Erase the Barriers between Writers and Readers in Canada

blog-post-nov-17-cancon

Canadian Heritage consultation site

“The federal government is poised to pursue the most significant cultural policy overhaul in over a decade and Canadian Heritage is holding a consultation on Canadian content in the digital world that will help shape new policy.” – Access Copyright email

It seemed important to me to contribute to this consultation, so I summarized my experience with the extraordinary changes that have hit the publishing industry over the past decade. Many of you who have been following this blog have already heard my story in bits and pieces, but now – thanks to Heritage Canada – I have it all in one place. Last week, I posted it on the department’s site (where there are lots of other interesting contributions which I encourage you to check out). I am reproducing it here:

A Promising Start

In 2000, I was well on my way to becoming at least a mid-list writer when I ran into an obstacle approximately the size of the Canadian shield – and almost as impenetrable and uncompromising.

By then I had published two novels and a collection of short stories. The first novel, The Woman Upstairs, had won a prize for excellence in writing from the Writers Guild of Alberta, and the print run had sold out. I had been eager to continue developing as a writer. However, my experience with the next two books, which came out ten years later (I’d been earning a living and raising kids as well as writing) was entirely different, and left me in despair. The second novel was published just as the director of the book’s publishing house resigned; she was not replaced for several months, leaving my book in promotional limbo. The publisher of my first short story collection went out of business shortly after the book was published. I doubt that either of those books sold more than 200 copies each, and it was no fault of mine: in those days, recent though they were, writers were discouraged from interfering with tasks that were considered to be within the proper purview of publishing – which included book promotion.

I determined to put all that behind me. I was working on a new novel that I hoped would find a larger, “national” publisher, allowing me to move slowly up the firmament of Canadian literary awareness as so many before me had done. My income-earning had included stints as executive director of the Writers Guild of Alberta and editor in chief of Lone Pine Publishing, and as well I’d served as a founding member of the board of the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts and on various other literary and cultural arts boards and committees. I knew how the writing and publishing business worked, and I was prepared to move forward with confidence.

When the third novel was complete (it was then called The Whole Clove Diet; it is now called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin), I began to look for an agent/publisher. After sending out nearly 100 queries and receiving fewer than five requests to see even a sample chapter, much less a manuscript, someone told me about BookNet – a data source accessible by booksellers, librarians, agents and publishers but not by writers – which keeps track of numbers of copies of each book sold in Canada. Given that most of the negative responses I had received from agents and publishers had not even requested writing samples, it seemed likely that agents and publishers were taking a look at my BookNet sales figures for my previous two books, and passing on the new book, sight unseen.

It was a tough time for publishers then, as well. Amazon had begun to do serious damage to bricks-and-mortar booksellers, which were the traditional sales outlets for published books, and e-books and other digital changes were eroding the perennially small profits of the publishing industry. As I learned more and more about how book publishing was changing, I understood that if I were not a brand new (preferably young and, even better, sexy) writer, or an already well-established one, I was going to be out of luck when it came to getting a reasonably-sized publishing house to even consider my new novel.

A New Tack

After blowing a gasket or two on my then-new blog (see the first two or three posts of The Militant Writer), I calmed down and assessed my situation. Despite my long-standing anathema for vanity publishing (which I had been actively discouraging fellow writers from considering as recently as 2008), I considered that, given my background in publishing, if anyone could publish a professional-looking and literate book all by herself, it would be me. So I did.

First I learned the ins-and-outs of the self-publishing process by republishing my first novel, The Woman Upstairs. Then I hired an editor and a cover designer, and published the book now known as Rita Just Wants to Be Thin. By then, my friend John Aragon in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had just published his first novel with a small press there, and the treatment his book received from his publisher was even more inadequate and discouraging than my experience with my second and third books had been. We didn’t even consider traditional publishing for our co-authored comic western, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid – we just went straight to self-publishing, releasing it as a print book and an e-book in 2012.

Battling My Way Uphill

The last four years have been interesting and frequently discouraging. Whether you are a publishing house or a one-person show, it is very hard to get your books noticed by readers. As a self-published author, I had no access to book reviews or bookstore distribution. Without a publishing house, I was not invited to participate in festivals, events like Word on the Street, or most reading series. My books did not appear in libraries, which meant that they attracted no proceeds from the Public Lending Right Commission, nor did they help to extend my reputation through a connection with my previous publications.

Worst of all, I was persona non grata just about everywhere in the Canadian literary community. Five years ago (and even today in many quarters), self-publishing was still considered “vanity publishing” – an indication that you did not write well enough for your work to be accepted by a publishing house. Self-publishing was not yet considered a “choice”: it was only ever a Plan B. I saw embarrassment or disdain in the eyes of my fellow writers and others in the business every time I tried to explain what I was doing, and what the advantages were – the primary one of which was that I now had total control over my books’ destinies and, as far as I was concerned, I had no one to blame but myself if they didn’t prosper. Furthermore, when I did sell a book, the royalty I earned was far more proportional to the work I had put into it than was the royalty on offer from most publishers. Granted, I had invested financially in the books’ publications (not a huge amount – certainly not anywhere close to the amount that many companies today are now charging ill-informed writers to publish their books), but since my books belong to no company’s fall or spring season, but will continue to be promoted by me for as long as I am able to promote them, they go on selling until the upfront costs are paid and the income is all gravy.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

