Hugh Howey's Blog, page 5
January 7, 2015
For decades, we’ve heard warnings about “Peak Oil.” This is the idea that production levels of fossil fuels will hit their apex, that we won’t find enough new reserves to meet growing demand, and that the machine of capitalism will implode as it can no longer power itself.
We are certainly seeing the peak of something, but it isn’t oil supply. It’s oil demand.
Energy consumption per capita in the US is on the decline (albeit from pretty ridiculous highs). Growth in China is slowing way down—they had a great leap forward, but such growth simply isn’t sustainable. Or even healthy. And supply is expanding with new techniques (mostly fracking and horizontal drilling).
The global recession contributed to the decrease in demand, but it doesn’t account for all of it. Small things like more efficient appliances and the end of the incandescent light bulb have gone a long way to decreasing our energy load, offsetting the explosion in the number of devices and gizmos that now seem necessary for our survival (or at least: entertainment).I’m a bright-eyed optimist, so my hope is that our dependence on fossil fuels will lessen as we learn to lean on cleaner energy like solar and nuclear. One of the problems with declining oil prices is that alternative sources of energy become less competitive. Solar recently hit parity with some fossil fuel power plants, as the cost per kwh has plummeted due to massive leaps in solar panel efficiency and plummeting costs of production.
With gas dipping below $2, will American drivers turn back to massive SUVs and trucks? There’s already been a call in recent weeks to tax gas at the pump even further, levying a carbon cost to cover the externalities of burning fuel. It doesn’t take long for lessons learned to be forgotten. Or for us to take highly variable things for granted.
All of this comes on the heels of more bad environmental news. 2014 was now officially the hottest year on record. Global warming is happening, whether that makes you comfortable or not. We’re contributing, whether that aligns with your worldview or not. Sea levels are going to creep up, and we’ll have to deal with that coastal city by coastal city.
Again, I’m an optimist. I think we’ll engineer a way through this mess. New York City is working on plans for parks that will ring Manhattan, providing levies to guard against the next major storm, but also to cope with rising sea levels. Advances in nuclear energy continue to make this the cleanest of the always-on energy sources. (I toured a natural gas power plant a few weeks ago, and the entire plant was built because of a nearby wind farm. Always-on power generation has to be built to accompany wind and solar, which is a massive problem. Nuclear will have to play a greater role going forward).
Me and my dad at a natural gas power plant outside Pueblo, CO.
Now let’s talk distant projections. Where will we be in 50 years? I have a few hopes, and I think they have a greater chance of being right than the constant predictions of peak oil. I think in the near future, energy production will come through innovations that we build rather than something we pump from the ground. This will have an incredible impact on global economies and result in an even further decline in world violence and the incidences of war.
Right now, energy is a natural resource, tempting nations like Iraq and Russia to annex neighbors. And tempting Americans and others to drill in some of our most beautiful habitats. When wealth is as simple as running pumps, the industry can be commandeered by bandits with guns, as we are seeing with ISIS. And Russia, to some degree. When energy is instead met through solar and nuclear, it will have the same effect that Silicon Valley had in turning factory and rote jobs into jobs that pay more, require more education, are safer, and better for the environment. Oh, and generate fewer wars.
I also think in the next 50 years (hopefully on the sooner side) we’ll see Africa explode with the same perceived problems we saw in Asia. China’s rapid growth has brought a lot of people out of poverty in a very short time. While some were denouncing the offshoring of our least desirable jobs, those jobs were increasing wealth and freedoms elsewhere (especially for women). We should celebrate this. And we should hope that Africa has a chance to build factories, consume cheap energy even if it’s coal and oil, and go through the same growing pains that we went through and that the rest of the developed world has gone through. Pulling the ladder up behind us is wrong on so many levels.
The craziest thing I think we might see in the next 50 years is a drop in ppm of atmospheric CO2 levels. Once we stop pumping so much of it into the air—as we move to electric vehicles powered more by solar, wind, and nuclear—nature will absorb a lot of what’s out there. This will be the big stunner. We’ve seen this with catastrophic oil spills. Predictions of the decades of environmental ruin are followed by shock when environments return to order in far less time. I believe the resiliency of our planet will surprise us once again. As will the ingenuity that spills from our noggins.
These sorts of pronouncements are often seen as reasons to slack off or do nothing, but I disagree. Stoking fear should not be our way to inspire action. Truth is always better than clever agendas. We can inspire people to be better stewards of our environment, to use less energy in dozens of little ways, to pay more for an electric car or solar panels, to make a positive difference through positivity. The fear mongering has done real harm, I think. It has bred mistrust. It has turned us away from useful solutions like nuclear power (if you haven’t seen Pandora’s Promise, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Seriously. Grab a copy right now. You’ll thank me).
The best outcome of cheap oil will of course be the end of the incredible violence in the Middle East. For those who think this is impossible, consider the violence in Ireland just a few decades ago. Consider the record low murder rates in American cities recently announced. Consider the violence in myriad places throughout history that has now declined. At some point, the Middle East will generate wealth through trade, tourism, and innovation. It’ll be harder work than pumping liquid money out of the ground, but a lot safer, more rewarding, and less violent.
The people who predict bright futures are always mocked, and those who predict collapse are treated as sages, even as the former get it right and the latter are almost always wrong. This speaks more to our fears than it does to their wisdom. Here’s looking to a brighter tomorrow, powered by something clean, and visible through a lifting smog.
My newest release, THE SHELL COLLECTOR was inspired by my obsession with the world’s oceans and many of these environmental concerns. The work is dedicated to my good friends Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan, who have done much to make the world and our environment a better place. If you haven’t read Stewart’s excellent Whole Earth Discipline, you should. It’s a brilliant book.
