The Black Hole that is Facebook Advertising

In case anyone’s still using Facebook to market their work, Colleen Doran — comic writer and artist, who writes some great business posts when she’s not busy making a living — talks about why paying Facebook to try to reach more people is an expensive waste. Buying ads to get more “likes” actually makes it harder for your real fans to see what you post. The more you spend to get more likes on your page, the fewer real fans see each post. Facebook won’t fix this because they’re making money on it.

Check out Colleen’s post and watch the video by Veritasium, explaining an experiment they did and the conclusions drawn. Every time I see something like this, I’m that much happier I’ve never bothered with Facebook.

Angie

Workshop and Sales and Business

So the first chunk of the year was pretty hectic, and I’m just getting back to normal. I wrote six stories in six weeks starting in early January, for Dean and Kris’s anthology workshop. The way this works is, there are six professional editors, each editing an anthology that’ll be brought out as part of the Fiction River line. Writers who’ve signed up get guidelines (book title, length requirements, theme, sometimes more info depending on the editor) and deadlines. The deadlines were one per week for six weeks, each Sunday, midnight Pacific time, no late subs accepted, no excuses, period. A lot more students got all six stories in than any of the instructors expected, although considering how Dean pounds the pulpit of getting your butt in the seat and your hands on the keyboard and doing the work, about how writing faster means spending more time writing not just typing faster, of how to make it as a pro you need a good work ethic (see previous about spending more time writing), I’m not sure why they were surprised. 🙂 Personally, I was kind of afraid to sub fewer than six stories and then show my face at the workshop, so I didn’t. Anyway.

The workshop was pretty awesome, although hectic. We all read all the subbed stories, which totalled about 250. So between writing for six weeks, then frantically reading up to and through most of the workshop, I did very little else for the first two months and change of this year. Once we were all settled in Lincoln City and got rolling, the way it worked was that the editors sat up at the front of the room, with the students in rows, sort of like a college classroom, but with rectangular two-person tables instead of those awful little desk-chair things. Lots of laptops and notebooks for taking notes.

We did one book per day. All the editors commented on each story, with the editor who was actually editing the book going last. Other editors either pretended they were editing that particular anthology, or in Kris’s case she pretended she was still editing F&SF, and in Dean’s case he pretended he was still editing Pulphouse Magazine. They went through the stories one at a time, each editor saying whether they read all the way through and why or why not, whether the story hit any of their reader cookies or anti-cookies[1], and whether they’d buy it. The final (actual) editor did the same, but if they said “Buy” they actually were making an offer. Or sometimes they held a story to the end, then looked over all the held stories and made final buy/no-buy decisions while building their TOC on the white board in front of the class. That’s always fun to watch, and instructive.

The point of having all the editors talking about all the stories is to show us that editors disagree. I think we all know this on an intellectual level, but still, there’s a strong tendency in Writerland to assume that because a story gets a form rejection right off the bat, the story must suck. Some writers send a story out once or twice and never again, convinced it’s garbage because it didn’t get bought right away, or because it only got form rejections. (Kris, a bestselling writer, an award winner in multiple genres, got three form rejections just that week. Which is a pretty rude thing for an editor to do to a name writer, but still, it happens to everyone.)

Actually seeing the editors not only disagreeing but actively arguing with one another makes quite an impact, though. Three editors tried to convince Dean to buy the story I’d written for his book. They failed, but they all (including Dean) were pretty sure I’d sell it somewhere else. (It’s sitting in an SF magazine editor’s queue as I type.) Three editors tried to convince Kris to buy the story I wrote for her book. They failed, but again, everyone agreed it’d probably sell. (And it’s sitting in a mystery magazine editor’s queue.) People were still needling Dean about the story of mine that he’d passed up days later. Kris said they’d talked about it at home while they were reading submissions, but she couldn’t convince him, and neither could all three professional editors when they ganged up on him in class.

Now, all this was a wonderful balm for my disappointment at not making this or that sale, but the point is that three professional editors would have bought that story if they were the one editing that particular anthology. We all know that different editors produce different anthologies, that two editors doing similar books with the same or similar themes will put together books that feel different, have a different theme or a different point of view, and therefore a different list of stories. We all know that. But seeing it playing out in front of you, sometimes with raised voices or pointed jokes or annoyed scowls or incredulous expressions? That makes you feel it, not just know it, and I think that after watching the editors arguing over stories one is less likely to think, Yeah, I know a lot of stories just had to find the right editor after fifty submissions, but MY story sucks.

Watching an editor narrow their holds down to the final roster is instructive as well. I imagine most of us have had the experience of being told in a rejection letter, “I had enough great stories for four books, but unfortunately I can only publish one,” or something similar. It’s easy to think, Yeah, but my story wasn’t quite great enough, or maybe, The editor’s just being nice, letting me down easy. But actually watching an editor agonize over the decisions makes it clear that this is hard. One of the editors, I thought she was about to start crying a number of times, and particularly when she was letting down people whose held stories didn’t quite make it.

One difference I noticed from last year was that there weren’t as many invites. Last year each book was at least half full by the time the workshop convened. Name writers were invited to submit, presumably to get some names on the covers that’d help sell the books. (How to Save the World, the book I sold a story to, has David Gerrold and Laura Resnick on the cover, among others.) That makes sense; anthologies are a tough sell anyway, and it’s clear why Kris and Dean, as the series editors and owners of the publishing company behind Fiction River, would want to give their new anthology series the best launch possible. I was expecting the same thing this year, actually, but there were very few invites this time.

Which isn’t to say there won’t be any “names” in the books. Aside from Kris and Dean, who write stories for all the anthologies, Lisa Silverthorne and Ron Collins are regulars at the anthology workshop; their names regularly appear on the covers of SF magazines. And I spent the workshop week sitting next to Cat Rambo. (I managed not to ever fangirl her, because I am not a complete dork one hundred percent of the time. [cough]) But they reported that the series is doing better than they’d expected, reviews have been good, and they’re gearing up for more publicity and some experimentation.

