Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ebooks and the Growing Backlist

Most observers of the ebook publishing scene have undoubtedly taken notice of the increasing volume of books on Amazon and other retailers. It has been said that ebooks are forever (or for as long as the e-retailers will offer distribution). They don't get pulled off the shelves in a few months, the way print books get pulled out of bricks and mortar stores. Like most things in life, that's an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on who you are and where you stand.

For self-publishers and very small publishers (Indies), that has tended to be a decided advantage over the past few years. Many Indies are new writers; others are traditionally published writers who have been dropped by their publishers or who have dropped out themselves, frustrated by traditional publishers (“Trads”) contracts and practices. The fact that their work could be exposed to the public for a much longer time than the traditional 3 or 4 months has allowed them more time to be discovered by readers and build a following. It has also provided a source of income - usually a small one, but one that contains within it the hope (and the possibility) of a breakout to greater things.

The physicist Richard Feynman famously said that there's plenty of room at the bottom, when speaking of nanotechnology. The phrase might also be applied to the Indie ebook world. Many writers are happy to be purchased and read by even a few dozen readers per year. Money is not their main motivator, though they won't turn their nose up at it. There's plenty of room at the bottom – i.e. in the long tail.

The same can't be said for traditional publishers. Trads must make money to survive, and plenty of it. They have a lot of overhead, even after taking into account the fact that ebooks don't have the printing and distribution costs of physical books. Expensive New York or London real estate doesn't come cheap, nor do high priced executives. Add to that the limitless demand for profit that shareholders require, and the financial picture looks pretty constrained.

Until quite recently, Trads saw their backlists as something to bury rather than something to exploit. Older books were taken off the shelves quickly, if they didn't sell in rather high numbers. This made way for newer, fresher product and ensured that the supply of books could be carefully managed. After all, it was always assumed that the immutable law of supply and demand meant that a large and constantly growing supply of older books would drive down the price of newer books. Ergo, the majority of the backlist had to be pulped, though a few copies might be kept on sale somewhere, to ensure that copyright didn't revert too quickly to the writer, who might try to re-inject the book into the market.

But Amazon, Kobo, and the rest changed all that. By opening up their stores to Indies, they eliminated the Trads' ability to manage supply. Previously unpublished Indies were providing the diversity of books that a large part of the reading market wanted, so supply was growing even with the Trad backlist being kept off the market. That was exacerbated by Trad writers getting their backlist reverted to them, and then self-publishing them.

There is an old saying - “if you can't beat them, join them”. It has become very obvious that the big publishing houses are doing just that, by furiously putting up the backlist to which they still have the rights. In addition, they appear to be selling these at reduced prices, in the $4 or less range that Indies previously had to themselves. I believe that they have been surprised by how lucrative this business strategy has been.

But the strategy has several pitfalls that I can think of, all in some way related to the supply and demand issue.

The first problem is that filling up the long tail with Trad backlist will drive down the price of that backlist. Once more, that's just the law of supply and demand. The average price of backlist books will drop, but their costs will remain fairly stable.

Indeed, costs might even rise as the publishers mine deeper into their backlists, to books that require more manual efforts to e-publish – i.e. scanning paper books, purchasing and maintaining expensive optical character recognition systems, and manual re-reading to locate and correct OCR errors that spell-checkers can't catch. Skimping on these steps will help to contain costs, but at the price of reduced quality. And the big publishing houses base much of their appeal (deserved or not) on the notion that they have reliable quality standards. Ceding that advantage to Indies would be destructive, in the long run.

In addition, as they go further back in time, it will be more difficult to judge whether a book will appeal even minimally to modern tastes and cultural mores. Consider how attitudes to race and sexuality have changed in recent decades. Some older best-sellers would seem pretty scandalous now, in these areas.

There is also the legal issue of copyright to consider. It may be difficult to ascertain just who holds the rights to older works. Putting up content that has reverted could be a legal money pit for the big publishing houses. Legal risks generally turn into legal costs, sooner or later.

Then there is the issue of how publishing the backlist will affect the front list. Will people still be willing to pay $25 for the latest Dan Brown novel or $12 for an ebook by Grisham if a wide range of quality backlist is available at low prices from the same publisher?

The big publishers appear to be betting that they can have it both ways; big sales at premium prices (and profits) for new works by big name writers, coupled with substantial sales (and profits) from their low priced backlist. It is hard to say if that is a sustainable business model. To me, it seems riddled with contradictions, but only time will tell.

