March 7, 2009 — 1,392 words
Since today is re-run day for RollBots (and BTW, we're apparently airing two more times per week now, so you have extra opportunities to catch up on your episodes!) I thought I would use today's post to describe the history of Vertex.
As you know, Vertex is the villain in RollBots. He's a big nasty guy. But up until about two years ago, we didn't really know what he'd look like. All I'd noted in my write-ups was "spiderbot", and I was desperately anxious to see what Andrew King drew, once design had started.
On this show (which may or may not be different than other shows), I tried to avoid really dictating designs, because Andy is a genius and I figured the less direction, the better. I'm not sure if he preferred it that way, but it made for some interesting stuff.
So based on the first stories an my vague description of the character, these are the first drawings we saw specifically for Vertex:
He sure has changed. I was shocked, actually, looking back at these designs. It took us a long time and a lot of debating to settle on which one we wanted to bring forward.
In the end, we decided that the black widow design and the all-black one were a bit too... spidery for a spiderbot. Really, since Vertex wouldn't have eight legs, we were already deep in not-really-spider-land, so why not just finish the job? We wanted something that was like a hybrid between a lizard and a spider. Unpleasant to behold.
The design above with the red background was great, but the leg structure would have made it hard to have him interact with the henchbots/Spin when it came time. We toyed with the idea of having separate hands that he could use to manipulate things, but they felt a bit wrong somehow. But we really liked the patchwork leg structure (like in the shiny-domed design above). So we threw together notes about what we liked from each take, and Andy went back to his dungeon to try some more.
This is what we got:
Now you can probably already recognize the body is pretty much what we ended up with. Plated legs, central pointy torso. We were keen, but there was something "off" about the face. We decided to play around with it some more. And by "we", I mean "Andy". And by "play around", I mean "torture horribly". This is a rough recreation of the next few days, as Andy cranked out revision after revision...
"Reminds me of Jean-Luc Picard. An evil Picard. Erm. Maybe give him back his textured head."
"OH! This is good. I ike the jaw and the head and... the eyes are a bit small. Can we get them bigger? Like really big and expressive?"
"Hmm. Well, maybe not quite that big."
"Now we're talkin'! I like it! Say... we never asked YOU what YOU thought would be cool. How about you send something, anything, so we can compare?"
"Oh. Well. Fine. So you knew all along."
This is basically the final Vertex. There were changes to him in the modelling process (details of how the legs worked were revised, and he was given fingers so he could grab things), but the overall impression has stayed the same.
But one issue remained: Vertex had to appear to be a normal RollBot during the first moments of 101. Otherwise, we have no big reveal later in the episode. So we needed to have a "retracted" design done. Something that could mask his true self.
This one definitely worked, with the eyes small enough that you felt like he could be a normal RollBot. But it somehow felt like cheating, like we were dodging the real Vertex-ness. So we tried:
This was truer to life, and we were all happy with it. Until we heard from the 3D folks that we were utterly nutty, and this could never have resulted from a design like the extracted spiderbot. So Andy did up another, more accurate transformation, which looks like this:
(You can see how this got executed in the YouTube video I've attached below).
Finally, we thought it might be fun to try giving Vertex RollBot arms and legs, so he could walk around in Flip City without drawing any attention to himself...
In the end, we decided that probably didn't work, and wasn't worth the time it'd take the model. But now you know what might have been!
So that is your tour of Vertex. These and other sketches will all be in the "Art of RollBots" books for the lucky few super-promoters. There might also be a tiny easter egg in there, too!
Next week is "The Koto Protocol", another one of my eps! Lots to discuss there! See you then!
March 6, 2009 — 203 words
Hey Vancouverites! Starting March 6 (which is today, FYI), "The Green Chain" is playing at the 5th Avenue Cinemas. It was written and directed by Mark Leiren-Young, the fantastic writer of many RollBots episodes. You will not be disappointed. Attend (twice? thrice, perhaps?) and tell all your friends to do the same. Really, if you don't live in Vancouver but know somebody who does, telling them to attend is just as effective. Twitter, Facebook, all that jazz. Do it, England!
March 4, 2009 — 3,132 words
Yesterday, Wil Wheaton wrote a post about self-publishing resources, and mentioned my "Fixing the Pig Book Model" article, but also attracted a very interesting group of commenters who added a lot to the conversation. One of those was MeiLin Miranda, whose site immediately grabbed me for its brilliant ideas and methodology for making a book. Or really anything.
So I wrote her an email and we did a little interview where I got the scoop on this very cool experiment...
[note: As I've said before, I suck at interviews]
Introduce yourself, maybe talk a bit about your background? Do you have any formal training as a writer?
MeiLin Miranda is my pen name. I've been a professional nonfiction writer my entire adult life (30+ years). That's my training. When I made my first attempt at fiction, I was 8. I thought it sucked. I tried again in middle school, and I still thought it sucked. In my early 20s I tried again, made an absolute spectacle of myself in a writing workshop, and gave up. All the while, I was having a good deal of success in nonfiction; I have always made my living with words, barring one brief and strange sojourn into finance. And so I assumed that's just where my talent lay. In the '90s I taught myself to program and became a web developer as well as a writer, entirely in self-defense.
In late 2007, I'm not sure exactly what happened, though I believe the clinical term is "hypomania." I wrote some fan fiction and it didn't suck. It wasn't God's Gift to Fan Fiction, but it didn't suck, and enough people agreed with me that I kept writing. By the time my fan fiction stint ended, I'd written a 38,000-word Doctor Who novella--"Valiant," which can be found at whofic.com under the name "MeiLin". (Fan fiction was great fun to write, but I'm done.) In any event, that garnered enough positive attention that I started writing original stuff. What one can read at MeiLinMiranda.com is that stuff.
What project are you currently working on? What's it about and how long until it's done?
I'm currently working on "An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom," a web serial. The installments are drafts but more on that later. IHOTGK (lovely acronym) in the broadest terms is about redemption--of a people, a family and a person. Right now I'm working on chapter 16 of book 3, "The Last Royal Mistress." Book 1 is "The Tale of Two Kingdoms," book 2 is "The Queen Who Ruled by Herself."
