Ebook Subscription Services: Lopping Off the Long Tail

loppingtailAmazon has recently launched an ebook subscription service following hot on the heels of Scribd and start-up Oyster. For around $US9.95 per month readers are able to access as many ebooks as they want with each catalogue limited to backlist titles (books older than 12 months). This has been hailed as the “Netflix for books” but does the book industry need a “Netflix”and what are the real costs of offering books on subscription?

Each subscription service has been limited to backlist titles with publishers obviously wanting to protect frontlist, new release sales. This sends the impression that backlist sales are not worth very much to the industry. Publishers invest heavily in frontlist titles with nearly all of publishers’ marketing money directed towards new releases. However according the Nielsen Bookscan figures backlist accounts for 46% of book sales. It is the long tail of the book industry. As more and more books are published the tail gets longer and longer and while individual backlist books do not sell in bestseller numbers their combined number is the lifeblood of the book industry.

This is not the first time the book industry has undervalued and underappreciated backlist titles. The book industry has operated for decades on a Sale-or-Return basis. However around ten years ago backlist was no longer given sale-or-return status, only frontlist. This saw a drop in the amount of backlist bookshops were willing to carry and a decline in backlist sales. Publishers also cut back on the backlist they carried in their warehouses with slow-moving backlist tiles sourced from overseas rather than held in stock.

The devaluing of books has been a huge issue as ebook sales have grown. Amazon in particular has been at the forefront of driving consumer expectation of ebook prices down to $9.95 or lower. This was often done at a loss driving or keeping competition out of the ebook market. It was also damaging publisher revenues and saw some publishers start to window the ebook release. This then led to the agency model for ebook pricing which took discounting away from ebook retailers. The agency model was later struck down by the US Department of Justice as some publishers were found to have colluded with Apple. In the meantime ebook prices have pushed lower and lower. Now half a million ebooks are apparently worth only $9.95 per month.

Scribd, Oyster and now Kindle Unlimited have all be hailed as the “Netflix for books”. Comparing books to a movie subscription service is a false and poor serving analogy. The film and television industry has more money than sense and the creators of films and TV series are well remunerated before their movies or TV series hit the subscription service. The more apt analogies would be Spotify or Pandora in the music industry where to combat continued piracy record companies have agreed to put up their entire catalogues to subscription services. Advertising revenues mean people do not even have to pay for these subscriptions. And the people who seem to be missing out are the artists. The only way for a musician to make money now is through touring and merchandise not the sale of their music (if that even occurs).

And this is where my biggest concern lies, in author royalties. Writing books is not a profitable career choice. Most authors have to supplement their writing careers with other incomes with only a lucky few able to write full time. Authors have already taken a cut when it comes to ebooks and will take another cut with ebook subscriptions. From what I understand companies like Oyster do not have to pay the publisher until a set percentage of a book is read. I do not know what cut the publisher gets per book or whether royalties for authors are less but as we have seen with other subscription services it is the artist who misses out.

I am also surprised by publishers’ willingness to support ebook subscription. Library lending of ebooks has been a bone of contention for the last four years with many publishers arguing ebooks should not be available for free. This is despite libraries paying for the ebooks and the fact that ebook lending does not give readers unfettered access; ebooks can be out on loan and using the service has some obstacles.

I have a lot of concerns over eBook subscription models. While current models do not include new release books the backlist is the so-called long tail which sustains many publishers, authors and bookshops which a subscription service would effectively lop off. The fact that Amazon is going to enter the subscription market with their already anti-competitive Kindle device has me very worried for the viability and sustainability of the book industry as a whole.

Ian McEwan’s THE CHILDREN ACT

9780224101998I was really looking forward to this book. The premise sounded amazing; a High Court judge who must decide if a teenage boy is competent enough to refuse medical treatment on religious grounds. Plus the book was a 212 page novella that I hoped was going to pack a punch like On Chesil Beach.

But that unfortunately wasn’t the case. This did not work for me at all. I did not dislike this book or passionately detest the main character like I did Solar but rather felt complete indifference to it. In fact this book just left me cold and detached. I thought it was because I hadn’t properly dived into the book but even when I did I felt no attachment to the characters or the story. At times the book felt very contrived and laboured.

