Tag Archives: publishing

Amazon Customer Help Unhelpful, Trollish and Bad

With Amazon, it’s not just troll reviews, it’s also their “customer help” that’s a problem.

Most of us who do business online may have asked ourselves more than once: “Just who is writing these online reviews?” Well – some see themselves as self-appointed “brand ambassadors,” according to a 2013 study of thousands of online reviews conducted by Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester—professors of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Anderson and Simester studied Expedia, Amazon and other companies, but of the group, no company is so associated with online reviews and the “5 star system” than Amazon.

Amazon-logo

I’ve told my friends, “YES there are some writers who pay for fake 5-star reviews,” and some who’ve probably paid people to put fake 1 star reviews for competitors. In the writing community, we go around and around about these problems. It makes legitimate writers question the reviews they receive. I have experienced a self-appointed “brand ambassador” who seems to have decided that a novella I published as an early experiment was the worst sort of self-published book (when it was not). I fought back. After my recent overview of many Nebula Award-nominated authors’ e-books, including single, standalone stories and collections (so, sorry online “Brand Ambassador” reviewer lady – I don’t think that other award-nominated authors you may not have heard of are as bad a writer as I am) — fighting back was better than sitting on my hands. I have more reviews and sales of Shakespeare in Hell than the majority of other single-story e-books or short story collections that I saw when I did the survey.

I didn’t realize until today that the problems in the online review system also extended to the “help community” for Amazon. Amazon’s Kindle message board help community is supposed to provide specific help to self-publishing authors: it’s nearly unusable, I discovered a couple of years ago. The Kindle message boards are dominated by trolls, weirdos and what-have-you. They seem to exist for some self-published Kindle formatting advice authors to troll and advertise their “How to” books, and for others to spam regarding their self published titles. For the average person seeking formatting answers: they’re a disaster!

The motive for this is obvious: most of the people who spend their time spamming others, slamming newcomers or exhibiting other forms of Web 1.0 behavior on these message boards make money from it. They sell their “How to” Kindle or other books by means of their online “help community” advertisement.

But what would the motive be for other commenters to be unhelpful, creepy and even abusive on the regular Amazon.com “community help” message boards? I recently experienced a double charge from Amazon. In attempting to rectify the problem, I clicked on the “Customer Help” message board option. It’s a lot easier to find than the customer service telephone option! Just one of the message threads I saw was this. I was motivated to respond because I’d seen answer after answer from the same small group of people saying “Click on the blue help button.” Well, there is no such button, it isn’t blue, and it isn’t located in the same place on mobile devices. In addition, the “help” link takes the customer to a page where a variety of help options (also web pages and FAQs) are located. There are no less than 3 clicks required to get to a page where the customer could answer questions and get to a telephone customer service option.

This may be a joke to these Amazon customer “help” weirdos making fun of or abusing average customers. But I saw one customer referring to overcharges on his bank account, and a second one referring to two $60 overdraft charges on her bank account. She stated she was a mother of two and they were only receiving small holiday gifts as a result. People like this guy like to inform others of exactly how their bank account works — instead of advising customers how to get duplicate or other wrong charges refunded. I finally broke and responded after seeing him and other commenters being downright rude or mean to regular customers one too many times.

These message boards aren’t hard to locate. They are listed before any paid Amazon customer service option, and long before the web page routine that will result in the telephone customer service. If people comment there, they get either repetitive, insulting or downright creepy and weird answers from a small group of “regulars.” It’s very similar to the same bizarre weirdos who go around clicking “unhelpful” on average or ordinary reviews of books or other products.

Amazon review seller

The only reason I’ll post an online review is if I think the product, restaurant or other business, or book, is really fantastic, or in very rare cases — really awful. I am reviewer #870,251 on Amazon and it is mostly books, dating back to 1998. I was tremendously tempted to review the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, but I resisted.

I know that Amazon.com has its own problems with employee morale, and probably, its customer service message boards are far down on the list as compared to new product launch, driving advertising revenue, and convincing people that ordering online is better than in-person shopping, up to and including getting products within an hour of placing an order.

But I have a hard time thinking that putting the “Customer Help Message Board” button first in front of an actual Customer Service representative method of contact (phone, chat, email) is a great business strategy. The “help” customers would get is non-existent. One of these people informed me that she had been “helping” people on the Amazon customer service help message boards for seven years. Her “help” that I saw consisted of telling people who were complaining about a duplicate, triplicate or otherwise incorrect charge needing to be refunded was to “click on the blue help button.” She persisted in disputing with me approximately 4 hours today and I have no doubt the weirdo crew there is Googling me to their heart’s content, just like some of the others did with the Canadian businessman who had an unusual concern/complaint.

I do not think you have to be an internet, mobile or new media genius to figure out there is a problem when that is your go-to “customer service” method. Some of it is a sort of misperceived value on the commenter’s “reputation” — representing about 1% of people who comment. A very different 1% to the “one percent” we have heard about in the news, but a bullying 1% all the same.

Amazon recently made news for suing over 1,000 fake reviewers. It turns out that auto review website Edmunds.com preceded them by two years. But Edmunds doesn’t directly sell anything: Amazon does. They should take control of their help and advice sections. Misinformation, disinformation and abuse that is rewarded by the company’s ill-considered 5 star review system is not “customer service” or “help.”

Don’t Mistake What I Am Saying About Women …

First off, I just finished doing some work I really do not have a lot of extra time to do, but I did it anyway. Second, I doubt too many male writers would share my experience of having to slack off to go get some items for dinner. It’s cooking right now. Of course there are some: single dads and others.

So hell I sit around and way more often than I should, I feel sorry for myself. I just counted up all the Nebula Award nominated stories and authors since this award began in 1966. I wanted to make the case that “who the story is about” is more important than “who wrote the story.” I discovered that my betters, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, Nancy Kress, Connie Willis, Vonda McIntyre, Nina Kiriki Hoffmann, Carol Emshwiller, Lisa Tuttle (who has ethics – she did not want her award, the only person to so-decline to date), Esther Friesner, Ursula Le Guin, and Jane Yolen – had all written stories with female protagonists who received the award.

I only dealt with the short story category. It would drive me insane to deal with all the other categories. And then there’s the Hugos, with which there is some, not a lot, of overlap.

So here’s who these babies are about – by year:

