Re-Moaners and Trump’eters

Another few weeks drift past and yet the same issues which seem to have been in the news all year, remain.

The US never-ending election still has over 3 weeks to run and just when you think the behaviour and approach of both camps can’t get any worse they manage to achieve it. If it’s not sexual abuse allegations it’s more leaked emails. I pity the American voter. I thought our choice this side of the Atlantic was pretty bad but the candidates there look appalling.

I watched the clip of Gary Johnson who is apparently also standing as a Libertarian Party candidate – I mean really? Over five years into a civil war in Syria and this man who wants to be President of the most powerful nation on earth does not know what Aleppo is?

At least Trump and Clinton have managed to answer some questions on the subject. It’s not unusual for foreign affairs (not the sexual kind) to play little part in a US election, but one might have expected that confrontations with Russia over Syria, Ukraine and Crimea, to have some impact. Likewise relations with China over the Spratley Islands rather than ridiculous notions of simplistic arguments over manufacturing jobs in the US should have some policy. It remains completely unreported what either candidate’s plans for North Korea are. Better not ask Trump but his rhetoric can’t be worse than the accusations from US Security services that NK was behind the Sony attack.

What still amazes many commentators is that Trump is still popular with large swathes of the US electorate despite all the gaffes. It demonstrates how unpopular Clinton is but more importantly how upset many American voters are with the established political class which Clinton embodies.  Here we have some of the parallels with the UK EU debate despite the referendum.

Although there is an element of the moaning bad loser side in some of the pronouncements from what was the remain side, many did set out the risks to the economy an no-vote would bring. Several senior economists have stated that the currency changes that we have seen since end of June were a long overdue correction to Sterling’s position just exasperated by the vote for exit and on-going uncertainty of what that means. In the percentages shown everything is referred to the currency position post 23rd June, failing as usual to mention that Sterling’s value had risen significantly in the lead up to the vote.

Euro over 5 years from here shows a different story than the headlines might have you believe on 19th Oct 2011 the exchange rate was 1.14 and it closed on 14th Oct 2016 at 1.11. In particular, the rise of the pound in 2015 and the lead up to the vote is dramatic. US Dollar to Sterling is a significant fall over the same period 1.57 to 1.21 and the comments on reserve currencies should be concerning, but at the same time interest rates have been signaled upwards in the US and stay the same or lower in the UK which does not help Sterling investors. By the way Euro to US Dollar has gone down from 1.37 to 1.11 in the same time period.

I have picked an arbitrary period but some of us can remember much better and worse Pound to Dollar rates. It reached a low of 1.05 in February 1985 after the ERM fiasco and was as high as 2.11 in November 2007 as sub-prime crashed the dollar

What do we learn from that brief history- currencies fluctuate – sometimes a lot – thousands of traders around the world make money doing that.

Final discussion for today is on Credit Rating Agencies and their comments – yes the same folks that branded those sub-prime investment funds as AAA, are doing all their warnings on where the pound might go next. All the discussion is based on what the UK might do as if what might happen in the Euro (How is Greece by the way and Italy, Portugal, Spain?) will have no impact. Remember Euro zone and other EU exports to the UK, exceed UK Exports to the EU – we both have a lot to lose if we are stupid and put in unnecessary tariffs.  World trade will be damaged if Trump introduced tariffs to protect American jobs and cancels NAFTA. Likewise what will be the impact on the dollar if Trump wins and implements that piece of rhetoric.

Guess what the pound might go up or down or sideways.  Can we moan about currency traders instead?

Writing to Reading

One of my work colleagues is a process improvement expert. He is a Six Sigma Lean Black Belt which surely as a title should be leaned as a process improvement itself. He can frequently be found drawing diagrams of processes and extracting critical details from our business colleagues. These details, decision points and sub-processes demonstrate where efficiencies can be made. I was contemplating him taking a look at the whole self publishing process, which strikes me as being in desperate need of improvement.

Let’s start with the basic problem. Too many books chasing too few readers who are willing to pay for the book. Economists would focus on the over supply or the under-demand aspect of the problem. To increase demand many writers have resorted to the price tactic of reduced cost to the reader, including free, to generate that demand.  Many marketing strategies emphasise the use of free to generate interest for other books by the same author. Traditional publishers have resorted to inflated pricing of e-books to protect the hard copy versions, much like the music and movie industry kept digital downloads more expensive than CD/DVD and Blue-ray packages.

