Hugh Howey's Blog, page 5

September 16, 2014

I gave a talk at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory last week, and one of the questions that came up during the Q&A was whether I’m a pessimist or an optimist. The second part of the question was if I thought the world I depict in WOOL has any chance of coming to fruition.


It’s not the first time I’ve heard a variant of this question. Often it’s as blunt as: “Why do you write such depressing stories? You seem like such a happy guy!”


I believe there’s a fine balance between begging for a better future and also being thankful for the progress of the past. If you ask me, the world is getting measurably better for the vast majority of people year after year. I think Steven Pinker’s work on this topic covers it best, especially his excellent Better Angels of our Nature. What’s important, in my view, is to pause in our protestations now and then and give homage to the progress others have made, to recognize the change happening around us before we dust ourselves off and demand one more concession.


This is true of social, ethical, and political progress. But it applies to less important things as well, like book publishing.


Those of us who self-publish are nimble. We can pivot on a dime and publish at the drop of one. If we have an idea, we can implement it the same day, see how it works, share our results, and at the same time learn from others. Not even Amazon moves fast enough for us. We often complain about how long it takes the ‘Zon to implement ideas. To the five major New York publishers, of course, Amazon’s advances must seem like the blitzkrieg.


If the five major New York publishers are like oil tankers, then Amazon is a destroyer, and we are erratic (and possibly annoying) jetskis. We are impatient for progress much as revolutionaries (and visionaries) in other fields often are. But I think it’s important to remember that there are visionaries on the decks of those other ships as well. A lot of smart people see where we need to go. Some of them have even turned over the wheel. It just takes longer for these behemoths to bend their wake.


Before I list a handful of the signs of progress I’ve seen the past year or so, I want to head off the cries of “but they have this and this to do.” Of course they have a lot to catch up on. That will almost certainly always be the case. We race rings around these lumbering craft, but let’s be aware of progress made. Let’s even cheer them on now and then. Stuff I’ve seen in the past year:



After years of wondering why publishers don’t sell direct in order to gather customer data and avoid issues with retail partners, Harper Collins launched their own retail site.
Something I hesitated to suggest as a distant possibility came to fruition much earlier than expected (last year in fact) when Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint began celebrating and hyping a number of its authors as “Indies.” Rather than be cynical about this, I see it as a positive sign that the stigma of self-publishing has plummeted at major publishing houses. More than plummet, the notion of self-publishers as something to aspire to has become a reality.
Publishers are starting to experiment with reasonable ebook prices. Many of the top-selling traditionally published ebooks this year were in the $4.99 range, including John Green’s excellent The Fault in our Stars. (Now back up to $7+, but it was at $4.99 for most of this year.)
Backlist titles are also becoming more affordable. I’m buying traditionally published ebooks more often, as the number that I see priced above $8.99 are becoming fewer and fewer.
At least three publishers are rumored to be working on moving their operations out of the most expensive real estate in one of the priciest cities in the world.
A few publishers are experimenting with subscription services on a limited basis.
Random House launched a portal for its authors that in some ways is superior to anything offered by digital retailers. The portal shows sales, foreign rights acquisitions, royalty statements, and includes marketing tip videos.
Random House (and I believe others) have worked on creating communities among their authors, including forums where authors can meet and share advice. Tapping into authors as a resource is a very positive sign from the world’s largest publisher.
Release schedules are picking up, with books and sequels coming out in the same calendar year. The hesitation to publish two books by the same author in a 12-month span has rapidly deteriorated.
Publishers (following Baen’s 2008 experiments) have worked on ways of crowdsourcing the slush pile and opening themselves to general un-agented submissions.
More digital-first imprints are giving a wider range of authors a chance to work with a publisher, build a readership, and hone their craft.
On the contract side, my agent has seen progress on a number of fronts, including the openness to strike non-compete clauses, better thresholds for reversion, a little movement on the deep discount royalty rate, and other positive signs that show self-publishing is having an impact as a competitive route to publication.
Not quite publisher-directed, but there were indie winners at both the Rita’s and the Hugo’s this year. And several conventions saw modest progress in becoming more inclusive to self-published authors.

