Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

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Is Our Writing Culture In Mortal Danger? Part III

benjamin-franklin-62846_640I’m going to try to wrap up my thoughts on the mischievous missive delivered by Mr. Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed. The first part of my response is here. The second part is here.

There are three issues outstanding:

Issue 3 – Is the Party Over?

Issue 4 – What Counts as Writing Success?

Issue 5 – Can Fiction Writing Be Taught?

Last week I upheld the view that this is the best time on Earth to be a writer. Lest you think I only mean because writers can now self-publish and make real dough, here’s some news that rippled outward from the traditional side of things: Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi inked a $3.4 million deal with Tor Books. That’s for thirteen books over a ten-year period. I’d say that counts as good times. Mr. Scalzi explains his thought process here.

Ah, but is the party over? Or about to be? Has there been a “tonal shift” in what Porter calls the “palaver” from the indie writer sector of the publishing world?

I do sense a shift, but not a negative one. It is, rather, the natural maturation of a revolution. During the Early Konrathian period of indie publishing, the talk was all about waking people up and stirring them to action (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”). There was an exuberance. There were fight songs around the campfire. Free beer.

It was Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry time. Yes, there was plenty of vitriol, too, which is always part of an uprising. What the American colonists said about the tea tax was not intended for polite society. Nor were the words of indies when reacting to representatives of the Authors Guild.

Now, it seems, the tone has changed from revolution to constitution. From muskets to quills. Giddiness has been replaced by plans and purpose and increasing success.

But just what is success? This is Issue #4.

One type is, certainly, traditional, bestselling, A-list status. Another type is having the freedom to publish what you want, when you want, and making steadily growing income. When you read surveys of traditional authors and how frustrated they can be with their publishers, this type of success might even be all the more attractive.

For some writers the “validation” of traditional success is the most important thing. Others find more satisfaction going directly to readers…and to the bank.

We are all free to define success for ourselves, and should. What does it mean specifically to you? Talk about it in the comments.

Finally, Issue #5. The title of Porter’s post was The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?

The question implies that a negative answer might be possible. Or, worse, that there is a possibility the whole enterprise of teaching fiction is little more than a racket. That’s what brought me and a couple of my teaching colleagues—Donald Maass and David Corbett—into the comments with some admonishments.

Porter, I’m happy to say, qualified this impression, kindly mentioning my name and my two fellows (and others) as exceptions. But he added this in a comment:

It’s been interesting to see some of these folks I’ve mentioned struggle with this piece. On the surface, of course, that looks natural in that no one wants to be painted with too broad a brush. But you note that I mentioned none of them, nor would I — they’re not the kind of problematic how-to players I’m talking about. And yet, to some degree, they seem unsettled by even the discussion of the problem.

This makes me think (I’m speculating here, they have not told me this) that the problem of “the toadstools” — who are NOT these writer/teachers — is much on their minds.

I can’t answer for my colleagues, but I’m happy to clear up any confusion on my part. No, “the toadstools” were not on my mind at all. What set me off was even entertaining the notion that writing can’t be taught. In point of fact, virtually all writers have been taught how to write in some form or fashion. It’s just that not many talk about it. As good old Ernest Hemingway once said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Writing is taught in many ways.

It is taught by editors who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by teachers who know what they’re doing.

It is taught by books by people who know what they’re doing and how to teach others to do the same.

It is taught by critique partners and beta readers.

It can be self-taught by reading novels and analyzing what other authors do. That’s fine. What I do when I teach, however, is save writers years of trial and error by showing them right away what successful authors do, and how they can do it themselves.

The proof of all this, I add as a former trial lawyer, is in the testimony of credible witnesses. The successful writers who themselves give credit to writing instruction.  

Let me offer just one example. This from critically acclaimed author Sarah Pekkanen, who gave an interview to NPR about getting published:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer [Stephen King]; one, by a top New York agent [Donald Maass]; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us [some joker named Bell]. 

The full interview is here. That was six years ago. It’s nice to see how Sarah’s career has prospered since. I’d say she’s offered credible testimony that writing fiction can indeed be taught.

Whew! That’s three full posts all sparked by the incendiary flying fingers of one Porter Anderson, provocateur and good sport. If you bump into him at a conference, don’t dislodge his keyboard…buy him a Campari instead.

Now I’m done. Next week we return to our regularly scheduled program!

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Key Book Production Costs for Self-Published Authors

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




After James Scott Bell’s excellent post “We Are All Long Tail Marketers Now”, several side discussions took place in the comments regarding my self-published novel – BLOOD SCORE now available through the Amazon Kindle Select Program (my first time using this program). I’ll have the book discounted until August 1. (I love how the TKZ community gets involved with each post. Thank you.) Questions came up about my editing and production experiences with this novel since it is outside my traditionally published works.

As I mentioned in my comments on Jim’s post, the business end has always been a drain for me. Self-pubbing involves more than promo. It’s production of the actual book and the promo is ongoing (as it is for me with traditional publishers too), but with indie I’m in control of my production schedule, retail pricing and subrights decisions, and can capitalize on promo ops when I want to. Being a hybrid author, straddling traditional and indie publishing, gives me more options and many “irons in the fire.” I have many more points mentioned in another post I did on the subject. On my group YA blog ADR3NALIN3, I did a post on the “Ten Reasons Why I Am Self-Publishing.” 

