Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What Scarcity?

Once upon a time, publishing – the printing and distribution of bound books – was expensive. It was necessary to outlay large amounts of money in order to publish enough copies of a book to make a profit. Because of this, those people who had the money and the desire to publish books made the not-entirely-stupid decision to be extremely discriminating when choosing who to publish. Because these decision-makers were the gateway for distribution, they were able to play the music and make the authors who wanted to be distributed dance to their tune.

There have been many reactions to this situation, mostly hovering around the unfair mark. It may be unfair, but it's also simple economics. There is a limited supply of publication slots due to the prohibitive price and there is a massive demand from writers who want their work to make the cut. Limited production capacity created a market based on scarcity.

Or, at least, that's how it used to be.

Publication has now become so cheap that it is now cost-effective for smaller companies to subsidize anyone's publication – to the point where publication for the individual author is effectively free. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this has largely removed the monopoly that the publishing industry held due to the scarcity inherent in the market.

The industry has reacted to the loss of their monopoly by ignoring the loss and/or pretending that the scarcity has not disappeared. On those occasions when they deign to notice that publication is cheap, it is pointed out (at length) that the industry maintains a large collection of professionals who will work hard to turn a manuscript into a polished product. This is intended to be an incentive to maintain the illusion of the scarcity market.

What's interesting is that these features do not really fall under the category of publication. In the most accurate sense, editing and marketing and proofreading and graphic design all fall under the category of pre-publishing; more, any and all of those jobs can be outsourced or freelanced. The fact that they have become an integral part of the publishing infrastructure owes more to the human need for stability than anything else. But there is no reason why a freelance editor should not be given a bonus 5% of an author's sales for doing a good job. Chances are their work is more important to the overall success than an agent's is and look how much agents get.

Other frequently cited points in favor of the industry include the advances that published authors can expect to receive, as well as the fact that bookstores will only stock books from publishers that participate in the remainders process. Nowhere in that incentive package does the word "sales" appear. Which makes sense, because the publishing industry cannot promise sales. There is a good chance that a published author will sell enough books to earn out the publisher's advance, but most books tend to hover right around the slightly profitable mark, not really going over on a regular basis. This is either a cause for some concern or standard business practice, depending on who you listen to.

Personally, I view this very thin profit margin as evidence that the publishing industry has spent far too long focusing on the wrong end of the market. It's a natural thing to do – when you control one end of a supply and demand relationship, it makes sense to focus on the best way to wrench a profit out of it. It is obvious that a writer will endure almost anything to get published, despite the astronomical odds against him being chosen or turning a long-term profit. The reason? Prestige. Being chosen transforms a writer from being just anyone with a book into a Published Author.

Authors are routinely told to research the industry before getting involved in it, but this is counter-intuitive. If an author did actual research about the business of publishing, he would see that it is increasingly obvious that the publishing industry does not have any control over the supply and demand relationship on the other end of the market. As long as industry professionals continue to believe that bookstores are the main point of distribution, the bookstores will continue to control the market. As long as there are far too many books to fit on the limited shelf space available, someone will be willing to pay additional money to be stocked on those shelves.

But now the scarcity is gone from the end of the market where the publishing industry previously held an advantage. Basic economic theory says that this will catch up with the industry eventually. Publishing is a gateway industry and when the gateway is no longer essential, it must make itself important or it will not survive. Self-publishing will not bring the publishing industry to its knees – the industry is doing that to itself by refusing to acknowledge its biggest blind spot: the fact that there is no compelling reason for a compentent author to necessarily pursue professional publication.

Once an author has beaten the odds and made it to the promised land of publication, he can expect to turn a profit (sort of), but that profit is nowhere consistent enough to promise a full-time job to the vast majority of writers. If anything, publication merely serves as supplemental income – a healthy supplement to be sure, but still not the primary source of support. More to the point, the supplement has every chance of drying up quickly if the writer’s sales end up on the wrong side of the profit margin. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the reason publication advances are so high is because a writer should not expect to remain in the industry for very long – a few years, at most.

From the point of view of the gatekeepers, this short-term supply of supplemental income seems to be regarded as an attractive incentive for writers – after all, there are vast numbers of them salivating over the opportunity to earn it. From the point of view of a man in the crowd who is looking at how difficult it is to get through the gate, however, mere publication seems like a pipe dream at best; supplemental income merely makes the dream flawed and imperfect. Nobody in the industry seems to ask the question “How, exactly, is a flawed pipe dream meant to be an incentive?” much less the follow up question “If professional publication is so great, why is an incentive necessary?”

An incentive for getting through the crowd only works if that's the only way in – it highlights the rewards and tells people why they should struggle against astronomical odds. But professional publication isn't the only gateway anymore. Right now, any author can publish anything for next to nothing. Which is exactly as it should be. (Of course, the implied correlative to this is that any author who does not take the proper steps to ensure that he is putting out a quality product deserves the reputation he has earned. Which is also exactly as it should be.) Now that there are other alternatives to professional publication, demand has to be artificially maintained somehow. Otherwise, someone is going to realize that maybe doing it yourself is a viable alternative, if only because the writer doesn’t have to subsidize the living of every other person in the publication chain.

It should be clear by now that I am not writing to convince the publishing industry of anything. They have their standards and practices, which work for them. Instead, writers are my intended audience. The publishing industry cannot promise you sales, but more importantly, they cannot promise you publication. Self-publication will not change the fate of the entire industry, but it will give you an opportunity to take your fate into your own hands.

But please, act responsibly and remember to document your expenses.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


From time to time, people in the science fiction community start to navel gaze about the state of the genre. I’m probably picking on science fiction when I say this, but the fact is that it happens fairly frequently. And why not? The genre itself is predicated on speculation. If an author is qualified to speculate about the future of technology or society, why can’t that same author be qualified to speculate about the state of the industry that he earns his living in?

The number of manifestos about the future of science fiction can approach infinity, but if the people who control the means of production do not feel that excessive experimentation is warranted (or, even worse – not marketable), nothing significant will ever come of them. For this reason, there is now and will always be an upper limit on the amount of experimentation that science fiction can tolerate.

It is all very well and good for Charlie Stross to advocate that writers pioneer a new field of science fiction, but without the support of the industry (which is not necessarily the same thing as the support of the market, mind you) this suggestion might as well be so many tears in the rain.

Despite assurances to the contrary, the publishing industry is concerned with profits first and new ideas – in so much as they do not interfere with those profits – second. From an economic viewpoint, this makes sense. However, this attitude does not tend to create the kind of environment that lends itself to experimentation.

To some extent, the comics industry has the same kinds of problems. However, the comics industry has created a healthy environment for experimentation: self-publishing. In the world of self-published comic books, experimentation is encouraged. The audience wants to read new and different things and they show their support for this process through the buying of new and different things. On the whole, it’s a win-win situation.

After all, this is the reason why healthy self-publishing environments exist. And, with the death of so many science fiction magazines, there is an even greater need for a safe place to try new things. Of necessity, most of these new things will fail (and fail spectacularly), but someone will always be willing to try stranger and stranger things until something clicks. This is generally referred to as “progress.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Ten Year Plan

Fortune magazine recently pointed out a study about greatness – how people achieve it and whether the lessons from those people can be applied to society at large. The good news is that achieving greatness does not require any especial talents. The bad news is that it takes about ten years of hard work in a given field to achieve greatness. More specifically, the kind of hard work that advances a person’s abilities the most is something called “deliberate practice.”

In online roleplaying games like EverQuest, it is possible to do the same task for hours on end with an eye towards increasing one’s score in that ability. Among gamers, this is known as grinding. Unfortunately, deliberate practice is not the same as mere grinding. It is not enough to merely perform a repetitive task ad infinitum. Instead, you must aim for the next higher level of competence, always seeking to gain feedback on your work so that you can improve.

Given these criteria, is it possible to apply this methodology to becoming a great writer? Perhaps. As we have seen, there are three steps for a writer within the traditional publishing industry model: 1. write novel 2. get agent 3. sell books.

The first step is the most obvious. The only way to become a great writer is to write a lot. But it is not enough to merely write. You must get feedback as well. Because it takes so long to read, critique and rewrite a novel, the iteration process can be lengthy. But if you want to become a good writer, those steps are absolutely necessary. Eventually (ten years or so down the road), you will have achieved greatness in your craft.

The second step is nowhere near as straightforward. You could spend ten years going to conventions, meeting people and developing networking contacts. In theory, this will work. It will not make you a better writer, nor will it ensure that your book will sell, but chances are that it will allow you access to an agent. To be honest, though, it will not obligate that agent to represent you, either. But if you expend the effort, you can become great at gathering industry contacts – something which is actually more suited to becoming an agent yourself.