I initially thought that maybe the book needed to be longer, I needed more time to get to know Fiona Maye, the High Court judge. But after finishing the book I think the opposite might be true, that this might have been a better short story than novella. Much of the problem was that there was nothing very surprising in how the book unfolded. Fiona’s marriage breakdown was not that interesting and the moral dilemma of the court case was almost inevitable in its conclusion, particularly from an ardent atheist.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right reading zone for this book. I’ve been reading some really fantastic fiction lately and that never lasts. When you get on a roll of great books you do start holding other books to a different level of expectation. I love Ian McEwan’s novels and am going to seek second opinions from other readers on this one.

UPDATE

I gave the book to my Mum and she loved it. She was even late to work because she was reading it!

ISBN: 9780224101998
ISBN-10: 0224101994
Classification: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Format: Hardback (222mm x 138mm x mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage
Publish Date: 2-Sep-2014
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIAN KING

9780434020805I think I loved this even more than The Magicians (which if you haven’t read beware spoilers ahead). The first half of The Magicians was like an adult Harry Potter and full of the wonder of discovering magic was real. The second half was an exploration of what happens to people who discover a new power. It was much darker, which I really liked, and you really got to know the negative sides of the books characters which is not something many books of this genre do.

The Magician King picks up where The Magicians ended. Quentin, Elliot, Janet and Julia are now the Kings and Queens of Fillory but Quentin is growing restless. He wants a purpose, a quest, an adventure and he will do anything to find or create one. Interspersed with Quentin’s story are flashbacks to Julia who went down a very different (and much darker) path to gain her magical knowledge. And as before there a dues to be paid for gaining this power.

Grossman again finely balances a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, referencing other familiar stories, while slowly turning what seems to be an innocuous and manufactured quest into something far more important. We explore more of Fillory and the expanded universe and (much to some characters’ shock and horror) revisit Earth and the ‘real’ world. I also felt I reconnected to the characters after becoming detached from them after some of the questionable decisions they made in the first book.  Loose ends from the first book are also nicely tied up and the ending is both highly satisfying as a reader and nicely sets up the third and final book in the series.

This truly is a brilliant series and while I’m late to the party in discovering it I get the advantage of reading all three books in the trilogy close together with the final book, The Magician’s Land due out next month. And I will be reading that one straight away!

ISBN: 9780099553465
ISBN-10: 0099553465
Classification: Fantasy
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 35mm)
Pages: 560
Imprint: Arrow Books Ltd
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 2-Aug-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Second Helping: Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG

9780099464983I remember first reading this book and it absolutely blew me away. With news that Don Winslow has written a sequel (due out next year) and that a movie is on its way (still think a mini-series would be better) I thought it was time I revisited the book.

The Power of The Dog still rates as one of the best thrillers ever written. It has everything you could possibly want; love, power, betrayal and revenge set over twenty-five brutal years. It details America’s war on drugs and the complete farce it is on all levels. It portrays the devastating human cost of this “war” and the human indifference to this suffering by both sides and the never-ending tide of destruction that is cultivated and managed not by just by the drug cartels but by governments and their agents.

While The Power of the Dog is truly epic, ranging from Mexican Drug cartels to DEA officers, New York mobsters to CIA operatives in South America, the heart of the story is the slow deconstruction of Art Keller and his journey from crusader to eventual war lord. Art is the good guy who does bad things and the more bad things he tries to atone for the worse the bad things he does. We meet Art at the beginning of his DEA career, post Vietnam War, in Mexico in 1976  and his introduction to the drug world and the events put in motion that will eventually destroy him.

One of the things I love about Don Winslow is his style of writing, the way he paces his words with the story but with The Power Of The Dog he really underplays it. Savages, The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Dawn Patrol all ooze style. But here Winslow dials it back and let’s the story carry you along. The violence is absolutely brutal, nothing is held back including a shocking scene on a bridge in Colombia which I’m told is based in actual events.

