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, 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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Strange noises in the chimney

by Suw on July 15, 2014

I’ve been in the US for two weeks now, and I’m starting to feel settled in. Our house is lovely, if still rather empty and echoey as our furniture is still in the Port of New York, going through customs and, eventually, making its way here. We have a couple of chairs, and yesterday picked up a table at a garage sale, but the house is mostly empty at the moment.

There’s a lovely fireplace in the lounge, and a couple of days ago we went to light the fire. It was a bit cool that evening, and we thought a fire would be cosy and make the place seem a bit more homely. Just above the fire grate, in the chimney, there is a dampener which shuts off the chimney, and which you have to open if you want to set a fire. Kevin did, and there was a very odd noise coming out of the chimney:

It turns out that we have a nest of chimney swifts in residence. According to what I’ve read, they become audible at about two weeks, and will fledge in another two. They are now very clearly audible even with the dampener closed. When the parents return with food, you hear a brief drumming sound as they claps their wings to their body at speed, and then the chimney erupts in enthusiastic chirping. This happens frequently throughout the day and although Grabbity and Mewton were perplexed at first, they’ve now decided it’s just background noise.

(I did try to record the sounds of our swifts specifically, and my phone did take a hit of bird poop in the process, but the resulting video was too quiet to be useful. I will try again tomorrow.)

Chimney swifts are classed as ‘near threatened’, possibly due to a decline in the insect population because of pesticide use and the loss of habitat. Chimney swifts used to nest in hollow trees, but when humans started cutting down trees and building houses, they shifted to chimneys instead. Many people now cap their chimneys to prevent animals like the swifts from gaining access. Ours obviously hasn’t been capped and, now we know a bit more about these delightful birds, we won’t be adding a cap in the winter.

Migrating birds are protected in the US, so we wouldn’t be allowed to disturb them whilst nesting or roosting even if we wanted to, but they are so cute and the sounds so adorable that I’m happy to share our home with them. The only real adjustments we’ll need to make is to sweep our chimney at the end of the season when they migrate back to Peru, to get rid of the nesting debris and prevent potential chimney fires, and then again in mid-March to make sure that the chimney is clear of creosotes and other deposits from our winter fires.

I expected some new and different experiences when I moved to America, but I can’t say that I expected to share my house with chimney swifts!

UPDATE: I managed to get some decent video of the swifts. Watch full screen and in HD if you can. The fun starts around 00:20.

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Amazon’s offers are pure propaganda

by Suw on July 8, 2014

In the long-running dispute between Amazon and Hachette over their terms of trade, Amazon has used its power over Hachette’s book sales to hurt authors and publisher alike. Amazon has removed pre-order buttons from Hachette books, de-stocked so that some titles appear to be unavailable, suggested to Amazon users that they buy alternative books from other publishers that are similar (and cheaper), and told buyers to go elsewhere if they can’t find the Hachette books they want.

These sanctions are designed purely to strong-arm Hachette in to agreeing the terms that Amazon wants, but Hachette are resisting even though it’s not just the publisher that’s hurting from lost sales, but also authors, especially those with books newly released or due out soon. Debut authors may be hurt particularly hard if their book’s early sales tank due to lack of visibility or availability on Amazon, where a large majority of purchases are made.

Amazon then suggested a slush fund for Hachette’s authors affected financially by Amazon’s sanctions against the publisher. Hachette declined that “offer”. So now Amazon has floated the idea that it and Hachette both forego their usual cut of sales and instead give 100% to the authors. Hachette has again declined, saying: 

“Amazon has just sent us a brief proposal. We invite Amazon to withdraw the sanctions they have unilaterally imposed, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith and with the hope of a swift conclusion […] We believe that the best outcome for the writers we publish is a contract with Amazon that brings genuine marketing benefits and whose terms allow Hachette to continue to invest in writers, marketing, and innovation. We look forward to resolving this dispute soon and to the benefit of the writers who have trusted their books to us.”

