Category Archives: Publishing

SILICON VALLEY: WHAT IT TAKES TO DO STARTUPS – Book Review

Here’s another one of my articles published today on Impakter:



SILICON VALLEY: WHAT IT TAKES TO DO STARTUPS

Book Review: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcìa Martinez (HarperCollins, 2016, 528 pages)

Chaos Monkeys Book Cover

Silicon Valley continues to be hot news in the age of Trump and anti-globalization and it should come as no surprise that a clever book about it by someone in the know, loaded with revelatory insights on how it really works, was going to be a sure-fire hit. And that is exactly what happened when Antonio García Martinez’s half memoir-half prescriptive tech guidebook came out last year on 28 June 2016, becoming an instant “New York Times bestseller”. Considered an “irreverent exposé of life inside the tech bubble”, all the major book reviewers rushed in with praise, from the New York Times’ Jonathan E. Knee (“an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment”) to Bloomberg’s Ellen Huet (“dives into the unburnished, day-to-day realities: the frantic pivots, the enthusiastic ass-kissing, the excruciating internal politics”).

In short, in just six months, “Chaos Monkeys” has become the most popular and widely read book about Silicon Valley. I was curious to find out whether it merited its sudden glory. I uploaded it to my Kindle (disclosure: living far from bookstores, I am a fan of e-books) and I spent a couple of pleasant days enjoying the read. And I soon discovered that the best passages, literally pearls in the text, had been highlighted hundreds of time by enthusiastic fans. In fact, Amazon in its “about the book” section informs you that (at the time of my reading) 3,769 passages had been highlighted 122,000 times (ah, the joys of Big Data).

It is a clever book with a clever title, and a great read. In case you’re wondering about the title, it comes from the name given to the software procedure used to test the stability and resilience of online services/websites – and this neatly expresses the main message of the book: That tech entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, out to disrupt the way we live, from photo-sharing (Instagram), dating (Tinder) and movie viewing (Netflix) to transport (Uber), lodging (AirBnB) and space travel (SpaceX).

Unquestionably, the author’s persona was as much part of the excitement as his bracing writing style. Described as an “industry provocateur” on his Amazon book description page, he has lived up to his reputation and become something of an industry guru: today, whenever big news or scandals roil Silicon Valley, journalists rush to ask him his opinion.

 

Garcìa Martinez started his working life as a strategist for Goldman Sachs, survived three years and surprised everyone by abandoning New York for the West Coast. After learning the ropes at an IT advertising outfit called Adchemy, he launched his own start-up AdGrok with a couple of engineering pals (called “the boys” in his book). Ten months later, after raising some venture capital and before even making AdGrok operational, he sold it to Twitter for $5 million. However, it was not an unmitigated success; his team broke up, “the boys” went to work for Twitter to develop AdGrok while he accepted a more lucrative position at Facebook as product manager. Tasked with leveraging Facebook’s user data to make its advertising more effective and fix its monetization problem, he was outcompeted by a colleague and fired – the circumstances of his firing make for fascinating reading.

The description of what Facebook is like, what happened there and why he eventually left and landed an advisory position at Twitter is certainly one of the more interesting parts of the book – anyone thinking of joining Facebook should read it very carefully, drawing lessons from it.

The rest on Impakter, to read it, click here.

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Filed under Book review, Digital Revolution, Publishing, Startups, Tech, Uncategorized

Poverty in America vs. Poverty in India: The Making of Bestsellers?

I just wrote this article and uploaded it on Thingser, the only social network that lets you do this – write an article and post it on the platform – if you don’t believe me, try doing this on Facebook!

It comes with the Thingser logo as a featured image to draw attention to this special feature:

And here’s the article:

POVERTY IN AMERICA vs. POVERTY IN INDIA: A JUICY SUBJECT FOR BESTSELLERS?

 

Featured image on NYT review of Evicted, published February 26, 2016

 A book about poverty, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist and Harvard University professor and Co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, was defined by the New York Times as “an astonishing book”. Before going on sale on March 1, 2016, it had already 23 positive “customer reviews” on Amazon. The publisher, Crown Publishers, is ensuring this will be a smashing hit, including pricing the hardcover edition lower than the digital edition. The objective? Echo Katherine Boo’s success with her 3-year study of a Mumbai slum. Here are the reasons why such a book, in spite of its dark, depressing content, is very likely to make it as a major best seller and perhaps even as a future blockbuster movie.   

In a recent and impassioned review of Matthew Desmond’s latest book, Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City, to be published shortly (on 1 March 2016, Crown Publishers), the New York Times wryly noted: “Poverty in America has become a lucrative business, with appalling results”.

The author of the review is Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted political activist who was perhaps the first one to publish a best seller about the subject of poverty,  Nickel and Dimed that came out in 2001.

It caused a stir and inspired others to follow in her path, including Adam Shepard with Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream and Charles Platt with his blog “Boing, Boing”.

