Revisiting Writing and Marketing

In the days and weeks following the publication of Keepers of the Flame, I’ve been writing short stories and novellas, some standalone, some proof-of-concepts for future stories. It was practice, and it was to build up a portfolio of works for submission. But through the pen I am beginning to uncover the enigma that is Benjamin Cheah.

Once I believed that someday I would write my name alongside the stars of literary history. Once I believed I could find my way in life through sheer bloody-mindedness. Once I believed I could haul myself up into glory.

Once I believed.

When I look back now I realise how improbable my career has been. My chances of ever publishing my fiction in Singapore is somewhere between laughable and none. Singaporean publishers want Singaporean stories about Singaporean culture by Singaporean writers for the Singaporean market. They want capital-L Literature. They want assemblies of words to probe the depths of language and bring out the human heart, to hold up a mirror to Singapore and in it find a reflection of the reader.

I can’t write that.

There’s a lot of bestselling fluff out there. The Twilights, the Fifty Shades of Greys, the derivatives that try to cash in on trends and jump on bandwagons. Or else ‘stories’ and prose held together by strings of pretty words, words that when seen as a whole hold no substance and no meaning. Stories that tap into some collective zeitgeist without offending too many people.

I can’t write that.

The prestigious science fiction magazines want specific stories. They want stories about how technology influences society, people and language. Stories that with certain je ne sais quoi, or stories that bring up the nastiness of humanity. Stories that celebrate diversity by hammering it into the reader.

I can’t write that.

What I can write are stories of action and adventure. Stories with gee-whiz gadgets and huge explosions, stories about the clash of civilisations and the end of empires, stories that examine human frailties and wonder at the next stage of humanity. Stories where freedom is won at the point of the sword, when evil is resisted with fire and ethics, where good people must stand fast in the face of temptation and corruption. Stories that harken to the epics and sagas of my childhood while looking to brighter futures yet to be born.

I haven’t seen a publisher in Singapore that will want to do that, not the least because the target audience of my stories are not necessarily exclusively Singaporean, nor are the themes those that Singaporeans would readily grasp. As for foreign publishers, I have heard too many horror stories about bad contracts, under-reported figures, and how marketing resources are prioritised for bestsellers and newcomers are left to flounder. Call me sceptical, but I don’t see why I should put up with the risk of that in this day and age.

Even if I could get a publisher, the simple fact is that the majority of those who can reach my target audience are based in the United States. Between absurdly low royalty terms and the IRS’ insistence on taking their cut, what little royalties that come my way likely aren’t worth the effort.

The best publishing solution is independent publishing. It’s my default option. Without it, as recently as ten, maybe five, years ago, I would never have been able to be published. Or else have to content myself with peanuts forever. The indie route is the only way Keepers of the Flame could have been published, as would my other stories.

And yet, the IRS still wants its 30%..And now with the EU imposing the new VAT taxes, I’ll make even less money from European sales. No matter which way I cut it I just won’t make as much money as someone with the same sales figures as me. Which, in turn, means I need to put in even more effort into marketing just to make the same amount of money.

As much as I believe in the indie publishing revolution, there is still a massive gap between royalties of 45% and 70%.

All that means I can’t adopt the methods used by other authors and expect the same degree of success. The numbers are not with me, and neither is the law.

There are a lot of obstacles stacked against me. The easy option is to sigh, throw up my hands and focus on something else. Another option is to place writing on a back burner, to hold off on writing until I can get back to it at a more favourable time and place. Yet a third option is to simply choose to write for fun and ignore financial considerations. But the blood of entrepreneurs runs in my veins, and I cannot give up so soon. With this in mind, I’m changing my publishing/distribution and marketing strategies.

1. Writing and publishing short(er) stories and/or anthologies on a regular basis. To make up for reduced royalties, I am thinking of putting out shorter stories regularly. This is my least preferred option, not the least because it requires the ability to cover fixed costs. But maybe, if employed as a means to bridge the gap between core stories (like what I’m doing with American Heirs), or if published on different markets, it could maintain buzz and market presence until the next major story.

