What Authors Need To Know About the Publishing Industry Today

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

And by today, I mean the date of this post. Because the only constant now is change!claude-vernet-81514_1280

If you’re in the writing game to make serious bank, or at least a good side income (and only “blockheads” never write for some kind of income, according to Dr. Johnson), then you need to keep up to date on industry developments.

Now is a good time to look, as reports about the first quarter of 2016 are coming in.

Traditional Publishing Sales Are Down

According PW, sales of adult print books fell 10.3% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the first period of 2015, and ebook sales in the same category fell 19%. Regarding the latter, industry observer Mike Shatzkin says a big part of the problem is the pricing of ebooks by publishers:

High ebook prices — and high means “high relative to lots of other ebooks available in the market” — will only work with the consumer when the book is “highly branded”, meaning already a bestseller or by an author that is well-known. And word-of-mouth, the mysterious phenomenon that every publisher counts on to make books big, is lubricated by low prices and seriously handicapped by high prices. If a friend says “read this” and the price is low, it can be an automatic purchase. Not so much if the price makes you stop and think.

This puts publishers in a very painful box. When they cut their ebook prices, they not only reduce sales revenue for each ebook they sell; they also hobble print sales.

casino-royale-181How much of this “pain” can the big publishers endure? Economics in a disruptive environment is merciless. Remember that scene in Casino Royale? (All the men do.) But also recall that Bond got out of it.

 

Barnes & Noble Barely Hanging On

The biggest bookstore chain has been closing stores and circling wagons. They’ve been emphasizing vibe (coffee house, browsing chairs) but not expanding shelf-space for books. Thus, says another article in PW:

Sales at Barnes & Noble fell 6.6% in the quarter ended July 30, compared to the same period last year. Revenue fell 6.1% in the company’s retail sector, and Nook revenue fell 24.5%. As a result of the lower-than-expected sales, B&N reported a net loss from continuing operations of $14.4 million in the period, its first quarter of 2017, compared to $7.8 million in the first period of fiscal 2016.

We all love bookstores. We hate to see physical shelf space shrink, and brick-and-mortar stores shuttered. A nice development is a rise in the local independent bookstore. Good! There are many cultural benefits to this uptick. However, the scale is small relative to a large chain, and breakout books by new authors cannot be driven on these tiny islands alone.

Meanwhile, Amazon Opens Another Physical Bookstore in San Diego

This to go along with their first such store in Seattle. And there are plans to open stores in Chicago and Portland.

According to industry observer Jane Friedman, here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s bookstores:

  1. They have a relatively small square footage when compared to Barnes & Noble. The most recently opened store is 3,500 square feet, and the average Barnes & Noble is ten times that size, sometimes more.
  1. All the books are face out, so the emphasis is on curation.
  1. No prices are listed; customers have to check book prices on their phones.

On this last point, a marketing professor quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune says the intent is to “drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system.” The books “act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of [Amazon] Prime membership.”

Amazon has proven over and over again to be ahead of the curve, as they say, even though the curve these days is as formidable as that tossed by Mr. Clayton Kershaw. Amazon keeps staying in the batter’s box making contact.

What Should Writers Do?  

This is a blog for writers, so the key question for me is always what do I and my fellow scribes need to be about in these turbulent times?

My drumbeat has always been: First, write the best book you can every time out! That’s why we emphasize craft here at TKZ. There is no substitute for quality. And if you can up your production, so much the better.

Next, turn your ear to wisdom, and your heart toward understanding (Proverbs 2:2). You need to decide what path to pursue as a writer, and how to do so with eyes open and good business practices. Thus: 

Perspective #1 – Indie Writers

In a comment on the PW site, the estimable Hugh Howey said, in part:

The reality is that acquisitions and mergers have hidden the steady loss of market share by the Big 5, market share gladly gobbled up by self-published authors. Coloring books, plays, and rejected rough drafts have also helped the last two years, but it’s hard to rely on these things going forward. And publishers have to stop believing surveys that say people prefer print books. Yeah, the people who don’t read much do.

If the Big 5 are going to continue to guide their businesses by personal editorial tastes, celebrity tomes, and the whims of those who read (but probably don’t finish) 2 – 3 books a year, they’re in trouble. The real market for publishers should be the voracious readers who consume several books a week.

***

For authors, this time of flux is critical. As bookshelves dwindle, and B&N appears on the verge of going the way of Border’s, now would be a terrible time to take a work of art that lasts forever and sign it over to any publisher for term of copyright. The new standard has to be 5 to 7 years of license, or self-publish, until things shake out.

One ongoing debate is about whether an indie author should go exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities (such as limited free pricing), and the page payouts of Kindle Unlimited. I think this is a great option for new writers who need to get eyeballs on their pages so they can begin building a readership. See the substantial discussion and links in the section on Kindle Unlimited in Jane Friedman’s post, mentioned above.

