Category Archives: Writing Journal

On not being a hack

There is a story that the young Plato, being gifted with an excellent intellect, wrote a play to submit for the Athenian Dionysia. Taking it to submit before the judges, he found Socrates meditating upon the steps of the theatre. Having been told the play was good by friends and family, Plato was only too happy to read parts of it to Socrates. After Plato was done, the older Socrates – already a famed teacher of Athenian nobility – agreed that the play was good. The he asked Plato a single question about the meaning of his play. Plato found he could not answer, and as he considered the question, he realised that the play was unfinished. As it was, it could never answer Socrates’ question. So rather than be shackled by the chains of the failed play, Plato decided to begin again. That night he had a brazier lit, and burned his first play as an offering to the gods.

There, that’s what it takes.

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Why Ello’s $450,000 in funding is a really, really good thing

Ello is the hip young social network that this week seemed to cross the threshold, from one of many, to the single most serious contender for Next Big Thing in the social online world. It has picked up an unknown but significant number of new users, many of them power user migrating from Twitter. And, of course, it’s been given some money by the Powers That Be in the form of venture capital.

Quite rightly, this has lead many folks if Ello has already departed down the slippery slope to evil, despite its charming manifesto packed with good intentions.

Here’s another way to look at the same data. Ello has one thing, and only one thing going for it. It has declared on the side of privacy – and the rights of its users – at a time when outrage at a lack of privacy and the exploitation of users for commercial gain is peaking. In short, Ello is the ethical choice. This is the only reason it now has users, and the only reason it now has money.

Ethics are Ello‘s unique sales point. They are its killer app. Ethics are the product the money is invested in. If that trend continues, we could quickly see a flip towards ethical business models – that preserve privacy and protect users from commercial exploitation – not just in social networks but in all forms of online services that have previously relied on data mining.

Oh, and we’ll be paying for them all directly…hurrah!

(Will ethical services dominate? Who knows. Historically the ethical choice tends to be the third choice. But it’s a topsy turvy world we’re living in!)

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Ello – why is everyone moving to this half built social network?

Trust me, this post really is about Ello, it just needs a little context.

The world appears to be complicated. But really it isn’t. oh sure there are 7 billion people crowded on to this relatively tiny lump of orbital debris we call a planet, divided into some 196 states and some 2,896 major cities, operating a variety of political systems from capitalist democracies and plutocracies to totalitarian military dictatorships. The global economy is worth in total – adding together every single thing people do for money from school janitor to Fortune 500 CEO – an estimated $72 TRILLION. It’s a big number, and we keep ourselves busy making it all happen. But the brutal truth is that all of this human activity, all of the work, play, art, love, hate and BUSINESS of human life boils down to, and is energised by, one very simple idea.

Status.

We have a lot of names for status, some may seem more relevant to you than others. Wealth. How much money do you have? But billionaire or bum, wealth is really just a scoring system that we use to measure status. Power. What do you control? Do you command armies? Do you chair the boardroom? Are you head of the family, tribe, clan? But power is just a measure of what your status buys you. Identity. Rockstar. Artist. Professor. Father. Mother. Lover. Who are you? What is your status? That’s the question every human alive is struggling to answer, and it can only be answered in relation to others. Our status only exists in relation to society.

(Worth noting that I don’t necessarily like this any more than you do, but I do believe it to be true.  Are there ways out of this status nightmare? Yes, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So one way to understand the staggering explosion of social networks in the last decade is as the latest evolution in the millennia long contest for social status that powers pretty much every facet of human life. What we’re doing on social networks like Facebook and Twitter is transporting the complex webs of social status from the physical in to the digital world. Family, friends, work colleagues, professional networks. Social media makes our social relationships easier, quicker and more effective. And it lets us forge new social networks. To build new online lives and careers to go with them in many cases. But the fuel super-charging the engines of social media isn’t an extension of the status-quo. No. What dragged so many of us to Facebook and Twitter was their potential for social revolution.

