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One Year Later

By  Amanda S. Green

I’m going to start off by admitting that I’ve been hard-pressed trying to figure out what to blog about today.  I’ve been working on a series of posts about the changing role of agents for more than a month.  Every time I think I’m ready to go with it, something happens that makes me go back and re-examine my premise.  So, part of me wants to continue the discussion started with Sarah’s series of posts.  Another part says not to.  For one thing, Sarah is out of town and I don’t know how things stand right now in her situation.  Because of that, I don’t want to do anything that might exacerbate her situation.  So, I’m going to do something I don’t often do.  I’m going to step back from a topic a feel very strongly about.

That brings up the question of what to write about.  I’ve started and erased at least four times so far this morning.  But there is one thing on my mind besides the agent as publisher/whatever issue and that’s the fact that it’s been almost a year since NRP first offered titles for sale.  So, bear with me as I try to get my thoughts in order.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been as busy writing as I have been with Naked Reader Press work.  Which means sleep has been a rare commodity.  Not that I’m complaining.  I knew when I took the job with NRP that this first year would be very focused on doing all I could to help the company get off the ground.  To say we’ve done much more than I dared hope a year ago is an understatement.  But it isn’t what those of us behind the scenes have done that’s been the reason for our success.  No, that success lies solely at the feet of our readers and our authors.  So, to each and every one of you, thank you.

One thing I’ve learned this year is that I have to keep an ear to the ground and pay attention to what readers are asking for.  It used to be when an author asked if they should write a book like Harry Potter or Twilight or The Da Vinci Code or whatever the hot book of the month was, they were told that might not be a good idea because of how long it took for a novel to go from manuscript to being on the shelves of a bookstore.  Years could pass from the time you finished that last edit and started submitting the book before it was published.  So that hot trend could be long cold.

That isn’t exactly the case any longer.  An author who self-publishes can put his book up for sale almost as soon as he types the last word.  I wouldn’t recommend this.  Every book, I don’t care who the author is, needs editing.  It needs to go through beta readers or a critique group.  Good cover art needs to be found because, no matter what you’ve heard, people do look at the cover of e-books and make a lot of judgments based on that cover.

That said, whether you go through editing and crit groups or if you go through a micro-publisher like NRP, the delay between writing and publication can be as little as months instead of years.  So that trend might still be hot…or it may be cooling.  So the best advice is to put your own special spin on the trend.  Make it yours.  Make it special.  Don’t just change the names and places.  Give the readers something to make them want to read not just that book but other things you’ve written.  In other words, you want them to say, “Oh, John Doe wrote [insert title here].  It was a great book,” not “Oh, John Doe.  He wrote that book that was like [insert best seller title here].”

This is especially true if you aren’t going the self-publishing route.  I have seen slush submissions that were nothing more than cookie cutter imitations of movies or other books.  If I can identify the source material before the end of the first page, well, that’s not good.  Fortunately, those have been in the minority.  The thing to remember is that if you wrote something as fan fic and just changed the names and places before submitting it to a publisher, there’s a good chance it isn’t going to fly.  Luke Skywalker is still Luke Skywalker even if you change his name to Puke Skyfaller and have him wear a white cloak and black desert clothes instead of the white desert clothes he wore in the original Star Wars movie.

So, does this mean you can’t write a space opera about a boy who follows a stranger who might be a hero or who might just be a mad man?  Of course not.  But it means you shouldn’t write it in such a way it follows plot point by plot point a movie millions are familiar with.

An excellent example, in my opinion, of taking a well-known story and putting your own spin on it is Kate Paulk’s novel, Impaler.  Most everyone is familiar with the Dracula legend.  Most have at least a passing familiarity with the theory that Dracula was based on Vlad Tepes, who ruled part of what is now Romania with an iron hand and who gained his nick-name of Impaler by impaling his victims, often alive.  Vlad/Dracula has been painted as one of the worst villains in history, especially after Bram Stroker’s novel was published more than 100 years ago.  I thought I’d read every possible take on the legend until Kate started sending me snippets of Impaler as she wrote it.  I knew when I went to work for NRP that I wanted Impaler for our catalog.  Why?  Because it was so different.  Kate stayed as historically accurate as she could within a fictional context and yet she made Vlad Tepes someone the reader could identify with if not exactly sympathize with.  Her take on “the curse” is very different from anything I’d read before.  In short, she took something familiar and made it her own.

Another example is A Touch of Night by Sarah A. Hoyt and Sofie Skapski.  I doubt there’s a person in this country who went through public junior high or high school who wasn’t forced to read Pride and Prejudice.  How many of us have rushed to the bookstore — or Amazon — to find Cliff notes for the book?  Yes, it’s a classic.  Yes, I can appreciate the book now.  But in high school I was much more interested in reading Heinlein and Tolkien than I was British drawing room novels.  But A Touch of Night is such a wonderfully fun take on P&P that there was no way I couldn’t love it.  After all, Sarah and Sofie stuck to the basic plot of the original but added shape-shifters.  More than that, the animals the characters shift into fit their personalities, they make sense.  Who could ask for more?

So my advice is this.  If you have a story you want to write, write it.  But make sure it has your voice, your spin.  If it is well-written and edited, if it has a plot that compels the reader and characters the reader can cheer for — or boo if that’s what is needed — then you’ll find your market.  You might not get rich, few of us do, but with a little work and lots of luck, you’ll find readers and they will talk about your book and that, my friends, will bring in more readers.

Writing is a crap shoot at best.  But the odds are now more in the writer’s favor than ever before.  Small and micro presses as well as new avenues of self-publishing are working in our favor.  So, butt in chair and write.

The Big Tabloid Divorce

So, here I was, trying to explain the reason I’m unagented, so that I wouldn’t have to answer a bunch of questions at Worldcon, and so that rumors couldn’t circulate that turned this into the big Hollywood divorce.

Can you say “misfire”? Sure, I knew you could. All that’s lacking now to complete this circus is for me to be caught with a blond in a skimpy bikini (and wouldn’t his chest hair look funny poking out of the top) and for Lucienne to be caught with an heavily tattooed contract (No? Are you sure?) and the farce will be complete.

Ah, well, as we know these Hollywood breakups usually are great publicity for both parties. Let’s hope that’s true this time. Lucienne and I deserve it.

I’ve been writing blog posts online for well nigh on ten years, most of them under various noms de blog, and something that I’ve found out is that there is absolutely no way to state something so clearly that someone, somewhere doesn’t take offense. If I wrote a blog post which in its entirety is “Kittens are adorable and cute” someone will email saying I hate dogs, and next thing you know, twitter will be a-twitter with rumors that I am into kitten white-slavery.

Even with all that, I was surprised at the storm in a teacup created by my VERY personal explanation as to why I’d chosen to go unagented for the first time in my career.

I thought I made it fairly clear to all and sundry that I’m not quitting this agenting relationship because I think Lucienne is a bad agent or in any way crooked. On the contrary, I explained up front that Lucienne is a great agent, the best I ever had, and that she is also a fine author. As for the Knight Agency, all the contact I’ve had with them is through Lucienne, save for a party at RWA three (?) years ago.

Not only didn’t I mean to say or imply anything that would hurt Lucienne’s or Knight’s reputation, but I believe – and have told several friends looking for representation – that if you absolutely must go with an agent (and right now, as my post makes clear I wouldn’t) then Lucienne should be your first choice.

Yes, I did say that Knight had become a publisher as well as an agency – I confess that was based on my interpretation of their letter and that some parts of it still lead me to think that they’re treading too close to that line. However, Lucienne is an honorable professional and she says that’s not what they’re doing so I’ll take her word for it. Below I will post their letter (not breaking confidentiality, both Lucienne and her agency have posted it on their blogs already) with notes on which parts led me astray. I will freely admit I might have made a leap of reasoning on that, but it is part of how my mind works to try to figure out how these things would work out contractually and also – as a science fiction author who was taught early not to call a rabbit a schmerp – to strip away semantics and try to understand the essence of something. Again, since there was no sample contract attached to the letter, it’s entirely possible I went one leap of reasoning too far. If so I apologize. I really, really, really am not a kitten white-slaver.

For that matter, my entire post was based on my interpretation of where the field is. I just re-read it and I seem to state several times that I’m working without a net and taking a leap based on my impressions of the field just now.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve posted several times – starting circa January – on the direction of the field and the demise of the gatekeepers.

Having taken the rather momentous step of going unagented, I intended this post as another point in that discussion. I did not view it and still do not view it as an attack on Knight. For that matter, if they had become publishers, I would not view that as something bad necessarily (I love two of my publishers) but only as something that is bad for me right now.

When I saw Lucienne’s email and comment this morning, I was going to be satisfied with simply reiterating the fact that nothing I said in the post on Wednesday was meant to reflect negatively on either Lucienne Diver or The Knight Agency. However, as I sat at my desk, still naked and about to miss my ride to the undisclosed location I call office-ish, a phone call came in threatening me with legal action. Now I learn that Deidre Knight tweeted “So, the blog by @SarahAHoyt stating that we are publishers is fully inaccurate and dangerously misleading.”

