Sunday, November 4, 2012

Indie Author vs. Indie Entrepreneur

As you may have noticed, it's been a LONG time since I've posted here. There are good reasons for that, like the fact that my former house was foreclosed in August and I had to move on short notice, plus some divorce-related challenges that I can't really detail for you here.

But I've been thinking about this post for weeks now, and I'm sorry to tell you that it won't come as a welcome insight to everyone. Still, judging by the recent blog posts or inactivity of many of my online writer friends, I don't think it will come as a huge surprise to very many of you, either.

I've said all along that in order to really make a go of earning a living as an indie author, one must approach it with all the verve, dedication and business acumen of an entrepreneur. I stand by that to this day, but here's what's new: maybe not all of us need to be, nor even want to be, indie entrepreneurs.

This new paradigm of indie author-entrepreneur (I'll abbreviate it to IAE in this post) is totally different from what the idealized picture of being a Published Author was just a few short years ago. While the IAE has much greater control over her work and career, with that control comes greater responsibility, too.

You've got to SELL, SELL, SELL. You've got to PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE. You've got to LEARN, LEARN, LEARN. You've also got to WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, because having a large published catalog is one of the commonalities among indie authors who are truly making a living at it. And once you get that momentum ball rolling, you can't stop pushing it, EVER. Not if you want to continue selling, that is.

So making it as a fulltime author means working at it, fulltime. It also means coping with the same stresses and uncertainties as any entrepreneur: unpredictable income, all the administrative duties and headaches that come with running a small business, the constant pressure to produce and promote, et cetera.

A few years into it, many indie authors are stopping to reassess. The initial rush of excitement over being able to call our own shots and write our own tickets is over, and now we're wallowing in the morning-after hangover realization that being a successful IAE means spending at least as much time on the business and promotion side of things as on writing.

All those years we spent daydreaming about being a Published Author never included scenes of bookkeeping, coming up with promotional campaigns, buying our own ISBNs, boning up on ebook tech, strategizing over our books' prices, and so on. We weren't daydreaming about running a small business, but unless we're willing to go back to the old ways of querying agents and praying for a mainstream publishing contract, that's exactly what we have to do.

Those who are trying to transition to being a fulltime IAE while working a fulltime job to pay the bills are finding it very difficult, if not impossible, to manage. It was never easy finding the time to write, let alone query agents, enter contests and so on; being an IAE adds many, many more hours of work to the authorship equation.

I've concluded that for me, it's just not worth it.

I'm not willing to give up so much of my life to this effort, even if I knew for a certainty that I'd be a Joe Konrath at the end of it: making a comfortable living as a fulltime IAE. I'm not willing to trade years of stress and 80-100 hour workweeks to achieve that particular goal, then continue working 60-hour workweeks to maintain it. Considering that I was never in it for the money anyway, I guess this is not a difficult decision for me to make. For those who are struggling with it, consider this:

Being the next Konrath may not be realistically possible for most of us indies, anyway. Remember, Konrath went in with the advantage of already having a large back catalog of mainstream-published books (plus the royalties that go with them), and he was already a fulltime author before he went indie too. His journey to fulltime IAE was much shorter and less difficult than what the rest of us are facing.

At the outset, my goal for my novels was to get them published and know they'd reached an appreciative readership. My hope as an indie author overall was to see indie authorship go mainstream and become a respectable alternative to mainstream publishing within my lifetime. I've achieved the first goal, and seen my hopes for indie authorship realized far beyond my original notions, and much more quickly.

I have a 'day job' I love that's steeped in books and media (Editor in Chief of Kindle Fire on Kindle Nation Daily). I've come out of a marriage of over 18 years, and I'm facing the happy prospect of building a new life for myself, exactly how I want it to be. I'm also thoroughly enjoying these regrettably short years of remaining time before my kids are grown and out on their own.

So while I'll still write and publish, I'll continue to run Publetariat, and I'll remain active in the publishing and indie author communities, I'm not working toward the goal of becoming a fulltime IAE, and I guess I never really was. Anyone reading this who DOES want to be a successful IAE, you have my admiration and I support your choice completely. I'm certainly not making any kind of value judgment, or trying to imply there's something better about my choice in this.

All I'm saying is, if you have decided, like me, that being a successful IAE isn't really your dream after all, that's okay. Choosing a different path does not make you a failure. Just be glad that as indie authors, we now have the flexibility to design our own career trajectories. As with pretty much everything else in indie authorship, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

RE: LendInk - Please Stop Fiddling, Rome Has Burned To The Ground

LendInk is dead, yet I am still fielding tweets, Facebook messages, and emails from people who seem to think my blog post, "Congratulations, You Killed LendInk..." was somehow misleading with respect to lend compensation. This is the last I am going to say about it, and it's the same thing I've been saying about it all along.

As I said in my update to the blog post, I do not understand why some authors keep raising this issue of lend compensation. All I said in the blog post is that any author who was entitled to compensation per Ammy/B&N terms and conditions was getting it on LendInk lends---and that statement is true. I did not specify who, or under what circumstances, anyone was entitled to lend compensation, and this was by design. Terms and conditions can change at any time, and I have better things to do than keep tabs on such changes to keep my past blog posts up to date.

In any event, given that those who took down LendInk did it because they didn't understand their terms with Amazon well enough even to know that they'd opted in for lending in the first place, I have little doubt they would have misunderstood, or misinterpreted, any such details I could have provided.

The specifics of who was entitled to compensation and under what circumstances are totally outside the scope of my post, which was simply about a legitimate lending site being falsely accused of piracy and being destroyed on that slander alone. None of those who brought it down were driven in their actions by confusion between Prime Lending Library and regular lends. None of them were claiming the lending was allowed, but that they weren't getting compensation to which they were entitled. They cried, "Piracy!" plain and simple.

It seems to me that most (maybe not all, but most) of those who keep raising this issue are using it as a red herring to distract attention from their reprehensible actions against LendInk.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Do Readers Of Different Genres Have Specific Craft Preferences?

Okay, I'm taking off my crankypants now to write a rare post about craft. Let me open by saying this post will contain some gross generalizations, and I know such blanket statements can't possibly cover all situations and will certainly be untrue in many cases. I'm only working with blanket statements here to address a larger topic, so please try to bear with me on them and focus on the larger topic.

I have a writer acquaintance who writes hard-boiled detective, murder mystery novels. He will often post excerpts from his work as a promotional gambit (as opposed to looking for feedback), and just as often will post about his disappointment with his sales. I read some of his excerpts, and concluded that to my mind, what's wrong with his work is that it's overwritten.

He seems never able to write something like, "She was exhausted," when he could write something like, "The weight of the day, the hopeless yoke of overwork, enveloped her in a fog of somnambulant fatigue." And he doesn't employ these kinds of sentences sparingly, virtually every line appears to have been laboriously massaged, tinkered with, and obsessed over.

Some people reading this will actually prefer the second, lengthier sentence to the first. Some will also think it's just fine if most of the sentences in a given book are like the second one, and will admire the craft that went into them. Other people---people like me---, not so much. It got me thinking about reader tastes, and whether it might be possible to predict them.

And here's where those gross generalizations enter the picture. It seems to me that readers who favor certain genres may also favor certain writing styles.

I am a near-textbook example of the Type A personality. I am most definitely a "bottom line it for me" type, a chronic multitasker, and a very busy person who values efficiency in most aspects of my life. It should come as no surprise that I don't have much patience for flowery prose and lengthy descriptive passages. I'm not saying that style of writing is necessarily bad, just that it's not a good fit for me, and I suspect it's not a good fit for most Type A people.

I have a friend who's much more laid-back. She can spend a half hour contemplating a painting in a gallery, and days on a road trip with no particular destination or schedule in mind; she may not even bring a map. She's the type of person who will savor every word of the kinds of passages that I find irritating.

Now, getting back to that writer acquaintance...what if *most* of his target audience shares my sensibilities? What if the type of person who's most likely to seek out a detective story is Type A? Considering that some of the defining characteristics of Type A people are that we're very goal-oriented, organized, attentive to details, and love solving puzzles, it doesn't seem like such a leap to imagine that most of us enjoy a good murder mystery; a murder mystery is essentially a written puzzle, after all. It may not be such a leap to imagine the inverse is true, too: that most people who enjoy murder mysteries are Type A.

If that's true, then my writer acquaintance is turning off the bulk of his target audience with his verbose, highly stylized prose. We Type A people only want to be given relevant, or possibly relevant, pieces of the puzzle so we can try to solve it. Anything more feels like a waste of our time and energies.

My laid-back friend has plenty of patience for stylized prose, but for her, most murder mysteries are little more than empty exercises in tricky plotting and misdirection. She wants to read books that she feels feed her soul, not just her intellect. She very well might enjoy my writer acquaintance's work, since it strives to rise high above plot mechanics and even be somewhat philosophical, but she's not likely to ever find it since she's not one to seek out murder mysteries or detective novels in the first place.

So for those who write in specific genres or combo genres (e.g., supernatural romance, supernatural thriller), and for whom maximizing sales is a priority, maybe give a thought to the most likely type of person to seek out your books in the first place, and what that person's preferences might be. I'm not trying to suggest you totally engineer your prose to match some kind of external template, just that appealing to a commercial audience is always a balancing act between pleasing the audience and pleasing yourself.

