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June 29, 2009 — 854 words

Random Monday Thoughts

By MCM

Today is Monday, which means it's time for a brain dump.  Prepare yourselves...

PDFs Suck

One of the chief benefits of using the Reader system is that I can actually track how people read things.  When I was using PDFs as my sole source of readage, people would come by, snatch the file (sometimes without even seeing 1889.ca) and read it on their own time.  While I really appreciate how convenient that is for some people, it does give me somewhat skewed statistics.  For one, I don't think those direct downloads count on any stats outside my own logs, meaning I've essentially lost close to 9 million hits over the last 2 years.  It's an odd situation when your Google Analytics graph shows minimal activity, but your download counter is off the charts.  I like consistency, see.

But really, the coolest thing is seeing how people actually interact with the books.  I've found, for instance, that people arriving at a Reader site tend to spend over 18 minutes reading.  92% make it to the end of the book (by which I mean the donation page).  Interestingly, 42% donate when they get to the end, compared to 7% when I used PDFs.  I'm not sure why, but it's probably to do with immediacy, and convenience.  Unfortunately, not too many go back to read other books on the site.  That's a function of my poor UI... it's not obvious there ARE other books.  I'm trying to think of a way to get around that without putting ads everywhere.  There's got to be a way.

One thing I think could be very cool about this system is the ability to track the specific reading habits for individual titles, and see what causes it.  I'm starting to see all my books as works-in-progress (rather than finished products), so I'm not averse to switching things out when they're not performing well.  For example: when reading Percy's Perch, 20% of people appear to go from page 11, back to page 10.  And then they continue.  I'm guessing there's something in the transition between the two pages that's confusing.  It's the first real time break in the story, so that might be why.  But it tells me there's a glitch in the text, and if I can refine it, I'll have happier readers.  I really like this level of insight!

Physical Books Perplex Me

I am still not a full eBook convert.  I like my papery stuff, and I feel strange intentionally avoiding it... but honestly, paper books are less and less relevant to what I'm doing.  The time and effort needed to create one is rarely worth the effort, since I get most of my income through straight donations online.  Part of it comes from a marketing/distribution failing... if the book's not in stores, it doesn't get seen, so it doesn't get bought.  But I think some of it relates to pricing... if you see a book at $8.99, you think: "Is that really worth $8.99?  Other similar books are the same price or cheaper, and they're put out by big publishers."  You consider your purchase more, because you're trying to judge value based on imprecise terms.

Online, people read the book all the way through, decide if they like it, and can drop a tip in the jar.  The base amount I use is $2, which is slightly more than the profit on most of my print books.  Interestingly, less than 10% of donors use the $2 option.  I can't be sure, but I suspect it's because they're responding to the perceived value of the book in the purest sense, rather than the value of the book in physical packaging.  This connects to my earlier thoughts about the value of a song on iTunes... if a CD costs $9.99, but the manufacturing and distribution eat $4 of that, then a digital version should only cost $5.99, or $0.66 per song.  We've become so attached to the notion of art-as-widget that we can't disassociate the underlying art from the delivery method.  If you completely strip away the delivery method (as I have), people are left with the question: how much is this worth?  And in the absence of any external influences, they tend to choose a better number than I'd otherwise get.

Which is all to say that I'm seriously considering ditching physical books for the next little while.  It makes my operation cleaner and faster, and it's also something fun to try... writing for a new medium is very exciting!  Chapters need to be leaner (900-1200 words get the best results), and punchier... Percy's Perch was created as a physical book first, and when converting it for the site, I realized a lot of things I could do better next time.  Inline artwork rather than full page images, for one.  The medium dictates the content, at least to some extent.

Now all I need to do is find a way to get myself on Kindle, and I'll be doin' fine...

June 26, 2009 — 953 words

Announcement Day (June 2009)

By MCM

It's a busy day today boys and girls!  I have not one, not two, but THREE big launches, all at once!  "WTF?" you say.  "That's insane!"  Well yes, yes it is.  Thanks for noticing.

Percy's Perch

Book number 5 (of a possible 12) is called Percy's Perch, and it's about a cute little gargoyle who's scared of heights.  This, of course, makes his life pretty difficult.  He meets up with a boy named Iain who's dealing with a schoolyard bully, and they work together to conquer their fears.  One baby step at a time.

