Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Story Merchant Books Launches Art Johnson’s The Devil’s Violin

A special FBI investigator and a neurotic sneak-thief cross paths when the world’s most prized violin becomes the centerpiece of intrigue.



purchase on Amazon.com




Prologue
When there is no hope for the future and the present is constant pain, then the past will absorb the soul searching for good things. (Ancient Hindu proverb)
A faint smile formed around the hollow cheeks of the bedridden man. Rain continued to slash the windows. This sound was transformed into melodies. Showers of ascending and descending notes flooded his consciousness. Crisp images embedded in memory arrived in rapid succession. The hundreds of concerts and the cities they were held in: women and the rooms he made love to them in. The money—oh yes, the millions he earned and lost in four decades.
He had jumped off the edge of the universe and changed the way the world would listen to music: the artist as prophet. With his singular imagination, he was shaping the future. The flow of sounds and textures would follow in his wake.
In his possession was a well guarded ritual passed down through the centuries by a chosen few: the artists, philosophers, writers, mathematicians, musicians and speculative scientists. The power of this manuscript, properly interpreted, had increased his musical vision. This document and scores similar to it were at the foundation of cultural, political and social change throughout the ages. Secret brotherhoods with one credo: to know, to dare, to be silent.
After re-inventing violin technique and performing with a personal passion beyond belief, audiences became suspicious. He appeared to be from another world. Many people were convinced that he was in league with the Devil. More than a few believed him to be the Devil. The image he had created for himself always caused him regret. It was impossible for anyone to understand the turmoil experienced in the process of making the invisible, audible.
Today his mind was at war with his body. He knew he was dying. In the darkness of his Mediterranean apartment a vampire was sucking the blood from his veins. Long, pointed finger nails scraping the marrow of his bones. Surely, God must be laughing.
Crawling out of bed with only the strength of his arms to aid him, he grabbed the knife from the table and crouched on the floor. His breathing was labored, but for the sake of his son he must finish what he’d begun three days ago. When Achilles returned with the doctor he would tell him the secret.
He removed the final plank of the flooring and inserted the violin case with the real 1742 Guarneri into the hiding spot, the instrument fashioned by the erratic genius of Cremona which had been his life-long companion: the voice which soared among the clouds.
Tucked behind the lining inside the case was the document he valued most dearly, translated from the original Latin into Italian and English: the magic formula of his success.
The ailing legend replaced the planks, making sure they looked untouched.
The copy of the Devil’s violin he purchased in Paris a decade ago was on the bed. Last week, he had promised the real Guarneri to the mayor of Genoa, the city of his birth, for their museum. They would always believe the copy to be the original. His smile returned. The prophet knew that as time passed, the value of the original violin would increase a thousand fold. This unique instrument must be kept in the family.
Niccolo Paganini welcomed the new healer with little enthusiasm. He told his son that they would need to talk after the examination. There was no time for last words. One of the most mysterious personalities that ever lived died within minutes of the doctor’s arrival.
The next day, Achilles emptied his father’s apartment and removed the body unaware of the treasure buried beneath the floor.
1
Emily Parker loved the older neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Tonight she was in one of her favorite 1920’s mansions. She held up her half-empty martini studying the image of two inverted triangles formed by the glass and its contents; an ancient alchemical symbol for the earth. The people around her enjoying Hollywood film producer Max Pendleton’s party seemed to disappear. Her mind was elsewhere. The alcohol made her memory fuzzy around the edges yet the drug also allowed her to focus on the past. Not the decades that most people would review, but the deep past. Lifetimes of awareness experienced over centuries. Where would she be without Jonathan? He had rescued her during a time of political unrest when the Church and the populace were at war.
A voice came from over her shoulder. “Mrs. Parker?” Emily turned to discover a young man smiling at her. “I just had to meet the wife of Jonathan Parker.”
She shifted slightly. “How do you know my husband?”
He pulled up a chair. “I’ve just started to work for Max. I’ve seen Mr. Parker before but only met him tonight. Wow, he’s something else.”
Emily stared into his face. “What’s your name?”
He finished a sip of his Dewar’s. “Roscoe, Roscoe Barnes.”
”Well Roscoe, I agree with you, but why do you think so?”
Roscoe straightened his back. “We had a meeting a few minutes ago upstairs with our new Saudi clients. Your husband spoke Arabic. That blew my mind. We’re working on a new investment deal. The sheiks want a piece of Hollywood.“
Emily grabbed another martini off a passing tray. “Well young man, there are a lot of bilingual people floating around this village. It’s not that big a deal.”
Roscoe grinned. “Granted, but not many of them are investment geniuses who speak Arabic and play the violin like a god.”
“Where did a violin come from?” Emily spilled a few drops of her drink.
Roscoe pretended not to notice. “You don’t know about Max’s collection? I didn’t either until tonight, but upstairs behind a sliding panel are half a dozen old fiddles. Evidently they’re worth a small fortune. Max was selling one and Jonathan played it. Incredible.”
Emily asked Roscoe for a cigarette. He didn’t smoke but said he would find her one. The martinis were taking effect. She began to laugh thinking about ‘fat’ Max with a violin. When Roscoe returned with a pack and a gold trimmed ash tray, he lit one for Emily and sat back down.
“There’s one thing I just don’t understand,” Roscoe said with an exaggerated smile, “How in the hell does one man learn so much in one lifetime?”
Emily took a long drag of her cigarette. “Indeed, that is a curious thought worth examining.”
She stared off into space and Roscoe, realizing she was finished with their conversation, stood up and moved back into the crowd of party makers.
2
The boyish thief threw on his Ray-Bans as he stepped out into the summer sun along Santa Monica Boulevard. His meeting with Max was a tough one. The heists were getting more complex.
“People want what they want and don’t give a shit how they get it.” Gustav Edward Happy lit up a Camel and headed for his car. “Yep, and that’s why I have a job.”
Max paid well and Gus knew he’d be earning every penny on this new assignment. The job was in Europe and he’d never been farther than Las Vegas. “What the hell,” he thought, “the Dodgers are on a losing streak—no reason to hang around.”
The flight from LAX landed in Milan Monday morning. The sixty kilometers to Parma was travelled by train. Gus had experienced motion sickness since he was a kid. As the tundra of the Tuscan country side flew by two beers soothed his parched throat and kept him from puking.
It was the middle of August and Parma was empty. The sun beat down on the ancient cobblestones. There were no hordes of tourists.
His first day in Italy found Gus Happy alone in a small café waiting for his contact, someone named Mario. They were late. He fondled his espresso cup nervously while staring at the blue glow of his cell phone. A dry wind was blowing along the street reminding him of the Santa Anna’s in L. A.
What the fuck had he gotten himself into this time? The feeling that someone had followed him from the train to his hotel yesterday was making him nervous. Two months ago he celebrated his fortieth birthday in Vegas. That night he’d felt on top of the world. Now it seemed that he was staring up from a dark ravine.
He ate but felt empty inside. Sitting on the terrace of the bistro with his back against the wall, he chain smoked. He checked his watch. He’d give it another fifteen minutes and then head back to the hotel. It was time to be cool. He knew his imagination could play tricks on him.
He was born into a family of thieves. The night he began his career, Uncle Eddy stopped by to take him for a drive. They drove around in a 1983 Lincoln town car. It was black, inside and out. The seats smelled like perfume. After a while Eddy veered down an alleyway in Tarzana and brought the car to a halt. He turned to Gus. “You know son, you’ve always been my favorite nephew. You’ve got brains.” Between glances at his nephew, Eddy’s eyes were darting around nervously. “Tell me, did you ever ask yourself what your father and I and your other uncle in Seattle do for a living?”
Before Gus could answer Eddy jerked open the driver’s door and ran down the alleyway like an athlete. Gus stared at his uncle and another man as they disappeared around the corner. Total silence. His heart pounded like a drum. Was he imagining all of this…was it a dream? Would he wake up soon?
Gus jumped as he heard the sound of two gun shots crack in the air. Within a few seconds Uncle Eddy ambled back to the car sporting his big-toothed smile. Settling back in his seat he started the engine and handed Gus a Franklin. “Thanks for keeping me company. If you’re interested there’s more where this came from.”
That had been the beginning. The past twenty three years rolled by in a blur. Nothing was distinguishable. His mind had wandered but he knew it was time to concentrate.
Thieves and poets have one quality in common: the trained faculty of observation. Gus could sense someone bearing down on him. His eyes scanned the street. To his left, two older women were walking, arm in arm, their heads bent in close to hear one another. On his right a beautiful woman was staring at him, smiling as if she were coming to greet a lover. She stopped in front of Gus and extended her right hand.
“You must be Gus,” she said with an Italian accent. “I’m Maria, sorry to be a little late.” Gus stumbled to his feet. He recognized her as the person who followed him from the train station. He moved around to offer her a chair. “Sorry, I was waiting for someone called Mario.” He held out the note that the desk clerk had given him that morning.
“Oh Signor, in Italian the letter ‘a’ sometimes looks like an ‘o’. Maria patted his cheek. “It is my fault. I should have been on time.” She sat down crossing her olive colored legs. Her dress was simple, low cut, fitting her slender body without clinging to it. A crowned straw hat and huge oval sunglasses completed her statement. Gus thought of Sofia Loren.
