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Stephen Ames Berry

Amazon KDP Select: a Liberating Miasma

I’ve had a tumultuous year as a teacher of behaviorally challenged high schoolers. (“A story for which,” as Holmes said of The Giant Rat of Sumatra, “the world is not yet prepared.”)

Giant Rat of Sumatra

I did manage in the past 14 months to write two novels in first draft, about 150,000 words in all—but they're not yet prepared for the world. And they’re in wildly different genres. (Oh, I was betwixt and between.) I just reread them both. One’s in my cozy abode of sci-fi-cum-technothrillers. It’s a a sequel to The Eldridge Conspiracy, with a complex plot, familiar characters grown older and villains recast. The other novel’s edgy and drawn from life. It’ll be the one I finish first, hopefully this summer, a completion inspired by Amazon.

As I was writing and teaching, I watched my ebook sales decline in tandem with the spread of Amazon’s Kindle Select (KDP Select) program, even as some of my book reviews vanished. After a while, the decline became as predictable as the spread of the Black Death: first the US sales headed down as KPS tightened its grip on the Homeland, then UK sales followed the same path, Kindle Select creeping like a miasma across the Pond and into the Old Country. Sales leveled out when my monthly

miasma

royalties sank from enough for a wagonload of decent cognac to somewhat less. (Amazon prefers its authors discuss their royalties in terms of cognac.)

Hennessy Barrelsminature cognac bottle

Some writers have done well with KDP Select. (Cheers!) I did too, until the law of diminishing returns kicked in after multiple free giveaways. (#piggy) It became obvious that eating your seed corn isn’t viable over the long term—unless you’ve many sacks of seed corn in the form of a big back list. And are always writing—and quickly, too. I’ve only a modest back list, and as for always writing—been there, done that. No more: life is short, death is long. (Cat’s in the cradle.) Not a total autotelic, I’d someday like my barrels back, please, refilled with that vanished amber gold.

For now, though, as Nero Wolf would say, “Pfui.” No longer feeling pressed to finish that sequel, I’m spending the summer writing in the realm of contemporary fiction. I’ll later come home to speculative fiction. I’m merely on sabbatical, and strangely grateful to Amazon for making it possible.


Amazon, Animism and Algorithms

[Animism: The belief that natural objects, phenomena, and the universe itself have desires and intentions.(Free On Line Dictionary)

Numen: A spirit believed by animists to inhabit certain phenomena or objects.(Webster’s)

Some writers, possibly closet animists, ascribe seemingly inexplicable phenomena at Amazon to “the algorithms,” much as the Romans attributed natural events they couldn’t comprehend to the numen. I’ve been jostled by these algorithms, and can commiserate with the virtual cries of anguish.

Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil: The Mother Numen of Amazon Algorithms

KDP Select promotions that have no longer have any seeming affect on sales? “The algorithms.” Vanishing book reviews? “The algorithms.” Books suddenly gone from Category lists? “The algorithms.” Sales off? “The algorithms.” Some folks seem to spend more time trying to comprehend those algorithms and perceive their flaws than they do writing—impossible without reverse engineering the source code, which Amazon isn’t going to share.

More useful, perhaps, is to consider the emergent issue of “the algorithms” within the context of Amazon’s boldly-conceived and well-executed triumph as the premier on-line book retailer. For computer programs, after all, are written within the context of a business philosophy to “execute the decisions, actions, and activities of an organization or system,” as systems design theory puts it. Is what we’re seeing in those algorithms reflective of high-level decisions at Amazon? Or is it something less insidious?

Historically, Amazon’s brought literacy into a new age by championing the ebook, the greatest innovation in mass communication since Gutenberg invented moveable type in 1436. Gutenberg’s invention released the written word from the death grip of church and aristocracy, expanding the Renaissance, sparking the Reformation and the Age of Reason.

Amazon freed the written word from the palsied hand of traditional Big 6 gatekeepers, the self-anointed arbiters of what books were to be given life. Readers were hungry for the content Big 6 publishers were denying them, and hungry for it at an affordable price. Amazon is providing that—and making oodles of money doing so.

It seems a virtuous process for Amazon, its customers and authors. Why would Amazon jeopardize its success by alienating and disaffecting its writers through slash-and-burn programs and counter-intuitive sales promotion algorithms? Few people can create a good, book-length read. Logically, one wouldn’t want to drive them into the welcoming arms of the growing, well-funded competition.

This illogical behavior could be written off to hubris, which has felled many a successful enterprise, but Amazon’s senior management has never seemed lacking for introspection. I doubt it is now.

