Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Creative Revolution: Part 4 of The Business of Books

Everyone is familiar with the “Industrial Revolution.” In the past 500 years there have been five official “revolutions” that have changed the way people live.

(1600–1740) Financial-agricultural revolution
(1780–1840) Industrial revolution
(1880–1920) Technical revolution (or Second Industrial Revolution)
(1940–1970) Scientific-technical revolution
(1985–2000) Information and telecommunications revolution

We’re going to propose #6 and we are in the middle of it:

(2015-????) Creative revolution

Each of these revolutions was made possible by its predecessor.

This is what our current system defines as the “Value of Books.”

“Free papers!”

So, the result is clearly seen in the revenue earned by writers for their work.

Chart_Q17_150628The Chameleon Writer Market Survey is still open. But as of last week, among the 122 respondents, the pattern of earnings distribution is clear. The survey in fact, is weighted heavily toward working writers who’ve published a number of books.

Chart_Q2_150629Within this group, the earnings do correlate. The writers who had published more books all fell in the top four earning categories of $24,999 and above. The respondent who made more than $200,000 was individually recruited to complete the survey, as were a number of indy-published or self-published writers.

These results are a bit “better” than the data collected by the UK Authors Licensing and Collecting Society in 2014, or information on the collapse of writer earnings identified by the Authors Guild and currently being used in support of advocacy for fair writer contracts. The Authors Guild is actively advocating for major trade publishers to offer 50% e-book royalties, instead of the industry-standard 25%. As a number of independent publishers including Zumaya Publications‘ Elizabeth Burton, have pointed out over the course of these articles, independent publishers have been offering similar terms to writers for years (Zumaya was founded in 2001 and has a number of successful imprints and authors). The Book View Cafe “split” as an author cooperative is 95/5 – 95% to the author, 5% to the cooperative, retained as reserve and operations funds.

This article is going to be a bit different than the first three in the series (Value to the Reader, Writer Attitudes About Book Quality,  and Why Don’t More People Read?).

“Why Don’t More People Read?” was about who really reads and buys books currently — as much as can be determined. We’ve previously made the point using observable data (again, as much as can be determined) that the present systems are not reliably serving the current market of approximately 20 percent of North American adults who regularly buy and read books (some 70 million people). As other advisers have pointed out, we initially looked at rapidly rising college graduation rates, particularly among women and diverse populations, and predicted that some 140 million Americans, Mexicans and Canadians were potential book-buyers and readers. But the truth is: nearly 100 percent of adults are literate in the U.S. and Canada. Mexico’s literacy rate was 93% in 2013. Among young Mexicans (15-24), the rate is 98.5%. So, the potential market for books in North America really is just about everybody who is literate, i.e. the entire adult population, in North America. In addition, the book as a creative format is, as we’ve previously pointed out, foundational to other forms of communication. The delivery format does matter, as is shown in Pew’s ongoing research: younger readers not only read more, and more often, than older age groups, they prefer paper books. Here is a new link, regarding younger Americans and library use. While e-books are an important new publication platform, it is unlikely that they will ever replace paper books in their present form.

Yes, we are talking among ourselves about a different way of combining tech and the paper book. But we are crazy.

So, the current system of publishing, which includes self-publishing which is dependent on retailers (Amazon) which have brilliantly devised a system to acquire limitless content at no upfront cost, solving one of the problems of bringing products to market at scale, but offering no ability to control quality or expand markets (as seen in the leveling-off of e-book sales) – and let me explain this in plain English:

Unless Amazon fixes its approach, it will be stuck with its current Kindle customer base and ongoing declines in paper book sales since those customers are falling away. The independent booksellers that survived the seismic changes in the industry in the past 20 years are strong and new bookstores are beginning to open. Amazon is not the only e-book seller and their competitors are offering books on devices that have legs, are continuously upgraded, and really are good for more than one thing. And the traditional bookstore is not the only way to sell books.

Bound to Happen

It really was bound to happen, I realized this past weekend at the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference. We told attendees, “Chameleon is the only company of its kind right now, but five years from now, there will be a lot more.” We said, “If established publishers want to make it, they’ll adopt more of our methodology.” There isn’t much chance of business growth and success if a business is trying to make a product using flawed methodology and is siloed from its market customers all along the supply chain — a market it knows little about, and which is self-limited based in false assumptions (“Books compete with movies, TV and games,” and “Nobody reads any longer.”) Even when successes are noted, they are evaluated based in superficialities: i.e. the success of the Twilight books led to other books that were superficially similar, and even the later success of 50 Shades of Gray, based on the more “wholesome” Twilight books — like people don’t get what the underlying basic elements were (entertainment, absorbtion and a heroic fantasy for YOUNG FEMALE READERS – told actively and at a fast pace).

Metrics and Bookscan

The only metric used in the trade publishing industry outside of Amazon’s own internal metrics, used within its customer base, is Nielsen Bookscan. When we first started Chameleon and I explained to some of our initial founding group (including Silicon Valley pioneers) that established publishers were very slow in determining how many books they’d sold, and that they didn’t have very strong control over the pipeline; i.e. they pretty much had no idea who was buying any given title, how, why and where, they thought I was making stuff up. “Authors sure don’t know,” I said, “they receive their royalty statements very late and they’re hardly reliable.” At the same time, I explained, authors are also now being asked to take the lion’s share of marketing their books, when they don’t even know who’s buying them until months later and even then, they just see an aggregate number, not ‘who’s buying what, where or when’.”

“That’s not possible,” one person said.

I explained that publishers greatly relied upon a third-party service, Nielsen Bookscan, in making purchasing decisions. Right now, AC Nielsen is stating they cover 80 percent of paper book sales. Any US-based author with an Amazon Author Central account can track their Bookscan sales on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. There are probably 1,000 internet articles and posts, most denigrating Bookscan, and a few extolling its virtues — this is a post of ONE right now that’s going to contextualize it in the larger scale of industry and commerce.

AC Nielsen is a good company and produces incredible market research in general, and fantastic insight in retail market trends and potentials. Bookscan could not be characterized as a good, future or long-term sustainable BI product. Launched in 2001, it’s a POS system (business acronyms are funny, huh? In this context it means “Point of Sale”) that offers little insight beyond the basic purchase and sales volume among the current customer base.

In contrast, Nielsen offers rich data and insights for general retail, and to a lesser extent, manufacturing and services industries.

growth in retail spend

This is just one of their insights.

Most of the growth in retail spending over the next decade will be from multicultural consumers. Books are a retail product.



Why Using Bookscan is a Recipe for Failure

We’ve used cookies, organic/natural foods and Uber to try to communicate what needs to happen. Now: bicycles.

bicycleAfter an historical record high of 15.2 million bicycles sold in the U.S. in 1973, bicycles suffered a long decline in the 80s and 90s. Everybody was driving, and even kids started skateboarding more and riding bicycles less. Sales started to rebound during the early 2000s, but the industry slumped during the recession.

Now, bicycles are making a comeback, with almost 2 million more bicycles sold in 2014 than the previous year. The National Bicycle Dealers Association reported that 18 million bicycles were sold in the U.S. in 2014.  The growth rate is found in cool, new (“retro”) bicycles, bicycles for specific enthusiasts, and basic meat-and-potatoes bicycles used for fitness and transportation.

If bicycle manufacturers and dealers were only looking at partial records covering the numbers of bicycles sold during any given period, including “down” periods like the recession, and determining their future purchases by doing more similar models, then … they would not be at that 18 million bicycles sold figure.

“Nobody rides bicycles any longer.”

“Young people don’t ride bikes.”

HELLO. If you assume this, no — of course you’re not going to make money designing, manufacturing and selling new bicycles to new riders.

Detroit, Japan, Munich and Seoul have “noticed” that millennials are not buying new cars at the rate of prior generations. I’ve heard lots of reasons or rationales for this; let’s just say the major auto manufacturers are not deciding what types of new cars to make or how to handle their brand development and customer relations based on who bought how many of a certain model and make last year. A reasonable percentage of the new bicycle sales are to people, mostly young, under 30 and urban dwellers, who do not own a car.

That is a megatrend. We have near 100 percent literacy in North America and in Canada, more than 50 percent of young people attend and graduate from college, and the U.S. will achieve that rate within the next decade. More young women than men already attend and graduate with college degrees. These are megatrends.

58 percent of current regular book-buyers and readers are women — and the current system can’t even serve them very well, much less other, more diverse, younger groups of potential book buyers and readers.

What Would a World Look Like That Valued Creativity as Much as Tech?

As we tell people, we can only “fix books.” We can’t do anything about other related industries. We can’t fix the art world, the music world, or film or TV. GoldieBlox is already doing engineering from the ground-up based in toys (and books). It’s books we know about and we want to work with books and readers.

