Daily Archives: October 10, 2012

In Which the New York Times Suggests I Am a Pretentious Git

You know, as they would.

It’s in this article, which gripes about Americans using words and phrases in more common usage in the UK. I get called out for calling the new iPad a “lovely piece of kit,” although it is. Apparently being an American, I should have settled on “Dude, this tablet is bananas,” or something else equally comporting with my nation of origin.

I left the comment, but I don’t think it’s cleared the moderation queue yet, so I’ll repost it here for recordkeeping:

I see we’re confronting the simultaneously existential yet provincial terror of someone choosing to use the whole of the English language when it suits them.

Yes, indeed, I used “A nice piece of kit” to describe the iPad, because it was an apt phrase for how I felt about the machine, and I like to use apt phrasing from time to time. Because, you know, I am a professional writer. I have also been known to use “all y’all” even though I am not from Texas, “no worries,” even though I am not from Australia, and “le mot juste,” even though I am not from France. I once invented something called the “schadenfreude pie” although neither it nor I am German. I ALSO EAT TACOS.

(I don’t, however, stand “on line.” You can keep that, New York. I want you to have it.)

If someone find it pretentious or annoying that I will use a British phrase when it suits me too, that is their karma (LOOK OUT SANSKRIT). They’re also a bit silly. I intend to enjoy as much of the English language as possible, and snack on other languages when it suits me. Because it’s fun and because language is meant to be used. Others do not approve? C’est la vie.

Or, in my own dialect: Oh, well.

Anyway. Silly, silly article. Although I suppose my New York friends will be amused  to see my name show up in their paper tomorrow. Surprise! I liked my last appearance better.

Amazon Author Rankings and Who They Actually Benefit

Amazon has started ranking authors by total sales via Amazon, updated hourly. This is certain to make a whole bunch of authors begin to freak out as they constantly refresh their Amazon author pages to see where they stand in the rankings, and, independently, give a whole bunch of people who have their own hobby horses about the state of the industry a bunch of ammunition to make proclamations about how the industry is changing in exactly the way they want it to change, so there, ha ha!

So, on this subject, some thoughts for people to consider when they look at these rankings.

One: They don’t capture the whole bookselling story, which is to say that Amazon is not all of the bookselling world. An author who sells well on Amazon doesn’t necessarily sell well off of Amazon (especially if they’re eBook only and tied into the Amazon ecosystem), and lots of authors sell books outside of Amazon, and those sales won’t be reflected in these rankings. I mean, Hell, yesterday I sold tens of thousands of copies of Old Man’s War through the Humble eBook Bundle. How will those be reflected in those Amazon rankings? Simple: They won’t. This is not a flaw in Amazon’s rankings, since Amazon makes it clear it’s only tracking its own sales. But if people make the inference that Amazon would be totally happy for them to make, i.e., that there is a strong correlation between these Amazon rankings and an author’s overall success as a commercial writer, then those people have a flaw in their own thinking.

This dovetails nicely with the next point:

Two: Amazon isn’t doing this for anyone but Amazon. How does this serve Amazon’s purposes? Among many other things, it helps to promote Kindle-only (or Kindle-majority) writers, many of whom move large numbers of books for free or for reduced cost relative to authors with publisher ties. It offers another reason for authors to use Amazon’s Author Central service, which will allow authors to quickly see their rankings. It motivates authors and publishers to lower prices on their eBooks to goose their sales (and thus their author) rankings, which serves Amazon’s purpose of motivating consumers to make their book purchases through Amazon, and through Amazon’s eBook ecosystem. The value proposition for authors is somewhat more nebulous outside of the ego boost of having one’s name sufficiently high up on the author rankings, but for some authors that may be enough.

Three: An author’s Amazon rank doesn’t necessarily correspond to financial success. One may make as much money or more selling fewer objects for higher prices than one may make selling a lot of objects for a lesser cost. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to find some authors further down on Amazon’s rankings making more money than some of those higher up, because they gross more in the aggregate from their sales. It’s nice to move lots of books, but it’s also, you know, nice to eat. An author might find it perfectly acceptable to decide to sell fewer copies of books to consumers who are less price-sensitive than to sell a lot to consumers who are buying fiction primarily as a value proposition. Bear in mind it’s possible to make a lot of money selling a lot of things cheaply, of course. But it’s not the only way to do things.