He began to mentally size up his options before speaking. Maria ordered two more espressos. Due to his fatigue and anxiety Gus was spaced out. The last thing he had expected from Max was to hook him up with a female. “Well Maria, what’s our next move?”
“You don’t know?” Maria giggled as she spoke. Gus’s cell phone went off. The sound was deafening in the empty plaza. Maria smiled at Gus. “You’d better answer it, it’s probably Max.”
3
After a brief update with Gus, Max confirmed a few details with Maria and then locked away his untraceable cell phone. The tension in Gus’s voice made him chuckle. Max felt confident about the casting of this odd couple. A man and a woman would be less conspicuous in the process of acquiring such a treasure. The screenplay was flawless. The actors were perfect for the roles.
Max swiveled in his chair to look at the Hollywood hills. Soon, he would be the owner of one of the rarest works of art on the planet and no one would know until it was too late to do anything about it. The most important violin in existence would soon be his. He would need to tell Jonathan about his latest escapade. Max needed to keep his right-hand man up to date. If something did go wrong, Jonathan was the ideal problem solver whose insights were invaluable.
He lit a cigar. Producer Max Pendleton arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago thirty two years ago with sixty six bucks in his pocket and an ailing 1977 Oldsmobile ‘88’. He came with one idea in mind: to take over the film industry. He had absolutely no knowledge of the cinema other than he liked to go to the movies. Max was twenty four years old and completely full of himself.
Within days of being in Hollywood, he had bluffed his way onto the Paramount lot, convincing the security guard that he’d been mugged on Sunset Boulevard on his way to a meeting with the producers of “Happy Days”. Max was a born schmoozer.
When he was eighteen years old he lied about his age to get a job as the manager of a small branch of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus. The troop would be touring the mid west. Even in his teens, his burly appearance and pock-marked complexion got him into the meanest bars on the south side of Chicago. In his six months as a circus boss, there wasn’t any trick in the book that he hadn’t dealt with or dealt out. Max could sell Eskimos sun tan lotion.
He rotated his chair to face the small Pissarro landscape on the wall behind his desk. Standing, he moved in for a finer view of the details. If it hadn’t been for Jonathan Parker’s contact in Europe, he wouldn’t be enjoying this up close and personal relationship with a masterpiece from the Impressionist era. It hadn’t come from an auction house or been purchased from a private collection. It just arrived one day at the garden gate in a perfectly ordinary box hand-delivered by the postman.
Max tidied up his desktop then went downstairs to prepare for his wife’s birthday party. He hoped that none of the staff had revealed the big surprise for the evening. It had taken a lot of pull to get Sting to pass by and serenade her with a few of her favorite songs. The Cartier necklace flown in from the shop at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco should also put a smile on her face.
4
Maria talked to Max with her hand cupped over the mouthpiece. Gus watched the sun fading around the piazza. A shadow fell across the terrace. Their waiter was lighting candles at each table. Maria snapped the phone shut and the sound brought Gus back to earth. “It’s time for a walk.” She gathered up her purse and signaled for the check.
In the few minutes he’d known her, Gus realized she was used to calling the shots. He wasn’t sure why Max had put them together. He decided to let it play itself out and see where it went.
Maria headed toward the basilica. Gus tagged along. After a few quick glimpses at Gus she spoke. “Tell me Mr. Gus, what do you know about the world of violins and their history?”
Gus lit a cigarette. “My grandfather had one, but I never heard him play it.”
“Oh, you come from a musical family?” Maria responded enthusiastically. Gus snapped. He grabbed Maria by the arm and guided here into a dark alley. “Look,” he said with his eyes on fire, “I’m a con man, a pretty damn good thief and I’m here in the middle of Italy with someone I know nothing about getting ready to knock over a museum for a violin… a violin for Christ’s sake? I don’t fucking believe it. I’ve got half a mind the chuck the whole thing and get the hell out of here pronto.”
Maria made no attempt to release her arm from his grip. She stood smiling at his tirade. “My goodness, you have more of a temper than the Italians…yes?” Gus removed his hand. “I tell you Signor Gus Happy, it is as if you were going to steal a new Porsche but had never seen one. This job could set us both up for life but without the proper background on the object in question we will fail. It’s as simple as that. Max hired me to be with you, to fill in the blanks but I am not working with little boys who can’t take the pressure. So right now, you decide, in or out?”
Gus felt a monster headache coming on. “Okay, okay,” holding his forehead, “go ahead, educate me. But I warn you, I’m not here to waste time. Max hired me to do a job, nothing more. He flicked his cigarette into a fountain. “Where do we start?”
Maria let out a maniacal giggle. “We start at my apartment where I fix us dinner. You are tired and will need much strength for our adventure.”
“Our adventure” Gus thought, “What the hell is this, Harry Potter?” Right now he needed to eat and sleep. Maybe the morning would bring the picture into focus. Besides, he was too tired to argue with Sofia Loren’s little sister.
Winding through the narrow streets on the other side of Strada Della Reppublica in the heart of Parma, Gus barely noticed the trendy boutiques and coffee houses dimly lit with amber or yellow lamps. Everything just swirled above and below him as if he were trying to claw his way home after an all night bender.
Maria jostled her purse for a set of keys and turned into a small courtyard overgrown with beds of flowers and guarded by an ancient olive tree.
She sprinted into the darkness to switch on the lights. Gus looked around. It felt like a smaller version of Max’s mansion in Hollywood. Educated taste permeated every nook and cranny reeking of an indefatigable check book.
Maria threw together a pasta salad accompanied by a bottle of Chianti. Gus settled himself down on an over-sized puffy divan which begged him to fall asleep. Before he knew it they’d gone through the entire bottle of wine. Maria sat at his side with her legs in lotus position. Her empty wine glass dangled between thumb and first finger. She observed Gus for a few moments then got up and returned with a blanket and pillow. “You are too tired to work tonight. Take what I say with you to your dreams.” Maria bent down to whisper in his ear. “The piece of history we are about to steal is like no other on this planet. Although there are others like it, this one is the most coveted of them all because it belonged to the Devil.”
Gus heard her last words as if he were at the bottom of a well. He felt the cold pillow under his head as he sprawled out. Soon he was off the radar.
5
Gus awoke to the sound of birds singing. He had no idea where he was. He willed his eyes to open one at a time. His left eye winced at the sudden profusion of sunlight. When he opened his right lid both eyes focused on a pair of sheer draperies fluttering in the breeze. A chill ran over him. He pulled the comforter up around his neck. A slow exaggerated yawn escaped as he pulled himself up. Through the curtains he could see Maria seated at a small table in an overgrown garden. Things looked different after a full night of sleep. Maria appeared like a goddess in her white robe, the sunlight dancing upon her face. She was calmly reading a magazine and sipping her coffee. Caffeine. Gus needed to ward off the numbness.
“Good morning!” He yelled out through a smoker’s cough. With a quick snap of her head, Maria smiled and waved.
“Buon giorno” she returned, gracefully stepping in from the garden. She smiled as she scurried past him. “Stay where you are. I will bring coffee and pastries.” Gus fumbled for his cigarettes, trying to shake off the coma. Maria reappeared with a tray. “You look a mess.” She poured him a cup.
Gus took it and grabbed at the pastries. “What the hell time is it?”
She could barely understand him with his mouth full. “It is almost noon. I let you sleep in.”
Gus drained his second cup.
Maria was in motion. “Listen, I have to dress and go shopping. We have much to do today and will not be tourists. You will find everything you need upstairs in the bathroom, first door on your right. I’ll be back within the hour and we’ll have a light lunch and begin your education.” She let out another maniacal giggle as she went upstairs to change. Gus thought her to be the happiest woman on the face of the planet or nuts; probably both.
After she left, he decided to stroll through the apartment room by room, investigating his new partner.
On the dresser in her bedroom were various framed photos of what were probably family and friends. The antique bureau was full of carefully folded lingerie and underclothes. Sexy designs which were classy but not over the top. The clothes in her closet were organized from left to right by function and color. Gus searched through all the boxes on the shelves but didn’t find a weapon or any other life-threatening device. There was a spare bedroom, sparsely furnished, which didn’t seem lived in.
After taking his shower he examined the medicine cabinet. It contained cold remedies and vitamins but no prescription drugs. The door was secured on a large closet in the hallway between the two rooms. He thought about picking the lock but left it alone.
Moving downstairs he headed for the kitchen. It was very modern compared to the rest of her living space. Marble counter tops, Italian appliances along with polished copper skillets which hung over the stove. The area was too neat, too perfect to be used very much. Inside the refrigerator were a tray of butter and a carton of past-use milk. She didn’t appear to be a home-body.
Returning to the front room where he spent the night, he crossed over to a small office. Inside was a huge table mounted with a computer and tower. An orange plastic box full of hard-drive discs sat next to the monitor which were numbered but not labeled. Behind the desk was a book case with subjects about art history, antiques, biographies and travel. On the top shelf rested seven books bound in black leather, untitled. Gus took one down. Scattered throughout the pages were plates of angels playing music surrounded by strange symbols and Zodiac signs. Gus returned the book carefully and stared off into space. “What makes this woman tick? Is she some kind of heavy intellectual or just out of her mind?”

