Warning: Spoilers abound in this post, so if such things bother you, I seriously suggest you bookmark this and come back to it when you’ve seen Fury Road

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Dear fellow lefties

by Suw on May 8, 2015

It is 2:41am as I begin this blog post, and I’ve been awake since 1am. I cannot begin to describe how I feel about this election, but I know now how American lefties must have felt when Bush got in for a second term back in 2004, and my, doesn’t that feel like a long time ago now. I look forward to this night feeling like a long time ago.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll currently be feeling a mix of despair, disgust, anger, horror, frustration, more anger, disbelief, more despair, maybe with a bit of alienation thrown in. For me, this election is weird because I no longer live in the UK, although my business is still located there, and my cultural identity is still firmly British. I’m still listening to British radio during the day and watching British TV shows in the evening. I escaped the worst of the electioneering, but I still thought hard about my vote, registered as an ex-pat voter, and arranged for a proxy vote so that I could take part in the democratic process of my native country.

And wow. What a total fuck-up. I am just utterly horrified at the results of the election, utterly distraught that we face five more years of horrific policies that will make the UK a measurably worse place to live if you aren’t rich, and an utterly terrible place if you are poor, disabled, retired, ill, or in any other way disadvantaged.

I feel despair, and for so many reasons, not limited to the fact that so many people could vote for the Nasty Party; that our first past the post system has ensured that the parties we voted for are not represented in Parliament in a way that reflects our voting patterns; and that so many people can find it in themselves to vote against their own self-interests.

We on the left will no doubt go through the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief*: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I’m already at depression and likely to stay there for some considerable time, with perhaps flashbacks to anger at regular intervals.

But what about acceptance? Well, I will never accept right-wing policies, and I will never accept that the left is lost. But what I think is very, very clear is that we need to accept that the left has gotten really fucked up over the last twenty years, and that New Labour is a massive, humungous failure. New Labour is so similar to Tory that there is really now only the Greens on the left, and whilst their vote share has increased if Twitter is to be believed, (it’s now 3am, so I’ll leave you to check that fact), their stance on science and related issues leaves so much to be desired that a rationalist, pro-science voter simply cannot support them.

The Left needs to get its house in order. The Greens need to get rid of their anti-science policies and take an evidence-based view on scientific issues. And Labour need root and branch change, they need to get rid of New Labour and return to proper, old school lefty values that are primarily focused on supporting and protecting the weak, the vulnerable, the unfortunate, the disadvantaged and, most of all, the person on the street. Labour have entirely lost their way. They need to step completely away from their craven pro-big-business attitudes, their authoritarian suveillence-state policies, and their brutal anti-immigration position (a position not backed up by the facts, btw). Miliband and his cohort must go, right now, and they must be replaced by people who are compassionate, empathic and willing to stand up to a Tory press. Tom Watson might be a good person to start such a change.

So what of us lefties, who now feel so mortified at what our country has just done? We need to get our house in order too. More tolerance of differences between the various flavours of leftyism and less stabbing our own in the back because they are not perfect (see Obama for a fantastic examples of that!). More engagement with politics, not less, although the urge to hide under the duvet for five years is strong. More compassion for people less fortunate than ourselves. More understanding of people who are different to ourselves. But not so much openmindedness that our brains fall out – let’s be evidence led, positive, supportive, but not credulous or stupid, not led by fear of technology or change. Let us embody the very best of progressive, positive politics.

And what of us lefty activists? Those of us working towards a better world for other people, working to support those around us, those of us who often work for sub-market wages because we believe we can make a difference? What of us? Well, we have to keep doing what we do, keep supporting each other, look after each other, be there for each other. We may each have a different focus but we all have a common goal: To help others. It’s going to be hard, because the Tories always make it hard for people like us. But we have to just redouble our efforts, and together we can get through this. The next five years might be bad, but let’s try to make sure it’s only another five years.

* A useful metaphor, but there’s no actual evidence that people experience this when bereaved.

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For the love of typewriters

by Suw on February 27, 2015

My creative writing process has changed a lot over the years. Back in 2001 when I was commuting between Reading and London on a daily basis, I was doing most of my writing on a Philips Velo, a delightful little device that was a bit bigger than a PDA, had a full keyboard, but was lightweight and easy to carry around.

Philips Velo

In 2004-ish I got my first decent laptop, a by then already quite old Mac Tibook. I started writing on that, instead, given that I was carrying it around so much anyway. The laptop remained my tool of choice for a long while, with only the model, operating system and writing software changing.

Of course, I still used pen and paper, keeping ideas in various notebooks, but I didn’t take longhand writing seriously until I started using a Livescribe Echo smartpen, which Kevin had bought for me one Christmas a few years ago. I loved it – I could write a first draft by hand, upload it to my Mac, and then put it through handwriting recognition software and skip the typing up process.

The problem was that longhand writing takes so, well, long. I needed to write carefully so that the software could understand my scrawl, which meant writing relatively slowly. That’s fine for a short story or a novelette, but would be a real drag for a novel and, if I’m honest, probably contributed to my not actually starting one.

That said, writing slowly is a good thing for my brain. I can touch type quite well, and writing a first draft of fiction on my computer would invariably lead to my fingers moving faster than my brain and taking my characters down ill-considered routes that usually ended up in narrative disaster.

There’s a great talk by Clive Thompson on the differences between writing by hand and typing which is well worth pausing to watch.

(The bit about people taking notes on a laptop turning into verbatim transcriptionists? Yeah. Me. Totally. Was almost famous for my conference notes for a while. I must say, though that transcription fluency only works if your idea are already queued up, it’s no good if you’re still organising them.)

I need to have a relatively slow way of writing in order for my brain to have time to properly consider what comes next. Handwriting provides slowness. But perhaps too much slowness.

As is inevitable with technology, the screen on my Echo died. The pen itself still works, but I can’t tell if it’s turned on or off, which is a bit of an issue. I’d find myself constantly turning the volume up, just so that I could hear it click and feel reassured that the thing was on and recording my writing. At that point, I fell very much out of love with the Echo, and with Livescribe as a company. I expected the Echo to last longer than the 18 months than it did and, given that the screen dying is a common problem with the Echo thus indicating a manufacturing flaw, I’d expected better than just ‘buy another’.

After the Livescribe, I tried various iPad apps in an attempt to find a new way to write longhand digitally. One such app, SmartNote, actually has fantastic handwriting recognition, but the user interface is irritating in the extreme. Not only does the interface not right itself when you turn your iPad round, you can only write one paragraph per page, and each page is really very short. That might be fine if you’re writing little notes, but it’s no good if you’re doing something meatier. Again, the idea of writing a whole novel this way was enough to put me off the whole idea.

I also found myself starting to worry about permanence. If I write a novel on my iPad, what happens if it crashes and loses my work? Or if I lose my iPad and haven’t had a chance to back it up? Not new problems, to be sure, but ones that I hadn’t worried about when writing longhand, because I always have the hard copy to fall back on.

The antique typewriters

Last March, I flew over to Sheboygan from the UK to pick a house with Kevin. The day after I landed, I was going round houses, looking for a place to live. We settled on a lovely house, built in 1900 and now showing just how badly the poor thing has been hacked around by overenthusiastic DIYers. But whilst we were driving round, looking at houses, we stumbled on an estate sale (house clearance sale). Sitting on the floor in the basement was a typewriter, a Smith-Corona Sterling, which I later found out was built in 1960, in its original case. We bought it for $12, and then I went back home to the UK.

