I really didn’t want to blog about Amazon’s Kindle Scout—I’m not interested in the good/bad debate—but I do think the conversation about the program is highlighting perfectly the business divide between self-publishers and (most) hybrids, and those who are focused solely (or overwhelmingly) on landing or keeping a contract with a “traditional” publishing contract.
In short, as Jim Hines says, Kindle Scout crowdsources the slush pile. Writers submit their work and are encouraged to publicize their participation. Readers nominate their favorite books. The books with the most nominations are “more likely,” in Amazon’s words, to be reviewed by Amazon. Amazon will then select the books it wants to publish.
I emphasize that last point because some have wrongly claimed Amazon will publish books with the most votes. Nope. Votes garner attention, not contracts.
My intent isn’t to rah-rah for or against Kindle Scout, but to look at why different writers with different perspectives have different reactions and opinions. Personally, I want to see what shakes out in the next three months before I make a decision.
One issue that has caused a minor stir is that writers who enter Kindle Scout agree, at the moment of entry, to the contract terms. To my knowledge, that’s similar to many contests. I don’t believe the contracts for Glimmer Train’s competitions are negotiable, for example, but I’m willing to be corrected. I’d also be interested in knowing if past contracts offered under contests like Warner Aspect’s First Novel Contest were negotiable.
I personally don’t much like things I can’t negotiate–my knee-jerk hang-up. I’d love to see, say, SFWA and RWA look at the terms and make professional recommendations to Amazon. For example, I’ve seen some opinions on the Scout indemnity clause that make me wonder enough to want the opinion of a pair of legal eyes, as well as a comparison to trade-publishing’s indemnity clauses.
On the other hand, the contract terms are right out in the open. There aren’t surprises. You either like them or you don’t, and if Amazon doesn’t select your work within 30 days, you’re still free to publish it on your own.
In contrast, Amtrak’s recent contest rules stated all submitted materials became immediately the property of Amtrak—including the work of those who didn’t win. Many writers—self-published and trade-published—spoke out against that rule. And many writers decided the mere chance of winning a train ride was worth losing exclusive rights to their submitted work. As far as I could tell, those sides didn’t fall along self/trade lines.
So what about the Kindle Scout issues that do?
Scout participants selected for publication are not given any additional editing, copyediting, layout, or cover art support and services. They do, however, have an opportunity to make changes before submitting the final copy for Amazon’s publication. This has mightily disturbed writers most accustomed to trade publishing perspectives, but a relatively few self-publishing writers.
Trade-published writers put a high value on the editorial and artistic guidance given and decisions made by their publishers. They like having a prescreened team take on those aspects. They want the publisher to hire the developmental editor, copyeditor, proofreader, and cover artist, and decide how the book will be packaged and presented to readers. They do not want, for varied reasons, to be responsible for paying those professionals out-of-pocket.
Self-published writers put a high value on making their own editorial and artistic choices. They want to choose their own editors and decide how much influence the editor will have over the final work. They want to hire their own cover designer, choose the images they believe best portray their story, and decide how the work is presented to the reader. They see those expenses as a one-time investment.
The above issue segues neatly into the 50% of net royalty rate Amazon offers to Scout winners.
For informational purposes: Amazon defines net as “the gross amounts we actually receive from the sale of copies of that format or edition, less customer returns, digital transmission costs and bad debt, and excluding taxes. ” Since most digital transmission costs are measured in pennies per sale, this amounts to a little less than 50% of the price the reader pays for the ebook. For trade publishers, the 25% of net is calculated on what the bookseller pays for the ebook, and is generally considered to come out somewhere around 12.5% of what the reader pays. (Audio and third-party rates are also in the contract, but I’m examining perspectives, not contracts, so I’m not going to expend words discussing them).
Trade-published writers focus on the lack of editorial and artistic support as the reason 50% is a poor royalty rate. My guess—and that’s all it is—is that trade-published writers see the publisher’s artistic investment in their novel as what adds the greatest value and contributes most to sales. The publisher’s artistic investment is thus worth 25% to 37.5% (depending on how one wishes to calculate it) for the lifetime of the project.
Some, but certainly not all, self-published writers calculate differently. My guess—and again, that’s all it is—is that self-published writers see the publisher’s marketing push as the most expensive and value-adding contribution to sales. They assume the publisher’s contribution to marketing and visibility is worth the 20% of royalties they’d lose over the lifetime of the project by going with Kindle Scout. They see it as an investment in much the same way publishers will pay co-op fees for marketing and visibility. Trading the potential visibility for a lower royalty rate is worth it to them.
Then there’s the $1500 advance. That’s low in the world of trade publishing, and below the current SFWA threshold. Since most trade-published novels are said to never earn out the advance, the small amount is considered a deal breaker for those looking from the trade-publishing perspective.
But many who self-publish have often said they’d give up a larger advance in return for a higher royalty rate. I’m sure many ran the math as well, finding the advance would earn out after 1000 – 1200 sales, and assume/hope/anticipate the visibility of participation in Scout would result in at least that number. Qualifying for SFWA would not be a high consideration for some self-publishers.
The differing conclusions are indicative of different perspectives, different artistic considerations, and different business goals. Are there problems with the Amazon contract? Some clauses that aren’t author-friendly? Yes. Are there problems with Big-5 and small-press contracts? Some clauses that aren’t author-friendly? Yes. That’s why it’s nice to have options.
It’ll be great when we can discuss those options without turning everything into a morality play and/or superiority contest. Please keep that in mind should you choose to comment. Debate for the purpose of understanding would be awesome. Arguing to win and/or claim the high ground would not. 🙂
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