Self-Publishing and the Book Industry

Every few months there are discussions about self-publishing and authorship, most of which are written by entrenched literary giants who bitch about advances going to zero and Amazon killing off the writer, usually by quoting the Hachette negotiations.

The latest Hacker News thread commenting on the latest Krugman-as-journalist hack piece shows a lot of real misunderstanding of how authors are actually successful in today’s society. Some quotes to this effect include:

  • How are self-publishers supposed to pay editors if Amazon keep pushing prices down?
  • Rather read works by people who are creating for the sake of art, and not money.
  • In many ways, publishing houses are to new authors what accelerators and VCs are to startups. They not only vet and fund them, they give guidance, access to contacts, and specialized help in areas like law and marketing. They pick riskier, less proven concepts, knowing that the hits will compensate for the busts.

The first point (and ones like it) fall to the same victim that self-published writers often do, and it’s this: Fucking nobody wants to read your shitty book. Sorry, it’s true. If I had written The Dynamic Pitcher six years ago, it would have sold 10 copies and I would have blown my brains out. The only reason people buy your book is because THEY ALREADY LIKE READING YOUR STUFF. And how do you get people to read your stuff? You start a blog, you write great content, you interface well on social media, and you truly and sincerely market your material because it actually is some of the best stuff written on [insert subject matter here]. That’s it, unless you’re willing to do slimy things like repost content from various fields and do blog comment spamming and put it all into a “four-hour” invention, but excluding total sociopathic tendencies and assuming you are actually interested in your field of work, that’s how you sell books.

How did you decide that you’d purchase the last book you read? You heard about it from a friend, on Facebook, right? How’d he hear about it? Oh, through a library book club (look, just play along). And they found out through a magazine of referrals sent to all libraries. Not a goddamned one of those sources was perusing the Amazon catalog and said “Holy shit, I can’t wait to read some poetry from Dick Masterson, DDS Esq.”

So no, you do not publish your work and then roll in the money. That is not how you acquire readers. You have to demonstrate value (not a problem for all you studly PUAs and/or It’s Always Sunny watchers) before you can sell shit to people.

The second point I put in there because it’s funny to laugh at hipsters who don’t like Economics 101. Haha, you dirty hippie, shut up.

The third point is also false. I shopped my ideas around to various small-time publishers and a few of them thought it was interesting to the point they wanted to discuss terms. Not one of them offered me any of the following services:

  • Editing beyond plugging the stuff into a template
  • Cover design
  • Marketing (beyond what I could already do at 5% effort level, aka spam some message boards)

All of them wanted me to sign a multi-book contract to offer generous royalties that were a complete joke. Assume that I wanted to sell my product for $100, and I’ll tell you that the royalties per book sold at the rates I was projecting I’d sell would be barely enough to enjoy Chipotle. I get many multiples of that by selling it as an eBook on my own site.

My next book on pitching mechanics and training will do very well; it is my magnum opus, so to speak. But it won’t do well because it’s this theoretically perfect book; it’ll do well because a LOT of people can’t wait to read it – a few thousand, in my estimations. So why go with a publisher? What will the publisher do for me that I can’t do on my own? There are no marketing channels they can get me into that I can’t, because I’ve curated my social media profiles (ugh, nice buzzwords) and email lists rather well. Can they get me on TV or a major news network to promote my book? Probably not, and even if they can, it won’t be worth the royalty cut and the creative control I’d lose.

The book industry is dying or nearly dead; yet another group of old world managers who failed to adapt despite having an incredible first-mover advantage. Good riddance.

Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

Richard Feynman famously said:

If you can’t explain something to a first year student, then you haven’t really understood it.

I certainly agree with Richard, but I fear that a common theme amongst people is one of over-simplicity. I see it all the time in business (don’t get me started on Lean Theory zealots), education, and my industry of choice, sports. In my latest article about injuries to pitchers’ arms, I sourced a lot of research both externally and internally to discuss how elbow and shoulder surgeries are not a simple process. It is not simply checkpoint-based mechanics, or the “fact” that kids back in the day threw watermelons in the fields which would strengthen their arms (actually said by a General Manager of an MLB team) – to say such things is to remain willfully ignorant about an extremely complex system.

