Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pay an editor? (Or Polishing Your Work)

No one knows more than I that some authors are terrible at editing their own work. I can speed read someone else’s work and see a number of things from the theme, the arc, the character development, to hair color changing when it shouldn’t. Yet, I pull up my own work on a screen, read through it, and it all looks “great.”  This is partially because those of us who write novels tend to have a huge amount in our heads, or notes, or full backstories written. We don’t notice that the reader doesn’t have access to all that.

Critique groups help. To a point. If they are smart, really writers, and honest. But, even then most critique groups tend to look at one chapter at a time on an irregular basis (say twice per month) and soon the critiques sound very similar. “Your POV is confusing here.” “I don’t think your protagonist would know this word.” Very useful, but not a full analysis.

Some writers are awesome (yeah, an over used word) at editing. They just see the issues. They are ruthless at cutting and compressing. They write 500 words and pare it down to 100 great words.

Others want to speed the process up. We don’t have the patience, or skill to see our own work. This is not unlike software engineering, where there is a reason for testers/quality assurance. The programmer KNOWS what s/he intended and never causes the program to crash and burn. The tester acts like the consumer, but with an eye toward explaining to the programmer.

In comes the paid editor.

You can pay from $300 to $5000 for editing. Both ends of the spectrum are appropriate if you know what you are going to get. That is the key. You SHOULD get what you pay for, but often you don’t.

There are numerous sources that cover the “going rate” for editing. Check out the Editorial Freelancers Association for a good source. If you are paying $3000 or more for a manuscript (of say 300 pages), you are paying for heavy copyediting, good heavy line editing, or developmental review. Heavy. But, take a step back before you plunge into paid editing.

Copyediting is (or should be) the last step of the process. DON’T PAY for this if you don’t think the book is “perfect” as far as the arc, story, plot, consistency, etc. Consider not paying for this at all if you are not self publishing.

If you manuscript is not perfect, you probably want some developmental editing. Now, a good agent will often (but not always) help with developmental editing. but that assumes you have an agent. Most of us don’t for a variety of reasons. Agents are great, wonderful, and usually worth every penny they get. They are also (in my opinion) terrible at selecting new clients and use antiquated methods for selecting new partners, but that is a subject for another day. The truth is they are busy rejecting so many people there filters are frozen.

So, if you hire a developmental editor (as apposed to a line editor), what should you get (for that $3000). While a developmental editor label tends to be used for non-fiction, it applies to fiction also. The developmental editor should understand the genre and essentially coach the writer chapter by chapter based on the level of experience the author has and at what stage in the writing the editor is hired. If you have a complete manuscript and have done a pass at editing it yourself, but it still feels rough and incoherent a developmental editor can help. S/he should be able to read the manuscript and suggest in a paragraph or two per chapter what the arc is, the tension, the turning point, and what is inconsistent with the genre and the over all theme. If you hire a developmental editor, you will still need to do some work afterwards and then either line edit/copy edit yourself, or hire someone for that stage too. It may be the same person, or it may be someone else.

If you have a complete manuscript and you feel the right tone is there overall, you can write your own synopsis, and the novel “feels right” then you can hire a line editor.

A line editor goes through the manuscript line by line and looks for inconsistencies, weird language, etc. Line editing should include basic obvious spelling mistakes beyond what a spell checker would catch. Think grammar checker and appropriateness checker. It should catch some of the per chapter inconsistencies. It should be more than an English major, it should be someone familiar with the craft and genre. I would argue that most publisher editors do this, or should.

Copy editing is, to me, the boring stuff and yet, it also is what publishers do. It is the formatting, the dot your I’s and cross your T’s. You can hire an editor to do this, but some of this will get re-done by the publisher. If you self publish, then this might be worthwhile. BUT, in that case the copy editor should know the end format quite well (e.g. eBook, and/or InDesign for print). Simply knowing formatting in Word is not sufficient.

If you are paying real money and the end result you run spellcheck on the document and find errors—something is wrong. We had an author who paid professional money for editing and in the first five pages we found spell check errors.

If you are going to hire someone, PLANT some errors in the first five pages and ask them to edit that for free, or a small fee. If they don’t catch what you KNOW is there, they are not a great candidate as an editor.

Next, if you are serious about someone, offer to pay for a single chapter edit. Tell them you would like a developmental review and a high level/rough line edit. Same thing. Know at least some of what you want them to find. The first five pages are what you submit to the agents and editors and are the hook pages. If the editing does not sing to you, then bow out. You have lost only a fraction of what you would have.

The editor is not a ghost writer. But, s/he is a collaborator at one level and is taking your perhaps still tarnished silver and making it shine. Still, the value was in the the silver you created, but that value needs to be visible to everyone, not just you. S/he will point to the scratches, the dings, the bend and the dents and help fix those, but it remains yours. You need to decide what is worth fixing and what might even need to be thrown away.

Well on the mixed metaphor ending, I’ll sign off.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Delayed Response

To the kerfuffle between Random House’s new imprint (of sorts) Hydra and The Science Fiction Writer’s of America. 

What is interesting is that I do think that Random House is getting a bit greedy on its terms, but that SFWA is so completely out of touch with the modern world. I find it funny and ironic that a association of SCIENCE FICTION writers so completely refuses to acknowledge self publishing.

