Archive for the ‘Blather’ Category

Publishers know profit, but haven’t tapped best seller lists

Posted in Blather, On Writing  by John Brown on April 19th, 2014

In The Business Rusch: Generational Divide Kris Rusch points out that the new on-demand and long-tail market for books has changed the duration of the opportunity a book has to be successful, but that it seems the industry still isn’t recognizing this in how they measure success.

The problems come from the fact that those of us who run things—people in our forties, fifties, and sixties—use metrics that were developed by our parents for their world, that tightly controlled Mad Men world where everyone was expected to be the same, not just in what they wore or bought but in what they listened to or watched or read as well.

The bestseller list?

It measures velocity. (A good essay on this topic, “The Meaningless Metrics of Fame,”  came from Mike Briggs, husband of Patricia Briggs, earlier this week. I’ve also dealt with it.)


They only want new books, and then only at the time of release.

Brick and mortar bookstores?

They only have room for the latest releases, and then only the ones that are the most popular with their customers (whoever those folks might be).

Books have come late to this fight. Books have been available on demand for only about four years now, in the U.S. In other countries, there’s been even less time.

And we’re all still fighting over meaningless metrics, to use Mike Briggs’ term, because those metrics only measure things that were important around the water cooler, not things which are important now.

What’s important now?

She goes on to say:

The publishing industry isn’t even talking about new metrics. That idea hasn’t occurred to traditional publishing, and indie (or self) published writers are constantly seeking validation from the old system—trying to figure out ways to game the bestseller lists or to get a fantastic review from somewhere that has old-world prestige . . . But at some point, traditional publishers are going to have to develop new ways to figure out which products sell well and which ones don’t. All of their systems—from sales figures (which measure books shipped not books sold) to bestseller lists to critical acclaim—are based on the old models.

Kris is a very experienced with publishing, but her last point conflates internal accounting with marketing. Publishers DO know which products sell.

The primary measure of success in a financial enterprise s not new. It’s been around for 100′s of years. And on demand and long-tail markets don’t change it.

The measure is how much a product or service contributes in profit to the bottom line. You take revenues, minus expenses, and that’s the contribution that product (a book in this instance) makes to your total profit. Or to covering your fixed costs.

Booksellers have measured the success of their books with actual or estimated profits for quite some time. Publishers already know which books sell well and which don’t. No accountant in the world is going to report books shipped as the measure of success. And they don’t. The very fact that publishers have a profit and loss statement and show returns on royalty statements demonstrate that. They look very closely at actual and estimated profits. And to they do this by channel, which is reflected in a small way when they break out ebooks on royalty reports. This is all basic accounting.

Here’s an example. Until Ender’s Game the movie, Ender’s Game the book hadn’t appeared on any best seller list since it was first released. And its release was 30 years ago! Yet over the years Tom Doherty touted its sales numbers many times. Tom knew that book was gold. Of course, he did. Because he doesn’t use best seller lists to tell him what’s selling well. He knows those lists are marketing devices. He has the real data in house. Why would he need a list to tell him anything?

And Tom isn’t going to use books shipped either. Tor may report those numbers to Publishers Weekly for marketing purposes, but he will always multiply that number by an expected return rate to estimate sales. He wants to do that. Because books shipped is meaningless to the bottom line and everyone knows it, including the auditors.

Publishers are well aware of the long tail. They see it with books that have been rotated out of the brick and mortar channels but are still selling in the online ones. They report it in their annual statements. They know the online channels work differently from the brick & mortar ones.

The measure of success is still the same as it ever was—how much profit is this property contributing to our bottom line?

Marketing, however, is a whole other ball of wax.

What the long tail and on-demand allow are marketing campaigns that are impossible in the brick & mortar channel. In brick & mortar you have a limited time to advertise (roughly 8-15 weeks). After that period, most books are rotated out of the store. This means that any marketing for those brick & mortar buyers MUST coincide with the period when the books are in the stores.

But the online channels open up all sorts of other opportunities. You can market forever. And the contribution margin is always positive. The online and POD costs are easily recouped with each sale. (Publishers are well aware of this profit potential; this is why we have so many making grabs for backlists.)

