The Crash of Details

Remember when I talked about all those little things I was going to have to do to get my book out? Well, they’re crashing down around me as my self-imposed deadline of April looms ever closer.

I blame a lot of this on the fact that I’ve been fighting a really nasty cold for FIVE WEEKS now. I mean it, seriously. It went all bacterial on me, hitting my sinuses and touching on my lungs. I’m now on my second round of antibiotics – the first one providing adorable twin side-effects of insomnia and fatigue – and I still feel like I’m coughing up a lung. My head hurts. My ribs ache. And to top it off… I’m whining! Blech! I hate whining. And yet here I am.

So, back to the book.

Before the cold hit, I was moving along towards filing my DBA, opening a bank account, and ordering up a batch of ISBN’s. Alas, the name I had chosen for my little publishing venture was a little too close to another existing publishing company. If they published textbooks or travelogues it wouldn’t have stopped me, but they publish fiction in some of the same genres I write in, including a few by some of my favorite authors. I hadn’t chosen the exact same name, but I think there was some possibility for confusion, so I gave it up.

So, a month later, armed with a different name, I’m off to file my DBA, open a bank account, and order up some ISBN’s. I worry that this particular process may come with the occasional “two to four weeks” of delay that crops up in paper-based transactions. Then again, maybe some of these things have stepped forward into the twenty-first century. We’ll see.

I do have the copyedit corrections back on the manuscript. It turns out it was fairly clean, but she still caught enough errors that I would have been embarrassed to see them myself in the printed copy. I’m still in the process of incorporating them into my master document since I’m anal enough to want to approve each correction individually.

It’s also paranoia driven by a recent experience C.J. Cherryh had of seeing her most recent Ateva novel butchered by the copyeditor. Apparently that editor saw Cherryh’s careful rendering of the Ragi language into English as far too indirect and passive and decided to “fix” it. Shudder. Fortunately, so far my copyeditor has committed no such sins, nor am I expecting her to. But I’m a little paranoid.

Then there’s the cover. I confess it’s still entirely in my head, and that worries me. Part of this is it’s still been so long since I’ve painted, and part of it is that until I finally see it in one piece as a cover, with all the typography and everything, I won’t really know if the image I have in mind will actually work as a cover or if it’s too busy.

Then there’s the formatting. Fortunately, the research and experimenting I did earlier on e-book formatting gives me some confidence here. As for the print formatting, I’m pretty sure I can bend MS Word to my will enough to manage the formatting requirements of fiction. My main worry here is actually getting all the necessary parts, i.e. the front matter and the back matter. You know, title pages, copyright pages, acknowledgments, and so on.

Then there’s the actual dealing with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Createspace, and so on. I’ve seen quick how-to guides on those, so I’m not expecting much of a hurdle. Still, it almost seems worth the effort to go through it with a short story just for the trial run.

Oh yeah… and then there’s a completely unrelated tax snafu that I need to deal with in the next couple of weeks. Grrr…

Sufficed to say, I’m still trying for the start of April, but I may very well miss it by a mile.

We Need a New Yog’s Law

I recently sent off my novel “Beneath the Sky” to be copy-edited. A friend of a friend recommended a friend as a copy-editor, which means, I suppose, that my novel is halfway to Kevin Bacon. But that aside, I’m paying to get have it copy-edited in a professional manner because I want to put this thing out there in a professional fashion, but with that act, I run smack into that old publishing stand-by, Yog’s Law.

Yog’s Law states an old truism of traditional publishing:

Money flows towards the writer.

For years (decades?), I’ve heard writers and publishers quote this law. The backstory is here, where apparently James McDonald boiled down all the anti-scammer wisdom he could into one simple phrase. In that, he did a fabulous job. It’s clear, to the point, and memorable. Golly, it’s almost as if he knows a thing or two about writing, eh?

In traditional publishing, this little gem has saved a lot of aspiring writers from becoming aspiring victims. Don’t pay an agent to read your book. Don’t pay your so-called publisher for copy-edits or cover design. And for the love of God, don’t pay your publisher for the actual printing! Money flows towards the writer.

But in self-publishing (or “indie” publishing as the cool kids say) this is getting blurred. I’m a writer up to the point where I think the book is ready to go, but then I’m the publisher when I put it through copy-edits, cover design, print setup costs, etc. These are legitimate tasks that a publisher performs when publishing someone else’s book, and publishing companies hire people (i.e. PAY someone) to do those tasks. Then when it’s all done and out the door, I suppose I’m somewhere in between, money flowing back to me the writer while also setting some aside as the publisher to cover costs for the next book.

