Wednesday, December 27, 2006

An Open Invitation

There is one major question that everyone in publishing wants an answer to: who can spot the best stuff? Mind you, I’m not just talking about quality material – I’m talking about marketable material, which is far more important. Your latest work could be an artistic masterpiece but if it doesn’t earn out the advance, I wish you good luck in selling the next one.

The answer to the most prevalent question in publication is obvious, even if it is a little disconcerting: the readers. The audience is the only group of people with a perfect track record for picking which books will perform well. No agent, editor, publisher, marketer, publicist, critic or slushpile reader is even close to being that good.

But from the perspective of the industry, it is not the readers that are buying the material. The publishing houses are. Individual editors get to make the decisions about whether a given book is worth gambling on. In a lot of cases, these individuals get it wrong and the gamble does not pay off. There are any number of reasons for this, but the final answer depends on your point of view.

The usual reason that gets bandied about is poor quality work. If I had a nickel for every time someone cited “should have written a better book” as the excuse for why the book didn’t sell, I’d be a rich man. (This begs the question of why an industry professional would bother to publish a bad book – but that question never gets asked, let alone answered.)

Another possible explanation could also be that the industry regards market research as something that happens to other people. Nobody has ever asked me, “what kinds of books do you want to read?” I find this kind of strange, considering how many books are on my shelves at home.

I submit that if a book does not earn out its advance and the author does not ever see any money from the audience, then the publisher should have simply saved a step and released the book in-house. It would have come to the same end.

Even more, I submit that the current attention lottery system that is the slushpile is quaint and outmoded. The only function that it performs effectively is quality control. But weeding out the basic flaws – spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization – are tasks so easy that a computer could do it, which makes the task doubly tragic. On the one hand, some writers actually ignore the tools available to everyone. On the other hand, tens of thousands of people across the planet are employed to perform a task that a computer could do far faster and more efficiently. No matter how you cut it, that’s just plain sad.

So what? Who cares that some anonymous, disgruntled author with barely enough talent to rub two pixels together thinks this system doesn’t work? That means nothing and less than nothing.

Perhaps we should look at the numbers, instead. Readership is decreasing. More and more books are being self-published. More and more authors are not able to earn out their advances. More and more independent bookstores are closing shop because they cannot compete with high-volume superstores. Is this the fault of the slushpile? Maybe it’s just on overwhelming number of bad business decisions, perpetuated by over 80,000 publishers simultaneously. Or maybe there’s just a single bad business practice that they all seem to engage in.

I tend to lean towards the latter. It is idiotic that, in this day and age, that professionals would make a decision about which goods to produce without any form of market research whatsoever. It’s not as if publication is a cheap process. The average advance alone is worth several thousand dollars. Not every book gets a marketing budget, but those budgets that exist are easily in the four- or five-digit range. And then there are the costs associated with books that get returned because the bookstores got tired of trying to sell them to an uninterested public.

Is there a solution to this problem? Certainly. A surface reading of The Wisdom of Crowds suggests that replacing the slushpile would be a really good place to start. Don’t get rid of it – just update it. Stop hiring entry level employees to dig through a mountain of paper to determine whether any given work is worthy of publication. Instead, build a website that anyone can submit to (with a thousand-word limit) and start asking the audience for their opinion. This is somewhere between open source content management and collaborative filtering and if it sounds suspiciously Web 2.0, that’s because it is.

Now, the current thinking in the industry is that the readers shouldn't be forced to wade through the slush pile. In fact, the received wisdom is that the readers don't want to wade through the slush pile. This line of thinking has allowed professionals to crank the melodrama knob up to 11. They suffer for your reading pleasure, you see. You - the reader - do not want to know what was rejected. It's awful, awful stuff and its best if you don't see how the sausage is made. As sympathy ploys go, it's unrealistic enough to get tossed before the reader gets to page 2.

