Hugh Howey's Blog
April 22, 2014
April 21, 2014
This is only the beginning, folks. Very few people appreciate where this is going. Projections for the future of e-books are wrong, and it’s because the people making these projections lack imagination. They seem to think all the advances in storytelling have already been made, and it’s just a question of how much current technology will scale.
But the advances have barely begun. I’d like to take you on a brief tour of our reading future to give you a glimpse of how much growth and possibility are left. When we look back on the advent of the e-reader, we’ll realize that in 2014, we were using the music equivalent of a Sony Minidisc Player, that the click-wheel / black & white iPod hadn’t been invented yet, and certainly not the iPhone and all that came after.
It is often said that e-readers can’t replace physical books, because books have a certain heft and tactile feel and even a smell to them. Well what if those people are eventually wrong? We will one day build an e-reader that’s indistinguishable from a physical book, and I believe people alive today will live to see such a device.
Google recently applied for a patent for a contact lens that contains a camera and a screen. These devices might be a decade or two off, but they will come. When they do, they will transform our lives as soundly as the smartphone has. These devices will create a science fiction world that’s difficult to imagine, but will come as gradually and be just as readily embraced as the science fiction world in which we currently live.
The above is an example of Augmented Reality. It’s a blend of our world and a virtual reality one. We already see these examples of books that can come alive on our tablets, but the true power will be unlocked first with glasses that cover our vision and later with contact lenses and finally with surgical implants. Anywhere you look, information can be laid atop what you are seeing. An arrow in the sky or on the sidewalk can lead you to an address or business you are looking for. A blinking icon will appear over real-life people in your contact list, so you can spot friends in a crowd. Advertisements will fill our visions and be catered to us, so we only see the ads that apply to us and only those we choose to see. Again, many people alive today will witness this world. It’s in the lab, being built as we speak.
What does this have to do with books? The marvel of this technology is that the overlay device has a camera pointing out at the world we are looking at. This allows our head movement and the movement of objects to be tracked, so the augmented reality overlays neatly and tracks physical items in our vision. That’s how the book in the video above works. When you shake the book or move the tablet, the animation sticks seamlessly in place. Otherwise, the illusion wouldn’t work.
Now imagine you have a book in your hands. A beautiful hardback with faux leather and a silk ribbon bookmark. There is no technology in this book. It’s just paper, the finest quality paper and binding money can buy. And every single page is perfectly blank. There is nothing written in the book. But you carry it everywhere you go.
When you open the book up, what do you see? The last page you read. Text is overlaid in your vision by your glasses or your contacts or implants. The quality of the text is just as high as a printed book. The words stick to the page. Even when you curl a page to turn to the next one, the text bends and warps just as you’d imagine. There is no way to distinguish this book from the printed kind. And yet it has many of the benefits of an e-book. Unlimited storage in the cloud. Immediate purchase of any book you want. Scalable fonts. And more.
You can watch video on any page if you like. You can look up words and make highlights. You can even write with your finger, and the camera captures the text you are drawing and adds the notes in the margin. You can turn footnotes and endnotes on or off. And if the book you’re reading is longer than your printed tome, it’ll direct you to turn back to the beginning when you run out of pages. Two people could read on the same book simultaneously, even if they were different books. You could read on a wall or on the ceiling. The magical uses are endless. I haven’t even scratched the surface.
We won’t have to wait for this end-game of implanted contacts for book buying and reading to be affected by looming technology. There will be a steady stream of marvels before then. Color e-ink will make for a huge leap. As will waterproof e-readers and those with better refresh rates and form factors. The technology is in its infancy. There will be a bump every time it is significantly improved.
Other developments will come from outside the book world. The biggest one on the immediate horizon is the self-driving car, which is less than a decade away. Consider how this will change our media habits: All of our commuting hours will now be open for the consumption of entertainment. Sure, most people will use this time to improve themselves and their lives with Candy Crush and all sorts of inanity. Others will watch TV or films. But many people will do what you see subway and train commuters doing: They’ll read.
Self-driving cars will bring the next quantum leap in reading. Sales will spike. The development of high speed trains will likewise impact our industry. And the moving world will favor books that can be delivered instantaneously while taking up no physical space and weighing nothing. The spread of literacy and wealth around the world will be another source of amazing growth. You better believe all this is going to have an impact.