Monday, April 7, 2014

Russian Transport’ swoops into Steppenwolf, delivering dark cargo of corruption and terror

Review: “Russian Transport” by Erika Sheffer, at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 11. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson
Aaron Himelstein plays the driver, Melanie Neilan the passanger in 'Russian Transport.' (Michael Brosilow)

The young playwright Erika Sheffer’s stark and chilling tragedy-as-morality play “Russian Transport,” just opened in a hard-edged production at Steppenwolf Theatre, offers an unvarnished look at the immigrant experience recalling Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”

Diana (Mariann Mayberry) is the tough-as-nails matriarch in 'Russian Transport.' (Michael Brosilow)


Like Miller’s “View,” Sheffer’s 2012 drama – her first play — is set in the Brooklyn underbelly where life is hardscrabble, you do whatever it takes to get by and you extend a hand to family coming behind you. But where “View” centers on the obsessive and destructive impulses of one troubled soul, “Russian Transport” serves up an overtly corrupt and dangerous man prepared to exploit, even subjugate his own kin in pursuit of his horrific business.

Sheffer’s taut, concise play begins as family comedy, broad and earthy, in a Russian-American household ramrodded by the willful Diana (Mariann Mayberry in a performance as outrageously brassy as her mop of red hair). She gets little more than humorous pushback from husband Misha (Alan Wilder), who runs a taxi service out of a back room. Wilder lends Misha has a distinct aspect of anonymity.

Boris (Tim Hopper) settles in with his sister's family in 'Russian Transport.' (Michael Brosilow)It is a spunky tribe, rounded out by two teenage children — Alex (Aaron Himelstein), who somehow makes more money than his job selling cell phones actually pays, and Mira (Melanie Neilan), who’s constantly at war with her mother and desperate to visit Italy. The parents are from Russia and often speak the mother tongue; the kids, thoroughly Americanized, understand the old language but stick to the parlance of their time and place.

Into this happily combative scene comes Diana’s brother Boris, a tall, strong, imposing man in his late thirties just arrived from the homeland. Diana, who hasn’t seen him in 20 years, says Boris always exuded virility. Even when he was young, she says, he could make a girl pregnant just by looking at her.