So I put up Lucienne’s email to me – yeah, I shouldn’t have labeled my comments as PS, which is confusing, but I was sleepy and trying to get dressed – and said I’d deal with it more fully this evening. So, now I am.

Once more with footnotes – if I had been dissatisfied with the KNIGHT AGENCY or LUCIENNE, or if the post had been about THEM at all, it would have been called “why I’m changing agents” not “why I am unagented.” They were not the main subject of the blog, nor the main focus. Part of the problem seems to be they THINK they are, and so agglutinate comments on agencies and the agency business in general with my passing remarks about what I understood their venture to be.

It is clear from e-mails, tweets and the phone call I received (more on that later) that my thought process and generalizations of the changes in the industry were “misunderstood” by some. So, let me clarify even further.

First, I reiterate what I said in my post and in comments later. Lucienne is the best agent I ever had and she is a very talented author. Nothing I said in the post was meant to do harm to or reflect negatively on her or on the Knight Agency.

With that said, in the original post, one of the first things I said was that the post was “to explain my reasoning” in coming to the decision that it was time to go without an agent. My reasoning and my deductions were based on communications from the Knight Agency as well as others in the field.

When I said “they’ve started their own digital publisher”, I said what it appeared to be true from my understanding of an email. The phrase used in that email was and “assisted self-publishing initiative”. However, several questions were raised that led me to believe they were entering the digital publishing arena. I presume this conclusion was wrong, since they posted the letter and don’t seem to think their words are in contradiction with their statements that they’re not becoming a publisher. Since these are people used to dealing with the exact language of contracts, it must be my understanding that was at fault. I apologize for that fault – But, as I said, the original post was to explain my reasoning, nothing more.

Apparently exception is being taken to comments made several paragraphs below the one referenced. In that paragraph, I noted the following: “First, they’re not transitioning. They’re remaining agents and charging you for the privilege of selling to themselves”. However, I was not referring to the Knight Agency or anyone associated with that agency as is clear when the paragraph is read in context. In the preceding paragraph, I said “I know I’ve said here in the past that this was the logical next step in digital publishing. Agencies already sift through slush. They already promote their writers, to greater or lesser extent. So, why not transition?” Clearly, I am discussing agencies in general and not The Knight Agency in particular.

Later in that same paragraph, I refer to the fact that agencies are loading the deals with upfront costs. Again, in context, it should be obvious that I am speaking in generalities and trying to figure out what a viable agency model will be in the future and not speaking about the Knight agency in particular.

I appreciate the fact Lucienne responded this morning to the post. It is good to know that my faith in her had not been misplaced. However, I still have issues with literary agencies that are supposed to be trying to sell any author’s work to publishers entering any sort of publication role, whether it is as a publisher or as part of an “assisted self-publishing” format. While I do not believe there would be any malfeasance on the part of Lucienne or the agency, it is still too close to a conflict of interest for my liking. (For more on possible conflicts of interest, see here.  Also here.  (That is how I feel and should not be taken as anything more than what it is – I’m uncomfortable with this new role and so, instead of having it strain my relationship with Lucienne and impact how we would work together, because I value her as a colleague, I decided to exit the professional relationship. (As you can see that has worked wonderfully, which should encourage you to take my advice whenever you can, of course.)

Also in response to Lucienne’s comment posted to the original entry, I am glad to know they still believe in the viability of traditional publishing. THAT comment, again, was in generalities. However, having talked to other authors, agents and editors over the last few months, it is clear to me that there are those in the agenting field who do believe traditional publishing is done for. There are some in the traditional publishing field as well who believe this, though I have that information at a remove (or several different removes, since this has come at me through several colleagues) and am therefore not going to pass on particulars. Hence my comment.

If I haven’t said it enough (have I said it enough?) I do want to assure Lucienne, and The Knight Agency, that nothing I said was intended in any way to damage their reputations. In her letter that I posted to this blog earlier today, Lucienne concluded by saying ” I’m very disappointed that you’ve said something very publicly that I feel damages my reputation and that of the agency. I do hope you will print a retraction. ” While I don’t feel anything I said in the post did this, I hope this new post clarifies that position. I don’t want to damage Lucienne’s reputation. I like her as a professional and as a woman and writing that letter terminating our relationship was one of the hardest, if not the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. (And this blog thing is probably second.)

However, I must comment here about the phone call from the agency which I mentioned earlier. Instead of giving me time to read and respond Lucienne’s comment and e-mail, I was threatened with a law suit. Now, those of you who have read my blog for a while, or even my books, know this is entirely the wrong way to handle me. (I don’t kow tow to bullying.) It is also a bit puerile.

Saying that someone has become an epublisher might be wrong – I’d have been QUITE happy to have posted Lucienne’s clarification of this and hers and Knight’s response, since I have no malice toward either of them. In fact, I was considering how to ask Lucienne for a short statement to insert in my blog (Look, morning, no caffeine, words hard. Particularly when words relate to a misunderstanding I didn’t think could exist.) I suppose someone forgot I live in Mountain time and while I get up at six in the morning, I don’t sit at the computer till eight or later. In fact, in days I go to office-ish, I often don’t see it till the evening. It was a minor miracle I saw that email at all. But apparently, two days after being up that post had become an all-fired emergency that required threatening me.

Be that as it may, last I checked, calling someone a publisher was neither an insult nor a libel. Heck, my favorite publisher has it put on her name tag at conventions. So it would be REALLY hard to make that stick. As is to make the idea that I perceive a conflict of interest as being a problem into a libel. It would be fairly hard to make it stick in any case when speaking of a post that labels itself as my reasoning process – i.e. my opinion.

And worst case scenario, if they managed to make it stick – Guys, I’ve talked about my financial situation before as relates to payments due and also to whatever insanity is going on in the field. And ALSO to two sons in college (note when I reference the field I do not mean The Knight Agency. I know these things can be hard to remember, but I refuse to label all my posts from here on out... I know, this is a hard thing… Just try to remember ’kay?) In the unlikely event they would bring a lawsuit and make it stick, the sentence “you can’t get blood from a stone” applies, and pretty much all I have to spare plus a bit more goes to the IRS.

Of course, a lawsuit would be great publicity. However, frankly, I prefer to write than to engage in publicity stunts. Which is why I’m rather tired of this Hollywood divorce thing, too. Guys, I am not that important to deserve that kind of attention. Just an obscure writer with an obscure blog. Go back to more productive work and let me get back to mine.

So, is The Knight Agency becoming a publisher? According to them, no. I’ll leave it at that. Did I mean to impugn their character? Absolutely not. Do I agree with the path they are taking? No. Does this mean I think everyone should run madly away from them? Positively not.

I was simply explaining my own reasons – and reasoning – for taking the action I did. And everyone informing me by various means that I’m wrong and the Knight Agency is the way to Win The Future or whatever it was, please note I made it a point of saying that making predictions is hard, particularly about the future. While my decisions often cause friends, acquaintances and passing strangers to say “WTF” I don’t think this is what they mean at all.

If you are happy and confident in your going with Knight’s offer, or ignoring it, but continuing to use TKA for your representation, then DO SO. I don’t feel either comfortable or confident, so I’m not doing so. In fact, I think the way the industry is going, I feel better and more confident pursuing opportunities that are hard to do with an agency, including co-op and micro publishing, as I’ve mentioned. Your mileage not only CAN but WILL vary.

Yes, as in all good Hollywood Divorces, while this marriage could not be saved, due to the party of the first part having decided the concept of agency is outdated, the relationship would have been fine with better communication and if someone hadn’t tried to scare someone else with a lawyer. As is… (Waggles hand) I hope all parties involved can find a way to dismount from the soap box and shake hands and be friends, if not now at some future point.

Below is the letter from Knight with my comments in bold below the sentences that misled me. Once more, Lucienne says that I was wrong, and Lucienne is an honorable agent, so I accept that I was wrong. But I do not aknowledge their right to try to intimidate me. Now or ever.

 

Dear Authors:

As you know, The Knight Agency has been working on a very exciting assisted self-publishing initiative that will aid authors in digitally republishing backlist titles, as well as allow clients to publish select front list titles which the author and agency will hand-pick together.  For example, clients and agents may select novels, collections, or shorts that mainstream publishers may not consider remunerative enough for acquisition, or that the authors and agents believe would be better served by our sleek new system, which will allow us to monitor and act quickly in terms of pricing, promotion, bundling, etc.

I admit here, I said in the blog they “started their own digital publisher”. They call it an “assisted self-publishing initiative.” One of my issues with this is that there can be the appearance that the agent – be it someone from Knight or any other agency entering into this sort of venture – might not put as much work into placing a title with a legacy publisher now that there is another alternative that the agency has a large amount of control over. I’m not saying it would happen. I’m saying there is the appearance that it could and that is something I don’t choose to be part of.