A more realistic alternative might be to admit that the current process isn’t all that old, effective or fair. Even more, inviting the readers to choose which books should be published gives them a stake in the final product. They can even follow the process and build buzz in anticipation of the release. That’s viral marketing in a nutshell and all you have to do is ask the readers for their opinion (this is also known as market research, for those industry professionals unfamiliar with the term). And if you are one of those people protesting that readers shouldn’t be forced to trudge through the slushpile, you might want to take a refresher in what consent actually means.

For the people who feel the need to point out that these kinds of things haven’t worked before, I can only point out that these kinds of things haven’t been tried by a major publisher or agent before. There is a huge difference in category between an unpublished nobody and a brand name publishing house.

In the end, all of business is a gamble. But there is a difference between an educated guess and an experienced guess. To this point, most of the guessing that drives publication is experienced, and we can all see how well that’s been working out. Some will dismiss my opinion out of hand, but the odds are good that someone will see the potential and make a process change before the competition can change their point of view. I know which ones I’d bet on.

Edit: Sean Lindsey has made a rebuttal to this post here. Check it out.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Learning the Wrong Lessons

One of the things that distinguishes successful people from unsuccessful people is the ability (and willingness) to learn. Not just from mistakes (although that is important), but also from the success of others.

An excellent example of this is PublishAmerica. Despite the opinions of industry professionals, writers, reviewers, agents and just about anyone with a working knowledge of how publishing works, PublishAmerica remains the 800 pound self-publishing gorilla that will not be going away any time soon.

The reason that PublishAmerica is so successful (profitable - not popular, and certainly not good) is that they have taken a good, hard look at the current publishing business model and figured out where the money is: the okaysellers. The okaysellers are the vast majority of books published by the industry, the books that make a profit in aggregate. And, because first-time okaysellers may or may not earn out their advances, the authors themselves become a more or less disposable commodity.

PublishAmerica has clearly paid attention to this aspect of the industry and realized that if the market in marginal books is able to sustain thousands of publishers, then it might as well be tapped to maintain yet another. The twist that PublishAmerica has applied to this marketing model is exactly the same thing that produces their bad reputation: they will publish anyone.

From a business perspective, this is brilliant. PublishAmerica’s website indicates that they publish on the order of thirty thousand new authors a year. If each of those authors only sells 100 copies, that’s still almost three hundred thousand books. Even better, they have no marketing budget, no minimum print run, no co-op to pay out, no returns to worry about, minimal advances and low expectations, so publishing everything is not a gamble (yet another lesson learned from established publishers – gambling is not a reliable method of earning money).

Even better – PublishAmerica has tapped a previously untapped market: the disenfranchised writers of the world. Not only are they providing a service that these writers want, but they are doing it in a way that forces those writers to do the marketing themselves. These writers will probably only market to their friends and families (which is where those hundred copies tend to go), but if those friends are anything like mine, they are not unusually avid readers. In effect, PublishAmerica is getting people who usually don’t buy books to buy books. Mainstream publishers cannot figure out how to make this happen – not even governmental literacy campaigns can make this happen. It turns out that all you have to do is let people publish anything and their immediate networks will buy into the market.

Granted, most of those market buy-ins are extremely limited. Even worse, PublishAmerica doesn’t really emphasize the fact that their authors should educate themselves about what they can expect. Instead, they subtly play up the idea that someone is holding the authors back and if they just had access to bookstores or better marketing… Well, we all know the arguments by now. Suffice it to say that PublishAmerica’s business ethics are really what leaves that lingering bad taste in everyone’s mouths.

While there is a collective dismay towards these practices, almost no one has really cottoned to the fact that the PublishAmerica embraced the central mantra of publishing professionals everywhere - “It’s a business!” - and tailored their process accordingly. After all, sales are the only metric that matters; if quality was important, there would be a way to accurately measure it and, more importantly, reliably make money on it.

From the perspective of the Science Fiction Writers Association (among others), the fact that PublishAmerica will publish anyone is a terrible thing, especially because PublishAmerica still claims that it won't. From the lofty heights of the published authors who managed to strike it lucky in the slush pile lottery, having no quality control filter is the worst possible thing that could happen to a publishing house. For a start, it means that there are no minimum standards with regards to spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization or storytelling ability. More than that, it takes great steps towards easing the high school popularity contest pressure cooker that the publishing community has created (intentionally or not) over the past few decades.

