Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , , ,
Irreconcilable Differences, anyone?
If you're an author with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing program (and in some cases, even if you aren't), you're probably aware of the increasingly ridiculous fight dragging on between Amazon and publisher Hachette over contract terms. You probably also received a very strange email from the "Amazon Books Team" this morning. You can read it here, if you like. For accompanying music, I recommend Orff's O Fortuna. 

Okay, now that you're mostly caught up, let's just get down to the nitty gritty. I have no interest in regurgitating excerpts of the communique and "fisking" it paragraph by paragraph. A lot of great bloggers have done that already. Instead, I'm going to come at this purely from the angle of the small-time, nobody KDP author that Amazon was directly addressing and hoping to recruit.

Dear Amazon,

First off, I want to thank you for giving me space in your digital bookstore over the years. It is your platform that allowed me to grow a readership that caught the attention of my current publisher and gave me the confidence to elevate my career to the next level. After signing with a big shot agent last month, I've never felt more optimistic about my future as a writer, and it all started with you. I have sung your praises a lot over the years as a business partner who offered fair terms to author-publishers looking to get a leg up and push their books out into the world. Because of the ease of your program and the ability for people to sell through the biggest ebook marketplace in the world, stars were born, and indie books had serious footing on bestseller lists right alongside traditionally published authors. And through this whole battle with Hachette, I have been careful not to go "all in" with Hachette, and I have given you concessions on certain matters. For instance, I agree that $14.99 is too much for ebooks. I know I don't pay that much as a consumer. I just haven't been in agreement with your particular brand of arm twisting, which has really only hurt authors, even when you've been assuring them you're on their side. I also find your approach of pitting $9.99 against $14.99 disingenuous, when there are several more price points than that, which you have refused to elaborate on.

But this morning, after sifting through your over-wrought and downright bizarre screed, I have come to the conclusion that you have crossed the line. In fact, I find your stance to be an insult to the very same KDP authors you're attempting to recruit to sling mud for you.

Right off the bat, I find the Orwell and Hitler/WWII parallels to be tasteless and beyond the pale, as well as insulting to the actual victims of oppressive regimes, as I can assure you that Hachette and other traditionally published authors are not. Your hyperbolic language has only served to make you look desperate and highly manipulative. Second, as a KDP author, I consider myself part of the value segment of your ebook market. Most of us have been shoehorned into the $2.99-$4.99 price point segment for years now, and we've found a way to thrive there. That's our "turf," if you will. So why would I fight harder to make ebooks from traditional publishers cheaper when it would only lower the perceived value of my books? You want to cap at $9.99, but chances are likely that many of those books will actually sell for $7.99 or possibly less. This does ME no favors. In fact, we wind up getting priced right out of existence. Your attempt to recruit me in your battle to lower the prices of Big 5 ebooks is diametrically opposed to my best interests as a KDP author. Their higher prices make MY rock bottom prices look more appealing. When a reader has a choice between a $4.99 book from a nobody indie or a $7.99 book from a traditionally-published bestseller, guess who's going to have to lower their prices back down to the $.99 and $1.99 shit pit of oblivion to stay competitive? That's right, me.

That you would enlist me and others like me as a foot soldier in this fight without acknowledging that only tells me what little you think of KDP authors. Of course, your KDP Select program already made that more than evident. Requiring us to give you exclusive rights to sell our work in exchange for a few choice perks has always been disingenuous. This was only made worse when, upon the release of Kindle Unlimited, we learned that certain high-tier authors were offered far better terms than we unwashed KDP peons. While they were getting 60% and no requirements for exclusivity, we were relegated to a cut of a pre-determined honeypot that you continue to sweeten with zeroes in the hopes we wouldn't notice we were being fucked by the mathematics.

And NOW you want us to rise up and fight your battle with Hachette for you? Sorry, Amazon, but I'm going to have to sit this one out. While I think Hachette has to provide better terms for their authors, I cannot sit idly by and pretend that what you are doing is even remotely about the authors. In fact, neither of you appear to give much of a fuck about the authors getting trampled under your boot treads, but it seems after this little email stunt of yours, the mask has come off, your PR illusion shattered. This dispute belongs to you, not me. I can handle being a nobody. I've long adjusted my appetite to accept the crumbs that fall from the tables of royalty in every single facet of my life. But in this particular fight, I refuse to be your bitch.


Allison M. Dickson

P.S. To all the authors who are still confused as to what to do next, I can only offer this little nugget of wisdom: spread your work far and wide. Keep the alternatives alive. Neither Amazon nor Hachette is your bestie, but keeping our options varied is the only tonic we have to fight against monopolistic tendencies of companies that have grown far too big to fail. Furthermore, I very much appreciated James Patterson's appeal to Jeff Bezos's better angels in this article yesterday. Of course, as evidenced by today's weird stunt, I don't think Bezos is listening.
There's money in books, I tell you!
I have had a number of people over the years ask me the best option for purchasing my work, in terms of how it best benefits me. First off, I love getting this question. It means a lot when people want to know how their purchases directly affect those involved in the transaction, and it also means a lot when people want to purchase in such a way that best benefits me, whether that's buying the print or the digital copy, or getting it from specific retailers, buying direct, etc.

The answer is a little complicated, though, so I decided to bring it over here in the hopes that I can expound on various points of purchase, and what they might mean to a small-time author such as myself.

I want to be clear upfront about one important thing, though. If you're buying any book of mine, regardless of where you bought it, I am first and foremost grateful. I was taught never to look a gift horse in the mouth. But if you are interested in seeing how your dollar can best be put to use to benefit artists you care about, I'll break it down below with a few of the most common methods of acquiring books, and how those methods affect an author's bottom line. WARNING: SOME MATH MAY BE INVOLVED

1. Buying Direct: Publishers, Payhip, and Conventions

By far the most profitable method of sales for any author is when we can cut out all or at least a portion of the middle man by having you buy directly from the source. Most publishers have online stores for just this reason, and it's always our hope that you will take advantage of it when looking to support your favorite authors. Direct sales are hugely beneficial to authors and publishers for a couple reasons. First, we are paid a percentage of net proceeds, which is whatever the publisher gets after the retailer takes its cut.

Here's how it works with print books. Publisher releases a book with a $12.99 cover price. Amazon (or Barnes & Noble or whomever) stocks it, but they get a wholesale discount of 55% (that's industry standard, not just Amazon), leaving the publisher to make a little less than $5.85 on the sale. The publisher's proceeds might be less than that if they're also giving a distributor a cut. For the sake of argument and easy math (and because I can't really divulge the terms of my contract), let's say I make 20% net monies on the sale of a $2.99 print book. That means when you buy a print book of mine from Amazon or any other bookstore for that matter, I get $1.17 per sale.

But when you buy direct from the publisher at the cover price, my net proceeds come directly from that, so 20% on a $12.99 direct sale nets me $2.50. Of course, you will pay a little more for your book when doing it this way, and you'll likely have to pay shipping too. But if your concern is ensuring the author and the publisher make the most money from a sale, that's the best way to do it.

It's not all that different in self-publishing, really. With Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer, I make $1.86 when you purchase a paperback from Amazon for $7.99. However, whenever you buy that same book direct from Createspace, I make $3.50. Again, because you're basically buying direct (in this case from the printer), which cuts out the retail middle man, the share I make is much larger. Unfortunately, it's just a little less convenient for the buyer.

Ebooks are a little different, but the pay structure is similar. When I price an ebook at $2.99 or above, Amazon keeps 30% of each sale, leaving me (or the publisher) with 70%. On my indie published stuff, I get to keep the whole 70%. With my traditionally published stuff, I make a percentage of 70%. If something is priced below $2.99, I make 35% on each sale. So when you download a Kindle short from me for $.99, I make $.35.

