Hugh Howey's Blog, page 5
July 12, 2015
As much as I love writing fiction (and don’t worry, I’m not going to stop), these are the books I’ve always dreamed of writing. Literally. Before I wrote my first novel, I daydreamed about taking everything I was learning about myself, and all the nonfiction reading I do, and distilling it down into digestible bits that family and friends might enjoy.
Make no mistake: I don’t consider myself an expert in anything. Not even in publishing. Certainly not in sailing. I’m struggling through life like anyone else. The one thing I have going for me is that I read a lot. And pretty much all I read are books that help me understand why we behave the ways we do. That includes histories, biographies, and business books on top of the obvious works on philosophy, psychology, and biology.
I don’t know more than anyone else. I think my gift, if I have one, is to hold a lot of information in my head all at once and have it distill into an insight or two. I think we’re all capable of this; maybe I just spend more time writing it all down. My blog has been a constant source of enlightenment and joy for me. I learn a lot by collecting my thoughts on topics. I’ve been doing this in private with these self-help works for over a year now. I’ve been sitting on several of these entries until I got closer to embarking on my circumnavigation. There was never any doubt that I would write about my travels. So let me tell you a little bit about how these books work.
Wayfinding is the art of navigating by natural signs. The original wayfinders were the ancient sailors who took to coastal waters in little more than human-powered canoes and rafts. As a self-help program, I see Wayfinding as the art of looking for the natural signs that often get drowned out in the modern world. This process borrows heavily from the art of mindfulness but also from evolutionary psychology. And it is compatible with the world’s major religions.
Wayfinding is not about a destination; it’s about a journey. No two people will end up in the same place, and there’s no goal other than self-betterment, which will mean something different for everyone. But this is a universal system, because there are universal truths to the human condition. Despite our variety, we have far more in common than we have in difference. The fact that the same works of art can move people across cultures and throughout time point to the biological heart of us all. We inform culture far more than culture informs us. Getting to the roots of the human experience, and how the modern world presents challenges for which we are not suited, prepares us to live fuller, happier lives.
Despite my lack of expertise, I can guarantee that anyone who follows this series will be rewarded. These are principles I’ve used for the last twenty-plus years of my life. I’m not perfect, which is why I’ve needed to find a system to help me smooth my rough edges. It’s a work in progress. This series will take you along on my journey of self-discovery. It will also bring you along on my trip around the world. Each piece includes two parts. The Wayfinding component comes first, and deals with the self-help aspects. The second part is called Wayfinder, which covers my travels in a catamaran by the same name.
I will embark on my more literal voyage in September. Each of these works will cover some part of that voyage. You will also be able to browse photo galleries here and track my progress around the world. I’ll also sprinkle in plenty of stories from my past voyages. Most people who follow this blog think of me as a writer, primarily of science fiction. But that’s a very recent stage of my life. I’m a sailor at heart. These books get to the core of who I am. You’ll see my flaws, my mistakes, my regrets, my heartaches. We are not alone in this voyage. We are all traveling through space on the same wet rock. We are all trying to figure out how to make the best of our limited time here, and how to leave the world a better place than how we found it. That’s the essence of Wayfinding. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.
All the Wayfinding entries are available to read for free through Kindle Unlimited. I wrote about the program here, and promised to give away five 6-month subscriptions to KU. The responses have moved me to tears. I’m so overwhelmed, that I’m going to give away twenty 6-month subscriptions to KU. More about that soon.
I recently had someone ask me via Facebook how I dealt with those days when I just didn’t feel like writing. They wanted to know if this even happened to me, and if so, what do I do to get over it?
I don’t listen to music while I write, but I do listen to music to get in the mood for writing. I only do this when I feel like I need a boost. And I listen to heavy-hitting stuff to get in the mood. The way I motivate myself to get past the procrastination and get to writing is to get angry at my reluctance, my fear, that niggling doubt that tells me I’m not good enough. I try to shout down this inner voice and build up the confidence of the scared little artist that lives deep inside me and who is almost always terrified of coming out.
My favorite tune for getting angry at my reluctance is an Eminem song that directly deals with this. I remember listening to this song on my way down the mountain from Boone. As I navigated the twisty roads south of Blowing Rock, and my ears were popping from the drop in altitude, I jammed this song and thought about all the meetings I was getting ready to have with publishers. I was flying to New York to meet my agent, and I was hip-deep in the SHIFT books, and I could see my life at this crossroads. My fear told me to give up. To stop while I was ahead. But my inner little artist was shouting at me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and what was I going to do with it?
Listen to this with the volume up when you’re asking yourself if you feel like putting in the work today:
This next song is by Macklemore and Ryan and is a good one to listen to and remember where we are in our artistic journeys:
But maybe the most effective song for me is my strangest choice. I love Rage Against the Machine. Their song “Killing in the Name Of” is not about being creative. It’s about power, police violence, racism, and much more important things than conquering our artistic resistance. But at the 4:00 mark, when Zack starts shouting, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” over and over again, I can sing this at the top of my lungs and feel myself shouting down my doubts and pessimism. I’ve done this so many times to this song, and it gets me through my doubts and my desire to procrastinate. Strange, but effective.
