Archive for July, 2014

74%

Posted by on July 31st, 2014

The latest missile in the ongoing Amazon/Hachette dispute: Amazon have posted a blog giving the clearest insight yet into the nature of the negotiations. It’s worth reading all of it, and possibly some of the reactions (which aren’t hard to find). It clarifies certain things, while leaving others out, but I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of it in this post.

“It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.”

For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. That’s a fairly unequivocal statement, isn’t it? But firstly, despite the confidence of the assertion, I wonder how accurate it can really be. After all, publishing a book is an experiment without a control; you can’t go back in time and reprice it during that busy first month to see what might have been. Overall, 9.99 books might outsell 14.99 books 1.74 copies to 1. If they were mops or toasters then it would be reasonable to extrapolate from that – because mops and toasters are fairly interchangable items and the demand for them probably doesn’t fluctuate much over time – but I’m not convinced books are the same.

It reminds me a little of the pro-self-publishing argument that, had you self-published, you would have made x% more money, which is a flawed argument as it assumes you would have had the same sales numbers. This seems a similar attempt to re-run history changing only one variable, and I can’t really imagine how it can be supported.

But then, I don’t have a background in statistics, or access to Amazon’s extensive data and algorithms. For now, let’s assume it’s simply and literally true that a book priced at 9.99 sells 1.74 the number of copies of the same book priced at 14.99. If so, then as Amazon asserts in its post, the revenue is impacted accordingly. A book that sells 100k copies at 14.99 generates 1,499,000. Sold at 9.99 instead, it would generate 1,738,260, an increase in revenue of roughly 16%. Everybody – the consumer, the retailer, the publisher – appears to win. Fat bank! Big pie! Tuck in! Etc.

So 9.99 is the winner then? Hooray! Except, wait, please, hold those horses; put down those knives and forks. Because as others have pointed out, there are only two price points being compared here. What about other prices? In comparison to 14.99, we now know that 9.99 sells 74% more copies, resulting in a 16% increase in revenue. To get that same 16% increase at 10.99, 11.99, 12.99 and 13.99 we would need, respectively, an increase in copies sold of roughly 58%, 45%, 34% and 24%. Do those increases occur at those reduced prices? Only Amazon knows, and they haven’t said. But we can’t realistically decide whether 9.99 is the optimum balance of price, volume and revenue – the sweet spot, if you like, of supply and demand – without that additional data. Taken at face value, all we know is that 9.99 is better than 14.99, not that it is best.

But let’s say it is the best. Amazon’s data is drawn from a world where some books are sold at 9.99 and some at 14.99, while others are priced lower or higher still, and conclusions from that world obviously don’t map neatly onto a world where all books are suddenly being sold at 9.99. But let’s enter that world. Let’s imagine all those repriced books really are seeing an increase of 74% in sales. And let’s try to explain how the fuck that could actually happen.

Reason Number One: More Books Sold!

It’s simply people buying more books than they used to. Instead of 50 million books being sold in a year, or whatever, it’s now 75 million, or whatever. What a joyous thought! There’d be a 74% increase in bunting sales that year too. And bridges. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced it’s entirely realistic. Cheaper ebooks have no doubt contributed to some tottering digital to-be-read piles, but there’s no buffet so long that the table doesn’t end. People only have so much time. I imagine ebooks will continue to expand the market, but not quite to this extent. You may believe otherwise, which is obviously fine.

Reason Number Two: Different Books Sold!

People see bestselling traditionally published authors at 9.99 and buy those books instead of the cheaper- or same-priced book they would previously have bought by a lesser known author. In this view, the market doesn’t massively expand, more rearranges itself internally. The 74% increase in sales for those repriced 14.99 books comes at the expense of sales for midlist and self-published authors.

Reason Number Three: Less Books Sold Elsewhere!

Here, I think, we get to the crux of the matter. The 74% increase in book sales, the increased revenue, the big pie – this is solely through Amazon. (And only ebooks at that). And this seems to be the crucial point, and one possible reason why publishers (and some authors) might be responding with less enthusiasm to the apparently unshakeable (to some) logic of Amazon’s recent post. Maybe the 74% increase is at the expense of other outlets: sales sucked away from other retailers, ones that actually rely on book sales and might go under as a result, eventually leaving Amazon as a virtual monopoly for book-buyers and a monopsony for publishers.