Back to the money. An analysis of the 2013 and 2014 annual reports of the major trade publishers shows they are investing as little as 2.7 percent of revenue to a maximum of 7 percent of revenue on the people who make the basic product that is sold: the writer. Combine this with other barriers to a successful, reliable way to deliver value to the market customer (readers) and it isn’t a growth industry (as is presently seen – flatline projected by every industry analyst out there).

It’s Blockbuster Video, Xerox, Blackberry, MySpace, Polaroid, IBM. It’s Sears.

Are people still watching videos? (Yes, online and via numerous other channels). Are people still using digital copying technology? (Yes – eventually they’ll even be using 3-D printers). Are people still using smartphones? (Uh, yes … with touchscreens). Are people still using social media? (Uh …). Are people still taking photos? (Yes). Are people still using a dizzying array of office and business technology? (Yes). Are people still buying tires, appliances and clothing? (Yes).

“Nobody reads any longer.”

“Young people don’t read.”

“Minorities don’t read.”

“Boys won’t read books about girls.”

“Books with green covers don’t sell.”

“Books with minorities on the cover don’t sell.”

  • When You Make Things Using a System That Disconnects the People Who Make the Product From the Customer Whenever and Wherever Possible …
  • When You Seldom if Ever Talk to Your Market Customer About Their Needs
  • When Your Product Development and Selection is Ceded to Outside Entities Whose Interests are Not Your Own (Agents)
  • When Your Core Means of Product Manufacture and Development (Writer) is Siloed and Isolated from Every Conceivable Part of the Pipeline
  • When You Are At War With Your Vendors
  • When You Can’t Even Price Known Products Reliably in Response to Current Customer Needs
  • When You Cannot Identify Basic Product Elements Desired by Customers
  • When You Think You Can Get Your Raw Materials For Free or Close To It
  • When You Do Not Value Your People, Without Whom Nothing May Be Made or Sold Successfully
  • When You Think It’s an Accident That a Book is Successful and Do Not Learn From Your Failures
  • When You Do Not Love, Respect and Value All Business Partners
  • When the Engine of Manufacture (Writers) are Asked to Work for Years on a Volunteer or Part-time Basis in the Hope of Someday, Making Some Money
  • When There is Little to No Connection Between Formal Education and Industry Work or Performance

“Nobody reads any longer.”

“Young people do not read books.”

Yes, they do. And they deserve products made for a world in which just about everybody can read and will have some need and desire to do so, not a world in which only a few could read, and fewer still had access, means, time and motive.

Chameleon isn’t offering the “deal” that the Authors Guild is advocating for — 50% e-book royalties. Chameleon will be splitting all earnings 50-50 with authors, all platforms, all editions. It is the company’s responsibility to make this work. It is not the author’s responsibility to undertake all corporate operations (i.e. “self-publishing”).

Famously, Hillary Clinton’s book took the title of an African proverb, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.”

Everyone who’s ever worked in a successful enterprise, who’s ever launched a new product, who has ever innovated, knows it takes a team to do this. We can watch old videos of how Nikola Tesla had the right idea about alternating current, but Thomas Edison didn’t see things that way, and the two warred until finally, alternating current successfully won out. As an individual, Tesla tore up his agreements with Westinghouse in order to see his idea become reality. Tesla sacrificed his own financial future and ended up dying penniless … but I’m typing on the internet today because of what he did, not because of what my theoretical 6th cousin (Edison) did.

It Was Bound to Happen

I have given up my so-called “writing career” to do this. It was bound to happen, that someone who declared “creative writing” as a major and “creative writing” as a minor upon going to college for the first time, and ended up with bachelors’ degrees in art and literature, would then work for a nonprofit organization and change everyone’s minds about what was best to do to improve the lives of homeless and very low-income families. It was bound to happen that I would then become a college teacher and writer and be on the front lines facing classes of students forced to take English in order to transfer or graduate for 18 years. It was bound to happen that those classes would be diverse, full of all types of students, ages, backgrounds and interests. It was bound to happen that I would “market test” books with these students and see what engaged them and what did not. It was bound to happen that I’d be part of a dialog with fellow writers, of course, far behind them in ability, skill and talent, but even so, able to listen and be part of the group — and hear the same refrains over and over again of their barriers in just being able to do their work.

  • Publisher XXX dropped the last book of my series but I’m still hearing from readers who want to read it.
  • Publisher ZZZ was going to publish Book Y, which is so cool because ____________ , and they said they didn’t want it because ______________ (spurious reason).

“Why are we sitting around taking this when there’s something we can do about it?” I said. Book View Cafe. No, I’m not responsible; I’m just the one who said that.

It was bound to happen that I’d be involved in Wildside Press and Alan Rodgers Books, that my first collection and novel would be among the very first print on demand books, and that I’d also be in on the ground floor with the first Kindle books, and other early e-book services like Fictionwise. It was bound to happen that I’d do 3 years in the barrel writing for McGraw-Hill.

It was bound to happen that I’d be working for Beyond Shelter and be the person who would have to a) raise all the funds; and b) make sure the actual projects worked and delivered the promised results. It was bound to happen that I’d be the “fixer” who helped women get businesses off the ground in South and Central Los Angeles. That I would work to get employment, business development, housing development and social services projects off the ground with hundreds of families.

It was bound to happen that I would decide “All the social services in the world won’t be beneficial if families don’t have decent jobs and economic opportunity” and leave the nonprofit world to try to make that a reality by using the same process I did to make all these projects in the inner city work by doing business consulting and development.

It was bound to happen that I’d get a strong picture of how successful, new businesses worked in a huge range of sectors, the kind of operations structures worked, the kind of business ethics that were successful, and the kind of revenue, cash flow, R & D and other structures were workable on a broad scale.

It was bound to happen that I would get the gumption to write the book of my life, to finally put it all together, and to finally realized, “I’ve done it. After all these years, I really wrote a good book – my way, the only and best way I can.”

I know people will like it, I thought.

It was bound to happen that the agent to whom I had been faithful for over a decade, but who’d never done too much (in fairness – she didn’t exactly have the hardworking, fully-producing writer seeking to meet the needs of her customers … acquiring editors) would blow me off and I’d then seek to activate my carefully nurtured and stewarded list of top agents, each of whom had indicated, “Anything you write, Amy, just send it — we will always look at your work!”

Uh, no.

It was bound to happen that this would start the engine. That I would then do the type of competitor analysis I’d developed at Beyond Shelter, which enabled the organization to go from under $500,000 raised in corporate and foundation support to over $2 million, and much more, counting government partners. I would then do the type of comps I’d done for over 100 different businesses, in numerous sectors. I would know what BI software was and how it was used, what CRM software was, and how it was used. I would know how any number of new, innovative and successful products were developed and launched. For example, I would know that in 2000, there were only 6 free-range beef operations in the US and Canada, and now – there are more than 2,000. I would know that five years ago, natural and organic products had only 2-3 percent of the shelf space in grocery stores, and now, they have more than 20 percent.

We’re not going to “share” what our comps have told us in depth, but we can share that what we’ve learned is the way that we have developed our business plan, and helped us to set our initial goals, because we are approaching the end of “Proof of Concept” and getting toward launch.

This business is based in the following benchmarks:

  • Average 10,000 copies per frontlist title sold – by whatever means – to the market customers for whom the book has value
  • Basic pricing, consistent throughout editions and formats
  • Long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with author-partners (this is why it’s like “job interview” not single-title purchase).
  • Creative and production teams:  editors, designers, authors, artists, marketing and sales professionals

Now – by all means continue reading the “Author Earnings Report” for your facts considering it may possibly cover 15% of the current book-buying and reading market and is always at least a quarter behind. It’s kind of like an in-depth study of who’s buying bikes at Sears.

We’ll be sticking with Pew, Library Journal and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you want to be involved, please visit Chameleon Publishing and sign up for the newsletter, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook (see floating social links).


Why Don’t More People Read?: Part 3 of The Business of Books

Right now, approximately 70 million people in North America (US, Canada, Mexico) regularly buy and read books. “Regularly” is defined as buying and reading at least one book a month.

This is frequently described in popular media as “nobody reads any longer.” In terms of media attention, books are considered a poor relation compared to high-interest sectors like film, TV, games and online/mobile “content.” If you count “seeing stuff” on your smartphone like news, weather reports or e-mail, nearly 100 percent of North Americans do see popular media; only 20 percent regularly buy and read books. TRUE.

Authors are on the front lines, and their responses to our writer market survey (yes, it’s still open) matched the popular media message. Writers overwhelmingly responded that the two main reasons more people did not buy and read books were 1) a general dislike of reading (lack of interest); and 2) competition from other media: film, TV, games, and social media.

