Reviewing for Robots

This weekend, I happened to visit with quite a lot of good friends and family, and conversation turned (as it does) to Andrea's New Book, and how closely I'm watching my reviews. Why, they wondered, did I care about it so much? And lo I discovered that there is a common misapprehension about the nature and purpose of reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.

It's intuitively obvious that leaving a good review is helpful to a book and its author. If someone should find the book, the logic goes, all of those reviews will give a reader confidence and incentive to buy, right?

And that's true, to some extent... but that's not actually the big, valuable service you're performing for an author when you leave a review for their book. You're not reviewing for the benefit of other readers. The pivotal core audience for your review is computer algorithms.

Bookstore Time Machine

Back in the old-fashioned days, when you wanted to read a book, you'd hit a bookstore. You'd be tempted by various methods a book might have for spreading its fancy tail feathers and strutting its stuff: end caps filled with the new hotness, displays curated by the store's employees (if you like this, you'll also like...), standing displays and window displays and table displays. The books with the most prominent placement tended to sell the best. That's because visibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You buy the books you see and know about. ...We'll get back to that.

And then the shelving system itself would also guide you toward books you'd probably like. You'd make your way to the section of books similar to the books you already tended to enjoy reading, and make choices (consciously or not) based on the cover's color scheme, art style, and font choices. These all signal even today what to expect from a book, to help you decide if you'd be a happy reader or not. When you found some likely contenders, you'd pick up the book, read the back or inside flap copy, and decide whether it might be worth your time and money.

I daresay most book-buying doesn't happen like that anymore. I rely almost entirely on word of mouth from my internets. And I sell books that way, too -- not mine! But I've nudged many a friend into taking a close look at Naomi Alderman's Liar's Gospel, or Max Gladstone's Craft books, or Chuck Wendig's Atlanta Burns, or NK Jemisin's Inheritance series. I'm talking about The Grace of Kings so much I'll probably have sold a dozen copies for Ken Liu before I even finish it myself.

But that's not the only way books are sold. Not by a long shot.

Amazon's Algorithms

Today, the biggest obstacle any author has is obscurity. I can't sell you my book if you never, never see it or hear of it. And who decides whether a reader sees a book? Amazon, mostly. More specifically, the mysterious computer mind that is Amazon's recommendations engine. Goodreads, too; people do go there to find recommendations. But it's my understanding that there is some synchronization of reviews, since Goodreads was purchased by Amazon a few years back. And Barnes & Noble surely uses many of the same tricks.

But for an indie book or a small press, Amazon is the name of the game. That's 80% of your sales. So if nobody sees you on Amazon... basically nobody sees you.

I'm going to speculate here about the nature of Amazon's secret sauce. I don't know, of course; only people who work at Amazon specifically on the recommendation engine can know this, and they're at pains not to talk about it or lose their jobs and quite possibly be sued into oblivion for revealing trade secrets. But given what I know about information systems, metadata, and about how books sell and behave online, I think I can make a few really solid guesses.

So readers, think of it this way: when you leave a review, you are training Amazon as to what kind of book it is. And my guess is that it takes into consideration not just the stars you award, but your own buying and reviewing history, and keywords left in the review itself. Even a bad review is, I suspect, helpful to the book overall, because it means it's more likely to be shown to would-be readers who might enjoy it going forward, and less likely to be shown to readers with a history very much like the unhappy reviewer's.

I further speculate that none of this does much until the book reaches a critical mass of reviews -- there have to be enough data points for the algorithm to reach a solid conclusion. The system couldn't have much confidence in two five-star reviews from people with a history of only buying books from the one author, right? Even beyond that, there's a good shot that it's got some secret metric of reviewer credibility. We know Amazon prunes reviews left by authors writing in the same genre to prevent gaming for good or evil; so reviewer credibility is definitely on the Amazon radar. 

We also know for a fact that it tracks other books bought by the same readers. Right now, Revision has been bought by readers also interested in Myke Cole books, Jews vs. Zombies, and Vermilion. That's great news for those books, but the flip side is crucial, here -- it doesn't mean my book is being shown on those pages as an also-liked. And that is why books like mine need reviews: so they show up on the shelves next to the books kinda like it, so to speak, so that readers who enjoy that kind of thing know it even exists. It works. It really, really works. When my book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling was paired with Spreadable Media, sales skyrocketed back to launch week levels for a while! 

That's because visibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you've read a book in the last couple of years that left you with a strong impression, tell people -- and leave reviews about it on the retailer of your choice. (But let's be honest, mostly Amazon). It's not just a nice thing that makes a writer feel good (or terrible).

A book lives or dies by the algorithm. And the algorithm can only know what it's been told.

