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.
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.
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.”
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.”
It’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.
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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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.
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.
So 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.
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).
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.
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.
Both, 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.
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.
This writer wanted to use the contest to judge how interesting his ideas are. To this group.
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.
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 …
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.
So what was on the bestseller list before this misunderstanding of “marketing” took over? Like, 45 years ago?
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.
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.
These 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:
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:
Like 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).
We think this statistic is worth thinking about and paying attention to.
And this one:
The 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.
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.
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.
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).
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 * * * *
I 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.
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.”
So, the result is clearly seen in the revenue earned by writers for their work.
The 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.
Within 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.
“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.
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.
After 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).
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!”
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.