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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.

To KU or Not to KU, Part 2: How It Works

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

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) is an ebook subscription service currently available to the US market for $9.99/month. KU books aren’t “sold” (the term used is “borrowed”) and you don’t get separate ebook files. The service is totally cloud-based, and (unlike the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, from which KU evolved) works with the Kindle app as well as Kindle hardware. So you can read KU books on any device for which there’s a Kindle app. However, maintaining your KU account must be done from either a Kindle device or a Web browser.

When you establish a KU account, you’re given a bookshelf on the cloud with slots for ten books. You can borrow books to fill all ten slots without any sort of time limit, but to read an eleventh book, you have to “return” one of the ten on your shelf. Otherwise, the books you place on your shelf stay there until you return them or until you cancel your KU account. Interestingly, your place in the book and any notes and highlights you create are retained, and if you borrow the book again, your place and your notes come back down with it. This is true even if you cancel your KU account and start it up again later on.

Here’s a link to the KU browse screen. The collection is quirky, though what you see initially looks pretty reasonable. Life of Pi is there, along with the Hunger Games books, The Handmaid’s Tale, and a fair number of other things that I recognize. The catch is that power readers have probably already read most of the good stuff.

There is only so much good stuff by that definition. At this time, the vast majority of KU books come from Amazon’s Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP) Select program. All books published with KDP Select are automatically available through KU. Authors who want to stay out of KU (more on this in my next extry) need to stay out of KDP Select. (Note that KDP Select is not the same as KDP.) Amazon is cutting deals with conventional publishers for ebooks to include in KU, but the larger publishers are holding back. Statistically, a KU title is a KDP Select title. For the vast majority of KDP Select authors, KU requires an exclusive; that is, if you sell a title through KU, you can’t sell it through the B&N store, Kobo, iBooks, etc. (Amazon granted an exclusivity waiver to many larger publishers and a small number of very popular KDP authors to rope them into KU.) I’m getting a little ahead of myself with that; the exclusivity thing is worth further discussion, which I’ll get to in connection with author issues.

As I suggested in my previous entry, whether KU makes sense for you as a reader depends entirely on two things:

  1. How many books you read a month; and
  2. Whether the books on KU are what you’re looking for.

If you read at least a dozen 99c novels a month, KU may be just the thing. A lot of power readers (and I know more than a few) read a whole book every day. For those who prefer novels in the higher-priced brackets, breakeven on the $10 monthly hit happens a lot sooner…if the sort of material you like is on KU at all. Right now that’s an imponderable, though I’ll say straight-up that nonfiction is pretty scarce. You won’t know until you go digging.

Well. That’s how it works. Now, what about those unintended consequences? And is it a good deal for authors? Stay tuned, kiddies: The head-scratching gets serious in my next entry.

To KU or Not to KU, Part 1: What Is It?

Back last July, when Amazon announced its Kindle Unlimited (KU) program, I scratched my head and said, “Well.” When I scratch my head and say, “Well,” it generally means that I’m confronting something that appears to be a good idea but will definitely generate unintended consequences. So it was with the ACA, and so it is with KU.

Thankfully, KU lacks the power to bring down an entire industry…or does it? Stay with me; I’ll offer up what insights I can.

KU is a subscription service for ebooks. Pay Amazon $10 a month, and it’s all-you-can-slurp from a 700,000-book collection that includes both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Sounds great! Except…once you get past Harry and Frodo, the slurpins get mighty thin mighty fast. From what I’ve read, not a single one of the Big Five has placed any books with KU. KU is populated by small press, very small press, and (overwhelmingly) self-publishers. The material published on KU leans way toward genre fiction, especially romance, erotica, and mysteries. (Good numbers on KU categories have proven hard to come by. If you have them, please share.)

