books, authors and other interestingness

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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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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On Thursday 30 May, I went to the Futurebook Innovation Workshop, organised by  The Bookseller and The Literary Platform. It was a fascinating afternoon of talks from a wide variety of speakers, and one person that really stood out was Bobette Buster, a Hollywood story consultant who gave a talk on the mechanics of storytelling. I took copious notes, as I normally do, and posted them here.

Unfortunately, whilst recovering from my partial oophorectomy I had an email in from Miranda West, publisher at The Do Book Company who published Buster’s book, asking me to remove the post. West said that “the post shares many of her [Buster's] key concepts – which will be appearing in her next book – she has asked if you would please take the post down. Her view is that in parts it is more a transcription of her talk, rather than review/comment.” That’s a shame, because the talk was great and certainly a good advert for Buster’s book.

I want to be clear, though, that when I write up talks, I do it in good faith. For years now I’ve taken detailed notes of talks that I find interesting and share them via one of my blogs, not just so that those who weren’t there can get a taste of what they missed, but also to promote the work of the speaker. This is the first time in 11 years that I’ve been asked to take down a blog post and, whilst it makes me sad, I am obviously going to respect Buster’s wishes. It is, however, the second time that I’ve had someone query my blogging recently, and both times have been after publishing-related events.

I suspect my experience is down to a clash of cultures: the publishing industry doesn’t seem used to having bloggers attend their conferences in quite the same way that the tech industry is, my previous stomping ground. In fact, in tech, conference organisers often woo bloggers, giving them free entrance to the event and sometimes even paying for their travel and accommodation in order to get coverage. The idea that your talk might be blogged, in considerable detail, as well as recorded and put online, is par for the course and speakers prepare with that in mind.

When delicate conversations need to be had, the standard is to hold a conference under the Chatham House Rule, which states that:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

But the applicability of the Chatham House Rule is always, always stated up front, clearly, to all participants, and reiterated as needed.

Publishing industry events need to get to grips with bloggers attending, because it’s only going to happen more and more. That means that speakers need to be aware that their talks may be blogged, tweeted, Facebooked and disseminated in many other ways online. They need to be careful to ‘sell the milk, not the cow’, to make sure they don’t give everything away. Think about what it is that you’re promoting. Is it a book? Then give people the hook, don’t tell them the ending. Is it your consulting service? Then prove your understanding of your subject, but don’t give them your framework. But whatever you do, don’t assume that because you are communicating via the spoken word that it’s ephemeral. Don’t share stuff you don’t want to be made public.

And event organisers need to either make sure that speakers know that blogging and other forms of dissemination might happen, and that they should adjust their talk accordingly, or be clear with the audience that the event is being held under the Chatham House Rule. If they really want to batten the hatches down, then tell the audience that no form of communication to people outside the event is allowed at all – that might be a bit extreme, but there are situations where that is entirely appropriate.

However, for conferences where essentially anyone can come, the default position should be openness. The publishing industry already suffers badly, in my opinion, from a lack of openness. Lack of communication is allowing, even nurturing, the development of extremes of opinion which neither represent reality nor help the industry develop. We’re seeing too many simplistic, bimodal sets of opinions, for example that traditional publishing is bad and self-publishing is good, or that copyright is too weak vs copyright is too strong. If we had a more open and honest discussion about these things then we’d be more likely to reach a better understanding of what is workable and beneficial, as opposed to what is ideologically drive. Conferences play an important part in such dialogue, though obviously the problem is much, much broader.

In my years of covering tech events, I never once felt that I had to check beforehand about whether or not blogging was allowed. After going to just a handful of publishing industry events, I now feel that double-checking ahead of time with the organisers is the only way to avoid such unfortunate outcomes.

To my readers: I apologise for taking down a post that I know many of you found interesting.

To Bobette Buster: I apologise that my well-intentioned actions were contrary to your wishes.

UPDATE: Reading this back when I’m no longer operating from within a haze of painkillers, I realise that it might come across as a direct criticism of The Bookseller and The Literary Platform, which is isn’t. They did a fabulous job of organising a brilliant and fascinating afternoon, and had no way of knowing that there was a problem brewing. Instead, this post is a call to action to the whole industry to consider events as public and on the record unless very clearly stated otherwise.