January 5, 2015
2014 was a watershed year for the book biz. It was the year self-publishing finally stopped being about the outliers and was recognized by media outlets and the general public as a viable enterprise for thousands of writers. It was the year one major publisher renewed its fight with Amazon over the price of ebooks. And it was the year subscription models exploded onto the scene. A lot to look back on, and not an easy place to see where we go next. But I have a few bad ideas that will most likely be dead wrong. First, a long-winded retrospective.
The Year of AuthorEarnings.com
For me, the year 2014 began with an email from someone who created a software spider that could crawl and aggregate data on hundreds of thousands of Amazon ebooks. The end result of that email was AuthorEarnings.com, which revealed the startling fact that self-published authors were making as much as a cohort every single day as all the Big 5 authors combined. By the end of 2014, quarterly looks at this data showed that self-published authors had overtaken the Big 5 authors.
Not that it was a competition, but it showed that the success of self-publishing was more than a handful of lucky saps like me. The real story of self-publishing (as many of us have been saying for years) is the ability for people with a small and loyal readership to make a career with their craft without being a household name.
I don’t know how much AuthorEarnings.com contributed to this, but 2014 ended up being the year the stigma of self-publishing died. Prior to last January, you had people deriding self-publishing as the last resort of those rejected by agents and publishers. You had indie authors likened to third-rate cattle by some publishing executives. There were calls by other publishing executives to segregate ebooks on retail outlets based on the method of publication. And traditionally published authors not keen on the sudden increase in competition moaned about the flood of content while publishers who priced their digital books higher than their paperbacks agonized over the devaluing of literature.
Much of that dissipated this past year. What had been a sprinkling of anecdotes piled up into real data. Authors like Brenna Aubrey turned down lucrative publishing contracts and out-earned those offers within months of self-publishing. And a steady flow of unknown authors with no publishing history or established following climbed to the top of their categories and had success out of the gate based primarily on the strength of their storytelling.
The problem with this turn of events — if it can be thought of as a problem — is the idea that anyone could have this level of success. One thing not mentioned enough in 2014 is that making a career with writing requires working your tail off and a heaping dose of luck. I don’t think we give either of these facets enough credit. The people I see doing well with their writing are working incredible hours, often on top of their day jobs at first, and it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone to have the fortitude to do this for year after year until they develop a following.
Similarly, we don’t give the element of chance enough credit for those who do break out. Great books go ignored every single day. There’s nothing anyone can say to make that better for the authors who are watching their works not grab hold. Write more is the best advice, but it’s also the hardest to hear.
The Year of Hachette
2014 was the year the first of the major publishers was able to resume its squabble with Amazon over the price of ebooks. Hachette drew the short straw, and by the time they realized that ebook prices needed to come down, they’d already dug their trench and had little way to call a truce and save face. It took deals with other publishers and the looming holidays to end what was an ugly battle that caused needless harm.
While Hachette was fighting for expensive ebooks, other publishers were learning from self-published works and really competing with indies for the first time. Bestselling frontlist titles were discounted down to $4.99 and even lower and crowded indies off bestseller charts as a result. Backlist titles were given special promotions and pricing, allowing them to compete with publishers’ own frontlist works. Entire genres were discovered through self-publishing and embraced by major publishers. BookBub and other promotional tools were co-opted.
This made things more difficult for indie authors in some ways, but also legitimized the group and their decisions in other ways. We tend to forget that getting a BookBub slot was never a done deal. And lower prices from major publishers has helped indie titles blend in, which can be a great thing. With a nice cover and decent blurb an indie book is now, more than ever before, indistinguishable from any other work. The biggest difference between a $4.99 self-published title and a $4.99 ebook from Random House is that the author of the former gets 70% while the author of the latter gets 15%. The reader is none the wiser.
The Year of Subscriptions
2014 was the year subscription reading services finally gained attention. Two major publishers dabbled with Scribd and Oyster, with a third publisher recently announcing it would participate as well. Many of us have wondered how these companies make money, as they pay full tilt for every book read but charge less than $10 a month to their subscribers. The answer is some combination of gym membership and a steady inflow of venture capital. Scribd reports that the average subscriber reads just one book a month. So the plan here is to make money off people who forgot they joined a thing until they see a charge on their credit card sometime down the road and work up the energy to cancel.
If people do end up using subscriptions in a way that makes them cost-effective for the reader, it’ll either mean these companies will lose money or the payments to publishers and authors will have to go down. Just this week, news of another round of funding for Scribd.com comes in. $22 million more in venture capital raised. This, and a combination of low usage from subscribers, should keep them viable for quite some time without doing to authors what music subscription services have done to other artists, which is to severely reduce their pay.
Amazon was a relatively late entry into this sector, but of course when they move the ground trembles. Kindle Unlimited launched in 2014, and few programs have been so contentious. Those who are doing well by the program are doing it mostly quietly (though plenty have raised their hand and said KU has been great for them). More attention has been paid to those who have seen their income go down since the launch of KU. I blogged about KU several times, but the post that seems most apt is this one. It compares the disruptive force of subscription services to the disruptive force of self-publishing as a whole. Those who made out with the latter are now complaining about being disrupted themselves. Meanwhile, a new crop of authors are having success and using tools to gain market share. Personally, I applaud this, even as I have pointed out ways that I think KU can be improved for the reader.
One thing to understand about Amazon (and few seem to get how crucial this is) is that the customer comes first. This works to the advantage of indie authors, as Amazon has been thrilled to open its site to all comers. The freedom to publish alongside major New York houses comes from Amazon’s desire to provide as vast a selection as possible to its readers. The curation process has been democratized and crowdsourced. All books are welcome, and customers are the way by which they are discovered and promoted. We’ve already lost sight of how revolutionary customer reviews were as a leveling force. We take these things for granted now.
