Saturday, November 17, 2012

My ambition is to be a beach bum

I think I've come to the conclusion that my ambition in life is to be a beach bum.

Now, for the benefit of potential employers and others, let me clarify. I don't mean a shiftless, lazy beach bum like Patrick Swayze in Point Break or some college drop-out. I mean a beach bum like Hemingway or Jimmy Buffett, who manage to combine being stunningly creative with spending a lot of time lazing around in or near the water.

I don't have the hair for this these days.

I'm serious. I think I'd do really well with Hemingway's Key West lifestyle. Start work at dawn, six days a week, and write until "seven hundred words or lunch, whichever comes sooner." Then do something relaxing all afternoon. For him, it was fishing or sailing; for me, it would probably involve walking along the water's edge and finding a shady place to sit with a book and/or a guitar. Then in the evening, go out and meet people - and, most importantly, listen to them. I'd love to throw some of Buffett's exploration into the mix as well - his journeys through South America and the Caribbean are both fascinating and inspirational.

Hemingway's writing room, Key West. I could work there/
 I think I could be stunningly productive living that way - and I'd be incredibly happy. It's worth remembering that Hemingway wrote just nineteen books in his life, ten of which were written in his twelve years in the Keys. That's less than one a year, which is a fairly modest output by modern standards. (And he managed just nine books in the other thirty years of his working life.) Seven hundred words is a lot when you're typing, but it's a lot easier with a word processor when you can edit as you go.

It's not unusual to retire to the coast. I'd like to get there sooner than that. I was brought up on the South coast of England, and I miss having the sea close by. Palm trees and sandy beaches make me happy. I'm not looking to spend my life in an alcoholic daze or searching for a perfect wave like some aging hippy. I want to find that perfect environment with the combination of relaxation and stimulation, work and play, where my creativity can let rip. Don't get me wrong, I love the Jungle House, and it's by far the best place I've ever lived, but honestly... I'd rather be on the beach.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Three Kingdoms Full Of Crazies

I've been a huge fan of Dynasty Warriors since the very first day I saw a prototype PlayStation 2 in Cannes, back in early 2000. I've been playing them again recently, and decided to delve a little further into the actual source material it's based on.

I was aware that all the characters and events are based on historical characters and events, but I didn't really know much about them.  I'll be honest: I didn't know the difference between the Warring States and the Three Kingdoms periods. (The Warring States was 475-221 BC, the Three Kingdoms was 220-280 AD - about half a millenium apart. To put in perspective, that's roughly the difference between Buddha and Jesus, or between Jesus and Mohammed. But that's irrelevant.)

I started by reading the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, on which DW is based. ROTK is a terrifyingly long book - four volumes of really small print. It was written in the Ming Dynasty, some 1400 years after the actual events. (Again, putting it into perspective, that's a similar time gap as in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar  and Antony and Cleopatra.)

It's important to realize that ROTK is not a history. It's a novel based on actual events, and it's about as accurate as watching Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and treating it as a documentary. Author Luo Guanzhong invented characters, changed events, added some bits of mythology, and generally slanted everything to make it into a good story. (If you're interested, here's a list of what he just plain made up - and that doesn't include the bits he dramatized for literary purposes.)

So I then started looking at the real history.

All I can say is that China was, apparently, overrun by total psychopaths for about a century.

What's fascinating is that they all claimed to be adhering to a deep moral code, Confucianism, which is based on loyalty to one's superiors. And yet, they were the most untrustworthy, disloyal, backstabbing and pernicious bastards you can imagine. The entire period is characterized by people turning on their lords and friends, betrayals, deceit, and opportunism. Anything is permissible in the pursuit of power. Today's allies are tomorrow's enemies, and your reward for helping someone is likely to be your own execution.

Liu Bei: changed sides several times, lost countless battles, and became emperor for two years.
And the scale of the slaughter is unimaginable. At the end of the Han period (220AD), the population of China was around 60 million. By the time the Jin Dynasty supplanted the Three Kingdoms, the population was reduced to 12 million. That's an incredible 80% of the population killed by war, famine or disease. (Once again, some perspective: in World War 2, China lost around 20 million people - less than 4% of the population. Britain lost 2% of its population in World War 1, and that was seen as devastating. The Rwandan genocide killed off 10% of the population. Even the Black Death only managed to kill 30% of the population. The nearest equivalent is the Paraguayan War of 1864-70, during which the Paraguayan population was reduced from around 900,000 to 220,00, of whom only 28,000 were adult males.)

It's almost impossible to imagine a world where 8 out of every 10 people is dead. Almost all the adult males are gone, and all that's left are women, children, and old people. It's like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

In fact, it IS a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Zhang Fei: drunken killer who murdered his wife and children to prove his loyalty, and lost countless battles - and tens of thousands of troops - through being too inebriated to follow orders. 

Not only were the warlords ruthless with the lives of their men in battle, their personal cruelty and bloodthirstiness was staggering. There are numerous accounts of when one lord would execute another - and would then also kill his entire family, his household, his servants, his retainers, and all their families. Literally thousands of people would be executed. Mass executions of prisoners were commonplace. Scorched earth policies were the norm, even if this left the population with no food and no option but to resort to cannibalism. Even their own families weren't safe from these psychos: apparently Zhang Fei and Guan Yu were so eager to prove that they were completely committed to their attack on another warlord and weren't distracted by thoughts of home that they murdered their own wives and children. In another incident, Liu Bei needs lodgings for the night, but the guy he stays with has no food, so he kills and cooks his wife and daughter. Liu Bei, far from being horrified by this, is impressed with the man's devotion and rewards him handsomely.