Here's the official blurb (which I'm still working on--I'm not used to writing blurbs and this one makes me wince):
This ongoing web serial brings intimacy to the epic of a royal family, in a style reminiscent of Jane Austen with the erotic intensity of Laurell K. Hamilton. Sweeping through a thousand years, “An Intimate History” follows the story of a royal family as it is told to the latest and possibly last heir to its throne. This is the history the history books leave out—royal loves and lusts that changed the course of events. Only one book in the royal library has the whole story: “An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom.” This is no ordinary book; its enchantment forces the listener to experience the stories as if he were there. The series follows Prince Temmin of Tremont and his mysterious tutor, Teacher, over the course of ten years, from young adulthood to Temmin’s coronation as king. Will Temmin be the one who revives the family magic and averts a prophesied disaster to the kingdom? Or will it be the end of the Tremontine empire?
I posted the first chapter in late February '08. I have no idea how long this is going to take, or how many books it will take up. (Each book comprises one of the stories Teacher tells Temmin and is more or less discrete.) I really like the web serial format; it allows me to tell more story than I can tell in a straight-up novel and has more in common with a soap opera or other episodic television than it does with traditional novels.
In a nutshell, what's the theory behind your business model?
Boy, it's been a developing one, and I don't even know if I can call it a theory beyond "what that 1000 True Fans guy said." I'm definitely on the Long Tail. My work has too much sex for a fantasy publisher, and not enough sex for an erotica publisher, and so there I am, on the tail of the comet all on my own. I either make my own way or write for my hard drive. I LIVE to be read, and that's not too much of an exaggeration. And so I have to find my own ways to get my stuff off my hard drive, in the form I intend it to be in, and into the hands and/or hard drives of readers. I'm on my own. All writers are on their own; the ones with publishers just haven't figured that out yet.
I have always approached every website I make as a business and as a community, so that's how I approached this one. I observed other people's methods, especially the Godmother of Web Serials Alexandra Erin and the more successful web comics artists, and thought about what was working for them and what wasn't. This is what I've found out so far that works for me:
There is a point at which one can say too much, or too much of little substance. Watching for that point is difficult, and I'm not saying I never cross it. But I avoid expounding in favor of relating when I write blog posts and talk to folks in the comments.
This is not original to me. I'm far from the first and only writer to engage her audience; Wil Wheaton is great at engaging his readers, for instance, and because of that and the stories he tells about himself, his work, his family and his relationship with iTunes, I feel a great deal of affection for a guy I don't even know, and a lot more likely to buy his books than I would be if he didn't engage us.
I'm saying that for those of us who take the indie path it is critical. It will make or break you.
Part of this "here is me" process, for me, is posting drafts. Essentially everything I post are drafts. Each installment is written in 48-72 hours and cannot possibly be considered finished or even polished by anyone's standards let alone mine. My readers comment, find typos, find continuity errors (for which I traditionally plead insanity--with the recent diagnosis this is more than plausible). I let them see my process--hell, they ARE my process. I have found that I can't do what I do without this interactive element. It's another reason why I gave up on traditional publishing; it's a process publishers fear and misunderstand. "But you're giving it away for free!" Whatever.
How does the points system work, and what are the benefits?
Audience participation. The points system was originally to get people to comment on things. I really need comments as a writer; they are very much a morale booster for me, even negative ones, and they get me thinking about the story in ways I might not otherwise have. So I started giving people a point a comment. When they racked up X number of points, they got to pick a character and ask a question, and I'd write a little bonus story for them that everyone could see.
That quickly became unworkable--or a lot faster than I expected it would, anyway. I'm still writing out from under a huge pile of earned stories. Now the points system is a bit more complicated but a lot more fun. At least the "kids" seem to be having a lot of fun with it. The points system is fully explained at http://www.meilinmiranda.com/points . The trick seemed to be of all things the badges/ranks. At various levels of points they earn a new rank and a new badge. Every time someone earns a new badge they all get very excited. We know it's silly, but we're enjoying ourselves too much to worry about it.
You have a "Weekend Chapter Fund"... what's that for?
When my brains aren't being remodeled, updates on the site go like this: New chapter on Tuesday, points story on Thursday. If we meet the Weekend Chapter Fund target, or any of the marketing targets, we get the next Tuesday's chapter early--on Saturday or Sunday, depending on how fast I can write. Otherwise we have to wait till Tuesday to read it. Most of us want to read the chapter on Saturday, because the author has a very bad habit of writing cliffhangers. So we contribute to the weekend chapter fund. Right now, I'm writing as my brain allows me to write, and that's not an exaggeration; adjustment to this new medication has given me bouts of out-and-out aphasia, and both spelling and word choice have been affected to various levels depending on the day. I'm told it'll all even out within a couple of months.
How does it work to have public marketing goals on your site? Do you think it helps or hurts your efforts? [which was a bad question, so I had to explained further as:] It's the question of transparency vs momentum. Or really, how transparency impacts momentum. Nobody likes to be the first one to do anything, so if you haven't broken the 10% mark for any of your goals, it might make people think twice about participating.
I set them pretty low at first: $10 a week and you get a chapter early! 25 member sign ups and you get an extra story! The targets became larger as people began to come through. Start modest.
Where do your supporters come from? Any advice on where to look for fans for others just starting out? :)
I have no idea where these people came from! Actually, I do. Most of them came via Project Wonderful advertising, specifically on Alexandra Erin's "Tales of MU." I find PW far and away the best buy for advertisers for this kind of a project. Right now, since most of the readers of sites I'd advertise on already know who I am, we're working hard on generating word of mouth into communities outside web serials/web comics. Readers get points for "referrals." If someone they refer to the site signs up and actually signs in and reads, they get 10 points. New badge! squeal!
There will be a meet-up of my fans at the upcoming Web Comics Weekend in Massachussets this month:http://www.webcomicsweekend.com/ I think somewhere between 15-20 readers will be getting together. First ever meet-up, if you don't count last month's two person meet-up of me and a reader who wanted an autographed copy of the first (discontinued) version of the book. Look for the people with buttons with big Ms on them and crazed looks in their eyes.
