Author Archives: Peter Grant

More competition, more opportunity

Two articles caught my eye in recent days.  One slots into what I spoke about last month;  the other opens up new possibilities for those willing and able to entertain them.

Last month I pointed out that a sea change was underway in the market for independent authors.  I noted that Amazon.com had just changed the payment structure for its Associates program, and speculated that similar changes to its independent publication terms and conditions could not be far away.  It looks like the publishing industry is taking exception to another new Amazon policy.

Amazon finds itself in the crosshairs of authors and publishers once again — this time for a new “buy” button on its site that allows book re-sellers offering cheap books in new condition to get top billing — ahead of original publishers.

Until last week, the primary “add to cart” buy button has always belonged to the original publisher, the Authors Guild points out, with Amazon paying the publisher 45 percent of the list price.

. . .

Re-sellers, who are offering books that claim to be in “new condition,” often at steep discounts, don’t kick back anything to the publisher or authors after a sale.

. . .

Amazon counters it has embraced competitive pricing in most categories for years.

“We have listed and sold books, both new and used, from third-party sellers for many years,” a spokesperson for the e-commerce giant said. “The recent changes allow sellers of new books to be the “featured offer” on a book’s detail page, which means that our bookstore now works like the rest of Amazon, where third-party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items. Only offers for new books are eligible to be featured.”

There’s more at the link.

This makes perfect sense to me as a consumer.  In many cases, where a book’s not available from the original publisher, or the publisher’s price is too expensive, I’ve gone ahead and bought a used copy from a third party on Amazon.com.  Just last week, I bought a like-new copy of a much-sought-after book that’s long out of print, “Two Wheels to Adventure: The First Overland Journey from Alaska to Argentina“.

Cover image 'Two Wheels to Adventure'

It was very expensive, too;  but it was in mint condition, and signed by the author.  Given the book’s scarcity, I wasn’t about to complain!  However, that was for a book no longer available from its publisher.  It looks as if Amazon’s new policy will apply to all books, whether currently in print or not – and some publishers appear to be crying foul about it.

I’m not sure they have a case.  There will always be those who buy on price as a primary criterion – I’m one of them, most times.  I buy a lot of books, particularly as research materials for my own books.  If their new price (even in e-book format) is significantly higher than the price of a used print edition (many being available on Amazon.com for as little as $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping), I routinely buy the used copy.  If a third-party seller comes into possession of a book at a low price, and passes that saving on to the consumer, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s a win for the reader.  Only if the copy(ies) is/are stolen will there be anything to worry about.

Nevertheless, the new policy proves yet again that Amazon will put the interests of its customers ahead of all others, including those of the author and/or publisher.  We aren’t the company’s primary focus, and we shouldn’t expect to be.

The second article reports on the success of an Australian illustrator in China.

When it was suggested to Indigenous Australian author Bronwyn Bancroft that her picture books for children be translated into Chinese, her first thought was the size of the population.

“Being able to take a story, especially the images, to another country that large,” she recalls.

The Mandarin translation of Big Rain Coming, one of 30 children’s books Bancroft has created, was launched on Thursday as part of Australian Writers’ Week in China.

Cover image 'Big Rain Coming'

On her first morning in Beijing, she said the reception had been “just crazy”. She was moved to tears at the response to her bright images of bush and home at a Beijing primary school.

Seven and eight year-olds gasped at photographs of giant eucalypt, and family anecdotes of swimming in creeks, watching out for the platypus.

But it was when her paintings of life as a Bundjalong woman were projected onto the big screen that spontaneous clapping thundered in the Fangcaodi school hall.

She told the children she created them with a tomato sauce bottle. “What!” they shrieked.

. . .

A look at China’s book sales figures explains why Australian publishers are beating on Beijing’s door. Book sales in China rose 12 per cent in 2016, to reach 70 billion yuan ($13 billion), according to the Publisher’s Association of China. Children’s books surged 29 per cent.

Xiao Liyuan, the deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Literature Publishing House, said online shopping was the main driver of the surge, making up 70 per cent of book sales.

. . .

To compete with online sellers, and boosted by government tax breaks, book stores are transforming into cultural hubs and designing new spaces that appeal to the cashed-up middle class.

Bookseller Zhongshuge attracted a queue of 20,000 people when the independent chain opened a new store in Hangzhou inspired by an amusement park.

The grande dame of state publishing, Xinhua, will launch a 4000-square-metre store in Shanghai in September designed by Japan’s most famous architect, Tadao Ando.

The CITIC book chain says it will open 60 new stores this year.

Again, more at the link.

It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of penetrating so large a market… but how many of us are considering it?  I suspect that most indie authors are daunted at the prospect of translating our work into a language we don’t understand.  There are also cultural implications, as well as possible plot and setting changes to accommodate local sensitivities.  (For example, if your villains are exclusively Chinese, who always lose, and your heroes exclusively Americans, who always win… you might not do very well in the Chinese market!)  For that matter, what are the odds of being ripped off by local imitators?  To mention just one example, there are – or were – upwards of a dozen fake Harry Potter novels circulating in China!  You can find details of some of them here.

Nevertheless, we should be thinking about such opportunities.  If we’ve achieved local success, why not consider expanding our horizons, and our marketing?  There are already deals available to produce audio versions of our books, with no payment up front and a 50% sharing of revenue with the narrator.  Are there similar deals out there for translations?  If not, are we prepared to take the initiative and try to set up something on our own?  Could we form alliances for mutual support with Chinese indie authors who’d like to break into the US market, so that we help each other translate and market our works?  Are we prepared to look for IP lawyers who understand the market(s) in question, and can guide us with respect to local laws, particularly concerning copyright?  The potential rewards might make such steps worthwhile, particularly if a group of indie authors were to get together to share the costs, as well as what they learn, jointly and severally.

