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9.24.2014

The World Food Programme, One of the Largest UN Agencies in Humanitarian Aid

Once again, Impakter has published one of my articles on the United Nations - this time, about the World Food programme - and of course, always under my real name (Claude Forthomme). After all, that's the name everyone knew when I worked there - and after 25 years of service, lots of people knew me, particularly as I was an evaluation specialist, checking out on projects and programmes...and people!


WFP – From Small to Giant Steps

The World Food Programme: From a Small FAO Unit to Top UN Humanitarian Agency

When children outgrow their parents…That is what happened to the World Food Programme that started as a small unit within FAO back in 1961 and is now one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid agency addressing hunger and ‘food security’. It was the brainchild of US Senator George Mc Govern who promoted the idea of using US grain surplus to feed “the underprivileged at home and abroad”as he put it. By 1962, his Food for Peace program, that many considered one of the greatest successes of the Kennedy administration, had fed 10 million Americans and 35 million children around the world while the World Food Programme (WFP) had already expanded to a dozen countries, ahead of its “official” start in 1963.

GeorgeMcGovern2  
In the photo: McGovern with John F. Kennedy who put him in charge of Food for Peace program, which McGovern had conceived.


Now, WFP reaches out in over 80 countries to an average 90 million people, of whom two-thirds are children, with a biennial budget hovering around $10 billion – compared to FAO’s average one billion. From its headquarters in Rome, it deploys a staff across the world that is easily four times that of FAO – some 12,000 people whose daily task is to control the logistics of food delivery in areas affected by natural disasters and man-made emergencies, usually wars – the lastest one being Syria and Iraq under the threat of ISIS and Gaza.
...
The rest on Impakter, click here.


9.18.2014

Digital Revolution Act III: Is Publishing Dying?

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Orde...
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Order Bit presentation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We all know what Act One was all about and it started with a bang: on a November day like any other in 2007, the Kindle was launched by Jeff Bezos, Amazon's brilliant founder and within five hours it had sold out. The whole world of e-reading was changed forever. Years later, Bezos admitted in an interview that he was surprised at how fast the Kindle sold in its first two holiday seasons.

We all know what Act II was like, a wild, exciting ride starting with several unknown writers achieving sudden stardom: Amanda Hocking, Bella Andre, Hugh Howey . But there were many many others, often mid list authors led by Jo Konrath, re-publishing their back list and finding success. The Indie revolution was born, drawing in hordes of aspiring writers and mid-list authors alike.

Traditional publishers looked on, initially dazed. But they too caught on. They used to sell the digital version of their new titles after the hardcover and even after the paperback one and at a huge mark-up compared to indie prices, making it close to or equivalent to the cost of the paperback.

No more, they learned their lesson. Now, they put out e-books at the same time or soon after the paper version  - paperbacks no longer enter into the equation. And they've brought down the price in most cases, to around $10-12 from the $18 or more of a few years ago.

The digital revolution has been good to readers, prices are down, especially for Indie books ($2.99 to $3.99 - the 99 cents craze is over, it is reserved for first books in series). But they are also down for books from major traditionally published writers.

But has the digital revolution been good for the publishing industry? Many are saying it's dying while novelists who have left behind the publishing industry are doing fine, better than ever before, as eloquently argued in a recent Business Insider article (incidentally, if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you'll discover that Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions).

No question about it, the stigma associated with self-publishing is gone. Reportedly, "many" writers make a living from their writing alone, something that was impossible before.

So are the doomsayers wrong and everything is rosy?

No, the fact is that the future is not looking rosy at all, not for writers and not for publishers. And exactly how many writers are able to make a living from their writing alone is not known, but I shall get back to that in a minute.

First, the facts we are facing and that I want to share with you here.

This is a photo of a computer lab on the Unive...
 Computer lab on the University of Warwick campus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We are definitely into Act III of the digital revolution and the publishing industry is in for another paradigm change.

There are several reasons for that.

1. E-reader sales are not what they used to be, sales of e-books are flattening out, the industry is maturing and finding a balance between digital and paper: a lot of people prefer to read on paper and those paper addicts are not about to disappear; personally, I prefer paper for my non-fiction and for "serious" literature, whether it is Khaled Hosseini's latest novel or poetry. I'm not the only one. It seems (see article below) that students don't really like e-readers and prefer to study in "real" paper books. Who would ever have thought that millennials (and younger) were faithful to paper and shied away from e-reading?

The Kindle is great when you go on a trip or wait at the dentist's. In fact, how e-readers are used determines what sort of book will be digitally successful. And it is the sort that provides light entertainment while you wait or travel, with stories that can be interrupted at any moment, which explains why certain genres work so well in the Kindle Store (romance, thrillers) and others do not.

A warning to newbies contemplating self-publishing: if you don't write thrillers or romance (or both), your chances of success are very, very slim.

2. Digital websites cannot handle the tsunami of published books, soon some 4 million books will be in the Kindle Store alone (I recently blogged about this several times, here and here). Visibility is made to depend on sales rankings, that is the Amazon model.

The model is insidious: it feeds on itself, it only rewards who sells already, who is known on the Net for one reason or another, a celeb, a traditionally published author with a big following like Paulo Coelho, with almost 3 million followers on Twitter:


Result?

Discoverability (what an awful word!) has become a real problem for indies and traditional publishers alike. You self-publish your masterpiece and it sinks to the bottom unless you engage in aggressive marketing tactics - in this respect, if you're not afraid to jump in, indie author David Gaughran has provided an invaluable guide, Let's Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books, I highly recommend it.

But aggressive marketing is only a palliative and most writers can't sustain the effort, every day, every year, to promote their books, with no end in sight - and keep writing as well.

Even traditional publishers can't. They've neatly solved the problem with a clever strategy consisting in publishing only the work of celebrities and proven best-selling authors and largely letting go of all the others - whether mid-list and niche authors or newbies. Perhaps that strategy is not followed by every publisher, and small publishing houses often are more daring and will sustain a new author, but overall, there is little doubt that the publishing industry has turned more conservative than ever and more unwilling to try out new writers.