I am not in the least surprised that the absolute mountains of indescribably awful, badly written, unedited self-published books continue to scare traditional reviewers, librarians and booksellers away from all self-published books, good as well as bad: these individuals and institutions have yet to figure out a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff without using up time for reading and evaluation that they do not have – and cannot afford to pay for. But the world is changing, and ways will need to be found to address this problem. This year, as an advocate on the National Council of The Writers’ Union of Canada, I am hoping to explore ways in which booksellers, reviewers, granting agencies and other literary entities can figure out how find the self-published books that are of literary merit amid the innumerable volumes of junk.

In my own case, there have been several bright spots. The Woman Upstairs experienced a selling flurry when Claire Messud’s novel of the same name was published: a lot of people bought mine by mistake. And during the past summer, I invested some money in a promotional strategy for Rita that actually paid off – 8,000 people downloaded my e-book for free during one day in July, and the e-book has been selling steadily at its regular price ($2.99) ever since, and has had a lot of reviews. Don Valiente has not yet had its moment in the sun, but those who have read it have been effusive in its praise, and I know its time will come. It is built to last. As are all of my books.

The Ground Settles

In 2016, I am far less of a pariah than I was in 2012. Canada’s professional book writers’ association, The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), now recognizes that many writers choose to self-publish either because they want more control over their own writing, or because they do not have access to traditional publishers, and it has begun to accept applications from self-published writers, who are then vetted by its Membership Committee. In 2014-15, TWUC invited me to present on the subject of self-publishing as part of a professional development workshop for members and non-members in cities across Canada. If still not respectable, self-publishing is at least becoming acceptable.

Today there’s even a word for writers like me: we’re called hybrid authors – meaning that some of our books are traditionally published, and some are not. I have decided that I want to publish my next book traditionally because I want to regain access to readings and other promotions, to the few review outlets that are still available, to bookstores (partly because of the PLR payments), to festivals and readings, to awards and prizes. And I want to re-establish my reputation with those of my peers whose lips still curl when they hear the term “self-published.”

I have no regrets about the choices I have made. Even in the midst of my times of greatest discouragement, when no books at all were selling for weeks or months on end, I did not regret my decision. I knew I was moving in a direction that many others would have to choose eventually, even if it was only to get their out-of-print books back onto the market. Throughout, I liked the control that self-publishing gave me over every aspect of the publishing process.

Keep Writers and Readers at the Centre

There can be no doubt that the writer is – and always has been – at the centre of the literary world: without writers there would be no publishers, booksellers, libraries or even readers – readers being the only other crucial component of the literary experience. Until this sea change, the publishing business had evolved to the point where the writer was an insignificant pawn in the entire process: the big business of publishing was happening around us, and we did what we were told to do, and we acted like we were grateful: even when our books were not delivered in time for our book launches; even when our books were not submitted for awards and prizes for which they were eligible; even when we knew that there was a market for our books that our publisher was not exploring; even when our royalty payments were one year late.

The world that is now emerging to replace that pre-digital world offers writers choice, power and control over the fate of our own writing, and that is where we ought to be. A cultural system that supports writers and writing in the future will be one that does everything possible to dissolve the boundaries and eliminate the institutionalized gatekeepers that stand between the writer and the reader, instead supporting all of us who live and work in the world of writing and publishing to move forward as a team.

Get with the times, Ros Barber: “Self-published” no longer means “inept.”

(A rant, and a challenge)

Yet again a major media outlet has granted space to a writer who wants to rail against self-publishing and to denigrate those who have chosen to pursue that route, particularly those who write fiction.

None of the arguments Ros Barber sets out in her recent article in The Guardian  is new. In fact, they are all so old that they have begun to smell – or, at the very least, to bore writer-readers who are not already members of the choir half to death. (Writers who are in Barber’s corner love to read the list of self-publishers’ shortcomings over and over again. They will never tire of it –until they become one of us, or die, whichever comes first. Despite the fact that it would force her to rethink her views, I wish upon Ms. Barber no novel that fails to sell to her publisher’s expectations, thereby banishing her from the traditional publishing firmament forever.)

I am not going to waste space taking Ms. Barber’s arguments apart. I’ve been taking the same ones apart for years, as have dozen of other respected and respectable writers on blogs and in numerous other venues. What she (and, it seems, the team of editors in the Books section at The Guardian) takes as cutting-edge insights are merely misguided opinions that have already been widely and frequently debunked.

What bothers me are not the points she makes, but the tone in which she makes them – and specifically, the utter lack of writerly fellowship that her article betrays. Such supercilious opinions as “good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship,” which suggests that those who self-publish do not know how to write, are utterly insulting to the innumerable writers who have completed agonizingly long “apprenticeships,” but whose writing is deemed by agents and/or commercial and/or financially hard-pressed (!) literary houses to be too offbeat or too marginal or too kinky or too similar to something that came out last year to be worthy of their imprint. Barber’s success in attracting even a £5000 advance for her most recent novel speaks more to blind luck or favourable industry connections than it does to talent.