Lu Bu: crazy killer who murdered Ding Yuan, the man he regarded as his adopted father, in order to ingratiate himself with Dong Zhuo. He was then adopted by Dong Zhuo, and Lu Bu murdered him too. 

And those - let me stress - are the so-called good guys. Their opponents, Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao, Lu Bu and others, are just as bad. The only thing they apparently know how to do is to kill and destroy, and they all hope to be the last man standing.

What's really bizarre is that these nutjobs have a strange respect for one another. Time and again, after some calamitous, pointless battle in which tens of thousands of soldiers are killed and maimed, the loser surrenders and is rewarded by the victor, while his defeated army is decapitated en masse. The common people are worthless, but their rulers are treated with godlike reverence. As one of them points out, Confucius says that "the law does not apply to the man of greatness." And then, a short while later, they'll be trying to kill each other again, whether by assassination, poison, or raising more huge armies to start another war.

Guan Yu: changed sides to fight against his friends.  Regarded as the epitome of loyalty, and  was deified. He is still worshiped today throughout China. 
It's clear that none of them was fit to govern a chicken coop, let alone an empire. Under their rule, China was brought to its knees.   In any normal, sane society they'd be vilified as insane lunatics. They're as bad as Pol Pot, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Idi Amin, or Stalin. And yet, they're widely seen as heroes - both at the time, when ROTK was written, and today.

I think I'll go and play Final Fantasy instead. Sometimes it doesn't do to read history.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Muse

“The professional does not wait for inspiration; he acts in anticipation of it. He knows that when the Muse sees his butt in the chair, she will deliver.”
 - Steven Pressfield

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bathroom reading

Has there been any research into reading ebooks on the toilet? Serious question.

What I want to know is how many people read while taking a dump, and whether that's been affected by ebooks. At the risk of the TMI zone, I always kept books in my toilet, mostly cartoons or humour, or else I'd take New Scientist or Private Eye in with me. Now, I don't. I have a phone, which means I have my entire Kindle library and the whole Internet to read.

Teach 'em young.

Look, I know I'm not the only one. Henry Miller maintained that reading in the toilet was the only way to appreciate Ulysses. Saint Gregory, way back in the Middle Ages, declared that the toilet high in a castle turret provided the best place for uninterrupted reading. There is research on reading paper books on the toilet, though it's mostly about hygiene. One survey I found a reference to (but no link) said that the New Yorker discovered in the 90s that people who read on the toilet were more likely to be graduates than people who didn't. And whenever I'm out in a public place and have to visit a restroom, I can hear the clicks and beeps of people reading, texting, or browsing on their phones emanating from the cubicles.

However, what interests me is to find how e-books have changed people's bathroom reading habits. We know that people read more often in lunch breaks than they used to, and are now more likely to read e-books than magazines while waiting for buses or trains. It's now easy to use those small snippets of time for reading, and there's plenty of research to support that. But there's precious little about what happens in the smallest room. Has it affected the market for bathroom books? Is this why the short short story is set to make a comeback? Do publishers now need to think more about the toilet as a normal reading environment if they want to understand their readers? Or are we all posting on Facebook or reading Twitter while we poop?

It's a subject crying out for research, and it has real commercial implications.

It's okay, I'm an anthropologist. I'm allowed to think about these things.

(And no, I'm not writing this in the toilet, but I could have. For all I know, you're reading it there.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Today I'm sitting in my house in Florida writing up an interview about previsualization with a guy in London, proofing books about voodoo, chaos magic, and alien conspiracies created by teams in Pakistan, the Philippines and Singapore, in between phone/Skype meetings with people in India and Sweden about ways for small publishers to promote their e-books and chatting with colleagues in New York and Arizona, while listening to Turkish techno, Mozambican jazz and South American bhangra. It's amazing how far around the world my tendrils reach without me really being aware of it.

Nationality seems like a very outmoded concept these days.

So later tonight, I shall go and watch people of Spanish descent blow up a load of Chinese fireworks, eat Mexican food, and drink Irish beer in order to celebrate America not being part of Britain. Makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The hidden morality of Facebook

There are many, many reasons to dislike Facebook. However, I think that despite its flaws, it's a pretty amazing thing. It's enabling us to communicate more than ever before, and to share our lives in ways that were unimaginable when I was growing up.

What's emerging from Facebook is an incredible piece of accidental social engineering: the way it's being used to disseminate what, for want of a better word, I'm calling morality. It's not just about the pictures of food and cats, the links to music or blog posts, and the endless trolling. It's actually spreading and reinforcing ideas in new, unexpected ways.


Back in the early days of FB, gifting apps were all the rage. You sent someone a picture from a collection - dragons, famous paintings, game characters, or whatever. Your friend could then send pictures from that collection to you or other people, and in return, you unlocked more pictures.

It was a nice, simple way to promote the idea of gifting: you could spend time choosing which picture would be most appropriate to individual friends, and it didn't cost anything except a bit of time and thought. Interestingly, the apps that did best were the ones that had the most to unlock. The ones that gave you everything to start with weren't successful. My guess is that what people liked most was the reward for having made a gift - it wasn't just the altruism of making a gift that engaged people, it was the fact that you got something back for having done something for someone.

