ABL – Always Be Learning

Joe’s Post #178

Always. Be. Learning!

I’m going to bastardize a quote from one of my favourite movies.

Always Be Learning.

This is in the top 3 of my personal things to live by, or at least I’ll admit living by.

  1. Always be learning.

2. Never sniff the hockey gear.

3. Be kind to everyone because you never know who’s going to pee in your soup.

If you need a few more motivational quotes to live by, here are 50!

But for writing, here’s what I was looking at this week and wanted to pass along.

Agent Irene Goodman wrote a great article in Writer’s Digest. 16 Things All Historical Fiction Writers Need to Know.

Now I had the pleasure of listening to her at the Surrey International Writers Conference. She spoke about Non-fiction book proposals and I have to say, she handled the crazies there pretty well.

“So, how come no one wants to buy my book about quantum mechanics and the relation to me not getting girls?”

Her: “Uhm, make it simply about quantum mechanics. Like a text book. There’s a market for that.”

“Then girls will like me?”

Her: “Ah, next question please.”

Anyway, there’s a ton of great advice in that article if you have a moment to read it. I personally love #9, but am deeply afraid of #11. I so want that one not to be true.

 

Always. Be. Feeling.

Another read, (albeit a bit longer) is Don Maass’ latest book about putting emotion into your writing. Ok, he called it The Emotional Craft of Fiction, and it’s one heck of a good read. See, the thing is, as a reader, I remember a book that made me feel. I don’t often remember something with a good line about ducks, or on-fire dialogue, but man, do I remember a book that made me cry.

I’m currently doing my best to make sure I put a bit more emotion into my story. It’s a new journey for me as I usually write something like ‘Joe feels sad’ and leave it at that. But there’s so, so much more that can be done.

So, buy it on amazon. Borrow it from a friend (mine is full of notes, though), or take it out of a library.

Lastly, Surrey International Writers Conference is where I learned so much last year. Or learned so much more. It won’t be long until there’s early registration and I would love to see a few more of my writer friends there. We can learn stuff together, share our learning and become better writers.

ABL!

For the websites, in case you missed them, they are here.

Irene Goodman

Don Maass.

SiWC

Writer’s Digest

So what learning are you doing this week?

Next week – what it’s like to do a rewrite. I should be done my 1st rewrite on my novel and have a few things to share.

 

 

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

 

 

 

Where to begin

From astrolog.com

From astrolog.com

Where do you start a book?

It’s something that still causes me a bit of confusion. And with confusion comes consternation and with consternation comes stress and panic and whammo, fun goes out the window like a cat fleeing the vacuum cleaner.

So, finding this answer, well, it’s part of my ‘return to the fun of writing’ quest.

It all started after I finished a book that made me think, gosh, they really didn’t start this in the right place. I remember back to a workshop that I took where the presenter looked at my first 20 pages and put the first 15 aside and said, start here, page 16.

Both stories had the same problem.

Both started with a lot of explanation or backstory. It’s like the author saying, ok, hold on a second, before I begin, there’s some stuff you gotta know or else the story isn’t going to make sense. Now, I know it may be a bit boring and may even lack context, but trust me, once the story begins, it’s awesome.

In fact, I think I sent a query like that. Dear Agent, this story is amazing, but you’ll have to read past the first 30 pages, ok, and then, like, it’s super good and you’ll love it.

fire in fictionHey, I get why those opening pages are hard. Look at what my man, Chuck Wendig says. Or read Don Maass. Or do a quick google search.

You have to have conflict and stakes and a strong setting and dialogue and a great opening line and no exposition and surprise and mood and tension and introduce the theme and main character and have a unique voice and…

Come on, is it any wonder we get all stuffed up on the first pages?

I think it’s easier to quantify, though equally hard to do.

Don’t bore the reader.

Ha. That’s like saying just write a great opening chapter, right? What an asshole suggestion.

But here’s the thing. Here’s what makes a good book for me:

Does your character have a problem that needs solving? It doesn’t even have to be the main plot problem. It can be a simple want, like Vonnegut said, your character ‘wants a glass of water.’ Is there something that buggers up his world?

Sure, it can have a bit of backstory. It can lack a wicked opening line. It doesn’t have to have zippy-zappy dialogue. It doesn’t have to have poetically beautiful descriptions or a gun battle with a shark.

But it does have to interest me. Engage me.