The one point on which Ms. Barber almost indicates a passing knowledge of what she speaks is the one in which she says that self-published authors must invest 9/10 of their efforts in marketing, leaving only ten percent of their time for writing. (Although I do argue with her numbers: she has failed to consider the time it takes for any writer to earn a living while building up a readership.) However, as I’m sure she knows, it is fallacious to use the marketing imperative as an argument against self-publishing. If Barber’s publisher does not require her to spend a good deal of her time promoting her book, she’s not having the experience of most of my traditionally published colleagues. (I think she does know: anyone who can get an article into the Guardian is no slouch in the marketing department.)

I am sick and tired of finding it necessary to apologize not for the quality of my two most recent novels (for one should never attempt to defend what one has written), but for the way in which they were published. Who the hell cares how books reach the market? Readers certainly don’t. Nowadays, only small-minded, defensive writers seem intent on railing against those of us who have chosen to take our fates into our own hands.

The challenge: I invite Ms. Barber (and anyone else who wishes to do so) to request a complimentary copy of either of my self-published novels (Rita and Don , to read at least a decent chunk of it, and then to point out either publicly or in private the precise locations where the novel displays either a lack of publishing quality or dearth of literary talent. But people like Ms. Barber won’t do that: they’ve made up their minds ahead of time.

Ros Barber, please do not tar everyone with the same brush. You may have chosen to publish traditionally, but increasing numbers of us are choosing to do otherwise. Canada’s primary organization of creative writers, The Writers Union of Canada, now admits self-published authors whose books have been approved by its membership committee. Granting agencies and awards programs everywhere are going to need to consider how to manage the books by many younger writers who (like young musicians and film-makers) are choosing to go indie from the outset.

We are all in this together. We are writers. Some of us write better than do others, but increasingly this has nothing to do with how our writing reaches readers. A traditional publisher is no longer the only imprimatur of quality, if it ever was. The opinions in your article show you to be as disdainful as you are out of touch. I hope your fiction, notwithstanding its apparently historical nature, is more current.

Amazon vs Hachette and the erosion of author solidarity

Writers need to remember that both sides are making more money from our talent than we ever can

Like many other writers, I am caught in a sticky predicament when it comes to the battle between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, in that supporting what is growing into a cause célèbre for many traditionally published authors means diminishing our own work and reducing our (mostly paltry) incomes.

For those who have missed this story, Amazon has begun to delay the delivery of books by Hachette authors significantly, and to create impediments on searches for Hachette books on the Amazon site: apparently due to a dispute between the two companies over ebook pricing. (See the LA Times for details.) No less a celebrity than Stephen Colbert is now urging all of us to boycott Amazon in support of Hachette authors, of which he is one. The New York Times is outraged. So are many noted writers (Malcolm Gladwell and James Patterson are two, both also published by Hachette) and several writers’ organizations.

Those of us who are caught in the middle of this firestorm are primarily established writers who have chosen to go the self-published route for some or all of our new or out-of-print titles, and to use Amazon as our publishing partner. Typically, we ourselves have had books published with traditional presses in the past, and as a result we have strong connections (e.g., through membership in writers’ organizations) and even long-term friendships with other authors who are still published only by established presses. These presses include not only Hachette but all publishers who could receive similar treatment from Amazon in future, which is most of them. Solidarity is at stake here, and in a pre-self-publishing world, we would have easily and strongly stood together. Now, over this issue and several others related to it, such strength in unity is impossible.

For indie authors, there are many good reasons for selecting Amazon to fulfill the role of publishing partner for our self-published books, most of which involve both financial considerations and the ease of getting books created and distributed. CreateSpace (Amazon’s print-on-demand publishing arm) and Kindle Direct (Amazon’s e-book-creation arm) are easy to work with, user-friendly and professionally staffed, and they offer basic packages at reasonable prices. They also offer a range of add-on services (e.g. editing, book design), depending on what you want, need and/or can afford.

The distribution advantages are obvious: almost everyone in the universe has an Amazon account. Amazon delivers what you want, when you want it, and at a lower price than just about any other company (especially other bookstores these days, since Amazon’s innovations combined with the booksellers’ own lack of foresight have put most of them out of business). A writer may choose to make her books available on a number of platforms (Barnes & Noble, Chapters, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.) but no writer can afford not to have her books also available on Amazon. Some of us even choose to have our books available exclusively on Amazon, due to the additional advantages Amazon offers us for choosing to limit our sales to its sites.

Yes, Amazon’s forward thinking–embraced by readers everywhere–has overturned the literary landscape. And yes, its innovations have driven most booksellers out of business due to its accessibility, range of offerings, and lower prices. Yes, Amazon has also started hammering at the bedrock of traditional publishing houses: its practice of treating the biggest of the big publishers no differently than it does me, a self publisher, may ultimately bring down Hachette and many other companies that have for decades made their livings off the backs of writers.

