The Ways We Can Tell Stories Are Changing

Much has changed in the past five years in publishing, which kind of goes without saying. It has allowed us writers to think a bit outside the box when it comes to the content we produce and how it’s put out there to readers. I have yet to do much with self-publishing, but it is readily apparent that the boundaries of the playing field for authors has greatly expanded. We can put out short stories, novellas, and such to go along with novels that come out, whether legacy or self published. It’s an ability to go beyond the norm for the readers as well as a method to help ourselves with things like discoverability and extra income. Things like this, of course, get me to thinking on the possibilities.

I have two projects going at the moment, and one of them is a something of a hard-boiled/noir/romance mashup called Harbortown. It follows the rollercoaster ride of Detective Rachel “Rehab” Rollins and the guy she must train to replace her after she’s been forced to retire.  The story arc takes place over these final six months of her job. Now, I may end up writing this all as one, full length book. If my agent likes it and sells it, I’m more than likely to go that route, but it’s also spurred on some other ideas.

Like, what if I wrote it as a series of novellas, released over the course of that actual six month time frame, on the actual days that each novella begins, sort of like reading it in real time? There could be short stories during the in between times. Then the whole thing could be compiled at the end in one volume. I could have a blog that follows the goings on in the town during the entire six months, also played along in real time, bits of news, things about the town and characters, kind of like a daily/weekly news update. The whole idea here would be to have readers experience the story along the same six month time frame that the characters and town do.

Might be fun, yes? Might be colossal, epic fail. Who knows, but regardless, it is very, very cool that publishing is such now that it allows for this kind of pondering. The ways in which we bring our stories to the reader have expanded quite a bit in the past few years, and likely will even more in the future. It’s an exciting time to be a writer.

Paying for Reviews Robs the Reader

Haven’t had much to post about of late, but this week an interesting article popped up in the NY Times about the fact that some authors have used review services to bolster their sales. It’s caused a bit of a stir, mostly falling on the side of annoyance or downright anger. It’s basically a function of gaming Amazon’s review system to push sales and rank of ebooks. Sounds rather sketchy (and it is).

The primary example used was that of best-selling author, John Locke, a thriller writer who has made a name for himself in self-publishing selling $1 ebooks and doing rather well for himself by it. He’s managed to get a traditional publishing deal out of it as well. In that regard, good for him. He took what was given to him and made it work and found success. However, I think this speaks more to a faulty system than any mean-spirited trickery on the author’s part.

If you sell on the Kindle, your major route to success lies in hitting the top of various lists. Getting noticed in the sea of books is a self-published author’s goal. You have to get on people’s radar in order to get bought. It doesn’t matter how good your story is. If nobody sees it, the quality is rather irrelevant. The way Amazon works, spiking sales numbers will stick your smiling mug up on the top or near the top of any number of lists. There are a plethora of categories (more so than I would’ve thought possible, and allocated to books in sometimes odd and mysterious ways) that one can get noticed on. Mainly though, one wants to hit the more general lists. The less specific, the broader your reach to readers. A certain number of sales may garner you on the epic fantasy list. A few more and you hit general fantasy. Do really good and you make it on to more general overall rankings.

What John Locke did, and many I’m sure have tried to duplicate and perhaps have, is to pay people to get his book off of Amazon, read it and post a review. There are some fairly obvious problems with this model. The main one is that you get a book with tons of reviews with no actual validity. You have no idea if the person actually read the book. Getting paid to review, incurs a potential obligation or expectation to say something good about a story you may not have liked. You get sales rankings that are basically fake. These are not sales based on interest, word of mouth, or anything at all related to how good the story may or may not be. It’s akin to corporations playing musical chairs with their accounting to make themselves look like they’re doing better than they actually are.

There’s nothing illegal or against the rules about any of this.  It is deceptive. It’s not an entirely honest method for garnering readership. I can’t really fault Locke for doing this. If I had five grand to toss out there and pay 500 people $10 to buy my $1 book and hopefully read it and then post a review for me, I might be tempted. Because the thing with books is that sales beget sales. As a reader, I might see this book I’ve never seen before, suddenly at #3 on the thriller list that I’ve never heard of before. I’ll check a few reviews and see that they’re almost all positive. For a buck? Hell, I’ll check it out. I might even like the book. Is anyone the worse for it? If you’re duped into trying something you like, is there a problem with that?

You could say it’s just another form of what publishers have practiced for years. Let’s face it, reviewers generally review because they love books and love to talk about them.  If you get in with a publisher and get free books form them to review on a regular basis, that kind of rocks. Will they keep sending them to you if you dis on them all the time? Well, no. It’s kind of a “be nice to us and we’ll be nice to you” sort of arrangement. Again, not a strictly dishonest approach, but it’s also rather deceptive. Works for the author, the publisher, and the reviewer, but it fails the reader.

As a reader, I don’ take kindly to being tricked, duped or deceived. I want only one thing in a review, and that’s honesty. Thoughtful honesty. Read the book and give an honest, informed opinion of the experience.  If you tell me you can get paid or get kickbacks or whatever (from a pub or author), and not have your opinion subtly shifted in the direction of a more favorable response, I’ll cry “bullshit.” Psychology of the brain doesn’t work that way. Your objectivity is skewed automatically by entering into such a relationship. There is no switching off that influence.

