Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amazon v. Macmillan: Authors, Are You Backing The Right Horse?

Herewith, I present an updated and amended version of my original blog post on the Amazon v. Macmillan affair. Let me state up front, I do not agree with Amazon's strongarm tactics, and it is not my intention to defend those actions in this post. Rather, I'm puzzled by authors' nearly universal lack of criticism for Macmillan's part in the matter. I can't help wondering, if Amazon had quietly agreed to Macmillan's requested terms, thereby depriving authors of an easy target and distraction, might they have reacted differently to Macmillan's move?

[Earlier this week], Amazon announced it will cave to Macmillan’s demand that it sell Macmillan Kindle books at up to $14.99 instead of the $9.99 pricetag that’s become standard for Kindle bestsellers. Per a report on Booksquare, Macmillan may have plans to price their Kindle books across a range, anywhere from $4.99-$14.99, and author royalties on those books may be based on an 'agency model' calculation which computes author royalty as a percentage of net, not a percentage of list price. See the linked Booksquare post for more information.

Macmillan authors are rejoicing, and I’m shaking my head.

Would musicians cheer a decision on the part of their labels to raise the price of their music on iTunes by up to 43%? I think not. Yet despite the fact that their books may cost up to 43% more than other Kindle bestsellers, and their royalty on those sales won’t be even one cent higher, the Macmillan author “victory” dance continues apace on the interwebz. The Author's Guild has come out on Macmillan's side too, and I'm completely mystified by that stance since Macmillan's change in terms with Amazon only stands to hurt authors and ebook readers alike.
The only reason I can think of for authors to be on the wrong side of this battle is that they don’t understand it. Let’s look at the facts.

1. Under pre-existing terms Amazon pays big publishers like Macmillan half the hardcover price on each Kindle book they sell: generally, that’s between $12-$17. This means Amazon is taking a loss on the sale of every such Kindle book, but the publisher is still getting its standard share, regardless.

2. Macmillan cut their standard author royalty on ebooks from 25% of the list price to 20% of the list price last October.

3. Amazon announced last week it will grant a royalty of 70% of the list price to U.S. authors and 75% to UK authors who sign Kindle book publication deals with Amazon directly. Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Stephen Covey are just a few of the authors who’ve already signed on. A data storage/transfer/processing fee of .15 per MB will be deducted from list price prior to the 70% royalty split's calculation, but Amazon states that on average this fee only amounts to .06 per Kindle book sold.

4. The author’s royalty in either case is/was based on the list price of a given book, not the price at which the book is/was ultimately sold. This means Macmillan authors used to get the same royalty on every sale whether the customer paid $14.99 for it, or $9.99 due to Amazon discounts.

5. Last week Macmillan informed Amazon that if Amazon wanted to continue to sell Macmillan books in Kindle format, Amazon would have to raise [or lower] the prices on them to Macmillan's stated prices. If not, Macmillan wanted Amazon to delay release of new Kindle books by 7 months following a hardcover release, and, according to this report, several months following release in Apple's iBook store.

Recent reports have said Macmillan asked Amazon to match the 'agency model' deal it made with Apple's iBook store, which dictates a 30/70 split (70% going to the publisher) and allows the publisher to set the price at which each ebook would be sold. If Amazon did not agree to these terms, Macmillan would allow Amazon to continue to sell Kindle editions of their books under existing terms, but wouldn't allow Amazon to release the Kindle edition of a new book for sale until 7 months after its initial release in hardcover and several months following release in Apple's iBook store. I have yet to hear or read any report as to whether these delays would also hold for books intially released in trade paperback or mass-market paperback editions.

6. Amazon didn’t agree to Macmillan’s terms, and childishly removed the Amazon ‘buy’ links for all Macmillan books from its site in response to Macmillan's demand for new terms.

