Dogmatix versus Godzilla or the author against obscurity
By Dave Freer
I am, of course to business what a Salami is to Kung Fu… and thus am well qualified for this post.
The legacy model of publishing isn’t dead. I think it is fair enough to say it has been hurt. But, although the monopoly that it has on access to retail space may now be a shrinking number of bookstores, and best-sellers and bookdumps in Costco and Walmart, that is still a lot of books. If you’re a best-seller, if they’re talking about making a movie out of your book (or doing so), or if this is what you believe your future holds, you have better things to do with your time than read my blatherings. Continue as normal. Actually, if you haven’t read your weekly fix of your favorite webcomic you also probably have better things to do too. It’s probably funnier than I am.
But if you aren’t that 1:1000 writer in the lucky/good/pushed (or all three) category… well, the publishing world for us is very different place from the world of five or ten years ago. It’s changing virtually day-by-day right now. And compared to what authors expectations still are (which seems to be set 30 years or more back and based on wishful thinking then) tomorrow’s fast approaching realities are as alien a visit to the third world of an A-type star in the Crab Nebula. When I sold my first book (in ‘99 IIRC) I couldn’t have cared less about the $5K advance I got. Yes, the money was very welcome, but that wasn’t what a book earned, surely? I assumed the book would get onto the shelves and, if it was good enough, it would climb a long way up the ladder to the stars. I was a bit taken aback to find I was only getting 6% of the cover price, but that that would climb (oh, the dizziness of the altitude) to 8% when THE FORLORN reached 150 000 sales. My job, as an author, was to write good books. Everything else was my publisher, distributor’s and the retailer’s baby. After all, that was why they needed 94% of the income.
Yeah. Well, THE FORLORN sold a shade over 6k. Which, I found out after regarding myself as a failure, was 20% MORE than average for a new, no push paperback author. Not, as you can work out, enough to earn out the advance. My expectations were realistic for 1970, when apparently 40-50K was a reasonable first book sale. I was never that naive again.
I’m a battler. Knock me down and I’m more likely to get up, spit in your eye, and attach a carp to your manifold with baling wire. I started to work at changing the equation. I’m still doing that.
And that is what authors (barring the lucky few, and good luck and happiness and occasional half-cockroaches in their next fork-full of Chegdermeh to them) need to do now.
We have, thanks to the Internet, thanks to online retail, and thanks to our own websites, and blogs, a chance to do so. We’re actually BETTER off than I was in 1999, because that book still had the dead weight of the publishing industry to carry with every sale the author worked his butt off to add to the very small catchment you got ‘given’. I look at my bookscan figures (which weren’t for the likes of us authors once upon a time) I know that my distribution as a reasonably established author… shall I put this politely? Stinks worse than two week dead basking shark’s gut contents — that being the worst thing I have ever smelled. As a new author now — unless you’re one of the darlings (and they still exist, publishers spend a million on a new author, send them on publicity tours, make sure there are adverts in every trade paper, get their distributors to push it, get book dumps and end displays, and trailers and laydowns of 100’s of thousands. It might be you. Or it might not be) put you at $3-4K advances and piteous distribution.
So: unless you’re a darling-bud-of-may then you’re going to have to promote hard yourself. You can count on a ‘given’ of maybe 2K of sales, which won’t earn your advance or get you a next contract, if you want it.
Or more likely, you will find yourself not finding an agent, or, if you find an agent, not finding a publisher. And in this you will be joined by thousands of authors whom you like and respect.
And now the struggle really begins. Because even if you have access to the Internet marketplace, so do tens of millions of other writers. Being visible is going to be hard. And if you can’t do that, making a living, impossible. But if you’re doing this yourself, remember that you will have to sell 1/10 -1/5 of the volume to make the same money. If you can sell the same volume, or more, those daiquiris are calling you.
The first step–before anything else is to make sure you have a real product to sell. Make sure it is edited, proof-read, formatted properly and that you’ve got a cover that works for you. Or make sure that someone will do this for you. Without step one, DON’T DO THIS.
Now, John Locke put together a good list of the typical social networking promotional tools. You can pay to read it, or you can dig out the information yourself. We’ve talked about it here, often enough. You have to try it. Like give-aways and pricing your book at 99 cents, it can work. Honestly enough, not all of us writers are John or Ric Locke either. It takes a certain personality to do that and a great deal of hard work. Being good at social networking and self-promotion does not always make you a good writer (the two are not self-exclusive, but certainly there are great books written by people who can be very shy and who hate this). And many authors simply can’t afford to work at it and hope. So: I’ve always said you have people who solve problems with brute force, and those who put ingenuity to work instead. And we build on each other, because if we don’t we’ll all fall. Therefore let’s see what we can all come up with. Here is my list of ideas — starting from the more-or-less accepted to moderately lunatic to the only Dave Freer would think as much insanity one place ideas.
