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Posts by Kevin
In the wake of Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath’s discussion of Eisler’s move to self publishing (turning down a $500,000 contract in the process), Dean Wesley Smith has posted some thoughts that he disagreed with their views on how to get help in those bits of publishing a writer wasn’t able to do, or didn’t want to do: things like covers, formatting, and uploading the books.
Today Dean, Joe, and Barry all posted a chat they had where they discussed these different opinions. Dean insisted that these services were “day labor” and that authors should resist paying a percent. Joe was adamant that they were worth a 15% fee to agents-turned-book-packagers who would take your book, edit it, slap on a cover, format it, and put it up online, managing the book and sending you a check when sales came in. Barry sort of took a middle road.
I am firmly on Dean’s side in this issue. There’s so many holes in the percentage idea that it would quickly turn into a nightmare, I think. Let me hit some of the major points here. More >
Yup – a brand new Ryan Blackwell story will be in the upcoming Twelve Worlds anthology, due out next month. I was also honored to have my story chosen to be the first in order, which puts it up in its entirety in the ebook sample. I’m thrilled to have participated in the project with such a dedicated group of writers, and look forward to doing more with them in the future.
Here’s the cover for the book:
It’s an awesome painting by artist Les Peterson, who donated his time and effort to the cause. Twelve Worlds will include over a dozen stories including science fiction, fantasy, contemporary/paranormal, romance, and more. You want vampires? We’ve got them. Space travel? Got that, too! Magical battles, strange cultures, mysteries to solve – the collection is quite a ride.
My story is a previously unpublished tale of Ryan Blackwell, the hero from my upcoming novels By Darkness Revealed and Ashes Ascendant (oops, did I just let slip that there’s now a sequel in the pipeline? yup!). In this story, Ryan discovers that someone is tapping magical energy from the ley line nexus at Northshield University. Ryan tries to find out who’s stealing the power, and why – but things quickly go from “bad” to “extremely explosive”!
Twelve Worlds will be up for sale on all major ebook sites in April for $2.99. All authors’ shares of the sales will be donated to a charity to promote literacy. More details on that, and on the anthology as a whole, as soon as I can release them.
I actually had second thoughts from the beginning, about posting my last entry – the bit about the House of Representatives voting yes on a bill which effectively shuts down NPR and PBS. It’s obviously a political issue, and those get…dicey. I write here about writing, about publishing, about science sometimes – but I’d rather steer clear of politics, in general.
I don’t feel like I can pull punches on the serious issues, though. And to me this bill, especially the PBS component, is serious. And writing related, in a way – because things which hurt literacy, hurt writing.
There’s really no replacement for PBS. No one broadcast channel which combines education for young children, exposure to arts, classical music, history, great literature, and a bucketload of other things into one experience. In a way, I see PBS as being similar to public libraries or museums. Those are institutions of learning which we’re happy to see the government support, in general, because of the value they provide to society. They offer opportunities for education. They offer chances to enrich one’s life with new experiences. And they do this for everyone, generally offering services regardless of age, or race, or wealth, or other factors. We have a wonderful array of public libraries in the US. Even if you never use one, the opportunity is there.
PBS is very similar, I think. It offers a chance, broadcast over televisions (which most people have) with or without cable TV (which many people do not have) for education. PBS works hard for literacy. Its programming encourages exploration of other cultures, and looks at the world around us. And there really isn’t another broadcast channel with that sort of mission. Nor do I think we’ll see one suddenly rise up if PBS goes away. Because there really isn’t an economic imperative to do so.
But then, there’s no economic imperative for libraries, either. They’re something we do because it helps encourage literacy and education for those who might otherwise not have so many opportunities in those things.
It’s sort of easy, those of us with computers, internet, cable TV, cell phones, and other connections to the world, to look at PBS and ask “why bother?” For folks without those things, I think it’s much easier to answer that question. Why bother? Because there isn’t an alternative available. Remove Big Bird, Sid, Super Why, and the other characters from the air, and you’ve done critical damage to the education of the most vulnerable youth in the US. Remove Nova, and you lose access to science. Remove Masterpiece, and you lose access to great literature in video form. American Masters talks about great music. Nature talks about the natural world. Other programs out there explore cultures, ours and that of other nations.
This is a tool for education of our people that is probably irreplaceable.
I’ve been there. I grew up looking forward longingly to each new visit RIF made to my school. I’ve used the public library because I didn’t have money for enough books to keep my voracious reading appetite sated. And I’ve watched PBS programming because it was a wonderful way to enlighten me and expand my world. Now, my kids watch PBS programming because I trust it to have value beyond keeping them busy for an hour. I watched those shows push my kids in learning their letters. How many four year olds do you know who can tell you the difference between omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores? Who can name every planet in order and talk about major features of that planet? Who know the entire set of simple machines, and how they operate, what they are used for?
