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Downsizing in the Age of Stuff

I’m culling the collection. It’s making me a little nuts. Carol and I are moving from a house with 4600 livable square feet (plus an oversized garage) to 3100 square feet plus a garage that will fit two biggish cars if you smear Vaseline all over them. (There will be another 350 square feet of livable space once our contractor installs an air conditioner in the small garage.) We’re in our sixties now. We’re trying to simplify and streamline, which sounds easier than it is, simply because a good deal of it is learning how to let go of Stuff.

The 21st Century may well be remembered as the beginning of the Age of Stuff. We’ve always had a certain amount of Stuff, and one of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution is, of course, allowing poorer and poorer people to have more and more Stuff. When I was a young teen, I thought I was as rich as Croesus (quick, without googling him: Who was Croesus?) simply because I had a typewriter, a telescope, a pair of walkie talkies, and a VOM. Now I look around the house, and I ask myself how many standard Croesuses the collection represents.


China has a lot to do with the Age of Stuff, as does eBay. Stuff that used to go out on the curb can now be bought by people who really really want just that precise model of waffle iron. (What used to be considered trash I often think of as “parts units.”) I found a NOS hair curler on eBay precisely like one that Carol had owned and loved in the 80s. Better engineering means that the Stuff we have is often better Stuff, and careful people like Carol and myself have an instinct for being careful with things, making them last longer and longer. We still have the blender we got as a wedding present in 1976, and we still use it several times a week. 70s cars may have been crappy. 70s blenders rock.

So we’re keeping the blender. But what about all the rest of it? That is pretty much the current challenge. The Big Truck will be loading up some time late November or early December. We’ve already taken several carloads of Stuff to Goodwill, and given the best of it to our friend Diedre for her indoor flea market table. And damn if the house doesn’t look the least bit emptier.

The worst of it is about books. The last time I cataloged our library, we had about 2500 books. We did an initial purge last year and got it down to about 2200. I let go of Charles Platt’s Garbage World, and had the fleeting insight that it was symbolic. I gave away Lupoff’s Sacred Locomotive Flies even though it’s my favorite SF book to make fun of. I got rid of stuff that was badly written or simply a bummer, like Malzberg’s wretched Beyond Apollo. If I ever discover an aching desire for bad SF, well, there’s always eBay.

But really, it’s getting tough. The “why the hell do I still have this?”purge is over. Now I find myself on my rolling library ladder, staring at the spines of books that, if not excellent, actually have some value, or at least served me well at one time.

One time, sure. Often a very long time ago. I realize that I’ve kept a lot of them for sentimental reasons, like my father’s 1940 drafting textbook. My college career was a very mixed bag, haunted by a lot of third-shelf thinkers who didn’t know how to teach and didn’t like being challenged. Still, there were some gems in all that dirt: I’ve kept some books because they were given to my by Dr. Rachel Romano, who took a special interest in my talents as a writer at a time when most of my knucklehead profs were telling me deadpan that I should apply to law school. I look at some and ask myself, “Did I ever actually read this?” Dr. Romano died in 1985. I don’t think I will do her any disrespect by putting her books in someone else’s hands. She was a wonderful influence in my life, and the influence is what matters. The books are simply mementos. I don’t know who originally said this, but I’ve been saying it a lot to myself recently:

Not all of your past belongs in your future.

It’s true. Very true.

I’ve got about 75 books in the purge pile right now. A few were easy pitches, being slim and having somehow escaped my notice for 40+ years, like Philip Slater’s silly-ass tantrum The Pursuit of Loneliness. Many were good books on science and tech that are now simply obsolete, irrespective of their excellence, like Pickering’s 1001 Questions Answered about Astronomy, and the 1990 first edition of Microsoft Computer Dictionary. I had several books on film photography that clearly won’t be helpful anymore. Some are now sad, like Enterprise by Jerry Gray, which is all about how the Space Shuttle was going to make space travel easy and cheap and open up the road to the rest of the Solar System. A mere handful are books that I literally don’t remember either buying or reading, nor, in truth, how they came to me at all.

Some purges reflect my changing interests. I used to read a lot about ghosts and the paranormal, but I suspect I’ve long since read everything useful on the subject, and many of those books are now on the pile. (I made good use of some of that weirdness while writing Ten Gentle Opportunities.) I’m culling my theology shelves, which is harder. I got rid of my books on theodicy, and all but one of Peter Kreeft’s books, he being a crypto-Calvinist pretending to be Catholic and saying stupid and damaging things like “There are no good (that is, innocent) people.” Sorry, Peter. “Good” does not mean “innocent,” and you disqualify yourself as a thinker for saying so. I’ve finally come to a good place in my (often agonized) quest for sane religion, so many of the inspirational books I used as steppingstones are now unnecessary or redundant.

The toughest calls of all are those books that contain some but not always a lot of useful material. How much usefulness is enough? I have a lot of books about the brain and personality, many of them now pushing a quarter century old. Some of those books are timeless. Many aren’t. But in quite a few cases, the clarity of the writing in the intro portions makes me want to keep them as quick brushups, should I need one. Hard call. Intros matter. I’ve made my career writing them.