I have recently opened up a direct ebook sales portal through Payhip. When you buy your Kindle or Epub files from me rather than from Amazon, Apple, Nook, etc, you are ensuring I get paid immediately and that I make more money on the sale. Now, Payhip takes 5%, and PayPal takes 2.9% + $.30, but even accounting for all that annoying ass math, I make $.62 on a one dollar short, nearly DOUBLE the money that I make selling that same book through Amazon. So if you're interested in purchasing my indie work and want to make sure you're giving me the most financial support while doing so, Payhip is definitely the place to go for ebooks. With traditionally published stuff like Strings, options have been more limited. Amazon it is. But it doesn't hurt to see if other publishers have direct ebook sales. Most of them do, and the benefits are the same. Provided you don't mind manually moving your ebook files onto your device, it's a good way to support your favorite authors.

Finally, when I have a table at an event, for instance, like Gem City Comic Con or any similar show, and you hand me dollar bills in exchange for my books, that is like giving an author's (typically near-empty) bank account a cash transfusion. Of course, it isn't all profit. Expenses are incurred. Most times we have to pay for the table, and prices can vary anywhere from $25 all the way into the hundreds depending on the size of the event. Copies of Colt Coltrane and the Louts Killer run me just under $3 a pop to print, and I sell them for $6 at the events. I could probably sell them for the same $8 I do on Amazon, but I'm a firm believer in pricing things to sell when you're dealing in person, and they sell very nicely at $6. My traditionally published stuff also has to be purchased at cost from the publisher. If not that, then a deal is usually made ahead of time to ensure the publisher gets their cut of the action. But I still make more money on those sales than I do selling them through a retailer, and generally when I take the whole show into account, expenses and all, I almost always have a profit.

The best part is walking out of the event with money in hand. Most writers, who don't usually get paid more frequently than once a month (or sometimes only a couple times a year), REALLY appreciate the concept of immediate money, so if you go to a trade show or a book signing and purchase a book directly from the author, trust me . . . we LOVE you for it.

2. Print vs Ebook: What Pays Authors More?

Honestly, there is no easy answer to this, because it really depends on an author's contract. As the Amazon-Hachette dispute has shown us, ebook royalties vary widely among publishers, and they're not always so great. Indie presses and other smaller publishers seem to pay a much more generous ebook royalty than what I've seen some of my more mainstream author friends making.

But for ME personally, given the way my contract is structured (again, I can't divulge exact details, sorry), the difference between you buying a Kindle copy of Strings or a print copy from Amazon are scant enough that I don't really raise much of an eyebrow. My percentage of the publisher's 70% nearly matches my average print royalty.

Now, let's jump to self-published stuff. With Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer, when you buy the print book from Amazon for $7.99, I make $1.86. Right now, the book is priced at $7.19, but my cut is still based on the $7.99 price. For the ebook, I make 70% of $2.99, so a little over $2. I make a tad more on the ebook sale than I do on the print, but it's negligible. If you're buying from Amazon, buy it however you like, because I'm making about the same money either way.

Again, this could be VERY different for other authors. Folks published with the Big 5 likely make more money on print sales than ebooks, but that's mostly because Big 5 still banks a huge chunk of their business model on print books. Small press publishers, on the other hand, aren't as heavily invested in the print model, and their ships are smaller and more efficient and they don't tend to sell as many copies as the big guys, so their ebook terms are generally much friendlier. In other words, you'll have to ask each author what's most beneficial for them.

That being said, buying print books from local bookstores--big and small--supports a very vital and important ecosystem. The author might not make the most money from these sales, but you're helping to keep our industry alive by maintaining a varied and thriving marketplace for books. These stores also add enrichment to communities and they keep people who are passionate about books employed. If you can't always buy locally, consider alternating your purchases between online and brick and mortar.

3.  Used Books and Libraries

Let's just be upfront: authors don't make money when you buy used books or borrow from the library. However, since libraries often purchase the books they stock, they do usually make money for that, and given the thousands upon thousands of libraries in the country, and the fact that they could buy anywhere from one to a dozen copies of a single title (not to mention ebook licenses), there is plenty of money to be made from libraries in the outset, even if people wind up borrowing those books. That being said, the benefit of used books and libraries is more indirect. This is how large segments of the population discover new talent. If someone takes a risk on a new author through a used or borrowed book, they are much more likely to go out and buy their other books new. Barring that, they might tell someone about that author and that person may go out and buy this author's books. Word of mouth is itself a currency, and it adds up over time. So authors diss libraries and used books at their peril. And really, if you're in the business of peddling books, the last thing you should be doing is attempting to stifle a culture of literacy, and that's what you do when you wish to prevent people of limited means from obtaining reading material.

That being said, if you are a regular visitor of libraries and used bookstores, my hope is that you will do a little bit to pay it forward. Talk about the books you've read. And post reviews on sites like Amazon and GoodReads. Reviews are also currency. The more reviews authors have, the more visible our books become, the more promotional opportunities we can take advantage of, which in turn helps us to sell more books. I can't stress this enough: REVIEWS ARE VITAL. Even if you didn't purchase on Amazon, you can still review there. The same goes for you pirates out there downloading torrents online. You might not give us your money, but if you could take five minutes and spread the word about that which you could not buy, you would be doing the author a world of good.
This makes me money!
To sum up all this, the best way you can help an author make the most money is first to buy their books. That's obvious. And if you can buy their books, try to buy direct through the publisher, the author, the printer, or at a book event or trade show of some kind. If you are going to buy through a retailer, consider buying them from a physical bookstore. If that's not possible and you find Amazon's lower prices hard to resist, again, a writer will be grateful for the sale, and since books are a volume business and most people are buying from Amazon anyway, the increased sales often make up for the deficits in individual income.

Finally, in lieu of purchasing, spread the word about it. Recommend the author's work to a friend. You might not be participating in the system with your money, but you can still participate. You can still enrich the livelihoods of the authors you love, and for all the efforts you have made to do that, we appreciate it.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , ,
People have asked what my writing specialty is. Not specifically what is my genre (though I do get that question a lot), but more like what's my "thing?" What do I bring to the table that makes my work unique?

Folks in the habit of throwing around writing advice will often say that writing what you know is a bad or outdated tip, but the thing is, we all do it. Sure, sticking only to what you know is a bad way to challenge yourself or stretch your creative muscles, but I think we all have to start from a place of intimate knowledge, be it about a particular subject the characters are exploring, the settings in which they live, or at the very least a mindset they're battling (be it addiction, OCD, bipolar, grief, or crushing guilt). The personal knowledge we have that we share through our stories creates a sort of empathy between the author and the characters. That empathy is like the salt in your stew. If it's missing, the story feels incomplete, bland on the tongue, forgettable.

A lot of fiction writers come to the table with a certain amount of expertise under their belts. They may be cops, lawyers, or other government employees, so they they can showcase their knowledge of procedures and lingo, the inner-workings of government agencies, or how crimes are investigated and solved. Sometimes fiction writers have crossed over from the world of journalism, bringing their journalistic sensibilities along with them in the form of intrepid characters who might also be journalists themselves. Or at the very least, they will often write in a style that befits their training: tight stories that get quickly to the point and don't fuss with extraneous details. And it's the same with nearly all professions. If you're a soldier, you might not write about soldiers, but you might write LIKE one.

In other words, a writer will either explicitly or implicitly use their knowledge to demonstrate "this thing they keenly understand, and therefore you should keenly understand it too" and that is often what sets their work apart from others.

