Archive for May, 2018

Publishing in a Changing Market

Even a decade into a market changed by ebooks, it’s clear – at least to me – that a significant fraction of readers [and some rather large publishers as well] don’t really understand what’s happened and the implications and ramifications of those changes.

First off, despite all the words and arguments to the contrary, the costs of getting a book published haven’t changed much, except that they’ve increased. What has changed, particularly with self-published authors, is who is paying what costs. The cost of physically printing a book was never the majority of cost. From what I’ve been able to determine, the actual cost – just of printing – a hard-cover book runs in the range of three to six dollars, depending on the length of the book, the quality of paper and cover, etc. The costs of physically distributing print books likely run around a dollar a book. A standard publisher’s other costs — editing, proofing, typesetting, cover art, marketing, etc.– still run around ten dollars a hardcover. Those costs are all attributed to the first two years of sales for most publishers, but only a small percentage of books bring in significant revenue after two years. Now, I might be a bit off on some of this, but I’m in the ballpark.

Under the old marketing agreements, and those that still exist for printed books, the publishers sell books to stores at fifty to sixty percent of list price. Since most large publishers are barely more than breaking even, and some are losing money, there’s not a lot of profit involved. Add to that the fact that, even for the most successful publishers, almost half of all books sold lose money, which is why publishers need best-sellers.

So… how come all these independent authors can sell their ebooks for $3.99 or $5.99? Well… they can do that because they’re personally absorbing all the costs that are born by publishers. They have to come up with the cover design and artwork. They have to line up editors, or alpha or beta readers; they have to do the formatting or hire someone else to do it. They have to do the marketing, and make the arrangements with Amazon or someone else [who takes a percentage, of course]… or spend the time handling the finances and the bookkeeping. And the vast majority of these authors – probably 98% – actually lose money… in addition to spending a huge amount of time for which they’re not compensated, except if the book sells really well. Now, the ones who are indeed successful reap solid rewards, if not as much as most people think, because they’re not saddled with the costs of books that didn’t earn out in the way a standard publisher is.

So the lower prices of all those cheaper self-published books come out of the hides of their authors… and those dollar and time costs are substantial. Why do you think that almost all indie-published authors who are offered deals by major publishers take them… gladly?

For those of us who are with major publishers, and who aren’t multi-million sellers, the rules have also changed. We have to spend more time personally marketing, arranging appearances, attending things like comic-cons and conventions, for some of which we may be partly compensated and for some of which we’re not compensated at all. We spend more time and effort, generally for less return, than authors did twenty years ago – just like almost everyone else. And authors whose later books lose money also risk losing their publisher, requiring either more non-writing work or trying to make it by self-publishing or going with a small press [and a great many end up taking on more non-writing work].

One way or another, lower prices for ebooks come at the expense of the authors of those books. In addition, the consumer demand for cheaper books is creating a secondary market of generally lower-paid writers who are all competing with each other to write and produce books at a lower cost, and that means either lower quality or even more cost and strain on the writer. The demand for lower-cost ebooks also fuels the demand for pirated works, usually of best-sellers, but that piracy reduces the sales of those best-sellers, in turn reducing the risks that publishers will take on new or unpublished authors… and they’re definitely taking less of those risks, for the most part. That reduces the scope of what’s available from some major publishers and in some bookstores, and it means that readers have to work harder to find those kinds of books in the mass of hundreds of thousands of self-published or indie-published electronic works.

In short, no matter what anyone says, lower ebook prices have a lot of costs that no one really thinks about, and even fewer care about – just like they don’t really care about what’s behind the lower prices from Amazon and Walmart, or not enough to change their buying patterns.

The Change in Publishing/Book Marketing

This past weekend, as announced on the website here, I was at the Phoenix Comic Fest, where I was selling my books at Bard’s Tower, and doing some panel appearances. With me at the booth were Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, Alan Dean Foster, Jody Lynn Nye, Melinda Snodgrass, David Butler, Christopher Husberg, Mark Gardner, Kevin Ikenberry, Amity Green, and Brian Lee Durfee – an array of writers ranging from old-timers to rising young authors.