One of the experiments came about during one of the aforementioned sessions of agonizing over the final buy list on a book. There were three more stories Kevin Anderson, who’s editing Pulse Pounders — basically a collection of short thriller type stories — wanted to buy, but he didn’t have the budget. Mark LeFevre, the Kobo Writing Life guy, was also attending the workshop. He cornered Kevin, Kris and Dean during a break and made an offer on behalf of Kobo to help fund the three extra stories for a special expanded Kobo edition of the book. There’ll be an expanded edition of Kris’s book too, Past Crimes, a collection of historical mysteries. He was actually willing to do Kobo special editions of all the books, but Kris and Dean want to start slowly, with the two books that they think have the widest audience. The reasoning is that because this is something new, they want to give it the best chance to succeed. If they do special editions of all the books and some don’t sell well, it might be taken as a failure of the expanded edition concept, rather than just the individual books selling slowly. They want to give the concept the best chance to succeed, so it can become a thing that other editors/publishers and other e-book vendors would consider doing.

Another new thing is that they’re filling and scheduling books a lot farther out, so that they can get ARCs done and available in time to send them out to the major review sites the requisite 5-8 months in advance. For that reason, the two books I sold stories to won’t be out until 2015.

Oh, right, I sold a couple of stories. 🙂 John Helfers, who bought my story for How to Save the World last year, is editing a book called Recycled Pulp this year. It’s a cool idea — he created a bunch of ultra-pulpy sounding titles, and we had to write modern, non-pulpy stories that fit the titles. Each writer who wanted to sub for that book sent in three numbers between 1 and 250, and we got back three of the titles off the list. We could write to whichever title we wanted. My story is called “The Crypt of the Metal Ghouls,” and it was a lot of fun to write.

Kerrie Hughes is editing Alchemy and Steam, which is pretty much what it says on the tin. Kerrie really likes alchemy — it’s one of her reader cookies — and she wanted stories that were a blend of alchemy and steampunk. I wrote a story called “The Rites of Zosimos,” with plot points based on some actual concepts a Greek alchemist named Zosimos of Panopolis wrote about. She liked it a lot and it’ll be fun working with her. And I think I might get a series out of the setting/characters. [ponder]

Alchemy and Steam is scheduled for April of 2015, and Recycled Pulp is scheduled for December of 2015.

And I might have some work lined up for later this year — more info 1) when/if it happens, and 2) when I can talk about it. There’s awesome networking at these workshops, though.

Random notes from the workshop discussions, both during the week around stories and on the last day when we did break-out sessions with experts in various areas:

Kris told some stories about crazy-ass things writers do to get an editor’s attention. Everyone’s heard the story of the guy who sent his manuscript in a pizza box, with a pizza in it, right? With a note saying something like, “Thought you’d enjoy a snack while you read…?” I heard that online back in the 80s. Well, Kris had a better one. When she was editing F&SF, she’d head down to the Post Office regularly to pick up bins of mail, and she got a note to go pick something up at the window. The Postmaster came up holding an envelope dangling at arm’s length. The envelope was black and covered with actual (not fake) cobwebs, and had actual dead spiders glued to it. O_O The Postmaster asked her, “Do you want this?” Kris sort of stared at it and said, “No.” Postmaster said, “Good,” and went to throw it away. Seriously, who thinks that kind of thing is a good idea?

Writers are usually wrong about what genre their story is. If you have something out in submission or indie pubbed that’s not selling, and you’re pretty sure it’s a good, well-written story, that might be why. Have a few people read it cold, then ask them what genre they think it is. You might be sending it to the wrong editors, or have it tagged as the wrong genre/subgenre at the vendor sites. Genre is a marketing tool, so if you mess that up, everything else about your marketing of that story collapses.

Ever notice how SF in books and magazines is such a tiny genre compared with SF in movies and TV shows? SF is huge everywhere except in the books and magazines where it begain. Originally, SF stories all had basically the same endings — science triumphed and the good guys always won. Then in the seventies, SF sort of collectively decided to go all literary, and a story could have pretty much any ending, including negative or depressing or bleak ones. Genre readers like knowing approximately how the story is going to end, though, so SF has lost a lot of readers, both people deciding they didn’t like the new stuff and leaving, and older readers dying without being replaced by new readers. (I can confirm that the attendees at SF conventions centered on book/magazine fiction are greying; I’m probably on the low end of average age at most of those cons, and I’m 50. Whereas media SF conventions and comic book conventions are full of kids in their teens and twenties.) Literary fans expect their endings to be variable, so they read literary and like it. Most SF fans, though, expect science to triumph and the good guys to win, and since the seventies, fewer stories delivered that. So most SF fans watch the movies and TV shows but don’t read the books or magazines. Most fans of book/magazine SF don’t consider the TV/movie fans to be “real” SF fans, but come on, seriously? [sigh] There are still stories with that kind of ending, but you’re not guaranteed to find one if you pick an SF book at random off the shelf. In trying to be literary, SF is slowly strangling itself. (I’ve heard discussions on the convention side that in a generation or two, the traditional, fan-run convention for people who read SF will vanish as its attendees — and the people running the conventions — age and die. Same thing, from the readers’ perspective instead of the writers’.) The take-away from this discussion, IMO, is that if you want to build a good fan base with your SF, and attract younger readers, write stories where science triumphs and the good guys win. Or if that’s not what you’re into, that’s fine but be aware that your reader pool is shrinking.

Genre is moving toward being an author name rather than a traditional genre category. (Dean is pulling all his different genres, written under a pile of pseuds, most of whom nobody knows are him, back under his Dean Wesley Smith name.) You can make this work, especially going indie, but it’ll take longer to build your reader base if you’re writing all over the genre map. Although in reality, if you do want to write across various genres, it’s going to take you a while anyway. It takes a certain number of books/stories — individual titles — to hit a tipping point where your discoverability starts fueling itself. This number, which seems to be between 25 and 50, depending on a lot of factors including luck, is per genre/name. So if you write SF/F, romance and thrillers, for example, it’ll take 25-50 titles in each genre to get your sales and visibility in that genre to take off, if you’re publishing under three names. It’s looking like publishing three different genres all under one name doesn’t change that very much; a lot of readers still read only one genre, although that’s slowly changing.

(Related story — I was talking to a writer friend who knew a third writer who was complaining that his career hadn’t taken off, his sales were abysmal, he needed an agent because he had to have the career help. [sigh] I poked around and saw that he had three pen names, each with one book published. [headdesk] Well, no wonder he hadn’t taken off! Three books under one name would still make him a newbie and almost invisible so far as the readers are concerned. The way he’s been doing it, though, from the POV of the readers he’s three newbie writers, each of whom has only one book out. No wonder readers hadn’t noticed him. Same thing, though — visibility is about volume, about having enough titles out there that readers have a chance of tripping over one and then finding the rest.)

