Category Archives: Writing

Some Holiday Cheer for Nascent Writers

Readers of my blog know that I’m not given to chatty, optimistic posts. In fact, my typical post is more along the lines of “Not only will you fail at writing, but your cat will run away, your house will burn down, and you’ll spend the rest of your life tweeting from a phone you forgot to take out of airplane mode.” This post is different. While it isn’t quite optimistic, it does offer a perspective you may find uplifting, perhaps even liberating.

I’ve participated in many writing groups over the years and have managed a few as well, including one which technically qualified as Boston’s largest at the time. I have many writer acquaintances and even a few writer friends. I’m not spouting this to toot my own horn, but to lend credence to what I am about to say.

Many writers seem to have a notion of success which I deem unhealthy. I’m not saying that we should redefine "success" so that everybody is a winner or any such happy horseshit. The problem is that writers have two competing, and largely incompatible, goals. I speak here of real writers, not people who simply produce a product. The difference, to my mind, is that a writer wants to be proud of their work. My own standard is that I write what I want to read, and I think many of us implicitly or explicitly have a similar benchmark. We may try to cater to the taste of the crowd or steer toward marketability, but catering is different than pandering and steering is different than veering. At the end of the day, the stories and books which we produce must satisfy us first and foremost. This does not mean we always succeed in meeting that standard, but it is what we strive to aesthetically achieve.

However, American culture imbues us with another standard of success — one that is financial and social. Though success in this regard can be achieved via various avenues, the essential value it embodies — and that which our society most greatly respects — is the ability to sell things. In practice, this often takes the form of selling people stuff they don’t really want — but it need not. We are taught that the "net worth" of an individual is the sum of their possessions, marked to market, and distilled to a number. We are taught that we can order people by importance from lowest to greatest based on that number. We are taught that if one author sells many books and another sells few, the first is much "better" than the second. And we are taught that if a big publisher picks up a book, it is a "better" book than any which are self-published. While many of us may vociferously reject such a simplistic and materialistic outlook, we nonetheless are thralls to it. We may know that fatty foods are bad for us and that consumerism destroys the environment, yet there we all are in front of brand spanking new 100-inch televisions with bags of Fritos in our hands. Knowing and feeling are two different things, as are knowing and doing. We know we shouldn’t adopt the typical American view of success but we do anyway. Understanding and accepting that we are susceptible to such internal contradictions is crucial to avoiding the misery they otherwise can engender.

For a writer, the ability to sell our writing is essential for American-style success. These days, this entails also selling our "own story" as well. I personally find this obsession with the author rather than their work vapid at best and venal at worst, but it’s a fact of the market. The demographics of who reads and how are vastly different than a few years ago, as are the nature of publishers and what they seek. You sell yourself, then your writing. This compounds an already difficult problem for most of us. Good writers are good writers, not necessarily good salesmen. Those who spend their time selling things and have the aptitude to do so rarely also have the time or ability to write a quality book — and those who spend their time writing and have the aptitude to produce a quality book rarely have also have the time or ability to sell it.

This is a practical reality that affects almost any creative or scientific field. Those who can do can’t sell and those who can sell can’t do. But there is a deeper issue as well: a conflict of what we actually deem important with what we imagine we should deem important. What we want as authors and what we have been trained to believe we should want as Americans are largely incompatible. If we achieve only the first, we see ourselves as failures. If we achieve only the second, we see ourselves as hacks. And it is well-nigh impossible to achieve both.

It is not difficult to see why. If you’re like me and have tastes that depart even in the slightest from the mainstream, then ask yourself how many books that you really love are being published by major publishers today. Not books you’re told you’ll love, or books that you’re supposed to love, or books other people tell you they love. But books you love. For me, it’s virtually zero. The type of writing I enjoy simply isn’t published anymore. At least not by big publishers, and probably not by small presses either. It’s still being written. I’m writing it, and I’m sure plenty of other people are too. But it’s at best being self-published, and as a result is very hard to find.

The same is true of the big successes in self-publishing and is the reason neither you nor I ever will be one. The best sellers are in a small set of genres and usually involve the same perennial cast of series and authors. These authors are very good at gaming the system — i.e. at selling their books. However, they are not authors in the sense I described. They view a book as a product and nothing more. They run a business and are very good at it. For them, there is no contradiction in goals because their sole goal is financial success. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not sufficient (or even attainable) for an author of the type I am addressing this to.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. When I used to live in New York City, there was a famous camera store I frequented. In the same building, the next storefront was a diving shop. One day, I needed to buy some diving gear and went into that shop. I recognized some of the employees from next door, and it turned out that both stores were owned and run by the same people. The employees in either store knew everything about what they sold. If I asked an obscure question about a camera feature or model, someone knew the answer. But if I asked a subjective question, such as which camera they preferred or which BCD they found comfortable when diving, they were of little help. They could opine about which model customers preferred, and they could rave about one or the other product in a sales-pitch sort of way, but they clearly had no personal experience with the products.

I wondered at this and asked a friend who moved in similar circles about it. He explained that the product didn’t matter. It was all about understanding the market and sourcing the products at low cost. The store employees were generic highly-skilled business people. They could go into any market, learn the jargon and product specs and market layout, source the products at a good price, and then advertise and hard-sell those products very effectively. To them, it didn’t matter what they were selling. The products were widgets. The owners of those stores probably had no especial love of photography or diving but recognized those as markets they could thrive in.

Almost all self-published authors who succeed financially are of the same ilk. The books are products, and they just as happily would produce wicker baskets if that was where the money lay. Such authors have no ambition to write a high-quality literary novel. If their market research says that novels about vampire billionaires who fall for midwestern housewives are the thing, they will pump out dozens of nearly-identical ones. In this regard, such writers are a bit like the big publishers. The main differences are that (1) these self-published writers produce their own products and (2) the big publishers seem to have lost their focus these days and now employ ideological criteria rather than purely market-related ones.

The result is obvious. If I write a book of which I’m proud, it won’t get traditionally published and it won’t sell much when self-published. At a more basic level, this is a problem which affects all "producers", including artists, scientists, and musicians. To succeed in the social/financial sense, you have to spend 100% of your time relentlessly promoting yourself (and even then, the likelihood of success is small), but to produce anything of substance you have to spend all your time developing your craft and then applying it. The product-writers I described are very efficient. They are experts at what they do. After all, even in the world of marketable-schlock there is lots of competition. The winners know how to game the search engines, get in early and stay at the top, spend marketing money efficiently, and expend the minimum time necessary to produce a salable product.

The gist is that the two goals of a real writer are utterly incompatible. Writing a book we are proud of and achieving social/financial success with it are mutually exclusive for most of us. Unless you really love writing crowd-pleasing schlock or happen to be one of the handful of random literary "success" stories, it is impossible.

"But Ken," I can hear you whining, "I thought you said this would be uplifting? That my cat would still love me and my house wouldn’t burn down and I’d remember to turn off airplane mode before tweeting. How the hell is this remotely optimistic? Do you secretly run a razor-blade and cyanide business on Amazon?" Well, yes and no. Since books don’t sell, I do need some side hustles. Please visit my Amazon page for a very special offer.

Ok, fine. Here’s the inspirational bit. It isn’t that we can’t achieve both goals — it’s that we don’t have to adopt both goals. You are in control of your goals, even if your social programming reeeeally wants you to think otherwise. If your goal is to be both successful in the American sense and proud of your work, you’re going to be bitter and miserable. It’s disheartening and you’ll give up as a writer or feel resentful toward the world. But that shouldn’t surprise you. If you demand the impossible, you’ll always be disappointed. If your goal was to be a fantastic high-school teacher and also become rich from it, you’d be miserable too. It’s very hard to succeed financially in any way, let alone one which appeals to you. If I wanted to be a professional basketball player, I’d be disheartened. I’m five-foot-eight. The fault wouldn’t be with the world, it would be with me for demanding the impossible. While it’s admirable to pick difficult but attainable goals, picking wildly implausible ones is a recipe for misery. If you set out to prove the world wrong, all you’ll do is prove yourself a fool. Not because the world is right, but because there’s no point in wasting your life trying to prove anything to nine billion people who won’t notice and couldn’t care less if they did.

I’m not spouting some hippy nonsense about eschewing material possessions. You need money to survive and live comfortably. Money can buy you independence and free time. I’m not saying you don’t need money or shouldn’t pursue it. Just don’t rely on your writing for it, at least not if you want to be proud of that writing. It is perfectly fine to aim for American-style success. It’s difficult, but anything worth striving for is difficult. Nor is it unattainable, assuming your ambition isn’t too extravagant. In that’s your primary aim, do what the successful schlock-producers do and maybe you’ll succeed.

I’m also not saying you should sit in a corner munching a soggy carrot like some dejected rabbit. It is perfectly fine to write books you are proud of and hope for American-style success. I hope that my lottery ticket will win a billion dollars. There’s nothing wrong with that. It may even happen. Hope can be beneficial.