John Hartness opined on this last year, and James MacDonald (YOG himself!) stopped by to comment on it. He pointed out that his law is still valid as long as you keep track of which hat you’re wearing, i.e. writer vs. publisher, and that ultimately the publisher’s money is still flowing towards the author. “That it’s only moving from one pocket to another in the same pair of pants is immaterial.”

I get that, and be assured that I’m being pretty tight with any cash outlays towards this self-publishing venture, but I could have been less so. I ran into one company, 52 Novels, that does a lot of the publishing work for you. For a fee, they handle e-book formatting and for a little extra will even do print-book layout. They can farm out cover design, and if you ask nicely, I think they’ll even hook you up with a copy-editor or other literary services. By all accounts, they are quite ethical and have a reputation for doing high quality work for a reasonable price.

But I’ve heard of others that are maybe not so ethical, yet they look quite similar. Perhaps the crucial difference is that after you pay these less-ethical cousins for their services, they do you the added “favor” of publishing the book for you to various e-book outlets and POD fulfillment channels, only keeping a mere 20-50% of the perpetual royalties in exchange for this bonus service. With that one little detail, I’ve suddenly gone from paying a professional to do the job right to paying someone to rip me off. At least, that’s what it looks like to me. (To be clear, 52 Novels is a pay-for-service company, NOT a publisher or scammer.)

The key difference seems to be that when I pay my friend-thrice-removed to copy-edit my book or hire an artist to paint my cover, I am retaining all control as the publisher of my book. But that’s not boiled down into such a nifty little gem as Yog’s Law.

I suppose what we need is Yog’s Corallary, something like: But if you do pay for necessary services, be sure you keep control.

Yeah, not quite so clean and pithy. Yog, where are you when we need you?

Note: an extra bit of googling found a professional response to this question of Yog’s Law in the self-publishing era, including some good logic and a big-ass flow chart, so check out The Write Agenda.  It’s very informative and promises an impending white paper on the subject. But still, nothing quite so clean and pithy as the original.

Choosing to Self-Publish

I mentioned last week that have I chosen to self-publish rather than pursue traditional publishing, and that I would talk about why later. Well, this is the why.

I have certainly been aware of self-publishing for a long time, perhaps as long as a decade. Back then the options were hiring out your own printer, doing chapbooks, or perhaps using a service like XLibris. Lulu came along a little later, but even then, self-publishing was a struggle that did not appeal to me. Unless you had a way of getting your name and book in front of readers, self-publishing seemed like a way to either print your book nicely for Aunt June or fill your garage with books you’d never sell. There were rare exceptions, of course, but I saw no reason to think I would be one of them.

No, traditional publishing with its gatekeepers and bookstores seemed to be the way to go, and I was starting to pursue it in 2009 and early 2010. I had a completed novel and ideas for more. I was a regular at various SF/F conventions, and I was starting to check out the writer conferences. I had met a number of editors and agents – mostly casually but one at a pitch session – and they definitely filled my head with the way it was done. Find an agent, let them sell it to one of the big six New York publishers, and be glad your agent was getting you such a great deal.

Then in the spring of 2010, an agent asked me the question she asks all new writers she meets. “Why do you want to be published?” That’s a very different question than why I want to write. I write because it’s the only way to get these stories out of my head. It’s half creation, half exorcism. But that’s not about publishing.

So why did I want to publish? When she asked it, I did not have a particularly good answer. I could not even articulate it at the time, but my real answer was, “because it’s the next logical step.” Frankly, that did not seem good enough for me. It’s a frightening amount of work, and “just because” was not enough of a reason.

So I did some slow-motion navel-gazing for about a year. Why did I want it? Was it for the approval of the gatekeepers? Was it for the money? Was it just to see my name on a bookshelf? By the fall of 2011, I had found reasons that were good enough for me to pursue publishing, but I’d also realized some fears about getting into publishing.

Let’s start with my reasons for getting published – note: this is to get published at all, not necessarily with the big six vs. self-publishing:

1. I wanted to tell stories to readers, not just write them to get them out of my head. I have read a lot of books that I’ve loved, and I realized that I wanted to experience that transaction from the other side, to create something for someone else to read and love. Posting stories for free on the web does not seem practical to me, mostly because I hate reading on the screen. (See my earlier essay on switching to e-books and my love of light-reflective media.) So getting my stories out in print seemed to be the only way to go.

2. I want to make money at it. Yeah, I know. It’s art, and art is supposed to be pure and all that stuff, but I have bills to pay. I can do other work – work that usually pays a lot better than writing – but it would be a most excellent thing to get that money for writing instead. Mind you, this wasn’t an easy thing for me to accept, because I was pretty worried that transforming writing from a hobby into a profession would taint it. It would lose the ecstatic joy and turn into a soul-sucking grind. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, as long as I can write the stories I want to write.