Speaking about short fiction, once an editor starts buying your stuff, show some loyalty to that editor. If you sell an SF story to a magazine, send that magazine all your SF stories first, give that editor first refusal on your stuff. Particularly if you’re writing a series, always send new stories in that series to the same editor who’s been buying the series. Offering a series story first to someone else, a different magazine or an anthology, is rude and unprofessional.

When you set up your business account for your writing income (you did that, right? especially if you’re indie pubbing?) refuse overdraft protection. If someone hacks your account and overdraws it by a few thousand, the bank will be happy to give them that money, then not only charge you that amount but also the overdraft fee.

Be careful about (book) contracts from British publishers, which are reportedly even worse than book contracts from American publishers.

John saw a contract which said that if the copyright laws changed in any way in the future, you automatically agree to it, in perpetuity. It’s unenforcable, but would still be a pain to deal with.

Some setting details are what Kris calls phony setting. So frex., if you say your characters are in “a renovated church,” each reader is going to have a different image in their head, which are all probably going to be different from the image in your head. Actually describe the setting so the picture in the reader’s head is at least close to the one in your own. That prevents sudden jolts later on when you refer to something that doesn’t at all match what the reader was imagining.

The Cricket magazines (which pay wonderfully well) have a horrible contract, but if you tell them you can’t sign it, they’ll send you the good one.

Hard fantasy is like hard SF, but the fantasy is the tech — it’s explained, works consistently, and has the nuts-and-bolts feel that hard SF has, if the world actually worked on magic. (I actually write a lot of hard fantasy and didn’t know it. 🙂 )

We talked some about how Audible was lowering its royalty from 50% to 40%. Dean says that’s a good thing because their business model is sustainable now. Also, they’re dropping the dollar per sale that they paid directly to the writers — circumventing the publisher — whenever an audiobook was sold. They did that to force the publishers to clean up their accounting. A writer who got $X whenever they sold X audiobooks knew that they’d better see X audiobook sales on their royalty statement from their publisher. I wish the e-book vendors would/could do something similar and force the publishers to clean up their e-book accounting the same way.

We talked some about manuscript formatting, and how italics has replaced underlining in modern manuscript formats. Although if a market still demands paper submissions, assume they’re also old-fashioned in their formatting, and use underlines.

The choice to quit the day job and go completely freelance is usually made at a point of crisis — a lost job, frex. — rather than because a reasoned decision has been made. Start thinking about what you’d do and how you’d do it. What if you lose your job next month? And can’t find another one in a month or two or six? Do you know how to gear up to get your writing paying more of the bills, or any of the bills? Having some idea of what to do and how to do it if you have to transition over to full time writing Right Now will make a horribly stressful life roll a little easier.

If/when you do go full time, cut expenses as much as you can. Protect your writing time; that’s what pays the bills. If you’re selling regularly, a cleaning lady can be a good investment. If you make $30/hour or $50/hour on your writing, it’s totally worth it to pay someone $15-$20/hour to wash dishes and vacuum and do laundry. Also mowing the lawn, pruning the trees, cleaning the pool, whatever. Protect the writing, and spend that protected time writing.

Don’t let the publishing overrun the writing; one suggestion is to set aside one day per week for doing your publishing work, formatting and covers and uploading and updating the accounting. The rest of the time, write. New words of fiction. Research isn’t writing, outlining isn’t writing, editing isn’t writing. Marketing/promo is most definitely not writing. (One of the worst things you can do is write and publish one book and then spend the next year on marketing and promo. Don’t do that. Write the next book. And the next and the next.)

One way to protect your writing time is to stay organized. Checklists are good. So are systems you can implement over and over again. Have a long-term plan so you know what you want to accomplish (including non-writing tasks, like learning to do covers, learning to format POD paperbacks, setting up and starting to collect sign-ups for a newsletter, learn/implement a more comprehensive business accounting system, take a class — larger one-time goals you want to hit) and in what order you want to do them. That way, when you find you have time/money for a larger task, you can look on your list and see what’s next, rather than have to dither around, doing “research” and making the decision over again every time it comes up. Your goals and ordered list can change, if there’s a reason, but making that list in the first place is part of your long-term planning.

Have similar plans month-to-month. List deadlines for any trad-pub books or stories you’re doing, plus goals for finishing writing on Book C, formatting on Book B, a cover for book A and uploading it to vendors P, Q and R. Monthly goals should be realistic, based on how much time and/or money you have to spend, but treating it like a business with goals and deadlines makes it that much more likely things will get done. (No, I’m not this organized yet myself.)

Schedule time to learn stuff. There’s a lot to learn if you’re going freelance, especially if you’re indie pubbing. The learning is going to take time, so plan that into your schedule. Protect the writing, but make learning something that’ll help your business a strong second priority.

You need at least 15-20 titles up, per pseudonym, before it’s worthwhile to do any marketing. (Yes, there’s a pattern here.)

Whew. That’s just hilights from what I wrote down in a notes file. There was a lot more, and I absolutely got my money’s worth. I felt the same last year when I only sold one story, and the year before when I sold none. This is an awesome workshop, and Dean is taking sign-ups for next year right now. The workshops on the coast are invitation only, but you can write to Dean and ask for an invitation. Explain your experience and your goals, and why you want to attend. I had no pro-level sales when I wrote and asked for an invite, and I got into the anthology workshop that year. It’s doable, and it’s absolutely worthwhile.

Angie, getting back into the groove

[1] A reader cookie is something you just love to see in a piece of fiction. If you’re really into Cthulu stories, then that’s a reader cookie for you. If you love stories about soldiers, or cyberpunk, or grumpy protagonists, those are reader cookies. Something you seriously dislike, bad enough that it might prevent you from enjoying a story, might even prevent you from reading the story, is an anti-cookie. If you really hate stories with a child protag, or a lot of car-mechanic-jargon-babble, or spiders, then that’s an anti-cookie. Sending an editor a story full of that individual’s anti-cookies means the story will probably be rejected, no matter how good it might otherwise be. Unless it’s absolutely stupendously fabulous in every other way.

Busy with Business

Wow, two anthology posts in a row! I’ve never done that before. I’ve been kind of busy, doing some cool things.

