Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Third Front—Apple Enters the Fray

There is an all out war breaking out.
Some have called it a revolution. Others a civil war. One thing is absolutely certain, the fighting is escalating and spreading. Whatever you want to call it, Amazon and Hachette have been duking it out in a very public spat over the negotiation of ebook pricing. Of course, what the real battle is for is control over the ebook market.
However, in the midst of all the name calling, sucker punching, eye gouging, spleen bruising, liver ripping, hair pulling, ear biting, crotch kicking, and bitch slapping, something happened that seems to have passed the notice of everyone distracted by the Amazon-Hachette kerfuffle.
This event might even bring the overly-public slapfest between Amazon and Hachette to a screeching halt.
A competitor has returned to the fray. A competitor that Amazon long thought they stomped to the ground with DoJ boots. And while Messieurs A & H are bouncing on trampolines and throwing stones at each other, this competitor has thrown a live hand grenade into the mix.
It will be fun to watch and see just how long it takes A & H to realize what has just happened, freeze in horror, and then start working together to figure out how to survive what is about to happen.
So? What happened?
I’ll tell you. But first I need to explain why what has happened is so important for self-published writers.
The Big-5 would love to see self-published writers go away.
Self-publishing up until just a few years ago was considered a thing of shame; that a writer’s manuscript was so bad, he had to pay someone to publish it. While wrestling with Amazon, Hachette has been kicking sand in the faces of self-publishing writers through several channels, calling them worthless hacks, amateurs who aren’t really good enough to be truly published, and other unpleasant names.
It’s all bullshit.
Right now, just a few years into the self-publishing revolution, self-publishing writers outnumber traditionally published writers on nearly every bestsellers list for works of fiction. This means for the first time in nearly six hundred years since Johannes Gutenberg created the first, viable, commercial press, the publishing industry has real competition. And the big industry publishers don’t know how to deal with it, so they are trying to discredit it.
It can’t be denied because the numbers are there to prove it: self-published writers can and are providing high quality stories for readers. And the readers themselves are choosing self-published stories to read.
Lately, the Big-5 have come to refer to themselves as “Gatekeepers.” Gatekeepers? Really? Protecting the world from bad prose? No they haven’t.
What the publishing industry has been doing is restricting the number of authors out there so they could artificially maintain higher prices through managed scarcity of new authors. Now they can’t do that because authors have discovered they can just circumvent the Big-5 filter and go ahead and publish themselves.
In fact, traditionally published authors such as Barry Eisler and H.M. Ward are beginning to leave in droves from traditional publishing and turning to self-publishing.
It’s a wild west out there, folks. A whole new gold rush. And like the 1849 and Klondike gold rushes, many will enter, few will win.
So what the hell is this incredible thing that just happened and everyone is ignoring?
Here it is:


Huh?
That’s it?!
Yup. That’s it. A tiny little company has just been acquired by Apple for the “tiny” sum of just $15M. In an age where companies like Google and Amazon have scooped up tiny startups for hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars, $15M is pretty much chump change.
The significance of this has not yet hit the self-publishing community yet. But when it does, executives at both Amazon and the Big-5 might be in dire need of clean underwear.
Here is why this is so important.
Right now, Amazon has an absolute stranglehold on the ebook market, thanks in a very large part to self-publishing writers. And in a small part, to the greed of the Big-5 who demanded on DRM for ebooks, not realizing that by doing so, they would lock customers into one platform. Locking people into one platform for reading ebooks means it is incredibly difficult and expensive for the competition to get a foothold in the market. Lack of competition puts way too much power into the hands of the few, and consumers and writers alike suffer for it.
Amazon didn’t sit back on that. They knew they had to offer more value to make their market share grow. Amazon has sunk millions of dollars into data mining to ensure that they could make good recommendations for new books to their customers.
This is vital for self-published writers!
To have your book recommended to potential readers is the lifeblood of a writer’s career. If people don’t know your book exists, they won’t ever buy it.
But more than that, readers need to know a book is good.
Every reader can tell you about books they read that they absolutely hated. For one reason or another, the reader just didn’t like the book. Readers get upset when they spend their hard-earned cash on a book, only to discover that they don’t like it.
All the retailers—Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.—all show book recommendations while you are browsing around. You’ve seen it: “People who bought this book also bought…”
But they can only judge by what is selling. Yeah, some customers leave reviews (even more vital to a writer!) for books they read. The reviews carry a little weight, but the books that get listed in these recommendations are books that are high in the bestsellers lists.
