Various and Sundry 8/5/14

Some things for you:

* The LA Times takes a look at the recent Amazon kerfuffle and wishes to inform you about What Amazon’s e-book numbers are and aren’t telling you, and quotes my recent post here about it. The article basically pokes the same holes in Amazon’s logic that I did (and that others have), which is not terribly surprising because it’s not like I had to look hard for those holes. I don’t suspect Amazon got the response out of their missive that it had hoped for.

* Meanwhile, over at Tor.com, an article explains why my novel Old Man’s War is pretty much SF/F 101, i.e., an entry-level text for the spectulative fiction genre, and offer examples of other works that would be placed higher up on the academic survey ladder. I don’t find much to disagree with here, particularly the assessment of where OMW fits in — I’ve been saying for years that I quite intentionally wrote it to be accessible to people who don’t generally read science fiction. So yeah, 101 is pretty accurate. I’m happy to have it be there, too, since the sales reflect that whole “easy to get into” idea.

* Not directly related to me but worth noting here: Wiscon has decided — after far too many fits and starts — to permanently ban Jim Frenkel from attending the convention. Those of you needing additional context for this event may find it here. I have more to say about this, which I will do at some point hopefully in the near future when I can actually organize my thoughts on it. For now, I will say that I’m glad it’s been done and wish it hadn’t required a process that demanded feeding off Wiscon’s own reputation and goodwill with its attendees to operate.

25 thoughts on “Various and Sundry 8/5/14

  1. I could get behind the idea of labeling books based on reading level. A little 101 for a summer vacation on the beach. 600 for when I have a ton of free time and need to exercise the brain… maybe a crowd-sourced webpage to rate them all?

  2. Kilroy, that may be useful, but it would also be a lot more complicated than that. For example, OMW being SF/F 101 doesn’t necessarily mean that it has a lower reading level than other works. What it means is that it is more accessible than other works to non-SF/F readers and works as an introduction better than other works.

    Now, maybe there’s some correlation there, but I can also easily imagine a book that does not have a very high reading level, but is also so reliant upon and chock full of SF/F conventions that it would not be a good introduction to the genre.

    However, that being said, it would be interesting to see somewhere categorizing like that. I don’t think reading level alone would work, but I agree that sometimes I just want a fun read to rip through, and other times I want something that won’t let me go even weeks after I finish it. You can pull this out of reviews, but that is going from a single work to see what type it is. I would be great to go in the opposite direction from type to a list of works.

  3. kenmarable — “Now, maybe there’s some correlation there, but I can also easily imagine a book that does not have a very high reading level, but is also so reliant upon and chock full of SF/F conventions that it would not be a good introduction to the genre. ”

    Exactly so. May I suggest that Redshirts would be just such a book? If you aren’t at least a little familiar with certain universes…

  4. Reminds me of reading an article by Nicholas Hornby writing about how he decided to try this “Science Fiction stuff” and because he knew Banks from his non-SF, picked up “Excession”. He was of course immediately utterly lost and confused. There’s a lot of SF convention that the reader needs to be aware of.

    It doesn’t mean that it’s a better book or even a harder book than one the average non-SF reader can pick up and enjoy.

    I just finished the second volume of the new Heinlein biography and it talks at times how Heinlein at times explicitly wrote to SF convention and at other times deliberately didn’t to gain more mass appeal.

  5. Guess, what Frenkel actually, physically did, is not directly mentioned anywhere I’ve seen on Whatever. That particular topic is declared out of bounds on the previous thread about Frenkel.

    https://whatever.scalzi.com/2014/07/28/what-happened-after-i-reported-elise-matthesen-wiscon-and-harassment/

    As for the 101 thing, yeah. OMW is kind of 101’ish as far as the scientific components of the story are concerned. It starts out with a retiree who is generic enough that most readers can identify with, living in a technological world that initially is indistinguishable from today’s tech. It then adds in future tech, bit by bit and explains each bit as it goes along so you don’t have to already know what, for example, an ansible is.

    It also kind of plays into the ultra-basic right wing mythology of scarcity forcing us to go to war, which is a different kind of 101 issue. But otherwise….