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Revision's First Week

Over at Chuck Wendig's place, last week I wrote a piece about how great it is to work with a small press. But there are two more benefits to my relationship with Fireside that didn't make it into that piece. They are: sales numbers more or less on request; and the freedom to share those numbers if I so choose. So let's you and me talk about Revision's first week in the wild.

Let's set the stage. Remember, I got a star in Publisher's Weekly. A great review in NPR Books. I've been on Rocket Talk, and several other reviewers and bloggers have said kind and thoughtful things. (A running list of reviews are linked from here.)  Now that the book is out, I have seven reviews averaging 4.7 stars on Amazon, and 19 ratings averaging 3.79 on Goodreads. (Wow, that... took a dive overnight, it was 4.16 yesterday. Easy come, easy go, I guess.) By and large, critical reception has been superb, far better than I could possibly have expected.

But what does all of that actually mean in cash money and books sold?

In total, we've sold 292 copies of Revision. Of that, 70 books were preorders on Amazon, and 3 were preorders on iTunes. Wait, let's make a nice visual for this:

Note Amazon's total domination of the market. Note how Kobo basically sucks, more's the pity. For my part, I'm amazed at how many people went all-in for the print version, since it costs so much more money. But the allure of paper is still strong, I guess. (And on Amazon, if you buy the print edition, you get the book for free through the Matchbook program, which is a nice draw.)

Remember back when I posted sales projections? I figured my baseline number of sales was... about 300, as that's about the combined number of people who will buy a copy because they are related to me, have a collegial professional relationship with me, are super good friends with me, or who really love my prior work. Actually, I suspect a majority of that 300 fall into more than one of those categories. It looks like that guess was spot on. I hadn't put a time frame on it, but I suppose it's "copies sold until the book more or less stops selling entirely," whether that takes a week, a month, a year.

The real question, is what happens from here?

So this is an overview of the print version of Revision's sales rank history over on Amazon. There are a few early spikes because the print edition was actually available for a week or so ahead of launch, and then on May 5, it hit a new high and sort of stayed there for a few days. And now it's starting to gradually drop.

The ebook edition's curve looks very similar, with more and bigger preorder spikes. The Kindle edition even hovered in the mid-5000s sales ranks for a while, which in my case works out to mean we were moving, mmm, 30 or so copies in a day.

I have a little more publicity lined up, so that high plateau may well continue for another week or two. But if the book were going to debut big and get onto an Amazon Top-100 or even Top-1000 list, that would've happened last week. I won't lie, I'm a little disappointed the book didn't go so high and get the sales boost that comes with that. From past experience, daily sales from here will continue to slide until they settle into either a modest few books sold in a typical week, or bupkis. The book will probably continue to see some modest sales spikes around signings, talks, and panels. Our chance to game the system for added visibility, however, is pretty much over.

Unless, unless. This is the point where we've done basically everything we can do for the book. It's in the hands of the readers now. And maybe some good word of mouth will kick in, who can say. Hugh Howey released Wool in July of 2011, and didn't break 1000 sales in a month until October. Not to say the Hugh Howey trajectory is where I'm headed, but it does mean it's at least possible that sales will remain stable or maybe even climb over an extended period... if the book is good enough, if it strikes enough people in the right way in the right moment, if people tell their friends, if people leave reviews.  

We've had a good, solid start. I'd hazard a guess that there are books even from major houses that have had worse first weeks than this; Kameron Hurley has been painfully honest about God's War selling 300 UK copies over several months. I figure lack of brick and mortar distribution on my end and UK-only numbers on hers make it a decent comparison, if you squint a little.

But will Revision have a tail from here? I don't know. I can't know. I think it's a good book and a lot of people seem to like it, so maybe it'll have legs. Maybe I will sell my benchmark of 1500 copies in the coming weeks or months. Maybe I'll even go full Hugh Howey, hey, you never know. But it's equally possible that this book is just about tapped and we're already on the last hill of the roller coaster.

Guess we'll find out, huh?

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Revision Sales Projections

When I embark on any big, new undertaking, I like to do a little bit of expectation management. Some of that is outward -- it's important to describe to your audience what the thing is you're about to do, so the people who won't enjoy it know they can safely ignore it, and so the people who will enjoy it know the intended tone and boundaries of your experience and start out on the right foot.

But it's just as important to look inside yourself and establish what your expected and desired outcomes are. If you don't set a benchmark for success or failure, you'll move your goalposts around so much that it becomes difficult to tell what's working and what isn't. And I consider it a mitzvah to tell you, too. There's a lot of speculation going on regarding sales and money, but very little hard public data about specific, real books and authors. And it's better for all of us who write or want to write to have a clear-eyed and brutally honest view of what to expect. So I'm here to share what I expect in sales for Revision and why. 