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Reading women

by Suw on April 29, 2013

Last month, when I wrote that we need a female Dr Who, I was struck by the fact that, in the discussion on Twitter, quite a few people were mentioning female writers that I hadn’t heard of. I realised that my own knowledge of women writing in my favourite genres of science fiction and fantasy was lacking. I have vowed to remedy this through the simple expediency of reading the same number of books by women as by men. I couldn’t easily remember how many books I’ve read this year, though, so decided to list them (series are listed on a per book basis). I’ll keep this list up-to-date as the year wears on.

Women

  1. Anne McCaffrey, Crystal Line (in progress)
  2. JF Penn, Pentecost (in progress)
  3. Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth
  4. Rosemary Sutcliff, The Sliver Branch
  5. Rosemary Sutcliff, The Lantern Bearers
  6. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
  7. Helen FitzGerald, The Duplicate (novella)

Men

  1. James Henry, The Cabinet of Curiosities (in progress)
  2. James Everington, First Time Buyers (short story)
  3. Nick Spalding, Love, From Both Sides
  4. Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair
  5. James Oswald, Natural Causes
  6. John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
  7. F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  8. F Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned (abandoned)
  9. Lloyd Shepherd, The English Monster
  10. Danny Rubin, How to Write Groundhog Day (non-fiction)

To reach a nice state of equilibrium, I need to read three books by women next. Already on my Nook I have Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, Kelly Link’s Strange Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, Mercedes Lackey’s Secret World Chronicles, and Mimi Johnson’s Gathering String, and I do want to finish the Hunger Games trilogy so that’s another couple of books.

On my list of books to buy are Jo Walton’s Among Other, Sarah Pinborough’s A Matter of Blood, Jane Margolis’ Unlocking the Clubhouse (non-fiction), Cate Gardner’s Theatre of Curious Acts, and Molly Tanzer’s A Pretty Mouth. Who else should I add?

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Brixton Book Jam

I’m  going to be reading an extract from Argleton for the Brixton Book Jam on Monday 1 October, if you want to come along and see my first ever book reading! Zelda Rhiando, who helps organise it, describes it as “a free quarterly literary event, where famous and not so famous authors do a five minute reading each to a highly appreciative and attentive audience.”

Some of the other authors, and their books, that I’ll be sharing the stage with are:

  • Jim Bob (Carter USM) – Driving Jarvis Ham
  • Courttia Newland – The Gospel According to Cane
  • Adam Mars-Jones – Pilcrow
  • Martin Millar – Lonely Were Wolf Girl
  • James Dawson – YA thriller Hollow Pike
  • Keith Kahn-Harris – The Best Waterskier in Luxembourg
  • Doug e. Graves – Homerton Sweet Homerton

There will also be a popup bookshop featuring Herne Hill Books, local presses and indie authors.

Date: Monday, 1st October 2012
Time: 7.00pm
Location: Hootananny Brixton, 95 Effra Road, SW2 1DF

Download the flyer.

Women in Publishing

I’m also going to be participating in Women in Publishing‘s upcoming panel discussion on the recent sockpuppet furore, which I’ve covered extensively on my Forbes blog. We’ll be looking at the scandal itself; how it has been handled by the media, the publishing industry and readers; and what we think could or should be done about the issue of sock puppets now.

Details are still forthcoming, but the panel will be on the evening of 10 October, from 7pm. I’ll update this post when I have more information.

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How would you run a self-publishing award?

by Suw on August 23, 2012

I interviewed The Guardian’s Sam Jordison about the challenges of expanding the current Not The Booker literary prize to include self-published books for my Forbes blog, but didn’t really have room to consider how one might actually run a meaningful award for self-published authors. The Not The Booker awards currently works by allowing people to nominate traditionally published books in the comments on an opening blog post. These are then winnowed down to a shortlist through public voting, but for a vote to count the voter must include a short review of the book to show that they’ve actually read it.

The problem with a self-publishing award based on the same principles would be just the enormous tsunami of shite books nominated in the first round and the horrendous gaming of the voting system in the second. Because, let’s be brutally honest here, there is a lot of dreadful crap put out by self-published authors who have yet to develop the skill to understand that their work is sub-standard.

And, as Sam put it, “there are some real loudmouths with monstrous egos” out there, and you can guarantee that any system based solely on a popular vote would cut out lesser known authors with awesome books in favour of the egotists. Given the apparent correlation between being a loudmouthed twat and producing shite work, the results of such a contest would likely be disappointing.

