Changing Spots

In the days when everybody started fair, Best Beloved, the Leopard lived in a place called the High Veldt. ‘Member it wasn’t the Low Veldt, or the Bush Veldt, or the Sour Veldt, but the ‘sclusively bare, hot, shiny High Veldt, where there was sand and sandy-coloured rock and ‘sclusively tufts of sandy- yellowish grass. The Giraffe and the Zebra and the Eland and the Koodoo and the Hartebeest lived there; and they were ‘sclusively sandy-yellow-brownish all over; but the Leopard, he was the ‘sclusivest sandiest-yellowish-brownest of them all–a greyish-yellowish catty-shaped kind of beast, and he matched the ‘sclusively yellowish-greyish-brownish colour of the High Veldt to one hair. This was very bad for the Giraffe and the Zebra and the rest of them; for he would lie down by a ‘sclusively yellowish-greyish-brownish stone or clump of grass, and when the Giraffe or the Zebra or the Eland or the Koodoo or the Bush-Buck or the Bonte-Buck came by he would surprise them out of their jumpsome lives.

How the Leopard got his spots, Rudyard Kipling, JUST SO STORIES 1902.

Now it’s not entirely true to say I’m as mean as cat’s wee. But it’s got its moments of truth, I’ll admit. My parents – especially my father who came out of a relative affluent childhood straight into the Great Depression — were shaped by that, and some of that plainly rubbed off on me.

The Scots part of my heritage merely relates to sheep. My clan are generous to fault, especially with English Sheep.

And the one place it really, really shows is that I absolutely hate wasting cartridges. Because of how we live (in a remote, rural place) I shoot much of our protein. I’m no great shot, but I very seldom miss, because I stalk well and patiently. I have a bipod rest, a good scope, and lots of discipline. I only do head shots because I like clean kills, it doesn’t waste meat, and I can. It’s not ‘sport’, and I never try to give anything ‘a sporting chance’. I’m sure my noble British ancestors are doing 50 thousand revs in their graves at my bird harvesting, especially when I climb trees and pull down sleeping turkeys at night. The rest of my ancestors – who always regarded the British ones as targets in red coats – would cheer.

So: if there’s one thing I really hate it’s the moving target. In particular I hate it if I’ve leopard-crawled a long way in the mud and wet grass, and it doesn’t even know I’m there… and it decides to go somewhere else. I’ve never seen the point of that hasty shot, although I’ll admit I’ve made a few.

I don’t like waste, and I don’t like missing and I really don’t like not being in control and having to still have a go.

Of course has a fair bit of similarity to current publishing and writing (How did you guess, just because this is a writing site?) The problem is our whole genre, all of publishing (both indy and traditional) and the business of writing are moving targets. Even the audience is moving and changing. And they’re not moving predictably, but like a cheetah full of amphetamine, LSD and blindfolded too.

Which is all rough on the painstaking ‘stalker’ – the author trying to set themselves up for the ‘kill’. It’s certainly resulted in some very wild shooting – some innocent bystanders hit, lots of prey (AKA sales) disappeared into the scrub never to be seen again. I mean, once upon a time you simply had to kiss up to the right editors, loudly espouse the correct SJW cause de jour and you were in every B&N from here to Timbuktu, and on NYT bestseller list… and life was sweet. Now you can do all that, impeccably, win a Nebula and a Hugo, and be in the surviving book-stores… and still be a sales failure. Readers are being considerably more difficult and relying on Amazon, are more price aware, and more inclined to sample on KU.

My suspicion is that this is just the beginning. I’m willing to bet that by the time the current US election cycle is over, a considerable number of authors (particularly in traditional publishing) will have alienated some readers forever. It looks to be heated, and divisive and very much on social media. And, honestly I don’t think Indy authors’ readers – or the environment – is staying still either. Amazon is shifting, and, while it’s still a much better payer with more transparent accounting and sales control, it is also heading towards a monopoly. Buying tastes are changing, constantly, too.

So: given that game is moving off into other spots, how does the Leopard cope? Well, the author. We are more like the Leopard than the Ethiopian. The Ethiopian was grown up and used long words which meant just the same thing as the Leopard, but was less easy to understand.

The first step I think is accepting that game has moved. I think a lot trad publishing just can’t get their head around that, and will starve.

