Archives for December 2011

Interrogated By Skaven

I was recently captured and interrogated by Skaven. The full horrific results can be found here.

The Future As Boiled Frog

I am sitting in a cafe in Prague typing this in Open Office Writer on an Asus eeePC netbook running Ubuntu 10.10. I was thinking about working on my old Amstrad CPC 6128 in Edinburgh back in 1986 and the fact that the future has come like that famous frog, the one that doesn’t notice it is being boiled alive because the water around it is being heated so slowly. It’s small changes here, small changes there and then without ever really realising it, you are living in a science fiction world.

I think of this netbook as being an underpowered cheap machine but it is monstrously more powerful than the CPC 6128 I wrote my first stories on. I mean it has something like 10000 times as much RAM,  the processor is many orders of magnitude more powerful. It has a hard disk for storage. The screen is in colour. It weighs a fraction of what the CPC did and has almost 8 hours of battery life. It connects to the Internet and a global e-commerce network that did not even exist back then and it does it invisibly and wirelessly while I sit in a cafe drinking coffee.

I am writing this on a free word-processor on a free operating system that is superior to the best OS even 10 years ago. This computer cost me less in actual money than the CPC 6128. In real terms (ie adjusted for inflation) it is a fraction of the price. That’s what 25 years has done. I confess I am grateful. I strongly suspect that without the word-processor I would never have become a writer. I was never very comfortable with the typewriter and I disliked writing in long hand. If you had hand-writing like mine, you would to.

It is both an advantage and a disadvantage of growing old that you remember stuff like this. My son has grown up surrounded by miracles he takes for granted. He plays games with friends on different continents inside virtual worlds of photographic realism. He researches his homework by accessing the sort of global database that I remember Arthur C Clarke predicting we would one day have. I envy him growing up in a world like this but, of course, I suspect my father envied me the same thing. I can remember him explaining to me how there was no television when he was a lad. In his seventy five years, he never set foot in an aeroplane. He belonged to a generation of working class men who never went abroad unless someone put a gun in their hand and told them to shoot something. Doubtless Daniel will explain to his son that they never had holodecks when he was a lad.

The future is still coming, the same way it always did, slowly, a day at a time, like a frog being boiled. It’s something to think about as the year comes to a close.


The Cost of Kindle Select

I checked my balance on Smashwords this morning, as I do intermittently—Smashwords does not have anything like the real-time reporting of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing so it is not nearly so addictive. I am not sure I completely understand Smashwords arcane system of accounting but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I am owed roughly $150. That’s not a great deal for a 5 month reporting period but it’s all extra money, most of it earned in the past three months. That got me thinking about Amazon’s Kindle Select program and its exclusivity clause, the one that says you cannot sell your books anywhere else, not even your own website. It made it real to me that there is an actual cost to joining the program. In my case, let us just say that is $40 a month right at this moment in lost sales through Smashwords. Intellectually, I’ve always known this but it’s quite a different thing to have it demonstrated to you before your very eyes in terms of lost beer vouchers, to use a phrase from my long gone youth.

Let me just rewind a moment for those of you who do not know what Smashwords is. Smashwords is a website that allows you to upload and create your own ebooks. It distributes them for you, for a cut of your profits to Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple’s iBookstore, Sony and Diesel. It also lets you create discount coupons to sell your books cheaper or for free on the Smashwords site itself.

To tell the truth, Smashwords is a bit clunky, its reporting is arcane and it can be slow but, hey, it works. More to the point, it is the only way for a non-US resident like myself to get their e-books onto the Nook, and it provides free ISBNs that allow you to get into the Sony and Apple bookstores. (I do not know why Apple and Sony insist on this but they do and it can be quite expensive to block buy your own ISBNs.) On cheaper books Smashwords works on a different and slightly better royalty structure than Kindle. Buying from Smashwords also spares international readers the dreaded Amazon surcharge. On its own site, the ebooks you upload to Smashwords are available DRM-free and in a variety of formats to anyone who buys them. I believe this is a Good Thing. (I make all my books DRM free anyway on Amazon, but you can pick them up in a native format from Smashwords if you don’t have a Kindle.)

Anyway, let’s get back on topic. The cost of joining Kindle Select is an opportunity cost. By  not distributing anywhere else, I am losing out on that $40 a month. I am also losing out on something else; the chance that I might see a sales spike on B&N, on Apple, on Sony, on Kobo. I am not saying it’s likely but it is possible. My sales have grown by leaps and bounds over the past few months on Amazon, and I can’t rule out that the same might happen somewhere else.