Gifting apps aren't popular these days: it's easier just to share pictures with everyone, or post them on someone's timeline. Still, it was an interesting first step in a simple social culture economy - to get something, you first have to give something, and receiving something is an invitation to participate in gift-giving.


Shortly after the gifts, we got the collaborative games. These were of two main types: there were the games which relied on you having a "network": the more people who you persuaded to join, the stronger you became.

These promoted the idea of cooperation: you help me, and I'll help you - something that's missing from many games.  The other type were the games where you got rewards for helping your friends build whatever they were building: if you cleaned out their fish tank or weeded their garden, you could buy more things for your own fish tank or garden. Like the gifting apps, these didn't cost the other person anything: the rewards simply came from the system. These weren't altruistic actions, they were things you did for your own benefit, but which happened to be structured as win/win actions.

Despite their very limited interactivity - just a few clicks and little or no direct interaction - they all carry a common message. You can't achieve what you need on your own: you will do better by helping others. In a world dominated by the message of self-reliance and looking after number one, it's an interesting way to spread the idea that cooperation often beats independence.


The most recent trend is in sharing pictures that consist of a simple motto on a pretty background. Most people wouldn't share the sayings as simple text, but once you put them on a picture, they apparently magically become inspirational and worth sharing.

I have to admit, I get fed up of these - in some ways, it feels like schoolkids standing up in class and spouting a piece of simplistic philosophy that everyone is bound to agree with and the rest of the class applauding them. "I think everyone should be nice to each other - who agrees with me?" Well, who's going to be the one who says no, other than the class troll?

However, what fascinates me about this trend is that these pictures perform two simple functions, and they do it rather elegantly, even though it's a very clumsy mechanism. First, they enable someone to express how they're feeling without having to go into specifics or find the words: it's the equivalent of putting on a piece of music to express a mood.

More interestingly, though, is that they are used to express our shared values as a culture, and that the individual is publicly identifying themselves with those values. Society as personified by the mainstream media likes to push capitalism, consumerism, and individualism: life's about getting ahead, buying new things, or keeping up with fads. Most of these pictures express the simpler, less tangible things in life: friendship, personal growth, joy, or hope. When someone shares a thought like this and their friends "like" them in response, it reinforces the values that they embody, and reminds us all that these values are as important - if not more important - than getting a bigger TV, coveting the newest phone, or whatever some reality TV star has been up to.

Social morality

Social media has a unique way of reaching out to people and getting them to express what really matters to them. These apps, games and pictures aren't a sophisticated way to express these values, but that's actually part of the beauty of them. Anyone can do it - you don't need to be an orator, a writer, a poet, a musician or an artist. You just have to click a button or two, and you can share your thoughts - even if your thoughts are merely "that sentiment resonates with me." 

Undoubtedly a lot of what people say is crap - just like real life. But I think there's a subtle undercurrent that's building up: across the world, people are showing that they have a desire to share, that they have a desire to cooperate, and that what they value most isn't wealth or goods, it's more abstract things like friendship, kindness, and community.

And that's a pretty good message to spread around the world, isn't it? 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bookstores: misplaced nostalgia?

I love bookstores, but the widespread feeling about how wonderful they are (or were) seems to me to be more myth than reality. There's a romantic image of bookstores as magical places where you can have a wonderful experience chatting with a bookstore owner who just happens to share all your preferences and knows the same subject areas as you, and can lay her hands instantly on the perfect book you were unknowingly searching for, guaranteed to please.

That just ain't so.

Most of the time, my local bookstores didn't actually stock the book I wanted: they'd have to order it, and it would take anything from a week to a few months. Very rarely did anyone actively recommend me a book: unless I was a regular, they'd usually sit there watching as I browsed, and then take my money in silence if I chose to buy something. If I asked for a book on a particular subject, they often didn't have a clue. That's not a complaint, just an observation: it's not really surprising when you're asking for something really specialist, say, a book on the political machinations in the Punjab leading up to the First Sikh War: they'll simply say, "we have a history section there, and a military section there, and maybe you could try the travel section under India." I don't expect them to know everything, but let's not pretend that bookstores were staffed by omniscient beings who could instantly refer you, with the unerring sense of Buffy's Giles, to the one book that you need, no matter how obscure the subject. If I could find a good specialist bookstore, then sure, they were often great, but that could involve travelling 200 miles and an entire day's journey, just to track down one book.

I'll miss bookstores for the smell, for the ambience, and for the pleasure of browsing through actual books, but not, I'm afraid, for the service they provide. Sadly, Amazon has them beat on that, and there's no point pretending otherwise. It was the same for record shops, and the same for video shops. Most of them were just racks of a small selection of product, staffed by people who didn't really know much about the sort of books, music or films that interested me, and which couldn't compete with online services for range of product, serendipitous discovery, qualified recommendations, speed of service, convenience, or price. It's sad to see bookstores closing, and the implications for the book trade and for readers are scary, but the truth is that in most cases, Amazon just do the job far, far better.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

No more freebies

Over the last few months, I've seen more and more creatives and freelancers posting about the rising tide of clients who expect them to work for next to nothing, or, more often, for free. It's the same regardless of the medium: writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, graphic designers, Web builders, editors, body artists, dancers, tattooists, programmers... pretty much everyone.

