The Mage Chronicle Audio book is here!

The Mage Chronicles, with Narration by Georgie Leonard is now live on Audible and Amazon!

Audible

Amazon

I think Georgie did an incredible job of bringing the story to life and I’m thrilled to have this on the market.

Check out the retail sample for yourself:

Blurb:

It has been a centuries-long golden-age for the empire, a time of peace and prosperity. Mary, a mage class healer, is content to live an ordinary life in one of the rich central worlds. Her old master Ashely La’Margin wants her to do more with her magic, but Mary has little use for riches or power.

Now a border dispute in some distant province threatens to become war, and there are rumors of Juggernaut, super warriors that can’t be killed. The civilian council of mages sends Mary to stop it, but what does a healer know of war?

On the way she will confront a harsh medieval world unlike the central worlds she has known. If she is to save this empire she must discover untapped powers and face the ghosts of her past, especially the boy Martin and the orphanage that she left behind as a child.

To keep up to date about R. J. Eliason’s writing, sign up for her list. And receive a free copy of The Mage Chronicles:

A New Short Story From R. J. Eliason

I am part of an anthology!

Changeling Ward is a collection of three short stories/novellas from local Iowa Authors. All the stories are fantasy and all are based around the theme of changelings.

My story is A Knife in the Dark and it’s set in the Gilded Empire world. (The same world that Mage Chronicles is in, though the characters aren’t the same.)

The ebook is currently available as an Amazon exclusive. That means if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read it free for a short time. Check it out today!

And as always, if you want to stay up to date on the latest from R. J. Eliason, sign up for my email list:

Shoshone Station #4: Meteors Out Now!

It’s here, the latest episode in my ongoing Sci-fi Serial, The Galactic Consortium.

Blurb:

Dan Oleson has been chosen to serve as embassy security on Saras Station in the Consortium, but he will soon discover the dangers are of a different type than he’s expecting.

Rumors are swirling about an asteroid or some other large body colliding with the earth. Would the Consortium allow such a thing to happen? More importantly, it seems the rumor may have started on Shin Station, of all places. Can Dan find the answer to this riddle?


Buy Links

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Everywhere else

 

Introducing Zoey and the Zombies

Zoey one

The world is overran with undead. Giant hordes are pouring out of the East Coast, threatening the Midwest. The defense of Mondamin Court, a quiet neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa is up to a disabled cop, a fourteen year old boy and a transgender girl. What could go wrong?

Mondamin Court is a typical lower middle class neighborhood in a midwestern city. The people are a cross section of America. Each book starts with the same setting and characters but they face a different apocalyptic scenario.

Release date is: June 20th

Update, it’s out:

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Kobo

Everywhere Else

Bad Reviews of Good Books

Every author gets bad reviews. It’s a fact of life. You should never, ever respond to a bad review.

So what do you do? I like to remind myself that everyone gets bad reviews from time to time. When that’s not enough, I go on Amazon or Goodreads and check out bad reviews my favorite authors have gotten. It helps me to realize that some of the writers I admire most have been called far worse things than I have.

(A note to reviewers: It is not my intention in this piece to attack anyone who reviews fiction or to perpetuate any bad blood between writers and reviewers. Rather I hope to do the opposite, to get some writers to lighten up about their own bad reviews. We are all entitled to our opinion, even if that means we hate on books that everyone else loves. Peace brothers.)

 

The Hobbit

With over 780,000 five star reviews on Goodreads, calling the Hobbit the most beloved children’s tale of all time wouldn’t seem a stretch. And yet it also has over 38,000 one star reviews. Reviews that say things like, plodding, ponderous, pretentious and yes, perfunctory”. One reviewer even suggests that Tolkien had a very good idea, yet he did not execute it in a way most readers will enjoy.”

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and on Goodreads Tolkien has fared pretty well, a lot of people just didn’t like the book. Check out Amazon for some amazing vitriol, from fans even. Tolkien’s problem on Amazon is how long he’s been around and how many versions/editions of book like the Hobbit there are. There is no wrath like a that of a Tolkien fan who ordered the classic 1973 edition and got a crappy 1976 reprint of the classic 1973 edition. Wow, some of those reviews really sting.