We need to invest time and careful attention into studying the state of the market.  It’s always changing, and for those who keep abreast of the changes and look for opportunities in them, there’s money to be made – even as a small-time indie author.  On the other hand, if we ignore the changes, we’re likely to be left behind, stranded like a beached whale, when the tide that’s currently floating us moves on to new shores.

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Writers, take heed: a sea change is under way

The term “sea change” means “a metamorphosis or alteration“.  That’s what we’re facing right now in the publishing market – not just traditional publishing, but indie publishers and authors as well.  I’ve mentioned it several times in previous articles, but it’s becoming so clear and so powerful that I think it deserves an article all to itself.  Some of you may disagree with what I’m going to say, but I think I can provide abundant evidence for my arguments.  We’ll see who’s right over the next year or two.

The “sea change” is our ability to make a living as authors;  and that, in turn, is driven by the changing nature of the market.  Book sales continue to decline in traditional markets, even though supplemented by “officially unrecorded” sales of independently published books that don’t use ISBN’s or other traditional tracking measures.  What’s more, traditionally strong markets such as children’s books are also suffering – see, for example, Scholastic’s poor results.

What’s more troubling – nice for independent authors right now, but troubling for the future – is where book sales are happening.  Author Earnings pointed out, in its keynote address to Digital Book World earlier this year:

 

 

There’s a reason why Amazon’s dominance is a potentially worrying factor.  We’ll come back to that shortly.

Last Monday, in his weekly article here at Mad Genius Club, Dave Freer wrote:

Given that the current is running counter to the direction traditional publishing and much of the establishment direction [are taking] … the issue for the working writer … is ‘how best do I survive?’

. . .

The answer to failing appeal is not more failure, any more than the answer to communism’s failure is more communism. Swimming harder against the tide, kicking swimmers going across or down would be futile, exhausting, and make those swimmers ready to drown you.

On the other hand if you are in this situation… you can 1) learn to swim with the current or at least not straight against it … It’s that, or find a rock to cling to. There will be some rocks … But the rock or rocks will be small – and the biggest ‘names’ are going to claim most of the space. 3) Swim across the current. Build yourself an independent brand, try not to alienate too many people in the process. 4) Catch the wind – use Patreon and Indigogo and the likes to find like minds and fund you to push you against the current.

I was pleased to see that Dave’s also aware of the “sea change” we’re currently experiencing.  It makes me feel less out on a limb, if you know what I mean!  Thanks, Dave.

Let me provide a few more examples of the “sea change” that’s washing up against authors’ shores right now.  The first comes from the music industry, where “Gold Records [are] a Thing of the Past as Streaming Is Now 51% of All Sales, Passing CDs and Downloads“.

Streaming from Spotify, Apple, Pandora, even Tidal now accounts for 51% of all music sales according to the RIAA.

The gold record? A thing of the past. There is nothing to frame for the walls of rock stars. Maybe you get a digital wall now, too. In a virtual mansion.

. . .

There are 22.6 million paid streaming subscriptions. (This means everyone else is listening to ads.)

But the bads news is for the artists. Royalties on streaming sales are much lower than downloads or CDs. The artist is suffering. The execs are not. So the Industry is happy.

Note that bit about streaming services and royalties.  It’s already affecting authors like us, as we’ll discuss shortly.

Next, Captain Capitalism points out that “You Will No Longer Be Able to Make a Living Off of YouTube or Amazon Affiliate“.

Last week the content creator community of YouTube went into full sperg mode when they found out YouTube was demonetizing their videos, among other things such as throttling traffic, taking away subscribers, and other behind the scenes digital media hanky panky. Amazon affiliates were also treated to similar news as they heard Amazon was lowering the commission they’d make from around 6% to 2-5% on various products. But regardless of which company was doing what, the result was the same – it was increasingly harder, if not impossible, for people to make a living on YouTube or Amazon affiliate.

. . .

But as bad news as this is for the thousands, likely, millions of people who derive some kind of income from this new economy, there’s some vital economic lessons to learn from this “YouTube/Amazon” bubble bursting. Because if you don’t learn these vital economic lessons, you’re life is going to be infinitely worse going forward.

First, understand the days of making a living on YouTube or Amazon’s affiliate program was a bubble. Just like the Bakken oil field, just like the gold rush of 1849, just like the Dotcom bubble, there was the boom and then the bust. The good days are OVER. You may not like this fact, but it’s reality. This new digital economy is not immune to the natural forces and laws of economics that all of human history has been subjected to, so you must come to grips with reality and accept this.

. . .

Amazon, and especially YouTube, are responding to changes in the economy so that they may (in YouTube’s case) remain profitable and thus in business. Matter of fact, if you bothered to look at their income statements (they are available) both YouTube and Amazon operate on negative/razor thin margins. In other words, this current business model was not sustainable.

. . .

… since YouTube and Amazon are monopolies they can literally do whatever they want because you have no other option. The real issue is whether you’re going to accept this and realize it.

You can protest, argue, write letters, and make all the videos in the world, but none of that changes the fact YouTube and Amazon have all the power in this relationship. And if you don’t realize that, you’re going to waste more time trying to change the inevitable, which is wasting precious time, energy, and resources you don’t have.

