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img-hugh Hugh Howey is the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga and the New York Times and USA Today bestselling WOOL series.
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The Shell Collector Ebook Cover For Nook copy

The Shell Collector

He ruined her world. Now she's out to destroy his.

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We need a German word for “thinking you had an original idea and then realizing many other people not only already had that idea but are well on their way toward implementation.” I hope someone can get on this. I bet someone already has.

A while back, I blogged about the possibility that one day my job will be taken over by machines. I think it’s important for all of us to consider this possibility, whatever it is that we do, and however outlandish the idea seems by current technology standards. How else will we see it coming? There’s a reason no one does. They all think their status is wholly unique until about three weeks after it isn’t.

Will machines ever write novels? That is, will novels ever write themselves? I believe if humans can stick around for another thousand years, it is inevitable. I’m also open to the chance (though skeptical) that some unforeseen advance in computing power or technology makes this possible in fifty years. Perhaps an actual quantum computer is constructed. Maybe in 50 years, a program like Watson gets more refined and has access to enough data and processing power that an emergent quality arises from what previously seemed wholly mechanical. That is, consciousness might flip on like a switch. Continue Reading →

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I think we can now confirm that the reason for the delays for Hachette titles was that Amazon wasn’t stocking the books in their warehouses. It has been said over and over again that the delays during this dispute were due to Hachette’s inefficiencies, which I saw firsthand as a bookseller. Direct orders placed with a major publisher took 2-3 weeks to arrive. I can’t remember them ever arriving as fast as in a week.

I’ve seen two news outlets express confusion over why some of Hachette’s titles still show a delay of 2-3 weeks. Well, it’s because Amazon just created those orders yesterday when the deal was reached. It’ll now take 2-3 weeks to get those books to Amazon’s distribution center. Only then will the efficiencies of those distribution centers allow 1-2 day delivery. (Hachette might choose to “rush” these orders, which costs bookstores a pretty penny and probably involves unpleasant warehouse conditions.)

The way this has been portrayed in the anti-Amazon media and by Hachette authors made it sound like Amazon set Hachette books aside and said “Don’t ship those for another week!” and then rubbed their hands together and cackled. Which is ludicrous. The truth is far more banal and speaks more to publishers’ weak infrastructure and customer service, something they should work on if they don’t want to be beholden to retailers like Amazon. Continue Reading →

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Finally. Hachette has put an end to their nightmare of a standoff and has agreed to terms with Amazon. This is great news for book buyers and Hachette authors and the industry in general. It comes right on the heels of Simon & Schuster signing a multi-year deal with Amazon for both print and ebooks, and the wording of that announcement was practically identical to the wording of the Hachette announcement today. What does that tell us?

It suggests to me that Amazon offered Hachette and Simon & Schuster the same deal. But what took Hachette most of 2014 to agree to took S&S a single offer / counteroffer. It must be said, though, that Hachette was at a serious disadvantage by being forced to negotiate first. The settlement with the Department of Justice forced the major publishers to negotiate with Amazon in 6-month windows. This was to prevent them from colluding with one another the way they did in 2009.

I don’t know how the order was picked, but Hachette drew the short straw. This meant two things: They had to negotiate with Amazon without knowing if their fellow publishers would fall in line and help pressure the retailer as they did in 2009, and it also meant that Hachette had six months less sales data to go on to judge the fairness of what Amazon was offering.

A year ago, jacking up ebook prices to protect print seemed like standard operating procedure. Over the course of this year, publishers have watched operating margins go up due to the rise in ebook sales, and many titles have moved a lot of units by employing sane pricing. In a way, Amazon was offering a deal based on what they saw coming, while Hachette was rejecting that deal based on what they saw in their rearview mirror. Simon & Schuster had six months extra of road to study. I hope this helps portray Hachette in a less harsh light. Again, they had a lot of disadvantages.  Continue Reading →

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Why wait for the WOOL film to get made when you can go live it?

Only costs $1.5 million dollars for a ticket. Comes with wallscreens (seriously), farms, and pumps to keep it all dry. Check out the WSJ article for more details.

I’m thinking every bedside table in this joint needs a free copy of WOOL.

Also: It’s obvious to me that Jules is the sheriff of this puppy. Check out where she moved Mechanical. :)

Silo Layout

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The negotiations between Amazon and the Big 5 publishers is often framed as a war between David and Goliath. What’s strange is that who gets to play David depends on who you’re talking to. Both sides claim him. The rare moments when people equivocate between the two parties, they state that this is really a case of Goliath vs. Goliath, which is far closer to the truth. We’re talking about multi-billion dollar corporations on either side.