    As for the Tor article, I started reading Perdido Street Station and got to a point fairly early on (The bug-woman had just started making the statue of the frankenstein mobster thing) where it seemed pretty clear that things cannot possibly end well for either of the two main characters, and stopped reading. I’m no fan of noir, and that seemed to be where it was headed. Noir often has a sense of people being fated to bad endings, and its a peeve of mine.

    The narrative was quite good (definitely in the 400-500 level courses), but the genre (noir magical realism) didn’t suit me.

  6. Part of the ebook pricing argument is that you’re not really buying a book in most cases. You’re buying some data that’s stuck in Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or Kobo or Google. You can’t lend it to a friend (as many times as you want for as long as you want), resell it, donate it to a library or use it to shim one of the legs of your table. Since it’s encumbered, it’s not as valuable, and the pricing should reflect it.

  7. I’ll add my name to the list of folks who are looking forward to reading your thoughts on the Frenkel kerfuffle (Frenkeluffle?) whenever you get round to codifying them.

  8. @ Colonel Snuggledorf – I would suggest “Frenkefuffle”. Because you can never have too many Fs in a word.

    @kenmarable – So rather than a linear scale, what we clearly need here is a grid system with “readability” on one axis and “accessibility” on the other. Similar to the political compass project which uses an (economic) left-right axis plus an authoritarian-libertarian axis (an interesting project in its own right!)

  9. Ooo, I like that – Frenkefuffle.

    I bow to your superior word-conflation skills, with thanks for a useful addition to my lexicon.

  10. I guess it’s not surprising that you’d agree with an article which is agreeing with you to the point of quoting you. Unfortunately the quote still misses the point of what Amazon stated – which is that the physical book has a lot of (possibly small, possibly avoidable) costs involved over and above the digital book, so why should they have the same retail price?

    Absolutely there’s no rule saying that a supplier has to pass on any and every cost saving to their customer. But in that case, you should just up and admit “I want to make a higher margin from the ebook, because I can”. Feel free to add in that “if you don’t like it at that price, I often drop my prices over time so wait until it hits a price you like then buy it then (if you’re still interested)”, which you seemed to intimate in an earlier post.

    Of course, Amazon doesn’t care about the performance of any single book, and is keen to reap the retailer rewards of higher average gross across all of its titles if ebooks don’t cost more than $9.99. I doubt anyone would seriously argue against that. But isn’t the implication still valid that Hachette wanting to keep ebook prices high is likely to cause *on average* its authors to make less money?

  11. As has been pointed out, Hachette is not aiming at “keeping” prices high, but at providing a succession of price points for a given book. If in their judgement an initial price point above $9.99 will maximize revenue, then they want to be free to make that assignment (as has been pointed out, this will typically be for books which have a strong initial demand — bestsellers or authors with very devoted followings). The price point will come down with time.

    Editors spend a lot of time worrying about appropriate price points, and attention is paid to each book as a specific entity in terms of size and type of market. Books are not miscible, and a lot of factors affect price and release timings. (I used to be a professional editor, though in a different part of the industry.) They don’t have anything like a 100% success rate — sometimes books which are expected to be marginal vastly exceed expectations (The Lord of the Rings) and sometimes books which are expected to sell well flop. But it’s still better than a global one-size-fits-all approach with no judgement re saleability and demand, and it’s relatively reliable for authors with an established track record (the category which this sort of pricing would tend to be applicable to.)

  12. There are so many layers to how books are priced, so many different circumstances, it can be frustrating to see discussion flatten to an “everybody’s greedy” refrain. Even when I disagree with the comments here, it’s been a broader look at things than in a lot of other places. (And incidentally has made this one of my regular morning stops for the other interesting content too. Also I bought an ebook, read it, craving more, will have more.)

    One factor I don’t think I’ve seen in the commenting is that the boost from even low ebook sales can make-or-break getting a book published at all. A lower ebook price might raise sales. Might not. Might not cover the bottom line. Digital isn’t always just a big basket of extra mad-money. That income and price point might mean the author’s advance doesn’t have to be cut in order to make the margins and percentages and whatsits and wodgets (technical spreadsheet terms). I’m all for not cutting the author’s advance to make the wodgets work.