I wanted to dip my toe into the waters of indie with a non-fiction book as well as a short story anthology so I would know what was involved in production and to build up my contacts for service providers. My upcoming full-length novel project will be more about learning promotion. I’ve got loads of personal bookmarks for service providers, but the marketing side of the business needed work on my part. I’ve created a Self-Pub Resource tab on my YA blog-Fringe Dweller. I hope to update it as I go along. For now it encompasses review sites for digital books. That resource tab will be a work in progress as I go.

Basically, here are the indie production costs as I see them:

1.) Edits: $500-$1800+ – This is a tough one to estimate, but important. I’ve seen this cost higher, depending on if you need a book doctor or not. It depends on how much work needs to be done and who you use as editor. A good editor is worth their weight in sales, so shop wisely. Beta readers will only get you so far. Having said that, I’ve had some good and terrible copy editors on my traditionally published books. Being traditionally pubbed does NOT guarantee you will get a good one. At least with indie books, you can make the decision on who to use on current and future projects. 

For this project I used authors/editors Alicia Dean and Kathy Wheeler. They helped with formatting and editing and made that effort painless and fun.
 

2.) Cover $150-400 – This range depends if you are doing a version for print or just digital. The print design costs more because it involves the design of a spine and back cover. You can do a cheaper cover by merely paying for one digital image from iStock or some other provider and add font and do it yourself graphically (not recommended), but a cover needs to look good on a thumbnail and a bad design can kill sales. On BLOOD SCORE, I used Croco Designs and love Frauke Spanuth, the designer. I’ve used her for blog header designs and bookmarks and now covers. She’s a German designer who works for publishers too. Her costs are reasonable on all fronts and she’s easy to work with and fast, but there are many cover designers out there now. Look through portfolios to find one you like.

3.) Formatting $100-150 – You can do this yourself, but I’ve never tried it. There are software programs, but haven’t tried that either

4.) Promotion $50-Whatever – This is totally up to you. There are many free sites that promo ebooks now (that are focused on ereaders), but there are also bundlers who will charge you $50 or so to post promo to 45 sites, etc. I’m hoping to try this with BLOOD SCORE.

5.) ISBN #s – this is an investment for future books. I bought 10 numbers, which keeps the cost down. I think the individual book price is higher to retain your own ISBN#, or you can use the one that Amazon or others assign you for free, but I prefer to have control of my own ISBNs. So this ISBN cost can cost you nothing, unless you decide you want control like I did. So spread $250 across ten books if you retain your own ISBNs.

So all in, you might pay $800 – $2400 (excluding ISBN costs), but you can manage your price to earn 35% – 70% royalty with a better monthly cash flow where you can control the price and promo ops. Using a price of $0.99 you’d earn 35%, but $2.99 or better and your royalty would be 70%. For a novel length book, I might discount it to $.99 for a certain period on release, but then move it up to $4.99. Hard to say what breakeven would be without real sales figures behind it, but you can play with the math. 

$4.99 at 70% royalty, you’d have to sell 229 – 687 books to clear the cost range I mentioned. Mind you, this does NOT take into account any promo ad costs and assumes only one price at the higher royalty rate. If you were to move that price point to $2.99 at 70% royalty, your sales would have to be 382 – 1148 to breakeven.


A writer friend of mine shot me some real numbers. (I’m also on an indie writers loop where I hear lots of good info.) It takes having a number of good books to build up your “virtual shelf” of offerings and build your readership. Again, I repeat. Good books. But my crime fiction author acquaintance is seeing $7,000 – $10,000 per month for 8 novels or so, and this will grow as new material gets added. This author crafts a solid book and writes full time. 

For me, I like having traditional contracts to fill, but I want the more immediate cash flow too, rather than waiting for royalty statements every 9 months (by the time they reach you). (Antiquated accounting methods and reporting systems for traditional publishers, in a digital age when sales are more immediate through Amazon and other online retailers, are more things that I hope will change.)


The last thing I’d like to talk about is the value of “a la carte” subrights (ie foreign rights, audio, print vs digital). In many deals, these rights are lumped in and assumed to be part of the deal, but should this continue as advances drop? Or if advances drop, shouldn’t the royalty percentage increase to offset the lower upfront money? Subrights have value to the indie author. (Here’s a LINK to a post I did on self-publishing in audio, for example.) If an author gets an offer, but the advance is marginal or too low to tie up copyrights for years (something I am presently experiencing on my back list), do you have options? 


You can certainly turn the deal down. That’s one option. I did this with BLOOD SCORE when I got an offer to buy it from a big house. After my experiences, the offer wasn’t good enough to deal with the aftermath of a rights tie up into infinity. 

Even if an advance is $10,000-15,000/book, that might not be enough if the terms of the contract are onerous over the long haul. Successful thriller Barry Eisler turned down a deal from a traditional house for $500,000+. That boggled my brain, but no one knows the terms of that deal that made Barry change his mind. He’s a real marketing guru and has a solid readership. Deals are subjective.


