A sad but illuminating read

I recently finished Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Wow.

Basically it's a story of a company making the difficult transition from being a mom-and-pop to being a large public corporation. But from the point of view of the writers and artists, it's a story about getting screwed, very, very badly.

Now, the comics industry has evolved, so these days people are much more likely to get an ownership share of what they create. But that didn't used to be the case--it used to be that, if you wanted to work in comics, you had to work as a hired hand--and what's alarming about it is how normal that seemed to everyone.

In fact, there are a couple of places in the book where people--sometimes other comics people--express surprise at the notion that the creator of a character would dare expect an ownership share! After all, they didn't contribute anything!

Wow. Wowowowow.

And very enlightening, no?

What does a person mean when they say that the creator of a character didn't contribute anything to it?

Well, for starters, I think there's that very human tendency to give yourself credit for anything that is successful, even if your involvement was tangential. That's definitely a major issue in comics--often you've got one person coming up with the character with input from others, and then still other people develop it. So if you contributed, say, the money, you might well say, "I contributed the money! You, the creator, didn't! My contribution is the only one that matters!"

The other thing is I think an important insight to the corporate mentality: For-profit corporations exist to make money. Ergo, it's easy for people working at corporations to assume that the only thing that counts for anything is money.

I remember at one point someone was confused because some corporation was claiming that they needed to restructure because they weren't getting enough "respect." The person found that baffling, because why the hell would you undergo the trouble and expense of restructuring in order to get respect? That sounds neurotic at best. And I had to explain that, in business speak, "respect" means "money from investors." A "good" business is a profitable business--it doesn't matter if they make money by poisoning small children, as long as they are making money, they are "good." If they are making more money, they are "better."

If you are in an environment where the only thing that is recognized as positive and worthwhile is money, then it can become very, very easy to dismiss other kinds of contributions. That's why one person can create (out of thin air) a character worth billions of dollars, and another person can, with complete honesty, express their sincere opinion that the first person did not contribute anything to that character.

Many of Marvel's artists and writers experienced true poverty, and in some cases they got desperate enough to sue. Marvel defended itself very aggressively (and why shouldn't they, these people had contributed nothing), and even went so far as to countersue people for amounts of money that were piddling to Marvel but doubtless ruinous to those people. They don't apologize for this--they regard these people as thieves who are trying to get something for nothing.

The only thing protected people was insisting on having fair contracts. That was it. Anyone who expected largesse at any time from any of Marvel's various owners got the shaft. Of course they did. They hadn't contributed anything!

Color me skeptical

I've gone back and forth on Barnes & Noble's prospects, but some news came out recently that really is making me down on the whole Nook business.

Namely, Pearson (owner of Penguin) is taking a five percent ownership share in the Nook business.

It's not just that I think Pearson is making a host of dumb decisions lately. Or that I think their rationale for doing this (securing better distribution for their educational materials?) is basically nonsensical, or that I think they're really shoring up Barnes & Noble because they're hoping nothing will ever change in bookselling.

It's also because Barnes & Noble also announced that holiday sales sucked for the Nook business (which, it should be noted, includes both e-books and e-readers), and that the company is going to miss its numbers. According to Publisher's Weekly, twice as many Nooks sold this Thanksgiving weekend than last--which parallels Amazon's report of stronger Kindle sales that weekend--but still, Barnes & Noble is not going to meet their revenue projections. (And I know it's not been a great holiday season for retailers in general, but Amazon isn't saying that they're going to miss their numbers.)

I've mocked Barnes & Noble for being rather creative in how they present themselves to the market, and I think you see the fallout from that sort of creativity here. Either Barnes & Nobles projections were bullshit designed to keep investors from running away, or the company has been doing a horrible job selling e-books and e-readers. Or both.

How that click thing works

I posted earlier about my first pay-per-click advertising campaign, and Jim Self commented, "I bet someone out there has crunched the numbers on what level of bid gets the best results."

If you're scratching your head as to what he's talking about, when you book a pay-per-click advertising campaign, you bid a certain price that you will pay if the ad is actually clicked on. Bid too low, and your ad never actually gets shown to anyone--which is what happened my first day. Bid really high, and your ad will get shown to everyone, right away!

Sounds like a good idea to bid high, right? But it's not, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, you need to look at your potential revenue per customer--you don't want to bid a dollar a click if you only have one 99-cent book out and can only possibly make 35 cents off each customer. The math isn't always that simple--my first pay-per-click campaign was for a free book, after all, but the hope is that they'll buy copies of Trust. Some already are, which is awesome, but I have no idea what the conversion rate is, so I can't sit down and calculate my exact return on investment. But it really doesn't matter--I'm more likely to cover the cost of the campaign (which wasn't much--$71.22) if I keep the bid price low.

The other reason to bid low is that you set a daily budget, and once your campaign hits that cost, it closes down for the day. So, if you have a daily budget of $100, and you bid a dollar a click, your ads will stop showing after 100 people click. If you bid 50 cents a click, 200 people can click before your campaign goes dark. Ten cents a click? One thousand people!

