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Posts tagged ‘Donald Maas’

Fading Flower or Why Bestselling Self-Published Authors Are Just Better

Donald Maas puts it that agented selected traditional published ‘crème de la crème’ bestselling authors are the first class of books, the midlist being economy or coach class, and the ordinary self-published Joe is freight class. Hmm. Obviously he is as skilled in logic as he is in his understanding of the word ‘cull’. I do understand with a background in the rarified world of NYC publishing that such vulgar agricultural matters may not come his way much, despite the vast quantity of male bovine excreta produced there. In fact, as I will now attempt to prove in terms of that other obviously agricultural matter which obviously isn’t well known in NYC publishing circles, logic — in terms of talent, on average, agent-selected, traditionally published authors are… third class bestsellers, and quite possibly of less value than even midlisters, or largely indistinguishable from those.

Hugh Howey’s excellent data-crawl analysis here included the star rating of Indy and other including big five bestsellers. It’s noticeable that the big five bestsellers had lower average star ratings, which Howey puts down (quite kindly IMO) to price expectation. After all if you pay a Rolls-Royce price, you expect Rolls-Royce quality. While I appreciate his effort and find most of his post accurate, (Update, they are now saying further examination shows price-point for price-point Indy still licks the big 5) on this I must differ. This is not price expectation. This is the Bumiputera effect*. This is why Donald Maas’s big five bestseller clients are, on average, not as good as the Independent bestsellers. This is why on average independent bestsellers – or even those achieving midlist sales, are better than I am.

Maas and his fellow travelers inform us that as they filter, it means that what gets to the top (through them) is better at the top… because it is filtered first. But the final measure of quality is not what it went through to get to the top, it is being at the top of the sales. To put it in slightly different terms. Many skiers wish to get Olympic medals. Three will get medals. The final measure of quality is the medal (a bestseller), not the process that got them there. (A million writers will put their books up for sale, a hundred will become bestsellers). The million entrants and their origins and methods are irrelevant. What counts is that they are bestsellers (or medalists) NOT the run-up to that.

One skier may have been picked up by a talent scout (literary agent) at a minor competition and had all their training and support at the expense of the state and more sponsorship than they can spend (publisher’s dahling), and the best equipment and training money can buy.

Another skier was self-taught, and got there by sheer determination and endless self-training, won competition after competition without sponsorship and without support, and had to sell his home to be there. They’re both in the Olympics. They both win medals. Which had more talent? (Odds on the self-taught got the gold, but that aside.)

On average, the independent bestseller is a better writer, works harder, and deserves more credit for their achievement (and generally seem nicer, more supportive of others, and less insecure too). They had a bigger mountain to climb and needed more skill to get there. Given the degree of support that the Big Five dahling had, the average Indy midlister would eat their lunch. Being an agent’s pick, a Big Five dahling… is NOT the imprimatur of quality that being an Indy bestseller is. Actually, all it may be is the mark of a spoiled brat or a good kiss-up artist. It’s something I’d love to see those in that position show they can rise above, show independence of mind and generosity of spirit, but alas, so many fail. So, in the interests of not being one of them, and with a reputation for insanity to keep up… (I was told I was insane to promote other authors and not myself. Hey, what can I say? You’ve blown my cover.) Here are some Indies that have shown me what hard work and good writing are. (The pictures are links to Amazon) I can recommend all of them, and they cover all types for all tastes. There is something there for you unless you like bleah grey goo.

A-pleasure-to-read sf series. At last.

Our Kate at her snarky best. If you ever went to a sf/fantasy con… do not read in front of a keyboard with liquids.

I wrote cover copy for it. I do not write cover copy. Do I have to explain?

Yes, I know. It’s a dirty job but someone has to write decent shapeshifter/urban fantasy/romance-ish stuff. And a lot of people like it.

As for Maas’s ‘luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd’: Yes, this is quite an accurate assessment of the future of publishing. Only I wouldn’t call it a ‘luxury’ so much as a ‘total disaster’. And we may differ about what we see as the ‘the herd’ — I see as those well-domesticated cash-cows who are ‘farmed’ by NY publishing, rather than indy writers, who don’t placidly get herded into cattle trucks . Culling the prize cattle – killing the future breeding stock — certainly seems to be what they’re heading for. You know where that ends, don’t you? Just as bankers are finding out the boring bits of banking exist for good reason. They’re reliable and work. Gambling is just that. (Gamblers who are consistent winners or even above break-even aren’t ‘gambling’, believe me.) Maas’s weird daydream that: “Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves” – and then somehow give this for love to help poor little agents and the publishing industry, without it costing said Industry more than they can make without them, is straight delusional. Firstly, I’ve yet to meet an author who chose to do their own publicity because they enjoyed it, and thought that seeing it was so much fun they’d write a book. It may happen, but it’s not just a black swan, it’s a Higgs-Boson black swan. They chose to do it, because they had to. Some are good at it. But having borne that expense and put in that effort, they know what they can reap from it. They will only agree to a deal with a publisher (who 10:1 is from an industry that rejected them) for a serious multiplier of their own effort and income. And they will be setting tough terms, often only possible for a publisher by robbing Peter – existing authors, to pay the new Paul. What is Peter going to do about this, if he can?). In short, the only clients that agents (who, contrary to popular belief, do not, by-in-large work for authors, but are little more than slush filters that publishers generously allow authors the luxury of paying for) can look forward to having, and being eager for publishers to exploit in the traditional way… are losers. Those with no skill, who can’t sell without publisher push, or no self-confidence, will still want the third-class validation.

