The coming Author War

I believe there will be a war between the writers who want agents and traditional publishers to “take care of them” and indie writers who want to control their own careers. — Dean Wesley Smith

I’ve been worried about this for a while now. I’ve noticed people choosing up sides on blogs and Twitter. Folks like Smith, Konrath, Hocking, Barry Eisler and myself on one side, and traditionally published authors like Lilith Saintcrow and Maureen Johnson on the other. One side wants, even needs, publishing to change so we can control our own destinies and write whatever we want. The other side needs publishing to remain the same, or at least stable, because that’s how they feed their families. They’re invested in the status quo.

So far, both sides are getting along, agreeing to disagree. But this tolerance is starting to slip. Debates are getting more heated. But it’s starting to look more and more like familiar political structures, taking on the flavor of unions versus freelancers. I fear that like American politics, the two sides will diverge to the point where they can no longer talk to each other, no longer respect each other’s point of view.

Barry Eisler’s defection to the indie side has shaken a lot of people in traditional publishing. When a New York Times Bestselling author walks away from a half million dollar advance to go indie, it makes indie publishing real. We’re not the lunatic fringe anymore. We’re the competition. The disruptors. The heretics.

Not that it’s all smiles and bunnies in the indie camp, either. There is dissension in the ranks. While some indie authors race to the bottom to sell their books at 99 cents before they lose their competitive price advantage, others decry how 99 cents “devalues” the book as an art form and demand their peers price their books higher, lest readers get too accustomed to paying a buck a book. I suspect this argument will settle out when the 99 centers figure out that they can’t sustain that price, and that their market dries up too fast. But I hope we get it ironed out before traditional publishers, along with the authors that depend on them, mobilize against the threat indie publishing poses.

Authors aren’t ronins, they’re masters

Mur Lafferty, one of the pioneers of podcast fiction, has posted on her blog about her decision to go indie and not seek another agent after the one she had decided they should no longer work together. She likens it to being a ronin, a masterless (and often disgraced) samurai. While that’s a romantic image, I think she has the analogy turned around.

Agents are great. I know people who swear by their agents, talk to them daily on chat, would not make any career move without them. I met a fantastic agent at WorldCon, a very knowledgeable and kind guy. But for me, where I am right now, and what I’m looking to do in 2011, I think the ronin way is the way to go. I’ve been busting my ass for six years, trying build an audience hungry for my work. And now I’m going to attempt to grow that audience, get more readers, and encourage people to buy my books. If I have to do that without an agent, or even without an editor, so be it. I didn’t have plans to be an independent author for the long haul, but it seems that’s where I am.

This is the thing to keep in mind. The agent — and the editor, and the publisher if you go that route — work for you. Without you, there is no book. Period. We are the masters, and the agents and editors are our samurai. They perform valuable services, but you must never forget that without the author, there is no book. It’s easy, the way legacy publishing is structured, to forget that. To feel like you work for the publisher, or worse, you work for the agent that got you the deal with the publisher. After all, these are the people that hand you money (after they take their substantial cut). And in other lines of work, the people that give you money are in charge of you.

Writing is different. Publishers aren’t doing you a favor by deigning to publish your little novel. You are providing them with a way for them to profit off of your work. They add value by editing, distributing and marketing the book (or at least, they used to, which is why so many of us have decided it’s no longer in our interest to work with them, but that’s another rant), but without you, without the book, they have nothing to do.

So keep your heads high, authors. You are storytellers, maintaining a tradition that predates our species. You are the base of the whole pyramid. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

The power of impulse pricing

I had a really interesting conversation this morning on the Twitter machine with Lilith Saintcrow, an urban fantasy novelist I’ve liked for a few years now. Lili was linking to another post on Nathan Bransford’s site, this one explaining why, sometimes, an ebook just has to cost more than the paper version. As I’ve explained before, Nathan’s math is fatally flawed because he assumes that post-scarcity goods like ebooks still conform to supply and demand economic theory. They don’t.

