With the surge in e-readers and tablets, as well as new programs like KDP Select, there’s been a huge churn of stories on ebook pricing. Here are a couple of recent links:
First, via The Kill Zone, a link to a Booklr survey of the top 100 Kindle Books vs. the top 100 Nook titles between January 12th-19th. 35% of the top Kindle titles were less than $2 or free; none of the Nook titles were. At the other end, 40% of Nook’s top 100 were $10 or more; only 27% of the Kindle’s were.
Also, I had so many free downloads, the book began to appear in other books’ “Customer Also Bought” pages. Amazon doesn’t seem to care if these books mix together on the Also-Bought lists, so many more people were seeing the book once it switched back to Paid status, even though all its prior traffic was due to free downloads.
I like this theory, partly because it jives with my own successes on the Nook platform. The more people download your book, the more your book gets paired up with other titles by recommendation algorithms. If it hits some lucky sector, sales can suddenly take off.
So what’s Amazon up to?
I love every chance I get to chat with my CEO for a few minutes, because he has amazing insight when it comes to online marketing and media*. Many months ago, I was sitting with him at a company lunch while he was holding court to our Directors of Business Development and of Revenue about Google’s apparent product strategy. “Make a good enough product,” he said, “and give it away for free. Sure, Google Docs isn’t as feature-rich as MS Office, but it doesn’t need to be in order to exert price pressure.”
It appears that Amazon is following a similar strategy. They’re a big enough player that they can throw a lot of weight behind a particular price point. If their goal is to make life harder for legacy publishers, this makes sense as a tactic. Yes, Amazon would be collecting more margin if the average ebook price were still $8.26, not $6.48. But Amazon can afford to lose a little margin because they’re getting money elsewhere (people buying TVs or groceries or sweaters online). Random House isn’t.
This is purely speculation, of course. But it’s a story that makes sense to me.
* And I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss. If you know me in real life, you’ll know that I never compliment someone’s intelligence unless I really mean it. This has less to do with my integrity and more to do with my overweening conceit.
Three years ago I took a writing class at Grub Street on “Building a Writing Career.” Ethan Gilsdorf kicked off the class by having us go ’round the room and introduce ourselves by saying, “Hi, my name is [$name_here], and I’m a writer.”
“This is an important part of growing as a writer – identifying as one,” he said. “So no matter what you think of your work, whether you’re published or sold or not, introduce yourself as a writer.”
It was a full room, just shy of twenty folks around a table. The introductions started at the far end and rotated away from me, so I was no earlier than #11. Yet I was the first person to introduce myself as a writer without qualifying it first. Not “I’m trying to be a writer” or “I want to be a writer” or “I’m a writer, I think,” followed by nervous giggles. Just saying it and owning it.
And this was in a room full of peers! All people in the same spot: uncertain about their craft, looking for guidance, ready to learn. And the instructor gave us permission to call ourselves writers, even if we didn’t feel that we were. Even if we thought it was aspirational, not indicative.
It’s hard to call yourself a writer. I still struggle with it, my burst of “courage” three years ago notwithstanding. And I’m far more qualified to call myself a writer today than I was then. If someone congratulates me on my success or asks how I’m doing, my first instinct is always to duck my head, give a shy smile and make that weird “ennhhh” sound that we associate with Jewish grandfathers. I’m getting better at nodding and saying, “Thank you” or giving a sincere answer, but it’s a conscious choice. It’s like improving your posture or watching what you eat: you commit yourself daily anew.
Why are we so scared to identify ourselves as writers? I’d guess for three reasons.
First, identifying yourself as anything creative often prompts odd responses from other people. “Oh, you did improv in college? Do something funny.” While no one will ask you to produce a poem on short notice, calling yourself a writer can lead to a variety of unpredictable questions. This isn’t a reason to stop identifying yourself, as such, but it can make you self-conscious.
Second, we have a hard time owning labels that other people don’t assign us. I have no problem identifying myself as a marketer, since someone’s paying me to fill that role. Fathers don’t have difficulty calling themselves parents. But there’s no license or exam or certification process to become a writer (MFAs don’t count).
Third, as much as we have to commit ourselves to calling ourselves writers, we have to commit ourselves even more frequently to actually writing. Writing takes constant work and there’s little immediate reward. It’s easy to fall off and miss a few days. And if you don’t feel like a writer, identifying as a writer can make you feel like a fraud.
But what about you? Do you have a hard time identifying yourself as a writer? Or as whichever art form you’re passionate about (a singer, a sculptor, etc)? If not, what have you done to get over that hurdle?