If you're running an ad campaign where the click takes someone to where they can buy your book, then clearly you want to maximize clicks. In that scenario, getting as many clicks as you can before your money runs out matters far more than having the ad shown to everyone quickly.

The tricky thing is that, as Lindsay Buroker notes, Facebook suggests a range of bids per click that is very high. Lindsay said that Facebook suggested she bid almost a dollar per click; she wound up doing fine at 20 cents. I'm assuming that costs have gone up because of all the post-holiday advertising, because I initially bid 30 cents, and the ad wasn't being shown. I raised it to 50 cents, and the ad got shown fairly often.

That was for a short-term campaign--I was only running those ads for two days, so I couldn't wait and see if the bid price was going to drop. Now I've started a new campaign advertising Trang at its normal price, and I've set the bid price at 40 cents, which gets it shown some, but not a lot. I'm fine with that because this is a long-term campaign, so I can check on it every now and again to see if the bid price should be raised or lowered.

So, just to demonstrate potential-revenue-per-customer thinking:

The campaign for free copies of Trang cost me 50 cents per customer and has the potential to make me $3.44 per customer (assuming 100% buy through for both books, which is absurd, but we're talking potential here). That means if one out of every 6 or 7 clickers goes on to buy Trust, I will break even.

The current campaign for Trang is costing me 40 cents per customer and has the potential to make me $5.44 per customer. That means if one out of every 13 or 14 clickers goes on to buy both books, I will break even.

If I only had Trang out, the first campaign would be strictly a money-loser, and the second campaign would have only the potential to make me $2 per customer (one out of every 5 clickers would have to buy Trang for me to break even). If Trang was 99 cents, the second campaign would have only the potential to make me 35 cents per customer, which would make it a money-loser at my current bid price of 40 cents.

If Trials was already out and priced at $4.99, the first campaign would have the potential to make me $6.88 per customer, and the second would have the potential to make me $8.88 per customer.

In other words--get back to work!

Progress report

I re-recorded the necessary lines for Chapter 3 of Trang, did the compression, and started in with the noise removal. When I was recording it, the washing machine was running, but I didn't think it would make enough noise to matter. And it doesn't--kind of. You can't really hear it, but you can see the spin cycle come on and off if you look at the voice recording. And if I do a complete noise removal in-between words when the spin cycle is on, then you notice it--it sounds cut-off. So I used more-subtle noise removal, and that worked fine.

It's early days yet, but so far I'm liking the point system I created for myself--it helps keep me focused on priority tasks when many other things are also competing for my attention. One thing I like about it is that I feel like it's adequately flexible to be useful when things are crazy. For example, next week I've got children half the time, so I just looked at the calendar, figured out how many days are available for me to work on book stuff, and adjusted the points I need to earn accordingly.

Holiday expectations

Passive Voice put out the question, how are your holiday sales doing? And there's a lot of angst out there, because we writers all know that people get e-readers for Christmas and then at 12:01 a.m. December 26 they all go online and buy gazillions and gazillions of e-books, so if your sales aren't skyrocketing by December 27 or December 28 at the very latest, you should just go take a nap on the railroad tracks because it's all over for you, baby.

Except, you know, how do we know this? Kris Rusch addressed this question of unrealistic post-holiday sales expectations this very day last year, noting that despite all the sales and specials, the main beneficiaries of a post-holiday sales bump were authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Charlotte Bronte, and Mark Twain. You know, because people who get a shiny new e-reader under the tree at Christmastime go online and immediately go for what is familiar--what they already know they like.

Which makes total sense to me. I used to walk into the Strand Bookstore in New York City ("18 Miles of Books!"), and my brain would just short out. I'd have a list of books in my head, but I'd walk in there and there would be 18 miles of books and that list would be GONE. It was like my brain turned to static. 18 FREAKING MILES of books. Holy Christ. How the hell are you supposed to deal with that?

And Amazon's, like, a billion times worse. You're frazzled already from all the holiday crap (the shopping, the wrapping, the crazy relatives, the logistics, the pageants, the parties, the cooking, the decorating, the drinking, the junk food, the travel, the uncooperative weather throwing a wrench into everything all the time) you've been having to do for the past month or two, you open up a shiny new e-reader, you go online, and--JESUS WEPT! 18,000,000 MILES OF BOOKS!!! Your head is going to explode! So you just grab The Wizard of Oz (which you plan to read curled up in a corner as you suck your thumb) and figure that you'll deal with the rest later. You don't want to be making lots of tough decisions and taking risks on new things--you've been doing that since Halloween! You need a break!

And of course, increasingly, people aren't opening up shiny new e-readers--they're opening up shiny new tablets. People who buy e-readers want them for one thing: To read books. People who buy tablets might not even think of them initially as e-book reading devices--they are, and people will gradually figure that out, but the average tablet buyer isn't immediately going to jump online and buy a bunch of e-books. That's going to take some time.