I have nothing but respect for the writer who follows his vision regardless of whether or not it will lead to commercial success, but for those like that detective novelist, who spends as much time worrying over his sales as his art, writing with the eventual reader in mind may give better results.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Congratulations: You Killed LendInk And Denied Your Fellow Authors Their Lend Royalties

Fair warning: I am angry, and this is an angry post. When misinformation has the power to kill totally legitimate, above-board small businesses, it's time to stop being nicey-nice and start getting down to brass tacks. When the business in question directly impacts authors' livelihoods, it's time to take action.

UPDATED ON 8/6/12 TO ADD: I really don't understand why some people who've read this post keep raising an objection about the issue of whether or not the authors of books on LendInk were entitled to a commission on the lends. In my response to one commenter below, Sessha, I left out the words "where the author was entitled to compensation", and certain people are fixating on that omission, trying to make this all about whether or not EVERY lend on LendInk was compensated. NO, only lends where the author was entitled to compensation per Ammy/B&N terms were compensated, which I think I made clear in the post itself. Unfortunately Blogger won't let me edit any comments, only delete or add new ones.

The question of whether or not the author is entitled to a commission on a lend is totally beside the point. The point is that this was a totally legitimate site that was doing nothing wrong, and anyone who was entitled to a commission per Ammy/B&N terms was getting it because all lends were processed by Ammy & B&N. Even if it were to turn out that there wasn't a single book on the site where the author was entitled to a lend commission at the time the site was suspended, what difference does that make? Would that mean it was OK for all these authors to accuse the site of being a piracy outlet, and to spread that slander?
This week, there was a huge kerfuffle on Facebook and elsewhere about, a site that allowed people to list any of the 'lendable' Kindle or Nook books they own in exchange for getting access to other members' listings of 'lendable' books. The sites make their money on advertising: they don't get any piece of the action on the lends, which are essentially private transactions between two individuals, carried out in full compliance with the lending rules and limitations set forth by Amazon and B&N. As another person put it in a discussion on my Facebook page:

If I have a copy of ebook X that I think somebody might want to borrow (just once, as per [Amazon's and B&N's Terms and Conditions]), I can say so on this site. If someone wants to borrow it, they contact me and I either say yes or no. If I say yes, I tell amazon to lend it and it's flagged on amazon as having had its lend. No different than me lending it to my mum for her kindle.

Just as with any other lend, the author gets her commission [if she is eligible for one, per Amazon's and B&N's terms and conditions] on lends originating from contacts made on sites like LendInk. There is nothing illegal about such sites, and having your book listed as available to lend on such sites is a GOOD thing because the fact that someone else already bought it serves as a kind of implied endorsement, and the lend listings lead to lend commissions you wouldn't otherwise get [on your Kindle/Nook books that are eligible for lend commissions].

But once a few hair-on-fire, sky-is-falling types of indie authors got wind of LendInk and found their books listed there, they jumped right to the WRONG conclusion that this was some kind of illegal Napster for ebooks and went on the warpath. Rather than take a few moments to read the site's FAQ, where the specifics of the site and the legality of it were addressed clearly and in detail, these authors immediately started posting warnings to all their author friends about this new ebook pirating site, LendInk. It became an online game of 'telephone', with well-meaning people re-posting incorrect claims about LendInk, and the claims about LendInk getting more distorted as they were passed around and new posters added their take on the situation. In a matter of just THREE DAYS, it went from an online campaign of spreading hysterical misinformation to LendInk being shut down.

The icing on this cake d'stupidity is that many people are taking the fact that LendInk has been shut down as proof that it MUST have been a pirate site, and posting "Yay, us!! We beat the evil ebook pirates!!" messages online. A more accurate message for them to post would be, "Yay, us!! We killed a small business that was making readers happy and making authors money!! And we did it without any actual evidence of wrongdoing, just hearsay and angry threats!! This is a victory for those who wish to cut off noses to spite faces everywhere!!"

While I'm still investigating the specifics of the shutdown, there's a suspension of service message on LendInk's former home page so I think the most likely reason is that one or more ill-informed authors sent 'takedown' notices to LendInk's web hosting company, threatening legal action for intellectual property theft.

Even though LendInk wasn't doing anything illegal or unethical, having to prove it in court is a costly and time-consuming process. Add to this the fact that you must generally stop doing business until you've been exonerated in court, and it's not surprising that the great majority of small businesses are more likely to fold than fight the good fight. If anyone were to bring a totally bogus legal action against Publetariat, there's no question I'd shut the site down rather than go to court to defend it. I simply don't have the money or time to fight a frivolous lawsuit, no matter how completely ridiculous that lawsuit's claims might be.

I fervently hope LendInk will be back, but it's too soon to tell. For now, just let me say this to everyone who's participated in the events leading up to its suspension this week:

Congratulations. You may have just destroyed a legitimate small business that was making life better for readers and authors of ebooks. You have caused someone who was in business to serve readers and authors a great deal of stress and expense, and potentially the total loss of his livelihood. You have definitely cost every author whose book was listed there the lend commissions [or added exposure] they would have otherwise received through this totally legal, legitimate channel for Amazon's and B&N's existing ebook lending programs. Pat yourself on the back, because I certainly won't be doing it.

There's some evidence to suggest LendInk's site was hacked. I can't say for certain whether it was or not, and if it was, whether the hack was a targeted attack instigated by one of those making false claims about LendInk. I've got some feelers out to contacts and I'm trying to get the full story.

But whatever the reason for LendInk's current state of suspension, its owner is now put in the position of having to answer to all the false claims authors have made about it in emails to Amazon. I'm hopeful that once Amazon fully investigates the situation, they will see there's been no wrongdoing and alter their responses to authors who complain about LendInk accordingly.

Also, I'm getting some feedback from people with wrong information. Let me address the myths floating around out there.

MYTH: Only Prime members can lend or borrow Kindle books.

FACT: Any Kindle book the publisher has marked as Lendable is lendable. The Kindle Lending Library is a special, sub-program for Prime members that gives them access to books publishers have approved only for limited lends to Prime members. Read Amazon's page about Kindle book lending here.

MYTH: LendInk claimed to have Amazon's approval to list its books on its site and lend them on its site, and it was a lie.

FACT: LendInk claimed all lends were processed by Amazon and B&N, and they were. No special 'agreement' is necessary, since it was the owners of the Kindle books who were listing them on LendInk, NOT LendInk itself. All they were doing was putting Kindle book owners in touch with one another, it was those book owners who actually transacted with one another to request and approve lends.

Here is some of the actual text from the former FAQ on LendInk:

Is the loaning of eBooks really legal? Isn't this the same as file sharing?
Yes, loaning of certain eBooks is legal and No, it is not the same as file sharing. The key difference between the two is that the loan status of an eBook is directly dictated by the publisher and file sharing is usually done without the publishers consent. Working with and Barnes and Noble, the publisher's make their eBooks available for loan under very strict rules. The actual book loaning process is handled by and Barnes and Noble, not by Lendink.

I am a Publisher or Author of a book on Lendink, how did you get a copy of my book?
First, let us explain up front, we do not have a copy of your book. This is actually a common misunderstanding of how Lendink functions. No book has or will be stored on any Lendink server, ever. The title of the book is entered by our members and the book information is fed to us by an automated link between Lendink and Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Our servers only store our member contact information and the basic book information such as the author, ASIN and book description. We do not even store the book cover artwork.

MYTH: LendInk was allowing members to lend multiple copies of the same book, which is against the one-lend policy. I saw (or my friend saw) where multiple copies of one book were listed as available to lend.

FACT: Not true. If multiple copies of a single book were listed as available to lend, that just means multiple members of LendInk owned that book and listed it as available to lend. Since all lends occurred off the LendInk site, through Amazon and B&N's *own* lending mechanisms, it would not be possible for any Kindle book owner to exceed publishers' specified lend limits---at least, not without some kind of hacking or dishonesty on the part of the Kindle book owner. And even if that were to occur, it would not be LendInk's fault.

MYTH: My book is offered through KDP Select, so it's not lendable.

FACT: Lendability is a requirement of participation in KDP Select. Here's the main Amazon KDP page about the program (note how most of the information here is specifically ABOUT lending), and here's a link to KDP Select terms and conditions. I'll add more to this section as more myths come in.

And unfortunately, due to the persistence of a certain commenter who couldn't leave well enough alone, comments on this post are now closed. Much like those indie authors who, it appears, have taken down LendInk, when certain people have nothing of value to contribute it only makes them more talkative.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Taking The Author Out of Self-Promotion

One of the major obstacles facing indie authors and small imprints in commercial publishing is discoverability: getting the word out about their books to prospective buyers. As more and more indies enter the sales arena, each new indie book is being released into a sea of print that's only getting larger every day.

While I've always been a strong advocate for the DIY, grass-roots approach to indie publishing and book promotion, I have always felt just as strongly that if indies want to be competitive, their books and their approach to sales must be professional. Now that the indie author revolution is well underway and we have a few years' worth of lessons learned to look back on, I have come to the conclusion that self-promotion, for the most part, is not working for indie authors.