Percy was illustrated by the fantastico Kari Lynn Smith, who captured the characters' personalities so perfectly I was just the tiniest bit jealous of her ability.  TINIEST BIT.  Grumble.

Also part of this launch is a new song by Jehan Khoorshed called "Flying Away".  Jehan wrote the song especially for the book, which is quite possibly the coolest thing that's ever happened with one of my stories.  You can listen to it for free and buy it for $0.99 through 1889 Books, or wait a few days for it to show up on iTunes.

All these bits are available under my usual Creative Commons NonCommercial Sharealike license, so you can collect and trade 'em with your friends.  As if that weren't cool enough, here's part two of Announcement Day:

Multilingual 1889 Books

As many of you know, The Pig and the Box has been translated into over a dozen languages around the world, with new versions being added every day.  One of the flaws in the translation system is that to create a new edition, a translator needs to work in isolation, send me text files, have me create a proof PDF, and then revise as necessary.  The bottlenecks are numerous and greatly annoying.  So I decided to do something about it.

If you visit my new Babel website, you'll see the solution.  What you've got is a fully-automated translation system, where you can load the text of any story from 1889 Books, and translate them line-by-line at your leisure.  We support every language I could find, including Klingon, LOLcat and Pirate.

To test this system out, I'm asking you (the internet) to help translate Percy's Perch into as many languages as you can.  And while you're at it, translate Jehan's song, too.  He promised to record any completed translations.  He might even put effort into proper pronunciation if you're lucky.

"But wait!" you say, "what happens to these books after they're translated?  Isn't there still the PDF bottleneck?"

1889 Reader

The last big shift for 1889 Books is in what I like to call the 1889 Reader.  I call it that because it helps you read things, and because I ran out of creative juice about four months ago.

What is Reader?  It lets you browse the entire 1889 Books catalogue on any device you like.  I worked hard to make it simple and intuitive, with a level of polish I think you'll agree most e-readers lack.  Click on the left or right side of each page to navigate, pull down an info panel, or navigate books by chapter or thumbnail.  For keyboard jockeys, your arrow keys navigate, as well as other functions to make it a mouseless experience.  It works especially well on iPhones.  Mmm, iPhones...

The major benefit of this system is that it allows me to present translated books as they're done.  Any title with a 100% translation score will automatically appear on the site, ready to roll.  You can send friends a bookmark to a specific page (with scroll position recorded) with the click of a button.  See what a given page looks like in French, or Chinese, or Swedish... just two clicks away.

All my old PDF links will be redirecting to their Reader counterparts from today on, to ease the transition.  I'm going to be adding EPUB support in the coming weeks, with a few more features in the works.  It's going to be seven kinds of fun, let me tell you.

Wrapping Up

So what's next for 1889 Books?  Actually, there are still a few major announcements yet to come, but I want to keep this post relatively brief.  Keep an eye open for The Vector, coming out at the end of July... and in the meantime, head on over to Percy's Perch and see what you think!  It's free, and it's fun!

June 23, 2009 — 1,062 words

Disassembling the World (3)

By MCM

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse.   When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story.  You don’t need to read these to understand the book, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to know.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here.
Read Part VI here.

Part III: Factions Emerge

Adoption of the Worldwide Incubator Network (WWIN) was swift.  Within a year, most G8 countries had installed at least a skeleton infrastructure, with Great Britain leading the way at 29 regional nodes.  Brayhold Systems quickly became one of the most powerful companies on Wall Street, buying out smaller biotech companies, and quintupling their stock price in less than eight months.  If any competitors wanted to try the field, they had a steep hill to climb.

European regulators were less enthusiastic about Brayhold's dominance, and put a hold on continental expansion until anti-trust concerns could be laid to rest.  Meanwhile, an international consortium of universities developed a plan to use the older Genesis Incubators as part of WWIN, introducing competition into the market, and hopefully bypassing Brayhold's sizeable license fees.  A proof-of-concept implementation was initiated at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, successfully downloading and synthesizing a vaccine for a strain of flu native to Mississippi.

Brayhold's response was swift: it filed lawsuits in dozens of regional courts, claiming license infringement and intellectual property theft (for accessing WWIN networks without authorization).  In the United States, six colleges were dragged to court for anti-circumvention violations under the DMCA; all but one settled for undisclosed sums, and the last case resolved in the corporation's favour after the Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae in support of Brayhold's arguments.  In Europe, the results were similar, with only Finnish, Swedish and German courts finding in favour of the academics.  For all intents and purposes, the "open" WWIN was crippled beyond utility.

