Short stories and novellas are easy marks for AI-generated literature, but how will publishing cope with an influx of AI-generated books?

The first result from Dall E with the prompt “A photorealistic image of ChatGPT looking eager and ready to help a writer working on a novel.” Don’t look too closely lest it give you nightmares.

I want to start with a small protest: What is currently termed Artificial Intelligence, or AI, isn’t anything of the sort. ChatGPT is not intelligent, it’s just verbose predictive text, trained on a huge data set and capable of producing long, cogent passages. But it’s not intelligent, it’s definitely not sentient, it has no knowledge, no error detection and thus no error correction. Instead of calling it AI, I will use the term Large Language Model, or LLM, to describe ChatGPT, Bing, Sudowrite and the rest.

Now then.

Here’s the thing.

There is not a single part of the publishing industry that is ready for the onslaught of shoddy LLM content that’s heading towards it. Charles Arthur warns that the “approaching tsunami of addictive AI-created content will overwhelm us”, but I’m not sure that even that warning is stark enough. So let me try something pithier:

LLM content has the potential to destroy large swathes of the publishing industry.

Grifters will crowd out genuine writers on Kindle. LLM content will swamp submissions to literary magazines and agents. Any system based on human review will collapse, but algorithmic systems won’t do much better. It doesn’t matter how good or bad this LLM content is, what matters is how quick it is to create and thus how much of it gets produced.

This disruption is already affecting short stories and, in concert with some other self-publishing and wider macroeconomic trends, it is very rapidly going to take over Amazon’s book marketplace. Traditional publishing, especially agents, are not going to be able to escape either, though they might believe that they are safe for now. They aren’t. And authors who are focusing now on the ethical use of LLM assistance in their writing are going to find themselves in competition with people who don’t care about ethics or even readable prose. We’re at only the beginning of a massive shitshow.

LLM spam forces Clarkesworld to close to new submissions

Let’s start with short stories.

Clarkesworld Magazine is an online science fiction and fantasy magazine which publishes short stories, interviews and articles and has won Hugo, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. It publishes pieces between 1,000 and 22,000 words long, paying 12¢ per word or between $120 and $2,640 per submission. That makes Clarkesworld an attractive venue for authors wanting to try to make a living from their work.

It also makes it an attractive target for plagiarists and LLM scammers.

On 15 February 2023, Clarkesworld’s Neil Clarke blogged about a disturbing increase in the number of “spammy submissions” that he was seeing. Clarke wrote:

[T]he number of spam submissions resulting in bans has hit 38% this month. While rejecting and banning these submissions has been simple, it’s growing at a rate that will necessitate changes. To make matters worse, the technology is only going to get better, so detection will become more challenging.

Five days later, Clarke added a note that he’d had so many spam submissions – “over 50 before noon” – that he had to close submissions completely. There’s no reason to believe that this onslaught will stop. Clarke says that he is in touch with other editors having the same problem, but no one has a solution.

Clarkesworld submissions by month up to 20 Feb 2023.

Let’s have a think about email for a moment, which has been dealing with spam for more than 30 years. In the early days of spam, the full burden of sorting spam from real email fell on the recipient. Now, email service providers act as intermediaries between spammer and recipient and they filter out a huge amount of the stuff before it reaches our inboxes. However, anyone with an email address will know that a lot of spam gets through and legitimate emails are often wrongly marked as spam.

There are currently no intermediaries between LLM spammers and magazine editors. The cost of LLM spam detection falls entirely and only on these editors. And, as with email spammers, there is no pressure on the LLM spammers to stop. Being blocked by a magazine doesn’t matter – you can easily create a new email and identity and have another go.

The LLM book boom on Kindle

It should surprise nobody that there’s now a boom in LLM-created books on Amazon, although its true extent is impossible to measure as there’s no requirement to flag LLM content in book metadata or descriptions, and quite a big incentive not to. Reuters’ Greg Bensinger writes:

Now ChatGPT appears ready to upend the staid book industry as would-be novelists and self-help gurus looking to make a quick buck are turning to the software to help create bot-made e-books and publish them through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing arm. Illustrated children’s books are a favorite for such first-time authors. On YouTube, TikTok and Reddit hundreds of tutorials have spring [sic] up, demonstrating how to make a book in just a few hours. Subjects include get-rich-quick schemes, dieting advice, software coding tips and recipes.