Amazon is a hell of a good company for writers who are working with it, rather than with one of its competitors. I get up to 70% royalties on my ebooks, and my readers can buy them for $2.99.  I can even give them away for free if I want to, in order to promote sales. (Publishers typically sell ebooks, which cost next to nothing to produce, for $10 to $15. Their writers get $1.50, and the publisher keeps the other $13.50. Even with print books, self publishers do far, far better financially per book sale than they do with traditional presses.)

What other writers want to do re: publishing their works is their business. However, with this Hachette-Amazon argument, if I choose to “support my fellow writers” and boycott Amazon, I am essentially telling people not to buy my books. And if I don’t support this boycott, I am a turncoat.

For a range of reasons that have to do with my choice to self-publish, in the past few years I have felt a steely and disapproving silence from some of my fellow authors, mostly the mid-range ones, and now here is another divisive issue that threatens to drive an even greater wedge between us.

Writers who ask me to boycott Amazon because of its treatment of Hachette have failed consider (and a lot of them don’t care) that my books are not accepted for sale in bookstores, not reviewed in traditional media, not eligible for most awards and grants, and not available in libraries. Why? Because I do not publish with an “established press.” But I’m supposed to give up book sales to support those companies that do have other avenues for promotions and sales? I think not.

Author John Greene is quoted in the LA Times article as saying, “The breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”

I disagree. American (and Canadian, and British, and Indian, and Australian, and so on) literature will thrive just fine without publishers – editors’ imprints will fill their roles in future, and much less expensively for everyone concerned.

Medium-sized and major publishers have done nothing at all for me, ever. They have not rejected my manuscripts so much as they have refused to even look at them, because they base their selections on what will sell, not on “the breadth . . . and quality of [the] literature.”

As Hugh Howey says in wading into this issue, “Publishers could have realized years ago that they are in the story development and delivery service, but they thought it was all about books. Which pretty much underscores all that has happened since.”

It is the publishers I am refusing to support, but that’s not how a lot of authors see it. But I can’t afford to be politically correct on this one. My unwillingness to support Hachette (and their agitating authors) vs Amazon is partly principle and partly economics – not being James Patterson, J.K. Rowling or Stephen Colbert, I can’t afford to support a cause that impacts my own income so directly. But here’s the bottom line: I’ve fought long and hard to get what I (and my reader-reviewers for the most part) believe to be quality books into print and available on the market, and any boycott of Amazon prevents those books from reaching readers. How can I urge that?

So my message to my fellow writers is this: do what you want when it comes to getting your books to print. Just don’t let issues like this one rip us apart. We’re all in this together, talking to our readers. The rest of them are only intermediaries who have figured out how to make more money off our talent than we ever can.

 

 

Greedy Businesses Target Self-Published Authors

Sleazy salesman pointing

It is not difficult or expensive to publish on your own, but a lot of would-be self-publishers dont know that. As a result, whole nests of snake-oil salesmen have hatched to separate unwitting writers from their money. Most of these writers will never make back the money that is being bilked from them, and even those who do are often wasting their hard-earned cash.

As I prepared my presentation on self-publishing for The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-Canada professional development workshop, Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps, I became aware that taking advantage of the naïveté of first-time self-publishing authors (or “indie publishers,” as we are also known) has become a growth industry.

Quite a few of the businesses involved in this field of endeavour used to be legitimate, contributing members of the traditional publishing establishment: printers, literary agents, book publicists and the like. With their incomes from traditional sources now eroded by the same technology that permits anyone and everyone to publish anything and everything, quite a few of these formerly upstanding companies have turned their attention to “helping” unsuspecting authors to get their books published… for a fee.

Many writers who set out to publish their manuscripts independently or to get their out-of-print books back on the market have no idea that it costs almost nothing to make their novels or non-fiction works available for sale as e-books, and that for about $500, they can get a respectable-looking paperback up for sale online. It is upon these unsuspecting souls that the newest incarnations of the film-flam artist have set their sights, offering self-publishing packages that can cost thousands of dollars. and promising little in return that isn’t available for free or at very little cost elsewhere.

These authors are being convinced by ads and on-line pitches that self-publishing is a technically challenging undertaking, requiring expertise. Paying for technological expertise is not, in fact, necessary because self-publishing sites such as Smashwords are extremely user-friendly. Nonetheless, from the beginning to the end of the publishing process, these highway robbers lie in wait — urging offset-printing services, for example, upon writers who ought to be printing on demand instead. (Offset- printed books are ones that are printed in large numbers on huge printing machines machines that are now increasingly sitting idle all over the country in the wake of the move online of so many magazines, books, catalogues and brochures. Print-on-demand (POD) books are printed on much smaller machines, one at a time, when the book is ordered. Single copies of books can be printed immediately, so no extra trees are wasted, and authors have no obligation to buy a certain number of books as part of the self-publishing option — or to warehouse those books in their basements. Today, the difference in quality between offset-printed and POD books is negligible.)

Other self-publishing authors are hoodwinked into paying companies to “promote” their books on social media ­ a strategy that is nearly ineffective unless it is part of an overall marketing plan. And the costs for overall marketing plans themselves  (also available from a host of sources) can be outrageous and unnecessary. (I have just been looking at one company that lists one of its services as “Amazon Optimization” through the creation of “keywords.” If you’ve written the book, you can pick seven words to help readers discover it, as you will be prompted to do by Amazon itself when you post your book there. That is all that “keywords” are. Snake-oil salesmen love to throw technical terms around, but most of them are easy to translate into plain language.)

