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The State of a Genre Title, 2013

18 January 2013

From John Scalzi:

Yesterday Redshirts, my most recent novel prior to The Human Division, was made available in trade paperback format, which formally ended its hardcover format era. There are still hardcover editions out there, but Tor isn’t printing any more of them; from here on out its print presence will be in trade paperback. Aside from switching formats, this offers an interesting point in time to take a look at the Redshirts sales numbers and see what, if anything, they mean for me, and what, if anything, it means for the genre of science fiction in a general sense.

Graphic here

1. These are healthy sales, and importantly they are healthy and reasonably balanced across the formats the book was available in. This is an important thing because while people like to talk about eBooks being the future, or audiobooks increasing in popularity, the fact of the matter is that print sales continue to be important, and a solid author presence in physical book stores also continues to be important.

. . . .

2. This sales profile also indicates to me that choosing to work with established publishers — in this case Tor (for print and eBooks) and Audible (for audiobooks) — is a smart decision for me. There are arguments made for self-publishing, and many people will make them, but at this point, for the majority of self-published authors, self-publishing primarily gains you access to eBook sales. . . ..

. . .Aside from everything else they do — including editing, design, artwork, marketing and advertising (hey, did you see me on tour? Or see those Redshirt ads in Times Square?) — the market access these established publishers provide is reason enough to keep working with them.

. . . .

4. . . .it’s also clear that the largest chunk of my sales are in eBook. I attribute this primarily to two factors: One, my personal presence and history online, which presents me as an “online native,” with a core fanbase of similarly tech-savvy readers; Two, science fiction as a genre tends to have a tech-friendly readership, which is likely to have adopted electronic readers early. A third factor is that eBooks tend to priced more cheaply than hardcovers, which is not insignificant. That said, the healthy sales of the Redshirts eBook at the $11.99 price point suggests that readers are willing to spend at that level, which argues for publishers to continue at least initially to peg their eBook prices to their hardcover prices, lowering them as the print format shifts.

. . . .

Link to the rest at Whatever


35 Comments to “The State of a Genre Title, 2013”

  1. I am shocked that someone whose publisher pays for books ads in Times Square doesn’t think self-publishing is for him :).

    Of course the other 99.9% of writers don’t get that kind of marketing behind their books.

  2. I met Scalzi at a writer’s conference a year or two ago and we had a brief discussion about ebooks and self-publishing. He felt new writers should be cautious about going indie because the odds were stacked against anyone making a decent living at it.
    Maybe he thought I harbored some get-rich-quick delusions, but I pointed out that finding that same sort of success in trad publishing was every bit as much of a crapshoot and steadily becoming more so.

  3. So, a traditionally published writer is hesitant about indie publishing, even though he has a built in fan base?

    Well, it’s his call, but if he signed away his e-book rights, going traditional probably was not a good decision – despite print distribution and New York Times ads.

    Print is fading. His e-books will be taking money out of his pocket and giving it to his publisher forever.

  4. Huh. An established author, major publisher, a book tour, a fan base, ads in Times Square, book store distribution, multiple formats–all that for fewer than 80k sales? Not that 80k units is peanuts, it’s not, but with that much advantage going in one would think it would have made a bigger splash. Compared to Barbara Freethy, Hugh Howey, Belle Andre, Joe Konrath… well.

    I wonder what his sales would be if the books were priced to tempt new readers? REDSHIRTS sounds amusing, but I’m not shelling out $9.99 (on Amazon) to be amused. Three or four bucks, maybe, but ten? Nope. I might try him out the next time I go to the library. If I remember.

  5. John Scalzi is a prolific writer who made it to the major league by the traditional route of a big publishing house and a good break-through novel.

    Why belittle his success?

    There is no one right way to find readers and that is a very good thing.

    OT. I d recommend ‘The Big Idea’-section on Scalzi’s blog, where different writers introduce the origin of their novels. It’s fascinating reading.

    • It should be noted that Scalzi’s first novel was picked up by its publisher when it was viewed, in somewhat different form, as a free serial posting on a blog.