There’s a host of ways to engage the reader. All are good. But there’s no magic bullet.

All I can say is that you don’t have to do it all.

Simple as that.

However, you have do something right. Maybe two things. Three would be even better.

That’s the key, I think. I don’t have to do a hundred things in my opening, but I do have a do a few things well. So I’m going to pick my strengths and run with them.

And now here’s my last piece of advice, advice from someone who’s just written the opening three times.

It’s ok to write out a few ideas and see if one is better than the other. Sort of ‘what if?’ yourself. What if I start on the docks rather than the ship, what if I start in rain instead of sun, what if there’s a time factor? Explore the possibilities.

Hey, not all of us are Hemingway or Atwood or King. And who really knows how much they toss away, anyway. Am I right?

Believe it’s ok to toss stuff away. To have some fun with the opening.

And if you don’t get it right, that’s ok, too. You can go back and do your own, ‘wait, cut these 15 pages and start here,’ thing. Everyone’s got their own process. Just get started, get yourself interested in the story, and keep on writing. Have some fun with it.

Cuz if it ain’t fun on some level, it’s about a zillion times harder to do.

I’ll have more on this next week.

But in the meantime, what do you do for your openings? Bev? Sheila? Lisa? I’m looking at you.

******

Best show last week – Nothing to report, but this week the Walking Dead starts. OMG excited!

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Finished Alan Furst’s, Mission to Paris. I dunno. Sometimes I just don’t get why a book gets published.

Pages written on new book   Not sure but writing every day. I’ll do up a count for next week. Add up the chapters. Change the font to 16. Add a lot of page breaks. I’m hoping the number will look good.

Social media update – Last week’s post on research generated a lot of discussion on Linkedin. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Health  Still sick. But almost better.

Best thing last week  Stepdad blog. 

The BEST book he's written so far IMHO.

Ok, this will be the last time, but Unforgiven is out in Canada. Written by the politically incorrect, Sean Slater, I honestly believe it’s his best book.

So if you see it anywhere, buy it. Or hit the Amazon link below.

Slater

Researching research – part 2

Joe’s Post #118

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon -   http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon – http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/

kerrSo it’s begun. The researching. Or more accurately, the research has begun to pay off. My first books began to arrive, including a history on Amsterdam. I dug out my old books on WW2 like Anne Frank, The Iron Heel (Jack London), and the Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr (about a German detective before and during the war.)

People have begun to email me back. One amazing gentleman gave me links to the Dutch police during the war. Later in the week, a person at the Dutch Resistance museum led me to a half dozen sites about the resistance.

But the biggest haul was from my friends. They sent me links to look up. They hooked me up with parents or grandparents who had been in Holland during the war. They phoned people on my behalf, brainstormed people or organizations I could contact (like the Dutch consulate!).

Wow. I mean, wow.

I have to say that two weeks ago, I was lost as to how to get the research done. Then I did something us introverted writers hate to do. I talked to people and I asked for help. With the exception of one person, so many people have been keen to help out.

And how cool is that?

So what have I learned?

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Audrey Hepburn was in Holland during the war and that’s super odd since, in my mind, she was the face of the love interest in the book. The policing in Holland was a mess of organizations. That plays well into the story. When the Germans occupied the country, being Germans, they cleaned up who did what, making it all efficient, but before that, it was like the FBI, DEA, state police, local police and the park rangers all trying to figure out who had jurisdiction.

There’s still a lot more to learn. Like I said in my last post, the most important being those details that bring a world to life. Food. Social structure. History, myths and legends. And Helga may be right, the best way to get those is to visit a place. If only I had the money.

If only I had a time machine.

Wait, is there one on Amazon? If not, maybe one of the world traveling 5/5/5 could go in my place!

In the meantime, I have juggle two competing interests. I do love history. Love-Love-LOVE it, but I could spend the next two years looking stuff up, talking to people, following links and get exactly 0 pages written.

So I took another stab at the first 10 pages.

They sucked. AGAIN!!! But at least I’m trying, right? That’s important, right?

In my mind, these first 10 pages were awesome and amazing and something Hemingway would have said, “Dang, yo, you nailed it.” But somehow, when I actually put pen to paper, it came out all crumply and awkward.

Does that ever happen to anyone?

Check out Chuck Wendig’s funny-ass blog on the subject.

So that was the week. Nothing earth shattering in the way or writing or research, but a good start. With all that’s going on in my busy, amazing new life, a ‘start’ is good.

