Sunday, March 27, 2011

How Vampires Killed Publishing


You know me. If I can possibly blame anything on vampires—from the Russian Revolution to the current price of gas—I will. So here’s my theory about why publishing houses are crumbling, book stores are closing, and tens of thousands of writers are wondering how they are going to feed their families this year. It has absolutely no basis in fact, so please don’t look for one.

From: Editor @ Bigass Publishing
To: Pathetic Writer @ Nowheresville
Subject: Sorry, Charlie

Dear Pathetic,
I’m afraid I have bad news. Despite the fact that your last two coming- of- age novels set in Small Town, USA, have received excellent reviews and done reasonably well for their genre, and even though your new proposal about a young nun who is struck blind and receives the gift of healing while on an archealogical dig in Syria does have a certain appeal, I’m afraid we will not be offering another contract at this point. The consensus of the editorial committee is that, while your writing is lyrical, your characters deeply and convincingly drawn, and your storytelling ability can’t be faulted, the whole just doesn’t make for a saleable novel. Best of luck in placing this work elsewhere.

Your (former) Editor

TO: Editor @ Bigass Publishing
FROM: Pathetic Writer @ Nowheresville
SUBJECT: Re: Sorry, Charlie

Dear Editor,
But I’ve worked for you for five years! My fans are begging for a sequel! I just bought a house! I don’t understand—lyrical writing, convincing characters, good storytelling—what else do you need to make a saleable novel? Isn’t there something I can do to make this story work for you?

Pathetic Writer

From: Editor @ Bigass Publishing
To: Pathetic Writer @ Nowheresville
Subject: Re:Sorry, Charlie

Dear Pathetic,
As you know, I love your work and really want to buy something from you, but please understand we have to be fiscally responsible. Lyrical writing, convincing characters, and good storytelling just don’t work for our list right now. I suggest you study what we are currently publishing and try to adapt your story accordingly. Charlie and the Vampire Slayers, for example, has done very well for us, so I guess my question to you is: Does she have to be a nun?
Best regards,
Your (former) editor


TO: Editor @ Bigass Publishing
FROM: Pathetic Writer @ Nowheresville
SUBJECT: Sister Sunshine, Vampire

Dear Editor,
Attached as a Word document please find my proposal for my new vampire thriller, Sister Sunshine, Vampire. I’ve taken your advice to heart and have tried hard to find something that will fit with your current list. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Fondly,
Pathetic Writer


To: Pathetic Writer @ Nowheresville
From: Editor @ Bigass Publishing
Subject: re: Sister Sunshine, Vampire

Dear Pathetic,
I’m so pleased you’ve accepted our offer for a six-book series of Sister Sunshine books! I’m delighted to be working with you again, and can’t wait to receive your manuscript.

BTW hope to see you this year at DragonCon, FantasyCon, SciFi Con and RWA, and don’t forget to get started on that blog!
Cheers,
Your Editor


To: Editor @ Bigass Publishing
From: AgentofMany @ Bigass Literary
Subject: Congratulations!

Dear Editor,
Congrats on snagging the deal of the century with Sister Sunshine! I agree these books are bound to make publishing history (although I confess I will miss the lyrical writing,deeply drawn characters and convincing storytelling of Pathetic Writer’s Somewhere USA books, which I find strangely lacking in the vampire series. I suppose it’s because they are written to such tight deadlines). I recently signed two clients on proposals similar to Sister Sunshine; would you be interested in taking a look?

Let’s have lunch next week!

Agent @ Bigass Literary


To: Agent @Bigass Literary
From: Editor@ Bigass Publishing
Subject: re: Congratulations!

Send them on!

Editor


************Press Release************

FROM: Bigass Publishing, NY NY

SUBJECT: Multi-Million Dollar Deal

For Immediate Release

Bigass Publishing announced today that, after a spirited bidding war, they have acquired World English language rights to Vampire Space Lawyer , the first in a planned 8 book series, for publication in early spring, at a final offer of 6.4 million dollars. “Vampire books are our strongest sellers,” said B.A. Publisher, President of Bigass Publishing. “We see no signs of this trend fading any time in the near future.”


To: Editor@Bigass Publishing
From: LiteraryWriter@ Patheticville
Subject: My next book?