In response, the SFWA took a look at PublishAmerica’s standards and equated “PublishAmerica authors" to “unpublished slush pile authors” in their mental hierarchy. They even went so far as to put together a book called Atlanta Nights, specifically to point out how low PublishAmerica’s standards actually are. The intention was to attack PublishAmerica’s credibility, but this coalition of authors have spent so much time in the echo chamber of traditional publishing that it didn’t really occur to them that credibility attacks don’t really work on bottom feeders. For people who make their money providing a gateway to the cat piss men of the world, Atlanta Nights is less of a gotcha and more of an endorsement.

Lesson learned? Probably not.

PublishAmerica still acts like it doesn't cater to people who don't understand the difference between "everyone should be able to publish" and "everyone should publish." The SFWA is still high-fiving itself over the way it put one over on PublishAmerica and the overall situation has not changed.

There is an easy explanation for this state of affairs. As long as access to publishing resources is a matter of winning an attention lottery, there will always be good writers with bad timing. These writers will always want to publish and probably should publish. There are enough of these kinds of writers out there working to get noticed that sooner or later there will be a breakthrough; there are already breakthroughs happening all the time. Small, but significant.

PublishAmerica doesn't understand that it's offering a stepladder over the slushpile. It is very likely that PublishAmerica doesn't care. The publishing industry didn't learn the valuable lesson that was offered, either: as long as there are alternatives, writers will take them. Even good writers. Frustration is not necessarily tied to talent.

As long is there is an ongoing and healthy debate about the subject at a rational and mature level, self-publishing will get stronger. The best ideas survive the harshest criticisms because they allow themselves to be shaped into something stronger, more resilient.

The lesson learned from this situation is that credibility is an easy way to attack anyway. Bruce Sterling calls them centipedes. But if credibility can be established, then where does that leave self-publishing? In need of credibility.

As professional gamblers, industry insiders should be very nervous. The odds are very good that some major breakthrough will occur in self publishing. The numbers of people talking about it are simply too high for that not to occur. And it only takes one solid breakthrough to change everything.

I have no idea what form the breakthrough will take, but it is very likely to happen. It is only a matter of time, really. When the current floodwaters of self-publication ebb, there will be a variety of new oxbows in the publishing stream. These will not be regulated and any illusion of central control that currently exists will be seriously eroded. This is the true lesson that PublishAmerica has to teach us all. We just have to be very careful about where we step as we navigate our individual paths- there is still a lot of potential to get washed away.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How Very Meta of Me

The attentive readers in the audience (and I know that all of my readers are attentive) have probably started wondering why I haven’t been pinging the publishing industry much lately. After all, the ostensible point of this blog is to work towards the betterment of publishing, right?

Well, yes. I mean, I have a lot of things to say about what the industry could be doing – to improve itself, to improve its business practices, to improve its relationship with writers, to improve its profits. But before I can get to any of those things, I feel that it is more important to point out that writers (especially unpublished writers) have just as much room for improvement as the rest of the industry.

Self-improvement among the writing community serves two purposes. First, it demonstrates that writers are able to be professional, serious people who don’t throw temper tantrums because their unreasonable expectations were not met. Second, it offers writers a stable, easily-travelled, toned-down path towards reasonable credibility.

Exuberant claims that any author can be financially successful if he just sets his mind to it simply don’t help anyone. These kinds of pronouncements merely offer yet more false hope and set up yet another generation of disenfranchised writers. A more measured and reasonable message will, with any hope, produce a crop of writers who know what they want, know how to get it and are happy to eschew the pitfalls of the industry entirely.

And that’s the key to improving the industry: by creating a cost-effective alternative to the current standards and practices. There must be an incentive to change. Given that most of us are not part of the decision-making apparatus of a major publishing house, our only option is to start acting like we care about our collective futures. We are not disposable commodities. At the same time, we are not delicate and unique snowflakes. We are something far more robust and far weirder: we are writers.