Thanks to MeiLin Miranda for taking the time to answer my silly questions!
March 2, 2009 — 3,467 words
This post somewhat depends on my breakdown of the Pig book, but you can read it independently too. I'll be covering some ideas that should make sense either way.
I realize that many blogs have posts about how to improve your business online with five easy steps or whatnot, but I'm not going to pretend to have the answers here. This is a work-in-progress where I'm trying to find the right balance to make my book-selling business work. I've given myself a tough schedule and a lot of flexibility in terms of goals (breaking even is a bonus). When it's all done, I'll be packaging it up into a free resource for others to use as they build their own companies.
If nothing else, you can learn from the mistakes I've made so far. Maybe you'll even be able to recommend ways to improve my plans. Or maybe you'll just want to make fun of how stupid I am (if so, please be creative).
I apologize in advance for the length of this post. Splitting it into multiple entries seemed silly, but it's over 3,000 words. Yikes!
In the first 30 days of The Pig and the Box, I earned $205.05 in profit through book sales, eBook sales and donations. Considering I also give away the entire story as a PDF for free, that's not a bad take. But I think it could be better.
The Pricing Debate
Midway through my 30 days, Wil Wheaton released his new book, "Sunken Treasure" through Lulu. I talked to him a bit by email about how-and-why he did it (which I won't discuss in detail because I think he wants to do that himself). But one thing I do want to cover is the price issue.
When you sell through Lightning Source (LSI), between the printing costs and the reseller take, on my $8.99 book, I only earn about $1.51. I don't have any solid stats from author/illustrators of comparable books through outlets like Scholastic, but I assume that they probably get more than that (if only by a tiny amount). But at $8.99, I'm already a dollar or two more expensive than comparable books, which almost certain hurts my chances at selling to a wide audience. I can't lower my production costs, and if I reduce the reseller take beyond the 40% I currently use, even Amazon won't carry my titles. I need wide online distribution to make any kind headway, so I'm basically locked into my formula here.
"Sunken Treasure" sells for $12, and is 90 pages. If I were to print that book through LSI using my current formula, it would have a sticker price of $7.99 and net me $1.79 per copy. Since Wil is selling through Lulu, he doesn't have full Amazon and international market access, but he also doesn't give up that 40%. I can't say for sure what his profit is on his books, but let's pretend his production cost is $3.00... the Lulu route gives you $9 profit on each sale. If I sold 69 copies (same as the Pig book) at $9 each, I'd have $621 in profit right now, and would feel a lot better about myself. A lot, lot better.
[I need to mention for a moment that back when I first printed the Pig book in 2006, I used Lulu as well. Their colour book printing quality was/is absolute garbage, and I can't in good conscience sell that to people. So using Lulu is never going to be an option for me, at least as far as colour material goes.]
Now what Wil has going for him is the "famous blogger" effect, which I can't (and shouldn't) use, because it's not a constant that others can replicate when using this model in the future. Wil has his True Fans, which means he has a group of purchasers who will jump through whatever hoops Lulu asks of them, buying regardless of friction. I would guess the majority of my buyers won't do that, because their interest in my book is minimal, and certainly not strong enough to withstand too many obstacles. If they can one-click it at Amazon, all the better. But let's leave that for a moment and just focus on price...
I strongly suspect that the Pig book would not sell at $11.99. I've been told that by bookstores in town here, and I would guess it's because it's a universal truth. A 32-page picture book may be pricey to make, but its intended audience isn't willing to part with much more than $9 to bring it home. So if I want to reach any kind of mass audience, I need to cut my list price and my profit, and hope for volume to save me. It seems like a good theory.
On the other hand, maybe what I need to do is focus on making the most of what I can get. Maybe I should increase the price of the book to something higher... say $14.99. That gives me $5.11 profit per copy, while still maintaining international coverage and all the related perks. Is my audience made up of "regular folk", or is it made up of prototypical True Fans, who are buying from me because they like what I do? Can I increase my price and keep them, or will they run for the hills when they see four digits like that? At that price, I'd have made $352.59 on print orders alone... if I could keep the same customers.
I guess the question boils down to the question: is 1889 Books a boutique publisher, or aiming to be something more mainstream? The answer isn't as easy as it seems, actually. (see below)
Questions for you, the reader. Try this at home: think of a picture book you have at home. Robert Munsch books work for this, but you could choose Goodnight Moon or something. Ask a few people you know if they'd buy that book for $14.99. Would they do it? (I can't ask, myself, because people will always tell me "oh of course I would buy your book at any price!") Maybe ask what they WOULD pay. Is it even lower than the $8.99 I'm using? Or is there something else in between?
Price is a delicate matter with art, because it's governed by things like production and reproduction costs, but there is a limit to what the consumer will accept in terms of "value of this work". For my next book, should I increase the price and hope for fewer, more profitable sales? Or should I stay the course, and hope for some kind of uptick in popularity?
One benefit of the True Fans scenario is that you don't necessarily need to price yourself competitively for the market. Rather than selling the Pig book at $8.99 and trying to hit the Average Joe on Amazon, I could have sold it for $14.99 or $19.99, and earned more per purchase than the $1.51 I currently do. There are still limits to what I could do without alienating my fans, but I'd get a bit more flexibility.
The downside of this approach is that I would almost certainly not create any new fans. They'd have to really like me to start dropping $14.99 on my books, and I'm all but eliminating the chance that someone will randomly stumble upon my book on Amazon and buy it because it looks interesting. Sticker shock will be my enemy. I'll have to draw them in some other way. And I have to assume that I'm starting with NO True Fans, because I suspect I don't have many friends who would be willing to spend $100/year on my stuff (no offence, guys).
The most likely approach would be to turn 1889 Books into a boutique publisher, which doesn't focus as much on mass-market appeal, but tries to please a niche. It might require some modification to my release slate for the year, but with a bit of work, I could cultivate a selection and brand that would entice at least a few fans. They would be getting highly-targeted content, and fans would end up paying a premium for it. I would stop selling through Amazon and possibly switch to Lulu or CreateSpace where my set-up costs are nil and my profits would stay high, and I would direct-ship to each customer on a case-by-case basis. It would be more personal, but I could easily hit that $8.33 profit mark for each title.