However according to the wise Baviaan, the rest of us will take steps – following the game and adapting to the new circumstances. Going into other spots ourselves.

My less-than-wise monkey ideas go as follows (I would be delighted to hear yours):

Use a scattergun approach. You’re going to have to move fast and shoot (write) often.

Work towards independence. Build your own social networks to advertize on, find your own editors and proof readers, learn where to get, or make covers. Learn how to format your own e-books.

Be as cash positive, low debt, and expectation free as possible.

Work towards either a broad spectrum or an underserved part of the market.

Keep looking, learning, and trying to anticipate. Don’t just trend-follow. (Doctrinaire PC and militant feminism were successful trends. Once. By the time the media, churches and politicians get onto anything, it’s usually past apogee.)

Watch the economics – that’s where things change first. You can’t drive price change (as trad publishing are trying with e-book prices), but you can respond fast to it. You can move into new markets, and experiment with different formats – without losing your shirt in the effort.

I think authors would be wise to start accumulating mailing lists of their loyal readers. Firstly for advertising, and possibly offering books at pre-public sale discount seems smart to me. – you can discount by 20% and still beat Amazon.

I think looking toward writer’s co-ops would be smart.

An interesting area is going to be translation: it’s still entirely pwned by SJW publishing and a large source of the incomes of their authors – how that will work if Europe goes from zero to jackboots (or even part way) is a moot question. I have little doubt the current source would not be popular in that scenario.

I think the red/blue (or rather, blue vs the rest) divide in public life, including book sales, is going to become pronounced. As I’ve said before the ‘blue’ side has sold successfully to the rest, while refusing largely to buy the ‘red’ – and pillorying and attacking them. I think they’re going to push that, hard, without realizing what that does to a pendulum.

All of this will open gaps, and make for my least favorite kind of shooting. But whatever you do: don’t stay still. The game is not coming back. Change – as little as the denizens of File 770 or Tor books like it and try to stop it — is happening. And it won’t co-operate as to direction or speed either, not for anyone.

Then said Baviaan, ‘The aboriginal Fauna has joined the aboriginal Flora because it was high time for a change; and my advice to you, Ethiopian, is to change as soon as you can.’


  1. “True, O Monk. Like a book thou talkest, Monkey.”

    I think readers like amazon because its a one stop shop and because it does a great job of “people who bought this also bought…” recommendations but I’m not sure readers have a particular brand loyalty to Amazon. If Amazon stops being convenient or giving good value for money it won’t be very hard to set up an alternative distributor.

    So yes an astute author would be thinking about ways to both ride the Amazon wave and yet be prepared to jump ships (and mix metaphors) if Amazon stops offering such a clear win-win for all. It also seems to me that writers might want to look at the Baen model of eARCs and bundles that are sold direct without Amazon as a way to build an alternate sales channel.

    1. I must admit I have wondered about e-bay and facebook trying their hands at book or e-book sales simply because its a big platform. Brand loyalty to Amazon – their returns policy is great – and as a writer their transparency of accounting is great, as is their reliable, timeous paying. Any competitor (even a trad publisher hoping to go the EArc/bundle route) needs to match.

        1. Particularly if a writers’ coop were to build an eBay storefront, so there would be sufficient variety and turnover.
          The problem for the reader/customer is to know where to look, with sufficient reliability that most searches for a new book to read will return one or a few results. This argues against making the interface too narrow and splintered (E.g. having to visit all of the individual sites of authors I’ve bought from would take too long, with insufficient chance of discovering new in the time available.)

      1. I will not use Facebook to buy anything. Too much perceived SJW bias. I don’t want to reward them.

  2. I think looking toward writer’s co-ops would be smart.

    Not sure if Story Bundle would fit into that idea. Several people have mentioned Story Bundle (here & offline), so I finally decided to take a look ~2mos ago.

    No interest in what they were offering then, but I signed up for the reminders. Lo and behold — one of the next bundles had two long-time favorite books (along with a buncha others).

    So, I either horribly overpaid for those two books, or horribly underpaid for 11 books. Either way, I think we all (readers & authors) come out ahead: I’ve got two well-loved books along with 9 others that may pique my interest sometime in the future, and the authors have an in with a (potential) new customer.