There are certainly areas of improvement that I’m leaving out. Make a note in the comments, and I’ll add them to the list. And again, this is a break from pointing out all the places where further progress can be made (even refinements to the items listed above). No doubt there are plenty. But the tankers are turning. We’re just zipping around too fast to notice most of the time.

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Published on September 16, 2014 06:52 • 97 views

September 15, 2014

David Streitfeld of the New York Times has now cemented himself as the blabbering mouthpiece for the New York publishing cartel, and while he is making a fool of himself for those in the know, he is a dangerous man for the impression he makes on his unsuspecting readers.


(I should point out here that I’m a 7-day-a-week home delivery subscriber to the New York Times. I start every day by reading the physical paper. I love it. But they do make occasional hiring mistakes.)


A dishonest man with access to a pulpit is like a poisoner with access to a well. David Streitfeld is a dishonest man. He is a reporter with an agenda. A good case in point is this head-scratcher: Just one summer ago, David made reference to Orwell’s well-known disdain for cheap paperbacks to draw a comparison to Amazon’s fight for lower ebook prices. A year later, the same David Streitfeld claimed that Orwell was a fan of cheap paperbacks. What changed?


What changed is that Amazon used the same Orwellian quote in proper context, just as David did a year ago, but we all know that Amazon simply can’t be right about anything. And so enterprising Amazon-bashers reframed a partial quote from Orwell in an attempt to have the deceased man stand for the opposite of his opinion, in an exercise as disgusting as it was Orwellianly ironic.


There’s also this gem of a piece which ran the day before Douglas Preston and company paid over $100,000 for an ad in the New York Times. It states one side of this debate (much as Douglas Preston has been doing) and serves as an advertising twofer. It’s not reporting; it’s shilling. One highlight is its dismissal of a petition calling on Hachette to negotiate in good faith, which garnered over 8,000 signatures in mere weeks, by comparing it to a year-old petition calling for the protection of whales which drew over 200,000 signatures.


In what has become known as “Whale math,” the opinion of 900 authors is worth a fawning article (complete with Douglas Preston hanging out by his writing shack on his 300 acre summer estate), while the opinion of 8,000+ authors is meaningless . . . because far more people care about saving whales.


When I read articles like these in my beloved New York Times, I worry for their reputation. I wonder if I should write a letter to their board expressing my concern. We obviously have a reporter here in the pocket of monied interests, one who can’t even agree with himself year to year, and one who works in deliberate and bizarre ways to dismiss one entire side of the debate.


Let’s look at all that David Streitfeld gets wrong or deliberately misrepresents so we fully understand just how either dishonest or ignorant he is being about this Amazon / Hachette dispute:


After six months of being largely cut off from what is by far the largest bookstore in the country, many Hachette writers are fearful and angry.


Largely cut off? If I go to Amazon right now, all of Hachette’s books are available for purchase. The only books I can’t get are the ones that aren’t even out yet. Amazon removed pre-order buttons from books it may not have the ability to sell once they release. There is no “largely cut off” here. None at all. But readers may suspect this is the case if all they hear is David Streitfeld’s propaganda.


Check out this doozy:


In the Harris Poll of corporate reputations, [Amazon] once again took top honors this year. But that prestige is taking a bit of a beating as the fight with Hachette drags on.


So, because of Amazon’s actions, they have fallen from first place to . . . first place? Where is David’s fact to buttress his opinion of a beating? Reporting that Amazon took top honors in a poll of corporate reputations, and then saying that this reputation is taking a battering without referencing anything at all, is worse reporting than you’ll find on my stupid little blog. David, your board should be ashamed of you.


The entire article, in fact, is a dishonest and forceful echoing of Preston’s letter, replete with threats of growing discord and plummeting prestige. While the letter to the board members will likely do nothing, Streitfeld’s salvo is another loud boom in the PR war where those with microphones get amplified and those with mere votes and voices are muted.


