Sunday, November 29, 2009

Et Tu, Indie Author?

I am a maven of self-publishing. I believe that in today’s world, in most cases, there’s not much of great value a traditional publisher can do to help a previously unknown, debut author reach her goals that the author can’t do on her own. Advances are down, publisher-funded promotional budgets are slim to nonexistent, and brick-and-mortar bookstore distribution is no longer the crucial linchpin for driving book sales that it once was. In fact, in the few weeks since I first drafted this post Borders UK has gone into receivership.

I’ve also recently come to learn, much to my shock and dismay, that mainstream publication isn’t the surefire path to solvency and a career in authorship so many aspiring authors assume it to be—even if your book is successful enough to land on the New York Times Bestseller List. Even if many of your books land on that list, it seems your net annual earnings will likely be no better than the wages of a typical fast food restaurant manager. Now that Lynne Viehl and some other mainstream-published authors are going public about their earnings, the conspiracy of silence among authors is being slowly but surely dismantled and the truth is nothing short of mind-blowing. It’s now all too obvious that for the most part, the only authors who are earning a comfortable living off their books are those who have become cultural phenomena, those around whom entire cottage industries of movies and merchandise have sprung up (e.g., Stephanie Meyer, Stephen Covey, Stephen King, JK Rowling, et al.) and those who were already cultural phenomena before they published (e.g., Sarah Palin).

The problem is, most aspiring authors have unrealistic goals for their books and assume a mainstream publisher will be doing all sorts of things for them that aren’t really in the cards at all. They think signing a contract entitles them to a sizable advance, a significant promotional budget and effort on the publisher’s part, editorial reviews in major magazines and newspapers and on important websites, and possibly a book tour as well. Unless you’re a celebrity or otherwise notorious individual, or someone around whom buzz has built up for some reason, none of these things are likely to happen. Once you realize:

- the great majority of mainstream-published books never even earn back their advances (which means most debut authors have more trouble selling their second book than their first, if they can sell it at all)

- even if you manage to hit the NYT Bestseller List you aren’t likely to see a commensurate uptick in your standard of living

- and something on the order of just 5% of all mainstream-published authors are capable of earning a living from their book royalties alone (and nearly all of that 5% has a name like King, Rowling, Meyer or Brown),

you stop seeing stars and start getting down to brass tacks. Your goals become far more realistic and attainable. You begin to understand that the decision between self-publishing and mainstream publishing comes down to choosing the path that is the most likely to bring your newly-downsized goals to fruition. If one of your goals is to earn a profit on your book, the decision of whether or not to self-publish is a business decision, nothing more nor less. Particularly in light of recent revelations about what mainstream-published authors really earn, it should be a very easy thing to divorce this decision from considerations of status or “legitimacy”.

So why am I working with Writer’s Digest Books on the release of an updated and revised edition of my book, The IndieAuthor Guide, for publication in 2010?

Maven of self-pub I may be, but even I realize self-pub is just one option among several for getting one’s work to a readership. Though I honestly believe it’s the most practical option for most debut authors in today’s chilly trade publishing environment, self-pub is just a means to an end—and the end is the thing that matters.

When I wrote and self-published The IndieAuthor Guide, my goal was simple: for the book to reach as large an audience of would-be indie authors as possible. It wasn’t even truly about sales, it was about getting good information out there to—ideally—every would-be self-published author out there before they went down the path of misinformation and made all kinds of costly mistakes that could doom their books to failure (and themselves to incurring unnecessary expense).

Working with Writer’s Digest Books will not get me a whopping advance, book tour, nor any of those other pie-in-the-sky things aspiring authors dream of, but it will do far more to help me reach my goal of maximizing readership than I could possibly do on my own.
Writer’s Digest is a brand that’s known and trusted by writers the world over. Writer’s Digest is a source authors specifically seek out when they want trustworthy, clear, and helpful information that will help them with craft and career. Having my book released under WD’s aegis grants a tacit endorsement from WD of the book’s value to authors, and that will increase author interest in the book.

