Around the publishing industry

Here’s another collection of articles that caught my eye over the past couple of weeks.  They include some useful information for independent authors.  Click on the title of each section to be taken to the article concerned.

1. ‘They Own the System’: Amazon Rewrites Book Industry by Marching Into Publishing

The Wall Street Journal provided this very interesting and comprehensive overview of how Amazon has come to dominate US publishing.  The facts and figures are impressive.

Amazon commands some 72% of adult new book sales online, and 49% of all new book sales by units, according to book-industry research firm Codex Group LLC.

. . .

Amazon has more than 100 million Amazon Prime members world-wide, and its U.S. subscribers can pick one title from Amazon First Reads free each month. Non-Prime members pay $1.99.

On Jan. 2, Amazon First Reads sent an email to members about six new titles from Amazon Publishing. By early evening, those books were the top six on Amazon’s Kindle store e-book best-seller list.

The power extends to Amazon’s $9.99-a-month Kindle Unlimited e-book subscription service … It had an estimated 4.6 million paid subscribers in June 2018, according to Codex. Amazon Publishing titles and Amazon’s self-published books get prominent display, industry executives said.

There’s much more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.

Looking at those numbers – particularly the claimed 4,600,000-odd Kindle Unlimited (KU) readers, a higher figure than I’ve seen reported elsewhere – immediately reveals the conundrum faced by many authors and small presses.  I know of at least three small(ish) presses that are in the process of removing all their books from KU, because they’ve seen their income drop by about 50% over the past year.  They’ve decided that the game isn’t worth the candle.  I’ve found a similar issue with my books, although I’ve also seen the advantages of KU in building reader interest and sustaining a fan base, as I discussed last year.

I’ve decided that since I can’t beat KU, and at present I can’t afford the time, effort and money needed to “go wide” in a meaningful way, including the cost of advertising and promotion across several channels, I’m going to stay exclusive with Amazon.  That may well change at some future date, but probably only when I can afford to hire the assistance I’ll need to stay on top of things.  Instead of going wide, I’ll try to write in such a way that I maximize my books’ appeal to KU readers, and attract their attention.  I’ll make less money per sale/borrow, to be sure, but I hope the increased volume will go some way towards offsetting that.

2. Will the next recession be a bloodbath for publishers?

This article focuses more on online publishers, particularly newspapers, than the traditional variety, and on Web sites rather than books;  but since articles are also part of our output, here, on our own blogs or social media pages, and elsewhere, it contains a lot of food for thought.  It also applies to many of the channels through which we promote our books.

If the market is this unstable during economic boom times, what happens when we enter a recession, an eventuality that some think will occur as early as this year?

. . .

I think there’s strong evidence that the hemorrhaging of jobs and revenue we saw in the late aughts was largely driven by structural changes within the publishing industry, changes that were accelerated by the recession. In other words, the problems were already there; the collapse of global markets merely threw gasoline on the fire.

The recession just happened to coincide with the explosion of social media networks and the erosion of the economic moats that had made newspapers so profitable in the first place … We know this because the industry started seeing signs of distress well before the recession began.

3. Facial and emotional recognition; how one man is advancing artificial intelligence

This interview with Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) “oracle” Kai-Fu Lee doesn’t address writing and publishing as such;  but you can bet your last dollar that AI is going to have a profound impact on those fields.  There are already automated “scripts” for books that are derived by AI programs, analyzing the bestsellers in fields such as romance, and churning out a page-by-page outline that an author must adhere to when writing his or her book.  I know of at least one writer who’s providing such scripts to a number of “collaborative authors” in his stable, paying them a relatively small amount per manuscript, then publishing them and reaping the majority of the income they generate.

Of course, AI is also going to affect the way we write.  In some areas, it may take over completely from human authors.

Scott Pelley: I wonder, do you think people around the world have any idea what’s coming in artificial intelligence?

Kai-Fu Lee: I think most people have no idea, and many people have the wrong idea.

Scott Pelley: But you do believe it’s going to change the world?