A major shift came six months later, when Russia announced major initiative to install incubators in every pharmacy in the nation.  Though the motives were derided as an election year stunt, the funding was immense: over $5.1B (USD) was up for grabs, with decisions about specific purchases left up to the pharmacies themselves.  A newly-formed Finnish company called Genesis Systems was onsite the next day, winning the business of the second-largest pharmacy chain in Russia within a week.

Brayhold President Mitchell Gentry spent a fruitless month in Moscow, running into stiff opposition from isolationist lawmakers, eventually leaving in well-publicized defeat.  Before boarding his flight home, he remarked bitterly to the press: "Even a bear'll cry if you hit the right spot."  The next day, Brayhold acquired Rosenteiz Pharmaceutical — a major supplier of drugs to Eastern Europe — and used it as leverage to force a cancellation of the Genesis Systems contract.  Two weeks later, Rosenteiz began a hostile takeover of the largest pharmacy chain in Russia.

An especially bad flu season that year gave incubator technology its first widespread test, and it passed with flying colours.  Every strain from every continent was diagnosed and defeated within days.  In the words of one late-night comedian: "As part of your economy-class fare, anything you catch at the airport in L.A., they'll cure when you land in Australia.  They'll still lose your luggage, though."  Aside from a minority of the uninsured and "purist" ideologues, incidents of sickness were virtually zero in the United States.

Russia was a different story.  A minor adjustment in the WWIN protocol — instituted by Brayhold during a firmware patch — disabled any Genesis-type incubators from accessing the network.  The change happened just as flu season was hitting its peak in Moscow.  The Rosenteiz takeover had just cleared regulators, giving Brayhold a major competitive advantage, now that its competition was neutralized.  Its stock price skyrocketed overnight, as investors jumped aboard an unstoppable train.  The Russian government, having narrowly avoided defeat in the election, did not appreciate the gamesmanship.  It took the extraordinary step of nationalizing all major pharmacies — including Brayhold's recent acquisitions — and signing an exclusive contract with Genesis for all future incubator purchases.  "This bear does not cry," said President Irina Maykov.  "She hits back."

Facing a massive loss , Brayhold appealed to the US government for help.  But its rivals smelled blood in the water, and soon a dozen start-ups were setting up shop in Finland and Sweden, building off the open source Genesis model, trying to provide a cheaper and more reliable alternative to pharmacies around the world.  The Free Incubator Network (FIN) was set up, with "jailbreak" patches made available to allow Patriot-style incubators to share data.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation launched a pre-emptive court battle to stop Brayhold from using the DMCA against the FIN jailbreaks, buying the movement crucial months, which it used to improve and expand.

No one would have predicted that two years after the end of the San Jose Avian Flu, the nation with the most incubators per capita would be Russia.  Just as no one would could have predicted the devastation of the following two years...

June 18, 2009 — 1,284 words

Writing Adaptive Fiction

By MCM

Writing adaptive fiction like Fission Chips isn't just about the basic mechanics of users voting on plot developments.  There's an interesting philosophy to writing adaptive fiction, which is a lot different than what you might expect.  So for any of you that might be thinking of starting your own, here's a handy guide:

Concurrent Realities

Do you ever have the feeling that the world is kinda going on without you?  That you're not making much of an impact?  That you're not, in fact, the centre of the universe?  Me neither, but I hear it happens to commoners.  But the idea that you're missing out on the most interesting event of your life?  It might very well be true.  You could be missing something amazing right now, just because you're reading this.

Adaptive fiction works on the same theory.  When you join your character in the first chapter, there are several distinct plots already at play, all initiated before your first sentence, and each with their own timeline.  In your typical story, the author would weave the hero through these threads, trying to pull them together in a pleasing way.  But in this case, the path chosen by the hero is the one chosen by the audience, so there's no guarantee you'll interact with all the storylines at all.  That would be mind-blowing boring, so you need to plan to avoid it.

