January 2010 Archives

Here's a round-up of what other insiders are saying about the Amazon/Macmillan dust-up. (Almost all ellipses are mine):

John Scalzi opines:

They're both playing hardball. That said, I think this particular negotiating tactic of Amazon's makes it look worse than Macmillan in the short term, and certainly will make other Amazon partner wary in the long term.
Also, Scalzi explains why Amazon threw the switch on a Friday:
As the White House across several administrations knows, Friday is the day to do or say anything you don't want heavily reported in the traditional media or heavily read by traditional media consumers, including on traditional media Web sites ...

Tobias Buckell explains about how books are produced and how ebooks are sold:
Let's take a look at how this particular sausage is made. ... A book is a group undertaking.
... Just like a pill requires research to bring to market, or a jacket requires artists, designers and invention, professionally published books that look slick and readable use the services of a number of different people. ...

C. E. Petit explains how the law affects this (for lo, he is an attorney):
Macmillan's position depends fundamentally on assuming full ownership and control of not just the rights actually transferred in publishing agreements with the authors, but of a full, unrestricted ownership interest in Macmillan's packaging of the author's intellectual property for market. Crucially, Macmillan could not maintain this position without having oligopoly power to exert — and we'll be returning to that shortly. Nonetheless, most of the blame here goes to Amazon. It's actually fallout from a bad Supreme Court decision a couple of years ago regarding ladies' leather accessories ...

Andrew Wheeler (an Editor And A Gentleman) notices a disturbing parallel:
I haven't seen anyone yet note that this is the second time that Amazon has applied the big hammer of delisting an entire publisher; they tried the same thing to Hachette in the UK almost two years ago. In that case, Amazon was the aggressor — they were attempting to demand higher discounts from Hachette (and their other suppliers) and pursued the delisting to get the publishers to agree to its new, and much more favorable to Amazon, terms.

Your eyes are probably glazing over by now, so I will stop flogging the deceased equine for now, until there's some concrete news to report. Normal LOLcat video service will be resumed shortly.

(Apologies for the formatting; I'm typing this on a netbook with a tiny keyboard.)

Last Friday, Amazon.com unilaterally pulled most or all of Macmillan's books (edit: including all paper editions, not just electronic) from their online store. (You can still find them via afilliates or second-hand stores, but Amazon themselves won't sell them to you. Note that this only affects me via my Merchant Princes books — published by Tor, a Macmillan subsidiary — in the US Amazon store. My Ace titles are safe ... for now.)

This whole mess is basically about duelling supply chain models.

Publishing is made out of pipes. Traditionally the supply chain ran: author -> publisher -> wholesaler -> bookstore -> consumer.

Then the internet came along, a communications medium the main effect of which is to disintermediate indirect relationships, for example by collapsing supply chains with lots of middle-men.

From the point of view of the public, to whom they sell, Amazon is a bookstore.

From the point of view of the publishers, from whom they buy, Amazon is a wholesaler.

From the point of view of Jeff Bezos' bank account, Amazon is the entire supply chain and should take that share of the cake that formerly went to both wholesalers and booksellers. They do this by buying wholesale and selling retail, taking up to a 70% discount from the publishers and selling for whatever they can get. Their stalking horse for this is the Kindle publishing platform; they're trying to in-source the publisher by asserting contractual terms that mean the publisher isn't merely selling them books wholesale, but is sublicencing the works to be republished via the Kindle publishing platform. Publishers sublicensing rights is SOP in the industry, but not normally handled this way -- and it allows Amazon to grab another chunk of the supply chain if they get away with it, turning the traditional publishers into vestigial editing/marketing appendages.

The agency model Apple proposed -- and that publishers like Macmillan enthusiastically endorse -- collapses the supply chain in a different direction, so it looks like: author -> publisher -> fixed-price distributor -> reader. In this model Amazon is shoved back into the box labelled 'fixed-price distributor' and get to take the retail cut only. Meanwhile: fewer supply chain links mean lower overheads and, ultimately, cheaper books without cutting into the authors or publishers profits.

Amazon are going to fight this one ruthlessly because if the publishers win, it destroys the profitability of their business and pushes prices down.

(Note that Amazon have been trying to grab a larger share of the cake by dipping into the publishers -- and the authors -- share of what meagre profits there are (book publishing is notoriously, uniquely unprofitable, within the media world), even though they've already got the wholesale and retail supply chains stitched up. Their buy wholesale/sell retail model screws publishers' ability to manage their cash flow and tends to induce price wars on the supply side, which is okay if we're talking widgets with a range of competing suppliers, but books are individually unique products and the industry already runs on alarmingly narrow margins: this isn't the music or movie biz.)

Now, as to pricing and DRM -- those issues are entirely irrelevant -- at least at this stage of affairs. They're different battles. For what it's worth, the ePub format Apple, Sony, Baen, and everybody except Amazon are going with doesn't mandate DRM (although it provides an optional vendor-specified DRM layer). The DRM push comes from the board level of the corporations who own both the book publishers and the music vendors, and individual editors and publishers know it's crap. This is a battle that'll be lost or won within the publishers.

