William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Short Shorts: Of Zombies and Missing Pieces

I have always been a chronic over-writer. In high school, back when dot matrix printers and fanfold paper still reigned, classmates would grab the first page of my English paper, drop the rest out of our second-story window, and let my text blow in the breeze to see how far my latest opus reached. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands of extra words I've written in my life? The thought of all those hours I might have reclaimed if only I were more concise gives me productivity nightmares. Yet I seem powerless to stop this overkill at the keyboard.

Thankfully, the world has editors that impose limits. With the Sci-Guys podcast, the powers that be tell me to keep things under three to four minutes. The first draft of my piece on Scott Nicholson's Missing Pieces came in at almost five and a half minutes on my first reading. Ugh... So I set about slicing and dicing. You can hear the results starting at about 32 minutes and 40 seconds into the new Sci-Guys podcast #105.

Some people have longer attention spans when reading than listening. (Just ask my wife.) I started out with the Sci-Guys crew months ago talking about zombies, and I think there remains a lot to say on the subject. Unfortunately, zombies are the new vampire -- or they were a year ago. I sense that the public's sense of zombie fatigue is growing, and that's to be expected. Fascination with this or that sort of monster is bound to ebb and flow like any fad. When AMC cancels The Walking Dead, we'll know that this zombie wave has run its course. Apparently, the show now has its own Facebook game, so it shouldn't be long.

Anyway. See? I'm doing it again.

Without (much) further ado, I'll only say that below is the original version of my review script rather than the abridged version I sent in for the podcast. (And can anyone tell me how to minimize those hard "s" sounds in Audacity? Please?) Also, I want to emphasize right up front that if you love horror lit and enjoy supporting independent authors, you need to check out Scott Nicholson. Read through his Web site and sign up for his ebook giveaway projects. Try a few. You won't be disappointed. I mean, how can you not love a guy who does his press photo as a vampire in a casket?

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Why do we love zombies?

This is a tricky question once you dig under its flaky, rotting surface. I thought about this a lot as I was writing my Civil War zombie story, “The Followers.” I mean, monster tales and the horror genre in general work on different levels. If we think of slasher flicks, where things suddenly jump and scream and scare the bejeezus out of you, there’s not much depth here, right? It probably has something to do with the fight or flight response and how that little adrenaline pop stimulates our hindbrains. There’s no intellect involved; it’s just primal. And primal is fine. Primal is how we make kids, after all. But a great story demands more.

So...zombies. Let’s recap. What exactly is a zombie? Well, usually, a zombie is a human that has been attacked somehow and rendered into a mindless, devouring corruption of its former self. I’m picking these words carefully: mindless, devouring, and corruption. Mindless is important because we identify ourselves with our minds. The mind defines us and makes us human. It’s the fence around our ego. Without mind, we’re nothing but a sack of meat in an empty universe. Here’s the key to horror: Nothing terrifies us more than loss of identity. We laugh about zombies craving brains, but did you ever wonder why the brain? Why not the heart or something else? Because the brain contains the mind. Zombies are about the destruction of the mind.

Now back to devouring. Zombies aren’t scary because they’re carnivores. I’m all for bacon and baby backs, OK? Zombies are cannibals. Murder is taboo, but it’s ordinary. It happens every day. Cannibalism? That’s something else. It’s not just an offense against an individual, it’s an offense against the species, and that threatens us at a deeper level.

Corruption. I remember reading Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant fantasy series when I was a kid, and the one quotation that’s stuck with me all these years is this: “There's only one way to hurt a man who’s lost everything. Give him back something broken.” In a zombie apocalypse, where we as a world have lost everything, the real horror isn’t the loss of power or food or any other external factor. It’s that we get back our loved ones broken and corrupted. They are mindless, rotting, empty reminders of corrupted love.

Good literature tells the story of ourselves. Through the characters, we see our own faults and dreams. Zombies – the best kind of zombies – appeal to our fear of losing ourselves. Because we all stand on this cliff every day. The ground under our feet feels firm. We have money, food, family, and most of all a sense of who we are, the identity that defines our place in the world. But just one step, one bite, one little crossing into death and back again, and we tumble off that cliff into corruption and lose everything that really matters. We become entirely, terrifyingly alone.

