Welcome guest blogger Scott Nicholson!

Today I’m thrilled to host Scott Nicholson here at Murderati.  Scott is a friend and one of my favorite supernatural thriller writers (some people say horror; I think what Scott delivers masterfully is spooky thrills, the best kind!) 

If you haven’t read Scott, I highly recommend you give him a try. Here’s his Amazon page to browse, I guarantee there’s something for everyone, and the price is right! 

Just added:  Scott will be giving four books away (free for Kindle) this weeked (March 17-18) at http://www.ebookswag.com , so it’s the perfect time to load up!

And those of you who know anything at all about e publishing know that Scott has been at the vanguard of the e publishing revolution – I’ve been wanting to get him here for ages to talk about what he sees as the future. So for your enjoyment and hopefully enlightenment – here’s Scott!

Subsidizing the Freebie

By Scott Nicholson

I’ve gotten out of the “writer babble” business for two reasons: (1) I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and (2) it’s all changing so fast that even the boldest predictions of digital evolution quickly become laughable.

I don’t even use traditional publishing as a reference point anymore, because that is so far removed from most writers’ realities that it may as well be Shangri-la or Hollywood. The indie vs. trad debate is now only meaningful for a small group of people, and they are all making way more money than you or me.

So you are in it, and if you are lucky, you made a nice little nest egg back when everyone was standing on the sidelines deciding whether indie was the way to go. Hopefully, you shook off the intellectual shackles that chained us to the agent speed-dating sessions at writing conferences and were hammered and locked into place by “publishing experts” with 20-year writing careers in the old system. You know the mantras: “Get an agent,” “Only hacks self-publish,” and “You can’t produce and distribute a book without the advice of publishing experts.” Basically, ego affirmation. Of course the experts didn’t want to lose their position of authority (and in the agents’ case, the intermediary status of being the first in line to get checks.)

But the gate was left open and the horses all got out of the barn, or something like that (come up with your own gatekeeper metaphor; I am writing this for free!) So now we have a market where the 99-cent ebook had a year’s run, and the pool was finally beginning to find stratification (crappy books sinking, good books nailing stable plateaus) when Amazon unleashed the latest version of indie roulette—the free ebook.

I’m on record as predicting the flat-text e-book era has an outside range of five years, at least for fiction—specialized non-fiction and manuals will continue to be valuable for their content alone. I believe e-book sales will continue, but certainly not with expanding profits for all involved. Now that there are thousands of free Kindle books available every single day, how long before readers come to expect and even demand free books exclusively?

Freebie roulette. Great for readers. Good for Amazon (maybe in the short term, but it is hard to figure the long term). Terrible for authors.

The market is diverse enough to support many different price tiers, but writers who want to survive in 2015 will need to make money off of free books, or they will soon quit writing.

I only see one outcome: ad-supported or sponsored books. At first blush, you’d think N.Y. has an advantage, since Madison Avenue is right there. But can corporations, with their large structures, be able to compete when indie or smaller entities can react more quickly to present conditions instead of protecting some imagined status quo?

J.K. Rowling can inspire a Pottermore built around her brand, and James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler have already built factories around their names (and, yes, V.C. Andrews, you can roll over in your grave two or three more times for all I care, because this is all your fault). But most of us are not factories or we wouldn’t have to indie publish.

This points out the new era of the branded writer. And not just “writer,” but “content creator” and even mere “idea marketer.” A personality is more suited to building brand identification and audience than a publisher is. I say “James Patterson” and you get an image. I say “Random House” and what do you get? Randomness. We’ve seen it here locally: “Ray’s Weather” is where you check the weather and “Todd’s Calendar” is where you click to find what’s happening in the region—and both are ad supported. You can get the free content elsewhere but you don’t get the human personality attached.

I’m already experimenting with the ad model because I believe it is viable. I am counting on Idea Marketing being one of my foundational pillars. I am not quite sure what it all looks like right now, but I look at it this way—you don’t need NY in order to give away tons of free e-books or to spread an idea or to build a social platform. You are the idea you want to spread.

