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

Writing

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: http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0001.html .

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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Codex Writers’ Group Invites Indie Authors to Join

eBooks and Publishing

Codex Writers’ Group is an online, independent group of about 200 active members that offers a lively forum, contests, writing news, writing discussions, in-person meet-ups, critiques, promotional opportunities, and other advantages. It’s a friendly, vibrant, and supportive community whose members all qualify through writing accomplishments. The focus is on science fiction and fantasy prose, but there are some facilities for screenwriters, non-fiction writers, poets, and other writers.

I’m a little worried I’ll come off sounding like a braggart, but since these are achievements of my friends and not of my own, I hope you won’t mind me talking about some of Codexians’ successes. A large proportion of Codex members have gotten literary representation, sold books to major publishers, sold stories to major magazines, sold movie options, won contests, or won major awards since joining. One has co-authored a NY Times best-selling book. Members’ work appears in the great majority of major English language fantasy and science fiction magazines and in many other venues. In 2010, 15% of all Nebula nominations went to Codexians (I haven’t tallied 2011 yet). Codexians have won the Writers of the Future contest, the Phobos contest (R.I.P.), the Hugo, the Nebula, the Campbell, and many other awards. Membership is free and open to all writers who meet one of the qualifications, provided they’re willing to abide by the group agreements on privacy, consideration, etc.

The original means of qualifying were making at least one pro fiction sale or attending a major, by-audition-only writing workshop with industry pros (e.g., Clarion, Odyssey, Literary Boot Camp, etc.). In September we added the option of qualifying by getting representation with certain literary agencies.

As the publishing times are changing, we’ve just added a new means of qualifying to join Codex: sales of self-published fiction. Anyone who has sold at least 1,000 copies of self-published stories or novels and who has received at least $5,000 in income from these sales (note that this is income to the author, not gross sales) is now invited to join Codex. Discussions of indie publishing, eBook creation, cover design, and self-promotion have been very active on the forum lately, and more grist for the self-publishing discussion mill is always welcome.

If you’re interested in the group, please visit www.codexwriters.com .

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Some Reasons for Amanda Hocking’s Success

eBooks and Publishing

If you pay much attention to eBook success stories, you’ve probably heard of Amanda Hocking, who began self-publishing her young adult contemporary dark fantasy/romance novels for the Kindle about a year ago and has since made more than two million dollars from them. The burning questions this brings up are: Why her? What has she done right? and Can other writers somehow follow in her footsteps?

I’m only an interested observer, but I have a few thoughts I hope you may find useful based on digging up industry statistics, learning what Ms. Hocking has had to say about her own work, and reading the beginning of her Trylle Trilogy.

Feeding a need
The heart of the matter, if you ask me, is that Ms. Hocking is successfully providing something that a huge number of readers want. Her Trylle books feature a slightly misanthropic, beautiful teenage girl who discovers she is a troll changeling princess when she returns to the troll enclave where she was born. The premise has some obvious similarities to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, which are about a disgruntled, beautiful teenage girl who discovers she has unusual status among a small, benign group of vampires. Both series feature a tension between the paranormal world and the normal world, multiple potential boyfriends, family conflicts, life-or-death obstacles to love, paranormal creatures who are more beautiful than ordinary humans, and dramatic, no-holds-barred romances that become literally more important than life to the main characters.

At the same time, Hocking doesn’t seem to have just traced Meyer’s books and filled in the outlines with her own ideas: the Trylle Trilogy seems very much the same kind of thing as Twilight, et al, without being a revamp. Hocking’s plots and premise have enough of her own invention to set them apart from Meyer’s work while still appealing strongly to the same kinds of readers. I think Hocking benefits enormously from Twilight’s audience being a large, book-hungry, self-aware group. Now that they’ve read Meyer’s books, they know what they want and are looking for more of it. Hocking appears to be deeply in tune with these readers and to intuitively want to deliver the right mix of danger, romance, strangeness, and angst. Anyway, that’s my theory.

