Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Ebook Subscriptions Q & A

Q: Joe, I hate Amazon, and I hate their new Kindle Unlimited terms.

Joe sez: Opt out. It's voluntary.

Q: They're an evil monopoly.

Joe sez: They're neither. But if I felt that strongly about a company, I wouldn't work with them.

Q: But they're the only way to make money.

Joe sez: So, you hate the cow that gives you milk. I can't help you there. Try the serenity prayer. You know, the strength to accept the things you cannot change.

Q: These new KU terms are unfair.

Joe sez: Who said life was supposed to be fair, fun, or easy?

Q: Amazon is ruining my career.

Joe sez: My author rank has gone from #977 to #433 since the new changes began. I've done no promo, released no new titles. I'm simply being read the same pace as before, yet it now counts for more.

Q: That's not fair.

Joe sez: Can you point me to the blog post where I whined the old system--that paid a 10 page short story the same amount as a 400 page novel--was unfair?

Q: You never did that.

Joe sez: You can curse the darkness, or light a candle.

Q: But there is no change unless people complain.

Joe sez: I didn't complain. And yet, here is change.

Q: You're making more money now because you write novels.

Joe sez: First of all, I won't know if I'm making more or less money until I know how big the pot is for July, and what my percentage is. It's too early to start worrying.

Second, writing longer books isn't what is going to earn people money under this new system.

Q: If not length, then what?

Joe sez: Quality.

Under the old system, you got a full share if someone read 10% of your work. A 20 page work meant the reader had to get through 2 pages.

Anyone can get through 2 pages, even if the 2 pages are awful.

Now, we're being paid according to how much the reader is reading. Isn't a writer who is able to sustain a reader's suspension of disbelief for 100,000 words more deserving of being paid more than a writer who can't sustain a reader for 3 pages?

Q: So you're saying I'm making less money now because I suck?

Joe sez: I'm not saying anything. I'm looking at this logically.

Farmer A works 10 hours and plows 10 acres, feeding 10,000 people.

Farmer B works 1 hour and plows 1 acre, feeding 1000 people.

Should they be paid the same?

Q: I know I don't have enough data yet, but I think my income is shrinking!

Joe sez: That's too bad. I suggest you consider writing longer works. And make sure they're page turners.

Q: So now I have to write page turners!? I'm a serious literary novelist, not a genre hack like you.

Joe sez: An artist of your caliber should be looking into government and university grants. You shouldn't be toiling with the unwashed masses in the cesspool of popular consumer swill.

Q: That sounds sarcastic.

Joe sez: It is. Learn to hold a reader's attention, and you'll get paid. Spend 100 pages describing an unlikeable protagonist without introducing a whit of conflict, and I invite you to go fuck yourself.

Q: Art needs to be protected!

Joe sez: Here's a thought experiment from my friend, Barry. Pretend that, throughout history, writers have always been monetarily compensated for how many words the reader read. Imagine there has always been some counter in place that kept track of word counts, and writers got paid accordingly.

Then some upstart company came around and wanted to charge a flat fee for a book, no matter how long it was, no matter how much of it was actually read.

Doesn't that sound silly? Suddenly, authors could make money without a single word being read. They could be compensated for writing books no one ever finished. Why toil away perfecting craft, learning how to tell a compelling story, if a sale becomes more important than a read?

Amazon's new way of compensating authors not only makes sense, I contend it should have always been like this.

What kind of writer wouldn't want it to be?

Q: All I know is that I had a lot of short stories that were making good money, and now I don't think they will.

Joe sez: Which was a loophole. An unfair way to compensate authors. Did you complain that it was unfair when you were benefiting from this loophole?

For example, I think current copyright laws are unfair. And even though these laws benefit me, I want them to be reformed so I have fewer rights.

I understand defending things you benefit from. But we should all look closer at what we benefit from and ask if it is also good for others. For society. For the world.

The old Kindle Unlimited compensation structure wasn't balanced. This wasn't collectively good for writers or readers.

Q: How was it not good for readers?

Joe sez: If writers only had to hold a reader's attention for 10% of the work to get paid, where is the impetus to keep those readers hooked for the other 90%? Where is the impetus to make the story longer, and more entertaining?

The impetus, in fact, is to hook them for 10%, then quickly make them stop reading so they'll pick up something else.

In software terms, there is something called shovelware. It endorses cheap quantity over quality. No one likes shovelware. A hundred games that sort of amuse aren't as valuable as one game that enthralls.

Can you show me how the old KU system promoted quality better than this new system does?

Q: This new system punishes short story writers.

Joe sez: Bundle your stories together. Make it easy for readers to read them all at once. Or opt out. Amazon can't punish you if you aren't enrolled.

Q: You spent years on this blog, hating on legacy publishers. Why didn't you ever opt out?

Joe sez: I did. I got my rights back, at great personal and emotional cost.

Q: The early years of this blog read like love letters to your publishers.

Joe sez: During my early years of being published, I had no choice. I wanted to reach readers, legacy was the only way, so I took whatever I was offered. And I didn't whine about it. It was the only game in town, and I played that game as best I could. You don't shit where you eat, and you dance with the one who brought you to the party. Criticizing unconscionable contracts meant I'd never get another contract. So I played nice.

When an alternative--Amazon--presented itself, I burned all those legacy bridges. My criticism of legacy publishing is a warning for other authors.

Right now, there are alternatives to Amazon. If you hate Amazon like I hated legacy publishers, leave and burn that bridge.

But you don't actually have to burn it. You can opt out and opt in as often as you like, even while vilifying Amazon all over the net.

We've come a long way, baby.

Q: The only reason you're successful at self-publishing is because your legacy publishers gave you a fanbase.

Joe sez: I debunked this meme years ago.

Q:You're an Amazon apologist.

Joe sez: I'm a pragmatist. My current goals are aligned with Amazon's. Sometimes they do things I don't like. I try to adapt.

Q: I'm going to laugh when they cut everyone's royalties to 8%.

Joe sez: You mean they could possibly cut royalties to the same percentage that legacy publishers pay? Gasp!

Q: Amazon knew writers would hate this new format.

Joe sez: I think Amazon knows it can't do make any decision without scores of writers forming a dudgeon mob of righteously indignant social justice warriors. Welcome to outrage culture, where the slightest feeling of being wronged can stir up a shitstorm on Twitter and get the attention of major media outlets. Come and jump on the bandwagon, and don't worry if you haven't learned a lot about the issue and don't understand the little you have learned. It feels good to vent, doesn't it?

But, seriously, whining after the horse has left the barn is pretty lame. You made hay when it was sunny. It isn't sunny anymore. Move on.

Q: What's with all the platitudes?

Joe sez: It's funny how the older I get, the more old sayings seem to be applicable. A proverb is a short sentence based on a long experience.

Q: So how do we survive this awful situation?

Joe sez: Easy.

1. Write good books. Books that readers love. Books they recommend to others.

2. Experiment. Try new things. If you aren't failing, you aren't trying.

3. Innovate. Start your own ebook company. Certainly some of you have ideas. Go do something about it.

4. Share what you know. That's the point of life. Learning is only half the equation, you also have to pass it along so others can benefit.

If you don't like how the way things are, do it yourself, and do it better.

Now I'm going to go back to writing. I suggest you do the same.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Subscription Ebook Services

I recently posted about the new changes to Kindle Unlimited, and in the comments someone said:

Several times you state as a fact that readers want a subscription service. I'm a reader. I'm a heavy reader as a matter of fact. I couldn't possibly be less interested in a subscription service. You might want to gone down the blanket statements.

This argument reminds me of one I heard five and a half years ago, which prompted two blog posts from me.

People have an emotional attachment to printed books. So much so, that the most repeated argument against the universal adoption of ebooks is "I love print, and no ebook will ever be able to take its place."

My response then is also appropriate for this current comment. I blogged in two parts. The first part basically stated that a book isn't words on a paper page. A book is the movie playing in the reader's head. 

