Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Will Self Publishing Work For You? Maybe... If You're Lucky

You can't turn on the TV news or check your social media feed without hearing about one more self publishing success story. Whether it's an author making bank putting out monster porn on Amazon, or a married couple saving their house with their steamy romance novels, it seems like self publishing really is shoulder-checking the big publishing houses out of the way and rendering them irrelevant. Soon publishing will be available to everyone, and sales will be based purely on the merit of the writer's skill!

Keep dreaming Skippy.
Sadly the world in which self publishing is the Rocky Balboa to Random House's Apollo Creed is just a fantasy. Does that mean you can't self publish and become successful? Of course not, because (in case you didn't notice) it seems there's a new joker every week that hits the publishing lottery and makes between $25k and $100k a year in book sales.

That isn't the norm though, and if you're going to get into self publishing there's some things you should know beforehand.

You Have To Do Everything (And I Do Mean Everything)

It should be evident just looking at the term self publishing that you're going to be responsible for every aspect of the process. Lots of authors think they understand what that means, but until you've gone through it you really don't.

Pictured: Everything
I'm not just talking out of my ass here, either. When I was having some trouble getting my stories placed I decided to take three of the better ones in my stable and publish them myself through the Smashwords platform (you can find my Smashwords author profile right here if you're curious). It looks easy; it isn't.

You know going into the process that it's your job to write the story. You have to handle the rear cover blurb, and you have to take care of the cover art (that gets complicated since you're limited to public domain images and royalty-free stock photos, unless you're a talented artist yourself). You know that you have to edit the book, and that it's your job to find beta readers. But you also have to format the book, you have to put it up on the platform, and you have to make sure the page displaying it is accurate and attractive.

There's more though because you're not just the author and publisher. You're also the publicist, which means you need to find ways to promote your book so you can get eyes on it. You have to come up with marketing plans, you have to keep your clicks up on social media, and you have to answer any questions or comments that fans and readers come up with. This is actually what leads into the second thing you should know...

No One Takes You Seriously

Because it's your job to promote yourself and your book you're going to want to talk to media outlets to try and get coverage. You're going to want an author page on LinkedIn and Facebook, and you're going to want an author website and a blog. Once you've set up shop you might set out into the big bad world to tell them about how great your book is. Maybe you go down to the local TV and radio station to see if they need guests. Or you call up your local newspaper and inform them you're an author who just released a new book. No matter what you do to though, chances are you're going to get the door slammed in your face hard enough to break your nose.

This is what you have to do in order to get an interview. From a college paper.
Something not a lot of writers know is there is a marked prejudice against self published authors (and to a lesser degree against those published by small presses). The general consensus is that self-publishing is a field with a few rebel geniuses in it, and a sea of talentless hacks who couldn't get their books past the gatekeepers at real publishers. This isn't an accurate view by any means, but if you regurgitate something often enough it becomes the governing view. As such the news media by and large does not care about your book unless it meets the following criteria:

- Is it a novel?
- Is it a physical book (mainstream media seems to hate ebooks)?
- Can you walk into a store and buy it?
- Are you generating a lot of attention with your book?

This is the catch-22 of being an author. Short of being struck by Internet lightning you aren't going to get famous without a lot of exposure and buzz about your book. One of the main ways to do that is to get coverage from media sources. Mainstream sources, of course, don't want to hear it unless you're already selling books.

Speaking of selling books...

Selling Books Is Damn Near Impossible

The public loves to read, and there are niches for all kinds of tastes and desires out there. Your problem is convincing readers to give your book a try, and most authors really have no idea how hard that actually is.

For example, have you read the samples for anything linked in this blog yet?
People read books based on a lot of factors. One is how popular the book is, the logic being that a hundred thousand people think it's great so maybe I should check it out. Another is a recommendation from a person they trust, like a good friend or a critic whose views they find insightful. Some people might read a book because its cover art is intriguing (and that kind of art takes talent and cash to make), or because it's free.

If all you had to do was write a book, post about it on your Facebook page and kick up your heels, everyone would do this.

As a self published author you have to build an audience, overcome prejudice, and get your book in front of new readers all without the support of mainstream media, or the staff and influence that comes with a traditional publisher. Even if you run a successful social media campaign, acquire some followers, get noticed, and manage to move up the ranks though, there's something else you should be aware of...

It Really Is Like Winning The Lottery

Becoming one of those people you see on the news is possible. Someone has to become the new sensation after all, so it might as well be you, right? After all you've honed your craft, created a compelling story, and you've come up with a unique way to market it to both niche readers as well as those outside of a given genre. You're a shoe in!

Know something? That's what the other several hundred thousand other self published authors are thinking.

Hate to disappoint everyone else, but that's my bulls-eye.
In the year 2012 there were over 391,000 self published books on the market. That's not counting the traditionally published books from all the other companies big and small, which you're still fighting over for attention like the smallest puppy in the litter. Those numbers aren't going down either; if anything they're only getting bigger.