The same things won’t work for different people. This is just what I do to overcome my fears and doubts. What about you?
July 8, 2015
Announced today, on the first day of Comic Con here in San Diego: Imperative Entertainment, the company behind the reboot of NBC’s HEROES, is developing SAND for television.
I’m so thrilled with the team behind this. They totally got the novel and have an incredible vision for how to make this work with a scripted series that dives even deeper into this world (heh). More cool news about this soon.
Also: Some people who don’t have tickets to Comic Con but who want to get together and sign some stuff are looking to coordinate a meet-up. Things are crazy for me, so I’m thinking we do something near the Marriott Marquis, which is right beside the convention center. Maybe we could have mimosas on the deck by the pool. I think anyone can sneak in there. I’m looking at Saturday morning at 10am. Chime in with a comment below if that works for you.
July 6, 2015
I grew up going to the library, because my family couldn’t afford my reading habit. Each week, I would leave with a stack of books, and I remember feeling like I was robbing the place. I couldn’t believe they let me just walk out with all those books! I had no concept of who was getting paid or how, or that authors were even people like my mom and dad. I just wanted books to read and lots of them. Libraries are still one of the best places to get your fix, but of course they are limited to the number of copies on-hand.
So I know what it’s like to have limited funds for reading and a voracious appetite. Believe me I know what that’s like. Just yesterday, I asked for reading suggestions on Facebook and had several hundred responses. I made a list and went shopping. Any ebook over $9.99, I skipped. Any ebook that was in the Kindle Unlimited program, I put on my TBR pile. This is how I shop for ebooks these days.
Yesterday, I had a reader Tweet that it was a “$5 Hugh Howey day,” and it gave me a twinge of guilt. I’ve released a lot of short stories lately, and I’ve been pricing things at 99 cents to keep the cost to you down, but it can still add up. Ever since I released my first story, I’ve been all about keeping my prices low to aid in discovery and make sure everyone can afford my ebooks. I’ve always been an advocate of pirating my ebooks (not those of others!) as a way to sample my works for free or read them first and pay later when you can. My old website had a button specifically for that, and people used it practically every day.
I think Kindle Unlimited provides an even easier solution to these problems. I’ve been a subscriber from day 1, and I’ve always gotten my money’s worth. It is $10 a month, and not everyone can afford another monthly bill, but if you read a lot, you will save money. My hope is that readers who enjoy my work and are reading a lot of other great stories will be able to read everything I publish for “free.” All of my novels and stories are now in Kindle Unlimited. I love the program as a reader. I’ve used the program for my short stories as an author. Now I’ve got my novels in the program as well.
If you are an avid reader, I highly recommend checking the program out. I’ll even gift five of you a six-month subscription to the program, which costs nearly $60. You can cancel before they start charging you. Just leave a comment below telling me what you remember about reading as a child, or what it’s like these days trying to get your book fix. Or tell me about your dog eating your favorite paperback. I’ll pick five comments that I like, and I’ll email you a six-month, fully paid, Kindle Unlimited subscription. You’ll love it, I promise. Just make sure you use a valid email when you comment (no one should see it but me).
If you don’t have a dedicated ereader, don’t worry. Kindle ebooks can be read on pretty much anything with a screen. There are apps for your smartphone, tablet, laptop, and PC. But if you are an avid reader, I can’t recommend a Kindle highly enough. You will read more with an ereader. You’ll be able to order ebooks anytime and anywhere. The battery lasts forever. The screen is easy on the eyes (especially since they just upgraded the new Paperwhite screen to the same one that’s in the incredible Voyage!). Plus, you can look up words, highlight your ebooks, and have access to every purchase ever made.
Ebooks have changed the way I read. Kindle Unlimited has changed the way I shop for ebooks. I’m reading more than ever and loving it as much as when I was a kid, raiding my public library with my parents.
(Edited to add: Holy heck, your comments are moving me to tears. Which makes me an irrational spender. No way will 5 gift subscriptions be enough. Expect more. Thanks for sharing, everyone.)
As a reader, the above is all you need to know. Now a note for any of you who are writers as well.
I’ve been ruminating on the pros and cons of KDP Select and Amazon exclusivity for years, going back to late 2010, in fact. When I started self-publishing, many of my ebooks launched through KDP Select. Those free days were so valuable, and I loved the extra visibility. There’s a blog post here with my thoughts on being exclusive to one retailer or the other. You can see that I’ve wrestled with this decision for a long time. I remember a blog post back in 2011 about my decision to pull out of KDP Select and publish on B&N’s new Nook platform, and how difficult that was for me to do. These decisions are never easy. The great thing is that they aren’t permanent.
I’m keen to see what the next 90 days bring. I’ll share my findings. And I’ll keep wrestling with these pros and cons. The landscape changes every day, and I try to be open to changing with them. My gut tells me that right now, I can reach more readers by being exclusive than I could by being wide. This would be like realizing I could reach twenty million readers in the state of New York or one million around the globe. Which is the right call? In which call are we truly ignoring borders and boundaries? In which one am I limiting myself?