One thing to keep firmly in mind is that this is a new industry. And it's a changing one! Writers on the cusp of the year 2013 shouldn't hang themselves because they aren't meeting expectations created in 2011.

The early e-book adopters clearly were big readers--you have HarperCollins saying that more than half its U.S. fiction revenues come from e-books, but only 23% of Americans read e-books, so these people buy a lot of books. Later e-book adopters may well buy less, especially on the day after Christmas. I am optimistic that this industry will continue to grow, and I'm hopeful that e-books will result in more people becoming readers, as tablet (and phone) owners slowly but surely figure out that there's this really convenient, inexpensive way to tap into the wonderful world of books.

But I don't expect all that to happen by the end of business today.

A survey and some things to remember

This (via PV) is a survey by the Pew Research Center on e-book reading. Wanna know why I don't think e-books are really flatlining and print is the future?

In the past year, the number of those who read e-books increased from 16% of all Americans ages 16 and older to 23%. At the same time, the number of those who read printed books in the previous 12 months fell from 72% of the population ages 16 and older to 67%.

So, you've got fast growth in the percentage of people reading e-books, and you've got a meaningful decline in the percentage of people reading paper books, despite the fact that paper books are readily available. Then you've got an awful lot of room for those trends to continue.

Yeah, I'm not going to mourn the end of e-books just yet.

The survey also shows that more people are using tablets to read e-books than dedicated e-readers, which again underscores the point that the e-reader market and the e-book market are two different markets.

In the spirit of making the same damned point over and over again: See how different the results are when you survey a different group? The Pew survey is of the general population, and the results look very different than when you survey publishers. Even small publishers.

Not to slam Dean Wesley Smith, who produced what I thought was a very good blog post about keeping production going. Lots of valuable insights there about striking a balance between accountability and perfectionism. He makes some suggestions, and then notes:

Chances are you will not remember [the suggestions].  Sadly. You will be buried in a life crisis and then when that clears you will be mad at yourself for not doing the impossible and protecting your writing time and meeting your weekly goals. And you will be swirling in the failure instead of just focusing on being successful the following week.

Wow, was that easy for me to type and so hard for any of us to do.

The real key to having a successful year writing fiction is that when you get stopped, and you will, to start back up as soon as you can.

All very true, and good for me to keep in mind as I recover from the holidays and look toward spring....

Who's clicking?

When I put together the original pay-per-click advertising campaign I did on Facebook, I went to a lot of trouble to target people with likes I thought would fit well with Trang--social science-fiction, Babylon 5, etc.

But yesterday, when I first noticed that no one was clicking on the ad, and before I figured out that the ad simply wasn't being displayed, I though the problem might be that these people didn't read e-books. So I quickly threw up an identical campaign that was aimed solely at Kindle users. (Again: Beat that, dead-tree advertising!)

Well! Today both ads are indeed being displayed, but still none of sci-fi crowd is clicking on the ad. The Kindle folks, however, are clicking. (And they appear to be actually grabbing free copies--Trang is now #3 in science fiction:series, which kind of cracks me up. Can I claim it's a bestseller now?)

So, definitely ads for the next set of KDP Select free days will be aimed at Kindle users. Trang is available as a paper book, so I'm gonna keep things going with the sci-fi crowd, since it can't hurt (and if they don't click, it doesn't cost me a dime--seriously, pay-per-click ads are kind of like e-books, where it's more trouble to take them down than to leave them up). But it looks like it'll be well worth it to have specific campaigns for each kind of e-reader user--Kindle, Nook, Kobo, whatever.

The reason I didn't initially market to Kindle users is that marketing sci-fi to a general audience often isn't very productive. But with pay-per-click, as long as I am very up-front about the kind of book it is (and I'm using the "clever return to the social sci-fi of yesteryear" line), the audience seems to self-select. Since (unlike with display ads) I don't pay for those who don't click, it doesn't matter if only 1% or 0.1% or 0.01% or 0.001% of the people who see the ad are interested.

KDP Select and online advertising so far

I put Trang into KDP Select (Amazon's exclusivity program) December 1, and today was my first free day, which I promoted doing my first online advertising campaign. So I thought I'd post about how all that is going.

Lots of people get lots of different results with KDP Select, but there are two advantages to it: 1. People enrolled in Amazon Prime can borrow your books for free (you get paid for the borrows), and 2. You get to make your book free.

Some people make so much money off the borrows that they don't even bother with the free days, but nobody has borrowed Trang since I enrolled it, so I get the feeling that's one of those things (like sale pricing) that works if people already know about the book or the author. Certainly in my case it's not going to do the job all by itself.

But I wasn't going to let the free days work all by themselves--I was running an advertising campaign on Facebook!