1966 The Harlequin and the Ticktockman
1967 Geology assistant/WWII Vet (“The Secret Place”) and “dead boy’s sister”
1968 Neutered Spacers (Chip Delany)
1969 Dr. Darin (male), monkeys, mentally deficient boy (Kate Wilhelm)
1970 A man (“Passengers” by Robert Silverberg – first person narrative)
1971 – no award –
1972 A man (“Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg – first person narrative)
1973 Janet Evason – this story is “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ about an all-female planet
1974 Moggadeet – an alien who is eaten by his female mate (by “James Tiptree, Jr.” – “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”)
1975 Laia Asieo Odo, an elderly woman (aka Odo, in male form, in “The Dispossessed” – by Ursula Le Guin)
1976 Dolf, a man running out of time, who must catch that Zeppelin
1977 A man (“A Crowd of Shadows” by Charles L. Grant – first person narrative)
1978 Jeffty – he’s five. He is always five.
1979 Rob (a guy, a musician)
1980 “An old scientist” and “young female reporter” and giant ants.
1981 Boyd, a male archaologist who discovers his acquaintance Luis is an immortal
1982 An unnamed woman (Lisa Tuttle “The Bone Flute” the only author to refuse the award, due to problems with another author campaigning)
1983 A girl and her dog (Connie Willis)
1984 A young boy who survives a global flood
1985 An old man and a young boy (Williams and John)
1986 Sally Gourley, a truck stop waitress of indeterminate age (by Nancy Kress!)
1987 Pal Tremont, a Korean boy
1988 Gordon Sills (male), Avery Roda (male), love object “Anna” (female)
1989 Sheila, a prostitute rescued from the Biblical Flood, and mother
1990 Male physicist who discovers time travel
1991 Guy who observes that bears have discovered fire
1992 Vietnam guy, Charlie
1993 Three women discuss menstruation (Connie Willis!)
1994 Vietnam guy, first-person narrative
1995 Anli (female) and Derren (male) (Martha Soukup)
1996 The Librarian and Death (Esther Friesner!)
1997 A woman who has the day off for her virtual child’s birthday (Esther Friesner!)
1998 Sister Emily (Jane Yolen!)
1999 Vietnam guy (my dear friend Bruce Holland Rogers – but this theme is starting to look like “Never go full-retard” as stated by fake black guy Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder)
2000 Professional (female) victim (Leslie What)
2001 Investigator of Victim Rights Closure Statements (anti-death penalty story by Terry Bisson)
2002 Maria, African albino women
2003 Mother with a creature for a child (Carol Emshwiller who is better than all)
2004 Female narrator hunting gorillas (Karen Joy Fowler “What I Didn’t See”)
2005 Daughter coming to terms with elderly dying father
2006 A succubus-type of indeterminate gender who lives with a typical middle-aged working woman
2007 An abandoned mistress
2008 17 year old, formerly youngest female resident of Always
2009 Alanna and Ylva (by Nina Kiriki Hoffmann)
2010 “Nameless female survivor” of spacewreck
2011 A man who creates a tiny man
2012 A little boy with a paper tiger
2013 Quy an “older sister”
2014 A narrator of indeterminate gender
2015 Grandma, Eva, a Jackalope wife

Now, nerds and dweebs and geeks – this is who I am. The majority of these winners are either my friends or friendly acquaintances. Some of them have been my teachers and mentors.

I started feeling unholy sorry for myself. Some of my friends, acquaintances, teachers and mentors have unbelievable Publishers Weekly reviews for their work. They have loving retrospectives, and in-depth reviews, story-by-story, of collections of their work. And I saw book after book, whether single, standalone story or collection, with one, two, or three reviews on Amazon. I saw the same b.s. (maybe not the same “quality” as me – but I am “special”) on their work — two star reviews, etc. Judging by Amazon, my dreadful crap has even outsold some of their outstanding work.

So, what I wrote about was this:

To Kiss the Star
Mel Armstrong – 17 – wheelchair-bound, blind, spastic, chosen for spaceflight
The Renascence of Memory
Carol Meyers – 80 – Alzheimer’s patient, former wife, mother, college professor
This Monster
Grendel’s Dam – ageless
Jenny, With the Stars in Her Hair
Jenny Julian – 35 – addicted to extreme cosmetic surgery
The Color of Time
Gia – 21, Nana – 81, Faith – 31
Smiley the Robot
Miss Gia – 85
Everything I Have is Yours
Helene Bacon – 50 – famous film director, Sarah Bacon – 16 – her daughter
Heart of Jade
The Lady – 30 – daughter of 20 Rabbit, the last great king of Copan
Shakespeare in Hell
Emilia Bassano – 35-ish (actually died at age 74) – reputed “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets
The Ruined Gods
Ginger – 28 – a cat woman; Rikki/Roxane/Roksana – 73
The Gods That Men Don’t See
Ginny Baumann – 33 – primatologist
Digger Lady
Vi Elliott – 73 – paleontologist
Incandescent
Paperwhite – a newborn
Her Name is Jacqueline
Lori Johnston – 36 – attorney

The thing is, I might not write very well. I might be crude and maybe not very talented.

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900But I think I am honest. And I listen. So.

Disabled people really will go to the stars, once it is time. Women will continue to use extreme cosmetic surgery to get what they want, although it doesn’t work. There will be a sub-cellular level treatment for Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases – even a reversal of the aging process. People will come to understand that time and space are artifacts of our sensory perceptions. Some day, a robot will fall in love with and care for an old lady, because he knows no better. A woman will one day win the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award as a film director. Some day, a woman will write better than Shakespeare. A woman likely did co-found today’s Mayan community. Some day a woman who lives only a short time will travel faster than the speed of light and save many lives. There probably were early humans here in North America 100,000 years ago. The Mayan howler monkey god is real. Gender reassignment will become much more common and complete. People will so seriously clone for companionship and then – some – the scummy few – will use for organ donation.

There is a hot trade in Altoid mints, intergalactically-speaking.

“Don’t write about your little life,” said Toni Morrison. Open your ears, open your eyes, open your heart –

FREE YOUR MIND

I didn’t know this advice over the years. I know it now, and I’m glad I took it, instinctively. As I say to students, why should we become so upset about abortion, when medical science can and will solve this? Why should we become so angry about the death penalty, when the crimes to which it is the penalty will cease due to evolution?

You think I am wrong? I am an optimist; I am a listener.

Are you?

Will Authors Hang Separately?

At the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin famously said, “We must all hang together, or we most assuredly will all hang separately.”

benfranklinjohnadamsgifIt’s like that for writers these days.

In nearly every area, people have figured out how to make money off the creativity of others. I just reviewed the education app Nearpod this morning. It is primarily aimed at K-12 teachers and classrooms. While very interesting in terms of providing a tool for interactive classroom content (especially for tablet-enabled classrooms – it is mobile oriented), I was little surprised to learn that the “App” requests teachers who have made their own Common Core-friendly lessons to apply to be “authors” who will be able to sell their lessons to other teachers at prices ranging from $2.99 for a single lesson to $40 and $50 for “bundled lessons.”

The time and effort to make a decent Nearpad interactive lesson (the app’s beauty is it allows teachers to pace the lesson and break it up with assessments – quizzes, questions, etc.) is far in excess of being paid a few dollars here and there, most certainly what the Nearpad people would offer for the “lucky” teachers “selected” to be “Nearpad Authors.” There are a few such authors featured on the service. There are many more professional “educational content” companies listed. These in turn pay the people who make their lessons as little as possible, usually piece rates for “work for hire,” while making huge amounts of money from it.

We turn to “self-publishing” where authors are encouraged to make their own money and told it’s the “new frontier” enabling them to have creative and financial freedom.

The reality is, there is less freedom than ever. As to financial freedom, the small numbers who are making good money right now … or at least purported “experts” like Jane Friedman (who make money from aspiring writers and conferences and fees) … appear blissfully unaware of the writing on the wall.

writing on the wall

Search engines are going local. Mobile advertising and customer contact is going local and device-specific. Because retail stores aren’t going away. People will probably *never* buy everything online and after more than a decade of every algorithm known to man developed in the absence of direct human contact …

What any real salesperson will tell you is: you can guess about the customer but you won’t know until you talk to them in person.

Which authors other than James Patterson and J.K. Rowling are going to be able to afford targeted mobile ads? Everyone who was previously successful in self-publishing has gone for a traditional publishing contract if possible.

Why would that be so?

Because if we do not hang together, we will most assuredly, hang separately. They have some type of partnership with their publishers.

Yes, that is the future. It was the past – it was exploitive. It broke down. Now authors are being exploited individually.

Of course there’s a better way. But it sure as he** is not going to come from “subject matter experts,” “book formatting experts” or “author assistants.”

I have been a professional writer since 1996. I have worked in nearly every aspect of the publishing industry, from educational to trade fiction to magazines, and every conceivable type of online “content.” I’ve also worked as an executive in the nonprofit world, with government, foundation and private funders and a huge range of projects, and as a business development professional, with over 160 businesses. And, I’m a college teacher.