What is not fine is to expect American-style success from your writing. That is toxic. It means you’ll never reward yourself. Even if you write the greatest novel in the world, you still won’t allow yourself a sense of accomplishment. Imagine a small-town artisan who crafts beautiful furniture but demands that each piece be featured on some television show. He’ll be perpetually disappointed. No matter how great his skill and attainment, he never can give himself the slightest praise. There’s always a monkey on his shoulder telling him "So what? You’re not on television." If you’d laugh at such a person, take a good, hard look in the mirror.

To illustrate our biases, here are some scenarios. Suppose you learned that a friend …

  1. Wrote a wonderful book, got rejected by 200 agents, self-published it, and sold 3 copies.
  2. Self-published a vampire-billionaire-loves-midwestern-housewife book and sold 50,000 copies.
  3. Wrote a vapid, self-indulgent novel with elements designed to appeal to certain political sensibilities, which has been picked up by a major publisher.
  4. Self-published a book of pictures of cats with cute little taglines, which went viral and sold 100,000 copies.
  5. Wrote a passable book, though nothing worthy of note, but knew some agents and got picked up by a major publisher.

Most of us automatically would be "impressed" by (2)-(5) but view (1) as a vanity project. That is ridiculous. It’s our subconscious American training at play. Think about it. (2) may be a worthy businessman but isn’t really a writer, (4) produced a little nothing and got lucky, (5) produced tofu but knew the right people, and (3) produced what best could be termed a "vanity project" which ticked the right boxes. Of the five, only (1) produced something actually worthy of praise.

Nor are these contrived scenarios by some bitter rejectee (aka yours truly). Anyone who has contact with the publishing world knows that these are highly-realistic scenarios and that they are way more common and apropos than most of us would care to admit. So why do we view (1) this way? It’s not just our American-success programming. It’s also because of another very common scenario:

  1. Wrote complete trash, self-published it, and sold 3 copies.

(6) is what gives a bad name to self-publishing and constitutes the vast vast vast majority of self-published work. It and (2) are the reason you won’t be able to be heard above the fray or find your niche audience or sell many books.

But that isn’t as awful as it sounds. For most of history, only a privileged few even knew how to write, fewer had the means and leisure to write a book, and fewer still ever got published. Even if you wrote an incredible manuscript, without the money or connections to publish it that manuscript would end up in someone’s fireplace. So what’s different now, you may ask? Isn’t the problem the same, and only the gatekeepers and criteria have changed?

Yes and no. Yes, if you go through the gatekeepers. No, because you don’t have to. You can write a book you are proud of and self-publish it. It will be up forever as print-on-demand (and/or an ebook). You don’t have to build buzz, have a grand launch, and pray you reach critical mass before the rest of your print run gets remaindered and you end up out-of-print forever. Instead, you can put your book out there and point people to it over the years as you see fit. You can market it later when you have time or some opportunity arises. A book you are proud of will be available for anyone to purchase. Your backlist never goes away. Yes, a lot of crap gets self-published today — whereas in yesteryear only a few rich people could self-publish. But that need not bother you. Bad company does not a knave make. You’re not counting on people discovering your book by wading through all that garbage. You’re just making it available. You are the discovery mechanism. When someone asks about your book, you can point them to it. If you so choose, you can spend some money to increase the chance people will buy it. You can do this when and how you want.

And if someone at a cocktail party looks down their nose at you when you mention that you are self-published, just ask them what they’ve done lately. I wouldn’t worry too much about this happening, though. Does anyone even have cocktail parties anymore?

Incidentally, through much of the last three centuries there were no traditional publishers. Everything was self-published. But there was much less of it. Now, everyone can self-publish and everyone does. But just because a lot of other books stink doesn’t mean yours does — or that it will be viewed that way by modern, intelligent people.

In conclusion:

(1) Stop thinking of self-publication as a stigmatizing last-resort and a humiliating proof of failure. It is a tool and an opportunity. Moreover, in today’s world it is both a necessity and a reality for almost any author of substance. (2) If you write a book you are proud of, allow yourself to be proud of it. Feel successful. Decouple this sense of success from guilt or shame or anxiety about it not selling. (3) Write books you are proud of. Hope for American-style success if you wish, but do not expect it. (4) Keep writing. Write what you want to read. Be pleased that you have accomplished something.

If you complete one story you are proud of, you have accomplished more in your life than 99% of people. If you complete one book you are proud of, you have accomplished more than 99.9%. If you spend your life writing books you are proud of and allow yourself to be proud of them, you will have accomplished something almost nobody does: you will have lived a life you are proud of.

Everything everyone does is for naught, "vanity and a striving after wind," to quote Ecclesiastes. Had children? Your genes will dilute out of their progeny after a few generations. Became famous? Nobody will remember you a few years from now, and if they do it will be a mere caricature. Made a lot of money? You will is the last time you get any say how it’s spent. The best you can do is live a life you are proud of. Once you’re gone, the universe ends. It is irrelevant how many people bought your book or whether it lives on or your name is remembered.

And on that uplifting note, I once again refer you to Ken’s razor-blade and cyanide shop on Amazon. Oh, and don’t forget to leave a great review when you’re done…

“The Tale of Rin” serialization is live!

Update (8/8/22): I’ve ditched Vella. The Tale of Rin now exclusively is available on Substack. I’ve amended the post below to reflect this.

My epic fantasy series “The Tale of Rin” now is being serialized on Substack. New episodes come out on Wednesdays and Sundays. Here’s the description:

Just because Rin is indestructible doesn’t mean she can’t be hurt. On her quest to remedy an ancient sin, a single act of casual cruelty sets off an avalanche of events which threaten to destroy everything. Rin must rein in her assistant, a man of fierce attachment and questionable conviction, while avoiding her devious ex-husband, who will stop at nothing to reclaim her. In the balance lies her heart and the fate of the world.

Of the anticipated 6 volumes in the series, the first 2.5 have been written (and the rest mapped out). The first is publication ready and the 2nd close to that state. The first volume, “Protege”, likely will serialize to around 70-80 “episodes”.

The first 10 episodes will be free on Substack. Paid subscriptions are $5 per month (approximately 8 episodes) or $30 per year. Frankly, I would have preferred to charge less, but $5 is the lowest Substack allows. Note that a paid subscription gives you access to previous episodes as well — so don’t hesitate to subscribe at any point!

This is my first serialized novel, so please make some allowance for a few hiccups early on. If you encounter formatting errors or other weirdness please let me know. Such things aren’t always evident to the author, and these platforms are really clunky and buggy to post to.

Disclaimer: This is a work of original fiction, and any resemblance to real people or other fiction is purely coincidental.

Sensitivity Warning: This work may not be appropriate for readers highly sensitive to violence (including the occasional implication of possible sexual violence). Reader discretion is advised. Based on beta reader feedback, I’ve toned down a couple of scenes to make it more palatable to a broad audience. If you’re ok with something like Game of Thrones you should be fine with this.

I hope you enjoy the world I create and have a thrilling journey through it. Whether or not you find Rin an amiable companion, I’m sure you will find her an interesting one.

Two Countries

There once were two countries, A and B, and two kinds of people, purple people and green people. Each country had both purple people and green people.

In country A, the purple people were in charge. A small group of purple people were the gatekeepers of all things, the decision makers, the managers of life.

In country B, the green people were in charge. A small group of green people were the gatekeepers of all things, the decision makers, the managers of life.

The two countries shared a large border and a free one. By ancient treaty, no visas were required and no checkpoints marred the landscape. But almost nobody ever crossed the border. A nearly insurmountable range of peaks obstructed much of the length, and strong rapids made the remainder treacherous.

Though fundamentally different in nature and culture, the majority of the purple and green people did not mind one another. Many even cherished the differences, and friendly relations were by far the norm in both countries.

The two governments were exceptions.

The purple leaders of country A portrayed green people as primitive, dangerous, and unable to restrain their impulses, creatures to be feared and controlled. The green people sought to dominate and oppress them, they warned. Only through constant vigilance and zeal could such a dire threat be averted. Whether they believed these words or simply found them politically expedient is unclear.

The green leaders of country B portrayed purple people as arrogant, irrational, and immoral, individuals of loose character and dishonest nature. Such people sought to lead good folk astray and never should be allowed influence, never should be listened to, they warned. Only through constant vigilance and zeal could such a dire threat be averted. Whether they believed these words or simply found them politically expedient is unclear.

Most green and purple people in both countries meant well, or at least did not intend ill. But a few did as a few will do, and this was exacerbated by the rhetoric of each government.

Every time a purple person in country B was attacked, the leaders of country A pointed and exclaimed “See, we are right. We must protect purple people from the inexcusable barbarity of the green people.” But they held no power in country B and compensated with an excess of zeal in their own country. Small crimes were made big, a growing range of behavior was criminalized, penalties grew, initiatives to advance purple people in the face of obvious oppression were advanced, and the public was freshly informed of the omnipresent danger posed by green people.