Bensinger quotes the Authors Guild’s Mary Rasenberger, who says, “This is something we really need to be worried about, these books will flood the market and a lot of authors are going to be out of work.” Yes. Yes they will.

Books with small amounts of text are an obvious target – they’re easy to generate on an LLM and it’s easier to keep on top of things like plot and consistency. A children’s picture book only has between 500 and 1000 words, whilst a chapter book for ages 5 to 7 will have around 5,000 to 10,000 words. With a little coaxing, an LLM is perfectly capable of producing this amount of text in a very short space of time. You can then use Dall E, MidJourney and other image creation engines to provide the images.

These books won’t be good – this LLM-written article on how to write a book in three days using LLMs shows just how bad a whole book of this stuff can be – but that doesn’t matter, as I’ll come on to later.

Once there’s a strategy for creating 10,000 word chapter books, it’s easy enough to extend that to 15,000 or 20,000 word novellas, at which point LLMs collide head-on with an existing trend.

The high volume business strategy

Neil Bakewell has published 40 novellas of between 10,000 and 25,000 words on Kindle in just 18 months. He’s been so successful he’s been offered and turned down a multi-book traditional publishing deal. He, along with his wife Jen, now teach their method for getting your first novella written and published within 21 days. They and some of their students are now regularly bringing in US$10k per month.

That is a lot of money.

Part of the Bakewells’ success comes down to the fact that they use cheap ghostwriters and editors, so they can crank out novellas extremely quickly, and they publish in very tight niches that attract voracious readers. They know what those readers want and they can give it to them rapidly.

Indeed, this rapidity is encouraged by Amazon. There is a community of Kindle Unlimited readers who inhale books and it’s in Amazon’s interest to encourage these binge readers: They put pressure on authors to produce more, which means more choice in the Kindle store and on Kindle Unlimited, which encourage people to spend more on books and to keep their subscription going. Readers want or even expect their favourite authors to publish to a regular schedule, faster, perhaps, than it’s comfortable for those authors to write.

The Verge has published an astonishing piece by Josh Dzieza that shows just how challenging it is for authors to keep pace. Dzieza talks to indie writer Jennifer Lepp, who was struggling to meet her readers’ demands:

Lepp, who writes under the pen name Leanne Leeds in the “paranormal cozy mystery” subgenre, allots herself precisely 49 days to write and self-edit a book. This pace, she said, is just on the cusp of being unsustainably slow. She once surveyed her mailing list to ask how long readers would wait between books before abandoning her for another writer. The average was four months.

Lepp’s books are not novellas. A quick look at her back catalogue on Amazon shows that she’s writing books between 200 and 400 pages. If you assume an average of 300 words per page, that’s between 60,000 and 120,000 words. Written and edited in 49 days. That speed is completely inconceivable to me.

Lepp began to use Sudowrite, which uses OpenAI’s GPT-3 LLM and is designed specifically for fiction, and found that it made her life significantly easier. But despite the fact that her beta readers found Sutowrite’s contributions as good as, perhaps even better than, her own she came to feel disconnected from her own stories. She now uses LLM content much more judiciously.

Lepp and Bakewell’s experiences illustrate how Amazon rewards a high volume self-publishing strategy, but that the publication pace that Kindle readers want can quickly become a treadmill that human writers can’t keep up with. Your choice is either hire a bunch of ghostwriters from places like Fiverr or use an LLM to generate your prose.

Amazon itself is sending market messages that encourage LLM content creation.

The ethical use of LLMs

Joanna Penn has always been quick to adopt new technologies in self-publishing. I’ve oft admired her optimism and the way that she grasps new technologies and works out how to take advantage of them before the rest of the industry even knows that they exist.

