Back to the Audience

As an author, you think about your audience. Your “dear reader.” Or at least you should. Even if it’s only your inner audience. After all, there’s a reason you’re committing all those words to the page. A message, perhaps?

But getting your work published adds another dimension or two, enough so that you start to think perhaps the publisher is your audience. I say this from the perspective of someone for whom it took eight years from inception to publication. Twenty rejection slips. A complete rewrite of the entire work. The publisher held the keys to the kingdom and was, in a very real way, an arbiter between the author and her audience.

The rise of the internet and eBooks is supposed to change all that. Chris Meadows over at TeleRead takes it as a given that writers whose books the Big Six won’t take can sell directly to customers via Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble. The counter-thought, here from publisher Teresa Nielsen Hayden, is even more provocative:

Stated axiomatically: If you’ve written a book that people want to buy and read, you stand an excellent chance of getting it published by a real commercial publisher. If you haven’t, no clever workaround publishing scheme is going to help, because there’s no way to force readers to buy and read books they don’t want.

The backdrop here is whether or not publishers — traditional publishers — really care about “dear reader.” The accusation, which some in the industry (like Brett Sandusky) are taking seriously, is that publishers are not as customer-focused at they should be. If not, the argument goes, the customer is being underserved. This creates an opening for others. Are independent publishers more attuned to customers? Will they take over while the giants fail? Is Amazon poised to play a similar role?

The critical question is whether traditional publishers still hold the keys to the kingdom. Or even matter.

Certainly the pressure is being felt on all sides. Publishers are getting hit over agency agreements, which drive up prices. Authors are finding their work potentially highjacked by Amazon, which is pushing wholesale pricing at a cost to author royalties. Some customers are having second thoughts about eBooks themselves (though eBook sales are up 202%).

The tragic thing is what’s being lost in this conversation. All the forgoing “pressure” is focused on customers and the bottom line. Consumers want cheaper books. Authors want higher royalties. Publishers want profits.

But there is an older relationship that, I think, is more important. As an author, writing for your audience is paramount. They are more than mere customers. They’re your first duty. If you just write for the money, you’re a hack. Let me repeat. A hack. Good publishers — great publishers — recognize and support these obligations. And find writers whose work deserves a wider audience because it actually has something to say.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden puts it better than I: “Being focused on readers and their reactions is a marker for people who work in the commercial publishing industry. Reader-fixation is water, and [they spend] decades being a professional fish.”

Is the model that Hayden defends the only way? Heavens no. The internet is there, eBooks aren’t going away. But you better write the best book you can.

Tablet Update: iPad, Kindle Fire, Win 8

I care a lot about the tablet category because, quite selfishly, I see them (and eBooks) as a way out of the book sales doldrums. According to the Association of American Publishers, eBooks sales grew by 202% in the past year, while the Trade Category declined by 34%. It ain’t rocket surgery to figure out which way the wind is blowing.

So it is with great interest that I find not one but two reports out today, one about tablet sales, the other about tablet projections. Two very different reports, one with a consumer focus, the other with a business focus. Maybe not so different…

THE FIRST is from Amazon, continuing their positive reports for Kindle sales through the holidays. Amazon are typically cagey in their report, saying only that “customers purchased well over 1 million Kindle devices per week.” Those numbers are being helpfully interpreted as 4 million Kindle units in December, most of them the new Fire, according to Casey Johnston at Arstechnica. That projects to about 6 million units sold since the new Kindle Fire became available in mid-November.

By contrast, Apple is projected to sell 13 million iPads through the last quarter of 2011, according to JP Morgan analyst Mark Moskowitz, in a note that adjusted iPad numbers down from 13.3 million because of strong Kindle sales.

THE SECOND report comes from market research firm NPD. They’ve had some dodgy reports in the recent past, including one that excluded iPad sales from its research estimates. Ok, bygones be bygones. Whatever. NPD are reporting now on tablet purchase considerations in the business sector over the next 12 months. Their findings?