These recommendations are all based on sales numbers, not on how much the readers really liked the books. You see the recommendations only because other people who bought the book you are looking at had also bought the other books at some point or another. But it doesn’t say whether or not they liked the other books.
This is a huge problem for new and “undiscovered” authors. Especially undiscovered authors.
New titles get promoted fairly aggressively for about 30 days. Then, they get knocked off the “Newest Titles” list by the newer books coming into the store. If they were lucky, one or two of those books might get noticed right away and earn enough sales to get moved to the bestsellers lists. More often than not, they start the inevitable slide down the rankings to the point where they fall into limbo. Too low on the chart to even warrant a look for promotion.
That’s what happens to undiscovered writers. It can take up to two years before an undiscovered title finally has its moment and is found by the audience. Until then, a good book can languish in the bottom of the lists.
Both Hugh Howey and H.M. Ward tell similar tales of their books’ sluggish sales, until suddenly for some unexplained reason people began to discover their books. H.M. Ward watched her sales go from about a dozen a month at the beginning to zero per month. Then something happened. That something grew to the point where Ward sold over 4.1 million books in 2013.
There are a lot of really good books that are currently “undiscovered.” Just waiting for their moment to finally be found by an audience and start earning income for their authors.
And this is where BookLamp comes into play.
BookLamp threw out the whole model of “It’s selling a lot of copies, so it must be good” and decided to look at book recommendations from a different perspective.
Several years ago, my friend, Mark, recommended Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to me. He didn’t say, “A lot of people bought it so it must be good.”
No. He said, “I think you’ll like it.”
And you know what? I did like it. It’s a great book and I really recommend it if you like science fiction.
Mark knew I would like it, because he knew what my tastes were in reading. But the truth was, Snow Crash was a little outside my preferences in reading. Still, as Mark has known me since we were in middle school together, he knew that I would like it.
BookLamp figured out a way to model a book in order to quantify how the book reads. They look at keywords used, genre, grammar structure, style of writing, the kind of action that occurs in a book, how emotional or technical a book is. Once it has this model, it then looks for other books that have similar model scores.
It’s very deep data mining to create a heuristic model of a book’s style and uses that model to generate recommendations for a reader. Very accurately.
So, if you read books about submarines in WWII, then the book lamp system would recommend Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. (From a talk I had with my father about this system, I had him describe books he liked, and that was his comment about submarine books.)
But it goes deeper than that.
I love science fiction. So does a friend of mine. We both like Robert Heinlein’s stories. But I like his earlier, adventure stories and she prefers his later socio-political stories. Booklamp can recognize these subtle differences in our individual tastes, and recommend appropriate titles to each of us. The current way book recommendations are done would not do that.
What is so vitally important about BookLamp for self-published authors is it is no longer chained to the bestsellers lists. Therefore, it can recommend more obscure books that are in need of attention.
My book, Aggadeh Chronicles Book 1: Nobody, gets rave reviews from almost everyone who has read it on both Amazon and Goodreads. Yet it languishes as an undiscovered title at the bottom of the lists. Unless someone points you right to it, you would never see it browsing around. (You'll notice I've put up a lot of links pointing right to it. Good example.)
BookLamp, because it looks at the style of books you like, will recommend books that would otherwise have never gotten a chance to be discovered.
This is huge and vital for self-published writers like me who are struggling to get their books noticed.
This is why I feel this is much bigger news than the petty spat between Amazon and Hachette.
BookLamp is a tool that authors like myself desperately need in order to get sales of their books off the ground.
Apple needs this tool, because their current recommendation system as almost non-functional. It only lists the top twenty titles or so in any given category relative to whatever book you are looking at. All other titles are dropped into the abyss, never to be seen again.
If BookLamp works as well is it did in the lab, Apple may supplant Amazon as the goto place to find new books and titles.
It will also accelerate discovery of new titles and authors from years to months, maybe even weeks.
Amazon just launched Kindle Unlimited, which they tout as a way to accelerate discovery. Kindle Unlimited requires authors to sign an exclusive in order to be included in the program. Many have, with some misgivings, many others resist. Still, it favors the already popular over the new and upcoming and undiscovered.
Apple with BookLamp may have just torpedoed any incentive Amazon could offer undiscovered writers such as myself because BookLamp will make excellent, targeted recommendations based on what readers like without relying too much on how well it is already selling.
That means, I have a chance.
Perhaps writers may start flocking to Apple’s iBookstore instead of Amazon’s Kindle Select and Unlimited programs. 
And maybe, Apple has just opened up the self-published ebook market a little wider.