Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ruminations on Marketing versus Writing

Unless you are in the top five percent of authors, represented by a large publisher, you will face the quandary of where to devote your time after your first publication: Writing, or marketing?

I don’t have the answer(s), thus the title “ruminations.” The answer is individualistic.

First, let me narrow the thinking to fiction. Non-fiction writers often have the opportunity to tie their marketing with their career. A doctor writing about health may simultaneously be increasing his practice and his larger career. E.g. Dr. Oz writing a book is cross promoting all the time. Of course he is already in the top 5 percent, but you get the idea.

Fiction writers have a harder balancing act. Do you write one book and spend a year promoting it, or do you keep writing, and writing, and writing?

I believe the latter is the better choice if you are serious about being a writer. If you have more than one book in you, you need to keep writing. Concentrate on writing.

If you have only one book in you and that book is published, then concentrate on marketing.

Concentrate on writing does not mean “ignore” other things. I can’t make the recommendation as to how to split your time, but serious writing means serious time. If you have a “day job” then realistically, your time split is probably: 1st) your day job 2nd) your writing 3rd) marketing. Of course if you have a family, then it gets messy.

Amanda Hocking is the self-published poster child for this. She wrote 17 novels in her “spare time.” Yes, she was a killer queen at marketing through social media, but she has said countless times that part of her promotional technique was to get the next book out there.

We don’t all have 17 novels waiting to come out in the space of a few years. One can also question the quality of each of those 17 novels. But, by putting out this much she was building an audience not just by marketing one book, but by diversifying and improving her writing by writing. Writing is a muscle. The more you write, the better it gets.

Even Amanda did not sell her million books with the first book, it took time. As you market your first book, you should be marketing your second book by writing about it, talking about it, Facebooking it, and so on. As you write your third book, you tie it to the other two, talk about the other two while writing. Make the writing symbiotic with the marketing, but don’t stop writing.

Unless you have only one book in you.

If you have only one book in you, then make it count and don’t rush to publication. Polish it. Make it great. Then you can switch gears and become a marketer.

Most writers I know hate marketing. You can’t do well at something you hate. Go back to writing and market the best you can, but know that each book you put out is part of your marketing, part of your portfolio, and make sure each book you put out is better, or at the very least broadens you audience base, and that will be a fine start to marketing. Both good writing and a career at writing take time. We try and warn all of our authors at New Libri that they need to be in this for the long haul and that we are not going to be panaceas for marketing. A small press is just a stepping stone away from self-publishing. We like to think it is a significant step, but we don’t kid ourselves or our authors. If you are part of a small press, know that part of the marketing that is implicit is that you benefit not just from each new book you add to the press’s portfolio, but benefit from each new book the other authors add to the press’s portfolio.

It is long haul.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Young Adult (YA) fiction, is it King of the World?

I heard the question asked several times over the past few years. What’s up with all the YA fiction that even adults are reading?

I have thought about that for five years, since I attended a Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference where a panel of 15 editors and agents sat together and were asked “what are you looking for right now?” The answer was 12 of them said “Young Adult—urban fantasy, no vampires.” The other three included a University of Washington Press editor and an outdoor non-fiction editor. I believe the last one was a women’s issues editor, but my memory cells are not what they used to be.

One thing is YA is a lot edgier than it used to be. There was the rather infamous Wall Street Journal critic who complained about this, saying that YA had all these terrible themes and things happening in them…she got roasted via twitter and facebook in a matter of hours, by young adults. I think with that edginess you get a lot of adults reading it for the themes and to understand what is going on with a lot of teens and even early twenty somethings.

Second is that YA tends to use simpler language. They are easy to read. Let’s face it, many adults are busy, worn out, have short attention spans, and are adult versions of their kids. The themes may be adult and edgy, but they are plot driven and fast reads (even the long ones such as Twilight are fast reads in the sense you really never have to set down the book to “think” if you don’t want to. Many YA books are popular fiction/commercial fiction boiled down to its essence of a plot.

The growth of YA is dwarfed only by the growth of Romance and Erotica, especially with eBooks. (Witness the Shades of Grey series). So, the total number of books sold per year in the U.S. is rather flat, but the sub-genres seem to be shifting dramatically.

Third, I think that many adults with children like it that they can read the same thing as their tween/teen.

Fourth, a lot of adults like it that their book they are reading is going to be made into a movie. Movies are made with YA in mind, because they go to the same movie multiple times.