I pointed out that with ebook supply being effectively infinite, it doesn’t make sense to price the books high enough to drive away anyone. That it’s better to price the books as low as you can, 99 cents to $2.99 on Amazon, depending on what royalty rate you’re looking for. Over time, you’ll pull in more total income at a lower price because of the Long Tail effect and making the purchase an “impulse buy.”

Lili disagreed, stating that the ebook market is bounded by the cost constraints on buying an ereader, that not everyone had a laptop, Kindle or Nook. While this is partly true, Amazon makes it possible to read their Kindle books on just about every platform available, from phones to ereaders to tablets to full computers. There are people in some parts of the world who have cell phones but not electricity (they charge at the village market, which does have power, or at least a generator). I would argue that the ratio of humans to ebook capable devices will approach 1:1 in my lifetime.

But don’t listen to me. I’m a Pollyanna futurist, after all. But it’s not just me saying this. Amazon started selling more ebooks than hardcovers last summer, and recently, they announced that they’re selling (not giving away public domain works, but selling) more ebooks than they do paperbacks. The world’s largest bookseller is selling more ebooks than paper books. Somebody has to be buying them.

Maybe it’s a technological filter thing. Obviously people who already buy their books online will be more inclined to read on one of the various Kindle-friendly platforms. But not everyone lives digitally. A lot of people still walk into brick and mortar bookstores and buy stacks of good old-fashioned wood pulp, right?

Do they? Mall bookstores like B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks faded away a while back, and now Borders is going out of business, leaving Barnes and Noble as the only national chain bookstore in America. Independent bookstores like Powell’s in Oregon and the Tattered Cover here in Denver are seeing a resurgence of sorts, but then again, so are record stores now that Tower is gone. And for the same reasons.

Paper books, by the end of this decade, will be collector’s items, like vinyl records are now. There will be a market for them, and they will sell, but mostly to pretentious hipsters who like to show how analog they are. For the vast thundering herds of humanity, sitting on busses and beaches, shuffling through airports, ebooks on a convenient handheld device will be the order of the day.

Lili doesn’t see that, and I understand why. She’s blogged extensively about her life as a single mom supporting her family through her writing. She has literally bet everything on the publishing system as it exists today, or rather as it existed five to ten years ago. Feeding her children depends on that system remaining viable, so she can’t afford to doubt it. When I pointed out that it was better to sell 1,000 copies of an ebook at $1 than 100 copies at $5, she disagreed, stating that those thousand copies would cannibalize the market, resulting in lower overall revenue. To her eyes, the market is fixed and unchanging. There are only x number of people willing to buy her books, so she needs to make as much off of each of them as she can.

The ebook market is still growing, and that growth is accelerating, not declining. And with ebooks, the supply may not be truly, mathematically infinite, but if your market of potential readers is x, then the supply is always x+1. There are always more readers, unless you’re JK Rowling, whom I believe does actually have 6.5 billion sales. She would have to start beaming books into space. But for everyone else…

Ebooks, in fact, make discovering new writers easier and more tempting that ever. And this is really why impulse pricing is so important. I already buy more Kindle books than I can possibly read, even having my Kindle read them to me while I’m driving. When I see an interesting book in the “Recommended” or “Buyers also bought” lists on Amazon, if it’s under $3, I just buy it. Even if I don’t get around to reading it, it’s worth such a low amount of money to have it handy in case I want to. But if the book is more than that, I’ll click the Sample button instead. This sends the first few chapters to my Kindle as a “stake in the ground” in case I come back to the book later. And you know what? I almost never do. Unless the sample is hella compelling, why spend more money on Book A when I already have all of Book B on my Kindle? Both are the same genre, both look interesting. Convenience wins, because humans are lazy when they can get away with it. And impulse pricing is what buys you that convenience.

In fact, that’s how I found Lili in the first place. I hadn’t read much Urban Fantasy, but eReader.com had the first book in her Hunter series on sale and I decided to give it a try. I was put off at first by her obvious pseudonym, but that was before I learned about who she was as a person and that she kept her real name on the down low to protect her kids. The book was gripping and exciting, and I’ve been hooked ever since. But without that impulse price, I never would have given her a second look.

