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Food for thought

Instead of an article dealing with a single theme, what I’d like to do today is link to several articles that I’ve bookmarked in recent months, all of which affect us as writers to a greater or lesser degree.  I invite you to read them in full for yourselves, to assess how the issues they discuss may affect you, your family, and your writing career.

Let’s start with an important issue for writers’ health:  our eyes.  The New York Times published an article titled ‘Computer Vision Syndrome Affects Millions‘.  It’s certainly a very important subject for writers, who use computers more than most.

Studies have indicated 70 percent to 90 percent of people who use computers extensively, whether for work or play, have one or more symptoms of computer vision syndrome. The effects of prolonged computer use are not just vision-related. Complaints include neurological symptoms like chronic headaches and musculoskeletal problems like neck and back pain.

The report’s authors … cited four studies demonstrating that use of a computer for even three hours a day is likely to result in eye symptoms, low back pain, tension headache and psychosocial stress.

Still, the most common computer-related complaint involves the eyes, which can develop blurred or double vision as well as burning, itching, dryness and redness, all of which can interfere with work performance.

I regularly experience this problem.  When I’m working flat-out to complete a writing project, I may spend twelve hours or more every day in front of my computer.  Dry, itching, irritated eyes are the inevitable result.  To stave off more serious problems, I use an eye ointment when I sleep, plus moisturizing eye drops at intervals during the day.  If redness or scratchiness results, I add allergy eye drops to the mix.

Next, a couple of useful articles on Amazon algorithms.  Self-Publishing Review put out an article titled ‘Mythbusting The Amazon Algorithm – Reviews and Ranking For Authors‘.

MYTH 1 – Nobody knows how the Amazon Algorithm Works

TRUTH – Yes they do.

The Amazon Algorithm is an A9 algorithm, a pretty run-of-the-mill product search engine with a personalization built in. A9 is a company in Palo Alto that creates product algorithms, code that tells Amazon’s website how to sort and load product lists for each customer’s experience. Anyone who wants to read about how this algorithm works has to do nothing more than search for information online and read the manuals, forums, science articles, and a myriad of other documents that tell you EXACTLY how it works. You can even see samples of the code that makes it work if you look!

. . .

MYTH 3 – You can figure out keywords that people will use to find you by typing into the search bar and seeing what is autosuggested.

TRUTH – The search bar is personalized to YOU and YOU ALONE.

The article contains many other very useful and insightful comments about how Amazon searches work.  It’s important information for those of us who rely on such searches to help potential readers find our books.

Startup Brothers adds to the mix with an article titled ‘How to Rank Your Products on Amazon – The Ultimate Guide‘.  I’m not sure how ‘ultimate’ it is, but it contains some very interesting information.  Here’s an excerpt.

These 3 rules are critically important to making the most of this guide, so make sure you read them twice:

  • Amazon’s top goal in everything they do is always maximize Revenue Per Customer (RPC)
  • Amazon tracks every action that a customer takes on Amazon, right down to where their mouse hovers on the page
  • The A9 algorithm exists to connect the data tracked in #2 to the goal stated in #1

From A9’s website and from the information that Amazon makes available to us through their Seller Central (login required), we can group Amazon’s ranking factors into three equally important categories:

Conversion Rate – These are factors that Amazon has found have a statistically relevant effect on conversion rates. Examples of conversion rate factors include customer reviews, quality of images and pricing.

Relevancy – Relevancy factors tell A9 when to consider your product page for a given search term. Relevancy factors include your title and product description.

Customer Satisfaction & Retention – How do you make the most money from a single customer? Make them so happy that they keep coming back. Amazon knows that the secret to max RPC lies in customer retention. It’s a lot harder to get someone to spend $100 once than $10 ten times. Customer Retention factors include seller feedback and Order Defect Rate.

. . .

What you’ll find below are 25 Amazon ranking factors that either Amazon themselves or independent marketers have confirmed the A9 algorithm to use.