At first the new family addition is quiet and retiring, all gratitude and deference. But the truth is that Boris is into some serious – what’s the word? – stuff. You could call him the title character: the Russian transporter. And very soon he loops nephew Alex into his insidious game.
 
Tim Hopper is downright frightening as Boris. No one, not even his accommodating sister, is safe Misha (Alan Wilder) is the father, if not head of the household. (Michael Brosilow)around him. No one dares cross him or fail him. When young Alex loses his stomach for the job and leaves Boris in the lurch, the importuned uncle recounts an anecdote about a relative of Alex’s, back in the motherland, who once made a similar judgment error. In graphic detail, Boris spells out the amending lesson that poor fellow got.

It is Alex who stands at the moral wall of this very dark tale, and in Aaron Himelstein’s nuanced portrait of a potential criminal as a young man, he seems the unlikeliest such bulwark. He gets sucked in, overwhelmed, sickened. But in Boris’ world, there is no door marked Exit. You’re in for the long haul. And yet, when you look in the rear-view mirror and see your own humanity looking back at you — what then?

Moving on a parallel plane is the play’s most intriguing character and Erika Sheffer’s most imaginative structural component – daughter Mira. Young, beautiful and restive, she wants so much to travel, see the world beyond Brooklyn. Nyet, her mother replies, singularly and just as loudly as Mira pleads.

Mira (Melanie Neilan) and Boris (Tim Hopper) get to know each other. (Michael Brosilow)


Melanie Neilan’s Mira is a girl of many faces, headstrong and narcissistic and naïve. But also determined to prevail, as eventually she appears to do. There’s mother Diana, in half light, helping the girl into a warm jacket and sending her off. When a bright-eyed kid wants something that badly, how long can a mom say no?

Director Yasen Peyankov paces the play with an impeccable sense of flow and rest, urgency and tension. The reunion of sister and brother at the family’s welcoming dinner is expansive in its cheer, disturbing in its edge. Boris’ transformation from mellow uncle to terrifying criminal progresses by deftly measured steps.

Set designer Joey Wade has provided a homey environment that brings the viewer directly into Sheffer’s harrowing narrative. And costumer Ana Kuzmanic hits the peak of cool with a suit for Boris that says crime pays, and well.

Reposted From Chicago on the Aisle


Friday, April 4, 2014

Robert Dembik's Rise Above It All Now FREE giveaway April 6 - 10



purchase on Amazon.com



First, this book isn't just about the image on the front cover. Taken from a photograph I took at Niagara Falls, the image is a symbol of the hope and faith it takes to maintain a belief in one's abilities here on earth. It also delivers the message that "this too shall come to pass." This book is about perception, refusing to pass judgments, and releasing the God-given spirit that's in each of us. I believe that the image depicts Angelic mist rising above Niagara Falls—a divine inspiration.

Second, although this is my story, there's a deeper message contained within these pages: a message of profound peace and wonderment. The photo is a part of that story. I took it in December of 1997 with—believe it nor not—a Kodak throwaway camera! My "journalistic" mission when I went to the Falls was to complete the first draft of what you hold in your hands. The complete explanation of this true story is in the epilogue; therefore, you may want to read that portion first. The image is a part of my life story. Not only is it a great little picture, but the photo is also part of a series of photographs that tells a simple and honest story of its own. The angelic mist was discovered because of this book and the completion of this book was inspired by the angelic mist. Therefore, I believe that a profound message from the photo is that "someone or something will always have your back."

The image is separate yet attached to this work. And I think that's how we go through life sometimes—separate from God because of our physical nature in the "now moment" called reality. This higher power, or God, is our inner energy and source of spirit, and we're attached to this force all the time—every moment! The image is a symbol for this message: when all seems to be lost, when it looks like all else has failed, remember, you'll still be able to "rise above it all now." The message was clear to me—I have and will continue to rise above it all!

The last chapter, Hope, conveys this idea—don't give up hope. And as a student of faith and belief, who knows that the challenges before me shall all come to pass, I can attest that hope led me to cope with and conquer the obstacles in my life.
We all must strive to be in the moment. I was in the moment when I captured that image above Niagara Falls. The full discovery of that image can be yours at www.niagarafallsangel.com. There's always a part of us connected to God, and we serve Him by playing a role in this world. The act of serving God is the art of expressing joy in his might; it is embracing his wisdom and reaching out to grasp the comfort of his grace. By doing so, we will have peace—the peace of the knowing that we can rise above it all!
I welcome you, the reader, to this work of passion and compassion. I applaud you for taking the time to put yourself closer to a personal victory by opening your mind to the thoughts and concepts contained within these pages. With that said, I hope you enjoy my book!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Surging Rents Force Booksellers From Manhattan

Literary City, Bookstore Desert

After scouring Manhattan for a second location for her bookstore, Sarah McNally finally decided to open one in Brooklyn instead. Credit Josh Haner/The New York Times

When Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson bookstore in Lower Manhattan, set out to open a second location, she went to a neighborhood with a sterling literary reputation, the home turf of writers from Edgar Allan Poe to Nora Ephron: the Upper West Side.

She was stopped by the skyscraper-high rents. 

“They were unsustainable,” Ms. McNally said. “Small spaces for $40,000 or more each month. It was so disheartening.”

Rising rents in Manhattan have forced out many retailers, from pizza joints to flower shops. But the rapidly escalating cost of doing business there is also driving out bookstores, threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe, the home of the publishing industry and a place that lures and nurtures authors and avid readers. 

“Sometimes I feel as if I’m working in a field that’s disappearing right under my feet,” said the biographer and historian Robert Caro, who is a lifelong New Yorker.
The Rizzoli Bookstore was recently told that it would be forced to leave its grand space on 57th Street because the owners decided that the building would be demolished.

Customers browsing at McNally Jackson bookstore. Credit Tina Fineberg for The New York Times
The Bank Street Bookstore in Morningside Heights announced in December that it would not renew its lease when it expires in February 2015, saying that it had lost money for the last decade. Both stores are scrambling to find new locations.

Independents like Coliseum Books, Shakespeare and Company on the Upper West Side, Endicott Booksellers and Murder Ink have all closed their doors.

In the past, those smaller stores were pushed out by superstores — a trend memorably depicted in the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail” — leaving book lovers worried that someday, Manhattan would be dominated by chain bookstores. 

But now the chain stores are shutting down, too. Since 2007, five Barnes & Noble stores throughout Manhattan have closed, including its former flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, which was shuttered in January. Five Borders stores in Manhattan were closed in 2011 when the chain went bankrupt, vacating huge spaces on Park Avenue, near Penn Station and in the Shops at Columbus Circle. 

State data reveals that from 2000 to 2012, the number of bookstores in Manhattan fell almost 30 percent, to 106 stores from 150. Jobs, naturally, have suffered as well: Annual employment in bookstores has decreased 46 percent during that period, according to the state’s Department of Labor.
The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support to small businesses.
 