We’ll be taking our standard agency commission of fifteen percent (15%), absorbing all costs except those associated with copy editing. As always in our work as your agents, our objective is to allow you as the author to focus on what you do best, which is writing the most wonderful books possible while we take the time-consuming and tedious business elements off your shoulders. For our fifteen percent commission, we will provide self-publishing assistance in the following areas:

Okay, this was the crux of my problem. They don’t tell me they’re taking the 15% fee to cover the costs, they tell me it is their “standard agency commission.” I am a simple woman who reads these things far too literally, perhaps. “Agency commission, as far as I’m concerned means that they are taking a commission for selling the book. But to whom are they selling the book? Well… to the public. What does a publisher do? A publisher absorbs all costs, cover, etc, then sells the book to the public to recoup those costs and make a profit. Oh, hey, I’m going to be the first to say that 15% is a great deal in relation to what publishers offer. And if that contract has a firm termination date, it might even be a great deal overall. (As someone has noted on a blog, the costs associated with processing a book are arout $300. $1k if you go fancy. While for most small publishers publishing most authors the cost might well never be recouped even at a much larger percentage, the author has to ask himself how much he hopes to earn over the lifetime of the book. Income compounds, see. Suppose your book earns $200 this year but $1k next year and $10k the next… how good the deal is depends on how good your income is. I’m going to say – not just about the Knight Agency’s deal, but about the entire field that an author should insist on any epublishing contract coming with either a termination or a cancel at will after x time.) For all I know the Knight Agency does this. (According to Lucienne, it’s a 2 year term.) I haven’t seen a contract. This is merely a side note for those unfamiliar with digital publishing.

Meanwhile and for the record, the 15% means the agency has to collect it before forwarding the rest to the author, right? Which again is a function of publishers. Again, they say they’re not publishers and I believe it, but do you see the source of my confusion, and the source of my remaining discomfort? I’m perfectly willing to believe it drinks ammonia and eats arsenic, but I hate the fact that this schmerp looks like a bunny, okay? I would never trust it not to dig up the backyard. This is my paranoia and not meant to dispute the opinion of experts.

 

Content editing – the agents will act, as we regularly do, as editors, reading material and offering suggestions for revision.

Line and copyeditor referrals – since none of us are copyeditors ourselves, we’re creating a database of quality freelance editors who can provide line and copyediting services.

 

ISBN Number assignment – we’ll take care of the cost and work of getting an ISBN assigned to your work. Not all venues require an ISBN, but many do, and of course you’ll want the widest possible distribution for your work.

 

My first thought here, after realizing it doesn’t take much time at all to acquire and assign an ISBN, was is there going to be language on the front page of the e-book tying the publication to TKA? If they’re not a publisher, I assume it’s not. On the other hand for the widest distribution some sort of aggregation of titles is often needed, so this statement worried me.  Wouldn’t they need an ISBN that lists them as publisher to take advantage of the aggregation?

Copyright registration – in the event that a book is backlisted, this may already be taken care of, but if a work predates automatic extension or is a new work that requires initial registration, we’ll have it covered and absorb the cost.

Cover copy – although previously published titles will have cover copy, it will be proprietary to the publisher of that edition, and new copy will have to be written. We’ll handle writing or provide feedback on author-written copy.

Does the agency have final word on cover copy? It is unclear from this provision, especially since it says they will handle writing the cover copy if there is no author-written copy.

 

 

 

Cover design and consultation – we’re well aware that it takes good, professional quality covers to indicate high quality works, and can handle cover design in consultation with the author.

This is one of those areas where I wondered if this would be “expensed” back. Since no sample contract was included with this letter, I couldn’t check there. Other questions that arose were along the line of where was the art coming from and how much decision power would the author have if they left cover design to TKA? If TKA is paying for the cover, would they let an author pick a more expensive artist? If not, why not? WHY is TKA paying for the cover if they’re not a publisher? Do you see how confusing this is?

File conversions to ePub and mobi – this is where a good deal of the work comes in, and it’s something we’re equipped to handle.

This is a wonderful statement, but since this is a new venture for them, I couldn’t help wondering if they were doing the conversion in-house or if they were shopping it out. Also, there is nothing here about whether DRM would be applied, or recommended. If DRM is not applied or recommended, the going rate for this seems to be around $200 to $300, so “a good deal of work comes in” seemed a bit odd.

Uploading files to major retailers – there are many places self-published authors can’t reach on their own, but we’re establishing relationships with e-tailers to make works widely available.

Such as? I will believe they are only assisting self publishers and that they are not a publisher, but since etailers make these relationships with PUBLISHERS, you can see, again, where it left me confused.

 

 

 

Dynamic pricing – as mentioned above, we’ll have detailed pricing plans and will be able to move quickly to change pricing to build sales momentum.

This clause concerned me because it implies, at least to me, that TKA will be in control of pricing. If that is the case, that brings them, again in my mind, very close to the line of becoming a publisher.

Metadata – the agents, in conjunction with the authors, will develop a list of key phrases to serve as tags to increase title visibility on various retailer sites and search engines.

Search engine optimization — When promoting e-book titles, TKA will employ the latest techniques in SEO to maximize search rank visibility

Marketing plan – one of the advantages to the assisted self-publishing program is that The Knight Agency will help promote the works in various formats, including a digital newsletter, a new digital showcase area on KnightAgency.net, on Twitter, in blogs, etc.

Subsidiary rights – as with all titles we represent, we’ll work on the subrights for these books, including film, foreign, audio, etc. at our standard commission rates.

Royalty tracking and payments—collecting and tracking revenue with a variety of digital outlets will require vigilance. If any problems arise, authors will have TKA as their advocates.

Having talked with a number of authors who have gone the indie route, as well as with small e-press publishers, the major platforms open to e-publishing are quite easy to monitor. Also, my thought here is that it still adds a layer of delay in the reporting. Instead of getting the reports directly from the e-tailer, it will go through the agency and then later to me. While this is normal between a publisher, an agent and author, if you remove the publisher, the agent is reporting on my sales to the public, which IS what the publisher does. Another source of my confusion.

 

 

 

Oversight of existing contracts and obligations—non-compete and option clause language will become even more important in existing print contracts. TKA will have full career oversight, making sure that authors are covered and clear to enter into digital self-pub arrangements.

So can my attorney and honestly, my current one doesn’t charge me in perpetuity for the life of the contract. This is not intended as a comment on TKA in particular but on all agencies. When it comes to midlisters, full career oversight is often somewhat less than exciting, from what I hear.

Down the road, TKA has long-range plans to help clients arrange for print publication of these titles via print-on-demand or other avenues.

We’re developing a simple agreement that states our terms in writing so that our responsibilities and yours are clear. We have our first wave of titles in the works and anticipate launching the first books in September.  Please let us know if you have any material you’d like to discuss putting into this program and also, of course, if you have any questions.

This letter was received on the 20th of this month. No, I didn’t send questions because on the 20th all it elicited was a sinking feeling that I would have to break the relationship. I’d been suspecting for some time that going unagented was the best for me. The letter just made it real. Should I have sent questions? No. As I’ve said before, I thought that I was better off unagented. The British galleons versus the Spanish Armada in historical terms – the smaller, lighter vessel moves fast in stormy waters. And publishing waters are frankly roiling, just now.

All the Best,

Deidre, Judson, Pamela, Elaine, Nephele, Lucienne, Melissa, Jia and Jamie

Of those above, I’ve had contact with Lucienne and Jia, both of whom I recommend heartily as professionals, should you decide you need an agency. I think that this is the very first time Deidre mentioned me in her tweets in the two? Three? Years with the agency, so hey, the Hollywood divorce was good for something. Frankly, I thought I was too far below her notice to matter, and I’m immensely chuffed that I’m not.

 Meanwhile, for the people who read my blog before the tabloids came by to snap flashes in my face, you’ll be (I hope) glad to know that I finished Darkship Renegade. I’m entering changes and edits right now and hope to send it to “beta readers” tomorrow morning. After that I intend to go on vacation for three days, so, if any of you intends to sue me (hey, maybe the settlement will give you my debts!) or send me email threats for me, my children or my cats, please hold your fire till Monday. I’ll be out of internet reach till then.

* I’m crossposting this at  According To Hoyt Classical Values and Mad Genius Club, we due apologies to my fellow MGC authors for stomping a bit on Chris’ McMahon’s post and tomorrow’s poster. It simply seemed important this be on all those venues.*

The Amazing Ever-Changing Yardstick!

by Chris McMahon

Since I have been struggling for writing output this year due to a number of life challenges, I have been thinking a lot about judging what I do produce. The most common way to judge progress is to look at the word count, but this can be very misleading.

For example, if you take two hours to write 500 words, you might immediately assume this is not that great. But what if you take half-an-hour to write the same word count, yet have to redraft this five times? What if those words represent a departure to the plot? Or take the character out of the arc you originally imagined? You might spent hours on those 500 words only to discard them later.

This is where I started thinking about the issue of quality. How do you judge it? This is where the Amazing Ever-Changing Yardstick comes in. What is right for your story? Your market? How does it match the sort of work that is produced by the publishers you are aiming at?

The same piece of work can attract almost diametrically opposite reviews. If reviewer A (who hated your book) was the editor you subbed to, your manuscript is in the bin. If reviewer B (who loved it) was the editor who read it you are the next golden child.

Being a strong advocate of banging my head against brick walls, I tried sending work to one particular editor for years before I realized there was a reason I did not like anything that house published. There was just a complete miss-match there. No meeting of minds was ever going to happen.