Far too many of us make the mistake of promoting primarily to each other. Others don't know the difference between 'permission marketing' and SPAM. Most of us aren't cut out to be salespeople, but feel the pressure to sell so we take an amateurish stab at book promotion and author platform anyway, very often with poor results that end up alienating not only prospective buyers, but others in our industry as well (like book bloggers). Add to all of this the fact that going around telling everyone who'll listen how great your book is and why they should buy it isn't an effective marketing tactic---of course YOU think it's great: you're the author.

I've concluded that while it's still possible (and necessary!) for indie authors to manage their own sales campaigns and platform, their efforts will be much more effective if there's a buffer of some sort between the author with a book to sell and the target audience. Here are a few of those buffers:

1. Book Bloggers - a positive review from respected book blogger is one of the most effective promotional messages an author can hope for, and all it costs is the price of a review copy of the book. This blog post from Bestseller Labs explains exactly how to do it.

2. Form a Promo Ring With Other Authors and Small Publishers - while an indie author who's wearing his Indie Author hat and promoting his own book is likely to meet with a lot of cynicism and resistance, an indie author who's wearing his Reader hat and recommending someone else's book is perceived very differently. Get together with one or more of your fellow indies who have large networks ---but only those whose work you genuinely admire and who feel the same way about your work--- and spread the word to your networks on one another's behalf. Just remember not to overdo it: the hard sell is a turnoff no matter what you're trying to promote. You can hardly go wrong if you treat the exercise the same way you'd treat recommending any other book you've read and loved.

3. Paid Advertising - this one can be tricky, since it's all about targeting the correct demographic, creating an attractive ad, and spending wisely. Some authors have found targeted Facebook ads to be very effective, and Facebook makes it easy to control ad spending, too.

For authors of Kindle books, Kindle Nation Daily is worth a look. KND is one of the oldest, most heavily-trafficked and most respected sites dedicated to Kindle content, and they're totally transparent when it comes to sharing the results of advertising on their sites. KND has advertising options starting as low as $30, and since KND insists on a minimum quality level before agreeing to run advertising for a given book, KND site visitors know any ad they find there carries an implicit endorsement from KND as well. I feel so strongly favorable about KND, as of today, it's become the first outside site or service ever to receive an explicit endorsement on Publetariat.

These three ideas are just a start, there's plenty more indie authors can do to promote while maintaining a buffer zone. I'm not saying authors shouldn't take an active role in promoting their work, just that it shouldn't be obvious to whomever is on the receiving end that the promotional messages are coming from the author. That narrow divide between the author and the book-buying public can make all the difference in the world, because it allows the author to maintain his image as one who's only concerned with creating the best possible work for his readers, unconcerned with anything so venal or self-serving as making money.

Even though readers understand authors need to make a living, just as with any form of art or entertainment, the moment they start thinking the author cares more about the money than she does about the product, they will turn on her.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Hypocrisy

When it comes to books like Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight series and The DaVinci Code (huge commercial successes that are pretty universally acknowledged as poorly written), outrage among authors who haven't been as successful in finding a monster, dedicated fan base is generally off the scale.

I'm not going to reduce this to a simple case of jealousy, though jealousy is certainly a factor. It's more like a sense of injustice, a feeling that authors who seem to be lacking in skill or talent haven't truly earned the riches and fame being heaped upon them---particularly in the eyes of those who have labored long and hard on craft.

Anyone who aspires to authorship has been told her entire life that eventually, quality work rises to the top and finds the audience it deserves. Fifty Shades of Grey and Jersey Shore memoirs notwithstanding, I still believe this is absolutely true. The part that angry, hardworking authors seem to miss is that when "quality work rises to the top and finds the audience it deserves," that audience may not be large enough to crack the NYT Bestseller list, nor even necessarily the Amazon Top 100.

Why does this come as a surprise to anyone?

Look at the most popular television shows, musical acts and movies in the West. And by "popular", I mean the most commercially successful. With very, very few exceptions, it's all lowest-common-denominator tripe, aimed at the 18-35 demographic, promoting the pursuit of youth, physical beauty, material gain and fame, above all else. If I wanted to put it more kindly, I might say it's escapist wish-fulfillment material.

For many of us, life is already throwing enough physical, mental and emotional work our way that when we have a few minutes or hours to spare on entertainment, all we want is the cinematic, musical or literary equivalent of junk food. We want something shiny to distract us for a little while, that's all. I'd have to count myself as part of that population most of the time, for the past few years.

Then there's the (possibly larger) population of people who never seek out anything but the shallowist escapism in their entertainment. If a movie, song or book happens to make them think a little, fine. But they're not looking for that, and if it requires them to think too much, they're turned off because it starts to feel more like work than entertainment. It stops being fun, and nowadays, consumers expect everything from driving directions to language lessons to be fun.

Guess what? Quality prose is rarely described as "fun". It can actually be quite demanding. Clever turns of phrase often hinge on historical or literary references. Similes and metaphors are built on the foundation of a shared vocabulary between writer and reader. Intricate plots require the reader to keep track of multiple plot threads and character arcs.

Writers who sweat these kinds of details in their manuscripts do so not only because they take personal pride in quality work, but because they want the reading experience to be the best it can possibly be for the eventual reader. But here's the thing: if you're preparing a seven-course, gourmet meal for dinner guests who only have the time or inclination (or both) to wolf down fast food, your eventual disappointment is both inevitable and predictable. Nobody who's craving a Big Mac is inclined to seek out haute cuisine.

Here's where the "Hypocrisy" from the title of this blog post comes in. As an author, you can strive to write prose your fellow authors and the literary establishment will admire, belittle the quality of a lowest-common-denominator bestseller, and mock the lowbrow tastes of the majority. But if you do all those things while simultaneously being angry that the majority isn't buying and loving your book, you're being a hypocrite. You're not writing what they're lining up to buy, and you don't even want to write what they're lining up to buy, so why begrudge them their choices and purchases?

In fairness, there's definitely some skill and plenty of work involved in engineering entertainment so that it will appeal to the widest possible demographic. Nicholas Sparks is a master of this, and has the piles of cash to prove it. Adam Sandler isn't likely to win an Academy Award in his lifetime, but he's amassed as much wealth as a small island nation, and is beloved by millions the world over for bringing laughter into their lives.

None of which is to say that quality writing and commercial success are totally incompatible. When art and commerce meet and play nice together in the literary world, the result is a Neil Gaiman or Nora Ephron. Authors like these, who hit the magic trifecta of talent, skill and zeitgeist time and again are a rarity. They are the Bonos, Beatles and Bowies of the literary world: hugely popular, successful, admired, respected, and influential in their medium---all at the same time, both within their own profession and in the eyes of the general public. The most that the rest of us can hope for is to achieve maybe two of the things on that list, and not necessarily both at the same time or even in the same book. Anyone can hope to become a literary rockstar, but no one can plan for it the way one can plan for a successful career in medicine or teaching.

So pick a goal, art or commerce, and devote yourself to it. Accept that while it's possible you may achieve both, it's not too likely. Accept that in fact, it's not even truly "likely" that you'll achieve either one. Accept that writers who are willing to pander have better odds of enjoying the kind of sudden, 'overnight' success enjoyed by E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, just as an Us Weekly with a picture of a Kardashian on it is the odds-on favorite to far outsell an issue of the Economist with a picture of a Prime Minister on it. But also know that the likelihood such books will become beloved classics that future generations of readers will reach for, and recommend, time and again is remote.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To Be (authentic online) Or Not To Be (authentic online): That Is The Question

Writers are supposed to be passionate, communicative, and have some strong opinions. Like all artists, it's their job to speak truth to power when others will not or cannot. In other words, they're supposed to have something to say, and they're supposed to say it, and they're not supposed to give a damn what anybody thinks. It is in this that the purity of their art is grounded.

Authors are supposed to establish an online presence that's open, welcoming, inclusive, and entirely inoffensive. Like all marketers, it's their job to appeal to the widest demographic possible. In other words, they're not supposed to have anything negative or controversial to say, and if they do, they're not supposed to post it, and they're supposed to care a great deal about what everyone thinks of anything they do post. It is in this that their online reputations are kept untarnished.

Do you see the disconnect here, the fundamental opposition of these two sets of requirements?

[palm-forehead] What were we thinking?!

For years now, I've been proferring the same author platform advice: carefully cultivate and maintain your image, always be nice, don't say or do anything that could be construed as negative or controversial, and strive to avoid turning off your readers (and potential readers) at all times and at all costs. I'm beginning to think this advice is wrong.

How can one possibly spend half or more of the time wearing his Author hat and being a totally benign milquetoast, and the rest of it wearing his Writer hat and churning out impassioned, moving prose? Assuming it's possible to make a habit of pretending not to care too much, or be bothered too much, by anything, is it a good idea for any artist to do so?

