PG’s Thoughts

Obsession, Delusion, and Writing

8 September 2015

From Kristine Katherine Rusch:

I read Runner’s World religiously. I think I got my subscription in the previous century, when I toyed with participating in the local triathlon. I wasn’t running then; I was swimming and biking to stay in shape. I subscribed to some swimming and cycling magazines as well, but those magazines didn’t hold my attention.

Runner’s World did, partly because it’s an exceptionally well-written, well-edited magazine. It’s not just a collection of notes about a sport I’m peripherally involved in.

. . . .

I started walking. Then, I added in running. I can’t tell you why, exactly, especially since I used to tell people I would never do it. Now, I run five times per week—or, in reality, I’m working my way back to that after the car incident of a few weeks ago. (Injury recovery: such fun.)

There’s something about running that’s kinda cool. People cheer you on. From a very drunk woman who stood in the doorway of her house and cheered me on like I was leading a race (maybe she saw 3 of me) to the occasional tourist who gives me a thumbs-up, people generally support what I’m doing…which I find really weird. It’s taken a while to accept that this is part of the running experience. No one cheered me on when I swam or rode my bike. No one gave me a thumbs-up when I got on the treadmill at the gym. Instead, in those instances, other exercisers and I would pretend that others didn’t exist.

One particularly cloudy day a month ago, a runner—sweat-covered, going much faster than I do—ran toward me on a long sidewalk near the highway. Just before we reached each other, he switched his water bottle from his right hand to his left, and kept that right hand up. Fortunately, I had a second to realize that he wanted to high-five. We did, and both of us kept going.

. . . .

Writers support each other too. If you’re lucky, you end up with a great support system, not just from your writing peers, but from your friends and family. They help you clear time to write. They make sure you have the right equipment. They read your work and celebrate with you when you make a sale to a traditional market or post your indie book into all the various retail sites.

But there’s a big huge difference between runners and writers, and I didn’t realize what it was, exactly, until I read two articles back to back this week.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the first. Stephen King wrote one of his every-five-years or so essays defending the prolific writer. His essays are always a little defensive, because he’s writing for the literary crowd, and always a little perplexed, as if he’s not sure why people complain when someone writes fast. (I’m perplexed about that too.)

. . . .

[I]t strikes me that in no other art does anyone have to timidly propose this thesis that King does:

My thesis here is a modest one: that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place. The accepted definition — “producing much fruit, or foliage, or many offspring” — has an optimistic ring, at least to my ear.

Pianists practice. Jazz pianists often practice in public, with improv sessions that become legendary. Artists learn their craft by copying old masters, and then, once they’ve done that enough, artists sketch, often daily, sometimes hourly, and eventually put those sketches into something solid. No one ever told Picasso that he painted too much (as far as I know, anyway). And we’re always reading about some new painting, some new sketch, by some famous artist being discovered in an attic somewhere.

I’ve often used sports metaphors when I discuss writing. No one tells LeBron James that he needs to shoot fewer baskets in practice, so that he can save his best work for a playoff game. We get betterat something the more we do it, not worse. That’s how human beings are made.

. . . .

Around those superstar athletes are average-joe runners. Well, not average-joe in some of those big races, because those runners had to qualify. But we’re still talking a crowd of people. I mentioned New York, which had 50,564 finishers in 2014, which made it the biggest marathon ever. Average “important” marathons usually have 35-40,000 finishers.

That’s a lot of runners, most of whom have no hope of crossing the finish line first.

Note I didn’t mention “winning,” because runners are very clear about the varied definitions of winning. Winning for a non-elite athlete might be a personal best. Or it might be—as it was for me in my first (and so far only) 5K—just showing up. It might be finishing (also a victory for me in that 5K).

Willey discusses that in his July editorial. But it was this paragraph that caught my eye:

In any race, the last finisher is no more a “loser” than one who finishes in the middle, and I have just as much respect for the runner who stops the clock as I have for the one who breaks the tape. First and last are very different achievements, but both require guts, ability, and dedication. A 2:03 marathon (the current world record is 2:02:57) is inconceivable to me. But I couldn’t run for seven or eight hours, either.

I went back and started reading more carefully, and found this nugget as the article’s lede:

I’ve heard a version of it uttered at almost every big race I’ve ever run, usually as a way to calm prerace nerves. I’ve said it myself: “I know two things for sure. I’m not going to win and I’m not going to lose.” In other words, relax, run your own race, and try to enjoy it.

I stopped, and thought about that in conjunction with the Stephen King essay, and had a tiny epiphany about writers.

Writers always expect to win. Because they’re not trained to work, because there are a handful of examples every few years or so of someone who becomes a million-seller with his first novel, writers believe that lightning will strike them as well.

Writers never examine the amount of work that “lucky” beginning novelist has done before the big sale. Often that “lucky” beginner had writing success elsewhere in writing—as a journalist, maybe or in one case I’m familiar with, as a regional playwright. I can’t think of anyone whose very first bits of writing became a megaseller.

. . . .

I honestly believe that the attitude comes from the myths. Myths like writers shouldn’t write a lot or they won’t produce quality. Writers should write slowly to produce art. I’ve traced those myths before, and they aren’t in existence for the writers. They exist for the overworked teachers of writing.

The fact that Stephen King feels the need every few years to defend his “rapid” pace which, in the annuals of writing, isn’t that fast at all, should tell you how pervasive those myths are.

So, now, review that Runner’s World attitude. Think of a novel instead of a race. And rather than trying to “win” by making that novel perfect, think of it the way that Willey does before his races.

Relax. Write your own novel. Enjoy it.

Pull the expectations of megasuccess off it. Because if you’re acting out of the myths, you’ll make all kinds of mistakes. To stretch the running metaphor almost to the breaking point, if you go out too fast and hot in a 26.2 mile race, you will burn out or get injured.

Writers won’t write too much, but their expectations could injure them. If everyone who writes a novel expects to be the next J.K. Rowling [insert your favorite highly successful writer here], then almost everyone who tries to write a novel will be disappointed when that novel is finished.

Link to the rest at Kristine Katherine Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

PG was raised on ranches and farms. (They call it a ranch in the American West and a farm in the American Midwest. Cattle are the same everywhere and the water heater for the stock tank always goes out on the coldest night of the year on both a ranch and a farm. When you have to break the ice with an axe, then reach down through the water to the bottom of the tank to fiddle with the heater for a few minutes, ranches and farms present identical experiences.)

Many years ago, PG was riding on a tractor while his father was mowing hay. (Yes, it may be dangerous to ride on a tractor when you’re not driving it, but it’s fun. Driving a tractor when you’re six years old is even more fun. Driving a big Caterpillar bulldozer when you’re eleven is heaven.)

The conversations PG had with his father while helping his father work or just hanging around while his father worked are some of PG’s best childhood memories.