I would never have had the kind of writing career I have today before social media. Never in a month of Sundays.

Once we have status, we want to keep it. And the more status we have, the more invested we are keeping the status quo intact. If society collapsed tomorrow the biggest losers would be the elite – the politicians, billionaires, celebrities and the rest whose vast privilege relies on millions of other people buying in to the society they sit at the top of. Following the financial crash of 2008 lots of people woke up to the reality that ballooning debt bubbles had disguised – our emerging global society is just as unjust and inflexible as every other society that came before it. If you are born in to a farm labouring family in Nigeria, a working class family in Russia, or an upper class family in Switzerland, you’re likely to stay in that relative status for your whole life. Our society is structured to protect and maintain itself, and while social mobility is possible as an individual, the statistics dictate that it will only be possible for a few individuals in any given group.

And then comes an explosion of computer technology, the internet, and with it, social media. Technological innovation always disrupts social hierarchies in the short term. The industrial revolution displaced old aristocratic systems in most of the world, replacing them the merchant class and today’s modern corporate system. The information revolution is displacing existing power structures all over the place. The little world of book publishing I deal with is being gutted by Amazon, a technology savy business quickly destroying the powerful publishers that came before it. Social media has been phenomenally popular not just as a venue for crazy cat videos and sexting. In a myriad of smaller ways, social media has empowered people to find new kinds of status that weren’t available before.

Here is an admission. I would never have had the kind of writing career I have today before social media. Never in a month of Sundays. Before the internet the UK media and the publishing world were a rigged game that you only got access to if you were born in to the right level of society that could get you to a good university, and probably some kind of inheritance to subsidise your income. I’m just a kid from a council estate with a minor aptitude for words that would never have seen light of day without the internet. Without my blog, the comment threads and forums and social networks where I built my profile, and the revolutionary shift from print to digital that has created every opportunity I’ve ever had as a writer, I’d be doing whatever people like me did before the internet.

(Theft in my case, looking at the careers of most of my school friends.)

So why the hell, given how much so many people have gained from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, are a whole bunch of power users from those places leaping on board a half-built upstart newcomer like Ello? Let’s be clear, it’s really not about it’s hipster design ethic. It’s also not the only social network you’ll see people migrating to over the next few years. Be prepared for a long haul social network shuffle, as savvy internet denizens shift their assets from one virtual territory to the next. Why? Because as fast as these networks challenge the status quo, they then lock it down again. The impetus to move from Twitter to Ello was the announcement that Twitter would begin filtering timelines. Translated to the eternal status game of human existence, this mean Twitter locking down its status structure, so that those with status – the famous, the rich, governments and corporations – can once again dominate the conversation that they temporarily lost control of.

This is what we mean when we say that Facebook or Twitter has gone “evil”. These companies have built a business on the promise of disrupting and levelling the status-quo. Now, at the perfectly predictable moment, they’ve sold that promise out to the Powers That Be, in exchange for VAST wealth, power and personal status. Twitters founders, executives and, crucially, it VC funders, aren’t looking to make a living. They’re playing to win the ultimate status, to become the new aristocracy of the new social structure these new technologies are creating, with the reward that they and their children and their children’s children for generations to come will have the very highest levels of status. The Enclosure of the social media commons begins, and like the robber barons of old, the Twitter founders and their funders will reap the highest rewards. The sad truth is, if you were given that option, you’d take it as well.

And of course, the lovely founders of Ello will in due course also turn evil. We forgive you, in advance. But in the mean time, another window of revolutionary opportunity to disrupt the status quo has opened. Enough people have leaped aboard the Ello bandwagon this week that we can guarantee that something interesting is going to come of it. As interesting as the early days of Twitter, which made a new kind of internet celebrity? Unlikely. But who knows, maybe there is life in old social media horse yet.