So, how would one do it? First, let’s examine some of the problems we’d have to solve: 

1. Scale. There are a lot of self-published authors out there now, over a million by some accounts, and any prize for them would have to have a nomination system that could scale well. It is, however, unclear how many self-pubbed authors come from the Not The Booker catchment area of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe, but even if it’s only a tenth, that’s still a lot of people. (The Not The Booker has basically the same rules as the Man Booker Prize, which is its foil.) 

2. Quality. As mentioned already, a lot of self-published novels are awful, with bad dialogue, characterisation and plotting, dreadful grammar, and typos scattered liberally throughout. Many that tackle those problems lack the polish that a good novel has, reading more like a first than a final draft. 

3. Plagiarism. I’m not sure how big of an issue this is, but certainly there’s enough of it about in self-publishing that I think it’s worth considering as a potential issue. 

4. Gaming. There is absolutely no doubt that there are some self-published authors who would find a way to game the system to ensure as high a ranking as they can, thus pushing out more modest and lesser-known authors. Any system has to ensure a level playing field for all nominees because popular doesn’t mean good and in my opinion what’s needed in self-publishing isn’t another popularity contest. 

My feeling is that, because of the nature of these problems, much of the process would simply have to be automated or crowdsourced. I’ll outline first stab at a possible process, but I’d be more than happy for people to point out flaws and better ideas in the comments. 

I’d start off with a system where the authors self-nominate by uploading their manuscript, in full, complete with their details and any relevant metadata to the awards website. The current system that the Not The Booker has where books are nominated in the comments of a blog post simply isn’t scalable and would become a massive headache. 

The first phase of checking would run each manuscript through plagiarism software to make sure that someone’s not sneakily uploading another, more talented author’s work under their own name. It wouldn’t necessarily be perfect but it would stop the most egregious cases. Any manuscripts flagged by the system would be reviewed by a human being and the flag either lifted or the work disqualified. I doubt there would be many so this stage shouldn’t be a big deal. 

I would then run the manuscripts through a spellchecker. It’s amazing how many typos some self-published books sport, many of them mistakes that should have been picked up by a simple proof. Any book with a significant number of typos is likely to be shite in other ways too, so manuscripts over a certain typo threshold would be flagged for review by a human.

For this, the human checkers could easily be crowdsourced through something like Mechanical Turk. Anyone with half a wit can tell the difference between a typo and an exotic noun and it’d be simple to create a test to make sure that people know the difference, and a sensible interface to allow people to mark the genuine typos. Manuscripts with too many typos would be tossed. 

For the next step, we’d need a large pool of readers, preferably with some sort of experience in editorial but definitely with a clear understanding of what makes a piece of writing good or bad. I think you could probably recruit these volunteers from the public if you put together a short test to make sure that people had the ability to discriminate between competent and shite writing. 

Then the first 1000 words of each manuscript would be anonymised and given to an odd number of randomly selected readers, say three, and they’d be asked to mark it out of ten simply on the quality and style of the writing, not on characterisation, dialogue, plot etc. The manuscripts with the worst total scores would be discarded, and those with the best would go on to the next stage.

Because you would have more than one person reading each excerpt, you’d get not only a fair view of how competent the writing was, but also a sense of how certain people were that the writing was competent. I’m nicking this idea off Galaxy Zoo, the citizen science site where people classify galaxies according to type. If everyone who views a galaxy says it’s a spiral, then you have 100% confidence that it is a spiral, but if half of people who look at it say it’s a spiral and half say it’s an elliptical galaxy, then you have less confidence. 

So if a manuscript got all 8s, 9s or 10s, then you could be very confident that on a technical level, it was competent. If it got all 1s, 2s or 3s you could safely discard it. And if it got some 8s and some 2s, you would know you had Marmite on your hands. 

I think this is how to deal to deal with the scaling issue. If you got 1,000 manuscripts submitted, and you want each excerpt read three times, and you think each person is, on average, going to bother to read five excerpts, then you need 600 volunteers. That might seem like a lot, but I don’t think it is, given how many people volunteer for citizen science projects. This is citizen literature! What could be more fun? 

By the end of this stage, you’ve winnowed out manuscripts that include plagiarism, have bad spelling, and those with the worst abuses of grammar, punctuation and style. You’re now left with a selection of works that are, hopefully, competently written.