You will have your own feelings about the latter possibility, everything it entails, and the possible effects and repercussions of ending up in such a situation. Regardless, it’s fair to say that – for me – Amazon’s latest revelations don’t really change anything. And despite the apparently impeccable logic, I understand why it doesn’t for publishers either. 

#TOPCrime2014 Feedback

Posted by on July 24th, 2014

This post is intended to be a compendium of posts reflecting on – or riffing off – this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. It’s probably a long way from being exhaustive, so if I’ve missed anything obvious then let me know (either by email (my address is up above) or preferably in the comments below) and I’ll keep updating the post with new stuff as and when.

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At crimefictionlover, Craig Robertson lists 16 wonderful things about the Festival.

William Sutton has his say here (and includes possibly the most rock n roll photo of Stav Sherez I’ve ever seen).

My Yorkshire Post interview now includes a video of various authors talking about the Festival at the Festival.

Naturally, a lot of the coverage has focused on the J K Rowling event. Here is Vicky Newham’s write-up. Here is Erin Mitchell‘s report on the evening. And here is Julia Byers with an enthusiastic and totally lovely description of the event. Her excitement is contagious.

Here’s Mari Hannah’s take on the weekend, which includes the somewhat unnerving phrase “Steve Mosby cake”.

Alexandra Solokoff describes the differences between Harrogate and a US convention.

Rebecca Bradley has done a few posts about the weekend. Here and here and here.

Lots of papers covered the Thursday night award ceremony. Here’s the Guardian, in which I call Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker “a really special book”, because it totally is.

Two posts at Strange Alliances so far. There may well be more. Here and here so far.

Helen Smith’s take on the Festival.

Susi Holliday enjoyed the weekend, and had an additional reason to be excited about being there.

L M Steel has a comprehensive take on the Friday and Saturday here.

Graham Smith has a round-up of the Festival here, which includes interviews with John Harvey and me.

Lucy Cameron also had a thoroughly excellent time this year.

As did K A Laity.

And here‘s a round-up on acrimereadersblog

Tamsyn Murray reports on the weekend here.

Fenris Oswin was the official photographer at the Festival, and has made lots of wonderful photographs of various events available online here.

Pam McIlroy has an excellent summary of the weekend here, and also manages to sum up exactly how I felt the whole time!

Eileen Wharton had a fantastic weekend, and (like a great many people) especially enjoyed the brilliant Lynda La Plante.

The fabulous Mel Sherratt reflects on her first panel appearance at Harrogate – no hiccups! – and her experience of the weekend as a whole here.

Lloyd Paige talks about the Sophie Hannah and S J Watson event here.

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The weekend also resulted in a few ‘debate’ pieces in the media, which I’ll list separately.

Here (again) is my initial piece about using real life crime as the basis for fiction. And here is a BBC follow-up.

Charles Cumming talks about technology and the modern spy thriller.

In addition, Jake Kerridge penned a piece about whether crime fiction is misogynistic at heart. (And Leigh Russell takes issue here).

And Rosie Claverton makes some good points about crime fiction’s attitude to mental health issues here.

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Again: if I’ve missed something, feel free to let me know – either by email or below the line. Cheers.

Harrogate!

Posted by on July 21st, 2014

There’s a familiar comment people often make that a Sunday roast takes hours to prepare and then about fifteen minutes to demolish, although in this case, it’s probably more appropriate to talk about the brewing/drinking time for a pint of Theakstons Old Peculier. Regardless, I’ve been helping to work on the programme for this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival for about a year and a half, on and off, and the weekend itself seemed to pass in a heartbeat. It always does, but in this case – for me – it’s especially surreal to realise it’s all over.

And yet it is! It seemed to go very well, I think. Certainly, there seemed to be a real buzz around the hotel this year, and I lost count of the number of people who came up to me to thank and congratulate me, and to say “well done” and tell me how much they were enjoying it. Which was lovely – obviously – and we’ll come back to that at the end. But first, I figured I’d list a few of my my personal highlights from the weekend.