And so on. We’ve done this before, and in fact, we’ve done it every time we’ve moved. This is our seventh house. You’d think it would get to be second nature after awhile. However, this particular purge is especially difficult, since it’s the first time we’ve gone from a larger house to a smaller one. We designed this house to have a lot of storage, because we knew damned well how Stuff multiples over the years. The new house, well, it doesn’t have all the crannies and under-the-stairs places (no stairs!) and this means we’re going to have to be extra careful deciding what survives and what goes to Goodwill. The hardest part of packing the house has nothing to do with boxes, but in fact is all about how much of the past will still have a role in our future. And if you think that’s easy, just try it sometime.

KU, “Turniness,” and the Reshaping of Genre Fiction

There’s a marvelous weirdness about Kindle Unlimited that I have not yet seen anyone else comment on. For the last two weeks, since I posted The Cunning Blood on KDP Select, I’ve kept the reports dashboard open in a window, and every five minutes or so, I refresh it. Almost invariably, the KENP numbers go up by a hundred or two, sometimes more. It’s a very weird feeling: Somewhere people are reading my book Right Freaking Now. It’s like looking over God’s shoulder down at the universe of people sitting in chairs and on buses and trains and airplanes, and knowing for sure that a certain nontrivial number of them are following Peter Novilio’s adventures at this very moment. I have no way of knowing precisely how many, but I can guess (given that a person doesn’t read a hundred pages a minute) that it’s more than one or two.

I’ve had a number of surprises since my first novel went up on July 31, but KU was the biggest. I’m getting a lot of page turns; on August 11 alone I got 12,448. Given that the book is 643 KENP pages long, that’s 20 full copies of the book read in one day. Of course, it may be 30 or 40 or more partial reads. I have no way to tell. But at the estimated rate of $0.0057 per page turn, KU earned me $71 that one day.

The numbers since the beginning two weeks ago were surprising, and I’ll gladly share them with you: I’ve sold 662 copies of the ebook, of which 21 (3%) were sold to countries where the 35% royalty is in force. The rest (97%) were sold at the 70% royalty rate. I’m still not entirely sure how KDP handles royalty currency conversion, but I’m assuming the cover price is roughly equivalent to $2.99 USD in all currencies. That makes my total take on sold copies about $1,304.

The KU payout is a little simpler to calculate, although we’re still not completely sure what the July and August per-page rates will be. I’m going with the estimate of $0.0057. Since publication, The Cunning Blood has recorded 127,749 page turns. Multiplied by .0057, that gives us $728.17.

Adding that to the books-sold royalty of $1304, I get $2,032.17 as royalties earned so far, in the book’s first two weeks.

That’s pretty damned surprising right there. I was expecting about half that. But what really surprised me was that over a third of that revenue–36%–came from KU page turns. In truth, I had no way to guess how many borrows I’d get nor how many borrows would be completely read. My gut told me 10-15%. I was very glad to be wrong.

Now, there’s a number I would love to be able to calculate, but which I can’t calculate from the information Amazon gives me. Amazon does not tell authors how many KU borrows a book has gotten. If I knew how many page turns I’ve had across how many borrows, I could calculate how many pages were read per borrow. This factor could be interpreted as the degree to which a book grabs the readers’ attention and keeps them turning the pages. I might as well call it “turniness.” If I could calculate how turny a given book is, over time I could probably make them turnier. In the new Kindle Unlimited universe, the turnier a book is, the more money it will make. Smart authors will thus strive to make their stories as turny as possible.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. There’s no incremental cost to making a KU borrow, and a certain number of people who borrow a book purely on spec will read a few pages, realize it’s not their thing, and return it, irrespective of the book’s quality or its turniness. Then again, that factor is probably constant across books and cancels out. We don’t know yet and won’t know until Amazon gives us more data to play with.

What this means is that literary and experimental writing will not pay as well as engrossing genre fiction. What follows from that is that that authors may pay more attention to the factors in their writing that contribute to turniness (suspense, rapid pace, constant action, mysteries revealed over time, etc.) and strive to be better at them. Over time, genre fiction will follow the money and become better and better at its own stated mission of keeping readers entertained.

My conclusion: Kindle Unlimited is the best thing that’s ever happened to genre fiction.

Genre authors, if you haven’t tried KU yet, you’re missing out. The Turniness Revolution is upon us. Let us unroll our mats, boil those pots, tell our tales, and cash those checks.

Some Kindle Unlimited (After) Math

It’s been a wild couple of days, as Contra readers already know. I finally posted The Cunning Blood to KDP Select last Friday, 7/31. In three days, I’ve sold 322 copies of the ebook. How much I’ll earn from that is a little fuzzy, because some small number of sales were outside the US, and were paid for in other currencies. For the US sales (which were well over 95% of sales) I get $2 per sale as a 70% royalty on a $2.99 cover price. Sales in some countries only pay 35%, but if I read Amazon’s doc on royalties correctly, most of the Western democracies pay 70%. Reading the sales reports, only two copies have so far been sold at the 35% rate.

All of this I pretty much knew in advance, from my study of the KDP system. What I didn’t know and was anxious to find out is how KU fit into the picture. The missing variable in the equation was the number of Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP) my book represents. Because ebooks aren’t divided into arbitrary pages, Amazon crunches ebooks and assigns each one a page count based on word count, font, and a few other things that I still find obscure. I didn’t know the page count for TCB until the book itself appeared in the Kindle store. The magic number is 651. (The Amazon sales page says 453, which is some sort of mistake. The 651 number comes from the title summary in my account, and is explicitly labeled Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count.)

