The weather, of course

I’m back in Iceland, visiting over the holidays, and the local weather gods seem intent on making the visit as memorable as they can.

Turns out that my flight yesterday was the last one that could land safely. I stepped out of the terminal, with my dad, into a snow storm with only a few yards of visibility.

Now, normally, in Iceland that wouldn’t be a cause for much concern. With a decent driver, as long as you can see the road and the car in front of you, you’re going to be fine. But as soon as we drove off, the storm weighed down on us and visibility went down to zero. So, we did the only thing sensible: pulled over and put on the hazard lights.

Most of those who didn’t pull over and stop ended up stuck in snow or off the road.

So, to make a long story short, a trip that would normally only take about 45 minutes took me five hours yesterday, two spent sitting in a car off to the side of the road, two spent stuck in Keflavík as the road to Reykjavík was closed, and then an hour to drive back.

Spent most of the time in Keflavík in Hlölla, a hamburger/fast food joint which had an excellent bacon burger special to tide us over while stranded in Keflavík.

This was the worst snow storm to hit the Reykjavík area for about twenty years. Most of the roads outside of the main routes were blocked and impassable. Cars were stuck in snow all over the place. We counted 22 abandoned cars on our way back.

Did they cancel school? Nope. “Drive your kids to and from school and start earlier.”

Did the universities cancel their final semester exams? Nope. “It’ll take you longer to get to work so just start earlier.”

Did people take a day off work? Nope. My sister walked to work through a zero-visibility snow storm. She wasn’t the only one.

Why did she walk? Because there was too much snow for the buses to run.

Welcome to Iceland.

Publishing business ideas are a dime a dozen

Execution is the only thing that matters. So, here are a dozen simple ideas that popped into my head while I was on the train the other day. Keep the dime because ideas are actually not even worth that much. Some of these ideas are quite crap and dumb and vague so caveat emptor.

Use software to leverage an old business model

Use ecommerce to build a print book distribution company. Start off on the long tail. Make an ecommerce site worthy of Amazon but make it so that only registered businesses can order. Be the ‘other’ book distribution company, the one that corporations use to buy in bulk, the one that book retailers use for the backlist because using your site is much easier than whatever messy crap it is that their other distributor offers.

A print-only bookstore app that uses Stripe, Touch ID, bar code scanning and location-based discounts to sell print books. Start off by focusing on a single genre or field, like SFF or comics. Be the hard place to Amazon’s rock that bricks and mortar book retailers are in between.

Use software to create demand for existing product

A subscription site for SFF short stories. Scifi and fantasy has an almost epic tradition for short stories, one that continues to this day. Fans will pay a monthly subscription to a site and app combo that gives them access to an extensive collection of modern and classic SFF short stories.

A proper digital book club. People have been trying this already but it’s one of those things that has room for more.

Go where big companies can’t go because of the strategy they are pursuing

Print-only publisher. Since traditional publishers and those that copy them are committed to the ‘all the IP, all the time’ strategy, that leaves an opening for those who are open to the idea of getting exclusive print rights to existing self-publishing bestsellers for cheap. There are a lot of books out there with a proven track record and no print editions.

Do a magazine app but model it on Slack and not on a print magazine. (Issues? In an app? What the fuck is wrong with you?). Model it on the stream, short content mixed with occasional longer pieces. Mirror on the web and twitter. Keep the longer pieces behind a porous paywall. In-app subscription model. Allow comments but do them in app only. Model the social bits of the app on Slack or Hipchat. ‘Retweet’ interesting comments into the app’s public stream. Print+digital magazine publishers can’t copy you without severely compromising their print product.

Use software to connect readers with stuff they like

A Medium-Patreon hybrid that specialises in digital publishing and handles VAT. Offer a Medium-class writing and publication platform for the private posts and optionally for the public ones as well (though, as in Patreon, the selling point to creators is that they can build on their own web platform).

A genre-specific ebook store (such as SFF). DRM-free. Have an in-app store with books from the publishers who are willing to give up margin. Heavy focus on bundling as a discount and promotion strategy to get around ‘most favoured nation’ clauses. Get genre and comics artists to create exclusive and optional covers for popular books that buyers can choose instead of the publisher’s default. Do cover themes and multi-title alt cover/art events. Steal Sam Missingham’s ideas and tactics for online social media genre festivals.

A preorder service for books styled after Kickstarter. Crowdfunding works best when the actual capital requirements of a project are quite high. In a world of ebooks and print-on-demand, books are too cheap for their production to be that much of an uncertainty and their sales are low enough for the crowdfunding marketing disjoint (first you market the crowdfunding, then months later you market the book) to be somewhat harmful. So take out the uncertainty and instead pitch it as a preorder platform that is otherwise structured exactly like a traditional crowdfunding platform (rewards, stretch goals, etc.). The only change is that people know that the book is coming out and the preorder campaign leads unbroken into the release campaign.