The pricing and marketing elements and the social media excursions are all about launching or promoting the book after it has been produced. The lean methodology came out of Toyota’s factories i.e. it focused on the method of production.  Although the techniques have spread into post-production and anywhere else efficiencies need to be made. These techniques have led directly or indirectly to just-in-time supply, significant automation and other changes to the production workplace. Many American commentators often critique lean and claim Henry Ford should be credited with the methodology. It is not an argument I would wish to get into as I am not an expert on the history. For the purposes of this article it is irrelevant.

So what would a lean book production look like. Starting with the authorship. Clearly a writer drives a fictional story but let’s face it. We all suffer from foibles. Some writers are very good at scary scenes, others romance. Some are excellent with descriptive passages whilst others can create fabulous dialogue.  Clearly despite the inefficiency caused by increasing the number of writers involved, a lean book should focus on the allocated expertise of multiple individuals to create the book. The justification for the perceived inefficiency would be that more books of a higher qualitative standard would be produced in a shorter time frame. Not something that most authors would contemplate. Yet this type of authorship is common in the workplace – collaborative documents anyone?

Judging by the rumour mill several name authors already produce books in this way for traditional publishing houses.  Who knows if this is true but remember mainstream publishers are businesses not art houses. They want regular product to sell. They do not want to wait till the artist is ready, they have a production schedule to keep and a line of employees from copy-editors to marketeers to keep busy.

The next stage of the production involves the various forms of editing and proof reading. Starting with the authors own efforts (see above where each author could complete this stage). This process varies greatly from a qualitative point of view depending greatly on the skill level of the editors involved. There is a significant variable cost to this process in terms of production costs. An area that under lean should be ripe for automation. Of course if all the authors were experts in grammar, structure and spelling, then editing would be greatly reduced. This would require a major expansion of the processes to be studied extending our lean approach to childhood of the authors from learning to read and write all the way through the education system. Probably outside the scope of this article.

There have been major efforts in the software industry to automate much of the editing process. I think like most operating systems there is still a good way to go.

The next stage of production is formatting and then printing. (I will skip over the cover artwork elements) The new creation of e-books has been a very lean process, prompted by technological change. E-book production in whatever format and through whichever seller is remarkably cheap and efficient. What was once a huge barrier to entry (typeset, review, print review copy, review, print for distribution, distribute, book sellers sell) has been reduced to a few clicks of buttons. Even hardback versions can be produced very quickly.

With a finished manuscript and cover (if not using available default ones) the new publishing process can be completed in under an hour (excluding the seller’s review process) Yes there are foibles of the systems to be overcome regarding pricing, copyright and for Amazon the KDP Select or not decision. Then with the click of a menu item, the new book or a revision is launched on its way. Now here is where us authors need some real process improvement. That newly minted tome is just one of several thousand published each month. It is not only competing with thousands of other new self-published authors but also all of the output of the traditional publishers. That is of course just for books. In the entertainment industry it is competing with similar amounts of music and and hundreds of movies and TV shows for the attention of the buying public.

One of the elements of the lean process is the value chain. The value chain of any published book is long from the hours and hours of writing to the endless revisions and edits. Then we get to the sale. Prices in $ for comparison sake and because that is how Amazon requires prices to be set. Free, 99 cents, $2.99, $4.99 for an ebook. or higher. A new Blu-ray with two and a half hours of movie is approximately $20. Yes there may be extras, but how often are they watched and how often is the film re-watched. Like re-reading a classic book sometimes, but not often. Like most books are read, a movie is watched once.A full novel which should last a minimum of six hours is 99c or Free! We must be mad as self published authors to value our work so little. Even if the book is short, poorly edited and a rubbish story, it will still have some value.