Fast forward nearly a year, and New Year’s Day saw us driving through Rockford, IL, and past the antiques mall where Kevin had bought his gorgeous 1935 Royal Standard Portable typewriter for $18 some 20 years ago. I had been playing with Kevin’s Royal Standard and had totally fallen in love with it. Yet it felt a bit odd to be writing on someone else’s typewriter, rather like it feels wrong to use someone else’s pen, so getting one of my own became a priority.

Looking round the mall, we stumbled on a gorgeous Royal, with little windows in the side and the old round glass keys that mark out an early typewriter. It was a Royal Number 10 from 1930, in great condition overall but desperately in need of a clean and some TLC, which I have not yet had a chance to give it. The type bars are all mucky and they don’t connect with the platen evenly, so the type is  both faint and blotchy.

Royal Number 10

But until I have some time to devote to cleaning up the No. 10, I’ve been using the Smith-Corona. When we first took it out of its case, it was a bit stinky and very gummed up, but Kevin cleaned it out and after a bit of use it works just fine. Apparently, typewriter connoisseurs believe that it is one of the best typewriters ever built. I find it harder going than the No. 10, which has a much lighter, smoother action.

Still, I got a myself an old typing table and now my typewriter set-up is complete.

Smith-Corona Sterling

A new process

And so, over the last few months, a new writing process has evolved. At the moment, all my first drafts are written on the Smith-Corona Sterling. I then do the first edit on paper, before typing it up in Scrivener and at the same time, doing a second edit. Then it gets printed out, read by Kevin and then I do a third edit on paper, with those corrections and a fourth edit in Scrivener again.

It’s a fairly paper-intensive process, but I’m pleased with how it’s working out. I feel more excited about writing, and more connected to the physical process of getting ink on to paper. For some reason I find it much easier to edit on paper. There’s something very satisfying about scribbling red ink all over everything.

I also get my hard copies, although they aren’t in nice neat notebooks, which is a shame, but I can still file them away and refer back to them if needed. And when I’m travelling, I can still use my laptop or write longhand in a notebook if I want to. I’m not married to the typewriter, but I do find it a very comfortable and creative way to write.

I will switch to the No. 10 eventually, though I won’t get the time until April to clean it up. I already have new ribbons for it, though, so all I need to do is get some denatured alcohol and find some instructions written for idiots and the time to devote to it, and away I go! And, come the spring, I’ll be taking the typing table apart too, refinishing the top and painting the frame. By summer, I hope to have the perfect set-up, and it amuses me that, after all these years of experimentation, I’m finally settling on a piece of technology that’s 85 years old.

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The worst book I have ever read

by Suw on February 11, 2015

This review contains spoilers, but if I were you I’d read this, not the book. Also, let’s face it, this is less of a review and more of a rant, because I read 454 pages of shite and the only way to expunge it from my brain is to share. You’re welcome.

Anyone who reads a lot will occasionally find themselves in a the middle of a real stinker, a book that disappoints on so many levels that you lose count. It used to be that I’d plough through such books regardless, out of some misplaced sense of duty to give it a ‘fair go’.

More recently, I’ve come round to the idea that life is too short to read crap books when there are so many good ones out there. So I gave up on Stephen Bury’s Cobweb (written by Neal Stephenson and his uncle, George Jewsbury), JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, and Dan Abnett’s Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero. None of these books floated my boat, but none of them can even hold a candle to the worst book I have ever read, an experience the pain of which is still fresh in my mind and which I must, therefore, share with you.

Now, before I go further, I need to clarify that not all bad books are bad. A book can be badly written but still a page-turner. It can fall over on florid prose but have fantastic characters whom you care about. Or the author can have a deft hand with the tension and cliff hangers which keep you reading even though you really, really want to just put the damn thing down. Those books might be bad, but they’re not terrible.

One great example of a bad book that I love is Flood by Richard Doyle. It’s far too long and it jumps around far too much between characters, with the end result that you don’t really care enough about any particular person. However, Doyle did his research about what would happen if London actually flooded, and the book contains some incredibly eerie scenes that stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Particularly if you have ever commuted on the London Underground or been in a lift. The result is that it’s a technically terrible book that I love.

This is not that. This is a book that fails at every conceivable turn. It’s a book that should never have been published, and it’s the only time I’ve bought a book and felt cheated enough that I resent the money I gave Barnes & Noble for it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst book I have ever read: Supervolcano: Eruption, by Harry Turtledove.

Supervolcano eruption

The dullness, the dullness

The first problem I have with this pile of shite is that it commits the worst sin that any book can commit: It goes beyond being merely boring, through total tediousness and into the kind of soul-destroying monotony that few authors ever fully explore. Nothing happens for pages. Dozens of pages. Most of the book, in fact. Just people going for meals in which nothing of note occurs, or having arguments that make no difference to anything. They drive. They drive some more. They stop driving and wait until they can start driving again. They make weak jokes. They fail to do almost anything, at all, worth reading about.

There are a few set pieces that lull you into a false sense of security: The opening scenes in Yellowstone — and yes, you all knew this was going to be set in Yellowstone, didn’t you? Because obviously no other volcanos exist — start off boring, but then really perk up and the temptation is to think that after a lacklustre start, things might actually turn out to be quite good. Chapter II will, however, disabuse you of that notion.

Later on there’s a plane crash which is not handled badly. I think that’s the best I can say about it, really. And then there’s… erm… there’s… no, that’s pretty much all the set pieces.

The rest of the book is made up of the glue that should stick set pieces together, but because there are actually so few set pieces it’s like a mosaic that’s made almost entirely of grouting: Dull. You start skim reading just to keep your sanity intact.

Eruption? What eruption?

It wasn’t just the poor writing that failed to hold my interest, it was that it’s not actually about an eruption. With a title like Supervolcano: Eruption, I foolishly expected a bit more about Yellowstone and about the eruption itself, but you have to wade through a third of the book before the eruption properly begins. And after that, well, you hear a lot about ash, and there’s one scene where a geologist, one of the key characters, flies out to take a look at things from a nice safe distance, but overall there’s really very little eruption to go round.

One of my motives for reading this book in the first place was that I have an interest in volcanology and I was curious to see how the science held up. Well, Turtledove fixes any potential problems with faulty science by simply not including any. He may possibly have read the Wikipedia entry on Yellowstone, watched a documentary or two, or maybe even watched the BBC’s Yellowstone mockumentary. But that’s about it. There’s simply no depth at all. Richard Doyle would suck his teeth and sigh.

Turtledove manages to avoid the science by avoiding all but the most cursory scenes of Kelly, our geologist heroine, at work. She rarely talks to other geologists, and never talks to civil protection officials, politicians, or, in fact, anyone interesting. Although she’s supposedly at the forefront of human understanding of Yellowstone, she does almost nothing professionally after the eruption begins, except for the aforementioned flight.

Instead, Turtledove uses her as a device to explain to the reader what’s going on as she describes it all to her new beau, loveable and sadly betrayed by his now ex-wife copper Colin. And they don’t get to talk all that often, so if you want to know more about what’s going on geologically, tough luck.

