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Week of 14 February 2011


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Monday, 14 February 2011
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08:34 - That USA Today article about Amanda Hocking was mistaken; she didn't sell 450,000 ebooks in January. At the time they spoke to her in mid-January, she'd sold 450,000 ebooks, total. That's since she started in March of 2010. As it turns out though, the mistaken numbers aren't far off because of Hocking's incredible ramp-up in sales volume. She went from selling only a few hundred copies in March to selling a few thousand in August and September to selling 169,000 ebooks in December. That's about 40,000 a week, but sales were probably heavily skewed toward late in the month, after everyone had gotten those Christmas Kindles. My guess is that she probably sold 300,000+ ebooks for the full month of January. The first week of this month she sold 100,000 ebooks.

None of that is good enough to get her on the NY Times bestselling list. It's not because of her sales numbers. She's sold more of some of her titles in one month than some of the NYTB books sell in a full year. It's because the NYTB list is rigged. They didn't count ebooks at all until very recently, and they now count only ebooks from Big Six publishers. So, an ebook by, say, Random House, may appear on the NYTB list if it sells only 10,000 copies, while one of Hocking's ebooks that has sold 100,000 copies in ineligible.

Actually, the NYTB list has become increasingly irrelevant, period. They lost me when they arbitrarily banned the Harry Potter books from appearing on the list because they were dominating it to the detriment of what the editors considered to be "more deserving" books. The USA Today bestselling list is at least honest.

Meanwhile, Hocking is thinking about buying a used car. A 2005 model, to be exact. I don't think she's realized yet that those $400,000 per month paychecks she's getting aren't a fluke. She did mention on her blog that she's thinking about buying her first house, for cash.




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Tuesday, 15 February 2011
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Wednesday, 16 February 2011
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12:21 - Things have been and remain hectic around here. It wasn't that I forgot to post here yesterday; I thought about it, but didn't have time.

I have so much to do that I can't possibly consider doing anything else, and yet...

It's fascinating to watch the success of some indie fiction authors with e-books. The thing about fiction, although nearly all fiction authors will deny it, is that fiction is fast and easy to write, at least if you're a competent author. Non-fiction is time-consuming and difficult. I can't begin to remember the number of times that I've spent literally hours researching and doing something only to have it turn into one paragraph or even one sentence in a non-fiction book. Hell, I'm doing that now with the biology lab book. To write fiction, you simply sit down and start writing. You make stuff up. Certainly, you have to maintain consistency in what you're making up, but that's not particularly difficult.

One time, just as a test, I sat down to write some fiction. I spent one hour doing it, and ended up with about 1,000 words written. I filed that with a reminder to look at it again in a couple of months. When I came back to it, I read it as though I'd never seen it before. It scanned well. So, I know I can write fiction at roughly 1,000 words an hour. At that rate, working eight hours a day, it would take me a couple weeks, give or take, to knock out a full-length novel. Even if I assume only 50% efficiency doing heads-down fiction writing, that's still a book a month. If I assume only 25% efficiency, that's still six books a year. Assuming no re-write, of course, but re-write is a dirty word to me.

There's an interesting post on Joe Konrath's blog about one newbie author's experience. She's written only one book, and sales were very slow for the first several months. Then her book gained critical mass in December, and she's now selling 600 copies a day. The $0.99 price is a key part of that, and she does have a good cover, but I suspect there's more to it. I haven't read her book yet, although I just bought it. I'd bet it will be well-written and -edited, which is unfortunately something that can't be said for a lot of the newbie indie books. She is making one mistake: the book has DRM on it.

People who buy e-books aren't going to put up with that for much longer. We need complete portability between readers. If someone gives me a gift certificate for Barnes and Noble, I want to be able to use it to buy e-books even though I don't have a Nook. Of course, that's no real problem for me and other technically-literate people. It's easy enough to strip the DRM and convert the file to a different format. But most people don't know how to that and don't care to learn how to do it. It's really going to piss them off when they find they can't read their Amazon e-books on a new Nook that someone gave them as a gift, or vice versa. Enough so that many will simply go the free route and start downloading unauthorized copies. Not because those copies are free, but because they don't have DRM.

Billions of music tracks are sold at $0.99, when it's easy to get them for $0.00. The key is convenience and pricing. People won't even bother to look for free copies if the original ebook is selling for $0.99 and can be ordered and downloaded with one click. There's simply no need for DRM. It just gets in the way of honest people while doing absolutely nothing to prevent unauthorized copies from circulating. If I do end up writing novels, one thing you can be absolutely sure of; they won't have DRM.



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Thursday, 17 February 2011
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09:31 - Apple has always been one of my least-favorite companies, lower in my estimation than even Microsoft. I see that Apple has now made their money-grab official. They're demanding a 30% cut of e-book sales, including those that they have absolutely nothing to do with. If you buy an e-book from Amazon, Apple insists that they get 30% of the purchase price, even if you buy it directly from Amazon. If Apple manufactured vehicles, they'd demand a 30% cut each time you filled your tank. Apple's so called walled garden is now a prison camp, with barbed-wire fences and machine gun towers.