2. Focus marketing on several channels. Applying the Pareto principle, it seems 80% of my royalties comes from 20% of my marketing channels. That means Smashwords and Payhip. Going forward, I will focus my promotional efforts primarily on Smashwords and Payhip, relying on Amazon mainly for reviews and print books. Perhaps this focus in marketing might pay off through increased sales.

3. Work with small presses. At some point, marketing just becomes a chore with diminishing returns. When I look at publishing contracts, I’m essentially asking myself if the difference in royalties accounts for marketing efforts, ready access to customers, and covering the fixed costs of publishing. When it comes down to it I can be agnostic about publishing methodology, and if working with select small presses means I get more books to more people, all the better.

4. Hold workshops. In the medium term (ideally, after publishing American Heirs #3), I’ll see if I can conduct writing workshops. I’ve come to realise that writers with much less experience than me are passing on the lessons they have learned, and if they can do that, I reckon I have some tips to share too. And maybe this might translate to more connections and more sales in the long run.

There’s a lot of maybes and perhaps here. There are no guarantees in this line of work — except a gaurantee of failure if one does not do. And if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is failure to do.

More Laws, More Crime

In 1920, the United States passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the production, sale and transportation of alcohol. The next thirteen years saw an upshot in banditry, the rise of organised crime on the backs of alcohol smuggling, gang violence, police corruption and an international alcohol smuggling racket that raked in millions of dollars and became increasingly tolerated by society.

Lawmakers supporting Singapore’s islandwide alcohol ban evidently did not learn the lessons of Prohibition. While this softer Prohibition would not lead to the depravity described above, it would nevertheless make more criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens for the most spurious of reasons: complaints about public drunkenness and excessive liquor consumption..

Should the ban pass, alcohol may only be sold from 7 am to 10.30 pm. The reality is that most actual alcohol sales would be restricted from 6.30pm to 10.30pm, at best, for the working week. Most people need to go to work or school, and then travel to the nearest retail outlet when they are finished. Given Singapore’s working culture and traffic conditions a more realistic time frame would be 7.30pm to 10.30pm for the majority of alcohol sales. Even on weekends, alcohol consumption tends to take place in the evening during social gatherings — the new restrictions would force people to purchase alcohol well in advance, hustle to shops before they run out of time, or do without. Retailers might see a shift in alcohol sales patterns to the weekends — or else drop off altogether.

According to the Straits Times, retailers ranging from supermarket chains to convenience stores would potentially see a loss of 20 to 30 percent of their revenue due to this ban. Should the ban pass, retailers would have to contemplate three courses of action: accept the loss in revenue, sharply reduce stock to accommodate the new sales time, and increase prices to make up for reduced income. Large retailers with many in-demand goods like Sheng Shiong and Fairprice might be able to accept the loss of income and make up for it elsewhere; convenience stories, especially mama stores with established reputations, may not.

One of the great flaws of the ban is that it sharply reduces supply without affecting demand. Economics theory predicts that a black market will inevitably arise. To combat this, the government allows retailers to apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis, both for retailers and for people wishing to organise public events with drinking. The problem is that just about everyone who drinks and sells alcohol anywhere in Singapore would be affected by this ban; this would require the creation of a large bureaucracy to handle the inevitable paperwork and mass appeals, in the form of a Licensing Officer and a Liquor Appeal Board.

One of two things are likely to happen. First, a huge number of people would apply for and be granted exemptions to the act. Secondly, only a fairly small group of retailers, those able to make their case and afford to do so, are granted the exemptions. The first scenario effectively defeats the purpose of the ban, unless its purpose were simply to impoverish retailers, inconvenience citizens and expand the role of the government in everyday life. The second outcome would mean that the unlucky masses whose petitions are rejected would be increasingly dissatisfied with the government and seek workarounds at higher cost to themselves. Retailers, in particular, would have to raise prices if they cannot absorb the loss in revenue. Not just prices of alcohol, but everything else, since the latter now has to yield a greater proportion of income than alcohol for the retailer to remain profitable.

Which would fuel a black market.

The alkie bootlegger’s playbook is almost a century old. They could buy alcohol legally in neighbouring regions, then smuggle them into Singapore. Some retailers, forced to choose between feeding their families or breaking the law, would choose the latter and quietly sell alcohol under the counter to trusted customers past the cut-off time. Other enterprising sorts would legally purchase alcohol from retailers in bulk, then sell it on the streets or in their homes after 10.30pm. There would always be demand, and it is impossible to curb demand by attacking supply.

