Chocolate and Vodka talks about Dunning-Kruger effect and publishing

There is so much wisdom at Chocolate and Vodka (both in pro-self publishing and in surveying why the quality of self publishing will always suffer due to the Dunning-Kruger effect) that I just want you to rush over and read, and then read all the other posts around there. I spent an hour poking around and then followed the author on twitter because I want to subscribe to the newsletter!

“So, according to Dunning and Kruger, in order to combat the massive shit volcano, we would need to train every self-publisher who produces shit, and hope that they realise that they aren’t as good as they think they are and need to try a bit harder. Well, good luck with that one.

Now, it’s true that not every self-published author is on the wrong side of Dunning-Kruger. Some are on the only slightly less wrong side: Good writers whose confidence is shot because they understand that they could be better, and are over-sensitive to the gap between the quality of the work they do produce and the quality they want to achieve. Those people are better than they think they are and will publish less than they should.”

(Via Why the self-publishing shit volcano isn’t going to stop erupting any time soon | Chocolate and Vodka.)

It’s all algebra… or something

C.E. Murphy talks some math about why she won’t be continuing a series:

“I have some things to report about the Inheritors’ Cycle.

Not irregularly, people ask me if I’ll be doing more of them. I’ve been seriously considering pursuing that, but I just got royalty statements on them, and it’s clear that unless I could be absolutely certain of getting the books into bookstores, it would be a waste of my time. THE QUEEN’S BASTARD has sold about 1800 copies in e-book and THE PRETENDER’S CROWN has sold about 1000. Assuming that at the best I’d match TPC’s e-sales, I’d be looking at maybe $6K in income, all of which would be eaten by cover art and editorial costs. Not worth it.

‘But Kickstarter!’ people say, which, yes, but perks! rewards! etc! are costly and it kind of appears from royalty statements that in e-book terms, the people who might support an Inheritors’ Cycle Kickstarter (ie, the ones who are aware of my internet presence and pay attention to it) are very possibly the ones who might also buy the e-book, which means I wouldn’t even have as many as 1K sales to count on.”

(Via The Essential Kit | Inheritors’ Cycle update – The Essential Kit.)

Man, this is something I was hammering at the last convention I was at. The equations of each project differ, even sometimes from project to project with the same author. Focusing on Kickstarter, or 70% royalty, obscures the question: which method makes me the most.

In some cases, it might be one way, in some another.

I mentioned that, in the modern marketplace, the money offered to me for short story collections is way less than what I can do via self publishing and Kickstarter for a collection. But for novels, the other distribution method is more lucrative.

The equation is that there is a mix of Royalty times Price of product times Size of your individual buyer pool. Let’s call the equation: R times Pop times Pool.

So while a larger publisher might increase the price of the product, if the buyer pool that they give you access to (via shelves, stores) increases sales, it can offset and beat the lower royalty.

I’ve seen writers do well in moving series to direct publishing. I’ve seen writers make almost nothing and leave confused.

The best way to get an idea for what leverage (if any) the different methods give you is to be a hybrid: experimenting with methods so that you have an idea of how the personal equation works for you.

Do we need to reinvent pulp? I’m not so sure

In referencing my post about survivorship bias, a long essay about how eBooks could be the new pulp. More comments below.

“So, what’s the big deal about Pulp? Why should Ebooks aspire to that?

Right now E-books are the new Dime Novels. In the late 1800′s, on the back of new publishing technologies and the rise of mass literacy, there was a ‘Publishing Revolution’ (actually several) in the form commonly called Dime Novels. The name came from the first series, Beadle’s Dime Novels, establishing the norms of the format: 100 page paperbacks, roughly 6½’ by 4¼’, lurid adventure tales with breathless titles.”

(Via Ebooks need to re-invent Pulp! | Voices on the Square.)

Yeah, the biggest issue I see with this is a comment referenced but not truly appreciated in that blog post, which is that pulp serials were ‘like the TV’ of their day.

