Today's Publishing Nightmare: Drowning in Indie e-Books... and The Way Out

Nightmare filmNightmare film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An article published on Forbes by David Vinjamuri with the arresting title "Publishing is Broken" (see here) that got over 200,000 views sums up the situation for readers, something I've rarely ever seen. Most articles debating on the good and bad aspects of self-publishing and what Amazon is doing to traditional publishing eschew the reader's point of view. So it is well worth quoting in extenso:

"Indeed, the problem for readers is that regardless of which side you agree with in theory, in practice you probably love the idea of buying books for under $5.00 but hate the idea of having to sort through quite so much junk to find good books at that price.   The question that divides Indie fans from the traditional publishing industry is whether a solid selection of good writing can ever be self-published for these low prices.

Consumer ratings should help sort out the mess, but they don’t.  It seems that every author has twenty or thirty friends who are willing to write glowing reviews of his or her book, no matter how awful.   And conversely, a mainstream author like Brad Thor finds himself targeted by scads of low ratings based solely on the high list price of his ebooks – which he does not control.  The net effect is to make the peer rating systems useless.

So the big question for publishing is which way this paradigm will evolve.  Will our future feature lots of small new interesting writers at low prices and a bunch of bestsellers for somewhat higher prices?  Or will the chaos eventually yield to a higher pricing model where only the most stubborn and talented Indie writer can ever break through?"

No question, Vinjamuri is right, customer reviews on Amazon don't help to discover good reads. And he argues convincingly "that traditional publishers set the stage for their current misfortunes years ago, when they developed the pricing model for printed books." The economics he uses are faultless: he argues that the price of hardcovers was always set too high (between $22 and $25) by traditional publishers in a bumbling attempt to cover the cost of "hunting" for the Next Big Author (i.e. paying advances they cannot recoup because most new authors don't sell). That's a "fixed cost fallacy", you don't sell as many books at $25 as at $5 - your revenues are higher at the lower price.

That error of course left open the famous window of opportunity for self-published authors willing to sell books at $5 and less.

Then Vinjuri singles out three advances that together explain where publishing is at today:

1. e-books are convenient and enable readers to read more than ever before; the famous "long tail" (of niche-interest books) is finally flourishing; the physical difference between self-published and traditionally published is erased by e-books, they all look the same;

2. social media (Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads...) have changed the way recommendations work, making it easier to spread the word about a good read - but, as Hugh Howey points out, it's the readers who are doing the work on Twitter and elsewhere rather than the author; and that's an important point, I've always felt that using Twitter to promote one's book was totally useless;

3. digital publishing has solved the once costly challenge of print runs, storage and distribution, equalizing the field for indies; again, as Hugh Howey puts it: "Now I have the advantage because I have low overhead. Where I once couldn’t compete with their physical price, they now can’t compete with my digital price."

Indeed, indies have low costs, though self-publishing can be very expensive on two counts, editing and marketing as so well explained in this UK Guardian article , aptly titled "You can try to be the next Hemingway for $6,000". Actually, it can cost much more, up to $15,000 to get a professionally edited book out and to market it in the right places, for example using NetGalley or the Kirkus Review to get reviews and obtain the needed attention for your book. That was the amount a friend of mine aimed for with a Kickstarter campaign - she got the money but I regret to say her book is not a best seller, or at least not yet...

The biggest problem is "discovery" - finding your next good read. In his article Vinjumari does an excellent summing up of the currently available options, from Kirkus to Goodreads, noting their shortcomings and concluding that perhaps Amazon, with its Vine program of selected reviewers, though still too "commercial" in form and spirit, would be however best placed, with a little tweaking, to come up with a viable solution that would (at last!) provide readers with reliable recommendations.

Because, as he puts it:

  "There is enormous pressure in the market to solve the “drowning in bad writing” issue with Indie publishing.  It’s hard to imagine that a solution won’t emerge in the next 12-18 months."

18 months? I think he is a little too optimistic, it's not likely to happen that soon. And on his second prediction - that most midlist authors will go indie - he is a little behind the times, my impression is that most of them already have done so.

His third prediction - that "legacy publishers will be hurt badly by Indie books until they find a business models that co-opts them" - is however spot on. And, as he says, it has already happened as traditional publishers scour the self-publishing scene looking for their next big selling author. That is the way Amanda Hocking and John Locked (partly) went, though many (like Hugh Howey) are choosing a "hybrid" model, with one foot in each camp. 

The article ends with an intriguing comparison with pamphleteering in the 17th and 18th century, when pamphleters were treated as hacks, "accused of vanity, incompetence and even sedition", much like indies today. Yet Thomas Paine and others like him are now considered literary masters...This is a nice concluding touch, do you feel like Thomas Paine?

Personally, I don't (!) 

But I do worry that too many good authors who have gone down the road of self-publishing are going to stay buried under the 3 million+ ebooks in the Kindle Store unless something truly innovative happens on the "book discovery" front. In a way, Amazon has brought on the digital revolution to publishing and I hope that Amazon can also bring the solution. It would be really important to improve the Vine Program and turn it into a book discovery instrument of choice! 