Reasons Why More People Don't Buy Books

But here’s the thing: more than three-quarters (76 percent) of American adults read at least one book last year (according to the Pew Research Center). Now, this isn’t the same group as the 20 percent, or 70 million, who are known to be regular book-buyers and readers. We may count nearly all of our young residents ages 5-18 as readers as well, since kids still read books in school.

That’s an awful lot of people, some 184 million. It’s more people than go to the movies at least once a year. It’s more people than watched the Seahawks vs. the Patriots in the Super Bowl this year (168 million). An industry-specific, pro-film survey conducted by GFK found that 62 percent of American adults go to the movies . . . at least once a year. The movie-going experience is instructive: higher prices for tickets are leading to fewer tickets sold and lower rates of movie-going, according to the Wall Street Journal. A total of 1.34 billion movie tickets were sold in 2014, according to the MPAA. For books, the nearest one can find in equivalent numbers is that 1.58 billion books were sold during the same year (using U.S. Census Bureau reporting for book retailers, which does not include many e-books and also does not include educational publishers). So, these types of surveys are instructive. About 50% of American adults own one of these three devices (hint: the Amazon Kindle share of the tablet market is much smaller than the other devices).Tablet Owner Use Survey

Because tablets are big-ticket, big tech items that drive advertising and customer relations for just about every industry, there’s a lot more information easily accessible about them than there is about books (or other products delivered via the devices).

Tablet shipments 4th quarter 2015

To put this into perspective, according to librarian and researcher Nancy Herther, “In 2014, two library systems—Toronto Public Library and King County Library System in Washington—experienced more than 2 million checkouts from OverDrive. Additionally, eight library systems had circulations of more than 1 million.” These e-books and audiobooks aren’t being delivered just via Amazon Kindles … they are delivered through any/all tablets, phones and desktop computers.

This is just a personal survey, but I’ve been asking students for years whether or not they own an e-reader. About a third to half of every class owns an Apple iPad or Microsoft Surface, and 100 percent have smartphones, either Apple or Android. To this date, over the past five years, exactly ZERO students have had an Amazon Kindle, much less another type of dedicated e-reader. At the same time, 100 percent of students read: they’re in college. They buy many books, the majority of which are assigned, of course. They are also eager to get textbooks (or others) in e-book editions. When they read a book they enjoy, they ask for more . . . sometimes that’s a difficult proposition.

The number of regular, ongoing book buyers and readers is probably greater than the official 20 percent — this number could be fairly said to represent people covered in some way by Nielsen BookScan and regular online book purchases through major retailers. A 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that 35 percent read between 6 and 50 books during 2012 (this does not equate to “buy and read” — some respondents doubtless read library books or assigned textbooks). However, 50 percent of those responding to the survey said they’d spent some time during the prior week reading a physical book. Only 19 percent of those who responded said they’d read an e-book during the prior week. This survey is over a year old, yet its results broadly fit other market statistics: people still read, and they haven’t quit reading physical books in favor of e-books.


PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts steady, slow growth in book publishing worldwide over the next three years, and a maturing e-book market.

People don’t read any more: not like they used to!

The popular media narrative goes like this: “people used to read all the time — now they don’t any longer.” So let’s look at 100 years ago vs. today. There are a lot of superficial overviews and comparisons of 1915 and 2015 out there. An overview of the American Library Annual for 1915 and 1916 points out some of the bestsellers of the day. Bestsellers were identified by “points” (mentions in review publications or magazine/newspaper lists). The top seller was Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter (a woman), followed by K, by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Winston Churchill’s A Far Country was also in the top-selling list. All three are available in Project Gutenberg and other free e-book editions today, by the way.

Reading in some ways still suffers from the poor social reputation a lot of us remember from our school days.

We really didn’t get a lot of optimism in the writer survey about people’s desire or interest in reading books. Only 13 percent said they thought every person who could read was willing to buy and read books.

Everyone Who Can Read Y N

“Back in the Day . . . “

Author responses reflect historical thought. A hundred years ago, no less a leader than President Woodrow Wilson noted in the Harper Encyclopedia of U.S. History that few people read books and “unhappily, literature is whatever large bodies of people read.” Newspapers, the “internet” of the day, had been according to Wilson, “for the last half-century, exerting more influence on the popular mind and popular morals than either the pulpit or the book has exerted in 500 years.” It’s difficult to believe that Pres. Wilson wrote that, but apparently — he did.

Here is the difference between 1915 and 2015: in 1915, only about half of American school-aged students (5-17) were enrolled in school, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Approximate 8 percent of American adults were illiterate in 1915, with up to 30 percent of African-American adults being unable to read, according to the NAAL statistics. These adults not only lacked free time to read, they couldn’t read even if they had the time and money. Flash forward 100 years: nearly 100 percent of American adults can read (this is true throughout the developed world, according to UNESCO).

Eloquent responses from writers

Why don’t more people buy and read books? Why do we seem stuck at the 20 percent mark for the percentage of regular book buyers and readers? Here is what our respondents thought, in writing.

“Laziness. Reading requires effort. You can’t just stare at the page like you can a TV or computer screen or phone.”

“Our culture does not admire people who read for pleasure. We are not sexy. We are pegged as poorly socialized, which has some truth to it. American culture makes stupid people famous. The average IQ really is 100.”

“Most people read something, i.e. trade journals, newspapers, magazines, and some read just one author, James Paterson, Clive Cussler, Marry Higgins Clark, etc. and that newspaper, magazine, journal, etc. but the voracious reader who inhales all SF/F, all mysteries, all romance, etc. has always been a minority.”

“They were scared off it in school by being forced to read things they didn’t like. If they’d been encouraged to read what appealed to THEM–even if it was comic books & cereal boxes–they would be reading books. BUYING is a whole different question. Some people are cheap.”

“There are some people who do not like to read. Period.”

“I have an extremely literate niece I have never been able to interest in books — she likes movies, and sports. But she has a doctorate, so I suspect she just hasn’t found what she likes to read.”

“Reading was once the only real pastime. It has since been replaced by radio, and then movies, games, etc. Everyone has different interests, not everyone enjoys reading as a hobby/pastime.”

I KNOW — and so do you

Here is the answer. I know, because I’ve been fortunate enough to be a classroom teacher since 1998. I know what happened when I assigned students to read Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” based on another teacher’s syllabus: classroom disaster. I know what happens when I ask students to read An Anthropologist on Mars by Dr. Oliver Sacks: classroom success. I have had the personal privilege of writing to Sylvan Barnet to let him know that students said just one of his many textbooks, Current Issues & Enduring Questions, was a book that, at the end of the semester, was one that they had not only read thoroughly — was also one they would keep and not sell back for a few dollars’ credit.

Other texts I have used, with success, but not as notable as these two, include Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, and Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.

I’ve had students who have both written and published books. A significant number more than own an Amazon Kindle, it now occurs to me. I have had the privilege of teaching both the newsmagazine and literary magazine classes at Saddleback College. In every single regular English class I teach, at least one, but usually two or three, students tells me that they want to “be writers.” There are many others who are gifted writers, too … they’re more shy about their interests, but they, also care. As many as a third fit in this category: they enjoy writing and also enjoy reading. Another third, when engaged, discovers an interest and facility in reading and writing.

So, really, all we need to do is move the dial a little bit forward to open up the current, under-served market for books. Currently, about 70 million North American adults regularly buy and read books. A 1 percent increase in readership would be 700,000 new regular bookbuyers and readers.

There’s clear evidence that younger readers prefer paper books and when they use e-books, they prefer the tablet-type of e-book (with pages that turn and an attractive appearance) to the “flowable” format common on the single-purpose e-readers. They do appreciate the functions of e-books such as the ability to look up unfamiliar words as they are reading: an automatic boon to literacy, but most aren’t aware of them until or unless they are shown them.

So, at the same time as many self-published authors are seeking to serve a pretty small market (dedicated e-reader owners and frequent users), and at the same time as large publishers are taking their cues for what to publish, how to publish, and how to sell their offerings out of the self-published pool …

This guy has this hugely successful Udemy course and half a dozen imitators on his heels.

read 300 books a year

There’s not an entrepreneur website or publication out there that doesn’t have at least a dozen articles which mention “highly-successful people read.” Reading books is up there on just about every advice list from business gurus. The only person in that category who went against this advice is Steve Jobs, who famously announced, “People don’t read any longer.” He added that “40 percent of American adults didn’t read a book at all last year.” (2007 … false – and even if true, 40 percent isn’t “everybody”). Yes, Jobs was speaking against the Amazon Kindle, stating that the product would fail.

So we have a new motto: “All people will be readers . . . and sometimes writers.” And not for free. Our goal is to develop economically feasable models which will enable books to be written and published reaching all potential audiences, not just a selected few that have been served in the past.