While I think eBooks are going to create a new low-cost market (and have, really), the evidence is more that they’re eating up the cheap paperback of the 70s and thereabouts, than pulp.

Pulp was ‘like the TV’ of the day.

Only, we *have* TV today.

And videogames.

Reading is not a dominant entertainment activity. Which is why any reading today is never going to exactly mirror reading of the past. This is the hiccup with paying too close attention to models of the past. The ecosystem has changed.

That isn’t to say that I think serials or shorter books aren’t a good thing. I’d like to see more of a realization that novellas are a compelling read and John Scalzi just showed us the potential impact of serials.

Addendum, both Bruce and Philip Brewer think I miss the point. Their comments here and here.

In an email to Philip I wrote:

What I think you both miss is that it’s beside the point. It’s next to impossible to get the investment needed to replicate that model because fewer people read as primary entertainment to such a level that a structure can develop around ‘new pulp’ that can replicate any of that.

Most of the ‘new pulp’ and directions we are going are leaner. More freelance, more picking up editor or copy editor as fellow freelancer as needed, more author central.

All the things you’re focusing on are replicated in TV and video game media. Team-centric, highly collaborative, heavily invested in. I don’t see signs of that coming back into print, it’s going the other direction with text.

and:

Are there technological effects that can come out of this? Yeah, I see teams that form around a single book that everyone is passionate about forming. I see more communities forming. There are opportunities. But pulp got its benefits from scale, fewer channels, lack of competition from other media, and we’re in a rapidly nichifying, high media competition environment. I really don’t think looking towards its structure as beneficial, though I do like the form factor of smaller, leaner novels and the return of the novella, which I’m investing in myself.

But Crowdfunding, building your own list serv of passionate fans, using single-project technologies to gather and create art together, then disband, etc etc, which are becoming the needle of our new secondary industry here, these don’t map very well to pulp as far as I can tell.

5 things that I expect (or at least hope) will change in publishing

As a hybrid author I’ve often expressed my fears of Amazon and its use of its large size. I’ve encouraged people to sell eBooks direct on their site. I’ve lauded Kickstarter as a way to balance the eBook channels. It’s led some to claim I’m a print cheerleader, but I’m actually just interested in forward looking disaster mitigation.

That being said, watching the changes in publishing come down the pike, I do think there are a few things, well, actually five, that print publishing (or competitors popping up to replace it) will need to focus on to keep hybrid authors interested:

1. Monthly royalties

Publishing is set up on a six month system. It does this to simplify accounting, of course. There is also the fact that books take time to go out to bookstores and then come back. It takes time to sort out what all has happened. There is a lot of invested infrastructure aimed at catering to that system. It was how you made business for a hundred years, it’s not surprising.

However, monthly payouts are a big deal. For budgeting and planning, it is really, really helpful for writers to see more constant payouts.

Also, it’s tough to put in a ton of work in one month, and then never see the fruits of your labor for (at times) a year down the road.

Monthly payouts would help writers move from the famine/sudden-lump-system that swings this way and that.

I doubt publishers will move the print component over to this, but a parallel track of paying out your digital royalties makes sense, even if it involves work up front. If you want to keep your authors, it’ll have to happen because the alternative is just too interesting (half the reason many hybrid authors are attracted to digital direct sales via Amazon KDP/Nook Press/iTunes Bookstore is monthly compensation for monthly activity. We also live in a world where Kickstarter pays out the same month it funds. Our expectations may not be fair, but they’re there now, for better or worse).

Also, digital royalties have no reserve against returns (the returns system is a system where in books are given to bookstores at a credit, and are returnable. You can imagine the accounting headache) so the money doesn’t need to be held in case bookstores suddenly return a tranche of unsold books. The money is there.