The second part stated thatPeople want inexpensive media at the press of a button. Books will follow the same model as movies, music, video games, and TV.

Wanting things is part of human nature. And things we want don't get on our want list until after we've experienced them. I didn't know I wanted ebooks until Amazon invented the Kindle and made it a viable reading alternative to paper books. Instant delivery, wider selection, and lower prices lured me to their platform and proprietary format.

But I'm an early adopter. I like technology, and I try to keep up on what's newest and coolest. I'm one end of the Bell Curve.

At the other end are late adopters. They resist new tech for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they like the old tech. Maybe they're uncomfortable with new things. Maybe they're uninformed, or stubborn, or content. There are still some people who refuse to read ebooks.

But as tech marches forward, as it gets better and cheaper, paper will have less and less of a consumer footprint. If you want to keep reading, especially new and harder to find material, you're going to have to eventually read it on some sort of electronic screen.

I see going from paying for ebooks, to renting them, a smaller but similar jump.

Subscription services have been around for as long as print has been around. Newspapers. Magazines. Book clubs. Comics. People paid a monthly fee, and got their media delivered.

I was a member of the Columbia Record Club for years. They had a much larger selection than any of my local record shops, and their prices were reasonable. I had multiple accounts to take advantage of their introductory offer of 11 albums for just a penny.

My family was late to the cable TV phenomenon. We were happy renting RCA Selectavision CED movies, and saw no need for pay TV. I also had a Tandy 1000 computer when I was a kid, but didn't understand the need for a modem to join Prodigy or Compuserve. Pay monthly for access to stuff? Nah... I'll just pay for stuff as I need it.

Naturally, I eventually got cable and Internet, and they've become so omnipresent that I consider them utilities, like electric and water.

We got our first cell phone in 1996. It was for emergencies only. In 2015, many people no longer have land lines because cells are so omnipresent.

Netflix, and pay-per-view cable, and the Internet, have changed viewing habits nationwide. Back when I was growing up, you watched whatever was on TV. Now, you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. And in many cases, you rent the media, rather than own it. The terms "cloud" and "streaming" and "binge watching" are 21st century terms coined to describe the new ways we're consuming media.

When I say that readers want subscription services, I'm not making a prediction, or a blanket statement. Many consumers want these services, and we have ample evidence they do.

Remember what makes consumers adopt new tech. In no particular order:

1. Cost.
2. Simplicity.
3. Selection.
4. Service.

At this point in history, Amazon is the retailer with the hightest level of consumer satisfaction.  Good, fast service, easy as pie, with the lowest prices.

They've been #1 for nine years.

Readers are a type of consumer that seek out a type of media; books.

Keeping all of this in mind, at what point does Amazon Prime become a utility?

The reason I got cable, and Internet, and a cell phone, and a Kindle, is because they became things that I wanted. Cable got better, competitors made it cheaper, the selection got wider (service still sucks). The Internet got cheaper and bigger and more advanced. Ditto cell phones. Remember paying for texts? I was late to texting, and had cell phones for over a decade before I began to text. Because texting got easier with smart phones (no more pressing 2 three times to get the letter C) and became part of the package so there weren't extra fees.

The tech and I converged.

I'm not alone. Tech starts out clunky and limited and expensive, and gets bigger and better and cheaper and we eventually wonder how we ever lived without it.

Ebooks will never replace paper books. But paper books will become niche.

Subscription ebook services will never replace ebook sales. But ebook sales will become niche.

There is no need to pay to own something when you can get unlimited access to it--and ten million other titles--24/7 for a small monthly fee. If you read more than a few books a month, subscription services will give you the most bang for your buck.

In 2011, Spotify (a streaming music subscription service) had 1 million paying users. In 2015, it has 20 million. Why so much growth, so fast? Especially when it is competing for listener dollars against trillion dollar behemoths Apple and Walmart?

Apple and Walmart sell music. Spotify rents music.

More and more consumers are embracing rentals for digital media.

Now, I don't subscribe to Spotify. I was willing to give up CDs for mp3s, but I've been buying music on iTunes for the last ten years. I've got wifi speakers throughout my house that sync with my family's iPhones and iPads, and I'm very happy with owning my music library.

I didn't think I could possibly be less interested in a subscription music service. My audio needs are met.

Or so I thought.

This recent family vacation, I didn't take my iTunes library with me (Apple offers syncing with the iCloud, but that costs extra).

However, Amazon Prime--Amazon's subscription service--offers streaming music to members.

We could listen to a lot of the music I already owned, and Amazon's clever algorithms also suggested some new music that my family might like. Which we did. And which I don't need to buy, because there it is, in the cloud, in a service I already pay for.

Readers do want ebook subscription services. They just may not know it yet. And just because you haven't adopted them yet, doesn't mean you won't in 2025, when I predict most books will be part of subscriptions, the same way most movies and TV shows and music wind up on cable and Netflix and Prime and Spotify.

Ebook subscriptions are the present, and the future. 

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Guest Post by Keith Hunter

As writer/entrepreneur, Joe Konrath, stated in a recent posting, Amazon's Kindle Worlds allows writers to create stories in another author's world. I was one of a handful of writers fortunate enough to be invited to submit a story for the opening of Konrath’s World. A summary of my tale can be found at the end of this post. First, though, I would like to discuss a much larger issue that could greatly benefit readers and writers alike.

Joe is serious about his craft and incredibly generous to those of us willing to learn from his experiences. For years he's passed on knowledge gleaned from being traditionally published and later from his success as an indie author. Over the years, he's learned, grown, and rapidly adapted as e-books became a disruptive technology and turned legacy publishing on its head.

 When e-books first became available there were cries of, “I'll give you my dead tree book when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!” Joe knew that change is scary and, through his blog, patiently explained how events would eventually play out in the brave new world of the digital marketplace. His opinions elicited  hostile responses. I believe he's ready to move on to the next level toward his ultimate goal, which he's touched on before – world domination.

Those who follow the news regularly are aware that leaders from around the globe are becoming more vocal about establishing a world currency, something I believe will become a reality one day. And with a single currency, it's only a matter of time before all nations are united under one leader. If this should come to pass, why not be proactive and choose a benevolent dictator – someone like Joe.

Every potential leader needs a platform, and since Joe's a forward thinker, I don't believe the current system of getting elected as a senator or governor of Illinois, then toiling away at being elected President of the United States would work for him. My understanding is that he's a Libertarian and by the look and feel of the citizenry, the country isn’t ready to embrace a third party political candidate.

Joe's way will more than likely involve becoming President of the United Nations Security Council and rule from there as Secretary-General. The exact steps necessary to achieve this will be released at a future date. Today, your help is needed to plant the seeds for a grassroots movement. In addition, he needs time to decide on a new name for the U.N. Security Council. Something cool, like Guardians of the Galaxy (this particular name is currently controlled by Marvel Comics, but Joe's laying the groundwork to update current copyright laws or at least get a good licensing deal).

“Okay Keith,” some of you may be thinking. “I'm in. How can I help?” For starters, you can buy as many of Joe's books as possible. After familiarizing yourself with the Jack Daniels and Associates stories, you can write your own and post them on Kindle Worlds. Be sure to follow the guidelines and after they go live, tell as many people as possible via word-of-mouth and social media. Once world domination has been achieved, Joe will reward those who helped him along the way with cool stuff to be named later. Think of this as a Konrath Kickstarter campaign.

My own modest contribution starts with a short story entitled “The Last Taboo.” The description is as follows:

Army Investigator, Alan Johnson, has been called on to look into the disappearance of 25-year-old Ian Harris. Ian's father is contemplating a Senate bid and wants his son found, but without fanfare or the attention of the local media. Yet, what seems like a simple case soon turns menacing. Meanwhile, a Chicago psychopath has arrived in Austin, TX, to indulge in a macabre hobby and practice for a trial run of something much larger in scope in the near future. Several off-the-grid people have already disappeared and none of his victims will ever be the same. The Last Taboo is a 7,000 word Fangora-ish short story (about 23 pages long). Those who've read Konrath's Bloody Mary will better understand the ending.