Writing a novel is hard work in itself. For some reason, I chose to make it harder by writing Too Close to Miss in first person from the viewpoint of a woman.
Okay, not for some arbitrary reason. I wanted to invert certain thriller genre tropes, so a female protagonist was necessary. And I default into first person unless I make a conscious effort not to. The easiest way to find a voice, for me, is to speak in it all the time.
But it certainly had its challenges.
When people read the first page of my novel, the most frequent feedback I got from male readers was that they didn’t think Mara was a woman until a few pages in. The most frequent feedback I got from female readers is, “why does she have her jeans hanging in the closet?” The detail just rang false. Jeans get folded and placed in a dresser. I don’t keep my jeans there, but that’s probably a guy thing: I have more closet space than I have dresser space. I fixed both those details for the final draft.
Just yesterday, a friend of mine tweeted (in a ha-ha-oops way, not a prurient way) that she’d left her house without a bra on. I didn’t think this was something women did. I know that, depending on physique and outfit, there are times a woman can do it and times that they can’t. But there’s a lot of lore and practice surrounding brassieres that, as a male, is just lost to me. Fitting, support, changing sizes due to fluctuations in weight, fashion considerations – all a darkened vale to me. My relationship with bras has fluctuated between bemusement and frustration for the last eleven years; that’s all the knowledge I can bring to bear.
I see this and I think 'Get a bigger clutch.'
And yet these are things that Mara Cunningham has to know – not intellectually, but instinctively. She’s not going to go without a bra so as to tease the world around her; that’s not the kind of woman she is*. But in the new novel, there is a scene where she stumbles to the local convenience store hungover. How much would she put herself together for a trip like that?
My experience with femininity comes from two sources: the women I know and popular culture. Pop culture is a minefield when it comes to depictions of women (particularly independent women), so that’s better left unexplored. That leaves the women I know. While there are bits and pieces of several female friends in Mara Cunningham, I can only take that so far without being derivative. So I struggle to ask the probing but professional questions necessary to honestly depict a female hero.
The biggest shortcut I’ve taken, for the time being, has been to presume that women tend to want the same things men do: validation of their work, good sex, success for their friends, failure for their rivals and for their mothers to quit bugging them to settle down. Hasn’t steered me wrong yet.
But for those of you who’ve read Too Close to Miss, particularly female readers: does Mara Cunningham strike you as feminine? Not feminine enough? Too feminine (or perhaps too fake in her femininity)? Let me know, and be honest.
* Nothing creeps me out more than older male writers who write young female characters as an excuse to leer. Rupert Holmes’s Where The Truth Lies is a particular offender, with the perky female protagonist taking every opportunity she can to examine her firm body. Thanks for making it clear who this novel’s for, Rupert.
Before it can take over the world1, indie publishing has to overcome the perception that self-published authors are crap. Self-published authors don’t do a lot to help this notion (I could link to some particular offenders, but that would be cruel). Then again, legacy published authors aren’t always the best shepherds of their image either; consider Q.R. Markham, the lauded new author whose debut Little, Brown & Co. novel, Assassin of Secrets, was found to be heavily plagiarized2. But there’s a burden of proof on a self-published author that doesn’t exist for someone with a penguin on the cover.
Well, we take the world as we find it, not as we wish it. The perception exists. All I can do to counter it is keep producing well-reviewed neo-noir crime thrillers and calling out good indie work when I find it. This post is the latter.
I bought a copy of Fingers Murphy’s “Everything I Tell You is a Lie” when he released it for free (as part of his KDP Select promotion) on Amazon. It’s a slim little novella, but for its word count it doesn’t lack for impact. “Everything …” is a slick, evocative noir fable. Well, I say “noir,” but really it owes more to the existential fiction inspired by noir. Like Camus’s The Stranger, it follows a man recounting the choices and circumstances that led him to prison, where he’s about to be released after serving a sentence for homicide. It engrosses us in a small town story of the cycle of violence, neglect and pent-up rage that can ruin multiple lives.
Murphy writes with a mature, considered style, filling the story with true-to-life details that make it seem like a real narrative about real people in a real place. It’s a pleasure to read. There’s a slight tendency for the narrator to indulge in abstract introspection, but, since the frame story is about a man in therapy on the eve of his release from prison for murder, that’s almost to be expected.