Writer’s Digest Books is an imprint that specializes in books for authors and about writing. Their title list is small and highly specialized, WD Books’ staff are experts in how best to reach their target demographic of authors and in this case, their target demo is the same as mine. Had I signed with say, Random House or Penguin, or even Workman, there wouldn’t be any Books Especially Written For And Marketed To Authors department backing my play.

WD puts out multiple periodicals, holds numerous events for writers, and has a sprawling, dynamic and forward-thinking web presence. WD cross-promotes its various product lines across all its available venues, resulting in a highly-targeted and low-cost approach to advertising. WD further promotes all of its books by making them available for sale through its own book club and at its writer events. I will still need to keep up my own promotional efforts of course, but I know WD will be every bit as invested as I am in ensuring writers everywhere know my book exists, and that they know how it can help them.

WD is no ivory-tower monolith of the “old ways” of publishing, its staff are quick to adapt to market and technological shifts in publishing, and WD was among the first to recognize the potential of self-publishing to help authors, both aspiring and established, reach their goals.
Long story short: I couldn’t possibly find a more desirable publisher for The IndieAuthor Guide than Writer’s Digest Books, and that’s including myself.

My self-published novels are another story. I can’t imagine signing either of them over for mainstream publication, but if the publisher were to guarantee me major promotional backing—in writing—, I might consider it. I’d also consider it if I’d already built up a bunch of buzz around the book, or had an offer in hand for a film adaptation, because that’s a scenario in which the book would already be at the tipping point of success and a nudge from a publisher could pump up the book’s momentum. But, given my total-nobody status in published fiction circles, none of this is likely to happen anytime soon.

Another instance where I think it would make sense for an author to sign a mainstream publishing contract for a novel is if a huge advance is on offer, and the author wants that chunk of money more than he wants longevity for his book. Mainstream publication with a huge advance means the author better hustle and invest heavily in book promotion, because if the book doesn’t earn back the advance the author’s mainstream publication career is over. Now, if the publisher is offering enough money upfront that the author can move to Bora Bora and live like royalty for the rest of her days, maybe she doesn’t care too much about the book’s ultimate performance, or whether or not she ever gets another book published by the mainstream.

Finally, it seems to me that self-pub versus mainstream pub is no longer an either-or proposition; increasing numbers of authors are successfully straddling that line to do both. Whether it’s about getting one’s back catalog back into print, publishing something one’s publisher has rejected due to market concerns, making one’s print edition works available in ebook or podcast formats when one’s publisher hasn’t elected to release them in those formats (and the author has retained the rights to do so himself), building momentum for an upcoming release, or simply reaching a readership through any means necessary, such familiar names as Stephen King, JA Konrath, Cory Doctorow and Piers Anthony have self-published, or are currently self-publishing.

I will continue to bang the self-publishing drum and provide whatever information and assistance I can to self-publishers for the sake of raising awareness and dispelling myths, but that doesn’t mean I’ve taken a hard line stance against going the mainstream route. That’s an author-by-author, book-by-book, or even format-by-format decision each of us must make. So long as the author is making an informed decision, neither option is any more or less valid than the other.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Harlequin Horizons & Thomas Nelson West Bow Press: Good For These Publishers and Author Solutions, Inc., Bad For Indie Authors

Just as Thomas Nelson did about a month ago, Harlequin has announced it is partnering with Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI) to form a self-published books imprint. This new imprint is called Harlequin Horizons (HH), and according to a Harlequin press release:

“Through this strategic alliance; all sales, marketing, publishing, distribution, and book-selling services will be fulfilled by ASI; but Harlequin Horizons will exist as a division of Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through the self publisher for possible pick up by its traditional imprints.”

So in other words, they’re basically just lending the Harlequin name to ASI for use in providing the same services it already provides via such vanity and subsidy outfits as AuthorHouse, AuthorHouse UK, Inkubook, iUniverse, Trafford, Wordclay and Xlibris. Some of these outfits have raised both hackles and eyebrows over at
Writer Beware!

Right in its press release announcement, Harlequin makes it clear that their involvement here is strictly limited to lending their name and monitoring sales, every other aspect of the publishing process for HH, from editing to marketing, will be handled by ASI. But wait, that’s not entirely true. There is one other area where Harlequin will be involved in the HH process: “acquisitions”.