And this is the danger that authors who have built careers on print ignore at their peril. Their worldview, their paradigm, is based on a publishing industry and more importantly a publishing market that doesn’t really exist anymore. If they can’t adapt to new realities, like Amazon selling more ebooks than paper books, all they’re going to be left with is a pair of dimes.

Indie publishing isn’t for everyone

I keep seeing news articles about Amanda Hocking, and they’re all careful to point out that her experience isn’t representative of indie publishing in general. Even Hocking herself doesn’t understand why writers she believes to be better than her don’t sell as well. A lot of it comes down to luck.

I’m getting a chance to look at the indie publishing experience through a different set of eyes, and I’m coming to realize it takes an unusual collection of skills, as well. My friend Rachel is gearing up to publish several of her short stories and her first novel on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Lulu, etc. Let me get this out of the way. Rachel is a superwoman. She’s a better writer than me, she is good at just about everything she does and she and her husband have resumes that make you think they’re genetic mutants, superspies, or both. But Rachel doesn’t know much about indie publishing yet (she’ll be an expert soon, I bet), and by watching what she’s going through, it’s showing me why I think this indie thing is so easy. It isn’t. It just looks that way to me because of an accidental education.

Here’s some of what you need to know, besides the actual writing, to do well at indie publishing.

Editing

On the editing thing, I know what I don’t know and have hired an excellent editor whose opinions I trust to help me out with that aspect. But it took me a long time as a writer to realize what people meant when they said I “needed an editor.”

The real value of a professional editor, freelance or otherwise, isn’t in finding typos and subject/verb agreement. That’s a copyeditor, and while you need one of those too, and sometimes they’ll be the same person as your content editor, that’s not what a content editor does. Your editor is there to sanity check your choices as a writer and make sure the story is as good as you can make it. The telling of the story is important, but if the story itself has giant holes or inconsistencies, it doesn’t matter how beautifully it might be told.

Kathleen provides this for me. She checks to see if the story really makes sense, if this character would really do that, and points out where I really need to rethink that three page monologue (hint: anywhere you have one). She’s not changing the story, or putting her stamp on it. She’s helping me make it what I wanted it to be in the first place.

This is extraordinarily difficult to do by yourself. You’re too close to the story to really question the fundamental choices you made when you wrote it. That’s why if you’re going indie, it’s a worthwhile investment to find an editor you can trust and pay them what they’re worth.

Graphic design

Like it or not, people do just a book by its cover, especially online. Your cover is the first thing, along with the title, that a potential reader sees, and how it looks tells them a lot about you as a professional. If the cover looks attractive, with solid design, good typography and imagery, that tells them that they can probably expect that same attention to detail in the text. An weak cover, something that looks slapped together in five minutes in MS Paint, can drive readers right past your book. Remember, this isn’t the old days when people took what they could get. Entertainment in the 21st century is a marketplace of abundance, and you’re not only competing against both the other indie authors and the big NY publishers, but you’re also competing for your readers’ time with Call of Duty, Netflix, Angry Birds and who knows what else.

Here I really lucked out. Not only do I have a background in graphic arts myself, but my editor Kathleen designs book covers as a hobby and offers that as part of her editing service. She’s really good, and I’m going with her covers for Revelation and Crusade, along with one of my own for Jihad.

Book design

This is something I picked up partly by hobby, partly by accident. I’ve been making ebooks for years, both my own work and converting downloaded scans or conversions into properly formatted ebooks for my own collection. I’m an old hand with eReader’s old PML markup, and I watched the XHTML-based Open Ebook Format develop from the very beginning.

More to the point, I’m a (recovering) professional web developer, and a pretentious one that jumped on the “separate content from presentation” CSS train early on. I’m the type that uses styles in Word for everything, and never just italicizes a word ad hoc (that’s what the “emphasis” style is there for).

For modern ebooks, design returns to the web of ten years ago, keeping things simple and using basic structural tags. Converting text to very basic HTML is second nature to me, as is cleaning up a manuscript to get rid of anything that isn’t supposed to be there. I know regular expressions, dammit, and I’m not afraid to use them. I didn’t set out learn these techniques to format my own ebooks for publication, exactly, but they sure come in handy now.