Mistakes that don’t matter?
What’s very interesting to me, too, is what Hocking doesn’t do well. Her grammar is not great. She uses “alright”–a colloquialism that nearly any editor in New York would rapidly correct to “all right”–in narration, along with many other similarly dubious constructions. There are places in her books where a key word or phrase has accidentally been left out. She makes a huge number of small-scale writerly “infelicities,” and there are very often several grammatical and writerly issues on a single page.

In other words, she sorely needs a copy editor–or at least, that was my reaction when I saw her work. But apparently more than a million readers don’t necessarily agree, because poor copyediting has not gotten in the way of her tremendous success. What surprises me is that after she started bringing in all that money–and presumably started hearing about errors in the books–she wasn’t interested in engaging a copyeditor to spend a little time cleaning them up. With eBooks, cleaning up the current edition is simply a matter of doing the edits and uploading them. Admittedly, Hocking must have a lot going on at this point–for instance, a new, 2 million dollar, 4-book deal with St. Martin’s Press–but would this have been so hard?

Then again, a lot of major publishing houses put out eBooks plagued with formatting problems. I guess this is what happens in the Wild West phase of a new business environment.

But in a way I’m grateful she hasn’t done this cleanup work, because it demonstrates something very basic and very important about writing: it’s about delivering a story people care about, and if it does that, it can succeed regardless of trappings, presentation, or the opinions of pundits. It doesn’t matter what people who don’t buy her books think about them if she has a large enough audience of people who do buy her books, and it doesn’t matter much if the people who do buy her books notice errors if they still enjoy the story.

Books for teenage girls that aren’t for teenage girls
One more surprising thing about Hocking’s success is that it’s happening on the Kindle. The reason I say that this is surprising is that the official target market of her books seems to be teenaged girls, yet according to a recent Nielsen poll, only 12% of Kindle users are under the age of 18, and users are about equally balanced between males and females. Were the majority of those one million plus book sales to the 6% of Kindle readers who are female and under age 18? Probably not. Harry Potter and the Twilight series had huge adult audiences, and the people reading about teenage paranormal romance in this case seem to be mainly adults, and presumably mostly female. This begins to shed more light on both Hocking’s and Meyer’s success, because to the best of my knowledge, English-speaking, adult, female romance fans are the most prolific readers on the planet. It’s a damn nice audience if you have the kind of imagination that naturally taps into it.

So what can we other writers learn from Hocking if we want to see success in finding an eBook audience? Well, a few things come to mind: Find your natural demographic. Write a lot. Get your work out there. Work tirelessly. Make your story yours even if it taps into an existing readership. Worry more about connecting with a good story than about publishing method, presentation, or promotion.

For what it’s worth, the authors I know personally who have done fairly well with eBook novel sales are also people who seem to be following these kinds of approaches, except that in the cases I’ve seen they are much more polished in their presentation than is Hocking.

That’s about it for light I can shed on the subject at the moment, but there’s probably much more we can learn from Hocking, and links to posts that delve into that would be welcome in comments.

AND FixedAsOf IS NULL
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The Strongbow Publishing Saga: Part II

eBooks and Publishing

Judson Roberts is a former organized crime prosecutor and current full-time writer living in Texas. His series of historical novels set among the Vikings, The Strongbow Saga, was originally published by HarperCollins and is now finding even greater success published through Roberts’ own Northman Books. This Codex Blog Tour interview follows up on an earlier interview about the writing of the books, following the Saga‘s sometimes difficult path through the publishing world and out the other side to readers. It was preceded by part I.

Has it been a great advantage to have an existing readership or fan base for the series? Are there other advantages you felt you had, coming into the self-publishing arena? Any special disadvantages?

This sudden upward jump
When we’re talking about the first two books of the series that were taken out of print by HarperCollins, whose rights reverted back to me, and that I republished myself, I’m not sure to what degree, if any,  having an existing readership or fan base was a measurable advantage. Existing fans of the series who had already read books 1 and 2 aren’t likely to be the purchasers of the new editions of those same volumes. But since they were republished in December, sales of those two books, in their new Kindle editions, have taken off to a really surprising degree─and sales of the Kindle edition of book 3, which HarperCollins still owns the rights to, have increased along with them. So the real question is when I did republish books 1 and 2, self-publishing them myself through Amazon, what has caused this sudden upward jump in sales, after some years of very low figures while the same books were under HarperCollins’ care?