One response to Joel Stein’s writing in the NYT (Response to Joel Stein) (not the critic I was mentioning earlier, Joel is a humor writer) is that YA is the food equivalent of a Cadbury Chocolate.

The response to Meghan Fox of the WSJ was huge, but one that I liked recently sums up some of the thoughts and included a mention of the Hunger Games.

The truth is that I believe ultimately that writing and fiction as a viable means of making a living and keeping the craft alive (it has been, as an economic craft only a couple of hundred years) is in the hands of young adults, so I don’t really bemoan their power. I do wish that old adults (OA) also wielded their own power a bit more. So far, that is where the Romance and Erotica are getting the hit. We are living in troubled stressful times and I understand the need for escapism (hell I write fantasy and science fiction under a nom de plume) but we can only each chocolate, even dark chocolate which is good for you, so much.

Note, I am not saying all YA is chocolate, simply why commercial and popular YA are often consumed. YA is nothing but a label with some excellent literature under that label. Excellent literature is great chocolate, or a gourmet meal. Just like chocolate, you pick it up, think it will be great, then read the label and see that it is full of a lot of ingredients, with chocolate/cocoa beling llast on the list. Or you pick it up, find out it has a lot of cocoa and a bit of spice added and discover that combination is surprisingly good.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Irony: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America stuck in the 20th Century.

Science Fiction has long had a reputation for peering into the future, taking into account the social and technological changes and their effects. Thus, there is a certain irony at how locked in the past the SFWA is.

First, let me say that I applaud the concept of a filter for membership, in some instances. Just as I think that in the age of eBooks there is still some need for filtering and quality control. I think that this is why small publishers will continue to have a modest chance at survival in the near future. We are filters and help with quality control.

However, SFWA is using old style, outdated and strange quality control and filtering. Very 20th Century.

First, let’s examine the continued prejudice against self-publishing. You might think that as an editor at a small press, I would be for this sort of prejudice, as it steers some authors toward a publisher, rather than toward self-publishing. I am not, for a variety of reasons.

SFWA uses monetary calculations as it measurement—by and large. Yet, it simultaneously it discounts self-publishing. So, Amanda Hocking (before she signed with a large publisher) with a million dollars in sales, but self published, would technically not be eligible. I am sure that that if she applied at the time, she would probably have been granted a waiver, but there are a lot of writers that are better writers than Ms. Hocking (sorry Amanda, you are a great commercial success and I am in no way denigrating that!), who sell $10,000 or so worth of self published books, that technically cannot join. Really—how forward looking of you SFWA. Catch the wave of the future, but not at SFWA.

The thing is that one expects an organization like SFWA to be both forward looking and to encourage young/new writers, not to be a hang out of well established writers only. New writers, very good new writers, often turn to small presses (such as us, I thump my chest) because small presses are more cutting edge. We accept funky thinking. We look at the future and not the past for trends. Yet, the SFWA tends to discriminate against both small presses and authors who work with them. You need an advance of at least $2,000 to qualify as a writer and your press needs to have existed for at least 1 year with at least 10 titles.  Sounds easy? Small presses are entrepreneurs, risk takers, looking toward the future. They fold, go bust, and often don’t last a year. You want quality, you filter and don’t grow too fast. As a press, you might not jump in with 10 titles the first year, you might actually filter…for quality. SFWA does not filter for quality, it filters by old style market metrics. The irony is huge.

I think one forward thinker, Stanislaw Lem, may have had it right.  He basically criticized American SF, but really SFWA, for being too commercial and interested only in money, not quality. That was in 1973. Too bad the SFWA has not radically changed since then. But, to think it would would be Fantasy.

No Pulitzer for Fiction? Really? Yeah, Really

If you follow the literary side of fiction you have probably already heard the news that no Pulitzer was awarded this year.

Initially, I was up in arms over this, but then I started to think that this is rather like publishing. We, at New Libri, are a small publisher, trying to grow. This means we need manuscripts. These are submitted, just as the Pulitzer prize is through submissions (we don’t charge $50, the way the Pulitzer prize does <grin>). We don’t control the submissions. You would think in any given month that we would simply take the best of what was submitted and run with it for that month and build 12 titles per year that way.

We don’t. Many months go by with no “winner.”

I am sure most of the authors whom we reject would say, “Why not pick at least one for the month? You have the bandwidth.”