 

The Lorax

What’s not to like about Dr. Seuss’s classic book the Lorax? Apparently “stupid words.” Snark aside, I don’t think this particular reviewer deserves to be attacked for their opinion. Let the drama go, people.

The Lorax has picked up some interesting one star reviews on Amazon as well. This guy calls the book’s environmental message “brainwashing.”

 

War and Peace

Predictably the negative reviews of War and Peace focus primarily on two facets of the work, it’s length and it’s number of characters. However I feel obligated to point out that both things are often praised by modern readers of the Game of Thrones saga. Still it’s true, War and Peace is a long work and it has a lot of characters to keep track of. Historical fiction is not everyone’s forte and I will give critics a pass on this one, whatever my own opinion is.

 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Harry Potter series has been one of the biggest sellers of our generation. Like the Hobbit it has legions of five star reviews singing it’s praise. J. K. Rowling hasn’t just been embraced by fans, she has plenty of awards from various publishing and literary groups, including a lifetime achievement award from the British Book Awards.

That doesn’t mean she’s escaped criticism by any stretch of the imagination. One reader can sum up their feeling about the book in one word, “poop.” This Amazon reviewer admits that he’s not (sic) intelligencia and might have missed the whole point of Harry Potter. Given his comments about Pokemon, I suspect sarcasm. I am not really sure what this reviewer is suggesting we do with Harry Potter, but I suspect it’s not particularly favorable.

 

Atlas Shrugged

To prove that I am not out to attack reviewers for not liking my favorite books, I am going to throw out one of my own doozies. Atlas Shrugged hit the bestsellers list a mere three days after it’s release. It has over 75,000 five star reviews. Many begin with the phrase, “this book changed my life.” One reviewer called it “the holy grail of how to live your life.”

But it’s one of those books you either love or hate. I am in the second category. In many cases the fault line for this book is political. Ayn Rand has been enormously influential to Libertarian philosophy. Depending on how you view that philosophy, you will likely love or hate the book. And I admit, my personal politics are far to the left of Rand’s. Yet, that is not my major complaint with Atlas Shrugged. I struggled to see her characters as real, not mouthpieces for her philosophy. By the same token the plot seemed contrived and convenient, just an excuse to give those mouthpieces a chance to spout her various views.

Atlas Shrugged did spawn my favorite snarky, negative review in all of history. Writer Dorothy Parker reportedly said of Atlas Shrugged:

“This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, but rather thrown with great force.”

 

Dear Authors,

I think I have proven my point. Any book with more than a couple dozen reviews is bound to have some bad ones. Any book with more than a hundred reviews will have some out and out clunkers, reviewers who think J. R. R. Tolkien ripped off J. K. Rowling or that Stephenie Meyers invited vampire lore and all other vampire novels are plagiarism. People dislike books for all kinds of reasons and that’s okay.

If you don’t feel better about your bad review yet, you can look up any other book on Amazon or Goodreads and see that they, too, have bad reviews. Likely their bad reviews are just as bad, snarky and unfair as yours. So relax. Embrace your fans, ignore the haters and write on.

Endings, Beginnings, and the Middle of a Big Project.

I finished another rough draft this week. It’s the third in my apocalypse series. You can check out Home for the Holidays here. Zoey and the Zombies is nearly through self edits. A Fishy End is now resting, I will come back in a month or two and re-read it. My plan is to take all three manuscripts and submit them to my editor over the winter sometime and publish them next year. I’m excited about getting this series out.

Home for the holidays web

My next project, the one I am doing for Nanowrimo is Bear Naked Four: the Wolf Council. I have been trying to focus on series, in particular having most of a series done before I try to publish and promote them. In that vein, writing the rough draft to Bear Naked Four means I should go on to write five and six immediately after, wrapping up the entire story arc.