2. Stepped digital royalties

In my contracts for paper, on hardcover, they stipulate if I sell X number of hardcovers I get a certain rate. After I sell X, the percentage goes up (because the house has recouped investment, and we’re sharing more of the royalties). Some step clauses can get pretty high and be very lucrative, the idea being that after expenses are recouped everyone can enjoy a good deal.

Sadly, legal and administrative people in large corporate publishing companies have decided to fight that for digital royalties and only a few high profile authors are getting steps in their digital clauses.

This is one, however, that will be fought. Why? I recently have seen some contracts going to authors that specify that the publisher gets to keep the book as long as it sells a few hundred digital copies every six months (which is easy to do, drop the price temporarily to 99 cents, sell your few hundred, then pull the price back up and you own the author’s rights for another few years of the contracted period). That means some people who are selling books, if the company is un-ethical, are entering into a very long term relationship indeed (if you assume the worst, which is never a bad thing, it could be for life). So what is the value of your digital rights over a lifetime?

If hardcover rights can be stepped, why not digital?

If the publisher has figured out how many books equal recouping costs, and steps the clause after that, contracts will look a lot fairer.

3. Sharing data

When Amazon announced that they’d be sharing BookScan data I saw a lot of publishing insiders I know and love shaking their heads and saying ‘that’ll drive authors crazy.’

Trust me, I know authors are crazy. I’m one. And I know a lot of them. We can be neurotic, twitchy, and overly imaginative. Creatives aren’t encouraged by society to be business-oriented.

But we writers are running small businesses. When the creative cap is off, the business needs to come on. And part of the reason writers are a pain in the ass on the publisher side is that we’re actually coming in ignorant, in the dark, worried about validation, and very very nervous.

As a result, we’re fire walled off so that we don’t cause too much damage.

Boy do I understand the impulse. I’ve seen some spectacular author idiocies in my time. I know how wearying it would be on the other side to deal with neurotics asking questions all the time.

But, part of that is the opaqueness of a process that isn’t made transparent.

Share the data, and the process openly, provide FAQs and upfront information about the hows and whys, and I’m betting you’ll have a less neurotic author.

We didn’t all fall apart when we got free access via Amazon to our Bookscan results. A lot of questions were asked up front, but over time wisdom was imparted, and know there are more knowledgable authors. We’d traded up obsessing about Amazon ranks for obsessing about Bookscan results (we’re going to obsess about something, it might as well be real figures).

This is helpful because it allows authors to see the impact of various efforts to promote books (if at all). If things are successful, both being rewarded faster (monthly payouts) and seeing the data confirm it, more authors will be able to tweak their outreach strategies as well. This benefits everyone. The upside is that it can show authors what works and what doesn’t (they won’t have to take someone’s word for it) and might allow some authors to figure out some stuff that maybe wasn’t obvious to anyone else.

Addendum: the genesis for this point came from the fact that Random House has done this for their authors, and the system is pretty cool (not all the way there yet, but certainly useful!).

4. Different out of print clauses

I’ve seen contracts recently that define out of print as something like the following: if the book has been out a few years, and sells less than $100 worth of royalties for the author in all types (print and digital), for a few publishing periods (each period being that 6 month stretch publishing works on), then the author can ping the publisher, and the publisher has X amount of time to try and raise sales.

As far as I can tell, this is one of the more troubling developments in the last two to three years in ‘traditional’ publishing. While self publish-only people talk about other things, this should be the item they laser in on. Because what this allows is a situation where authors are basically giving their intellectual property to a company forever.

In the past, once the book ‘went out of print,’ a clause like this worked and was fair to both parties. If the book stopped selling, and the print versions all faded away, this clause meant that after a year of it not selling the writer could ask for the rights back. The publisher could take a look at the title, decide whether to invest in a new printing (a not insignificant burst of activity and money), or whether to let it go.

But with the new reality, it’s hella easy for the publisher to print on demand enough copies to keep the book out there. It’s even easier for it to drop the price on the book to 99 cents for a temporary sale. That juices the copies sold up to the minimum, they keep the rights. I sell my own ebooks direct, so I can see how easy it would be to do this.