Some can. My kids can, among them… And I watched PBS help my wife and I get them there.
It’s 300 million dollars a year to fund PBS. To me, that seems a small, insignificant investment compared to the great public good they accomplish. I’m hoping the Senate has the courage to say no to this bill.
The Republican sponsored budget bill passed the House this afternoon. Among other things, the bill shuts down all funding for National Public Radio and PBS television.
Now, OK – I know that NPR is something of the “Democrat” radio station, more or less the liberal answer to the ultra-right FOX news stations. I can understand that being a target under fire by the right while they have the power to do so. Undermine the left’s media, and you undermine the left’s ability to get their arguments out. Much like the concerted attacks on unions throughout the country, that’s sort of an expected strike. I don’t approve, mind you – but I do understand it.
But PBS? Seriously?
I can see it now – Republicans campaigning on the slogans “Death to Big Bird!” and “Elmo leads the way to wickedness!”
No, I can’t see that. Won’t see that. Because they know darned well they’d never survive the public backlash.
Folks, these shows are important. They provide education to kids whose families don’t have the thousands of dollars to spend on pre-school. There’s literally no good alternative station out there. Disney offers a variety of fairly standard shlop – entertaining, sure, but not educational.
Sesame Street is practically a national institution. It is that way because it has had value for generation after generation of viewers, kids who’ve learned their letters, learned to count, learned how to get along with others, learned about friendship, about music, about reading, about…well, about most of the more important things in life, I think. The show has stuck around through all these decades because it is one of the best TV programs ever produced, period.
The other shows on PBS have a much higher than usual focus on learning, too. Fun learning, sure – but shows like Super Readers, Dinosaur Train, and Sid the Science Kid are all about learning while kids are entertained. And they work.
I think that this attack on the education of our kids is inexcusable. I think it is shameful. And I hope the folks that voted for it get the treatment they deserve by their children, when they get home tonight.
Most of all, I hope our Senate and/or President have the sanity to kill this bill cold.
Macmillan’s president was recently quoted as saying ““The fear is I get one library card and never have to buy a book again.”
Random House has announced they will be limiting library loans of their ebooks to 26 loans, after which libraries will have to pay to license the books again.
Boys, you’re just not seeing the trees for the forest here.
OK, they’ve got a legitimate fear. Libraries around the country are at risk of closing. Most of them charge “out of the area” people for a library card. It’s not beyond the realm of reason that some enterprising librarian might convince town officials to buy a bunch of ebooks, then advertise heavily to get readers from all over the world buying library cards. Then channel those funds into still more ebooks, etc. A library that did this very well could end up with tens of millions of “card holders” from all over, each able to download books. Now, libraries are limited already: if a library loans a book, it’s unavailable until returned or until the loan period runs out. But even so, the idea of a central clearing house where readers can pay an annual or monthly fee to borrow books at will is a powerful one.
Think Netflixs, for books.
So Harper-Collins is limiting downloads. Macmillan seems to be all sorts of worried. It would not surprise me if more big publishers try to follow suit. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to fear: circle the wagons!
The Thing Is, They’re Wrong.
Libraries are a net gain for publishers. They always have been, and probably always will be. No, publishers don’t get paid for every loan of a book (in the USA, at least – in some countries, libraries pay small fees for each loan). But that doesn’t mean those books equate to lost revenue. Quite the opposite.
As this blogger points out, she estimates she reads about $1200 a year in books at her local library. She buys about $320-600 in books per year, as well. But those $1200 are not lost sales for publishers. Magically making the library go away would not give her an extra $1200 a year in disposable income. What it would do is remove $1200 a year in books from her hobby, changing the hobby from something she does all the time, every day, to something she does much less frequently. And we’re much more willing to spend hundreds of dollars per year on hobbies which we do regularly.
Libraries encourage people to buy more books, because they make books available as a day to day hobby for folks who otherwise would not be able to read regularly. Because libraries serve this crucial role in building the importance of reading to people all over the country, they have an extremely positive impact on book sales, and therefore on publishers’ bottom lines.
And Libraries Will Buy eBooks Anyway
Yes, Harper-Collins. Libraries will buy ebooks anyway. They just aren’t going to buy yours. They’re going to buy the books by some other publisher. We have about 1200 publishers in the USA right now. Be a darn shame if Harper-Collins books were simply not carried in any ebook library in the country. A shame for them, and especially for the writers they publish. Libraries help spread the word about books, help encourage new readers, help build readerships. For a lot of people, if a book is not in the local library, it might as well not exist. In our increasingly ebook dominated world, the same thing will be true – for ebooks.
And if you’re limiting loans to 26 times, and your competitors are not, guess whose books libraries are going to buy? And on whose they are going to say “pass”?