Rather, I believe that due to the size and complexity of Amazon’s burgeoning information technology structure and its own rapid corporate expansion, widening cracks may be appearing: undiagnosed cascade events, wherein one new program has unintended consequences on other processes. And in daily management, where direction from the top is misinterpreted or wrongly implemented. Jeff Bezos’ legendary micromanagement and superb computer science skills alone may no longer be enough to ensure all facets of Amazon’s functionality.

We’ll see if complaints continue to grow and if and when there’s a response. Smart money says Amazon will get it together.

But maybe I’m wrong—maybe it is the algorithms themselves. And if I study them long enough and hard enough, perhaps I can understand them and resolve my own Amazon issues. Then I’ll publish a Kindle ebook entitled Understanding Amazon’s Algorithms: a Guide for Authors. 

No harming trying. Off to commune with Yggdrasil’s numen. How does one begin? Oh, of course.(Uncanny how you just think “sacrifice” and all the cats disappear.)

Cheers,

Steve

 

 


The Hidden Places of Darkness: Fake Book Reviews

Judge nothing until the Lord brings to light the hidden things of darkness and makes manifest the counsels of the heart. 1 Corinthians 4:5

Haven’t been to church recently but it seemed apt.

Huzzah! The stultifying Ancien Régime of traditional publishing is in collapse and its gatekeepers diminishing into shrill irrelevancy. (The Old Order never goes quietly.) Building a following and making money from writing no longer requires obeisance to a publisher.

Tradtional Publishing

Replacing the gatekeepers’ judgment though, came the Pollyannaish notion that readers’ opinions would reliably inform book buying decisions. Perhaps this sprang from the Romantic ideal that people are fundamentally good and freed of law and rules, will flourish in a state of nature. As we’ve seen yet again, this is not true.

The Horseride of Discord (Rousseau)

If you’ve been in a cave or sitting atop a column of late, you may be unaware that some bestselling authors on both sides of the Pond were outted for either commissioning fake book reviews or for covertly writing reviews trashing the books of their perceived competitors. It’s probably but the tip of the iceberg, as anyone with some money can cobble together a book and use Paypal to garner gobs of rave reviews. And anyone with time, energy and pathological anger issues can unleash a zombie army of sock puppets upon their unsuspecting fellow authors.

The fake-review mountebanks game the on-line review systems, and by extension the ebook listing algorithms, to climb the best seller charts. Millionaire author John Locke, in an unblushing interview in The New York Times worthy of a Marcus Licinius Crassus, said “It’s a lot easier to buy them [reviews] than cultivat[e] an audience.” Apparently $1,000 gets you into the game, according to The Times.

The floodgates of mistrust being opened, the next question would logically be, “Do they write their own stuff?” Certainly if your books are similar and you’re enjoying the fruits of your deception, ghostwriters are the next step. Why make extra work for yourself, as contemptuous as you are of your readers’ intelligence and judgment?

The commodity is books but the attitude that of any cheap huckster.

Review Thyself

Creating a system of reader reviews that can’t be gamed is an ongoing challenge. Most of my books are from my Berkley and Macmillan back lists. Some of my reviews even date from my books’ days as trade paperbacks.

I’ll keep writing until I drop—it’s what I do, it’s what I am. It’s art—commercial art, but still art. Good art requires working hard and and hard work requires personal integrity.

Being somewhat of a Romantic myself, I believe that over time good books will garner an audience and continue to be enjoyed long after the author’s gone. Such is my hope and so I write on.

Cheers,

Steve

 


The Biofabs: New Covers

Major ebook retailers recently increased their size requirements for book covers. I have complied. (Done right, it’s a bit of work—the results of just clicking on Photoshop’s “Make Me Bigger!” icon are hilarious.)

While doing this, I took a hard look at my stable of covers and replaced two: The Biofab War and Final Assault. Arguably the new covers are more dramatic:

    Before                     After     

spaceship and tunnel                             Biofabwar New Earth 8    

 

     Before                     After

spaceship and tunnel                           The AI War New 8.1.12    

Amazon’s published the fresh covers, though they’re still awaiting approval at Smashwords, the ebook aggregator for most other major ebook retailers. Given the multiple interfaces and approval processes, they should appear by the Winter Solstice. (Did you know that Apple vigilantly reads every book before releasing it? Though steady income for hired readers, it takes a while. I’m betting without checking that Apple long ago approved Fifty Shades of Grey.Who me?)

The ebook universe is always in flux, a processes of continual reinvention; enhanced content, new cover requirements. Perhaps we’ll soon be into the dizzying world of moving ebook covers? Whatever happens, I’m in for the long march—beats the heck of my days as a midlist serf of legacy publishers.

Back to writing the sequel to The Eldridge Conspiracy. If you’ve read Eldridge, Jim and Angie’s twin boys are now sixteen and . . . challenging. (When not writing, I teach and mentor at-risk teens. The hard-won insights gained are proving a boon to fleshing out the two lads.) As for the remorseless Dr. Schmidla, he’s not done with us.