My sincere wish is that Murphy turns this same stylistic laser on bigger and bolder subjects. Fortunately he’s got a few other titles to his name (if that is his name3) that promise to be meatier tales about desperate men in bad scenes. That’s the sort of story I go for, as anyone who’s read Too Close to Miss can tell you, so I’ll be checking his other stuff out.
1. It won’t. If it took over the world, it wouldn’t be “indie,” now would it? Not that there’s a particular virtue to independence, but the niche exists because it works.
I’m happy my corner of the Internet has risen in unison to protest SOPA. I really am. I’m happy people seem to recognize, today, finally, that putting powerful weapons in the hands of the powerful only serves the interests of the powerful. I’m glad people are doing whatever they can, even if it’s within a rather narrow band (writing their Congresspersons, rewriting their .htaccess files), to check the effects of hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying money.
My only hope is that today makes an impact. Not on Congress, but on everyone else.
My sincere, I’m-not-being-sarcastic-this-time hope is that people investigate the process that led to SOPA being written in the first place and realize that it’s not an accident. Nothing this big is an accident. SOPA emerged from a deliberate confluence of factions conspiring to protect their power. Congress isn’t endorsing a bill that expands the already draconian provisions of the DMCA because no other option appears available to them to stop piracy. They’re not idiots. Congress is endorsing this bill because people with millions of dollars, such as the MPAA (and their chief lobbyist, former Senator Chris Dodd), want it to happen. And the MPAA wants it to happen because they want to turn third-party filesharing into a revenue stream through a constant barrage of torts.
Does your average member of Congress care about lobbyists and campaign contributions more than they care about their constituency? Obviously Perhaps not. But they know that you’re going to vote for them anyway. Most people are. Your Congressional representative knows that he has an eighty percent chance of keeping his job whatever he does, slightly less if he’s a Senator. You aren’t going to turn your back on him over one trivial bill. But the MPAA might. And when the MPAA takes a member of Congress off their list, that’s a thousand-dollar haircut. More if he has a valuable committee seat.
One of the ways that people get confused about evolution – even the people who defend evolution against creationists – is that they think it’s “accidental.” It’s not. There’s a difference between undesigned and accidental. Evolution produces speciation through the forces of natural and sexual selection, with a healthy dose of mutation thrown in at random intervals. While there is no divine intelligence behind it, that doesn’t mean the process is a complete roll of the dice. Humans (and other animals) fit so well on the planet Earth because an animal that didn’t fit well wouldn’t have survived here. Evolution is a product of forces. It’s no more accidental than a waterfall.
Similarly, the convergence of money and power in the form of destructive regulation is not accidental. It’s not like Lamar Smith woke up one morning, found a monstrous censoring blade on his desk and decided to start swinging it before reason overtook him. It’s not as if Eric Cantor hates Google and wants it destroyed. Rather, you have many unrelated actors – filesharing sites, search engines, content aggregators, members of Congress, the MPAA – and a vast institution that notionally connects them – the law. The law is not a bulwark against the powerful. It’s a giant, flashing beacon. It tells the powerful, “If you want your voice to be heard, make your checks out to this address and no other.”
I have to stress that SOPA and PIPA are a natural outcome of the regulatory process, not some accidental aberration. I have to stress it because every law is like that. All of them. Even the ones you like. Especially the ones you like. Every bill whose passage you’ve ever cheered has been the result of either a multi-million dollar lobbying effort or, rarely, a massive coordinated push by an obstreperous faction that decided results were more important than tact.
If you object to SOPA, you object to the system that created it. If you don’t object to the system that created it, you don’t really object to SOPA. And don’t tell me that you understand the potential for corruption, but you hope that by electing “more and better” Ruling Party members that you can get good results, etc, because you can’t. It doesn’t work. You want a super-intelligent shark that’s not going to eat Samuel L. Jackson. Well, I’m sorry, but the super-intelligent shark will always eat Samuel L. Jackson.
I saw Mission Impossible 4: Spooky Operating Procedure with Sylvia over the holiday weekend. A slam-bang action flick, to use the Variety term, but a little breathless in the writing. And I use that in both the laudatory and pejorative senses: the action never lets up, but the speech gets a little nasally as a result.
Nonetheless it’s probably not my favorite M:I film. Every successive entry in the franchise makes me miss what I liked about the previous entry. I liked Brian de Palma’s velvety style; I liked John Woo’s balletic action; I liked J.J. Abrams’ efficient storytelling. Bird is more efficient at building tension without making it seem as ridiculous as Abrams does, and he can frame a fight scene without it becoming a clash of jumpy visual images. But he needed a better writer.