I spent years going to critique groups before I realized that I really should not have listened to almost everything I was told. Anyone can have an opinion on your work – but is it right? Is it right for your work? It’s rare to find writers who really understand your story and ‘get’ where you are coming from. And after all –they are not the editor who could be buying it. One thing is for certain – anything that shuts you down creatively and stops you from getting your first draft down is BAD BAD BAD!

So what I am saying? I guess that in the end you need to be the judge of your own work – and to be extremely cautious about what criticism you seek out – and what you choose to act on. The creative impetus is king – let it drive you where it will.

How do you judge the quality of your work?

The Writer’s Toolbox – marketing and other horrors

Kate Paulk

Like Sarah said yesterday, things are changing, and changing bloody fast. If you blink you’ve missed an entire shift in the way books are happening – or at least it feels that way.

One change that I suspect will be with us for a long, long time – if it really is a change – is that we writers won’t have the luxury of just writing. Editing and proofing has been getting less… well… edited and proofed. The kind of editor who would do the clever nip and tuck and build a writer’s skills has gone with either the dinosaurs or the dodo, and even the copyediting isn’t doing too much in the way of proofing – with sometimes interesting results. We could, if we’re earning enough, hire someone to do this for us. There are editors for hire who do very good jobs – go visit Kris Rusch’s site for more information about that aspect of things. Writers tend not to be too good at editing their own work: it’s far too easy to see what you thought you wrote instead of what actually ended up on the page.  That’s actually the easy bit.

Marketing is probably the one task that gives more writers the horrors than anything else, and yeah, I’m one of them. Face to face, I’m about as introverted as it’s possible to get without becoming my own personal singularity (I’m actually not joking, here – on the Myers-Briggs test, which I’ve done multiple times for various reasons, I always score 100% Introverted. Always.). Worse, the idea of telling people – strangers – how wonderful my stuff is makes me want to crawl under my desk and stay there until doomsday. Besides, when someone tells me how wonderful their stuff is, I want to run the other way. Those relentless self-promoters who find a way to weasel every conversation to how wonderful they are and look, their latest book has an off-hand remark about that very thing are just… Suffice to say my opinion of that is not fit for any kind of society, no matter how low.

This is just as well, because it doesn’t work.

Yup. Advertising – either pushing yourself or being pushed by an ad campaign – is one of the worst ways to get your books into other people’s hot little hands and get them handing over their nice shiny bits’n’bytes (the modern substitute for cash). The best, and consistently the best, is word of mouth.

Okay, I can see someone scratching their head and thinking “But aren’t they the same thing?”. Nope. Word of mouth is your friend telling you how much she loved Dave Freer’s latest book, and here, why don’t you borrow it, because it’s got a dog in it, and a dragon, and you like dogs and dragons. It’s als0 slow, because the books have to be available for a while before there are enough  people out there who have read them to tell their friends about them.

There are ways – reliable, at least for me – to speed things up a bit, and that’s where I’m aiming at. Don’t worry if the thought of doing any of this is like fingernails on a blackboard. What works best for each person is different, but the basic principle is the same: you build a reputation of sorts as an interesting/fun/entertaining person.

Some people can do this by twittering away all over the place. Others blog about all sorts of things. I can’t really do either of those well, although I try to blog regularly and push to facebook and twitter in the vague hope that I’ll catch someone’s interest. What has worked for me, consistently, is going to conventions and (cue dramatic shudder) talking to people. For me it’s an effort – but as those of you who’ve seen me “switched on” might have noticed, if the topic hits any of my many interests, I can babble on for ages, and I have a weird sense of humor that people seem to enjoy. What I do is follow a few simple rules.

When I’m at a convention, if I’m not in my hotel room, I’m “on duty” – I’m “the Author”, even when it’s a pure fun con like the Discworld convention this year. I still dress “author” (I have a set of author clothes that don’t get worn except for cons), I don’t leave the hotel room without the full war paint and hair styling, and – most important of all – I carry bookmarks of my novel (this will of course be novels once I have more than one out), and conversation starters. My current starter piece is a simple badge. I hang the con membership off it, so attention is drawn to it, and people read the lovely gothic font that says “DRACULA NEVER SPARKLED”.

If the conversation leads Impaler-wards, so much the better. If not, it doesn’t. Either way, I don’t talk about how wonderful the book is or how great I am, but how interesting it was to research that time period and what a fascinating person Vlad was. And I try to remember that person’s face and give friendly waves or chat to them again the next time I run into them. The result is that I get a good size sales bump for Impaler – and my shorter works – after each con I go to. Each bump translates to more people reading my stuff who might love it and tell all their friends.

It’s a slow process. I’m expecting that. But it works. Eventually, there’ll be enough people out there who’ve read this Kate person and think their friends would like her stuff that there’ll be a kind of critical mass effect (where it becomes self-sustaining and I don’t need to ‘feed’ it any more) – if what I write is good enough and appeals to enough people. Given that there are millions of people out there and Sarah kicks me if I start doubting my abilities, I think I’ll get there in time.

Which is of course the final item for any writer’s toolbox, and the most important of all of them. Patience.

Right bloody now.

The (Publishing) Times They Are Achanging

UPDATED 7/29/2011.  SEE BOTTOM OF POST FOR MORE.

(Or Why I’m No Longer Agented)

… or I won’t be when the thirty days for contract expiration run out.

First of all, because dropping one’s  agent in publishing is a lot like a Hollywood divorce, particularly when you’ve been together for eight years, as Lucienne and I have, I’d like to say it’s not her; it’s also not me; it’s the field and the way it’s changing (and how fast.) Lucienne was the best agent I ever had and is also a talented YA writer whom I can tell you without reservations to check out. (And now it’s not a conflict of interest.)

To explain what I’ve done, I need to explain my reasoning, which at the time is a little hard since part of me wants to sit around in a robe all day eating rocky road ice cream. (Inadvisable, since I need to finish Darkship Renegades and also because I’m not allowed marshmallows on this diet.) I haven’t been unagented since 97 and every time I dropped an agent before I secured one first. This time I chose not to do so because I think an agent won’t help. I could be wrong, in which case I’ll shop for an agent sometime in the future. However for now I’m alone, working without a net.

Things have changed so fast, you see, that a year ago because it looked like my series might all crash, I was very afraid Lucienne would drop me. Because she’s my fourth agent and because I haven’t even looked in so long, I was terrified of the process of looking and how much it would take away from my writing time. And yet now I voluntarily drop representation. What gives?

Let’s go back to 97, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and publishing houses not only weren’t reading unagented, they were lying about it. I.e., you could send your manuscript, and it would come back in x time with a rejection letter. The editorial assistants had the option of reading slush, but it happened only once in a blue moon. Mostly getting rid of manuscripts accumulating in the little slush room was a task involving putting in a rejection letter and speeding it back to its owner. There were exceptions, even back then. I had a couple of personal rejections. But, by and large, this was the protocol.

Once I understood agents were now the effective slush readers, I started courting agents. My first agent, let’s call her Ms. A, signed me on the strength of a novel now rewritten and published. Then she proceeded NOT to sent it out. And to lie to me about it. Look, the novel was flawed and I knew that. She gave me some re-write advice (good one) and I took it. Why didn’t she tell me about the main thing that made the novel unsaleable? I don’t know. Perhaps she was afraid how a newby would react. Or perhaps she liked lost causes. Who knows?

Eventually, I went to a workshop and there pretty much sold my first novel, Ill Met By Moonlight in proposal. To get the contract it needed only sending it out and getting it formally accepted. I sent out the proposal to my agent the day I got home. Three weeks later I heard through a mutual friend the editor was disappointed I’d dropped the project. So, I started shopping for agent #2.

Agent #2 was my dream agent, the one I’d have wanted first if I had a chance. We hit it off, I hired him right after meeting him. And then… And then I realized he had a “formula” for writing bestsellers, and he was going to make my rather quirky Shakespearean fantasies fit into it. One piece of advice he gave me was very good and it was something that I – frankly – should have known (make emotional action visible through physical action) but I wasn’t ready to understand it. He sold the sequels to Shakespeare for me, taking “a smaller advance than we could, but this will keep us writing on this series a long time.” He was wrong, and even at the time I knew he was wrong. (Someday I’ll do a post on why getting the biggest possible advance was the way to survive, back then.) Oh, Agent #2 also refused to send out anything not in that series.

Agent #3 was a bright up and coming assistant (who I understand is doing very well in her own right now.) Again, we hit it off right away. However, nothing I sent her ever got sent out. Part of this was her fault, part mine. I was badly put off my stride by agent #2. It’s not that I don’t take criticism well (I do. Sometimes too well.) It’s that I don’t rewrite to formula well. Actually, back then I had clue zero how to rewrite. I’ve explained before it’s an art in itself and it takes forever to learn. To put it mildly, I sucked at it. Doing the type of rewrite he wanted me to do was beyond my powers and guaranteed to turn out an awful book. (In fact the book I did this too, the second of the Shakespeare series, has the lowest sell-through of any of my books ever. Yes, even the one with the awful cover.) So I was off my stride and not writing as much as I could. But eventually I was offered a contract with Baen and agent #3 told me it was her or Baen. Well, children… One of them was offering to pay me and I had a mortgage.