And these are just the things I can foresee. How many others will surprise us? I’m guessing many more. And I can’t wait.
April 19, 2014
The economics of book publishing have shifted and will never be the same. Both the physical book, with print-on-demand, and the e-bo0k, with its infinite supply, have created a world where the written word is forever available for commercial transaction. Hundreds of years from now, anything written today will still be available for sale. At that point, of course, the works will be in the public domain. But what to do until then?
The current book contract in all its lovely boilerplate no longer makes sense in light of a work’s permanence. Such contracts are an outdated mechanism. New contracts are needed. Authors will still care about their works decades down the road in ways that publishers most likely won’t. Many publishers view backlist as competition to frontlist. Dusty tomes do battle with the shiny and new. If the purpose of publishing is to blow out the release and hit the grail of lists—The New York Times—then lowering the cost or in any way promoting a decades-old story can only harm this goal. The beloved author today becomes the pariah of tomorrow.
Reversion clauses are meant to protect the author’s interest by assuring the work will return to them once it has sufficiently withered on the vine. But these terms are ludicrous and growing more so. I’ve seen contracts where a work remains with the publisher so long as it sells 100 copies in two reporting periods. That’s 100 copies in a full calendar year. A publisher could order that many e-books for themselves at the last moment and retain rights to a work until the author dies, and then another 70 years after.
Again, these injustices meant little when a book had a three-month lifespan on a bookstore shelf before going out of print. The same terms are a slap across the face today. And while I believe hard limits on the terms of license are inevitable for the publishing industry (say, five or seven years), such a shift is likely too bold to take place all at once. Which leaves us at an impasse. And so why not make up an entirely new clause for book contracts?
For an industry not used to modifying boilerplate, this may seem extreme. Even heretical. I point to the United States Constitution and its many wonderful amendments (and some shameful) as precedent. What if instead of a hard limit or a set date, publishing contracts had a Yellow Light reversion period. It might go something like this (with added legalese, of course):
If the work in question does not sell 1,000 copies in a single reporting period of six months, the author is granted the right to set the price of the work and to request and approve of a change in cover art. If the work does not sell 1,000 copies in the following reporting period of six months, the rights revert completely to the author.
The publisher must also approve of the cover art, and the price of the work cannot be raised so as to reduce the work’s chances of meeting this sales threshold.
The point of the clause is to give the publisher a chance to revamp the work or invest in its promotion. Any publisher confident of its ability to increase sales should be willing to sign a contract containing such a clause. As publishers get more accustomed to promoting digital and POD works, this should be a non-issue. (For a publisher with direct access to merchandising opportunities like Amazon, this sort of clause would be a no-brainer). Agents and publishers would of course negotiate the exact sales threshold. 1,000 copies in six months might be far too low. (And let’s hope that before long, six months would be equal to six reporting periods).
There are other ways to concoct such a clause, all meant to give the publisher time to steer the work back toward readers. It should make fairer reversion clauses more palatable to publishing houses. And it will give authors and agents peace of mind that their work will either continue to perform, or revert back to those who care most to see that it does.
There are no bookstores in Jupiter Florida. Our local Books a Million shuttered a few months ago. You can head south 20 minutes and find a Barnes & Noble, and that’s about it. The question is whether or not this town of 60,000 needs or would support an independent bookstore. There is a very small college in town. A good number of the residents are seasonal. The median age is quite high. People are quite used to jumping on 95 and heading to Palm Beach Gardens for all their shopping needs.
I do think a bookstore could work, but it would need to be a destination. I have a few zany ideas that I would implement if I were setting up a bookstore from scratch. They come from my own wishes as a reader, a shopper, a writer, a former bookstore employee, and a member of the community. Read on to see what I would do with “Bella’s Bookshop” (because all great bookstores need a furry mascot, and my pup would be a constant fixture around the store. And also: Alliteration.
Bella’s Bookshop would start with the kids. A vibrant and fun children’s section with bean bags, reading and writing stations, and a commitment to the Battle of the Books and NaNoWriMo Young Writers programs. I would want one employee who stays in touch with local schools and teachers to make sure we have the books they need and assign for class, that parents are aware of our after-school programs, and that kids feel welcome hanging out as long as they like.