Structure For All Eventualities

You've given your hero a sandbox world to play in, and you have to give him enough conflict to keep him busy.  Leave developing new plots too late, and you risk having threads dangling uselessly at the end of the story.  Make the plots too complex, and your audience will never find their way through.  Make them too simple or over-connected, and they'll figure it all in the first five chapters and leave you with nothing to do.  You need to make sure to strike the right balance.

Define three or four main plots, each with a strong conflict that relates to your character (even if peripherally).  In Fission Chips, we have the mob thread, the missing engineer thread, the murder thread, and apparently a bundt cake thread.  In each one of those, you need someone to be actively trying to obscure the truth.  You'll also want to ensure there is at least one sub-thread for each plot, where the hero could get confused into thinking they'd resolving things, without getting to the real meat.  You want your audience to have a feeling of accomplishment when they crack a plot, but you don't want them to race through your story too fast.  Let them leave with the job half-done, and make them double back later to finish it off.

Schedule Your Anarchy

Schedules are the only thing that will keep you sane.  Let's take the mob thread from Fission Chips as our example: Jimmy Scaz visited Gare first thing in the morning, and we know he's coming back at noon to collect his money.  But did you know that choosing to have Gare get drunk after his car explodes, the audience narrowly avoided a second run-in with the mob?  If they hadn't been so intent on beer, the story would have taken a very different turn.  And Jimmy Scaz might not have ended up being in such a bad mood, which will only get worse by the time he visits the office at noon.

Your plots need to move at their own speed, and definitely not wait for the hero to participate.  If one of your plots involves ditching a body, it's unrealistic for the characters involved to wait until they can be discovered.  They've got a window of opportunity, and they have to take it.  If the audience directs the hero to miss the body-ditching entirely, they'll be playing catch-up later, but that's not your problem (and certainly not a concern for your characters).  Write up a schedule.  A detailed schedule, with places and times and characters, and stick to it.  Your hero might accidentally catch sight of another plot while off on a tangent, or he might not... but you'll never know unless you can say what's going on around your story without relying on "wouldn't it be cool if...?"

Adapt to Changes

That said, you need to accept that your schedule is going to change.  If your hero is hanging around the body-dumping site for three chapters, your characters are obviously going to avoid showing up.  They'll have to figure out an alternative, which may complicate the rest of their plot.  That's why it's probably best that your characters have other scheduled events out of their control that they have to meet... let's say that after dumping the body, your baddies need to get to a dentist appointment at two o'clock.  If their plans are messed up, they need to have pressure to act rashly, or you could easily end up with a stalled plot.

At the same time, you should try and keep things a little unpredictable.  For Fission Chips, I have Tim Sevenhuysen as my antagonizer.  He's familiar with all the plots, and he knows what the characters are trying to achieve.  If Gare gets too close solving a particular plot, Tim's job is to re-define what the characters will do to cover things up.  It means your clues may end up useless, but at least you won't be left wondering why the bad guys were so two-dimensional.  They react.

Of course, every time you have a major adaptation, you're going to want to adjust your schedule to reflect it.  The more "pinned" events you have in a plot, the easier this will be.  But eventually, you have to expect your entirely schedule will be distorted beyond recognition by the actions taken by the audience and the antagonists.  This is called "life".

Make the Most of Every Decision

This is one thing I screwed up with the whole "get drunk" sequence in Fission Chips: never let your hero waste time, even if you were explicitly told to.  If your hero is a reluctant hero, make sure the plot is ready to chase him down and drag him back.  Especially in the early chapters, your audience wants to feel like they're making progress with whatever mysteries you've set up.  A good way to work around this issue is to make one of the plots have a tag-along character that pulls your hero along whether he likes it or not.  That way, if your audience says "go to the park and think for an hour", you have someone that can interrupt it and pull you back towards the action.

Have Fun

More than anything else, you need to enjoy what you've set up.  The intense planning that starts a work of adaptive fiction can be daunting, and being chained to your outline can be exhausting.  But if you look at it as a chore, it'll show in your writing.  Think of it as a challenge!  It's like improv in prose... you're given the elements of a scene, and you need to make it work somehow.  It's not always easy, but it's never going to be boring.

If you want to see one in action, Fission Chips is still just getting started.  And with this new appreciation of how it works, maybe you'll have your own crazy ideas of where to send Gare next!  Mess up my schedule!  I dare you!