    1. It would definitely be a part of any such venture. Basically using a ‘carrier’ – popular author, to provide an introduction to other authors. But I can see things like group buying for art, and tables at cons as well sales direct from site.

  3. I went through my shelves a while back, noting books by writers I had liked, but hadn’t seen since the SF SJW implosion of the 1990s. Solid midlist authors, all of them. I searched the web for information.

    A disconcerting number were dead. A couple were still writing, but their publishers were doing so little to promote them I hadn’t seen anything of theirs since the 20th century. The rest apparently had been abandoned by their publishers. In the IT world, this happens when someone gets too much skill and experience; that makes them want more money. Since it’s an article of faith that all IT people are interchangeable, they’re discarded and replaced with newbies who’ll work 70 hour weeks for a minimal salary.

    I got the strong impression something similar was happening in the publishing industry.

    Some of these authors were dabbling at indy, usually in some designed-to-fail half-assed manner. Most had simply quit writing; they were old enough they had bills and responsibilities, and had to get real jobs. Some simply retired, as far as I could tell.

    Many of them *talked* about indy. But what they kept saying was, “Dammit Jim, I’m a writer, not a marketer / editor / cover designer / whatever.”

    If that’s what it takes to get to “and then you get paid”, and they’re not willing to take the next step… I guess that’s why they’re not writers any more.

    1. Some writers don’t want to be publishers. Until they decide to change–or a gabillion medium to small publishers start up–they’re writing for themselves.

      1. I seriously believe Castilia is merely one of the first of the new generation publishers. Say what you like about Vox Day – he pays 50%, does the legwork AND does the marketing. And he really does market. 50% of $20K (and no hassles and costs) is worth a lot more than 70% of $3K and hassles, costs. But at 17.5% of most of the Trad houses (apples to apples comparison) where they do the legwork, but scanty marketing but bump the price right up (so you might get $5K sales) well – it’s a no-brainer, really. Which is why I worry so much that so many people still choose that option.

        1. I wonder if the gaming and game-related businesses are going to be the genesis for most of the new gen publishers. Don’t find a game you like? Make one and sell it to others. Can’t find books you like? Make them and sell them, or use word of mouth/blogs/Wattpad/LJ/podcasts to find authors/storytellers and make the books. Vox Day knew gaming and knew business, wrote and learned publishing, and the rest is recent history and current events.

      2. Seems like the indy-publishing-services business would be a match for ex-agents who find themselves with reduced stables of authors as tradpub diminishes. Or at least some of them… who have the drive and flexibility to become an efficient marketer / editor / cover designer / whatever for writers who don’t have those skills but want to keep on writing.

    2. “If that’s what it takes to get to “and then you get paid”, and they’re not willing to take the next step… I guess that’s why they’re not writers any more.”

      Exactly – you have to do the marketing, cover design – whatever. And I think you are right about publishers cutting loose the mid-list, partly to make cheaper deals with novices and to put the massive savings thereby into a few guaranteed block-buster writers.

      1. Indeed. Even in traditional publishing, it’s always been about more than the writing. You still have to sell yourself, whether it’s by learning how to properly send queries and manuscripts, schmoozing with agents at conventions, and so on. And you’re expected to do a lot of the marketing regardless of who your publisher is: must have a blog/FB/Twitter/Instagram/Pokemon Go/Grindr ((might be getting a couple of those mixed up, hehe) account or you’re not doing enough for the cause. Not to mention do book signings, panels and all that jazz.

        To me, that’s a lot of work for a cut of the proceeds and an advance that for most writers won’t cover more than a couple months’ expenses. I’d rather learn a few new skills or at pay a portion of my proceeds (rather than 75%+ of sales in perpetuity) to a subcontractor and get the lion’s share of the sales.

        1. CJ – Baen are 25% of gross. The rest are 25% of net – around 17.5 at best, so that’s 82.5% of your income in perpetuity – for what can be a piss-poor job that they do. It’s why I am moving away from it.

          1. And this, and what CJ wrote, is why I changed opinions on indie. It wasn’t a bad opinion of indie writers, but the risk of myself going indie. But if a writer’s got to do most of the work, why are traditional publishers getting most of the cut – and why would anyone agree to this arrangement?

            1. Pardon my ignorance, I’m a reader not a writer, (LOVED the new Warp Marines book C.J. !) And I’m pretty sure I’ve got both of whatever either of you have in print by now.