Self-publishing, for better or worse, is the twenty-first century. SFWA seems stuck in the twentieth. Hydra, for better or worse, is trying to capitalize on self-publishing, but put it under an imprint and give it some professionalism. And, at this point, it is also a filter, not accepting absolutely every person with an open checkbook. Should SFWA examine both the motives and the consequences of this new model from Random House? Sure, but it should simultaneously examine its own antiquated prejudices against self-publishing.

I am not advocating that EVERY self-published science fiction and fantasy author automatically be acknowledged as a potential member, but under SFWA’s by-laws, you could sell a million copies of a novel and not qualify as a SF writer. In other words the editors at a single publisher know more as to what is good science fiction and fantasy than any number of readers.

The Hydra imprint is, no doubt, flawed. The nickname for the merged Random House and Penguin is “Random Penguin” which may be an indicator on their actions this year. They are trying a random variety of things. The proof, as the cliché goes, will be in the pudding.

What is even more surprising is that SFWA has not responded—beyond a blog post—to the fact that Hydra HAS modified its contract options to include a more “traditional” model:

Under the advance plus royalty model, authors are offered a more traditional publishing arrangement, with Random House’s standard eBook royalty of 25 percent of net receipts. These authors will be paid an agreed-upon advance against royalties, and Hydra, Alibi, Loveswept, or Flirt will cover production, shipping, and marketing for all formats at 100 percent of cost.

So what part of this refined model (in response to SFWA and authors) does not meet the guidelines and bylaws of SFWA? Are they just pissed at Random House after a few letters went back and forth?

SFWA’s blog post was a response, sort of, to the changes Hydra has made. Fundamentally it says, “ok, better, glad to see you are listening to us.” But, it is still not clear that Hydra is ever going to be considered legit in SFWA eyes, and it still begs the question as to when SFWA is going to embrace self-publishing. One concern might be that Hydra is eBook only. Yet, Angry Robot (a great little UK publisher) publishes eBook only also, so that can’t be it, can it?

The aegis that SFWA likes to project is one of protecting the author. I completely support that, but in the age of self-publishing and digital, are you protecting the author, or trying to force them into a 1950s model?

Stanislaw Lem famously disdained membership with SFWA, “describing it as: describing it as ill thought-out, poorly written, and interested more in making money than in ideas or new literary forms.” This was in 1973. It would seem that perhaps things have not changed much since then.

It’s as if SFWA is in a bad science fiction story, where nothing changes and time stands still. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

2013 Self-publishing Summit (A positive blog entry for once)

Let’s face it, I’m a realist, glass is as empty as it really is, sort of guy.

This tends to make some of my random blog entries sound rather pessimistic.

I was interested to read Dan Hollloway’s entry on his experience at the 2013 Self-publishing Summit. Of course one reason I liked it is that it seems the self-publishing “industry” (if it can be called that) is saying some of the same things that many of us have been saying for awhile.

Dan highlights:

1. The absolute priority of craft.

This is something that many have espoused a number of times. Focus on writing and writing well. The reminder was, even at the self-publishing summit, that this a long haul. A reminder that ebooks live forever, so make sure everything you put out there is the best it can be.

2. The importance of direct engagement and live performance.

This was a surprise to me. There was a positive attitude that readings were getting better. Not surprising was that the venue is outside of the bookstore. Also, mixed media (music and readings) were mentioned. Given that I don’t see any readings with any attendance at most bookstores, I found this surprising, but the point made that bookstores are missing out and other venues are letting readers in was interesting.

3. The importance of niche.

This has been said before. If you are a generalist, it becomes hard to take advantage of building an audience slowly over time.

4. A subdued approach to social media.

Ah yes, the subject of prior blog entries here. The same things were stressed. DON’T SELL via social media. Inform. Entertain. Don’t Sell.

And finally, a surprise: a general positivity about changes in the publishing industry.

This last bit was a surprise and I would love to see some data on this. Publishers are returning to a model (so it is said) where they actually give authors more than one book to succeed? That has been my argument for small publishers, but this seems to hint that larger ones are doing the same. If so GREAT. Still, I would love to see some evidence of this.

Alongside of this, and I agree, is that publishers take more risks than most authors know. You just never hear about all the failures.

My take away from this is that self-publishing is really starting to become a real and accepted aspect of the publishing industry as a whole and is starting to mature. This is positive news for most self-published authors as it means that more doors will continue to open up—if you are a good author who sticks with it and keeps improving.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Authors Are Spending Too Much Time On Social Self-Promotion

First, let me point you to the source article I am grabbing my discussion from:

Indie Authors Are Spending Too Much Time On Social Self-Promotion

Note how I dropped the “Indie” on this. I think this applies to Indie, Small Press, Mid-sized press, and all authors who are not top tier sales at a large publisher.

The argument is a simple one. If you are spending too much time on social self-promotion then you are not writing, or working on your craft. The problem is that even publishers don’t seem to care about quality any more. They care – with good reason – about survival and survival is by sales.

The mistake is, in my ever so humble opinion, that this fundamentally insults readers over the long term. Sure, if the book goes viral it will launch your career 50 shaded ways, but your writing won’t improve and worse, what fans you do have won’t get that second, third, fourth book.