Like many of you, the exclusivity requirement for KDP Select is hard to accept. Like you, I wish I could get all that KDP Select offers in incentives, but without having to pay the cost of membership. Getting something for nothing is always a great idea when you can legally get away with it. But membership is a choice, one each author should make for him or herself, and what’s right for one author won’t be for another. It might not even end up being the best choice for me! But I think it’s the best for my readers; I think the Kindle platform is the absolute best for reading; and I think concentrating my works there is not only the best way to grow my readership, but to grow the marketplace for ebooks and ereading in general.
July 5, 2015
Gonna be at SDCC?
Here’s where to find me:
Thursday, 11am, Inkshares panel on publishing with the legendary Gary Whitta
Friday, 1pm, a panel on adaptations with Nicole Perlman, Gary Whitta, and Jimmy Palmiotti in Room 29AB
Friday, 2:45pm, book signing at booth AA18
Saturday, 2pm, book signing at Random House booth #1520
July 4, 2015
Some more thinking-out-loud about subscription service models and the book industry. I’ve blogged about this numerous times in the past, but years go by and your thought process changes and more data rolls in.
This was my blog post when Kindle Unlimited was unveiled. A few things I said at the time:
I doubted a model like Scribd’s or Oyster’s could survive. (I compared it to paying too much for manual labor, which would close down a factory and leave everyone out of a job, a comparison pretty apt with the recent removal of erotica from Scribd’s lineup.)
I felt like Amazon was forced into subscription services, but was going about it in a smarter way. (Noting that the full-tilt plan Scribd and Oyster were using was unsustainable, and that a borrow should never pay the same as a sale.)
That it was too soon to say anything conclusive, so I would have to wait and see. (Which I still agree with, but I feel a little less ignorant today than I did a year ago.)
So what do I think about subscription ebook models now? I think they are different from retail models, for one. And I might be alone in this, because the media is covering Amazon’s estimated $0.00579 per-page payment plan to retail royalties, as if this is the new metric for a living wage for an author. Everyone is asking where the literary version of Taylor Swift is, the musician who has been railing against the pay from streaming audio services. Few media outlets have made it clear that this new payment plan is for borrows, rather than the sale of ebooks. It turns out that most of this is moot, anyway.
Amazon’s page count is an in-house metric that vastly overstates the length of ebooks. A 300-page print edition of an ebook can tally nearly double that according to KENPC, or the new standard page count for Kindle Unlimited. Which means media outlets are talking about a price-per-page that paints one image in readers’ heads, and it isn’t an accurate image. These aren’t physical book pages. The real compensation (which we won’t know for at least 5 or 6 more weeks) would probably come to just over a penny per page.
Only a penny per page?!? Outrage, right?!
Hell, I don’t know. What am I paying an author when I buy a book from a bookstore? If someone told me I was paying Taylor Swift $0.00000145 for every note of music she wrote, I’d want someone to tell me what in the world that meant. Is that a lot? Not much? Should I ask for some money back? Or should I mail her whatever I can scrounge out of my sofa?
Here’s the math I would have to do on a napkin to make sense of Amazon’s payment structure: The typical novel is about 300 pages. Half a cent per page is $1.50. Wow. That sounds like not very much at all. I paid $14.95 for that paperback! But you know why that doesn’t sound like much? Because we haven’t had a Taylor Swift in publishing. Ever. And publishers (despite me blogging that this would be a great idea) have never printed the author’s cut right on the cover of the print book. So readers don’t know.
The typical Big 5 author makes roughly 9% for a paperback sale, with 15% of that going to an agent (the range is really 8% – 10%, but that number has gone down lately due to something called “high discount,” which we won’t go into here, but know that I’m giving the Big 5 many benefits of the doubt). A $14.95 paperback (which used to be a $6.99 mass market paperback!) is paying the author $1.50 per retail sale. But 15% of that goes to the agent, so they are left with $1.28. Or less than an indie author gets for the borrow of an ebook. And remember that we’re comparing this to the sale of a paperback, a physical object that had to be shipped around in a truck and that the reader can pass along or sell to a used bookstore.
So publishing has a problem, and it always has, and the rich folk getting massive advances to boost those royalty percentages have never uttered a peep. In fact, they’ve only gotten upset when Amazon and others came along and made it possible to buy less expensive and just-as-good books from indies, ruining their little hegemony.
Is Amazon paying too little for borrows? I can’t see it. My fear is that they’ll pay so much that all of this will collapse, and we’ll lose another outlet to readers, who are consumers, who are getting used to consuming their entertainment in brand new ways. Ways that publishers don’t seem to understand and that authors don’t seem very comfortable with. Nobody wants to own anything anymore. And if you’re the exception, then you’re the exception.
We are moving more and more to Spotify, satellite radio, and Netflix. Even video game companies are toying with the rental system. There’s talk of this video game console generation or the next one being the last, before we are just streaming the games. Ebooks were just the start of the disruption, like MP3s were the start of the music industry disruption, but the disruption continues. People want access to everything for cheap and if they can’t find it, they’ll go looking elsewhere.
(If you haven’t steeled yourself for advertising breaks in the middle of ebooks, then start doing so. It’s only a matter of time.)