              I’m looking for clarification. When you say 82.5% of income. They meaning Publisher X is keeping 8.25 of a 10.00 book sale every time!?

              Baen is keeping 75%, you get paid 25% of gross, which sounds good, but still, makes sense why Castalia is pretty attractive.

              I’m all about the author “GETS PAID” as Larry Corriea puts it, since you keep writing and I keep reading.


              1. 🙂 I’m not CJ but I am the guy the figures came from. Yes, the $8.25 is kept by the publisher AND the bookseller/retailer (sometimes the publisher is both, but not often). If the e-book sells for $10 – Amazon (the bookseller/retailer) keeps $3. The publisher gets $7.00 after 2 months. The author then gets paid $1.75 by the publisher – but not immediately. The author only gets paid bi-annually after a full 6 month reporting period. So for example if the reporting period is January-June, July-December and the book came out on 1 Jan… the first FULL reporting period is July-December. Then payments are legally obliged to be IIRC within three months. They are usually later than that – 5 months bordering on 6 often (I have been doing this for 20 years. It sucks). So payment will always be at least 11 months late, and can run to 18. Oh and did I mention the accounting? it’s totally non-transparent. You CAN pay for an audit, which will be refunded if it finds an excess of $200 owing. You’ll also never publish with any of the big 5 again.

                1. Thank you for the info Dave! I also see why “Indie” publishing is growing by leaps and bounds as Sarah, yourself, and many other authors have talked about.

                  The audit thing is possibly even worse. How dare you want to get paid.

      2. except… well those ‘guaranteed block-busters’? they 1) cost a lot more up front. A LOT. 2)That’s all very well provided they actually sell block-buster. But they don’t always (and that’s happening more and more). And then 1)comes back to bite them on the ass.

        1. I am going to open up another service through the Teeny Publishing Bidness that I own (a local-oriented specialty small subsidy publisher) and that is to offer my services as an adviser – to help local authors set up as their own publisher. I will take care of editing, formatting, and cover design, and walk local authors through getting an ISBN, setting up an account with LSI – and producing a PDF file for interior and cover which will meet LSI requirements.

          The Teeny Business got started 35+years ago with companies and local-interest authors who just had a very specific interest and wanted a turn-key publisher. I talked the original owner of the firm into doing a POD option when I got taken into it as a partner – but now I think that this is the next step, for authors who want to do this, don’t have the knowledge or confidence. I’ll walk them through the process, provide the editing, formatting and cover design — and then help them set up. Already done it with two local clients since the beginning of the year. There are writers who have the talent – but just have to be shown the way.

      3. $10 Million advances have to come from SOMEwhere. So yeah, fire the competent writers in the mid-list, sign a bunch of cheap noobs, and hope your star comes up with something. There’s a solid foundation to build your business upon! It might even get you promoted to co-publisher!

        1. I’m kind of expecting that one to end in tears. The bizarre part has been midlist authors cheering – both the appointment and the advance. (shakes head) Ah well. Iffen you cain’t learn by thinkin’ you’ll just have learn by feeling the pain.

          1. They read about all the zeroes on the checks King and Rowling get, and their critical reasoning facilities go “tilt.”

            I’ve seen known a couple of people who gambled themselves into poverty. They’d win often enough to keep them in the game, but all they saw were the wins; the losses just didn’t register.

            A similar go-for-broke mentality seems to infect most of the publishing industry.

    3. TRX – ” Since it’s an article of faith that all IT people are interchangeable, they’re discarded and replaced with newbies who’ll work 70 hour weeks for a minimal salary.” – this is very much a core belief in publishing, at least until your sales are huge. It may be true, but I don’t think so. I think many midlist authors have fairly unique voices and dedicated audiences. It’s not a vast audience – but that author is the favorite or one of the favorites for that reader. They buy all their work, often in HC or eARC. When they go… they are not simply replaced by reader. Usually the reader just stops buying quite as much.

      1. Yes, we’re not in the book industry, we’re in the entertainment industry. If people cannot immediately find more books they want, they’re just as likely to turn to netflix, hulu, amazon prime video, youtube… and that’s before we even leave the house for movies, waterparks, mini golf, baseball games, and a thousand other ways that people can be entertained for that same money.