There are going to be some culls happening, but methinks not quite where you thought they would. Don’t forget that SASE with your resume.

*The Bumiputera Effect – as displayed in Medicine in Indonesia, where historically, most of the Doctors were ethnic Chinese. So in effort to make the society ‘indigenous’, hurdles were put in front of ethnic Chinese students, meaning it was far harder for a non-Bumiputera (look it up, Google is your friend) student to get in to medicine and to graduate, whereas Bumiputera had fantastic support and needed lower marks to proceed. The end result of this was if you were really, really sick, or had a precious sick child or partner, or parent, you took them to a Chinese doctor, because while Bumiputera Doctors MIGHT be good, Chinese ones almost had to be brilliant, because it was so much harder to get there. Yes I know, the entry to making a book available for sale has no barrier for self-publishing, and a huge barrier through an agent. But we’re comparing SALES, not availability. And authors who have been accepted by an agent and a big 5 publisher, even if they’re no better than one who hasn’t, have a substantial bookstore exposure, and supposedly professional help with covers, publicity, editing and proofing. If you’re a dahling, push with promotion and marketing too. If someone who hasn’t had that, has equaled or bettered your sales, they’re more popular with readers = better than you are, in that sense, and that’s the sense the world measures, not Hugo awards.

The gates have been opened and the walls are crumbling

Yesterday, Sarah sent me a link to a post by Joe Konrath. The post itself is as informative as it is entertaining (and I really need to quit reading him during the work day. As with the Passive Voice, I tend to read all the comments, follow all the links and — oops — there goes an hour or more of the day). Two things, in particular, jumped out at me as I read. The first is that self-publishing is a shadow industry and there ” are no accurate surveys or polls to show how big it is, or how fast it is being adopted.” The second is even more telling. He wonders why, if legacy publishers are so in-touch with what is going on and so sure of their place in the industry, they aren’t coming and challenging what he says about the state of the industry. It’s a great post and I recommend everyone go read it.

One thing Konrath says is that the walls the gatekeepers have built up and continue to tout as their strengths will come crumbling down if writers start talking to one another. That is the first step. The second, in my opinion, is even more important. We have to stop being afraid to rock the boat. Sarah has written before about how writers coming up in the business before self-publishing became a viable option were told that to question your editor was the kiss of death. To publicly cast doubt on your editor or publisher could crash your career. You accepted your royalty statements, even though you knew they were wrong, with a smile and took the kick in the teeth. After all, publishers can’t be bothered with doing anything as difficult as actually tracking sales in this day and age of advanced databases. They are really looking out for your best interests by using some arcane hand-wavium known as BookScan to figure out how much they owe you. Oh, and let’s not forget about the rights grab contracts, especially for new authors, include.

Are you starting to get the picture about why authors need to be more vocal in discussing what’s going on?

But the gatekeepers help us. They tell us they do. They help separate the dreck from the potential best seller. They give us editorial support and take care of all that icky bookkeeping. They promote us and get us into bookstores. They are the gods of publishing.

Except writers are scaling Mount Olympus and the reading public is following them. The myth of editing and proofreading became more transparent with the advent of e-readers. There is something about reading a book on your Kindle or other e-reader that makes errors stand out. Things your eye missed on the printed page seem to jump out at you as you read it on your tablet or dedicated e-reader. Hmmm, that e-book from one of the Big 5 you just paid $10 for has as many, or more, errors in it as the $4.99 indie book. Where’s the editing and proofreading they were supposed to do?

I could go on and on but won’t. Most everyone here at MGC have written about it at length. What I want to do is take a look at what the other side is still saying about the gatekeepers and the evils of self-publishing.

Donald Mass, agent of the old guard, posted his take on the state of the industry here.  He uses flowery language that almost makes the self-publishing push sound like a grand, yet failed revolution. Those of us who see it as a viable alternative are termed “true believers”.  To read him, e-books have been the salvation of legacy publishing and have been embraced by the industry with welcome arms. Um, has he been following the same reports and comments over the years as I have?

Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games,Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.

That sound you hear is every mid-list writer who isn’t in complete denial screaming in anger. The mid-list was only a money loser for publishers when the publisher dropped the ball. The thing about your mid-list was that you knew there was a built-in audience for those books. You knew that if you didn’t screw it up by bringing books out too close together, by not giving them basically the same cover and by by letting purchasing agents for bookstores know that Midlister A had a new book coming out you’d have a pretty much guaranteed income of X-dollars. The problem is that publishers did drop the ball. They started bringing out mid-list series every few months and with covers that looked so much alike the bookstore purchasers thought they already had that book in stock. So orders dropped and, suddenly, your mid-listers didn’t make the money they used to.