True. But, we pick manuscripts by a subjective criteria that includes things that are not obvious to the outside world and I have to assume that the criteria used by the 5 judges for the Pulitzer use criteria that is also not intuitively obvious.

If we just accepted a great book on dragons, we are not going to immediately accept another book on dragons the next month, even if it is as good, or possibly a tiny bit better than our already accepted title. It would be a disservice to at least one of the authors. If a year later our author of dragons tells us there are no sequels and another dragon book arrives that is excellent will we accept it? Stronger possibility, but what if that month (a year from now) we also receive ten excellent books in Young Adult and we are trying to maintain momentum in YA and the dragon book is a dark adult story?

It’s complicated.

Sure, judging a “contest” is different. Market considerations are not part of the equation, per se. But, things like originality, or impact on society, or social significance. Look at the 1960s. To Kill a Mockingbird and Confessions of Nat Turner were both winners. Both were about race and race relations in the U.S.  Both were excellent books, but I am sure there were other excellent books those years. Other criteria creeps in. The same is true in publishing.  The criteria is subjective. It changes from week to week and month to month. 

This is why, unlike some agents and unlike many publishers, we have a “wait and see” pile of manuscripts. Sure, some get rejected right away.  Sure some get accepted quickly, but most sit in our wait and see pile for a few weeks. We discuss them every week and they often end back up in the wait and see pile. Judges for a prize don’t get to do that. But, for the Pulitzer, it seems that they can say “no winner,” which is a bit like our “I just can’t say yes or no right now.”

I may not understand the Pulitzer criteria, or what the judges were thinking, but I have sympathy with the amorphous standards that I believe Pulitzers embrace. Would Confessions of Nat Turner win a Pulitzer in 2012? Probably not. Is it still a very good book? Yes. So, after reflection I have decided that I will not be angry at the Pulitzer judges, simply puzzled and wishing I could get in their heads, much as I suspect many new authors would like to get into and editor or agent’s head vis-à-vis their submission.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why I give American Gods 5 stars:

I read this twice, a number of years ago, and don’t bother (often) to update older readings on Goodreads, but a recent posting giving American Gods “only” three stars prompted me to post my own review.

American Gods needs to be read at a number of levels (since I believe it deserved to win the Hugo and Nebula awards that it did win, along with Bram Stoker award).
One level is the pure fantasy part, which is an inventive permutation on gods (or God) gains power only through worship and belief. Larry Niven did a short story on this (if my memory serves) long before Gaiman, but of course the idea is as old as Greek philosophy. Gaiman’s twist, that an echo of the god exists with immigration, spawning if you will a new god, is interesting. Additionally, having that god able to procreate with mankind is interesting and is a bit of the philosophy of “we are god” that was also part of the debate that the Greeks put forth as well as much debate in the 18th century of “enlightenment” in Europe.

The second level is the examination of immigration in a subtle way, the loss of our heritage, our melting pot destroys the past. Gaiman, as a Brit, has a bit of the ability to look at this from the outside. Yet, within this loss of the old identity is the message that it never totally dies, there is this small spark that just keeps going, weaker and weaker, but there.
Of course Gaiman was friends and a fan of Roger Zelazny. I am a huge fan of Zelazny’s work and mourn his early passing as a loss to great fantasy writing.

Gaiman has explored this theme a number of times and Anansi Boys is another permutation of this theme, worth reading, but it feels a bit like an echo.

Gaiman has a story teller voice, a voice that has almost an oral tradition and one that is used by magical realism authors and I would say even by Salman Rushdie at times.

I would recommend The Graveyard Book, by Gaiman, for both children and adults, well done permutation on the orphan boy raised by “other” people.

Neverwhere is another Gaiman book that I recommend, along with the British series based on it.

View all my reviews

Self-Publishing is TOO Easy

Let’s face it, self-publishing is easy. TOO easy. That is not to say don’t self-publish, but slow down.

There are a lot of reasons to still use a publisher, large or small, but with self-publishing becoming so easy the temptation is to ignore those reasons and just go for it. I am not against self-publishing. It is going to be a significant portion of the future of publishing, but as a nice blog, put out on Writer’s and Authors points, out don’t rush! Even if you self-publish, don’t rush. Really, part of what a small publisher does is act as an editor. Forget marketing per se, think “editing for the market.”

If an author were to ever abandon us and self-publish (but don’t I yell to any of our authors reading this!!), I would point you to Book Baby as one of the better “aggregators” out there. They were focused for a long time on independent musicians ( and have the right attitude.