Pricing ... we sell books by reverse auction, most expensive editions first, then cheaper editions, then mass market, until we get to the remainder shelves. What any sane publisher would like to do is to get away from the current crude fixed-price points -- a system they can't do anything about right now because it's locked in via the wholesale/retail distribution model -- and get round to flexible pricing on books: start selling high, then drop the price incrementally with much higher granularity than is currently possible. Such a system would allow them to get a lock on the price elasticity of demand, and thus work out the price point at which they can maximize book sales. A fixed-percentage agency model (distributor takes a flat 30 or 35%, whatever the price, while the price is set by the publisher) lets them do that.

It's interesting to note that unlike the music industry who had to be pushed, the big publishers seem to be willing to grab a passing lifeline.

Final note: to customers, Amazon would like to be a monopoly (i.e. the only store in town). To suppliers, Amazon would like to be a monopsony (i.e. the only customer in town). Their goal is to profit via arbitrage, and if they can achieve those twin goals they will own everyubody's nuts -- the authors, the customers, everyone. They are, in fact, exactly the kind of middle-man operation that the internet tends to squish, gooily. And if you think things would be different if I, Charlie Stross, went into self-publishing and sold my wares directly without any icky publisher to 'help' me ... do you really think I'd get better terms out of Amazon than a huge publishing conglomerate?

Whether this means Macmillan is any better placed to adapt to the post-internet order is an entirely separate issue which I can't begin to address here.

But Amazon, in declaring war on Macmillan in this underhand way, have screwed me, and I tend to take that personally, because they didn't need to do that.

[Edit]: Just before Apple announced the iPad and the agency deal for ebooks, Amazon pre-empted by announcing an option for publishing ebooks in which they would graciously reduce their cut from 70% to 30%, "same as Apple". From a distance this looks competitive, but the devil is in the small print; to get the 30% rate, you have to agree that Amazon is a publisher, license your rights to Amazon to publish through the Kindle platform, guarantee that you will not allow other ebook editions to sell for less than the Kindle price, and let Amazon set that price, with a ceiling of $9.99. In other words, Amazon choose how much to pay you, while using your books to undercut any possible rivals (including the paper editions you still sell). It shouldn't surprise anyone that the major publishers don't think very highly of this offer ...[/Edit]

And more: Here's Tobias Buckell's take on the situation, for a different angle.

Still on the road with a Vaio P instead of a full-on computer, so I'll be brief: Amazon.com can kiss my ass. Shorter version: they're engaging in monopolistic practices that damn well ought to be illegal, in an attempt to use their near-monopoly position to fuck over authors and bring publishers to heel. Longer version: google on "Amazon" and "Macmillan". Hint: Tor, who publish my Merchant Princes books, are part of Macmillan. And I've got a new book in that series coming out in six weeks' time.

Srsly. They can fuck right off. As of now, I'm not sending them any more trade. If you follow the 'buy my books' links in the sidebar to the right, you'll notice that they don't go to Amazon any more. This is the third time I've done this in 12 months, and this time it's personal — they've gone too far.

A full, detailed explanation of the story behind the current pissing match will follow on Sunday or Monday, but right now I'm too livid to type and I don't want to break my netbook.

NB: The "singularity" word is uttered at two minutes and six seconds in ...

In other news, I just received a bunch of author copies of the paperback of The Revolution Business, so if you order it now it should be with you shortly. (Amazon say February 2nd.)

I'm hitting the road tomorrow so blogging will be sparse until next week. Play nice!

Okay, so now we know what all the hype was about: the iPad.

First thoughts: I wasn't too far wrong. And this thing is going to slaughter the Kindle and most of the other ebook readers on the market, even without Apple coming up with a better business model for the publishers. With Penguin, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins on board, they've just about aced the main US trade publishers — remains to be seen how smaller outfits plug into the platform, but at this point Amazon have a struggle on their hands. As iBook reads ePub format files it may be possible to add free content to it. Maybe.

The addition of iWork makes this more than just a fancy iPod Touch; it's actually going to be a useful personal productivity tool. So I guess I was right to guess Apple were positioning it as a whole new platform alongside the Macintosh line. (Not bundling the iWork apps for free with the tablet seems a bit odd to me, however.)

They've got the battery life right: as I noted previously, we're seldom more than four hours from a power socket, so 12 hours of video playback is ample. The text input is sufficiently right — you probably wouldn't want to write an entire book on a multitouch screen, but for email and web and light document editing it's going to be infinitely nicer than poking one finger at a time (or two-handed thumb-typing) on the iPhone ... and for that novel there's the hardware keyboard. The ability to run all iPhone apps out of the box means that it's got a pre-canned ecosystem; you're not stuck with iWork or iBook, given that office suites like QuickOffice or Documents to Go, and ebook readers like Stanza or the Kindle app, will run unmodified.

At the very least, this is going to clean up in some specialist sectors — medical computing, for example, which has already taken to tablet PCs (they're easy to sanitize and you can poke at them without sitting down and typing). More likely, given the aggressive (for Apple) pricing, it's going to make inroads into the netbook market — and education; this thing is brilliant for students. (12 hour life, reads textbooks, takes notes, weighs exactly as much as a single 300-page hardback, i.e. 600 grams: it's half the weight of a typical netbook, or a Macbook Air.) And charging over a regular dock connector means you can top it up on the go using any USB power source and an adapter cable.