Having that number allows us to do a number of calculations. The first thing I was curious about is how many words there are per KENP. TCB is 144,000 words long, so dividing by 651 gives us 221 words per page, which is about what I’d expect.

The KDP Select dashboard shows KU “page turns” for a given title on a daily basis. As I write, the total number of page turns is 10,206. If the KENP page count is 651, that means that KU subscribers have read the book 15.68 times. That number, alas, is bogus, because nothing in Amazon’s reports tells me how many borrows there were, nor how many pages have been read in each borrow, as good to have as those numbers would be. Some of the borrows may have been read completely already. Most, I suspect, are still underway. Some number may have stopped reading and won’t finish.

What we can calculate, very roughly, is how much money those page turns will pay me. A precise figure can’t be calculated because we don’t yet know what the per-page turn figure is for either July or August. Taking the May figures that Amazon has revealed, it looks like a rate of $.0057 (that’s a little over half a cent; don’t get the decimals wrong!) per page turn. (The calculations used to derive that figure have been done here.) That number is not set in stone, and depends very heavily on how much money Amazon puts into a sort of KU “money pot” that all page turns share, and that changes on a monthly basis.

But as a ballpark figure it’s useful: 10,206 X .0057 = $58.17 total KU revenue. The per-book payout (assuming that the book is read clear through) would be .0057 X 651, or $3.71.

We can all gasp together. The KDP bookstore pays about $2 per ebook sold. For my book (or any other book with 651 KENP pages) KU therefore pays 1.8 times what the bookstore pays, if borrowers read the whole book.

Why so much? It’s a big book. The reason I suspect I couldn’t sell it to the traditional print publishing companies is that it was too long. First novels should hover around 100,000 words, and err on the low side. Paper, ink, and glue do cost. Ebooks are a whole ‘nother country.

Another calculation I did was figuring how long a book would have to be (in KENP pages) to generate the same $2 earned on the 70% royalty rate for a $2.99 book:

.0057 times X pages equals $2

Solving for X, we get 350 pages. And if a single KENP comprises 220 words, that means that a 77,000 word novel would earn $2 at May’s KU per-page rate. (Remember, that rate can and will change month-to-month.) Shorter novels will earn less, longer novels more. A really long novel earns a lot more–assuming it’s a page-turner and that the pages actually get turned. I think I’m in good shape on that score: I design all of my fiction to be page-turner material. It’s what I’m good at, but more to the point, I think it’s what my readers want and are willing to pay for.

My conclusions are these:

  • KU has been turned inside-out. You used to get the same dollar payment for a short story as for an epic novel. Now you get paid for what the readers read, and the more they read, the more you get paid. I’m good; nay, really good with that.
  • Difficult books (or badly written books) will not do as well as slick potboilers. The challenge is to get the reader to keep on reading. Solid writing, good editing, and a page-turning style are what will net big bucks from KU now. Literary fiction will be an uphill climb.
  • Reference books and other books that you dip into will not do as well on KU. The reason is that you only get paid the first time the reader reads a page. If the reader goes back and read that same page again, the author gets nothing.
  • Obscure authors now have a chance to make some reasonable money. MM paperbacks typically pay authors fifty to sixty cents per copy sold. Even at the $2 royalty level, you can make the same money as in MM paperbacks with one quarter of the sales. With tradpub, shelf space is rapidly turning from books to Lego sets and moleskines, so sales volume is generally harder to come by. And of course, unless and until a tradpub imprint takes you on, you make no money at all.

The future looks like this: You write quickly and well. You build a fan base however it can be done. Some can do it with personal appearances, lectures, cons, etc. Others will do it online. You publish on KDP Select and sell books to your fans. Sarah Hoyt says that there is some sort of scaling discontinuity at the ten-novel point. Once you have more than ten novels out there, your income spikes dramatically. I’ve got some work to do, obviously, to get there. Still, I now understand how it works, and can spreadsheet the financial upside.

But boy oh boy, if I were running a tradpub imprint right now, I would be sweating blood by the unholy bucket.


Yikes! Glenn Reynolds just plugged The Cunning Blood on Instapundit. The number of books I’ve sold just doubled in the last hour and a quarter. He plugged the hardcover nine years ago, and we sold a lot of books then, too.

Now, as good as this is, Amazon has messed up: They were trying to “sync” the hardcover edition with the ebook edition on the main product page, and ended up removing the main link to the ebook. I’ve sent them a tech support request, and I hope they fix it soon. The good news is that all my Kindle apps and my Paperwhite see it correctly. Only the Amazon desktop product page is messed up.

July 31st has become quite a day for me. 46 years ago today, I met Carol in our church basement. Today, well, I’m getting noticed.

And today still has three hours to go.

Announcing: The Cunning Blood on Kindle

I am most pleased to announce that the Kindle ebook edition of The Cunning Blood is now available on the Kindle store, for $2.99. It’s also available through Kindle Unlimited as part of KU’s monthly subscription service. No DRM, not now, not ever.

Cover by Richard Bartrop.