Early in May I attended a workshop on how to do POD books — covers, interiors, marketing and selling, with a lot of really shocking info on how the business has changed very recently. I spent the time between my April anthology post and the workshop itself fiddling with Photoshop Elements (which it turned out I didn’t need for the class 😛 ) and InDesign, which is an awesome tool — once you’ve learned even the basics of ID, it becomes clear why it’s the industry standard. Once you have your art (for about fifteen dollars off a stock art site — and yes, they have art art as well as photos) you can do the whole cover, beautifully, in InDesign.

Flowing the text in is easy. Front matter goes in first, then your story or novel text; ID will create as many pages as you need, and you use master pages to set the layout. The fiddly part here is making sure the formatting works at the line- and paragraph-level. Hunting for widows (the first line of a paragraph alone at the bottom of a page), orphans (the last line of a paragraph alone at the top of a page, and widowed orphans (the last line of a paragraph, totally alone at the top of a page, with no other text on the page) can make your interior look much better. Most of these can be fixed easily by using the tracking tool on a whole paragraph at once, tightening or loosening it enough to pull a lone word or two up onto the previous line (re-flowing everything up to close the space) or to push a word or two onto the next line (pushing everything down a line) while not changing the spacing so much that someone casually reading will even notice.

InDesign is an incredibly powerful tool, and there are usually multiple ways of doing just about anything, which means it can be overwhelming at first. Having personal classroom instruction, one-to-three instruction with Allyson in small groups, and people coming around to give us one-to-one help during lab periods, was worth the cost of the workshop, and then some. The workshop was taught by Dean Wesley Smith and Allyson Longueira (Allyson is the publisher at WMG), with help during labs by a couple of local writers who are old hands at this and came to help out. Lee Allred was particularly awesome in giving assistance to all of us newbie book designers.

And really, that’s what it comes down to: the design. You can achieve the same results with other tools, but what’s important is the design. Look at other books in your genre — professionally published books, not just indie books — and see what they look like. What elements are on the cover? How are they laid out? What’s large or small? What elements are associated together, and placed near one another? Notice those little tags — “Bestselling author of Popular Book,” or “Book 3 of Author’s Cool Series” — that are too small to read in thumbnail? You still need them on your e-books. Even if they’re unreadable in an online bookseller’s catalog, they’re design elements and readers are used to seeing them, even as a little line of unreadable text, on professionally designed covers. The cover will look naked and unfinished without them.

What’s included in the front matter, and how is it laid out? What do new chapter pages look like in a novel, or new story pages in a collection or anthology? What does the spacing look like, between the headers and the text, the footers and the text, the text and the margins? If your presentation is amateurish, potential readers (buyers) will notice, even if they can’t articulate what bugs them about a particular cover or interior. New York has conditioned us to expect certain things about a professional book, and if an indie book doesn’t have all those things, or they’re not laid out the way we’re used to seeing, that’ll ping our “amateur” alarm, even if we can’t put our finger on why. Learning how to design the book, and the cover, is more important than learning to use kerning tools or feathered gradients in a particular software package. (Although you really should learn those things in whatever software you’re using.)

So before the workshop, I was playing with the software and watching instructional videos online. Then I was in Oregon for a week and a half, and a lot busier than I thought I’d be. The day I flew to Portland, I met a writer friend [waves to PD Singer] at the airport, along with a friend of hers who lives in Portland, and we went and had lunch with a few other writers in our genre who are local to Portland. I love meeting internet people in realspace, so that was very cool. After lunch, Pam and I drove out to the coast, and we roomed together for the workshop itself. We sat next to each other in class, swapping help and opinions and angst. 🙂

After the workshop, we drove back to Portland and Pam dropped me off at my hotel. When I’m at these workshops, I like staying an extra night in Portland; not having to scramble to catch a plane that day means that I can flex my schedule to match that of whoever’s driving me. One of the writers we had lunch with on the way out came to my hotel that evening. [waves to Amelia Gormley.] We chatted, had dinner together, and chatted some more.

The biggest bomb dropped on the workshop, though, was during the evening sessions, which were all business discussions. Remember Ella Distribution? I mentioned them a couple of months ago — they were set up to distribute indie books by small publishers to bookstores. Well, Ella is gone. It was well organized, with an awesome web site, and had great people working on it, but within less than half a year, the industry changed. Now, not only is Ella no longer necessary, but it can’t compete with the big kids on the playground.

Dean and Sheldon McArthur (Shelly’s one of the best known booksellers in the country) talked to us about what’d changed recently with the distributors. Basically, 1) Baker and Taylor no longer marks books as POD published, and Ingram and the others followed suit; 2) B&T (and the others) now offer POD books at a good discount to booksellers, about 45%, and more if they keep on top of their bills; and 3) B&T (and the others) now allow returns on POD books.

There are indie-pubbed books in bookstores right now. If you go through Createspace, and pay the extra $25 for extended distribution, your books are available to bookstores through their standard distributors, on terms that make stocking them attractive. The only barrier right now is your book’s presentation — mainly cover and summary blurb. (Again, does your cover look professional, or does it look amateur?)

The playing field between an indie-pubbed book and a midlist New York published book is now level when it comes to getting into bookstores.

Shelly talked about how he finds books to buy for his store, through the distributor, through publisher catalogs and promotional material, and through sites like Goodreads, where he’ll go to see what books people might be talking about that he hadn’t heard of. He’s been buying indie books ever since the distributors changed their policies. He doesn’t care where a book comes from so long as it’s a good book, professionally presented, and neither do the readers.

Dean and Kristine Kathryn Rusch are talking about this all month on their blogs, in much more detail. As always, there’s good stuff in the comments, too. I highly recommend you read their posts on the subject. (Actually, if you’re a writer I highly recommend you read their blogs all the time. Lots of great stuff there.)

During all this, I had a deadline on the 15th to get a story turned in for an event running in June on Goodreads, and the story I was writing was getting longer and longer and longer…. [headdesk] When I wasn’t futzing with InDesign during the workshop, I was writing, and after I came home I was still writing. I got it done, a 60K word novel that’ll be available on Goodreads some time in June, and as an e-book on Goodreads and ARe some time after that, depending on where it is in the very long list of books the group’s volunteers have to work on. I’ll be doing a paperback version some time after that. (I did a cover for it at the workshop.)

And now I’m back to writing other things.

The business is changing while we sit here. If we stay on top of the changes, and take advantage of them, they’ll work for us. This is a great time to be a writer, and a wonderful time to be indie publishing, or getting into it if you’re not yet.