And to be perfectly honest, the answer is that I don’t know. Over the years, the books─and especially Viking Warrior,  book 1 of the series─have accumulated a significant number of 5 star reader reviews on Amazon. I have to think that that strong base of positive reader reviews helps sell the books to new readers. But that doesn’t explain how or why so many potential new readers are now going to the books’ pages on Amazon, where they may be influenced by the reviews there.

“Low e-book prices boost sales”
There are several reader reviews of Viking Warrior that specifically recommend the series to readers who enjoy Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden, two very widely read authors of historical fiction. In recent months Amazon has apparently linked the Strongbow Saga in their search engines and customer recommendations to those authors, plus some other popular historical fiction writers, so I suspect that kind of product recommendation is sending many prospective new readers to the series. And finally, there is the issue of pricing. Like most traditional publishers currently are doing, when HarperCollins owned them they priced the e-book versions of all three books close to the cost of print versions (and the e-book edition of book 3 is still priced that way). Publishers do this because they fear that if they price e-books too low, e-book sales may “cannibalize” sales of print editions, on which the publishers make a majority of their profit. But the conventional wisdom espoused by authors who have considerable experience self-publishing through Amazon and other e-book venues is that lower priced e-books sell much better, and the higher sales volumes generated by low pricing more than compensates for the price differential, particularly when Amazon’s 70% royalty rate to authors is factored in. In accordance with that theory, I priced my new e-book editions low, and the greatly increased sales volume they are experiencing would certainly seem to support the argument that low e-book prices boost sales.

But to reiterate, I really don’t know exactly what factors have raised a series that was given its last rites and declared dead by its original publisher not only back to life but to a new level of popularity that it had never achieved before. Maybe it’s just fate─that would certainly be fitting for a series about the Vikings.

 

In that case, what will be your strategy going forward? Are you just concentrating on the short term for now, or are there things you’re doing for the long-term success of your career, too?

“Long-time fans have been kept waiting too long”
I guess I’d answer that by saying I’m focusing on the short term─meaning by that what I hope to achieve over the course of the next two to three years─but my short term plan should have long term effects. My most immediate goal is to write book 4 of the Strongbow Saga, and publish it myself in e-book and print format. Long-time fans of the series have been kept waiting for the next installment of the story too long, and now that Amazon has made self-publishing such a viable and potentially profitable option for authors, there is no reason to delay further.

“A specialized agent is still needed”
Another short term career goal is to try and get HarperCollins to release the rights to book 3 back to me, so that I will own the entire series. Considering how badly they mismanaged the books, it’s galling that they still control one book in the series. Once I achieve that, I plan to look for an agent who specializes in foreign and subsidiary rights. Although I can now handle getting the series out in English language print and e-book formats─and through Amazon, can sell the English language e-books internationally, reaching markets they’ve previously not been able to touch─I’d still like to make the books available overseas in translated versions, so readers in Europe and other areas can read them in their native languages. I’d like to make audio book editions available, too, and of course would love to see the story on film, if possible. All of those things are the kind of subsidiary rights a specialized agent is still needed for.

Once I finish writing and publishing book 4 of the series, I intend to return to The Beast of Dublin, the stand-alone historical thriller that’s set in Ireland about five years before the Strongbow Saga begins. It sets up a new character who will play a major role in the fifth and final book of the Strongbow Saga, so it needs to be completed, too. At this point in time, I’m leaning toward self-publishing it, too, but so far am willing to keep my options open.

My last career goal, for the short term, is writing book 5, which will wrap up the Strongbow Saga. After that, who knows?

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The Strongbow Publishing Saga: Part I

eBooks and Publishing

Judson Roberts is a former organized crime prosecutor and current full-time writer living in Texas. His series of historical novels set among the Vikings, The Strongbow Saga, was originally published by HarperCollins and is now finding even greater success published through Roberts’ own Northman Books. This Codex Blog Tour interview follows up on an earlier interview about the writing of the books, following the Saga‘s sometimes difficult path through the publishing world and out the other side to readers. It will be followed by part II this weekend.