So why were all of us at a “comic fest”?

Because of the dramatic change in the publishing world. Twenty to twenty five years ago, Tor –and other publishers – used to tour quite a few authors fairly often, and I was one of those toured. I was on the low-budget tour. Tor would fly me to a city, give me a formal signing or two each day, and I’d use the rental car to visit every bookstore I could get to where I wasn’t doing a formal signing so that I could talk to the staff and sign whatever stock they had of my books. I’d also leave a bound bookstore/press packet with glossy photos of covers of most of my books with a brief description, as well as other information that the bookstore would find useful. There were times when I’d visit ten to fifteen bookstores in a day, in addition to the formal signing. It worked fairly well back then.

It doesn’t work now… not unless the author is literally selling at least a few hundred thousand copies of a book, and it doesn’t because: (1) the number of bookstores has dwindled drastically; (2) e-books have grown considerably; and (3) despite what everyone contends, electronic book piracy has reduced paying sales without increasing overall sales. In addition to that, tours and book signings offered a venue where authors could meet readers and interest them in books and authors they hadn’t previously read. But because tours are no longer even remotely close to break-even exercises, except for high best-selling authors, publishers don’t tour nearly as many of their authors as they once used to do.

So… how do authors get new readers? Some invest heavily, both in time and money, in social media and an online presence. But as several newer authors I know have discovered, sometimes a huge social media presence doesn’t translate into sales. In fact, on a percentage basis, success through a social media presence is relatively infrequent [but, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that only a small percentage of would-be writers ever turn out to be commercially successful]. At a comic-con or a comic fest, however, there are thousands of people, many of whom are readers, and there’s a good chance to meet some potential new readers… and right now, it’s one of the few person-to-person venues left open to authors… which is why I – and other notable authors – appear at them.

The market’s changed, and if we don’t adapt with it, in some fashion, we’ll become less relevant. Besides, I had a good time talking to those readers, even when they didn’t buy my books.

Male Rights?

Apparently, I’ve been too generous toward at least some members of my gender, thinking that they might just understand why women are less than thrilled with the various fashions in which they’ve been treated by men over the past several millennia.

No… apparently at least some men believe that they have the right to have sexual relations with women, and even the woman of their choice, regardless of whether she shares that desire. Three recent fatal attacks, including the Santa Fe High school shooting, have been motivated at least in part by such self-professed sentiments on the part of the attacker, and are fairly clear symptoms of what I can only term a new “hate group” – so far, only a subset of the Incel [involuntary celibate] movement.

As with a great many groups that feel themselves disenfranchised in one way or another, while most incels do feel like outcasts, the majority obviously haven’t resorted to killing and violence, but laying the blame on women isn’t going to solve their problems or resolve the situation. Neither is telling these (mostly young) men to “just get over it.” From the limited studies on them, most have lacked opportunities, strong positive male father figures, and decent educations.

Part of what’s behind this “movement” is the feeling by these men that in the past men did have access to women, especially for sex, and that such availability no longer exists, but throughout history groups of men, especially young men, and often large groups of them, have suffered involuntary celibacy. So have women, and in fact the term “Incel” was actually coined by a Canadian woman some twenty years ago.

But now online male Incel communities are showing up, and some are more than vocal and demeaning toward women, including voicing resentment at being denied “their God-given rights to have sex with women.” [Personally, I find it incredibly disturbing how various uses of force and weapons are being touted as being “God-given” rights.] Before it was banned and removed in November of 2017, Reddit had a subreddit entitled “Incels,” with more than 40,000 members of that subreddit.

As women as a group become more highly educated, more financially and socially independent, fewer and fewer will need to be subservient to men… and the Incel movement may only be the tip of the iceberg as a manifestation of male dissatisfaction in the way the world is changing. While violence isn’t the answer, neither is ignoring the situation until we’re facing more and more incidents such as the few that have recently occurred.

But then, since when have we reacted in any other way?

A Less Moral Nation?