Your opinion? What do you think should be done?


The Future According to Google

Cover of "Zoolander"
The United States has historically been a laboratory of the future for the rest of the world: I remember how I was awed when I arrived in New York in the 1960s and saw what the future looked like, with gigantic highways, sprawling suburbs and televisions everywhere.

Now the US is doing it again, if you know where to look. David Leonhardt, heading The Upshot, a new New York Times venture focused on investigative and analytical journalism (and that means data-crunching), recently reported the results of a study done following a suggestion from Google's chief economist, Hal Varian.

I bet Google's chief economist hadn't expected the kind of results shown in that study...

The piece, titled "Inequality and Web Search Trends - In One America, Guns and Diet. In the Other, Cameras and 'Zoolander'", explains how the research was done. Serious stuff, analyzing a decade of search data county by county across the whole of the US, categorized by an income-education-health index and then comparing the results to web searches on Google to uncover people's interests and concerns at both ends of the income distribution.

What rich people search for on Google compared to poor people.

Leonhardt summarized the picture in a couple of striking sentences: "In the hardest places to live in the United States, people spend a lot of time thinking about diets and religion. In the easiest places to live, people spend a lot of time thinking about cameras."

The portrait is suggestive.

Rich people are concerned with acquiring the latest technology and traveling to distant lands. The poor worry about their health and look for weight-loss diets (the new poverty in America is associated with obesity). 

The article concludes on a note of pessimism, highlighting the fact that the rich are "intent on passing down their way of life to the next generation, via Baby Bjorns and early access to technology."

As noted by Leonhardt, "That last point may be the most troubling. The different subjects that occupy people’s thoughts aren’t just a window into American life today. They’re a window onto future inequality, too."

Yes, that's what future inequality will look like: access to new technology and round-the-world travel will be reserved to the rich and likely to be denied to the masses. Why?  Too expensive.

Another NYT article from The Upshot suggests that we may all be stuck in rut: there is evidence that in climbing the social ladder, geographic location matters. The chances that a child raised in the bottom fifth will rise to the top are lowest in the "old South", around 4% in places like Atlanta and Charlotte. Conversely, they are much better in the North, for example 33% in Willinston, North Dakota. Clearly, parental and school environment matters.

Does this sound depressing to you? To me, it does. Yet, I believe it's important to know where we're headed as a civilization. The 20th century saw the rise of the middle class, and that rise continues around the world, as people in developing countries are climbing out of poverty. But the middle class has stalled in America and the on-going (triple dip?) recession in Europe is not helping. It looks like the happy days of the middle class are over in the developed world...

Personally, I hope I'm wrong about that. Still, I did try to imagine our future on the basis of such trends and the result (as all those following this blog already know) can be found in my latest book "Forever Young". My goal was simple, I did not want to write fantasy science fiction, I wanted to take a "hard" look at what our future would really be like. I only wish this NYT study had come out sooner, as I was writing my book, but at least I feel vindicated: this is confirmation that my premise is sound...Nevertheless, I still hope the trends towards inequality that we see today - especially in a book like Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" - will ultimately prove wrong.

Can the Millennials get us out of the inequality rut?

Income inequality and mortality in 282 metropo...
Income inequality and mortality in 282 metropolitan areas of the United States. Mortality is correlated with both income and inequality. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


To Publish AND Perish: A Threat to The Future of Our Culture?

More about the implications of the exponential growth in e-books in the Kindle Store that I reported on last week, and what it portends for the future: an analysis of how one famous computer scientist, musician and author see the future of books, literature and our culture. This is another one of my articles just published by Impakter:


To Publish and Perish

Amazon and its 3.4 Million E-Books: the End of Culture?

For a long while now, people have debated how many e-books Amazon carried it in its Kindle Store, because Amazon has never divulged the data. Some daringly ventured the figure of 1.5 million. Wrong! The real figure is close to 3.4 million and I found it by chance, as I was navigating Amazon’s website for Amazon Associates which provides links, banners and widgets you can upload to your blog to help advertise Amazon products.
You can bet that in 10 years time the number of titles in the Kindle Store could be anywhere between 20 and 40 million books...Internet guru Jaron Lanier, in his fascinating book “Who Owns the Future” suggests that we should eventually expect as many writers online as there are readers. If he’s right (and there’s not reason to believe him wrong), we still have some way to go. But it will surely happen, and probably sooner than you think.

When that happens, what will the e-book market look like? Lanier reminds us that this is what happened to music already.

Are books like music?

Not quite, books are a more complete codification of ideas, they can play on emotions the way music does (for example, a romance novel or lines of poetry) but they also encapsulate ideas and ideology (from Hegel to Marx to contemporary thought gurus, like Lanier himself).

So can we expect our culture to get crushed under the numbers?