The same attitude that leveled the playing field for indies and allowed us to participate guides Amazon’s foray into subscription services. They are going to tinker, balancing the needs of the bottom line, publishers, authors, and readers. But the last of these comes first, make no mistake. I’ll have more to say about the effect this has on authors below.
The Year of Taking Things for Granted
2014 began with very little perceived legitimacy for the self-published author, and it ended with major media outlets shouting with glee over the consternation self-published authors are expressing over Amazon due to KU. To me, this is the great story of 2014. Two years ago, I couldn’t get anyone in the publishing world to listen or believe me when I relayed the stories I was hearing from the trenches, stories about unknown authors making thousands of dollars a month (and many making quite a bit more than that).
I spoke with reporters from Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, the New York Times, The Economist, NPR, and dozens of regional papers and magazines, and they only wanted to write about the outliers. No one wanted to do the heavy lifting of investigating the larger and more interesting story of a publishing landscape that was now open to anyone with the dream of being a writer and the willingness to put in the hard work.
A year later, the viability of indie publishing is taken for granted, but in strange ways. Media outlets like the New York Times have covered the rise of YouTube stars, self-produced musicians, Netflix originals, and the sharing and crowdsourced economy, but practically never report on the disruption in publishing. In fact, the Times’ Sunday Book Review stopped printing the ebook bestseller list right as that list was being peppered with self-published titles. The first news we get about indie publishing is the outcry from indies over KU. So we’ve arrived just in time to bolster existing agendas. I call that progress. Maybe we’re being used, but it takes being recognized to be used. That’s something.
The viability of self-publishing has been dangerous in other ways. For me, the importance of getting this story out (and the motivation behind AuthorEarnings.com) has been to make sure writers understand their options. We aren’t going to pressure publishers to pay higher royalty rates and offer fairer contracts by pleading with them (and we have yet to see any organized attempt from writers’ groups to effect these changes).
The way things will change will be from individual authors making the choices that make the most sense to them, whatever that choice is. Which is why striking down untruths and zombie memes is so important. Self-publishing, now more than ever, is the best way for the vast majority of writers to launch their writing careers, even if their goal is to end up with a major publisher. Understanding this and acting on it will pressure publishers to step up their game, which I believe they’ll do.
So how has the viability of self-publishing become dangerous? The expectations of those who had early success and those just starting out run the risk of becoming unreasonable. Very few people make a living in any kind of entertainment sector, and even if they do, it’s rarely for long. I remember hoping I’d have one or two solid months with the kind of sales I saw in early 2012. I’ve maintained that feeling for the last three years, forever waiting for the other shoe to drop. This will be the last month I have meaningful income from publishing. I’ve said that for 36 months in a row. I’m delighted to be wrong every time, but it won’t last forever. Eventually, I’ll get it right. And I won’t agonize over the return to reality.
For centuries, the impermanence of success in the entertainment industry has been learned by each generation. It’s not an enjoyable lesson. Superstar athletes assume every year will be better than the previous, that they’ll never lose a step, they’ll always be in demand, until a top draft pick is eating up their minutes on the court. Every year, another entertainer can’t understand why album sales or theater tickets weren’t as strong as the year before. Much is blamed for this. Critics are blamed, management is blamed, agents are blamed, the gods are blamed.
The fickle nature of the market is rarely given its due. It’s this fickle nature that gave each of us a chance. It’ll be that fickle nature that takes it all away. Enjoy it while it lasts. Remember that you once did this simply because you loved it. Remember that there was a time when no matter how good you felt you were, there was no place for you to even offer your wares. We have to appreciate every moment we have, every opportunity given, and cherish these things even as we expect more and demand more.
There’s a fine balance there between appreciation and subjugation. To be appreciative doesn’t mean to give up or to become complacent, it simply requires that we remember how far we’ve come and how fast. Self-published authors are complaining that Amazon is offering unlimited reading on the best ereader devices ever built on the best online marketplace ever devised and paying more for each borrow than a traditionally published author makes on every paperback they well at Barnes & Noble, and many are outraged.
That’s awesome. It shows how far we’ve come, how much that seemed impossible five years ago is now taken for granted, and how far we hope to go in the future. But while we’re fighting for more progress, let’s not lose sight of the years that have passed and where we started. And if you see people losing hope, remember that we are a storytelling animal. We will always want to tell stories, and there will always be billions of people willing to pay to have great stories told to them. Nothing will change that. There will always be a viable market for this trade. It’s just that our opportunities for making a living at this will never be chiseled in stone. We will come and go. I not only expect this, I celebrate it.
Happy New Year. Tell awesome stories.
January 1, 2015
December 24, 2014
December 23, 2014
There are certain movies you just have to see around the holidays. Like: A Christmas Story. “You’re gonna shoot your eye out!” Or: A Miracle on 34th Street.
I propose one more. A new Christmas tradition:
This relates to publishing, in a way. Today marks the first time that a major Hollywood release has had a simultaneous theater and digital launch. There have been some digital-only works that skipped the theaters, but nothing like this. The reluctance these days is more on the part of the theater owners than the studios.
I don’t see this changing anytime soon, but I wish it would. Theater owners know that by helping provide choice, they’ll lose some market share to home viewing and digital, hence the windowing. Publishers did the same with ebooks — withholding them while releasing hardbacks — and some of this pressure came from bookstores.
When publishers are trained to be in the bookstore business, rather than the selling-stories business, it leaves room for disruption. Because someone else will see what the market really wants and supply it. With Hollywood, there’s been a similar reluctance to see that they are in the video business, not the theater business. A remnant of this bias is that we still look at opening weekend or box office sales, when many films go on to make more money in the streaming/disc market.