3. The average income of professional writers is decreasing dangerously. With the Internet love for free products and the (annoying) habit of not paying contributors, more and more sites do not pay or only pay a pittance.

Recently, a survey reporting on writers' income in the UK bode ill (see here): almost 2,500 working writers were surveyed – the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005 –  and it showed that the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 (data adjusted for inflation). Compare that to the minimum income standard in the UK: £16,850. Yes, much lower!

But the picture is even worse:  in 2013, just 11.5% of professional authors earned their incomes solely from writing. In 2005, 40% of them did.

In short, in the UK the vast majority of writers don't earn a decent income from their writing.  It is true that the digital revolution has come late to the UK, but it has been in full swing for the past two years, at levels approaching that of the US, and surely, if it was going to be beneficial for writers, something positive change should have shown up in the statistics - instead, we get a 29% drop.

Do you believe things are different in the US? Unfortunately, we don't have comprehensive data for the US - it's anecdotal and incomplete. The closest we get are analyses like the "7 k report", interesting but not convincing. The problem is that distributors like Amazon and Barnes and Noble don’t share their e-book sales figures. Until someone does an independent, comprehensive survey, we shall never know for sure. All we know is that e-book dominance in the top 100 best-selling genre books (meaning mystery/thriller, romance, science fiction and fantasy) is "extreme", that the Big Five account for approximately a good third of everything digitally published, and that indies and small presses take the biggest slice of the cake. But when it comes to gross dollar sales, the Big Five take half the pie.

The picture changes when looking at the revenue from the author's perspective. According to that "7k report", Indie authors are earning nearly half the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon.

Great! But what is coming to the median (or average) author? In other words, how is that revenue distributed? If it goes to the top 1,000 indie authors (a likely hypothesis, given the Amazon environment that awards visibility only to the top 100 sellers), then the rest gets peanuts. And this leaves out anyone who does not write genre (and there are a lot of those too).

So, for the moment, we don't know the situation in the US but we should keep in mind that chances are it is similar to the UK, the market historically closest to the US.

4. Publishing is shedding its traditional role. Traditional publishers have even launched aggressive and highly innovative e-publishing ventures, riding the digital wave, betting on new forms, like novellas and serialized novels (published in separate episodes).

Byliner.com is a good example of this phenomena. It describes itself as a "boutique publisher" who works directly with the "world's best writers", including Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, Jon Krakauer, Ann Patchett, Chuck Palahniuk, Alexandra Fuller etc etc. It specializes in publishing short pieces at a very low cost ($2.99), thus coming in direct competition with the prices practiced by indies. This is a game-changer for indies: for an indie who is unknown, the only way to stand out and sell is to practice super-low prices. But if big names start to compete at the lower end of the price range, there is little chance for indies to survive...

Also, some of this short fiction by "top authors" that includes so-called "best sellers" like Margaret Atwood's "Positron" (in 4 episodes, I just checked out the first) can be very disappointing. I love Margaret Atwood, but that Positron story is just not one of her best books, the premise is intriguing but soon becomes highly implausible - and no matter how professional the writing, if the story is implausible, it is finished for me.

In short, it is hard to dismiss the impression that everybody and his uncle is jumping on the e-publishing bandwagon with anything that can be read, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

Perhaps this onslaught of mediocre writing is not so surprising since there are no gatekeepers in the digital world. Amazon has instituted customer reviews but, as I have blogged several times, customer reviews are not the equivalent of a literary critic's analysis. And the digital world is rife with willing bloggers reviewing books - that's a welcome aspect of the Net and it is still evolving, some bloggers someday may achieve the status of quality gatekeepers, but that hasn't happened yet.  And there are also dedicated sites, for example Kirkus that, thanks to its historic name (though it is now a different company), is able to sell reviews to Indies at surprisingly high prices - a mere paragraph of review for some $400. For many indies, that's a serious investment.

But all this does not amount to serious gate-keeping. If I insist on this gate-keeping argument, it's because it's the only way to crack the visibility problem. Probably Amazon is best placed on the Net to pull it off, if only it would set its mind to do it.

Amazon already has a select group of reviewers in the Vine Program reviewing every sort of product on sale. All it has to do is pick out those who like to review books and do it best. The next step is to set up some guidelines for review, so that the work is done professionally, covering systematically all major aspects from characters to plot development and the writer's "voice" etc. And finally, tweak the book page layout so that vine reviews receive pride of place compared to customer reviews.

But for the time being, there is no "gate-keeping" on the Net. Thus chances for a good book to rise to the surface and become visible are wholly dependent on luck. What this system does for our culture overall, I don't like to think.

How is Act III going to play out? What does the future hold?

In this dismal setting, as we all know, a fight has recently developed between two giant players: Amazon, the biggest e-book distributor (and incidentally a publisher in its own right) and Hachette,  one of the Big Five Publishers.

It's an epic fight, though Amazon, in some ways, is a Goliath compared to Hachette: its book business is a small part of the company that sells everything like an online Walmart while for Hachette it is the whole company. So expect Amazon to be more resilient than Hachette and able to last longer in this protracted fight. We're headed now for the last quarter of the year, the holidays book sale season is looming up but the fight, started some six months ago, is not over. 

Nobody really knows what the fight is about. It would appear, from what one reads in the press and in the various letters exchanged between the concerned parties, from Authors United to the message from the Amazon Team (termed Readers United), that Amazon is trying to convince Hachette that by lowering its prices it would achieve more sales. Authors whose sales got hurt hope they can move the Amazon board of directors, and maybe they can. Amazon's reputation could get hurt. As the New Yorker noted, "The signatories of the Authors United letter include some of the best-selling writers in the world (Elizabeth Gilbert, John Grisham, Stephen King) and some of the most celebrated (Robert A. Caro, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat)."