Scott Nicholson has written many stories about zombies, but one of the most haunting is titled “Darker With the Day.” It’s about a man named Lt. John Sorenson, who was one of the first victims of the zombie apocalypse accidentally unleashed by the military. In a really clever twist, Nicholson gives his zombie full recall of who he is and was so long as he has recently fed. The more hungry he gets, the less he remembers. And Lt. Sorenson has only one wish: to get back home to the wife he loves with all his soul.

There are a lot of Christian images and references in “Darker With the Day,” and at first this bothered me. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw how well it fit into the zombie archetype. If religion is one of the ways, maybe the biggest and most profound way, that we as thinking humans cope with the universe’s emptiness, then Nicholson is adding another layer of loss and corruption on his zombie. It’s not only about loss of identity. Lt. Sorenson is battling the loss of his faith and spirit. It’s subtle and clever and really helps sink this story into your subconscious like few other zombie tales I’ve read.

“Darker With the Day” alone is worth buying, but it appears in a collection of ten stories titled Missing Pieces for only 99 cents. Scott Nicholson has written more than 30 books, and he has a very bad habit of giving them away for free. I honestly feel guilty when I download his promos. But he can turn from backwoods hick humor to dark poetry on a dime, and when his stories hit home, they hit hard.

Scott Nicholson, Missing Pieces, 99 cents to download. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What Price, Entertainment?

"What price should I set for my ebook?"

If you're a self-published author, this question persists like a bad flu. Just when you think you've put it to rest -- bam! Back it comes again, more vexing than ever.You can read the Romance Writers of America's survey showing that $6.13 is the "fairest price" for a romance ebook. You can skip to any of influential indie author Dean Wesley Smith's discussions about ebook pricing, probably starting with this one that ties prices to word counts. You could take inspiration from the many authors who have found success pricing their works at 99 cents, hoping to trade near-term profits for long-term popularity. Or you could throw up your hands in exasperation and go with your gut, saying, "I spent eight years working every night on this 250,000-word epic, and it's every bit as good as any other $11.99 best-seller on the Amazon Top 100, so pony up, people."

Today, I'm so far from being a best-selling author that the distance of my career from "here" to "made it" has to be measured in astronomical terms. But I'm as entitled to an opinion on the pricing question as the next guy. Trouble is, I don't know enough to have an opinion. That's the curse of being a journalist. I feel like I have to be surrounded with case studies, data, and a burden of evidence before I can feel confident in having an informed opinion.

If I had years of experience under my belt and a fleet of self-pubbed novels I could price this way and that, perhaps I could pass judgment on price points with some authority. But I don't. I could probably reach out and find a few, but they'd probably get so annoyed with my statistical haranguing that we'd never reach a conclusion before they sent me to blacklist banishment, that filtered layer of Hell reserved for shady pharmaceuticals, overly optimistic marital aids, and fawning journalist fanboys.

But we can't all wander around blindly. There must be some objective yardstick for gauging how to price ebooks, right? RIGHT?!

I and many others have tried comparing ebooks to movies in the past. Theaters sell $10 movie tickets by the millions, and most movies don't last anywhere near as long as a novel. Some counter-argue this point, saying that whereas a novel gets produced by a handful of people, movies require hundreds or thousands. Nobody spends $50 million to produce a novel. Think of the cost disparity. Shouldn't this translate into consumer prices?

No. That fallacy plays only into the hands of those who would spend more to make more, with nary a thought for the quality of the consumer's experience along the way.

That's the key: the quality of the consumer's experience. I don't care that it cost over $200 million to make and market the new Total Recall movie. I've paid 99 cents for ebooks produced on essentially zero budget that gave me far more entertainment for a longer time than the 135 minutes I sat yawning through Sony's botched remake. The question every consumer might ask is, "How much is this entertainment worth to me?"

More importantly, can we reach general conclusions about the value of entertainment?