I, personally, am an expert in pretty much nothing. You will very likely never see a non-fiction work from me (apart from the blatherings you find on this blog), unless it's creative non-fiction. And I doubt I'm interesting enough to even pull that off. I have four collective years of college under my belt, but no degree to show for it. A lot of what I know comes from years of observation and simple research, or interacting with experts until I feel like I can fake it on the page. I've read more books and watched more movies than I can count, and I've developed love affairs with certain subjects and causes, but not a lot of it has made it into my writing. For instance, I love cooking and exploring the world of food, but I have no interest in writing about a chef. The idea of using any technical knowledge I might possess to tell a story just doesn't interest me for some reason.

What I do know, however, is people, and particularly how they behave in relation to one another. I believe we are never the full picture of what others see. There is always a drawn curtain hiding a secret self from the rest of the world. Sometimes even we don't fully know or understand our secret selves, and the process of discovering who that person is can make one hell of a story.

Our secret selves self may engage in thoughts and behaviors that don't adhere to the norms societies have constructed in order to feel safe. That's not to say I think we're all doing or thinking bad things, but I think we are often doing or thinking INTERESTING things. The people you pass on the street every day, the ones who fill your drinks or scan your groceries or patrol the streets to keep you safe -- all of those people live lives that you don't see, and within those lives, the people who know them best don't know them completely. Every single one of us has secrets we would rather die before sharing with a complete stranger, those things that for whatever reason our brains sometimes like to remind us of so we can feel bad for a little while.

Sometimes, when I'm sitting in a public place, like a mall or a restaurant, I find myself trying to tunnel into the lives of my fellow humans, to imagine their struggles and triumphs, their dirty little secrets.

And maybe they're completely mundane things, at least to them, but they all have stories unique to themselves, about the things they've seen and the people they've met that shaped who they are, for better or worse. Every single one of them. Every single one of US. And it's in that very realization where I find I'm taking the pulse of something infinite. People say there is nothing new under the sun, that there are only so many ideas out there that we use over and over again. That may be true to a point, especially when we're talking about HOW we tell these stories . . . but the stories themselves are forever unique like grains of sand.
I'm not a psychologist or a sociologist or any other "ist." I don't know much about planes or trains or automobiles. I've never been to war. Hell, I haven't even been out of this country yet. But I was gifted with a curious sponge of a mind with an antenna that tunes into the frequencies of certain people, to see them as they actually are, behind the veneers and the fancy window dressing. The marriages people keep up for appearances, but are actually falling apart behind closed doors, the sad old men filled with regrets that no one will understand, the desperation of someone longing to be free of the chains holding them back, the capering, mean little demons that live in us all, whether we acknowledge them or not. I seek them out. I sidle up next to them on the park bench, and I ask them questions and gain their trust so that they let me in.

And then I write down every ugly little thing I see, using vivid words so that you may see them too, and then I find an artful way to ask if this ugly thing looks a little like the ugly thing living inside of you, inside us all. And if you're being at least a little honest with yourself, you might admit that yeah, maybe. Just a little. But no one else has to know. It's a secret you've confided to the imaginary people living in the pages. And that's okay. I think that's one very fundamental function of art in general. We share our secrets with you, and you quietly pass yours to us.

That's my "thing." That's my specialty. What's yours?
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , , , ,

I have been such a busy little bee over the last 24 hours, abandoning exercise and grocery buying obligations, eating poorly, not leaving my pajamas. How is that any different than normal, you ask? Well, I've been GETTIN SHIT DONE, man! At least in the publishing sense. Dirty dishes, hungry kids, and body odor are nothing in the face of monumentally overdue indie-pub spring cleaning and a rare hypomanic spell that somehow gives me the power to work nearly 17 hours straight without a drop of caffeine.

I think it all started when I opted to take another month-long hiatus from Facebook, which is something I think I will be doing quarterly from now on, because there is some kind of magic involved when I leave that place and devote that reclaimed time to my work, as well as interacting more on Twitter. I become magically more productive and for whatever reason, I sold more books in one day yesterday than I had the entire month previous. What mad sorcery is this?!

Anyway, for the last six months or so, I've been procrastinating on all my miscellaneous indie publishing chores. My little online marketplace had become downright stale and was due for a major sprucing up. Front matter was out of date, books needed prepping for wide distribution, there are a few covers (and one title) I've been fundamentally unhappy with, etc. So here's what I've been doing, all in list form. I'll start with the most important thing:

1. "Dust" Gets a Makeover

It's been five years since I completed the story (though four years since its first publication), and in that time, "Dust" has been my most widely downloaded and read title. It's the story that has garnered the most reader mail, and the one I think people most clamor about making into a novel or a movie. When it was a regular Kindle freebie, it also brought the awesome Vincent Hobbes into my life, and from there STRINGS and THE LAST SUPPER came into existence. And from those things birthed KUDZU, which gave way to my recent signing with an agent. You see where I'm going with this? If life really is a twisted and complex domino run, Dust is the first one that tipped. So this story is very very special to me. While I failed to expand it into a novel, I did give it a new cover and 6000 more words (which would effectively make it a novelette). The plot is the same, but I think the story itself is richer, and it scratches a lot of itches I've always had about the original story. I hope it does the same for all of you, too.

I replaced the existing product with the new book file and I informed Amazon customer service of the change, in the hopes that they would push that updated file out to the thousands of people who already own it. Unfortunately, they informed me that this is not possible, because the update was not to fix quality issues and formatting errors. To that end, I will be running a freebie promotion on it this weekend, July 25th and 26th. Also, Amazon provided me with a number that current owners can call that will allow them to receive the updated book: U.S. and Canada: 1-866-216-1072

This is ultimately the best I can do in this situation until Amazon automates this process, which they say they are currently working on doing. Note: the original version will remain in the At the End of Things collection.

2. Phantasmic Flashes becomes The Four Phantasms

It's a minor change to a flash fiction collection that doesn't get all that much play, but it was important to me to make the change, because I'm not sure it was a very accessible and searchable title. I'm all about revising history lately, it seems. Well, that's one particular beauty of author publication. I can change shit whenever I want! There aren't any amendments to the actual stories, but I'm hoping the refreshed title will help it reach more people, because I really am proud of these little babies.

3. Distribution Wider Than My Ass.
Yesterday, I signed up for an account with Draft2Digital. They are an alternative to Smashwords in that they convert your ebooks and distribute them out to other sales channels, like Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc. Only, their user interface is better in several ways. There is no pesky style guide to follow. They can generate front matter, teasers, table of contents, and other things in your books automatically. They also pay monthly, claim to have faster sales reporting, AND they do CreateSpace distribution! Essentially they're everything I've been looking for in an ebook distribution service. I have pre-loaded my currently available Kindle books onto D2D, and expect to start releasing them in August. The first and largest batch containing Wicked Brew, Dust, Agnes Winters, Vermin, and Four Phantasms will go out on August 4th. Then I have two othes on the 5th and 6th. Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer will go out on the 15th.  Consumption, because it's newest, won't be freed from Amazon's clutches until October 3rd.