Four: The rankings rank disparate objects. Amazon says it counts all sales. But it also by all indications seems to count free books as sales (Update: In the comments, an reader notes Amazon is not counting free material), also appears to count any published work of any length or price as a single sale. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the way you want to go with it, and Amazon appears to want to go with it that way. But it does mean for the purposes of a “sale” in one’s author rankings, a free or cheap short story is the equivalent of a newly published hardcover novel with a $24.95 list price (which will sell on Amazon for $16). This leads directly to the next point:

Five: The rankings are highly gameable. If you want to climb up the Amazon rankings as an author, the solution seems pretty obvious: release a whole bunch of shorter works available at low cost. Now, mind you, this is going to work out great for me, since starting in December we release The Human Division electronically, one episode at a time, once a week, and each episode will be available for a low cost. Someone who buys THD in this serialized form will make 13 separate (but individually low-cost) purchases; someone who waits until May to buy it in hardcover form will make only one purchase. It’ll be the same content. But one potentially has 13 times the potential to fiddle with my Amazon author rankings. Now, as it happens, we planned to do The Human Division in episodic form before I knew about Amazon’s author rankings, so I can’t be accused of intentionally planning to game my Amazon author ranking. However, if you don’t think authors won’t start trying to game their rankings, well. You don’t know how important it is for some folks to be highly ranked.

These are just five points to make about the rankings. There are other points to make (for example, how an author with an extensive backlist is at a ranking advantage to a newer author with fewer works) but I’ve made enough points that you can get my gist: Amazon’s author rankings should be taken with the appropriate grain of salt and with the appropriate perspective – just like any sort of ranking.

Authors who start to worry about their Amazon ranking should likewise be aware that by doing so they’re allowing Amazon to define their success to a greater or lesser extent… and they should really ask who ultimately benefits the most from that: Amazon or them. Amazon isn’t (necessarily) evil, but Amazon is interested in its own goals, many of which may ultimately be at cross purposes to an authors’ own. Amazon will be happy to frame your career to suit its own purposes. All you have to do is let them.

Keep it in mind as you’re refreshing your Amazon author page to see where your ranking is right now.

Checking in on the Humble Bundle

I’m pretty well chuffed at how well the Humble ebook Bundle is doing; in a little less than 24 hours we’ve pulled in just a shade over $370,000, and there are still 13 days left for the bundle’s availability. Clearly things will taper off after the publicity dies down, but, still and all, it’s hard not to be thrilled with the result, even after a single day. If people who donated left the default amounts where they were, we’ll have raised just a shade under $125,000 for Child’s Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and, of course, SFWA. I feel pretty good about how that shakes out. And again, 13 days to go yet.

I’ve also been asked how it was I got involved in the bundle in the first place, and the short answer is that Cory Doctorow asked if I would be interested, and I said I would be. I like the idea of the Humble Bundles in a general sense, combining as they do the promotion of creative work with a charitable component, and I also think it’s not a bad way to reach new audiences (i.e., the regular Humble Bundle crowd, who are a group similar to but not exactly contiguous with, science fiction readers) and give them a low-risk opportunity to check out my stuff. Someone who tries Old Man’s War and likes it will be happy to learn there are three — and soon to be four — other books in the series.

I’m going to make some money off the Humble Bundle, which is nice, to be sure. Probably not as much as people expect, since I a chunk  whatever I gross (roughly 7.9% of the pie, if people keep the defaults, which they don’t have to) with Tor, which is totally fair, before some of you get spun up, as contracts are contracts, I wouldn’t be where I am without Tor, and anyway, it’s not like I’m hurting.  But I did it primarily for the charitable aspect, and for what I hope will be a knock-on benefit for my career.

On the subject of money, someone on Twitter asked me what I plan to do with my Humble Bundle gains, and my response was the same as it always is for stuff like this: Until the check’s actually been cashed, I don’t make any plans at all. This is not to suggest that the Humble Bundle people will be anything other than absolutely scrupulously accurate in the apportionment of  funds — they wouldn’t have gotten this far if they hadn’t been so. It is to suggest that on the practical level of my day-to-day life, I think of it on a “cash in hand” basis, i.e., if the money is not actually in my wallet or my bank account, it doesn’t exist and I can’t use it for anything. This kind of thinking is no fun, sure. but I have have fun in other areas of my life. Dreaming about wacky adventures with money I don’t have yet (and therefore don’t have, period) doesn’t have to be one of those areas. I think this is not a bad idea for most writers, and most people.

The Big Idea: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Welcome to the apocalypse! What’s next? This is a question at the heart of After, an anthology of nineteen stories set in apocalyptic or dystopic times. But there’s another question that After is interested in, and it involves short fiction and the young adult genre. Here are After’s editors, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, to tell you what that question is and how they went about finding the answer.

ELLEN DATLOW and TERRI WINDLING:

There were actually two Big Ideas behind this anthology, so we’ll talk about them both.

As editors, we are passionate advocates of short stories as a literary form…but getting YA readers to try short fiction is an increasingly uphill battle. So our first Big Idea was a somewhat obvious one: we looked at the books that teens are reading and chose two of the most popular genres: YA vampire fiction (for our previous anthology, Teeth) and YA dystopian fiction. In the past, we would have shied away from these topics precisely because they are so overly-familiar…but now our aim was to use this popularity to tempt teens into giving short fiction a try.