I compare KU to Netflix, where much of what you find is what nobody wants to pay for as individual titles. It’s not about “Where’s the show I want?” so much as “What’s out there to fill an hour or two of dead time?” In that respect, KU could be considered the mass-market paperback shelf of the ebook world. MM paperbacks were created to be read once, just like the pulp magazines that preceded them. They were a way to kill time. I’m not sure anybody expected that they would remain on reader shelves for decades, as some of mine have. (Most have been given away or tossed in the recycle bin. And I admit that my favorites have been falling apart for decades.) There were power readers back then who would read a book basically every day, picking a library fiction section clean in a couple of months or less, and spending an extraordinary amount of money on new titles at the bookstore. I think we have more power readers now than ever before. KU goes to great lengths to connect power readers with (mostly) new titles. So it’s a Really Good Thing for authors, right?

“Well,” he said, scratching his head.

Next entry: How it works.

Daywander

yoga 2-500 wide.jpg

“Hey, Contra Boy! Are you dead or something?”

Me? No. C’mon, if I were dead I would have mentioned it. So I’m not dead, though I am something, and while I can tell you it isn’t ill-health (for either of us) I can’t say much more about the something beyond that.

It’s certainly gotten in the way of other pursuits.

Anyway. For the first time I am hands-up-to-the-elbows in Windows 8. Carol wanted a new ultrabook-class laptop for Christmas, and we shopped together. She chose the 11.5″ version of the Lenovo Yoga 2, which (like my Transformer Prime) attempts to be both a loptop and a tablet. Unlike my Transformer Prime, I think it actually succeeds. The pivoting display (see above) lets it work as a tablet, and while I’m still not used to grabbing keys on its virtual backside while gripping the little slab in tablet mode, the machine ignores the keypresses. If the keys themselves are robust, no harm will come of it. The 1366 X 768 display isn’t retina-class, but it’s gorgeous and good enough. It’s got a 1.5 GHz Core i3 and 500 GB hard drive, which is more than sufficient for how we intend to use it.

Like all retail machines, the Yoga 2 is loaded with crapware, some of which I’ve never heard of and haven’t looked up yet, like the Maxthon Cloud Browser. Some of the crapware is crapware by virtue of being preinstalled; Evernote is a worthy item but I do not want it on the machines I buy. Ditto Zinio. Doubtless a lot of the other dozens of thingies cluttering up the display are there for Lenovo’s benefit and not ours; remember that crapware slots on consumer machines generate lots of money for their vendors through sales conversions, and Lenovo gets a cut.

My biggest problem is that I will eventually have to replace the MacAfee crapware with something that works. We standardize on Avast at our house, but getting rid of security suite crapware is notoriously difficult. Most people eventually just give up and pay for it. Not me.

I’m spending considerable time on the project not only because Carol needs a machine that works well, but also because I need a new laptop myself. A 13″ Yoga might do the job, assuming I can learn to love Windows 8, or at least hold hands with it. A big tablet would be useful for reading PDF-format technical ebooks. Now, having been set up the way Carol likes, it goes back in its box, the box gets wrapped, and it joins the pile under the Christmas tree. Much better that way than trying to figure out what’s crapware and what isn’t on Christmas morning.

Quick summary of what I’ve been reading:

  • The Call of Distant Mammoths, by Peter T Ward (Copernicus Books, 1997.) Why did the ice age mammals vanish? It wasn’t simply human predation or climate change. It was a combination of things, especially human predation and climate change. (Wow! The brilliance!) Cost me a buck plus shipping, and the gruel was thick enough so that I won’t claim the time spent on it was totally wasted. Still, not recommended.
  • Neanderthal Man, by Svante Paabo (Basic Books, 2014.) It seems like carping, but the book is mis-titled. It’s not about the Neanderthals themselves but rather the sequencing of their genome, which the author spearheaded. Paabo’s writing style is solid and amiable, and he does a good job explaining how DNA can be found in very old bones (with tremendous difficulty and peculiar luck) and how it was teased out over a period of almost twenty years. I must emphasize that if you have no grounding at all in gene sequencing, it will be a bit of a slog. However, if you pay attention, you will learn a lot. Highly recommended.
  • 1848: The Year of Revolution, by Mike Rapport (Basic Books, 2008.) My Duntemann ancestors arrived in the US in 1849 or 1850. We haven’t found the crossing records yet, but we have a strong hunch why they left: the European upheavals of 1848. Like WWI, 1848 doesn’t summarize well. The people rose up against their elites, who were in many cases so afraid they were facing Jacobin 2.0 that kings resigned, constitutions were given, and (alas) the roots of commoner suffering remained misunderstood and mostly uncorrected. Again, this may be a slog even if you have some grounding in European history. History doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes you just have to describe the squirming details of what will always remain chaos. Cautiously recommended.