First, Harlequin will refer authors whose manuscripts they reject to HH. Second, Harlequin will monitor sales of HH titles with an eye to re-publishing any big sellers under the Harlequin imprint.

This new HH imprint clearly has the potential to earn Harlequin a lot of money, given that they will be taking a cut of ASI’s proceeds on every HH publishing package and service bought by self-publishing authors. Given that HH standard publishing packages range in price from US$599 to $1599, and HH “VIP” publishing packages run from US$2299 to $3499, there’s most definitely gold in them thar hills.

Compare these rates (and services) to those on offer from Xlibris, iUniverse, Author House or any of the other subsidy/vanity outfits working with ASI, and you can easily see there’s nothing special or unique about HH. The services and pricing offered are on par with what you’d get going through any of ASI’s other outlets for self-publishing, and since ASI is actually handling the pre-publishing work, publishing, distribution and even marketing (assuming the author elects to pay for these services), you’re getting the same product as well. The only difference with HH is its affiliation with Harlequin and the implied promise that self-publishing through HH gives your book higher visibility among Harlequin editors—which carries the implied promise that your self-published HH book is more likely to be picked up by Harlequin for regular acquisition. While I’ve always warned indie authors away from subsidy and vanity publishing, I have an even greater concern with this new wrinkle.

For those of you who are wondering why I advise against working with a subsidy or vanity press, the reasons are numerous but primarily boil down to an economic argument. Such outfits are notorious for their high-priced “publishing packages” which bundle together all manner of services plus one to two dozen “free” author copies of the finished book, depending on the package selected. Very often, the author must sign away some or all of her publication rights to the vanity/subsidy outfit for a set period of time as well.

The bundled packages are bad news because you’re limited to working with their staff editors and designers (as opposed to hiring your own individually, to ensure their skills and working styles mesh well with your project), they typically include (and charge for) services you don’t want or need, and also typically overcharge for products and services you can obtain on your own at a fraction of the cost, or even for no cost at all. For example, as of this writing it costs $35 to register a U.S. copyright online; HH/ASI charges $204 for this same service. That’s a 583% markup, and all HH/ASI is doing is taking information you provide them for filling out the form, then filling out the form for you. Why not just provide your information to the U.S. Copyright Office directly and save yourself a fast $169?

You can bet you’re overpaying for virtually every service offered by HH/ASI, because there are two layers of middlemen with their hands out: ASI and HH. Even if you’re the type of author who would rather pay someone else to get your book ready for print, published, distributed and marketed, does it really make sense to pay both the actual service provider and a “services packager” like HH, iUniverse, Xlibris, etc.?

Here’s where my second major objection to the Harlequin deal comes about: self-publishing authors are being led to believe that they’re actually getting something of value in exchange for paying the HH layer of middlemen, and they believe that “something” is greater visibility, a greater chance of having their self-published book plucked out of the great unwashed masses of self-pubbed books for the full Harlequin treatment. But here again, they’re paying for something they can already get for free.

If your self-published book is selling in great enough numbers to garner the attention of a mainstream publisher, it doesn’t matter how, or through whom, you self-published. The mainstream will want to acquire the rights to your book. Having published via HH doesn’t make this outcome any more likely than if you’d self-published through Lulu, Createspace, Lightning Source or elsewhere.

You may be protesting that per the quoted press release, “Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through the self publisher for possible pick up by its traditional imprints,” but this is a paper tiger at best. Among the likely thousands of titles to be released under the HH imprint, perhaps the top 10% in terms of sales would merit further attention from Harlequin staff, and even then, only if the top 10% are selling more than a couple hundred copies a year.

You could publish via any author or publishing services provider, save yourself a LOT of money by being a smart shopper and not paying for services you don’t need or for which you’d be overcharged by HH/ASI, then invest some of your savings in the distribution, marketing and promotion options that make sense for you and your book, and sell as many (or more!) copies as you could sell of the same book published under the HH imprint. Self-published books that sell well attract publisher attention regardless of who published the book, or how.

If it’s really worth an extra 500% to get an HH logo on the spine of your book, knock yourself out. But I’d argue that if that’s your position, you’re not a very savvy self-publisher.