Have I seen this happening? No, right now publishers seem to be dropping projects back to authors when they realize things aren’t working out.

But the fact that lawyers are working so damn hard to put this in there is chilling as hell. It’s not happening that publishing companies are squatting on IP, as far as I can tell in my own experience, but with these new contracts the *mechanism* is there.

I expect to see agents fighting to increase that minimum way up, or putting in a clause that says firesales on the intellectual property negate the X dollars in royalties per period out of print clause.

Alternatively, I admire that in Europe there are time term limits placed on the agreement, to allow the author to get out after five or seven years. American contracts really need that.

I’ve already had one hybrid author express to me a desire to stop selling paper rights in the US as a result of this clause and to begin by selling their work internationally only in print, and handle the ebook themselves in the US.

5. Better project management integration

Cory Doctorow wings this point in a recent article:

Many of these publishers are separate divisions of the same company, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that none of the different departments are coordinating with one another. Most contemporary sales, marketing, and PR organizations outside of publishing use some kind of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to coordinate their activities. Fundamentally, these are just databases that record all the different interactions that the company has with the people with whom it does business.

That being said, I don’t think Cory goes far enough. He’s focused on the publicity side, I think an entire system that lets anyone in publishing assigned to that book check in on a book’s project management status would be killer.

Think of a system that holds not just the PR stuff Cory is talking about, but information about the book as it’s being developed so that we solve some of the neurotic author issues. A place where the book as it exists can be read by publishing people in house to get excited about it. Where editorial, art, marketing and sales have appended comments to the cover that the author can see (oh, that’s why they’re changing this, or like this, or hate this). Yes, it’s annoying to have other people in and commenting, but with designated project leaders, it’s okay. It’s done in other orbs. The book’s details (expected pub date, author turn in date) are all on there.

As the book is being developed, there’s one central location for author to add ‘don’t forget reviewer X’ and email updates that flag everyone assigned to the book.

Yeah, hi publishing experts, I know it’s a naive thing to expect existing infrastructure to do these things because the existing systems already move along a path of their own. But someone will design it, and it will be a major feature for attracting authors away.

Addendum: for a glimpse of how some groups are doing this now, take a look at Booktrope.

Besides, this was 5 things I expect (hope) will change, not 5 things I know will change!

Interestingly, pieces of each of these 5 things are things that I’m seeing independently start to form up at smaller publishing venues (two of the contractual issues I’ve spotted have been addressed by some smaller publishers, so while not widespread, I find it intriguing that some nimble minds are seeing it as a way to attract authors. We can’t offer you money, but we can offer you fair contracts/monthly payouts, or digital royalties that escalate once we’ve recovered our losses).

Addendum: By the way, point #2, if adopted, probably solves #4, it occurs to me…

HarperCollins’ digital-first mystery imprint offers monthly royalty payments — paidContent

Amazon Publishing switched to offering this. Now HarperCollins:

“In another move to compete with Amazon, HarperCollins announced that as of August 1, authors who sign with Impulse will receive monthly royalties. ‘There is a true financial benefit to signing with our Impulse imprints,’ said Liate Stehlik, SVP and publisher of William Morrow. Amazon Publishing recently started offering monthly royalty payments to its authors.”

(Via HarperCollins to launch digital-first mystery imprint, with monthly royalty payments — paidContent.)

There are handful of things I expect to see change in order to properly compete with the benefits that the new distribution system is offering, this is one of them.

Cory Doctorow on improving book publicity

Cory is wise, here:

“Many of these publishers are separate divisions of the same company, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that none of the different departments are coordinating with one another. Most contemporary sales, marketing, and PR organizations outside of publishing use some kind of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to coordinate their activities. Fundamentally, these are just databases that record all the different interactions that the company has with the people with whom it does business.”

(Via Locus Online Perspectives » Cory Doctorow: Improving Book Publicity in the 21st Century.)