And I see publishers taking advantage of these new marketing methods. This last week I saw publisher books not currently stocked by brick & mortar retailers on BookBub, BargainBooksy, and Book Sends. And the industry isn’t totally focused on new books for reviews. I just had a large newspaper agree to look at my book that was published four months ago. Still, Rusch is right when she says that the publishers haven’t adapted one of their biggest marketing tools to take advantage of the new opportunities–they haven’t done anything with the best seller lists.

Amazon has lead the way in creating new ways of marketing books to different types of readers with their best seller lists. These lists create the excitement of discovery.

But every one else is still reporting weekly sales on the big lists.

If I were a publisher, I’d be asking USA Today to provide more than just the weekly view of the top 150 books. And USA Today is THE list to watch because their numbers are not based on units shipped to a sample of stores, but actual sales. Here are some lists that readers would be interested in.

  1. Most anticipated this week: based on pre-order totals
  2. Most anticipated this month: based on pre-order totals
  3. Hot new releases: based on weekly numbers
  4. Hot new releases for the month: based on monthly numbers
  5. Books with legs: last 3 months; I know it needs a different name (grin)
  6. Best sellers of the last 12 months: annual total of units sold
  7. Best sellers of the last 18 months: total units
  8. Contenders: for each of the lists above show the next 150 books (I always want to see the next 100 books after the top 100 on Amazon’s lists; why not show readers the top 300?)
  9. Movers: for each of the lists above show those that have the biggest rise in percentage sales and meet some unit minimum (you don’t want to feature books with 2,000% increase because they went from selling 1 unit to 20), even if they don’t break the best seller lists
  10. Genre: allow all of this to be sliced by genre.

Let the reader select the view they want to see!

Avid readers will gravitate towards the shorter time periods. Those that read fewer books will gravitate towards the longer periods. Everyone who wants to discover something new will go to the contender and mover lists.

This is about marketing. Not publishers measuring success.

And then armed with those numbers guess what the publishers will do? They will go back to the brick & mortar venues and pitch to have some of these same books carried in the stores for the first time (some publisher books are printed digital first) or carried again.


The MacFarlane (Tor), Correia, Hines Cage Match: Put It In The C Story

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on January 31st, 2014

Larry Correia is a big-booted barbarian who likes to fight in a cage. And a lot of us love to watch big-booted barbarians go at it.

We like demanding matches. We like a little blood and good sportsmanship (of course, sportsmanship in the cage is different than in other venues). And we respect both sides for showing up and giving it their best.

This last week Larry Correia battled with Alex Dally MacFarlane (and Tor, the silent partner, who thought her new column would be a great idea and has given her their big platform to talk) and Jim Hines. If you didn’t watch the match, here are the links.

I’ve enjoyed reading the give and take in this fight. For me, the barbarians seem to have landed more blows (and done so with many more funny and memorable one-liners.) But that doesn’t mean Alex Dally MacFarlane shouldn’t crusade.

And I mean crusade, as in battle.

Underneath it all MacFarlane wants to change something. She wants to change hearts and minds. A lot of us want to change hearts and minds about various things. A lot of us will show up and risk getting bloody for such things in a variety of settings. Heck, Correia the Barbarian was even willing to spend two years of his barbarian life trying to change hearts and minds in a setting where big boots are not allowed (poor Correia, more sad puppies).

But here’s the deal.

If you want to win someone like me, you’re going to do it not by scolding or brow beating me or by mandating something and then trying to back it up with sticks.

You’re going to do it by writing something so delightul that I cannot but help listen to you.

You’re not going to tell me what I can’t write.

You’re not going to tell me what I must write.

You’re going to model writing that makes me want to write that thing.

You’re going to be like Tolkien and spawn five decades of writers who want to do nothing more than imagine worlds filled with strange races and wonderous settings and weird talking tree men who have lost their wives.

You’re going to invite like-minded folks to join you in creating wonders. Or in just having a good old time.  And not worry about other writers inviting folks to their creations, which might be totally different from yours.

And those wonders and good times are the things that will work the magic.

Miguel Sabido is a master of entertainment with message. Here’s a great piece in The New Yorker introducing him, his work, and methods. Notice what made his stuff so effective. The new ways of thinking he wanted to offer were never found in the A story. They were never found in the B story.


Because the number one thing the story had to do was suck people in (entertain).

And so the new thing to consider was in the C story.