What Many White People Do Not Get About What Blacks and Others Say re: Law, Police, Safety

So, first off, I am a white woman and a survivor of violent crime (sexual assault). I am survivor of a number of years of individual terrorization. I know internet crime/harassment. I know ID theft.

If you’re an “average person” and these things happen, there is very little the legal system can do for you. You have to help yourself. This is what white people who don’t share my “special snowflake” aspects of life do not understand. For every graphic that shows how much more violence there is in the black community, the flip side of that is, if you’re black and accused of a crime, your chances of being incarcerated are FAR higher than if you’re white. Guilt or innocence regardless. A black person would have to be very out of touch to think they’d get “justice” and would share the legal privileges our system still grants the occasional white criminal, especially white women. What many white people do not understand is that it’s easier for white people to do crimes (including nonviolent crimes) and get away with it. The stats, and reality, back this up. Example? It’s not isolated. He’s just the most famous who did eventually get caught: Bernard Madoff. A black man doing as Madoff did unmonitored? Probably not possible, especially not for more than a decade. Most serial killers are white males and they go around devastating others for years before they are stopped even with today’s methods and technology. There were at one time over 10,000 unprocessed rape kits in the city of Los Angeles alone. The crimes stretched back 10-15 years … not even investigated, much less perp apprehended and prosecuted. ONE of those was a black man raping and killing young black women in South L.A. Most of the rest of that massive amount of kits representing death, destruction and dismay: unsung rapists, plenty of white victims.

So, from the perspective of people who say, “Young women, any color, take steps to protect yourself so someone doesn’t rape you or kill you” … this is true and necessary. From the perspective of those who suggest the victims of the terrorist attack at the Emanuel A.M.E. church could still be alive if they’d been armed – in a horrible sense, this is true. If someone at the church had had a weapon, it’s likely that the killer would have chosen a different site of attack since his goal was to slaughter as many as possible, terrorize and start a race war. Do we want to live in a world where everybody’s packing because everybody is in a constant state of “hypervigilance”?


People didn’t have too much trouble “getting” that our country was under threat after 9-11. Most of the plotted attacks since then have been thwarted by individuals taking action. Law enforcement can only step in when they have help.

In this case of the murders at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, the very best in that community were gunned down. The intent was to fuel more violence. The killer’s friends and probably his family knew he was plotting violence and talking about killing black people. He had a web page and it’s the same story as Columbine, the “Batman” shooter James Holmes and all the rest. People knew – they did nothing to stop him. The FBI studies show that for every one who manages to do their killing, as many as ten are stopped. They are stopped by family and friends, teachers, co-workers and associates — people who know there is something wrong and who step up to take action.

I know how tired black people must be. How devastated they are, how sickened they are by this. They read at the highest rate of any ethnic/racial group in this nation, yet there is the stereotype of ignorant, “illiterate” black person. Rap and hiphop are today’s poetry; the artists are called illiterate thugs and only “thug” statements are publicized … they earn their living off white kids that want to get a taste of the “thuglife.” With all the destruction, drugs in the inner city, lack of opportunity and doors slammed left and right, black people have temples of light and goodness and love and hope like the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and this kid goes in there, is welcomed by them, and then turns and guns down every precious light and life in the place. It is immediately seized upon by any/all who want to exploit the tragedy.

I can only say so many times, “There but for the Grace of God go YOU white people.” It’s that simple. It isn’t black people coming for you. It is the fact you do not realize your lives are in the same situation as your fellow Americans who are black.

If something bad happens to you, chances are, the courts will not help you. Law enforcement can only do what they can do. The only help you have is the same help the members of that church had the other day. He is up above. He loves us all.

I think it is about time we started to love ourselves enough to step up and say “enough!” To listen to others for a change. To have some common, simple human respect. To take a realistic look and see what racism, other forms of bias, and self-entitlement truly cost us.

They cost us lots of money. They cost us untold opportunity. The other day they cost us nine precious lives. They keep us from being fully-human.

Thank You Librarian Cynthia Hurd

I don’t know if others had the same feelings as I did learning about the mass killings in Charleston this past week. When I heard it was a church, I thought “Oh, Lord, no.” I realized it had to have been a prayer meeting before reading any news reports. When I learned who was gunned down and what church it was, I thought, “What a devastating blow to all that is good.”

Poet Bill Mohr said it’s racism and says we should talk about it.

Yeah, it’s racism. What’s to say? When a mass killer slaughters black people who welcomed him into their church and says he wanted to start a race war, there’s no argument. Racism. The Beltway Sniper appeared to be gunning for white people from a distance and he took a young 17 year old boy with him. That was racism, too. Racism destroys. The Charleston killer’s family and friends bear responsibility and guilt because they were certainly aware this young man was talking about doing something outside the realm of humanity and did nothing to stop him. They are responsible the same as the Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammad coached and mentored Lee Boyd Malvo to destroy others’ lives as well as his own.

Everybody wants to take the situation and turn it to their own purposes. Gun control advocates want to take others’ guns away, as if that will bring back the lives lost. Second Amendment advocates say that if the pastors had been packing, the killer, not they, would be 6 feet under right now.

librarian cynthia hurd

When I saw this picture and news story about one of the victims in Charleston, librarian Cynthia Hurd, I thought, “I know this lady.” My eyes filled with tears.

I’m crying as I type this. I will probably never be able to look at these pictures or think about her and the others without weeping.

I am a white woman. I was once a little white girl with not a very happy life and not too many people to turn to. And I was so, so lucky that I lived in a town that, like Charleston, had a wonderful library with wonderful people like Cynthia working in it. Cynthia “spent her life helping people, particularly helping them become educated,” her friend and library spokesperson Jamie Thomas said.

If I just look at what happened, a violent, at-best confused young man with nothing good going on in his life went into a place where everything good was gathered, and lashed out and destroyed it. Faith, hope, love, community … books, reading, education.

What people don’t realize, but which I saw manifested in these wonderful pictures of Cynthia Hurd and in the words of love, gratitude and thanks written by the families and parents who’d visited her library, is that no guns or bullets can take away what Cynthia did, how she lived and the many lives she touched.

Cynthia’s brother Malcolm said, “She was not a victim. She was a Christian. She was a soldier. She was a warrior. She was with her maker when she took her last breath. God bless our sister and this community.”

She was a librarian. It’s the commonly-held perception that black people do not read, or read less than, others. That’s not true. African-Americans have the highest rate of readership, almost 80 percent. She was the ultimate librarian, according to her brother. “She was always in someone’s business,” he said. “When she told a story, it went on and on and on because she included the research and all the footnotes.”

What I hear African-Americans saying is totally true. It hurts to say it, but if it were a “white” church with similar leaders gunned down, there would be hours and hours of eulogies and tributes. There would perhaps be a film in the works about Pastor Pinckney, who was also a state representative, or about Sharonda Singleton, speech therapist, coach and athlete. As it stands, Library Journal made a tribute to Cynthia Hurd, and the library where she worked will be named in honor of her memory.

I don’t have the power to do what I want to do for Cynthia. I didn’t “know her” but I absolutely did know her. She was everything her brother said and more. And – yes – there is a higher power. May these precious lives not be lost in vain.

About Marketing, Value, James Patterson and PewDiePie

PewDiePie bookPewDiePie is racking up the pre-orders for his October book.

At Saddleback a while back, I actually introduced a whole class to PewDiePie. We watched about 3 videos where he destroyed videogame characters making funny comments. My favorite was the same as he said his was — the “dad” on the bicycle with the kid in the child seat. We watched him thrash, trash, and dismember this guy and the kid over and over.

This is PewDiePie’s thing. He is the #1 YouTube celebrity and he makes funny videos. He started out with funny commentary about ultra-violent video games. Now he’s branched into other stuff, including “fan fiction” (PewDiePie-style).

Doing a PewDiePie book is a “no brainer.” It’s “#1 seller” status on Amazon doesn’t mean much right now. It’s #1 in a pretty small category (“Teen and Young Adult Internet Books”). Will PewDiePie make true #1 when this book comes out? Heck I don’t know. Maybe. My guess is that most of his copies sold will be the paper, physical books. His fans want an actual object they can put their hands on. Chances that they’ll be die-hard Kindle users aren’t good since the demographics don’t match. Right now it can be seen that people who are pre-ordering the book are also buying PewDiePie sweatshirts, not other books.

idontcare_tee_green-2_1024x1024So, the takeaway is that young people who play videogames, watch PewDiePie’s YouTubes and buy his branded stuff will probably also buy his book. In a paper version. PewDiePie is known for his funny sayings, i.e. verbal wit.

Does this mean this is all they’ll ever buy and read?

Aw hell no.

There’s already an established market for this book: PewDiePie fans. PewDiePie has already developed this market himself. Razorbill (Penguin), the publisher, is taking advantage of this. To make money.