A lot of the articles about this miss the point. One can, they say, simply buy books directly from Amazon and read them on an iPad with the Kindle app. But that's just the problem. Apple thinks they've blocked all alternatives. They've forbidden apps from providing an option to allow an iPad user to buy directly from Amazon. All purchases from the Kindle app running on an iPad or other IOS device must go through Apple, which takes its 30% cut. Furthermore, Apple insists that the price of the ebooks be the same or lower for purchases through the iPad app as from any other source. Apple has also blocked the obvious solution. Amazon could simply remove the purchasing function from the app, turning it in just a reader. iPad owners could then buy directly from Amazon and just use the iPad app to read the Kindle books. But Apple insists that if a product is sold elsewhere it must also be available for purchase through the app. They screw you coming and going.

The problem is that hardly anyone buys ebooks through Apple. My self-publishing friends have their books available for all platforms. One can buy them through Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Apple, and so on. All of them say that Apple sales are tiny compared to Amazon. One of them is selling about 1,200 ebooks a day, with almost 90% of that total coming from Amazon sales, close to 10% through B&N, and most of the remainder through Smashwords and other sources. Direct Apple sales are less than 200 copies a month, or less than 0.5% of the total. Of course, many people are reading these ebooks on Apple devices, but buying them through Amazon. Apple hates that.

Amazon operates on the agency model. The publisher (or indie author) sets the retail price. Amazon pays 70% to the publisher/author and keeps the other 30%. Apple wants all of Amazon's share. There's been a lot of speculation on the indie author forums about what happens next. Most people think Amazon will reduce the royalty rate from 70% to 40%, thereby having 30% available to give Apple and still having 30% available for themselves. I don't think that's what's going to happen. I think Amazon will probably do nothing. If Apple wants to kill the Kindle app, Apple can take the heat for it. At most, I'd expect Amazon to compromise by removing the purchasing function from the app. In theory, that'd mean Apple would sell more e-books. In practice, I suspect most IOS users would continue to purchase directly from Amazon, because the Apple bookstore sucks big time. Whatever happens, I don't think Apple is going to have things its way. Amazon simply can't afford to let Apple get away with this.

Stepping back from the immediate situation, in a larger sense this may help publishers/authors realize that DRM is their enemy. Apple's attack is not on Amazon ebooks per se. It's on .azw ebooks, the ones with Amazon DRM. If neither Amazon nor Apple blinks, expect to see Apple kill the Kindle app come 30 June. At that point, iPad users won't be able to read DRM'd ebooks from Amazon. But--and here I'm assuming that there will be a reader for non-DRM'd .mobi ebooks available--they'll still be able to read books purchased from Amazon.com that have no DRM.

The real problem is the attempt by vendors to tie individual ebook copies to specific devices. No one nowadays would put up with a vendor locking purchased music files to a particular brand of MP3 player, and there's no reason we should put up with vendors locking purchased ebooks to a particular brand of e-reader. All of the advantages of DRM are illusory; all of the drawbacks are very real. As more publishers and authors begin to realize that, I think we'll see unprotected ebooks become the norm. It's no coincidence that many of the bestselling titles in the Kindle Store are shown as "unlimited devices".

It's also encouraging that many of the small publishers and indie authors are recognizing that $2.99 or less is the right price for an ebook. I said years ago that ebooks, assuming they have no DRM, should be priced at most the same as a used paperback copy, because that's their natural value. In either case, people are paying just for the story. In either case, when they finish reading it, they can stick it on the shelf, pitch it, or give it to someone else. Small publishers and indie authors who recognize this will do well. Those who have an inflated idea of the value of an ebook will fall by the way.


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Friday, 18 February 2011
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10:08 - One day blurs into another and my to-do list doesn't seem to get any shorter. Barbara and I drove over to L&R Transmissions first thing this morning to pick up her Trooper. AAMCO rebuilt the transmission, charged us $2,500, and didn't solve the problem. I wish I'd looked at the BBB ratings first. L&R has an A+ and AAMCO an F. Unfortunately, we assumed that because Merchant's Auto recommended AAMCO they'd do right by us. They didn't.

The problem turned out to be, of all things, the alternator. The guy from L&R had to drive the truck around with an analyzer connected to it. Periodically, the alternator voltage would increase by several volts for two or three seconds, which basically stunned the transmission computer senseless. At any rate, the problem appears to be solved. And I'll tell anyone I know never, ever even consider taking your vehicle to an AAMCO. Ever.

Work continues on the biology book and the microchemistry kits. One issue I'm paying a lot of attention to for the biology book is reproducibility. Students who are just starting out need lab sessions that work as expected every time. There'll be plenty of time later for them to find out that experiments don't always work as expected, to say the least.