We have the sum total of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips through Google Search, which in theory should raise the level of discourse. There is no better way to become “intelligent” than by simply putting every single thought you have into Google Search and reading for hours to gain a deeper understanding – and often refutation – of the beliefs you once held. It is the modern day Library of Alexandria.

Yet this is too difficult for most, and rightfully so. It is a pain in the ass to constantly question your beliefs, thoughts, and things you were very sure were real in this world. But accumulation of knowledge and skill is asymptotic, unfortunately – the more we learn and the more we do, the greater the existing base of knowledge grows and the tougher it becomes to create something in this world. This is, without a doubt, quite frustrating.

However the journey is what really matters; as I am fond of saying, the pleasure is in the hard work. The late nights at 2 AM staring at results from the biomechanics lab are some of the most intellectually and spiritually enriching experiences I have, because it is through that slavish devotion to a niche practice (baseball pitching) that my clients get results that no other trainer could possibly give them. Celebrating the end result comes naturally and I do enjoy it, but losing sight of the journey is the quickest way to grow complacent – and will get you passed very quickly in this world.

Why I Stopped Writing for The Hardball Times

I recently penned my last article for The Hardball Times (for now). They cut out the vast majority of the explanation on why I left, and while most readers surmised why, I wanted to include the unedited version of it here.

Thanks for all your support throughout the years. THT is truly an incredible site.

On another, sadder note…

Years ago, when I left the SB Nation network and abandoned my blog – Driveline Mechanics, may it rest in peace – I eventually approached Dave Studeman to see if The Hardball Times needed someone to contribute articles on pitching mechanics and training. Dave responded that he was very interested in having me write, so naturally, I ignored him for months before contributing my first piece in February 2011 – Pitching mechanics, the uncertainty of data, and fear.

While the Open Biomechanics Project sadly never took off, I’m proud to say that field researchers (tentatively including myself in this group) have made enormous strides on quantifying the pitching delivery, have made breakthroughs in how we train pitchers for improved velocity and durability, and most importantly have significantly increased the amount of interest in this field. The past three years have flown by, and I never hate going into work where all I do is train pitchers, do research, and think about pitching in general.

That last bit should probably tell you where this is going: I love writing for THT, and I absolutely love the new format. The long content model is exactly how I envisioned THT at its best and how I remembered it from years past – timeless articles from Josh Kalk, Dave Gassko, Harry Pavlidis, Colin Wyers, Dan Brooks, Dave Studeman, Paul Nyman, Carlos Gomez, and so, so many others. We have such a great dual model in Fangraphs for breaking news / quick analysis pieces and The Hardball Times for slower content with more in-depth analysis of deeper issues – not to mention the great work being done at Baseball Prospectus.

But (and you knew this was coming), my time at THT has come to a close. I have been hired by an MLB team to work in a scouting and player development hybrid role, and while my contract does not expressly forbid contributing to the public domain, I cannot focus 100% of my attention on my work for the team and continue to write on the same topics. There is also a conflict of interest and disclosure issue here, as I consult for the aforementioned team as well as a major NCAA Division-I powerhouse, and it’s not hard to see how my analyses of these players could be compromised.

Without the help and assistance of Dave Studeman, Joe Distelheim, and Brian Cartwright, I probably would not be in the position I am. I interviewed for many MLB jobs – and had more than one offer – and not a single one of the front office members I interviewed with failed to bring up my work on The Hardball Times (while occasionally missing my contributions elsewhere!). It is no stretch to say that THT played a pivotal role in exposing my work, improving my current business (Driveline Baseball), and landing me what I consider the ideal initial role with an MLB team. While I wish I could disclose the team in question, my initial contract forbids it. Perhaps, in time, that will change, but for now, the scouting/player development sphere is seen as a massive arms race, and protecting trade secrets is vitally important.

So, to all of those who allowed me to stand on your shoulders, I cannot thank you enough. And to you, the readers, for constantly linking to my work and leaving me insightful comments and emails. The encouragement I got from my audience played no small part in me slogging away at 3 AM at my desk, churning out articles and doing tons of research.

