OK so what does ‘Kindle Unlimited’ author payment by the page really mean?

I’m not sure yet what to think of the Amazon plan to pay authors enrolled in their Kindle Unlimited programme on a page-basis. This system doesn’t replace the sale model –it runs alongside it and makes books available for Kindle readers, free. Amazon pays authors instead from an undefined ‘pool’.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

This latest amendment simply changes the method of payment from a “10 percent” threshold to a “pages read” measure, in which Amazon defines the page length.

That concept of paying authors ‘compensation’ for royalties lost when books are provided free isn’t original to Amazon. A number of governments – including New Zealand’s – run schemes to provide compensatory royalties to authors that have been otherwise lost via public library borrowing. But it’s not defined on a ‘pages read’ basis.

I can’t help thinking that one outcome of the Amazon initiative will be a reduction of literature to a relentless succession of eight-word advertising jingles and characters dangling off cliffs because, in the author’s mind, they HAVE to get the reader to turn that next page so they’ll get another one half of one cent or whatever it is the Amazon ‘pool’ devolves.

I don’t like the idea that authors who want to join that scheme also have to be ‘exclusive’ to Amazon. That’s not original to Amazon either – I’ve written books that way for a major book chain in the past. But I made sure I was properly paid for it – a defined, up-front figure which I negotiated. It wasn’t dependent on sales. And nor should it be; a shop wanting to be the sole stockist of a particular item should be prepared to buy that monopoly. The difference with the Amazon scheme is that the return is undefined, and to me that’s wrong.

The other objection I have is that in order to pay authors by page, Amazon need to know which pages their customers have read. And they do, because Kindle phones home. A lot. This, my friends, is the age of Big Data and Big Intrusion into ordinary things we do. And on one level, who really cares if Amazon know what, how much, and when you’re reading, and on what device? But the collection of this little bit of trivia, or that, by a variety of service providers, has been normalised in all our dealings with the information age. We don’t know – can’t know – where that might go in a couple of generations. The risk is that the future dystopia we face isn’t George Orwell’s, it’s Aldous Huxley’s. The worry is that it will then become Orwell’s.

It’s not clear to me, yet, where this is heading for authors and readers. I think schemes such as Kindle Unlimited are symptomatic of the fact that we’re in the early days of a revolution in the way books are published and sold. It’s riding on the back of a bigger general change driven by the information revolution, which I think – certainly sociologically – will be in the same league as the industrial revolution 250 years ago.

Amazon are leading the pack at the moment, as far as books are concerned. But the more important outcome, I think, isn’t so much which company dominates as the systems and expectations that flow from the way that information revolution is applied to reading and writing.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

What’s missing from the new publishing paradigm

I can’t help thinking that the last five years have been dramatic for the traditional publishing model. You know, the multi-barrier one where, to get published, you had to first attract an agent. Five years ago, a lot of writers’ blogs featured their representative, even if the writer was unpublished – but to even get an agent was a mark of status.

My books in the window...

Yes, this is an entire shop window filled with books written by me – 14 out of my 52 titles.

All that’s gone. As has the debate over ‘traditional’ (old paradigm: status) versus ‘indie’ (old paradigm: amateur/unpublishable). In some senses it’s opened the door for anybody to publish anything – what Chuck Wendig calls it the ‘self-publishing shit volcano’. But there’s also good stuff that would have been welcomed in the trad system.

I don’t think the old system has gone – I still publish through it. But it’s been joined by another. And in all the debate, one thing’s been missed – one thing both the old and the new models share.

Money. There isn’t any, either way.

The old publishing model’s been bent, and the money’s gone out of it, certainly in New Zealand. Advances have dropped – often to zero – as has shelf-life. Even a few years ago, publishers let stock sell through over 5-6 years. Now they’re often pulping titles after a few months if they don’t shift.

The online/self-pub model relies on marketing through the internet – meaning any author’s book is joining about a hundred million others, while their authors tweet, blog, Facebook and generally scream about them. ‘Buy my books, you bastards!’ The good stuff is drowned in the noise. The average lifetime sales of an e-book, I’m told, is about a hundred units. I can believe it.

Worse, the Gen Z idea that everything online should, by rights, be ‘free’ has collided with the fact that one way to compete in that noise-filled frenzy is to drop the price. And a chunk of those publishing don’t care, either – for them, what counts isn’t the income so much as being published.

To my mind the answer isn’t holding on to the old, like a tiger growling over the last scraps of its dinner – it’s one of adapting or dying. Nor can we blame the technology. The real change isn’t in the sudden application of the information age to book distribution and sales, but a social one in the readership – the people who part with cash for the books. Organisations such as Amazon merely facilitate it for a general populace who are driving the change. Bottom line is that book-readers like the convenience of the e-book.