Amazon’s offers are nothing more than propaganda. Amazon decided to punish Hachette and its authors by taking actions that it knew would hurt sales, and it decided to do that as a negotiating tactic. Both the slush fund and the royalty offer are no more than sops to appease authors and persuade readers that Amazon are the good guys really and that it’s Hachette that’s being mean and intransigent. That’s utter bullshit. 

Contract negotiations do not require Amazon to impose sanctions on its suppliers. It is perfectly capable of running its shopfront normally whilst negotiations are ongoing, which would result in no authors getting hammered, and no readers being told to go elsewhere. Of course, then Amazon wouldn’t then have as much leverage, which is why they’re doing it in the first place. 

Hachette is absolutely right to reject Amazon’s disingenuous offers: Agreeing would imply that Amazon is in the right and Hachette is the aggressor which is simply not the case. 

If Amazon actually cares about Hachette’s authors and whether they are losing money, it has a very, very simple remedy: Resume normal service, and don’t impose sanctions again in future. It’s easy, and there’s no need to change any royalty rates or set up slush funds (or figure out how to fairly apportion that money, a question that I suspect is much more complicated than it might seem).

So try implementing normality within 72 hours, Amazon. You know you can.  

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Loving an alien, part 2

by Suw on July 2, 2014

Read Part 1. Also, please note that immigration processes vary from country to country, and in the UK they vary enormously over time as the Government thinks up new ways to torment immigrants. The below advice should not be thought of as comprehensive, nor always applicable to your personal situation, but is based on my experience of UK and US immigration processes, for whatever that’s worth. If in doubt, see an immigration lawyer.  

When I was 16, I probably would have laughed in your face if you’d said that I’d marry. And an American, to boot! You’re ‘avin’ a larf, mate. And even if I had believed you, it wouldn’t have done me any good without the advice I am about to give you.

If you have fallen in love with an alien, if an alien has fallen in love with you, if you’re even flirting with a foreigner or considering going on holiday or working abroad, then there are are a few little things you should do, right now, before they become necessary. This may seem silly, but trust me, if you ever need this information you’ll be very, very glad that you spent a little time preparing.

1. Make a list of everywhere you’ve ever lived

Literally, everywhere. Even those three month stints you spent at home in between years at university. In order to fill in some immigration forms, you need an unbroken record of everywhere you have ‘established a residence’ since you were 16, which for many people means ‘since forever’. It’s a tedious job, but start now and keep the document up to date and when you move house.

It took me hours on Google Maps and on the phone with my parents to reconstruct my residential history going back to, eventually, 1976. Luckily, I’d recently spent time on Google Maps finding the house I’d lived in back in Sydney, Australia, when I was 18, so that shaved about an hour off the process. But there was still a lot of “Do you have the address for that place with the bonkers landlord?”, though given that the majority of my landlords have been either bonkers or total assholes that didn’t narrow it down much. Remembering the walks home from the tube station helped too, but it was a tremendous stress at a time when I really didn’t need any more of that particular evil.

You’ll need the date (at least month and year) you moved in and moved out, and the full address.

2. Police certificates

Some visas require a police certificate for every country you’ve lived in for more than a year, no matter how long ago, and for any UK address you’ve lived in during the previous X years. It’s an easy process in the UK, but do not put it off once you get to that stage because it can take time, and the longer you put it off the more you delay your own visa.

If you have ever lived in another country for more than a year, start researching now how to get the appropriate document so that when the issue comes up you know what to do. The particulars of the process may change in the intervening years, but the basics won’t.

I only found out about the requirement for a police certificate for other countries late on in the visa process, and had I spent another three months in Australia, I would have had to get a certificate from them. That could have delayed my visa for months, which would really have piled on the stress.

3. Make a list of everywhere you’ve ever travelled

When Kevin had to do this, we spent a long time with his passports and calendar listing everywhere he’s been for the last ten years. That was relatively easy, if tedious, because an American travelling in Europe gets a stamp in their passport every time they enter a country, and usually when they leave too. (For some bizarre reason, the UK doesn’t do exit stamps.)