Freelance writing jobs that used to pay $500 a few years ago now pay maybe $25 if I'm lucky. And what's worse, people think they're doing me a favor by offering me the job. "It's an opportunity to build your resume," they tell me. I've been writing for 25 years, I've got several books to my credit, hundreds of magazine articles, thousands of Web articles, and countless corporate documents. I think I'm past the "trying to get some experience" stage. I don't need to prove myself. I'm not a college kid, living at home, trying to earn some beer and gas money. I need to pay my bills and feed my family.

What's really worrying about this trend is that it's not confined to creatives. More and more businesses are relying on interns or unpaid workers. I've been invited to apply for unpaid jobs in retail, telesales, and even project management positions. I'm hearing the same from mechanics, builders, plumbers, and other tradesmen. People dangle the promise of paid work "later", "after training", or "when things pick up," but in practice that means after a few months, they dump you and replace you with the next sucker. There is no paying work. Never was. Never will be.

One business owner I briefly considered working with bragged to me about how he didn't pay any of his staff, and didn't intend to, as he could just use an endless pool of hopeful college kids. It wasn't that he couldn't afford to - the business was making a very healthy profit - he just didn't see any reason to pay people if he could get them for free. It rapidly became clear that he regarded me the same way: he'd get a few months' work from me and then get rid of me.

We're doing it to ourselves

Who's to blame? It's easy to blame it on the economy, or on unscrupulous bosses, but the unpalatable truth is that as long as we are willing participants in the unpaid labor scam, it's our own fault.

It's easy to feel forced into it by the threat that if you don't take the gig, someone else will. If you turn it down, you might be missing a golden opportunity. The client will tell you that you're competing with college kids who'll do the job for a couple of beers, so they have no reason to pay you more. They can go to ODesk and get people who'll work for a dollar an hour, so they tell you $10/day is "the going rate". Since you're a freelancer, you can't even get minimum wage. And so you swallow your pride, leave the financial issues for another day, and work for nothing. If it's costing you money to get to work, you're actually losing money.

But where does that leave you at the end of the month? You work every hour there is, you end up with a pittance, and you still can't pay your bills. You're stressed out, dispirited, and broke, and meanwhile your client is laughing at you for being such a jackass. He's got what he wanted, and you've got nothing.

Why this is not just bad, but really bad

This business model has two really dangerous effects.

First, it totally devalues what people do. Clients and employers are already starting to see no value in quality or experience. If they can persuade experienced people to give them quality work for nothing, then that just reinforces that view. I'm not a novice. I'm damn good at what I do, and I don't expect or deserve to be treated or paid as a novice. Why spend money getting a college education or developing skills if you're just going to end up in debt? Why bother trying to do your best work if it's not going to be appreciated? It's not like it's going to matter if you screw up and get fired.

And secondly, it screws up the entire economy. If there's an unending pool of unpaid workers, then who's going to be spending the money? To get out of recession, people need real jobs, not fake ones. They need to be able to make ends meet, pay off their debts, and start spending money. Unpaid workers can't pay rent, can't buy food, can't even put gas in the car or take a bus to work. Businesses can't survive when nobody has the money to buy from them.

It's a simple proposition. I work, and I get paid according to the value of my labor. That's not Marxism, that's market economics. If what I do is worth something to you, then you should pay what it's worth. A market distorted by free goods and services is fundamentally broken, as I've argued many times before. If you're working for free, you're basically screwing things up for everyone, not just yourself. The entire basis of "free" is "someone else pays for what I use", and that's not sustainable. Free or underpaid labor relies on someone else feeding, clothing, and housing your workforce. If you're not paying a living wage, you're basically stealing from them or from the taxpayers. In which case - well, FDR said it best.

Look at the book market. Authors had a hard enough time already, but now they have to compete with a glut of literally millions of people falling over themselves to give away their work or selling it for 99c in the hope of making it big. That's great for Amazon, who are making millions of dollars from all these unpaid writers. It's not so great for the writers, who can on average expect to make just $30 from a novel that took them a year to create. Readers don't want to pay $5 for a book when the market's flooded with free books, and established, quality authors are finding it harder and harder to make a living.

Enough is enough

Over the last year or so, I've done a lot of unpaid or stupidly cheap work. Despite the promises, none of it ever turned into paying work, and I've reached a point where I've decided that enough is enough.

I'm not working for free any more.


I don't object to quid pro quo. We're all broke, and I have no objection to doing something for someone in return for them doing something for me. I don't even mind helping out on occasion, especially if it's a project that I personally like and would actually enjoy, but as long as it's understood by all concerned that I'm volunteering or doing someone a favor. Let's not pretend it's work.

But if I'm not going to get paid a decent rate, or get something else back in return, I'll spend the time doing something I want to do. Maybe I'll read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, or practice my violin. But I'm no longer going to donate my time and my skills to enriching someone else for no benefit.

Epilogue (the bit that comes after the end of the story)

Actually, I can envisage myself working for free. I'll work for free when I can live rent-free, when I can get free food, free electricity, free medical care, run my car for free, get free clothes, go on free holidays, and so on. Or when I'm so rich that I don't have to worry about affording the things I want and don't need an income any more.

I wonder which of those will happen first: the socialist utopia, or the capitalist success? 

No, I didn't think so.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Unrepresentative democracy

I've been watching recent elections with the bemused detachment of one who isn't allowed to vote in them.