Perspective #2 – Traditionally Publishing Writers 

For those writers in the midst of––or are hoping to land––a contract with a Big 5 or other traditional publisher, it’s long past the time when you can leave all contract negotiations to someone else. You must be informed. You need to know what to accept, what to reject, and where to compromise.  Which also means knowing what your leverage is. If you are being represented by an agent, this is a conversation to have with them. (Oh, are you looking for an agent? Well, maybe one is looking for you. Keep track of the new agent alerts and other info at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.)

Big tip: Don’t do any of this with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite and businesslike. But as the great Harvey Mackay counsels in Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, you need to know when to “smile and say no until your tongue bleeds.”

Mackay also says, “Make your decisions with your heart and what you’ll end up with is heart disease.” Don’t be so dreamy-eyed about being invited into the Forbidden City that you fail to make rational, long-term decisions.

A place to start is with attorney David Vandagriff’s book, The Nine Worst Provisions in Your Publishing Contract. Not only are important clauses explained, but Vandagriff (who is also known as the Passive Guy blogger) offers you strategies on how to make them better.

As I have stated several times, authors with a modicum of business sense (which is why I wrote How to Make a Living as a Writerare the only corks on this roiling sea of change.

Be a cork. But be a smart cork. Subscribe to the Publishing Trends blog, which posts links to the “Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week.” Also consider a paid subscription to “The Hot Sheet” the twice-monthly industry dispatch written by the aforementioned Jane Friedman and journalist Porter Anderson.

Because information is now the coin of the realm. Get the info, digest it, use it. But don’t ever let it freak you out. Remember:

keep-calm-write-on

What about you? Where do you see the publishing industry going? How are you, as a writer, dealing with constant change?

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It’s Time to Ditch Discoverability

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

HumptyHumpty Dumpty published a book.

Humpty Dumpty hoped readers would look.

But all of the tweets and all of the ’grams

Didn’t bring Humpty significant clams.

See, Humpty was sitting on that wall waiting for his book to be discovered. Today, he’s a shell of his former self and living in an old yolks home.

Ever since the self-publishing boom took off, authors and industry types have bemoaned the “discoverability problem.” How can a new author, especially a self-publishing one, possibly get discovered in the tsunami of content flooding the market?

As Digital Book World put it back in 2014:

[D]iscoverability is becoming a bigger problem for authors and publishers. More books than ever are being published. Last year it was somewhere between half a million and a million new titles that were published in the United States alone. Self-publishing—mostly in the form of ebooks without a corresponding print edition (digital first)—has greatly added to that abundance.

Ebooks have added to this overwhelming choice in another way, too. Books don’t go “out of print” any longer. They now remain available as ebooks basically forever. Thus the total catalog of books available to readers for purchase or download has swelled dramatically and may now be around the ten or twenty million mark (exact numbers are surprisingly difficult to come by).

A prominent agent (who also happens to be a friend) wrote about the problem. I want you to read the following quote carefully. There is one word that clonked me on the head and has led me to question the viability of that blasted buzzword discoverability. Here is the quote from her post “Solving the Discoverability Challenge.”:

Discoverability continues to be one of the biggest challenges authors face. The market is flooded with books; how are the people who would love your book ever going to find it?

So what do you think the key word is?

Cue Jeopardy music.

Alex says time’s up.

The key word is: book. 

Singular.

That is a major clue as to how we’ve all been thinking about discoverability. And it seems to me that thinking’s messed up.

Because it’s based on an old-school paradigm. The traditional publishing industry does one book at a time for an author. This is called a frontlist title. They hope that title gets discovered. If they really believe in the book or the author, they’ll put some money into advertising and co-op. (In reality, that money now mostly goes to a new title by an A-list author).

But in the new school of self-publishing, this paradigm has at least two major flaws.

First, readers hardly ever “discover” books. Rare indeed is it for a reader to float into a bookstore, spyglass in hand, scan the horizons, and suddenly spot a spine on a distant shelf, and then shout, “Book ho!” Still rarer for an Amazon browser who sees only a few of the gazillion thumbnails in the Kindle store.

The way readers find new authors is, and always has been, overwhelmingly by word of mouth—through a friend, book group, a favorite reviewer.

Second, discoverability thinking fails to emphasize that long-term writing success is not about a single book being found, but about an author building up trust with a growing number of readers.

Which is why I’m proposing we ditch discoverability in favor of trustability.

You should be thinking that each new offering is an opportunity to prove to readers that you deliver the goods. As you do this, time after time, trust in you grows. Consumers buy more from businesses they trust. Readers are consumers and you are a business.

But I’m putting out my first book. What am I supposed to do? I still want people to find it!

Of course you do. Trustability does not mean you don’t market what you publish. It does mean, however, that you have realistic expectations and are patient, knowing that it is going to take you a number of years and consistent production to establish a significant upward trajectory––if your readers trust you.