Again, Lanier tells us how he sees the future. Books will be increasingly linked to devices – think of how the rise of e-books was linked to the Kindle. When that happens, says Lanier: “some good books from otherwise obscure authors will come into being. These will usually come to light as part of the rapid-growth phase, or “free rise” of a new channel or device for delivering the book experience.”

He doesn’t say it, but of course Amanda Hocking and John Locke‘s sudden rise to fame immediately comes to mind. They enjoyed a “heightened visibility” on the Kindle, as they were “uniquely available early on on that device.” And Lanier to conclude: “In this way, an interesting author with just the right timing will occasionally get a big boost from a tech transition”.

Is that good for authors? No, says Lanier, “the total money flowing to authors in the system will decline to a fraction of what it was before digital networks.” The future reserved to authors is exactly the same as what musicians are facing today: “Most authors will make most of their book-related money in real time, from traveling, live appearances or consulting instead of book sales.”
Authors in future will be a vastly different lot from what they are today, no more hiding in the ivory tower as “independent scholars”! In Lanier’s words, “Authors will tend to be either young or childless, independently wealthy, beneficiaries of an institutional post, or more fundamentally like performers.”
What he sees is the rise of an “intellectual plutocracy”.
And readers in all this? They will be “second-class economic citizens”..."

The rest on Impakter, click here.

And yes, you will see that I don't fully agree with Jaron Lanier - his analysis is brilliant but his conclusions...not so much! I have a different idea of the future of our culture...


To Self-Publish and Perish: Buried Under 3.4 Million E-Books

I finally found where Amazon reveals a hidden (and juicy) statistic: the number of ebooks available in the Kindle Store. If you're an Amazon Associate, you can easily find it too but to make it simple I took a screen shot of the page where it shows, this one dated August 16, 2014:

Look at what the red arrow points to: "Results from Amazon Kindle Store...3,376,174 results". That's how many ebooks are stocked in the Kindle Store as of now: 3.4 million.

And by the time I had finished writing this blog post (one hour later) that number had climbed to...3,376,186! It took one hour to add 12 books, one new title every five minutes.  In 24 hours, the number had climbed to 3,378,960, that's 2786 more books - let's say, 2,800 a day, that's over one million books per year - and probably growing at an exponential rate that I cannot calculate for the moment; I haven't got the data though Amazon does (I wonder whether they are as scared as I am).

You can bet that in 10 years time the number of titles in the Kindle Store could be anywhere between 20 and 40 million books.

This is as many books as Google is said to have scanned globally, drawing from all the world's libraries (the latest reported figure dates to last year and was 33 million books).

Surprised? I'm not, not really. Internet guru Jaron Lanier, in his fascinating book "Who Owns the Future" suggests that we should eventually expect as many writers online as there are readers. If he's right (and there's not reason to believe him wrong), we still have some way to go. But it will surely happen, and probably sooner than you think.

It's also very instructive to look at the list of titles provided using the filter "new and popular" (the one I used - but there are other filters too depending on what you're looking for) and you'll see that Daniel Silva's "The Heist" (the 14th book in the Allon series) comes on top: it was published on 15 July 2014 and already got over 1,200 customer reviews. Not unsuprisingly it is is ranked #51 in "paid Kindle" and #1 in several subcategories including mystery and suspense.

By the way, "The Heist" is published by one of the Big Five (Harper) and priced at an average $14 which is standard for traditionally published books. That price, high in relation to the average price for self-published books (which according to Smashwords is around $3.99), does not seem to have impeded its sales or ranking. This is not to say that traditional publishers can get away with any level of high prices - I would argue that a level beyond $14 is damaging and ensures that some excellent writers, like William T. Volmann, perhaps our times' major "fabulist", is not as widely read as he could be. His latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, is priced at over $22, a price equivalent to the hardcover.   That places him well beyond the reach of the average e-book reader, in practice excluding him from any exposure in the Kindle Store. Don't be surprised if his book is sitting at #42,967 Paid in Kindle Store in spite of the boost it has received in the mainstream media, most recently the New York Times (see here).

Indeed, if anything, books that are priced high and traditionally published seem to occupy the first ranks everywhere on Amazon. And I'm not referring to special cases like John Green's best-selling "The Fault in our Stars" with over 29,000 customer reviews and a ranking in paid Kindle at #8 for books, although it is noteworthy that its ranking is not the same in the ebook market (it sits at # 3,810). Here I am looking at the Kindle Store only and what pops up in the ranks is often quite different from what emerges in printed books, and why it is so, is a story for another blog post.

In any case, whether looking at the printed or ebook markets, you have to look hard for self-published authors though, undeniably, they are there...Hugh Howey with over 2,000 reviews for his Dust (book 3 of the WOOL trilogy) is sitting at #815 in "paid in Kindle Store"; Bella Andre's Kiss Me Like This at #642 (it came out in June 2014 and has over 170 reviews); J.A. Konrath's Whiskey Sour at #1615 (it came out in February 2013 and has nearly 1,200 reviews); Barry Eisler's Graveyard of Memories at #5,136 (it came out in February 2014 and already has over 600 reviews) - but Eisler's book is published by an Amazon imprint, Thomas and Mercer, and he cannot be thought of as a self-published author stricto sensu, though he often sides with indies and famously walked away from a big publisher's contract a few years ago.