I say should because I wrote a while ago about Big Project Blues. Book four of a six book series, now that’s big project blues. Novels have become old hat to me now. But this series is stretching out of my comfort zone. Hopefully writing book four will bring me back some of the passion of the series, I really love the characters and I love where the story is going. It’s just getting it there.

I can’t complain, though. I love writing. It’s what keeps me going when the rest of life gets hard.

In the meantime I am expecting to get back the second episode of my Sci-fi serial, The Girl in the Tank today and start working on prepping it for publication. Episode two: A Shaky Start should be available at the start of the month, on multiple platforms.

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If you can’t Write Fast, Fake it

I was given this advice, almost word for word, from a fellow writer recently. And surprisingly, it reverberated with me.

Indie writers often advise writing fast and publishing a lot. There are lots of good reasons to do this, if you are able. Publishing regularly keeps your name fresh in reader’s minds. Having lots of published works out allows readers to enjoy one story and then immediately move on to others. Writing fast makes it possible to write a lot, and writing a lot helps you get better at writing. If nothing else, publishing a lot of work means that even if you only have modest commercial success, if you multiply that by many books you can still make a decent income.

Writing fast gets a bad rap because it’s too often associated with writers publishing poorly edited manuscripts or cutting novels into pieces make serials. Those things that do happen, but there are many great writers who put out books regularly without sacrificing quality.

Not everyone can do it, however. Some of us naturally write fast but others do not. For those who do, what can they do?

The answer is to fake it. How do you do that? This writer suggested writing at least three books before even considering publication. Then either publish all three at once or space them out a month apart or so. That way you get the same advantages, bigger buzz and multiple books on the market, without having to write a book a month.

I write fast. But I also tend to write scattered. I have several books in progress at any one time. I have several series up in the air right now. The third Bear Naked book will be out very soon. There are three more in the story arc that aren’t written.

Meanwhile I have the next Gilded Empire book almost done. It’s the beginning of a trilogy. I have the Galactic Consortium serial running on Wattpad and the first Mondamin apocalypse novel on that site.

The Bear Naked hasn’t performed as well as I expected. Part of it, I think, is that readers don’t like to start series that aren’t complete, or at least well under way. There is always a concern that the author will abandon the series uncompleted. We have been conditioned by the availability of so many series that it’s hard to get traction with one book. Hopefully, The Hunted will give the Bear Naked series that kind of traction.

In the meantime I am thinking of taking this advice to heart. I have temporarily tabled The Banner of Kash until I can finish at least the rough draft of books two and three. I have a second Mondamin book in editing stages and a third in planning. Once the Banner of Kash is completed I will come back to that series.

What do you think? Will you read the first book in a series if the others aren’t completed yet?

How long should your book be?

Beginning writers often ask how long their story should be. How many pages makes a novel?

There are a number of answers, most of them contradictory. For starters, writers don’t work in pages anymore, it’s word count. A three hundred page word document does not translate into a three hundred page trade paperback. Page size, font, font size and line spacing make a huge difference in the length of the end product, which is why word count is the more accurate way to judge the length of the novel.

So how many words make a novel? Before I answer that, I want to give a little history. The novel, especially the genre, trade paperback novel, is a relatively recent invention. For a long time, there wasn’t a set length for a novel.

Prior to the twentieth century, printing was a cottage industry, handled by master printers, typographers and book setters. In other words, craftsmen. They made books to fit the stories the writers of the day gave them. The length of the novel depended on the writer.

traditionally books were a cottage industry, each one created and formatted by hand.

In 1935 Allen Lane launched Penguin Publishing, the first mass market publisher in the U.S. Mass market publishing emphasized large print runs and wide distribution. It quickly transformed publishing and the novel. On the good side, they made reading a cheap and popular form of entertainment. The cost was treating the novel, and it’s writer, as a commodity.

In particular large print runs and wide distribution meant that every paperback had to be of a relatively standard size. Part of this was practical, books had to have a consistent trim size for convenient boxing, shipping and display purposes. Part of this was marketing. Publishers weren’t looking to sell these new books in bookstores, but instead were selling them in drugstores, grocers and newsstands. In order to get into these retailers they had to have a consistent price across their entire selection, 25 cents per book.