MacFarlane, put it in the C story. And build a Middle-earth. Or a ring world. Or at least some vampires that sparkle.

In the meantime, I’ve got a barbarian book on the shelf that looks like a mighty good time. I think I’m going to give it a read.

Why I think the 10,000 hour idea is bogus

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on January 24th, 2014

Here’s the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated: put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (as opposed to mindless practice) into the area of your choice, and you will succeed. 10,000 hours is more important than anything else. 

10,000 hours.

The idea that deliberate practice makes perfect and leads to success seems to make a lot of sense.

Except I don’t think the data holds up.

First, there’s a huge survivorship bias in the 10,000 hour idea.

Both Gladwell and Colvin based their stuff on Anders Ericsson’s research. I contacted Mr. Ericsson and asked him if there were any studies that weren’t correlational. Any that took similar groups of schlubs and showed that deliberate practice is what took them to elite levels of performance.

He said no there weren’t, but graciously sent me some files to help. Here’s the money quote in those files:

“The main focus of deliberate practice was to explain individual differences among those individuals who had had access to all necessary training and practice opportunities. I proposed those factors which could explain the performance differences within groups of expert musicians who had accumulated over ten years of instruction and mentoring by skilled teachers.”

These were not studies designed to look at those who became elite and those that didn’t and figure out what made the difference.

And there are huge issues using what he identified to make claims about what leads to expertise.

Big issue one: he has no idea what kind of practice any of these folks had before he met with them. It’s all self-reported. There were no controls to verify the amounts of “deliberate” practice the musicians had in the long years up to the time he studied them.

Big issue two (and just as important): he’s looking at experts. It’s all after-the-fact.

He took a bunch of successful people and looked at their current work habits and speculated about their reports of earlier practice. Hum, they’ve put in a lot of hours. And these guys doing better, seem to be doing a specific type of practice. But he did NOT look at a cohort of people who all started out at the same time, track their progress, and then identify factors that made the difference between those who became elite, those who became so-so, and those who ended up in the mud pit.

But somehow his stuff got twisted into the idea that if you’re starting out and just put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you’ll be successful just like those big guys! 

Ericsson did not study, and Gladwell and Colvin do not address the factor early success plays. Especially in writing and other tournament-style endeavors where rejection plays a huge role.

So many people quit because the effort is not worth the reward. What you have left then are a bunch of people who persevered, but was it the hours they put in that led them to the top? Or did they have a lot of hours because they hung in there?

And did they hang in because they had early success?

And did they have early success because of luck or some natural aptitude or advantage like birthday that seems to factor so heavily in Canadian hockey (I think Gladwell talked about that in the same book–right birth date means you’re older compared to the other kids and therefore seem to have “talent” when it’s just a few months more physical development, which makes a big difference when you’re young) or some parent who had expertise and gave them a leg up against the other kids in their cohort?

You see the effect of success in reading. My wife works as a 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher. The studies have shown that kids, in general, need to have about 94% comprehension rate to stick with reading. Below that they start to feel failure, get frustrated, and quit. In most cases, reading a super hard book will decrease motivation. Which then leads to less practice. And less skill. They’ve found that kids will work down around an 89% comprehension rate, a struggling range, if they have support. Below that the failure rate leads them to self select out of reading.

Where in all these studies was self-selection included? Nowhere. Motivation. Early success. Quitting. Disregarding those is a huge oversight.

And all of this is compounded, especially for artists buying into the 10,000 hour idea, that even if you do get some skillz, that’s a completely separate thing from being noticed.

Duncan Watts did a fascinating study about cumulative advantage reported in the NY Times here:

Basically he took a bunch of songs with varying quality and wanted to see how social influence (download counts) affected which songs rose to the top. He put the same set of songs in 8 discrete and separate online environments to see which songs would be most popular. His finding:

“In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable. . .

. . . When we added up downloads across all eight social-influence worlds, “good” songs had higher market share, on average, than “bad” ones. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others.”

So even if your stuff is good, that does not mean it will be popular.

And when you meet failure after failure after failure . . .

You’ve got to practice well to get better, to offer more awesome gifts. But you’re not going to practice without the motivation. Motivation is the KEY to learning. And early success is a key part to motivation.