4. I'm Not Just Hip. I'm PAYhip!

Also starting next month, I will be embarking on something COMPLETELY different: direct sales. If you look at the top menu bar of my site, you'll see a Buy My Stories link. Right now, there is only one story up there, but once distribution goes wide, you'll see a whole lot more. I have always wanted to offer this option to people, but the available tools were a little unrefined, and I had no urge to build an e-commerce site. Over time, enterprising individuals have devised solutions to make direct ebook sales a lot easier. Ganxy is one option, but I found their platform to be half-baked to downright clunky. Payhip seems to be the best I have encountered to date. The interface is slick as hell and very clean. Also, unlike other services I've seen, every time you purchase a book direct from me, the monies are deposited immediately to my PayPal account. I don't have to wait a month or more for a deposit, and the 5% cut these guys take off the top is more than fair. While I plan to distribute my current Kindle offerings through Draft2Digital, I will be offering a lot more on my Payhip site. All my individual shorts will be available there for folks who want just to pick and choose the stories they want, and I plan to make some other special bundles as well as release other exclusive content there that you won't be able to get anywhere else. EPUB, MOBI and PDF file formats will also be available.

5. And if All that's Not Enough . . . A New Novel!

After signing with my agent, the impetus to get the next suspense book off the ground became a lot stronger. To that end, I'm nurturing a little seedling of a novel called "A Marriage of Convenience," which I can only say right now is like American Beauty meets Vertigo. It's in the very early stages (only about 5000 words in so far), but I'm liking where it's heading, particularly because the framework I've built around the story leaves room for a series that I'm tentatively calling The Hartnell Files. We have a weary Ohio sheriff from a rural county (local trivia -- it's roughly based on the Piqua area) named Tom Hartnell, a former Chicago cop with a story of his own. He moved to the country to escape the craziness of the city, but as we'll see in this book and each one that follows, the weird and awful tendencies of human nature have followed him. While he's not actively solving the cases, he gets to bear witness to several bizarre confessions in his tiny interrogation room, and they will tie in somehow to his overall character arc. We'll learn more and more about Hartnell as we go, and he'll provide a sense of companionship for the reader, which is important. So he's basically the "hero" even though he's more of a passive observer. At least for now.
About two years ago, after becoming fed up with inconsistent distribution, unresponsive customer service, and a huge lag in sales reporting, I left Smashwords in a huff and took all my toys with me. Then, because at that time there didn't seem to be much by way of alternatives (other than dealing directly with individual retailers, which is a bigger headache in its own way), I pushed all my chips into the Amazon pot and decided to just hang back for a bit and see what happened. For a while, it was nice only having to deal with one retailer and one set of payment reports, and I was making roughly the same amount of money, but with a lot less of the headache. But I didn't realize then that I was on a downward trend, and now I'm more or less seeing the bottom, so it's time to talk about it.

On KDP Select Losing Its Luster
Amazon Makes an Offer You Can't Refuse
Smelling potential disaster earlier this year, I ventured back over to Smashwords in March with one of my free and clear short story titles ("Vermin") in an attempt to see if things had changed much. I also uploaded my latest Colt Coltrane short story. Aside from a marginally improved user interface, it was same old same old. On any given day, my books would be listed as available in all distribution channels, only to not appear in search results in the actual stores. There was no rhyme or reason for this. No explanation. And of course, sales reporting data appeared to be as laggy as always. I took down the Colt story, but left Vermin up there as a test case. I'll get back to that in a second.

Disenchanted as ever, I dug in my heels with Amazon's KDP Select program for another 90 day cycle as I tried to figure out what to do next. Might as well, right? I mean, with KDP Select, at least I get to do some free promotional days and maybe a Countdown Deal or two. I feel a bit like an addict trying to justify why drugs are so damn awesome, but Amazon had always been decent to me. I mean, I get good sales reporting data that's as close to real time as one can get in this business. They pay every month instead of quarterly, and they even removed that pesky $10 minimum threshold so even the pennies I make from the overseas stores come to me every month. Also, if I've ever had a problem, their customer service has always been timely and helpful.

But the truth is Amazon likes to position itself as the kindly and benevolent godfather that's doing right by you and looking out for you, even as he's whacking your family members in dark alleyways and building an empire with your own blood and sweat. It's hard to hate Amazon, even when you should at least be cautious, or when things start to smell a little off, like maybe they've put a decapitated horse head in your bed.

It used to be if you did really well on a freebie day, there would be a nice little sales bounce afterward. Those days have since passed. I can't remember the last time I had a sizable post-freebie bounce. Hell, I can't remember the last time I had any bounce at all, even after a day where I had nearly a thousand downloads and topped the free charts. It's difficult to put my finger on what has happened over the last six months or so, but making money via Amazon has been like squeezing blood out of bone. Sometimes it feels like the ranking gods are flogging me, or like they've decreased the visibility of my books on the site, but it's not like I can verify that. I also realize I've played a part in this. I shouldn't have stayed exclusive for so long, for one thing. For another, I'm questioning whether it was wise to put all my work into collections while removing the availability of more individual downloads. But I'm also a firm believer that for the most part, you get out of self-publishing exactly what you put into it, and in my drive to finish a new novel and acquire an agent, I have let my indie work slide a bit. I haven't had many releases at all this year, and I haven't promoted much either.

But the slide was happening even before the turn of the new year, and around January, I was pretty sure the luster was wearing off. I intended to start distributing wide again in April, but then due to a snafu on my part, I wasn't able to do so. While all my PUBLISHED work was free and clear, I had forgotten to uncheck the "renew" boxes on the individual short stories in my collections that I had since unpublished. Even in that case, Amazon still holds you to the terms of exclusivity (again, publisher beware, read the fine print). I could have risked violating that, but I didn't want to enter a potential kerfuffle with Amazon. So I unchecked those boxes and then reupped with my other titles for another three month term so that everything would be coming free around the same time in August. With KDP Select, it feels like you're living your life in three month blocks of time. Mini prison sentences. Hopefully my parole will not be delayed by another technicality next month.

But What About Kindle Unlimited?

So I give you everything, and I get pretty much nothing? Where do I sign?!
It looks okay in some ways. For traditionally published authors that are part of the program, they're making similar royalties per download based on the average value of their book for that given month, and they're not locked into exclusivity requirements. However, I'm not entirely thrilled with the way Amazon has set it up for KDP members, as yet another supposed fringe benefit to letting Amazon (and only Amazon) be your kindly godfather. It will likely serve as only a pipe dream for most self-published and small press authors. I can almost hear the siren call now . . . "Stay with us exclusively, and we'll make your book available FREE for thousands and thousands of subscribers, and you'll still make money. Ain't it great?"

No, actually, it really ain't. While Amazon is branding it as another revenue stream, you'll probably be lucky to get five subscription downloads a month, same as the Amazon Prime Lending Library. Is that worth giving Amazon full exclusivity? No, sorry. Most of the readers signing onto this KU program will be doing it for free access to the big names Amazon is using to rope them in. They won't automatically be sniffing out self-published or small press indie authors that had to hand over their only set of keys for the opportunity. But there you will be, another temporarily embarrassed bestselling author, acting against your own best interests, letting Amazon hold the ropes to your work in the off-chance it'll really pay off this time.

Chances are overwhelming that it won't. And like other authors have pointed out (check out this blog post over at Terrible Minds), you're not getting paid based on the value of your book like the traditionally published authors. You're making a percentage of a pot of money that Amazon is setting aside, just like with the Lending Library. Most times, you're topping out at about $2 per download. That's great if you're selling books below $2.99. But anything above that, and you're losing money on the sale. That's not a great deal. And if people start using Kindle Unlimited as their standard for acquiring new books, they will likely be buying fewer of them outright, which means you can say goodbye to your actual paid royalties. You'll be making less money on each sale indefinitely. You know how a lot of musicians hate streaming services like Spotify? It's for similar reasons as this, except unlike musicians, you'll be locked into an exclusivity deal with one retailer for the dubious privilege of making less money on a sale. It's a little frightening to think about what this might do to the future of indie publishing if everyone starts going this way. Hopefully terms will improve, but I doubt it. Not with the Self-Publishing 1-Percenters distributing petitions of undying love and devotion for Amazon. Gee, it must be nice having such shiny gents speaking for us unwashed masses plugging away to make enough money to buy a cheap dinner every month. I'm pretty sure Amazon would prefer to use those guys as their spokesmen rather people like me, who outnumber them 100 to 1.