In addition, I also have several short stories published under secret pen names you may enjoy (shhh - please don't tell anyone who actually wrote them since it's, you know, a secret). Purchases will count towards your overall placement in the New World Order. Or get you a guest spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, whichever you prefer.

Dead Corpse - Dallas Worth, aka Stanley Bupkis, has become the second convict mistakenly released by the Nevada Department of Corrections for the year. Wishing to lay low before fleeing the state and in need of cash, he agrees to look into a matter for a woman involving the death of her husband. Before it's all over, he'll cross paths with an individual who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of fame – including turning Dallas into his next victim.

Carl Hiaasen has been quoted as stating that his stories are populated with slightly altered true tales from Florida since truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In that vein, Dead Corpse is a 20,000-word thinly-disguised narrative of several real-life events that were widely reported on during the wild, free-wheeling, anything goes ’90s decade in Clark County where the author once lived.

Zombie Cat - Burrtail used to have plenty to eat, a comfortable place to sleep, and a family that loved him. But everything has changed and the young feline is now hungry, alone and confused. His family disappeared days ago and he's not sure what to do.

He sets off seeking help from a friend, a smart and feisty she-cat who lives nearby, to get things sorted out and make sense of the strange and mysterious changes that have occurred. Not everyone he encounters during his quest is helpful, however, including a self-appointed leader bent on imposing his will on others.

Zombie Cat is a sad and scary story about felines, the undead, and abandonment. It's also a tale about faith, hope, and healing.

+

That's it for now. I'm currently working on Konrath's inauguration theme party which will include zombies, scantily-clad women, and high quality beer. After that, I'm back to finishing up my low-budget horror script I hope to make into a full-blown movie in time for the World Domination after-party (no zombies, but it does have a really cool demon. Almost as cool as Bub from Origin. Shh – another secret).

As others before me have said – It's a great time to be a writer.

Joe sez: Thanks, Keith. However, my plans for world domination don't involved actually ruling. That seems like a lot of work. But in the US I do want to legalize drugs, gambling, and prostitution, pass the Equal Rights Amendment, make income tax into a flat tax, yes to universal healthcare, go back to isolationism except when the UN votes for our military intervention, yes to gay marriage, yes to abortion rights, no to torture, tax churches, yes to guns, yes to smaller government, yes to personal privacy, cut military spending, increase education spending, stop the war on terror, reform welfare, yes to net neutrality, yes to stem cell research, and open the boarders and grant every alien citizenship if they pass the USCIS test. 

Did I miss any hot button issues? 

Friday, July 03, 2015

Fisking John Scalzi

From the Department of My Horse is Too High, Someone Give Me a Boost...

I've been out of the loop for over six weeks. Massive computer failure, coupled with with a long vacation, limited my Internet activity, which means I missed all the drama over the recent Amazon KDP announcement. TL;DR Amazon is now paying authors per page for ebook borrows, rather than paying based on borrowers reading 10% of a book. In both cases, payment comes from a fluctuating fund that Amazon sets, which is divvied up monthly.

Apparently there was some criticism from my peers. Hugh Howey, in typical level-headed fashion, wrote a great post about the situation. Passive Guy also did an enlightening comparison between the the KDP payout per page, and what legacy authors earn per page. Bob Mayer also waxed eloquently on the topic.

One of the more level-headed critiques came from author John Scalzi, who recently signed a 3.4 million dollar deal with Tor for 13 novels.

Scalzi's wrong on some things, so I thought I'd fisk him, which also is a good opportunity to offer my views on the subject since people have been asking me about it.

Scalzi: Now that I’ve returned to the US and have parked myself in front of the computer again, people are asking me what I think of Amazon’s plan to tweak the way its Kindle Unlimited system pays KDP Select authors. In the past, Amazon would designate a certain amount of cash ($3 million this June, according to this Verge article, although in the comments Annie Bellet quotes a higher figure) as a payment pot, and all KDP Select authors participating in Kindle Unlimited would get a small bit of the pot if someone who downloaded their book read more than 10% of it. This predictably led to authors making short books in order to get to the 10% mark as quickly as possible, and equally predictably diluted the effectiveness of the tactic.

Joe sez: I'm with you until the last phrase. Where is the evidence that a lot of people writing shorter books diluted the effectiveness of that particular tactic?

This reminds me of the tsunami of crap meme I've been debunking for years. I was under the impression that people are consuming more digital media than ever. On the surface, it seems reasonable to assume that more ebooks being released reduces everyone's share of the pie. But where is the evidence to support that? North America just ran out of IP addresses, something I believe is tied to our biggering obsession with digital consumption. With so much growth, so many current readers, and so may new readers joining the party, it's odd, and possibly wrong, to suggest that shorter works ceased to be effective ways to grab KU dollars.

Amazon certainly felt short books weren't good as a whole for authors and readers, which is why they changed to a page count reimbursement. They have the data to support the reasons they switched payment methods. Digital reams and reams of data.

Scalzi: It also made authors of longer works complain quite a lot, as they had to compete with bite-sized books for the same tiny bit of the pot.

As a result, Amazon is now tweaking its system so that instead of getting paid when one reaches that 10% marker, KDP select authors will get paid for each page read — a move that will, within the context of the KU system, at least, address the “small book vs. big book” disparity. The system will also define a standard “page” so fiddling with margins and type size won’t fool it, and somehow track how much time you spend on each page, so just clicking through all the pages as quickly as possible won’t do the trick (this makes me wonder what Amazon defines as a decent amount of time to read a page).

Joe sez: I'll posit that Amazon defines "decent amount" by plotting every bit of reader data they get--which is everyone reading Kindle ebooks--and making sense of it in the same way they make sense of all the data that allowed them to become what they are.

Amazon has thought long and hard about this change. They've been planning it for months. Data is king. This new move is all about the ends of the Bell Curve. Most of us shouldn't be affected either way.

Scalzi: The short version is: You get paid for what your readers read. If your readers don’t read the whole book, you don’t get paid for the whole book.

I have a lot of questions about how this will play out in theory — will an author get paid if you re-read a book? What about if you go back and re-read a page? Does that count? Doesn’t this mean that authors of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books get really screwed? Not to mention any author who is writing anything other than a page-turning narrative?

Joe sez: It's my understanding that Amazon has figured out a mathematical way to define average page lengths, and how much time readers spend on a page, and is going with that formula. Which means re-reading, a Choose Your Own Adventure, picture books, children's books, comic books, and anything readable on a Kindle, will result in read page counts for the author.

But since we're on this topic, let's compare it to paper. I've read Silence of the Lambs four times. I paid for it once. And I bought it used, so Thomas Harris didn't make a dime from me for the four times I read it. Conversely, I've bought a JK Rowling novel at full price and for whatever reason never got around to reading it. Which author deserves my media dollar?

The legacy ways of consuming media--buying stuff to own--were in place for a long time. But it's a mistake to believe that just because it was the only way to consume media, it's also the right or only way to consume media.

The Internet is making ownership obsolete. Enjoying digital media is free in many cases. Amazon trying to compensate authors for the time readers spend on their work is innovative and shows profound awareness. They know their customers. And they're trying to compensate their content-providers in a better way.

A much better way, in fact, than earning 8% on paperbacks that can be stripped and returned.

Scalzi: — but ultimately any objections or praise I might have for this new Amazon model is irrelevant, because of a simple fact: Amazon is still making KDP Select authors compete against each other for a limited, Amazon-defined pot of money, and no matter how you slice it, that sucks for the authors.

Joe sez: I've argued before that in a digital world, where there are no costs for replication and distribution, the regular rules of supply and demand don't apply. Ebooks aren't zero sum. I'm not in competition with other writers. It seems reasonable that a reader's limited time is a form of currency, but our books are going to be read by readers who haven't been born yet. Ebooks are forever, and while at any given time the system may appear closed, it is actually open and infinite because it has no end. And even if it is limited by my lifetime, I have the opportunity to make a ton of money while I'm still kicking.