Captain Capitalism points out an uncomfortable truth, which many of us have been reluctant to accept.  Whether we like it or not, Amazon is effectively a monopoly.  Oh, yes, I know it doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a monopoly, and if an effective challenger came along tomorrow, it could conceivably be dethroned;  but the simple fact remains that today, and for the foreseeable future, it’s the only game in town for independent authors.  All – and I do mean all – other outlets for our work, combined, pale into insignificance compared to Amazon.com.  That’s reality.

Amazon has just exercised the power of its position to reduce – sometimes drastically – the income that its Amazon Associates partners earn by referring customers to its products.  It did so because it’s so big, so powerful, with so many Associates, that it can do so without fear of the consequences.  It’s effectively saying to its Associates, “We want to keep more of the profit from each sale for ourselves.  Take it or leave it.  If you don’t like it, there’s the door. Don’t let it hit you where the good Lord split you.”

If anyone thinks that Amazon won’t do the same to independent authors like us, one of these days, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn, NYC that I’d like to sell you.  Cash only, please, and in small bills.  I have little doubt that in the fullness of time, our payouts from Amazon are going to decrease.  We’ve grown accustomed to 70% royalties in the KDP Select program, whereas authors contracted to Amazon’s own publishing imprints make 35%.  I expect first a reduction in KDP Select payouts, probably to 50%, and possibly, in due course, equalization with Amazon’s imprints at 35% across the board.  I hope – oh, how I hope! – that I’m wrong… but I’m pretty confident I’m not.

Amazon has the power, and we have no realistic alternative to Amazon whenever it decides to use that power.  It’s Amazon’s playground, and if we want to play there, we have to play by Amazon’s rules, like it or not.

Not only can we expect a reduction in royalties, there’s also the “double whammy” of more lower-revenue subscription readers and fewer higher-revenue purchase readers – just as the music industry has experienced with listeners who stream, rather than purchase, songs.  An excellent example of this is Amazon’s launch of its Kindle Unlimited subscription library service.  It already appears to have at least 2½ million subscribers, who between them are reading up to 12½ million average-length novels every month.  That’s 12½ million books that are not earning a traditional ‘royalty’ or payout for their authors, but instead a reader ‘fee’ that’s typically half or less than half of what the author would have earned from a sale.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that Amazon will keep the payout for KU reads at their present levels.  It can adjust the payout as and when it pleases – and I expect, as it seeks more profit opportunities, it’ll do so at authors’ expense.  KU is already big enough and popular enough to make its own rules, whether or not we like them.  We can register our dislike by not entering our books into the KU program, if we wish – but that also means we have to forgo some of the other benefits of the KDP Select program.  Amazon can make such abstention more difficult (and more costly) in future, simply by changing the rules – which it has every right to do.  It’s Amazon’s playground, remember?

Those music industry figures I referred to above?  More than half of all pop music sales now take the form of music subscription libraries, either paid for by the listener, or funded by advertising.  What makes you think that book sales – particularly fiction – aren’t going to follow the same trend?  We’re not there yet, but every year, we get closer.  Consumers who grow accustomed to free and/or low-cost streaming of music and video media are going to look for the same benefits in their consumption of reading matter, whether we like it or not.  After all, their dollars are spent, not on books, or music, or videos, but on entertainment.  Books are just one element of that, and they have to compete against every other element.  If they’re too expensive by comparison, they’re going to lose.  Why do you think Amazon established KU in the first place?  It knew that, because it listened to its customers.

(Oh – and please don’t try to tell me that I’m being unduly alarmist, and that there’s no evidence Amazon is planning anything of the kind.  I daresay Amazon Associates program members would have said precisely the same thing… right up until last week.  The evidence is as plain as a pikestaff.  Amazon will act in its own interest, and/or the interest of its customers, before it considers our interests.  We aren’t its priority.  Its customers are.  That’s simply the way it is.)

Written Word Media offers some thoughts about KU’s implications for authors like us.

  • The KDP fund just keeps growing. Month over month the KDP fund gets bigger, which means that plenty of readers are actively reading the enrolled titles. If you can sell your book to this audience, then you’ll get a portion of that pot. The growth of KU means it’s here to stay, it’s no longer an experiment.
  • Romance authors benefit greatly from KU. It’s hard to argue with the fact that 88 of the top 100 romance books on the bestseller charts were enrolled in KU. Romance readers are avid, and will gladly read through enough books in a month to make the $9.99 subscription fee worth it.
  • KU readers are incredibly active. KU readers read more books and review books at a higher rate. It’s safe to assume they are more active generally than their Non-KU counterparts.
  • You can use KU enrollment strategically. There is an opportunity to use KU enrollment as a strategy to acquire readers who then purchase your other books. If 77% of KU subscribers go on to purchase books outside of the program, then one reader acquisition strategy is to put some titles in KU, allowing those readers to read them for “free”, and then converting those readers into paying customers on your other titles.

Those are all positives.  The negative – and it’s undoubtedly a negative – is that we’re going to make a lot less money, per book, from subscription readers of our work than we’ll make from buyers of our work.  Remember, too, that we’ll make less from buyers as well, if Amazon’s royalty rates are reduced (as I expect they will be, in time).  We need to begin planning right now for how we’re going to address this “double whammy”, and change our way of offering books to potential customers so as to maximize revenue opportunities.

One way is to play to KU’s strengths.  If we publish longer books, the KU revenue from each ‘rental’ will be higher, per book, than for a shorter book.  On the other hand, if we offer lots more shorter books, we’ll make less money off each one, but make more money through more of them being rented out (provided, that is, we write well enough to make our readers want to rent more of them!).  We can also use our books in the KU program to offer non-KU titles to our readers, in the hope that they’ll click on the links we provide.

