Sunday, September 11, 2011

Is Flying The Friendly Skies Safer Post 9/11?

On this, the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, we will, as a nation, mourn the loss of thousands of souls who perished on that fateful day. There will be memorials and remembrances and celebrations and lots and lots of tears shed. Today is all about the lives lost and the families affected.

 But in the days and weeks following the anniversary, the conversations will turn from emotional to political, from how we’ve healed as a nation to are we prepared for another attack?

The answer to that question is yes. But…

Of course there’s a but.

While flying the friendly skies may be safer than ever, it has come at a cost: safety procedures that test passenger patience and push the boundaries of personal privacy.

Say what you will about the occasionally stupid stuff that the TSA has done (pat downs for babies, anyone?), the federal organization has played a huge part in making airport security better. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve got a short memory.

Pre-9/11, airport security was bad. Abysmally so. Airport security was left up to private contractors, some with less-than-stellar stats. Convicted felons were hired as security screeners. Checked luggage was hardly if ever screened for explosives. People with outstanding arrest warrants were entrusted with keeping airports safe. Lax screeners allowed 20% of dangerous objects to pass through checkpoints. Performance was low and so were salaries; in 2001, agents were paid less than the starting salaries at airport fast-food restaurants. Naturally, turnover was high.

Then the TSA came in and put a few changes in place. Federalizing airport security lowered worker turnover from 125% per year to 6.4%. Professionalizing airport security meant better employees with higher salaries and enhanced screening that resulted in increased passenger safety. Gone were the “rent-a-goons” employed by private contractors that ran amok unscrutinized at our nation’s airports. Here to stay is a professional (albeit impersonal) federally-mandated organization that is not immune to public pressure. It’s an organization that continues to evolve as new threats come in.

That’s the good news.

Now, the bad.

A lot of people would argue that the introduction of the TSA has come at a huge cost—the surrender of personal comfort and privacy. Patdowns, luggage searches, shoe-removals, liquid bans. The rules continue to change and passengers struggle to keep up.

But are ever-evolving “nude-o-scans” and shoe-removal policies really that much worse than the incompetent and corrupt airport security companies that were in place before the TSA came along?

A little more than fifty percent of Americans say yes, I’ve sacrificed too much in order to achieve an increased sense of security. But 81% of Americans feel more safe at airports overall. What does that mean? Well, I guess it means that most Americans simply deal with the inconveniences that make airline travel safer (which says nothing of accepting the inconveniences), and the rest of Americans either don’t travel or don’t give enough of a shit to weigh in.

But if a shoe bomber had succeeded in the aftermath of the original shoe bomber Richard Reed’s failure because we hadn’t instituted the removal of shoes at security? What then? Well, there most certainly would have been public outcry that the TSA hadn’t done its job. “Why didn’t the TSA make the bomber take off his shoes?” national headlines would say. “Why isn’t there a shoe-removal policy at our country’s airports to prevent such tragedies?”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But keep this in mind: we haven’t had another successful terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.

So I ask you: Is impersonal customer-service and a sense of dehumanization worth it if it means saving your life?  Or can we strike a balance between safety and comfort?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

No E-Reader? No Problem! My Books Will Always Be Available In Print

As a writer, I thought publishing my novels as e-books on Amazon’s Kindle was the way to go.

“Everyone has an e-reader, and most of them have Kindles,” they said. “Serious readers have Kindles and you should market to them,” they said further.

They being the self-publishing experts, and the novelists who were already making their work available as ebooks and apparently making good livings. So who was I to argue? They were walking the walk, so to speak, they were super successful, and were selfless enough to share the secrets of their own success. And the secret seemed to be: push out ebook after ebook for Kindle, price them low enough to attract lots of readers, and market the shit out them using social media. Rinse and repeat.

I read about writers who were selling thousands of ebooks a month and pulling in four figures a month. People like JA Konrath. John Locke. Karen McQuestion. Amanda Hocking. Ruth Morrison.

They’ve all found success publishing to Kindle almost exclusively. Some of them have gone on to find traditional publishing deals. And all of them are doing very well for themselves.

As ebook publishers, they have no overhead because there’s no print book and therefore no printing costs or inventory.

They need very little upfront money to get ebooks published because hiring an expert to convert a manuscript and create a cover costs maybe a hundred bucks each. And if you do it yourself of course it’s free.

Tons of readers. Oodles of devoted fans. Very little upfront cash needed. Pure profit. That’s what I was being promised—as long as my book was good and I marketed like hell.

The successful authors I mentioned didn’t start out that way, of course. At first, they were selling dozens a month, but persistence and years of practice and savvy marketing pushed them ahead of the crowd to a place where they could write full-time. It took a lot of time away from writing, and more time marketing, but eventually they were able to reap the rewards. Most of them are now selling thousands of ebooks a month.

How awesome for them!   