In fact let me digress from my original topic (Self-publishing Is Too easy) to discuss an independent musician at CD Baby as a metaphor for a writer’s life and publishing. I know Reynold Philipsek ( who uses CD Baby (by the way, check out his latest release and some of his older stuff. He is hard to classify as far as genre, but well worth listening to more than one of his CDs, .

I use Reynold as a great example of what writers should be prepared to expect, in general. As the old joke goes: first find a spouse/friend/other to support you, either financially, or spiritually, or simply as your biggest fan. It is a joke, but the roots are accurate. Reynold has Mary. I have known Mary Philipsek for almost 16 years (although we have not kept in touch—Hello Mary!). She took a short respite from Apple to work at a startup company as VP of marketing (I was the CTO). I mention Mary because she has been a promoter and supporter to Reynold since they first got together. Reynold has talent and dedication. It takes more than that. It takes time. The reason it takes time is we cannot manufacture luck. We can take advantage of it, but we cannot create it. Without luck talent needs time, hard work, and help. Reynold deserved recognition years and years ago. He is getting some now, because of time, effort, not giving up, and a support network.

What about self-publishing being too easy? Publishing your work is part of building your portfolio. Everything you publish is part of a portfolio. Rushing to publish is hurts your literary resume.

A small publisher is part of your support network, but only a part. Whether you self-publish, or go with a publisher, you will be doing a lot of work, for a LONG TIME. Agents, editors, and publishers know this. This is part of what they look for with an author. Yes, we would love to find the next super star (where is that luck?), but we know we can bank on long term relationships, long term work, someone committed to the craft and to growing.

As part of that hard work, for little reward, authors have to do book signings. Authors are at a huge disadvantage compared to a musician. An author has not performance venue. No place other than a book store to also demonstrate the craft and entertain. Books are read once or twice, music is listened to over and over. A book signing is one small drop in the bucket of hard work an author must go through in their career, whether they self-publish or go with a publisher. Returning to Book Baby, I point you to their recent blog entry on book signings:

And you thought the hard work was done after getting the manuscript finished! Maybe someday I will return to the original topic of Self-Publishing is Too Easy.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Are Authors Self-Publishing Today Similar to Programmers in the 1980s?

Is Self-Publishing Today Similar to Programmers in the 1980s and early 1990s?

This is a rambling thought process. I am going to date myself, as I often do. I am also going to show a bit of my technology background, so if your eyes glaze over, skip forward a few paragraphs.

In the early 1990s I finished graduate school and started working for this relatively unknown company, called Microsoft. Yes, I seem to have a predilection toward working for what many term evil empires during their rise. My other sojourn into an empire was Amazon, but I was a bit late to storming those gates—their empire was well established by the time I crossed the threshold.

When I entered Microsoft, I knew a number of software developers who had made a small business by selling a program they wrote on their own. These software developers fell into two camps: one was the self-taught developer who had never taken a formal class in software development, but had a knack for it and understood the basics behind procedural programming (most developers back then were not interested in object oriented programming), the other type was a programmer who had some formal training, but was not interested in working for a large company.

What made it possible for either of these two to be successful (this was PRE-Internet as we know it) was the success of the personal computer. Someone other than corporations was buying software. That software could be rather primitive, as long as it worked.

A few of these software developers made it big. Some faded away. Many joined companies of many sizes. But, for a few years, there was a period where anyone could write a program and make some money. You would hear countless people say, “Really? I could do that. I’ll write a program too and make a lot of money. It’s not that hard. Working for a company, they’ll take all the money that I could be making. I don’t want some measly salary.”

You probably get the drift of the analogy. We are in a period where anyone can publish a book, especially and eBook. eReaders are the PCs of this decade. Authors all over are saying “I could just publish on my own and sell it. Why should I split my money with a publisher?”

Wait, I hear a few of you (a few of you might constitute my entire reading audience, but let’s pretend) say, “Why limit yourself to the 1980s and ‘90s? Look at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon (well, given Groupon's missteps already, don’t look at them) and a host of other startups.”

Because, they are not software startups. They don’t sell software as their core product. They did not start up with a software product. It was a service. I’m talking software programs that you sell. Any software startup big hits in the past decade? Can you name one? Can you name one written by a single person, versus a team?