Why? Because everyone thinks they can write, and with self publishing there's no one but sales figures to inform them they're wrong. To make it worse for every terrible indie book someone reads that's another black mark (in that reader's mind) against all indie books. They don't have a company or an editor to blame, so instead they saddle the whole of indie authors with the sins of the few.

Is it possible that your book will be the one chosen by lottery to be read by hundreds of thousands of people? Sure it is! But it's more likely that you're going to sweat buckets and strain your mental back trying to shove yourself through the ranks to get to the front for a few minutes in the sunshine.

Even if you are chosen though, you should really know...

You Need to Move Millions of Copies To Eat

How much would you make at the top of Amazon's bestseller list for a week? Well Patrick Wensick's novel Broken Piano For President spent a week in the #6 spot (partially because of a viral cease-and-desist letter that Jack Daniels sent him), and most authors assume that means Wensick made an absolute boatload of cash. After all he was placed higher than The Hunger Games, Gone Girl, and dozens of other bestselling books for seven days. Surely he's relaxing and writing his next book even if he isn't a millionaire, right?

Now Wensick might not be an ideal example, since he isn't an indie author. However, his case shows you just how hard it can be to make bank. If a viral news story and a week in a top spot on the biggest online marketplace nets you less than a year's worth of minimum wage pay, then what do you need to do to become the next Stephen King or Anne Rice?

Be lucky, for the most part. That, and keep your momentum going.

The Neverending Story

Being a successful author of any sort (indie, traditional, or otherwise) is a lot like being a shark; you swim or you die. Publish or perish. You need to publish more stories, tack another chapter onto your epic series, or offer your audience something new and shiny to devour at least once a year or so. Only once you've built up a library of published work can you experience the backlog effect; when a reader discovers you as an author and then decides to read everything you've written.

This is a key point for all authors, but indie authors in particular. If you only have one book on the market then no matter how much someone loves your work you can only make one sale (perhaps one or two more if that reader gives your book out as gifts). But say you have 10 or 20 books on the market; you're going to notice a spike in your total sales every time one catches a wave and gets a little more popular.

That's how you really cash in.

Are You Up For It?

In closing it's true that self publishing is a viable way to make money. Self published authors have completed books, and they're working hard to find their audiences. However, it isn't the right path for everyone. People who don't want to handle every aspect of a book, or who want a traditional publisher's marketing muscle behind them may find that self publishing feels like more work than it's worth, and they'll be discouraged by all of the hidden work that comes with it. Other authors, who like to be at the helm of their own careers and who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and bang on doors till someone listens may find that self publishing is just right for them.

All of that said, there's just one more question. Did you check out Jungle Moon?

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Mortal Sins of Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is one of the most unsung skills a storyteller can have. When it's done right the reader won't even notice it, except to remark on how cleverly and naturally everything fits together. When worldbuilding is done poorly though it's a "slam the covers and throw the book at a passing nun" kind of offense.

This practice becomes dangerous at the Vatican.
Generally speaking that's something you want to avoid.

So How Do I Avoid Bad Worldbuilding?

Normally this is where I'd launch into an exhaustive list of tips, tricks, and suggestions for how to make your world stand out among the stacks of other popular fictions on the market. However I already covered some of this in this entry all about building Dystopian futures, and Charlie Jane Anders has created this phenomenal guide to the 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding available at io9.

How can you argue with this sweet graphic?
For those of you who didn't click the second link, you seriously should. However the salient sins you need to avoid when it comes to worldbuilding are:

1. Ignoring Infrastructure: You can't save a world when you don't know who picks up the trash.
2. Not Explaining Current Events: Why is plot happening now? Why not 50 years ago/ahead?
3. One-Dimensional Parodies: No characters, especially ethnically derivative ones, may be flat.
4. Monoliths: No one in a party/ethnicity/country feels the same way about everything. Ever.
5. Simple History: Real history is full of happenstance, unfortunate weather, and bad decisions.
6. Soulless Locale: If you can't touch, taste, and smell this place, it will be flat and boring.
7. Follow the Ripples: If people can read minds, then what does that change about a society?

Could I add more to this list? Absolutely! Does more need to be added? No, not really. Anders hits all the high notes and if you follow the advice given your world is going to be a lot more believable. The problem is that once you've built the stage you still have to come up with an interesting story to have play out on it.

An author's work is never done, is it?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Deals With The Devil: What To Look For In Your Publishing Contract

You've finally done it. You finished your manuscript, sent it off to the publisher, waited week upon nerve-wracking week, and you were rewarded with that one, special email. The one that always seems to begin, "We are pleased to inform you that your story has been selected for publication." Then, flush with your accomplishment, you click the attached contract to print it out and put your name on the dotted line as soon as you possibly can.

Just step into my office, and we'll take care of these last little details...
Hold up.

That contract in your hand might be your meal ticket, but it might also be full of razor blades and piss. So before you take a big, hearty bite out of it you should know just what it is you're signing away when you prick your finger.


