Watching the Agent Fray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering the Workflow

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

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

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

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

Step 73: Profit!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Fired from Writing?

This has been all over the writer-centric portions of the blogosphere, but I’m sharing to those who aren’t already knee deep in it.  The author of the wildly popular Vampire Diaries series of books has been fired from writing her own books.

This is one of those object lessons in being careful what you sign, because when she started the series back in the 1990’s, she wasn’t technically doing it as a freelance author.  Instead, she was writing it for a “book packager” (whatever that is) who then sold it to the publishers.  Alas, her contract stipulated that whatever she wrote for this book packager was considered “work for hire”, and that means the book packager owns the copyright, not the author.

So now this packager is tired of dealing with the author (L. J. Smith) and has fired her, intent on replacing her with a ghostwriter.  As crappy and unethical as this sounds, the packager is within his rights, since Ms. Smith signed those rights away when she was too young and new to understand what “work for hire” meant in the pages upon pages of her contract.

So, ummm, yeah… remember how I said that one of the reasons I didn’t want to pursue a New York publisher right now was because I didn’t feel I could trust their contracts?  Well, I doubt they’d go as far as slipping in a “work for hire” clause, but to be honest, I wouldn’t bet my career on it.

Count this as one more reason I’m going to stick with the indie path until the dust settles.

Manuscript to Book

Self-publishing is the ultimate do-it-yourself literary exercise. What a publisher would normally take care of is going to fall on me. That means everything from copyediting to accounting will have to be done by yours truly, except that much of it can be hired out. After all, that’s what the publishers do: hire people to do the work, but before I decide what to do myself and what to hire out, I’m going to look at what all that work actually is.

The Business End

First, there are some legalities and paperwork to be done. This could be creating a legal entity like an LLC, filing a DBA, or maybe even less. Books need ISBN’s and sometimes UPC symbols. Accounts need to be created and linked so the money will flow. These are the things that make up the business end of self-publishing, and unless I found some pre-existing author co-op who has already done this, I’m going to be doing these things myself. An excellent overview of all this can be found in the book Publishing & Marketing Realities, by Christine Rose.

All of that is a one-time activity which does not need to be repeated for each book. The rest of this will focus on what I have to do for the book itself.

Shine the Manuscript

Normally, I would think of this as “polishing” the manuscript… you know, fine-tuning the language, double-checking the spelling of various names, and fixing all the there/their/they’re errors. But that’s what you would do before sending a manuscript off for consideration by an agent or editor. Before it goes out to publication, it needs a little more. Hence, we need to “shine” the manuscript.

This gets into the real nitty-gritty of copyediting. Beyond there/their/they’re, copyediting includes all those pesky rules of punctuation, noun-verb agreement, proper case usage, Mom vs. my mom, and so on. Of course, these are all things a good writer is already supposed to understand, but they’re also things that are easy to gloss over when you’re reading, especially when you’re reading your own familiar text.

This calls for a third-party copyeditor, someone who not only knows all those rules but is willing to grind through the story, reading not for pleasure, but with a pen poised to drip blood over every little slip-up, from that first quotation mark to the final period. Certainly I can do a careful combing of the text, but if I’m prone towards a certain mistake, I’m probably prone to miss it while reading too. Hence, I will almost certainly hire this out. While there are many other skills I can attempt to learn, I will be hard pressed to teach myself to not be me.

Putting the E in Book

There are two quite different formatting tasks in putting out a book these days: formatting for e-books and formatting for print. Let’s start with e-books.

As I understand it, e-books are essentially a kind of compiled HTML. Or at the very least, HTML makes the best source material for e-books. I found a great series on e-book formatting that lays out the process step by laborious step. If HTML is Greek to you, then it’s probably even more laborious. Fortunately for me, I’ve been hand-coding HTML since 1995, and apart from the use of styles, the HTML involved doesn’t look much more advanced than what I was doing in 1995. My initial test with a short story was promising.

This I will likely do myself, though I’m not opposed to paying a knowledgeable consultant to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. This is less about saving money and more about having control. I could hire it out, get a crappy result, and not know how to go about fixing it.

Putting the Book in Print

I have decided I want to do print versions as well as e-book versions. Partly this is for actual sales, but I confess that a large part of this is emotional. While it is not one of my rational reasons for wanting to be published, there is a little irrational core that wants to put a copy of my book on the shelf in my library. It’s hard for me to say how much is sales vs. holding it in my hand, but I think the rational side is strong enough to justify the effort.

So, what is involved in putting a book in print? Strangely, I’m less sure in this area. I know that all the printing services (Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace) want it as a PDF. Alas, unlike HTML, PDF files are something of a black box to me. Adobe keeps me well supplied with PDF readers, but PDF writers are in short supply.