So as a final reference to lean this should not refer to price but to process. The technology process has meant that we have a very efficient production and selling process. The pressure of over-production has created over supply which has been used to drive price down in an attempt to increase demand. I believe this process has failed as the buyer now perceives no value in the product. As the self-pub writer gets no return on their investment they cannot invest in the quality of their product i.e. editing or a better cover. Now the rant…

Amazon as the largest player you have created this monster by allowing books to be given away to support hardware sales of Kindles and other tablets. Yet Amazon has to provide the infrastructure (storage, network, billing) to support a zero price. A zero price provides no covering income for anyone. So Amazon and the others please ditch the free sale and its distortion of the market. It’s not free and puts no value on anything. It also massively distracts readers and reduces the quality of the overall product. I seriously doubt whether it actually increases reading.

For my fellow self-pub authors is your product really worthless, if not why do you price it as such! Being top of a best seller list cannot mean free as nothing has been sold.

For my fellow readers – how many free books have you actually read – was it worth your time. The reading process is not lean – it consumes time. Yes libraries have provided free books but of course they are not free – they are paid for in taxes. The books provided have a value – so should ebooks.

 

Translations

I have been looking into getting my books translated. This seems to be another minefield for the self published or indie author and yet another potential drain on funds with little possibility of recovery or a return..

So far I have tried Babelcube and now Fiverr without luck. Babelcube has a risk share approach to creating foreign editions which at least is more attractive from a financial point of view but so far I have received no offers. Fiverr as discussed in the comments on my last blog allows buyers and sellers to join up. Sellers or buyers bid or request gigs. I requested a gig for translation services into French or Spanish for my books. I have received 20+ notifications all straight forward unadjusted offers to translate approx 1,000 words for $5 or variations of such. Some offers of work have reviews some don’t.

The contact mechanism was broken on two of the offers when I wanted to make contact. Not one of the offers addressed the request i.e. to translate a book the shortest of which is over 95,000 words. Based on the offers that is $425 minimum per language per book. At Kindle 70% royalty of $2.99 – my normal sale price that is 203 sales of that edition to break even. Then there would be foreign blurb, foreign descriptions, cover art, author profile and marketing – what would be the break even point then.

Is this a risk worth taking. It is impossible to know, will foreign readers flock to my tales that I have kindly arranged to sell in their own language.  Advice is split, and of course it is likely that not all the translations will be perfect, recommendations are one thing but I as a non-speaker I will not know until the dreaded review. Of course if the review is in a foreign language I won’t be able to read it. Yes I know I should have studied harder at school to take my limited French further or carried on my Spanish classes, my few words of Russian and most embarrassingly off all my lack of Dutch despite a Dutch mother. There are still language courses and of course Google Translate. These have helped for odd words in the books I have written. No one has told me I have those little elements of French (mostly) incorrect. Perhaps I have put of every French bi-lingual reader on the planet with my offering – who knows. If I really wanted to expand my market I would translate to Chinese.

As with editing or proofreading there is no way of proving a negative. If I invest will I get a return or is this just more vanity on my part?

Now if there is a bi-lingual person out there who would like to help – let me know

A Year of Writing

I   have now completed my first year as an author. My first book An Agent’s Demise was not actually published on Kindle until the end of January 2013. Paperback and hardback versions followed via Lulu.  Even writing the words I am an author still seems strange. I prefer the term writer but that also seems pretentious. Not as pretentious as I felt when friends and family asked me to sign my first editions!
 

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New Author
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I currently have three books published and available. To The Survivors and A Persuasive Man followed An Agent’s Demise in May and August respectively. To say they were all written in 2013 would be misleading. An Agent’s Demise was originally started in 2006 then disappeared until November 2012, when a change in work circumstance led to what was supposed to have been a three to six month break but turned into nearly a year. Writing filled my time, and frequently took over all my time outside of hunting for work, but that is another story and not the purpose of this blog.  Then there is the joy of that first review (good) the despair at the first bad which meant that someone other than friends or family had actually ready my scribble.  Of course making number one in free downloads was fantastic however short-lived!

I wrote back in September in a blog called Advertising for the Self-Published Author of my experiences in trying to sell my books; I thought it would be worthwhile to share my sales figures, not as a way of boasting (there is little to boast about and I don’t want to discuss A Persuasive Man) but as information to my fellow new authors, I have excluded all physical copy sales (nearly all directly to me) – they don’t change anything and SmashWords sales which total less than 10 – so here goes.