If you think it’s unfair that the marketplace change on you, I’m sorry. The producers and retailers have to deal with this as well. It all comes back to the consumer, of which we are all a small part. Have your expectations changed, as a shopper? Your habits? Your budgets? Multiply out any of these small changes by a billion. That’s what’s happening.
(One more quick note on Amazon’s KENPC page count algorithm thingy: I would say this has been Amazon’s biggest screwup in this affair thus far. People are concentrating on the per-page price rather than the computed size of their works, and a more accurate version of the latter would’ve led to a higher value of the former. That is, Amazon would’ve been better to have the calculations come out to a penny per page, and the KENPC more closely match print editions, than the way they went around it. I think they thought people would balk at the KENPC, and wanted to make that generous, but indies think more in terms of dollars, and that’s the number they ended up diluting, and which has become the headline for media outlets.)
What About Subscription Models?
Will subscription models put a squeeze on author earnings? My guess a year ago was that they would. I still think they will. But I think comparisons to the music industry are premature and unfounded. It’s hard to compare a 3-minute time investment to a 10-hour investment. Music streams pay so little because they can mount up so fast. Page reads can’t mount up as quickly from a small number of users. And yet both types of streaming programs (music and literature) are going for roughly $10 / month. There’s no way books are going to be consumed in the quantities that music currently is, so these comparisons are off by orders of magnitude.
The second reason I don’t despair is the room indies have to play with. Our pay went up 6X before any squeeze began. Musicians had already seen their pay go down before the squeeze began. So while there’s a lot of hand-wringing as some authors predict a reduction in earnings, when you look at the amount they’re making per borrow, and it’s more than a Random House author makes on the sale of a trade paperback, you realize how insulated we are from the destitution that many are predicting. Will earnings go down? Most likely. But not as far as people are thinking, and from a much higher starting plateau.
But let’s talk more about reduced earnings for entertainers. How can we expect anything else? Look at how many hours people are spending on Facebook and Twitter, entertaining each other for free! How can we compete with that? Or compete with improving TV content, much of which has moved to reality TV, cutting out more creators in order to pad profit margins? The reality is that we can’t. Not unless we grow the share of people being entertained at some cost to them. That means luring them away from social media, which tickles a reward mechanism even deeper than the one for story. The dice are loaded against us. It’s time to have an honest discussion about this. It’s time to up our games or discuss ways to monetize what we do for a living. Either that, or it’s time for us to accept that most entertainers will never be paid professionals, and that we will have to do this on the side and for the love of it.
(This is something else I’ve blogged about extensively and have done myself for years. First, alongside my day job. And now, something I am continuing to do in retirement. I write because I love to write. And this gives me an enormous advantage over those who write because it’s the only way they can hope to make a living.)
KU 1.0 Compared to KU 2.0
Here’s some math from the brilliant author Susan Kaye Quinn. It compares the old payment system to the new system.
Under KU 1.0:
98k novel = 414 pages* = $1.34 per borrow = 0.0033 pennies/pg
15k novella = 51 pages* = $1.34 per borrow = 2.6 pennies/pg
*the number on the product description pg
Under KU 2.0 (Assuming 100% page read):
98k novel = 553 pages** = 0.6 pennies-per-pg*** = $3.32 per 100% read
15k novella = 85 pages** = 0.6 pennies-per-pg*** = $0.51 per 100% read
**KENPC page count
***estimate from June
Under KU 1.0, most indies were making more for a borrow of a short story than for a sale (the exceptions are those able to charge $2.99 or higher for the sale of a 15k story). I haven’t seen a good argument to defend this part of the old system, or the fact that KU 1.0 was paying a third of a penny per KENPC page (which would be more like .0017 per print page).
Under KU 2.0, we can see what Amazon is trying to do with their per-page calculation. They’re trying to reward KDP Select authors for a borrow by paying the same amount as a sale. Holy crap. Really? Actually, the prices on my works are lower than average, and these borrow rates would pay me more than I currently make for a sale. But as someone else pointed out, these borrow payout rates are very close to what Amazon’s pricing tool recommends for works of this length.
That is, Amazon is funding their KU payout pool to simulate a paid sale for every borrow.
This is what it appeared they were doing under KU 1.0. The first borrow rates were coming in close to $2.00. That number slid over time, even as Amazon piled on more money. Why? Because authors realized they could maximize their income by splitting up novels and by concentrating on short stories. Kris Rusch and others (myself among them) have referred to this as “gaming the system.” That creates outrage among those who game the system. Guess, what? I game Amazon’s system every day. I do it with permafree, which exploits Amazon’s price-matching policy to get more free days than they want to hand out (only 5 per 90 day KDP Select period). And I’ve been serializing novels since before it was a thing. I’ve also been putting short stories into KU and profiting from it.
I guess the difference is that I’ve expected from the beginning that KU was broken and would be fixed. Someone dug up an interview I did ten months ago, when KU was only two months old, and I predicted Amazon would move to a per-page remuneration system. The old model was broken. The people who profited from that should be glad Amazon waited so long to fix it. Those who love to write short stories still should. May I suggest a bit of back matter? Or some constructive ways for us to help authors without screwing consumers?