The conclusion? Self-published authors, even the most successful ones, aren't doing badly of course, but they are certainly not doing as well in terms of exposure as traditionally published authors. Sometimes, a traditionally published author who finds herself retrograded to the "midlist", with the publisher giving no signs of wishing to renew the contract, may have no choice but to self-publish to survive. This is what Eileen Goudge did and so elegantly explained in a blog post here on Jane Friedman's blog, enticingly titled "Self-publish or Perish" (hence the title for my own blog post here).

However, we should remember that if the midlist author's economic "survival" is ensured, it is largely thanks to the 70% royalty Amazon pays, because it is certainly not remarkable in terms of exposure - I won't go further in the details and give you yet another ranking, you can check for yourself if you're curious (here).

Moreover, one must remember that all rankings are ephemeral, they change constantly, and one needs to be Amazon itself (or set up a 24 hour watch for months on end) to figure out which authors have "staying power" and which don't. So all the rankings I'm quoting here are merely indicative.

Still, some insights can be gleaned. It is particularly interesting to check on the more successful self-published authors and see how they fare today. I checked at random the more famous ones such as Amanda Hocking or John Locke whose amazing success stories (selling "a million copies" in a matter of months) have been instrumental in launching the self-publishing craze.

Well, they are not doing as well today as you might expect. Amanda Hocking has two books going currently for free and her best selling book, My Blood Approves (now traditionally published by St Martin's) is ranked #34,251 Paid in Kindle Store. John Locke's Promise You Won't Tell, with close to 1,200 reviews was going free the last time I checked and his best selling non-free book Casting Call (actually also the most recent, published in February 2014) is priced at $2.99 and ranked #11,195 in paid in Kindle Store. In other words, it's doing reasonably well but breaking no records.

Why are such famous self-published authors with millions of copies sold - I would say even "iconic" writers - following the free promotion strategy exactly as propounded by self-published author David Gaughran in his excellent guidebook Let's Get Visible?

I'm sure you can come up with still more striking success stories, and please be sure to highlight them out in the comments, but my point is that the success doesn't stay on...it waxes and wanes (which is natural) and then falls off a cliff, to use David Gaughran's striking metaphor. Hence, the authors efforts to revive their books with free promotions. A tough life!

Now if life is tough for the more successful self-published authors, try and imagine what it's like for the rest of us?

The reason why? Basically the tsunami of books that buries every single newcomer!

No doubt this is another compelling reason why you should follow David Gaughran's advice. And don't get discouraged, Amazon has just handed out a candy to self-published authors, making it possible for them for the first time ever to access to the "pre-order" functionality on its website (is this a side-effect of the Hachette-Amazon spat? Who knows...) Regardless of Amazon's reasons for doing this, it is a big gift, because it means that,  just like a traditional publisher could do till now, you are able to promote your book on all the sites you navigate for 90 days prior to launching, while pre-orders accumulate on Amazon's site: on the day of release, all these orders are filled at a single go, ensuring a boost to your book, launching it up Amazon's rankings!

Because, as David Gaughran points out, in this environment awash with books, you cannot ever stop marketing your titles - and now you have another tool at your disposal to launch your next book...use it!


Diary of a United Nations Official: Mission #1

Another article of mine published on Impakter - under my real name, as usual. This time it's something very different, memories of my time at the United Nations, my first mission to Africa...I think you may be surprised!

Here it is: 

Diary of UN official: Mission #1 – Mauritania

My (Adventurous) Life at the United Nations: First Mission, Mauritania
October 1980. The sky is an intense blue over Mauritania’s desert, the Land Rover bumps along, skidding from one pothole to the next. Dust permanently dries the mouth, the blazing light hurts the eyes, I forgot my sunglasses in Rome, and there’s no place here to buy a pair; not today, not until we reach a semblance of a town. I look out hoping to spot a caravan of Berbers but there’s nothing to see except endless sand dunes and an occasional truck filled with dozens of people hanging on…

My thoughts drifted back to my family in Italy, my husband (we are newly married), my little daughter, she was only four months old. I missed him and her, taking consolation in the fact that she was probably too young to miss me.

We had left Mauritania’s capital city, Nouakchott, early in the morning. I write “we”, I was accompanied on this first mission by a 60 year-old Belgian agronomist, a veteran of Africa who’d been forced to leave his research station in the Belgian Congo back in 1960 when the country had achieved independence and become Zaire.


The rest on Impakter.com, click here.


The Amazon-Hachette War Has Reached the Next Level: AMAZON WANTS YOU!