Dear Editor,
I just wanted to make sure you received the proposal for My Next Great Work of Literature, the follow-up to the Nobel-prize nominee Debut Work of Literature. I know you’re busy, but it has been eight months sent I sent you the proposal, and since I was the youngest writer ever to win the Book of the Year Award I did expect to hear from you by now. I’m anxious to get started on this masterpiece, so I hope we can begin discussing terms soon.

I hope all is well with you.

Best wishes,
Literary


To: LiteraryWriter@ Patheticville
From: Editor@Bigass Publishing
Subject: re: My next book?

Dear Literary Writer—
I’m sorry. Who are you?

Editor and Sr.VP,
Bigass Publishing

FOUR YEARS LATER:

TO: Sales@ BigAss Publishing
FROM: PREZ@BigAss Publishing
SUBJECT: Vampires

What do you mean, there’s been a 20% decline in sales of vampire books? Our entire inventory is tied up in vampire books! You’re fired! The Editor of Vampire Books is Fired! All her writers are fired! So is her assistant, her cover designers, and her marketing people! I’m not throwing good money after bad! We have to be fiscally responsible!

And get me something about angels, will you?

******************************************

Okay, every now and then, even I have to get a little snarky.   Because the best thing about my books is that there are absolutely no vampires in them (werewolves are a different story).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's March, and I'm reading...

Patrick Taylor’s An Irish Country Courtship, of course!


There is something about these Irish Country books that, for me, define the word “cozy”, although I’m quite sure that in terms of genre they are not categorized that way. They transport me to a quiet and peaceful world, where folks tend to meander rather than stride, where the problems are real but manageable, and where no one ever, ever texts. This is a world I want to live in. But because I can’t, I look forward once or twice a year to visiting there.

As I look back over my reading life I realize that my love affair with peaceful, orderly worlds is decades old. I discovered the novels of Georgette Heyer when I was a teenager and devoured every one, pulling them off the library shelves like they were candy waiting to be unwrapped. Of course I realize that these books were technically Regency romances, but they were at heart stories about a kinder, gentler world where the rules of society were clearly understood and observed, where problems were small and easily solved, and where, in the end, everything turned out all right. And no one ever texted.

As a young woman I adored Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” mysteries. I couldn’t name to this day even one of the crimes that the cats solved, but I’ll never forget Qwilleran’s big apple barn and the colorful characters of Moose County. At the same time I discovered  Elizabeth Peters' Egyptian mysteries, which I very much doubt are classified as cozies. But to me they are just that—comfortable, comforting, familiar. They take me away to a place where, even when the bad guys are chasing, I feel safe.

I found the same kind of easy reassurance in the Jan Karon’s Mitford novels. I love Margaret Maron’s Judge Knott series, not for the clever plotting or derring-do, but because when I settle down to read one it feels like coming home. I’m cozy there.

Of course in between escapes to these warm and comfy places I’ll visit fistula clinics in Ethiopia, drug dens in L.A., bombings in Ireland, massacres in Kuwait, ice floes in the North Atlantic; I’ll commune with serial killers, burnt-out cops, hard-assed prosecuters, sex offenders and junkies. I’ll plod through the history of the automobile and soar to another galaxy, doing my best to avoid vampires along the way. But at the end of the day it’s nice to know there is a Patrick Taylor in the world, or an Elizabeth Peters waiting for me. Sometimes you just need to relax.

I realize that now that in writing the Raine Stockton Dog Mystery series and the Ladybug Farm series—which are two very different types of books—I wanted to give readers the same feeling of comfort, familiarity and ease that I have with Maron or Karon or Taylor. I want them to settle back and enjoy a slower paced world that probably doesn’t exist much outside of imagination, a place where neighbors still know your name and problems are fairly manageable and no one ever texts. I want them to feel cozy.

There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world. There’s no doubt even more to come. But today, after a long hard winter, I’ll make myself a cup of tea, warm up some blueberry scones, close the door against the harsh March wind and settle back with a good book.

Boy, do I ever deserve it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Worst Book EVER

You know I rarely give bad reviews. I respect the work of the author—however misled he/she might have been—too much to publicly defile it. I know what it takes to write 70,000 words. I know they can’t all be jewels. But O.M.G. I have just read the worst book ever written…

And it was mine.

The heroine was so stupid I wanted to slap her. Get a life, already! Are you supposed to be real, or did you just step out of a Marvel comic? Ever heard of a little thing called backbone?? Grow a set, already!