Last week's local elections in Britain, for example, gave us the following results: Labour 38%, Tory 31%, LibDem 15%, others 15%. The  A month ago in Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer was returned with a huge 58% of the vote.

However, that really doesn't give a fair picture of how people feel. In the UK, turnout was just under 31%. In Orlando, turnout was a mere 15%. When you apply those numbers to the results, things look very different. In Britain, just 11.8% of the electorate supported Labour, 9.5% supported the Tories, and 4.6% supported the LibDems. In Orlando, Dyer's "landslide" victory was achieved with the support of just 8% of the electorate.

I'd like to see more media report on the results as a proportion of the electorate, rather than as a proportion of votes cast. Then we'd see just how little support our elected leaders actually have. I'd hope that would lead to two outcomes.

First, I'd like to see more people actually going to the polls. Voting matters. And with turnout this low, it doesn't take much to change the results. A few percent is all that's necessary to make a difference, not just between the top candidates, but between all the candidates. In Orlando, if just 6% of people - that's about one person from each street - had come out and voted for either the third or fourth place candidate, Dyer's "easy" victory wouldn't have happened. I'm not opposed to Dyer, but it's important to realize that he's in power because most people couldn't be bothered to express an opinion, not because most people support him, and how easily that could have gone the other way.

And second, I'd like to see politicians of all sides realize how much faith their people have lost in them. It sickens me to see these guys bragging about their victories when they should be ashamed of how much they have utterly failed to engage with the people they claim to represent. More to the point, trying to achieve anything is unrealistic when 90% of voters do not support whoever's in charge. If we're going to get out of this recession, we need leaders who can galvanize and inspire their communities. It's clear that none of the current lot can actually do that.

I know the counter-arguments well. There aren't any good candidates, so you're not going to vote for any of them. Well, that's part of the problem. You're not going to vote, so the candidates don't need to appeal to you. They really don't care if the majority of people hate them: they only care about winning a majority of the minority who can be bothered to express their opinion on polling day. By not voting, you've effectively told the candidates that your opinion doesn't matter and your vote doesn't count, and as long as you continue to do that, you'll get politicians who are happy to continue ignoring you and focus on the demands of the extremists.

So I reiterate: let's see election results as a proportion of the electorate, not just as a proportion of the votes case, then we can all see how easily a genuinely popular candidate could overturn the status quo.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

In praise of one-star reviews

When I started thinking about this post, I was planning to call it The Curse of the Five-Star Review, and then I read this excellent blog post, The Dark Side Of Free, by Russell Blake. He's talking about the problems of free e-books (a contentious subject I've talked about several times before), and latches onto an aspect I've never really considered. When you give your book away, you end up with lots of people saying they didn't like it. As a result, you get a pile of one-star reviews, which he and many of his respondents, think is very unfair. All those nice 5-star reviews and a 4.8 average suddenly collapses under the weight of feedback that isn't unadulterated praise.

Who are you trying to kid?

Let me be honest here. If I see a self-published book with nothing but 4- and 5-star ratings, what's my reaction? Do I think, "wow, this must be an utterly amazing book and I must read it at once?"

No, I don't.

I immediately assume it's rigged and all those reviews are probably from family and friends, or they're paid reviews, or they're reviews swapped with other authors. I simply do not believe for a minute that nobody has anything bad to say about a book and that it's absolutely perfect. My reaction isn't to buy the book - quite the opposite! I assume it's probably mediocre and not worth my time.

I would far rather see a spread of honest reviews, telling me what's good and bad about a book. Sure, some people won't like it. That's fine. Some people don't like War and Peace. Some people don't like the Da Vinci Code. Some people don't like Tom Clancy's Op-Center. That doesn't stop people reading them. Frankly, if you're not getting negative reviews, you should be surprised. Nobody is exempt from criticism, and if you're not getting them, then you're probably surrounded by yes-men.

From a 3-star review of War and Peace on Amazon:
It's... overwritten, wordy,redundant, repetitious, chronologically clumsy, and loaded with structural defects, writer's errors and digressions. Tolstoy himself called it "verbose", and said it had too much that was "superfluous". I agree with Tolstoy.

What do these ratings mean anyhow?

As far as I'm concerned, ratings aren't objective. They're subjective. They tell you what I thought of the book, and I like to use the whole scale. An average book gets a 3 - and remember that average doesn't mean it was bad. It meant that I liked it. Something I really liked gets a 4, and a 5-star rating is reserved for those very rare books that absolutely blow my mind. On the other end, a 2 was disappointing, and a 1 is something I just couldn't finish or is really badly written.

Sadly, many authors don't see it that way. One author to whom I gave a 4-star rating asked why I'd "knocked a star off", even though I'd praised the book and said how much I liked it. They seem to see a 5-star rating as the default, and anything less is a failure. That, to me, totally negates the point of the rating system - how can I, or a potential customer, distinguish between a good book, a really good book, and an exceptional book if they all get 5 stars?

A 4-star or 5-star rating should be something to covet, not something to expect, and I actually think it does authors a disservice if they're led to believe that everything they write is as good as - or better than - the very best literature humanity has produced. If your YA fantasy really deserves that 4.5 average, why isn't it outselling Harry Potter with its mere 4.3 average? Is your 4.8-rated thriller really better than the 4.6-rated Day of the Jackal? Is your 5-star erotic short story a classic to overshadow the 4-star Delta of Venus? If you really want to know, then give it to a thousand people and they'll tell you what they really think - and if you can maintain that high rating, then congratulations, you're officially one of the greats! But don't be surprised if most of them aren't as awestruck by your masterpiece as your first few fans.