You could also spend ten years contributing to the slush pile. However, this is not really a scenario that lends itself to deliberate practice. On the contrary, submissions are a black box process – you put something in and perhaps you will get a yes/no response. If you are exceedingly lucky, you get more. In practical terms, you may spend ten years working on the submissions process, but it is doubtful that you will ever get enough feedback to actually achieve greatness at it.

The third step brings us back to a place where practice can, indeed, make perfect. Sales and marketing are a feedback-intensive process. It is extremely easy to get discouraged over the long haul with a marketing career, but the rewards are worth it. Unfortunately, for industry writers, this skillset is encouraged, but not heavily so – the theory is that the marketing professionals from the publisher will take care of most of this work. Even more discouraging, a significant subset of all published writers will not have the luxury of working in the industry for a full ten years.

The self-published writer only has two of the three steps to get good at (obviously, agents are something that happen to people who want to sidestep the hard work). Getting good at writing is the same process, regardless of publishing path. Getting good at marketing, however, is far more intensive for a self-published author. It requires a lot more hands-on experience and a willingness to get out and talk to the people involved in the buying and selling of books. Admittedly, a vast number of artists are not very good at business or self-promotion. But that is like pointing out that a vast number of birds aren’t very good at running.

Remember: if you are willing to devote ten years of your time to the business of learning how to promote yourself and promote your book, there is every reason to believe that you will become very good at it. There is no such thing as instant greatness – regardless of which publishing model you choose to go with. You have to work hard for it, just like everyone else. But if you have written a novel, you probably already know the value of hard work. The only remaining question is, “to whom would you rather entrust the product of that hard work to – yourself or someone else?"

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Writer Beware

I want to alert writers to a scam. It’s particularly insidious and so prevalent as to be almost universal. It’s called the slush pile and unpublished writers should avoid it at all costs. The common belief is that submitting manuscripts and query letters to agents and publishers will expose new work to those portions of the industry, but I’m probably not alone in telling you that most professionals regard unsolicited materials as something marginally above junk mail.

The received wisdom is that these portions of the industry are absolutely inundated by the sheer volume of unsolicited work, which means that they will actually thank you for not contributing to their burden. Logically, they don’t even want to have to sort through the quantity of material they already have on hand.

I can understand the temptation to contribute, however. For most writers, it is the only way to ensure that their work gets seen by someone in the industry. For a desperate writer, any doorway will work, no matter how slim the chances of entry actually are. Instead of appealing to emotional or intellectual arguments, though, I’m going to take an old school approach towards making my case against the slush pile. I’m going to run the numbers.

Industry best practices tell us that submissions should contain the following: 1 cover letter, 1 manuscript excerpt of ~30 pages, and 1 self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). For best results, 30 of these submissions should be sent out every 90 days.

Now for the important question: what does all of that cost?

Current rates for photocopies run somewhere between four and ten cents per page. I’m going to split the difference and use six cents as a thumbnail. At this rate, making 30 copies of a 30 page manuscript will cost you $54. If you do that four times a year, then you can expect to outlay $216 for copies, on an annual basis.

Believe it or not, but that’s the cheap part of the equation. 30 pages of paper weigh slightly more than one pound. The United States Postal Service website helpfully tells that the media rate for anything under two pounds will run you $2.07. Sending 30 of these will cost you $62. Sending 120 of them will cost you $248 for the year.

Simple math points out that the process of preparing and mailing your 120 submissions will cost you $460 on an annual basis. That’s without adding in the cost of regular envelopes ($19 for a box of 500), document envelopes ($27 for a box of 250) or return postage ($46.80 for 20 stamps) – all costs provided by Staples. And that also does not take into account the time spent doing the research for which agents/publishers to send submissions to.

If you did the same thing for twenty years (assuming no change in postage rates), you could expect to lose $9,000. And I do mean lose. The money spent in the submissions process is not tax deductible. After all, you are not actually in business for yourself when you do this. That’s the whole point.

The rough ballpark figure for the number of publishers currently in business stands at about 80,000. At the rate of 120 submissions a year, you could expect to spend almost seven hundred years submitting your work. I’m going to guess and say that there are 20,000 agents currently in business. If you just limited your submissions to that group, you could submit 120 queries a year for the next 126 years before you go through the entire list.

But do these numbers make the slush pile a scam? Well, the really important questions about scams are “who benefits?” and “who loses?” After all, in traditional scam operations, someone profits from the gullibility of the desperate writer. And here, the writer definitely loses. In this case, however, the only real monetary gainer is the United States Postal Service. But there are other beneficiaries, as well.

For example, if most agencies and publishing houses allow a slush pile to form, then it stands to reason that these companies would hire someone to sort through that pile. That means that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 people whose jobs depend on the slush pile. And, while the odds are not good that you will be rescued from the slush pile, the odds are very good that one slush pile sorter in that 100,000 will find something worthy of further examination at least once a year.

From a financial viewpoint, this is spectacular. It saves the agents from actually having to go out and bird-dog new clients – that actually takes hard work and research. It is much easier to allow prospective material to come knocking of its own accord. That means that an agent can merely sit down and sort through all submissions until they find something they’re looking for. It may take a while to do, but for 15% of an advance for a successfully placed author, the search ends up paying for itself in the long run. And all that has to happen is that prospective authors have to be convinced that submitting to the slush pile is better for their careers than self-publishing.

The truth is, however, that contributing to the slush pile is not good for the careers of most writers – for the simple fact that most people who contribute will not actually get careers out of the process. For the vast majority of these people, contributing to the slush pile is nothing more than a long-term money sink. There is not even the prospect of actual feedback as a tangible result for participation. Most authors will never know if they were rejected because their work was bad or because it simply wasn’t what that particular professional was looking for – or even if it was rejected because the reader got to it at 4:30 on the Friday before a holiday weekend.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, asks the very basic question: “If you can afford to spend $460 a year on your writing, why not make enough money to enable you to write off your expenses?” Submitting to the slush pile does not offer that compromise in any way, shape or form. For the vast majority of submitters, the slush pile offers nothing – no reward and no feedback; just the satisfaction of knowing that you are supporting the system.

Self-publishing – a process that has recently achieved an effective start-up cost of nothing – has become a viable economic alternative. It may not provide great rewards, but compared to absolutely nothing, a four dollar royalty check from PublishAmerica at least provides the basis for a tax break. One scam may not necessarily be better than another, but the cost/benefit analysis tends to favor the one that actually pays out if you are willing to apply serious hard work.

Of course, the slush pile will never really die for the same reason that people will always play the lottery. There will always be someone stupid enough to believe that a long shot is a better bet than actual effort.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Good Writing vs. Marketable Writing

The most common piece of advice I see on writing blogs and commentary from industry professionals is the exhortation to “write well.” The received wisdom is that good writing will get you noticed. Eventually, I mean. If you give it time. Because the advice is so prolific, it would stand to reason that the contrary is true as well; bad writing will get you rejected. And this is true.

But bad writing does not mean that a book is not marketable. I can give you two examples of this: Christopher Paolini and Dan Brown. Self-published and of admittedly pulp quality, works by both authors have become best-sellers that have been turned into movies.

The converse is also true – good writing does not mean that a book is marketable. This is kind of amusing, because the phrase “marketable” no longer really means that a book will not perform well on the marketplace. Instead, it means that an agent will not be able to place it with a publisher.

(To be honest, from the point of view of most writers – the so-called “okaysellers” – the publisher is the only market that matters. Anecdotal evidence tells us that most authors do not earn out their advance. For all intents and purposes, this means that the advance is the only source of income that these authors will receive for their work. Therefore, the agent and the publisher are the only audience that matters. Lawrence Watt-Evans recently tackled this point from the perspective of poetry and short stories.)

My point is that the concepts of marketable writing and good writing have gotten so intertwined with one another that they are perceived as nearly identical. The phrases can almost be used interchangeably – although industry insiders will always assure you that they know what they are talking about when they use the individual terms. After all, industry professionals know good writing when they see it. And they will tell you that they know marketable material when they see it.

Except that they really can’t. Granted, they can recognize material that is similar to the material that sold well the last time around. But, like most economics professors, marketing types like to think that they can predict the market. Unfortunately, they tend to forget one significant thing: markets react. And so they are consistently behind the curve, mapping their book purchases to trends that may not be there by the time the book goes to print.