I gather there were some publishing problems with the original editions of your Strongbow Saga books, including things like the publisher not sending out any review copies (a major concern!), the covers seeming to suggest a romance rather than a historical adventure, the publisher not picking up the fourth and fifth books, and other issues. Despite these kinds of problems, though, for a long time traditional publishers have been pretty much the only game in town. So what made you feel it was worth putting your full efforts into republishing the books yourself?

Unfortunately your relatively simple question does not have a correspondingly short and simple answer. Let me explain.

The original Viking Warrior cover

“A stealth event”
Initially it was not so much a case of me rejecting traditional publishing as it was traditional publishing rejecting me. As you have very succinctly summarized, I had many problems with HarperCollins, the original publisher of the Strongbow Saga. The way they handled the series—decisions they made, things they did and things they didn’t do—had the practical effect of making the first three books’ publication a stealth event. It’s hard for bookstores, librarians, etc. to become enthused about books and encourage readers to try them if the booksellers and librarians have themselves not heard of them. Since the publication in 2006 of book 1 of the series, Viking Warrior, the series has slowly—very slowly─but steadily developed a devoted fan base, but slow and steady is not a model that traditional publishers consider successful any more. Even before the publisher released book 3, they had pretty obviously decided to abandon the series. But in the original contract I’d signed with the publisher, they purchased not only the right to publish the first three books of the series, but also the right to buy the rest of the series. Book 3, The Road to Vengeance, was published in 2008, but for two years after that the publisher refused to buy the rest of the series, but also refused to release their option on those books.

Sometimes I tend to be stubborn”
Both my primary editor at HarperCollins (who has since jumped ship and moved to another publisher) and my agent─now my former agent─said essentially that they were dumbfounded by the series’ failure to catch on, but that, unfortunately, “these things occasionally happen,” and I should just move on. My agent even told me that given the series’ relative lack of success with HarperCollins, one of the largest publishers, there was virtually no chance that any other publisher would be interested in picking the rest of the series up. Sometimes I tend to be stubborn, though. I was unwilling to give up on a story and characters I’d invested so much of myself in, and had come to care so much about. Plus, by this time I was getting emails every week from readers who had stumbled upon the series, fallen in love with it, and were anxious to find out what was going to happen next to Halfdan. I felt like readers were seeing something in the books that the publisher had missed, and that I owed it to them, and to myself, not to give up.

“A long-term, patient plan”
So I came up with a plan─a long-term, patient plan─to resurrect the Strongbow Saga series. And that original plan was still based on the traditional publishing model. I decided to set as my goal writing a stand-alone thriller, in a historical setting, that would hopefully attract a big publisher, become a best seller (or at least close to it), and develop a large audience of new readers who would be hungry to read more books by me. I would set the thriller in the period and world of the Strongbow Saga, and many of its characters would be from that series, so it would naturally tend to send readers to the series. And that, I hoped, would be enough to interest some traditional publisher in finishing the remaining books of the Strongbow Saga.

My plan became the book-in-progress now titled The Beast of Dublin. It’s set in Ireland around 840 A.D.─five years before the Strongbow Saga begins, and the year when Viking invaders established the armed encampment that eventually grew into the city of Dublin. It’s a complex story that weaves together multiple story lines involving various Viking and Irish characters, and because it sets up part of the eventual final novel of the Strongbow Saga series, in some ways it’s a prelude to the series. The thriller element involves a reworking of the Beowulf legend, with a twist─9th century Vikings would have been very familiar with that story, so when a mysterious creature begins raiding their camp at Dublin and slaughtering their people seemingly at will, they come to fear that a Grendel, similar to the beast that Beowulf fought, is attacking them.

The Beast of Dublin has proved to be a difficult book to write, and two years into it I still have a long way to go before it’s finished. The historical research has been very challenging─available original Irish sources give a confusing, muddled picture of what was happening in Ireland during this period─and trying to coherently tell so many different characters’ stories, from their varied viewpoints, has also been a major learning curve for me. In the meantime, lots of change was occurring in the world of publishing, and with the Strongbow Saga.