But to get rolling with a first book, most self-publishing writers would benefit by going into Kindle Select and using the five free promotion days. No less an authority than Author Earnings’ Hugh Howey agrees:

I can also say without reservation that most debuting authors should go exclusive with Amazon until they gain traction and can afford to branch out. The increased visibility offered by Kindle Unlimited makes it worth thinking of Amazon as a writer’s personal publisher. Keep in mind that self-published authors can move their works around. KU exclusivity is only for 90 days at a time. Unlike the decision to go with a major publisher, where you lose all control of your work for the rest of your life—and another 70 years for your heirs’ lives—with self-publishing, you can experiment freely. You can dip in and out and try lots of options.

In fact, you don’t even need a full-length book to begin this process. Write a killer short story or novella and price it at 99¢. Then use the five days of free promotion, along with your social media, to get as many eyeballs on your work as possible. Think of this less as discovery than as the first step in establishing long-lasting trust.

Make it easy for a happy reader to sign up for your email list. You need to build an email list because that’s how you directly communicate with those who are putting their trust in you. Start up a list with MailChimp or a similar service. Put an invitation to join and a link at the end of your story (some are now putting this in front, but I find that quite cheeky. You haven’t proven anything to me yet!).

And through it all, continue to do the following:

  1. Keep up a flow of production

Set goals, write to a quota, have several projects in development. You are no longer in the one-book business.

  1. Keep growing as a writer

Meaning look at your work, have others look at it and give feedback, and figure out how to make your stuff the best it can be.

  1. Keep learning about business

The principles of business are not difficult to understand. In fact, I’ve put the essential in a book. A business thinks ahead, plans for the long term. It knows there are only two ways to grow: a) find new customers; and b) sell more to existing customers. The former is hard. The latter is where the meat is. And that meat is based on trust.

One more note. Authors misunderstand and misuse social media when they make it primarily about discoverability. What is social media really about? Yep, trustability––real content and interaction and positive engagement, so when you do have something to offer, people will listen.

So put your eggs in the trustability basket. Don’t toss them, one by one, over the wall, waiting for a crowd to gather shouting, “Look! What a great egg! Come over here, everyone!”

That’s Humpty Dumpty thinking, and you don’t want your hopes to shatter like his.

Now, scramble up some thoughts and serve them in the comments.

20+

How to Keep the Long Tail Wagging


There’s been a lot of blogspace this week dedicated to the “long tail.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, see my post here.

The long tail is simply a way of describing a line of product that remains available for consumers. For books, it is the backlist. It’s become a relevant topic because now, in the digital world, books are “shelved” forever.

Recently there’s been some commentary on how just having a long tail online is not any help with discovery. That much is true. You still have to provide a way for readers to find your offerings.

This is the big challenge for traditional publishing right now. It the “old days” (pre-2007), big pub got books into bookstores and bought prime real estate for the titles it wanted to push. If a name was big enough—like Stephen King—a reader could also find a lot of his backlist sitting on a shelf.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for the midlist writer. Usually their frontlist title went to a shelf, spine out, and if the book didn’t catch on the bookstores would be less willing to buy the next. The publishers, who are after all in business, would usually not “throw good money after bad,” and thus a writer’s second book got only minimal treatment. Then the author disappeared from the shelves. Career over or consignment to the backwaters of small publishing. 

Enter the Kindle and digital self-publishing. In those early years (what I call the Konrathian period), it was common to hear the naysayers opine that this was a blip, that only a very few authors would make any kind of money at this, and that it would unleash a “tsunami of crap” that consumers would be unable to wade through.

Well, we now know that early opinion is the bunk. We moved quickly to the Entrepreneurial period (see above link). Now every week it seems we hear about another self-published writer making really good money at this game.

It’s even possible that a debut self-pubber will smash through in a big way. As Hugh Howey recently stated:

[D]espite what some experts would have you believe, self-published authors are still breaking out with their first works. AJ Riddle and Brenna Aubrey are two examples, and the current bestseller lists on Amazon are loaded with new self-published authors you’ve never heard of. Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN sold a ton of copies and was picked up by Random House and 20th Century Fox. This was a debut novel, and Andy hasn’t published anything since. He succeeded through self-publishing faster than he would have landed an agent if he went the traditional route.

But most of the time real bank is being made by productive writers who are developing that long tail. Which gives rise to a few thoughts for my fellow scribes: 

1. Make sure the tail is worth wagging

Quality makes a difference. I’m not talking about some literary standard kept in a secret vault in an underground bunker below the offices of the New York Review of Books. I’m talking about making whatever you choose to put your keyboard to the best it can be. Don’t formulate this opinion on your own. Please refer to a post wherein I explain how to know you have a quality product. See also Jodie’s list of beta reader questions


2. Pay for a trumpet blast

There are several e-book deal alert services out there worth your investment. The reigning king is BookBub. A listing there is tough to land, but if you do it’s the best advertising money can buy. Check out their submission tipsand keep trying. Other good services are Kindle Nation Daily, BookGorilla, eBooksoda, Ereader News Today, and Pixel of Ink.