Well, it turns out I have something to learn about pay-per-click advertising. My first glimmering of this came a couple of days ago when I was reading an old post about online advertising by Lindsay Buroker. She wrote:

With Facebook, I tried some ads to direct people to the free-ebook tab on my Facebook Author Page. It didn’t cost me much (a couple of dollars most weeks), and it did get some people to click the links on the free-ebook page....

Note the bolded bit. With a pay-per-click campaign, you pay only when people click on your ad. If nobody's clicking, it doesn't cost you much to run one--you know, just a couple of dollars a week.

In other words: Better-known author than me + free book = little interest on Facebook. Doesn't sound so good for me, does it?

Compounding the problem, I didn't bid enough for the ads, so for most of today (which is Day 1 of a two-day period of free Trang) Facebook didn't actually serve up any ads. I'm assuming the price is especially high today because there are a lot of post-Christmas promotions going on. Anyway, I bumped my bid up (which you can do mid-campaign--beat that, dead-tree advertising!), and now Facebook is showing to ad to people. But they haven't clicked on it.

Which, apparently, is par for the course with pay-per-click ads! The upside is that this ad hasn't cost me a thing (and of course I don't know that I'm not benefitting from getting my name out there--I just know that people aren't clicking). It definitely seems to me like pay-per-click is better suited to a long-term campaign--I might not get very far running one for only two days, but given the low cost, I could keep one (or many) going pretty much indefinitely. Good to know!

Anyway, despite the Facebook campaign being kind of a flop, the free book is doing OK, presumably helped by me finally getting around to posting about it on Kindle Boards and Tweeting about it. Trang has even spent most of the day in the top 10 among free books in the science fiction: series category!

I went to see how it was doing in the science fiction: space opera category, and...whoops! It's not there! Yoikes--apparently when I got the books put into the science fiction: series category (which requires special dispensation), they lost their other categorization. So I put them back in science ficiton: space opera, but they're not showing up on that list, presumably because I didn't do that until late in the day. We'll see if Trang shows up there later on--I'm assuming science fiction: space opera is a bit more competitive that the science fiction: series category, what with it having 7,419 titles instead of 326.

Progress report

I recorded chapter 3 of Trang--wow, that did not go smoothly. I swear, I had to restart every single paragraph for the first 4-5 pages of the chapter. Oddly enough character voices were easily than the regular talking. But all the Pax sister names--oy. I'm just guessing my way through those things, because I can't find pronunciation guides anywhere. I will listen to it all later and get a better sense of how it went.

Holidays-are-coming-to-an-end angst and planning

Believe it or not, things are actually quieting down some for me and allowing me to think ahead a bit.

Rightly or wrongly, it annoys me that I've gotten so little done book-wise in December, especially because come April I'm going to get effing killed.

April, by the way, is why I'm not releasing the Trang audio chapters as I finish them. I'd rather have them come out regularly (say, a chapter a week) rather than following the erratic chaos of my life, so I probably won't start releasing them until I've 1. got several chapters done, and 2. am back home under circumstances where I can actually work (i.e. not having the roof replaced).

I also feel like I haven't been prioritizing book work as much as I should--that's the problem with chaos, it not only makes it so you can't work, but then you get out of the habit of doing the work, so you're not necessarily taking advantage of the opportunities that you still have. So I think I'm going to set up a little point system for myself--you know, if I write daily, I get points, and if I get enough points at the end of the week, I get a little reward. The problem is that when I sat down and tried to figure out what I really, really have to do that deserves points--well, there's a lot of stuff on that list, which I think is the major issue (I'm going to give writing more points than other things). But I'll try it--and this (via PV) is definitely going on the reward table--I love Demeter! 

Surprise! The world isn't ending after all

You think this is about those silly non-Mayan predictions of apocalypse, but this is actually about some even sillier predictions of apocalypse, mainly the notion that the Department of Justice's antitrust settlement was part of an evil plot by Amazon to rule the world.

But it turns out that e-book prices aren't crashing after all

The real shock is that this admission is happening in the New York Times, which last April wrote:

The government’s decision to pursue major publishers on antitrust charges has put the Internet retailer Amazon in a powerful position: the nation’s largest bookseller may now get to decide how much an e-book will cost, and the book world is quaking over the potential consequences.

But who cares about that--that was last April! Its eight month later, plus it's Christmas Eve, when nobody except total nerds (like MEEEE!!!) reads the business section of the newspaper. So it's a perfect time to completely backtrack on that allegation, and imply that nobody ever really thought it was completely bogus!

From today's article:

The most extreme outcome went like this: Digital versions of big books selling for $9.99 or less would give Amazon complete domination over the e-book market. As sales zoomed upward, even greater numbers of consumers would abandon physical books. The major publishers and traditional bookstores were contemplating a future that would pass them by.

But doomsday has not arrived, at least not yet. As four of the publishers have entered into settlements with regulators and revised the way they sell e-books, prices have selectively fallen but not as broadly or drastically as anticipated.

