Review: Write Publish Repeat, by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant

If you are considering self-publishing, read this book. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. No, really, stop reading this review and go buy it. Now.

You’re still here? OK, let me tell you why you should go read this book.

First of all, it lays bare some of the ugly truths about self-publishing. It is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s a lot of hard work. In the beginning, you won’t sell much of anything at all. Friends and family will look at you funny and talk in concerned whispers behind your back. Bills will pile up. You’ll fly in faith of the awful-sounding Yog’s Law. But for some us, it’s the best thing ever.

Their title pretty much sums up the recipe for success. Write. Keep writing. Never stop. Publish that writing. Get it in shape. Make it awesome. Put on a cover that does not look like it was made by your 3-year-old master de crayon. And then do it again, again, again, and once more… again.

The talk a little about productivity techniques, about how writing faster does not mean writing crud, and how a lot of time, it’s just about putting your butt in the chair and writing instead of being out and about talking about how someday soon, you’re going to write.

They also talk about doing the publishing side of. It’s not a step-by-step guide to filling out the forms on Amazon or Kobo. Rather, they talk about the things to look for, the things to watch out for, and how to think about your publishing goals. Ultimately, they encourage you to establish a direct connection to your readers to help you survive any disruption for any particular vendor.

And on the repeat side? It’s more than just a commandment to go at it again. They talk about why it’s important to build up a large collection of books to sell and how to best leverage that growing inventory into increased sales. They give ideas of how to cast a wide net and funnel those readers into successive purchases of your extra books, as well as how those extra books can help you those readers find you in the first place.

Mostly, the book is about strategies that should work for the next five, ten, heck, even twenty years. These are not the latest tricks for gaming the Amazon ranking algorithms. These are plans for the long haul of building a career.

I only have two quibbles, both relatively minor. They push Scrivener as though it’s a must have. It isn’t. It makes something easier. It makes other things harder – at least, for me. Find the tool that works best for you. Second, they are mostly geared towards writing shorter novellas linked into series, i.e. each “book” is about 20-30,000 words long. I find I can’t write that short. That does not invalidate any of their strategies, however. It just means it takes longer to implement them.

So yes, if you’re thinking about self-publishing, read this book.

Non-compete clauses in contracts

The subject of non-compete clauses came up in a recent meeting of my local indie writer’s group, so I thought I would point to a number of blog entries regarding them over the years.  They’re not in any particular order, nor are any of them necessarily canonical.  However, if you read them all, you’ll get a pretty good feeling on why non-compete clauses are bad for the author and why you should be wary of any contract a traditional publisher offers you.

The Passive Voice talks about the bad attitude of agents and publishers towards authors.

Kristine Rusch talks about the various forms a non-compete clause can take.

More from the Passive Voice on how to read a contract with non-compete clauses.  In fact, I recommend all of the Passive Voice articles on how to read a contract.

A few more thoughts on not signing dumb contracts.

And finally, a cautionary tale of how publishers really will exercise that non-competition clause to stop you from self-publishing that independent book.

Does all of that spell the death of the hybrid author approach?  That is, does this mean you cannot do both traditional and self-publishing?  No, it doesn’t.  But the key to success seems to be to start as an independent self-publisher, and then once you have something that traditional publishing wants, you will have the leverage necessary to negotiate away the non-compete clauses in their various forms.  If you start with the traditional publishers from beginning, you don’t have much to negotiate with.

WorldCon, Part 1

WorldCon_IronThroneWell, I was hoping to wrap this all up into one mammoth blog post, but it looks like it’s going to be two mammoth blog posts. So anyway, here’s the first part of my WorldCon experience. I haven’t been to a WorldCon in thirteen years, and I’d forgotten how big it is. Then again, I also know it’s small by comparison to other cons (think DragonCon or ComicCon) as well as earlier cons. The numbers I’ve been hearing bandied about are in the 4000-5000 range, which is about average for WorldCon, though the official numbers won’t be in for weeks at least.

I’ve run into a lot of familiar faces from the Texas convention scene, but I’ve also seen a number of folks from much further afield, including a few I haven’t seen since that last WorldCon I went to in 2000. That’s always great, though I find my focus has changed. As I mentioned before, I’m not trying so much to glean wisdom from the published authors, editors, or agents, as much as I’m trying to learn more about production and marketing.

And interestingly, while the panel listings did not explicitly mention indie publishing, that didn’t stop several of the panels from talking about the subject directly. So, here are a number of panels I went to.

Self-Promotion: Everything You Know About it is Probably Wrong: I arrived late to the con and walked into this one already in progress. It was mostly industry professionals, and I had not arrived with a notebook for taking notes. However, I did hear one interesting semi-contradiction. When asked about giving books away to grab new readers, they said it was great when your publisher did it at a convention, but anyone doing it on their own was simply declaring that their book was worthless. Then, ten minutes later, they were praising Baen Publishing’s wisdom in giving away the e-book versions of the first books in a series in order to pull readers into the series. I know I’m coming at this from a different perspective than they are, but I was a little annoyed by their praise of a practice when done within the industry in juxtaposition with their dismissal of the same practice when done by indies.