The number of writers I know who are told to not share their covers on their blog because it’s being kept secret for a big reveal, who then see it on Amazon and link to it, who then get yelled at, is actually depressingly high.

Among other things I overhear that demonstrate left hands not talking to the right…

Nook Press announced

I find the collaborative features interesting, but that’s assuming I would use Nook for my primary book creation process. I’m going to have to look to see what kind of ePub quality it makes, and whether I can take them with me once made easily.

Seriously though, it seems they might want to focus more on making the readers happy with features. I still can’t find half the titles I know exist by just typing the title into the search bar at BN.com.

That’s kinda a bigger deal, guys.

“NEW! One-stop Publishing Solution: Write, edit, format and publish your eBooks in our web-based platform, instantly reaching millions of NOOK customers within 72 hours.

NEW! Easy ePub Creation and Editing: Upload your manuscript file and make changes directly in NOOK Press. Editing and previewing in one session saves you time and effort.

NEW! Integrated Collaboration: Collaborate with editors, copyeditors, and friends, allowing them to review and comment on your manuscript without ever leaving NOOK Press.”

(Via nook press™.)

Addendum: you know what, I look at something like Pressbooks here and wonder why B&N just doesn’t buy them or engage in some coopetition with them instead of just doing something that can already be done pretty well elsewhere.

What best route to publishing?

Chuck Wendig, as usual, brings the wisdom down on us hard:

“We’re possibly on the cusp of a golden age for writers. We have so many paths up the mountain. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s cheerlead not one option but all the options — and let’s embrace the fact that each path has strengths and weaknesses that’ll suit some authors and repel others. We don’t need to shut down or shout down options. We don’t need to suggest one way is superior. Or that others should feel inferior for their choices.”

(Via “Indie First?” What Is Best In Publishing? « terribleminds: chuck wendig.)

Self publishers: Read the Taleist Survey

So some self publisher wrote on Slate that he didn’t make shit off his attempt to self publish a book. For a rebuttal, Hugh Howey came in to say the opposite.

This has ignited the usual firestorm.

The KDP forums read like a cross between a big tent revival and villagers getting pitchforks out.

I’m a huge fan of data, so here’s what I recommend. Either direction, get your hands on data.

Here’s the Taleist. They did a survey of 1,000 and actually got some decent data. Buy it, read it. Notice the title: Not a Gold Rush.

No matter what direction you chose, try to avoid cult-like belief and mentalities, you’ll be okay. Follow data. Avoid anecdotes. Work on being a better writer.

“What the top earning self-publishers have in common
What marketing seems to be working
How much the average self-publisher is earning in royalties
What types of outside assistance really make a difference”

(Via Self-Publishing Report: The Taleist Survey – Not a Gold Rush.)

And again, I think Chuck Wendig has the right of it:

Hey, self-publishing is cool!

Traditional publishing is cool, too!

Both have strengths. And also weaknesses.

Not everybody is fit to be their own publisher.

Not everyone is fit to deal with a traditional publisher.

Something-something Kickstarter! And Amazon! And literary agents! And small presses! And big presses! And this genre and that genre! And Wattpad and Book Country and Goodreads and Bookish and Twitter and iBooks and Smashwords and Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble and blargh and flargh and zippity-motherfucking-doo-dah!

The reason we don’t put all our eggs in one basket is because broken goddamn eggs!

Amazon developing a cover creation tool

A smart move on their part, there are some truly horrendous self-made covers in the mix out there:

“Amazon is developing a cover creation tool for its Kindle Direct Publishing self-publishing platform, dubbed KDP Cover Creator. The tool is currently being tested by a limited number of KDP authors but the company expects to roll it out to all its KDP authors soon, an Amazon spokesperson told Digital Book World.”

(Via Amazon to Launch Cover Creating Tool for Self-Published Ebooks, KDP Cover Creator | Digital Book World.)