Business

Amazon Now Offering Bookscan Access to Authors

Amber Stults tweeted a link to an article in the L.A. Times, announcing that Amazon is now offering access to Bookscan data through the Amazon Author Central program.

I’ve checked my Author Central page, and what do you know — I’ve got pages and pages of shiny, wonderful sales data.  This appears to be pretty much the full Bookscan data for all of my books, not just the Amazon sales.

ETA: Amazon is providing a four-week window of sales data.  Meaning you’ll be able to see how your books are doing over the past four weeks, but won’t be able to check back to see sales from six months ago.

They’re also providing more information about Amazon ranks tracked over time for your books.

If you need me, I’ll be having a datagasm…

More What You’d Call Guidelines…

Over at Making Light, James MacDonald explains How to Get Published.

Before I go any further, let me state for the record that MacDonald knows his stuff.  He contributes good writing advice at Making Light, Absolute Write, and elsewhere.

That said, I’m gonna argue with a few of his points now, ’cause what fun would it be if we all agreed with each other? 🙂

To be a writer, you must write.  Absolutely, 100%, yes!  However, MacDonald goes on to give the oft-repeated advice, “Write every day.”  Good advice, but not an iron-clad rule.  I write five days a week, but generally don’t write on weekends.  I believe writing every day is a good goal, but ultimately, it’s important to find the schedule that works for you.  The important thing is that you’re writing.

On the day you reach THE END, put the book aside for six weeks.  Let me put it this way: I wrote, revised, and started submitting Goblin Quest [B&N | Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon] over the course of six weeks, and that seems to have worked out pretty well for me.  Distance can be a very good thing, and these days I usually try to do a short story or something else between drafts/books as a palate-cleanser.  But once again, writing is like the Matrix: some “rules” can be bent, while others can be broken.[1. With most rules, things generally turn out better if you make sure you understand the rule before you break it.]

Now find a publisher.  This is exactly what I did when I finished Goblin Quest, actually.  It’s not the path I’d follow if I had to do it all over again today.  Publishers are slow to respond (2.5 years in one case), and they ask for exclusivity.  Personally, I would go directly to querying agents, and let them submit to the publishers.  Authors have sold books both ways, as you can see in that First Book Survey someone did earlier this year.

I remember being a new author trying to break in, and assuming that Advice = Law.  If a pro said I had to sell short stories before selling a novel, then by Asimov’s Sideburns, that was what I must do!

It messed me up more than once.  So while I think it’s incredibly important to listen to authors who have this sort of knowledge and experience, it’s also important to remember that none of us have the Gospel of Getting Published.  (And I don’t believe MacDonald is trying to preach Publishing Gospel, but I know how easy it is for new writers to take things as such.)

That said, MacDonald gives some good advice, and those working to break in could do much worse than to take a few minutes to read his post.

E-book Experiment, Part 2

I’ve updated the Reporting Sexual Harassment in SF/F page with a link to the Geek Feminism Wiki’s Sample Convention Anti-Harassment Policy.  I particularly appreciate the internal guidelines for convention staff.

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Months ago, when I was talking about how my e-book sales were about 3-5% of my print sales, a champion of self-publishing said my problem was that my $6.99 e-books were too expensive, and if I dropped the price to $2.99, I’d have better sales.

So in mid-October, I put my mainstream novel Goldfish Dreams [B&N | Amazon] up for sale as a $2.99, DRM-free e-book.

I posted my first week’s results, and said I’d follow up in a month or so.  Well, over the past weekend I came across a post that mentioned the “great success” authors like Jim Hines and others have had putting their own work out through Amazon, which told me it was definitely time for a follow-up.

I’ve got about six weeks worth of data now.  Are you ready to see what my great success looks like?  B&N doesn’t give a nice week-by-week breakdown, but here are my weekly Amazon Kindle sales.

All total, I’ve sold 21 copies through Amazon.  Add in the 4 copies sold through Barnes & Noble, and I’ve made about $70, selling an average of about 4 copies a week.

For those keeping score at home, this would not even cover the conversion costs for having the files prepped.  (You can do this yourself, of course, if you have the time and the know-how.  I suspect I could have taught myself the tech side, but time is another issue…)

I should note that I’ve done nothing to promote this particular book.  I’ve been busy attending cons, working on short stories, revising Snow Queen, and also doing the day job and taking care of the family as my wife recovers from knee surgery.  But it’s pretty clear to me that simply putting a book out there isn’t enough.

By contrast, I haven’t really been promoting my books with DAW very much these past weeks, either.  In those same six weeks, my books with DAW sold around 2000 print copies (averaging about 300/book), which translates to about a thousand dollars in royalties … $850 for me after my agent takes his cut.  (I have no access to the weekly e-book sales for the DAW books.)

I know there are people making self-pubbed e-books work for them.  My friend Sherwood Smith has been successfully selling some books this way.  I suspect that if I released one of my fantasy titles, either a reprint or an original goblin/princess book, I’d do a lot better.  But Goldfish Dreams is a mainstream title, so doesn’t necessarily tap into my preexisting audience.

I also know that an ongoing, persistent sales effort can drive sales.  I have friends who keep up a pretty constant sales push to sell their e-books, and it does seem to help them sell more books.

But I barely have time to keep up with the blog.  I’d rather keep writing new books and the occasional short story, and let my publisher do most of the work to actually get my books into the hands of readers.

I’ll keep checking in with further data, but my conclusions so far?

  1. Simply putting an e-book out there ain’t going to accomplish much.
  2. Having a preexisting audience helps, but may not do much for cross-genre e-books.  Brand new authors with no audience — you’ve got a steep climb ahead of you.
  3. You are your own sales force.  You can improve your sales, but it will take time away from something else.  (I would advise you to make sure you’re not being obnoxious about it, as author self-promotion can get annoying pretty fast.)

Thoughts and comments are welcome, as always!

Midlist Bestseller

Reminder – tomorrow is the last day to enter to win books by Tanya Huff and Marie Brennan!

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Joshua (my agent) e-mailed me after Monday’s blog post to tell me I should really stop calling myself a midlist author.  Personally, I’d rather call myself Segway Ninja and Tribble Juggler Jim C. Hines.  But his e-mail got me thinking, and I realized I don’t even know what “midlist” means.

My future author photo, complete with Ninja Death TribblesOh, I know the term originates from publishers’ catalogs.  The Big Names are there at the front of the list.  Older and poorly-performing books get tucked away in back.  The rest get tossed somewhere in the middle of the list, ergo midlist.

Years ago, I remember Elizabeth Bear commenting that to be a midlist author, you have to have five books in print.  This isn’t an official Law of Publishing or anything, but it stuck with me.  Getting my fifth book into print was a nice little milestone.

But am I a midlist author now?  I have six books in print, so maybe I’m upper midlist?  Lower frontlist?

Joshua said my sales continue to improve and my backlist is selling well, and these things propel me past midlist status.  Maybe I should start calling myself a Future Frontlist Author?

It was also pointed out that, at certain publishers which will remain anonymous, the fact that I’ve made the Locus bestseller list with my past four books would get me billed not as a midlister, but as National Bestselling Author Jim C. Hines.

Pardon me while I choke on my Diet Cherry Pepsi.

I know this much: I’m not about to start slapping “Bestselling Author” onto my business cards.  While technically true, it feels deceptive.  Like certain self-published authors who make it into the top 10 of some obscure Amazon subcategory and immediately dub themselves “Bestselling Author Spock T. Pizzatrousers” or whatever.

In some ways, this is pointless navel-gazing.  Who cares what I call myself, as long as I keep writing, selling, and enjoying it?  But the discussion brought something into focus: in certain respects,  midlist feels like a relative term, a comparison of your own success to that of other authors … and I have no clue where I fall on that continuum.

I know I’m not selling like Gaiman or Rowling or Harris, or any of those NYT Bestselling authors.  But that only tells me I’m not in the very top percentile.  Am I in the top ten percent?  Twenty?  At least in the upper half?

Again, in some respects, it doesn’t matter.  I’m not trying to compete with my peers (except maybe that Anton Strout fellow), and as long as DAW keeps buying my books, I’m happy.  But I feel like I’m in the dark here.  If I’m future-lower-front-and-slightly-off-center list, should I be pushing for larger advances or better/bigger deals?  How confident should I be in my long-term career?

It reminds me of karate.  In Sanchin-Ryu, I’ve never been told what the requirements are for any given rank.  I had to teach myself not to worry about it, and to just concentrate on improving.  Let my sensei decide when I’m ready for the next rank.  But then, I’m not trying to make a career out of Sanchin-Ryu…

What do you think midlist really means?  Who do you think of as midlist authors?  And for the published authors, am I the only one who feels clueless about how successful (or not) I really am?

Experimenting with Kindling

Nifty First Book Friday news: Harry Connolly’s piece has been picked up and reprinted at Black Gate.  Congrats, Harry!

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I’ve talked a bit about e-books and self-publishing.  There are folks like J. A. Konrath who claim to make it work.  When I posted about my electronic royalties, Konrath was one of the first to jump in and say flat-out that $6.99 was too much, and I would make more if the books were cheaper.

I decided to experiment.  I’ve taken my mainstream novel Goldfish Dreams and have released it in Amazon’s Kindle store.  There’s no DRM, and I priced it at $2.99 for worldwide distribution. I’ve also uploaded it to B&N.  (The B&N version is still being processed.)

I intend to be 100% transparent about this, sharing sales and royalties and the rest.  I’m as curious as anyone to see what happens.

Here are the advantages I believe I have, going into this:

  • I’m a midlist fantasy author, so readers will (hopefully) have some confidence that I can write a decent book.
  • I’ve got a moderate online following.  At best guess, about 2000 people see the blog each day.  I don’t expect everyone to rush out and buy the book, but I suspect some will.
  • Goldfish Dreams is a rerelease of an out of print book from a small press, so it’s already been through the gatekeepers once, and has benefited from some editorial feedback.

On the other hand, this is a mainstream book, so I’m not sure how much my stature as a fantasy author will help.  And as a reprint of an out-of-print book, I lose the initial friends & family sales, because many of them already have the printed book.

My investment so far:

  • Steven Saus did the e-book conversion, because it quickly became apparent I would need many hours to teach myself and prep the files.  Steven did a very nice job putting the book together in multiple formats and checking to make sure everything was clean and ready to go.
  • The cover art is recycled, with permission, from an unused concept from the original print release.  I added a blurb from Heinz Insu Fenkl.
  • Setting up accounts on Amazon and B&N and getting the books uploaded took an hour or so of my time.

I honestly don’t know what to expect.  I imagine there will be some initial sales, but how many?  I couldn’t say.  And what will happen in the long term?  Will sales grow over time or die off?  I keep reading arguments about how e-books can be so much more profitable for authors.  Will I actually see a significant profit?  Your guess is as good as mine.

I am not going to start going all-out on advertising and self-promotion.  For one thing, I don’t have the time.  For another, that sort of thing gets annoying fast.  I’ll post updates about the experiment, but I’m not going to become That Guy.

Let the experiment begin!

Where to purchase:

  • Amazon
  • B&N – Forthcoming
  • Other suggestions?

Description: Eileen Greenwood’s first year at Southern Michigan University means freedom: freedom from the brother who molested her, freedom from the father who refused to believe her, and freedom from the sister who turned her back on it all. Eileen desperately wants to escape the past and live her life, but nightmares and flashbacks make it impossible to forget what she endured. Instead, she becomes obsessed with learning what transformed her brother into a predator.  In the effort to understand, she risks her health, her friendships, and her future. She will face both her own memories of the past, and a monster far worse than her brother … if she can find the strength to confront him.

E-book Pricing

My post on royalties earlier this week generated some interesting responses, particularly with regard to e-book sales.  My e-book sales were, at best, 4.3% of my total sales (for The Stepsister Scheme).

Several people said my e-books were priced too high.  The printed book cost $7.99 (U.S.), whereas the e-book was available for $6.99.  If the price were lower, I’d sell more e-books.[1. Please note that I have no control over my book prices. Those are set by the publisher.]

Well … sure.  And if the price of the paperback were cheaper, I’d sell more of those.  That’s basic economics.

Beneath those responses is, I think, the belief that e-books just aren’t worth $6.99.  We’re still arguing over the value of an e-book, meaning both how much does it cost to produce, and how much are people willing to pay?

There’s an assumption that e-books should be cheap because there’s no printing cost.  But printing costs are only about 8-10% of the overall cost of producing a book.  Shipping and storage are also a factor, but the majority of the costs aren’t about the physical book.

For the sake of argument, I’m talking about professional, commercially produced books.  You have to pay the author’s advance and royalties, the cover artist, the editor, the copy editor, the typesetter, the sales force, and that doesn’t even get into distributor costs or the percentages taken by retailers.

“But then how do you explain all of those cheap/free e-books on Amazon, Jim?  If they can do it, why can’t you?”

I can, actually.  I’m planning to re-release Goldfish Dreams as an e-book, and it will be significantly cheaper than my other books.  This book has already been commercially published once, and the rights have reverted to me.  So a lot of the professional work has already been done.

When the rights revert to me for my other books, I may consider doing something similar.  Cheap e-books seem like one good way to keep an author’s old backlist in print.

But those initial production costs have to get covered somewhere.  Sure, I could skip straight to self-publishing for my next book and bypass the publisher, but I don’t have the expertise to produce a good product, and I don’t have the sales force or distribution to get that product out there.

One thing I’ve considered is that it might be cool if the e-book price dropped 50% a year or two after a book came out, assuming the book earned back most of its costs in that first year.  But then, why couldn’t you do the same with the print book?  (I’m sure there are reasons; I’m just letting my mind wander a bit now.)

I don’t know what the “right” price for an e-book is, or if there’s one correct, fixed price point.  $6.99 seems reasonable to me, but it’s obvious some people disagree.  I’m personally reluctant to buy an e-book for more than $10 … but if the alternative was a $25 hardcover or waiting a year for the paperback, I might go for the e-book.

I know this is an old and ongoing debate.  But I wanted to put a few of my thoughts out there as to why “Just make the e-books cheaper!” doesn’t strike me as the answer.

Discussion welcome, as always.

Analyzing the Royalties

One of the many things my agent does for me is to take my royalties information from DAW and track it all in a nice, convenient spreadsheet.  This allows me to better indulge my data fetish, examining trends and playing with numbers until my wife reminds me I’m supposed to be going grocery shopping instead of spending all afternoon on the computer.

Last week I received the spreadsheet for my royalties statement through June 30, 2010 — right before Red Hood’s Revenge came out.

This is my fifth royalties check from DAW.  (They come out every six months.)  As of June 30, I had five books in print, four of which had earned out their advances.  I’m still waiting for the reserve against returns to go away on Mermaid, at which point I expect that one to start paying out as well.

To me, this royalty statement — particularly the graph I put together below — illustrates the importance of a backlist.  You can see how the royalty checks have grown pretty steadily over the past three years as I’ve continued to write and publish books.  This latest check will be about ten times what I got back in June of 2008 (point 1 on the graph below).

Some authors who get that bajillion-dollar advance for their first book.  I’m not one of them.  The slower but steady approach seems to be working for me though, at least so far.

Those books will eventually go out of print.  But DAW is pretty good about keeping things in print for a while, so I’m hopeful this trend will continue.

Another interesting data point came when I compared print sales to electronic.  I believe e-books are growing, and electronic sales are likely to take up a larger portion of overall sales.  For the moment though … well, take a look at the breakdown of total sales per book:

I’ve had the best electronic sales with Stepsister Scheme (don’t ask me why).  For that book, e-books make up about 4.3% of the total sales.  I don’t really have enough data to say how much or how quickly those e-book sales seem to be growing.  For now, while I definitely appreciate the extra royalties, they’re not yet a significant factor for me.

Another interesting point from that second graph: total sales of Stepsister are a little lower than sales of Goblin Quest.  Likewise for Mermaid.  This threw me for a second.  After all, the weekly sales numbers for the princess books are great, so why are the goblin books selling better?

The answer is, the goblin books have been selling longer.  Goblin Quest came out in November of 2006.  Stepsister came out in January, 2009.  Meaning in a year and a half, Stepsister Scheme has sold almost as many copies as Goblin Quest did in just under four.

And now it’s time to save this post and go get groceries.  Questions and comments are welcome, as always.

Tips Jars and “Conscience Money”

In talking about self-publishing and ways to monetize online short fiction, several people mentioned an online Tip Jar, a way for readers and fans to contribute a few bucks and support me as a writer.

It’s a nice thought, and I truly appreciate it.  But it’s not something I’m going to do.  My reasoning comes down to two things.

1. I don’t need the money.  I want to get paid for my fiction, sure.  (The blogging I do for free, for the community and the secondary promotional benefits.)  But giving me a little extra money, just because you like me/my work?  Thank you … but for the moment, my family and I are doing okay, and there are many other causes out there that need the money more than we do.

2. Another reason people sometimes talk about tip jars is because they’ve downloaded something without paying for it, and want to give back to the author.  Again, a good and much appreciated thought … but not one I’m comfortable with.  I tend to agree with Charlie Stross on “conscience money.”

In short, paying me for something you downloaded off a torrent site or whatever is nice, but giving me a few bucks doesn’t pay the editor, typesetter, artist, copyeditor, sales force, or any of the other folks who worked to create the book.

If you really want to “tip” me, buy one of my books.[1. Author tipping. A new sport, coming to a convention bar near you.]  If you want to tip me more, buy another copy and give it to a friend.  (Word of mouth is one of the best things you can do for an author!)

That leads to a new issue, though — sometimes people download illegal copies because it’s difficult/expensive/impossible to get a legal copy of a book.  In which case, me asking you to buy another of my books misses the whole point.

I have no perfect answer.  I would love for my books to be available in every country and language and format.  (My agent is working on this.) Electronic format should increase availability, and does to some extent, but there are frustrating regional limits.

I still don’t want your money.  I’m glad you want to read my work, and I’m truly sorry it might not be available.  But I don’t believe that justifies illegal downloads.

Wanting something doesn’t entitle you to just take it.

I’m not trying to preach, and I’m not 100% innocent either.[2. I was around when Napster came out…]  But if you really want to support me as an author, and my books aren’t available in your country?

  1. E-mail publishers.  Tell them you really want to buy so-and-so’s work.  If publishers know there’s a demand, they might take the first step of contacting me and my agent to make it available.
  2. Double-check for legitimate possibilities.  I’ve been told my books are unavailable in Australia, for example.  But I also know some stores in Australia do stock my stuff.  It might be a special-order, or your bookstore might be able to get one shipped from a sister store.  Maybe not, but give ’em a call and check what they can do.
  3. Check with local libraries, if you have them.  They might be able to order overseas titles.
  4. ETA: tsubaki_ny suggested The Book Depository, “an international bookseller shipping our books free of charge, worldwide, to nearly 90 countries.”

I know that doesn’t solve everything.  But regarding a Tip Jar, in addition to not needing the money right now, accepting tips as informal repayment for illegal downloads just isn’t something I’m okay with.

Discussion and disagreement welcome, as always.

Self-Publishing, Part Whatever

While I was at the Durand Fantasy Expo on Saturday, I ended up talking to several other authors and publishing folks about self-publishing and print-on-demand.  Here are a few of my thoughts from the drive home.

1. Dear self-published authors: As a writer, I am not your target audience.  I can’t count the number of times authors, mostly (but not always) self-published or PoD, have tried to hard-sell their books to me.  Just don’t.

2. Self-publishing seems to work pretty well for comics and graphic novels.  This is something I’ve noticed over the past year or two.  Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of the self-pubbed/PoD comics I’ve seen are just plain good.  A while back, Jane Irwin gave me copies of Vogelein: Clockwork Faerie and Vogelein: Old Ghosts.  They were well-done, and I enjoyed the stories.

A lot of web comics seem to go the same route, using small PoD printers or self-publishing, and producing very nice products.  It makes me wonder what we on the prose side of things could learn from the comics folks.

3. Self-publishing takes a lot of time and work.  My very first book, a mainstream novel called Goldfish Dreams, recently reached the end of its contract with Fictionwise.  I’d really like to put the book out there on Kindle and maybe in a few other places.  Thus far, I’ve done absolutely nothing on this project.  I only have so many hours, and I also have to write my next book.  It makes me wonder — if I was fully responsible for the entire publication process, how much longer would it take to release each new book?

4. People will believe anything that protects their egos.  “New York editors don’t want good stories, and won’t take new authors.  You’re better off without an editor, because they’ll destroy your unique vision.  Self-publishing is better, because publishers only pay 6-12% royalties.”

There are times when self-publishing can work.  However, many of these claims are total crap … but they’re crap that protect the ego, and thus people choose to believe and defend ’em.

5. I’m outnumbered.  There were a handful of other authors there on Saturday.  As far as I know, I was the only “traditionally” published one there.  A lot of people kept checking out my books and saying things like, “So I have to go to your web site to get these, right?”  Um … sure, you can go through my web site.  Or you can walk into most any bookstore in the country and pluck one of my books off the shelves.

I don’t know what to think about this.  I know the technology has gotten better and more available, and this is going to mean a lot more authors taking advantage of that technology.  But it was an odd feeling.

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Please note that I’m not bashing self-publishing.  As I said in #3, I’m planning to use it myself.

Anyway, questions and comments and discussion are welcome, as always.

The Death of Print/Publishing, Part MCCLWTFXVIII

Dorchester Publishing recently announced they were dropping their mass market line and moving to an e-book/print-on-demand model.  Dorchester’s president John Prebich describes his company as pioneers, boldly leading us into the electronic frontier.  This has led to a new round of “print is dying,” and e-books are the way of the future.  There’s an almost religious fervor to it.

J. A. Konrath suggests the end is nigh for commercial publishers, and self-publishing is the way to go.  His anonymous sources claim sell-through on printed books is as bad as 20%.  He describes a (hypothetical) commercially published author who gets a $50K advance and 30% sell-through, selling a mere 9000 print copies in the first year–

But wait, let’s back up and take another look at Dorchester, who’s been in trouble for a while.  “Dorchester had serious cash-flow problems throughout 2009.”  (Thanks to Nick Mamatas for that link.)  The move to e-books/PoD isn’t as much a dramatic step into the future as it is a desperate attempt by one publisher to stay in business.

As for Konrath, he’s done an excellent job positioning himself as a champion of self-publishing.  I have no doubt he talked to somebody, somewhere, who reported sell-through could be as bad as 20%.  But “as bad as” generally means the low edge of the bell curve.  Not the normal or the average, but the worst-case scenario.

To offer an alternate data point, my books have a sell-through around 80%.  I’m not aware of anyone whose sell-through is down at 20-30%.  I’m sure it happens, but to base an argument on those numbers is, in a word, silly.  As for the rest of the example, well, I sell more than 9000 print copies in a year, and my advances are far lower than $50K.

I’m not saying Konrath’s example couldn’t happen.  It’s possible.  It’s possible to be struck by lightning seven times, too.  But it ain’t the norm.

Wait, you say.  80% sell-through still means 20% returns, right?  Doesn’t it make more sense to go electronic/PoD, where there are no returns and you can get 100% sell-through?

That depends.  80% of what?  100% of what?  Konrath proposes that his hypothetical author will sell 5000 e-books in that first year.  I’m curious where that number comes from, particularly given a New York Times report in which “publishers point out that e-books still represent a small sliver of total sales, from 3 to 5 percent.”  If I had to choose, I’d take 80% of a 20K print run over 100% of the <1000 copies my books have sold electronically.

Konrath also argues that:

“The main reason we need publishers is for distribution. We can’t get into Wal-Mart or Borders on own own. They can. So we accept 8% royalties in order to sell a lot of books. But if publishers are no longer printing books, there is ZERO reason to sign with them, because they no longer have that advantage.”

Distribution is part of what my publisher does for me … but it’s not the only thing.  They pay professionals to create my cover art, and to edit, typeset, and proofread my book.  They do the work of converting my books into electronic formats.  They pay for advertising and promotion.  Basically, they do a ton of work to sell my books, which allows me to worry about writing them.

Publishing is changing.  My guess is that we’ll eventually hit a new equilibrium point between print and e-books, and I do think e-books will be a larger percentage of book sales than they are today.

I’m not bashing self-publishing, either.  For some people, it’s the right choice.  Konrath certainly makes it work.  My friend John Fitch V sold more than 100 books last month, which is damn good for the self-published route.

Both e-books and self-publishing have their strengths and advantages.  And I could be wrong — it’s possible print and/or commercial publishing are on the way out.  But I’ve been hearing about the imminent death of print and commercial publishing for more than a decade, and it’s getting a little old.

Jim C. Hines