Summarizing: I think this is a convergent device. It's not going to live up to the expectations generated by the initial hype, because nothing could; but it's significant, and I can see a lot of uses for it in the weird niche between a real computer and a mobile phone that is currently occupied by sluggish, small, cut-down laptops running Windows XP. In particular, the App store ecosystem is really going to help. I reckon the total cost of ownership of an iPad is actually going to be lower than that of a netbook, once you consider the necessary extra software you need to make a netbook do anything useful (and recall that the App store price points are typically cheaper than Windows application price points).

(As you probably guessed, I am very relieved that I wrote in that escape clause in my new year's resolution last month!)

Right now I'm busy working on a couple of short writing gigs — taking a week or so off from the grind on "Rule 34", which is half-written (or half-baked, depending on the mood I'm in) — and trying to recover my joi de vivre.

Meanwhile, I am a geek with no life so of course I must blog about the Announcement from Apple that's due tomorrow, and which Steve Jobs says is "the most important thing I've ever done". I believe in giving hostages to fortune, so here's what I wrote about it last July:

My bet is that what we're going to see is what you might call an iPod Touch HD. It'll have a 10" multi-touch screen, probably 1280x800 pixels (a standard Apple resolution, rather than the Netbook spec 1024x600). It will run a version of the iPhone OS — OSX ported to run on ARM hardware rather than Intel, with a different user interface. There may well be haptic feedback for the on-screen keyboard (as featured on MIDs like the Viliv S5) , or some species of "real" keyboard — either a clamshell like a netbook, or a slider like a high-end mobile phone. (My money is on the on-screen keyboard with haptic feedback — it makes for a cleaner design.) It'll almost certainly have a 3G data connection, and some sources have been touting an $800 price point; others suggest it'll be subsidized to $300 when sold with a monthly mobile data contract.
There: one hostage to fortune delivered! About as controversial as saying "water is wet" at this point in time. So, using my imagination, what would I like to see?

I'd like to see two models — a 10" slate, and a smaller, 7" jacket-pocket-sized machine. (If you want a size metaphor, think of the Kindle DX and the regular Kindle — the former is a wee bit cumbersome, but excellent for textbooks, while the latter is what you want to read a novel on.)

I'd like to see, for the first time ever, a multitouch-based text input system that works and that scales. The iPhone's keyboard is crippled by the 4" screen size — for me, it's something I have to poke at with a single finger. A 7" screen would permit two- or four-finger typing, while a 10" screen has room for touch-typing. Drawbacks (the lack of sensory feedback) are offset against benefits (no mechanical keyswitches, no gaps for crumbs to fall down). Just please give us something that works?

I'd like to see a tablet that is more of a computer than the iPhone/iPod touch. The existing Apple tablets are read-only appliances; while you can enter text or draw on them, it's cumbersome and tiresome, suitable only for quick emails or text messaging. Mostly you're expected to use a laptop or desktop computer to shovel data into the device, then read/watch/listen to it on the move. The tablet needs to do a bit more, and including a multitouch version of iWork will be as essential to its success as a new platform (assuming that's what Apple are doing) as was the inclusion of MacWrite and MacDraw with the original 128K Mac.

I'd like to see the rumours about publishers, Apple, and an agency model for ebook sales come true, please. This is publishing industry insider policy wonk territory here, so let's just say I think it's terribly important and move on swiftly to: the App store to be joined by a Book store.

Battery life: many commentators — who show no sign of ever having used an ebook reader — seem to think that anything less than a 24 hour battery life is going to cripple any ebook reading device. This is complete nonsense. While reading a novel cover-to-cover may indeed take many hours, few people do such a thing without taking a break, if only to go to the toilet. A more realistic picture is that people read for a couple of hours a day while commuting. If reading at home, it's usually in bed, in a chair, or on a sofa — conveniently close to a power strip. Most of us are very rarely more than 6 hours from a wall socket, and if the tablet takes after the iPhone in charging over USB, an in-car adapter will do the job too. (If Apple's designers go for magsafe or an entirely new charge system this may be another matter, but I don't think they're that stupid.) More realistically, look to the battery life of the iPod Touch when playing movies or games as a guideline to what to expect.

Finally, if I'm going to ask for a pony, I'd like Apple to pursue a more enlightened policy towards folks who want to, er, compute on the computing device they just bought. The iPhone OS is locked down tight because under the hood it's a kluge; if you jailbreak it you discover to your horror that everything runs as root, and there's even a hopelessly weak root password ("alpine") on what is actually a networked UNIX box as powerful as a mid-1990s Sun workstation. I'll settle for a virtualized sandbox if inecessary, instead of a fully implemented security system — but please can I have a shell, a python interpreter, and some elbow room? (Not likely, but I can hope ...)

