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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 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 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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New Submitomancy Site Will Manage Market, Response, and Submissions Data



Writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, whom I’ve been fortunate to know for several years through the writing group Codex, has fired up an ambitious project to create a site offering a variety of important writing and publishing information, filling in the gap that’s left by Duotrope becoming an expensive, paid service and adding on a number of coveted writerly items. If you’re interested in checking the project out, hop over to Indiegogo and see where it stands: .

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Three Pillars of Writing Success for Any Publishing Environment

eBooks and Publishing

This piece originally appeared in April 2011 as part of my Futurismic column “Brain Hacks for Writers”

Lately I’ve been looking, for the sake of my sanity, for some principles of writerly success that I can really depend on. These are a tad elusive when the publishing world is being shaken up by the complete redefinition of self-publishing and the whole eBook thing. I don’t know about you, but I look at all this and say “Hey, how am I going to make a living as a writer in this mess–or even just find a readership–when we don’t even know what the publishing world will consist of in five years?”

Uncertainty is a terrible motivator.

Comfortingly, I think we can distill a few principles that apply to virtually anyone who wants to write and be read, whether on paper or screen, selfpub or tradpub. They are

  1. Be passionate about what you write
  2. Focus your efforts
  3. Grow your long-term readership

Why do these matter? Because as long as you’re doing these three things, your writing career is going in the right direction, and as soon as you stop doing them, your writing career is in danger.

Be passionate about what you write

We already know that to be successful in writing, you have to write a lot. To take it a step further, I suggest that we need to write a lot and love the work we’ve chosen.

There are two ways to do this, and most of us need both: First, there’s being captured by the project, getting excited about starting it. Second, there’s taking a project you’re already working on and finding things in it that make you eager to keep diving into it.

The initial lure of the project is something I know all too well: I love to start things. The opportunity, the promise, the creativity, the fact that I haven’t screwed anything up yet–it’s easy to get excited about something I’m not working on. But it’s also important, because if you can’t get excited about your own work, how likely is it that your readers will? I imagine you’ve heard that nugget of wisdom before from more authoritative sources, but it’s a good nugget.

Re-infusing excitement is essential for most of us too, because virtually every long-term project seems to have its ups and downs. Maybe you’ve gotten to a point where your story has gone off track, or you’ve begun to question whether your whole idea wasn’t stupid in the first place, or you’ve just lost enthusiasm for rewriting the damn thing a third time.

This column isn’t about the specific ways to renew that passion (though there are a lot of specific tools for that in my eBook The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation). This is just a reminder that not having that passion makes it very difficult to keep coming back and cranking out the words, and without passion it can feel pointless even when you do crank out the words. Passion isn’t everything, but it makes a hell of a difference.

Focus your efforts

The topic of focus brings us back to my “oh, I thought of a great new project!” problem. Running off after every charming new story idea, or writing a book but not cleaning it up to submit, or not sending stories back out after they’ve been rejected, or spending all your time writing for your blog and none on your books–all of these are symptoms of unfocused effort. Focused effort means knowing what your most important writing goals are and sticking with them until you’ve seen them through. This is essential whether you need to crank out words, submit query letters, promote selfpubbed eBooks, or anything else. If you’re just writing to write, that’s great as long as you don’t care about getting anything published or read, but if you want readers and completed projects, don’t let your head get turned by other projects–and don’t let your concern that something might be rejected prevent you from sending it out there over and over until it finds a home or until you’ve proven conclusively that it doesn’t have one.

I will be sure to come back and harp on this point some more once I’ve mastered it myself.

Grow your long-term readership

This item is the one that has the most to do with your career as distinct from your writing, whether you’re just looking to get an occasional story published, are trying to go (or stay) full-time, or are shooting to break the bestseller lists. If the things you are doing outside writing itself pay off well in terms of connecting you with more people who will want to read your work for a long time, then they are good as long as they don’t hog too much of your writing time. Any writing-related activities that don’t serve that purpose need to be considered for possible elimination.

So working really hard on rewriting that dragon porn novel that you intend to publish under a one-time pseudonym is a fail on this front: even if it becomes very popular, unless you intend to cultivate that pseudonym and write more dragon porn, it’s a career fail. So is spending an hour a day on Twitter if your followers are interested in you because you are dutifully retweeting news items instead of in ways that would get them interested in your writing. Publicity is useless if it doesn’t build up a sustained following of people who are interested in you and what you write. This is one reason begging for retweets and commenting across the Internet with pleas to buy your new book is as unhelpful as it is degrading.

