Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Several months ago I read a mystery novel by an established author in the genre. I’d read a number of his books before and had been favorably impressed. This time, not so much.
The plot was loosely woven and there were several holes left in it at the end; there was a romantic subplot written at the level of understanding one would expect from a junior high school student, and at the end, where the killer was holding a hostage, the author could barely be bothered to go through the motions of building up any tension or coming up with an interesting wrinkle in the way the hostage was rescued.
It almost felt as if the author had turned the outline over to someone else to write the actual book and hadn’t given the product more than a cursory look. I’d purchased the book used and barely felt I’d gotten my money’s worth.
Going Through the Motions
I can’t say for certain what was going on, but it felt as if the author had gotten tired of the series he’d been writing and was just going through the motions. And while I can understand the feeling, believe me, that’s a real occupational hazard, probably made worse by the pressure on authors to generate more and more books.
Some authors manage to stay fresh and keep up a level of quality in a running series, and I hope someday to be one of those. Some grasp when they are starting to wear out the horse and get off it (or, try to, as Conan Doyle did, though the waterfall didn’t do the job). But others, either out of bad judgment or a desire to keep the revenue stream going, soldier on even though the quality of work is diminishing.
Authors go bad in a number of different ways. Some, like the one I mentioned, stop paying attention to the critical details of their writing; some begin to take themselves too seriously and bloviate philosophically; some keep falling back on the quirks of a growing set of characters; many write longer and longer books that could have been cut by a hundred pages with no harm to the story.
The Co-Dependent Publisher
Sadly, once an author reaches a certain level of success, it seems no one is willing to challenge him or her on a second-rate effort or a terrible idea. As long as there appear to be willing readers out there, the publisher probably isn’t going to tell a best-selling author to spend another six months on a rewrite. In that sense, the people in the book industry become co-dependent enablers of mediocre work.
The one ray of light in this dark situation is that the readers can serve as at least a bit of a corrective. A few days after reading the book I described at the beginning of this piece, I went to Kindle to see how the readers had rated it.
Most of the author’s other books were rated at 4.25 to 4.50 stars out of five, but the one I complained of got only 3.50 stars. It would appear that while the author’s agent, publisher and editor couldn’t tell it was a lesser work (or didn’t care), the readers smelled it out. Maybe if enough readers speak up, the publishers will listen — though I doubt it.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Several months ago, I wrote about rethinking Amazon free promotions, in which an author gives away a book at no charge for a day or two. The idea is to pull in some readers who might not have found the book otherwise, with the hope that said readers will tell friends, write reviews, and pay full price down the road for another book if they liked the first one free.
At the time, I was debating the effectiveness of the tactic and have now concluded, based on steadily diminishing results, that it’s no longer worth it. With my first two mystery novels, I did a free promotion within days of the book’s release, and did about 20 more over the next year.
There has been no free promotion for the third mystery in my series, Not Death, But Love, and I doubt there ever will be, though I remain open to evidence. Several factors propelled me to that decision, but two were particularly critical.
The Big Yawn
For a period of a bit over two years, from July 2012 to October 2014, my free-book giveaways were generating good numbers. Using the direct-mail analogy, I figured an author had to give away a hundred books to get two to four read. In the first couple of years, I was moving a hundred books a day on free days as often as not, and sometimes as many as several hundred.
In the past nine months or so, I’ve probably done 30 free giveaways and had only one 100-plus-book day. At that rate, I’d have been better off leaving the book out there at full price and hoping I sold one copy each of those days.
I was also seeing evidence that fewer people overall were participating in the free-book frenzy, both as authors and as customers. Late last year and early this year, it was not uncommon for one of my books to be in the top 50 Crime Fiction free books with only 30-40 downloads. That’s a pretty low bar.
Done in by Borrowing
Part of what I suspect is happening here is that Amazon has been promoting its Kindle Unlimited program, which allows people to borrow books free for a 21-day period once they’ve paid the membership fee. Authors get a small cut of the membership money, but not as much as if the book were purchased, rather than borrowed.
In the past two months slightly more of my books have been borrowed than purchased, which shows the market is going in that direction. The allure of free ownership is diminished by borrows. After all, why wait for a free-book day to come along when you can borrow the book already?
So my strategy now is to run Kindle Countdown promotions, in which one book each month is offered at a discount for a period of several days. I don’t move as many books with those promotions as I did with free giveaways, but the ones I do move are going to likely readers. Or so I figure. You’re not going to pay even 99 cents for an e-book unless you have some expectation of reading it. And the strategy is always subject to change.
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
A wise old newspaper editor — it may have been Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, but I’m not sure — was once asked by a journalism student if the editor was the key to a good newspaper. He shook his head.
Nope, he told the kid, the most important person in a good newspaper isn’t the editor, or even the publisher. It’s the owner. Without an owner who’s willing to spend money on news coverage and stand up to threats, no editor, however good, can accomplish much.
If it was indeed Bradlee who said that, he spoke from experience. His owner was Kay Graham, and she was a great owner. Nothing lasts forever, and the Post is now under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. So far, from what I’ve read, he seems willing to spend money and try different things, but the jury is still out on whether he’ll attain great-owner status.
All in the Family
Great newspapers have typically been a labor of love for families that had been in the business a long time and regarded the paper as an extension of their identity. I’m thinking here of families like the Grahams of the Post; the Ochs and Sulzbergers of the New York Times; the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times, and the Binghams of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
And, to be fair, there were always plenty of terrible family-owned newspapers, where the crusading spirit of the founder had long since faded away, and the descendants were content to make no waves and cash the quarterly dividend checks.
From the 1960s to the 1980s a great many family papers were bought by large chains, which saw their monopoly on a local advertising market as something worth a premium. In a few instances, the chains made the paper better (if for no other reason than it could hardly have gotten worse) by bringing a scintilla of professionalism to it.
In most cases, though, the chains were content to cut the staff, cut other expenses, and raise advertising and circulation rates to a level that a local owner would have blushed at. The customers might not have liked it, but for years those papers were cash cows generating profit margins of 30-40 percent, sometimes more.
Gone Are The Days
The Internet killed all that, beginning in the mid 1990s. The newspaper business will never again be a place where you could almost put a chimpanzee in charge of the operation, and still sit back and collect hefty rents from the advertisers and subscribers. The gutting of the old business model, though, has rained on the just and the unjust alike.
There are a few weekly papers and small-town dailies that are still doing all right, and that have owners who care about the paper and what it means to the community. But of the four owners I mentioned earlier, only the Sulzbergers are still running the paper as a family operation. The Times is the best there is now, but it’s limping along financially.
A lot of smart people don’t think newspapers will be around much longer, and if something comparable were rising to take their place, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Some day the Times may no longer exist, or will exist without the Sulzbergers, whom I think of as the last good owners, in some greatly diminished form. All I can hope is that it doesn’t happen for a long time, and that I’m not around when it does.