Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

On the Rowling/Galbraith Thing, And Why Publishers Are Still Necessary

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on July 14, 2013

People seem to be reacting with astonishment to the fact that the book that J. K. Rowling published pseudonymously, through a major publisher, which got decent reviews in some newspapers, had only sold 449 copies in hardback in the last three months.

Those people have obviously never written books.

I’ve stopped looking at my Amazon stats, because to see them requires seeing the reviews, and my blood pressure won’t cope with that, but I looked at them regularly for the first eighteen months or so I published books. My books, as those who read them know, appeal only to a very niche market. They range in sales (or did when I last checked, a few months back) from one or two copies a day on average to one or two copies a month on average (I’m talking here about my proper books, not the little ebooks of short stories).

And (again, last I checked) my books were regularly in the top 10% of books sold on Amazon.

Not the top 10% self-published, or the top 10% ebooks, or the top 10% books analysing the music of the Monkees, or whatever — the top 10% books.

That means that on average, most books don’t sell. At all. On any given day, 90% of the books available on Amazon sell zero copies. It’s entirely possible, though I can’t look at anyone else’s stats, that a majority of them have never sold a copy to anyone who isn’t a close friend or relative of the author.

And this is why self-publishing is, ultimately, not a sustainable business model for writers, any more than sticking your albums up on bandcamp or CDBaby is for musicians. And it’s because record companies and publishers aren’t really in the business of selling music or books. The business they’re actually in is using money earned by huge sellers to subsidise those who don’t sell. Almost no writers (or musicians) earn out their advances — but some of those who do make *staggering* amounts of money. And that’s enough to offset the advances paid to the loss-making authors (most of them). And those advances are — for people who sell not all that many more books than I do — enough to live on.

And this is why, for all that I self-publish, I think the current trend of vilifying publishers and record companies as “unnecessary middle-men” is counter-productive (though the record companies don’t exactly make it easy on themselves by insisting on ever-greater monopolistic copyright “rights”). I self-publish because my stuff is *incredibly* niche, and there’s no point in even asking if a major publisher wants to put out something like my Seven Soldiers book.

This is, incidentally, why I’ve set the bar so incredibly low on my current Kickstarter — because the audience for *any* book these days, except huge bestsellers, is tiny, to the extent that if all my Twitter followers were to buy my next book (the Beach Boys one, which should be out in a couple of weeks) in the same week, it’d make the Sunday Times top ten for non-fiction.

The inefficiencies in the publishing system are the only reason that anyone under a very small handful of writers makes a living writing. As those inefficiencies disappear, we’re going to need to find a new way to fund writing, unless we want a world where J K Rowling is the only writer making a living at all.

Anyone have any ideas?

A Pleasant Thought

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 13, 2012

I’ve been battering my head against a couple of bits of fiction I’m writing at the moment, for places other than this blog. Or, should I say, that I’m not writing, even though one of the deadlines is tomorrow. But I’m prevaricating *very hard* on both of them. (Don’t worry, people who asked for them, if you’re reading this. I don’t miss deadlines.)

One of the problems I have with writing fiction is my prose style. I don’t like it. It does the job, but is very Asimovian. My words never sing, there’s no real beauty to them.

This is not, incidentally, a way of persuading other people to tell me “Oh, your prose style is lovely!”. Even had I the turn of phrase of a Wodehouse combined with the clarity of an Orwell, I’m talking about my own reactions to my writing here. And I can see the joins. I’m a reasonably facile imitator of other people’s styles (which is why so much of my fiction is written in the voice of others — first-person narrative is much easier for me than third person, because I can use someone else’s voice) but I have no good style of my own.

And this has been holding me back, because I’ve been thinking “I’m in my 30s now. I’m probably stuck with the style I’ve got. I’ll not get much better.”

But yesterday, the new collection of Terry Pratchett’s short fiction — A Blink Of The Screen — arrived. Now this is, in many ways, a sad event. It’s the sort of collection of ephemera that would normally be published posthumously — it’s very like Douglas Adams’ The Salmon Of Doubt, for example — but given that Pratchett knows he’s living with a terminal illness, it’s come out more prehumously, as a tidying-up of loose ends. (Although it’s important to note that, as Granny Weatherwax would put it, he aten’t dead. This is his fourth book this year, and he’s writing more.)

So it’s a collection of all his post-fame short fiction (much of it very good), along with selections from his pre-fame work.