This is when I hired Lucienne. It was also the first time I behaved like a real professional and submitted to ten people, then picked among the four that offered representation. And it paid off.

Lucienne and I not only hit it off personally (though not really at first. I was trying to maintain distance, given my experiences) but we also hit it off professionally. In the first year I was working with her we sent off something like sixteen proposals and sold seven (?) of those almost immediately. And I’ve kept busy ever since.

But for the last year I’ve had a growing sense that something was wrong. Part of it was the response to two novels I sent out. I’m not going to detail the response, but it wasn’t just that they were rejected but that the way they were rejected indicated answering cold submissions was no longer part of an editor’s primary job. If I had to guess, I’d say that the same thing is going on with this as went on with slush two decades ago. In this case it is due to shrinking lists and problems with distribution. Publishing houses are either sticking with their stable (Probably 90% of the new authors you see are old pros with new names) poaching bestsellers from each other, or hiring on the basis of “she’s a friend of, who has done well for us.” (This btw makes them absolutely the same as the rest of the hiring field. Yeah, you can still get a job from applying cold, but it’s fairly rare.)

The other part of it is that I’ve been looking at where things are going, how the market is changing and a lot of the things I’d like to try are things I’ll either have to invent (yes, I’m still working out how a subscription would work), things that I’ll have to learn and my agent knows no more about than I do (minor subgenres with obscure presses), things in which no agent can help (publishing through a co-op micro press or publishing myself) and other things that agents (well, understand, with the closing of the publishing field to just a few houses they had to be loyal to publishers, no matter how much they tried to stick up for agents) will simply NOT let you do like absolutely closed names that even the publishers don’t know about. (No, it’s not ethically wrong. Golden Age authors did it. The book is the book is the book.)

I’m not writing off big publishers. I’ll continue working for Baen. However, my relationship with them is of the sort we never needed an agent. (First, I give the publisher Port, then we negotiate – evil grin.) And I’ve got a few novels I’ll be submitting to a couple of houses for highly targeted type marketing that I’m fairly confident of placing, at least if the houses are still there, and if there’s a market for traditionally published books.

And that brings me to the next step. You see, I believe there will be a market. I believe some (though not all) of the large houses will adapt and survive this. However – and this I can’t emphasize enough – the agencies don’t think publishing is going to be with us much longer or that you can make a living off it.

I think part of this is that the agencies are still selling – and well – the books of bestsellers, because that’s what the houses want right now. This is misguided as I think the bulk of their income is still from midlisters. It’s akin to the restaurant that decides that they make the most money off deserts, they in fact lose money off ribs, which brings in most of the customers. So they’re going to take out ribs and serve only appetizers and deserts. (And then are shocked when the bottom line crashes.)

While it’s misguided for publishers, it will take a while for the financial effect to be felt. But it’s being felt by agencies. Us midlisters are by and large a low-work lot, who get our own contracts and keep on going. So we were a good “bulk” money maker for an agent. But now the big houses don’t want no stinking ribs.

Agencies are feeling the pinch from this, and in response they’re doing something which the agency Lucienne works for just did. (To quote my husband who is the sweet side of this association “Well, they’ve got to make a living, somehow. What would you have them do?”) And while I understand it, I want no part of it.

Yep, they’ve started their own digital publisher.

I know I’ve said here in the past that this was the logical next step in digital publishing. Agencies already sift through slush. They already promote their writers, to greater or lesser extent. So, why not transition?

Well, two problems. First, they’re not transitioning. They’re remaining agents and charging you for the privilege of selling things to themselves. (Kris Rusch has written extensively on the conflict of interest present, but it should be obvious to everyone, too.) Second, they are loading the deals with up front costs. (Perfectly understandable, if you’re in a bid to survive, but it makes them much inferior to most micro publishers out there, who will get you cover, proofread and put up your manuscript for a percentage of your earnings which comes out at the same time your earnings do. I.e. you’ll start earning from the first dollar, not after 1k or so is paid back to the “publishing agency.”)

So, agencies who publish you are making a desperate bid to survive and they’re not necessarily the best deal for epublishing. But why do I say this means they don’t think the big houses will survive?

First, because if they thought this was just a trough in sales, they’ve gone through those before without changing their model and they would do so again. Second, because of the conflict of interest. They wouldn’t risk the appearance of competing with the big publishing houses if they didn’t know, in their heart of hearts that the big giants as such are over.

Heck, the big giants think the game is over. Why do I say that? Because they’re not completely stupid. (Individual editors may vary.) They know – they have to know – that if all they keep in their stable are bestsellers, in a year or two the bestsellers will decide that they can make more money self-publishing or from a micro press. They can. And they have the name, so… why not? Publishers have to see this as clearly as I do. So, why go to that model? Unless your whole intent is as a stop gap measure “to keep us afloat just another two years.”

Do I agree with them? Not necessarily. I think some of the big houses will pull back from the abyss. They can still offer value, or at least some of their imprints can, if they uncouple from the conglomerate and develop highly individualized selections and a community that’s loyal to them – say, like Baen. Then they can put their imprimatur on newbies and offer beginners a ready-made public they’d not otherwise have.

So you could say I’m unagented because the agency my agent works for no longer believes the old model is viable, and I don’t agree with their concept of the new model.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. Making predictions is hard, particularly about the future. I could be completely wrong. If I am, I might yet be shopping for an agent. But that will probably be in two years or so when everyone is done making desperate moves to “see us through the next two years.”

Until then, like any good super hero, I’ll work alone. And now excuse me, I need to get out of this bathrobe, take a shower and work.

Maybe it’s my being an Heinleinian (reformed but unredeemable) but while there’s doom and gloom all around, from where I’m standing, the future is so bright, I got to wear shades.

*Crossposted at According to Hoyt and Classical Values*

UPDATE:

This morning the following comment and my response were made at According to Hoyt .  I am pasting them here in their entirety.

From Lucienne Diver:  I want to clarify something here. The Knight Agency is not becoming a digital publisher. We’re helping those authors who want to publish their backlist but not do all the legwork themselves and taking only the agency commission, while we pay various expenses, like covers and ISBN registration. We’re also doing this for some original fiction authors have requested we do that has not been picked up by major publishers. We =are not= taking submissions or facilitating publication of works by authors we do not represent.

My response:

Lucienne,

Do I have your permission to print the letter about TKA venturing into helping authors with digital publishing? I completely understand what you’re saying, and it’s entirely possible I misunderstood the letter. I did not see any indication of who paid cover, ISBN, etc — again, it’s possible I misread it, which you must understand is QUITE likely after the other letters of the kind one has seen. At any rate, I still find it sheers a bit close for my comfort which is something you’ll have to understand.

You can also click here to see the latest correspondence from Lucienne about this matter.  I want to reiterate what I said before, what I wrote in this post was my opinion and interpretation of correspondence I received from The Knight Agency.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I am going to be out of the house at the office-ish today so I can finish DSR.  However, when I return, I will be posting more on my personal blog.  Thanks.

Crossing Genres and Persevering

I’m doing a big girl squee at the moment. This is the cover for my new book, a paranormal crime set in Melbourne. I talk about  it here on my blog.

What’s nice about this book being accepted by new independent publishing house, ClanDestine Press, is that Lindy Cameron, the publisher, is an award winning writer in the crime genre. This means my book has met her standards.  It’s always particularly nice as a writer to have a fellow author say they like your book because they can see the frame-work holding up the artifice.

And it is good to get her stamp of approval for working in the crime genre. As a writer I find it hard to see myself as one specific genre writer. My reading tastes cross several genres. I write across a wide range of genres and age groups with around 30 children’s books published, ranging in age from early readers to YA, and in genre from contemporary comedy, to dark urban fantasy. My short stories have been mainly SF, horror and dark urban fantasy, rather than fantasy. (The two stories that were highly commended in the Year’s Best anthologies were horror and SF).

To differentiate this book (as if the cover weren’t enough) from my fantasy books, I’m publishing under RC Daniells.

Since this is a writers’ blog about the travails of writing, I thought I’d share with you the path that this book has taken to publication. I wrote the first draft when I was 23. Then I put it away for a dozen years and sent it out when I was 36 to the Harper Collins $10,000 Fiction Prize, where it made the long short list. Nothing came of that, so I put it away again. Then I thought of a way of updating it along two time lines so in my forties I created a second narrative thread, tying in the story set in the 80s, with a contemporary story. Now, all these years later, the book is seeing the light of day.

I guess, what I’m saying is that perseverence is a creative person’s greatest asset. Looking back, there was nothing wrong with the book I wrote at 23. The original story is still there embedded in the narrative with a phrase cleaned up here and there.  I could have given up and never written again, or given up on this story but I didn’t. I thought there was something worthwhile in it and, 30 years later, I’ve been proved right.

So for me, seeing this book accepted is particularly satisfying. I just wanted to share the buzz with fellow writers who would understand.

What’s the longest that you’ve held onto hope for a story/book before seeing publication?