Some of this article is hysterical--the Author's Guild is not available for comment, if you were wondering--but then it gets annoying again.

For one thing, the notion that e-books are somehow in decline pops up again:

Adult e-book sales through August were up 34 percent from 2011, an impressive rate of growth if you forget that sales have doubled every year for the last four years. 

I will remember that a 34% rate of growth is really not that impressive, not when you think about it. I mean, you've got to be forgetful as hell to think that a 34% increase is a pretty substantial increase--like, if your salary or the value of your home went up 34% in a year, that wouldn't impress you at all, unless you had Alzheimer's or something.

OK, fine, that bit was kind of hysterical, too.

But THEN they quote people who never expected the sky to fall--you know, the sorts of people they would never, ever have spoken to back in April. Those people. Non-traditional publishing people. People who know the first thing about e-books. 

Some say they never expected a price war at all. “The pricing war hasn’t happened because Amazon can’t afford it,” said Nate Hoffelder of the Digital Reader, a site devoted to e-book news and opinion. 

Now, what Hoffelder has to say is much less silly than what the New York Times was printing before, but what sticks in my craw is the wording: "Some say they never expected a price war at all."

Doesn't it sound like these people are coming up with painfully accurate predictions after the fact? "Some say they never expected it, but that's what they're saying now. Obviously they did not expect it, because if they were authoritative, we would have quoted them back in April!"

So, for the record: I EXPECTED THIS. I blogged about it here. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to point out that I think it's perfectly likely that Hoffelder looked at the same facts I looked at and came to the same conclusion waaay back in the spring. Because--and call me dogmatic--to my way of thinking that was the logical conclusion to draw, and I hope to God that I am not the only person on the planet who is capable of looking at facts and drawing logical conclusions.

Although that's not something the New York Times appeared capable of back in April.

But they do seem to be coming around these days, huh? First, they expressed skepticism of a publishing deal, and now, they're printing stuff like this:

Jordan Selburn, senior principal analyst for consumer platforms at IHS, said the migration from e-readers to tablets puts Amazon in “an interesting position” with e-book prices.

“Amazon does not make much off the hardware,” he said. “Its goal is to sell you content. When they sell you a Kindle Fire tablet, they are not just selling you books but movies, diapers, garden hose. It’s a portal into their entire store.”

But one day, Amazon must try to make a profit. . . .

Perhaps there will be loss leaders, but more likely each product will have to carry its own weight. In other words, this might be as cheap as e-books will ever be.

God, that's like--realistic or something! Wow!

The new News Corp news

I used to be a business reporter, and one of the things that frustrates me as I try to keep up with the exciting world o' publishing is that most publishers are tiny slices of much larger conglomerates that don't necessarily break out the earnings of their publishing houses.

But the proposed split of News Corp is changing that, at least for HarperCollins. News Corp is proposing that it become two companies: Fox Group, which will be TV and movies, and the new News Corp, which will be the newspapers and HarperCollins.

Because of this, News Corp released a preliminary proxy statement a couple of days ago. It's no ordinary proxy statement (yes, I am a business nerd, and I have a strong sense of what constitutes an ordinary proxy statement): It basically states the financials of the new News Corp as though it were an independent company.

Which means that, instead of lumping together the newspapers and HarperCollins and God knows what else as "publishing," News Corp broke them apart!

As you can imagine given my dorkitude, I very nearly peed my pants with excitement over this.

One of the notable things about this is how small HarperCollins is compared to the rest of News Corp. By revenues, the new News Corp is only going to be about a quarter of the size of the old News Corp. And HarperCollins only contributes about 14% of the new New Corps' revenues.

There's a lot of drama coming out of this proxy statement (see? I'm not the only geek in town) because the new News Corp lost a lot of money this year. But that loss didn't come from HarperCollins--it came from the various scandals surrounding News Corp's newspapers doing all kinds of things they shouldn't have. The newspapers and news services account for 82% of the new News Corps revenues, so changes in that business segment result in big changes in the bottom line.

HarperCollins, though, is making a modest profit.

How modest? Well, first I'm going to asterisk all this by saying that they report EBITDA (earning before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization), and I hate EBITDA. EBITDA is one of these not-especially-well-regulated numbers that leaves a lot of leeway for bullshit, plus who the hell cares if you're making a profit before you pay your taxes and other obligations? You still have to pay them, and you'll still be up the creek if you can't.

But EBITDA is what they report, so EBITDA is what I'll talk about--all the really exciting depreciation and amortization is happening with the newspaper unit, anyway.

So, in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, HarperCollins reported an EBITDA of $86 million on revenues of $1.189 billion.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, HarperCollins reported an EBITDA of $93 million on revenues of $1.195 billion.

And in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 (yes! they gave out three years of information! I'm so happy!), HarperCollins reported an EBITDA of $106 million on revenues of $1.269 billion.

Notice something about those numbers? They're going down. Not a cratering, but a steady decline, so that HarperCollins cleared $20 million less (before taxes and all that) in 2012 than it did in 2010.

