SiWC – The Best of Times (Plus more cool links!)

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ever have one of those days that just goes right?

I don’t often get them.

I usually get the type of day where you have to get a boy to an early morning hockey practice and set your alarm for 5pm instead of 5am practice, then, already late, you hit every red light on the way, then forgot some vital piece of hockey gear like the jock, then you have to race back, but find you didn’t fill up the car and HAVE to get gas or you’re not making it home, then you find your credit card is maxed and you only have nickels and dimes to pay for gas, but you put in $1.35 anyway and race off only to return to a completely empty room because the team has been relocated to another dressing room and you have to go room to room carrying a jock and asking, has anyone seen ma boi?

No?

Well, try it sometime.

But it wasn’t one of those days at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Everything went my way. I managed to get an additional agent appointment early in the day and still had one tucked away for the afternoon. So, after my success with the first agent, the incredibly nice Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, President and senior agent at McIntosh & Otis, I saw another opening.

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

Not with an agent, but with a writer who has always given me great advice. The great storyteller Michael Slade.

So I booked a moment with him, a ten-minute session called a blue pencil (where an author looks at your work, gives you criticism, then you go home and cry a lot). But I wanted his opinion on the opening of my book, especially since I had plans to submit it for a public reading on Saturday and didn’t want to be that guy who gets his stuff read and has agents rolling their eyes and shaking their heads and wondering why they make the effort to come out.

However, Mr. Slade loved the writing and went through the first chapter step-by-step remarking on all the things I’d done right. He only had one suggestion, but that one was bang on (and as soon as I left, I made that change right away.) But as much fun as that was, (and it was FUN), he didn’t have any appointments afterward so we talked about war and fathers and writing and all sorts of things.

For about over an hour!

Like we were long, lost friends.

They had to kick us out for lunch, but it was so incredible to have that time with someone who’s farther down the road than me as a writer and such a great storyteller.

Then it was back to work. I needed to find another agent at lunch, the best writing coach I’ve seen and perennial favorite at SiWC, Don Maass, but by the time I arrived, the whole ballroom was filled to capacity and I couldn’t spot him. So I ate my lunch, chatted with my writer’s group, chatted with people in line, chatted with a few of the people seated at our table, then when lunch ended, I began my search again.

Luckily, someone had nabbed him before he could leave!

Again, I felt so nervous as I approached him. I trembled like an 11-year-old girl about to meet Scott Helman (look him up, I had to!).

It’s that fight or flight thing. I really wanted to run and hide in my basement, snuggle under a blanket and read my books in the pool of lamplight, but I had put on my big boy pants and needed to do big boys things.

I marched over and sat beside him. Like an awkward orangutan fidgeting with everything he could get his hands on, I waited until he had finished talking to others, then with only minutes left before he had to rush off to a workshop or scheduled interviews, I threw my pitch at him with all the skill of someone just clubbed in the head with a baseball bat.

But he liked it. He wanted to see the entire manuscript. Entire. Manuscript!

Win!

The editor I saw after that, while challenging me on if my story was a mystery or thriller, wanted to see 50 pages after I was done sweating and mumbling.

Win!

Not a pretty one, but a win never-the-less.

Anne Frank - Who cannot be moved by her story?

Same thing happened when I pitched at the end of the day to Irene Goodman, who was so very kind and understanding at my complete inability to form complete sentences at that point.

She loved my story’s connection to the holocaust and we shared our moving experiences from when we visited Anne Frank’s house or the holocaust memorial museums.

Another win!

I went home exhausted and so excited.

But an even bigger win was to come. Not a sale, cuz those things don’t happen at conferences, but something I’ll remember forever. In a good way.

******

More links!

Writer – Michael Slade (check out his books here!)

Agent – Don Maass (His new book on writing, The Emotional Craft of Fiction is coming out in January, Here. But he has some amazing writing books already out.)

Agent – Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein

Agent – Irene Goodman (a great article hereIf You Want to Be a Writer, Be a Writer)

 

 

 

 

 

What you never knew about bestsellers

bestsellers

Silk’s Post #126 — Okay, okay … this post really should be titled “What I never knew about bestsellers.” Maybe you’re even more of a book trivia geek than I am, and all this is old hat to you, but look at it this way: I got you to read this far on the slightly dubious claim of my title’s hook.

That should be your first clue that the hallowed term “bestseller” is a bit of a trickster.

Poking around the net for blog fodder today, I had one of those “I wonder” moments that often turn into deep wormholes of hypnotic surfing. What exactly is a bestseller? Surely there are some sort of defined metrics, like gold or platinum records in the heyday of the music business.

After all, there are a lot of books on the shelf that are labelled “bestseller” right there on the cover. They must have qualified for that claim somehow, right? Sold a certain number of copies … or flew off the shelves at some measurable rate of speed … or sold more copies than some defined group of other books.

I mean, you can’t just call your book a bestseller without something to back up your claim. Can you? The truth-in-advertising squad would drag you off to the hoosegow. The book police would revoke your license to write, and possibly speak harshly to your publisher. You’d be outed online as the heinous fraud that you are, and Amazon would drop your title like a bag full of snakes.

Yes, I know. I’m a hopeless dreamer when it comes to thinking words actually mean something.

The whole topic of “bestsellers” is filled with fascinating mystique, myths and interesting surprises. In fact the term itself, according to our old friend Wikipedia, is quite modern:

“‘Bestseller’ is a relatively recent term, first recorded in print in 1889 in the Kansas City newspaper The Kansas Times & Star, but the phenomenon of immediate popularity goes back to the early days of mass production of printed books. For earlier books, when the maximum number of copies that would be printed was relatively small, a count of editions is the best way to assess sales.”

But in the days when copyright laws barely existed, publishing was something of a free-for-all, apparently, and piracy was rampant. (As late as the mid-1800’s, America was still essentially an open domain in which even popular authors like Mark Twain couldn’t rely on royalties as a source of income). In such an open marketplace, it’s doubtful that anyone effectively kept track of who printed, sold or bought how many of what books.

Today, of course, things are different. We live in a world of bean counters and computers. Surely somebody must know the sales numbers behind modern bestsellers.

Yes, well. It seems to be a matter of perspective. And lists.

Many, many lists.

Fiction lists, non-fiction lists, genre lists, lists of children’s books, hardcover lists, paperback lists, trade paperback lists, indie lists, consolidated lists, Amazon lists, Publishers Weekly lists, and the granddaddy of lists, The New York Times bestseller list.

Many of these lists use their own particular, even proprietary, methods of ranking bestsellers based on a variety of sources. Some use both wholesale and retail sales. Some use sales only from certain kinds of outlets, such as independent bookstores. Amazon has created its own closed universe, which ranks books hourly based solely on sales on their own website. The New York Times method for bestseller rankings is apparently as closely guarded a secret as the Coca Cola formula.

So, yes. Everything these days is tracked and measured, but it seems ranking bestsellers is often as much an art as a science. And of course, there’s also the promotion factor. Show me a ranking list of anything and I’ll show you 100 interested parties whose job it is to get their “property” further up the list – whether it be an athlete, a political candidate, a car, a liveable city, a recording, or a bestselling book. Did I say 100 promoters? I meant 1,000.

But in all this swirl of rankings, there must be some magic quantity of books you have to sell to be called a “bestseller” – some numerical threshold. A million? A hundred thousand? Surely not fewer than that. After all, not one of the seven Harry Potter books sold less than 50 million copies. Even Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time sold 10 million copies. And that’s a science book, for crying out loud!

Still, my inner skeptic is suspicious about the sheer number of books that claim bestseller status. Either the sales threshold is lower than might be expected, or there’s an astronomical number of books being consumed these days. Or perhaps the “bestseller” designation on many books is, well, a bit of a stretch to be taken with a grain of salt.

A little digging yielded scant, but surprising results. Here in Canada the numbers are famously depressing, or elating, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person. Reportedly, if you sell a total of 5,000 copies of your book you can call it a bestseller!

In the US, the stakes are higher, and typically factor in both number of books sold and the speed at which they’re moving. By some accounts, you need to sell 9,000 copies of your book in the first week of its release to hit the New York Times bestseller list. However, the blogosphere is full of discussions about such sales thresholds, with some claiming that it’s possible to achieve the Nirvana of NYT bestsellerdom with sales of just 5,000 books per week. This set bestselling author and blogger Tess Gerritsen to wondering whether anyone in America is reading books these days. “When a mere 5,000 book buyers determine the top sellers in a country of 300 million people, the industry is in trouble,” she wrote.