My regular readers know that this is not a new book. In fact, it’s now sixteen years old, having been written between November 1997 and April 1999. I shopped it between 1999 and 2005, and eventually sold it to ISFiC Press, which released the first edition hardcover at Windycon in Chicago in October 2005. The hardcover (which is still available) reviewed well, getting a thumbs-up on Instapundit and a rave in Analog the following spring. I still have some reservations about the cover, but in general, given that it was a $28 first-edition hardcover, I consider it an almost-complete success. ISFiC was particularly good at promotion, and got me reviews in places I didn’t know existed.

I fretted and waffled over republishing it for a long time before putting my back into creating the ebook edition. Why? Not sure. As best I can tell, after so many years of trying and failing to make a name in SF, something in me just couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to self-publish an SF ebook and get any kind of hearing for it. Granted, I have some promo work to do, and am researching mechanisms like BookBub and KDP Coundown Deals. But the hardest part was just getting off the dime and doing it. Some credit for that goes to Eric Bowersox and especially Sarah Hoyt, who got a little tough with me last Saturday and motivated me to get the final 10% finished and put the damned thing on the market.

The Cunning Blood is hard SF with a vengeance, perhaps the hardest SF I have ever written. The premise (and primary world-building concept) is this: In 2142, Earth’s risk-averse world government (controlled by the Canadians) creates an escape-proof prison planet by releasing a self-replicating bacterium-sized nanomachine into the ecosphere of Zeta Tucanae 2. The nanobug seeks out and corrodes electrical conductors carrying current beyond a few tens of microamps. Nothing depending on electricity works for long on the prison planet, technically the Offworld Violent Offenders Detention Station (OVODS) but informally referred to (especially by its inmates) as Hell.

Because the nanobugs make surface-to-orbit travel impossible, Earth handed control of the planet to its inmates, and drops convicts on Hell in disposable lifting-body landers. Earth assumes that Hell will always remain a gaslight-and-steam neo-Victorian sort of society, forgetting that the Victorians were ignorant, whereas the Hellions are handicapped. They know what’s possible, and over the next 200 years create a high-tech civilization complete with mechanical/fluidic computation and (as the story opens) spaceflight.

Earth gets a few hints about what’s going on down on Hell in 2374, and frames an ace pilot for murder, then offers him his freedom if he will travel to Hell, gather intelligence about Hellion technology, and return alive via an unspecified mechanism. Pete Novilio accedes, and not only for his freedom. Peter is a member of a secret society developing a distributed and highly illegal nanotech AI that lives in human bloodstreams. The Sangruse Society (from “sang ruse,” French for “cunning blood”) would like to establish a chapter on Hell. The Sangruse Device, after all, is not electrical in nature and could thrive there, beyond Earth’s heavy hand. So Peter descends into Hell with Geyl Shreve, a grim but talented agent of Earth’s CIA-like Special Implementers Service. What they discover astonishes them–and ignites a three-way war between Earth, a faction of American rebels intending to overthrow Canadian rule, and the Hellions themselves.

If you like action, SF ideas, and a sort of optimistic exuberance you don’t see much of in fiction these days, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Give it a shot.

Why I’m Going Indie

I’ve dropped hints here and there for almost a year, but it’s time to come clean: I’m going to give up trying to get the attention of New York publishers, and begin publishing my fiction independently. One of my longest-unfulfilled dreams is having a novel from a major publisher shelved face-out in Kroch’s & Brentano’s. Ummm, no. Borders? Whoops. Barnes & Noble, then. Well, look quick.

You can see my problem here. I wrote my first SF story when I was 8, sold my first story when I was 21, was on the final Hugo ballot at 29, gave it all up for almost 20 years, and finally sold a novel at 52 after five years of shopping it. The novel was promoted very competently by the (small) publisher, and garnered a rave in Analog and a favorable mention on Instapundit, in addition to a number of other reviews in other places. However, it was a $28 hardcover, sold in the high three figures, and as best I know was never shelved in any major bookstore.

So the dream is still alive. Or it was, at least, until I took a length of black iron pipe and beat its damfool brains out. Enough dreaming. It’s time to get freaking real. I’m going to publish my SF myself. I’m going to make money doing it. I’m not going to get rich at it…but that was never part of the dream. The new dream is about spinning yarns and making myself a name for it. As I see it, the best way there is to take the process into my own hands and do it all myself.

I wrote this post to answer the obvious question, Why? Perforce:

  1. I am already a publisher. I jumped from programming into publishing in 1985 and remained there to this day. I attended courses and seminars and learned from the best. I know in great gory detail how the print book business works (and doesn’t work) and I’ve followed the emergence of ebooks since the ’90s. I’ve had a few ebooks on the market for five years, though most of what I’ve published through my Copperwood Press imprint has been print.
  2. Manhattan SF publishing has made its preferences known to me. Some houses were encouraging and polite even when rejecting a manuscript (Betsy Mitchell, you’re an ace!) and some never even answered my emails, much less returned the manuscript. (If He’s reading this, He Knows Who He Is.) A couple of houses strongly and inexplicably believe that humor can’t sell because nobody can beat Douglas Adams. (Huh?) Well, go in peace and try not to become extinct. It worked for the coelacanth, after all.
  3. I don’t have all damned day. I’m 63 years old. I can’t wait for five years to see if one of my books will ever appear.
  4. Traditional publishing contracts have gotten nightmarish. Much has been written about this. (I sure hope you aspiring authors follow Konrath, at very least.) I’m not that desperate.
  5. The tools are now acceptable. They’re not great, and certainly not what I think they should be. But I’ve used Jutoh enough to be comfortable with it. (Tip to aspiring software developers: There is still money on that table.)
  6. Everybody has an ebook reader. Everybody. Some are even called “ebook readers.” Most of them are phones. Many are tablets. A few are laptops and desktops. Anybody who wants to read ebooks can. The market for ebook genre fiction is staggeringly large.
  7. Amazon has pretty much figured it out. The original Kindle Unlimited payment algorithm seemed kind of gonzo: The same amount for 1,000 words as 100,000 words? As of July 1, it’s now about pages read. We can quibble about the per-page payment, but my spreadsheets tell me that at current rates, an indie author gets more per sale from Amazon than authors get per sale from tradpub imprints.
  8. Authors are making money with indie ebooks. I’ve been told one-on-one that a fair number of people are making a good living off their indie ebooks, and a few are making more than I made as co-owner of a $30M publishing firm. I may have to learn to be prolific, but I’ve learned harder things, like contra dancing (natch!) and dealing with online tribalists.
  9. I already have a fanbase. Admittedly, it’s a fanbase for technical nonfiction, but anybody who says that computer guys don’t read SF (as several people in SF publishing have tried to tell me) is blowing steam. There are just short of 500,000 technical books in the world with my name on them. If two tenths of a percent of those readers buy my SF, I can probably live on it.
  10. I can control the whole damned thing. This is key. I’ve seen some of the most incredible self-destructive behavior among traditional publishing firms. If I weld my future to a boat like that, I’ll go down with it when (not if) it sinks. I want the freedom not to do stupid shit. (Alas, if your publisher does stupid shit, in effect you’re doing stupid shit.) I want to be able to try new things to see what works, and stop using techniques that don’t work. Bottom line, if I fail I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

Wouldn’t I sell more books if I went the tradpub route? Possibly. Would I make more money? Almost certainly not. The tradpub houses are suffering. They’re squeezing everything in sight to save pennies, especially authors. They’ll do anything possible to cut their costs except move from Manhattan to Middle America. To me, this means that they’re doomed, granting that sooner or later we’re all doomed. I’ve personally outlived vacuum tubes, glass-screen TVs, disco, wingtip shoes, Radio Shack, and several biggish bookstore chains, among many other things. I may well outlive traditional genre fiction publishing.

I’m certainly going to try. And I’m going to have a fine, fine time doing it!

Paying by the Page Turn

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) book subscription system has been a laboratory of unintended consequences since it launched in July 2014. If you don’t subscribe or don’t know how authors are paid, my 4-part series on it may be useful. I’ll summarize very briefly: Each time a work available on KU is borrowed and at least 10% of it is read, the author is paid from a payment fund shared by all such borrows in a given month. The amount of money in the pot changes from month to month, as do the number of borrows. So the payment per qualified borrow changes from month to month. It’s been converging on $1.30 for some time. The length of the work doesn’t matter: Read 10% of a 150,000 word novel, and the author gets $1.30. Read 10% of a 1000-word short story…and the author gets the same $1.30. (For another another few days, at least. Stay with me.)

Care to guess the unintended consequences? Authors of novels pulled their works from KU or never opted in to begin with. Authors of short stories suddenly started making significant money. Authors of flash-length erotica (basically, isolated sex scenes) began making a great deal of money. And scammers began posting the same (very short) story on multiple author accounts, and Wikipedia articles as original works.

I could have guessed all of that except maybe the erotica, since I don’t read erotica. I had actually begun turning my individual short stories and novelettes into separate ebooks, figuring that $1.30 was way better than the 35c that 99c ebook shorts earn.

Alluva sudden, wham! Everything changes.

On July 1, a whole new KU payment system comes into force. The new system essentially pays authors by the amount of the book read. Read the whole book, author gets X. Read half the book, and author gets X/2. Read 10% of the book (perhaps because it was so bad you wanted to throw your Paperwhite at the wall) and author gets X/10. In general terms, when you read some arbitrary number of pages, author gets a pro-rata per-page payment. This is true (and evidently the payment will be the same) whether the book in question is a kids’ bedtime story, a romance novel, or a calculus textbook.

As in the current system, the per-page payment changes every month, depending on the size of the money pot and the number of pages read during that month. The two big variables are the per-page payout and the number of pages in the book.

Wait a sec…pages? In an ebook?

Yup. And this is something completely new. Amazon has addressed the fact that ebooks are not divided into pages by creating the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC) algorithm. As best I understand it (details are sparser than we’d like) the KU servers will examine each book posted by an author, and impose a standard page layout on the book’s text in a buffer. (It will not actually change the layout in the published book.) It will then count how many “pages” exist in the book when expressed by the KENPC algorithm. I have seen no reliable description of what will go into this standard layout. It’s obvious that they’re trying to keep people from padding out margins or tweaking fonts to turn less text into more pages. They’re also trying to equalize the differences between devices with vastly different screen sizes. KENPC takes into account photos, tables, and technical art somehow. Again, details are sparse. However, I’m happy just knowing that they’re going to some effort to make a page on one device more or less equivalent in terms of content to a page on another device. I’ve seen some grumbling about page metrics for children’s books, but since that’s a genre I have no experience in whatsoever, I can’t say much. It does seem a little unfair that a 30-page kid book will only earn what 30 pages in a 500-page novel earns.