The interior of Rizzoli bookstore on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Credit Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Mr. Caro said in an interview that he is heartbroken by the loss of bookstores from Manhattan, calling it “a profoundly significant and depressing indication of where our culture is.”
“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”

With the closing of several Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, it is difficult to shop for new books in Midtown, the same neighborhood that houses Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and much of Penguin Random House. 

“There are some great bookstores, but there aren’t a lot of them,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette. “Compared to other cities, New York is no longer a bookstore city.”
There are still six Barnes & Nobles remaining in Manhattan, but with the company closing roughly 20 stores each year nationwide, some people in the industry have urged publishers to step in. Whispers that publishers will re-enter the brick-and-mortar business — harking back to the days when the storied names Doubleday and Scribner graced bookstores on Fifth Avenue — have intensified in recent months. Some publishing insiders have speculated that Penguin Random House, by far the largest trade publisher in the world, will expand into retail to fill the void left by Barnes & Noble, which has struggled to find its footing, and compete with Amazon. 

“You just have to walk down Fifth Avenue to see what New York has become — it’s become an outlet mall for rich people,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent, adding that she had just received an email from a Random House editor noting that the company was able to print books quickly because it owns its own printing plant. “Why don’t they own their own bookstore?”
Despite the difficult conditions, some stores appear to be thriving. Posman Books, a small independent chain, opened a new outpost in Rockefeller Center in 2011.
Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson bookstore. Credit Deidre Schoo for The New York Times
And just as many writers have fled to Brooklyn or Queens in search of more affordable housing, some bookstore owners have followed. Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene opened in 2009 to robust business and year-over-year increases in sales.

In December, Christine Onorati, the co-owner of Word bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, opened a second store in Jersey City. 

Ms. Onorati said she never looked seriously at Manhattan because the rents were so unaffordable. Even with lower rents in Jersey City, she opened a cafe within the bookstore that serves pastries and Stumptown coffee as an additional source of revenue, something she had previously vowed she would never do. 

She said she was concerned that bookstores in high-rent areas like Manhattan would shift their merchandise away from more accessibly priced paperbacks toward more expensive items with wider profit margins. 

“My worry is that to make these rents, people are going to have to make the bookstore a place where only wealthy people can be,” she said. “The higher and higher these rents go, do you have to bring in these expensive leather journals and art books that only rich people can buy?”

David Rosenthal, the president and publisher of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, predicted that stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie would become more important in the publishing ecosystem as stand-alone bookstores decrease. 

“The serendipity of hanging out in a bookstore is just diminishing,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “We’ll become more dependent on stores that are not primarily bookstores, but have some degrees of books. It’s better than nothing.” 

After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally of McNally Jackson abandoned her search. At the urging of a former employee, she began looking in Brooklyn and settled on Williamsburg, where she found a “magnificent,” loftlike space with a 20-foot ceiling. The store will open this fall. 

“I started walking around Williamsburg and I fell in love with the neighborhood,” she said. “I have not figured out a way to make it happen in Manhattan. And I wanted to.” 


Reposted From The New York Times


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Friday, March 28, 2014

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As fiery death rains down on the city, Chicago arms itself to strike back against New York….


It’s the not-too-distant future. Following the Great Wars, the city-state of Chicago has become an urban wasteland. Re-armed to defend itself, the government and its citizens wait in constant readiness for the day when war would break out again…with New York, Los Angeles, perhaps Dallas. Then, without warning, the attack comes…a limited atomic bombardment that threatens even worse devastation.

Thrown together by the winds of war, embittered ex-soldier Jake Bowman and elite bodyguard Cassandra Ingram are drawn into a deadly combat mission against New York. As they are equally drawn into an unexpected, passionate affair. With the government of Chicago crippled by panic, betrayal and murder, Jake and Cassandra are forced into action alone. Can they save their city---and themselves---as total annihilation nears?...

Hailed by award-winning producer Vince Gerardis (Executive Producer, HBO’s Game of Thrones) as “a one-of-a-kind, franchise-friendly, big action sci-fi title,” CITY WARS is an exciting, suspenseful thriller sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The 7k Report



I’ve just read Hugh Howey’s 7k Report, reposted below, on Author’s Earnings, and it’s a real eye opener about ebooks versus print books, and direct publishing versus traditional publishing—a confirmation of our instincts that we’re on an exciting new frontier.  -- confirming that direct publishing is here to stay and giving us all much needed directions for trimming our sails for the bracing voyage ahead!

Written by: Hugh Howey

It’s no great secret that the world of publishing is changing. What is a secret is how much. Is it changing a lot? Has most of the change already happened? What does the future look like?
The problem with these questions is that we don’t have the data that might give us reliable answers. Distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t share their e-book sales figures. At most, they comment on the extreme outliers, which is about as useful as sharing yesterday’s lottery numbers [link]. A few individual authors have made their sales data public, but not enough to paint an accurate picture. We’re left with a game of connect-the-dots where only the prime numbers are revealed. What data we do have often comes in the form of surveys, many of which rely on extremely limited sampling methodologies and also questionable analyses [link].

This lack of data has been frustrating. If writing your first novel is the hardest part of becoming an author, figuring out what to do next runs a close second. Manuscripts in hand, some writers today are deciding to forgo six-figure advances in order to self-publish [link]. Are they crazy? Or is signing away lifetime rights to a work in the digital age crazy? It’s hard to know.

Anecdotal evidence and an ever more open community of self-published authors have caused some to suggest that owning one’s rights is more lucrative in the long run than doing a deal with a major publisher. What used to be an easy decision (please, anyone, take my book!) is now one that keeps many aspiring authors awake at night. As someone who has walked away from incredible offers (after agonizing mightily about doing so), I have longed for greater transparency so that up-and-coming authors can make better-informed decisions. I imagine established writers who are considering their next projects share some of these same concerns.

Other entertainment industries tout the earnings of their practitioners. Sports stars, musicians, actors—their salaries are often discussed as a matter of course. This is less true for authors, and it creates unrealistic expectations for those who pursue writing as a career. Now with every writer needing to choose between self-publishing and submitting to traditional publishers, the decision gets even more difficult. We don’t want to screw up before we even get started.

When I faced these decisions, I had to rely on my own sales data and nothing more. Luckily, I had charted my daily sales reports as my works marched from outside the top one million right up to #1 on Amazon. Using these snapshots, I could plot the correlation between rankings and sales. It wasn’t long before dozens of self-published authors were sharing their sales rates at various positions along the lists in order to make author earnings more transparent to others [link] [link]. Gradually, it became possible to closely estimate how much an author was earning simply by looking at where their works ranked on public lists [link].