Bestselling author and entrepreneur Danielle LaPorte, whose blog reaches 200,000 readers, decodes The NYT list with an insider’s eye. Her introduction is as revealing as it is entertaining:

“Powerful. Elusive. Mysterious. Coveted. Nonsensical. Magical. Antiquated. Leading edge. This sums up most opinions of The New York Times bestseller list. It’s an ever-evolving system of measurement and reward that publishers and authors toil to understand and optimize. Writing an amazing book is a very small part of achieving a ‘bestseller’.”

On Amazon, the bestseller numbers are, if such a thing is possible, even more obscure. This monster outlet – acknowledged to be the largest bookseller in America – is now thought be responsible for about 30% of all print book sales, with some estimating that an average of about 300 copies sold per day will get you on Amazon’s top five list.

Award-winning author Kailin Gow, who has learned the art of tracking her own bestsellers on the lists, tried to explain it all in a piece for Fast Company, titled “What Being a ‘Bestselling Author’ Really Means.”

I confess that everything I read merely confirmed what I already deeply suspected: the entire business of “bestseller” rankings is opaque to mere mortals. And maybe deliberately so.

Because there’s dark side to all this.

If you can scratch up the investment money to do it, you can buy your way onto a bestseller list. Seriously. It doesn’t come cheap, because the basic strategy is simply to buy up a sh*tload of your own books. Fast. Enough to spike the sales per day or sales per week figure into bestseller territory. There are even book promotion consultants who’ll engineer it for you, for a fee. Sound far-fetched, even creepy? It’s happening, baby.

But let me end on a high note: a list of the bestselling books of all time – books that have sold at least 50 million copies. FIFTY MILLION! This list is full of surprises too. But be forewarned: such a list is pretty hard to verify, and it no doubt comes with some major skews. For instance, published lists I found never included books of a religious nature, whose distribution is difficult to track (the Bible is usually thought to be the best selling book of all time, with estimates of over 5 billion copies).

I wonder if any of these authors went out and bought a few million copies of their own books just to become known as mega-bestsellers?

  • A Tale of Two CitiesCharles Dickens (1859) – 200 million (estimated)
  • Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955) – 150 million
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943) – 140 million
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – 107 million
  • And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie (1939) – 100 million
  • Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin (1754-1791) – 100 million
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) – 100 million
  • She: A History of Adventure, H. Rider Haggard (1857) – 100 million
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950) – 85 million
  • The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003) – 80 million
  • Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill (1937) – 70 million
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (2005) – 65 million
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951) – 65 million
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (1988) – 65 million
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 60 million
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (2003) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (2007) – 50 million
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garbriel Garcia Marquez (1967) – 50 million
  • Lolita, Vladimir Navokov (1955) – 50 million
  • Heidi, Johanna Spyri (1880) – 50 million
  • The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock (1946) – 50 million
  • Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908) – 50 million
  • Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (1877) – 50 million
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980) – 50 million
  • The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins (1975) – 50 million
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972) – 50 million
  • The Hite Report, Shere Hite (1976) – 50 million
  • Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (1952) – 50 million
  • The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy (1955) – 50 million
  • The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller (1992) – 50 million
  • Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace (1880) – 50 million
  • The Mark of Zorro, Johnston McCulley (1924) – 50 million

 

 

 

The dirt on Clean Reader

censorship

Silk’s Post #125 — Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, excoriated it on her blog on March 23rd. Chuck Wendig flung ferocious profanities at it on his Terrible Minds blog on March 25th. Cory Doctorow called it “stupid” on March 30th but defended readers’ rights on his blog boingboing, the same day that Jonathon Sturgeon worried about its contribution to the dystopian future of reading on Flavorwire. Even Margaret Atwood and Ian Rankin tweeted their objections to it.

It has been the rage for a couple of weeks across the blogosphere, in the twitterverse, and on the book pages of the great newspapers that care about literature.

clean-reader“It” is Clean Reader, for the few of you out there who may not yet be aware of the furor. Clean Reader is a new app for e-books that automatically scrubs out all the offensive words to the specifications of the reader. “Read books, not profanity,” its slogan urges. You can set it for “clean”, “cleaner”, or the totally sanitized “squeaky clean”. It swaps out “bad” words and substitutes innocuous ones, sometimes with unintentionally hilarious results.

Some of the most quoted examples are “freak” for “fuck”, “witch” for “bitch”, “heck” for “hell”, “chest” for “breast”,  “groin” for “penis”, “pleasure” for “blow job”, and (quite confusingly) “bottom” for the whole array of undifferentiated lady parts down there.

Can you imagine trying to write a love scene where the only words available to describe the erogenous zones of the female body were “chest” and “bottom”?

“Jesus Christ” is also automatically expurgated, which seems wildly counterintuitive. The assumption that his name is likely to be used in stories for blasphemous reasons (rather than for devotional reasons) earns the Son of God a place on the “bad word” list. Does anybody besides me find that paradox just plain weird?

Clean Reader was developed by a Christian couple from Idaho whose young daughter was disturbed by some “bad words” in a book she was otherwise enjoying. Apparently, they had an epiphany: why not find a way to expurgate all the words in e-books that right-minded people (presumably Christians) would disapprove of, and (bonus!) make some good coin from it?

(I confess to having a somewhat jaded view of their publicity story about Clean Reader’s genesis. It’s my observation that usually kids only get disturbed when they come upon “bad words” if they’ve been taught shame by their elders, and they know they’ll get holy “heck” if they’re caught. My recollection of my now-distant childhood is that kids were more likely to actively seek out the raciest books available for the express purpose of mining the pages for “bad word” gems. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I did.)

Be all of that as it may, Clean Reader instantly created what would be described as a “crap storm” in its own euphemistic language. Writers revolted. They removed their titles from the clutches of Clean Reader’s expurgation machine. The rhetoric went nuclear. The most obvious, and loudest, objections were focused on censorship, free speech and violation of copyright. The collective fist of writerdom was shaken in outrage.

How dare you “freak” with our words, Clean Reader!

Amazingly, the writers won. Clean Reader was more or less forced to shut down its online book-selling operation. “Hooray!” the writers cheered. Joanne Harris called it “a small victory for the world of dirt.”

So. Problem fixed. Story over. Tempest in a teapot, right?

Wrong.

It’s waaaay more complicated than that. Not the morality of it – that’s the simple part, at least according to me.

The complicated part – the terrifying slippery slope – is a two-headed dragon.

The first dragon’s head is called The Law. Not everyone believes Clean Reader actually violated any laws by providing its profanity-scrubbing “service”, including, of course, the parents of Clean Reader. And their lawyers. Oh, yes, they anticipated all this (which, incidentally, makes their professed shock at writers’ outrage seem pretty phoney). In consultation with their legal advisors, they developed and sold this product in a manner designed to sneak through the cracks in the laws that are supposed to protect free speech and copyright, and prevent censorship.

The scheme is convoluted, but the centrepiece of the app is technology designed to mask over the “bad words” with substitutes, while leaving the original words within the original e-book file. The author’s actual words are invisible, but they’re still “there”, hiding in shame beneath cyber fig leaves. Thus, Clean Reader’s inventors claim, they actually haven’t censored anything. It’s the perfect crime – a way to violate the spirit of the law while staying within the letter of it.

But The Law is a strange beast that never walks in a simple, straight line. Cyber guru and activist Cory Doctorow, has suggested that outlawing what Clean Reader does violates the rights of readers, who should be able to choose what they consume. The right to free speech, he says, includes the right not to listen. Although he disapproves of Clean Reader’s aims as “offensive”, he cites the many ways we use computers to filter what we receive and claims it’s the readers’ right to change what they want to put in front of their own eyeballs.

This is where it gets even more complicated.

If a reader chooses to take a censorship marker to a printed book that they’ve bought for their own use, that’s presumably not illegal (or at least enforceably so) – it’s just stupid. (Fortunately, stupid isn’t illegal yet, or most of us would find ourselves in jail at some point in our lives).

But is the use of Clean Reader really the same thing?

While it probably would need to be tested in court, this proposition is “iffy” at best. The Society of Authors has stated, “… the app contradicts two aspects of the author’s moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution.” Moral rights include the right of an author to object to derogatory treatment of a work. Note that the Society’s statement places the blame on the app, not the reader who uses it.