On the particular occasion that comes to mind, PG’s father was talking about how much he loved ranching. He said that he thought the best measure of whether a man was in the right line of work is if that is what he would do even if nobody paid him to do so (so long as his family’s needs were met). That was the way PG’s father felt about ranching. In the nature of ranching and farming, there were seasons when he didn’t make any money, but he kept on doing it and always loved the work.

With respect to writing, PG thinks his father’s rule applies. Most authors write because they pretty much have to write. During the first months or years of writing, a whole lot of authors don’t earn any money, but they keep on writing because they love doing it.

If you can get paid while doing something you love, that’s a great thing. If you can support yourself and your family doing something you love, you’re in pretty much the best situation available.

When you think of the millions of people who work at jobs they hate because they absolutely must earn the salaries they’re paid, a writer who can support him/herself by doing something they love is immensely blessed.

The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t

20 August 2015

From The New York Times Magazine:

On July 11, 2000, in one of the more unlikely moments in the history of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Orrin Hatch handed the microphone to Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, to hear his thoughts on art in the age of digital reproduction. Ulrich’s primary concern was a new online service called Napster, which had debuted a little more than a year before. As Ulrich explained in his statement, the band began investigating Napster after unreleased versions of one of their songs began playing on radio stations around the country. They discovered that their entire catalog of music was available there for free.

Ulrich’s trip to Washington coincided with a lawsuit that Metallica had just filed against Napster — a suit that would ultimately play a role in the company’s bankruptcy filing. But in retrospect, we can also see Ulrich’s appearance as an intellectual milestone of sorts, in that he articulated a critique of the Internet-­era creative economy that became increasingly commonplace over time. ‘‘We typically employ a record producer, recording engineers, programmers, assistants and, occasionally, other musicians,’’ Ulrich told the Senate committee. ‘‘We rent time for months at recording studios, which are owned by small-­business men who have risked their own capital to buy, maintain and constantly upgrade very expensive equipment and facilities. Our record releases are supported by hundreds of record companies’ employees and provide programming for numerous radio and television stations. … It’s clear, then, that if music is free for downloading, the music industry is not viable. All the jobs I just talked about will be lost, and the diverse voices of the artists will disappear.’’

The intersection between commerce, technology and culture has long been a place of anxiety and foreboding. Marxist critics in the 1940s denounced the assembly-line approach to filmmaking that Hollywood had pioneered; in the ’60s, we feared the rise of television’s ‘‘vast wasteland’’; the ’80s demonized the record executives who were making money off violent rap lyrics and ‘‘Darling Nikki’’; in the ’90s, critics accused bookstore chains and Walmart of undermining the subtle curations of independent bookshops and record stores.

. . . .

 But starting with Ulrich’s testimony, a new complaint has taken center stage, one that flips those older objections on their heads. The problem with the culture industry is no longer its rapacious pursuit of consumer dollars. The problem with the culture industry is that it’s not profitable enough. Thanks to its legal troubles, Napster itself ended up being much less important as a business than as an omen, a preview of coming destructions. Its short, troubled life signaled a fundamental rearrangement in the way we discover, consume and (most importantly) pay for creative work. In the 15 years since, many artists and commentators have come to believe that Ulrich’s promised apocalypse is now upon us — that the digital economy, in which information not only wants to be free but for all practical purposes is free, ultimately means that ‘‘the diverse voices of the artists will disappear,’’ because musicians and writers and filmmakers can no longer make a living.

. . . .

And even when you do manage to pull out a credit card, the amounts are shrinking: $9 for an e-book that used to be a $20 hardcover. If the prices of traditional media keep falling, then it seems logical to critics that we will end up in a world in which no one has an economic incentive to follow creative passions. The thrust of this argument is simple and bleak: that the digital economy creates a kind of structural impossibility that art will make money in the future. The world of professional creativity, the critics fear, will soon be swallowed by the profusion of amateurs, or the collapse of prices in an age of infinite and instant reproduction will cheapen art so that no one will be able to quit their day jobs to make it — or both.

. . . .

The dystopian scenario, after all, isn’t about the death of the record business or Hollywood; it’s about the death of music or movies. As a society, what we most want to ensure is that the artists can prosper — not the record labels or studios or publishing conglomerates, but the writers, musicians, directors and actors themselves.

Their financial fate turns out to be much harder to measure, but I endeavored to try. Taking 1999 as my starting point — the year both Napster and Google took off — I plumbed as many data sources as I could to answer this one question: How is today’s creative class faring compared with its predecessor a decade and a half ago? The answer isn’t simple, and the data provides ammunition for conflicting points of view. It turns out that Ulrich was incontrovertibly correct on one point: Napster did pose a grave threat to the economic value that consumers placed on recorded music. And yet the creative apocalypse he warned of has failed to arrive. Writers, performers, directors and even musicians report their economic fortunes to be similar to those of their counterparts 15 years ago, and in many cases they have improved. Against all odds, the voices of the artists seem to be louder than ever.

. . . .

From 2002 to 2012, the number of businesses that identify as or employ ‘‘independent artists, writers and performers’’ (which also includes some athletes) grew by almost 40 percent, while the total revenue generated by this group grew by 60 percent, far exceeding the rate of inflation.

What do these data sets have to tell us about musicians in particular? According to the O.E.S., in 1999 there were nearly 53,000 Americans who considered their primary occupation to be that of a musician, a music director or a composer; in 2014, more than 60,000 people were employed writing, singing or playing music. That’s a rise of 15 percent, compared with overall job-­market growth during that period of about 6 percent. The number of self-­employed musicians grew at an even faster rate: There were 45 percent more independent musicians in 2014 than in 2001. (Self-­employed writers, by contrast, grew by 20 percent over that period.)

Of course, Baudelaire would have filed his tax forms as self-­employed, too; that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also destitute. Could the surge in musicians be accompanied by a parallel expansion in the number of broke musicians? The income data suggests that this just isn’t true. According to the O.E.S., songwriters and music directors saw their average income rise by nearly 60 percent since 1999. The census version of the story, which includes self-­employed musicians, is less stellar: In 2012, musical groups and artists reported only 25 percent more in revenue than they did in 2002, which is basically treading water when you factor in inflation. And yet collectively, the figures seem to suggest that music, the creative field that has been most threatened by technological change, has become more profitable in the post-­Napster era — not for the music industry, of course, but for musicians themselves. Somehow the turbulence of the last 15 years seems to have created an economy in which more people than ever are writing and performing songs for a living.

. . . .