She spoke with Josh Dzieza for his piece as well, (and I really do recommend you read it in full), particularly about her work with the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Orna Ross on trying to develop ethical guidelines for the use of LLMs in writing. Indeed, both Ross and Penn include “an AI statement of usage in their books to declare which tools have been used in the process of creating the finished work”.

But as valuable as these ethical guidelines are, they won’t have any impact on bad actors. Because we’re not actually talking about the Lepps, Penns and Rosses of the world. We’re not talking about people who are using LLMs as a creative tool to support their own writing process. We’re not talking about people who think about the ethics of using LLMs to write.

We’re talking about the people who don’t care about ethics and don’t care whether the stories and books they produce and publish are any good. We’re talking about commodity writers.

The passion economy vs commoditisation

In his book The Passion Economy, Adam Davidson argues that in order to flourish small businesses, freelances and creatives need to focus on developing their business around clients and customers who share their passions and who want to pay top dollar for depth of knowledge and expertise. He warns quite starkly against allowing your products or services to become commoditised, explaining that, as a small business, you can never compete against large corporations who can produce standardised goods and services at huge scale.

The high volume self-published book business is a commodity business. Authors are fungible. Books can be shorter and quality lower. They are products designed to meet the needs of readers in sometimes quite narrow niches, and it’s adherence to the tropes and expectations of those niches that is important rather than anything specific about the books. That makes the books themselves fungible as well.

This is the antithesis of what we usually think of when we think about publishing. We tend to think of authors as people who are pouring their heart out onto the page, working for years and years on their craft, on realising their vision. People for whom being read is a dream, whether that’s via a traditional publishing deal or becoming a successful indie author. These people have a story they need to tell and the act of telling it is an expression of a fundamental part of their personalities and identities. They are part of the passion economy.

High volume writers, on the other hand, are producing books quickly and cheaply – the hallmarks of a commodity.

The coming LLM storm

LLMs are a developing technology. ChatGPT launched on 30 November 2023, less than four months ago, and already we’re seeing it having an enormous impact. Ignore the disaster of Microsoft Bing’s Sydney for a moment and focus on how good ChatGPT and Sudowrite already are. As the technology progresses, it’s going to get easier and easier to create longer and more complex passages of text. As users develop a better understanding of how to use it, we’ll see simpler strategies for using LLMs to produce novellas and even novel-length works in a fraction of the time it takes people to write without LLM assistance.

In the short term, we’ll see more literary magazines struggling to find a way to deal with LLM spam. If there’s no easy solution, they’ll be forced to restrict their author pool in some way which, as Neil Clarke says, will damage the flow of new talent into the industry. Some magazines may even close, unable to effectively filter the wheat from the LLM chaff. These magazines are already run on a shoestring. They can’t afford to either employ more readers or pay for whatever LLM detection software arises.

We’ll see Amazon flooded with LLM-generated books and the majority of them will be shit. And Amazon won’t do a damn thing about it. There’s been an issue with plagiarism, poorly repackaged public domain books and fake reviews on Amazon for years and they simply do not give the tiniest of rat’s arses about it. I wrote about fake reviews on Amazon 11 years ago (though Forbes seems to have deleted the beginning of that article), and as far as I know, nothing substantive has changed.

And that is going to make it very, very hard for indie authors to gain traction. It’s already much harder than it used to be to break through. Indie authors have to spend a lot of money on ads to promote their books, to the point where it doesn’t seem like there’s any such thing as organic success any more. Indie authors are going to struggle to compete with LLM-assisted authors and that will drive more LLM usage.

And then it’s going to reach agents. LLM-generated novels will be submitted to agents in vast numbers, in exactly the same way as Clarkesworld was flooded with short stories, crowding out human-written books.

Novels can take years to write. My first novel took me seven years. My current work in progress might take me two. Lapp proves that you can write a novel with LLM assistance in under two months. A fully LLM-generated novel might take days. And if you can write a novel in days you can submit dozens of them to dozens of agents at once. And because a lot of agents accept submissions by email, in the truly dystopian version of this reality LLM grifters will mass-submit their LLM-generated trash to agents in the hope that just one or two will bite.

