A collection of answers to questions by my readers. If you have a question, feel free to send it to me via the ‘Contact’ link at the top of the page. —T. S.

Heather Lovatt asks about selling books through Amazon

In a comment on a previous post, Heather Lovatt asks some good and searching questions about what happens when an independent author sells books through Amazon’s KDP program. I shall try to answer as best I can, but bear in mind, I am neither a lawyer nor an expert at online commerce. To simplify matters, I am breaking things down fisking-style and answering bit by bit. But this is by no means a fisking; I thought I would throw my horrible nature to the winds and try being friendly for a change. Here goes:
I am looking into the idea of publishing on Amazon. I’ve hit a lot of walls on this.
Dear Heather, I hear you. I hit a lot of walls myself in the same process. I hope I can be of some help.
Something I saw recently–though I can’t quote it exactly–had something to do with the idea that giving Amazon my book to sell gave them an option to ‘sell’ my book in one of THEIR channels that directly competed, on pricing, with my own.
The KDP terms and conditions do state that Amazon is authorized to sell your books through its subsidiaries, and that it has sole authority to set its own retail prices. (However, your royalty is always based on your list price – with one caveat, which I shall discuss later.) Some articling law student, probably, wrote the terms and conditions that way to give Amazon maximum flexibility: a practice I despise. However, Amazon’s policy has been clear enough: they sell books from independent authors at the author’s list price, unless they are available at a lower price somewhere else; then they price-match. This is true, as far as I know, of all Amazon’s subsidiaries where ebooks might be sold. If you list your book on Amazon for $2.99, and sell it through your own website (or authorize another website to sell it for you) for 99 cents, then Amazon will not only cut its price to 99 cents, but pay you your royalties based on the 99-cent price. It presumes that you have full control over the prices at which other retailers offer your work, which is not always the case. It is a good idea, if you are distributing through several retailers, to keep an eye on their listed prices from time to time; it could be necessary to withdraw your books from a store if it likes to monkey with your prices, because all the other retailers, including Amazon, may cut their prices to match – and cut your royalties in proportion. CreateSpace is an Amazon subsidiary, but only sells print-on-demand books; it operates under much more complicated rules than KDP, but it won’t enter the picture unless you choose to do a POD edition of your book(s) through it. The same goes for Audible, but the rules are very complex and rather unfriendly there; I wouldn’t touch Audible unless I expected big enough sales to pay for all my recording costs and the price of a lawyer to vet all my dealings with them. It’s not a place for novices, in my opinion. If you are thinking of some other Amazon channel, then you’ll have to help me out and tell me which one. I don’t have specific information and would need at least a name before I could use my Mighty Google-fu™.
I really start getting confused with what Amazon is gonna do to me, a new writer, on their website, but these days, I have a core feeling that I’ll use them until something else comes along.
That’s about how I felt when I got into it, and you know what? I still feel that way. But Amazon has been a lot better for me to deal with than Smashwords, Kobo, or Apple, the other three distributors I have set up accounts with.
I still wish it had been about using a website where I got all my customer email address; for whatever other reasons Amazon used me for fodder, at least I would get a relevant email list out of it. But I know that’s not gonna happen any time soon on Amazon.
Unfortunately, that’s against Amazon’s privacy policy. They promise their customers not to share your personal information with suppliers, or with anybody else who doesn’t genuinely need the information in order to fulfil the order. So they’ll give a customer’s name and address to UPS or FedEx, because those guys need to know where to deliver the goods, and they’ll give a customer’s credit card data to Visa and Mastercard, because those guys need to know which account to take the money from. But they do not give out a customer’s information to a publisher. For this I blame the big publishers. Back in the 1990s, when Amazon started, publishers (for the most part) didn’t give a damn who ultimately bought their products. As far as they were concerned, their customers were the bookshops; readers were a thing they had vaguely heard of but never encountered themselves, like the kingdom of Prester John. A book went out to a store, and that was the end of it, unless the store returned it for credit. Publishers had no interest in collecting data about consumers; and they were so technologically primitive that they did not have any way of storing it if they did collect it. Nor was it easy for them to hire the needful expertise. Any new IT graduate worth his salt wants to go to work for a tech company; failing that, for a business that understands and appreciates technology. Few IT grads will even look at working for a publisher, and the contempt, sad to say, is mutual. So the publishers never bothered to ask Amazon for customer data, and Amazon, which wanted every advantage it could get in winning customers, promised not to give that data away. We independents have come to the party too late to change the rules. The best way around this, I am told, is to have a page at the end of all your books where you invite the reader to sign up for your newsletter to be informed of new releases. This will at least get you a list of email addresses. It won’t list everybody; it will only list those who read the whole book and are sufficiently motivated to want to hear about the next one. But those are the ones you most want to know about: they are asking to give you repeat business. I haven’t yet set up a newsletter myself, but I am planning to do so with my next release, provided I can figure out how. (By the way, it won’t do, I am told, to put the page at the beginning of the book. Many e-readers automatically open the book to the first page of the main text. Anything before Chapter One can only be reached if the reader knows enough to turn the pages backwards to get at it. So the front matter becomes the place to dump things like copyright notices and legal disclaimers, which need to be in the book but nobody wants to read.) Running a newsletter requires extra work, of course, which is why I have shirked it so far. But it is a decent workaround, and at this point in the game, a workaround is all we are going to get.