[T]he decline in recorded-­music revenue has been accompanied by an increase in revenues from live music. In 1999, when Britney Spears ruled the airwaves, the music business took in around $10 billion in live-­music revenue internationally; in 2014, live music generated almost $30 billion in revenue, according to data assembled from multiple sources by the live-music service Songkick. Starting in the early 1980s, average ticket prices for concerts closely followed the rise in overall consumer prices until the mid-1990s, when ticket prices suddenly took off: From 1997 to 2012, average ticket prices rose 150 percent, while consumer prices grew less than 100 percent. It’s elemental economics: As one good — recorded music — becomes ubiquitous, its price plummets, while another good that is by definition scarce (seeing a musician play a live performance) grows in value. Moreover, as file-­sharing and iTunes and Spotify have driven down the price of music, they have also made it far easier to envelop your life with a kind of permanent soundtrack, all of which drives awareness of the musicians and encourages fans to check them out in concert. Recorded music, then, becomes a kind of marketing expense for the main event of live shows.

. . . .

The vast machinery of promoters and shippers and manufacturers and A&R executives that sprouted in the middle of the 20th century, fueled by the profits of those high-­margin vinyl records and CDs, has largely withered away. What remains is a more direct relationship between the musicians and their fans. That new relationship has its own demands: the constant touring and self-­promotion, the Kickstarter campaigns that have raised $153 million dollars to date for music-­related projects, the drudgery that inevitably accompanies a life without handlers. But the economic trends suggest that the benefits are outweighing the costs. More people are choosing to make a career as a musician or a songwriter than they did in the glory days of Tower Records.

Of the big four creative industries (music, television, movies and books), music turns out to be the business that has seen the most conspicuous turmoil: None of the other three has seen anywhere near the cratering of recorded-­music revenues.

. . . .

 How have high-­quality books fared in the digital economy? If you write an exceptional novel or biography today, are you more or less likely to hit the best-­seller list than you might have in the pre-­Kindle age? Here the pessimists might have a case, based on my analysis. Every year, editors at The New York Times Book Review select the 100 notable books of the year. In 2004 and 2005, the years before the first Kindles were released, those books spent a combined 2,781 weeks on The Times’s best-­seller list and the American Booksellers Association’s IndieBound list, which tracks sales in independent bookstores. In 2013 and 2014, the notable books spent 2,531 weeks on the best-­seller lists — a decline of 9 percent. When you look at the two lists separately, the story becomes more complicated still. The critical successes of 2013 and 2014 actually spent 6 percent more weeks on the A.B.A. list, but 30 percent fewer weeks on the broader Times list. The numbers seem to suggest that the market for books may be evolving into two distinct systems. Critically successful works seem to be finding their audience more easily among indie-­bookstore shoppers, even as the mainstream market has been trending toward a winner-­takes-­all sweepstakes.

This would be even more troubling if independent bookstores — traditional champions of the literary novel and thoughtful nonfiction — were on life support. But contrary to all expectations, these stores have been thriving. After hitting a low in 2007, decimated not only by the Internet but also by the rise of big-box chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, indie bookstores have been growing at a steady clip, with their number up 35 percent (from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,227 in 2015); by many reports, 2014 was their most financially successful year in recent memory. Indie bookstores account for only about 10 percent of overall book sales, but they have a vastly disproportionate impact on the sale of the creative midlist books that are so vital to the health of the culture.

. . . .

 To many of us, buying music in physical form is now simply an inconvenience: schlepping those CDs home and burning them and downloading the tracks to our mobile devices. But many of the most ardent Kindle converts — and I count myself among them — still enjoy browsing shelves of physical books, picking them up and sitting back on the couch with them. The trend might also reflect the social dimension of book culture: If you’re looking for literary community, you head out to the weekly reading series at the indie bookstore and buy something while you’re there.

. . . .

It has never been easier to start making money from creative work, for your passion to undertake that critical leap from pure hobby to part-time income source. Write a novel or record an album, and you can get it online and available for purchase right away, without persuading an editor or an A&R executive that your work is commercially viable. From the consumer’s perspective, blurring the boundaries has an obvious benefit: It widens the pool of potential talent. But it also has an important social merit. Widening the pool means that more people are earning income by doing what they love.

Link to the rest at The New York Times Magazine

This was an interesting read for PG. However, it suffers from the same problem that so many NYT articles do – a lack of understanding about how the rest of the nation (or even the outer boroughs of New York) operate.

The characteristic NYT blind spot was most telling in “If you’re looking for literary community, you head out to the weekly reading series at the indie bookstore and buy something while you’re there.”

PG suggests that for 99% of the US population, such an experience is not realistically possible and might not be utilized if it were. For the 99%, literary communities are online and a link in an online discussion can take you straight to Amazon, where you can make a purchase and start reading an ebook even faster than you can complete a purchase at an indie bookstore in Manhattan.

The NY-centrism reflected in the quote – I write for people who are just like me or who want to be just like me – is probably harmless at the NYT (although PG understands that circulation and profits continue to decline). However, the NY-centrism of the traditional publishing business is one of its greatest weaknesses. For one thing, most of the people reading the manuscripts and deciding which ones to publish for NY publishing are substantially disconnected from most of the book-reading public.

Because of its intellectual isolation, tradpub is poorly prepared to deal with Amazon. The denizens of tradpub are pretty much tech Cro-Magnons. Tradpub is a creature of large old-style corporate structures where the meaningful orders come from the top and meaningful information that can’t be expressed in numbers doesn’t flow upward. The customers tradpub understands aren’t readers, they’re distributors and bookstores.

If you reverse almost all tradpub characteristics, you describe Amazon – bottoms-up, consumer-focused, data-driven and technically sophisticated.

New York, cheered on by the NYT, loves to think of itself as the most intelligent, forward-looking, sophisticated, etc., etc. place in the universe. This viewpoint is one of the compensating factors for living in tiny apartments, riding dirty subways and paying exorbitant prices for every purchase. Living at the center of everything is worth the cost.

Unfortunately for tradpub and its cheerleaders, the future of books, publishing and bookselling is being invented in Seattle, not New York. Seattle is moving too fast for New York to catch up, so demonizing Bezozebub and indie authors may be best understood as some sort of compensating emotional and behavioral disorder.

Let’s Talk (John Scalzi’s) Numbers! The State of the Genre Title 2015

15 August 2015

From Pretentious Title:

The other day, best selling SF author John Scalzi posted an article called “The State of the Genre Title in 2015” in which he revealed some fascinating sales data for his latest release, Lock In.

The fact that this got posted at all is extraordinary. You almost never see traditionally published authors posting real sales numbers of any sort, especially not a big bestseller like Scalzi. He’s giving us a rare glimpse of what the top of the trad/NY world looks like here, and for that reason alone you should definitely check the post out.

But fascinating as all the numbers are, Scalzi uses them to draw some conclusions about modern book selling that we, with all respect to John Scalzi, don’t think are correct for the majority of authors. Specifically, when he’s talking about the percent of his sales that came from hardcover and audio, he says:

“This continues to be my major concern with digital-only self-publishing, incidentally: there’s money being left on the table if you can’t address all these sales channels. Most self-publishers (or micro publishers) don’t have access to bookstores, nearly all of which continue to operate on a “returns” basis. This is not about the ability to create a physical copy of a book; at this point that can easily be done with print-on-demand options. It’s about having the book already on the shelves, attractively packaged and ready to buy, when the customer walks into the store. If you don’t have that, you’ve largely lost out in that sales avenue. Likewise audio if you’re not there.