The scattered family

In order to give us a taste of how the eruption has affected different parts of the US, Turtledove focuses on Colin’s family: His daughter Vanessa who’s moved to Denver trailing after her new boyfriend after leaving her live-in partner; his ex-wife Louise who’s shacked up with a younger man after walking out on Colin; his stoner son Marshall, the eternal student who’s carefully attempting to delay graduation from university so he can continue to sponge off his dad; wannabe rockstar son Rob, who’s pottering around on tour with his ludicrously named band, Squirt Frog and the Evolving Tadpoles. (Really? Turtledove? Fucking really?) There are a few satellite characters, including Bryce, Vanessa’s ex, who is still friends with her dad, Colin, and some coppers that Colin works with.

This ensemble cast is scattered to the four American winds purely and solely so we can see how Yellowstone popping its cork fucks almost the whole country. Vanessa is in Denver, which survives the blast but rapidly gets covered in ash. She escapes the city in her car, but it soon breaks down due to said ash and she walks to the nearest town to find her situation in the emergency shelter rather grim. The one and only time I’m moved by this book is when she is forced to turn her pet cat loose.

Rob gets a fair amount of page time, allowing us to get a taste for how fucked up Maine gets. Unfortunately, these scenes are also some of the most tedious. I’ve worked in the music industry, I know how utterly boring going on tour really is, especially if you’re a small band, and this is at least one thing Turtledove gets spot on. His description of all the driving, the hotels, the restaurants is just as wearisome as the real thing.

Louise’s scenes don’t advance the story at all, showing us very little new or interesting. She seems to exist only to satisfy another need for Turtledove that I’ll come on later.

The problem with this divided family approach is that their relationships are incredibly weak, and their interactions limited to the odd phone call. We’re not invested in the family, so their problems are pedestrian, their disagreements and predicaments don’t create any useful tension. They provide plenty of conflict, but none of it serves the story, it’s all just run of the mill bickering.

Ultimately, the only people I really cared about were Colin and Kelly, and even then, only just.

The sexism and racism

What disturbed me the most, though, was the casual racism and sexism in both speech and description. Kelly, who’s obviously supposed to be a capable, independent woman excelling in her scientific endeavours, turns out to hate her legs. That’s not factoid that fleshes out someone’s personality, it’s sloppy and sexist.

Louise, the ex-wife, seems to exist only to make Colin look good and to give Turtledove the opportunity to editorialise on the nature of such shallow, grasping, bitches. She has left Colin for the younger, hotter Teo, who promptly runs away when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child. The only thing this character does in the narrative is get herself punished for betraying her husband. This is her arc: Leave husband, shack up with dreamboat, get pregnant, get shafted.

Then there’s Vanessa, another bitch and another woman to betray her man, Bryce. She shacks up with an older man (age differences really seem to tweak Turtledove for some reason), follows him to Denver, has a massive row with him when she realises he went to Denver to escape her, and ends up alone in a strange city. She ends up in an emergency shelter, and then a refugee camp, and is threatened with sexual violence of the “fuck me and I’ll help you” nature.

Bizarrely, Vanessa also always makes sure to pack her tampons. Twice this is mentioned, but I’m really not sure why. To emphasise that she’s a woman, in case the name ‘Vanessa’ wasn’t enough of a giveaway? To highlight that she is fertile and menstruates and is therefore… what? Dirty? Vulnerable? Does Turtledove believe that us women are so paranoid about when our periods start that we can’t go anywhere without knowing where our tampons are? It’s a mystery to me.

Vanessa is also casually racist. She refers to how many ‘wetbacks’ there are in Denver. And for those of you who aren’t aware of current American slang, ‘wetback’ is a racial slur for immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Vanessa drops this slur into conversation and literally no one blinks. It doesn’t serve any purpose in terms of fleshing out her character, or those around her, but I suppose that in Turtledove’s mind, it makes her more unlikeable, which makes her “comeuppance” all the more rewarding.

That’s not the only example of casual racism in the book either, but I can’t be arsed to document the rest.

Basically, Turtledove’s core women characters are either madonnas (Kelly) or whores (Louise, Vanessa), a tedious pair of stereotypes that I pray I never see in fiction again. But he extends this sexism to his minor female characters too. The pretty news anchor, the cute hotel receptionists, the waitresses eager for a free ticket to a local gig and the opportunity to get laid by a member of the band (passivity deliberate). Every woman has her attributes, it seems.

The stoppage

My final (major) complaint is that this book does not end. Literally, it doesn’t end. It stops. When you reach the end you realise that nothing happened. Not one plot line resolves, not one character completes their arc, not one question gets answered.

Even the subplot about a serial killer that Colin’s trying to catch doesn’t progress or show any sign of wrapping up. Colin and his colleagues have no idea who the serial killer is at the beginning of the book, and they have no more clue 454 pages later. You’d think that, of all the subplots in this book, the serial killer one would be an obvious candidate for completion, though that would mean devoting more time to it which really wouldn’t be a good idea.

Ultimately, this doorstop of a book is nothing more than the set-up for its sequels, of which there are, horrifyingly, two. I bought the second out of misguided enthusiasm when I saw it for sale next to Eruption, but I doubt that I’ll bother reading it.

 

I expect to read books that turn out not to be to my taste once in a while, that’s part and parcel of reading a lot. But when I read a book that is not just badly written but sexist and racist, I find it very depressing. I don’t buy the argument that I should be happy because it means any old shite can get published. If I ever get published, I want it to be because I wrote a blinder, not because I wrote something that is marginally better than this monstrosity of a novel.

Penguin should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such drivel.

 

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The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a common one in the tech world. Wikipedia defines it as a product with “just those core features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more”. Entrepreneur Eric Reis defines it as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” And Ash Maurya defines it as “the smallest thing you can build that delivers customer value (and as a bonus captures some of that value back).”

Using a few more words, an MVP is the simplest version of your product that you can create which allows you to find out whether your idea is a good one, and whether your potential customers are going to be both interested in it and willing to pay for it. It is either the foundations upon which you build, or it is the least amount of brickwork to rip out when you decide you need to change your plans.

The MVP is a useful concept, and one that i think applies to the business of self-publishing as much as technology.

Back in 2010, I thought I had a pretty good idea about the MVP I needed in order to launch a publishing Kickstarter. I had a half-written novella, a bunch of followers on Twitter, and enthusiasm. That was my MVP. I assumed that with those foundations, I could build my writing career.

I was wrong. It’s taken me nearly five years to realise that I was wrong, and to start ripping out all that brickwork so that I can start again.

In tech, this moment of realising that your MVP is going in the wrong direction and that you need to correct your course is called a ‘pivot’. Some tech companies pivot slightly, changing their target customer group, perhaps. Others frankly do a pirouette, changing everything about their product so that it becomes something almost unrecognisable. My pivot has been pretty small, really, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.

So what is the self-publishing MVP? At what point do you flip from being a writer to being a writer-entrepreneur?

Before we go any further, I want to define ‘writer’ and ‘writer-entrepreneur’, because the term ‘self-publishing’ is these days too fuzzy to be useful. ’Self-publisher’ can mean different things to different people, from simply putting a book up online for anyone to download, to selling hand-crafted hardback books, and everything in between. So to make sure that we don’t stumble over our assumptions, I’m using these definitions:

Writer: Someone who writes fiction and/or non-fiction, who may or may not make that work available online, but who definitely does not charge for access to that work.

Writer-entrepreneur: Someone who writes fiction and/or non-fiction, and who sells that work in whatever format and through whatever channels they so choose with the intent of making money.