With pulp fiction, publishers were as concerned with having a standard product as having a good story.

They needed a steady supply of new stories to fill these novels. But those stories had to fit the container, not the other way around. The idea that a novel had to be a certain length was born.

The early mass market paperbacks were shorter than most books we see published today, a hundred fifty to two hundred pages. Forty thousand words was considered a novel, and anything longer was likely unpublishable, unless it was a literary novel (which were still be produced in hardcover.)

By the late sixties the average novel length had risen slightly to fifty or sixty thousand words. When Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle submitted Lucifer’s Hammer which ran well over a hundred thousand words, they were told it would have to be cut. The editor called them back a few days later and said, “I couldn’t find a word I could do without.” They published it as is, 640 pages in paperback. It sold incredibly well.

After that the word counts on novels began to rise in specific genres. This was in part because they realized that readers would pay more for a thicker book. And this was in part because they wanted to justify charging more.

This is where things start to get wonky, and this is why there are so many different answers to the question, how long should a novel be. Some publishers and some genres decided they wanted to sell big thick books. For science fiction and fantasy, fifty thousand words was suddenly too short. They wanted a hundred thousand words. Other genres continued to sell well with the old strategy and continued to produce shorter, smaller books. To make matters worse, first time authors are often stuck with whatever “average” word count exists in their genre, but writers that have proven they can sell can safely ignore the rules. Just look at J. K. Rowlings. The first Harry Potter books is much shorter and conforms much closer to rules for YA writing. But as the book series took off, publishers stopped asking her to follow the rules.

Estimates for how long a novel should be range from forty thousand (wikipedia) to fifty thousand (Nanonwrimo) to a hundred thousand or more (some sci-fi publishers.) This Huffpost article gives the word counts on a smattering of classics, and shows how varied they can be.

If you are seeking to get traditionally published, it pays to know the expectations of publishers in your genre. If you don’t you might be facing the difficult prospect of significantly rewriting your novel to fit some editors expected word count.

The bottom line, though, is this, novel length has more to do with printing and pricing of books then it has to do with the actual writing. The downside for the writer is that sometimes you simply run out of story before you hit your word count goal. You have to pad the story out with subplots to make it fit. Other times you run long and are faced with a painful process of cutting. For the reader the downside is padded out stories or stories that could have had that much more impact, if the writer had been allowed to write a tighter story. And books that seem short, that have lots more that the writer could have given us.

All books are the same size on the Kindle.

Luckily, times they are a changing. ebooks are slowly coming to dominate the market. And ebooks have none of the limitations of print. They can be any length, especially if they are indie. Just looking over my Amazon account, I have “books” ranging from short stories that would run under twenty pages in print to books like Neal Stephenson’s The Cryptonomicon, which ran over a thousand pages in print.

How long should a novel be? Long enough to tell the story you want to tell, not one word longer or one word shorter.

Why the Ebook Bubble isn’t going to Burst

I hear a consistent rattle throughout the blogosphere about how we are in an ebook bubble. And of course we all know that bubbles are bad. They lead to financial collapse and ruin. And that is exactly what’s going to happen to ebooks, any day now.

I don’t personally believe we are in an ebook bubble, but even if we are, I don’t think it’s likely to collapse any time soon.

Let’s start by looking at what a bubble economy actually is, how it applies to ebooks and what an ebook bubble collapse would look like.

An Economic Bubble

First lets start with a bubble economy. An economic bubble occurs when the perceived or market value of an item or industry is too different from its real or intrinsic value. This can easily be explained with a couple of examples.

The dot com boom and bust of the nineties was a classic economic bubble at work. What happened is this: In the early nineties everyone was convinced that ecommerce was going to be the next big thing. (They were right, of course.) The stock market began investing heavily in any and all internet businesses.

The problem was the industry was still relatively small and the companies were new and untried. Internet businesses are lean by nature and in the mid-nineties there were hundreds of them. Most had a modest office space somewhere in California, a half dozen employees and a handful of web servers. That didn’t stop investors from sinking millions into them.