I’m taking a good, hard look at those 25 factors, and considering how to use them in marketing my books.  There’s a lot of food for thought there.

Bloomberg may be stating the obvious in an article titled ‘It’s a Writer’s Market: Digital platforms have emerged to serve midlist authors‘, but remember, many of those reading it won’t have our exposure to the market.  It reminds us that niche organizations are emerging to offer trad-pub alternatives to self-publishing authors.

A new generation of online editorial services and self-publishing platforms … offer skills and services that used to be available only through traditional publishing, plus favorable royalty splits. They also allow authors to retain the copyright to their work. The array of offerings is spurring some writers to leave their publishing houses—particularly midlist authors whose books receive scant marketing support. Some are also using the new services to put out e-book versions of their out-of-print titles.

The always interesting Simon Owens surveys technology, media and marketing issues.  I’ve used two of his articles in previous blog posts, here and at Bayou Renaissance Man.  I recommend them to your attention.  The first, ‘Book publishers are incentivizing midlist authors to abandon them for Amazon‘, is a searing indictment of how mainstream publishers are effectively cutting themselves off from the next generation of writers.

… over the past few decades, what was once a diverse publishing field has consistently coalesced, through acquisitions and mergers, into an industry with only four major publishers. What’s more, these major publishers are owned by even larger, multi-billion dollar media conglomerates.

So when you’re a company that’s dealing with revenues in the billions (with a B), suddenly a product that can only sell a few thousand units and is ultimately “unscalable,” isn’t worthy of investment. So instead they invest in products that have the potential to not only sell millions of units, but also spawn spin-off merchandise and movie deals.

Amazon, with its ecommerce system and now its Kindle publishing platform, has figured out how to scale midlist authors, and is therefore willing to gobble up those writers the big publishers turn away, offering them a bigger cut of their sales in the process.

The second article, ‘Jeff Bezos is busy building moats‘, examines how Amazon is making sure no competitor can horn in on the territory it’s carved out for itself.

By encroaching into the spaces of other industries, Bezos keeps those other industries from finding cracks in the walk with which to encroach on his main cash cows. And once he has firm moats around his main profit castles, he can start increasing the price on those castles, capitalizing on competitor-free profit margins. The more power he holds over the ebook industry, for instance, the more authors he can direct away from traditional New York publishers and into Amazon’s internal publishing platform, where Amazon takes between a 30 and 70 percent commission on all sales.

Seen this way, Bezos is more concerned with future competitors who are nipping at the edge of his margins than traditional retail companies trying to move into his space. He’s cornered the e-retail market, now he’s simply scorching the earth around it.

Simon Owens brings a very valuable business perspective to our outlook as writers and publishers.  I’ve subscribed to his newsletter, and I highly recommend it to you too.

Next, I’ve said before that the subscription model of reading books, exemplified by Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, is likely to become dominant, just as it has (and is continuing to do) in the music and video markets.  It’s not limited to entertainment, either.  It’s now penetrating other sectors of the economy.  To take just one example, the Guardian asks, ‘Is the mass sharing of driverless cars about to reshape our suburbs?‘  It’s written in the context of city rather than rural driving, but its points affect far more than just transport.

“Look at something like car parking,” Bondam told me. “It’s so old fashioned in my eyes. The private ownership of a car – that will end in the next 10 to 15 years. I think it’s going to be a combination of shared cars, of city cars, of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.”

This sounded like a rapid timeframe, I told him. Bondam was adamant: “I’m totally convinced about that. Why on earth would you make a big investment that you just leave outside 95% of the time and don’t use?”

Think of this in the context of reading.  More and more of our customers are asking themselves, “Why should I pay the full retail price for an item that’s going to sit on my shelves, or as a file on my electronic device, and never – or seldom – be read again?  Why not just ‘rent’ it for as long as I need it, then hand it back?”  It makes more and more economic sense for readers;  so we, as writers, are going to have to adjust our business model to take that into account.  We’ll make less on each ‘sale’ (or borrow, or rental, or whatever you want to call it), but at least we’ll make something.  This is an unavoidable wave that’s only just begun to affect our industry.  We need to be thinking very seriously about its impact on our income stream.  It’ll be considerable.