7. Macmillan authors stormed the internet, posting angry diatribes against Amazon and drumming up support among their fans and followers for Kindle and Amazon boycotts. Yes, that’s right: they took the side of the party who demanded that Amazon raise the price of their Kindle books, or delay their release by 7 months, or reduce the price of their ebooks below Amazon's $9.99 standard and pay their royalties based on an agency (net profit) model instead of the percentage-of-list-price model they've had on their Kindle books to date.

It was Macmillan which set forces in motion that ultimately resulted in the removal of ‘buy’ links, not Amazon, and while Amazon's actions in this seem excessive, I still see plenty of reasons for authors to be irked with Macmillan. If the report stating that Macmillan intended to withold Kindle editions of their books for a number of months after those books were released in the iBook store is true, is that a move that would've pleased the thousands of readers who own a Kindle, or who use the Kindle reader app on their computers or portable devices? Seems like a rather diabolical move to pressure ebook consumers to buy their ebooks from Apple (at higher prices) instead of Amazon, no? And isn't it very likely that by the time Macmillan books were released in the Kindle store following this Macmillan-imposed delay, Kindle-reading consumers would have forgotten all about those titles and moved on to other, more readily-available ebooks?

I don't own a Kindle, but release delays and pricing impact my book-buying decisions, too. I rarely buy hardcovers because they're so expensive, and there's many a book I intended to buy if/when it came out in softcover or e or audio, but either the book was never released in those formats or---salient in this case---by time it did, I'd forgotten all about it. This same phenomenon among ebook fans is well-documented, and ebook fans have always clamored to have their preferred format released at the same time as any print edition.

Also, recall that Macmillan may be planning to offer Kindle titles in a range from $4.99-$14.99. This isn't good news for their authors either, since Kindle books priced higher than $9.99 will be a tough sell and those priced below $9.99 will net the author a lower royalty. None of Macmillan's intended changes in its Kindle books deal with Amazon stand to benefit Macmillan authors or ebook readers. The intended changes only stand either scare off sales (in the case of Kindle books priced higher than $9.99 or those delayed by 7 months) or reduce author royalties (on Kindle books priced lower than $9.99).

So while I can understand Macmillan authors' anger at Amazon for having their buy links removed, especially in the case of authors of books offered in print editions only (since they don't even have a horse in this race), I still don't understand why Macmillan authors haven't been publicly objecting to Macmillan's actions as well. Macmillan presented Amazon with an ultimatum in which either option hurts authors' and ebook readers' current situation.

8. Macmillan authors will not receive one penny more in royalties on their Kindle books if those books are priced up to 43% higher, because their royalties were always based on the list price for their books, not the price at which Amazon ultimately sold them, in the pre-existing arrangement. Now their royalties will be based on 70% of the ebook retail price, and it’s a safe bet their books will be netting fewer sales if prices go up to $12.99-$14.99.

9. The upshot is a lose-lose-lose. Consumers lose reasonably-priced Macmillan Kindle books, and reasonably-priced Apple iBooks too, since according to this NY Times article:

With Apple, under a formula that tethers the maximum e-book price to the print price on the same book, publishers will be able to charge $12.99 to $14.99 for most general fiction and nonfiction titles — higher than the common $9.99 price that Amazon had effectively set for new releases and best sellers. Apple will keep 30 percent of each sale, and publishers will take 70 percent.

So Macmillan earns the dubious distinction of being the first major publisher to make calculated moves to drive ebook prices higher across all platforms. Thanks to Macmillan's "victory" over Amazon, Macmillan, authors and Amazon all stand to lose sales. Macmillan stands to lose market share. Authors stand to lose readership.

10. Prediction: emboldened by Macmillan’s so-called win, other major publishers will likely follow suit. More “lose” for everyone.