Another piece of data that seems to belie the 10,000 hour claim is that when you do some simple math and look at surveys of writers breaking in, 10,000 hours starts to look very odd indeed.

Let’s say you’re a poopy-slow writer and can only get 250 words in per hour. In 10,000 hours will you have written 2.5 million words or about twenty-five 100k novels.

25 novels?

Hey, you say, you can’t be typing the whole time.

Okay, what if you spend about half that 10,000 hours writing and the other editing and doing pre-draft work? That’s still 12.5 finished novels.

That sounds like Brandon Sanderson. Except it’s not. Remember, he sold number 5 or 6.

Furthermore, the problem is that from all the surveys I’ve seen, writers who break into the old traditional publishing system aren’t averaging 12.5 novels. They aren’t averaging 5 or 6. They’re averaging 3-4, with a lot selling their first or second.

Hello, Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling. And a lot of indie authors.

Jim Hines reports from a survey of authors he conducted:

“I also asked how many books people had written before they sold one to a major publisher. The average was between three and four. Median was two. I was surprised, however, to see that the mode was zero. 58 authors sold the first novel they wrote.” More at:

10,000 hours? A million words?

I don’t think so.

Gladwell scoffs at this 10,000-hours-will-make-you-a-success reading of his original writings on the matter:

But this is precisely the message so many have taken from the studies. Just put in the time and you’ll become great because the practice is more important than any natural aptitude . . . or early success.

I don’t think it is.

John, what in the Sam Hill are you doing? Trying to depress everyone and tell them they can’t succeed?


What I’m saying is that we must practice and improve our craft. That’s a given. But we cannot expect that alone to make us successful. Especially not as artists. We can’t expect that 10,000 alone will make our work super popular.

Working hard WILL increase the probability of success (what’s that saying?–the harder I work, the luckier I get).  But as writers we’ve got to realize that there’s no guarantee of popularity. Or even expertise.

So what are we left with?

Nothing, and maybe everything. Because there is passion. There is sharing. And if you can tap into that and rejoice in the sharing that does occur, it might well be the best reward. Bricks of gold in the basement and your name on everyone’s lips must be awesome. But a memory of walking a number of afternoons with a daughter in the hills and telling (sharing) a fine tale to that audience of one might just be worth more than all the gold bricks in China.

(Yes China, not Fort Knox. You didn’t hear?–we had to ship everything over before we could get another loan.)

Harry Reid’s Chickens

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on October 10th, 2013
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Are we all wearing Coke bottle glasses with this government shut down?

First, it seems silly to me when reporters ask Americans who is causing the shut down. It’s like, duh, if either party just gave into the other party’s demands, we wouldn’t have the issue. Which means that BOTH parties are causing the shut down.

Second, it seems a lot of folks have forgotten that this is precisely what should happen.


Yes, our government is designed to allow these types of things.

But, John, isn’t that just asinine?

No. It’s not an oversight. I think it’s smart. Even if it causes some pain.

Let me explain what it seems some in the media and elsewhere are forgetting.

This is not a nation that belongs to a government. It’s not a nation owned by some lord or entity. This is a nation of individuals who decided to band together because we thought that banding together would allow us to protect our lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness better than if we stood alone individually.

This is a nation of individuals who said, you know, we think we can figure things out better together ourselves than having someone dictating to us what we’re going to do. We’ll get together and talk. We’ll argue. We’ll persuade. We’ll try to convince each other of our individual ways of thinking. And when enough of us are convinced that we should do something, we’ll act.

We’ll set up a process for talking and making decisions that ensures everyone can be heard. It would be great if we could get 100% agreement on everything, but we know that’s not realistic. At the same time, we don’t like the idea of forcing our will on others. So we’ll make a compromise; we’ll set up the rules for making decisions so it requires that a good majority of us are in agreement before we can take action, especially on matters that are important to a lot of us.

Finally, we’ll make sure no individual or group can take control and deprive us of this way of living. We did the monarch thing, and we’re done with that. We will not bow to any king ever again. We’re going to be very careful about this one item because a lot of bad things begin to happen when any one person or group gets too much power.

So we set up the rules and started working together this way. And the basic premise under all of this is that we would respect each other’s free will. We’re a land of liberty. We’re a land where we get together and agree on a course of action. Not one where we impose our will on others.