But until we are willing to act like adults first and leave the temperamental artist persona on the page, we will remain disenfranchised.

Military officers have a saying: "Amateurs talk about strategy, dilettantes talk about tactics, and professionals talk about logistics." I hate to say it, but the paragraphs you have just read are strategy. There is almost nothing logistical in there at all. To correct that, I want to give you some homework: how publishing costs are calculated. There will be a quiz on this later.

As much as I hate to admit it, there is a tactic that industry professionals have taken up that works very effectively. The phrase vanity press is often used when people talk about self-publishing. In fact, this phrase is so ubiquitous that you can often tell what side of the debate a person is on by whether they use it.

While it’s true that most self-publishing firms are merely gateways that allow anyone to publish, I’m not sure that vanity press is the best phrase to describe them. The reason for that is that vanity press is a weasel word. We’re all writers here, so it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that language can be used to shape our perception of things; that’s the whole point of language. And, when it comes to an abstract concept that has forced the industry to acknowledge it, it’s hardly surprising that a pre-existing negative connotation got picked up and put back in place.

The truth is, though, that if self-publishing can be fairly described as vanity press, then traditional publishing could be fairly described as validation press. After all, all art is vanity and anything that has to be vetted is merely validating the author’s ego. I wouldn’t be so petty as to suggest that you start using this phrase when you’re out and about, but it is a clever bit of wordplay and serves as a nice transition.

Speaking of validation (see what I did there?), a post from this blog was recently mentioned in the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT, which "is a partnership between thinkers and researchers from/affiliated with the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, and companies with a keen interest in deciphering convergence culture and the implications it can have for their business. Members of the consortium gain new insights and ideas about a very intractable and urgent set of questions that they are already grappling with in the current business environment. We aim to expand the role of industrial leaders by informing them of dynamic humanistic scholarship while providing them with early access to the cutting-edge ideas that emerge through the consortium."

Another set of articles for you to check out are The Myth of Publishing and The New Publishing Paradigm. Like post-modernism, I often feel that the word paradigm means absolutely nothing, but should be used as often as possible. Despite this, I am very impressed to find more and more people who are open to the idea of doing it yourself.

I’ll have more material over the next few weeks, so sit tight. If you feel the need to do something while you wait, feel free to let people know that I’m still reviewing science fiction. For some reason, the trickle of submissions has dried up.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Master of Your Domain

One of the best things that you can do for yourself and your writing career is to create a website. Not just any website, though – you want to create an interesting, dynamic, creative, dazzling website that tells everyone who visits exactly how interesting, dynamic, creative and dazzling you (and/or your book) really are.

Sort of.

The truth is that web page design has been picked apart and analyzed by people much smarter than me, to the point where there are entire blogs dedicated to bad design. What does analyzing bad design tell you? It tells you what not to do.

As a writer, there is little chance that you actually have the design skills necessary to produce a good webpage, much less a great one. However, there are plenty of people out in the world who work as freelance web designers. These are the people that you should be talking to.

Why? Because your website is an easy and effective way to market yourself. You can quickly and easily lump all of the significant information about you and your book on the front page so it leaps out at people when they visit. In addition to the basic information (your name, your book’s name, publication date, genre), your site should have a link to where it can be bought and a free copy of the book for people to download. Cory Doctorow explains the concept better than I could, but remember the phrase “try before you buy.”

When you print up business cards and flyers for your book, be sure that you include the website. One of the most effective advertisements I have ever seen was for the webcomic xkcd. It was a simple business card with just those four letters on the front. On the back were the words “Just Google it already.”

Take responsibility for the presentation of your work. If your book was important enough to self-publish, then it should be important enough to market effectively. And if your website looks like it was put together by someone with not a lot of design skills, then you are not marketing your book effectively. It’s that simple.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Oblivion Society – An apocalyptic comedy novel by Marcus Alexander Hart (Lulu)

There are a lot of comedy novels (and novelists) out there, but there seems to be a dearth of comedy novels that are also genre novels. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of high-profile authors with the wherewithal to venture into that territory without hesitation. The reason might have something to do with the fact that writing that kind of novel requires an in-depth knowledge and absolute love of the genre, as well as an ability not to flinch when poking fun at those same genre elements.