I love two quotes from this blog (one pulled from U.K.’s The Guardian—emphasis added):

In a recent article in The Guardian, Nesrine Mailk said, “A distinguished British author and historian recently told me in a private conversation that his publisher had forced him to go on Twitter in order to promote his latest book. Having joined just for this purpose, his timeline was an unbroken litany of self-advertisement. He soon realized that the constant promotion was backfiring, and that his ‘brand’ was being tarnished as followers were beginning to snipe at his hitherto exalted status. Indeed, the whole exercise was creating the impression that he was a pompous bore whose brash self-promotion did not match the profundity of his work – but he did not know how to rectify that.”


…take the advice of Bret Easton Ellis‘s friend, who reportedly told him at the Vanity Fair Oscars’ party: “You need to get off Twitter. People think you’re crazy.”

Now the authors are New Libri Press are going to remember that I said “go out and promote your book, because we don’t have a marketing budget that counts,” and say “what the f*ck? You’re telling me now NOT to promote my book.

No, we are interested in survival too. But, like many micro presses (publishing less than 25 titles per year) we believe in the authors. So, sure, we want it all. We want promotion and another book from our authors. But, for the good of writing in general and a long term focus, we know where we would come down on the question of “I can write, or I can promote, which do you want me to do?”

Write. Keep writing. Get better. Live long and prosper.

Friday, September 6, 2013

All You Can Read, All The Time

Not a new idea, a Spotify for books. The idea has been tried before and frankly given Amazon’s wealth of self-published books I am surprised that it has not been done by the gorilla yet. Amazon may yet try and do this now that another startup is attempting it:, which is based in New York (still the hub of publishing, despite Amazon’s shifting the center of gravity slightly toward the West).

While the trend seems inevitable, with concept of “owning” a book disappearing—realistically how many times do you really read the same book in, say, the same few years—it is unclear how this will effect publishers and authors. If the effect is the same as the music industry it will be a mixed bag. Generally, less revenue for the author and less corporate support for the unknown artist (supported by the revenue of best sellers).

The problem is none of that can be made up by a live concert! How many people are going to pay to hear you read from your book!

I also suspect there will continue to be a shift toward shorter writing. Short shorts, sometimes called “flash fiction” is already becoming more popular. The push for reading on any mobile device, anywhere, anytime, will also push for shorter content. At New Libri we played with the concept of “Coffee Break Shorts” on Amazon with this in mind and no doubt this will play well in subscription based venues. In fact, this might be an area where a Oysterbooks attracts a lot of authors. For short cheap fiction on Amazon the return is 30%, instead of the somewhat standard of 70%. There is no reason for this, other than Amazon wanted to keep prices above a certain level. This means that there is less to be lost by putting short stories on a subscription service.

My hope is that Oysterbooks will embrace the smaller publishers first. Yes, this is a selfish viewpoint as part of a micro-publisher, but I also think it is where the most benefit for all is—initially. Through a subscription based service the reader is more willing to risk time, versus time and money, on a new author. If they use algorithms similar to Spotify, this also should be easier for them to explore within their comfort zone.

Amazon is the 800lb gorilla, but it would be foolish to say it is invulnerable to the innovations of startups. Having worked at both Amazon and Microsoft, I see Amazon as making similar management steps as Microsoft in the early 1990s. Innovation is still strong there, but it is not startup strong. It is so busy trying to “spin the flywheel” that it may ignore great ideas and then, just as Microsoft did, it will start innovating by acquiring.

As the saying (coined in an old science fiction book, not from any Chinese proverb) goes: may you live in interesting times. If you are an author, publisher, or independent bookseller, you certain do live in an interesting time!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Limited Omniscient POV?

All writers who have studied the craft end up obsessing on point-of-view at one time or another. When critiquing, it is one of the first areas that a writer tends to criticize. That criticism is generally when a writer violates the rules.

The irony, of course is that there are no rules, just guidelines, and those guidelines are often misunderstood, or too rigidly interpreted.

All writer’s start chanting “show, don’t tell” early in their learning. Then, once they leave the warmth of the first person and jump into the third person, they start chanting “don’t switch POV suddenly,” and “the POV is confusing,” and “how could he know that, you’re out of his POV.”

This criticism is fair if it is a beginning writer. Guidelines need to be understood before they can be violated. But, they are guidelines, not rules. They are violated by every published writer all the time. So, how important is the POV? Really, what are the gray areas and how can they be used effectively?

Third person POV is full of gray areas. If you are in limited third person, say George’s POV, and you see this:

George told Sheila the news. She had three options, plead guilty, plead no contest, or plead not guilty. George recommended no contest. Sheila hated ambiguity. She wrestled with the concept. Her conscience just wouldn’t let her implicitly admit guilt, which is what everyone would assume with no contest. Even if the cards were stacked against her, she couldn’t go that route.

“Not guilty,” she said.