And there lies the twist. Apparently, at least some people interpret Clean Reader – which was, up until March 26th, also retailing e-books on its website, as well as giving away free downloads of its app – as a real censor, even if virtual. According to reports, e-book distribution channels such as Inktera (a subsidiary of Page Foundry) and Smashwords pulled their titles off the Clean Reader website, citing terms of book selling agreements that do not give retailers permission to alter the works. Ultimately it was this marketplace reaction that caused Clean Reader to shut down its e-bookstore.

At the moment, the tap has been turned off on Clean Reader’s big profit centre. They’ll now have to somehow change their technology and/or their business proposition to meet the standards for moral rights demanded by writers and the broader book publishing and distribution industry … or else look forward to a potentially expensive test of their product’s legality from the challenges sure to come.

So the marketplace works! This should bring joy to the hearts of all capitalists! We can all rest easy now, right?

Wrong.

There’s that other dragon’s head, and it’s called Cyberspace. In cyberspace, we can do many wonderful and terrible things that were never possible in regular space, a.k.a. the real world. It’s an incredible new universe: a free-for-all frontier, full of promise and peril. And we’re really only at the dawn of figuring out the rules in this everything’s-possible universe.

Cyberspace challenges the order of everything. It gives power to the powerless, which is both wonderful and horrible, depending on what the newly empowered do with it. Cyberspace is a great leveller, where the small can become big, and the big can become small, in an instant. Cyberspace brings the world to us – and us to the world – with virtually no restrictions. In doing so, it explodes the boundaries of privacy and rights.

One of the first casualties of the Cyberspace dragon was the very nature of ownership of intellectual property, and the moral and economic rights of its creators. Artists, musicians, photographers, writers … every member of the creative community is working in a completely new world, where the old regulations are struggling to keep up with the new technologies.

The focus of this upheaval in the arts has mostly been economic. Whole industries, including publishing, have been turned on their heads. Creatives are having to find new ways of making a living from their work, forging new pathways as the old solid ground crumbles beneath their feet. And a huge part of that “solid ground” had to do with ownership and rights – not just the right to be paid for original work, but the right to protect it from censorship, misuse and corruption.

In The Guardian, a couple of days after Clean Reader closed its online book store and retreated to the drawing board, Sam Leith wrote a piece titled, “Clean Reader is a freaking silly idea, but in the end you can’t stop your audience being philistines.” Maybe. It’s certainly tempting to ridicule the inanity of replacing the word “vagina” with the word “bottom” and thinking you’ve somehow made the world a cleaner, better place.

But I’m afraid we can’t make light of the bigger issues Clean Reader raises. Cyberspace is a universe without boundaries, a place that may prove to be ungovernable altogether. That’s where we’re now sending our words – the books and stories and blogs we pour our hearts into and stay up all night writing. We hit “send” or “publish” and blast them off into this new frontier.

If it’s up to anyone, it’s up to us what happens to them after that.

The rights we have – or think we have – as writers may not survive long if we don’t defend them.

Is trying to get published a time waster?

Helga’s Post #101:  What do writers spend most of their time on? Writing?

You may be surprised at the answer. Marketing supposedly takes more time than the actual writing. At least this is what some studies on writers’ behavior suggest. I find that a startling statistic and I am not sure of its validity. What about writers like Ernest Hemingway? Did he spend as much time peddling his manuscripts as writing them? I doubt it. Or take Agatha Christie, the most published novelist in history. She wrote 69 novels and 19 plays and is estimated to have sold 4 billion books. If she had spent more time on marketing than writing, she would have lived to at least double her 85 years.

Nonetheless, we know that writers do spend a fair chunk of time on getting their work out into the world and trying to make money from it. More time than most of us can imagine. Take the example of Amanda Hocking, an American writer of paranormal romance young-adult fiction. (You can read about her on Paula’s blog post of Dec. 18, 2014, ‘Top 10 Gifts for Writers’). Hocking has sold over a million copies of her nine books and earned two million dollars from sales, previously unheard of for self-published authors. In early 2011, Hocking averaged 9,000 book sales each day. Has it been easy?

“The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me.”

While most of us won’t need to be quite as involved as Amanda, it begs the question: What is the most efficient way to market one’s writing? Much has been said and written on the topic. Some excellent advice, as well as a lot of rubbish that only befuddles our poor writers’ brain.

Perhaps an even more fundamental question than ‘what is the most efficient way for marketing’ is this: How does a writer decide whether his or her work is marketable in the first place? Don’t you wish someone could tell you if you’re wasting your time trying to be a writer? Or if you’re at all close to getting traditionally published—assuming that’s your goal?

That question showed up in a Writer’s Digest article of a few years ago. While traditional publishing may have become a lesser goal for many of us, the question about wasting time trying to be a writer is still valid. At the risk of stating the obvious, it might be useful to quote WD’s 5 time wasters that writers should avoid:

  1. Submitting manuscripts that aren’t your best work.
  2. Self-publishing when no one is listening.
  3. Distributing your work digitally when your audience wants print—or vice versa.
  4. Seeking New York commercial publishing deals for regional or niche work.
  5. Focusing on publishing when you should be writing.

The article goes on to ask two questions most relevant to the publication path:

  1. How much time did you put into writing? Have you put in enough time to get good at it?
  2. How much time did you spend reading quality, published work? This helps you learn how to write better AND understand where you might be on the spectrum of quality.

When is it time to change course?

  1. Honestly assess whether your work is commercially viable. Not all work is.
  2. Are you getting bitter? If you find yourself demonizing people in the publishing industry, taking rejections very personally, feeling as if you’re owed something, and/or complaining whenever you get together with other writers, it’s time to find the refresh button.

But there is hope, compliments of Jane Friedman, the WD article’s author (I prefer to call it a reality check): “If your immediate thought upon reading this blog post headline was something like: I couldn’t stop trying even if someone told me to give up, then you’re much closer to publication than someone who is easily discouraged. The battle is far more psychological than you might think.”

I am convinced most of us fall into that category. We love what we do and nobody and nothing can deter us. We know the rules of good storytelling. We know when too many rules get in the way of good writing. And we can laugh at ourselves when our stories get silly. Or when we really, really screw up. Like this:

Credit: Tom Gould

Credit: Tom Gauld

Déja vu all over again

fresh-perspective

Silk’s Post #103 — I love new beginnings. For some people, the year begins on January 1. Others are in tune with Spring as a time of rebirth. I was a Halloween baby, so for me the year has always started with autumn. It’s a new cycle and we’re on the start line once again.

Our 5Writers mini-retreat in Vancouver last week was a perfectly timed re-start for me. If you’ve ever belonged to a writers group – or any kind of small-scale, informal professional circle – you’ll know how this kind of support and encouragement kindles new enthusiasm for your work and kicks your energy up a notch.

And there’s nothing like a new challenge to wake up the competitive spirit. As a group, we have just embraced an ambitious common goal to write and self-publish five new books. If “competitive” seems like an inapt word to describe our cooperative efforts, it’s used deliberately. As unpublished authors, we’re a bit like a team that’s training together. We egg each other on. Put any five people on the same track – whether they’re running or writing – and the natural competitive human spirit turns it into a race. At the same time, we have an unwritten rule, born of our mutual respect and loyalty: Leave No Writer Behind. So it’s a genteel “race” of 5 cooperative competitors designed to produce 5 winners.

Over the next months, this blog will be sharing our brave new journey. It’s less brash than our original 5Writers challenge to write 5 novels in 5 months two years ago. In 2012 we set out at a furious gallop, hell bent for leather. Yee-haw! It was a terrific exercise and we learned a lot from it – about writing, and about ourselves.

I’m one of the two who didn’t finish the novel I started for that challenge. I may finish it one day because I love the characters and I think it has potential, but it’s a book that was conceived to fit that 5Writers challenge. It’s not the book I absolutely must write – at least not right now.

This new challenge is different. I like to think we’ve matured together as writers. Life has thrown us all many changes over the past couple of years. Our nice comfy schedule of meeting once a month or so for critiques is out the window, with two of the five now spending winters in the desert, three going through house moves in the last year, and one taking up Dad duties with his wonderful new family.

We’re all very aware of life’s ticking clock. It’s time to get more serious about writing – and publishing. Even if that means doing it for ourselves. No Cinderella stories have been forthcoming – what a surprise! So we’re not waiting for someone to knock on the door with a glass slipper in hand. But I think we’ve become realists about what we can accomplish as indie writers, and how much work and time we will need to (and are able to) put into it.