It doesn’t matter that the agents will always have the ability to spot and discard terrible books. The point is that they will be overwhelmed with LLM-generated submissions. And I am not convinced that they are ready for that. Many agents still do everything manually, which results in authors being ghosted rather than getting any kind of reply because agents are too busy to respond. How are these agents going to cope when they get swamped with LLM books?

It only takes a minority of bad actors to destroy a system

As we’ve seen in other arenas, particularly politics and propaganda, it only takes a small number of bad actors to flood the zone with shite. Disruption is easy. Destruction is easy. Whether it’s intended or a side-effect doesn’t matter. What matters is that this problem is fiendishly hard to solve because discerning good from bad requires human cognition and we do not have actual artificial intelligence yet that can replicate human cognition.

So it doesn’t matter if the majority of authors, including LLM-assisted authors, behave ethically and thoughtfully. It doesn’t matter if LLM-assisted authors are producing good work that their readers love.

What matters is that a small number of bad actors can put so much pressure on an already fragile system that it breaks. Like Humpty Dumpty, once these systems break it will not be easy to put them back together again.

I’ll be interested to see what kind of solution Clarkesworld comes up with. We can guarantee Amazon won’t even see LLM-generated content as a problem so we can’t expect a solution from them. And it’s hard to see how agents might deal with even a small increase in submissions.

I wish I could conclude this essay with a nice solution, all tied up in a bow. But at this point, my only real solution is to hope that I’m completely wrong and that publishing won’t find itself washed away by an LLM tsunami.

But what if I’m not wrong?

What do we do then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing destroys writing time like running your own business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I’m stopping self-publishing

by Suw on December 12, 2014

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

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

The unholy mess that is VATMOSS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unholy mess that is self-publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that shit can get fucked and stay fucked.

The unholy mess that is my writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what am I going to do?

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

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

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

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

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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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Mike Cane wrote a blog post in response to Chuck Wendig’s and mine, saying that he thinks the self-publishing shit volcano will come to an end, because Amazon will end it. I left a comment on Cane’s blog, but it was starting to get longer than his initial blog post and I had more to say, so I’m expanding upon it here.

Cane’s thesis is that Amazon will act to remove bad ebooks that don’t sell because all that crap clogs up their site and is bad for business. He thinks that there will come a time where Amazon feels the pain so removes poor quality books and ban further submissions from terrible authors.

I wish he were right, but I don’t think Amazon will do anything within the foreseeable future. There is one circumstance which might fix this whole problem.

So, first, why won’t Amazon act?

Amazon is not a rational actor

At least, not in any way that you or I might consider rational. It’s pretty much the only company I can think of that can consistently not make a profit and not be punished by Wall Street. In the past, we’ve seen that it only takes action when it is cornered, and then it takes the smallest action it can get away with.

Take the bestiality/rape/incest/pseudoincest furore of last year. Amazon only acted when it felt cornered, and even then it did as little as it could get away with. There’s still plenty of dodgy porn on Amazon and will continue to be, because Amazon has no interest in really properly clearing it up.

Same with the sockpuppet review affair. And when Amazon did take action, it was to put in place stupid and ill-considered rules about whether Kindle authors could review or not. It has done nothing substantial about improving the quality of reviews, even though that would be something that you’d think would affect their bottom line quite significantly. After all, if you can’t trust the reviews on Amazon, how do you know whether to buy or not?

So at the moment, there is no force pushing Amazon to act, nothing making it whip out the banhammer. Yes, the shite clogs up Amazon’s arteries, but they have shown no interest in dealing with shite in other areas of their business, because clearly having heart disease isn’t producing any painful symptoms for them. Yet.

Amazon does make money out of bad books 

50 Shades of Grey. Not a masterpiece of literature, but it tapped into a market desperate for soft porn, did well, then broke out of that niche to became a cultural touchstone, bought not because it is good but because everyone wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Other areas of shitty writing, niche erotica in particular, do well again because people want stuff that the traditional publishers won’t touch with a bargepole.