UPDATE: THIS JUST IN (to me, anyway) – yet another reason not to go with HH is this: in addition to all the upfront fees you must pay for HH to publish your book, they also intend to keep 50% of your net royalty on every copy sold (scroll down to comment #18, in which Harlequin Digital Director Malle Vallik says so)!! 50% of gross would be exorbitant since the standard bookseller cut is 40% of the retail price, but 50% of net is simply beyond the pale. And if you're handing over 50% of your net royalty AFTER paying HH hundreds or thousands of dollars for its services, that's just financial rape. Without even buying you dinner first.

Just in case that comment #18 from Harlequin Digital Director Malle Vallik on Dear Author should become unavailable at some point in the future, I'm copying and pasting it here:

1. Will rejected submissions to Harlequin indeed be “informed” that they can “opt-in” to Horizons? How do you assuage the stated concerns that this is a predatory process?

Malle: A writer receiving a standard reject letter will find a line included about self publishing. The writer, if she wants, can then contact HH. The writer will never be cold-called or contacted unless she has opted in.

2. Will Harlequin Horizons hold the ISBNs and pay out royalties from the sales, if any? How does this differ from the “vanity press” model? How does it compare to the “self-publishing” model, in which the author holds the ISBNs and keeps all money from any sales?

Malle: The content is completely owned by the author. Royalties are 50% net from both eBooks and print.

3. If an author chooses to go to Horizons for a “keepsake” or a “gift”, what does Horizons offer (except for the Harlequin name) to distinguish it from much much cheaper services such as Lulu?

Malle: It is any writer’s choice as to what self-publishing option she choses to purchase or if she wants to self-publish at all.

4. If an author chooses to go to Horizons, do they lose “first publication” rights? How will that affect any effort to gain an agent or traditional publisher with their “bound copy”?

Malle: I’m not sure I completely understand this question. The author owns her content. How would she lost first publication rights? She has published it herself. Whether she is giving it away as gifts or marketing it, is up to her. Yup, clearly I don’t get your question.

Monday, November 16, 2009

An Indie Call To Action

Most of us indie authors talk a good game about how there are plenty of quality indie books available, and how there are plenty of terrible mainstream books. We also like to complain about the lack of variety and originality in mainstream book offerings as compared to indie books. Such musings generally lead to the conclusion that if people would just give indie books the same chance they give to mainstream books, if they would just put indie books to the ‘fifteen minute’ or ‘first ten pages’ test, the frequency with which they’d find books they would want to keep reading would be on par with that for mainstream books, and indie authors and readers everywhere would rejoice. It’s time we stop all the hand-wringing and blind hope, and make this happen.

Yes, we have the power. Every indie author is also a reader, and every one of us has a circle of influence. So if you’re an indie author or small imprint owner, I issue the following challenge to you:

1) Find an indie book you LOVE, from an author to whom you have no connection. The lack of a prior connection or relationship is important, since it will eliminate any possibility of a conflict of interest. Finding the right book will require you to put a few likely candidates to the fifteen minute/ten pages test, but if you’re not willing to do it, why should any prospective reader out there do it for your book?

2) Write positive reviews of your chosen book on every site where the book can be bought (e.g., Amazon, Smashwords, Scribd, Lulu store, Authors Bookshop, etc.; most allow you to enter reviews whether you bought a given book on their site or not) and on any reader community sites to which you belong (e.g., Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing).

3) If you’re on Twitter, tweet about the book and author, and include a link to a page where the book can be purchased. Use the hashtag #indieaction, to make it easy for everyone to find these indie action tweets (and some great indie books!).

4) Add the author’s site to your blogroll or links page on your own site.

5) If you were already planning to buy books as holiday gifts and your chosen book is available for sale, include it in your gift mix.

6) If you typically review books on your blog or website from time to time, review the book there as well. If you don’t typically post full reviews, just add a one- to two-liner about the book and author at the end of another blog post. Link back to this post if you feel you need to put your remarks into context.

7) Recommend the book personally to family, friends and coworkers.

8) Spread the word about this campaign to every indie author and indie supporter you know. Here’s a handy link you can share for this post –

This is not a shady scheme, and this is not a mutual back-scratching society. This is the many thousands of indie authors flexing their collective influence as readers for the benefit of the indie author movement overall.