 

3 things books must do to survive in an attention economy

Much of my first decade as a writer was spent helping people read and write. I ran workshops and development projects for libraries, a part of my professional life I wrote about not so long ago. A big part of my work then was caught up with the question, asked in various different ways, “why don’t more people read?” Reading is both fun and remarkably good for people. So why isn’t everyone an avid reader?

The common assumption, one I came to believe was profoundly incorrect (and got in to remarkable amounts of shit for vocally challenging), was that “non-readers” were a) poor and  b) uneducated. In other words, lack of participation in reading was laid at the feet of class and social politics. My own experience first made me suspect this was untrue. I grew up in a single parent family, in a council flat, on state benefits, in the “underclass” that were defined as “non-readers”, but I grew up surrounded by books, instilled with a love of books, and I knew that I wasn’t alone in that. When I began to look at the paltry research on the subject of reading I saw it presented no real evidence to back up the assumptions on poverty, and as I got deeper in to my work I saw the truth with my own eyes. In tiny homes on grim housing estates I would find hordes of books, defeating the poverty of ignorance stereotype again and again.

In fact the people who read the least were usually rather affluent. At least financially. Rich in money, but poor in time. Middle class parents struggling to maintain a high standard of material living. Young professionals carving out a career. Teenagers balancing  minimum wage jobs with their studies. The big gap in the reading demographic isn’t poor people, it’s busy people.

And we’re becoming a world of very, very busy people. To be clear, I’m not criticising people for being too busy read. I think many of us might benefit from making more time to read (I literally have to schedule reading time or, even as a writer and reviewer, I won’t do it) But if the reason we’re not reading is that we’re too busy living I can’t in truth see that as a terrible problem. And the combined wonders of digital technology and late stage capitalism keep us very busy living indeed. Laptops and smart phones mean we can carry on our work at any time or place, and the high competition of today’s economy means that we likely have to whether we like it or not. In short, our attention is occupied.

The recent discussion of the Amazon / Hachette negotiations turn, more than we may think, on this contest for attention. The core message of Amazon’s open letter is that books need to adapt to the new demands on our time that the digital, attention deficit economy imposes. The core belief of the writers howling back at Amazon is that books can, and in fact must, resist the pressures of limited time and attention. At heart this is not a business issue, at least not in its wider appeal to public opinion. Amazon / Hachette is a culture clash, and a serious culture clash at that.

I find my heart and soul divided in this conflict. Amazon are right, books will have to change. And writers are correct, books will have to change the world. They’ve done it before, they can do it again. Here are my thoughts on how :

1. An effective digital strategy

I write this in a 24 hour study cafe filled with *counts fingers* 160+ teenagers, students and young professionals. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM IS LOOKING AT A COMPUTER. Laptops, smartphones, tablets. Books have to exist on these devices, they have to be visible, and they have to capture attention not simply passively demand it. Amazon is absolutely right to point again and again at the need for books to compete with films, tv, music, apps, social networks and everything else that happens on these screens. And to be very frank, the reason Amazon are beating publishers up so badly at the moment is that they demonstrably understand the digital paradigm far better. In this area, Amazon and the technology companies win.

2. Innovate both form and content

Where technologists really don’t win is in writing books. You do not improve a book by sticking video clips in it, giving it a branching multiple-choice narrative structure or, and I will bold this for emphasis, make it a fucking video game. Books are already built on the most sophisticated technological communication platform ever evolved – language. That’s where they need to innovate. The novel as commonly encountered today is the outcome of a long series of technological innovations in the use of language to tell stories. Innovations made incrementally by writers and publishers. Publishers can reassert their importance in the digital era by innovating the book successfully for digital readers. To date, major publishers have done almost nothing in this space. That has to change. In this area, writers and publishers have the skills and experience needed.

3. Redefine Value

There’s very little likelihood of new release ebooks selling well for £17.99 (the standard hardback price) when other digital goods are much, much less. But a ten-part serial fiction at £1.99 an episode might make the same ball park revenue as a hardback. But to do so it would need both an effective digital strategy, and an innovative form that made to episodic structure work effectively in prose fiction. I’m not suggesting serial fiction as the answer, merely as an example of one answer that might redefine the value of books for digital readers, and maintain that value at levels needed to keep books an industry not a paying hobby.