Writers, by far, have the least ability to work together to benefit each other of any group I have ever worked with. They are at present, hanging on every word of gurus that promise riches and hanging separately.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparshin.

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How Will The World End? Is There a Clue From The Easter Island Heads? They Also Have Bodies!

Did you know? The Easter Island heads have giant bodies that are buried below the surface!

AH2B07The end of the world came sooner for the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) people than for the rest of us.

While people remain on the island today, all the trees of this once-tropical paradise are gone, and the secrets of making the giant statues are forgotten. This rare picture shows the size of the head compared to the buried body.

easter island head bodyThere are more mysteries on earth than we can possibly imagine!

I am often inspired by one of my favorite media personalities, Giorgio Tsoukalos. Giorgio’s open mind helps us to see many possibilities that we otherwise would not consider.

Aliens may very well have started the human race down the path of civilization. They may also have been a source of much ancient knowledge that has been forgotten today. From the ancient Mayans to the Easter Island Rapa Nui people to the ancient Greeks and Romans, many have predicted the end of the world or apocalypse.

Hundreds of predictions have not come to pass, but here are some of the threats coming up soon:

“There is an asteroid with our name on it,” British television astrophysicist Brian Cox told the Daily Mail. tv astrophysicist brian coxAn asteroid nearly impacted the earth in 2014. We almost died in a cataclysm similar to the one that destroyed the dinosaurs.

But, we didn’t.

Now, as many as six world-shattering asteroids could be headed our way, with reported impacts predicted for the days between coming between September 21 and 28 … less than a month from now!

The “Blood Moon Prophecy” originated with Rev. Efrain Rodriguez. Additional pastors, including the Revs. Mark Blitz and John Hagee, have told their followings of tens of thousands that the fourth “Blood Moon” this year will herald the arrival of a giant asteroid. This monster-sized rock the size of a city block, is supposed to hit the earth near Puerto Rico, causing a 300-foot tsunami, vaporization of Puerto Rico and surrounding areas, and a magnitude-12 earthquake.

jumbo jet sized asteroid

Asteroids “bigger than a jumbo jet” come close to earth on a monthly basis, according to NASA, which regularly updates the public on near-misses.

And guess what?

By anywhere from 1 to 2 billion years from now, the earth will for certain be burned to a cinder due to the inevitable expansion of our Sun. Some experts now predict that the end may come even sooner than that — as soon as 100 years from now. According to Reuters, children born today may live to see humanity’s end as a result of global warming above 2C.

Just in case …

You can read up on all of these doomsday scenarios and more!

For $15, you can get a bunch of classic disaster novels from StoryBundle, and donate to the Challenger Center for Science Education! Featuring FIRE by Alan Rodgers (there are some nuclear challenges in the book, but mostly a horrible virus that brings the dead back to life — including meat in freezers! — is on the rampage) and great books by Kevin J. Anderson, David Sakmyster, Laura Anne Gilman and more! If you have never heard of StoryBundle, check it out! You can get top-quality, best-selling books for a single low price, you can name your own price as well, and let them know how much of the proceeds you would like to go to the author, to StoryBundle, and to a designated charity!

 

 

Amazon is the Past, Not the Future

Amazon has made the self-publishing revolution possible; no question. They have also enabled a number of publishers, especially those in esoteric areas or those specializing in low-volume titles, to survive and potentially thrive.

They also provide a huge number and range of goods for sale and services, including data, cloud services, entertainment and shipping. It’s hard to visit their busy website and not think “Are they *everything* to everybody?”

The recent NY Times expose of working circumstances for the company’s white collar workers (tech, marketing, management) has raised a lot of questions. It’s certainly true that there are wretched companies to work for out there, many worse than Amazon. However, Amazon doesn’t appear anywhere on the top 50 companies for Executives from CEO Magazine in the past 5 years; numerous others do – and there’s high variability in rankings.  You will not find Amazon on any of Training Mag’s Top 125 awardees for 2015. You will find, from the tech and retail sector, Best Buy, CarMax, Cisco and Walgreens.

The people who so callously said that Amazon’s policies were fine used the excuse that the company earns a profit; indeed – according to Investopedia, “Amazon’s profits for its entire existence are still less than what ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) takes home every 2.5 weeks.” The company earned NO PROFIT AT ALL until 2009 (founded 1994).

According to BusinessInsider, which is partly owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, “Get it into your heads: Amazon is not going to become a big-margin company. Never has, never will — it’s not in the model.” Of course not. Most retail is not high profit margin; however, most retail cannot go for years with no profits.

The very day of the NY Times Amazon expose, a laudatory article about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos appeared in the UK Telegraph (a conservative or Tory publication). Last week, investment publications reported that Bezos sold over $550 million of his Amazon stock. Possibly, to buy the NY Times and prevent future negative articles.

Jet Amazon competitor

The company is not without competitors. Jet.com is just one of them.

WalMart also does more sales volume in books than Amazon does.

So, what’s the difference? Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a writer or other professional. You’re an educated, sophisticated person and do not shop at stores like WalMart.

Therefore: no one does, right? Amazon may have advanced in revenue size but it’s still weak and tiny and resource-poor compared to WalMart. Amazon isn’t Apple. It’s not Microsoft. It’s not Cisco. It’s a retailer. An online retailer that ships and has realized it has resources that could compete with UPS or FedEx. It’s still using trucks and gasoline. It still has physical warehouses.

This extremely optimistic chart projects that Amazon will surpass WalMart in revenue by . . . 2024. Even with this hinky curve – there’s a better revenue curve there. It’s the blue one on top. If you’ll notice the raise there for the red one starts after 2015. It hasn’t happened yet.

Walmart vs AmazonSo to the people who work for Amazon, it’s a game with uncertain results.

To the rest of us, especially those of us who are creative professionals, in working with Amazon, we are working with … wait for it … and I *do* work with them and they are human beings just like everybody else. I am never discourteous to others in interactions, but let’s just say Apple customer service is celestial compared to Amazon’s.

If you read that NY Times article and didn’t come up with “crazier than a barrel of spider monkeys and a fifth of whisky,” then you should read it again. You should read Nick Ciubotariu’s “Data driven response” to the article. The only data in his long, full of hurt feelings response is “On average, the ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback was over 5:1.” That’s it. Thousands of words, ZERO data. Nick even says “I don’t know what the employee retention (or turnover/burn) rate is.”

Is it about good vs. evil?

It’s about poor management and decision making. I don’t care that Nick Ciubotariu’s “mentor” told him that Amazon was the “best company in the world.”

I can see from my own limited perspective that what impacts our publishing company and to a larger extent, our world that could benefit from better books (not more books – better books) that everything about Amazon’s e-book hardware, software, sales, delivery and marketing, is harmful to the product’s long-term growth and development of excellence. They are doing nothing but doubling and tripling down on that. For this customer growth.

Do you see the same growth curve in this chart of customer demographics as that optimistic “Amazon will surpass WalMart by 2028 chart”? Oh, those algorithms. There is a secret Amazon anti-aging project. It will deliver “instant youth” in one hour, guaranteed. Only to Amazon Prime members.

Amazon customer demographics

I don’t know how many times I can tell people, “The reason Amazon Kindle sales do not match ‘regular’ book sales is that the Kindle owner customer base doesn’t match everybody else/the general population.” Only about 10% of all books sold are via the Amazon e-book platform.

Now they’ve got Kindle Scout, which is basically another Kickstarter-type crowdsourcing for getting content for a whopping $1,500, some of which might end up being a great investment.

There’s not an original piece of work on the entire Kindle Scout page. People can upvote/downvote/game to their heart’s content. It’s crap made by people devoted to making crap they believe to be marvelous. Oldtimers know this as Sturgeon’s law (90% of everything is crap). Or – “imitation fast food.” Like this (Fast Food You Can Make at Home).