I've noticed that after about five years of doing the benign milquetoast thing, the seams on my carefully cultivated, totally benign, online effigy are starting to show sometimes. And rip open in a few places. However hard I try, when I come up against something or someone with which/whom I disagree very strongly, there are only so many times I can avert my eyes, either say nothing or just mumble something vague, and keep moving. Increasingly, I can't seem to help going off on the things and people that bother me lately.

Maybe it's just because election years always bring out the ignorant yahoos and smug twits in droves, and I've had just about enough of their nonsense. Maybe it's that the collapsing economies all around the world have us all on edge. Maybe it's because I haven't felt I've had a well-developed enough concept to channel all that writerly angst and passion into a new novel. Maybe it's because I've been (figuratively) beaten down and bloodied by a few simultaneous life crises over the past two years.

Maybe I'm just a cranky bitch.

Or maybe, just's because behind my carefully tended online persona, I'm a human being who's alive, with an active mind, who has thoughts and experiences and feelings, who is imperfect, and sometimes gets angry at the wrong people or for the wrong reasons, who feels guilty or insecure every now and then, and every so often runs out of patience at precisely the wrong time.

As a writer, I'm supposed to believe---no, I NEED to believe---that all the mistakes I make, all the wrongs I either inflict or endure, inform my work. As an artist, if my art is to have any impact at all, I am supposed to wring meaning and insight from these experiences and channel it into my work.

Remember when part of the charm of celebrated authors was their other-ness? They were legendarily prickly, snarky, bohemian, drunks, or brawlers who seemed to spend their days in bed (often with multiple partners), and their nights about equally divided between scandalizing the bourgeoisie and pouring out Important Literature. Above all, they didn't give a toss what the general public thought about them. How could they? In much the same way an actor must be totally un-self-conscious in order to really disappear into a role and be true to the material he's been given, a writer must be totally un-self-conscious in order to disappear into the world of his stories and characters and be true to the material he's creating.

When you've developed the habit of turning off your authentic self to the point that it feels effortless, how can you be sure you're really capable of turning it back on again? If you spend so much of your time worrying about how you're being publicly perceived, how can you prevent that insecurity from creeping into your work? If you care so much about being perceived negatively online that you've made it a practice to avoid posting anything that could possibly cause you to be perceived negatively, how can you be sure you're not sanding off all the rough edges of your ideas, plots and characters as well?

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying writers should all immediately pick up some self-destructive habits and start purposely offending everyone within virtual earshot. No, no, no. But I am saying that maybe it's not so bad to take a stand every now and then, and maybe it's not the end of your career if it's a poorly informed and badly executed stand. Maybe it's not such a bad thing to expose your human-ness and your passions once in a while.

Being a good little Author Platformer means putting the Ego in charge: the reasoning, detached part of the self that suppresses baser urges and animal instincts. The Id is where all base urges and instincts originate, but it's also where insight and creativity live; chaining the Id to a post in the basement of one's day to day life may be the worst mistake any artist can make. My Id has been locked up for too long, and it's acting out. I'm beginning to wonder if I should've been letting it come out to play, and make its mistakes and messes, a little more often than I have these past five years.

Case in point: a post of mine was picked up by The Passive Voice blog, and there were a number of comments. One commenter zeroed in on one specific line in the post, and took up a real battleflag against it. And this irked me, a great deal. Straw man arguments are a pet peeve for me, but not without good reason...

I have read and personally experienced far too many cherry-picking arguments when the indie author movement was just getting off the ground, where some naysayer or other would attempt to discredit the entire notion of indie authorship by attacking or attempting to disprove one specific statement in an essay or blog post---an essay or blog post with which they could find no other particular fault. Time and again, the trolls would come forward to hold up this or that one, specific example of a failed or poor-quality indie book, and use it as the foundation for their thesis that, "therefore, all indie books are bad and virtually no one buys indie books." So I'm pretty touchy about cherry-picking arguments.

I do not believe this commenter is a troll, nor do I think he necessarily deserved the chilly and irritated responses he got from me. I'm sure many people have seen the exchange, and some of them thought worse of me for it. Three years ago, I would've been frantically working damage control and obsessing about the potential fallout. Two years ago, I wouldn't have responded to the commenter at all. One year ago, I would've responded with some bland bit of mild disagreement, sure to include at least one qualifier that would welcome anyone reading my response to dismiss it completely.

Now, I'm doing nothing. I overreacted because this commenter unintentionally hit a raw nerve, but while I did go so far as to wonder "aloud" what his motivations might be for so tenaciously clinging to this one line of argument, I don't believe I stepped over the line into being rude or hurtful. A display of poor judgment on my part? Absolutely. Obnoxious? Fine, I'll give you that. A total meltdown? No, I think that's going too far.

Above all else, what it was, was proof positive that I'm not just a, I mean brand. It was a demonstration that I can and do get bothered and passionate about things sometimes, even if this Author Platform lifestyle of stuffing those tendencies down for the past five years is now resulting in me getting a little too bothered and being a little too passionate about relatively unimportant things.

I'm not advocating for authors to start shooting their mouths off about anything they want to in any setting. There are such things as decorum, respect, and 'reading the room', after all. I'm just saying that maybe it's not such a bad idea to be your authentic, opinionated, imperfect self now and then, at least when the stakes are low, even in the context of author platform. Some will respond well, others won't. But those who don't like your authentic self probably never would've liked your work anyway. And if constantly stifling your authentic self may also result in stifling the authenticity of your work, it's a price that's too high to pay.

Maybe letting your Id peek through the veil every once in a while serves to vent bile that would otherwise build up until you do have a public meltdown when some minor irritation tips the scale. I can't say for certain. All I can say is that whatever I've been doing up until now ain't working anymore.

Also see:
Thank You For Unsubscribing, by C.J. West

On the Subject of Being Offensive, by Chuck Wendig

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Indie Authors: Stop Promoting To Other Indie Authors

The majority of indie authors have day jobs, family responsibilities, the burden of developing, writing and publishing their books, and the burden of establishing and maintaining an author platform on top of all of it. It's not surprising that when it comes time to promote a new book, indie authors very frequently begin by reaching out to their fellow indie authors. After all, who can better understand the struggle and sacrifice that went into the achievement of bringing a book to market independently, and who could possibly be more supportive of an indie author's efforts than another indie author?

Even though that rationale seems sound, authors promoting to other authors has got to stop, NOW, for two very good reasons.

The first is that unless you're writing nonfiction books on craft or book production, other authors are not your target demographic and every bit of money, time and effort you spend promoting to them is money, time and effort that isn't going toward courting your real intended audience. The second is that it's simply too much to ask of your fellow authors.

You may think the fact that you're spending more time promoting to fellow authors than the general public doesn't matter, since increased sales and positive reviews will inevitably raise your book's visibility among members of your target demographic and the general public, leading to more sales, but you're wrong. Book lovers have gotten pretty savvy to the indie world, and they automatically discount reviews written for indie authors by indie authors. If the majority of your book's positive reviews are from fellow indies --- especially those who take posting a review as an opportunity to cross-promote their own books by including their own book title in their username or signature line --- it's actually a mark against your book in the eyes of the general public. They think, "How good could this book be, if the only people who read it and posted positive reviews are friends of the author?"

You may also think that since writers are readers too, it's totally legitimate to promote to them the same as you would any other member of the public. But the thing is, most indie authors don't promote to one another the way they would to the general public, they often think nothing of spamming and haranguing their fellows in ways they would never even consider doing to the general public. For example, they may think it's totally fine to post a promotional message and link to their book's product page on the Facebook wall, page or timeline of an indie author 'friend', but would never dream of doing so on other Facebook members' walls, pages or timelines. They would never send out a "please buy my new book, I really need your support" email to their PTA or church email list, but don't hesitate to do it to their own email list of indie authors.

Spam is spam is spam, regardless of whether or not the person on the receiving end is a fellow indie author. If anything, indie authors should be even more hesitant to bombard their fellows with promotional messages and pleas than they would be in dealing with the general public, because they should know very well what those fellows are up against every day.

Several times a week (or more) I'll receive pleas from indie authors to buy, review and recommend their books, attend their events (virtual or IRL), locate and tag their books on Amazon, cross-post announcements of their book release events, share links to their blogs on my own blog, "Like" their Facebook pages, follow them on Twitter, allow them to post their promotional messages on my sites, et cetera. They don't seem to realize it, but what their requests really mean to the person on the receiving end is this:

"Hey, I know you have a job, and a family, and your own works in progress, and your own published books that you need to promote, and a website, blog, FB page, Twitter stream and Goodreads account to keep updated, and a To Read pile a mile high containing many works from favorite authors of yours that you've spent the last year wanting to read for pleasure and for your continuing education in craft, and that on top of all this you're trying to squeeze a half hour or so of free time or exercise into your day (and failing in that endeavor more often than not), but can you just drop one or more of those things to do me a favor, even though we're only nominally acquainted and your own siblings would think twice before making this request? P.S. - Since we're only nominally acquainted you don't really know me, and it's possible that I'm hypersensitive or just plain off my nut. If you don't grant me this favor I may go totally ballistic and badmouth you all over the internet as being non-supportive of your fellow indie authors. 'Kay? THANKS!!!"