Hallmark

Once upon a time thieving bastiches would adulterate gold or silver with cheaper metal and then sell it off to the public as the real thing.  Somewhere in about the 13th century French Kings and presumably their subjects got tired of being shafted by merchants (after all shafting is noble prerogative, and if everyone was allowed to do it there’d  be no fun in it any more) and introduced the marking of gold and silver ware, which the Brits actually made better if more complicated (which shows that stereotypes have some truth in their origins) meaning that the consumer of said items, suitably marked knew the gold really was gold and not. Ergo, there was a standard to measure quality by.

I was part of discussion the other day where several legacy published authors were lamenting the the unfair price competition that self-published e-books were putting on their obviously superior offerings.  Someone – could have been me – pointed out that an unknown at 99 cents was a lot more tempting than an unknown at $19.99.

The howl thence became well ANYONE can put up a book on Kindle and Amazon make no attempt to ensure these books have any kind of quality… culminating in this statement:

“How long will readers keep taking risks and tossing their money away if
those standards aren’t met?”

Hmm. It’s a good question and a bad one.  Yes, there really is a flood of books hitting kindle, and anyone who has ever read slush will tell you,  90% of subs are so bad they really are unpublishable, and unreadable.

The issue of course is that of the remaining 10% maybe 0.001% shines so bright that it easy to say ‘that’s good for a lot of readers.’

The other 9.999%… well, one man’s poison is another woman’s meal for her husband.  Probably half of those 9.999% have a possibly 10K+ audience somewhere if you can find them.  The trouble is finding which half, and winnowing the 10K from 100K sellers.

Historically this was done by a degree of thumb-suck based on experience. An editor who got it wrong too often was fired or his publisher went out of business. Most books from reasonable sized houses had much the same distribution, covers that really didn’t help much and zero marketing.  Tested in the fire of the market, publishers works that kept them in business soon sorted those trying to sell dross as gold.  A longstanding publisher accepting an author’s work for publication became a sign that it had a certain quality.  As only publishers could get the books into bookstores, any book that made it there… had the mark of at least a minimum quality. The numbers sold gave publishers a real handle on what people liked. What’s more, you had a handle on just how many books the book-buying public would read. That ratio directly proportional to the number of literate people, and disposable income remained the same. If your country had a population of x million literate people with an average disposable income of Y, XY(constant)/ average book cost = books sold

Then… came big box chain stores, vast changes in covers, and enormous changes in distribution and of course marketing and promotion.  Publishing rejoiced and pushed their pet projects to great success. The trouble was no one in publishing seemed to do basic maths.  Or maybe no one had all the figures. But while literate population and disposable income were both increasing fast… the ratio of books per literate reader was dropping. We could talk about reasons and excuses, but no one actually tried to find out why. The answer IMO was that the assay of quality having been masked by distribution marketing and promotion was no longer working. Yes, publishers knew what was selling. But they had no idea just how much of this was due to popularity, and how much was due to marketing et al.

And readers stopped tossing their money away because their standard (which was still a book they enjoyed) wasn’t met.

So I am afraid I’ve reached a very different answer to the young lady author who felt her book was being drowned in the self-pub flood. I think – because the factors that skewed the assay of quality so much are being turfed by e-books, we may finally start getting publishers again who, by buying your book do give it a hallmark.  It won’t happen overnight of course. But in time that ratio may actually re-assert itself. In which case… I might not be published, or make living out of writing, but literature will be saved.

It’s a chance I’d rather take than hope that someone in marketing decides I’m one of the cool kids ;-/

So what happens now?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or deep within a cave the last week or so, you’ve heard over and over again about the final demise of Borders Books.  Everyone seems to have their own opinion on what caused the once powerful bookseller to go under.  Fingers are pointed at the downturn in the economy, the e-book revolution, Amazon, and publishers.  Some even point at the real heart of the matter, in my opinion — Borders’ upper management.  So, what is the truth and is the demise of Borders an omen of things to come?

The simple answer to what went wrong with Borders is “all of the above and more”.  Borders and Barnes & Noble came to prominence at a time when superstores of all flavors were the rage.  Readers were dazzled by the huge selections offered under one roof. If they didn’t have what you wanted, you were sure to find something else that intrigued you.  Plus, they were more than happy to special order any title they didn’t carry.

Borders did a lot of things right — in the beginning.  But, for the last ten years, they have done more things wrong than they’ve done right.  One of their first major missteps was when they contracted with Amazon as their online presence.  I remember the first time I went online to check availability of a title at Borders.  The local store didn’t have the title but there was this new button that let me order it online and have it delivered to the store or to my house.  Cool.  But when I clicked on the button, I was redirected to Amazon.  What?!?  I hit previous page and tried again.  Yep, I was taken to the Amazon site.  Barnes & Noble didn’t do that.  They had their own online store.  So did the local indie bookseller still in business.  So why is one of the largest bookstore chains in the country using their competitor, the online presence so often cursed and denigrated by booksellers everyone as being the epitome of evil?  How much money did Borders lose this way?  More importantly, how many customers became Amazon customers because Borders was sending them there?

Then came the increased popularity of e-books.  Amazon brought out the Kindle.  Sony brought out their own line of e-readers.  Kobo had dedicated e-readers and Barnes & Noble brought out the Nook.  Where was Borders in all of this?  For a long time, nowhere.  Then they started selling the Sony readers and Kobo readers in their stores.  Then they partnered with Kobo, much like they did Amazon (although, to be fair, Borders did own a share of Kobo).  Would having their own dedicated e-reader have saved Borders?  Probably not, not without a lot of other changes, but it might have bought them some time.

Did Amazon put the final nail in Borders’ coffin?  No.  Did it help bring down the bookseller?  Most definitely.  The lower prices and the ability to find any book you want lured customers away from the bookseller.  But, let’s be real here, folks.  The responsibility for a number of customers going to Amazon instead of Borders lies with Borders.  They quit stocking as many books as they once did.  Worse, they quit stocking as many mid-list writers as before.  Sure, you could find that best seller and that newest “hot” author.  But the work horses of publishing — the mid-list authors — were quickly disappearing from their shelves.  Add to the fact that you could place your special order with your local Borders and it might or might not ever arrive there and, well, you have dissatisfied customers who will look elsewhere for their books.

Fast-forward to the announcement that Borders was filing for bankruptcy.  Publishers weren’t being paid for books delivered to the stores.  Landlords were being blamed for not renegotiating leases.  Borders was going to be forced to close a number of stores.  Guess what?  A number of stores that were shut down were stores that were posting profits while stores that weren’t were kept open.  Does anyone else see the flaw in that?  So, was anyone surprised when Borders asked publishers to keep sending them books and deferring payment for them?  What I never understood was that there were publishers who did.  Now those publishers are out even more money than ever.

Borders is now in liquidation.  Soon, it will cease to exist and there are cries going up about how this signals the end of bookstores.  But does it?  Or is this a very good lesson in how not to run a company?  Borders failed to adapt to the changes in the economy and in market demands by their customers.  Borders often failed in customer service areas.  (A caveat.  I know there were some Borders stores where the employees were knowledgeable and more than happy to help you.  But that seemed to be the exception and not the rule.) Instead of adapting or even reinventing their market plan as customer demands changed, Borders took away space from books to add stationary products — and, sorry, but who writes letters these days — and educational games and expensive DVDs (which could be bought at much lower prices at the local Walmart or Target).

So, back to my initial question.  Are we entering a new age in bookselling now that Borders is gone?  I don’t think so.  I think we are seeing the natural evolution of the market.  Bookstores need to take advantage of being able to sell not only hard copies of books but electronic versions as well.  This can be done by becoming part of the google e-book market.  It can be done by letting small e-presses and authors sell gift cards for their books.  Bookstores need to be inviting.  In other words, not only do they need to be well stocked but they need to have knowledgeable and personable employees.  They need not look like a generic store.  Have nice lighting, comfortable seating.  Be willing to take special orders — and make sure those orders are fulfilled.

More than that, I think we will see the return of specialty bookstores, smaller stores that stock only mysteries or romance, etc.  These were the stores that managed to survive in the face of the big box stores because of customer loyalty.  But the key for this to happen is tht the stores that open do so with sufficient operating capital to function for several years without profit.

But there is another player in this that has to understand that the market is different now than it was five years ago, much less ten or twenty years ago.  Who am I talking about?  The publishers.  Those houses that have been around forever and have become dinosaurs.  They have dragged their corporate feet when it comes to e-books.  They continue to hang their survival on overpriced hard cover books — something most readers can’t afford any longer unless they order from Amazon.  They are sacrificing mid-list writers, their bread and butter, for big names that aren’t selling like they used to.  Worse, they use accounting systems that aren’t accurate and one day authors will finally have enough and will band together to demand an accounting and houses will fall.

What does this mean, it means that we have already entered a new phase of publishing.  Borders was a victim of this new phase but not because of any one factor.  Mismanagement on a huge scale teamed with the change in customer demands and often foolish decisions by publishers all combined to bring down the bookseller.  Other factors were present as well.  Does it mean there will soon be no bookstores?  Not at all.  As long as there’s a demand for physical books, there will be bookstores.  They just won’t be on every corner and there won’t be two or three around every mall.  We might have to actually drive a few minutes to get to one.  But you know what?  That’s how it used to be.  So you could say we are taking a step back in time.