Here’s the box score from our lively review last Friday of our 5 book concepts:

  • 5Writers who had completed a full synopsis for review: 1
  • 5Writers who completely switched what book they’re planning to write after review: 2
  • 5Writers who are contemplating major changes to characters after review: 1
  • 5Writers who are now at work on new synopses: 4
  • Fabulous Thai dinners consumed during retreat: 1
  • Fabulous fellow bloggers who joined us for said dinner: 2 (Alison and Don of Adventures in Wonderland, the first time most of us had met these superstars in person!)

Onward!

Helga and super supportive husband Emil

Helga and husband Emil

Don and Joe

Don and Joe

Paula and Silk

Paula and Silk

Karalee and Alison

Karalee and Alison

Alison and Don

Alison and Don

 

The ever changing publishing world: Kindle Unlimited is another addition

Karalee’s Post #89

Now who would have thought that books could be bought on a monthly subscription? Unlimited eBooks for $9.99/month? eBooks on Kindle have gone the way of Netflix!

Amazon recently released Kindle Unlimited for $9.99 per month.

Now my first thoughts were gloomy. How can authors possibly make a living?

Then they switched to picturing Joe stuffing a whole apple in his mouth like he wondered about in one of his last posts on self-publishing. (Who knows why but this is how my mind works sometimes.) I’ve been chuckling over this image for the last couple of weeks because in my early days of dating my husband we counted how many grapes he could put in his mouth at once. Joe’s apple is a happy trigger. (Note to writers that this is a good trick to use.)

And it’s those memorable things that stick. Like certain scenes in books we’ve read, particular characters, or places that authors have taken us to vicariously. Or a new way of becoming published and read as authors.

 

quote winston churchill

 

Then I came back to reality.

CHANGE IS HAPPENING.

Period.

And it isn’t subtle.

 

Sometimes I feel like this quote by Churchill, that me as a writer am at the end of the pile driver with no choice but to embrace these changes. But then it depends on how you look at the pile driver (or Joe’s mouth full of apple.)

If you want to read a great post on Kindle’s eBook subscription have a look at what David Gaughran wrote regarding Kindle Unlimited. Below I’ve quoted a couple of his paragraphs from his post that I find particularly interesting:

Kindle Unlimited:

The main stumbling block for self-publishers is that participation in Kindle Unlimited is restricted to titles enrolled in KDP Select – Amazon’s program which offers various additional marketing tools in exchange for exclusivity. Author compensation will be similar to borrows under the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library – a percentage of money from a fixed pool. The only real twist is that payment will be triggered when 10% of downloaded books have been read.’

 

How popular will Kindle Unlimited be?

Oyster and Scribd have a headstart, but Amazon has proven it can eat up that ground in no time. While the competition has more big books from big names, thanks to its deals with major publishers, Amazon has two key advantages (aside from the obvious). To my knowledge, Kindle Unlimited is the only subscription service that will work on the tens of millions of e-ink Kindles that are in circulation – the others are app based. And it’s also the only major subscription service combining e-books and audiobooks. The audio market is growing faster than the e-book market at the moment, and Amazon clearly feels that it’s only getting started. It is pushing the audiobook angle in all the marketing and PR, so it views that as a big selling point to readers.

Not long ago I used to think that eBooks would never take off. Now I believe they are here to stay and for many good reasons:

  1. Many “old” people like my parent’s generation are taking to the electronic readers because they can increase the font size
  2. Airlines putting a weight restriction on luggage means that downloading books are a great option
  3. If you run out of books on holiday or anytime, it is very easy to download ebooks 24/7
  4. I realized that when my husband and I started downloading books we wouldn’t share our iPads to read each other’s books we recommended, so we downloaded the same book on our own iPad. Bonus to authors!
  5. So maybe this subscription method of unlimited downloads per month will also open an avenue for readers to try new authors. The main problem I foresee is the time limit to read lots of books every month. (Netflix and family time do come into the equation too!)

eBooks are a reality. They are here to stay and truth be told, I hear mostly positive feedback from reader friends on how easy it is to access books they want. (Now finding new authors is another issue I won’t tackle at this time.) So, I’m taking these changes as the way the world is and embracing them and accepting that change is happening not only quickly, but it will be to the benefit of authors with good stories to tell.

roads to follow

 

We all have our own road to follow, but I’m getting the feeling that the pile driver that Churchill refers to above is actually building the foundation for the new way of doing business as authors.

What path are you going to follow?

Happy writing!

Self-publishing – a contrarian view

lemonade

Silk’s Post #101 — In his last post, 5writer Joe shared some valuable advice from experts in self-publishing, compiled by Betty Kelly Sargent, founder of BookWorks, in a Publishers Weekly article. It all sounds eminently sensible and business like. Calm. Reasoned. Soothing, almost.

Oh, except for the number bomb dropped into the introduction, which activated my morbid fascination with “arithmetic for writers”. Sargent did some Googling, and found 54,400,000 results when she searched “self-publishing an e-book”. Although I’m grateful to her for reducing this Niagara Falls of advice to a mini-fount of wisdom, there’s nothing calming about the depth and breadth of self-publishing chatter out there. It’s terrifying.

If you immerse yourself in this conversation, it’s easy to see exclamation points (my favourite abandoned punctuation mark!) where none need exist: You must know this! You better not do that! Hurry up! Slow down! Self-publishing is a dead end! Self-publishing is the future! Don’t even think about self-publishing without reading (listening to, attending, buying) this important book (article, conference, workshop, guide)! Sargent opens her Publishers Weekly piece on this cautionary note: “It can be a jungle out there for self-publishers.”

No kidding.

The only possible responses are: a) to face one’s fears and put it into perspective, or b) to curl up in a ball and whimper like a baby. So let’s break it down.

First: How did this daunting body of knowledge and advice about self-publishing and e-books get so big, so fast?

My theory: this is a whole new business model for a centuries-old industry. A revolution. And in a revolution, chaos tends to reign. Lots of people are running around the public square and up blind alleys, trying to figure out where to go, what to do, who all the other people are, and whether one should follow them or run away from them. Everything is, to at least some degree, experimental. Everyone is coming up with their own thoughts and theories and recipes for success, from authors who want to be published, to publishing industry folks who want to keep (or get) a paying gig in this brave new world. Everyone’s trying to read the bones and get a lock on the future, but it’s a complex and fluid situation. There’s a lot of re-invention going on here, a lot of pathfinding.

And since we’re all writers, we are, of course, writing about it. Endlessly.

Not only that, but – as you no doubt have noticed – the Internet is a gigantic echo chamber. Of those 54,400,000 hits on the “self-publishing an e-book” search, what percentage of them are truly original and substantive? How much of all this verbiage is derivative, recycled or simply repeated in an endless game of “telephone”?

Okay, whew. That cuts it down to size neatly. I feel better already.

Second: How – and when – does a potential indie author need to learn about self-publishing to be successful?

Writing a novel and publishing a novel are two completely different enterprises (whether as an e-book, or in print, with or without a traditional publisher). That may seem self-evident, but it’s worth thinking about the implications at a personal level.

These two processes do not use the same brain cells, or at least they don’t use them in the same way. They’re entirely separate challenges, and require different skill sets, knowledge, methodologies and mindsets. For me, and probably for many novelists, the writing part is what I love and the business side is something of a necessary evil.

I’ve been here before in another life.

When I started my graphic design business many years ago as a freelancer working from a tiny home office, it was my love of design and copywriting that drove me to take the plunge. I had just lost my job as a designer in a small studio, which was the psychological equivalent of about 100 rejection letters. Yeah, okay, I was fired. For being too “headstrong”. I had no formal training and little experience and – like an unpublished novelist who believes in her own talent even when no one else is willing to take a chance on her – I knew if I wanted to get into the field, I was going to have to create the opportunity myself.

Not only was I a novice designer, I knew virtually nothing about running a business. I just jumped in with both feet, blissfully ignorant but confident that I’d figure it out.

Fortunately, I did.

Every day I learned what I needed to know. It was pure, hands-on, real-world, just-in-time training, and a ridiculous amount of hard work. My modus operandi was to make it up as I went along. That meant being constantly on the alert for opportunities and pitfalls, and learning from my mistakes (of omission as well as commission). Since I wasn’t part of the “establishment” I had to be inventive – and build a great team of collaborators – to survive.