The hero at least had two dimensions: flat, and flatter. Excuse me, even actors need motivation. Do you have any background whatsoever or did you spring full grown, Glock in hand, from the mind of a singularly demented writer? Are we supposed to believe that dialogue? Give me a break!

And the plot! Don’t get me started. First of all, can we say Paranoid Delusional? And pul-eeze, it’s the freakin’ 21st century. Ever heard of a little thing called CSI? Not that hard to solve a crime, cupcake. Just pay attention.

I tell you, I had my finger on the delete button. I have never been so close to pushing it. And yet…

It was kind of an intriguing premise. There were parts of the story that really left me breathless. Surely there was something worth saving . There had to be a way to tell this story that was gripping, heart-rending, contemporary, and didn’t make me want to track down the protagonists, wherever they might be in happily-ever-after land, and do a Charlie Manson.

Two weeks of sleepless nights later, I came back to the manuscript with a fresh eye. And I saw immediately that what it needed was a unifying motif. Three paragraphs. Done. And as for Ms.Too-Stupid-To-Live Heroine, there really was only one character flaw that was making me crazy. Global search and replace; delete. Done. Hey, I kind of like her now. She’s okay. In fact, I want her to live; not just live, but triumph. I’m pulling for you, baby. You can do it. I believe in you! And the hero—well, he really was only doing the best he could, given his leading lady. A nip here, a tuck there—voila. All right, then: sturdy, reliable, tender, courage under fire and a little bit sexy too--that’s what I call a hero. Done. As for the plot—well, what do you know? It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Turns out that when the characters are in order, their motivations are clear and the sympathies of the reader are engaged, the story just naturally falls into place. I could hardly believe my eyes. I was looking at a story I could be proud of. One of the best I’d ever written in fact. Done and done.

The moral of the story is: nothing is beyond redemption. With skill and patience, you can uncover the passion beneath even the clumsiest effort, but don’t you dare stop until you do. There are readers out there expecting your best. Your job is not to give up until you deliver it to them.

And the title of the masterpiece that inspired this discovery for me? Well, I don’t think I’ll tell you that right now. But get ready for a treat. It’s really, really good.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Great E-Book Experiment: Conclusions

Well, this has been a fascinating few days.

I thought the learning curve was high when I first began to tackle the process of formatting, uploading and designing covers for my e-book backlist, but I hadn't even scratched the surface.  In the past 72 hours I have written nothing, created nothing, accomplished nothing.  I have been down the rabbit hole and back.  I have read hundreds of thousands of words (ok-- maybe only tens of thousands) of blog and forum entries and posted comments on most of them. My quiet, calm, essentially secluded  writerly world has been invaded by dozens of internet personalities I don't even know.  I have an agent waiting for a proposal, a book I need to edit, and I can't seem to drag myself away from the internet long enough to do either.  I am about ready to start ravng like Charlie Sheen.     BUT... I have learned something.

1) I hate The Social Network, don't want to be a part of The Social Network, could care less what The Social Network thinks. And, if I am to exploit the full potential of e-book sales, I have to be a part of The Social Network.  Please follow me on Twitter (oh, crap, where did I put that stupid Twitter button, anyway?)

2)There's no such thing as a free ride.  I started uploading my backlist to Kindle because I really loved the stories and thought it was a shame not to give them a second chance at life-- and also because I wanted to see what would happen if an e-book author had nothing going for him/her but a good story (this is not a judgement call--I assumed the stories were good because they received rave reviews when originally published) .  I did minimal/no promotion, invested Zero dollars, and waited to see what would happen.  The answer is Nothing.  I am selling a product, and promotion is key -- here as anywhere else.  The difference between promoting my e-books and my traditionally published print books is that, well, with e-books, I get most of the money.  So the effort should be a little less painful.

3)It's the Internet, Stupid.   Somewhere between midnight and 6:00 a.m. on the third day I had one of those DUH slap-yourself-on-the-forehead-AHA moments.  The one thing the E-Book Millionaires have in common is that they all went viral.  Someday someone will do a study on the mechanics of virality (which will make millions as it goes viral on the Internet) but for now what we know for sure is that it's fairly unlikely you will go viral on the Internet unless you make your presence known on the Internet.  Promotion is key.

4) I absolutely, positively believe that it is possible for a writer with nothing more than a good story to make a living from self-published e-books-- as long as she is willing to spend as much time exploiting the  market as she does writing the book.   I have always preached that a book unread is the sound of one hand clapping...so I say exploit the market.