Every time a green person in country B was persecuted, the leaders of country B pointed and exclaimed “See, we are right. We must protect green people from the hysterical lunacy of the purple people.” But they held no power in country A and compensated with an excess of zeal in their own country. Small crimes were made big, a growing range of behavior was criminalized, penalties grew, initiatives to suppress the influence of purple people in the face of their obvious irresponsibility were advanced, and the public was freshly informed of the omnipresent evil posed by purple people.

The green people in country A cringed whenever something happened in country B. The inevitable furor surely would land on their heads. An inquisition would follow, jobs would be lost, lives would be ruined, and the slightest misstep would destroy them.

The purple people in country B cringed whenever something happened in country A. The inevitable furor surely would land on their heads. Vilification would follow, new restrictions would be imposed, rights would be lost, lives would be ruined, and the hope of improvement would grow ever more distant.

The majority of purple people in country A were not particularly swayed by their government’s propaganda, but they did not repudiate it. Most did not understand the plight of their green fellow citizens. They dismissed green complaints as hyperbolic, arguing that their government meant well and any real impact on green people was minimal. Those who believed the truth dared not speak up, and the purple leaders grew ever more powerful. Soon the green people sat hands in laps, eyes down, afraid that the slightest gesture or word could be seen as a threat by those purples who made a business of seeing threats everywhere. A few green sycophants found some small degree of success, but even they were not safe.

The majority of green people in country B were not particularly swayed by their government’s propaganda, but they did not repudiate it. Most did not understand the plight of their purple fellow citizens. They dismissed purple complaints as hysterical, arguing that their government meant well and any real impact on purple people was minimal. Those who believed the truth dared not speak up, and the green leaders grew ever more powerful. Soon the purple people sat hands in laps, eyes down, afraid that the slightest gesture or word could be seen as a sin by those greens who made a business of seeing sins everywhere. A few purple collaborators found some small degree of success, but even they were not safe.

Through the vagaries of geopolitics, some families happened to span both countries. On the rare occasions when they spoke, neither side believed the other.

The purple people in country A did not believe the tales told by their relatives in country B. These were exaggerations spread by politicians, they declared. After all, they experienced no such thing. If anything, their lives were easier than before. A few, seeing the oppression of green people in their own country (but unwilling to speak up about it) even rebuked their relatives. If anything, green people were the oppressed not the oppressors. It was one thing not to help them, but quite another to blame them.

The green people in country B did not believe the tales told by their relatives in country A. These were exaggerations spread by politicians, they declared. After all, they experienced no such thing. If anything, their lives were easier than before. A few, seeing the oppression of purple people in their own country (but unwilling to speak up about it) even rebuked their relatives. If anything, purple people were the oppressed not the oppressors. It was one thing not to help them, but quite another to blame them.

In this way, country A raced toward a dystopia for its green citizens and country B raced toward a dystopia for its purple citizens, yet nobody else recognized this.

Each government was the other’s best friend, and both were the people’s worst enemy.

This is how half the population did not realize the sky was falling, while the other half saw it happening with their own eyes.

But I apologize. I misspoke. The border has no mountains or rapids. It is not physical or legal, but one of social milieu, profession, and education. Yet it is no less real for this lack of topography. Despite the apparent freedom to do so, most people lack the wherewithal to cross the border.

The two countries are our country, today.

This is where we are, this is where we are going, and this is why you will not be believed if you say so.

Trash Talk

These days, every minor institutional faux pas draws a melodramatic fawning apology utterly devoid of a modicum of self-respect and expressed through the metallic insincerity of boilerplate buzzwords . By now, one or more generations have grown up bombarded with such nonsense. We  only can imagine what they must be like at home…

Hey Bob, listen, it’s no big deal, but could you take out the trash when it’s your turn? It’s really been piling up.

I’ve heard you loud and clear.


My top priority has been fostering a community which values inclusiveness, mutual respect, and constructive engagement. A place where all perspectives, values, diverse viewpoints, and lifestyles are cherished.

Um, ok. Sure.

I realize I’ve fallen far short of my high ideals in this regard, and promise to do better.

Great. So … you’ll take out the trash?

But it’s not enough to be sorry. I know there has been an inexcusable breach of trust, and that my actions have caused deep hurt and lasting anguish.

If you feel bad, you could, like, take out the trash.

I can do better. I will not be complacent in the face of such a challenge. This is an opportunity for reflection and learning, to grow into a better version of myself.

Really, it’s not that big a deal. You just take the trash and put it in the bin.

Change is necessary, and the first step toward such change is to understand the scope of the problem.

That’s easy. The schedule is on the fridge. Just, you know, do it.

Toward this end, I have identified several important steps.

There’s really just one.

First, I enrolled in a sixteen-week sensitivity training course, mandatory for me, myself, and I.

Is that the reason you didn’t do any other chores for the last sixteen weeks?

I also hired an outside firm to thoroughly investigate my past behaviors and recommend a path forward. You may have noticed them here and there recently.

You mean that guy who crashed on the couch and ate all my Doritos? I thought he was a friend of yours.

After a rigorous investigation, we have concluded that all policies and procedures were followed and there was no misconduct.

You’re not going to take out the trash, are you?

The repercussions of trashgate are ongoing, and I will not rest on my laurels. I can do better, and I will do better.

Can part of your “not resting” involve moving trash from the kitchen to the bin?

That I did not intend my actions to be offensive is no excuse for the anxiety and pain they have caused.

It doesn’t smell great, and can attract roaches.

Nor do those actions reflect who I am as a person.

Pretty sure they do.

However, in the face of the continuing public reaction, my involvement can only serve to distract from our community’s valuable mission.

I think I know where this is going.

In consultation with myself, I have concluded that the best way for us all to move forward is for me to step down from my trash removal responsibilities.

You know, you could have just refused up front.

Although my formal role has diminished, I will remain active in other aspects of our vibrant and innovative community.

In other words, you’ll continue to use the foosball table.

I only hope these steps can bring some small measure of closure to those who have suffered through my thoughtless actions.

The only closure we need is of the trash bin.

How to Produce a Beautiful Book from the Command Line

Book Production Framework and Examples on GitHub


Over the last couple of years, a number of people have asked me how I produce my books.  Most self-published (excuse me, ‘indie-published’) books have an amateurish quality that is easy to spot, and the lack of attention to detail detracts from the reading experience.  Skimping on cover art can be a culprit, but it rarely bears sole blame — or even the majority of it.   Indie-published interiors often are sloppy, even in books with well-designed covers.  For some reason, many authors give scant attention to the interior layout of their books.  Of course, professional publishers know better.    People judge books not just by their covers, but by their interiors as well.  If the visual appeal of your book does not concern you, then read no further.  Your audience most likely will not.

Producing a visually-pleasing book is not an insurmountable problem for the indie-publisher, nor a particularly difficult one.  It just requires a bit of attention.  Even subject to the constraints of print-on-demand publishing, it is quite possible to produce beautiful looking books.  Ebooks prove more challenging because one has less control over them (due to the need for reflowable text), but it is possible to do as well as the major publishers by using some of their tricks.  Moreover, all this can be accomplished from the command-line and without the use of proprietary software.

Now that I’ve finished my fifth book of fiction (and second novel), I figure it’s a good time to describe how I produce my books. I have automated almost the entire process of book and ebook production from the command-line. My process uses only free, open-source software that is well-established, well-documented, and well-maintained.

Though I use Linux, the same toolchain could be employed on a Mac or Windows box with a tiny bit of adaptation. To my knowledge, all the tools I use (or obvious counterparts) are available on both those platforms. In fact, MacOS is built on a flavor of unix, and the tools can be installed via Homebrew or other methods. Windows now has a unix subsystem which allows command-line access as well.

I have made available a full implementation of the system for both novels and collections of poetry, stories, or flash-fiction.   Though I discuss some general aspects below, most of the nitty gritty appears in the github project’s README file and in the in-code documentation.   The code is easily adaptable, and you should not feel constrained to the design choices I made.  The framework is intended as a proof of concept (though I use it regularly myself), and should serve as a point of departure for your own variant.  If you encounter any bugs or have any questions, I encourage you to get in touch.  I will do my best to address them in a timely fashion.


First, let’s see some examples of output (unfortunately, wordpress does not allow epub uploads, but you can generate epubs from the repository and view them in something like Sigil).  The novel and collection pdfs are best viewed in dual-page mode since they have a notion of recto and verso pages.

Who would be interested in this

If you’re interested in producing a fiction book from the command-line, it is fair to assume that (1) you’re an author or aspiring author and (2) you’re at least somewhat conversant with shell and some simple scripting. For scripting, I use Python 3, but Perl, Ruby, or any comparable language would work. Even shell scripting could be used.