Pages will only pay off the first time they are read. Reading a book a second time on the same borrow will not generate any additional revenue. Nor will going back to reread a chapter generate additional revenue. Swiping/tapping rapidly through a book will not pay. Some sort of timer runs while a page is displayed, and if the page isn’t displayed long enough, the page will not be considered read. Countable pages begin with the book’s starting point, so dedication pages, review excerpts, and indicia will not be paid.

Now, what can authors expect as a per-page payment? Nobody knows yet. People are guessing somewhere between .8c and 1c per page read. We’ll find out soon.

Any system like this is a basket of unintended consequences. These are the ones that immediately occur to me:

  • Authors of art-heavy children’s books will bail.
  • A lot of that flash-erotica will vanish. (This may be an intended consequence.) Or maybe not. A nickel is a nickel.
  • More previews of other books will appear at the end of a book.
  • Reference books will bail. This may include computer books, which are rarely read from cover to cover.
  • Page-turners will dominate. Difficult books (fiction or nonfiction) will bail.

This last point bears discussing. Some books are bought to be seen in buyers’ hands or (more often) on their coffee tables. As Megan McArdle points out, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century is purchased a great deal more than it is read. I think this is true of a lot of literary fiction as well. Authors will have to understand that they’re no longer selling books. They’re not really selling pages, either. They’re selling page turns. To make money on KU going forward, each page will have to compel the reader to move on to the next page, and repeat until EOB.

This is bad news for James Joyce. This is good news for George R. R. Martin. And, I suspect, me.

It may also be bad news for writers who just don’t know what they’re doing. To pay by the page-turn, Amazon will have to report how many pages were turned. How much detail those reports will provide is still unknown. It would be terrific to know how many pages were read per title rather than in aggregate across all of an author’s titles, but I don’t think Amazon will be doing that, at least not right away. However, if you have ten 300-page books on KU and get paid for 67 pages, the reader base is telling you something.

I suspect that this is a fully intended (if unstated) consequence: to improve the readability of the material on KU. Fistfights break out frequently over whether readability and quality are strongly correlated. This is the dotted line where literature is separated from fiction, especially genre fiction. But consider what KU is: a mechanism allowing maniacal readers to get all the books they can read for ten bucks a month. If you’re a normal human being, Finnegan’s Wake will take you most of a month to bull through, and you can get ratty copies for a penny plus shipping online.

No, it’s going to work like this: If you can keep a reader up all night with your hard SF action-adventures, you can make money on the new KU. Write page-turners, and put previews of all of your page-turners in the backs of all of your page-turners.

That’s certainly what I intend to do. I will make money. Watch me.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 5

(This series began here.)

I held back Part 5 of this series because the Hugo nomination finalists were announced yesterday, and I wanted to see whether the Sad Puppies (and a separate but related slate, Rabid Puppies) would make their mark on the ballot. The answer is, egad: What a broom does.

But I’ll get back to that.

First I wanted to mention a little pushback on a different subtopic of the series: The Human Wave. A guy I’ve known (if vaguely) for a long time backchanelled me a short note, the gist of which was this: “So you want to destroy literary SF.”

This is a familiar tactic in many brainless headbumps I’ve seen down the years: When somebody proposes that something you oppose should be permitted, you strike back by accusing them of wanting everything except what they propose to be forbidden. This tactic probably has a name, and a place of honor in some online Gallery Of Stupid Argument Tricks. I mention it simply to point out the general level at which much discussion of SFF issues these days operates.

I told him to go back and read the series again, quoting the significant bits.

I’ll say in summary what I said here: The Human Wave is about allowing things, not forbidding things. Yes, what the Human Wave stands against is mostly a certain brand of pessimistic literary fussiness. The solution, however, is to broaden the field. Do litfic if you want. But don’t claim that litfic is the best or only thing worth writing. If the Human Wave movement pushes literary SF out of the spotlight, that’s a choice made by the readers, not me. My take: We need a much, much bigger spotlight.

Now, to the Hugo nominations. The full list from Locus is here. I’ve been a little out of touch with recent SFF (for reasons laid out earlier in this series) and am not familiar with most of them. I got a little discouraged last year when I picked up Redshirts, which turned out to be the biggest piece of crap I’d read out of all Hugo novel winners. (I have not read every single one, obviously, so bigger stinkers than that may be still be lurking somewhere in the past.)

The really, really big question on everyone’s minds today is whether the Puppies had any effect on the final ballot. Mike Glyer did an excellent summary on File 770, with more detailed analysis here. Two-digit takeaway: 71% of the finalists were on either Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies, or both. Only 24 finalists were not on either slate. A record 2,122 valid nominations were submitted. John C. Wright picked up six slots, a new record for a single year. Some other notes:

  • Brad Torgersen, coordinator of Sad Puppies 3, was very careful to keep everything legal and above-board. Even Patrick Nielsen-Hayden admitted that the Sad Puppies campaign had broken no rules.
  • Sad Puppies concept creator Larry Correia withdrew his nomination for Best Novel, received for Monster Hunter Nemesis . He did not want anyone to be able to say that he proposed Sad Puppies just to win awards. He now has the moral high ground against any accusations of corruption that will invariably be thrown his way. Larry’s a class act, in spades.
  • There will be a Sad Puppies 4, to be coordinated next year by Kate Paulk.

