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>The Young Man and The Sea

>I have a lot of memories of my father and I fishing. Now there is one important thing to note about this – we never, ever caught anything.

My father used to fish with his father, and my Dad had a some sentimental notion of how nice it was to sit and fish. The difference was my Grandad was actually someone who knew how to fish, and no doubt took Dad to his own secret spots at exactly the right time to catch something.

So when my Dad retired, he went and brought himself some fishing gear and together we went to the closest patch of water and threw in a line. Something wrong with this picture?

Well for a start there were no fish. Nothing wrong with that. The thing is we sat there, for hours and hours – with nothing biting or the bait being taken. Discouraging to say the least – and not all that inspiring to confidence either.

Its taken me all the decades between then and now to actually have the experience of getting a fish on the line. Thanks to my visit to Flinders Island and the experienced fishing guide Dave Freer. It’s a hell of buzz to get something, then reel that sucker in!

What has this to do with publishing? Well – I feel like my early fishing experience has kind of given me a bloody-mindedness that makes me slog away at something when I should be packing up the writing tackle and moving to another fishing spot! I have worked and re-worked material or sub and re-subbed to various markets that I should have just written off long ago.

If there is one thing I learned fishing – its that if the fish are not biting Move On!

So how do you decide where to sub material and when to give up on a market? When to give up on a project? Or better yet – how do you pick a likely fishing spot!

>Process and the Writer

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Like pretty much anyone who works in just about any kind of paid job, I get a lot of stuff about process, methodology, and of course “best practices”. At the same time, the posts here illustrate that for a writer, these concepts just flat don’t apply. It’s not that hard to understand: writing lives very firmly with the arts, and each piece a writer does is unique. The only place for process, methodology and best practices is with the middlemen who do the job of turning that work of art into a whole lot of identical widgets (i.e. books) by the magic of file copy and possibly the printing press.

Or is it?

Fiction tends to fit one of a very small number of templates (depending on who you ask, anything from three to twenty), so there’s a structure. Writers tend to fall into three broad camps – the plotters, the pantsers, and the plantsers. Each camp has similarities in how they work, and there are also similarities across the whole field: the general dictum that you have to plant butt in chair and write, the notion of setting targets for wordage, be they “something” or “five thousand words” or anywhere in between. (Would someone please pick up the fellow in the back? I think he fainted.) Writing routines are popular, too.

So is there a set of writing processes and practices that can help?

Actually, there’s probably several per writer – because while they can fit into some broad categories, they’re still going to change around a lot with each project. Or maybe not. Take two of mine (Please. I’ll say really nice things about you if you give me lots of money for them). Impaler had plot and structure on it imposed by the history I was working with. The piece I’m working on at the moment, Wether Fakawi Blues, is completely different in tone, structure and may be different enough to need a different name on the cover.

Both of them started with minimal outlining: I had about three to four pages for Impaler, and for Fakawi I had a previous piece (unsold) that’s getting ripped off and mostly recast, so the basic plot is more or less the same but a lot of the motivations, minor characters and so forth are changing around, and the final sequence is going to be nothing like the original. Both of them got “research on the fly” – which for Impaler was a heck of a lot more intense as I broke off what I was writing to go digging through my biographies of Vlad Draculea, Googling for old maps of eastern Europe and Turkey, and so forth – and both got written in the gaps between the rest of my life when I had a bit of brain to spare.

And both, as I got closer to any given scene, would get talked over with my first readers. I torment them with snippets, email them chapters as they’re done (Yes, they get to suffer through my raw, unedited first drafts. You see why I value them?), and discuss the next scene or next chapter with them. And that is my process, such as it is. It works for me. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

What are your writing processes? Is there a common thread to how you work through a book and get your plots sorted out, or does each book impose its own patterns on you?

>Taking It To the Streets

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Dave talked about how to promote ourselves. Well, my blog tour seems to have helped with my current books, at least looking at Amazon numbers, for what that is worth.

But I’m looking for ideas. I always am. When you’re a midlist writer in this economy, you have to do what you can and sometimes what you can’t.

So, I’m going to float some ideas and you guys can tell me what you’d like to see or not, and other ideas you might have.