This data provided one piece of a complex puzzle. The rest of the puzzle hit my inbox with a mighty thud last week. I received an email from an author with advanced coding skills who had created a software program that can crawl online bestseller lists and grab mountains of data. All of this data is public—it’s online for anyone to see—but until now it’s been extremely difficult to gather, aggregate, and organize. This program, however, is able to do in a day what would take hundreds of volunteers with web browsers and pencils a week to accomplish. The first run grabbed data on nearly 7,000 e-books from several bestselling genre categories on Amazon. Subsequent runs have looked at data for 50,000 titles across all genres. You can ask this data some pretty amazing questions, questions I’ve been asking for well over a year [link]. And now we finally have some answers.

When Amazon reports that self-published books make up 25% of the top 100 list, the reaction from many is that these are merely the outliers. We hear that authors stand no chance if they self-publish and that most won’t sell more than a dozen copies in their lifetime if they do. (The same people rarely point out that all bestsellers are outliers and that the vast majority of those who go the traditional route are never published at all.) Well, now we have a large enough sample of data to help glimpse the truth. What emerges is, to my knowledge, the clearest public picture to date of what’s happening in this publishing revolution. It’s a lot to absorb, but I believe there’s much here to learn.

The Value Ratio

I’m going to start with some of the smaller lessons to be gleaned from this data. We’ll conclude this report by looking at author earnings, but I don’t want that bombshell to drown out these equally important observations.

The first thing that jumped out at me when I opened my email was these next two charts, which our data guru had placed side-by-side. What caught my eye was how they seem to be inversely correlated:


ReviewPrice


On the left, we have a chart showing the average rating of 7,000 bestselling e-books.1 On the right, we have a chart showing the average list price of the same 7,000 e-books. Both charts break the books up into the same five categories. From the left, they are: Indie Published, Small/Medium Publisher, Amazon Published (from imprints like 47North), Big Five published, and Uncategorized Single-Author.2

It’s interesting to me that the self-published works in this sample have a higher average rating than the e-books from major publishers. There are several reasons why this might be, ranging from the conspiratorial (self-published authors purchase their reviews) to the communal (self-published authors read and favorably rate each others works) to the familial (it’s friends and family who write these reviews). But the staggering number of reviews involved for most of these books (over a hundred on average across our entire sample) makes each of these highly unlikely. As I’ve seen with my own works—and as I’ve observed when watching other books spread organically—the sales come before the reviews, not after. There are a number of more plausible explanations for the nearly half a star difference in ratings, and one in particular jumped out at me, again from seeing these two charts next to one another.

Note the shortest bar in one graph correlates to the tallest in the other. Is it possible that price impacts a book’s rating? Think about two meals you might have: one is a steak dinner for $10; the other is a steak dinner that costs four times as much. An average experience from both meals could result in a 4-star for the $10 steak but a 1-star for the $40 steak. That’s because overall customer satisfaction is a ratio between value received and amount spent. As someone who reads both self-published and traditionally published works, I can tell you that it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between the two. Most readers don’t know and don’t care how the books they read are published. They just know if they liked the story and how much they paid. If they’re paying twice as much for traditionally published books, which experience will they rate higher? The one with better bang for the buck.

This raises an interesting question: Are publishers losing money in the long run by charging higher prices? Are they decreasing the value/cost ratio and thereby creating lower average ratings for their authors and their products? If so, this might have some influence on long-term sales, and keep in mind that e-books do not go out of print. What if in exchange for immediate profits, publishers are creating poorer ratings for their goods and a poorer experience for their readers? Both effects will hurt a work’s prospects down the road (a road with no end in sight). And since ratings on e-books also apply to the physical edition on Amazon’s product pages, this pricing scheme ends up adversely affecting the very print edition that higher e-book prices are meant to protect [link].

It is common these days to hear that the quality of self-published work is hurting literature in general. I counter this notion with one of my own: Pricing e-books higher than mass market paperbacks used to cost is having an even more deleterious effect on reading habits. Books are not only in competition with each other, they compete with everything else a reader might do with their time. Creating a poor experience is a way to lose readers, not a way to protect a physical edition or a beloved bookstore. And high prices are a quick and easy way to create a poor reading experience, harming everyone.
High prices are also a way to drive customers to other, less expensive books. Rather than serving to protect print editions, publishers are creating a market for self-published works. And harmful price practices is not the only way the Big Five are powering the self-publishing revolution. Next, we’re going to look at some sales numbers within these genre bestseller lists to see how underserving a high-demand market has resulted in the creation of a brand new supply of books.  

Listening to Reader Demand

The next chart shows the percentage of genre e-books on several Amazon bestseller lists according to how they were published:

The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings


The bestseller lists used were Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance. All of the subcategories within these three main genres were also included. Why choose these genres? Because they are the most popular with readers. Our data guru ran a spider through overall bestseller lists and found that these three genres accounted for 70% of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon and well over half of the top 1,000 bestsellers.3 Future earnings reports will look at all of fiction4, but for now, we started with a simpler data set that captured the vast majority of what readers purchase.

What this chart shows is that indie and small-publisher titles dominate the bestselling genres on Amazon. We can clearly see that the demand from readers for more of these works is not being fully met by traditional publishing. Among the advice given to aspiring writers, you’ll often hear: “Write in the correct genre.” And here we see the sales-potential of that advice.

Looking back to the price/review comparison and also to the chart above, we can surmise that major publishers would be well-served by publishing far more titles in these genres and also by charging less for them. This is wisdom the indie community knows very well. Publishers must be tuning in, as prices began to decline last year [link], and publishers such as Simon & Schuster have announced new genre imprints [link]. Hopefully this data will help accelerate these trends, for the benefit of both the reader and the newly signed author.

Now take a look at this chart:

The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings


Again, daily unit sales are estimated by sales ranking, using publicly shared data from dozens of authors who have logged the correlation between rank and daily purchases (included among those authors are the two involved in this study).5 Some obvious things immediately jump out. The first is that Amazon has an incredible ability to market their own works, which shouldn’t be too surprising, considering it’s their storefront. We see from this and the previous chart that their 4% of titles command an amazing 15% of the sales. That’s impressive. It’s nearly 4 times the average unit sales volume per book. Now look at the Big Five, who with all their marketing efforts and brand recognition actually end up with pretty average per-book sales: a mere 1.2 times the overall average.
The other eye-popper here is that indie authors are outselling the Big Five. That’s the entire Big Five. Combined. Indie and small-press books account for half of the e-book sales in the most popular and bestselling genres on Amazon. Instead of feeling any sort of confirmation bias, my immediate reaction was to reject these findings. Surely they weren’t accurate. And so I complained to our magical data snoop that we were only looking at e-book sales. What percentage of the overall reading market does this represent? Our data guru said this was a question we could easily answer. You won’t believe what he found.

Everything You Know About E-Books is Wrong

The experts? They have no idea. It’s not entirely their fault; it’s just that the data they’re working with is fundamentally flawed.

You may have heard from other reports that e-books account for roughly 25% of overall book sales. But this figure is based only on sales reported by major publishers. E-book distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the iBookstore, and Google Play don’t reveal their sales data. That means that self-published e-books are not counted in that 25%.

