Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Los Gatos High School Freshman Students Publish Second Annual Poetry Anthology, A Cup of Poetea

For the second year in a row, more than 120 freshman poetry students at Los Gatos High School have collaborated on yet another amazing poetry anthology, this one titled A Cup of Poetea.

Read the news here.

This follows last year's debut project, Windows to the Teenage Soul, which I blogged about here.

The projects grew out of a collaboration between Los Gatos High School (thank you amazing teachers Tonya McQuade and Kathleen Wehr!), Smashwords and Henry Bankhead of the Los Gatos Public Library.

If you enjoy poetry, or you want to read mind-blowing literature from young adults, or if you want to learn how as a parent or educator or librarian you too can help promote a culture of authorship in your community, please buy these books and tell a friend.

The books go together well as a pair.  The first book, Windows to the Teenage Soul, contains a comprehensive teacher's guide and guide for librarians.  Tonya McQuade shares her project roadmap and timelines so other educators can build upon her fine organizational work.  The second book published today, A Cup of Poetea, contains additional information on how educators can emulate this project in their classrooms.

Windows to the Teenage Soul
Projects like this are truly revolutionary.  What better way to inspire the next generation of writers and thinkers than to let them experience first hand the joy of writing and the thrill of indie ebook publishing?

Every classroom around the globe from elementary schools to graduate schools can replicate this project for their students.  Leveraging Smashwords, there's no cost to publish.

Imagine the pride these students and their families feel when they can see their work published and for sale at all the major ebook retailers.

The book launch will be held tonight at 6:30pm at the Los Gatos Public Library.  Last year's book launch was standing room only so if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, get there early!

Where to purchase:

iBooks
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
Smashwords
Amazon


Monday, May 11, 2015

Smashwords Introduces New Metadata Option for Box Sets

Smashwords today released an enhanced metadata option for box sets.  The new option will pave the way for us to make box sets more discoverable in the Smashwords store, and longer term (and more importantly), it will enable better merchandising at our retailers. 

But one step at a time. First we need to collect the metadata, and that's where you come in.

Smashwords authors and publishers are already well-versed in metadata.  Metadata is data about your book.  Metadata is comprised of things like book category, book title, author name, book description and price.  Metadata makes it easier for readers to discover your book by screaming, "Look here!  I'm what you're looking for!"

Ebook box sets are a relatively new phenomena, and indie authors are leading the charge.  Until now, metadata for box sets has been lacking.  Most obviously, a box set is treated like an ordinary ebook, when in fact it's a bundle of books either from a single author or multiple authors.  Retailers have shown increased interest in box sets over the last two years, but the process of identifying them is still manual.  Retailers who want to promote them, and customers who want to read them, must perform manual searches on the phrase "box set" and hope the author placed the words in their title or book description.  That's kludgey.  There should be a special designation for box sets so retailers have the option to create custom virtual shelves to promote them, and so customers can easily find them.

We know retailers want to promote box sets.  iBooks, for example, has done many promotions that featured Smashwords box sets.  Last year they ran a major worldwide merchandising feature that included over 40 Smashwords box sets from more than 100 Smashwords authors.  You can read my blog post on that particular iBooks box set promotion here.  We'd like to see more promotions like this from all the retailers, but do assist this endeavor we need to make it easier for us and our retailers to identify box sets in a more automated, programmatic way.

If you've published a box set at Smashwords, you can now click to your Dashboard's Settings page for your box set and classify it as a box set.  Click the option, click Save, and that's it. 

Box set option from the Smashwords Publish page
If you publish a box set in the future, you'll see the categorization option at the bottom of Section 3 of the Smashwords Publish page.

Today's enhancement is a first step.  It's a foundation upon which Smashwords and our retailers can build. It will eventually make box sets more discoverable in the same way the Smashwords Series Manager tool makes series books more discoverable at Smashwords retailers and the Smashwords store.

If you've never done a box set but are curious to learn more, check out my blog post from last year, How do Box Sets for Audience Building, Charity and Profit.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Amazon Service Eliminates the Need for Authors (April Fools)

The following April Fools prank is a satire of the post-authorial apocalypse.  It's fiction, at least for now.

The publishing industry is reeling today after news broke this morning about Kindle Author, Amazon's new service that  generates high-quality fiction using complex software algorithms.

It’s like Build-A-Bear for ebooks. The reader tells Kindle Author what they want in a story, and then Kindle Author automatically generates the book .

In this post, I’ll explain how Kindle Author works and I'll share never-before-seen screenshots of the service.  I’ll explain the science that made this breakthrough possible, and then I'll wrap by discussing what this means for Smashwords authors and the future of publishing.