1) Happygate!

There have been various incidents over the last few years, and it’s common currency (and I don’t think this is by any means unique to Harrogate) that there’s usually at least one ‘controversial’ panel. While a little controversy can be fun, it’s also nice once in a while to have panels that are just enormously entertaining and informative without anyone actively falling out. And I think we achieved that this year. Which is mostly down to the fact that every single panellist was great and interesting and sensible. In fact – without exception – for every single panel I had somebody come up to me afterwards and say “that was really, really good!” And from what I managed to see of each of them, I completely agree.

2) Romance!

There’s a young couple called Scott and Jo who come to the Festival every single year. Honestly, they’re probably as familiar to regular attendees as many of the authors. So it was a huge pleasure to arrange for my afternoon panel that, after I’d thanked the panellists and wound things up, there’d be time for one more question – whereupon Scott proposed to Jo in front of an audience of nearly 500 people. (She said yes). It was a really lovely moment – and the whole Festival team was totally into it: there was music and champagne and everything. I can hardly imagine how nervous Scott must have been, sitting there for the hour beforehand, but hats off to him, and massive congratulations to them both. Happygate.

3) My panels!

I didn’t fuck them up! They were the only things I was really nervous about the whole weekend, because, while I enjoy moderating, you want to make sure they go well, and you’ve got enough questions, and so on. Fortunately, my panellists were uniformly ace. In the afternoon, I had Lauren Beukes, Sharon Bolton, James Smythe and Lavie Tidhar talking all things cross-genre, all with charisma and aplomb. My late night panel on plot twists was a more relaxed affair, with Alex Barclay, Simon Kernick, S J Parris and Nick Stone gamely trying to guess various famous twists. At one point, Simon was scrabbling on all fours for his dropped buzzer, and the audience were shouting “It’s behind you!”. Loads of fun. (Although I think that if the audience had had a collective buzzer, they’d have well won).

4) J K Rowling!

On Friday night, with a capacity crowd at the Royal Hall, I got to introduce Val McDermid from the side of the theatre’s stage, and then stand very quietly for a minute or so next to J K Rowling as Val introduced her. Which was kind of a surreal pinch-yourself moment – I mean, I can’t imagine I’m ever going to do anything like that again. (And J K Rowling is possibly very glad about this). It was the biggest event in the Festival’s history so far, and a real thrill for me to have played a small part in it. The event itself was amazing. 

5) Special Guests!

But they were all brilliant. It was especially nice to have Lynda La Plante winning the Lifetime Achievement award and then appearing at the Festival for the first time (and going down an absolute storm with the audience). But they were all superb, from the paired conversations to the individual events. And all such genuinely nice people. One of the perks of being Chair is that I tried to make sure I went into the green room before all the events, special guest and panels, to check if everyone was present and happy, and everyone was utterly lovely. The lesson? Crime authors are ace. But you knew that.

6) Chatting!

It’s often impossible to talk to everyone you want to for more than a few minutes, and sometimes not at all, but one of the things I look forward to most about Harrogate is catching up with people I’ve come to know, and I managed to do a surprising amount of that this year. I was also fairly sensible. There from Wednesday to Sunday, my bedtimes were approximately: 11pm; 2am; 2am; 5.30am. (It’s not Harrogate for me unless I go to bed after dawn on at least one night; and I did get to the green room on the Sunday for the first panel at 10am). I talked to so many wonderful people – old friends and new – and had so many laughs. I said crime authors are ace, but of course, it’s also crime readers, agents, editors, publicists, organisers – absolutely everyone. It’s impossible to describe or explain all those little magic conversational moments that have you laughing out loud for hours on end, but there were lots of them.

7) And finally…

I said at the beginning we’d come back to all those “congratulations” and “well done”s. Early Sunday afternoon, I gave a short speech to the audience. I think it got progressively shakier as it went on (I can make a green room on three hours’ sleep, but holding a mic and talking for five minutes seems harder), but this is the gist of what I said.