Things that are right out – I’m NOT giving away my cats for promotion. I’m not giving away my kids for promotion. No naked pictures and no bikini pictures unless and until I lose another forty pounds.

Things I can do and have done:

Blog posts

Contests

Blogs for my characters

Give away stories/books

Have comics drawn for my books — like this one: http://fatallybored.deviantart.com/gallery/#Draw-One-in-the-Dark

The problem is that sooner or later my blog posts will offend everyone. It’s the type of opinions I have. Contests – there’s only so much I can give away. Blogs for my characters… that one is a doozy. I simply don’t know what they should write about. Particularly Athena. What the heck would you like her to write about?
For give away stories and books my problem is time to write them in addition to the paying properties. Oh, yeah, and printing the comics and distributing them gets expensive.

Other things I’ve considered:

Live chats/either typed or voice/with camera/not. Possibly with my fellow mad geniuses, and other special guests. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Chat” type of thing. And “Mad, Mad, Mad readings.” But also café klatches of sorts. Prime Crime has these with their authors the month before their books comes out – typed chat in chat room, only, but with interaction with readers and other writers.

Would anyone be interested in that sort of thing? It might be tricksy what with our antipodean members, but fun too.

Another thing is having virtual chat/signing, in which, after it’s done, we collect addresses and send off signed bookplates. (Of course, small bookstore owners encouraged to participate.)

Yet another thing is doing a webcomic about the writing life. I can draw enough for that, and it occurs to me it could be very funny.

Ideas? Comments? Suggestions? Remember we’re all more or less broke and overworked. But we’re willing. Very willing. 🙂

UPDATE: Just put up a free electronic collection of all my Elizabethan Era short stories, which include alternate history, mysteries, fantasy and… sigh… vampires. (yes, I am very sorry. You may kill me afterwards. http://tinyurl.com/2847dge)

>Teachers who inspire us!

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In Australia last weekend was a long weekend. I spent the Saturday at my daughter’s school (she’s a student teacher) helping her clean her classroom/office. She is a specialist music teacher so she gets a little office to teach her students in. It’s a lovely room, in that it has air conditioning and a new view of the oval. But it is boring with standard carpet, standard desk, standard windows and standard pale green painted walls.

So, once we’d cleaned it, we went to Spotlight (material and craft store) to do up the room. We bought pale blue chiffon for the windows. Rainbow chiffon to make a fabric rainbow, sparkly butterflies to put on the walls and curtains, stickers of birds and flowers for the walls and stick-on little green frogs to hide in corners and give the boy students a thrill. She rang me this evening to say that the kids loved the class room!

All this is leading up to how important teachers are. They can turn a fascinating subject into a chore or they can inspire us. When I was in school, every Friday afternoon we had to write a composition (essay). The teacher would give us a topic and we would write a story. I LOVED this and looked forward to Friday afternoons. No matter how staid and boring the topic, I always found a way to turn it into something interesting. Aliens taking over the world? Sure, why not? Kidnapped by a space ship? Sure, I can do that.

And every Monday I would get my marks back. Not one word about the story, just an irritated admonishment to spell the words correctly or I would never get anywhere in life, with a list of spelling words I had to write out ten times.

Contrary to my teachers’ warning, I went on to write and be published!

So did you have any teachers who inspired you to be creative?

>Favorite bookshops

>I remeber all to vividly that allure… that sheer voluptuous abundance, that could just never be mine. Oh how I desired it. Lusted for it… I am talking about a bookshop of course – as 21 year old South African staring into the wonder that was Forbidden Planet in London. There were more sf/fantasy books in that one store than in all of South Africa’s shops put together (at that time – back when your parents rode to work on their dinosaurs and businesses were pretty spiffy if they had a fax machine – half a shelf of sf books was a lot). And not only did they have books by all my favorite authors, but they had OLD books of theirs. And they had shop assistants who loved and knew SF. I was going climbing for 6 weeks in a small one man tent with my girlfriend Barbara. We had about as much spare space as there is in a church-mouse’s cheeks and were roughly as well-off as same church mouse (some things are a natural state of being, I guess). I still came out with 5 books – 3 of which I still have (movies have almost no retention time compared to books. The influence sphere of books goes on and on.) And they got wet and battered and re-read… and re-read.