It would feel a bit like defeat, it's true, but the objective of this exercise is not to build a certain type of book publishing model, but to build one that is sustainable. Maybe that's the way to go.
One trick to the boutique approach is that the buyers need to feel they're getting value for their money, and I worry that the freely-available-as-a-PDF nature of my work would undermine me. But I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with giving that up, because it's a big part of how I got to where I am right now. I would have to create some extra value in the print versions of my books. Not always easy.
I don't know how I feel about this question yet. 1889 Books isn't much more than a boutique publisher at the moment anyway, but I don't see it staying this size forever. I will have to consider my options here. If you have any thoughts, definitely share them in the comments.
The eBooks Angle
One thing I didn't consider when I started this was the impact eBooks would have on my business plans. I'd made the Pig book available as a PDF since the very beginning, but the market for eBooks wasn't mature enough for me to really notice (even Stanza, the most popular iPhone reader, is stunningly limited, meaning the Pig eBook isn't the most pleasant thing to experience). I had a policy of pricing the eBook a few bucks lower than the print book, and counting it as bonus profit.
But last week, two things happened: a service called Shortcovers launched, where my short story The Virus Coder's Girl did pretty well (getting featured on the front page). And then Poke of the Titans was released, and (not to give away next month's postmortem) has sold almost EXCLUSIVELY as eBooks. And suddenly, my perspective has changed on how this market fits.
I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the production costs and marketing costs and all other details to do with each book launch. As of Friday night, I've changed it dramatically to allow for eBook-only releases. Books aimed at kids will probably continue to be released as paper books, but I think things like the SteamDuck series and my late-May surprise may go completely virtual, because their audiences aren't as beholden to the printed page as I expected.
Let's put it this way: on average, I need to sell 67 print copies of most of my books to break even. I don't have concrete information on how Shortcovers returns profit, but let's assume they take the same 40% as Amazon. (Update: Thanks to Mark Pavlidis for correcting my info: as a publisher, you get 70% of the list price from Shortcovers. Rest of this paragraph is updated to reflect that) If I sold Poke of the Titans there for $3.99, I would make $2.79 on each sale. If I hadn't bothered printing it at all, that would be $2.79 in pure profit, not just going to offset my pre-existing costs. Suddenly, the weak link in my line-up would be my strongest.
(I'm going to go on a brief digression, if you don't mind)
This all reminds me of 1998, back when MP3 players were still an awkward technology, and everyone was trying to figure out how they fit into the music business. Back then, I (like half the world, I'm sure) was working hard on creating some kind of desktop player with an integrated online store ($0.99 per track? maybe?) and was even halfway through developing a physical MP3 player shaped like the Apple puck mouse, which you'd connect via USB to sync your tracks. It was a crazy time with lots of dead-on-arrival ideas from all angles, but the one common thread was that so many people said: "I don't want to listen to those files. They're low quality and I like having the CD jewel cases on my shelves." Digital music was going to be a non-starter.
They were wrong, and I think if you asked people who were involved in the online scene back in those days, they'd probably say they feel the same vibe about books in 2009. The movement is there, and the technology is starting to catch up with expectations. My kids don't have this prejudice against reading off a screen, and probably don't have any special attachment to the feel of pages beneath their fingers. The next generation will prefer convenience to heritage, and physical books will begin to trend into a niche market the way vinyl has for music. Still made, still appreciated, but largely irrelevant.
I don't say this because I want it to happen, but I think it's probably inevitable. Sometime in the last 11 years, the world went from openly disparaging my dreams of a no-CD future to having an iPhone at every ear. Thinking the future is impossible isn't going to stop it from happening, and if we've learned anything from the Napster era, it's that you'd better start adapting to this new reality NOW, because the first ones on the field make the rules.
Listen, I loved getting that 5x8 copy of Poke of the Titans in my hands, getting that "I wrote a BOOK" feeling all over again... but I may be the only one. The style and target audience dictates something different, and if I want to survive, I need to listen. In the future, my plans will depend on finding the right delivery method for each title, and cracking the Shortcovers pricing nut. There lies the future, one segment of my catalogue at a time.
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing
Finally, the hardest part of the model: marketing. Obviously, a press release didn't help me at all (and cost $99). The most effective marketing was from the story on Boing Boing, but I can't count that because it's highly variable (I probably wouldn't get another book announced there if I tried) and not exactly reproducible by the average person (this entire exercise is meant to provide a framework for others to do what I do, once the kinks are worked out). Even still, once the initial flood of Boingers had passed, I still had a decent flow of visits based on word-of-mouth, which I think is my best bet for future success.
But word of mouth is a tough nut to crack. You need to find your early adopters and get them talking, and hope that momentum gets on your side (and fast). Unless you know someone with a strong following (and they're willing to promote you), you have to do a lot of legwork, and it's not as easy as it sounds. And it doesn't even sound easy.
I've read a lot about Blog Tours, where an author will guest-blog on various sites to help promote themselves and their book. That's a great idea, but I can't find a good way to get into that circle unless you're already in it. I could write to the various blogs I enjoy and ask to take a crack at it, but I bet (and have found) that nobody's interested. I might just be doing it wrong, but I'm uncertain about this angle. It feels a bit too hit-and-miss in the planning stages. If anyone has any advice, let me know.
The next idea is interviews. Luckily, I've had some practice in this area because of my day job with RollBots, so I felt comfortable yakking about my books at length to anyone who would listen. But nobody would. Put in perspective: I contacted a publication about a potential interview about the re-release of the Pig book (with over a million readers in its first edition), and was told "no". I contacted the same place about RollBots, which had not even launched yet, and was booked for an interview and photo shoot within the hour. They're not UNWILLING to do interviews, but they pick and choose. So from a practical standpoint, the majority of interviews are not going to work. At least not in a mainstream sense. And on blogs or other sites, it pretty much comes back to the Blog Tour point, where you need to have an "in" to get anywhere.