I still don’t even get why I keep hearing this idea that we get 70 percent royalty as, for some reason, I get the impression–and again, I could be wrong–that Amazon has all these little ‘fees’ they add to that transaction. So that percent is reduced.
The one ‘little fee’ that gets subtracted from your royalty really is little – for most books. That is a data transmission fee, which in the U.S. and Canada is 15 cents per megabyte as of this writing, and roughly similar amounts in other countries. The purpose of this fee is to make sure that people who sell things like comics, or illustrated travel books, or technical books full of diagrams, will not hog the system’s bandwidth; or worse yet, people who sell ‘enhanced’ ebooks with movies and music and other such rubbish. A typical novel, formatted as a .mobi file, is round about a megabyte in size – maybe a bit larger, depending on the cover graphic. An ‘enhanced’ ebook can hardly take up less than 10 megabytes – it may run 100 or more, if a real idiot is doing the enhancing. Amazon doesn’t really want to sell the latter, so it charges the transmission fee to encourage people to slim their files down.
And no, I don’t use the “but the trad publishers are worse” logic to compensate for this.
If you did, frankly, it would compensate for a hell of a lot. After all, trad publishers routinely take 75 percent off the top of an ebook sale – if they can be trusted to report sales accurately. (I have heard horror stories; such as the one nice lady who had a whole string of books with one publisher, and got a royalty statement saying that each and every one of those books had sold exactly three ebook copies in a six-month reporting period. It was like Monty Python and the Holy Grail: ‘Four copies thou shalt not sell, neither shalt thou sell two, except thou immediately proceedest to three. Five is right out.’ No line of products ever sells as uniformly as all that.) But I agree, that’s not good logic to use with Amazon. The thing is to keep their feet to the fire and try to get them to improve their treatment of us, their suppliers; not to give them a blank-cheque excuse by comparing them to what is, I am afraid, the sleaziest legal business I have any personal knowledge of.
I dunno. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to decide where to sell a book I make; but presently, Amazon unsettles me, still.
I don’t blame you. Self-publishing is an unsettling business for most of us; it requires learning so much, and it keeps changing so rapidly. It’s hard to stay ahead. I know you’re a reader of The Passive Voice, and I suppose you must be familiar with Joe Konrath and David Gaughran, but for the benefit of anyone new who reads this, I include the links. Those really are the three consistently best sources for self-publishing information that I have ever found. Each of them occasionally gets bees in his bonnet, but most of their advice is sound and sane and thoroughly nutritious to an indie author’s career. I would not have made it even this far without them.
Are you using Amazon?
I am. In fact, I made the experiment of putting one of my books on KDP Select. I meant to take it off of there, but then I fell down the stairs and was unable to do any useful work for about a year. It is still on my ‘to do’ list before the next book comes out. I will say this: Amazon has given me by far the best experience of any of the major retailers. Theirs is the easiest place to submit a book to; the easiest one to format a book for; the one with the widest reach, and the best record of promoting independent writers; and the one that pays best and most reliably. As of this date, Amazon is actually the only retailer where I have sold enough books to top their minimum payment threshold and receive a royalty payment. They pay off as soon as they owe you $10 or more; Smashwords, by way of contrast, pays off at $100 – and I have not earned $100 in royalties from Smashwords yet.