How Kindle Author Works

Kindle Author is a new option for purchasing ebooks in the Kindle store.  It's receiving heavy promotion on the Amazon home page, which tells me Amazon is making the service a strategic priority for their business.

Amazon has modified all book listings pages to discourage
customers from purchasing real books.  Click image to enlarge.
Amazon is also advertising Kindle Author directly on the book listings pages of all books in their store.  A customer visits the listing page for a book written by a real author, and Amazon encourages the reader to create and read a free Kindle Author book instead.

At left I show how Amazon modified the book listing page for Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James.  “Don’t want this book?" asks Amazon front and center on the page.  "Build your own for free with Kindle Author!" 

Amazon's overt move to redirect customers from human-authored books to machine-generated books is unprecedented, but it's not a huge surprise considering how other Amazon-exclusive books already receive preferential merchandising in their store.

When Amazon launched their ebook subscription service Kindle Unlimited, they modified their book listings pages to encourage readers to obtain the book for free as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription rather than purchasing a regular copy.  If the customer obtains the Kindle Unlimited version of a book, Amazon pays the author a lower royalty. Good for Amazon and its customers, but not so great for authors and publishers.

Once the customer clicks to Kindle Author, they're presented with a simple point and click interface of pull-down menus and radio buttons.  It's quite easy to use.  It's even fun.  It’s like color by numbers, but with words.

Customers select story characteristics from among thousands of different options.  As you can see in my screen shots at left and below, some of the radio button options are a bit quirky, but this is probably deliberate because it makes for better fiction.

A reader can tell Kindle Author, for example, they want to read a medieval epic fantasy of two million words that involves kings, queens, princesses, swordplay, intrigue, castles, a sexy young mother of dragons, and a stainless steel throne made out of spoons and forks.

Look out, George R.R. Martin.  Game of Thrones has met its match.

Kindle Author gives readers the option of having the book written in the style of their favorite authors. That’s right, if you want your paranormal romance written in the style of Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac or Jane Austen, it’s yours with the the click of a button.

You can even choose to have public domain books rewritten in the style of other authors, or in a style that blends multiple authors.

If you want the King James Bible rewritten in the blended styles of the voice of God, Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, and Charles Darwin, it's yours for asking.  It’s an absurd combination, but you begin to see how Kindle Author opens up myriad possibilities to create different and unexpected forms of fiction.

With thousands of user-configurable options, it’s unlikely any two readers would ever select the exact same combination of story options.  To prevent this from happening, Amazon built in creative story randomness so that two ordered stories derived from the same characteristics will be different.  No two Kindle Author books will ever be the same.

Once the reader makes final selections, Kindle Author compiles an intricate, well crafted, original full-length novel in an instant.  It takes between ten seconds and two minutes for the story to appear on your Kindle, depending on length and complexity, but who’s counting. It's lightning fast.

The Disruptive Business Model Behind Kindle Author

Kindle Author is free to readers who use it to generate their next read.  Each reader-generated Kindle Author book is automatically published into the Kindle store priced at $.99, and the reader is credited as the author and earns royalties of five cents per download whenever anyone else reads the book. All Kindle Author books remain exclusive to the Kindle store.

I think we're witnessing the future of authorship.

Soon, tens of millions of readers will begin publishing billions of high-quality, low-cost books written in the styles of the greatest authors of all time (and the greatest indie Smashwords authors too!).  The more readers read, the more they’ll publish and earn.  Lazy readers who don’t want to configure their made-to-order custom books can read Kindle Author books produced by other readers for $.99 each, or they can read them free as part of an Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Books generated by Kindle Author are almost pure profit for Amazon.  It costs nothing to produce each ebook, and the five cent per copy royalty to the Kindle Author reader is covered from Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited subscription fees, not to mention profits from Amazon’s other diversified lines of business.

After playing with Kindle Author, I’m blown away by the quality of the produced work.  I must admit I really like it, even though it's horrible news for human authors everywhere.

Judging from early customer reaction, I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for Kindle Author. 

It won't be long before we hear talk of Kindle Author millionaires - those readers who configure and create the new bestsellers of tomorrow.  Or today.  It's already happening.  At this very moment, ninety-eight of the top 100 bestselling books at Amazon are Kindle Author books, and the books are earning five star reviews on average.

Here are a couple reviews that caught my eye:

“I ordered a paranormal steampunk thriller featuring alien mongooses, blimps, trains and a Victorian clockmaker.  I was hooked from the first sentence and stayed up all night until I finished the last page.  Thank you Jeff Bezos. I love you!!!”

This next reader’s comments will chill the bones of publishers.