But selling a book to a traditional publisher, or self-pubbing a book that you are really excited to continuously get word out about, or maintaining a snarky blog about fashion when you write snarky chicklit, or pushing to get foreign rights to your latest novel sold–these are all getting your name out to people who are interested in you because of what you write and who you are, people whose reading needs you can help satisfy and who can support your career. Successful promotion, like successful livestock breeding, pays off for everyone involved.

photo courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library

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Finding Your Place in Tradpub versus Selfpub

eBooks and Publishing

Writing for publication has always been tricky–not to mention challenging, exhausting, unpredictable, and demoralizing. Still, for many years at least the path was clear:

  1. You write a book.
  2. You submit the book to publishers and/or agents.
  3. Agents and/or publishers either do or (much more often) do not express interest.
  4. If there’s interest and you’re lucky, you cut a nice deal with someone.
  5. Your book gets released, and it sells badly, decently, well, or ridiculously well.
  6. Depending on your sales, you’re then either able to sell additional books more easily or else you have to go back to the drawing board, possibly with a pseudonym so that bookstores won’t be prejudiced against stocking your titles given your underwhelming performance under your own name.

It was never half as thrilling as the daydreams we have of writing a bestseller that the critics praise to the skies (though even that can backfire: see my comments on Harper Lee in “The Courage to Suck” ).

You could say that none of the above has changed–after all, there are still agents and publishers, and the steps are still about the same with them as they have been for a number of decades. At the same time, there’s this new thing, the eBook self-publishing approach.

Self-publishing used to be easy for me to understand: I’d decided it was mainly for people who couldn’t make it in traditional publishing or didn’t want to put up with rejection after rejection, who wanted the quick and easy path to becoming “a published author” even if it meant shelling out cash instead of getting paid for writing and not having a real readership. It was also for the niche writer who had an audience too small to interest big publishing houses but whose topic and readers were clearly-defined enough that the book could be sold directly.

For someone who has always aspired to writing for large audiences, to me the upshot was that [self-publishing==failure]. It was utterly to be avoided.

The game changes
But then came Print On Demand and Lulu and CreateSpace, and after that came the Kindle. Suddenly the possibility opened up that writers could publish their work to a potentially wide audience with very little trouble or cost. For instance, let’s say I had a modestly successful novel that went out of print a few years ago but that still had loyal fans. If the rights had reverted to me, either through a request to the publisher or though an automatic operation based on how my contract was set up, there was no real barrier to republishing it for the Kindle, and some people out there–an increasing number of whom would have Kindles–might be looking for it and end up buying it. One of my friends has done just this, parlaying a series whose traditional publisher had utterly failed to market properly into ongoing Kindle and POD sales that are providing him a full-time income. The books are making a good deal more selfpubbed than they ever did on bookstore shelves.

Or you might be one of those authors with an established following who decides to publish directly for readers who already know your work, like J.A. Konrath; or even an unpublished writer whose Kindle books catch on with readers to become Kindle bestsellers, like Amanda Hocking.

(Of course there are other places–, Google Books, Smashwords, and so one–where you can publish your eBook, and you can publish through Print on Demand technology in addition to or instead of eBooks, but Kindle sales are driving this revolution, so I’m focusing on those.)

Two roads diverged in the Interwebs
The point is, there’s now an almost completely new, second career path option available to writers. What are we supposed to make of this? J.A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking are making boatloads of money on their eBooks, but the vast majority of people who have self-published eBooks are selling very few or no copies*. Most of the time, ePublishing your book gets it to about as many people as would read it if it were only available in the form of photocopied manuscripts hidden under an old rug in your basement.

This makes self-ePublishing–I’ll call this “selfpubbing” for short, even though selfpubbing can include Print on Demand books too–both an incredible source of motivation and an incredible source of disappointment. You can selfpub your just-finished or multiply-rejected novel, novella, novelette, short story, collection, or poetry book for free in just a few hours, if you can put together a cover and follow the formatting requirements. Within a day or so, searching for your name on Amazon will bring up an actual (e)book that people can actually buy! Books that have merit but are difficult to categorize, books that were too long or too short or too much like a book that just came out or not enough like a book that just came out can be published and have their chance to find a readership.