For me personally, I don’t pay much attention to reviews of books (other than my own of course). There’s no trust in a system that lacks any sort of transparency about where the opinion is coming from or why. When significant stories like this crop up, it only reinforces that opinion. I’d like to know reviews are honest, but I can’t. It really can’t behoove the industry to have general, public opinion about reviews be that they are pointless because people are being paid to give good ones. We authors rely to some degree on having reviews help us with discoverability. When someone doctor’s the books in order to gain advantage, it’s disappointing. Don’t game the system simply because you can. It’s not cool.

I don’t know that I would’ve ever bought any of Locke’s books, but knowing he used these methods to influence his success, he goes on the list of never buy or recommend that author. And on that note, Amazon? Fix your damn review system. There has to be a way to minimize the impact of this kind of behavior. Don’t let the joke of one of our major avenues to discovery continue. It’s embarrassing. And that goes for anyone else who solicits opinion in a manner that skews objectivity. Is honesty of process really that damn difficult to deal with?

Cloud Publishing-It’s Big Potential

Interesting post here by Mike Shatzkin (very smart publishing guy) on his blog related to a topic there’s going to be a conference on at the end of this month. It’s publishing in the cloud. For those of you who might be wondering, this is not a reference to the puffy masses of water vapor floating in the sky, but to the notion of having content centralized and accessible to all parties involved. For a book, this would mean my manuscript is located on a server somewhere outside of the publisher, and anyone involved in the process of putting the book together would then have access to it.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could be turned into a great thing for the future of publishing. For one, the ms never has to be moved. It’s always in one place, and anyone involved, from the editor to the publicist can tap into it at any time. Comments, questions, and feedback would be located in one spot. No more emailing around to various people to get needed information. It would streamline the production process ( how much I don’t know, but it would). This in turn would save time and money.

While great for publishing, I’m more excited by the prospects this would offer the writer. How fabulous would it be to have access to the workings of the book in progress? We could offer our own invaluable feedback through all aspects of the publishing process. Now, while it doesn’t mean our feedback would be used, the notion that we could be included in all of this and see the how/what/why of things getting done would be incredible. It could truly make the book a collaborative project. It almost makes me giddy to think about the potential.

Working in the cloud is an exploding industry right now. It offers huge benefits across the board for all kinds of work. Publishing tends to be slow to evolve with new tech, but I sincerely hope they are on the ball with this one. Even in self-publishing, I can see how this might become advantageous. A cloud-based freelance publishing network where a writer pays a fee to be hosted and then an editor, proofer, cover-artist, and formatter are signed on to work on it, taking their percentage of the fee. The author is there in the middle of it for the entire process, and the book ideally becomes a group project.

It’s going to happen, and it’s probably not too far down the road either. I’m looking forward to seeing how this all develops. Exciting stuff!

Are Minimum Author Contracts As Bad As They Seem?

Was reading through J.A. Konrath’s blog today (always good to inspire discussion and thought), as is usually the case, something was mentioned that inspired a “hmmm.” It isn’t anything new, in fact the subject has been mentioned many times before, regarding how many authors are bailing on poor to mediocre publishing contracts to go to self-publishing. Many more will do so in the future, with good reason I might add. Certain authors, in certain positions, find self-publishing a far more viable alternative to legacy publishing. This is a niche group of people in the world of writers. It takes certain things to fall into place for self-publishing to be effective. This is a good thing, mind you, and more power to them and their future success. What bothers me about it, is that they are used as the example for why everyone should self-publish (minus those are are already best-selling authors). Keep in mind here, that I’m speaking of fiction. Other types of books do not particularly lend themselves to self-publishing at this point in time in the industry. So, the question keeps coming up, “Why try for a legacy publisher when you will only get crap terms, and likely make little to no money?” You should just self-publish from the get go.

The fact is, most writers who self-publish will experience the same result, albeit in a much shorter time frame. Regardless of success or failure, self-publishing will always be a faster avenue to getting published and experiencing the results, whatever they might be. But, they say, “I can get my work out there quicker for people to see, and if it does well, I might actually get picked up by a big publisher anyway.” This saves me the wait/hassle of dealing with the enormous amount of time big publishers take to do things. This is the “farm team” concept of writing. I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad, but it is prevalent. This is the idea that you can work away for little or no money and with time/effort/patience, demonstrate your value to those who will be willing to pay you for your work. There are examples of this. A number of writers have built themselves to the point in self-publishing that a big publisher has taken interest in them. This is a good thing too. It’s yet another possible avenue for us writers to work with. Again, realize that the chances for success are very small. Part of the problem is that the big leagues just don’t have room for everyone who is good. They can’t afford it. They have to pick and choose. So, some are drawn from the ranks of the self-published, others are chosen from the slushpile, while others hook up with an agent to farm their value to the big boys.