(There’s a third category of writer who sells their work but doesn’t care whether they make money, but I’m ignoring them for now as they aren’t really relevant to this post.)

Many writers want to become writer-entrepreneurs at the earliest possible opportunity. They think that their Minimum Viable Product is a book, with a cover, which may or may not have been professionally edited, typeset, and prepared for paper or ereader. That was pretty much what I thought my MVP was as I was writing  Argleton.

In my mind, I would finish Argleton, crowdfund a print run, write my next book, crowdfund that, and build up an audience and an income which would support my writing and my whole writing career would nicely snowball until I could write full time.

That seems really naïve now. Well, truth be told, it was really naïve, rather like my decision in 1998 to go freelance so that I would “have more time to write”. Excuse me whilst I catch my breath from laughing so hard.

Nothing destroys writing time like running your own business.

The Argleton Kickstarter was nearly a failure. The only reason it succeeded was because Kickstarter decided to begin a new weekly newsletter for all its users to highlight cool and interesting projects. For whatever reason, they decided that Argleton was cool and interesting, and within a few hours of their newsletter being sent out, Argleton was funded.

In a way, that was a shame. If Argleton had failed, I would have realised that there was more to a bookish MVP than just having a book. You need readers too. A lot of them. More than just your mates. More than just the ~4,000 Twitter followers that I had at the time. You need a group of readers who already like your work, who are willing to read it, and, more importantly, willing to buy it. You need to have those people collected in one spot, perhaps a mailing list, and you need enough of them that you don’t require every single one of them to support you to be successful.

It’s a hard truth to swallow that only a fraction of your supporters will pay up when you have a book on sale or a Kickstarter project going. In direct mail, it’s common for only 1%, or even less than 1%, of recipients to respond to an offer.

In social media, it’s common for that number to be much, much smaller, sometimes orders of magnitude smaller. Neil Gaiman once tweeted one of my projects, which I was very grateful for and also very excited about given that at the time he had about 1.5 million followers on Twitter. I got a grand total of three extra supporters. That wasn’t Neil’s fault, and it wasn’t his followers’ fault, it was entirely my fault for having a project that wasn’t compelling enough, wasn’t attractive enough. But it was a tough lesson to learn that having a big reach wasn’t any guarantee of success. It was humbling.

If you have a dedicated mailing list of people interested in what you write, then the percentage who pay up might be a bit higher, but not much higher. Maybe 5%. If you’re lucky. (And it’s worth noting here that a mailing list is better than, say, a Twitter account, because then you know for sure people are subscribed for your writing, not because they find your cat pictures cute or because they knew you at school.)

So how do you find these readers? How do you build up a mailing list that has 20 to 100 times the number of subscribers than the number of people you need to buy your book or support your Kickstarter?

Well, this is why one novella is not enough, it’s not an MVP. One novel is not enough. You need to have written, edited, and perfected enough books that you can slowly and consistently build up a loyal following that’s big enough to make the move to author-entrepreneur viable.

Because being an author-entrepreneur is a lot of work. You will spend a lot of time dealing with covers, with promotion, with metadata and understanding book marketing. You will waste even more time poring over web traffics statistics and sales statistics and dealing with different retail channels and maybe even direct sales and testing your marketing assumptions and doing special offers. And every moment spent doing that is time spent not writing. And if you’re like most of the rest of the world, you have a job to do and maybe even a family to raise whilst you’re doing all this other stuff too.

You have to ask the question: Is it worth spending all that time doing all that extra work when you could just give your stuff away, focus on your writing, build up your readership and then shift to selling when you have a big enough constituency? How many more books could you write if you weren’t doing all the admin required by selling? Is jumping into author-entrepreneurship with just one book not putting the cart a few miles before the horse?

Of course, we all want feedback. We all want people to read our books and be blown away, to become fans. We all believe that what we do is good enough to sell right now, and that we can build up our fanbase whilst coining it in. We all want to believe that. And some people achieve that. But for every success you see lauded about in the blogs there are hundreds, thousands of people for whom that didn’t work, but you never hear a cheep out of them or about them. Because firstly, no one wants to talk about failure, and secondly, no one wants to listen.

It’s hard to be honest with ourselves when our egos are involved, and self-publishing is ultimately an act of ego (no matter how fragile that ego is). It’s taken me five years to learn to be honest with myself about my writing and the damage that trying to force it into the shape of a business did to my enthusiasm for creating. It’s not that writing couldn’t eventually be a business, or that I don’t have the stomach for all the work surrounding it, it’s that that my MVP wasn’t ready. I was premature. I was impatient. Worse, I ignored my gut feelings.

Back in 2005, I started the Open Rights Group with a bunch of like-minded digital rights activists. I believed in the power of free. I narrated a chapter of Larry Lessig’s Free Culture, and wrote a report on the power of free as a business model. But when it came to releasing my own work, I baulked. Although my gut told me to just give my words away free, I didn’t. I betrayed my own values, and maybe what followed was karmic retribution for my own hypocrisy.

When you are starting as a writer, free has more power than you can ever imagine. Free means people can experiment with your work without risk. Free means that you can experiment with your work without risk. Free means you can find readers without loads of admin overheads. Free means you can focus on what matters: Your writing. Free means goodwill. Free means freedom.

These days, there’s this idea that there’s easy money to be made self-publishing. Maybe for some that’s true. But if you love your craft, if you want to be good, then you owe it to yourself and to your readers to think more deeply about what you’re doing and why. It makes more sense to refine your craft and build your audience than it does to jump in at the deep end and get caught up in activities that are a distraction.

Your have to have a solid MVP, you have to launch your writing business at the right time, with the right products and the right audience.

With the benefit of hindsight and a decent amount of failure under my belt, this is what I think makes for a good author-entrepreneurial MVP:

1. Have lots of stories. Shorts, novellas, novelettes, novels, epics, flash fiction, whatever length or format you want. But just have lots of it, preferably in a variety of lengths. Have enough that you can throw away the weakest works and still have lots left.

2. Have lots of works in progress, lots of ideas. Keep a note book. Keep writing down your ideas, because ideas beget more ideas and if you nurture them you will never run out.

3. Have a newsletter. Release free stories, novels, novellas regularly and encourage your readers to subscribe to your newsletter, which you will write every month.

4. Have a fanbase. Resist the urge to turn your writing into a business, and that includes running crowdfunding projects, until you have a decent-sized readership. How do you know how big is decent-sized? Figure out how much money would cover your editorial, production, and promotion costs for a book, and add a bit on for wages. Divide by the price of the book to find out how many sales you need to make to break even. Multiply that number by 100. Choke. Pick a number that’s slightly smaller and that feels more manageable. It won’t be realistic, but it’ll be a start.

5. Have patience. This is the hardest thing. Writing is not easy. Business is not easy. And if you have limited time to spend, spend it writing, because without having written, you have no business. Don’t get swept off your feet with fairy stories of overnight success. Like Pulp, most of them took 15 years to get where they are now, they just don’t admit it.

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Why I’m stopping self-publishing

by Suw on December 12, 2014

tl;dr: For those who’ve come from any of the various posts mentioning this one, I do want to be very clear up front: I’m not stopping writing, I’m stopping selling what I’ve written. The mechanics of self-publishing were working against me, so I’ve refocused on writing and connecting with my readers via my newsletter, rather than publishing and promoting. 