Keep trumpeting your backlist on a rotating basis with these services. Don’t worry if you don’t make back every dollar of your investment. A percentage of these new readers will be of value down the line, as repeat customers. 


3. Consider perma-free

If you have written a series of books, one strategy several recommend is making that first book free. That way there’s no cost barrier at all for readers to get started on the series. It’s a virtual guarantee that a percentage of the readers will go on to buy one or more of the related titles.

That’s happened with my historical series. Book #1, City of Angels, is free on Amazon. When I made the change last month, several blogs that announce freebies got wind of it––without any effort on my part. I saw a huge spike in downloads and the book reached #26 in the free Kindle store. There has indeed been a nice uptick for the other books in the long tail. My sales chart for all the other titles looks like the heart monitor of a patient going from stable to good condition.

Perma-free is a strategy that, so far, Amazon does not discourage. To qualify your book must be offered for free on Kobo, iTunes or Barnes & Noble. You can accomplish this via Smashwords, but I simply did it via Kobo, which allows you to set “free” as a price. Then you go to your book’s page on Amazon and hit the “tell us about a lower price” link and follow the instructions.


4. Put your marketing on auto-pilot

The first six months of this year have been, far and away, the best for my self-publishing stream. I attribute much of that to setting up a marketing calendar at the beginning of the year and simply following that plan each month. I spread out my paid placements, KDP Select offerings, social media and e-mail notifications so I know what to do automatically. 


5. Keep adding to the tail

Finally, and most important of all, keep adding content to the long tail. People can’t buy what isn’t there.

Do all this, and soon you’ll be able to say to your less-productive colleagues what the fox said to Otis:



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It’s The Best Time On Earth To Be A Writer



Since 2009 or so, I’ve been saying to people it’s the best time on earth to be a writer. We all know why. Digital self-publishing makes it possible for a writer to earn real income outside the walls of the Forbidden City. And writers within the walls can start a separate stream of income on their own (provided they’ve wisely worked out a fair non-compete clause).

We’re far enough along now to know certain things about self-publishing. We know it is not a “gold rush.” We know you have to provide quality product, which generally means highly entertaining (fiction) or useful and unique (non-fiction). We know that the more prolific you are the better your chances of increasing your flow of income.

Now comes another report from Author Earnings, the enterprise started by self-publishing star Hugh Howey. Some of the findings in this most recent report are startling.

Self-published authors are clearly earning as much as traditionally published authors on the largest e-book sales platform in the world.

Note, this is not taking print sales into consideration. But still, it’s an astounding fact. Just think about how much the professional writing world has opened up in the six years or so since digital self-publishing began to take off.

Further:

[T]he parity we see in our author earnings charts between self-publishing and Big 5 publishing has a lot to do with the latter’s existing titles and not their new releases. How you decide to publish your manuscript today means looking at the difference in earnings due to recent works. Self-published authors are not just holding their ground with Big 5 authors when it comes to releases after 2011, they are out-earning Big 5 authors by a 27% margin.

This is huge, and comports with what I’ve found by both experiential and anecdotal evidence.

While the extreme outliers from both camps earn most of the income–similar to what we see in most entertainment industries–there is health and wealth down the long tail for self-published and Big 5 published authors alike. In fact, they almost perfectly map onto one another.

This is the real story. It is ever more possible to earn a living wage from writing IF––and this is key––you actually know how to write. This is a craft, after all. You can’t sell a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck (because if it doesn’t, it sucks).

I mentioned that my experience and my acquaintance with several self-publishing authors doing extremely well (I’m talking five figures a month) demonstrate why this is the best time in history to be a writer.  

As I step back and look at these writers, I notice that all of them were previously published under the traditional system. This doesn’t mean there aren’t non-trads earning at that level. Far from it. But it does mean that the circle I’m acquainted with all proved their writing chops first within the walls of the Forbidden City.

Which validates another thing I’ve been saying ever since I started teaching self-publishing workshops: if you are a new writer, and you do hope for a career at this, you need to put your books through a grinder that replicates what an agent or publishing house would do with them.

You need to be objective and you need to be hard. Heck, you may even need to reject yourself. I mean it. How many first novels have ever sold? Or sold well? Or should have ever seen the light of day in the first place?

Most first novels are like that first waffle coming off a lukewarm griddle. Chuck it and start a new one. If the new one tastes right, then keep them coming. Pile them high and don’t be stingy with the butter and syrup.

When I was first starting out as a writer, there was a stat I read somewhere that said the average yearly income generated by fiction writing was around $3000. This was sobering indeed. It wasn’t going to stop me, because writing fiction is what I wanted to do with my life. But it did have me planning to keep on practicing law for forty years.

Now that stat seems quaint in its irrelevance. That was a traditional-only statistic when print books in bookstores were the only game in town.