Finally, we need to accept that many of our potential readers are going to have a lot less disposable income to play with, as the ‘new economy’ takes hold and uproots long-established patterns of work and compensation.  MarketWatch warns bluntly:  ‘Workers will simply try to survive, rather than prosper, as tech takes over the economy‘.

For most people, a secure, well-paid job is the difference between a reasonable life and penury. Today, changes in the structure of the work force driven by globalization and technology make this objective increasingly elusive.

. . .

U.S. median earnings have not increased since 1975 in real terms. Average real Japanese and German household incomes have been stagnant for more than a decade. U.K. factory incomes haven’t risen since the late-1970s, after adjusting for inflation.

. . .

While there are well-paid jobs for a small portion of the workforce with the required skills, the vast majority of new employment is in the low-paid service sector, such as retail, security and health care. Youth unemployment remains high.

A large part of the population are now members of the “precariat,” a shortened version of the term “precarious proletariat” used in Japan to describe workers without job security who now make up over 30% of the country’s workforce as companies cut labor costs.

Changes in the workforce affect the nature of society. In the brave new world, a small elite, say, 5%, enjoy the significant wealth and control of much of its resources. They employ another stratum of people, say, 20%, to administer their affairs as well as control the precariat, 75% of the population.

Connections, beauty and brains will permit upward mobility, though movement between the groups may become more difficult. In the new economy, the precariat survives rather than prospers in an essentially subsistence existence.

We have to understand that a large – perhaps a very large – proportion of our readers are going to fall into the ‘precariat’, as the article puts it.  Their discretionary income to spend on luxuries such as entertainment is going to be severely circumscribed.  That’s precisely why the ‘sharing’ economic model in general, and the subscription model of entertainment for music, videos and books in particular, are becoming so widespread.  They’re all the ‘precariat’ can afford.  It’s even happening in luxury goods – for example, Cadillac has just announced a (rather expensive) car sharing scheme.  They haven’t done so out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they understand that their traditional ‘buyers’ won’t be able to afford to buy their vehicles in the same numbers as before.  They’re adapting to the changing market.

Whether we like it or not, as writers we’d better work hard to understand the wider economy, note what’s going on there, and adjust our income and expenditure plans accordingly.  It’s going to be more difficult to make a living in our field in future.  Unless we can confidently predict sales in the thousands every month, we’ll probably need to hold on to our day jobs.

Well, there you are.  That’s a selection of articles that I’ve found thought-provoking in terms of my writing career and activities over the past few months.  I hope they’re just as interesting and useful for you, too.

  1. Peter:
    Thanks for the tips on Amazon. And kudos on “Brings the Lightning.” I haven’t read a western in decades. I liked it so much I wrote a short review:
    Can’t wait for the sequel

    January 13, 2017
    • The sequel is already under way. I hope to have it finished by late February or early March. Look for it from Castalia by mid-year.

      January 13, 2017
  2. Luke #

    Am I the only one who found the “futurist’s” prediction about the end of private automobile ownership laugh out loud hilarious?
    Sure, flexibility, freedom, convenience, who wants those anachronisms?
    The scheme could conceivably work in densely populated urban areas where the infrastructure for everyone to own a car simply doesn’t exist. But outside of that? It depends heavily on the second order effects of government regulations making cars more expensive, and government coercion to force people into stack-a-prole housing. (Neither of which is going to happen during the next four years, at the very least.)

    January 13, 2017
    • Well, if you look only at London, Paris, NYC, Hong Kong, maybe Berlin, then it makes perfect sense. If you live in the back of beyond (Omaha, Eger Hungary, most of Poland) as defined by _The Grauniad_, then car-sharing is the luxury, not car ownership.

