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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!

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 4

sad_puppies_3_patch.jpg

To summarize this series so far:

1. There is a monoculture problem in the traditional science fiction and fantasy (SFF) print industry, and sales are shrinking. The number of publishers is stagnant or falling. Advances are dropping and contract terms have gotten insane. For contrast, the SFF media industry (typefied by its conventions like DragonCon and ComicCon) is exploding in popularity.

2. This monoculture problem has several components, but from a height, it’s a sort of “channel capture” effect: The SFF convention and awards infrastructure has embraced the notion that literary SFF–especially that focused on race/gender identity themes–is the “worthiest” sort of SFF and the sort that we all ought to read if we’re to be taken seriously as cultured beings.

3. People who used to read a great deal of SFF are rejecting this “message pie” fiction (by which I mean fiction that puts message and/or polemic first and story elements second) and are either re-reading older works, moving off to other genres, or out of recreational reading entirely.

4. Sarah Hoyt and several other writers have proposed a category called The Human Wave, which would stand in opposition to the current conventions of literary SFF, especially polemical literary SFF. The Human Wave emphasizes SFF as entertainment, celebration rather than denigration of the human spirit, plot, ideas, optimism, and sense of wonder. I endorse this without hesitation, and will have even more to say about it in future entries.

5. Basically, there are too few hands on the levers of power in the SFF universe. It’s time to start disconnecting those levers and dispersing that power. It’s time to inject some genuine diversity into SFF–not of authorship (we’re already there) but of theme and technique.

Part of that disconnection has been going on for some years: Independent and self-publishing, enabled by improving ebook technology and online stores like Kindle, are expanding their share of the SFF market. In defiance of conventional wisdom, many indie authors are making money, sometimes a lot of it. In fact, print publishers have begun seeing the indies as a sort of farm team, from which they call up the most popular players and offer them print contracts. About month ago, SFWA announced some rule changes allowing indie authors to become full members if they can prove that they’ve sold a certain amount of work for a certain amount of money.

So change is happening, and indie publishing is behind most of the change we’ve seen so far.

Which brings us at last to the matter of Sad Puppies. It’s an ancient question: whether to operate outside the current culture, or from the inside. Reforming anything from the inside is tough, because the Insider Alphas tend to arrange things so that change is difficult, as well as the tendency for reformers to simply be absorbed unless they arrive in overwhelming numbers.

Back in January 2013, Monster Hunter International author Larry Correia, in the context of a tongue-in-cheek rant about how he and other pulp-ish authors never get noticed by critics or awards committees, said this:

For as little as $60 you can become a voting member of WorldCon and nominate something awesome and filled with dragons, explosions, guns, heroism, actual good and evil, and a plot where stuff actually happens. And unlike Sarah McLachlan’s sad puppy commercial, your donation also gets you a whole big ton of free eBooks and all of the nominated works, worth more than the cost of joining.

For the next couple of months, Larry recommended a lot of works he felt should be considered for the Hugos, not excluding his own. He caught some predictable shit for that. It’s unclear how much the informal campaign changed the winners at LoneStarCon 3, but Larry got some people on the ballot who’d never been there before (like the formidable Toni Weisskkopf) and raised awareness of a lot of very good stories that would not otherwise have been on anybody’s radar. Every one of these stories that I hunted down would qualify as Human Wave SFF.

What Larry did is neither unique nor new. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s I remember Mike Resnick sending MM paperbacks of his books to literally every name in the SFWA directory. He wasn’t constantly chanting, “Vote for my books!” but he made damned sure that anybody who was in a position to vote for him had one. I had no trouble with that, and although I never voted for him, I did read his books.

Fast forward a year. The Sad Puppies concept grew legs, got a first-shot logo (Pugs! Why does it always have to be pugs!) and became a serious and semi-organized thing rather than a wisecrack in somebody’s rant. According to Mike Glyer, Sad Puppies 2 placed seven of its twelve recommendations on the final Hugo ballot. To me, that’s not mere success…that’s beyond astonishing.

And another year, bringing us to the current day. Sad Puppies 3 now has a logo you can put on a patch (see above) created by Lee W. “Artraccoon” Madison. The slate is much larger, and its coordinator is now Brad R. Torgersen. Alas, I stumbled on all this right about the deadline for memberships qualified to nominate for the 2015 Hugos at Sasquan in Spokane, so don’t run off to try and get in on it. (I’m generally too late or too early for things, so I’m doubly not a wizard.) However, if before January 31 you were a member of LonCon 3 (last year) Sasquan (this year) or MidAmericon II (next year) you can recommend. Recommendations themselves are open until March 10.