So tell me again: exactly why, and what, are we supposed to be celebrating here? I can already imagine the one objection I hear raised in discussions on this topic again and again: Macmillan is staving off devaluation of the ebook. There’s much hand-wringing over the notions that authors can’t possibly earn their due on low-priced ebooks, and that authors (like me) who sell their ebooks at prices significantly lower than the $9.99 Kindle store standard are somehow doing a great disservice to our fellow authors and trade publishing overall. This is so patently untrue, and such a pointless distraction from more important ebook issues, as to call to mind the Chewbacca Defense.

Under the pre-existing deal between Amazon and Macmillan, Macmillan authors earn a royalty of about $3.19 on their Kindle store standard-bestseller-priced books, whether those books are sold at $9.99 or $15.99. Under the new deal, which is the same in both Apple's iBook store and the Kindle store, authors would earn a royalty of just $2.10 on an ebook priced at $14.99: 20% of 70% of the book's $14.99 list price, and about $1 less in royalties per copy sold than what they have earned on their standard-priced Kindle books to date.

At a 70% royalty, I can earn $3.50 per copy sold of my self-published Kindle novels if I price them at just $4.99. The higher retail price does not add value for the author or the consumer, and at this point, it doesn’t even increase Macmillan’s profit since they’ve always gotten half the hardcover price on all their Kindle books from Amazon.

It's quite clear that Macmillan's take on each Kindle book sale under the new deal will be less than what they've received to date on those sales (since they used to get 1/2 the hardcover price and will now only get 70% of the ebook list price, which appears to have an upper limit of $14.99 for the foreseeable future), but I guess they decided they were willing to take that financial hit in exchange for the freedom to set their own ebook retail prices. Of course, Macmillan was under no legal obligation to include authors in their decision-making process, even though their decision stands to reduce their authors' Kindle book royalties by up to 33%; I'm just saying it's mind-boggling to me that Macmillan authors don't seem to be the least bit peeved at this outcome. In fact, they don't seem to have noticed it at all.

Publishers claim they need to wrest pricing control back from Amazon for the sake of what Amazon might do someday if it becomes too dominant in the ebook space. What if Amazon eventually decides to tell publishers it will no longer pay them half the hardcover price for their Kindle books, for example?

First of all, that’s a bridge to be crossed if, and when, someday arrives. Second, perhaps the correct answer in the event of that scenario is for publishers to lower their wholesale ebook prices. They claim it costs them just as much—or nearly so—to bring an ebook to market as it does to bring a hard copy, and they are therefore justified in their current pricing demands. But if it really takes a small platoon of publishing professionals and tens of thousands of dollars to bring a Kindle book to market, how is it possible that authors like me, JA Konrath, Piers Anthony, and countless others are doing it by ourselves, in our homes, from our consumer-grade computers, in a matter of hours?

“Your Kindle books lack the professional layout and design a publisher can bring to their Kindle books,” some of you are no doubt answering. This is true. But the thousands of readers who buy Kindle books from me, Konrath and the many other self-publishing Kindle book authors don’t seem to care all that much. I suspect that if you asked them, they would tell you they’d rather have a minimally-formatted Kindle book that costs $4.99 (or less) than an exquisitely-formatted Kindle book that costs $14.99.

As I’ve stated before, publishers arguing in favor of higher priced ebooks are ignoring the customer’s priorities in favor of their own, self-imposed priorities. This is because the ugly truth is this: the only parties being hurt by low-priced ebooks are big, mainstream publishers. Their overheads cannot be sustained by $4.99 ebooks, but that doesn’t mean their costs to bring ebooks to market should be forcibly subsidized by authors or consumers. To quote Konrath, “It would have really sucked to have been a buggy whip manufacturer when Henry Ford introduced the Model T. But technology changes things, and it isn't always fair.”

In the end, all the arguments I’ve heard and read about the devaluation of the ebook are toothless. There seems to be this notion floating around that books must be expensive in order to inspire readers to value literature, but that’s ridiculous. If I’m earning more on my $4.99 Kindle books than a Macmillan author earns on a $15.99 Kindle book, both on a per-sale and volume basis, how is my book’s low pricetag hurting me, the author? And if low-priced ebooks bring more literature and ereaders within reach of more consumers, how are the books’ low prices hurting literature and literacy? If anything, low-priced ebooks stand to benefit authors and consumers alike, and advance the cause of literacy overall.