If the request is to read a book and post a review for it, this wrinkle is added:

"I know you value your online reputation and integrity and stuff, but can you read my book and post a positive review of it? And if you don't like it, can you just write off all that time you spent reading it and pretend you never read it at all? P.S. - If you do post a review and it's anything less than a glowing 5-starrer, I may go totally ballistic and badmouth you all over the internet as being non-supportive of your fellow indie authors. I may even be one of those mean and bitter types who will go so far as to post negative reviews on all your books on every site where they're listed. 'Kay? THANKS!!!"

If the request is to buy a book, that request really means this:

"Hey, I know you're only earning something like twenty bucks a month in royalties off your own books but can you take some of that hard-earned cash this month and hand it over to me? Of course, I'll only be getting a small percentage of the profit, you'll actually be giving most of your money to a publisher or reseller. I know you're acquainted with hundreds of other indie authors who may be making this same request, and of course I realize you can't afford to buy everyone's books, and you don't really know me any better than you know any of the rest of them, but can you just blow the rest of them off this one time and buy my book, because I really really really really need the help so much more than they do, and you know what it's like being a struggling indie author so I'm pretty sure your guilt alone is already making you lean toward 'yes'? P.S. - Again, since you don't really know me it's possible that I'm a selfish jerk. If you don't buy my book and I find out about that, I may go totally ballistic and badmouth you all over the internet as being a greedy, tight-fisted hypocrite. 'Kay? THANKS!!!"

What about lesser requests than these? You may assume that because it only takes a second to 'Like' a Facebook page or re-tweet a message, there's no reason why anyone should turn you down or be annoyed by the request when you make it. But many people take their 'Likes' and re-tweets seriously, and believe there's an implied endorsement and recommendation in every one of their 'Likes' and re-tweets. I don't personally think there's anything wrong with asking for a 'Like' or re-tweet, the problem is that most people who make the request attach an expectation to it and get angry or disappointed when their expectation isn't met. Asking isn't the problem, it's the wave of resentment or even retribution that too often follows.

Identifying your target demographic, locating its members and crafting a promotional strategy that's tailor-made to appeal to that demographic is hard work, but it's the only kind of promotion and marketing that truly builds a dedicated and enthusiastic readership from the ground up. An appreciative readership becomes both a fan base and a cheering section, filled with people who are very happy to recommend a book they've discovered and enjoyed. That kind of fan base grows organically, so long as the author or publisher doesn't screw up the relationship by subjecting the fans to spam or trampling on their boundaries.

If you still insist on viewing your fellow indie authors as a kind of training wheels community to which you can turn for support in promoting your book and goosing your sales, really think about what you're asking before you ask. And no matter what, never ask your fellow authors for something, or promote to them, in a way you would think is inappropriate to do to your neighbors, the other parents involved with your kid's soccer team, your co-workers, or the general public.

Being an indie author is a demanding and draining privilege; we need to treat it, and one another, with respect.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Pain and Stress Inform the Work, But Not Always Right Away, and Only If You Survive

It may not seem like it at first, but this post is about coping with the tremendous, unprecedented pressure to produce and sell that all but the most established authors face these days. Specifically, it's about coping with those pressures on top of other, even larger pressures, particularly when you're an indie author in the early stages of your publishing career. So please bear with me: I'll circle back around to this, I promise.

My favorite mantra for coping with pain, stress and the general asshattery and douchebaggery of others when it occurs is, "It informs the work. It informs the work. It informs the work." Sometimes I have to say it through gritted teeth, but it's true: the most painful and troubling experiences of a writer's life combine to fill a well of personal truth from which the writer can draw to lend authenticity and heft to his fiction. But like a fine wine or artisanal cheese, those experiences usually need to age before they're ready for public consumption.

It's only through the passage of time, and accumulation of new experiences and outcomes, that the writer gains distance, perspective, and a degree of objectivity that enables her to take something deeply personal and channel it into stories and characters that speak to others in a relatable way. And I'm not just talking about fictionalized memoirs here, I'm talking about dealing with the broad themes of loss, pain, denial, longing, failure and all the other negatives that challenge us as human beings, in fiction.

Writers are a sensitive lot by nature, and many of us are living through dire times. Some of you who are reading this post have recently suffered a job loss; some have been out of work for a year or longer. Some are losing---or have already lost---their homes to foreclosure. Some are coping with the loss of a loved one, divorce, a health crisis...or maybe even two or more of these major life traumas simultaneously. Some are just barely keeping the bill collectors at bay while living on a steady diet of ramen noodles and peanut butter. One day, the survivors will look back on these dark times and see them for the growth experiences they were. But not today, and not if they don't survive.

Sometimes people ask me why I'm not producing one or two novels a year, as so many indie authors are advised to do if they wish to build up the kind of back catalog that's necessary to truly make a living as an indie author. Some ask why I'm no longer a familiar face at writer conferences and events. Some wonder why they're seeing more images and updates of my craft projects on Facebook than of my writing projects, and why I just generally don't seem to be "working it" as an indie author, and haven't been for some time. Well, I'll tell you.

I came out of the chute like gangbusters back in 2007, when "self-publish" was still a dirty word. I got my books and myself out there, I launched and nurtured, I became active with social media, I networked, I got involved with online writer and reader communities, I spoke at writer conferences, I taught workshops, and more. I'd built up quite a head of steam and forward momentum when...

...the bottom fell out of my life.

In early 2010 I learned I had a breast tumor [I'm fine now, thanks for your concern =') ]. Two days later my husband of 18+ years announced he was leaving me. This meant I'd also soon be unemployed since my job at the time was as Office Manager for a business my then-husband and I ran together. I'd left a career in Software Engineering some six years previous to help establish and run that business, so hopping right back into my former professional field wouldn't be possible. Divorce also meant I might soon be losing the only home I'd ever owned, and had recently remodeled, and loved, since I most likely couldn't afford the mortgage payment by myself.
It's been over two years since the bombs dropped on me, and I've come a long way toward full recovery. But I'm not there yet. While the initial shock and emotional devastation are behind me, the fallout from these problems is still poking me with a stick on a daily basis, preventing me from establishing comfortable, secure new routines. In many ways, I'm still in survival mode. Surely all of these experiences will imbue my work with more depth and meaning than it's ever had before. But not today. And not if I don't survive.

Survival is job one, for all of us. If you don't survive, you won't be there to tell your stories when the crisis is over. If the pressures of your daily life are already pushing you to your limits as a human being, before you add the pressures of authorship, you need to step back. Give yourself permission to delay, though not abandon, your dreams. If you don't, drive will turn into despair. Hope will turn into bitterness. The urge to create will turn into an urge to destroy.

For someone in survival mode, every bit of effort, time and money spent is a high-stakes investment, because there's so little of those commodities available to such a person. Where entering a contest, submitting a manuscript, or publishing a new book would've been an event of nervous, but hopeful anticipation in the past, when you're in survival mode these things become acts of desperate need. Rejections that would've been difficult, but manageable, before are crushing to someone in survival mode. Not only is it impossible to create your best work, you lack the emotional wherewithal to understand and accept it when others don't respond well to your sub-par efforts. It becomes a downward spiral of fear, rejection and increasing desperation, all of which serves to further delay your eventual recovery and ability to come at authorship from a place of renewed strength and perspective.

Building a career as an author is a marathon, not a sprint. If you're exhausted as you stand on the blocks, before the starting gun has even sounded, there's no way you can hope to win that race. Do what you need to do to survive, so that someday, you can once again thrive.

Friday, June 15, 2012

If You Think Amazon Is Gouging You On Delivery Costs, It's Only Because You Didn't Do The Math Up Front

I'm seeing some online noise lately from authors who are outraged at the "delivery costs" being deducted from their KDP book royalties. These authors are posting angry diatribes against Amazon on their sites, blogs and social media accounts, railing against Big Bad Amazon and their sneaky, author-cheating, money-grabbing tactics.

Here's the problem: it's those authors' own fault if Amazon is retaining so much in delivery costs that their books aren't earning a respectable royalty, because those authors OPTED IN for a royalty percentage that includes a deduction for delivery costs in the first place.

When you publish a Kindle book through KDP Select, you must decide whether to choose the 70% royalty or the 35% royalty option. Many non-detail-oriented authors just click that 70% option without considering, or even knowing, the repercussions of that choice.

Two such repercussions are delivery costs and royalty as a percentage of sales price. These are important, because they impact the amount of money you ultimately earn per copy sold.

If you go with the 35% option, your royalty per copy sold is 35% of the retail price you set, period. Even if Amazon elects to discount your book for some reason, you get 35% of the original price you set on every copy sold.

If you go with the 70% option, your royalty per copy sold is 70% of the retail price you set, minus delivery costs, with some caveats. Delivery costs are as follows, per Amazon's current pricing page on the KDP site: $0.15/MB £0.10/MB €0.12/MB €0.12/MB
€0.12/MB €0.12/MB

Obviously, the larger your file size, the higher your delivery cost, and the lower your net royalty per copy sold. In every one of the angry posts I've seen, the book in question was heavily illustrated or formatted, resulting in a huge file size. It would've been a simple thing for these authors to do the math ahead of time based on their books' file size, and if they had done so, they likely would've concluded the 35% option was the smarter way to go for these particular books.