These days this is a personal decision each author has to make, but if publishers would negotiate on terms, a marginal advance deal might work if the number of years for digital rights can be limited before they would automatically revert back to the author (ie 2-3 yrs only) or if UK rights were granted but digital rights in the US are retained. Some successful indie authors have retained digital rights, but sold print rights (ie John Locke to Simon and Schuster). With “out of the box” thinking and a little negotiating, some of these marginal deals can be done if the parties agree on specific terms, but I’m not sure traditional houses are open to such change yet.

Food for thought and discussion at TKZ:

1.) If an advance is too low to tie up copy rights, what terms do you think can be negotiated to make the deal happen? Do you think the publishing industry is changing in this regard?

2.) If you’re an aspiring author, would you sign a contract at ANY advance to be published, or do certain contractual terms matter to you?

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Is Cutting More Important than Adding?

Today I have a guest post from Sechin Tower, author of Mad Science Institute (MSI), a highly unusual yet thoroughly entertaining young adult suspense novel. I met Sechin on Twitter. Once I saw that he was a game developer, I asked for his help on my next proposal, a near future YA techno thriller that involves gaming and he helped me fine tune my game world. I also downloaded his book and found a real gem. Since he’s a teacher, he incorporates science into the plot to make learning fun for young readers. I absolutely fell in love with his YA voice, his characters and his humor. I’m looking forward to his next book. Below is a summary of Mad Science Institute.

Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck is a girl genius with a knack for making robots-and for making robots explode. After her talents earn her admission into a secretive university institute, she is swiftly drawn into a conspiracy more than a century in the making. Soap is pitted against murderous thugs, experimental weaponry, lizard monsters, and a nefarious doomsday device that can bring civilization to a sudden and very messy end.

Welcome, Sechin!

I had a professor who insisted that the best way to write a two-page paper was to write a 10 page paper, throw it all away, and then hand in pages 11 and 12. When I tell the same thing to my students, they don’t buy it. I can’t blame them: I didn’t really buy it either, not until I started writing novels.

My professor’s point was that not all pages are created equal. Of course it takes more effort to write 10 or 12 bad pages than two bad pages, and maybe even more than two mediocre pages. But good pages require time and effort, as well as research, experimentation, structuring, restructuring, and a nearly endless amount of general fussing. At the very least, good pages require two steps: adding and cutting.

I teach two discrete groups of students and I’ve found that each needs this advice for different reasons. One of my student groups consists of the crème-de-la-crème of our school’s scholars, students who take the most challenging courses, maintain the highest GPAs, and participate in every extracurricular activity that might sparkle on their college applications. My other group consists of at-risk kids in an alternative school program. Many of these students are extremely intelligent, but for a dizzying array of reasons none of them has had much success in school.

The advanced students always want to build up their writing until it overflows. They do the research, they know the issues, they have the facts, and they want to pile it all in without any thought to purpose or readability. The bigger the better: if the assignment calls for two pages, then they assume 10 ought to get a better grade. If they run out of things to say, they resort to inflated words and ponderous sentences. Their writing often becomes a cluttered, colorless hallway that never leads anywhere.

My alternative high-schoolers, on the other hand, bring a great deal of passion about anything they see as relevant to their lives. They are lively, colorful, and outspoken, but even on their favorite topics their writing is terse. For them, it’s about getting to the point. Why wade through the muck of evidence and logic when you can gallop right to the exciting conclusion? Why bother explaining anything if you feel like you already understand it?

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I built a composite of these two groups when I wrote Mad Science Institute. I started by combining all the drive and technical know-how of the advanced students with the vitality and quirkiness of the alternative school kids. I crammed a lot into each character and just as much into the plot and setting, but in the cutting phase I eliminated everything that failed to accelerate the story or develop the characters. It meant cutting some perfectly good ideas, but that was okay: true to the mad science theme, I knew I could stitch them together and give them a new life whenever I was ready. Right then, all that mattered was pruning back and boiling down until the book became balanced and lean.

Being a teacher helped me write a better novel, and writing a novel helped me become a better teacher. I’m not trying to teach my students to become novelists—I wouldn’t push it on them any more than a P.E. teacher would urge all of his students to aim for NFL careers—but what works for crafting a novel applies to essays, letters, and other forms of writing as well. By the end of each year, I’m gratified to see that those students who tended to add too much have learned to accomplish more with fewer words, and the ones who want to start too small learn that they need to build up before they can trim down.

Despite what some students claim, the art of writing is nothing that can be mastered with a mere 16 or 17 years of practice. If I’m any better at it than a student, it isn’t because of what I’ve written but because of what I’ve un-written. Deleting the thousands of pages of rough drafts and practice novels was the only way I could learn what should stay and what just gets in the way, and by the time my students delete that many pages they’ll be better writers than I am.

It seems to me that what you cut is as important as what you add, but maybe that’s just my process. I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.

How about it, TKZers? Are you more of a cutter or adder?

Sechin’s website & Twitter

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