The movies vs. ebooks pricing comparison can't stand on its own. It's a number in a vacuum. We need additional context so that the number becomes part of a pattern. With that in mind, I went into a Googling frenzy and emerged with some very interesting finds.

#1. Gaming

I'm not much of a gamer, but I'm surrounded by people who are. In 2011, video gaming was a roughly $16.5 billion industry just in the U.S. In comparison, 2011 movie ticket sales edged just over the $10 billion mark for all of North America. I took an informal poll of my friends, and the general rule seems to be that men in my demographic (30- to 40-somethings) buy a handful of top titles each year bolstered by several more "filler" titles -- mostly older games found in the virtual discount bin. Some games get played for days, some for only a few minutes before being tossed aside. Back of the napkin figures placed the price of gaming among my friends at about 50 cents per hour.

Not content with such informality, I went searching for harder data. One lucky find surfaced at http://howlongtobeat.com/stats.php. Among other things, the site maintains a list of how long it takes people to complete games. Here's the list of ten most-submitted titles and the average of how long users took to complete them.

1. Mass Effect 2 – 35h 56m
2. Portal 2 – 9h 00m
3. Mass Effect – 27h 00m
4. Portal – 3h 27m
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum – 15h 17m
6. Assassin’s Creed II – 25h 46m
7. Bastion – 7h 26m
8. Deus Ex: Human Revolution – 28h 03m
9. Half-Life 2 – 13h 36m
10. Dragon Age: Origins – 56h 51m

All told, this gives us an average completion time of about 22.25 hours.

Next, we need to know how much the average game costs. While top titles now frequently sell in the $60 range, one reputable source showed that the average selling price in 2011 for new titles was (converted to U.S. dollars) $40.

Do the math, and what you get is an average gaming price of $1.80 per hour. However, this ignores the rising tide of smartphone and tablet apps, such as Angry Birds, which might cost a buck and deliver dozens of hours of jaw-clenching challenge. In accounting for this, we might skew our final figure downward by...half? Maybe more? Let's figure half and call gaming a 90 cents per hour affair.

#2. Movies

It's the knee-jerk example we all reach for, but just how much does a theater experience cost? Two quick searches yield good info.

First, Hollywood Reporter claims that the average price of movie tickets now stands at $8.12, an all-time but totally not surprising high. Finding the average movie length was slightly harder, but I like the data compiled by Peter Sciretta, stating that the average length for the top 50 movies of 2008 was 110 minutes.

Divide and multiply and we see that cinema outings average $4.43 per hour -- not counting gas, concessions, and so on.

But here's the tough part about movies. In my home, we ditched our cable over two years ago (best. decision. ever.) and now watch most of our movies via Netflix or Redbox. I'd estimate that we watch five movies at home for every one in a theater. With subscription and rental costs averaged out, I'd peg the price of our home movies at about $1.50 each. Factored in with the cinema viewing, that drops us down to $1.42 per hour.

#3. Bowling

Why not? It's entertainment, yes?

Our local lanes are pretty representative of an average bowling alley, and the place charges $4 per game during open bowling. Let's figure that it takes an average person 15 minutes to bowl one game. If you bowl with one partner, the two of you will complete two games in an hour. Ignoring shoe rental, you're out $8 per hour.

#4. Concerts

Sad to say, but I haven't been to a concert in years. Partially, this is because we had kids, but it's also because ticket costs for the bands I like have become stratospheric. I know that artists often depend on concerts rather than album sales for their real income, but...holy cow.

I found some excellent data at Pollstar and selected bands starting with the letter V as a sample set. Average ticket prices for those bands ranged from $3.72 to $108.81, but the average was $37.50 per ticket. If we include opening acts and figure three hours per show, which is probably being generous, then we get a concert entertainment rate of $12.50 per hour.