Who are ratings for?

The thing is, ratings aren't just for your benefit. They're for mine. Amazon recommend me books according to what I like, so if I tell them I didn't like a book, they won't recommend me other books like it. That 1-star review doesn't necessarily mean "this is a bad book," it means "it wasn't to my taste."

They're for my friends too. If Dave sees me give a book a 1-star rating, he can legitimately conclude he won't like it either. If he sees me give it a 4 or 5, he's likely to give it a try.

Tailored ratings systems

What I'd really like to see is a more sophisticated system like Netflix which shows me both the average rating and an assessment of how it fits to my personal tastes. When I look at a movie on Netflix, it's not unusual for it to get a high average review but a low score for me - or vice versa. The latest teen comedy may score really highly with some people, but Netflix is smart enough to figure out that people who like the same movies as me don't think much of it, and it tells me I probably won't like it. On the other hand, most people don't like silent German movies, but it knows that I do, and gives me a rating based on that knowledge.

Netflix spent a fortune developing that algorithm and saw a huge increase in viewer satisfaction. If Amazon and the booksellers could do the same, I'm sure it would pay dividends in terms of sales.  Authors would benefit too: if you do a better job of targeting your book to readers, you'll get more satisfied readers.

It comes down to this. When I read the reviews of books, I want to know whether I will like it, taking into account my tastes. If I can be sure that a 4-star book is probably excellent, I'm more likely to buy it than if 4-stars is considered a low rating.

So I'm sorry, authors, but I'll keep on dishing out the 1s and 2s.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Dodo Dragon and other stories

I've always enjoyed sci-fi shorts, particularly the sort of thing that appeared in magazines in the 50s & 60s, and in anthologies edited by Ellison, Sheckley, et al. This collection reminds me very much of those.

There are three types of story in here. Several of them are excuses for really bad puns. Asimov used to do a lot of those, and you either love 'em or hate 'em. I loved them. They're basically shaggy dog stories for sci-fi geeks. Then there are a few light humor stories. Again, these are a staple of the genre, and they work well. I enjoyed these; they're well written and the author's quirky sense of humor and witty writing comes through. Finally, there are a couple of more serious stories. I have to admit, they're well written, but I didn't enjoy them as much, with the exception of the title story, which is both sad and beautiful.

However, that's what I expect, and indeed demand, from short story collections: a mixed bag of writing, some of which will be to my taste, and some won't, and it's a great opportunity to showcase the breadth of what a writer can do. I've read a couple of her stories elsewhere, and it's been good to find more of her work that I enjoy.

Recommended for lovers of post-war sci-fi. They're perfect bedtime (or bathroom) reading.

Available on Kindle

Friday, March 30, 2012

Goodbye, Hukilau: why I'm no longer running a digital publisher

As of this weekend, I’m no longer in the e-book publishing business. I’ve enjoyed it, but I don’t see it as something that’s worth pursuing any longer, and I've handed the keys to Hukilau over to someone else.

There are two main reasons for this. This isn't a blame game or an excuse: it's just the way the market has developed, and it's both a curse and a blessing.

Reason 1: writers don’t need digital publishers any more

When we started Hukilau, it wasn’t easy to get an e-book published. The tools were arcane, the formats were obscure, and the submission processes were tortuous. You could go it alone, but you needed to be pretty tech-savvy and persistent just to get your book into the retail channels. We offered people the opportunity to side-step all that. They gave us their books in whatever format they had, and we’d get them out onto the Web sites with no effort on their part. It was a useful role, and it bridged the gap between the author and the retailer in a simple, understandable way. 

Now, though, it’s dead simple to publish your own e-books.  There are a range of really simple formatting tools around, and places like Smashwords will even accept your Word file, so you don’t have to know anything at all about e-book formatting to get your book onto Kindles, Nooks and iPads the world over.  It takes literally ten minutes to put your book on Amazon or Smashwords after the first time you’ve done it. There’s simply no need for a publisher to get involved.

Incidentally, I don’t think of places like Smashwords as publishers in the traditional sense. They’re distribution services for self-publishers. They don’t curate their content in any way, or promote anything they handle – the two things that in my mind define a digital publisher. What Smashwords and their ilk provide is a public conduit that allows anyone to get their books onto the major retailers with minimal friction. It's a great service, but it's not the same as a publisher.

Writers make better promoters than publishers anyway

When it comes to promotion, it’s become clear that self-promotion by individual authors is just as successful as publisher promotion for the majority of titles. Unless the publisher is prepared to pay out for a major marketing campaign and start putting ads on the sides of buses to attract new users, there’s very little they can do anyway. Readers are more interested in what their friends, other readers, bloggers, and the author themselves have to say than any PR from a publisher.  

This is nothing new – the vast majority of successful authors have always been the ones with a gift for self-publicity. What’s new is that there is now a huge and vibrant community that allows people to promote themselves for free. Most authors would do better to spend their time getting active on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, the blogosphere, and Goodreads for an hour or two a day, rather than signing up with a publisher and hoping they will be able to magically create interest.