Still other companies offer book distribution packages that are actually available to everyone at very little cost when they publish books online with Smashwords, Kindle, or other self-publishing outlets. (You can get expanded distribution from Amazon, for example, that includes bookstores, libraries, etc. Your royalties per book are smaller than with direct sales to purchasers, but there’s no need to pay up front.)

We are also seeing increasing numbers of expensive, needless gimmicks such as seals of approval to indicate production quality in published e-books (this one charges $125 per title. How many readers do YOU know who are choosing to buy books because they have a formatting seal of approval?), and costly competitions for awards that very few can win (and who knows whether the winners gain any sales traction from their prizes?).

Who Is Doing This?

Entrepreneurs

While there are some great resources out there — people with editing and publishing backgrounds who are charging reasonable hourly fees for their services — too many book-publishing coaches and self-publishing managers and others who go by similar titles are no more than fly-by-night operators with no significant credentials. They offer to help you get your book edited and up on Amazon for several hundreds or thousand dollars when you can do it very easily for free or at very little cost.

Printing Companies

Dozens of printing companies that were established to print books for real publishers have huge off-set machines now sitting idle. They need you to help them pay the overhead, so they have re-branded themselves as publishers.  In truth, the only traditional publishers they resemble were formerly known as vanity presses. These companies are selling packages of print-only copies of your book (usually no e-books are offered) for $800 or $900 or several thousands of dollars. They do not know much about promotion and the fine print on their websites state that after you’ve paid the big bucks to buy several boxes of offset-printed copies of your book, they will help you build a website (wow!) and put you in touch with a marketing company to help you promote your book (where you will pay additional fees, of course).  One printing company whose site I visited said they would even put you in their catalogue. Now tell me, when was the last time you bought a book because it was listed in a printers catalogue?

If you are selling to a specific, known market (such as the residents of a small town whose history youre writing) you may decide to go with offset printing because the per-item production cost will be lower. But if you are not certain that you are going to sell the books you are required to purchase when you work with a printing company, using offset is a false economy. These printers who are now calling themselves publishers also say they offer editing: I would advise you to ask who the editors are, and to request their references and credentials.

Respectable Book Reviewers

Reviewing outlets such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have established branch services that are charging unwitting self-published authors upwards of $500 for a single review (Im surprised that The New York Times and The Globe and Mail havent jumped onto this bandwagon yet). The idea is that if you get a good review of your self-published book, you can use it to convince booksellers to stock your book. (If you get a poor one, you eat the money you have spent.) The trick is that most booksellers won’t stock your book anyway, because self-published books are nonreturnable.

You can also pay to have your book review included in a variety of in-house publications where publishers, agents etc. can contact you if they are interested. Humpff.

Keep in mind that your average reader doesn’t know the difference between a Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Review and one your aunt Elsie wrote and posted on Amazon. A $500 review is largely a waste of money.

Book publicists

I believe that book publicity will, along with editing, become an area of specialization that self-publishers need in future. But for now, there are a lot of people out there who say they are book publicists who have no actual experience in the field, or access to the media outlets that might promote your book, and they are overcharging for the services they do provide. Keep in mind that it is almost impossible to get noticed if you have written a novel anyway, even if you’re traditionally published; non-fiction writers usually have a better hook for interviews. And even if the book promoter is well known to the media, there is no guarantee that he or she will make any special effort to get your book noticed, no matter what you pay. Remember that if a book publicist has not read your book and fallen in love with it, that person cannot help you.

A few book-promotion companies will tell you that, for a price, they can help you become an Amazon bestseller or even get you onto the New York Times bestseller list. To do this, they use a complex system that involves a whole lot of purchasers, funded by you, all buying your book all across the country all on the same day or in the same week, which drives your numbers up in the right places. But this kind of access to best-seller lists is not sustainable and authors often end up paying more to get on the lists than they earn back in royalties.

You do need a great promotion plan – one size does not fit all — and here a creative and honest book publicist can help a lot. Remember that at this point in time, getting self-published books into bookstores, or onto radio or television, or reviewed in major newspapers or magazines, is nearly impossible… because of the attitudes of the gatekeepers of those organizations. At the same time, social media is an almost useless promotional device. Any book promotion company that wants your money for these kinds of initiatives had better offer you some proof that they can do the impossible.

Literary agents

Well, you know how I feel about most literary agents. The ones I dissed five years ago are largely out of business now or have found new ways to earn their keep from unsuspecting authors. Check their websites for further info.

Publishers

Even some publishers have turned to mining self-publishing authors for a few quick dollars. Some will take your money and publish your book with a slightly different imprint than their other publications (so those on the “inside” of the industry still know you are self-published, and will still lock you out, unread).

