Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dumbing Down

I first published this blog on Writers Who Kill (1/18/15). That blog attracts mostly writers who were generally appalled that I sold out as I had. The My Two Cents Worth blog has a wider audience, and I'll be interested what the reaction is.
I recently sent my current WIP Ant Farm to beta readers. I wanted to know if they had any problems with the manuscript. I received a number of insightful comments and suggestions.

Fortunately none of them caused a major rewrite, but two of my readers commented unfavorably about my word choices. A reader of my earlier books had also noted that she needed to use the dictionary more on my mysteries than any of the literature she normally read.

They were telling me that my vocabulary was too complex.

My reading friends are of above average intelligence and understood many of the words they questioned. Their point was that to appeal to a large audience, I should keep my books at the seventh grade reading level.

I do not have a particularly large vocabulary as such things go. In high school my class schedule for all four years had me taking English in first period. That meant I memorized the vocabulary words during homeroom, aced the tests, which were the first activity of the class, and then promptly forgot the definitions. The result of that short-term solution to learning vocabulary was evident in my preliminary SAT exam English score, which was not up to my standards. I spent the next year actually learning a bit of vocabulary and raised my verbal SAT from the 75th percentile to the 95th. I have since forgotten most of those words.

Apparently a few stuck, including these highfalutin word choices from the beta version of Ant Farm:

Cacophony, affect, prevaricate, gawp, suss out, Circean, macadam, tympani, arpeggio, conflated, cockup (English slang), penurious, Mesozoic, epigram, dendrite, diurnal, malapropism, victuals, incipient, peregrine, coterie, and puerile.

Most of these words have close enough synonyms that I could make easy substitutions. To remove others required me to do a bit of sentence reworking. A few words I left in. For example, I have a character whose essential being is to use phrases like “penurious skeezicks.” I now have another character define the term.

This paucity of vocabulary by ordinary readers was not always so. Tomorrow is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Here are a few words he used in his works (taken from ):

Abase, abstruse, AEgipans, aigrette, apothegm, appetency, asphaltum, asseveration, athwart, avoirdupois, axiom

Those are just the “A” words.

Latin was required at my grandfather’s high school. He proclaimed those classes were the most useful ones he took. Knowing Latin roots and a spattering of Greek ones, he could figure out the meaning of most words. He did not graduate from college, but he would routinely correctly answer at least 90% of the monthly Reader’s Digest “Word Power” quiz.

Now, even though most of my readers are college graduates, I must temper my vocabulary. Steven King in his On Writing suggests that vocabulary is the top shelf of a writer’s toolbox. He stuck grammar on the same shelf, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

King says “the first rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

Therein lies my problem: each of my highfalutin words was my first choice. I didn’t use “lie” in draft one and gussy it up to “prevaricate” in draft two. Nope, prevaricate is what I wrote from the get-go and that’s no lie.

As I was thinking about my problems with obscure vocabulary, I had a brief moment of relief (I wrote “respite,” but changed it to “moment of relief,” because of, you know, what I’m hearing about my word choices). Most e-readers have built in dictionaries that allow you to hold your finger over a word to automatically generate a pop-up with the definition.

My relief was short lived. I am the kind of guy who schleps to his Funk and Wagnalls’ 1600+-page dictionary to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word and check its etymology, but we live in a world where instant gratification is the norm. Most of my readers do not have the same interest as I do in words and do not want to stop reading to learn something.

All of which explains why “cacophony” became “noisy” and I replaced “speaking with a flat affect” with some other set of words that indicate a lack of tonal expression. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote; I’ve blocked it out.

On this issue of vocabulary, I’ve sold out, I have. I’m okay with that. I’ll still get to use my twenty-five cent words in my first drafts, but from now on, I’ll start modifying them in the second draft.

~ Jim

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Effect of Amazon’s Subscription Service

Kindle Unlimited (KU) has interesting features for readers and authors. To summarize the basics of their subscription service:

As a reader you have unlimited access to download and read (but not keep) any of their listed books (~700,000 available) for $9.99 per month.

Amazon pays authors an unspecified amount each time a KU subscriber selects (and at least partially reads) one of their books.

Which Readers Will Choose KU?

Which readers will utilize this service? After the thirty-day free trial, only readers who expect to obtain greater value by purchasing the KU service than the $9.99 cost will continue in the program. That only makes sense. If the average Kindle book available for KU retails for $2.99, it only takes four books a month to be ahead of the game. Of course, if you select books listed for $0.99, it requires ten per month to be worthwhile.

Ah, but national bestsellers often cost more than $10.00. Just a single one would make it a valuable program. Problem: the big five publishers have chosen (correctly, from their standpoint) to withhold most of their titles from KU.

Regardless, let’s assume Ms. Reader pays Amazon her $9.99; how is her behavior likely to change?

(1) Any book not in KU has an added cost; any book in KU is free for the month. All other things equal, Ms. Reader chooses books in KU.

Author implication: Those who choose KU are less likely to buy books not part of KU.

(2) All things equal, we all like a bargain. That suggests Ms. Reader will choose more expensive books. She’ll “save” more. Free books are no longer as attractive—all KU books are the same “free.”
Author implication: The cachet of “free books,” already diminished in value by the sheer volume of available books and the large percentage of free books that are not worth reading because of inadequate editing and poor formatting, will further decrease. Why read a free book when I can read one that costs $2.99? Why try a new author when I can read all the backlist of an author I know and like?

Authors will need to evaluate whether maintaining the first in their series as a “perma-free” book is still the best strategy. Will it be better to price that book at (say) $2.99, but periodically have advertised promotions to provide free books to those not participating in KU?