I was also much more aware of the structure this time around. The 15 chapters of the book are surprisingly self-contained with a much more episodic feel than I remember. I always thought The Power of the Dog should be a 12-part HBO series because of the epic nature of the story being too long for a movie but after re-reading it I am even more convinced that a True Detective-style series would be amazing. You could easily have different episodes featuring Callan (his New York story and South American story), Adan and Nora’s stories with Art’s story the common thread tying everything together. The journey of each of the characters over the twenty-five years would be amazing to see over 10 hours.

There is not another thriller out there that comes close to The Power of the Dog. It is the anti-war novel of the “War on Drugs”. Just like a great war novel the absurdity of the war is laid bare for all to see and the reasons for the war are exposed for the hypocrisy and falsehoods that they are. And like all war there is no victor just never-ending victims of a vicious cycle of greed and power. But unlike others wars this one continues unabated, with no end in sight.

I can’t wait to see where Don Winslow takes the story in part two. I know it isn’t going to be pretty. But it is going to be insightful, meaningful and another damning indictment on the never-ending, morally corruptible war on drugs.

 

ISBN: 9780099464983
ISBN-10: 0099464985
Classification: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 35mm)
Pages: 560
Imprint: Arrow Books Ltd
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 27-Apr-2006
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Open Letter to The Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, Minister for Communications

Open Letter to The Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, Minister for Communications

Much has been said recently about the plight of Australia Post. 900 jobs have been lost and daily letter delivery threatened to be ceased. But there is more to this story that is being reported by the media or by Australia Post themselves.

Bookshops in Australia have been under much pressure in recent years. The rise of eBooks, changes in consumer spending and a strong local dollar have all contributed to the economic challenges booksellers in Australia have faced and dealt with. Much has been made of the fact that overseas retailers do not have to pay GST but the biggest threat to bookshops and other local retailers is in fact postage costs.

In Australia there is no First Class Mail rate. This has been exploited by many overseas retailers, in particular The Book Depository (an Amazon owned company). With no First Class Mail rate overseas companies are able to post goods under 400 grams to Australia at the cost of a local stamp. The Book Depository has used this to send orders in individual parcels and charge customers in Australia free freight. Under international postal union obligations Australia Post is then forced to deliver overseas parcels at their own cost. These costs have been passed onto Australian businesses and Australian consumers.

Free post coupled with a strong Australian dollar has meant that overseas purchases have skyrocketed. Not only that, but Australia Post’s costs have also gone through the roof. Parcel post costs have dramatically increased which means Australian businesses are in effect subsidising their overseas competitors. And now jobs and services are being cut back. Four years ago Australia Post was one of the most profitable government-owned enterprises. Now it is in dire straits.

It costs in excess of ten times more to post one book from Mosman to Penrith than it does to post the exact same book from the UK to Sydney. This is not only damaging local retailing but it is also crippling an Australian institution. There is a gross imbalance in online retailing. Overseas online retailers do not have to pay GST, fair Australian wages or accurate freight costs. This imbalance is costing jobs, taxes and increasing prices for Australian consumers.

Australia Post does not need to cut jobs or decrease the frequency of delivering mail in order to save costs. If a first class mail rate was established in Australia overseas retailers would not be able to offer free freight to Australia and the volume of overseas post would decrease to more viable levels. This would reduce Australia Post’s costs and save jobs across the Australian economy.

As Federal Communications Minister we call on you to take an active role in ensuring that Australian businesses and consumers are not exploited by overseas companies and unfair loopholes that cost Australian jobs and drive prices up are closed.

Yours sincerely

Patricia Genat

President, Australian Booksellers Association

Jon Page

Immediate Past President, Australian Booksellers Association

Joel Becker

Chief Executive Officer, Australian Booksellers Association

 

 

Megan Abbott’s THE FEVER

9781447235910I have been meaning to ready Megan Abbott for ages. I’ve only heard good things, in particular her latest books, so thought I’d begin with her brand new novel. Abbott’s last few novels have all been set in the world of teenage girls, a world she has been exploring because ‘Noir suits a 13-year-old girl’s mind’

Not only is The Fever a fantastic noir crime novel but it is a great exploration of the secrets and lies of teenage life and the hysteria that can so easily get whipped up now in a world of social media, Google and 24 hour news.