At the time of this writing, I have produced a total of six books (five fiction books and one mathematical monograph) and have helped friends produce several more. All the physical  versions were printed through Ingram, and the ebook versions were distributed on Amazon. Ingram is a major distributor as well, so the print versions also are sold through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered through other bookstores. In the past I used Smashwords to port and distribute the ebook through other platforms (Kobi, Barnes & Noble, etc), but frankly there isn’t much point these days unless someone (ex. Bookbub) demands it. We’re thankfully past the point where most agents and editors demand Word docs (though a few still do), but producing one for the purpose of submission is possible with a little adaptation using pandoc and docx templates. However, most people accept PDFs these days.

My books so far include two novels, three collections of poetry & flash-fiction, and a mathematical monograph.  I have three other fiction books in the immediate pipeline (another collection of flash-fiction, a short story collection, and a fantasy novel), and several others in various stages of writing.  I do not say this to toot my own horn, but to make clear that the method I describe is not speculative.  It is my active practice.

The main point of this post is to demonstrate that it  is quite possible to produce a beautiful literary book using command-line, open-source tools in a reproducible way.  The main point of the github project is to show you precisely how to do so.   In fact, not only can you produce a lovely book that way, but I would argue it is the best way to go about it! This is true whether your book is a novel or a collection of works.

One reason why such a demonstration is necessary is the dearth of online examples. There are plenty of coding and computer-science books produced from markdown via pandoc. There are plenty of gorgeous mathematics books produced using LaTeX.   But there are very few examples in the literary realm, despite the typesetting power of LaTeX, and the presence of the phenomenal Memoir LaTeX class for precisely this purpose.  This post is intended to fill that gap.

A couple of caveats.

Lest I oversell, here are a couple of caveats.

  • When I speak of an automated build process, I mean for the interiors of books. I hire artists to produce the covers. Though I have toyed with creating covers from the command-line in the past (and it is quite doable), there are reasons to prefer professional help. First, it allows artistic integration of other cover elements such as the title and author. Three of my books exhibit such integration, but I added those elements myself for the rest (mainly because I lacked the prescience to request them when I commissioned the art early on). I’ll let you guess which look better. The second big reason to use a professional artist comes down to appeal. The book cover is the first thing to grab a potential reader’s eye, and can make the sale. It also is a key determinant in whether your book looks amateurish or professional. I am no expert on cover design, and am far from skilled as an artist. A professional is much more likely to create an appealing cover. Of course, plenty of professionals do schlocky work, and I strongly advise putting in the effort and money to find a quality freelancer.  In my experience, it should cost anywhere from $300-800 in today’s dollars.  I’ve paid more and gotten less, and I’ve paid less and gotten more.   My best experiences were with artists who did not specialize in cover design.
  • The framework I provide on github is intended as a guide, not as pristine code for commercial use. I am not a master of any of the tools involved. I learned them to the extent necessary and no more. I make no representation that my code is elegant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find better and simpler ways to accomplish the same things. This should encourage rather than discourage you from exploring my code. If I can do it, so can you. All you need is basic comfort with the command-line and some form of scripting. All the rest can be learned easily. I did not have to spend hundreds of hours learning Python, make, pandoc, and so on. I learned the basics, and googled whatever issues arose. It was quite feasible, and took a tiny fraction of the time involved in writing a novel.

The benefits of a command-line approach

If you’ve come this far, I expect that listing the benefits of a command-line approach is unnecessary. They are roughly the same as for any software project: stability, reproducibility, recovery, and easy maintenance. Source files are plain text, and we can bring to bear a huge suite of relevant tools.

A suggestion vis-a-vis code reuse

One suggestion: resist the urge to unify code. Centralizing scripts to avoid code duplication or creating a single “universal” script for all your books may be enticing propositions. I am sorely tempted to do so whenever I start a new project. My experience is that this wastes more time than it saves. Each project has unforeseeable idiosyncrasies which require adaptation, and changing centralized or universal scripts risks breaking backward compatibility with other projects. By having each book stand on its own, reproducibility is much easier, and we are free to customize the build process for a new book without fear of  unexpected consequences. It also is easier to encapsulate the complete project for timestamping and other purposes. It’s never pleasant to discover that a backup of your project is missing some dependency that you forgot to include.

A typical author produces new books or revises old ones infrequently. The ratio of time spent maintaining the publication machinery to writing and editing the book is relatively small. On average, it takes me around 500 hours to write and edit a 100,000 word novel, and around 100 hours for a 100 page collection of flash-fiction and poetry. Adapting the framework from my last book typically takes only a few hours, much of which is spent on adjustments to the cover art.

Even if porting the last book’s framework isn’t that time consuming, why trouble with it at all? Why not centralize common code? The problem is that this produces a dependency on code outside the project. If we change the relevant library or script, then we must worry about the reproducibility of all past books which depend on it. This is a headache.

Under other circumstances, my advice would be different. For example, a small press using this machinery to produce hundreds of books may benefit from code unification. The improved maintainability and time savings from code centralization would be significant. In that case, backward-compatibility issues would be dealt with in the same manner as for software: through regression tests. These could be strict (MD5 checksums) or soft (textual heuristics) depending on the toolchain and how precise the reproducibility must be. For example, non-visual changes such as an embedded date would alter the hash but not textual heuristics. The point is that this is doable, but would require stricter coding standards and carefully considered change-metrics.

The other reason to avoid code reuse is the need for flexibility. Unanticipated issues may arise with new projects (ex. unusually formatted poems), and your stylistic taste may change as well. You also may just want to mix things up a bit, so all your books don’t look the same. Copying the framework to a new book would be done a few times a year at most, and probably far less.

Again, if the situation is different my advice will be too. For example, a publisher producing books which vary only in a known set of layout parameters may benefit from a unified framework. Even in this case, it would be wise to wait until a number of books have been published, to see which elements need to be unified and which parameters vary book to book.


Here is a list of some tools I use. Most appear in the project but others serve more of a support function.

Core tools

  • pandoc: This is used to convert from markdown to epub and LaTeX. It is an extremely powerful conversion tool written in Haskell. It often requires some configuration to get things to work as desired, but it can do most of what we want.  And no, you do not need to know Haskell to use it.
  • make: The entire process is governed by a plain old Makefile. This allows complete reproducibility.
  • pdfLaTeX: The interior of the print book is compiled from LaTeX into a pdf file via pdfLaTeX. LaTeX affords us a great way to achieve near-total control over the layout. You need not know much LaTeX unless extensive changes to the interior layout are desired. The markdown source text is converted via pandoc to LaTeX through templates. These templates contain the relevant layout information.
  • memoir LaTeX class: This is the LaTeX class I use for everything. It is highly customizable, relatively easy to use, and ideally suited to book production. It has been around for a long time, is well-maintained, has a fantastic (albeit long) manual, and boasts a large user community. As with LaTeX, you need not learn its details unless customization of the book layout is desired.  Most simple things will be obvious from the templates I provide.

Essential Programs, but can be swapped with comparables

  • python3: I write my scripts in python 3, but any comparable scripting language will do.
  • aspell: This is the command-line spell-checker I use, but any other will do too. It helps if it has a markdown-recognition mode.
  • emacs: I use this as my text editor, but vim or any other text editor will do just fine. As long as it can output plain text files (ascii or unicode, though I personally stick to ascii) you are fine. I also use emacs org-mode for the organizational aspects of the project. One tweak I found very useful is to have the editor highlight anything in quotes. This makes conversation much easier to parse when editing.
  • pdftools (poppler-utils): Useful tools for splitting out pages of pdfs, etc. Used for ebook production. I use the pdfseparate utility, which allows extraction of a single page from a PDF file. Any comparable utility will work.

Useful Programs, but not essential

  • git: I use this for version control. Strictly speaking, version control isn’t needed. However, I highly recommended it. From a development standpoint, I treat writing as I do a software project. This has served me well. Any comparable tool (such as mercury) is fine too. Note that the needs of an author are relatively rudimentary. You probably won’t need branching or merging or rebasing or remote repos. Just “git init”, “git commit -a”, “git status”, “git log”, “git diff”, and maybe “git checkout” if you need access to an old version.
  • wdiff, color-diff: I find word diff and color-diff very useful for highlighting changes.
  • imagemagick: I use the “convert” tool for generating small images from the cover art. These can be used for the ebook cover or for advertising inserts in other books. “identify” also can be useful when examining image files.
  • pdftk (free version): Useful tools for producing booklets, etc. I don’t use it in this workflow, but felt it was worth mentioning.
  • ebook-convert: Calibre command-line tool for conversion. Pandoc is far better than calibre for most conversions, in my experience. However, ebook-convert can produce mobi and certain other ebook formats more easily.
  • sigil: This the only non-command-line tool listed, but it is open-source. Before you scoff and stop reading, let me point out that this is the aforementioned “almost” when it comes to automation. However, it is a minor exception. Sigil is not used for any manual intervention or editing. I simply load the epub which pandoc produces into sigil, click an option to generate the TOC, and then save it. The reason for this little ritual is that Amazon balks at the pandoc-produced TOC for some reason, but seems ok with Sigil’s. It is the same step for every ebook, and literally takes 1 minute. Unfortunately, sigil offers no command-line interface, and there is no other tool (to my knowledge) to do this. Sigil also is useful to visually examine the epub output if you wish. I find that it gives the most accurate rendering of epubs.
  • eog: I use this for viewing images, though any image viewer will do. It may be necessary to scale and crop (and perhaps color-adjust) images for use as book covers or interior images. imageMagick’s “identify” and “convert” commands are very useful for such adjustments, and eog lets me see the results.