I figure my baseline floor is about 300 copies; anything less than this would be a shocking and humiliating failure. This is based on my experience with the Lucy Smokeheart Kickstarter. Lucy had roughly 250 backers, and I've made a lot of new friends since then, some of whom are likely book buyers. So I squint my eyes and think 300 is what I'll get in vegetable sales: copies moved because people like me personally, because they want to support my work, or because they've liked past work enough to take a chance on this next one, not because they think they'll like this one.

My royalty rate should give me roughly $2.45 per ebook sold, so that means I'm expecting to walk away with no less than $735 in my pocket, unless something truly catastrophic happens. This is not money to sneeze at; that means a trip to a con, or groceries for a few weeks, or a few car payments. That's not bad, but it also works out to a lousy hourly, because I promise you I've spent more than 100 hours working on this book. Hell, I'll probably spend more time than that just promoting it.

So I'm hoping to do better than that. I'm hoping the book doesn't stay hidden, known only among the circle of people who already know and like me well enough; that it is recommended, that word is passed on, that people read it and actually like it. So the most-reasonable forecast for books sold if the book does well but still doesn't quite light the world on fire is, say, 1,000 to 2,000 copies. We'll call it 1,500 for our purposes, which would earn me $3,675. That's a family vacation to Disney world, several months of car payments, and -- perhaps dearest to my heart -- a number that qualifies for SFWA membership. Not bad! Nothing to live on, and the hourly is still extremely unfavorable, but... not bad.

And if it does catch on and sell like hotcakes, what then? Let's cast aside the illusion of Hugh Howey numbers, here, or JK Rowling figures. Let's not think about numbers in the millions; we're just trying to make a living, not a killing. In my dearest possible imaginings, the book sells, mmm, let's call it 30,000 copies. That would net me $73,500, a princely sum with which I could remodel my bathrooms, cruise the Mediterranean, buy an Apple Watch, and still have money left over to pay the mortgage. And wouldn't that be lovely?

It's not impossible I'd sell that much, but if it happens, it'll be the result of a lot of things I have little control over: luck in striking readers the right way at the right moment; word of mouth based on that good impression; and nothing more important coming along and devouring my potential audience and their pocket change in the few weeks the book will be top of mind.

But my work here is almost done. I've written the book. I'll spend the next few months telling people it's there to buy, if they're so inclined. And as for the rest of it... well, it's out of my hands now. So we'll see how my predictions pan out, and you can count on me to let you know how it goes.

And while I'm at it... if you want to preorder, the links are right there in the sidebar. Out May 5. Maybe you'll like it?

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Transmedia Rolodex 2015

Friends, colleagues, artists all: I'm in a great position right now. I have more work than I can shake a stick at, and it looks like things are going to stay that way well into the foreseeable future. But it's not that way for everyone, and I'd like to do a little something about that.

I present to you the Transmedia Rolodex 2015.

If you're someone who's worked in the transmedia space -- an experience designer, a web developer or coder, a writer, an artist, video producer, anything -- leave your name in the comments here, along with a portfolio link and a suggestion on the best way to contact you for work.

I'll use this rolodex myself when trying to think of someone to refer work to, and indeed should I find myself needing someone to fill a particular skill gap in my team. And it's my hope that other people will also use this as a reference for finding people familiar with the particular needs and peculiarities of working in our liminal art. 

So please, leave your info here -- and if you get hired as a result, hey, drop me a line? I'd love to hear about it!


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Patreon Policies for SFWA-Qualifying Markets

As previously discussed, Patreon is a great new thing where fans of a creator can directly fund an artist's output, be it writing, podcasts or videos, poetry, music, essays, blogging... anything, really. It's an interesting model, and one I'm taking for a test-drive my own self. (Hey, maybe join my Patreon? $1/month for a short story! It's a good time, I promise!)

For writers, this raises an interesting question regarding rights. If you've posted something on Patreon, does it count as a first sale? Would a short story market ever consider something that had been previously posted on Patreon?

I decided to find out. I collected some contact information from the short story markets I care about most -- the ones that qualify you to get into SFWA. (Ambitions, I have them.) I omitted a few markets, mainly those that were invite-only, plus Highlights because it was impossible to find contact information. And then I send out this email on April 10:


I'm conducting a poll of SFWA-qualifying short fiction markets to find out their policy on works previously sent to an audience through Patreon. I'm planning on collating the responses I receive into a blog post so that information is out there in the public domain.

Patreon is a fairly new online service that allows your audience to directly support your work with an ongoing pledge. So for example, my patrons can pledge $1 for each short story I write and send to them. Someone else might use the Patreon service for podcasts, videos, critical essays, comics, etc. It's a little like Kickstarter, except the fundraising is ongoing rather than one-time.