This decision has been a long time coming, but as of about now, I am ceasing to self-publish my fiction. I shall continue to make my work available, but I shan’t be self-publishing in the way that most people understand it. There are a few things at play, and I’ll unpick them one by one.

The unholy mess that is VATMOSS

For those of you who haven’t heard, some time ago the EU decided that member countries would earn more in tax if only people selling digital ‘services’ (defined by the EU in the same way normal people would define ‘products’) would just pay tax in the country where that service was bought, rather than the country where the person or corporation selling resided. The is entirely because big companies like Amazon had set themselves up in Luxembourg to take advantage of a ridiculously low VAT rate, thus cheating other countries out of their dues.

I think most people want to see Amazon and other big players pay their fair share of tax, so on the surface of it the new legislation seems fine. But it isn’t. The new VAT law coming into force on Jan 1 also applies to every other person or company selling any digital service (aka product) in Europe. This law is known as VATMOSS after the ‘VAT mini one stop shop’ where you would register to pay your EU VAT.

This law applies globally, not just to people in the EU. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you sell a qualifying service (aka product), you have to register to pay VAT. And if you register to pay VAT on your EU sales, you (may, see below) also have to pay VAT on your UK sales, even if your turnover falls below the current £81k VAT threshold.

There has been an uproar about this amongst sole traders, the self-employed, and tiny businesses, whom HMRC totally ignored as they were drawing up their new VAT implementation. Luckily, there are rumblings that some changes might be on the way that would make it easier for small businesses like mine, such as allowing people to pay VAT only on their EU sales and not on their UK sales. But I have to make a decision before the end of the year: Keep on selling ebooks and deal with the VATMESS, or stop and avoid it.

I earn so little through ebook sales that there’s just no point in me continuing to sell them, as the time, energy and money spent on dealing with VATMOSS would be entirely wasted. There’s just no way that I would earn it back. So before the end of the year I will be removing my ebooks from sale here on Chocolate and Vodka.

Now, I know some people will simply say “Oh, but you can just sell through Amazon and not have to deal with VATMOSS!”, and yes, that’s true. Except I don’t want to sell through Amazon. I don’t like Amazon’s treatment of its employees and contract workers, the way it avoids tax, or the way that it treats the publishing industry in general. That doesn’t mean I’m a Big 5 shill — I believe they need to sort their shit out too. But I have for the last couple of years minimised my interactions with Amazon as much as I can. I’ve not been able to eradicate them completely, but I’ve done what I can to reduce how much money I give them. So no, I shall not be selling my ebooks via Amazon.

And yes, there are other etailers I could sell through, but again, there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done and, given my meagre back catalogue and the fact that I am not producing new works at a fast enough rate, I’m back to finding it not worth the time right now.

Furthermore, selling through a marketplace simply means that you don’t have to register with VATMOSS, it doesn’t mean that you won’t pay VAT. Marketplaces such as Amazon will be responsible for dealing with VAT payments throughout the EU, but that cost will be passed on to the publisher by reducing the percentage of the list price that they earn. Basically, all your digital sales, no matter where you are and no matter what your annual turnover is, are about to take a hit of about 15 to 27 percent for VAT.

This upends the whole purpose of having a VAT threshold: If a UK business turns over less than £81k they should not be be paying VAT at all. This new law means that all suppliers of digital services (products) will now be paying VAT, either through the back door via the marketplaces they use, or paying it upfront through VATMOSS, making a complete mockery of the very concept of a VAT threshold.

I’ll also note that there’s a metric fuckton of other things wrong with VATMOSS which I’m not going to go into here. Just search Twitter for #VATMOSS and you’ll find a bunch of links to informative posts by people more expert than I. It really is a total clusterfuck.

The unholy mess that is self-publishing

Even without VATMOSS, I would be pulling my books offline. I’ve been thinking about doing it for months, I have just been preoccupied with first Ada Lovelace Day, and then with finishing up my online social media strategy course and haven’t had time to sort it out.

I have entirely fallen out of love with self-publishing. I started to get fed up with the verbiage, the self-congratulatory bullshit, the boasting, the ideologues preaching to their choirs, the judgemental cockwombles, and the ridiculous purity tests about a year ago.

Then came this move to the USA and I asked Forbes if I could have some time off from writing for them which they graciously agreed to. And over the last twelve months I have discovered that I rather like not writing about self-publishing. The conversations had become too combative, too politicised, too full of utter fucking shit to be either useful or enjoyable.

I tried to make sensible points in a sensible manner, tried to deflate some of the pockets of hot gas the would regularly blow up, but no one likes common sense. All people seemed to want was a good old bun fight, a nice little argument where they could spout their ideology and then shout at anyone who disagreed with them. I’m not one for arguing with testosterone-fuelled dickweasels, so yeah. Fuck. That. Shit.

And then there are the utterly batshit, arrogant self-published writers who behave like spoilt children denied their pudding. Not all of that bad behaviour was online, though a lot of it was (and is). But I saw it in person. Face to face. For example, the self-published writer with literally no experience of social media telling me that they know how Twitter works better than I do. Seriously. I’m not one to go all ‘Do you know who I fucking am?’ on people, but seriously, I’ve been doing social media for longer than it’s been called social media. If you want to tell me that you know best, you had better have a long fucking career in social media behind you and actual fucking evidence. Not a shitty novel and an ego the size of the Pacific.

I had come to a point of feeling bitterly disillusioned with self-publishing. Even the fact that there are some really wonderful, kind and generous people in self-publishing wasn’t enough to keep me feeling positive. In fact, some of those wonderful people in self-publishing told me that they too were feeling unhappy about how the public discourse was going, and how they were going to stay away from commenting on the more politicised aspects of it, because it had become just too toxic.

So that shit can get fucked and stay fucked.

The unholy mess that is my writing

But even if self-publishing was entirely devoid of the sort of bollockfaced shitnubbins (thank you, Buzzfeed, for that one) that drive me up the fucking wall, even if only delightfully lucid, intelligent, rational, sensible and evidence-driven people self-published, I would still be pulling my books off the internet.

Because self-publishing has stopped me from writing. I didn’t anticipate that particular side-effect. In fact, I had anticipated quite the opposite. I write my best stuff when I know it’s going to be read. I wouldn’t blog if I didn’t know that someone out there would be reading it. (Sorry for all the swearing in this, Aunty Jane, though hopefully you’ve picked up some new invective for use in everyday life.)

I was expecting my self-publishing to be a great new way to motivate me to write more, and instead, it has caused me to write less. I have had issues for a long time with getting my brain to co-operate with this whole writing malarkey. I’ve had years where not been a single idea has raised its head above the parapet. Years and years. And then I’ve had times where I’ve been happily writing daily, a joyous pig in only the very best of shit.

But there’s something about declaiming one’s status as a self-publisher that eats away at the exhilaration of writing, for me, anyway. There’s all that promotion you’re supposed to do, all that expectation attached to sales numbers, all that tedium about metadata. And I know some people love that, or at least put up with it without it harming their writing. Good luck to them. That’s not how it worked for me.

Instead, I found that it had become a form of creative poison. There was almost a sense of dread around the idea of finishing a new story, because if I finished a new story that meant moving on to the noxious phase of self-publishing — all the self-promotional crap that I hate doing, am bad at doing, and don’t want to do.

When you do something you love for a hobby and then try to turn that hobby into a business it can suck all the joy out of that thing that you do. Instead of being something you lie in bed dreaming of doing first thing the next morning, you find yourself thinking of literally anything else except that thing. Your hobby becomes a dry, tasteless, colourless husk of a thing, withered on the vine of your imagination.