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, had harsh words for enterprises of this nature. Writing in the Huffington Post in January, 2014, he said:

The vanity approach to self-publishing, as witnessed by Pearson/Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions (operates AuthorHouse, iUniverse, BookTango, Trafford, Xlibris, Palibrio, others…), has shown itself to harm the brands of all traditional publishers. I predicted this last year. The Author Solutions business model is wholly dependent upon making money by selling overpriced services to unwitting authors. Their business model is expensive at best, and unethical at worst. It’s about selling $10,000+ publishing packages to authors who will never earn the money back. The model represents the antithesis of what the best and proudest publishers have always represented. Great publishers invest in their authors. The money flows from reader to retailer to publisher to author, not from author to publisher.

Dont Be a Cash Cow (for anyone but yourself)

The best books are not published for nothing, of course, but most of the work can be done at very little cost. The best places to invest your money are directly with a book editor, a book designer, and a book publicist, each of whom loves your book.

In each of these areas, make sure you are getting your money’s worth. You need someone who knows the business and can provide solid references. You need to check those references. You do not want to be one of a hundred books and authors in a money-making assembly line.

The writing and self-publishing community is unbelievably generous with its knowledge and its skills. Almost everything you need to know about self-publishing is available online for nothing. All you have to do is ask the right questions in the Google box. At the very minimum, check out the publication costs on Smashwords, Amazon, Kindle and Kobo before you hire a consultant. In other words, before you pay good money to anyone to get your book up for sale, find out what the work they are going to do for you is going to cost them. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled.

It has already cost you a lot to write your book  – particularly if you consider the time you spent when you could have been doing other things, like climbing the corporate ladder. Invest what you must to get the best possible book to readers. But don’t waste money until after you attain bestseller status. Then, you will be able to afford it.

Self-Published Writers Make (Lots) More Money, New Data Suggests

HoweyData released earlier this week provides stunning evidence that self-published authors in several popular genres are selling many more books and making a good deal more money than most of us had previously suspected. Their success in comparison to traditionally published authors may be a wake-up call for everyone in the publishing business, from first-time writers to the biggest of the Big Five publishers. (It certainly has been a wake-up call for me: I’m dropping prices on my e-books as we speak).

Until now, the only evidence for strong sales of indie vs traditionally published books has been anecdotal reports from individual authors, many of whom seemed to be making a disproportionately large amount of money compared to the rest of us. These authors were considered to be “outliers.”

Now Hugh Howey, one of those disproportionately successful authors — well known among avid readers and the publishing cognoscenti for his best-selling self-published fiction series, Wool — has made data available (and will continue to collect and update it, he says, at his own expense) that indicates that he may not be alone when it comes to successfully selling books online, particularly e-books. His report on author earnings (cleverly entitled Author Earnings: The Report) suggests that indie-published books are getting higher scores on reviews and selling more copies than those of small- to medium-sized presses, and that the gaps between positive review scores and sales are even greater when you compare self-published books with those from the “Big Five” publishers. The primary reason? Indie authors tend to publish e-books rather than paperbacks and other formats, and they tend to charge much less for them than traditional publishers do. And e-books are selling like hotcakes.

Howey’s figures are derived from an analysis of data collected by an unnamed writer “with advanced coding skills” who has created a program that can gather and break down data from bestseller lists at a speed that was previously impossible. The initial data collection and analysis looks at book sales on Amazon and includes three genres: Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance. These genres were examined first because they account for nearly three quarters of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, and more than half of the top 1000. Howey and his “data snoop” will look at the entire range of fiction titles in future reports, he says.

Among their findings so far:

  • In these three genres, indie authors are outselling the Big Five publishers. “That’s the entire Big Five. Combined.” [Words and italics Howie’s]
  • E-books make up 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the Amazon store, and 92% of the top 100 best-selling books in the listed genres are e-books
  • Although books from the Big Five account for just over a quarter of unit sales in these genres, they take half of the gross dollar sales — and the authors of those books typically receive only 25% of that profit
  • Indie authors, on the other hand, who keep about 70% of the purchase price of their e-books on Amazon, are earning nearly half of the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon
  • Self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books than are those with traditionally published books being sold through the same (i.e., amazon.com) outlet.

A Few Conclusions

The Report is long and complex (but not complicated). I encourage all serious writer entrepreneurs to read it carefully — and to stay updated with future installments.

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

(It is also very pretty. I am including an image here from The Report, with proper attribution and an embedded link but used without permission, so if it disappears, you’ll know why. Whether it does disappear or not, I suggest you go and have a look at all the other pretty charts in Howie’s report. They are impressive and illuminating as well as colourful.)

For those who don’t have time to read The Report straight through right now, I’ll extract some conclusions that became clear to Howie, as they must to anyone who examines the data he’s presented:

  • E-books from indie authors tend to be priced much lower than those of mainstream publishers
  • Readers are more likely to buy and review books with lower prices than higher ones
  • “Most readers don’t know and don’t care how the books they read are published. They just know if they liked the story and how much they paid. If they’re paying twice as much for traditionally published books, which experience will they rate higher? The one with better bang for the buck.” — Hugh Howey, Author Earnings: The Report
  • Most traditional publishers are paying authors only 25% of e-book sales, despite the almost insignificant overhead associated with creating e-books
  • Readers are buying many more e-books than they are paperbacks and other book formats, at least from amazon (which is the biggest bookseller in the world, by a huge measure — like it or not).
  • Readers are not buying traditionally published e-books as frequently as they are indie published e-books, because indie-published books cost less. Therefore, traditionally published authors are getting read less often, and are making less money per book sold than indie authors are.