Angie

Nightshade Books Unloading Contracts

Via a writers’ mailing list I’m on, plus a bunch of blog posts, Nightshade books, a small SF/Fantasy press, has been having financial difficulties for a couple of years now. They’ve come up with a way to make enough money to pay their writers all the back royalties and late advance money they’re due, which sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, they’re doing it by selling their fiction contracts to another small press called Skyhorse, and Skyhorse will require any writer who agrees to have their contract sold (the rights transferred) to sign a new contract, which gives them only 10% of net on paper book sales. Mike Stackpole explains why this is bad:

The agreement requires authors to accept a royalty rate of 10% of Net income. Net is defined as the amount of money the booksellers and distributors pay Skyhorse—usually 50% of cover price. For me this net amount is a 50% reduction in my royalty rate.

More importantly, net income is illusory. Let’s say that Skyhorse, in order to get more of my books into a store, offers a distributor or chain an extra 30% off, on the condition that they buy an extra dozen books. So, 36 copies of a $15 book pays Skyhorse $189, of which I make $18.90 as opposed to the $27 I’d make if all 36 had been sold at a normal price, or the $54 I’d make under the NSB contract. (Extra discounts for promotion happen all the time, and might even rope in my books to promote another author’s work.) Moreover, the accounting to make sure that all the right amounts were paid will be all but impossible without an audit.

Or as Phil Foglio, whose Girl Genius books are with Nighshade, says, “If I was a monkey, I’d be throwing this.”

Skyhorse is also reducing e-book royalties from 50% to 25%. Someone in the comments to Mike’s post pointed out that 25% of net is industry standard. My response is that 25% of net is a sucktastic standard that the big publishers have all colluded to offer their writers. 50% of net is on the high end of average for a small press. Nightshade’s writers were getting a high-average royalty, and are now told they should be satisfied with half that, because after all, it’s what the big New York publishers offer.

Just because my neighbor got ripped off by his car dealer doesn’t mean I’d volunteer to double the payment I’m making to my own honest dealer.

Skyhorse also wants audio and second serial rights, which Nightshade didn’t have, and they’re not willing to pay anything in advance for them. That’s right, they want two new sets of rights — and audio in particular is picking up and has the potential to be very lucrative — and they’re not willing to advance a dime to the authors for these rights. Authors will have to wait for a 50/50 split on the back end.

Mike Stackpole again:

This can lead us to an interesting situation for which there is ample precedent in the publishing world. The publisher forms a sister corporation to handle audio book production and sales. They sell a property to the sister corporation for a tiny advance and pitiful royalty. The sister company makes the money actually selling the product, and yet the publisher can say that they’re following the letter of the contract because they’re splitting all income half and half. (Harlequin just had a lawsuit dismissed against them for doing a similar thing with ebooks.)

I’m not saying Skyhorse will do this, but someone who buys them out just might. And, it should be noted, that all digital publishing rights are already assigned, in the agreement, to a sister corporation called Start Publishing, LLC. (Start Publishing LLC is a subsidiary of Start Media, a privately held media company with interests in, among other things, feature film production.) Skyhorse and Smart are not buying books here, they’re buying Intellectual Properties, and at a bargain price.

[The Harlequin thing is a whole other issue, but yes, a court just ruled that subbing the rights to a related company for a pittance and then paying the author their percentage on that pittance, rather than on the cover price or what the actual vendor of the book pays, is perfectly legal, even if said subbing to a related company isn’t mentioned in your contract anywhere. Check out whose contract you’re signing, and be suspicious. As SF writer Charlie Stross said, “Contract law is essentially a defensive scorched-earth battleground where the constant question is, ‘If my business partner was possessed by a brain-eating monster from beyond spacetime tomorrow, what is the worst thing they could do to me?'” Personally, I wouldn’t touch Harlequin with a ten foot pole clutched in someone else’s severed hand, for this and other attempts to mess over their writers going back decades.]

Read the rest of Stackpole’s post. I don’t always agree with him, but he explains in great detail why this deal is horrible, and I agree with him completely in this case.

And I see Stackpole just posted a follow-up, where he talks about the lack of numbers in what Nightshade has shared with their authors.

Contract lawyer Passive Guy comments on Mike Stackpole’s posts:

Speaking generally, Michael’s essay describes a horror show of terrible contract provisions in publishing contracts.

What is worse, Skyhorse, the would-be new publisher, didn’t make up a lot of new contract clauses, it just used provisions that are common in the publishing contracts of many publishers, including most large ones.

Again, the fact that a contract clause is common, or even industry standard, doesn’t mean it’s good, or even tolerable.

On io9, Jeremy Lassen, Nightshade’s Editor in Chief made a statement about the situation:

In looking for a buyer, our first priority was to find someone who would make sure all of our authors got paid in full. That was my first priority. I have always promised that while we might be late, authors would eventually get all the money that was due to them. Our second priority was to find buyers who could do justice to the diverse and talented stable of writers that we have at Night Shade. And we wanted someone who would ensure that books under contract would come out and be sold and promoted well, and that books already out would continue to be sold and promoted.

Let me be clear. Under the terms of this deal, all current and back royalties will be paid at the originally contracted rate. All outstanding advances and sub-rights monies owed will be paid at the originally contracted rate.

Let me also be clear… the buyers need a certain amount of the authors to sign off on the deal, or the deal doesn’t happen. I can’t say exactly what will happen if the deal doesn’t go through, but if it doesn’t, there will long period of uncertainty, for Night Shade, and for our authors.

This deal is the last chance I have to keep my promise. This is the last chance I have to make sure that ALL OF MY AUTHORS GET PAID ALL OF THE MONEY THEY ARE OWED. Right now the deal is in the hands of the individual authors, and their agents. I am asking you. Please. Sign off on this deal. Help me make sure all my authors get paid.

Note that if enough authors don’t sign off on the deal, Skyhorse will back off and the company — and all its book contracts — will most likely end up in bankruptcy court. That’s not good for anyone; best case scenario is that the rights are tied up for months while the mess is sorted out. It could be years. It could be forever. And even if someone buys the contracts (or some subset of the contracts) there’s no guarantee that the new publisher will be any good at the business, or will have any interest in treating the writers well.