So there is no 1:1 correlation between shitty self-published books and sales. The idea that self-publishing is a meritocracy where the good writing naturally floats to the top is at best a happy fairytale and at worst a delusion. If Amazon can make money out of monster porn without getting slapped about by the law, it will.

Storage is cheap and getting cheaper

Amazon has turned cloud storage into a business, and book files are small, so there’s no real reason for them to worry about how much space the long tale of self-published dross is taking up.

If your average ebook file takes up 500kb, then you can fit 2,147,483 in a single terabyte. Amazon charges $0.010 per gb per month for its “Glacier” storage. So if you’re hiring Amazon’s cloud directly, you can store 2097 averagely-sized files for a month for a cent. You could store 5 million books for just $2384 per month, which is certainly more than it actually costs Amazon, because they obviously mark up their commercial cloud storage offerings.

It is undoubtedly cheaper for Amazon to just store all ebooks uploaded than it is for them to pay someone to figure out how best to get rid of the ones that don’t sell AND are badly written, and then deal with the resultant backlash from offended authors.

That offended backlash

If there’s one thing Amazon isn’t interested in, it’s alienating hundreds of thousands of self-published authors. A few hundred noisy gasbags it can, and does, ignore. (Including the ones in the press.) But if you consider that most books don’t sell, and there is probably more than half a million self-published ebooks getting uploaded each year and growing, that’s a lot of shit and a lot of angry authors they’d have to deal with.

Whether there would be enough angry authors to hurt Amazon’s overall sales in any meaningful manner is something I couldn’t say. But it’s certainly enough to hurt Amazon’s brand (even more than they do themselves – they don’t seem to give a crap about brand), and hurt ebook and possibly paper book sales. Not to mention the deluge of angry email that would cripple their customer support department.

So whilst I would love Amazon to take a long, hard look at their self-publishing platform, I have absolutely no confidence that they will, because I cannot see any motivator big enough to push them to action.

What might change the calculation?

There is one thing that might change all this, and when it comes online it will revolutionise the book industry in ways we cannot even imagine.

Artificial Intelligence.

When we have meaningful AI, not necessarily all the way to full consciousness, but computers sophisticated enough to be able to learn to read and be programmed to develop a reliable taste, then the whole game changes. Everything. Amazon’s pathetic recommendation engine, which is the most overrated algorithm on the planet, will become utterly irrelevant. So will reader reviews. Because when we have a computer capable of reading a book and accurately scoring it for grammar, punctuation, plot, character development, style and genre, then we have a chance to be able to sift out the good from the bad.

Of course, then the question becomes, what do we mean by ‘accurately’? Or ‘good’? Whose standards will be used to draw the lines?

If past experience with technology is anything to go by, as soon as we have AI capable of doing this, we’ll have multiple interpretations of what ‘good’ is, and suddenly all books will become discoverable. Love monster porn? But really, really love velociraptor porn? AI will be able to scan the whole corpus and give you the very best in small dinosaur erotica. Want to read books that are just like Agatha Christie’s? Easy. Want to set your standards to embrace only the most obscure literary fiction? Piffle. Here I am, brain the size of a planet and you ask me to find you some literary fiction.

When we have AI, Amazon stops being the canonical catalogue of all books on the planet. Reader reviews become irrelevant. Sockpuppetry becomes impossible. Only quality – defined however the reader wants – matters.

Is this what Google is attempting with its mass book digitisation program? In 2005, Google played down that exact rumour. Last month, nearly ten years later, Google acquired Mind Deep, an artificial intelligence company based in London. I think we can all draw our own conclusions from that.