British Propaganda World War II (Wikipedia)
Today KDP authors - those of us who use Kindle Direct Publishing - got a direct letter in our email box from the "Amazon Book Team" that reminded us that what e-books are doing to publishing is similar to what paperbacks did when they first came out at the end of World War II: far from destroying publishing, paperbacks expanded it.

As an economist, I buy that. There's no question in my mind that e-books are not a subtraction but an addition to both the book-verse and the pool of readers.

The letter ended with a rousing call to action and I quote:

"We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
- Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
- Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
- Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

As you can see from a sample of related articles below, the Amazon call for action immediately found a vast echo in the blogosphere.

I recommend reading the comments to Chris Meadows article in Teleread, click here. One comment in particular stands out, Michal W. Perry's. He argues that the true story is that Amazon would like to pay authors 40 or 50% royalties, not the current 70%. And he reminds us that for audiobooks, it has already moved against authors, recalling what Amazon's affiliate Audible did in February this year to independent authors: “In a disturbing move that caused an eruption among self-published authors, Amazon’s ACX division has announced a reduction and simplification of royalty rates. Rates that previously started at 50% and escalated to 90% have been reduced to a flat 40%.”

Yes, that is something to ponder.

The other thing that surprised me is that Amazon is asking for help from its authors yet it has set up a site for the purpose with the name "readers-united". Now, as suggested by several bloggers, perhaps that was meant as a dig at the "Authors United" set up by the 900 traditionally published authors who've signed a letter in support of Hachette (published in the New York Times at a cost of some $100,000). But the implication is also that customers are, as always, first and foremost on Amazon's mind - in the case of books, readers. Not authors. Does that mean it will send an email around to all its readers and ask for their help? Maybe but I doubt it. Readers are not interested in getting drawn into a fight between giant corporations - nor are most writers, I wager.

What is your opinion? Ready to take sides and sent that email to Hachette's CEO, Michael Pietsch?


The Digital Revolution has Removed the Stigma Attached to Self-Publishing: True or False?

For the past five years, the gurus of self-publishing, from J.A. Konrath to David Gaughran, have trumpeted the good news: the Digital Revolution has "leveled the playing field between authors and publishers", the stigma attached to self-publishing is a thing of the past. It has been consigned to the dustbin of History.

Valerie Macon (see AP post about her nomination

And suddenly, an article in the New York Times two weeks ago come as a reminder that this may not be the case, that the stigma attached to self-publishing is lingering on, like a mold you can't get rid of. One poet, Valerie Macon, recently nominated to the position of State Poet Laureate by her state governor (Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina)  resigned.  She was possibly forced into leaving the job, nobody knows for sure, but the fact that she is a self-published author seems to have had something to do with it. She wasn't deemed good enough for the post...

In many ways, this is a curious story: it is linked to that very American system of state-sponsored (and even county-sponsored!) poet laureates that was started back in 1937, presumably as a way to salvage poetry from oblivion. See the full NYT article here.

That article has more to do with the number of State poet laureates today in America (45) than with the fact I'm highlighting here, no doubt because the NYT reporter considered it a minor point, as she put it, "just another chapter in the long-running debate over whose standards should rule the art form".

Ms. Macon's position however is fully reported and I quote: "In her letter of resignation, she said that people didn’t need 'prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations” to read or write poetry.'"

"Prestigious" publishing credits? Indeed, self-publishing does NOT provide those, nor "accolades from impressive organizations"; all the famous prizes, from the Man Booker to the Pulitzer, are closed to self-published authors.  One presumes she is referring to poetry prizes, of which there are an extraordinary number, both at the international and national level (see here).

It is however of note that she did not make her poetry available on Amazon. You might say she is a "pre-digital" writer who probably believed that self-publishing outside of Amazon no longer carried any stigma thanks to the "Amazon effect". In her case, the Amazon effect apparently didn't work its magic.

Should one conclude that the stigma attached to self-publishing hasn't yet gone away?

I'm afraid the answer is yes. However, things are moving in the "traditional" publishing world, there is some hope, a little light at the end of the tunnel: recently, the Library Journal has started something called SELF-e for self-published authors. If  your book is to their liking, they will share it with some 500 libraries in the US (see here). I checked, but unfortunately, for the moment, the offer is limited to US residents. So if you live abroad as I do, forget it!

It's a small step, but to paraphrase Neil Armstrong on the Moon, a "giant leap" for self-published authors. Maybe the beginning of the end of that damnable stigma? Let's just hope it won't take as long as it is taking man to go back to the Moon!


Retirement is Not a Dirty Word - It's a Golden Opportunity!

Today I woke up to the good news that one of my articles was on Boomer Café,  here it is:


Retirement, for baby boomers, is not a dirty word

Claude Nougat, author of the new book Forever Young, has written many pieces from her home in Italy for BoomerCafé, and what they’ve shown is a woman with an active, lively life. But what does it all mean? Is this the definition of retirement? That’s what Claude writes about now for baby boomers at BoomerCafé: Retirement, she insists, is not a dirty word.