And it's not just that the overall number going down--HarperCollins' profit margins are dwindling, too, meaning that profits are falling faster than revenues. The company had a profit margin (before taxes, etc) of 8.4% in 2010, 7.8% in 2011, and 7.2% in 2012. (To compare: The scandal-plagued newspaper division had a profit margin of 13.3% in 2012.)

According to the company, the decline in revenues in 2011 was because 2010 was an especially good year (there was a licensing settlement and a hit book in 2010). The decline in revenues in 2012, in contrast, was "primarily due to lower print book sales at the U.S. General Books division." Oh, and that pesky antitrust lawsuit didn't help earnings any, either.

Down with friction!

I just wanted to point out just as Amazon is successful in no small part because it makes it easy for people to buy books, authors need to think that way, too.

Someone is trying to give you their money! Don't make it difficult!

Even removing small barriers can make a big difference, which again, is something I think Amazon gets better than most other retailers--you want to make your books easy to find and easy to buy.

That can take some thinking. For example, when Brian S. Pratt began marketing his book:

I first looked around for a good place to advertise and found Project Wonderful. They suited my needs perfectly; ads would run on websites for pennies a day. I then created a coupon code that would discount my first book for free. I then created a series of ads stating that a free copy was available, all they had to do was copy down the code and go to Smashwords for their free copy. Well, that bombed and bombed badly. Came to realize that I was asking way too much of customer. In order to get my book, they had to go to Smashwords, create an account, put in the code, then download.

People are inherently lazy about shopping, especially in this world where everything is a click away. I pondered on the lack of success with my coupon code, then realized that if I just made the book free, they would only have to click the link in the ad, then download a free copy. Simple. (Keep it Simple-Stupid) I made it so easy for people to download my book, that downloads jumped. Subsequently, sales for books 2-7 jumped as well.

If it’s free and downloading is just a click away, people will do it.

Is it hard to redeem a Smashwords coupon? No. But that doesn't matter. You can't fall into the trap of thinking that people "ought" to be smart enough and diligent enough to figure out how to buy your book. They're looking for entertainment, not another hassle in their life.

That's why when I do back matter for my books, I link to the next book at the retailer where the first book was bought (although if the book is distributed through Smashwords, I don't know where it was bought, and I have to link back to Smashwords itself instead of the retailer--this is one reason I'll probably work with more retailers directly once I'm out of KDP Select). I don't link to the book pages on this Web site, even though I've got sample chapters and whatnot--I want the person to be able to go click, click and have their copy of Book 2 without having to think about it.

Likewise with advertisements--I mean, right now, that's a no-brainer because Trang is in KDP Select, and I'll be advertising the free days there. But even if that wasn't the case, I'd rather run multiple campaigns (TRANG FOR KINDLE! TRANG FOR NOOK! TRANG FOR KOBO!) than have one campaign (which isn't any cheaper if it's pay-per-click) that sends them to a page here, and then they have to find the links, and then figure out what edition they want, and then go over--oh, hey, Joe e-mailed me back! Yeah, Joe, I'd love to go for coffee! I'm heading out right now!

Oops. Bye-bye sale, have fun with Joe!

And while I just complained about how unrealistic it is for retailers to expect people to hack Amazon's cloud service, guess what? If ever I do wind up selling e-books on this Web site, I'm going to include instructions about how to do that, with them and with whoever else offers that kind of service.

Whatever it takes to make it easy to buy.

Not understanding Amazon

One of the issue I have with that smart/dumb Forbes blog post about Amazon is that the author doesn't really seem very familiar with the operations of any of the retailers, especially Amazon.

This is further demonstrated in the comments, when a reader writes:

“Manage my Kindle” is a market-driven, easy-to-use, feature-rich platform that syncs one book on any Amazon device I pick up. Free enterprise says they won’t share that system with anyone else. Others will have to crack the code and make something that works with Amazon’s devices or sit back and watch the market leader continue to dominate.
And the author completely misses the point when she replies:
Anyone can create and provide a Kindle-compatible ebook without going through Amazon’s Kindle store. Although Amazon is trying to create lock-in by providing a smooth end-to-end service, they are ultimately selling their Kindles at cost or at a loss in order to dominate the content market. That makes them vulnerable to disintermediation on content, which could then affect their Kindle hardware strategy.

Let's look at that logic: Amazon is making no money on its Kindles, because they want to promote e-book use. But their hardware strategy could be disrupted by competition by other e-books.

You know, their money-losing hardware strategy. It might be disrupted, and then they wouldn't lose money selling Kindle devices any more. Instead other companies would sell the many tablets, smart phones, and other devices that people would use to buy and read Amazon e-books, sparing the company the hassles of dealing with the hardware end of the business.

I'm sure that would break Amazon's little heart.