1) Social network selling. With facebook, twitter, blogging, and taking part in and commenting on such forums as Baen’s Bar, IF you have the personality, and the time (conservatively at least 4 hours a day, because you must surf the network and read and comment, for at the very least two years, and probably four, before you start, or you will fail). As an aspect of this, you can try your own blogging (after all, you write. If you can’t write well enough to hold readers maybe you can’t write well enough to sell books) and hope you hit a taping-bacon-to-the-cat (a la John Scalzi) moment that gets you a good following. That too requires a lot of work and commitment from the author, because when you hit that moment, your blog needs back history that will catch them and ongoing effort. It’s not for everyone, even good writers. It’s not in the former incarnation for me. I have all the skills at social networking of your average 13 year old pimple-factory boy at picking up beauty queens. I do try the blogging bit! (Here, and here, and, um, here!). My cats have informed me that any taping will result in extreme prejudice being employed. If you can do social networking, it works. Ask Rick Locke.
2)Pricing tools: I think this one is dead or dying. At one stage with few e-books out there, pricing at 99 cents got you try-outs. Free give-aways got you tryouts. Now… well, I think not so much, especially if you are totally unknown. What I do think could work are two-for-one offers – discussed under piggybacking.
3) crowd-funding. Um. The problem I see with this is you need a crowd — which is not always something a new author (be they ever so good) or even an established author has contact with. It’s worked to some extent for Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, for CE Murphy and Cat Valente. You’re looking at years of work and a solid fan base for Lee and Miller, a large fan base for CE Murphy, and being very plugged in to the ‘Arts’ scene and having worked its social networking for years for Valente.
Kickstarter.com runs a system for doing this. It may be for you. I might look at a variant on it.
4) Story-teller’s bowl. Now, I’ve actually done this, and no I am not rushing back to do it ever again. I did SAVE THE DRAGONS with the support (like – I wrote the book, asked favors of other writers for promo, they did everything else) of Francis and Walt, to raise enough money to bring my dogs and cats to Australia. We put up a chapter whenever the target (IIRC $400) was reached. We raised about $11 000, partly because it was a ‘good cause’ and that paid about 2/5 of the animals moving and quarantine costs. Yes, I am crazy. Yes, I have some damned good friends. We got something like 16 000 hits, and probably 1:7 donated something. A very small proportion were very generous. So to make a living out of this, you need a lot of traffic.
5) The straight donate button. Do I have to explain? Go to KK Rusch‘s very worthwhile site and try out the donate button. I have no idea how well this works for an author, but she is worth supporting. It seems a chancy way of making a living to me. It might be a worthwhile adjunct to the rest of your efforts.
6)Serial novels: A variant of the bowl and crowdfund, where the author/s agree for a pre-agreed sum to write the next chapter – probably weekly. I think this could work (and work well) with one lead author and 2-3 fellow authors, selling a ‘bundle’ which would amount to a guaranteed wordcount every week. The readers get input, first view, a final copy and… at the end the author has a book to sell.
7)Co-ops. Instead of publishing houses and retailers, Authors set up co-op sites (using several ‘names’ to draw access, and sell direct from the site – a model used by Book View Cafe I believe). Now, if the site draws enough traffic, and also allows the authors to realize 100%-less some costs, this can be a good one. Of course, admin and social structure of such a thing can become a headache (ask any farmer’s co-op). Each one is likely to be their own cool-kids club, and have a free-loader problem (we had issues with that on the shared blog when we started, with some a few people wanting others traffic and benefits, but being reluctant to do any work. Fortunately, they decided we didn’t give enough and moved on, leaving us with people who have put years of work into Mad Genius Club. It’s still, I think, a very workable model, if your co-op has enough ‘anchor tenants’ to draw traffic and to support new members. There is a limit to size and practicality here, but the advantage is not being dependent on either publishers OR retailers.
8)Co-authoring. Hey, I can claim expert status at this. Look, it’s dead simple. You find an author who has a real sales following and do a number of books in which you do 90% of the work and the income is split 50%. His/her name is a brand that people will buy, and their network will plug you as long as you’re not rotten. In the meanwhile you build a following by getting your name known and by using their platform to link to you. All you need is someone who has the following, and to be good enough for them not to worry about you cheapening and weakening their brand.
9)Piggy-backs. This one is based on well-established supermarket practice 2 for the price of one or three for the price of two. And every e-tailer should be doing it. “Buy Joe Lee Famus’s new book and get Jason Collywobble’s debut novel with it, FREE.” “Buy Joe Lee Famus, and Ms Doubtonbeingquiteso-famus books and pick a free debut novel from this basket.”
If Joe Lee and Ms Doubt are ok with newb being given away free with their books, he gives them say 10% of his sales gross on the next book. Everyone wins.