Is this a violation of POV? No, not really and those who get their typing fingers in a cramp are over analyzing. If we, as readers, understand that George knows Sheila well, this is easily his interpretation of her thinking. Limited third person does not mean that it doesn’t allow dives into George’s guesses and insight. In fact, if we have a later chapter with Sheila’s POV and show that this interpretation by George is wrong, we then get information that maybe George isn’t such a great judge of character. Could a key word here, or there, be added to make it clear that we are George’s head? Sure, but sometimes that becomes clumsy. It is a gray area. The choice is up to the author who consciously, or unconsciously, may be making a point, or may understand his, or her, audience better than the reviewer.

This should not be viewed so much as a POV shift from one limited third person to another, but from limited third person to limited omniscience.

Obviously, the term limited omniscience is an oxymoron. What I mean by limited omniscience is that when the narrator shifts focus she can divulge information that would be unavailable through limited third person. This is done all the time, it simply doesn’t jar the reader all the time. Often at the beginning of a scene the reader accepts this.

Outside the storm raged. Wind blew down trees. A garbage can rolled down the street. George was oblivious to the tempest as he read the latest Miss Grey bodice ripper, while curled up by the fire.

The POV police would probably argue that this is wrong. If he was oblivious, how could he know a storm was going on, let alone that a garbage can was rolling down the road? The reader will probably accept it as a setup, especially at the beginning of a chapter. We are used to movies, TV, and camera angles, and this feels like the camera outside, moving in and then staying with the character. The reader accepts this.

Notice that a number of times I say “the reader.” Ultimately, what works does depend on your audience. If you are a writer, you are a reader. No good writer can remain relevant without constantly reading. Even the most literary reader will read some commercial fiction and many writers read quite a bit of commercial fiction. The tendency in commercial fiction that sells well today is to be fairly careful with POV and stick to the limited third person very carefully. Switch one chapter at a time. If you switch mid-chapter, do it with a double space or three asterisks. The reason for this is that you generally won’t go wrong this way, but it can lead to very long novels, that sometimes feel awkward. Limited third person is great for plot focused story telling. You are generally not reading it for the language. You also are accepting that it will take some time for the story to unfold because summary language really stands out in a limited third person. It feels like an information dump. Limited third person feels best in scene. Even summary is best done as action, as a summary scene.

George’s summer was a routine of wake up, scrambled eggs, jog for twenty minutes through the park where the squirrels gathered around the old man sitting on bench feeding them stale peanuts from the discount store, followed by a long hot shower and a latte made with frothed milk and instant coffee. The first Monday in August that routine was interrupted.

This summary feels as if it is still a scene. It is this sort of summary scene building that omniscient can do all the time and not feel awkward. The omniscient can give us a richer world, which is why authors, who want to play with words, or world build, rather than focus on the plot, will use omniscient. The Lord of the Rings is a classic instance of this. It is omniscient and while the story is hugely important, the world building is even more important to Tolkien.

What I like to call limited omniscience is the use of omniscience precisely for the world building and the richer context of the world’s characters, but in general to stick with one character and limit the reader’s knowledge and POV during that period to one character.

Yes, I am throwing out a series of qualifiers and seeming wishy-washy, because I am. There are no rules, just guidelines. In general (yeah, I know, repetition of a phrase or word), the biggest critics of POV are writers, not readers. As long as the reader is not confused, or steps out of the moment too much, then you as the author are doing well. Writers make terrible normal readers. We are forever tainted in the way we read. We are never fully in the moment, or rarely, and we intentionally get confused because part of our brain is over analyzing.

What I hope is that more writers will start to carefully drift into the gray areas of POV without getting paranoid about it. Fantasy writers do this with more ease than most writers, although even in fantasy the plot driven writer gets bogged down in trying to stay in limited third person. They will contort their writing by trying to remain true to the character. “I don’t believe that a twelve year old girl would think in those terms.” This sometimes borders on nonsense. The terms one thinks in to describe a scene are the terms of the reader, not the character (remember I am concerned with limited third person, not first person). What is important when criticizing (or determining how to use) language while in a third person POV is the level of penetration. Too often a writer who is a reader will confuse level of penetration with falling out of character. Say an eight year old stumbles through a portal to a version of the middle ages, near a castle.

Todd stared up at the tall castle. The two guards walking along the parapet walk paused and looked down at him.

Wait, the stickler will cry out. Todd is eight. He probably doesn’t know the word parapet walk. “I don’t believe Todd would use the word parapet.”

Well, he didn’t. The narrator did. Parapet is precise and short. There is no reason to write an entire paragraph trying to process in Todd’s language what he sees. He is processing the view as an image, not necessarily in words. Describing what he sees in adult language is not a violation of POV. It is, at worst, a bit of omniscience. It is giving the reader a bit more knowledge than Todd, but only through language. The POV has not been lost and it borders on nonsense to say it has.

Now, if you wrote:

Todd stared up at the castle. I wonder if those guards up on the parapet are scared, he thought.

Now the writer has probably violated the POV character—because we hear his voice saying parapet and we doubt that an eight year old would know that word. The eight year old is NOT the narrator in the limited third person, but there is a narrator in the background with a limited third person. There is a bit of license with a narrator who takes us from one third person to another. The language choice is part omniscience and part level of penetration into the character.