Still, on the face of it, Amazon's argument makes sense. Indies have sold plenty of books and survived thanks to low prices...and Amazon's generosity, allowing them a royalty rate several times what traditional publishers give their authors.

On the Kindle, no doubt about it, the evidence is in: low prices sell books. Price elasticity is not a mirage but a reality.

It is Amazon's model vs. the traditional publisher's model.

But is that what they are really fighting about? I suspect something else is afoot though I have nothing to prove it, nothing except economic logic. Starting in 2007, Amazon generously gave out 70% royalty rates to anyone (indie or publisher) who uploaded their books in the Kindle Store provided the prices were set between $2.99 and $9.99. Why this sudden generosity? Because when Amazon launched the Kindle, the store needed to be filled up with books. The goal was to create a low-price environment that was enticing to readers.

That is Amazon's preferred price range and one that Hachette is not accepting.

But what if the problem between Amazon and Hachette had little to do with the price level but a lot with the 70% royalty rate? Amazon needs to show a profit, Wall Street has recently grown impatient with Amazon's strategy of taking no profit because of its price-cutting aimed at gaining market shares. At 70% (which means Amazon takes in only 30%)  it is probably not making money. As a book distributor, its share is at a historical low for the industry. I am guessing that for Amazon a better rate would be 50%. And to make it work for both sides, for Amazon and Hachette, book prices need to come down so that greater volumes are sold, and in the end, more money is raked in for both.

Amazon has argued persuasively that books do not compete against other books in today's entertainment world: they compete with TV series, video-games, movies. So books to compete in that environment need to be priced like a cup of coffee.

I'm afraid Amazon is right in this and that in the end, it will win out. Hachette won't lose if it lowers its prices: all of a sudden, its prized authors will sell at prices so low that no indie can resist - unless, the indie is one with a big following before she ever attempted self-publishing, or an indie that has made a name for herself over the past three years. Anyone who hasn't "made" it by now, cannot expect to make it in future, unless, by a quirk of fate, she manages to stay high in the Amazon sales rankings, keeping her book visible.

I know, this is a depressing analysis for indies. And, like Queen Victoria, I am not amused. But I prefer to face reality than to continue and pretend like Voltaire's Candide, that "all is well in the best of worlds".

Promotional poster for the series premiere . 
With the rise of TV series and video games, fewer and fewer people are reading for entertainment. Publishing, if it is to survive, needs to adjust. And in some perverse ways, it already is.

Consider Lena Dunham's success as creator and actress in "Girls", a universally acclaimed TV series that started in 2012, as an HBO show. I just read in the New York Times that she is coming out with her own book based on the series. As the NYT says,

"Why would someone working in high-end cable TV, which is arguably today’s most vital entertainment medium, extend her reach into one that’s ostensibly dying?"

"Ostensibly dying?" Ouch, that hurts (especially if like me, you love books and are fascinated by publishing).

But it's a good question, why indeed? After all, in the past, the traditional career path was the other way around: you wrote a book, you ended in Hollywood if you were lucky. As noted in the NYT, "After all, the trajectory of female essayists and cultural critics (see Ephron, Joan Didion, even Dorothy Parker) has traditionally been to parlay their literary bona fides into more lucrative work in Hollywood. Dunham, though she will continue to make television and films, has done things in reverse."

I don't know why she has done "things in reverse", but I take it as a sign of the times. Publishing has become a niche activity in the broader entertainment world, a cultural thing, a little extra you give to yourself, a pat on the back after you've succeeded at everything else that matters... And she's only twenty six. Congrats, Lena!


9.17.2014

Hemingway Fan Fic: a 6-word Short Story

This is 6-word short story I mentioned sometime ago on this blog and that is now published on Readwave, click here to see it on the site. If you like it, please click that heart below it, that would make me so happy!

Title of the story: MELANCHOLY
For sale, wedding ring, never used
The way the story is presented is what makes of Readwave an exceptional digital showcase for your fiction. And it's a very lively place too, full of good reads.

Also, it is a fact that 6-word short stories are a show that will never die, ever since Hemingway started the fashion. Now Readwave, with a dedicated section, carries on the show...Click here to see it, there are over 40 short stories there, and, as the Readwave editors say, "A picture may be worth a thousand words; the challenge is describing it in only six."

Of course, my story is Hemingway fan fic, I plead guilty. I'm sure you all remember it: "Baby shoes for sale, never used"...

By the way, that illustration is taken from one of my oil paintings:





It's a woman asleep in the metro, her hair is reflected in the dark glass behind her...


9.14.2014

What Makes for an Expert Book Review

The joy when a reviewer "gets" your book! This morning it happened to me and I wanted to share this joy with you. It concerns my latest book, Forever Young, my climate fiction set in the near-future - well, not so near, 200 years from now because that's the time I figure it will take for mankind to face extinction on Earth. Contrary to most science fiction and climate fiction that set environmental and societal catastrophe at some 40 to 50 years ahead, I wanted to give my novel a chance to be plausible: I really believe this final disaster will require about 200 years to mature...

Author Alana Woods
So here is what Australian author Alana Woods wrote:

"Some time ago I read Nougat’s short story compilation Death on Facebook, Short Stories for the Digital Age and was impressed with the range of stories and the skill with which they were presented. One that caught my imagination was I will not leave you behind, the futuristic story of a 122 year old woman who is part of an elite program that keeps you young until you die. In FOREVER YOUNG Nougat has taken that short story and woven its premise into a four-part series of short novels I enjoyed reading very much.
       The over-arching theme is the approaching doom of Earth from climate change. The story is set 200 years into the future and what becomes apparent very quickly is that humankind never did learn the lessons of what it would take to save the planet. Everyone, including big business, is still only concerned with the present and what they can get out of it for themselves. People are still divided into the have’s and have not’s, only now the have’s—called the OnePercenters—can afford to have old-age and illness permanently eliminated right up until death, whereas the have not’s—the 99PerCenters—continue to struggle as we struggle in this day and age.
       The story and struggle is told through three characters who all aspire to be a OnePercenter, highlighting the fact that even in Earth’s extremis we’re still only concerned with what advantages we can garner for ourselves.
       You can come away from reading this series feeling a great despair for where we’re heading. The alternatives that the author presents, that of leaving Earth to inhabit a new planet and starting again, or remaining and hoping Earth regenerates itself, are stark contrasts.
       A thought-provoking, confronting read."
The review came as a total surprise and most welcome after I had received an awful review sarcastically titled "the future isn't futuristic". For this reviewer, my book "didn't work at all" because "many of the same technologies that we use today are still prevalent. How many things popular 200 years ago, even 30 years ago are still in use today? It was not a forward-thinking, imaginative conception of the future and I just didn't buy it."
Not a "forward-thinking" conception of the future? I was crushed, I felt totally misunderstood. How could this reviewer not see that this was the whole point of my book? The "future" she yearns for does come in Forever Young for the ultra rich but only for them because they are the only ones who can afford the advances of science. Alas, it does not come for the rest of mankind, no one can afford the technological innovations the rich are enjoying! 
Is that so unrealistic? I don't think so. Consider further the argument she makes that many things "popular 200 years ago" are no longer in use today. Quite frankly, that argument doesn't hold water. Anyone who has travelled in the Third World knows how the poor live, in conditions that are barely better than those prevailing in medieval times, no electricity, no running water, no public transport and only wood or dung to cook.  And billions of people live that way, nearly half of the world's population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and according to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
Collecting millet in Darfur (this woman has 5 children) UN photo library
This is why Alana Woods' review was so welcome, she "got" it, that social difference between the poor majority and the rich minority - a trend that I think will only be exacerbated if we continue on the road of income inequality on which we have embarked (and I'm not the one saying it, Thomas Piketty is, in his Capital in the 21st Century - I highly recommend reading it). 

This is what fundamentally differentiates Alana Woods' review from the other one: it's not a customer review that simply states "likes" and "dislikes" (unsubstantiated phrases like "I didn't buy it") but a carefully thought-out review that examines the book's premise and follows how it was developed, critically analyzing it.
I also deeply appreciate Alana's review for another reason: she is a demanding critic and, as she puts it on Amazon, "I like to choose the books I review." In this case, she certainly chose my book, I was surprised when she told me she was reading it (she'd picked up the first book in the series for 99 cents) - I was surprised and pleased. Because she is truly a professional writer who knows the art of writing. She is the author of a guide to writing good fiction, chock-full of good advice:
Jason Mathews considers it "the best guide for indies" and hosted her on his site to discuss it with two other authors, Lisa Grace and Samantha Fury:

Alana Woods is not only an excellent literary critic but a remarkable writer in her own right, "the queen of intrigue". Three of her books are currently available on Amazon, two award-winning literary suspense novels and an intriguing collection of short stories:

Visit Alana Woods on Amazon, click here
If you are wondering why she hasn't published more books, that's because she is very demanding of herself. As she puts it: "I'm a storyteller from way back but not a prolific producer like other authors. It can take me years to be satisfied with the quality of a story and my telling of it."
Right. To take years to be satisfied with one's manuscript is the mark of  a careful, professional writer but also of one who respects her readers. It think that's remarkable and I believe more indie authors should take Alana as an example and think twice before publishing. There are times when I wish I hadn't rushed into self-publishing and waited for my books to "ripen" until they were ready. 
Good writing takes time, and now (I think) I have learned my lesson and no longer publish too soon. How about you? Has it ever happened to you to publish a book only to discover six months later that it could have been better? Have you ever had the urge to revise it and upload a new, better edition?  I plead guilty to having done that and would love to know whether you've done it too! 
 

9.08.2014

The World Health Organization and the Ebola Challenge

Another one of my articles published under my real name on Impakter. I never worked for the WHO but having spent 25 years of my life with another specialized UN agency (FAO), I believe I have an insider's ability to understand what works and what doesn't work in the UN system...


The World Health Organisation and Ebola


Ebola is a perfect example of what is wrong with the World Health Organization. More and more people have been asking, why is it not present on the ground? Why didn’t it issue a warning sooner? In short, what is it doing (if anything)?

With close to 1900 people already dead since the beginning of the outbreak this year, the international medical agency Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has warned that “the world is losing the battle” to contain Ebola and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) expects severe food shortages in the three countries most affected by Ebola, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The hardest-hit of the three, Liberia, with 694 deaths, has seen the local market price of the national staple cassava going up 150 percent in August, and that is only the beginning.

On 8 August, the WHO declared Ebola a “public health emergency”. On 28 August, it issued a “road map” to combat Ebola – it is intended as a framework to guide operations. At current infection rates, the WHO fears it could take six to nine months and at least $490 million (373 million euros) to bring the outbreak under control, by which time more than 20,000 people could become infected…And this of course assumes the money will be coming.

Are donors rushing to help? No. Governments, instead of responding,  are quick to put the blame on WHO, or at least imply that WHO plays a part in the overall slow response of the international community.That’s not fair.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.



9.04.2014

Diary of a UN Official #2: The Gentleman from Iran

Another memory emerging from the mists of my past - again published on Impakter  under my real name Claude Forthomme:

http://impakter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/52043-1050x714.jpg

Diary of a UN Official #2: The Gentleman From Iran

 

My (Adventurous) Life at the United Nations: An Unexpected End to a Drafting Committee Session.


14 November 1991, 26th FAO Conference in Rome. I glance at my watch, midnight already. The delegates, thirteen in all, are sitting around the table, looking glum, staring at the papers in front of them; coming from every region, they are the result of delicate diplomatic negotiations: three each from Africa and Asia, two from Europe and Latin America, plus the United States, Australia and the Chairman  from Denmark. A portly gentleman with a bold head and red cheeks, he is sitting next to me at the head of the table. Behind us, a vivid mural depicts a field of corn plants, the green stalks standing straight in a row, like soldiers at attention, and with a sun-bleached village in the background, the color of sand.