Here's the key insight, though: Apple have been working on this thing for years. Steve Jobs is excited enough about it to say so in the middle of a financials call focussing on the previous quarter — that's odd and unusual enough to add support to the hypothesis that Apple is getting ready to launch something that they hope will be to the Macintosh as the Mac was to the Apple II: an entirely new paradigm for personal computing — one that is network-centric, but in a rather different direction from Google's Android platform (which is Google cloud-centric instead — a subtle but important distinction). And if that isn't enough to make you sit up and pay attention, you're more jaded than I am after 30 years of computer industry watching.

The launch event is at 6pm tomorrow, 10am in California. And in case you were wondering about my new year's resolution: I've stuck to it so far, but see the small print (specifically clause 5).

I have never seen so many blog spammers show up in a seething, pullulating mass as happened within half an hour of the previous post showing up on Hacker News. Debate seems to have run its course, so without further ado I'm closing comments there. If you need to talk among yourselves, feel free to continue here.

(In other news: exhausted, so taking the weekend off. Then I've got a short story to finish and a chunk of novel-outline to write and some more research for $SEKRIT_MEDIA_PROJECT to do.)

The continual plaint in newspapers around the world is that the news media are in big trouble. Au contraire: what's in trouble is their monetization model.

In a nutshell: when you buy a newspaper with a circulation of, say, one million copies, you are not paying a cover price equal to one millionth of their production costs. Far from it — you may well be paying less than 10% of the actual cost of the newspaper. It's not hard to see why. A paper with 64 pages of news coverage and editorial contains on the order of 60,000 words of text — maybe more. Paying people to write those words costs money. Even a harried journalist, cranking 'em out by regurgitating press releases (rather than pounding the pavement, talking to people) isn't going to be producing much more than five pieces a day, running 300-1000 words. It takes twenty writers to write the content of those pages, and another half-dozen editors to ensure the typos and solecisms and potentially libelous misstatements are spotted before it hits the typesetters (again: ever tried to lay out 64 pages in a hurry?) and then the press. That's about 30-40 staff, plus management, minimum — a more realistic figure would be 200 bodies (the word rate and editorial figures I pulled out of my ass are insanely intensive). Pay £0.50 per copy per day for 330 days a year, with a 1M circulation, and the paper would only net £180M a year, before printing and distribution costs for 330 million lumps of dead tree are taken into account.

The real profit centre in newspaper publishing isn't what you, the customer, are paying for; it's advertising revenue. I haven't worked on a newspaper. I have, however, written regularly for newsstand magazines. In the USA, to take advantage of bulk printed matter shipping rates mags and newspapers were required to have at least 20% editorial/non-advertising content by page count. The other 80% is ads. My rule of thumb when I was writing for Shopper was that they were getting around five times as much revenue from the advertisers as from their paying readers: when software and computer component advertising spend went online post-1998, it was a disaster.

These days, a lot of newspapers look to cut their overheads by reducing their actual journalist and editor head-count — after all, these folks aren't contributing much to the bottom line (which is advertising sales) — and running news straight off the syndicated wire feeds.

This is the kind of move that looks sensible on a balance sheet, to a bean-counter who's wondering where the profits have gone. By axing 80% of the journalists and 50% of the editors, our hypothetical 40-person newspaper can in principle save 30 payroll entries, or on the order of £900,000 a year. But in the long term, it's insane: it's the kind of move that cuts one or two percentage points off the bottom line, but pisses off the subscribers. Subscribers are the lifeblood of a periodical; the number of subscribers directly dictates how much money the advertising sales department can charge their customers. So a spiral of decline triggered by a loss of advertising sales frequently leads to cuts elsewhere — in editorial and other content — that drives away subscribers and causes further drops in advertising revenue. And with the internet competing for advertiser's marketing budgets, that's a recipe for catastrophic decline.

There's another side-effect of the internet, though. The internet is business-model neutral; it's like the postal service, or the telephone — all it does is put suppliers in touch with consumers. The revolutionary new quality it adds is that it cuts out middlemen — if a supplier can make their existence known to a consumer, there's no need for wholesaler warehouses, distributors, and a pavement-pounding sales force.

Enter Google.

(You knew I was going to say that name sooner or later, didn't you?)

Google's revenue stream is predicated on their success as an advertising company first and foremost. Remember DoubleClick? They're part of Google.

Google's business model is to monetize all internet content by slapping advertising on it and positioning themselves as the most convenient find-everything-at-your-fingertips gateway. The more high-quality content, the better; hence the drive towards free email, digitizing books, syndicating blogs via Google Reader, and so on. If all content is available over the internet via Google, then all content is monetizable. Content producers who expect to be paid by end-users for access to their content are inevitably going to come into conflict with Google, because this restricts the number of end-users who will see the content, and hence contribute to Google's revenue stream.

We all like free content. And we all like to be able to find things conveniently on the web. But I'm increasingly having a problem with the "information wants to be free" viewpoint — because it ain't necessarily so, depending on how you define "information" and "free". Bandwidth is in the process of becoming so cheap it might as well be free, at least by the standards of the 1990s, let alone any earlier decade. Information is another matter, though. Not all information is created equal, and the cost of compiling and producing something new is disproportionately high. I write books for a living, and take roughly 6-12 months per book. If I can't earn a living at it — if you wave a hypothetical magic wand and make all information free, thereby disintegrating the publishing, music, and commercial content industries overnight — I'd probably not stop writing fiction but I'd have to do something else to earn a living, and therefore I'd have less time to write fiction, and consequently you'd have fewer of my stories to download.