Ms. Ehrenreich is also the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) dedicated to “supporting journalism, photo and video about economic struggle”. EHRP is run by editor-in-chief Alissa Quart, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and author of a socially-oriented non-fiction book Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers .

Published in 2003, it was considered a “substantive follow-up to Naomi Klein’s No Logo” (Publishers’ Weekly).

In 2012, Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist and recipient of a Pulitzer prize, erupted on this American scene focused with her best selling book about poverty in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum .

It instantly earned praise from everyone that counts (1,851 customer reviews on Amazon, over 8,000 reviews on Goodreads) and an accolade from best-selling author Junot Diaz on the New York Times, calling it “a book of extraordinary intelligence and humanity…beyond groundbreaking”.

What have all these authors in common?

They all did something unusual…

Click here to read the rest.

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Filed under non-fiction, politics, Publishing, social media

Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success, says Amazon

The cat is out of the bag, finally we know exactly how many self-published authors make it big: 40.

Yes, that’s not a typo.

40 self-published authors “make money”, all the others, and they number in the hundreds of thousands, don’t. This interesting statistic, recently revealed in a New York Times article, applies to the Kindle Store, but since Amazon is in fact the largest digital publishing platform in the world, it is a safe bet that self-published authors are not doing much better anywhere else.

“Making money” here means selling more than one million e-book copies in the last five years. Yes, 40 authors have managed that, and have even gone on to establishing their own publishing house, like Meredith Wild. Her story is fully reported in the New York Times, here, and well worth pondering over. And wondering what “making money” really means.

That story reveals some further nuggets about the current fluctuating state of the publishing industry: it seems that last year, a third of the 100 best-selling Kindle books were self-published titles on average each week. Conversely, that means legacy publishers only raked in two-thirds. Perhaps this is not such a surprising result, given their habit of pricing e-books at stratospheric levels, from $12 to $16 or more compared to self-published authors who deem that $3 to $5 is the “right” price…One has to wonder why publishers do this, even at times pricing e-books more than their own printed versions of the title. Perhaps they are afraid of digital?

The digital market is indeed scary, primarily because of its dimension: over 4 million titles today in the Kindle Store, compared with 600,000 six years ago (again, the data is from the same article). This means “book discovery” has become the number one problem. How can your book stand out in such a vast crowd?

There are many answers in the industry (and savvy marketing certainly has big role), but some of the more ground-breaking solutions come from the successful self-published authors themselves, like Meredith Wild and a few others that have (more or less) followed her example, like Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, H.M.Ward, C.J.Lyons. They have struck deals with Ingram Content Group, a major book printer and distributor, thus getting their novels in bookstores, big-box stores and airports. Because,let’s face it, when you’re selling big in the digital market, you don’t want to lose out in the printed one: 36% of book buyers still read only print books (according to a 2015 Codex Group survey – for more about how print books hold their own, see this article).

What does this mean in terms of the future of the industry?  According to David Montgomery of Publishing Technology:

“There isn’t one book market anymore: there are two, and they exist in parallel. One continues to be dominated by major publishers, and increasingly uses agency pricing as a strategy to support print book sales. The second publishing market is almost exclusively made up of e-books, and is driven by Amazon-published and KDP content sold at a substantial discount to the product produced by traditional publishers.”

And he foresees a growing divide in 2016 between the two markets. Yet the success of Meredith Wild and the other authors like her suggests that something else might be happening: self-publishing could be encroaching in a territory that used to be seen as exclusive to legacy publishers.

Time to celebrate? Not yet. There is a caveat and it’s a big one: only 40 such authors are likely to bridge the divide. In fact, writing is a poor man’s occupation. As Publisher’s Weekly noted in an article published last year: the majority of authors earn below the poverty line. The statistics are grim:

Given that a single person earning less than $11,670 annually sits below the poverty line, 56% of respondents would qualify, if they relied solely on income from their writing. The survey also indicated that not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less. Overall, the median writing-related income among respondents dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000 2014 in 2014, a decline of 24%. (highlight added).

That’s way below the poverty line! Small wonder that most authors depend on another job to survive…

So if you’re not selling your books, take heart, you’re not the only one. If you’re considering becoming a writer, think twice, it won’t make you rich. To be honest, if I could do my life over, I wouldn’t go into writing (though I love story-telling), I’d go into…film making! That is the art of the future, people don’t read books, they go to the movies, they binge on TV series, they play video-games. And in all these – movies, TV, games –  good story-tellers are more needed than ever

No, the art of writing is not dead, it is just undergoing a change of venue!

 

NOTE: This was published over a year ago and has garnered more comments than any of my blog posts has ever done before and I warmly thank my commentators including those who didn’t agree with my reading of the data – no doubt this avalanche of comments is a testimony to the (high) number of writers (self-published and non) wondering where they stand and what they can expect from a writing career. Bottom line: if you enjoy writing, just do it and don’t worry whether it’s going to bring in the bacon or not. One thing is will do for sure: it will make you happy. And that’s worth far more than any money you might ever make…Happy writing!