    Readers who like convenience and instant delivery can decide whether to pay for those added benefits. And (assuming the author isn’t the self-publishing type) all readers get the benefit of a book existing at all that might not have made the cut.

    This doesn’t address whether lower prices will be made up for by higher sales, but it speaks to a reasoning beyond “yay, free money for the ravenous publisher.”

  13. Am I the only one who looks at what Amazon is trying to do with book pricing and think, “They want to automate a process that now takes a lot of man hours to manage?” I used to work retail. Now I am doing website and database management. Amazon is trying to reduce their overhead by forcing their suppliers (i.e. publishers) to commit to an algorithm. Or a logic-based pricing system so they can get a script to do what people are doing now by hand. The largest expense for retail (and most businesses) is labor. They may not have a bricks-and-mortar store front, but they do employ people (and probably a lot of them) to deal with books and pricing variations.

    People keep focusing on the books that cost more than $9.99. What about the books that currently cost less than $9.99? I occasionally buy e-books from amazon.com, but my inner Budget Monster has strict rules about what I can buy. The short version is “Anything under $5.00 is okay, but take the free option as often as possible.”

    My burning question is what will Amazon’s $9.99 e-book decree do to the bargains I can get on-line now?” This feels like a classic case of bait-and-switch. I can easily see them expecting me to pay $1-$10 more per book than I do now. What will that potential price increase do to the sales of e-books for the bargain minded shopper? Like it or not, if I have to choose between paying the rent or buying an e-book, I’ll pay the rent and go to the public library. The state where I live has an excellent e-library that works hand-in-glove with the bricks-and-mortar public libraries. (Yes, I love my public library. So does my inner Budget Monster.)

    I’ve also begun to think of Amazon.com as the on-line Wal-Mart. This e-book pricing thing just reaffirms that. It’s all about retail arm-twisting.

  14. Guess, the best summary of what went down is at the Geek Feminism Wiki, here: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Jim_Frenkel_at_WisCon_38

    Short version: Frenkel has been a serial harasser for decades and quite a lot of people have known about it. In 2013, he *again* acted true to form and a formal harassment report was made for the first time. But Wiscon (which is specifically a *feminist* SF/F con) dropped the ball in a myriad of ways–here are two posts from the Wiscon concom about how, http://wiscon.livejournal.com/417125.html and http://wiscon.livejournal.com/420368.html?thread=2359568#t2359568

    First, they didn’t carry the reports through and so the 2014 concom didn’t know there was a problem and not only allowed Frenkel to come, they had him originally set as a panelist. (Cue vocal horror and outrage from the blogosphere and from ordinary Wiscon congoers). Frenkel was removed as panelist and the Safety Committee started its deliberation for what to actually *do* about it. But they *still* didn’t get all the information they needed–and there were various other problems with the process, which they were pretty much making up as they went along–and ended up deciding that Frenkel should be banned for four years and then get to appeal and come back if he could prove he was a changed man. (Note that Frenkel could appeal, but nobody else could.) Cue even more horror and outrage from the world at large, complete with pointing out several places where the facts as presented by the Safety Committee were in error. For example, Frenkel said he couldn’t make a public apology because he was under a gag order from Tor, his employer at the time which had *already* canned him over the whole thing. Asking Tor, no, there was no such gag order. Frenkel just didn’t want to apologize. At that point, some members of the safety committee put together a list of all the things that had gone wrong and that they didn’t know about during their deliberation and went to the concom and said “help!” and the concom looked at the evidence before them and banned him permanently, as should have been done in the first place if they hadn’t dropped just about every ball there’s *been* in this whole hullabaloo.

  15. Regarding complexity, where do “Old Man’s War”, “Feersum Endjinn”, “Excession” and “Riddley Walker” fit into the metric? FE is science fiction, and definitely the hardest read, but RW is the next hardest, and generally considered non-SF. “Clockwork Orange” is another book which uses its own version of English.

    It’s difficult to see how to build a metric that could cover that range of books.

    Will

  16. @James “As has been pointed out, Hachette is not aiming at “keeping” prices high, but at providing a succession of price points for a given book.”