This doesn't really interest Google, of course. I've occasionally wondered what I'd say if someone at Google offered to hire me to write fiction and release it under a Creative Commons license; it's an attractive proposition from my side of the table — my two goals are to earn a living, and to reach as many readers as possible. There are only about 1000 full-time genre SF/F novelists, and the same number of part-timers; Google could in principle afford to pay every novelist currently active in the English language out of the petty cash. (Except maybe JKR and PTerry. And Dan Brown.) But it ain't going to happen. Google runs on quantifiable data, and the one bit of data I can offer them is that as a data source, including all overheads, I cost on the order of one US cent per byte. Given that the crappiest spam blog is as useful to Google as the greatest virtuoso symphony performance or the Nobel prize winning novel, if it generates the same number of advertising click-throughs, they'd do just as well to spend the money on automated spambots. They've got my backlist to draw eyeballs and advertising clicks (the Google Book Settlement is a crock: by opting out of it, all I'd achieve would be to reserve the right to sue Google — that's not a realistic option from where I stand). Even if I never write another word, my existing corpus is out there and much cheaper than 5.5 cents per word. So my profitability as an advertising host is minimal. Google isn't going to save content creators from the burning wreckage of their distribution industries.

So what's left?

Far be it from me to back Rupert Murdoch's all-out threat to pick a fight with Google over the News International paywall. I think he's onto a loser — it's hugely ironic to see the mogul who used to regularly phone Arthur C. Clarke for advice about the future of media clinging to an obsolete 20th century business model. Unless he radically reverses the trend towards syndicating content off the wires and hires a buttload more journalists, and starts providing content worth paying for, his policy doesn't stand a chance of working. Worse, in picking a fight with Google he's picking a fight with those news media who don't play by his rules. The BBC has a public-service remit and arguably can't set up a paywall around their news (hence Murdoch's recent overtures to the Conservative Party in the UK, who will likely form part of the next government and who are not friendly towards the BBC). The Guardian is run by a trust and has picked as its target the goal of becoming the planet's leading left-wing news portal; ideologically and practically they're Murdoch's direct opposite. As long as Google can leverage news sources like these, the Murdoch paywall is going to have an uphill struggle.

If they're smart, News International's managers might start to roll back the damage of 30 years of complacent lard-assed journalism — hire new investigators, train them to go for the throat and chase the scandals, and start raising hell. A combination of targeted micro-news coverage and turning over rocks to see what's underneath could pay off. The Daily Telegraph started an avalanche running in the UK last year with their series of explosive revelations on the subject of MP's expenses; there hasn't been anything like it in the USA this century, as the insider-culture of the Washington beltway has captured the journalistic corps. When the press cosy up to power, the result is a culture of collusion, and both news and open and accountable government suffer.

However, I don't expect them to do that — if nothing else, it's going against a generation of entrenched newsroom practice. And hiding behind a paywall isn't a workable solution for a jobbing novelist in the age of ubiquitous online copying, because I don't have the subscriber/advertiser dynamic that a news corporation can count on to pad out the bottom line. So, what to do?

Paper books are going to be around for a long time to come, but I'm betting on the ebook cannibalizing the mass-market paperback by 2020 at the latest — which is where half the paper book revenue stream comes from. Hardcovers pay much better than paperbacks, but far fewer people are willing to pay for them. Paperbacks pay the author roughly 7-10% of the cover price of a £7 or $8 book. But the ebook shift is potentially catastrophic: ebook royalties are typically in the 15-30% range, but the cost of e-goods in general is being deflated towards the $1.99 price point by the App Store model pushed by Apple and their competitors. Amazon aren't helping either — increasing the publisher's cut sounds good, until you realize that the proposed $9.99 cap on ebooks replaces the high-end $24 hardcover. Not only does it mean less royalties for the authors, it means less money for the publishers — or, more importantly, their marketing divisions.

Here's a hint: if I wanted to spend my time marketing my books I'd have gone into marketing. I'm a writer. Every hour spent on marketing activities is an hour spent not writing. Ditto editing, proofreading, commissioning cover art, and so on. This is what I have publishers for. It's called "division of labour", and it's why self-publishing — unless you're an instinctive sales/marketing genius — is a Really Bad Idea™ for most writers.

So I'm trying to figure out what constitutes a workable business model in the post-Google age for someone who wants to earn a living by writing.

I'm not much of a public speaker — unlike Cory Doctorow I find speaking exhausting, and worse, I can't write while I'm travelling. Maybe a hybrid business model would make sense for some writers: a full range of posable action figures based on the characters in their books, backed up by a manga serial and some themed casual gameplay. But I'm not convinced that's where I want to go, either. What I really need is some kind of subscription model that makes the disintermediating depradations of Google strictly irrelevant. So this leads me to ask what new business models exist that I can monetize and that aren't going to (a) be devalued by Google, (b) undercut by infinite free bandwidth, or (c) require an old dog to learn new skills (like cat-emulation, or screenwriting)?