Patreon posts can be locked, so pieces aren't really published for a general audience. But there is a monetary transaction in place, so it's not precisely the same thing as posting to or Absolute Write for a beta read, either.

My questions for you are:

Does a short story sent to Patreon backers count as a previously published story for your purposes, and would you accept such a submission?

Do stories have to be locked to patrons only for you to consider a piece? (I'd assume so, but it's worth asking!)

Is there a particular cutoff line after which a Patreon story is considered published in your eyes? What if there were only five Patreon backers, or ten? What if there were a thousand?

Does this policy also apply to other works, like poetry or illustrations?

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, and do let me know if you need any clarification or other information before responding. I look forward to hearing from you!

I figure two weeks is long enough to wait for answers to come in, and by now I have a fair number of them. The result is mostly no, though a few markets will consider a Patreon-released story as a reprint. Here are the market-by-market responses:

Apex Magazine: No. Says Cameron Salisbury: "Considering that the author has been paid by their patrons for rights to read the story, first rights have been relinquished. It doesn't matter if 1 person paid for the story or 1000. We require first rights. So we're not paying 6 cents a word because the story has been previously published.

"Stories published to online locked groups like Critters are not considered previously published. 

"These policies also apply to poetry and nonfiction."

Buzzymag: Yes, as a reprint. "It would be deemed as published and we do accept previously published work, subject to the rules we have posted for such work."

Beyond Ceaseless Skies: No. Scott Andrews says: "Yes, to me, a story sent to Patreon backers would count as previously published.  No, I would not accept it at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, because we don't publish reprints.

"To me, it's not that money might have been paid, or the number of Patreon backers who received it; it is that the story was presented to an audience.  That to me makes it published.  (On, the difference to me is that that is presenting the story not to an audience but to beta-readers.)"

Clarkesworld: No. Neil Clarke says: "Quite familiar with Patreon. We're using them ourselves. ... I'd call that published and the end of your first rights."

Cosmos: Yes, but don't submit. Cat Sparks says: "Cosmos is not currently accepting unsolicited fiction submissions. I was not aware of Patreon & will have to give it further thought, but theoretically if a story was locked to patrons only I would not consider it to have been previously published."

Grantville Gazette: Yes. Says Rick Boatright: "Policy is  simple, we don't care."

Lightspeed: Yes, but as a reprint. Such a post would have to be previously locked to viewership for patrons. Says John Joseph Adams: "Even if I'd just be considering it as a reprint. If it was freely available online elsewhere I probably wouldn't be interested in reprinting it in Lightspeed. (I wouldn't mind that for an anthology, but since Lightspeed is a digital magazine with an online component I tend to avoid reprinting works that are already freely available online elsewhere.)"

Nature: No. Says Colin Sullivan: "I think the idea of Patreon is interesting, but at the moment I can only view it as another potential publication outlet for a story. As that boils down to another "place submit" a story, I feel that if a piece appears through Patreon that constitutes "previous publication", which means such a story would not be eligible under our present submission rules."

Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show: No. Edmund Schubert says: "I'd have to say that anything that appeared online, in any way, at any time, would be considered published, and would not be of interest to IGMS."

Strange Horizons: Yes, provided it was locked to patrons. An Owomoyela says: "In general, we're interested in first publication, not first payment – distribution to a closed group, as with a password-protected website or a restricted mailing list, doesn't count as publication for our purposes.  So, we would accept a submission for a story originally distributed to a closed Patreon list." But also note that poetry policy may be different, and: "As of now, we don't have any policy in place to define publication through a platform like Patreon. We may find ourselves refining a position in the future, especially as platforms like Patreon become more established, but practically, so far, it hasn't come up."

Tor dot com: No. Irene Gallo says: "I would say that falls under self-publishing and would disqualify it as an original story for us. 

"I'll add that each of our stories, while free on the site, are also available whenever ebooks are sold, globally.  So our authors are making royalties from them above the initial flat fee. (Because the stories are free online, we do not consider the initial fee an advance, they begin collecting royalties right away.)"

So there you have it! If more responses come in, I'll update this post to reflect it. And meanwhile, if you run a market, please do feel free to comment here to lay out what your own Patreon policy is -- any genre welcome.

I'll just add one more thing -- as a Patreon creator, I'm up to $104 per story in fairly short order. That's already competitive with any market paying a semi-pro rate. I'd love the wider readership and chance at acclaim that come with publishing in a magazine like Apex or Lightspeed, don't get me wrong! But it's entirely possible that by this time next year, submitting to a market that pays even full pro rates would net less dollars in my pocket than Patreon does. It's going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out in the next couple of years, huh?

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