The result was a classic bubble. Some of these companies could measure their real assets in thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. On the stock exchange they were worth millions.

bubble economy

What happens when a company has fifty thousand in real assets and an estimated worth of fifty million? When it’s an economic boon, like the early and mid nineties were, all is good. But as soon a recession hits, look out. Many of the companies didn’t have assets on hand to weather the storm and went bankrupt, leaving investors out millions.

Another classic bubble is housing bust of 2008. For years real estate values rose consistently. Many people discovered real estate as a good investment tool.

But what about the real value of your house? Every year your market value goes up, but does your house grow bigger? Does it get better? If anything it is slowly aging, being subject to depreciation.

Again, as long as the economy is fairly stable, it works. But eventually the economy takes a downturn. Then nobody wants, or can afford, to pay the current market price. The last housing bubble left many people owing more on their current mortgage than they could get from selling the house. They were underwater, as the saying goes.

The Ebook Bubble

Are we in an ebook bubble? That’s a pretty murky question. With the dot com bust of the nineties it was pretty obvious. Companies have a tangential amount of fixed assets. The DOW lists stock prices. Just do the math and you’ll know. The housing bubble was a little tougher to see. Market value on a house is really just a guestimate of what the house would sell for. You don’t know exactly what the house’s market value is until you actually sell it. As many found out in the housing bust, sometimes houses won’t sell at their appraised value.

To figure out if we are in an ebook bubble or not we have to answer two questions. What is the real, intrinsic value of an ebook? What is the market value of an ebook? Neither of these questions have a good objective answer.

Market value of books

Those sounding the alarm about the ebook bubble are often the same people concerned about the huge rise in cheap or free ebooks flooding the market. These books are rapidly driving out better written but more expensive books, or so they claim.

This whole notion is based on a couple of simplistic half truths. The first is that books are an interchangeable commodity, that consumers simply looking for a book (any book will do) to read will naturally buy the cheapest they can find and be done with it. The second is that book sales are a zero sum game, that more sales of book A invariably means less sales of book B.

It is sometimes true that a book consumer is simply looking for a book to read to pass the time. It’s also true that people can only read so many books in any given period and eventually their book buying becomes saturated.

But neither of these paint the true story of a book’s market value. Books are not interchangeable commodities. Readers might be price sensitive on some titles but willing to pay more for other titles. A few books might compete for the same readership, but most do not. Some of the best marketers out there simply shrug their shoulders and say, “you just can’t predict the market.”

Here is the secret: each book is unique. You are trying to define a market value for “books” but each book has it’s own market value. Some books will sell well even at a premium price. Some books won’t sell, even at ninety nine cents. Some are free and still don’t get many downloads.

You can make some guesses how much the market will pay for a given book by looking at the track record of the authors. Best selling authors bring in more sales than unknown authors, generally speaking. You can make an even broader guess based on the genre the book is in. But putting an exact market value on a book is almost impossible, because each book will have it’s own unique value.

Industry analyst have looked at sales for a huge number of titles and identified “sweet spots.” (Currently Mark Coker says 3.99 is the sweet spot.) Books often sell fewer copies if priced too high or too low. Some indies have identified their own personal sweet spot by bumping their price around until they find it.

The ebook bubble concept is based on the idea that since so many indie authors are willing to sell books for 99 cents, that’s the market value for books. But many titles sell well for higher prices, and many 99 cent books don’t sell despite the price. But for the sake of argument lets take the basement discount price as market value and go on.

The intrinsic value of an ebook

If you think measuring the market value of a book is hard, measuring its intrinsic value is even harder, in part because there are a number of different perspectives.

The consumer perspective: It’s often hard to get the average consumer to see any intrinsic value in an ebook. It’s a digital rather than real product. To them it’s a few bytes of information on their kindle, computer or device. It costs nothing to store there. It can be copied at the click of a mouse. This explains, no doubt, why so many people are so cavalier about epiracy.