One morning in class Deenie’s best friend Lise is struck down by what seems to be a seizure, she is later rushed to hospital and put on life support. Nobody knows what caused the seizure. When other girls are struck down with similar symptoms confusion quickly turns to hysteria as parents and authorities scramble for answers. Are the recent student vaccinations to blame? Or is it environmental? And what steps are authorities taking to protect other children?

Abbott tells the story from one family’s point of view alternating between Tom, a teacher at the school, his son Eli, who is the object of a lot of girls’ affections and younger daughter Deenie, whose best friend Lise is the first girl struck down with this mysterious ailment. Each point of view is almost a different world giving not only a different perspective to the story but a different emotional intensity and sense of urgency.

The secrets and lies of teenage lives coupled with the paranoid and hysterical nature of parenting in the 21st century make for a truly feverish and wickedly noir-ish read.

ISBN: 9781447235910
ISBN-10: 1447235916
Classification: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Format: Paperback Pages: 256
Imprint: Picador
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 19-Jun-2014
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Monthly Round Up – June

My blog posts from June

9780340822784David Mitchell’s CLOUD ATLAS

Where has David Mitchell been all my reading life? People have raved to me about David Mitchell many times and after seeing the excitement over proof copies of his new novel, The Bone Clocks, (due out in September) I finally decided to find out what all the fuss was about. Cloud Atlas was universally declared as the place to start and David Mitchell immediately blew me away. Read more…

9780007514274Oliver Jeffers’ ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET

I am a huge Oliver Jeffers fan but have to admit his last few picture books haven’t hit the mark. That of course excludes the absolutely brilliant The Day The Crayons Quit he did with Drew Daywalt last year which was simply outstanding. Oliver Jeffers illustrations have always been outstanding but it was his stories that seemed to have drifted. Partnering with another writer seemed like a great idea but Jeffers has absolutely knocked it out of the park with his new book, Once Upon An Alphabet: Short Stories For All The Letters. Read more…

Stuart Neville’s THE FINAL SILEN9781846556951CE

It has been a while between drinks for Jack Lennon. We last caught up him in Stolen Souls and we left him a lot worse for wear. The intervening period though has not been kind. Suspended from the police pending multiple reviews of his health and performance Jack has developed some extra bad habits to the ones he already carried, mainly involving painkillers and alcohol. His relationships are in free fall including, sadly, the one with his estranged daughter who his is the only family he has left. Read more…

Michael Robotham’s LIFE 9780751552898OR DEATH

The advanced reading copy bills this as “the best novel yet from Michael Robotham” which is a big call considering his previous nine novels. While I’m not a fan of the Joe O’Loughlin novels that has nothing to do with Robotham’s writing just the fact I don’t like psychological thrillers. But what all Robotham’s books have in common is precision plotting. Robotham knows exactly how to unfurl a story, keeping you interested and guessing in equal measure. My favourite Robothom was Lost (aka The Drowning Man) which demonstrates this perfectly. But I have a new favourite Robotham now because this is beyond doubt the best novel yet from Michael Robotham. Read more…

David Peace’s THE DAMNED UTD9780571224333

I have tried and failed at reading David Peace before. I’ve have always wanted to get into his books in particular The Red Riding Quartet (which I cheated and watched the films instead, which were superb). For some reason I have never been able to get into the rhythm of his writing and with a writer like David Peace if you don’t have the rhythm you are lost. Read more…

the-bone-clocksDavid Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS

After only reading Cloud Atlas I was already in awe of David Mitchell so I dove straight into his new novel at the first available opportunity. And once again was swept away by the storytelling, the language and the imagination. Read more…

Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS9780099534440

I have been meaning to get round to this book for a while (thanks mainly to the Bookrageous podcast) and with the final book in the trilogy due out in August I thought it was about time I got started. My first impression of the book was that this was Harry Potter for adults. Instead of a 12-year-old boy going off to school to learn magic and wizardry this is about a 17-year-old boy going off the college, in upstate New York, to learn magic and become a magician. Read more…