This windowless room deep inside the  FAO building is known as the Mexico Room – the furnishings are a gift from Mexico –  and the mural is the only focus of interest. On both sides, a string of glass panes stretch across the wall, and we can barely glimpse the blurred faces of the interpreters sitting behind them, hard at work, translating every comment made on the draft report.

Mexico Room FAO
The snack I had ordered for nine o’clock – only soft drinks and juices, the ham sandwiches separated from the cheese ones and clearly marked to prevent Moslem delegates from eating them by mistake – is a forgotten memory.

We started on the draft report at 7 pm, after the day’s debates were over in the main conference rooms. The draft, available in four of the official languages (English, French, Spanish and Arabic), is a mere five pages, double-spaced, only a section of the full report. I sigh, we’ve still got a full page to go before we’re done. Yet we need to finish it tonight, the report has to be adopted tomorrow – it’s the big day of the vote on FAO’s budget, the only item that is voted on at the FAO Conference, everything else is adopted by consensus.

I glance again at my watch, ostensibly, trying with that gesture to prod the delegates to move on. Because when they’re finished, we of the Secretariat still have a couple of hours of work to finalize the report for printing. I know that if all goes well, I won’t be able to get home before 3 am, driving alone in the rain, across a deserted town, taking care not to wake up my husband when I get home (but I know he will be awake and worrying). Conference work is an expensive affair for FAO; Vikram Shah, my boss, a savvy Indian who heads the budget and programming bureau, once estimated that it costs around $4 million, considering all the extra expenses that have to be incurred, from overtime pay for general staff (professionals don’t get it) to round-the-clock translating and printing of documents in all languages. For that amount of money, you could run several aid projects for thousands of needy people in the developing world.

“How is the TCP managed?” thunders the American delegate.
...

To read the rest, click here. And get ready for a big surprise at the end!

8.31.2014

Today's Publishing Nightmare: Drowning in Indie e-Books... and The Way Out

Nightmare filmNightmare film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An article published on Forbes by David Vinjamuri with the arresting title "Publishing is Broken" (see here) that got over 200,000 views sums up the situation for readers, something I've rarely ever seen. Most articles debating on the good and bad aspects of self-publishing and what Amazon is doing to traditional publishing eschew the reader's point of view. So it is well worth quoting in extenso:

"Indeed, the problem for readers is that regardless of which side you agree with in theory, in practice you probably love the idea of buying books for under $5.00 but hate the idea of having to sort through quite so much junk to find good books at that price.   The question that divides Indie fans from the traditional publishing industry is whether a solid selection of good writing can ever be self-published for these low prices.

Consumer ratings should help sort out the mess, but they don’t.  It seems that every author has twenty or thirty friends who are willing to write glowing reviews of his or her book, no matter how awful.   And conversely, a mainstream author like Brad Thor finds himself targeted by scads of low ratings based solely on the high list price of his ebooks – which he does not control.  The net effect is to make the peer rating systems useless.

So the big question for publishing is which way this paradigm will evolve.  Will our future feature lots of small new interesting writers at low prices and a bunch of bestsellers for somewhat higher prices?  Or will the chaos eventually yield to a higher pricing model where only the most stubborn and talented Indie writer can ever break through?"

No question, Vinjamuri is right, customer reviews on Amazon don't help to discover good reads. And he argues convincingly "that traditional publishers set the stage for their current misfortunes years ago, when they developed the pricing model for printed books." The economics he uses are faultless: he argues that the price of hardcovers was always set too high (between $22 and $25) by traditional publishers in a bumbling attempt to cover the cost of "hunting" for the Next Big Author (i.e. paying advances they cannot recoup because most new authors don't sell). That's a "fixed cost fallacy", you don't sell as many books at $25 as at $5 - your revenues are higher at the lower price.

That error of course left open the famous window of opportunity for self-published authors willing to sell books at $5 and less.

Then Vinjuri singles out three advances that together explain where publishing is at today:

1. e-books are convenient and enable readers to read more than ever before; the famous "long tail" (of niche-interest books) is finally flourishing; the physical difference between self-published and traditionally published is erased by e-books, they all look the same;

2. social media (Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads...) have changed the way recommendations work, making it easier to spread the word about a good read - but, as Hugh Howey points out, it's the readers who are doing the work on Twitter and elsewhere rather than the author; and that's an important point, I've always felt that using Twitter to promote one's book was totally useless;

3. digital publishing has solved the once costly challenge of print runs, storage and distribution, equalizing the field for indies; again, as Hugh Howey puts it: "Now I have the advantage because I have low overhead. Where I once couldn’t compete with their physical price, they now can’t compete with my digital price."

Indeed, indies have low costs, though self-publishing can be very expensive on two counts, editing and marketing as so well explained in this UK Guardian article , aptly titled "You can try to be the next Hemingway for $6,000". Actually, it can cost much more, up to $15,000 to get a professionally edited book out and to market it in the right places, for example using NetGalley or the Kirkus Review to get reviews and obtain the needed attention for your book. That was the amount a friend of mine aimed for with a Kickstarter campaign - she got the money but I regret to say her book is not a best seller, or at least not yet...

The biggest problem is "discovery" - finding your next good read. In his article Vinjumari does an excellent summing up of the currently available options, from Kirkus to Goodreads, noting their shortcomings and concluding that perhaps Amazon, with its Vine program of selected reviewers, though still too "commercial" in form and spirit, would be however best placed, with a little tweaking, to come up with a viable solution that would (at last!) provide readers with reliable recommendations.

Because, as he puts it:

  "There is enormous pressure in the market to solve the “drowning in bad writing” issue with Indie publishing.  It’s hard to imagine that a solution won’t emerge in the next 12-18 months."

18 months? I think he is a little too optimistic, it's not likely to happen that soon. And on his second prediction - that most midlist authors will go indie - he is a little behind the times, my impression is that most of them already have done so.

