In which Alexa reads my novel to me

My wonderful kids got me an Amazon Echo Dot for Father’s Day. This is an awesome little toy. Alexa (the thing’s voice) can play music and set a timer and tell me jokes and do math problems and lots more. It didn’t take me long to discover that Alexa could read books in my Kindle library. So of course I told her to read one of my own books–in this case, Terra.

The first problem was that she insisted on narrating all the front matter–copyright statement, ISBN, etc. There should be a way to turn that off or skip through it, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Then she started reading my deathless prose. She will not be replacing professional audiobook narrators anytime soon. The meaning is reasonably clear in her narration; she pronounces the words correctly (except for the oddball name “Polkinghorne”) and she pauses between sentences. But her emphasis was consistently a bit off: she said “post OFFice” instead of “POST office”; “cell PHONE” instead of “CELL phone”. And she didn’t do dialog right: you need to drop your voice a bit when you come out of a line of dialog to identify the speaker: “Larry said” or “Vinnie said”. She didn’t do that. And of course she made no effort to characterize the speaker; they all sounded just like Alexa (she sounds great, but she doesn’t sound like Larry Barnes). I couldn’t imagine listening to her for a whole novel. I gave up after about a page.

By the way, one of the most popular posts I’ve written is the one where I contemplate whether Jeff Bezos is the Antichrist. Apparently people Google that question a lot, and my opinion comes up second, just after Jonathan Franzen’s.

Maybe I’ll ask Alexa what she thinks.

Advertisements

Free ebooks in return for reviews: Some results

It’s becoming harder to get customer reviews for books nowadays.  That’s probably related to the general downturn in the ebook market.  Here I mentioned a program, run by my epublisher, to give away ebooks in return for honest reviews.  Once you sign up, you start getting a weekly eZine containing a list of books you can download for free.  Download a book, read it, and leave a review.

This model seems to be OK with Amazon, which has cracked down on some aspects of the customer review racket.  It appears to be a requirement to state that you got the book for free in return for an honest review.

Anyway, the approach is working for my novel Where All the Ladders Start.  Most reviews are pretty terse, like this one:

I received this book for an honest review. I loved this book. The plot and characters were amazing.

Well, what more do you need to say?  But wait!  It turns out that Laura Furuta has more to say!  Namely:

When I first started reading this story I was not really sure what to expect. I read the description and was thinking it was just another mystery book. I was wrong! This is a story about a P. I. who works in an America that has been changed. Not only that, also there are forces at work that are determined to see he fails with his latest case. I really enjoyed the story from the first chapter to the very ending page. It has the right combination of mystery and plot to keep you guessing. The characters also really shine as well. The main characters are very well written and even some of the secondary ones you will remember and love. This is one book that I recommend if you love mysteries. It will keep you guessing. I received a copy of this book from eBook Discovery in exchange for an honest review.

Even better!  Now all I need is a few more sales . . .

Here’s the cover, in case you forgot what the thing looks like:

Ladders cover final jpeg

Amazon is purging book reviews again

This made news a few years ago.  The difference this time is now Amazon apparently may purge reviews from someone an author “knows” online.

Yes, you read that right. This can be someone who has friended you on Facebook, followed you on Twitter, or has done business with you in a way that’s detectable to the Amazon review police….

Amazon spokespeople say that anybody who knows the author might “benefit financially” from the book’s sales, and financial beneficiaries have always been forbidden to review. (I wish I knew how to benefit financially when one of my 873 Facebook friends has a bestseller, but I’m obviously not working this right.)

So how do they determine if you “know” an author, anyway?

They’re not telling.

I’m all for taking down reviews that are fake or paid for in some way (even by the promise of a free book).  But that seems, er, excessive.  The modern method of book marketing involves authors having an online presence–via a blog, Twitter, Facebook….  You’re supposed to find “friends” out there.  Why penalize someone who finds them?

If the purge ever reaches me,  I don’t think it will have much effect.  The vast majority of the reviews my books have received have been from complete strangers . . . I think.  But I don’t really know, since a user can follow my blog with one name and review one of my novels with another.  Can Amazon figure this out?

Yeah, I suppose it can.

Does everyone know I have an Amazon author page?

You can find it here.  Notice the exciting Follow button beneath my photo.  Click it, and apparently Amazon keeps you updated on my new releases and maybe other cool stuff.

(For those keeping track, I’m about halfway through the second draft of the sequel to The Portal.  I was hoping to get it out this year, but I have a feeling it’s going to leak into 2016.)

My ePublisher weighs in on the state of ebooks

Every once in a while my ePublisher sends out an email giving their thoughts on the state of ebook publishing.  The latest one is pretty interesting. In a section titled “Reality Sets In” they talk about the glut of ebooks on the market:

With the filters removed, the market is flooding with dreck. It’s hard to get an exact number, but there are about 4 million ebooks on the market right now with nearly 100,000 new titles added each month. Shockingly, most will never sell a single copy. Of the remainder, only about 2% will sell at any meaningful quantity.

Unfortunately for many, self-publishing was sold as the easy path to notoriety and fortune; simply publish your story and readers will send you mountains of cash! But many found out the hard way that the only thing more demanding than publishers are readers and their unbridled reviews. A few discovered success, while the masses simply found a harsh dose of reality; this business is tough.