The good news was that we not only survived, we thrived. The venture turned into a 35-year career, a sometimes crazy roller-coaster ride, and a successful, award-winning agency in an industry not known for longevity. Still, I always viewed the business side of it as the price I had to pay to get the chance to do the creative work.

(Eventually, I became the “establishment”, which, ironically perhaps, took a lot of the fun out of it for me.)

This experience taught me that you don’t need to know everything at the beginning of a venture that you’ll eventually have to know in order to make it successful. In fact, I believe that you can only learn things when you’re ready for them. And what makes you “ready” is usually the necessity to act – the point in your journey when you simply have to move forward or fall back.

It also taught me that when you do get to that tipping point, you need to get out of your comfort zone, do your homework, figure out a plan (even if you change it later), rev yourself up for hard work and commitment, and forge ahead without fear. Mindset is everything. Even if you fail to reach the goal you hoped for, you won’t fail to learn – and that new expertise will propel you to a new goal.

This is the nature of risk-taking, and business is all about risk. For that matter, so is writing. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith.

Third: Who do you listen to when you need to figure out how to navigate the swirling waters of this emerging self-publishing industry?

Clearly, there is no shortage of advice. While some of it may be conflicting, and trends and opportunities are continually shifting, it just can’t be that hard to find some models of success to emulate. Find them, study them, then tune them to fit your own circumstances.

Because the short answer to this question is that, in the end, you have to listen to yourself.

Yes, you. The novice. The “non-establishment” (and likely unpublished) writer. Because you’re the person who’s going to have to do all the work, make and learn from your mistakes, and think on your feet.

The advice Sargent curated in her Publishers Weekly article – based on industry experts’ “single, most important piece of advice” to aspiring authors – focused on the themes of “knowing what your want” and “being patient”. We’re told to:

  • Take enough time to produce a product that’s worth our readers’ time and money.
  • Know our goals and be absolutely clear about what they are and how we plan to achieve them.
  • Be patient and not worry about how the work sells out of the gate.
  • Make our books as widely available as possible in the networked world.
  • Avoid premature distribution by starting small, publishing beta versions and growing our “author platform”.
  • Write every day and hire an editor.
  • Treat self-publishing as a business, including doing competitive research and having a business plan and marketing plan in place.

All good advice. But it doesn’t really get us there, does it?

And that’s the problem with everything I’ve read to date on self-publishing. It tends to be either at the level of platitudes, or at the level of step-by-step prescriptions. Yes, I think it’s critical to take all this on board, but knowing stuff isn’t the same as doing stuff.

If Sargent had asked me her question – “If you could give someone starting out in self-publishing only one piece of advice, what would it be?” (and there’s no reason anyone would really want to ask me, a total novice, so consider the source) – I would have had a contrarian answer:

Before you consider self-publishing, look into your own heart and ask yourself whether you’re willing to do what’s necessary to take on a completely new business enterprise without knowing everything you need to know at the outset, or being guaranteed of a formula for success. Whatever other advice you follow, it won’t magically get you there.

Only you can get yourself there, under your own power.

You are a writer. You know how to research. You plan your books (maybe by outlining or maybe organically). You invent stories. You innovate. You improvise. Are you prepared to embark on the journey of adapting these skills to a business venture – as opposed to an artistic one?

I do believe self-publishing is a do-it-yourself extension to the modern writer’s journey. But make no mistake, it requires one to become an entrepreneur – with all the challenges (and rewards) that entails. In many ways, self-publishing should be treated as a kind of small business start-up. I believe that it’s impossible for those who’ve never been down this road before to know whether they’ll really take to it – or not – until they try it.

But look at it this way: you have nothing to lose but your literary anonymity!

 

Shocking revelations about debut novels

holy-cow

Silk’s Post #99 — Maybe “shocking” is a bit strong, or maybe I’m just easily shocked. Or maybe it’s just a cheap trick of a headline.

But now that you’re here, let’s talk about the somewhat depressing truth that we unpublished, unknown writers live with every day: the top reason a person buys a particular novel is because it was written by an author the purchaser has already read. This is a simple fact of fan behaviour.

This means that if you, the unpublished author with the unfinished book in progress, actually make it to “The End” (most don’t), and then manage to get through several rewrites that succeed in improving your novel to a level that is truly ready to pitch (again, you’d be in the minority of unpublished writers), and then actually get an agent (unlike most), and then that agent manages to sell it to a traditional publisher (good luck on that one, too), and one fine day you actually see your debut novel on the retail bookshelf … that is where the most unlikely miracle of all has to happen for your book to break into the bestseller list.

Readers have to risk $10 or $20 of hard-earned discretionary cash on a book by someone they’ve never heard of in hopes they might like it – rather than pick up the latest novel by one of their favourite authors, which they have every expectation of enjoying.

So is your debut novel doomed?

The shocking answer is: absolutely not.

I started thinking about it while reading my book club’s selection for September, The Rosie Project, a charming first novel by Aussie writer Graeme Simsion (2013, HarperCollins). Above the title on the cover were the words “The #1 International Bestseller”. Lucky bloke, that Simsion, I thought. One in a billion.

But then I thought back to some of our other book club choices over the past couple of years. Hmmm. Weren’t there some other debut novels on our list? Yes, there were:

  • The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
  • The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis
  • The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
  • The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
  • The Outlander, by Gil Adamson
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

In fact, of the 27 novels my club has read together, eight of them were debut efforts – nearly 30 percent. This is a much higher percentage than the industry average of first novel deals as a proportion of all fiction deals signed in a given year, which Publishers Marketplace apparently shows to be about 10 percent. This may mean that my little book club is especially adventurous when it comes to book-buying, or it may mean that popular fiction genres (mystery, romance, sci fi and the like), which typically don’t get on book club lists, are more dominated by “name brand” authors.

But who cares? It still adds up to hope for unpublished authors.

Shocking Revelation #1 is that something like 10 percent of fiction deals are for first novels, according to my (admittedly not exhaustive) research. (That does sound high, but to hear some doomsayers talk, any measurable percentage of debut deals would be shocking.)

Shocking Revelation #2 is that a healthy number of these win prestigious awards and become top sellers – and that’s just in print. Clearly, the indie market is where a growing percentage of debut novels get published today. (An interesting hybrid story is that of Terry Fallis, who, after many rejections of The Best Laid Plans, went ahead and self-published with stunning success, before being picked up by a traditional publisher after he had proven his marketability).

Shocking Revelation #3, for me anyway, is how many bestselling and prizewinning novels over the years have been first novels – books that made their authors so famous that we don’t think of their first titles as debut efforts anymore. Many are “household name” books, so legendary they seem to have always been there, like the mountains or the sea.

The ultimate debut novel Cinderella story, as most writers are probably tired of hearing, is of course the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. But there are many more eye popping examples. Here is a list, culled from several websites, of some famous first novels:

  • Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
  • The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (his only novel)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (her only novel)
  • White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
  • This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, by Fanny Flagg
  • Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
  • Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon
  • The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
  • Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
  • The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
  • The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht
  • The Lovely Bones, by Anna Sebold
  • Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
  • The Notebook, by Nicolas Sparks
  • The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Well
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  • The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Dafoe
  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards
  • Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
  • Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer (yes, that Twilight)
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenberger
  • The Descendents, by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • Deja Dead, by Kathy Reichs
  • The Kite Runner, by Khalid Hosseini

What do all these first novels have in common, besides being publishing miracles?

They’re very, very good; they have the “it” factor. (Yes, you can argue that, but success speaks for itself.)

What do all these writers have in common, besides being both good and lucky?

They persisted. (No, you can’t argue at all with that.)

Just think of all the fantastic novels that have been written over the centuries that you’ve never heard of – because they simply stayed in some aspiring writer’s bottom drawer and never were published, or maybe even finished.

Woody Allen once famously declared that “80 percent of life is just showing up”. He was talking to us. To writers. Here’s what he said about what he said:

“I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out … they couldn’t do it. That’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing. So once you do it, if you actually write your film script or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that was, I’d say, my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.”

In a pursuit that’s freighted with so much angst and complexity, isn’t it refreshing to hear advice that’s so simple, and so obvious?

Debut novels get to be bestsellers because they’re great in some way. So make yours great.

Even more fundamentally, they succeed because the writer persists and gets the job done. So keep writing.

