Author Solutions Continues to Move Toward World Domination

Independent blogger and writer David Gaughran isn’t afraid to report on Author Solutions’ shady business practices. In his most recent post, he points out once again that the emperor has no clothes, taking The Bookseller (the UK equivalent of Publishers Weekly) to task for jumping on the Author Solutions bandwagon. Gaughran claims that not only are sites such as FutureBook (an offshoot of The Bookseller) and Digitial Book World writing happy-shiny pro-AS fluff pieces but also deleting any comments that dare to criticize the self-publishing juggernaut.

godzilla1954c

Author Solutions demonstrates their customer service policy via interpretive dance.

This is troubling. You’d be hard-pressed to find any major self-publishing provider who isn’t affiliated with Author Solutions, either as a direct imprint or as a third-party service provider. If the proposed merger between Penguin, who now owns Author Solutions, and Random House goes down, expect to see even greater monopolization of the market. As the company–which has well-documented complaints ranging from failure to pay royalties to outright fraud–continues to gain power and influence, more supposedly independent publications like The Bookseller and Publishers Weekly seem to be drinking the Author Solutions Kool-Aid.

Is Author Solutions Really That Bad?

Even without the shady business practices and reams of customer complaints, Author Solutions simply doesn’t offer a good value. As I’ve pointed out before, the cheapest package on iUniverse (which is, of course, owned by AS) costs $900 for maybe $350 worth of actual stuff. You could hire a freelancer (like me!) to create a book cover and format your book for print/eBook publishing for a third of the price…plus I won’t call your house repeatedly to pressure you into buying overpriced additional services or force you to write a fake testimonial before I release the files for your book.

If nothing else, consider the numbers: iUniverse pays 20% royalties of the net sales (meaning list price minus printing costs and vendor discounts). That’s…not very good. Granted, the margins on Createspace books aren’t stellar, either, but at least you can control the pricing and distribution channels. iUniverse makes those decisions for you. You get 50% of the eBook price–20% less than KDP–and they take the liberty of setting your price on those, too. Basically, their services cost three times (or more) than what a decent freelancer will charge, and they pay significantly less. You’ll have to see a lot more books through an AS company to break even.

Inevitable_EBOOK_UPLOADOne of my clients, the lovely and talented Angela Graham, published her first book three weeks ago. Within a day, Inevitable had sold more than enough copies to recoup the cost of formatting and book design for her eBook and trade paperback. (I admit, I am CRAZY jealous of her success!) She broke the top 1000 book on Amazon, currently residing at #759 in the paid store. (That’s 759 out of a million, give or take.) I’m so proud of her success–which she achieved without the dubious help of an expensive publishing package.

Companies like Author Solutions feed on ignorance and dreams. It’s your responsibility as a writer an entrepreneur–and yes, you are an entrepreneur–to do your homework. Most of the services these vanity presses offer can be obtained at a fraction of the price from freelancers on sites like elance.com, or are offered for free when you publish directly with Amazon, Createspace, Nook Press, or other do-it-yourself platforms.

Moreover, AS and its subsidiaries and partners tend to treat eBooks as an afterthought. I understand the allure of holding your actual printing book in your hand. (Hell, I even snuck a copy into Barnes & Noble and Target to take picture of Grey Magic “on the shelf” because I am a huge nerd.) eBooks are the indie author’s bread and butter. It makes sense–on Amazon, your eBook is on a level playing field with traditionally published eBooks. Better than level, since you can sell at a more competitive price. However, you can’t realistically compete with Big Six books in the printed market; they simply have more money and a greater reach. Print-on-demand books are a nice extra for friends and family who don’t have eReaders or who want a signed copy. If you have an independent bookstore in your area, you may find that they’re willing to carry a dozen copies on consignment.

But if you’re an indie author, you will never see your book on the front table at Barnes & Noble. If a company promises you anything else, they are lying.

If your definition of success means seeing your work in bookstores across the country and topping the New York Times Bestseller List, then indie publishing is not the path for you. It won’t matter how much money you throw at it.

Best Practices for Breaking Your Book into Chapters

From Tuesday to Friday (5/29-5/31), the eBook edition of Grey Magic will be FREE on Amazon. If you’re a fan of fantasy, magic, romance, friendship, and talking cats, then you’ll love this book.

 

When I was writing my first novel, I agonized over the length of the chapters. I searched the internet for a magic formula, and while I did find some helpful advice, no one was able to tell me exactly what to do. That’s because chapter breaks–and their shorter cousins, scene breaks–are unique to each manuscript. While I can’t offer you the magical formula, either, I can tell you what I’ve learned.

As far as length is concerned, I prefer to keep my chapters approximately the same number of words unless I have a stylistic reason not to. Chapters for Grey Magic run about 5000 words, while the chapters in my new project are about half that length. Chapter length depends as much on the genre of your book (and the attention span of the reader) as the content; kids’ books will have very short chapters, for example, while a historical fiction novel will have longer chapters.