(emphasis mine)

What Scalzi is essentially saying here is that, by not having their book in bookstores, the self-published author is leaving money on the table. But I professionally think that he has left a lot more money on the table by signing with a NY publishing house, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

. . . .

By going NY with this book, Scalzi certainly got a LOT of promotional oomph. He has celebrity audiobook narration for one, and I’m sure that Tor put in a lot of other marketing, PR, and general promo as well. The ability of NY publishers to promote books is very considerable and not to be discounted.

That said, Scalzi himself has 86k twitter followers, his blog (by my est) gets hundreds of thousands of views per month easy, and he has massive followings on other social networks as well. He has all the megaphone he needs to sell lots of books before the publisher even steps in, never mind all the good old Amazon recommendations he’s certainly getting.

Looking at that set up, any author who’s had even modest success selling books on their own will tell you that John Scalzi doesn’t need NY’s help to move a lotof units. Further more, he might have given up a staggering amount of money to his publisher for the privilege.

Would Scalzi have sold as many books without Tor? Probably not. Tor put in a ton of marketing with a hardcover release and buying bookstore co-op (I know I saw Lock In on the front tables at my local B&N), plus the celebrity connection with getting Wil Wheaton to narrate the audio books. But the question here isn’t did Tor do a good job. It’s did all of Tor’s promotions increase sales enough to justify Scalzi earning 60% less on the books he did sell?

. . . .

In his post, Scalzi is offering advice to other authors based on his experiences. He’s saying don’t ignore NY Publishers because they bring in these other channels that indies can’t really get into, and by losing that access, authors are cutting themselves off from potential money waiting to be earned.

I’ll agree that he has a point on hardcovers. It’s hard to POD or direct-sell hardcovers without a publisher or a lot of money and risk-tolerance. I also agree that Audio is a huge emerging sales channel, but it’s one that’s now very open to indies through Audible’s ACX program and Audible’s own headhunting efforts to get successful indie authors into audio contracts.

. . . .

However, what we are really comparing here is the opportunity cost of chasing all these extra channels (especially print) via an NY publishing contract, or going it alone as an indie and focusing primarily on ebooks. Again, here’s Scalzi’s view on the matter:

“A writing career is not at all unlike a stock portfolio — diversify for long-term success.”

This isn’t bad advice. Diversification is generally a good strategy in all businesses. But while I definitely think Scalzi’s heart is in the right place, I don’t think that his experience (ie, that of a popular bestseller) is one that the average NY published author has. This is especially true when you consider what the average author with an average publishing contract gives up in potential income when they sign an average NY contract.

. . . .

One of the main endorsements Scalzi makes for going after these extra sales channels is diversity, and I get his point. It’s risky to have all your eggs in one (ebook) basket. Many authors, like Joan Penn, who have been at the self-pub thing for years now have learned to diversify their income for this same reason. Those of us who rely entirely on Amazon for revenue and book sales are definitely taking a risk.

BUT…giving up such a huge amount of potential earning power by taking a NY contract is, I feel, a much greater risk. Cash in hand is security. $270,000 represents 4-5 years of operations for Rachel and I. If the Amazon eBook market crashed tomorrow because Amazon turned evil, was busted up by the DoJ, or a new amazing competitor arose, we would definitely be in a jam. But while we don’t make Scalzi money, the incredible-by-publishing-industry-standards earnings Amazon’s current high royalty rates provide has let us build the cash reserve we need to weather any crisis long enough to change strategies accordingly.

So while I feel Scalzi’s advice of “diversify” is solid on its own, I don’t think trying for an NY contract purely for the sake reaching the print bookstore market or pursuing a diversified sales strategy is a good idea. This is especially true for midlist authors who don’t get the celebrity-read audio books, big hardcover releases, in store co-op, and multi-platform marketing push that bestsellers like Scalzi enjoy.

. . . .

New York publishing contracts are great for many things–fame, industry recognition, winning prestigious awards, meeting other famous authors, getting the attention of Hollywood–but earning money through book sales is not one of them. It used to be that authors went indie because they couldn’t get the interest of a New York house and had no other choice if they wanted to be published. Now, though, more and more authors–debut novelists and established mid-listers–are going to ebook first indie publishing because the money is simply too good to ignore.

Link to the rest at Pretentious Title and thanks to Mike for the tip.

PG says that Scalzi’s “diversification” is not his diversification as an author, but rather his publisher’s diversification in selling books through a variety of channels

Given the nature of publishing contracts and the ways publishers traditionally operate with most authors, a traditionally-published author is extremely undiversified.

Most of such authors deal with a single publisher, sometimes by choice and sometimes pressured to do so by noncompete provisions in their contracts.

Further, most traditionally-published authors deal personally only with a single person at their publisher – the editor responsible for acquiring the author’s books.

A single point of failure is a part of a system that, if it fails, stops the entire system. A system with a single point of failure is the obverse of diversification.

Traditionally-published authors are endangered by multiple points of catastrophic failure.

1. The Editor

If the editor quits or is fired, the author’s only meaningful connection with his/her publisher is gone. Theoretically, another editor will take over responsibility for the author’s books.

However, an experienced editor working for the publisher will already have a lot of other authors and books to deal with, authors and books which that editor selected. The experienced editor was almost certainly very busy with those authors and books prior to receiving new responsibilities.

At best, the author who was working with a departed editor is now a stepchild. At worst, an orphan.

Another possibility is that the author is assigned to a newly-hired editor with a fresh creative writing or world literature or anthropology or gender studies diploma.

PG will not elaborate on what may happen under these circumstances.

2. The Publisher

A second point of failure for a tradpubbed author is the publisher itself. A large publisher may be acquired by an even larger publisher. The owner of a small publisher may die or go a little nuts. Publishers go bankrupt, either officially or unofficially, on a regular basis.

The merger of a publisher may carry all its publishing contracts and their hapless authors to a different place altogether. The new big boss is in Europe somewhere and the only person who ever communicates with the author is 15 levels down from the top. And, of course, the author’s editor got kicked upstairs or was fired.

3. The Agent

If all of the author’s royalties flow through an agent’s bank account and cocaine enters an agent’s life, the author’s books may still be selling, but the author’s rewards are going up the agent’s nose.

You can substitute any number of words for cocaine and reach the same result.


A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever

28 July 2015

From The Authors Guild:

From The Authors Guild:

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades.

That’s the way most book contracts have been drafted for more than a century, and publishers take it for granted; only a few brave souls have asked why or argued with it because that’s the way it has always been. In the ideal traditional publishing partnership—where the publisher nourished the author’s career; where the same editor worked closely with the author over decades, editing and reworking books and new book ideas; where the publisher actively marketed and promoted the author and gave the author a sufficient advance to live on between books—then it might have made sense for the publisher to own the rights for the entire copyright term. But that is the rare author-publisher relationship today.