The other day I read an editorial that cited quite a few statistics to the end that most Americans feel that the country is “less moral” than it was fifty years ago. I don’t dispute the fact that people feel that way, but I’m not nearly so sure about the accuracy of those feelings.

As shown by all the revelations surfacing in the wake of the Me Too Movement, there has been a continuing pattern of sexual abuse by men, particularly powerful men, dating back to the beginning of the United States, and even before that. The fact that it’s been revealed doesn’t change what happened or make the country any less or more moral, although it does reveal that we certainly weren’t as moral as we thought we were.

Often one of the statistics used as a proxy for “morality” is the teen pregnancy rate, but teen pregnancy rates have decreased by almost eighty percent since 1957, and that decline has continued steadily since 2000. Some of that decline is doubtless due to the use of birth control, but the CDC attributes a significant share of the recent decline to sexual abstinence by teenagers.

While a great number of people have cited President Trump as immoral because of his sexual behavior, Trump is an absolute piker compared to President Kennedy… or even Lindon Johnson. And while Richard Nixon may not have strayed sexually, given the Watergate scandal, can one say that he was more “moral” than recent Presidents? I served as a Congressional staffer some forty years ago, and there were more than a few sexual scandals involving powerful senators and congressmen. The difference was that the media didn’t report them as often or in any detail. So, ignorance fosters, at least partly, the idea that our past leadership was more “moral.”

As a nation we had to enact legislation to even begin the process to allow minorities and women equal rights with white males, and even as late as 1960, it was often difficult for a woman to get a credit card in her own name. In 1965, in most of the south, buses, lunch counters, rest rooms, and still many schools were effectively segregated. Where was the greater morality in that?

Admittedly, the crime rate today is higher than in 1960, but the peak in the crime rate, depending on the type of crime, was between 1980 and 1990, and the rates have declined since then. What about marriages and divorce? The per capita divorce rate peaked in 1980 and has declined ever since, although marriage rates are also declining.

So why do so many people feel that we’re a “less moral” nation today?

Is it because more and more people have defined what is moral in terms of their personal beliefs? Or because economically, a large percentage of the middle class has seen their economic position decline, and that equates to a less moral society? Or because there’s always a tendency to recall the favorable aspects of the past and forget the less favorable ones?

Facts and facts

Fact: The past April was the coldest April in twenty years in the United States and the thirteenth coldest in the past 124 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Fact: The American southwest was warmer than usual, as were the southern plains, with record dryness in the southwest and mid-Mississippi Valley.

Fact: The United Kingdom had an unusually warm April, with days that were the hottest in 70 years, so hot that horse races were cancelled.

Fact: The German National Meteorological Service reported that April was the hottest month in the recorded history of German weather.

Fact: Italy also had a warm April, with five cities – Trieste, Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and Grosseto – recording record temperatures for the month.

Fact: Australia had a warm April as well, with parts of the country measuring the second hottest April on record.

Fact: On April 30th, a city in Pakistan – Nawabshah – set the world heat record for April, with temperatures reaching 122.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the city of over a million, causing heatstroke deaths, power outages and general misery.

Fact: Even with cold temperatures in North America, world-wide, April 2018 was the third warmest on record.

So… which facts do you choose to believe?

Do you pick the ones that reinforce what you want to believe? Or the ones you’ve experienced? Or do you look at all the facts and try to sort them out?

Can you even sort them out?

I did a quick scan of news stories I could find on April weather that were published in the last month. Out of some 280 stories, only fifteen mentioned the heat in any other part of the world, and only five mentioned the point that April, world-wide, was much hotter than average and the third warmest on record.

Most of the stories available in English focused on the unseasonably cold U.S. weather without any world-wide perspective. That’s understandable in some ways, because news outlets cater to their local constituencies, but it’s also deceptive because it reinforces a very localized perspective.

All of which bring up a question we need to keep asking ourselves. From just where did we get the facts we so blithely trot out to support what we believe?