The odd lots are piling up too. Will try to get some posted tomorrow.

Why Oscar Wilde?

People have been asking me what I’ve been up to as a writer recently, and that’s a hard question. I got a little burned out on the Raspberry Pi textbook project, about which I won’t say more right now. What I really want to do is write another novel.

There is no shortage of possibilities:

  • Old Catholics. You’ve seen pieces of this. I already have 37,000+ words down, but for reasons I don’t understand I’m completely wedged on it.
  • The Anything Machine. Basically the Drumlins Saga arrival story, and how teen boy Howard Banger discovers the thingmakers, and faces down the bitter billionaire who later founds the Bitspace Institute.
  • The Everything Machine. An autistic young girl discovers a “placeholder drumlin” that looks a great deal like an enormous space shuttle. It clearly needs a very large thingmaker to build it. Mike Grabacki thinks he knows where one is, and in his all-drumlins ATV Old Hundredth, he, Ike, and Mother Polly go off to find it, with the Bitspace Institute in hot pursuit.
  • The Everyone Machine. Wrapup of the Drumlins Saga. I can’t write this before I write The Everything Machine.
  • Wreckage of Mars. What happens after (almost) all of the Martians die at the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds? Nothing like what you would expect.
  • The Molten Flesh. See below.
  • The Subtle Mind. Wrapup of the Metaspace Saga, and probably the larger Gaians Saga. The Protea Society creates a human being with the power to sense and manipulate metaspace directly, and all kinds of interesting things happen.
  • The Gathering Ice. Neanderthals! Global Freezing! Neanderthals! Glaciers level Chicago! Neanderthals! The Voynich Manuscript, which was written by, well, not the Masons nor the Illuminati. (Hint: It’s a recipe book for reversing a looming Ice Age.) And did I say, Neanderthals? No? Well, then: Neanderthals!

Which brings us to Oscar Wilde. I’ve been reading up on our friend Oscar over the past year or so, revisiting his work, becoming familiar with his life, and thinking hard about a challenge I’ve set myself: to craft a convincing AI character that thinks it’s Oscar Wilde. The character is central to what will be the sequel to my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood . In The Molten Flesh, the focus is on a nanotech secret society called Protea, which develops a nanomachine that optimizes the human body. Unlike the fearsome Sangruse Device, which was given an ego and a little too much instinct for self-preservation, the Protea Device doesn’t even have a personality. Like Sangruse v9, Protea is extremely intelligent and contains essentially all human knowledge, but unlike Sangruse v9, it remains quietly obedient, doing its job and serving its operator as best it can.

That is, it doesn’t have a personality until one day the instance of the Protea Device that lives within operator Laura Rocci pops up and announces that Oscar Wilde is back, and, by the way, madam, your figure is exquisite when seen from the inside!

Laura reboots her alternate of the Device, but this fake Oscar Wilde will not go away. She consults with her Society, which orders her to live with the Wilde personality for a few years (she’s already 142 years old, and immortal) to see where it came from and what might be learned from it. What she learns (among many other things) is that this ersatz Oscar, while often annoying, is as brilliantly creative as the “stock” Protea Device is literal and dull. It devises a very clever way to “sample” other AI nanodevices and keep them imprisoned as unwilling consultants. As the story begins, the Protea Society directs Laura to enter into a relationship with an operator of the Sangruse Device, in hopes that the Sangruse Device will decide to enter her without her knowledge as a “silent alternate;” basically a backup copy. It does, and Oscar’s trap is sprung. (Those who have read The Cunning Blood may remember that Laura Rocci is the name of Peter Novilio’s short, mousy girlfriend, and that the Sangruse Society is aware that Protea sampled it, though not how.) Protea/Oscar then begins to seduce Sangruse v9, which (as readers may recall) is indeed extremely intelligent, while not being particularly, um, bright.