I’m willing to give Lassen the benefit of the doubt and assume that he honestly believes this is best for everyone. His goal is to make sure that all the writers are paid the money they’re currently owed, which also gets him and his company out of debt and lets him walk away knowing he did right by everyone. Okay, it’s clear why he’d want that.

But for the writers, it’s not that simple. All right, it’s good that they’ll get paid money they’re currently owed. Even SFWA thinks this is a good thing — they’ve recommended that their members who are caught up in this sign off on the deal. But as Stackpole points out, getting a stack of cash (of whatever size) right now is only part of the situation, and not necessarily the largest part. Is it worth it to get money you’re owed now, if it means getting (best case) a fraction of what you expected to make on future sales of these books? Forever, because this new deal is a life-of-copyright contract with easily weaseled reversion language. (See Stackpole’s analysis for a discussion of that.)

I suppose if a writer is owed a lot of money on a completed series or a bunch of stand-alone books, and is in dire financial trouble and needs that cash now, this looks like a good deal. And it might even be a good deal, for that writer. But if you’re a writer like Stackpole or Foglio, who each has an in-progress series published through Nightshade, this deal could slash your income, or if things go really wrong, prevent you from continuing your series.

Foglio says, “So what’s going to happen? Don’t know. unlike many authors, I actually have an entertainment lawyer look over our contracts before we sign them, so I’m hoping we’re covered, but this is by no means a given.”

For anyone who didn’t have an entertainment lawyer look over their contract, or for anyone whose contract still has gotchas in it, no matter who went over it before signing, this is a coin toss. If enough writers balk at signing on and the deal falls through, everyone’s contracts end up in bankruptcy court and that could be very bad for everyone. But there are writers whose best interests are definitely not served by signing. Unfortunately this means that the writers who shouldn’t sign are going to be feeling some pressure not only from Lassen, but also from the other writers whose situations require that the deal go through. No one’s told the writers how many of them have to sign on to satisfy Skyhorse, so everyone’s guessing and no one knows how many might be enough.

Unless Darkhorse gets a White Knight offer like Triskelion did in 2007, this is pretty much guaranteed to be bad for at least some people, maybe a lot, and quite possibly everyone. And at this point, I doubt anyone’s going to step in and make Darkhorse an offer anywhere near the one Triskelion got, since it hasn’t happened yet in the years that they’ve been in trouble.

Whatever happens, I hope as many writers as possible come out of it in decent shape and with their book rights and their on-going income intact. For the rest of us, we can be damn careful whom we sign with, do our due diligence before we sign, and keep in mind Stross’s comment about contract law.

Angie

Scalzi Comments on Random House/Hydra Deal

John Scalzi doesn’t make a major point of discussing big publishers messing over writers, so when he does, you know it’s bad. He looks over a deal sheet Random House’s new electronic imprint Hydra is offering, and points out a few red flags.

* No advance.

* The author is charged “set-up costs” for editing, artwork, sale, marketing, publicity — i.e., all the costs a publisher is has been expected to bear. The “good news” is that the author is not charged up front for these; they’re taken out of the backend. If the book is ever published in paper, costs are deducted for those, too. [Note from Angie: there’s also a permanent 10% of net charge for the on-going sales and marketing that Hydra most likely won’t be doing.]

* The contract asks for primary and subsidiary rights for the term of copyright.

Click through for more detail and some commentary I found pretty entertaining. It’s clear, though, that Random House is looking to squeeze as much money from ignorant baby writers as it can, while hoping to pay out little or nothing.

Also recall that “term of copyright” these days means your lifetime plus seventy years. Your grandkids will still be getting royalty statements from Hydra saying, “Nope, haven’t made up those costs yet.”

This reminds me of the electronic “imprints” set up by some of the other big publishers through AuthorHouse, which were clearly meant to be cash cows for the sponsoring publishers. It looks like someone at Random House figured they could rip off writers just as well on their own, without having to hire another company to do it. Eliminate the middle-man and make more money, right? And hey, some bright RH executive thought of taking the rights for the duration of copyright, which even AuthorHouse, as horrible as its rep might be, doesn’t do. Go you, Random House! Way to be eviller than a notoriously deceptive vanity press!

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, SFWA has issued a statement declaring that Hydra is not a qualifying market. [cough]

Angie

February Stuff

I’ve been on the Oregon coast for the last week and a half, doing two workshops back-to-back. It was a grueling experience, as the single workshop I did last year was. And it was awesome, and I’ll definitely be doing it again. I got lots of writing done, and I SOLD A STORY!! Which got the all-caps treatment because it’s my first professional sale, as in more than five cents per word, holy freaking yay!!! 😀

I’m going to have a story in Fiction River’s anthology How to Save the World, edited by John Helfers. (Scroll down a bit — it’s the second book.) Holy sheep, I’m gonna be in a book with David Gerrold!

I’ve been trying to break into mainstream SF/F for ages, so this is a huge deal for me. I’m still getting this really silly grin on my face whenever I think about it, so I beg pardon of anyone who sees me and thinks o_O about my state of mind. 🙂

I wrote almost 29K words in February, which is good — I’m still well ahead of quota for making my 2013 goal. My wordcount meter says I’m at 27%, so I’m where I was hoping to be at about a week into April. That’s great; I love having padding on my quota. I was hoping for more in February (January was over 35K) but there were several days when I was in the workshop and frantically reading rather than writing. I count those days well spent, though. I also killed my streak, but I was anticipating that, too. No prob; doing an Oregon workshop is one of the better reasons I can think of for having days with no actual writing.

The workshops I did were The Business and Craft of Short Fiction, and the Anthology Workshop. The Antho Workshop is a repeat for me; it’s worth doing over and over, and many writers do. I took a ton of notes, especially at the first one, and learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know before, which is the point. (Wow, a story that’s in a continually extended option with Hollywood can make you a buttload of money, even if they never make the movie!) Great info; it’s going to take a while to absorb it all.

Currently I’m sitting in a hotel room in Portland; I have a flight home at 2:30. I’ll do some writing today, then fall into bed (ten hours last night, still not caught up) and my next Thing To Go To is a dentist’s appointment on Thursday.

