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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.