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.

New Year

I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few weeks, so I thought I’d crawl out of my cave and say hi. I’ve been sick a few times, got to know more of the folks working the local ER. I missed holidays with my family because I’ve been afraid to travel; having to start from scratch to break in a new ER staff, convince a bunch of strange doctors that I know what’s going on and how to treat it, when at times I have to argue with the local ER staff who have my history in their records, just feels like too high a hurdle when I’m already feeling lousy. All together, my give-a-damn broke down about halfway through November, and I didn’t feel like getting it fixed. I’ve read a few million words, played a lot of solitaire, and generally vegged for a while. I’m actually feeling eager to get back to the writing, so I guess the downtime did me some good.

My 2013 writing goal was 250,000 words. Even taking the last seven weeks or so of the year off, I managed 304,169, which feels pretty awesome. It’s the most I’ve ever done since I started keeping track, and I’m pretty sure it’s the most words of fiction I’ve ever written in a year. I had two novels come out this year — Captive Magic and The Executive Lounge — and one short story in an anthology that paid pro rates, another first for me that I felt pretty good about. I finished eight other short stories, which are making the rounds on the pro-pay side. All together, I’m pretty happy with 2013.

My 2014 writing goal is 300,000 words. It’s obviously not a stretch goal, but I know myself; if I push too far and fall behind at some point, I’ll get depressed and it’ll be twice as hard to catch up. Almost a third of a million words is still pretty decent, and if I pass it, that’s a bonus.

I’m looking forward to the coming year, and I hope everyone else is too.

Angie

But What About Readers and Reviewers?

There’s a discussion over at Jessewave’s that evolved into a thread with wider interest to fiction writers in general, so I brought one of my comments (and a bit of what I responded to) back here. Rick Reed wrote the original post, talking about women in m/m romances, and of course the conversation strayed over to the question of m/f sex in m/m books. For those of you who aren’t into romance, or aren’t into m/m, there’s a fairly sturdy divide between readers who are willing to follow a character’s story wherever it leads, and readers who, in their own words, don’t want anyone getting “girl cooties” in their m/m romance. You can probably tell what side of the debate I’m on. [cough]

Anyway, Carolyne wondered in comments whether it wouldn’t be practical to just avoid story elements that readers have said they dislike, in the name of maximizing sales and reviews, then said:

I don’t say all the above in a cranky way, but in asking myself whether it simply makes much more sense to make a reasonable compromise in one’s writing, to be practical and give a story its best chances in the world.

My response got kind of long, as is often the case. I posted it there, but thought I’d put it here too, because it has a larger application than just romance:

This is a question each writer has to answer for her/himself. My answer is no. I won’t compromise my work because a few people are loud about what they dislike. They’re entitled to their opinions, but my writing is mine.

Another way to think about it is that every subgenre, and quite a few full-blown genres, started out as a writer here or there writing something completely different, something that nobody had ever written before, despite the fact that there was no sign or clue that the readers of whatever the closest genre was “wanted” that kind of work. Paranormal romance started back in the 70s, and IIRC wasn’t even considered romance half the time — you don’t find Yarbro’s Saint Germain books in the Romance shelves even now, and that’s the first I recall. “Weird” romances snuck into the mainstream through the occasional one-off — anyone remember The Elsingham Portrait? — and then in the 80s, time travel romance were huge for a few years. There were a bunch of books on the shelf with pocket watches on their spines, so TT fans could find them, while people who preferred “normal” romances just thought they were weird and dumb. Fantasy romances and SF romances (oh, excuse me — “futuristic” romances) appeared in the late 80s as subgenres, when there had been little or nothing like them before in romance. Enough people glommed on to keep them going, which people who preferred “real” romances about doctors and secretaries and cake bakers and decorators made snarky comments. As late as 2008 a columnist at a major romance blog (now defunct) was griping about how there were “too many” of those weird romances around, about how they were pushing out the “normal” contemporary romances. She was kind enough to allow that there should be “a few” of the weird romances published, but only the very best. (Nice of her to allow people like me a few of The Very Best of the subgenres I like most — maybe she’d be the one to vet them for me?)

What would romance — het or GLBT — look like now if writers who love writing about vampires and aliens and mages and interstellar ambassadors and shifters had read the gripes and snarks of people who only want contemporary romances, and thought, “Gee, if I write this stuff I really love, nobody will read or review it! I’d better toe the line and write about doctors and secretaries and dog walkers, because I want my books to sell and be reviewed!”

Will writing what you love yourself limit your market? Sure. That’s always true. If you write mystery romances, there are people who don’t like those. If you write about shifters, there are people who’ll eyeroll and move on. If you write about cross-dressing main characters, there are people who aren’t into that. If you write BDSM romances, plenty of people will avoid them. That’s their choice to make, and always has been. I know that no matter what I write, I’ll never capture 100% of the market. Not even the biggest, most popular NYT bestsellers capture 100% of their target market, no matter how many marketing weasels call something “the must-read book of the year.”

