Shifting mudbanks

A writer always faces the the same problems as anyone wanting to achieve a nice quick dash to the fine rewards to be reaped if you were strong enough to collect them… on the far bank of a 300 yard wide tidal river. Oh and for most of us, that’s with 50 ponds of lead weightbelt around your waist, which kind of precludes simply swimming.

Still, if you choose your time and place, the tide is out, the strip water is narrow, and not over neck deep and not moving too fast… You can do it.

The truth though is that is only a dash if you have a boat, a full slack tide, and someone else to carry the weightbelt and start the outboard, or at least help paddle. Otherwise, well…

In theory, that was what publishers did. They owned the handful of boats, and their steersmen knew the shoals you had to pass. For a mere 40% or so of the rewards (the other 50% going to shoals as fresh mud) If you were one of their darlings they gave you a steersman, an outboard, and plenty of fuel. If you were just one of the hoi polloi that none-the-less got one of the boats – possibly with paddles, or at the bottom end, at least a leaky canoe. If you could bale with your cupped hands and paddle with them, you had some chance. You’d be tired on the far side, but alive, and able to gather a few rewards before having to do it all again. The darlings would look at their nice fat pile of rewards carried down to boat by the servitors, and sneer a bit at your in adequacy and preen a bit about how great they were.

If you didn’t have a publisher, you had, at best, a chance to wade through the thigh-deep glutinous mud, and most likely the tide would catch you before you got across. Every now and again some strong soul would time it right and manage it.

Only there have been some severe floods upstream, and the resultant washout has moved the mud. It’s only knee-deep mud now. And, in the flood, huge amounts of debris came down, submerged logs are still floating in the full tide, the boats all got damaged, and most of the fuel got lost or got water in it. And most of the boatmen don’t know where the mud-banks are, many got fired because the business isn’t strong, and some nicked the paddles (their editing, proof reading and cover skills) when they left.

The flood, of course, is the shift to e-books, and debris is the remains of the brick-and-mortar book trade and the new online retail environment. A few years ago those were nice clearly deliminated mub-banks, dominated by Barnes and Noble shoal and Borders shoal, with a handful of other minor players that those two hadn’t devoured. As the boat-men and boat-owners prefered to have to steer past those two shoals, rather than steer through hundreds of lesser ones, they’d happily added extra mud to them. That was 70% of what you had to get through… and the mud was impenetrable unless you had a boat to sail over the top. Your chances as a writer of wading through the independents to the other side was slim. In fact if your leaky canoes struck against one of those two banks, you were probably going to drown. I know this because Barnes and Noble refused to take one of Eric and moi’s early books in hardcover, and then again DRAGON’S RING.
It was pretty hard paddling and dragging ourselves through the gluey mud that got us to the far bank at all, and the rewards -despite good sales outside that venue – were decidely smaller.

Things have changed. Despite the huge and bitter protests from the boat-owners, the big shoals are actually smaller now. Amazon at 27% of total sales (according to Bowker quoted here) – is now the biggest shoal. If you can’t get past that, you will struggle. Barnes and Noble – which is a lot tougher to cross is 16% and down from 17% and fighting bitterly for more mud – not from their rival, Amazon, but from the boat-owners. The victims – besides Simon and Schuster and B&N market share, are largely the smaller publisher-published authors. The poor beggars who got a leaky canoe in first place, or at best a dodgy old rowboat and a map. It’s very noticable that SFWA, many of whose members are badly hurt by this is not pulling B&N’s buy buttons or delisting S&S as qualifying market.

The sweethearts who got a speedboat and boatman, and plenty of fuel are still getting them… except the fuel quality has turned to fairly dodgy, as suddenly B&N and Amazon are demanding 8 months notice and lots of online goodies, so they can eat the pre-sales. So I’ve come across industry darlings – as well as the hoi-polloi like me, moaning bitterly that their marketing and planning come to naught (A minor example from me – the blurb for STEAM MOLE and CUTTLEFISH

contain an error – date – which arrived from the proposal, not the book. I’ve tried to get it fixed, and perhaps so has the publisher. They also got the release date wrong – meaning the build up I planned for the last week… was… over befor it started. That was the date the publisher gave them. It changed but Amazon it seems was not prepared to. No-one, of course saw fit to tell me) because the big players do what they please. Of course the boat owners are now in dire trouble and really not able to refuse.

The interesting part about all of this, is that it is actually possible to wade across the river right now. And wading (with the help of a broken paddle from one the many ex-editors, proof readers, cover artists, which make really good sticks to keep you upright.) can bring you across as well as some boats Of course, it’s a long hard wade, and the rewards aren’t always large.

As I did here.

But it is possible without drowning.

The mudbanks are still shifting. Hopefully none of them get too big.


  1. I attended an Authors Day shindig (as a reader and buyer) last weekend. They had readings, mini-workshops, books galore. It was great fun for everything but my cash balance. The workshop in “Preparing your manuscript for publishing” was informative, but it was the poor writer asking about how to promote sales that was the most interesting. Her first book was by an established publisher. Beautiful artwork, she’d edited out all the sex at editorial demand . . . and seen it sink without push. The sequel, she was putting out herself. “How do I market this?” Oh my. “Go to conventions–SF and comics, get active online, go talk to independent bookstores . . . ”

    Wade through the mud.

    An excellent metaphor.

    I figure in five years we’ll have a made-of-scrap pontoon bridge that only gets swept away twice a year. Possibly downstream of the deluxe marina the Traditional Houses have built (corporate boats only–no personal yachts allowed.) The question will be, how many writers balance their way across the bridge and how many take a cruise on the company yacht–and wonder how their pockets got picked during the ride.