Maybe you’ve never actively sought out indie books to read, and don’t know where to start. I’d suggest you begin by checking the top-selling, most-downloaded, and/or top-rated books at any of the sites listed below. Most of the bookseller sites listed allow authors to post a free excerpt (for your 15 minute/ten pages test); for other books, try looking up the author’s website to see if you can find an excerpt that way. Again, some time and effort will be involved here but you can gain a lot of insight into the typical book-buyer’s experience with indie books by going through this exercise.

Web Fiction Guide
LL Book Review
Small-Press Bookwatch
Podiobooks (podcast audiobooks)
Self-Publishing Review
The New Podler Review of Books
Top 100 Kindle Store Independent Authors

*These sites offer both indie and mainstream books, so you'll need to check the publisher name to see if you're dealing with an indie/small imprint book, or a mainstream release

I’m going to get the ball rolling by recommending an excellent indie book from an author who’s a complete stranger to me. The book is called The 6th Seal, and it was written by J.M. Emanuel. It’s an excellent, and truly scary, supernatural thriller set against an archetypal good vs. evil backdrop. If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code but wished it had more depth, if you enjoy books by Straub and Stephen King, or any of the darker works of Neil Gaiman, if you like fictional explorations of Armageddon, mysteries, or stories built on biblical revelation, you really ought to give this book a try. You can read the first few pages of it using the Look Inside! Feature on, where it’s available in both print and Kindle editions.

In the coming week I’ll put my keyboard where my mouth is by tweeting and posting reviews of this book everywhere I can.

Now get out there and become part of the solution!

Friday, November 6, 2009

How Conferences And Other Writers’ Events Can Strengthen Your Author Platform

If you’re budget-minded (like me), you probably think of writers’ or publishers’ conferences as a luxury: something you know you can benefit from, and something you’d love to do more often, but something for which it can be hard to justify the expense. Well, in addition to the educational and social networking benefits, it turns out there can be major author platform dividends as well.

Author Christina Katz (a.k.a.The Writermama) had two books published and a sizable readership when she was invited by O’Reilly Media to blog at the 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change (TOC) conference. Katz was already known to a readership of writers but she was not a big name in publishing circles. While at the conference, Katz noticed other attendees Tweeting and decided to use Twitter to share her impressions of the conference rather than blogging. She sent frequent missives from each session she attended to provide her Twitter followers with real-time reportage.

Within a couple of hours the word was out on the ‘net: everyone who wanted to know what was going on at TOC was following Katz’ tweets. Her number of followers spiked over the course of the conference from about 400 to over 1,000, about the number of people attending the conference. In only a matter of hours, other folks tweeting the conference were soon wondering, “Who is The Writermama?” (@thewritermama is Katz’ Twitter username — she’d neglected to add her real name to her Twitter profile).

Ron Hogan from MediaBistro approached Katz when he saw her tweeting in the same session and asked if she was the mysterious tweeter everyone was wondering about. Attendees and presenters alike were soon following Katz’ tweets. Attendees thanking her for her updates from sessions they’d missed. Presenters thanking her for reporting on their sessions.
Meanwhile, away from the conference, hundreds of authors, publishing staffers and others who were following Christina’s tweets could easily discover more about her by checking out her sites, blogs and books online. Thanks to her presence at the conference, Christina’s brand recognition, industry reputation, and reach grew by leaps and bounds that weekend.

Tweet It
Now that tweeting from events is commonplace, if you intend to use the same strategy you’ll need to tweet both in quality and quantity to rise to the top of the Twittering crowd. But that’s not the only way to use conference and event attendance to grow your author platform.

Blog About It
If any part of the target demographic for your books are peers, do them a solid and share the experience. Remember that you’re present at an event most of your peers cannot attend, but a great many of them wish they could be there. You’re in a position to provide some inside information on what the event was like, and a highlights reel of information from the sessions and workshops you attended. Take careful notes on every talk, and you can have blog fodder lined up for many posts to come.