Hasn’t it been wonderful to find short fiction and poetry collections—species on the verge of extinction in trade publishing—coming back into their own in the Kindle store? It seems readers are only too happy to take a chance on these supposedly ‘fringe’ books if the price is reasonable. Midlist authors are earning new royalties and new readers by bringing their backlists back into print on the Kindle as well. Most importantly, in my view anyway, the current indie author movement wouldn’t be possible at all without Amazon’s equal treatment of indie and mainstream authors.

So authors, indie authors especially: if you’re backing Macmillan in this flap, why? Has Amazon's overreaction distracted your attention from the long term ramifications of Macmillan's move, and the likely damage to be done to you and your readership? To put it another way, see if you can answer this question: what part, if any, of Macmillan's revised agreement with Amazon stands to benefit you?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Why I See The iPad As An Epic Ereader Fail

My ereader is a tablet computing device that's 9 3/4" x 8 3/8", with a full-color touchscreen that measures 6 3/4" x 5 1/8". It's 3/4" thick and weighs about 2 pounds. It carries an on-board, removable stylus, like a Nintendo DS.

It came standard with 2 USB ports, a built-in microphone, jacks for an external microphone and headphones, built-in compact flash card reader, 9-pin connector (for connecting to printers, external hard drives and other devices), internal wireless adapter, built-in network card reader, onboard speaker and A/C adapter/charger. It can surf the web, play games and music, run a mobile edition of MS Office and other programs.

With μBook (a freeware ereader program) installed it reads ebooks in multiple formats, and allows the user to customize all of the following when reading an ebook: page orientation, page background color/texture, font, font size, font color, font style (e.g., bold/italic), character and line spacing, bookmarks, indent spacing and more. It also has search, touch page-turning and 'jump to page' functionality. Other freeware ereader programs I could install include dictionary and markup/notes capability, but since those aren't functions I feel I need, I'm content with μBook.

None of this would seem particularly impressive, were it not for the fact that MY EREADER IS TEN FREAKIN' YEARS OLD!!

It's not as sexy as the iPad or the Kindle, and it doesn't have an e-ink display---neither does the iPad. But considering that it's TEN FREAKIN' YEARS OLD I'm more than a little disappointed that when the wizards at Apple finally decided to come out with an ereader, they couldn't beat my dinosaur device (ten years may as well be an epoch in terms of advances in technology) in either functionality or price.

My device is about the same size, and just slightly heavier than, an iPad. While the iPad's processor speed is faster than my device's, and its screen is larger and higher-resolution than that on my device, I'd have thought that with ten years to build on what I've had since 2000 it would've been no problem for a bunch of hardware and software engineers to improve my device's processing speed and screen to match the iPad's specs. Also, while my Ereader-saurus Rex's (largely useless today) wireless infrared adapter would be replaced with a wireless bluetooth adapter in a device built more recently, my device can still connect to the internet or a wireless network via a wireless network card.

Where are the iPad's USB ports? There's just one, on the available-for-separate-purchase docking device. Where is the iPad's microphone jack, where's its flash card reader, where's its input/output connector port? My ereader has had all of these for a decade, yet Apple couldn't find a way to get them into the iPad.

My device is an ePods: a tablet computing device that was originally intended to be used as a portable computer for email, simple productivity applications (e.g., stripped-down word processor and spreadsheet), playing music files and simple games, and for surfing the web via connection to a dedicated Internet Service Provider (ISP). When the ISP folded, there were suddenly a bunch of these ePods devices out in the world with no network to support them. It wasn't long before someone took a look at the device's form factor and available functionality and thought to himself, "Hey, this thing would make a terrific ereader!"