Other authors will say “I’ll never sell out.” (Ironically, those are usually the authors who have given most of their incomes to agents and publishers…) I don’t blame people for sticking with what worked in the past. It all goes to how invested you are in a certain system and how the alternative looks, and, of course, the turf where you’ve staked out your ego. Publishing-industry talk on e-books uses phrases like “managing risk” and “cautious adaptation.” That is why those of us in the trenches knew Barnes & Noble was in serious trouble when most in the “publishing industry” only realized it recently when BN’s horrifyingly bad third-quarter reports came in. They are working off of old data while I work off the data I got an hour ago.

And my data says this may be the very peak of the Golden Age of digital publishing. The $9.99 novel may be dead this year, since three-quarters of the current bestsellers are low-priced indie books. As fast as major publishers yank their name-brand authors out of digital libraries, 10 new indies cram into that virtual shelf space. Maybe forever. James Patterson’s factory can’t run on $2.99 ebooks, but mine can.

But what happens when the $2.99 and 99 cents drop to permanently free? Where’s your sponsor? Are you willing to go there? It’s not going to be as clumsy as an image of a refreshing Bud Lite popping up when the main character enters a bar (though it’s not unthinkable at some point.) Can you see Jack Reacher with a favorite brand of soft drink, or Bella Swan wearing only Calvin Klein? At what point is your willing suspension of disbelief shattered? At what point do you realize the ad is the only reason the book can exist at all?

My informal polling on ad-supported ebooks yields statements like: “I’ll quit reading before I put up with that.” I also remember saying I’d never carry a cell phone, or be on Facebook, or give up my vinyl albums, or start thinking that maybe nuclear energy is the best short-range answer to our energy addiction. Or that I’d ever read an entire book on a screen.

I don’t know the answer, but I am deeply invested in the question. So, ads in ebooks. As readers and writers, what is your opinion?


Scott Nicholson is the bestselling author of a bunch of books and also released The Indie Journey: Secrets to Writing Success, because some people still think you can buy the secret instead of be the secret. Follow him on Facebook, blog, Twitter, website, or newsletter.



38 thoughts on “Welcome guest blogger Scott Nicholson!

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Scott, thanks so much for being here! I'm sure you just scared the – life – out of a lot of people, but I strongly believe this is a discussion we need to be having.

    The ad-based free (or cheap) book seems inevitable to me. It's so ingrained in us to get "free" television with ads and "free" internet with ads – and I can remember ads in paperback horror and thrillers, and I'm assuming in other genres as well. It's not like a new idea.

    I think it's a relief that there's going to be someplace authors can get money from when so many books ARE free, these days. I have to say I'm all for the ad model.

  2. Lisa Alber

    Ack, ads in books? The thought bums me out. It may be the coming reality, but I'm not into it, and I'm also not into the cult of personality that this seems to imply for bookselling.

    I always try to equate what's going on with epublishing with what went on with music with the advent of iTunes etcetera. Did iTunes provide music for free? (Let's skip that fact that you could download for free off pirate sites — same probably holds true for books these days.) Why would Amazon WANT to create a demand for only free books — wouldn't its revenues go down over the long run?

  3. Sarah W

    It's tough to let go of the image of my name on a spine on a shelf . . . But I suppose, when it comes down to it . . . I want my stuff to be read and I'd like to be paid when it is.

    But I'm still not sure which direction to go.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, how do you mean, "the cult of personality this implies?"

    You ask some good questions and I'm not an expert, but I can think of several possible answers to why Amazon would want to create a market for free books – in no particular order. I'm sure they've been looking at the ad-based model themselves as a logical future. I know that people were offering their books for free on other sites, forcing Amazon to price match, so they are getting ahead of that trend. And of course – they're creating if not an outright monopoly, at least an empire.

  5. Sheri Hart

    Ads in books? Depressing thought.

    Books always seem to me to be one of the last bastions of truth.

    Maybe not my truth. But the truth as someone sees it … a character, an author.

    Not a corporation.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, I've said this before, but I sympathize. it's a lot harder decision when you're a first–timer. Trad pubbed authors at least have a sense of HOW to promote, which we had to do so much of with our publishers anyway. That's the part that first-timers might not be able to do so well as an indie author.

    That's the part of it you have to consider. But I think Scott is right with the roulette image. No matter what, it's a gamble.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sheri, I might be more cynical about it because of my Hollywood background, but I swear, half of the paperback books in my Dad's very genre library had ad pages in them. It's not a new idea.