I’d like to close with a piece of advice I received from a friend (Graham Goldbeck) as he entered the world of baseball – “Never stop asking questions.” This advice has served me extremely well over the years, and is the single most important tenet I adhere to on a daily basis in my work and life. Always strive to improve and always question what you think you know – and especially what you are SURE you know.

Tommy Hanson – Old vs. New

Tommy Hanson, what used to be:

Tommy Hanson - 2010 Overlay

Tommy Hanson - 2013 Overlay

On Education

I think a lot about education options for the general public as well as my son, who is rapidly approaching the age where we will need to make some decisions on what we will be doing in that regard. It is hard for me to remain objective on this viewpoint – as I suspect it is for many – because I feel strong contempt for my experiences in primary, secondary, and to a lesser extent, post-secondary school.

Focusing on post-secondary education is likely to be a waste of time, since it is so far in advance in a person’s development that the impact to society is rather low, minus economic externalities like the scam of student loans threatening to do significant damage to our generation. (This is not really an educational issue but more of a misaligned incentive / government issue, so we’ll skip it for this essay’s purpose.)

I was fortunate enough to have a father who quit his time-consuming contract job at NASA to take a lesser job with predictable work hours and pitch in around the house, while my mother worked a part-time night job. As such, they were around most of the time and applied adequate pressure on me to get my shit done, even if they didn’t really support me in the areas that I found most interesting (gaming, primarily). The impact of having a stable nuclear family cannot be overstated, especially because they could afford to send me to a low-budget private (parochial) school instead of the public primary schooling system.

Now, I realize that I have already described an unbelievable height of privilege and I’m not trying to downplay that; certainly a lot had to go right for me to even be in that position. And I have looked back with a more kind eye on my parents and educators and have forgiven them for simply doing what they felt was best, even if they hadn’t really done any research on what actually was best. Lord knows I have committed far worse sins in my life. However, it is impossible to describe my time in school as productive, useful, or even adequate.

Primary School

I attended St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic school housed in dilapidated buildings that would have been out of date in the 1970’s. The curriculum was as expected, a strong religious component though it was mostly segmented away – we learned about micro/macroevolution and the faith-based initiatives did not significantly impact our other subjects. The material was not overly challenging though everything with done with an larger-than-average authoritarian voice; perhaps a subconscious attempt to project God played a role here.

What was clear was that individual thought was not welcome. Again, nothing groundbreaking; I’m sure almost every intelligent person goes through this. I believe my parents were consulted about the possibility of me skipping 2nd grade as well as the possibility of me attending a gifted program at another parochial school up the street; neither opportunity materialized and I do not recall ever being asked my opinion. (I would have absolutely agreed to skip a grade.)

I made it painfully obvious I was ahead of the curve by asking for homework over the summer breaks, spending all my free time on the Apple IIe machines we had (how I coveted the green and black monsters!), and even spending time in front of a “math machine” which was nothing more than a large calculator. Still, nothing was done to help accelerate my studies, and like most in this situation, I began to lash out. My parents didn’t understand how I could be getting C’s in class while I spent hours and hours trying to understand the finer concepts of Magic: The Gathering and playing a lot of video games, and to be honest, neither could I. At this point I believe the lesson had already been burned into my brain – nothing in life will be difficult if I can leverage my intellect, so it wasn’t worth stressing over. My parents massively overreacted, grounding me from using a computer and gaming consoles for months on end. Never once did they try to have a conversation about alternative ways to further my education. Again, I can’t blame them for this, they both came from religious families with a very strong emphasis on order – and without the Internet, how would they ever come across another opinion that would change their mind?

People who are considered intelligent seem to manifest their intelligence in a limited but variable way. My core competency for someone with a +3 SD intellect (as measured by the WAIS-III, for whatever that is worth [not much]) was that I can intuitively grasp new systems incredibly quickly. Example: By any standard, I am a well below-average Magic player on the PTQ circuit for any number of reasons, but given a brand new set of cards that no one has ever seen, my expected outcome in a tournament far surpasses my normal expectation. If a subject has little to no similarity to another where we can overlay a previous neural net, we struggle with understanding it. I do too, but I get through the initial phases much, much faster than my peers.