The Business Side of Writing: I didn’t get much from this other than the same old things of “don’t quit your day job” and “treat it like a business”. On the whole, these are things I’ve seen said better elsewhere. I will note, however, that one of the two authors on the panel was an indie. About the only thing that made enough of an impression for me to jot down was the notion that treating it like a business meant writing a business plan. I _might_ investigate that. On the whole, I would say it’s a good idea, but the last time I ran a business (a software company in the 90s) the whole business plan attempt devolved into long meetings with my partners while we dallied around with some high-concept vision statement and mission statement. I’ll have to take another look at the more useful bits of this idea.

C.J. Cherryh’s Worldbuilding: Alas, this did not have C.J. Cherryh there to tell us her inner secrets. We did have an old friend of hers who had a number of great anecdotes along with a couple of other writers who were big fans of her work. The overarching message seemed to be that there is no such thing as too much research. While that may work for Cherryh, your mileage may vary. I’m a huge fan of her work, but I’m afraid I didn’t get much out of this panel.

How to Convert a Book into E-Book Format: This was an attempt to walk us through the basics. It did talk about Calibre, but the presenter’s preferred tool was something called Sigil. The project is hosted here ( ) complete with some Windows-install links. I had heard of Sigil before from others, but I had not actually looked at it yet. Now I’m giving it some serious consideration. If nothing else, it looks like it makes a great WYSIWYG HTML editor for doing the hand-coding of the ebook.

The Role of an Agent: This one was filled with experienced industry professionals, and they briefly described how agents will send manuscripts to appropriate editors and then work to negotiate the contract. Then it seemed mostly to go into some nostalgia about how things used to be before publishing was consumed by big corporate culture. It is now run by accountants, not editors. In fact, one said that the current publishing environment is such a scary and dangerous place, writers are lucky to have agents here to deal with it, “so the writer doesn’t have to worry about it.” Frankly, I thought they did such a good job describing the problems in New York, it reaffirmed my decision to avoid it altogether.

In the Q&A period, someone did bring up indie publishing and whether a successful track record would help negotiate with New York. This seemed to be a sore point with some of them as they were adamant that there was no way to track self-published sales. I think what they really meant is that there was no reporting mechanism telling them independently like they can get with BookScan data, because as just about any self-publisher will tell you, we can track them better than New York. We get monthly statements.

Literary Estates: This was one of those panels that really needs to be expanded into a weekend-long seminar. There was just far too much information to cover, but the basic message was make a will and make sure you express what you want to have happen to your books in it. That is, who inherits the rights? The attorney recommended against trying to get too specific on how the property is to be treated because numerous cases have shown that those restrictions are almost impossible to enforce. It’s far better to appoint a trustee (or your beneficiary) who understands your goals and philosophy and then simply trust them to use their judgment.

If the Pen is Mightier than the Sword, What Have You Stabbed Lately?: This was supposed to go into dealing with politics, but I was getting pretty tired by this point, so about the only thing I came away with was that Maurice Broaddus sounds like an interesting writer.

Writing Erotica: Whenever this panel happens, it’s always a late hour, so I confess I was pretty much wiped out by the time it started. I have no notes from it, and only one vague memory: “You want to know the difference between porn and erotica? Porn pays better.”

WorldCon_K9Gender in SF: This went into a lot of gender views and politics in SFF, mostly on things that had been done badly. Specifically, when dealing with non-binary gender in the future, most authors seem to ignore the history of it, such as what’s already been going on for decades or centuries today. Also, when stepping away from the basic cisgendered heterosexual norm, too many authors put way too much emphasis on the sex rather than the rest of the characters’ lives. There was, however, one recommendation for a graphic novel titled, “Y The Last Man”.

For fantasy, the question was raised whether we need to be historically accurate for gender roles? That is, if we say that medieval times were male-dominated, must all of our fantasy fiction also be male-dominated, or is this just an excuse to perpetuate misogyny? This also raised the aspect of “hidden history”, i.e. the real history that was not largely written about by male historians, so if we focus on a male-dominated medieval setting, are we really being historically accurate after all? And then, of course, what’s with all these wizards and dragons – don’t they make any historical arguments moot? In short, there were no solid conclusions, but the panel was clearly unhappy with the current state of affairs.

Publishing Intermediaries in the Digital Age: The panel description for this one read, “Agents, Editors Publishers. All obsolete in the digital age, right? We find out how useful these experts are and what services they can provide to authors and other creators.” Also, looking at the lineup of industry professionals, I went in expecting this one to be mostly the defense of traditional publishing and a screed against indies. It didn’t quite pan out that way.

About twenty minutes in, mostly filled with nostalgia for the way New York publishing used to be run back in the 70s and 80s, the subject of self/indie publishing came up. The moderator (a game publishers, not a fiction publisher) asked how many in the audience were considering self-publishing. A few hands went up, including my own. He then asked how many of us had actually already done it. Three hands remained up. “So, how is that working out for you?” The first guy that answered said, “I sold 35,000 books last year at a $5 price point.” I think it’s fair to say that both panel and audience were stunned. I spoke with this particular author afterwards, and he has about seven or eight books out.