      He had already had success in tradpub but as a non-fiction writer. So I find it especially funny that he makes these comments. I am not saying he is being hypocritical: in the totality of the circumstances he is being perfectly consistent. I just think it’s funny.

    • Yeah, as Marc says, Scalzi is close kin to an indie publisher, at least in the way he began his career in fiction. He serialized his novel on his blog and invited readers to make donations via paypal if they liked it. He never queried agents. He tells the story here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/12/30/the-offer-on-old-mans-war-a-ten-year-retrospective/

    • I’m not belittling Scalzi’s success. His sales are respectable. I’m sure he’s a fantastic writer and storyteller. BUT from the perspective of a run-of-the-mill reader browsing for something to read, and going just by the book description, the book is overpriced. The description makes the story sound lightweight and of limited appeal. That’s not Scalzi’s doing. HE doesn’t set the price or write the description. Ads in Times Square? At whom are those ads targeted? A book tour? Maybe if the tour was targeted at science fiction conferences and Star Trek conventions. Otherwise?

      What the author describes in his article sound like gestures rather than effective promotion. A lot of noise, but little payoff. How well does Scalzi’s publisher know Scalzi’s audience? More importantly, how well do they know his POTENTIAL audience? Even more importantly, how well did they coordinate their efforts with the one person who has access to his fans?

      Scalzi probably could have sold 80k books on his own, without doing anything differently than what he is doing right now. So what value has the publisher brought to the table? What makes the publisher worth 85% of the cover price or 75% of net? (generalization there about royalties based on averages).

      My question is: How many sales did the publisher LOSE for Scalzi by over-pricing the book?

      IF the author is in the 6 figure advance range, those sales figures are NOT making the bean counters happy. Who do the bean counters blame if the book is poorly packaged, poorly promoted, poorly priced? The author.

      • Actually so far as I know the ads are NOT for the book. They are for Audible.com. “Redshirts” happens to be the cover of the book visible on the Audible reader shown in the ad. That ain’t nothin’, but it’s not a “Times Square Ad For Redshirts.”

        The US edition has a very eye-catching cover and it made a good design element for the Audible ad. That’s it, that’s all.

  6. This post makes me despair. John Scalzi is a smart guy. He really out to see the flaws in his own logic. Maybe the ego boost of seeing your book advertised in Times Square is blinding, but wow. I can’t imagine him falling for those logical fallacies from someone else.

    How many people who bought “Redshirts” don’t have an internet connection? I would put that number closer to zero than one percent (less than 400, probably less than 40).

    How many people who bought “Redshirts” don’t have an Amazon account? That’s a little harder, but I would guess less than twenty-five percent, maybe a lot less. Remember, “Redshirts” is pretty hardcore nerd book.

    He could have put that thing up on KDP, done no more work promoting it and made a lot more money, even if it only sold half as much. I think I could make a good case that he could have sold more by going that route, but the counterfactual is hard to prove.

    At the very least he should be dabbling in self-publishing.

    • If you are assuming money is the sole purpose of being a writer.

      One could easily justify taking less money to reach more readers (after all, tens of thousands of authors make their book free on Amazon every single day.) And one could make the case that by going it alone, you lose the bookstore readers–true, they are a dwindling species, but most indie authors are NOT meeting them.

      That said, good for Mr. Scalzi. Not what I’d do, but I’m happy and he sounds happy. I just don’t take this as evidence of anything except a war story of how one guy did it and not whether he could have done better or worse.

      • I am not assuming that at all. Scalzi gave a set of justifications for his choices that were based on money. Those justifications make no sense. How can he claim that the fact that he sold a lot of hard cover books justifies being with a publisher and at the same time claim that because he sold a lot of high-priced ebooks that proves that the publisher should base the price of the ebook on the hard cover? Think about that. The evidence he presents cannot possibly justify those claims. I believe that in any other context, Scalzi would be the first to call b******* on that claim.