The thing is, publishers have their own farm team. You can think of it like any draft in professional sports. Some prospects hold great appeal, their talent is obvious from the start, and they get chosen in those first rounds. They’ll invest in these people. They believe they have the highest potential. The further you go down in the rounds, the more chancy they believe the potential for success is. They get the contract minimum. They get a chance to prove themselves, but the odds are stacked against them. The publisher knows this, but they see something and are will to take a minimal risk on seeing it pan out. I was one of these low round picks. I didn’t get a lot of money, the investment was low on their part, and things didn’t work out as well as hoped for so they let me go. So, now I’m trying to see if another team will pick me up. Likely it’ll be for that player minimum type of contract. That’s the way the ballgame is played. You need perseverance and some luck. You get some benefits for playing with the farm team of the big leagues. You get editing, cover art, formatting, copy-editing, and the opportunity to work with professionals at little cost to yourself. You can decide to forgo the farm system and try it on your own. This costs if you want to give yourself a legit shot at the big leagues or find success on your own (see my previous post).

To say that the low end contracts are bullshit for writers (and yes, they are not great terms) and not worth one’s time, is a bit of a misnomer I believe. Outside of the niche authors in a good situation to say no, writers are really just forgoing one remote chance at success for another. So, while I can say I don’t like the “rookie” minimum contracts. It does get you in the game and give you a shot, which honestly, I don’t think is any worse than the shot one has trying it on one’s one, as far as chances for success are concerned. You’re trading control and potential income for needed services you don’t have to invest in on your own. Again, it comes down to what you are willing and able to do. How do the pros and cons fall for your particular situation as a writer? Just don’t turn your nose up at the minimum contract. You have to prove your worth and earn your spot in the starting lineup. It’s a system that allows for as many potentials to be brought on to the team as possible, and you are battling against all of those other low round picks to show your value to the team. If you prove success and still get the crap terms, well, then you have options open to you you didn’t have before.

Publishing costs, no matter how you do it

I’ve stated this before, but I am a big proponent of professional services when it comes to self-publishing. It is one of the reasons (among others) that I am still unwilling to pursue that avenue at this point in time. Given the current state of publishing, I strongly suspect I’ll head down that road before too long, but right now, I’m not. The reason for me is simple. I don’t have the resources to properly invest in it.

There are writers out there, many of whom have likely already made money selling their own work digitally, who will state that you don’t need to make this investment. They didn’t, and they’re making money. Likely, this is true. I don’t doubt it all actually. It is possible to put out a decent product without having your work professionally edited, copyedited, and to have a professional cover done. If you are happy with decent, and you’re making money doing it, then by all means, have at it and best of luck to you. I wish you every success.  For most, this success will not happen.

Why? Because the book fails to live up to certain standards put out there by readers. They expect a certain level of quality. If they get it, they’ll buy more. Happens in business all of the time. Do it right and people will keep coming back. Books are no different. Now, while professional resources will not do much for the actual talent of writing a great story, they will go a long way toward making what you do create, the best it can possibly be.  For me, this is and should be the minimum requirement for publishing a book. It should be the best possible book you can put out there to consumers. You owe it to yourself as a writer to do so. Self-publishing is a business. If you’re going to start a business, you should be willing and better be able to invest in it.

At a minimum, this requires three things: editing, copy-editing, and cover art. I did a bit of poking around just to verify my casual observance of costs to invest, and I came up with the following (relating to full length fiction manuscripts). Note that these are ballpark numbers to give an average idea of what we’re looking at here.

Editing: $1500-$2000

Copy-editing: $1000-1500

Cover art: $75-250

Formatting: $100-200

So, you’re looking at $2500-$3500 to invest in your work. This isn’t chump change. There are no guarantees of return on investment. Actually, there’s a good chance you won’t. A lot more goes into it than just putting out a good book, but that is the minimum of where you have to start.  You want to put out 3 books a year (which is a reasonably doable number)? You’re looking at $6-10,000. This is one major reason why writers with previously published backlists of books have a significant advantage in getting into self-publishing. If you’re just starting out, you’re looking at a big investment.

Self-publishing is a lot more than just slapping 80,000 words down on the computer and tossing it up on Amazon. Some think it’s little more than this. This group of writers will never be successful. If you’re lucky enough to know people in the industry who will cut you a break on such services, you’ve got a leg up. Fact is, the vast majority of writers out there do not have the needed skills in editing/copy-editing/cover art to do it on their own at a professional level. Some writers are good editors. If you are, then you might be able to save yourself some time and money, but good editing is tough to come by and to learn well on your own. Just because you can write a great story, doesn’t mean you’re a good editor. It’s nearly impossible to do your own copy-editing. It’s just too difficult to get the mental distance from your work to see all the errors.

So, if you want to do it right, if you want to make yourself look good from the start and give yourself a greater chance at success, be willing to invest. Save. I’m sure with some work you can find more cost-effective services from quality providers. It’ll still cost. If your work isn’t worth that, then save yourself a lot of headache and don’t do it. I’ll be saving and situating myself as best I can before I make that leap. It’s not any easier than traditional publishing. Anyone who has run their own business will tell you that, and never forget that self-publishing is actually a business that you are running. On your own.