Strangely, I think one of my biggest successes is Twitter. I can't directly relate any sales to my followers, but since I started using the service more (and chatting with the various people I see there), I've found my sales have increased in small waves. I've been told by a few people to try and increase my follower count to increase the size of those waves, but I suspect the key is not the number of followers, but the quality of the ones you attract. You want someone who actually cares about what you're doing, not someone that followed you because of a dare. I'm uncertain how much I want to push the blind social networking angle, but there are times I think I should give it a shot, just to see if it works. A click-through-rate of 2% is a victory for banner ads... maybe I shouldn't be so choosy?
Lastly, we have the Google ads. I had $10 free to use on ads with Google, so I threw them into the great toilet that is the internet. Maybe I'm just doing it wrong, but nothing happened because of my ads. The only reaction I got was one marketer contacting me, telling me they could optimize my campaign to increase results... I guess that means I'd have more marketers emailing me, then. Or something. Really, I don't think picture books are the kinds of things you sell via Google anyway, but I wanted to see. It was a fun experiment.
I have a few places I know I can improve in regards to how I sell my books, but I think until I figure out the marketing side of things, I'm spinning my wheels. Over the next few months, I'll try tweaking the elements outlined above (either on the Pig book or for other titles) and report back on my progress. I'm much closer to running a smart operation than I have been before, but there's a lot of ground to cover yet.
If you have any ideas about how to fix my book-selling model, feel free to mention them in the comments or email me directly. These can be things you think are possibly stupid and wouldn't try yourself... I'll give anything a go. It's my new motto, actually: "Beta testing life for you." Have fun with it!
March 2, 2009 — 1,577 words
Part of the fun of trying something new is finding out what fails. This year, I'm getting 12 cracks at "something new", so I want to make sure I can help other people out there learn from my mistakes. I'm going to be doing postmortems on all my books, giving you some insights into their business plans and how they worked out. I'll probably do 1, 6 and 12 month posts for each title, just to track progress (but avoid writing these things as my full-time job). First up is The Pig and the Box, probably my most popular project of all time.
The Pig book was basically a re-release with a built-in audience, so there wasn't as much pressure to promote it as there usually is. I switched from CreateSpace to Lightning Source so I could finally get proper distribution (selling outside Amazon in the US is vital for me, being Canadian and all). I got a quote for the back cover from Cory Doctorow. I was going to sell the print book for $8.99 and give away the PDF as usual, all under a Creative Common Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. I was going to hope that Boing Boing would pick up the news as they did when I first wrote it, but if not, I had a press release ready and a YouTube trailer that might draw some more traffic. I wasn't looking for a new audience so much as trying to catch the original audience that hadn't had a chance to buy my book the first time around (because it took me so long to get it ready).
Because of my relatively low expectations, I wasn't counting on a major success with the Pig. I looked at my numbers and decided to aim for 111 print copies and 10 eBooks sold by the end of 12 months. If I could do that, I'd have $1.46 in profit and could call it a victory.
The Pricing Structure
Printing with Lightning Source (LSI) is cheap and effective, but it does have costs. Each of the Pig books costs $3.88 to produce. When you sell through the Amazons and Indigos of the world, you also give away a portion to the cover price, in this case, 40%. So once you figured it all in, my $8.99 book was earning me $1.51 per copy. It's not a huge sum, but the problem with Print on Demand is that you don't have the ability to match a mass-market book of the same type, so if you want to compete price-wise (which is vital to your survival, I would think), you need to hope to make up in volume of sales.
The eBook was very different. I was struggling to decide how much to charge for the eBook version. On the one hand, it's essentially a donation-with-download scenario because you can just as easily download the PDF on the same page for free. But you don't want the eBook to appear worthless. But then how much is it WORTH? What is the value of the writing and drawing inside the pages? Do I take the $8.99 and subtract $3.88 (print costs) and charge $5? It seemed a bit steep, so I decided to create myself an arbitrary rule for pricing eBooks: list price minus $6. $2.99 it is. If nothing else, it was a good place to start my eBook adventure.
The Other Costs
I'm lucky to be a "jack of all trades" type, so I can produce for myself things that others would typically spend money on. First and foremost, I made my YouTube trailer for free, which was a huge savings. I wrote my own press release too, but the service I used to distribute it cost me $99. I know there are cheaper alternatives, but this one seemed to be the best bang for the metaphorical buck.
There's also the set-up cost at LSI, where you get your proof and they register it for distribution around the world etc. That comes in at $92.88 per book. Unavoidable cost, but worth it.
I also had incidental costs in buying, signing, and shipping promo copies. That added another $45 to the total, but largely because I was shipping things overseas a lot. I probably won't be doing that again (cost per signed copy = around $8 to me, all told).
On the first day, I had about 150,000 downloads of the book (I'm only counting the English version here). The next day, there was a massive fall off, down to 50,000, and it basically continued on a sharp decline to its current level, at roughly 100 copies a day. All told, about 300,000 downloads in 30 days.
Book purchases were a bit less consistent, and even harder to report because LSI doesn't give you day-by-day sales figures. I was dutifully reloading their reports page every morning so I could be sure I caught the ins and outs, but there were a few days where I forgot to check, and it appears those days were the "big purchase" ones. So all you're going to get is this: first week, I sold 25 copies. Second week, 41 copies. Sometime in the last 2 weeks, I sold 3 more. For a total of 69 copies, or $104.19. There's actually another purchase in there from a vendor that has yet to start selling the book, but I won't count that until next month, despite the fact that the money is already in the bank. Without that, I'm still 41 books short for the year.
eBooks were even more scattered. I sold 5 in the first week, and another 5 from weeks 2-4. So I've met my eBook goals for the year, bringing in $25.73 (after PayPal fees).
Finally, donations were brisk but good. I earned $75.13 in straight donations through PayPal, which is probably the best feeling of the lot. It's someone who purely just wants to say "thanks", and doesn't want anything more in return. But I digress...
Grand total for month one of The Pig and the Box is $205.05. Not to sound pessimistic, but that's probably going to account for more than 80% of my yearly total on this title. But it's very close to covering my production costs, so as long as I can sell a few more copies here and there in the next 11 months, I think I'll call this a success. A very slight success, but all the same...