Anyone who may have links, suggestions, questions, or people I can talk to, please reply, write me an email, give me a call or contact me telepathically.

******

Best Show Last Week – Big Hero 6. We loved it more than the kids. It made me laugh, it made me cry. It made me want to have a balloon-shaped robot.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Gone Girl. Holy sh*t good!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book minus 10. I consider what I wrote so bad that it actually sucked the life OUT of the book.

# Turkeys eaten – 1 but somehow I forgot the stuffing!!!!!!!!!!!

# of new friends made on Twitter – 21

# books ordered for research – 0 (Books arrived – 2)

Health – so so. Can’t shake this damn cold!

Best Thing Last Week – The information about policing in Holland, but I also got my library mostly done!

Worst Thing – Damn cold

 

 

Conundrum: more than a wine – just ask a writer

fork-in-the-road

Helga’s Post # 87: What’s a poor writer to do with a completed manuscript of a beautifully told story, edited and polished to perfection?

Not as simple as it used to be not so long ago: draft a query letter to an agent who might fit the bill, print the first three chapters and a synopsis, and mail it all off in an 8.5×11 envelope with a self-addressed stamped (all-important) return envelope.

And wait and hope for a positive reply. And wait some more. Sometimes three months, maybe six. Maybe the reply never comes. And to get more discouraged with each rejection letter that arrives one after another with cruel regularity.

But there’s a new wind blowing. Not so new to some savvy writers who take the business side of writing as seriously as the trade itself. It’s a brave new world for writers, as we have known for some time. The recent blog posts from 5writers Silk and Joe have tried to do justice to this complex topic by raising some fundamental issues and shining the headlights on what we writers all need to come to grips with and understand. From comments we received, not surprisingly, there is frustration and rejection of what appears to rapidly become the new business model.

So which fork in the road should a writer take? Indie, self-publishing, Amazon, New York literary powerhouses for traditional publishers? What road will lead to our stories being read by most readers – or not at all? That may well be the conundrum of brave new world writers in times to come.

After all the dust has settled on the current debate, it may well turn out that the cards are dealt slightly, or perhaps a lot more than that (time will be the judge), in favor of writers, at least on the surface. An entirely new world is opening up to writers who, for the first time ever, get a chance to have their stories read, stories that traditional publishers deemed not to have been worthy of sharing with the rest of the world. Sort of brings to mind some historical milestones in Czarist Russia and pre-revolution France that didn’t end too well for the establishments in power.

Remember when you drove to Blockbusters or some other video-rental store to pick up a movie or two for Saturday night? Not so long ago in years, but an eternity in terms of technological advances. The big question of the time was Beta or VHS. Those shops are gone, relegated to the dustbin of so many other industries now redundant. Is there a parallel with publishing? How an industry could go into oblivion because they failed to reinvent themselves, or simply could not keep pace with innovation?

But let’s not fool ourselves. The traditional publishing industry is not going to roll over and play dead. They surely have some powerful ammunition in their arsenal. Such as client lists that boast the crème de la crème of authors whose books we all have come to love, the books that became successful movies, books we will always willing to pay full price for. Books that we may not be able to borrow from our local library, because the publisher doesn’t have to make it available.

So, if you are one of those writers mentioned above who has worked hard and sacrificed much to produce one or more marketable manuscripts (meaning final drafts, edited and checked for every possible error, even the most minor), you’ve likely done the research. Which fork in the road to take? Like to see your book prominently displayed on Barnes & Noble or Chapters shelves? How far will you go and how long will you wait until that happens?

You likely know the pros of self-publishing (courtesy of Author One Stop):

  1. You make more money per book every time you sell one.
  2. You can get your book printed and have it ready to sell very quickly.
  3. You have total control over your cover design and title.
  4. No one can tell you to edit anything out.
  5. You own all the rights, except for the ISBN.
  6. If you already have an audience for your talks or seminars, you can use the book for immediate back of the room sales.
  7. You can print in small quantities.
  8. You can sell your book on Amazon (the firm Author One Stop will put this in place for you and you will receive a 20% royalty). – My note: What? Shouldn’t this go into the ‘cons’ section; 20%??