Using software to leverage human effort

A CMS for book creation. Plenty of existing competitors but also plenty of room for more variety. We need simpler book CMSes and more complex ones. We need CMSes that specialise in group collaboration and ones that are designed to specifically to help one person make a great book. We need app-based tools and web-based tools, ebook-oriented tools and print+ebook tools. Don’t aim to conquer the world, make each one either a little bit expensive or open source, and build with a small team.

An ebook fulfilment service that optionally offers its own payment platform. Something to manage a publisher’s catalogue (self- or traditional) and connects it with whatever they’re using to sell it. Even just having one place to edit the metadata for a book and download copies to send elsewhere would be useful to many.

Version control and issue tracker for docx files. Bonus points for giving people the abiity to strip out ‘track changes’ crap and formatting. Extra bonus points if you help people automatically strip out custom styles and apply a house style. Docx and Word are horrible horrible things but for some insane reason publishers hang onto it. It’s unfair if Microsoft is the only company that makes money from the publishing industry’s irrational fixation on the format.

An ebay for secondary book rights: translation rights, regional rights, etc.

EU VAT changes shift the digital landscape

From The VATman Cometh, Destroying Businesses by Cheryl Morgan:

Except that the new rules coming in next year have a turnover threshold of zero for digital products. Yes, that’s right. If all you do is sell one ebook, or a few knitting patterns on Etsy, or a little app you made for fun, you are required to register for VAT and file VAT returns once a quarter. Even if the tax involved is only pennies.

And from New EU VAT regulations could threaten micro-businesses:

The HMRC spokesperson says that most micro-businesses, such as developers of apps or digital downloads, trade through a third party platform or marketplace, like an app store.

“Where this happens it will be the responsibility of the marketplace operator to account for the VAT. As a result the vast majority of micro-businesses are unlikely to be affected by the changes,” adds the spokesperson.

It’s kind of amazing how hostile an environment for small digital service providers the EU is becoming.

None of these changes have too much of an effect on large corporations. Most of them already have the software to deal with this and the accountants to sort it out. But it has a devastating effect on small businesses and sole traders—exactly the kind of business that the web is otherwise enabling and giving massive leverage.

On the one hand this is a classic example of how our society favours larger corporations over small even when the small is more appropriate.

But on the other hand this also gives small publishers an incentive to change their strategy in ways that could make the rest of publishing very uncomfortable.

When you have two versions of the same product…

  1. A physical version that is zero-rated (no VAT paid), commands a higher price, and lets you trade up to 80 000 or so pounds a year without too much regulatory hassle.
  2. A digital version that has a next to zero marginal cost, substantial competitive price pressure, a high VAT in most countries, and imposes on you a lot of incredibly onerous taxation requirements.

… it makes sense for you to give the digital version away to increase sales of the physical version. Use outfits like Kickstarter and Blurb to increase the variety of your print offerings (i.e. adding more high end versions, collectors editions, etc.) and give away the digital version to promote them.

The other alternative is to stop selling ebooks directly, become entirely reliant on Amazon, Kobo, and iBooks for ebook sales, and give up on the opportunity to build a direct business relationship with your readers.

Of course, small EU-based software providers are screwed either way. Especially those offering web-based services. This will push a lot of desktop app developers who were fine with selling directly over to being exclusive to the app store. At least they have that option. Web services don’t have an app store.


Nominally, these changes are a part of a larger plan that’s supposed to even out the competitive landscape for large ecommerce providers. Amazon and Apple aren’t winning because they happen to be able to charge Luxembourg VAT while their UK competitors have to charge 20%. It gives them a slight leeway that others don’t have, sure, but they are winning because they both have huge platforms with a lot of users. Changing the VAT landscape won’t change that one jot.

Money is a poor measure of value

A recent report on a report on ebook-lending by libraries decided to headline the fact that the lending didn’t increase ebook sales.

Of course, when you dig into the thing you find that it isn’t that simple, that it only didn’t increase sales via a single specific mechanism, and that there is no real way here of connecting the dots to see if A causes a change in B (whatever A and B are).

But even when it’s bad, news reporting does one thing well: their assumptions tell us what society values. In this day and age of analytics and optimisations, what they decide to headline tends to be what most of us think is important.

And it’s clear that what our society values above all else is money.

Libraries aren’t measured by how they improve our communities, educate our children, or democratise access to information, but by how much they increase sales for publishers.