Ideas For Subscription eBook Back Matter
How about an appeal to the readers? My idea for printing the author’s cut on the back of paperback books was to highlight to readers how little authors make. I think readers would reward authors if we knew how to ask and if they knew how much (or little) we make. How about:
Hey, if you enjoyed this short story, it might interest you that I spent two weeks working on this, on top of raising my three little ruffians, who tug on my chair while I’m writing and ask me to cut the crust off their sandwiches. And it probably took you thirty minutes to read it. If you got this far, you must’ve enjoyed it. So guess what? I just made fifteen cents! Want to help me out so I can keep writing? There are a ton of ways. You could write an honest review of this work. Or tell your friends about it. Or buy a copy to keep forever! Or go to my website and use the donate button. Anything helps. I love writing, and I love helping support my family, and I want to keep doing both. Thanks so much for reading. See you soon.
Add your Twitter handle, your email address, your website, your Paypal account, your P.O. box, whatever.
There are solutions for children’s book authors as well. What about going to Amazon and asking for a separate payment system for illustrated ebooks? Or rewarding multiple read-throughs? Or time spent gazing at each page? What about a separate system (storefront, payment structure) for illustrated ebooks? I’d be all over those ideas. Amazon has shown themselves amenable to change. Rather than freak out about this, use that knowledge to your advantage. Petition. Rally. Come up with a plan.
KU 2.0 pays per page a higher rate for an ebook borrow than major publishers pay per page for a print sale.
KU 2.0 seems to be an attempt by Amazon to pay the same per borrow that they pay per sale, if ebooks are priced according to their recommendations.
KU 2.0 more fairly rewards time invested by authors and time spent by readers than KU 1.0.
I have yet to see an argument by anyone showing how KU 1.0 was more fair to authors than KU 2.0.
If you think change is scary, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
July 3, 2015
The first two of these flipbooks came in last week, and I unboxed them here. Just got the latest two in, and the video is below. I LOVE how these things came out. The matte covers are sweet. And the pagination looks great. This has been a really fun project, and a commenter on Twitter today highlighted the need for it. There are a lot of readers who only read print, and delivering short fiction to them is tricky.
July 2, 2015
It’ll be fun to tell our kids where we were when KU 1.0 turned into KU 2.0. We’ll tell them how in the aftermath we roasted rats and pigeons over upturned and burning cars. How we tended to the wounded, finishing off those we knew would not make it. How we drank our own urine in order to survive. How the blood-red moon set over a charred and ruined landscape. Yes … it was a long day. Full of complete and utter nonsense.
A few observations from yesterday:
1) It’s too damn early to observe anything. Authors were predicting the effect KU 2.0 would have on their careers and sending requests to Amazon customer service to PULL, PULL, PULL! from KDP Select like Wall Street traders on the floor of a panic. All based on a dashboard graph on Day 1 of reporting.
That anyone trusts a brand new reporting system after eight hours of being live is bizarre enough. But what I can tell you from looking at my report at 7am this morning is that yesterday’s reporting was LOW. I’m at over half of yesterday’s page count at 7am. And Amazon often works off PST. So 4 hours today is already over 60% of what 24 hours yesterday gave me. And I haven’t released anything new.
2) The second thing people are doing is equating their old page count for works to the new KENPC. But many are reporting a nearly doubling of KENPC. A 300 page work can come out to over 600 pages, as measured by the new system. It appears that 40,000 – 50,000 words, fully read, will equal the lowest range of the KU 1.0 borrow rates. This doesn’t mean short story writers today are being screwed; it means novella and novel writers for the past year were being screwed. Amazon fixed this.
3) The only people who should be complaining about KU 2.0 are the ones who think it’s fair for writers to be renumerated based on the number of titles they produce, rather than the hours they spend writing, or the hours readers spend enjoying their works. I keep seeing people say it’s not fair that they no longer get paid the same for a 5,000 word short that everyone else gets paid for a 100,000 novel. Seriously. People are saying this. Because both authors wrote 1 title, right? And 1 = 1. It’s not fair!
I don’t even know how to process this. It doesn’t take as long to write a short story. You shouldn’t get paid as much. End of (short) story.
4) Kindle Unlimited and the Lending Library are not retail systems. They are cloud-based rental systems. When you pay $100 a month for cable or satellite TV, you don’t get to own and keep any of what you watch. You can delay losing the work on your DVR, just as you can keep an unread book for weeks from the library, but you aren’t buying those TV shows. Authors are acting like rentals should equal sales. In what universe does this make sense? And yes, the shows that get watched the most come with the highest price tag from distributors. This is a normal model we’re freaking out over.
5) Getting hung up over the pay-per-page of $0.0057 is silly. Amazon is paying out $11,000,000 in July. That money is being evenly split based on hours of enjoyment provided to their customers. Those hours should correlate more closely to hours invested by the author than in the previous system. The point is, all of that money is being disbursed. The amount of pay going to authors just went UP in absolute terms. Freak out when the pool starts to go down, not when the metric of division gets a fancy new decimal point.
6) KU is voluntary. These changes only apply to KDP Select and those authors who have some works that are exclusive to Amazon. You can take your works out of KDP Select. You can try a few works for 90 days and change your mind. You can do whatever you want. You can even complain and hope that Amazon will change back to the old system, because … shocker … it appears that they listen to the indie community and take our opinions seriously and make changes accordingly.