    I don’t know how this has been pointed out, since Hachette has not said anything on this matter, and there seems to be compelling evidence that Hachette specifically wants to keep e-book pricing high to try to retain value in its physical book lines. See JA Konrath’s blog for what seems to be the most discussion (with copious linking, plus an actual debate with Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch).

    That said, I agree that one size fits all is probably a terrible idea.

    @Victoria “What about the books that currently cost less than $9.99?”

    DataGuy has some data points on this, although it is based purely on Amazon sales so will be missing much of the market.
    http://authorearnings.com/report/july-2014-author-earnings-report/

  17. I’ve been involved in sexual harassment things from multiple sides. Victim, witness, confidant, 3rd party reporter, enforcer (all at different times and in different places). It’s never, ever easy. At my day job, the anti-harassment policy is enforced and people are trained on how to deal with harassment issues. They take their job seriously, too, as I had cause to find out. And it worked, too.

    The ball-dropping in the Frenkel issue doesn’t surprise me. I don’t know how Wiscon is run, but all the SFF conventions I’ve been to are all volunteer run. Volunteers drop out all the time. The people taking over for them don’t always get the full training on how things are done and things/behaviors that should be watched for. It’s both a feature and a bug of conrunning.

    To make an anti-harassment policy work, the people policing the con and enforcing the policy need to be alert to the problem, sympathetic to the victim, and willing to offend other parts of fandom by banning what I call Elder Statesgeeks and Big Names when they behave badly. Very few people in fandom want to be that kind of enforcer. (Because we’re all friends here, right?)

    The fact that Frenkel got banned at all, and got banned for life, is a solid win. I’d say it’s an impressive win even with (and because of) the fumbles with continuity and reporting. In my experience, the non-volunteer world sexual harassment policy enforcers are paid, full time, well trained individuals who have legal authority behind them. With permanent files and continuity and consistent rules. The non-paid, part time, untrained individuals who may or may not know their legal authority limits are handicapped in so many ways due to con culture and the unconscious reinforcement of stereotypes. They are also hamstrung more than a little by geek cultural traditions. The conrunners and anti-harassment enforcers are assigned a Sisyphean task when they try to make cons a safe place for everyone. Even the victims who knowingly and willingly buy into the “dress like a slut, get sexually harassed because you’re asking for it” meme. (Yes, that is a non-random example. The victim thought they were being open-minded by not taking offense at the Groping Sans Go-Ahead. The victim also got angry with me when I said, as part of the con com, that I had to report the incident.)

    I’ve been a volunteer and/or staff at conventions. One time, that meant being part of a sub-committee that was drafting a sexual harassment policy and developing methods of enforcement, I was told I was being too draconian because I wanted a three strikes and you’re banned for life policy. I was initially overruled because the person doing the harassing at the time the policy was drafted was an Elder Stategeek of the con. When I took the Elder Statesgeek out of the equation during a series of “what ifs”, the three strikes policy seemed a lot more acceptable to everyone. The compromise in the rules to account for Elder Statesgeeks and Big Names meant the offender was counseled on acceptable behavior after each of the first two offences before being banned for life on the third one. Among other things. Group politics are … fun. If you like watching sausage being made. (…or have your brain turned into sausage…)

  18. Forgot to add…

    As for the article pointing to Scalzi’s post, it’s both a good thing and a bad thing that fandom’s growing pains are making national news. I’m just too tired to enumerate those things right now. I’ve got this mini monologue going on in my head. “I have found my tribe! My tribe sucks. But we’re getting better. Slowly.”

    I’m going to hang my Sword of Rhetoric up now and go on to happier, less exhausting things.

  19. About ebook prices, the thing is, even with a paper book you are not really paying for the paper and the shipping and the ink and the binding and the books-and-mortar store you got it in. I mean, a lot of your money will go to that, but that’s not what you are choosing to spend it on. You are choosing to spend it on the content. Whether you’re buying a paper book or an ebook, that’s what you are buying. You would not spend that money for a “book” of random words printed on paper and bound and shipped to you. The form matters; some people have preferences one way or the other; but the form is ultimately less important than the content. This is true of most forms of art or creative content–music, visual arts, poetry, literature, etc.