But playing devil's advocate, weren't authors always competing for a limited amount of money? In 1970 there were X number of readers. They bought Y number of books. That resulted in Z amount of money generated. While it seems Z was limitless in 1970 but limited (by Amazon) in KU, in both cases there were many books competing for readers' time and money, and there was no barriers on how many readers an author could reach. That the Amazon model shrinks imperceptibly as page reads go up seems moot, especially since their pot changes monthly.

This doesn't suck. This is the future.

Legacy contracts that keep rights for life, hold reserves against returns, contain non-compete clauses, etc. Those suck. And I've supported that position at length.

Scalzi: Why? Because Amazon puts an arbitrary cap on the amount of money it’s possible to earn — and not just a cap on what you, as an author, can earn, but what every author in the KDP Select system participating in Kindle Unlimited can make. Every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited can not, among all of them totaled up, make more than what Amazon decides to put into the pot. Why? Because that’s the pot. That’s how much Amazon wants to splash out this month. And the more pages are read in the month, the smaller any bit of the pie that you might get for your pages read becomes. It’s a zero-sum game for every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited.

Joe sez: No, it isn't zero sum. If someone reads a page of my book, you don't subtract from your total page reads, and it doesn't prevent you from getting a page read. That's what zero sum means.

Also, when we're talking about numbers this large, the million page reads you had in June don't really do much to affect the ten trillion page reads total.

Amazon's fluctuating pot is based on whatever data Amazon has gathered, coupled with their strategy to be the most customer-centric company on the planet. If this pot attracts authors, KU will continue to have a large number of titles. If it repels authors, they'll leave, which will foster competition.

It isn't in Amazon's best interest to piss off authors. And trying to be reasonable with authors is one of the things that lead them to change KDP terms to this new model.

Amazon's big. Really big. If they wanted to squeeze authors (say, like legacy publishers do) they could. Or they could try to, until authors went elsewhere.

Blaming Amazon for a subscription service, no matter how they run it, is silly. Amazon is not holding a gun to any reader’s head and demanding they join Prime. Amazon is making Prime attractive, because it suits Amazon’s bottom line. As more customers join Prime, more readers will borrow ebooks rather than buy them. This is where the tech and industry and world is headed. Physical ownership of media just isn’t en vogue anymore. It’s what readers want (whether they knew they wanted it or not.)

Writers will NEVER win by going against what readers want. Ask the Big 5 how that worked out for them.

Scalzi: Next month, who knows what the size of the pot will be? You don’t — only Amazon does. But whatever amount it is, it’s an amount designed to benefit Amazon, not the individual authors.

Joe sez: And cue the alarmist nonsense. Next up: At any moment an asteroid could strike the earth and we're all dead! For god's sake, think of the children!

Of course Amazon is going to do things that benefit Amazon. Exactly like Tor does things to benefit Tor. Which is why Tor, and all publishers, will eventually capitulate and become part of KU. Which will mean Tor authors will earn a heckuva smaller share of that Amazon pot because they signed away their rights forever in return for terrible royalties.

I recently blogged about the ownership of media, and how I foresee it going the way of the dodo.

Here's a thought experiment:

Imagine if, by pressing a button, you can have anything you want to eat, perfectly prepared and instantly delivered to you.

Think about what that means. No more buying groceries. No need for a refrigerator or freezer, or a pantry. No more cooking (hobbyists aside), so no need for anything related to food prep: stove, microwave, mixer, chef's knives, etc. The restaurant industry would suffer. Grocery stores would suffer. This one concept, food on demand, would have huge ramifications for huge numbers of people involved in the food/cooking supply chain.

But someone still needs to supply to food.

We are writers. We supply digital media. And subscription ebook services are equivalent to pressing a button and getting food on demand. This is the present, and the future, and it's only going to get bigger. When you can have access to all media, there is no need to own media. Subscription services will become dominant. They're doing it with TV and music. They're doing it with books.

It's going to get really disruptive in the next few years. But farmers would survive push-button food, and we'll survive subscription services. Because what we do is wanted, and things that are wanted ultimately have some monetary value. It may not be the way we're used to being compensated for our work, but we'll get paid.

Scalzi: This is a bad situation for the authors participating — bad enough that ultimately the minutiae of how the money is allocated is sort of aside the point, because the relevant point is: You will never make more for your work than Amazon wants you to make. And yes, just Amazon, as the work KDP Select authors put on Amazon are exclusive to Amazon.

Joe sez: This argument just doesn't hold together, for several reasons.

1. No one is putting a cap on the number of pages of mine that readers can read.

2. Amazon's pot isn't static, it fluctuates.

3. Voluntary participation means authors can opt out after 90 days and they still keep their rights (unlike a contract with, say, Tor).

4. If enough authors don't find Amazon's methods of compensation satisfactory, Amazon will have to offer more or risk losing authors and market share.

5. Readers want this.

6. How else is a subscription service supposed to compensate suppliers?

Scalzi: I’m not one of those people who believes Amazon is glowy-red-eye evil — I remind people again that I’ve rather happily had a fruitful relationship with its Audible subsidiary for a number of years — but Amazon is looking out for Amazon first, and when it does, it’s not an author’s friend.

Joe sez: Unlike all those other publishers, who are BFFs with authors...

Scalzi: There is no possible way in this or any other timeline that I would ever, as a writer, participate in the sort of scheme that Amazon runs with its KDP Select authors on Kindle Prime.

Joe sez: You'll wind up in it anyway, when Tor joins. Kids are learning to read on digital devices. Blu Ray and CD sections in stores continue to shrink. When everything is in the cloud for a monthly fee, why buy anything?

Scalzi: I don’t approve of putting a cap on my own earnings (particularly one I have no say on),

Joe sez: Says the guy who just signed a 13 book deal, amounting to $260k per book. That's not a cap? If you do earn out (which will require you selling a whole lot more books than I need to to make an equivalent amount) you're stuck with terrible royalties, forever.

I can opt out of KU. You can't opt out of your Tor deal without lawyers getting involved. Yet you want to preach about putting a cap on earnings? Really?

I understand hedging bets and job security. But you took a guaranteed pay day, giving up higher royalties for lower risk. If the books do well (and I wish you huge sales) in the long term you did indeed cap your earnings. You're limiting the amount you earn per book, and you have to sell many more books to earn the same amount you would have by self-publishing.

Scalzi: and I don’t approve of being in a situation where my success as an author comes by disadvantaging other authors, or vice versa.

Joe sez: It's a simple argument. Either ebooks aren't zero sum. Or all books have always been zero sum because there have always been a set amount of readers and books and money spent and time spent.

You seem stuck on this "pot" concept. Let's make up a figure and say the publishing industry grossed 10 billion dollars in 2014. Your books earned a percentage of that amount. They were competing with other books, fighting for a percentage of that amount. Like Amazon's pot, the money shared by all authors is announced after the period has ended.

The only big difference I can see is that Amazon amount fluctuates, and Amazon announces the amount and pays monthly, whereas the publishing industry seems unable to even send out an accurate or comprehensible royalty statement and you get paid a year after a sale.

The small difference I can see is Amazon sets the amount paid, as opposed to writers accepting what publishers call sales. But, really, in both cases readers are the ones who decide what they want to read, and there is no cap on that. They can read as much as they want to, and no one is stopping them. And Amazon seems willing to throw more money into the pot when more reads occur.

Scalzi: In the system in which I currently participate (i.e., the open market), there is no limit to the amount I can make, and no limit to what any other author can make. It’s a great system! I support it, and so should you.

Joe sez: Please propose a subscription system (which is something that readers want) that makes better sense than what Amazon is currently doing.

The open market system you endorse has barriers to entry, and many writers can't get in. Your open market system exploits authors with one-sided contracts and unconscionable terms, and up until recently authors had no choice but to accept it. Your open market system was never equal for all writers, with some getting all the coop and marketing dollars and widespread distribution and others getting buttkiss.