This means I can format my books quickly and easily to what Amazon, Barnes&Noble, etc want when it comes time to upload. Speaking of which…

Content management systems

Anyone who has a blog should be right at home with the content management systems behind the bookstores at major ebooksellers. Web based forms are easy. Right? Not necessarily. Rachel’s having trouble getting her first Kindle ebook out of  “publishing” status. It keeps reverting to “draft” and no one seems to know why. I haven’t had the chance yet to look it over myself, and I might not be able to figure it out, but I didn’t have any trouble getting “Do Over!” through the system. Why? Because I’m a blogger and former developer, and I’m already comfortable working on the web.

Marketing and promotion

In the middle of the 2000s, I spend several years in various sales positions. Retail, cold calling, the whole nine yards. I learned I don’t like hard selling, but I also learned a lot about why people buy what they do, what kind of enticements are effective in getting people to try something new. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I’m comfortable handling this aspect of indie publishing myself. I’ve already got lots of ideas on pricing, promotion, cross marketing, bundling, stuff most authors never think they’ll have to think about.

Social networking

And lastly, I know how to get by with a little help from my friends. A few years back, I’d vaguely heard of Facebook and there was some tweeter thing Silicon Valley insiders were using. Now, if you don’t have a presence on Twitter and Facebook, you may as well not exist. Gone are the days of a writer sitting alone in a shack, sending out his novels and never interacting with his fans directly. Now, you’re expected to be present. You’re expected to engage. Answer questions. Being able to actually talk to my favorite authors on Twitter is amazing, and I’m looking forward to getting into discussions with my fans.

I welcome every aspect of being an indie author, but that’s because my eclectic education and career path has given me the tools to do so. I know I’m atypical. So if you’re thinking about going this route, ask yourself if you’re ready to do all the different things you have to do well to pull this off.

 

“Do Over!” by the numbers

Okay, remember, it’s way, way early here. But I’ve had “Do Over!” on sale for almost two weeks, and thought I’d give my thoughts and observations about epublishing as it stands today.

For my newish readers, I’ve been in the epublishing game for a long, long time. About a dozen years ago I co-founded a website called “Free ePress” that published original works on the honor system—we gave the books away for free and asked people to pay us what they thought the story was worth (an idea that came to me after watching a festival of street performers here in Denver, writing as busking).

Since then, I’ve been published on eReader, Fictionwise and other smallish, pre-Kindle ebook sites. I’ve watched the ebook industry mature from an outlandish “why would anyone read a book on their Palm Pilot?” goofball idea to now the almost certain future of publishing as brick and mortar stores close and disappear.

“Do Over!” is my first book to be published on Amazon (and, oddly, Barnes & Noble, considering they bought Fictionwise, which already carries it). It’s a novella rather than a full-length novel, so I priced it accordingly at 99 cents, even though that puts me outside Amazon’s 70% royalty range.

So how has it done in two weeks? The first week, I sold 14 copies, netting me a total of $4.90 in royaties. The second week that firehose tapered off, and I sold 4 copies for a $1.40. So in the first two weeks, I’ve taken in $6.30. The upside is that’s not enough to declare to the IRS, so that whole $6.30 is tax-free, baby. Sales rank is #81,546 in all paid books available on Amazon. Eat that, #81,547!

Ahem.

Oh, and on Barnes & Noble? Zero copies. You disappointment me, nookers.

Over the weekend, I changed the description marketing copy on Amazon to give a bit more detail.

Before:

Richie Preston is a loser, in every sense of the word. He never moved out of his parents’ house, still works a dead end job and lost out on the love of his life.

But when the fates give him a second chance, he has the opportunity to live his senior year of high school all over again, only this time remembering where he went wrong. All he has to do is make sure he doesn’t interfere in the lives of others, and he can start over.

If you had the chance, would you make the choice?

After:

Richie Preston is 27 years old and still lives in his parents’ house, still works at a dead end job, lost his great love, still hasn’t really begun his life.