But there are of course cons of self-publishing. Consider some of these, not all-conclusive:

  1. Distribution is limited as chains, for the most part, do not accept self-published books.
  2. Marketing and promotion is your responsibility (similar to traditional publishing).
  3. You’ve got to do everything yourself or nothing is going to happen.
  4. If you aren’t already out speaking or giving seminars, or in the public eye where people will have exposure to you, sales can be quite challenging.
  5. You’ve got to put out the money for printing.
  6. Most reviewers won’t review books that are self-published.

We can expect that this passionate and probably brutal debate will rage on for some time to come. It will be fascinating to watch this huge turf war unfold. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy our trade and apply our craft. What greater achievement than creating stories that people will remember and talk about months and years after they finished reading? Nothing succeeds like success. It starts and ends with one thing: Having a novel that pulls readers in. Telling a story that people are willing to fork over 99 cents or $19.95. Making sure your story premise is big enough, deep enough, with enough conflict to turn pages no matter what the time of day or night. With enough of our own heart in it, with story events that are monumental, be that external, emotional or best of all, both.

But that’s not the end. It’s only part of it. Because now we have to decide how to get those stories into our readers’ heads. Full-service publisher? Indie? Doing it all ourselves?

Here is how some authors see it:

“Anyone who says it’s easy to self-publish a book is either lying or doing a shitty job.” – – Nan McCarthy

“The good news about self-publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself.”

– Lori Leski

One of the more poignant quotes I found that sums it up nicely for the self-publishing camp comes from Rayne Hall, author of forty books in different genres and under different pen names, published by twelve publishers in six countries, translated into several languages:

“Authors today need a publisher as much as they need a tapeworm in their guts.”

Surely the discussion over the different options for publishing will continue. Surely also the confusion will deepen for a while until the crystal ball turns less cloudy. Personally, I welcome the opportunities of writers having more viable options. However, it also raises the question of pay-off: how much energy from our creative process are we writers robbed of, how much time and working in uncharted territory are we willing to serve the goal highest on the agenda of many, if not most writers, namely getting published?

Which brings us back to the question that this blog wrote about a few posts back, ‘Why do writers write?’ Just like a good story, this question is taking on the shape of an incomplete circle that will ultimately close. Until then, I will just carry on with what I love most: create and write stories. I will worry about publishing when I am done. Maybe I have a one-track mind, but I can’t – or am unwilling to – do both at the same time.

Self-publishing – 5 questions to start

Joe’s Post #104 – So, as Silk posted, there is more than one way to skin that ‘get-published’ cat. Things that used to be true, hey, just aren’t anymore.

Being me, I wanted to talk to an expert. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve gone the traditional publishing route – Write, get agent, get published.

Now, it’s time to see what’s possible in this new fangled world of ours.

Here is what Karen Abrahamson had to say. A self-published author and a great writer.Afterburn Cover 6x9 cover  for interior

Joe – What brought you to non-traditional publishing?

I climbed on board this horse fairly close to the start. I was at an Oregon Coast Writer’s workshop and the instructors got talking about it as an option for publishing stories/novels that had either sold previously, or for novels/stories that have never sold.

At the time I was in one of those horrible places in my writing career. I felt stuck and knowing that an editor was going to look at one of my novel manuscripts just about had me immobilized in terms of writing. At the time I knew I was in trouble because my production had decreased from four novels a year to about one and I wasn’t feeling particularly good about those single novels.

Learning that there was an alternative to New York editors and agents, or a place to go if the New York thing wasn’t working was like a lifeline.

So I grabbed it.

I started with Smashwords and Amazon and a single story and started to see sales. From there I put my backlist of short stories up and then novels. It hasn’t been particularly lucrative–I haven’t made my first million yet, but every month sales trickle in and that’s more than those stories would have gotten sitting in my drawer.

It has also been wonderful to actually have readers around the world and to occasionally get fan mail!

What advice would you give to someone looking into it?

krisdeanI would say first of all go check out some of the good blogs on indie publishing, such as Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s, Dean Wesley Smiths, John Scalzi and so on.

Hugh Howey is another one. Some are people with longevity in the publishing world, while others are newcomers with recent success.

I would also be really realistic with my expectations. The indie world still has great opportunities, but it isn’t the gold rush it was a few years ago. Still, new writers are selling all the time.

I would also caution against getting caught in the ninety nine cent ghetto. When indie publishing was young you could give a story away or sell it for ninety nine cents as a loss leader to get known and to get people to read your books.

