Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Our Eggs Don’t Break

Some would call it cheating. My dad would call it “just a joke.” Either way, the crowds grew incredulous as my dad and I backed another long pace away from one another. Most of the contestants had fallen out. There was egg everywhere: yolk and splintered shells in the grass, remnants on the fronts of t-shirts, even in people’s hair.

A few of us were still in it. For many, the annual egg toss at our week-long Campmeeting retreat is the climax of Big Saturday’s games. Two lines of contestants and dozens and dozens of eggs. More than a hundred people participating and even more gawking. My dad had just caught our egg. With another two paces between us, he reared back and let fly with an underhand zing. Our white egg soared through the air, tumbling end over end, as I made ready to catch it over a hundred and fifty feet away.

The trick is to extend that catch as long as you can, to meet it high over your head and zip your hands back as quickly as you can, so that you slow the egg rather than catch it. A proper snag occurs over a very long distance. These are techniques honed over decades of Campmeetings.

Another solution, of course, is to simply hard-boil your egg. Some call this cheating. My dad found it funny. If the goal is to keep the egg intact, many might call it prudent.

Speaking of prudent, I’ve seen authors caution against putting all of our eggs in a single basket. This can refer to Amazon, where some authors opt for KDP Select and Amazon exclusivity. It can also refer to self-publishing, which people warn of doing exclusively; many think authors should go hybrid and diversify their publications. I see a huge problem with both of these eggs-in-the-same-basket arguments: Our eggs don’t break.

As a scare tactic, the eggs-in-basket approach is pretty effective. You get people worrying about their precious cargo, and suddenly they’re willing to offload it to anyone. But the analogy is flawed. As long as you own your eggs, that is.

Let’s say a new party emerges to supplant Amazon’s dominance as a book distributor. Or book streaming and lending companies become more lucrative than retailers. It doesn’t matter if all of your eggs are in the same basket; you can simply move them. It takes a few clicks. You own those eggs. Nobody can break them.

Books are now forever. Print on demand, e-books, audiobooks — they’ll never run out. And since you own them, you can re-paint them if you want. Put a new cover on those babies. Change the price. Control the DRM. Tweak the metadata. These are your eggs.

The only way to permanently put your eggs in a single basket is to give up ownership. When you sign that contract, those are no longer your eggs. For the rest of your life (plus another 70 years), those eggs belong to another. You want to get them into library baskets? You’ll need to ask permission. Maybe even beg. Want to get them streaming? Or remove DRM? Or lower the price? You don’t get to decide. Those are no longer your eggs.

Baskets come and go. Put all your eggs in the basket that treats them best. Even if that’s a single basket. Don’t let your fear of falling get in the way of your success; if your eggs go spilling, you can dust them off and try again. They won’t break. Fear-mongering can’t crack them. This invulnerability isn’t a cheat and it’s no joke; it’s just the hard-boil nature of digital distribution. So rear back and let fly. And only worry if someone is offering to buy your pretty egg for a lot less than it’s worth.

30 replies to “Our Eggs Don’t Break”

I’m really enjoying this series of articles on Indie writers and the benefits of being one. So far, I haven’t sold stacks of books, but gradually those numbers are creeping up. I tried for years to get an agent interested, and almost made it, but no cigar! Now, I’m so pleased it didn’t happen. I could have been at the mercy of a traditional publisher who would have taken a much larger percentage of the proceeds of the sale of my books and I might still have had to do all my own promo. Phew! Lucky escape.