Nearly 75% of U.S. small and medium businesses (SMB) plan to purchase tablets over the next twelve months. That number goes higher as business size grows; among larger firms, 89 percent plan to purchase new tablets in the next 12 months. Average spend ranges from a high of $39K to a low of $2K (the latter firms with under 50 employees). Most of those tablets will be the iPad.

“Businesses of all sizes appear to be determined to capitalize on the tablet phenomenon,” said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD. “The iPad, just as it is in the consumer market, is synonymous for ‘Tablet’ in the business market, leaving Apple poised to take advantage of the increased spending intentions of these SMBs. NPD’s research shows that iPad purchase preference is higher among larger firms than smaller ones, which is an important indicator that Apple is gaining traction far outside its typical consumer space.”

Given the “consumerization of IT,” we also expect a fair number of tablets to enter the business market through the hands of employees. We’ve seen it before. Which leaves us with a few questions.

  • Will the Kindle Fire Go Enterprise?
  • Too soon to tell, but if past is prologue, one will see employees bringing their Fire to work. The biggest near-term hurdle for the Fire is its lack of cellular (3G-4G) support, which in the past has enabled employees to get around corporate WiFi restrictions.
  • What about Windows 8 Tablets?
  • At least one analyst, Bernstein Research, is bullish on Windows 8 tablets. According to Todd Bishop, Bernstein believes Windows 8 tablets to be most attractive to business users, in part due to compatibility with existing line-of-business apps.
  • It’s not the big market chunk that the consumer opportunity represents, but it should give Microsoft a toe-hold where other competitors (Android, anyone?) have struggled failed. I am less optimistic that these tablets will come through the employee back door, however. I am predicting it’s an IT purchase all the way.

We shall see.

We Are the 10%

We have been called “sinister.” We have been called gauche. Conservatives can hardly say our names without an undertone of derision and disgust. Yes, we are the “lefties,” the “southpaws,” the “goofy” ones coming at you from out in left-field. We are the communists who smoke left-handed cigarettes. Sure, it’s a clever language construction to say, “lefty loosey, righty tightie.” Please, tell us how you really feel!

In Chinese culture, the adjective “left” sometimes means “improper” or “out of accord”. For instance, the phrase “left path” stands for unorthodox or immoral means.

In Portuguese, “direito” (right) stands for the doing something correctly as well as for Law School. The expression “acordar com o pé direito” (waking up on your right foot) means that the person woke up in a good mood, while “acordar com o pé esquerdo” (waking up on your left foot) means waking up in a bad mood.

In Hebrew, as well as in other ancient Semitic and Mesopotamian languages, the term “left” was a symbol of power or custody. The left hand symbolized the power to shame society, and was used as a metaphor for misfortune, natural evil, or punishment from the gods. This metaphor survived ancient culture and was integrated into mainstream Christianity by early Catholic theologians.

When it is said that a person has slept on his left side in the Akan language of Ghana, it means the person is dead… The use of the left hand is however encouraged in handling unsanitary items such as a chamber pot and excreta.

Yep. Please use your left hand to wipe your ass. If you mess up, some societies will punish you by cutting off your right hand. See what people think of you then, buster. All you’ve got now is your ass-wipe hand.

Nigerian amputee

Even simple, everyday things seem designed to vex us. Take scissors. Please, take them. And while you’re at it, take the rifles, the cameras, the can openers, the watches, the measuring cups, the fishing reels… And most power tools (is that how I lost my right hand?). Well, the list is really too long to contemplate.

The worst humiliation, though, is when right-handed scientists try to explain left-handed people. And we know it’s them. We just know it. Bad enough that right-handers forced many a lefty into right-handedness. Like they did with serial killer Robert Hansen [1]. But some of the explanations are… What? From out in left-field?

Like the one that suggests lefties were originally part of an identical twin pair (“All of me?“). Or that there is a gene for left-handedness that is also associated with schizophrenia. Never mind that schizophrenia is a complex and heterogenous disorder. Never mind that a recent study shows no support for the notion that non-righthanded-people are more likely to develop the disorder. Some things just go together.

But the riddle of what underlies handedness remains. Its proportions — roughly 90 percent of people are right-handed and 10 percent left-handed — stay consistent over time.