Unfortunately, simply deciding on a word count and portioning out your book accordingly won’t work. The purpose of a chapter is not simply to divide your book into bite-sized chunks. While a chapter should be a comfortable length for a person to read in one sitting, it shouldn’t provide a stopping place. You want the end of one chapter to propel the reader into the next. Remember, every time a reader puts your book down, there’s a chance they’ll never pick it back up again. There’s a reason why enjoyable books are called “page-turners,” after all.

Earlier this week, I was learning a new song on the guitar. It had a rollicking rhythm that propelled the melody forward, and I struggled to get it right. Instead of changing chords at the end of the measure, I had to change chords one beat early. This anticipation is what gives the song its sense of movement. Breaking chapters uses the same principle; you end before the payoff so that your readers have no choice but to continue to the next chapter.

Sadly, this is not my actual guitar.

Sadly, this is not my actual guitar.

If you’re not a musician (and, for the record, I’m more of an enthusiastic amateur), that example maybe didn’t make sense. Consider instead the way TV shows cut to commercial. They know that without a compelling reason to come back to the couch, their viewers may well wander away during the break, never to return. The producers have to make sure that there’s an unanswered question, a withheld payoff. Who will get eliminated from the reality competition? Will the patient survive? Will the attractive lawyers/cops/doctors finally do it? Will the hero survive? Even though the viewer usually knows the answer–rare is the show that kills off one of its major characters–they have to keep watching to find out for sure.

By breaking just before the resolution of a scene, you encourage your readers to keep reading for just one more chapter (and then another, and then another). This method helps build momentum and propel the story forward.

A word of caution: Be wary of going to any particular well too many times. I adore Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, but she has a tendency to black out at the end of a chapter, only to regain consciousness at the start of the next. It got to the point where I considered making a drinking game out of it. The span of a day–from waking to sleeping (or being knocked out)–feels like a natural way to portion out your story, but there’s nothing terribly compelling about a character going to sleep. On the other hand, too many chapters that end on a blatant cliffhanger or fake-out may exhaust the reader or test the limits of disbelief.

Buffy anecdote, because there aren’t enough of those on this site: In the third season episode ”Lover’s Walk,” Willow and Xander are trapped in an abandoned factory by the nasty vampire Spike. Even though they’re both dating other people (Oz and Cordelia, respectively), when faced with almost-certain death, the two best friends finally give into their budding attraction and kiss…only to be caught by their significant others who have arrived to rescue them. Cordelia panics, and as she runs away, she plunges through a hole in the stairs and is impaled on some jutting pieces of rebar below.

After the commercial break, we cut to Buffy and Willow lingering near an in-progress  funeral. And then Buffy immediately explains that Cordelia is in the hospital and will be okay. THAT IS CHEATING, JOSS!

LoversWalk606

We’re already worried that Cordelia might die (okay, maybe “worried” isn’t quite the correct term), so the fake-out after the break only serves to make us think the worst has happened…for about two seconds. Then we just feel manipulated. Readers want to be taken on an emotional rollercoaster, but they don’t want to be reminded of the carny operating the controls.

A Step-by-Step Guide to the Publishing Process

I’ve been doing a lot of freelancing lately, and I’ve noticed a fair bit of confusion over how books are actually created. Clients wanted to hire an editor or book designer at the wrong point in the process–a mistake that could end up costing them extra money and time.

How Books Are Made

1. Finish a first draft. While you could bring in outside help in the form of beta readers or editors before the manuscript is finished, I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s pretty much impossible to critique a work in progress, and you risk losing your creative momentum by sharing your work too soon. Hiring anyone at this stage is a waste of money, because your first editor should always be yourself.

2. Proofread and edit the draft. There are different approaches to self-editing–the one pass, the cyclical, etc. Do what works for you. A lot of writers recommend allowing the book to “rest” for a little while after finishing the first draft, but that’s up to you. Read for continuity, pacing, and character development. Fix major flaws, and restructure if necessary. Any glaring typos or mistakes should be corrected. The goal of this stage is to polish your draft and make it presentable for your beta readers.

3. Get a second opinion. While beta readers aren’t a required part of the publishing process, I do think they help. Two to three readers is a good number. Choose people who like the kinds of books you write and ask for their honest opinion. While they may fix a typo you missed, they aren’t proofreaders.

4. Revise. Use the (hopefully constructive) criticism from your critique partners to inform a final edit of your book. If all of them have the same issue with your book, then you should probably fix it. At the end of the day, however, it’s your book and you should go with your instincts.

At this point, the paths of the indie author and traditional publisher diverge. Let’s stick with the indie writer for now.

5a. Hire an editor. A good editor will make your book the best version of itself. You can find freelancers on sites like odesk and elance (or you could hire me!). Be aware that you will need to shell out some not-inconsiderable cash, but, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Ask for samples of previous work and request a trial edit of the first 3-5 pages of your book.