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Saturday, 19 February 2011
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10:29 - Last night, we finished watching series one of Da Vinci's Inquest, a Canadian program that reminds me of some older British series: low production values combined with excellent scripting and acting. It was shot in Vancouver, BC, and almost all of the cast seem to be from there. I have this image in my mind of the producer showing up one day in Vancouver and shouting in the public square that he's going to film a TV series and who wants to be in it. We'll definitely continue with series two and three on Netflix streaming but alas the remaining seasons aren't available either streaming or on DVD, at least from Netflix.

And speaking of Netflix streaming, thanks to Jim Cooley for pointing out that Downton Abbey is now available streaming. It's been in my DVD queue since Netflix announced its availability, but it's still showing as "incredibly, unbelievably long wait", or something like that. We're still on the 3-discs-at-a-time plan for $20 a month or whatever. I'd happily pay that $20/month for streaming only if Netflix had everything available streaming that's available on DVD.

Interesting post on Joe Konrath's blog. One of his big-name author friends is dithering about accepting an offer from a Big 6 publisher. Two books, with a $200,000 advance. Per book. She's not sure she wants to accept the offer, because she thinks she can do better publishing the books herself. Personally, I think she'd be making a big mistake to take the $400,000. It's the cheese in the trap. She can do better herself, much better.

I don't know who she is, but if one of the Big Six is offering her $400,000 for two books, she's an established name. (Typical mid-list authors, which is to say one's you've probably heard of if you're a serious reader, are getting advances of $10,000 or $20,000. At $200,000 per book, this woman is just a small step below the biggest names.) She can do better selling only 1,000 self-pubbed ebooks a month, and there are a lot of no-name authors who are currently doing that well or better on Amazon.com. My guess is that she'd probably do 10,000 copies a month of each of her books if she self-pubbed, which means she'd have made more than $400,000 long before either of her Big Six pubbed books ever got into the bookstores, let alone both. That's assuming, of course, that there are any bookstores left by 2015 or so, and that her Big Six publisher is still in business.

Most people would probably consider accepting the $400,000 advance the safe bet, but I don't believe that's true. Self-pubbing is a much safer bet. First, advances aren't paid in one big chunk in advance. She'll probably be paid the advance in three chunks for each book, the last of which she'll be entitled to when the book is actually published. If that ever happens, as I said, and if the publisher is still able to meet its commitments years down the road. Second, by self-pubbing she can start earning money immediately rather than waiting years for the book to get into print and then earn out its advance, if it ever does. Third, if she signs that contract, she's locking her books up. She'll likely never earn another cent on those books other than the advance.

Her luck would have to be truly terrible to earn less than $100,000 per year per book self-pubbing. Assuming both books are ready to go now, that means she'd cross the $400,000 line two years from now, at which point one of the traditionally published books would just have been published and the other would still be in production. I agree with Joe Konrath. For this author, self-pubbing is the only reasonable decision. It's only fear of the unknown that's holding her back.



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Sunday, 20 February 2011
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10:16 - We did a little process experiment yesterday to determine how long it would take to label chemical containers for the microchemistry and biology kits. We're using 15 mL centrifuge tubes as chemical containers. The tubes and screw caps are polypropylene, which is quite resistant to all of the chemicals we're including in the kits--the most corrosive of which are 6 M solutions of acetic acid, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide--and their capacity is appropriate. I buy the tubes in bulk, in cases of 1,800 tubes packaged in rigid foam blocks of 50 tubes each. I'll use those blocks for shipping, with each block containing about 40 tubes of chemicals, half a dozen glass test tubes interspersed, and the remaining slots filled with empty centrifuge tubes.

I was concerned about how long it would take to label the tubes--which is the most labor-intensive part of assembling the kits--so we made a test run yesterday, with Barbara labeling tubes as she watched a golf tournament on TV. Working at a relaxed pace, she was able to label about 300 tubes an hour. That's the main label; there are also cap labels to apply. So, the upshot is that Barbara and I working together over the course of an evening should be able to apply main and cap labels to enough tubes to make up between two dozen and three dozen kits, all without breaking a sweat. That means we could ship 500 kits a month without difficulty, and 1,000 kits a month if we pushed it.

That really speaks to reserve capacity more than anything. Kit sales are likely to be highly cyclical, with a huge bump in time for the start of the fall semester, a smaller bump in time for the start of the January semester, and a still smaller bump in time for summer session. Overall, I'd be happy if we shipped 500 microchemistry kits in the first twelve months they're available, with the biology kits ramping up late this year.

That's one of the reasons I'm pushing so hard to get the biology lab book finished. I want to be able to start selling it (and the kits) in time for the January semester next year. If that book sells as well as I expect it to, we'll have a flood of orders for the biology kit soon after the book is released, because a lot of home schoolers won't hesitate to start a biology lab course in the January semester.


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