Heather, who found you on PG
I wish you the best of luck with your books and your career; and if you become as famous as J. K. Rowling, I hope you’ll remember to throw a link my way. –Tom, who got found there

The calendar of Pyrandain

Joseph Ebbecke has the honour of being the first reader to ask (in writing) a question about the world of The Eye of the Maker after the publication of Book I. His question:
I clamor for calendars, appendices, glossaries! Are Sheaftide and Scythetide months or seasons?
My reply: Calendars, appendices, glossaries still to come. Be of good hope! Sheaftide and Scythetide are not months or seasons, they are weeks, like Holy Week or Whitsuntide in our own calendar. The Pyrandine calendar is divided into quarters by the solstices and equinoxes, each quarter named after the season in which it begins. The last (traditionally) four weeks of the quarter, when the season has moved on as measured by the weather, are indicated by the prefix ‘eft-’ (cf. ‘after’): so eftsummer = the last four weeks before the autumnal equinox, roughly Aug. 24–Sept. 20 in our terms. Each quarter is divided into thirteen named weeks. In an ordinary year, the winter solstice is Yule, the last day of the year, which is not counted as part of any week. (It immediately follows the week called Yuletide or Foreyule). In leap years, Midyear’s Day is also intercalated between the last week of ‘eftspring’ and the first week of the Summer quarter. This sounds complicated, but it has one particular virtue: Once you have memorized the seven days of the week and the 52 weeks of the year (each in order), you need no numbers to identify any day of the year. So you can talk about Sheaf Sunday or Plough Windsday, for instance, without having to specify any other information. There is no worry about ‘what day of the week is March 13’, or anything like that. The term ‘month’ is in occasional use as an archaism for the lunar cycle, but the Pyrandine calendar is strictly solar and takes no account of the moon. The reason for this is long and complicated, and tied up with ancient history in which the Moon of that world assumes a ghastly and ominous significance. When people in Mirenna look up at the Moon, they don’t see a Man in the Moon, they see (if they are so inclined) a naked skull; or at any rate a dead world, a memento mori of the ultimate fate of all life. Here is a handy table of the days and weeks in the Pyrandine calendar, as the names stand at present. (These are of course translations of the authentic terms, and may be subject to some slight change.) The year begins with North Sunday. Days of the week: Sunday, Monday, Fireday, Windsday, Seasday, Landsday, Starsday.
Weeks and quarters of the Pyrandine Calendar
Quarter: Winter Spring Summer Autumn
1 North Easter South Wester
2. Hauberk Sword Helm Shield
3. Storm Flood Blaze Mould
4. Plough Shear Spade Scythe
5. Fallow Seed Tilth Sheaf
6. Hawk Lark Eagle Crow
7. Elder May Swain Dame
8. Root Bloom Leaf Branch
9. Glen Mead Dale Wood
10. Stag Bull Steed Bear
11. Blue Green Yellow Red
12. Fair High Swart Deep
13. Waxing Lithe Waning Foreyule
Midyear** Yule*
*Last day of the year: not part of any week. **Midyear’s Day added in leap years only: not part of any week.

The Next Big Thing

Jonathan Moeller has tagged me for The Next Big Thing. I am nearly as susceptible as a dragon to flattery (although, unlike Smaug, I am painfully aware of the weak points in my armour); what is more important, I am stuck on the all-important cover copy for the Octopus, so I can answer these questions as a sort of rehearsal. The strict instructions call for me to tag five more writers, but Jonathan has sneakily tagged most of the people that it would occur to me to tag. Instead I shall ask the great-hearted and talented Sherwood Smith, who fights against the Deplorable Word under the name of Sartorias, if she has a work in progress that she would like to put through the procedure. Sherwood is generally too reticent about her own work, and could stand to be less self-effacing about it. (I humbly beg your pardon, Sherwood, if you’ve already participated in this Next Big Thing thing, but if you have, I missed it.) Now that I’ve broken the rules all to smash, let us get on with the battered residue and answer the questions. What is the working title of your book? I always make up sardonic working titles that imply that my work in progress is rubbish, just to discourage me from talking about it excessively instead of writing it. I got this idea from a story that went the rounds on the Internet grapevine some time ago. There was this tech company, it seems, whose engineers were sick and tired of having all their projects announced prematurely by the over-zealous sales force under their code names, generating hype (and impatience) that the actual technology could not live up to. So they struck back, and gave their new project the code name BARF. The sales force could not bring themselves to blab to the customers about a project named BARF, so the engineers were able to work in peace. In this spirit, my first completed project (Lord Talon’s Revenge), which was published this past August, went by the working title of ‘The Filthy Screed’. Writing Down the Dragon, my book