Of course, if you just publish the eBook and wait for the cash to pour in with no promotion, as I suspect most selfpubbers do (and I’m not counting repeated pleas on Facebook and Twitter for friends to buy the thing as promotion), you’re likely to be disappointed. If, however, you get reviews and get people to blog about your book, give interviews, find newsworthy angles and pitch them to news outlets, get mentions from people much more famous than yourself, and so on, then at least your book has a chance of reaching someone, and ideally it will reach a lot of someones, and those someones will love it and refer it to a lot of other someones. Unless you’re famous through some other means, you can’t launch a book to success all by yourself, but you can if more famous people or more far-reaching media take up your cause, or if you get readers excited and they start spreading the word.

Wait–why am I still in Kansas?
It’s always possible, of course, that you’ll exhaust yourself in promotional efforts and get nowhere–a few people will buy your book, hardly anyone will review it, and the moment you start to rest all interest and sales will vanish. Does this mean that you’re an awful writer? Or that you’re not cut out for selfpubbing and should stick to the tradpub approach? Or that you just need more promotion? Or different promotion? Or that you should be writing different books? How do you know when to put time into writing and when to put time into social media or contacting bloggers or buying Google AdWords?

There’s no way to tell for certain. If your books don’t sell, your writing may indeed be nowhere near good enough (yet) for people to want to read it. Or it could be spectacular, but you may be no good at promotion. Or maybe the writing and the promotion are great, but your book isn’t packaged properly: the title and/or cover and/or price and/or supporting information are wrong.

A selfpub experiment
Let me give you an example: about six months before this writing, I selfpubbed a collection of 172 flash fiction pieces called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories , which like most collections, sold very lightly. A few months later I got around to putting out a 99 cent sampler that included stories from Bam! plus one new story as a bonus: this I called 17 Stories About the End of the World. A while back, as an experiment, I dropped the price of Bam! to 99 cents, so that the sampler and the full book cost the same despite one having ten times as much content as the other.

The result was downright weird: the sampler has been outselling the full collection by a margin of five to one. At the same price. Through the same venues. That’s the shorter book selling better, now.

To me, this is a clear demonstration of the importance packaging and presentation: clearly people are much more interested in “here are some stories about the world ending! (by some guy you’ve probably never heard of)” than they are in “here are some stories that are awfully short (by some guy you’ve probably never heard of)”. Or they might prefer the sampler’s cover (which I started but which was greatly improved by my friend Elise Catherine Tobler).

So what am I doing? A new experiment: I’ve broken out the book into nine separate samplers like My Friend in Hell and Other Very Short Stories and 19 Very Short Stories of Talking Animals with Serious Issues, which I’ve just released as of this writing. I’ve upped the price of the collection to $2.99, in part to help people who buy the samplers feel like they’re not overpaying by comparison. At the very least, this should tell me whether my End of the World book is a fluke or not, and provide me with some fascinating (to me, anyway) sales information. What kinds of stories will turn out to interest readers the most? [Later update: none of the other samplers did nearly as well as the End of the World one, and I eventually removed them. I suspect the continued relative success of 17 Stories About the End of the World is due partly to the topic and partly to the cover. I’ve tried to coax Amazon to make the sampler free, but they are not biting so far.]

Selfpub isn’t working! What now?
But enough of my example. If you’ve tried selfpub and you’ve tried self-promotion and you haven’t made significant sales, you have three choices.

  1. Choice number one is to relax and keep doing what you’re doing. Statistically, it’s likely that things will stay the same as they are and you’ll never see significant sales, although things could begin to pick up over time, especially if you’re doing some kind of promotion. If you’re writing for the love of writing alone and don’t much care about income or audience, this approach may be for you.
  2. Choice number two is to become a combination economic researcher and marketing maven. Try different covers. Try different pricing, different promotional methods–even different kinds of books.
  3. Choice number three is to say “screw this” and go back to tradpub, which may not welcome you back with open arms, but which probably wasn’t throwing itself at you before, so you probably haven’t lost any ground.

They’re all legitimate choices. My suggestion in choosing among them is finding the method that gets you fired up. If you thrill to an “almost, but not quite” rejection letter (they’re a lot better than a form rejection!) or start feeling queasy when you think of having to dive into Twitter every morning, maybe your path is to be published traditionally. That’s also probably the way to go if you’re not sure of the quality of your own work. It’s all too easy to selfpub something just because it’s finished without really knowing whether it’s any good or not (see “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing“).

If on the other hand, you want to embrace social media but can do so without frittering away all of your writing time on Facebook, and if you’ve gotten enough clear feedback from people who aren’t your mother to know that your writing works for people sometimes, then maybe selfpub is worth a whirl.