Think about it. How many series have you started, as a reader, and anxiously awaited the next book only to find that after the second or third book the series was dropped? Was it really because interest flagged or because the publishers thought they could skew the system and get money quicker by cutting corners and changing the order paradigm they’d spent years creating?

Now look at those mega-best sellers Maas lists above. Think about how those particular publishers put everything behind that series and then, when the series is over, they have nothing to take its place. Gone are the dollars from the mommy porn despite all the wanna-be clones of it the publisher has bought and brought out. Look at the income reports for the last quarter and see how the 50 Shades publisher is moaning because its income is down now that the series is over. Twilight’s publisher is in the same situation. So yeah, the quick dollar is nice and that is what the publishers cut the mid-listers for. Grab the bucks now and we’ll find another mega hit before this current one is over.

Except that rarely happens and, because you cut the mid-list, you have even cut off that guaranteed income you would have otherwise had.

Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd.

In one sense, he’s right. But only in one very narrow sense. Authors are “voluntarily” building an audience ourselves because we’ve been told we have to. Even those who want to go the traditional route are told we have to build our “brand”. When you try to find an agent, you are often asked — even before you are given the opportunity to query — what your marketing plan is. Those who do have agents are told they need to blog, be active in social media. Oh, and those book tours and marketing efforts publishers tell you they’ll do? Those are on your own dime unless you’ve been tagged as the latest dahling or you are one of the special few. The fact that authors are choosing to “voluntarily” build an audience before getting a publishing contract isn’t o help publishers. It’s because most of us have decided we’d be better off spending those dollars and recovering them from our higher self-publishing or small press royalties than lining the pockets of a publisher and agent. And as for those authors the publishers “cull” out (and don’t you just love being compared to cattle? Sort of give you an idea of what agents and publishers think of us, doesn’t?), how often do you hear about them after the “culling”?

According to Maas, those of us who self-publish or small press publish are the freight class. We bear all the costs and rarely succeed. According to him, the problem with this is that:

Freight Class novels generally take few risks. Too often they rely on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages and themes that are time-worn. Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil. Freight Class fiction can be easy to skim. Literary flourishes are few, cliffhangers are many. Genre conventions are rigidly honored. Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.

Um, WHAT? Funny, as a read, I like books where justice is done. If I read a romance, I want to see that love wins out. And what the heck is wrong with good v. evil? Oooh, I see. It’s the “G” word. Genre. Genre is evil. Sigh. Can you say, “over-generalization?”

Next is his so-called “coach class”. Literary fiction and fiction that sells best in soft cover and as e-books. He even admits that marketing, if it happens from the publisher, isn’t effective. The “if it happens” is key here because — duh — it doesn’t, as a general rule. This is, whether he wants to admit it or not, where the mid-listers fell. But, since the publishers see them as expendable, the former dahlings, the literary writers, are now filling this niche. Guess what, literary fiction doesn’t sell as well. The publishers see this new mid-list as confirming their claims but all it does is confirm what we already knew. Mid-listers of five or ten years ago did sell but these new ones don’t, not to the same level.

Finally, there is his “first class”. These are the lucky ones anointed as the the next best great thing. They are the ones who get hard and soft cover runs. The ones the publishers invest big bucks into in order to make the book a success. These are also, all too often, the authors who have been chosen to write the next Twilight or Hunger Games, or whatever. The problem is, they are all too often poor copies and the reading public has already moved on to something else.

In a way, Maas is right. The so-called revolution hasn’t taken down legacy publishing. But it has led to changes. Maas has to support the old guard because that is where his money comes from. But it always bothers me when someone who is supposed to have the best interests of his clients — writers — at heart continues to support a system that actively works against those interests. Instead of seeing why we should be embracing the old ways, I want to know what he’s doing to prevent publishers from trying to grab rights to a book for the length of copyright without any out clause. I want to know that his agency doesn’t have a similar clause in their contracts as well because, let’s face it, agency contracts are looking more and more like publishing contracts. I want to know what he is doing to increase the royalty rate given to authors, especially on digital books, whether the author is just breaking in or has been around for years. I want to know what he is doing to get accurate royalty figures for his clients instead of relying on the very unreliable BookScan numbers.

You want to convince me, and those who feel like me to go the traditional route, show us that you don’t really think about us as cattle or interchangeable cogs. Oh, wait, they can’t because that is exactly how they feel. Until that changes, I’ll stick with my freight class and laugh all the way to the bank.

Oh, I’ll also hedge my bets and try the trad route too — but not with one of the Big 5 and not with an agent who would probably fight me tooth and nail on my choice of where to send my work and then happily take their 15% or more of what I might make. Nope, I’ll take my chances one day with Baen, the one publisher I know at least listens to their readers AND their authors.