There is no cap to what an author can make in KU. Like any market, there is an amount of money that you get a piece of depending on how well you sell. It doesn't have to be that way with subscription supplier compensation, but Amazon's giving it a shot.

Scalzi: So, yeah: By page, or by percentage, KDP Select authors on Kindle Unlimited still can’t make more than Amazon says they can. That sucks, and that’s the long and short of it.

Joe sez: And no author can make more than readers will buy, or that the market will bear. Your point?

Here's a different, perhaps clearer, way to explain this.

In the old world, readers indirectly paid authors when they bought books.

With a subscription service, readers don't pay authors. They pay a subscription host--in this case Amazon. Any correlation between subscriptions fees and payout amounts is up to that host, who figures it out by weighing the data against making customers happy against making sure suppliers keep supplying.

In other words, the readers are no longer paying us.

Reread that and let it sink in.

Amazon has replaced the reader as the entity responsible for paying authors. Amazon pays a certain amount, just like the sum total of readers paid 10 billion dollars in 2014 in my example above. Yes, the reader amount can be traced to sales. But there are no sales in a subscription service. If not a pot, then what?

It appears you don't like the idea of being at Amazon's mercy. But you were always at someone's mercy; agents, publishers, book stores, critics, readers. The only thing that changed is who is paying you.

I can foresee a point where writers aren't paid by reads, they're paid for time periods. Which is how cable TV (and I believe Netflix) works. If a company wants to offer my ebooks to their subscribers, they'll pay me a set amount for three months, or a year, or five years.

Which, ironically, sounds like an advance that will never earn out. Except for a big difference: I get my rights back.

Smart Debut Author, in Hugh Howey's comments, said something about this KDP change worth repeating:

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

And for short fiction writers, that was definitely the case under KU 1.0’s broken-ass rules.

Because when you can write ten short stories in far less time than it takes to write a 750-page epic novel, while getting paid 10X as much for your efforts, there’s a word for that.

It’s called an arbitrage opportunity.

When arbitrage opportunities arise, if you’re nimble you can exploit them for short term gains. But never, ever bank your livelihood on them, because by definition, they are temporary — brief bubbles that never last.

Market forces will iron any arbitrage opportunity out, sooner or later. So you make hay while the sun shines, and prepare for rainy day.

I’m genuinely sorry for the writers whose livelihoods were impacted by this change. Having your income drop suddenly sucks, and I sympathize. But if you look on the bright side, the folks who you were effectively taking money away from — writers of longer fiction — are finally getting their fair share of the KU “pot.”

For a brief time you made far more money as a writer than you would have under an equitable system, while we made far less. We don’t begrudge you that.

So don’t begrudge us writers of longer fiction our fair share, either, now that your arbitrage bubble has burst.

Joe sez: Nicely put. I'll add that having a sense of entitlement is a bad thing.

Amazon doesn't owe anyone a living. And lamenting this situation doesn’t facilitate change. If you want to survive, adapt and innovate. Don't rely on anyone.

What Amazon has done, and continues to do, is give readers and authors a choice.

Choice is power. How you use that power is up to you. You can curse the rain. Or you can start selling umbrellas. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Guest Post by Bryan Higby

My name's Bryan Higby. I guess that’s what you do in a first time blog - introduce yourself, right? I’d prefer not to bore you with rehashing the last twenty plus years of my life as a writer. Suffice to say I have had two short Fantasy novels published using the traditional route to no avail. The novels, The Diary of a Logos and A Logos At Large, sank like a stone. The first one did get a rave review in a local paper by a literary critic Robert Plyler, who compared The Diary of a Logos to the works of James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Mickey Spillane. Not bad aye?

There could have been a lot of reasons why nothing happened with those books. These were early books without a refined craft in place. The publisher was small with virtually no marketing budget, or the kiss of death…my work sucked! Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Speed ahead ten years almost to the day of when The Diary of a Logos was published and now I have three novels – Cop Killer, Cannibal Cocktail, and Corpse Brandy – being published through an unprecedented contract with Amazon.com with the great Joe Konrath. Joe, my angel I must say, has allowed many of us writers who haven’t found an audience for our own characters to piggy back on his bestseller status.

They're all available on Kindle for one low price here. (Joe sez: buy it, it's only $3.99)

In 2013 Joe did a blog post inviting some of us who had their own characters to write a short story with some of his Jack Daniels characters. His wife, Maria, (bless her), would read them. Being Joe’s Ideal Reader, if Maria liked the story you were in. I’ll confess I hadn’t read any of Joe’s fiction up until this invite. A day later I bought Whiskey Sour and finished it in about three days. The next three weeks were a whirl wind of Jack Daniels, (the book not the liquor). Six weeks after reading Joe’s blog invite I had read all the Jack Daniels novels and had written my own OzValt Grant/Jack Daniels crossover novella, Cop Killer. Within twenty-four hours of submitting Cop Killer Joe emailed me stating that his wife had read it and liked it. For the next year I spent writing two follow up novels as well as writing some of my own books. Joe promptly read and gave the thumbs up on this trilogy which spurred me forward to greater heights not just with his work but with my own.

I’ll be forever grateful to Joe for such generosity. I came across Joe’s blog through reading Blake Crouch’s novel Pines. Blake and Joe have collaborated in the past. I checked interviews with Joe and found him quite stimulating (nudge-nudge, wink, wink!). Thanks again JOE!!

Now that all that gushing it out of the way (HEE HEE), let’s move on. I don’t want this blog post to be an all-out ad for my thirty plus books available on amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00CWEFNVS. I would like to entice you a bit with some of my titles however because these are entertaining stories and I feel that many of Joe’s readers would love them.

I’m forty years old which means that I was born in the mid-seventies but am really a kid of the 1980’s. I watched movies from the seventies and eighties and so, from a young age that informed my perspective on creativity. Directors like John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, the Cohen Brothers, David Lynch etc…were my creative building blocks. When I started reading novels at age fourteen I started with Stephen King and Clive Barker and later graduated to writers like Bloch, Beckett, Lansdale, and Konrath.

I mention these filmmakers and writers because I have two book series that I am very proud of and many of these artists helped inform those works.

The OzValt Grant Collection consists of three novellas: Mud Street, Snuffed, and Acorpsepile. This series introduces my former sniper, former Homicide detective, OzValt Grant to the reader. You’ll read more about Oz in Joe and my collaborations – Cop Killer, Cannibal Cocktail, and Corpse Brandy. Oz is a tough S-O-B who has a serious streak of loyalty for his ex-partner Jim Conrad, who still works for the DenMark City PD. This loyalty for his partner is what spurs Oz to visit Chicago. This launches the Jack Daniels/OzValt Grant thriller trilogy. I also wrote a Codename: Chandler novella titled Run Like Mad. This has Chandler and OzValt Grant doing just that. (Joe sez: buy it, it's only $1.99).

My second book series created by Rick Snyder and myself which is more tongue-in-cheek is titled, The DenMark Chronicles. This series is like FAST FOOD FROM HELL! The series is currently comprised of Pizza Man, Taco Bandits, Chuck A Chik, and Coffin Kids with many more titles on their way. The DenMark Chronicles is very much inspired by films like Big Trouble in Little China, Evil Dead, John Dies at the End, and The Big Lebowski. The stories are filled with crazy characters battling other-worldly evil that is trying to destroy mankind, (not that it needs help). The DenMark Chronicles are a love letter from myself and my writing partner Rick Snyder to fans of the above writers and filmmakers. These books are essentially Ghostbusters for the 21st Century. They were written as buddy novels but have evolved into much more. Let’s just say if you like laugh out loud stories that will entertain you for years check them out.

I’m in my infancy with self-publishing and am not against traditional publishers. I like the hybrid approach. I’ve worked with New York Times bestselling author Bob Mayer and his publishing company Cool Gus Publishing to help them expand his Psychic Warrior book series. Cool Gus, is a great company. I recommend any writer to submit to Cool Gus.