The moderator then moved on to me. I answered, “I’m just starting out, and I’m selling about 300 books a month now also at a $5 price point.”

“So, not quite quitting the day job money?” he replied.

I agreed, but what I did not say that it’s turning into good enough money that in five or six months it will outstrip the $5000 – $7500 advance any New York publisher would be likely to offer me, and that advance would be spread out over eighteen months. I think that moment, more than any other, made me happy I’d made the choice to start off as an indie author. I might aim for hybrid status later on when I have a stronger backlist, but for now I’m quite happy where I am.

The third indie in the room was managing the literary estate of a well-known SF midlist author, and she was in the process of indie publishing all of that author’s backlist. About the only other thing I got out of the panel was a tip for where to find independent editors: The Editorial Freelancers Association,

First Contact: I had been hoping this would be more of a discussion about how to write first contact scenarios, but mostly I found it to be a bunch of recommendations for the panelists favorite contact stories: The Left Hand of Darkness, the Rama trilogy, The Road Not Taken, and The Sparrow. There was some discussion about motivations, i.e. why did they come? what do they want from us? what will we want from them? So, it was nice, but not spectacular.

WorldCon_LegoHugoThe Shift from Print Publishing to E-Publishing: The panel description made this look like a discussion of the reading experience of print vs. e-book, but it turned into an indie love-fest. Notably, none of the panelists felt that print was going away, especially for non-fiction, but they all felt strongly that the fiction market was being turned upside down by e-publishing. One quote: “If you adapt, you’ll thrive. If you don’t adapt, you’ll go out of business.”

They also pointed to the explosion in short fiction. It had been dying just a few years ago as genre magazines were hemorrhaging subscribers, but now it’s thriving with short e-books directly from the authors. They all made a point that it was important to interact with your readers and give those readers what they want, i.e. don’t put up artificial barriers between the readers and your work.

And finally, Hugh Howey drove home the point I’ve heard many, many times: “The best marketing you can do is to write the next book.” He’s famous for his Silo series (starting with _Wool_), but he had already put out eight books before he wrote that one. He had been slowly building an audience, and that was the first one that his fans started pushing hard to their friends.

That pretty much goes with what I’ve heard elsewhere, both in and out of New York publishing. Things take off between your sixth and tenth books. I can’t remember where I first heard this, but here it is: “Most overnight success stories were a decade in the making.”

The Changing Economics of Book Production and Distribution: I’m not sure what I was hoping for from this panel, but I can say that I didn’t get it. This mostly turned into the same kind of publisher complaint session I’ve been seeing for the last year or two and hearing from other professionals at the con. Returns are killing us. E-books are eating into our print sales. E-books are costing us money. There’s no money to be made. Amazon is the Great Satan. And so on. Some of this struck me as just plain wrong since when I look at publisher’s financial reports, they have lately been pointing to their increased profits from e-books. So, it may just be that these particular panelists were further behind the curve than others. It’s hard to say for sure, since I know I went in with my own pro-Indie bias.

However, I did get to ask one question that I really wanted to ask. Namely, did they foresee any game-changing technological advancement in print-on-demand publishing coming down the pipeline that would close the cost gap between POD and offset printing? They all said no. Most of the POD improvements they have been seeing are in quality and speed of printing, not in cost. On the other hand, though, none of them could point to any technological/mechanical reason why such a cost revolution was impossible. Of course, that does not mean such a revolution is coming, but did not rule it out in my mind. Personally, I think that if such a price revolution did occur, it would be as big of a disrupting force as e-publishing has been.

And that takes me through the end of Saturday. I was too wiped out to attend the masquerade. As much as I enjoy seeing cosplay, the whole pageantry thing of the masquerade event is lost on me.

Part two will include a number of other panels, some thoughts on the Hugo awards, and a bit on some marketing I did at the event.

Heading off to WorldCon and a Few Writing Updates

pocket-programI’m heading off to WorldCon this morning. I haven’t been since 2000 in Chicago, mostly because of the kids and the difficulty of travelling. Now, of course, the kids are older, and this year it’s just down the road in San Antonio. I’m definitely looking forward to it, but at the same time, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed in the programming.

You see, in all my years of going to SF/F conventions, I’ve often attended the writer-centric panels. They tended to be split between the craft itself and a dozen different ways of asking the question, “How do I get published?” I’m still interested in the panels discussing the craft of writing, but I’m no longer interested in the panels on getting published. I chose to go indie, so I’m not particularly interested in tips on crafting an agent query letter.

But I figured that with self-publishing (or indie publishing as the cool kids say) on the rise, there would be some panels talking about that. Well, no, it turns out there aren’t any. The closest it comes is what looks to be a defense of traditional publishing with all the agents, editors, and publishers holding the line and a separate discussion on the transition from print books to e-books, though not about the business changes that represents.