Kindle Scout Crap

Maybe a year from now if this keeps going, the titles will be better, the covers a little slicker. It will still be DIY Fast Food.

Am I saying independent authors only write crap?

No. I’m just saying schemes like Kindle Scout or various “author communities” have as much point as McDonalds opening its stores up to local cooks trying to duplicate dishes the restaurant has sold for years. It is the same whether Amazon does this or legacy publishers do it.

Ron Collins says that lots of big companies are using advanced math to determine the cost-benefit analysis of treating your employees as if they are worthless and interchangeable, and treating them as if they have some value to the business. Amazon’s math doesn’t add up all around. Low/no profits for years. High rate of employee turnover and burnout. Endless schemes, dozens of new business ventures, few of which pan out. Low growth in new business sectors.

All the algorithms and analysis in the world will not tell a business the truth about a customer who is remote (i.e. not “in the store”). And just because somebody buys something one day, does not mean they want or need the exact same thing the next.

Just because a reader stops reading a Kindle book on a certain page doesn’t mean they do not like, value or would not purchase a book by that author in the future.

And above all, these things cannot tell Amazon what people will want in the future. They cannot tell them why people didn’t adopt the Kindle Fire phone (I was told “it sucks” by the ATT representative – “Get the iPhone instead.”) An Apple and a GooglePlay store representative both said that the Amazon display in another office/tech store was “never attended.” One of them described how he bought his aunt a Kindle Fire this past Christmas. He said she returned it and used the money toward a new tablet. Her age and gender put her right in the middle of the Kindle demographic.

I had no negative feelings regarding Amazon until a few months ago. I just thought they were too fast-growing and somewhat impersonal. Then I noticed how nasty, unprofessional and a-creative many of the extreme self-publishing Amazon proponents were. They were not actual employees or executives. Yet their culture was horrifying. “This doesn’t go with creativity or good business,” I thought.

These vicious, rude, crude, unimaginative people are just unpaid versions of the brutes at Amazon HQ in Seattle. Maybe some people think this is winning.

ragnar lothbrok

I do not.

Let’s Do This Different

The Hitler Channel (AHC) has been showing documentaries about “The Evolution of Evil.” These cover such perennial favorites as Hitler and Stalin. Both gentlemen rose to power following the breakdown of monarchies in Europe/Russia and the first World War.

evolution of evil nazi brandBoth, interestingly, were young men from relatively impoverished backgrounds — “outsiders” who rose to power in the chaos following the fall of prior Imperial structures. Hitler was a German-speaking Austrian; Stalin a Russian-speaking Georgian. Both were educated in traditional religious schools prior to becoming involved in revolutionary movements.

Russia’s “Man of Steel,” Stalin, had a lot longer run than Germany’s Fuhrer, Hitler.

So in recent months I’ve had a bit of contact with younger people who desire change. Some reminds me of my great time working with Policymic. Others — maybe not so much.

I put my experience working with Policymic in the 100% positive column. I think many of the Policymic former and current writers are doing incredible things and that they want nothing but good for other people. They want, and are working, for positive change. I was really glad to see Laura Donovan writing for Attn:, for example.

I find a number of younger people who seem to be locked into a cycle of complaints, the same type of aggressive online attention-getting we see from many male media personalities, and the same lack of respect for older generations or diverse cultures and values that is typical of the Tsars, Kaisers or “American Titans” of the past.

Like Stalin became Tsar-Plus, worse than any Russian Tsar of prior generations, once his opportunity came. Like Hitler became Kaiser-Plus, worse than Kaiser Wilhelm ever thought of being.

Stalin has been commonly called a brute and a pig. What he was, was murderer to millions. He alone took the former Soviet Union back decades. People wanted freedom and opportunity after Imperial Russia and its abuses. They got the “Man of Steel.”

I now understand in all regards how and why my grandmother was one of the six founding members of the American Communist Party. It was at this time that women had barely achieved the right to vote in America. She was a first-time woman pharmacist in New York (Hell’s Kitchen) and California. She certainly would not have been welcomed by either U.S. established political party at that time; the Communists were the only ones who would have either welcomed, or listened to her.

My Grandma Mary was probably the most humane person I have ever met, and insightful enough about human nature to have easily repelled a serial rapist who broke into her small Fairfax District apartment when she was up in her 80s by saying, “Young man, if you touch me, you’ll get the worst disease you ever heard of!”

Like Stalin, some of these young militants today respect power — what they perceive of it. After watching the AHC documentary, which detailed some of Stalin’s consolidation of power — perhaps they are like Trotsky, who little understood the consequences of his snubbing Stalin. Average people “get” that you get back what you put into something, and the way you treat others is generally how you are yourself, treated in return (i.e. “The Golden Rule”).

These days, most people’s basic needs are met. They also get basic entertainment, comfort, and sexual needs met fairly easily.

Our intellectual and spiritual needs: not so much.

So, it is my hope that as we pass from one era to the next, we do not have the same circumstances as occurred with Hitler and Stalin, where higher-class hereditary monarchs and dictators were replaced by lower-class, non-hereditary, power-mongering ones who made their predecessors look like amateurs in oppression.

If you think you’re “left out” today and want to be the dominant voice of tomorrow, having no respect for those who came before you is hardly the way to make a change and make a difference.

Alan Moore: Neither Racist Nor Misogynist

Alan Moore retired from his public life almost two years ago now – but it was reported on Superversive SF that he’d made this decision — it turns out that he did so after writing thousands of words in response to accusations he was a racist and misogynist.Alan Moore
I loved the work of his that I’d read, from Watchmen to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to V for Vendetta. When I read V, I was not happy that Evey was a) a prostitute; and b) almost-raped. I thought there was something kind of sick going on with Allan Quatermain’s relationship with Mina in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I had a little better understanding of Silk Spectre’s relationship with Eddie Blake (“The Comedian”) in Watchmen. Because I related to Silk Spectre … for a superheroine, she’s a pretty realistic character. And like or dislike, the “relationship” these two have is the way it is a lot of the time.

Since I’m not like the people in their 30s, 40s and 50s Moore refers to as being obsessed with entertainment created for 12 year old boys 50 years ago (comic superheroes), I had no idea that over the past 10-15 years, Alan Moore’s work has gone far beyond his 80s work that I was familiar with.

People seriously accused him of misogyny and racism because of his recent film projects which – after watching a few seconds of available film, plus reviews – obviously are dealing with ideas of life, death and the afterlife.

Here’s one project: Tom Strong (which seems to have run from 1999-2005).

tesla strong

Tesla is Tom Strong’s daughter. Her mother is depicted on the lower left of this cover. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

It’s horrible that Alan Moore would have done this series, which to my knowledge is *exactly* as he states, the only American commercial comic book series depicting an interracial marriage, much less a biracial teen superheroine, and have people accusing him of racism and gender bias.

See, I know something that smart people like “Dr. Batman” and the others who criticized Moore probably also know – but because they are suck-ups who desire the least bit of money that might possibly come their way or so desperately desire a brush with fame, and their evil calculus is such that they think throwing Moore under the bus will help them do that …

Alan Moore didn’t just “include” characters of varied ethnicities in his work. He also included characters with varied gender orientation. Here is another Alan Moore project, dating from 2012. Fashion Beast, about a transgender model and a fashion designer who is beautiful, but believes himself to be a hideous “beast” — and cannot make clothes unless he thinks he’s hideous (reportedly inspired by Christian Dior). This is a project based on an 80s film script Moore wrote, done along with Sex Pistols’ Malcolm McLaren.

fashion beastThe “reporter” who Moore says misrepresented his work and released “spoiler” information in an interview with him in the Independent is affiliated with Publishers Weekly. She just wrote a negative review of another comic that portrays transgender people in a stereotyped way. She wrote it as if Fashion Beast never existed. All of those involved that Moore responds to with thousands of words of sometimes witty, sometimes complex, sometimes biting commentary, themselves wrote and acted as if Tom Strong, Dhalua Strong, Tesla Strong, and Doll Seguin never existed.