I have no way of knowing what the average income of productive fiction writers (meaning at least one novel a year) is today. But for a self-starter who knows his craft and is willing to write for the rest of his life, the future is a heck of a lot brighter than 3k a year.

There is also good news for writers who write for other than commercial reasons. If you’re into literary or experimental fiction, or if you have a subject you’re passionate about, you can now give those books life without having to pay four thousand bucks for a print run (and then suffer the indignity of ten boxes of unsold tomes in your garage for the next twenty years, until you finally give up and donate them to the library, which won’t take them because there are too many). 

Anyone can publish a book now and, if there’s quality attached, you can generate a following. It may be small but it will be heck of a lot larger than when you were unpublished.

Today the acton is with what I call the ownlist writers.

And for those writers who still desire to enter the Forbidden City, the gates are not closed. They are guarded with more vigilance, however, owing to the high risk of the business these days. The purse strings are tightening and deal terms can be fraught with peril. So caveat scriptor. Work with a good agent and get to know contracts. As my grandfather used to recite:

A wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he heard,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Now wasn’t he a wise old bird?

Keep your eyes and ears open, listen and learn about what’s going on in the book world, what to avoid, what terms to walk away from. Don’t leave your fate completely in the hands of another, ever again. Be a partner, not a patsy.

All writers should dip at least one of their quills in the rushing stream of self-publishing. As I said a couple of weeks ago, take risks and don’t be afraid to fail.

Technologies and markets will ebb and flow. Godzilla and Mothra will sometimes duke it out. But the game has changed forever. The future is now. And now is the best time on earth to be a writer.

Carpe typem. Seize the keyboard!

0

Is Writing Success Like a Lottery System?

@jamesscottbell



There’s been a lot of blogosphere chatter about writing success being like a lottery. Something about that metaphor has always bothered me. For in a true lottery you can’t really affect your odds (except by buying more tickets, of course). But is that true for writers?
I don’t think it is. Just putting more books out there (“buying more tickets”) won’t help your chances if the books don’t generate reader interest and loyalty. Productivity and prolificacy are certainly virtues, but to them must be added value.
Hugh Howey had some interesting thoughts recently on timing and luck. Citing Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Howey highlighted a fascinating factoid:
A list of the 75 wealthiest people in history, which goes all the way back to Cleopatra, shows that 20% were Americans born within 9 years of each other. Between 1831 to 1840, a group that includes Rockefeller, Carnegie, Armour, J.P. Morgan, George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Jay Gould were born. They all became fabulously wealthy in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, just as the railroad and Wall Street and other industries were exploding.
From this Howey explains how he benefitted greatly from being in the right place at the right time, Kindle-wise. He had started writing in earnest in 2009, just as the neo-self-publishing movement was taking off. He did some things right, like early adoption of KDP Select and serialization. Look at him now.
But there is one thing he says I disagree with: “I know I’m not that good.”
Wrong. He is good. Very good. Woolwould not be what it is without the quality. Which Howey has worked hard to achieve.
Reminds me of the old adage, “Luck is where hard work meets opportunity.” I believe that wholeheartedly.
I went to school with a kid named Robin Yount. He was a natural athlete and an incredible Little League baseball player. In fact, my greatest athletic moment was the day Robin Yount intentionally walked me. Because Yount is now a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
But it wasn’t just his natural giftedness that made him what he was. He happened to have an older brother named Larry, who made it to the big show as a pitcher. I remember riding my bike down to the Little League field one day and seeing Larry pitching ball after ball to his little brother. Robin Yount was lucky in the body and brother he was given. But he still had to work hard. Because he did,he was ready when, at age 18, he got the call from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Hard work meeting opportunity.
So I wouldn’t call the publishing biz a lottery system. What metaphor would I use? It hit me the other day: writing success is more like my favorite game, backgammon.
Backgammon, which has been around for 5,000 years, is brilliantly conceived. Dice are involved, so there’s always an

element of chance. Someone who is way behind still might win if the dice give him a roll he needs at a crucial moment.

On the other hand, someone who knows how to think strategically, can calculate odds, and takes risks at the right time, will win more often than the average player who depends mostly on the rolling bones.
Early on I studied the game by reading books. I memorized the best opening moves for each roll. I learned how to think about what’s called the “back game,” what the best “points” are to cover, and when it might pay off to leave a “blot.”
And I played a lot of games with friends and, later, on a computer. I discovered a couple of killer, though risky, opening moves. I use them because they can pay off big time, though when they don’t I find myself behind. But I’m willing to take these early chances because they are not foolhardy and I’m confident enough in my skills that I can still come back.
This, it seems to me, is more analogous to the writing life than a lottery. Yes, there is chance involved. I sold my first novel because I happened to be at a convention with an author I had met on the plane. This new acquaintance showed me around the floor, introduced me to people. One of them was a publisher he knew. That publisher just happened to be starting a new publishing house and was looking for material. I pitched him my book and he bought it a few weeks later.
Chance.
But I was also ready for that moment. I had been studying the craft diligently for several years and was committed to a weekly quota of words. I’d written several screenplays and at least one messy novel before completing the project I had with me at the convention.
Work.
Thus, as in backgammon, the greater your skill, the better your chances. The harder you work, the more skill you acquire. Sure, there are different talent levels, and that’s not something we have any control over.
But biology is not destiny, as they say. Unrewarded genius is almost a cliché. Someone with less talent who works hard often outperforms the gifted.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll always win big in any one game. If the dice are not your friends, things might not turn out as planned. That book you thought was a sure winner might sink. Or even stink.
But that doesn’t mean you have to stop playing.
Don’t ever worry about the dice. You cannot control them, not even if you shake them hard and shout, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” The vagaries of the book market are out of your hands. You can, however, control your work ethic and awareness of opportunity.
Writing success is therefore not a lottery. It’s a game.
Play intelligently, play a lot and try to have some fun, too.