June 17, 2009 — 544 words

6 Reasons Twitter Won’t Sell Your Widget

By MCM

If you listen to some marketing experts, you'd get the impression Twitter will cure cancer (in 140 characters).  Have a problem?  Twitter can solve it.  Want to stem bad PR?  Twitter can help.  Want more people buying your stuff?  Twitter does that too!

But hold on.  That's just a load of crap.  Twitter may make it easier for you to interact with your customers, and it may make it easier for you to connect with prospective ones, but it's not going to directly sell any widgets for you.  Here's why:

  1. The web of trust is a myth. Just because I follow Bob, and Bob follows Jim, and Jim likes a brand of candy that simulates the sensation of being set on fire, that doesn't mean I'm going to buy that candy based on a Twitter rave.  Jim may be a raging psychopath for all I know.  Most people named Jim are.
  2. Chasing sales on Twitter is like hawking steak knives at a kids' birthday party. Just because someone says, "That looks like a great cake!", it doesn't mean they want a hard sell on a blade that's perfect for cutting things tougher than chocolate icing.  People expect Twitter links to be happy fluffery, not an e-commerce page.  They'll resent you if you try.
  3. Everything on the Internet should be free, you fool! Twitter is free, and it should only be used for talking about free things, or complaining about things that aren't free, or pointing out discounts (wherein something is becoming more free).  Sending me to your page for a $2.99 iPhone app is like a slap in the face, you heathen!
  4. Nobody is going to retweet a purchase. Assuming they don't unfollow you at the mere sight of your sneaky ploy, there are literally MINUTES between initiating a purchase and receiving most digital goods.  By the time they get it, finding your referral tweet will be too much work.  Effort = friction = a waste of time.
  5. Only famous people can sell things though Twitter. Wil Wheaton had to fly the Enterprise before he was allowed to sell books via Twitter.  Greg Grunberg had to learn to read people's minds before he could promote Yowza.  What makes you think you can just waltz in here and make anybody care about your stuff?  Fight a pair of chromatic dragons, then we'll talk.
  6. An eye for an eye. Nobody bought my widget when I pimped it on Twitter last month, so why the hell would I buy yours?  Uppity little bugger.

So what can you do?  Is there no hope at all?  Is there really no way to make money on Twitter at all?

Of course there is: you chat with people, you share links, you build relationships that are based on authenticity and/or mutual sarcasm.  And over time, these new friends of yours will start to investigate what it is you do, and might happen to notice you have a new widget for sale...

...which they still won't buy, because who the hell has spending money anymore?

June 16, 2009 — 850 words

Disassembling the World (2)

By MCM

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse.   When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story.  You don’t need to read these to understand the book, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to know.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here.
Read Part VI here.

Part II: Nodes on a Grid

The first reaction to the San Jose Avian Flu was to reverse the moratorium on incubator technology, and get units in the hands of the front-line experts in California.  Traditional diagnosis and treatment put a vaccine six to nine months away, and at the rate the flu was spreading, there was well-grounded fear that a major economic collapse was imminent in North America.  There was no time to waste.

Three weeks after it started, it became clear there were two distinct variants on the Avian Flu: type A was becoming less potent but had a longer infection period, while type B was doubling its mortality rate alarmingly fast.  Both types were mutating rapidly. As quarantine areas proved ineffective, the incubator operators were worked to the point of collapse, trying to stay on top of the dozens of sub-classes before they branched further.  It was an unsustainable position, made worse when cases of type B were detected in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Bowing to pressure from the Governor of California, the federal government began examining a plan suggested by WHO President Jacques Démarain: build a grid of incubator nodes, connected on a secure network, and let each technician diagnose and treat their own strains, without having to send back samples for processing at a central location.  By using a distributed treatment strategy, it was hoped the flu could be contained before it spread any further.

Despite an ample supply of confiscated Genesis incubators in Europe, Congress granted a special contract to American hardware manufacturer Brayhold Systems to build new models — dubbed Patriot Incubators — implementing new features demanded by the Defense Department.  The estimated timeframe was six weeks, but Brayhold President Mitchell Gentry further complicated matters by insisting no work could be done until his company was granted a special exemption from the incubator technology's license, which would have required him to share his modifications with the original developers.  His argument that the DoD additions were a matter of national security resonated with many members of Congress, but not enough to ensure swift passage of an exemption.  All told, it took five weeks to grant Brayhold permission to ignore the license, and a further nine to actually manufacture the incubators in Malaysia.

