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My Never-Ending Project Is Now Finished

Luc's writing projects

Talk the Talk 2006

My First Published Book–and Publisher Problems
My first published book was Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures, a dictionary of and guide to subculture slang in the U.S., appearing in bookstores in 2006. I received a small advance and an education in traditional publishing. My publisher’s royalty statements tended to be late when they came at all, and they didn’t appear to be very consistent or accurate. Eventually the publisher put out an entire separate printing, a hardcover version, that they neglected to mention to me–or pay me for. I didn’t know about it until I walked into my local bookstore and saw a bunch of copies of my own book. “Hardcover?” I said. “This was never released in hardcover!” Of course, it had been.

I did eventually get paid some of those royalties, but as the book came to the end of its life cycle and it started appearing on bargain tables, I turned my thoughts to rights reversion. Reversion is when a publisher assigns all of the rights for future editions of the book back to the writer, whether due to a prior arrangement, out of the goodness of their hearts, or perhaps as a peace offering to a writer whose book they have published in a separate hardcover edition without his knowledge or permission. Whatever the reason, Kindle books were starting to make a splash, and I wanted to make a proper Kindle edition of Talk the Talk.

The publisher did, kindly enough, agree to revert the rights for the book to me, and I started on an updated edition that I could release in paperback and for Kindle, figuring that I could probably have it out in a month or two.

Out with the old
Two and a half years later, I’m finally finished with that new edition: after a long time spent editing, updating, programming, formatting, checking, and tweaking, and with a cover based on a design very kindly donated by my talented artist cousin Nicholas, I’ve approved the proof, and the book is available for order.

The new edition is Talk the Talk in as ideal a form as I can imagine. The original edition was beautifully designed, with a sort of Soviet Rodeo aesthetic throughout and I thought it was very snazzy, but unfortunately it was also difficult to read and wasteful of space. Because of that design, I had to cut out a lot of material out from the original edition. I was also concerned that it wasn’t too comfortable to read in large sections (for people who wanted to do that), however pretty the design was.

interior of the original 2006 edition

interior of the original 2006 edition

In the new edition, I’ve dispensed with the Soviet Rodeo design (which I probably wouldn’t have had the rights to use anyway) and made the book much clearer and more comfortable to read. I restored a bunch of material that I’d had to cut out of the original, and removed a section the editor had really wanted that I didn’t feel belonged in the book because it was more popular culture than subculture (I’ve made the original version of that section, on hip hop slang, available for free on the book’s Web site at www.subculturetalk.com). I added some new sections on subcultures like geocachers and scrapbookers and painstakingly sourced and included well over a hundred photographs illustrating people, concepts, and items from the many subcultures in the book.

Talk the Talk 2nd editionThe old edition is 5″ x 7″ and 422 pages. The new edition, which I really like, is 5.25″ x 8″ and 620 pages. The ebook is much less expensive than the original, and the paperback costs a little more than the original did.

Shouldn’t I Feel Triumphant Now?
Completing the book doesn’t feel real to me yet. It’s true, I didn’t work consistently the whole two and a half years just on editing, expanding, illustrating, and formatting this book–but I did spend many months at all of that work. Everything took much longer than expected. Once the Kindle eBook was finally ready in January, I figured it would be a walk in the park to use the database system I had created for the book (which automatically managed cross-references, synonyms, indexing, and alphabetization) to output a paperback version. Many, many working hours later, I realized it wasn’t so simple: I needed to spend a lot of time defining and perfecting formatting for all of the different kinds of information in the book, including “see also” terms, synonyms, warning symbols, terms, definitions, examples, photographs, subculture introductions, table of contents, index entries, photo credits, and a lot more. Also, I was very, very picky: I tried to do everything in the best way I could devise.

There had briefly been a Kindle edition of the first edition put out by my original publisher: someone there had apparently forgotten to tell someone else that the rights had reverted to me, and they had just dumped their original layout into a file that made a terrible eBook. I contacted the proper authorities when that appeared and had it taken down, partly because they no longer had a right to publish the book and partly because I thought their electronic version was a mess.

Thew edition, however, has been available for Kindle since January, and the paperback went up for sale today; it will start appearing on Amazon next week.

It’s Hard to Stick With Hard Work
I tried starting several new projects while working on this book, but after a short time on each I always forced myself to stop and go back to finishing Talk the Talk. After all, the book was already “finished,” money lying on the table ready for me to scoop it up–at least, that was the idea. In any case, if I’m going to commit to a project, it doesn’t make sense for me start conflicting projects, no matter how appealing they may be, and no matter how much drudgery needs to go into the current project. Trying to do two such projects at once would only delay both of them. Still, from all of my other writing during this period I now have two mostly-completed non-fiction books in progress, a novel I started and set aside, and many completed short projects (flash fiction, short stories, and plays), some of which were published or produced in this period. I also published a collection of science fiction and fantasy short-short stories called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories and a previously completed novel set in my native Vermont, Family Skulls.