“When I first heard of Kindle Author, I was skeptical.  I thought it was impossible for a machine to reproduce the creative magic of my favorite authors.  Boy, was I wrong.  Now that I’ve read books *I* created with Kindle Author, I’m never going to buy another novel written by a human.  Human novels are so banal and tired compared to the mind-blowing experience of a Kindle Author book.  I don’t know how Amazon did it.  You need to try it to believe it!”

The Publishing Industry Reacts

The publishing industry, as you might imagine, is horrified by Kindle Author.  For authors and publishers alike, Kindle Author is what the post-authorial apocalypse looks like.

Several publishers are considering a class action lawsuit against Amazon.

The US Department of Justice has launched a preliminary investigation into Kindle Author on the grounds it may be anti-competitive, though legal experts expect the DOJ to side with Amazon since Kindle Author essentially pays readers to read books.  If the government can't prove consumers are harmed, they won't have a case.

For many authors and publishers, news of Kindle Author confirms the industry’s worst fear that Amazon is on a mission to commoditize books and turn authors and publishers into tenant farmers tilling Amazon soil.  Now Amazon is cutting out the author - the ultimate middleman - by making the reader the author.

But not all industry participants are so pessimistic.  At least two authors are excited by how Kindle Author will improve publishing.

Author avatar for Hew Howling
Hew Howling, a bestselling author, had this to say on his Howling at the Moon blog:

Critics of Kindle Author should stop their incessant whining.  I celebrate Amazon for this innovation.  Kindle Author drives a stake through the hearts of the tyrannical, gatekeeping, legacy publishing dinosaur blood-suckers in New York.  This is what publishers deserve for over-pricing their ebooks, underpaying authors and for believing publishers - not Amazon - should set ebook prices.  I commend Amazon for bringing customers the highest-quality ebooks at the lowest possible price.  Rather than attacking Amazon, Amazon’s competitors should innovate like Amazon.  If publisher books are so incredible, they can beat Amazon by paying readers to read their books, just like Amazon is doing now.

Joe Dothraki, a popular thriller writer I respect, and an outspoken advocate for self publishing, had this to say on his blog, The Newbies Guide to Amazon:

“Kindle Author is f****** awesome.  It will crimp my earnings in the short run, but business is business and this isn't a game for wimps.  Read the writing on the walls, folks.  First cave painters were replaced by monk scribes, then monk scribes were replaced by publishers, then publishers were replaced by indie authors, and now authors are replaced by readers.  As legacy authors, we need to evolve with the times by repositioning ourselves as readers.  I’m going to start reading more books than ever thanks to Kindle Author.  Kindle Author will increase my publication output to at least 30 titles per month.  That's 360 titles a year I'll be releasing.  For the first time ever, Amazon has made reading more profitable than writing. Thank you, Amazon!”

The Science Behind Kindle Author

Regardless of how you feel about Kindle Author’s impact on the publishing industry, it’s difficult to not feel smitten by the science behind this important advance in artificial creativity.

The story behind how Amazon made this happen is fascinating, and it all starts with the human brain.

Our brains are comprised of about 80 billion neurons, and these neurons transmit electrical impulses. Neurons in the human brain connect via synapses to form a vast neural network.  It’s from the complex interplay of these electrical impulses that humans gain consciousness, memories, desires, creativity, the biological wherewithal to breathe and reproduce, and the desire to read and write great stories.

Amazon, which operates the infrastructure that powers a lot of the Internet already,  realized the human brain is simply a massive computer network made up of these billions of neural nodes and trillions of synaptic connections.  When viewed in this light, it's not such a leap for Amazon to create a computer network that mimics the neurological processes associated with creativity in the human brain.

Jeff Bezos Challenges Amazon Engineers to Reinvent Books

Jeff Bezos gave his researchers an audacious challenge:  If DNA contains the genetic building blocks of information that allow a living organism to function, grow and reproduce, then why can’t we decode the DNA of story-making?  Why can’t we give birth to unique books that are every bit as diverse, interesting and mind-blowing as human beings themselves?  Let's not just equal the quality of human-written books – let's create better and cheaper books.  Let's reinvent books!

With that mandate, and operating the secret project under the code name of Project Elysium, Amazon’s researchers embarked on an ambitious project to deconstruct and map the genome of stories.

Prior to today’s announcement, many scientists believed it was impossible for computers to create aesthetically pleasing literature. Stories require massive complexity and nuance.  But like all complex problems, once you break the problem down into smaller pieces, the challenge becomes solvable.  And this is what Amazon did. 

To create better books, Amazon needed to do better than the human brain.  A single author writes from just a single brain.  What if Amazon could harness the power of many brains?  Amazon’s researchers decided to build a massive parallel computer network comprising 500 trillion virtual nodes.  To put this in perspective, it's the equivalent to the neural connectivity and creative horsepower of a hive mind of 50,000 interconnected human brains.  Amazon is creating the Borg of books.