So, let’s look at another PewDiePie product: one of his t-shirts. This is from the very video I (and quite a few students – definitely not all) thought was so funny, and it’s the very character I agreed with PewDiePie, was the funniest to dismember in the videogame. People who haven’t seen the videogame review won’t get it.

So, PewDiePie’s shirts, hats, pajama pants, games and now his book have value: to his fans.

This is a whole market of millions of young people that lots of people have noticed now, thanks to PewDiePie’s YouTube dominance: something he is responsible for, not a whole lot of other people. PewDiePie’s videos did not start out as the most professional, but it’s obvious from his website and channel that now, he does have some help in a lot of different areas. PewDiePie gets his audience tastes and he interacts with them every day.

In the more traditional book area, there are some who stand out in terms of “getting” audience tastes and providing a product (books) accordingly.

First is Lee Child (as profiled in Forbes last year). Lee Child left the internet in 1996. His brand is something developed over more than three decades of writing and publishing books.

Another is James Patterson, whose background is in advertising. Patterson’s face most recently has been all over the internet as part of a $90 course “James Patterson Teaches Writing” modeled after less high-production value courses taught through Udemy and other similar online platforms. The “MasterClass” concept also offers acting taught by Dustin Hoffmann and tennis taught by Serena Williams. Patterson’s Maximum Ride series does exactly what we’ve been talking about – and it’s a mark of his power and skill that he’s managed to make this work so well.

Every time I mention this series, I get slammed. My point is that Maximum Ride is a teenaged girl. She can fly. Her friends can do other amazing things. The nearest I can come to describing the books is like “wholesome superheroes who care about each other” who have amazing adventures. Few chapters are over 500 words long. The books’ readership encompasses a much higher number of young males than most others in its sector. Max is, as I said, a young female. This flies directly in the face of the commonly-held wisdom in much of the publishing industry that “young boys won’t read about girls” and “young boys won’t read at all.” The friends in the books are equally comprised of males and females and they act like kids do when they do things together, just the way kids … well … actually do — even if their adventures are high-tech, “unrealistic” and super-hero-ey. The Maximum Ride books do engage reluctant readers. And the trouble is, a lot of times these readers read these books and then stop. Because they can’t find too much else that fits their experience with these books. They get lost in the shuffle of editorial taste, teacher taste, librarian taste, parent taste. The “formula” of the books alone is something Patterson could develop and sell. Among the thousands of others out there who might write something similar: they’re not making it through the system and process.

One reader comment about the Maximum Ride series is: “I highly recommend this book for adults, young adults, even preteens…. I talked so much about this, and obviously enjoyed it so much, that my 10‐year‐old (girl) is reading (and loving) it now, my 15–year‐old (boy) wants to read it next, and even my husband has expressed interest in it.”

As an individual corporate entity, James Patterson is doing every single thing we talk about. He’s supporting libraries and programs for young readers. He is actively developing book series to engage young readers. He’s coaching writers through an affordable online course.  He’s supporting independent bookstores with cash grants totaling $1 million.

So right now, 20% of North American adults regularly buy and read books. Some of them are not being best-served by the majority of books that are out there. Many are die-hard readers who’ve already read a lot of their favorites (fiction and non-fiction) and are on the daily lookout for more. Some are more specialized readers, who are particular fans of a certain genre or type of book. There are even a few single-author readers. I’m pretty sure James Patterson and Lee Child will have some readers who fit in this category.

Then there’s everyone else. Some of these, who aren’t regular book-buyers and readers, will be PewDiePie’s fans.

When a reader comes to a book, of any type, that really engages them, their reaction is profound. James Patterson knows this. He is an ad guy and an entertainer who’s about making the most accessible products he can — from his perspective. He knows that people have to be able to access the product, which is why he’s providing funds for libraries and reading programs, and for independent bookstores. He knows that the physical process of going to a bookstore and touching a book — opening it, reading here and there, browsing back and forth — isn’t easily replaced by all of the online systems and their ever-growing sophistication. He knows that branding has to be consistent, which is why all of his books have similar appearances across series. His name is usually prominent because he knows: he’s the brand. He knows that while e-books have grown rapidly in recent years, their sales have leveled off.

So, James Patterson always did have his eye on the future, and he knows that today’s young readers in school are the adult readers of tomorrow. He knows what our culture will lose if we lose reading and writing.

If we go only to PewDiePie videos, games, and PewDiePie’s small, pithy, humorous book that’s really just an additional sale to the t-shirts and other goodies. If we go to less than that.

There’s no evidence that a vast amount of time, care, talent and skill did not go into all of Patterson’s numerous lines and products. As many should be aware, he does not write all of his books. He employs and credits numerous other writers to develop the products. He’s the “Disney” of individual writing corporations and he’s the executive producer of the “studio.” James has noticed that 56% of current regular book-buyers and readers are women ages 45 and older, so in addition to creating the Maximum Ride series that offers a chance for some escapist heroism for younger readers (male and female), he’s created the Women’s Murder Club series with female heroines who are older than age 25, have jobs, different backgrounds and histories and families — divorced, single, happily married, with and without children.

There is this example. There is James Patterson. This powerful, brilliant man who has probably kept more people reading and enticed more readers than anybody else over the past 15-20 years.

Sure, one reason we are doing Chameleon is … I wrote a YA book series with multiple points of view and a non-human protagonist (it was written long-enough ago that there were two male, one female human protagonists – 3 male if Humphree were counted). I was turned down by editorial board at a major children’s publisher because it had “multiple points of view.” The top-selling books for that publisher at that time had “multiple points of view.” I’m very open with people about my inability to sell any story in top professional markets with a female protagonist over age 25. I got a universal “no read” for the book of my life, featuring a single mom over age 25 and her relationship with her daughter and potential life partner, in a big fantasy context.

So, the response of people who are like the “experts” over at a certain blog I was reading this past week would be “Well you just suck! That’s why a major publisher turned you down! That’s why agents turned you down!” That’s the answer everyone gets when they experience publishing problems. It isn’t that there’s something wrong with the “system,” it’s there’s something wrong with them, with their work. PewDiePie can make “dumb”-seeming videos and put them on YouTube because he plays videogames, he’s hilarious, and he knows what his fans would like. Day by day, it grew. Well, the thing is, what PewDiePie is doing is of its moment (and so are a lot of books) but chances are that someone would find the videos funny and be buying his merchandise of today 20 years from now, much less 50 years or 100 years — they aren’t too good.

Well – maybe it’s more like “They can only afford to do PewDiePie because they know he’s good for x-number of copies.” And maybe it’s because — there’s only one James Patterson, with his particular combination of business sense, people knowledge, and commitment to our society and culture and reading.

What Do Writers Think it Takes to Make a Great Book: Part 2 of the Business of Books

This is about what goes after the cover of an e-book or between the covers of a print book, from the author’s perspective.

The only objective criterion for “is it a good book?” that has any type of measurement so far is “does it sell well or not?” And, no one seems to agree on what “sell well” is. Would this be like forever selling well as in Don Quixote? Or, selling well during its first 6 weeks of release. Or … ? For the purposes of what we’re doing, we’re just talking about “beating the average” per-title copies sold. In 2011, this was about 12,500 for the average frontlist title (from “traditional” publishers). By now in 2015, it’s difficult to get accurate figures, but analyzing reports from major publishers for 2014, it’s anywhere from 10,000 to 11,500 per-title average for books published during the current 12-month period (including “backlist” will bring it down exponentially, just as including all self-published titles will bring per-title sales averages to a very low level).

Even so, Amazon, which is the business involved in publishing with the most data about its customers, is endeavoring to identify some criteria that are more universal or valid to use in presenting books to customers than “You bought Author X’s book before; here is their new one” or “You’ve been looking at books about baseball, here are some more books about baseball.”

Amazon Reader Criteria

These similar reader response categories are also sometimes, not always, found on non-fiction books on Amazon. I got a “How would you describe the plot of this book?” for a non-fiction book by Stephen Jay Gould, for example, but these categories aren’t showing up for other non-fiction titles I have purchased.

Chameleon has developed a set of criteria that we think work well for trade fiction and non-fiction alike. They were based on criteria used successfully in the food industry called “mouthfeel” criteria. Food manufacturers have over 20 such criteria that are used to assess and evaluate products. Ours are more simple and we call them the “bookfeel” elements in honor of our food industry colleagues.

They are: Plot, pacing, characterization, intellectual content or subject matter, voice or writing style, scope, and theme.

Some popular books and authors excel in one or more categories. Every single lasting bestseller (i.e. generation-crossing bestseller) we looked at excelled or delivered value in all of the categories. Books like Gone With the Wind, Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, Huckleberry Finn, In Cold Blood, Catch-22Sounder, and Pride and Prejudice. In other words, there’s no such thing as a genuine, long-term, lasting and enduring bestseller that isn’t delivering on every single one of the “bookfeel” criteria. One might say “A nonfiction book doesn’t have a plot.” Yes, it does. In fact, the “plot” of genuine non-fiction bestsellers is so compelling that it can even transcend readers knowing “what happens next.” Not every book is going to make this standard. But having a standard will help to strengthen products.