And the pre-fame work has *exactly* the same problems that my own prose does. From reading this, and from his early novels, it becomes apparent that Pratchett didn’t actually find his voice until he was about 37 or so — even though he was a working, professional, writer from the age of 18 (working as a journalist and press officer). Pratchett’s work from the ages of about twenty-eight to about thirty-five reads *very* like my own work. If anything mine’s slightly better. There’s the same rushed nature, as if he’s desperate to get to the ending, even if the ending isn’t very good. There’s the same sense of reading a couple of good sentences that suddenly land with a thud in a leaden cliche. There’s the same sense of someone who’s read a lot of good writing, and can recognise it, but can’t quite do it yet.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t hold Pratchett up as an example of Great Literature, but the man can *definitely* write now. But his ‘juvenilia’ lasted well into his thirties, while most of the writers I like had their style fully-formed from their early twenties.

So I think maybe there’s hope for me yet. I think I’ll get back to that story now…

One big rule if you’re writing about politics

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on September 21, 2012

There are people supporting every party and none who can make convincing arguments for a point of view, and who it’s worth reading whether you agree with them or not. But I find they are increasingly outnumbered by people who it’s simply not worth reading.

And there is a simple way of telling who they are — they use canned phrases that seem to come from some political party’s central office.

Mostly these seem to come from Labour supporters at the moment (possibly because Labour are the most popular party, possibly because my social circle skews leftwards). Some of these phrases sound reasonable, others definitely don’t, but they include “Conservative-led government”, “savage cuts”, “our NHS”, “most right-wing government in [insert time period]“, “ConDems”. The problem is when those phrases get used by everyone simultaneously.

It’s certainly not confined solely to Labour, though — “Tony Bliar”, “ZaNuLieBore”, “cleaning up Labour’s mess”, “Red Ed, the unions’ man”… these all have the same effect.

If you’re using these insta-cliches, which tend to spread through political twitterers and bloggers like herpes, then to anyone who is unaligned, or does not share your particular alignment, or even who agrees with you but has an aesthetic sense about the use of words, your post will actually be saying to that person “I have not actually thought about this issue myself, rather I have read a press release from the party of my choice, please ignore me.”

If I read someone saying “We must protect our NHS from the effects of the savage cuts brought in by this Conservative-led government, cuts which are too deep and too fast”, then I know that they haven’t actually thought about the issue themselves and there’s no point reading what they have to say.

If, on the other hand, I read someone saying “We need to protect *the* NHS from government cuts, which I think are far deeper than necessary”, I think “this is a person with whom I could have a discussion, and find out which cuts she thinks are most damaging and what we could do about them. It may turn out that she’s wrong, but it may not.”

Likewise, someone saying “The government need to do this because they’re cleaning up ZaNuLieBore’s mess!” gets instantly disregarded. Someone saying “Realistically, if we want the economy to recover, then some things need to be cut, and while it’s bad, better to cut this than let the recession continue” is, again, someone with whom discussion is possible. They may well be someone I disagree with, but I will at least be disagreeing with *her*, not with a press release she glanced at.

Each of these phrases sound focus-group-chosen to be convincing on an emotional level. “OUR NHS” sounds much more important than “THE NHS”, doesn’t it? But after hearing them a thousand times, they’re not. They’re manipulative, and to me at least they have an actively scary, creepy feel to them, like being surrounded by beings that have been mind-controlled by aliens.

But luckily, there’s a very simple rule you can follow, which will allow you to write convincingly and without people looking at you in the expectation that your faceplate will fall off to reveal the robot underneath. It’s this:

Think about what it is you want to say, and what words you can use to say that as clearly as possible.

It’s a simple rule, but one that’s rarely followed by bloggers and twitterers (and, reading through Orwell’s essays, it appears never to have been followed by pamphleteers).

If you’ve thought about something, and you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, and you have chosen the words you think will best express your thoughts — chosen them yourself, not picked phrases that have been handed to you by a third party — then people will, when they read your writing, say “That’s a good point” or “I never thought of that”, or “You’re wrong, here’s why…” — all of which are useful reactions if you’re wanting to convince people of something.

If, on the other hand, you string a bunch of stock phrases together, you may well get five hundred retweets from people who already agree with you, but you’ll never change a single mind, except to possibly make some people who did agree with you before disagree with you in disgust.