Meanwhile, I have seen estimates that anywhere from 10%- 30% of the SF stories being read today are by independent authors like myself. A quick glance at Amazon’s top 20 SF books shows me that about half of them are from indie authors. Mind you, this is across all SF books, not just SF e-books. Amazon represents about half of the US book market, so even if you cut that ten of twenty in half, you still have about 25% of those top sellers coming from the indie world. (A brief note to statisticians: I realized this is a very rough estimate, but there are no real, solid numbers available on this anywhere.)

Apparently, whoever did the programming for this year’s WorldCon didn’t get the memo. I can’t entirely blame them though. Most of their main guests and headliners come from the ranks of traditional publishing. This is sure to affect their mindset. Then again, with the commercial success of Wool, it might not be that long before an indie shows up on the fan-based Hugo ballot.

Still, there’s plenty to see and do, so I’m looking forward to it.

As for the rest of the writing, August was something of a crap-fest, particularly towards the end. I have special needs children, and their needs became, well… extra special this month. The last Friday before school, we put two and two together and have made a change to one of the medications, and that is already paying some dividends. And of course, they’re now officially back in school, granting me hours of kid-free time each day to do productive work.

And what work have I done so far? I confess much of this week has been spent on catching up on some administrivia that had nothing to do with writing. I sold off an old flatbed trailer. I dealt with some insurance issues for my mother. And quite lamely, I paid the water bill just in time to keep it from being disconnected. But I’m at least gearing up again. Here’s the current state of various projects:

Shattered: Draft done and lying fallow for the next few months.

Stone Killer: I’m about 40% of the way through at 32,000 words. I’m hoping to wrap it up sometime in September.

Hell Bent: I’m still waiting on the rest of my beta feedback. I’ve gotten three out of the six so far, and while it’s generally been good, I’ve got a pacing problem in the first third that I haven’t figured out how to fix yet.

Debts of My Fathers: It’s still in edits. I found this particularly hard to work on with the kids home in summer. Drafting new words was easier by comparison, because I could do that on my laptop. In fact, much of the new text for Shattered and Stone Killer was written in the early morning, down in the kitchen, while I cooked large batches of my picky son’s favorite food. Alas, I have to edit in my office where I can spread out with my printed copy and hand-written notes. Long-story short: I did not get much good editing time in my office this summer.

Oaths of My Fathers: It’s still in pre-draft limbo. I will attempt to get started on it once I had Debts of My Fathers off to the beta readers, and I will want to finish it before I send Debts to the copyeditor.

You may note that I left the dates off those. Well, they’ve slipped since my original estimates in June – I’m just not sure how much yet. Debts of My Fathers is the priority since I have readers asking for it, and I still hope to get that out around the end of the year or the beginning of 2014. Hell Bent, which is actually further along will very likely wait until after Debts of My Fathers is out the door. As one friend recently said, I’ve primed the pump for chocolate, so I need to deliver more chocolate before I send out the mint.

That’s it for now.

Review: APE How to Publish a Book, by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

In this case, APE stands for Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which are the three roles you need to fill if you intend to self-publish in today’s publishing landscape. Since I’m self-publishing, I thought I’d give it a look and see if there was anything there for me. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much.

Certainly, the book is filled with lots of good information and primers. It would have been a great thing for me to read a year and a half ago. But now… most of the content of the book was stuff I’ve already figured out on my own. That doesn’t make me an expert, and I was hoping for more from these guys who supposedly are.

The Author section was mostly a collection of tools to use while writing (Word, Scrivener, etc.) as well as some arguments for pursuing self-publishing over the traditional path of submitting to a publisher. There was very little here on actual writing, but in fairness, that subject is too large and belongs in several other books on specific writing issues. Still, I felt pretty bored during the section and was eager to skip ahead.

The Publisher section was mostly about the nuts and bolts of taking your manuscript and getting it to the point where a reader could actually purchase it. This was pretty good, but I felt it gave too much credit to author service companies like those under the umbrella of Author Solutions without giving them the kind of critical analysis that the folks at Writer Beware do. Also, I would have liked to have seen more commentary on cover design as well as describing more mechanisms for creating e-book files. Nowhere did I see it mentioned that most e-book files are processed HTML and that the most reliable source format for the conversion is not Word or InDesign but HTML.

The Entrepreneur section was mostly about marketing. I didn’t see anything revolutionary here, just the same social media push that everyone else talks about. There was also a fair amount said about getting into the press via press reports, etc. I have mixed feelings about that. A lot of people tell you it’s a waste of time. Other people claim it gets them a lot of free publicity. Personally, I have a suspicion that it has less to do with your press release and who you send it to as it has to do with whether the recipient of that press release knows who you (or your traditional publisher) are.

So like I said, I would have found this useful before I started down the self-publishing path, but if you’ve already done it yourself, there won’t be much new stuff here.