David points out that:


Anyone contemplating ordering his latest novel, “The Lost Island,” written with Lincoln Child, is warned it might take as long as three weeks to arrive. That, as Amazon and its customers know, might as well be forever.


Without mentioning the fact that this delay is due to Hachette’s shipping inefficiencies. Why should Amazon sell pre-orders for books when it has no lasting contract with Hachette? Why should it stock predictive quantities of their titles in warehouses when it may not be able to sell that stock in the near future?


Douglas Preston gets this wrong as well. In this latest letter to board members, he says that Amazon could employ some negotiation tool that does not impact authors. I’d love to hear his ideas. Or at least one idea. How can Amazon hurt Hachette without hurting its authors? Impacting sales is going to impact the 15% of that money that trickles its way down to the writer.


The reasonable move from Amazon would have been to stop carrying Hachette’s titles months ago until Hachette began negotiating in good faith. Hachette went months without responding to Amazon while their contract ticked down and expired. Amazon’s solution to removing authors from harm was to fund a pool to make their royalties whole until the dispute is settled. They’ve made three such offers, and Hachette hasn’t so much as countered a single one. The cries of “disingenuous” could be tested by calling Amazon’s bluff or making a counter offer that helps the authors while hurting Amazon. But no one has suggested this other than those of us who are supposedly Amazon’s shills.


Hachette has instead refused to remove its authors from the line of fire. The company is using them as a shield. And the New York Times has chosen not to report on all the details and on both sides of this negotiation. Rather, they have chosen to engage in a deliberate negative PR campaign against Amazon. They have chosen to support a publishing cartel that recently colluded in a price-fixing scheme that harmed readers. They have chosen to make as their publishing spokesman a reporter who contradicts himself from one summer to the next, a reporter who sings the praises of a handful of elite authors in exchange for 6-figure ads while dismissing the thousands of authors who disagree.


 


 

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Published on September 15, 2014 07:57 • 193 views

September 10, 2014

You know you’ve had a rough time when flatlining is a sign of good health. That’s the news from B&N as same-store sales decreased a mere 0.4% when investors were expecting a 2% decline. Shares rose on the news. The loss of only $30 million this quarter was mostly made possible by slashing the investment in Nook, which B&N plans to divest itself of by next year. The latest Nook tablet is a modified Samsung device, in fact, as B&N has veered from heavily investing in ebooks, swearing them off, heavily investing again, and most recently . . . swearing them off.


I worked in a B&N while in college, and have spent many an hour in their stores as a customer. I’ve also watched them closely as a publisher, hoping they would help grow reading and the adoption of ebooks. In my view, they haven’t done much right in over a decade. Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that B&N used to be the bad boy who knocked the indie bookstores out of business (or the fact that indie bookstores have been on an amazing comeback over the past six or seven years). What could B&N do better? How can they turn this around without becoming a gift shop that has a few racks of books in yonder corner?


The first thing I’d do is bring back the comfy armchairs. Remember those? A big part of my job at B&N was gathering the piles of books left around the armchairs and reshelving them (this task fell just ahead of collecting the subscription insert confetti around the periodicals).


Go to a B&N now and try to find an armchair. They have been removed. Perhaps the thinking was that people were reading and not buying, but that’s never how I used those chairs as a shopper. Sure, I left a stack of books behind (much kinder than reshelving them improperly), but I also purchased a stack of books. As an employee, I watched customer after customer do the same thing. But management saw the abandoned piles without realizing many books on the receipts came from the originally larger piles, and so the chairs were removed. The stores became less of a destination. There was less pair-bonding between shopper and store. Not as much cuddling or foreplay. Might as well sit at home, naked in front of the computer, and go for the dirtier, quicker, and less satisfying solo act of shopping online.