One day the fates smile on him and give him the opportunity to start over, to go back to being 17 and about to start his senior year of high school, only this time with all the memories of what he did wrong the first time. All he has to do is not interfere with anyone else’s life. It sounds like a great deal, but living up to his end of the bargain turns out to be harder than Richie ever imagined.

If you had the chance, would you make the choice?

I also changed the genre to YA (or “Juvenile Fiction” in Amazon parlance), given that the main character is in his senior year of high school. No idea if this will help, but at least I’m trying something.

I know I probably shouldn’t be, but I’m underwhelmed. I’m in need of some serious whelming. I know a 16,000 word novella is a tough sell even at 99 cents, and I know I’m not exactly a household name. But Joe Konrath makes this sound so easy (maybe I should quit taking writing advice from guys named Joe). Evidently, selling ebooks is a self-reinforcing system. Once you reach a certain critical mass of sales, they just keep building (see Konrath, Amanda Hocking, etc.). But getting to that point in the first place is a bit trickier.

The trick, it seems, is volume. Right now I’m seeing the level of success you’d expect from someone with only one book, and that a novella, in the store. Hocking has nine. Konrath has over a dozen (accounting gets tricky as he has several collaborations that aren’t just him). So maybe when I get the first Unification Chronicles trilogy done and posted they’ll feed each other. What I have learned is that one book squeaking plaintively in the Amazon isn’t going to get noticed much.

(squeak.)

And still. That’s 19 (I sold another one over the weekend) people I’ve entertained that I hadn’t a month ago. 19 people I maybe gave something to think about.

That’s something.

Why I’m Quitting NaNoWriMo

First off, no, I’m not quitting writing. But over the past week I’ve had some realizations that made me rethink what I’m doing.

I started off NaNo this year on a slow pace, and it never really got any faster. And with each passing day, I felt more and more pressure to catch up. I was also putting in full, mentally draining days at work (I’m half the IT department for a regional HVAC distributor) and was spending all my off hours time at write ins. It was wearing me down, and it showed. In particular, I started developing small illnesses and injuries that in the past have been warning signs that I’m pushing myself too hard.

And then it hit me. I don’t need to do this. I’ve started NaNoWriMo four times now, and “won” twice. I know I can do it. I also know I don’t have to.

A lot of professional authors like the idea of NaNoWriMo but don’t participate themselves because writing a novel is _what they already do every day._ And it finally dawned on me that this applies to me as well. When I’m done with _Crusade_, my editor and I are going to tackle getting _Revelation_ ready to post on the various ebookstores (Amazon, iTunes, B&N, etc.). Then I’m going to write _Jihad_, the third book in the Between Heaven and Hell trilogy. Then I’m going to edit _Crusade_. And so on. I’m going to be writing every day, or nearly so, all year round. So why kill myself to meet an arbitrary deadline I’ve already proven I can beat?

So best of luck to all of you still trying to beat NaNoWriMo this year, especially those of you who have never won it. I’m going to plod along at my own speed.

Rewards and punishments

Ideally, we should all be motivated to write by the _art_ of it all, the creative expression of our…

Or not. One thing I’ve noticed not only about myself but also every other writer I’ve ever known is that we are fundamentally a lazy bunch. More succinctly, the only thing a writer enjoys more than writing is avoiding writing. Sometimes we need an extra little kick. Especially during [NaNoWriMo](http://www.nanowrimo.org), where the clock is very literally ticking.

This year I’m using a carrot and a stick. The stick is easy. I’m doing this in public. My daily wordcounts will be posted for all to see at [http://bit.ly/CrusadeWC](http://bit.ly/CrusadeWC). Am I leaving myself open to public jeering, ridicule, possibly thrown virtual vegetables? Sure. My friends know I am nearly immune to embarrassment, but I do have an ego to protect.

The carrot is a little more fun. If I “win” NaNoWriMo, by which I mean if I get to 50,000 words within the month of November, I’m buying myself a [Kindle](http://www.amazon.com/dp/B003FSUDM4). I’ve been wanting one, and even though I’m saving up to get an apartment, I’ll make an exception for this… if I win. If I don’t have 50,000 words by 11:59:59 PM November 30th, no Kindle until after I move, if then.

So what are your extra little incentives to write this November?