For me, it would have been a disaster if I wasn’t so zealous about putting things in my calendar, as a lot of my travel was within the EU, meaning that I don’t get any stamps in my passport at all. But with my calendar and my propensity for booking everything online and keeping electronic copies of tickets, I could draw up that list.

You’ll need the departure and return dates, plus city and country. Make a note of which flights are overnight – I tend to count duration in nights not days, which makes it easier to deal with nights spent in the air and the crossing of the date line (not that I’ve ever done that, mind!).

4. Check your vaccination record

Some countries require you to be vaccinated against specific diseases, so it’s a good idea to make sure that your medical records are up to date with your childhood jabs. You can get a print out of your vaccination history to give to the medical examiner.

You may need to get additional vaccinations in order to complete the immigration process: I had to have an MMR jab because I hadn’t had a mumps vaccination as a child (it didn’t exist then). As an adult you can get MMR free on the NHS, though I’ve heard that some GP surgeries are reluctant to give it. Don’t take no for an answer!

5. Check your medical records

Some countries require you to tell them your medical history, which sounds like a trivially easy thing right up until the point where you’re in the middle of the medical and being grilled about events that were so long ago that you’re a bit hazy on the details.

In the UK, you have the right to see your medical records and it should cost no more than £10. You are “entitled to receive a response no later than 40 days after your application is received and any relevant fee has been paid”, so start this application sooner rather than later. This is especially important if you have any history of mental illness, including depression, at all, because you could be asked quite detailed questions about what happened, when, and what medication you were given, if any. If you know exactly what is in your medical records, then you can be much more accurate in your replies to questions.

Be aware that, depending on the country’s requirements, if you have any history of mental illness, including depression, you may need to get a letter from your GP confirming that what you say is true. That can add a month or more on to the process, depending on how efficient your GP is. Again, do not delay talking to your GP if you run into this problem, as the sooner you ask them, the sooner your letter will get to the head of the queue.

At my GP’s, the process was that the GP writing the letter rang me up, asked for further information about when my brief period of depression was, read out what the records said (very, very little, as it turned out), and then wrote the letter. When it was ready I picked it up, read it through and had the opportunity to discuss it with the GP if I had wanted to, so they didn’t communicate directly with the embassy medical panel. This was a huge reassurance, because it was very stressful not knowing either what my medical record said (I didn’t check first) and not knowing what my GP would say.

6. Get your household bills in joint names, and keep them all

For Kevin’s Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK we needed to prove that we had a legitimate relationship, not a marriage of convenience, and to do that the government wanted us to produce six utility bills in both our names from the previous two years. What wasn’t in the guidance was that they were expecting those bills to be evenly spread out over those two years. Our happened to come in three clusters, which they said wasn’t good enough.

As I said in my last post about immigration, their logic is just insane. Do they really believe that a couple would move in together, get joint bills then split up for 10 months before moving in together again to get more bills, then split up, and then do it all again? Seriously? On what planet does that happen? Especially as we had at that point been married a while. It’s just mindboggling that people would think like that.

But, we dealt with that bit of jobsworthing by adhering to the next rule, and it is a rule that you should live by no matter what sort of visa you are applying for, no matter what country:

7. Over-document

When the immigration official asked for more bills, Kevin whipped out a sheaf of papers about half an inch thick, and the objection to the timing of our bills magically evaporated. We had been advised to over-document, and it was advice we were happy that we followed.

In short, document everything, and keep everything. Get as many bills and other official proofs of your relationship as possible. Every time you get a relevant email, or fill in a form online, keep a print copy. Two copies. Make photocopies of all your official documents. If you have any phone conversations (although I have not spoken to any officials on the phone for my visa), make detailed notes including date and time of call.

It’s also a good idea to log every action you take, if only for your own peace of mind. Note when you submit forms, when you send emails, when you get documents through the post. The visa process takes ages, but it feels as if it takes aeons. It is good to be able to look at your log and realise that it was only last week that you submitted that form, not last month, and so the fact that you’ve not heard anything is not a bad sign.