 

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2016: The Year of the Writer?

There are signs that after the dramatic 2009 digital disruption that brought in the self-publishing tsunami, the publishing industry is stabilizing. And Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a best-selling author and dispenser of cool, much sought-after advice has even decreed on her blog in a year-end post, that 2016, is going to be “The Year of the Writer”.

Kristine Kathryn Rush’s blog, click here

Hooray! Or is it too early to celebrate? KK Rusch notes that in 2015 a lot of indie writers suffered from burnout (disclosure: my case too). But she has words of wisdom to soothe the pain:

If you’re destined to be a career writer, you’ll come back to it—or rather, it’ll come back to you. One day, a story will pop into your head, a story that needs to be told. I just got an e-mail from a long-time published writer who said that very thing. For the longest time, he thought he was done writing, and now he’s turning his attention to a new novel.

So nice to hear I’m not the only one (and yes, now too I’m turning my attention to a new novel).

So why this high rate of burnout in 2015? Simple: because of marketing pressures:

  1. You have to market your book in every possible way, Twitter, Facebook, book tours, Goodreads, you name it – exhausting;
  2. You have to write your next book in the series – yes, it’s a series of course, the best way to keep your readers glued to your books – and you have to do it as fast as you can, you’ve heard that best-selling authors come out with a new book every three months (yikes, how do they manage that?) – even more exhausting, especially if coupled with (1) above.
No surprise then that authors collapse.
But as KK Rush says, why do it? The solution to burnout is simple: write what you want. And, as she notes:

It does take courage to write what you want. To follow your own creativity and see where it will lead you. To walk down a path that doesn’t exist yet.So maybe I should modify my conclusion and call 2016 the Year of the Courageous WriterBecause we’ll be seeing a lot of courage in print this year.

Ready to be courageous? Ready to do your own thing?

Well, maybe not quite yet. Also, there are many ways to deal with burnout. For example, you could step sideways – move into non-fiction. That’s what I did: since 2014, I’ve moved into a lot of non-fiction writing (mostly articles about the United Nations) and working as Senior Editor for Impakter – and it’s been a wonderful experience, I’ve come across a lot of new, hugely talented young writers contributing exciting articles to Impakter.

Impakter – The United Nations section, click here to see.

Meanwhile the number of readers on Impakter has grown exponentially, to the extent that it has become a lead magazine for Millennials, even exceeding the New Yorker…That has made my experience with burnout as a fiction writer a lot easier to bear!

But KK Rush does not stop there in her predictions. She has just published a fascinating analysis of what went wrong: “Business Musings: The Reactive Business Model“. What she is arguing is that traditional publishers, starting in the 1970’s, have been “reacting” to surprise best-sellers by imitating them.

In order to survive commercially, they’ve churned out as fast as they could books that are as close as possible to the surprise best seller. And now, indie writers have fallen in the same trap, writing in the genre that supposedly “sells”, following as closely as they can the example set by best-selling authors. And you get a slew of would-be Hunger Games, slavishly applying what KK Rusch calls the “reactive business model”. And she predicts:

More and more indie writers will leave the business if their business plan is based on the Reactive Business Model.Traditional publishers have forgotten that they used to partner with writers. Writers created the material and publishers published it to the best of their abilities. Because traditional publishers are owned by large corporate entities, the pursuit of profit has become the mantra, and if an imprint isn’t profitable in the short term (five years or so), it gets absorbed, replaced, or dissolved.
Indie writers don’t have to follow that model—and shouldn’t. They need to go back to the old model.

And of course, the “old model” – the reason writers abandoned traditional publishing and went down the road of self-publishing in the first place –  is exactly that:

Write what you want to write. Don’t think about marketing until the project—whatever it is—is done. Then consider how to market the project. Be creative in the marketing too. Don’t just imitate what was done before.

Wise words, no doubt about it. And when writing your next book, she warns:

 “Don’t act like traditional publishers and manipulate your next book to be like someone else’s success. […] Move forward in your career. Don’t look back. Following the Reactive Business Model is by definition looking backwards.

Definitely good advice.

I would only add: don’t worry about marketing at all.

I know, this may sound counter-intuitive in a time when book discovery has become incredibly difficult given the large number of available titles – more than 4 million in the Kindle store alone.

The theory that the “cream rises to the top” and that the best books will be inevitably discovered has proved wrong time and again. A book, to be properly launched, needs strong marketing. A push. And of course, be ready to do it when the time comes but don’t overdo it, and especially not at the expense of your writing time.

You can always do some more book promotion later, if and as needed. It may take longer for you to be recognized, but at least in this digital age, indie writers have an advantage over traditionally published authors of the past: their books don’t disappear from book stores after three months, digital versions stay in the cloud forever, they have a so-called “long tail” that is (eventually) working for them.

This simple technical fact ensures that your books remain available on Amazon and other platforms as long as you, the author, don’t retire them.

So hang on in there!

And Happy 2016!

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Filed under book marketing, genre fiction, Publishing, Uncategorized