So, our first market survey asked questions of writers about basics: how many books had they written, how many published, how much money had they earned in a 12 month period, and how much money would they like to make – or thought they should be able to make.

Then we asked some questions about the “bookfeel” criteria. Not using this name. Just listing the categories.

Strong Points as a Writer

So, when asked to self-assess writers said their strongest points were “characterization” (68%) “voice or writing style” (64%) and “plot” (54%). Trailing the group was “scope” (26%).

Then, we asked, “What do you see as your weak points as a writer?” First, evident from the beginning of the survey, a significant number of respondents skipped this question. Some even wrote, “I don’t have weak points.” The more independently-published authors we recruited for the survey, the more we got answers in this area. It isn’t able to be identified in the survey results but over time, we observed that the more independently-published or self-published authors who responded, the more varied answers became in a number of categories, including their written responses and feedback. It’s “empirical” and based on a small number, but there did seem to be a trend for independently-published authors to be more open to admitting “weaknesses” and to working in different ways (beta readers, etc) to improve their work.

weak points as a writerSo, here’s a chart illustrating human nature. This chart is missing 18 writers who did identify one or more “strong points” (a few ultra-confident writers did select “all” as their strong points). Of those who did go ahead and do both, it’s pretty obvious there are fewer “weak points” that the respondents felt they had. Just about everybody believes that their “intellectual content,” aka subject matter or ideas, is good – at least good enough to not be a “weakness” they’d identify. Pacing (45%) was the single area identified as a weakness.

We’re going to talk about compensation and earnings in the next post, but this is a good time to address the work process. We asked a few questions pertaining to work process and experience in the survey, but the most direct one was this:

timely work good qualityFor the first 50 responses of the survey, no writer selected “agents” as helpful in “producing timely work with good quality.”

The “timely” part of the question could be the reason for this. But this question really points to the whole system of how books are written and developed.

Consistently, the top categories selected were beta readers (56%) and working with an editor (54%). Academic writing programs were also, similar to “agents,” very low-response until we started reaching out to more independently-published writers. An editor can help writers shape their work using, one would hope, some objective criteria for the type of book and goals for the work. Beta readers give feedback on what is working for them, or what is not-working. This is probably the single greatest change in the writing process in recent years. In the past, some professional writers were fortunate in that they had family members, friends or writing colleagues who helped by reading their work and giving feedback. Now, it’s possible to have hundreds of beta readers, all helping to strengthen and improve the work.

Writers may be viewing beta readers as somehow “different from” regular readers, because some 60 respondents selected beta readers as a big benefit to producing timely work of good quality, yet when we asked the question about readers in general, only 22 responded that they’d like to know who their readers were as they were writing and would work in response to this knowledge.

ideal world knowing about readers











Almost 30 percent said they would “write what I want how I want.” There were also some pretty testy responses to this question, as well as to an earlier, exploratory question about potential benefits of (non-existent, imaginary) software that could provide support for the writer’s performance in the “bookfeel” criteria area (plot, pacing, characterization, intellectual content or subject matter, voice or writing style, scope, and theme).

Even so, most of the writers who responded were positive and confident about their work.

The overwhelming majority said they had already written a book they thought many people would enjoy buying and reading.


Then, we asked – did this become a reality? We defined “many people” taking all types of books and authors into consideration, as more than 50,000 copies sold.

Chart_Q22_150613So, no dollars and cents attached, these are responses about work process, experience, results and aspirations, from a pretty good range of writers with different backgrounds and experience levels. Our next article will be about the money – what earnings did people report, what type of work they had done, how many books they’d written and published, and had they done work for hire, rejection experience, etc.

Cannot Win for Losing: Sir Tim Hunt the SexGod

In 2001, UK scientist Tim Hunt won the Nobel Prize. On June 9, he blew off some steam at the World Conference of Science Journalists:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

sexy sir tim huntNow, Sir Tim, knighted for his contributions to science in 2006, has resigned from his honorary position at University College London. He says he meant what he said – but he’s “awfully sorry” that he said it.

Professor Casil says he wouldn’t be in such trouble if he’d avoided the second person or “you.” What if he’d said, “Let me tell you [ok, since he’s talking to an audience] about MY trouble with girls. Three things happened to ME when women were in the lab. I fell in love with them, they also fell in love with ME, and when I criticized some women, they cried and that drove ME crazy.” This would be expressing his feelings. It’s not great overall since it says more about him than “women scientists,” but as he’s said, it’s honest.

If he’d said it that way, from a management or work perspective, he’d have admitted:

I might be a 70 year-old Nobel Prize winning biochemist, but while on the job, I can’t keep my pants zipped, I’m constantly on the lookout for new conquests – really, they can’t help falling for me – and my people skills stink to the point I make my co-workers cry.

Which, since he did NOT say it that way, brings me to my sisters!

#distractinglysexy female scientists burning up the labs with their hot outfits and provocative ways.

suit flatters curves










No clue how men can resist this type of hot outfit (duly noted her co-worker is showing some hot and hairy leg).

muffles my woman cries










This is about the funniest Twitter meme ever. The Twitter sluts (male) are trying but the best humor comes out of truth.

fire distractingly sexy










Just too …

Value to the Reader: Part 1 of The Business of Books

Chameleon Publishing just conducted the first of three market validation surveys: the Writer Survey. We are going to analyze and respond to the first 111 responses. Approximately 55 percent of the responses are from working writers who earn more than $5,000 a year from their writing, and half have published more than five books. The survey is still open if you’d like to respond.

In this series of articles about the business of books, we’re going to use some terms that are very familiar in many industries, but which are generally unfamiliar in the book publishing industry. The first term is value.

Writers may understand value best through the words of another writer: Oscar Wilde. “A cynic,” Wilde said, “is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

Ursula LeGuin and the Amazon BS Machine

On June 1, author and Book View Cafe member Ursula K. LeGuin wrote about the impact that Amazon has had upon the book industry on the Book View Cafe blog. Her objections to what she termed “The Amazon BS [best-seller] Machine” are well-founded; they are all based in her correct observations of the declining value of books and value provided to customers (readers) in today’s commercial marketplace. We’re not talking about sales or cash value, we’re talking about real value. LeGuin’s “only quarrel with Amazon is when it comes to how they market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only bookselling, but book publication: what we write and what we read.” She’s absolutely correct. This is real, it’s true, and objectively, one may map and track “bestsellers” over recent quarters, and find that they fit her observations very well. With every passing quarter, books are becoming ever-more short-term, quick-sell, media-oriented, derivative, and niche audience-oriented. Per-title sales averages continue to decline, from extremely low in the case of self-published books to – despite the herculean efforts of large trade publishers – the frontlist titles they release each month. Amazon’s total book sales represent about 7 percent of its overall revenue, or $5.25 billion in 2013, according to Forbes writer Jeff Bercovici and New Yorker writer George Packer (whose overview of Amazon’s history and role is enlightening reading). Pulling down Amazon’s 2014 year end report shows a little bit different picture. They report approximately $10.5 billion in “media” sales and total “product” sales of $70.01 billion, along with $18.9 billion in “service” revenue. Their cost of “technology and content” (let’s lump the films, music, etc. in because they do) is $9.3 billion. Let’s just say their true cost of goods sold isn’t anything like what they report to their shareholders. They are a multinational retailer and service provider. WalMart is beating their pants off with net sales of $473 billion worldwide (not equivalent to Amazon’s gross sales of $88 billion – the “product” and “service” categories together).

The Role of Amazon’s Algorithms

At the 1995 Book Expo America, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told a competitor that Amazon, then identified in a large banner as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore,” that his company

“intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers.”

Amazon’s algorithms are highly sophisticated and ever-evolving. They use big data to track purchases and they present products to readers based on purchase and browsing history. The Amazon customer review system seeks to deliver some measure of value to customers in the form of the 5-star rating system and reader reviews. Much like Yelp reviews can “make or break” a restaurant, reader reviews can “make or break” a book. Even with this powerful combination, it’s all about selling. The difference between the powerful information that is collected and its relationship in the value stream to the end customer can be seen in the relative failure of Amazon’s own direct publishing program.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or social scientist to get today’s situation in light of what has not changed about Amazon over the past 20 years. The 7 percent book segment of their business still is a way to gather data about “affluent, educated shoppers.” Amazon is WalMart for this group. They want to win in all their market segments and their emphasis is on price and selling.

Amazon understands the value to its business portion of what it does as a dominant, key e-commerce platform. It continues to misunderstand product value to its customer in nearly all divisions of its business.