And let’s face it, publishers just don’t have the same level of interest in a book as the author. A publisher wins by having a large enough catalog to make a decent aggregate income. Most of the individual books in their catalog just don’t matter. Publishers are looking for the big winners and will be happy with small returns from the majority of their titles, and they won’t spend time pushing something that’s not doing well. They’ll just move on to the next new book. Authors, on the other hand, care passionately about every one of their books, and will give them as much attention as they can.

An author has to ask, “what exactly can a publisher do for me that I can’t do better and more cost-effectively myself?”  Looking at it from an author’s point of view, I have to shake my head and answer, “I honestly don’t know.”  I can’t see any reason to give away a sizeable chunk of my earnings to someone simply for submitting a document to a Web site and listing me in their catalog.  If I’m going to go with a publisher, they’ll have to provide me with editing services, cover artwork, and promotion.

Under those circumstances, I didn’t feel it was right to continue offering those services to authors under what felt like false pretences.

It’s actually a pretty amazing state for authors to be in. You don’t need publishers any more. The world is out there, and you have everything you need to get your book in front of people. So go, publish, and make your dreams come true.

Reason 2: there’s no money in it

With all the amazing sales figures we’re seeing from the e-book market, you’d have thought digital publishing was a lucrative business. Sadly, it’s just not so.

Let’s look at a few hard numbers. 

In our recent promo, we shipped nearly 10,000 books in a week. At our usual $2.99 price point, that would break down as roughly $3,400 to the retailers, $3,300 to the authors, and $3,300 for us.  Less our running costs, the three of us would have made $1,000 each. That’s not bad for a week’s work, and if we’d been able to sustain that every week, we’d have made a passable living.

But that’s a tough order. 10,000 books a week, every single week. Half a million books a year, if you prefer. Given that 90% of books sell fewer than 1000 copies, you’ve got to have a sizeable catalog to make anywhere near those numbers – even if we had 500 titles, every one of them would have to be in that top 10%.  Realistically, we’d need more like 5000 titles. That would mean shipping 20 new titles every single day for a year, which means they wouldn’t get any personal attention from us. We’d just be slamming them out, hoping we’d accidentally get some hits. And as I said above, who needs a publisher who doesn’t care about their books?

A little side note here to illustrate how hard it is to make 1000 sales of an e-book. During our promo period, we took several top spots in various Kindle categories. It took us just 80 downloads to get the #1 spot in a major category like Music. It took a mere 70 to get the #1 spot in Movies. 350 downloads was enough to get one of our titles into the top 25 non-fiction as a whole, and 120 downloads put us just outside the top 50.
In other words, only 24 non-fiction books had shipped more than 350 copies on Amazon that week, and only about 50 books had shipped more than 100 copies. Those numbers are tiny. There are a lot of books being shipped overall, but not very many of each individual book.

But isn't that just bad business planning?

You could argue that we could increase our prices and then we wouldn’t need to sell as many books.

But here’s the rub. When I said we shipped 10,000 books in a week, every single one of those was free. When we tried selling those books at $4.99 and above, we made almost no sales at all outside friends and family. Most of the time, we were talking single digit sales per month, sometimes zero. We dropped the price to $2.99 and did a little better. Even at $0.99, we got next to nothing.  The only books that were selling in respectable numbers were those by known authors which were already available in print, where e-books were a cheap, convenient alternative.

It wasn’t due to the quality of the books. They were good books. They got good reviews. People liked them. People told their friends – who then didn’t buy them.

The problem was, as we effectively proved, that you can’t compete with free. There are so many good free titles on the market that most people won’t even pay a dollar to take a chance on an unknown author.  Seth Godin recently argued that mid-list authors shouldn’t expect to get paid. And if they don’t get paid, their publishers don’t get paid either.

But there are plenty of people making money from selling books, aren't there?

Yes, there is money to be made selling e-books, no question about it, but the majority of the authors who are making sales fit into one or more of three categories:

1. big-name authors who already have a following in print; 
2. people writing series who have built up a devoted cult following from previous books; and 
3. self-motivated, self-published authors who are hustling their butts off day in, day out, to build up a following. 

First-time casual authors just aren’t making sales, no matter how good their books are, and the type of author who goes to a digital publisher - almost by definition - isn’t the kind of author who’s prepared to put in that kind of effort on their own PR. 

To make money as a publisher, we’d have to have a legion of authors in those three popular categories, or else we’d be forced down the Smashwords model, where we ship thousands and thousands of books every month, and are content if we make a couple of bucks off each one.  The former was highly unlikely to happen, and the latter isn’t why I wanted to be in publishing.

The future of digital publishing

I don’t think there’s a role for the kind of publisher that we originally set Hukilau up to be. However, I do see two types of digital publisher surviving.

Print publishers with a digital arm will still be important. In fact, I’d argue that any print publisher that doesn’t have a digital arm will soon be about as successful as a film studio that only distributes on VHS or a record label that only does vinyl. Readers will soon expect to see every print title in digital form, and having a print edition of a book removes the stigma of it being “only” an e-book.

And then there will be the niche publishers who pick a very small genre and stick to it, regularly releasing a constant stream of very similar titles to cater to loyal repeat customers. A few thousand regulars spending $10 per month on average would make for a comfortable little one-person publishing outfit that could provide a reasonable income for a small stable of fast-writing authors. The erotica publishers have proved this market very effectively. I can imagine the same would work for small publishers focusing on steampunk, historical detective stories, world cookbooks, military history, dystopian sci-fi, or similar subject matter. It’s not about selling good books, it’s about finding a market with an insatiable appetite for a specific type of book, and feeding it non-stop. It’s a good route for new authors, because it introduces them to a community that’s already pre-disposed to what they’re writing, it’s good for readers as it fulfils a need, and it works as a publishing model.