As for Indies, the strategy is clear. Hang in there and keep on writing if that is what you love to do. If you don't love writing, consider another career, because the next few years will feature cutthroat competition. Either way, though, the future will take care of itself.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

A Christmas Miracle at the Lake promotion, #2 on, #4,5 on

Helena Puumala's A Christmas Miracle at the Lake has done well as a free promotion over the past 4 or 5 days.  It is #2 in a couple of relevant categories in the U.K., and #4 or #5 in the U.S. store.  It has held those positions pretty steadily over the Christmas season.

Interestingly, it has improved every day at the U.K site, a doubling function, or better. Perhaps that is because it has some echoes of Dickens' A Christmas Carol,although it is also very different and very 21st century.  It has also done well in Germany, considering that it is written in English.  Both of those countries have a strong tradition of Christmas literature, so it is nice to see readers are picking up the story.

It has also done well in the U.S., though not quite as strongly as it has across the pond.  Perhaps that is just a matter of a more competition in the States? Or perhaps the romance of the wintry Christmas miracle story is not as entrenched as it in north-western Europe.

Then again, it might pick up in the U.S. as the day goes on.  I have noticed this in the past, where results on the U.K. store lead the U.S. store in time.  Partly, that is just a matter if time zones, but one always wonders what Amazon's algorithms might be doing in the background.

There are some interesting results in the comparison of "Also Boughts" and "Also Viewed" in the two countries, but that can wait for another blog.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Monday, 22 December 2014

A Christamas Miracle at the Lake, by Helena Puumala, now on Amazon

Why not read something happy over Christmas.

Helena Puumala's Christmas story A Christmas Miracle at the Lake is now up on Amazon.  It will be on a free promotion over Christmas (Dec 23 to 27) - after all, it is Christmas. :).  Otherwise, the very reasonable price of 99 cents.

Here's a heart warming Christmas tale, by Helena Puumala. It follows the characters in her "at the lake" stories, as they spend Christmas at the snowed in confines of their summer cottages, where something wonderful happens on Christmas Eve.

The story is about 8000 words, and is a companion piece to her other “at the Lake” stories, particularly the Halloween and Easter stories. Note, though that all stories can be read and enjoyed separately.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Christmas Presents

Christmas is coming up soon and you may be wondering about a nice gift.  We have some ideas below :). 

Note that if you buy the paperback, you get the ebook free or at a reduced price (nearly free).

For the adventurous romantic on your list, all three Kati of Terra books are  available in both print and ebook from Amazon (ebook from Kobo, too).  Start with Kati of Terra Book 1: Escape from the Drowned Planet where the adventure and romance begins, then work your way up to Kati 2 and Kati 3 (lots of people have):



For the younger person on your list, you can’t go wrong with Nathan’s Adventure in the Other-Other Land:



In addition to these, you could consider the ebook Science Fiction novel The Witches’ Stones: Igniting the Blaze.

Or try any of several of the “At the Lake” short stories like Love at the Lake.

All of Helena Puumala’s works can be accessed via her Amazon author page:

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Astrophysics Corner, Part 15 – Changing the Earth's Rotation Axis Tilt:

Astrophysics Corner, Part 15 – Changing a Planet’s Rotation Axis Tilt: the Effect on the Sun’s Altitude and the Length of the Day at Different Altitudes
In an earlier blog, I noted that solar panels on a planet are affected by both the latitude of the location that the panels are placed and the tilt of the planet’s axis of rotation, relative to its orbital plane.
  • The latitude of the location of the panels is obviously important. Essentially, the solar flux that is experienced on the surface varies with the latitude of the site as the sine of the sun’s elevation above the ground. The farther from the planet’s equator, the smaller that angle will be.
  • That will be further compounded by the tilt of the planet’s axis, relative to the plane of its orbit around the star. The greater the tilt, the more the elevation of its sun will vary throughout the year, so the solar panels output will be greater or lesser as the season’s progress.
Earlier, we looked at how the latitude of the location of the observer (person or solar panel) influenced the altitude of the sun and the length of the day. In this blog, we will be a bit more speculative and discuss how the tilt of the rotation axis affects the length of the day, the altitude of the sun (or the planet’ s star in the case of planets other than the Earth) and the distribution of solar energy on that planet.