Kai-Fu Lee: I believe it’s going to change the world more than anything in the history of mankind. More than electricity.

. . .

Kai-Fu Lee: AI will increasingly replace repetitive jobs. Not just for blue-collar work but a lot of white-collar work.

Scott Pelley: What sort of jobs would be lost to AI?

Kai-Fu Lee: Basically chauffeurs, truck drivers anyone who does driving for a living their jobs will be disrupted more in the 15 to 20 year time frame and many jobs that seem a little bit complex, chef, waiter, a lot of things will become automated we’ll have automated stores, automated restaurants, and all together in 15 years, that’s going to displace about 40 percent of the jobs in the world.

Scott Pelley: Forty percent of the jobs in the world will be displaced by technology?

Kai-Fu Lee: I would say displaceable.

I used to work in the information technology industry, among many occupations I’ve held down over the decades.  I saw the beginnings of AI in computer programming back in the 1980’s.  It’s already progressed to the point that one can tell an AI program what one wants new computer software to do, and the AI will design, code, test and complete that software without further human intervention.  I believe we’ll see AI systems doing the same thing in many white-collar jobs;  preparing technical and user manuals, doing research, responding to customer queries, running a “help desk” environment, and so on.  It’s already very hard to distinguish between a human respondent and a computer program when calling a help line (see the Turing Test), and I suspect that’s going to get a lot more so in the near future.  Our jobs as writers are not exempt from that.  If a publisher can work out how to use AI to write books, thereby keeping all the income for itself, is there any reason why it won’t do so?  I can’t think of a single one.

4. The Hot New Channel for Reaching Real People: Email

(If the article disappears behind the Wall Street Journal’s paywall, try this link instead.)

It seems that email is making a comeback as a method of targeted advertising and promotion, particularly because social media is now so overcrowded that the signal-to-noise ratio is overwhelmingly swamped by the latter.

Email’s success is due to a handful of factors. The first is that, like the web, it’s one of the few open standards we have left. No one controls it, and no company can get between a sender and its recipient.

Another factor is a dawning awareness that social media may not be particularly good for our mental health or our democracy, leading to a wave of users scaling back and even opting out entirely. The things that drive people to subscribe to and actually open emails are very different from the things that motivate them on social media. Email, by contrast, can feel healthy, says Robin Sloan, a writer who started an email newsletter—like a blog delivered to the inbox—almost 10 years ago.

Other creators, particularly journalists, are also turning to email as a creative outlet. “What other technology do we use everyday that doesn’t require a terms-of-service?” says Craig Mod, a writer and essayist who recently argued that one future of the book could be serialization as an email newsletter.

A businessman, David Hieatt, is mentioned in the article.  He’s used an e-mail newsletter to galvanize and transform a clothing company through improving customer relations.  He’s written a book about the subject that I’m finding very interesting reading.

cover 'do open'

I’m going to try his approach myself.  My author newsletter has been woefully moribund since I started it – a sort of fits-and-starts, hit-and-miss affair.  I’m going to try to expand it, add links to things I find interesting, do a book review or two, and generally “add value” for those who sign up for my mailing list.  I hope this will help my books’ market penetration, and keep my readers coming back for more.

That’s all for this week.  I hope you’ve found some food for thought in these articles.  I think that the more widely we read in and around our chosen field of endeavor, the better informed we’ll be, and the more likely to achieve success.  Remember:

If you can keep your head when all around you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

You don’t understand the situation.

(With apologies to Rudyard Kipling.)


  1. “If a publisher can work out how to use AI to write books, thereby keeping all the income for itself, is there any reason why it won’t do so?”

    You know, I’d feel compelled to disagree… but I watched “Solo” last night. Or Soylo, as I like to call it. The screenplay could have been written by a robot. A collection of cliches, stereotypes and tropes mashed together with a fine-grained disregard for the viewer. The result of two committees talking to each other through a Chinese Room. A film entirely created by process, with all the life crushed out of it.

