Sunday, November 1, 2009

Have I Turned Into a Megastore?

I've heard a lot of horror stories about how megastores buy books at 55% off the retail price and then sell them for well below what they paid for them, just to get people to come into the store and buy other stuff. Because they can charge a large markup on other items, they make their money in other ways and use books as bait. Customers want to get the best deal on a book, so they go to the megastore instead of the local bookstore, which doesn't sell items like lawn chairs at a nice profit. The independent bookstores can't compete, they go out of business, and the megastores become the only game in town.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as I've been trying to decide what percentage to set for my wholesale price as I get ready to sign up with Lightning Source, which appears to be the answer to my quest for distribution. I don't want to lure people to a megastore with my book, and I'd prefer that they not be sold in places like that at all, so I'm probably going to set my wholesale price at 50%, which allows independent stores to make a small profit (they actually only get a 40% discount after Lightning Source takes its 10% cut), and it means that Rising Shadow won't be carried by megastores, which insist on a 55% discount before they'll carry your book.

But as I was smugly thinking about how cool I was for turning down potential sales from the megastores, I got to thinking about how I give my book away for free as a PDF on my web site. I might lose some sales this way, but it means that people who can't afford to buy the paperback can still read it, and other people will still buy the paperback because it's annoying to read a 380-page book online. As I've said in previous posts, I'm not trying to maximize my profits. I get my paychecks from my technical writing career, not from writing fiction. But what about people who are trying to make it as a full-time author? Aren't I essentially doing the same thing as a megastore, undercutting other authors by giving my book away for free?

I was especially troubled by this when I read a comment to Cory Doctorow's article in Publishers Weekly, in which he talks about his latest project that involves giving away content for free. The reader blasts Doctorow with the following comment:

yup old cory, you made your nut and so you can give it all away for free
now. You're selfish cory, other writers like us havent made it like you
have. We now have your mud rut to follow after your tickertape
parade... so new writers will not be able to make a living at their
writing...becuase you see, according to CORY, everything is FREE. While
he lays in his piles. Your conceit is stunning

Certainly, one could argue that this writer's poor grasp of grammar, punctuation, and spelling is a much bigger barrier to his success than the fact that "old cory" gives away content. But does he have a point? Am I contributing to the ruin of my fellow writers? In short, have I become a megastore?

I finally concluded that it's not a comparable situation, because I'm actually only competing with myself. I'm not giving away other writers' content--I'm giving away my own. The fact that Rising Shadow is available for free might stop someone from buying it in paperback, but it's not going to stop someone from buying another writer's book any more than having a copy available in the local library is undercutting my competition.

The key to all this is quality and content. If you write a great story, people are going to buy it. Even if they read it online or borrow it from the library, many will still buy it. They might put it on their Amazon wish list and request it as a gift. Or they might decide they just have to have it on their bookshelf (or Kindle). Either way, I don't think we should be afraid of giving away content out of a paranoid protectiveness of profits*. I'm certainly doing things a little differently (see the subtitle of this blog), but I'm not harming other writers along the way. In fact, I'm hoping this blog is helpful to writers figuring out this self-publishing thing for the first time.

So I'm relieved to conclude that I'm not a megastore (and neither is "old cory"). Although now that I think about it, maybe my sales would improve if I gave away a lawn chair with each copy of Rising Shadow.

*Disclaimer: alliteration intentional. I liked the way it sounded. Please don't make a snarky comment about it--snarky comments are my job.

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