#5. Books

Pegging entertainment value on reading is tricky. Different genres gravitate to different novel word counts. To keep things simple, I wanted one number -- one giant average for the entire literary field -- and I found it in a Huffington Post story. The magic number is 64,500. How long does it take to read a book of this length? The most-cited statistic says that the average U.S. adult reads about about 250 words per minute. Reliable studies seem few and far between, but one interesting Syracuse University paper reported rates of 231 and 189 words per minute, so I'm fine with leaving 250 as a reference point. With these averages, a normal person should be able to read a book in 258 minutes, or 4.3 hours. If this seems fast to you, adjust accordingly.

One problem, though: Most books only report their number of pages. Word counts have only started to come into vogue with ebooks, which render page counts meaningless.

While the number of words on an average page will vary based on a host of factors, we can take 350 as a fairly solid ballpark estimate. Using this, let's check out Stephen King's indescribably awesome 11/22/63, a behemoth weighing in at 880 pages, and figure that it has about 380,000 words. That works out to 25.33 hours of reading time. As of this writing, Amazon lists the hardback of 11/22/63 for $21. That's 83 cents per hour for some of the best literary entertainment I've enjoyed in decades. If we opt for the $12 paperback, that number drops to 47 cents per hour.

I wanted a top 20 title and found out that Catching Fire (book 2 from The Hunger Games trilogy) is 101,564 words, making it a 6.77-hour read. The hardback sells for $10.79, yielding $1.59 per hour. If we take the $5.99 Kindle version, we can follow the adventures of Katniss for only 88 cents per hour.

Putting It Together

I think of books, movies, and gaming as "everyday entertainment." Bowling and concerts are much less frequent activities. It seems accurate to draw a correlation between frequency and hourly entertainment cost, doesn't it? The more of a "treat" the entertainment is, the more we're willing to pay for it on an hourly basis.

Looking at everyday entertainment, if we take the paperback of 11/22/63 as a low (47 cents/hour) and movie consumption ($1.42/hour) as a high, an author can feel totally justified in pricing his or her novel at $1/hour. At 250 words/hour, I'm reading 15,000 words/hour, which means a 90,000-word novel is smack on target at $5.99.

Where this starts to break down is with shorter fiction. If we have a 30,000-word novella, that's two hours of reading for a $1.99 price point. Dean Wesley Smith would have us pricing this length at $4.99 or $5.99. I'm not saying that this is excessive. I'm only saying that such a price is skewed way out of line with the kind of hourly averages we're seeing for everyday entertainment. Believe me, as a writer, I'd love to be able to charge $3.49 for my 13,500-word historical horror novelette, "The Followers." But my sales have narrowed to a trickle even at $2.99, and that's with a bonus short story included. My slight amount of personal evidence combined with the data detailed here tells me that the market won't accept what most would call a short story for $3.49.

But by this $1/hour reckoning, all short stories should be 99 cents. In fact, you wouldn't even think of graduating to Amazon's key 70% royalty price point at $2.99 until you crossed the 45,000-word mark. I don't think that's feasible. There has to be some bend in the graph. The shorter the ebook length, the higher the entertainment value per reading hour. Again, if we take a loose range of $0.50/hour for the very longest works and $3.00/hour for the shortest, we might see results like this:

Short story (5,000 words): $0.99, 20 minutes @ $3/hr

Short story (10,000 words): $1.49, 40 minutes @ $2.25/hr

Novelette (15,000 words): $1.99, 1 hour @ $2/hr

Novella (30,000 words): $2.99, 2 hours @ $1.50/hr

Short novel (45,000 words): $3.99, 3 hours @ $1.33/hr

Novel (60,000 words): $4.99, 4 hours @ $1.25/hr

Novel (90,000 words): $5.99, 6 hours @ $1/hr

Longer novel (120,000 words): $6.99, 8 hours @ $0.87/hr

Jumbo novel (over 180,000 words): $7.99, 12 hours @ $0.67/hr

Again, I'm not saying if this scale is right or wrong. It certainly slants against writers of shorter fiction. But in comparison against other forms of everyday entertainment and the value that people seem to place on it, these numbers seem fair. We have to resist the temptation to see value in terms of the hours and expenses needed to produce fiction and weigh pricing in terms of the only metric that matters: what the market is content to pay to be entertained.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sci-Guys Review: Total Recall, Konrath, and the Three-Titter

Here's my latest Sci-Guys Short Shorts piece as it appeared in Sci-Guys podcast #104:

I’m recording this before the Sci-Guys do their podcast. For all I know, they might love the new Total Recall. I didn’t. I saw it last night with my wife and another couple. For me, the entire movie was summed up in the fact that both my wife and her friend dozed off repeatedly during the film.