Another comment by this author show her to be very focused on Amazon's hardware, which I think is what happens when you read a lot of articles about Amazon, but you never actually buy e-books from them. That focus on the hardware end causes her to miss her reader's point: A Kindle e-book is substantially different from a Kindle-compatible Mobi file.

How is it different? To quote Diego Basch:

The Kindle is not a device; it's a platform. Besides the device itself, I use Kindle for Android, for the Mac, and even for the iPad sometimes. A great feature of the platform is that it synchronizes to the last page you've read on any connected device.

Yup! You just download a Kindle app on to your VARIOUS devices, and whichever one you use to buy an Amazon e-book, that e-book will be available on all of them, right where you left off reading it!

Take me: Let's say I'm sitting at my large desktop computer, and I realize that I'd like to grab a particular title. If I buy it on Amazon, it is automatically available on my cell phone, because I have a Kindle app there.

But if I buy it on Smashwords, or download it from Project Guttenburg, I have to e-mail it to myself to get it onto my phone. And then it's on the phone, taking up memory space. If I delete the book from my phone to free up space, it's gone, and if I want it again, I have to go find it.

In contrast, the Kindle e-book I purchase from Amazon is stored in the "cloud," available on any device I might have. It doesn't take up space on my phone until I download it there, and if I delete it off the phone, it's still right there in the "cloud." It literally takes me two clicks to get access to every single Amazon e-book I have ever bought, and they're not taking up any space on my little device.

That's pretty amazing. That is that "smooth end-to-end service" the author so readily dismisses.

And guess what? That's part of why when I try to give people my book on Smashwords, they'd rather pay for it on Amazon.

Random fun

One of the neat things about writing is that when you do it, other people realize that they can do it, too. The kids, for example, have seen my books, they know their auntie writes books, and they are totally down with the idea that someday, if they want to, they too could write books.

(Fine, maybe that kind of thing excites me because I grew up in what we not-so-affectionately call "the open-air ghetto," so I'm always happy to see people expand their ideas of what is possible.)

Anyway, my sister is a talented writer but (being sane) never pursued it professionally and hasn't written in a while. But apparently all this yapping about creative writing rekindled the fire, and she has written an episode of the show Sherlock. If you've never seen the show, her episode won't make a lot of sense, but if you have, you should read it: She really has the humor down.

Fetishizing word count

Yeah, yeah, I know I haven't been writing at all lately. This is not about my life.

This is about things like this: Somebody realizing, Hey, you know, creative writing isn't just about cranking out a certain number of words. In fact, the cranking-out-a-certain-number-of-words bit is pretty much the least-creative part of writing!

Yup! That's the reality of writing--differs quite a bit from the NaNoWriMo attitude toward writing, doesn't it? There's this whole belief out there that you just gotta hit your word-count numbers, and you're gold, baby!


Do you know what writers-for-hire do? They hit the numbers. That is their job--someone else creates the characters, draws up an outline, notes particular long-range themes, and decides on the basic writing style. And then the lowly writer-for-hire--who typically gets no ownership stake in the resulting work--fills in the blanks.

It's not considered highfalutin creative work, and there's good reason for that. You can swap these writers out, and no one will notice.

Not that cranking out words is entirely devoid of creativity--the actual writing bit certainly helps me flesh stuff out and realize where the holes are. It's just creativity of a different sort.

I don't question that you can't call yourself a writer if you don't actually put words to paper. But that said, the vast majority of writers plan. They plan and outline and have a good idea of who the characters are and how the story is going to run before they start cranking out the words. This planning is very, very important, and it is highly creative.

(And, yes, I realize that there are the "pantsers," who claim they can just sit down and write and everything just magically flows out without any advance planning whatsoever! Amazing! They're like those people who claim they know exactly where every important piece of paper is in their rat's nest of an office. Unfortunately, 1. I don't believe it, and 2. even if there are some exceptional people who aren't kidding themselves about how well they actually function, having no organizational system does not work for most people.)

Not an "either" or an "or," but an "and"

This (via PV) is a blog post at Forbes titled "Amazon Is Ripe for Disruption") that is both insightful (e-book retail has a relatively low barrier to entry) and kind of dumb (Google does a great job!--uh, no, not if you're a supplier, it doesn't. Amazon treats everyone like shit!--uh, not really, not any worse than the other retailers do).

At the end there's a little aside I feel deserves to be highlighted:

[W]ith start-ups like Publit, it’s not actually an either/or decision, because you can both sell through Amazon, retaining scale, and sell through your own shop, retaining data.

It's true that, as the writer notes, there are certain limitations when you sell through a retailer--any retailer, actually, although the writer likes to pretend these limitations are unique to Amazon. You don't get as much access to data, and I'll add that you are also at the mercy of that retailer deciding to slash your cut of the money or suspend your account.

That said, retailers like Amazon bring a lot to the party. They attract loads of people looking to buy books. If you are hoping to sell books, that's a very good group of people for you to meet.