I used to lie in bed and lull myself to sleep thinking of stories, of dialogue, of scenes, of characters and their backstories. Now I lull myself to sleep thinking of how I’m going to embroider my next Christmas tree ornament. And there really are only so many ways you can sew a bead or a bit of gold thread on to a circular bit of red linen.

If I’m ever going to write again, I need to reclaim it as something akin to hobby. It’s not, at this point in time or at this point in my life, a business, although that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t jump at any financial opportunities that came my way. But I need to find the joy in writing again, in the process of getting words on to paper, in the editing and the shaping and the polishing. I can do that better if I’m not thinking about what happens to the end product much beyond “…and then some people read it”.

So what am I going to do?

I do still want people to read what I write. I do still want an audience. But I want a smaller audience, a more intimate audience, one that I feel a greater connection to. So I shall be releasing my writing, in full and for free, to the people on my mailing list.

My feeling is that if someone cares enough about my writing to subscribe to my newsletter, then I care about producing the very best writing I can for them to enjoy. I will still put excerpts and some selected pieces in full on my website, as and when I feel like it, but the majority of my writing will go out to my subscribers.

How long this remains my modus operandi depends a lot on whether or not I get into a decent rhythm with my writing. If I can produce more work more regularly, then there’s a chance that I may do the occasional Kickstarter project to produce print books, but I won’t be able to sell ebooks directly at all until (or unless) the VATMESS is sorted out. Or my main business starts turning over more than £81k per year, and I think we all know how likely that is.

The demagogues of self-publishing encourage us to think big, but sometimes big is the wrong way to think. In the end, I felt uncomfortable self-publishing. I felt like I was walking round in clothes that were ten sizes too large. I need something more my size, and I think this small plan will do me nicely for now.

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Weeds

by Suw on October 5, 2014

The lake is still, not a breath of wind to stir its surface. Where the trees on the far shore meet the water, they are reflected perfectly, blue sky above, green leaves seeming frozen. If you stood on your head, you would not know which was real and which reflection.

It captivates you, holds your gaze. The sun is hot on your neck, your sweat sticking your cotton shirt to your skin. The lake looks like relief. It would be cool on your burning back, its water would be crisp and clean in your parched mouth. You can see the lake from high up on the mountain, and cannot resist its call. You scramble over rock and stone, your bare feet blistering and torn, and all you can think of is how the lake will save you, the lake will wash away all your pain and cleanse you of all your dirt and muck.

The lake is where you must be. You must immerse yourself in its waters, let it close above your head, let it slake your thirst and wash away your imperfections. The lake is the only answer. The lake is what you strive for, what you yearn for. The lake will make you happy.

And then, yes, you reach a small, sandy beach. There are no waves to lap against the shore, for there is no wind. The trees are still upside down and perfect. The sky and the water both blue. You don’t bother removing your clothes, but you do hesitate as you go to dip in your toes. You pause, you savour that moment that only comes once, when you first feel the water cool against your hot skin.

Once your toe has broken the surface, the rest of your body follows with a rush. You dive in, joy unconfined, and the water feels just as you thought it would, soothing, healing, divine, blesséd. You revel in the lightness the water gives you, the freedom, the fun. You play in the lake, diving and then erupting from the water as high as you can, the way you imagine porpoises do, although you’ve never seen them with your own eyes. You are grateful that your long journey over harsh and unforgiving ground has finally brought you here, to this place, at this time, to experience this beauty, this joy.

You hold your breath and dive, keen to explore the limits of your body and this new environment. You exalt in your newfound abilities, you delight in the excitement of the moment. This is everything. Everything. You lose yourself to these emotions, you revel in them. You allow yourself to be consumed by them.

So you don’t pay attention when the long frond of waterweed wraps itself around your ankle. It doesn’t seem to slow you down, you frolic and play and don’t notice that you can’t swim as far as you once did. You feel an odd tickle when your second ankle is entangled, but you can still reach the surface. Still breathe.

You continue to cavort, but the more you do, the more the weed takes a hold of you. It’s not so easy to break the surface now. When you do, breaths come in great gulps. You begin to dread going under, in case you never come up again. You feel your toes in the mud on the lake floor and start to panic. You didn’t intend to dive that deep. Something slimy brushes past you and you jerk your body away, but that just seems to excite whatever water beast that was.

You start to fight, you need to surface, but your arms don’t work anymore. They’re as tangled as your legs in this mass of thick green weed that seems to have grown up out of nowhere. You thrash. You’re desperate for air. Your lungs burn. You try to rip the weed from your body, but it’s like nylon, you can’t tear through it. You can hear your blood pumping through your heart, faster and faster. The impulse to breathe in is unbearable, even though there’s only water. You feel yourself fading, losing control, about to take that last deep breath.

Your last thought: This all seemed like such a good idea when I was at the top of the mountain. This seemed like a better place to be. I didn’t know there were weeds.

No one ever talks about the weeds. They only tell you how beautiful the lake is.

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The unexpected overheads of moving continents

by Suw on September 5, 2014

When Kevin and I realised in the New Year that we would indeed be moving from the UK to the US, most of my planning revolved around the run up to that moment when I would get on the plane to the US with a one-way ticket. With Kevin gone from early February, the workload in the UK fell mostly on my shoulders. Deciding how to get the cats moved, which shipping company to use to move our stuff, all the sorting and packing and recycling and throwing out so that we moved only what we wanted and not a heap of rubbish (insofar as is possible, of course), and all the admin associated with immigration and the winding up of my presence in the UK (including some long-overdue post-marriage admin). It was a lot to cope with.

That’s not to say that Kev sat around doing nothing, far from it — he had a new job to settle in to, a house to find and buy, a new car to buy, and all the admin associated with moving a family to a new country. There were also immigration admin on his end too. (Amusingly, Kevin had to fill out the affidavit of support, in which he signs a contract with the US government taking financially responsibility for me for 10 years or until I become US citizen. Us immigrants, so untrustworthy!) We knew it would be hard, and made harder by the fact we were apart for five months. Instead of sharing the weight of the tasks, we each had to shoulder them on our own. Again, this was expected and, tough as it was, we managed.

One of the unexpected overheads, though, was just how much time I had to devote to preparing to move. I knew there’d be stress, but I didn’t realise that I would get so very little work done for more than three months, from mid-March to the end of June when I finally did get on that plane. I got behind on Ada Lovelace Day work, despite the fantastic support that I’ve had from the Ri this year, and I got behind on my professional work. But, I thought, I’ll take a week off when I get there, and then I’ll be able to catch up.

Except things just haven’t panned out like that at all. I have not caught up, because what I didn’t bank on was the vast quantity of admin that I would have to do when I got here. And, worse, the various crises that have swept through our lives over the last two months and taken up masses of my time.