A focus on literacy. I would have a section of books for people who hate reading. These would be gift ideas for readers trying to turn family and friends who don’t read onto books. Know a guy who likes to gamble and refuses to read? Try Bringing Down the House. Know a relative who swears off books but loves their dog? Get them The Art of Racing in the Rain. There’s a book for everyone. There’s a reader in all of us.
A well-paid staff that reads and recommends. I would rather have fewer employees who all get enough hours and pay to support themselves than a ton of part-time people. (And yeah, I know how difficult it is to run a small business and pay employees well, but it helps when the manager (me) can afford to not take a salary).
Staff recommendations are the engine that power robust sales. I would have employees write at least one recommendation a month, with shelf talkers placed everywhere that book is shelved.
Online recommendations. Related to the above, I would have the employees post the same reviews to several online locations (Amazon, Goodreads, B&N), with a standard intro to each review promoting the qualifications of the reader as an employee of Bella’s Bookshop in Jupiter, Florida. So online shoppers in New Jersey learn that our recommendations rock. And to visit us next time they pass through town. (This attitude of giving freely even if it seems to run counter to our bottom line would permeate the bookshop).
I would want a stellar cafe with the best fresh-ground organic coffee in town (and a drive-through window, where you can get a newspaper, magazine, or order a book while your coffee is being made). We would feature my homemade cheesecake and choc-chip cookies, and my mother’s coconut and 7-layer choc-cake recipes. The cafe would have a handful of tables and an outdoor patio for the awesome and busy Jupiter winter season. The cafe would serve a selection of doggy treats and have water fountains and shade outside for visiting pups. But the real reason for the cafe would be because of my favorite spot in the entire store. Our…
…Writing Room. Separate from the cafe, this would be like a Starbucks lounge for people who want to sit and use our WiFi or get work done in a quiet space. There would be a selection of writing reference books for people to paw through (thesaurus, guide to agents, grammar guides, etc.), writing prompts and encouragement on our community whiteboard, a running collective word-count everyone can add to, a bulletin board to announce the newly published, and a case for displaying published works that were partly written right there in the room (and for any award announcements from our writers, young or old).
Weekly writing workshops in the Writing Room. My favorite. We would have some for all ages and all skill levels. Our staff would teach some, but we would also invite in local writers and teachers.
The writing room would also have a couple of computers. We would have a Mac for writers who don’t own one to be able to self-publish to the iBookstore. We would also sell an affordable in-house guide to writing your best work possible, as well as a guide to publishing, however you choose to go about it.
Reading groups. We would reach out to our regular readers and help them form regular groups, which could take over our writing room for monthly gatherings. I would want to have a few, so the SFF crowd could have a group, the general fiction crowd, the non-fiction crowd, whomever.
Two author events a week, Wednesday and weekends. Local authors, big names, groups of writers, our in-house success stories.
A bay of shelves for self-published works. This would include classics that readers don’t realize were originally self-published. It would also feature our Mavens program. Mavens are our adventurous readers who discover great unknown works. When they recommend a self-published work that we love and feature in the store, they get a $15 gift certificate, and their Maven Bio and personal recommendation is featured as a shelf talker below the book. So you get to know that Donna Maybell discovered this work and what she loves about it. The Maven of the Month is the community reader who brought the best works to our attention. And employees would be expected to give these recommendations a try along with their other reads.
We would sell e-readers that provide a financial kick-back for books purchased on those devices. We would also work with authors and publishers to bundle e-books with print books in an affordable manner (giving the e-book away where possible).
We would stock Amazon published books. Why? Because it’s Amazon’s distribution and online retail divisions that hurt physical stores, not their publishing wing. The latter is a miniscule portion of Amazon’s profits. Refusing to stock these books hurts the reader and author without impacting Amazon one bit. The best way to hurt Amazon? Sell their books and pocket that 40% of the list price! I would view Amazon Publishing as a partner, just as I would view any publisher.
Education about our bookstore and programs. I would want readers and writers to understand our purpose with the bookstore and to know where their money is going. They would understand what our employees make as a salary and how that compares to the industry average. We would post our profits every year, so shoppers feel like they are a part of our success. They would know what our managers make. How much we donate to charity and which charities we support. And fun facts, like how many words have been written in our Writing Room, how many books patrons have published, how many books young readers have read, how many books our book clubs have discussed, and how many writers have shown up for events. All things to celebrate.