I dreamed of going back there – It’s gone bust, been sold and retail isn’t what it used to be. Soulless chains full of other non-book garbage, shop assistants who can’t read, let alone have read my kind of books, or, possibly worse are English literature students at the local Uni scared of being tainted by ‘enjoyment’ in books. Backlist? What? Order? huh?. And out of this a chaos the internet bookstore was born – which has some positives but has played havoc with the independents. But there are still are some – Here’s an article a few in the UK http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/7598617/Britains-best-independent-bookshops.html

Which brings me to what I was going write about, as a sort of follow on to Dan’s post. Because at the end of the day we need some way of matching readers with writers… because basically, all of them from Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs to the CEO of McMillian are wrong. It’s actually not about price – or only minorly. It’s about volume. And volume only works when you match customer and product. And it’s no use having a book stashed somewhere in case the customer asks for it. The customer doesn’t know he wants that specific item – the customer actually has to make contact, pick it off the shelf, and like what he reads. There are what? 400 million? English first language speakers out there. And for at least half (the other half need ipods that say “breathe in-breath out” or they’d drop dead from suffocation) of them there is a book they will love, and hunt for anything else like it or written by the same author IF they find it. So… how come the entire publishing edifice is being maintained by maybe a million book a week or more regular readers? With the runaway bestsellers being maintained by the book a year people… who still at best are maybe 10-20 million. So it’s an industry that simply fails to serve 90% percent of its possible customer base at all, and in fact is only working in any semblance of ‘properly’ for about 0.5% of its capacity. At full volume, prices of books could reflect a tiny margin per book and still be profitable. Which loops back round to bookshops and how writers interface with readers… because without that interface the system becomes even more inefficient (hard to believe). We can do without publishers… but not without that interface. Now, the logical answer to making more money out of books, is not the agency model, or even gypping authors out of more of the tiny piece of cover price they get now. It’s increasing volume. And logically, the internet should make it possible. But it’s a vast sea and getting the right readers to FIND the right writers for them is very very difficult. At the moment, as I see it we’re reliant on bookstores (for the pick up and browse factor) and Amazon for the I know more-or-less what I am looking for match. Apple have come white-knighting to make sure publishers continue to dominate the access to retail.

So: favorite bookshops – what do they do right? And how do we match the reader writer. And what are the best options for alternative retail shop-windows?

>Sunday Round-Up

>I love this time of year. The trees are green. The grass is starting to grow. Wild flowers line the roadways. It’s not so hot the kids in the neighborhood have taken refuge inside with their video games. However, there is a downside to it as well. My allergies are running rampant and that means my brain has taken a vacation and left my body behind. So, no serious blog this morning. Instead, let’s take a quick trip across the blog-o-sphere and see what’s been going on.

If anyone doubts that e-books and e-readers such as the Kindle and iPad aren’t here to stay, this week should have convinced you otherwise. First, the Kindle showed up in the Crankshaft comic strip. Beginning on the 25th and running for several days, it showed the resident curmudgeon receiving and learning to use — and enjoy — his Kindle. The Kindle also shows up in the movie Date Night. Then there is this post from agent Kristen Nelson where she decides the tipping point for ebooks is very near, if not already here:

When I’ve got an older grandmother expressing unabashed enthusiasm in owning an eReader, I can’t help but think the tipping point is near—even if current electronic sales only equal about 2% of the market right now (statistic via a recent PW article). I think a lot of us assumed the older generation would be the luddites where this new technology is concerned but through my anecdotal experiences, I’m not finding that to be true…

So, what do you think? Are we reaching the tipping point? I have to think Agent Kristen is probably right and we are based on the interest I get whenever I have my Kindle out in public as well as the number of “sightings in the wild” of e-readers of all shapes and sizes and makes and models.