Short term thinking at its finest. My advice? Work with libraries to develop good, reliable, fair methods of ebook loan distribution that will maximize readers. More readers is a good thing. People who learn to love books at libraries buy books from bookstores. The digital distribution of books has the potential to catapult reading from a second-string hobby into one done by nearly everyone. It’s a wonderful future, and it’s going to happen with, or without Macmillan and Harper Collins. Whether they are involved, or get left behind, will be up to them.
I was chatting in Twitter the other day with Zoe Winters and Amanda Hocking about some new productivity tools Zoe has been trying out lately: Freedom and Focus Booster. So I figured I’d download them and give them a shot. Freedom is software which shuts down your internet completely for a time period you specify, up to eight hours. Focus Booster is a little device which encourages you to stay on task for a period of time you specify. I tried them both out. Of the two, I found Focus Booster to be the bigger help, so I thought I’d make some notes about it here.
You can download Focus Booster for free, and installation is simple. Once it’s installed, you launch the app, opening a long, straight bar on your screen. There’s a control to shrink the bar to a small box, or put it back to full length. Another control minimizes it to your ‘active programs’ section, and the X button shuts it down. Pretty standard controls. The i button opens another window, which allows you to set session length, set break length, play a ticking sound (hate it), play alarms at the end of sessions and breaks (like it), and toggle yes/no to keep the window in front (by default, it is, and I prefer this).
So what does it do?
You set your session length and your break length. The defaults are 25 minute sessions with five minute breaks. Then you press the start button with your mouse, and you’re off. The timer starts counting down your session. Your mission? Stay on task for the entire time you’ve set for yourself. No breaks. No surfing. No tweeting. No phone calls. Just do your work, stay on task, stay “focused”.
The display shows a bar gradually growing, starting in green then fading to yellow, orange, and finally red toward the end. When the timer stops, an alarm goes off, and the break period starts. When the break ends (however long you set it for), the program patiently waits for you to click start again to begin your next session.
I found this pretty useful and quite a bit of fun. The color change and bar growth lets you sort of keep track of time passing even in your peripheral vision, so after using it a bit you’re no longer really peeking at the timer every two minutes. And I found the challenge to “do as much as you can in 25 minutes” to be pretty powerful. It also meant that I could tell certain twin four year olds “when that bar reaches all the way across, Daddy can take a break with you”.
My first runs were a pair of 25 minute sessions, during which I wrote 1063 fresh words of fiction. Not an amazing pace for me (I can get 1500 an hour when really moving), but not bad considering I was working on something brand new, with new characters and setting to think about. I did two more sessions later, for a total of about 2400 words over 100 minutes.
I’m very happy with the program, and will be trying more experiments with it. I’m not sure it increases my per-hour productivity compared to when I’m “really going” on my own. But it does seem to be a useful tool to get some of those sprints in here and there during the day. Somehow, it seems mentally easier to fit in 25 minutes a few times a day, rather than just sitting down to type.
There’s some articles about the psych theory on the Focus Booster website which have interesting thoughts about how and why this process works for people. They make for interesting reading.
I’d encourage folks to give this a try for, well, just about whatever you want. Writers can certainly use it. But anyone who needs something to kick start their productive cycles might get some value from Focus Booster.
So after thinking about it for a while, brainstorming it, plotting out a bit of the storyline, and generally doing all the things I do beforelaunching a new project, I’ve officially put fingers to keyboard on the new series today. For those that missed my earlier posts on the subject, I have a theory: I think that ebooks are a beautiful medium for telling short, episodic stories. The concept is that each story is self contained as a single plot, but is connected to the other stories in the series, much like a set of TV episodes are connected. And since TV is woefully short on good science fiction right now, I thought I’d write some good episodic SF to pick up the slack and test my theory at the same time.
I’m only 1800 words into the story so far, but the day is still young. I expect to be about twice that far in by the end of the day (cross fingers). Which should put me about a fifth of the way into the first story, I think. I’m not really sure how long these stories are going to be, and I’m not locking myself into any specific length, but I am guessing this first one at least will be somewhere around twenty thousand words, give or take a few thousand. I expect the stories will generally fall around 10-25k words, in the novelette to novella range.
Now, I don’t know if episodes would work with longer chunks. I think writing gets more difficult and complex at an almost geometric rate as the work gets longer. More moving parts means more places things can go wrong. Or maybe it’s just that my natural storytelling length is shorter, who knows? =) But I think episodic content begs for rapid releases. No one wants to wait six months for the answer to the questions posed in the last episode of a TV show, and I think we’ll see a similar annoyance with long waits in episodic writing. Serialized stories worked in the pulp era because they were released rapidly, so I believe that will be essential today as well.
Back to work!
My wife and I have three kids – the eldest are twin girls, four years old. And they’ve decided to take it upon themselves to begin writing books. One of them just finished her book today. It’s four regular sheets of copier paper front and back, with art on the top third and writing on the rest. We had to help her spell a number of the words, but the story itself was completely hers, every word of it from her brain.