With the price of large high-def TVs so low, there’s room for Hollywood to make home releases incredibly appealing. I would gladly pay $20 for a home screening of a brand new film, even if that means not owning the digital file. That’s far less than ticket prices, no gas, and cheap popcorn. You could probably get away with $30 and still make these releases an event.
If that sounds nuts, look at sports. NFL is an ad-supported, home-watching event. Those TV contracts are in the billions. Stadium tickets are a bonus. And just as fans look forward to Saturday (for college football) or Sunday (for pro football), I think you could make Friday nights the order-a-pizza-and-watch-a-new-film night. Especially in the age of social media, where watching a day late means missing out on a communal experience.
There’s been a bit of commentary on this blog post, which is already too long, so I thought I’d make it longer. The post wasn’t about KU being bad. I’ve blogged already that I think KU is great for many authors, that subscriptions are a disruptive force, and those who are disrupted are going to complain while the disruptors do well for themselves. I applaud that. KU has been good for me. I’m just looking at ways I would tweak the structure if I were Amazon. Not to benefit myself, but to provide the highest quality experience for their customers. (Any game of suggesting tweaks for a retailer must be taken from their perspective, otherwise it’s just wishful thinking.)
The post was also not an attempt to equate abuses of KDP with indies. Or to suggest that indies who do things the right way deserve anything less than stellar treatment from retailers. It was an attempt at a pragmatic view of the entire landscape, which I think helps explain business decisions that may seem wonky when viewed from within our immediate bubble, but might make sense when seen from a greater height or another perspective.
I’m not a fan of most of what is suggested in that blog post. My ideal publishing world would look much different from the current world. But how is that useful? If we are going to demand things from retailers like Amazon, we have to take their motives and needs into account. Motives such as: The customer comes first. Motives such as: We don’t want to give away products, but we also don’t want competitors to take market share by undercutting our prices.
I’ve seen it suggested that Amazon is all for perma-free, why else do they allow it? They allow it for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, as a response to the actions of other retailers. If Amazon was truly for a free price-point, they would make this an option in the KDP dashboard. If they thought free should be easy to attain, they wouldn’t have limited us to 5 “Free Days” as part of our KDP Select membership. Think about that: The reward for exclusivity in 2011 was a mere 5 days of “free” out of every 90. That tells you what you need to know about how Amazon views free ebooks. Again, the fact that they price-match has to do with the fear of losing market share to competitors. We seize this as an opportunity.
When Hachette refused to negotiate with Amazon, Amazon responded by taking away pre-orders and predictive warehouse stocking. These were free features that Hachette and other publishers use to their great advantage without pausing to appreciate. Amazon pre-orders reshaped the publishing landscape. They are used to drive hype among sales staff, set print runs, and make all kinds of marketing decisions. I know, because I saw this in my publications with two of the largest publishers. They constantly updated me on how things were looking by referencing Amazon pre-orders. This was the sort of info that other companies might pay a lot of money to marketing firms or polling firms to deduce for them.
Predictive warehouse stock allowed same-day and two-day delivery of books to customers all over the country. When publishers ship books, it takes two weeks to get them (I know from working in a bookstore where I placed these orders all the time). If you go to a bookstore and place a “special order,” you’ll probably see that book in a couple weeks. That was the reality before Amazon spent billions of dollars on distribution centers and honed their predictive algorithms. Big publishers just take these things for granted. It made their negotiations with Amazon seem ludicrous to many observers. Why should Hachette expect these things, plus better margins, without offering anything in return? My blog post was simply raising the possibility that some of us fall prey to the same tendency to not see all that we are being offered — only what else we want. We fall prey to seeing how others treat us without delving into how our actions (as a group) affect others.
As I said in the original post, it is cosmically unfair for all KDP users to be lumped together. That’s the conundrum. I don’t see an easy answer to any of this, just more problems. But for me, thinking about it this way at least makes the issues observable so I can contemplate them better. I wish I could offer solutions or even hints of ideas for solutions. All I can offer is my own confusion and thoughts. For what that’s worth.
My first encounter with Pinker was his excellent book THE BLANK SLATE, which seriously should be required reading for every human being. It’s like an owner’s manual for your brain and your behavior, so you don’t go through life so frustrated and confused.
After that, I looked for anything he’d ever written, which also led me to Judith Rich Harris, whose two books THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION and No%20Two Alike: Human Nature and Human IndividualityNO TWO ALIKE must be read.
Steven really blew up with this TED talk:
Which led to him writing THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, an amazing tome detailing all the ways in which the world has grown less violent over time, no matter how you slice that time into bits.
His recent article on Slate.com touches on some of these points (which is what I wrote all of this to share. Talk about burying the lead). If you are a news junkie like me, it’s good to get a dose of Pinker now and then to get some perspective. This is also the primary theme behind the original WOOL. I can’t help but think that the bombardment of negativity is doing something strange and awful to us as a society.
December 22, 2014
Does Amazon treat indies like second class citizens?
I’ve seen a few comments to this effect since Kindle Unlimited launched. The argument comes from the fact that self-published authors are paid from a shared pool for ebooks borrowed through KU, while traditionally published titles receive the same payout they would get for a regular sale. Since KU launched, self-published titles have earned in the neighborhood of $1.30 – $1.60 for each KU borrow (if the title is read to the 10% mark).
Another complaint about KU is that it ignores price for indies, so a 99 cent ebook and a $9.99 ebook both pay the author $1.30-ish for a borrow (again, if read to the 10% mark). A $9.99 ebook borrowed from a trad publisher, meanwhile, will pay 70%, which comes to $6.99.