Shocking Revelation #4 is that, against all the considerable odds that aspiring writers are constantly lectured about, debut novels do get published and become bestsellers. Miracles do happen, so believe in yourself.

And get to work.

Self publishing – changing times

Joe’s Post #106 –

I’ve had the chance to talk to two people who’ve been there and done that. Karen A and Matt B. They’ve both gone the non-traditional publishing route, though Matt has also had success in the mainstream. I think they’ve both given me some things to think about – A lot of things to think about, actually.

kriswebNow I need to add someone who’s had massive success following both paths. Kris Rusch. I’ve been down to workshops run by her and her husband, Dean, and I have to say they are 2 of the best people in the business, giving so much of their knowledge to unpublished writers like me.

I am going to reblog from her website, and while it’s only one blog post, I want you to check out her whole site.

I mean, hey, if it’s information you want on the publishing business, it’s like one-stop-shopping at her site, she got it all. In fact, she has so much great information on there, she could make a book.

Oh, wait, she did.

kris booksThe Business Rusch: Changing Times

(Overview)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

As I have mentioned many times in the past, my industry—publishing—is changing.  I have written a few posts about it, but generally, I have avoided the topic.  My reason is simple: this business blog, and the Freelancer’s Guide before it, are geared toward the general business reader, not just toward everyone in the publishing industry.

However, the changes in publishing have become, at least to me, the elephant in the room.  I’m going to deal with them in the next few posts, and I hope you general business readers who are not in publishing give me some leeway.

After all, these changes do have an effect on you.  You’re all readers and consumers of electronic publishing or you wouldn’t visit this blog.  I have a hunch you’re also readers of books, or you probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon me.

Right now, if you read all of the blogs and articles, listen to the pieces on the evening news, or walk into a bookstore, you hear a confusing amount of information about the future of publishing.  Some sources claim it’s going to die an ugly death.  Others say everyone will stop reading.  Some claim that reading will increase. Still others believe that the publishing industry as we know it will collapse by 2012.  A few believe that publishing has become completely irrelevant.

Only a few seem to understand that one thing will remain consistent.  Readers will want to read somethingStephen King has a great take on this. He points out that the book is a delivery system for a story.  Readers want stories, and readers will chose the delivery system they prefer so that they can consume that story.

The same thing applies to nonfiction, of course.  Nonfiction provides information, and readers want that information.  In some cases, the book is no longer the best delivery system for that information.  Witness the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which has always—from its inception—been unwieldy in book form.  The OED has decided the next volume will be entirely online, which is a much better delivery system for their product.  We still need the OED’s exhaustive derivation of words.  Now we don’t need a magnifying glass to read it.

What is happening worldwide is that the delivery system for the things we read—fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry—is changing.  In addition to the book itself, we now have online books.  We have e-books.  We have audio books.  And we have books with enhanced content. The new delivery systems have created new ways to consume stories—stories that wouldn’t exist outside of the new delivery system, like the cell phone novels in Japan and the multimedia app books reaching iPads here in the U.S.

Each group involved in the old system of publishing has new challenges.  And the challenges are different for each group.  Existing publishers must change their business model to accommodate the growing e-book phenomenon.  Writers (and other creators of content) must figure out on their own the best way to get their creations to consumers.  Bookstores must figure out ways to become relevant as books, audiobooks, and e-books become available at the touch of a finger.  And readers have to figure out what they want to read, and how to find it in the growing and changing marketplace.

I’m going to deal with all of that in the next few weeks.  But first, let’s look at what’s really happening to the publishing industry.

Most people compare the changes in the publishing industry to the changes experienced by the music industry in the last twenty years.  This is a scary comparison, particularly for big publishing (which is what I’m going to call established publishers).  The record labels (which changed their name from “record labels” which was accurate to “labels” which wasn’t to “studios” which isn’t accurate either) suffered greatly in the last twenty years. The profits to the labels went down significantly, many went out of business, and most are a shadow of their former selves. They do survive, but in a diminished capacity.

The musicians suffered as well.  First they got screwed by the labels, who wanted an increasing piece of the pie.  The labels have always mistreated the artists, especially financially.  The problem was bad in the heyday of the industry—the 1950s and 60s—but it became even worse in the 1980s.  Unless an artist  became a blockbuster star, that artist could not maintain a career in the industry because of the financial baggage the label itself put on the artist. If you want to know more about this, read Jacob Slichter’s So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star (or really, any book on the music industry).

Add to this the constantly changing format of the music you bought.  In my lifetime, purchased music went from the 78 and the 45 to the 33 (the long-playing album, which is short by today’s standards) to the 8-track to the cassette to the CD to the MP3.  Music buyers got sick of repurchasing their entire collection for a new system.  (In 1990, I sold all my albums because I couldn’t get a turntable any longer.  I regret this now.)

The music marketing system was vastly different than the book marketing system. In short, music consumers were used to hearing songs—or entire albums—for free on the radio before they purchased.  Most consumers play their music over and over. When the radio stations consolidated, and the independent stations vanished, free music disappeared for all but the most successful artist. CD prices went through the roof, and music stores tried to compensate by letting you listen for free. But listening once for free is not the same as constant airplay on your favorite stations.

Fans fought back by sharing files, which then cut into the music industry’s profits.  The music industry fought file sharing hard, not understanding where it was coming from.  File sharing came from two major areas: first, music wasn’t available online in the early days and second, price point.  The price to buy a single had become prohibitive.  Either you had to buy the full-length CD, which cost too much, or in a very few cases, you could buy the single for $3 (in the 1990s!)  Music lovers didn’t want 12 songs; they wanted one. And they didn’t want to spend $3 for it.  It wasn’t until the advent of the free download as a promotional device that the music industry started to recover from piracy.  And then the sale of the 99 cent single online boosted music sales all over again.

The final difference is this: the music industry has several arms: the sheet music publishing arm, the album/CD/MP3 arm, and the performance/concert arm, all of which were (and still are) profitable.  The sheet music arm which was the most profitable a hundred years ago is the least profitable now.  A few years ago, the concert arm became the most profitable with the loss of album/CD revenue, but the recession has killed the high end concerts except for the megasuperstars.  The MP3s have become profitable, but not at the monetary numbers of the late 1980s (although the number of actual purchases have gone through the roof on all types of music).

In other words, the music industry is now a shadow of its former self.

For those of you who are about to write me a screed, let me add this:  Yes, I know, the changes in the music industry are more complicated than that.  Other factors came into play.  Yes, piracy is wrong.  Okay.  I know. But this particular post isn’t about the music industry.  It’s about publishing.

Publishing has and always has had a completely different business model than the music industry.  About the only thing they have in common is that they are both part of the entertainment industry and they both need the occasional blockbuster (big hit/artist) to survive.

But the book industry never gave its product away for free on a mass level to entice purchases.  Books rarely get read over and over again.  Nor have books constantly changed form since they were introduced.  Until recently, the biggest technological change in the publishing industry was the introduction of the printing press so that books didn’t have to be laboriously copied by hand.

Although writers have gone on tour and made money—Charles Dickens’s speeches in the 19th century drew capacity crowds—the concert arm really doesn’t exist for book publishers.  Most writers who get appearance fees are not contractually obliged to give that money to their publishers.  And most writers don’t receive appearance fees, period.

To top it off, the book industry treated its artists much better than the music industry. The music industry tried to take everything, from the copyrights of the songs a singer/songwriter wrote to the bulk of the recorded music profits to most of the income from concerts.  Some writers have lost everything to book publishers because the writers didn’t know business well enough to understand their contracts, but generally speaking, publishers haven’t screwed their artists—at least not as thoroughly as the music industry has.

The music industry’s greed in two areas—the price of CDs and the price of concert tickets—caused its sales figures to go down long before the technological change hit. And the only reason profits remained the same or went up was because the recording industry jacked up prices.

You see a similar phenomenon in the movie industry at the moment.  Profits are still high, but ticket sales are down dramatically from ten years ago partly (mostly) because ticket prices are so astronomical.  (The movie industry has yet a different business model, which I will not get into here.)

The differences between the book industry and the music industry are so extreme that comparing the industries is like comparing apples and flowers: they both grow, they both have a finite lifespan, sometimes they’re both red, but they’re not at all the same thing.

Instead of looking at the music industry as the model for what’s going on in publishing, look instead at the television industry. To do this, you have to go back decades.