No, the real question we should be asking is how many publishers will be unable to recover from the loss of Borders.  Not so much because of the loss of shelf space.  That won’t help the industry, but it’s not a killer.  There are other options out there for publishers, if they will pull their heads out of the sand long enough to see them.  No, what may bring down at least a few publishers is the amount of money owed by Borders to them.  In some instances we are talking debts in the millions.  For an industry that is already suffering, that is going to be hard to absorb.

What will be the result?  Short term it’s hard to tell.  Authors are going to see smaller royalties and even smaller advances than now.  More mid-listers will find themselves not being picked up by their publishers even though their numbers have remained solid or even increased.  For readers, we’re going to find it even harder to find some of our favorite authors and we will see yet another increase in the price of books.  E-books from the main publishers will continue to be priced higher than many are willing to pay.

It’s the long term implications that are harder to predict. My gut feeling is that we’ll see some of the major houses either selling off huge chunks of themselves or doing major reorganizations, closing down lines once thought to be sacrosanct — in an attempt to stay alive.  But publishing will survive.  People want to read, despite what we’re told.  The question becomes not, are we entering a new age but can the upper managers of the large publishers learn from past mistakes and move their houses back into profitability or will they go the way of Borders?  I’m hoping for the former but expecting the latter.  The only thing for sure when it comes to publishing is that the ride is going to be a bumpy one.

The Calvanni

by Chris McMahon

The Calvanni, first book in the Jakirian Cycle, is up on the Naked Reader site!  It is available now as an electronic download, with the print version following next month.

The Calvanni is an heroic fantasy adventure set on the world of Yos. The book is set thirty years after the fall of the once vast Bulvuran Empire, when Kelas is divided into waring sardoms, and the ancient enemy of Man, the Eathal, plot their long-awaited revenge.

In The Calvanni, first of the series, it is Storm Season on the world of Yos, when the twin suns eclipse and the planet is plunged into bitter cold. It is usually a time of quiet, when the wise lock their doors, praying for the demons of the red sun-goddess Uros to pass them by. Yet deep in the Caverns of Maht, Hukum, the Sorcerer-Lord of cavern-dwelling Eathal, plots his attack on the world of men.

Cedrin, a street-wise calvanni (knife-fighter), is summoned to the secret underground tunnels of the Brotherhood of the Night. There, Cedrin is forced to join Hukum’s attack against the rulers of his native Athria. Caught between the threat of death and his suspicions that all is not what it seems, he must try to keep his friends Marken and Skye alive and escape.

When Cedrin makes his escape he comes face-to-face with Hukum’s minion Raziin, a fearsome mercenary. His world is shaken as Raziin’s Sorcerous attack triggers the awakening of his own powers. Cedrin survives, but must now flee not only the wrath of the rulers of Athria, but also Raziin and the Brotherhood of the Night.

Ellen, daughter of the assassinated Athrian Sarlord, is named as heir before his death. She struggles to assert herself as the new ruler, little suspecting the civil war that will be unleashed on Athria within days. Ellen’s father warned her never to reveal her hidden powers of Sorcery, but as Hukum’s minions close in, she has little choice. She is forced to flee persecution at the hands of the Druids.

Both Cedrin and Ellen head for the ancient capital of Raynor, soon to come under attack by Hukum’s armies. Pursuing both Cedrin and Ellen is Raziin, eager to escape his bondage to Hukum and convinced by a powerful prophecy that Cedrin holds the key to an artifact of untold power. . .

I hope you enjoy the ride!

The publication schedule for the Jakirian Series is:

The publication schedule is:
Flight of The Phoenix (prequel novella): Available now on Naked Reader as an electronic download 
The Calvanni: Available now on Naked Reader as an electronic download – print version coming in August 2011
Scytheman: December 2011 (electronic & Print-On-Demand)
Sorcerer: June 2012 (electronic & Print-On-Demand)

For more background on the world of Yos, check out my first post on Yos.

Meanwhile. Here is a taste of the book. . .

The Calvannni – Chapter 1

Sarlord Myan Cintros lay on the dais below his overturned throne.

‘Father!’ Ellen cried as she pushed through the ranks of scythemen. She sought him across the Bridge of Minds, but there was nothing, not even the formless colours of his sleeping mind. Fear sent her heart racing and the vast chamber contracted to a roaring tunnel.

Ellen rushed forward; she could not lose him — not now. At the thought of her life without him a frightening emptiness filled her. She would be left alone with the secrets of the Cintros, forbidden to share her knowledge with anyone.

As she neared the scene she saw five Druids of the Temple surrounding her father’s body, shielding him from further harm.

She longed to go to him, to embrace him, but her limbs were suddenly weak, as though reluctant to bring her any further.

He cannot just die like this, Ellen thought as she watched two physician-Druids, their robes dull brown, work a potion into his mouth. Her father had been one of the most powerful defenders of the old Empire, the man who had turned back the Sorcerer-Lords of the Eathal. Who remained to stem the tide of chaos and war that was engulfing them? She looked at two black robed Moon-Druids, their necks adorned with gem-studded effigies of the twin moons Asic and Rea; they knelt together in open supplication and prayer, determination creasing their brows.

Crephis, a big Moon-Druid with straight, dark hair watched gravely, softly directing their combined efforts in a calm even tone.

‘Is he dead?’ Ellen cried as she pushed through the Druids and sank to the floor beside her father. The pungent smell of the potion made her dizzy, burned the back of her throat. He looked so pale and grey. She took his calloused hand. It felt as cold as the marble beneath her, his skin clammy with approaching death. Tears fell. Ellen struggled with her royal composure. Lifeless, she thought, reaching once more across the Bridge to be again confronted with formless grey.

‘Close,’ said Crephis. ‘He is just clinging to life.’

The throne room, usually so noisy with debate and conversation, was strangely silent. The ranks of robed courtiers and Suulqua messengers were absent, replaced by scythemen and palace guards. The sound of a squad of soldiers marching on the gravel of the courtyard below came up through the wide open windows, the coarse commands of the Razor seemingly loud as he disciplined a soldier, oblivious to events above.

‘Crephis, tell me he will live,’ Ellen pleaded, looking up to the Druid’s bright golden eyes. ‘Please tell me you can bring him back . . .’ 

Bowing his head, Crephis said nothing.

The ranks of scythemen guarding the chamber parted, their long white cloaks, emblazoned with the grey Cintros raptor, swishing across the floor. She turned to see the Regent Kerril, robed in a fine grey cloak edged with white fur, approaching, with the tall, skeletal Warlord, Aris Cinev, hard and unemotional, at his side. Always austere, Aris distained the use of cloaks, preferring instead to wear plain trousers and shirt of white, a small Cinev crest of the Yos’s twin suns, Larus and Uros, emblazoned in yellow and red over his heart — a mark of his family’s ancient allegiance to the Temple of the Sisters.

As one, the gathered assembly bowed to the Suulvey lords.

‘Where is my brother?’ Ellen’s voice shook. ‘Torren should be here.’ Their brother Estle was in Raynor, days away even by war-galley.

Aris appraised her coolly, adjusting the patch of dark leather that covered his left eye; it was a mark of courage, which he wore as a symbol of his power. ‘I have ordered him to remain with his troops,’ he said dismissing her question. ‘The Captain of the Wall must never leave his post.’ His long, lined face, framed with short-cropped silver-grey hair had never looked more severe.

Ellen let out a ragged breath. Torren would be relieved. No doubt he would be waiting for news of his succession as Sarlord. Her bond with her father was one Torren had never shared, and she had always felt his resentment, his jealousy, like a knife. She loved her two brothers, and had wanted all three of them to be like a family around Myan. Now. . . it would never happen. Her heart twisted as she looked into the future, seeing them split apart even further as the fractures between them finally cracked open; Myan, the centre of their lives together, gone.

‘Can we save him?’ asked Kerril.

‘No, my lord,’ said Crephis. ‘The poison has all but destroyed his nervous system. The assassin chose his time well, striking in twilight when the Sun-Essence fades and the Moon-Essence is yet to rise,’ the Druid paused. ‘What meagre Essence we have gathered has merely delayed his death.’

Uros the Destroyer, the red Sun-Goddess, had turned her terrible face toward Ellen’s father. Not content to wait for Storm Season, her time of power when she eclipsed her yellow sister Larus the Protector, Uros had given Myan her dark blessing.

Ellen buried her face against her father’s cold chest. ‘No, no …’

Then twenty-three years of court life asserted itself. She straightened, smoothing back her braided, honey-blonde hair; refusing to appear weak in front of the Suulvey lords. She may only be a Suulqua — the lowest rank of nobility — but she was the Sarlord’s daughter. Myan had been a traditionalist, insisting his sons and daughter earn their rank as full Suul lords of the court like any other Athrian noble. Most nobility remained Suulqua throughout their lives. Only those with senior positions at court were rewarded with the title of full Suul lord. The Suulvey, members of the Council, ranked above all.

Her knees began to ache with the cold, but she did not move from his side. A gust of wind came in through the window sweeping away the fumes of the potion and carrying the scent of the sweet incense burning near the throne toward her. It seemed inconceivable that it should continue to burn as her father lay dying.

‘So there is no hope for him?’ asked Kerril.

Crephis shook his head gravely.