Things I didn’t expect included:

  • An infestation of what turned out to be chimney swift bugs has not only cost us a small fortune, it’s also taken up a lot of time as I have had to find a company to treat our house, and then deal with all those treatments. I now need to find a chimney sweep and arrange to get the final treatment to eradicate the stubborn hangers-on.
  • Our furniture and possessions have taken three months to arrive, instead of two, and I have had to chase up the shipping company (if you’re curious, it’s AngloPacific, Schumacher Logistics, AK Connect and Best Value (out of Chicago), in descending order of subcontractordom and therefore competence and levels of care). Our stuff finally arrived Tuesday and too much of our delicate, irreplaceable stuff is broken. Furniture has mostly arrived damaged. This means that I now have to start documenting issues so that I can claim on insurance.
  • My Social Security Number didn’t come when it should, so I’ve only just got it, eight weeks after I arrived, after re-applying for it at the local Social Security Office. Of course, this is after wasting time searching the web for information about what to do when it didn’t come, and then trying to get through to the national helpline that couldn’t help at all.
  • With no SSN, I have not been able to get a bank account, and thus still don’t have a mobile phone or health insurance. Figuring out the latter is a big job, and quite a scary one.
  • A court case I started in the UK pursuing an unpaid invoice has been a massive time suck because, contrary to the government’s assertion that you can manage a small claim online through their portal, you actually can’t and have to do a lot by post. Not being in the UK has made this tricky and very stressful.
  • A project to refinish the floors in our front bedroom went horribly awry when Grabbity decided to go wade through the varnish. I can laugh about this now, but it’s taken two months to re-sand the floors and get back to the point where we can re-varnish them. Again, a massive time suck, and it means that I’ve not had an office to work in which has caused me a lot of problems with my back.

Then there are the smaller stresses, the neighbour who plays loud music late and night sometimes, the other neighbour who bizarrely cuts off bits of our tree and leaves them on the lawn, the unexpected cost of a tire blow-out, the not being able to drive and thus being a little bit more stuck than I had thought I would be, the irritating transaction fee of 2.99% that Lloyds Bank charges me for the privilege of accessing my own money. And on, and on.

All of this stuff that’s going on, the big stuff and the little stuff, has taken and continues to take time away from Ada Lovelace Day and, importantly, from my own work.

I have had the challenge of rethinking my entire business to work here in the US. I came up with a good plan in February, but now we’re in September and I’m still behind on execution. I’m shifting from face-to-face consulting to online teaching, and I have been trying to finish up my first online course about how to write your own social media strategy. It’s hard going, retooling an entire business, but I’m confident it will work well. I spent a lot of time in April talking to my network about what sort of training they wanted, and have a fair bit of interest in this project and others, but it takes a lot of time to put together a good course. Time which I have simply not had enough of.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, for a few reasons, really. I’ve been having a bit of a hard time of it, over the last month especially, and just writing about it is cathartic. It makes me feel better and, right now, that’s as good a reason as any. But I also want to provide a bit of context for those of you who are either wondering why I haven’t been in touch, or to whom I owe email (I’m fed up of starting my email responses with, “I’m sorry to taking so long to reply”), or who are waiting for something from me. I am sorry for taking so long.

To be very clear, I do love it here in Sheboygan. I don’t regret moving at all. Our house is lovely, and will be lovelier when our small unwelcome guests have left, our DIY is done, and our stuff is tidied away. I love it that the cats have so much space to run around in and that they are so happy here. I love it that we’re just a five minute walk from Lake Michigan, and I love how weird it is to hear the sounds of the seashore without smelling the smells (it’s a freshwater lake, after all). I love the restaurants here and the kind, friendly people we’re meeting. I love all the great little towns nearby that we can visit, and the beautiful countryside in between them. I am fundamentally delighted that we’ve moved.

It’s just that the transition has been harder than I anticipated, and it will take me longer than I thought to settle in, because sometimes life just starts slapping you round the face with a wet haddock and doesn’t seem to want to stop. It will stop eventually, of course, I’m just not sure when.

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Don’t you think Amazon looks tired?

by Suw on August 11, 2014

Amazon recently returned fire at Hachette and Authors United with a particularly ill-considered new website, Readers United. Authors United is a group of 900+ authors, published by all sorts of companies not just Hachette, who support Hachette and are calling on Amazon to end their sanctions against Hachette authors.

There is a lot of commentary on Amazon’s open letter already.

There’s no value in me rehashing those points, so just take a moment and read the above, if you haven’t already.

Now, let’s pull back a bit, let’s get more of the picture in our viewfinder.

There is a common narrative thread throughout many responses to Amazon which relies on the belief that it has an unassailable position in the publishing industry, that it cannot be argued with and that publishers depend upon it too much to really do it any damage. It’s an easy narrative to take up, because Amazon is big, and it is in a very strong position controlling, as it does, such a vast swath of the book/ebook retail market.

But it’s not invulnerable. I wrote in 2012 that I thought Amazon was ripe for disruption, although few people bought in to that argument. Baldur Bjarnason said the same thing in Frankfurt a few years ago, got the same response, and reiterated his thoughts this past weekend. And Jake Kerr has examined just how fragile he thinks Amazon’s position really is. If you haven’t read the last two pieces, which both cover similar territory, then please do.

Now, what if Amazon is starting to feel the pressure of the narrow margins that plague its book retail proposition? It has made a bit of a rod for its own back in creating the expectation amongst its customers that 60% discounts are normal, and that books should be almost trivially cheap. Publishers are all complicit in this — they like Amazon’s discounts because they sell more books and Amazon eats the loss. Fantastic, eh?

Well, not really, no. Because Amazon is coming under pressure from Wall Street to start showing some sort of profit and to create some sort of return for investors. Shares dropped 6% after Amazon’s second quarter financial report, which showed a loss of “27 cents per share on revenue of $19.34 billion, while Wall Street had been expecting, on average, a loss of 15 cents per share.” This, despite net sales rising 23%.

It may be a coincidence that Amazon’s tone has become increasingly shrill at around the same time that Wall Street is showing displeasure at Amazon’s performance. Certainly Amazon, a company previously noted for its wall of silence, has shown itself to be lacking in skill when it comes to its external communications. I can’t help but think that Amazon thinks its being clever, but as Linda Dawson says, it is instead sounding over-emotional.

What is almost certainly not a coincidence is that the Hachette conflict is not an isolated case. It’s certainly the one that Amazon has escalated the highest, but Amazon is fighting for bigger margins and more money on a number of fronts.

Amazon is now in a spat with Disney, and is this time using the availability of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Maleficent, Muppets Most Wanted and Million Dollar Arm DVDs and Blu-Rays as leverage.

Amazon is in dispute with Bonnier in Germany over ebook terms and, as the Bookseller explains, the “German trade association Börsenverein officially lodged earlier this month with the German competition authorities has attracted the attention of the EU Commission.” Börsenverein is describing Amazon’s actions against Bonnier as akin to blackmail. Sound familiar?

Amazon halted pre-orders of Warner Bros’ The Lego Movie earlier in the year, in another pricing row.

And that’s just this year’s spats — Amazon has long-standing form with these sorts of negotiating tactics.

It’s clearly not just ebook prices that Amazon has a problem with, so you have to ask yourself, why all these arguments? Why use these blackmail-like “negotiation” tactics? What would drive Amazon to behave in a way that makes life harder for buyers, damages its reputation as being customer-focused, whilst also managing to piss off half the publishing industry and sections of the movie industry?

None of this strikes me as just ‘business as usual’. You don’t normally tell your customers to buy from a competitor. You don’t normally invoke WWII and misquote famous people in a way easy to debunk. You don’t normally create special web pages to get your press release out to as many people as possible, or email customers (in this case KDP authors) to outline your position about a news story. Unless, of course, you believe you need to create popular outrage because your hand is weak and you want to use the court of public opinion to strengthen it.