. . . .

Authors victimized by this status quo know that it’s long past time for publishers to offer a fair deal. We believe three basic changes are urgently needed: (1) time-limited contracts, (2) a clause that provides for reversion of unexploited rights, and (3) a specific new unchallengeable definition to replace historic “out of print” clauses that are not remotely relevant in the electronic age.

When it comes to time limits in agreements, publishers historically have positioned themselves on the lucrative side of the line. With authors, the deal they offer basically lasts forever. But when they’re on the other side of the deal, licensing things like paperback reprints or foreign rights to other companies, publishers typically don’t make agreements that continue for the life of a book’s copyright. Instead, the contracts are good only for fixed periods—seven years, for example. If publishers can routinely demand licenses that expire, why shouldn’t authors?

We think the “standard” contract should last for a limited period of time from the date of publication; it should end well before the 35-year termination window opens. When the contract expires, if a book is still doing well, the author and publisher might negotiate another time-limited deal—or the author might choose to move the book to a house that has put more effort into marketing the author’s later works. If the book is no longer gaining support from the original publisher, the author might choose to self-publish it or take it to another publisher. In any case, a time-limited contract gives authors the leverage and flexibility that they need in today’s publishing environment.

. . . .

That brings us to the third step: the “out of print” clause, which has failed woefully to keep up with modern publishing practices and must be replaced. The original concept was straightforward: When a publisher fails to keep a book on the market in a profitable way, the author should get all the rights back. This is more important today than ever, since e-books and print-on-demand make it easy for authors to republish their backlists: a recent study conducted by the British Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) showed that 70% of authors who were able to reclaim their rights were able to earn more money from the work in question.

. . . .

The remedy is simple: Kill the entire outmoded concept of “out of print.” Instead, the contract should define when book rights are being “inadequately exploited” and therefore available for reversion to the author when the book fails to generate a certain amount of income—say, $250–$500—in a one-year period. Using income as the yardstick, not a specific number of sales, is essential: Publishers might otherwise be able to game the clause by offering one-cent e-books the way they’ve gamed existing clauses by using e-books and print-on-demand.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild and thanks to Melinda for the tip.

PG will note that The Authors Guild proposal for revised out of print provisions is identical to A Minimum Wage for Authors which PG first publicly suggested in 2011.

He believes that the $250-500 per year threshold for reversion is too low, however. This is especially true if the threshold amount is not indexed for inflation (another PG suggestion from 2011). In the US at least, we’ve become accustomed to very low rates of inflation during the past several years. However, PG believes this is not the new normal.

$250 might not buy you a hamburger at McDonalds in a few decades. In 1964, a McDonalds hamburger cost 15 cents.

Authors, ABA to DOJ: Investigate Amazon’s Abuse of Its Dominance in the Book Market

14 July 2015

From the American Booksellers Association:

Today, in an unprecedented joint action, U.S. booksellers, authors, and literary agents called on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the business practices of The action comes as similar efforts are underway in the European Union.

In a letter delivered to the Department of Justice on July 13, the group Authors United called for an investigation of Amazon’s “abuse of its dominance in the world of books.” The letter stresses that Amazon’s monopolization of the book industry has had a negative impact on free expression and the health of America’s book industry.

On the same day, the American Booksellers Association also wrote to the Department of Justice, urging the department to give “careful consideration” to the letter sent by Authors United. (To read both letters in full, click here.) The Authors Guild and the Association of Authors’ Representatives have expressed their support of the action, and the Authors Guild is also sending a letter to the DOJ.

Over the past year, many of Amazon’s business tactics have called into question the power the online retailer wields over the book industry — and whether it constitutes a monopoly that demands government action.

In 2014, a dispute over e-book terms between Amazon and Hachette Book Group became public when Amazon appeared to delay shipping of popular Hachette titles and removed the preorder button for upcoming books in an effort to pressure the publisher into giving the retailer the terms it wanted.

Amazon is also well-known for selling books as loss leaders (below cost) in an effort to sell other, more high-priced items and to increase its market share in the book industry.

. . . .

The authors point out that Amazon now controls the sale of more than 75 percent of online sales of physical books; more than 65 percent of e-book sales; more than 40 percent of sales of new books; and about 85 percent of e-book sales of self-published titles.

In ABA’s letter, CEO Oren Teicher and ABA President Betsy Burton write: “A central tenet of ABA’s mission is to ensure that a broad array of books is as widely available to American consumers as possible. The greater the number of books, the greater the number of voices and ideas; the greater the number of voices and ideas, the richer are the lives of our citizens and the stronger our society.”

Amazon’s business tactics, the ABA letter continues, threaten publishers’ ability to support new and lesser-known authors and publications, thereby hindering the diversity of speech. “We have already seen fewer titles published by the major publishing houses each year,” it notes. “And while it might be tempting to chalk this up to a changing economy, the truth is that these changes have been manipulated by one retailer, which uses scorched-earth tactics to extract concessions and kickbacks from publishers in exchange for offering their books for sale.”

Link to the rest at American Booksellers Association and thanks to Melinda for the tip.

Following is an excerpt from an overview of Section 2 of The Sherman Antitrust Act found on the website of the US Department of Justice (citations omitted):

Section 2 also advances its core purpose by ensuring that it does not prohibit aggressive competition. Competition is an inherently dynamic process. It works because firms strive to attract sales by innovating and otherwise seeking to please consumers, even if that means rivals will be less successful or never materialize at all. Failure–in the form of lost sales, reduced profits, and even going out of business–is a natural and indeed essential part of this competitive process. “Competition is a ruthless process. A firm that reduces cost and expands sales injures rivals–sometimes fatally.” While it may be tempting to try to protect competitors, such a policy would be antithetical to the free-market competitive process on which we depend for prosperity and growth.

Likewise, although monopoly has long been recognized as having the harmful effects of higher prices, curtailed output, lowered quality, and reduced innovation, it can also be the outcome of the very competitive striving we prize. “[A]n efficient firm may capture unsatisfied customers from an inefficient rival,” and this “is precisely the sort of competition that promotes the consumer interests that the Sherman Act aims to foster.” Indeed, as courts and enforcers have in recent years come to better appreciate, the prospect of monopoly profits may well be what “attracts ‘business acumen’ in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.” Competition is ill-served by insisting that firms pull their competitive punches so as to avoid the degree of marketplace success that gives them monopoly power or by demanding that winning firms, once they achieve such power, “lie down and play dead.”

Section 2 thus aims neither to eradicate monopoly itself, nor to prevent firms from exercising the monopoly power their legitimate success has generated, but rather to protect the process of competition that spurs firms to succeed. The law encourages all firms–monopolists and challengers alike–to continue striving. It does this by preventing firms from achieving monopoly, or taking steps to entrench their existing monopoly power, through means incompatible with the competitive process.

