Monday, September 20, 2010

David Morrell on Ebooks

A few months ago I predicted a bestselling author would publish a new title exclusively on Kindle. Author David Morrell did just that with THE NAKED EDGE, a follow-up to his thriller hit THE PROTECTOR.

Besides THE NAKED EDGE, Morrell has also released nine of his backlist titles on Amazon, including the ground-breaking FIRST BLOOD, which many cite as the first modern action thriller.

David has always been a savvy guy when it comes to publishing. He was one of the first authors to use the term "platform", and has always been smart about the business end of things in this industry.

To see him understand and embrace the future with a move like this is a portend of things to come. He's doing what publishers have failed to do, and he won't be the first heavyweight to do so.

I caught up with David in Monaco, at the Monte Carlo Casino, and we discussed his new move while playing $500 minimum baccarat.

Okay, that's not true. I just emailed him.

David, why did you decide to publish these ten as ebooks?

David: Early this year, Amazon came to my agent, Jane Dystel, about making a large portion of my backlist available as Kindle e-books. These days, print publishers don’t seem as interested in backlist titles as they used to be. When they do commit to a backlist, it’s often so that they can have the e-book rights, which means that the way contracts are now written, the publishers have the e-book rights forever. The Amazon proposal allowed me to keep the e-rights while at the same time receiving the full might of Amazon to promote the titles on a global scale.

We selected nine titles from my backlist (after 38 years as an author, I have a lot of material in the vault). To draw attention to those nine titles, I decided to add an original, never-before-published novel, THE NAKED EDGE.

Joe: The Amazon marketing muscle is the main reason I signed with them for SHAKEN rather than simply release the ebook on its own. (For those keeping tabs on such things, I'm now selling 7500 self-pubbed ebooks per month on Kindle alone.)

THE NAKED EDGE is currently #206 on the Kindle Bestseller list, and I have no doubt it will continue to sell well, especially with Amazon getting behind it.

While publishers are mucking about with enhanced ebooks for the iPad by incorporating video into them, you've taken a simpler, yet still innovate, approach to adding extra value to ebooks.

THE NAKED EDGE has some pretty cool pics in the back matter (which look great in full color on various Kindle apps, and also reproduce very well in grayscale on the Kindle itself.) Do you foresee more authors adding extra content to their ebooks?

David: One reason that I wanted to offer THE NAKED EDGE directly as an e-book is to experiment with what an e-book can be. A main character in the book is a master knife maker, the old-fashioned kind with a hammer and an anvil. In the novel, he makes replicas of famous fine-art knives, such as the one in a 1950’s Warner Bros. movie, THE IRON MISTRESS, starring Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie. It’s an absolutely gorgeous knife that was used in a lot of other movies and inspired many contemporary knife makers, such as Gil Hibben who designed the knives for the last two Rambo films.

Another knife that’s described in the book is the most expensive knife in the world, Buster Warenski’s solid-gold replica of Kind Tut’s dagger. It’s valued at a million dollars. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could include photographs of these stunning objects?”

If the 18 examples I selected were put into a printed novel, in color, the price would be extreme. But it doesn’t cost anything to include photos with an e-book, so I decided to tailor THE NAKED EDGE for an e-book format.

Joe: It does, however, cost a lot of money to add video, and that's what I'm hearing that publishers are doing. However, Kindle can't do video yet. What sense does it make to create video books when they can't be sold on the #1 platform? (My latest numbers: over 100,000 Kindle ebooks sold vs. 390 iPad ebooks sold.)

Another dumb move publishers are making involves authors' backlists. Either they try to grab ebook rights when the rights weren't mentioned in the original contract, or they make lowball offers for backlists with terrible royalty rates.

THE PROTECTOR is one of my favorite books of yours, so it's great that this is available again. Especially since used paperbacks are selling for $60 on Amazon.

It's insane that this book went of out print in the first place. But it's great for you, because now you can earn more than the sixty cents per paperback you were being paid, while still keeping the price under the cost of a new paperback.

And now you've written a sequel...

David: I love the dialogue between the main characters. Cavanaugh and Jamie remind me of Nick and Nora in THE THIN MAN, lots of amusing male-female banter between them, but with the difference that in my case the banter is accompanied by serious action.

As much as THE NAKED EDGE emphasizes what I see as a healthy marriage, it’s also about the failed friendship between Cavanaugh and a boyhood friend who is now his enemy. The background is that five years ago I ended a 35-year friendship with a man I considered to be my brother. The reasons are nobody else’s business, but I came to realize that the end of a friendship between two men (or two women for that matter) can be as angry and destructive as a divorce.

Here, the consequences of those emotions are harrowing. Skilled at protecting others, Cavanaugh discovers that it’s quite another thing to protect himself, especially from a man who knows him so well. The emotions are frank and honest.