At Bookends, agent Jessica Faust posted that — gasp — agents want to represent books that will make money. “I’m in the business of selling books for my clients to make us all money. I agent because it’s my career. Sure, it has the added bonus of being something I love, but I also need to feed myself and keep a roof over my head. So criticize all you want, but the truth is that good agents will only represent books they think will make them money. That’s called a job.” You’d think that would be a given and be understood by everyone, especially writers. But no, all too often she — and other agents as well — receive responses to their rejections, accusing the agent of being in the business only to make money. My question is this, would you really want an agent who is in the business of representing authors who write books that will never sell, either to a publisher or to the buying public?

Caveat here: In the current market, agents are in as big a state of flux as writers are. Because no one knows what is going to happen in the industry over the next few years, fewer and fewer agents are taking on new projects. That includes projects being sent from current clients. As a result, it is even harder than it used to be to get an agent. That doesn’t necessarily mean your project is no good and won’t sell — and I keep telling myself this on a daily basis. What it means is that, right now, agents are taking fewer risks than they used to. If you doubt it, look at the number of agencies that have cut staff and the number of small agencies that have closed their doors the last two years.

Caveat #2: Just to show there are agents out there with a great attitude despite the gloom of the industry, check out this post from Lucienne Diver: [M] my process with this new work I’m so excited about went something like this:

“Darn, it’s really good. The writing is fabulous. Maybe just a few pages more.”

“I mean really, really good. Love the concept, love the characters. So intriguing.”

“Well, crap, I’m more than halfway though, I might as well finish. Yes, yes, I have a policy of not taking manuscripts with me on vacation, but I HAVE to finish this one.”

“What, the ending’s brilliant too? Okay, I’m screwed.” . . . I present this, in all its absolute honesty to say that no matter what gloom and doom you hear about the industry (and there’s been a lot within the past year or more), this is what happens when we love something. Oh, sure, some of us you don’t have to drag kicking and screaming to the alter. But when we really love something, there’s just no talking ourselves out of it. There will always be room for fantastic works.

What does that mean? Simple, if you get a rejection, look at what you sent and see if you made any glaring errors. See if there is something you need to do to make it that something special an agent is looking for. Then send it out again. Just because one agent, editor, whomever, didn’t like it, it doesn’t mean every one will. We’re writers. Rejection is part of the job. That’s why we have to be stubborn, persistent and always working to hone our craft.

Finally, here’s an interesting article about four danger signs to search for before sending out your manuscript. Go take a look and let me know what you think. The post is similar to others we’ve discussed in the past. What rules do you try to keep in mind when writing? Or, more importantly, what do you keep an eye out for in the editing process?

>Publishers On Notice

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The only time I’ve ever been involved in a car accident that left a car totalled, I was asleep. A drunk in a Corvette managed to slam into the back of my full-time 4WD Jeep Wagoneer while it was parked on the street at 3:00 AM, pushing it forward about twenty feet. As anyone with a full-time 4WD vehicle knows, this is no easy feat. One of my neighbors witnessed the whole thing, including our arrival on the scene in our bathrobes, and called the police, who arrived to find this drunk guy swearing up and down first that my car had backed into his car, then — when it became obvious even from cursory examination of the evidence that my car was parked at the time — that someone else had forced him off the road. My neighbor reported to the police that there was no other traffic at the time, and the police noted that the guy’s blood alcohol level was well beyond the legal limit, so I didn’t think there would be any problem.

Two weeks later, I got a call from the guy’s insurance agent, telling me they were no longer going to pay for my rental car. I pointed out that they still hadn’t paid me for my totalled car, and that my return of the rental car was dependent on that payment. They informed me that there was “still some question about whose insurance company would be liable for the payment,” as there was “still some question about the possibility of another vehicle that may have caused the collision.”

I was livid. I pointed out that the police report — the OFFICIAL source of information in this case — held no such question, as a reliable, impartial witness said there was no other traffic, and drunk, extremely partial drivers such as their client, were not typically well regarded for their veracity. I went on to tell them that it didn’t matter to me, in any case. Any way you looked at it, I was owed the totalled cost of my vehicle and it would be their company that paid me, regardless of what company ultimately bore the cost. If the insurance companies wanted to play “place the blame” and sue each other
for the costs, how did that concern me?

The drunk driver’s insurance company paid up.

The ongoing battle between publishers and retailers — notably Amazon, recently — reminds me of that insurance company. They seem to have lost sight of the fact that authors still need to get paid a fair amount.