“This is really still mysterious,” said Clyde Francks, a geneticist and the lead author of a 2007 study in which Oxford University researchers identified a genetic variant linked to left-handedness.

Hand dominance (whether left or right) is related to brain asymmetry. And that, Dr. Francks said, “is not at all understood; we’re really at the very beginning of understanding what makes the brain asymmetrical.”

So there you have it. You don’t understand us. But, believe me. We understand you. We are the 10%. Uh… do we have a press agent yet?

[1] Hey, it’s not all bad. We’ve got a few important baseball players. Several U.S. Presidents. Bill Gates. Leonardo da Vinci. Marie Curie. Jimi Hendrix. And, of course, Ned Flanders.

eBook Pricing

Dan Gillmor recently pinned a piece for The Guardian (UK), in which he describes the “great ebook price swindle.” The article struck a chord with me, because I am wondering about the best price for an ebook version of “Butcher, Baker.”

Gillmor’s argument is that (greedy) publishers have adopted the agency model and, in the process, driven up prices of ebooks to the point where they are equal to, and occasionally higher, than the hardcover version. I have written elsewhere that publishing is a three-legged stool — and that the author deals Amazon is offering are less than stellar. Most commentators (including Gillmor) conveniently ignore the author. Indeed, Gillmor makes an argument that I’ve rejected in the past, namely that the current ebook pricing model is solely anti-consumer. But he says one thing that gives me pause:

When new ebooks were $10, I was buying them all the time. In almost all cases, book purchases are impulse buys – something you want to have, right now. I was buying new best-sellers at a rapid rate, and happy to do so… No more. I still buy some e-books, but only at lower prices.

You know, as much as I hate ridiculous royalties, I have no interest in driving buyers away. So here’s what I’m looking at…

The paperback version of “Butcher, Baker” has been selling at anywhere from $8.99 to $25.00. The latter seems too high (and I think I know why that’s happening, BTW. Greedy publisher). The former seems like a bare minimum. And, of course, I know what I’m up against… According to a 2007 study, one in four Americans read no books in the previous year. The Trade Categories (hardcover, paperback and mass market) were down 34.4% from February 2010 from February 2011.

Dan Gillmor speaks to the “impulse buy” in ebook land. I think that’s where I’m headed. After all, “Butcher, Baker” is smack in his comfort zone.

The books I bought this way tended to be mysteries and thrillers – the kind of book purchases I treated like movie tickets, to be read or seen once and then put aside.

So Many Choices, So Little Time

BlackBerry phone maker RIM have taken a lot of heat lately as their market share, and share price, tumble. In RIM’s home country of Canada, some are even asking if RIM’s best years are behind it. Now we have a piece from Ian Austin, of the New York Times, about BlackBerry’s overwhelming lineup of phones. The sense is that having so many choices on offer hasn’t helped RIM one bit. Even RIM seems confused:

Features have proliferated on BlackBerrys as part of RIM’s move to the broader consumer market, and so have the number of models. Since 2007, RIM has introduced 37 models. The company, in a statement, said it did not know how many models were on the market.

RIM. Does. Not. Know. How. Many. Models. Are. On. The. Market.

Wow.

Of course, the proliferation of choice problem has been studied and analyzed for quite some time now. Barry Schwartz wrote a landmark book on the topic, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less,” back in 2003. He also has a great TED talk on the subject (recommended). The upshot: when humans are faced with too many choices, they decide not to decide. Marketing prof Simona Botti informs us that too many choices can be frightening — and that people forced to make such choices are less satisfied than customers who have limited choice. In a consumer shopping study, meanwhile, Sheena Iyengar found that the reduction of choice actually leads to increased product sales.

What we found was that of the people who stopped when there were 24 different flavors of jam out on display, only 3% of them actually bought a jar of jam, whereas of the people who stopped when there were 6 different flavors of jam, 30% of them actually bought a jar of jam. So, if you do the math, people were actually 6 times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they had encountered 6 than if they encountered 24.