It is for this reason that omniscient can work very well even in popular (aka commercial) fiction. If the omniscient is “limited omniscient” as I characterize it, it feels very close to limited third person, but it can build a rich world and quickly give us insights. Neil Gaiman does this often. In the Graveyard Book we follow characters around one at a time, but we are given insights into characters we meet, without ever jumping into their POV completely. This increases the tension and simultaneously builds a world without having to learn it in the ponderous method of a slow reveal to the character. The main character is an infant that doesn’t speak yet. Just think how ponderous it would be to try and stay “in character” of a two year old.

Bottom line: you are already using elements of omniscience. Don’t be afraid to experiment with it, especially in the gray areas, the limited omniscience.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts on the “Death of the American Author"

A fairly recent (April 7) commentary by Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, is titled “The Slow Death of the American Author.” 

While ostensibly a commentary on the first use aspect of printed books, it is a bleak assessment on the ability of an author to make a living in the U.S. And by author, I and he mean full length manuscripts and books.

I want to rail against his assessment, but the problem is that over the past few years my assessment is rather similar to Scott’s.

Think how scary it would be for the author if Amazon wins the right to “resell” used ebooks? No royalty for that second and third re-selling of an ebook. All those self-published authors who think Amazon is the next best thing to sliced bread might re-assess that if one book gets sold, via the “used” market one million times. Net royalties for the author: $2. Net revenue for Amazon, $2 million. A scary permutation of the “first use” law that will probably NOT happen, but given the U.S. copyright and patent law rulings of the past 10 years, not totally out of the question.

The changes are slow. There will be some upsides along the way. But, I wish I had a great response to counter Scott. I don’t.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Size does matter

OK, I just couldn’t help the double entendre.

A recent study on continued trends shows some interesting correlations between genre and what type of eReader the user is using. Thus, the title.

First, the number of people reading eBooks continues to increase. No surprise, but it is important to get that out of the way. This stuff matters if you are an author or a publisher.

Dedicated eBook readers tend to be the smaller, less powerful device. They are cheaper and focused on one thing: reading books.

Tablets are multifunction and the reader is simply an app on the tablet. They tend to be bigger (although a smart phone is fundamentally a micro tablet).

Finally, you still have the PC. Yes, quite a bit of reading still occurs on the PC.

Why should you care? Because the capabilities of each is different as is the type of reader.

Dedicated eReader users tend to buy general fiction, mystery, literary fiction, or romance. Computer readers tend to buy technical manuals and similar non-fiction. Phone users tend to read travel guides. Tablet users are the rest.

This matters because of the type of material presented and how you might expect it to look to the end reader. The travel guide writer and publisher needs to think about how to present key information on very small screens. But, with eBooks, you can add navigation. Easy navigation becomes important on a phone.

Technical manual writers, and other similar non fiction, can depend on a larger screen and more processing power. Sure, there will be someone who tries to read your book on a phone, but that will not be the “average” nor the trend.

Full fledged tablets will have fairly big screens, with higher resolution. Artwork and illustrated novels could work. So can cookbooks. Science Fiction and Fantasy will probably be read on a tablet.

This can matter even in the sense of the “free” partial book that you include as a publisher. If you know that the reader is on a tablet, you might not pitch the literary fiction novel there (say via iTunes).

Size/format/form factor/technology does matter and publishers and authors will need to think a little bit about which device they think their reader is reading from, because in on form or another, over 50% of your audience is on one of these devices.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

View from the trenches: Query Letters revisited.

New Libri Press has only two editors, so take what I say with a grain (or lump) of salt. We don’t represent every editor (or agent) out there—by a long shot.

Small (micro) publishers, especially newer ones, tend to be more forgiving and flexible than larger organizations. We are more casual. We tend to be technology savvy and submissions by email are the norm (the preference).

All that said, when you go into Microsoft (where I have worked) or Amazon (where I have worked) for an interview do you wear jeans with holes in them and a ratty T-shirt? You are allowed to wear those as an employee, but would you interview that way?

I hope not.

The query email (let’s not even call it a letter for many organizations) is still your interview. It’s your preliminary interview. The full interview is still the manuscript, but first impressions are important. Dress up a little bit. You can wear those ratty jeans (as I do) after you are in.

The simple stuff is important:

1) Don’t have dumb misspellings in the query. We all make mistakes, but catching it in that 200 word query should be easier.

2) I am sure this has been said a million times, but cute and wacky don’t work very often in a query.

3) In the age of Facebook, Twitter, etc., there is a temptation to do super brief, one liner queries. Just as too much isn’t great, 140 characters or less doesn’t really cut it either.

4) Need it be said, read the publisher’s/agent’s website.

5) We don’t need to hear that your goal is to get the book published. We don’t need to hear that the book will make us millions. We don’t need to hear that we would be stupid to turn it down. We don’t need to hear how great the novel is. Or how thrilling. Or how romantic. This is a bit of the old show not tell. Don’t tell us how to feel about the novel. Show us, via the novel and the query.

This sounds like a rant. It really isn’t. We love getting manuscripts and we have seen a steady average quality and quantity increase. The problem is, as we see the volume and the average quality go up, guess what happens with first impressions? They matter more.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Amazon Swallows Goodreads. Amazon: Genius? Evil? Welcome to the Zoo.

I waited a bit before deciding to comment on the recent acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon. Let it digest for a while. In interest of full disclosure, I worked at Amazon for a period of time.