This is important news for traditionally published authors.

It is also important news for major publishers, who are going to lose their authors if they don’t smarten up.

We won’t go into the impact all this is having on good literature, but Howie believes that the data suggests that “even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.”

A call to Action

In addition to publishing The Report, Howie’s new website, authorearnings.com, invites authors from all sectors to work together to help one another “make better decisions” when it comes to publishing their books.

Howie says that the site’s “purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions. Our secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts. This is a website by authors and for authors.”

When you go to the site you will be invited to subscribe for updates, contribute to a survey and/or to sign a petition.

I for one will be closely following the activity on that site — right after I lower the prices on my e-books.

Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps – 2014 PD Workshop from The Writers’ Union of Canada

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 2.54.34 PMI am truly delighted

to have been selected as one of two presenters for Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps, The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-country series of professional development workshops for 2014.

My fellow presenter is the noted fiction author Caroline Adderson, who has five books of fiction for adults and several books for young readers to her credit. Caroline will be talking about the traditional route to publishing – how to find a publisher, how to prepare your manuscript for a publisher, working with agents and editors, and doing promotion once your book is out.

I will be talking about independent publishing – why you might want to consider it, even if you’re a traditionally published author (as I am)  – e.g., for getting your out-of-print backlist out quickly, and maximizing your returns on sales –  as well as how to actually manage the self-publication of a book. I’ll be talking about finding editors and book designers, how to publish cost-effectively, managing distribution and, of course, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about promoting self-published books.

With the help of John Degen, executive director of TWUC, former literature officer with the Ontario Arts Council, former executive director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and the former communications manager for Magazines Canada (formerly Canadian Magazine Publishers Association) – John is also a writer – we’ll also be covering contracts, royalties, and copyright issues, and discussing the current state of the publishing landscape from a writer’s perspective.

Appearing East, West and On A Computer Near You

The first installments of the tour will take place in Eastern and Central Canada in February, 2014. Dates and locations for the one-day (9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) workshop have now been announced:

  • Monday, Feb 3 Moncton, NB
  • Wednesday, Feb 5 Halifax NS
  • Monday, Feb 17 Montreal QC
  • Tuesday, Feb 18 Ottawa ON
  • Friday, Feb 21 Toronto ON

We will visit four additional cities – in Western Canada – in the autumn of 2014. Dates and locations for those are still to be announced. It is anticipated that the workshop will also be available for purchase in digital format after the series of live presentations is complete.

It is not necessary to be a member of TWUC to attend its PD workshops.

About The Writers’ Union of Canada

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 2.54.45 PMThe Writers’ Union of Canada is Canada’s national organization of professional writers of books, and has approximately 2,000 members. TWUC was founded 40 years ago to work with governments, publishers, booksellers, and readers to improve the conditions of Canadian writers. I have been a member of TWUC for a long time, and highly recommend joining – not only does it serve as a highly effective advocate for and promoter of writers with governments, the cultural industry and the public,  membership offers a host of wonderful advantages that range from a community of writers to dental benefits.  For more information, visit the TWUC website.

Although membership in TWUC is currently restricted to writers with “a trade book published by a commercial or university press, or the equivalent in another medium,” at its May 2013 annual general meeting, in a unanimous vote, members of the Union approved a resolution opening membership to professional, self-published authors. The resolution will be presented to the entire TWUC membership in a referendum, and will come into force with a two-thirds majority. For more information, view the Union’s June 1, 2013 media release.

In the meantime, I hope to meet you in person at one of TWUC’s PD gigs this year!

Do We Have an Obligation to our Books To Market Them? A Legal Precedent Involving a Family Shrine Provides Some Food for Thought

Kim Velk

Kim Velk

a guest post by Kim Velk

Note from Mary: I am delighted to welcome guest blog-poster Kim Velk, a regular reader of (and comment contributor to) The Militant Writer. Our exchanges via the comments and then email led to me to ask her to put her thoughts down on paper for the enjoyment and provocation of us all. (Update April 16: Kim’s first novel, UP, BACK, AND AWAY, is now available! Yesterday was publication day! Congratulations!) Here’s Kim:

In my day job I am a lawyer. And while I don’t practice corporate law, I have often found myself thinking of the fundamental idea underpinning the law of corporations – and never moreso than when I consider how I am going to approach the task of informing the indifferent world that I have a book (or soon will) that I want it to buy.

If you’re reading Mary’s blog, you are very likely in a similar circumstance: that is, trying to figure out how – or maybe even whether – you should peddle your book to a public that, let it be said, really doesn’t care. This is a not a happy place. The writing part was hard enough, but at least we signed up for that. This next part, this selling bit, that’s another matter. It falls somewhere on the scale between distasteful and odious (at least for a lot of us). Our writerly unicorn spirits aren’t equipped for the rough and tumble of the floor of the bourse! We wrote because we’re writers! We’re not ad men, or PR people, or entrepreneurs.…

Yet, even for those who are traditionally published, we all know (or have heard), that the big world of books demands author participation in the selling part these days. For the self-published (we the semi-despised, the rich pickings for those with author marketing services to sell), we are really on our own. No agent or marketing team for us. If our poor little books are going to go anywhere, we’re the ones who have got to shift them.