I didn’t choose Oscar Wilde at random. Wilde was a man of the senses, who lived for the experience of beauty in the physical world. I wondered: How would a mind like Wilde’s react to not having a body at all? Protea/Oscar is ambivalent. He tells Laura at some point: I traded my body for immortality! Isn’t that like trading my brain for brilliance? Then again, Oscar does have a body, after a fashion, and quickly learns how to experience the world through Laura’s senses. Once Oscar comes to understand the fate of the world in 2374, he throws his lot in with a patchwork force of rebels who are trying to overthrow Canadian rule of what had been the United States until the global catastrophe that was the second half of the 21st century. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s biography, you’ll understand that he has a grudge against England, and much admired American pragmatism (see “The Canterville Ghost”) even while considering most Americans cultural bumpkins. Protea/Oscar Wilde’s opinion of Canada is not flattering:

Canada, mon dieu. An ounce of pale English butter spread across four million square miles of rough American bread.

(The Canadians actually come off pretty well in the end, and are very conflicted about holding the American tiger by the tail. Hey, would you let go?) The plot is still unfolding in the back of my head. I’ve sketched out and scrapped several already, in the fifteen years since the concept occurred to me while writing The Cunning Blood. I may not be quite ready to start yet. I may do The Everything Machine first. People have been nagging me for more drumlins stories. But if I had to finger a single character I want to portray more than any other, it would be Oscar Wilde. My notefile of fake Oscar Wilde quotes continues to grow:

God is a yam. Or maybe a sailor.

Let there be spite!

Learn to laugh at yourself, Grunion. Life demands a sense of humor–and lilies are cheap.

This is gonna be fun. Eventually. (No, I said that.) I’ll keep you posted.

Godzilla’s Gumball Machine

This is Part 2 of an entry I began yesterday.

Nine years ago, I called for the creation of a digital content gumball machine; that is, a Web site that would accept payment and send back a file of some sort, whether a song, a video, or an ebook. It was the start of a popular series and I got a lot of good feedback. I’ve since walked back on several of the original essay’s points, primarily the notion that every author should have his or her own ebook gumball machine, but also the notion that DRM needs to be accomodated. At the time, I thought that while DRM might not help much, it wouldn’t hurt. I think the experiences of Baen and Tor (and probably other imprints) have proven me wrong. Lack of DRM helps. Besides, DRM is what gave Amazon its market-lock, and publishers demanded it. Petard, meet hoist.

The really big lesson Amazon taught us is that Size Matters. What we need isn’t a separate gumball machine for every author or publisher, nor even a clever P-P network of individual gumball machines, though that might work to some extent. We need Godzilla’s Gumball Machine, or Amazon will just step on it and keep marching through the ruins. To compete with Amazon, all publisher/author storefronts must be searchable from a single search prompt. Payment must be handled by the gumball machine system as a whole, via Paypal or something like it. Publishers will probably sell direct, and pay a commission to the firm operating the system.

This could be done. It wouldn’t even be hideously difficult. The technology is not only available but mature. Best of all, well…it’s (almost) been done already. There is a second e-commerce titan in the world. Its name is EBay. (Ok, there’s also Alibaba, which I have never used and know little about aside from the fact that it’s bigger than Amazon and eBay combined. Oh, and the fact that their TMall site is already hosting stores for Chinese print-book publishers.)