Note that there are really three types of editor. Acquisitions editors work for publishers or magazines. They decide what to buy for their imprints. This is not the type of editor you’re looking for. A developmental editor works with you in the early stages of planning a book or helps you untangle what seems like a hopeless mess of a novel. They are big-picture people. Line editors or copyeditors go through your work line-by-line, correcting grammar and syntax, commenting on word choice, and making notes about the overall structure and story elements. Make sure you are specific about what you need when hiring someone!

6a. Revise again. After you get your marked-up manuscript from your editor, you’ll want to go through it one more time to incorporate your editor’s suggestions and corrections. At this point, you could hire a proofreader to do a final cleanup and QC for your book. If you have the budget for it, I’d recommend doing it. A proofreader will only look for grammar and spelling errors, and they should cost less than an editor.

7a. Design the cover. Unless you are a professional graphic designer, don’t do this yourself. Humans are visual creatures, and book covers are your biggest marketing tool. When you hire an artist, make sure to give them an idea of what you want. Examples of other book covers you admire helps! Be prepared to pay between $50 and $250 for your cover depending on the complexity of the work. Licensing fees for stock photos are expensive; custom illustrations or graphics are even pricier.

8a. Format the book. You can’t just put a Word document up for sale on Amazon. eBook formatting isn’t too hard to learn, but it is time consuming. If you’d rather not do it yourself, you’ll need to hire someone. I’ve noticed a number of sites who charge outrageous fees just to convert your manuscript to an .epub or .mobi file; don’t pay these people. A formatter should create a linked table of contents and design a pleasing, easy-to-read style for your book. They may also convert your files into .pdf, .epub, and .mobi, although be aware that most publishing platforms like KDP and Nook Press do the conversion for you when you upload your book.

If you want to publish a print version as well as an eBook, please realize that those are two different jobs. Negotiate a package deal with your formatter to do both versions. Print formatting involves creating front matter (title pages, copyright pages, etc.), adding pagination, and resizing margins and gutters.

9a. Publish! 

Celebrate by enjoying some canned vegetables. Go on, Miss Victory insists.

Celebrate by enjoying some canned vegetables. Go on, Miss Victory insists.

So what about writers who want to go the traditional route? The first four steps are identical–write a first draft, edit it yourself, send it to your beta readers, and revise it again. After that, things become radically different.

5b. Query agents or publishers. Send a one-page letter to an agent or publisher who specializes in your type of book. If they’re intrigued, they’ll ask for the first three chapter or possibly the entire manuscript. Do not query an unfinished fiction manuscript! You may have to repeat this process many, many times until someone says yes to your book.

6b. If working with an agent, she will shop your book to publishers. This is a passive step; your agent will be doing most of the work here. In a perfect world, your book will start a bidding war between major publishing houses. Your agent–whose paycheck is determined by the size of the book deal she scores for you–should be championing your book and negotiating the best contract possible.

7b. Accept an offer. If you receive an offer that you’re happy with, you’ll sign on the dotted line. Make sure that you’re getting a fair shake; your agent should be on your side, but you might want the contract reviewed by an intellectual property lawyer. You’ll receive your advance in increments (less your agent’s fee, of course): typically, the advance is broken up into halves, thirds, or quarters, paid at set milestones. You’ll receive a check on signing, and then, depending on your contract, another check when the book is delivered, printed in hardback, and sometimes when printed in paperback.

8b. Editing and proofing. An editor at your publishing house (or, more likely, a freelancer subcontracted by your publisher; few houses have the money to keep in-house, full-time editorial staff anymore) will look at your book for structural issues, pacing and plot problems, character development, word choice and narrative flow, etc. It’s ultimately up to you to accept or reject these changes, but editors usually know whereof they speak. After you’ve revised your manuscript, it goes to a copyeditor or a proofreader to catch typos. Once the final round of proofing is complete, your manuscript is ready to become a book. 

9b. Layout, cover design, and marketing. You probably won’t have much say in what your book looks like. Although you have some input, ultimately the cover design is determined by the marketing department. They know what sells in your genre. While your book is being designed, the marketing department is busy convincing bookstores to order it. At the end of this process, you’ll receive a galley proof to review and sign off on.

10b. Publicity push. Depending on the budget for your book’s publicity, it is often offered as an ARC (Advanced Readering Copy) to reviewers. These days, digital ARCs are offered on sites like NetGalley, too.

11b. Printing and shipping. At this point, your books is finally (finally!) ready to hit the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. The entire process, from sale to shelf, usually take a year or more. Most of it is hands-off for the writer, so I hope you’ve been using your time wisely by writing another book. Right?

For a hilarious infographic version of the traditional book publishing process, check this out!

The Indie MFA

Well, it’s official. I won’t be going to grad school in the fall. I’m trying to be classy and mature and professional about it, but it smarts. The  schools I applied to–UC Irvine, Syracuse University, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor–are incredibly competitive, and it was always a long-shot. After reading this post at The Passive Voice about the sales figures for recent Pulitzer winners (hint: most titles saw a tenfold increase in sales…from around 50 to 500 copies), I’m more certain than ever that literary fiction isn’t what I want to do. Not when the books I truly enjoy reading and writing are full of elves and ghosts and love-sick teenagers. So really, it’s okay. I don’t want your fancy diploma, anyway.