Schools aren’t measured by how good of a citizen the average graduate is, how informed they are when it comes to voting, or their ability to manoeuvre their way around the emotional rocks of life. They’re measured by the income of their graduates—more specifically, by how much more they earn than the graduates of other schools. Our society’s measure of value distorts the education system until the only thing it provides is value for corporations.

And when the only real rationale is a moral one—such as with a full-service, no compromises, universal healthcare, or universal basic income—our society demonstrates that it really does value money more than people.

On conferences

Publishing conferences are deadly serious

Publishing conferences are ritual performances. They are to the varied segments of publishing what morality plays are to the various forms of Christianity. They are narratives that are organised to demonstrate, emphasise, and reinforce the orthodoxy.

When heterodox speakers—like myself—are invited, we are there to perform a liturgical role. By providing a clear demonstration of threatening ideas from the outside, we end up giving the orthodoxy’s ideological centre a clearer delineation—reinforcing it. We are Vice, Folly, Death, Prodigality, and Temptation in the morality tale. We have to sound plausible, reasonable, and enticing for the drama to work, but are then parodied and mocked by the context. We exist solely to create an uncertainty that can be assuaged by the characters Mercy, Justice, Temperance, Truth, Virtue, and Tenacity, who bring the viewer back into the fold with convictions even stronger than before. Everybody who sets foot on the stage is a stock character serving a stock role that, one way or another, reinforces what the audience considers normal.

‘Digital’ publishing conferences are deadly serious

Alternative conferences, those that cater to the publishing heterodox ‘digital’, work in exactly the same way, often using exactly the same speakers, except the roles are reversed.

In traditional publishing conferences the temptation is the seducing allure of the new and exciting (i.e. unproven and risky) that pulls the audience away from their faithful field (traditional publishing). In a digital conference the temptation is the pull of the familiar, where instead of continuing the exploration of the unknown—which is where future inevitably lies—the true believer abandons the righteous path and goes down the known route that leads to stagnation and decline. Both groups are exposed to the same facts and the same reality, but end up seeing it in two completely different ways.

In both contexts the play is the same. The performers alternate between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, always making sure that the orthodoxy of that specific community controls the context and wins out both in numbers and presentation. The more hyperbolic the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to sound reasonable. The simpler the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to claim ownership of nuance and real-world complexity. Even when the heterodoxy does sound reasonable and nuanced, the orthodoxy has the high ground of owning the surrounding message and so can recast whatever the heterodoxy said in a grimmer light.

A conference isn’t for learning

The experience is a religious catharsis, purging doubt, and reinforcing faith. By joining in the communion of verbal diarrhoea spewed by consultants and overpaid executives, the faithful build a bond that becomes invaluable for networking in the conference’s corridors and coffee breaks. Trying to change anybody’s mind is the worst thing you can do in a conference: it’d be like lecturing people on atheism as they gather outside church after a Sunday mass.

My advice on how to properly attend a conference:

  • Ignore the talks. At best they serve as a conversation starter. For that, only one of you needs to have listened to them. At worst they fill your head with out of date nonsense designed to sell you on somebody’s services. If the talk is any good, everybody will be talking about it during the breaks and online and you can catch it when the video or the slides are posted.
  • Find your crowd. If you’re in digital production, a conversation with a print-oriented executive with thirty years of experience in avoiding change is going to be torturous. It’d be about as much fun as waiting in the queue for the toilet after having drunk five pints at the pub while listening to ‘Splish Splash’ on a constant loop. The point of conferences is to find and connect with like-minded people you aren’t likely to find elsewhere.
  • Don’t try to change anybody’s mind. It’s like trying to teach a cat to type out Ulysses. It won’t work and they won’t appreciate it.
  • Every conference has a reality distortion field caused by the faith-affirming ritual nature of the beast. Maintain your skepticism and assume that all of the speakers are bullshit artists, even the ones you agree with.

Above all, try not to think about how much money the entire brouhaha costs.

Crushed by multinationals

From an interview on Salon with Cory Doctorow:

But I don’t think that’s true of the majority of artists. I think the majority of artists get the least that the investor class can get away with. They are, from the perspective of the investor class, largely interchangeable. That is to say, if you plan to publish 15 fantasy novels this month that are going to be primarily aimed at people who are buying them in airports to read on an airplane, then really what matters is that you just have 15 novels that are of readable quality. And there’s far more than 15 people willing to write you a novel this month for it.

What happens when the number of “channels” increases?

There’s more people competing to buy your stuff. And when there’s more people competing to buy your stuff, then they can be played against one another. You can shop around for a better deal. I think what’s happened, not just in the arts but everywhere around the world, is that we’ve had incredible waves of concentration in industry, where we have policies that favor extremely large entities at the expense of smaller and medium-size ones. (Italics mine.)