One of the main methods we used to ensure that no individual or group could take control of the rest of us and that a good majority of us must agree before taking a course of governmental action was to distribute the power to make and enforce rules. We did this in a wide variety of ways. We did this because power’s a slippery thing and easily abused. Furthermore, because we knew no system is perfect, we also set up a system of checks and balances so that if one person or group abused their power, we could stop them and force them to remember to respect the freewill that the rest of us have.

So what has caused this shutdown?

It’s very simple.

A lot of Americans do not agree with Obamacare. By most polls, it’s a majority of Americans. They were not listened to when it was being developed. They were not listened to when it was made law. They feel it was passed, not with open discussion, but a lot of chicanery. They feel it’s not some minor regulation, but a very big thing that will infringe on their rights to live how they want to live.

Now, it might be that all their fears are unfounded. It might be that Obamacare is going to usher in utopia. Many signs suggest it’s not going to do anything of the sort. But let’s just say it is the finest piece of legislation ever. Let’s say is a celestial piece of governing.

That isn’t enough.

It’s not nearly enough.

Because this is not a nation that belongs to any group. We are a nation of individuals who have banded together, agreeing that we will talk things out amongst ourselves and only act when a good majority of us agree on a course of action. This is a nation that tries to tread lightly on each other’s liberty.

But many of the folks in Washington back in 2009-2010 forgot this and forced this thing called Obamacare upon the rest of us; in doing so, they violated one of the basic agreements of our compact. If they had followed the underlying intent of our union, they would not have done what they did. They would have crafted legislation that a good majority of us could get behind.

In 2010, those of us who protested this use of power voted in new folks into the House of Representatives to deal with the matter. In fact, when given the chance, Americans (both Republican and Democrat) in the heavily Democratic state of Massachusetts voted Republican Scott Brown into office, hoping to stop this legislation in the Senate before it became law. But Harry Reid didn’t listen. He didn’t care. He and Pelosi and Obama weren’t interested in allowing a full national discussion. He and the others were more concerned with getting their way. And so he used a parliamentary trick to force it through.

This shut down is about one group of people forcing their will on the rest of us. It’s about using the checks and balances designed into the system to correct such errors. It’s about the chickens of some poor decisions coming home to roost.

I know the shut down has caused issues. It’s a partial shutdown; 13% of the government. I think 87% is still funded and running. Still, I know it’s causing some pain.

But none of that pain needs to occur. Everyone wants to fund cancer research. Everyone wants to help poor single mothers. Those things aren’t the issue. The issue is that not everyone agrees with Obamacare.

If you’re a supporter of Obamacare, let me ask you this: if the tables were turned, what would you do?

Would you not stare at the folks trying to force their will on you and say, hey, come on. We’re adults here. We all agreed that we wouldn’t do anything unless a good majority of us were convinced it was the right course of action. Let’s get together and come up with something a good majority of us can get behind.

If you’re an opponent of Obamacare, you too should recognize that a good portion of your fellow citizens are clamoring to change the way things are. They’ve been clamoring for some time. Should you force your will on them? Or should you sit down and listen and try to come up with something that addresses the points we can agree on?

I don’t know if the folks many of us voted to go to Washington will stick to their guns and correct this. I hope they do. And I hope that those on both sides who have forgotten one of the basic tenets of our social compact will wake up and remember we are banded together, not to game the system to get what we want, but to act on only what a good majority of us want.

Pew Study on American Reading Habits

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on October 23rd, 2012

Pew Research Center just published the results of a national study surveying reader habits. It answers questions like:

  • Do folks read ebooks more often on cell phones, e-readers, or computers?
  • How many books does each age group read per year?
  • How do readers under 30 discover books to read? 

Lots of great stuff. You can read the full survey here:

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Obama, Romney, Rich People, Roasts, and A Good Cause

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on October 19th, 2012

Every year the Alfred E. Smith Foundation hosts a millionaires-only fundraising dinner for Catholic charities. It’s a custom to have the two main candidates speak in election years.  President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney roasted themselves and each other this week, just two days after their brouhaha second debate.

Not only are both talks funny, but the fact that these two men came together for this purpose says a lot about both of them. Go Obama and Romney! It’s the perfect antidote to bitter political rancor.


President Obama’s Speech


Mitt Romney’s Speech