      January 13, 2017
      • slab1 #

        This is what happens when the so-called ruling class never leaves the DC NY (Amtrak subsidised) corridor. They do not understand how spread out this country is. What might work in Europe doesn’t have a chance of working here, outside of perhaps 6 urban areas.

        January 13, 2017
    • TRX #

      Yes. There’s something about the urban anthills that causes blindness to any place that’s not a similar anthill.

      January 13, 2017
    • thephantom182 #

      “Am I the only one who found the “futurist’s” prediction about the end of private automobile ownership laugh out loud hilarious?”

      Nope. It’s the usual Leftist insistence that EFFICIENCY is the be-all and the end-all of life. Maximizing utility, baby. That’s their wheelhouse.

      Dumbest thing ever. You buy a car of your own so it will be there, waiting for you, when you need it. You buy your own so you don’t get the communal one that bums have been sleeping in, teenagers screwing in, and kids leaving potato chips in. Even Hutterites try to have their own car, and they are as communal as it gets.

      Lefties just LOVE the idea of a communal robot car, because they -hate- the idea of people controlling anything themselves. Normal people value freedom, convenience and hygiene.

      So I’d take that rent-not-own thing with a grain of salt.

      January 13, 2017
      • Draven #

        this is why CA wants to tax cars by mileage driver, in addition to the fact that cash for clunkers cost them a bundle in gasoline tax money… they need the money to pay for their latest public transit boondoggle that will be running half empty most of the time.

        January 14, 2017
      • In my misspent youth, I drove a transit bus for a few years in northern San Diego County. I had a conversation once with one of the trainers about why customers so frequently seemed to be unhappy. He told me that anyone who had been a rider for any real length of time knew that they were powerless in the face of traffic jams, breakdowns, accidents, missed connections, and the thousand other things that could go wrong. But that wasn’t the entire problem he explained. Most people outside of really large cities were always going to see using public transit as a compromise until we found a way to give them what they really wanted. So what did they really want?

        “All they want is for the bus to pick them up at their doorstep and take them exactly where they want to go when they’re ready to go, and to wait there until they’re ready to go someplace else.”

        January 14, 2017
    • Michael Brazier #

      The “precariat” article shows the same pattern of projecting urban conditions onto the rest of the world. In the typical big metropolis the split of society into 5% seriously rich / 20% administrators / 75% temp workers is not a prediction, but a fact. The traditional middle class of small retailers, tradesmen and professionals have been driven out of urban cores by a host of taxes and regulations that only the wealthy can endure.

      That model can’t be replicated everywhere, because the economy would collapse – the tradesmen, professionals and retailers are the only people who know how to do the actual work of a technological civilization. The urban cores sustain themselves today by taxing the biggest generators of revenue there are – finance, software, etc. – but those are also the sectors that can most easily relocate. (If the NY Stock Exchange went elsewhere the City of New York would go bankrupt.) And there aren’t enough of them to go around.

      All that’s necessary to avoid the extension of the urban cores’ social pattern to the rest of the world is to not imitate the laws and policies the urban cores have burdened themselves with.

      January 13, 2017
  3. Regarding communally owned cars, I am reminded of G K Chesterton’s “What’s Wrong With The World” where he discusses the difference between communal laundries and communal kitchens.

    Cars, in the American mind, are much more than a means of getting from point A to point B. There was an ad campaign that I recall (I disremember the manufacturer) that used the tag line: “It’s not just your car, it’s your freedom.”

    I have worked for a number of businesses that provided work vehicles to their service personnel, and in every one of them the road techs rapidly became attached to a particular van, truck, or cab. Even though we did not own the vehicles, we spoke (and thought) of a particular vehicle as “my truck.”

    We personalize our cars. Many of us name them (mine is called “Roc” from Lorq von Rey’s ship in Samuel Delany’s “Nova”). We decorate them, buy trinkets to hang from the rear view mirrors, specialized storage compartments for them.