How I write

All my files are plain text. I stick to ascii, but these days unicode is fine too. However, rich-text is not.  Things like italics and boldface are accomplished through markdown.

Originally, I wrote most of my pieces (poems, chapters, stories) in LaTeX, and had scripts which stitched them together into a book or produced them individually for drafts or submissions to magazines. These days, I do everything in markdown  — and a very simple form of markdown at that.

Why not just stick with LaTeX for the source files? It requires too much overhead and gets in the way. For mathematical writing, this overhead is a small price to pay, and the formatting is inextricably tied to the text. But for most fiction and poetry, it is not.

I adhere to the belief that separating format and content is a wise idea, and this has been borne out by my experience. Some inline formatting is inescapable (bold, italics, etc), and markdown is quite capable of accommodating this. On the rare occasions when more is needed (ex. a specially formatted poem), the markdown can be augmented with html or LaTeX directly as desired. Pandoc can handle all this and more. It is a very powerful program.

I still leave the heavy formatting (page layout, headers, footers, etc) to LaTeX, but it is concentrated in a few templates, rather than the text source files themselves.

There also is another reason to prefer markdown. From markdown, I more easily can generate epubs or other formats. Doing so from LaTeX is possible but more trouble than it’s worth (I say this from experience).

What all this means is that I can focus on writing. I produce clear, concise ascii files with minimal format information, and let my scripts build the book from these.

To see a concrete example, as well as all the scripts involved, check out the framework on github.

Book Production Framework and Examples on GitHub

“The Delivery” now is fully available!

Great news! My new short novel, The Delivery, is available in both print and for Kindle, both in the US and internationally!

This book has been some time in the making, and I hope people enjoy it.  Her is a brief description:

The Delivery is what happens when Kafka meets Monty Python.  Wilbur is an unassuming little man living an unassuming little life. He and his wife have a stereotypical 1950s existence, but in modern America. One day, he arrives home to discover a mysterious crate. His attempts to deal with a seemingly minor mistake lead to an escalating series of absurdities, straining his marriage, leaving the couple’s lives in tatters, and leading him to question his place in the world. Do millions perish? Does the world end? Does Wilbur figure out how to make photocopies?

You can buy it at the following locations:

NOTE on UK orders: Amazon says the print edition is unavailable in the UK but that’s incorrect. You can order it from them. If you enter a mail code, it will give you a time-frame. This said, it may take a few weeks for it to arrive.

NOTE on look-inside: For some reason known only to Jeff Bezos, Amazon can’t get the kindle look-inside working (they always have problems with that). However, the print version look-inside works fine, so just view that if you want to see what the book looks like.

“The Delivery” now is Available for Kindle!

Great news! My new short novel, The Delivery, is available on Amazon for Kindle. This book has been some time in the making, and I hope people enjoy it. A print edition (softcover) will be available shortly. All materials have been sent to the printer, and I currently am awaiting galleys. From past experience, there will be a bit of back and forth as we iron out the appearance. Depending on Ingram’s backlog and shipping speeds (for my test copies), I expect the process to take anywhere from a few weeks to two months.

Wilbur is an unassuming little man living an unassuming little life. He and his wife have a stereotypical 1950s existence, but in modern America. One day, he arrives home to discover a mysterious crate. His attempts to deal with a seemingly minor mistake lead to an escalating series of absurdities, straining his marriage, leaving the couple’s lives in tatters, and leading him to question his place in the world. Do millions perish? Does the world end? Does Wilbur figure out how to make photocopies? The Delivery is what happens when Kafka meets Monty Python.

Audiobook Samples

All three of my flash-fiction audiobooks are now available for sale. Below are 5 minute samples of each, downloadable as mp3’s.

If the covers look a bit weird it’s because ACX doesn’t allow items in the lower right corner, so I had to rejigger some of the titling.

The Man Who Stands in Line
“The Man Who Stands in Line” by K.M. Halpern. Narrated by Susie New.

Available Now on Audible, ACX, and Itunes.

The Way Around
“The Way Around” by K.M. Halpern. Narrated by Alan Moore.

Available Now on Audible, ACX, and Itunes.

The Last Cloud
“The Last Cloud” by K.M. Halpern. Narrated by Derek Botten.

Available Now on Audible, ACX, and Itunes.

The Last Cloud revision 1 released

A newly revised edition of “The Last Cloud,” is now available. In the process of developing my audiobook (currently under review by ACX), a number of typos and errors were revealed. It was surprising how much turned up aurally that had not been evident even after several edits, beta readings, and proofreadings. The pieces have been rearranged as well, to better showcase the variety of themes and styles.

Far fewer typos appeared in “The Man Who Stands in Line” and “The Way Around.” Although I eventually will put out revisions of those books, that may be a way off.

The currently available print and kindle versions are the revised ones. It appears that the Amazon “Look Inside” for the kindle version is correct, but the paperback “Look inside” may take some time to update. That has nothing to do with which version is shipped, however.

You can tell which version you have by examining the copyright page. The new one has a small “(rev 1)” after the edition. It also begins with the titular piece “The Last Cloud” rather than “Spleen Squeezer”.

Note that the audiobook is of the original version. I am very pleased with how it came out, and will post when it becomes available (probably in May).

How to Get a Patent in 2 Easy Steps!

1. Expedited Process: [Note: if your name is not Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony, or Oracle, skip to step 2]:

Scribble a drawing in crayon on a napkin, write ‘for, you know, stuff’ and drop it off at the Patent Commissioner’s house when you have dinner with him and his wife. On the off-chance it isn’t accepted the next day, be polite but firm. The assigned examiner may be new or overworked. Bear in mind, he is NOT your employee. He serves several other large corporations as well.

By the way, don’t forget that the Patent office is running a special this month: you get every 1000th patent free!

2. Standard Process:

(i) spend several months with a team of lawyers (paid out of pocket) carefully researching the state of the art of your field, fleshing out your idea, researching potentially related patents, and constructing unassailable claims of your own. In the course of this, learn a new language called “legalese,” which bears only a superficial resemblance to English — much as its speakers bear only a superficial resemblance to humans.

(ii) assemble a meticulously crafted and airtight application — one which no sane person can find fault with, because it has no fault.

(iii) get rejected by the examiner, who clearly did a sloppy google search for some keywords. He cites several patents which have nothing in common with yours, except for those keywords.

(iv) reply to said patent examiner, patiently explaining why a simple reliance on keyword similarities is insufficient evidence of prior art, and that modern linguistic scholarship has shown different sentences can have words in common.

(v) receive a reply with “final rejection” emblazoned in huge letters, and in what appears to be blood. An attached notice explains that any further communication regarding this patent will result in a late-night visit by three large fellows with Bronx accents. Your lawyers dismiss this as boilerplate, and explain that “final rejection” actually means “we want more patent fees.”

(vi) battle your way through 50 years and $1,000,0000 of appeals and rejections as the examiner displays an almost inhuman level of ineptitude, an apparent failure to grasp rudimentary logic, infantile communication skills, and an astonishing ability to contradict himself hour to hour.

(vii) Suspect your patent examiner is planning to run for Congress, where his skills would be better appreciated. Encourage him to do so. Maybe his replacement will be better equipped, possessing both neurons and synapses.

(viii) Eventually you reach the end of the process. There has been one of two outcomes:

  • You passed away long ago, and no longer care about the patent.
  • Your application finally was accepted. Because an accepted patent is valid from the original date of application, yours expired decades ago. But this does not matter, since the idea is long obsolete anyway.

Either way, you should feel privileged. You have participated in one of the great institutions of American Democracy!

Why Your Book Won’t Be an Amazon Success Story

I’m going to be that guy. The one nobody likes at parties. The one who speaks unpleasant truths. If you don’t want to hear unpleasant truths, stop reading.

If you want to be told which self-help books to buy and which things to do and which gurus will illuminate the shining path to fame and fortune, stop reading.

If you want somebody to hold your hand, and nod at all the right moments and ooh and aah about how your writing has come a long way and you’re “almost there,” stop reading.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve come a long way. It doesn’t matter whether your writing is almost there, is there, or is beyond there. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying or how you’re saying it. You may have written the most poignant 80,000 words in the English language, or you may have another book of cat photos. None of that matters.

Unless you’re a certain type of person saying a certain type of thing in a certain way, none of it matters. And that certain type of person, that certain type of thing, and that certain way changes all the time. Today it’s one thing, tomorrow it will be another.

