Friday, November 1, 2013

Just How Crazy Is the Marketplace Today? by Susan Oleksiw

I was casting around for an idea for my monthly contribution to Author Expressions when I thought I’d settled on something timely—the topic of whether or not writers should give away their work. An article in the New York Times by Tim Kreider on just this issue had sparked a lot of debate on various lists. The topic appealed to me because when a friend, Ann Perrott, and I founded The Larcom Review I insisted that we pay every contributor, even if it was only a nominal amount.

Those who write well enough to be published deserve to be treated as professionals; they should be paid. Ann agreed, and we paid every contributor (writer, poet, interviewer, reviewer, photographer, artist) a modest $25 plus one contributor’s complimentary copy. The amount is pathetic but it’s better than nothing.

Today thousands of writers blog for free (like me, right here), put their novels and short stories on line for free (I haven’t done that), and contribute stories and articles to anthologies for no money at all (I haven’t done that either) and no free copy. It is so much the norm now that fewer and fewer people are arguing that writers should never write for free. It is argued that this is unrealistic—there are simply too many writers willing to fill the screens with their ideas and beautifully wrought sentences, hoping someone will offer them a paying gig.

This isn’t just a problem for midlist writers like me and most other mystery writers. It’s common knowledge that the writers who made Huffington Post worth purchasing were paid nothing for their contributions. They got nothing from the sale of the online newspaper. That doesn’t make anyone feel any better, but it does remind us just how widespread this problem is—writers should write for free and be glad of the opportunity to have their work disseminated. The marketplace for writing is out of whack.

So, how out of whack is the marketplace today?

While I was searching for a book by Mavis Gallant I decided to take a vanity detour and check out my own list, to see if the new covers were now on the Amazon site. They were. I scrolled down to admire them, and noticed that various issues of The Larcom Review were mixed in with the book titles. And then I took a better look.

I’m used to seeing paperbacks at $0.01, with the total cost being the shipping plus a few pennies. But I was not ready for the price I saw on one issue of The Larcom Review. The spring/summer 2001 issue was priced at $2,350.70. (Seventy cents?) The cover price is $10.

I remember that issue. In fact, I had just given a copy of it to a friend as a hostess gift when she invited me to dinner. The issue contains 61 works in prose or poetry and 15 artworks, including photographs, line drawings, and prints. The issue includes an interview with Andre Dubus III by Rae Francoeur, a poem by Erika Funkhauser, one by Rhina P. Espaillat, two prints by John Martin, and a cover photo by Robin Paris, among other items. Is all this worth $2,350.70?

I’ve emailed the bookseller to find out what is so special about this issue that he’s charging over $2,000. After all, I still have several copies in storage I’d be glad to sell. I have't heard anything from him yet, but I'll let you know if I do.

And now you can see how out of whack the publishing business is right now. I’ve forgotten my topic and where I was going with it. The ludicrous amount of money being offered for one issue of The Larcom Review has completely thrown my brain off kilter. What more do you need to know?

To purchase copies of The Larcom Review at a normal price, email me. To read Tim Kreider’s article, click on the link below.

Susan Oleksiw is the author of the Mellingham/Joe Silva series and the Anita Ray series. Her books can be found on Amazon, Nook Press, and Smashwords. For more information, go to


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

As you know, I brought that article to the attention of several of our writing groups initially. I have strong feelings about people giving away their work for zilch. I believe just as you do that professional writers must demand payment. That doesn't mean they should expect to make a fortune from writing. But professional writers are not hobbyists. There is a difference. And the quality of the writing usually demonstrates that. Pros should not be giving away their work for free. It's that simple.

Alice Duncan said...

Boy, does this resonate with me! For the last month, my first Daisy Gumm Majesty book has been free on both Kindle and Nook. Believe me, I had NOTHING to do with this. I don't like giving my work away. It's hard enough to sell it cheap, you know? However, enough people have "bought" it for free, that it landed a spot as #1 in a couple of Kindle categories. It's also received a lot of reviews, from five stars (I didn't expect much from a free book, but this one was good) to one star (I don't know why people liked this book. I think it sucked). All I can hope is that enough people liked the free one that they'll buy the next six in the series. One of Daisy's problems is that, while it's sitting there as an "historical cozy mystery," it's not a mystery. Several reviewers have pointed out that salient fact. The fact that it's not a mystery, however, is again not my fault. Kensington decided I should take out the dead bodies, add a subsidiary romance, and they marketed the books as romances. They aren't romances, either. AAAARRRRGH!!!!! Publishing drives me NUTS!

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Susan,
I went to a an Eagles concert once where no one listened. No one listened so much that Don Henley actually yelled at the audience. Why was no one listening? Because it was at a Telecom convention and it was free.

I find that when I download free books, I don't read them. It's the value thing.

As a journalist, it really bothers me what's happening with all this free content. When I teach my journalism students in the summer, I warn them to triple check everything you find online - especially the Huffington Post - because you get what you pay for.

Great post. And amazing about the book

Susan Oleksiw said...

The bottom line for me on all of this is that "bad money drives out good," and bad writing will so overwhelm the marketplace that no one will be able to find good stories well written. We'll be writing for each other, and making no money, and new writers will have no understanding that we are supposed to be paid for our work. I'm ranting now.