There you have it. Too much of a good thing is almost nothing at all. What’s really scary about the BlackBerry story, though, is what it says about RIM. They have methodically frightened themselves into utter stupidity. If they don’t know what they have on offer, how in hell are we supposed to?

Game over.

Diving for Stolen Weapons

This story has been embargoed for awhile, because at the time I encountered it, the crime was still in the early stages of investigation. And then I forgot about it. Well, shame on me. But at least now I can share some clips.

On September 18, 2011, 38 firearms were stolen from the Three Bears store in Wasilla, Alaska. The thieves apparently tried to ditch some of the stolen weapons in Finger Lake, near Wasilla, Alaska. My big adventure, however, was accompanying the Mat-Su Water Rescue Team in their effort to recover those very same weapons.

As you can tell, the surrounding area is Alaska-beautiful. And the water was… very, very cold. Worse yet, the bottom of the lake is heavily silted and soft, so finding weapons in the muck was a real chore. The dive team had to stay near the surface, for fear of stirring up the bottom and taking visibility to zero. They did an awesome job.

Snorkeling for Stolen Weapons: Finger Lake, AK
Finger Lake handgun recovery

Using Boat: Finger Lake, AK
Finger Lake handgun recovery

Overview: Finger Lake, AK
Finger Lake handgun recovery

Kindle Fire: By the Numbers

The Kindle Fire is emerging as a certified hit for the holiday season. With a few lumps of coal thrown in for good measure. Here’s a look at the Kindle Fire, by the numbers.

No big surprise on the last one, except that Android is continually positioned as an “open” platform. Which implies that Kindle Fire users should also be able to get to the Google Android Market. They can’t. I guess that’s what “forked” means.

That Awkward End of Year Award

End of year awards are a long-running tradition within the news media. Writers and editors pick top stories or top people or top events and then rank them on a Ten-Point scale. That way, we can look back and realize what was really important to us. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is perhaps the most famous of the bunch (this year it went to The Protester).

Two recent examples of this end-of-year phenomenon really have me scratching my head, though.

The first is the Associated Press (AP) naming the Penn State child sex abuse case the Sports Story of the Year. Sports. Story. In case the AP wasn’t looking, Sara Ganim is a crime reporter (she’s the one who broke the story for the Patriot-News). Crime. Reporter. Sure, the story rocked the Penn State football program. And all the sports outlets have piled on. But it’s a crime story that could have just as easily focused on the Second Mile Charity.

[As a crime story, the Penn State child sex abuse story ranked 6th on the AP list of Top News Stories — Bin Laden’s death was ranked 1st.]

Awkward Meter: At its core, the Penn State child sex abuse case is about crime and pedophilia. The AP got it half right, which is better than whiffing it entirely, but awkward nonetheless.

The second example is The Patriot-News naming of Sandusky Victim One as the Newsmaker of the Year. The Patriot-News selection starts off on all the right notes:

For years, he harbored a dark secret, allegations so shocking they would crumble the cornerstones of a community and would ultimately lead to the fall of individuals who collectively were some of the most powerful men in Pennsylvania.

After that, the story gets progressively harder to read. Not because it is poorly written. Not because it speaks to courage with nobility. Not because the sentiments are anything less than genuine or well-deserved. But one word, one very necessary word, creeps into the text and, to my mind, progressively undermines the message [emphasis added]:

It can be no simple thing to open your soul, to bear witness to alleged actions so horrible, so shocking that they have shaken the foundations of our shared beliefs.

Sandusky was the teen’s mentor, a giant of a man in the community in which Victim One was raised. The man’s actions — to tell authorities about years of alleged abuse — took conviction and, above all, courage…

In a way, Victim One represents each of Sandusky’s alleged victims, and epitomizes their individual stories.

Alleged. Yes, of course, it’s a necessary adjective. The case is only just starting to wind its way through the courts. Alleged. Yes, of course, the victim’s courage will be no less if Jerry Sandusky is somehow, miraculously, acquitted. Alleged.