We would shelve the finest books in all genres, from the classic must-reads to the new releases. We would also feature a shelf of books that defy explanation. Quirky books that are in-between.
NO RETURNS! We would not return unsold books to publishers. I would ask for a 50% – 55% discount from publishers with a guarantee of no return. When books are at the end of their shelf life, they would be moved to the “Rescue” section. Here, a brief sign would explain our commitment to publishers and to the environment and that we do not return books. Please purchase these great reads at a 35% discount. If they don’t sell in a certain period of time, these books would move to our used book section and our remaindering section.
Used and remaindered books. There are amazing discounters out there that sell hardbacks for cheap. I would rather these books find readers than be recycled into pulp. So our used and bargain section would be a huge component of the bookstore.
We would take advantage of bulk ordering and feature promotional packages. Many new releases offer custom cardboard stands if you order 12 or more copies. We would do this and put a customer’s name on the back of any stand or poster they call dibs on. These are fun for displaying a young reader’s favorite books or putting posters on bedroom walls of something besides musicians and sports stars. (We often had customers asking for these items at our bookstore).
We would definitely have an Espresso Book Machine. Yes, I know how much they cost. I would use the machine not only to support our catalog, but to provide a printing service for community businesses, writers, publishers, and teachers. Also for education on print-on-demand and to get kids excited about the publishing industry. Also: gadgets.
Every other year, we would have a Bella Bookshop cruise out of Fort Lauderdale. Gorge on buffets, read all day, write all night, and hang out with book lovers. Group discounts would make this a bargain, and of course, we wouldn’t have the ship to ourselves. But if we got a few hundred people to sign up, we would make up a nice chunk of the cruise.
I would apply for grants based on our education and literacy efforts and appeal to community members and elected officials to support our bookstore as they would a library or learning institution. Our commitment to transparency would assist these efforts. If we are profitable enough, we wouldn’t ask for anything. If we become more profitable, we would expand, raise salaries, lower prices, or give more to excellent charities. Whatever we decided, our shoppers and our community would know. Heck, we might take our profits and install a dog run/dog park so Bella can wear out your pup while you shop!
If this sounds like an unreasonable list, you only have to visit amazing shops like The Tattered Cover in Denver or Powell’s in Portland to see all that a bookstore can be. Our challenge will be to scale those shops down in square footage and make the plan work for 60,000 residents rather than 600,000. Is that possible? I think so. In fact, I think a number of people in Palm Beach Gardens would drive up to visit our store. As well as people in Stuart and Hobe Sound driving down.
We wouldn’t sit still, either. One of our side projects would be to render our store in 3D in anticipation of Oculus Rift and other Virtual Reality devices. The idea would be to allow people anywhere in the world to visit our store. And when we do author events, the entire world would be able to attend. When we do writing workshops, those would be broadcast everywhere and saved on our YouTube channel. Our reading groups would have online members and discussions as well.
For those with VR headsets, you could browse our store as it exists and is shelved any week. This would cut down on all the clutter online and let you see our expertly curated selection. If you want a book, rather than ship it to you, we’ll direct you to Amazon with our affiliate code. I would beat up Amazon for an even higher referral percentage in exchange for directing our shoppers their way and for carrying their books. This would save us the work of packing up books, save our shoppers money, and save the environment with less double-shipping of merchandise.
Virtual Reality shoppers would also be able to see a customized version of our store based on their past purchases. I would work with Amazon to help build this engine and license it to other bookshops. VR would combine the thrill of book discovery that shops provide with the ease of purchase and delivery (and pajamas) that online shopping lends. We would even get to the point where you could summon a bookshop employee to enter your VR world to give you recommendations (like on the Kindle Fire) or help you find a title or a gift idea.
That’s my vision for a bookshop that makes sense now and one that could grow into tomorrow and be global both with VR and broadcast events and workshops. Would you put on pants in order to come shop with us?
April 18, 2014
I posited this during my keynote speech at the inaugural PubSmart conference here in Charleston, SC. And nobody threw anything at me. A few people came up afterward and wondered if there might be some merit to the idea. My thinking is this: The true enemy of independent bookstores has been the large chains like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Waldenbooks, not online shopping. There was even a movie about this. Since the rise of Amazon, we’ve seen some of these chains shutter and many of the B&N stores close. Meanwhile, independent bookstores are experiencing near double-digit growth for three years running.