I've long considered my indie publishing life an experiment. I mainly use my short stories to test the waters of the author-publisher market, and I'm not afraid to move my goalposts and change my strategies when need be. If you become too ardent, too set in your ways, you run the risk of losing your ass. This is why if you find yourself falling under the spell of certain self-publishing demagogues, back the hell away. They may have found success at this great gamble, but they're no different than the skeevy politicians who will tell you that one day, you can be rich and sell millions of books just like them, if you don't give up and if you keep writing awesome books and believing in the big American dream and the Great White Hope that is Amazon. Don't look for that man behind the curtain. Don't question the questionable business practices of Jeff Bezos the Great and Powerful.

It's nothing more than lyrical bullshit designed to divide writers into distinct camps, when really you should be steering a much more dynamic ship that can weather all markets and all conditions. Take it from me what can happen when you fail to diversify even for a little while.

So What's Next?

There is life yet
Well, THE LAST SUPPER is up next, and with that I hope to offer wide distribution of all my other work for new readers to enjoy, provided they don't hate the new book. Oh I hope they don't. So back to that copy of "Vermin" I left up on Smashwords. It's hasn't exactly been doing gangbusters, but I've sold a few copies on Barnes & Noble. I consider it a sign of life and look forward to getting the rest of my work out there again. I have plans to use Draft2Digital and Payhip to make it happen, so stay tuned for more details there in the coming months.

If you're testing the KDP Select waters for a little bit, fine. More power to ya. Maybe it'll pay off and get you some additional readers. Just don't overstay your welcome. Being in the program is like standing in the sun too long without sunblock. You'll walk away bitter and blistered.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , ,
I read a great little article on Lit Reactor about how to build a writing routine, and I think it's definitely a topic worth addressing, because whether you're just starting out writing or if you're a pro, you may have trouble nailing down the reasons why some days you write like gangbusters and others you can't seem to force out more than a measly "the" before the shiny objects or the dreaded sandman pull you elsewhere.

Some of this can be attributed to lack of inspiration or being stuck in a plot dead end, but I know when I'm not feeling on the ball, it's because I did a poor job of preparing myself for the task. Like any other job we do in life, be it cooking, working out, going to our day jobs, or doing homework, a ritual or at least an acknowledgment of some necessary preparation is in order. I'm not the most routine oriented person I know. Sometimes I write a lot in the morning, other times I burn the midnight oil. If the story is in a particular hot spot, I tend to do both. But I have found that a certain set of parameters has to be put in place in order for me to work to an optimum level, and while it's going to be a little different for everyone, I think it's worth trying out these five basic things I'm about to lay down here. Most of my suggestions have to do with how you treat your body, and there is a good reason for that. A good body equals a good mind, and a good mind is a productive one. So let's go.

1. Get Plenty of Sleep

Because everyone looks like this when they sleep...
90% of the writers I know absolutely insist on the magical powers caffeine to help them write billions of words, and the association between writers and coffee is about as plain and common as the one between Colonel Sanders and fried chicken. But I guess I'm odd or something, because I don't require much if any caffeine in order to write. My coffee drinking seems to coincide with seasonal changes or other drastic shifts in routine that have my sleeping schedule in flux (see: summer vacation). On the days when I do feel like I need coffee, it's because I didn't get enough rest the night before. If I don't have my requisite seven hours a night, I feel dopey in the morning. Nothing gets done, let alone the writing. I used to love being up during the wee hours, but doing that and sleeping late to compensate for it just doesn't mesh well with the whole having a family and a couple pesky animals thing. So rather than depend on the caffeine high alone to motivate you to the keyboard, consider whether you're getting enough sleep, and if that sleep is good sleep (apnea and alcohol-free, for instance). I can guarantee that cleaning up the sleep routine even a little will give you a boost of brain power that no chemical stimulant will be able to match.

2. No Food

But only after you write
Oh look at me, recommending a starvation diet. I'm actually not doing that, but the Lit Reactor article mentioned how food can be a creativity killer, and I couldn't agree more. I've been on fasting-style diets and found that when my digestive system wasn't being taxed at all, I was in sort of a writer nirvana mode. Of course, I can't sustain myself for long on diets like that and I'm not saying you should start fasting or even that you should write while feeling physically hungry (because that's just as distracting). But you might consider not writing after you've just had a big meal, particularly one that is heavy on starches. You might be the exact opposite, but to me, writing on a full stomach is a lot like exercising on a full stomach. Both make me feel sluggish and wrong, and I never get very far. On a typical morning following a good night of sleep, I start the day with a very light snack (a piece of fruit or a cup of yogurt, sometimes a smoothie). Then I'm ready to commence writing. I like to get a good chunk in before breaking for lunch, at which point I consider myself done until a couple hours after dinnertime. Or if you're going to incorporate a heavy meal into your day at some point, try to counterbalance it with some decent exercise. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Move Around, Dammit

Me in fifty years, before I start an important scene
I'm the least disciplined person I know when it comes to working out, but even making a little effort to move can mean a boost to the word count and to your overall sense of motivation, provided you don't overdo it. When I was swimming more than an hour a day a few years back, I wasn't writing much because I was doing more than my body was equipped to handle, and I didn't have anything left for the page. But if I don't exercise at all, I feel terrible and will often even fall asleep in mid-sentence. For the longest time, I was starting to wonder if I had an attention disorder of some sort, but I realized my body's engine was running worse than a mid-80s Chevy with flood damage due to a severe lack of activity. These days, I try to keep my swims to 45 minutes, no more than an hour. Any more than that, I become stiff and tired, and the whole concept of exercise works against me rather than with me. Either way, just take 45 minutes out of your day and do something. Even breaking it up in to chunks throughout the day is better than nothing. Getting up from your chair a couple times an hour to lift some free weights or do a few yoga positions or some good old-fashioned push-ups will make a world of difference.

4. Kill Your Distractions

Before they kill you...
The article was so right on about that, and I'm sure I've talked about this before, but you definitely have to find a way to deal with outside distractions, especially early on in your career when your confidence is probably shaky and you haven't proven yourself able to finish much of anything. Even if you can't get away from the internet, unplug your router. Or if that would make things too inconvenient for anyone else trying to use the internet in your house, there are programs that will disconnect the internet from your computer for a set amount of time (I particularly like Freedom). Consider a device for writing that has no internet connection, like pen and paper or an Alphasmart. Turn off your phone's ringer for an hour or so. Go in a room and shut the door or tell the people in your life that you are not available during certain hours of the day, that your writing IS a job and they should respect that. One thing that has become the most helpful to me is deactivating my Facebook account when I'm trying to get a new project up off the ground. Some people can handle their Facebook addiction better than others. Sadly, it's probably the largest timesuck in my online world, and checking it has become nothing short of compulsive. When I started my book Kudzu back in February, I decided the best thing I could do for myself and my state of mind was to deactivate Facebook for a month. And that wound up being the most productive and peaceful month I'd had in years. Five months later, I was signing a contract with my new agent for that very book. Hey, I know it won't always happen that way, but I'm just saying . . . there is a lot of good that comes from clearing the noise and clutter out of your head. Take a Facebreak. You'll be glad you did.