But hey – it works well enough. Industry professionals are happy with the fact that the majority of their books are only slightly profitable. Because it is the larger books that make the real money. And nobody really knows when one of those books will turn up. Only the audience reaction will tell. Just ask J. K. Rowling.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Reclaiming Self-Publishing

Wikipedia tells us that “The key distinguishing characteristic of self-publishing is the absence of a traditional publisher.” Despite claims to the contrary, PublishAmerica is not a traditional publisher. However, PublishAmerica is probably one of the best resources for authors who want to self-publish but do not have the cash to take all of the steps for themselves.

Unfortunately, PublishAmerica’s business practices leave a lot to be desired and they are easy prey for industry professionals who call them a vanity press (mostly because they are). But a vanity press just means that the publisher will publish anyone. In a healthy self-publishing environment, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

At the present moment, the self-publishing environment for books is dramatically unhealthy. How do I know this? Because there are other, semi-related publishing environments where self-publishing is not only accepted, it is actively considered to be a good thing. Awards are enthusiastically given out and celebrated. Trade shows abound.

Take a good look at independent comic books. Most of them are self-published with little or no overhead. A majority of the retailers at the annual Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD have day jobs. They do the work that they do for the love of the medium. New material is happily received. A community spirit exists that stems from a network of like-minded people.

Part of the reason for this healthy independent comics community may be due to the fact that mainstream comic books are almost universally wrapped around a single genre: super-heroes. There are professional, full-time comics writers who make an effort to work outside this genre, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. And so there is a casual acceptance of anyone who self-publishes because if you want to create anything but superhero comics, you almost have to self-publish. There is no real editorial oversight for quality control, just the market. (It should not come as a shock that print-on-demand technology has been regarded as no less than a godsend to this community.)

Role Playing Games (RPGs) fall into the same category. A large number of small, one or two man operations make extensive use of print-on-demand technologies. There are even awards given out to independent game designers, most of whom use print-on-demand publishers like RPGNow. This is a relatively small community, but there is no stigma associated with self-publishing.

In both environments, the writers and creative types take responsibility for the business aspects of their work. They overcome the hurdles and take steps to ensure that they are producing the best product they can. In a word, they are credible.

Not that many years ago, self-publishing could be considered a good thing. Now, the fact that it is so cheap to do so has made it a bad thing. The fact is, though, that anyone can produce a novel (graphic or otherwise) with enough hard work and persistence. Doing so should not be automatically considered a bad thing. To automatically do so is to prejudge the quality of a book without reading it first. Very much like judging a book by its cover. Or judging a person by the color of their skin.

The writer should be able to approach self-publication (yes, even through PublishAmerica) with pride. It is bad enough that the companies available act stupidly. Every child is embarrassed of her parents. Calling attention to that fact is just rude.

But it is equally incumbent upon the writer to produce good material. If you are not sure about how good your work is, ask someone. If you ask enough people enough times, someone will eventually tell you the truth. Sometimes the truth hurts. But one of the things that our society has groomed out of us is the ability to take criticism. Being a writer should mean being an adult, even if the other people in the relationship are incapable of following suit.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Class Consciousness

One of the things that could be said about the content of this blog is that it is persistently negative. This is probably true. However, I like to think of it as persistently realistic. The publishing industry is a business, first and foremost. It is not obligated to be generous or charitable. It is not even obligated to make sure that everyone involved in the industry turns a consistent profit. It is also probably not going to change anytime soon.

I read an article the other day about how the publishing industry should switch from offset printing to print-on-demand as their primary printing method. The rallying cry was that the industry would then be freed from the perils of the returns process and having to worry about overprinting. With this innovation in place, the author enthused, the power of the industry will shift away from the chain superstores – which are supposedly throttling sales – and back to the publishing houses, where it belongs.

My question is this: why does the power belong with the publishing houses? What exclusive service do they provide, exactly? Marketing? Editorial oversight? Graphic design skills? Distribution? I can’t get any of those through my own hard work and desire to excel?

Why is it that writers – the heartbeat of the industry, the muscle that keeps the industry moving forward – should be considered to be second-class citizens? Why can’t the writers call the shots?

When the costs of publication were expensive, it made sense for publishing houses to be conservative and selective. But the cost of publication is dirt cheap – so much so that anyone can do it. Absolutely anyone. That is the curse and that is the blessing of the publish-on-demand revolution.

And it is already a revolution. Not an overwhelming one, by any means. But there are enough people profitably storming the walls of the industry on a regular basis that the illusion of exclusivity cannot be maintained. But the publishing industry will not change on its own. As long as there are people who still believe that the only true means of validation is for an editor from a publishing company to give them a green light, the writers will never have power in the industry.

My call is to abolish the slush pile. Stop contributing to it. They do not want your contribution to it and you can spend that money in more productive ways. Hire an editor. Talk to a marketing firm. Do it yourself.

Friday, October 20, 2006

9. Setting the Terms of Your Success

So if fame and fortune are not what you should be aiming for, what’s left? How do you know when you’ve “made it”? First of all, there is no such destination. You work as hard as you can for as long as you can and then you die. When you go, you hope that you can look back and be proud of what you achieved: a full life, a happy family, a peaceful home and a long list of artistic accomplishments.

It sounds sappy (and a bit maudlin), but that’s all there is to it. You do not always get to a certain point and then automatically receive a lifetime achievement award for participation. At some point, you have to sit down and make some decisions about what your goals are in life. At some point, you have to ask yourself a very difficult question: How do you measure success?

Money is an easy answer, as is an arbitrary number of awards. Personally, my criteria for success is very simple: the day that I see someone on the subway reading one of my books, I will count myself a success. It’s very simplistic, but it serves my humble purposes, which is exactly the point.

And when I have reached that milestone, what next? Well, I’ll set another one, equally ambitious and outré. But that’s me. I have a wife, a home, a job I love, family, friends and I’m almost debt free. I’m actually idealistic enough to believe that the best rewards in life are those that cannot be put in a suitcase and moved from home to home. Besides, I’ve always been a sucker for a good story and I still believe that the best stories are more valuable than gold.

But I also recognize that what motivates me is not what motivates everyone else. So you have to make a decision about what will make you happy. Chances are you’ve never actually thought very closely about that question, even though it is the most important question that you can ask yourself. What do you want? What will make you happy?

Up until now, everything I’ve written has been predicated on the idea that art was the most important thing in your universe; the thing that kept you awake at night and kept you occupied during boring meetings at work. But there comes a time when art for art’s sake is not enough. You will want to know that what you made touched someone, made a difference in someone’s life – that what you did meant as much to someone else as the artist you most admire did to you.

So start there. Find out how to get in touch with that artist (or series of artists) who influenced you and start sending them copies of your work. Don’t ask them to promote you, just tell them that they meant a lot to you and this is what you’ve done on your own. If you are sincere in your approach, you might actually get a good response. (You might not. If you haven’t learned by now to plan for the worst, you haven’t been paying attention.)

At any rate, you are responsible for your own peace of mind and setting the terms for your own success. Don’t let anyone else tell you what makes you successful – it is always possible that they are projecting their own goals onto your career (such as it is) and one size does not fit all. Especially not among writers.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

8. Networking is Essential

Before you get to the point where you have submitted anything for perusal, you should really take a step back and ask yourself if you are the right person to be doing the graphic design for your cover and/or marketing materials. Unless you have a talent for artwork, chances are that you should probably let a professional do some of that work for you.

Granted, you probably don’t have the money to pay a high-end professional, but that’s okay. You probably know a professional (or a talented amateur) who would be willing to work at a discount. But how do you know if you have this skill set among your friends?

There’s a really easy way to find out. Ask them.

Among my immediate circle of friends (that is, the people whom I associate with on a more-or-less monthly basis), there are DJs, writers, actors, musicians, illustrators, photographers, models, web designers, lighting designers, cooks and marketing professionals. I know because I talk to them about their lives and interests.

And when the time came to design my book cover, I asked my friend the photographer to give me a hand. She came back with a series of photos, one of which I felt was the best image possible for the cover. Her husband took the head shot that became my author photo on the back cover. My friend the writing professor did the final polish on my novel and wrote the introduction. My wife the marketing professional helped me write my back cover blurb and press release. My friend the web designer built my website and marketing fliers.

I wrote the book, but in some ways, that’s all I did. Everything else was a collaborative process, one where I relied on the skills and abilities of the people around me to help me release the best product I could release. You can do it alone, but if you are surrounded with other talented people, why bother?

Your friends may or may not expect money from you (I only paid the web designer, but even then, she cut me a really good deal), but if they are really your friends, they will be happy to help you out. And when the work is released, they will help you promote it, because it shows off the work that they did as well.