For this culture clash between technology geeks and book geeks to resolve, both need to play to their strengths and stop denigrating the strengths of the other. Technology companies like Amazon know digital. Writers and publishers know books. When they work well together then the book industry booms, as we’ve seen at times on the Kindle platform. If they continue to clash however, the future for books may be far less bright.

FUCK YOU AMAZON! Fuck you for being right! Again!

Sigh. Writers and publishers are again up in arms about Amazon, this time because of a letter sent directly to thousands of self-published writers by the book behemoth, and repeated on a new Readers United website. Full text of the email below for non-KDP authors who are curious.

So here we are again. Amazon is correct, 100% so, in every major point they make. The comparison with paperback publishing is HUGELY relevant and the price elasticity is absolutely in line with every major consumer product that has transitioned to digital. And how have many writers and publishers responded? Basically by screaming…

FUCK YOU AMAZON!

Yeah Amazon, fuck you! Fuck you for being right! Again! What have Amazon ever done for books eh? Pioneered a postal delivery market publishers ignored? Yes ok, but what else? Invested millions in an ebook infrastructure publishers deliberately ignored? Fine, but what else? Opened up publishing to thousands of independent authors of all kinds, many of whom are making entire careers in digital sales with 70% royalties? Well, damn yes that’s pretty good I guess, but what else?

What else? Look people, there is no scenario where publishing isn’t utterly transformed by digital technology. Do you know what the real threat to book publishing is? Total and utter irrelevancy. If books aren’t present in the digital market places where people now buy music, films, tv shows, games and apps, they effectively cease to exist for the VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE. Remember record stores? Remember video rental stores? You’ll soon be remembering book shops as well, beyond a handful of well run independents in rich neighbourhoods. Where the hell do you expect people to see your books if not on Kindle, iBooks or Google Play? And in what possible universe are people going to pay $19.99 for an ebook when that pricing is waaaaaaaaay over the value of other digital media?

People are justifying this “FUCK YOU AMAZON” response by the “tone” of Amazon’s letter. Read and judge for yourself. It may be assertive, or it may be patronising. It’s still right.

***

From: Kindle Direct Publishing
Subject: Important Kindle request

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read). A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures. And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at http://www.readersunited.com

A reminder why book pirates are a writer’s only friend

There are 7 billion people on planet Earth. 7,000,000,000. That’s a vast audience that in the digital age is only really limited by language and literacy barriers. But let’s be really tight, and say that the operational potential upper audience for your book is 1 billion people. 1,000,000,000.

The best selling novels of all time like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter top out at between 100-200 million copies sold. That’s 10-20% of our arbitrary 1 billion. Sell 10 million books and you’ll easily enter the ranks of all time bestselling authors. But that’s far more than you’ll need to get on the New York Times bestseller list, which are often around 10,000 sales in a week. And a writer can penetrate the Amazon top 100 with only 1000 books sold. That’s right, you can become a bestselling author by reaching only 0.0001% of your potential audience.

If your goal is to be a bestseller, lack of people is not the problem.

“Your enemy is not piracy, but obscurity.” It doesn’t seem to matter how often this famous statement by Tim O’Reilly is quoted, authors and the publishing industry that represents them don’t seem to take it on board. That’s partly a matter of emotion – success as a writer is hard fought and for anyone who doesn’t find it, piracy is a convenient lightning rod for negative emotions. But I suspect the wider cause is that many writers have miscast the basic nature of their problem.

Obscurity is your problem. Obscurity of the kind a snowflake faces in a snowstorm, or a scream faces in hell. There are 7 billion people in the world and almost all of them are selling something on the internet. And so, as a writer with the goal of becoming a bestseller, are you. Engineers use a term called “signal to noise” to talk about the challenge of getting a desired signal through the background noise around it. The signal to noise ratio of the internet is immeasurably huge.

