Category Archives: Industry

It’s just about GDPR time!

(Image credit: Flickr)

I still remember back when the Internet was an escape from the real world. Today, it seems that the real world is an escape from the Internet. Over the last 30 years, a substantial amount of daily life has moved online for billions of people: News, communication, sharing, commerce, banking, and entertainment.

Wherever human activity goes, regulation inevitably follows. This year it seems like the internet is truly going mainstream, with new regulations from 2 of the 3 largest economies in the world: the US’ FOSTA, and Europe’s GDPR.

I’m actually quite a fan of GDPR – or at least, what it’s trying to do. In GDPR, there’s an attempt to extend protection of EU citizens rights across the Internet, following their personal data wherever it may end up. And the regulations make a lot of sense from a consumer perspective: If companies want your personal data, they have to prove they can handle it responsibly, and you retain basically all the rights.

GDPR goes “live” on the 25th of May (just under 3 weeks!), and I’m hoping it heralds a new era of more responsible data practices. I think everything they’re trying to do is achievable, and should be baked into organizational and system design for new businesses (“privacy-first architecture”).

For existing businesses though, it’s going to be hell of a slog. I’ve worked on data audits and compliance for some of the world’s biggest brands, and it’s impossible to overstate how tricky full compliance is going to be. When your database software vendors have gone defunct, when your processes have spiraled out into spreadsheet nightmares, when your primary method of data exchange is email attachments, you’ve got a problem.

Over the last few days I’ve put some stuff live to help with that. For one, there’s already a wave of companies that are blocking the EU from accessing their services outright. It’s a sensible short-term move if you need time to assess the impact, and update your processes to comply. The rights of Erasure and Portability could require non-trivial work if you’ve been historically lax with how you manage data internally.

For that use-case, I pulled together a repo (gdpr-blackhole) of the IP ranges (IPv4 and IPv6) of all 28 EU member states, UK included. Brexit or not, early indications are that the UK will adopt GDPR in its entirety.

Then, since I work mainly in Laravel, I wrapped that up in a simple Middleware class that makes blocking EU IPs straightforward (laravel-gdpr-blocker).

Finally, I’ve just put a short blog post live on Amberstone: “What small businesses need to know about GDPR“. Large businesses already have armies of lawyers, auditors, and officers to assess their liability. Small businesses are not exempt, and if you want to participate in the second-largest economy on the planet, you’re going to need to know a bit about what GDPR asks of you.

Overall, it’s an exciting change. The ICO has already indicated that they’d sooner work with non-compliant organizations to improve their stewardship of personal data, making the eye-watering fines a last resort. And if all goes well, this is exactly the sort of bar-raising work we’ve needed on the world stage.

And with any luck, it means less Excel spreadsheets loaded with personal data. Time will tell 🙂

Subscription payments in South Africa

So you’re a South African business that wants to take payments for a subscription-based service. You’re probably going to have a mix of local and international customers, and want to know what services are available.

Well, I’ve got some good news, and some bad news.

The good news is – there are ways of doing this. Even with South Africa’s relative backwardness in global economic participation there are still a few options.

The bad news is: the best options are currently unavailable to you, and are likely to stay unavailable in the long term. If you have the means to do so, incorporating and setting up banking in a major economy might be the better option.

Onwards!

Local Options – EFT

It goes without saying that local EFT is an option. If you don’t want to wait for interbank delays, there are a few vendors that offer Instant EFT solutions:

In my experience, PayFast has the easier onboarding path, but you might have a tougher time integrating it into your application. None of those solutions incorporate any sort of subscription management though – it’s on you to keep the accounts in check.

Depending on your capabilities, debit orders might be an option. If you can obtain debit order mandates from your customers (signed papers, recorded calls, etc), you can use Sage Pay’s NAEDO collection system: https://sagepay.co.za/services/debit-order-collection/

Local Options – Credit Cards

This is where it gets a bit more interesting!

PayFast allows you to accept credit cards online, and is relatively easy to set up if you’re not looking for advanced integration. They will make your life easier on one front – they understand subscription management: https://www.payfast.co.za/subscriptions/

I’ve worked with their API before though, and you’re going to need to exercise extreme patience with it in order to get anything done. I hope their systems and documentation improve over time!

PayGate also offers a subscription product, but they make it obvious that they’re geared towards larger businesses – you have to start the process with a sales inquiry: https://www.paygate.co.za/paygate-products/paysubs/

Global Options

There are too many global vendors to list, but when it comes to what you can feasibly use in South Africa, it narrows down to one pretty quickly: PayPal.

I implemented full-on subscription management using PayPal for Write500 – and it worked quite well. PayPal can accept credit cards, manage subscriptions (including pausing and resuming), and has a solid set of developer tools for integrating it into your application.

You’ll want to create a Billing Plan (your product), then a Billing Agreement (a paid subscription to it), so that Paypal can issue Invoices and settle them automatically. Start here: https://developer.paypal.com/docs/api

The one limitation: You need an FNB account to receive any of that money here in SA.

Going further abroad, you do have the option of incorporating a business remotely. It’s a ton of paperwork (depending on a ton of factors), but one vendor is offering a simple solution to it: Stripe Atlas.

For a one-time fee of $500, and a decent amount of effort, you can incorporate remotely in Delaware – including all the documentation and registration you need to run a corporation within the US. That includes a Stripe.com account, which is basically the global, golden standard for subscription credit card billing.

There’s a couple of major downsides on the administrative side, though – repatriating that money comes with its own set of tax challenges. From what I’ve seen, this is only a really viable option if you’re expecting to do a lot of subscription billing for global customers, and the Stripe fees are a more attractive option.

Other Options

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention PeachPayments – a Cape Town-based company that attempts to make all of the above easier for local companies. If you’re not keen on the idea of getting your hands dirty with integration logic and setting up subscription billing, those will be the folks to talk to.

Then of course, there’s bitcoin. If you really feel like jumping into the murky waters of cryptocurrency for your project, give Coinbase a try. They offer a recurring billing option denominated in Bitcoin. To cash those coins out locally, the simplest option will probably be to hold a Luno.com wallet, and sell those coins on the local exchange to recover your Rands.

I know that there are likely several other services out there, but if I were starting from scratch today, and wanted to be able to accept payments from a global customer base I’d probably still go with PayPal, myself.

Charting the Amazon Sci-Fi jungle

Probably one of the more inspiring books I’ve read lately is Chris Fox’s Write to Market – it’s practical, grounded advice for building a writing career in today’s landscape. The principles contained within are solid, the first being: find an under-served market you can target your efforts on.

It makes complete sense from a supply/demand point of view – if you know ahead of time what readers are interested in buying, and they happen to align with what you enjoy writing, you can build a much clearer picture of what you’ll need to do to succeed. Modern content production has changed, after all.

The book got me thinking about how I might apply it to my own ambitions, and it became pretty clear that I’d have to take a very detailed look at the Sci-Fi book market on Kindle. Amazon accounts for a solid portion of global eBook sales, and should serve as a fantastic indicator for what’s trending.

So last night, I worked on exactly that – first, acquiring a snapshot view of the Top 100 books in each of the 21 sub-genres of Science Fiction, and how they relate to the global sales rank. I’ve got some information to share there, as well as some related insights on the composition of the market.

The Theory

The theory is relatively simple: Amazon lists over five million eBooks on Kindle (depending on what numbers you trust, I guess), and they’re all globally ranked on what Amazon calls their Best Seller rank (I call it ABS for short).

One book can exist in multiple categories – it can have a rank in the niche it serves (for instance, Science Fiction about Genetic Engineering), as well as a global ABS rank. The relation between these tell you how active a niche is.

For instance, if the top 5 books in a niche also exist on the top 10 ABS list, it means there’s a large amount of demand there. If books #80-100 in that same niche are in the high-thousands, that indicates under-served demand: People are buying books in that niche, but for whatever reason are not spending money on some of the lower-ranked books currently available.

This is the fertile ground – you know you have people heavily interested in a particular niche, and they are likely ready to buy anything new and interesting that might land in that category.

If the top 5 books in a niche are in the high-thousands, that means there’s very little demand for that niche. But if all Top 100 books in a niche appear in the top 500 ABS rank, that’s most likely an impenetrable market – and a wildly popular niche.

For the time being, anyway – the ground here shifts constantly as reader tastes evolve. Just like fashion, trends come and go. So despite all the charts I’m showing you in this post, they could be out of date as little as six months from now.

The Niches in Sci-Fi

I’m interested primarily in Sci-Fi, and so focused my analysis there. Things might look different in the other markets, but since I’m not likely to get into Suspense or Young Adult any time soon, I figured I’d give those a miss 😉

Amazon lists 21 niches (or sub-genres) under Sci-Fi:

Adventure Alien Invasion Alternative History
Anthologies & Short Stories Classics Colonization
Cyberpunk Dystopian First Contact
Galactic Empire Genetic Engineering Hard Science Fiction
LGBT Metaphysical & Visionary Military
Post-Apocalyptic Space Exploration Space Opera
Steampunk TV, Movie, Video Game Adaptations Time Travel

For each one, I set about gathering specific data:

  • The list of top 100 books in that niche, based on the niche’s own performance
  • For each book, what the global ABS rank is, and who the merchant is
  • Timestamped for once-a-day retrieval

 

Throw them all together in a chart, and you end up with something like this:

PBIDesktop_2017-07-03_20-59-51.png

Enlightening, right? Let’s rather go by genre, starting with the most hotly-contested one right now – Adventure:

PBIDesktop_2017-07-03_21-14-05.png

This is the dashboard of a very healthy sub-genre.

The top 20 books all have ABS ranks below 1000, with the top 5 being below 100 – these books are selling very well, and there is clear demand for this sub-genre right now. The market is also being very well served at the moment – none of the ABS ranks are above 10’000, so it’s unlikely that a first-time author, or someone without major existing traction, will be able to break in here right now.

Now let’s look at a less-contested genre – Hard Science Fiction.

PBIDesktop_2017-07-03_21-19-52.png

This is more like it! The Top 20 books are all under the 2000 ABS rank, and the book sitting at #40 is double that. The category bottoms out at over 12K, so if you’re looking for a place to start, this could be a good sub-genre to do it in.

Finally, the most uncontested sub-genre at the moment – LGBT.

PBIDesktop_2017-07-03_21-22-34.png

There are no official numbers for this, but the #1 book being at ABS rank 1973 would suggest that it’s selling around 100 copies a day. By comparison, the #1 book in Adventure should be doing around 6000 copies/day. This is according to TCK Publishing’s calculator.

100 copies/day on the top end is not much in terms of demand, so while you could almost definitely rank in this sub-genre, it probably won’t be worth the time investment right now.

All the charts above are looking at the total market though, regardless of whether or not titles were independently published. Let’s get into that next.

Independent publishing on Amazon

I published first versions of these on the Dragon Writers group, but now that I have updated information and time to properly process it, here’s a snapshot of how the Sci-Fi genres break down as of today.

PBIDesktop_2017-07-03_21-37-53.png

The vast majority of Kindle titles in the Sci-Fi genre are independently published – “Amazon Digital Services LLC” is the business name used there.

A word of warning on this: That same business name is used by Amazon itself on occasion – so far I’ve seen it used for special store listings of old, republished books. Unfortunately that’s just the nature of a project like this – the data is not going to be 100% accurate.

Other than the LLC, there are a few big names in this space, but they account for very few of the titles published.

But then there’s the quality-vs-quantity argument. Are independently-published novels doing better (or worse) than those published by traditional houses?

This one’s a tricky question to answer, so it’ll help to look at it in parts.

Let’s go with all titles under Sci-Fi with an ABS rank of 1000 or higher. At 1000, you’re selling around 185 books/day – it’s an arbitrary number, sure, but we need to start somewhere.

For each of the sub-genres that have books in that ABS range, what proportions were published independently vs traditionally?

PBIDesktop_2017-07-03_21-59-05.png

It’s no surprise that Traditional is dominating the Classics sub-genre – since that’s literally the genre in which Traditional companies re-package existing traditionally-published books.

But look at the rest – entire sub-genres are being dominated by independently-published titles! This is the encouraging part – on the largest eBook retail platform in the world, it’s possible for independently-published authors to dominate entire sub-genres.

What does the top end look like? Let’s take the top 100 books across all Sci-Fi sub-genres, sorted by ABS rank. The #1 Sci-Fi book is ranked 4th on the Best Seller list, and the #100th book comes in at rank 1429.

PBIDesktop_2017-07-03_23-30-26.png

That’s the most encouraging chart I’ve produced yet. Across the top 100 titles at the moment, 88 are independent titles – but more than that, there’s no clear bias attributable to the publishing method.

Or in other words: It doesn’t matter if you’re independently or traditionally published – both methods have a chance of reaching the top, and ultimately reaching customers.

Conclusions

None of the data above looks at sales or revenue – a lot is being inferred by the limited ranking information that Amazon makes available. For the most comprehensive report that actually looks at sales, AuthorEarnings is the best place to go.

The intention of this post wasn’t to dive into the industry as a whole, but rather to illustrate two things:

  1. There is opportunity here, possibly more so than via traditional publishing channels. The markets are wide-open to new entrants, and the opportunities might change over time, but they are always there.
  2. In the eBook space, it doesn’t matter whether you were published by a big name, or under your own name – both books will have equal treatment, and customers end up making the choices.

Publishing is definitely changing, and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

The perks of yesteryear

Alphabet’s new CFO seems intent on deflating the magical bouncy castle that is Google. They’ve always been known for incredible offices, fantastic perks, and moonshot projects.

… employees were informed that their holiday gift this year was a donation to charity, Fortune has learned. Alphabet donated $30 million worth of Chromebooks, phones, and associated tech support to schools on its employees’ behalf.

Ouch.

Being told that nobody’s getting expensive holiday gifts this year? That’s reasonable – it’s not a very common perk.

Being told that not only are you not getting any gifts, but the budget that would have been spent on that is being donated on your behalf somewhere else? That has to sting a little.

I wonder what’s next on Porat’s chopping block – and I wonder if anyone’s worried about the 20% rule being at risk. If the C-suite wants fiscal responsibility at the cost of talent-attracting perks, Google might end up an ad publishing company that happens to have a IaaS platform.

Which will be a sad Google.

Source: Alphabet Donated Its Employees’ Holiday Gifts to Charity