Thursday, July 29, 2010

The 70 Per Cent Solution

By now you've probably heard all about Amazon's new 70% royalty option for authors and publishers who release Kindle books through the Amazon Digital Text Platform (DTP), and many of you who have Kindle books in release may have already opted in for the higher royalty. But there's a major gotcha here no one seems to be talking about.

No, I'm not talking about the 'delivery price' factor, which dictates the fee Amazon will hold back on your 70% royalty Kindle book based on the book's file size. Despite all the panic-mongering on that point, and all the worry about whether Amazon may choose to increase that fee at some point in the future, I think it's really no big deal. What I'm talking about is this little nugget from the terms of the 70% offer:

"Under this royalty option, books must be offered at or below price parity with competition, including physical book prices."

What this means is that if your book is being offered anywhere else, in any format, at a lower price than the price you've listed for your Kindle book on Amazon, Amazon will reduce your Kindle book's list price on Amazon to match the lowest price at which your book is being sold elsewhere. You'll still get your 70% royalty, but it will be on that lowest price. It's kind of hard to extrapolate all that from this one-liner in their terms, but I've learned it the hard way.

When I opted in for the 70% royalty and raised my Kindle book prices to $2.99 on Amazon to qualify for the program, I didn't remember my ebooks were being offered on Smashwords and Scribd in non-Kindle formats for $.99. I didn't realize my error until I was reviewing a sales report a couple of weeks later. So I immediately changed the prices on my Smashwords and Scribd editions to $2.99, and waited for Amazon to catch up. And waited. And waited some more, as every single day, I lost royalty money on every copy sold.

After a week I contacted DTP support, and it took another week to get their conclusive response: that my ebooks were still listed on Barnes and Noble's website at a price of $.99. See, B&N is among the expanded distribution resellers which carry Smashwords books when the author of the book in question has opted in for expanded distribution on the Smashwords site---which I had. Even though I changed the prices of my books on Smashwords, it can take weeks, many weeks, for those changes to propagate out to all the expanded distribution resellers. This isn't Smashwords' fault or doing, it's just the reality of waiting for outside companies to make database changes according to whatever processes they have in place. And like most things in mainstream publishing and bookselling, it's a very, very slow process.

So it actually would've been wiser for me to stay out of the 70% royalty option until after I'd raised my book prices outside Amazon and waited for those changes to propagate across all distribution channels. Since I didn't, all I can do is either stay with the 70% on a $.99 pricetag while I wait however long it takes for B&N to catch up, or change back to the 35% royalty option so Amazon will only base my royalties on my Amazon prices.

I chose the latter, but it's still going to cost me. You see, every time you change the price on your DTP Kindle book, or your royalty option, or pretty much anything else about it, you are forced to "re-publish" that book before your changes will be applied. Re-publishing makes the book unavailable for purchase for a minimum of two business days, and sometimes when you re-publish, the book gets stuck in a 'pending' status. When that happens you have to contact DTP support to resolve the issue, all of which means more days your book is not available for sale. When I re-published to opt in for the 70% royalty, my books all got stuck in the 'pending' status; one of them was unavailable for purchase on Amazon for seven calendar days.

Today I started that clock all over again, and I am again running the risk of my Kindle books getting stuck in 'pending' status---all just so I can get back to the 35% royalty option.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not saying this is all Amazon's fault, nor that any of it is Smashwords' or B&N's fault. All of my lost royalties in this are ultimately the result of my original oversight.

However, I DO think Amazon should be a little clearer about the full implications of their "price parity" policy, and the importance of matching your Kindle book's price across all resellers---including expanded distribution partners---before opting in for the 70% royalty. I also think the DTP should not require re-publication of a Kindle book when the author/publisher wants to make changes only to its price or royalty option. Why is it necessary to take the book off the virtual sales shelf for these things?

Here's hoping I don't get stuck in 'pending' again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Good Edit Would've Fixed That

Once again, I'm judging for Writer's Digest's annual Self-Published Book Awards, and once again, the need for a good edit is crying out to me from the pages of most of the entries.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the occasional typo or missing space between words. Most of you would think those things are nits, just as likely to have been introduced in the typesetting phase as to have been overlooked in a prior editing pass, and I'd agree with you. No, I'm talking about a pervasive inattention to detail, improper usage or faulty constructions running throughout a given book's pages. Has your work fallen victim to any of the following problems?