But I’m still interested in how people who normally agree on a wide range of social issues find themselves on opposing sides when it comes to Amazon/Big 5. Of course, it’s not uncommon for people to agree on a lot of ideas and then hit a snag on some major topic. What is strange is when they use the same language to buttress diametrically opposing viewpoints. Both sides in this case say they’re trying to protect the little guy against the big bully. It’s like we’re on opposite sides of a valley, and we can barely see the two people duking it out down below on our army’s behalf, but our guy is definitely the underdog. Both sides think that ours is the champion of the little people.

And we both think we’re right. Where I might be a little crazy is that I believe the people I disagree with are sincere. I’ve had a number of exchanges with outspoken people from the anti-Amazon side, and I think these are good people who believe they are on the right side of history for taking their stance. I have some very close friends who vehemently disagree with me. So how do I square what I know of these people with how wrong I think they are?

It starts with questioning my own beliefs and positions, of course. I’m open to being the fault in this paradox. But as I look at the entire scope of this debate, and what is being said on either side, I think I’ve finally hit upon how both sides think they are championing David. It all has to do with how we frame our view of both Amazon and the major publishing houses. And I think we all get this incredibly wrong. Continue Reading →

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Profits are up at major publishing houses, so why aren’t more people in the biz smiling? Ben Thompson over at Stratechery.com points us to a curve that might explain those frowns. It’s called the smiling curve, and it represents the value added to a product by three phases —Development, Fabrication, and Marketing — that it goes through on its journey from concept to sale:

smiling curve

 

One way to understand this chart is to think of the height of the curved line not only as value but also as profits. Adding more value should allow leverage for commanding more revenue. So the company on the far left that develops the product and holds patents (or copyright) adds a lot of value and can extract that value in earnings. On the far right, you have the parties that can reach customers and drive sales, which also adds a ton of value and leads to large revenues. In the middle, you have fabrication.

Continue Reading →

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Computers will write novels one day.

Most of the people I mention this to tell me I’m crazy. It doesn’t matter that computers are already writing newspaper articles or stock analyses. It doesn’t matter that computers are already conversing with humans who are convinced that these are people on the other end of the line. Or that computers can beat us in chess (once thought to be more art than mechanics) or Jeopardy (once thought to be a puzzle no machine could ever crack).

Those who don’t believe fall prey to the fact that some past predictions have not panned out. The flying car is a popular distraction. This is as bad an error as the opposite mistake, which is to assume that every wild idea is an eventuality, given enough time. What makes more sense is to look at trends, see what is taking place in laboratories today, and make reasonable estimates.

This video (shared by a commenter on a previous post) does a fair job of this. You should watch the entire piece; it’s brilliant:

Continue Reading →

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Something Mike Shatzkin told me once has really stuck with me: “The people at the major publishing houses aren’t idiots.” In fact, I’m pretty sure Mike has told me this more than once, usually after I pointed out something that I think publishers should try and can’t figure out why they don’t. Mike could see that the assumption in my advice was that publishing executives didn’t know what they were doing.

It turns out Mike was right and I was wrong. Publishing executives aren’t idiots.

Neither were executives at practically every company that has been disintermediated or made obsolete by innovation. This is a common theme in business lore and among the general public, and it is dead wrong. Established companies don’t go under because they don’t understand their market, their customers, their product. Nor do they go under due to managerial blunders, lack of R&D, and all the other myriad reasons commonly proffered. In fact, companies lose market share and go under precisely because they are well-managed.

To understand how this works, you simply must read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. I’m not kidding. This book will blow your mind; you will never look at business transitions the same way ever again. If you have any interest in publishing (or how the world works in general), move this book to the top of your reading pile.

I can’t do the entire thesis justice, but I’ll entice you with a few of the lessons here. I’ll also say that this is one of the very few business books I’ve read that uses copious amounts of real-world examples. This isn’t guessing. This is hard-core theory in the best and most scientific use of that word. Christensen is even so bold as to make predictions in the form of case studies that are eerily prescient. I repeat: This book will blow your mind. Continue Reading →

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It’s that time of the year to disappear for a bit. November is National Novel Writing Month, an annual festival of carpal tunnel and obsessing over word counts. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word rough draft in a single month. It requires writing 1,667 words per day for thirty days. It’s not that the daily load is too heavy — it’s that once you set it down, it’s hard to pick it up again.

Missing one day means working hard to make up for it elsewhere. Falling behind leads to more falling behind. Distractions like social media interfere terribly with getting work done. You have to sacrifice short term and shallow gains in order to achieve something bigger and more lasting. In all of these ways NaNoWriMo is as much about learning our limits and how to forgo immediate self-gratification than it is just about writing.