Some data for your analysis: traditional industry estimates suggest that there are four readers for each book sold. Many of my readers overlap, so my best guess (which is a stab in the dark) is that I have an English-language audience of around 100,000-200,000 (of whom some read one book and won't be coming back, and some will read everything I produce ... via the library). Of course, I sell far fewer books than that. I do know that 3000 of you bought "Missile Gap" for $35 — a novella that cost 50% more than an undiscounted hardback — so we can use that as an approximation for the size of my dedicated fan base. Finally, if I aim to maintain quality, I can probably average 200,000 words of fiction per year. (250-300,000 in a good year, 150,000 in a challenging year.) That averages a single 600-700 page novel, or two 300 page novels, or six novellas. And I am not in the movie/TV/comic script business at this point in time.

Suggestions on the back of a postcard blog comment, please.

This is an oldie but a goodie, and I haven't written about it before — at least, not on my blog.

I'm writing this entry sitting on a sofa and using a Macbook Air. The desktop computer in my office is also a Mac. Why?

There are several good arguments for not using Apple's computers. For one thing, they're expensive; no cheap netbooks here. If money was all there was to it, I'd stick to generic cheap PCs — and indeed, I have run PCs in the past.

I'm on the public record as being a UNIX bigot. Although Mac OS X is BSD UNIX based, these days the various flavours of Linux will turn just about any PC (except for a few portables with exotic hardware) into a decent workstation. If it was just about the UNIX experience, I'd be running Linux on commodity PCs.

The reason I choose to pay through the nose for my computers is very simple: unlike just about every other manufacturer in the business, Apple appreciate the importance of good industrial design.

Most of the major computer vendors were started by salesmen or engineering executives. Over time, marketing took over as the main driving force. Design doesn't get much of a look in edgeways — with the intermittent exception of Sony's high-end kit, most PC vendors wouldn't know good industrial design if you hit them over the head with it. Apple, however, is different.

There is a focus on industrial design at Apple that is ubiquitous in other business sectors but absent from the rest of the personal computing industry. Automobile marketing is almost entirely design- and fashion-driven these days, followed by technology in second place. The PC business isn't; what passes for design is a choice of differently-coloured injection-molded plastic cases stuffed full of badly-integrated cruft. There are wires everywhere, bad ergonomics (did I rant yet about the iniquities of far eastern keyboard designers and their contempt for the right-shift key?), and to cap it all there's Windows — a dog's dinner of an operating system — plus lashings of try-before-you-buy junkware. Sure you can get decently designed PCs, but you'll end up paying as much as you would for a Mac: and you still have to scrape the crud off them to get a halfway acceptable experience.

Worse: for the most part, PC people don't understand the value of good design. The value of good design is simple, literally: stuff that's well designed is easy to use, fit for purpose, and doesn't put obstructions in the way of you using it to get stuff done. Design, in the computing biz, is all too often confused with technology, which is something entirely different. Yes, there is a place for advanced technology: but it shouldn't be getting in your face. All too often, PC vendors market their products by over-emphasizing the technology that goes into them, rather than by making the damn things useful. And then they look down their nose at anyone who complains that this stuff is hard.

I use Macs because I appreciate good industrial design when I see it; I work sitting in an Aeron chair in front of a 1970s vintage Swedish desk, and I don't want to spend sixty hours a week sitting at that desk staring at something that looks like it was thrown together from the spare parts bin. I want an operating system descended from UNIX under the hood, because I have twenty-plus years experience of bossing UNIX systems around (and UNIX, in my opinion, exhibits a degree of basic design consistency in its userland experience that is missing from the Microsoft world). I like the Mac OS X graphical experience because it looks good, (as it should, because before it could be released it had to satisfy a fanatical design perfectionist obsessed with caligraphy). And I am sitting in front of this thing for sixty hours a week. I have better things to do with my time than nurse a balky, badly-designed system that shits itself all over my hard disk on a regular basis, or spends half its time running urgent maintenance tasks that stop me getting stuff done.

I could write while sitting on a cheap IKEA stool in front of a kitchen table, banging away on a netbook loaded with Windows XP. But after a week, my back and my wrists would hurt and I'd be bleeding from the eyeballs every time I looked at the screen. It'd be like spending sixty hours a week driving a cheap Chevrolet Shitweasel instead of a Mercedes: sure, think of the savings — but the pain will get to you in the end.

Let the average price of a laptop PC (when you add in the necessary applications) be £600, and the average price of a Macbook Pro be £1200. Amortized over a year, I'm paying about £2 a day for a decent working environment. That's the price of a cup of coffee in Starbucks. If you drive to and from your day job for an hour a day, you'd seriously consider buying a more comfortable car. A better, more comfortable computing environment costs peanuts in comparison.

One day, I hope, the entire PC industry will cotton on to the value of good industrial design and start taking it as seriously as Apple; or that those companies who don't will go bust. I'll spend less of my time answering questions from confused friends and family. Maybe it'll mean less employment for technical support staff. But for the rest of us, it'll mean more time to do the things we consider to be important.