Indie vs. Traditional Publishing

One of the nicest things to see on the internet is watching a pointless argument actually cool off instead of pouring on even more heat. It’s rare, but it does happen, just like it did for the ongoing argument between established authors who published through the traditional houses and the upstarts like me who went the indie or self-publishing route.

castleAt the start of 2012, about the time I made my own decision to go Indie, the two camps were digging trenches and sharpening spears. Those in the traditional camp stood high upon the walls of their New York castles, confident in their righteous gatekeepers, and looked out upon the raging barbarians and called them deluded fools. Meanwhile, the indie camp moved openly through the fields with confidence and shook their heads at the poor word-slaves held prisoner within those very same New York castles. Between them raged a war of words so vast and vehement that I can only imagine how many novels slipped off to next year because of the wasted effort.

But now things have cooled down. The two camps are hardly seeing eye to eye, but I’m seeing some grudging acceptance in both camps.

What happened to change their minds? Well, I’m sure that some of it was merely them running out of steam. Even the most strident partisans eventually wear themselves out. They might say there is no point in trying to educate their idiotic opposition or that they are merely taking a brief respite from the fight, but when you add it up across the ranks, the volume has been turned down from its once-epic volume.

nomoneyinhandBut there were also some reality checks on both sides. Thousands of indie authors tossed out their one and only book, pounded out the marketing, and inexplicably did NOT become millionaires. For that matter, most did not even make $1000. It became clear that we would not all be breakout successes like Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and E. L. James. Just like in traditional publishing, those were going to be the rare exception. Many realized that one book will not give them a living wage and that they did not have the patience and stamina to keep at it for ten or fifteen books before seeing much success.

Meanwhile, cracks spread through the New York castle walls. One of the best-selling SF books in 2012 was Wool, self-published by its author Hugh Howey. Another best-seller was the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, another self-publishing breakout. Also, major authors started pulling their electronic rights back from the traditional publishers. Specifically, J. K. Rowling decided to publish the e-book versions of the Harry Potter series herself, and I have personally heard a number of older authors talk about putting up some of the backlist for sale themselves and “making more on it now than I ever did before.” Throw in a price-fixing lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, a merger or two, and those castle walls are starting to look a lot less stable.

We’re also seeing some crossover with indie authors grabbing traditional contracts and traditionally published authors walking away to go indie. Some of those moving into the New York castles talk about finally seeing their books on a bookstore shelf, while those moving out into the open fields talk about having the kind of control they always wanted but never had. And after years of everyone saying the only path to publishing was to get an agent, we’re seeing several examples of New York publishers looking at successful indie books as their new slush pile.

While both sides are starting to question the certainty of their righteous cause, it’s important to note what is really coming out of all this. It’s not that one side is right and the other side wrong. It’s that traditional publishing is right for some people and some situations while indie publishing is right for other people and other situations.

The bottom line is that we should all be trying to make the decision that is right for ourselves. These will vary according to our goals, our personalities, and where we are on this particular journey. Am I making the right decision for myself? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that I’m in a better position to know than anyone else, whether it’s some illiterate slob or the CEO of Random House.


This blog is now officially one year old. My first post was little more than “Hey! This is my blog!” and a brief introduction. I didn’t have any grand plans then. I can’t say my plans are that grand now either, but at least I’ve got some momentum.

And momentum is exactly what I was lacking a year ago. I had been piddling around with my writing for years… well, decades really. I felt I had a lot of stories to tell, and I thought my writing was rising to a professional level, but I was not getting anywhere. Of course, I wasn’t trying that hard, either. I had a couple of leads on agents, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to proceed. For that matter, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to proceed.

You see, somewhere in that tentative agent hunt, one of those agents had asked an important question: why do I want to be published? This was different than the age-old question of why do I want to write, and notably, it was a question I had never asked myself. At the time it was asked, my only answer was that it seemed to be the next logical step, but writing and publishing are very different tasks, and just because I enjoyed one was no reason to think I would enjoy the other.

The other lurking question was whether to pursue traditional publishing at all or head out into the lands of self-publishing on my own. “No unagented submissions” was the rule of the day, and even getting an agent was a dicey proposition. Meanwhile, a legion of scam artists were eager to pounce on my dreams and turn them into debts and disaster.  And the self-publishing evangelists were making claims that seemed too good to be true.

To say I was stuck would be an exaggeration of my forward motion, but that had changed two weeks earlier. I was having lunch with a friend, and we were both bemoaning our lack of progress. He was trying to make the jump “above the line” in films, and I was trying to move forward on some kind of writing career. We had both been stuck for years, and we didn’t see anything obvious that was about to yank us forward.

And that’s when I said it. “I don’t want to be having this same conversation in two years.

It’s not pithy enough to be a Nike slogan, but it had the same effect. I dusted off this domain – registered but idle for years – and started blogging. I finished the edits to Beneath the Sky. I finished the draft to Hell Bent. I wrote the draft to Ships of My Fathers. When the new year came around, I finally answered my questions about publishing and made the decision to self-publish Beneath the Sky.  In May I did exactly that. Since then I’ve done first pass edits to Ships of My Fathers and launched into the draft of its sequel, Debts of My Fathers.