Or you could go both ways
Or you may be like me, pushing projects on both tracks at the same time while simultaneously sending out short stories for good measure. I don’t especially recommend this approach because it dilutes my efforts, slowing me down in every direction because I’m constantly exerting effort on several things at once. But then, this approach excites me, and I have a hell of a lot of energy. Ultimately I’m probably slowing down my overall progress, but at least I’m having fun doing it, and I’m moving forward.

I’d suggest that it’s much less a business decision than a decision of the heart. We’re lucky enough, at this point in history, to have at least two viable ways to make a living writing narrative fiction. Choosing the one that makes you excited to write will not only get you writing more, but will get you working more toward finding your audience–and I’ve yet to find a writer who complains about being too industrious at either.

If you’re interested in seeing what I have on offer for the Kindle, here are the titles I currently have available:

[ *My estimates of typical Kindle sales are based on comparing Amazon sales rankings for the total range of Kindle offerings to the rankings of eBooks for which I know specific sales figures through discussions with the authors and experience regarding my own books. ]

This article is reposted from my Futurismic column “Brain Hacks for Writers.”

Photo by Fabio Said

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Cartoonist Raises $1.25 Million–How? By Offering Stories People Love


One of my favorite Web comics (and I only follow a few) recently ran a Kickstarter project hoping to raise $57,750 to reprint some collections of the comic. The Order of the Stick author/artist/genius Rich Burlew did a little better than that: the final total was $1.25 million dollars, the third biggest Kickstarter ever. You can read about it here on Publishers Weekly, among other places. Note that the majority of the money will probably go to getting the premiums printed and shipped.

I’m sure this will energize a lot of people to try Kickstarter for their own project, but I doubt any of them will have the huge and motivated fan base Burlew has. His series, which is about a set of Dungeons and Dragons characters on a quest to save the universe from an evil undead wizard, has adventure, surprises, good characterization, and a ton of humor. I don’t know if it would be of any interest to a person who’s never played D&D, as I did when I was young. You can read the series here: .

I think the lesson to take away here is not so much that it’s time to rush to Kickstarter, or that successful Kickstarter projects have to be managed as masterfully as Burlew managed his (the charts showing progress each day were OOTS comics, for instance, and he kept adding new premiums every time a new goal was hit), but that the key to success as a creator of stories is to find a sweet spot where your storytelling turns a lot of people on (in the non-kinky way) (unless you write erotica, in which case knock yourself out) (not literally) (except who am I to tell you what to write in your erotica)?

Burlew champions the approach of building an audience through offering free material: “if you give it away first, people will form their opinion of you and your work before you ask them for money. And readers are a lot more likely to spend money on things they know they like than things they hope they will like. People want to own what they love, so rather than selling access to the content, sell the permanent incarnation of it – be that a book or an ebook or a DVD or whatever. The best thing about giving away your content first is that when it comes time to sell the final product, you’re going to have almost 100% customer satisfaction. No one is going to complain that they didn’t like the story they bought, because every one of your customers knew they liked it before paying.”

There’s a list of media mentions of Burlew’s feat on his site. It was covered by Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes, The Guardian, etc.

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Digital Book World’s ePublishing Predictions for 2012

eBooks and Publishing

The Digital Book World site recently posted “Ten Bold Predictions for Book Publishing in 2012,” and while I certainly can’t speak with authority on all of the subjects they address, none of their predictions struck me as unlikely.

Significantly, all of their predictions had to do with electronic publishing, except that some of what they said about the publishing industry as a whole would apply to paper books as well as eBooks. They don’t really take a shot at many numbers, although they did predict a new, larger Kindle tablet and name both the size and the price they expected.

I’d be interested to see predictions of impacts on libraries and bookstores and market share predictions for eBooks and for independent authors. Since it’s the season for predictions, though, I probably just have to keep my eyes open and those predictions will appear.

What do you expect to see happening in publishing in 2012? Will things get crazier or settle down a bit?

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Should Writers Have Blogs?


Writers of the Future winner and successful science fiction short story author (Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, etc.) Brad Torgersen recently brought up a useful question in a writers’ group: what use is a blog to a writer of fiction? Even if you manage to attract a lot of readers, are they people who are likely to be interested in your stories or novels? Is the payoff worth the effort? My response from my experience with the two blogs (ReidWrite and The Willpower Engine) that I merged together into some time back turned out to be fairly long and potentially of interest to some readers, so here, with a little cleanup, is that response.