In this new world, I also think the answer isn’t ‘free’. More soon. Meanwhile – your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: how to avoid being ‘derivative’ at all cost

News that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara books are going to be made into a TV series for US distribution, in New Zealand, set alarm bells ringing in my mind.

Plus side is that, twenty years on from Hercules: the legendary journeys, Auckland will once again be venue for a major US TV production. That’s excellent. I am certain Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings movies wouldn’t have been made in the same way – maybe not at all – had the ground work not been laid by Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi’s Hercules and Xena during the 1990s. They didn’t just draw attention to what was possible in New Zealand, they reinforced and built production experience here. So it’s good to see something new happening. Who knows where that will lead for the New Zealand film and TV industry?

Gandalf and friend...

Allanon, I mean Gandalf, and friend…

But Brooks? Gaaah! I read the eponymous first Sword of Shannara book in 1978 and my jaw dropped. It came across to me as a blatant and execrably bad fan-fic re-write of The Lord Of The Rings. I wasn’t the only one to notice, at the time and later. Just perusing the online comments today, nearly 30 years on, paints a clear enough picture.  ‘Almost parodically derivative of The Lord of the Rings,’ one blogger noted. ‘A shitty, lifeless point for point rip off of Lord of the Rings, said a Goodreads reviewer. I could go on, but I think the point’s clear.

To me that highlights a key challenge all authors face. Being ‘the same, but different’. One of the reasons why tales such as Tolkien’s catch popular imagination is because they capture story archetypes – proven forms that address key elements of the human condition: ambition, pride, good versus evil, and so on. Stories that do something radically different risk losing – or never gaining – an audience, because nobody can identify with them. They become fringe literature – fodder for torturing schoolkids during English lessons, devices for pretentious wannabe literati to assert their supposed intellectual superiority. But not something that offers an accessible emotional journey for ‘the rest of us’.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

That’s why ‘the same’ is actually a virtue for most writers. But that doesn’t mean ripping off somebody else’s narrative. It means driving to the heart of the story concept and idea – something at the very depths of its foundations, well below the superficial artifice of narrative, and springing a wholly original narrative from that. This is the ‘but different’ part. Shakespeare was a master at that particular art, and so was Tom Stoppard whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead used Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the archetypal tale of the foolish hero) as the setting for something original.

Tolkien did much the same with Nordic mythology and deep western symbolism to create something both new and – yet – absolutely classic, a mythology with which we can all identify. His approach was first exemplified by The Hobbit. Would you believe it was exactly the same story – at this archetypal level – as the original Star Wars? It is. Both are mythic ‘hero journeys’ with the classic elements and character arc. But at narrative level they are utterly different; and that, to me, is the key point. Same theme, same idea – but totally different stories. And that, to me, was also where The Sword of Shannara fell down.

Yes, by all means, address the mythic archetypes Tolkien used in The Lord Of The Rings; challenged heroism, faded glory, pride, hope, the loss of innocence, and above all of the conflict between the light and dark sides of the human condition, framed around events of utterly epic scale. All these things are keys to a great story. But don’t write a monkey-see-monkey-do narrative!

Apparently the later books in Brooks’ series are way better. But I haven’t found out for myself. And won’t. Once bitten is enough for me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How to stoke your Kindle with “Coal”

I’m delighted to announce that my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand (Bateman 2014) – which was released in print a few months ago – has also been published internationally through Kindle.

Coal is an irreplaceable resource, formed over millions of years, yet humanity has been burning it as if there is no tomorrow. Today it’s responsible for 43 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. We stand at a cross-roads; and the story of coal – of which the New Zealand side is a microcosm and case-study – plays a large part in the journey.

Reviews of the print edition so far have been excellent:

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark” – Robin Hughes, NZ Booksellers, 13 October 2014.

a fascinating read, and it is such a good way of understanding NZ history” – “The Library”, 15 October 2014.

…mines a rich seam of interesting content on many things relative to coal…” – Ted Fox, Otago Daily Times, 24 November 2014.

And so, without further ado – welcome to the Kindle edition:

http://www.amazon.com/Coal-Rise-Fall-King-Zealand-ebook/dp/B00OYJQEHG/

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Posing the vital question: are writers also readers?

I have a question to put to you. I posted earlier this week on the books I read as a kid, which have stayed with me.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

The reason a book ‘stays with you’ is because of its emotional impact at the time – and later. Now, that poses a question. You’d think that – as writers write – they’d draw a deeper emotional response from books and from reading than, perhaps, do people who just read. Flip sides of the same experience, but the writer’s deeper into it.

I wonder, though. It isn’t true for me. I find music offers the better experience, certainly in terms of engaging with it. Reading simply doesn’t engage me the same way.

But I write. I write a lot.