With time, this realization will thin the ranks as the hopeful become discouraged and opt for other pursuits.

They point out one way that Amazon (and other vendors) could help thin the ranks:

The available inventory of ebooks needs to be purged. At some point, natural selection will reign and the purge will happen.

We’ve already seen the first waves in the subscription services, and, at some point, resellers will also tire of being loaded down with dreck and will perhaps begin charging to maintain books in their system. Imagine the income Amazon could draw down if they charged $1 per month per title? Once one eRetailer does it, the others will follow. Then, all books that never sold a sustainable number of copies will leave the system and things will normalize—for a while.

It never made much sense to me that Amazon (and other vendors) would just store everyone’s ebooks on their servers for free.  Sure, storage is cheap, but it costs Amazon something to store millions of books, from most of which they will never see a penny in revenue.  I would certainly pay a storage fee if it would help get rid of the dreck.

My ePublisher’s advice to writers has been constant for a while: quality matters.  So does productivity.  Series are better than individual titles.  Long, complex narratives don’t do as well as simpler narratives.  Attention spans aren’t what they used to be.  Readers have lots of other ways to entertain themselves–often on the same device on which they’re doing their reading.  So get back to work.

Which I will now try to do.

More on e-book price resistance

Via The Passive Voice, I see the Wall Street Journal reporting on the decline in e-book sales from the major publishers.  This is in the wake of the new contracts they signed with Amazon, which allowed them to continue to set their own prices.

A recent snapshot of e-book prices found that titles in the Kindle bookstore from the five biggest publishers cost, on average, $10.81, while all other 2015 e-books on the site had an average price of $4.95, according to industry researcher Codex Group LLC.

“Since book buyers expect the price of a Kindle e-book to be well under $9, once you get to over $10 consumers start to say, ‘Let me think about that,’” said Codex CEO Peter Hildick-Smith

Hachette cited fewer hot titles and the implementation of its Amazon deal as reasons that e-books fell to 24% of its U.S. net trade sales in the first half of 2015, from 29% a year earlier. Declining e-book sales contributed to a 7.8% drop in revenue in the period.

Then there’s this paragraph:

One high-level publishing executive disputed that the Amazon pacts are contributing to the e-book sales decline. “This is a title-driven business,” he said. “If you have a good book, price isn’t an issue.”

This is, of course, insane.  Price is always an issue.  Maybe you’ll pay more for a new Stephen King book, but there is a price at which you won’t bother to buy it.  And how much money are big publishers leaving on the table by not appropriately pricing their backlist?  The novelist James Salter died recently.  I had heard of him but never read anything by him.  I went on Amazon, and all his ebooks were $9.99 or more; recently one showed up on BookBub for $1.99, so I scooped it up.  As the Passive Guy says:

Since Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world, one which obsessively collects and analyzes data concerning customer behavior, it is much better qualified to set optimum prices to maximize revenues from the sales of ebooks than a bunch of provincial publishers who have never run any sort of store and have virtually nothing in common with a typical reader.

If you give a kid a stick of dynamite, why would you expect anything other than trouble?

High standards in publishing

Here’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (1952), which imagines a world in which managers and engineers run the world.  A woman is explaining why she has become a prostitute.  Turns out her husband is an unsuccessful novelist.  In this world, all novels are reviewed by the National Council of Arts and Letters.

“Anyway,” said the girl, “my husband’s book was rejected by the Council.”

“Badly written,”  said Halyard primly.  “The standards are high.”

“Beautifully written,” she said patiently.  “But it was 27 pages longer than the maximum length, its readability quotient was 26.3, and–”

“No club will touch anything with an R.Q. above 17,” explained Halyard.

“And,” the girl continued, “it had an antimachine theme.”

Halyard’s eyebrows arched high.  “Well!  I should hope they wouldn’t print it!  What on earth does he think he’s doing?  Good lord, he’s lucky if he isn’t behind bars, inciting to advocate the commission of sabotage like that…”

The writer is ordered to go into public relations rather than fiction-writing, and he refuses.

“This husband of yours, he’d rather have his wife a– Rather, have her–” Halyard cleared his throat “–than go into public relations?”

“I’m proud to say,” said the girl, “that he’s one of the few men on earth with a little self-respect left.”

This comes to mind when reading this story, about Amazon removing a novel from sale because it had too many hyphens:

“When they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript they found that over 100 words in the 90,000-word novel contained that dreaded little line,” he says. “This, apparently ‘significantly impacts the readability of your book’ and, as a result, ‘We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.’”

Reynolds complained, pointing out “that the use of a hyphen to join two words together was perfectly valid in the English language”, and says he was told by Amazon: “As quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience, we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected … Once you correct hyphenated words, please republish your book and make it available for sale.”

This article treats the issue humorously, but it does play into the doomsday predictions of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin that Amazon is aiming to control who and what we can read. After all, if they can control the number of hyphens in a novel, can’t they control its readability quotient?

Well, sure. But the difference between our world and Vonnegut’s is that Amazon has competition (at least, so far) and will respond to a public outcry (again, so far).  I can imagine a world where this would be different, but that dystopian future is not here yet.

(By the way, I found Player Piano much less compelling than it was when I first read it.  Vonnegut hadn’t quite found his voice yet.)