The first thing most authors look for (after how fat their checks are going to be) are the rights they give away. For instance, most publishers ask for "first print rights," which means you are promising they will be the first company to ever publish your work. That's par for the course, but chances are good your contract is asking for more than a single run of your story.

There are all kinds of rights you have to your work. There are foreign rights for when your story is printed overseas, there are film rights in case it's ever made into a movie, there are re-print rights, serial rights, anthology rights, and the list goes on and on. You need to check and see which rights you're giving away to your publisher, and whether or not you're giving away anything permanently.

All righty, this should do it. When do I get my check?
That's right, some companies don't just buy a right to your work; they buy all of them. Period. The end. Game over. If you sign one of those contracts then the company can do whatever they want with your story because you've essentially sold it into slavery. The Anarchist Cookbook is perhaps the most infamous case of this happening, especially since the author has fought for years to get the book taken off the shelves because it contains dangerously inaccurate information. Since he has no rights to the book though, his actions have thus far been largely in vain.

What (And When) Are You Getting Paid?

Whether you're getting a contract for a short story that's part of an anthology or your big, breakout novel, visions of sugarplums are likely doing the can-can in your mind's eye. There's a pre-conceived notion that book contract = big $, and that's hard to shake. Even if you've got experience to the contrary.

For that reason you need to take a long, hard look at what the contract is actually offering you.

I would happily accept this as an advance on a novel.
For starters, let's talk about your advance. An advance is a payment given to the author with the understanding that the book is going to earn more money. So if you're given a $2,000 advance you won't receive any more money until the book has been published, and your cut of the royalties goes over $2,000. If you never sell more than your initial advance, then the advance is all you're going to get.

This is when we get into royalties.

When your work is published you, as the creator, may be awarded royalties (if they're in your contract). A royalty might be 10% of physical sales, and 30% of digital sales, for instance. Sales will be tracked, calculated, and paid out to you as the author on a certain schedule. Some publishers will pay monthly royalties, others will pay quarterly royalties, and still others will only pay annually. Your contract will tell you what percentage you get, and when you'll receive it along with when you'll be entitled to updates on your sales.

What Can Be Changed?

We're all mortal (well, most of us), and we make mistakes. Authors by and large assume there will be spelling mistakes that need correcting, grammar that could be stripped out or re-arranged, and even some adverbs that could be set aside. What we do not expect is our main character's name being changed from Raziel to Jake, the plot-setting fight scene in chapter three being stripped out completely, or the explanation for what the Well of Souls does being deleted.

Depending on your contract though, that could very well happen.

Chapter One: Edited
There's typically a section in your contract regarding what changes an editor can and can't make to your manuscript. A good contract will state that only minor changes can be made without the author's permission, but other contracts may very well state that changes will be made without consulting the author at all. These tend to be paired with the "we now own your entire work" style of rights buying, so if you see one you're likely to see the other.

Just because a company has to consult you on changes doesn't necessarily mean you've got smooth sailing ahead. Creative differences and head-butting with a publisher happens, and you may need to make changes or concede to a company's wants in order to keep your contract; but you won't get a copy of what you thought was Ghosts of The Painted Desert and instead see a cover reading Colored Desert Spirits.

That could be awkward.

Always Read The Fine Print

The devil's in the details, and so are most of the traps in a book contract (even if they aren't expressly meant to be traps). The whole purpose of the contract is to tie you (the talent) to the publisher (the business) so that you can make them money. They want to keep both you and your work tied as closely to them as possible. You're a show pony, and you had better get used to the idea.

Now wave your plumage and sell some copies.
For instance, you need to see if the characters and the world of your story are part of the contract deal, because if they are that could make writing a sequel a bit of a problem. Some publishers want the right of first refusal (no one else can buy your new story unless they've seen it and said no) on any additional works with your published characters or settings. Some publishers will buy that world and only let you publish more stories set in that world with them for a given amount of time.

The fine print is also where details like your recourse in the event the publisher doesn't hold up its end of the contract are kept. It will also explain what happens in the event your book is cancelled from publication (and whether or not you get a "kill fee" as compensation for your time), and what you can and can't say about the book before its release. There will also be details about what promotions, if any, the publisher will do and how your image and words may be used by the company. There will often be a section stating what expenses the company has to recoup before you start accruing royalties as well.

Yes this is all going to make your head hurt. No you can't skip it.

Ask Questions

You're not a lawyer (I'm assuming), so you shouldn't be expected to speak legal-ese. However this is your contract, so if you don't understand something ask to have it explained (with sock puppets and a jingle if necessary). The point is you should never, ever sign something you don't understand because once your name is on that dotted line you're putting your bouncing baby book into the white gloved hands of a publisher who assures you the little one is going to be famous.

It's still a good idea to get a "we aren't going to cut him into little pieces and then not compensate you" assurance in writing. Just to be safe.

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