I'm going to cover my looking-forward observations in another post, but there are a few fundamentals I can jot down here. Most importantly, I will not be doing a press release for my other books. Regardless of the cost (from $0 to $99 and beyond), I get no results from traditional marketing channels. The theory behind the press release is that news markets would see it and decide to run a story about the book, but not a single one did. More than that, I couldn't even get my local paper to consider reviewing the book (lack of major publisher killed my chances). By contrast, one mention on Boing Boing basically fuelled all my downloads and purchases, and it was free (if somewhat unpredictable as a marketing outlet).
Another thing I've talked about before is the "review my book" aspect. If I'd openly courted reviews from the PDF readers on Amazon or Chapters/Indigo, I probably would have locked a few more sales by this point. I basically need to do more to profit from the uninformed masses that wouldn't realize my books are out for free on my site (or who don't understand PDFs). The best way to do that, I've found, is to have reviews of my books online. It's like word of mouth, but detached. I should have had a plan in place for that at the start, but I missed the boat and so far haven't been able to convince any of the stragglers to give me 5 stars on Amazon out of the kindness of their hearts.
Regionally-speaking, one thing I should have discovered earlier was that Indigo/Chapters doesn't automatically adopt the Ingram catalogue as it's released (all other booksellers seem to). I had to fill out a special Excel file and send it to them, wait a few days, and then the book appeared on their site (and in their physical store computer system). I lost almost 3 weeks on that problem, only because I assumed they were more automated than they are. Very important thing to know, going in.
I've got "Percy's Perch" coming up, which is similar in scope to the Pig book, so I will be trying a modified version of this model soon. I have a few ideas about how to improve things, which I'll detail in my next post, "Fixing the Pig Book Model"...
March 1, 2009 — 860 words
Okay, last one, I swear. This one will help explain why so many of the characters in RollBots look the same with different paint jobs. Actually, if you look at it there's a lot of careful re-use in the show. For example: in 105, Koto has Pounder's legs, repainted. Asset management is a big and terrible job, but it makes things go smoothly in the end...
We've touched on the issue of assets before, but it bears some extra scrutiny, because your asset count largely defines what kind of an episode and series you're going to make.
What is an asset? In a 3D series, an asset is a character, prop, location of effect that you have spent time and money creating, that you expect you can use again at some point. In this way, animation assets are similar to financial assets, which you see when reviewing your bank statements (YMMV). However, you will find in the course of creating your show that the fact that you have these things around means you feel obligated to use them repeatedly, which actually makes them more like liabilities. Headaches ensue.
On the one hand, having a fully-functioning model of your main character is a great thing to have around. It means you don't have to re-create your principal cast every scene (which undoubtedly speeds up production over time). In terms of principal cast and locations, you want to have as much re-usable material as you can. These core elements are often called the MMP, or Main Model Pack.
(You will often, in the mid-part of a production, find yourself tempted to claim: "this character that I just made up on the spot right now was ALWAYS part of the MMP, don't you remember?" Saying such things to the Line Producer will cause momentary confusion as he reviews his notes on the matter, but usually results in letter bombs and voodoo dolls. The MMP is for the most core of elements only, and may not be added to willy-nilly. At least not obviously.)
Anything beyond the MMP is considered episodic. The phrase: "He rushes past a man wearing a bowler hat and a pinstripe suit" will result in the Production Manager flagging "CH - MAN IN BOWLER HAT AND PINSTRIPE SUIT" as an asset to be designed and modelled. The first thing that happens is that you're asked WTF a bowler hat looks like, and you're forced to look it up on Google because – despite years of being confident about the subject – you're suddenly uncertain if you've used the wrong term after all.
Next, you are shown several designs of a man in a bowler hat wearing a pinstripe suit, and asked to pick one. In most cases, the second option is the best. There's no good reason for this rule, and certainly never tell anyone you think this way, or you'll start getting the Line Producers' choices in second place in every email. And the Line Producer has a thing for big fluffy pink feathers, so you've got to be careful.
Once you've chosen the design, it goes to be modelled in 3D. One cannot say much on this subject. One cannot remember why. Every time one tries, one has a striking headache in the back of the head where the microchip was implanted.
Now that you've got your finished 3D model of Man in Bowler Hat and Pinstripe Suit, you're ready to make your episode. All's good in the world. Except... four episodes later, your main character is meant to be conversing with a pretty woman in the park who he'd really like bring out for dinner. And your Line Producer informs you that you've run out of available assets for the series, so you're going to have to start doubling up. And so it's suggested that you swap out the woman at the park, and use the Man in Bowler Hat and Pinstripe Suit instead! It's an asset! It pre-exists! Perfect!
"No no no", you say, "I don't want to have the main character hitting on some crumply old man in a pinstripe suit!" It's not that there's necessarily anything WRONG with that... but y'know... once you make an episode like THAT, that's ALL anyone's going to talk about. So why don't we just swap out the man in the hat with the woman in the park? It's like reverse-asset-reuse!
Sadly, that is not how assets work. At this stage, too much investment has been made in the man in the bowler, and it can't be undone. The woman has to go. And you cry a little.
But not to worry! The Line Producer has an excellent idea! They can arrange to have the Man in Bowler and Pinstripe Suit re-textured so that he's wearing a GREEN SEQUIN SUIT instead! And one of the lead female actors can do the voice! So rather than having a wobbly old codger in a fine black suit flirting with our main character, we have a wobbly old GENDER-CONFUSED codger-ette in a sparkly green suit flirting with our main character.
And strangely, at this point, you think it's a pretty good compromise.
March 1, 2009 — 858 words
Aw hell. I saw another post that I wrote back in September 2007 that shows my state of mind while making RollBots, and I feel the need to re-post. This one has to do with the script outlines you write before you get to make an actual script. Please keep in mind that I was in the middle of giving up caffeine at the time. The bit about Line Producers still stands, though...