Was This a Good Choice?
I’m proud I stuck with Talk the Talk, but it may have been stupid to do so. After all, the amount of work I had to put into the new edition was hugely more than I expected. I’ll have to sell at least a thousand copies to be adequately compensated for all the time I put into just this edition, and that’s getting nothing yet for the value of the book as it existed in the first edition.

When I started, I can’t imagine how I could have known how much labor was going to have to go into releasing this second edition. Given what I didn’t know, the choice to go ahead was obvious. If I had known the amount of work involved, I’m not sure I would have proceeded. Fortunately, I can enjoy having the book out in this form now regardless of how much time and effort it took.

Will I Be Able to Sell It On My Own?
I do have a promotion plan, one that’s quite different from what I’ve done with other books to which I own all rights, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss: it might bring many, many new readers or fail utterly. After all, I don’t have the ins that my previous publisher has. If you have any recommendations for reviewers, magazines, Web sites, or radio shows that might enjoy the book, please comment or contact me through the contact form. If the book gets extra exposure because of you, I’ll send you a free, signed copy.

interior spread from a digital proof of the 2nd edition

interior spread from a digital proof of the 2nd edition – click to enlarge

To my great frustration, the original publisher never sent the book to any reviewers or promoted it as anything other than a writer’s reference. It is a useful reference for writers, but I’d argue that it has even greater value as a surprise-packed thing to browse through for fun; Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing.net agreed, calling it “The kind of quirky thing that is endlessly fascinating and full of odd insights into worlds you never suspected existed.” Still, they did get it into bookstores and offer it through their book club, and by my best guess (recall that the royalty statements had some problems, so I will never know for sure) they probably sold about 10,000 copies–no amazing feat, but the book earned a good deal more than its advance, even though by my reckoning they never paid me some of the money I was due.

What have I gained?
I think there’s some real benefit in having seen the project through to the end, even if the payoffs turn out to be greatly diminished (they might) and although the work was many times longer and harder than I had planned or expected (which it certainly was). What I’ve learned through years of studying motivation and productivity has paid off well in helping me finish this project, and now I can reap whatever rewards may come: I know that I’ve persevered and conquered a difficult task. I know that this strange and arguably fascinating little book won’t vanish, out of print and inaccessible. I can even hope that the book finds a real audience–whether of original readers who want the updated and improved edition, new folks who never saw the original, or both–and that it will actually start helping support my family, as the small advance I received from the original publisher did in 2005 and 2006.

Most amazingly to me, I can now move ahead to my next book project with a clear conscience. Ironically, it’s very likely that finishing these next two nonfiction books, which are each probably somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 complete, will take less time for both together than Talk the Talk: The Slang of 67 American Subcultures, 2nd edition did for the one book. Heck, I probably could have completed a couple of novels in the time it took to revise and put out this book, especially since I could only work in certain situations due to the need to use the database I’d set up. The idea of just writing in a Word Processor is intoxicating–although both of the non-fiction books, as with most of my large non-fiction projects, are in Scrivener, which is not quite as accessible as, say, Google Docs.

It’s strange that completing a major project should feel more like something I need to recover from than something to celebrate. Still, maybe I’ll start connecting with some new readers, in which case there may be a celebration after all, a little further down the line.

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Seeing a Sudden Drop in Sales of Your eBook?

eBooks and Publishing

This is based only on anecdotal information from half a dozen writers or so, but some of us are seeing a sudden, sharp drop-off in sales of eBooks on Amazon over the past couple of weeks. However, I have a hard time imagining that this is a reader trend. In the absence of some major, disruptive event, it seems to me that if the general public were to change its opinion on eBooks, it would do so gradually and noisily rather than suddenly and silently.

I’ve heard speculation that Amazon may have changed some of their algorithms governing which Kindle books are shown in “also bought” categories and the like. I have no evidence that anything like this has happened, but it would fit the pattern if author-publishers suddenly saw a drop-off in sales because Amazon had changed something that (intentionally or not) favored books that sold a lot of copies and/or that came from major traditional publishers. I worry that some kind of deal may have been cut, especially as I know major publishers are desperate for eBook profits these days, what with other formats all dropping in popularity while eBooks continue to rise, and as Amazon is clearly dependent on major publishers for most of their popular book content.