    Regardless of the costs of the physical aspects of the book, the author has to get paid for his or her labor, and paid well enough that they will continue to do it. And the same goes for the editors, cover artists, etc, whether they are from a publishing agency or freelancers hired by the writer. You know what the lack of printing-and-shipping costs means? It means the authors, editors, cover artists, etc, can be paid more per copy sold. This means they can continue to do so professionally. This is a good thing.

    It’s like when you hire a band to play your wedding reception. You aren’t just paying them for four hours of their time. You are paying them also for the time they had to rehearse to get ready for your reception, the cost of their instruments and sheet music and other various and sundry supplies, travel time, and a portion of all the time and money they spend learning to play their instruments in the first place.

    The goal of everyone in the business of writing and publishing professionally is to make money. They don’t always make the absolute smartest choice, but that is what they’re trying to do. Amazon is trying to make it seem like that’s not the case so that Amazon’s policies look like goo business for others to adopt, not just good-for-Amazon

  20. @Anna Haugen, I was specifically talking about the difference in price, or the difference in (natural) pricing pressures, between physical and digital books. The content in each case is identical other than layout, so should have the same value in each case. Other ephemeral values such as convenience or experience vary from reader to reader and are probably all but impossible to quantify.

    I have no issue with the author and publisher ecosystem choosing not to pass on every cent saved by the lower costs of digital vs paper book distribution, because more money for them means more books for me, yay. As far as I’m concerned, they can set any price they are comfortable with, then I get to decide whether I’m willing to buy at that price, yay again.

    What I do take issue with is choosing to set the digital price relative to the physical price based on a desire to make a certain amount of profit and use that to do whatever it is you do with your profits… and then framing it that the price of the digital book relative to the price of the physical book is some kind of value proposition. By doing the latter, the implication seems to be that the former is a bad thing and so we should all pretend that it’s not happening… but inevitably comes back to claiming that the author needs to eat in defending the decision.

  21. Dear MrTroy,

    Since the average eBook is already priced substantially below the average hardback, and the vast majority of eBooks are under $10 already your argument about “same retail price” kinda goes out the window.

    Also, please digest my posts in the previous column on this explaining some of the MANY costs associated with producing a book that have nothing to do with paper or electrons.

    Any simplistic economic analysis of this is going to fail, regardless of which side you come down on.

    ~~~~

    Dear Guess,

    It’s very simple. Elise, the victim, did not wish to discuss the details of what happened to her publicly. (If some reader cannot understand why she might wish that, they should go back and read all the comments to the original column– it will be enlightening.) Everyone who knows details has chosen to honor Elise’ wishes.

    It’s not more complicated than that.

    Other than prurient interest, there is really no need for the details to be published. Nobody except Elise and Wiscon have standing in this matter, so there is no reason to let anyone else Monday-morning-quarterback the decision.

    If you think you might be at risk of harassment from Frenkel and wish to know how much of a risk/threat he really presents to you, personally, I’d suggest approaching Elise in person with your concerns. She might or might not choose to share information with you. I can’t speak for her on that. But I know her pretty well and I think I can reassure you she’s not likely to get pissed off at you asking her, individually and privately in person, “I’m afraid of this guy, too. How afraid do I need to be?” ( in so many words)

    pax / Ctein

  22. Dear Ctein,

    Thanks for responding to my first comment in this post without reading my last comment. I am aware that the bulk of costs involved in getting a decent quality book to market are unavoidable even for digital books, *even* if you make the egregious error of assuming the author’s time in creating the manuscript as zero cost…

    My comment of “same retail price” was directly addressing the linked article refuting Amazon’s claim that “E-books can be and should be less expensive.” If E-books cannot or should not be less expensive, then they are either more expensive (which has been seen in the wild), or at the “same retail price” (which has been seen in the wild). Claiming that there exists some (or even most) digital book at a lower price than the physical version of the same book is a completely different debate, which isn’t happening.

    My comments weren’t even about the price difference (or lack thereof), so much as suggesting that framing any discussion about the difference in physical vs digital price as some kind of value proposition is at best disingenuous, at worst a lie.

    Any simplistic analysis of comments is going to fail, regardless of which side you come down on.

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