 


Big Creeping Gini

I read recently that 16% of ancient Rome’s wealth, built on the backs of its slaves and plebes, was controlled by 1% of its population—this at the height of the Empire in 150 CE. The Roman state—city-state, kingdom, republic and empire—lasted about 1200 years; a pretty good run.

35% of US wealth is now in the hands of 1% of its people. What does this portend for the future? Is economic inequity quantifiable as a dynamic and if so, what does it tell us of the historical relationship between the increasing misery of the many, the swelling affluence of the few and social upheaval? What’s the tipping point? Give me numbers!

I searched and found the Big Creeping Gini.

The Gini coefficient measures income inequality. At Gini 100, one person controls 100% of the wealth. (As happens within some families.Princess) At a Gini of 0%, wealth is evenly distributed. (Sweden’s Gini is about .023.) The higher the number, the more unstable the society.

Creeping social destabilization can be measured by the upward movement of the Gini.  The tripwire seems to be in the 50’s:

clip_image001

[This] led me [to] reflection on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country…The property of this country is absolutely concentred in a very few hands…These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics… They employ also a great number of manufacturers and tradesmen, and lastly the class of laboring husbandmen. But after all there comes the most numerous of all classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. Thomas Jefferson, letter from France, 1785

 

Big Creeping Gini

Big Creeping Gini

*There are less conservative numbers.


The Writing Life: Mesopotamia, Tofu and Squire

I’ve been justly criticized for rarely blogging. (I’m toying with naming this “The Desultory Blog.”)

I’m from the pre-blogging days of what’s now Big 6 Publishing, a time when writers were usually heard from only through their work and seen only at book signings. It had the languid cyclical pace of a Mesopotamian water culture: the contract came, requested changes were made, the manuscript returned and galleys proofed. Eventually a check and courtesy copies of your opus appeared, all at a lingering magisterial pace. Repeat.

This cloistered creativity was infrequently broken by publisher-paid luncheons with your editor in New York. The quality of the dining venue was a reliable gauge to the degree of marketing support your distantly-forthcoming book would enjoy. I knew I was toast when feted with a gelatinous treat at a toasted tofu stand. (I was right.) Previously we’d gone to Sardi’s.

Yummy Tofu Treat

One could attend gatherings of other writers, which at science fiction conventions, often a bunch of guys sitting around unopened bottles of diet soda, bitching about money and cruising for a fresh agent.

Distress

There’s the notion that authors should only use their blogs to write about writing. But there’s more to life than writing—or should be.

I’ll try to blog more often and not exclusively about writing.  I’ll be posting vignettes about life with my Squire, about whom I’ve long tweeted. (#AleJailBail being a recurring hash tag.)

Squire is my devastatingly sardonic former student. He helps me out now and then:

“The lawnmower’s dead.”

“How long have you had this?”

“Five years.”

“You’ve never changed the sparkplug, have you?”

“The what?”

To Be Continued


Twitter Voodoo and Book Sales

I awoke the other day to find myself with over 30,000 Twitter followers. Cool. I’ve made new friends, met lots of interesting people and a few kindred spirits, while mastering the structure of entertaining and communicating within 140 characters. Not as formalistic as a haiku, but like a haiku, the tweet forces one to be be creative within a fixed structure, a sort of virtual minimalism. 

Haitian Voodou Altar

I began tweeting to further my ebook sales, there being much faith Out There in a direct correlation between the two. Maybe—but if so, I’ve seen no evidence of it. Indeed, my own small set of data indicates there is none.

From March of 2011 my Twitter followers grew almost logarithmically, as did my ebook sales. As I increased my presence on Twitter into the tens of thousands, my sales climbed. Cool: Twitter, #RoadtoRiches

Then came last August-September: as my Twitter followers continued to soar, my ebook sales fell by half; royalties plummeted from enough to buy several hogsheads of wine per month to almost enough for a few bottles of a decent domestic cabernet—about where I’d been twelve months before. “Your sales would’ve fallen more if you hadn’t been on Twitter,” I heard. Perhaps—but there’s no evidence of that; what evidence there is says otherwise.

My sales to date have since recovered and gone past their old high watermark. This I attribute to fully fielding my rewritten backlist, the occasional freebee techno-thriller via Kindle Select and the forever-FREE! loss-leader of the first book in my space opera quartet. This will of course change: there’s increasing evidence that sales upswings following KDP-S giveaways are subject to an unwritten law of diminishing returns, what with there being a finite number of readers, Amazon’s grip on the ebook market slipping as viable competition continues to emerge and, dare I say? sales of Kindles apparently slackening. Nor are my Kindle Owners Lending Library loan figures compelling enough for me to continue making any of my books exclusive to Amazon, a decision J.A. Konrath recently arrived at and oddly, without first consulting me.