    I don’t see communal cars working at all. People will mentally claim certain cars, and get very upset if the one they consider “theirs” is not available when they want it.

    January 13, 2017
    • TRX #

      What you’re likely to get is the one that stinks of cheap cigarettes, has chewing gum stuck to the seats, smells of urine, and has various stains best not examined too closely.

      It doesn’t matter what kind of scheme they come up with to inspect and back-charge for that sort of thing. People will still do it. They always do.

      January 13, 2017
    • Anonymous Coward #

      Reminds me of this :

      January 14, 2017
  4. “Communally owned?” Ha! They’re owned by companies. We call them taxis or cabs. Uber and so forth are new, but still very much not communally owned. All that will change is “autodrive” instead of human drivers. Who, I might point out, try to keep their vehicles clean and presentable between customers.

    In rural areas? Nope. Some suburbs, maybe. But even in cities a whole lot of people are going to want their own, share only with their guests, car.

    January 13, 2017
    • You ever notice how the people who think bicycles are the great fill-in-the-gap solution to transportation either 1: don’t use them more than recreationally in fair weather themselves, or 2: are neither old or infirm, nor wish to associate with anyone who is?

      I commuted by bicycle for years, due to being broke. (Even when I had money, it was all going into college or flight lessons or food.) This has left me with a profound dislike, distrust, and contemptuous familiarity with commuting by bicycle, and the supercilious urbanites who treat it as a positional good.

      January 13, 2017
      • thephantom182 #

        It’s hard to love bike commuting in Ontario.

        Because winter is not friendly to two wheeled conveyances, and winter is five months long here. Besides which, it is freaking COLD out there.

        Then there are the Misery Months of October and April, which have some nice days but more rainy/cold/crappy ones.

        I’ve done the year-round motorcycle thing, as a kid. Even then I thought it was stupidly dangerous, horribly uncomfortable, and I wanted a car. Bicycle? Forget it. Not even 25 year old me would have stood still for that.

        January 13, 2017
    • However “autodrive” has an interesting feature, especially if the arrangements can interpret traffic density, namely you have an apartment in downtown Boston, and your car parks someplace else. it then comes and fetches you on schedule. That’s not as convenient as having an on-premise garage, but it can be much less expensive.

      January 13, 2017
      • Robot-driven cars are perfect for those people whose health issues prevent them from driving themselves. (From everything I’ve heard, Paratransit is so wildly unreliable that someone with mobility issues cannot count on them to get them to a job on time, even with a consistent schedule and route.) I can imagine a few communal “autodrive” cars at an assisted living facility, too, for when the residents want to go to a play or the grocery store.

        January 14, 2017
        • TRX #

          Until the liability issue is sorted out, as least in the USA, you’d be insane to operate a self-driving car.

          When it runs over someone’s kid, who is at fault? Unless the lawmakers do something unexpected, it’s going to be you. Not the car company, or the subcontractor who did the autopilot system, or the second-tier subcontractor who did the software…

          January 14, 2017
          • Mary #

            Improbable. It’s those companies that have deep pockets.

            January 15, 2017
  5. And ebooks won’t be communally owned either. They’ll still belong to the author. Just distributed through various libraries they contract with. Some public, some subscription. Okay, until the copyright runs out, then it’s out there for anyone and everyone.

    January 13, 2017
  6. adventuresfantastic #


    January 13, 2017
  7. joedoakes7 #

    First, is Bezos the new Carnegie, establishing a lending library for the masses who can’t (or choose not to) afford to buy books? Do we want there to be only one librarian? Should we be encouraging competitors?

    Second, sounds as if you’re saying that anybody who publishes indie ought to get their books in the Kindle Library to build a reader base that might lead to sales. Is that a fair interpretation?