Here, there’s an option. You either insert another stage where the readers with direct, relevant editorial experience grade anonymous manuscripts based on their literary merits, or you just pick the top 100, say, and there’s your longlist. The best route would depend on how many good judges you’ve got and how many manuscripts you have left. 

The process thus far should avoid any biases on the part of the readers because of the anonymisation, and cannot be gamed because the authors aren’t involved. What’s more, it’s gender blind and genre blind, allowing for plenty of surprises in the longlist. 

I’ll note the Not The Booker longlist this year had 72 entires and was about one third female, though none of them made it through to the shortlist. I leave the question of why that should be as an exercise for the reader.

The next stage, though, could then take on the normal Not The Booker format with a public contest based on 100+ word reviews, rather than simple votes, to create the shortlist. This is when the authors get to rally the troops, the passionate discussions happen in the comments, and everyone gets to dig in and dirty their hands. The final judging of the shortlist happens the same way as usual too, with reviews and discussions and so on and so forth. 

Now, it is true that the system I’ve outlined would require some setting up, but it’s more than possible to do. We have, as they say, the technology. And if a self-publishing Not The Booker was established, it would be well worth the trouble of developing a robust system to deal with the submissions as it would not only get used year after year, it could also reveal some interesting trends in, say, the number of women authors, the popularity of certain genres, the increase/decrease in overall quality year on year etc. 

Of course, I’m sure I’ve missed something blindingly obvious, or made it too complicated in some way, so please do say so in the comments! 

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BookBaby recently published a blog post entitled Promote Your Book on a Budget: 20 Thrifty Ways to Get Your Writing Out There. I was a bit annoyed by it, because some of the items were clearly not budget, and others aren’t promotional. Even more, some dodn’t seem relevant to self-published authors, whom I would imagine comprise BookBaby’s core audience.

I mentioned that on Twitter and BookBaby responded and asked for my thoughts, so I figured I might as well. You should probably go read the BookBaby piece first, so that you have the context, before taking a look at my point-by-point responses. 

1. Set up a professional author website
This, by itself, isn’t an act of promotion anymore, because merely having a website doesn’t mean that anyone is going to see it unless you actively promote it. This is actually an admin task, similar to making sure you have a bio, headshot and working email address. 

2. Make sure your site is media-friendly
Again, not an act of promotion, but just an extension of #1.

3. Guest blog posts
Writing guest blog posts for other people is a good idea. Probably best to offer first to those people you know, or those bloggers who you have seen running guest posts. Do your research, have an idea to pitch to them, and don’t spam people. 

4. Plan your book launch event early
This was the one that really made me wonder who this blog post was aimed at. I would guess that most self-published authors don’t enough money lying about to pay for a launch party. Most also don’t have a network that would enable them to attract the kind of people who could really help them get their book out there. Launch parties aren’t just a booze-up, they’re to introduce your book to people in the industry such as book buyers, reviewers and journalists. Without them, you might as well just go down the pub with your mates.

If you’re unknown, if you don’t have a publisher, a worthwhile book launch event is going to be tricky to pull off. Perhaps your local library or independent book store might help, but whether they’d be interested is really going to vary. 

5. Hold a social media contest or giveaway
Not a bad idea, but requires that you have a big network to make it work. 

6. Do radio interview, and lots of ‘em
In the UK at least, you’ll be damn lucky to get on the radio even if you’re a well-known authors with a mainstream publisher behind you! You might possible get onto local radio as a self-published author if you have a compelling story, but most are likely to struggle with this one. 

7. Promote yourself in your email signature
Good idea.  

8. Send your book to 7 reviewers each week
Wait, what? Given that this one mentions postage, this is about sending actual, real books to reviewers. Seven copies a week will rapidly add up, and mostly will be a total waste of time for self-published authors.

Don’t send review copies out blind. Make sure that the reviewer is interested in your genre and accepts books from self-pubilshed authors – find this out from their site if you can. Then a polite and short email talking about your book and offering to send them a review copy or ebook. And if they don’t reply, don’t nag them! Only if someone requests a hardcopy should you send one out, otherwise you’re just wasting money. 