As lovely as all the thanks were, I can only take the tiniest amount of credit for how good the weekend was. It wouldn’t have been anything without the various sponsors, including Theakstons and others and the various publishers. And at heart, it was a good weekend because we had so many excellent, interesting authors, so a huge thanks to everyone who took part and made it what it was.

Harrogate International Festivals are just amazing. Onstage, I described the various members of the team as being like ninjas; they don’t assassinate you, of course, but you hardly notice them on the desk and the doors, facilitating everything, doing a fantastic job of making sure the whole thing runs like clockwork. I didn’t get most people’s names, but Naomi in the green room was brilliant (and good luck, if you ever read this, with your philosophy degree at Leeds; it can lead to interesting careers, honest!). Also thanks to the Old Swan: I watched everyone transform that huge hall from lines of chairs to tables for the quiz in less than 15 minutes, and I’ve genuinely never seen anything like it. Thanks to Ann Chadwick for telling me who I needed to talk to and when. And special thanks to the utterly awesome Gemma Rowland and Sharon Canavar, who I think between them could probably have dealt with a direct atomic strike on Harrogate and still kept the Festival running without anyone noticing.

Along with the rest of the committee, they made the whole programming thing an absolute joy from start to finish. So thanks also to Jane Gregory, David Mark, Val McDermid, David Shelley and Daphne Wright for that. There has been no stress; I’ve genuinely enjoyed every single second. I’ve got a small handful of career vague-milestone stuff I keep: my first acceptance letter; my CWA Dagger; my Theakstons shortlist tankard. I’ve now got an admin folder stuffed with random bits and pieces, cards with hastily-scribbled speeches, my ID, and so on. Not as ostensibly glamorous, perhaps, but equally valued.

And most importantly of all, thanks to all the readers who came along, because you’re the people who help to make it the most welcoming, friendly and enthusiastic weekend of the crime calendar.

I’ll probably do a post rounding-up some of the coverage, and after that, normal service here – cynicism, gratuitous swearing, impotent rage, moral panic, etc – will resume. Before it does: thank you all from the bottom of my heart for contributing to one of the best and most memorable weekends of my life. You’re an awesome community, and I’m proud to be part of it. 

do you even fisk, bro?

Posted by on July 12th, 2014

There has been a lot of debate recently around self-publishing and traditional-publishing, Amazon vs Hachette, and so on. Certain people in the debate seem hell-bent on ‘fisking’ as the be-all, end-all of discussion, and I thought it was worth throwing out my thoughts on that particular issue here. This will be long. It will be dry. Run away now, while you have the chance.

1. What is fisking?

Fisking is named for the journalist Robert Fisk, after various conservative bloggers began dissecting Fisk’s posts in the early 2000s paragraph-by-paragraph, rebutting each and every single point. It’s a technique that basically quotes the entirety of a piece, interspersed with passages that refute each paragraph, or even sentence, with the aim of utterly obliterating the argument in the original.

2. What is an argument?

Yes, let’s backtrack a little. Bear with me. At heart, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone that a particular conclusion is true. Arguments take various forms, which we won’t explore here, but at heart every argument is a variation of the following: here are some points, and here is what they mean. The connecting tissue, in formal arguments, is a kind of logical glue that is recognised in various familiar argument forms.

For example, one kind of argument form is known as modus ponens. It’s a very clear (and to my mind – forgive my inner logic geek here – rather beautiful, and don’t get me started on its skewed relationship to modus tonens) one, and it takes the form:

(1) If X then Y

(2) X

(3) (Therefore) Y

Here’s an example of modus ponens in action:

(1) If self-publishing makes you more money then you should self-publish.

(2) Self-publishing makes you more money.

(3) You should self-publish. (MPP, 1, 2)

The bit in brackets at the end is just a courteous note to the reader that the conclusion – premise (3) – isn’t being stated outright like premises (1) and (2) are, but deduced via modus ponens from them. We call an argument like this valid, because if the first two premises are true then the conclusion must be true as well; there is no other option. If those first two premises happen to be true as well, then we call an argument like this sound. If a premise is false then a valid argument can have a conclusion that’s bollocks. A sound argument is valid, but because its premises are true, it has a conclusion that is necessarily true as well.