When I was a young woman working for the United Nations, I sometimes came across older colleagues at the cafeteria whose heated discussions seemed to indicate that their only concern in life was retirement.

I was appalled.

I heard them counting the years and even the days to retirement, the pros and cons of the best pension packages on offer, and I couldn’t believe it. They sounded like Martians. To me, work came first, I was proud to be able to serve in the fight against poverty and hunger in the Third World.[....Life was not about retirement. A dirty word, in my mind, it evoked a vision of decrepit old people, sitting around all day long, doing nothing.

Oh, but now that I am myself retired, how that vision has changed!

I now realize that retirement is not a dirty word,though it is a difficult thing to handle.

First, in spite of what anyone tells you, retirement is not an eternal holiday. It is not about traveling the world and discovering new people. It can be that too (and it is fun, no doubt about it) but that is not the main point of it.

Retirement is contemplating new opportunities.
The cafeteria at my work place (FAO in Rome). Retirement is contemplating new opportunities...

Retirement is a golden opportunity for a second career, a second life.

Yes, in retirement, life starts again, the way it did in our twenties when we started on our first job. And that is the catch.It is exactly as hard and challenging to enter the post-work phase of our life as it was to enter into our working life as a young adult.

We face the same harrowing questions. What should I do? What am I good for? What is my life all about? You thought you had shelved those questions forty or fifty years ago? Well, you discover that you are wrong. 

The rest on Boomer Café, click here.


Why Instagram is Displacing Twitter

Here's another article Impakter Magazine published - as usual, under my real name:

Why Instagram Is Fast Becoming King of the Social Media

Instagram, started in October 2010 as a simple iPhone app to edit and share photos, had acquired by  September 2013 some 150 million users and was said to be the fastest growing social platform in the world, with a 23% annual increase
That sort of growth is unique, it has displaced Pinterest for good and it looks like it’s ready to overtake Twitter.

Everyone says it’s because of the kind of audience Instagram draws in: mainly women and mainly teenagers. Conventional wisdom has it that women are more “visual” than men and teenagers don’t read or write. They are only attracted to images, and that’s what Instagram is all about, images!

Well, that’s too simple.

First, regarding women. It is true that Instagram attracts a majority of women, according to Wikipedia, up to 2/3 are women, but this is an exaggeration...

For the rest of the article, go to Impakter.com, click here.

Happy reading and I hope you learn something about Instagram that you will find of use to you. My only gripe with all this: too visual! Don't misunderstand me, I'm a painter too and love to take photographs, but a world that replaces words with images...well, I'm not too comfortable with that. I love the subtleties of language, I love to play with words and in my mind, nothing is ever final until it's written down!


Digital Revolution Act Two: TheTrue Nature of Amazon Revealed?

Fascinating report from Author Earnings (see here). In the traditional publishing world, the reaction to that report was rather negative (according to the UK Guardian), putting into question the methodology. But even taking into account all the limitations of this report, it still reveals a lot about about Amazon, keeping in mind that 120,000 books included in the report comprise approximately 50% of Amazon e-Book revenue and that Amazon's own publishing ventures (five imprints) account for only 6% of the total, a surprisingly small share compared to 38% of the "Big Five" (legacy publishers):

OK, Indies account for 31 percent. Fascinating but at the same time frightening: remember, we are dealing here with JUST 120,000 titles (so, out of those, some 40,000 titles are indies) But this is out of a total of how many books in the Kindle Store, 3 million? 4 million? I’d love to know.

Assuming it's somewhere between 3 and 4 million, that means less than 3% float to the surface and get bought, perhaps even as little as 2%.

The other frightening aspect of this (otherwise brilliant) analysis is the focus on rankings. It really confirms that there are no quality gatekeepers on Amazon, number of sales rule the day! Sales beget sales, historical sales keep a book floating for several weeks, and when sales dip for too long, the book sinks out of sight.

Sales numbers decide whether a book shows up or not in any reader’s searches.

I perfectly understand the logic but I deeply regret it.

It means that numbers trump quality.

Readers navigating Amazon will keep seeing the same books over and over again. If you’ve got a book that doesn’t hit the #100 rank, there’s no hope for you. None whatsoever. Because it means you have no Internet presence, not enough fans to buy your books together at a given point in time so that the ranking is boosted up. Authors with fans acquired in a previous existence as a traditionally published “mid-list author” have an obvious head start in this rankings game, no question about it, and that head start is decisive.

Good for them, but if you’re a newbie, never published before by a trad publisher, beware!

If all this notwithstanding, you do decide to jump into self-publishing, then the two genres that you should write in to have any hope of success, according to this report, are romance and science fiction/fantasy - but especially romance, look at this amazing graph:

Yes, on Amazon, the "Big Five" only seem to do well in thrillers and non-fiction. Thrillers also happens to be the area where Amazon imprints do best. However, for non-fiction, children's and literary fiction, Amazon imprints are no match to the Big Five, they literally disappear...