It’s worth pointing out here that the trad-pubbed author of that ebook will only receive around $1.48 for that same borrow of a $9.99 ebook. And the trad-pubbed author of a $4.99 ebook borrowed through KU (which is a better comparison to indie pricing) will receive a mere 74 cents! So a comparison of earnings between authors on either side is actually much better for the self-published author.
But wait, you say, we aren’t just authors. We are publishers! We pay for cover art and editing. We upload a finished product, ready to go. These aren’t royalties we’re earning; they are a cut of proceeds. So comparing our income as authors to other authors isn’t fair. We should compare our income as self-publishers to other publishers.
Okay, then, let’s compare. In this case, trad publishers are getting the better end of the stick for ebooks priced above $2.99. For ebooks priced below $2.99, self-published “publishers” begin to do better. (Very few trad pubbed books are priced this low, so it’s moot.) But we have to also compare everything, not just pay. We have to compare what Amazon is getting out of the bargain. Because the way I see it, indies aren’t just treated like second class citizens by Amazon — self-published authors treat Amazon’s customers like second class citizens.
What in the world do I mean? Well, I don’t see Harper Collins snagging Wikipedia articles and uploading them to Amazon for a quick buck. I don’t see the rampant piracy of other authors’ works, a quick repackaging, and again a quick and illegal buck. I don’t see publishers exchanging thoughts on how to make a quick buck packaging blog posts as KU ebooks, or how to chop up novels into thirty 10-page stories that pay out after the first page turn.
Are the offerings from indies and trad publishers the same? They certainly can be. The best-written indie books are as good if not better than the best-written trad published books. And the indie titles are usually priced more reasonably, which provides Amazon’s customers with a better shopping and reading experience. The best indie titles are well-edited, have great cover art and well-written blurbs. They provide an equal or better experience at often half the price. These are the authors who are justifiable in complaining about being treated as second class citizens. They hand Amazon great works at a steady clip, and they see themselves as being on par with a Hachette title, but the pay isn’t the same.
But we have to take the bad with the good. The same freedom to publish that has changed the lives of thousands of authors also brings a wild west where others take advantage and try to game every system in every way possible. A handful of rotten apples spoils the entire bunch. The only way to prevent this is heavy curation, which I certainly don’t want. I want freedom, but with freedom comes the need to curb abuses. The logical step (and many have argued for this, some with compassion, some out of spite) is a tiered system. Classes of treatment for publishers based on the class of treatment given to customers.
Before you balk, consider that we already have this. Amazon has varying levels of accessibility, from the practically wide-open KDP to the submission-curated Kindle Singles to the acquisitions editors at their imprints, to the work submitted by other publishers. At each level, the rewards (pay, promotion, editorial) vary. We don’t just have first and second class citizens. We have all sorts of classes.
The same is true with traditional publishers. Not all authors are treated the same. Massive advances effectively raise the royalty rate paid to top authors, who aren’t expected to earn out their million-plus-dollar deals. Some authors get book tours, others don’t. Some get top editorial, others don’t. Some get placement in the front of the catalog, others don’t. Some get store co-op and favorable placement in retail, others don’t.
The same is true of indies, who also fall into various categories. There are KDP authors, and then there are KDP Select authors. The latter get many promotional tools that the former doesn’t. KDP Select authors also receive higher pay in some territories than the regular KDP author.
There’s more. When Amazon started allowing self-published authors to set up pre-orders, they were concerned about the customer experience. What if the book isn’t ready in time? So they created a system that punishes those who miss their deadlines. You can have the right to set up a pre-order taken away from you for a year if you don’t get your work up in time. This makes perfect sense if you consider that Amazon’s philosophy for generating income is to concentrate manically on the customer experience. While Amazon loves authors, they love their customers more than anyone else. Again, more classes to fall into. It’s just the way the world works.
So you have a class of authors who make their deadlines and a class of authors on probation for not meeting their deadlines. You have a class of authors who get regular feedback from readers about typos and a class of authors who rarely get this feedback (or who act on it promptly when they do). You have authors whose ebooks are read in a few days and authors whose ebooks are read in a few weeks, a reflection, perhaps, on the quality of the customer experience but not on the quality of the work. And the customer experience, again, might be what Amazon is after. A quicker read means more purchases per year. I’m fairly certain that Amazon watches this metric. I would.
There are other tiers. You have authors whose ebooks average a certain number of sales, borrows, reviews, social media shares, etc. and authors who perform lower than this. Should we be treated the same?
I think we should have the same opportunities. The start line should be wide enough for everyone to slap an ASIN number on their chest and get ready for the bang of the gun. Everyone who wants to publish their original content should be allowed to, but I don’t think we have the right to expect the same outcomes. Even if your books are better than your neighbor’s, it doesn’t mean you’ll sell more. There’s an element of chance involved. It all comes down to public taste, the size of your platform, the timing, the genre, persistence, genre, keywords, hard work, and a hundred other little factors.
That’s where the classes start sorting themselves, and so the question is how Amazon should treat authors based on these outcomes. Should authors who sell a lot of books get better treatment than authors just starting out? Should an author with 30 published titles be treated the same as an author with 3 published titles? What about an author who releases a highly sought after ebook every month, as some of my kickass colleagues are capable of doing?
I think authors should be treated fairly, which means not evenly but commensurate with what they offer in return. And so authors who treat readers like second class citizens shouldn’t expect to be treated like first class publishers. That’s not an invitation to punish people (I’m sure many will read it that way). To me, it’s simply inspiration to work harder to treat readers with respect and to help other indies do the same.