But the irony is that you may be better off penetrating it as a indie published writer than with the backing of a major publisher. Because in the unfolding era of digital publishing, major publishers aren’t demonstrating a single clue about how to overcome that staggering signal to noise challenge. I’m watching hundreds of mainstream published debut authors plunge in to the abyss, while all the new names I see establishing themselves in the imaginations of readers are either indie publishing or building their own marketing platforms on blogs and podcasts. Why is this?

Could it be that the hysterical response of publishers to piracy is emblematic of why? Faced with the titanic struggle to penetrate the signal of a new writer through the noise of the internet marketing apocalypse, what do publishers do when they identify small pockets of people who are actually interested in reading that authors book? They waste their time issuing DMCA take down notices (because legal threats are always a great way to solidify a reader / writer relationship) when they should be taking a leaf out of the indie writer playbook and doing everything they can to befriend the book pirates. Because while pirates aren’t your best friends, as a debut author they may well be your only friends.

inspiration_bookshelves

What ebooks need are…ebookshelves

I have a friend who buys books on the basis of what will look good on his shelves to anyone inspecting them after he has died. Like always wearing clean pants just incase you get hit by a car, this motivation for book purchasing has a lot to do with how others see us. I don’t recommend it. But I think it’s likely true that part of what most of us enjoy about books is the act of putting them, keeping them, and ordering them, on shelves.

I no longer own any book shelves. I’m currently living out of a single back pack as a globetrotting digital nomad. I do have some boxes of books in storage, and one day I might place them back on some shelves of my own. Until then I’m 100% ebook. My book collection lives on a hard-drive alongside my music, film and tv collections. My ebook collection is by far the most important to me. But it is also by far the least satisfying in its digital format.

Ebooks themselves are unsatisfying. I love reading them, but as objects they are a failure. An ebook is really just a text file wrapped in some markup code which instructs your e-reader on how to display it. It’s technically almost identical to a webpage, except with all but the most basic features crippled to create the perceptual illusion that this is a book (something worth paying for) not a web page (something most people are not willing to pay for). As skeuomorphism recedes from digital design, ebooks are clinging on to it for dear life. But it’s in contrast to print books that ebooks fail as objects. A print book arrives ready to read. An ebook needs bits of software and hardware, may well need converting if not for the exact platform you are reading on, and will often break and lose essential formatting. An ebook feels much like an unbound print book, like a stack of loose pages liable to chaotic disorder.

The Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Kobo and Google Play platforms solve this problem by providing a beginning to end experience from choosing and purchasing and ebook to reading and storing it. But none of them do it very well or very creatively. The best ebook library software is the open source Calibre, but it’s ugly and buggy and will never be loved despite being extremely useful.

What I want for my ebooks are…ebookshelves. I want software that beautifully and elegantly stores my ebooks, in someway echoing the experience of a study in English stately home, stocked with excellent hardbound tomes. I want a reading experience, on my computer, phone or tablet that replicates the satisfying objectness of a print book while integrating the best of what ebooks could offer in interactivity and illustrating graphics if they chose to. And I want these things not just as a reader but as a writer as well. Because if the writers business (as opposed to art) is, ultimately, selling books to people, then the experience of buying, reading and owning those books still needs to be radically improved from its current piecemeal, unsatisfactory state.

What is Hachette fighting for?

The Amazon books team deliver some interesting, but non-specific, data on ebook prices. Bottom line – lower prices deliver higher revenue and profits because e-book prices are “highly elastic”. So indie authors putting their work on for £2.99 against the standard publisher price of £8.99 are doing exactly the right thing.

It’s worth noting here that ebook prices now behave much more like the dynamics of crowd-funding than traditional book pricing. Your product is essentially unlimited so you price at the point that produces the highest volume. It’s clear publishers don’t understand this yet. They are setting prices on the basis of product scarcity – put simply, publishers still don’t understand the market for ebooks.