Broadly speaking, literary fiction and children's fiction don't make the cut on Amazon, it would seem that both kids and persons who like literary reads need printed books from legacy publishers to be happy (I can't say I'm surprised - that makes sense; ebooks are only good for quick reads when traveling or waiting at the dentist's).

Of course, all this data needs to be taken with a grain of salt (we know nothing of the rest of what's on Amazon - from where exactly the other half of Amazon earning stems from, and of course, Amazon won't tell).

This puts the battle between Hachette and Amazon in perspective, doesn't it? Some of Hachette authors are surely hurt but it is likely that many are NOT suffering all that much because the majority of their books are not sold in the Kindle Store...

Still, I am shocked that the whole analysis hinges on only 120,000 titles...Your views?


FAO Revived: But For How Long?

This is the fourth (and last) article about FAO that I wrote for Impakter magazine:

FAO: Revived But For How Long?

Over the past 100 years, agro-biodiversity has steadily disappeared with the adoption of modern agricultural practices and the globalization of the food system and marketing.

Something has gone seriously wrong with agriculture worldwide.

Every year local land varieties and landraces are lost, livestock breeds are at risk of extinction and, on average, six livestock breeds are lost each month. As of now, some 75 percent of the world food comes from only 12 plants (mostly rice, maize and wheat) and five animal species. More than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields.  In fisheries, all the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits.

Who says so?

Read the rest here.


A Perfect Summer Breakfast

What a way to start a perfect summer day! A foamy cappuccino, a crisp croissant (or cornetto if you are in Italy), fresh fruit and a good book:

Am I plugging my latest book? Yes, shamelessly, ha ha! I just got it in the mail, brand new, fresh from Create Space's printing presses (you can see it here on Amazon - for some mysterious reason, the blue in reality is several shades darker than on the website, looks much better).

I confess that I love a printed book. It looks more real than the digital version, it's got pages you can turn, a shiny cover you can slide your fingers on, and you can write in the margin. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't feel I've published a book until I hold it in my hands...

And I'm not afraid to say it's a damn good book...Though I must also confess that I find it hard to self-promote, it goes against the grain. I've been brought up by old-fashioned parents who felt children should be seen and not heard.

...Well, not quite like that (though it pretty much sums up the influence of my mother and father, Mom was always the one who showed affection and Dad the one who discussed ideas). And it's hard to shake off a lifetime of acting reserved and demure.

So what is this book Forever Young about? A near-future thriller (yes, scary!), it is set 200 years from now. Last week it got a Nevil Award for climate fiction and has already garnered 5-star reviews on Amazon. Actually, last year, when I published the opening, it got a lot of attention on Goodreads (23 ratings) - and more recently on Wattpad (400 reads) and Readwave (1685 reads, 13 likes, my most successful short, a 3 minute read, see here).

Here are some excerpts, and I treasure them, there is nothing that makes a writer happier than a good review that shows the reader enjoyed the book:
  • "Futuristic and yet spot on" (Beate Boeker, here) 
  • "A highly plausible future. Scarily plausible" (Bob Rector, here)
  • "A prophetic view of our future" (Lit Amri) 
  •  "a roller coaster ride" (Marsha Roberts, here
  • "A growing tension among the main characters as the fatal end approaches" (C.E. Rodriguez)
  • "A fascinating concept, Nougat provides beautifully-written science fiction, with enough reality to scare the hell out of us" (Vikki Patis, see article here)
So why not make your summer perfect and get Forever Young?

Right now, if you live in the UK, the digital version is under promotion (at a 70% discount) - until 22 July, so hurry! If you don't live in the UK, don't despair, the digital price is low and the printed book can be had with a free digital version. I made sure to make the digital version free; in my opinion, this is something  that should be standard: if you buy the printed book, you should always get a free digital version, it makes sense.

Now, as to why Amazon doesn't run "countdown deals" in markets other than the US and UK, I have no idea. Not fair. I can only presume that in the near future, they will do so.

Wondering about where I took the image with my book and cappuccino? On this terrace:

That's our house in Umbria, an old stone farm near Lake Trasimeno, one of the main settings of my previous book, Crimson Clouds. Yes, under that umbrella, a perfect place to read a book! 

Cheers and have a happy summer!


Digital Revolution Act Two, Amazon vs. Hachette: What Future for Indies ?

The on-going Amazon-Hachette war that started in April is viewed by many as a paradigm shift. The digital revolution is not over yet and the ground is moving, major actors are re-aligning themselves. Whether Hachette or Amazon wins or loses and with what results for authors, particularly for self-published authors, remains to be seen. 
Bob Rector
In short, Amazon is shaking up the publishing industry and a lot of people don't like it. I blogged about this last week, (see here), and got a remarkable comment from Bob Rector, who's not only a talented novelist (if you haven't read Unthinkable Consequences yet, you should) but also a successful playwright (Letters from the Front, an award-winning play that toured the world for 15 years) and a veteran film director who first became famous with "The Now Explosion", historically the first experiment in music video.