After all, a great deal of the upward trend in ebook sales seems to be just compounding over time. It takes time to get embedded in the system and for word to spread through it. All the evidence points to Amazon’s system being better than the others for this, but there does seem to be some element of it in all the e-book stores from my limited reading on the subject. So by opting out of the Smashwords distribution system, I am saying goodbye not just to that $40 a month, but potentially a larger sum if my sales in those other venues achieve critical mass. I am not saying that this will happen but if I pull my books out now I will never know and I will lose the benefit of them having been in the system for all those months. There is also the fact that my $40 a month will most likely grow as I add more titles even if there is no spike.

I know I have just demonstrated in a very laborious fashion something that should be bloody obvious, but like I said before, it’s one thing to understand something intellectually, it’s another to feel it in terms of money actually missing from your wallet!

I am not going to get into the argument about whether Kindle Select is a move intended to grant Amazon a monopoly. (I don’t think it is or will but if it did that would not be a good thing.) I am just saying that looking at it from a purely selfish point of view, there are very definite costs that mean long term I won’t be using it for all my books. I am going to experiment with Amazon’s program in a limited fashion but I am going to keep the books that are already in Smashwords distribution in Smashwords distribution and I am going to approach Select very tentatively and in a (dare I say it, yes I do) selective fashion.

Manic Monday

Blood of Aenarion, my first new Warhammer novel in more than eight years, has just been released. I had planned a long post for today about the writing of the book, which was something of an epic in itself, involving travel across Europe and Asia, visits to exotic and glamourous locations and my discovery of a shrine to Slaanesh in that most likely of places, Thailand.

I kept a diary of the trip and the process of writing and  took photos to document my journey. Unfortunately, in one of those clear demonstrations of the law of unintended consequences, I upgraded my computers hard drive and operating system and for some reason the files I need access to don’t show up in Spotlight on my Mac anymore. I am sure I will find them soon, but the only way I can think of doing this is to boot from my old hard-drive and then find and copy the files. That is all going to take some time. Anyway, please accept this excuse in the “dog ate my homework” or “a poltergeist reached out of the screen and grabbed my blog post” spirit in which it is intended.

To keep you busy in the meantime I have compiled a list of all my previous posts about Blood of Aenarion. These are Elves and Imagery, Aenarion, the Archmage Caledor, Malekith, Morathi and N’Kari.

True story: almost exactly twenty years ago today, in a bar in a less than salubrious corner of Bangkok, Fergus Bannon introduced me to a group of English tourists as the illegitimate son of a Golden Triangle opium warlord. (I can be certain of the date because I made the mistake of agreeing to meet him there to celebrate the birthday we almost share.)

Despite the obvious untruth of this assertion, it remains the single best introduction anyone has ever given me and it tells you something about Bannon’s maliciously crazed imagination. It is a tribute to his reality warping powers of persuasion that although I look and sound exactly like the very large Scotsman I, in fact, am, many of these poor people took him quite seriously. I shall draw a discrete veil over the searing odyssey of drunken depravity that followed and I would like to add that I am in no way writing this because Bannon possesses incriminating negatives of the events of that sanity-blasting few days.

Nor does he, as far as I know, possess any incriminating negatives of either of  Scottish SF and fantasy legends Gary Gibson and Hal Duncan. Having known this pair for over twenty years now, I very much doubt there is anything he could blackmail them with that they would not be cheerfully prepared to admit to. 

The reason I am dropping all these names is that Fergus Bannon’s book Judgement is currently in the Top 100 Kindle US SF novels. It was edited by Gary and has a foreword by Hal. I recommend it to your attention if you have any interest at all in extremely well-written louche SF by one of the genre’s most shadowy and depraved figures.

The Small, Nagging Voice

Yesterday I finished the first draft of my Kormak novel, Mask of the Necromancer. I did it ahead of schedule, just carried along by the flow of the writing. You’d think I’d be happy, but no, being a writer and a neurotic, I’ve found a way to make myself unhappy about this. Since I believe in spreading the misery, I thought I would share my method with you.

This week I made a commitment to write 3000 words a day, 50% more than I normally would. Mostly this was a result of reading Rachel Aaron’s 10K a day article and recognising the truth of it. One of the big changes I made to my work routine was to set Freedom for one hour instead of 30 minutes, which is normally how long I write for to avoid RSI problems. When I was younger I used to write in one and two hour bursts and I was a lot more productive back then.

Guess what? It turns out I am still more productive writing in longer bursts. It gives me time to settle into my rhythm just like Rachel says. I actually exceeded my target of 3K a day every day this week. So why am I unhappy? I mean I finished the book.