Nowadays it doesn’t work the same, so you need to be prepared to continually upgrade your knowledge either through following the blogs or workshops or listserves.

Hand in hand with not going to the ninety-nine cent ghetto, is knowing how to price your work appropriately. It’s easy to undervalue yourself, so look around for guidance on this and watch what other are doing, but don’t give your work away.

(Joe note: Ok, seriously, you have to look at everyone she mentioned. They’re amazing!)

What pitfalls are there?

Well, there is the WORK.

First there is the website – as an Author you should have one, but this is even more important when going indie. So you need to get one established and populated and then keep it updated.

Then you should also establish a publisher – yes, you become a publishing house so that your books come out under a publisher’s name. And of course  publisher needs its own website, too.

A bigger time sink is the publishing itself, there are a couple of ways you can go about Indie Publishing.

One way is to write the book and send it to someone who can prepare it for publishing for you. Reputable companies like Lucky Bat Books will do this without the writer having to sign over any royalties like you would with an agent or traditional publishing house.

I also urge caution about just sending it to a friend who says they know how to format. A friend of mine paid another friend to format their electronic files and they formatted incorrectly resulting in numerous problems trying to upload the novels to Amazon, Smashwords etc. But a reputable company will hire an editor, a copyeditor, a book designer, a cover artist etc. to get your book publication-ready or you can pick and choose what you services you want to purchase. But it costs.

The alternative is to do the work yourself which has the other problem– it takes time and work to learn the programs. For example, to get manuscripts ready for electronic publication, you can generally do it in Word. There are a variety of formatting niceties that need to be adhered to, but they aren’t insurmountable and there are lots of helpful sources of information on line.

But to go into print, I’ve had to learn InDesign, a publishing software that took a lot more time. I also do my own covers, and that took more time and Photoshop which I, thankfully, knew due to my interest in photography. But it takes a fairly substantial amount of time and it helps to have friends also going the same route who you can call for help. There are good courses to learn these skills and I would highly recommend Lynda.com as a place to learn the various software programs.

And of course software changes. I’ve recently started using Jutoh and it is a wonderful program to create Mobi files (for Amazon) and e-pubs (for everything else). So you have a choice here: a money sink or a time sink. And don’t even get me started on the sinkhole of time spent on social media. Unless you are a person who loves the stuff, don’t go there.

What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started?

I’m not really sure here.

Perhaps how to design a better cover? Some of my early ones were pretty poor, but I’m not too displeased now. The trouble is that cover styles change so that you have to keep upgrading.

Oh, and how to write decent cover copy.

karenIt really is being able to change hats from writer, to marketer, to editor, to publisher. It takes a lot of time (at the start, less so as you get experience) and you need to decide where to spend limited time, but the publishing should never take over your writing time. Writing must be number one. As a result I’ve had to keep rebalancing my focus from creation to publication. I also think it would have helped me if right from the start I’d started to think in terms of creating a publishing schedule to help me hold myself accountable.

What’s the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Cruising airspeed velocity of an unladen European Swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour. Of course if you want the air speed for an African Sparrow I’ll have to do the calculations again….God bless Monty Python.  

Karen’s Website is www.karenlabrahamson.com

Thanks for sharing!

Next week, more info from people who’ve been there and done that.

The age of the hybrid

hybrid

Silk’s Post #91 — Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “hybrid”?

Cars that run on gas and electric power? You’re probably ecologically-minded.

More productive strains of corn and tomatoes? You’re probably a farmer or a gardener.

Alien lifeforms arising from cosmic cross-breeding? You’re probably a sci-fi fan.

Your next book? Wait a minute. What do hybrids have to do with books and authors?

Possibly everything.

As part of my preparation for our next crazy 5writers challenge (launching September 5, 2014 … watch for it!), I’ve been doing yet more research on the publishing industry. This may seem redundant, since the five of us – as wannabe-published authors – have tried to  proactively inform ourselves about what it takes to get in print. Many books, many articles, many blogs, many discussions with published authors, many scans of online writers’ groups, many workshops, and many writers’ conferences later, we thought we were on top of it.

Think again.

What my latest web scan revealed is that publishing opportunities yesterday are already very different from publishing opportunities today, and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Whatever received wisdom you believed about publishing, say, six months ago, it’s probably wrong now.

Because we’ve now entered a new age: the age of the hybrid author.