Again, with much of what I say, many people do not have the context to understand. Moore’s accusers and critics have one professional among them, Grant Morrison. Igor tells me that Grant Morrison is a good guy and a good writer (a “seminal” comic writer – gotta love that word). Grant has to have known what the odds were and what Alan Moore had to do to publish either of these series, Tom Strong or Fashion Beast.

You can go look for a damn long time to find another character like Tesla Strong. You will not, in a mainstream or even high profile independent comic publication. You will absolutely not find another character like Doll Seguin in Fashion Beast.

So like or dislike these characters, Alan Moore put all of his professional and creative credit out there to do these projects and that is something that none of his critics, including Grant (whom I was making fun of due to his Lex Luthor-appearing persona – well Alan Moore has the other Alastair Crowley-type thing going on. I guess Merlin). Only someone with Alan Moore’s lifetime track record and earned respect could get these projects produced. It’s not something a racist or misogynist would do. And it’s something only a generous man with an expansive worldview and talent to burn would even think to do.

I doubt either of these projects was very commercially successful though it looks like Tom Strong ran a long time. Certainly they are not as commercially successful as the still-in-print work for hire Batman: The Killing Joke, which is all many people know Alan Moore for, because of … well, see his comments about the cultural malaise related to people going over and over the same crap that was originally produced for 12 year-old boys 50 years ago. When I read Moore’s comments about that book, I realized I was reading the words of an honest man.

Yes, I had trouble with Evey being a prostitute in V for Vendetta, and almost being raped. I didn’t like Eddie Blake raping Sally Jupiter. But I saw it was realistic, and that was kind of the point of Watchmen. That they were “superheroes” with the same attitudes and flaws as “real people.” Even Dr. Manhattan – even that giant blue bastard with his “todger” out in everyone’s face.

Now I understand that Alan Moore isn’t just creamed all over because of the way they treat comic writers like him. It’s because he really deserves it. And his work grew and grew over the years, like somebody’s is supposed to. He had the balls to do that. And years from now it’s his work that will still be read. And he is not a misogynist or a racist.

 

What’s Wrong With Stuff Like #Pitchtopublication ?

Sometimes I feel like I’m in an endless, hopeless battle. As if no one will ever “get” what I’m talking about, even though I’ve given up everything and am doing only what must be done to move everything forward.

I try to follow stuff out there, and this a.m. saw #Pitchtopublication. This is another YA- and genre-dominated way to attract fresh aspirants into the editor (paid) / agent / publisher world.

This Twitter-fueled contest sucks up a big needlefull of Film/TV logline disease and mainlines it into the prose fiction world.

lindsay lohan so bored
This writer wanted to use the contest to judge how interesting his ideas are. To this group.

your comps should be recent

 

 

 

 

Most of the “comps” that I saw were from recent movies, not books. However, there were a few classics TV/book mashups like “Buffy meets Jekyll & Hyde.” There wasn’t enough in-depth information from any of the pitches to determine if there was any variability in age of character, gender of character or plot.

nail the comps

 

 

 

Sell your book to … whom?

I asked this question at the LA Writers Conference and got maybe 30% audience response (who got it). After the agents discussed the acquiring editor issue (they can say “no” but cannot say “yes” on their own) and described how editorial boards make decisions, I asked “but what reader input is considered in the process?”

This #Pitchtopublication process isn’t even about putting a basic, coherent brief pitch together about the writer’s work. It’s about creating something that will appeal to the participating agents and editors. They are asking for comparables from the past five years.

In what universe is working like that going to reach anything but a smaller audience of whatever the “comps” had?

It’s guaranteed, built in from the ground up, that anything created in a process like that is going to be similar to something that somebody else already did. Better.

So this is where we’re at. Yes, I watched Elon Musk’s battery wall pitch.

The threat: 20% of North American adults regularly buy and read books. This number is flat and may even be slightly shrinking each year. Nearly 100% of people are literate enough to buy and read at least some books. No one (other than us) seems to question that some people who would otherwise read regularly aren’t reading because they aren’t being presented with things that interest them in the market channels to which they’d respond.

The evidence that books have changed our world, and continue to change it, is overwhelming. Dickens’ stories of little orphan boys who overcame incredible adversity to “be the hero of their own lives” contributed to the dismantling of extreme classism. They instilled the basic idea that someone could “rise above” given enough hard work and natural gifts. Dickens himself was this person. He was telling his own story, over and over. Before Dickens, the only characters in fiction that left their “station” were those born noble, yet were unaware of it, like Fielding’s Tom Jones. People often look to “issue” books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin as things that encourage change. I think it’s popular stories that make the real change. Dickens’ work is the work I know the most about, but more recent books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22 have had a huge influence. Most of the official lists of this type are made out of the “canon” so they overlook books like Peyton Place, which unveiled the way small town people really lived, including their sex lives — including women’s sex lives.

We are in a worse straitjacket now than anything Ken Kesey wrote about. This straitjacket involves figuring out what someone liked last week, last month, last year, and shoving more of the same down their throat. This is what is considered “marketing.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – with its signature female horror, Nurse Ratched – very doubtful it would be published today. What were its comps? For sure Stephen King’s Misery had a little Cuckoo’s Nest of a “comp” but … that wasn’t within five years, was it?

It isn’t just that “more of the same” is what’s being enforced and promoted, it’s that the people who can work in this type of straitjacket and confined space are the opposite of the Ken Keseys of the world. I’m using the Merry Prankster as the example. If a writer likes to work to “please” some “agent” who’s chasing dollars for themselves, work to attract the attention of an editor who may or may not have any audience connection, who judges what they do based on what their competitors are doing, then the chances they’ll be writing about something real are …

ragnar lothbrok

Like the chance that somebody’s going to kick Ragnar Lothbrok’s ass.

(Aside: Vikings jumped the shark … King Whazbo has a sex crush on Lagertha and she accepts him? Really?)

There is a movie out right now called Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a white boxer named Billy “The Great” Hope. Today’s young audiences may not remember “The Great White Hope” so they do not “get” that a movie of this nature that was pretty good was already made. Called Rocky.

YOU COULD NOT EVEN F-ING MAKE ROCKY TODAY. We would not have Rocky and Rambo today. Maybe the world won’t fall apart without Sylvester Stallone but the whole point of Stallone was “the Italian stallion.” Yes, that was an unknown movie hero type before the Italians overtook film in the 70s.

Let’s try making Shaft today, shall we?

Denzel Washington’s biggest recent role is a remake of an 80s TV show that was essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy (what if an all-powerful ex-spy could fix everything and right all wrongs) starring a white British actor.

Right now everything on the bestseller list that isn’t James Patterson or E.L. James is Gone Girl clones. ___________________ did something (bad/wrong/secret) and ___________________ (outsmarts/tricks/hoodwinks) _____________________. This MadLib story is filled out with age (28-32), hair color (blonde/light brown), eye color (blue/blue-green/hazel), job (magazine writer, fashion editor, designer), husband/boyfriend (Ben Affleck/Jake Gyllenhaal/Jason Momoa (exotic/slated for death)). These are pop books.

Did anyone see the “the book had a blue cover” bookstore joke? It’s not a joke.

blue cover

So what was on the bestseller list before this misunderstanding of “marketing” took over? Like, 45 years ago?

1970 ny times bestseller list

Let’s see. I’ve actually read three of these books.