An experiment in blog as marketing
Several years back I began two blogs, one for writers and the other on the psychology of habits. I started the writing blog because I often found I had things to say about writing that I was drawing from my experiences and from discussions with a large number of other new and successful writers. The psychology of habits blog was designed to build up a reputation and readership for me on the subject: in publishing-speak, to establish my platform. I was writing  a book on the subject of psychological finds about self-motivation and had concluded that I wouldn’t be able to sell it without a good platform, which is really the case for most nonfiction books these days. If you don’t have credentials or a lot of people who associate you with the topic–and preferably both–then you’re probably out of luck.

For quite some time I worked on the psychology of habits blog, posting first three times a week on a regular schedule, then every weekday. I worked up a brand, promoted it around the Web, commented on other people’s sites, and in general did everything I read I was supposed to in order to build my readership. Over the course of a year, my blog grew (slowly) to the level of readership I thought was minimal for helping me sell the book I’d been working on, so after that year was up, I started contacting agents about the book.

Nobody was interested.

The main reason I couldn’t sell the book seemed to be that I had no credentials–no advanced degree in psychology, especially–and that a blog with a thousand reads a week (this was about 18 months ago) wasn’t substantial enough for anyone in publishing to really care.

So despite a load of work, the blog-as-marketing approach ultimately failed for me. Still, I continued the blog. The topic has never failed to keep me interested.

Is your blog a pleasure or an obligation?
Posting regularly felt like a huge obligation and time drain, even when I cut back down to three posts a week. It was only when I decided to combine my two blogs, to rebrand the site to just use my name, and to post only when I had something I really wanted to share that things changed and it stopped feeling oppressive.

I now blog when I have something to say, although I do prod myself if it’s been a week and I haven’t posted anything. The blog does a lot of good in helping me structure research and integration of new ideas, and from the occasional communications I get it’s sometimes meaningfully helpful in other people’s lives. However, though it’s continued to grow in readership, it has never become a base for community: it’s more of an information outlet. It’s a good place to find out how to get motivated quickly, how to figure out if someone’s romantically interested in you, or how to stop feeling hungry, but I talk very little about my personal life or even about my adventures in writing, and try to stick to facts or extrapolate from facts, tending to qualify my statements (like this one), so I’m neither very personally engaging nor very inflammatory. It shows up in my comment counts: more often than not, I don’t get any, and yet a goodly number of people are reading what I’m putting out. I’m informative, but I’m not building community here.

By contrast, I’ve been extremely successful building a community of talented, improvement-oriented writers at, but rather than trying to do that based on the impact of my personality, I’ve done it by pulling together groups of writers who are dedicated to their craft and want to share ideas with and learn from other writers who are similarly dedicated. All you have to do to throw a good party is to get great people to come.

Who should have a blog?
My belief about blogs is that they should generally be expressions of things that the blogger really wants to share. Sure, there may be a cost-benefit calculation to determine whether or not to spend time on a particular post or on having a blog at all, but I’m not enthusiastic or optimistic about blogs that are put up primarily as marketing vehicles. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that ethically; it’s just it’s a lot of work to plow into something that’s unlikely to pay off proportionately.

I agree too with those who say that the golden age of blog-starting is over. With the literally millions of blogs out there, there’s too much noise to really stand out in the vast majority of cases. Like writing fiction in the first place, there’s not much point in doing it unless it’s something you love doing for its own sake.

On Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social computing world
For the record, I don’t think that social computing is an effective marketing strategy either. I see people rushing to socially compute with people who are already successful: they’ll seek out Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of authors they already like, while lesser-known writers who are scrambling for attention may get a lot of personal contacts, but won’t be building their readership. I admit, though, that I’m working from personal experience and impressions of other people’s experiences, not from any carefully-gathered body of information. It’s possible that using social networking as an author can be a great marketing strategy for some people: I’ve just never seen (or heard of) it working.

As for blogs, I think the bottom line is that they are more writing that will take time away from writing fiction, and so they are worth doing only if they’re something you really want to do or would be doing in some form anyway. It’s enthusiasm for the ideas I write about and interest in spreading those ideas that keeps me writing on this blog. What keeps you writing yours?


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


An Introduction to eBook Publishing

eBooks and Publishing

A friend recently e-mailed me and asked me for some general background on eBook publishing. My answer went on for quite some time (maybe too long), but it covered a lot of basics. If you’re interested in learning about what possibilities eBooks offer to writers, you can read the cleaned-up version of that answer below.