From the moment television sets became available across the country, somewhere around 1955, television programming consolidated into three networks: The American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS), and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).  (PBS is a different phenomenon altogether; but it did join the line-up most places in the late 1960s.) These broadcast networks developed local affiliates all over the country to help distribute the broadcasting signal. Those affiliates had to agree to broadcast only ABC’s programming or NBC’s programming, although when I was little (the early 1960s) a few local affiliates were still protesting that.  The affiliates had to agree to broadcast network programs at selected times. The evening block was untouchable, but other times—late night, mid-afternoon—could be given over to local programming instead.

Big stations, like KTLA in Los Angeles, developed a lot of local programming and sold it to the networks, but small stations like KATU here in Oregon didn’t have the resources to develop such programming. So the smaller stations ran as much network programming as they could.

The networks developed some content on their own, but outside providers—production companies (think DesiLu for I Love Lucy)—developed most of it.  Networks, in other words, became the delivery system for the content.  (Publishers are the delivery system for books, which are generally produced by outside services [writers].  Occasionally publishers produce their own content [think house names], but mostly, they contract out the content.)

Television networks wanted a count of the number of people who watched each program.  (Think of this as the sales figures for the program—a show like Bonanza, the most watched show of its long run—could have upwards of thirty million of viewers; a news program, like the NBC Nightly News, might only get ten million on a given night.)  If you didn’t like the programming on the big three networks for, say, the hour between 8 and 9 p.m., then you settled for the show you liked the least or you read a book.  If you missed Star Trek’s latest episode on Friday night, then you missed that episode.  Period.  You might catch it in reruns—if the network deigned to rerun that episode at all.

If the show didn’t attract enough viewers to win the timeslot or to satisfy the advertisers, then the show got canceled.  In other words, no more national delivery.  This happened to Star Trek in Season Two, and only a write-in campaign by viewers allowed a Season Three.

Enter cable television in the 1970s.  It became a nationwide phenomenon in the late 1970s with the advent of Home Box Office (HBO), a channel you could pay for that would provide movies only a few month old direct to your home.  You have no idea what a revolution that was.

You also needed to have a good discretionary income to add HBO to your TV line-up, because it was extremely expensive.  My parents bought HBO in its first year in Wisconsin because my mother loved the movies and she watched television all day. But she soon realized that the programming repeated over and over again, and she would have been better off going to a few movies than paying for premium service.  So my folks canceled.

I didn’t own a TV from 1978 to 1983—I couldn’t afford to buy one—so the gradations of change in that period are not as clear to me. But somewhere in that period, local cable channels became regional channels which then became part of a basic nationwide cable network.  Around that point, too, someone got the bright idea to do new programming on cable—although the new programming was mostly news because news was cheap to produce.

By the late 1980s, we had 57 channels (and nothing on) in the words of the songwriter.  By the mid 1990s, we had hundreds of channels and a lot of choice.  You could watch new shows on USA or Lifetime (which started with movies) or the SciFi channel (now SyFy) and never again look at a network show.

Also in this period, the DVD got introduced and someone got the bright idea to put old shows on DVD. DVDs worked better than video tape.  In order to have a full season of say, Classic Star Trek, on videotape, you needed one tape per episode, but you could put four episodes on a DVD, not to mention a few “extras.”  Eventually, the TV industry got smart and put season one of a current show on DVD, releasing that a week before season two started.

Then the internet came in, and now you can download last week’s episode of your favorite show off Hulu or the show’s website.  You will never ever miss an episode of your favorite program again.

Has all of this expanded viewing gotten rid of network television? Of course not. But what it has done is this: the number of watchers per show has decreased dramatically.  Forty  years ago, Hawaii Five-0 could command one-third to one-half (or more) of all the people watching television that night; now the revamped Hawaii Five-O commands about 14 million viewers when it’s aired.  It gains about 4 million more viewers within the first week, because those viewers recorded the show on their DVR and watch on their own schedule. That’s all the advertisers care about. They don’t care about people like me who watched that first episode nearly a month after airdate.

Because of the advertisers, television needs as many viewers as possible as quickly as possible.  That’s how TV makes its money.

From a viewer’s point of view, we’re in TV heaven. We can watch any show from any time period at any hour of the day or night—and we do.  In addition to watching the current seasons of my favorites (and trying to see the new shows), I’m catching up on the first season of The Closer, which is several years old.

For the big three networks, revenue has declined with the audience per show. The new Hawaii Five-O is highest rated new show of the 2010 fall television season, but its numbers are pathetic compared to its predecessor.

But don’t let anyone tell you that the Big Three fail to make money. They still have the highest viewership of all the television channels. As a Hollywood producer who wants to buy one of my projects told me just last week, he wants to sell my work to the networks so that we’ll get the biggest audience—and the biggest payday.  But if the Big Three turn us down, we’ll still have a lot of options.

Nowadays, if you want to write, produce, and sell a television show, you have hundreds of places around the globe to sell it to. And that doesn’t count webisodes—web-only television episodes.  The thing is, if you sell your television show to cable, you can have four million viewers and be considered a success.  In the 1960s, four million viewers for a primetime TV show would have been laughably small—and that show would have gotten canceled.

How does all of this apply to publishing?

Simple.  Quite honestly, until a year or so ago, the major publishers were the only game in town if a writer wanted a national or international audience.  If you didn’t get into a big publisher’s program, your book either got put into a drawer or put out by a regional press.  Instead of selling tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, your book would sell maybe 500—and no one outside of your region would see it.

With the wild success of the Kindle, all of this changed.  For the first time since the development of the e-book twenty years ago, readers found a good way to consume the form.  Combined with Amazon.com’s huge backlist, the Kindle provided a voracious reader with a constant stream of books twenty-four hours per day if the reader wanted it.

The Nook, the iPad, the Sony E-Reader, and soon-to-be countless other devices have continued this phenomenon.  Writers whose books are easily available in e-book format have seen their sales increase (at last count) by 197%.  This will continue to go up as more and more e-readers penetrate the market.  Right now 9% of all books sold are e-books.  Some estimates put that number at 50% within five years.

Does this mean big publishers will go away?  Heavens no.  No more than the television networks (or the  music studios, for that matter) went away.  Big publishers will still be the biggest game in town. But their share of the pie will become smaller.

What all of this means is that readers now control what kind of content they consume.  Instead of easy access to the bestsellers and blockbusters, limited access to all other titles, and no access to the quirky unusual title, readers can now read whatever kind of book they want.  Most readers will mix current books with books published ten years ago, quirky with blockbusters, big with little.  Readers don’t care who published the book just like television viewers don’t care who produced the TV show.  They just want to be able to read what they enjoy.

As readers, our choices have just expanded, and will continue to expand, in exactly the way television has done, until we reach the point when most people will not read the same books, just like they don’t watch the same shows.  The proliferation of content, and the forms in which we can consume that content, matches television as well.  Readers can choose between an e-book, a hardcover, a used book, reading online—a huge variety of different ways to look at a “book.”

From the perspective of some writers, this is a tremendous thing. But it’s not a boon to all published writers.  Nor is it a boon to all publishers or all booksellers.  The changing landscape means that there will be short-term winners and short-term losers.

The only group that I can say firmly will benefit from this as a group (meaning everyone in that group) is readers.  Readers will get to finish a book series that big publishers cancel before it ends because the writer can afford to finish it now.  Readers can buy a book published five years ago right now on an e-reader, instead of scouring libraries and used bookstores, hoping to find a copy.  Readers will be able to chose between everything that’s being published, not just everything that’s available.

And of course, the book—the hardcopy book—will remain.  Unlike the music industry which never really settled on a form, the book industry has had the bound book as its form for hundreds of years.  It works.  It’s permanent.  So if you read a book on your Kindle, and want to make sure you have a copy you can access forever and ever, no matter how e-readers change, you’ll buy the hardbound book.

I’m very excited by these changes, but I belong to two of the groups that benefit.  I’m a reader, who has fallen in love with her Kindle and her iPhone (and who still reads hardbound books).  I’m a midlist writer with a long track record who will be able to make her entire backlist available again.

But because of my background as a retail store owner and as a former publisher, I understand the concerns of the booksellers and the publishers.  I also know that blockbuster bestselling writers have some things to worry about as well.

I’ll explore all sides of this changing landscape over the next few weeks. I will also draw more upon this analogy in the weeks ahead.