Their next challenge was to teach the neural network the logic and illogic of human artistic creativity, and how to string words into stories that please readers.

Amazon’s researchers started by deconstructing the book into its essential components.  Leveraging their massive catalog of over five million titles, Amazon applied algorithmic spiders to scan and analyze the words of all the books.

Next Amazon hired thousands of underemployed English majors and MFA graduates who worked from home over the Internet.  These temporary workers were required to sign non-disclosure and non-compete agreements and agreed to not work in any writing field for at least 48 months.  This secrecy explains why rumors of Project Elysium never leaked to the press.  To further ensure secrecy, team members worked solo and only interfaced with their handlers operating out of call centers in India staffed by biomechanical engineers, software programmers, behavioral psychologists, endocrinologists, and mathematicians. Workers were never told the ultimate end-purpose of their work.

Amazon divided the literary workers into multiple groups, each tasked with exploring a different aspect of the book genome.

One group was tasked with mapping the sentence structures of 20,000 bestselling books and 5,000 cultural classics. Using computer-assisted cloud-based tools, the workers diagrammed the structure of each sentence of every book in excruciating detail down to the subjects, predicates, nouns, pronouns, participles, gerunds, infinitives, passive and active verbs, adjectives, interjections and adverbs, compound subjunctives, and reverse triple superlatives.  I'm an author and I don't even know what all these things are.

Another team analyzed the plots and subplots of each book, tagging each sentence's location and role within the overall plot structure.

Yet another team mapped the story’s tension, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.

Another team mapped the evolution of each character's relationships with the other characters, and each character's backstory sentence by sentence.

Another team identified the 2,000 most common plots and subplot variations found in popular and literary fiction.

And another team documented and mapped story arcs, and tied key points in each major and minor arc back to the text locations.

Several thousand linguistic experts studied the words, patterns and rules of each book that served as the connective tissue to string words into coherent sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, sections and stories.  A team of mathematicians translated these rules into algorithmic equations that would enable the automated production of original books.

From this complex and multi-layered analysis began to emerge the basic building blocks of what makes a story a story.

But missing from the analysis was an understanding of the mechanics of successful storytelling.  What makes a story a great story from the reader's point of view?  How does a story gain spirit?  Where does reading pleasure come from?  For this, Amazon needed live human subjects, and they had millions of unwitting readers at their disposal in the form of Kindle owners.

Starting in early 2012, and unknown until today, Amazon secretly installed sensors around the edges of all Kindle devices.  These sensors capture the reader's temperature, heart rate, perspiration rates, blood pressure, vasodilation, and neuro-electric signals in real time, and then Amazon used these factors as biomarkers to monitor the reader’s emotional state.  With this data, they could identify when the brain released endorphins, the "feel good" chemical in the brain.  Amazon then mapped these emotional markers to specific page and sentence locations in the book, and then cross-correlated the hormonal responses across the same trigger points in millions of other books.

From this massive store of data, they were able to identify words, sentence structures, patterns, pacing, story lines, plots, and character interplay required to deliver massive endorphin releases to the reader's brain.  If this sounds like Amazon was aiming to create the books that act on the brain like heroin (and are equally addictive), you're right.

Leveraging the predictive patterns they discovered, Amazon created software capable of generating imaginative and original reader-pleasing books featuring fully realized characters and story lines.

It’s quite unbelievable how scientists, mathematicians, programmers, and English lit majors joined together to create better, cheaper, more addictive books.

What’s also interesting to me is every book’s creator – the reader – brings a different background, purchase history, and Kindle Author configuration, and this in turn shapes the characters Kindle Author creates for the book.  These characters aren’t two dimensional stick figures.  Instead, they’re multidimensional and always unique.  It's like they're truly alive.

Just as the stories of our own lives are shaped by the chance and random interpersonal interactions we have with other people we meet, the characters and story lines of Kindle Author books are shaped by the interplay of the story’s unique characters.  Not even the masterminds behind Kindle Author know how the story will end until their algorithms crank out the last word and period.

Traditional authorship feels quaint by comparison.  Will writers ever want to write another book when their works will fall so short of the new perfection?  Or will writers begin using Kindle Author as a tool to amplify their true potential?  Only time will tell.

The final thing I find difficult to believe is that I chose April 1st to share this unbelievable news with you.

April 1st is a day more commonly known as April Fool's Day, a day for pranks.  My apologies to anyone who was fooled by this blog post. This has been a work of fiction, for the time being at least.

Here are my previous April 1st blog posts from prior years.  Enjoy!

