Is there one universe or many? What is the meaning of life? What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
There are some questions that just cannot be answered.
As readers of this blog know, I am undertaking an experiment in e-publishing. My first two novels, both published in trade paper, did fine (and continue to sell). But I couldn't resist climbing aboard the ebook express and so I uploaded my latest effort, Drop By Drop: A Thriller, onto Amazon.com, BN.com, Smashwords, and Apple's iBookstore. Generally, all seems to be going well. While I miss bookstore signings, the fact I have already made more in royalties on Drop than on my last traditionally published book provides some solace.
But in the world of e-publishing, mysteries abound. There are questions for which I have no answers. Here are four:
1. How do people find out about an ebook original? I tried a little experimental advertising of Drop By Drop -- sales were not affected. Drop was greeted by a bunch of online reviews which definitely helped. Lately, there have been fewer. Still, sales have not gone down and are even trending upward. My experience is not unique. I have spoken to a couple of friends whose books were made available on the Kindle with little uptake. Only months later did their sales zoom. Why? They don't know. There's an invisible hand at work, I guess.
2. Living as I do in Silicon Valley, a few miles away from 1 Infinite Loop (Apple HQ), many readers tell me they have purchased their copy of Drop from the iBookstore. I also read about authors selling scads of books on BN.com. So here's the question: Why do I sell 20 times more books on Amazon than Barnes and Noble's BN.com and 9 times more than on Apple's iBookstore?
3. The United States has about 312 million people. The United Kingdom has about 64 million or about 20% as many. According to estimates, 750M paper-and-ink books were sold in the US in 2010 and 229M in the UK or about 30% as many. I did some Googling. According to these links, US ebook sales were $441M in 2010 and in the UK were £180M or about 60% of the US total. So why am I selling 80 times more books on Amazon.com this month than on Amazon.co.uk?
4. My second book, Smasher, made it onto a national bestseller list and was optioned for film. Reviews in paper-and-ink newspapers and mystery and publishing magazines were great. Drop By Drop was reviewed only in online publications. Smasher sells for $2.99 and Drop for $3.99. Nevertheless, Drop is selling 14 times more copies than Smasher on Amazon.com so far this month. How come?
Attention: there may be a Nobel Prize in store for whoever can answer the first question of this post, but all you get for answering any of the four ebook questions is my thanks and appreciation.
I appeared on the TV show Press:Here this morning talking about ebooks and my checkered past. Scott McGrew of NBC, Mike Krey of Investor's Business Daily, and Jon Swartz of USA Today were my interlocutors. What do you think?
Now that I’ve been writing full-time for about four years, friends and relatives are finally getting used to the idea. I’ve impressed upon them that writing a novel does indeed count as work. They have learned not to refer to my time in the software world as “back when you were working.” And maybe out of fear of being a defendant in a wrongful death action brought by my heirs, they no longer ask if I am enjoying “retirement.” That vein that starts throbbing on my forehead gives them a warning that an apoplectic fit cannot be far away. In fact, many of those friends tell me something like, “Actually, I’ve read your latest book and it’s pretty good.” I don’t know if I should be insulted by the tone of surprise, but I’ve decided to just go with it and say “thank you.”
Well, I can’t leave well enough alone. I’m screwing the whole thing up. I’ve gone and taken on a day job. Why would I do something like that? I cannot say that writing novels has been quite as lucrative as working in software, but it’s not just the money. (I can’t say money plays no role at all. It was Dr. Johnson who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”) For my entire post-college life I’ve just gotten that itch to try something new every four, five, or six years. And happy as I was spending my days in my neighborhood café rapping out the stories of Ian and Rowena and Sam and Cecilia, I still am excited to be started something new. Leaving aside a few flings like my six months as a gambler at the race track, I figure this newest incarnation is my fifth.
I’ve overcome the shame of admitting that I went to law school. Even worse, I went intending to become a corporate lawyer. A summer job at a Wall Street firm cured me of that folly, and I decided instead to do my bit in saving the world. (Another folly.) I pounded the hallways of the Capitol in Washington and was hired as the junior of three lawyers on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Before the end of my first year, the other two had left. I was 27 years old and the senior lawyer on the committee overseeing the government’s secret intelligence activities. Holy s**t! (I mined that experience in my latest book, Drop By Drop.) Then I got a little too big for my britches and went home to Palo Alto to run for Congress. My experience running for elective office was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. No matter how much fun the ride was, what I remember is the landing. Splat – like an overripe tomato hitting a concrete floor! So ended my life in politics and career #1.
Next I landed at ROLM Corporation in Silicon Valley, where Ken Oshman, a brilliant and demanding executive who’d been CEO of the company from his 20s, took a chance on me. I was there when we introduced the first successful corporate voicemail systems. After we sold the company to IBM, I stuck with high tech, but eventually found myself in a company where I loved my colleagues, my boss, and the product, but I was still getting a little bored. So I did what you do in Silicon Valley under such circumstances. I left my job and started a company. That was the end of career #2 as a high tech employee and the beginning of #3 as an entrepreneur.
After six years of 70 hour weeks, we sold the company. Part of closing the deal was promising to stick around for awhile. Once my indentured servitude had lapsed though, I left and started casting around for my next move. I thought about starting another company, but an old Japanese proverb kept running through my head: “Every person should walk to the top of Mount Fuji, but only a fool does it twice.”