Book Stats 1

I have cut off the first couple of months of An Agent’s Demise as this distorts the charts due to the number of Free Downloads and my brief number one position, using KDP Select so here it is on its own.

Book Stats 2

The impact of various advertising campaigns I have run has been disappointing to say the least. I have not been able to attribute any increase in sale to promotions through:

  • Book Daily
  • Project Wonderful
  • GoodReads

These campaigns have cost hard earned money, which can only be recovered through higher sales. So far I would have to say they are a pointless waste of time and money.  I cannot even be bothered to list the actual statistics, number of views (allegedly hundreds of thousands) the number of clicks (tens) then the number of attributable purchases (0)

I did save money initially, by not Professionally Editing (in progress as I write) nor did I pay for cover design, promo video (I only have one) web site design or formatting. I purchased Scrivener and Aeon Timeline software after trying others.  Add in costs for ISBNs, review copies to approve physical output, then there are the library copies British library and the others.  I may never publish a physical copy again simply because of the cost.  In other word I have to purchase 7 copies of each book version just to fulfill these requirements.

I have set up two blogs, this one and one for the forthcoming Sci-Fi series The Interplanetary Geographic Service, a Facebook page and tried Twitter as guided by my betters. For book two I created a YouTube video. I have attended one writer’s workshop but personal selling has been non-existent much like my paperback and hardback sales. I did not join GoodReads until March. I updated my LinkedIn profile to include my new status.

So after my first year what are my conclusions?

KDP Select worked (for the downloaders) for An Agent’s Demise but of course free means nothing for the author.  I am not convinced free actually leads to any reviews or even readers. Amazon knows whether someone downloaded for free but do they know if they have read it?  Does a free download lead to a greater likelihood of a review?  I left KDP Select alone for To The Survivors it has never been free except for a couple of Review Copies but remains my best seller.  For A Persuasive Man it has been very difficult.  It has had more advertising then any of the others, and KDP Select Free promotions and recently a KDP Countdown.  I recently received some personal feedback on the book, which may explain its lack of sales or at least partially explain the reason.  I shall be addressing that over the next few months.

I have several new projects underway:

  • The first part of my proposed Sci-Fi tale The Observer Series – The World of Fives has had a couple of Beta readers
  • An Agent’s Rise the sequel to An Agents Demise is nearly done.
  • New editions of An Agent’s Demise and To The Survivors after editing will be out soon
  • Adjustments on The Persuasive Man
  • My collection of short stories
  • A thriller on revolution
  • More ideas in outline or just paragraphs
  • More ideas about other genres
What have I learned:
  • Building an audience takes time – if I wanted patience I’d be a doctor
  • Advertising has little if any effect – If an advertiser disagrees then put your money where your mouth is.
  • Marketing in any form, including writing this blog, significantly reduces available writing time
  • I’ll never understand how the algorithms that Amazon uses to rank sales actually work
  • Nor which Amazon search expression should be used to describe the books
  • We need more books in more varied categories
  • Too many writers, not enough readers, and even fewer reviewers
  • I have interacted with hundreds of new people around the world making friends with many – may that continue and expand
  • I love writing!
  • That being ranked in the hundred thousands is OK when it’s out of several million!
  • Pushing Publish is always going to be scary.
What would I do differently?
  • Professional editing before launch – if only it was financially feasible for many new authors.  Payback could take several years.
  • Think about a marketing plan, but don’t expect any return
  • Don’t check sales everyday, write more instead
  • Learn from fellow authors – thanks GoodReads – but not all advice will work and don’t pay for the advice.
  • Get more Beta Readers – contact me if you would like a Kindle copy for private review.
  • Blogging and commentating is OK but that is not writing
  • Keep writing!

“The Persuasive Man” Is Nearly Ready

Just been adding the finishing touches to The Persuasive Man which will be my third book.  I have to register the ISBN and then its all go.  It will only come out on Kindle at first.  At the moment Paperback or hardback sales do not justify taking the time, effort, or cost to create physical versions, although I must confess to liking to have the physical book in my hand, makes it seem real more than an eBook.

I just need a good description for the blurb then I can publish

The Persuasive Man cover