Amy: Well, I know that I'll miss the intellectual thrill of spelling out words with my arms. Cordelia: Ooo, these grapes are sour!

Amy: Well, I know that I’ll miss the intellectual thrill of spelling out words with my arms.
Cordelia: Ooo, these grapes are sour!

Of course, you don’t need a degree to write. I studied in high school and college, at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities and Sarah Lawrence College, with some of the best teachers in the world. My studies gave me a solid foundation and box of tools to use, but after graduation, without the structure and guidance from my classes, I lacked one thing that my mentors couldn’t teach me: discipline. It wasn’t until I decided to self-publish instead of waiting for someone–a teacher, an agent, or an editor–to give me permission to write, that I took full responsibility for my success.

As I’ve said before, while talent and discipline can’t be taught, there are still technical skills you can learn to make you a better writer. Just by reading and writing as much as possible, you’ll figure a lot of it out. You’ll also need to brush up on the business side of things–learning the ins and outs of traditional publishing, should you choose to go that route, or the technical aspects of indie publishing.

So, instead of spending two or three years studying (and potentially taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt), here’s my guide to earning an Indie MFA.

Course Materials

A Laptop. Unlike desktop computers, laptops give you the freedom and mobility to work anywhere. Libraries and coffee shops make excellent offices, and the overhead is cheap.

Scrivener. I’ve sung the praises of this software before, but seriously, you should buy it. It’s the best.

Library Card. I can’t afford to buy every book want. I check out twenty to thirty books a month–fiction and non, kids to YA to books for actual grownups.

Caffeinated Beverage of Choice. Self-explanatory.

Required Reading

The Chicago Manual of Style. The single most important thing you can learn–you know, other than stuff like plot and character–is grammar. Particularly for self-published authors, poor proofreading can kill a book. Chicago is the standard for fiction. Buy the print edition or spring for a subscription to the online version.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. A fascinating read about creativity, productivity, and the way that extraordinary people achieve success. According to Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. So, you know, get crackin’.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.  A frank, funny, wonderful book about living and working as a writer.

On Writing by Stephen King. Whether your a fan of his work, you can’t deny that the man is one of the most prolific and commercially successful writers in history. Learn from his process.

Distinguished Faculty

J.A. Konrath. He’s one of the most financially successful indie writers working today. He gives straight talk about the business aspects of self-publishing.

Dean Wesley Smith. An outspoken advocate for self-publishing, Smith has several free-to-read books on his site as well as dozens of blog posts.

David Gaughran. He’s not afraid to call out major publishers when they make questionable decisions, and his books Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible are awesome.

Holly Lisle. Her site has a wealth of articles about the craft of writing. The information about editing is particularly helpful.

Rachel Aaron. Her eBook, 2k to 10k, will help you boost your productivity. Definitely worth a dollar, but you can also find a lot of advice on her blog.

Joanna Penn. Although a lot of her advice focuses on non-fiction, Joanna Penn’s site is one of the best online resources for writers.

Joel Friedlander. His site, The Book Designer, is brimming with tips on formatting, publishing, and marketing your book. Like Joanna Penn, a lot of the information is geared toward non-fiction authors, but much of it applies to fiction writers, too.

Mignon Fogarty. Also known as Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty is the person I trust most for everything related to grammar, usage, and mechanics.

Assignments

Read. Don’t just read the kind of books you typically enjoy or the ones most similar to what you write. Browse the stacks at your local library and pick up anything that piques your interest. Read outside your comfort zone. Sample different genres. And don’t worry if you don’t like everything you read. Good books can be inspirational, but lousy books are great teachers, too. It’s important to learn what doesn’t work in a story, and there’s nothing quite as motivational as saying, “I could do better than that!”

Write. This should be a given, but I’ve spent much more time thinking and worrying about writing than actually doing it. Write like it’s your job.

Publish. Don’t wait for the magical unicorn princess to descend from the clouds and bless your work. (Sorry, I’ve been watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic in another window.) Write a story, get it to your beta readers, and hire an editor. Then let it go. You can keep tinkering with a manuscript until the heat death of the universe; books are never really “done.” But the time you lavish on lovingly polishing each word of your masterpiece would be much better spent writing your next book.

 

 

Heinlein’s Revised Rules for Indie Writers

Author, visionary, and snazzy dresser.

Author, visionary, and snazzy dresser.

Robert A. Heinlein was an incredibly prolific writer who, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, was one of the great 20th century science fiction visionaries. Heinlein offered five famous rules for writers. These rules, written seventy years before the dawn of digital publishing, were in need of an update. Here’s my take on them.

Heinlein’s Original Rules:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

My Updates for the Modern Indie Writer:

1) You must write.
This one *should* be self-explanatory. The problem is in the details. How many days a week do you need to work, and for how long? Is it better to focus on wordcount or hours logged in front of the computer? I suspect that each writer needs to figure out the amount of work that qualifies as being productive.