Soon, that someone figured out how to bypass the device's automatic attempt to connect to its now-defunct network every time it was turned on, and how to get the device to load a simple desktop like any other computer. With the simple desktop in place and USB connection to another computer, getting programs like μBook loaded onto the ePods is easy. With the ePods connected to a computer via USB, transferring files in either direction is a simple, drag-and-drop operation.

The ePods' compact flash card reader (which would be an SD card reader on a device built more recently) makes concerns about storage limitations moot: need more storage? Get more memory cards. The iPad, on the other hand, is like an iPod: you're limited to the on-board storage that comes pre-loaded on the device. Need more storage? Buy a better iPad.

I can buy books for my ereader from many different vendors, I'm not locked into a specific vendor's store. I can comparison-shop. I can read ebooks offered in various formats. I'm not chained to a specific vendor for my ebook purchases, nor am I married to a 'preferred' vendor which will allow me to buy ebooks from other sources but will make it a royal pain to get them loaded on the device.

I pay no monthly fees to use my device, and I actually own my copies of the books I've bought (or downloaded from public-domain repositories like Project Gutenberg). I will never turn on my device to find that this or that book's licensing term has "expired", or that some of my content has disappeared because the vendor who sold it to me had to pull it back due to questionable content licensing.

I paid about $60 for my ePods when I bought it on eBay. As of this writing, the lowest-capacity iPad costs $499 and the Kindle DX costs $489. After comparing the feature sets, it's clear to me that buying either device would be an expensive step backward for me in terms of ereader functionality. Sure, I'd like to have an e-ink display, but with my preferred font style, color and size selections made, my ereader isn't particularly hard on the eyes. And since ebook files are small (in terms of file size) and comprised primarily of text, I don't need any more processing power than my ePods has for reading ebooks. I don't use my ePods to run programs, access email, surf the 'net or subscribe to newspapers, magazines or RSS feeds. I just use it to read ebooks. And in terms of that functionality, it easily holds its own against the Kindle, Kindle DX, and the iPad.

I look forward to the day when a device with all the functionality and connectivity of my ePods comes along, with an added full-color e-ink display, enough processing power and screen resolution to run enhanced ebook "apps" that have full-motion video and interactive features, high-quality audio for text-to-speech and audiobooks, all at a reasonable price. But that day hasn't come yet, and I have no idea why. And it's kind of annoying.

In the meantime, if you want an ereader with all the functionality and connectivity of my ePods and a Kindle (minus the e-ink display) and a Sony Reader, but with a speedier processor, full-color display and more power to run programs and surf the web, here's what you need to do. Get yourself a netbook and load it up with the free Kindle reader software for Kindle books (and Kindle Store connectivity), free Sony Reader software for Sony Reader books (and Sony Reader Store connectivity), and one of the many freeware ereader programs for all other ebook formats. Voila! You've got a small, light, portable ereader with all the functionality of a Kindle, a Sony Reader and my ePods rolled into one device, with more computing power than any of those devices, more connectivity and storage flexibility than an iPad, and all at a pricetag of around $300.

On the other hand, if you'd rather just have $500 worth of cool, sexy and impress-your-friends, get an iPad.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Congratulations: You Get To Be The Bigger Person Now

If you’re working your author platform effectively, you’re very active online. You’re doing any or all of the following: posting to your blog, possibly posting to others’ blogs, tweeting, posting updates on Facebook or MySpace or LinkedIn, participating in online discussion groups and comment threads, posting or commenting on YouTube book trailers, and maybe even podcasting. Your goal is to open a dialogue with readers and your peers, and the better your author platform, the more feedback and discussion you will generate. Much of the feedback and discussion will be enjoyable and thought-provoking, a kind of online ‘salon’. The rest of it, not so much.