Marcus Alexander Hart has all of that, in spades. The Oblivion Society is not strictly a laugh-a-minute kind of novel, but it does demonstrate a sly understanding of geek culture, which is just as funny. Basically, if you like Christopher Moore, you will like this novel.

The basic storyline is sound: a handful of twenty-something nobodies with retail jobs and no real ambition to speak of are the only survivors from their small Florida town when an accidental nuclear holocaust sweeps through. Despite the fact that they are losers with poor social skills who can barely tolerate each other, they are forced to acknowledge that there is strength in numbers and put aside their differences just to survive. The result is a character-driven road trip that takes them on a series of adventures.

If that sounds pat, that’s because the road trip is really secondary to the character interaction. Take this conversation between two of the main characters early on in the novel:

“Do you think that Obi-Wan Kenobi changed his name to Ben Kenobi just out of convenience?” Bobby asked.

“Convenience?” Erik replied.

“Yeah, like can you picture him on the phone trying to order a new droid from QVC or something? He’d be all ‘Send that to Obi-Wan Kenobi. No, I’m sorry, not Joey Kenobi, Obi. Obi-Wan Kenobi. No! Not Juan Kenobi! Do I sound Colombian to you? Look, just send it to Ben, okay? Ben Kenobi.’”

That conversation could have happened in any of a thousand living rooms between any of a thousand sci fi geeks drinking beer and waiting for something interesting to happen. The fact that these two are going to shortly find themselves struggling to survive makes it all the more entertaining. More importantly, it sets up these characters as the kind of people who stand around, trying to figure things out. These are not steely-eyed men of action. These are geeks, with an abundance of useless knowledge who find themselves in an increasingly bad situation.

As the novel progresses, you find yourself caring about these characters, wanting to know what happens next. From what I remember from Freshman composition, that's the way these things are supposed to work.

This is the kind of novel that could easily find a cult following, if the author was canny enough to market it properly. Given the fact that he had hot girls wearing skimpy Oblivion Society t-shirts at 2005’s San Diego Comic-con, I’d say that he had a pretty good start.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Patience is the Biggest Challenge of Them All

To begin with, I have an admission to make: I have been lax in responding to everyone who has submitted a book for review. I am still working my way through the list of submitters and I really should have sent out some kind of formal response (ie "I got your submission, I'll let you know when I'm ready to read it, don't take this response as a no, etc.") right away, which I didn’t do. For that, I apologize.

Having said that, I noticed that one of the people who submitted to me showed up in the comments thread on an up-and-coming industry blog. When this submitter sent me an email, that email landed in my spam folder, which is never a good sign. When that submitter commented on the blog, others started tearing the submitter apart, for good reason. The comments were grammatically awkward and the pdf that was submitted was both poorly formatted and lacked simple things, like capital letters and punctuation. Worse, when this was pointed out, the submitter got argumentative, accusing people of not reading the entire work before passing judgment.

I’m not trying to shame this person in any way, shape or form. But they do make an excellent object lesson in what not to do.

First, posting in broken English is fine for Mahir, but not for native speakers. Make sure that every sentence you write is clear. If you are not sure if your sentences are clear, read them aloud to yourself. Even better, read them aloud to someone else. I really shouldn’t have to tell you this.

Second, by producing a book that does not contain the basic elements that most readers expect when a thought has started or ended, this person has staked out territory in the realm of difficult composition. Difficult composition means that the reader is automatically challenged to understand what information is being conveyed. The problem is that the reader has a multitude of choices when it comes to entertainment. By producing something that produces more frustration than hook, you are offering them the choice to simply put it down and move on to the next piece. (I’ll come back to this in a minute.)

Third, the submitter was argumentative when given honest feedback. “This book is difficult to read,” is a well-meant, honest critique and can be given after only a few paragraphs of reading. Arguing with that critique is an easy path to ridicule – a place that most readers will not hesitate to go, with or without provocation.