One more note on our proposal for how the total revenue should be shared. While we believe 35% should go to the author and 35% to Hachette, the way this would actually work is that we would send 70% of the total revenue to Hachette, and they would decide how much to share with the author. We believe Hachette is sharing too small a portion with the author today, but ultimately that is not our call.

via Amazon.com: Customer Discussions: Update re: Amazon/Hachette Business Interruption.

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

Look at the state of British Sci-Fi

Strange Horizons publishes a large an interesting report on “The State of British Sf and Fantasy” which with the input of six authors does a fairly good job of reflecting many current trends. I take issue with Juliet McKenna’s opening essay The Market and Trade. Not because it is incorrect – it is well researched and has much useful information. But because it is myopic in its focus and unforgivably negative in tone.

Writers earning a living wage from their fiction and giving up the day job is an increasingly unlikely prospect. Advances for novels continue to fall and the contractual rights surrendered become ever more all-encompassing, giving publishers first call on income from foreign translation and other formats. Backlist sales once sustained writers but with bookshops no longer holding such stock, that revenue has shrunk for most but the top sellers. Short story and small press deals cannot offer enough money to make up such shortfalls. Direct sales through ebooks may bring writers a higher return in percentage terms but those authors who make significant sums remain newsworthy precisely because they are the “man bites dog” stories of publishing.

via Strange Horizons Articles: The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium, by Juliet E. McKenna, Kari Sperring, Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, and Maureen Kincaid Speller.

An “increasingly” unlikely prospect? There are more writers than ever earning a living in the genre. It’s a much more likely prospect. Why the intense and inaccurate negativity?

What is missing from McKenna’s purview? Digital, ebooks and most critically the indie author revolution. There’s nothing to gain from bemoaning the problems in traditional publishing without paying detailed attention to the context giving rise to those problems. WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF THE MOST RADICAL CHANGE CHANGE IN KNOWLEDGE DISTRIBUTION SINCE THE PRINTING PRESS WAS INVENTED. The publishing industry as you know it is an artefact for of the pre-digital era, there is absolutely zero chance of it continuing in its established form in the face of digital technology, and yes of course writers trying to shelter within the collapsing infrastructure of that industry are going to have an increasingly hard time.

Where are writers earning a living wage today? In self publishing. How are writers protecting their intellectual property from publishers contracts? By self publishing. How are writers profiting from their backlist? By self publishing. When are short stories making unexpected profits for writers? When being self published. How does McKenna characterise self-publishing? As the “man bites dog” outlier of success. No doubt many writers and publishing professionals continue to see it that way. They’re likely to continue on the same downward spiral McKenna describes for as long as they do so.

Why do you hate indie authors?

Hugh Howey once again shares another interesting perspective on the indie publishing revolution, in this case a refutation of the frequent criticisms of the Author Earnings reports methodology, from the unnamed Data Guy behind those reports.

I do apologize to those whom this information proves troubling, but it is a fair view of what is happening in the world of ebooks today. And all the trends we’ve seen point in the same direction.

via Data Guy on the Author Earnings Methodology | Hugh Howey.

Howey’s brief quote there interests me, because it raises the simple question, why are so many in the industry so vindictively determined that indie publishing can not exist? I see the same fatuous counter arguments placed against the existence of indie publishing again and again. The data is unreliable! Jesus H Christ folks just spend five minutes on the internet looking at the hundreds of indie authors clearly doing very well with their work. They’re just a few needles in a haystack! All success in any creative field is like being a needle in a haystack. Do you use the very rare success of traditionally published authors to condemn the traditional publishing industry? Most indie authors sell no books! Most authors FULL STOP sell no books. They spend years making submissions and in slush piles and learn nothing. Yes, you might claim it’s better to publish nothing until an agent or editor approves you. Personally, I think its better to give that power to readers.

Indie publishing is real, it’s here to stay, and its tranformative effect on the industry is just beginning. So the question remains, why do you hate it so much?