There's a KDP FAQ that explains these details right here, and per another section of the FAQ, the average delivery cost per KDP book is six cents. For a book containing only text and maybe a handful of decorative embellishments, that's a totally reasonable and believable figure. Straight text novels I've published or formatted generally come out somewhere between 240 - 350 KB, so on such a book, the delivery costs are negligible.

Note that you can choose different royalty options for different KDP books, it's not like you must choose one or the other and then it applies to your entire KDP catalog.

Now, back to those caveats. There are other factors to consider before choosing the 70% option, and these are fully disclosed and explained in the KDP royalty FAQ section about the 70% royalty option.

First, if you're selling your book on other sites (even if in other formats) and any of those sites decide to discount your book for any reason, Amazon will immediately discount your book to match the lowest price its 'bots find on the web and base your royalty calculation on that price---NOT the list price you originally set. This is why I generally advise authors who are selling through multiple outlets to go with the 35% option, because they have no control over vendor pricing, and with the 70% option their royalties will be entirely unpredictable because the book's ultimate sales price on Amazon will be unpredictable.

Second, you must set a retail list price between $2.99 - $9.99 for your book. Some authors will balk at the low end, since it excludes 99 cent and $1.99 pricing, others will balk at the upper level because for some books, especially textbooks or technical books, it may be legitimate to charge more than $9.99.

I won't detail everything else one needs to consider before making the choice between the 35% and 70% royalty options, because frankly, if you're the author-publisher, that's your job. And if you don't take the time to research the consequences of your publishing choices, that's nobody's fault but your own.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dear Indie Booksellers: Please Take Your Eyes Off Your Classmate's Paper And Focus On Your Own Work

Dear Indie Booksellers:

Whether your operation is brick and mortar, strictly online, or a combo plate of both, you have an important role to fill in the communities you serve. It makes me sad to see shop after shop shuttered, and I miss the ones I used to frequent. So please, know that as both an author and a consumer, I want you to not only survive, but to thrive.

But many of you, those whose daily operational thoughts and actions are totally dominated by fear of being driven out of business by Amazon and the few big chains that are still in operation, need some tough love. As you read this, bear that thought in mind: I'm tough because I love.

Also bear in mind, as you feel the blood rushing to your face and your jaw clenching in anger while you read, there are some distinct advantages to being a small, indie outfit (as you probably know better than I do), and there are indie booksellers that are doing just fine without so much as a glance in Amazon's direction; I will get to that by the end of this post, too. Okay, deep breath; here goes.

Please stop obsessing about, and badmouthing, Amazon and the chains. It's no more attractive to retail customers than attack ads are to voters.

Please stop badmouthing consumers who shop at Amazon and the chains. Most consumers will buy some things from Amazon and the chains, and other things from smaller outfits. There's no better way to ensure they'll start buying everything from Amazon and the chains than to insult them.

Please stop trying to base your marketing and community outreach plans on guilting the public into believing their Amazon and chain purchases are leading to the destruction of reading culture as we know it. Nobody wants to be bullied or guilted into a purchase, consumers know they have a right to make the best choice for themselves based on their specific priorities, and they hold that right pretty dear.

Know that you cannot possibly compete with Amazon or the chains on price; you will almost never win with consumers for whom price is the ultimate, or only factor in a buying decision. But also know: this is not a bad thing. Those consumers were never going to be good customers for you anyway.

Know that if your bookshop is generalist, carrying a smattering of current release books in all the most popular genres and a bit of merch on the side, with few exceptions (e.g. captive audience shops like those in airports), you cannot possibly compete with Amazon or the chains on selection. They have massive, distributed networks of gargantuan warehouses stacked to the rafters with nothing but variety.

Please do not argue that you can order any of the same books one can find on Amazon or through the big chains, because we live in an age of pathological convenience and instant gratification. Most consumers who have already made the trek to the store are annoyed if they must leave empty-handed. Now granted, it's not like in pioneer days when Pa would take the wagon into town for supplies on a weeklong trip that could very well end in death on the way there or back. But consumer expectations and demands have changed.

A consumer who can click his mouse twice to order the same item, at a lower price, and often with no shipping expense and two day delivery, isn't often inclined to wait around in your shop for a few extra minutes while you fill out an order form, then wait a few extra days for your supplier to get the item into the mail and a few more days on top of that for book-rate delivery. Faced with the same choice a few times in a row, it won't be long before the customer stops bothering to come into your shop at all.

But also know: this too, is not necessarily bad for you. Consumers for whom convenience is the thing were never going to be good customers for you anyway, you're better off without them.

In the great retail deli counter of booksellers, you're prosciutto; please stop trying to be bologna.

Look around: bologna's cheap and plentiful, you can even buy it at 7-11 and some gas stations. But people who have a taste for prosciutto know it costs more than bologna and isn't as easy to find. Prosciutto lovers are also generally willing to pay a premium for the best quality, and will typically feel the same way about buying other, related items, like cheese and wine. Figuratively speaking, prosciutto lovers are the customers you want, and they want you right back. Does the high-end deli or wine shop try to compete directly with 7-11? Of course not. The high-end place doesn't even deign to acknowledge the existence of 7-11, because it doesn't consider itself to be in direct competition with 7-11. Neither should you consider yourselves to be in direct competition with Amazon or the chains.

Do, and offer, what the 400-pound gorillas can't: passion and specialized knowledge not only of the products you carry, but the communities you serve. I've noticed that most of the successful, healthy indie retailers in any community I've ever called home have one thing in common: they specialize, and whatever it is they specialize in, everyone from the store owner right down to the stock boy is an absolute geek about it.

While all of the stores I'm about to talk about are brick-and-mortar with an adjunct website, strictly online indie booksellers can mimic many of their winning strategies. Where a brick and mortar store has an author reading, you can have an author chat or post an interview. Where the brick and mortar store has an in-store book club meeting every week, you can have an online book club. Where the brick and mortar store staff can wax eloquent on areas of expertise to customers in the store, you can post your specialized knowledge and analysis online, in a blog.

Dark Delicacies, a Burbank bookshop, specializes in all things gothic, horror and supernatural. It's the go-to shop for books, knick-knacks, toys, author readings, and even some clothing and accessory items that fit that description. If you're looking for a onesie with a zombie on it, this is the place to go. It's a fun shop to visit, and filled with so many enticing items that it's near impossible for fans of this type of fare to walk out without buying something. And if you want to know anything about horror/goth books, horror/goth movies, goth art, goth style, dark music or the like, the staff's near-encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm can't be beat. Sure, you can find many of the same items on Amazon at a lower price, but nobody goes to Dark Delicacies for the prices. Burbank is an entertainment biz mecca and it borders on the North Hollywood Art community, so Dark Delicacies is smack in the middle of its target demographic: unconventional people with unconventional tastes. No Amazon or monster chain store can cater so effectively to a specific market sector.

Hennessy & Ingalls Art & Architecture Bookstore in Santa Monica does for art and architecture books and related merch what Dark Delicacies does for goth and horror. The thing about art and architecture books is, they're generally in a larger format and more expensive than other types of books, will often have special features that don't come across in a screenshot, and it's hard to make a purchase decision without actually being able to look at them in person first. Santa Monica is an upscale community that's home to a lot of entertainment types (actors, directors, etc.), so while H & I certainly doesn't want to gouge its customers, it doesn't have to worry much about setting price points high enough to earn a decent profit on each sale. It's become a real destination for students and lovers of art and architecture, well worth the drive for those not in the immediate area, and it serves its clientele very well.

Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop, located not far from my own neck of the woods, caters to schools, parents, and teachers in particular. Its selection of toys is easily dwarfed by a Toys R Us, but every toy in Mrs. Nelson's is educational, and many of them are hand-crafted imports and award winners. Its selection of childrens' and young adult books is likewise outgunned by Amazon and online chain booksellers, but that doesn't matter. Just like at H&I, many of the books at Mrs. Nelson's are large format picture books, popup books, and books that incorporate some kind of craft or game activity; these are all types of books you generally want to check out in person before making a purchase decision. The young adult selection at Mrs. Nelson's is always better than that at any local brick-and-mortar chain store, as is Mrs. Nelson's selection of books for teachers.

But here again, it's the friendly, enthusiastic staff that puts Mrs. Nelson's head and shoulders above any mere chain store or Amazon. If your kid has to do a book report on a biography, just tell the friendly staffer at Mrs. Nelson's what grade your child is in, what her reading level is, and what her interests are, and you'll be directed to a variety of choices that not only meet the requirements of the assignment, but any of which your child will actually enjoy reading. Any time an entire grade level at a local school is going to be reading some classic or other, Mrs. Nelson's hears about it well in advance from its teacher and school administrator connections and will have plenty of copies on hand when they're needed.

Mrs. Nelson's has a calendar jam-packed with events and talks for kids, parents and teachers, some free and some fee-based (like the craft workshops), but probably the best events of all are the live readings from authors of beloved childrens' books. The authors are always gracious enough to stick around afterward, signing books and meeting the kids who so love their work, and in cases where the author is also an illustrator, you can often find signed prints of illustrations from their books available for sale at these events. I've picked up a signed print from David Shannon's wonderful "No, David!" at a reading there.