Microsoft Word can export to a PDF, but is that a valid PDF? I recall once talking to a small publisher about sending files to Lightning Source, and she kept saying that I had to use Adobe’s In-Design because “the fonts have to be embedded.” I’m a little fuzzy on what that means, but it looks like it means adding the font definitions to the PDF file, just in case the print-on-demand machine doesn’t have them. Alas,
In-Design costs hundreds of dollars, so I may not be so quick to go down that road. I’ve seen a few tutorials that talk about simpler (or at least cheaper) ways to embed the fonts, but I haven’t tested them. If nothing else, I might hire out the job of making sure my fonts are embedded.

But there’s another question in my mind about the print formatting, and that is quite simply making it look good. A print book is a richer visual experience than an e-book. Issues of font choice, margins, line-spacing, headers, etc. are all handled somewhat automatically by the e-book reader. In print, all of this is under the control of the publisher, which in this case, would be me.

So my question is, do I actually know enough to make it look good? Certainly, I can look at other books and try to match their style, and I can contort Word around in lots of interesting ways, but until I actually see it in physical form, I’ll always be wondering if it looks more like The Catcher in the Rye or a 300-page ransom note. Clearly, this is another area I might pay a knowledgeable consultant to point me in the right direction.

The Cover to Be Judged

We always say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in reality we do it all the time. When strolling through a bookstore, we make that judgment multiple times a second, waiting for something visual to grab us. We may do it less when shopping online, but even then a catchy cover will get me to click through and see what it’s about. A boring cover fades into the background of the page.

So, apart from cleavage and explosions, what should my cover have? Ok, maybe it’s not that simple. It should have some relation to the story inside, but I feel strongly that cover art should not live within the straightjacket of illustration. Instead of trying to show a scene from the book, I think the artwork should try to capture something of the essence of the story. Maybe it’s a unique view. Maybe it’s an emotive character. And hey, maybe it is cleavage and explosions, but I’m going to wait a while before launching my bestseller Bomb Boobies of Babylon!

I think I can do the artwork myself. I did quite a bit of digital painting from 2005 through 2009, and while I have focused more on my writing lately, I think I can do a decent job at it. If it turns out badly, I might simply take it to another one of my artist friends and say, “Can you paint this… only good?”

Then there’s the title, my name, the blurb on the back, and so on. That’s less about art and more about graphic design. While I don’t have as much experience here as I do in the artwork itself, I’ve done enough that I at least have the technical skills. However, I won’t know until I try it whether or not it’s snazzy or forgettable. I will say that I already shortened the title because I could see it would not fit well on the cover.

The Package

Putting it all together with CreateSpace and the e-bookstores will be the final hurdle. Hopefully, it’s little more than navigating through the various web forms and uploading the content, but like parallel parking, you don’t know how hard or easy it is until you actually do it. (For the record, parallel parking is HARD!) This might be one of those areas where I could use an experienced hand guiding mine along, saying, “Click… NOW!”

There’s more to do after that, from marketing to sales pushes, getting reviews, and trumpeting them across the internet, but mostly I’m focusing on getting it out, and then getting the next one out, and so on and so on.

That’s it for now. Wish me luck!

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.

Amazon Lending Library, KDP Select, and Risk

So, let’s talk about the Amazon lending library. When they launched the Kindle Fire, Amazon also announced a digital lending library, likening it to Netflix for books. For a flat fee (being an Amazon Prime customer for $79 annually), you could borrow one e-book per month. Sounds great, sort of, but they ran into trouble right from the start.

They went around to the various traditional publishers, and the vast majority of them simply refused. The terms they offered those publishers aren’t public, so I don’t know what they were, but in the age of the digital book with on-demand borrowing, the only difference between borrowing and buying a book seems to be the money changing hands, or rather, not changing hands. Hence, anything less than full purchase price per customer loan was not going to fly for the traditional publishers, who were not exactly bearing much love for Amazon in the first place.

Undeterred, Amazon decided to loan out those books anyway, declaring that they would simply pay the publishers full price. Well, that’s nice on the one hand, but it also seems unsustainable. Furthermore, it might not even be legal. As anyone familiar with publishing will tell you, authors don’t sell books. Rather, they license copyright, and they give that license under certain specific terms. If you want to put their copyrighted work to a use that’s not covered under the license contract, then you’re out of luck. Those rights still remain with the author.

So, even if the publishers had been temporarily mollified with full-price payments, the authors were not. Enter the Authors Guild who believes that the authors have not given their publishers the right to enlist their books into this lending library, even if they’re getting paid for each loan.