. . . .

Protection of Competition, Not Competitors

The focus on protecting the competitive process has special significance in distinguishing between lawful and unlawful unilateral conduct. Competition produces injuries; an enterprising firm may negatively affect rivals’ profits or drive them out of business. But competition also benefits consumers by spurring price reductions, better quality, and innovation. Accordingly, mere harm to competitors is not a basis for antitrust liability. “The purpose of the [Sherman] Act,” the Supreme Court instructs, “is not to protect businesses from the working of the market; it is to protect the public from the failure of the market.” Thus, preserving the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace ultimately “promotes the consumer interests that the Sherman Act aims to foster.”

The Supreme Court has underscored this basic principle repeatedly over the past several decades. In 1984, it observed in Copperweld that the type of “robust competition” encouraged by the Sherman Act could very well lead to injury to individual competitors. Accordingly, the Court stated that, without more (i.e., injury to competition), mere injury to a competitor is not in itself unlawful under the Act. In so stating, the Court cited its 1977 decision in Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc. for the proposition that the antitrust laws “were enacted for ‘the protection of competition, not competitors.'”

Link to the rest at

Amazon is not a competitor to authors. So why is Authors United, a handful of authors who are unrepresentative of authors as a whole, complaining about Amazon? PG says never seems to occur to them that, if a genius organization with Amazon’s corporate values had never come into existence, book sales would almost certainly be much lower than they are today. Amazon has made books far more accessible via both price and online convenience to average American consumers than they were before Amazon.

Amazon Publishing notwithstanding, Amazon is not a serious competitor to traditional publishers. The publishing industry was in a long-term consolidation phase before Amazon became a power. The creativity generated by dozens of US publishers was rapidly disappearing into the maw of huge corporate conglomerates before Amazon.

Does anyone seriously contend that traditional publishing is more creative and vibrant today than it was in 1960s when major publishers released books by John Updike, Harper Lee, Günter Grass, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Ken Kesey and Frank Herbert? (And that’s just fiction in the first half of the 1960s) Similar lists could easily be created for the 70s and 80s.

According to Publishers Weekly, only one adult title made the print bestseller list in 2014. PG says that represents a real decline in the traditional literary world and Amazon had nothing to do with it.

Amazon does not act as a literary agent for any authors, so why is the Association of Authors’ Representatives complaining?

Amazon’s real competitors, including such companies as Barnes & Noble and Kobo, don’t appear to be participating in this petition to the Justice Department. Barnes & Noble has allied with the ABA on some other issues, but not this one. Perhaps they have better antitrust legal advice than the signators do.

The real complaint that Authors United, the Author’s Guild, the American Booksellers Association and the Association of Authors’ Representatives have is that Amazon is changing their world.

PG agrees that Amazon is, in fact, changing the book world. Unfortunately for the complainers, that’s not illegal.


8 July 2015

PG has said several times that the comments are the best part of TPV.

A couple of weeks ago, TPV received its 200,000th comment (sorry, but PG doesn’t know which comment was number 200,000 and can’t see see an obvious way to persuade WordPress to divulge that information).

PG would like to thank everyone who has contributed and continues to contribute comments. Additionally, he congratulates the very large majority of commenters who are courteous and respectful even when they disagree with another visitor.

‘A Year of Women’? How About ‘A Year of Publishing Parity’ Instead?

7 July 2015

From The Huffington Post:

Occasionally I sit outside certain issues, looking at how and why ideas emerged, if all parties involved explored the ramifications, and, if so, just how well thought out the process was.

A good example is the cause célèbre swirling around literary circles these days, the recent throw-down by author Kamila Shamsie in her piece titled, The year of women. Its thesis? An actual year in which only women will get published.

. . . .

So, 2018 will be the year in which, ostensibly, no male writers will be published. It’s believed (hoped) this will go a long way toward righting sexist wrongs. It’s also hoped that feminist-oriented males will go along with the program, with literary contest organizers, judges, and publishers, large and small, jumping on the bandwagon.

. . . .

I found myself getting twitchy and all “devil’s advocatey” about the whole thing. Certainly I get the reason for such affirmative action — women are deeply under-represented in all areas of the arts, literature no exception — but what does it say that those taking on gender politics believe the way for women to rise is to literally removemen from the equation? Do we, as strong, female artists, really believe it’s necessary to excise men in order for fairness to reign? It seems many do.

. . . .

There’s also the fact that many “gatekeepers” in this industry — agents, publishers, publicists, marketers, etc. — are women, and they have much to do with which writers get agents, publishers, publicity; win contests, or, even, just get in the damn door. Personally, and from a strictly anecdotal perspective, I know countless female writers, many of whom are excellent writers, who cannot, for the life of them, get past the query letter stage with agents… and most of the agents rejecting them are women. As for publishers at the helm deciding which writers to push, which to give publicity, and which to send to various high profile contests, may I ask: how many female publishers pushed their female writers with the same verve, and in the same numbers, as their male counterparts?

So there’s that.

Then there’s the fact that — again, anecdotally — a great many excellent male writers are just as frustrated and stymied in their efforts to advance their careers as female writers. I know several myself. They’re out there in the undulating white water of independent publishing, thrashing their arms in attempts to even be seen, much less reviewed and rewarded. Are we to make the literary marketplace just a little bit harder for them as a way to assuage gender imbalance, particularly when that imbalance is no fault of their own? Does that seem fair?

. . . .

But I am also a humanist: the wife of a man, mother of a son, sister to five brothers, and friend to a great many wonderful men, many of whom are artists struggling to build careers and find footing in industries that are challenging for anyone, male or female. So, to suggest that a hardworking, talented male writer, by virtue of his gender alone, would not be able to get his book published in 2018, because that year has been deemed “a year of publishing women,” seems punitive. It seems unfair. It seems… sexist. Which inspires the question: is the only solution to gender bias reverse gender bias?

. . . .

So how about this? Instead of “a year of publishing women,” let’s have “a year of publishing parity.” TYOPP. Let’s throw down a challenge to demand parity in every aspect of publishing. Every aspect:

  1. Agents will be obligated to sign as many female writers as male writers.
  2. Publishers will be obligated to give deals to as many female writers as male writers.
  3. Publishers (or anyone) submitting books to contests will, by virtue of the rules of TYOPP, submit as many by women as men.
  4. Book reviewers will be required to review as many books by women as men.
  5. Book sections of any media will be obligated to feature as many women writers as men.

And so on. Ah… wouldn’t it be lovely if that could actually happen?

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

PG says if the gatekeepers are biased, don’t mess around with the gatekeepers. If you’re a serious author, you probably don’t have time to reform a declining industry.