        I have no thoughts one way or another about what Scalzi should do. I object to writers who should know better regurgitating publisher propaganda. And that is what I think Scalzi is doing.

      • Well said, Scott.

      • I just don’t take this as evidence of anything except a war story of how one guy did it and not whether he could have done better or worse.

        This. Exactly.

        That’s the real problem I have with this article: Scalzi writes as if his personal experience with Redshirts is “evidence.” But it is only an anecdote. If you look at the hundreds of other writers’ experiences in traditional publishing, you’ll find Scalzi’s experience is the exception not the rule.

        Let’s just hope he doesn’t get screwed down the line by his trad pub friends a la Bill Bryson.

  7. This is why anecdotal “evidence” (i.e. one person’s experience) means next to nothing. Scalzi’s a lucky guy. But I make more money actually publishing my work than I did mailing query letters to agents who made big promises and never followed through.

    What worked for him will not work for most, and there is plenty of real evidence to support this. (Not to mention that many of his rights and most of his money now belong to TOR.)

    Why are we still having this discussion?

  8. The funniest thing? This guy Scalzi, who’s clinging so desperately to the ever-wizening tradpub teat, has always been among the first to bray “Buggy Whip Manufacturer!” at anyone who’s even slightly hesitant to embrace change & innovation.

    Fancy that.

  9. What’s really sad is a Star Trek and Scalzi fan, who couldn’t afford the hardback of Redshirts when it came out, took her meager allowance and coupon to B&N since the paperback came out this week to purchase her one effing treat for this month and B&N HAD ABSOLUTELY NO COPIES!

    And people wonder why I don’t believe print and bookstores will survive.

  10. I find it interesting he has the sales numbers at hand that are, by his impression, an up-to-date summary. If Bookscan is missing his audible and ebook versions, and he says they’re only tracking 2/3 of his print… where is he getting his numbers from? If this is his royalty statement, shouldn’t he note those numbers as being a quarter behind reality? Or does his publisher give him numbers in advance of his royalty statement?

  11. I too find this article odd. I agree with a lot of what he is saying when applied to perhaps a new writer without a platform, but not a writer who has a) one of the oldest blogs on the internet and has a massive audience, and b) a writer who is often considered a doyen of sci-fi and is president of the SFWA. He would have certainly made much more money self publishing. If any writer doesn’t need a publisher, it is John Scalzi. If he self-pubbed Redskins it would have sold just as many copies and probably more if he reduced the price.

    I think his position at the SFWA lies behind much of what he says. If he went the self publishing route I’d imagine he’d be ousted. Self-pubbers don’t qualify for SFWA membership, no matter how many books they have sold. You need at least 3 “professional” short story sales (although why people consider 5-7 cents per printed word is in anyway being treated as a “professional” is beyond me. I’m a business and technology hack by day and get 40 cents per printed word, at least) or a trad printed book to qualify.

    • Because they would, literally, be overrun with members, the vast majority of whom would be young and have little or nothing good to say about tradpub, which would be The End of the SFWA As We Know It.

      Hell, if you calculate the average revenue recieved for publications that qualify you for SFWA membership and map it onto MY sales, I’d have qualified less than a month after I started self-publishing.

      • Writing organizations have about as much to do with writing as goat fences do to goats.

        • I would say that a goat which finds itself behind a fence probably considers them fairly intrinsic to the quality of its life. 🙂

          Your point is well taken… but leads to the notion that the SFWA is an obsolete anachronism. It may well be. But I don’t see them admitting to THAT as an alternative to letting in indiepubs.

          They still think they are important to the industry (To William of Ockham: this would be the narrative fiction industry, speculative division.) If they wish to be able to keep doing that, they have several choices, none of them, from their perspective, good. ALL of them lead in fairly short order (on the close order of ten years) to indiepubs taking over the SFWA. Whether they will allow this or would rather fade into obscurity, I don’t know. I suspect that when the money moves far enough, they will follow.

          In the meantime, would anyone be interested in joining the ISFWA? Charter memberships available soon!