God-Given – Part II

Although few want to admit it, the reason why “rights” are so often attributed to a deity is because it endows them with a sense of being elevated beyond mere people. This also why commandments and morality are usually tied to religion and presented as being from a superior being. After all, what value is there in rights or moral values because Sam Nobody or Sara Somebody said it they were the way in which people should conduct themselves?

But in fact, the vast majority of legal codes practiced today, while tied to some form of religious faith, either loosely or strictly, were set forth and presented to the people by other people [with the possible exception of the ten commandments, but even then we only have the word of Moses that God inscribed those stone tablets]. As some commenters have pointed out, even the Founding Fathers deferred to a deity, but in fact they were the ones who wrote the actual language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Why do we have such a problem in admitting that the beliefs and laws that, for the most part, govern us and our behavior were devised by other people? Is it because we don’t like admitting that someone else had a better idea? We certainly accede to the fact that others are physically stronger, or that “might makes right” in terms of war or the threat of largest battalions.

Yet, the idea that someone else might have a better code of behavior, especially one not based on religion, is an anathema to most Americans, and certainly to most Islamic believers. I suspect the only reason most Americans are leery of a theocracy is not because of the idea of a theocracy itself, but because there’s the real danger of the religious values being imposed just might be those of some other faith. That was most certainly the concern of the Founding Fathers.

Then, too, there’s the question of how any deity could grant us “rights.” Proclaiming that such rights are “God-given” doesn’t make it so, although it may legitimize those rights in the eyes of the faithful. But then, maybe that’s the point of the claim. The problem with such “legitimacy,” however, is that when the laws of a country don’t reflect what a given group of believers think is in accord with their faith, they want to change the laws to reflect their faith, regardless of the conflict such changes causes with the beliefs of others.

In practice, human “rights” only exist so long as human beings recognize such rights and conduct themselves in a way that supports those rights. All too often in history, the rights of one group or another, and often their very existence, have been destroyed through intolerance of differences and in the name of another belief, a rather strong indication that no deity created those rights and that no deity actively defends them, only people of both character with the will to act and to oppose injustice.

Collateral Damage

After literally centuries of oppression and minimization of women, I can understand the fury and anger that fuels much of the Me Too Movement, particularly since I’ve witnessed that on-going and still continuing minimization and disregard by men toward my wife and my daughters. It’s well past time for change, and that change needs to be considerable in scope and duration, but such change isn’t going to take place without passion and, frankly, fury.

Unfortunately, there are also going to be excesses and collateral damage. When there are profound social changes in society, there always are. And there’s the very real danger that those excesses will produce a backlash. In fact, if the excesses are too great, the backlash will also be great.

In addition to the considerable and well-documented revelations about powerful men, from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to Donald Trump, there have also been what appear to be charges against other public male figures, and even one female figure, based on far less substance, and in the case of one well-known author, a series of anonymous and undocumented charges, charges that remain without any support, three months later, and, in the case of a respected commentator, a single dubious charge, one refuted by the commentator and roughly sixty other female media personages.

After some forty years as a published author, I do know a considerable number of authors, male and female, and quite a few of the women authors I know are disturbed by some of the anonymous and so far unsupported charges being bandied about.

Now… there is no excuse for unprofessional behavior and particularly not behavior that degrades or damages others, especially women, given the abuse and minimization they’ve endured for years, but charges of abuse and minimization need to be documented and accusers need to put their names on the line and not hide behind anonymity. In those cases where the accuser fears retribution, evidence is still required.

There’s also one other danger that needs to be avoided, especially in the field of writing, and that’s equating criticism and considered judgment with gender-based minimization. Men and women can both write great books. They can also write terrible books. If a man believes a woman’s book is poorly written, and says so, that’s not minimization – even if others think he’s wrong. The book or story is not the person – even though all of us authors do in fact take it personally when we get negative criticism.

On the other hand, when authors’ advances and/or royalties are based in any degree on gender, rather than on sales or projected sales, or when female authors get less publisher support when they have comparable sales levels to male authors, those are examples of gender-based discrimination and totally unacceptable. But we need to keep in mind the difference between criticism or literary opinion and actual discrimination. And, yes, a negative comment or review can harm an author, but so long as the negativity is based on the book and not the author, that’s fair game. Over the years, I’ve occasionally gotten some terrible reviews. I never cared about, and often never knew, the gender of the reviewer. Books and their reviews need to stand on their own.