Remember, as you interface with the world around you, your words and actions will help determine your reputation. More importantly, arguing with the wrong person can get you banned from a potential market, which is never a good thing. (And, lest you think this is a problem that is confined merely to writers, look at these rules for artists and spot how many apply to writers.)

Now, I said that I’d come back to the point about challenging narratives, because it is important. One of the things that first-year art students are taught is that they must learn art history and composition before they are allowed to try anything difficult, abstract or conceptual. Take Picasso – do you really think that he started with Cubism? In fact, his early paintings are filled with realism, mostly because he was learning how to use things like color and composition properly. It was only after he got comfortable with these tools that he felt confident enough to step outside the boundaries and truly experiment.

I point this out because I sometimes feel like first-time authors take a look at something like the thirty six dramatic situations or the grand list of role playing game plots and think “I should be able to produce something better than this – something edgy, different, challenging!” While those authors are not necessarily wrong, in a greater sense, they are not always right, either.

It used to be that when an artist took his first steps along the path of creativity, he would find a master and apprentice himself. After a few years, he would graduate from apprentice to journeyman and, finally, to the rank of master. To cross from one stage to another, the artisan would produce a definitive work, which is where we get the term “masterpiece” from. To be honest, I’m not sure how easy it is to find an author who is willing to mentor a new talent anymore, although I’m sure it does happen from time to time. But the idea of a series of gradual steps is still an appealing one and should probably be reintroduced.

I read once that the first novel or two are usually autobiographical. It is only after the author has taken a look at someone else and wondered “what is their life like?” that he begins to get into a different mode. I’m really not sure how well that holds true for every author, but I do know that new authors could do a lot worse than to pick a plot that interests them and just knocked out a single novel that shows how well they can tell a story. It doesn’t have to be new or original or fancy or marketable at all.

In fact, I would argue that the first two or three novels should never be exposed to the light of day. Those are the apprentice works – a chance to work all of the bad narrative choices out of the system before getting around to the real job of writing a proper novel that breaks the rules the author has worked so hard to learn.

At this point, reader reaction will probably cut in one of two directions. Writers with a single novel (or less) under their belts are no doubt cringing and saying something to the effect of, “But what if I never get another novel-worthy idea?” Seasoned writers, with at least two novels under their belts, understand that it doesn’t work like that. Getting good at novel-writing takes time and effort and an inability to be dismayed by something as simple as an anonymous blog writer with delusions of grandeur.

But getting good at self-publishing can only work if you have a good novel to work with. And ignoring the basics of writing in a rush to get something published will not serve you as well as you might think. You might end up in the same boat as the individual who inspired this post and nobody wants that. It doesn’t make you look good and it doesn’t make the prospect of self-publishing look good. In the end, you aren’t just hurting yourself – you are hurting the rest of us as well.

So, for the good of your writing, the good of your self-publishing career and for the good of the community in general, take it slow. Be the best writer you can be and then write another novel where you strive to be even better. It’s the first step on an important journey and the rest of us would prefer that you not destroy the road we’re all walking on.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Do You Trust Me?

Yesterday, I noticed an entry on the Convergence Culture Consortium (one of my favorite blogs, right after BLDGBLOG). The post pointed towards an article on the by Joe Pareles in the New York Times about the sheer amount of user-produced content that hit the internet in 2006. Self-published books are not mentioned, but if you substitute the word “books” for “music” throughout, you can start to see the relevance.

What Pareles finds most interesting is that when you “toss out those old obstacles to creativity [hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage] and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.” Why? Because there is just so damned much content out there for people to chose from. Once your run-of-the-mill internet punter discovers exactly how much information is available for perusal, something akin to agoraphobia sets in.

Which, quite naturally, leads Pareles to the question of filters.

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace -- some played two million or three million times -- tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

This is exactly the problem facing the self-published writer. We know that it is not simply enough to write or publish a book. These, in and of themselves, do not hold any promise of exposure to the audience. What is necessary is a means of telling the audience that the book exists – that it is good and worthy of reading; perhaps even worthy of purchasing.