Love Story: the classic of its type. Great Lion of God is about St. Paul, by historical novelist Taylor Caldwell (PW noted it was written for a “sizeable and predictable market” – which is no longer being served very much by secular trade publishers). The French Lieutenant’s Woman, of which I have a copy signed to me by the author, is an unconventional, time-spanning narrative covering a clandestine, very sexy romance between a Victorian naturalist and a “woman of ill repute” combined with contemporary story by the author. It may well be published today – but it would absolutely not be #3 on the NY Times Bestseller list. Deliverance by James Dickey is the book origin of “squeal like a pig!” and the developmentally-disabled backwoods banjo player, as well as ultrahot Burt Reynolds and his hunting bow. It is in fact an incredibly well-written book by a great poet. In addition to having been made into a popular, award-winning film (as was The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Calico Palace is an historical novel about a young female protagonist who moves to San Francisco during the Gold Rush (’49). It was thus out of print and, although part of a “back in print” forgotten classics series – isn’t as well-remembered or preserved as Deliverance (“Squeal Like a Pig!” = top 100 books of 20th century). The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart … I now realize I’ve read four of these books. It is the first in Stewart’s Merlin trilogy: i.e. Arthurian legend. The Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick is one of the first gay romance novels. Losing Battles is Eudora Welty’s fourth novel; it features the tales told at the 90th birthday of Granny Vaughn in northeast Mississippi. Made into a hilarious movie, The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight is columnist Jimmy Breslin’s tale of the Brooklyn mob. Such Good Friends by Lois Gould is the only one of the group that is out of print. Gould was the editor of Ladies Home Journal and wrote semi-autobiographical books that focused on womens’ inner lives. Such Good Friends is about a woman whose husband dies, whereupon she discovers he was a serial cheater.

So, before the “comps” took over (they did not do this type of thing in 1970) they looked at basic things like “What is this book about?” They recognized that some authors like Eudora Welty ran on place and voice. They knew that sophisticated writers like John Fowles worked in unique ways. They could “get” basic subjects like “Merlin” and “San Francisco Gold Rush” and “St. Paul” or “This Jimmy Breslin is hilarious and a great columnist — his story is a hoot!”

Are people really going to “comp” The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight? It’s a hilarious book. Jimmy Breslin is a funny, gifted writer. They certainly have comped The Lord Won’t Mind: but these books aren’t generally on the NY Times bestseller list (though may be bestsellers).

They didn’t have computers in 1970. There was no internet. No Twitter. No hashtags. No agents telling aspiring writers what to do and forcing them to spend hours “comping” their ideas … gee whiz –

It’s Deliverance crossed with Love Story . . . Kenton Pierce, a successful 45 year-old sports agent, falls in love with beautiful 23 year-old Samantha “Sam” Justice. After a whirlwind courtship and fairy-tale wedding, “Sam” convinces Kent to spend their honeymoon in the remote Northern Georgia wilderness where she was raised by her widowed mother. While canoeing down the last wild river in the area, Kent and “Sam” are kidnapped by a group of backwoods hunters. After a night of sheer horror, Kent learns that nothing is as it seems. Not only is the hunter who rapes “Sam” her own father, she’s also dying of a new, ultra-virulent form of AIDS! Kent and Cletus the deadly Bowie-knife wielding daddy-rapist now both have the disease.

See? Easy-peasy.

This is a Book

Is She Available HardcoverSo, this is a book. Is SHE Available? by Igor Goldkind.

Not only could this book have not been made by an individual working in isolation, it wouldn’t be what it is without the musical and recording talents of Gilad Atzmon, the art talent of more than 26 internationally-acclaimed graphic novel, comic, and fine artists, including front and interior cover by Bill Sienkiewicz, and the world-class book and type design talent of Rian Hughes. Videos are by Madefire, which has invented a way to animate graphic novels and comics, and the e-book enhancements including movable type and animations were done in Southern California by Chameleon.

The book was more than a year in the making and it is indeed, our showpiece, along with the companion hardcover.

If it was just Igor’s poetry, it would be yet another book of poetry — a good one — but not what it is. This is why we are able to do Poetry, Jazz, Art, Comics — Really? at Comic-Con next week.

Darkness Poem back Love Is Poem back (1) Love is a Gun tshirt frontThese are 1) Rian Hughes type design for “The Darkness” poem; 2) Rian Hughes type design for “The Bullet From My Gun” poem; and 3) Art for “The Bullet From My Gun” by Shaky Kane. We will have t-shirts at Comic-Con with Shaky’s image on the front and the poem type design on the back.

The e-book uses every functionality of Adobe Creative Suite, including video, audio, animations, Illustrator, InDesign (obviously) and Photoshop. It uses every capability of the EPUB3 standards.

And although there is a GooglePlay version, the book is optimally experienced on iBooks and Apple devices.

There will probably never be a Kindle version of this book — at least not for the foreseeable future.

Did we go into it this way? No! We went into it with the idiotic assumption that it would be “easy” to convert and validate the EPUB for KF8. Aw no problemo … easy peasy! The Kindle plays movies and shows magazines and …

30 days later … every editing program out there used and re-used …

We also did not want an “app,” we wanted a book. It’s a book-plus. Apps are, and we have some agreement out there, at-best book-minus. That’s from the perspective of making the thing and using it — what can and cannot be included. That’s from the app format itself. That’s from down in the guts of what it is. The Kindle problem is down in the guts of the software itself, what it will and will not accept, what it will and will not do.

If you want an “enhanced” e-book like Stephen King’s 11/22/63, then there ya go. This goody includes a 13-minute video that is primarily Stephen King talking. It appears at the beginning of the book. Then the traditional book starts in flowable ePUB format. It’s no more enhancement than could be found on a web page; i.e. Stephen King’s or the publisher’s website. That’s because flowable ePUBS are web pages.

What flowable ePUBS and readers have caused is a diminution of the beauty of the book, making it extremely difficult to provide an optimal reader experience. There’s little type design to be done with an ePUB. When the user can make the font any one of the standard fonts they like, and make the letters bigger or smaller on the screen, and change the background and type color, that’s great for consuming text. It isn’t quite the same as reading a book like this:

jane eyre chapter 1 Fritz-Eichenberg-Jane-Eyre-Title-Page

 

The 1943 Random House edition of Jane Eyre with woodcut illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg is “book plus,” just as every illustrated children’s book is “book plus.” I always give this book as an example because it and its companion volume, Wuthering Heights, belonged to my mother — but they literally formed my life, along with the N.C. Wyeth illustrated editions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s books like Kidnapped and Treasure Island.

When I asked Kirbi Fagan if she would like to work with me on illustrations for Like Fire, she immediately understood and made the characters come alive. Working as a team, here is the result:

Keile Bern by Kirbi FaganHull Krystofferson the Ice Rooster by Kirbi Asta_Kirbi_Fagan Broos_Kirbi Fagan Meria by Kirbi FaganLike Fire is not published, and it may never be.

I crossed a line — fully-crossed this April — where I realized that what was needed, was to combine the old with the new: really, a mini-version of these pictures and this illustration and collaborative work process.

Are writers paid horribly? Yes. So are illustrators and book designers. One well-known artist friend of mine has stopped working for a famous publication because not only were their requirements so stringent he felt it downgraded his creativity, they paid too little to make his work worthwhile.

Kirbi is young: there is no telling what fantastic, beautiful, evocative art she will make down the road, what stories she will help to come alive, what young readers’ minds she will help to activate, what imaginations she will inspire.