    January 13, 2017
    • There are already several paid subscription libraries. Amazon’s happens to be the best organized, funded and managed, that’s all. Furthermore, if author-publishers use the KDP Select program, their books are automatically enrolled in Kindle Select. It makes it a difficult decision to ‘opt out’ of it. Some do, believing that they’ll make more money from sales that way. Others, including myself, believe we’ll get more exposure and build our reader base faster if we allow KU subscribers access to our books. It’s a toss-up, depending on your point of view. No-one can make the decision for you.

      January 13, 2017
  8. A few comments here. If your eyes are bothering you, the first thing to check is your vision correction in your glasses (including buying them if need be). Measure the distance from your face to the screen, make clear to your ophthalmologist that you are getting computer glasses and sharp focus at one exact distance matters, and get glasses that focus at that one distance. For this purpose, do not get bifocals or graded vision glasses.

    Second, if you are sitting in a chair in front of your desk and have conventional posture, your line of sight is approximately level or very slightly down, and that is where you screen center should be. If you are leaning over all the time because the screen is down there someplace, your back will complain. A pile of books under the screen may be needed. Ditto if your key board is way low — I have seen folks who typed with their keyboard in their lap, and needed major wrist surgery in the end –your hand is rotated back into the top of your wrist and bad things may eventually happen.

    Your mielage may vary.

    January 13, 2017
    • Big companies have ergonomic experts for a reason. (My husband has had to make use of his company’s on multiple occasions.)

      January 13, 2017
    • thephantom182 #

      Most of the neck and back strain I’ve seen out there as a PT are as a result of “proper” ergonomics, where the computer user attempts to emulate the “straight back posture” from old books on manners.

      This posture is anatomically impossible. The pelvis does not do what those pictures propose. Instead, all that weight from the upper body is concentrated around L3/L4 to S1. People scrunch up their necks, pull their shoulders up toward their ears, squint, and generally torture themselves. It’s a mess.

      I recline back in my typing chair, feet up on the crossbar of the desk, elbows on the armrests, wrists straight, and I can type for hours that way. BUT I DON’T!!! I get up and wander around every 20 minutes or so. Go to the bathroom, get a coffee, look out the window, whatever.

      Immobility is what kills you. You can have almost any posture, as long as you change it constantly. Sitting still is the mistake. Swap the chair for a physio-ball to change things up during the day. Variety and change works. Sitting still doesn’t.

      The curious are encouraged to seek out a little book called “The Seated Man: Homo Sedens” by A.C. Mandal, 1985. The work was done in Denmark in the 1970s and ’80s, they taped rulers to people’s pants at work and then took pictures of them for hours. The results were illuminating to say the least.

      January 13, 2017
      • I think I startle people when I tell them I’d rather be standing for eight hours a day than sitting—and I usually do. My laptop is set up on a stand on a kitchen counter, and the only issue I have is that my feet sometimes hurt if I’m not wearing shoes. My back hurts a lot if I sit all day, but hurts only a little with standing (hey, I have a hefty toddler who WILL insist upon being picked up when I have to do so in the most awkward positions.)

        January 14, 2017
        • thephantom182 #

          Standing desks are making a comeback these days. I’ve seen some that allow the user to stand or sit at the push of a button. Very nifty.

          January 15, 2017
    • Ben Yalow #

      This is particularly important with large screens. Bifocals, or continuous multifocals, etc, all have different corrections in the top and bottom of the lens. So, unless you’re constantly bobbing your head (or the screen is small enough), then the top of the screen is in line with a different prescription than the bottom with bifocals. So a single focus lens can make an enormous difference.

      January 14, 2017
  9. Yes, computer vision syndrome is something I do battle with too. I’ve been using some cognitive therapy in addition to eye drops to help with it. I usually am at my PC instead of using my laptop or Kindle. The desk is next to a window that I can always see out onto the street. This gives my eyes a chance to do some long-distant exercise. I rarely work at the computer for more than forty-five minutes without a mini-break, getting up and doing something else, anything else. I should have the coating put on my glasses too that’s supposed to help protect the eyes.

    January 14, 2017

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