Oh, yeah, didn’t blog about that before. :/ So on Wednesday two weeks ago, Jim and I were having dinner at this little cafe across the street. They have these really good ice cream sandwiches — two chocolate chip cookies, made in-house, with in-house ice cream in the middle, then freeze the whole thing. So I was eating my ice cream sandwich when one of my crowns (upper incisor) snapped off at the gum line. 🙁 Luckily I had a root canal before they put the crown on, so it didn’t hurt; I was just damn startled, and then all ACK!! when I realized what’d happened. And that I was getting on a plane Saturday morning to go to the workshops. [headdesk]

I went to my dentist the next morning and they put in a very fragile, non-functional, temporary tooth-like object, cemented to the teeth to either side on the back. I was warned not to bite anything, and not even to brush. And when your dentist tells you not to brush, you know your fragile dental work is FRAGILE. I was very careful, but it was a bit wiggly within about 24 hours. I had some vague hope that it’d last at least until the second workshop, but no luck; it came out just a bit over three days after having been installed. So I’ve been going just over a week now with this huge gap in my front teeth, and talking a little funny.

I feel like I’m seven again. 😛

Anyway, this is fixable, although it’s going to be expensive. Civil Service has notoriously lousy dental insurance, and the Pacific Northwest has notoriously expensive dental care, for whatever reason. So the bill for an implant is going to be very large, and our insurance isn’t picking up a dollar of it. This is our tentatively planned cruise for this year, going into my mouth.

I just hope my other crowns last longer. At least I know to stay away from the Market Cafe’s ice cream sandwiches; that was the most expensive dessert I’ve ever eaten, by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Angie

Serials, or, How to Make Your Readers Hate You

Can we talk about serials for a minute?

I know serialization is supposed to be the hot new way of sucking extra money out of readers. (Oops, was I not supposed to say that out loud?) But you know, most readers can actually do the, like, second grade math required to figure out how much the whole story cost them. If your short novel is coming out in five two-dollar parts, or your normal sized novel is coming out in ten two-dollar parts, a lot of people are going to do the above-mentioned math and figure out that you’re ripping them off. ‘Cause seriously, ten bucks for a short novel in electronic form is ludicrous. So is twenty bucks for a regular sized e-novel. If this is how you price your “serial,” then you (either the writer or the publisher, whoever came up with the scheme in any given case) has absolutely no moral ground to stand on when readers start complaining, in print, on their blogs or on Goodreads or wherever else. Because that? [points up] That’s a major rip-off.

Better yet is when the writer/publisher/whoever fails to let readers know up front that a story is, indeed, a serial. When a reader has bought what they think is a short story or a novelette and is reading along only to find that the story cuts off abruptly at the end, leaving them hanging, needing to wait..wait…wait for the next installment, and fork over another chunk of cash to get it? Yeah, you’re going to get complaints about that, too. And again, you’ll have no grounds whatsoever to whine about those complaints, even when they’re made publicly. The reader who posts to their blog or leaves a comment on a vendor site or a social reader’s site to complain about your stealth-serial isn’t being mean or sabotaging you or whatever. They’re making a legitimate complaint about your lack of up-front disclosure that you were selling them a fraction of a story.

Let’s look at an example. I don’t usually call out specifics when I’m writing about a general trend, but this one’s unfortunately perfect.

Monty Gets Arrested is up on Goodreads with four ratings and a 3.0 average. This isn’t a lot of ratings, and the average might improve with time. But what’s significant here are the comments. One commenter, who left a one-star rating, says, “It’s not even half a story.” Another, who left two stars, says, “Not bad, just .. way too short. More like a chapter than a book.” A third said:

Ok I am not rating this right now cause I’m mad.
I didn’t realize that this was a short story to be continued….
And not continued soon, but a whole month away. I just read Anitra Lynn McLeod series Seven Brothers for McBride and I had to wait a whole 7 seven days for the next installment. And let me tell you that was a raging 7 days and each Saturday Anitra came through with the story.
Now I have to wait a month for the next installment? This was ok but I don’t know that I care enough to ‘post-it note myself’ 30 days out.

Wow, great marketing strategy this turned out to be.

Someone came along and commented to one of the reviews, explaining that Monty is a five-part series, with parts to be released once a month. I’m assuming this person knows the writer, or works for the publisher, or whatever. Okay, that’s good information to have. Why didn’t the publisher give it to us? Because this good information should’ve been given to the readers before they spent their money.

Monty’s page on ARe (a popular e-book vendor site specializing in romance) says nothing at all about the book being the first part of a serial. The full title is Monty Gets Arrested (Marshall’s Park #1), but that’s also how series books are often titled; it looks to a savvy reader like there are going to be more books about Marshall’s Park. Which is fine; if you like Monty, you’ll probably be interested in reading more books set in the same place, by the same writer. But nowhere on this page does it say “Serial,” or “Story to be continued,” or anything similar. The reader (potential customer at this point) is given no hint that they’re not buying a complete product, or that they’ll have to pay more money to get the rest of the story.

Obligatory statement that I’m not writing this to rag on the author. I have three of her books on my to-buy shelf on Goodreads, which means at the very least she can write good summary blurbs. Her total average rating on Goodreads is 3.82, which is very good; she can clearly write stories that readers enjoy, and I expect to enjoy a few of them when I get around to it. For that matter, the summary blurb on Monty makes it sound like a fun story. I’m betting the problem here is with a publisher who thought they could make an eventual $9.95 for a 57K word novel (assuming all five parts cost the same and are about the same length) instead of the more usual $4-5.99 a novel that length would bring in if sold as one book, and who apparently hoped no one would notice or complain about their shenanigans.

I’m not going to say that serialization is a bad concept entirely. Rather, I’ll say I’ve never seen it implemented well, in e-book form. Serialization goes back to the days when newsstands were full of magazines carrying fiction (heck, it goes back to the days when there were newsstands) and many of those magazines serialized novels a chapter at a time, or a chunk of chapters at a time. Purchasing the magazine got you a lot more than that issue’s serial, though. Even if the serial was the major selling point of the magazine (as magazines with Dickens’s work often were, as I understand) the fact is that there was still more to read once you were done with the serial installment. Even if the only effect was psychological, it’s the psychological effect of realizing that you just paid money for a fifth or a tenth or a fifteenth of a story that I’m talking about here. A reader who’ll pay $2.99 for a 12K-word novelette — a complete story — might well balk at paying $2.99 for a 12K-word chunk of a longer novel, when they realize that the whole novel is going to cost them $15, and that they’re used to paying $5.99 at most for a single (complete story) e-book of that length. The psychological effect is exactly the problem, and saying it shouldn’t be that way doesn’t make it vanish.