An awful lot of people will have strongly held opinions with which you disagree, or which are ill-informed, or which are obviously being shared only for the sake of getting a rise out of you or casting aspersions on you or your work. But however much you may want to angrily tear into this latter group anytime they darken your virtual doorstep, however tempting it may be to respond with a biting and clever remark, you must never do it. Answering the uncouth and trollish in kind requires you to become uncouth and trollish, which can quickly escalate beyond your control, undermine all the goodwill you’ve built up to date with your community of readers and peers, and quickly turn off any newcomers to your tribe. As an author, you’ll find there are two primary arenas in which you may feel tempted to rain invective upon a perceived adversary: following a bad review, or following an ill-informed or insulting post to, or about, you. First, let’s look at what happens when authors respond to negative reviews…negatively.

Consider this case of commercially- and critically-successful novelist Alice Hoffman, who was so outraged by a negative review (some have called it merely lukewarm) from author Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe that Hoffman ended up flaming Silman all over Twitter. Hoffman eventually went so far as to provide Silman’s phone number to her fans and request that they call Silman to defend Hoffman. It wasn’t long before the mainstream press was all over this, and not much longer before an embarrassed Hoffman began making public apologies.

Then there’s author Alain de Botton, who responded to a negative review on Caleb Crain’s blog with a number of posts that eventually escalated to the point where Botton was saying things like, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.” There’s a terrific post about the incident on Ed Rants in which de Botton responds to questions about the incident and provides an essay as part of his response as well.

Next, take a gander at the controversy more recently sparked by author Candace Sams on Amazon. When reader-reviewer LB Taylor posted a one-star review of Sam’s novel Electra Galaxy's Mr Interstellar Feller, Sams responded with a series of angry responses, initially under an alias but eventually under her own name as well. When the dust had settled and the press and blogs were finished with her Sams went back and deleted all of her posts in the Amazon thread, but it was too late by then because plenty of sites and blogs (such as Babbling About Books) had already copied and re-published the worst of them online.

Prior to the Sams debacle, perhaps the best-known author outburst came from Anne Rice in 2004, also on Amazon, in response to multiple negative reviews of her novel, Blood Canticle. In a 1200-word diatribe, among other things, Rice responded to reader-critics by saying, “Your stupid, arrogant assumptions about me and what I am doing are slander…You have used the site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies." Her entire response is reprinted on the encyclopedia dramatica site, where the term “rice out” is defined as, “To make a spectacle of oneself in response to literary criticism by insisting that one's creative work is superior in all aspects.”

Now, compare these authorial meltdowns to the actions of Carla Cassidy, who posted a wry and clever rebuttal to a negative review on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site. SBTB’s review featured a sarcastic, snarky list of 26 reasons why Cassidy’s novel Pregnesia is the best book in the history of pregnant amnesiac romance books. Cassidy responded with her own list of 10 reasons why she loves the SBTB review, as detailed on the Saturday Writers site. According to Saturday Writers, “Carla responded with grace and humor that exactly matched the tone of the review. I don’t think I could respond so well to a negative review. I’m in awe of her.”

If you can’t craft a humorous and/or graceful response to a negative review—and the many examples of non-humorous, non-graceful responses from seasoned authors given in this post are proof enough that you can’t trust your own judgment on this—, then it’s best just to keep your mouth (and keyboard) shut entirely on such matters. As Neil Gaiman has said on his blog, “some things are better written in anger and deleted in the morning.”

As for coping with stuff and nonsense from respondents to articles or blog posts you’ve written, or from people who are more or less just out to make you look bad, you should simply ignore such commentary when it’s clearly labeled as opinion but it may sometimes be necessary to correct inaccurate factual information posted about you or your work. If you choose to do so you must tread with the utmost care, lest a new idiom for author freak-outs turns up in common usage with your name attached to it. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a more shining example of calm, professional, classy damage control than that of Harlequin Digital Director Malle Valik in response to the firestorm of controversy that followed Harlequin’s announcement of its partnership with Author Solutions, Inc.