Here’s how Chuck Wendig, in his February 2014 Writer’s Digest Magazine article “Case Study: Becoming a Hybrid Author”, describes this new creature we are all probably going to morph into:

“A hybrid author is one who refuses to accept that there exists One True Way up the Publishing Mountain and who embraces all the methods available. The hybrid author prefers a diverse approach to getting her work out there, which means utilizing both the traditional system of publishing and also acting as an author-publisher in order to retain control and self-publish her own work.”

This may not sound new to you. Self-publishing has been going on forever. But here’s what’s different in the new hybrid world:

#1 – There ain’t no taint to self-publishing

The headwinds buffeting the traditional book publishing industry are blowing away some old musty ideas. Historically, self-published authors who resorted to “vanity presses” to see their own words in print were presumed to be – forgive the expression – permanent rejects. Tainted. Writers whose work was never going to be good enough to get out of the slush pile. Budding authors were warned that self-publishing was the kiss of death with agents and “real” publishers.

Now, let’s be realistic. Is there some real sh*t out there among self-published works? Yep. Lots of it. (Of course, it’s self-evident to the discerning reader that traditional publishing is not exactly sh*t free, either). But self-publishing a book is no longer considered a literary felony, sentencing the author to automatic disqualification from working within the traditional publishing system on other projects.

Writers who evolve to this new hybrid author state may be the survivors in this new publishing environment.

#2 – In today’s marketplace, all writers need to be entrepreneurial

I don’t think I’ll stir up a lot of disagreement when I suggest that the publishing industry is undergoing massive change. I’m no economist, but it’s easy to see industry after industry becoming revolutionized in our newly networked, globalized world.

These factors have accelerated the free-market cycle, where businesses spring up, compete and grow in the lush times, then consolidate when things get leaner and meaner. The strong swallow the weak, gaining control of the marketplace (for instance, only a handful of publishing empires now control most imprints you’ve ever heard of). Ouch. There are so many reasons to worry about powerful monopolies that are bottom-line by nature, serving shareholders first, customers second, and suppliers/producers (often) last. This is especially sensitive in industries that sell creative products.

Monopolies that calcify can become vulnerable – more fragile than they seem. Enter the independent challengers: the Amazons and Apples of the world who move fast, break the rules, and build new business models (and monopolies of their own) on a large scale. But this upheaval also leaves space for many new players: the smaller-scale indies. They’re like economic phytoplankton, the profusion of life at the bottom of the food chain that keeps the whole ecosystem alive.

This pattern is already well underway in the music industry, in the movie industry, in magazines and newspapers, in radio and television. Virtually everything that has to do with news and entertainment is in flux.

The book industry is following suit. Where once there were clear rules, standards and pathways to success, now virtually anything goes. Anything that works. There will, of course, be winners and losers (and I truly mourn the decline of the comforting, beautiful, traditional bookstore). There will be good and bad outcomes. The deserving will not always be rewarded. And the roadmaps that will help authors find their way to the goal of publication and success are still being drawn.

Hybrid authors will need to become creative opportunists.

#3 – There are more reasons to self-publish than rejection

Increasingly, writers with their ears to the ground will hear strange tales of bestselling authors choosing to self-publish a project. Of new authors turning down traditional publishing contracts in favour of going the indie route. Of agents working with hybrid authors in new ways, and seeking new talent among the latest crop of successful self-published writers.

Heresy!

Where will you find these weird anomalies in the books of advice for writers on your groaning bookshelf? You probably won’t, unless the book was published very recently. You may begin to hear hints and rumours at a writers’ conference workshop. But if you look in the right places online – where trends now show up first – you’ll discover that the hybrid author is already alive and well. And comes in every shape and size.

So why would any author actually choose self-publication over the traditional route – except rejection? Isn’t traditional publishing the holy grail we’re all seeking? Here are just a few possible reasons:

Creative freedom — An established writer may want to do a project her traditional publisher is not interested in. Maybe it’s outside the writer’s usual genre, or it’s experimental, or for some other reason the publisher doesn’t think it will fit their list or profit expectations. What choice does the writer have but to follow the creative dictates of her publisher? Yep. Become her own publisher.

Money — A writer, whether previously published or not, may put on his business hat and take a close look at the numbers. Shockingly, he discovers that he can make more money – sometimes a lot more – if he self-publishes than if he signs a contract with a traditional publisher, based on realistic estimates of sales and author revenue likely to be generated by the two different routes. Careful, though. Risk-reward ratio is not an easy calculation to do, even for the experienced. Better rattle some chicken bones and throw in some eye of newt for good luck. Welcome to entrepreneurship.