I'm in the process of having another attack on "Rule 34", and I thought some of you might appreciate a rant about tools.

The business of writing novels is rather unlike most other office jobs in that it involves producing long — but structurally simple — text documents which may then be shared with other organizations over a period of years or decades.

Most business literature is ephemeral; even process manuals are seldom expected to last more than a double-handful of years, and the majority of files are typically dead of old age after 18 months. A novel, in contrast, may be reprinted in the distant future. You may be unsurprised to learn that I'm therefore positively allergic to Microsoft's habit of changing file formats in new and excitingly incompatible ways every year or two.

But that's not my only reason for disliking Word. It — or something capable of extruding its files, like OpenOffice — is well-nigh unavoidable if you want to work with other businesses, but it's not an ideal tool for writing books.

Word is descended from some of the earliest WYSIWYG document processors, developed in the XEROX research labs during the mid-1970s. There was some argument in those days over the best way in which to manage styled text. One model, used in non-WYSIWYG word processors such as WordStar (and document macro languages such as ΤΕΧ and nroff) is to view the text as a stream of characters, and to include codes that change the characteristics of those characters in line with them (for example, to switch text into italics, or to switch on underlining — and to switch off those characteristics). The problem with this technique is that it conflates document content with presentation. Moreover, the more formatting (presentation) mark-up you insert into a document, the less useful it becomes as online data. It's also difficult to maintain consistency within compound multi-file documents (such as books or magazines) if the authors are manually specifying things like typeface and font size and line spacing within the text. An alternate model is to therefore use a style-sheet driven formatting system, and this is how virtually all modern desktop publishing systems work.

Guess what? Microsoft Word does both (inline markup and style sheets). And it does them badly, allowing users to override paragraph styles with local inline markup (or, indeed, to drop styles on top of marked-up text).

Given my general aversion to Word, you probably won't be surprised to know that I prefer to use a programmer's text editor and a simple macro-based language for formatting text. Back in the day, I wrote several novels using: Vim as my editor (vi keystrokes are hardwired into my fingertips — I've been using it since 1989), POD macros (Perl's Plain Old Documentation format), a Makefile to generate up-to-date output formats such as RTF, PDF, and HTML from the podfiles, and rcs to track changes. (With an entire novel occupying a single file, rcs is more than adequate for the task.)

Since 2006 I've been led astray by editorial fiat (and the need to exchange documents), firstly into extensive (mis-)use of OpenOffice, and then Scrivener. Scrivener's text editing capability is not good (it basically wraps around the standard Mac OS X rich text handling library, so that it processes RTF but can't cope with style sheets), but that's not what it's for; it's a tool designed to allow a writer to mess around with the deep structure of a book, tracking and editing multiple plot threads and keep notes and cross-references that won't appear in th final generated output. (This was really, truly, a life-saver when I was working on the last two Merchant Princes books; with 19 major character threads to keep track of, marshalling everything and keeping them all on track was the hardest part of the project.) But Scrivener annoys me. Not because it's bad software — to the contrary: it's very good at what it does. But it makes for proprietary lock-in: a commercial program that runs only on OS X. Yes, if you've got an RTF editor you can dig the guts out of a Scrivener project, and it's happy to import and export data. But something in me feels a little dirty at the idea of using a non-cross platform proprietary tool. And the text editor really isn't a patch on vim.

POD is a little lacking in features and I'm trying to teach myself Python as a side-project, so I've just spent a day exporting the first 60% of "Rule 34" into reStructuredText, encountering a nasty little bug in OpenOffice 3.1 for OS X along the way (backreferences in regular expression search/replace are sometimes replaced by reference, not by value, i.e. you get "$0" inserted in your replacement text instead of whatever $0 points to). I'm going to write the rest of this sucker in vim, because when you get down to it there is only One True Text Editor, and I've got enough of a handle on the structure of "Rule 34" that I don't need the training wheels. Also: the files take up less space, are easier to mess around with by hand, and I can work on it on just about anything that's got a keyboard and an output device. When I have some spare time I'm going to poke around with git, but pointing a distributed SCCM at a novel is a bit like using an ICBM to swat a fly.

But anyway: sometimes you just don't need WYSIWYG. Sometimes WYSIWYG is a snare and a distraction. And writing a novel is one of those times.

Yes, you can stop emailing me now to tell me about the systematic hacking attacks on Google.cn that appear intended to provide agencies of the Chinese government with access to the email of dissidents. You don't even need to tell me about the US State Department response. Finally, you really don't need to remind me that there's a book out there called "Halting State" that (cough) predicted something not dissimilar (cough) to this.

Game over: "Halting State" is history.

(I just hope they haven't caught up with "Rule 34" ...)

I've been quiet lately because I've been in London, getting a life, trying not to break my neck on the icy pavements, and having a meeting with my UK editor. It's surprising how exhausting and time-consuming having a life can be, and it tends to take up moments that might otherwise have been spent blogging. (Who knew?)