(Doctor Who post will be up tonight, nearly a week late…)

Howto: Create a Manuscript in ‘Standard Manuscript Format’ in LyX

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on February 12, 2012

I’m currently in the process of submitting stories to various paying markets, and most of the big SF magazines, while they take email submissions, still want the files to *look* like they came out of a mechanical typewriter ca. 1970 – monospaced font, double-spacing and all.

This is a bit of a pain to do, and Google isn’t much help – if you Google Standard Manuscript Format LyX, what you get is people asking how to do it, and other people ‘helpfully’ responding “you don’t want to do that, LyX’s default is much prettier than that”.

But I’ve eventually found how to do this with a lot of Google-fu, and it turns out there is a simple template for LyX to do this. You will need the SFFMS LaTeX package, which should have installed with your LaTeX distribution, but if you want to check then it’s part of the package texlive-latex-extra in Debian-based GNU/Linux distros (other OSes may vary).

All you need to do then is to visit https://github.com/kcyarn/sffms-LyX-Layouts and download the two files sffms_novel.layout and sffms_short.layout. Copy them to the directory in which LyX stores its layout files (on Debianesque Gnu/Linux distros this will be /usr/share/lyx/layouts , but you can see it in Tools-Preferences-Paths in your copy of LyX).

Then in LyX go to Tools-Reconfigure, and restart LyX once this has finished. Now when you start a new document, go to Document-Settings and in the Document Class dropdown choose either SFFMS (Short Story) or SFFMS (Novel).

Kinks post later tonight or tomorrow morning.

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Nobody Is Stealing Your Book!

Posted in books by Andrew Hickey on November 18, 2011

I’ve been unwell since finishing work yesterday, so I’ve not got anything prepared for the blog today (I still haven’t replied to most of the emails I’ve had since Tuesday for that matter). Since I’m going to be away at Thought Bubble over the weekend, I’ll just post this, about two related but opposite things I see self-publishers doing over and over again.

The first, and most bemusing, is going to ridiculous efforts to lose money. $3 to $5 is a reasonable price for a full-length ebook, most readers are agreed. Certainly Amazon are trying to encourage that price – $3-$10 is the price range they want, and you get the highest royalties at that price.

But a few people noticed that they could sell more books at 99 cents, and that by doing so they’d sell enough more that they could make the difference up. And that worked for a few people. But now everyone’s doing that, except those like myself who’ve realised it no longer works. I can sell a hundred copies of a book at $5 and make $350, or two hundred copies at 99 cents, and make $70. The maths isn’t hard.

So now people have noticed that selling their books for 99 cents doesn’t work, they’re trying to force Amazon to give them away. Amazon have a minimum price of 99 cents, but Smashwords (who distribute to Barnes & Noble, iBooks and so on) don’t, so people will put their books on both, set the price on Smashwords to free, then report a lower price on Amazon, who have a price-match policy.

The idea is supposed to be that you can gain additional publicity from this, and thus stand out from the crowd and sell copies of all your other books. That’s standing out from the crowd of other people doing this, and selling copies of all your other books to people who think even 99 cents is too much to pay for a novel. There may be a flaw in this argument. And those of us who know the phrase ‘tragedy of the commons’ can expect people to be paying readers to get their books within a year, for ‘exposure’.

Weirdly, some of these people are also the prime advocates for DRM. Now, I’ve already explained why Digital Restrictions Management is a horrendously bad idea. Without even getting into its immorality, or the impossibility of what it’s attempting (seriously, every DRM scheme by its nature amounts to giving someone a locked padlock, a key, and a note saying ‘do not put key in padlock on pain of prosecution’), DRM makes it more difficult for readers to pay for your work than to ‘pirate’ it.

It is impossible to compete with ‘free’ on price, so we have to compete on ease of use.

But a lot of self-publishers are absolutely terrified, beyond all reason, of ‘piracy’, of plagiarism, and of some filmmaker stealing their idea and making a billion dollars without giving them any.

Now, there is, of course, no evidence that ‘piracy’ has any negative effect on sales at all, and some anecdotal evidence that it increases sales. For example, I heard good things about the SF writer Greg Egan, so I torrented one of his books, Permutation City to try it (I would have borrowed from the library, but I have a habit of losing library books and getting massive fines). That was in April. As a result of that, I’ve bought Egan’s books Permutation City, Quarantine, Schild’s Ladder, Axiomatic, Oceanic and Luminous in paperback and Incandescence, Zendegi and The Clockwork Robot as ebooks. (I since discovered that Mr Egan has a lot of free stories available on his website. I would have tried those instead rather than torrenting had I known about them).