B&N has a long history of making decisions like these that go against the needs and wants of their customers. Shelving books according to paid advertisement is the biggest sin. We used to receive strict schematics called planograms (familiar to many sectors of retail), that instructed us where to place each title on a display. Compare this to the indie bookstore I worked in, where we were able to shelve according to regional tastes, employee recommendations, and actual sales rates. B&N applies the same sort of silliness to their Nook bestseller list, where the books readers want are often forced down to lower rankings while paid co-op space is provided to publishers in order to promote books nobody cares about.


When the customer of retail becomes the publisher, rather than the reader, you have a problem.


Loyalty cards are another issue. These cost a yearly subscription, and being asked if you have one right at the moment of transactional copulation is a buzz-kill. Dreading the pressure of signing up is a great way to block the dopamine release that might get me to come back. It would be like my wife, in a moment of tenderness, asking me if I remembered to take out the trash. No? Well, would you like to? Are you sure? It’ll save you a guilt-trip right now and 20% off any future guilt trip for the next year.


Regular discounts on all books (even if only 10% on paper and 20% on hardback) would have moved much more product than a loyalty card. The indie store I worked in did frequent promotions like this, and the results were obvious. All hardbacks were discounted, all the time. All staff picks (and there were hundreds throughout the store) were as well. Both sets of books flew, as we reduced the incentive to shop online and provided real curation, not bought curation.


What could have saved B&N (and what might work right now if launched immediately and with gusto) is a plan to embrace digital, not just in product, but in customer connection. If B&N offered a free audiobook and ebook with the sale of every hardback, and a free ebook with the sale of every paperback, they could get people through their doors. More importantly, the perceived value of the purchase would go up without impacting the actual cost of the transaction. Buy a book, get some electrons for free.


Except it would be better than free for the publishers and the bookstore. To qualify for the digital freebie, all you have to do is flash your FREE loyalty card. In exchange for the digital wares, B&N supplies the publisher with data on shopping habits. People who bought this book also like that book. And if there’s an author event (I’ll get to that in a moment), the readers who like similar books are notified in advance and invited out.


Speaking of author events, why not have more of them? B&N seems to hate author events. Indie bookshops excel at these. Part of the problem is the ordering system. Have a weekly indie night where a local self-published author supplied their own books—these are then purchased through the B&N till—and the author is given a cash cut on the way out the door. No need to predict sales and stock books or return them. I tried this with my self-published books, and the B&Ns I talked to were unable to process how this would even work. No, they would have to order them in advance and return them. No flexibility or creativity. Meanwhile, coffee shops and art co-ops were able to manage this, and we all made out.


At my B&N in college, I organized reading groups and book clubs. What happened to these? And where are the writing groups or the affiliation with NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNo? Where are the writing workshops? Turning B&Ns into the hub for all the aspiring and published writers in the community is a no-brainer. This is like comic shops having a gaming night. Sure, people don’t spend a ton during these events, but they make the store a hub of their social lives. We reward those hubs. Our lives orbit them.


All it takes is appealing to what the customer wants. Which requires remembering who your customers are. We’re the guys and gals draped sideways over the comfy chairs, piles of books at our feet, heads bursting with all we want to read, and often with all we dream of writing. Cater to us, not the stockholders. Cater to us, not the publishers. It’s what the indie bookstores are doing. And it’s why they’re going to eat your lunch.

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Published on September 10, 2014 13:23 • 397 views

September 3, 2014

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September 2, 2014

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Published on September 02, 2014 17:22 • 60 views

September 1, 2014

Book 2 of the APOCALYPSE TRIPTYCH went live today! I daresay, it’s even better than the amazing first book in this trilogy. We’ve got an all-star cast of authors involved, and now the stakes are higher as the apocalypse is in full-effect.


Feel free to read the sample on Amazon to check out the first story for free. And wait until you read the last story, which is one of my favorites. Also, the second part of my 3-part story in the WOOL universe is in here. You won’t believe where this one is leading. It’s the mother of all curveballs.


Also, we lowered the price of Part 1 to $4.99. Over 20 stories from some of the best writers in the game. A crazy deal. Hours and hours of gripping reads in bite-sized chunks.