of essays on what I call the Tolkien Method, is proceeding under the incognito of ‘The Scratch Monkey’. But the work I want to talk about here, which my 3.6 Loyal Readers know all too well, is ‘The Magnificent Octopus’. ‘The Magnificent Octopus’ is a multi-volume series. The actual series title is The Eye of the Maker. Book One, which with luck will be appearing very shortly, is to be called The End of Earth and Sky. Where did the idea for the book come from? There is a large park in Calgary near the neighbourhood where I grew up: Fish Creek Provincial Park. One day over thirty years ago, I rode my bicycle down one of the paths into the valley where the park is; but I took the wrong entrance by mistake, and wound up slogging through what seemed like miles of up-hill, down-dale, get-off-your-bike-and-push terrain before I struck any familiar landmarks. If this sounds like an inauspicious idea for a fantasy, it probably is. But it gave me the idea of the hero returning from the forbidden and forbidding mountain realm of the Old Gods, coming back by a different road than he thought he was taking, and being catapulted into all sorts of adventures because he didn’t know where he was. It is Brian Aldiss, I think, who says that his best stories come from the juxtaposition of two ideas, which he calls the exotic and the familiar. For me, getting lost in the park was the familiar bit. The exotic idea (which is now too familiar to anybody who uses the Internet) was the idea of the Eye of the Maker itself, the magic jewel that confers (theoretical) omniscience: it answers, correctly and infallibly (unlike the Internet), any question that you have the wit to ask it. But it can’t predict the future, and it doesn’t tell you the things that you don’t know you don’t know. What genre does this fall under? Straight-up epic fantasy of, I am afraid, a very old-fashioned kind. It isn’t particularly gritty or ironic or ‘Grimdark’, and it certainly isn’t urban fantasy; it hasn’t got a wizards’ school or sparkly vampires, and it should therefore, according to the commercial pundits, go over like pickled strawberries. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version? I go by voices more than faces when I think of actors; sometimes I borrow an actor’s voice, and try to imagine a particular character’s dialogue being delivered in that voice. I also like to read my work aloud (privately) as a way of catching infelicities and errors. In my mind’s ear I have borrowed Christopher Lee’s voice for Vargon, Lord of the Dead. Rijeth, the retired wizard, sounds something like the long-late William Hartnell. The other characters haven’t yet attached themselves to particular voices. What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book? Oh, gosh. I hate writing these— Young Calin Lowford, forbidden to go to war, braves the forbidden mountains of the Old Gods to avenge his best friend’s death. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Self-published (under the name of Bondwine Books). ‘Bondwine’ is the name of a magic elixir that appears later on in the series. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? Two months, but that was decades ago and almost nothing of that draft has survived. Once a decade or so, I have dusted it off and tried again, more or less from scratch, to see if I have grown sufficiently as a writer to do the subject justice. This time I think I may have done it. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? After so many years of drafts and side-story and back-story, it has developed some of the many-layered and ramifying nature of Tolkien’s work. I also have some of Tolkien’s habit of developing the story through language (or vice versa), though of course I am immensely less learned. The story as such owes something to Stephen R. Donaldson, though without, I hope, the brooding self-pity that tends to disfigure his heroes. There are threads of Welsh and English legend, and a certain flavour of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. Prydain is of course just the old Welsh name for Britain; it was partly as a nod to Alexander, partly to emphasize the British elements in my invented country, and partly for reasons to do with my invented language, that I called that country ‘Pyrandain’. Who or what inspired you to write this book? In the first instance, I was a teenaged fanboy with Tolkien, Donaldson, Lewis, and Alexander (and others) swirling round all too freely in my head. I wanted to join in on the conversation, and pay forward some of the debt that I owed to the writers and the books I loved. Besides, it seemed like (and was) enormous fun to do. After the first attempt went nowhere helpful, I set the story aside, but something about it insisted on being told. I have tried my hand at a good many other things (some of which had nothing to do with writing), but I keep coming back to this. Evidently it needs to be written down properly and exorcised from my brain. What else about your book might pique the interest of readers? Chases, fights, oaths of revenge, ancient lore, wizardly combats, omens, visions, perils, betrayals, magical tests, hidden gods, and the Secret at the End of the World. And that’s just in Book One. Seven more to come!