He has a uniquely upbeat take on the changes happening to the publishing industry, no doubt because of his long experience, and I wanted to share it with you. This is what he wrote (I love his uplifting conclusion and I added the highlights): 

Claude, your blog post "The Author-Reader Amazon Revolution:Mirage or Reality?" is a very informative and sobering article that once again leaves my head spinning about the book market today. But also conjures up some memories along similar lines.

A little less than 40 years ago I jumped through these same kinds of hoops but in a different medium: film. I was part of a small production company that decided to make a low-budget feature film for theatrical distribution. The timing was right because several G-rated low-budget 'outdoor-adventure' films had done very well, chief among them was Grizzly Adams. The attraction to this genre for the filmmaker was that Mother Nature provided all the sets and most of the players (wildlife) for free. All you had to do was get the cast and crew to a really spectacular location and tell a reasonably entertaining story about a hero single-handedly fighting man's abuse of nature. 

I was chosen to write, direct, and edit for the simple reason that I had more experience than anyone else involved, plus I was still riding on my fame from The Now Explosion. The film was titled Nature's Way but before its release was changed to Don't Change My World. 
We made the film for next to nothing, just like today's indie authors produce a book. In its initial screenings audiences responded very positively but to go into wide release, we ran into the same obstacles that indie writer's face. We weren't MGM or Universal or 20th Century Fox and they owned the game. 

The major studios had long-established relationships with movie theaters around the world, as well as marketing and distribution operations that ran like the proverbial Swiss watch. On the other hand, we were, in effect, knocking on the door of each individual theater. They didn't want to deal with someone who only had one film to peddle and no marketing machinery behind them. We eventually did sign with a small independent distributor who managed to get our film released nationally but playing at only one or two markets at a time, so the money generated trickled in and seldom covered expenses. Plus the theaters, since they were dealing with a small fry, slow paid, and sometimes no paid, us - something they didn't dare do with the majors. When we protested they simply said, "So sue us." 

The sad fact of life was that the audiences who saw the film loved it, but getting it in front of an audience was a constant uphill battle that cost more than we could possibly make, especially since much of the time we never saw the money that came into the box office. By the time the theater took its cut (much more severe than Amazon's take) and the distributor took his cut (always with extra expenses added) and the advertising agencies took their cut, nothing was left (sound familiar?). 

The film finally generated significant revenue when it went into non-theatrical release, primarily on cable channels like CineMax (HBO). It was also broadcast by the BBC and several other operators in Europe. The US Navy purchased a hundred or so 16mm prints for showing onboard their ships. A specialty distributor who provided inflight movies for airlines licensed its use. Same for a distributor who supplied films for college campus theaters. And finally the film was released to the newly emerging home video market. The point being, we had to search out and broker all these deals ourselves. 
And the same is true for indie publishers/writers. Anybody who has been in business, whether it's selling books or selling paper clips, knows that it's never easy and you have to work at it continuously. 
Selling is ALWAYS job one. During the 15 years we toured our play Letters From the Front around the world, selling and marketing was a nonstop daily job - and I mean every single day.

So I guess I come to this issue with a little different and perhaps more cynical (based on experience) but realistic perspective. 
If there's money to be made, then big money is going to control the market. Always. Never been any different since the beginning of commerce. Might makes right. 
Will fair play come into play? Don't count on it. 
The question to indie writers/publishers is: what are you going to do about it? Throw up your hands and say the deck is stacked and I don't stand a chance so to hell with it? Or, I have right on my side but I can't win so I might as well not play? Are you going to take Amazon and the other major players to court and sue them for what you believe are unfair practices? Good luck. They each have teams of lawyers just waiting to bury you. 

Before you jump to the conclusion that I'm being dark or negative, please don't. 
As the old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat (although why anybody would want to baffles me). Most of my professional life has been spent finding alternate routes around established institutions, with varying degrees of success. My first rule is to never let somebody else define my pathway to success. If I'm going to fail, I want to fail on my own terms. As far as indie publishing is concerned, my wife (a fellow author) and I are still experimenting and searching out alternative paths. It will take time but it always does. I'm confident that we'll find a way that works for us. We've done it many times before.

The threshold we're shooting for is not just to make money for ourselves, but to make money for somebody else, preferably a large well-funded organization. That's what we've done before. We found a way to make money for major companies with our product, lots of money. Then they started writing checks to us, big checks. I'm not saying this is the only path. We're all supposed to be creative people -- so be creative about this too!

To be exceedingly trite, we don't look at this as a problem, we look at it as an opportunity. A huge ground-floor opportunity. And we don't expect anybody or any organization to do the heavy lifting for us. Maybe we're naive. We'll see.
Letters From the Front stars Bobbi Kravis and Bob Curren meet with troops at Ft. Lee, VA after a performance and distribute free letter writing kits (source: "Why Letters from the Front is so important today", click here