So I put it to you – does it follow that ‘writers’ must, by nature, draw their best emotional involvement from ‘reading’. Or is writing an expression of an emotional experience that writers draw, more fully, from all things – the world around them, life experiences, music and, in due place, their own reading? In the end, does it come down to individuals?

I draw distinction here between reading to reverse-engineer how it was done – to examine the way different authors approached their subjects and learn from it – with reading for pleasure. I’m asking about the latter – in short, are writers also readers?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: what I learned from Jack Kerouac about chapters

One of the major battles Jack Kerouac had to fight when publishing On The Road was his lack of divisions.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

His editors won; the book as originally published had divisions – I wouldn’t exactly call them chapters. And with good reason. Divisions, usually chapters, are an expected part of a book – a useful device for highlighting the structure. If set up right, they act as defined break points for readers. Good all round, unless you’re Jack Kerouac.

His point, of course, was to do with flows of consciousness – with sharing his mind process with the world and presenting his beat-gen anthem as he conceived it.

It was a valid point, and these days editions of the book are available in the original ‘scroll’ form.

Other authors – well, we all use chapters…don’t we. And that raises questions about such niceties as whether to name or to number. It’s a moot point. Nineteenth century practise was clear. Fiction and non-fiction alike were the same. A chapter could be given a title that summarised the contents. Or, if it was just numbered, it often included a pot-summary, headline-style:

“Chapter MCXXXVI: In which Our Hero, having Undergone Many Trials and Tribulations, Discovers the Wonders of the Aerial Steam Railway, but Not Before Losing His Tube Of Brass Polish and Thus Rendering His Goggles Completely Tarnished By Coal Smuts, To His Dismay and That Of His Companions.”

Readers then go on to read how the hero, who had undergone 1185 previous chapters of trials and tribulations, discovers a steam railway and is embarrassed by the way the smoke dulls his brass goggles.

All well and good for the Penny Dreadfuls – and, these days, for novels harking back to the style. But is telegraphing the entire contents of a chapter really the way to go?

Chapter titles have the same effect on smaller scale, which is why some authors simply number their chapters. And, of course, a word out of place in a non-fiction chapter title is a red rag to academics, for whom any discrepancy between promised and actual content is a lever for denying worth in the rival intellectual.

My answer? ‘It depends’. Both approaches are useful – the actual answer has to flow from the fundamental questions of purpose and intent. What fits the intended style of the book and the statements it makes?

Sometimes, as Kerouac showed us, it might even be better to dispense with the whole apparatus – titles,  numbers and even chapters.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Re-conceptualising the publishing problem in the online age

I discovered today that there are around 3.4 million different titles for sale on Amazon. The number is rising by one book every five minutes.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A proportion of these are written by bots – compilations of data, really, rather than books. But still, these figures underscore the democratisation of publishing. And the difficulty of discovery.

It also underscores a sea change in the publishing world. That’s been particularly evident here in New Zealand a 25 percent compound drop in sales has done for many of the major houses, who have been pulling out of Auckland in droves. And the old days when deals were done over a publisher-funded dinner and spouses came along for the ride are long over.

Actually, the money was never there anyway. Writers – even famous writers – haven’t had anything like the average income of their rock musician equivalents. Ray Bradbury’s house was up for sale recently. An old-ish house, large but not mansion-like, asking price $1.49 million. That’s just over double the average asking price in the area, Culver City. Not bad. But remember that Bradbury was a writer of world stature not just in SF but also literature generally. The house has also been described as out of the reach of many authors, but reasonable by US standards.

The Bradbury experience underscores a point. For every Dan Brown there were 10,000 other authors who didn’t make it big – but who got publishing contracts. Publishers worked by averages – they’d run a dozen titles that might break even or generate a loss, knowing a single winner would make all good. They had to run that way because nobody knew which book would work. And they also needed a range of books to be viable in the marketplace.

The advent of self-publishing hasn’t changed that, because – setting aside discovery of individual authors and looking at the industry as a whole – the limiting factor is the disposable income of potential readers. But it has spread the available money over a wider area. Publisher responses have involved classic big-business downturn tactics – becoming risk-averse and re-trenching.

To find an answer – laterally and creatively – we have to re-conceptualise the problem.

The problem isn’t the shift of readership from print to e-book or the democratisation of publishing. It’s getting the disposable income that anybody – not just book readers – has to spend from their pocket into yours. A point underscored by where the readership for Dan Brown best-sellers, Harry Potter and (shudder) Fifty Shades of Grey came from. It wasn’t traditional book readers. These titles broke into the pockets of a wider slice of populace.

Next challenge – how to make that happen reliably. And yes, I know that’s about as practical as dividing one by zero (I double dog dare you to try that bit of math…) But hey – we’re into re-conceptualising here. Playing with ideas. And until you’ve explored the impossible, you can’t find out the limits of the possible – can you?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon