Monthly ArchiveApril 2011

Publishing 28 Apr 2011 06:43 pm

A peek at our sales numbers (pt 2 of 3)

MOD in print!

Last week, I made reference to our decision (made almost immediately after we launched) to strike a deal with a distributor to get our books into bookstores across the U.S. and Canada. At the time, it seemed like an obvious thing to do. We had never really thought about what we were doing or what it meant to be a self-publisher. We just knew that books are sold in bookstores, and we had a book to sell.

We’ve learned since then that there are a lot more options than that, and that print distribution to bookstores is fraught with uncertainty and peril. It turns out that putting a self-published book in Borders and Barnes & Noble is like setting out to sail the Atlantic in the Santa Maria. (Have you guys ever seen a replica of the Santa Maria? It was a tiny ship!) And though I still think that decision was the right one, it was — at the time — the result of 50% audacity and 50% naiveté.
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Vol2 Updates 26 Apr 2011 10:20 pm

MOD Volume 2 Submission Guidelines

We’re doing it again! We’re putting out a second volume of Machine of Death, and if you’re a writer or an artist then this is your chance to be involved.

Skip to: How to submit a storyWhat we’re looking forApproaches to avoidHow to submit an art portfolio

If you’re interested in submitting a story or an art portfolio, we strongly recommend you take a look at our first book to get an idea of what kind of stuff we’re looking for. The book is available in tons of places (if you live in the U.S. or Canada, check your local bookstore!) and there’s even a free PDF if you can’t get it any other place. So go ahead and give it a look! We’ll be here when you get back.

Open Submissions for Writers

Anybody can submit a story to Machine of Death, and we mean anybody. There are only two eligibility requirements: any story you submit must be written in English, and you (or a legal guardian, if you’re a minor) must be willing and able to sign a contract if the story is accepted. That’s it!

Our first book featured stories written by people who had never been published before, and people who make their living writing. There were stories by video game reviewers, lexicographers, comedians, poets, cartoonists, college students, and plenty of folks with totally square day jobs. Our writers were living in North America, Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia. (Africa and Antarctica — show us what you got!) We love this diversity; we think different viewpoints, different life experiences, and different writing styles make for a unique and awesome book. So yes, absolutely anybody can submit a story — including you!
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Events &Talent Show 24 Apr 2011 10:17 pm

The Talent Show! April 26, 8pm Pacific

This is the livestream window for the first-ever Machine of Death Half-Birthday Party and Talent Show. (If you’re reading this in a feed, click through to the post to see the window.) Right now it’s dark, because it’s not showtime! But I wanted to embed it here on the site in advance. It’ll light up when it’s time for the show. Update: Now it’s the recorded show! It’s almost the whole thing, it cuts out near the end due to Ustream recording limits. But we’ll be posting videos online soon!

The show will be on Tuesday, April 26, 2011, beginning at 8pm Pacific time. We’ll probably have the stream running a little in advance, so pop in a bit early in case Ustream makes you watch an ad first.

During the show, please tweet your thoughts using #MachineofDeath — you can also search for #MachineofDeath to see what other folks are saying! As I host the show, I’ll periodically check in on Twitter and read some of my favorite tweets aloud. You’re part of the show too! Tweeting is your talent.

Or, if you’re near Los Angeles, we’d absolutely love to have you attend the show in person. Admission is free! Here’s the details.


The Fake Gallery, 4319 Melrose Ave, Hollywood

View Larger Map

I have been told that street parking is free after 6pm, and fairly abundant. If you have ever been to Hollywood before, I know this is hard to believe.


April 26, 2011
8pm showtime
Doors open at 7:30. Come early to grab free birthday cake and snacks!
Here is a Facebook invite, if you want to RSVP.


I’ve been working very hard on making this a cool show, and while certain things will remain under wraps until showtime, here are a few things you can expect:

• the aforementioned birthday cake
• the opportunity to get your copy of the book signed by at least three contributors
• free death readings (prediction cards you can take home with you)
• first looks at a prototype new product not available anywhere else
• the opportunity to win free stuff by participating in the show
• mass enjoyment, of course!!


The show will feature many performers and performances, among them:

• A live performance of “Boom! And a Bear Comes Out”, by me. I’m perfectly willing to humiliate myself onstage before I ask anyone else to take that plunge.

• A death-prediction-based longform improv set by the famous Mission IMPROVable troupe “The Grind.” I’ve been watching these guys play every week at Westside Comedy Theater for several months now, and they’re just phenomenal.

• A live reading of Jeffrey Wells’ MoD story “TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS,” by public-radio and comedy-podcast superstar/magnate Jesse Thorn.

• A drawing game that shares everything with Pictionary® except the trademarked name, featuring audience members playing along with L.A. cartoonists Kevin McShane and Keith Knight!

• And of course: the amazing talents of MoD readers. Music, monologues, animation, comedy and more, from performers including Carla Barton, Zachary Bernstein, Matt Bixler, Brett Donnelly, Tim Karplus, Christina Major, Sam McLean, and Cory O’Brien.

• After all that, you’ll be free to go home. IF YOU CAN.


I hope you’ll tune in and watch the show live! But if you’re at all able to, I’d really love for you to come out in person. I know it’s a lot to ask on a weeknight. But a live show is a living thing — it absolutely gets better with a good audience. The energy in the room gets charged in a wonderful way.

I’m super-excited to put on the show, and it’ll be fun for me no matter who shows up, but I want to make it an extra-special time for our performers too, one of whom is coming all the way from Phoenix to attend. Please join me in providing these great folks — who took the time to create something new and special simply because I asked them to! — with the friendly, supportive audience they deserve. I want our stage to be a magical place, a place where someone who took the initiative to make something gets rewarded.

See you at the show!

Ebook &Publishing 20 Apr 2011 08:45 pm

A peek at our sales numbers (pt 1 of 3)

Flickr photo by Jenn Mau

Not long ago, David wrote a post in which he talked about how much he likes to get things done. And I can vouch that David is in fact a consummate do-er. A lot of the cool things related to Machine of Death have happened precisely because of his willingness to jump head first into projects, and Ryan and I have been happy to jump in behind and support him any way we can.

I often like to think back to the moment, about four days after we hit #1 on Amazon, when David told us that our agent had negotiated a deal with PGW to distribute Machine of Death to bookstores across the US and Canada. “To do that, we just need to sign the contract and print enough books to stock all those stores,” David said. “So to fund that we’ll each need to immediately fork over A SUM OF MONEY THAT COULD EASILY BUY YOU A NEW CAR but it’ll be worth it in the long run!” It still staggers me that there were three guys on the planet who were willing to pony up the cash needed to make it happen without a second thought.

Well, almost without a second thought. I admit that I did some quick calculations, literally on the back of an envelope that was (and still is) sitting on my desk, just to figure out how bad it would be if the whole thing went belly-up the day after I wrote the check. We’ve already sold ABOUT THIS MUCH, but won’t see any money until A LITTLE WHILE, and David wants me to pay HOW MUCH MORE? And, even if this works, we’re likely to get paid back A LONG TIME FROM NOW? Well, okay! I mean, it looked okay but it’s not like we had a business plan or anything. Business plans take too long to put together!

Yet despite this, I’m not the same kind of do-er that David is. I’m a lot more comfortable planning, preparing, reflecting, and measuring than I am rushing into things. If it were left entirely up to me, Machine of Death would be one-tenth as awesome as it is today.

On the other hand, I hope I have my uses too. At the end of last year, David handed me the electronic equivalent of a shoebox full of receipts, and I clicked around Wikipedia until I remembered enough about accounting to put them into some semblance of order. (We have a real bookkeeper who takes care of this now, thank goodness.) And for the past several months I’ve been tracking our sales, week-by-week, for all the various channels and formats that we’re available in.

This is the stuff I really enjoy. I’ve worked in direct marketing for the past nine years (still do, in fact), so I’m profoundly uncomfortable if I can’t see where I’ve been, where I am now, where I had hoped to be, and where I hope to go. Above all, Machine of Death is supposed to be fun, so I try to be more laid-back about it than I am about my “real job”. But still, I’m checking numbers and updating spreadsheets a few times a week. (Remember: This is what passes for fun with me.)

Over the past five months, we’ve amassed a pretty interesting data set — a tiny piece of which was already shared on this blog. I don’t know how actionable any of our data will be to anybody else since our sample is a single, uncommonly successful book. We’re not like most self-publishing writers since we do most of our sales in print — and a big chunk of those in bookstores. Meanwhile, we’re not really a small press either because we don’t have a calendar full of upcoming book releases. I have no reason to believe that any part of our experience is “normal” or easily repeatable by anybody else (or even by us).

Today, I’ll just share you with a single graph that shows our print sales vs. our ebook sales, month-by-month, since we launched. I’ll be getting into more detail about both of those formats in the next few days , but you can see that so far about 70% of the books we sell are good old-fashioned blocks of paper glued between sheets of cardboard.

Proportion of print books vs ebooks sold by month

One thing to note — partway through March, we dropped the price of our ebook to $5.99. As you can see, the split didn’t change much despite the drop in price, but it’ll be interesting to see if it does in the months to come. Personally, I don’t expect the price change alone to have much impact on what proportion of print books and ebooks we sell. For most readers, the choice doesn’t seem to hinge on a question of a few dollars of savings for one version or another. Instead, readers buy the version they prefer. Lowering the price on the ebook certainly generated publicity and a short-term bump in sales of ebooks. But publicity is publicity, and even talk about our ebook can (and does!) drive sales of the print edition.

I’ve been told that this 70% / 30% split is actually more weighted towards ebooks than the industry average. I haven’t looked for the industry numbers myself though, so I don’t know if this is actually true or not. And even if I did find the numbers, I still likely wouldn’t know how they were calculated or what they really represented. (I’d love to hear from anybody who has both an “industry average” and information on how it was calculated.)

“Print” and “ebook” are extremely broad categories that cover lots of different things, and somebody else’s “print” and “ebook” categories may not be similar to ours at all. (Our numbers are fairly straightforward if anybody wants to know what they represent. From October to February, “print” is a trade paperback retailing online and in bookstores at $17.98 — though often discounted by retailers. For the same period, “ebook” is the same title sold at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple for their respective devices for $9.99. In March, things change a bit so if you’re a stickler about clean data then you might want to ignore that month.)

To be honest, it’s not terribly important to me whether I ever know enough about the big pot of gumbo called “industry averages” to be able to compare Machine of Death to any other numbers. It doesn’t really matter whether I find out we’re selling more ebooks than other folks, or fewer, or just the right amount. I mean, it might be interesting to know, but there’s not much we can do about it. The proportion of ebooks vs. print books is driven far more by consumer preference than by anything we have control over.

I said before that we’re neither the typical “self-publisher” nor the typical small press. The best way I can put it is that we’re three guys who put out a book that lots of people have told us they really enjoy, and which we think lots more people would probably enjoy too. Our mission, as I see it, is two-pronged. First, to help new readers discover how great the stories in this book are. And second, to keep delivering cool stuff to the people who already know that. Right now, both print and ebooks (and both online retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores) are helping us achieve both parts of our mission, so we’re going to keep investing in both of them for the foreseeable future.

We don’t pretend to be prophets or even savvy industry observers, so we don’t know when (or if!) ebooks will make print books irrelevant. Right now, people are still buying and reading both in significant numbers. Luckily, we happen to think that both print books and ebooks are supremely cool when they’re done right. So all we care about is doing them right — putting the best content in the best possible package, whether it’s a trade paperback, a hardcover, an ebook, or a podcast.

Heck, the podcast is a perfect example of how little we care about the outcome of any format war. Audiobooks account for a tiny sliver of the book market — something like 1% or 2% — but David has spent an enormous amount of his time and energy making our podcasts the best they can be. And then we give them away for free, because we just think it’s cool that they exist. (Yes, we hope new readers will discover us through the podcasts, but we also hope existing fans are enjoying them too!) If we really are witnessing the death of print books and bookstores, we’ll keep on producing print books for the same reason. Even if almost nobody wants to read them, we’ll still think it’s awesome to have them around, and that is totally good enough for us.

So today, 30% of our sales are ebooks and 70% are print. I don’t know what this means for the industry, but it’s really interesting information for us. If you look at total sales for the entire lifetime of Machine of Death, ebooks actually appear much less significant. Overall, they only account for about 15% of total sales. This is because October and December (the months with the lowest proportion of ebook sales) were also the months in which we sold the most books total. So when print was winning, it was really really winning.

Lifetime numbers are usually what I look at, so this month-to-month view was kind of an eye-opener to me. Print was a big part of our initial publicity push, but ebooks are clearly really important for our continuing mission. Almost one-third of new readers today encounter our book electronically. So the lesson for me is that even though the numbers don’t look that big yet, we can’t afford to look at our ebooks as second-tier products. They have to be able to delight our readers just as much as the print edition does!

I know that “ebooks are more important to ongoing sales than expected” is not exactly the sexiest conclusion to come to. In fact, it’s downright small-minded and nerdy. No doubt it would be way cooler if I could spin some grandiose prediction from our sales figures so far. For instance, if I could identify some trend and use it to name a date when ebooks will surpass print books in sales. But even if I could do that, it wouldn’t help us do a better job. At best, it’s a distraction. At worst, it might encourage us to think of print as an already-cooling corpse, and that would be a huge disservice to thousands of our readers who still consider print alive and well.

So, no big predictions here! Just a few numbers and some thoughts about what they might mean. If you’re not too disappointed, stay tuned and next time I’ll get into some more detail about our print sales.

Events &Talent Show 14 Apr 2011 02:54 pm

More about the MOD Talent Show!

Wow, what an incredible response we’ve had to the hardcover MOD collector’s edition! We sold through the collector’s sets in just a few days. Thanks so much — we really hope you enjoy them! So far you seem to be, as evidenced by:

• this beautiful picture from drmath
this incredibly dramatic version from HootieD
and this chilling glimpse of the future from maxelman

We’ve also had a great response to the free death card offer. Here are just a few of the letters we’ve received:

And don’t worry, we will absolutely be sharing all the cool stuff we’ve received with you. But first, a word about the upcoming…

Talent Show

The Machine of Death Half-Birthday Party and Talent Show will be held April 26, at The Fake Gallery in Hollywood, CA. Doors open at 7:30 and the show starts at 8. We’d absolutely love for you to come to the show! But if you can’t, we’ll also be livestreaming the event right here on the blog.

Also here is a Facebook thing! Let us know if you’re coming!

Due to taxes and stuff, we have decided to extend the deadline for submitting auditions until April 20. So you’ve got just under a week left to submit an act for the show.

What are we looking for?

It could be a song, a dance number, a reading, a poem, a video or animation or slideshow…anything you can do in under five minutes that’s somehow MOD-related. We’ll be putting the best acts on stage (or playing them on video), and we’re even going to award a prize to the audience’s favorite act!

There are a couple of bedrock, fundamental ideas behind Machine of Death. One is the most obvious: together, we can do great things. MOD-Day proved that.

There are also the questions about mortality raised by the premise of the book, which we all find pretty compelling.

But another is the notion of the value of the individual — the dozens of non-celebrities, non-famous people who wrote the great stories that we got to discover and share with the world. This is the basic promise of the Internet: the level playing field, the crumbling of barriers to entry, the chance for the little person to make a big impact.

In practice it doesn’t always work out that way, of course. Most amateur work is pretty bad, and even a lot of professional work can be kind of stinky.

There’s no shortcut to success — the only thing that gets you close is a persistent pursuit of fearless self-improvement. But, fine. What then?

What happens when there is something good?

There are a lot of answers to that question, but ours personally is “we give it a chance.” The Talent Show is one of those chances. Make something cool, and we’ll do whatever we can to show it to as many people as possible and reward you for it. That’s all there is to it.

And if you can’t make something cool — if you make something and it sucks to high heaven — for God’s sake make it anyway. That is how you learn how to make something cool! By making sucky things long enough that you get all the suck out of your system. So don’t worry about that. You’ll get there. Do it anyway.

Like me:

Boom! And a Bear Comes Out from David Malki ! on Vimeo.

(Download the MP3)

It just has to be better than this. THAT SHOULD NOT BE HARD.

…Seriously, anyone who’s shared a table with me at a convention for the past year knows that the hook to this song has been running through my mind for a while now. But it’s very rare that silly things like this ever crawl up the priority list to “DROP EVERYTHING AND DO THIS.” This blog post was my excuse to finally finish the song.

I am hereby giving you the Talent Show as an excuse to do the awesome thing you’ve been waiting for a reason to do!

To submit an act for the Talent Show:

Email submit at machineofdeath dot net with a link (audio or video) of your act. If you are local to Los Angeles and would like to perform on stage if chosen, please specify that. If you would rather we play the video you send, please specify that!

The deadline to email is midnight Pacific time, April 20.

That is not much time! Get on it!

If you need inspiration, you can send away for a free Death Card, download our free PDF, buy our newly-discounted ebooks, or just go outside for a walk! Look at the trees. Try to find people in them. What are they saying to each other? To you?

The one outside my window is gently sighing in the wind: “piiizzzzzaaaaa”

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