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Mar 7, 2011

Ebooks and the Ebay Parable

"Women in Water." Yeah, I painted this atrocity.

Most people reading my humble blog probably already know about Amanda Hocking, so the the fact mainstream news media have suddenly latched onto her story is not a surprise. I had relatives start emailing me news articles, "Have you heard of this person?!"  "Yes, yes, and the article got some facts wrong, here let me correct you..."

You can read her reaction to it all (and while you're there, check out the new cover of Hollowland -- it's gorgeous); about the fear and condescension at a mystery writer's convention; and Nathan Bradford's extremely helpful breakdown  of hardbacks vs ebooks and what the real threat to publishing is. Joe Konrath argues ebooks ain't a bubble, and Harper Collins must agree, or else they want to ride that bubble til it bursts because they finally decided it might be wise to get into the game of digital self-publishing.

I have a comparison of my own to make. A couple of years ago, I tried to launch a myself a modest career as a painter on eBay.

I've never had any formal painting training, but I've been an artist all my life. I'd never given it serious thought as a career because I didn't go to art school and I had no idea how to get my work into galleries. Also, I hate modern art, so I assumed I didn't paint what the formal art industry wanted anyway. Also, I kinda sucked.

Then, thanks to eBay, I'd noticed that artists were able to skip the whole gallery step and sell directly to customers. The range of styles (and skill level) was also huge. That excited me. I did market research and found more than hundred independent artists who earned between $2,000 and $5,000 a month just selling their paintings. There were many more; these were just the ones I tracked over time in an Excel file.

They had a couple things in common:

1) They painted and sold between 10-60 paintings per month; most painted a painting every day and put in on the market within that same month, even in the same week
2) They started the auctions fairly low, but most of an individual artists' paintings ended up going for about the same price (give or take) as that same artist's other works
3) Those who had been doing this more than a year had improved as artists, and seen their paintings average sale price trend upward, sometimes quite dramatically
4) Those who had been doing this for more than a year began to resell the same paintings as prints and giclees, making more of their income passsive instead of active

I came at this from a writing background so I thought of these as "midlist artists" and decided that despite what I had always been told about starving artists, this was a viable career. The question was whether it was viable for me? I invested about $500 dollars in my art business. These were material costs: oil and acrylic paints, canvas, and packing & shipping materials. I also set up an eBay account with a store. Then I began painting every day.

My painting was not very good, to be honest. Nor did I have any following. In painting, as in writing, a lot of business comes from repeat customers. My first painting sold for $40, but that had taken me 8 hours. My goal was to paint faster -- finish a painting in 2-4 hours -- and sell it for $100, with a sell-through rate of 90% or better. If I did that every day, I could make a living at it.

Meanwhile, eBay was changing. Two things impacted indie painters the most. One was eBay itself; they changed management and implented a lot of new policies that favored big business over little entrepeneurs. The second was a flood of very good, very cheap paintings coming from art sweatshops in China. There's a whole city in China where hundreds of thousands of artists come and in factory-like conditions, just copy famous oil paintings all day long. These were then bundled, shipped and sold en masse to companies in the US that put them up on eBay at prices and in quantities the small artists could hardly compete. Many artists were driven out of the market.

As a result of these changes, artists started migrating over to Etsy and DeviantArt. I assume some still made a living at it. For all I know, some still sell well on eBay, I haven't checked recently.

My own artistic career, alas, did not take off. Maybe I was just using the wrong medium. The first painting I ever sold for more than $300 was digital. That was nice because I didn't have to pack it. But the main problem was that I kept stealing from my painting time to write. I figured, well, if that's what keeps working for me, then writing is what I should focus on.

However, my point was not to drone on about myself (ha, just kidding, it totally was) but to say that even if ebooks are not a fad or a bubble, I can see something similar happening to indie authors. There could be changes to the big vendors that make it hard to make a profit, or get noticed -- if Amazon changes their search algorithm to favor paid advertisers, for instance, or offers paid co-op on the bestseller lists -- this could edge out indies. As traditionally published authors sweep in with their backlists, this could flood the market. And finally, if the Big 6 or some newcomer wakes up and starts taking the possibilities of epublishing seriously, they could flood the market with new books.