        As Heinlein put it, we’re competing for beer money.

  4. Underserved markets: I was making a last visit to Hastings yesterday (doors closed forever at midnight. RIP.) and took a look at the Romance section as I waited for someone. I saw 1) paranormal romances with lots of erotic moments, 2) almost erotica marketed as romance, 3) historical romances with lots of steamy scenes. No wonder so many romance readers have switched to buying from indie authors! yes, PR is still one of the top genres on Amazon as well, but sweet romance? Historical without the lust? Contemporary without so much lust? Not on the shelves that I looked at. I suspect B&N might have a little more variety (they did 18 months ago when last I looked there), but not too much more.

    1. Yeah, several of my friends are into romance, but stick to authors who write Regency pastiches or Christian Romance, because otherwise (they tell me) they’ll be reading what amounts to a whole lot of sex scenes between two mannequins.

      Not everyone is into smut, just because someone wrote terrible explicit fiction that somehow became a fad.

      Just like not everyone is into “Message” SF just because some sub group somewhere has decided we HAVE to be.

    2. I know of a lot of people turning YA to avoid the entire graphic sex thing. As a result the SJW YA authors are desperately working at putting more in. Look – if you’re a teen wanting graphic sex – it’s not hard to find. If you’re not really wanting that in your – it is.

        1. It’s really weird how desperate some of them are to deliberately chase potential readers off.

          I was reading a comic book and there was a sneak preview for a blackly humorous SF/horror comic where every animal on Earth suddenly gains sapience and the ability to speak. The preview appealed to me, so I looked the writer up.

          In an interview promoting her series, she had this to say (only slightly paraphrased): “Yes, I’m writing a book about a father figure protecting his surrogate daughter…and I just know that drives you innately EVIL, innately STUPID male comic book fans crazy! Because you’re all perverts and sexist pigs who only like reading smutty teenage super-heroine orgies! You creeps! You all make me sick! Oh, I’m such a victim! A perfect, pure victim! …*….oh, and, uh, buy my book and stuff.”

          …I was -going- to. Then I listened to you. Guess I’ll just go buy some Usagi Yojimbo instead or something.

          1. A perfect example. It’s not enough to virtue-signal like crazy, they also have to be insulting. And then they are surprised when fans vote with their wallets. Because in a free market, it’s pretty hard to browbeat people into buying a product.

  5. Another bundling service that makes it much easier for authors to participate: I have taken part in three so far. It makes it much easier to handle the whole “how to split up the money without going mad or starting fights” issue.

    Mailing lists and bundles and the like are good for a certain subsection of the reading public–those who are comfortable with sideloading their books. Fortunately, a large percentage of SF fans are computer-savvy and the thought of copying a file does not trouble them. However, a much larger chunk of the audience with money they should be giving me for my deathless prose is NOT. Amazon’s search is stellar, yes, but I suspect the Kindle auto-synch is a bigger factor in customer loyalty. Until we find a way around that Amazon is always going to be the biggest gorilla (sorry Monkey!) and I doubt very much they will ever make it easy for indies to go direct to Kindles without them. Maybe the tablet market will help with that. (Yes, Kindle has a “send to” feature but you have to go into settings, whitelist the sending email, and already that is too much tech for a lot of people. It has to be one-click simple to supplant the Kindle path.)

  6. I’m pretty confident in my forecast of the election’s actual results, but am unsure what the social side will bring.

    1. Neither am I – but what I am certain about is that the rifts in US society are now far wider (and coming out into the open) far more than 10 years ago. The problems have been around a while, but just not spoken about. Suppressed. That was supposed to make them all go away. Well, actually I think it has made it far worse.

  7. One area underserved by traditional publishing seems to be science fiction with good guys–meaning good men. When I was a teen reading science fiction I loved finding books with good women (and I did), but wanted more because the ratio wasn’t perfect. Now I find myself wanting books with more good men, because the ratio still isn’t perfect. I like books where the genders are complementary, not antagonistic.

      1. You know you’re doing it right! Just finished the Cuttlefish books and loved them, too.

  8. Is it okay to file a request for Writing Workshop topics? I would like very much a discussion of novel plotting and how construct a really good pay-off. I see lots of advice about raising tension and greater conflict and an ever greater series of problems to solve caused by what is done to solve the problem previous. But part of me says that all of those things can happen without actually *getting* anywhere.