In closing for anyone who has always wanted to make a living writing try self-publishing. Go to Amazon.com and check out the KDP and Createspace platforms. And hell if you still want to go the traditional route do that but while you’re waiting at the door for the gate keepers to open up get some real world experience and start publishing on your own terms today!

Thanks again Joe! You’re the best!

Joe sez: Bryan is easily one of the most prolific and enthusiastic authors I've ever run into. He writes with unabashed exuberance. If you missed the link above, I encourage you to check out some of his stuff here.

I've been out of commission for a while, and am finally getting back into the swing of writing. Part of it was because of external factors, but some of it was me. After spending so many years treating writing like a business, I'd forgotten that I had become a writer because of the joy it brings me.

I believe most fiction authors begin writing because they love stories. That love can get lost. What was once a passion becomes a job. Real life intrudes. The industry begins to overwhelm. Trying to sell books somehow becomes more important than trying to write them.

Yuck.

Remember to put your writing first. That means writing what you're passionate about. What you love to read. It's why you became a writer. And it's the one thing that will sustain you throughout this turbulent career.

Don't do it for the money. Do it for the fun.

If you do it for fun long enough, the money will come.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Guest Post by Bernard Schaffer

There are some people, in any given industry, that have what it takes to lead. Not just thrive. Not just innovate. But to actually move the chains of what is possible, and drag the rest of us along with it.

When Joe Konrath talks, you're listening to one of those people.


On the great football field of independent publishing, Joe is a starting quarterback, calling the shots, making the big plays. He's got championship rings in the form of million dollar paydays and exclusive deals with Amazon. He's got widely celebrated contests with opponents that are filmed and studied and voted on by the public at large.


Me, I'm just a second string receiver. A utility player. I wasn't drafted high, there wasn't any fanfare. Nobody is screaming my name when I run out on the field.


They're doing what many of you are doing now. Scratching your heads going, Schaffer? Never heard of him. But I've got a little scrap in me. A little fight. If you give me a chance, I'll go all out trying to prove I deserve to be on the field.


When a major player like Joe Konrath says he's got an idea for something new, I stop what I'm doing, and I pay attention. And when he says he will give you a chance to ride his coattails and play in his sandbox, well, you'd be foolish not to at least try.


It was scary, to be honest.


When Joe first put the call out for submittals to the Jack Daniels universe, I had two immediate thoughts. One, I want to work with that guy and learn whatever I can from him. Two, it would seriously suck to be rejected.


Every artist must believe in themselves before they expect others to do so, though, so I sucked it up and got to work. I quickly banged out a 12k story that would later be called Cheese Wrestling and shipped it off. Fingers crossed. Impatiently checking my email for a response. I was proud of it, sure, but what really surprised me was that I felt good inside the Jack Daniels world. Pretty damn comfortable actually.


Konrath_CheeseWrestling_eResFINALWhen I got the acceptance email from Joe, it came with a challenge. He told me the short story was good, but novels sold better. Why didn't I step up to the plate and take a swing?

Now that was an animal of an altogether different sort.


Short stories get banged out. Sure, they're well-crafted and worthy, and sure some are literature, but the point is they can get done quickly. You aren't devoting a huge amount of resources and time to them, which is why they sell fairly cheaply.


But a novel is art. A novel is a statement of an author that speaks to where they are in their writing career and life. It is a landmark event, a personal statement, and if you're a writer worth a damn, a decent chunk of blood, sweat, and tears.


Obviously not everybody feels the same way. You can find thousands of novels, or novel-sized ramblings, that are as devoid of life as a reality starlet. But not from someone who actually lives this life.


Joe Konrath lives it. I live it too. I think that's why he and I get along. Oh, and also, because he's certifiably batshit crazy. But more on that in a moment.


The first thing I knew I needed for a proper Jack Daniels novel was a good drink name. All her books are named after mixed drinks, and I knew I needed a good one. Something interesting. Eye-catching. Unique. Turns out, that's easier said than done.


I scoured the Internet for interesting drinks and all the good ones had been taken. But I kept digging. I needed something nasty. Something muscular. Something dangerous.


Snake Wine.


JAKonrathKW_SnakeWine_FrontFINALSnake Wine is an actual drink, enjoyed mainly in Southeast Asia. Those crazy bastards take a cobra and let it ferment inside a bottle of alcohol, garnishing it with charming accouterments like scorpions and other snakes. Then, they drink it.

With that title in hand, I got to work straight away. I wrote Snake Wine in three weeks. It just came pouring out of me. I already knew Jack's character from Cheese Wrestling, and by God, if Joe Konrath wanted to throw me a touchdown pass, I was going to break every bone in my body trying to catch it.


When I finished the book I knew that it was a damned good story. No, scratch that. It was a damned good novel. I also knew that if Joe didn't accept it, I would burn the manuscript and never use it for anything else.

Snake Wine is, before anything else, a Jack Daniels book. It's infused with her heart and soul and I'd rather destroy it than slap a different name on the character and try to pass it off as my own.

Joe sounded a little surprised when I called him just a few weeks later and said I had taken him up on his challenge, and the novel was ready. I told him I'd found the perfect title, and no matter what else we changed about the book, it had to stay. It was completely unique, and nobody, but nobody, had ever even heard of Snake Wine.


And here's where Joe proved to me what a maniac he really is.


He listened to me describing the bottling process, how they stuff a cobra into the flask, and ferment it, and he stops me in mid-sentence and says, "I know."


"You know? What do you mean you know. Nobody knows about this."


"I do. I've got a bottle of it on my shelf and I'm looking right at it."


"Bullshit."


Well, as it turns out, ladies and gentlemen, it was not bullshit. Joe texted me a picture of his personal bottle of Snake Wine, and that is the photo we wound up using for the cover.


See what I'm taking about? That's why he's the top dog. You think you've got him finally one-upped, and the man just dunks on you.


One final thing before I go. Cheese Wrestling was a collaborative effort between both of us. I sent Joe the original story, and he Konrath'd it up, and it's a much stronger piece as a result.


However, he actually wrote two different versions of his edit that read like completely different stories. We are packaging all three in a "Directors's Cut" special edition for Kindle Worlds, which might interest fellow authors out there who want to see what the collaboration process looks like.


Snake Wine is all mine, with one secret, thrillingly awesome fact, that I hope Joe doesn't mind me sharing with you.


He edited the book.


In the midst of high-profile debates, major publishing deals, family duties, writing, and the responsibilities of running the massive Konrath empire, he took the time to edit my book.


So, while Snake Wine is my vision of Jack Daniels and her world, it does have traces of her creator, and direct lineage. I'm sure if people like it, it's a world I'll be returning to in the future.


Also, for the record, Joe not only owns a bottle of snake wine. He's also tried it. What does fermented cobra soaked in grain alcohol taste like, you wonder?


"Death," Joe told me, very matter-of-factly. "Snake wine tastes like death."


Which, given the nature of my book, is very fitting, indeed.


Joe sez: You can buy the novel SNAKE WINE on Amazon for just $3.99. It goes down a lot smoother than actual snake wine, which is the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth. Everyone who tries it agrees. No one can do a full shot. Ten drops is the most anyone can handle. Remember being a kid and walking through a field and turning over a piece of cardboard and seeing a dead mouse or rat or snake or frog? Remember that smell? Well, liquefy it and drink it, and that's what snake wine tastes like.  


The book is a lot better.


CHEESE WRESTLING is also available for $1.99, and was a lot of fun for me to work on. Three versions of the same story for one cheap price. Check it out if you haven't, and also check out Schaffer's work. Start with SUPERBIA


Schaffer forgot to mention that he's a cop, so it has been interesting for me, who writes about cops, to talk to one and see how he fictionalizes the truths he lives every day. If you're looking for truth in your thriller fiction, look no further.


Check him out, and check out other Jack Daniels and Associates Kindle Worlds stories, 45 and counting. Think you can write better stories than some of these? Prove it by doing it. Looking for new authors to read? If you like my writing, give these a try. 


Summer is here. Read. Now.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Back Ups and Ownership

So I just wasted too much time trying to get my computer up and running again after my hard drive committed suicide, and it got me thinking.