You always hear that the danger of digital self-publishing is that the market will be flooded with crap. Believe me, that is not the danger. The more crap the better. It makes my non-crap books look good by comparison to have the crap there. Look! At least my sentences start with capitals and end in periods! I am a Good Writer!

No, I'm far more afraid of the market being flooded with excellence. That's much harder to compete with. Like those hand-painted oil paintings from China that looked like Renoir and cost ten bucks. F%$## h&#%!!!  I really hope China doesn't have a city dedicated to wanna-be English-language science fiction and fantasy authors.


J.B. Chicoine said...

You are so versatile! I actually rather like your painting! :)

This is really interesting post, from both the art and literary point of view. I think about being more proactive in marketing my artwork and it gives me the shivers, the same way as getting my writing out there. It is truly the big pond/little fish syndrome.

You have made some very thoughtful will be very interesting to see how digital self-publishing develops...

Anonymous said...

It's true that the "little fish" sometimes comes up with an idea on how to do something better than the big players.

But if the little fish's idea is good enough, it's a matter of time before the big players copy it. And since they have more capital, there's nothing you can do that they can't.

Unknown said...

The only problem I see on the horizon is when people realize all the crap that is out there, and make more of an effort to distinquish the good from the bad. An easy way to do that would be to put a sample of the book where people can read it. Not all places offer that.

Ben Mann said...

Where's that "Like" button...

Anonymous said...

This is such an excellent summary and parable and post, Tara. Really great. I was thinking about posting links to everything you linked to, but you just saved me a buttload of time. I'll just send everyone to this post instead, because what you said is just as great as the other posts.


Unknown said...

"I really hope China doesn't have a city dedicated to wanna-be English-language science fiction and fantasy authors."

Haha. I bet they do to.

J.R. Tate said...

This is a great post. I like your painting! It gives up for all of us "little people" out there who are competing in a vast ocean of writers and books!

Tracy Falbe said...

Excellent point about how market venues that serve indie artists can change and become dominated by bigger players. I also fully expect large publishing companies to apply the muscle (money) and try to stop indie writers from taking market share. I imagine that large publishers already buy premium positions at the online retaielrs just like in bookstores. Although I gladly list all my works through the major retailers, I still strongly maintain my website and work to sell direct to readers. This is how I started out when all the big boys would not let me play, and I suppose it might be where I end up if all the retailers decide to change their terms and make it impossible for indies to profit.

I used to do well at ebay years ago. I even used to sell ebooks there as direct downloads until ebay decided to ban the selling of downloads. The company I guess decided to leave that part of the future to Amazon.

wannabuy said...

If there was some industrial magic to writing, the big6 wouldn't be losing market share. In writing, big business gets ahead by 'gatekeeping.' I'm not seeing how they can do a work around on Amazon.

The indie author doesn't need to support a staff, big building lease payments, and short term focused investors. The big6 tried to slow ebook adoption in 2010 with elevated ebook prices. What could they do to win?

The AAP14 *need* the advantage of co-op bookshelf space. While they can buy that (e.g., Amazon's emails), it isn't as effective as a book displayed at the right place.

I keep seeing small guy books at #1 (John Locke this week, in the past "The hangman's daughter."). The big guys starve if Indie/small pub take over more than 30% of the market.

Great post Tara. I'm humbled you take the time to read my blog.


Aurora Smith said...

I love that painting. its beautiful

SandyG said...

You always amaze me! I like the way your mind works and how you are able to draw insights from everything, even your self-proclaimed failures! As a proud owner of one of your paintings, I do not find your talent as lacking as you would indicate. On the other hand, only you could find a way to extract out a kernel of gold from an experience that others would only lament over.

And you really are a good writer.