Choice and control — A writer may want to keep certain publishing rights – such as e-book rights – and sell other rights to a traditional publisher. The author may have already self-published electronically, but now has an opportunity to take her book to market with an interested publisher. Or she may have been traditionally published and now wants more control of a new project and an opportunity to share more of the profits. This is where the new hybrid agent and the new hybrid author may need to have a meeting of the minds. Tricky new territory, but early pioneers could be creating the pathways and precedents for many hybrid authors to follow.

Career direction — A published mid-list writer may be dropped by his traditional publishing house, and now must either self-publish, or find another publisher (and not many traditional publishers are dying to sign up lots of new mid-list authors who have been dropped elsewhere). Of course, she could always take up another career such as brain surgery, which might be less daunting. Getting back on the horse may require becoming a hybrid author.

So that’s what I’ve learned from my research to date. I know just enough to know that I need to learn a lot more about hybrid authorship. It’s a brave new world out there.

What do you think about it? Was any of this news to you?

Does it fill you with excitement and hope … or does it seem fearfully overwhelming?

We’d love to hear your comments.

 

 

 

Arithmetic for writers, part 2: publishing equations

numbers

Silk’s Post #88 — Confession time. I have read much about, listened to experts on, contemplated, discussed and agonized over the lifeblood topic of getting published (a.k.a. what’s supposed to happen after your book is written). Nevertheless, if I had to take an exam on the subject, I’d flunk the course.

It’s complicated. The traditional versus the independent (self-published) routes. The large and small publishing houses, the agents, the editors, the book doctors, the vanity presses, the e-books, the online marketing channels, the promotion. All of it doesn’t sound like much fun, frankly. So I’ve been putting off any truly serious study of this topic on the theory that I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an account by a writer whose digital publishing dream turned into something of a nightmare. It finally pushed me out of my warm, feather-lined, fledgling writer’s nest and into the wild blue yonder called Today’s Publishing Reality.

So, reluctantly, I started flapping – in preference to going splat on the ground before I even have a manuscript ready for publishing consideration. That day will come. I’d like to have at least a rudimentary flight plan before it does.

The digitally disappointed writer is journalist and successful book author Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic and other non-fiction titles), and his plaint, “I Was a Digital Bestseller”, was published in the NY Times op-ed pages this month. Okay, don’t get too freaked out. There are a lot of caveats, buts, qualifications and exceptions to this story as it might apply to you and me, the unpublished novelists of the world. First, his book on the Keystone Pipeline titled Boom was a topical, long-form journalistic work, not a novel. Second, after all sorts of disappointing complications such as his digital publisher going belly up, he still managed to get paid $15,000 to write itI assume he also got paid something by the NY Times to write about writing it. I know. What’s he whining about?

For me, the point was that an experienced, “name brand”, published author (with an agent, even) found himself lost in space when it came to the realities – the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls – of today’s increasingly complex and fragmented publishing industry. What does that mean for a nameless little baby chick like me? Or maybe you?

So after being shook up by one author who has sworn off publishing e-books and has resumed his love affair with traditional print and traditional publishers, I checked out the other side of the story. You can too in the blog post by author Brenna Aubrey, “Why I Turned Down a Three-Book New York Print Deal to Self-Publish”, which makes a compelling argument for just the opposite. How to judge who’s right, if either?

So I started doing some basic research, and of course quickly got lost in a thicket of information and perspectives. Paula, our 5writers Research Queen, initially came to my rescue with an excellent report on the website Author Earnings by Hugh Howey, titled “The 7k Report”, which neatly sorts through a ton of data regarding the financial side of various publishing channels (Independent, Amazon, Small-Medium Publishers, Big 5 Publishers, Single Author Publishers). The report’s conclusions favour Indie publishing over other routes, in terms of benefits to authors.

But the eyebrow-raising numbers, including the apparent explosion in the number of published authors and books – now that just about anyone can do it for themselves – only served to raise more questions for me. Like: how many books really are published every year? How many authors are out there? How many of them make a living at it? What are the chances of “making it” and what factors really differentiate those who do from those who don’t?