We did this with a certain amount of trepidation, however. Could we move out of the long shadows cast by Twilight and The Hunger Games to create books that were fresh, original, and literary, yet still accessible to readers who loved these series? And would stories on each theme be diverse enough to make a varied and satisfying collection? For the dystopian book, in particular, we feared ending up with a volume that was unrelievedly grim…one bleak, despairing story after another. How could we ensure a diversity of styles, settings, characters, and moods? We decided to put the challenge to our writers — to have faith in their powers of invention and innovation.

For the dystopian book, we next had to decided what exactly we meant by “dystopian fiction” — the precise definition of which has been an ongoing cause of contention. In YA publishing circles, the term is broadly used to refer to stories that take place in darkly imagined futures: ranging from those exploring the dangers of repressive governments and societies-gone-bad to those whose plots unfold in bleak, savage, or oppressive post-apocalypse settings. A dystopian label often conveys more about a story’s overall tone than its plot-line (or subtext of societal critique): the worlds depicted are dark ones, in which protagonists must struggle for physical and/or moral survival. The literary purists among us, however, note that the classical definition of dystopian literature is far more specific: it refers to tales of utopias gone wrong. Traditionally, post-apocalyptic novels are dystopian only if the narrower definition applies – otherwise they are a genre of their own.

Although we respect the purists’ view, we decided to take the broader road in the creation of our anthology, which would include both dystopian and post-disaster tales (as well as stories that fell somewhere in between) in order to reflect the wide range of dystopian fiction beloved by young readers today. Once we’d made that decision, we searched for an appropriate book title — and that’s when we had our second Big Idea: We’d call the book After, and that single word would be the anthology’s organizing theme.

Here’s how we pitched the book to our publisher, Hyperion:

We will ask our contributors for stories that take place after some major catastrophic event: after the melt-down, the flood, the plague, the third World War, the new Ice Age, the Rapture, the invasion, the clamp-down, the meteor hit…or whatever else they can imagine. Rather than focusing on the disaster itself, each story will be set after the change, exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake — whether set in the years soon after the change, or in decades far in the future.

And that’s precisely what we did, soliciting stories from a selected list of authors who came from a variety of backgrounds — both those already known for YA dystopian fiction and those who were decidedly not. Publishers, of course, want a book filled with as many Big Name Writers as possible — and that’s fair, since that’s a useful tool in selling anthologies to bookstores and readers. But a well-known name won’t guarantee a place in one of our books if we don’t like the tale that’s been submitted (or it doesn’t fit with the others in the volume), and we’ve always been deeply committed to putting good fiction by emerging writers into readers’ hands, too.

As an anthology progresses and we begin the hard work of deciding which submissions we will and won’t use, we must consider not only the quality of the stories but how they fit into the anthology as a whole. Sometimes we have to turn down tales because they’re just too similar to something we’ve already bought. This results, mid-way through the anthology process, in sending group emails to our writers like this:

“No more flood stories please! Or medical plagues! We’ve got those covered!”

or:

“If you’re still mulling over story ideas, what we’re most in need of now is humor. Black humor, perhaps, or satire. Any takers?”

or:

“We’ve got too many tales in first person. Is anybody writing in third…?”

As the stories for After rolled in, one after another, our worries about diversity disappeared. They were dark, yes (these were dystopias, after all), but remarkably varied in style and mood — running the gamut from traditional (Garth Nix) to experimental (Gregory Maguire), from sharply cautionary (N.K. Jemisin) to gently poignant (Carol Emshwiller), from deeply disturbing (Susan Beth Pfeffer) to quietly hopeful (Cecil Castellucci). We had dystopian science fiction (Beth Revis), dystopian fantasy (Sarah Rees Brennan), dystopian horror (Nalo Hopkinson), dystopian satire (Jeffrey Ford), dystopian poetry (Jane Yolen), and dystopian surrealism (Matthew Kressel). We had floods in London (Katherine Langrish), pestilence in California (Carolyn Dunn), and anarchy on the streets of Manhattan (Richard Bowes). We had zombies (Carrie Ryan), bugs (Steven Gould), nanotechnology (Caitlín R. Kiernan), and reality television (Genevieve Valentine) all running amok. And we had teenagers building their lives in the ruined worlds they’d inherited. (Sound familiar?)

This was one of the hardest anthologies we’ve ever edited…but also one of the most rewarding. Our hope is that young readers will find it and love it enough to seek out other works of short fiction. And that teachers will use the book as a springboard for discussions about literature, culture, and society’s future. We hope adult readers will enjoy the book too, filled as it is with stories both finely written and entertaining. And perhaps after the book is done, we’ll all think just a little bit harder about the world we are passing on to our children’s children.

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After: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Visit Ellen Datlow’s site. Follow Datlow on Twitter. Visit Terri Windling’s site.