Goodreads started in 2007 (or rather went “live” in 2007). Generally speaking it was one of the more independent social book review sites available. They had good success getting university writing programs to use it.There was some minor controversy that it was getting acrimonious in the Goodreads ecosystem, with some of the same issues Amazon faced vis-à-vis whether some reviewers were indeed creating legit reviews. That is a topic commented on before. It remains an issue and certainly by being “open” to any user, the risk is always there. In general, Goodreads had what I thought were better reviews and more books covered than Amazon. I even went to the trouble to “upload” a partial library list of books I own or have read (partial as the full list is many thousands).

Last year I was further encouraged by Goodreads having the courage to DROP the use of Amazon’s API for data and use Ingram and the Library of Congress.  This was about the same time that Amazon was pushing the use of Shelfari, their competitor to Goodreads. Amazon owned Shelfari since 2008, but really just let it rot until last year, when they then tried to make some tie ins to Author Central and other parts of the Amazon ecosystem.

All that has changed as now Amazon owns Goodreads in addition to Shelfari. Questions posted on Shelfari have received the expected “we’re excited about this here at Shelfari and Amazon remains committed.” Amazon is all about results. That’s its commitment. We’ll see which one lasts. The last real hold out is probably LibraryThing. I certainly hope THEY remain independent!

My real purpose was not to just ruminate on Goodreads, but to toss out a few thoughts on the genius of Amazon. I say this while over the past year lamenting Amazon’s continued growth and monopoly over the entire book industry. The method behind Amazon’s success is both genius and worrisome.

The genius of Amazon is amazingly simple, although complex to execute and a balancing act. The genius is that the end consumer, the individual, is king/queen. If I talk to authors and readers, professors who think about this sort of thing, they all agree that they “love” the independent book store. They “love” small publishers and independent publishers. When you ask these same people, who have skin in the game, where they purchased their last ten books, not to mention any other merchandise, they sheepishly admit most of it was at Amazon.

“It’s so convenient.”

“I love the reviews.”

“It’s the cheapest.”

“I know if there is an issue, Amazon will deal with it.”

It is all true. Amazon treats their customers (only their end consumer customers, the merchant is a completely different story) extremely well. Dare I say it, they are the best ONLINE retailer for customer treatment, all (by the way) without really having any human interaction.

Welcome to the Zoo.

Yes, you are treated so well that you really don’t need to leave. You don’t need to know what goes on outside of the zoo. You get the food, you have “enough” space. You really have everything you should need. You are a animal in the zoo. Why would you want to escape?

The anti-trust laws in the U.S. don’t care IF you are a monopoly, they just care if you “abuse” your monopoly power. Abuse is how you (generally speaking) treat the consumer. The book consumer wants more books, cheap? Time to pull the authors into the ecosystem to help provide cheap food for the zoo animals. Genius. Amazon doesn’t even need to do any of the work, the authors will do it for them, willingly.

Authors tend to be readers. They love Amazon’s cheap prices. Authors also tend to hate publishers—at one level. “Why am I giving up part of my money to the publisher when publishing is so cheap? Amazon makes it easy, press a button and I am published. I get to keep 70%! (Never mind that the 70% was set because of the agency pricing that Apple and publishers worked on and that Amazon fought and got the FTC to initiate proceedings on.) Thus, Amazon must be good, because that nasty publisher keeps 40-75% of that same amount of money.

Do more books get published? YES. Are more authors happy? YES. Is Amazon now more vertically integrated? YES. Are they now no longer dependent on publishers? Getting there!

It is genius. It is part of the “flywheel effect” (from the book Good to Great). They keep adding momentum to the flywheel they have going already. It all fits in.

Zoos are closed ecosystems where the animals are generally treated well and the food is free. They are also important because often times the natural habitat and food source no longer exists. It has been destroyed. Like benign dictatorships, one still feels there is something wrong with the system, but it is hard to point to the “harm” being caused.

So, with Amazon acquiring Goodreads, already owning Shelfari, already having 5-6 publishing imprints, already having two self-publishing and print on demand companies, having 80% of the ebook retail business and about 70% of the hard copy business, having a movie production studio, having IMDB database for movie reviews and you get it all with free shipping and streaming to your device it is hard to show where the consumer “suffers.”  Yet, this animal is starting to pace his cage and wonder.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What Marketing Should a Micro/Small Press Provide the Author?

The title should really read something like: Should, Want to, Reality of Micro Press marketing.

A micro press is loosely defined as a press that puts out less than 25 title per year. Most startup publishers fall in this category. A small press puts out a few more than 25 titles per year, but not a whole lot more.

Last year well over 250,000 titles were put out, most by the big four or five publishers (depending how you count recent mergers).

It has been said over and over again, here and other places, that all authors want to do is write. It is, generally speaking, what they claim to be good at. HELP, is the chorus of calls from authors of micro and small presses. You aren’t doing anything for me in marketing, this is not what I expected.

To re-coin a phrase: “I feel your pain.”

I really do. I also feel guilty. I don’t like to feel guilty, it makes me upset and distracts me. All I want to do is edit good books and write, sort of like what you--the author--wants to do.

Marketing (dictionary definition): “the commercial processes involved in promoting and selling and distributing a product or service.”