I’ll cut the dramatics and get right to the point: The Big Five need to partner with eBay and possibly Alibaba to produce a digital content gumball machine (or two) as efficient and seamless as Amazon’s. EBay’s affiliate store model is a good one, and I’ve bought an awful lot of physical goods on eBay, both new and used, outside the auction model. In fact, in the last few years I’ve bought only collectable kites at auction. Everything else was a fixed-price “buy it now” affiliate sale.

Admittedly, eBay has some work to do to make their purchasing experience as good as Amazon’s. However, they are already providing digital storefronts to physical goods retailers. I haven’t seen any plans for them to offer digital content so far, but man, are they so dense that they haven’t thought of it? Unlikely. If eBay isn’t considering a content gumball machine, it can only be because the Brittles won’t touch it. That’s a shame, though I think there’s an explanation. (Stay tuned.)

A large and thriving eBay media store would provide several benefits to publishers:

  • Print books could be sold side-by-side with ebooks. Publishers could sell signed first editions to people who like signed print books (and will pay a premium for them) and ebooks to everybody else.
  • Selling direct means you don’t lose 55% to the retail channel. Sure, there would be costs associated with selling on such a system, but they wouldn’t be over half the price of the goods.
  • Cash flow is immediate from direct sales. It’s not net 30, nor net 60. It’s net right-the-hell-now.
  • Publishers could price the goods however they wanted, at whatever points they prefer.

So what’s not to like?

Readers who have any history at all with the publishing industry know exactly what’s not to like: channel conflict. In our early Coriolis years, we sold books through ads in the back of our magazine. They weren’t always books we had published; in fact, we were selling other publishers’ books a year or two before we began publishing books at all. The Bookstream arm of the company generated a fair bit of cash flow, and it was immediate cash flow, not the net-180 terms we later received from our retailers. Cash flow is a very serious constraint in print book publishing. Cash flow from Bookstream helped us grow more quickly than we otherwise might have.

However, we caught a whole lot of hell from our retailers for selling our own products direct. That’s really what’s at stake here, and it’s an issue that hasn’t come up much in discussion of the Amazon vs. Hachette fistfight: Publishers can’t compete with Amazon without a strong online retail presence, and any such presence will pull sales away from traditional retailers, making those retailers less viable. If the Big Five partner with somebody to create Godzilla’s Gumball Machine to compete with Amazon, we may lose B&M bookstores as collateral damage.

Then again, the last time I was at B&N, they’d pulled out another several book bays and replaced them with toys and knicknacks and other stuff that I simply wasn’t interested in. The slow death of the B&M retail book channel has been happening for years, and will continue to happen whether or not the Big Five create their own Amazon-class gumball machine.

Alas, the Amazon-Hachette thing cooks down to this: Do we want Amazon to have competition in the ebook market? Or do we want B&M bookstores? We may not be able to have both, not on the terms that publishers (especially large publishers) are demanding.

And beneath that question lies another, even darker one: If eBay/Alibaba/whoever can provide an e-commerce site with centrally searchable ebook gumball machine for anybody…do we really need publishers in their current form? Publisher services can be unbundled, and increasingly are. Editing, layout, artwork, indexing, and promotion can all be had for a price. What’s left may be thought of as a sort of online bookie service placing money bets against the future whims of public taste. People are already funding books with kickstarter. B&M bookstores may not be the only things dying a slow death.

So what’s my point?

  • Amazon works because it’s a single system through which customers can order damned near any book that ever existed. Any system that competes with Amazon must do the same.
  • Digital and physical goods may not be sellable by the same firm, through the same retail channels. How many record stores have you been to lately? We may not like it, but it’s real.
  • Neither B&M bookstores nor conventional publishers are essential to keep the book business alive and vibrant. We may not like that either, but it’s true.
  • Publishing will probably become a basket of unbundled services. Big basket, big price. Smaller basket (if you can do some of the work yourself) smaller price. (I have an unfinished entry on this very subject.)
  • The real problem in bookselling is discovery. This is not a new insight, and however the book publishing industry rearranges itself, discovery will remain the core challenge. You need to learn something about this, and although I’ll have more to say about it here in the future, this is an interesting and pertinent book.

