The 3D Chess Rope-A-Dope Kung Fu Debate Strategy

Photo by: Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America

A couple of weeks ago I posited for group consideration the hypothesis that Obama threw the first debate in order to keep GOP contributor money flowing to the presidential race rather than fleeing to congressional and senatorial races, where the money could conceivably alter the composition of Congress for the next two years, under the idea that he could make up any lost ground in the second two debate. I asked for the thoughts from the readers on this idea, after taking care to point out that simply positing this idea did not mean I necessarily thought it was really happening, I was just asking if people thought it was plausible.

Now that the debates are done, I’ll offer my thoughts on the scenario:

No, it doesn’t strike me as plausible. I think Obama just screwed up badly with the first debate. I think he may have gone in with the plan to be cool and not to appear too aggressive with respect to Romney, but if that was the plan he badly undershot. What the reasons for this screw-up might have been I couldn’t say, because, strangely enough, Barack Obama doesn’t call me nightly to discuss the events of his day. But it’s pretty clear to me that whatever his plan was going into the debate, it didn’t survive the first encounter with the enemy. Romney was pumped up and he, at least, recognized (or thought, anyway) that this was a do-or-die event for him.

So he did, and he didn’t die, and the election cycles went his way very significantly until Joe Biden stepped in to help liberals stop freaking out. Then Obama, who was now awake, at least, did better in the second debate and (by all standards but the most delusional on the right) won the third debate by a significant margin. However, it’s probably safe to say that none of the other debates have had the same impact on the election narrative as the first and at the end of the day Obama was simply foolish to (depending on your opinion of his kung fu mastery) either let the first debate get away from him, or not to have a good defensive plan to counter Romney, who was generally considered to be the better debater and who had excellent reasons to make the first debate the major part of his late election strategy.

Shorter version: Obama got sloppy and got served, and has no one to blame for it but himself.

The irony is that if Obama does end up winning, I suspect that the result of his screwing up mightily will look like the scenario I posited, to wit, donors who were ready to write off Romney took a look at his performance and kept more of their money in his race rather than reassigning it to the house and senate races, which, in the case of the senate, at least, could have made a different between a bare Democratic majority (which seems to me the more likely outcome at this point) and a bare Republican majority (which now seems less likely). Obama did have margin to burn, and intentionally or not, he burned it, and as a result may have burned up GOP control of both houses.

Mind you, the smarter way for Obama to have done that would have been to bury Romney in the first debate and then let his coattails grow to encompass a possible Democratic majority in both chambers. But again, this assumes that Obama has a 3D Chess Rope-A-Dope Kung Fu Debate Strategy to win this election. I think reasonably highly of Obama, but at this point I don’t think he’s doing the Vulcan thing with this election. I think at this point he’s just trying to grind the damn thing out.


The Humble eBook Bundles and Authors

So, having now been a part of the first (but almost certainly not last) Humble eBook Bundle, I’ve had some folks curious about my thoughts on it, particularly as it relates to money. Here are my observations on the matter, and how those observations might relate more generally to authors. What follows relates specifically to the Humble eBook Bundle; I don’t know if my observations would be more widely applicable to any other possible eBook bundles.

First: I’ll probably make a lot of money on the Bundle, but possibly less than you might expect (and less per unit than I otherwise would). People are naturally interested in how much money I and other authors will make from the Bundle. Well, for the first week at least my default cut was 7.9% of money coming in (my default cut was in there independent of the fact that my book has considered a bonus book for people who paid more than the average). I didn’t check after the first week when the Web comic books were added but I suspect my default cut went down a bit, probably to something like 5%. Let’s say for the sake of easy math that when all is said an done my default amount of the bundle  was something like 6.5%. That would mean that my default gross cut of the Bundle would be something on the order of $78,000.

Now, here’s why I won’t get that much in net. One, while the Humble Bundle had default percentages, people could change those defaults and probably did. I assume that if they did change the defaults, they were not in my favor (I am assuming they would be in the favor of the non-profits, which would have been just fine with me). So the likelihood I’ll get that that total $78k seems small to me. Additionally, Old Man’s War is published by Tor, which has the rights for electronic versions of the book, and which will take its (totally fair) cut of the proceeds.

When all is said and done, if I end up with $20,000 (before taxes) then I figure I will have done well.

