out of every £10) spent on books of any format anywhere in the world, is spent in the US.
If the statistic is accurate—and that’s a big if, because I know about as much about how it’s derived as you do—then let’s flip it, shall we?
It means that 70% of the global book publishing market exists outside the U.S.
Writers who are not doing paper books and making them available worldwide are leaving $7 out of every $10 (or perhaps more appropriately, £7 out of every £10) on the table. Stop doing that. Yes, it’s more work. But jeez Louise, think broader, wider, and harder. Think of more cash streams, not fewer.
Even if you accept the completely unattributed statistic in the front of the Author Earnings Report (and I do) that 50% of the worlds ebooks are sold in the U.S., then that still means that $5 out of every $10 in ebooks is being left on the table by writers who are U.S. only.
I say this damn near every week, and I’ll say it again. Those of you who are U.S. centric, those of you who are Amazon centric, are leaving money, exposure, and readers on the table.
Yes, being exclusive to Amazon will make you rise higher inside their store. But it’s one store. Right now it’s the biggest one. These things change. Ask Microsoft. Ask IBM. Big companies lose ground over time.
Again, that’s your choice as a writer. The way you handle your career is your business, not mine. But I choose to have multiple cash streams because my business grows better and faster that way. I like being on the ground floor of new ventures, just like I was on the ground floor of Amazon U.K. back in the day.
And yeah, I can’t always do it. Translations are a bugaboo of time for me right now. But that’ll change at some undefined future date.
Just like I hope it changes for some of you.
All in all, though, there’s a lot of great news in the new Author Earnings Report. If you remember that the U.K. ebook market is years behind the U.S. ebook market, then you’ll realize that the U.K. market will continue to grow and mature, and become an even bigger market. Just like the other markets that Author Earnings mentions in passing.
The biggest takeaway from Author Earnings this time?
We’re in a true global marketplace now—and we can all easily access it. We don’t need agents or the Big 5 publishers to get us through doors any more. We can do it ourselves.
That’s such a sea change that I sometimes have trouble comprehending it. Although my subconscious is ahead of me on this. I posted a blog last Thursday on America’s Thanksgiving holiday, without really mentioning the holiday much. The blog went viral because of its subject matter, yes, but also because my readers overseas led the charge. They didn’t have a holiday. They read the blog at work (like so many U.S. readers do), and Tweeted and shared and emailed.
In previous years, I always sort-of apologized for the Thanksgiving blog. This year, I skipped right over the apology. Because a good third or more of my blog readers come from overseas.
Thank you for that. And for constantly discussing the changes, not just here but in other countries as well.
I’m so pleased that Author Earnings is now taking on the global marketplace. That’s important, all by itself. We’re starting to get real data, and oh, boy, it’s fascinating.
Just like this whole changing business is fascinating. What a great time to be a writer.
You have no idea how close I came to punting this week’s blog. When I came back to blogging after a six-month hiatus, I promised myself that I would not blog in weeks when I’m behind or stressed or ill. Well, 52 weeks later (53, actually, because I did a placeholder blog after I got injured in a car accident), I’ve been on another streak, and I’m loathe to miss.
Thank heavens, because I’m behind on a project, I have looming deadlines, and the lovely chronic health problem stole much of my writing time. Yet that streak means I’m sitting here, finishing the blog.
This week is the official anniversary of the Business Musings blog. It matters to me to finish a blog each week, simply because so much is changing, and I want to stay on top of it.
I had several ideas, but then more new information hit—Wednesday afternoon, when I sat down to write the blog—and I couldn’t resist.
That’s why I write this. So I don’t scan new stuff and disregard it.
If the blog helps you or has helped you in the past year, if you enjoy it, and if you want me to continue, please think of making a donation. The donations are one way that I can measure value to people other than myself.
The other way I measure value are comments, e-mails, and shares. You’ve all been so wonderful. Aside from the occasional snarky dweeble, who usually hasn’t read the blog (just an excerpt or someone else’s comments), the interactions have been great—and make me think long and hard about some of the issues in this ever-changing business.
So, thank you. I greatly appreciate your weekly visits to the blog.
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“Business Musings: Thoughts on the International Market,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2015 by Canstock Photo/vallepu.
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