The indie perspective: the ebook itself might not be more than a few bytes on a computer, but there were real tangible costs to creating it. There was editing that had to paid for, cover design, formatting, etc. These fixed costs are a easily tabulated and often seen as the real cost of a digital book. Because these are one time costs, they diminish with sales. Let’s say for example that it costs you a thousand dollars to produce an ebook. If you sell two copies, it cost you five hundred dollars per copy. But if sell a thousand copies, it’s only a dollar per copy. This is the mentality that makes it logical to sell books at 99 cents or 1.99, hoping to sell thousands of copies and recoup the cost of production and then some.

The publisher’s perspective has to add in further costs, the cost of doing business. They not only have to pay back the one time costs of producing a book, they have ongoing overhead they have to cover as well.

Indie writers have accused publishers of conspiring to keep ebook prices high to protect print sales. Indies often shake their head at the seemingly boneheaded things that publishers do, at least when seen from an indie perspective. In my opinion it’s about more than protecting print sales, it’s about paying overhead.

In almost every industry the single biggest overhead expense is payroll. And suddenly keeping profit margins high makes perfect sense. If you assume that the majority of people working in the publishing industry would like to keep their jobs, and their jobs are dependent on the company making enough profit to pay its overhead, the whole issue takes on a different tone. A lot of choices that seem dumb to indies makes a certain sense.

(I hate to be a doomsayer, but this is one of the main reasons I’ve stayed indie so far. I am not sure the big publishers will ever be able to compete effectively against an indie writer who has little or no overhead.)

But what about the writer’s time?

The ebook-bubble-is-about-to-burst crowd seems to overlap extensively with the what-about- the-writer’s-time crowd and the two are integral to each other. None of these costs have taken into account the enormous amount of time an author puts into writing a book.

This criticism is often laid at the consumer’s feet. Consumers who are supposedly willing to read any old crap they can get for 99 cents while bypassing on real literature.

Criticizing readers for reading what they like, be it for 99 cents or 9.99 is never a good way to sell them on your books. And since every author would like more sales than they get, it’s easy to read sour grapes into this.

The second place this criticism often gets laid is at the feet of Indies. If there weren’t so many hobby writers willing to sell their poorly edited manuscripts for a song, serious writers would have an easier time making a living.

This crowd rarely seems to lay this same criticism at publisher’s feet, though they used to. This was a common complaint heard in writers groups before the ebook revolution came along. If you figured out what the average advance meant in hourly wages, it was a pittance at best.

The truth is nobody has ever paid writers for their time. Most indies today look at this from an entrepreneur’s perspective. You can’t expect the consumer to pay you for bringing a product to the market. You simply have to sell that product at a profit so you can eventually recoup those costs. Others argue they enjoy writing and don’t need compensation for that time.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s factor in the time spent writing the book. If we allot even minimum wage to the writer during these long hours, the real cost of a book becomes tremendous. Suddenly we have a huge ebook bubble.

The ebook bubble

If we assume that the lowest price point is the “market value” of an ebook and we assume that writers must be paid at least minimum wage for every hour they spent laboring, the cost of an ebook and the market value are far apart. But do you notice something strange about this bubble?

bubble economy 2

The ebook bubble is inverted. The market value is lower than the real value. What happens when it costs more to bring a product to the market then a company can sell that product for? They stop making the product. Then one of two things happen, the market price rises until it again becomes profitable to produce the product. Or the product itself disappears from the marketplace.

Since the primary cost that makes this a bubble is the writers’ wanting compensated for his/her time, the only way for this bubble to burst is for writers, en masse, to stop writing. If that happens (and assuming that all the already in print books get read, out of print, or something…) there will become a shortage of books, the market value will rise and it again be profitable for some writers to write books.

There are so many problems with this that I am almost don’t know where to begin. But let’s begin with what I call the stand off. Every time I read something about the ebook bubble, the deluge of ebooks on the market or the race to the bottom, it’s from a writer. They are engaged in a disingenuous stand off with their fellow writers. If only all those other writers stopped writing and publishing books, my book would stand a better chance.