3. I want to do the marketing. I know that sounds pretty strange, especially if you knew me back in my early software days, but this is a very different business. I see the authors hanging out on blogs, going to cons, talking about their books… and it looks FUN to me. Maybe that will turn out to be a grind after all, but from the outside it looks like a blast.

But like I said, I also had some fears:

1. Publishing takes forever, except when it goes too fast. While I’m patient enough to know that building a career in writing takes a long time and several books, I was not too keen on having the pace between books set by someone else. While I might not complain about a fast schedule, I knew I would have hated a slow schedule. “Ah, yes, we’ll publish your trilogy over five years. So, run along and we’ll talk after.” I worried I wouldn’t have enough control over when my stories got out to the readers. I don’t know what I would have considered “enough” control, but that’s what I worried about.

2. I worried about getting pigeon-holed into a specific genre. I heard tales from authors who wanted to branch out and write mystery instead of horror or fantasy instead of sci-fi, but they ran into roadblocks. “No, your readers don’t want that. Just give us another slasher novel.” I guess it’s the equivalent of actors being typecast as the funny guy or the villain. I figured that the easiest way around that was to branch out early, alternating between at least two genres, but I feared that no publishing company would be interested in that. In the past, authors did this via pen names, but since most readers buy their next book based on it being an author they know, why would you waste the value you’d built up in your original name?

3. I worried that I would get two books into a trilogy or maybe four books into a five-book series and have it be abandoned by the publisher. With all the shuffling that’s happened in the last few years in New York, that has happened to several authors I know. It doesn’t seem to matter that the previous books earned out their advances or that the fans are asking the author for the next book. A decision was made without the author’s input, and now the publisher doesn’t want any more. I don’t question a publisher’s right to make that decision, but it leaves both the author and the fans in the lurch. I didn’t want that to happen to me.

By the time I’d finished my introspection, it was 2011, and I had another draft working its way through the edit queue. Also, the talk of the e-book revolution was getting ever louder, and much of it was centered on self-publishing. Just to assure myself that my original plan to pursue traditional publishing was the correct path, I started reading up on the current state of self-publishing. Within a few weeks, I wasn’t so sure my original plan still held up, especially in light of the hopes and fears I had finally nailed down.

I set myself a task of making a decision by the end of 2011, and when it was all said and done, I had opted to pursue self-publishing, at least for the 2012-2013 timeframe. I’ll spare you a summary of all the arguments I read for and against, but I will tell you the few that really nailed it down for me.

1. Traditional publishers have lost their lock on the distribution channels, and that means it’s actually possible now to reach the readers. With the death of Borders, a larger and larger percentage of print books are being sold by Amazon. With the increasingly rapid adoption of e-readers, e-books have a much larger audience. Those two put together means that a self-published book going to Amazon and various e-readers can now reach half to two-thirds of the potential buyers. Ten years ago, a potential buyer would have had to hunt you down through back channels to buy your book. In short, I could actually do this now.

2. Prolific authors sell more books. Saying it like that makes it sound like a simple truism, but there’s data to back it up. I read some recent studies on how people choose their next book purchases, and the top three reasons were: it’s the next book in a series, it’s a new book by a favorite author, and a friend recommended it. Not only does a new book have a good chance with existing readers, but it’s one more chance for a reader to recommend you to a friend. So for me, that means get a book out, and then get the next book, and the next, and so on. That’s good advice for any publishing path, but I knew if I went the traditional path, it wouldn’t matter how many books I wrote, because they wouldn’t publish more than one every year or two.

3. I didn’t like the royalty structure of traditional publishing. There has been a lot written about the 70% vs. 17.5% rates of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing for e-books, and I confess that is a lot of what bugs me, but I’m also not too happy about the rates in paper books either. Yes, the publisher takes a risk with every book, paying money up front for editing, cover design, copy editing, promotion, printing, and so on, and they have the right to recoup that investment. But it strikes me that if I believe in my work, I should be willing to make that fixed cost investment myself and hope to collect it back myself.

4. This was the clincher. I don’t feel that right now I can trust the big publishing companies. I look at some of the clauses coming out in publishing contracts these days, and I think writers are getting screwed. In particular, the non-compete clauses are a nightmare – see what happened to Kiana Davenport.  I don’t think I would ever sign a contract with a clause like that, and as a new writer, I have zero confidence I would be able to negotiate that clause away. It would seem to be a deal-breaker for both sides, and that makes it a non-starter.