I wrote what I wrote about the “Author Earnings Report” based on talking to aspiring writers (and some not-so aspiring – people with published books, and more than one) at the Los Angeles Writers Conference last weekend. I didn’t care for the out-there attacks on Ursula Le Guin, because they seemed a-creative to me: ugly, negative, disrespectful and almost enthusiastically uncultured. I realized when talking to aspiring writers that there is so much misinformation and disinformation out there about the industry. Financially, even the most-successful, most-famous writer, if they are agented and with an established trade publisher, will be giving up money they can probably better-earn by selling their work directly — at least in e-book form.

Trade publishers may or may not market a writer’s work effectively to the current reading audience. Only the writer will be able to go beyond that set audience if happy circumstances intervene.  As to the work between writers, editors, designers, artists and book formatters that is the subject of this post, writers with established trade publishers are siloed from that, for the most part. Over the years, the siloing has taken the form of ongoing jokes about the wrong gender of character being on a book cover, or aliens and ray guns appearing on a traditional fantasy book.

As to self-publishing, doing it well takes time, money and resources. The argument is made that “anybody” can publish their own book and that is certainly true. These posts aren’t for the person who is happy just seeing their work out in public. Our writer survey showed that a pretty big percentage of current writers don’t want to work as part of a creative team, and some don’t want audience feedback at all. The majority were willing to listen to feedback after they’d finished a book, not before starting it, or as they were working. So that isn’t adding to the discourse, as Alan Rodgers famously used to ask other writers — including multiply-published ones (risking fistfights in the process).

growth in retail spendWe think this statistic is worth thinking about and paying attention to.

And this one:

 

 

 

The Problem With BooksThe problem with rotating around a small, limited market and basing your work and priorities on what that group has read or liked in the past is that whomever reads the new work that’s published will be that group-minus, not that group-plus.

Author Lisa Genova, previously mentioned, was successful in her area because there hadn’t been well-written books before about individuals or families struggling to cope with Alzheimers disease, and that group is growing, not declining. Lisa, I think, grew readership in a certain sense, because she came up with something new. I can tell readers right now why she had to do her path to publication her way: Still Alice is about a 50-year old woman, and even as I type, that’s going to be a small minority of books even considered by top agents, much less editorial boards (we are going to skip acquiring editors since this past weekend a truth was told to conference attendees — acquiring editors can always say “no” but they can never on their own, say “yes”).

A few months ago, I received some cool manuscripts from a talented writer. The very first one opened with a chapter about an 80 year old woman. The story skipped back in time and she wasn’t always 80 throughout the entire book, but as it started: yeah — 80. “You will not get this read in New York, much less published,” I had to sadly tell the writer.

Everything that’s rotating around the Kindle stack right now is based on what has been previously published and successful in the past, and those things were selected based in uncertain, unknown criteria — primarily personal taste or “commonly-held wisdom.” PLUS the books suffer from the KF8 restricted format, PLUS the only ones that have a chance of doing well will have at least two of these criteria: professional editing and proofreading, paid advertising, established publicity channels, professional cover and formatting.

A person who has to work to support a family, and who doesn’t have a lot of resources to pay for those things, isn’t going to be able to get all that done. That miracle isn’t any likelier to happen through self-publishing than it is through the person making it through the agent-acquiring editor-editorial board pipeline at a trade publisher.

No established trade publisher would do Is SHE Available? and even if they did, it wouldn’t be good because he would have been siloed off and the art and design handed to someone who’d likely never speak to him; sales might have some input but since they are almost always at war with editorial, it probably wouldn’t be helpful. It’s not only Igor’s book, it’s Igor’s life and it’s a direct transmission from the Igorverse. Igor is a first-time poet and author. He just happened to be good friends with all the people whose work went into the book. And us, at Chameleon.

 

New Writers: This is What’s Going on With “Author Earnings Report”

We wrote about how Barnes & Noble is a lonely, frightening place for a young book: and it is. Any retail consultant would be appalled by what goes on in most B & N stores. Crowded aisles, merchandise on the floor, dusty shelves, merchandise used as decoration, uninspiring displays, and we did not even go into the stockroom, where we have heard some book shipments are simply stored until it’s time to return the unopened boxes. Those books (midlist, usually) aren’t ever even shelved since clerks don’t think any customers will want them. That’s some broken sales pipeline. Much like the troubled businesses on Bar Rescue, Restaurant: Impossible, The Profit and the late, lamented Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares: nothing about the business itself could possibly contribute to flat or declining sales and profit. Barnes & Noble is in trouble because “no one reads any longer” and “young people don’t read” and a million other excuses.

So, a lot of people who love reading and writing think Amazon is the solution. The Amazon Kindle is an amazing device, and I personally use it extensively: I am right in the middle of that device’s sweet spot demographic. I’m a college-educated woman who appreciates the ability to make the e-book type any size and shape I like. I know how to quickly find books I’m interested in.

When we first started our four-part series on the Business of Books, responding to our first market validation survey (among writers), we caught some blowback because we supported Ursula Le Guin’s contention that Amazon’s system is causing a problem for books and readership by focusing on quick-selling, short-term books.

The blowback was from Hugh Howey adherents and enthusiasts. We were informed we should look at Author Earnings Report to find out what was really going on with books and readers. Some commenters suggested we were not aware of such options as Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or quality print on demand options like Amazon’s CreateSpace. Those were the nice folks. The other ones were getting a kick out of slagging on a National Book Award winner (Ursula Le Guin) and calling me names. author earnings report

So, here’s the deal, new writers. To you, this report means exactly nothing. This is heat, light, smoke, almost totally wasted time and effort. It covers Amazon Kindle book sales and nothing else. It covers pricing information and what it presents is pretty dubious. The report has simply proven that non-traditionally published e-books sell in the Kindle format on the Kindle device. It refers to a “shadow industry” of books without ISBNs – i.e. books with ASINs only, the Kindle identifier. Similarly, books can be sold via Smashwords without an ISBN.

About two years ago we started our business with a cookie analogy, because the value of a book isn’t its sales price, nor is it even its total volume sales. We talked about how there were various qualities associated with cookies that food manufacturers used to develop, test and market them. This concept inspired Chameleon’s “bookfeel” elements to be used in book marketing, development (YES WRITING AND EDITING AND PRODUCTION) and sales/promotion.

With recent developments in Amazon’s pricing and payment structure (Kindle Unlimited, payment per amount of book read) and today’s announcement that the book subscription service Scribd is eliminating 80 to 90 percent of its romance titles because romance readers were downloading and reading “too much” to make it economically feasible, new writers might be inspired to think they need to work even harder, and market their books even more, to be a success. “Oh, my gosh,” some writers may think. “What if Amazon decides to give only 5% royalties? What if they decide to pay only if the person finishes the book and gives a good review?”

When people talk about the large share of the book market that Amazon has, they are referring to their print sales plus their e-book sales. No one really knows what Amazon’s aggregate total really represents in terms of market share, except the overall trade publishing industry is a $27 billion industry in the U.S. and we recently determined that Amazon’s maximum revenue for books was about $7 billion last year and we’re being very generous about it: 26% of the market. That is a whole lot. But if e-books just overtook the paper book sales via Amazon less than a year ago (they did), that’s 13% of the book buying market — and that is stretching it.

If I deal with the numbers that “Author Earnings Report” is trying to use to represent the market opportunity for indy-published writers, I’ll just extrapolate the “1 day earnings” for indy-published writers it estimates for May 1 sales: $1.1 million USD x 365 days = $401.5 million. That is 1.4% of the total market. Amazon’s practices mean little good news for Amazon-only authors, that’s for certain. And Amazon does not seem to be growing readership.