And you don’t have to sacrifice quality for quantity. Many writers produce their best work while writing under pressure or for a deadline. This is the only way some writers get work done. For me, the compressed nature of the writing means I can’t leave the world I’m creating. When I’m away from my keyboard, I’m daydreaming about the story. It’s all I think about for a month. And so the plots can be more involved, the characters more alive, the world more real.

I invite all of you who write or dream about writing to join. It’s a global event, and it can change your life. Even if you just want to write about your past, your thoughts, or create a collection of poetry. Whatever small entertainments you have to set aside for the month, I promise you they’ll be there and waiting when you get back. Meanwhile, you’ll have created something that will last a lifetime. Something that will need a lot of editing come December.

 

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Almost everything being said about publishing today is predicated on two facts that are dead wrong. The first is that publishers are somehow being hurt by ebook sales. The second is that independent bookstores are being crushed. The opposite is true in both cases, and without understanding this, most of what everyone says about publishing is complete bollocks.

Let’s take the health of publishers first. Below you will see that profit margins at the major publishers are either flat or improving. For three of the top publishers, margins have improved quite a bit:

Publisher profit margins

 

Here we can see why. Margins on ebooks are much higher than the previous cash-cow, hardbacks:

Continue Reading →

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Ars has a great article up on how smaller musical acts are being affected by streaming and subscription models, and how Apple used to be able to give these acts an enormous boost — but no longer seems to have that power (or interest).

It’s a must-read for authors or anyone interested in entertainment and digital disintermediation. Could the same thing be around the corner for indie authors? Will income diminish as all-you-can-read subscription services mature? Will breakouts be more rare as top authors vie for promo spots that used to be about the discovery of new art but are slowly becoming more useful as advertising for competing platforms? I think this last fear is a valid one, and it would be a detriment to readers as well as upcoming writers.

There’s also mention of how spreading yourself too thin as an artist by doing promos everywhere is not as powerful as the directed energy of a single major player. Could it be that a more competitive market for the consumption of art diminishes the cultural penetration of that art? As iTunes lost market share, did music lose some significance in our daily habits? Would video do the same if YouTube lost market share to dozens of competitors? What effect does dilution of platform have on buzz and word-of-mouth?

One other potential pitfall for authors is hinted at in the article: Devices like iPods that used to be about music have morphed into iPhone swiss army knives where tunes are one app among many. Similarly, I see the threat of people buying tablets instead of dedicated e-readers (the latter is far superior for reading and has fewer distractions). If you are a book-lover or an author, it’s a good idea to rave about your e-reader and maybe let people you know borrow the device and give it a try.

The article is long but seriously worth the read. I’ve learned a lot about the publishing industry by watching the music industry. We seem to lag behind them a few years in many developments. If possible, let’s learn from their mistakes instead of resigning ourselves to repeating them.

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My first NINC conference. What a brilliant bunch of authors. Thought I’d make some notes and drop some ideas as I have them (so this post will keep updating).

  • Porter Anderson asks a panel of experts if low prices are devaluing books. Can low prices really devalue literature? If so, what about the gift that are public libraries? And another thought: If price can devalue literature, does paying authors miserly royalty rates devalue writers and writing? Why is that never a focus?
  • A BookBub representative says “price is a marketing tool.” I absolutely agree. And I think the consternation about low prices comes from those who see these titles as an intrusion on their own profitability. I don’t see this threat. New authors need to level the playing field and win over their own readership. I think it’s the difference in seeing book-buying as a zero-sum game or an additive game. I subscribe to the latter view.
  • I’m not convinced readers are so homogenous. Some are bargain-shoppers. Some are more prone to experimenting with unknown authors. Some will pay a premium for a known author or a current bestseller. I look at the auto market as an example. Some shoppers are only looking for a used car; some are looking for a new car; some are looking to lease. Confusing these shoppers as the same people is a huge mistake publishers and authors often make.
  • Most animated exchange thus far: A publisher executive in the audience pitches the advantages of working with them, when Brenna Aubrey says “Just get rid of your non-compete clauses.” A representative of that publisher (who is on the panel) says, “We don’t use non-competes.” And then the executive from the same house had to respond: “Actually, we do.” And then: “And it’s for the author’s benefit.” Got a bit raucous.
  • Hypothetical question: If you could place your books in every library in the United States, at zero cost to you, knowing you wouldn’t be paid to be read and would lose some direct sales, would you do it?
  • Watching a room of hundreds of writers lob questions at the Amazon team is immensely informative and entertaining.
  • One writer asks how they can update their series information when part of the series is with a publisher and part is self-published, and the publisher refuses to link the books. Yikes.
  • The greatest benefit to these conferences is realizing you are so much like other authors, that you stress about the same things, go through the same things, and are not alone.

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