Will writing certain things limit your reviews? Sure. Again, that’s always true. If I put a m/f sex scene in a book, Wave won’t review it. She pays the hosting fees, so the site runs by her rules. That’s not a limitation on what I can or should write, though, and I doubt very much that even Wave thinks it should be.

I’ll write what I want to write, and let each book find its audience. Some audiences are going to be bigger than others — that’s how the business works. Trying to guess ahead of time what’s going to be huge or what’s going to be smaller, and then writing only what you think will be huge, is a fool’s game, though. Coincidentally, Dean Wesley Smith posted about something like this just a day or two ago — The Myth: To sell either to editors or readers, you must write what is hot. Dean’s answer to this question is, “Kick all the editor and agent and online board voices out of your writing office and write what makes you passionate or angry or excited.” That, right there — do that, or IMO there’s no point in being a writer. We’re certainly not here to get rich, right? If your number one goal is making money, there are a lot of easier, less chancy ways of going about it. [wry smile] If I’m not having fun, if I’m not writing what I want and what I love, then I have no reason to be here.

Angie

HELL NO: The Sensible Horror Film

This is awesome. Why aren’t all horror movies like this? I mean, okay, there’d have to be some more actual danger to make a good movie, but that just means the writers have to work harder to put characters with functional brains into dangerous and scary situations. Is it really that hard? I do think this is a writing issue, although I get that in Hollywood, the writer is generally the omega dog in the pack and isn’t allowed to do a good job even if he/she wants to and is capable. I wish Hollywood would let its writers create characters who don’t have great, gaping chasms between their ears. I might watch more horror movies if they did.

Until that happens, check this one out. 🙂

Thanks to Pam Singer for sending me the link to this!

Angie

Literary Segregation

Hal Duncan wrote an awesome post on segregation in our fictional culture, and everyone who writes or reads (or watches TV or movies, or makes or consumes any other kind of fictional media) should read it. Powerful stuff.

The status quo in the media, in our narratives, is segregation. It’s a state in which members of abject groups–black, queer, whatever–are deemed to not belong as main characters. This is the segregation of not being able to sit at the front of the bus. The abject may be allowed in as an exception if this “serves the plot” if there’s a reason for the character’s gayness. This is the segregation of being stopped in a white neighborhood and challenged on your purpose in being there. The abject may be allowed in as Gay Best Friends or Magic Negros in service of the straight, white protagonist. This is the segregation of travelling into a white neighbourhood to work as a cleaner in someone’s house.

Yes, this. This is what’s going on whenever someone says they don’t want to read a story about a woman, because they’re not into all that shoes-dating-mommy stuff, as if any narrative about a woman must be about “woman things.” Or when someone else says they don’t want to watch a movie about a black character, because “I don’t want someone preaching at me about racism.” As if any narrative about a black character must feature racism as the driving force of the plot.* Or when someone protests watching a TV show about a gay character, because “homophobia, blah-blah-blah, and besides I don’t wanna see two guys doing it.” As though every narrative about gay people has to be blatantly sexual, and must focus on homophobia.**

Those stereotyped cliches are the uniforms Duncan talks about, the special roles people who aren’t white/straight/able-bodied/male/Christian/and-so-on have to wear to justify their place in a “normal” narrative. A story can have a black protag only if the story is about Black Problems. A story can have a gay protag only if the plot is centered on Gay Issues. A story can have a female protag only if it focuses on Women’s Stuff. The idea that a mystery could have a black detective, or that a war story could have be about a female officer, or that a thriller could be about a gay spy — without the protag’s blackness or femaleness or gayness being a key to the situation or conflict — well, that just doesn’t occur to very many people. The default protag is the straight, able-bodied, Christian white man, and it takes deliberate thought for most writers to reach for someone else, unless they’re writing that Black Story, or Woman’s Story, or Gay Story, or Blind Story, or Autistic Story, or Jewish Story, or whatever other “special” narrative they’re crafting, aimed at a “special” (meaning small, niche, specialty) audience.

Only by recognising that system for what it is can we deal with it, as we must and as we can. If we can desegregate the buses, we can desegregate narrative. When it comes to fictional representation of the abject, if we can understand what we are striving for as desegregation, articulate it as such, there is no argument against this. Otherwise? Simply demand better treatment for queer characters, and they’ll say we’re demanding special treatment; they’ll call it political correctness. They’ll say we want leather armchairs at the back of the bus. Simply demand more queer protagonists, and they’ll say we’re demanding quotas. They’ll say we want seats set aside for us at the front, even at the expense of some poor old white fart called Art.

Demand desegregation, and all this straw man bullshit is exposed for what it is.

This. It’s not about quotas or “special rights” or political correctness. It’s about being allowed to sit in front of the bus, about being allowed to be the protagonist, to save the world and solve the mystery and find love and win the competition, and anything else that straight white guys have been doing in fiction for centuries.

Read the whole thing, because Hal Duncan has a powerful voice, and a clear perspective that sees past the crap that’s been there so long it’s become invisible.

Angie

*I won’t even get into how someone who reacts that strongly against hearing about racism is probably the exact sort of person who needs to hear about it.

**See previous note about people who recoil from hearing about bigotry being the ones who need to hear about it.

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