So what about you? Do you believe in pure luck? Or do you believe there is something you can do to goose it?
0

On Author Earnings and Author Yearnings

The dust is far from settled in the writing-publishing-indie blogosphere. It was kicked up by Hugh Howey, the hugely successful indie author who has begun a data gathering project to help authors make more informed decisions about where to publish.
His Author Earnings Report was like a bomb going off in a pillow factory. Feathers flying all over the place. The gimlet-eyed Porter Anderson provides a nice overviewof the math and the aftermath. Criticism of Howey’s methodology came in furious bursts, notably here, here, and here.
The mildly opinionated Joe Konrath jumped in to defend Howey, by way of  “fisking” one of Howey’s prominent critics, Mike Shatzkin.
Mark Coker, of Smashwords fame, took to PW with a “moderate” view of the “revolt.” For an agent’s perspective on matters, you can check out Chip MacGregor’s post “Author Earnings, Amazon, and the Future of Ebooks.” 
Howey himself has defended his research in various comment sections, including the one in the Shatzkin post referenced above.
Passive Guy had this to say about the blowback to Howey’s data:
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the entire Author Earnings episode for PG has been the extraordinarily overwrought response it has engendered from traditional publishing and its assorted hangers-on.
Indie authors just can’t, can’t, can’t be selling more ebooks anywhere on Amazon than tradpub is. Indie bestsellers just can’t, can’t, can’t be making more money that tradpub authors are. They just can’t.
The vitriol and mathematical illiteracy have flowed like half-priced beer during Happy Hour.
What are we to make of all this? I’m no statistician, and all I really know about the field is that old saying: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.In other words, it’s easy to look at a survey and come to divergent conclusions, depending on whose ox is being fed or gored.
Hugh Howey has provided his own bottom line:
There’s no guarantee you’ll get rich from self-publishing. There’s less guarantee you’ll get rich from querying agents. My contention is this: Most people will be happier getting their works out in the wild and moving on to the next project than they will reading rejection letters.
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The real choice is that 99% of you can write a novel, pour your heart into it, and watch as every agent you query rejects the thing. And then you can give up. Feel like a failure. Walk away from your dream.
Or you can self-publish, have the pride of having done so, hold a copy of a physical book you wrote in your hands, see your e-book up on Amazon, get a sale or two, hear from a reader, and want to write more.
It isn’t about getting rich. It’s about having the opportunity to feel pride of accomplishment.
I’d like to offer my own take on the current landscape from the perspective of a professional writer. I’ve made my living from the clacking keyboard for almost twenty years. I believe in writers making money. I like that whole concept.
Professional writers know that striking it rich (as in Wool or Harry Potter or Hunger Gamestype rich) is out of their hands. If it happens, it’s lightning striking. We’ll take it if it comes, of course, but getting hot and bothered about it is pointless.
Professional writers pursue a steady and increasing income. That we can control, by being good and productive. “Pride of accomplishment” is fine for a first book, but after that I’d venture to say that 99% of those who yearn to write also yearn to earn.
The questions are how, where, and how long will it take to make bank as a writer? Let’s answer all three:
HOW?
By working hard at your craft. All consistent readers of TKZ know this is the drum I beat most often. I believe writers can get better and I have a library of material to help them. I also have hundreds of emails from writers, many of whom are now professional. I’m gratified my instruction has helped, but I know that these authors have added the most important ingredient themselves: a work ethic.
I don’t care how badly you want to make money from writing. Unless you produce the words, on a regularly scheduled basis, you’re going to stay stuck on yearning. 
WHERE?
Where should do you publish? Do you seek a traditional contract? Should you go right into self-publishing?
It does not have to be either/or. There is no longer a stigma attached to self-publishing. There used to be, big time. Now there is no reason a new author can’t put out work independently while, at the same time, looking toward a possible traditional contract.
In fact, trad publishers are on the lookout for self-publishing successes. Why? Because it lowers their risk. The only question then is whether the writer would be better off staying exclusively on the self-publishing course. The answer to that will be in the terms of the deal being offered. Many have taken such a deal. Others have turned trad deals down, even when they run to seven figures.
I will state here what I say to audiences of writers, published and unpublished: Short-form work (like my Force of Habit series) is a great way to get your feet wet in self-publishing, and every single author working today should have at least one wet foot.
HOW LONG?
As long as it takes. A professional writer is not going to give up, ever. You have to love to write. It has to be a sort of compulsion. You have to have calluses on your forehead from banging it against various doors. There’s plenty of rejection and dejection to go around. You take it for an hour or so, then get back to the keyboard.
The more and better you write, the better your chances of earning an income. It may not be enough to quit the old day job, but I’ve never been an advocate of doing that too soon. A day job keeps your feet on the ground and soup on the table. There may come a time when you’ve got this thing humming along and you can ditch the daily salt mine. But in the meantime, concentrate on producing a certain number of words every week. Doesn’t matter how few. Just do it. And study the craft at least one hour each week, too.
So here’s my take on the Author Earnings Report. I like Hugh Howey. I like his enthusiasm for, and support of, his fellow writers. There may be valid criticisms of how much you can extrapolate from his data. But professional writers don’t spend much time extrapolating. They spend their time typing and making up more stories.
Wayne Gretzky used to say, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