So, to hell with the traditional publishers, right? What about all those authors using the Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP)? Amazon decided to enlist those authors in the lending library by offering them a deal called KDP Select.  In exchange for allowing their books to be in the lending library and not to sell them anywhere else, Amazon offered some promotional carrots as well as a slice of a $500,000 pie. To date, about 30,000 self-published authors have taken them up on the offer.

But there has also been a lot of push-back, pretty much dividing the self-published authors down the middle. Some expressed concern over the fine print on exclusivity as well as the opaque financials on figuring out how much your book will earn in lending fees.

Specifically, the various KDP Select authors are fighting over a pool of $500,000, all 30,000 of them. While their example math talks about your hypothetical book getting a 1.5% chare of that (i.e. $7500), the reality is much more likely to be much closer to 0.00333% of that (i.e. just shy of $17), quite possibly less. With a potential for one to five million books to be loaned per month, the loan fee is anywhere from ten to fifty cents each.

David Gaughran wrote an excellent piece on why he is not going to enroll any of his titles in the KDP Select program, but it’s less about what he might get today. It’s more about how much he’ll be paid in the future.  He feels that this notion of setting a pool for us to fight over is a dangerous precedent. At a time that authors are finally getting direct access to their readers and the financial transparency that comes with it, this is a step in the wrong direction.

Now, I like Amazon. I’m even an Amazon Prime customer. Sill, I think this is a bad deal for authors for similar reasons as Gaughran’s, but it’s not just about having authors fight over the money pool. It’s about the assumption of risk and the data to manage that risk properly.

Being an Amazon Prime customer had other features before this lending program. One of them is free shipping on just about anything Amazon ships out of its warehouses. This covers everything from books to Kleenex to cookies. Personally, my wife and I use this a lot, and we only pay $79 each year for it. For us, it’s much cheaper than the regular shipping charges on all the individual purchases. Seriously, they have a great deal on Kleenex, and with our allergies, that’s a bulk purchase. Ditto with the soy powder, the rice cookies, the diapers, and the air filters. In fact, I bet we use it so much that Amazon loses money on us.

But Amazon knew that was going to happen. They didn’t know it would be me they would lose shipping money on, but they knew it would be someone. They also knew there were folks they would make money on for the shipping. They have a database of millions of customers and billions of transactions. They can make predictions of how many shipments will go out under their Prime program, and they can make sure that it’s priced accordingly. They are assuming risk here, but they also have the data to manage that risk. Costs will vary on the small scale, but they can predict the aggregate with high accuracy.

With the KDP Select lending program there is risk as well. How many books will be borrowed? How much with that eat into sales of books? How much will exposure translate into more book sales? At this point, no one really knows, not even Amazon. But Amazon has the best chance of knowing early what the costs are going to be since they’ll have real time data that no one else in the world will have. It makes sense then, that they should be the ones to shoulder that risk and manage it appropriately. But they have not. Instead, they have determined that their cost will be $500,000 a month.

I don’t think that’s fair. Of course, they don’t have to be fair. They’re running a business, and their bottom line is their ultimate focus. Of course, authors don’t have to play along with it either. I suspect that the authors who have embraced self-publishing as a way to take control of their rights back from traditional publishers are not going to be too quick to hand them over to someone else.

We’ll see, but I’m hoping that Amazon and others eventually reach some arrangement that works better than this. After all, even Netflix saw the light and aborted its ill-conceived Flickster project.

Just What Is a Vanity Publisher?

Last month, a friend of mine told me his novel was coming out soon. His wife showed it to me already on the Kindle, and the hardcover is coming out in January. I asked him who his publisher was, and he told me XLibris. And I confess, my first thought was, “has he been had?” More specifically, I wondered if XLibris is a vanity publisher.

It’s actually a sign of the times that I would even ask that. About ten years ago – or was it fifteen? – Xlibris was about the only self-publishing option you had other than doing all the layout and contracting out the printer. They were one of the first publishers to use print-on-demand, and back in the day, they were the salvation of several authors’ backlists. I remember Ardath Mayer telling us how happy she was to finally rescue so many of her out-of-print books and for only a few hundred dollars per title. Her fans were ecstatic, because who wants to read books six and seven when one through five are unavailable. Meanwhile, of course, books six and seven started selling better.

Now it’s a completely different environment, perhaps more different than even Ardath could have imagined. If I had an orphaned backlist, I could publish it on the Kindle for next to nothing. For print books, there’s, CreateSpace, and Lightning Source among others, offering a road to print for as little as $20 to a few hundred. Options abound for those who choose to self-publish.