Which is why you can do both! Lindsay Buroker is a big fan of reaching out directly to readers, but you'll notice that she hasn't pulled her books from the retailers. Other authors sell directly to readers from their own Web sites, but they also have their books available for purchase at places like Amazon.

You can do both. You don't have to choose. That's something I sometimes struggle to convey to people new to self-publishing. I think this concept that everything's an either/or decision is part of the mentality that there's One True Path to success in publishing, which there isn't.

You don't have to choose between e-books and paper books. You don't have to choose between one retailer and another. You don't even have to choose between indie and traditional publishing.

You can decide to prioritize one over the other, or you can decide to do one first and the other later. You can even voluntarily choose to make your book exclusive to Amazon for a short period of time. But you don't have to, and just because you make a choice now doesn't mean you can't change your mind later.

That kind of freedom is new. Back when I was looking for a publisher for Trang and had decided it was a small-press book, I knew that I had to send it to only one publisher at a time. That was what you had to do in those days, because if you sent a manuscript to multiple small presses, you would get blacklisted at all of them. It didn't matter if it took each small press years to get back to you, you just had to sit on your hands like a good little girl until they did.

That's how things worked--one mistake, one tiny violation of a capricious and self-serving code of behavior designed soley to benefit publishers, and you were done for.

Things don't work that way today, and thank God for it!

People still have that fear, though, that mentality that they've only got this one shot and if they fuck it up, that's it! It's all over! You'll never recover! You're screwed forever!

Not true. A single decision nowadays (unless it's a decision to sign a bad contract) means nothing. Mistakes are reversible, and it's totally fine to focus on one aspect of your career at a time (one format, one book) and then move on to the next when it's time. If one thing doesn't work for you, or if you are uncomfortable with the limitations put on you by one way of doing business (i.e. the retailer/supplier relationship), you can expand into another (i.e. selling on your own).

You can switch from one to the other, or you can do it all. It's totally up to you.

You do know that you have to work at this, right?

The Passive Voice has this great baffler of a post today where a guy explains that he doesn't self-publish because 50 years ago, people didn't self-publish (and the industry hasn't changed a bit since then), plus he threw up a book without a cover and didn't do anything for it and it didn't sell. So there.

The comments are hilarious because it's a bunch of people saying, "I know this guy is hopeless and doesn't want to learn, but if he would just" and then there's an ENORMOUS list of things this guy could and should be doing for his book.

The thing that confounds me about people like this (and he's not the only one) is that they say, I did nothing for my book, and SOMETHING COMPLETELY UNEXPECTED HAPPENED: I got nothing results. WAAAAHHHH!!!!

And I'm the first to admit that I have done next to nothing for my books, and I have next-to-nothing sales, but this does not surprise or frustrate me, because I do not expect something for nothing.

The first time I put Trang up for sale, it didn't even have a cover--just like that guy's book! And do you know what the very first thing to pass through my mind was when I finally saw my book--my wonderful book! that I sweat blood for! finally published after years of frustration!--up for sale with a generic cover?

"No one's gonna buy this. It's got no cover!"

And even when I had the cover up, did I expect Trang to sell? No, because I knew that having just the first book in a series out would turn off a lot of readers, who would fear that the series would never be finished. So I chose not to market it, and this single, first-in-a-series book with no marketing behind it didn't sell much.

This was not a shock to me, because, as a rule, I do not expect something for nothing. 

Sure, sometimes you do get something for nothing--sometimes a writer will have a big hit despite doing absolutely nothing for their book. But such events are very rare indeed and should not be expected, ever. Even when a writer gets surprised by an unexpected success, they usually immediately get working to help that success along as best they can. You can claim that such efforts are unnecessary, but I'm sure such a writer would counter that, after all, you can't expect something for nothing.

Of course there's a learning curve with self-publishing, but you know what? A lot of this stuff, once you do it (get it formatted properly, get a real cover, get a good description, find a suitable category, put some links on your blog), it's done with--you don't have to do it again. I am just now starting to explore on-line advertising, but I can tell you this much: An on-line advertising campaign takes all of five minutes to set up--the hardest part is typing in your credit-card number.

Let's put it this way: I recently was at such a loss for time-consuming publishing chores that I began recording an audiobook. This is not the action of a writer who is being overwhelmed by publishing tasks.

Yes, I will hopefully be doing more now that Trust is out, and figuring out what works, but again, I just don't see tweaking on-line advertising campaigns as something that will take a ton of time--you run one campaign with one tag line or on one Web site, run another with or on another, and discard the one that works less well. Lindsay Buroker can tell you all about it.

Of course, it's possible that I won't be doing more--maybe things will get crazy in my personal life and leave me unable to finish Trials, record the audiobook version of Trang, or even take five minutes to set up an advertising campaign. That would certainly make me sad, but if such things occurred, I would not be the least bit surprised if sales of Trang and Trust were damaged as a result.

Because (say it with me), you can't expect something for nothing. Or you can, but you just wind up sounding like you're freaking three years old.