Neither are small presses, e-only presses, or Amazon’s publishing imprints. This would be like the Cookie Council seeking a report on global cookie sales and polling a handful of Girl Scout troops for the answer—then announcing that 25% of worldwide cookie sales are Thin Mints. But this is wrong. They’re just looking at Girl Scout cookies, and even then only a handful of troops. Every pronouncement about e-book adoption is flawed for the same reason. It’s looking at only a small corner of a much bigger picture. (It’s worth noting that our own report is also limited in that it’s looking only at Amazon—chosen for being the largest book retailer in the world—but we acknowledge and state this limitation, and we plan on releasing broader reports in the future.)
There’s a second and equally important reason to doubt a 25% e-book penetration number: The other 75% of those titles includes textbooks, academic books, cookbooks, children’s books, and all the many categories that are relatively safe from digitization (for now). Print remains healthy in these categories, but these aren’t the books most people think of when they hear that percentage quoted. E-book market share is generally spoken of in the context of the New York Times bestsellers, the novels and non-fiction works that are referred to as “trade” publications. If we look specifically at this trade market, it’s quite likely that e-books already account for more than 50% of current sales (some publishers have intimated as much [link]). Factoring in self-publishing and further limiting the scope to fiction, I’ve seen guesses as high as 70%. But that can’t be possible, right?

I asked our data guru if we could find out. Could we look at the bestseller lists and tally by format? Of course, we would be looking only at Amazon, which might skew toward e-books—but to reiterate, we are looking at the largest bookseller in the world, digital or print. To do a first study of this sort on a smaller distributor would be less than ideal. Still, keep this caveat in mind.

We analyzed the overall Amazon bestseller lists for several categories and used the web spider to grab the text description of format type: paperback, hardback, e-book, or audiobook. This is what we found:

The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings_pages

The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings_pages


Did the smelling salts work? Are you with us? It turns out that 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon store are e-books. At the top of the charts, the dominance of e-books is even more extreme. 92% of the Top-100 best-selling books in these genres are e-books!
I know, right? Allow that to soak in for a moment, and then let’s look at author earnings. Here, we will see that publishers should cross their fingers and hope that the share of e-book sales increases rather than flattens. Because they are doing quite well on the backs of their authors. Major publishers are taking in record profits [link], but they aren’t the big winners to emerge from this report. Read on. The real story of self-publishing is up next.

Writing Doesn’t Pay?

This is a story that has been sensed by many. The clues are all around us, but the full picture proves elusive. It is being told in anecdotes on online forums, in private Facebook groups, at publishing conventions, and in the comment sections of industry articles. Authors are claiming to be making more money now with self-publishing than they made in decades with traditional publishers, often with the same books [link]. I’ve personally heard from nearly a thousand authors who are making hundreds of dollars a month with their self-published works. I know many who are making thousands a month, even a few who are making hundreds of thousands a month. But these extreme outliers interest me far less than the mid-list authors who are now paying a bill or two from their writing.
My interest in this story began the moment I became an outlier. When major media outlets began asking for interviews, my first thought was that they were burying the lead. My life had truly changed months prior, when I’d first started making dribs and drabs here and there. And I knew this was happening for more and more writers every day. But that inspiring story was being buried by headlines about those whose luck was especially outsized (as mine has been).

Before we reveal the next results of our study, keep in mind that self-publishing is not a gold rush. It isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. There are no short cuts, just a lot of effort and a lot of luck. Those who do well often work ludicrous hours in order to publish several books a year. They do this while working day jobs until they no longer need day jobs. This is also true of the writers earning hundreds or even thousands a month. Please keep this in mind. The beauty of self-publishing is the ownership and control of one’s work. You can price it right, hire the editor and cover artist you want to work with, release as often and in as many genres as you want, give books away, and enjoy a direct relationship with your reader. It isn’t for everyone, but you’re about to see a good reason why more authors might want to consider this as an option.

Here is what our data guru found when he used sales per ranking data5 and applied it to the top 7,000 bestselling genre works on Amazon today:

The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings_pages


Looks good for the Big Five, doesn’t it? When it comes to gross dollar sales, they take half the pie. Remember, they only account for a little over a quarter of the unit sales. Also keep in mind that they only have to pay 25% of net revenue to the author. By contrast, self-published authors on Amazon’s platform keep 70% of the total purchase price.6  Let’s now look at revenue from the author’s perspective:


The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings_pages
It’s a complete inversion. Indie authors are earning nearly half the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon. Nearly half. This next chart reveals why:



The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings_pages

Blue represents the author. You can clearly see that for Big-Five published works, the publisher makes more than twice what the author makes for the sale of an e-book. Keep in mind that the profit margins for publishers are better on e-books than they are on hardbacks [link]. That means the author gets a smaller cut while the publisher takes a larger share. This, despite the fact that e-books do not require printing, warehousing, or shipping. As a result, self-published authors as a group are making 50% more profit than their traditionally published counterparts, even though their books have only half the gross sales revenue.

Before we move on, take another long look at this chart. Here you find everything that needs to change in the publishing industry. Readers and writers alike should take note.

A quick note on how we calculated author earnings for the Big Five publishers in the above graphs. These numbers are based on estimates of wholesale pricing for e-books (publisher’s net was modeled as 80% of Amazon price). That estimate could be off by 10% either way, but even if we adjusted it to assume a wholesale price of 120% of retail (which would mean Amazon is taking a loss on every traditionally published e-book sold), indie authors would still come out on top. Also interesting is the observation that for the top-selling genres, Amazon is currently making nearly as much profit from indie e-books as from Big Five e-books.7

It’s also worth keeping in mind that this graph ignores the long tail of publishing. We’re just looking at the top 7,000 genre e-books. This represents the most popular offerings from both self-published authors and their traditionally published counterparts, which makes it an extremely fair comparison. Other surveys have compared all self-published works to only those in the traditional route that made it past agents and editors. That is, they compared the top 1% of traditionally published titles to the entirety of self-published works. Looking at bestselling charts avoids that mistake. Here we have 7,000 e-books as they are selling on any given day, which also serves to move the discussion away from misleading outliers and into the more interesting midlist. Now let’s see how Uncle Sam feels about all of this.

Tax Brackets

We’ve seen that self-published authors are earning more money from genre e-books than traditionally published authors. But how much more? The next thing we wanted to do was estimate yearly e-book earnings for all of these authors based on their daily Amazon sales. We ran this report and put each author into one of seven income brackets. The results, again, were startling:

The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings_pages

Indie authors outnumber traditionally published authors in every earnings bracket but one, and the difference increases as you leave the highest-paid outliers. But even these extreme outliers are doing better with their self-published works. The scale is difficult to see, but the breakdown of authors earning in the seven figures is: 10 indie authors, 8 Amazon-published authors, and 9 authors published by the Big Five. The much higher royalties and other advantages, such as price, seem to counterbalance the experience and marketing muscle that traditional publishers wield. This is something many have suspected to be true, but which now can be confirmed.