2) You must finish what you write.
Another no-brainer…and yet I have so much trouble following it. I have a tendency to hop from one project to the next; there are so many ideas clamoring for my attention, but I have to remind myself that flitting from one story to the next makes actually finishing any of them much more difficult.

3) You must not obsessively rewrite.
Rule #3 has always been the most controversial. I tend to write cyclically, revising continuously as I work so that my final draft is as clean as possible It also takes a long-ass time to finish anything. One of the hardest things about being an indie writer is knowing when your work is ready to be published. There’s no such thing as a “finished” manuscript, after all; you could conceivably keep rewriting and revising forever. I think it’s also worthwhile to accept that while the opinions of beta readers, proofers, and editors are valuable, there are times when you need to stick by your work.

4) You must publish your work.
Once your manuscript has been beta-tested and proofed, it’s time to put it on the market. Get it out there and keep it out there. In Heinlein’s day, writers had to send out manuscripts by mail (the savages!) to publishers and magazines. The process was slow, and during the months that a story was on submission, it didn’t earn any money. Now, we can finish a story and start earning almost immediately.

5) You must make your work available to as many readers as possible.
Get your eBook up on, at minimum, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I think it’s worthwhile to publish on the iBookstore, Kobo, and all the other smaller vendors via a distributor like Smashwords. But don’t stop there. It’s worth the effort to publish a print-on-demand edition with Createspace or Lightning Source. While you’re at it, what about an audiobook? The goal is to get your work into as many hands as possible. Providing a variety of formats can definitely help.

The Problem With Counting Words

polystyrene-packing-peanuts-how-to-recycleI’ve been trying to write three thousand words a day. My book chapters and short stories tend to be in the 3-4K (although some stories can run as long as 8K), so you’d think that I’d be cranking out at least three stories or chapters a week, right?

Yeah, not so much.
Rather than writing for story, I find myself writing to meet a quota, and my stories have become bloated with extraneous words. It makes me feel like a college student again, feverishly adding extra words to a paper so that I can meet the teacher’s page requirement. When I taught English composition, I would tell my students that those extra words were nothing but foam packing peanuts, existing only to take up space.

If your idea is too small, filling the rest of the essay with packing peanuts won’t fool anyone.

Fiction is less structured than academic writing, but there are still standards lengths for different types of manuscripts. Even those are changing thanks to digital publishing. Here’s an overview, based  on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America guidelines:

  • Flash Fiction: Under a thousand words. Not an SFWA category, but very popular in some online markets.
  • Short Fiction: Up to about 7500 words, although most paying markets prefer stories in the 3k range. When I write shorts, I usually package them in an anthology of five stories for $2.99. I found that readers who bought an individual story of this length for $.99 felt disappointed. The anthologies have had considerably fewer returns, and I earn a better royalty percentage from them, too.
  • Novelette: Between 7.5k and 17.5k. Not a short story, not yet a novella; the Britney Spears of manuscripts used to be pretty much impossible to sell in print, but I think it’s a great bracket for $.99 digital shorts.
  • Novella: Between 17.5k and 40k. Novellas, like novelettes, used to be very difficult to sell. They were too long for magazines and too short for books, but as Stephen King proved with Different Seasons, there was a market for works of this length. (You may be more familiar with the film adaptations: Shawshank RedemptionStand By Me, and Apt Pupil are based on three of the four novellas) Page count doesn’t matter in eBooks, and I think novellas have the opportunity to do really well if priced fairly.
  • Novel: 40k and up. There’s no real upper limit to novels, although conventional wisdom  says that books over 100k are unlikely to find publishers unless the author is already an established best seller. Each genre and age group has its own quirks–middle grade books are shorter than YA books, thrillers are longer than romances, etc–but there are always outliers.  

The problem with counting words, whether you set daily goals or set out to write a manuscript of a certain length to fit into a category, is that it can stifle your writing. One of the old chestnuts of writerly wisdom is that your story should be as long as it needs to be. To put it another way, write only as many words as you must to tell the story. Every word should have a purpose–to further the plot, enhance the mood, or develop a character. The packing peanuts should be thrown out.

When I’m writing for word count, I tend to be reluctant to cut anything because then I’ll start the day at a deficit. Scrivener has a feature that allows me track my progress, both in the overall manuscript and for each session, and I keep an eye on it while I work so I’ll know when I’m “done.” I usually don’t sit down with a plan to write a story of a specific length beyond “this is a short” or “this is a book,” but I know some writers try to categorize their manuscript according the guidelines above before they’ve even finished it.

When you’ve been writing for a while, you get a sense of how big a box you’ll need for your ideas. Some ideas lend themselves to full-length books, while some are destined to be short stories or novellas. If you’re not sure, you’ll figure it out as you go. Just write your story, from start to finish, without worrying about its length. Write every day for as long as you can without getting stupid. Once you’ve finished it, take out all the words that don’t do anything useful.

Don’t worry. Your English teacher isn’t going to take off ten points because you failed to meet the page requirement. In this brave new world of indie digital publishing, there are no page requirements. Just write a story, set a fair price, and allow it to find an audience.