And to be clear, $20k would be a nice sum of money. I would not look askance at it. I will take it. Don’t cry for me, really. But that $20k will be a substantial discount, per unit, to what I usually make for the book electronically. The Humble eBook Bundle sold 84,219 copies, which is great; my book along with Neil Gaiman’s and Dave McKean’s was offered as a bonus book for people who paid more than the average price, so for the sake of simplicity (i.e., math people, don’t bug me with mean vs. median), let’s say OMW was in 42,110 of those bundles. For electronic books, I make 25% of the net to the publisher, and Old Man’s War currently sells as an eBook at $7.99. Unless I’m doing my math incorrectly, my cut is about $1.40 per eBook for OMW (no, $1.40 is not 25% of $7.99; remember, I’m working off of net). If those 42,110 copies were sold straight up, I would gross $58,000.

So, basically, if I gross what I expect to gross from the Humble Bundle, I’ll be taking a roughly two thirds cut in my income per unit than what I usually do.

(Again: This is all back of the envelope math, unencumbered by actual verified numbers and sums. This is just me speculating on what seems reasonable to expect, given what I know.)

Does this mean I’ve gotten ripped off by participating in the Humble Bundle? Of course not. One, I don’t usually sell 42k copies of Old Man’s War in two weeks, so I’m having volume compensate for per unit sales, and it doesn’t seem to have had a negative impact on OMW’s weekly sales in any event (i.e., it’s additive, not subtractive). Two, Old Man’s War is the first book in a series, and many of the people getting OMW in their bundles haven’t read it before. If they read it and like it, the additional books in the series are going to get bought and I get full freight on those, and otherwise it raises my profile as a writer.

Three, I knew going in how Humble Bundle does things so none of this was a surprise. I signed on knowing that, theoretically, everyone could slide my slider over to “$0.00” and I would ge nothing. Four, I did it mostly to help funnel money to the non-profits who would benefit (including SFWA), so anything I eventually get I figure is a nice bonus. For three and four, OMW is already well into the black and is the book of mine best designed to generate attention and interest, so it made that book an ideal candidate to be included in the Humble Bundle.

What does all this mean for authors participating in future Humble eBook Bundles?

1. Authors participating should know they are likely to get less per unit than they would in retail. That may be compensated for by a large number of sales (there are no guarantees, remember), but at the end of the day it’s still a fact to consider.

2. They should be understand that given the variable nature of the sliders, that they could get substantially less than what the “default” amount would be (they could also get substantially more, but that seems unlikely to me).

3. They should probably come in with a desire to have their book help the designated charities/non-profits, not to get a hot tub full of cash for themselves.

4. In the end, it’s probably best to consider the participation to be low-margin (but also low risk) advertisement for one’s name as an author and for one’s other works.

5. If possible, select a work of yours whose presence will benefit you and the Bundle best.

I was delighted to participate in the Humble eBook Bundle, and especially delighted to help drive so much money to the non-profits who were designated recipients. I would do it again. But I do want to be sure other authors thinking of participating know what they’re getting into if they are asked to participate.

(For more general thoughts on the Humble eBook Bundle, see this entry.)


Humble eBook Bundle Post-Mortem

The sale period for the Humble eBook Bundle has concluded, and in the course of the two week period it was available it sold over 84,000 copies and grossed $1.2 million dollars, both of which are nice, big numbers. And, if everyone stuck to the default settings (which they all didn’t, but go with me), the bundle raised something on the order of $120,000 each for Child’s Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and SFWA, and that’s not chicken feed, either. Unless each of these recipients decides to buy chicken feed with it, and I don’t know why they would, as feeding chickens really isn’t part of any of the mission of any of those groups. Speaking as President of SFWA, I can guarantee that no part of any money my organization might receive from the Humble eBook Bundle will go toward the feeding of chickens. That’s a promise you can count on.

More seriously, a fair number of people have speculated on what the success of the Humble eBook Bundle means for the future of publishing. As both a participant and an observer, I think it could mean something, but before we speculate on what that something means we should look at the elements that made the bundle a success in the first place, and then ask whether those elements can be replicated (and replicated frequently).

So, in my opinion, here are the things that made the Humble eBook Bundle work.

1. The Humble Bundle brand name. The Humble eBook Bundle was not Humble Bundle’s first trip to the rodeo; the organization has done several of these bundling events, primarily with games but also with music. Over the course of its several bundles, it’s developed a reputation for high-quality bundles, low-irritation fulfillment, and for being a desirable group for creators to participate with and for consumers to invest in. In other words, Humble Bundle has developed both credibility and trust in its communities.

This means that when Humble Bundle did its eBook bundle, it already had community buy in, which made it easier for the group to spread the word about the bundle among those most likely to pick it up. Humble Bundle’s primary audience has been gamers, but the overlap between those who game and those who read science fiction and fantasy (the eBook bundle’s primary thrust) is, anecdotally at least, significant, so transferring the goodwill generated by HB’s gaming bundles to this eBook bundle was not difficult to do.