But assume I’m wrong. Assume ‘piracy’ matters. Assume every copy on a torrent site is a lost sale, pure and simple. Are your books going to be ‘pirated’?

I had a quick look at the top twelve Kindle bestsellers (as of 11:33 PM on the 17th November) on Amazon’s US site (where the vast majority of sales come from). I searched for each on two top torrent sites. I won’t link those sites here, but one ends in ‘bay’ while the other ends in ‘noid’.

The Journey Home by Michael Baron
Search terms – Baron The Journey Home
Results on site 1 – nothing
Results on site 2 – 28 hits, including Star Wars comics, DangerMouse cartoons and a documentary series by Jonathan Miller on atheism. The book doesn’t show up.

Rescue Me (a quirky romance novel about secrets, forgiveness and falling in love) by Sydney Allan
Search terms – Allan rescue me
Results on site 1 – nothing
Results on site 2 – 16 results, including a 1917 Douglas Fairbank silent film, a collection of albums by jazz-fusion musician Allan Holdsworth and a collection of 882 NES games. The book doesn’t show up.

Best Friends by Consuelo Saah Baehr
Search terms – Best Friends Baehr
Results on site 1 – No results
Results on site 2 – One result, the jazz album Moment To Moment by Roy Hargrove

Last Breath by Michael Prescott
Search terms – Last Breath Prescott
Results on site 1 – No results
Results on site 2 – One result, a collection of books by someone called Lisa Marie Price


Ghost in the Polka Dot Bikini (A Ghost of Granny Apples Mystery) by Sue Ann Jaffarian

Search terms – Jaffarian Polka
Results on site 1 – No results
Results on site 2 – A hit! A palpable hit! – one result, a torrent containing this book and the other book in this series.

Double Exposure by Michael Lister
Search terms – Lister Double Exposure
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – nothing

The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan B. Allender Ph.D. and Dan B Allender
Search terms – Allender Wounded
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – nothing

The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan
Search terms – Mill River Darcie
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – Another hit – several copies of the same torrent, containing this and other bestsellers.

Come Back To Me by Melissa Foster
Search terms – Foster Come Back
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – one hit, a solo album by the former lead singer of Hootie And The Blowfish

Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park
Search terms – Flat-out Park
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – Another hit, a torrent of this book.

How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play by Barbara Baig
Search terms – Baig writer
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – nothing

WIRED by Douglas E. Richards
Search terms – Wired Richards
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – another hit – actially in the same torrent as Mill River Recluse

Just for fun, I also searched for myself, to see if any of my books showed up. On site one, nothing showed up, and on site two I saw the DVDs of the three Transformers films, and a copy of The Name Of The Rose in Italian.

So, of the twelve biggest selling books on Kindle, each of which must be selling hundreds of thousands of copies, only four of them are even available at all – so if you make it to the very, very top of the best-seller list, you still only have a one in three chance of having anyone bother to torrent your work.

There are currently 887,909 books in the Kindle store. If the books at the top aren’t being torrented, what do you think – really – that the chance is of your book, when it enters at 887,910, being pounced on?

As far as I can tell, the most sensible strategy is the one I follow:
Make at least some of your work available for free, like I do through this blog, so anyone who wants a taster can have it.
Make it as convenient as possible to buy your books in whatever format people want. Have them available as paperback, ePub, Kindle, PDF… as smoke signals if someone wants that.
Don’t give anyone a reason *not* to buy. DRM is a reason not to buy.
Sell for a reasonable price. Ideally you want to sell for a price where every sale will net you a noticeable amount of money, but not enough to put anyone off. I go for $5 for electronic copies (except short stories, which are 99 cents). The paper copies have to be more expensive because they cost much more to produce, but I get the same money (or less) from them.
Put the book out and tell people about it. And by ‘tell people’ I mean ‘tell people who are interested in your writing and/or the subject matter’, not ‘spam forums whose only readers are other self-publishers and then complain that you’ve got no sales’.
Then write the next one, and don’t worry about who’s doing what with the last one. If it’s good, people will pay for it if you charge fairly. If it’s not, people won’t even take it if you give it away.

Caveat – I’m not a full-time writer, so I’m obviously not *that* successful. But I *am* doing well enough that my income from writing makes up a significant percentage of my income.
I’d be interested, therefore, if anyone had any better strategies, or any refinements on the above.

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