Heads are now exploding all over the Internet, which is the least surprising thing about the whole kerfuffle. Puppy haters are trying to figure out what changes might be made to the Hugo rules to make such a sweep impossible. The truth is that as long as you have supporting memberships who can vote, slatemakers will offer slates to their supporters. Eliminating supporting memberships would make Worldcon financially impossible. (I don’t see anybody complaining about the additional money that all those Puppy supporters added to Worldcon coffers.)

So: If you want to stop the Sad Puppies, you have to propose your own slates. (And have the followers to vote them, which is really the hard part.) Bored Beavers? Aggrieved Alligators? Mourning Meerkats? Go for it. The goal is to reduce monoculture, and broaden the spotlight. That’s ultimately what the Puppies thing is about. Let 2E20 slates bloom!

To KU or Not to KU, Part 4: Who It Helps

Continuing a series begun in my entry for 1/13/2015:

Judging by the ruckus indie authors have been making for a couple of months, you’d think that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) service was universally hated by the author community. Not so: A few vehement dissenting voices have piped up. Christa Lakes blogged that because of KU, October was her best sales month ever. Kathryn Le Veque‘s revenues are up 50% C. L. R. Dougherty writes that although his revenue per unit has declined by 9% for the second half, his total revenue was 46% higher than the first half. Here’s the money quote from his essay:

Borrows increase rankings and make your book more visible, as well as making it less risky to people who don’t know your work.

That may be it, in a nutshell: KU is a mechanism to promote your writing, and like all promotion efforts, it comes at a cost. The downside is that the cost remains even if the promotion won’t make you much more popular. The more popular your work is already, the more damage KU seems to do to your revenues. In the case of an extremely popular author like Holly Ward, it can do a great deal of damage.

Understanding this requires understanding how KU affects author visibility and reader risk-aversion. The risk effect is easily explained: A couple of power readers have already told me that because there is no marginal cost to trying unknown authors, they’re much more willing to do so. If you borrow a book and the first chapter makes you gag, you can return it and borrow another one immediately, having lost nothing more than a little time.

Alas, for readers to try you, they first have to be able to see you, and as you might imagine, the noise level in the Kindle universe is astonishingly high. This is why sales rankings are so important to the KU indie community: They get you above the noise, and if you’re lucky you’ll get noticed. The more borrows you get, the higher your rankings become, and the greater your visibility. It’s precisely the sort of feedback loop you want to kick off, especially if you’re just starting out and don’t have much of an existing fanbase. If you get high enough in the Kindle rankings, KDP Select pays “All-Star” bonuses every month that are not trivial:

  • Top ten KDP Select authors get $25,000.
  • Authors in the 11-20 rank get $10,000.
  • Authors in the 21-30 rank get $5,000.
  • Top ten KDP Select titles get $1,000.

with other, smaller bonuses further down the ranks. So there is more than just visbility at stake: That Christmas tree has a golden angel at the top.

KU is an outgrowth of KDP Select, and KDP Select is basically KDP with two major promotional features: Kindle Coundown Deals, which are limited-time discounts, and “Free Days,” which are limited time periods during which a book may be downloaded free of charge. Quite apart from letting your titles go cheap or free, the cost of KDP Select is exclusivity. If a title is there, it isn’t anywhere else. Beyond the drop in revenues, this is what much of the commotion is about: Since KU revenues are unpredictable, authors would like to have alternate revenue streams outside the Kindle ecosystem. Exclusivity makes that impossible.

Although borrows cannibalize sales to some extent, the effect is complex. You can’t “keep” a KU book, so in those cases where a borrowed book is a big hit with a reader, that reader can turn around and buy the book from KDP. This sounds to me like a subtle push toward quality writing, or at least writing of a quality that exceeds what most other KU authors are producing. I’ve read a lot of books that I will only read once, but when books are spectacularly good, I read them more than once, and keep them close at hand.

There’s a pecular unintended consequence of the way that KU pays: Short works are more lucrative than long ones. All titles pay the same on a borrow, irrespective of length. A short story pays you the same $1.40 (or whatever it is this month) as a 100,000-word novel. So little by little, KU titles are shortening up. This has been a trend in ebook fiction generally; I recall thinking a year or two ago that ebook retailing might herald in a new golden age of the short novel, which since the demise of the pulps has been an almost-forgotten form. Things have gone much farther than that on KU: We may be seeing a whole new publishing venue for short stories.

A related consequence: Authors are cutting up their novels into what amount to serials, and making each installment a separate title. Recall that there is no limit to the number of borrows you can do on KU, as long as you only have ten titles on your shelf at any given time. So if a novel consists of five chunks, you can read one in an hour, return it, borrow the next installment, read it in another hour, return it, and so on until the serial has been consumed. (This reminds me of binge-watching TV series.) It’s a minor nuisance to the reader, since each installment has to be separately borrowed and returned, but a major revenue enhancement to authors. I’ve seen some grumbling from readers about this already. Authors are jumping in with both feet.