    And now I’m thinking of romance and movies because the emotional needs and shape of the plot on those is really explicit. With romance you aim for that Dark Night of the Soul moment where it all will go irrevocably astray and your lovers will not get together after all. In a movie script the books all insist that All Is Lost has to happen at a particular point. Now maybe it’s just that no one is willing to be so prescriptive but I’m finding that there isn’t a whole lot out there, at least where I’ve looked, that really addresses how to construct this really satisfying emotional punch.

    I donno.

    I’m very interested to know what the experienced authors here think about when they construct a plot.

    1. I’m curious what you mean by “getting” anywhere?
      One book that is tremendously helpful, and full of all sorts of structural advice, is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Also, I saw on Jim Butcher’s site about a year ago a lot of advice on How to Write a Novel, and it addressed at least part of your question. I remember noting the similarities between Butcher’s and Swain’s advice. I went looking for the Butcher article today to link, but it seems to have gotten buried. There is clearly an article in there on how to write a climax, but no hyperlink.

      1. addendum: one of the things that Swain says readers really like is if there’s an element of moral choice at the climax. That makes things especially satisfying. For example, if the hero must decide to sacrifice himself to save everyone else, that decision makes things even more harrowing and thus more satisfying if he recoups or someone else saves him.

        1. I’ll check out Swain. Thanks.

          As for not getting anywhere… I’m probably reacting to advice to “follow my characters and see where they go” and to reading a few books lately that are exciting and interesting and have lots of stuff happen but don’t really feel like anything in the world has changed at the end.

          1. Are you thinking the stories are too much like TV episodes where everyone is the same as when they started? Or, are you looking for more world shaking, as in the external world, effects, ?

            1. I started noticing a similarity between TV I like and books I like: The multi-arc plot. For good TV, it’s usually series, season, and episode. Obviously, since everything takes place during episodes, the “focus” has to move about. It seems that there are not that many writers out there who can do it well (perhaps some aren’t even trying). Individual scenes that move all three plot-lines at the same time can be works of genius. It’s taken re-watching some favorite shows (sometimes several times) to notice this.

              I think a well done series of novels does the same thing, if not in quite as strict a format. Having just read The Displaced Detective series (yes, 5 stars; yes, wrote [short] review), it’s fresh in my mind: It has at least three plot-lines going at any given time: Book (who dunnit?), Season (what happens with Skye and Sherlock, this time?), and Series (how Sherlock integrates with the 21st century).

              That added depth (realism?) of multiple things going on at once – layered, not in parallel – really makes a work shine for me.

              1. That tends to make it hard to pick up a series in the middle or just watch an episode here or there or out of order very often but I do think it makes for better television.

            2. I wouldn’t have said so but that might be it, now that I think about it. I think that one of the main reasons that I like science fiction is that something happens, or is found out, that changes things permanently. I don’t *think* that needs to be on the scale of the Universe or the Galaxy or an Empire. I *think* it could be at a really personal level. But maybe that’s the feeling I’m trying to catch hold of.

              Maybe… maybe it’s like… you could have a romance with lots of conflict and tension and emotional ups and downs and sexual attraction and then your two protagonists decide to continue to date.

  9. Not really related to the discussion above, but…

    Dave, I’ve got a fellow in our Star Trek Online Armada who’s looking for books for his 12 year old daughter to read. I told him my son was enjoying your Dragon’s Ring and Dog and Dragon books, and said you wrote the kind of books that we missed – the kind we would love our own kids to enjoy without worrying about the content, and that we could also pick up ourselves and enjoy, and hopefully years along the line when the kiddies have grown, they can rediscover and enjoy all over again.


    1. Tell him about Changeling Island! Awesome book. Also, there’s a cool girl in it, too.

      1. I did! He said that he’d definitely look it up.

        I found out about his being a reader because he suddenly asked me if I was the author of Sparrowind and said that he loved the book, which got us talking about books that were fun for both adults and children to enjoy, especially with heroes that were meant to inspire children. (He liked Harry Potter for getting kids into reading again, but he said there were points where he wanted to shake Harry, tell him to stop being a whiny thing, and pull himself together, there’s a war going on, you’re going to DIE. LOL!! )

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