An outline is a short version of your script. Whereas your script is about 30 pages, your outline is only 9. In it, you set out the major scenes, the action, and whatever dialogue you think is really really important. It gives the Story Editor (praise be unto him) an idea where you want to go with the episode. The reason the outline is 9 pages is so that the Story Editor can read your script and say "holy Mary mother of God, no!" and not feel too bad at making you re-do it all.
I've never had to re-do one, but I think that's the reason.
I also think I may have just jinxed myself.
The other thing about outlines is that it gives the production folks an idea where you're going with the story. It's amazing how things get broken down, analyzed, cross-referenced and re-assembled in the blink of an eye. When you write about an incidental background character named "Doctor B" in a story, the immediate question is: "Is this the same Doctor B as in episodes 104, 109, 116 and 121?" To which your answer should always be: "Uhhhhh sure."
So when you pass your outline by the production folk, they are looking at it to see how completely insane you are. You may think that inventing a fantastic new set piece with elaborate action and wonderful potential for drama is what screenwriting is all about. You poor, silly creature. That's only true if "the set" is an existing asset. Otherwise, your outline will be hit with a gnarled hammer, you will be told you're horrible pond scum, and you will drink yourself to sleep. Or so I hear.
Now after writing a few outlines, you start to understand how the production limitations work, and you try and accommodate them up front. New character? Nah, we'll stick to the base cast. New location? I think we can make it work if we stay in the principal location. Special effects? We can do without this time. Why, when you're done with this episode, you'll will be a celebrated hero of the production! Victoire!
And yet, as you write your super-efficient episode, you realize that you're second-guessing all your good ideas. Your action sequences become stationary wordplays, your comedy becomes insightful prose... you find that your story is starting to resemble a stage play, or worse yet, a one-man play. Your characters sit around being philosophical and very, VERY occasionally threatening to go out and... and... wait, OUT?! Ha ha ha, no! It's just a ruse, of course. Wasn't that a clever twist? I can smell an Emmy in the making!
And when you're done, you've got a 3-page outline which makes Dorothy Parker look like Ronald McDonald. You send it off to your friend in the UK for a critique, and you never hear from him again. The suicide rate in your town doubles after you lose a copy at a bus stop. The dark cloud of Misery follows you around until you finally decide that you have to re-do it, and this time forget how your creative flamboyancy will cause the Line Producer to have his third aneurism in a month.
You write the second version in easily half the time it takes to write the first version, and the few remaining birds in the trees start to sing with joy. The Story Editor compliments you kindly on such a quick turnaround, though you suspect you're missing the sarcasm in the email.
Sometimes you want to show the Story Editor your original outline, but you're sure it contravenes the Geneva Convention.
From there, the outline runs the gauntlet through producers and broadcasters until it is cleared to become a First Draft, at which point you have to figure out how the hell you're going to pad 9 pages into 30. In the process, you will inevitably invent 900 new props and characters, each of which will cause the Line Producer's lifespan to decrease by 10%.
(Incidentally, Line Producers stay alive by sucking the life force out of small kittens. Never let a Line Producer babysit your cat.)
By the time you're finally getting the hang of outlines, all the episodes in the season are done, and you really want to do one more, just so you can show off a little. This is where professional scriptwriters come from. Series creators don't get to do this, because they've got too many other things to do to write for another show. Or so I'm told. Also, we don't get to go to the bathroom more than twice a day.
So that's outlines. Just like colonoscopies, they're an important part of your life. And that's all I can think to say.
March 1, 2009 — 1,034 words
I wrote this post back in September 2007 for my old blog, and realized I hadn't moved it over. It'll probably be referenced a lot while discussing RollBots this season, and if nothing else, it will give you a bit of insight into how frustrating life was, back during the scripting phase of the show. You can FEEL my sanity coming apart as you read it...
As a show creator, you are given great freedoms to invent elaborate plot lines, character arcs and other devious things to make the audience wet themselves with glee. It's what you're hired to do. And once you get into it, it's actually a lot of fun trying to blow the minds of the other people on the production. It's a wonderful world to be in, except for...
Script Clearances are there to protect you in the same way that root canals are there to make your mouth happy. The logic behind them is a bit convoluted, but bears some examination:
You've completed your outline, done your first and second drafts, and now the script is in good enough shape that the Line Producer thinks it's ready to be reviewed for legal concerns. Since you're writing fiction (and thus have no facts to check), the only thing to worry about are lawsuits regarding creative turf-treading. To avoid this, the script is sent off for clearance.
In the Script Clearance dungeon, a thousand little elves are chained to desks and whipped regularly until they Google every single person, place, or thing in your script. What are they looking for? They're trying to figure out if anyone ever used your ideas before you did. If you write "hey turnip-face!" they will search for "turnip-face", and discover that it's the name of a little animated GIF on deviantART. And the elves will then try and decide if there's a good chance that anybody is going to sue you over the use of the word. They will weigh all the evidence, and usually decide you're screwed.
But the elves are also helpful. Rather than just telling you "95% of your ideas aren't going to fly", they send you recommendations for "safe" alternatives, which they dutifully check ahead of time. So rather than "turnip-face", you are told to use "penny-ear". Or instead of "chromotron", you get "fairyhop". "Excalibur" becomes "twinklestick".
How do they come up with these wonderful suggestions that obviously keep the tone and theme of your original work intact against all odds? Well, nobody knows for sure, but it's assumed that the elves are semi-literate inbreds whose constant exposure to unshielded magnetic radiation has distorted their appreciation of reality and made them incapable of assembling any thoughts more complex than a search query.
So the Clearance Report comes back to you after much nail-biting and anxiety, and you discover your cool show about metal and action and mind-blowing tension has been reduced to something that reads like Cinderella enacting Care Bears after being kicked in the head repeatedly with a steel-framed boot. And a little part of you dies.
And you say to the Line Producer, you say: "Please, please let us ignore all these changes. Let's just leave it the way it was and pretend we never asked the elves at all. Can't we do that?"
And the Line Producer, who has just finished his lunch of Kitten McNuggets and virgin blood, sadly informs you that there is no way to ignore the Script Clearance. The Script Clearance is the Word of God.