His third prediction - that "legacy publishers will be hurt badly by Indie books until they find a business models that co-opts them" - is however spot on. And, as he says, it has already happened as traditional publishers scour the self-publishing scene looking for their next big selling author. That is the way Amanda Hocking and John Locked (partly) went, though many (like Hugh Howey) are choosing a "hybrid" model, with one foot in each camp. 

The article ends with an intriguing comparison with pamphleteering in the 17th and 18th century, when pamphleters were treated as hacks, "accused of vanity, incompetence and even sedition", much like indies today. Yet Thomas Paine and others like him are now considered literary masters...This is a nice concluding touch, do you feel like Thomas Paine?

Personally, I don't (!) 

But I do worry that too many good authors who have gone down the road of self-publishing are going to stay buried under the 3 million+ ebooks in the Kindle Store unless something truly innovative happens on the "book discovery" front. In a way, Amazon has brought on the digital revolution to publishing and I hope that Amazon can also bring the solution. It would be really important to improve the Vine Program and turn it into a book discovery instrument of choice! 

Your opinion? What do you think should be done?

8.26.2014

The Future According to Google

Cover of "Zoolander"
The United States has historically been a laboratory of the future for the rest of the world: I remember how I was awed when I arrived in New York in the 1960s and saw what the future looked like, with gigantic highways, sprawling suburbs and televisions everywhere.

Now the US is doing it again, if you know where to look. David Leonhardt, heading The Upshot, a new New York Times venture focused on investigative and analytical journalism (and that means data-crunching), recently reported the results of a study done following a suggestion from Google's chief economist, Hal Varian.

I bet Google's chief economist hadn't expected the kind of results shown in that study...

The piece, titled "Inequality and Web Search Trends - In One America, Guns and Diet. In the Other, Cameras and 'Zoolander'", explains how the research was done. Serious stuff, analyzing a decade of search data county by county across the whole of the US, categorized by an income-education-health index and then comparing the results to web searches on Google to uncover people's interests and concerns at both ends of the income distribution.

What rich people search for on Google compared to poor people.

Leonhardt summarized the picture in a couple of striking sentences: "In the hardest places to live in the United States, people spend a lot of time thinking about diets and religion. In the easiest places to live, people spend a lot of time thinking about cameras."

The portrait is suggestive.

Rich people are concerned with acquiring the latest technology and traveling to distant lands. The poor worry about their health and look for weight-loss diets (the new poverty in America is associated with obesity). 

The article concludes on a note of pessimism, highlighting the fact that the rich are "intent on passing down their way of life to the next generation, via Baby Bjorns and early access to technology."

As noted by Leonhardt, "That last point may be the most troubling. The different subjects that occupy people’s thoughts aren’t just a window into American life today. They’re a window onto future inequality, too."


Yes, that's what future inequality will look like: access to new technology and round-the-world travel will be reserved to the rich and likely to be denied to the masses. Why?  Too expensive.

Another NYT article from The Upshot suggests that we may all be stuck in rut: there is evidence that in climbing the social ladder, geographic location matters. The chances that a child raised in the bottom fifth will rise to the top are lowest in the "old South", around 4% in places like Atlanta and Charlotte. Conversely, they are much better in the North, for example 33% in Willinston, North Dakota. Clearly, parental and school environment matters.

Does this sound depressing to you? To me, it does. Yet, I believe it's important to know where we're headed as a civilization. The 20th century saw the rise of the middle class, and that rise continues around the world, as people in developing countries are climbing out of poverty. But the middle class has stalled in America and the on-going (triple dip?) recession in Europe is not helping. It looks like the happy days of the middle class are over in the developed world...

Personally, I hope I'm wrong about that. Still, I did try to imagine our future on the basis of such trends and the result (as all those following this blog already know) can be found in my latest book "Forever Young". My goal was simple, I did not want to write fantasy science fiction, I wanted to take a "hard" look at what our future would really be like. I only wish this NYT study had come out sooner, as I was writing my book, but at least I feel vindicated: this is confirmation that my premise is sound...Nevertheless, I still hope the trends towards inequality that we see today - especially in a book like Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" - will ultimately prove wrong.

Can the Millennials get us out of the inequality rut?


Income inequality and mortality in 282 metropo...
Income inequality and mortality in 282 metropolitan areas of the United States. Mortality is correlated with both income and inequality. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8.21.2014

To Publish AND Perish: A Threat to The Future of Our Culture?

More about the implications of the exponential growth in e-books in the Kindle Store that I reported on last week, and what it portends for the future: an analysis of how one famous computer scientist, musician and author see the future of books, literature and our culture. This is another one of my articles just published by Impakter:

http://impakter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/paisaje15-1050x582.jpg

To Publish and Perish

Amazon and its 3.4 Million E-Books: the End of Culture?

For a long while now, people have debated how many e-books Amazon carried it in its Kindle Store, because Amazon has never divulged the data. Some daringly ventured the figure of 1.5 million. Wrong! The real figure is close to 3.4 million and I found it by chance, as I was navigating Amazon’s website for Amazon Associates which provides links, banners and widgets you can upload to your blog to help advertise Amazon products.
...
You can bet that in 10 years time the number of titles in the Kindle Store could be anywhere between 20 and 40 million books...Internet guru Jaron Lanier, in his fascinating book “Who Owns the Future” suggests that we should eventually expect as many writers online as there are readers. If he’s right (and there’s not reason to believe him wrong), we still have some way to go. But it will surely happen, and probably sooner than you think.

When that happens, what will the e-book market look like? Lanier reminds us that this is what happened to music already.

Are books like music?

Not quite, books are a more complete codification of ideas, they can play on emotions the way music does (for example, a romance novel or lines of poetry) but they also encapsulate ideas and ideology (from Hegel to Marx to contemporary thought gurus, like Lanier himself).

So can we expect our culture to get crushed under the numbers?