There are other options.  We may seek to monetize our blogs or social media accounts in one way or another – but this runs the risk of alienating those who’ve come to regard them as free until now, or who resent the increasing commercialization of everything in sight.  (I’m among those who feel that way, which is why I haven’t monetized my blog at all, and probably won’t.)  We might also look to Patreon and similar services to generate a supplementary income stream from our strongest supporters, as some authors are already doing (for example, N. K. Jemisin or John C. Wright).  Trouble is, we have to have enough enthusiastic followers to make this a viable proposition.

We’re in the middle of a “sea change”, folks.  Whether we like it or not, it’s going to be thrust upon us sooner rather than later.  Are we going to be ready for it?  Are we going to be proactive in preparing for it, and learn to ride the tide of change as it swirls around us?  Or are we going to be like traditional publishers when they first noticed the rise of independent author-publishers like ourselves?  They dismissed us as a passing fad, of no real interest or importance.  We all know how well that worked out for them…

We can no longer count on making a living from independent book sales alone.  We have to contend with the ‘streaming economy’, whether we like it or not.  If we don’t do so right now, before it’s too late, then the ‘streaming economy’ will contend with us.  Depend upon it.

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When the message is lost in translation

I’d like to address how we convey our characters’ perspectives, motives, desires, experiences, etc. in our books.  I’ve been prompted to do so by two or three horribly inept portrayals in books I came across this week.  I’m not going to identify them, because I don’t want to single out authors for negative feedback;  in fact, I daresay I’ve been guilty of the same problem in my own writing.  Nevertheless, it’s a subject that deserves attention.

It’s very easy for us to become “proprietary” in our approach to our characters.  “He’s mine!  I invented him!  I know how he ticks!  Don’t tell me how he’s supposed to react!”  I’m sure we’ve all had those feelings internally, and many of us will have voiced them aloud or in print.  Nevertheless, in a very real sense, when we release our work to the buying public, they are no longer our characters.  The public now owns them (literally, by way of the dollars and cents they spend to buy our books;  and figuratively, in the sense that they will interpret them, analyze them, internalize them, and make them their own).

That being the case, it’s important for us to understand how we create characters.  For some of us, it’s unconscious.  We pick a protagonist, or antagonist, who expresses our own philosophies and/or experiences and/or perspectives, and write that person.  Others of us work out our characters beforehand, analyzing why we want them in our book at all, and then trying to “build in” personalities, backgrounds and other characteristics that serve the purpose.  However, in every case, our perspective as authors is influenced by who and what we are.  I don’t believe we can ever achieve a dispassionate balance in creating characters, because every one of them is, to a greater or lesser extent, an extension of who we are.  For example:

  • I don’t think I can “get inside” the mind of a woman, simply because I’m male.  I can analyze, study, and dissect patterns of female behavior, and talk to women to get an idea of how they would react to a given situation, or respond to a given stimulus;  but I can never experience their reactions with their emotions or internal thought processes.  I see this every day in my interactions with my wife.  She’s simply different from me, in a profoundly deep and innate way.  She doesn’t think as I do, and doesn’t react or respond as I do, and nothing in the world is going to change that.  She’s female.  I’m male.  Cat, meet dog.  Dog, meet cat.
  • There are some aspects of life that are so ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible for us to see things from any other perspective.  Take, for example, lightning striking a tree.  You and I, being educated First World citizens, know all about physics, and electricity, and heating, and how they combine to produce that fire.  To someone from an animist culture, the gods of the trees are fighting among themselves, and the god of that there tree just got zapped!  He may have a degree from a First World university, but deep down inside, he’ll never be able to rid himself of that fundamentally primitive reaction.  I know this.  I’ve worked with such people for more than half my life.  He’ll actually look pityingly at us, because our education has blinded our spirits, preventing us from seeing what’s obvious to any “normal” person.
  • Superstitions are ingrained.  How many people do we know who take their horoscope seriously?  There is absolutely no justification for that whatsoever, but I know Ph.D.’s who read it every day, and act on its advice.  Another example:  outside the Stock Exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa, for years I saw sangomas, witch-doctors, selling muti (“medicine”), herbal concoctions guaranteed to bring good luck to traders on the floor of the Exchange.  These traders had degrees (some of them multiple degrees) from top universities… yet they bought their muti every morning, because without it, they knew they would not have a good day at work.  Another example:  popular superstition in East Africa is that albinos are “touched by the spirits”.  They reputedly possess spiritual powers and properties that make them particularly suitable for the production of muti.  Therefore, albinos are routinely murdered for their body parts by witch-doctors, or gangs who will sell their body parts to witch-doctors.  Can you imagine what it must be like, to live inside a skin that makes you a target for murder?  Yet, for thousands of people, this is their normal, everyday existence.
  • Cultural norms intersect with religious norms to shape and form, not just a society, but individuals.  The hideosity of “honor killings” comes to mind.  There are in our midst today, here in American society, individuals who firmly, absolutely believe that it is not only their God-given right, but their duty, to kill their own daughters if they adopt American customs such as dating, choosing their own husband, refusing to permit themselves to be genitally mutilated by so-called “female circumcisions”, etc.  This is happening as you read these words.  These people have taken the primitive superstitions of their place and culture of origin, and transplanted them into our First World society.  When we hold them accountable for their actions, they regard us with contempt, as having no standards at all, and being blind to our duty to God.  “Honor killings” are an extreme example, but there are many others we encounter every day.  Jehovah’s Witnesses who shun their members who dare to think for themselves, and refuse to conform;  Mormon fundamentalists who insist on their right to practice polygamy, regardless of the laws of the land;  Catholics who regard it as, not just their right, but their God-given duty, to impose their solutions to moral issues, such as abortion, upon others whose world view is diametrically opposed to theirs;  and so on.  In their insistence that they have the right to impose their views on others, I submit that all of these groups are different only in degree, not in kind, from those who advocate “honor killing”.  We may, of course, believe that such views are right, proper and appropriate… but we’re doing so from inside those perspectives.  Others will disagree with us… sometimes violently.