    Therefore, I’d say -maybe- its possible to have a computer-generated story based on training a neural network with billions of real-life choices made by humans. That’s what Google and Farcebook are trying to do with all that data, train AIs.

    But, have any of y’all heard computer-generated music? Homogenized would be a fair description of the best of it. Not something to build a business model on.

  2. Those generically “Informational” websites (basically linkbait for ads) have been mostly machine-written for about 15 years. Discovered this when I was looking at ’em as a potential income stream… nope, nothing much there. (The ones using human writers were only paying $5 to $25 per article, which I suppose looks good to a starving student in New Delhi.) So they’ve long been good enough to fool casual readers.

      1. Probably about like Pomo generators: build a template, point at data sources, autofill from keywords. Basically mail merge on a larger scale.

        Side note: I seem to have fallen into moderation hell here, with almost every attempted post disappearing into the holding bin.

  3. I used to work with Kai Fu Lee when I was at Microsoft. He’s sharp.

    The problem with using AI to generate fiction is that the story has to allow the reader to suspend disbelief and stay “in the zone.” Too many defects that pop the reader out of the zone will spoil the reading experience. This makes far too high a demand on an AI system for the foreseeable future.

    There are many things to worry about, but AI writing fiction isn’t one of them.

    The interesting part of the AI story (which almost no one gets right in SF stories) is how the AI complements the human effort. AI is good at things where people are weak, and vice-versa. The real future is about how humans augment themselves with AI and accomplish things no one can even attempt today.

    1. I don’t think interstellar travel (FTL or not) has a hope without navigation AI. Interplanetary, maybe, but it still requires massive, if not intelligent, computer support. “Where are we?” is a very hard question to answer with a sextant and paper.

      If it can navigate the ship, it doesn’t _need_ to compose music for the passengers.

    2. And the stuff that sells has to be new in some respects. Without being so new as to put the readers off.

      That’s gotta be a trick to program.

  4. I used to say that “Television like that drove me to radio” and that so much (broadcast) radio had pushed me to books. If books go AI-generated… well, where the hell do I go next? Ro will it be something like this…

  5. Email looks simple at first glance but there are several stumbling blocks that can cripple your use of it.

    External image blocking, many mail viewers require user permission to show external images. That permission is usually based on the sending e-mail address and if you use a tracking address the user will have to allow each ever changing one which clutters up their address book and is aggravating. There is then the delay to load the unblocked images, something that may cause the reader to move on. If you use reasonably small in-message images all of this is bypassed. If you can’t do that at least use a stable e-mail address.

    Link blocking, many folks live behind layers of Internet filters that can be difficult to bypass so if your e-mail has links to tracking/spying sites that are blocked you have a willing visitor that can’t get to your site. If you must use tracking links try to use a system that isn’t blocked by the most common trackers, you’ll frustrate fewer visitors. You can combine tracking and user accessibility by providing a non-tracking link at the top of the e-mail, like – “Can’t see the links? Click here.” – that goes directly to your site and a page there that can be pretty much a copy of the e-mail but with non-tracking links.

    Too much information, it is easy to get chatty about things that interest you but remember the purpose of the e-mail, selling. Most mail viewers have a fairly small reading window by default and you want the stuff you are selling to show up in it. Short welcome, sell, sell, sell, then the other stuff and you’ll not have folks moving on before they see what you are selling.

    You have to offer an unsubscribe option, many just give you a note that you are unsubscribed, missing a valuable chance to learn why the visitor is leaving. Ask them why on the unsubscribe page and you’ll collect some useful information. If you really want mad users send the unsubscribe link through a blocked tracking service so they can’t unsubscribe like the Discover Sci-Fi folks do.

    As in the article, my e-mail author’s news letters arrive in my in box, are auto moved to a dedicated folder and are there ready for me to look at whenever I get to them. They are not shoved down an ever-filling queue of social media posts and forgotten. I go through every one and usually add the books that I can easily see in my browser to my Amazon wish-list to buy later. Ones that require a lot of monkey motion to see may never be looked at unless the text in the e-mail overcomes my lack of interest in trying to copy/paste and search for the book to get around the link blockers.