Again, Lanier tells us how he sees the future. Books will be increasingly linked to devices – think of how the rise of e-books was linked to the Kindle. When that happens, says Lanier: “some good books from otherwise obscure authors will come into being. These will usually come to light as part of the rapid-growth phase, or “free rise” of a new channel or device for delivering the book experience.”

He doesn’t say it, but of course Amanda Hocking and John Locke‘s sudden rise to fame immediately comes to mind. They enjoyed a “heightened visibility” on the Kindle, as they were “uniquely available early on on that device.” And Lanier to conclude: “In this way, an interesting author with just the right timing will occasionally get a big boost from a tech transition”.

Is that good for authors? No, says Lanier, “the total money flowing to authors in the system will decline to a fraction of what it was before digital networks.” The future reserved to authors is exactly the same as what musicians are facing today: “Most authors will make most of their book-related money in real time, from traveling, live appearances or consulting instead of book sales.”
Authors in future will be a vastly different lot from what they are today, no more hiding in the ivory tower as “independent scholars”! In Lanier’s words, “Authors will tend to be either young or childless, independently wealthy, beneficiaries of an institutional post, or more fundamentally like performers.”
What he sees is the rise of an “intellectual plutocracy”.
And readers in all this? They will be “second-class economic citizens”..."

The rest on Impakter, click here.

And yes, you will see that I don't fully agree with Jaron Lanier - his analysis is brilliant but his conclusions...not so much! I have a different idea of the future of our culture...

8.17.2014

To Self-Publish and Perish: Buried Under 3.4 Million E-Books

I finally found where Amazon reveals a hidden (and juicy) statistic: the number of ebooks available in the Kindle Store. If you're an Amazon Associate, you can easily find it too but to make it simple I took a screen shot of the page where it shows, this one dated August 16, 2014:


Look at what the red arrow points to: "Results from Amazon Kindle Store...3,376,174 results". That's how many ebooks are stocked in the Kindle Store as of now: 3.4 million.

And by the time I had finished writing this blog post (one hour later) that number had climbed to...3,376,186! It took one hour to add 12 books, one new title every five minutes.  In 24 hours, the number had climbed to 3,378,960, that's 2786 more books - let's say, 2,800 a day, that's over one million books per year - and probably growing at an exponential rate that I cannot calculate for the moment; I haven't got the data though Amazon does (I wonder whether they are as scared as I am).

You can bet that in 10 years time the number of titles in the Kindle Store could be anywhere between 20 and 40 million books.

This is as many books as Google is said to have scanned globally, drawing from all the world's libraries (the latest reported figure dates to last year and was 33 million books).

Surprised? I'm not, not really. Internet guru Jaron Lanier, in his fascinating book "Who Owns the Future" suggests that we should eventually expect as many writers online as there are readers. If he's right (and there's not reason to believe him wrong), we still have some way to go. But it will surely happen, and probably sooner than you think.

It's also very instructive to look at the list of titles provided using the filter "new and popular" (the one I used - but there are other filters too depending on what you're looking for) and you'll see that Daniel Silva's "The Heist" (the 14th book in the Allon series) comes on top: it was published on 15 July 2014 and already got over 1,200 customer reviews. Not unsuprisingly it is is ranked #51 in "paid Kindle" and #1 in several subcategories including mystery and suspense.

By the way, "The Heist" is published by one of the Big Five (Harper) and priced at an average $14 which is standard for traditionally published books. That price, high in relation to the average price for self-published books (which according to Smashwords is around $3.99), does not seem to have impeded its sales or ranking. This is not to say that traditional publishers can get away with any level of high prices - I would argue that a level beyond $14 is damaging and ensures that some excellent writers, like William T. Volmann, perhaps our times' major "fabulist", is not as widely read as he could be. His latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, is priced at over $22, a price equivalent to the hardcover.   That places him well beyond the reach of the average e-book reader, in practice excluding him from any exposure in the Kindle Store. Don't be surprised if his book is sitting at #42,967 Paid in Kindle Store in spite of the boost it has received in the mainstream media, most recently the New York Times (see here).

Indeed, if anything, books that are priced high and traditionally published seem to occupy the first ranks everywhere on Amazon. And I'm not referring to special cases like John Green's best-selling "The Fault in our Stars" with over 29,000 customer reviews and a ranking in paid Kindle at #8 for books, although it is noteworthy that its ranking is not the same in the ebook market (it sits at # 3,810). Here I am looking at the Kindle Store only and what pops up in the ranks is often quite different from what emerges in printed books, and why it is so, is a story for another blog post.

In any case, whether looking at the printed or ebook markets, you have to look hard for self-published authors though, undeniably, they are there...Hugh Howey with over 2,000 reviews for his Dust (book 3 of the WOOL trilogy) is sitting at #815 in "paid in Kindle Store"; Bella Andre's Kiss Me Like This at #642 (it came out in June 2014 and has over 170 reviews); J.A. Konrath's Whiskey Sour at #1615 (it came out in February 2013 and has nearly 1,200 reviews); Barry Eisler's Graveyard of Memories at #5,136 (it came out in February 2014 and already has over 600 reviews) - but Eisler's book is published by an Amazon imprint, Thomas and Mercer, and he cannot be thought of as a self-published author stricto sensu, though he often sides with indies and famously walked away from a big publisher's contract a few years ago.

The conclusion? Self-published authors, even the most successful ones, aren't doing badly of course, but they are certainly not doing as well in terms of exposure as traditionally published authors. Sometimes, a traditionally published author who finds herself retrograded to the "midlist", with the publisher giving no signs of wishing to renew the contract, may have no choice but to self-publish to survive. This is what Eileen Goudge did and so elegantly explained in a blog post here on Jane Friedman's blog, enticingly titled "Self-publish or Perish" (hence the title for my own blog post here).