5. Make Sure You're Writing What You Want to Write

Maybe you want to try something else for a bit...
I hear from a lot of people who are just having a hell of a time finishing a story they started, or they've thought about it a long time and have plotted and researched a ton of stuff, but just can't seem to get it off the ground. We all hit bumps in the road with a project. In fact, without fail, I reach a major crisis of confidence in any project around the time I hit 30K words. That is usually when the honeymoon period wears off and it starts to feel a bit like a chore. Almost always, though, I forge my way through it and by the time I pass the 50K mark, things start to feel a little better again. Every project is plagued with those kinds of fits and starts, so I don't want anyone to think that having an off week means you shouldn't be working on your current WIP, but I think if the problem becomes pervasive enough that it's not any closer to being finished than it was two months ago, then it might be time to do a little soul searching and ask yourself if this is really what you want to be doing. It's a well-known wisdom that the most important part of being a writer (at least the kind whose goal is to sell books) isn't just writing, but finishing what you write. But there is a fine line between having a rough week and torturing yourself with a piece of work for months or even years on end. It's that kind of thing that tends to make people resentful of the craft and stifles inspiration and creativity. It's OKAY to start something else if it will inure your wounded spirit. It's okay to come back to the old project later, with a refreshed sense of purpose. Hell, it's also okay to not come back to it at all if you've found a project that has really captured your attention. Follow your bliss. Do the thing you can finish. It's easy to build a writing routine around something you don't resent.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , , ,
A couple weeks ago, I detailed how one might craft an effective query letter. And it looks like it might have worked, because I now have an agent:

But I really feel like I have to back waaaaay up, because although it feels like I just hit the number that took me straight to the top in the Find a Literary Agent edition of Chutes & Ladders, the road that led to this moment was long and winding and full of potholes and long periods of inactivity. 

So let's start from the beginning of the beginning, the first time I ever tried to acquire agent representation, and then compare it to what just happened.

A Scarlet "F" for FAIL

The first novel I completed was my funny vampire book, Scarlet Letters. I was an awfully eager beaver at that point, thinking I had this whole thing in the bag. I would craft the perfect letter, send it around to every agent in town, and then get the book deal I so desperately wanted.

Of course, I knew other people certainly hadn't had it that easy, but I was special, dammit! I also knew nothing of the humorous fantasy market (hint: it's tiny and consists almost exclusively of Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, Jeff Strand, and Neil Gaiman). I knew nothing about how a book like this might actually sell. All I knew was I had a finished novel and the world deserved the opportunity to buy it and shower me with riches. I got a few bites from agents who asked for partials, and that was a buzz. Especially since those agents were notorious for saying "No" pretty much right off the bat. Ultimately they did say no. Then I had a friend's agent take a look at it, and she gave me the reality check I so desperately needed. She told me it had its good qualities, but it was basically half-baked and not ready for prime time, and the subject was just not terribly commercial. I was angry at first, but you know what? It's exactly what I needed to hear. I went back to the drawing board. I still have a lingering affection for this book and have tinkered with ideas of re-editing it and submitting it to a small press, but for now, it rests lovingly in the trunk.

"S" is for Stargazers. Or Strike Two

The Stargazers. My shoddy attempt at YA, and an attempt I will likely not make again. It was the first and only book I started for NaNoWriMo 2010 and managed to complete within the same month. It was about a young witch who lived in her own world and had to cross into ours and impregnate herself, only to return and sacrifice her own child for some magical rite of passage. As hinky as it sounds, it was a slightly better book than the one about the vampire mailman. The only problem was the plot. It was uneven and a little forced in spots, and I don't think I was a good enough writer at the time to take the book where it really needed to go. I pitched it to an agent at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and she asked for fifty pages. I also queried dozens of other agents, all of whom said thanks but no thanks. Again, I got a great reality check from the agent who'd read the partial. It had some good moments, but the voice felt uneven. I just still wasn't ready for the big leagues. It was a painful and difficult truth to swallow, but what was I going to do, quit writing? Also, the e-book marketplace was beginning to really emerge, and I saw new opportunities waiting.

Running Out of Steam

Over the couple years that followed, I dove into e-publishing and found a new following and success there when my stories "Under the Scotch Broom" and "Dust" became a hits on Amazon. That led to a friendship with Vincent Hobbes, who discovered my work there, and eventually that led to a few publishing deals. Two short stories appearing in The Endlands anthology and eventually contracts for two of my novels, The Last Supper and Strings. I'd had temptations of querying out Strings just to see if I could get any bites on it in the agent market, but I decided why push it further when I had a publisher willing and ready to take it on? Also, truth be told, I was afraid that I still wasn't ready for that. Querying is emotionally difficult work and I was loathe to line up for another flogging.

But then my dear friend Ian Healy and I penned a steampunk book together and we decided to send out queries. Same process again. We got some good hits off the bat. Several requests for partials and fulls, and a lot of hope. Only, we struck out time and time again. A number of them said the book needed character work, and ultimately we agreed to trunk the novel. It was another instance of not quite being there, though it seemed like I was getting closer to something.

The 2014 Resolution

After Strings came out in the latter part of 2013 and I got a taste of what it felt like to have a traditionally published book on the market with good reviews coming in, I felt like I was finally ready to take another shot at the big leagues. Also, I was really enjoying writing commercial suspense/thrillers, and I felt like if I could get a foothold in that market, giving the stories my own personal and visceral twist, I'd do pretty well for myself. In February, I decided to finally buckle down and write something with which I could wow an agent and hopefully move my seven year career from the small pond and into something a wee bit bigger. My goal was to land representation by July. It was a very specific goal, and a crazy and unlikely one, but what did I have to lose, really? I'd been down this road before. If it didn't work out, there were other books to try it with, and I had some small press options up my sleeve still.

My southern Gothic suspense novel, KUDZU (which was originally titled GRACE, GEORGIA), was born nearly four months later. I started it the first week of February and wrapped up the first draft on Memorial Day weekend (because I edit a lot while writing, my first draft was really more like a second). My beta readers worked quickly and gave some much-needed feedback, and so I was able to go through and expand it a bit more and have the final draft done by the first week of June. While the betas read, I was able to draft a query and synopsis and have an agent list ready to go. With all that in hand, and a quivering gut, I started sending out the dreaded letters around June 16th.

The Agent List

There are numerous ways of assembling a list of agents and other publishers. The most typical method is to go to a place like QueryTracker, which is a database that allows you to search by genre. You can read comments from other users on how quickly the agent responds, and in what manner, etc. I'd used QT in all my previous endeavors and I still find it to be a handy reference and organization tool.

However, I didn't pick agent names from a search list this time. I had only one plan of attack in mind, and that was to focus like a laser beam. I made a list of bestselling authors I greatly admired in the genres I wrote, and then I looked up who their agents were. I took this approach, because if I was going to sign with an agent, it was going to be with one who had a strong track record for selling books. I know far too many writers who have gone this route and come out empty-handed, and while I know there is still no guarantee of success signing with a bigger name in the business, I see nothing wrong with doing everything in your power to increase the odds. Authors included Stephen King, Joe Hill, Diane Chamberlain, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, etc. The agent I was MOST interested in, however, was Stephanie Kip Rostan, who represents my literary heroine, Gillian Flynn. 

Out of all the authors who have most inspired me to tap into my dark suspense side, it is her. Gone Girl is part of the reason I wrote Strings. It opened this door for me of creating characters who were both unlikable but totally sympathetic. I knew that if there was an agent out there who could appreciate her brand of darkness, that same agent might also appreciate mine. So Rostan was at the tippy top of my list, and she was the first one I queried. Additionally, I was just really impressed with LGR Literary's submissions form. I've queried dozens of agents over the years, and I've never encountered one quite like it. I also sent out letters to fifteen or sixteen others, as well as to Lou Aronica of The Story Plant, a great independent press.