If the intended audience for your books and websites is composed primarily of reader-consumers, there are still some blogging gold nuggets to be mined from event attendance. You went to the event expecting to get something out of it as an author. Blog about the impact your experiences will have on your work, or on you as an author. If you were inspired, who or what inspired you, and why? Conversely, if you were disappointed or frustrated, blog about that.

Make Connections
Take advantage of breaks between sessions to mix and mingle with your fellow attendees and session presenters. If there’s an onsite lunch option, take it. You can bet that most presenters will remain onsite for lunch, and people you’d consider to be VIPs are much more accessible and approachable in an event setting. If there are any evening mixers or tweetups in the offing, attend those as well. They provide a terrific opportunity to meet attendees and presenters in a casual setting where everyone’s more comfortable chatting and having fun.

I’m not suggesting that you pitch your book ideas to the people you meet onsite, however. If you’re only chatting with Bob Agent because you’re looking for an opening to lob him a query, that will be all too apparent—and very annoying to Bob. Just focus on planting some relationship seeds and making a positive impression. If you can do that, Bob Agent is much more likely to be receptive to your query after the event.

Have some business cards printed up ahead of time (you can even print a small quantity yourself at home using special business-card paper stock, available at office supply stores), and exchange cards with others every time the opportunity presents itself. Make some brief notes about the people you meet on the back of their cards, and when you get back home you’ll have an insta-rolodex of event-related contacts to whom you can turn in the future when you have questions or ideas that may be of interest to those you’ve met. Unless you’ve really bonded on a personal level with a given individual however, be cautious in the tenor and frequency of your communications after the event. You want to become a trusted contact, not a pest.

Be A Speaker
Most big conferences put out a call for session and workshop proposals a year or so in advance of the event. If you’re comfortable with public speaking and have some relevant experience or skills, don’t be afraid to submit proposals. While conference organizers for a self-publishing event aimed at aspiring authors might not be terribly interested in the content of your book or your approach to craft, if you’ve become a social media whiz or expert in ebook production while working your platform, they very well may be.

Many conference sessions take the form of discussion panels, with a moderator asking questions of multiple speakers. If you are ever invited to be part of such a panel at a high-profile event, DO IT. Even if you have to pay your own travel expenses, if there’s any way you can swing it, DO SO. You’ll get invaluable exposure that can raise your profile exponentially. Being able to add that speaking credit to your credentials (and list it on your website) elevates your legitimacy within the industry while simultaneously establishing or reinforcing your stature as a subject area expert. On top of all that, it will also make it easier for you to book future speaking engagements. Hopefully, at least some of those will cover your travel expenses or even pay you a speaking fee. And if you’re paying your own way, here in the U.S. expenses related to the event are tax-deductible (so long as you report your authorship-related income and expenses on your taxes; consult a tax professional for further information).

If you've been doing a good job of making connections at previous events, you may even be able to pull together your own panel of experts to propose a panel talk at which you will act as moderator.

When Smashwords founder Mark Coker invited me to participate in a speaker panel at TOC 2009, my initial reaction was to thank him for thinking of me, but decline. I’d have to pay all my own expenses, and the trip from Los Angeles to New York is not cheap. Neither are New York hotels. Or meals. Or taxi cabs. But upon further consideration I decided the exposure would be worth the expense, and I was right. Speaking at that event gave me name recognition in the publishing industry, opened the door to more speaking opportunities, allowed me to make some invaluable contacts and conferred a great
deal of legitimacy upon me and my message.

Use The Right Hashtag
When you post anything online about the event, whether it’s tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts or articles, be sure to include the appropriate hashtag for the event in the body of your content as well as in the “tags” section in the case of blog posts or articles. Doing so will make your content turn up in searches on that hashtag, as well as in searches for online content related to the event. Event organizers will often post their preferred hashtag right on the event site. If not, you can do a Google search on the event to identify the hashtag used most frequently by others, then use that same hashtag in your tweets, updates and posts.

So you see, attending TOC, PubWest, DigiBookWorld, the Author Workshop Cruise or similar events is no mere luxury. Strive to make your participation in such events a plank in your author platform whenever possible. The more active you are in the larger community of writers and publishing, the easier it will be to build, maintain and grow your platform.