By now some readers may be shaking their heads, and asking themselves, “What has this got to do with me?  I don’t fall into any of those extremes.  This has no bearing at all on how I develop the characters in my books!”  Well, actually, yes, it does.  Let’s apply the fundamental incompatibilities of such perspectives with others, to a more typical everyday encounter in our own worlds.

How many of you are aware of the number of criminals – convicts, ex-convicts, and those who’ve never been convicted, but have gotten away with their crimes – that surround us?  I’ve worked for years as a prison chaplain.  I can assure you, the numbers are daunting.  A 2010 study found:

About 8.6% of the adult population has a felony conviction.

. . .

About 20 million people have a felony conviction in America. That works out to about 1 in 12 adult Americans.

Note, those numbers are for 2010. Looking at the growth rate trajectory, we are probably up to around 24 million people today in 2014 with a felony conviction. This means we are probably pushing 10% of the adult population today. Of course, these aggregate percentages include women, which as we all know account for a small portion of all felony convictions.

One other thing to consider is that a large number of would-be felonies are plead down to misdemeanors, so the actual total number of people who were caught committing a felonious act is undoubtedly much higher than these numbers portray.

Think about that.  One in ten people you meet, statistically speaking, has a felony conviction (i.e. for serious, as opposed to minor, offenses).  In some geographic areas or segments of society, that number may fall to less than one in a hundred.  In others, it may approach one in two.  As real estate agents will reiterate ad nauseam, it often boils down to “location, location, location!”  There’s a whole science involved in understanding the criminal mind, and how it differs from normal attitudes and perspectives.  I’ve written about it in my memoir of prison chaplaincy, and recommended some other sources there.

 

walls wire bars and souls cover thumbnail

 

Unless we’ve taken the time and trouble to understand the criminal mind, we cannot and will not write convincingly about them.  We’ll write only our perspective on them – a perspective that will be uninformed, inaccurate, and misleading.

That’s where the headline of this article comes from.  When we write, we’re “translating” images, perspectives, inner realities, from our heads to the printed page.  (Whether it’s printed in ink on paper, or in electrons on screens, is irrelevant.)  The process of translation involves understanding and interpreting the people and situations we write, both as broadly and as deeply as possible.  If we don’t, their motivations won’t make sense to at least some of our readers, and their actions won’t square with their (supposed) motivations.  I’ve read far too many books where this problem is so great that I can’t continue.  The author requires me to suspend my disbelief, but proceeds to write so ineptly and so inaccurately about a subject that I simply can’t do that. I revolt against his words.

A classic example is anything involving military combat.  I know military combat.  I’ve been there.  I know what it is to be shot, and to shoot others.  I know what explosions sound like – more than sound:  they pound in the core of your being, like a physical punch, not just a noise.  I know what a battlefield smells like.  All these things are innate to me, so real that I no longer have to think about them.  They’re at a visceral level.  However, many authors purporting to write military fiction (whether SF, or historical, or whatever) have no idea whatsoever about those realities.  Sure, some of them have taken the time and trouble to research those issues, but that can only substitute for experience to a certain degree.  If they are conscious of, and write within, those limitations, their fiction usually works.  If they presume a visceral level of knowledge that they do not possess, and write as if they do, their books fail.  (An example I’ve used before is to ask someone whether they’d like their daughter to receive sex education, or sex training.  They understand immediately what I mean.  One’s theory.  The other… isn’t.)

Therefore, when we seek to portray a reality that our characters experience, or from which they come, or which influences the outcome of our plot, we need to be very careful to write it, as far as possible, to take into account the unconscious assumptions that we inevitably make.  Those assumptions exclude a large proportion of the human race that doesn’t share them, and can make our work unapproachable to many potential readers.  We can, of course, limit our intended audience in that way (“Well, I’m not writing for people from that background!”) – but once our book is out there, it’s no longer our own property.  “Our baby” has now become the baby of whoever buys it.  We’d like them to cherish it, rather than abandon it in the gutter!

We need to write so that what the reader receives is what we intended to send, and what the reader understands is what we intended to say.  We need to communicate between dogs and cats.  That’s a tall order.  If we succeed, I think we’ll do well.  If we fail… then the message is lost in translation.

 

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Breaking through the blockage

Two of my esteemed fellow Mad Genius Club authors have tackled the problem of “writer’s block” over the past two days.  First, Sarah Hoyt discussed “The Curse of the Second Novel“.

Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.

The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract. Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption. As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened.

She offers various suggestions to get over the problem, which she sees as being rooted in insecurity.

Yesterday, Kate Paulk expanded on Sarah’s article in an essay titled “When You’re Lost in the Depths of the Pants“.

Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.

. . .

As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.

This morning I’d like to offer my own approach to the problem – which is pretty straightforward.  I take the literary equivalent of a roto-rooter to the blockage, and bore my way through it by brute force.  If one avenue of approach is blocked, I abandon it and take a completely different one, then turn back from that road and bore my way into the problem from another angle.  That’s worked twice for me so far, and looks set fair to work a third time later this year.  Let me explain.