 

 

 

 

Speak ‘Friend’ And Enter: Is Your Genre Novel Scaring Away Readers?

I played a Draenei Shaman. Draenei are magical space goats. Image credit: thecatlady via Deviant Art

I played a Draenei Shaman. Draenei are basically magical space goats. Image credit: thecatlady via Deviant Art

I used to be a pretty hardcore World of Warcraft player. WoW is incredibly immersive universe (which is a nice way of saying that it will suck you in and never let you go), and during the years that I played it, I developed a second, highly specialized vocabulary. Not only did I learn the lore of the game, which tells the story of the Alliance and the Horde as they battle it out in the fantasy world of Azeroth, but I also had to understand the mechanics of gameplay and memorize the peculiar lingo of gamers: aggro, pwn, nerf, buff, woot, noob, and gratz.

If that looks like gibberish, then you’ve never played an MMO. (And if you don’t know what an MMO is, it’s a Massively Multiplayer Online game.) Anywho, the point is that the learning curve is ridiculously high for WoW players, requiring dedicated study and practice on par with earning a college degree–or working an unpaid part-time job for several years. I mention this not to bash MMOs or their dedicated players, but to segue into a discussion of world-building in genre fiction. To the uninitiated, World of Warcraft can be an intimidatingly unfamiliar place, populated by elves and orcs and twelve-year-old kids screaming esoteric acronyms and racial epithets at each other. For many casual readers, genre fiction can be just as inaccessible. Ask yourself this question: Is your fantasy or science fiction novel intimidating potential readers?

Last week, I read Kate Locke’s God Save the Queen, which is set in a steampunkish modern-day London where the aristocracy are all monsters (in more ways than one) and everyone still parties like it’s 1899. Locke clearly spent a lot of time crafting her alternate-history world, but I didn’t feel that it always served her story. She constantly applied the breaks during narration and dialogue to explain things, and each time she did so, the story lost momentum. This was especially unfortunate since we didn’t need to know most of it in order to follow the plot.

Intricate fantasy worlds are kind of like ships in bottles–self-contained little universes which took countless hours to build. And to most people, unless they happen to be model ship enthusiasts, your perfect replica of a three-masted, square-rigged clipper is just a boat in a bottle. I struggled with this idea while writing Grey Magic. I spent a lot time thinking about the language, politics, and social customs of Isenland, and while some readers may appreciate my world-building efforts, most won’t even notice. That’s not to say my effort was wasted, but for the majority of readers, the characters and plot are significantly more important than setting.

How many terms does your reader need to know in order to follow your story? To me, it comes down to this: unfamiliar terms are like passwords the reader must memorize in order to gain access to your book. The more passwords you make them remember, and the more complicated or arcane the language, the more likely it is that they’ll get frustrated and give up. 

Lucas: So you see, although ewoks appear primitive, they have a complex, forest-dwelling society with neo-shamanistic rituals that-- Everyone else: Teddy bears!

Lucas: So you see, although ewoks appear primitive, they have a complex, forest-dwelling society with neo-shamanistic rituals that–
Everyone else: Teddy bears!

Consider Star Wars. To access the original films, we need to know only a handful of passwords: Force, Jedi, Empire, and Republic. Everything else–your wookies and ewoks, your forest moon of Endor and ice planet of Hoth–are just window-dressing. Fans can get into the more esoteric details, but it essential to appreciate the story of a magical orphan who saves the universe. In the more recent films, we suddenly had to memorize unfamiliar terms like “midichlorians” and “Sith” in order to understand the plot. Of course, the jargon wasn’t the only reason that the prequels paled in comparison to the originals (let us not speak of JarJar Binks or the thrilling saga of intergalactic trade relations), but it didn’t help.

You could argue that the prequels assumed viewers would already have basic knowledge of the Star Wars universe, and that going deeper into the world isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You could also argue that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is all the better for its rich mythology and unique languages. However, to the casual reader, the Lord of the Rings books are locked up tighter than the Doors of Durin. Reading high fantasy or hard sci-fi always makes me feel like Ash in Army of Darkness.

Here are some things to consider as you build your world:

Who is your audience? Are you writing for dedicated fans of the genre, or do you hope to appeal to a wider audience? High fantasy enthusiasts expect made-up languages with lots of apostrophes, but a casual reader will likely be intimidated or confused if your novel comes with its own dictionary.

Consider easing the reader into your world. JK Rowling doesn’t come out swinging with muggles and horcruxes; she begins with wizards and magic, which are already familiar to most readers. Once the foundation is laid, she builds her world brick by brick–before you know it, you’re completely, gloriously walled in.

Use a viewpoint character. One of the other reasons that Harry Potter is so accessible is that we see the wizarding world through Harry’s eyes. At the beginning of the series, he is an ordinary, if neglected, boy, and we share his wonder as the secrets of the hidden magical world are revealed.