Joe: Cavanaugh is in a short story, “The Attitude Adjuster,” that I included in an anthology I edited, THESE GUNS FOR HIRE. He's my favorite of your characters.

Can you explain why there are two versions of THE TOTEM?

David: In the late 1970s, when I submitted a 550 page version of THE TOTEM, my editor wanted to know why there wasn’t a love interest and why there were so many characters and . . . Let’s just say the editor didn‘t “get” what I was doing.

THE TOTEM is my attempt to redefine the werewolf myth, using science as the explanation, instead of superstition. It’s set in a town in an isolated valley in Wyoming, and one reason for the novel’s length is that I wanted to characterize the valley, to create a substantial sense of place.

In those days, I had not yet been fortunate enough to have a New York Times bestseller, which meant that I could either agree to the cuts or hit the road. Reluctantly, I agreed to the cuts, reducing the scale, emphasizing the town rather than the valley. That version was substantially shorter, almost by half. It had a very different beginning and climax.

I also changed the style, giving the revised text a subtle rhythm, which was my attempt to try to control the reader’s heartbeat. Even in the short version, the book received great reviews and was cited as one of the 100 most frightening horror novels. In 1994, I finally had a chance to publish the original 550-page version. That became the US version while the short version was the UK version.

Now both versions are available in one package as a single Kindle e-book. It’s another way to explore the possibilities of the format. In a printed book, the cover price of combining both versions would have been huge. But here I can add as much material as I want without any extra cost to the reader.

Joe: I did the same thing with my horror novel TRAPPED a few months back--putting two different versions into the same ebook. I'm also doing the same thing with SHAKEN.

Publishers don't seem to understand that ebooks aren't just another format. They have many advantages over print, and are allowing writers to give readers more bang for the buck.

Some readers don't understand this, either. I've gotten many emails from fans who are upset that I'm releasing certain titles as ebooks.

David: I'm getting a little heat for the e-book only option. On the other hand, if the book were a print novel and I waited 3 months for the e-book to be available, as some publishers prefer, then I would get heat for that. It seems very wrong that someone would make an aesthetic judgment based on whether the book is an e-book or not.

Joe: People are resistant to change. But change inevitably comes, and the majority adopts it, usually amid much grumbling. Then they wonder how they ever lived without the technology. Cell phones come to mind. I know several folks who swore they'd never get a cell phone because there was no reason for it. They all eventually gave in.

But even if some readers hate the thought of Kindles, ebooks are allowing writers more freedom than ever before. We're no longer beholden or bound to the whims of editors, sales reps, distributors, coop, marketing dollars, chain-store buyers, and corporate folks who ultimately decide the fate our books. For the first time, we can directly reach readers without any gatekeepers or middlemen who impose their ideas on what works and what doesn't, and we can make 70% royalties, compared to the 8% royalties we've gotten for paperbacks.

I don't want to speak for you, but I find this brave new world liberating and exciting. I can write what I want, without worrying about length, or if it fits into a specific genre, or if the buyer for Barnes and Noble will pre-order enough copies. I control the title, the price, the cover, and the content, and no one else has any say over how I run my career. My success or failure isn't dependent on the whims of an industry that accepts returns, where a 50% sell-through is considered acceptable, where overhead has become outrageous, and where only 1 out of 5 publishing books actually makes a profit.

What is your take on this revolution? Is it even a revolution? You've been in this biz since Gutenberg printed his first bible. Are ebooks a gamechanger?

David: Yes, I think ebooks are a gamechanger.

I’m not abandoning printed books. I collect Dan Simmons books and would not be happy if I didn’t have a signed copy of everything he writes. Some books are so attractive that I love holding them and admiring their artwork. Some books are so compelling that I want to lend them to my friends or buy them as gifts.

But the current system is broken.

I am troubled when I think of how the chain stores charge publishers a fee to display their books and then sometimes don’t display the books anyhow because of a communications failure.

I am troubled by the inefficiency of book distribution. How many authors have gone on a tour only to find that their books are available only in the store where they’re signing and not anywhere else in the city, or in the state for that matter, because the warehouse screwed up?

It bothers me that a new printed book has a six-week shelf life.

It bothers me that books go out of print rapidly (to create warehouse space for new books, which themselves will soon go out of print).

It bothers me that, if an editor wants to buy the manuscript of a new novel, it’s first necessary to get the okay of the marketing department, which in turn sometimes goes to the buyers for the chain stores and asks them “If we publish this book, how many copies would you hypothetically buy?”

This is nuts. There’s something liberating when writers don’t need to base their self-worth on what a conglomerate’s marketing team decides is a good book. The e-book market allows writers to write what they want. There’s no guarantee that a non-trendy book will attract readers, but at least authors now have a chance to find out.

Joe: Amen. When we get to Monaco, first beer is on me...