I’m a combination of plotter and pantser when it comes to preparing to write a novel.  I work out the initial plot and structure in my mind, and frequently set it out in point form in a document.  However, this is never set in stone.  Those blasted characters turn out to have minds of their own (often of fiendish deviousness), and can head off in different directions almost before I’ve realized that they’ve left the straight and narrow path I’ve worked out for them.  I then have to go haring after them, screaming “Come back!  You’re my creation, dammit!  Where the hell do you think you’re going?”  Sometimes, they listen.  More often than not, they don’t…  (Sigh)

Sometimes I just plain get bogged down.  I can’t make the plot or the characters go where I want them to be, and all my efforts feel flat, uninspired, and frankly boring.  A couple of weeks of this, and I’ll be climbing the walls in frustration.  I’ve learned, in such situations, to make that frustration into a spur for renewed creativity.  I simply shelve what I’m working on and tackle something completely different.

In early 2014, I was working on the third volume in my military science fiction Maxwell Saga, which was published as “Adapt and Overcome“.  It wasn’t doing anything or going anywhere.  I spent almost six weeks circling the drain, getting more and more grumpy and irritable.  Finally, one morning, I just said “To hell with it!”, and started writing a stream-of-consciousness document – whatever came to mind, no plot, no outline, no nothing.  Thirty days and 150,000 words later (a third of that being excisions, deletions, insertions and additions), I had a 100,000-word military science fiction novel titled “War to the Knife“.

 

 

It went on to become the first volume of a trilogy.  The second volume, “Forge a New Blade“, was published in 2015, and the final volume, “Knife to the Hilt”, will be published later this year, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

I surprised myself by how successful this exercise was.  I really hadn’t expected that result – it was completely unplanned.  Nevertheless, my readers tell me that “War to the Knife” is one of my best mil-SF novels.  The thing was, by refusing to stay bogged down, fighting a losing battle, I moved the problem onto new ground of my own choosing.  I didn’t let it dominate me;  instead, I dominated it.  I broke new ground, and it paid off handsomely.

I remembered that lesson later in 2014, when I began to battle with another book I was working on. Instead of beating my head against a brick wall, as a deliberate exercise to distract myself from the blockage, I started writing a Western novel – a completely different genre for me (a moribund one, according to conventional wisdom), and one that required a great deal of research to make it historically authentic.  I treated it as an occasional project, one I turned to when I felt over-tired or frustrated from concentrating very hard on the mil-SF novels that until then had been my bread and butter.  I completed a rough, unpolished first draft by mid-2015, then set it aside for future reference if I ever felt that way inclined.

Quite by chance, not intending anything by it, I put up the opening chapter of that Western on my blog early in April 2016, because I was short of blog fodder that day and thought, “Why not?  What have I got to lose?”  To my pleased surprise, reaction to it from my blog readers was very favorable.  In fact, within 24 hours, I received an offer for a contract for three Westerns from a small publishing house.  Needless to say, I wasn’t fool enough to turn that down!  A couple of months of hectic polishing and fine-tuning later, and my first Western, “Brings The Lightning“, was out the door and on its way.

 

 

It’s sold pretty well for a first effort in that genre, and I’m currently writing its sequel.  Look for it later this year.

Finally, another “anti-blocking” effort has led to a similar development.  I’d produced a few fantasy manuscripts during my years of learning the craft of fiction writing, but none of them were much good.  However, the field still interests me, so after the experience of “War to the Knife” and the Western project, I decided to treat it as yet another exercise in distraction when I got blocked on my work in progress.  I ended up producing three or four fantasy stories that I think have the potential to become novels in their own right.  Two of them progressed until I’d written a third to a half of each one.

In December last year, I asked my blog readers to select one of the two for further development.  I put up an excerpt from each novel, and my readers selected the first excerpt as their favorite.  I’ll therefore be finishing that novel as soon as my current Western project is complete, for publication (hopefully) prior to LibertyCon in June.  (I won’t neglect the second fantasy novel, either;  that will be a future project – or I may merge it with the first one and make a multi-volume series out of them.)

Therefore, I offer this suggestion as a way to overcome “writer’s block”.  Don’t get blocked – find a way around the block by tackling something completely different, then come back to the blocked work when your mind’s been creative in other ways.  You may be surprised at how well it pays off!  So far I’ve got two books published out of such “distractions”, and a third on the way.  If this keeps up, I may end up publishing more “distractions” than main projects!

 

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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.

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“Never launch a book in December!”

That appears to be the advice freely proffered to independent authors by those who (allegedly) know best.  I’m not sure whether or not it’s accurate, but I’m in the process of finding out.  You see, circumstances kind of forced my hand.  Let me tell you about it, and the lessons I’ve learned from it (so far, at least).

At Libertycon in June 2015, I was afflicted by the first kidney stone I’ve ever endured.  It was no fun at all, and I spent most of the convention lying on my bed, groaning.  Two hospital procedures followed over the course of the next six months.  No sooner had I gotten over them than we moved to Texas, in early 2016.  Shortly thereafter a gall bladder problem manifested itself, eventually requiring a third surgical procedure.  All in all, it took fifteen months to sort out my various and sundry medical misadventures, during which time my writing came to a grinding halt as far as new work is concerned.

In the middle of all this, I was fortunate to be offered a contract to publish a Western novel I’d written some time before.  I put a ‘teaser’ chapter up on my blog, and within 24 hours received an unsolicited offer to publish that book plus two sequels.  Needless to say, I accepted with enormous relief!  Editing the book for publication (with an editor’s help, not having to do it all on my own – a new experience for me) was a lot less stressful than writing it from scratch.  ‘Brings The Lightning‘ was published in May 2016, and has done relatively well for a first book in a new genre from an author previously unknown there.  Certainly, I’m satisfied with results so far.  I’m now plotting the first of two sequels, and I hope more will follow.