Amazon’s Author Payment Mechanism

Amazon pays authors for loans from KU from a pool it sets up. What is the size of the pool? Here’s a quote from Amazon’s Q&A: 

We review the size of the KDP Select Global Fund each month, in order to make it compelling for authors to enroll their books in KDP Select.

I read this statement as “We’ll find the lowest possible payment that keeps authors in the program.” Each author receives a proportionate share of the fund based on loans of their books once the reader has completed 10% of the book (first time only). I know Amazon supporters will consider that a jaded statement. The proof will ultimately be in what happens to the level of per loan payment after Amazon has fully marketed the KU program.

Author implication: The Amazon formula does not consider book price; therefore, on relatively high-priced books the author will lose money compared to an equivalent sale. For lower-priced books the opposite is true. Of course, that assumes a book loaned through KU has reduced books sold one-for-one. Early anecdotal evidence was that more books were loaned than were lost in sales. More recent anecdotal evidence is that total author income has decreased.

Bonuses for Top-selling Authors

Amazon also pays top-selling KU authors a bonus. Whether Amazon pays the bonus out of a separate fund or the same “global fund” is immaterial. Money is fungible and Amazon is the only one who decides the size of the global fund, so it is only a question of pulling the money from their right pocket or left pocket.

In business a useful rule of thumb is the “80/20” rule. For example, many businesses find that 80% of profits arise from 20% of their customers. I am guessing Amazon finds that roughly 20% of its authors account for roughly 80% of revenue. Keeping these 20% happy is much more important than keeping the folks who sell a few books a month.

The bonus program is a way to entice those authors into the program.
Author implication: Two major decisions an author must make are traditional publishing or indie publishing, and if indie publishing, whether or not to go exclusive with Amazon for ebooks. (I can see no compelling reason to be exclusive with any other retailer; Amazon has approximately 70% ebook market share.)

Since the bonus program is determined monthly, the group of “hot” authors will rotate. However, it will always favor those with large lists in the KU program over newer authors with a small number of titles.

Writing more and faster is a winning strategy for authors if they can keep the quality of their product high.

Other Predicted Effects on the Publishing Market

Assuming Amazon can retain popular indie authors for KU, I anticipate more readers will decide $120 a year is a good deal even if books by the major publishers are not available. The three most popular genres for ebooks are Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, and Science fiction/Fantasy.
Younger adults are accustomed to subscription services for audio and video, and also more accepting of new technologies. This combination makes them receptive to subscription services for ebooks. I expect people who heavily read indie published authors will rapidly gravitate to the subscription service.

Readers will join a subscription service for only three reasons: (1) it is the only way to receive the goods (not applicable for books) or (2) it saves them money or (3) the convenience is worth the extra cost. Amazon has made it so easy to download an ebook onto a Kindle or app, there is very little additional convenience to be had. Therefore, Amazon’s subscription service will survive because it saves customers money.

If readers are saving money, it means authors will earn less.

This may not happen immediately; Amazon has shown that it is willing to invest to gain market share before reaping profits. But Amazon did not introduce KU to lose money long term. By the end of 2015, I predict those who exclusively rely upon Amazon will earn less than they would have before the introduction to KU.

That said, it does not mean those authors will be economically better off leaving Amazon’s exclusive products in order to sell across multiple platforms. Remaining solely under Amazon’s banner with its additional benefits may still be the best decision, but by the end of 2015 significantly more of the publication profits will flow to Amazon than to the author.

~ Jim

[This blog originally published on Writers Who Kill 1/2/2015]

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Goals: 2014 Results & 2015 Plans

Let me wish all my readers a spectacularly positive 2015.

I am looking forward to a great year. You may recall from previous blogs and Facebook posts that I used the potential of embarrassing myself as motivation to obtain two of my 2014 goals. I wanted to lose and keep off twelve pounds, and I wanted to maintain a certain level of exercise through the year.

Weight – Mission Accomplished

The chart demonstrates that when I put my mind to it, I can lose weight, although I struggled while we were on the road. By the end of September, I wanted to maintain the fifteen pounds I had lost and so set that as a revised goal for the remainder of the year.

Exercise – Mission Mostly Accomplished

I had set an objective of earning at least 250 “Cooper Aerobic Points” each month. That I did not do. I found it easy to blow off exercise while we were on the road in May, June and July. The good news is that while not consistent, I did average 255 monthly points during the year.

The longer picture

Because I inherited my love of data-retention from my father, I can show 2014 as part of a longer perspective. The picture below suggests my 2015 weight goal.

This chart (looking a lot like the Himalayans) shows the up-down cycle of my weight since the middle of 1989. Long flat stretches on the graph do not mean I enjoyed amazingly stable weight during the period; they indicate I was not weighing myself.

For the entire period, my average weight was 191.4 (red line). The green line shows a running ten-year average weight, currently sitting at 194.2. For 2014 I averaged 186.8.

All of which is to say that my biggest problem with weight is not the ability to lose it, but once lost to keep it off.

My objective for 2015 is to avoid a weight gain. I have not averaged less than 180 pounds for a calendar year since 1994. I have set as the 2015 weight goal to average at most 179 pounds. Would I like to average less than that? Absolutely. The main task, however, is to avoid the bungee cord rise that has followed previous weight losses.

My exercise statistics since I retired do not exactly look robust. If I continue my goal of 250 aerobic points a month, I will be well ahead of the average year. Before I went back to the data and put this chart together, I planned to increase the goal to 300 points a month. Looking at my history, I’ll be fine at the 250 level and much less likely to injure myself.

I will post results periodically during 2015. If things are going well, I’ll bore you quarterly. If they aren’t going well, I’ll fess up monthly.

~ Jim