The delay was devastating.  By the time the first incubators arrived on the scene, Avian Flu had spread across most of the west and south, with reports of type B in isolated pockets of New York City, which was put under martial law almost immediately while the Centres for Disease Control struggled to develop an adequate quarantine plan.  Internationally, detention centres were set up for all travellers who had recently passed through a North American port, with wait times of up to six weeks (based on a since-retracted article in the New York Times).  America itself was in a depression, but was too panicked to notice.  The rest of the world was not so lucky.

It took a further two months for the Patriot Incubators to get up to speed across the country.  The initial firmware was buggy and produced useless treatments, and it took Brayhold developers several weeks to track down the bug.  Once the code was bug-free and units were dispersed in communities across the country, incidents of Avian Flu began to drop rapidly.  By the end of the second month of service, type B was declared "dead" by the CDC, and two months after that, type A was considered a "non-entity".  Despite the many false starts, the incubator network was considered a stunning success, and soon American policy experts were bringing their "lessons learned" to governments around the world.

It was, ironically, this new age of disease containment that brought about the worst pandemics in the history of the world.

June 15, 2009 — 779 words

Patronage 3.0 Follow-Up

By MCM

My weekend of thinking about the future of patronage on the internet was full of code, it turns out. I built a demo of the system with a fake PayPal system and everything, which you can see here. But the process of doing so helped me realize a few key issues:

  1. The tyranny of choice could sink it. Right now I have six choices on the site, each with its own unique audience, but with a lot of overlap.  The average person, visiting that page, will probably be overwhelmed by the options, and give up without supporting anything.  Or wait to see what's ahead, and support that too.  Cutting back on the choices seems a bit disingenuous (since I intend to write all those books anyway), but I'm fairly certain I'll have to do it.
  2. How much is too much? In a best-case scenario, it takes about two months to write a 90,000 word novel.  That doesn't cover rewrites or edits.  Being really idealistic, let's say it's four months of solid effort to create a polished manuscript.  How much is four months of your life worth?  Remember, under this system, once the goal is met, you can't expect any more money from the work ever again (you don't earn royalties from public domain works).  What you earn has to last.  What's a good salary for this kind of work?  $60,000/year before taxes?  $5,000/month, then.  So a novel would be priced at $15,000.  Be honest now: if you saw a number like that, would you think it was reasonable, or outrageously over-priced?
  3. Scale is a killer. Right now, I don't say how many people have supported each project, or how much they've earned.  If you saw that Typhoon had only earned 8% of its total, you might think it was pretty low, but maybe worth chipping in for.  But if you found out it was 8% of $10,000, would you feel the same?  I know it's better to set up smaller goals that can be achieved more easily, but how do you do that for something like this?  Maybe divide chapter books into "support this chapter", and picture books into "support this page"?  Under that system, Typhoon would have four chapters paid for (out of 50), and it only takes twenty $10 donations to clear another!  But does that work?
  4. Is it enough value for money? Paying $10 to get a copy of what would otherwise be a $16 novel is a good deal, but in this case, I can't really afford to send a finished, printed book to each supporter.  Between printing and shipping costs, it would probably put me in the red.  The alternative is to ask for $30 donations, but that doesn't seem like a good trade-off, I think.  I'd earn ~$20 per supporter, but have fewer of them to depend on.  $10 is a price you can bear to part with without thinking too much.  Anything more is iffy.  So what do you give them in exchange for their support?  A print-ready PDF seems tacky, and their name in the book isn't that big a thrill in the end.  Maybe a signed print of the cover art?  It would take $2 to print and mail each one, taking 20% off my income.  But it might make it seem more worthwhile...
  5. Massively scaling my current audience will be hard. Right now I enjoy modest success with an audience of very cool people.  But if I need 1,500 $10 donations to pay for a novel, I need to massively increase my base, or I won't come close to meeting my targets.  Marketing takes time, especially if you depend on word-of-mouth via Twitter and other systems... but if I'm writing 16 hours a day, I don't have much time to network.  If I take time off to network, I'm afraid it will make the supporters I have think I'm wasting their money.  I need to find a clever way around this problem, and I'm not sure how.  I could increase my rate from $15.60/hour ($15.60/hour, 16 hours a day, 5 days a week = $5,000/month) and hire a marketing firm to help, but would $6,400/month seem excessive to anyone else? :)

These are problems with optics more than anything, but in a model like this, optics are everything.  I can make all the code in the world, but it won't get around these problems.  So while I'm not giving up on my idea for patronage 3.0, I'm definitely looking at it as a long-term goal.  There's still a lot to figure out...