In the commercial publishing model, there are two filters. The first is the slush pile, which works really well for winnowing out those authors that are weak on grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence formation, storytelling or reality. As good as it is for filtering those things out, it is equally bad at filtering in the good stuff. Still, what gets stuck in the great publishing lint trap goes through the machine and is spit out the other side in the direction of the second filtration system: the reviewer.

(The word reviewer is, in my opinion, a deceiving word for what the individual inhabiting the role is intended to do. Really, the word should be recommender, because the individual is recommending good work to people who are, honestly, looking for recommendations. Ordinarily, I would throw this away as a digression, but words are important, not just to those of us who are writers, but to those who consider the English language as the primary means of communicating ideas and concepts to one another. If you do not periodically reexamine your labels, you run the risk of allowing those labels to grow stiff from disuse. Okay, now I’m done digressing.)

The review filter is a time-tested, honorable, well-intentioned, grass-roots model that faces exactly the same problem as the produced content that is pushed through it: exposure. It’s great that I am offering to review science fiction and Fantasy POD is offering to review fantasy. But if there are no readers who are looking in our dusty corner of the internet, then those reviews don’t mean a thing.

But where a writer (or other content producer) faces an uphill battle to get any kind of exposure, a reviewer has the ability to gain a much more distributed readership because he is able to produce a variety of different kinds of content. Not every book reviewed will be to the tastes of every reader, but the chances are good that some of the books reviewed will be to the tastes of some of the readers – enough so that the readers will learn to trust the tastes of the reviewers and come back to them for more reviews down the road. Eventually, some of those readers may end up recommending the reviewer to other people, allowing others (readers and writers alike) to tap into the ever-explanding nexus of exposure.

Basically, the key word here is trust. If you do not trust the reviewer in your role as a reader, there is no reason to trust the reviewer in your role as a writer. At the same time, your reading habits should include at least one trusted reviewer that is able to tell you where the new, good material is to be found. More than anything, that trust relationship will drive the new content filters (like myself and others that have chosen to take on this dirty job with me) and allow them to generate the readership that they need to be effective recommenders-at-large.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

When Yog’s Law Meets Tax Law

Yog’s Law states that money always flows towards the writer. Many have taken this to mean that the only place that an author should sign a check is on the back, when they endorse it. That’s fine and dandy, if you are the kind of person that likes to sit around and wait for checks to arrive in the mail. However, even those who have taken this skill to the next level will eventually find themselves in need of an accountant. But accountants cost money. If you follow Yog’s Law to the letter, then you will quickly find yourself in a conundrum.

All foolishness aside, one of the most consistent messages that I read on the internet is that publishing is a business. If you are going to self-publish, you need to remember that. You are going into business for yourself. Sooner or later, you will discover the need for bookkeeping – that is, keeping track of your money.

You see, business is all about the bottom line – how much money do you have? Money comes in and money goes out. Vendors have to be paid and sales have to be kept track of. Otherwise, how will you know if you made any profit?

The most important thing that every self-published author should have from day one is a spreadsheet that keeps track of your expenditures. Everything that you have spent money on in preparation for the publication of your book is fair game. Did you pay an editor to look at your manuscript? Did you hire a graphic designer to build a website, cover and fliers for you? Did you send out review copies? Did you pay a lawyer to look over your contract? Did you print business cards? Did you go to trade shows?

Everything that you paid out goes in the category of losses. Everything that you earned from the sales of your book goes in the category of gains. The difference between the two becomes your profit/loss statement. Chances are that you will be able to show a loss for the year. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have a friend who runs a small entertainment law practice out of his basement, in addition to his day job as General Counsel of a moderately sized IT firm. He told me once that his private practice has not made a profit once in seven years. These things happen.

The important thing to remember is that if you are keeping track of your profit and loss, you can report all of that on your taxes at the end of the year. A financial loss for your small business does not have to be catastrophic. In fact, it can be a good thing. For one, you are allowed to deduct the value of your loss from amount of money that you earned, which means you are paying less in taxes.*

The reduction in taxes means that Yog’s Law has been satisfied. The money flowed towards the author, even if it was from an unexpected source. And that bit about not spending money? We’ve all got choices to make.