Statistically speaking, you’re not it.

“But what about all those success stories,” you argue. “I’m always hearing about Amazon success stories. Success, success, success! This book mentioned them and that blog mentioned them and the 12th cousin of my aunt’s best friend’s roommate had one.”

There are two reasons this doesn’t matter.

Most of those stories are part of a very large industry of selling hope to suckers. Any endeavor which appeals to the masses and appears to be accessible to them spawns such an industry. Business, stock picking, sex, dating, how to get a job, how to get into college, and on and on. Thanks to today’s low barrier to entry, self-publishing is the newest kid on that block.

This isn’t a conspiracy, or some evil corporation with a beak-nosed pin-striped CEO, cackling ominously while rubbing his hands. Self-publishing just attracts a lot of people who see an easy way to make money. When there’s a naive, eager audience, a host of opportunists and charlatans purvey snake oil to any sucker willing to pay. They’re predators, plain and simple. Hopefully, I can dissuade you from being prey. Leave that to others. Others unenlightened by my blog. Cynicism may not always be right, but it’s rarely wrong.

Even seemingly reputable characters have become untrustworthy. The traditional publishing industry has grown very narrow and institutional, and life is hard for everyone associated with it. The temptation to go for the easy money, and cast scruples to the winds, is quite strong. Not that denizens of the publishing industry ever were big on scruples. Many individuals from traditionally respectable roles as agents, editors, and publishers find it increasingly difficult to eke out a living or are growing disillusioned with a rapidly deteriorating industry. It is unsurprising that they are bedazzled by the allure of easy money. Unsurprising, and disappointing. This is especially insidious when agents offer paid services which purport to help improve your chances with other agents. The argument is that they know what their kind wants. Anybody see the problem with this? Anybody, anybody, Bueller? It would be like H.R. employees taking money to teach you how to get a job with them. Oh wait, they do. How could THAT possibly go wrong…

I’m not going to delve into the “selling hope to suckers” angle here. That is fodder for a separate post, in which I analyze a number of things which did or did not work for me. For now, I’ll focus on the second reason your book won’t be an Amazon Success Story. Incidentally, I will resist the temptation to assign an acronym to Amazon Success Story. There! I successfully resisted it.

In this post, I’ll assume that ALL those stories you hear are right. Not that they’re 99% bunk or that most actual successes had some outside catalyst you’re unaware of or were the result of survivorship bias (the old coin-flipping problem to those familiar with Malkiel’s book). To paraphrase the timeless wisdom of Goodfellas, if you have to wait in line like everyone else you’re a schnook. If you’re trying what everyone else tries, making the rounds of getting suckered for a little bit here a little bit there, with nothing to show for it — you’re the schnook.

Don’t feel bad, though. No matter how savvy we are in our own neighborhoods, we’re all schnooks outside it. Hopefully, I can help you avoid paying too much to learn how not to be a schnook.

I can’t show you how to be successful, but I can show you to avoid paying to be unsuccessful. But that’s for another post. We’re not going to deal with the outright lies and deception and rubbish here. Those are obvious pitfalls, if enticing. Like pizza.

In this post, we’re going to assume the success stories are real — as some of them surely are. We’re going to deal with something more subtle than false hope. We’re going to discuss the OTHER reason you won’t be successful on Amazon. It’s not obvious, and it can’t be avoided.

But first, I’m going to make a plea: if you’re the author of one of those breathless, caffeinated “how to be a bzillionaire author like me” books or blogs or podcasts … stop it. Please. Just stop it. Unless you’re cynically selling hope to suckers or mass-producing content-free posts as click-bait. In that case, carry on. I don’t approve of what you do, but I’m not going to waste breathe convincing dirtbags not to be dirtbags. However, if you’re even the least bit well-meaning, stop. Maybe you have some highly popular old posts along these lines. Update them. Maybe you’re writing a new series of posts based on what your friend named John Grisham has to say to self-publishing authors. Don’t.

You’re doing everyone a disservice. People will waste money and time and hope. Best to tell them the truth. You may not be that guy. You may be too nice, tactful, maybe even (dare I say) an optimist. I’m not an optimist. I AM that guy. No false hope sold here.

Maybe you’re still reading this and haven’t sky-dived into a volcano or fatally overdosed on Ben & Jerries, or turned to one of those cheerful, caffeinated blogs. Shame on you. There’s special internet groups for people like you. But you’re still here, and I haven’t driven you away. I must be doing something wrong.

If you’re a true dyed in the wool masochist, I’ll now explain why you won’t be successful. It has to do with a tectonic shift in Amazon’s policies.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled “Why NOT to use Amazon Ads for your book,” which many people have written me about. Most found it a useful take on Amazon ads, and one of the few articles which doesn’t regurgitate lobotomized praise for the practice.

I stand by that. Subsequent experiments (to be reported in a future post) have shown that Amazon ads perform even worse now. This led me to wonder why. Why did all the long-tailed keywords and the reviews and the ads make no difference. None of us know the precise inner workings of Amazon ads, but there are strong indications of their behavior.

I now will offer my theory for why there are success stories, why it’s tempting to believe they can be emulated, and why they cannot. To do so, let’s review some basic aspects of Amazon’s algorithms.

There are two algorithms we care about:

(1) The promotion algorithm, which ranks your book. It is responsible for placing it in any top 100 lists, determining its visibility in “customers also bought” entries, when and how it appears in searches, and pretty much any other place where organic (i.e. non-paid) placement is involved.

(2) The ad auction algorithm, which determines whether you win a bid for a given ad placement.

The promotion algorithm determines how much free promotion your book gets, and is critical to success. It has only a couple of basic pieces of information to work with: sales and ratings. The algorithm clearly reflects the timing of sales, and is heavily weighted toward the most recent week. It may reflect the source of those sales — to the extent Amazon can track it — but I have seen no evidence of this. As for ratings, all indications are that the number of ratings or reviews weighs far more heavily than the ratings themselves. This is true for consumers too, as long as the average rating is 3+. Below that, bad ratings can hurt. Buyers don’t care what your exact rating is, as long as there isn’t a big red flag. The number of ratings is seen as a sign of legitimacy, that your book isn’t some piece of schlock that only your grandmother and dad would review — but your mom was too ashamed to attach her name to. Anything from a traditional publisher has 100’s to 1000’s of ratings. A self-published work generally benefits from 15+. More is better.

It makes sense that the promotion algorithm can play a role, but why mention an “ad auction algorithm”. Ad placement should depend on your bid, right? Maybe you can tweak the multipliers and bids for different placements or keywords, but the knobs are yours and yours alone. You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment. Unlike the ever-diplomatic Mr. Urquhart, I’m too guileless to take this tack. I also don’t use Grey Poupon. I can and will comment. You’re wrong. Amazon’s ad algorithm does a lot more behind the scenes. You may be the highest bidder and still lose, and you may be the lowest bidder and win.

As usual, we must look at incentives to understand why things don’t behave as expected. Amazon does not run ads as a non-profit, nor does it get paid a subscription fee to do so. It only makes money from an ad when that ad is clicked, and it only makes money from a sale when the ad results in a conversion. For sellers, the latter is a commission and for authors it’s the 65% or 30% (depending on whether you chose the 35% or 70% royalty rate) adjusted for costs, etc. In either case, they make money from each sale and they make money from each click.

Amazon loses money if your ad wins lots of impressions, but nobody clicks on it. They would have been happier with a lower bid that actually resulted in clicks. If lots of people click on your ad, but few people buy your book, Amazon would have been happier with a lower bid which resulted in more sales. It’s a trade-off, but there are simple ways of computing these things. When you start fresh, Amazon has no history (though perhaps if you have other books, it uses their performance). It assigns you a set of default parameters representing the average performance of books in that genre. As impressions, clicks, and sales accrue, Amazon adjusts your parameters. This could be done through a simple Bayesian update or periodic regressions or some other method.

When a set of authors bids on an ad, Amazon can compute the expected value of each bid. This looks something like P(click|impression)*ebid + P(sale|click)P(click|impression)*pnl, where P(click|impression) is your predicted click-through-rate for that placement, P(sale|click) is your predicted conversion rate for that placement, ebid is the effective bid (I’ll discuss this momentarily), and pnl is the net income Amazon would make from a sale of your book. This is an oversimplification, but gets the basic idea across.

The ebid quantity is your effective bid, what you actually pay if you win the auction. There actually are two effective bids involved. Amazon’s ad auctions are “second-price,” meaning the winning bidder pays only the 2nd highest bid. Suppose there are 5 bids: 1,2,3,4,5. The bidder who bid 5 wins, but only pays 4. There are game theoretic reasons for preferring this type of auction, as it encourages certain desirable behaviors in bidders. In this case, the effective bid (and what Amazon gets paid) is 4. That is no mystery, and is clearly advertised in their auction rules. What isn’t advertised is the other, hidden effective bid. These effective bids may be 3,2,4,2,3, in which case the third bidder wins. What do they actually pay? I’m not sure, but something less than their actual bid of 3.