Of course, it will be impossible to prevent abuses by the untoward and impossible to agree on metrics of quality (an exercise that I abhor). But now we can ask again whether Amazon should pay indies — as a whole — the same way they pay trad publishers. Should an indie author get the full tilt for a borrow in KU? Let’s ignore the fact that the system would likely collapse in a heap of unprofitability. Let’s also ignore the more reasonable idea that trad publishers shouldn’t get the same amount for a borrow as they do for a sale either. Ignoring all of that, do I think indies as a whole should get paid the same as trad publishers as a whole?
I do not.
As a whole, I don’t think we indies treat Amazon as well as trad publishers do (Hachette, notwithstanding). Not that it’s cut and dry. I mean, we don’t charge ridiculously high prices for our ebooks, which Amazon appreciates. But then, trad publishers don’t employ perma-free on the scale we do, and free ebooks tax Amazon’s infrastructure without earning them a penny (they lose money, in fact, as they have to pay AT&T to deliver these works, provide customer service for these works, storage, etc.). In all the arguments I’ve seen of Amazon treating indies as second class citizens, I’ve never once seen indie authors own up to the cost we foist on Amazon with perma-free. Not once.
That’s an intellectually bankrupt stance to take if it’s by simple omission. If people think that omission is justified, then it’s a morally bankrupt position. It’s a case of wanting as much from another as possible without thinking of what that party provides us or what costs we incur with our actions (again, as an entire group).
We have to consider indies as a whole, and so we unfortunately have to consider the number of hijinks, scams, rip-offs, pirated works, wiki articles, typo-ridden rough drafts, etc. that this group uploads to Amazon, all of which requires infrastructure to handle (fighting piracy and plagiarism isn’t cheap, nor is improving the customer experience through a focus on quality).
And here’s where life is unfair: There’s no way for indies to prevent other indies from spoiling the system for the rest of us. There’s no way we can help bring up quality overall so that we all get treated more fairly (though many try, whether by offering writing advice, sharing editing and beta-reading services, or providing tips on cover art, formatting, burbs, etc.).
What we need is something we already kinda have, and that’s reciprocity. The authors who respect Amazon’s customers by providing high quality reads with professional covers at a great price should be treated better than those who upload short error-riddled rough drafts at high prices. And the latter should be treated better than those who break Amazon’s TOS, like having KDP Select books available elsewhere. And this group should be treated better than those who break the law by uploading stolen material (or by profiting from open-source or crowd-sourced material).
Tiers. They already exist, but they are nebulous and unclear. When Amazon wanted to beta-test their pre-order system, they went to authors who had a history of producing quality content on a consistent basis. These authors were given special privileges in exchange for treating Amazon’s customers like first class citizens, all to test the merits of a system before wider release. The KU All Star bonuses are similar in that the authors who produce the highest-demand works are rewarded for doing so.
Not only will you and I disagree about whether or not this is fair, I don’t think most people agree about which of these decisions are fair and which aren’t. It isn’t that simple. It never is. If you’ve ever had a job, you’ve seen yourself and fellow employees treated variously in varying ways, and not all of it made sense. The question is whether or not Amazon has authors’ best intentions in mind when they make these decisions, and I am certain that they do. I think they consider their customer first (a fact many authors and publishers seem to ignore when trying to understand Amazon’s decisions), and then they look at their service providers (that’s us) and try to balance profitability with reasonability. I don’t envy them that challenge. I think they get far more right than wrong.
As an author, of course, I am biased. I think Amazon should tweak their KU payout system to make it more fair among us indies. 99 cent short stories and novels should pay the same 35 cents that they do on KDP. The payout should also come at higher than the 10% read range (maybe more like 50%). Works priced from $2.99 – $6.99 should pay $2.00 per borrow. And these rates should be known ahead of time. It shouldn’t fluctuate from month to month.
Another option would be to pay 40% on borrows and 70% on sales right across the board. But if we get more from Amazon, we need to ask what they are getting in return. I don’t see this mentioned much, but Amazon’s customers — our readers — are the ones who really matter. Are we treating them like first class citizens? You might be, but is our class of publisher as a whole?
If not, what can we do better? How can we negotiate with Amazon for better pay? I believe in fair exchanges; I believe we should take others’ perspectives to see what they need from us, not just what we need from them. As much as I hate the idea of tiers, they already exist. I would hate to see a “stamp of approval” system of any sort. The new release from a first-time author who put time and care into their product should be indistinguishable online from the latest novel from a Big 5 bestselling author. There shouldn’t be gatekeepers or curators within KDP.
So the fairest thing I can think of is escalators. Amazon’s self-publishing audio book program, ACX, used to employ earnings escalators. The payout rate might start at 40%, but it can go up to 90% with enough sales. This puts the job of rewarding customer experience where it belongs, and that’s with the customer. Keep them happy and coming back for more, and the payout goes up.
The question is whether or not Amazon is at its profitability limit right now with paying 70% of the sale price in exchange for hosting and supporting our titles. I think this is a fair split. It could be higher, but it could also be lower. Brick and mortar retailers keep 40% – 50% of the retail price in exchange for transacting the sale. Despite what some seem to think, e-commerce isn’t cheap. A 30% take in exchange for file hosting, delivery, recommendations, automated email blasts, marketing tools, the best customer review system, etc., seems fair to me. But I also think there’s a little meat on that bone. Especially to reward those who treat Amazon’s customers like first class citizens.
I’d love to see that 70% payout creep up to 85% with enough titles sold. Maybe 1,000 sales moves the peg up to 71%. 5,000 sales gets you 72%. Perhaps reaching 85% requires selling ten million ebooks (something no single self-published author has yet done on Amazon). I don’t dream of ever reaching that sort of level, but I would applaud those who do for being rewarded for it.