She took the completed pages, borrowed a roll of tape, and taped the pages together. Then she taped two pieces of black construction paper together as a cover, adding cover art on both front and back covers, and taped the pages into the cover.
The result is actually a surprisingly good binding! =)
Her story is a tale about a girl, a unicorn, and a butterfly on a short adventure together. It’s a short story. Her handwriting is pretty typical for a four year old, and she’s just begun grasping the concept of what a period is. But it’s her story – her book – and it’s now sitting on the kids’ bookshelf with their other books. She’s intensely proud of her effort, and so am I.
Jim Hines just wrote an interesting article the other day regarding Amanda Hocking’s success and what it means for other people. He’s speaking about her in a fairly cautious manner, though – reminding folks that she’s an outlier, and probably not indicative of what any one writer will be able to accomplish any more than say, Stephen King or J.K. Rowlings is predictive of average success in traditional publishing.
As I mentioned in my own post on the subject, “Expectations of Success”, I completely agree. Outliers are indicative of the maximum current potential of success in a given field, and are not really useful in terms of business planning for one’s own career. Jim and I differ a bit in terms of what we think one can expect for success levels, with work and effort, but we both completely agree that the work and effort are going to be the key factor.
Anyway, it’s a good article, with a nice comments thread. Check it out. ;)
For a book published *right now*, today, probably the answer is yes. Despite the fact that contracts are getting worse, and regaining rights on a contracted book today is very hard (often impossible), right now publishers still have exclusive access to big bookstores. Big Bookstores (and smaller ones) are still a very large percent of all book sales, so *right now* its still probably OK to take a loss in longterm income in exchange for the benefits of immediate visibility being in a bookstore gives your other, self published books.
The problem is, that’s quite possibly not true anymore for a book you *submit* today. It takes 12-24 months from contract to being in print. And maybe a year or more to get a contract. That’s 2-3 years (or more). A lot can happen in that time.
Borders is closing a bunch of their stores, and even odds might not exist anymore by the end of the year. B&N closed a net 7% of their stores last year, and is expected to close even more this year. The big bookstore chains are failing. Some folks are talking about ebooks hitting 50% of the market *this year* – which would simply kill the big bookstores dead, flat out. B&N would survive as an online store in bankruptcy, and Borders would flatline. It’s almost certain ebooks will hit 25% this year, which will cause a lot of bookstores to close AND cause a number of bankruptcies among publishers.
What happens to your book if your publisher goes bankrupt? They won’t all go under, but some publishing houses almost certainly will over the next two years. If you’re unlucky enough to have your book in production at a house when it goes into bankruptcy, then your book will be tied up in those proceedings for years more, before you’re able to shop it around all over again.
What do publishers offer, once the big bookstore chains are gone in two years or less? Editing, which writers can hire out. Covers, which writers can hire out. Formatting, which writers can hire out. Um…
Yeah, that’s about it.
A good book prep company costs you about $1000 to put a pro cover on a book and format it for you. On the cheap you can get that done for about $300, or less if you format yourself. Editing is expensive, with copy editing on a novel ranging from $250-$1000, and content editing being $2k+. But even if you go full out, you’re looking at maybe $3-4k for production costs per book – to produce something every bit as good as any large publisher can make today. So the math is easy, then.
And it does not favor the publisher.
All of this means that publishers are going to have to reinvent themselves in the coming years. Writers can get editing, formats, and covers anywhere, and bookstore distribution will no longer be a big factor soon. So – what can they offer? I think we’ll see publishers beginning to try to brand themselves. Something like what companies like Baen and Harlequin already have. Harlequin readers know what they are getting from a book. Many of them care less about the writer than about the label, knowing that a Harlequin book is probably going to be something they like. Baen readers are similar in SF. Baen publishes a specific flavor and style of science fiction, and readers know pretty much that if they like one Baen book, they will most likely like the next one too. Baen and Harlequin have build brands around their names, and if pushed a bit more this would add additional value.
I think publishers will be forced to move to 50% of net contracts for ebooks. Probably this year or next, we’ll see that become the norm. Already, most small presses are doing this, and as bookstores fade small presses are going to have a lot of other advantages over large presses (smaller staffs, less overhead, more nimble/faster movement of books, less hide-bound). I strongly suspect that some of the more pro small presses today will be large presses in five years.
Beyond that, I really don’t know. I know that publishers have some wonderful, creative people working for them. And I’m sure their brains are working harder on these issues than mine is. They’ll come up with ideas. Some will work, some won’t. The ones whose ideas work will still be in business three years from now.
Digital distribution of books *has* disintermediated consumer book publishers. It’s happened. It’s done. What we’re seeing now is the scramble as people a) realize that and b) figure out what they are going to do about it