Despite the drawbacks (less time writing, more time marketing) this sounded like a business model I wanted to get involved in.

So I hopped onboard about eight months ago and never second-guessed my decision to “go indie.” I ceased looking for an agent and decided to self-publish my writing as e-books.

Then a curious thing happened.

As I started going about the e-publishing process, I started asking everyone I knew and lots of people I didn’t if they had a Kindle. Or any other kind of e-reader. And the overwhelming majority of them said no. They didn’t have an e-reader and didn’t think they would buy one anytime soon. The readers in the bunch purchase print books, they like the simplicity that comes with owning print books, and oh by the way, they asked, when’s your book coming out in print?

I had to break the news to them that I was publishing ebooks only. In my mind, that equated to lost sales. I might have to do something about that. But more on that in a minute.

As predicted, my close friends and family wanted print books. But even the strangers and people I didn’t know too well expressed interest in a print book.

Huh. Go figure.

That went against everything I’d read about. About how while the publishing industry had expanded over all, print sales had been in steady decline. Mass-market paperback sales—those cheap, pulpy books you find in drug stores and airports—for example, had fallen 14 percent since 2008. A once robust paper-based industry was slowly being eaten away at by the digital revolution. Ebooks were chewing up the competition.

And it made sense why. Reading can be an expensive hobby. Hardbacks are priced at about $25, trade paperbacks at about $12 - $15. Voracious readers can easily plow through two, three, even four books a month, which means someone who liked to read a lot could easily drop $100 a month on books. That’s a lot of coin.

With the advent of ebooks, readers no longer had to purchase expensive hardbacks or wait for the discounted trade paperback. Within a matter of minutes, they can download a dozen novels to their e-readers for less than twenty bucks. Naturally, readers of the voracious and budget-watching variety embraced the technology. It was a natural fit.

But that’s not what I’m experiencing…

I asked a woman at work, whom I know to be a big reader, how many books she read a month. About two or three, she said. She doesn’t have an e-reader and doesn’t plan on purchasing one anytime soon. She prefers trade paperback but if it’s a writer she really likes (Sue Grafton, say), then she’ll spend the dough for the hardback in order to get it as soon as it’s released. Her house is full of books, most of which she doesn’t have the heart to get rid of. She doesn’t mind spending more money on a paper book and only shrugs at the thought of a house crammed floor to ceiling with them.

I asked professional contacts, people I usually only talk shop with, if they read novels and if so, if they preferred ebooks or print books. The overwhelming majority didn’t have e-readers; they preferred print books.

I dispatched friends and family members to ask their contacts (people I didn’t know) about ebooks vs. print books. Most of them still read books; no e-reader for them. One 40ish woman even was quoted as saying, “What’s a Kindle?”

Of the two dozen or so people who were asked, a whopping five had e-readers. Five! That certainly flies in the face of the experts who claimed that nobody reads books anymore. (Of course, some of them gave up reading altogether because of time and money constraints, but still…)

So while I don’t doubt that e-readers are here to stay, my independent research indicated that maybe they’re not catching on as quickly as all the experts claim they have.

Either that, or the print-book-reading people that were interviewed (most of them fellow Pennsylvanians) are way behind the times. Maybe Pennsylvania in general is way behind the times and slow to embrace new technologies.

If that’s the case, where are all these supposed Kindle and Nook nuts? Where are they hiding? My ebook novel, The City of Lost Secrets, has been on sale for a month now, and I’ve sold 22 copies. Nothing to shake a stick at (especially since I haven’t done too much marketing) but not exactly the first month goal of 25 I was aiming for. I’ve had almost as many people express interest in the print book. Which is the opposite of what the experts told me would happen.

Granted, I haven’t done a lot of publicity, because I’ve been too busy writing the second book, and because the experts told me to wait until I have at least three or four books written before I start branding myself and promoting my books. Which makes sense, because if someone really likes your book, you want to have more than just the one available for them. Plus, the experts also told me that I could expect first- and second-month sales to be low, because it takes time for the “Amazon algorithm” to kick in and word of mouth to spread. If what the experts say is true, I won’t begin seeing truly decent sales of my ebook until about the nine month mark.

But given that the opposite of what the experts are saying is happening to me, then maybe I’ll start seeing success with my ebook sooner than nine months. And I can expect to sell more print books than ebooks.

Which is why the print version of The City of Lost Secrets is now available in print version on Amazon. (You can buy it here.) It cost me a hell of a lot of money to make it available, but in the end it was worth it. That’s because becoming an ebook writer millionaire like John Locke was never my main goal, anyway. All I really want to do is tell a great story using likeable and relatable characters. Whether it makes me a millionaire or barely brings me back into the black makes no difference. It would’ve been worth it either way.

Because what matters most is putting out a good product and making my readers happy.

Therefore, from here on out, until we run out of trees and paper goes extinct, I’ll continue to fly in the face of the experts and have print books available for all my novels.

So there.