Maybe there are other ways to acknowledge authors who treat readers with the utmost respect. This would not only be reward authors but inspire us. It would be fair. What isn’t fair is what I see happening among my cohort: Authors expecting equal treatment without asking whether they are providing an equal service. Authors complaining about KU payouts when we cost Amazon a lot of money through perma-free (a practice we corner them into via their price-matching promise to their customers). We expect to be paid just like traditional publishers, but do we — as a whole — treat customers as well? Do our low prices offset any other deficiencies? Is there any way to expect fair treatment without dividing us up into tiers based on the quality and quantity of our output?
I don’t think these are simple questions, nor do I think the answers are obvious or simple. There are those who seem to think the answers are dead-easy, and that’s to give, give, give. I argue they aren’t thinking the whole thing through, or they aren’t trying to view the situation from all angles while taking everyone’s needs and motivations into account. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. In 2015, I’m going to try to do better, and be on the lookout for ways we can all do better. So we can be treated like we deserve.
December 21, 2014
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. If your back hurts, go see one. If they tell you they can’t find anything wrong with you, but you know your back still hurts like the dickens, consider what happened to me:
I was twenty-five years old when I threw my back out. I was working on boats at the time. On this particular job, I was leading a fleet of several dozen boats for the annual Richard Bertram Summer Cruise, which is when new boat owners follow one another through the Bahamas for a week. As the fleet captain, I led planning and weather sessions over spread-out charts to show the other captains where we would head and what to be cautious of. I fixed broken air conditioners, stopped one boat from sinking, and most importantly — I set up the margarita machine in every port of call.
The margarita machine was this massive cooled ice swirler thingamabob that we stored in the lazarette of our lead yacht. It took two people to pick up the margarita machine. Unfortunately, only one person could fit in the lazarette. I was young, dumb, with more muscles than sense, so I would go in, crouch down, pick up this machine that weighed more than I did, and waddle out with it, hunched over.
The third or fourth time I did this, I heard a pop in my back, and I went down like someone who’d had eight margaritas. I’d never felt pain like this before, not with broken bones, nothing. I spent the rest of the cruise crying, stooped over, staggering around, laying out on the deck, putting fenders under my lower back, anything to make it stop. Everything I tried made it worse. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely see through the agony.
And so began my decade of debilitating and chronic back pain.
Episodes could come on from turning my head too fast. From a long road trip. From sitting on a wooden stool for half an hour. From seemingly anything. A few times, the pain got so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t move. Any attempt to stir caused paralyzing and torturous pain. Once, my wife had to wrestle me out of bed, me muffling my screams, as she helped me to the bathroom. I had at least three episodes like this a year. Some of these episodes lasted weeks or even months.
Three years ago, I was out here in Colorado for the holidays with a friend who happened to be a doctor. (A chief medical examiner in Manhattan, no less.) Never shy about asking him for advice on my ailments, I told him about my back pain (I was having an episode at the time). He said something that really pissed me off. My doctor friend told me all of my pain was in my head.
If you are like I was back then, you aren’t reading this sentence. You’ve already laughed and walked away. That’s what I did. Fortunately, this was a dear friend, and he was persistent. (He is also the smartest person I’ve ever known in person, which made his advice hard to ignore.) With this mixture of caring and brilliance, he wore me down. It took a year, but I started listening. I did some research. I discovered that quite a few really smart people agree with this theory.
One of the foremost is Dr. John Sarno at NYU, author of The Mindbody Prescription. Again, if you’re like me, you’ve already walked away just after reading the title to that book. Maybe like me you are an avowed skeptic, a rationalist, someone who does not believe in what can’t be proven. I am all of these things. Which gets in the way of me understanding some of the very real and bizarre things in the cosmos, like quantum mechanics. The world is not entirely rational. Take the placebo effect.
You’ve heard of the placebo effect, I’m sure. It’s our mind’s ability to affect the efficacy of medical treatment. It is most common in studies of chronic pain, but it shows up often enough (and is real enough) that every drug trial has to take the placebo effect into account. The effect is so powerful that one of the early researchers to study the placebo stumbled upon its powers almost by accident and could barely believe what he was seeing.
His name was Henry Beecher, and he was a medic in WWII. Running out of morphine in the field — and with more soldiers in need of treatment —Henry resorted with desperation to something he’d read about once: the power of lying to his patients. He gave them saline injections (salt water), and told them it was morphine. Many of his patients relaxed and felt no pain, even as Beecher removed their limbs and performed invasive surgery. I repeat: He cut off limbs after giving soldiers a shot of saltwater!
I was thinking about Beecher one day while lying in bed with my back “out.” I also thought about what my friend had told me in Colorado the previous year. He told me he too had suffered from back pain for over a decade. He tried everything. Finally, he cured his recurring chronic back pain after meeting with Dr. John Sarno at NYU, who convinced him that it was all in his head.
Here’s the cool thing about curing my back pain (and probably, curing yours): I didn’t have to go to a seminar, buy a book, or spend a single penny to get better. I just read study after study on this issue until I let go of my skepticism and doubt. I told myself that my back wasn’t physically injured. I told myself that the pain was in my head.
And then I got out of bed.
It was hard at first. I staggered around a bit. I was still pissed at my friend for belittling what I knew to be a very real physical injury with a very specific margarita-machine cause. I was still pissed at what I felt to be victim-blaming. What I felt to be callous and cruel dispassion. A waving away of what had plagued me for over ten years. But I was sick of the pain, and I had read enough bizarre historical accounts to begin to doubt my pigheadedness. And just like that . . . the pain went away.