The very next day, ding ding -- I received a full manuscript request from Jim McCarthy at Dystel & Goderich, as well as one from none other than Stephanie Rostan at LGR Literary.

I nearly fell out of my skin with excitement. All I could think was GILLIAN FLYNN'S AGENT JUST ASKED TO READ MY BOOK OMG OMG OMG. I went a little nuts. I guzzled down a gallon of celebratory gin and made embarrassing Facebook posts. It was one of the best days I'd had in a very long time. Of course, I expected to receive rejections all around, but still, it was awesome to receive that kind of attention for this book so quickly.

Over the coming days, I didn't hear much. You gotta let people have time to read. Also, a lot of agents are on vacation in the summer months, so you can't count on timely responses. Jim McCarthy read it with interest but ultimately passed five days later. That bummed me out, but then on the same day, Susan Ginsburg from Writers House requested the full. Lou Aronica also came back and said he liked the partial and would like to read the whole thing. My spirits soared again. As of the third week of June, only a week or so after beginning the process, I had three full manuscripts out for review and had only fielded a tiny handful of rejections. Life was good.

The Email that Ruined My Weekend (in a good way)

The afternoon of Friday, June 27th, 10 days after I'd sent the full manuscript, I heard from Ms. Rostan via email. She said she'd read a chunk of the manuscript and thought it was "incredibly good," and could we speak on Monday? I was sitting in a shopping mall with my kids, and I won't lie and say I didn't get up, jump around, and act a complete fool in a public place. Racing through my head like a bullet train was, GILLIAN FLYNN'S AGENT LIKES MY BOOK AND WANTS TO TALK TO ME OMG OMG OMG. Was representation on the horizon? What did it all mean? I spent hours combing through the very short message for any hidden clues. I was a freak. I blame the gin.

And so I proceeded to endure an entire weekend with bated breath. And would she actually call me on Monday? Sometimes really busy people say Monday but really mean Wednesday. Publishing is the kind of business when you can never be completely certain that something will happen right away. Worse yet, maybe she would get to the end of the book and decide it was no good, and instead of a call I'd get a regretful email saying it was an "almost but not quite." I drowned my worries in more celebratory gin, but that only took care of one night. As Sunday dragged on, I don't think I'd ever wished so hard for a Monday in all my life.

When the day finally arrived, I accomplished precisely dick. I was a fully distracted mess. Would she call or wouldn't she? It was like being an insecure high school girlfriend all over again. Then a call came through from an unfamiliar number, and my body completely froze. Was it her, or was it a telemarketer? I held my breath and answered the phone.

Stephanie was immediately the kind of person that made me feel at ease. I didn't have to put on any airs, and my voice didn't shake like it normally does when I'm nervous. She immediately spoke of the book's potential, but did mention a couple caveats that she'd like to address about some of the subject matter, which was all completely okay with me. Then she said she'd like to work with me, and I might have fallen off the couch, but I can't remember, because it was all a blur. We then talked about the authors we love and the other kinds of writing I do. She seemed interested in some of my more speculative fiction as well. I told her I had to wait to hear back from the other two people reading the manuscript, but that I'd be back in touch soon.

I hung up from that call knowing that regardless of what happened, I had an agent. It wasn't because she liked my book, but because I really liked her. I think it's important to feel a connection to the person who is going to be selling your work. You have to get the sense that they believe in you. I got that from her.

When I emailed the others to let them know I had an offer on the table, they answered back immediately and said they'd have an answer within a few days. Suddenly, I had the ball in my court, and that was a huge table flip from the way this typically goes. I heard back from Ms. Ginsburg and Mr. Aronica that Thursday, and though they enjoyed the book, they decided to pass, which left me open to accept Stephanie's offer. It was the first time I recall being thrilled to receive rejections, if only because it cleared the path. Both of them were congratulatory and extremely friendly, and it reminded me that I was in a very good place. At least I didn't have a nail-biting decision to make between two excellent agents or an excellent agent and an excellent publisher. I choose to believe that was the universe's way of going easy on me.

The Importance of Goals

Wrapping up this ginormous novel of a post, I just want to say that this whole thing hasn't really sunk in for me yet. I've been hoeing this row of being a writer representing only herself for a long time now. The thought that I have an agent, and not just any agent, but a very successful one who represents multiple bestsellers (including a major hero of mine) just boggles my mind. It feels like it's happening to someone else and I'm just along for the ride. I wasn't sure what I expected with Kudzu. Oddly, while I was writing it, I worried like hell it was boring. So much for that now.

There is of course no guarantee this book will sell when she goes to submit it to all the editors, but I feel like it has an excellent chance in her hands. Rostan has a nose for hits, and I only hope we can continue our relationship for a very long time with other work of mine.

At some point, after you've worked hard enough to become good at something, you have to decide when you're ready for bigger and better things. I don't work in a field where people receive promotions and raises--or even steady paychecks for that matter--so you have to really dig deep and find the resolve to improve with everything you write and set goals for yourself. And if you don't meet those goals, go back to the keyboard and keep on keeping on. It's the rare player that hits a home run the first few times at bat. My goal was to have an agent by July, and I had an offer on the table on June 30th. It happened incredibly fast this time, but if I hadn't had those previous seven years of Sisyphean efforts under my belt, it probably wouldn't have happened at all.

My friend Shewanda Pugh asked me on GoodReads just yesterday how I deal with discouragement. I said that it was in large part due to the help of my friends. But not only that, despite moments of crushing self-doubt, I am too damn stubborn to quit. I've worked too many hours and sacrificed too many years to learning this craft and this business to quit now, especially when time has proven again and again that I DO have a talent worth fighting for. I've only needed to wait for my turn. Maybe this is my turn, maybe it isn't, but I won't know for sure if I don't keep going.

So let's see if we can push it a little further. How about a major bidding war and a Tuscan flat. By Christmas. There we go.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , ,

The publishing industry, especially in the age of ebooks, is a lot like a rugged frontier teeming with snake oil salesmen, rabid ferrets, and lots and lots of prey in the form of desperate souls who will do anything, and I mean ANYTHING to be able to call themselves "published authors."

When you're first starting out, it's easy to become enamored with anyone other than your mom or spouse who deems your work worthy of publication, even if that someone is doing very little for you in terms of exposure or pay. Also, when you're first starting out, you may not even be thinking about the long game. You're just dipping a toe in, writing short stories in your spare time, maybe. You're happy even if only a dozen people read your little piece of art. My first publication credit was for an anthology that no one other than the contributors and their few friends and family members ever bought. It never even got reviews on Amazon, and as far as I know, the editor no longer even resides on this planet. But I was still thrilled to see my work in print, and it was that first publishing credit that gave me the impetus to believe that maybe I could be somebody in this business. And maybe that's fine for your very first short story credit. After that, though, it's a good idea to start looking a little further downfield.

It seems that writers, especially the ones who haven't been slapped hard enough by reality to grow the standard author's carapace, just want to have their egos rubbed. And that's when you're going to make some mistakes. You will encounter one of those aforementioned rabid ferrets, and it will take a small chunk out of your ass. Often, that's how you learn what not to do, and you'll discover that a shoddy publisher will do far less for your career than you could do publishing yourself. After all, if you're going to make a pittance, wouldn't you rather keep most of that pittance for yourself instead of splitting it with an outfit whose only real contribution was stamping their name on your work?