Awkward Meter: It doesn’t get more awkward than this:

For his strength, his bravery and his conviction, we name him, the anonymous Victim One, The Patriot-News’ Newsmaker of the Year. Not just for who he is, but for whom he represents — a group of anonymous men, allegedly victimized by a man once thought to embody the best in us all.

The Frozen Ground: Vids

Today we’re sharing video clips from “The Frozen Ground,” the film based on the crimes of Robert Hansen, first written about in “Butcher, Baker” (1991). The film is currently in post-production for a December 2012 release. There’s not a lot to share, so we’ve been waiting till we have critical mass. We may have to keep waiting but here’s what we found.

Geoff Oliver shares his take on the Frozen Ground filming in Anchorage, Alaska. This one is a lot of fun. I love that precious moment at 0:03, when Geoff temporarily spaces on the film’s title.

Frozen Ground Aerial Site Prep. This video captures the look and feel of Hansen’s Knik River killing ground, with shots of a small plane doing touch & go’s along the sandbars. With Mike Kincaid and Jeff Babcock.

Anchorage Transformed for Frozen Ground Movie (Channel 11, CBS News, Anchorage).

Vanessa Hudgens talks about Frozen Ground. Vanessa plays escaped victim Cindy Paulson, the young prostitute who got away and led to Hansen’s arrest. At 1:21, Vanessa talks about getting personal coaching from Cindy Paulson. We just hope Cindy tells her that chewing gum is not a recommended practice in the sex trade.

More Vanessa news on Frozen Ground shoot here (old, old stuff).

And hey, this is Hollywood, so everybody can get in on the act, right? Here’s an UNOFFICIAL teaser trailer for Frozen Ground. I guess it’s a pitch for doing the score. I like it because, hey, his description sounds a lot like Butcher, Baker.

Keeping Things in Perspective

CNN recently published a “Roundup” of sex abuse allegations. They covered not only Penn State, but Syracuse, The Citadel and Oklahoma universities as well as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Though all the charges have not been detailed, most of the allegations involve male sexual abuse of boys or young men. (We’re still not sure where the Oklahoma charges will land in this respect.)

The CDC’s just-released survey, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, shines a spotlight on the entirety of sexual abuse in the United States. It’s a sobering study with unsettling findings.

  • Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives.
  • Most female victims of completed rape (79.6%) experienced their first rape before the age of 25; 42.2% experienced their first completed rape before the age of 18 years.
  • More than one-quarter of male victims of completed rape (27.8%) experienced their first rape when they were 10 years of age or younger.
  • More than one-third (35.2%) of the women who reported a completed rape before the age of 18 also experienced a completed rape as an adult. The percentage of women who were raped as children or adolescents and also raped as adults was more than two times higher than the percentage among women without an early rape history.

As revolting as the university rape scandals are, the CDC study puts them into much-needed perspective.

FIRST, women continue to be raped at a higher rate than men. There is very little in the current media coverage that would give that impression. Perhaps it’s that the outrage is greater; not just that it’s male-male rape, but that the victims tend to be younger. Whatever. Females are as much as 13 times more likely to be raped than males.

SECOND, there is some indication that male rape may be under-reported. The CDC study notes that “Too few men reported rape victimization in adulthood to examine rape victimization as a minor and subsequent rape victimization in adulthood.” [p. 26] The lower rate of reporting may well be attributed to stigma as well as a lower rate of incidence; we routinely see victim reporting increase after allegations are made public.

THIRD, the impacts of sexual assault reach far beyond the incident itself. Men and women who experienced rape or stalking by any perpetrator or physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime were more likely to report frequent headaches, chronic pain, difficulty with sleeping, activity limitations, poor physical health and poor mental health than men and women who did not experience these forms of violence.

If there is one critical takeaway from Butcher, Baker, it’s that the chronic victimization of women tends to dull the responsiveness of key institutions. That is doubly so when the women involved happen to be topless dancers or prostitutes. The good news here is that a spotlight is now shining on the sexual violence against young men and boys. Thanks to the CDC, that light now shines across the entire landscape.

As the study concludes, “Sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence can be prevented with data-driven, collaborative action.” The CDC has some data to back up that optimism.

We just hope they’re right.