      • The RWA did let self-published authors into their PAN (published author) network. They required a fairly high earnings bar to qualify. Unsurprisingly, the world didn’t end when the indie publishers joined the club.

        • Aha… therein lies the rub. If they go by earnings, indie authors will come a-stampedin’ in… UNLESS they set the bar high enough. And if they raise the bar… a lot of traditional authors will be sittin’ out in the cold. The dirty little secret is that *on average,* we make more money than they do, faster. The right side of their curve is fatter… but ours is bigger and there are more of us.

          If they set the earnings bar high enough to keep, say, *me* out, they will keep out a lot of aspiring writers who have sold three stories for peanuts to Asimov’s, etc. As a connoisseur of irony, I have to call this a no-lose situation.

          • The RWA does require a higher earnings bar for self-published writers than traditionally published writers. Fair or not, it acknowledges that self-pubs receive a much higher royalty rate. I think it’s something like $1000 to qualify if traditionally published and $5000 if self-published. (Don’t quote me. I’m not certain those numbers are accurate.) I think it’s reasonable considering that self-published authors typically get over 5x the royalty rate that most traditionally published authors receive, so the sales numbers are likely to be comparable.

            • I think that’s reasonable in theory and the numbers you hypothesize are, precise or not, in line with the kind of thing we are talking about.

              But I find the message that such a ranking sends absolutely marvelous. If the SFWA wants to send the same message, I hope they do. I hope they beam it from the rooftops. 🙂

              And, my rather vicious sense of humor aside, I still maintain that if you independently publish several books, and you have even a shred of talent, your achieving any reasonable bar is a matter of mathematical inevitability. This is not so with tradpub, period. Again, perhaps not the idea that supporters of tradpub want prospective members/authors to come away with.

  12. Imagine that you work for a successful and well-established tech company. You’re a rising star in the company. You’re well paid, have many close, personal friends in the company, and frequently win awards. You love your job.

    Then somebody starts a competing company. It’s a little start-up and he tries to recruit you to join him. He says he can’t pay you anything up front, and there’s no guarantee you’ll make what you used to make at your old job, but the potential exists for big, big money. Do you switch jobs?

    Some people would. Many people wouldn’t. I see that as the situation Scalzi is in. He has a family to support. He loves the situation he’s in now, and he’s making plenty of money where he is. Why would he leave a sweet deal for something that might have an upside, but would feel like a betrayal of his close personal friends in publishing and might not actually pay off?

    • It’s a very fair perspective. The only issue I have in the post is:

      …but would feel like a betrayal of his close personal friends in publishing and might not actually pay off?

      Making your business decisions based on personal friendships is a very risky thing to do. So very risky. In most cases, you’ll either be treading water or you’re a sucker.

      And, for that matter, there’s absolutely nothing saying he can’t go “in halfsies”, such as keeping his erights and licensing his audio and print rights. Or self-publishing a solo project while continuing to make print projects.

      If he won’t even do one of those options for fear of being “disloyal” or “hurting feelings” then I certainly hope his friends are repaying that loyalty in kind.

      Yep. Sure hope.

  13. A Different view of his report:

    Less than 50% of his unit sales were in ebook format, meaning that even in SciFi more people choose “not ebook” than choose “ebook”.

    Self-publishing a hardcover or an audio book is still difficult. This is mostly a distribution problem.

    The Redshirts ebook was initially priced at 11.99 and was only recently discounted to 9.99. It would seem that some ebooks may be under performing for self published authors due to a super discounted price (DWS makes this point quite often).

    As always, the choice of how to publish is a personal one. We don’t know how working with a publisher has helped Scalzi’s career in non-fiction and games. We don’t know the size of his advance or his current balance with his publisher.

    • I don’t fault Scalzi for his choices. It’s his life and he can do what he pleases. I fault him for the illogical nature of his analysis. Much like I fault yours.

      Less than 50% of his unit sales were in ebook format, meaning that even in SciFi more people choose “not ebook” than choose “ebook”.