Outside those two areas, however, I believe that self-publishing will render traditional publishing models obsolete in the digital market. In many ways, it already has. From a small publisher’s standpoint, that’s a tough problem, and my reaction, after a lot of soul-searching and analysis, is to quit the business. 

I don't regret what we did with Hukilau. We helped some people get their books out there, and I was part of a new, exciting development in a medium I care passionately about. But now, it's a different world, one which is ruled by the authors - the people who've traditionally had a shitty deal from publishers. And that, my friends, is a Good Thing. A Very Good Thing Indeed.

Liberating the authors

From an author’s point of view, right now is a golden opportunity. However, you’re now competing against a million other self-published authors instead of twenty thousand published authors. You're no longer joining a small and exclusive club when you get your book out there. According to some figures I've seen, more books were published in the first week of January 2012 than were published in the whole of 2009, and it's only going to accelerate. 

The great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can now publish a book. 

The problem with self-publishing is that anyone else can now publish a book.

Good luck!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Free books!

I love free stuff. Who doesn't?

And I really love free books. For the last couple of months, I've downloaded on average two free novels and two short stories a day. I'm not talking about a load of old public domain stuff from Gutenberg, or classic literature from Amazon. I'm talking about modern books by contemporary authors.

It's not like I'm downloading any old rubbish. Every single day, I get carefully selected recommendations for between twenty and thirty free novels, covering a huge variety of genres. I've downloaded loads of books from the backlists of well-known print publishers. I read tweets and Facebook posts from dozens of authors and digital publishers talking about their new work. There's no shortage of free e-books, and the rate is rocketing. Nobody's quite sure how many e-books are published every month, but a figure of 50,000 seems conservative. However you look at it, that means there are hundreds, if not thousands of free e-books coming out every single day.

Sure, some of them have been mediocre. A few have been unreadable. But most of them have been pretty good. In other words, they've been just as good as the books I've paid for, either in print or digital.

Of course, I'm not actually reading two books a day. I'm accumulating reading material faster than I can possibly absorb it, and it's not costing me a penny. As a reader, I love this. All my reading needs are being taken care of, totally gratis, and completely legit. There are enough authors out there who want to give their work away that I don't need to buy a single book.

As an author and publisher, however, it concerns me massively. With this much good quality free material around, who's going to buy books?

A lot of writing blogs will tell you that the secret to making sales is to give your book away, build up a following, and then start charging when you've started to become popular. Sadly, it usually doesn't work. I recently published some of my fiction works. When they were free, I was getting 1000-1500 downloads a month. Once I put the price up to 99c, that dropped to just 1 or 2 a month - which is typical of most people's experience, from what I can tell. They'd been getting 5 star reviews, but even so, people weren't prepared to pay even a dollar. Why should they, when there are thousands of perfectly acceptable free alternatives?

A year ago, I wrote about the problems of the "freemium" software model. It's a nice idea in theory: you make a free product, get a following, and then charge your most dedicated users for a pro version. What usually happens, though, is that just as you start to charge, someone else comes along with a free version of whatever you're now charging for, and your customers go elsewhere. As long as there are people giving away free stuff to build their market share, it's almost impossible for anyone else to charge.

Obviously, this doesn't apply to the market leaders. As Seth Godin pointed out, if you want to read the latest Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, you have no alternative. They're unique, they're the writing elite, and people will always buy their work. In fact, they'll buy it again and again even if they already have it. In some ways, it's less about the actual reading, and more like collecting. But for the majority of authors, there's no compelling reason why I need to buy their books unless they're part of a series which I've already invested time in.

The problem isn't the price. I got exactly the same number of sales at $0.99, $1.99 and $2.99. Single digits. If someone's decided they're prepared to pay for a book, then they're not going to hum and ha over a dollar or two. The fact is, there's a huge hurdle between free and paid, even more than between cheap and mid-price.

The problem is simply that the majority of people are not prepared to pay for e-books, because they know they can get plenty of good books for free elsewhere. Many readers have become conditioned to believe that digital books should be free. I've lost count of the number of people who've told me that publishers should make all their backlist available free "because it doesn't cost anything for an e-book". That's simply not true - even if you start from a digital copy, it takes time to make the digital book files, upload them, and so on. If all you've got is print, it needs to be scanned, which is time-consuming. And that's before you even get into the legal side of it, since the chances are that the original publishing contract didn't include digital publication.

As more authors give their work away, the more this view is becoming entrenched. With everyone scrambling to attract readers by giving away freebies, we're basically telling readers that there's an unlimited supply of good material and there's no need to pay. In fact, there's no real incentive even to read them. Grab them, stick them on your Kindle, and who cares if you forget about them? It's not like they actually cost anything. It's not like they're actually worth anything...

In the coming year, I don't think the big debate in e-publishing will be about what the "right" price will be. I fear it'll be about whether indie authors, small publishers, and self-publishers will be able to charge at all, or whether we'll be overwhelmed with the flood of free content.

Side note: during the writing of this blog post, I received 7 messages offering me a total of 41 free books, and downloaded 3 novels and 4 short stories.