One note: things are changing so rapidly in publishing that in the time it takes me to write these blog posts, some subtle changes will occur.  I’m teaching right now, so I wrote this in my free time from October 17-20.  In four days, some parts of the landscape changed—small parts, mind you, but they changed.  That’s how quickly the sands are shifting.

So if you’re at all part of the publishing industry, keep up on the day-to-day industry news.  It’s essential—and will be for the next few years.

I’ve been taking part in the change by writing a business essay every week on my blog and asking you, the readers, to support this effort.  No big publisher pays me to write these.  What brings me to the computer week in and week out is you.  So thank you.  And if you like what you’re reading, please contribute, comment, or share the post.

“The Business Rusch: Changing Times (Overview)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

– See more at: http://kriswrites.com/2010/10/21/the-business-rusch-changing-times-overview/#sthash.4KXi9lYP.dpuf

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I would highly recommend you see more. Honestly, it’s gold.

As she said, though, not all of it is up-to-date, so please check out her subsequent postings.

Thanks to Kris for letting me reblog this.

I hope it helps anyone interested in where the industry is at and where it’s going.

 

Self publishing – 5 answers from a hybrid

I got a chance to ask Matt Buchman a few questions about being what I would like to be, Ryan Reynolds. Ok, no, it was being a hybrid writer. No, it doesn’t mean that I’m use both gas and electricity, (sadly I’m all about the gas)… no it means being self-published AND traditionally published. 

He’s been there and done that. 

Joe’s Post #105 – An interview with M.L. Buchman

What brought you to non-traditional publishing?

Matt -fall-140I’m a hybrid author. I have 20 indie novels, 7 indie short stories, 7 traditional press novels released, 4 more under contract, and am in negotiation for the next 4. (That should help make some sense of my explanation below.)

Let’s ignore the couple novels I sold in the 1990s and jump straight into the gigantic changes of the last 4 years.

NS-1-NightIsMine-FrCvr-700I thankfully had some friends who were way out on the leading edge of the indie revolution. I had a half dozen books that hadn’t sold, along with 400 odd rejections from traditional publishing. (That’s not quite as scary as it sounds, my critically acclaimed Night Stalkers series finally sold to a traditional publisher after thirty-six rejections. That book, The Night is Mine, was named “Top 10 Romance of 2012” by the prestigious Booklist. You never know why a book is rejected, until it is accepted and after that it no longer matters.)

So, as much to move on as to move forward, I put my first book up for sale indie on December 2010. And nothing happened. I followed it up with a few others in 201l and sold a copy here and a copy there. The sales built very slowly, but I was busy on other new projects and didn’t mind. In late 2011 I received a check for $47. That was a huge day. It bought us dinner out and part of a lunch a few days later. We still remember those meals very fondly. That also told us that this was a viable approach to reaching new readers.

Also in 2010, I sold a four book series to a traditional press (the other projects I was working on through 2011 in addition to a full-time+ job). My Night Stalkers military romantic suspense series launched in 2012, gathering fans quickly. Now my few indie books were selling in a month what we had previously sold in a year. Then a week. Now a day.

SOAR-DanielsChristmas-FrCvr-700Our indie breakout occurred in late 2012. I wrote a short novel entitled Daniel’s Christmas in The Night Stalkers series and it took off. That was what convinced me to not only go forward as a hybrid author, but when taken in conjunction with a second traditional contract and other increasing sales (and being laid off from my job and unable to find another in those recession-heavy days), it convinced me to take the leap and become a full-time writer.

This was a hard and scary gamble, but 18 months later it appears that it will be paying off handsomely. (Most of that payoff is from the indie titles, which are selling because of my traditional fanbase. So, the hybrid method is working for me.)

What amazing things do you know now that you wished you knew earlier?

There is a priority to tasks to be successful in indie. Here’s my personal list after 20 years of writing, 4 years of indie publishing, and 18 months as a full-time writer:

  1. Write new product (that doesn’t suck)—Keep writing the next book or short story. Polishing something to death doesn’t work. Write it, clean it up, publish it, move on. I call it write and release. (I once spent 7 years making my #1 favorite novel the best it could be. Nine complete drafts constituting over a million words. Result? It is still one of my worst selling titles. Had I written and released and moved on to the next title (or six), I’d have learned and sold a lot more.)
  2. Get it professionally produced—Copyeditor, cover designer, layout (in paper and print). Do what you can yourself, but this is no longer the early days of e-pub (all the way back in 2009-2011), quality of production counts.
  3. Work on your brand—Why do you write and what do you write and what is the look of what you write. Those are all part of your brand. You probably won’t find this until you’ve written a half dozen novels, but once you find it, use it and live up to it.
  4. Write new product (that doesn’t suck).

How to I best use social media to help promote the book?

Curiously, I’ve just come off a large social media research project and I’ve come to a couple of fairly simple conclusions for my own social media efforts in the near future:

  1. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it! Your audience can tell.
  2. If you do enjoy it, find the one or two methods that you do enjoy, and join the party. The days of social media “push” marketing are long gone (“Buy this!” stopped being effective 3-4 years ago.) Now it is “pull” marketing. Joining the party, getting people to like you, enjoy your conversation, and then, maybe, they’ll follow you back to your website or wherever.
  3. If you don’t enjoy it…at least make yourself easy to find. Have a clear, simple, static website. If you want to blog, blog about anything (as long as it isn’t writing).
  4. Focus on what works and what doesn’t. An e-mail has 20 times the conversion power of a blog post and probably a 1,000 times more than a tweet. (Do your own research on this. Don’t know what a conversion rate is, go study that to until you understand it and can own it.) This means, get your newsletter going (for dedicated fans who are likely to purchase), then think about effective blogging, and then your favorite social media in that order.
  5. It’s not about you shouting from your corner, it’s about engaging the reader and making them want to come to you. (Still working on how to do that.)

What are 3 things we could do to improve our internet footprint?

  1. Informative website optimized for a high search engine ranking.
  2. Create lots of product. It’s much easier to find someone with twenty stories than with two.
  3. Start your newsletter now or at least collecting the names for one. Install Mailchimp and call it, “My Future Someday Newsletter.”
  4. All the rest combined, unless you are going to be an industry pundit, won’t make up a tenth of any of those first three.

Why bundle books in a bundle?

A-NS2014 Holiday Bundle-cvrs-700I work with two types of bundles.

First, all my own titles. I combined three short novels into a larger book bundle at a discounted price. That provides economy buyers with the enticement to buy three books for the price of two when they might have bought only one. It also allows me to have another price point of entry. Short story $2.99, short novel $4.99, full novel $5-6.99, bundle $8.99, (any of those in print $5.99-24.99). This shows a richness of offerings as well as catering to buyers who arrive with different pricing expectations.

Second, a limited time bundle with a group of other authors. I’ve done this a couple of times and am working on three more. I invite a small group of authors to join me in a group sale. We announce that sale across each others’ audiences and use the discount to hopefully each expand our reading public, and make a bit of money along the way.

Your covers are outstanding. What’s your secret?

NS-5-Light Up the Night-700Thanks, my secret is a lot of hard work. Something like this:

  • Design your covers.
  • Go to the bookstore and look at the covers of the best selling authors in your genre(s). Spend several hours analyzing common themes across those covers.
  • There are reasons behind every choice. Notice when you pick up a book, what is the cover telling you: action sci-fi, faerie fantasy, bloody vampire, sexy vampire, cold-blooded thriller, cozy mystery. Each design is attempting to convey a message.
  • Now go home and redesign your covers.
  • Ask readers, who know nothing about your writing, what they think this book might be about.
  • Go home and redesign your covers.
  • Iterate until you think you’re going nuts.
  • Hire a professional cover designer (not a graphic artist, not a cheapo design school grade, but a cover designer). Throw it out.
  • Go home and redesign your covers.
  • See, it’s simple.
  • (btw, I’m presently redesigning several of my covers)

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

Nothing, nothing, nothing is more important than writing the next book. Ten, or better yet twenty, good solid novels in a single genre under a single name can make a very nice living without ever breaking out or having the bolt of luck slam down on your head.

Write, cleanup, release, repeat. (Proof in point, Light Up the Night is available for pre-order for a Sept. 2nd release.)

You may keep up with M.L. Buchman by signing up for his newsletter at http://www.mlbuchman.com.

Matt’s done an amazing job since I met him way, way back in an Oregon Workshop run by Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Kathryn Rusch.

FYI: The guys on his covers are based on me, at least the pictures are.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some great advice from KKR.