  1. A) I don’t believe that’s how it works. If prolific romance writers like Barbara Freethy or H. M. Ward were to retire their keyboards today, those readers wouldn’t flock to your literary novel instead. B) I’ll stop writing when you do. The hypocrisy of writers telling other writers to stop writing is too much for me to bear.

Then there’s the fact that writers have many complex reasons for writing. Many write because they love it. If they make money from their writing, great. If they don’t, they’ll still write. Some writers write because they have a message they want to share with the world. All reasons for writing are valid, not just the profit motive.

Besides, despite all of these things, many writers do end up making money. Many writers have supported themselves for years on novel sales. Some have even gotten rich off them. Amidst all the dire news about publishing today, there are good indications that the number of authors making a living from their books is actually at an all time high. I’ve said before that the real indie revolution isn’t the occasional break away best seller. It isn’t the meager amount the average writer makes. Its the growing number of midlist authors that are quietly making a living from their writing, and making far more than they did with a publisher.

How can authors get compensated for their time?

Are authors just supposed to slave away for years, for free, in the hopes of eventual rewards? Sort of. Here are some hints to help with time compensation issue.

  1. Approach writing as though it were research and development for your business. Companies don’t expect consumers to pay them for research. They underwrite those costs themselves and then hope to make that money back when they bring the product to market. Writers should look at their writing time the same way.
  2. You don’t have to race to the bottom. Book sales are about a lot of things, price is only one. If 99 cents or 2.99 price points offend you, price your book higher. Expect that you will have to convince people your book is worth more.
  3. Ask yourself, what else would I be doing? If there is a good answer, consider doing that and not writing. Nobody is forcing you to be a writer. If it’s that frustrating, instead of railing against other writers, just stop. Start a youtube channel. Paint a picture. There are hundreds of ways to be creative.

Most writers will realize, if they stop to think about it, that they want to write. That they would keep right on writing, even if they never got paid. So keep writing. Be glad you get paid what you do.

Amazon’s BS Machine

I absolutely adore Ursula K. Lequin. I want you to know that right up front. She’s one of my favorite writers of all time. I love how passionate and outspoken she is about many issues, ranging from books to feminism. However her latest post on Bookview Cafe missed the mark on a number of levels. The post, title Up the Amazon with the BS Machine, takes Amazon to task for creating a system where the latest best seller drives out better books.

 

Her argument in a nutshell is that Amazon has an obscure algorithm for determining best sellers. It focus on selling books fast and cheap, favoring the quick pop success of fad titles and then burying books that have ran their course into obscurity.

I see three big issues with what’s she’s saying. The BS machine (best seller machine) predates Amazon’s rise and dominance by many years. Amazon’s admittedly murky algorithm actually works against the BS machine and Amazon doesn’t condemn any book to obscurity, quite the opposite.

The BS Machine

Let’s start with the rise of the BS machine. It didn’t happen overnight. It rose in large part due to the same market forces that slowly turned hundreds of medium sized presses into the big five corporate publishers we have today. You can glimpse the same complaints in books on publishing that were themselves published as far back as the 1980’s.

It goes like this, as publishing becomes more and more driven by corporate bottom line, publishers natural focus on “marketable” or “commercial” fiction. i.e. books that sell well enough to make the company a big profit. The hunt for the next big thing soon trumps keeping a stable of moderately successful writers happy.

The rise of big box stores and discount sellers in the nineties drove this to new heights. Suddenly books didn’t just have to sell enough copies at regular price to be profitable, they had to sell at a sharp discount and still be profitable.

Amazon came along in the mid-nineties and has slowly gained a greater and greater market share, eclipsing Barnes and Nobles and driving Borders out of business. Lequin is right to say that they have continued to force the trend towards highly discounted books, but wrong to say they are responsible for the best seller mentality, which came from publishers and big box stores.

Amazon’s Sales Rank

The way Amazon determines sales rank for books, and therefore best sellers, is indeed a murky business. They are notoriously secretive about their algorithm. But what we do know about the process actually works against the BS machine, not for it.

First off, the reason Amazon is so secretive is that they fear publishers or indie writers will game the system if the system is too well understood. After all, it happens all the time. Every time the algorithm becomes too clear, someone figures a way to make it work for them.