Enjoy!


Howey_TRIPTYCH_Book2_EbookEdition (Copy)

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Published on September 01, 2014 13:08 • 137 views

**UPDATE (At the end of this post)**


It’s been a huge honor and thrill to be a part of a competition sponsored by Booktrack.com. The finalists were announced today, and I’d like to congratulate them and everyone who submitted a piece of fan fiction or an audio Booktrack. I’ve had a blast going through and reading your stories and listening to the atmospheric treatment you’ve provided for Half Way Home.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with Booktrack, you should be. Augmented e-books have been slow to catch on, but that’s because few companies have nailed the balance of adding to the reading experience without distracting from it. Booktracks work best when they provide mood, just like a heavy rain or the sound of the nearby sea can make reading a book even more enjoyable. When the sound effects and music are done right, you’ll read a story like never before. For creators, the interface is a joy. You have to play around on the website to appreciate how slick it all is.


This competition also cemented my love of fan fiction. Reading through stories based on my world of Half Way Home, the special power of fan fiction hit me: You get the quick romp and tightness of a short story but with the deep texture of epic fiction. Since the world and its rules are already established—as are the relationships between characters—fan fiction can jump right to the middle of the action, orbit a climactic event, but with all the complexity of a larger story. For readers familiar with the world, it’s a chance to reunite with old friends and see them through another adventure. If you enjoyed Half Way Home, you simply must read the stories from these five finalists. In no particular order:


FAN FICTION FINALISTS


LOADED by Emily MacGowan - Emily wrote a brilliant alternate ending for Half Way Home. Dark and sinister, her story is full of twists and polished writing.


The Final Solution by Roz Marshall - Roz’s story takes place on a different colony with a new threat. It’s a brutal horror story. You think I kill characters with wild abandon? I’ve got nothing on Roz.


Glory: The Gospel of Oliver by Elayne Griffith - This story takes place years after Half Way Home. It features a descendant of one of my favorite characters from the original. Porter wasn’t the only one keeping a journal, it seems…


World Eater by Elodie West - Another follow-up to Half Way Home. Here, we get a glimpse of what’s happening back on Earth, and of the dangerous thing the children of Half Way Home have done.


Coming of Age by Peter John Ravlich - In Peter’s story, things go wrong between two groups of colonists. This one ends on a cliffhanger that will leave you wanting more.


There are so many others that deserve a read. My congratulations and thanks to all those who entered the competition and to the finalists.


SOUNDTRACK FINALISTS


Another round of congratulations to the soundtrack finalists. For those of you who want to create your own Booktracks, check out these entries to see how it can be done smoothly and effectively:


Randolf Smeets, Clayton Smith, Jim Knowes, Jamie Terry, and Sue Copsey.


Thanks again to everyone at Booktrack for putting this competition together. And best of luck to all the finalists!


___________________


**UPDATED**


See? This is why we can’t have nice things.


First, you might want to read this statement from the BookTrack team.


Apparently, one or more of the contestants tried to game the competition by automating reads and by downvoting works written and soundtracked by others. The promise of a cash prize brought out the worst in some people, and the attempt to hijack the contest was spotted, and those attempts were taken into account in the selection of the pool of works from which we selected the finalists. Basically, cheaters were disqualified. For cheating.


Now it appears some of these people, having been caught, and perhaps having already spent in their imaginations the money they thought they were due, are trying to stir up controversy. I won’t let this detract from the awesome entries we had, or the joy I had in reading the fan fiction or listening to the music people made to go with my chapters. Thanks again to all those who participated in the spirit in which the competition was meant. For those who did not understand what transpired and reached the wrong conclusion, your apologies are not necessary. I understand. For those who know what happened and are trying to make others unhappy, I send you hugs. They are sincere.


Happy writing, everyone. Go make music.


**UPDATE 2** It appears as though several of the commenters are the same person using an IP spoofer. Possibly the upset contestant who tried to cheat their way to the finals. Because of this, I’m deleting comments, something I never do. If people want to discuss this without resorting to sock puppets, I’m more than happy to have that conversation.