10) Coupons. Another Supermarket racket that is a piece of delicious chocolate torte with added cherries soaked in Kirsch. Played right it adds traffic to your site and to the site hosting the coupons — preferably a high traffic news site or something, but also I think it could be worked into a facebook adverts? Click on this, get your unique number and you can buy the new Dave Freer Novel ‘CODSWALLOPER’* for half price from the Naked Reader website. (And this is pre-release special ONLY available from NR – so Amazon can’t complain about price cutting. )
11) Pyramid scheme. OK this one takes a little programming skill. The book e-tailer offers a credit of let’s say 20% of the price of the Author’s book, for every copy bought that logs in with your unique code (that you got when you bought it). So, Fred buys the book, loves it, recommends it to twenty friends, explaining that he gets a credit for every copy if they enter his xyz code. Of those twenty, ten bother to buy, and enter his code. They get their own codes and five of them contact their friends and repeat the process. Now the key here is A) while Fred has twice the price of the book he bought (for which you have his money) in credit to spend at the bookstore… it is credit. Not money you have to pay out. And if you have any sense it has an expiration on it. Your payment to the author will be based on money past the expiration point. B) like all pyramids its stops growing… but that’s a lot of sales, and what is far more valuable, that’s lots more people with credits they must spend at your store. And if you have any brains you’ll price (with their collusion) lots of newbies at that 20% price – what this is, is a free giveaway that the punter deludes himself he paid for. Yes. You wanted to play poker with me? I TOLD you I was a bad man. Don’t blame me if you believed me that I didn’t know what Mr Cripple Onion was.
12) Advertising: Okay so this one is only for people with good sales numbers. But product placement is an old business. And with e-books you have some quantifiers on what is being sold. Its a case of commerce realizing the value of the same, perhaps at fractions of a cent per download. Where this is particularly relevant is tourism. Books (and movies – but books have a far longer impact) sell destinations as almost no other medium can. Corfu has a million PAX a year business thanks to the Durrells. And there is often no need for a conflict of interest here either. Someone just has to set it up, and take a percentage.
13) Commendations and commendation sites: There is already a volume of slush washing around out there that needs thigh-boots and a clothes peg for the nose. Most of us don’t have the spare time or inclination to wade. And, here is the real problem, the existing commendation system (most awards, prizes, Locus, PW, magazine reviews) is dominated either by legacy publishing or their friends, AKA the current cool kids club. And I only need to remind you that the way Sir Terry Pratchett was ignored proved that if you’re not in, they’ll ignore you until you march down their throats with hobnail boots and haul their testicles out from the inside, no matter how great you are. The trouble is that these people do a very good job of commending the books that other liberal arts graduates from New York would also like. They serve that 5% of the population well, the 20% who share some common ground fairly well… and the rest–75% of all possible buyers, badly.
There are of course many readers out there who have the time and inclination to read anything. For two specific examples, I think of the disabled (I have a few friends in this bracket. They read prodigiously, and I feel guilty that they spend so much of their fairly scanty income on my books) and those on ‘standby’- be they soldiers, navy, firemen, ambulance crews… The kind of people I hope I write books that would appeal to (so yes I am biased.) Who between them cover most of 100% of possible buyers. So what we want is some kind of commendation site – not like goodreads, but with a feedback loop — a direct link from the reader’s review/commendation, to the purchase site. And the key here is it is FEEDBACK. This is not the cool kid promoting his ideology or is like-minded friend book. This is a guy who gets a commission on buys off his commendation. If he writes good reviews of books that people buying via his reviews enjoy, then, lo, they come back and use him again. If he recommends a bunch fetid dingoes kidneys, they won’t. Pretty soon you’ll have guys with an incentive to recommend books that readers that use them will love. And then we’ll start seeing merit selection in action.
14) pick-a-proposal: Publishers have spent the last dunameny years distancing authors from the reader. There were advantages in this for authors and of course, for themselves. Readers at most saw themselves as patrons of individual bookstores, keeping them afloat, and engaging in behavior which saw them (with smaller bookstores before the megastore, and after) feeling they had some degree of ownership in Fred’s SF Bookshop. And Fred in turn engaged with them, responded by ordering books they wanted, giving them individual attention, treating them as if they mattered (which they did). For this he got their business, their loyalty and probably a bit more money than the soulless megastore. Authors on the other hand were told that well, they were lucky to have such a patron of the arts as legacy publishing, because unless they were bestsellers, they lost money publishing them. Various very large sums were trotted out as to how much it cost these benevolent patrons, and Authors were encouraged not to look at cover price and do the math, and the numbers were kept as opaque as possible. Well, I believe writers need to engage the reader as a patron. Yes, this is something of a variant on (3)crowdfunding and (4) story teller’s bowl. I’m going to be trying it on my website, where I will become Dave-the-writer and Fred-the-bookstore. This would work for any author with a wide repertoire, but it does need some following. I’m putting up polls. Any of the Universes I’ve worked in, readers can vote — Shorts, if I get more than 200 votes, I’ll go to kickstarter and we’ll do a 2 dollar short of at least 5000 words. Make it 1500 votes, and I’ll write a novel! Novels: Well, I have a slew of proposals out there, and no publishers rushing to bite. So: I’m thinking of putting the proposals up, along with the sample chapters, and once again, seeing which get the votes to go to stage 2. Those who put up the initial funding – probably $5 a book, will get it directly from me, and the final at a raised price, can go to Amazon et al.
I have a few more crazy ideas, (oddly enough, like these, where no-one gets screwed and no one gets a free lunch) but that’s enough for now — it’s about half a short’s worth:-). So: what thinkest thou? Here is a Penny for your thoughts. She’s a nice lass, and makes tea.
*If you want Codswalloper, it’ll take $7.5 of funding for me to be able to afford to foam at the mouth.