Apparently, whatever algorithm Amazon uses guarantees that a bidder never will pay more than their actual bid. It somehow combines the two types of effective bids to ensure this. I am not privy to the precise algorithm (and it constantly changes), so I cannot confirm this. However, I have been informed by an individual with intimate knowledge of the subject that Amazon’s approach provably guarantees no bidder will pay more than their actual bid.

Why would Amazon prefer a lower bid, when they could get 4? As mentioned, they only get paid 4 if the ad of the winning bidder (the 5) gets a click. If the ad makes every reader barf or have a seizure or become a politician, there won’t be a lot of clicks. If it’s the most beautiful ad in human history, but the book’s landing page makes potential buyers weep and tear their hair and gnash their teeth, it probably won’t make many sales. In either case, Amazon would do better with another bidder.

Even without knowing the precise formula, one thing is clear. These algorithms are a big problem for anyone who isn’t already a star.

The problem is that those two algorithms play into one another, generating a feedback loop. If you’re already successful, everything works in your favor. But if you start out unattractive to them, you remain that way. You have few quality ad placements, and get few sales, and this suppresses your organic rank. The organic rank factors into many things which affect P(click|impression) and P(sale|click) — such as the number of reviews, etc. Put simply, once they decide you’re a failure, you become a failure, and remain one. You won’t win quality bids, even if you bid high. If you bid high enough to override the suppression, then you’ll pay an exorbitant fee per click, and it will cost a huge amount to reach the point where success compounds.

I am unsure whether there is cross-pollination between works by a given author, but I strongly suspect so. A new work by a top-ranked author probably starts high and is buoyed by this success. This may be why we see a dozen works by the same author (obviously self-published, and sometimes with very few ratings per book) in the top-100 in a genre.

So how do you get out of this hole? There’s only one accessible way for most people: you cheat. And this is where Amazon’s tectonic policy shift comes into play.

There ARE success stories, like the aforementioned top-ranked self-published authors. But there won’t be any more. To understand why, we must turn to hallowed antiquity before Bezos was revealed to be the latest incarnation of Bchkthmorist the Destroyer, and when Amazon brought to mind a place with trees, snakes, and Sean Connery.

There was a time when the nascent self-publishing industry had really begun to boom, but was poorly regulated. The traditional publishers viewed Amazon, Kindle, and self-publishing as a joke. They relied on their incestuous old-boys network of reviewers from the NY Times, New York Review of Books, and pretty much anything else with New York in the name for promotion. 95% of self-published books were about how to self-publish, and authors who DID self-publish (and were savvy) quickly developed ways to game Amazon.

They COULD pump up their search results, get in top-100 lists, and so on. Usually, this involved getting lots of fake reviews and using keyword tricks to optimize search placement. Once in the top list for a genre, it was easy to stay there — though newcomers with more fake reviews and better keyword antics could displace you. The very top was an unstable equilibrium, but the top 500 or 1000 was not. Once up there, it was easy to keep in that range and then occasionally pop into the very top. Like a cauldron of mediocrity, circulating its vile content into view every now and then. Amazon periodically tweaked its algorithms, but authors kept up.

Then something happened. Amazon decided to crack down on fake reviews. This sounds laudable enough. Fake reviews have the word fake in them, and fake always is bad, right?

There were two problems with HOW Amazon went about it. First, they went way overboard. Overnight, it became well-nigh impossible for an author to get a single new review. If the reviewer had one letter in common with your name, lived in the same hemisphere, or also breathed air, they were deemed connected to you and thus biased.

If this had been applied uniformly, there would be nobody in the top 100 — or it would be random, since nobody would have any tricks they could play. This is where the second problem with Amazon’s approach came in. They didn’t remove legacy fake ratings. Those who cheated before the cutoff got to keep their position. In fact, that position now was secure against all newcomers. A gate had slammed down, and they were firmly on the right side of it. Aside from a few people near the boundary they had nothing to fear. Well, almost nothing to fear.

The only way to break into the top echelon, and thus benefit from the self-reinforcing algorithms which stabilize that position, is to rely on external sources of sales. If you have a million twitter followers who buy your book, or a massive non-amazon advertising campaign, you can break in. They YOU would be very difficult to displace.

Once traditional publishers realized that Amazon is the only de facto bookstore left (outside airport/supermarket sales), they took an interest. THEY have no problem getting a top rank, because they run huge advertising campaigns and have huge existing networks. This is why the top 100 lists are an odd mixture of self-published books you never heard of and traditionally published bestsellers. Eventually it only will be the latter.

So. You. Won’t. Break. In. Amazon created an impenetrable aristocracy, and you’re not it. You won’t be it. You can’t be it. If you use Amazon ads or buy into any of the snake oil sales nonsense, you’ll be the schnook bribing a maitre d’ who knows he’ll never let you in.

Most of those success stories (or at least the real ones) are from before the policy change, as are many of the methods being touted. That path is gone. Amazon ads only work for those who don’t need them, and they work very well for them. They won’t work for you. Becoming a success on Amazon is as unlikely as with a traditional publisher. You’ll always hear stories, but they’re either the few who randomly made it, those with hidden external mechanisms of promotion, or those already entrenched at the top.

That’s the sad truth, or at least my take on it. By all means, waste a few dollars trying. I used to be a statistical trader and know better, but I still buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot’s high enough. It’s entertainment. Two dollars to dream for a day. I just don’t expect to win.

Write what you want, revise, work your butt off, and make it perfect. But do it because you want to, because that’s what makes you happy. Don’t do it expecting success, or hoping for success, or even entertaining the remote possibility of success.

The worst reason to write is for other people. Your work won’t be read, and your work won’t make you money. If you accept that and are happy to write anyway, then write all you want. I urge you to do so. It’s what I do.

PACE Sample Chapter

 The following is a sample chapter from my book PACE.

Captain Alex Konarski gazed through the porthole window at the blue mass below. It looked the same as it had for the last nine years. When first informed of the Front, he had half-expected to see a pestilential wall of grey or a glowing force field or some other tell-tale sign. Instead there was nothing, just the same globe that always was there. The same boring old globe.

Konarski remembered the precise time it had taken for her charms to expire. Six months, twelve days. It was the same for every newcomer to the ISS; at first, they gawked at the beauty of Earth and couldn’t shut up about it. Then they did. Konarski always waited a discrete period after each arrival before asking how long it had taken.

Nobody seemed to remember the point at which things changed, they just woke up one day and the magic was gone. How like marriage, he’d laugh, slapping them on the back. By now the joke was well-worn. Of course, it wasn’t just the Earth itself. When somebody new arrived, they acted like a hyperactive puppy, bouncing with delight at each new experience, or perhaps ricocheting was a better choice of word up here.

Once the excitement died down, they discovered it was a job like any other, except that home was a tiny bunk a few feet from where you worked. The tourists had it right: get in and out before the novelty wore off. The ISS basically was a submarine posting with a better view and better toilets.

Earth became something to occasionally note out the corner of one’s eye. Yep, still there. Being so high up almost bred contempt for the tiny ball and its billions of people. This had been less of a problem in the old days, when the ISS sounded like the inside of a factory. But since the upgrade, things were so quiet that one could not help but feel aloof. Aloof was invented for this place. As a general rule, it was hard to hold in high regard any place toward which you flushed your excrement. Well, not quite *toward*.

There was a fun problem in orbital mechanics that Konarski used to stump newbies with. Of course, Alex had learned it in high school, but his colleagues — particularly the Americans — seemed to have spent their formative years doing anything but studying. For some reason, America believed it was better to send jocks into orbit than scientists. Worse even, it made a distinction between the two. Nerds are nerds and jocks are jocks and never the twain shall meet. It was a view that Konarski and most of the older generation of Eastern Europeans found bewildering. But that was the way it was.

So, Alex and his friends gave the newbies the infamous “orbit” problem. If you are working outside the ISS and fling a wrench toward Earth what will happen? Invariably, the response was to the effect that “well, duh, it will fall to Earth”. With carefully practiced condescension, Alex then would inform them that this is not correct. The wrench will rebound and hit the pitcher. It was one of the many vagaries of orbital dynamics, unintuitive but fairly obvious on close reflection.

The victim would argue, debate, complain, declare it an impossibility. Alex patiently would explain the mathematics. It was no mistake. Only after the victim had labored for days over a calculation that any kid should be able to do would they — sometimes — get the answer.

For some reason the first question they asked after accepting the result always was, “How do you flush the toilets?”

“Very carefully,” Alex would answer.

Then everybody had a drink and a good laugh. Yes, shit would fall to earth just as it always had and always would.

The spectrometer indicated that there was some sort of smog developing over Rome. Alex wondered if this would be a repeat of Paris. There had been sporadic fires for weeks after the Front hit that city. Some were attributable to the usual suspects: car crashes as people fled or died, overloads and short-circuits, the chaos of large numbers of people fleeing, probably even arson, not to mention the ordinary incidence of fires in a major city, now with nobody to nip them in the bud. Mostly, though, it just was the unattended failure of humanity’s mechanized residue.