 

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Published on September 01, 2014 04:20 • 59 views

It’s been a huge honor and thrill to be a part of a competition sponsored by Booktrack.com. The finalists were announced today, and I’d like to congratulate them and everyone who submitted a piece of fan fiction or an audio Booktrack. I’ve had a blast going through and reading your stories and listening to the atmospheric treatment you’ve provided for Half Way Home.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with Booktrack, you should be. Augmented e-books have been slow to catch on, but that’s because few companies have nailed the balance of adding to the reading experience without distracting from it. Booktracks work best when they provide mood, just like a heavy rain or the sound of the nearby sea can make reading a book even more enjoyable. When the sound effects and music are done right, you’ll read a story like never before. For creators, the interface is a joy. You have to play around on the website to appreciate how slick it all is.


This competition also cemented my love of fan fiction. Reading through stories based on my world of Half Way Home, the special power of fan fiction hit me: You get the quick romp and tightness of a short story but with the deep texture of epic fiction. Since the world and its rules are already established—as are the relationships between characters—fan fiction can jump right to the middle of the action, orbit a climactic event, but with all the complexity of a larger story. For readers familiar with the world, it’s a chance to reunite with old friends and see them through another adventure. If you enjoyed Half Way Home, you simply must read the stories from these five finalists. In no particular order:


FAN FICTION FINALISTS


LOADED by Emily MacGowan - Emily wrote a brilliant alternate ending for Half Way Home. Dark and sinister, her story is full of twists and polished writing.


The Final Solution by Roz Marshall - Roz’s story takes place on a different colony with a new threat. It’s a brutal horror story. You think I kill characters with wild abandon? I’ve got nothing on Roz.


Glory: The Gospel of Oliver by Elayne Griffith - This story takes place years after Half Way Home. It features a descendant of one of my favorite characters from the original. Porter wasn’t the only one keeping a journal, it seems…


World Eater by Elodie West - Another follow-up to Half Way Home. Here, we get a glimpse of what’s happening back on Earth, and of the dangerous thing the children of Half Way Home have done.


Coming of Age by Peter John Ravlich - In Peter’s story, things go wrong between two groups of colonists. This one ends on a cliffhanger that will leave you wanting more.


There are so many others that deserve a read. My congratulations and thanks to all those who entered the competition and to the finalists.


SOUNDTRACK FINALISTS


Another round of congratulations to the soundtrack finalists. For those of you who want to create your own Booktracks, check out these entries to see how it can be done smoothly and effectively:


Randolf Smeets, Clayton Smith, Jim Knowes, Jamie Terry, and Sue Copsey.


Thanks again to everyone at Booktrack for putting this competition together. And best of luck to all the finalists!


 

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Published on September 01, 2014 04:20 • 101 views

August 27, 2014

Heading to Atlanta tomorrow for my first-ever Dragon*Con. Anyone else going? Any Atlanta natives out there?


A few readers have emailed about a possible Meet-Up, so it’s now officially on. The Meet-Up will be Saturday at noon. The venue is Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint: 200 Peachtree Street, Suite #L05 Atlanta, Georgia (404) 230-5853.


We have a table reserved for 30. Chime in below if you are for sure coming. If we need to get more room we will.

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Published on August 27, 2014 10:16 • 46 views

August 26, 2014

If you feel paralyzed while working on a rough draft, think of your work like a maze. Sometimes you have to write down a dead end to discover that this is NOT where the story needs to go. Writing and deleting is better than not writing at all.


Imagine tracing your finger down a maze and coming to the first forking path. If you can glance ahead and see it’s a dead end, no problem. But sometimes the dead end is too long or there are too many branches ahead to know which way to go.


The important thing is to choose and keep moving. Find out what works and doesn’t. You can always go back. What you can never do is finish a maze if you stop at a decision point and wait for the entire solution to come to you.

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Published on August 26, 2014 04:40 • 116 views