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Author Chuck Wendig has written a long post about how self-publishing is turning into a shit volcano. Vast quantities of terribly written rubbish is being published, and this is damaging to everyone in self-publishing. He says (emphasis as original):

[…] one of the features of self-publishing is that the door is open to anyone. Everyone. Always. No bouncers at this nightclub door, which is fine, but that also means you get folks with no shirt and no shoes. You’ll get folks dressed to the nines in sharkskin suits and you’ll also get wild-eyed dudes who are eating goulash out of rubber boots and who are quietly masturbating in the corner. You let anybody swim in the pool and, well, anybody can swim in the pool.

He goes on to make a number of arguments as to why this is a bad thing, and asks what we can do about it. If you haven’t read it yet, do so, because Wendig makes some very good points.


I’m afraid I have some bad news for Wendig, and for everyone else in the industry, self-published or otherwise. The shit volcano is not going to stop erupting, and there’s nothing we can do about it. There are a number of reasons for my pessimism, but the main one is this:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Charles Darwin was dead on the money when he said that, and it’s now known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia says:

[…] unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.

I’ve seen it over and over again in social media. People believe that because using Twitter and Facebook is easy, that producing a meaningful long-term strategy for a multinational company is therefore easy, and that their intern can do it. After a decade as a social technologist, I can tell you from experience that it’s really not easy, and no, your intern cannot do it.

You see it in web design, which is what I did before I moved into social media. Because anyone can learn to throw a bit of HTML together, they think that it’s easy to design a website. Again, from experience, I can promise you it isn’t.

The problem is that people are generally very bad at accurately assessing their level of skill in any given area, especially an area in which they are inexperienced. That’s bad enough in a field where there’s an objective measure of capability. You may think you’re the bees knees at tennis, but if you keep losing every game you play, that’s a fairly clear indicator that you’re crap. And it’s not just an indicator to you, it makes it obvious to everyone that you’re crap, so it becomes hard, though not impossible, to maintain the delusion that you’re good.

With writing, however, there is no such clarity. The factors influencing the quality of a book can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Objective factors: Spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors. Formatting errors. Inconsistencies. Issues that, no matter the reader, are obvious and should have been avoided. Much of this stuff could be picked up by a well-written algorithm.
  2. Subjective factors: Poorly drawn characters, unconvincing plots, poor dialogue, cliche-ridden prose. Problems that many people will find problematic, but that some people will be able to successfully gloss over when reading. More experienced and professional readers/writers will notice these more than those who are less experienced. A computer couldn’t spot these problems, but us humans can, although the extent to which we are bothered by them varies.
  3. Matters of taste: Tone, genre, aspects of plot or character. Other issues that really can’t be said to be good or bad, but which either fit your taste or don’t. Computers have no sense of taste.

The problem is that if you’re unskilled, it can be hard enough to spot the objective errors, but the subjective problems are well beyond your ken. Yet what often happens is that the unskilled are so overconfident that they try to classify subjective (and even objective) errors as a matter of taste, and thus something that they don’t need to address because hey, not everyone likes everything.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is intractable, because it requires the unskilled to develop a high level of self-awareness to counteract their tendency towards overconfidence, and self-awareness doesn’t come easily. Again, from Wikipedia:

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.

So, according to Dunning and Kruger, in order to combat the massive shit volcano, we would need to train every self-publisher who produces shit, and hope that they realise that they aren’t as good as they think they are and need to try a bit harder. Well, good luck with that one.

Now, it’s true that not every self-published author is on the wrong side of Dunning-Kruger. Some are on the only slightly less wrong side: Good writers whose confidence is shot because they understand that they could be better, and are over-sensitive to the gap between the quality of the work they do produce and the quality they want to achieve. Those people are better than they think they are and will publish less than they should.

Of course, there are self-published authors who have an accurate view of their own competence, and others who are moving up the competence ladder and developing a better appreciation for their own skills and what more they need to learn. Here, it’s useful to think about the Four Stages of Competence (again, from Wikipedia):

1. Unconscious incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

2. Conscious incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

3. Conscious competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

4. Unconscious competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

But if the quality of self-published books is anything to go by, most self-publishers are at stage 1. Very few have made it through to stage 4., though I think that’s true of all authors, even the traditionally published ones. It’s a very high bar after all. What we really need is more people getting as far as stage 3. Conscious competence is a perfectly fine place to be, but it is hard to get to with Dunning-Kruger in the way.