I’d like to say it’s been one steady roll of successes, but I’ve had my stumbles along the way. Publishing Beneath the Sky took longer than I had hoped, and I feel like I rushed the cover. The draft to Debts of My Fathers stalled over the summer due to distractions from a house full of special-needs kids and some problems with how the third act was shaping up. I’ve resolved those now, and I’m heading back in to finish it up. But now I’m two months behind where I wanted to be.

Still, I’m eager to keep moving and confident that when next September rolls around, I won’t be having that same stuck-in-the-mud conversation. Tasks that I’m still hoping to finish off this year include: finishing Debts of my Fathers, polishing and publishing Ships of my Fathers, getting Hell Bent into the hands of my beta readers, and writing the first draft to the sequel to Hell Bent, tentatively titled Stone Killer.

As for the blog, I have a few changes in mind. Some of them are cosmetic, but a few are content-focused. I will probably be dropping my intermittent blog entries on making gold in World of Warcraft – though for the record, I did punch through the one million gold mark this summer. (Fanfare?  Cheers?  Golf clap??)  Instead of talking about gaming, I’m going to take a stab at writing more short fiction. This is something I have not done regularly since the 1990’s, but I want to give it another shot. The SF/F essays will continue, and I will likely continue to talk some about writing and publishing. The book reviews will keep coming along as fast (er, I mean, as slow…) as I read them, but I’m thinking about adding some columns on movies as well.  Podcasting is still a possibility, but it’s iffy.

I hope to have two or three more books in print by the time this blogiversary rolls around next year, but other than that, I have no idea where this is all headed. As always, I’m making it up as I go.

The Ethics of Paid Reviews

The writing blogosphere is ablaze this week with the scandal of paid reviews. In an article for the New York Times, David Streitfield revealed that various businesses have been posting fake 5-star reviews for hire.  In his short tenure, he produced about 4500 reviews, most of them farmed out to people who spent only a few minutes glancing over the book in order to include the relevant details in their glorious review. The people buying the reviews were typically indie/self-published authors.

The response I have seen from the writing blogs has been damn near universal condemnation. This is wrong, unethical, and downright shameful. Authors should never buy good reviews.

I agree, and to make it clear, I have never paid for a review, good or bad. The fact that my book presently has only one review on Goodreads and one review on Amazon should be testament to that. Also, while I do post reviews here on my blog and over at Goodreads, I have never been paid to do so.  (Heh, though if you have read my book, feel free to take this as mournful plea to go post a review.)

But over in the comment thread at The Happy Logophile, blogger Jo Eberhart asked why we are all so mad about it:

…I wonder whether we’re actually so incensed about this issue because the reviewer is being paid, or because the reviews are guaranteed to be positive. Is it the unethical behaviour of the authors in “bribing” someone to read their book? Or is it the unethical behaviour of lying about the quality of the book?

It was an excellent question, and it got me thinking. Where is the ethical line? Is it that the reviewers were paid, that the author was the one paying, or that the review was guaranteed to be good?

I don’t believe it’s a problem for reviewers to be rewarded in some way, even in cold hard cash. The New York Times pays staff writers to review books. Newspapers, magazines, and even booksellers do this all the time. For that matter, Consumer Reports pays its staff to review toaster ovens, and I think we’d all agree there’s no ethics violation there.

But these purchased reviews were not commissioned by a neutral party. They were commissioned by the author himself. That’s getting into murky territory. Can an author pay someone and expect a genuinely honest review of the book? “Here’s your $50, no strings attached. Read the book and post your honest opinion, good or bad.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to really cut those strings. Even if the author uses this reviewer only once, a reviewer who gets a reputation for posting bad reviews won’t get much future business from the other authors either.

But promising to post a good review no matter what? Ah, that seems to be the real ethical line, because the reviewer is willing to tell a lie for that money. Even if the reviewer truly liked this particular book, his willingness to fall back to a lie somehow invalidates the true reviews.

This problem shows up even outside of this current scandal of paid reviews. There is often a quid pro quo arrangement between authors of “I’ll review/blurb your book if you’ll review/blurb mine.” From what I hear, even in traditional circles, this carries the expectation of a good review. The release valve for honesty seems to be that if you can’t give a glowing review, you don’t post a review and simply tell the other author, “Sorry, I wasn’t able to get to it in time.” Even that goes over poorly.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that reviewers receiving compensation is not the problem. The problem is when that compensation leads the reviewer to lie about the book.

Still, it would be nice to find a way around this ethical dilemma, particularly for indie/self-published books. Why? Because there are real economic benefits to solving this, both for authors and for readers.

Namely, indie authors who have quality books need the endorsement that comes with multiple good reviews. They have eschewed their chance at getting the “gatekeeper” endorsement of traditional publishing, so reviews and word of mouth are the only endorsements they can get.

Meanwhile, shoppers would like to be tipped off to all the indie crap that’s out there. Glowing reviews by the kind of service mentioned above cloud this issue, and it would be nice to see them buried by real readers’ reviews.