Repetitive Usage - Do you have certain pet expressions or turns of phrase? It's fine to use them, but use them sparingly. In one of the books I've read this year, the phrase "that's the point" (and its many variants, such as "that's the whole point," "but the entire point of...", etc.) appears so frequently as to be distracting. Variations of the expression are spoken by every character in the book and turn up all too often: in one case, three times on a single page. On another page the phrase appears in two consecutive sentences, spoken by two different characters. Perhaps in that latter case, the author made a purposeful choice to be repetitive. If so, the desired effect isn't apparent.

Convoluted Sentence Structure - If I have to re-read many of your sentences or passages repeatedly to comprehend their meaning, your work fails the clarity test. This seems to be a particular bugaboo of fantasy and science fiction books. Perhaps in trying to achieve a certain tone of scientific realism or mythology, the authors simply go overboard with stilted language. Using big words, lots of technical, philosophical or religious jargon, or many made-up words doesn't automatically inject realism into your work. It's far more likely to introduce confusion. Also, as a rule of thumb, if you find a sentence you've written has more than two sub-clauses or phrases offset by commas, you probably need to think about breaking it up into multiple, smaller sentences.

Losing the Thread of Tense - If your character is recalling or retelling something that happened in the past, the recollection or retelling should generally be given in past tense---and stay in past tense. Consider this (totally fabricated) example:

I will always remember that summer. We went out on the boat nearly every day, and wished we'd never have to go back home. That year, my goal was to catch the biggest bass so I go to town one afternoon, I buy new bait and stronger fishing line. I get out on the water the next morning, earlier than anyone else. I cast my line and wait.

The first two sentences are in past tense, which is fine. The third sentence begins in past tense (goal was to catch the biggest bass) but then switches to present tense (I go to town, I buy new bait) and tense remains in the present for the rest of the passage.

Switching tense correctly is particularly important when the narrative is intended to go back and forth between past and present tense, such as when a detective is investigating a cold case and has to interview a bunch of people about their memories of the events in question. When tense changes, is the interviewee still talking about his past experience, or sharing some new realization with the detective in the present day? Tense is what's supposed to clue the reader in on this sort of thing, so if you're switching tense incorrectly or unintentionally, you're confusing the reader.

Using Internal Monologue for Omniscient Exposition - An internal monologue is nothing more than a character talking to him- or herself. We've all talked to ourselves at some point, we all know what it's like and how we "sound" in our heads when we're doing it.

We talk to ourselves to cogitate on things, refresh our memory of events, go over mental to-do lists and the like, but real-life internal monologues are not like journal entries. They do not provide a factual accounting of events, because the person experiencing the internal monologue already lived those events and knows what happened. They also cannot provide a factual accounting of events that were not witnessed personally by the individual having the internal monologue. Look at the following two examples---again, examples I've constructed just for this blog entry:

Mike couldn't stop obsessing over the events of that night. Three a.m., and his mind was still spinning.

Garrett refused to stop drinking, and I knew I shouldn't let him have his keys back, but I was afraid he'd shoot me if I didn't hand them over. He was doing about eighty when he hit that curve, still swigging from a bottle of Jack. He never knew what hit him. The funeral's tomorrow. I know what everyone there will be thinking, and they'll be right. It was all my fault.

Guilty or not, Mike knew he'd be expected to make a showing at the memorial service.

Compare this example to:

Mike couldn't stop obsessing over the events of that night. Three a.m., and his mind was still spinning.

What was I thinking?! I never should've given Garrett his keys, whether he was waving a gun in my face or not. Now he's dead and it's all my fault. How can I face everyone at the funeral tomorrow?

Guilty or not, Mike knew he'd be expected to make a showing at the memorial service.

In the first example, the author is using an internal monologue to present expository (factual or background) information from an omniscient point of view: the point of view of someone who knows, and can see, all that's happening or has happened to anyone involved in the story or setting, and also knows what any character is thinking or has thought at any given time.

The first monologue relates factual information Mike has no reason to be re-stating in his own head. It also reports on events which occurred outside Mike's presence; Mike might've learned how fast Garrett was going from a police report or news story, but how could he know Garrett was still swigging from a bottle when he hit the curve? And how could he know Garrett "never knew what hit him"?

The second monologue is more realistic. In it, Mike doesn't report on events, he reconsiders his role in them. He expresses his feelings about the events, and fearfully anticipates what's coming next.

This blog post is getting pretty long, so I'll wrap it up for today and report on some other common problems in a future post or posts. Bottom line: if my allotment of books from the contest gives an accurate indication, about 19 out of 20 self-published books need a professional edit---and aren't getting one. It's a real shame when a self-publishing author gets the tough stuff right (believable dialogue, pacing, plot, characterization) but releases a book that's still hopelessly marred by problems like those above---problems that could've been easily remedied by a good edit.