What it comes down to is that serializing a longer work and selling the parts individually is a sales and marketing strategy. The publisher is trying to make more money selling the parts separately than they’d make selling the work as a whole. Wanting to make money isn’t a problem — everyone who doesn’t consider this a hobby wants to make money. The problem is when you’re doing it so blatantly that your customer can’t help noticing your hand rooting around in their pocket.

Some readers like serials, and are maybe even willing to pay more to get each chunk of story as soon as possible. Okay, that’s great; selling serials to people who like them is a good idea. If you’re targetting readers who like serials, then let the readers know up front that you’re publishing a serial. There’s no excuse for letting someone buy what they think is a complete short story or novelette, only to spring the surprise on them at the end that the story is incomplete. Announce in the marketing material — within the summary blurb would be a good place — that this is part of a serial, with more parts to come (and previous parts if it’s not the first). Give the readers the information they need to make a valid decision whether to hand you money for your product. Some people will decide not to buy, yes. But the alternative is to deal in bad faith, and have people complaining about you in public afterwards. This kind of behavior might make you a few more dollars now, but it’ll lose you customers in the long run.

If you’re going to sell a serial, act in good faith. Let people know what they’re buying before they give you money, and then see how many do. However much money you make when everyone knows what they’re buying? That’s the measure of whether serials are successful.

Angie

But They’re PROFESSIONALS

You still hear people talking about how of course any real/good/whatever writer would want to be signed with one of the big NY publishers. After all, that’s being really published, being a real writer. It’s all about working with professionals who know what they’re doing. I’ve heard indie writers called selfish for wanting control over their own editing and covers and such. Because of course that’s the classic definition of a selfish person — someone who doesn’t want to fob the work off on others. Clearly that makes perfect sense.

But mostly all the snarky criticism of indie writers is about the belief that no mere writer can possibly do as good a job publishing and promoting their book as The Professionals can. Despite many, many anecdotes to the contrary.

Here’s another one, from Lawrence Block’s blog, in a post aptly titled Great Moments in Contemporary Publishing:

An independent bookseller I know landed a major bestselling author for a rare in-store signing. He got the word out, took advance phone and interent orders for signed copies, and called his sales rep at the publisher to make sure the books would reach him in plenty of time.

“You’ve ordered 450 copies,” the rep told him. “I’m afraid we can only ship you 200.”

Why, fort God’s sake? Hadn’t they printed enough?

“No, it’s policy,” he was told. “Two hundred books is our maximum order. We can’t take the chance of huge returns, or credit problems.”

“But the copies are sold,” the store owner said. “I’ve got prepaid orders for them, and I’ll pay in advance myself, and take them from you on a non-returnable basis. There’s no risk, and there won’t be any returns, and that’s 450 copies of a $30 book at the usual 40% off, which makes it an $8100 cash order. So what’s the problem?”

He got nowhere.

“But the author’s gonna go crazy when she hears this! You think you guys’ll ever get another book from her?”

Nowhere! Rules blah blah blah. Policy blah blah blah. “And be grateful we’re sending you the 200 books.”

Click through for more, including what the bookstore owner did to get around the publisher’s idiocy.

All I can say is, this kind of professionalism I can do without. [sigh]

Angie

Who Has Final Say?

Kris Rusch’s latest Business Rusch post is about working with editors. It’s a great piece and well worth reading.

One of the things she talks about is who has the final say in what your manuscript looks like. She’s referencing another article written by an editor who clearly works for a publisher that contractually gives the final say to your content editor; you can discuss and negotiate and try to persuade, but bottom line, at this house it’s the editor who says what words end up in your book once it’s for sale. This isn’t a great situation, especially if your editor has a completely different vision for your book than you do.

This reminded me of something I read in Laura Resnick’s book Rejection, Romance and Royalties, which is a collection of her columns and articles and such from various publications and places. (Also a great book, well worth digging up and reading.) One article is about awful glitches, and there’s a doozy perpetrated by an editor working for an imprint of Kensington called Precious Gems.

This is on pages 127-8 in my copy:

Trish Jensen, writing under the pseudonym Trish Graves, sold them a novel called Just This Once in which the hero, among other things, mentors a teenage boy, steering him away from street gangs and toward organized sports. So you may imagine the author’s shock when, upon reading her galleys, she discovered that the editor had changed the boy into a raccoon.

(I think I speak for everyone here when I say, “What?”)

When Jensen asked the editor why on earth she had rewritten a teenager as a small nocturnal carnivore, the editor replied that the hero’s mentoring the boy could be misconstrued as having undertones of pedophilia. (All together now: “Huh?”) So the obvious solution was to rewrite the kid as an animal.

I am not making this up.

Jensen says, “I screamed to high heaven, my agent screamed to high heaven. We wanted the book pulled. Kensington said it was too late. They couldn’t pull it, and it was too late to turn it back into what it had been.” Understandably, she adds, “I was heartsick for a long time. To this day I can’t look at that book.”

The lesson here is that when you allow an editor absolute control over your work, as that Precious Gems contract stipulated, the results can be worse than your wildest nightmares. Jensen made sure her next contract with Kensington didn’t have that clause, and she warned other Precious Gems writers about it, too. She’s wryly philosophical about the experience these days, saying, “Now I’m known as ‘the raccoon author.'”

As for Precious Gems, the imprint no longer exists. It folded within a few years of the raccoon episode. A rare example of things turning out as they should in the publishing industry.

Seriously, a raccoon?? Laura doesn’t go into any detail here, but I have to wonder, did the editor do the fairly extensive rewrite it (sounds like it) would’ve taken to actually make the raccoon character fit into the book — like, instead of a boy who was drifting toward a gang and was steered toward sports, have it be a raccoon who was raiding trash cans and messing up people’s attics, who was trained or rehabilitated by the Guy? That would’ve taken a LOT of work, I would think, if this is any kind of a significant subplot in the novel. Or OTOH did the editor just change out the boy for a raccoon, but have it still playing Little League or whatever? Did the raccoon character still have dialogue after that edit…? o_O Incredible either way.

Kris strongly recommends never signing a contract that gives final say to the editor, nor signing away your moral rights. I’m sure very few professional editors would ever consider raccooning one of your characters, or anything similarly outrageous, but then I’m sure Ms. Jensen never expected her editor to do that either.

Read Kris’s post, and be careful of your contracts.

Angie