Is it possible that Amazon more directly competes with the large chains, and the independent stores are rising to reclaim their role in reading communities? I think so. Shoppers looking for discounts, or who know exactly what they need ahead of time, are using mouse clicks rather than driving to the big chain.
It’s also possible that the “shop local” movement, which is partly a response to the rise of discounters like Amazon, vastly benefits independent bookshops more than large chains. I know this works for me. I pay full retail for hardbacks at a mom-and-pop place but balk at 20% discounts from chains. Are there more shoppers like me?
Major publishers lambast Amazon, because they think the large chains are their main hope for the survival brick and mortar bookshops. Independent bookstores (like the one I used to work in) go right along with the stone-throwing, assuming what’s bad for B&N and Borders must be bad for them as well. And yeah, I saw people scanning UPC codes and taking pics of books to buy online later. I also saw our sales numbers improve every year, partly because of our reorganization of the shop and our focus on customer service, but more because of the shuttering of WaldenBooks.
Amazon is knocking out the big predators. The indie bookshops are filling up some of that space. Meg Ryan should be orgasmic.
April 10, 2014
In the past, I have advocated for fewer imprints. Allow me to reverse course as I suggest a new imprint idea that should be added at every major publisher. Call it Resurrection or Second Chance or Renewal. The idea is simple: Publishers are sitting on piles of quality material that they paid good money for. Some of those investments didn’t pay off. But it may not have been the fault of the text. Give that piece a second chance.
Self-published authors do this all the time (though probably not as often as they should). If a digital book isn’t selling well, there’s minimal cost and zero risk in repackaging the work and giving it a second go. Every editor has a list of books a mile long that they truly believed in, loved to death, but didn’t quite make a splash. Too often, this is blamed on the book or on consumers. Nearly as often, it is the wrong cover art, the wrong metadata, the wrong blurb, the wrong title, or simply the wrong time.
For the cost of cover art and an upload, a piece of valuable property can be brought out of the vault and sent out to customers. I imagine a spirited meeting once a month over coffee and scones, where editors can make their case for a book at least two years old that didn’t sell as expected. Perhaps they would want to look primarily at books for which they paid large advances, as the earnings are already in the red (so more of what is made would be kept in-house). These are probably the books they cared dearly about when they first saw them. Another $5,000 for a digital-only release is a drop in the bucket.
I would make these releases (and this imprint) LOUD. I wouldn’t shy away from the notion of giving a work a second chance. Implicit in this act is a belief in and an appreciation of this work. Shout to the book world that people missed something great. If the title is changed, make sure people know what the old title was. This isn’t an attempt to dupe or deceive. It’s just about taking great works, already owned, and seeing if a few tweaks and a new climate will help them prosper.
For the publisher brave enough to make this a real focus, the advantages would be extraordinary. Imagine saying to agents and authors during the negotiation process that you are the only publisher (or the first publisher) who will never give up on a work they believe in. What other publisher will tell you that? Think of the PR of such an imprint at minimal cost. A huge gain would be made to hear from publishers that sometimes, when a book doesn’t do well, it isn’t the text’s fault.
I would aim for twelve books a year from an imprint like this. There’s no editing to perform. No printing costs. No distribution costs. Edit that metadata, digitally re-shelve the e-book, and slap a new cover on it. Let the author know the book is being given new life, so their marketing efforts can be kicked up. And then, if a book shows promise in e-form, get the sales force behind the work. Maybe it’s time to dust off the printers.
April 7, 2014
Today is the first day of the Fair, but we kicked it off yesterday at the Digital Minds conference. Best panel of my life was sitting at a table, gabbing with Bella Andre and Joanna Penn. Learned so much from the both of them. Wish I had the entire conversation recorded so I could go back to it over and over.
Dinner last night was also a highlight. Forced to give a toast, I said what was on my mind right then, which is that writing can be a solitary endeavor, that conferences are best for meeting colleagues, seeing old friends, and getting energized until we meet again. What followed was a three hour gab-fest that again, I wish I could revisit over and over.
Right now, I’m in the lobby of the hotel, gathering my things and our group, and about to head over to our booth. If you’re in the area, we’re at T730, right by the Kobo, Nook, and Kindle booths. Follow the sounds of laughter.