First, Malle responded personally to the many charges leveled against the partnership on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (scroll down through the comments thread to Malle’s first comment, posted on 11/18/09 at 6:48am). Next, she graciously answered some specific questions about the deal on Dear Author, then came back to respond to some very pointed and angry remarks in the comments thread following that interview. In the face of a plethora of insults and accusations, Malle kept her cool, kept a positive attitude, and remained professional. She kept the discussion on-point, and never allowed herself to stoop to the mud-slinging tone employed by many of the attackers.

Malle Valik is to be commended for her exemplary performance in this matter, and to be emulated by every one of us anytime we find ourselves in the unenviable shoes she was wearing last November. To do so, you must first acknowledge that as a writer, you are in the free speech business. It is your duty (and should be your honor) to defend the right of anyone to voice any opinion on any subject, however much you may disagree with that opinion or even find it offensive. While I freely acknowledge that very often, the people who put you in a mind to take the low road are not honestly attempting to engage you in a fair debate, it will do you no good to respond to them in kind. Correct factual errors if you must, but only if you’re certain you’re capable of Valikian conduct in the matter. Take action on libelous statements about you or your work if you feel they have the potential to do significant damage to your earnings or reputation, but do so in private, offline. Otherwise, your safest bet is to ignore the noise; it’s not truly worthy of your attention, anyway.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Talking Voice

[This is excerpted from a lesson I wrote for Vault University, with a little extra commentary added.]

What is “voice”?

There are differences of opinion on this, but generally speaking a writer’s voice is that combination of style, technique, tone and subject matter that immediately identifies a piece of writing as part of a specific author’s canon of work. As a rule of thumb, if you can imagine a contest in which entrants would attempt to emulate the style of a given author (e.g., Hemingway, Poe, Shakespeare, etc.), then the author in question has a very distinctive voice.

There are those who believe voice is an inborn talent that waits to be discovered, and then there are those who believe voice can be taught. Both camps tend to agree that regardless of where voice originates, it must be cultivated in order to reach its full potential.

Many writers think of voice as something that doesn’t apply to nonfiction, but this isn’t true. Such nonfiction authors as Stephen R. Covey, Seth Godin and Chris Anderson have very distinctive voices; reading their books, one gets a sense of each author’s unique communication style.

While some authors are celebrated primarily on the basis of their unique voices (e.g., Kurt Vonnegut, William Blake, Poe, etc.), there are many, many more who’ve captured a loyal following with compelling subject matter presented in a relatively generic style. Furthermore, it’s possible to have a very distinctive voice and not attract a following.

So don’t let the matter of voice stall your writing, and don’t make the cultivation of voice your primary objective. A writer who imagines his work too run-of-the-mill attempting to consciously cultivate a distinctive voice is like a party guest who imagines his stories too boring consciously trying to make them more interesting. The effort invariably shows, and tends to result in affectation: an unnatural slant to your phrasing, and word/technique choices that draw attention to themselves—thereby pulling readers out of your book. And there’s no point in waiting to write until you’re convinced your voice has emerged, because it’s only through repeated use and exercise that a writer’s voice is discovered and developed.

Many aspiring authors equate a strong writer’s voice with quality writing and therefore assume that if they haven’t developed a strong voice, their work won’t be any good. There’s a big difference between great writing in the mechanical sense (e.g., proper sentence construction, good grammar and spelling, effective plotting, natural-sounding dialogue, etc.) and great writing in the artistic sense (e.g., work that makes the reader think or feel, or both), but there’s little doubt writers must master the former before they can aspire to the latter.

The bottom line on voice is this: the lack of a distinctive writer’s voice may prevent you from winning the Nobel prize in Literature, but it will not prevent you from having a fulfilling career in authorship. There's more than one way to reach a readership, and we're not all destined to be the next Burroughs or Hemingway. Therefore, the matter of voice isn't worth worrying about.

Focus on honing your skills and let your voice emerge when, and if, it will.