This is a classic example of reform attempted from the inside. For all the foaming-at-the-mouth accusations of logrolling and ballot box stuffing, nothing about the Sad Puppies campaign violates the rules. What Larry and Brad are doing is in fact keeping a shrinking Worldcon alive by bringing in both money and new blood. An award with the prestige of the Hugos should not be decided by a few hundred people, but by tens of thousands of people. Otherwise it reflects neither quality nor popularity, but is rather a straw poll by an in-crowd heavily influenced by a handful of Insider Alphas.

Will it work? Depends on what you want from it. Seen as a publicity stunt (as many do) it’s already working, bigtime. Seen as genuine reform, well, I’m less sure, as much as I’d like to see that reform happen. Maybe it just needs a few more years to cook. Many things do. I certainly wish it all success. It’s already tipped my decision in favor of attending MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City in 2016.

However, if the goal is to popularize Human Wave SFF, there may be better ways. I’ll throw out some ideas when I continue this series. For the time being, I need to take a breather.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 3

I was nostrils-deep writing Ten Gentle Opportunities and wasn’t paying attention when Sarah Hoyt quietly posted a bombshell: The Human Wave Manifesto. It was actually a manifesto in two parts, probably because I don’t think she intended it to be a manifesto at first. (Sabrina Chase had a part in it too.)

But boy, manifesto it is, bigtime.

I powerfully suggest that you read Sarah’s manifesto (perhaps twice) but I’ll summarize for those in a hurry:

The Human Wave is a resistance movement. It’s a reminder that SFF is about unlimited possibility; i.e., there are unexplored universes lying right outside our own navels. So first of all, it’s about throwing off a 30-year accumulation of Thou Shalt Nots and These Are Necessary Rules that the Insider Alphas of the SFF world have laid down. Back in the 60s we had whole posters printed with just two words: Question Authority. That’s what the Human Wave is about: questioning authority. The Insider Alphas are not authorities. They’re just writers and editors of a certain psychology that always makes a beeline for the levers of power. The Human Wave is under the floor right now, disconnecting all the levers. (If only we can keep them from hearing us giggle…)

Human Wave science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is fiction that deliberately subverts those supposed rules (fetishes, actually) and re-takes what was once commonplace in the SFF universe. The guiding principles of the Human Wave (as laid out by Sarah Hoyt) are in fact exhortations to freedom:

  1. Write fiction that entertains; nay, fiction that makes us gasp.
  2. Write fiction that celebrates rather than denigrates the human spirit.
  3. Write fiction in which characters are characters, fully realized individuals and not primarily defined as members of groups.
  4. Write fiction in which the message doesn’t overpower the rest of the story.
  5. Write fiction that isn’t eaten by Grey Goo; i.e., fuzzy characters wandering around landscapes of indeterminate importance doing nothing coherent, learning nothing, and ultimately having nothing to say.
  6. Write fiction that is upbeat; or if it must be downbeat, make sure it’s at least meaningful and that its insights are worth the downer.
  7. Write in a style that can be understood; i.e., don’t let style overwhelm or obscure substance.
  8. Write fiction that has internal logic and is faithful to that logic, especially your explorations of science and magic.
  9. Write fiction that isn’t boring, since ordinary life does not suffer a boredom shortage.
  10. Write what you write best and make no apologies; i.e., just shut up and write!

That’s the best synopsis I can provide. I’ve broadened the concept to include fantasy (the second “F” in SFF) but otherwise have tried to be faithful to Sarah’s intent. I will also add an eleventh commandment:

11. If you have that skill, write fiction that makes us laugh.

What I found heartening about the Human Wave is that it’s how I’ve always written, even if I take it farther than caution might suggest. I have a primal fear of not delivering enough value to my readers. That’s why I throw in dump trucks full of ideas, lots of explosions and gunfights, a little humor even in serious stories, and end with a mayhem-filled action climax. Yeah, I’m an old guy. I learned this stuff basically by reading the best of the pulps. There’s nothing shameful about the pulps, just as there was nothing shameful about 1958 De Sotos. Just as we can now make far better cars than 1958 De Sotos, we can write far better popular fiction than the Fifties pulps. We just have to ditch the shame.