5) Writers are (next to dog lovers) the best people in the world!  Thanks to everyone for your generous advice and comments on this blog and elsewhere.  Write on!

And now back to the real world.  I've got proposals to write and books to edit.

And marketing to do.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Great E-Book Experiment: Results


This month marks the one- year anniversary of my Great E-book Publishing Experiment. With 11titles now live on Kindle and 5 live on all other platforms via Smashwords, I am here to report the results. Here’s a hint: they are somewhat less than spectacular.


Background: around this time last year I became intrigued by the success of authors such as Joe Konrath who had begun making their backlist and original titles available on Amazon.com’s Kindle platform, and whose staggering monetary rewards far outshone any print deal offered them (or me!) by traditional publishers. One of my own print publishers had offered one of my titles for free on Kindle over the 3 day Christmas holiday and over 60,000 copies were downloaded (more importantly, my spring royalty check was 5 times higher than it had ever been before) Even more surprising to me was the fact that many of the most successful Kindle authors were completely self-published, with no previous New York publisher to give them a platform, and none of them claimed to do any extraordinary marketing. I have a huge backlist, with most of my titles in two of Kindle’s most popular categories: romance, and suspense. Moreover, I have four titles from a major New York publisher currently in print, which you would think might give me something of a platform. With the rights to ten of my most popular contemporary romances and two mysteries in hand, I wanted to see whether or not I could approach the kinds of numbers I was hearing from other writers. My goal: $2000 per month in sales—which was modest according to some of the figures I was hearing.

I fell a little short.

For those who want the short version, here are the numbers tracing the Kindle sales of my highest selling book, Smoky Mountain Tracks, and my lowest selling book, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, through the year. (I had no sales in March of last year and March of this year has not yet been reported):

SMOKY MOUNTAIN TRACKS:
April: 19 May: 20 June:61  July: 64 Aug: 75 Sept.: 56 Oct.:63 Nov. 66 Dec. 60 Jan. 94 Feb.: 113
TOTAL: 691 for the year

MATCHMAKER, MATCHMAKER:
April: 2 May: 12  June: 8  July: 7 Aug: :9  Sept.: 7 Oct.:2 Nov.: 3  Dec.: 6  Jan.: 15  Feb. 16
TOTAL:87 for the year

 
Here’s my analysis. Anyone who has a better theory, PUL-EEZE share it, because there is a reason I went into writing and not economics.

Most people agree that there are four major factors driving e-book sales.
1) Content (a good story, professionally written, edited and presented)
2) Product description page
3) Cover
4) Pricing

Because all of the books I uploaded were previously published, professionally edited best sellers and award winners in their category, I modestly submit I think I had the “quality product” part covered. Since my print publishers actually use the copy that I write for their product descriptions, I feel pretty good about the product pages as well. I even added editorial reviews and quotes from major trade publications, which is an advantage most self-published e-books don’t have. That left two big variables:

Cover
The first book I uploaded was Smoky Mountain Tracks , the first book in the Raine Stockton Dog Mystery Series. I was such a clutz at this, I accidentally uploaded a grayscale copy of the cover , which I didn’t notice for three days. Embarrassing, but what difference could it make, since no one even knew the book was published. But when I went back to upload the color cover a week later – holy cow! Eight people had already bought my book! In one week, with a grayscale cover, no publicity, and the product page on Amazon.com not even completely built yet. Clearly, this internet thing was out of control. My expectations soared.

But here’s the interesting thing: the color cover made no difference. The book continued to sell at about 8 copies a week. Throughout May, with three more books uploaded ( all of them cross-referencing the other e-books), and a complete product detail page built, still 5-8 copies a week. I sent out a notice to my reader list, featured the books on my blog and web site, made an announcement on Facebook and Kindleboards. No change. 8-10 copies a week on the dog mysteries. I upgraded the cover (this cover is still pretty bad, but you should have seen the original!) No difference.

In June, something happened and sales doubled. My only theory is that by this time I had nine books live and the cross-promotion between books was beginning to take effect. Or maybe people who downloaded samples in April had just gotten around to reading them in June. Who knows?