Networking is essential and is something you should have been doing all along. In fact, there is every chance that you have been doing it all along, but just didn’t realize that’s what you were doing. Those peers who give you constructive criticism in your writer’s circle? Those are people in your network. Turn your perspective around and look at everyone else in your life from that direction. Chances are that you will discover some unlooked-for talent that might help you produce a finished product.

Important safety tip: your friends are not infinite resources. They are your friends, first and foremost. If you start treating them like employees, they will stop being your friends, very very quickly. Always ask for their help in a polite and respectful manner, which means that you do not ask a second time when they tell you no. Remember: you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar (although dead squirrels work the best).

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

7. Going Corporate or Going Solo

So you’ve put together a product that you’re confident will sell. You believe in yourself and your work. Your peers think you have a shot. That level of belief that you have just spent critical months and/or years building up means almost nothing in the wide world of capitalism, if you approach it from the wrong direction. In fact, if you are not careful, all of your enthusiasm for your art will be squashed flat in no time, leaving you to sit alone in your room, bitter and disillusioned.

With that in mind, it’s time to make some cold, calculated business choices, the biggest of which is “How do you want to mass produce and/or sell your material?” The most important thing you can do is a large amount of research into your publication options. (You have no excuse for not doing this, by the way. Unless someone handed you a hard copy of this guide, you probably have access to Google, so use it.)

The big decision is whether to go corporate or to go solo. Both of these choices are ambitious, but each offers a different reward. If you are hell-bent on getting paid the big money, going corporate is probably your best choice. Another reason for going corporate is the deep-seated desire for professional validation. Before you head down that path, though, it’s good to know what the pitfalls are. The companies that produce and distribute most entertainment in the world tend to be highly risk-averse, conservative organizations. There are large rewards associated with letting someone else sell your work, but there are more failures than successes, in general.

On the other hand, going solo allows you to have complete creative freedom over your work. Large publishers are looking for work that fits within a narrow, “marketable” mold and if your writing does not, then you are likely to be stuck out in the cold, no matter how good the writing may actually be. However, going solo provides you with an opportunity to take a chance on yourself. The biggest pitfall here, however, is the fact that you will be stuck building a reputation, a brand and a market from scratch. You will not have the organization’s extensive experience or network of contacts to fall back on.

In either situation, it is important to remember that your chances of financial success are extremely slim. However, if you are ambitious and willing to work very hard at selling yourself and selling your product, it is possible to achieve your goals. Becoming a self-made (wo)man is the American dream, after all. There is no reason why you cannot make that dream come true, if you are willing to make the supreme effort.

In the end, I can’t tell you which path to take. Most of everything I’ve written to date leans towards self-publication because it requires that you sell yourself once – directly to the public. Anything corporate requires that you sell yourself to talent scouts first, then to the people who greenlight your production, then again to the public. If you are stubborn/determined enough to spend several years working through this process with little or no promise of an eventual reward, then knock yourself out. The rest of us are going to go out back and learn about setting the terms of our success.

Friday, October 13, 2006

6. Managing Your Expectations

So you think you’ve gotten good. You have a body of work and peers who are pushing you to “go to the next level.” But do you even know what that means?

Chances are that you’re thinking in terms of monetary rewards, because you are a capitalist and we live in a capitalist society. And you’re probably not wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right, either.

Remember when we were discussing your motivation and I pointed out that the odds of you being able to make a living selling your work were astronomically against you? Well, unless something momentous has happened in the past four essays, that probably hasn’t changed.

That shouldn’t stop you from wanting to release something for sale, but you do need to understand exactly what you can expect if you do. In professional environments, this is called “managing expectations” and it is basically the exact opposite of sales. A quick and dirty version might be, “Will you sell a million copies? No. Will you sell a hundred copies? Maybe.”

More than anything else, a firm grasp of reality is essential at this stage. Feel free to dream, but don’t bother to dream big, because no matter how high you set your sights the first time, you will probably fall short. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you and you should not trust him.

Unfortunately, the really painful lesson of “taking your work to the next level” is that you are going to lose money in the short term. Like a band that goes on tour to college towns, playing for a fifteen person audience in a two hundred person venue or a print-maker who paid to get two hundred posters printed that could sell for three dollars apiece, there will be an initial investment that you will have to make.

So really, what you really have to ask yourself is not “how much can I expect to make?” but rather “how much can I afford to lose?” Some people will disagree and tell you that professionals do not spend money to make money, which begs the question of why the Small Business Administration offers loans to new businesses.

Right now, though, you are an amateur. You do not support yourself with your art, nor are you expecting to. What you’re looking for is exposure; an audience and some unbiased critical response. No matter who you are and what you do, that means marketing, and unless you own your own marketing agency, you should be prepared to spend some money on marketing materials. A good rule of thumb is to spend far less than 10% of your annual salary.

The critical thing at this juncture is to the make sure that whatever you prepare for release is good and interesting by the standards of your peer review group. Not okay, certainly not the first thing you’ve made – something solid. Something you can be proud of. Nothing sounds worse than an artist apologizing for the poor quality of the product on sale. Don’t put yourself in that position.

Once you have grounded yourself, it’s time to start making some level-headed business decisions.

5. Learn to Love Criticism

Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. And it’s true. Chances are that the first time you did anything, you were terrible at it. This even applies to that magnum opus I just encouraged you to finish. In fact, it probably applies more to that magnum opus. But if you’re going to get good at anything (you want to be good, don’t you?), then you’re going to have to learn to deal with criticism.

Here’s your first lesson: don’t ask anyone you are having sex with to look at your work. Nor should you ask your parents. In fact, anyone who is emotionally involved with you in any way should be out of the question and here’s why: you will not get a fair critique. And chances are that if you do, you will not enjoy getting it.

Instead, you should find a peer review community (a writer’s circle being the best example I can think of) and start showing up for it. Submit your material and don’t be surprised if you’re told that it’s not very good. This is normal.

At this point, you have two options. One is to get pissy and stomp off, vowing never to return to that bunch of losers ever again. The other is to listen to the constructive criticism that’s on offer and figure out what you did wrong. I’m going to leave it up to you to figure out which response will come off as mature, adult and credible.

It is soul-crushing enough to realize that you will probably not make money with your art. It is even more soul-crushing to realize that you’re probably not very good at what you are compelled to do. Get over it. Everyone who matters gets criticized and you are not going to magically avoid that process, no matter how much you want to.

In fact, if you are serious about your work, you will learn to welcome criticism. It’s good to know what you did right, but more than that, it’s good to know what you did wrong so you can fix it the next time. Remember that talent grows. More than that, it can be taught and trained. But it takes patience, effort and a lot of hard work. (Sometimes, even more hard work than finishing your first project.)

Learning to deal with criticism is very important. But what can be even more important is the need to find reviewers whom you can trust and whose opinions you respect. With any luck, they will be willing to help you become the best artist you can be by giving you honest, unfiltered feedback. These are your peers and they will be more valuable to you than an audience ten times their size.

Why? Because they will know how much work and struggle went into your project; they do the same kind of thing, after all. And when you get to the end, they will be there to congratulate you and offer you the praise that you’ve earned. They will have seen you grow as an artist and get good.

But it is critical to remember that creativity is an ongoing process. You will not get good overnight. You will not earn the respect of your peers overnight. You will not learn from your mistakes overnight. You will fall down. And you should fall down, because anything that is worth doing involves a degree of risk. You have to be willing to fall flat on your face if you think something is worth doing, because if you do not take that chance, you will not run the risk of actually succeeding.

Take chances. Get bloody, bruised and beat up. And whatever you do, learn to admit when you’re wrong. It’s probably the best thing you can do as a mature, adult human being. I promise.

4. Is It Done Yet?

I know a guy who makes music. He has performed live on more than one occasion. However, he still hasn’t finished an album. Not because he can’t find a label to distribute it, but just because. Is he an artist? Absolutely. After all, he is compelled to make music.

However, his seeming inability to actually finish what he started makes him a wannabe. He wants to be a musician, he just can’t get focused enough to finish something. Don’t do that.

I have another friend who is in the process of writing a novel. He told me that someone made a cover for it already. “That’s great,” I said. “Have you finished writing it yet?” That was six months ago and the answer is still no. Don’t do that, either.

This is the critical juncture – finishing things. Nothing robs you of your credibility faster than your inability to actually get to the end of the project you’ve started. I can’t tell you how to finish whatever it is you started; everyone works differently.

I will tell you, however, that your friends and family are probably pretty tired of listening to you talk about this thing you’re going to finish any day now. In fact, if you told them when you started it, they’ve probably kept track, just to see how long it took you to get to where you are right now.