However… for all that I’ve just written… there is going to be collateral damage. I can only hope that it’s kept to a minimum, because the backlash could even be worse. After all, for better or worse, isn’t backlash one of the reasons why we ended up with President Trump?

God-Given Rights?

Today, the local newspaper featured a letter from a reader who was totally irate about the stance of a previous reader, who had suggested that some gun-control legislation was in order. The irate commenter stated that no one had the right to infringe or abrogate his “God-given rights” to carry weapons.

I’ve heard and seen that wording and argument more than a few times over the last few years, until I’d like to stuff the barrel of a weapon down the throat of any idiot who utters any more nonsense about God-given rights, especially about weapons. I’ve read the Bible more than a few times, and I’ve never come across any mention of the right to bear weapons. Yes, the God of the Old Testament often exhorted his chosen people to take up arms, but it’s never stated that there’s an absolute right to carry any weapon you choose in any circumstance. I’ve read the Koran, admittedly in translation, and I’ve gotten the same impression about Allah, but, since I can’t read Arabic, I have to rely on the translation.

Even if a holy text did state something like that, the “word” comes through prophets and not directly from the deity, and given that all individuals have agendas, I’d have to express some doubts. In addition, there’s the rather large problem that the Constitution expresses a separation of Church and state, and definitely does not endorse any specific deity…or that deity’s commands… as statutory or Constitutional law.

Now, many of these individuals citing “God-given rights” may think that they’re quoting the Founding Fathers. They’re not. The Declaration of Independence clearly states: “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” Three specific rights, and not one deals with weapons, and as for the other rights, they’re never mentioned, especially not in terms of firearms. The Constitution allows firearms under certain conditions, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that reasonable limitations on that right are allowable and permitted, and that right wasn’t granted by any deity, but by men who framed our governmental system.

In tradition in practice, “rights” are set forth by men and women, usually men, and whether they believe they’re acting out the will of a deity, those rights exist under human law, and not under a divine command. Besides which, if you read the Bible closely, the Christian God isn’t even consistent with what the prophets reveal about him, especially in regard to killing.

So… lay off the crap about “God-given rights,” especially with regard to firearms. Just confine the debate to the existing legal structure and what might actually work… or might not, and why.

False News – A Different Perspective

Like most of what Donald Trump says, there’s a grain of truth in his claims about “false news,” and it’s a grain of truth that most reputable news organizations are essentially ignoring, and by doing so, are acting against their own best interests… and the best interests of the rest of us.

That grain of truth is that too many news media people are acting and reporting on rumors and rumors of rumors all too often before coming anywhere close to reporting hard facts.

Why? There are two reasons. First, to call a spade a spade, a large percentage of mainstream media analysts and reporters dislike him, and that intense dislike blinds them to the fact that they’re often cutting corners and not getting all the facts. Each time they print an incorrect rumor or incorrect charge, they’re reinforcing Trump’s contention that they’re printing “fake news.”

Second, news media has been captured by the profit motive, excessively captured, so that getting the first scoop, whether correct or not, too often trumps [pun intended] accurate and factual coverage.

Part of this need for speed comes from a realization that the public attention span is so short that by the time the actual facts surface, most of the audience has lost interest. But news media are supposed to make money, or at least not lose it, and waiting until facts can be confirmed costs circulation and ratings… and money. And money trumps accuracy, these days, in every way.

Most people have forgotten that the time between the Watergate burglary and the time Nixon was forced to resign was two years and three months. Even the Woodward and Bernstein article that revealed the scope of the Nixon campaign in the burglary wasn’t published until October 10, 1972, almost four months after the burglary, and it took almost two more years for all the depth of White House involvement to become public and for Nixon to be charged with impeachment by the House.

So let’s hear it for profit at any cost, regardless of what those costs are.