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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 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.

The Year of Writing Dangerously

My mother always told us when we were kids that however we behaved on New Year’s Eve, we would behave for the entire year, so for pete’s sake just behave. And so we did, more or less. As 2014 winds down I’m trying not to be too grouchy, lest my outlook get stuck in one unflattering state for the next twelve months. It’s 11 below in Colorado Springs as I write this, which doesn’t help. Maybe if I get it out of my system before midnight, next year will be better.

(Midnight? asks Shrek. Why is it always midnight?)

The worst of it is, I can’t be too specific. But I’ll summarize this way: 2014 was a real lousy year for technical publishing. I’m pretty sure it was a lousy year for publishing generally. This isn’t new news; the last really good year for publishing may have been 2000. The 90s were a spectacular decade for publishing, and although it may not be entirely fair to compare recent years to those in the 90s, the functional difference is that (quality being held constant) publishing is cheaper and easier now than it’s ever been in human history. Less remarked on, but no less important: So is reading.

Traditional publishing companies were gatekeepers because the creation of books was difficult and expensive. I’m old enough to have spent all night helping my art director finish laying out a magazine issue on cardboard sheets, to which strips and blocks of text and even isolated letters were glued with hot wax. (I also remember upending the art department wastebasket on the floor at 2 ayem and digging through typesetting discards because Karen needed a 6-point “q” to complete a spread.) As laser printers replaced typsetters, and then purely digital layout replaced laser printers, smaller and smaller groups could do better and better work for less and less money. Skill still matters. Capital, not so much. With a proven book style template in hand, I can take an 80,000 word .docx file and turn it into a printable book in an afternoon without hurrying, using a six-year-old PC and a ten-year-old release of InDesign. I don’t have to print 10,000 books to make money. I can print them as readers buy them, and recoup the cost of my time with sales of just 25-30. (This is about layout and doesn’t include the cost of writing the book, which is much harder to quantify.) Yes, it takes more ebook sales to recoup layout costs because cover prices are lower, but since it’s easier to sell a $3 ebook than an $18 trade paperback, the time taken to recoup costs is roughly the same, all else being equal, with ebook sales pulling steadily ahead.

What this means is that technology has kicked the gates down, and the gatekeepers are left beside a pile of kindling, blinking and wondering whathehell happened. Conventional wisdom holds that the fall of the gatekeepers means that a flood of worthless, badly written books is turning the public off to reading. I don’t think this is true; more people are reading than ever. The real problems are these:

  • Finding good books amidst the torrent of sludge is difficult. (This is not a new problem!)
  • Sludge aside, the number of worthwhile books is growing faster than the number of reader-hours available to consume them.

These two problems interact in an interesting way: Readers who happen on a good writer tend to stay with that writer as a way of keeping their nostrils above the sludge torrent. If you find a writer who writes a lot of what you enjoy, you don’t have to look as hard for things to read. This selects for writers who are hyperextroverted, tireless self-promoters with the ability to summon ferocious energy and apply it to their writing. Writing three decent novels a year isn’t remarkable anymore. It’s survival. You’re not competing against crappy writing. You’re competing against excellent writing in a market that is approaching saturation.

Traditional publishers are looking for writers with “platforms,” which basically means writers who have already established a following somehow. Creating a solid platform is difficult and energy-intensive, and with self-publishing as easy and inexpensive as it is, writers have begun asking whether signing increasingly dicey contracts with publishers after they’re well-known really makes sense. The platform is the new gatekeeper. The bad news is that a platform takes a great deal of time and work, much of which does not involve writing. The good news is that you don’t have to kiss publisher ass to create a platform. (My agent has written a very good if slightly scary book about creating platforms.)

This, more than anything else, is why self-publishing does make sense, and why traditional publishers are struggling. It’s not all bad news. However, it’s not all good news, especially for careful writers of a certain age who can’t knock it out quickly enough to get a platform up to critical mass.

Hence my grumpiness, which may be fatigue more than nostalgia for my days when selling books to print publishers was easy, and the process–and money–reliable. I could summarize 2014 this way: It was the year that I truly lost my taste for traditional publishing. Again, I can’t yet explain in detail, but my inner circle knows what’s going on. (Note that this is about my core competence in tech writing; fiction is a whole ‘nother world.) Sooner or later the dust will settle, and you’ll get the full story.

Beyond that, the year was actually decent enough: Carol can dance again, we took two tropical vacations, we bought a nice new car, and we’ve begun our search for the Door Into Summer During Winter. 2015 could well be a lot happier than what we’ve just been through. Granted, what I write and how I publish it going forward are still unknown. But man, 2014 has been giving me some hints.

A hearty 73 from Carol and me and the Pack. See you on the flipside.

Odd Lots

  • Yes, I changed my mind and signed up for Twitter, after pondering somebody else using my name and creating a Fake Jeff Duntemann. (Thanks to Bob Fergert for prompting me to imagine the unimaginable–and I’m a good imaginer.) More on this a little later. I have yet to post anything due to lots of top-priority projects here, but I’ll get to it within the week.
  • Dietary saturated fat is not related to plasma fatty acids. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much saturated fat you eat; your blood levels of fatty acids are controlled by other factors. What other factors? Care to guess? Are you reading this on Contrapositive Diary? Is the Pope from Argentina? Is the atomic weight of ytterbium 173.04? It’s the carbs. Wow. Whodathunkit? (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal, who was the first of several to put me on the scent.)
  • There is actually a prize for the worst sex scene in literary fiction. It is not a coveted award, and I guess is seen as a sort of booby prize among literary writers. The WSJ recently posted a brief guide on how to avoid writing such scenes. (I avoid writing really bad sex scenes by not writing sex scenes at all. Works amazingly well.)
  • Two people in my circles who don’t know one another have independently recommended Ting as a cell carrier. First impression: Sounds too good to be true, and sheesh, they were created by Tucows. (That said, Tucows is no longer what most of us grayhairs remember it being.) Any other opinions? Getting new phones and a new carrier is my next big tech research project.
  • I’d also like to hear some early impressions of Lollipop, if anybody’s got it or is about to get it.
  • Here’s something you don’t see every day; in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it even once, ever: A square flat-panel monitor, with a 1920 X 1920 resolution. Assuming these survive their launch (not a sure thing by any means) I’d be sorely tempted. As the story says, “Enough of the ultra wideness already.”
  • I wasn’t sure whether good technical books could be created as reflowable ebooks, but Yury Magda is doing it. He has five self-published Arduino-related titles now, and what I can see in the samples looks damned good. I’m going to buy a couple, less for the Arduino content as for how he does the layout. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for putting me on to this.)
  • Gizmodo/Sploid has a very nice short item on the XB-70 Valkyrie, certainly the most beautiful and possibly the second-scariest military aircraft ever built. Do watch the video of how the second prototype crashed–and if you’re ever within striking distance of Dayton, don’t miss the other Valkyrie at the Air Force museum there. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Barðarbunga is emitting over twice as much sufur dioxide every day as all of Europe’s smokestacks put together, and the volcano is still hard at it. SO2 is well-known to be a powerful cooling factor in the atmosphere. Combine that with a quiet Sun, and nobody really knows what might happen.
  • Best video illustration of how tumbler locks work that I’ve ever seen.
  • For that special, short, hairy, ironic someone in your life: You can get a genuine Flying Nun-inspired Weta-made Bofur winter hat, shipped all the way from New Zealand. Not cheap and not sure if it’ll arrive before Christmas, but if this winter keeps going like it’s going, you’ll be all set to face dragons, ice ages, or both.