Nothing at Mrs. Nelson's is cheap, either in terms of construction or pricetag. But I and plenty of other locals are happy to pay a little more for the higher quality and true community involvement on offer there.

Blake Crouch and Joe Konrath offer more advice to indie booksellers here.
So you see, it can be done, and it can be done well. I'm not saying it's a simple thing to switch from a generalist store to a specialty shop, but I guess I am saying your survival may well depend on it. I want you to succeed, truly. I want a community dotted with Mrs. Nelson's, Dark Delicacies and Hennessey & Ingalls, and I think plenty of other people do, too.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Requiem For The Romantic Ideal Of Authorship

Well, my last post (If You're Not Ready To Invest, You're Not Ready To Publish) drummed up a lot of...sentiment. A surprising amount of that sentiment was negative, and I think it's because an awful lot of us fiction writer types grew up believing in the romanticized ideal of what it means to be an Author. That's Author, with a capital "A".

All those years of being something of a sensitive but clever and observant outsider would finally pay off, as we spent hour upon hour filling page upon page with our sensitive and clever observations. We'd spend the requisite one to three years toiling in obscurity, fielding numerous rejections from editors, agents and magazine publishers. We'd have Meaningful Experiences and while many of them would be painful, they would ultimately inform the work, thereby bringing us closer to that inevitable day when our breakthrough theme, character or plot would finally materialize, ready to catapult us past the less clever, less sensitive and less observant droves of poseurs and wannabes, right to the front of the Next Big Thing line. From there, getting an agent, a contract, a book tour and bestseller would be just a matter of time and checking off the right boxes in the right order.

Then we would purchase and move to a gorgeous, costly yet unpretentious, picturesque writerly sanctuary, like a beach house, ranch house, mountain house, or for those truly committed to maintaining their outsider status, a yurt. Someplace where we could sit on a pier, or rock, or deck, gazing pensively into the center distance, clutching a steamy mug of coffee and ruminating on this thing we call life and how to shape it into our next pithy yet accessible and entertaining opus.

We'd never compromise our artistic vision for sales---we weren't screenwriters, for God's sake---and readers would thank us for it. It would just so happen that our zeitgeisty insights would strike a chord with the general public. More bestsellers and movie adaptations would predictably follow, along with awards and accolades, all of which we'd publicly accept with deep humility and self-deprecating humor even though inside we'd be thinking things like, "Take THAT, Inland Valley Writers Critique Group!" and "Was there ever any doubt?" And so on and so forth, impressive body of work, et cetera, college speaking tours, lifetime achievement award, blah blah, culminating with a glowing and worshipful obituary in every major outlet following our peaceful death of natural causes while we slept. But even then, our work would live on, CHERISHED FOR GENERATIONS TO COME!!

Ahem. Sorry about that, got a little carried away.

What a drag then, to be setting off on that yellow brick road to Authorship at a time when the publishing industry is in crisis, formats are in flux, the hermit lifestyle is no longer compatible with mainstream authorial success, your platform seems to matter almost as much as your writing, book review sections are an endangered species (as are the print magazines and newspapers that used to run them) and anyone can publish anything. No wonder everyone's pissed. We thought that so long as we had the talent and a drive to create, the rest would take care of itself. Or at least, once we'd caught the right editor or agent's attention, other people would take care of the rest for us.

It was a nice dream while it lasted, but now it's time to wake up. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for authors and would-be authors, but it's also a time of unprecedented competition and change.

If you're in it purely for the art or the satisfaction of telling stories publicly, it's never been a better time to be you. No gatekeepers stand in your way any more, you can publish at will.

But if you're in it to make a living, to substantially supplement a day job income, to build a large and appreciative audience (whether or not you're turning a profit), or have any kind of impact on the culture at large, your talent and drive to create are merely prerequisites. For you, craft is only the beginning.  The work is only part of your work now, and sometimes, it's not even the most important part (like when you're planning a launch campaign). It's nothing like the romantic ideal you imagined, and it blows.

So go ahead: be angry for a while. Rail at the injustice of it. Have many animated discussions with like-minded individuals about how art and commerce were never meant to mix, how marketing is fundamentally incompatible with the pure and noble drive to create. Eloquently hold forth at the bar or coffee house about how Hemingway, Cheever and Salinger were never expected to give even a passing thought to promotion, and how the purity of their work was surely preserved as a result.

Then get back to your manuscript. And your blog. And your website. And your social media sites. And your continuing education in the art and business of publishing. Because actually, it's never been a better time to be you, the writer with commercial aspirations, either. You've got more tools and information at your disposal than any previous generation of writers. It's never been easy to make it as a mainstream, commercial author, the romanticized ideal of authorship has never been true. Maybe it's difficult now for different reasons, but work and sacrifice were always going to be part of the equation.

Monday, April 16, 2012

If You're Not Ready To Invest, You're Not Ready To Publish

This post is about the alarming sense of entitlement I'm seeing out there among indies and would-be indies now that we've become empowered to publish. I'm sure I sound like a broken record (or damaged MP3) by now, but apparently I need to keep saying this:

The decision to self-publish for profit is a BUSINESS decision. When you decide to self-publish for a profit you are deciding to LAUNCH A BUSINESS. You are going into direct COMPETITION with every other publisher and self-publisher out there, and many of them have a lot more money, time and experience than you do, no matter who you are. No one who goes into business has an inherent right to success or profit, or even the attention of consumers. All of those things must be earned, and are generally hard-won.

Anyone who wants to launch a new business like a restaurant, widget manufacturer, accounting practice or pool service expects to invest a certain amount of start-up capital, both in terms of actual cash and sweat equity. Neither is dispensable. Yet plenty of would-be indie authors seem to think it's unfair for me, and even the book-buying public, to expect them to invest anything more than the sweat equity part of the equation. They expect the public to be able to look past a cut-rate cover, ignore the typos, bad grammar and the many other substantive flaws that can be eliminated by a good editor, and see the excellent story within. These indies are wrong, and they're hurting all of us by lowering the collective bar.

In a recent Facebook exchange, one indie author directed this to me:

Not all self published authors can afford to hire out for pro services. If that were the case, why not go with a vanity publishing company and all their promises.
To which I responded, in part:
...if we self-publishers wish to compete head-to-head with mainstream books, we have to be willing to invest what it takes both in terms of effort and money. Hiring a pro editor and cover designer yourself is a far cry from going with a vanity press, which will usurp your rights and take a cut of your royalties. A pro edit, file conversion and cover design shouldn't cost most self-pubbers more than about $400-$600, if you check the freelancer listings on Smashwords---and many can beat even those prices by shopping around and calling in favors. Yes, it's a lot of money, but compare that to how many thousands of dollars a mainstream publisher invests in every book *it* acquires and releases. If we want a seat at the poker table, we have to be willing to invest at least a small stake.
Another commenter replied:

I work as a handyman. I'm barely making it. $400 to $600 is half a months' wages for me. How would you suggest I scrape together enough to pay someone to edit my book and another someone to design a cover for it?

My response was:

I'm sorry to say this...but the realities of launching and running a business are what they are, and I have often advised would-be indies NOT to publish until they can afford to do it right. The vast majority of authors, mainstream and indie alike, do not earn enough from sales of their books to live on. Virtually all of us still need day jobs.

The fact that the content is gold won't matter if all the reader notices is typos, bad grammar or spelling mistakes, and an amateurish cover. For years us indies have been saying all we want is the opportunity to compete against the mainstream on a level playing field---but that means we have to be willing to do (and spend) what it takes to compete. I'm all for DIY when the person has the skills, and for trading favors and doing whatever else one can to shave costs. But it's unrealistic to think one can go up against multi-million dollar publishers without spending even a few hundred dollars.

Hopeful Olympians pay for quality equipment, coaching and travel. Hopeful artists pay for quality supplies, professional framing and gallery space. Hopeful filmmakers pay for quality cameras and professional editing, or at least time in a professional editing bay to do it themselves. The fact that it's much easier for a rich hopeful to afford the necessities of his craft or sport than it is for a poor one doesn't make those things any less NECESSARY for the poor hopeful.

People DO judge a book by its cover, as I've learned firsthand. The cover for my novel Adelaide Einstein is much less slick than the one for my novel Snow Ball, and Snow Ball outsells Adelaide month in and out despite the fact that Adelaide has nearly three times as many positive reviews. I can complain all I want about how unfair it is that more readers won't give Adelaide a chance, but that won't sell more copies of the book.

And ebook fans DO post negative reviews based solely on bad editing and poor formatting. I've found most ebook fans to be very welcoming to indies, and even willing to cut them some slack to an extent in acknowledgment that we're not backed by a Big 6 publisher. But when poor formatting or bad editing gets in the way of their enjoyment of the content, they stop reading and let others know about it.

Remember: publishing was never meant to be fair. It's a business. Mainstream-published authors have the luxury of a whole staff of businesspeople standing between their delicate, artistic sensibilities and the harsh realities of commerce, but they pay for it pretty dearly in reduced royalties and the loss of control of their work. We indies have to be willing and able to play both sides of the net, art AND commerce, ourselves.

