Month: May 2014

Amazon vs. Hachette: Future of Publishing

You may have heard of the ongoing contract struggle between Amazon and Hachette, one of the big four publishers left after a decade of consolidation in the industry. Amazon has been a big factor in disrupting the business of getting books to readers, after the previous decade saw big-box booksellers undercutting and eliminating a lot of independent bookstores. While I know many people are nostalgic for the small bookstore experience — browsing, serendipitous discovery, personal recommendations — the digitization of books was bound to make that a niche experience. Like most people over thirty, I grew up reading books from the library and the few bookstores in my area; this limited what I could read to what had passed a series of gatekeepers, so while the selection was good in quality it was also homogenized to reach larger audiences and limited in amount.

With ebooks you will see a variety of changes as the written word is freed from some of the strictures of conventional publishing. For example, the economies of scale of paperback marketing, printing and shipping meant there was little profit to be made from short books, so the standard size of a paperback novel rose from 200-300 pages to 400-600 pages, as publishers pressured authors to write longer to increase profit margins. With ebooks, there is much less friction for smaller works, so novels will tend to be less padded and epics less dominant. Amazon has even introduced Kindle Singles, novellas or even short stories and short nonfiction at their natural length and priced appropriately. The legacy publishing industry had abandoned these forms, with only magazines left to print them and in increasingly limited quantities and lower payments for authors. So many established authors are unearthing earlier work considered “uncommercial” and releasing it in this form, which benefits everyone.

Legacy publishers provided valuable services in filtering, editing, and marketing author’s work, but in recent years had focused on bestsellers as the economics of publishing what is called “midlist” (steady but small sellers, of less mass-market interest) discouraged them. This was in part due to big box book retailing; when Costco and Target sell more printed books than all but the largest chain, discounted commodity books win, all others lose.

In reaction, publishers are learning to work with successful self-published authors who created their own markets and fan bases. The two most famous examples are the 50 Shades of Grey series and the Wool novels, both cultivated by the authors through online marketing to sales high enough to prove their value to mass-market publishers. Signing with legacy publishers gave these authors more distribution and marketing muscle to reach the half of the population that still only sees books in stores.

Publishers, editors, marketers, and agents are also unbundling services to allow very small and self-publishers access to a la carte services as needed. There’s now a thriving online market in proofreading, editing, layout, cover design, marketing, PR, and negotiation. The sort of homogenized, focus-group-driven blockbusters legacy publishers had focused on will continue to be produced, but there is now a path for long-tail books (which speak to tiny audiences and must therefore have lower costs) to be produced in large numbers. Authors who are read will make as much money as they did from the publishers, and have a freer hand to execute their visions. Of course this also means there will be a lot of hopeful but dreadful authors self-publishing, so the old gatekeeping function of publishing will have to come from independent reviews and word-of-mouth from readers, which means it will take much longer for a new book to become known.

This post was motivated by a post on the Smashwords blog. Smashwords is an ebook distribution platform competing with Amazon, so their view of Amazon as predatory is partly self-interested, but it is a nice discussion of the issues. It is certainly possible Amazon increased author royalties on ebooks to get authors away from publishers, then may squeeze royalities later as their market power increases, but the existence of many alternative platforms like Smashwords should keep that in check. Amazon’s advantages in search and user reviews is very large, though, and it’s clear that if they wanted to they could squeeze authors — but so far they have not.

Press Kit: The Long Bio


Putting together a press kit (which saves time when contacting bookstores and the like.) Converted the short bio used in the book to first person and added some of the colorful details:

I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, child of a schizophrenic father and a hardworking single mother. In high school, I was written up by the local newspaper for my perfect record on math tests. When I was selected for a student question panel for a book tour lecture by Jonas Salk, I asked Dr. Salk why he had written a book of strained analogies and unsupported assertions (Man Unfolding.) I won a variety of awards, including the ACS award for best chemistry student in the city.

I studied astronomy and computer and cognitive science at MIT. My advisor was earth scientist Frank Press, Jimmy Carter’s science advisor at the time. TA’d and wrote exams for Planetary Physics and Chemistry. Studied with Hal Abelson (co-inventor of Logo and Scheme) and wrote a Scheme (Lisp) interpreter for 8080 machines, a notable feat because of memory size limitations. Short-term jobs at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Short-Lived Phenomena and Electromagnetic Launch Research under Henry Kolm, who was revealed much later to have been the intelligence officer who ran Project Paperclip to secretly bring Nazi rocket scientists to the US.

At Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN) Labs, member of the team developing a multiprocessor testbed for AI applications as part of the Strategic Computing Initiative under DARPA. Ray Tomlinson, who chose ‘@’ as the email separator when designing the first internetwork email system, worked down the hall. Wrote Multilisp manual, found multiprocessor garbage collection bugs that no previous machine had seen. Moved to Symbolics and started work on their parallel processor, but but funding setbacks ended that project. After a short stint in grad school, moved to Vancouver, BC, Canada to start a software company.

In Vancouver, started a land development project on a nearby island and subdivided despite fierce political opposition. Gained experience in logging, road-building, and water and sewer systems. On the island’s Water and Waste Subcommittee for the new Community Plan. Stayed five years and became a landed immigrant, but decided to return to the US.

Software work included programs modeling the behavior of simulated stock traders using genetic algorithms and participation in the design work for Apple’s Dylan, a new object-oriented language (scrapped before release.)

Moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to start a family office for a Stanford professor (an old MIT friend) whose company had gone public, making him suddenly wealthy. Managed a large portfolio and timed sales of company stock to diversify. Woke up one morning to see the World Trade Center in flames and the market closed; advised client not to sell when the market reopened. Retired some years later when I faced the choice of starting a much larger hedge fund or starting a new career (again.)

Happily married and retired to Palm Springs now, I write to explain how things really work.

More on Avoidant and Bad Boyfriends:

Game of Thrones and the Problem of Power


[HT to friend Frank Yellin for pointing this out.]

Rolling Stone has a long interview with George R. R. Martin, writer of the Game of Thrones series. I saw him signing books at the World Science Fiction Convention some years back, and he was already a star before HBO turned his series into a mass market hit.

One of the reasons why the series (a riff on the kind of clashes seen between family dynasties in the Middle Ages, set in a kind of fantasy Europe) is popular is its realistic portrayal of both responsible and irresponsible lusts for power, unintended consequences, and the difficulties of governing even for those of noble intentions. Everyone acts out of what they think are their interests, and in keeping with their character, and yet the results are often completely unexpected and tragic.

As Martin comments:

Q: A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.

A: Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.

For more on pop culture:

The Lessons of Walter White
“Blue Valentine”
“Mad Men”
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family

For more on politics and unintended consequences:

Life Is Unfair! The Militant Red Pill Movement
Madmen, Red Pill, and Social Justice Wars
Unrealistic Expectations: Liberal Arts Woman and Amazon Men
Stable is Boring? “Psychology Today” Article on Bad Boyfriends
Mate-Seeking: The Science of Finding Your Best Partner
The “Fairy Tale” Myth: Both False and Destructive
Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)
Culture Wars: Peace Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities Disregarding Facts