Check It Out

I was going to call this a minor note, but I know several of you will consider it more important than the main post.

Agent Extraordinaire Janet Reid is taking a vacation. Unlike me, she makes sure to leave some content for her blog readers. And so, today’s hiatus post features the very handsome Rufus. Drop by and say hello.

(And if you have any interest in the business side of writing novels–or long-form non-fiction–you really should be reading her blog.)

Plug over. (But if you don’t care about the business of writing, you may want to skip the rest of this post.)

Tor Books–one of the big name publishers in Science Fiction and Fantasy is taking a lot of heat in the publishing world over what they’re calling an experiment.

According to their press release, Tor–or possibly their parent company, Macmillan–believes making e-books available through public libraries lowers retail sales. Consequently, they’ve decided to hold all e-books out of libraries until four months after publication.

They’ve released no specific information to back up their claim, so it’s impossible to know what they’re thinking. Are they of the opinion that libraries are a bigger source of piracy than booksellers? Do they think libraries are buying one copy and lending it to multiple clients at once? We don’t know, and we may never know. But either way, it’s a pretty nonsensical call.

I don’t know about the library vendor who handles Tor’s e-books, but the ones I’m familiar with have interfaces to the libraries’ circulation system and only allow simultaneous check-outs up to the number of copies the library has purchased. My local library, for example, outsources their e-books to Overdrive, and I’ve had to wait for check-outs often enough to be sure they don’t lend more simultaneous copies than the library bought.

And libraries as a source of pirate copies? It is to laugh. As I’ve noted in the past, pirate copies often show up the day books are released, sometimes even before. In order to do that through a library, your hypothetical pirate would have to be first on the reserve list, not just for one book, but for every title they intend to steal. To get, say, six books on release day, User OX* would probably have to check several out, remove the copy protection, and check them back in before he could grab the next batch. Because most library e-book vendors limit the number of books users can check out simultaneously.

* That’s supposed to be a skull and cross-bones. Thus we see the limits of my ASCII art skills.

Maybe OX’s library won’t notice he has a habit of checking multiple books out for five minutes, but you better believe the vendors are watching for that sort of pattern.

So what’s Tor thinking?

Several articles suggest they may be hoping to beef up their First Day sales numbers, potentially helping their position on various best-seller lists. Which is, I suppose, a possibility, but it strikes me as unlikely.

Or maybe Phase Two is introducing a higher cost to libraries, “for expedited access”. Remember, we have no data to support Tor’s claims. If they come back in a few months and say, “Hey, sales did go up, so if libraries want books on Launch Day, they can damn well pay us for the income we’ll lose,” nobody can contradict them.

In any case, the embargo began with Tor’s July titles. It’ll be interesting to see what happens come December, when those titles are due to reach libraries. Will libraries bother to buy them, four months after their clients have presumably either bought the e-books themselves or borrowed the paper editions?

And, let’s not forget that libraries make their buying decisions when books are reviewed in library-oriented journals. That can be six months or more before publication. For well-known authors, the decision may even be made when the book is announced, and that can be a year or more before publication. So we may not see the effect on library purchases until late 2019.

Interesting times we live in, folks.

Bits and Pieces: Amazon and Google

A few quick takes today.

First up, Amazon and Hachette have come to an agreement. Amazon is once again filling orders for Hachette titles, and authors will start earning royalties again. Yay.

So, of course, the Internet’s arteries are filling with the new cholesterol*: analyses of who “won” the deal. Given that terms of the contract haven’t been released, it’s all guesswork. We’ll have to wait and see whose profits go up before we can anoint the true winner.

* Seriously, this sort of article is becoming more and more common. As far as I can tell, it started with local sports coverage analyzing trades, but it’s spread to every event that involves two or more sides. US and China sign a trade agreement: who won? Research probe lands on comet: “Bad deal for comet!” I blame the ongoing gamification of every human interaction.

What I found interesting was Hachette’s assurance that “the percent of revenue on which Hachette authors’ e-book royalties are based will not decrease under this agreement.” Presumably, it’s not going to increase either, or the publisher would have made that the lead. Most author’s e-book royalties are set as a percentage of what the publisher gets, rather than a fixed dollar* amount. So if Hachette emerges as the winner by proving that they can net more dollars by pricing their titles over $9.99, their authors will also come out ahead. That’s going to be a tough sell, though, given how many readers don’t understand why an e-book would cost more than a paperback.

* Or fixed cents. Let’s be realistic here.

Another bit of Amazon news. Back in July, we talked about Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited subscription plan. In discussing the benefit to the author, I said “the author gets an unknown percentage of an unknown amount.” Roger Packer has a good summary of just what authors with books in the KU plan are getting. Read the article; even if you’re not an author, it’s a bucket of reality to the face.

In short, after three plus months, KU is a win for Amazon and for readers, but not so great for the authors. The total size of the pool has been climbing steadily, implying that more readers are signing up, but the per-read payment to authors has dropped every month. The pie is getting bigger, but the number of pieces it gets cut into is climbing faster. Simple logic tells us that reads per subscriber are climbing faster than subscribers.

Moving on.

My Nexus 7 tablet got the upgrade to Lollipop yesterday. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not glued to the tablet–I use velcro so I can put it down when I take a shower–so I’ve only used Lollipop a few hours. Early reaction: It’s not making much of a difference to me. I’m neutral on the graphic changes*, but the more substantive changes are slight negatives.

In particular, the UI change to the status bar is a step backward for me. I used to use it mainly to go to Settings. That takes one swipe and one tap in KitKat. In Lollipop, it’s one swipe and two taps. Over the course of a day, that’s going to cost me four or five seconds.

* With the exception of the changes to the “Back,” “Home,” and “Switch Apps” icons. No more arrow, house, or stack of cards. Now it’s a simple triangle, circle, and square. Looks like a refugee from a Playstation controller. Did I mention that I’m not happy about the rise of gamification?

The other noticeable change is the runtime change. In previous versions of Android, apps were compiled as necessary when you ran them. Now apps are compiled once, when you install them. That means, theoretically, faster launching and faster running at a cost of slower installation and updates. Frankly, though, I’m not seeing a whole lot of difference–except for app updates. An update means the app needs to be recompiled, so it’s noticeably slower than in KitKat. Maybe I’d see more difference if I played action games. Those should see a benefit from not having to devote CPU cycles to just-in-time compilation.

Hopefully, as I use Lollipop more, I’ll start to see some benefit from the other changes. In particular, if I get an increase in battery life, that’ll more than make up for slower updates and installations. The whole-device voice control may be useful, too. We’ll see how much use I give it. And, when Lollipop makes it to my Nexus 5, I’m sure having notifications show up on the lock screen will be a significant positive. Being able to read and reply to e-mails without having to unlock the phone and launch Gmail will save me considerably more time than I lose to the changed Settings navigation.

Finally, Google won a minor victory last week, when a court ruled that the selection of search results and the order in which they’re displayed is a matter of free speech. That’s in line with earlier decisions, so it wasn’t particularly a surprise to anyone.

Bottom line, according to the courts, Google is exercising an editorial function in selecting which results to show. Websites can’t force Google to display them prominently–or at all–and they can’t force Google to not display them either.

The ruling smacks a little of catering to the capitalist ideal (“Don’t like Google’s search results? Start your own wildly successful search engine.”) but balancing that against freedom from a European-style “right to be forgotten” rule, I’m inclined to consider this a net-positive.