The Front couldn’t eradicate every trace of our existence, but perhaps it would smile gleefully as our detritus burned itself out. Those last embers likely would outlast us, a brief epitaph. Of course, the smaller fires weren’t visible from the station, and Alex only could surmise their existence from the occasional flare up.

The same had occurred everywhere else the Front passed. In most cases there had been a small glow for a day or so and then just the quenching smoke from a spent fire. On the other hand, there was a thick haze over parts of Germany since fires had spread through the coal mines. These probably would burn for years to come, occasionally erupting from the ground without warning. There was no need to speculate on *that*; Konarski’s own grandfather had perished this way many years ago. The mines had been killing people long before there was any Front. But the occasional fireworks aside, cities inside the Zone were cold and dead.

The ISS orbited the Earth approximately once every ninety minutes. This meant that close observation of any given area was limited to a few minutes, after which they must wait until the next pass. During the time between passes, the Front would expand a little over a quarter mile. Nothing remarkable had happened during the hundred passes it took for the Front to traverse Paris. And it wasn’t for another twenty or so that the trouble started.

*Trouble?* Something about the word struck him as callous. It seemed irreverent to call a fire “trouble”, while ignoring the millions of deaths which surely preceded it. Well, the “event”, then. Once it started, the event was evident within a few passes. Alex had noticed something wrong fairly quickly. Instead of a series of small and short-lived flare ups, the blaze simply had grown and grown.

At first he suspected the meltdown of some unadvertised nuclear reactor. But there was no indication of enhanced radiation levels. Of course, it was hard to tell for sure through the smoke plume. By that point it looked like there was a small hurricane over Paris, a hurricane that occasionally flashed red. It really was quite beautiful from his vantage point, but he shuddered to think what it would be like within that mile-high vortex of flame.

It had not ceased for seven days. Some meteorologist explained the effect early on. It was called a firestorm, when countless small fires merge into a monster that generates its own weather, commands its own destiny. It was a good thing there was nobody left for it to kill, though Alex was unsure what effect the fountain of ash would have on the rest of Europe.

In theory there probably were operational video feeds on the ground, but the Central European power grid had failed two months earlier. It had shown surprisingly little resilience, and shrouded most of Europe in darkness. Of course, the relevant machinery lay within the Zone and repairs were impossible.

Konarski wondered how many millions had died prematurely because some engineering firm cut corners years ago. It probably was Ukrainian, that firm. Alex never trusted the Ukrainians. Whatever the cause, the result was that there was no power. And by the time Paris was hit any battery-driven units were long dead. Other than some satellites and the occasional drone, he and his crew were the only ones to see what was happening.

The Paris conflagration eventually had withered and died out, of course. What was of interest now was Rome. The ISS had been asked to keep an eye on the regions within the Zone, gleaning valuable information to help others prepare or, if one were fool enough to hope, understand and dispel the Front altogether. However, the real action always surrounded the Front itself. Especially when it hit a densely-developed area, even if now deserted. But it wasn’t just orders or morbid curiosity that compelled Alex to watch. Where evident, the destruction could be aesthetically beautiful.

Safely beyond the reach of the Front, Alex could watch the end of a world. How many people would have the opportunity to do so? There was a certain pride in knowing he would be among the last, perhaps even *the* last. Once everyone had perished, the crew of the ISS would be alone for a while, left to contemplate the silence. Then their supplies would run out, and they too would die.

Based on the current consumption rate of his six person crew, Alex estimated they could survive for another six years — two years past the Front’s anticipated circumvallation of Earth. Of course, he doubted the process would be an orderly one. Four of the crew members (himself included) came from military backgrounds, one was a woman, and three different countries were represented. Even at the best of times, there was a simmering competitiveness.

Konarski assumed that he would be the first casualty. No other scenario made sense, other than something random in the heat of passion — and such things didn’t require the Front. No, barring any insanity, he would go first. He was the leader and also happened to be bedding the only woman. Who else would somebody bother killing? Of course, with *this* woman, he shuddered to think what would happen to the murderer. Of course, *she* was the one most likely to kill him in the first place.

Obviously, they hadn’t screened for mental health in the Chinese space program. In fact, he guessed that any screening they *did* do was just lip-service to be allowed to join the ISS. But Ying was stunning and endlessly hilarious to talk to, and Alex had nothing to lose.

If the Front hadn’t come along, he would have faced compulsory retirement the following year. Then he would have had the privilege of returning to good old Poland, a living anachronism in a country that shunned any sign of its past. Alex gave it about a year before the bottle would have taken him. Who the fuck wanted to grow old in today’s world? The Front was the best thing that ever happened, as far as he was concerned. It made him special.

Alex would try to protect Ying for as long as he could, but he knew how things would unfold. Perhaps it would be best to kill her first, before anyone got to him. Or maybe he just should suicide the whole crew. It would be the easiest thing in the world, all he really had to do was stop trying to keep everyone alive. Or he actively could space the place and kill everyone at once, a grand ceremonial gesture. But that would be boring.

Besides, part of him wanted to see who *would* be the last man standing. The whole of humanity in one man. The one to turn out the lights, not first but final hand. Humanity would end the way it began, with one man killing another. After all, everybody always was talking about returning to your roots. Alex just was sad they no longer had a gun on board. That *really* would have made things interesting.

These were distant considerations, however; worth planning for, but hardly imminent. At the moment the world remained very much alive, and was counting on them for critical information. Alex wondered if it would be better to be the last man alive or the man who saved the world.

“The savior, you dumb fuck,” part of him screamed. “Nobody will be around to care if you’re the last one alive.” Of course, Poland already was gone. There was no home for him, even the one he wouldn’t have wanted. Maybe he was the last Pole. But how would he change a light bulb?

For some reason, a series of bad Pollack jokes popped into Konarski’s head. There was a time when he would have taken great offense at such jokes, jumped to his country’s defense, maybe even thrown a few obligatory punches. But not now, not after what Poland had become over the last decade, and especially not after how they had behaved toward the end. They could go fuck themselves. And now they had. Or somebody bigger and badder had fucked them, just like had happened through most of their history.

Still, he felt a certain pride. Maybe he would be the start of a new, prouder race of Poles. No, that was just the sort of talk that had made him sick of his country, the reason he was commanding ISS under a Russian flag. Besides, there probably still were plenty of Poles around the world. He wasn’t alone. Yet.

If Alex watched Rome’s demise closely, he couldn’t be accused of exultation or cruel delight. He had watched his home city of Warsaw perish just three days earlier. Of course, it was nearly empty by the time the Front reached it. But he had listened to the broadcasts, the chatter, and he was ashamed of the conduct of his countrymen. They had acted just like the self-absorbed Western pigs he detested.

Ying understood. She was Chinese. When *they* left their old and infirm behind it would be from calculated expedience, not blind selfish panic. The decision would be institutional, not individual. The throng would push and perish and each would look to their own interest, but none would bear the individual moral responsibility. *That* would be absorbed by the State. What else was the State for?

But it turned out that his compatriots no longer thought this way. They had become soft since the fall of communism, soft and scared. When the moment came, they didn’t stand proud and sink with the ship. They scrambled over one another like a bunch of terrified mice, making a horrid mess and spitting on the morals of their homeland and a thousand years of national dignity just to buy a few more precious moments of lives clearly not worth living. They disgusted him. He would die the last true Pole.

In the meantime, he would carry on — his duty now to the species. Part of him felt that if *his* world had perished, so too should all the others. He harbored a certain resentment when he imagined some American scientists discovering the answer just in time to save their own country. It would be *his* data that accomplished this. What right had they to save themselves using *his* data, when his own people had perished. Yet still he sent it. Data that perhaps would one day allow another world to grow from the ashes of his. Maybe this was a sign that there *had* been some small progress over the thousands of years, that he was first and foremost human.

Alex’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft voice.

“We’re almost over Rome,” Ying whispered, breathing gently into his ear.

“C’mon, I have to record this,” he protested in half-genuine exasperation.

“That’s ok, we’ll just catch the next pass,” she shot back from behind him.

Alex heard some shuffling and felt something strange on his shoulder. What was Ying doing now? He had to focus, dammit. She was the funnest, craziest woman he had known, but sometimes he just wished he could lock her outside the station for a few hours. Yeah, he’d probably ask her to marry him at some point. Maybe soon. After all, living with somebody on the ISS was ten times more difficult than being married. Alex shook his shoulder free of her grip. It would have to wait.

Then he noticed that she wasn’t touching him. She was on the other side of the room, pointing at him with her mouth open. Why was there no sound? Then he was screaming, then he couldn’t scream anymore. Before things grew dark, he saw Ying’s decaying flesh. She still was pointing, almost like a mannequin. His last thought was how disgusting Ying had become, and that he soon would be the same.