At first blush, writing a neo-noir crime thriller (like the sequel to Too Close to Miss) is nothing like writing a high-budget action flick. But the same principles of tension, danger and pacing apply, albeit on different scales. I was taking mental notes on things the writers might have done better; perhaps we can compare.
Three Things Ghost Protocol Got Wrong That It’s Not Hard to Get Right
1. Where’s Poochie?
Homer: One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking “Where’s Poochie”? Three…
Myers: Great, great. Just leave them right there on the floor on your way out.
Tom Cruise’s character of Ethan Hunt has always been the star of the franchise. But somehow that’s never felt quite as staged as it did in this installment, where nobody can shut up about how awesome Hunt is and how tragic his circumstances are. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) literally can’t shut up about how awesome it is to be working with Ethan Hunt. Agent Carter (Paula Patton) doesn’t have the same dialogue, but she favors Hunt with a lot of hurt stares, wondering at how he can deal with all that pain.
But it’s particularly galling with newcomer William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Brandt is set up to be at least as interesting as Hunt: athletic, good sense of humor, driven, photographic memory. And it turns out (in a twist that the trailer reveals, so I don’t feel bad about spoiling it) that Brandt may secretly be a competent field agent as well. But after we discover the extent of Brandt’s talents, he spends the entire next scene … talking about Ethan Hunt.
How to Fix: Show, don’t tell. Ethan Hunt doesn’t do anything particularly impressive for the first twenty minutes of the movie, aside from one artfully choreographed fight scene. Demonstrate the man’s competence and make him admirable, rather than having characters stand around and admire him.
2. Make Your Villains Interesting
Who was the villain of MI4GP? A former Swiss something who was a Russian somebody who wanted to blow up the world. Why? His motives get revealed in a speech, which we watch on video, delivered to the most boring looking government body ever. He’s literally talking about nuking the planet and no one in his audience even blinks.
Compare that to MI2, where our introduction to the villain is through his wicked Tom Cruise impersonation (“that was the hardest part about having to portray you, grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes”). Or to MI3; Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t look very engaged with the role, but at least he gets the best dialogue (“You can tell a lot about a person’s character by how they treat people they don’t have to treat well”). Compare that to Dr. No, or Die Hard, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Dark Knight or any of the classic thrillers.
How to Fix: as I said, give your villain the best dialogue. Give him at least one scene to gloat, even if it’s a little unrealistic. Or give him some humanizing or admirable touch, even if it’s just thumbing his nose at social conventions (which we all want to do, deep down).
3. They’re Called Plot Twists, Not Plot Roundabouts
I’m going to spoil a bit of the Act 2 setpiece here, but hopefully most of you have seen the movie already. If not, you’ll still enjoy it even if you know the following.
In act 2, our heroes are stationed at the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, the tallest building in the world. They have to intercept a set of Russian nuclear launch codes before they pass from an assassin to one of the villain’s henchmen. Their plan is to send both the assassin and the henchman to the wrong rooms, with members of the team posing as each, to fake both the handoff and the payoff.
BUT, things get complicated when both the assassin and the henchman show up early. THEN, things get more complicated when Benji can’t hack the hotel’s servers, requiring Ethan to scale the outside of the hotel to break into the server room. AND THEN things get even more complicated when the mask-making machine breaks down, forcing the team to take the chance that the assassin and the henchman have never met each other. BUT THEN things get still more complicated when it turns out that the henchman is bringing a nuclear launch security expert with him, who can verify the codes onsite, preventing Hunt from handing off phony codes to the henchman. AND THEN …
All this in the space of ten minutes. Before the audience can even get a handle on what’s going on, the direction changes. The plot isn’t twisting at this point; it’s turning in a steady spiral. The result is dizziness, not breathlessness.
How to Fix: tension is a function of uncertainty and stakes. Uncertainty requires a baseline of certainty to spring off of: the audience has to think they know what’s likely before you can start changing likelihoods. Get them comfortable before you start tugging on the rug. The M:I series should be ripe for this. There’s lots of opportunity for teams to play with gadgets, monitor surveillance and form plans, developing a scenario to its natural conclusion. Then, just before the end, throw in a plot twist.
By calling out these three points, I don’t mean to imply that the writers of Mission Impossible 4: Haunted Three-Ring Binder are morons or that I’m some master auteur. I’m still learning. But part of the learning process means being an informed audience member and taking notes.
Anyone else seen MI4GP yet? What were your thoughts?
On Monday, I reported on my sales numbers for Too Close to Miss‘s first month: 755 copies in total. Of those 755, 583 came from Barnes & Noble.