There are still people making money selling single programs (ala the Apple app market—bringing a bit of the 1980s back), but not many. And for everyone who does, there are a thousand who don’t make any money at it.

So, what does a good programmer do? She, or he, finds a company to work for. Many work for big companies and do really well. Many also go to startups, work long hours, and get almost no benefits. Why? Some do it hoping the startup will get big and they will get carried along. Yet, that is not the only reason. It is not even the biggest reason, as most programmers know that the odds are the company will not go big. Yet, they go there and stay. I was CTO at one small software company over fifteen years ago. The company has not grown since. Yet, many—a surprising number—of the software developers that were there 15, nay 17 years ago are still there. Why?

Before answering that, let me try and pull this loose analogy back to publishing. I do admit it is loose.

Now is the heyday of self-publishing. Not programmers this time, but authors. Just as there were no real filters for software being sold in the 1980s, there are no filters for self-publishing authors now. Word of mouth (such as Amazon reviews) is one filter as are the increasing number of blogs that do reviews. Writers that have great ideas, but frankly suck at writing, can do well. Writers with significant education in writing, with technical skill, often still fail. Writers are having “fun” just as all the programmers in the 1980s were. But, the ecosystem responds. Why would Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing poster child selling millions on her own, go with a large publisher? The same reason a Ray Ozzie might join Microsoft (Ray was core of Lotus Notes when it was first created). The same reason a programmer today might join a small, stable, startup.

It (moving to a publisher) allows them to focus a bit more on the creative act they like. Not always a lot more, but a bit more. It also provides a built in community of collaboration that is hard for natural loners to achieve on their own. In this respect programmers are a lot like writers. We tend to create well in isolation. But, if we are smart we know that feedback and learning from others is important. It provides a sense of family and stability.

Stability? With small publishers folding every year? I said “sense” of stability, but that sense is important. We are products of our feelings. If you are published by a small publisher, you will probably have a home with them as long as you work hard and have the right attitude. A small publisher will publish your work. The publisher will give you a deadline, making you work—and if you are like many writers (or programmers), without a deadline you are going to take twice as long. The small publisher will read your work and provide feedback. The heart of real editing (not that line editing you paid someone to do). The publisher, even though not large, has a sense for commercialism. The editorial response will be geared toward a market. Again, not necessarily what a paid editor for a self-publisher does.

Just like software startups, there are different types of small publishers. Some are in it as a pass through, you are really still self-publishing.

Why to some programmers leave Microsoft and move to a small software company? Why would an author leave a large publisher and go to small publisher? Large companies will push you out with the review process. If you are not a superstar, you are cog in the wheel. This is true if you are a writer or a programmer. Often the programmer, or author, needs the right environment to flourish. To be creative. Thus, if they can afford it, many leave the big company and go to the small company. Freedom to create. Faster response times. Someone to talk to.

Just as the age of programmers “self-publishing” their work changed in the 1990s, I think self-publishing for authors is already changing. Many self-taught programmers when to small and large companies and gained training, skills, and experience and either stayed, or applied those at yet another company. The self-published author who did not make it huge on their own, might look at a small press the way a programmer whose idea did not make it big on their own looks to a small startup: “Here is a place to grow, gain skills, and in a few years, either stay, or move up the food chain.” After a few years, you stay. You are doing well, not getting rich, but doing well and learning. Growing. Appreciated by the small company. You make friends. A decade passes.

This is the reason that the small company I was CTO at still has so many people from the core group of 17 years ago working there. It is also why so many small presses that do survive have authors there that were there ten years ago.

I believe as the industry changes, as Amazon further becomes like Microsoft or Oracle did for software, that the authors will move toward medium sized presses, small presses and self-publishing will become less popular. Self-publishing as we know it, will become less popular. It will lose its remaining stigma, but become less popular for the professional writer. The writer that wants to make a lifelong career out of their craft. Small presses will be a hybrid between current publishers and self-publishing. The small press will have skin on the game, but will leave much of the work and initiative to the author. The author will reap larger rewards (percentage wise) than now.

I also believe the educational ecosystem will react. It already is. Just as a computer science degree was rare in the 1970s and even 1980s, it is commonplace now. What is taught is completely different also. For writers, the number of workshops, MFA programs, retreats, etc. has exploded in recent years. Some of these are good, some are weak. In ten years what is taught at an MFA will change radically to reflect the technology and marketing that is now part of the “craft” of writing and will be more so. But, that is the subject of another rambling blog.