So is that example above valid? Yes, the logic is solid, so it is valid. Is it sound? Well, that depends on the truth of premises (1) and (2). I suspect we could all question the truth of those: (1) because there might be considerations other than money; and (2) because we might wonder whether that’s necessarily the case. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, is making as simplistic an argument as this. The point is, there will be room for debate even about the premises of the most basic and straightforward of arguments.

Here are two more examples of MPP in action:

(4) If self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one then you should self-publish many books.

(5) Self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one.

(6) You should self-publish many books. (MPP, 4, 5)

and

(7) If self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money, then you should self-publish books as quickly as possible.

(8) Self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money.

(9) You should self-publish books as quickly as possible. (MPP, 7, 8)

Again, these are both valid, but not necessarily sound. Again, the only thing to attack is the truth of the first two premises in each case. Again, there is obviously room for debate on each one.

Let’s complicate this with one final premise:

(10) You should self-publish many books as quickly as possible (Conjunction, 3, 6, 9)

Sticking all the premises together, the whole argument (1)-(10) is completely valid. But is it sound? Is the conclusion (10) true? That depends on the truth of premises (3), (6) and (9), which themselves depend on two different premises each. We can’t attack the logic; the logic is valid. But if any of the underlying premises aren’t true – even a single one – then conclusion (10) falls. It is built on perilous foundations.

I’m not – again – suggesting anybody is explicitly making this particular argument; I’m just picking examples vaguely relevant to the subject at hand.

Now, obviously, arguments are rarely stated as formally as this. Blogs, petitions and letters – even when presented with apparent conclusions, given with extreme conviction – are often rambling things, without polite notations given in brackets for people to follow the thread. People don’t think; people don’t express themselves well. From such a morass, it can be difficult to extract the premises the conclusion is resting upon so as to challenge their truth or the logic that connects them. But however informal the argument, however messy the piece, all those premises and logic are in there somewhere, and I’m afraid extracting them is what you have to do.

3. Is ‘fisking’ some kind of gold-standard for debate?

No, it isn’t. Fisking works reasonably well when you’re critiquing a short argument, or one that contains (and relies upon) lots of facts that can be shown to be bogus. It’s a ‘shock-and-awe’ debating technique, but there are various problems with it. Here are some.

a) Length

If you truly want to engage with an issue then it is an act of intellectual generosity to state your argument as succinctly and simply as possible. (And it is almost always possible to do this). Fisking makes this very difficult. A 1000 word essay, when fisked, can run to 3 or 4000 words. That makes it very difficult to address (never mind fisk in return). Eventually, if everybody responds in kind, the heat death of the entire universe occurs around the fifth fisking.

b) Concision

A fisking of the above argument (premises (1)-(10)) would address every premise, obliterating each in turn. We could do that, but it’s not necessary. If you understand the argument, then carefully demolishing one premise (and explaining why) is enough. Doing them all is overkill, and probably ensures that your opponent (if we must see it in such terms) will begin defending the strongest link as though that will secure the whole.

c) Missing the Point

Arguing paragraph by paragraph is generally pointless because, as stated above, the argument will not usually be laid out paragraph by paragraph. The premises and logical connections will often not go one-two, one-two: they will be dispersed and scattered throughout the piece. As such, by addressing single paragraphs you might refute points individually, but miss the overall point they’re building towards. You might take down some of the scaffolding, yet there are still ladders and walkways to the top.

d) Distraction/soapbox

You might miss the overall point, either deliberately or accidentally, and make an argument in response that – while valid in itself – takes the discussion off on a tangent that favours your position rather than honestly engaging. Issues can be addressed in ways that have different repercussions, which don’t necessarily engage with the substance of the point being made.

e) Aggression

Fisking encourages people to disagree with everything someone says, no matter how sensible or banal. It’s overly-aggressive. People enter into it with the idea that “I must crush him! Every single point he makes!” – and so they attempt to do so. It’s not reasoned discussion; it’s not an attempt to see both sides of a debate, understand nuance, talk like adults. It’s debate as scorched-earth warfare, and consequently it often becomes about an individual’s ego rather than the issues. All-too-often, in fact.

f) Boring

It’s often fucking boring. It’s often very fucking boring.