Very good! I guess what has always bothered me about the “eggs in one basket” scenario (and I’ve heard it everywhere. Usually about Amazon’s alleged ‘monopoly’) is that without that basket, most writers would have no basket at all. Think of it like selling your eggs to the local merchant 200 years ago. You gathered your eggs and carried them to the local store, and the merchant either bought them, or let you barter them for the goods you needed. It was very likely that there was only one merchant near you. Without him, you were stuck peddling your eggs to neighbors and family members. So if someone came up and said, “Well, what if that store burns down, huh? Watcha gonna do then?” Well, I’d still have my eggs and I’d peddle them to friends and neighbors like I would have if the local store didn’t exist.. What have I lost? I told this to an author the other day on Facebook. So what if 90% (actually in real life it is closer to 75% and decreasing day by day) of my sales go through Amazon? How is it that I’m losing? If Amazon ceased to exist, or locked out Indies, or for some reason unknown to me and logic decided to cut their own throats, how is it that I’m better off NOW without them? If the case is only that I should diversify, then I’m with you. I’m doing that in every market I can reach. But if the argument is that I shouldn’t use or rely on Amazon merely because of the threat of what might happen. That sounds like crazy talk. But to me, telling authors to “just go hybrid” is like telling them to become a hybrid golfer. Like they can just choose to play pickup games for money OR play in the pro tour. Some golfers maybe have that option, but most of them don’t.

Michael

I agree with you Michael. I’ve never understood the anti-Amazon sentiment. Sure they COULD lower royalties or do something else that would alienate the Indie community but why would they? They have the best website and customer interface, so they do control a lion’s share of the market, but they aren’t the only game in town. If they did something drastic and authors left en masse to another e-distributor or POD service, the readers would follow as well. So there is really no benefit for Amazon to do this. They make plenty of money doing things the way they are doing them now.

I had to laugh at the hybrid golfer analogy. Spot on there. As if it’s so easy to get a legit publishing deal that will allow you to publish Indie as well. If it were so easy to be trad/legacy published, there would be no Indie community at all.

Good stuff as usual. Currently, my only egg is in the Amazon basket because I figured out their formatting and the formatting for createspace. Later this year, I’ll have two more eggs, then I might start looking for other baskets. But right now I’m adhering to the philosophy that even if my one book became a bestseller, it wouldn’t do me much good as I have no other books to sell enthusiastic readers (my illustrator is fantastic, but slow, so my first science fiction middle grade won’t be up until June). I’d rather build up a nice inventory and sell more copies of multiple books, than spend all my time worrying about just one book. If Amazon goes under tomorrow, I’ll move my egg:)

Excellent analogy…. Now if I could have a plate of fried chicken, sliced maters, fried okra and some biscuits for lunch from the campground, I’d be in business.

Off topic, I must insert my thoughts: I am not an avid blog reader, nor have I ever followed anyone’s daily postings. Hugh, yours is the first I have ever looked forward to, and checked for new postings. Clearly I ended up here because I am a fan of your work, but if I had never even read one single story you’ve written, just by reading one or two of your “short essays”, I would anticipate your opinions and colorful, descriptive rhetoric on the industry and life. And I ABSOLUTELY LOVE checking those little status bars at the top left and seeing progress amidst new titles soon to come… giddy up!!

So long, and thanks for all the fish!
Jennifer

Yes they are our eggs and yes it’s a lot of luck to get noticed, but it’s not a lottery. In a lottery you can’t continually improve your ticket to increase your odds, in a lottery you can’t work harder to reach a whole new niche of jackpot holders. In a lottery every ticket is the same, every egg unique. My egg is painted with mushroom clouds and if you break it radiation spills out the cracks. I own my egg and I won’t give it up unless the deal is the best thing possible for my egg.

I won’t just let any random sperm enter my egg, I want to know who is editing, changing, influencing my egg and I want control in the decision making process, after all it is MY egg. Keep your hands and your laws off of my egg. If I want you want to sell my egg approach it with the respect that my egg deserves.

Whatever you do don’t try and scramble my egg, my egg can’t be rejected. If you don’t like my egg, that’s okay someone else will and I always have more. My supply of eggs is only a dream away, my imagination can be harnessed, but it shall never be tamed. If you don’t like this egg, there will be another one coming down the Fallopian tube in my brain very soon.