2013:  New Smashwords WEED Service Treats Common Author Ailments
2011:  Smashwords Acquires Amazon, New Company Called Smashazon
2009:  JK Rowling Publishes Harry Potter Ebooks at Smashwords

Do you know a live human writer who's not yet publishing at Smashwords?  Invite them to join with over 100,000 writers and publishers around the globe who publish and distribute ebooks with Smashwords.  Click here to learn how to get started.  It's free!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Read an Ebook Week 2015 Kicks off Today!

The annual Read an Ebook Week celebration kicks off today.  Smashwords is again sponsoring the event for the seventh year running.

The promotion features thousands of free and discounted titles today through Saturday March 7.

Readers, the Smashwords catalog of participating titles can be found on the Smashwords home page, or click here to go directly to the promotional catalog where you can filter by category, bestsellers and coupon codes:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/category/1/newest/1


Readers and Authors:  The official Read an Ebook Week hub page is at Smashwords and offers access to banners, buttons and badges you can post on your web site, blog, Facebook, Pinterest and other social media outlets to celebrate your participation in this event.  I've also added the banners at the bottom of this post.   The hub page features links to promotional or free catalogs to make it easier for readers to find books.  Currently I have links to the Smashwords RAEW catalog, an iBooks catalog of free books, and a link to free books at Barnes & Noble.

Authors:  To enroll your book(s) in the promotion, click to https://www.smashwords.com/dashboard/sitewidePromos or click the "Authors, add your books to the promotion" button on the Smashwords home page. You can enroll in the promotion at any time before it ends.  Books already priced at free are automatically included.

The Story Behind Read an Ebook Week:  Read an Ebook Week was created by Canadian Smashwords author Rita Toews.  If you're interested to learn the story behind her creation of Read an Ebook Week, read my 2010 interview with Rita over at The Huffington Post .  Please note that the prior web address mentioned in the interview, www. ebookweek.com, is now controlled by a squatter and is not associated with this promotion, so please don't link to or promote the old address.  The Smashwords RAEW page at www.smashwords.com/ebookweek is a better option, and has Rita's blessing.

The official Read an Ebook Week Facebook page, operated by Rita, is at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Read-an-E-Book-Week/193882590629749  Show your support for RAEW by "Liking" it on Facebook and sharing it.

Authors:  How to Get the Most out of Your Participation

Read an Ebook Week is a collaborative multi-author multi-publisher event driven almost entirely by indie authors and their readers.  Here's what you can do to maximize the fun:

  1. Enroll all of your books.  Make it enticing for readers to add all your books to their shopping cart.
  2. Promote your involvement across all your social media outlets.  Have fun!  Download your favorite official RAEW buttons, banners and badges, and like stickers, stick 'em everywhere virtual sun shines - Facebook, Twitter, your web site or blog, Tumblr, wherever you connect with your fans.  Link the images to your Smashwords author page (you'll find the link in your web browser by clicking on "Profile" at Smashwords) so it's easy for readers to add your books to their shopping cart.
  3. Invite your writer friends to enroll in the promotion, and encourage them to promote their books to their fans.  Every author has the ability to draw more readers to the promotion, and the more readers the more sales and downloads for all the participating authors.  In other words, the more authors that participate, the greater the benefits for all the participants.
  4. Promote a favorite indie.  If your favorite indie author has books in the promotion, promote their books to your fans as well. If they don't have their books in the promotion, invite them to participate so you can share your love of their books.
Have fun!  Here are the official banners and badges you can use in your promotion.  Thank you Rita for creating these!






Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Jamie McGuire Returned to Self Publishing


Jamie McGuire photo for Smashwords interview
Writer Jamie McGuire joined Smashwords on July 31, 2011. That same fateful day, she became a published author when she uploaded three novels to Smashwords.

The first two were Providence and Requiem, books one and two in her three-book Providence series of paranormal romance.

She also uploaded a contemporary romance titled Beautiful Disaster. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Beautiful Disaster went on to become a massive worldwide bestseller and is regarded today as one of the most influential books in New Adult romance.

Beautiful Disaster was later acquired by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, which republished it along with a follow-on title, Walking Disaster. Both novels landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Throughout this time, her Providence series remained self-published on Smashwords.

Jamie’s contract with Atria ended July 2014. Afterward, she decided to return to her roots as an indie  author. She now has eleven books on Smashwords, which we distribute to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Oyster, OverDrive, and Baker & Taylor.

Last month on January 27, she released and distributed Beautiful Redemption via Smashwords, and it shot to the top of The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.

I thought it would be fun to check in with Jamie to learn why she returned to self-publishing.



[Mark Coker] Welcome, Jamie. First off, why don’t you tell us what led you to Smashwords and self-publishing back in 2011? Those were the early days of the indie ebook revolution! Had you previously tried to get a traditional deal prior to publishing at Smashwords?