I’ve got a long list of stuff that’s wrong with the new version, starting with my favorite complaint, that there isn’t a single sympathetic character in the movie to connect with. In the 1990 Total Recall, you really felt bad for the oppressed mutants, which in turn made you despise the evil Cohaagen, which in turn made you root for Douglas Quaid. In the new version, I didn’t care what happened to the Australians...or Quaid.

In 1990, the female characters, Melina and Lori, were sexy and playful. I mean, go back and watch Sharon Stone. She was on fire in that movie. So how do you take two foxes like Kate Beckinsdale and Jessica Biel and drain virtually all of the sexy awesomeness out of their screen time? It’s freaking criminal.

And that’s what’s really wrong with Total Recall in 2012. It’s not fun. Yeah, Schwartzenegger comes off like a lumpy, bumbling oaf with dialog timing so bad that not even post editing could save him, but at least he was fun. His world was fun. There is no fun in the 2012 version. Amidst all of the endless explosions, the story has bled out and died, and that’s why my wife fell asleep.

Now bear with me. I want to coin a new phrase here, which never works when you try to do it on purpose but here goes. There was an element in the new Total Recall I want to describe as a “three-titter.” You remember Mary, the three-breasted mutant from the first movie. She had three breasts because she was a mutant, deformed by the radiation that was a key element in the movie’s backstory. Now, tell me why there’s a three-breasted character in the new movie when there are no other mutants. It’s a gratuitous, senseless nod to an earlier version of the story that’s simply there to tickle your nostalgia and make you think better of the current travesty in front of your face. It’s not just stupid, it’s insulting. I hereby christen this device a “three-titter.”

Which finally brings me to my short fiction recommendation. Betcha thought I forgot all about that. I recently discovered a three-titter in a story called “The Screaming” by Joe Konrath in his collection called Horror Stories. “The Screaming” is about two strung out bums in 1960s England who make their way to an abandoned countryside mansion in the hope of finding some loot they can sell. What they actually find chained up in the cellar is a wasted, suicidal, and vampiric Abraham Van Helsing.

I wouldn’t quite call this a perfect three-titter. At the end of Dracula, Van Helsing becomes a sort of grandfatherly mentor to Quincy, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker. Konrath picks up the story by having other vampires wipe out the remaining humans from Dracula and then convert Quincy, who in turn converts Van Helsing, who now seems to be the last surviving vampire in the world. It’s not a bad premise, but let’s ask the question: Did it have to be Van Helsing? Not really. Any stranded vampire would do. But we get Van Helsing to tie in the original story and hopefully convey some of the famous tale’s mojo through osmosis. In Konrath’s defense, “The Screaming” was written for an anthology called The Many Faces of Van Helsing, so the fate of having a three-titter was sort of built into the assignment.

“The Screaming” isn’t a great story, but it’s not bad. And it’s not bad because Konrath knows how to keep things fun. He specializes in gore and sick, guilty laughter, and there’s plenty of it in this three-dollar story collection. Despite the three-titter, Konrath is the horror genre’s equivalent of 1990’s Total Recall. I’ll spare you the long story, but Konrath is also the poster boy for ebook-era self-publishing. His blog details his rise from obscurity to grossing six figures per month, and he offers a lot of advice on how to do the same. But if there’s one bit of wisdom I can pull from this Horror Stories collection, and maybe Konrath and Total Recall in general, it’s that fiction doesn’t have to be epic to succeed. It doesn’t have to be immortally crafted and painstakingly perfect. It just has to give people that one thing they want, and more often than not that one thing is fun.
This is William Van Winkle, and you can check out my short shorts again in about...two weeks.