I work on a HP Pavilion desktop PC running Windows 7. Many of my peers have switched to Macs, and while I understand the appeal I’ve also spent time in Apple stores at the genius bar lamenting iPhone issues. If you use electronics of any kind, there are eventually going to be issues. The key is to try to head off as many problems as possible, mitigate them as needed, and get things back to normal quickly.

Which brings us to back ups.

I'm a bit obsessive about back ups, dating to the time I used a Brother word processor with floppy disks and a power outage killed 3000 words.

Hopefully, you're part of some sort of cloud. My goto is Dropbox. I've got MS Word configured to automatically save a back up copy, and to save an AutoRecover every 5 minutes, directly into a Dropbox folder.

I also save different versions of the same manuscript. As I revise, I'll add 1.1, 1.2, etc, so even if I mess up in some gigantic way (like deleting the whole story and saving it) I've got earlier versions I can go back to.

But let me share how I screwed up. When my HDD began to fail and my files became corrupted, I restored my Dropbox files to my son's computer while I reinstalled Windows on a new drive. Besides writing, I have a lot of music and movies (about a terabyte's worth) and it took up all of my son's space. Since I'd only downloaded stuff to his system to make sure the restoration worked (I'd never done one before), when he asked me if he could delete the files, I told him sure.

Oops.

Since it was my Dropbox account on his computer, when he deleted the files, he deleted them from my Dropbox account as well as from his computer.

Dropbox has a feature where deleted files can be restored. But since I was restoring my files on one system while they were being deleted on another, I created a gigantic mess that required the fine folks at Dropbox Customer Service to roll back my entire account to several days earlier.

Even with a decent Internet connection, restoring a terabyte takes a long damn time.

But that got my brain working. I was able to give up CDs in favor of mp3s, forsaking  a hard copy for a bunch of ones and zeroes. But why do I need to keep those ones and zeroes on a personal hard drive? Isn't data fine in the cloud without having to be on my computer too? Why restore at all?

Streaming is becoming the norm. Subscription services, online storage, and the growing ability to access anything anywhere has really borked the concept of ownership.

Google Docs is a great example. I've used Google Docs on many occasions while collaborating; it makes it much easier to share a file than emailing back and forth, or even Dropbox. But why should it only be for collabs? Microsoft Word Online is exactly that. and it's free (though you can buy GBs of online data through OneDrive). Apple is now allowing users to store their music files in the cloud via iTunes Match and the iCloud. Amazon gives you unlimited cloud storage for sixty bucks a year.

We've come a long way since Netflix began shipping DVDs via snail mail in a paper sleeve.

The good news is, as writers, we create data and there is a much smaller risk of losing that data.

The bad news is, as writers, we create data, and the way people consume data is so radically different than it was just ten years ago that our future may be uncertain.

Don't get me wrong. Paper still sells. Ebooks still sell. Some people want a hard copy. Some people like owning an ebook collection. At this moment in time, sales (not rentals or subscriptions) are how most of us earn the majority of our cash. And the sales market will likely continue for many years.

But, as I've said before, the rules of supply and demand don't apply to digital media that can be copied and delivered for practically free. The artificial scarcity of storage space is quickly becoming obsolete. Why pay extra for more GBs on your phone? Your tablet? Your PS4? Streaming eliminates the need for it, and for ownership.

To put it in simpler terms; there is no need to own a book if you have access to that book whenever you want.

Say what you want about Kindle Unlimited, Amazon is simply giving readers what they want. This is where the market seems to be heading. No one owns, everyone rents.

So what does that mean for writers?

Right now, through KU and Scribd and Oyster, writers are lessors. We have the ability to lease our work exclusively, or non-exclusively, for a limited time. Publishers--once essential middlemen who connected us with readers via paper--are being replaced by companies who connect us with readers via ones and zeroes. It's still about distribution.

My sketchy history of technology doesn't reveal many examples where proprietary formats win. At least, not for very long. Distribution channels, even newly created ones, inspire competitive innovation.

I believe the advance of technology follows similar rules to natural selection, but it isn't survival of the fittest. It's more akin to Lamarck's soft inheritance; namely, tech evolves because it wants to. It doesn't accidentally improve due to random mutations which make some innovations likelier to succeed. Rather, technology has a will to power because it is fueled by humans with that will. Better, faster, bigger, more--it will inevitably happen. And that can't be contained or controlled by a single company, or even a handful of companies.

Ebooks managed escape velocity from the printing press. There is no going back.

As the technology of distribution inevitably evolves, so to will our ability to reach readers. As long as people want to read, there will be avenues for writers to connect with readers, and there will be ways to monetize these avenues. Maybe with subscriptions. Or advertising. Or taxpayer dollars. Or profit sharing. Or subsidiary rights. Or something that hasn't been thought of yet.

If you're dwelling on how to sell books, you're playing catch up. It isn't about selling. That's so 2014.

It's about monetizing the writer/reader connection.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On Book Designing

So let's set the Wayback Machine back eight years. I was a newish writer with a legacy publishing contract and a blog, doing what I could to get my name out there. I was approached by a fan, Rob Siders, who noticed that I didn't have a Wikipedia page and offered to set one up for me, free. He was into coding, liked to read and write, and was one of those forward-looking types who understood that tech forged the future whether Luddites wanted it or not.

I thanked him, and asked if I could return the favor someday. He asked me to keep him in mind if I ever needed to do any sort of computer stuff.

Two years pass, I decide to try self publishing on DTP, Amazon's new Kindle platform, but trying to upload MS Word and make it look good on Kindle can only be achieved by going through the entire manuscript, word by word, and deleting or adding formatting marks.

It's awful, time consuming, and I'm sure that a code jockey would know a better way of doing it.

So I contacted Rob. He was able to format my massive Newbie's Guide to Publishing ebook, which was hundreds of thousands of worlds long and has more links and hyperlinks in it than the rest of my work combined.

Rob did it, and it looked better than any of the ebooks I'd formatted myself. So I asked him to redo the ones I'd done, and I noticed something pretty spectacular.

I'd erroneously been treating ebooks as words on a digital page, laid out according to whichever font size the reader chose. Rob showed me that ebooks, like paper books, could be designed.

Average text, in the hands of a skilled craftsman, became a thing of beauty. A work of art.

Rob founded 52 Novels, a book design company, with his wife, Amy. They offer their services for all ebook platforms, and for paper.

I can unequivocally state that 52 Novels delivers books that are better looking, easier to navigate, and all around better, than 99% of legacy publishers.

I caught up with Rob and asked him a little about how his business worked. Indie authors know the importance of great covers (I use Carl Graves at www.extendedimagery.com) and a flawless manuscript (I use Grammar Rules A to Z), but very few understand the importance of book design.

To make a sketchy analogy, great book design is putting your novel in a tuxedo, whereas simply uploading your MS Word doc is going to the party in ripped jeans and a dirty tee shirt.

Joe: What is it a book designer does?

Rob: More than anything a book designer is a problem solver… not that the authors and publishers we work with are problems. What I mean is that all books have a logic to them, so our process always begins with trying to understand what the author is trying to say. Matching a look to that message—within the realm of what’s possible with ebooks—is sometimes the hardest work we do. Obviously, some books are straightforward so our work follows suit. But more and more we find that authors and publishers are trying to push the boundaries of what we've come to know an ebook to be.

Joe: What’s different about the work you do, and me just uploading my MS Word doc to KDP?

Rob: About half of the people who knock on our door these days have tried uploading a Word doc or PDF, to KDP and are frustrated because something has gone pear-shaped and they can’t fix it… the table of contents doesn't work, or a heading or two or three is wonky, or everything after Chapter 8 is bold, or whatever it is that KDP’s autoconverter produced.

Word is a perfectly fine presentation application, but behind the presentation is a lot of complex code. The more you fiddle with the presentation, the more likely it is you've introduced an enormous amount of inefficiency in the code, as well. For example, the Track Changes feature—while a decent way to manage the editing process—can be brutal to the code.