*This is standard business practice, by the way. A number of years ago, I read a piece of commentary which pointed out that it’s good policy for Hollywood studios to put out crappy pieces of underperforming material because they serve as net losses that can be balanced against overperforming blockbusters. Less profit equals less taxes.

I’ve never seen anything to indicate that publishing houses do the same thing, but I am almost cynical enough to believe it.

Doing Your Research For You

One of the problems of the internet as research tool is that it can be very difficult to get answers to specific questions. What is the best way to self-publish? (Don’t.) Who should I use? (Not Publish America.) What should I watch out for? (Scammers.) What should I be doing? (Waiting for traditional publishing to call you.)

Despite the volume of noise debating about whether self-publishing is a viable economic alternative to traditional publishing (ahem), there are actually people who are making an effort to produce guidebooks to this new approach to publication. Finding word of these resources can be difficult, which is why they should be pointed out as often as possible.

Read these texts. You will not regret it.

The first text on the list is called On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile by Michael Allen. If you follow that link, you will find it as a free PDF download. It’s 80 pages long, but it looks at the mechanics of the slush pile from a statistical and mathematical point of view. Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that the selection process is governed by chance and offers some solutions to overcome that problem.

Second on the list is Jeremy Robinson, who wrote POD People: Beating the Print-on-Demand Stigma. This book was written in response to the many emails he was receiving on a daily basis after making a success of his first self-published novel The Didymus Contingency.

Third on the list is the Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine. Drawing on his experience as a contract lawyer, Levine lays out the differences between the various Print on Demand publishers working in the industry today.

If anyone else has any suggestions about other books that could be considered must-reads for the aspiring self-published author, please feel free to let me know.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Fellow Travellers

If you are paying attention, you might notice that the list of links on the sidebar has changed slightly. Instead of merely linking to interesting blogs about POD and self-publishing, it is now linking exclusively to people who are making a contribution to the community. How? These people are taking it on themselves to review self-published work. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Interestingly, I made the decision to collect these reviewers after I got yet another email from someone pointing out their new blog, Fantasy POD. This person was inspired by my mission to seek out the best self-published science fiction (a search that is well under way, by the way) to create a blog so that he could review the best in self-published fantasy.

This trend in niche reviewing is inevitable. The Girl on Demand cannot possibly read all books in all genres; in fact, she specifically restricts what she is willing to accept. It was that restriction that led me to offer my services as a science fiction reviewer. Fantasy POD is setting up shop to accept fantasy. iUniverse Book Reviews accepts anything by an iUniverse publisher. Pub Guy, like the Girl on Demand, reviews general fiction and local Midwestern products.

If you know of anyone else (or if you, yourself, are willing to chip in with a blog of your own), please let me know so that I can send the links around to the various people in the loop. The concept of the Long Tail economy is centered around micro-niches - places where individual authors can find their perfect audience and flourish. Independant, anonymous, credible reviewers that target a specific genre are important, but they are just the start. The readers have to know that the reviewers exist as well, otherwise the exposure is still somewhat obscured.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, please take the time to post about me on your blog. I believe that a healthy self-publishing environment will only benefit the publishing industry in the long run. But the only way to prove that is to ensure that the environment becomes healthy, which means creating a positive, presentable, credible community. I have Opinions about what it will take to get there. I am happy to get constructive criticism; if an idea can not stand up under critical examination, then it will probably not stand up to real world conditions.

Edited to add: There are four more review sites on the sidebar now. POD People, P.O.D.Lings, None May Say and Gloomwing Magazine.

Son of edited to add: Pub-ioneer has also agreed to throw his reviewing hat into the ring. Stay tuned for genre and submission guidelines from that quarter. If you know a self-published author that is looking for reviews, send them in our direction. I've been expecting a deluge of inquiries, but I haven't more than a slow trickle so far.