9. Craft a catchy press release
Before you waste time doing this, go through all the book coverage from journalists you’re interested in and find out, again, whether they cover your genre and whether they have ever written about or talked to self-published authors. If they haven’t, you have to ask yourself what are the chances that they are going to start with you? Do you have a really compelling angle? Is there something unusual, novel, or newsworthy about you or your book? Don’t kid yourself: Journalists can be very, very hard to impress. 

Local media might be easier to get into than national media, particularly if you have a ‘local author done good’ angle. However, neither at local or national level will the “story of your book launch” will not be enough. 

10. Start your own email newsletter
Excellent plan! Sooner you start, the better. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 people on it or 100 or 1000, it will build with your career and will become an invaluable resource.

11. Use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.
Yes, absolutely, but don’t get too sucked in by them, and don’t be spammy. 

12. Follow-up with everyone that helps you
Yes, although I’d draw the line at gift giving. Smells a bit too much like bribery. 

13. Be good to book clubs
If you can get traction with local book clubs, then go for it. 

14. Ask a friend to host a book party
I’m in two minds about this, personally, so it’s probably a subjective decision about whether it’s a good idea.

15. Explore consignment options
It’s really, really hard for self-published authors to get into even independent book stores. Even if the staff want to help, management might not let them place your books. And if they do take your books, be prepared for them to be hidden away at the back – all the juicy spots are bought and paid for, quite literally, by the big publishers. It’s of course worth asking, especially if you have an existing relationship, but be prepared to be turned down and don’t take it personally. 

16. Subscribe to Google Alerts
Not really a promotional thing, but hey, go for it. Don’t expect to see too much activity if you’re a new author, though. 

17. Write a letter to the editor
Oh, this one could be a total waste of time. Generally speaking, editors can see self-promotion a mile off so you have to make sure you really are providing some value to his or her readers to stand any chance of publication. 

18. Subsidize your vacations
Yes, if you want to add speaking gigs to your holiday, add time at the beginning or the end, and draw a very bright line between holiday and work. You must allow yourself time to relax and not think about work, and you absolutely must not sacrifice holiday time with your family. 

19. Books aren’t just for bookstores
Very good idea to get in touch with public libraries, most of which are more than happy to get free books from people! Argleton was taken by 16 libraries around the world, so definitely a good idea to make the offer. Again, might be worth contacting them first and offering them an ebook version to see if they want the physical copy. And local independent non-book stores might stock copies, but the big chains almost certainly won’t. 

20. Post every positive review to your web site
Not every review please god, no. A few soundbites, a few of the best, but have some modesty! And absolutely do not flood your social media accounts with every last bit of positive feedback. That’s just egotistical and obnoxious. 

So, there we have it: A mixed list with some ideas that are good, some that are bad and some that are just a bit off the boil. Ultimately, promotion is hard. Some people will find it easier to toot their own horn than others, and some people will have success with some tactics that prove useless for others.

The best thing is to do your research before you commit time to anything, make sure you know why you are doing what you are doing, and always be prepared to stop doing it if it doesn’t work. There are only so many hours in the day and you don’t want to waste precious writing time on things that are unlikely to help your career. 

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This is Part 4 in my series of blog posts looking at the lessons I learnt doing a Kickstarter project. See also Part 1: Don’t Go Off Half-CockedPart 2: Rewards, Part 3: Budgeting.

Whilst there is, for me at least, some pleasure to be derived from working out reward levels and toying with Excel spreadsheets in working out my budget, the idea of promoting my own project makes my blood run cold. I never have been one of the world’s natural bigmouths, and in all honesty, I dread the promotional work i’m going to have to do for Queen of the May.

I would love it if the world automatically rewarded hard work and quality, but it doesn’t. You have to get out there and tell the world that you’ve done something worth looking at. Here are few thoughts about promoting your Kickstarter project.

1. You have to do your own promo
Much as it would be lovely to just put stuff up on Kickstarter and let the community organically find you, that is just not how it works. There are lots and lots of projects on Kickstarter and, whilst a few people might trawl through the site looking for interesting stuff to back, you can’t assume that will result in enough people to fund your project.

You have to have a plan to promote your project and be willing to go outside of the Kickstarter community to do so. If you simply put up a project and cross your fingers, you will almost certainly fail.

2. Build your community before you crowdfund
By the time you’re ready to launch your project, it’s too late to build a fanbase around your work. You have to start collecting fans early. Whatever tools you favour, start now, because it takes a long time to build up a following and when your project starts you simply don’t have that time spare. Even social tools like Twitter and Facebook, often erroneously billed as a silver bullet, are not instantaneous and it takes time to connect with those people who are interested in your work.