  8. David Corbett

    I'm reminded of one of my grandmother's favorite remarks: We shall see, said the blind man.

    At what point do my advertisers get to make decisions concerning content?

  9. Lisa Alber

    Oh, cult of personality as in I'm imagining authors as celebrities, and the pretty, shiniest authors, or those with the most charisma will attract the most ad sponsors, and thus will make the most money. It will be even less about the quality of writing than it is now. It will become as opportunistic and shallow as the Kardashians. The authors who have a chance to actually earn a living will be those who don't mind becoming effing talking heads like Patterson. The treasure will go to the authors who wield the best marketing strategies. Patterson is a case in point. His books suck. Big time. Yet, he sells millions.

    I can imagine it getting so bad that ad sponsors will demands scenes in which a character drinks the sponsor's product, the latest hydrolyzing, neon-colored, water enhancer, say.

    So, yeah, I'm feeling cynical and pissed-off about the whole thing as I sit here imagining the downfall of the written word. When I saw that first novel written by "Richard Castle" on bookshelves, I about crapped my pants. Is THAT where we're going?

    Oh, I don't know…I guess I'm feeling bitter today because I know I write good and worthy prose, but as of yet haven't been able to get a toehold into traditional publishing…I'm just starting to get my head around the fact that I might need to self-publish–and I'm already too late to really benefit before ebooks all become free? ARGH!

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Three comments in a row worrying about product placement! When I was on the board of the WGA (screenwriters' union) we had these conversations all the time, and I guess because I'm used to thinking in terms of the revenue from movies and TV, I'm skeptical that advertisers would think they could get enough bang for the buck on product placement in a book to ever get rabid about it.

    But we all do product placement to a certain extent, don't we? I know I like to be specific about certain brands and products in my books.

  11. Lisa Alber

    Yes, but you're choosing the brands that fit your characters and the scenes…organic to the whole, not jimmied into the story because of an agreement…

  12. Max Munro

    @Lisa "Did iTunes provide music for free?"

    No, but iTunes aren't the be all and end all. Look at Spotify – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotify

    It's free, but with ads. You can pay for a premium subscription without ads and it's better quality audio.

    This will be good when books become more interactive. Imagine you give the plain text away for free with ads between each chapter and the odd affiliate-linked word. It wouldn't be a fun experience to read, but they can upgrade to the pay-for version with a proper front cover, illustrations to each chapter, better formatting, etc.

    KDPSelect (https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/KDPSelect) might even turn into a subscription system like Spotify, so if you subscribe, every book is free. Then they split the money with all authors who had a book "rented" that month.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, I completely sympathize with the feeling of overwhelm, I have it almost every day!

    There are people who would tell you that there's no toehold left to be had in traditional publishing.

    And if the idea of free books is freaking you out, the ad based free book should be GOOD news, right?

    It's a sad fact that we all have to be marketing experts. I hate it, but there's no sugarcoating it. My sister quoted someone to me (whose name I will fill in once I can remember it through the fog of this flu) that artists have to be artists 100% of the time and businesspeople 100% percent of the time. 50-50 won't work.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I guess my question is, does product placement bother you in movies and TV? Because I think for the most part it's organically done. Writers are pretty clever about it. Of course, I don't watch a lot of network TV.

  15. Joshua Corin

    Haven't books had ads in them for years? In fact, I remember picking up a John Gardner paperback a few decades ago and seeing an ad for that very same John Gardner paperback in the back matter.

    When I read a novel by Neil Gaiman or Neal Stephenson, I'm aware that it's "sponsored" by a corporation (News Corps) whose political leanings tend to run counter to mine. On the spine and on the inside cover are reminders of this corporation as represented by one of its many, many, many holdings (Harper Collins).

    As crass as commercialization can be – and holy crap, it can be crass – it is also ubiquitous. The question, I suppose, is really a discussion of degrees. Advertising needs to remain unintrusive to the art it sponsors. The hand of News Corps is (mercifully) invisible in Harper Collins fiction. That's as it has been and (hopefully) as it should be.

    Call me naive, but why would corporate sponsorship of independent ebooks be any different?