It is hard to say what the correct course of action would have been here for 6-11 year old Kyle. My father attempted to get me into more solitary pursuits (electronics, sports, etc) but I did not respond well. Both of my parents were paragons of work ethic – they talked the talk AND walked the walk – but I wasn’t. It’s really no wonder they used punishment next in an attempt to straighten me out.

I have done a lot of reflecting here and I think a Montessori-style education would have served me best. Even at a young age I had issues with authority, though I never outwardly expressed it until high school. (The fear of eternal damnation is a powerful one indeed.) I had never really been told I could do whatever I wanted – sure, every parent and teacher pays lip service to this concept, but few are willing to allow an 8 year old to actually do what he wants to do.

Secondary School

After a Catholic education, I ended up at a public high school, Parma Senior HS. Incredibly scared that honors classes would be too much work, I took only Honors Biology and the rest of the courses were the standard variant. This proved to be a disaster as these courses were a huge waste of time. I posted just one 4.0 equivalent GPA (we had honors weighting, another terrible idea) which was my first semester of my freshman year; after that I started taking to sleeping in class and enjoying all the freedoms I never had at St. Francis.

My guidance counselor refused to allow me to take Computer Programming as a freshman, stating that the class was too advanced and only available to upperclassmen. By the time I was eligible, the class had been dropped from the curriculum; I wouldn’t write a single line of code until I was in college.

While I socially came into my own in high school, educationally the entire four years was a complete waste of time. There were a few notable exceptions; Mr. Cyr was an energetic US History teacher (though the subject material was basically trivia), Mr. Jeckel gave me much of my sense of self-deprecating humor and pushed me to study the sciences more, and Mrs. Lachvader (spelling is wrong for sure) tried her best to motivate me to study advanced Chemistry, but the reality is that a decade of programming me to believe that my intelligence was sufficient more or less killed these signals.

I opted out of my senior year of high school to attend community college; it should be noted I had to fight every step of the way to actually achieve this result, since the taxes that would go to the HS instead would go to the college. When I discovered I could take classes full-time over the Internet (gasp!), I did that and worked 40 hrs/week at the local library. It was truly eye-opening to see that no one gave a shit what I did and I was free to do whatever I wanted at college, and it took me some time to fully internalize it.

My political science professor at Tri-C – Shaun Easley – gave me my official anti-authoritarian streak, which indirectly led to me studying Economics instead of Computer Science while at Baldwin-Wallace.

I’ve done less reflecting here on how my experiences could have improved, because primary programming is far more important, I believe. Had I had an outlet for my intellect and anti-authoritarian roots as a youngster, I would have overcome the idiotic state-based education path set out for me instead of tacitly accepting “yeah, this is how it is” while wasting four years of my life.

That said, my school was woefully underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with outlier cases of any sort, so once again, I can’t blame them specifically. (A recurring theme in most of my reflections is that it’s usually my fault; this is not always true but I have found it better to be overly self-critical.) Still, organizations should recognize a bad fit where it exists and provide an outlet for it; this would require accepting the idea that maybe an outlier case might actually best decide for himself what he wants to do. Those in power tend not to want to decentralize it, so again, it’s simply a rational response – but one that ultimately hurts the very people who are most likely to have the greatest potential to do something major in life.

————

I have no real conclusion to finish up with here. I will say that my son will be attending some sort of alternative school. I do not trust the public system to adequately handle the job of education; I believe they have massively failed in this regard and that it is not their primary motivation in any case. (Glorified babysitting and hand-holding are the planks, IMO.) If I believed I had the patience and insight, I would opt for home schooling, but that requires a level of delusion that not even I have achieved. I know that I would make a terrible educator for my own son due to conflict of interest.

Though they say kids are prone to making the same mistakes their parents made (and again, I don’t view my parents decisions as mistakes in the conscious sense whatsoever), I plan on instilling a strong sense of self-determination in my son, which will probably take root as anti-authoritarian. While in the short-run this is counterproductive and likely annoying as fuck, they are values I highly respect and ones that I see in most of the successful people that I consider to be role models.

As such, Astrid and I will likely be exploring Montessori schools when the time comes. I want my son to grow up in an environment that is only semi-structured with a lot of room for individual decisions – and more importantly, the ability to say “no” to his authority figures without fear of baseless reprisal.

Man, education is complicated.