We've developed custom tools that extract the text from the document to leave us with super-clean code. Once we have that, we can do just about anything we want with it.

Joe: Can you show us an example?

Rob: Yes. Here’s the first chapter from Melinda’s ALICE trilogy as submitted:


Now let’s compare it to what I made:



This particular treatment—which was a premium project—uses embedded fonts and a stylized drop cap to get this look. That’s 100 percent text, XHTML and CSS.

Joe: What makes a finished ebook look professional?

Rob: There are lots of aesthetic things, like drop caps and embedded fonts, that add professional finishes that you just can’t do well with ebook conversion applications or that you can’t do at all with a Word-doc-to-KDP upload. But other hallmarks are typographer’s quotation marks (AKA curly quotes or smart quotes), poetry and verse that use hanging indents, and dynamic image sizing.

Joe: What’s the difference in designing the interior of an ebook and a paper (POD) book?

Rob: It can be night and day depending on the book, but the biggest difference is that designing for paper provides us with a lot of freedom and flexibility that just doesn't exist with ebooks. Paper is a larger canvas. It's fixed in size. And we don’t have to worry about the delivery device because it's the same regardless of who’s using it.

We started as an ebooks-only shop and our workflow still follows that. So, if we can accomplish something in an ebook then the paper is usually a piece of cake. A lot of authors and publishers—especially in non-fiction—come to us having first made beautiful print books that simply won’t work well as ebooks, at least not without a lot of remixing or remaking the content. These are clearly cases where the print design was done in isolation with little or no understanding of the constraints on the companion ebook. Our advantage is that we work in both realms, with the ebook as the foundation.

Joe: Why is it so hard to get good formatting on certain self-publishing platforms?

Rob: There are two reasons. The first reason goes back to what I mentioned before… Word is pretty good at the presentation of text, but not so good at writing well-formed, efficient code underneath.

The second reason is that the platforms themselves are designed for basic, predictable manuscript formatting. This is good because it fits the democratic, DIY punk rock ideal that fuels independent publishing and makes it so most everyone can upload their manuscript and get a functioning ebook on the other side. But what if the manuscript isn't so basic or predictable? Or, worse, what if it is basic and it's still not converting properly?

I've been a Word power user for a lot of years and I wouldn't dream of uploading a Word doc to any of the self-publishing platforms.

Joe: What if an author with out-of-print backlist books comes to you, and all they have are their old paperbacks? Can you convert their books?

Rob: Absolutely! As you know, getting OCR output in shape is a lot of work. Because of this there’s more time and cost involved, but we've developed a thorough process to ensure these ebook projects are as clean as can be.

The first step is the scan (OCR is Optical Character Recognition) and we've partnered with the best in the business as far as I’m concerned. After that, we ensure all the italics and bold type is the way it should be. We fix any wonky formatting issues---things like section and column breaks, missed or inserted paragraph returns, and line breaks breaks where they don’t belong. We then run a spell check to find any remaining obvious OCR artifacts. Once that’s done, we send the resulting Word file to the author to review. They can edit-in-place to clean up anything our process may have missed. Once the author's signed off, they send it back and we make the ebooks. In a few cases, authors have taken the opportunity to do a little rewriting.

Joe: Where do most DIYers go wrong?

Rob: Not having a complete understanding of the limitations of automatic ebook conversion apps. But I don’t necessarily fault them for this. There’s a lot of empowering conversation on the Internet about the facets of independent publishing. Unfortunately, a lot of it is also conflicting. I can see how someone might become frustrated when the results of automated ebook applications don’t match expectations.

Joe: If readers can change their font style and size, why are designers needed?

Rob: So 52 Novels can have fresh seafood flown in daily, buy Ferraris, and send our kids to Ivy League universities! Duh.

Seriously though, one of the advantages to hiring a professional ebook design and development shop—especially one that’s been around a while and can tame code—is that it can remove a lot of the worry over whether the book will make it through KDP/Nook Press/Meatginder intact. We automate some things where we think it makes sense… I mentioned extracting text from a document and that’s a prime example. But much of our process is bespoke-by-design because we believe it consistently produces higher-quality ebooks.

Joe: How many hours does it take to format a 90,000 word manuscript?

Rob: It depends. A standard MOBI/ePub design can be started in the morning and cross-platform tested by lunch time. If the author or publisher has used some kind of literary device—like block quotes, verse, emails/texts, and the like—the process will take more time to ensure we've handled those things properly.

Premium design projects take more time… making and acquiring assets for the project—whether it's finding fonts and navigating licensing, or making custom graphics—can sometimes add a day or two to the code whacking and testing.

Joe: What’s your normal turnaround time?

Rob: It depends on the time of year. Now that the industry has matured a little, we’re usually booking between three and four weeks out; add a week or two to that as we approach the holiday season.

Joe: Let me ask the question a different way. How long does it take, start to finish, to complete a project?

Rob: Ah. I wish there was a short, specific answer, but a lot depends on the author and the shape of their manuscript.

For example, if we deliver a first pass on the Thursday of an author’s scheduled week and they return just a few changes the following Monday morning, then they could possibly be publishing ebooks by week’s end. But if the review takes longer or if they’re submitting lots of changes—anything more than a few pages—or if they’re doing multiple review rounds then they should expect a longer turnaround.

If they have paper, then the timeline extends. We won’t start production on POD until we’ve got ebooks approved and ready-to-publish. It sounds counter-intuitive to not work on the ebooks and paper in tandem, but it actually simplifies project management to separate them. Besides, it can be a little daunting for an author to have ebooks and a POD dropped into their lap to review at the same time. Separating them in the workflow lets the project—and the author—catch a breath.

Some other things worth mentioning:
  • Correx are handled first in-first out regardless of when the first pass was delivered. If someone takes two weeks to complete the review, they could find themselves three or more spaces back in their designer’s correx queue.
  • We find things take a little longer when an author has never worked with us before or if they've never published at all, if only because everything is new to them.
  • New authors also often discover their editing and rewriting wasn’t as thorough as they believed it was. After seeing their book in this new way, a lot of people find typos they overlooked a hundred times before.
  • Authors unable to resist the temptation to revise their work during the production phase should expect both time and costs to increase. We can’t emphasize this enough: manuscripts must be final before they’re delivered to us for production.
Joe: What kind of authors do you like to work with the most? The least?

Rob: We like working with authors and publishers who remember there’s a person making their book.

Joe sez: And as people, Rob and Amy are a pleasure to work with and have my highest recommendation.

One of the jabs constantly made at indie authors is how our books are somehow not professional because we don't have a team behind us.
I'll admit that my books don't support an infrastructure of yesmen taking meetings and buying lunches for agents while renting in the most expensive real estate in the US and giving employees 401k plans and retirement packages from my royalties when they've spent an hour, tops, on one of my titles.  

To paraphrase the wise sage Dean Wesley Smith, if you hire a gardener to cut your lawn, or a painter to paint your house, you pay them once for their service. You don't give them a chunk of your income, forever.

Dean isn't saying don't hire professionals. Professionals are needed to get a professional result. He's saying pay them once, not forever.

You might get a professional product by signing with a publisher. And in return, they leech off of you for years.

Or you can pay a one-time set cost, get the same professional quality, and make your work indistinguishable from what the Big 5 are doing.

Well, almost indistinguishable. Unless you're charging $14.99 per ebook novel. Then no one, not even your own mother, will be able to tell the difference between your books and one done by the legacy industry. Well, that, and the fact that when you finish your book you can release it, rather than have to wait 18 months. And that you have control over your cover art and title. 

I've been saying this since 2009.

1. Write a great book and make it as perfect as you can get it.

2. Make sure the book looks great and provides a great reader experience.

3. Repeat.

If you're a polymath, maybe you can write, do brilliant cover art, edit and proofread yourself, design the interior, and do all of the marketing and advertising by yourself.

Me? Check my sidebar. Those are the folks who help me sell books. 

They could help you, too.