Comment, email or Twitter away.  I'm ready for any ideas!

June 12, 2009 — 512 words

Patronage 3.0: Create-on-Demand

By MCM

I am a few days away from fully re-launching 1889 Books in its 3.0 form, a large part of which is ditching downloadable PDFs in favour of something a little bit cooler. Doing that isn't a business decision, but it got me thinking about my business. Or lack thereof.  And a big part of where my mind is going is the issue of patronage, and perhaps switching my model on its head.

Here's the theory: on the 1889 Books site, there'd be a list of "potential titles".  These are books that I'd LIKE to produce, and WILL produce... eventually.  Each book would have a little pitch (much like you'd do for a publisher), and an estimate of length/delivery time.  Upon browsing this list, you (the reader) would become enthusiastic about "Typhoon", and really want to see it made.  There'd be a little button next to the title that would bring you to PayPal, where you could pre-purchase it for some low amount.  Let's say $10.  After you purchase, a little progress bar next to the book creeps forward.

Now me, back in my bat cave, I'm watching this progress bar.  I'm probably working on book #4, thinking to myself: "What's next, once this one's done?"  (or more likely: "I need to procrastinate... what other title should I procrastinate with?")  I will of course pick the book with the fullest progress bar.  When the book's all done, I will send out final print-ready PDFs to all the people who pre-purchased, one month before the launch date.  So if you pre-purchase, you get something for your trouble.  And there'd be a special thanks page in the book with a list of all the patrons.  Because they'd be super-cool people.

Now let's say I end up releasing "Typhoon" before the progress bar hits the end of the line.  No problem!  The progress bar carries forward onto the title's listing, with the same "support" feature.  You can still buy it, get the print-ready PDF, and be added to the thanks page.  And the progress bar keeps on growing.  Because there's a special feature here I've been holding back...

EVERY title at 1889 Books will have one of these progress bars.  Once they reach the end of the line, I will consider the "advance" on the book paid, and I will switch the license from CC-NC-SA to CC0.  Public domain.  Ready for action.  Fun in the sun, baby!

Granted, I'll still sell the CC0-versions of the books wherever I can... but I figure if the public pays my asking price for a book, I'm kinda obligated to hand the public that work when I'm done.  It's only fair.

From then on, I'd do the work that was requested by my audience.  If there was nothing urgent, I'd work on whatever I like.  And ideally, within a few years of this model, I'll have added a bunch of very contemporary books to the public domain.

I'm not sure if it works, but it might be worth a shot.  Anyone have any thoughts?  Email or comment.  I'll think about it over the weekend.

June 11, 2009 — 719 words

Status Update

By MCM

I realize I do a thousand things these days, but I don't post about them on the site here because I am myopically obsessed with Twitter. That, and I'm lazy. But anyway... here's a list of fun things going on these days:

RollBots: You may have noticed RollBots is in re-runs these days.  Apparently, it will continue to be that way until September, when episodes 14-26 will air.  I assume this is because 14-26 are much more interconnected and series arc-heavy, so they want to make sure nobody goes on vacation and misses something vital.  We've also sold the series in Australia, Italy, Mexico and a bunch of other places, and more on the way.  I will hopefully have more exciting news on this front soon.  Weather permitting.

Fission Chips: We're at chapter 7 now, and things are starting to move faster.  Gare is trying to recover his stolen wallet, and ventures into a biker bar.  The current voting indicates he's going to run for his life, but there's an ever-improving chance he'll use bundt cake to beat someone to death.  Play along and tell your friends (via the Mystery Card contest).

Book Releases: Things are slowing down for many reasons.  Percy's Perch should be out by the end of the month, but I'm not sure if it'll be in print.  The book after that is definitely going to be late, but The Vector will still make its date at the end of July.  The last four books of the year (Unscary Monsters, Cookies for Christmas, Typhoon and Denby Taft) are in various stages of development, but it looks like at least one of them will not survive.  It's a question of timing and conflicting responsibilities.  I can only guarantee 6 of the 12 books for 2009 will get out, which is kind of a stinker.  I'm going to push hard to reach 10 at least, but I think 12 is getting less and less likely.