 

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However, this still wasn’t helping me get back to creative writing.  My wife exercised what I can only describe as heroic patience in seeing me through my medical trials and tribulations.  How she avoided hitting me sometimes is a mystery, but she did – yet another reason why I love her.

I found it very difficult to ‘get back into the groove’.  My brain had become soggy with ongoing pain, the insidious slow poisoning effect of a necrotic gall bladder, and the mentally numbing effect of painkillers and other medication.  After all the treatments were over, it took me two to three months to begin to produce work that I thought was worthwhile.  It was a very frustrating time indeed!  Still, as the sages tell us, “This, too, shall pass” – and it did.  By early October 2016, fifteen months after my medical misadventures began, I was again writing fiction that I felt was readable.

Meanwhile, of course, my sales had fallen off the proverbial cliff.  “Publish or perish” is a well-known phrase in academia.  It has a different, yet equally ominous meaning for most independent authors.  We depend on getting new work out to our reading public at regular intervals to keep our names fresh in their minds.  We have no publicity machine working on our behalf, no publisher spending money on advertising campaigns, no public relations firm firing off press releases.  If we don’t produce work that readers want to buy, they look for other writers to satisfy their needs.  For fifteen months, I was unable to produce or publish any work in the military science fiction genre where I’d hitherto developed a following.  As a result, my sales tapered off, slowly but surely, until they were barely limping along.  A writing income that had averaged four figures a month, pre-Libertycon 2015, declined to a lot less than that by the fourth quarter of 2016.  (Of course, this excludes earnings from ‘Brings The Lightning’, which were in a different genre and came through a publisher at biannual intervals, rather than monthly, as most indie authors receive them.)

We were able to survive the lean times because we’d built up a reserve from previous royalty earnings (the importance of which has, of course, been drastically reinforced in our thinking by recent events!).  Also, my wife found a job locally, which helped to keep the wolf from the door.  (Did I mention I love her very much?)  Added to our slowly declining independent royalty income, plus earnings from ‘Brings The Lightning’, those measures sufficed to keep us afloat.  Nevertheless, it was clear that I needed to start earning more money from my independent writing again, as quickly as possible.  Therefore, as soon as I was able, I got down to business.

I’d completed about a quarter of the next volume in my Maxwell Saga, ‘Stoke The Flames Higher‘, before illness laid me low.

 

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I spent some time in September revisiting and revising what I’d written, then began expanding on it.  By late October it had taken shape, and I was able to send it out to initial readers and begin the revision process.  By late November, it was in publishable form.  The question was, should I publish it right away, in the pre-Christmas period that many claimed was not the best time to do so, or wait until the new year?  We heard dire warnings that December was clogged with so many potential gifts, all chasing consumer dollars, that a new book would be lost amid the clutter and go unnoticed.  What’s more, we’d be chasing dollars intended for entertainment in general, not just books.  We’d be competing with movies, computer games, sporting goods and everything else that comes under that heading.  In such a season, books were unlikely to be a priority for most potential purchasers.

Against these warnings, there was the simple reality that I needed to get back to earning a living from my writing.  We’d coped with the demands on our finances during my prolonged illness, but that couldn’t continue indefinitely.  We had to pay off credit card balances run up during the ‘lean times’, and rebuild our depleted reserves.  That reality forced my hand.  Whether or not it was the wisest thing to do, I needed to get something new into the hands of my faithful readers who’d been waiting for far too long, and I needed to begin rebuilding the momentum that my writing career had lost.

‘Stoke The Flames Higher’ was published earlier this week.  The timeline went like this:

Dec 4 – Day 1:

The book was uploaded to Amazon.com.  Even before I publicly announced its launch the following day, dedicated fans had found it, and bought almost 50 copies.  One even submitted a review that evening!  Hooray for fans!

Dec 5 – Day 2:

  • I announced the book release on my blog, and asked my friends, fellow bloggers and fellow writers to begin publicizing it as well.  We also sent out an announcement to my mailing list.
  • Thanks to brisk initial sales to blog readers, the book jumped straight into the top 20 (i.e. on the front page) of Amazon.com’s ‘Hot New Releases’ lists in both military science fiction and space opera genres.  This was wonderful news, as it put the book before the eyes of a great many potential purchasers, who use those lists to browse for reading matter.  (This reinforces the huge advantage of having a popular blog or large social media following.  Those readers are the core of our fan base.  Their early purchases drive our books up popularity lists for our genre[s], making our work much more visible to other potential readers, who may never have heard of us before.  Effort invested in building a blog or social media following is not wasted – it’s intrinsic to our publishing success.  I spend a couple of hours every day blogging, and I don’t regret a minute of it.)

Dec 6 – Day 3:

  • A number of reviews (all 4- or 5-star) began to appear on Amazon.com.
  • We found that Facebook was ‘throttling‘ almost all release announcements concerning my new book, which was very disappointing.  As a result, I think I’ll discount Facebook in future as a primary way to get the word out about new releases.  However, blog publicity was bearing fruit.
  • The book was also available on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription library service, and by this date, page reads took off like a rocket.  I noted that initial sales were slower than I’d expected, but KU ‘paid loans’ were higher.  This tends to reinforce my earlier impression that people have fewer dollars to spend on entertainment these days, so they’re using them on the most cost-effective forms of entertainment (including reading) that they can find.  This isn’t good news for authors, who will sell less books as a result;  but, on the other hand, we’ll at least earn something from KU royalties for pages read.  “Half a loaf is better than no bread”.
  • Sponsored product links began to show up on the book’s Amazon.com page.  Sales of earlier books in the Maxwell Saga also began to pick up, as readers who’d come across my protagonist for the first time in the new book started to look for more.