Compare that with mine and colleagues’ dealings with other online retailers, whose response to frequent criticisms has been, “But, we’re _______” (Insert name of large tech company). Whether or not Kindle Unlimited and subscription services are good for authors is a separate issue from the change to KU 2.0. I think much of the arm-flapping is coming from people who don’t like KU at all and wish all subscription services would go away. If so, they spent their time yesterday talking about the wrong company.
On Monday, another subscription service, Scribd, pulled 80% – 90% of its erotica, because its financials do not make any sense. Scribd’s business plan has been to beg for venture capital and distribute it to publishers and indies, without any model for turning a profit. When their system collapses, everyone will be out of a steady market for reaching readers and earning pay. They’ll have been greedily bled dry and bankrupted. They provided no warning that this would happen, just yanked works right off their shelves.
What do I think about subscription services, now that we’ve had one for over a year? I’m glad I asked.
I see KU as being far better than a used bookstore, which leaves authors out of the money altogether. I see them as being better than libraries, because they pay more, and they funnel more readers into purchases by mixing rental and retail in one location. I see KU as better than permafree. And these are all things I support and love. I love used bookstores and want my books in them. I love libraries and want my books in them. I love and employ permafree. KU is better than all of them.
The change to KU 2.0 has me revisiting whether or not to move my novels back into KDP Select. But you know what? I might take an entire day to make that decision. Hell, I might take a week. Or even a month! And I might try to take a deep breath somewhere in there, and think about this program for what it is, and not what it used to be, or what I wish it were, or equate it with retail, or pine for a program that can be gamed and provides a worse experience for readers.
ETA: Holy heck, I haven’t seen this much vitriol over an Amazon move since … the last time Amazon made a move. I’ve got people on Twitter telling me to go *@ myself, you entitled piece of &@$%, and things normally reserved for authors doing Twitter PR.
I would say that I’m sorry that people are losing income over this, but I’m not. I don’t say that with spite or with warm fuzzies. I’m not happy people’s income went down. I’m also not upset for them. The system wasn’t fair before, and it’s more fair now. I’m happy that the system has been improved.
For people making a livelihood off a subscription service that didn’t exist 14 months ago, I don’t know what to say. I’ve never banked on earning a living from a rental system. KU has always felt like a bonus, but it appears that for some authors, the borrows were more important than the sales. I’ve never considered this might be the case for writers. All I can suggest is no one quit their day job over these brand new and untested systems. This isn’t book retail. This is the exploration of something new. And it might suck for all of us in the long run. For me, it’s too early to tell.
I’ve been accused in multiple places for having a sweetheart deal with Amazon that gives me KU status without the exclusivity. This isn’t true. Probably won’t stop the claims. Just putting the truth out there to see what people choose to do with it.
I’m sorry I’ve offended anyone. But I’m not sorry for these changes to KU. I think they were needed from the start. I don’t think Amazon could’ve predicted the outcome of an even split based on a 10% read. They are correcting, and they’ll correct again. So compile your ideas, your wishes, what you think would be fair for children’s book authors and authors of non-fiction, and make your voices heard. I wish you all the best of luck. Write good shit and be kind to one another. Except for me. If it helps blow off some steam, kick me around in the comments. I almost can’t feel it anymore. :D
June 30, 2015
I assumed six months ago that the KU payout terms would eventually change. I wasn’t sure if Amazon would go with a pay-by-page scheme or something that put works in tiers by length, but many observers knew this was a question of “when” and not “if.” Despite the overblown and horribly researched coverage in the wider press, the new payout terms fix a glaring discrepancy in how authors are rewarded for their efforts and how readers’ behavior will influence what is offered across Kindle Unlimited.
When I realized the change that was coming, I started concentrating on short stories. I began planning serials. I knew my time would be better spent mixing at least 6 to 12 shorter pieces in with each of my novels. In fact, I think most people analyzing KU and the length of works to offer are getting it wrong. KU does not reward longer works: It rewards good works. It rewards gripping works.
A lot of authors are going to make a huge mistake as they write with KU in mind. Chapters that would’ve been cut for being boring filler are going to be left in place, as writers now think they are being paid by the pound. Nothing could be more wrong. To understand why I stand to make more money with short fiction than with novels, a few different mental mistakes have to be corrected. Let’s go through each one:
The first mistake we make is to think that a system that was overly generous to short fiction, once corrected, is now punishing short fiction. This is absurd. The playing field is now level. A page read is a page read. Just because a system was unfair in one direction in the past (and it was) does not mean it’s unfair in the other direction now. In fact, short fiction still has some amazing advantages, which we’ll see in a moment.
The second massive mistake I see people make when discussing the new KU is to assume that the amount of work that goes into a novel and a short story is even close to the same. Because we were paid the same in the previous system, no matter the length, we’ve somehow lost sight of the very obvious truth that 60,000 words of writing is still 60,000 words of writing. If you package it as a novel, or if you release six 10,000 word short stories, you’ve still written and revised roughly the same amount. If the reader gets through all those words, you’ll get paid the same per hour of work.