I’ll also add this: Literature is good, and literary techniques can be dazzling in the right hands. I’ve read my share, and in fact have a degree in it, for what that’s worth. My two objections to literary SF are that not everyone has the skill to write it, and even when well-written, it doesn’t work as a steady diet. Let those who can write it, write it. Let’s just not insist it’s the whole picture, or even the worthiest part of the picture. Yes, literary is good. Choice is even better.

So. Where do we go from here? I’d certainly like to see a list of authors who embrace the Human Wave, as well as stories that embrace it, whether their authors ever heard of it or not. Such a list has not been attempted, to my knowledge. Although I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with it, I’ve already begun such a list. If you have authors or stories to nominate as part of the Human Wave, please send them along or share them in the comments.

Maybe it’s finally time to bring hardsf.com to life.

Now, although I consider this entry the heart of the matter, I’m not done yet. I’m a little nervous about the last topic in the title. Give me a few days to figure things out, and we’ll wrap this series up.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 2

As I expected, I’m getting some pushback on the notion that SFF has a monoculture problem. So here’s the deal: If you like what’s on offer in SFF right now, there’s no problem…for you. I think it’s a problem, and I’ve begun to hear from other people who also think it’s a problem, along with reading a great many people online (whom I don’t know) saying it’s a problem, and for pretty much the same reasons.

If enough people think it’s a problem, then we really do have an objective problem. Lots of people who used to buy lots of SFF aren’t buying it anymore. Too much of that, and the genre goes into a kind of death spiral. Publishers consolidate, distribution shrinks (and shrinks faster than shrinkage of the retail book business generally) and fewer people find anything that appeals to them, so they drop out. The cycle then continues. We can argue about why this is happening, but it’s happening. I think it’s about monoculture. I’ll hear your explanation if you have one.

What I call social monoculture comes into play here. I encounter it when I go to cons, especially in the midwest: I see the same people I was seeing in the mid-1970s, when I discovered cons. We’re older, grayer, and (alas) more likely to be sick or dead. Young people are scarce. Fandom has no lock on this, by the way. Ham radio suffers from a similar monoculture, though it’s improving now, probably because Morse code has been out of the picture since 2007 and young people are coming to hamming through the Maker movement. ($35 HTs sure don’t hurt!)

SFF fandom has always tended toward cliquishness. Sam Moskowitz nailed it with his old but fascinating book The Immortal Storm, which documents all the fannish palace coups and nerdy attempts to draw lines between True Fans and Mundanes Who Sometimes Read SF, back in the Elder Days from the 1920s to WWII. Half of what I saw in fanzines in the 70s and 80s rehashed all that same material, and SFWA has been obsessed with who qualifies as a “real” SFF writer for decades, which is one reason why I no longer belong to SFWA. (There are others.) I never saw many attempts to welcome obvious newcomers. I have to grin to recall speaking briefly with a young woman at (I think) Windycon 1980, who complained that nobody would talk to her. I spotted her several more times that weekend, wandering around by herself, looking wide-eyed and lost. My guess is that she thought SF conventions were about SF. Well, um, not really…

The problem with social monoculture, especially one dominated by people at middle age or beyond, is that tastes converge on what a relative handful of social alphas deem acceptable. Without a steady stream of new people to challenge the influence of social alphas, uniformity rules, boundaries contract, tribalism emerges, nonconformists are marginalized, and the overall population of the culture collapses.

Industry monoculture may in fact be a consequence of social monoculture. (Certainly, the two feed on one another.) When social alphas work at publishing companies, they become gatekeepers, and their tastes become holes of very specific shapes through which all published work must pass.

Well, there’s a timer running on industry monoculture. Publishing is no longer capital-intensive, and as print book retailers drop off the edge, it’s become less and less distribution-constrained. (Just getting bookstores to shelve our books was a hideous problem in Coriolis’ early years. If we hadn’t had a magazine to do direct sales with, we might not have survived to the Internet era.) Publishing requires skills but not credentials, and those skills aren’t string theory. People I know personally are making money self-publishing, and some here and there are making a lot of money. Obviously, a writer has to produce material that readers want to buy. (Getting your work noticed by those readers is a separate challenge, one I’ll take up over time.) But once you step outside the conventional NYC-dominated world of print publishing, constraints imposed by social alpha gatekeepers pretty much vanish.

So: A spectre is haunting monoculture: the spectre of the Human Wave.

Stay tuned, kids.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 1

A spectre is haunting fandom: the specter of monoculture.