So take your shots. And when the fur starts to fly and the blogosphere gets too noisy, pop on the headphones, cue up Steely Dan or DragonForce, and write some more. 

So what do you perceive to be the terrain out there in publishing land?  
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Facing Down the Harsh Realities of Publishing


Why doesn’t Phil Ivey get to the final table every year in the World Series of Poker? In fact, why hasn’t he ever won the main event? Every observer of the game puts Ivey at the top of the charts in terms of all-around poker skill. He wins a lot of tournaments, but never the big one.

It’s because poker isn’t only about skill. You’ve got to get the cards. You can go all in with pocket aces only to see your opponent from Hoboken draw that third eight on the river.

So yeah, it’s a mixture of skill and luck. Which pretty much defines any endeavor in life.

Of course, stronger skills increase your odds of success. As one wag put it, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

In the writing world, especially now, you’ll hear a lot about luck and the “harsh reality” of publishing. Whether you’re self-pubbing, going with a traditional house (large, small or in between), or doing a mixture of both, the truth is it’s hard to break through to big numbers.

A few weeks ago the highly successful, and most generous indie author, Hugh Howey, wrote the following in regard to a post on Joe Konrath’s blog.

I think Joe comes as close as anyone to sorting it all out. Like me, he includes luck in his secret recipe, and he qualifies that with the hard work that magnifies luck. Let’s say luck, as an ingredient, accounts for 30% of the Breakout-Sauce. That’s enough to explain how some authors go nuts with a single book, or expensive books, or books with crappy cover art (like mine), or books with technical faults. It would also explain how someone with a dozen excellent titles isn’t taking off. How someone who does everything “right” doesn’t have success.

If that’s the reality of it, then what’s the answer? The same answer you’d give anyone starting a business. Do you really want to do this? Are you willing to pay the price? Can you live with risk and uncertainty? Can you look reality in the eye and make adjustments? Is this business enough of a passion that you’d do it even if you barely clear your bottom line (e.g., run an independent bookstore)?

Yes? You will keep writing? Even if things are not taking off? Okay. Then:

1. Keep your expectations low

The great world religions, and various schools of philosophy, teach that unhappiness comes primarily through expectations unfulfilled. Expectations can form images in your mind, such as seeing your ebook hit the Kindle Top 100 list, or some such. When it doesn’t happen, your brain orders a secretion of chemicals that make you feel like pig slop.

Set goals and have dreams, yes. But temper them with your mind telling you not to be dependent on them for your happiness or productivity. “If you can dream, and not make dreams your master . . .” Kipling wrote.


2. Keep your work ethic high

I believe I said this best in my post called “How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction.” Especially the part about constantly learning the craft. Get feedback. Read books and articles on writing. Keep learning. Try new things. Experiment with short form. Maybe you’ll find a new genre you like, and that readers like, too. At the very least, you’ll be exercising your skills. Dean Koontz was a middling writer for the first ten years of his career. But he was crazily prolific. And all along the way he taught himself about the craft. When he intentionally took a leap into deeper characterization (with Whispers) he shot up another level. And he’s had several leaps like that since.


3. Keep your joy hot

I also wrote about joy in your writing being a key to success. You see, it’s always a combination of things that betters your odds. Knowing how to free your voice is one of those things. It’s also more fun to write this way. You might as well have fun at this thing.


4. Keep your grumbling cool

I used to say that if you got a rejection from a publisher or agent, let it hurt for half an hour, then get back to your keyboard. Same if you self-publish. Your latest release mired in mud? Okay, grouse to somebody about it, or bay at the moon, but then get back to work on your next project.