Marketing (my summary of 23 years): The creation of and execution of a marketing plan, which includes: Understanding your strategic position, creation of a fact book, creation of major marketing objectives and strategies, a product plan, a marketing communications plan, a research plan, a customer service plan, sales management plan, budget, timing, and execution of all of the above.

I hope your eyes glazed over. Mine did.

A micro press typically has two full time employees (usually editors) and a few part time employees.

A small press, for instance one I know of in Seattle that has been around for over twenty years, has five full time employees.  Two of them are editors.

The small press, after twenty years, now has over 500 books and under 1000 books. Remember how many books were put out last year alone?  Yeah, you get the idea on marketing muscle and bandwidth even after twenty years.

Out of desperation, most small and micro presses start out specializing, or very quickly begin specializing. Why? Because that is an implicit marketing plan. Romance. Mystery. Focus on one thing and you know who your target customer is. You know where to advertise. You know what book conventions to go to. You know what type of artwork to use. You get the idea. Group dollars spent helps all the books in the portfolio.

Literary and eclectic presses have it much harder. There is no built in macro marketing plan.

Wait, I hear that person in the back saying, isn’t this about the author?

Yeah, it is about the author and the author marketing. The specialty press says, “Here is where we target, it is similar for every book we do, here is what we recommend for every author. Go for it.”

The eclectic and literary press says. “Your book is great. We love it. It is different from every other book we have. Go figure out how to market it, because we have N number of books this year and there is no way in hell we are going to develop a marketing plan for all those books and get those books out.”

There is a reason that almost all of the successful self-published fiction books are genre popular fiction books and in particular: romance, mystery/suspense, and fantasy/science fiction. The marketing is a tiny bit easier.Not easy, but easier. Those successful authors? Put out two to three books PER YEAR and market them as a group, continuously. After three years that one author is a micro press.

What some startup presses are now doing is picking books they accept strictly by how well they think the author can market the book. When you submit they ask the author to “prove” they know how to market. Beyond the cliché and rote of “I will do Facebook, create a website, and email all my friends.” There are some advantages of joining this sort of press. The biggest is that as all the authors market away, it raises the stature of the entire press (from a marketing perspective). A thousand authors, where each, for purposes of discussion, add to the other author’s marketing effort by 1% by association. With a thousand authors, your marketing efforts are multiplied by 10. Not bad. You give up good editing and some other things, but still not bad.  The press does well too, potentially growing fast and adding a bit of marketing of their own.

But, most authors are not great marketers.  Also, some authors want good editing and personal attention. Finally, some authors want a press that has (or will have) a good reputation of “yeah, most of their authors are quite good.”

That press has an implicit marketing plan also. Slow growth with good books leads to something, over time. That is about it.

With two employees (or five if you are bigger) and a few part time contractors, it is all about time and money. The woman doing your artwork is probably not going to do your marketing. The guy doing taxes and accounting isn’t either. The tech gal doing websites and ebook uploading and conversions and other computer work doesn’t’ have time, nor the inclination.

If you are lucky, one of the two (or five) founders and principals has product management and marketing experience. If s/he does then the author gets one additional piece of marketing. Reactive marketing.

Reactive marketing is when the author asks for help in the form of at least a few ideas and wants help and feedback. Then the person with experience at the press will react, throwing out what seems like a shotgun blast of ideas and suggestions. The author is going to pick up those pellets and arrange them into a semblance of marketing plan (see the earlier, eye glazing, definition) and add to it and execute.

Look, no one knows your book better than you (the author) do. You should know the market, because if you wrote a book like this, you should have read more than one book like it. If you haven’t read a lot in your genre and similar to your book, guess what step one of your marketing plan should be?

I digress. A small press (bigger than a micro press) might write a press release for you and create a press kit. From a template. On their stationary.

Other than that, there is probably little they do for an individual book. The small press is busy marketing the press. Lifting all their authors a little bit.

The micro press is busy trying to become a small press. It is finding authors that fit its portfolio. Authors that will either sell on their own, are good writers and marketers, or the editors like the book and want it in the portfolio and even if the book does not sell well, everyone who reads it says, that is a good book, it doesn’t make your company look bad.

That guy in the back is groaning. “For this, I get 35% (give or take, depending on the press) of revenue of the book? What the hell? I should just self publish.”

I feel your pain, I really do.  65% of almost nothing has to pay for editing, artwork, computers, software, relationships with printers, publishing associations. If only I had a lot of time and money for marketing, then that would be 65% of something, but would it cover my time and expenses? My press’s ROI (return on investment) is already zero, can I afford too much negative? It is a tough call. Most startups in publishing go the “build it slowly” and just like a big press “hope for one big one that can snowball the whole thing.”

The big publishing houses end up making 3% profit. I think you can guess how much micro and small publishers make.

I feel your pain. I’ll find some more good books that make you look good. You go out and market your book. But, I will give you that shotgun blast of advice if you ask, as long as you have a few ideas of your own.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why are you so anxious for the print book to get out? (or, What is your Marketing Plan?)

Happy New Year to everyone!

This blog entry has been updated 1/9/2013 at the bottom.

This is a bit of a marketing entry. It is part of a series, as 2013 is, we hope at New Libri, a year of marketing.