Just my thoughts

You can preview my eggs at MicahAckerman.weebly.com

Thanks Hugh, you have given me pride that I may not have found otherwise.
~Micah

I’m one of those authors who cautions against having all eggs in one basket, not as dictum, but as part of a broader philosophy which preaches: “Make informed decisions.” For some, diversification works well; for others, concentrating does. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each arms us with the tools to choose wisely for our own particular situation. That said, it’s a great reminder that we own our rights and can quickly and easily shift our distribution and sales partners as our needs change.

A couple reason why I diversify?
1. At the moment, the market remains fragmented between the three major ecosystems: Amazon, Apple, and Everyoneelse. If I sell exclusively on Amazon, I have a harder time reaching customers who read on other devices (not impossible, but harder). I limit my audience. At the moment, I sell more to non-Zon customers that it makes less sense for me to focus on going only with Amazon. For others, the reverse is true.
2. Those customers who read ePub on Nooks and Kobos and iPads, etc, provide an established audience base. If the Zon fails, Kindle customers will also fragment as they migrate to other ecosystems. Having an established base allows me to better weather such an event.

Diversification doesn’t impact my rights (although exclusivity does, even if for a brief period of time), so rights isn’t really a factor in my decision to go with vendors outside of Amazon. Reach is. And in the end, it’s all about reach.

Saul, I know a lot of writers. I talk to them every day. I’ve never met a single one — not one — who advocates ONLY selling on Amazon. I think this may sound like an issue to you, but I assure you, if anyone is saying that, then it is most likely that you are talking to an amateur who hasn’t been doing this very long. JA Konrath deals with this all the time too – people creating a straw man argument as if because we are pro e-book that we are advocating ignoring print. It’s a false presupposition. Again, if you know someone who is advocating that OTHERS go only Amazon, then you are perhaps playing around in a pretty shallow pool. I’ve never heard that. Not once. Nor have I ever heard an Indie say that Indies should avoid offering print editions of their books. It’s like if these things get repeated enough, everyone might accept that someone is saying that. If I’ve missed something, and perhaps you can provide a link to a kboards discussion or something anywhere where someone is advocating Amazon only distribution, then by all means let us take a look at it. Such things are good for a laugh if not for some kind of study of bizarre notions.

Michael Bunker

Michael, it’s actually not an issue for me. I’m simply responding to the idea that expressing caution against limiting oneself (whether to one sales channel or format or publishing path) is NOT, in and off itself, necessarily a bad thing. Exclusivity and non-exclusivity are neutral conditions absent of context. I advocate for writers to be as educated about the options as possible and to then apply the facts to their own situation in order to make the best informed decision they can make. I believe Hugh does the same.

And, yes, I know a lot of authors too. Many who recommend a certain path or formula are, as you say, amateurs. I also know a few writers who do very well and claim exclusivity to Amazon is the way to go. But while they may fail to see what works for them isn’t one-size-fits-all, I wouldn’t call them amateurs. Misinformed, maybe. Nearsighted, sure. But not amateurs.

Unfortunately, the same is not true for readers. Witness hapless Nook customers as B&N continues to make alarming noises about layoffs and discontinued products. If B&N goes under, or ditches the Nook to please Wall Street, what happens to its readers’ libraries? Same is true for Amazon or iTunes. There is no business immune from collapse in a financialized economy.

From a consumer’s point of view, digital media comes with a high risk of total loss. I have old photographs of my family going back to around 1880. I was able to take over my mom’s finances, and later, administer her estate, because everything was entrusted to a very simple piece of technology known as the file box. But who will inherit old family photographs 130 years–or even 30 years–from now? Will Facebook still be around? Amazon? Apple? What happens to a gmail or Photobucket or iTunes or or Kindle or Paypal account when its owner dies? Attorneys are just now struggling with issues like these. Even without a company failing, many people are losing their digital property upon an owner’s death because our tech culture is still too immature to recognize that its “policies” or “terms of service” do not override the law.

You just made the perfect case for readers to demand DRM-free e-pubs! And as readers demand more future-proof ebooks, surely authors/publishers will offer a multi-file of the book (like Hugh did on the Silo thimb drives) instead of only providing a single platform-specific file. Charge an extra $0.50 or $1 for the multi-file version even.