      This isn’t true in any meaningful sense. How many people would have bought the hardback if the paperback version was simultaneously available? Unless you believe that no one would have bought the paperback version, you can’t say that people “chose” the hardback. He essentially says that a lot of his hardback sales come from stores that couldn’t sell the paperback or the ebook. The question is whether or not he needed to have his book in those outlets.

      Do you really think that if the book were only available in ebook form that he would have sold less than half as many? Looking at unit sales in this sort of static analysis is absurd. Being in bookstores can sometimes hurt your sales. If you look at book buyers as a giant network graph and understand the principles of network diffusion, you can see that having your readers scattered out among many small, weakly connected networks can kill your sales. I would really expect someone like Scalzi to understand that.

      • Sorry don’t know how to do that fancy quote thingy:

        “He essentially says that a lot of his hardback sales come from stores that couldn’t sell the paperback or the ebook. The question is whether or not he needed to have his book in those outlets.”

        Well, considering it made up over a third of his sales it would be very bad business to ignore those customers. There are people who prefer the hardcover format. I personally know several who chose to buy this particular book in hardcover. Do I think it’s silly? Yes, absolutely. Would they have preferred the paperback? No. Are there enough of them to make the extra effort of putting together a hardcover edition? In this case, yes.

        I disagree that the data backs up your “weak network” theory of bookstores. It’s an interesting theory, but I don’t think it’s true for the current marketplace.

        • The fancy quote thing is accomplished with the [blockquote] [/blockquote] tags, but with angle brackets, of course.

          If you think there is a fixed pool of 80,000 people who would buy that book, you are mistaken. It is clearly better for his publisher to have the mix of sales they got and they priced to get that mix. But Scalzi presents zero evidence that he got the mix that is best for him. In fact, he clearly wants to avoid the only meaningful discussion that you could have around those numbers because he says he doesn’t want to talk about ebook pricing.

          • The fancy quote thing is accomplished with the [blockquote] [/blockquote] tags, but with angle brackets, of course.



            I think that the people who buy ebooks are not necessarily the people who buy hardcovers, who are also not the same people who buy audiobook, and are also not the same people who buy paperback, and are also not the same people who buy discount (2.99 and under) ebooks, and that over time an author can sell to all these groups of people. Personally, my buyer profile is: ebooks over 2.99, even if I like the authors work, I’ll think about it before I’ll buy a book that’s under 2.99 and if you only offer paper books and aren’t willing to pay me rent, well… good luck with that.

            Scalzi will eventually hit the paperback and discounted ebooks markets. He addresses this slightly when discussing bestsellers lists:

            Well, I would have been an NYT bestseller if I had only sold a fraction of that, as what the list notes is sales in a particular week, not sales over time. If I had never sold another copy after the week I was in the list, I would still be a NYT bestseller.

            On the flip side, Old Man’s War has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has never once been in the NYT bestseller list; it’s merely sold a solid number of books, week in and week out, for eight years. Likewise, Redshirts has the potential to sell substantially more over time and I’m perfectly happy to have it be a solid seller for many years, as opposed a title which sells a lot for a very short period of time.

            This is also a snapshot of the 80,000 Audiobook, Hardcover and non-discounted ebooks sold so far. One should not assume that Redshirts won’t spend a long time “in print”. Right now he is selling in high margin markets. Later when the paperback comes out there can be another marketing push and a more steeply discounted ebook to take advantage of the lower margin crowd.

            I think the ebook pricing ban is due to past comment bitchfests that annoyed him. I also think that retail pricing is a subject he doesn’t care about and doesn’t want to talk about. Which is another great reason why he is trad pubbed not self pubbed. He doesn’t want to worry about unit pricing, finding an editor, audiobook casting, and the other details he would need to manage if he was his own publisher.

            • As may be obvious I am more on William’s side of the debate but your last paragraph is spot on, both in Scalzi’s probable motivation in banning the topic *from this post’s comments* and why it is the topic doesn’t concern him overmuch in general.

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