I don’t have advice on the best way to do that. (Waving at Mary here. Thanks Mary for your excellent advice on this blog). In fact, I haven’t even tried to sell a book yet and I may be altogether crap at it. The task looms in my immediate future, however, and as I have tried to face it, I have turned to the guiding light of, yes, corporate law.

That’s what I came here to share:  an idea that I hope may at least put some heart into those of us who quail before that dismal marketing endeavor. Courage, mes amis! The Privy Council worked out a little trick of the mind a long time ago that may come in handy for us now.

Legal Fiction Is a Mighty Fiction

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council served historically as the highest court of appeal from Britain’s colonies and it still serves in that capacity for “Crown Dependencies, the British Overseas Territories, and a number of Commonwealth member countries.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I went to law school at McGill University in Montreal and as a result I was exposed to a lot of legal precedents generated by the English House of Lords and the Privy Council. (Canadians could still take appeals over to London until after World War II). A friend of mine took the French language corporations class (one of the awkward charms of the McGill faculté de droit is its bilingual nature.) She told me that in the first lecture, the very correct Belgian professor explained how, once upon a time, a family in India fell to feuding over who would have what duties and responsibilities for maintaining the shrine of a family idol.

No one was doing what he was supposed to do. Offerings were skipped, dust and dirt collected. “L’idole” was being shamefully neglected while the family feuded and pointed fingers. The dispute was at last carried to the Privy Council back in England. In a powerful flash of insight, some brilliant councilor required the litigants to take a new approach to their god. They were to “incorporate” it – that is, imagine it as having a body, a corpus, as being an entity unto itself, one that was separate from its keepers and one that was owed duties of care, loyalty, and good faith.

The councilor thus re-imagined an inanimate thing as a real, living thing, and one that required something like a guardianship. Its keepers were recast into what would eventually morph into directors of a corporation. As such, they were obliged not to look out for their own selfish interests, but for the best interests of the entity they served. Et voila – the legal fiction gave birth to the “legal person.”

Fast forward a few hundred years, and this idea has remade the world. Of course the history of corporate law is a lot more complicated than I just made it seem and any real corporate lawyer or legal scholar who stumbles in here is probably shaking his or her head over something I have said, but the Big Idea is what I wanted to convey and only for the limited purpose I’ve already described. (By the way, the occupy Wall Street protestors who railed against corporate personhood were really missing something basic in their attack. This trope of the mind [and the law] has made many things possible that might never have been achieved: universities, big events, nonprofits, you name it. Of course, it has also allowed lots of evildoers to hide behind their corporate structures, but that’s someone else’s blog post.)

One Way Forward

OK class. What does all this mean for us? I think it means that we might best approach the business of book marketing by, at least some of the time, separating ourselves from our work – by thinking not in terms of what we can face, or what we want to do, but what is our duty to the book? What is in its best interests?

Hmm. What might this mean? Doing what we can to see the book reaches its potential? Getting it to an audience for whom it will have some meaning, or to whom it will give understanding, joy, or entertainment? (We all gotta serve someone, like the song says, and this includes our new little rectangular or digital legal people.) Perhaps also securing for them some future? (They will live after us, even unto our children’s children.) I think this question of goals requires some soul searching for us all. Once those are identified, the next question is: how is this to be done?

As noted, I’m still trying to work this out for myself. One thing I hasten to add, despite all I have said here, is that the public imagination does not much separate a creator from his or her work. What we do by way of marketing will have repercussions for our books. This may mean forbearance in some arenas. As Mary has noted, if we turn off readers with a lot of ham-fisted hard selling on Facebook or Twitter, for instance, we are likely doing our books a disservice. We really have to think about what’s best for them – and the answers may not be easy to find.

Maybe we owe our creations a little bit of money, if we can scratch it together, to spend on marketing (if we can find a reputable vendor). Maybe we need to try to interest editors of various publications, or an agent who will take on the book or its writer. All that is TBD. The only thing that this concept makes plain is that doing nothing is not an option. Nothing = a dereliction of duty.

And in Conclusion…

We have sweated over these books, and lavished our care and our attention on them. (If you haven’t, never mind about everything I just said. Do yourself and the world a favor and just put whatever you have written back on the flash drive and leave it there.) For the rest of us, our books live now, and they are owed some respect – from us first of all. To be cringing or pusillanimous about introducing them, in the best way we can manage, to the world beyond our writing rooms is a disservice to ourselves, and maybe worse, to our creations.

Kim Velk lives in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a terrier.  She works by day as a lawyer.  Her first book, Up, Back, and Away, is about a Texas teenager sent back to England in 1928 (on a vintage English three speed).  It will be out on Amazon later this month.  She blogs at www.quartersessions.blogspot.com and www.lasthouse.blogspot.com