Sunday, 28 April 2013

Sequels, like pregnancy, are best planned...

The quickest way to succeed as an indie author these days is to write a series in a popular genre. Failing this, write consistently in one genre. (I speak as one who hasn't done either.)

I am often asked if there will be a sequel to my novels. If readers relate to your characters, naturally they want more of them. The problem is, Remix, Replica and Ice Diaries were written as stand-alone stories, and it's hellishly difficult to write a sequel you haven't planned for. We all know JK Rowling took five years to finish the first Harry Potter, as in order to write it she needed to have a good idea of what would happen in the next six volumes. This took time to work out.

Plenty of authors, after publishing a popular book, are prevailed on by readers, agents, and publishers to write a follow-up they never intended. There's also the enticement that it's the easiest way to ensure an eager readership for your next novel. And it's almost always a mistake. Here's my incomplete and arbitrary list of disappointing because unplanned sequels to brilliant novels:

  • Catriona, sequel to Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. RLS remarked in the Dedication, It is the fate of sequels to disappoint those who have waited for them, and he was not wrong. I've read it long ago, and can remember almost nothing about it, whereas I can recall every detail of Kidnapped.
  • Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, sequel to Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding, has some good bits in it, but suffers the usual problem of unplanned sequels. Having got hero and heroine satisfactorily together in Book 1, the author is obliged to split them up in Book 2 and get them together again, leaving the reader doubting this second happy ending would last. Also, to my mind, the balance of Bridget being clever and Bridget being stupid is wrong in the second book. She's too often stupid.
  • The Starlight Barking, sequel to 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, can I put this...barking. It involves all humans falling asleep at once, dogs levitating, and a visit from an extra-terrestrial dog called Sirius to rescue Earth's dogs from the possibility of nuclear war. Weird.
  • Predator's Gold, sequel to Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. In the end, he wrote a quartet of books. Mortal Engines is a ground-breaking, absorbing and surprising read, but I'd have preferred the story to end there.
Films are no different. I only like the first Back to the Future and Planet of the Apes. The exception is Terminator 2, which I think is even better than Terminator 1. 

What do you think? Nominations?

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Could Big Publishing put up a website to compete with Amazon's?

Someone on KBoards started a thread about whether readers would flee to the Big Six (actually the Big Five now we have Random Penguin) for guidance as to what to read, faced with a flood of indie offerings of mixed merit. Perhaps they might band together and create their own website to rival Amazon, selling only quality books from approved writers? KB Burke's comment was so interesting I asked his permission to quote it here:

Just some observations from a software developer ...

The big publishers haven't figured out discoverability. Their talent pool means little when readers can't find the books. Just because they put 1,000 vetted writers on a site, doesn't mean I can find the 12 that I want to read.

To do that, they need years of buying behavior. The science behind 'also boughts' is called Collective Intelligence, and making the website is 10% of the battle. Basically, you model the mass behavior of people, and then identify patterns. 16 year old guys who bought Warhammer books, also bought Halo books. If you're 16, and have bought one of these things, you might like the other. And so on. It's statistics, but you need data to build the model.

This is why Amazon bought Goodreads, for the data. If the Big Six understood software engineering they would have bought that network years ago. Websites don't sell books. Data sells books, and the big publishers don't have the data to compete. They are 10 years late to the party.

This why Amazon is always tweaking their algorithms. They get more data and adjust their models. It's no different than a presidential campaign modeling an election by 'likely voters.'

Dozens of tech companies, with big time talent, like Apple and Google and Sony, have failed to compete with Amazon. They don't have data, but they do have some of the most talented engineers in the industry. Think about that. No one in New York will have anything like Google's resources, and Google isn't hurting Amazon at all.

As far as quality goes ...

There might be 100,000 bad indie titles, with quality issues, but it is probably a bell curve. Some percentage are high quality, 5-10%, that compete with the big publishers.

This has been true since the 1930s and the beginning of pulp. There is an ocean of crap, and a small handful of standouts. Who curates that crap doesn't matter. This is why word of mouth sells books. Amazon has made significant leaps in this regard, with their algorithms, but no one else is close.

The ocean is bigger today, but the model is the same as Edgar Rice Burrows. His books sold, despite that ocean of crap.

Collective Intelligence is really why Amazon dominates the book industry. The traditional publishers have a team of editors telling me they found another Edgar Rice Burrows. They are telling me what I should read. Meanwhile Amazon is telling me what people do read. People who like Burrows have also bought x, y and z. This helps me find my tribe, so to speak.

This is the now. The automation of white collar jobs, like book curation, and it won't ever go away. New York thinks good taste can't be automated, but that's because they don't understand the science.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Agents' U-turn on self publishing

I'm sure we all remember that expression 'tsunami of crap' with reference to self-published books. Not sure where it originated, but the expression was bandied about a lot two or three years ago. An article in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Felton in July 2011 titled Cherish the Book Publishers - You'll Miss Them When They Are Gone bemoaned the fact that anyone could publish an ebook, and worse, sell it to a gullible public. 

Apparently Eric had a friend in publishing whose job it was to read the slush pile. In two years, she only found one 'marginally plausible submission' to pass on to her boss. (One does wonder how she kept her job, when she clearly wasn't any good at it.) And now, these appalling amateur books would be loosed on readers, who had hitherto enjoyed a limited selection pre-filtered by experts in publishing. It would be a disaster! Readers would be unable to cope! Good books would be drowned in a tsunami of crap!

I went to a meeting run by IPR License this week. There were two agents on the panel, Andrew Lownie and Louisa Pritchard, and both of them said that self-publishing, even for those intent on a traditional contract, was a sensible thing for an author to do. Sitting in the bus on the way home, it came to me just how enormous the changes have been in the publishing industry in the short time I've been writing. Though some don't like what they see as the new orthodoxy, and outposts of insanity like AbsoluteWrite will die rather than change their minds, among those who work in publishing there's been something of a 180 degree turn.

(I must say, I'm not at all sure about this being patted on the head by literary agents.  I rather liked being a wild free indie, an outcast from traditional publishing. Approval is not what I'm used to.)