Non-EU immigration is very, very hard work. If you can afford a specialise immigration lawyer, then that’s certainly a help, but many people can’t. The rhetoric of the media, especially in the UK, would have most people believe that all you need to do is turn up and bingo, it’s all good. But that’s not true. There are a lot of forms to fill, a lot of money to pay over, a lot of tedious information gathering and underneath it all the lurking suspicion that immigration officials can be capricious and that your application may fail for reasons entirely opaque to you.

If you are in the process of, or about start, any immigration process, then good luck. And if you’ve been through it, what do you wish you’d known before you started?

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Authors, books and choices

by Suw on June 21, 2014

Doing the rounds this morning on Twitter is a rather forthright review by Christopher Priest of Jon Wallace’s debut novel Barricade. Priest has never been one for pulling punches and, although he acknowledges that “first novels are traditionally given a gentle ride by reviewers”, he does go on to wonder if “a well-deserved duffing up might have been more memorable, and in the end more useful.” That duffing up duly ensues. 

Priest sets the scene for us: Barricade takes place in a reality where natural humans are called Reals and artificial humans are called Ficials, and the world is a hellscape of our own making. So far, so meh. But then this clause about one of the key protagonists, a Ficial photojournalist, leapt out at me:

…Starvie, who has been fashioned to resemble a sex-goddess…

Starvie. Sex-goddess. This doesn’t bode well. 

And then this: 

There’s also a distinctly dodgy passage in the middle of the book, when the unappealing Fatty and the unemotional Kenstibec plan to send a compliant Starvie out as a sexual lure for a gang of randy Reals. “Listen,” Fatty says to Starvie, after he has bound her wrists with plastic cuffs, “I know you’re upset about having to go whoring, but no more of your looks, okay?” Her response is to tilt her head, and say sweetly, “You don’t like the way I look at you?” Soon the Real sentries are predictably drooling over her, as only men can do when a shackled sex goddess is dragged past. The sequence goes on in the same lacklustre way for several inconsequential pages. The whole of this scene seems likely to start an argument I don’t want to get drawn into, but I think when your book has been read by a few more people you might well be.

Oh ho ho. There is a large punch very definitely pulled by Priest. How very out of character. Priest has never really struck me as one to avoid an argument, but maybe he felt that his review was already long enough and that going off on a tangent would distract from his main point.  

Overall, the review reads as if Priest is the most disappointed English teacher you could ever have: 

In case you are thinking otherwise, I was not scouring the text for these solecisms, setting out to set you up, but like all people who are preparing a review I was keeping notes throughout the reading. The protocols around a first novel by a young writer do matter. I kept noting all the bad stuff (much more than reported here), but I was looking for good bits with which to try to encourage you. I found none. It gradually dawned on me that I was wasting my time. Barricade was unyielding in its awfulness. It was a book I did not wish to write about.

You are spared the rest.

That was, by itself, enough to put me off Barricades, with a slight nagging feeling that there was a lot worse that could have been said, which Priest had backed away from, stuff about women and objectification and how attempting to portray women in an edgy way usually fails. But maybe I’m just reading too much in to a few lines by a reviewer.

And then I read this guest post by Wallace on the Civilian Reader blog, titled “Writing Real Women”. 

My head. It a splode. 

Wallace kicks off his post by explaining how, as a teen, he was told that he was no good at writing women. 

Once I’d cooled down I read over the script again and saw what he meant: my female characters were either blanks, or saintly projections of whoever I happened to be in love with that week. Rarely were they believable. Rarely were they real.

Well, Wallace wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Many teenaged boys (and a fair number of men) seem utterly flummoxed by women, perhaps in part because women are so often portrayed by the media as one dimensional creatures who are impossible to understand. We are wallflowers, bitches, nurses, mothers, sexual objects, although we are never more than one of those things at a time. How can we expect teen boys, already struggling to cope with all that puberty brings, to be able to understand women when they are never given the tools — the stories, the examples, the understanding — to do so. 

But, Wallace assures us, he “worked hard to write believable, fleshed-out female characters”, right up until the point that he started writing Barricade and decided not to. 