Old Cover
Product Details
New Cover
The romances all sold about 4 copies or less a week, which made no sense to me. First of all, there were seven of them, all cross-promoting each other, and only two of the mysteries. Secondly, they had much better covers than the mysteries. The exception was A Man Around the House , whose cover was so bad even I laughed at it. However, since it sold exactly the same amount as all the others (even better than some) I left it alone for most of the year. In October, I replaced the old cover  with a professionally designed one
to see if it would make any difference. In August and September (old cover) A Man Around the House sold 12 copies each month. In November (new, sexy cover) it sold 9! By December and January it was selling 12 copies a month again, just as it was with the old cover.

Price
In June I sold 61 copies of Smoky Mountain Tracks at 1.99 and 47 copies of Rapid Fire, its sequel. I raised the price to 2.99 to comply with Kindle’s new 70% royalty option at the end of June. In July I sold 64 copies of Smoky Mountain Tracks and 42 of Rapid Fire , but by August Rapid Fire was up to 55 and Smoky Mountain Tracks to 75 (more copies of both books than were sold at 1.99!). The romances, which were selling 10 or less copies per month, dropped in July to 7-10 copies a month, but were back up to 15 by August, and by the end of the year were selling more copies at 2.99 than they were at 1.99. Go figure.

What I did notice is that my two best sellers are the dog mysteries (the ones with the least impressive covers, IMHO). This could be because of the genre, the dogs (a suspicion supported by the fact that my next best seller, For Keeps also has a golden retriever on the cover) or—and this is what I think—the fact that these books still have an active product page from the print publisher, with links to the original print books and dozens of customer reviews. I know that many independent authors seed their product pages with reviews from family and friends (hey,if I had enough family or friends to write reviews on 11 different titles, I would too!) but I actually have not been able to do that. Most of my romance product pages look pretty barren, and none have links to print books.

The other thing one can’t help noticing is that in January, when everyone was downloading goodies for their brand new Christmas Kindles, all my sales doubled or tripled across the board. They’re still not giving my print publisher anything to lose sleep over, nor are they even beginning to approach what I had hoped for. But if they stay at this level or grow, I can live with that.

Conclusion
From April-December 2010, with nine e-books available on Kindle for most of that time, I made $1685. For the year.  Even if you added a zero, that would still be far less than the worst year I’ve ever had with a print publisher, so will I be relying on e-books to pay my mortgage any time soon? Probably not. In terms of the sense of control over sales I hoped for when I started this project, it would appear that actual sales are linked more to the things I can’t control-—the number of customers who write book reviews and the number of people who buy Kindles —than to the more obvious things like cover and pricing.

On the other hand, I acknowledge that there is still a lot of room for experimentation in this Great E-Book Experiment. For example:
*While the difference between $1.99 and 2.99 might not make all that much difference in sales, the difference between 2.99 and 99 cents might. I just published a non-fiction book, Ten Things Your Puppy Needs to Know to Be a Great Dog (hey, who says I don’t know anything about self-promotion?) that’s selling less than 1 copy a week. Today I lowered the e-book  price to 99 cents on all platforms. We’ll see if it makes its way to the head of the pack now.

*Kindle doesn’t allow authors to give away their books for free, but with Smashwords coupons you can run a “free e-book” promotion, and that’s exactly what I’m doing during Read an E-Book Week March 6-12, 2011. (Here's the info on how to get your free books. ) Because I have selected only a few of the lowest selling romances to feature in this promotion, it should be very easy to see whether this makes a difference in sales when the price goes back to normal.

*After A Man Around the House *(from worst cover ever to sexy naked man)I remain unconvinced that the cover alone has a substantial impact on e-sales, although it certainly may contribute if there are enough other negative factors. Eventually I may redesign the dog mysteries for print, at which time I’ll invest in a professional cover. It will be interesting to see what happens.

*Finally, I would love to know whether filling the product pages on my romance novels with customer reviews would make a difference in those sales. So anyone who’d like to write a review for any of my e-books can contact me for the coupon code for a free e-book, a shameless offer made with absolutely no apology (Although I'll probably limit the offer to the first 10 on each book).

When I started the project a year ago I speculated that the formula for success in e-book sales had more to do with chaos theory than algorithms, and nothing has happened in my experience since then to change that opinion. Does that mean I consider this experiment a failure? Absolutely not. Am I giving up on the search for that elusive golden goose of e-book megamillions? Hell, no. In fact, I’m more enthusiastic than ever. Why?

Chaos theory. If lightning is going to strike, it might as well strike me.

And because, as I’ve said many times before, if I were smart I wouldn’t be trying to make a living in this business in the first place. The experiment isn’t over. It’s barely begun. Stay tuned.