All of that is nothing but speculation, of course. If it’s true, it still doesn’t signal the end of the eBook selfpub revolution–but it sure would make an already taxing process much more difficult. If major traditional publishers do ultimately come out on top and completely squeeze out author-publishers, then the new make-a-living-as-a-writer model may be pretty much the same as the old make-a-living-as-a-writer model: sell to an agent who works with a major publisher who publishes the book and gives you some or all of the royalties that are due to you. One improvement, however, would be that if many of the copies sold as eBooks, the writer would receive a much larger portion of the sales price–not nearly as much as they would realize as an author-publisher on a copy of the same book, but if major publishing houses can sell many more copies, the likelihood that a good writer can support her- or himself might go up rather than down.

It’s hard to know what to hope for: I’ve been envisioning tiny author-publisher empires in which we writers are happily giving our readers new books at good prices as we finish them, rather than being stuck in the slow and sometimes painful traditional publishing process. However, large eBook retailers are empowered to squeeze author-publishers out because we need them and they don’t especially need us, apart from a minority of especially successful eBooks for which they might make exceptions.

How are your sales? Am I Marsh-wiggling this whole topic? If your sales have dropped off, do you have any speculations to advance?

Photo by m.prinke

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The Ideal Publisher

eBooks and Publishing

As accounts grow of publishers both attempting to grab rights from authors without appropriate compensation and misreporting sales (for instance, see Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s series The Business Rusch, though I will say that I’ve had personal experience with both of these issues), I have to say I’m nervous about the possibility of working with a traditional publisher again. At the same time, while selfpubbing is certainly making a splash and is working very well for some authors and some projects, in other cases it doesn’t yet seem to me an adequate replacement for tradpub.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a daydream with you, a daydream of a kind of large-sacle publisher that could and should exist and thrive in the brave new world of publishing. My thinking is that such a publisher will have a different emphasis and approach than traditional publishers and will develop value and market share through 1) cultivating unusually good relationships with authors and 2) an unusually sophisticated understanding of new technologies for delivering and communicating about books.

I would love to see one or more of the current major publishing companies turn into what I describe here, or one or more small publishers grow big in this way– but so far, I’m not optimistic.

Here are the five things we’d need to see in an ideal post-eBoom publisher, other than (of course) excellent choices in what to publish (good filtering and quality control is always valuable). Some publishers are doing some of these things already: certainly there are good companies out there who are acting with integrity toward both authors and readers. As far as I know, though, no big publisher is ringing all these bells yet.

1. Doesn’t hog rights
It seems perfectly reasonable for publishers to buy specific electronic rights from authors for specific compensation. However, trying to get electronic rights thrown in with print rights for nothing, underpaying for electronic rights, trying to seize all electronic rights that may ever exist, trying to seize any rights in perpetuity, trying to seize any rights without compensation to the author, or sitting on rights like sequels and foreign sales without exercising them in a way that the author gets properly paid–all of these approaches strike me as reprehensible.

As an aside, I’ll say that I think any similar practices on the part of agents, as well as the practice of some agents (a minority, I hope and believe) trying to secure payment for the author’s future work or projects in which the agent has made no contribution, are also reprehensible. In fact, I’ll go further than that and predict that agents and publishers that persist in perpetrating these predatory practices (apparently the letter of the day is “P”) will fail and be crushed by the juggernaut of change in the publishing world. Sure, there will always be a greasy black residue of predatory agencies and publishing houses, just as there always has been, but it will not be a substantial or wealthy residue, and all it will get from most authors, readers, and honest industry professionals will be scorn.

2. Deals fairly and honestly with authors
This seems like it should be self-evident, but based on what has been going on in publishing lately (and to some extent, for a long time), clearly it needs to be spelled out. The ideal publisher will report sales accurately, transparently, and often; will promptly revert rights it is no longer using; will communicate well with authors; and won’t lie or withhold meaningful information in communications.

The reporting question deserves a side comment: currently the big publishers generally speaking report on sales a couple of times a year in a confusing, printed report that is often incorrect or misleading. There is no reason–and I say this as someone with two decades of professional experience in database development and computerized reporting–why the industry can’t over time move to a more Amazon-like model of live sales reporting, with reasonable allowance for returns and related qualifications. My impression is that the current, inadequate reporting system is kept not only to save the cost of converting to something more informative but because publishers often gain financial advantage by holding back and keeping control of data.

3. Provides both print and electronic editions
Nothing too surprising here: just publish in appropriate media. I don’t see anything wrong with publishing print-only and letting authors selfpub their own eBooks either, but I suspect that large companies that continue to do that will soon go out of business, as so much more income is available in the eBook world.