Don’t reinvent the vampire. Even the most casual readers have a working knowledge of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, elves, spaceships, aliens, lasers, etc. You can use most of them right out of the box. On the other hand, if you’re going to radically alter the mythology, consider changing the name. In Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, he never mentions the word “zombie,” even though the heroine battles reanimated corpses. He simply calls them “the dead,” allowing him to build his world without dragging the baggage of an already-familiar term into it.

Only pause to define essentials. I’m a huge fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. The first book is set in a parallel universe where science, religion, and society have taken different paths. Pullman offers no primer; he simply tells Lyra’s story and expects the readers to keep up. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence, and don’t kill your story’s momentum by explaining all the little quirks of your world. They’ll either figure it out on their own or ignore it altogether.

 

 

 

 

Where Should You Publish Your Book?

But first, a cartoon!

Lots of information ahead. But first, a cartoon!

Barnes & Noble recently rebranded its self-publishing portal, changing the name from “PubIt!” (which, because I am immature, always pronounced “pube-it”) to “NOOK Press.” (Sidebar: Is “NOOK” actually an acronym? If not, why it is in all caps?) David Gaughran speculated that the move is part of a larger plan to sell off the Barnes & Noble brand while maintaining the lucrative NOOK brand. Even if that’s not the case, I think the rebranding was a smart move. They added an online editing tool that looks pretty neat, although perhaps not as beautiful or shiny as Apple’s iBooks Author. What’s less exciting, however, is that you can no longer update or correct an eBook on NOOK Press without losing your reviews, ratings, and sales rank.

There are a dizzying number of platforms and distributors for your indie book. Here’s my  take on some of the major players. Please note that the following constitutes my opinion, based on my personal experience and/or research that I’ve done online. Platforms which I have personally used are marked with an asterisk.

Wattpad*

  • No royalties paid; all books are free
  • Ability to connect with an active community of readers
  • Post works-in-progress or serialize your book
  • Bottom Line: Best for getting initial feedback on a WIP, or to gain fans by posting selected content for free

Amazon KDP*

  • 70% royalties 65% royalties on $2.99-9.99 books, 30% on books priced under or over that limit
  • KDP select program allows for promotion and Prime member borrowing, but it requires exclusivity for at least three months.
  • Largest market share of eBooks
  • Books are sold in Amazon’s proprietary .mobi format (won’t work on NOOK, but an app is available for iPad)
  • Amazon seems dedicated to promoting its self-published authors, often features success stories on home page
  • You cannot set the price as “free” unless you use a promotional day through KDP select
  • Bottom Line: You should publish with KDP. Whether you decide to use Amazon exclusively depends on how well you do in other markets, but you don’t want to miss out on the lion’s share of readers who shop via Kindle.

NOOK Press*

  • 65% royalties on $2.99-9.99 books, 40% on books priced under or over that limit
  • 2nd-largest market share of eBooks
  • Online writing tool (write your book directly in the browser)
  • Ability to invite beta readers (collaborators) to read and comment on an unpublished work
  • Inability to edit a title after it has been published without losing reviews, ratings, or rankings
  • Platform is, at the time of this post, rather buggy, but when it does work, it’s easier than the old PubIt! site.
  • Bottom Line: Unless you go all-in with Amazon, you should definitely consider publishing directly with NOOK Press…just make sure that the manuscript you upload won’t need any changes.

Apple iBooks Author

  • 70% royalties for all price points
  • Gorgeous Mac-only app for creating books (including full-color templates)
  • Projects in the .ibooks format created with the app can only be sold in the iBookstore (as opposed to selling them directly from your own site)
  • Bottom Line: A good choice only if you’re a die-hard Mac devotee and plan to sell exclusively on iTunes, or if you want to create a graphics-heavy, interactive project instead of a text-based eBook

Smashwords*

  • 74% royalties through Smashwords’ store, 60/30/10 split for author/retailer/Smashwords for all other sales
  • Distributes to Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Page Foundry, as well as their own online store
  • Allows you to set price as free
  • Allows creation of coupon codes for promotions
  • “Meatgrinder” crunches your eBook file into a variety of popular formats
  • Offers no peripheral services like formatting, editing, or cover design, but does maintain a message board for freelancers
  • Bottom Line: If your goal is to distribute to as many potential readers as possible, then Smashwords is worthwhile. The convenience of managing one dashboard instead of eight is worth 10%, in my opinion. 

Lulu

  • ebook and Print-on-Demand services available
  • Encourages authors to buy expensive (and uneccesary) publishing packages
  • Distributes only to B&N, iBookstore, and their own online store
  • Bottom Line: To be avoided. Distribution channels are limited and customer service is allegedly a nightmare. 

 Vook

  • Royalties from Amazon at 43.2%, Barnes & Noble at 50%, and iBookstore at 70%
  • Ability to incorporate multimedia into eBooks
  • They supply copy editing, cover design, and book layout for an upfront fee which varies from book to book.
  • Distributes to iBookstore, Amazon, and B&N
  • Bottom Line: I’m not sure what Vook does that you (or a good freelancer) can’t do for yourself. When they first started out, they charged a flat monthly fee (about $10) and paid out 100% of net royalties. They’ve changed their pricing model–and perhaps even business model–a couple of times since then. 