There is, unsurprisingly, nothing new to report on the work front. I'm elbow-deep in the middle of "Rule 34", contemplating what I might do next — it's due to hit my editors' email inboxes no later than July — so sounding out my UK editor's opinion of various ideas is of course par for the course at this point. I will confess, however, to being slightly itchy about how little far-future/wide-screen SF I've been writing recently. I've done (and am doing) four novels in a row that are set in alternative versions of the present day (or within 15 years' time), and it looks likely that at least one of the next two books I write will be alternate-present as well. The time opera "Palimpsest" (sort of like a space opera, only with time machines) made a bid for freedom between two Merchant Princes episodes, but I managed to hold it back to novella length by writing the first third of what really wants to be a full-length book. That (and the century-later sequel to "Glasshouse") are bubbling close to the top of the stack of stuff I want to be writing — subject to the constraints of earning a living. And of course there's the possibility of revisiting the Merchant Princes universe. But at the end of the day I have to eat, and so to some extent what I write is constrained by what my publishers' marketing departments think they can sell.

Straw poll: what would you like to see me write next? (Bearing in mind that anything you vote for now will be written in 2010-2011 and won't see print before 2012 ...)

Let's see ...

We've done "Dr Who is shite". Ditto "I hate Star Trek (and all your other crappy TV shows)". I've poked the hornet's nest that is the P7[*] in SF fandom, albeit very gingerly. I've sent the space settlers' society to bed without their dinner a couple of times, railed against the Deep Greens with a side-swipe at the Conservatives and the Libertarians along the way — there's no point whacking the dead equine of Communism this decade — so who's left to persecute in the name of controversy (and higher reader ratings)?

I know. It's time to really say something controversial! And it is this:

I like Marmite and Vegemite!

Note to American readers: Marmite is what I (being a Brit) grew up with. If you brew beer on a commercial scale, when you drain the fermenting vessel you end up with a scum of dead and dying yeast cells on the side. Some time in the late 19th century, rather than treating this as waste, some nameless genius had the idea of tasting it. It turns out that brewer's yeast, once you lyse the cells by adding salt, tastes remarkably savoury — somewhat like soy sauce, only thicker (with much the same consistency as non-set honey). Marmite, the product, is mostly yeast extract, combined with salt and a few additional spices. It's what belongs on toast, or cheese, or in gravy and sauces to add body to them. And the stuff's addictive. I get through it in catering-tub quantities, alas: it's my one real high sodium vice.

Vegemite ... it's the antipodean antithesis. Invented in 1922 by Dr Cyril P. Callister in Australia, it was designed to plug the strategic gap opened by unrestricted U-boat warfare against the vital British Marmite convoys that had kept the colonies supplied during wartime — or something like that. Kraft popularized it, pushed it into military rations during the second world war, and over a decade clawed back sales from Marmite until it's now the favourite toast topping down under. The recipe differs somewhat from Marmite, as does the flavour — just enough that if you're used to one, the other tastes slightly "off" — too flat, or too astringent.

If you want to really liven up a party, pour a small jar of Marmite into the fruit punch — or add Vegemite to the dog's bowl (as long as you don't mind being asked to clean up afterwards). Hours of friendly discussion and informed debate can be provoked by discussing the relative merits of the two products! And it's always a good idea to introduce visiting American guests to what they've been missing all these years, by exhorting them to spread it on their bread "just like peanut butter".

Mind you, even if you don't like the stuff there's one thing it's good for: if you bake bread (by hand or in a bread machine), it never hurts to add a teaspoonfull of Marmite to the mix. It makes the crust slightly harder and darker, and adds a marvelous nutty malty taste to the loaf. (But remember to reduce the amount of salt you use accordingly.)

([*] The P7 are the ruling conspiracy of the age: Pale Patriarchal Plutocratic Protestant Penis People of Power.)

It's that time of year again: members of the world science fiction association (basically folks who registered as members of last year's worldcon and this coming worldcon) can now nominate works for the 2010 hugo awards. The top five entries in each category go on a final ballot, voted on by members of Aussiecon 4. (If you want the details, you can find the Hugo rules here.)

If you're eligible to nominate for the Hugos? Please do so. We need breadth; in some of the minor categories only a few dozen nominations can put a work on the shortlist. If the Hugos don't receive a lot of nominations, they're prone to capture by a few favourites with a narrow clique of supporters. (Ahem.) If you're male? Please try to find the time to read and consider nominating works by women, people of colour, non-anglophone authors, and other groups you may be unconsciously avoiding. Seriously. There's good stuff in our field being written by people who aren't white anglophone males, and they don't get the visibility and recognition they deserve in the Hugo awards. This is a shame and reflects badly on the collective taste of convention-going SF fandom. It's up to us to fix it.

(And now for a shameless informational bulletin self-promotion hidden below the fold ...)

In case you hadn't noticed, my blog — and the rest of my website — is undergoing a major facelift right now.

There are still some changes to go, and not everything is going to be re-skinned and imported into a content management system; the old Linux and Perl side of my site is, regrettably, moribund (hasn't really been updated since 2004, and isn't going to be updated now).

If you think something isn't working, leave a comment on this post. (Remember, though, that not everything is changing all at once. What I really want to know about is broken links and scrambled graphics, rather than pages that are still in the old look'n'feel.)

Oh, and a round of applause for Feòrag, who's been working on this redesign for about four months now ...



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