3. You need a big, big fanbase
A rule of thumb for direct marketing is that between 0.1% and 1% of people that you contact will be interested in what you’re selling them. My mum teaches exercise and no matter what advertising or marketing we try to increase her class sizes, it comes in at around 1%. That means you should aim to reach about 100 or even 1000 times the number of people you need to fund your project.

So, if I think I need 200 people to fund Queen of the May, I need to reach between 20,000 and 200,000 people to find enough who are actually interested in what I’m proposing. That’s a lot of people.

4. Run an opt-In newsletter
One way to reduce the number of people you need to reach is to run an opt-in newsletter that people choose to receive. The idea is that if people are already interested in you and your work, then they’ll be more likely to act when you tell them about your new project. Giving them the ability to get regular news from you is a good way to keep in touch, but don’t expect everyone on your mailing list to read your emails. It’s common for even opt-in lists to have an open rate of less than 20% so if you have 100 people on your list, only 20 will actually read your emails. But, and it’s a big but, those people will be more likely to back your project than random Joes off the street.

5. Engage with social media
The amazing thing about Twitter is not that it’s an easy way to talk to people but that it’s a network of networks. If I send a tweet, someone in my network can send it on to their network, and someone in their network can send it even further. We’re out of the hub-and-spoke model of a newsletter and into the network-of-networks model of social media. That can really help news of your project spread outside of your immediate circle of friends and into the wider community.

Of course, you have to invest time in social media, whether that’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or something else, prior to launch. It does take a long time to build up a Twitter following, for example, so get going, get following and be talkative. I’m not going to write a full-on guide to social media in this post, but just remember to give more than you take.

6. Assess your channels
Do you know how many people you can reach, roughly speaking, through each of your promo channels? How many people follow you on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus? Do you know what level of overlap there is? Spend some time working out how many people you can reach directly, and then ask if it’s enough. If you only have a small network, that might have an impact on what makes a sensible crowdfunding target.

7. Time your announcements
Research has shown that there are four key times in the day when people are most active in email: on arrival at work, just before lunch, just after lunch, and just before they go home. Sending an email at one of these times increases the chances it will be opened and read. Equally, sending a Tweet in the UK morning will mean that Americans don’t see it as they will be asleep at the time.

So think about when you’re sending out emails and Tweets and Facebook updates, and try to make sure that you send at a time when your message is most likely to be received. If you have a blog, pay attention to what time people visit by installing a traffic monitoring package like Statcounter or Google Analytics. My blog seems to peak each day around lunchtime, so that’s a good time to post something new.

8. Co-ordinate across your channels
If you have several places you can promote your project, make sure that you think about how they work together.  If you’re writing blog posts about your project, make sure you post them on Twitter and Facebook, for example. Don’t just link to your crowdfunding page, but to discussion about it.

9. Don’t overdo it
I probably underdo it, but really, seriously, don’t overdo the self-promotion. Nothing puts people off a project more than someone who does nothing else but whitter on about it all the time.

10. Make it easy for people to help
When I’ve been promoting Ada Lovelace Day in the past, I’ve noticed that people really do like it when you give them a pre-written tweet to copy and paste, or write an email that they can forward. People are generally willing to help you get the word out, but the easier you can make it for them the more likely they are to take action.

11. Ask friends, but don’t impose
It’s well worth tapping friends up for help, especially if they have bigger networks than you. But if you do, make sure that you don’t impose on them. Give them a heads-up on what you’re doing and the opportunity to help if they want to, but don’t put them in a position where they feel obliged – it might backfire.

Self-promotion for most people is really hard. It’s well worth thinking ahead about how you’re going to promote stuff in a way that you’re comfortable with, and how you can co-ordinate it to make the most of every bit of activity. Whatever you decide, you can’t escape the fact that a good promotion plan could make or break your project.

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How do people discover new books and authors?

by Suw on February 24, 2012

Last month I put together a brief survey to find out how people find new books and authors. One of the biggest challenges facing new authors, regardless of whether they are self-published or going with a traditional publisher, is getting the word out about their work. Increasingly, authors are having to do a significant amount of legwork in terms of promotion as marketing and advertising budgets are slashed, whether we like it or not.