The issue is very deep and complicated as cloud-based data is still a relatively new concept for most folks. Maybe I should actually try reading one of those “Term of Service” thingies before I click the box to accept them?

So what you’re saying is, we need to hard boil our writing? : p

Great perspective and advice, as per your usual. Thanks for the passion and dedication you put into your blog and other endeavors!

The shareholders/employees have spoken and we elect (in this uniquely democratic hypothetical company) Hugh Howey as Chairman, CEO, and CFO of Independent Authors, Inc. He needn’t accept this title. I look forward to the ongoing reporting of our company’s standings compared to legacy publishing, our supposed competitor, especially the annual report I expect we’ll see in Q1 2015 in which IAI’s first year of combined and individual revenue and profits are tallied.

I like to think of IAI as the virtual scrappy startup, audaciously taking on the powerhouse corporate big boys, laughing (RESPECTFULLY, of course) as we catch up, match, and then exceed them–all this wrapping up while they study our tailpipes and scratch their heads, saying, “What just happened? That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

This is a totally innocent question because I’m confused and somewhat new. Not all publishers take life of copyright. My publisher takes 7 yrs and then returns the rights. Is that rare? I’m with what appears from all my research to be with one of the most fair publishers around and I’m digital first. Do the big guys (Big Five etc…) mostly all take life of copyright? Really.

Lifetime, worldwide rights were pretty much the standard contractual agreement in days gone by. However, it was not unheard of even back then for some authors to negotiate term limits on a contract. Years ago, the only way a writer could get a term limit instead of being told to take a hike was if the author in question was a top author.

Nowadays, I’m hearing more and more authors demanding and getting term limits. However, the majority of these seem to be coming from smaller, newer publishers. A little hungrier and more capable of being flexible than some of the bigger companies.

I have also heard stories about bigger publishers not releasing rights on a title, even though they have done nothing with it for decades. Leaving a title to languish, not earning anything for the author. In a couple of cases, so the anecdotes go, it was to punish the author for one transgression or another.

And just to balance the argument, there are publishers who do take good care of their authors. Jim Baen, founder of Baen Books, had one writer living in his camping trailer in his backyard for a number of months, knowing the writer’s books would take off eventually. It allowed the writer to stop worrying about paying rent and focus on his writing. Baen had a reputation for supporting promising new writers at the beginnings of their careers. Another friend of mine loves working with the Fantastic Books imprint of Gray Rabbit Publications.

My take on it is, the average shelf-life of a decent book seems to be around 3 years, then a new hot title comes along and supplants it. So I would demand a limit of between 5–7 years. I figure that would give the publisher enough time to make a decent shot at marketing and selling my title. If they can’t sell it effectively in that time, then the lease expires and I can do what I want with my property. If the title turns out to be a huge hit, then we can renegotiate the next contract—still term-limited. And yes, the pricing will be a little more dear.

Honestly, after everything you’ve been saying, revealing and analyzing, if there is still someone out there disputing that chasing a legacy publishing contract is an inferior proposition for most writers, then I guess they deserve one. I have a friend at S&S who would have paved the road for my debut novel Terminal Rage to be assessed for Atria, S&S’s most suitable imprint for my international thriller.

For the last year since I published. I’ve seen that as my lifeline for when I wanted to get out of the self-published island. But the more I got my groove in this indie gig, the more I realized the one remaining reason to even covet a publishing deal was for vanity.

Imagine that: Traditional publishing is the new vanity!

Yes, yes yes! That is what I am talking about. I have had a non-fiction book out for 3 years now, and I can’t do much of anything, because I went with a traditional publisher (albeit, they thought enough of it to publish it in the first place), but they are hardly doing anything with it now. It is extremely F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-I-N-G.

I am about 2 months away from releasing my debut Fiction novel, and I am going Indie all the way. Thanks for your posts Hugh. I appreciate what you are doing to inform us authors. I will be joining the ranks.

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