Even if every single retailer somehow complied with the law, the law still would not address the problem of public disorder caused by drunkenness. Evidently the ones who proposed the bill have no understanding of human nature. None of them contemplated the possibility of someone getting drunk at home or in a pub, then going out and causing trouble on the streets. Nobody ever thought of people going into a pub, buying liquor, and smuggling it out to enjoy outside. Nobody wondered whether people, already drunk, would confuse the boundary between private and public space.

That, or they just did not care.

As a corollary, with new laws on the books, the police now have to take on a greater enforcement burden. They need to study the new laws, be familiar with legislation, figure out new workflows to liaise with the liquor control authorities, inspect and regulate premises, chase black marketeers and wrangle drunks.

The police cannot be everywhere. A police officer deployed to investigate reports of a retailer selling liquor past 10.30 pm is a police officer that is not investigating a theft. A police officer arresting someone for drinking in public is a police officer who is not arresting a loanshark. A police officer who is chasing someone for failing to pay alcohol-related fines is a police officer who is not walking the beat and preventing more serious crimes.

Further, as this article by Stephen Carter points out, police are charged with enforcing laws, with violence if needs be. Should the ban pass, police officers will now have to go after people illegally selling alcohol in public. Inevitably some of them will resist arrest, and some would resist with violence. This exposes police officers to a greater risk of injury — and treatment would be paid with taxpayer dollars. It also means that there will be a greater chance of police officers hurting or killing someone they did not have to, over something as trivial as selling or drinking alcohol in public, when it was not a crime otherwise. Will there be a Singaporean Eric Garner? I don’t know — all I know is that the more trivial laws are passed, the more likely there will be one.

A government that seeks to legislate permissible behaviours in society will increase its population of criminals. A government that requires people to seek approval to do something is a government that aims to increase its ability to control its people. In neither case should the government go unchallenged, especially when it wishes to pass blunt, sweeping measures over what is essentially a public nuisance. Should the ban pass, it is likely to make people poorer, force people to jump through even more hoops, impose a greater burden on the police and judiciary, and make criminals out of a larger segment of the population, all in the name of curbing public drunkenness.

Is the ban worth it?

The Great Reorganisation

Once upon a time I kept my blogging separate from my fiction. The idea was to keep each specialised, with the blog driving traffic to my website. It was a neat idea, only it didn’t quite pan out the way it expected. Further, it was a pain to maintain two separate-yet-similar sites, and publish redundant posts whenever my stories were ready to roll.

Therefore, effective immediately, I have merged the contents of my blog with this website. All my old content is still available, and future content will be posted here. In addition, I have reorganised the layout of my site to suit its new role as a landing pad for my brand: blog, bibliography, and writing services.

This site, as always, is a work in progress, but I think I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Thank you for putting up with my old blog, and I look forward to interacting with you here. I’ll also be tinkering with my approach to social media, marketing and other affairs in the coming days; keep an eye out for them!

Between the Points of the Pen and the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword only as long as it takes for the swordsman to get within range of the writer. At which point the former will be free to make an example of the writer, and write his own message with the writer’s pen and blood.

As the tragedy in Paris has shown, it is not enough to say that people should be free to exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is lip service unless that speech is defended against all that seek to silence it — be they terrorists, militaries, or governments foreign and domestic. While Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, depicting an image of the Prophet Muhammad, may be seen as a symbol of defiance, it is also guaranteed to provoke Muslim extremists — the equivalent of a wounded matador, alone and unarmed, waving a crimson flag in front of a blood-maddened bull.

The world is seeing a clash of cultures. France has a long and storied history of satire and political irreverance in the grand tradition of Voltaire; to these jesters, everybody and everything is fair game for insults and criticism, and they are not required to pay a high social cost for their words. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, brook no dissent and tolerate no slight towards the symbols and articles of their faith, and will not hesitate to turn their ire on anyone who contradicts these values. This is especially pronounced among people from honour- and tribal-based cultures in the Middle East, for whom every insult must be returned with blood or blood money.

The language of satire, or indeed any kind of intellectual discourse, is not necessarily universal. Some brands of writing appeal to some people, others will offend those same people, and published ideas do not necessarily influence everyone they come into contact with. But violence is a universal language, and any given degree of violence has predictable first- and second-order effects on the target. Left unchecked, the extremists will win.

The modern terrorist employs fourth generation warfare to achieve strategic effects. One of the key principles of fourth generation warfare is to control the narrative. Extremists with the capacity and willingness to do violence in addition to spreading propaganda are going to seize the narrative. Whenever they encounter organisations that criticise them, insult them, or otherwise publish ideas contrary to what they stand for, extremists will target them for assassination and destruction. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest and most public of a long and lamentable history of violence against journalists and writers. The individual shooters may be motivated for any number of reasons, personal or ideological, but the strategic effect would be to punish and terrorise people who disagree with the extremist ideology, publicise their own ideology and demonstrate their power to the world.

News organisations, and by extension societies, targeted by such extremists will tend towards two courses of action. The first is to cease and desist publishing ‘inflammatory’ or ‘provocative’ material, either out of a sense of self-preservation or some misguided notion of respect for diversity. In which case the terrorists win the war of ideas, since they will be the only ones publishing inflammatory, provocative and therefore eye-grabbing content. The second is to puff up their chests and continue publishing provocative material. People will naturally laud these acts and naturally let the whole world know — and, naturally, the extremists will redouble their efforts and continue targeting such people and organisations until their staff are intimidated into resigning or until they are annihilated.

Between the jester with a pen and a terrorist with a machine gun, bet on the terrorist.

The next question, then, is what can be done in the wake of the Paris attacks. The easy approach, of course, is to condemn everybody that publishes offensive material — either of all kinds, or more commonly, offensive to Muslims. While benevolent, this is misguided. Terrorists do not care about offensive material — they just want to be the only ones offending people.

Freedom of speech must by necessity carry the freedom to offend. Puerile humour, the kind that Charlie Hebdo specialises in, is of course likely to offend people. But so can well-researched, thought-out white papers. It is only a question of audience and likelihood. Scour the Internet long enough and you will find flame wars and heated debates over everything from PC vs Apple vs console, the exact role of prebiotic starch in digestion, interpretations of the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 9mm vs .45. it is impossible to judge with any degree of accuracy how controversial something will be, and to say that materials that appear to offend a given class of people (such as Muslims) is to treat that class of people as infantile subhuman creatures, driven entirely by base emotions, guaranteed to explode into tantrums and violence when triggered. Beyond the inherent prejudice involved, refusing to publish offensive material is little more than appeasement, and appeasement is not a viable survival strategy when faced with barbarians who wish nothing less than the destruction of civilisation.

Another easy approach is to enhance security measures in the name of counterterrorism. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for new laws to break into encrypted terrorist chatter. Actual enforcement may prove stickier: it would require the government to either pre-emptively ban encryption protocols it cannot break, or private corporations to give the government unilateral access to confidential communications between innocent clients. It is easy to justify such an approach by claiming that it will save lives. The problem is that terrorists do not kill for the sake of killing; they are interested in mass casualties only insofar as they inflict terror on the target population. Terrorists kill civilians to degrade the values of society, in the case of Paris freedom of speech. Security measures that sacrifice freedom in order to fight terrorists who aim to subvert freedom are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

Fourth generation warfare is a sophisticated series of tactics and strategy to exhaust and hollow the state, tempting it into self-destruction. Countering 4GW requires similar sophistication, combining both the pen and the sword.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to offend, must still be paramount. At the policy level, neither the state or the industry should pass laws or regulations, formal or informal, that suppresses anybody’s right to say anything. The only exception should be made for speech that incites or enables violence.

While states have a duty to protect their people, the greater the power a state has the greater the potential for abuse. Counterterrorism laws and policies that further increase the power of the state must include clauses for checks and balances, such as an oversight committee, requirements for warrants, and strategies that enable as precise a targeting method as possible to minimise the chances of innocents being caught in the dragnet. While swords are useful when faced with an enemy, it must be remembered that swords have two edges.

At the individual level, I think people should give some thought about the material they read and critique. This is not to say their tastes should fit mine, rather that it is useful to think about the effects of publishing something, be it in praise or condemnation of an idea. It is equally useful to make a distinction between crass or offensive material and material that promotes critical thought. All public speech, either in favour or as critique, will promote an idea to whoever happens to be the audience, followed by how the speaker frames and interprets that idea. One’s personal taste is entirely personal, but one does not need to critique every offensive thing either. Publicity is the oxygen of ideas and memes; to defeat them, I think starving them of attention would be the best approach. This would mean supporting and publicising speech that affirms the values that underpin civilisation, and ignoring that which do not — and, perhaps, by rhetorically savaging those that undermine it with the goal of discrediting the underlying ideas.

But beyond the level of the pen, people and organisations have to take personal security seriously. I will grant that this tends to be more useful against criminals than terrorists, but people who publish the kind of speech that offends terrorists are statistically more likely to be targeted by such people. Remaining a soft target exposes them and their families to death and fates worse than death — and turns them into a message for their colleagues and fellow citizens. Further, it is increasingly unlikely that the police will be able to respond in time to a defeat a terrorist attack unless they happen to be in the vicinity. People who dare to dance with the devil must be ready to defend themselves, with violence if necessary. That means seeking training from competent professionals, establishing a security plan, hiring skilled protectors, and other such measures. I suspect in the long term, only people and organisations that can bear the cost of enhanced security measures will be free to criticise terrorism and its adherents without fear of death or ruin.

Fourth generation warfare combines the pen and sword, the former through propaganda and the latter through terrorist violence. It is not enough to pick one or the other in response. Society has to choose both, the former to spread the memes that affirm civilisation and undercut those that undermine it, and the latter to deter and defeat those who would use the sword against it.

Media and the Maturation of Fourth Generation War

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats, the Second Coming

2014 closed on a bloody note, and a few days into 2015 the spectre of terror rose its head again. In the space of days and weeks the world saw a hostage crisis in Australia, another in Belgium, executions of police officers in America, mass abductions in Nigeria, and yesterday the assassinations of cartoonists in France.

It’s not the end of the world, but we can see it from here.

A state is commonly (albeit not quite completely) defined as a political organisation with a centralised government that maintains a monopoly on violence in a given territory. With the advent of new information communication technologies and the growing paradigm of open source warfare, that monopoly on violence is being challenged. The logical extension is that the power of the state will fade away, and the traditional world order defined by state actors will be replaced with a multipolar world defined by the expansion and growing importance of non-state actors and empowered individuals. The method of this transition is what is known today as fourth generation warfare.

First seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Chechnya, 4GW is defined by a blurring of lines between combatants and civilians, war and politics. Today it is mutating even further: the line between terrorism and crime is growing hazy, with one feeding into the other as seen in the case of the Mexican cartels and Palestinian smugger/terrorist groups; the deed becomes propaganda and propaganda fuels deeds; and gaining public legitimisation is as important a goal as securing territory.

War never changes. War is violence designed to compel an opponent to fulfil the actor’s will, and violence seems eternal. On the other hand, war has changed. The means and purposes of waging war has changed, as well as the temporal goals and identities of the actors. Anybody can make war with the right tools, motivation and mindset.

Today, there seem to be three prominent kinds of 4GW actors. The first are transnational terrorist groups, loosely connected over the Internet and social networks, that aim to overthrow or replace the state. These groups include Boko Haram and the Islamic State. While their goals are ideological, they borrow criminal activities and methods to keep themselves going, such as front organisations, smuggling and money laundering.

The second are transnational criminal organisations that aim to hollow out the state to secure a space to conduct criminal activities. The most prominent example are the Mexican cartels. While driven by profit, these groups use terrorist methodology to secure its goals. The cartels are loosely organised, use atrocities to terrorise the people in their territories, and challenge the state by targeting or corrupting the military and police.

The last are lone wolves who attack seemingly at random. These people have a huge array of motivations: workplace dissatisfaction, anger at the police or government, the creation of a caliph, or just plain mental illness. They adopt criminal mindsets, either obtaining weapons illegally or turning off-the-shelf products into weapons. They use terrorist methodology to gain maximum publicity, hitting soft targets and boasting on social media, relying on news cycles to gain their spot in history.

Central to all three actors is the use of media to conduct propaganda of the deed. They perform the deed, and they use media of all kinds to transform it into propaganda. They can count on the media to rapidly propagate news of their attacks across the world. This leads to three distinct media strategies.

First, 4GW actors will use the 24/7 news cycle to generate maximum terror. A sufficiently large and resourceful group will strike rapidly and retreat just as quickly, creating maximum impact for global publicity. Then they regroup and do it again, and again, and again. Think the Paris or Mumbai shooters on a larger scale. Alternatively, following a terrorist attack, fellow travellers or non-connected 4GW actors will use the increased focus on insecurity and fear to amplify press coverage of their next attack to create the perception of an unstable world. They may also conduct operations that synergize with each other, deliberately or otherwise. The chain of attacks I described above, for example, imply just that. These attacks need not be exclusive; in fact, one can happen alongside the other.

Second, 4GW actors will rely on operational pauses. When there is too much heat for the actors to operate, when competing groups have generated too much white noise and drawn too much attention away from their ideology, 4GW actors will retreat and halt operations for a time. They will wait until the news cycle clears and the local environment returns to a calmer state, and then strike again for maximum impact. This is the hallmark of the Islamic Caucuses Emirate, and it would likely be adopted by other groups in the future.

Thirdly, larger and more powerful 4GW actors will attempt to influence the news cycle. They want the media to portray them as an unstoppable force to be feared and respected, building up their credibility. They will likely make contact with media organisations that portray them favourably, or at least allow foreign correspondents a glimpse into their life. There was a reason why the Islamic State allowed a German journalist to chronicle them instead of turning him into a hostage. These actors will also target media organisations that portray them in an unfavourable light to intimidate everybody else. Think of the attack on Charlie Hebdo yesterday.

The newspaper is no longer just a newspaper; it is also a newsmaker. The mass media will become increasingly important targets, either of influence or coercion or both, in the coming days. Non-traditional media outlets and personalities will likely also be targeted: celebrities, blogs, social influencers, ordinary people with extraordinary reach. The days of traditional warfare and state protection are gone; a brave new war is coming, and anyone can take up the sword.

If, through your death or through your tweet, you can help a 4GW actor advance the cause, you will be a target. There is really only one answer to this. Stand up and be counted against the barbarians, or make your peace with the chain and the grave.

Sidestepping #VATMESS: My new approach to ebook pricing

Books are my life. I spent my childhood in and out of libraries and bookstores, exploring the worlds and ideas of countless thinkers and writers. Today, books are my lifelihood, serving simultaneously as research material, entertainment, study guides, teachers and companions. Books made me who I am today, showing me worlds beyond this one, pointing to futures yet born and ill-lit histories, whispering hints to build bridges between today and tomorrow.

I believe in a world where books are cheaply and readily available. I believe in a world that values literacy and education, where the sum of human knowledge can be found at one’s fingertips. I believe in a world where technology can synergise with business and art. I believe in a world where artists can be paid fairly for their work, where readers can access high quality books at reasonable prices, where entrepreneurs need not pay unreasonable tax burden to enjoy the fruit of their labour. I believe that in this lifetime humanity has the power to make the first steps towards this new information revolution.

I believe.

The new Value Added Tax threatens to undo all this. Previously, the European Union charges Value Added Tax based on the location of the seller. Now, VAT is charged according to the location of the buyer, and sellers are required to harvest the buyer’s data for VAT compliance. As TechCrunch notes, these rules present an onerous burden on small busineses–like virtually all indie writers–who now have to handle even more paperwork and reconsider pricing strategy.

As BuzzIndie points out, the new VAT rulings would crush indie writers, entrench major companies thanks to their ability to handle VAT, and open a whole host of legal ambiguities. The result is a #VATMESS that will not go away. Already, Amazon is taking advantage of its position by automatically raising prices for ebooks sold in Europe, and threatening to price-match ebooks should their bots find that an author charges lower prices elsewhere. Mark Coker from Smashwords predicts that the new VAT ruling will place a dampener on sales from Europe.

Yet I believe.

Independent writers like me face a dilemma: absorb the tax burden or pass on VAT to our European clients. From my perspective, it is incredibly tempting to just raise prices to meet the new VAT rulings, since I’m already slammed with a 30% withholding tax from the IRS.

Currently, I make far fewer royalties than my foreign peers. When I sell a book on Amazon or Smashwords, the distributor takes 30% of the proceeds. Of the 70% that remains, the IRS takes another 30%. This leaves me with a royalty rate of roughly 45%. With the new VAT ruling, VAT is subtracted first before all the other subtractions. Going with a European average of 20%, that means my royalties from European sales will hover at around 39.2%.

And I’m not talking about my own tax liabilities yet.

Still I believe.

This #VATMESS is going to take a long time to sort out. But I believe in a world where people do not have to choose between dinner and a book. I’ve had to make that choice too many times to wish it on anybody. And I believe in a world where a man should not have to put up with excessive demands for data and exorbitant taxes from foreign bureaucrats for the ‘privilege’ of doing business. The Internet and the indie publishing revolution promised an end to such nonsense, and I will keep to this.

I believe. And this is why I will be absorbing VAT.

I will not be adjusting the prices of my ebooks on Smashwords to account for a policy I’ve had no say in. Amazon has automatically raised the prices of my ebooks on Europe; when their bots find the lower prices on Smashwords I fully expect them to lower my prices on Amazon automatically. I don’t see a point in investing the time  needed to manually set lower prices on Amazon for each European country to meet different VAT regimes and periodically update them to account for fluctuating exchange rates (I have to think in three currencies when setting prices!) when my European sales via Kindle are practically nil. I’d rather focus my energies on directing European customers to places where they won’t have to pay elevated taxes, such as Payhip.

Previously, I sold ebooks through Gumroad, Sellfy and CoinLock. Neither Coinlock nor Gumroad would help me sort out the #VATMESS, effectively forcing me to maintain huge customer databases, capture addresses and determine how much tax should go to which country in Europe. I do not have the time or ability to do this, so I have closed these avenues of sale. As for Sellfy, I wasn’t too impressed with the marketplace and (lack of) categorisation for ebooks.

Therefore, I have consolidated direct purchases through Payhip. Payhip charges a flat 5% fee of the gross sale price for each transaction through Paypal. It also promises to handle VAT paperwork. It’s a godsend for writers like me, allowing me to focus on writing instead of paperwork, while still earning much higher royalties than the major distributors. My Payhip prices will be inclusive of VAT, so all my customers should see the same price regardless of where they are.

Payhip also allows me to do neat things like social discounts. If you share my Payhip ebook links on Facebook or Twitter, you will enjoy a 30% discount. Here are the links to At All CostsAmerican Sons and Keepers of the Flame.

I hope you will enjoy these stories. Together, I believe we can build a better world, a world where the politicians regret the #VATMESS they have created and small businesses can get on with delivering content instead of paperwork.

Adapting to #VATMESS

Thanks to the European Union’s new Value Added Tax rules, it has become less profitable for independent writers like me to distribute ebooks through platforms like Amazon and Smashwords. Previously I attempted to get around additional tax burdens through selling directly to customers using CoinLock, Gumroad and Shopify. Unfortunately, the new VAT ruling makes me liable for filing VAT-related paperwork, including tracking customer address data and paying VAT to the EU member states. There is also a degree of legal ambiguity regarding exchanging ebooks for Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies — while Bitcoin is not considered a legal currency in Europe, the ebook is still a digital product subject to VAT rules.  The new VAT regulations favour huge corporations and places onerous burdens on small businesses like mine.

Consequently, I have deactivated my Gumroad and Shopify accounts, and will no longer be using CoinLock. Instead, I have switched to a new platform, Payhip, which will handle VAT for me. This allows me to focus on the business of writing quality works instead of pleasing paperwork-obssessed bureaucrats. However, Payhip does not have a native distribution or publicity mechanism. This is where you come in.

I am offering a 30% discount to all readers who share my Payhip ebooks on social media. To receive your discount, all you have to do is select the option for a social discount and share the links to my ebooks on Facebook and Twitter. This discount will last indefinitely.

You can find links to my current books below:

At All Costs

American Sons

Keepers of the Flame

I have also updated my bibliography page to reflect these new links.

Thank you for your support, and I look forward to delivering high-quality stories to you instead of spending my days cleaning up the #VATMESS.

Into 2015

When I look back, 2014 was the year in which I approached the cusp of achieving my professional goals. I published Keepers of the Flame and sold War Crimes, exceeding my goals of 2014. I’m working on other projects, pursuing my other interests, and one day I hope I can share them with you here. In 2015, I intend to build upon my successes, to carve out a space for myself as a professional writer and to fortify myself for greater heights.

Far be it from me to guess at the shape of things to come. I do, however, have a few ideas for 2015, and a plan to guide my personal and business decisions. Here’s some of them:

1.  Publish the sequel to Keepers of the Flame. I actually finished writing it before publishing Keepers of the Flame. Titled I, Eschaton, it’s the second novella in American Heirs that bridges the gap between the first and second novels. I expect this to be complete by the end of Q1 2015. Ideally.

2. Publish more stories. While War Crimes might have been my first professional short story sale, it’s not the only story I’ve submitted for consideration. I’ve got a handful of others tucked away, either submitted or awaiting editing, in genres ranging from crime noir to hard science fiction to historical fantasy. I hope some of these will see the light this year, either sold or self-published. I also have a few ideas percolating in my brain, waiting to be born.

3. Complete the current novel. My muse is taking a break from American Heirs. Now I’m working on the first novel of a new series, tentatively titled Once a Conjurer. This is a pastiche of different genres: urban fantasy, crime noir, science fiction, and thriller. Think cyborgs, next-generation weaponry, magic guided by technology, summoned creatures from myth and legend, and an old-school re-reinterpretation of the preferred UF races. Think Shadowrun crossed with The Witcher, Cyberpunk 2077 with Divinity: Original Sin, Deus Ex with Warcraft, and toss in Marcus Wynne, Jim Butcher, Marcus Sakey, Barry Eisler, Larry Correia, Myke Cole and Lilith Saintcrow.  More details in the coming months.

4. Deliver a working demo of Odyssey. Back in June I described the computer game I was working on. Odyssey: Remnants of Terra is one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever had the pleasure to handle. The main events of the entire first act has been more-or-less scripted, and we are working on implementing mechanics and mapping. I am confident we can deliver a vertical slice by the middle of the year, and hopefully the first act by the end of the year. We are still looking for talent, though. If you are an artist with expertise in pixel art, a coder familiar with RPG Maker VX Ace and/or Ruby Game Scripting System 2, or a writer with a touch for sci fi, we’d really like to hear from you.

5. Explore other marketing options. Facebook is tweaking its algorithm again, this time reducing the visibility of Facebook pages with promotional posts. Unless, of course, the user pays for advertising. This makes it very difficult for indies on a minimal budget to advertise on Facebook. Furthermore, my page analytics shows that my personal Facebook page reaches much more people than the professional page, by orders of magnitude. There doesn’t seem to be much value in maintaining my author page in the future, at least in its current form. The question is how to adapt, and that is something I need to answer. I will also be looking into implementing other marketing tools, from pricing to pre-orders to an author newsletter.

6. Expand non-fiction writing fields. Long-time readers might know that I write for EastieBrekkie, the Pwee Foundation and Mothership.sg. Hopefully I will be able to find more clients this year and expand my repertoire.

7. Blog more often. I guess there’s no point in maintaining a blog if I’m only going to write about something once a month. To make full use of this blog, I intend to blog about something at least once a week. Be it politics, fiction, lessons or anything else that comes to mind.

8. Establish partnerships with independent presses and magazines. Working with Castalia House on War Crimes was an educational experience. I hope I will be able to work with similar publishing companies to produce more stories of great value. That, of course, ties back to publishing more short stories.

9. Establish partnerships with local bookstores. I’m contacting local independent bookstores and distributors, asking them to stock my books. Fingers are crossed; I’ll keep you updated in the future.

10. Teach the craft of writing. For the length of my professional career I have emphasised the importance of the craft of writing, as opposed to the art. I think it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is. In addition to blogging about it, I am planning to organise workshops and panel discussions to pass along lessons from the road.

I want to make 2015 the year in which I can take the first concrete steps to being a professional writer with sustained sales and a market share. Here’s hoping things pan out.