I'm NOT saying you shouldn't go with a publisher. You won't find me spouting that evangelical nonsense. I think a good career is built by working with publishers of all shapes and sizes, as well as producing works independently, but how can you tell a good publisher from a shitty one? The truth is, nearly any average Jane and Joe can set up a publishing company. They come up with a name and a slapdash logo and put it on a simple website, and then proceed to take the work of others, shape it into a book-like product, and put it up for sale on Amazon with almost no out of pocket costs. Then they proceed to pocket fractions of the pennies you're making, leaving you to do pretty much everything else to try and get people to buy it. Compared to most large publishers, who are laying out thousands in order to package a book and bring it to market, there is very little risk involved, so it's easy enough to become a book mill after a while, and you can't help but wonder if anyone is actually benefiting from it. Most of them do print-on-demand, if they even do a print edition at all, and that decreases the risk factor even more. Hell, I do the same thing with some of my own work, and a bunch of authors do the same thing for theirs. We're broke as hell to start with, so it's not like we can afford to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a product that will take years to make back its investment, if it makes it back at all.

That's not to say that people who operate this way are bad. In fact, there are a lot of passionate, gifted people running micropresses just this way. They have the connections to get editing and good cover art on the cheap, and they have also established relationships with the community to help get reviews. And their authors are selling books, winning awards, and carving out nice little niches for themselves in their respective communities. But it doesn't always work out that way, and given the number of disappointments, heartbreaks, and instances of total inertia I've seen in the book selling world, I have come to the conclusion that there are just some people who shouldn't be doing this kind work, period. That goes for both the authors and the publishers.

I'm not trying to be mean about it. I'm just voicing a core truth about the difference between the art of writing and the business of publishing, and how a lot of people might have a head for the former, but not even an iota of sense for the latter. It's how so many writers get taken for rides time and time again by unscrupulous publishing people, to the point that various watchdog organizations have been formed around sniffing out the opportunists and ne'er-do-wells. Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware are two such examples, but since there are so many presses and individuals out there claiming they can bring you and your literary baby to the promised land, you won't find all the offenders listed on any red flag sites. That's when you, as a writer, have to put your investigative acumen to use and start performing various sniff tests. As Montel Jordan once famously intoned, this is how we do it:

1. Scour the Website

This is all about first impressions. Every single publisher's website, from the Big 5 all the way down to the tiniest micropress, should follow the same very basic rules when it comes to constructing a site. There should be a listing of authors the press publishes as well as a list of all the books they have up for sale. Often times, you will have the ability to buy the book direct from them, but if not, you should find ample links to all the places where you can buy the books. You should also see a submissions portal, or a link explaining submission guidelines.

A good publisher's website will look clean and will be easy to navigate and not tarted up with obnoxious graphics and banner ads. It should also be free from grammatical and spelling errors (seriously, I've seen publisher pages rife with them). If they have bragging rights, like bestselling titles or award winners, those will probably be posted front and center. A publisher is first and foremost in the business of selling books and promoting its author list. If you don't get the immediate impression that the site is doing this, or that things look out of date or like something out of Geocities circa 1998, keep looking.

2. Look at the Book Covers. LOOK AT THEM!

Quality cover art says a lot about how much a publisher is investing in making an author's book stand out. It amazes me how many small/micro publishers fail at this most basic test, and it amazes me even more that there are so many authors who still sign the dotted line despite that very obvious deficiency, and who will allow some "artist" to slap flat black letters on a sloppy watercolor and call that their book cover. It's enough to make me wonder if some authors are just completely "colorblind" as to what makes a professional cover, but if this is something you struggle with, go visit your local bookstore or the bestseller lists on Amazon. Study what a great book cover should look like. They'll all look different in various ways, and some will be better than others, but all decent covers will have a certain polish to them. Then visit Lousy Book Covers and see what truly awful covers look like. If the covers at the press you're investigating look more like what you'd see at LBC and not at your local bookstore, there's a very big problem, and again, you should run.

3. Check the Sales Ranks, Reviews, and Samples

They might make great covers and have an awesome website . . . but are they actually selling books? Sales rankings can be a volatile indicator of a book's performance, especially if there are multiple distribution channels and the possibility that the author has other sales strategies that aren't reflected by Amazon's numbers. Also, a book that might have been doing gangbusters for a few weeks could be going through a downturn that is not entirely in a publisher's control. But you can also use the ebook tracker at Kindle Nation Daily to track the titles for a couple weeks and see if there is any kind of upward movement. If you're not seeing any, that can be troubling. Also, read the reviews. Are there editorial reviews from any reputable trade publications, authors, or blogs? Are there at least 8-10 customer reviews? If there are none and the book has an extremely poor sales ranking, and it's been on the market for at least a few months, that could signal that the publisher is more or less milling out books and not getting anything in return. That's only a sign of potential disappointment for you. Finally, look at the samples. If you see errors or questionable formatting, keep moving. This publisher is not going to do anything more for your book than you can do for yourself.

4. Talk to the Authors

The writing community is a relatively small and tight-knit one. If you haven't started befriending other authors, particularly in the genres you write, now is a good time. Facebook is where it's at, generally, though Google Plus has started to show a lot of activity for interactions in the writing community. Once you've met a number of the authors, feel free to ask them how happy they are with their publishers. Not all authors will open up and they certainly won't want to discuss their actual contract terms, but I think most of them would be happy to talk about general stuff, and if they are very happy, they will certainly let you know. Questions to keep in mind: Do they pay their authors on time? How fast do they work to get the book to market? What is their response time like for queries or submissions? Are they communicative when you have questions? You namely want to get a feel for how the authors are being treated, because that could be you.

5. Dig Deeper

Google them. Are people talking about them on various forums, like Absolute Write? What about the company's business name? Is it registered with the Secretary of State? Is it a LLC or other corporation, or is it a sole proprietorship or cooperative? Cooperatives are relatively new on the scene, and they come with a whole other host of things to consider, as well as potential headaches that you will have to sort through. A reputable publisher looking to do business with other authors will hopefully have its ducks all in a row. It's a good sign if a publisher is at least an LLC, because they will understand the importance of protecting themselves in the event of a lawsuit, which is always possible when working in this business. This again goes back to business sense. A publisher that doesn't have this stuff figured out can't always be trusted to do other things correctly. You could wind up with an orphaned book when the IRS comes storming through the door, or having to hire a lawyer to get your rights back when it turns out they aren't mailing you your checks on time and have no interest in releasing your property back to you.

Just keep in mind that even if a publisher does appear to be legit--they have a good website, successful titles, decent word of mouth, and appear to be run by skilled individuals--that still doesn't mean things can't go sour at some point. It happens in the big leagues as well as the minors. Signing with any publisher means you're taking a certain gamble, just as they are taking a gamble on you. But if a publisher can at least pass the smell test on the minimal criteria I've listed here, it might be worthwhile to at least submit your manuscript and see what the next steps look like. If you wind up receiving a contract, that's a whole other ball of wax. We'll save that headache for another time. 

Finally, it's important to note that a small publisher, even the best one, might not have the money or the horsepower to propel your book to the stratosphere. You will encounter unique challenges, and you have to go into it with the proper expectations. You may not hit any major bestseller lists or be shelved in bookstores, but maybe you get many excellent reviews from readers and develop a local following through attending events and conventions. You may not get rich, but you may get a start to a fruitful career with a well packaged book you can be proud of. There are a ton of advantages to working with a reputable small press. They take risks on material that larger publishers often can't afford to take. They give you more creative control, and they're often always on the forefront of trying new things. They can lay the groundwork for a bigger career down the road. I have loved working with a small press for my two novels, and I wouldn't have traded that experience for anything. The key is to making sure you pick the right one, or that the right one picks you.