Some time ago, it dawned on me that there’s a disconnect between authors and publishers regarding our words. We authors view the words we put down on paper to be the novel. Judging by the rapidly growing popularity of e-books, readers do, too. One would think that publishers would understand this, yet they seem to view the finished book as their product, one that includes only a minor contribution from the author. That product could be considered the sum of the following parts and services:

  • Words on the page (provided by the author)
  • Cover art (provided by an artist)
  • Saleable quotes (usually on the covers)
  • Excerpts (usually on the back or dust jacket flaps)
  • Author bio (optional; usually only for hardcovers)
  • Author picture (optional; usually on hardcovers of bestsellers)
  • Cover design (to ensure the artwork is pleasing to the consumer)
  • Editing (to ensure the author’s words are pleasing to the consumer)
  • Marketing (to help sales staff and retailers to sell the product to the consumer)
  • Distribution (to ensure the product is available to sell the product to the consumer)
  • Sales (to ensure the product is physically available for the consumer to buy

As you can see, those little words on the page are only a small part of the whole package, which is why publishers feel justified in generously granting a mere 6-8% of the revenue to the author of a mass market paperback novel.

To be fair, the way the system works is that an author gets paid an advance against royalties before the novel ever gets to the marketplace, available for consumers to buy. And the reality is that few authors these days (except mega-bestsellers) ever see a dime beyond that advance. Once upon a time, when publishers and retailers were on the same page, books remained on the shelves for a lot longer, which kept an author’s backlist of previously-released novels in print and available to the consumer. Sadly, it rarely works that way any more.

So, given that the author’s advance is realistically the only payment, the effective royalty rate is dependent on the number of sales. With e-books, that number is straightforward, since e-book sales are non-returnable. With print publishing, the product can be returned, so publishers try to account for that by holding back payment for a projected number of returns, which they call “reserves against returns.” What this means to the author is that it’s impossible to determine the actual number of copies sold until ALL copies are either sold or returned, the book goes out of print and there’s a final accounting. Until that happens, we can only estimate.

Last year, a New York Times bestselling author, Lynn Viehl, posted her royalty statements. I couldn’t find her third statement, for the period ending Nov 2009 (which is understandable, as they’re just now reaching authors), but the bottom line for her first two statements shows her estimated actual sales copies will be between 44K (net units shipped) and 65K (net units plus reserve, assuming no more returns). She earned $50K up front, and she doesn’t seem to expect any additional royalties beyond that (and her statements support that, which — at the risk of sounding conspiratorial — seems a bit suspicious) . If she’s right, her effective royalty rate on her $8 mass market paperback will be between roughly 10% ($50K/65K/$8) and 14% ($50K/44K/$8).

Compare this to Amazon’s current 35% effective royalty rate. If an author with Lynn’s numbers were to sell her new e-book at $5, she would only have to sell about 29K to earn $50K. With Amazon’s new 70% option, starting at the end of June, the author would need to sell less than 15K copies to earn $50K. That’s roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the paperback audience. Is it reasonable to expect the author to reach that audience and entice them to buy her new e-book? For an established author, it’s possible, and the fact that there’s no time limit for offering the e-book makes it extremely likely.

Which brings us to the midlist author, a species which has gone by the wayside under the current print publishing model. Advances I’ve read about recently for a solid midlist author are more like $15K, with net sales of 15K — about a third of Lynn’s numbers, which means established midlist authors only need to sell 5K e-books under the new Amazon model to earn as much as from a traditional print publisher, and they can offer the e-book to the consumer for less.

Remember that list of the parts and services going into a novel? For a midlist author these days, the publisher has been asking (and sometimes requiring
in the contract) that the author provide or perform nearly every item on that list, excepting only the cover art and design and distribution. What added value does the print publisher offer, then? Cover art? For an established author, is that really worth the difference in royalty rates?

Think about it. As an author, which is more attractive: 5K sales to net $15K, or 15K sales to net $15K? As a reader, which is more attractive: $5 for an e-book, or $8 for an e-book?

Publishers, consider yourself on notice. Shape up or ship out. It’s your choice. And stop drinking behind the wheel of your Corvette.