Dec 7 – Day 4:

  • The book was added to my Maxwell Saga series list on Amazon.com, and to my author page there.
  • Also-boughts‘ began to appear on the book’s Amazon.com page.  I’m watching them with keen interest.  It appears that many who buy my books also buy from Castalia House, other indie authors who write here on Mad Genius Club, and from Baen.  That’s a pretty select group, if you ask me!

So far, as I mentioned earlier, sales are somewhat slower than I’d hoped, but I ascribe that to three reasons.

  1. I’ve lost a number of readers who are no longer looking for new releases from me, thanks to the long gap between my mil-SF and space opera novels.  I’m going to have to rebuild my following in those genres, and that will take time.
  2. Christmas is a bad season in which to publish, as we’ve often been warned.  I’m sure that’s having an effect on our sales.  On the other hand, I’ll take what I can get!  The financial drought has gone on too long.  I need to break it.
  3. I’ve been saying for some time that we’re not competing for consumers’ reading dollars;  we’re competing for their entertainment dollars.  They can buy entertainment in many forms, from going to the movies, to buying a DVD or video game, to going out to eat, to whatever.  We need to provide something so compelling that they choose to spend their dollars on our books, rather than something of greater interest or value to them.  Also, because economic times are hard, there are fewer entertainment dollars available, and consumers are seeking to spend them in the most cost-effective way possible.  We’re likely to see declining direct sales, and increasing membership in subscription libraries like Kindle Unlimited.  That means less money to us as authors, but at least there will be some money.  We’re going to have to adjust to that changing economic climate.

Overall, I’m satisfied with progress thus far.  I’m going to continue to publicize the book launch over the next couple of weeks (and if those of you who blog or have a social media presence could please mention it to your readers, I’ll be very grateful).  I expect initial sales to be lower than my previous book in the series, ‘Stand Against The Storm‘:  but I’ll gladly take what I can get, and build on that foundation as I strive to rebuild my fan base.

I’ve got big plans for next year, if my health remains good.  I discussed them with my readers in a blog post last week, and asked for their feedback:  and I analyzed their responses in a subsequent post.  If all goes well, I hope to produce four books next year.  Two will be independently published, and two through a publisher.  I think that sort of mixed approach will probably be important in the longer term, so that I’m not dependent on an income stream from one avenue of publication only.  I also have a short story scheduled for publication in a Baen anthology, and possibly a second in a proposed Castalia House anthology;  so if all goes well, 2017 should be a banner year for me.  Here’s hoping for good health, and for writing success!

 

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How to assess a civilization

As authors, we build fictional universes, star systems, planets, nations, polities and communities.  We flesh out the details in many ways;  race, creed, culture, standards of civilization and education, and so on.  There are a number of books out there where this is done very well, drawing us into the fictional universe created by the author and making us feel right at home there.  Others – rather more – are less well done, with jarring inconsistencies and discordant elements that hinder us in the suspension of disbelief.

I was thinking about this recently as I surveyed the body of work that I have in progress.  In no particular order, I’m plotting out, or researching, or actually working on, no less than five manuscripts:

  1. The fifth volume in my Maxwell Saga, a science fiction series set about eight centuries in the future;
  2. The third and final volume in the Laredo War trilogy, set on different planets in the Maxwell universe, with different characters and focus;
  3. A fantasy novel set in a world reminiscent of the late Middle Ages in Europe;
  4. Another fantasy novel set in a more traditionally ‘fantastic’ universe, a cross between that described in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series and the Norse Sagas and the Holy Roman Empire;
  5. A second novel in my Western series, set in Colorado in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In each case, I have to build a world that will be interesting to my readers, consistent with the events and incidents and tools and attitudes I describe.  Furthermore, I have to keep them separated from each other, so that attitudes, mannerisms, expressions, etc. don’t make the leap from (say) the Wild West in America to the court of Charlemagne (or its fictional analog).

As part of doing this, as well as looking for more information about world-building in general, I stumbled across an article titled ‘The decline and fall of toilet paper, or How to assess a civilization‘ by Dr. David C. Stolinsky MD.  He has an interesting perspective on the matter.  Here’s an excerpt.

There are many ways to assess a civilization. It all depends on your point of view. Some people believe we are advancing. These people point to a woman’s “freedom to choose,” more “rights” for those accused of crimes, and greater “tolerance.” Other people believe we are declining. These people point to nearly a million babies killed every year, up to the time of birth and sometimes even after. They point to increasing reluctance of the law-abiding to rely on the legal system. They point to widespread cheating in schools, in business, in government, and in relationships.

Those who believe we are declining point to the same events as those who believe we are advancing — they just see these events from a different perspective. But are there some ways to assess our civilization that most people might agree on? In an effort to find such methods, I adjourned to the bathroom, where I often do my best thinking, and came upon a possibility.

He argues that the ‘toilet paper index’ – the size and quality of toilet paper rolls – and the ‘lawyer-doctor index’ – the number of each in comparison to the other – are key markers of the state of our present civilization.  You can read more about them in the article.

Dr. Stolinsky is, of course, assessing our present Western civilization;  but perhaps we, as writers, should adopt his approach, and look for more intrinsic comparisons within our fictional universes (if, that is, they actually use toilet-paper, and not corn cobs – which would fit most fantasy universes I’ve encountered – or ‘three shells‘, as in one popular dystopian/science fiction setting) to suggest ways in which our readers can assess them for themselves, and perhaps be more drawn into them as they read.  What say you?

 

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