Speaking of decline, PG doubts anyone working in tradpub is going to risk a career by choosing a manuscript based on factors other than likely sales success. Points for political correctness won’t protect them from being fired by the big boss (male or female) because they didn’t find bestsellers.

Plenty of women use male or genderless pen names. More than a couple of men who write in genres dominated by women use female pen names. English author Bill Spence has written twenty-odd historical romances as Jessica Blair. Harold Lowry, who writes as Leigh Greenwood was RWA president. Other authors use different pen names and different genders for different genres.

Some authors are anxious to meet their readers face-to-face. Some are happier with email and blog posts. To PG’s knowledge, Amazon doesn’t check your author page for accuracy (here’s the author page of Jessica Blair AKA Bill Spence). Your gender secret can be as deep as you want it to be.

Your pseudonym is not undergoing a background check. Send your pen name to an Ivy League school if you like or make him/her an antiques dealer. Your pseudonym can be as eccentric and offbeat as you always wished you had the courage to be.

Pen names are just one of many marketing tools that authors have used for centuries. There is an ongoing debate about whether William Shakespeare is a pen name. Benjamin Franklin wrote under several pen names in the 1700’s.

The author known as Anne Rice was born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien, reportedly named after her father.

Stephen King wrote four novels under the pen name Richard Bachman, hoping to lure Bachman-Turner Overdrive fans.

Joanne Kathleen Rowling chose J.K. Rowling.

Lawrence Block wrote as Jill Emerson, Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanagh, and Sheldon Lord.

E.L. James is Erika Leonard, born Erika Mitchell.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote a mystery (Lives of the Twins) under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith because she wanted to “escape her own identity” – and because she could put out a novel every two weeks, her preferred pace. When her ruse was revealed, it was a surprise even for her publisher.

If your purpose is to reform society, push for quotas or years when publishers only choose manuscripts written by a particular oppressed group or whatever solution you feel will remedy the problem.

If you really want to be published and you believe your gender or race or national origin or religion, etc., is a barrier, quit messing around with those who are biased against you for irrational reasons and go indie. Success is the best revenge.


U.S. Romance Readers Outnumber Gun Owners

27 June 2015

From  author Giulia Torre:

Did you know they stopped counting?

The last time anyone counted the number of romance readers in America was 2005, when marketing research group Corona Insights conducted a nationwide telephone survey for the Romance Writers Association (RWA).

The conclusion was that in that year 64.6 million Americans read at least one romance novel. In 2002, it was estimated at 51.1 million romance readers in America. In 1998, 41 million readers.

Ten years later, I predict that number has increased, based on the rise of self-publishing, the advent of the eBook, and the explosion of the erotica market. It’s been a big decade for reading in general, and romance has been a principal in the revolution.

Corona’s figures at the time were extrapolated by a definition of romance that adapted to readers. According to Kevin Raines, the CEO and founder of Corona who worked on the 2005 survey, although RWA had a strict definition of ‘romance’, survey respondents were allowed to self-identify the genre.

. . . .

From 1998 to 2005, according to Corona’ s figures, the US population of romance readers saw an average annual 8% growth, a number too large to apply going forward at liberty.

In fact, based on revenue alone, RWA claimed in 2005 that romance fiction generated $1.4 billion in sales. However, that reported number has since dipped, with RWA reporting $1.08 billion in revenue in 2013, a 22.8% drop.

. . . .

Guns are a lot like romance novels. People advocate on their behalf. Collect them. Buy them with variable frequency. Sometimes lie about the number they own. And, like romance novels, most guns don’t need to be registered.

Somehow, in spite of these vagaries, credible numbers are reported.

According to University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, the number of people who reported having a gun in their home in the 1970s averaged about 50 percent, the 1980s averaged 48 percent, the 1990s at 43 percent and 35 percent in the 2000s. Now, numbers are being reported at an all-time low of 30%. By my count, that’s 72.8 million American adults.

. . . .

Based on the most recent numbers we have, and the arguable trend upwards in romance consumption and the reported trend downward in gun ownership, romance readers by now may actually outnumber gun owners.

That’s good news.

Link to the rest at Giulia Torre and thanks to Christopher for the tip.

Here’s a link to Giulia Torre’s books

PG says this is an interesting hook for a blog post about romance readers. It hooked him.

He will make a couple of observations:

1. A lot of romance readers are also gun owners.

2. He believes that survey respondents substantially underreport their gun ownership due to social attitudes towards guns.

In the US, if a person wants to purchase a firearm through a licensed firearm dealer, he/she fills out a form which dealer submits for a criminal background check by a division of the FBI. The firearm can’t be sold unless the FBI reports confirms that the purchaser has a no criminal record.

While the number of background checks understates the total number of gun sales because not all sales require a background check, the relative number of background checks is a generally reliable proxy for the increase or decrease of gun sales over time.

The FBI keeps track of the number of background checks it performs. That number increased every year from 2002-2013. In 2002, a total of 8,454,322 background checks were performed. In 2013, a total of 21,093,273 background checks were performed so it was more than a minor increase over 10 years. There was a slight drop in background checks in 2014 to 20,968,547. (See the 2014 Background Check System report from the FBI for much more information)

Ms. Torre cites the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey for the proposition that fewer people report having guns in their homes now than in past decades.

While PG has no doubt that the University of Chicago is accurately reporting its survey results, but its information is based on answers given to survey questions in face-to-face or telephone interviews.

In the 1950’s and ’60’s gun ownership was common and held no particular social significance. PG purchased a shotgun when he was 12 years old and, other than having his father accompany him to the hardware store, no formalities were necessary, no records kept. He needed a license to hunt pheasants, but no license to own or carry a gun.

During this era, more than a few homes had military rifles and pistols that had been brought back to the US by returning World War II veterans. When he was about 10 years old, PG went deer hunting using the standard military rifle used by the British Army during the war. He shot the rifle once and it almost knocked him over. No deer came close to being harmed during this exercise.

Over time, gun ownership became subject to more and more disapproval in certain segments of society and gun regulation, both federal and state, grew much more stringent. Strong and well-funded anti-firearm organizations were created.

The net effect of these changes is that a growing segment of gun owners stopped talking about their guns to anyone other than friends and fellow gun owners. PG suggests that today, a significant portion of gun owners answering questions from a stranger about guns in their home would be inclined to lie based upon the belief their guns were nobody’s business.

In addition to the growing increase in FBI background checks for gun purchases, since the election of President Obama, who supports increased restrictions on gun ownership, US gun and ammunition manufacturers have enjoyed booming sales and wonderful profits.

Rapidly-growing gun sales are reflected in rising stock prices of publicly-held gun manufacturers, Smith & Wesson Holdings, up 150.1% in the last five years, and Sturm Ruger, up 370.6% in the same period. The stock prices of large publicly-held retailers with significant gun sales have also boomed, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s, up 168.7% and 423.1% in the same five years, respectively.