Once you get a few projects done, people are more willing to cut you some slack with your completion dates, but that first one is always a killer. One piece of advice that I can give you, though: pay attention to how long it took you to finish your first piece. Unless there were extenuating circumstances (you spent a month in a diabetic coma, for example), you can count on a lot of your subsequent work taking at least that long to complete.

And once you’ve finished whatever it is you’ve been working on, give yourself a month or so to relax, then start another one. The best thing you can do is to start to produce a body of work. Starting the second one will not be as scary as the first one was, I promise. The knowledge that you were able to get to the end becomes incredibly empowering and it actually gets easier to finish the next one.

Remember, laziness isn’t your worst enemy, inertia is. Writing takes hard work and a lot of it. But once you get used to working hard, it gets easier to do. The human being is an adaptable beast – make the best of this and put your nose to the grindstone early. By the time your life gets busy, you should be able to keep up.

It’s like walking: there’s really no trick to it. You just do it. And you keep doing it until you get good at it.

3. You Do Not Want to be Famous

There is no easy way to put this, so I’ll just throw it out there early: you do not want to be famous. You may think you do, but only because you are comfortably anonymous right now and you think that nobody actually cares about you. Not only is this wrong (more people care about you that you probably think), but it also comes across as desperately needy and, as a consequence, very ugly.

Despite appearances to the contrary, everyone has self-esteem issues. Everybody thinks that they don’t get enough attention for the things they do. It may not be fair, but life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual and that’s not fair, either. That’s just the way things are and the sooner you get a grip on reality, the sooner you can start to figure out what parts of it are eligible for change.

Fame will not pay your bills. Fame will not enable you to escape your life, your location, your past, your marriage, your job or your family. Famous people still eat, sleep, defecate and have bad hair days. The only thing that fame will bring you is headaches.

Women: do you enjoy going to the grocery store wearing sweatpants and no makeup? Men: do you enjoy getting drunk on Saturday nights and puking outside the bar? Now imagine trying either of those things with a posse of paparazzi, desperate for a single photograph that they can sell for $400 to the National Enquirer.

That is fame. You do not want that.

You do not want to have to look perfect every day. You do not want to have to deal with seeing your personal life at point of purchase racks in the supermarket. You do not want to have deal with the crazy people on the internet who forget that you are a human being. You do not want to have to deal with fanfiction.

The absolute worst thing about fame is that it never really goes away. Not in this day and age. If you are one of those poor people unfortunate enough to share a name with a famous person, you know the hassle that comes with name recognition. If you’ve never met someone in this position, imagine that every time people read/hear your name, they say “oh, any relation to [famous person]?” If your answer is “Yes, that’s me,” then you will be treated to a quick rundown of your past, whether you wanted it or not.

The real downside to fame is that you lose your anonymity. You cannot walk down the street without worrying that you will be accosted at random. You cannot walk into a situation and create a first impression with people you’ve never met, because it’s already been done for you. Fame did that for you.

As far as I can tell, there is really no upside to being famous. You will still have to work. You will still have to deal with your relationships. You will still have to deal with your family. These things will not go away.

And woe unto you if you are an unsuccessful famous person.

My advice to you is to aim for something you can handle. Well-known is good. Well-known is manageable. Well-known will give you an audience, but allow you to avoid some of the hassles that come with being further up the food chain. But be careful, because it’s a short walk from well-known to outright famous and once you take that walk, you can’t disappear into the crowd anymore. And it’s brutal out there in the spotlight.

2. What is Your Motivation?

I have a friend who doodles and sketches all the time. Now, it just so happens that he has a job as an illustrator, but that’s really beside the point. I believe that if he was paid to answer phones in a call center, he would still be sketching while he watched Battlestar Galactica reruns on Tivo.

And that is, in a nutshell, my definition of an artist. Someone who does what he loves regardless of whether he is paid to do it or not. So now should be that time in the program where you get to answer the magical question: are you an artist?

But it’s not as simple as that.

The real question is why. Why do you do what you do? Why do you write? Those who answered with something along the lines of “because I want to be rich and/or famous” should go get a job as a stockbroker. Seriously.

First the bad news: you might as well come to terms with the fact that the odds are against you being able to make a living selling your art. The Society of Authors estimates that between 2 and 6 percent of all writers make a living by only selling their books, and that estimate is probably a bit high. The point being that your dreams of being a rich and famous author are flat out unrealistic. You probably have better odds playing the lottery.

So why bother?

Well, remember when I asked you why you write? If you are a real writer, your response was probably something along the lines of “because I have no choice.” You are compelled to produce something – whatever it is that your mind needs to do to keep from going insane. Because that’s what art is, a compulsion.

It is not merely a means to an end. It is the end result. It is what you do when you are not doing your day job (or when your day job is slow, if you’ve got a job like that).

Now, if you have read this far and not gotten entirely discouraged by reality, then I’ve got good news for you. It is entirely possible to be a good, moderately well-known writer and still have a day job. In fact, the day job can actually be a good thing, if you let it be (it removes the need for the art to be entirely financially successful, for a start).

The best thing you can do is face facts, get a sense of what the odds against you are and then ignore them. That’s right: ignore them. It is not a sensible, rational or logical thing to do, but then again, neither is making art. And once you have understood that essential paradox, you’re on your way to credibility.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

1. Why Credibility?

Years ago, I was at a tattoo convention selling framed prints of the artwork I’d made in Photoshop. One of the tattoo artists at the convention expressed an interest in one of my pieces. Naïve young man that I was, I tried to trade him two of my pieces for a tattoo.

“Son,” he said to me. “Three things. First, I only want the one piece. Second, the tattoo you want is worth more than the two pieces you just offered me. Third, you should always have a business card to give to people like me who express an interest in your work.”

There have been any number of object lessons in my life, but I specifically remember that one because it could have been a lot worse. The man was a professional and he was just trying to help. He could have easily laughed at me and, for all I know, he laughs when he tells that story to his friends who hang out in his shop.

The point is that while my art might have been good, I was not credible in my presentation of it. Since then, I have gone on to self-publish a novel with PublishAmerica. There are those who say that my decision was a bad one and I don’t entirely disagree.

But while I may admit the choice of publisher was not the best, I do not regret my decision, nor am I ashamed of it, which is important. Self-deprecation is fine, as is the learning experience, but to be actively ashamed of the work you produce? What’s the point? There’s no benefit in that.

Unfortunately, I have seen any number of young writers making all manner of elementary mistakes when taking their first, tentative steps into the busy realm of commerce. As far as I’m concerned, the real challenge is not to be successful, but rather to avoid the embarrassment of looking like a complete idiot.

My aim with this series of essays is to provide you, the hopeful young writer, with a thumbnail guide to being credible. Not successful, not respectable, nor even good. I cannot promise you popularity, fame, fortune or profit. I can only point you in the right direction so that (most) people won’t laugh in your face when you talk to them about what you’ve made.

Consider this to be a disclaimer: you are responsible for your own reputation. If you are unwilling to accept that responsibility and actually think that blaming me (or anyone else) for your failure to achieve [insert goal here] could potentially be a good idea, please stop reading now.

Still here? Good.

(Not everybody is going to agree with me on every point I make, which is fair – I never said I was right. In fact, you should take every piece of information and advice that you can find with a grain of salt and always draw your own conclusions. Remember that everyone has a bias and not everyone is always willing to tell you the whole truth.)

The Nine Step Guide to Artistic Credibility (An Explanation)

Earlier this year, I got frustrated by the number of publish-on-demand authors who acted like they had never heard about the difference between negative attention and positive attention. These authors had made the choice to publish their work through a limited gateway that would make their marketing difficult before they got started. Instead of being careful about marshalling their resources and presenting the best possible image to the market, they seemed bound and determined to act like idiots.

True, they attracted attention to their work, but probably not the attention that they really wanted. Ridicule and laughter are hardly effective marketing strategies and it can be difficult (if not outright impossible) to recover from something like that. The gap between what they wanted and what they got was, in large part, directly attributable to their inability to present themselves credibly.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that every new writer should probably be given a guide to how to present themselves – how not to act like a fucking idiot. Perhaps that was not the best title, though. I sat down and wrote a series of one-page essays with a more positive slant and called it the Nine Step Guide to Artistic Credibility, which I will be publishing incrementally over the next several days. Like all good writers, I wrote it with myself as the ideal audience.

You see, when I was 16, I would have killed for something like this. At the time, I thought I knew everything, but somewhere deep inside, I also knew that I knew nothing. Half my life later, I’ve learned quite a lot about life and the artistic process. Most importantly, I learned the hard way about the attitudes necessary to keep from crumbling under the pressure of knowing that I don’t stand a chance of actually achieving the commonly held artistic measure of “success.” Not because the quality of my work is bad, per se, but because “success” is simply statistically unlikely.