The trouble is, most self-published authors don’t have a particularly detailed understanding of their market. Either they haven’t thought to find out, or simply don’t know where to start. It’s understandable – we didn’t get into writing in order to become expert marketeers – but something that we just have to get to grips with.

So I thought I’d start my own journey towards understanding by asking people where they find out about new books and authors. Here are the results. Note: In the original question, 1 meant “frequently” and 5 meant “never”, but I inverted it during analysis so that the graphs made more sense.

Question 1: What genres of fiction do you enjoy reading?

The first question asked people to rate how often they read particular genres. As you can see, respondents were fairly evenly spread, but the most popular genres were Science Fiction and Fantasy; the least popular were Western, Chick Lit, Romance, and Horror.

Ave popularity by genre

 

Question 2: Where do you find about about new books and new authors?

The second question asked people to rate how frequently they found new books or authors via different methods. There’s bad news for self-publishers here: The most popular ways to find new authors remains word of mouth (but not via Twitter or Facebook), browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop, browsing in an online bookshop and newspaper reviews.

Least popular sources were Kindle forums and Amazon forums, which isn’t a surprise as much of the content there is for authors trying to figure out the vagaries of Amazons physical and ebook stores. Disappointingly, GoodReads and Library thing fared poorly too.

Most popular sources

 

Now, my sample size was quite small, just 238 responses. But it echoes Verso Digital’s 2011 Survey of Book-Buying Behaviour, released last month, which polled 2,200 respondents. Verso Digital found that most of their respondents found new books through personal recommendation (49.2%), bookstore staff recommendations (30.8%), advertising (24.4%, and a source I forgot to add in), search engines (21.6% and ditto). Only 11.8% found new books through social networks and 12.1% via blogs. Book reviews accounted for 18.9%.

There are a lot more interesting nuggets in the report, so it’s well worth a flick through the slides.

Conclusions: Personal recommendation most important for self-publishers

The results of this survey are a bit of a mixed bag for self-publishers. For most of us it’s impossible to get our books into prominent positions in bookshops either offline or on, and even harder to get newspaper reviews. The places where it’s easy for us to gain access, such as GoodReads, LibraryThing, Twitter, Facebook and on our own blog simply aren’t that influential. It’s disappointing, because these are places where authors can be very proactive.

My suspicion is that whilst the people who use book-focused sites are avid readers and buyers, there are few of them in the broader population. Given the lack of referral stats for Amazon there’s no way of knowing how many people find my book from Goodreads, but I know that few make it over to my blog from there.

So what are we left with? Both my graph and the Verso Digital figures show that self-published authors should focus on encouraging people to make personal recommendations for their work, as that is still the most important way that people find new authors and books. Simply telling your friends that you recently read a book and loved it appears to be the single most important thing you can do to help an author along. Plus ça change, eh?

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What is literary fiction?

January 15, 2012

I belong to an internet forum populated by a right bunch of weirdos some lovely people, and in the course of discussions about my survey, the one in which I’m trying to figure out how people discover new books and authors (it’s still open, please answer it!), the question was asked: So what the hell is Literary Fiction? [...]

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How do you find out about new books and authors?

January 11, 2012

I’m interested in finding out more from readers about what they like and how they find out about new books and authors. I’m starting off with a very simple two-question survey. Please do take a moment to fill it out! When I’ve got a significant number of responses, I’ll publish the results. UPDATE: Right, well [...]

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Ebook pricing experiment: First (tiny) milestone passed

January 11, 2012

Today I passed the first milestone in my ebook pricing experiment: I have sold as many copies of Argleton in the first 11 days of January as I sold in the four months it was available last year. However, and it’s a big however, I’ve made less than a quarter of the money in royalties [...]

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Authors: If you can’t take the heat, stay the hell away from your book’s reviews

January 7, 2012

Today I stumbled across a blog post by KB/KT Grant about how authors who can’t handle negative reviews should really stay away from reading them, and certainly shouldn’t throw a hissy fit about any criticism they get. I hadn’t previously seen any of the examples of authorial meltdown that Grant refers to, but she is absolutely [...]

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Anne McCaffrey

November 23, 2011

It was with great sadness that I read today of Anne McCaffrey’s death. I remember the very moment that I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s work. I was standing in my aunt and uncle’s dining room after some family gathering, almost on the way out of the door, when my uncle picked a book off his shelf [...]

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