April 6, 2014
Sunday is Sanday, it seems. SAND is Amazon’s Daily Deal today, which means they’re practically giving away my latest novel for $1.99. Two bucks! Cheaper than a bag of actual sand at Home Depot! (Or a cup of coffee.)
Keep in mind that you don’t need to own a Kindle in order to read this. Practically any tablet, phone, laptop, or PC will work. There’s a free Kindle app for all of them. Also, the audiobook edition has been reduced to 99 cents for one day only (for those who own the e-book). For three bucks, you can get a brilliant and unabridged audio recording of SAND. If you ever wanted to pressure a friend or family member to give the novel a try, today is a day to save them some money.
Happy Sanday! Get some in your drawers!
April 4, 2014
It’s a London Meet-Up Twofer! Superstar author Liliana Hart and I are going to be at the King’s Head pub this Sunday, April 6th, at 2:00 pm. The plan is to hang out for a couple of hours and have a pint. All are welcome. If you live nearby, come join us. If you can’t make it, be jelly and wish us well.
Click here for a map to find the pub. You’re on your own for getting home!
April 2, 2014
Print books will never go away. Not completely. It isn’t just the nostalgia factor, either. Paper is cheap, and despite what shopping for replacement cartridges would suggest, ink isn’t expensive either. Modern print-on-demand (POD) books are practically indistinguishable from their large-batch brethren. A 300 page novel can be ordered from CreateSpace for less than $4, and that means it’s even cheaper to print (CreateSpace is making a profit at that price).
Print books are great for gifts, for tossing in a beach bag, for reading in the tub, and for piling up beside the bed. They are also wonderful impulse buys. And they cater to that urge for self-improvement, much like underused exercise equipment. Even if e-books move to 60% or 70% of trade fiction, that leaves a market for paperback novels. A trend that began years ago — the selling of novels in grocery stores, big-box discount stores, and airports — will continue. The problem with these outlets has always been shelf space and therefore selection. But imagine every book ever written being available right when you walk in the door at your local grocery store.
The video rental market has already moved there. Bookstores could as well. The Espresso Book Machine and its ilk already reside in some independent and university bookstores. We came very close to ordering one for our bookstore at ASU. These printers are compact, and they produce a trimmed and bound paperback in just a few minutes. Imagine walking in, wrestling those two stuck carts apart (sometimes you have to use a water hose), and then stopping at the RedBoox machine before you tackle your list.
There are two screens on either side of the machine. Someone is already browsing the cookbook selection on the other screen. You swipe your credit card, which logs you in and shows recommendations based on your prior purchases. You choose “Fiction Bestsellers,” and the screen shows you what’s selling the best nationally. You drill into the option to see what has sold the best in that particular store. A few local authors pop up. The usual names are there as well: Grisham, Collins, Patterson. You pick the book you want. The machine is already humming with existing orders. You sign the pay screen and go about your shopping.
On the way out, you stop by the machine and swipe the same credit card in the pick-up side of the printer. Some more robotic whirrings, and then the book you ordered slides down a chute. You pop it your purse (I’m using myself as an example here) and off you go.
Millions of books on-hand. No more guessing how many copies to print. No more wasteful returns system or environmentally damaging trucking of unread books several times across the country. No more printing overseas. Now, paper and ink come in the loading docks with the toilet paper and eggs. Books come out the other side. Want to own a RedBoox of your own? Good. We franchise. There’s some regular maintenance and the occasional breakdown. And since the system works by credit card, the funds go once a month to the copyright owners of the printed books, with the rest going to the owner of the RedBoox.
This won’t replace bookstores. The reason indie bookstores are experiencing growth the past few years is because they offer a unique discovery mechanism and a place for literary community. I think they will continue to thrive, at least for cities large enough to support them. There’s room for growth in the reading community, and print on demand offers the ability to put bookstores into very small footprints. If Amazon opens physical stores to showcase its electronics and Amazon Publishing titles, I could see them using those locations for same-day delivery and also print on demand titles.
There are all sorts of solutions to explore. Hey — how about a copy of the ebook sent to your device the moment you order that print title? If you get caught in a long line at the register, you can read the first chapter of the title you just ordered on your phone. Sign me up and take my money, please!