Another tidbit from Packer’s New Yorker article details the experiences of Amazon employee #55, cultural critic James Marcus:

According to Marcus, Amazon executives considered publishing people “antediluvian losers with rotary phones and inventory systems designed in 1968 and warehouses full of crap.” Publishers kept no data on customers, making their bets on books a matter of instinct rather than metrics. They were full of inefficiences, starting with overpriced Manhattan offices. There was “a general feeling that the New York publishing business was just this cloistered, Gilded Age antique just barely getting by in a sort of Colonial Williamsburg of commerce, but when Amazon waded into this they would show publishing how it was done . . .”

The rotary phones are gone and thousands have been laid off. Eighteen years later, they (publishers) still keep no data on customers, and still make their bets on books a matter of instinct rather than metrics. We have yet to find any industry information in any trade publication, including international associations, that focuses on value to the customer (reader) or makes any attempt to analyze and measure value delivery resulting from the process of making and delivering the product (books).

About the Amazon-Hachette Battle and/or Golden Corral for Books

Packer’s article details the history of Amazon’s relations with suppliers, including early efforts to pressure smaller, weaker publishers to raise their discounts to ruinous levels (60 percent or higher). This strategy escalated over time to the Hachette-Amazon battle over the $9.99 e-book price point. One former Amazon employee told Packer, “If customers grew used to paying just a few dollars for an e-book, how long before publishers would have to slash the cover price of all their titles?” Today, this is seen in the Kindle Unlimited program (All-U-Can-Read for One Low Monthly Price or Golden Corral for Books) and the self-publishing explosion. No negotiation is required with the self-published on Amazon’s part: they have limitless “content” to sell for free and a locked-in customer base that have bought Kindles, or who live too far from a local bookstore to shop and buy printed books in-person.

Amazon Sees Itself as Totally Customer-Centric

For a retailer — it is. According to another former Amazon employee, “Jeff [Bezos] is trying to create a machine that assumes the shape of public demand.” The employee characterized Bezos as a “Shmoo” from Al Capp’s cartoons.

But the critical mistake that Amazon has made is one that is now being experienced by big businesses in many other sectors. It’s a retailer trying to become its own supplier and is more onerous with its vendors and less-interested in basic customer needs or corporate social responsibility (i.e. not being complete and total bastards to the point everyone notices) than even the much-maligned WalMart. Also, it’s entire business model is about giving the customer what they want based on previously-shown interests, which in the case of books, are themselves, based on what they chose out of goods produced . . .

See above: “Publishers kept no data on customers . . . making their bets on books as a matter of instinct, not metrics.”

Amazon as Retailer – Not Manufacturer

Amazon is doing great right now as a retailer. But it has little, to no, ability to make things on its own and sell them effectively other than its retail and consumer services. Its own publishing program is akin to grocery private label programs — but it’s not doing well in terms of product value or sales. The Kindle Fire Phone has, by all accounts, been a failure. The Kindle itself has a fatal flaw that ease of delivery and affordable pricing will find difficult to overcome: its rigidity and lack of adoption of EPUB3 standards. The “customer” served by both devices is primarily Amazon itself by locking customers in to schemes akin to cell phone “free” or low-cost devices and long-term, monthly contracts. These devices were designed and developed to deliver value to the overall business. The choice to use the rigid Mobi and current KF8 e-book standards can only be seen as ones made by a business that values its profits over the customer’s needs and genuine value.

Fundamental Lack of Understanding of Books as a Product and Readers as Customers

If I had a dollar for every article I’ve read making an assertion similar to George Packer’s in the New Yorker article on the history and influence of Amazon, Chameleon would be fully-funded:

Whatever the temporary fluctuations in publishers’ profits, the long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to—they are too busy doing other things with their devices—but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces.

Packer told the New Yorker’s significant readership something that is untrue. The long-term outlook is anything but “discouraging.” Packer isn’t a business writer. He’s a staff writer for the publication since 2003 and has covered mostly world conflicts and cultural matters. He therefore naturally makes the same assumption, unchecked, as did most of the respondents to our writer market survey. Well over 70 percent of those who responded thought the reason more people didn’t regularly buy and read books was competition from other media: “they are too busy doing other things with their devices.” This is in the same article that noted that e-books had leveled off at about 30 percent of book sales (an overstatement — e-books don’t really have 30 percent of the book market even today and have leveled off, largely due to reasons detailed above — the vendors, led by Amazon, have zero focus on delivering satisfying product in a timely manner delivering real value to the reader).

Chart_Q20_150605Back to Basics: What the Book Market Really Is

Currently, about 20 percent of North American adults, or 70 million people, regularly buy and read books. They are about 54% female, and 46% male. Of female readers, the majority are ages 44-55, have at least some college education, and incomes over $50,000 a year. The majority of male regular readers also fit in this age demographic, and have incomes over $80,000 a year. To this group and the much larger group of occasional readers, more than 1 billion books were sold in 2014.

Worldwide, the book market is valued at $150 billion. Video games, movies and entertainment do not reduce the book market. Neither do they, strictly, compete in the way that most publishers think and apparently just about every single person who isn’t an independent bookstore owner, teacher, librarian or caring parent. Amazon’s own experience, building its business based on data acquired from its initial and ongoing customer base (and struggles to keep and grow its “other media” content sales) show this fact. The more people who become genuinely literate and recognize the value inherent in books, the more the market grows. Because it is foundational. Books are to the mind and human learning, growth and communication as real food is to the human body.

Book Publishing Market Size











It is this market which the New Yorker’s Packer described as “small and weak.” To compare, the global toy industry was valued at $80 billion in 2013. The global shoe industry was valued at $190 billion. Nobody, particularly not industry experts, go around writing dozens of reports and articles saying that “children don’t play with toys any longer” or “nobody wears shoes any more.” The global beverage industry is indeed, about ten times the size of the publishing industry. It is fiercely competitive and rocked by changes in all sectors, many related to increased awareness of health concerns, such as high-fructose corn syrup being bad for you and flavored, easy-to-drink alcoholic beverages.

Out of the entire population (more than 380 million in the U.S. and Canada), nearly 100 percent are literate — i.e. they are able to read and are potential book buying and reading customers. Everyone who uses a mobile device, some 280 million North Americans as of 2015, reads to some extent.

From the New Yorker‘s George Packer to Digital Book World to Publishers Weekly, which just tweeted its amazement and thanks to young readers at the BEA, which “touched” them with their love for books and reading, there is an “I don’t get it” factor five thousand miles wide that only Pew, which doesn’t make or sell anything, seems to perceive.

Oh. And us.

Pew Reading Survey 2013













As to the commonly-heard phrase, “Young people don’t read any longer,” Pew has put paid to this over and over.

Young People Reading Pew

Without question, these high rates of regular readership are attributable to our schools, our teachers, and our librarians. And to the lasting value, importance and fundamental nature of books.

Reading rates were not 100 percent in the past. There was no “golden age” when “everyone read books,” now devolved to a time where the majority sit slack-jawed, staring at their smartphones and drooling over Instagram snaps of Dan Bilzerian, his cars, guns and b***ches.

For the highest-readership group in the U.S. today, African-Americans, the numbers were reversed in 1870. For reasons we all know, almost 80 percent of black Americans couldn’t read 145 years ago.

Illiteracy Rates US to 1979The type of thinking that goes on regarding books — the type of writing — the type of reporting, the almost-constant drumbeat that “books are dead” and “no one reads any longer” — it’s almost like today’s version of the anti-reading and writing laws passed by southern states prior to the Civil War that prohibited anyone from teaching a slave to read or write with severe penalties.

Only 13 percent of those who responded to our writer survey thought that it would be possible that everyone who could read could be a potential book buyer and reader.

Chart_Q19_150605Until we actively began to solicit responses from indy-published writers, there was only one “yes” answer under this category (me).

In 2013, Digital Book World and Writers Digest surveyed almost 5,000 writers, including  aspiring, self-published, traditionally-published and “hybrid” authors. All of Book View Cafe authors fit in the “hybrid” category, defined as writers who are traditionally published and also self-publish their work. Book View Cafe books are sold directly through the Book View Cafe store (DRM-free), and members also sell the books individually via online vendors.

Social scientist Dana Beth Weinberg analyzed the DBW/WD survey results in a series of articles, concluding, “The hybrid authors surveyed were good enough to break into traditional publishing due on average to some greater talent or marketability that also translates well into the world of self-publishing.”

This is a huge leap based on basic questions about numbers of books published, earnings, and aspirations.

From the 2014 survey, which included nearly twice the number of respondents, results showed that the majority preferred traditional publishing, likely a result of diminishing sales via self-publishing routes.

This survey asked respondents what was the most important thing they hoped to achieve in publishing their book. The majority, 60%, said “to produce a book that people will buy.”