And finally, readers who are capable of putting out a decent review might like a little reward for putting in the effort. There’s not enough money available to pay the equivalent of a million New York Times columnists, but as e-book pricing moves up out of the 99-cent basement, there is at least a little bit of money available to throw at them.

But can we find a way for authors to pay that money without giving the reader a reason to lie in the review? It seems that the best way to do it is to insert an intermediary between the author and the reviewer to see to it that the reviewer is rewarded for writing a review but not punished for writing a poor review.

I think Amazon could be such an intermediary.

Here’s how I think that could work. I’m looking at this specifically from their KDP Kindle publishing program, but I think elements could be carried to other platforms.

I, as an author, could say that I want some more reviews for my books.

You, the reader, could buy a book and post a review.

If you are reviewing a book that an author has requested reviews for, you would get some percentage of your purchase price back. Maybe you would get back 20% if you simply gave it a ranking, i.e. how many stars? Perhaps you could get back as much as 50-60% if you actually wrote a text review.

The review/rating you gave the book would not impact your payment or keep you from reviewing other books.

If an author decided he had enough reviews or that he did not like the reviews he was getting, he could turn off the pay-for-review option.

Here are some of the things I like about this:

  • Amazon could ensure that the payment was truly a refund by only offering to those who bought the book from Amazon. This would also limit the paid reviews to one per customer per book.
  • The author would have no control over the kinds of reviews he gets. Once the review goes up, the author automatically pays for it. He gets no choice on which reviews he pays for or who gives those reviews.
  • The only real choice the author gets is whether or not he wants to pay for any additional reviews. He might decide after fifty good reviews that it’s enough. On the other hand, he might decide that after eight one-star reviews that he’s better off not paying for any more of them.
  • The author pulling the plug does not prevent more reviews. It only stops the payment for future reviews for that book.
  • Offering a refund percentage of less than 70% would keep the payments less than the author was making from the book, so Amazon would not so much be charging the author as discounting the royalty in exchange for the review.
  • Likewise, keeping the payment to less than the cost of the book would keep readers from abusing this as a get-money-from-starving-authors scheme, since they could only get back part of what they had already spent.
  • Since authors would likely turn the option off after receiving some number of reviews/ratings, there would be an incentive to review new books that did not yet have many reviews.
  • Amazon could hold the reviewer’s payment as a discount on future purchases, thus encouraging future sales for themselves and eliminating service charges on small financial transactions.
  • While it doesn’t stop an author from paying people to go post false reviews, it would make those less valuable by providing good books a more legitimate path for reviews and drowning bad books in truthful reviews.
  • Hopefully, the possibility of paid reviews would increase reviews overall, even on the crappy books that do not want honest reviews.


So, some questions:

  • Do you think this dodges the ethical issues around an author paying for a review?
  • If you are an author, would you use such a system?
  • As a reader, would this encourage you to write more reviews or post more ratings?
  • As a shopper, would this make you trust Amazon’s reviews less, more, or about the same?

Or am I crazy for even suggesting it?

Watching the Agent Fray

Not many of my readers are following the publishing anti-trust case, but the writing/publishing blogosphere has been pretty active in the last couple of weeks. One of the most interesting developments has been seeing agents taking their positions on the matter. I would like to say I was surprised by what they said, but I can’t. More accurately, it was simply disappointing.

A number of high-ranking members in the Association of Authors’ Representatives (i.e. authors’ agents) as well as some from the rank and file and been writing to the Department of Justice in defense of the five publishers in the suit. They talk a lot about the good of the publishing industry, about the need to save brick and mortar bookstores, and the need to preserve the viability of hardcover book sales. The only point where they talk about the authors they supposedly represent is when they admit that yes, under the current e-book pricing system, their authors get less per book than they would have otherwise, but that this is a necessary sacrifice for the good of the industry.

In another case a romance agent spoke up on behalf of Harlequin’s business practices after an author complained of getting an effective royalty rate of less than 3% compared to Harlequin’s promised 6% rate. The agent was very patronizing and reminding the poor author that she signed the contract, and Harlequin was acting within its rights. In other words, you got what you asked for.

I don’t mean to cast all agents in this light, but it seems to me that these agents are no longer standing up for their authors’ interests. They are fighting instead for their publishers’ interests, or perhaps merely their own interests. They’re promoting the sacrifice of those authors’ interests for the sake of “the publishing industry”. They’re telling their clients to be careful what contracts they sign when they are supposed to be the authors’ advocates in negotiating those contracts. In short, these agents are exercising the ethics of a vulture.

I’m sure there are plenty of ethical agents still out there. I’m just waiting for them to jump into the debate and start arguing for their clients’ interests. Waiting… and waiting…

But for all the agent angst going on out there, I am watching without any personal interest. I saw this conflict of interest coming last year when I saw how some agents were handling their clients’ backlists moving to e-books. It was one of the things that drove me to self-publishing, and as such, I don’t have an agent.

That actually saddens me. It would have been nice to have someone to watch my back, to get the sage advice of an experienced hand. But I saw that I couldn’t do it. I realized that between agent ethics and increasingly harsh publishing contracts, I was probably going to be better off on my own as this settles out in the next two to three years.