  16. Reine

    Product ads are already inserted into text. That's why I no longer read certain authors. Mentioning a product in text can be important to a story, but mostly it isn't. Blatant advertising in text can wreck a good story for me. There used to be, many years ago, real ads in books. They weren't pretending to be part of the story, they were just ads in a book, usually at the back. That's okay with me. But "product placement?" No.

    Does anyone here still write, because they love to tell the story?
    Is there any art left in the crafting?
    Are sales more important than writing?
    Has anyone else ever puked, because their favorite author wrote a book that was an obvious ploy to either attract a film offer or a failed script redone as a book?
    If people will pay way too much money for TV shows and movies on TV, why would they not pay for a book?
    Is there an industry ploy to put some out of business with free books, something done in other businesses every day?
    I'll read the authors I like.
    I'll write the books that are in me screaming to get out.
    Screw ads in text.
    Fuck product placement.

  17. Lisa Alber

    That's saying it, Reine!

    I always notice product placement in movies and television, and it always takes me out of the story, always bugs me, always, in fact, pisses me off a little bit.

  18. Reine

    Alex, when products fit the story it works. But too many authors just plug it in. I don't read those. Regarding films and TV product placement, I don't mind unless it interferes with the acting or setting. If it is obvious that an actor is holding a can of soda carefully in order to show the brand I hate it. If I notice the sign in a fim with advertising directed at the audience, and I am distracted from the story, I hate it. I also detest on-screen ads during a freakin' show that I am watching. Yes, I do mind. Get it into my subconscious. I can deal with that. Please don't wreck the show.

  19. Lisa Alber

    I just realized what's really bugging me. Day in, day out, we're being manipulated. I'm a smart person, so I don't buy into a lot of it. However, it's insidious. (I, too, have bought into "anti-aging" creams.). I'm sick of being manipulated like I'm an effing drone to the corporate and political dealmakers and spin doctors–which I'm guessing nearly all of us, in their eyes. Sometimes I wonder what reality really looks like. So, I would love my fiction manipulation to be just about the author taking me on a journey that has nothing to do with anything but the story–no product placements. Just the story, please.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Max, no one's deleting comments, but I'm suddenly having trouble posting, too.

    WARNING to everyone – Squarespace seems to be acting up – please COPY your comment before you post just in case.

    Sorry about that, Max.

  21. Susan

    My boyfriend gave me a Kindle for my birthday a few months ago. At first, I was thrilled that there were so many free ebooks available and I checked the 'Top 100 Free' list on Amazon every day. But now I realize why most of them are free – they're not as good as the ones you pay for. I still check the list every now and then, and pick up free ones from my favorite authors to reread (Archer Mayor, Dana
    Stabenow). I also pick up free ones from authors I've heard of but never read, in case I might want to read more of their work – these are usually only free for a limited time. So it will be interesting to see
    how the free book issue plays out. I think that authors who learn how to use the 'free for a limited time'
    gambit to promote their other books might do ok, but who knows? (I saw that some Muderati authors
    did this recently!)

    As for ads, I don't find the ads on my Kindle Touch to be disruptive at all. Maybe this could be extended to books themselves someday?

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Susan, I agree about a lot of the free books I've downloaded – I realized that personally I don't need any more than the sample to know if I want to buy or not, and I don't want my Kindle cluttered up with bad books.

    You'll soon be hearing from those of us who have done the "free for a limited time" about how it works. I haven't been able to really take advantage of it in the US yet (any minute now, though!) but it worked wonderfully in the UK. It's a Godsend to get your book out to a lot of potential readers, and build a buzz.

    IF the book is good!

  23. Scott Nicholson

    Thanks for commenting and all the great thoughts.

    I don't think ads will be the SOLE way we get ebooks–I think the lending library is here to stay, and there will always be a crowd willing to pay a premium to be "saved from the (perceived) riffraff." Just as I got to a theater for a movie twice a year, and get Redbox about once every three months, and mainly rely on my flat-fee Netflix for my occasional viewing distractions. There are things we can watch free on Roku but it jams an ad in here and there–so it becomes a trade. I don't download music and have ever made maybe two "illegal" copies of music I have purchased to give to someone else. I get all the music I want for free on the radio, and all the old music I bought on CDs. If it is new, I most likely watch it on Youtube–after sitting through a 15-second ad…

    I don't know why people are so quick to defend literature as the the last "pure art" that should be removed from all the commercial considerations. But plenty of great literature was written with no real hope of an audience or market. Personally, I am optimistic. The real writers will still write, and overall writers will be better off than they ever were, if they are willing to adapt. Because readers drive this train now, not publishers or writers.