And that — is a start.

As to our writer survey, the overwhelming majority, almost 90 percent, said that they had written a book they thought a large number (we defined this as 50,000 or more) people would enjoy buying and reading.


As to whether or not this belief had translated into reality — the answers were different.

Chart_Q22_150605Our next posts will be about marketing and book production with value to the reader in mind.

Not “selling.” Marketing. Not price. Value. Books are more important, more essential, than athletic shoes or soft drinks or alcoholic beverages. Everyone who can read is a potential book-buyer and reader.

The primary reason more people who can read do not regularly buy and read books is they are not presented with books they’d enjoy or want to read in market channels to which they’d respond. Library use is up, by the way, and continues to rise among younger and more diverse audiences. Millennials are quickest to say that the information they need is less-likely to be found on the internet than it is … in the library.

Ursula LeGuin said of Amazon’s impact on book publishing, “Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.”

Food is still in the process of changing but it proves that change can and will occur.

In 2000, there were only six organic, grass-fed beef producers in North America. Today, there are more than 2,000. In 1980, when Whole Foods Market was founded by John Mackey, there were only 6 organic, natural food grocers in the U.S. Today, Whole Foods is a $14.9 billion annual business and the fastest-growing company in its sector worldwide. Retail sales of organic food topped $83 billion in 2012 in North America. Natural/organic foods occupy at least 15 percent of retail store space in traditional grocers in the U.S., up from minimal shelf space only ten years ago.

As to “the food packagers” and purveyors, McDonalds’ profits were down 21 percent 4th quarter 2014, sales down 9 percent worldwide – CEO Don Thompson resigned January 2015. Much like WalMart, everyone keys on McDonalds as the biggest industry player in fast food. Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, took a 68% percent hit in sales in 2013 after a serious Chinese health scandal, and is only showing modest profits in 2014 because of “restructuring” – i.e. closing stores and laying off people.

Thirty-five years ago, nobody had heard of “kombucha” and no one thought organic, grass-fed beef or “free-range chickens” would ever be seen again. Thirty-five years from now, this person who’s drinking out of the hose on the loading platform at the store thinks people will be laughing at the system that thought 50 Shades of Grey was the best type of book the waning readership wanted and the only way to get someone to buy and read a book was to out-shock, out-gamify and hoodwink the customer.

PS: Our value of the week is Fire by Alan Rodgers. Scope, plot, character, voice, intellectual content: an end of the world story about which J. Michael Straczynski, visionary creator of Babylon 5 said, “Every so often, a truly seminal book is published in the horror field. Blatty’s The Exorcist, King’s The Stand, Barker’s Books of Blood. Alan Rodgers’ Fire is such a book. It is a tale of amazing sweep and scope, uniting Biblical prophecies and hightech, ancient horrors with new ones cobbled up from labs and shadows. After this book, everything changes.” $4.99 Amazon, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, GooglePlay.

Three Reasons Women’s Writing and Expression is Less Visible Than Men’s

The three reasons are: bodies, relationships/family (includes food and entertaining) and complaints. This article fits under the “complaint” category, by the way, with a bit of the only possible solution.

I just read a good article promoted on Medium this morning by Amanda Ann Klein. It was a touching story about Amanda’s skinny, confident 9-year old daughter who, worried about a tiny tummy, asked her mother if she looked fat. There’s nothing wrong with this writing, and certainly not with Amanda and her daughter. It was part of one of their curated publications called “Human Parts.”

After I read it, I “shared” it like a good girl and thought . . . .


Like I have not read something like this at least 5,000 times. Is there anyone on the planet who does not know that women and girls suffer due to body image? I could see this being adopted into entry-level English classes. I know nothing about Amanda beyond the article, but she fits in the “I write about women’s stuff” columnist category based on this one article alone. Women’s stuff writers like Anna Quindlen, who parlayed her career as a rhetorically-unsound NY Times and Newsweek columnist who nevertheless, said exactly what her readers wanted to hear (probably the top rhetorical technique to date) into a career as a high-end chick lit novelist. To Anna’s credit, her 2013 novel Still Life With Breadcrumbs features a 60-year old female protagonist who falls in love. That puts it in a category of, oh, about ONE such bestselling books (it’s got good reviews but there is no way such a character, of an age with the author herself, wouldn’t get a little backlash).

Still Life With Breadcrumbs

“Doesn’t the market dictate what sells?” (i.e. what is read by many?).

This was a valid question posed by one of Orange County’s wisest business coaches, Michael Sawitz.

People buy (or consume) what is offered to them.

If someone, man or woman, wishes to write for a living, they understandably, justifiably, give the buyer (or these days online – promoter) what they want.

And the purveyors, the publishers, have pre-conceived notions regarding what readers want.

From women: bodies, relationships, complaints.

From men: everything else.

I got into following Medium because of Craig Newmark. He wrote a short article about supporting military families and veterans and I thought “This is cool!” I am always interested in everything Craig has to say.

That’s the way the cool stuff at Medium is supposed to work. An “influencer” like Craig interests others and they go to consume the awesome stuff that’s provided on the service. Medium generally curates and sends crap out to bait you back to read more. They (and a s***-ton of others) are heavy into curating and pushing James Altucher. James, today, is writing about “The Six Things the Most Productive People Do Every Day.” James spices this type of content up with articles about his son, family, puckish humor, and party games like how to bait others into talking all about themselves while you, personally, disclose nothing. James is funny, smart, interesting, charming. What a hilarious game! I’ve played it on purpose too … but mostly, it’s easier for me and other women because most people assume there’s nothing to know about you beyond what they see up front (body), marriage and/or children (relationship) and they don’t care about any complaint you might have — much less an idea about something else.

Bodies, relationships, complaints.

Even a brilliant, accomplished, successful woman like Sheryl Sandberg offering solutions for women to escape this three-tiered cage faces big opposition.

Sheryl Sandberg Talk

Dozens of people in addition to me have shared with these persistent YouTube troglodytes that Sheryl does, in fact, have something to offer and does do something every day. (I follow this YouTube “discussion” and this dumb c*** was today’s addition). The prior classic was “Women are like an egg salad sandwich at a Texas picnic: appealing for only a short time and full of eggs that spoil fast.” The idiot who wrote that was inspired by the untimely death of Sheryl’s husband Dave Goldberg.

I don’t generally try to make a consistent race/ethnicity bias comparison and I “get” that people of color are uncomfortable with connecting race and gender. However, these days, I don’t see this type of commentary coming wholesale to male people of color. If someone made that type of comment on an African-American business leader’s TED Talk (not that there’s many of those, either …) there’d be no question what type of person would make such a comment and there wouldn’t be many such comments offered. The person would be called out for racism (justifiably). Decent men roll their eyes, but few of them call these people out as misogynists. If they do, they’re usually hit with a gay slur. “Misogynist” itself still has a type of charm and humor — i.e. crusty old guy with a secret “heart of gold” who once upon a time, may have been played by Walter Matthau.

I was supposed to moderate a panel about helping young girls overcome the “Gender Confidence Gap” at BayCon. On this panel with me were a top scientist and professor, Heidi Stauffer, one of the most-successful African-American female TV/film producers, Deborah Pratt, Kyle Aisteach, who coordinated education programs for NASA, and Emily Jiang, who is writing books for diverse young people.

We got to sit on the dance stage from the night before and had room for maybe 25 seats, half-filled. The theme of this convention was “Women of Wonder.” There were amazing displays throughout the hotel of women who’d excelled in various fields. I spotted Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who is to this day, the second of only two women who’ve won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Maria worked on most of the critical atomic research projects of the 20th Century, mostly as a volunteer. She taught for a stipend or for free for most of her career and when she won the prize, the San Diego newspaper headline was “San Diego Mom Wins Nobel Prize.” Her husband Joe, a chemist, was fired from the University of Chicago because he supported his wife’s scientific work. I was required to pull down a 1987 article by a grad student from Physics to verify this information. The article I’ve written that includes Maria and her husband Joe, among others, will appear in an upcoming issue of Analog Magazine.

That was then – Maria’s prize came in 1963.

This is now. If I want to be super-famous and successful, published by Random House with NY Times Bestsellers like Anna Quindlen, or be featured in Medium like Amanda Ann Klein, I need to stop my persistent bad activities and write about . . .

Bodies, relationships, complaints.

As I think I mentioned at this crazy panel about “Overcoming the Gender Confidence Gap” – to the one gorgeous young woman in the small audience: be who you are. Believe in yourself. Do what gives you joy. Just do it.

I did not say: stop worrying about your body, build honest, good relationships with your family and friends, stop complaining and start doing. But I will say that now. It’s the only way. Just ask Sheryl Sandberg or if we could, ask San Diego mom Maria Goeppert Mayer.