It’s tough to find exact figures on how much bigger Amazon is than Barnes & Noble, especially in the burgeoning ebook space. The best estimates I’ve found peg Amazon’s market share at over sixty percent. That remaining forty percent is being fought over by Barnes & Noble, Sony, iTunes and other platforms as well, so it’s not as if there are close second placers. And yet in spite of that, I’ve sold three times the number of copies on B&N that I have on Amazon.
The best I can do is guess. But my guesses are as good as anyone else’s in this crazy business, so here goes:
The recent launching of Kindle Direct Publishing Select resulted in a flurry of volume among the top authors on Amazon. I would wager that a big chunk of Kindle title sales in December were actually loans of KDP Select titles, which count as sales for the purposes of ranking. So anyone who wasn’t in KDP might have lost some sales as a result.
B&N’s self-publishing platform, PubIt!, lets you classify a book in five categories, compared to KDP’s two. It’s possible that Too Close to Miss is ranking better in Women Sleuths than it is in Thrillers, or doing better in Mysteries > Hard-Boiled than in Suspense. I can’t tell (hey, PubIt! – good data for the next platform release!). But it makes sense that being visible in more places would result in better sales.
Related to the above, it’s possible my title reached some tipping point by being associated with some best-seller. Thriller readers and $0.99 readers tend to read compulsively, downloading and buzzing through titles at high speed. If a few people bought Too Close to Miss as well as some hot title, then my book might have started showing up on more “Readers Who Bought This Also Bought …” lists.
Sales were trucking along on B&N until the 20th, when they spiked to 89 in one day. Some popular blogger recommending it? Some private email list? It seems odd that the boost on that day would all accrue to B&N and nothing to Amazon. Then again, B&N’s PubIt! gives me sales by day if I want them; Amazon’s KDP does not (or if they do, I haven’t found out how). So I might be missing something. In any case, since that spike, B&N sales have been averaging between 20 and 30 a day.
Ultimately, my surge in B&N volume may not have one root cause. But it’s a good thing I didn’t enroll in KDP Select when it was offered, as I would have had to take my title off of B&N. That would have cost me a few hundred dollars, and I can’t pretend I would have made that up in KDP Select lending.
Obviously, the same results might not be true for everybody. If your book is dragging its binding in the dust on B&N, you stand a chance to make more money in KDP Select. But make sure you look at the numbers before deciding. I did, and I got a very pleasant surprise.
I don’t want this to turn into an indie writing blog focused solely on the numbers. I see a lot of those. While big sales are good, there are more important considerations, like growing the craft, developing a network of supportive readers and fellow authors, establishing benchmarks for quality, and so forth.
But: I’m new to the indie publishing process. I’m learning. And I invited all of you to learn with me. This means ripping open the numbers and letting strangers peck at them.
In the first month, I have 755 sales attributed to Too Close to Miss. This is across Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the various Smashwords platforms. It doesn’t include iTunes sales figures, which I only get to see quarterly, so for all I know I’ve sold more. But 755 is what I know I’ve done.
To the best of my knowledge, 755 units is a phenomenal month for an independent, debut, no-name author. I’m very proud of it. I’d be more proud if it felt real; this is still some sort of crazy dream.
Of those, 148 came in the first full week (Dec 2nd through 10th), 126 in the second week (Dec 11th through 17th), 333 in the third week (Dec 18th through 24th) (more on that odd surge tomorrow) and 169 in the final week (Dec 25th through 31st). So it seems like 100 / week is a good minimum to hope for.
This was at a price of $0.99 across all platforms. Yesterday, as threatened, I raised the price to $3.992. My seat-of-the-pants guess is that multiplying the price by 4X will reduce sales volume by 4X. Of course, the royalty structure on Amazon and B&N means I’ll still be making more money, even if this is the case. And maybe demand is more inelastic than I suspect: maybe I’ll only lose half my sales. Or maybe they’ll shrink to 10 books a week. A spectrum of possibilities awaits!
1. Life tip: the trick to making time last longer is to fill your days with new and exciting things. Since December had a book launch, a cycle of marketing and promotion, Christmas and New Year’s Eve in it, it feels like I’ve packed ten weeks into the last four. At this rate, I will live forever, or at least feel that way.
2. However, since iTunes takes longer to update its prices and since Amazon guarantees a price match on its ebooks, it’s still available (as of this writing) for $0.99 on both those platforms. Object lesson: plan your price changes carefully and stagger the execution.