There are a lot of writers in the world and most of them are jostling for the same thing: a share of the audience’s attention, which they think will bring them fame and fortune. I’m not entirely convinced that that’s all there is to it. In fact, I tend to think that it’s perfectly respectable to simply be an amateur writer who periodically releases his own material - generating an honest body of work in the process - and doesn’t make every product into a “Hail Mary” attempt at reaching the pinnacle of success.

This may come as somewhat of a shock to some people. We live in a capitalist society where excess is subtly encouraged and moderation is actually derided. But if you stop and think about it, you will realize that not everyone measures success by the same yardstick.

Personally, I believe that it is enough to be a credible writer – that is, someone who does his best to refine his craft and possibly release finished products every now and then without having to worry that people are going to laugh in his face.

There are a lot of people who will disagree with me, which will make me very happy because discussion is healthy. Even better, I am happy about the fact that I live in a country where my right to express my beliefs is (for the time being) Constitutionally protected.

My aim with these essays was to crush dreams and force people to rethink very stubbornly held received wisdom. Not because I am a sadist, but because I think that sometimes people need to expose their belief systems to the cold reality of the way things are. This is especially true if you actually plan to make a living selling your writing. It is not enough to merely want something. In most cases, you actually have to work hard to achieve it. And even then, hard work is no guarantee of success.

Like I said, when I was 16, I would have been happy to know all of this. I doubt that it would have kept me from making the series of mistakes that led to me to where I am in, but that’s okay, really: I like who I am and where I am. And that’s been my key to success: knowing how to aim for satisfaction.

1. Why Credibility?
2. What is Your Motivation?
3. You Do Not Want to be Famous
4. Is It Done Yet?
5. Learn to Love Criticism
6. Managing Your Expectations
7. Going Corporate or Going Solo
8. Networking is Essential
9. Setting the Terms of Your Success

Maybe, Maybe Not

I would like to thank Samuel Tinianow for taking the time to read what I have had to say and for taking the time to sit down and write an honest and thought-out rebuttal. To be honest, his reaction is exactly what I wanted and exactly what I was expecting.

Having said that, Mr. Tinianow’s suggestion that “the flaws in the system aren't worth complaining about” but are “worth working with” is ludicrous. Of course they are worth complaining about, but more importantly, they are worth analyzing, discussing and fixing. Any system that doesn’t work perfectly – a point that Mr. Tinianow has no problem accepting about the publishing industry as a whole – should be open to criticism and suggestion.

By the same token, my commentary should be equally open to criticism and I welcome all feedback, if only because it shows that someone is paying attention. I will admit that my suggestions about possible solutions to the publishing system are theoretical at best; but at least I am offering suggestions. The Hegelian dialectic starts with a thesis, which generates an antithesis and leads to synthesis. But it has to start somewhere.

For the most part, Mr. Tinianow brings up logistical issues about why the proposed farm team system won’t work, which is actually good news. After all, professionals talk about logistics – and then usually during the process of deciding whether those issues are worth the time and energy of overcoming. I’ll save the point by point rebuttal of his critiques for individual readers to work through on their own. As we have seen, raising issues is easy. Solving those issues is difficult and I would prefer to focus my problem solving skills on the writers who are the point of the entire process.

Which brings me to the single point that I would like to address in Mr. Tinianow’s commentary. Halfway through the essay, he cites a 1999 survey by Jerold Jenkins (thanks for the resource, by the way – solid numbers are always helpful) which estimates that there are upwards of six million manuscripts circulating in slush piles around the industry. Towards the end of the essay, he thinks “there are a lot fewer "disenfranchised writers" out there” than I seem to believe. This seems counter-intuitive. Six million is a very big number. And, as Mr. Tinianow points out, children’s books have a success rate of .0003%, which would indicate that there are a lot of failures who might very well want a seat at the disenfranchised table as well.

The sheer number of people who have chosen the self-publishing route via print-on-demand would tend to bear this out. Despite the fact that they have no real hope of national distribution, high-end marketing budgets or access to professional editorial services, these arguably disenfranchised writers have made the decision that limited self-publication is better than no publication at all. It is a difficult and controversial decision to make on an individual basis, but the fact is that it is happening now and will probably continue to happen no matter how many disapproving frowns are leveled in their direction by industry professionals.

A large part of the disapproval seems to come from the fact that some of these print-on-demand publishers seem reluctant to admit that they are a limited gateway to the marketplace, which creates an air of disrepute about them. This reputation tends to cling to their authors, because the assumption is that anyone who used them must not have been intelligent enough to understand what the limitations were. Personally, I think that’s a fallacy.

I used PublishAmerica to publish my book because I had already spent nearly $1000 on agent submissions and I figured that I could easily spend the same amount of money on marketing and at least I would have a product to show for it (not to mention something I could write off on my taxes at the end of the year, if it came to that). What I got from the process was complete creative control over the cover of my book and a free ISBN (which got me access to Amazon, gratis). The reputation of the publisher really didn’t mean much to me because I’m used to laboring under the reputation of my employer; I work for the Federal Government, after all.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Tale of Two Blogs

One of my favorite things to do in literature class was compare and contrast. It's such a simple little exercise, but it does a great deal for sharpening your observation skills. Today, we are going to compare and contrast a pair of anonymous industry blogs that were recently brought to my attention.

One is called iUniverse Book Reviews and the other is called The Rejecter. One works for a literary agent in the capacity of sorting unsolicited manuscripts into "no" and "maybe" piles based on cover letters. The other one is an amateur blog dedicated to reviewing the best iUniverse books submitted to her notice. Guess which is which.

In theory, both of these blogs are dedicated to improving the quality of the content available in the publishing industry. And, in theory, both blogs reflect the respective viewpoints of their ends of the industry. On the one hand, the mainstream publishing industry operates as a model of exclusivity where the entry-level employees are taught how to say no as forcefully as possible – which is very similar to how drug dealers work, as I understand it. On the other hand, the self-publishing industry operates on an inclusionary model, where most everyone is encouraged to contribute.

The message of the exclusionary model is, from the name of the blog on down, negative. You will probably not succeed. Your submission is considered to be one step above junk mail. Most submissions will not generate any interest whatsoever. Most submissions will not make it past the cover letter and those that do will rarely make it past the first few pages of the manuscript. These are the stark and brutal facts and if you do not have the ability to deal with them, then you are shit out of luck.

The message of the inclusionary model is more mixed. The iUniverse Reviewer assumes that anyone who submits a book to her attention will have already published something and are now looking for wider exposure. True, there are limitations to the kinds of things that the reviewer is looking for, but that’s just plain honesty – what kind of realistic author would want someone who isn’t a fan of historical romance to review that kind of work? The most important portion of this site is that it can actually do something for the people that submit – unlike The Rejecter, who just says no.

In truth, I feel sorry for The Rejecter. It must be difficult to have an entry-level career as a junk mail sorter. There are some that probably feel sorry for the iUniverse Reviewer (imagine having to read all of those terrible books and then getting to feature the best ones!), but anyone who has ever done a good deed for a stranger out of the goodness of their heart knows that the benefits are often intangible. And the best part is that the books that get reviewed are selected on merit, not rejected on whim.

It’s very difficult not to see these two as the past and future of the publishing industry. As long as the self-publishing industry remains open-ended, with no real content filter to speak of, there will always be a need for people who are willing to review the best books and bring them to the attention of a willing audience – the farm team I spoke of earlier. And as long as the slush pile exists, there will always be a need for someone whose job is to sit and sort through it, throwing away vast piles of other people's hard work with a jaundiced, callous eye. But how much longer will the slush pile endure once writers realize that contributing to it does little more than give people an entry-level job in waste disposal?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Down on the Farm

Most publishing industry professionals would prefer that books not be compared to music. After all, only the broadest comparisons really apply (both are in the business of providing entertainment, etc) and, when you get right down to it, even those comparisons have to be manipulated in one way or another to get them to fit. Fair enough.

But the music industry does have one thing going for it right now that the publishing industry really should be paying attention to: mp3 blogs. Technically speaking, mp3 blogs are not really an aspect of the music industry, though. Instead, they are amateur sites were enthusiasts have set themselves up as authoritative tastemakers. These people take the time to seek out new music, review it and repost for other people to enjoy for themselves. An industrious dancefloor DJ can spend two or three nights a week, visiting any number of these blogs and come away with hours of new, good material.

The best part about these bloggers is that they are label agnostic. They are just as likely to post something from a mainstream artist with huge name recognition as they are to post something from a garage band they found on Myspace. The only criteria is quality.