I’m going to leave the question of whether KU devalues ebooks, or reading itself, for another time. There are different types of reading, each of which engages a different suite of mental machinery. I’ve seen speculation that power readers are creating a new type of reading, in which they skim familiar descriptions and pay greater attention only to what differs from other titles in the same category. I’m going to have to think a little more about that.

But for the moment, I think I have a grip on who is best-served by KU: The new genre fiction writer (especially in romance and mystery) without a fanbase but with some skill and a great deal of determination. In a way, KU is like an online game: You compete with other writers for the attention of readers, and keep score by sales rankings. Money earned is also feedback, but not as immediate as the rankings. If you’re just getting started, playing this game is mandatory. I can’t think of any other way to get noticed faster beyond pure genius or insane luck.

If you’ve got some time in grade and some sort of fanbase, KU is a tougher call. For writers in this category (like me) KU can make the long tail work in your favor. Put your older stuff on KU and use it to keep your flag flying. Put your new stuff on KDP (not KDP Select!) and draw attention to it among your fans any way you can. How well this works I don’t know, and won’t know until later this year, after I get my novelettes out there on KU. I’ll certainly keep you informed. I’m guessing that SF works less well on KU than romance. Since I don’t write romance, it’s a test that I’m unable to run.

If you’re already famous and making a living off your writing alone, KU may not help. It may hurt. The good news is that Amazon’s KU exclusivity runs for 90 days, after which time the title may be pulled from the program. You can run tests. A lot of writers have run those tests, and like dieting, individual differences seem to dominate results. The tests should still be run.

In conclusion, there’s something to remember: Amazon is a force of nature. You may not like it, but it’s not going away. Your challenge is to make the most of it, and not just stand on the sidelines, bitching. If KU benefits enough readers and enough writers, Amazon will keep it alive and feed it. There’s money on that table. Most of the other tables are bare. You can take the money or sit it out.

So…what will it be?

To KU or Not to KU, Part 3: How It Pays

Continuing a series begun in my entry for 1/13/2015:

The benefits of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) program are reasonably clear for readers, especially “power readers,” who read over ten books per month. In fact, the program seems to have been designed for power readers, and I’m starting to hear from power readers who use KU and consider it a good deal for the money.

Now let’s look at the flipside: Is it a good deal for authors? That’s a kind of a tangled question.

First of all, my research suggests that Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP) has been very good for indie authors and publishers. As I mentioned earlier in this series, much depends on what you’re writing and how quickly you can crank it out. Amazon has a program called KDP Select (KDPS) which is mostly about promoting your work, and all titles on KDP Select are also on KU. I’ll explain how KDPS works in a future entry; it’s complicated.

A fair number of authors writing in popular categories have been making their sole living off Amazon’s various Kindle programs for some time now. With KDP, payment is pretty simple: For books with cover prices falling between $2.99 and $9.99, authors get 70%, Amazon gets 30%. For those 99c novels you hear about (or anything with a cover price less than $2.99) authors get 35%, Amazon 65%. Authors are paid after the customer orders the book and pays Amazon for it, whether the book is actually read or not.

Under most author agreements with KU, this all changes. KU books are borrowed, not sold. A borrowed book generates a royalty payment when the customer has read 10% or more of it. (Yes, Amazon knows how much of a KU book you’ve read. It’s a cloud system, and the cloudowner knows everything about what goes on in its cloud.) KU borrows of books published by traditional publishers generate the same royalty payment as a conventional sale, but that’s a much smaller group of authors, and not what I want to talk about in this series.

So: How much is the payment for a KU borrow? It depends on two things:

  1. How much money Amazon has placed in a payment fund for KU borrows, and
  2. How many borrows actually happen.

Yes, you read that right: All KU borrows share funds from a fixed pool that Amazon “fills” at the beginning of every month. If the pool contains a million dollars and a million borrows happen, each author of a borrowed book gets a dollar for that borrow. That simpleminded example is not far from real-life. Roger Packer published a nice chart of KU payouts from July to October, 2014. In July, payouts were $1.86. Payouts dropped each month, until by October they were $1.33. Then, in November, payouts rose to $1.40.

Why? My guess: All hell was starting to break loose.

On a thread in the KBoards forums, bestselling author Holly Ward reported that since she started with KU, her income from both KU borrows and KDP sales had gone down by 75%. Lesser-known authors complained about the same drop in sales later in the thread. (Read it all; it’s an eye-opener.) It wasn’t just a reduction in the payment per borrow; conventional KDP sales had dropped as well. KU was evidently scavenging sales from KDP, and authors were starting to yell. Amazon allocated more money for KU borrows, hence the November rise. (The December 2014 payout level is not yet known.)

Remember that titles published under KU are exclusive to Amazon. Authors give up sales from B&N, iBooks, Kobo, and every other channel. So if KU and KDPS revenues fall, there’s no other money pipe running.

KU is still pretty new, and author discontent is even newer. Nobody knows if Amazon will respond with a bigger money pot or just ignore the author anguish and ride it out. I’m following the matter closely now and will report here when anything interesting happens.

In the meantime, in the wake of November’s author explosion, the question arises: Why do any authors stay with KDPS/KU at all? There are certainly costs, and as Holly Ward discovered, those costs are significant. Are there benefits? Well. Let me scratch my head a little, and in the next entry in this series I’ll explore that, which is the gnarliest KU question of all.