[Jamie McGuire]: Hi, Mark! I was drowning in query letter hell and received my first round of rejection letters for Providence. I didn’t try to get a publishing deal because I couldn’t get past the real gatekeepers back then—agents. I’m impatient, and waiting for someone else to tell me I was ready to publish just didn’t sit well with me. Author J.R. Rain introduced me to ebooks and self-publishing and told me where to find more information. Internet research led me to Smashwords. The moment I learned about self-publishing, I knew it was the right path for me.

[Mark Coker]: Tell me about your initial reaction when sales for Beautiful Disaster started taking off in 2011. I’d imagine it was a life-changing surprise.

shows a butterfly held inside a glass jar
[Jamie McGuire]: Beautiful Disaster sold less than a hundred books the first month it was available. I was a single mom then, and I just told my children they would have to use their backpacks from the previous year because we barely had money to buy school supplies. The second month, it sold more than 30,000 copies. It wasn’t just a life-changing surprise. It was life-changing money. I lost sleep over how much to put into college savings and which bills to pay off because I thought it would never happen again, but my sales only continued to grow. Almost a year later, author Jessica Park called to congratulate me on making The New York Times bestseller list. I hadn’t even known to look at the rankings because I didn’t think it was possible for a self-published author to hit a bestseller list.

[Mark Coker]: Like many successful indies, you became a hybrid author when Atria acquired the rights to Beautiful Disaster and its follow-on, Walking Disaster. What factors did you consider when weighing options?

[Jamie McGuire]: It wasn’t an easy decision, but I was in a good position to negotiate. Beautiful Disaster had been out for over a year at that point. It had already made The New York Times, and I knew its earning potential. I remember weighing what Atria could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself—at the time, that was putting books on shelves—and what value I placed on handing over my most successful manuscript to a publisher forever.

[Mark Coker]: From our prior conversations, I recall your experience with traditional publishing was generally positive. For other successful Smashwords authors considering the potential pros and cons of selling their rights to a large New York publisher, can you comment on your experience with Atria? 

[Jamie McGuire]: The industry is so different [today] from what it was just two years ago. I was lucky that I knew exactly what income Beautiful Disaster was capable of producing, so it was easier to negotiate an advance. Authors are getting picked up by publishers early on, so they might not have that luxury. I’ve done both, and I have no regrets.

I felt like a partner at Atria. I learned a lot more about how publishing and marketing work, about making deadlines, and how to compromise. I gained a broader readership from those who saw my titles on the shelves at stores. I still worked very hard to market my books and help the various departments (US, Canada, and UK print and audio while also pushing the various retailer promotions) market my books. Instead of working for myself, I had an entire company behind me, but they were also relying on me, and that is an incredible motivator. My favorite moments with Atria will always be the indie tours they put together. Atria’s publicity and marketing departments put so much effort into making large signings—sometimes twice a day—run seamlessly, and it showed.

If an author has a chance to sign with a publisher for a fair price, it’s a great learning opportunity. For some, it’s also validation. How else can you know which avenue you prefer? It’s a fair assumption though that successful self-published authors are happily autonomous. Authors facing the question of whether to sign or not sign with a publisher should take a moment to evaluate where on the personality spectrum they fall and if they are truly comfortable with handing over the reins. If you sign up to be a partner and show up behaving like the boss, it won’t be a positive experience for either side.

[Mark Coker]: Congrats on hitting The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists with your release of Beautiful Redemption last month! Given your track record as an international bestseller, I imagine publishers would have fallen over each other to acquire this.  Yet you decided to self-publish it. Why?

[Jamie McGuire]: Thank you so much! It was really important to me to see this particular title do well. Hitting the USA Today bestseller list with Happenstance, my first self-published work after signing with a publisher, and then again with Beautiful Redemption was an incredible validation.

As with all big decisions, there was no single reason. The deciding factor though was realizing that I had signed foreign book deals for five to seven years on average, and my domestic deals were indefinite.  That made sense before ebooks, but because the overhead for digital books is negligible, publishers can make them available indefinitely. Before, authors might have once been able to see rights returned to find new ways to revive their backlists, but now, signing is permanent. Going forward, I knew I could potentially make more money holding on to my digital rights because ebooks are forever. Writing is an art form. Publishing is a business. Successful authors must be good at both.

Another point I took into consideration was seeing a shift in print sales across the board. Paperbacks weren’t moving like they had before, and I wasn’t seeing my books on shelves, even during a release week. My original reason for signing with a publisher didn't make as much sense anymore, but Atria Books was family. It was one of the toughest decisions I've made thus far.

[MC]: Even though you had a positive experience working with a traditional publisher, you decided to reorient your publishing strategy going forward by returning to self-publishing. What drew you back to self-publishing?