Selfpub vs. tradpub
First, there’s the question of traditional publishing versus self-publishing, what I’ve been calling tradpub vs. selfpub, which is a very different comparison than it was even a few years ago: there are now authors (many of them already published through a traditional publisher, but others only self-published) who are getting substantial readership for their books through selfpubbing eBooks, sometimes along with a paper version (often through CreateSpace), but often not. eBook readership has grown so much and people who own eReaders are so hungry for content these days that it’s entirely possible to build a substantial career without even dealing with paper books any more.

However, the surest path to substantial eBook sales seems to be having already become popular (or at least modestly successful) through a traditional publisher.

In evaluating which route to go, you might be interested in reading “Two Roads Diverged in the Interwebs: Finding Your Place in Tradpub versus Selfpub” and/or “Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing (‘Indie Publishing’) Breakdown.”

eBook stores and venues leads the way with eBooks, and in virtually all cases authors I know are selling far more books through Amazon than through Barnes and Noble or Smashwords, the other two most substantial options. Many publish on Amazon for the Kindle only. Of those I know who have published for other formats, only a very few seem to be getting compensated enough for it to be worth the trouble. However, it’s hard to predict whether or not these other formats will begin to grow a lot in the foreseeable future. My general perception is that Amazon is making all the right moves and other companies are struggling without much success to catch up.

Amazon and other ePublishers generally pay the author a much higher royalty than traditional publishers. If a traditional publisher is publishing your eBook, you’ll probably get something on the order of a 25% royalty, while Amazon offers 70% for books in the $2.99 to $9.99 price range. However, traditional publishers can get reviews of your book in venues that don’t review self-published books and have other promotional advantages, so it’s certainly possible to earn more through having an eBook tradpubbed, though in other cases the higher selfpub royalty makes that the more profitable choice.

Tradpub limitations
Tradpubbed eBooks tend to be more expensive than selfpubbed ones, $9.99 vs. $.99 to $4.99 being fairly typical prices, though there is a lot of variation.

Some traditional publishers are being very greedy and/or underhanded in attempting to grab electronic rights, so it’s important to be cautious with publishing contracts these days. Even some agents are attempting similar shenanigans. With that said, of course there are a number of good and ethical people in publishing, too.

Formatting eBooks
When formatting an eBook for publication, the process is not especially difficult, but there are a few hoops to get through. While other possibilities are available, the best way to deliver your book to Amazon or another eBook selling venue is often either HTML (with certain limitations) or EPUB (the most popular standardized eBook format, which Kindles don’t read but which Amazon does allow you to use for your upload). There are a variety of tools out there that can help in this process, for instance Atlantis (a word processing program with special import and export capabilities), Sigil (a WYSIWYG eBook editor), and Calibre (an eBook reader, library manager, and converter), all free programs. Alternatively, you can pay someone to prepare your book for you. Traditional publishers, of course, do this part for you.

Smashwords has its own, very specific format for uploading books, which is somewhat burdensome, but which allows them to publish in a wide array of formats and to offer books for the Sony eReader, Apple iPhone/iPad, and other players in the eBook world whom you won’t reach through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Some eBook formats have DRM (digital rights management); for example, Amazon offers this as an option for all eBooks they publish. If you opt to have DRM, then readers may have trouble reading your book or transferring it legitimately under certain circumstances. If you opt not to have DRM, then it’s all easy as pie, but it also means that any computer literate reader can copy your book and do anything they like with it.

Cover design
Another important concern if you’re selfpubbing is the cover, which while it may not be very important on the eReader itself is a key part of the marketing of the book. The quality or lack of quality in the cover design may make a big difference with potential readers and purchasers in terms of judging how well the book is likely to be written, how interesting it might be, etc. There can be a lot to consider in creating covers, but if this gets overwhelming and/or if you have zero graphic design skills, this too can be hired out.

The last essential thing to take into account in selfpubbing an eBook is promotion. If you simply post the book, few people will know of it or hear about it unless you’re already famous. Traditional advertising methods (like taking out display ads, for instance) don’t seem to work well for most books; the more successful approaches tend to involve things like getting people to review the book, talking the book up in visible places on the Web, participating in social media, giveaways, etc. In the best cases, word of mouth takes off and readers begin encouraging other readers to get it, in time.

The great majority of people who selfpub eBooks sell virtually no copies. Some of us sell regularly but not in great quantity. A small but not impossibly small number make a substantial income from them. For an extreme example, see “Some Reasons for Amanda Hocking’s Success.”

Photo by ntr23

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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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