However, we should remember that if the midlist author's economic "survival" is ensured, it is largely thanks to the 70% royalty Amazon pays, because it is certainly not remarkable in terms of exposure - I won't go further in the details and give you yet another ranking, you can check for yourself if you're curious (here).

Moreover, one must remember that all rankings are ephemeral, they change constantly, and one needs to be Amazon itself (or set up a 24 hour watch for months on end) to figure out which authors have "staying power" and which don't. So all the rankings I'm quoting here are merely indicative.

Still, some insights can be gleaned. It is particularly interesting to check on the more successful self-published authors and see how they fare today. I checked at random the more famous ones such as Amanda Hocking or John Locke whose amazing success stories (selling "a million copies" in a matter of months) have been instrumental in launching the self-publishing craze.

Well, they are not doing as well today as you might expect. Amanda Hocking has two books going currently for free and her best selling book, My Blood Approves (now traditionally published by St Martin's) is ranked #34,251 Paid in Kindle Store. John Locke's Promise You Won't Tell, with close to 1,200 reviews was going free the last time I checked and his best selling non-free book Casting Call (actually also the most recent, published in February 2014) is priced at $2.99 and ranked #11,195 in paid in Kindle Store. In other words, it's doing reasonably well but breaking no records.

Why are such famous self-published authors with millions of copies sold - I would say even "iconic" writers - following the free promotion strategy exactly as propounded by self-published author David Gaughran in his excellent guidebook Let's Get Visible?

I'm sure you can come up with still more striking success stories, and please be sure to highlight them out in the comments, but my point is that the success doesn't stay on...it waxes and wanes (which is natural) and then falls off a cliff, to use David Gaughran's striking metaphor. Hence, the authors efforts to revive their books with free promotions. A tough life!

Now if life is tough for the more successful self-published authors, try and imagine what it's like for the rest of us?

The reason why? Basically the tsunami of books that buries every single newcomer!

No doubt this is another compelling reason why you should follow David Gaughran's advice. And don't get discouraged, Amazon has just handed out a candy to self-published authors, making it possible for them for the first time ever to access to the "pre-order" functionality on its website (is this a side-effect of the Hachette-Amazon spat? Who knows...) Regardless of Amazon's reasons for doing this, it is a big gift, because it means that,  just like a traditional publisher could do till now, you are able to promote your book on all the sites you navigate for 90 days prior to launching, while pre-orders accumulate on Amazon's site: on the day of release, all these orders are filled at a single go, ensuring a boost to your book, launching it up Amazon's rankings!

Because, as David Gaughran points out, in this environment awash with books, you cannot ever stop marketing your titles - and now you have another tool at your disposal to launch your next book...use it!

8.14.2014

Diary of a United Nations Official: Mission #1

Another article of mine published on Impakter - under my real name, as usual. This time it's something very different, memories of my time at the United Nations, my first mission to Africa...I think you may be surprised!

Here it is: 



Diary of UN official: Mission #1 – Mauritania


My (Adventurous) Life at the United Nations: First Mission, Mauritania
October 1980. The sky is an intense blue over Mauritania’s desert, the Land Rover bumps along, skidding from one pothole to the next. Dust permanently dries the mouth, the blazing light hurts the eyes, I forgot my sunglasses in Rome, and there’s no place here to buy a pair; not today, not until we reach a semblance of a town. I look out hoping to spot a caravan of Berbers but there’s nothing to see except endless sand dunes and an occasional truck filled with dozens of people hanging on…


My thoughts drifted back to my family in Italy, my husband (we are newly married), my little daughter, she was only four months old. I missed him and her, taking consolation in the fact that she was probably too young to miss me.

We had left Mauritania’s capital city, Nouakchott, early in the morning. I write “we”, I was accompanied on this first mission by a 60 year-old Belgian agronomist, a veteran of Africa who’d been forced to leave his research station in the Belgian Congo back in 1960 when the country had achieved independence and become Zaire.

...

The rest on Impakter.com, click here.

8.09.2014

The Amazon-Hachette War Has Reached the Next Level: AMAZON WANTS YOU!

British Propaganda World War II (Wikipedia)
Today KDP authors - those of us who use Kindle Direct Publishing - got a direct letter in our email box from the "Amazon Book Team" that reminded us that what e-books are doing to publishing is similar to what paperbacks did when they first came out at the end of World War II: far from destroying publishing, paperbacks expanded it.

As an economist, I buy that. There's no question in my mind that e-books are not a subtraction but an addition to both the book-verse and the pool of readers.

The letter ended with a rousing call to action and I quote:

"We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
- Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
- Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
- Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com
"

As you can see from a sample of related articles below, the Amazon call for action immediately found a vast echo in the blogosphere.

I recommend reading the comments to Chris Meadows article in Teleread, click here. One comment in particular stands out, Michal W. Perry's. He argues that the true story is that Amazon would like to pay authors 40 or 50% royalties, not the current 70%. And he reminds us that for audiobooks, it has already moved against authors, recalling what Amazon's affiliate Audible did in February this year to independent authors: “In a disturbing move that caused an eruption among self-published authors, Amazon’s ACX division has announced a reduction and simplification of royalty rates. Rates that previously started at 50% and escalated to 90% have been reduced to a flat 40%.”
http://authorearnings.com/acx-lowers-royalty-rates/"

Yes, that is something to ponder.

The other thing that surprised me is that Amazon is asking for help from its authors yet it has set up a site for the purpose with the name "readers-united". Now, as suggested by several bloggers, perhaps that was meant as a dig at the "Authors United" set up by the 900 traditionally published authors who've signed a letter in support of Hachette (published in the New York Times at a cost of some $100,000). But the implication is also that customers are, as always, first and foremost on Amazon's mind - in the case of books, readers. Not authors. Does that mean it will send an email around to all its readers and ask for their help? Maybe but I doubt it. Readers are not interested in getting drawn into a fight between giant corporations - nor are most writers, I wager.

What is your opinion? Ready to take sides and sent that email to Hachette's CEO, Michael Pietsch?
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