So the bottom line is that I fear traditional publishing won’t let me write the books I want to write at the pace I want to write them. Even if I try to work both traditional and self publishing, they’ll shut me down. In the end, that leaves me with really only one choice: to self-publish. And what do you know? Suddenly that option isn’t looking so bad after all.

Do I expect to be the next Amanda Hocking or John Locke? Maybe a Joseph Konrath? No, I don’t. For starters, they all have the letter K in their names, and I don’t. I’m sure there are other reasons as well, but I’m not going to dwell on them today. What I do expect is to be able to get my books in front of readers, and I hope that enough of them will be sufficiently entertained to think about another one.

Would I ever consider traditional publishing? Yes, but only when I have the clout to say no to contract terms I don’t like. They might very well laugh me out of the building, but then I’m just back to where I am now, doing it on my own.

Now, I have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks and months, but it looks like it’ll be fun.

The Cresting Wave of Crap?

I was reading a post by Chuck Wendig where he identified a number of problems facing self-publishers. One such problem is that as a self-publisher, you’re tainted by the poor quality of all the other self-published books out there, and there are some true stinkers. No gatekeepers means no quality control.

As part of this, he talks a little about the pervasive attitude among self-published authors where they have finally won their freedom, felling The Man with their mighty Kindles. No one is going to tell them that their story isn’t good enough for the masses. Gatekeepers be damned.

This attitude is great for writers. “Who cares? Poop out a book!”

This attitude sucks for readers. “I just bought this book. And I think it’s made of poop.”

Well, yeah. There are a lot of poop books out there, a diarrhea-spewn river of Kindle crap, floating through the… ok, I’m just going to back away from the rest of that sentence. You’re welcome. Sufficed to say, there are a lot of really bad self-published books out there these days, and it shows no signs of letting up.

Or does it?

To further plumb the depths of this messy metaphor, is this truly an endless turd or are we merely experiencing the explosive climax of a long-endured case of constipation? *

For decades, traditional publishing held the all the keys to the marketplace. They had the printers. They had the distribution. They had the know-how. (They also had the story editors, the copy editors, the art directors, the marketing folks and so on, but what crap-crusted self-publisher cares about those things?) There was no way for the average Joe to publish a book.

Well, actually, there was a way: get really good at the craft, write several good novels, and patiently offer them up to the various publishers. For most people, this was asking too much, especially when it was clear that The Man was going to keep them down, forever mired in the slush pile. (At least slush is better than crap, no?)

But now the Gatekeepers are irrelevant. E-publishing has torn down the walls. There’s nothing to stop any would-be best-selling author from pooping out his book and putting it on the market. And after decades of wanting to do just that, a lot of folks are.

But I’ll bet that the vast majority of them stop after one book. They may sell more copies than the previous sad self-publishing tales, i.e. five copies sold, including two to Mom, but by both numbers and quality, most of this surge of self-published books will be commercial failures.

Yes, the shelf-life of an e-book is theoretically forever, but the truth of it is that readers like to buy more of what they know they like. That means the next book in the series or another book by their favorite author. But if these newest authors had only the one book in them, then there is no next book in the series. There is no latest release. There is no backlist of twenty-three novels, all ready to be devoured by your newest fan. There’s just the one book, its bits getting dusty on some distant drive array.

And so they will write their one stinker, feel rightfully proud about having finally done it, and then see very few sales. They’ll hang on and spam twitter for a few months, maybe a year, but eventually the reality will settle in. The disappointment will sting, but they’ll get over it. Before long, they’ll move on to other distractions. I hear script-writing is all the rage now. And you know, I have that camera, and video-editing software is really cheap now. And we could shoot it at the old mill…

Now, maybe this sounds overly harsh. As it is, I am undistinguished with only a few short story credits to my name. I can’t claim to be the greatest thing since the Holy Ghost writer. But I am a reader, and I’ve looked at some of what’s out there in the Kindle direct store, and much of it is indeed utter crap. Finding worthwhile stuff there is a lot of word-of-mouth and skimming the free samples, but it’s a hard slug – hard enough to me to feel sympathy for all those slush-pile readers of old. So harsh or not, it seems to be the reality.

But like I said, I think it’s going to pass. I don’t know if we’ve hit the crest of the wave yet, so it may get worse before it gets better. And I know there will always be a steady trickle of this kind of crap as each new generation offers up its own would-be best-selling self-published authors. I only hope that when we do get to the other side of this wave, the eventual trickle is a lot smaller than the river we currently find ourselves in.

(*Ok, I promise to limit myself to one scatological missive per year. Or month? Week? Hell, what do I know? I’m making it up as I go.)