At the present time, the publishing industry (or, rather, the self-publishing industry) has something similar to mp3 blogs as well: Pod Girl, the girl on demand herself. She has made it her goal to seek out good quality books from among the chaff of the publish-on-demand marketplace. Interestingly, most of the books that she has reviewed since she began have received intense scrutiny from the industry. One could argue that this is an early example of how a farm team might work.

As with any reviewer, all that is necessary is that the audience trust in the taste of the critic making the recommendation. Once that credibility has been established, a savvy reader could spend the rest of his life never having to pay for books again. Granted, they might not all be good books (most will probably be very, very bad), but that’s a small price to pay for seeing a deserving book get its just desserts.

This is not even something that the publishing industry should have to pay for. In fact, it’s probably better if they didn’t involve something as materialistic as money in the equation. Let the bird-dogs find the good stuff and take the credit for being on the cutting edge of new fiction. It’s a prestige industry, after all.

(Gawker Media, email me.)

The Selection Process

One of the most notorious things about publishing is how difficult it is to get published. There may be over 150,000 titles published every year, but there are easily ten times that number of prospective authors who are clamoring to get in the door. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is an industry where the primary content providers are regarded with some small derision until they manage to cross the threshold, at which point the attitude towards them morphs into something approaching cautious adoration.

To be fair, it’s an easy set of attitudes to take. A lot of people want to be published – so much so that an unpublished author nothing but an anonymous face in the crowd. Not by choice, but by necessity. There are simply not enough publishing slots available to publish every manuscript that comes along. Supply overwhelms demand and demand gets to call the shots. This is basic economic theory at work.

However, the mechanism that has evolved from this basic premise is now past the point of efficiency. There is a famous aphorism that any writer who can use spellcheck and show a basic grasp of grammar and punctuation is automatically better off than 90% of all submitted manuscripts. Basic math tells us, however, that if there are 2 million distinct manuscripts submitted every year, something like 200,000 of those are potentially usable (note: this number is probably appallingly low). With only 150,000 slots available (note: this number is probably appallingly high), someone has to make a decision about selection criteria.

Enter the agent. The agent sells prospective authors to publishers. In theory, they are the bird-dogs that seek new talent. In reality, agents have the same luxury of sitting on the correct side of a demand economy that publishers do. One of the most common questions that writers are asked is how they got in touch with their agents. An extraordinary number of them point out that they acquired their agent through some permutation of networking and luck. For those that do not have this exact combination of factors working in their favor, they are stuck submitting their manuscripts to agents along with everyone else.

The broad term for this pile of blind manuscripts (in both the offices of independent agents and publishing houses) is the slush pile. To most of them, this is regarded as junk mail. In fact, the slush pile is such an onerous part of being in the business that publishers and agents hold an annual burning of the slush pile, which has turned into quite a party. The message to authors is clear: "Don’t call us, we’ll call you. No, seriously. But buy our books, please."

The slush pile has a mystical significance to young authors with no hope of contacting an agent. After all, famous books have been rescued from the slush pile – The Diary of Anne Frank, for example. Frank Herbert’s Dune is also held up as example to young authors as why they should not give up. I don’t see the fact that Dune was rejected by twenty different publishers before finally being picked up as a success, story, though. To any rational person, it is obvious that Dune is a serious failure of a system that turns out false negatives on a regular basis without apology or regret.

Consider this fact: most writing websites emphasize the fact that the first page of any submitted manuscript has to be polished to a high degree. The reason? Because most people who read any kind of submission (solicited or not) rarely read past the first page. Not because they don’t want to, but because they have so many submissions to get through – it’s a time thing.

And that’s how a book gets selected for publication: either the author networks his way next to an agent at a party or he writes the best opening page in the history of literature and hope that the person reading it isn’t waiting for a phone call or otherwise distracted. Most of all, that author hopes that the reader can recognize where and when a book is marketable – the catch-phrase for “this book might sell as many books as these others in the same general category.”

The irony, of course, is that marketing decisions in the publishing industry are based on guesses. Educated guesses, to be sure, but still guesses. Thumbnail approximations and comparisons are made, but solid numbers for first-time authors are non-existent. After all, these authors have no prior sales experience. There is no way to know for certain how many of their books are going to sell and which marketing tactics might work best for which works. These kinds of blind spots are endemic to an industry that keeps the gateways to distribution locked down.

Somewhere between four and five paragraphs ago, the cynicism meter of most industry professionals kicked in and helped them leap to the obvious conclusion that I was venting my personal sour grapes. After all, I am a disenfranchised writer and my opinions are questionable at best. However, any accountant will tell you that solid numbers are better than fuzzy numbers. It just so happens that solid sales numbers are now obtainable for young authors. How? Self-publishing, of course.

Self-publishing is a booming business, mostly because there are so many disenfranchised writers out there. The overwhelming amount of original content feeds the self-publishing (print on demand, usually) companies just as fast as it feeds the mainstream publishing houses. Faster, even. Sturgeon’s Law has not magically faded away, but yet these self-published authors no longer feel entirely disenfranchised; after all, they have been granted their own, personal supply of special crack: they have their name on a book.

It does not take a lot to translate this teeming mass of former slush-pile residents into ready profit for the major publishers, either. All that is required is the same strong stomach for reading through books until something jumps out. A quick check of the sales records later and a decision can be made with ease and a clean conscience.

Professional sports franchises refer to these arrangements as a farm team and the publishing industry would do well to pay attention to this model. After all, implementation is two easy steps away.

1. Abolish the slush pile. Accept no unsolicited manuscripts. They are regarded as junk mail anyway, so this should not be that difficult a directive to follow through on. Unless publishers actually believe that the slush pile actually contains real treasure…?

2. Publish no author that does not have a prior sales record. Right now, the industry would prefer an author who does not believe enough in the strength of his material to self-publish despite overwhelming pressure to the contrary. This is counter-intuitive. The most effective authors that the industry can recruit are those that have proven themselves able to formulate an effective marketing strategy without a publicist, a marketing budget or co-op on his side.

Neither of these steps take any additional effort on the part of the publishing industry. In fact, both of these steps strengthen the industry significantly. They address the fuzzy math that dead-ends in the remainders policy, they address the diffuse marketing issues that surround the industry and they eliminate disenfranchised writers (who might actually become more enthusiastic customers than they are now – you never know). Most importantly, a farm team provides an environment where writers are encouraged to experiment – not just in text, but in business as well.

Of course, this is just pie-in-the-sky thinking. It suits the industry professionals to have young authors act like ravenous dogs, ready to bite at the first offer that comes there way. Without that instinctive reaction to the “better act now” scenario, authors may actually try to shop around and get a better deal. And that would be disastrous.


Once, in the not-too-distant past, there were three national television networks and there were a handful of magazines that most American households could be assured of having in their home: Life, Time, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, Forbes, National Geographic and/or Good Housekeeping. A savvy marketer could place an ad on most networks and in three to five of those magazines and be assured of something close to market saturation.

Today, that sounds like science fiction. Magazine sales are in decline, television channels have multiplied like bacteria and websites have undermined the entire notion of a unified culture, much less a unified audience. Still, large corporations want to promote themselves and their goods by any means necessary. High-end advertising spots on popular television shows (now that they seem to have come back into vogue) are always available to the Pepsis, Fords, Krafts, Exxons, Lockheed Martins and Random Houses of the world.

Fortunately, some of these companies have an advertising budget larger than the Gross National Product of small African nations. And some of these companies don’t. For those that don’t, smaller spots on more remote magazines and cable channels are sort of effective. Well, effective enough, especially if you are promoting a niche product aimed at a subculture of people who spend a lot of money on entertainment media. But woe unto you if you are producing a product whose target demographic doesn’t congregate in easily located online enclaves and seek out new information for the sake of bragging rights.

If you were a publisher, for example, you might be forced to rely on other means of promotion. One of the most popular is something called co-op. Basically, it is an amount of money that publishing companies pay to bookstores every month for preferential treatment with in-store advertising. For the most part, this treatment comes in the form of turning selected books cover-out to increase their exposure to customers walking in through the front of the store.

There is also some minor product placement near the cash-registers, which is called a point-of-purchase display. Point-of-purchase displays are really common, especially in supermarkets, who have made paid a lot of money to independent companies to help them study, understand and optimize their effectiveness. Unfortunately, point-of-purchase displays are not really that effective in bookstores – if bookstore checkouts were designed like supermarket checkouts, they might be. But they aren’t, so they aren’t.

But it is probably difficult for publishing companies to demand more for their co-op. After all, it’s not like this money is helping the chain superstores stay in business. But publishers have paid the Danegeld, which is a damned shame.