The lead female character, Starvie, is in many respects a construct of unrealistic male expectation and base desire. Why? Because she was designed that way.

I suspect Wallace thought he was trying to be clever and edgy, subversive and shocking. But let’s just see, from what we know of this book and characters, whether he succeeded. 

  • We have a female character who has been designed to “do nothing more than have a perfect appearance. Starvie’s model was a singer, a model and an actress, but most of all she was beautiful.”
  • As an entirely artificial creation, we are lead to question her agency. She was “optimised”, she was “programmed to display a series of modeling ticks and gestures”. How much freewill does she have? 
  • Her name is Starvie. Where does this name come from? It’s very odd. Starvie was a model, and we all know that models are very thin and some suffer eating disorders in which they starve themselves… Am I reading too much in to those two syllables? Maybe, although it’s hard to read “Starvie” and not hear “starve”. 
  • Starvie is used as bait in a honeytrap, a passage which made Priest uncomfortable but which we cannot judge.
  • She, of the two Ficial characters that we know of, is the only one with emotions. The male Ficial, Kenstibec, has none. Because we all know that women are hysterical, whereas men are cold and calculating. I’m not sure which gender comes off worse there, but I am sure that it makes Wallace look as if he has a rather lame imagination. 

On the face of it, this looks just like thinly veiled misogyny. It’s doesn’t look edgy at all, but predictable and stereotypical. It might have been edgy if Kenstibec was also a woman, perhaps a Real woman traumatised by war, her emotions buried, who has allied with this Ficial in order to survive and find some kind of redemption for them both. That might have been interesting, but this book, this story with these characters as described, just sounds terrible. 

There are two issues to think about here, beyond the obvious one around how women are portrayed in science fiction. 

Firstly, Wallace portrays his decision to write Starvie as a surprise to him. “Something odd happened”, he says: when he went to write a proper woman, this stereotype popped out! Heavens above, how could anyone have predicted or controlled it! It just happened! 

Which is, of course, bollocks. As so beautifully described in the film Wonder Boys (which, btw, if you haven’t seen you really should), all authors must make choices. Everything your characters are and do, everything that happens, it’s all your choice as an author. The tail cannot wag the dog, the book cannot actually write itself, because the tail — the book — is not sentient. 

Many authors talk about being surprised by what comes out when they write, but the unexpectedness of their creative process does not relieve them of responsibility for what the final story says. Wallace wrote Starvie because he wanted to, because he chose not to stop himself, because he didn’t change her, or Kenstibec for that matter, as he edited and rewrote his work.

His juxtaposition of his efforts to write “believable, fleshed-out female characters” with the fact that he “ended up doing the complete opposite” implies that this was some sort of freak occurrence, inevitable and outside of his control. This is Wallace glossing over his conscious decision to write Starvie exactly as she reads, it’s him attempting to abdicate responsibility for how she turned out by blaming… what? The story itself? It doesn’t wash. 

Secondly, I am sure some people will say that I have not read the book therefore cannot judge. This, too, is bollocks. Every book goes through a period where no one has read it except those close to the project: The author, his editor, their team, some reviewers perhaps. All that the rest of us have to go on are reviews, blog posts, blurbs, reactions, descriptions, all produced by other people. 

This means that the author and their publishers need to be aware of how their story plays in summary, and how publicity material such as blog posts can be interpreted. If you write a character in what seems like a misogynistic way, then you should be very, very aware of that interpretation before you publish, and be sure to provide the would-be reader with the context they need to understand how this character fits in to the rest of the story. You need to be very, very clear when discussing your books, and the misinterpretable character, so that you don’t alienate potential readers. 

You especially need to make sure that when you, as the author, write about this character who looks so very, very dodgy, that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot and make it all sound so much worse than the reviewer duffing you up does. Wallace fails spectacularly to convince that Starvie is anything other than a one dimensional object of male sexual fantasy. Indeed, he does more to put me off his book than Priest did, and that’s really saying something. 

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