Of course, we still doubted this even after seeing the results. Our first thought was that top self-published authors can put out more than one work a year, while Big Five authors are limited by non-compete clauses and a legacy publishing cycle to a single novel over that same span of time. Indie authors are most likely earning more simply because they have more books for sale. Was this skewing our results? We ran another report to find out, and to our surprise, it turns out that only the handful of extreme earners have this advantage. Most self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books:
The_Data_-_A_Look_at_Author_Earnings_pages
This suggests that the earnings discrepancy will grow greater over time, as self-published authors develop deeper catalogs. We hope to answer questions like this as we run reports every quarter to track shifting trends. For now, the full data set for this study has been anonymized by removing the title and author info, and is available for download below this report. By tweaking the values in the yellow areas of the spreadsheet, you are able to play around with the data yourself. Our aim here is complete openness and to invite community discourse. It is also worth remembering that all of our base data comes from publicly perusable bestseller charts, so there’s an added layer of transparency and reproducibility. The information was there all along; grabbing a useful quantity of it simply required someone like my co-author to come along and snag it. 

An Easier Choice?

Choosing which way to publish is becoming a difficult choice for the modern author. This choice has only grown more challenging as options have expanded and as conflicting reports have emerged on how much or how little writers can expect to make. Our contention is that many of these reports are flawed, both by the self-selected surveys they employ, the sources for these surveys, and, occasionally, the biases in their interpretation. Our fear is that authors are selling themselves short and making poor decisions based on poor data. That is the main purpose for fighting for earnings transparency: helping aspiring writers choose the path that’s best for them. A secondary goal is to pressure publishers to more fairly distribute a new and lucrative source of income. Operating in lockstep in offering authors only 25% of net is not just unfair but unsustainable, as more and more authors are going to jump to self-publishing.

Of course, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. There is no absolute right or wrong way to publish; the path taken depends entirely on what each author wishes to put into their career and what they hope to get out of it. But as marketing falls more and more to the writer, and as self-published authors close the quality gap by employing freelance editors and skilled cover artists, the earnings comparison in our study suggests a controversial conclusion: Genre writers are financially better off self-publishing, no matter the potential of their manuscripts.

Consider the three rough possibilities for an unpublished work of genre fiction:

The first possibility is that the work isn’t good. The author cannot know this with any certainty, and neither can an editor, agent, or spouse. Only the readers as a great collective truly know. But what we may simplistically, and perhaps cruelly, call a “bad” manuscript stands only a slim chance of getting past an agent and then an editor. To the author, these works are better off self-published on the open market. They will most likely disappear, never to be widely read. But at least they stand a chance. And those who fear that these titles will crowd out other books are ignoring the vast quantities of books published traditionally—or the fact that billions of self-published blogs and websites don’t impede our ability to browse the internet, to find what we are looking for, or to share discovered gems with others.

The second possibility for a manuscript is that it’s merely average. An average manuscript might get lucky and find an agent. It might get lucky a second time and fall into the lap of the right editor at the right publishing house. But probably not. Most average manuscripts don’t get published at all. Those that do sit spine-out on dwindling bookstore shelves for a few months and are then returned to the publisher and go out of print. The author doesn’t earn out the advance and is dropped. The industry is littered with such tales. Our data shows quite conclusively that mid-list titles earn more for self-published authors than they do for the traditionally published. And the advantage grows as the yearly income bracket decreases (that is, as we move away from the outliers). It is also worth noting again that self-published authors are earning more money on fewer titles. Our data supports a truth that I keep running into over and over, however anecdotally: More writers today are paying bills with their craft than at any other time in human history.

The third and final possibility is that the manuscript in question is great. A home run. The kind of story that goes viral. (Some might call these manuscripts “first class,” but designations of class are rather offensive, aren’t they?) When recognized by publishing experts (which is far from a guarantee), these manuscripts are snapped up by agents and go to auction with publishers. They command six- and seven-figure advances. The works are heavily promoted, and if the author is one in a million, they make a career out of their craft and go on to publish a dozen or more bestselling novels in their lifetime. You can practically name all of these contemporary authors without pausing for a breath. We all like to think our manuscript is one of these. And from this hubris comes a fatal decision not to self-publish.

Why is that decision fatal? Our data suggests that even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published. These outlier authors are already doing better via self-publishing, when compared one to one. Now consider that the authors with the greatest draw, the most experience, and possibly the best abilities, are not yet a part of the self-publishing pool. What will our graphs look like once more up-and-coming authors skip straight to self-publishing? What will they look like when self-published authors have a decade or more of experience under their belts? What about when more authors win back the rights to their backlists? Or when top traditionally published authors decide to self-publish, as artists in other fields are doing? [link] [link] [link] What will these graphs look like then? We look forward to finding out.

Final Thoughts

What is presented here is but one snapshot of the publishing revolution as it stands today. That revolution isn’t over. These reports can be run so long as books are ranked. Our hope is that the future brings more transparency, not less. Other artistic endeavors have far greater data at hand, and practitioners of those arts and those who aspire to follow in their footsteps are able to make better-informed decisions. The expectations of these artists and athletes are couched in realism to a degree that the writing profession does not currently enjoy.

Our ambitious goal is to help change that, but we can’t do it alone. And so we hope others will run their own reports and analyze our data. We hope they will share what they find and that this will foster greater discourse. We also hope publishers and distributors will begin sharing their sales figures. We expect many to disagree with our analysis. We expect flaws will be found in our reasoning and our sampling methodologies. Discovering those flaws will lead to better data, and we look forward to that process.

If I had to guess what the future holds, I would say that the world of literature has its brightest days still ahead. That we have come so far in such a short period of time is revealing. We take for granted changes in other mediums—the absence of that tall rack of CDs beside home stereos, the dwindling number of people who watch live TV, that missing thrill of opening a paper envelope full of printed photos. There will be casualties in the publishing industry as the delivery mechanisms for stories undergo change. There already have been casualties. But there are opportunities as well. And right now, the benefits are moving to the reader and the writer. Speaking as both of these, I count this a good thing. I marvel that there are so many who fight for higher prices for consumers and lower pay for authors, all to protect a legacy model. That model needs to change.

Publishers can foster that change by further lowering the prices of their e-books. The record margins they’re currently earning are certainly seductive, but taking advantage of authors is not a sustainable business model. Hollywood studios had to capitulate to their writers when a new digital stream emerged. Publishers will likewise need to pay authors a fair share of the proceeds for e-book sales. 50% of net for every author is a good start. If they do this, they will stop losing quality manuscripts, back catalogs, and top talent. If publishers nurture their authors and work hard to satisfy their customers, they will see those average ratings go up and sales increase. They will see more people spending time with a book rather than on a video game or on the internet. And then the entire publishing industry, as well as those who love to read and those who hope to write for a living, will benefit.