PG definitely does not want to start a comment war over gun ownership and regulation and he strongly favors ever-increasing sales of romance novels. He doesn’t, however, believe that romance sales and gun ownership are inversely related to each other.

Barnes & Noble looks to boost sales with revamped website

26 June 2015

From ZDNet:

Retail bookseller Barnes & Noble is hoping that a scheduled website redesign will help bolster the struggling chain’s omnichannel efforts, as sales of its Nook e-reader continue to slip.

During a post-earnings report conference call Thursday, Barnes & Noble CEO Michael Huesby said the company’s customer engagement focus is shifting beyond brick-and-mortar and toward e-commerce.

“I am pleased to announce that we are launching our improved website next week, which has better search capabilities and improved user experience, and is expected to increase sales and yield cost savings,” Huesby said. “We expect the website to be a valuable resource for customers, whether they choose to have their orders shipped to home, or made available for in-store pickup.”

The contrast between physical Barnes & Noble bookstores, which were just treated to a year-long merchandising effort, and the digital storefront is certainly stark. While the company’s brick-and-mortar locations feature cozy accouterments and wafts of coffee and paperbacks, the website is dated, clunky and uninviting.

The company doesn’t break out e-commerce sales, they’re instead lumped in with sales from the physical bookstores, but given the redesign and website’s current form, it’s unlikely digital did much to move the needle.

Link to the rest at ZDNet and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG will state categorically that the people in charge of marketing at Barnes & Noble don’t understand how to sell products and services online. Should anyone with real aptitude for ecommerce have mistakenly wandered into a job at Barnes & Noble, they’ve left for greener pastures. Just about any place other than Barnes & Noble is a greener pasture.

Unfortunately for Barnes & Noble, their primary competitor is the best ecommerce company in the world.

Amazon doesn’t announce launches of an “improved website” because it is constantly studying and improving  the performance of its website. Few that aren’t actively reviewing Amazon’s website will notice the ongoing improvements, but if you were to carefully examine Amazon’s website of a year ago (sorry, but the Wayback Machine won’t catch much about how the site has functionally changed) and compare it to today’s site, you would see many, many changes.

And there are at least ten changes you don’t see behind the scenes for every change that shows itself to a visitor.

Serious ecommerce websites are never “done.” Each minute, each hour, each day provides additional information that allows smart website operators to make their sites even better.

And that’s only one aspect of Amazon’s operations. Robots in the warehouses, new product development, etc., etc., etc. contribute to Amazon’s overall excellence.

Barnes & Noble vs. Amazon in ecommerce is like a Pop Warner team lining up against the Green Bay Packers. The competition is so one-sided, it’s not even interesting to watch.

If PG were a shareholder of Barnes & Noble, he would suggest that Barnes & Noble avoid wasteful spending by shutting down its ecommerce website and focus on figuring out how to keep from closing physical stores.

Publishing’s Swiftian future

23 June 2015

From Futurebook:

Publishing has a new question to ponder this week: what could Taylor Swift do for us? Swift’s triumph: she got a tech giant to change its mind.

In an open letter to Apple, Swift said she was withholding the record, 1989, from Apple’s new music streaming service, Apple Music, because she was unhappy with the three-month free trial offered to subscribers. “I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” wrote Swift. “Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.”

The blog prompted the following response from Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services,

“#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period”

“We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple”

. . . .

Speaking to Billboard magazine Cue said they had already been been hearing “a lot of concern from indie artists about not getting paid during the three-month trial period” before Swift spoke out. Apple had sought to ameliorate the three-month royalty free window by paying a higher rate after the initial period. Now it will pay artists during the free period, and retain the higher fee afterwards. Still, Apple can afford it.

Could a little bit of Swiftian kick-back help the book business too? It is worth contrasting Apple’s manoeuvre with the changes Amazon made to how it will pay indie writers signed up to its all-you-can-read Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL). The change (in brief) is that from 1st July authors with books in those schemes will no longer be paid their percentage of Amazon’s pool of money once 10% of a book has been read, they will now be paid based on what the number of pages read, after the Amazon-mandated “Start Reading Location” (SRL).

. . . .

Much will be written once the impact of the change hits. However, what I have read less about is how, in altering its payment terms, Amazon itself was responding to artist feedback. As the company noted: “We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read.”

In his two blogs about the subject Hugh Howey notes his own influence: “We have different degrees of leverage. I’ve tried to use my leverage to win concessions for all authors. A number of the bestselling authors have done this. We ask for pre-orders for everyone as soon as possible. Better reporting. More categories. All kinds of stuff. I pressure Amazon to extend the 70% down to 99 cents for shorter works, which I think is fair. I give them hell about the exclusivity requirement every chance I get, from the bottom of the ladder to the top.”

There is something intriguing about the growing power of individual artists or collectives—like Howey, Swift claims to be speaking up for those who don’t yet wield the same power as her, “This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success.”

. . . .

Similarly, one wonders how indie authors outside of the elite group feel about Amazon’s change in terms. Many were co-opted into Kindle Unlimited without prior request because Amazon felt compelled to move against Scribd and Oyster, and though writers can opt out, the fund from which Amazon generates payments (though it has risen month on month) is still entirely made-up. Now how writers get paid has changed too—and without any sense of their being any negotiation. It is an extreme scenario, but not one we should feel entirely comfortable about.

. . . .

A more pertient question book publishers should be asking, is not what could Taylor Swift do for them, but how the music business got into a position where it had to rely on a single artist to run its negotiations for them.

Link to the rest at Futurebook

PG isn’t an expert in the music business, but does know enough to wonder which industry treats its artists worse, music or publishing.

It’s not hard to treat authors better than Big Publishing does, so Amazon can consistently do so without breaking a sweat.

For example, PG doesn’t think the Authors Guild project to improve publishing contracts has attracted enough attention or analysis.

The list of contract provisions AG wants traditional publishing to change is an indictment of the industry’s horrible treatment of its authors. Even prisoners in the Soviet Gulag were released from oppression when they died. Under life-of-copyright contract terms, the maltreatment of authors continues down to their heirs.

As PG has mentioned before, in his experience with American business contracts across a wide variety of industries, no other group of (supposed) competitors offers such one-sided agreements whose terrible terms are so uniformly applied as does New York publishing. One might suspect collusion was occurring.

To make one point of comparison, which major New York publisher has provided any explanation of changed contract provisions impacting how authors are paid as Amazon has with its KDP Select Global Fund announcement?

Amazon treats authors as business partners. No one will contend that the partners have equal power, but with actions such as paying authors on a monthly basis, providing all authors with detailed sales information in close to real time, allowing authors to opt out of some royalty programs and choose which countries in which Amazon can sell their books, Amazon is miles and miles ahead of Big Publishing in the “authors are our partners” race.

If Taylor Swift were a megastar author, she would be condemning Big Publishing for underpaying authors at least as vigorously as she attacked Apple for underpaying musicians.

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