Case 1 - 23.5 Degree Tilt (Standard Earth tilt)
Below is the standard picture, the Earth with a 23.5 degree tilt. These are the relative positions of the Earth and Sun in the Northern hemispher mid-summer. It is pretty clear from the picture that the North Pole will be bathed in sunlight for an entire rotation (day) at this time of the year, and that northern areas in general will have longer days than southern areas. It is also clear that the sun’s rays will be perpendicular to the ground at mid-northern latitudes, which means the sun will be directly overhead then. Thus, longer, hotter days.

If we reverse the picture above, the northern hemisphere will now be in relative darkness, as it is in mid-winter. The sun’s rays will hit at a very oblique angle in the north, thus providing relatively little energy per square meter. The situation will, of course be the opposite in the south, which will be experiencing the long, warm days of summer.
As for the spring and fall equinoxes, we have to imagine the sun being out of the picture (where the reader’s head is now) looking down on the Earth. It is obvious then, that the sun will warm the north and south equally, and there will be no difference in the length of the day.  
The next two graphs show the altitude of the sun at mid-day, and the length of the day, at various latitudes throughout the year.

The final two graphs show the effective power of the sun at various latitudes, throughout the year and aggregated over the year. As you can see, the sun’s power drops off almost linearly with latitude.

Case 2 - 0 Degree Tilt (Straight Up and Down Planet)
Now, let’s imagine tilting the Earth’s axis, or alternatively, being on a different planet with 0 tilt.

In this case, it is clear that the strength of the sun’s rays will not very throughout the year, at a given latitude, nor will the length of the day vary. It will always rise at the same time, climb to the same height in the sky at noon, then sink to the horizon at the same time and place.

If we multiply the sine of the angle of the sun by the number of hours of daylight, to get a measure of how much effective sunlight falls at different latitudes, we get the graphs below. As you can see, the effective solar insolation at various latitudes never changes. Furthermore, it is linear with latitude.

There will be no seasons - hot places will always be hot and cold places will always be cold. Kind of monotonous. Assuming the planet had an atmosphere and oceans like the Earth’s, one suspects that there would have to be steady, strong winds and currents redistributing the heat from the equator to the poles year round. It might be quite a wild place to live.

Case 3 - 90 Degree Tilt (Tipped Over Planet)
The other extreme is the 90 degree tilt, such that the equator and the line through the poles have effectively swapped places.
Now, it is obvious that the length of the day will vary drastically throughout the year. At summertime at the North Pole, the sun will be up all day, directly overhead. In fact, the North Pole will have 24 hour days half the year, and 0 hour days the other half of the year. The situation will be the reverse at the winter solstice. The equator will have 12 hour days year-round, but even relatively “tropical” latitudes a few degrees above the equator will experience very large differences in the length of the day throughout the year.

As before, when we multiply the sine of the angle of the sun by the number of hours of daylight, to get a measure of how much effective sunlight falls at different latitudes, we get the graphs below. In this case, the solar insolation at the North Pole is actually much higher than at the equator in mid-summer.

Interestingly, although seasons would vary tremendously at any particular latitude during the course of the year, on an annual basis, the energy of the sun is distributed quite evenly throughout the planet. The form of the function approximates a quadratic quite well, with the maximum solar energy being at the mid latitudes, dropping off towards the poles and the equator. So, the weather would probably be quite strange, with great temperature shifts from season to season, but not very much rebalancing of heat between low latitudes and high latitudes.

Heat Balances by Tilt
Perhaps the most interesting result, is the variation in the planet’s heat balance between the equator and the poles, when different axis tilts are applied. I ran the simulation for a number of other planet tilts, and the results are in the graph below.
It appears that the equator gets about the same amount of solar energy over the course of a year, regardless of the planet’s tilt. But the amount of solar energy gained by higher latitudes is strongly dependent on the planet’s tilt.
  • The stronger the tilt, the more solar energy falls on the poles. This means that the planet has a more even heat balance over the course of a year.
  • The stronger the tilt, the more solar energy the planet appears to capture over the course of a year, via the combined effect of length of day and altitude of sun at the various altitudes. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, but that’s the result that the simulations give.

So, if humanity ever wants to build a planet, scout for alternative planets, or just change the tilt of the Earth, we might want to keep this in mind.
Actually, it is thought that the presence of the moon maintains the Earth’s axis tilt at a near constant level. If the moon weren’t so large and so close, the Earth’s axial tilt would vary over geologic time, something like how a spinning top can wobble. But the moon is slowly drifting away from the Earth, as its orbital momentum is stripped away due to tidal interactions with the Earth. So, in some distant future the Earth might actually go through these large variations in axial tilt. Wouldn’t that be interesting.