You know what these are?

Research for Book 2 of the Dandelion Dynasty. If you know what these are, you’ll have a hint of what’s coming. I hope you have as much fun reading this as I’ve been having writing it.

And yes, the shocks do hurt.

Cover Reveal for The Grace of Kings

At long last, the cover for The Grace of Kings can be revealed!

Sam Weber, the cover artist, did an amazing job. I think it looks gorgeous.

Publication date: 4/7/2015.

You can read about Saga’s launch titles (works by Lee Kelly, Genevieve Valentine, Zachary Brown, and me) here.

You Can’t Quit

Apropos my review of the book about Amazon, there’s this NYTimes article about a customer’s attempt to quit Amazon in protest over its attempt to squeeze Hachette by delaying shipment of Hachette authors’ books.

As she found out, quitting isn’t easy:

“I’ve certainly missed Amazon. I bought three bird-watching books from Barnes & Noble about a week ago. So far, I’ve received one. I need to consult Amazon to make decisions about what I want to order because the customer feedback is so weak at B.&N.”

“I’m convinced that Amazon will not make any effort to regain me since they can rely on getting me back due to the magnetism of their efficiency and their massive stock of everything,” she wrote. “So, feeling as isolated as I do in my feeble protest, I believe I’ll call it quits soon if there is no prospect of it making a difference to anyone.”

Seems like Jeff Bezos was right about his flywheel.

The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters, is a mystery set six months before a six-mile-wide astroid strikes Earth, an extinction-level event. With the apocalypse looming, why would a detective bother solving murders?

Featuring snappy dialogue, a distinctive narrative voice, and excellent building of suspense, the whole book is written in first person present, which works really well. The core murder mystery, using a Two Body Plot, is enhanced by a bigger background mystery that presumably serves as the plot arc for a trilogy, of which this is the first.

What I admire most is the way Winters doles out just enough information to allow the reader to make the necessary deductions at the right moments — I know, standard mystery technique, but surprisingly hard to master.

The Everything Store

I read The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon on the way home from San Jose, and really enjoyed it.

I was a bit skeptical about this book, as there have been accusations from MacKenzie Bezos (Jeff’s wife) and others that the book contains numerous factual inaccuracies. The edition I read appears to have corrected some of these inaccuracies (e.g., MacKenzie objected to the assertion that Bezos read Remains of the Day before deciding to leave D.E. Shaw to start Amazon in order to minimize regret because Bezos didn’t actually read the novel until a year after starting Amazon; in the edition I read, this assertion was deleted), though I suspect that such changes were minimal.

I can’t say if the book is factually accurate — like most works of nonfiction and journalism, there are no doubt numerous points of fact on which the participants disagree and which the writer might have gotten wrong. It is also true that Stone is trying to tell a story about Amazon, and the narrative fallacy is something all readers must keep in mind. To Stone’s credit, he explicitly notes that Bezos highlighted the narrative fallacy, and Stone acknowledges the danger and suggests that writers must nonetheless do the best they can to tell a story. Our species is wired for narratives, readers and writers and subjects alike, and I don’t know if we can ever be free from their distorting effects.

On the whole, I came away with the impression that the book is sympathetic to Amazon and Bezos and tells a story that feels true in light of the evidence. Bezos is driven, smart, and like some hero out of an Ayn Rand novel, holds an abiding faith in creating value for customers, eliminating inefficiencies, and rewriting established rules to accomplish worthy goals. The story of the rise of Amazon is a good one: the dream of a retailer that sells everything the customer might want survived the dot com crash, the exodus of engineers and executive for “cooler” companies, the financial crisis, and Amazon emerged as one of the most powerful technology platform companies in the world (think AWS and all the companies that rely on it) as well as one of the greatest retailers in the world. Brad Stone argues that Amazon is an extension of Bezos the way Apple was/is an extension of Jobs, and Bezos is a missionary as well as a mercenary. When he talks about being customer-focused, he is 100% sincere. This assessment seems fair.

There were many things that I found fascinating about the Amazon Way as explained by Stone. One of the key factors in Amazon’s success is Bezos’s belief in the “flywheel” — drawn from Jim Collins’s Good to Great — in which a virtuous cycle allows growth to beget more growth: lower prices led to more customer visits; more customers led to higher sales volume and more commission-paying third-party vendors selling on the site; Amazon then got more leverage out of its infrastructure and fixed costs (fulfillment centers, AWS) and could apply more pressure on suppliers to lower prices, so that it could lower prices further.