This is what I’ve been saying (and in the splintered author). The problems authors are facing are neither caused by Amazon’s dominance nor are they caused by traditional publishing. Presenting a dispute between the two as a battle for publishing’s soul is missing the fact that we already lost publishing’s soul years ago. It didn’t happen when Amazon launched KDP, if anything, that was a lifeboat for authors (more channels are always better). It happened when all power in the industry concentrated in the hands of a few large multinationals.

We don’t solve this problem by picking one multinational to win over the others and then hope they won’t step on us. We solve it by introducing new channels—new ways of connecting authors to readers—and the only way to do that sustainably is to build communities or become a part of one. To do that in a way that properly leverages the resources you have, you need to understand the strategic role of software.

If you expect whichever multinational that wins the current dispute to be a fluffy teddy bear who will be nice to you forevermore, you’re going to be disappointed. They already view most of you as interchangeable. Only the authors of bestsellers and blockbusters have any real leverage.

And if you’re a publisher who expects to win out in this market by doing exactly the same thing as a multinational who has—literally—several orders of magnitude more financial resources than you do, then you will be stepped on.

If you’re serious about ‘saving’ publishing, you need to stop playing their game.

Software as a strategy: prefabricated publishers

Redux:

Activities that make money aren’t strategic. Activities that affect a company’s ability to make money in the future are strategic. Where is the leverage? That’s what is “strategic.” Only software provides significant leverage in business today. (Alan Cooper – https://storify.com/fakebaldur/software-and-strategy)

Most publishers today don’t understand the role software has come to play in business strategy.

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Software as strategy in the ebook world

The other day I storified a bunch of tweets by Alan Cooper on the strategic role of software in business.

Here’s the first half of it. You should go and read the rest.

All business activities that used to be strategic are now hygienic. Today, all that is strategic is software. Activities that make money aren't strategic. Activities that affect a company’s ability to make money in the future are strategic. Where is the leverage? That's what is "strategic." Only software provides significant leverage in business today. If your office lacks electricity or wifi, nobody shows up and nothing gets done. But neither electricity nor wifi are strategic. (Alan Cooper – https://storify.com/fakebaldur/software-and-strategy)

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The five types of unpublished books

TL;DR version: go big or self-publish.

(The following was written to help me think through the possibilities for a couple of project I’m involved with. It may or may not be useful to others. Also, none of the following takes the need to diversify into consideration which could completely change the picture. As always, YMMV. And ‘book’ for the purposes of this blog post is any project, digital or print, that is primarily intended to be read.)

If you’ve written a book, there are basically five things you can do with it.

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Four hundred words from Anita Elberse’s book “Blockbusters”

Rather than spreading resources evenly across product lines (which might seem to be the most effective approach when no one knows for sure which products will catch on) and vigorously trying to save costs in an effort to increase profits, betting heavily on likely blockbusters and spending considerably less on the “also rans” is the surest way to lasting success in show business.

[…]

With such high stakes and money tied up in a few big projects in the pipeline, the need to score big with a next project becomes more pressing, and the process repeats itself. The result is what I call a “blockbuster trap”: a spiral of ever-increasing bets on the most promising concepts.

[…]

Third, by extension, not bidding for sought-after projects makes it harder to get best efforts from sales and marketing representatives and other employees. After winning the hotly contested rights to a book like Dewey, Grand Central executives can forcefully make the case that this book will beat its competitors. (“It’s a sure bet to do as well as Marley & Me—why else would everyone be after it?”)

[…]

Fourth, critically, if entertainment businesses forgo making big bets on likely blockbusters, they will find their channel power waning over time. Retailer support is decisive in most media markets, In the film industry, the number of screens a movie receives from exhibitors in its first few weeks remains the best predictor of its revenues. Exhibitors want to see evidence that a movie is worthy of their scarce resources; they like nothing better than to know that a studio is making a significant push for a film and planning an extensive marketing campaign.

[…]

As this example again makes clear, the idea of smaller bets being “safer” is a myth. Blockbuster strategies reliably beat the alternative of more risk-averse strategies: the highest-performing companies in the entertainment and media sector thrive by investing a relatively large proportion of their resources in just a few titles and then turning those choices into successes by giving them a higher level of development and marketing support. It may be partly a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it works. And because the marginal cost of reproducing and distributing entertainment products is relatively low—especially compared to their up-front production expenses—and because of the economies of scale involved in advertising campaigns, the advantage of a bestseller, a box-office champion, or a ratings monster is huge.

More here…

The case the book makes is compelling and terrifying. It explains quite well the behaviour of most large media companies over the past few years. The implications for those of us who care about variety and diversity in our art and media are … disconcerting. Highly recommended for anybody who wants to be depressed about the state of art, media, and culture.