If you're not willing, or you're not able, you're not ready to publish.

UPDATED TO ADD: having seen comments on this post here and elsewhere, I'm kind of shocked that this is such a controversial stand to take. I mean, if I wanted to go into business making and selling any other product, and openly admitted I had no money for quality control (editing), packaging (cover design) or marketing (author platform) for the product, that I didn't have the skills to do all of those things myself at a level comparable to a professional, and I don't know anyone who'd be willing to offer those services to me for free, everyone would just say, "Well, maybe you need to wait till you've saved up some money, then."

But for some reason, to some people, when the product in question is a book, it's somehow a special case. To those people, suggesting the author delay publication till he can make his product---a book---the best it can be is elitest. I'm not saying that only the rich should be able to publish, not remotely. I strongly encourage controlling costs, acquiring as many skills as possible so you can do a professional job of things yourself, calling in favors and comparison shopping for services. And I'm not saying those who don't do these things should be barred from publishing.

All I'm saying is, if you're going to step into the spotlight and invite the scrutiny of a paying public, doesn't it make sense to put your best foot forward? If "good enough" is inadequate when it comes to the quality of your storytelling and characterization, why is it acceptable when it comes to the quality of your book's presentation?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Amazon vs. Apple And The Agency 5: Let's Get The Facts Straight

Given that anyone who reads my blog is an author, publisher, or otherwise involved in the book business, I don't think I need to trouble myself with recounting every detail of how the U.S. Department of Justice came to charge Apple, Inc. and publishers Macmillan, Penguin, Hachette Group, Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins with collusion to fix ebook prices. But judging by the many hysterical, righteous articles and editorials I'm reading in the wake of antitrust charges being filed and three of the five named publishers promptly settling out of court, there's plenty of inaccuracy and flawed logic out there that needs to be addressed.

1. Before Apple and the Agency 5 publishers established their Agency Pricing plan, Amazon was hurting publishers' bottom lines by offering their Kindle-format bestsellers at a discount price. Publishers had to do something to stop Amazon from doing this, so they could earn enough money to cover their expenses and still earn a modest profit.


Prior to Agency pricing, publishers sold their Kindle-format books to Amazon under the same basic wholesale terms they used to sell their hard-copy books to Amazon. Publishers set a suggested retail price for the public, but sold each copy to Amazon at a lower, wholesale price that generally constituted 60% of the suggested retail price. That percentage is standard across the industry for all booksellers, and is fixed regardless of the price at which a given book, digital or hardcopy, actually sells.

This means that if the publisher set a suggested retail price of $20 for a given Kindle book, Amazon had to pay the publisher $12 per copy sold. Even if Amazon elected to sell those books at a discounted retail price of say, $9.99, it still had to pay the publisher $12 per copy sold. Most of the mainstream Kindle bestsellers Amazon was selling at $9.99 were being sold at a loss to Amazon, but publishers still earned the same cut as they would if Amazon hadn't discounted.

2. If Amazon is allowed to offer mainstream bestsellers as a "loss leader" product, it will soon have a monopoly over ebook sales in general and will then demand that publishers accept a lower cut on each copy sold---and in fact, they are already starting to do this with their 2012 vendor contracts with publishers.


While it's true that Amazon's 2012 vendor contracts do charge higher prices for on-site promotion than in prior years (though specific details of the new contracts have not been publicly disclosed), no one is claiming Amazon is demanding any decrease in the publishers' usual 60% cut. It's unclear whether publishers can opt out of the on-site promotion, but still offer their books for sale on the site.

3. Amazon has already driven most of its competition out of business through predatory pricing tactics.


While it's true that Amazon operated at an annual, multimillion dollar loss for its first five years in business (as detailed in the documentary film series, Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet, 1998), during which time it was primarily a bookseller, the primary reason for its losses had to do with the usual business startup expenses, plus Jeff Bezos' very ambitious growth and expansion plans for the burgeoning e-tailer. Amazon spent immense quantities of cash on advertising and setting up a nationwide network of fulfillment centers in those early years.

Amazon also invested heavily in making its customers' buying experience the best it could be. Recall that Amazon launched at a time when online shopping was far from typical, and most consumers viewed online stores with suspicion, fearful that their credit card and other personal information couldn't possibly be kept secure online. A second obstacle to overcome was consumers' habit of instant gratification: why buy online, which is essentially no different from mail-ordering, a product one could buy in any local store? Amazon had an answer to both issues.

First, it could afford to offer products at a lower retail price because its overhead costs were much lower than those of a brick-and-mortar store. Warehouse space is cheaper to buy or rent than retail space, and fewer workers are needed to run a fulfillment center than to staff a retail store; much of its processes could be automated.

Of course, a lower retail price is meaningless if the difference is made up in shipping expense, and the customer has to wait for his purchase to arrive in the mail to boot. Amazon's answer to these two problems was to frequently offer free shipping, and (for its first couple of years in business) to ship every domestic order out via Federal Express, regardless of whether or not the customer opted to pay for expedited shipping, as a standard practice. Remember that?

These were strategic moves aimed at establishing the internet as a safe place to shop, and Amazon as a trusted retailer in the minds of consumers. Of course Amazon also wanted to become a preferred retailer in the minds of consumers, but that's true of any retailer. If its mail-order business model is simply more financially efficient and convenient for customers than brick-and-mortar shopping, that's more the natural outcome of a major technological and cultural shift than the result of any targeted, purposeful attempt to drive all competitors out of the marketplace. As plenty of others have observed, I'm sure the buggy whip manufacturers were pretty angry when automobiles became the standard mode of transportation, too.

4. Amazon is now in a position where it can strong-arm publishers into whatever pricing and sales terms it wants, slowly bleeding those publishers to the point where they can no longer survive.

Publishers are no more dependent on Amazon for their survival than computer manufacturers are dependent on Best Buy for theirs. Publishers are free to enter into direct competition with Amazon by pulling all their titles from the site and selling them exclusively through their own online stores and selected brick and mortar outlets, such as Barnes and Noble, Target and airport stores. Computer and other manufacturers have long offered direct sales to consumers through their websites, and there's nothing stopping publishers from following suit, other than a reluctance to alter their failing, bricks-and-mortar-centric business model.

Certainly, a considerable amount of effort and capital investment would be required to set up an online sales outlet where none exists today for most publishers, but the realities of remaining competitive in a changing marketplace are what they are. The fact that publishers dragged their feet and dug in their heels rather than adapt to changing market forces can hardly be blamed on Amazon. The internet moved their cheese, not Amazon.

As to slowly killing off publishers, it behooves Amazon NOT to bleed its primary suppliers dry. Amazon has been launching its own publishing initiatives, but unless it succeeds in luring most major authors away from every major publisher, unless it starts buying up competing presses (a mistake the major publishers have made in spades and have probably now come to regret), it will always be one among numerous publishers.

Finally, consider the digital music example set by Apple with its iPod and iTunes. Apple undoubtedly dominates the digital music market, but it has not bled any labels dry or begun gouging the music-loving public. Tower Records, Licorice Pizza and The Wherehouse have disappeared from the music retail landscape, but I don't recall anyone accusing Apple of any kind of orchestrated campaign to cause their demise. Again, it's a simple case of consumers voting with their wallets.

5. Publishers have to play ball with Amazon if they want to offer their books in digital form, because the Kindle is the dominant e-reader platform.


The Kindle is the dominant e-reader platform, but it can read formats other than Amazon's own proprietary .azw file type. It can read .mobi files natively, for example. Publishers are free to sell non-.azw format ebooks directly through their own websites, and Kindle owners would still be able to read those books on their Kindle devices. It wouldn't be as convenient for customers as downloading books directly to their Kindles from Amazon, but this is the same situation as loading digital music files that weren't purchased from iTunes onto an iPod: it can be done pretty easily, though it does require transferring files to the device.

Furthermore, if publishers really wanted to ensure the Kindle couldn't dominate the e-reader landscape they could do so, by offering customers the one thing the ebook reading public has most wanted from the beginning that they aren't already getting from Amazon: a cross-platform, DRM-free ebook format that can be read across multiple devices. They could invest in the development of cross-platform e-reader software users could run on devices they already own rather than having to buy a Kindle, Kobo Reader, Sony Reader or Nook, but here again, there's a reluctance on the part of publishers to take risks, expand their business model, innovate and compete.

BOTTOM LINE: Amazon has achieved a dominant position in bookselling and e-tailing through aggressive, risky and costly startup efforts. Unlike most CEOs who hold the title today, Jeff Bezos took and held the long view through some very lean and nerve-wracking years. If his ultimate goal for Amazon is to become and remain the #1 company in its sector, then all he's guilty of is the same thing that can be said of ALL CEOs.

Perhaps if publishers and competing retailers had been a little more forward-thinking, and willing to take the same risks, they would now be reaping similar rewards. Since they weren't, they are reaping a bitter harvest of resentment and fading market share instead. It's still not too late for publishers to turn the situation around, but their time, money and effort would be better spent on R&D than M&C*.

*(moaning and complaining)