There are quite a few theories as to what’s going on with chronic back pain. They don’t all agree. They might all be wrong! But they all get one thing right: For most sufferers of chronic pain, there is no physical cause. People go in and get scans, which show nothing. Doctors aren’t sure what to do, so they prescribe pain meds. But the actual locus of the pain is where all pain signals both begin and end: in the brain. (This doesn’t mean backs can’t be injured, just that the vast majority of cases reveal no physical injury to explain the pain.)
If you think that’s wonky, keep in mind that amputees often feel their ghost limbs itching. The itch isn’t on the skin, it’s in the brain. That signal just points back to the location of the itch, where some stimuli caused the initial firing. But signals can fire without any stimuli at all. When you dream, you are “seeing” with your eyes closed, often in color, and often with sound. The world we experience is pieced together by our brains, and we don’t do a very good job of it. We get a lot wrong. Including not knowing that we get any of it wrong.
An excellent overview of psychosomatic pain in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests that recurring chronic pain often has a real and legitimate origin (such as my margarita-machine injury) but that subsequent incidences are simply a case of fearing re-injury. Many studies link anxiety and stress to chronic back pain. Other researchers have found that back pain plagues those who think of their backs as fragile and easily injured. Those who think of their backs as okay and resilient to injury avoid pain. The miracle is that those in the former group can simply decide to join the latter group. That’s what my friend did. That’s what I chose to do.
I tackled my back pain in several ways. First, I told myself that the pain was far worse than any real injury. This lowered my anxiety about the pain. The first day I tried this, the results were astounding. No medicine. No gadgets. Just a restructuring of my thoughts. “The pain is worse than anything going on in my spine,” I told myself. “I don’t have a slipped disc. I don’t need surgery. My body is protecting me from something that isn’t even amiss.”
My second attack was to reduce the stressors in my life. I stopped worrying so much about . . . everything. I reduced my workload. No more 18-hour days, 7 days a week. I set up an auto-responder on my email account and stopped trying to reply to every single thing. I spent less time staring at my computer and more time with family, more time taking pictures and breathing deeply.
I stumbled upon this study out of Northwestern University, where researchers were able to PREDICT with 85% accuracy which patients would develop debilitating back pain from an initial sensation of injury. 85% prediction rate! The indicator was crosstalk between two areas of the brain that deal with emotions and motivational behavior. One of these is the nucleus accumbens, which instructs the rest of the brain on how to interpret and respond to the outside world. Just as we can have auditory and visual hallucinations, so too can we get our perceptions of pain wrong.
What is likely occurring is a nasty feedback loop. The emotional response triggers a protective pain response, which heightens the emotional response, over and over. Breaking this loop requires calming the emotional response. This often happens by way of placebo, which is why thousands of people swear to thousands of varying (and often contradictory) cures for back pain. Inversion, heat, cold, compression, elevation, acupuncture, massage, yoga, etc. Anything convincing enough to believe that the pain should be going away often works.
Once that feedback loop is severed, you feel better. But the more you suffer from the pain, the more heightened and attuned your emotional response becomes for future attacks. This is what happened to me and what has happened to so many others. And it isn’t just back pain. Various pain fads have swept populations like viruses. Carpal tunnel outbreaks have been found to have psychosomatic origins. All it takes is the conviction that part of our bodies are fragile, to fear that pain, and then to have a slight or even imagined twinge. And then it’s on like Donkey Kong.
To understand how this happens, watch Lorimer Mosely’s TED talk. He’s got the science behind what’s going on when we feel pain. Every time, no matter what’s happening, the sensation of pain is in your head. And the majority of times, there’s nothing at all wrong with your back:
The last thing I did to completely cure myself of debilitating back pain was to exercise more intelligently. I strengthened all the little muscles that are easy to ignore. I stretched more. Because the fewer twinges I had, the fewer times I had to convince myself nothing was wrong. And along the way, I convinced myself that I was making my back stronger. Which makes me invulnerable to lower back pain. Because it’s all in my head.
More reading, if you want:
First, a glance at the rearview mirror. 2014 was absolutely insane. For travel, it began with a trip to Taiwan, where WOOL has become the #1 bestselling science fiction novel of all-time. London, Berlin, Toronto, New York, Istanbul, and Budapest were just a few of the other stops. I’m leaving out over a dozen trips. It was both exhilarating and exhausting to trot around the globe this year. It’s why I won’t be jetting around quite as much in 2015.
As far as releases, 2014 saw the release of two novels: SAND and THE SHELL COLLECTOR. It was also the year I put out my first children’s book, MISTY, with Nidhi Chanani. The WOOL graphic novel and comics came out. Then there were three short stories published online: (GLITCH, SECOND SUICIDE, and PROMISES OF LONDON). Not to mention two anthologies edited and contributed to (THE END IS NIGH and THE END IS NOW).
I’m leaving a few releases out. By my count, it’s something like ten or twelve things wrapped up this year. Mostly from distant hotel rooms or while in the air.
So what’s next? I’m currently working on the sequel to SAND. I’m also writing a novel with one of my best friends and favorite authors. We hope it’ll be the first of many featuring the same cast of characters. The third and final entry on the Apocalypse Triptych will release next year, as will a couple other anthologies I contributed to. Conferences I’m slated to attend thus far are RWA in New York and Comic Con in San Diego.
2015 will also begin my transition back onto boats. I’ve got two deliveries scheduled in the next two months, both 50′ catamarans, which is what Amber and I are looking at moving aboard in the next year or two. I hope to also start writing some non-fiction next year, detailing my adventures as a yacht captain and my plans for sailing around the world. Don’t worry . . . I plan to keep writing fiction. I’ll just be doing it while on the move. Maybe the next Meet-Up you come to will be at a port near you as the book tour goes water-bound.
But that’s looking ahead to 2017. A lot to do before then.