This is why: let us suppose you wrote a script with a character named Indiana Jones. Let's assume that there's a good reason you're doing this, because otherwise you seem kinda dumb. But this character name somehow slips in, and it survives to second draft, and you've grown attached to it etc etc. Let us suppose that THERE ARE NO ELVES to tell you that Indiana Jones is a bad choice for a character name, and so the show goes into production, airs on TV, and is watched by half the world.
You get sued. You not only get sued, you get sued so badly that a collection agency invents a time machine to go back in time to steal pennies from your piggy bank, to be sure that they leave no stone unturned. You will never work in this town again (whichever town it is) and furthermore, the Line Producer is unemployed and suddenly free to prowl the nighttime streets in search for fresh victims. It's like Old Marty seeing Young Marty wearing inside-out jeans, and Christopher Lloyd crying out in a quavering voice. Those elves are damn important.
Now there's this stuff called Insurance which protects a production against space-time paradoxes, but the Insurance Masters have rules that suggest they won't insure a production that has not had Script Clearance done. But they're nice about it: you can defy the elves and use a term like "turnip-face", and the Insurance Masters will cover you on all names EXCEPT that one, thereby maintaining your creative freedom.
Not that you can really do it, because everyone else on the production is staring at you with wide, fearful eyes, pleading silently for you to just tow the line and help them keep their jobs and houses. So "penny-ear" it is.
There are some other side-issues such as appealing to the Lawyers for permission to ignore the Elves, but as most of you know, the Lawyers charge nearly $9 million per hour, and as such every single question you ask them reduces the number of episodes in the season by 4. It becomes a question of: "Do we want these five principal characters to have these names, or do we want to have any screen time for them to appear in?"
When you experience Script Clearances, you start to realize how amazing it is that anything ever gets made for TV. And yet, it also helps explain what appears to be the creative retardation of the entertainment industry. It's not that they don't have good ideas, it's that they can't get the good ones past the damn Elves.
February 28, 2009 — 388 words
Every week, I’m going to try and give you some inside information about episodes of RollBots, so you can see the things that went into producing each story. You should probably watch the episode first (probably won’t have a choice, since these posts won’t go live until after the episode airs).
In the beginning, we were aiming to write just 13 episodes per season of RollBots, and they were going to be funny-first stories with lots of "explore the world". So you have to imagine the topics we wanted to cover, like "what are the other tribes?" (answered in 105) and "what is the Safety Net?" (answered in 103). For 104, we decided to answer: "what happens if a bot can't fully extract?"
Originally, I imagined this effect as being "one leg in and one leg out and one arm half-in" etc, but somewhere along the line, it ended up being presented as bots with dumpy arms and legs. Probably funnier this way. Especially with Captain Pounder. That always cracks me up.
But just because you know what your gag is going to be, doesn't mean you have any idea what the story is. So Steven Sullivan wrote an outline that tried to make the concept make sense. He did a great job, having the whole plot centre around Vertex trying to undermine the FCPD. This also lets us introduce the Mayor a bit better than she had been, showing how it's POSSIBLE to undermine the FCPD. (though it should be noted that Mayor Aria and Captain Pounder have a complex history, so he's not quite as easy to replace as we let on).
The oddity this episode introduces is the part where Spin waves down that transport so he can bring Penny to the FCPD. That sequence is repeated in several other episodes (the hailing part, not the driving), either because somebody thought it was funny, or because we needed to fill a few extra seconds. I don't think anyone realized we were repeating it so much, so if you think to yourself: "Wow, AGAIN?", trust me... we all think that
Next week is quite possibly a re-run (we're trying to confirm), and then hopefully we'll cover 105 (which I wrote, and have lots of evil trivia to discuss). So stay tuned, and keep telling your friends!
February 26, 2009 — 643 words
I'm not one of those people that says things like: "This changes everything" or the more-amusing: "PARADIGM SHIFT!". But good god... if Shortcovers.com works the way it's meant to, I think we've got our first taste of 21st century literature consumption. And it's a GOOD taste.
The site appears to be built by tech-minded people rather than lawyers or the marketing department, which is pretty amazing for a large company like Indigo. They sell lots of major titles (Neil Gaiman's "Graveyard Book" is apparently their top seller thus far), and have a publisher system that I am waiting to use so I can see how I can integrate it into my sales plans. The mere fact that they allow smaller players to participate is a major improvement over competition like Fictionwise, which sets arbitrary qualification standards for no reason I can discern. (I'll reserve final judgement on Shortcovers' process until I actually get to play with it.)
One element I love is that the site gives real and distinct attention to Creative Commons licenses. They don't just say "use real copyright or that CC-stuff", they give you the choice between "Attribution" and "Noncommercial-Attribution", and they explain what each means. If nothing else, the respect for CC is a major victory. But that's not all. That's almost small-fry next to the real news:
The major revelation is something I've been desperately wanting the past few months: Any user can upload their own content to the service. You can either give it away for free, give it away for free (with ads) or charge $0.99 for the 5,000 word piece (where the first 500 words are free as a preview).
Let me reiterate, because I want to make sure this is super-duper clear: you can sell your short story online for $0.99.
I'm not going to delve into the whole professional vs amateur thing again, but at a glance, it appears that Shortcovers will allow any author to potentially make a living at their craft, if they're good enough. It's not a question of surviving the slush pile and navigating the murky waters of major publishing... if your story is great and you can convince enough people that it is, you could easily float to the top of the pile. There exists an environment and mechanism by which you can move left along the long tail, up towards major success, purely based on merit.
Granted, most authors are going to run from this idea, afraid of what damage it might do to their careers... but I think that this may be the foundation of the new way of publishing. I'm already giving it a try with my short story, "The Virus Coder's Girl", which is free (with ads) on your computer or iPhone or Blackberry.
It's not perfect. There are revisions and battles and upgrades to happen, and who knows if Shortcovers will be the one to carry the theory through to the end... but I think we've finally got a real, proper baseline standard to measure against. This is what we're aiming for. By the time my kids are in university, this will be a quaint antiquity in the history of reading. But it will be a direct ancestor to whatever they're doing in 2020, which is more than you can say for any other service out there today.
This is a service created by smart people, and I can't wait to see what happens next.