[JM]: Going back to the Smashwords dashboard and changing the description, cover, and prices of my Providence series, I recalled how much I loved having that kind of control. I’d forgotten what it was like to release an excerpt or teaser without needing permission or to have the freedom to choose and change my own price point based on what was fair to my readers, not the booksellers.

Although nothing about self-publishing is easy or simple, I am the captain of my own ship. Whether a title sinks or sails is on me. I am the sole steward of my failures and victories—and there will be both. Not every writer is comfortable with that responsibility. Not every writer prefers it. Writing and then packaging my own manuscript is less stressful for me, and I’ve found my creativity thrives in that environment. 

[MC]: What advice do you have for traditionally published authors considering dipping their feet into the indie waters? Can you arm them with some realistic expectations? Is self publishing easier or more difficult than a traditionally published author might think?

[JM]: I chat often with traditionally published authors about going indie. Self-publishing was once a dirty word, but because we’ve seen so much success and streamlining of the process, making it  easier than ever, being indie is a positive label, and in many cases, it’s preferable. Self-publishing really boils down to independence, and that is exceptionally appealing to an author who knows the ropes and is considering taking a new direction that their publisher might not be excited about.

Most traditionally published authors have this idea that self-publishing is complicated when it’s really very simple, even more so for an established author. It can be as easy as asking a colleague for recommendations for freelancers for editing, formatting, and cover design and creating an account with the main platforms. With a description, genre choice, author bio, you can click publish, and your novel is live. Writing is the hard part—okay, that’s a lie. We all know editing is the worst.

I think the hardest concept about self-publishing is that it might feel permanent. Once traditional authors release a self-published book, they might feel they’re no longer welcome in the world of the Big Five. The beauty about being a hybrid author is, while not every book is right for a publisher, there is a potential audience for everything you’ve written.

[MC]: You’ve got an ambitious publishing schedule planned with five new indie releases for 2015, five in 2016, and four in 2017. Can you talk about your process, discipline and time management to produce at such a level while still balancing a busy family life?

[JM]: After I put my children to bed, I write until it’s time to wake them up for school. I play with the baby for a couple of hours, and then I sleep until the older children get home from school. We talk about their day, and the husband and I catch up on daily items. We have dinner and bath time, and then it starts all over again. My family is patient and very supportive. They know we’re enjoying the fruits of my dream job, and if that means Mom is in her pajamas when a friend pops over after school, that is a small sacrifice to make.

[MC]: Although you have the freedom to upload your books direct to several retailers, you distribute almost everywhere, except for Amazon, via Smashwords. How do you see Smashwords fitting into your publishing strategy?

[JM]:  There are many digital retailers, and although streamlined, uploading to each one is a process. Smashwords saves me valuable time because it manages multiple platforms with a one-time input of the metadata and a single upload. I watch as each format is converted, and then it’s done. Now, there is a preorder option as well. Keeping track of sales from the centralized dashboard is also a huge timesaver.

The most important factor for me turning to Smashwords as opposed to other distribution sites is the personal investment the Smashwords staff has shown me throughout my writing career. As a debut author and now as a hybrid author, Smashwords has been consistently respectful and eager to watch my success grow.

[MC] Thanks, Jamie!


Connect with Jamie McGuire:
Jamie McGuire at Smashwords
Jamie McGuire official Website
Jamie McGuire on Facebook
Jamie McGuire on Twitter

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Smashwords Daily Charts Updated to 90 Days

This week we released a minor but extremely useful update to our Daily Sales charts tool in your Smashwords Dashboard. 

You can now view your multi-retailer sales reports going back 90 days.  Previously, it displayed only the last 30 days.  In a couple months we'll improve it further by extending the time period to 180 days (6 months).

Our daily charts provide you a wealth of useful insight to help you track the performance of multiple titles across multiple retailers. 

For example, you can use our daily sales reports to learn at-a-glance how readers are responding to promotional campaigns, or learn how new releases, preorder releases, price changes, free series starters, cover changes, book description updates or category updates affect the sales of your other titles.  You can slice, dice and filter sales summaries by retailer, by series, and by author if you are a publisher.

The reports aggregate same-day sales from the Smashwords store and Barnes & Noble, and next-day sales from iBooks, OverDrive and Kobo.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Ebook as Annuity

As a self-published author, your book is your asset.  It’s something of value you own and control.

Like the orange tree pictured at left that bears fruit year round, your ebook promises to yield you, your family and your heirs benefit for many years to come.

In this post, I’ll share a framework that might help you view the financial value of your books in a new light.  As I’ll present below, self-published ebooks share common characteristics with annuities.