We do all of our books first in eBook, then intentionally wait three months (or so) and put the book out in paper. Without exception, authors chomp at the bit for the paper version. “When is it going to come out?” “Most of my friends/relatives/colleagues/reviewers are waiting for the paper version.”

Why is the author so anxious for the print book to come out?

I ask the question (rhetorically) because the only reason the author at a medium, small, micro, or self-published press should be chomping at the bit for the paper version of the book to come out is because they have an awesome marketing plan ALL READY TO GO. If you don’t have at least a credible marketing plan, round one, sketched out, then WHAT’S THE RUSH?

The eBook is the main proof, if you will. Most of the editing is done (the beauty of an eBook is small edits can be updated to the servers at any time). You should be able to get some reviews from an eBook, so don’t say “I need the paper version for reviews.” Sure, for SOME reviews you do, but what is your marketing campaign, vis-à-vis reviews? No, the truth is, authors want the paper book because there is no marketing plan. Thus, you might as well get the paper version out there too. Get a few more reviews. Hope for the best.

I know this sounds cynical and certainly not confidence inspiring to authors wondering about joining a medium/small/micro press (or self-publishing). After all, isn’t that what a publisher is supposed to do? Market the book? Yeah, sort of. Sometimes. I have commented on this before. The primary benefit an author gets from a small press includes a lot of things, but PERSONAL marketing is not one of them.

An author's marketing plan should include a number of things, below is a short list:

  • Go ahead give it a fun name
  • Goal of the Plan
  • What is your budget? Don’t equivocate. Pledge some money RIGHT NOW. What is it going to be? Now pledge some time.
  • Duration of the plan. Schedule. (Yeah, basically a project plan).
  • List the issues you have to overcome
  • List actual (real and achievable) targets (goals)
  • Main message.
  • Deliverables (e.g. sell sheets, PR packages, pre-canned interviews, etc.)
  • How is it measured?
  • Target audience
  • Strategy
  • Communication channels
  • Are there campaigns within campaigns?
  • Share your plan with the publisher. Will they help ($$$, timing, etc.)

This list should be filled out EVEN IF YOU ARE GOING TO HIRE SOMEONE TO HELP.

By the way, if you are going to hire someone for marketing, think many thousands. ($5,000 to 10,000). This may not include advertising fees, etc. Generally, if you don’t have a basic plan of your own, you shouldn’t be hiring anyone.

It is tempting to mistake an advertising campaign for a marketing campaign. They are not the same.

Big campaign versus small campaign. The truth is, for the first campaign an author does, it can take months to plan out even a small campaign, even (or especially) if your budget is close to zero. Now, many authors I know go fairly quickly to the “zero” for budget. “I am a starving artist.” Is it really zero? Did you spend money on a writing workshop? Did you spend money on an MFA? Why is this part less important than the rest of your education? Or, to put it another way, ON AVERAGE, even at the low end of the income spectrum, Americans spend 5.7% of their income eating out and another 3% of their income on entertainment and then there is that smart phone and all those monthly charges. So, your writing is less important than that latte, eh? By the way, that eating out % does not include alcohol.

You get the idea.

Now, I said that medium/small/micro presses really don’t do any marketing. Of course that is not completely true. But, the marketing they do is generally going to be group focused. Not author focused. There are exceptions, but for now that is the way to think if you are the author. You can try and piggyback on those group efforts, but really, you should think of how to add to those, follow on to those, or simply do your own marketing.

The reason I ask, in the title of the blog, why any author is in a rush for the paper version of a book to come out is: without a marketing campaign to leverage that paper release, you are losing a bit of an opportunity.

This is why the typical medium to large sized publisher takes 2-3 YEARS from acceptance to releasing the book. It is not the editing and printing that drives the release, it is the marketing plan. What many “mid-list” authors figured out is that the plan for them, from the publisher, is “not much” other than some catalogs and a list of people that get the pre-release of the book for review. This is a pre-canned, low budget, plan that most authors get. This is a bit of a crap shoot and is why many authors do self-publish (even if they have been published traditionally in the past) or switch to a smaller press. Faster release. But, those authors know they have to do their own marketing.

Small presses can develop marketing materials for an author, but that is not the same as marketing plan. In future entries, I’ll discuss what a publisher might do for a marketing plan, but I can tell you for a startup publisher, the marketing plan includes “Step one, build a portfolio of good books that you can then market as a group.” This ultimately DOES help the author, but in a group way and over the long term. Some of our authors are content with “help New Libri grow and we will grow also.” We love them. But, you need your own individual plan, even if it is “ride the publisher’s long term plan.” You need that plan simply to satisfy yourself and to answer the question when someone asks you how sales are going.

So, do you really want that paper version of the book ASAP? How’s that marketing plan going?

Update 1/9/2013.

The danger with blogs is that, of course, they tend to be looser and less edited than a formal column. They also tend to be only part of a bigger picture. I have, rightfully, been called to task that this particular blog suffers from both. What is the responsibility of the micro press in the marketing? This entry seems to indicate that ALL of the responsibility is the author’s. Next weeks entry will focus more on the responsibility of a micro-press (one that publishes less than 25 titles per year). Surely, some state, it cannot be all the author’s responsibility!