Bookbaby

  • Distributes to all the major retailers (Amazon, B&N, iBookstore) plus a number of minor stores not covered by Smashwords
  • Author must provide their own files in the proper formats; extra fee for conversion from Word or PDF
  • Charges an upfront fee ($99 per book + $19.99 a year), but the author keeps 100% of net royalties
  • Offers add-on services such as cover design and also print runs
  • ISBNs cost $19; usually free on other platforms
  • Bottom Line: If you’re comfortable doing your own conversion work, and if you believe that you’ll be selling enough copies to break even (at $2.99, that’s about 400 copies per book, per year), then this may be a good choice.

Kobo Writinglife*

  • Really nice, clean interface
  • Uploading a book requires more effort–had to convert the Word file to an HTML file to get it to work
  • Has a very small market share compared to Amazon and B&N
  • Bottom Line: Although it is very elegantly designed, Kobo simply doesn’t move enough eBooks to make managing a separate dashboard worth it.

My Distribution Plan

I’ve experimented with both direct distribution and third-part distributors, and from my experience, managing more than three or four dashboards isn’t worth the effort. I’m willing to pay a distributor a small fee to streamline the process–especially since it makes getting paid and filing taxes much simpler. I’ve tried KDP Select in the past, but I didn’t make very good use of it. (Pro Tip: Since Amazon Prime members only get to borrow one book per month, they aren’t going to waste it on a $.99 short story. Live and learn.) Using what I’ve learned, here’s how I plan to distribute my books in the future:

  1. Upload my shiny new book to KDP and enroll it in KDP Select for three months. Make strategic use of my free promotion days to increase visibility and get reviews.
  2. At the same time, use Amazon Createspace (a print-on-demand company) to offer a trade paperback. KDP Select only restricts eBook distribution, not print.
  3. After three months, step down from KDP Select. Expand channels by distributing directly to NOOK Press and using Smashwords to distribute to minor retailers.
  4. Monitor sales. If I find that I’m selling more than 400 copies of each title through Smashwords channels, I may consider switching to a flat-fee, 100% royalty model such as Bookbaby.

This plan will work best for novels and short story anthologies. For individual stories, which I price at $.99, I intend to skip steps one & two and go directly to three.

So, how do you distribute your books? Leave a comment below.

 

The Care and Feeding of Writers: A Gift Guide

I have a birthday coming up (just saying), and I predict that I will receive at least two beautiful, handmade journals…which I will never write in. Most writers don’t need notebooks, or coffee mugs with literary quotes, or novelty pens, or book-related tchotchkes of any sort. Here are thirteen things we might actually use:

arthur-dent

Arthur Dent traveled the entire galaxy in his dressing gown; why can’t I wear mine down to the store to pick up some cheese?

Scrivener. I’ve mentioned this lovely piece of software before. It’s a great alternative to MS Word, and it is available for both Mac and PC.

A bathrobe. Writers are going to work in their pajamas anyway; might as well be nice pajamas.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. A perennial favorite, Lamott’s guide to writing is a lovely, funny, helpful book which should be on ever writer’s shelf.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty. Fogarty’s immensely helpful and popular website is my go-to source for grammar answers. All of her books are great, but this one is my favorite.

Subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style. Sure, there are free resources out there, but writers know that the only real way to kick it is Chicago-style. The print edition is nice, but the online subscription ensures that they always have access to the latest word on words.

Subscription to Duotrope or Writers’ Market. If your writer is interested in traditional publishing–particularly short fiction–then either of these resources are well worth the cost.

 

Smooth.

Smooth.

Pack of Pilot Precise rollerball pens. I don’t often write longhand, but when I do, I use a black needlepoint Pilot Precise V5 Needle Rollerball Pen. Seriously, these are the best pens.

Coffee shop giftcard. Writers tend to run on caffeine and/or alcohol. A giftcard to your writer’s favorite coffee shop will help keep him alert & productive–plus he’ll have to put on pants and leave the house to get the coffee.

A healthy meal. Writers are usually poor, and, left to our devices, we’ll subsist on caffeinated beverages and junk food. Take your writer out and make him eat at least two vegetables and six ounces of protein.

Deck of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” Brian Eno (pioneer of ambient music, former member of Roxy Music, producer of many of your favorite albums, and the guy who composed this familiar sound) created this weird little deck of cards designed to help creative people move past blocks.

Comfy desk chair. Writers spend more time in their desk chairs than in their beds. A nice, comfy chair makes all the difference.

 

Laptop. Hey, big spender. If your writer-friend doesn’t already have a laptop dedicated to writing, consider taking her down to the store to pick one out.

A weekend away. Chances are good that your writer hasn’t left the house in a while. Take him or her to the seaside or the mountains for a weekend–and make sure the laptop stays at home.

Further Reading:

Chuck Wendig’s “25 Gifts for Writers”