5. Keep on writing for the rest of your life

If you love to write, why would you ever stop? If writing doesn’t make a living for you, do it because you love it, and do what you can of it. Keep your day job but find your “quota sweet spot” and stick to it.

Persistence plus production plus quality improvements all along the way. That’s been the formula for business success ever since Eli Whitney (did you know the cotton gin didn’t make him rich, but muskets did, years later? Well, now you do).

Let Hugh Howey, from the same comment I linked to above, have the last word:

Which leads to my point of this long-winded nonsense: Time has to be an ingredient. An important one. This revolution has barely gotten started. Good luck and bad luck require time to even them out. If you’ve done everything right, your works might take off in ten years. Who knows? We haven’t been at this long enough. I think it’s too early for any of us to say something isn’t working or that it won’t work. I just have to remember back to writing seven novels over three years and watching them sit between #335,204 and #1,302,490 in the Amazon store. I didn’t care. I just kept writing. I read about Amanda Hocking, and I thought: “Hellz yeah!” And I kept writing. I gave myself until I was 40 and I had twenty titles published before I worried about whether I sold enough to pay a bill. And even if that never happened, it was an excuse to publish twenty titles. I could always say that. No one could take it away from me. And anyway, I’d sold a handful of books and heard from people that they loved them. I remembered when that was just an idle dream.

So how is the reality of writing treating you? What do you intend to do about it? 

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“I” is for Integrity: Sue Grafton and the Self-Publishing Blowback

One of those instant, internet explosions broke out this past week after the great Sue Grafton gave an interviewer some opinions on self-publishing. She said that self-publishing was a “lazy” way out. The interviewer pressed her on that, in light of indie successes like John Locke. Grafton responded:
Obviously, I’m not talking about the rare few writers who manage to break out. The indie success stories aren’t the rule. They’re the exception. The self-published books I’ve read are often amateurish. I’ve got one sitting on my desk right now and I’ve received hundreds of them over the years. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth. The hard work is taking the rejection, learning the lessons, and mastering the craft over a period of time. I see way too many writers who complete one novel and start looking for the fame and fortune they’re sure they’re entitled to. To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not an quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops..you already did.
Then the indie blowback began. A good example comes from Hugh Howey, author of the hugely successful Wool:
Sue Grafton thinks I’m lazy. Yeah. Hard to swallow when I look at how many hours I pour into my writing career each week (and weekend).
. . . .
Why in the world is this interviewer asking a buggy whip expert about picking out a new car? What does Sue Grafton know about publishing in today’s market and with today’s tools? Judging by this response, she knows absolutely nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. What she thinks she knows is harmful to aspiring writers.
Ms. Grafton saw the coverage, and asked the blog that originally ran her interview for a chance to respond:
The responses to that quote ranged from irate to savage to the downright nasty  Indie writers felt I was discounting their efforts and that I was tarring too many with the same brush. I wasn’t my intention to tar anyone, if the truth be known. Several writers took the time to educate me on the state of e-publishing and the nature of self-publishing as it now stands. I am uninitiated when it comes to this new format. I had no idea how wide-spread it was, nor did I see it as developing as a response to the current state of traditional publishing, which is sales driven and therefore limited in its scope. I understand that e-publishing has stepped into the gap, allowing a greater number of authors to enter the marketplace. This, I applaud.  I don’t mean to sound defensive here…though of course I do.
. . . .
My remark about self-publishing was meant as a caution, which I think some of you finally understood when we exchanged notes on the subject.
Ms. Grafton went on to say she takes “responsibility for my gaffe and I hope you will understand the spirit in which it was meant.” She added, “I am still learning and I hope to keep on learning for as long as I write.”
Good on her for this gracious response. Sue Grafton has always been on the writers’ side, and her initial comments grew out of this advocacy. Indeed, she stated at the very beginning that she wasn’t talking about the “exceptions” who break out.
Which makes her remarks largely valid. Many (not all!) who self-publish do so too soon. For many (not all!) it IS the “lazy” way, as compared to the hard work of learning the craft, getting better, being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and doing everything you can to correct them.
In that respect her view is not harmful. Indeed, it may be the very thing that saves a writer from embarrassing himself, or striking out expecting indie gold only to find canyons of wet dirt . . . and a reason to sit around Starbucks for the rest of his life grousing over his damned bad luck.
No matter how you publish, you have to earn success, and it ain’t easy. When it comes to encouraging self-published writers, I’m not going to offer pie-in-the-writing-sky. I’m going to offer clear and hard-headed advice that has proved itself over time. Advice that gives you a reasonable chance to make a buck, and maybe a living, by writing.
But a big part of that is not to short change yourself by publishing the first thing you finish. Amazon is not the place to throw up your NaNoWriMo project on December 1 every year.
And that is what Sue Grafton was getting at. She is old school, yes. But it was a school with some classic courses, and there is wisdom there to be heeded.
H/T to The Passive Voice for coverage of this controversy. 
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