Indeed. But I still have that 3K a day commitment and I don’t know what to write today. Should I start something new or should I get on with revising the Kormak book and prepping Sky Pirates for general release. Common sense says that I should do that. These are projects that will earn me money and I have some non-negotiable deadlines ahead for some of this stuff. I really should just settle down and do it. But…

I made that commitment; 3K a day. It would be cheating if I don’t do it. I know this is stupid but there is this little nagging voice in my head that keeps squeaking away anyway. I suspect a lot of writers are like this. They get ideas fixed in their mind, small neurotic obsessions, that niggle away at them. In the great scheme of things, it matters not a jot what I do today, but it matters to me, now, with that monkey chatter in my backbrain. It’s distracting me and working against productivity.

Intellectually I know there is more to writing than simply producing a quota of words. I know the editing and the rewriting is just as important as the initial draft. The problem is that it does not matter what I know intellectually. The voice is nagging away. It has not even stopped while I am writing this.

I know I should just make a decision and go with it. In ten days, let alone ten years, it won’t matter what I did today as long as I do something constructive. Now if I can only find a way to convince the voice of that.

E-Books: The Content Wars Begin

When I signed into my KDP account today there was a new banner right beside the logo announcing KDP Select and showing a link to the details of the new program. (For those of you who do not know the acronym, it stands for Kindle Direct Publishing and it’s the arm of Amazon that lets me distribute those ebooks you see in the right hand column of this blog.) The basic information is interesting.

In return for going exclusive with Amazon for 90 days you get access to some bonus features. You can make your book free for 5 days out of 90. (This is a bigger deal than it seems since free can be an important promotional tool and it is very difficult to get your book to go free on Amazon without jumping through a lot of hoops. This is particularly true if, like me, you don’t live in the US.)

Perhaps most interestingly Amazon has established a fund of half a million dollars from which it will pay out a lending fee to those whose books are borrowed in December. This library is open to its Prime customers. Amazon is apparently going to be doing this every month from now on. This is a bit like the Public Lending Right system that the UK has except that it is being used by a private company.

I suspect some people are going to make a fair bit of cash from this to begin with, mostly the people who are already doing well from ebooks, and maybe a few others if not very many people sign up. However long term I am not so sure this is a great benefit for writers although it is for Amazon. It effectively establishes a fixed amount for them each month to provide a well of free content for their Prime subscribers.

It’s worth taking a moment to think through some of the implications of this. This is a prototype subscription model. It takes a fixed amount of money and it divides it among a number of suppliers whose content is then going to be made available to Amazon’s fee paying Prime Members. Remind you of anything? Of course, Netflix, HBO, your cable supplier all use a similar model. It has one huge advantage for Amazon though—Amazon gets to set how much money it’s prepared to spend each month. It is not being negotiated with the providers save by an opt-in or opt-out measure.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this need necessarily turn out to be a bad thing or that it’s the final model. I think this is a scale model, being run with indies as guinea pigs, to see how this whole system will work out. If it works fine. Amazon will then have a working prototype for something bigger that it can show to the big boys in New York or London. And by big boys I don’t just mean publishing houses, I also mean megastar authors. This is a whole new revolutionary system as far as the book business is concerned, a whole new business model. Nothing like it has been seen in the business of publishing before, other than the limited state sponsored initiatives by the British, Irish and German governments and these were not meant as business systems at all.

What are the benefits for Amazon: lots of exclusive content. Short term: a small perk for its Prime customers.  Competitors locked out. At first in the relatively unimportant indie market (sorry fellow indies but its true) and possibly in the much more important big publishing markets if  Amazon can make the system fly. It’s not about locking out Big Publishing either. I am sure Amazon would be delighted to cut a deal with New York. It’s about the competition with Apple and Google and Microsoft and whatever new disruptive competitor might leap into the market. It’s about being a monopoly on distribution or part of a limited monopoly (an oligopoly if that’s the word.)

As an indie writer, what are the consequences for me? I will try it. The truth is that Amazon represents something like 97% of my sales anyway. I can’t do it with the old books because they are quite tough to pull out of general distribution. I was thinking that freebie promotions would be a good way of boosting sales on a series and you would only need to go exclusive with the opening book in the series. It did not too long to spot the flaw in my logic there. (It’s not much use making all the other books in a series non-exclusive if readers can only get the first book from Amazon!) I strongly suspect that going exclusive with Amazon might lead to a little extra cash for a writer like me, and a lot of extra cash for the big name indie success stories. In either case, I am not sure that it will make difference to the big picture for us.

I think what’s important here with Select is that it gives us a clue as to what Amazon is thinking, and the way in which it is looking to the future. Select could be the start of the long discussed rental model for ebooks. Because of the way it’s set up, it looks like it’s just one small skirmish in a greater struggle, but I think it’s a harbinger of things to come.  I think that, as far as publishing is concerned, the content wars have well and truly begun.

Addendum: David Gaughran has put up an excellent article on the pros and cons of the Select program here.