And so ended my third career and the start of #4 as a novelist. I love writing. When I walk into my neighborhood café, the staff turns down the music and brings me my pot of green tea. I put on noise-canceling headphones and pretty soon I’ve made the jump to another world where I have adventures as another person – one braver, smarter, and more attractive to women than I am. I’ve written five manuscripts. Midnight Ink published Dot Dead and Smasher. Drop By Drop has just come out as an ebook original – which is going great. I have delivered two more manuscripts to my agent. Writing is a great gig. But still, dammit, I found myself needing to scratch that itch to try something new.
I knew I didn’t want to do the same thing again. Whenever I thought about it, a picture of Mt. Fuji would pop into my brain.
At a New Year’s party at the beginning of the year, I mentioned to a friend that I was feeling that itch to try something new. She said something to a friend of hers, who in turn said something to her husband. And the upshot of all that? I’ve just started a job at a genetic sequencing company. What the heck is that? Well, it turns out that humans have 21,000 genes that are written in something like computer code. It cost over a billion dollars to sequence all of a human’s genes in the Human Genome Project that finished up in 2003. The company I’m at now does it for less than one hundred thousandth as much. Why does it matter? Sometimes when one or more of those genes run amok, cancer results. Anomalies in other genes can lead to a predisposition for heart disease or Alzheimer’s. Researchers are figuring all this out. In the not distant future, it will possible to take medication targeting our own specific genetic make-up (or genome). We’ll find out if we have a predisposition for diabetes or cancer and have the option to change our diet and exercise patterns accordingly. I participated in Silicon Valley’s Internet revolution. This was a chance to participate in the personalized medicine revolution that is definitely coming! Could not say no!
It turns out to be harder to leave career #4 behind than my first three. On the job only for a week and I already have ideas for thrillers set in the world of DNA sequencing and research. Yes, I am starting another career, but without abandoning the old one. I am still an author.
The talented Jennifer Massoni of Gentry, a Bay Area magazine, did a profile on that obscure Palo Alto crime novelist -- me. Here's the link to a Flash "reader" of the magazine. At the top of the reader, put in 108 in the "go to page" box. After getting there, if you have the courage to read on, just click the next page control at the top of the screen.
Clark Kepler of the wonderful bookstore, Kepler's, was awfully generous. And the photos by Jack Hutcheson certainly are distinctive. Let me know what you think of the article.
For reasons I don't understand I was invited to a dinner at Stanford last night with Bill Keller, executive editor of the NY Times, Gary Pruitt, CEO of the McClatchy newspaper chain, Harry Chandler of the Chandlers who used to own the LA Times, Marissa Mayer, VP at Google, and Joel Brinkley, former NY Timesman and now Lokey VIsiting Professor at Stanford. Spent some time schmoozing with members of the McClatchy family, John Markoff of the Times, like me an ex-staffer on Jordan Junior High's Dolphin Diary, and Jonathan Rabinovitz, director of media relations at Stanford. (Old friends Mark, Lisa, Steve, and Chris were as surprised to be invited as I was.) The after-dinner panel discussion, entitled "Pressing Times: Can Newspapers Survive in the New World of Journalism?", moderated by Brinkley, was interesting enough, but not much new, not much controversy. The panelists all answered the title question "yes," more or less. Pruitt spoke of the business advantages of owning the only newspaper in town; he didn't advocate one-paper towns, just said they were a reality. Keller reveled in working for a paper controlled by a family willing to sacrifice current returns for high quality journalism. Mayer said Google consisted of "computer scientists, not reporters" and wanted to work with papers to help them make more money from their websites. Chandler showed some bitterness at his family having sold the LA Times and said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that maybe the secret to the future of big city papers was finding "benevolent billionaires" to own them. The mothers of the panelists would have been pleased. They were all excruciatingly polite. None of the hissing and scratching I would have liked to see. We already knew that the newspaper business was in peril. I wanted to ask about the disappearing book review sections in daily papers, but didn't get the chance.
From l-r, Bill Keller, Gary Pruitt, Joel Brinkley, Marissa Mayer
When I got home, I read for a little while and then watched a Perry Mason I'd Tivo-ed. In this one (circa 1962) Perry was MIA and his place in the courtroom was taken by -- of all people -- Bette Davis. It was surprisingly with it in grappling with the issue of discrimination against women lawyers. By the end Los Angeles DA Hamilton Burger was begging for mercy.
Valentine's Day is my target. I want to be done with my first draft of Book 2 by February 14. To meet that objective I need to write about 5,000 words a week. Should be no problem-o, right? In my last year of grad school, I wrote at an even faster pace to get my thesis in on time. But here's the difference: there was no Internet then. Right now I'm sitting in a cafe, connected via WiFi, rapping away on my blog, not writing fiction. And even when I am writing, there are other blogs to check (First Offenders' list of blogs is entitled "Blogs We Read When We Should Be Writing"), sports scores to stay on top of, email to check, etc. Of course, using the Net to do research is easy and fast compared to library work, but I keep finding myself going from link to link until I am learning lots about Ahmose I and the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, but nothing that moves Book 2 along. Shut down Wikipedia!