4. Of course…

There’s an easy way around this. Well – maybe not easy, but certainly simple. When you want to argue with someone, you look at their argument and decide the best way to address it. In a small number of cases, fisking will be the way forward. In most cases, it would be better to attempt to extract the skeleton of the person’s argument and deal with that. It’s hard work, and it won’t win you easy points with your crowd, but it’s the intellectually honest thing to do. Assuming – and, I admit, this is a big assumption – that something as banal as intellectual honesty is what matters to you. 

I’m reluctant to get into the whole Hachette vs Amazon affair. I’m a Hachette author (and despite what Hugh Howey might claim, they’ve always been good to me), so I suppose I have a certain bias, but I also recognise two corporate behemoths fighting when I see it, and I’m happy to leave them to it for the moment, especially when the terms they’re fighting over, while guessable to an extent, remain unclear. I have no desire to sign either an open letter or a petition. And if you’re a self-published writer, listen: I think you’re ace. I couldn’t do what you do – all power to you, seriously.

But I am interested, and I am engaged, and I’m increasingly seeing comments very similar to the following one on today’s Guardian article:

“Hachette wants to sell to Amazon at grossly inflated prices, and then wants Amazon to discount their wares, and take the loss, so their stuff will sell.? Amazon begs to differ”.

If you see that, or variations upon it, I think it’s fairly natural to assume that Hachette really must be the bad guys. (Side note: “bad guys”. Honestly, this is what the present intellectual level of the conversation reduces us to. Goodies and fucking baddies). The implication is that Amazon is being forced to buy stock at a certain price and sell it below cost price and take the loss, and Amazon aren’t having it. Who can argue that’s wrong?

Well, guess what: that’s what Amazon has been doing for a while. When you bought that Peter James book on the 99p promotion a couple of years ago? The author and publisher got the full amount. When you got that bestseller cheap? The same. Amazon didn’t beg to differ then; it was more than happy to eschew profit in the moment for a gradually increasing market share, building the ubiquity of its Kindle platform. And as it did so, it was misleadingly lowering expectations of what an ebook must cost to produce. Predictably, it now appears that it finally has the market share to not want to take that loss any longer.

That’s why the comment above is interesting: it’s true, in its own weird way, but it’s also gloriously spun, and the argument has a number of effectively suppressed premises. “Grossly inflated prices” implies that the natural price of ebooks is the artificially low one previously offered by Amazon, when of course the real price inevitably depends on the cost to the publisher – at least if we want the product to exist in the first place. And since publisher profit is based on an aggregate bet over a series of titles, with all the risk swallowed upfront in the form of advances, that’s no easy thing to calculate, especially in a world where digital is increasingly cannibalising paper. “Discount their wares … so their stuff will sell” ignores the fact that Amazon is the one that’s established that a price that amounts to a loss for someone is the effective price point for ebooks. They were happy for it to be a loss for them as they gained market share and leverage over their suppliers, and now suddenly – stunningly – it appears they might want to pass that loss up the chain. Who could have seen that coming? Honestly.

I’m not interested in taking sides here; I dislike it, along with all the pointless rhetoric I see on both sides. But to be honest, I don’t know many traditionally published authors who look down upon their self-published counterparts as lesser, while I see a hell of a lot of the latter expounding with glee on the downfall of traditional publishing, as though in this economic climate the collapse of an industry and all its associations – from financial to social and cultural – is something to be celebrated rather than mourned. Fuck that, and fuck off. There will always be readers, of course. But I don’t want to live in a world where we all work in a warehouse just so we can order stuff from it. I want to live in a world where there are bookshops and libraries on the high street, and publishers and printers, and booksellers and distributors. It’s a personal thing. And on that level, although I wouldn’t sign either the open letter or the petition as things stand, I’d be far more inclined to sign the former.