In the old world of print publishing, a publisher would pay you a lump sum advance to acquire rights to your book.  If you were lucky, the book would sell well, earn out its advance and begin paying royalties on an ongoing basis.  Unfortunately, most traditionally published books go out of print before they sell enough to earn the author more than the initial advance.  Once the book is out of print, the potential royalty stream evaporates and that asset – the book – yields no additional income for the author unless the rights revert and the author republishes the book.

This means that prior to the advent of ebook self-publishing, for many traditionally published authors that first lump sum advance was all they earned from their book.

One reason traditionally published books went out of print so quickly and with such regularity is due to how print distribution and retailing works.  Brick and mortar book stores have limited shelf space.  Even though your local Barnes & Noble (or WH Smith or Indigo or name your local store) would love to carry millions of books on the showroom floor, the economics of unlimited inventory are simply impossible for physical stores.  Instead, physical stores are forced to limit their in-store inventory to books that sell well.  So if a book doesn't start selling well within a few weeks of hitting shelves, the store will return the book to the publisher (for a full refund) to make room for other, newer books.

As most authors can appreciate, a few weeks is not enough time for a book to find an audience, which means many high-quality print books are forced out of print too early.  Even if the book had the potential to sell continually, if those sales aren't high enough to justify continued shelf space, the books were returned to make room for better-selling books, and as books lost distribution they were forced out of print.

In the new world of ebook self-publishing, there are no advances, but your book never goes out of print either.  Thanks to the scalability and efficiency of online retailing, the digital bits and bytes that comprise your ebook can happily occupy an online retailer’s shelf forever if you let it.   Your book is immortal.  You always have another day to find your next readers.  You harvest your income over time as the book sells.

This life cycle of the immortal ebook changes the dynamics of how you can model and measure the income stream from your book.  In many ways, the income stream from an immortal ebook is more closely akin to an annuity, and specifically a variable annuity.

If you’re not familiar with annuities, here’s a quick introduction:  Annuities are financial investments usually sold by insurance companies, and often purchased by individuals for the purpose of retirement planning or income diversification.  The individual puts forth cash (an asset) to purchase the annuity, and then the insurance company in turn pools this cash with the cash from other investors and invests the money on your behalf in underlying assets that might include agricultural property, hotels, office buildings, bonds or any other bundle of income-producing investments.  The insurance company then promises to pay the individual a steady stream of income for many years, or for the rest of their life.  A fixed annuity pays a fixed monthly or annual amount.  A variable annuity pays a variable amount based on the performance of the underlying asset.

So this means your book, which is an asset you control 100%, shares some similarities with variable annuities with the exception that you (not the insurance company) control the asset, and you are the sole beneficiary of that asset’s performance over time.  Your book-as-an-annuity will very likely produce some level of income for you for the rest of your life.  All you need to do is keep the book in stores.

This variable annuity dynamic of self-published ebooks also changes how an author can measure the financial value of their asset.  For example, let’s say your book or your full catalog of books is earning you $200 a month, month after month.  What's the value of this income stream to you for the next five or 30 years?  Luckily, there are free calculators for this (click here for one such calculator).

To use the calculator, enter your expected monthly or annual income, and also enter an alternative interest rate. The interest rate can reflect a rate you’d be able to earn if you invested cash into some safe interest-bearing investment for the same period of time.  By entering the going interest rate, you’re better able to calculate the present value of your income stream.  In the example at left, I chose a 30-year period so I entered an interest rate of a 30 year US government bond, which today earns 2.58%.

In this example, a book that earns $200 a month for 30 years has a present value of just over $50,000.

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict future levels of income with precision. The longer the time frame you calculate, the greater the odds that your numbers are off by a significant margin. Your actual earnings might be higher or lower.  Nevertheless, this model for measuring the financial value of your asset is useful, especially if you’re approached by a publisher who offers you a lump sum amount of money (AKA an advance) to acquire your rights.  By analyzing the present value of the expected annuity stream of income, you’ll be better prepared to negotiate a fair price for your book, or you’ll have the confidence you need to reject the offer and walk away without regrets.

Here’s an even simpler, more practical example of annuity thinking:  A few months ago, a Smashwords author told me she was offered a contract for her book by a traditional publisher.  She rejected the offer because she realized that based on her current monthly sales, she'd earn more in the next three months self-publishing than she'd earn from the publisher's advance.

Ebook self-publishing changes the dynamics of the earnings stream for authors. Whereas most traditionally published print authors will earn the bulk of their book’s income from the advance, or from the first few month’s sales, self-published ebook authors are likely to earn the bulk of their income spread out over many months and years. This is especially true for fiction writers since great stories are evergreen.

When you run the numbers on your book as an annuity, even for shorter time frames of three to five years, you might discover your book is more financially successful than you realized.