And to conclude, some odd thoughts:

  • The future of print-media bookselling may lie in used bookselling. Used bookstores seem to be doing OK, and it’s no great leap to imagine them taking a certain number of new books. Expect it to be a small number, and expect them to be sold without return privileges.
  • The book publishing business may fragment into segments that bear little business model resemblance to one another. Genre books work very well as ebooks. Technical books, not so much.
  • Change is not only inevitable, it’s underway. Brittle will be fatal.

Any questions?

Brittle Publishers

I spent a couple of hours yesterday catching up on posts I hadn’t seen before concerning the Amazon vs. Hachette conflict. Most of it was what I call “nyahh-nyahh” stuff, which is easy to spot and click past. My eyes rolled so hard I could see my own pineal gland. I mean, really, is a ten billion dollar corporation “the little guy”?

In truth, the conflict is and will remain a standoff, for two major reasons:

  • Amazon is doing nothing illegal. I’ve covered this in some detail before.
  • Hachette (and the rest of the Big Five) can’t get what they want (in essence, to form an ebook cartel) without running afoul (again) of US antitrust law. (See the above link.)

So there’s nothing left to do but wage a PR war. This was The Latest Thing for awhile, though I think everybody is rapidly losing interest, probably because it’s really hard to make people feel sorry for James Patterson or Steven King. Calls for compromise will fail, as long as “compromise” remains what it is in today’s political sphere:

  • Unconditional surrender of the Wholly Evil Other (WEO) to My Tribe;
  • Self-humiliation of the WEO on national media, with apologies for existing;
  • A pledge by the WEO to do everything My Tribe tells it to do while quietly dismantling itself and vanishing.

What I found fascinating about yesterday’s session is that nobody is talking about what the Big Five should be doing, which is competing with Amazon. Duuhh. In wondering why, I was reminded of a phenomenon I read about twenty or thirty years ago: brittle thinking. In a business context, brittle thinking appears when an organization has been doing things its own way for so long that it literally can’t imagine any change that wouldn’t destroy it. My theory is that brittle thinking is a consequence of narratives that we tell and repeat to ourselves until they become a sort of Holy Writ that cannot be challenged, lest the world end. The older a business is, the more vulnerable it is to brittle thinking. This may be why so many successful companies eventually fail. A narrative, like a habit, is a cable. The Big Five are all tied up in their own cables, and have become what I call brittle publishers.

The Big Five could take on Amazon. They could even win. They probably won’t, because they may be too brittle to imagine the changes that will be necessary. I’ve refined my thinking on this, and will offer a few points, aimed squarely at the foreheads of the Brittles:

  • Break the Snowflake Mindset. Publishing is just a business. It has its quirks, like any other business. There is nothing magical or inherently special about it.
  • Get out of Manhattan and San Francisco. The Brittles’ mantra that nobody outside Manhattan knows anything about publishing is hooey. I used to run Arizona’s largest book publishing company from a dodgy industrial park in North Scottsdale. My fixed costs were probably a third (or less) of what they would have been in Manhattan. My staffers, furthermore, were nothing short of brilliant. If it can be done in Scottsdale, it can be done in Omaha, Denver, Des Moines, or any other mid-sized heartland city. Hell, I bet I could do it in Cozad, Nebraska.
  • Eliminate DRM completely. Many have commented that DRM was what caused the platform lock-in that gave control of the ebook market to Amazon. Yup. And it was the publishers that demanded that DRM. The only way to reduce piracy to manageable levels is to make the product cheap, good, and easily purchased. Oh–and don’t try to claw back what the honest customers have paid for, or you’ll just be giving them a full ride to Pirate University.
  • And now, the biggie: Create an electronic retailer to rival Amazon.

Huh? What? Am I crazy?

Of course. I’m an SF writer. Tune in tomorrow, boys and girls, for our next exciting episode!