    1. Unless you have a pretty huge email distribution list, I don’t see why one needs all that tracking stuff. If you have 50 fans on your email list, does it _really_ matter what percentage click through? Interesting, yes. Vital, probably not. If you have 5000, then it might.

    2. There’s one email outfit that makes a Big Deal about it’s ability to track and “confirm opening/reading”… guess who I will NOT subscribe to? They can go [FLEEBWUZZLE] themselves.

      1. Turn off HTML and “load external images” and you’re good to go, unless you have some demented mail client that will execute Microsoft Office scripts or Javascript…

        1. I’d like that to really work, but I’ve had a few cases of refusal to show anything until scripting was enabled – if I did then enable it, it only long to unsubscribe. If they asked why, they got told in no uncertain times: I don’t like spies.

    3. I vastly prefer RSS, with the full newsletter rather than a snippet. That way the newsletter is autosorted, stays that way, doesn’t require thought or effort (eg. creating filters) on my part, doesn’t disappear via an inbox archiving or a blog being taken down, and is always there ready to read (or binge) whenever I get to it, rather than being buried in my inbox/archive or requiring a clutter of subfolders to keep it visible.

      Thanks to the above I will often sub via RSS to whatever catches my interest; the list has gotten long but it still requires zero effort and stays tidy all by itself (and the biggest sub has accumulated over 40,000 messages; no way do I want that in my inbox, yet I can still search the mass in the RSS folder). But nowadays I very seldom subscribe to an email newsletter.

  6. Bwahahaha!

    “There are already automated “scripts” for books that are derived by AI programs, analyzing the bestsellers in fields such as romance, and churning out a page-by-page outline that an author must adhere to when writing his or her book.”

    No, no, no! The computers are supposed to do the tedious writing bits to a human’s specs! This is all back asswards!!!!

    1. I see nothing wrong with doing tracking, just tracking that kills potential sales.

      Put your trackers on non-essential bits of the e-mail like a graphic section separator, or a bit more iffy on a 1×1 pixel invisible tracking image.

      If you must have link trackers run them through your own website or at least a tracking company with a good reputation and that isn’t present on most common blocking lists.

      1. And I just block remote images in email, and if a message relies on remote images to be readable… well, unless it’s something I already know I want to see, I’m VERY unlikely to click the link for “Images not displaying? view this email in your browser.”

        It’s not the tracking I care about (tho spammers use remote images to confirm you as a live salable address, which gets you on lots of spam lists); it’s the lag typically caused by adservers and tracking servers, which is why I originally blocked ’em in HOSTS…. got tired of everything taking up to several minutes to display thanks to refusing to go past the tracking or ad point until its data arrived.

        1. I *finally* got around to setting up a Pi Hole, mostly because I have a client with some intermittent problems I suspect are related to some expensive application software pining for contact with the mothership.

          I ordered another for their internet-connected subnet, and one for home, now that my wife has a laptop and a couple of tablets. You can set up some router firmware and use Wireshark to do most of what the Pi Hole does, but they’re nowhere near as easy to set up and maintain.

          Buy a Raspberry Pi, power supply, and case for $50-$60, burn a microSD card with a Raspbian image, download and install the Pi Hole script, answer a few simple questions, and every machine that uses your network gets the benefit of your tuned hosts file, plus some nice logging and reporting tools.

            1. I run two Pi-holes here on my network with great results, for my IOT stuff, desktops and tablets.

              The new Pi 3 A+ is a bit cheaper than the 3 B+ and is excellent for a Pi-hole. A even cheaper Pi 0W will work too but only over WiFi which can be iffy. Add a cheap case, a good 16 GB SD card and a power supply and you’ll be up and running. Post any questions to the forum below and I (stan_qaz) will assist if one of the other folks doesn’t beat me to it.


              Assistance forum:

              Pi Store: (or from Amazon)

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