When I taught I could not persuade several students in the English class that the interpretation of the story wasn't based on what they wanted it to be but on what the author wrote. The precise words. I did not win that argument.

This is so frustrating now.

Now, back to my normal state. Thank you, Jacquie, Alice, and Jan, for commenting. ;-)))

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I agree with you, Susan. It's very democratic really that anyone can publish just about anything (no matter how awful)and obtain "readers" by offering free copies. However, as you point out, who will separate good from bad? It used to be that books did not get published unless they were of a certain quality, plus there was an expectation that writing would be paid. So where is this publishing revolution headed? Will it "correct" itself in time? Perhaps. One can only wonder.

Terry Odell said...

I recently attended the Novelists, Inc. conference which focuses on the business side of writing. We had some big industry professionals there with all sorts of information about working with the new changes in publishing. And there ARE changes. Lots of them. I think for the first time, we, as writers, have some control over our careers, and that's a good thing. It'll just take a while for the waters to settle. As for those overpriced books on Amazon. I see them too, but who cares? The seller can set the price, and I'm sure they just make up those numbers figuring if someone is stupid enough to buy it, they'll reap the profits. I sell my remaindered books for about $5, but since I sell so few, I don't really care if it's a barely break-even (or even a slight loss). It puts my book in readers' hands, and if they like it, they'll read the rest of them. In fact the one piece of advice all the reps (Kobo, Smashwords, and Amazon) had was that if you have a series, free or 99 cents for the first book can drive sales to your others.


Maggie Toussaint said...

good article. I'm so there with you about the changes in the market place. it's hard to know which end is up anymore.

Suzanne said...

Making a book free doesn't always guarantee success. Last year, I put one of my books in the Kindle Select program. That was three months of failure. I'm not doing any more freebies with my books. Nope.

Susan, thanks for the link to that excellent essay. I've retweeted it.

Perhaps doing presentations for free (no fee or reimbursement) can build exposure for a first-time author, but after that first year is over, the author needs to charge some sort of fee or receive reimbursement like mileage for events. The fee and reimbursement establish the author's value and compensate the author for his or her time when the author is actively researching, writing, or editing a manuscript.

How astonishing (and sad) that event organizers approach authors about doing free presentations and don't acknowledge the work that goes behind constructing that presentation, and the opportunity cost to the author of doing it. Too many authors make non-charity presentations for free and thus set the bar low for the rest of us.

The essayist points out that plumbers and accountants expect to be paid for their services. Yes. So why do artists sell themselves short?

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

I find it frustrating dealing with all the changes in the Publsihing industry. Gone are the days when publishers worked to publicise your books. I'd much rather write than market, but unfortunately that time is diminishing along with publisher support.

Susanne Alleyn said...

As both an author and a bookseller, I think I can explain the $2000 book. There was a piece on something like this in the Authors Guild newsletter a couple of years ago, too. The "wildly and weirdly overpriced book" situation tends to come about because of computer-programmed pricing, especially with booksellers who specialize in particular types of books.

In many cases, a specialist bookseller offering a relatively scarce title doesn't have the book on hand. He--or his computer--merely knows that some other, more generalized, bookseller has a copy of the book at a certain modest price. And since no customer can look at every single online bookseller's listings on the planet to see who has the best price for a scarce book, Bookseller A takes the chance that someone will order ScarceBook from him rather than from Bookseller B (the guy who actually has a copy in stock). Bookseller A lists the book at a price which is a certain amount of markup (say, 18%) over the price Bookseller B is asking. The computer does all this so the markup prices don't come out in nice even amounts like $19.99, but more like $20.56.

If someone orders ScarceBook from Seller A (who doesn't even have the book), Seller A simply orders the book from Seller B with a request to drop ship the book directly to Customer. Seller A pockets his 18% markup, Seller B has sold his book at the price asked, the customer gets the book at the price he's willing to pay, and everyone is happy.

In some weird cases, however, the auto-pricing programs used by two competing specialist booksellers get out of hand. One may be programmed to crawl the web and find the prices of every copy of ScarceBook that is offered out there, and then automatically price Bookseller A's (nonexistent) copy of Scarcebook 18% higher. And if you have TWO booksellers using exactly the same strategy and hunting for the same book, the programs keep on finding each other's listing and keep on marking the (nonexistent) book's price higher, and higher, and higher, each by the seller's predetermined markup. And if no humans are paying attention, pretty soon you have two copies of a book whose prices have, by automatic increments, gradually risen into the thousands with no one (except bemused customers) noticing.

Of course, the most ridiculous aspect of this is that neither seller who is offering this ludicrously overpriced book actually has a copy of the book on his own shelves at all.

If, just for jollies, you email Bookseller A and tell him, "um, the copy of ScarceBook that you're offering is listed at $2,447.32. Isn't that a little high, since there are copies listed elsewhere at $5.99?" You'll (maybe) get an embarrassed message back, saying it was an error--and that the book is no longer for sale (because the seller never had a copy in the first place). And then, if you pay attention, as soon as Seller A's listing disappears or is marked down to $14.99, you'll notice that Seller B's $2000 copy also suddenly disappears or gets marked down. :-)

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