I haven’t done much in SF for almost two years, having spent a great deal of time learning some new technology and then writing about it. (That saga is painful and may end badly, as I’ll explain when it does end, one way or another.) So I come back and begin preparing several things for publication on Amazon, including Firejammer, The Cunning Blood, Drumlin Circus, and a number of my longer stories. As I flip around the screamosphere seeing what’s up after my two-year absence, wow: A rumble has begat a manifesto that begat an attempt to break out of the worst rut the SFF world has ever seen. “Monoculture” is the polite word for a rut so deep that it threatens the viability of an industry. That’s what we’re up against in SFF, and that’s what I’m going to be discussing for a few entries here on Contra.

One warning: This issue makes people of certain psychologies slobberingly, incoherently, hatefully, murderously, roll-eyes-back-in-the-head angry. If that’s you, well, about face, forward march. You are not allowed to be angry here, and if anger is your hobby, you won’t find much to enjoy.

To begin: I read a lot of SFF. I’ve been reading it for over fifty years. Recently, instead of new fiction, I find myself increasingly reaching back to the 90s and prior for things I’ve read not just once or several, but often many times. I do try new fiction, but I rarely finish it. These are the primary reasons:

  • It’s depressing. Depressed characters with depressing 10,000-word backstories wander around depressing worlds through depressing situations where nothing is learned, no one is redeemed, and in truth nothing of consequence ever actually happens. (Sarah Hoyt calls these “grey goo stories.”)
  • It’s preachy. Good polemic is hard, and should be subversive, not in-your-face. Clever writers can preach via story without being too obvious about it, but sermons in story costumes are dull, off-putting, and in many cases excuses for scapegoating and tribal hatred.
  • It’s slow, and talky. I don’t necessarily demand fistfights and explosions on every other page. Still, shut up, put those coffee cups down and do something!
  • It lacks ideas. I may be peculiar in this, but to me a story without interesting ideas lacks an SFF soul.
  • Humor is nowhere in sight. I like funny SFF. As best I can tell, it’s now extinct.
  • From a height, it just isn’t fun. Fun is what we do this for. Fun is subjective, and hard to define, but damn, I know it when I read it.

When I begin reading a new work of SFF, I start a mental timer. If at some point the fun doesn’t start (and that point depends on my current mood and available time) I put the book down and go on to something else. Such books rarely get second chances. I gave Bowl of Heaven a second chance because it’s an idea story by authors with good records, but the fun took a long time to start and really didn’t go anywhere coherent. I haven’t given it away yet, so a third chance is possible, but as it’s the first volume in a saga, I may wait until the second volume actually appears.

I’ve been slowly drifting away from SFF for a number of years. Discussions with people I know suggest that I’m not alone.We’re all still reading as voraciously as ever, but the reading has gone over to other things, especially nonfiction. Nonfiction matters: I’ve noticed that I’ve become a better fiction writer since I’ve become an insatiable nonfiction reader. Fiction, especially SFF, is not 100% imagination. On the other hand, when you set aside a recent Hugo-award winning novel for being tedious and generally lame, well, that says something.

Note well (especially you hotheads) what I’m saying and not saying here: I’m saying that the SFF universe is losing readers because of a steadily narrowing focus on dark, dull, misanthropic, idea-free titles. I am pointedly not saying that such titles should not be published, nor read. What I want is a broad selection. What I am against is monoculture.

Having given it a great deal of thought, I see the monoculture issue in four parts:

  • Political monoculture. I hate politics and loathe talking about it, so I’ll let others handle this one. It’s just an extension of the monkeyshit tribal wars that seem to dominate our culture right now.
  • Social monoculture. This is tricky, and has to do with the fact that the SFF fan community is aging and grouchy, and young people are for the most part going elsewhere. For example, how many people go to Worldcon? How many to Dragoncon? From what I can see, the dragons have it twenty to one.
  • Industry monoculture. SFF publishing has become a reflection of NYC publishing as smaller presses are engulfed and devoured by conglomerates or simply go under. It’s the same people and the same companies working in more or less the same place, with fewer and fewer gatekeepers who are mostly all alike. There’s a time limit on this one, as anybody who’s paying attention can tell. (Much more on this in future entries.)
  • Technique monoculture. Critics and gatekeepers lean strongly toward literary techniques, and against techniques that emerged from the pulps, and the pulp descendents that many of us grew up on: adventure, action, and upbeat themes that express the triumph of the human spirit. Yes, characters are critically important. Characters are not the whole show.

Whew. That should be enough to get me in serious trouble for the rest of my next three lives. Heh. See if I care, as I go more deeply into these points in future entries.

Odd Lots

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.