“A victim of this shedding process”
The recession hit the publishing industry very hard. As traditional publishers found themselves losing money, they began shedding most of their so-called mid-list authors─ones whose books never reach best seller status, but who have a devoted fan base and sell steady but modest numbers of books─and putting more and more of their efforts into seeking out and investing in books they hoped would be best sellers, which tend to produce rapid pay-offs and profits for publishers. The Strongbow Saga was a victim of this shedding process: during 2009 and 2010, the first two books of the series were taken out of print by the publisher, and a formal decision to drop the series─thereby releasing the option clause on it─was finally made.

“Over seven million new Kindles”
Meanwhile, Amazon, with great prescience, was aggressively moving into the publishing marketplace by carving out for themselves a huge market-share advantage in the, at that time, nascent e-book market. The various ploys and tactics Amazon put into play are too numerous to detail here, but their strategy was, in my opinion, brilliant. Because Amazon’s e-book market share dominance is predicated in part on offering e-books at a substantially lower cost than print versions─something traditional publishers have fought tooth and nail against─it also instituted a policy of trying to persuade authors to bypass publishers altogether and publish their works directly through Amazon, by offering them an incredible 70% royalty rate on e-book sales for books that authors self-published and priced between $2.99 and $9.99 (by contrast, most traditional publishers pay authors royalty rates between 10-15%, sometimes lower, on print editions, and even on e-books, at most 25%). Then, in the fall of 2010, Amazon cut the price of its Kindle e-book reader to $139. During 2010, mostly during the months of October, November, and December, Amazon sold over seven million new Kindles.

For the first half of 2010, e-books were still a pretty insignificant segment of the overall publishing market. Even so, I began to hear stories of authors who were making significant income self-publishing their books─whether previously published books that had reverted back to them, or new books that had never been published─as e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store. At a Novelists Inc. conference in the fall of 2010, I heard one of these authors, J.A. Konrath, talk about his own experiences with Amazon self-publishing, and at the same conference a number of industry executives, including from some of the big, traditional publishers, all agreed that the e-book market was suddenly, rapidly expanding much faster than anyone  in the industry (with the exception of Amazon, of course) had expected. All of the speakers expected a huge surge of e-book sales beginning in January 2011 when the millions of new Kindles being given as Christmas gifts came online.

“As easy as pulling teeth”
After several months of struggling with HarperCollins—the process was about as easy as pulling teeth from someone with tightly clenched jaws─I managed to get the rights to books 1 and 2 of the series, the volumes that had already been taken out of print, reverted back to me. The obvious next step for me to pursue at that point, given what was happening in the publishing world, seemed to be republishing them myself through Amazon as Kindle e-books.

The Saga of The Strongbow Saga continues with the next post, to come.

Photo by kodomut

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Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing (“Indie Publishing”) Breakdown

eBooks and Publishing

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of traditional publishing compared to self-publishing with writer friends for some time now. Self-publishing would not have been something I gave any real thought to a couple of years ago, but the game has clearly changed now that eBooks have kicked into high gear. While eBook quantities sold are still a fraction of physical book quantities, they represent such a different approach to publishing and so much more profit per volume–even when sold at lower prices–that they have become rule-changers both in terms of the economics of publishing and in terms of writing itself. eBooks can easily accommodate varied forms, lengths, and sub-genres; slow sales; and small niche audiences in a way that physical books generally are not able to do to.

But there are many advantages to traditional publishing as well, by which I mean the process of writing a book that can be marketed in bookstores, getting an agent (usually), and selling the book to a publisher, who then produces the book and gets it out to distributors, who in turn get them to bookstores.

“Tradpub” and “Selfpub”
We haven’t needed a special term in the past for traditional publishing, but since the need to distinguish has arisen, I’ve found “traditional publishing” the most comfortable and easiest to communicate. An alternative I like for its brevity is “tradpub.”

A writer friend pointed out that apparently, PublishAmerica has used the term “traditional publishing” in a pejorative way and suggested that “commercial publishing” might be a better term. However, PublishAmerica has some serious credibility issues, and using the term “commercial publishing” for large publishing houses kind of implies that selfpubbing isn’t a business, which in many cases it very much is. Perhaps this argues further for the relatively baggage-less “selfpub” and “tradpub.”