So instead of comparing a 60,000 word novel with a writer who put out a single 6,000 word short piece, the fair comparison is to realize the second author probably released TEN works in the same amount of time.
Which brings us to the reality that everyone knows but no one will admit: Most KU downloads aren’t read to completion. Many are sampled. When the works feel free (I know there’s a monthly fee), there’s no guilt-induced pressure to finish any work. So a reader might grab four novels, try each, and then finish the one that grabs them. If you pad your novel, or open it slowly, thinking you’re going to get paid for every one of your 300 pages, and I write a 20-page short story that readers can’t put down and fly through, then which of us spent our time more wisely? And which of us provided the reader with a better customer experience?
A downside to short fiction is more cover art expenses. An upside is much lower editorial expenses. I see these as a wash. Plot can be so much tighter in short fiction that developmental editing is much reduced. And most writers can get 10,000 words largely error-free before sending off to a copyeditor. I find that editing a 60,000 word novel takes much more than merely six times longer than a 10,000 word short. And serialized works benefit from the re-use of cover art designs, so the cost there isn’t really six times as much (to stick with our hypothetical examples).
Then there are the two HUGE benefits to short fiction, both of which increase the chances of something taking off. The first is the visibility of having more works peppered across Amazon’s storefront (we’re talking KU, so keep in mind these works are exclusive). More works means more reader impressions. It means more recommendations from Amazon to customers. It also means writing six different stories, with different characters, and seeing which ones do the best, then writing sequels for those pieces.
BEACON 23 took off for me in a pretty spectacular way, with lots of reviews, lots of call for sequels, and even the great Warren Ellis plugging the work in his latest newsletter. Likewise, GLITCH has been a fantastic seller. Other works have done okay but not nearly as well by comparison. And I can never guess which ones will do the best. But by writing lots of stories, I can invest my time following up with the worlds that readers found most alluring. Again, this means an improved customer experience and a more efficient use of my writing time.
Yet another advantage: There is a massive bonus when readers finish your work. In the old KU system, the bonus seemed to have come if readers got to 10% of your work, which was when the per-unit payout was triggered. But now, the advantages to getting a reader through to the end of your story are compounded, because a finished work is more likely to be a reviewed work. Even if readers just star-rate the work, this will influence whether or not Amazon recommends them more of your titles. And word-of-mouth can’t get going unless readers complete a story and find the end satisfactory. This means my completed 20-page short story doesn’t just pay out the same as the first 20 pages of an abandoned novel — it also gets the bonus of completion, which the abandoned work doesn’t.
This doesn’t mean novels aren’t more fairly rewarded under the new system. Of course they are. And many readers want thick works that they lose themselves in for days and weeks. If you write that sort of work, you are going to do very well with the new KU. We should all be celebrating that (writers, readers, and the retailer). But the idea that novels are more powerful for the career writer than short stories simply doesn’t hold. The advantages of competent serialization and a wide mix of offerings are the same old advantages. The pay might not be skewed like it was, but the revenue per hour worked is probably still better for short fiction, and all the other bonuses of visibility, reviews, algorithms, diversity, and word-of-mouth still apply.
I’ll be very sad to see authors creating boxsets of their works, thinking that size now matters. I think they’ll lose opportunities this way. If there’s one story in there that will cause readers to pick up a different work, then you’ll miss the reward of them getting to the works that come after. And the readers will have missed out on the enjoyment. And Amazon will have missed a positive customer experience. But if those works are separate, then an abandoned read doesn’t hurt as much.
Another way to think about the new KU is this: You aren’t paid for every page read so much as you lose money for every page left unread.
For novel writers, this means thinking of every scene as its own short story. It means thinking of every chapter as its own separate work. Does the world-building power readers forward? Does the tension tug them along? Do the characters come alive and chase readers all the way to the end? If any part of the story is weak, then get rid of it. Delete it. Or your novel will be like an anthology with a story no one can finish sandwiched in the middle. You run the risk of all the hard work that comes after being for naught.
Make no mistake, KU now rewards one thing, and one thing only: Reader enjoyment. This is how it should be. We aren’t writing by the pound; we are writing by the pulse. It’s hearts that we should concentrate on pounding, not keyboards. Write well and write efficiently. Write what you want. There’s a good chance there are more readers out there just like you, looking for the same thing.
June 29, 2015
Bella Andre and I were sitting together at a book convention once, gabbing about shoes and handbags, when an author came up and asked what we thought about their book cover. Funny they should ask the two of us, because Bella is one of the absolute best authors in the multi-verse at putting together her own cover art. (Just take a gander if you don’t believe me.) And I’m the absolute worst.
But I love doing my own covers just as much as Bella has to do her own covers. For her, it’s because she knows no one can do a better job. And she’s right. For me, it’s because I love every aspect of book creation and presentation, no matter how much I suck at it.
On this day, at the con, Bella and I both looked at this author’s cover, and we looked at each other. And I was thinking, “You should handle this, because you’re the talented one.” And Bella was thinking, “This looks as bad as one of your covers, so maybe you should go for it.” What we did instead was demonstrate to the author, so they could see for themself.