Amazon’s self-interest and missionary zeal are aligned in offering the customer a bigger selection and lower prices — these are the inputs to accelerate the flywheel. Keeping this principle in mind explains practically everything the company does. It is ruthless in its dealings with partners and suppliers and employees because only by squeezing them can Amazon offer lower prices to its customers and a better customer experience. In at least this sense, Amazon really is customer-centric: it believes that customers always want lower prices and greater selection, and whoever gets in the way of Amazon accomplishing these goals for its customers should be rightfully crushed.

In one key passage, Stone notes that the idea that in a business negotiation both sides should emerge happy is deeply “un-Amazon.” Amazon does not care about its business partners and suppliers and it must emerge as the winner in any negotiation because only by winning can it pass on the savings to customers in the form of lower prices. Amazon is not interested in helping its suppliers and partners succeed but in squeezing them and eliminating their inefficiencies so that customers can pay less. If this means Amazon must hide key deal terms from the suppliers (e.g., Amazon’s intent to lose money on ebooks by pricing them low so as to drive down customer expectations and apply pressure on the publishers) or break the ethical norms of business negotiations (e.g., reopening negotiations after key terms have been completed to extract more concessions), then so be it.

The book publishers — a group I’m sympathetic to, not the least because I’m publishing through a traditional publisher and I like the people I work with, who really are in business because they love books — were blindsided by Amazon because that is just not how they think. You can view publishers as inefficient or naïve — plenty of ink and pixels have been spilled on the subject of how the book business does not serve the reading public or authors well — but it is certainly true that Amazon plays by a different set of rules.

Amazon’s belief that it is acting in the best interest of the customer is sincere but disputed. Disruption is always going to create some new winners and losers. Take the book business: does the customer only want lower prices and greater selection? The publishers, in exercising their gatekeeping function and editorial role, keep prices high and the selection limited, which benefit some authors (authors who don’t earn out their advance) at the expense of others (bestselling authors and authors who don’t get published), help some individuals and businesses survive (especially employees of publishers and bookstores) at the expense of others, and make some customers happy (customers who like the editorial taste of the publisher, especially less popular books) at the expense of others (customers who can’t find what they like to read).

Amazon’s relentless push to lower ebook prices and to bypass the publishers so that authors can directly reach readers through Amazon will not benefit every customer (and will certainly not benefit every author), but it will certainly benefit Amazon and some authors and some (perhaps most?) customers. People do vote with their dollars, and if Amazon wins, ultimately it’s because the customers — as a whole — have spoken.

Congrats to the Nebula Winners!

Congrats to Ann, Nalo, Vylar, Aliette, and Rachel for winning all the Nebulas! And congrats to all the nominees as well. I had a great time at the banquet and the con — the entire weekend was a blast as I got to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. The con planners did an amazing job.

Wit in Critique

I’ve said before that I’m blessed with wonderful beta readers. I would not be anywhere near the writer I am without their help.

Lately, since I’ve been inflicting my novel on a bunch of beta readers, I’ve been thinking about the art of giving critiques, which is something I want to get better at.

Beta readers are good at different things. Lisa, who tends to be my first reader, is good at giving a gestalt judgment that usually accords very well with the work’s ultimate reception. Other readers are good at telling me to pay attention to things I tend to ignore: POV issues (I don’t believe in the modern specfic mantra of “one scene, one POV,” but sometimes my POV-switches are not well thought out and prevent me from achieving effects I intended), plot holes (I’m the world’s worst plotter), awkward first-draft sentences that sound fine to me because I’ve read them a dozen times. Still other readers are good at writing down their reactions and insightfully analyzing them so that I can see why the story I thought I had written wasn’t what I had actually written. I can’t thank them enough.

A couple of beta readers, in particular, are good at doing something that I’ve always been too afraid to try. They are funny in their critiques.

The wit is sometimes self-deprecating (“I nodded off for a bit there — could be I was hungry”), sometimes more sharply aimed at my ineptitude (“Where are the messenger pigeons? Did they all rebel, too?”), and sometimes not even directly related to the story (“Fun fact: most snake-related deaths …”).

I’ve laughed out loud at some of these comments (after getting over my embarrassment at the errors in my draft that generated them), and it feels a lot like chatting in person. I look forward to reading the critiques, not only because they’ll make my book better, but because they’re entertaining.

There’s something about wit that disarms the natural defensiveness a writer has towards criticism. I can see what they meant and laugh at myself, and then fix the problems. For me, wit is better than “diplomatic phrasing”; it affirms the camaraderie between the writer and the reader—we’re in this together, building a new world.

Obviously, this requires a level of trust between the critiquer and the author, and I’m sure writing such a critique is harder than doing it “straight.” The beta readers who have done this for me are all fine writers themselves, and in their critiques I see a respect for our shared art; they try, in their critiques, to practice the classical goal of prodesse et delectare, even though they’re writing for an audience of but one.