Amazon does not just look like a bully now. It looks like a crazed ex who just can’t get over the fact you’ve walked away. It looks like a cornered, scared animal fighting for survival. But more than anything, don’t you think Amazon looks tired?

 

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This was going to be a comment on Damien Walter’s blog post about Amazon’s recent statement on their row with Hachette, but it seems to have metastasised so now it’s a blog post. It’s a bit rough and ready because I am so behind on other work that I can’t devote as much time as I’d like, but here we go:

Damian writes:

It’s worth noting here that ebook prices now behave much more like the dynamics of crowd-funding than traditional book pricing. Your product is essentially unlimited so you price at the point that produces the highest volume.

No supplier should price anything in order to get highest volume, they should price to get the highest revenue. If you price at 99p and sell 10,000 that’s a revenue of £9,900. But if you price at 2.99 and sell 5,000, that’s £14,950. Books aren’t entirely fungible – whilst there’s superficial interchangeability between books, mostly people want a particular book either from a particular author or because they particularly like the look of it.

Amazon want to control prices, and they say of this dispute with Hachette:

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.

But because books aren’t fungible, pricing shouldn’t be capped, even for ebooks (because the price of ebooks is only nil if you wilfully ignore all the production costs associated with producing the content in the first place, and if you don’t pay anyone to create the file that is the ebook, and we all know how crap ebooks get when they are simply converted without human oversight). If there’s a keen but limited market of 1,000 that is willing to buy at £14.99 then the revenue of that price point is more than at £2.99 or 99p – it’s £14,990.

Amazon is being very disingenuous when it says:

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

The may well be true in general, but it will not be true in all cases because demand for all books is not equal. It may be that some books have a market that is small, but willing and able to pay more. Forcing a pay cap on publishers means that they are no longer going to be able to service a small but affluent markets. This is going to be especially true for the sorts of books that get bought for business or development reasons, where the customer is much less price sensitive because either the money isn’t coming out of their own pocket and/or they are looking to make a return on their investment in some way, as opposed to books bought only for the pleasure they bring.

You simply cannot take statistics that apply to a population, in this case the population is all the books that Amazon sells, and then apply it to a specific book, because there will always be outliers, there will always be exceptions, and there has to be enough flexibility in any system to accommodate those exceptions. Capping the price of books artificially reduces publisher’s options and makes it less likely that they will consider serving niche markets where the audience is small.

Amazon do say that they believe that there “will be legitimate reasons for a small number of specialized titles to be above $9.99”, but who will get to decide which books are to be deemed specialised? Amazon doesn’t say, but the implications are that it will be Amazon’s call, as it is Amazon who are trying to dictate prices. That would be unacceptible.

Furthermore, even if publishers are overpricing ebooks, that is their right in a free market. We may disagree with how ebooks of novels are priced, we may think that they are often too expensive, that’s our prerogative. But it is the publisher’s prerogative to price high if they want, even if it’s a mistake. They have the right to fuck it up if they want to, and it is not Amazon’s place to stop them; it is our place to stop them by refusing to buy books that are too expensive.

It is a shame that publishers don’t seem to yet understand how to operate in a world of abundant content but scarce attention, but it is their choice. We can only try to help them understand, we cannot force or coerce them to behave in a way that we want.
And neither can or should Amazon.

Amazon goes on to describe how it thinks the revenue from any given book should be split up:

So, at $9.99, the total pie is bigger – how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35% should go to the author, 35% to the publisher and 30% to Amazon. Is 30% reasonable? Yes. In fact, the 30% share of total revenue is what Hachette forced us to take in 2010 when they illegally colluded with their competitors to raise e-book prices. We had no problem with the 30% — we did have a big problem with the price increases.

It is no business of Amazon’s how publishers split their revenue with authors. There’s certainly a case for giving authors a bigger slice of the pie, of course, and I suspect there are a lot of authors out there who would agree with this. But it’s not Amazon’s argument to have. It’s not Amazon’s place to define the terms of the agreement between an author and their publisher. All Amazon is doing here is trying to appeal to authors, trying to turn them against publishers, which is also why it uses language such as “forced” and “illegally colluded” – it’s a way of framing the debate so that publishers look like evil overlords and Amazon look like knights on white chargers. It’s playing on author’s emotions as a way to distract from the inappropriate nature of its comments on author royalties.

Let me just say it again, though, to be absolutely clear: It is not for Amazon to dictate the terms of the contract between author and publisher.

Damien, perhaps spurred on by the above paragraph from Amazon, says:

This begs the question, if Amazon are fighting for higher author royalties and more profits overall, what are Hachette fighting for and why does anyone support them? It’s clear, Hachette are fighting for their existing and increasingly outmoded business model. They’re fighting for stasis in the face of inevitable change. Worst of all, they are fighting against changes that are vastly to the benefit of writers. I still say this is a fight authors do best not to take sides in. But if you are going to join the battle, you’re a fool not to see Amazon as your ally.

Amazon are not fighting for higher author royalties for any reason other than to turn authors against publishers. There is no altruism at work here, Amazon doesn’t give a flying fuck about authors, as born out by their unwillingness to deal with fake reviews on their site and bullying on Goodreads. They don’t ever care about self-published authors, as shown by their shitty tools, lack of customer service, and frankly sometimes bizarre behaviour that goes unexplained and without apology.

Amazon care about Amazon. That’s fine, but don’t believe that Amazon are anyone’s ally. Amazon will shoot authors in the back if it ever becomes profitable to do so.

Hachette are fighting for survival, but also for their own authors. If they get a smaller chunk of the pie from Amazon, then their income is squeezed and they’re going to have less money to spend on things like marketing, editing, advances, etc. for the authors that they already have on their books. Those authors will be in a worse position, as will any authors that Hachette might take on in future.

Whilst it is true that publishers are not perfect, and sometimes they act like total cockwombles, there are plenty of people who work for publishers who genuinely care about their authors, who genuinely want to put out great books that readers love, who want happy, well paid authors. It is a fallacy to believe that all publishers are evil, or that they are all corrupt, or all stupid, or working against their authors. As William Gibson so famously said, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet, and that’s as true of publishing as anything else.

I do not believe that the changes Amazon wants are to the benefit of writers. I do not see Amazon as my ally. I see them for what they are: A self-interested corporation that wants to exert as much control over their suppliers as possible. That’s it. They aren’t saviours, they aren’t allies, they aren’t white knights. They want to control as much as possible in order to make as much money as possible, whilst not paying taxes and treating their workers like shit.

If I were Hachette, I’d be thinking about moving away from any sort of percentage-based deal with Amazon and towards a more sensible retail-wholesale agreement. “We sell you these many books at £x, and you can sell them at whatever price point you want.” Hachette would have income predictability, authors would know how much they’re getting, and Amazon could still discount as much as they like. It’d be no skin off Hachette’s nose if Amazon decided to take a bath on a popular title.

Whatever Hachette is thinking, one thing is very, very clear: Amazon are fighting a propaganda battle, working hard to alienate authors and demonise publishers. Taken with their other practices, this shows just how untrustworthy they are. So this is one occasion where I would strongly counsel those who loathe publishers that the enemy of your enemy is not your friend.

UPDATE 31 July: Interesting post from Mike Shatzkin on this.

UPDATE 2 & 3, 31 July: Steve Mosby examines the implications of Amazon’s claim that “For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99.” Well worth a read, as is John Scalzi’s post covering similar ground.

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