I took the book and began walking away from the table. I asked Bella to stop me when the book became “Amazon size.” That’s the size the book will appear to anyone scrolling through an online retailer. Bella kept waving me back. Fifty feet. A hundred feet. “Stop,” she said.
“What do you think of the cover?” she asked the author.
The author nodded. “I see what I need to do,” they said. They took their book, thanked us, and went off with the sort of determination that causes me not to worry about people.
Bella looked at me like, “You do know that people think they can get away with covers like that because of you, right?”
I looked at her like, “Bella Andre, you’re so dreamy!”
It used to be said that great cover art becomes iconic over time. I can think of a dozen or so covers that I can still pick out from a thousand paces. When I first saw the red cover for WOOL that Random House came up with, I had that sort of feeling about it. There had never been a cover quite like that. It would stand out. Be instantly recognizable. I loved it.
It’s the grabbiness at a distance that works. But more importantly these days, it’s the grabbiness at a tiny size. More than half of print books are now purchased online, which means what you put on the back of the jacket, or the inside flap, or how detailed your artwork is, has all become less relevant. These days, cover art needs to be not so much iconic as icon. We need to think about them as little clickable buttons. For design ideas, it’s time to start looking at our desktops rather than bookstore shelves.
My last two covers are, I think, good examples. And even if they are bad covers, they show the direction I’m thinking cover art should go. I put both covers together in just a few hours. I know it looks like they took a few minutes, but you aren’t seeing all the iterations I didn’t go with. First, THE BOX:
What’s unusual about this cover is that it intentionally uses whitespace to blend in with the background on Amazon product pages. The effect is what looks like a small square cover rather than a rectangular cover. You can’t pull this off in a bookstore. You have to think about the work and approach it from an online-retailer perspective.
Another point that I’ll go into detail about in a bit: Where else can you get away with not putting the author’s name on the cover? When you know the product page will feature the name, this is unnecessary. Again, not something you can pull off with a brick and mortar store in mind. This is cover art design tailored for the retailer you have in mind.
Another simple cover that works at a very small size. What I loved about this one was using nothing but typography for the graphics. It’s all done with font. Messages in the story are text-based and costly to send, so there’s a bit of subtle meaning there. Even the stars are just periods, and there’s meaning there as well.
Okay, neither cover is as pretty as Bella’s books, but hey, I’m not as pretty as Bella! But they’re covers that come from me, that relate to my story, that I put together myself, and that I’m happy with. They are meant to work as icons, not be iconic. But who says icons can’t? Maybe these won’t, but yours might.
(Another aspect of cover art creation that I’ve encountered is the ability for readers and other writers to join in. After sharing my design for BEACON 23, author Andrzej Tucholski shared his version. After riffing on his design, I came up with what is currently the cover being used for the short story. This is cover art like jazz.)
I know we are used to high-res graphics on covers, and that photography is the base for most cover art, and that’s been true for me as well. But all we really need is a cover that gives us the title and a taste for what to expect. We might think romance novels, for instance, need a shirtless hunk or a sexy vixen on the cover, but the bestselling erotica of all-time had a cufflink. And it could’ve been a render of a cufflink.
Would indie cover art look better or worse if we stopped trying to make them look like print books on a store shelf and more like a little bitmapped image you might click on to launch an application? I argue they would look better. The biggest mistake I see with cover art is that authors pay so much or work so hard on the art, that they shove the title way up at the top and their name way down at the bottom to not cover up what they’re proud of.
I think this is a huge mistake. Look at portfolios from professional cover artists. They cover up their background art with the title and the author’s name. They make the font big, bold, and legible. We should be doing the same thing. I would argue that graphics and art aren’t needed at all. Or better yet: Think of each letter in the title as a separate art element. That’s what M.S. Corley did with his cover for my short story SECOND SUICIDE, and it has become one of my all-time favorite covers:
Or go the other route and leave off the title and author’s name completely. Insanity, right? This is something you simply can’t do with book jackets. But when you know all the metadata will be on the Amazon product page, you don’t have to put the metadata on the cover. That’s exactly what I did with my print flipbook, the TwinPack Vol. 2. Here’s what the product page looks like for this collection of two short stories, which are printed in reverse, with cover art on either side:
The title of the work and the author’s name are right there. Which allows me to leave Galen Dara’s fantastic cover art all alone to shine and be admired. Here, the idea of icon as iconic is taken to the extreme. The cover art is a striking image that works at thumbnail size, and it only advertises itself with its blend of colors and shapes, not with a label telling us what it is.
All different concepts, but the connecting theme is that our covers are going to be small, but they still have to stand out. We shouldn’t be designing covers to sit on store shelves, and we shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, to let the typography be more important than the artwork, or to go to the other extreme and let the product page handle the metadata, and let the art stand alone.
If you’re playing with your own covers, try taking that background image and fading it away. Try breaking up your title font so that each letter is on a separate layer, and then blow those letters up, shift them around, play with the kerning, stretch and warp them a little, so that the reader can tell that the word wasn’t simply typed out. Use large and bold text that’s easy to read at any size, and don’t be afraid to keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Build iconic cover art. The kind you want to click on.