It’s about who can and does buy books on the Kindle. I am too cheap to download this report. But it indicates that the same market research firm (Simba) that correctly projected slowing growth in e-book sales in general in 2012 also showed that Kindle users are older (55+), female (55%) and that there are very few – 2.3% – younger Kindle owners and users. kindle users by age

In contrast, tablet ownership is broadening, with over 34 percent of Americans owning or using a tablet computer. The Kindle Fire is counted among tablets, but its demographics do not match overall tablet ownership and usage.

All you have to do is walk into any tech/electronics store like Best Buy or mobile provider store like ATT or Verizon and talk to customer service reps about who is buying what. The Kindle Fire, despite all of Amazon’s efforts, isn’t being adopted at the high rate of Apple, Samsung or other products. Marcus Lemonis, the Profit, could easily tell you why; and Amazon’s policies regarding its book content and acquisition aren’t going to help the situation much. Right now, the Kindle is a tablet, but it didn’t start out that way and Amazon’s business was built on getting books — paper books — into the hands of 1995’s readers. Now it’s 2015.

People don’t read books much on tablets so far (overall), but they are starting to do it more and more. Students definitely want textbooks and resources on their mobile devices. They do, consistently, when questioned, say they prefer paper books.

E-readers basically make it easier for older folks such as me to read. When I got my Kindle, I found myself reading more: for practical reasons! But for reasons of information and quality, I do turn to paper books. Or, I download books that I also have in paper form.

That’s because a book isn’t just text dumped onto a screen. People who think it’s cool to make fun of and insult a National Book Award winner, and who think there’s much, if any, benefit in the extensive, ongoing, repetitive “Author Earnings Report” probably aren’t going to understand that.

The Kindle serves people who already liked to read before they got one and who were a particular type of book buyer and reader. It’s a secondary, downstream device and market. It will never be an upstream, introductory device and market unless it changes a vast number of things about how it acquires content.

Let’s try another analogy. Many people hate WalMart for a variety of reasons, but it remains the world’s largest retailer. WalMart is notorious for squeezing its vendors in a way that makes its employee policies look like the best in the world. As one example, Hormel was forced to sell some of its cured meats to WalMart at less than cost so it would not have all Hormel products taken off their shelves. This doesn’t make for a better ham. Customers are not better served by having NO ham or substandard ham — and in the long run, neither is WalMart. About 3.5% of WalMart’s sales were from books in 2014.

We’d Like Author Earnings Readers to Pay Particular Attention to:

Given WalMart’s reported $288 billion in US sales in 2014, 3.5% of that is $10.8 billion. Smart people reading here might be surprised this cash total is more than half the revenue done by their games and electronics departments: considering the price differences, this means they are selling a lot of books. This statistic alone provides somewhat of an indication of the problem in wrapping one’s head around the total book market. Barnes & Noble reported year-end sales of $6.7 billion in January 2015, which is probably similar to Amazon’s total (again, Amazon’s figures are so siloed, firewalled and distorted it’s very difficult to get a strong picture). These are some of WalMart’s current books and they absolutely do the same type of discounting and murderous vendor activities common with their food, furnishings and electronics suppliers ($5.31 for Chris Kyle’s American Sniper trade paperback). Walmart Books  

And a final word to Author Earnings Readers . . .

Boy is there a misunderstanding about “profits” and “earnings.” Trade publishers do well to run a 2% profit. Author Earnings readers might think “gee this is terrible.” They’re reading nonsense following statements like “protecting the paper book trade will not help publishers.” Nonsense like this:

  • Reduced publisher profits (only 20 cents of profit on each dollar versus 52.5 cents on ebooks). <– which publishers would that be? None of those we comped; I wonder why Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House and Macmillan didn’t report that type of profit to their shareholders! I’m thinking only medical and specialty publishers might be able to report such figures.
  •  Reduced author earnings (only 8-15 cents of each dollar goes to the author versus 17.5 cents on ebooks). <– nah, well, it’s really more like 3-7 cents overall, Author Earnings Report, which you’d know if you could read financial statements.

Now, let’s just say you’re a (formerly) self-published author like Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice and other bestselling books. Lisa herself reported that she paid $40,000 to publicize Still Alice prior to signing with Simon & Schuster to conventionally publish the book. There are now more than 2 million copies in print; it has been translated into 31 languages. Lisa, a Harvard Neuroscience Ph.D. is an expert in Alzheimers disease and other cognitive disorders. In addition to the time spent writing and the money she paid for editing and book production,  she initially sold the book directly to people in the Alzheimer community. When accumulated interest and in-person direct sales combined with Lisa’s expertise and the high-quality nature of the book itself, she initiated her relationship with Simon & Schuster, enabling her to publish additional bestselling books. I doubt that Lisa realized any profit per book when her time, efforts, direct funds paid for editing and that $40,000 PR payment were accounted for. Say what you like about publishers like Simon & Schuster: they made it possible for the 2.1 million copies to be in print, and for the book to be translated into 31 languages.

When we started out, we audited and analyzed a number of self-published bestsellers and successes. Most of these authors and books went on to achieve traditionally-published success, and Still Alice was one of them. Each of the books and authors fit into the “bookfeel” criteria that we were simultaneously developing. Another hallmark of these books and authors was the connection with readers. 50 Shades of Gray, for example, wasn’t just a “self-published” (paperback – small press) book. It started out as an online serial told to a huge Twilight fan community. Publicity being what it is, there are some reports that 50 Shades‘ series has outsold Twilight, but that’s probably unlikely. Even though Christian Grey’s story is now the #1 bestseller, Twilight overall is likely the more successful series. Both series satisfy their readers in the basics: plot, characters, pacing, “intellectual content.” And in particular, 50 Shades stands out because it had numerous readers suggesting improvements and giving feedback at every step of the way. So right now as it stands, even though it feels as though the entire situation consists of established trade publishers exploiting authors who had already done all the hard work of building an audience and interacting with readers, that’s not precisely the case.

What needs to happen is there to be a stronger way to include successful practices in the larger publishing industry: especially a connection with audience and reader. E.L. James was really into the Twilight fan community and had that connection right off. Lisa Genova is a Harvard neuroscientist who knew people affected by Alzheimers and who was committed to the community of families and individuals impacted by the devastating disease: she wrote Still Alice for them. Lifelong “space nerd” Andy Weir was devoted to all things space before he wrote The Martian.

I’m sorry to say, Author Earnings Readers: nobody ever did anything good based in insulting a National Book Award winner. It really is about what goes between the covers of a book or on a screen and those things are not best-made by individuals working alone, in isolation. There’s nothing easy or miraculous about it. It’s hard. If you can interact with readers as you write, if you have the funds to pay for professional editing and book design, and you can bankroll a print run and distribution, and you can pay for sales teams and work with all the vendors, then there ya go: instant book success. If you have the sense not to denigrate a great, fine author for no reason, then this has to help as well, as writing is about communication and respect for the reader.

* * * * XTRA * * * *

may-2015-stackedbarI used this chart to work with the “indy-published author earnings” one-day figure, to give it some context in terms of all books sold. Then I thought, “You know what . . . that just doesn’t . . .”

A lot of people have written VOLUMES about this report and people go over it like crazy. But I’m going to go with what it says and accept these figures here as they stand. If this is “55% of all Amazon e-book sales” on this one day, May 1, and I multiply the total on the chart by 365, then I get: $19.345 billion.

Go to this page: Amazon.com Investor Relations. Download the 2014 Year End Report. Go to page 27. Read the number directly under “2014” at the top of the chart representing North American media sales. It says “11,567.”  That means $11,567 million ($11.57 billion) for all media sales (e-books, movies, music, downloads, everything). It is quite unlikely that “55% of all e-book sales” would be almost twice as much as the company reports selling to its shareholders. So either May 1 was a monster, banner day for sales or.

Well, you know. You’re going to get rich tomorrow, selling your books on Kindle and insulting Ursula LeGuin.