Lest you think I am being unnecessarily mean to chain bookstores, allow me to point out that in the last decade, they have been forced to evolve in response to a direct threat on their role as primary distributor of books. Survival is a mean, dirty process and it spawned large companies with the muscle to compete. An essential part of that process was the ability – the need – to hold onto whatever tools were at hand. Co-op and the remainders process are here to stay.

To be honest, the evolution of chain bookstores ought to be an object lesson to the publishing industry. Bookstores were faced with a challenger and they made choices. The publishing industry is (to it’s knowledge) faced with no serious challengers and they do not have to make choices. Sometimes choices are made for them, however, and these publishers howl and gnash their teeth. And then they discover that using Google to index the contents of their books will actually sell more books. Institutions breed inertia. Change often means a different perspective and people get used to the perspectives they currently have.

But isn’t that what marketing is all about? In my understanding, it's about altering perceptions and introducing new information to the audience with an aim towards capturing their attention (and, eventually, their wallets). That’s one of the reasons why corporate marketing is such a funny concept.

One of the truly interesting things about the internet is that it is extremely easy to become a blogger that people want to read – all it takes is the ability to consistently present coherent, interesting information to another blogger that people already read. Most of these pre-established content providers are always on the lookout for new information to pass along to their audience. This is part and parcel of the symbiotic relationship. In this day and age of constant change and novelty, people want to know what’s going on and they have certain trusted sources that they go to for their information.

People like this used to be called critics. They still are, even though they tend to spend the majority of their time these days staring at their navels, deep in debate about the nature of slipstream in science fiction. But from time to time, they do occasionally talk about the books they are reading. And, if you pay attention, you will discover the most amazing books that nobody else is talking about.

And that is exactly what book marketing is trying to do: reach out to the people who pay attention to these kinds of things and tell them about the best of the new in the hopes that it will become word of mouth. The formalized process involves passing a list of titles to the established reviewing apparat and letting them take their pick. It is possible to guide their hands towards the right titles, ouija board style, but a good review is not always assured. Like everything else, investing in a well-placed review carries a heavy potential for diminishing returns.

The truth of the matter is that publishing companies cannot devote all of their advertising budget to effectively promoting every title that they produce. Choices have to be made and, when those choices are made, they are made with the full knowledge that those books that are underpromoted have a fair chance of outright failure. But those choices are also made with the full knowledge that a corporation is allowed to write off losses at the end of the year. So it balances out, really. As long as you are not the poor writer who ended up outside of the profit margin.

The other major source of revenue (and promotion) for publishers is the motion picture industry and newer transmedia alternatives. Books are always being turned into movies and the purchase of an option can be worth more to the author than the initial advance from the publisher. Even that isn’t a sure thing for the writer, though, and (again) the publishers can probably only expect to make a major profit in aggregate. Of course, for all I know, the translation of books to other media is the major money-maker for the publishing industry as a whole. But what does that say about the industry itself?

Friday, October 06, 2006


In the 1930’s, Albert Knopf reacted to the Depression-fueled decline in the number of American bookstores by proposing a radical new business model: he would allow bookstores to return unsold books for credit towards other titles from his company. Now, 70 plus years later, that business model is still going strong. In fact, it has become the industry standard – so much so that bookstores can afford to refuse to stock books from publishers who will not allow remaining books to be returned.

This remainders process is not the only concession that publishers have made. At present, it is not uncommon for a publisher to give a bookstore a 90 day grace period before paying invoices for shipments of new books. Combined with co-op – the term for the money paid by a publisher to bookstores in return for favorable placement of high-profile books, something I will discuss when I come to marketing – these business practices mean that the publishing industry has taken on the role of more-or-less subsidizing bookstores.

At one time, all of this made sense. Without a market to sell the product in, a publisher is just a guy surrounded by a lot of paper. The irony of the present situation is that bookstores are no longer the primary source of distribution; instead, they share an uneasy second place with online retailers like Amazon. (Just to be clear, it is not even an either/or situation. Hardcore book readers use both distribution methods as their moods suit them. For every book specifically recommended, located and bought online, there is another that was purchased after long, satisfying hours browsing the stacks.)

But publishers cannot really complain about the situation. After all, they have very carefully, lovingly and specifically placed their testicles in a vice and even given the handle a few twists before handing it over. With the amount of money spent out in the process of getting books to market, it is a wonder that publishers make any real profit – in fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the profit margin is largely aggregate, spread thinly across the entire catalog.

The boot to the head is that bookstores have started a policy of only ordering as many books as the author’s last title sold. So if an author had a single bad title, the orders on his next book will be just as dismal – regardless of how many copies he has sold over his lifetime. On the surface, this looks like an honest attempt by the bookstores to reduce the environmental waste caused by the inefficient remainders process. However, what this means for the poor authors who are subject to the whims of market forces is a relentless publish-well-or-perish mentality that will probably force a fair number of authors out of the industry forever (or until they can convince someone else to publish them under a new name).

Is there an easy solution to this situation? Probably not, otherwise someone would have suggested or implemented it by now. However, it is important to point out that even something as trivial as smaller print runs for first time authors would alleviate some of the waste and uncertainty. But how do you decide how many books to print for an author with no track record? To be honest, that’s mostly a marketing decision. Still, there are always options. Print on demand, for example.

For those that do not know, there are two predominant methods of book printing. The industry standard is offset printing, which is cheaper (on the front end) because it involves large print runs. However, because there are only educated guesses for the initial number of books to print, the remainders process can cut into the money saved by using a cheaper process. On the other hand, print on demand is slightly more expensive. The benefit with this process is that it allows the publisher to order more exact print runs, in accordance with real time orders and pre-sales. It also allows books to remain in print pretty much forever. And more books in print for longer periods mean that publishers will always have a steady trickle of revenue, even from books that were considered long past their profit-by date.

Of course, if it was that easy, publishers would have made the change already. Unfortunately, the printing companies who work for the book publishers have a vested interest in making sure that offset printing remains the industry standard. It doesn’t matter much to them if the remainders process is wasteful – either way, the publishers pay for the books to be printed.

In any case, it is surprisingly difficult to be both sympathetic and callous towards these three links in the supply chain. They are just trying to do business and protect their own interests. They are, after all, institutions and would like to continue in those roles for some time to come. In the end, inefficiencies do not matter as long as operations are profitable enough. And, right at the moment, they are.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Nature of the Beast

The most important thing to remember about the publishing industry is that it exists to make money. There are artistic concerns involved at some point as well, but when those concerns conflict with the profit margin, business will more often than not win out over art. Having said that, it is also important to remember that the publishing industry is an institution and the primary point of an institution is to resist change unless it is absolutely necessary. As we have already established that this institution is financial in nature, it is safe to say that unless there is an overwhelming economic reason to do so, the industry as a whole will probably not see the point of change for the sake of change.

While that is the nature of the industry, it is also important to determine whether every aspect of it makes sense from a process standpoint. The modern business aspects of publishing has grown and evolved over the course of the last century into something that is more or less profitable. From the viewpoint of that end-goal, it works – but is it efficient in reaching that goal?

In short, no. The industry is hampered by an outmoded distribution system that relies on consignment sales and a returns process that was developed during the Depression as an incentive to keep bookstores in business. The marketing process is hampered by the scattershot diversification of mainstream avenues for direct advertisement of new materials. And the selection process has devolved into an exercise in luck, networking and fine-tuning the first page of the manuscript into the perfect hook – none of which truly reflect the quality (or marketability) of the work in question.

Somewhat more ominously, the industry is no longer able to pay a living wage to the majority of its authors – the primary content providers that the rest of the process runs on. Somewhere between 2% and 4% of all published authors are able to make a full-time living on their work. Turned around, that means that the vast majority of published authors probably have a day job in addition to the monies coming in from their writing contracts.

Contrast that figure with the vast numbers of industry professionals – editors, publicists, proofreaders, agents, publishers, printers, etc – who are able to make a comfortable full-time living on other people’s work. Granted, even the best authors cannot produce more than one or two novels per year; but either the publishing business model needs to be fine-tuned or someone needs to mount a major publicity campaign to combat the societal archetype of authors immediately launching to fame and fortune upon publication. Perhaps if the perception of a solid economic incentive was removed from the equation, the only authors writing (and submitting) manuscripts will be those who have no other choice but to write.

Even more importantly, the publishing industry would be wise to work towards erasing the reputation that published authors are somehow better – more talented, even – than unpublished authors. In truth, there is nothing special that a lot of these gods-who-walk-as-men have really done except manage to gain the attention of someone who was in a position to publish them – there is a reason why these kinds of events are called “lucky breaks,” after all.