‘Uros’ blood!’ Kerril shouted, for the first time showing emotion. He turned away from Myan’s body, looking out the wide windows of the throne room. His brown eyes glistened with moisture. His brown hair, shot with grey for as long as Ellen could remember, now seemed more grey than brown.

Kerril was one of her father’s closest friends and advisors and Ellen wanted to say something to ease his grief, but she was barely containing her own.

Outside the twilight was fading. The sky was full of dark shapes, thousands of bats flying silently to their nightly feast; the children of Kallor, the Lord of Death, rising from his realm of Llors. Ellen’s hands tightened into fists.

Kerril turned to Crephis. ‘Can you rouse him long enough to confirm the succession?’

The big Moon-Druid raised a chubby hand to his chin, his eyes flashing with intelligence. ‘It is possible. I can reverse the paralysis and restore his powers of speech, but only for a short time.’

‘How long will he remain alert?’ Kerril looked anxious.

Crephis sighed, the symbols of office clattering against each other as his massive chest rose and fell. ‘Only the briefest of moments, my friend. Llors will have him within the hour.’

Her heart skipped a beat. She could save him; here in front of all these witnesses she could use the power of Sorcery — the Matrix of Form — and save him, damning herself in the process. Sorcery was forbidden by the Temple.

Ellen stood.

‘There must be a way to save him,’ she said looking directly at Crephis. Only Crephis, in all of Athria, knew of the hereditary powers of Sorcery she shared with her father.

Crephis’ eyes widened. He shook his head.

‘No, Ellen,’ he said.

‘I must,’ she said, reaching for the Fire.

Crephis gripped her shoulder, stopping her.

‘No. His veins are filled with poison. His nerves destroyed. No magic can save him. Even if the Moon’s were full and we could heal his tissues, the poison would destroy them again and again; it would only condemn him to more agony.’

‘You must accept this, Ellen. Myan is beyond their arts,’ said Aris, unaware of the subtext of their conversation.

Ellen’s knees went weak. She leant into Crephis for support, who grabbed her arm to steady her.

Father.

‘Rouse him,’ said Kerril, walking across the room to where another body lay.

‘Is that …’ said Ellen.

‘Yes. The assassin. It was Kerril himself who killed him. The Regent was talking to your father when the assassin struck,’ said Crephis.

The assassin’s body lay at the base of the Sisters’ Dance — a vast statue of cast ceramic depicting the two Sun Goddesses, Larus and Uros, locked in their endless cosmic struggle. Coagulated blood soaked the assassin’s rich clothes and his dead fingers still clutched the blowpipe. The deep and ruddy colour of last twilight, the light of blood-red Uros, bathed the statue.

The handle of Kerril’s throwing knife still protruded from the body.

Kerril ripped open the soft silk of the assassin’s shirt, scanning the tattoos on the torso.

‘Here! The mark of the teremb, the night-hunter.’

Ellen shivered. Assanni.

‘Uros spawn,’ said Aris in disgust.

Kerril viciously pulled his knife from the corpse and straightened. He waved at a palace guard who stood stiffly at attention against one of the columns.

‘Have this body removed,’ commanded Kerril.

‘Yes, Lord!’ said the warrior, bowing. 

Kerril watched the guard and his two comrades carry the body out, his jaw clenching and unclenching. The guards avoided his gaze.

Ellen looked on numbly as the two Druid-physicians packed away their potions and stood, looking to Crephis for instructions. He nodded gravely and waved them away.

Crephis knelt with the two other Moon-Druids, sweat sheened his smooth brow as he sought to harness and direct the weak Moon-Essence. The chant of the Moon-Druids now rose steadily to a final crescendo then ceased.

The weight of expectation grew heavy in the silence.

Myan’s eyes flickered open.

‘Thank the Goddess!’ said Ellen, smiling as she wiped away her tears. She knelt at his side, next to Crephis, and took her father’s hand. ‘How long does he have?’

‘Only minutes,’ replied Crephis.

She gripped Myan’s hand tighter. She could not believe her father would be gone so quickly. She sniffed, trying to stifle another wave of tears. Once her father was gone, a new, empty world would begin. It was only moments away, and nothing, nothing she could do would delay its arrival.

‘My, Lord. The poison has left you paralysed,’ said Crephis. ‘We have driven back its effects for a time, and given you a potion for the pain.’

Ellen took a cloth from her robes and gently wiped away a trail of the green potion, which trickled from the corner of his mouth. She clenched the cloth in her hand to keep it from shaking.

Myan closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them, he seemed resigned.

Kerril came forward and knelt. They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, a silent exchange passing between them. They had been friends since their childhood.

‘The heir, Myan. We must know,’ said Kerril finally. ‘Can you confirm that, as eldest son, Torren will succeed you?’

Myan’s eyes swept from side to side.

No.

‘Then who? You must choose one of your two sons. Do you want to recall Estle from his duties in Raynor to be Sarlord?’

‘No. Ellen,’ whispered Myan.

‘Ellen?’ said Kerril. ‘Are you saying you want Ellen to be Sarla?’

‘Yes,’ said Myan, his eyes clouding with pain.

‘Impossible!’ exploded Aris. ‘He is confused. This must be a mistake.’

Crephis placed his hand on Myan’s brow then looked levelly at Aris. ‘No, Warlord. He is quite lucid,’ said the Druid.

Myan looked at Aris, his face set with determination.

‘Ellen,’ repeated Myan.

‘No. Torren is the only one fit to rule!’ snapped Aris.

Kerril’s eyes flashed dangerously. ‘It is Myan’s will, Aris.’

Ellen was stunned.  She was to be the next ruler of Athria.

Her world collapsed. All the things she regarded as important – her liaison with Palsus, her ambition to be an ambassador, the endless indulgence of the young Suulqua – all seemed trivial and shallow. How could she sit on the throne of Athria? She was a scholar, not a ruler. The only thing Myan had ever put her in charge of was the administration of court records and legal documents; her empire of bookish scribes, as Torren called it.

Myan looked to each of his old friends one last time and indicated with his eyes they should leave. They bowed low and withdrew, along with the Moon-Druids.

Myan turned his head towards Ellen, staring into her with dark green eyes, the twin of her own. They glowed with the unwelcome shine of coming death.

‘Father,’ she said, her voice choked with grief.

‘Listen,’ he said, drawing her gaze. ‘Belin was here.’

She struggled to clear her mind.

‘But, Father, Belin is long dead …’ she said, convinced the delirium of the poison had begun to destroy his mind. Belin was one of the generals of the old Empire. Even if he had survived the destruction of the Cinanac Dynasty, old age would have taken him long ago.

Myan’s gaze grew in intensity. ‘Listen!’ he repeated. The cool clarity of his voice caused Ellen’s heart to miss a beat. ‘Cedrin must be found. He bears Belin’s signet ring. You must find him and protect him.’ Weakness suddenly overcame him and his eyes rolled. He was fighting for consciousness. ‘I had hoped to … prepare you,’ said Myan his voice weak.

‘Father. Father!’

She took his face in her hands, looking down into his eyes. He was fighting and losing a desperate battle. She felt the Fire surge within him, his mind seeking hers.

The Bridge of Minds was formed.

Her father’s desperation flooded over her in a wave, amid a thousand images of his past; people, names, places, laughter, war-cries, love and battlefields. Far below the torrent pulsed a spinning gem, barely perceived as it followed the flow; spinning, coherent, it pulsed with its own energy, rapidly slipping from her vision.

Then, at last, his mind found hers, and the torrent ceased.

Ellen. There is no time … left. Remember, the Scion must stand in the Temple of the Iris.

For a brief moment their minds lay silent, touching like breath above their mingling seas of emotion. Her father’s love flowed through her, lifted her, and then abruptly he was gone.

Art Intersections

by Chris McMahon

I’m over the moon about the new Calvanni cover – and the fact the book will soon go live on the Naked Reader site!

It got me thinking about how different types of art can inspire each other. The first time I saw an illustration inspired by one of my stories I could hardly describe the feeling – I think honoured would be the closest, probably followed by awed – that another creative person would be inspired enough by my own ramblings to produce another piece of art.

The first illustration in this vein was inspired by my story The Buggy Plague, which was an action/survival story set on Mars. It was a two-page sketch, with the central character Chas in her skin-tight biosuit in the Martian dust before the approaching bulk of an Assembly and Service Unit, whose rogue AI was directing a swarm of exploration buggies forward like its own personal army. For that I owe thanks to the editor of Orb, Sarah Henderson, who also commissioned artwork for my story The Cook (which surprisingly enough was about the escape from intergalactic slavery by a group of humans cherry-picked from Earth during different epochs – although the key character was actually a celebrity cook working for the alien slavemasters).

Art endlessly inspires itself – books to films, books to music, music and fine art back to fiction and poetry.

I remember reading the introduction in Duke Elric by Michael Moorcock. I was surprised to learn he was involved with music in the 1970s and how fiction inspired so much of what they did, particularly lyrically. It put me in mind of so much of the classic 70s rock – Rush, Led Zeppelin etc – that was often inspired by Fantasy fiction. The Battle of Evermore comes to mind.

What are your favourite Art Instersections? What other forms of art inspire you? Or better yet, how has your work inspired others?