In some ways it’s scarier this way. I don’t know what to expect. But sometimes fear of the unknown is less than distaste for the known.

Discovering the Workflow

One of the interesting things about learning a new craft is discovering the workflow. In any craft you do, there’s an optimal order for performing the various subtasks. For example, in my digital renders/painting, I don’t bother setting up the lights until I have the basic scene composed in my camera view. That way, I’m casting light onto something tangible, rather than setting up lights that might or might not fall on something that isn’t there yet. Other folks might prefer it the other way, i.e. setting up the desired lighting and placing objects in the scene to conform to that lighting, but that’s their workflow, not mine.

And that’s a critical aspect to discovering the workflow. It’s not the workflow. It’s my workflow. These are the choices that work for me. Your mileage may vary.

But that also means there are very few guides to doing the whole process start to finish, and that’s been a real challenge for me as I navigate my way towards independent publishing. There are plenty of guides out there on how to do e-book formatting, or on how to design a cover, or on how to buy an ISBN, and so on, but I am yet to find a turn-key guide.

Step 1: Write the first draft.
Step 2: Let it sit.
Step 3: Print it out and buy a fresh red pen.

Step 73: Profit!!

A lot of it is obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t ahead of time. For example, don’t design your wrap-around cover until you’ve done the formatting for your print book. Why? Because you don’t know the size of the cover until then. Even if you’d already planned on doing 8 by 5, you don’t know the thickness of the spine until you have the page count.

But yeah, I know the page count. It’s 190.

Except it isn’t. That’s 190 pages of 8.5 by 11 in Times New Roman 12-point with one inch margins.

Okay, let’s look at it as 8 by 5. Hmmm, 502 pages. That seems a little long for 90,000 words. Well, the margins look a little big. Ok, shrink those down. And pick a different font. Yeah, Book Antiqua looks nice, but the lines are a little scrunchy. Let’s space those out some.

Okay, now I know the page count. At 8 x 5, it’s 420 pages. Let’s get to that cover…

But wait, the cost is per page. How much is that going to cost to print? And how much did I want to charge for it? Okay… at 420 pages, I’m going to make about 48 cents per printed copy. While I’m not trying to make a mint on each copy, 48 cents is too low. Okay, I’ll just charge more… but no, that’s asking for too much. I know I wouldn’t pay for that much for a printed copy.

So back to the formatting. Let’s look at some books. Here’s an 8×5. That looks okay, but frankly, it’s a little smaller than I expected. Let’s look at a 9×6. Hmmm, it gets a little floppy when I hold it open with one hand. Okay, let’s split the difference and find an 8.5 by 5.5. Yeah, that looks about right, and it feels okay holding in one hand.

And back to the margins… trim them down a bit more at the top and bottom, but make the gutters larger so the text doesn’t disappear into the curve of the spine. And I don’t have to space those lines out quite as much as I thought. And let’s make sure that chapter headers have the kind of font and white space I want. And so on, and so on.

So, at 8.5 x 5.5, with these margins, in that font, that’s 320 pages total, which is about the right heft. I’ll price it at $14.95, which Amazon will discount to be some nice percentage off the cover price, and still leave me with enough to be making about as much on a print copy as I will on an e-book copy. $15 is a little pricy, but it really is in line with other print-on-demand or trade paperback books.

So now I finally know the spine thickness, and that means I can get started on my cover.

Except that I need the UPC barcode for the back, and that means I need an ISBN. Okay, so I can go get the ISBN numbers from Bowker. Yep got ten of them. Ready to go.

Except… which ISBN number of my ten will I use? All right, need to pick one and register it. Fine, I’ll take that top one at the head of the list. Enter title, check! Pick format, check! Enter product description… hmmm.

Product description? Well, it’s a story about this girl. And she’s on a spaceship. Well, not a spaceship really, more of a colony ship. And it’s one of those multi-generational ships, you see, and they’ve been at this for a long time, and…

Wait, what I’m looking for here is the blurb, the pitch, the log lines. I kind of sketched those out once for an agent pitch, but now I need the real deal. In addition to going into the ISBN registration, it’s going into the Amazon product description, the printer’s catalog, and… yep, the back cover of the book. So off I go to write the blurb.

“Maggie is a young schoolteacher on the multi-generation colony ship, God’s Chariot, bound for their promised world, New Providence. When a faster-than-light freighter crosses their path…”

Allrightee… now I’m ready to start on the cover. Right? Maybe? Or am I going to get halfway through and discover that I need just one more thing? Maybe I need to finish the e-book formatting first? Or do I need to choose the right genre in Amazon’s category tree first?

So in trying to do the art for the cover, I have gone through everything from font spacing to price analysis and marketing text, none of which really has anything to do with the art. But for me, it seems, they needed to come first.

That’s what I’m talking about when I say I’m “discovering” my workflow. I’m pushing my way through in starts and stops, backing up, and trying again. I feel a bit like a carpenter who foolishly stained and sealed the lumber too early. You mean I was supposed to sand it first?