The Problem With Big Projects: TorrentBoy is still one of my favourite projects, and I spend probably 2 hours a night on it, but it's definitely not getting the attention it deserves.  Fission Chips is the same way... I throw resources at it every week for a few hours, but then it's on its own.  And Percy's Perch (with its accompanying Very Big Release) is going to complicate things further.  Another downside to all this is that I can't afford nearly as much time as I need to on marketing (word of mouth... yakking on message boards, finding new readers, networking).  So I will say this: spreading oneself too thin can be very bad.  I need to re-think the structure, moving forward.

Without a Net: Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi both pointed to the story of Cat Valente, who is a really great writer currently in a very bad place.  I point this out because I will be in a similar spot in about 45 days, and I appreciate the stress of it all.  [note: creating a TV series does not make you irreparably wealthy.  especially when there are unexpected production delays.  plan accordingly].  This sudden change in circumstance means I have to cut back on my plans.  Print runs are already on the chopping block, but full titles may disappear as well.  I have considered everything I can do to keep things going, but (despite a bunch of very generous pirates buying TorrentBoy) I don't think I have a big enough audience to sustain my family for the rest of the year.  I'll update everyone as I work things out.

Happy Ending: That was a bit of a stinker.  Let's end with something happy... read "Overqualified" at fiftywordstories.com.  It will make you smile again.

June 9, 2009 — 719 words

Disassembling the World (1)

By MCM

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse.   When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why.  Over the next few weeks, I'm going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story.  You don't need to read these to understand the book, but if you're like me, you'll probably want to know.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here.
Read Part VI here.

Part I: Curing the Common Cold

The root of the problem can be traced back to good intentions gone wrong.  Indeed, as Ad Janssen remarked at the launch of the Russian plagues: "I don't think anyone would have imagined, the start, that our decisions could have caused all this suffering.  We thought we were being careful."

The technology itself existed for several years before the right minds came across it.  Take the gene sequences, the chemical compounds, the logic and the math and the biology of pathology, and wrap it in a computing language.  Stop worrying about the execution of diseases and focus on the articulation.  How does Malaria work in the body?  Can we model it?  If we can model it, can we take it apart, examine the pieces, and build a cure?

The answer was "yes", but it was so slow-going.  Four years to find a synthetic cure for Malaria was a watershed moment, but there was a sense that if the tools were in more hands at once, greater things could happen.  With more eyes, all "bugs" become shallow.

The Genesis Incubator software was re-released under an MIT license the next year, after the original sponsoring universities were bought out for a handsome fee.  The code and hardware specs were distributed to other schools worldwide, with e-learning video streams running constantly, bringing new professors and grad students up to speed.  Almost as a game, a contest was set up to see who could fully cure full-blown Tuberculosis first, with a $3M prize.

Two weeks later, an undergrad in Amsterdam named Ad Janssen cured AIDS.

The reactions were swift and diametrically opposed.  Janssen, a computer science major with no formal training in biology, was offered jobs in pharmaceutical companies across the world, all hoping to cash in on the new prodigy's talent for "biohacking".  Meanwhile, the University of Amsterdam came under close scrutiny from the government for potentially dangerous security breaches, and eventually collaborated with police to charge Janssen with criminal mischief.  The case was dismissed twice, though Janssen's ability to travel outside continental Europe was severely curtailed as a result.

By the time Juan Rios cured Tuberculosis three weeks later, the world was cracking down on incubators.  Competing governing bodies were established to give certification to technicians, with two-year schedules packed with "stakeholder meetings" to ensure a fair and thorough implementation.  When Rios died from a flaw in his own cure, the European Union Parliament put a moratorium on all incubator projects until new safeguards could be put in place.  Even the twenty-seven Piratpartiet members, long the champions of open and free communication of incubator specs, conceded that further examination was needed.

The World Biological Programming Certification Board (WBPCB) had spent one year developing its initial findings on "Incubator Best Practices" when the San Jose Avian Flu outbreak began.  Within five days, the world of biohacking was turned upside-down, and the groundwork was laid for the virus age.

Read Part II here.