There is no intervention that I can think of that will help people, en masse, transcend the Dunning-Kruger effect and elevate themselves to a state of conscious competence as writers. Thus, we can expect the shit volcano to keep on spewing for the foreseeable future, and this without even beginning to think about the cultural reasons why there might be many people who are so eager to be authors.

Notes for commenters: I’m not talking here about people who just write for fun and give their work away on sites like Wattpad or in fanfic communities. I’m talking about people who are selling their books and, through asking for money for their work, presenting themselves as professional writers.

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At last, Queen of the May is up on Kickstarter and ready your support! We have 31 days to raise $10,000, and already have $1071 pledged. Even if you choose the lowest support level, which is $3, please do consider taking part as every little helps!

You can also help immensely by telling your friends about it. No matter how focused your own personal network, every mention of the project helps. Here are a few things you can do:

Use your social networks
Send a Tweet, update your Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn statuses, or leave a message on any other social network you use. Kickstarter provide a Tweet button that allows you to log in to Twitter and send a pre-written Tweet which says:

Queen of the May by Suw Charman-Anderson — Kickstarter via @kickstarter

If you think that’s a bit boring, you can always try:

I’m supporting @Suw’s Queen of the May on @kickstarter and you should too! (please RT!)

Or, of course, you can write whatever you like, just remember the URL:

Kickstarter also has a Facebook Like button, which you can use to post to your Facebook timeline, but again, an original, personalised message will be more interesting to your friends. 

Write a blog post
If you want to write a blog post about the project, you can quote any of the stuff that I’ve written on the Kickstarter page or here to be part of your post. You can also embed the video if you like. The code is:

<iframe frameborder=”0″ height=”360px” src=”” width=”480px”></iframe>

If you want to ask me specific questions or do an interview, please feel free to email me.

Tell your friends
If you have friends that you think might enjoy Queen of the May, why not just send them a quick email to tell them about it? Equally, if you’re on any mailing lists, forums etc. and feel like they might like to know about it, please do let them know. 

Share the link
If you’re a member of social sharing sites like Delicious, Pinterest, Metafilter, StumbleUpon etc. please do share a link to the Kickstarter project page. The biggest challenge for any crowdfunded project is to reach enough people and social sharing sites can be important sources of new supporters.

Every little really does help
It’s tempting to think that you have to famous to have an effect, but that’s not true and there’s evidence to prove it! Buzzfeed’s Jack Krawczyk and StumbleUpon’s Jon Steinberg recently collaborated on a project to analyse how links were shared across their networks. They said:

Our data show that online sharing, even at viral scale, takes place through many small groups, not via the single status post or tweet of a few influencers. While influential people may be able to reach a wide audience, their impact is short-lived. Content goes viral when it spreads beyond a particular sphere of influence and spreads across the social web via ordinarily people sharing with their friends.

[…] Even the largest stories on Facebook are the product of lots of intimate sharing — not one person sharing and hundreds of thousands of people clicking.

In short, lots of people sharing the link with just a few good friends is at the heart of what makes a project like this succeed, however counter-intuitive that might seem. I’ll write more about this in due course.

In the meantime, if you like the look of Queen of the May, do keep an eye out for updates from me on Twitter, as well as here on the blog and on Kickstarter. And here, for your delectation is the pitch video. Enjoy!



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Taleist 2012 self-publishing survey

by Suw on February 8, 2012

Taleist is running a self-publishing survey to get some more information on how (and what) the community is doing, so if you are a self-published author no matter how early in your career you are, do go over and fill it in. This is their first year running this survey so some of the questions need a bit of polish, but they’re very interested in feedback so leave a comment on their blog post if you see issues with the questions or want to make a suggestion.

I had been considering doing a survey like this myself, because it’s only through gathering and sharing data that independent publishers and self-publishers will gain insight into how this new market is shaping up. I am very curious to see how this survey shapes up!