  24. Zoƫ Sharp

    Wow, this has opened up a whole can of … something. It's a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much to Scott – and Alex – for a possibly controversial but very thought-provoking post!

  25. Greg

    Great post by Scott. As an indie author I'll weigh in on this and say, do you notice those ads on youtube or facebook particularly? I know I don't as they are usually in a sidebar and most of the ones on youtube can be switched off after five seconds. Also, there are online personalities that I follow on The Escapist and ThatGuyWithTheGlasses who are critical and acerbic and forthright – the kind of personalities I am more likely want to tune in to – and I don't feel the ads they run detract from that anymore than ads used to detract from my enjoying Dr Who or Star Trek. i just had to sit them out and get back to the good stuff. I know I'm not using any literary examples here but that's kind of my point – books are now being read on the same kind of devices that were previously seen as restricted to video games and music so, by dint of that, the way we read is going to mirror the way that we play games, download and listen to our music and watch movies. Ads paying for us to write is no different to the Renaissance artists who used to have to get a patron to support them and then they would paint what the patron asked them to every so often so as to fund the works that they wanted to create.

  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I hadn't thought of it as the same kind of device, Greg, but of course you're right!

    And I keep thinking of all the selling that went on during the intermissions of Shakespeare's plays, and the Medieval mystery cycles… Art and advertising has always gone together, methinks…

  27. Susan Shea

    I have a foot in both camps. Have an agent, had a hard cover launch, and since then, the ground keeps shifting. I have an idea for a multimedia edition of a book, but can't afford to produce it. We are right in the center of a revolution and it doesn't surprise me that we can't see the bigger picture and get scared or resentful at times. It sure is interesting though!

  28. Reine

    Alex, you know I think this time of electronic publishing is exciting. It used to be too difficult for me to read in the previous reading era. I am new to reading for fun. I was able to embrace it only when I could no longer hold a book open long enough to enjoy it, when that time coincided with portable ereaders and audio screen readers.

    Tell me the logic behind disabling voice-reading capability — even for people with disabilities — and how does that square with an industry supposedly poised on the edge of giving ebooks away for free?

    I was thrilled to receive two of your brilliant books for free and have posted a review of one, and I am still working on the other, because I want it to be as good as I am able to make it. I am doing this, not because I love you, but because I love being able to read for fun. I am not a demanding person, but I do not taking reading lightly. I buy lots of books for my friends and family that I will never be able to read, because they will never be available in a format I can access. It also takes me a great deal of time to write. When my voice isn't working well enough to use Dragon, as is now the case, writing is exceeding slow. This took over an hour for me to write, so I am giving up now on the topic, and other serious commenting, because the effort has too dear a cost when no one is dancing with me.

  29. Katherine Howell

    Fascinating post and comments. They made me think of a conversation I recently had with a reader who pointed me to a couple of blogposts where the blogger was saying bookshops might turn into a kind of showroom, and the bookseller would get paid not by sales directly but by pushing certain books on behalf of publishers and the buyer would then go off home and download it. I thought that was a concern because the big publishers who have lots of money for promo can buy the bookseller's praise and the smaller ones whose books might be just as good can't afford it. Plus where now if a bookseller tells me they loved book x I know they're (more than likely) telling me because they really did, not because somebody's paying them to say so.
    I wonder, with the idea of product placement in books, is Coke (eg) going to have Patterson (eg) put it in all his books but only for consumption but the good guys? And again it will be the smaller guys who get nothing, this time the lesser-known authors who Coke (eg) will ignore, but that doesn't mean their books aren't just as good.
    But overall, I don't understand why we seem so keen on having people believe our work is worth nothing. A trial period freebie is one thing, but otherwise …. A plumber doesn't come to my house for free. A bank teller doesn't do his job for free.

  30. Jimbo

    Hey, maybe indie publishers could help the struggling industry by putting in ads for Big 6 books. Those guys are gonna need all the help they can get.

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