2. A well-curated eBook bundle. First, as noted, it made sense to have the bundle focus on science fiction and fantasy, because of Humble Bundle’s area of success (bundling games to gamers) suggests — to me at least — that focusing on geek-centered genres would be the best path to a popular bundle. Second, the addition at the one week point of the Web comics-oriented book from Penny Arcade, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and xkcd added an additional area of overlap with both gamers and science fiction/fantasy readers.

Third, the bundle featured an intelligent mix of authors — popular and/or critically well-regarded and spread out across the range of the SF/F genre for a broad appeal to a large number of both established readers of the genre and for those who were dipping their toe into the genre for the first time or after a long absence from the form. The books in the bundle were also well-curated, with books new and old, bestsellers and rarities, novels and collections, cult classics and emerging hits. Something for everyone, basically, and again, the addition of the Web comic books only added positively to the mix.

The books were well-curated for a different reason as well, in that several of the authors — most notably me, Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman, have significant online footprints, both in our own right and in our ability to have a knock-on effect, i.e., to get other people to talk about the things we talk about, online and off. Then add the Penny Arcade folks, who have their own media empire, and Randall Munroe, who has gotten linkability down to a science, and you’ve got the makings of a bundle that will get a lot of attention not only because of the quality of the material, but the ability of those in it to make a conversation about it.

3. It was DRM-free. Leaving aside the technical/commercial/rhetorical arguments for and against DRM for now, there is a significant group of people — which I strongly suspect is highly correlated with the sort who would have an interest in the Humble Bundles generally — for whom the presence of any DRM is a deal-killer and conversely, the lack of DRM is in itself a selling point, independent of the actual contents of the bundle.

4. The charitable angle. Again, an anecdotal observation, but one founded on my own experience drawing attention to work I’m involved in: people seem to be more willing to engage in something offered online if there’s a charitable hook to it. The idea there being that you’re not only getting a good deal but you’re also doing some good, for people who are helping others and/or are fighting the fight for you.

5. Relative Uniqueness. The Humble eBook Bundle was the first high-profile attempt, with high-profile creators participating, at doing an ebook bundle. That in itself made the bundle attention-worthy (or at least, attention-attractive).

6. The ‘Pay What You Want’ and ‘Time Limited’ aspect. The fact one could get the whole thing for a penny, if one chose to go that route, brought some folks to the door. After that it was up to the people participating to set the average price, which unlocked extra books. Humble Bundle also does a very good job at engineering the bundle’s dynamics to encourage people to pay more than the bare minimum. There was also the fact that if you didn’t get it within the two week window, it was gone, which both motivated people and gave the bundle a frame to work in, especially when it came to generating conversation — “Will the ebook bundle crack $1 million in sales before it closes up? Tune in tomorrow!”

So, those are the things that have made this ebook bundle a success.

Can this success be replicated? Well, I think in the future Humble Bundle has a reasonably good chance of replicating it, as they’ve pioneered the formula, have the good will of the community and otherwise are well-positioned to make it work again, even as the relative uniqueness aspect fades. Other folks trying to hook into this formula have to find a way to compensate for the advantages HB brings to the table, which it has cultivated over time. I think other organizations will find it more difficult to replicate this particular formula for success, in part because they don’t have what HB has at this point: the name brand and the track record, which give it an ability to attract top-line talent and to generate attention that moves large number of bundles.

Now, this one particular formula isn’t the only possible formula for ebook bundling success, but inasmuch as I think all of the factors in the formula contributed to its success, I wonder how much fiddling with the formula will increase the difficulty for success. Could a major publisher create an attractive eBook bundle without, say, incorporating a charitable aspect, keeping DRM and establishing a lower bound price of more than a penny? Sure, and I would be very interested to see how it would play out; my own opinion is that it would probably not work as well. Likewise, a charitable organization which created a bundle which did everything the Humble eBook Bundle did, but which did not have authors who were well-known or had significant online footprints might also find its bundle facing a steep path to success.

It’s not to say other organizations shouldn’t try and experiment and see how these things work. I encourage the publishing industry to try lots of different things and to see how they work, so long as that experimentation is not done by the coercion of authors, and that the authors are adequately compensated for their participation. It’s more to the point to say that they should be aware that, like so many successes that seem out of the blue and/or accidental, the success of the Humble eBook Bundle wasn’t out of the blue or accidental at all. Expecting the same sort of success without considering all that went into that success is not at all likely to get you the results you want.

I have some thoughts for authors thinking of participating in a bundle like this to consider, but I’m going to put those in a separate entry. Stay tuned (Update: It’s up now.)

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