I’ll keep tweeting because it’s fun—heck, it’s social media! But there’s no magic to it.

And back to were all publishing success begins: writing a new book. But first to tweet about our county’s proposal to allow the uneasy confluence of dogs, feral pigs and nocturnal hunters, the latter armed only with knives and the love of a fresh pork chop:

Stickin' with chicken, thanks: Knives and hogs and dogs/All in the night and the fog.

 

 

 


Copyediting: Crape Deim: The Ginch Who Stole Christmass—A Cautionery Tail

One of the few perks of being traditionally published is the copy editor: that overqualified, underpaid schlimazel who wades through your opus and heals its wounded spelling and tortured grammar with arcane runes. To my untutored eye, it always appeared that my lovingly-honed manuscripts had been vandalized into graffitied ruination. Yet lo! from those sullied pages sprang the pristine proof copies presented for my blessing. (“Presented” – UPS dropped a large lump off on my stoop. “Blessing” – I was not to “even think of changing anything—this horse has run.”)

I published Final Assault on Amazon’s Kindle on 12/18. By Christmas the alert had come: copy errors! Horrified, I saw with new eyes: it was true! Seizing the day, I spent the next 18 hours at battle stations, minutely going through it all again. Bowed and bloody-eyed, I at last uploaded the corrected file to Amazon. (Working through the festive day, I was accused of being the Grinch who stole the family Christmas. Humbug! My Whos are the first to complain when royalties to Whoville dip.)

The book had been proofread by other eyes, but upon its return I made a few changes—nothing heavy. Then a few more, which lead to a few more. But of course I proofread all 70k words of an afternoon and then sent it on its way. (In traditional publishing, after suggested changes are made and approved, you must keep your fingers to yourself. This is good.)

Carp

I’ve since armed myself with superb, complementary editing software, PerfectIt and Editor, most recently used for The Biofab War. Deployed with MS Word’s spelling checker, they catch most crap, except for missing quotation marks. (My staff are working on that.) Editor is an especially robust application and not for the impatient, but by carefully disarming some of its features, it morphs into your picky high school English teacher—the one who returned those slapdash essays topped with a blazing “See Me!”

It’s only part mechanics: I’m very indebted to my volunteer proofreaders, who must surely have better things to do than wade through my stuff: Dale Bottrell, Tom Stronach and Shelly Kaidan-Berry.

Off to write something new for them and you to read.

Cheers

 

 

 

 


The Biofab War: Available as a Kindle eBook

The first in the Biofab series, The Biofab War, is now available as a Kindle book. I updated it to reflect modern-day Earth and some changes I made later in the series, notably in the last book of the spaceship and tunnelquartet, Final Assault. And tightened some of the writing. (I flatter myself that four novels and 30 years later I write better.)

I hadn’t read The Biofab War since Ace Books published it in the 80’s.  Once you’ve finished your first novel, you’ve typically rewritten it four or five times. Published, it sits on your shelf, more trophy than book.

But, yeah, I finally reread it and said, “It’s a fun romp!”

Amazon’s still struggling to display all four of the Biofab Quartet as a series, and numbered sequentially—a few more days on that. The suggested reading order is on each books’ Amazon description page.

Though the Nobel Literature Committee never did call,  The Biofab War is noteworthy as probably the origin of the term “biofab.”  (Biological fabrication: a designed life form.) In 1983, that was science fiction.  Biofab is now in vogue, an evolving branch of the life sciences, with biofab facilities and researchers, who must surely have read science fiction when they were teens. Smile

Except for some housekeeping, The Biofab Quartet is done. I’ll eventually bolt all four books together into an omnibus edition, to be entitled, unsurprisingly, The Biofab Quartet. (My Art Department’s created a stunning cover.)

I’m now writing a piece of short fiction based on my last seven years as a teacher of wayward youth in a dropout prevention program, much of it only believable as fiction.  (The transition from Harvard and Vivaldi to south Florida and Tupac was jarring but fulfilling.) One of my former students, who’s lived with us on and off for years, is serving as technical consultant and sounding board.  We’ll see if anyone reads it. Then I’m writing a sequel to my Philadelphia Experiment-inspired novel, The Eldridge Conspiracy.


The AI War

Defeated at the Battle for Terra Two, the cyborg AIs regroup to destroy mankind. Commodore Detrelna and the battle cruiser Implacable are sent into Quadrant Blue 9 for the only weapon that can stop them. Implacable’s crew aren’t optimistic—it’s been 3,000 years since a ship came home from Blue 9.  Then they meet what’s been waiting for them. (2011 revision of original Tor Books edition.)  Available at Amazon.Implacable


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