    1. I think there will be different levels of private pontoons – including ones that will cost you more than you can possibly earn, as well those selling packages of mud-shoes, and maps of shoals and guides (also often for more than you can earn) The trick will be choosing the best package…

  2. Heh. The river I write about in my nonfiction was infamous for quicksand as well as for rising and falling without warning, and for the bad taste of the water (salt, gypsum, and mud). It also ate bridges on a regular basis before people built a few dams on it.

    Marketing is one area where I have a lot of difficulty (who doesn’t?) because of having to stay “under cover” as it were. I’d like to tell people about my fiction, but I’m not sure how to do it without tipping someone off that I’m Alma Boykin as well as [redacted]. Maybe I should ask some of the bloggers who operate under cover how they manage it.

    1. I’ve been vaguely considering a psuedonym myself. I think that fictional persona has their own facebook page, friends, twitter account etc. And sometimes the readers say gee, why don’t you friend the real person? You’ll like her…

  3. Dan says the environment in publishing now reminds him of computers in the seventies when he came in. “No one knows anything” and “if everyone tells you they know the way, they’re lying.” This includes the big boys. What I’d like to do, to use your metaphor, is build a bridge of those floating logs, so a lot of us could get across dry shod. I can’t — yet — but Kris Rusch and Dean Smith are doing something like. I’m about to become involved (I think. The email came while I was struggling with what I think was beginnings of pneumonia. I’ve to find it/re-read it. yes, I’m doing better now.) and will report back. I’m also trying to figure out ebooks. One surprisingly lucrative venture has been the novel in installments. Oh, it’s not made me rich, but it gave me a bottom-level (5k for me) advance in the year it took to write. Enough to finance top of the line editing and a professional cover for it, and maybe a reader for the ebook.

    1. ” One surprisingly lucrative venture has been the novel in installments. Oh, it’s not made me rich, but it gave me a bottom-level (5k for me) advance in the year it took to write. Enough to finance top of the line editing and a professional cover for it, and maybe a reader for the ebook.”

      If someone were to write a savethedragons2 they could do it this way…

      1. Someone is considering this. We must have a chat, at some stage, BTW. I have a few minor questions about the process that I am sure you can answer off the back of your head, that would take me many months to work out.

          1. We sent the manuscript to literally every publisher out there – the key pitch being as the author wanted copies to send to subscribers, (Because that was the deal, if you donated $25 or more, you get a free copy IF and WHEN the book comes out) not an advance, the publisher (who gets the copies at a lot less than the author will (and the author gets them typically at 55%-65% of retail IIRC.) would make a fat saving of about 80% ofthe advance. No bites, although Baen did hold on a long time. As far as I can work out the reasons boil down to 1)We think the ‘garanteed’ market of regular followers of this author took it up already. He would send subscriber copies, and we would not make enough sales in paper. 2) We can’t have the electronic exclusive rights (so we can’t sell on Amazon etc.) and that’s where we hope/do make a lot of money, and anyway, a lot of people already read it.

            I simply can’t afford Amazon POD copies. It would realistically cost over half what the book earned and we spent on transporting the animals. I don’t have that money any more.

            What I am looking to do is to set up an honesty-box download on my site of the e-book: If you gave more than $5 to the collection we did for the quarantine fund, please help yourself if you want it. If you didn’t… well we’d suggest a fair price for the e-book would be $5. Moving the dogs and cats cost damn near 26K, Save the Dragon -which I couldn’t have done it without, raised 11K. The rest came from our savings and selling our home, and it would be nice to start towards having some savings and owning a home again πŸ™‚

            1. Bah. I donated to help the beasties. Not expecting to put you into a position of not being able to sell the book.

              But if you’re going to go all proud and noble sacrificish and “But I promised!” about it, doesn’t one of the POD companies let the author offer coupons? I’d be perfectly happy with a discount, instead of completely free. I always buy two copies and send one to my Mom. She refuses to read on anything but real paper books, and won’t spend the time trying to find the gold in the dross at the bookstore. But she loves everything I send her. She loved Dragon’s Ring and Dog and Dragon. Which is a long winded way of saying I really want you to get this one out. For my mom, and for your bank balance.

              Other donators please chime in.

              1. πŸ™‚ It’s quite hard to reply to this. I really, really appreciated the help I got with my wee beasties. But I made a bargain for that. I wrote about this in THIS ROUGH MAGIC – It’s why I spent what we had on my compact with my beasties. This is what I am and where I stand, because without that I might be richer, but I would not be me.

                1. The problem, at this point, and very much to my consternation, is that we’ve apparently rendered the book unpublishable by ordinary means. This was not intended. In fact, it’s infuriating. We need to figure out how get a copy to each of your contributors, so you’ll be free to self pub. How many copies do you need? Enough for a small print run, rather than POD?

    2. It sounds… interesting. Anything that allows us more independence and flexibility sounds interesting. I’m going to be trying a lot more experiments in the next while.

        1. Kickstarter – and I did have a look – is limited to US and UK residents with bank accounts, tax ID etc there. So: not viable for this 8 monts short of being an Australian (I am a permanent resident here).

          1. Oh, that’s interesting. Rather stupid, given the lack of boundaries on the Internet. I hadn’t realized that they were regionally challenged.

            1. Well, they’re in plenty of company. Barnes and Noble restrict the Nook Self publishing book sales to US citizen (might be Canada too, I forget. It wasn’t Australia), Amazon make it a lot harder and more expensive for us scruffy furriners. Smashwords turn it all around and to their credit, deal happily with anyone who can get a paypal account, and will happily put your book onto B&N’s listings. They do withhold a lot of tax, even if there tax treaty. Still, better than not at all

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