The first thing I discovered is that “official” numbers, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are useless. Writers of novels are grouped in with a whole bunch of other kinds of writers, including advertising copywriters. Also, such counts are based on people’s self-reported primary jobs, so everyone who isn’t a full-time writer who makes their primary income from writing (but may have published some novels, or perhaps has secreted 27 unpublished manuscripts under the bed) likely doesn’t get counted.

The second thing I discovered is that in seeking the answers these questions, I was travelling down a well-worn path. What one might guess would be easily obtainable facts turned out to be quite hard to nail down. And many have tried. For a highly entertaining account of one Austin, TX writer’s rigorous pursuit of the answer to the question “How Many Novelists are at Work in America?”, see Dominic Smith’s terrific essay on the website The Millions.

But what of the writer’s chances of success? Are there no statistics that can shed some light on that burning question? Again, yes … and no. Novelist and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist William Dietrich took a stab at this in his essay on Huffington Post titled “The Writer’s Odds of Success” in 2013. It was a good stab, but he failed to even draw blood, and the question escaped unanswered (sorry, no Pulitzer for this post, William). It’s still a good read, though, with lots of gossipy bits about the earnings of bestselling writers. Probably the essay on numbers and success that tickled me most was a post on Kirsten Lamb’s Blog titled “Are Successful Writers Just Lucky?” (one of her observations was that the harder a writer worked the luckier he/she got).

All these essays and blog posts are worthwhile reads. If you’re like me, they will enlighten and confuse you at the same time. However they offer many insights and interpretations that go beyond mere numbers. I especially recommend “The 7k Report” for its rigorous use of statistical data to clarify trends, complete with eye-popping charts and graphs.

But to cut to the chase (and without spoiling the recommended articles for you), here is some arithmetic for writers gleaned from various and sundry sources. I make no promises about their accuracy or reliability whatsoever, and caution the reader to recall the quip sometimes attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and made famous by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  • James Patterson made $94 million in 2012 (might as well start off with the good news) — Horowitz, citing Forbes magazine
  • More than 80% of Americans would like to be an author — Dietrich, citing polls
  • Only 5% of the millions of people who say they want to write actually do it. — Lamb
  • Only 5% of this who start writing a book will actually finish it. — Lamb
  • According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 145,900 American writers and authors in 2012, a quarter of them part time and two-thirds of them self-employed, with median earnings of $55,420 (but remember they include a ton of non-novelists) — Dietrich
  • Between 1990 and 2005, there was a 39% increase in the number of self-reported authors in the US. — Smith
  • In 2011, there were 329,259 books published in the US — Dietrich
  • In 2012, the number of adult fiction titles published with ISBN numbers in the US was 67, 254 — Smith, citing sources
  • 2.2 million books were published worldwide in 2011 — Dietrich
  • Self-published books make up 25% of the top 100 list on Amazon — Howey
  • Of 1.2 million books tracked by Neilson Bookscan, only 25,000 (just over 2%) sold more than 5,000 copies — Dietrich
  • A #1 ranking in “page turning narratives” on Amazon Kindle Singles is possible to achieve with as few as 700-800 sales — Horowitz, citing statistics for his book “Boom”
  • The average book in 2006 sold less than 500 copies — Dietrich, citing Publishers Weekly
  • The highest percentage of genre e-books on the bestseller lists (more than one third) are indie-published — Howey
  • Indie-published authors outsell Big-5 (traditional large publishing house) published authors on Amazon. — Howey
  • 76% of all books released in 2008 were self-published — Smith, citing sources
  • While the often-cited “rule of thumb” proportion of overall book sales represented by e-books is 25%, this figure accounts for only e-books through major publishers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBookstore, Google Play) and does not include self-published books or those e-published by small presses. — Howey
  • 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon bookstore are e-books. — Howey
  • While Big 5 publishers typically pay 25% of net revenue to authors for e-book sales, self-published authors usually keep 70% of the total purchase price. — Howey

That should give you a lot to think about, and hopefully some further reading that may toss you back and forth between elation and despair. But let me end by quoting some encouraging words from Kirsten Lamb, which bring some much-needed wisdom to this crazy writing and publishing game:

” … the odds are actually better than we might believe when we really take an honest look. This job is like one giant funnel. Toss in a few million people with a dream and only a handful will shake out at the end. Is it because fortune smiled on them? A few, yes. But, for most, the harder they worked, the “luckier” they got. They stuck it out and made the tough choices.”