Alas, scams also abound. They are con operations masquerading as publishers, who will turn your novel, plus a sizeable investment from you, into well… money in their pocket and dashed dreams beneath your feet. As I heard about some of the features of the XLibris deal my friend got, I started to wonder if XLibris had fallen from its position as a leader in self-publishing to a con artist with a good name.

Well, I’ve done a little research and it looks like XLibris is still on the up and up. I think the main reason I found myself suspicious was that there are now so many other options that are more attractive to me that they suddenly looked questionable compared to the other options out there. Yes, times have changed that much.

But don’t take that as an endorsement of XLibris or any similar publisher. You still need to do your own due diligence when charting the waters of vanity, subsidy, and self publishing. An excellent place to start is over at Writer Beware’s page on vanity publishing.

Amazon as the enemy?

It’s been interesting (and terrifying) to watch some of the recent changes in publishing, but one of the ones I’ve been most intrigued by has been the demonization of Amazon. Today I’m sharing two different tales where different sections of the book industry are lashing out not just at Amazon, but with people who choose to do business with Amazon.

The first tale is from Kiana Davenport, a Hawaiian author, who has been writing short stories for years and recently signed with a Big 6 New York publisher to publish her first novel. Around the same time, she also decided she should start getting some of her backlist stories out on the e-book market, so she decided to self-publish them on Amazon’s Kindle platform. Her New York publisher was not amused:

“To coin the Fanboys, they went ballistic. The editor shouted at me repeatedly on the phone. I was accused of breaching my contract (which I did not) but worse, of ‘blatantly betraying them with Amazon,’ their biggest and most intimidating competitor. I was not trustworthy. I was sleeping with the enemy.

Most of the stories in both collections had each been published several times before…. And, over several years both collections had been submitted to each of the Big 6 publishers in NY. I still have their rejection letters, including one from the house I was now under contract with. So you might say these stories were, in a sense, recycled, sitting in my files rejected. Yet, as published collections, this Big 6 publisher suddenly found them threatening.”

In short, because she was publishing some completely different work (different genre) on her own, the Big 6 publisher is apparently cancelling her contract, demanding the return on advance, and holding the rights to her novel hostage in the mean time. You can go read it for yourself, but it definitely seems that they are most upset not because she chose to self-publish these collections, but because she dared to go through Amazon to do it.

Recently, I have seen a number of traditionally published authors talk about the advantages to straddling the fence between traditional New York publishers and self-publishing through e-books and small press service companies like Lightning Press or CreateSpace. Rather than handing over the e-book rights to your backlist, they have recommended working through it on your own or hiring out the tasks. That way you keep more control as well as a larger share of the royalties.

However, actions like those of Kiara’s publisher make it clear that traditional publishers do not want this at all, and when they have the power to prevent it, they are. Not just because they want to do the publishing work themselves, but in cases like Kiara’s, because they do not want you to have any success without them. This more than anything else is making me question whether I want to pursue a traditional publishing path.

The second tale comes from Joe Konrath who has earned the ire of bookstores for signing with Amazon’s new publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer to publish the eighth book in his Jack Daniels series. Some booksellers are making noise about boycotting books from this line, but that’s not all:

“I’ve also heard that certain booksellers want to return any books of mine they have in stock as a punitive measure.

So signing a deal with Amazon makes me the enemy of bookstores?

Me, who has signed at over 1200 bookstores? Who has thanked over 1500 booksellers by name in the acknowledgements of my novels? Who has named five major characters in my series after booksellers?

Now I’m the bad guy, for wanting to continue my series and make a living?

You may know that my publisher, Hyperion, dropped my Jack Daniels series after six books, even though they continue to sell well as backlist titles. The only way I could get print books in the series into the hands of fans was to sign with another publisher.

Thomas & Mercer stepped up to the plate to give my fans what they want: more Jack Daniels books.”

Now, certainly I know that many booksellers have an axe to grind with Amazon as a retailer, an axe already honed by every Mom & Pop grocer who saw a Walmart move into town. But to hate them as a publisher? To the point of sending back their authors’ books to some completely unrelated publisher?

Personally, I gave up on brick and mortar bookstores a while back. I know that’s incredibly un-PC in the book-loving world, but it’s just what happened. I wrote an essay on it last year (which I might repost here) where I explained why, but the bottom line is that my Amazon experience became better than my bookstore experience. It’s not necessarily that bookstores did anything wrong, just that Amazon did it better.

I can understand being angry when a new competitor comes and starts shaking up your business. You’ve got a comfortable apple-cart, and someone just moved in and knocked it over. It sucks, but to react by taking it out on the people who choose to do business with that new competitor? Not only is that bad business, it’s petty.