4. Improves the quality of the book
The ideal publisher will have an editorial hand in a book’s content, at the very least having a competent advocate in the company who really understands the work and its audience. At the other end of the spectrum, the company might do old-school editing of the book to help the writer improve it, but I don’t see this as essential in all cases. If more of the burden of ensuring our writing is good falls to us writers, that doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

The book will also be well-designed, both in print and electronic versions. This includes designing for the right audience: for instance, a writer friend’s historical adventure series was packaged and sold with a young adult cover featuring a hunky model type, giving it a YA historical romance feel. This was a disservice to everyone involved and (I believe) seriously limited sales of the book to its natural readership, which would seem to be primarily adults and teen boys.

The electronic editions will be developed by people who know what they’re doing, and they’ll be carefully proofed before they’re uploaded. Some publishing houses’ idea of an eBook seems to be an automated file conversion that loses important characters and formatting and doesn’t take into account the difference between book and screen. Preparing eBooks for publication isn’t that hard; publishers should take the time to get it right.

5. Puts the majority of their efforts into helping the book find its natural audience
Why, in this day and age, would an author even need a publisher? After all, self-produced eBooks and print on demand editions can work as well for the reader as publishing houses’ offerings if done well.

I think there can be three answers to that question: preparation, design, and reaching readers. Of the those three, skilled professionals (editors, proofreaders, cover artists, book designers, and eBook formatters) can be hired to do the first two; only reaching readers is specialized to the strengths of a publishing house.

Publishing houses already have a leg up in reaching readers, especially insofar as booksellers and review venues will consider a book worth at least a little attention if it’s simply published by a big house. There’s an implication of quality control and investment in the book that makes it automatically non-trivial. But the ideal publishing house will need to go further: it will need to become a company whose primary concern, after acquiring quality writing, is to be masters of promotion and publicity for the purpose of reaching the exact right readers for a particular book. This doesn’t mean large-scale advertising and spamming the world; it means working with the author to create or enhance Internet presence, creating strategically impactful events for the author to participate in, being assiduous in getting books to appropriate review venues, and being masters of every important form of media, from magazine ads to store displays, Twitter to YouTube trailers, author Web sites to signing tours.

When I say that publishing houses need to be exceptional at this task, I don’t mean that they owe every author a huge promotional effort: I only mean that publishing houses should consider it their mission to help make the step from author to readers who want that author’s work, with as little wasted effort and mismatching as possible. That job is tremendously difficult, as complex and variable in its way as writing a good book (and as solidly based on certain key principles). It makes sense that someone should need to specialize in that work and earn a living doing so in a way that will benefit readers, writers, and publishers alike–while potentially keeping good literary agents in business and supplying Hollywood with a steady stream of new material into the bargain.

Will publishers go extinct?
Alternatively, it could be that authors or people they hire will take care of preparation, design and reaching readers. I’m sure there are marketing firms and individual professionals who have the mastery to properly market books without publishers being involved, though I think because publishers invest in a book rather than simply getting paid for promoting it, they’re better-positioned and more credible advocates.

Yet marketers will do in a pinch, which means the ideal publisher isn’t necessary for the ideal publishing experience. It would be more of a pain in the neck for authors to have to coordinate and pay proofreaders, cover artists, book designers, technical personal, marketers, and so on than it would to simply sell the book to a publisher, but DIY for writers can be a financially viable approach. If the ideal publisher doesn’t emerge, publishers as a whole may eventually dwindle to insignificance.

For all I know, the ideal major publishing house exists now–but I haven’t talked with any author who’s seen it, and I talk with a lot of authors. Maybe that’s because some of my suppositions here are wrong–though if so, I don’t see how, and would need you to point it out. You’ll also need to point out anything I missed: as far as I can tell, a large-scale publisher that offers quality books and does the five things above would be an unqualified win. Or maybe I’m right on target, and before long we’ll be entering into a brave new world of ideal publishers–or else no publishers at all.

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A Nice Big Trap for Pro Writers

eBooks and Publishing

I just read an interesting post by J. Daniel Sawyer that goes into some detail about clauses that are showing up in publishing contracts. I think he may be overstating the case a little bit when he talks about the kind of trouble a trap like he describes can cause, but I’m not a lawyer either, and for all I know, it may be worse.

The short version is this: be very, very careful (and if possible bring a lawyer) when signing any publishing contract that talks broadly about electronic rights or about future formats. I have a friend (who is an intellectual property lawyer) I’d like to ask about this, so here’s hoping for a substantive post on the issue coming up. In the mean time, I highly recommend reading J. Daniel’s post:
Principles of Contracts: Everybody Knows Peggy Lee (or should)

Photo by Profound Whatever

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