The best example is free. It’s also the best example of how the current system works against the BS machine.

Back in the early days of KIndle Direct Publishing, Amazon counted any download equally. Authors figured out that they could make their book free for a short time and shoot to the top of the bestsellers list. Once they put the book back to regular price it would slowly drop off the list. In the meantime, they would be on Amazon’s front page, getting a huge boost in publicity. This would result in a huge number of sales for the author, enough to justify the free promotions.

Problems abound for Amazon and for author’s in general. The value of being a best seller was watered down. Bad books often did come to the top. Clever marketers succeeded while good writers failed.

So, Amazon started changing their system. They no longer count free downloads towards sales rank. Free giveaways still have value for some writers but they aren’t a quick way to game the system anymore.

The murkiest part of Amazon’s algorithm is “stickiness.” What exactly counts as stickiness is uncertain, nor how they measure it or how much weight they give it. In general terms what it means is this, Amazon weighs consistent long term sales more than short term ups and downs.

For example another way to game the system was to get all of your fans to buy a book on a certain day. Authors did this through email lists, twitter or other social media. By micromanaging their sales they hoped to get enough downloads within a given period to push their sales rank up into the bestseller list. Like other ways of gaming the system, it worked for a time.

Then Amazon changed the system. They started updating the sales rank more often. That had the result that sales all in one day would boost your rank, but it would drop the next day, back to what it was. The benefits of gaming the system became short lived.

Now many indie authors have noticed they’ve taken it a step further. If your book has been selling at a certain rate and had a certain sales rank for several weeks, small bumps in sales have little effect on that rank. So do small dips in sales. Sales ranks have become “sticky.”

Amazon has done this to prevent gaming the system, but it also works against the BS machine. Stickiness means that books that sell reasonably well will be kept around and will keep selling reasonably well, while fad books rise and fall in the background.

“But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print.”

Of all the arguments Lequin makes, this one is just plain wrong. Amazon had no mechanism to force publishers to take a book out of print and two important mechanisms in place to prevent it.

Amazon doesn’t want books to go out of print to make way for the next big thing. Publishers do. They can make more money off one title if they get the competition off the shelf. The generous return policies they offer retailers is in part aimed at that. Can’t sell title A? No worries, we will credit you for it and send you title B.

Digital shelf space is unlimited and Amazon makes far more money by selling a few copies of title A and a few copies of title B then they do by concentrating their efforts on a best seller. In fact they’ve driven Borders out of business, not by having more copies of one book but by having an enormous selection of books on sale, a selection no physical retailer could match.

How does Amazon preserve books? The most direct way is their own Kindle Direct Publishing. Digital books never go out of the print. Many authors have created large side incomes by taking older titles that went out of print and republishing themselves on KDP. Newer indie books are never in danger of being taken out of print by the vagaries of a traditional publisher.

The second way that Amazon keeps books in circulation, if not print, is through a vast collection of associate sellers. Anyone can start an online store through Amazon’s associate program. Used bookstores and book collectors run lucrative businesses reselling older titles.

I resisted online book buying for many years, preferring to shop at a local bookstore. But time and again, I couldn’t find the title I was looking for. Meanwhile, I’ve found hundreds of great out of print books on Amazon. I’ve been able to access some great books that publishers would have let die long ago, if not for Amazon.

 

I am no Amazon fangirl. You can criticize many of their business practices and I will be on board with you. They are a huge corporation. If you believe you can trust any corporation to serve anything other than it’s own best interests, you are dangerously naive. Publishers and authors should always keep one eye open to what Amazon is up to.

Amazon is also an online platform. That’s a big part of why I am not afraid of them.  Like Facebook and Google, they have a good side and a bad side. They have value to both consumers and publishers alike. In the future that might change, and we will all have to roll with it.

It’s important to be objective, to not blame them for every ill of modern publishing, or for market forces beyond their control. They have their good and bad side, but this one is not on them, in my opinion.

What is your opinion? I would glad to hear it in the comments below.