“Self-publishing” is a term that has a bad taste for many professional and aspiring writers, as self-publishing in the past has been a refuge for many, many books that were simply not good enough for traditional publishing, along with a small minority of good books, often ones written for small, niche markets. Again there’s a short version I like, in part because it doesn’t carry all of the baggage of the longer term: “selfpub.” Some people use the term “indie publishing,” and while I find this perfectly acceptable, I don’t often use it myself because it feels like a euphemism, in part because “indie” movies and music tend to involve a group of people, whereas “indie publishing” is generally just a single person publishing his or her own work. As much as I like the idea of an indie author being like an indie filmmaker, I don’t think the comparison is quite apt.

Choosing tradpub or selfpub
These days, the difference between tradpub and selfpub could easily be mistaken for the difference between physical books and eBooks, but thinking this way is misleading, since of course many traditional publishers are beginning to embrace eBook editions (or at least to permit them), while selfpubbers have access to POD (print on demand) services that make their books competitive with other physical books.

Here are some of the advantages of each approach to publication, all from the writer’s point of view. Note that the tradpub section refers to large publishing houses; small press publishers are a bit different.

TRADPUB

  1. Often some promotion is provided by the publisher, including access to review venues, bestseller lists, awards, etc. that won’t include selfpubbed books
  2. Professional design services at publisher’s expense
  3. Sales and fulfillment done by publisher
  4. Book is more reputable with review venues, booksellers, the small percentage of readers who care, etc.
  5. Better pricing and availability of physical books
  6. Sometimes, editing at publisher’s expense
  7. Gatekeeping–the traditional publishing process at its best can prevent books of yours that aren’t ready from being published prematurely, while validating books that are ready.
  8. Sometimes, other rights sell (foreign, film, etc.)
  9. Assured of making a minimum amount of money
  10. Library distribution
  11. Sense of accomplishment and validation
  12. Externally-imposed deadlines helpful to productivity for some writers

SELFPUB

  1. Much quicker time to market
  2. No long period of waiting to see whether or not the book will sell
  3. No agency 15% taken off writer’s income
  4. Much higher royalty rate paid to writer
  5. Accommodates unusual and niche books well
  6. No need to connect with some specific agent’s and editor’s tastes (as well as the marketing department, management, etc.)
  7. Control over process: no covers you hate, no misreporting or non-reporting of royalties from publisher, no unnecessary publisher delays, etc.
  8. Stay in print longer
  9. Rights not tied up or snatched by publisher, as can sometimes happen in non-writer-friendly publishing contracts
  10. Ability to update book after release
  11. Much quicker payment and possibility of steady, comparably reliable income
  12. Much better reporting on sales and money earned
  13. Books can be commercially viable with a significantly smaller readership and/or much slower sales
  14. Satisfaction and confidence arising from self-reliance
  15. No risk of series being canceled before they’re completed
  16. Don’t have to sell the idea of the work; can focus on selling the actual work
  17. Selfpub (especially self-ePublishing) seems to be on the rise, whereas tradpub’s future is uncertain and not rosy: in theory, some publishers might even go out of business between the time they buy your book and the time they intended to publish it
  18. No danger of agent having rights to something they didn’t sell (as happens with certain kinds of unfavorable-to-author agency contracts)
  19. Not constrained or rushed by publisher timelines

I’d offer the caution that the fact that there are more items in the selfpub list doesn’t necessarily mean that selfpub is better; I believe strongly that this depends on the individual writer’s circumstances.

Another caution I’d offer, one that will bear repeating, is that simply because a book is ePublished doesn’t mean anyone will buy it. Based on numerical analysis writers I know have been doing on Amazon, for instance, the great majority of ePublished books are selling very few to no copies. There appear to be a huge number that have never sold at all. In this arena, the confidence of a publisher and the strength of the traditional marketing route offers almost a guarantee of at least a small audience, while selfpub offers nothing at all like a guarantee.

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