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I was fascinated by this post from Tyler Nichols about his experience providing a freemium Letter from Santa service before Christmas. In short, Tyler had found that few people upgraded from the free version to the paid, and that those who did use the free version were much more likely to send him support queries.

I was wondering as I read how much of this is transferable to ebooks. Is the freemium model a sensible one for writers? Does giving away your work get you a bigger audience of people willing to pay next time round? Or does it just mean that lots of people download your stuff, never read it, and have no interesting in paying for future works?

I’ve always been a big advocate of free and I don’t think I’m convinced that it’s worth giving up on yet, but I did find this comment from Wei on Tyler’s post really interesting:

Freemium works with some business models but in this case, I’m pretty sure it’s not the right play. Freemium works best when you get the customer addicted to the point that they would be willing to pay money to get more of it. It seems like your website gave out the entire product for free and you are asking money for the accessories. Imagine Dell giving you a free laptop then get mad when you choose not to buy the leather case or an extra battery. Unfortunately I think that is how you have setup the site this year.

And this reply from Nate:

I agree. I always thought freemium was best explained in the gaming sense. You can play the game for free (e.g. MafiWars) but if you want the better weapon, or faster upgrades, or one time kill shot, you fork over $5, $10, or $20.

Most people won’t come in and instantly buy 1000 experience points. But after they’ve played for a time, for example a month, and are tired at how slow they upgrade, they fork over $5 for 1000XP without batting an eye. After all, it’s wired up to paypal, and the process is instant.

Giving away a book for free is the Dell model. You are giving someone the entire thing and then hoping that they buy the audiobook or a Kindle version or whathaveyou. But what would be the equivalent of the MafiaWars weapon upgrade? Certainly it’s not the last chapter, because that would essentially be a bait and switch, which is likely to piss people off.

Indeed, what upgrades can a book even have? Are people really interested in author annotations? I would imagine most are not. Audiobooks don’t feel like an upgrade – they aren’t an enhancement as much as they are simply a different version. Once you’ve read the story, you’ve read the story, you know how it ends. The audiobook is probably only attractive to the subset of your readers who like to listen.

So what about merchandise? That relies on the idea that you’re actually selling identity, not a story, and whilst in general terms that’s sort of true, is it true enough to pin a business model to? Or would selling merchandise simply mean that you have more awareness to raise and are taking a bigger risk spending time, effort and possibly money getting your shop set up? Even if you go with only on-demand merch, like t-shirts, there’s still an initial outlay on design, etc., so it’s not completely free.

But games and books are different to, say, software. People really do become enthusiastic fans of games and books, gobbling up every release as soon as it is out, in a way that I suspect isn’t the case for (much) software. I may love a particular app or service, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to upgrade to premium if I don’t need to or that I’m going to go and buy everything else that developer does. If I find an author I love, on the other hand, I will go and raid their back-catalogue without a second thought.

Of course the big problem is that as a newbie author, you don’t have fans, let alone the most valuable kind of hardcore fans that buy every version of everything. Your first and biggest challenge is reaching enough people to find the ones who are interested in becoming your fans. It is a huge hurdle, and although I’m still not sure what the most efficient way of surmounting it is, I do think I’ll be more likely to achieve that with the freemium model than without.

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Argleton audiobook now available

by Suw on January 14, 2012

After several days of recording, re-recording and editing, I’m happy to say that the Argleton audiobook is now available on Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-wish basis, with no minimum price (i.e. free download). Due to Bandcamp upload limits, I’ve had to split it into Part 1 and Part 2, but you can buy them as an album which minimises the hassle as much as possible. Once I’ve sold enough, Bandcamp will allow me to upload a bigger file, and then I’ll have enough space to upload the audiobook as a single file.

If you want to sample the wares first, please feel free to stream the book either here on on Bandcamp itself. You can also embed the audio player on your own blog if you so wish.

Please feel free to give it a listen and if you like the sound of it you can grab both files over on Bandcamp.

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