Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Publishing 2015: Forecast from the Trenches

I’ll begin with the same disclaimers as last year: I have no crystal ball. I’m not clairvoyant. And I live in Alaska, pretty much as far as a writer can get from the Right Coast publishing industry without needing a passport. But I’ve published several books in a variety of ways—mostly traditional, but also independently and in hybrid arrangements. And I try to keep up where I can, believing that the view from the trenches is sometimes the clearest.

So, from here in my mountainside office, where fingers meet the keyboard, I offer my for-what-they’re-worth thoughts on trends in publishing for 2015:

·         Amazon still rules—and they’re changing the rules: Traditional publishers don’t like Amazon making the rules, especially when it comes to e-book pricing. Now indie authors are complaining too. Quoted in a recent New York Times article, one author complains that Amazon is “recreating that whole unfair bogus system where they make the money and we authors survive on the pennies that are left.” News flash: Amazon has always been in this for the money. A specific indie author complaint has to do with Kindle Unlimited, a new (in 2014) subscription program that features only title by authors enrolled in the KDP Select (Amazon-exclusive) option. KU titles get more visibility than others on Amazon, but the payment per download is less, sometimes substantially, than it is for straight royalty sales. (For details, see the most recent Author Earnings Report.)
·         As an author, the numbers aren’t in your favor: Simple math demonstrates that it’s not only the KU effect that’s causing indie author income to slide. There’s also way more inventory than ever before, partly because books no longer go out of print. By the numbers: In 2010, there were 600,000 Kindle e-books; four years later, there were 3 million. The net result is that it’s exponentially more difficult for new work to get noticed, no matter how you publish.
·         There are new gates: As evidenced by the recent kerfuffle between Kindle Direct and an author over the number of hyphens in his book, Amazon is increasing its efforts to make sure the book products it sells (yes, dear author, you are a supplier, nothing more) have some quality. Amazon also promotes book from its own imprints over other titles, and some of its most lucrative categories, such as Amazon Short Reads, are by invitation only. Amazon's not the only game in town, I know, but their domination of the market continues (see "Amazon rules" above).
·         Entrepreneurial fatigue will have a natural winnowing effect: In traditional publishing, there has always been a hefty attrition rate involving those who want to be published but get discouraged before the right combination of talent, luck, and determination gets them through the gates. That same fatigue will permeate the ranks of indie authors as well. In the end, those with a combination of perseverance and proper motivation (read: not solely for money) will remain, easing the numbers problem a bit.
·         The author services boom will moderate: One of my forthcoming books deals with the Klondike gold rush, so I speak with some authority on this: there’s always lots of money to be made “mining the miners.” A similar phenomenon occurred with the indie publishing revolution, in the form of all sorts of author services companies. Already some are going by the proverbial wayside as authors grow weary of dishing out lots of cash and getting little back in terms of sales.
·         Pricing will level off, with lower per-book returns for the author: A few years back, indie authors could increase their visibility with aggressive pricing. Now, KDP only allows free e-books for five days out of every ninety, and then only for titles enrolled in Kindle Select. 99 cents may be the new free, but readers aren’t as excited about 99 cent books. At the same time, there’s a glut of newsletters alerting readers to discounted titles, diluting the effect even as more and more of them require authors to pay for their listings. Adding to the bottom-line woes of independently published authors: traditional publishers are discounting their e-books more than ever before, offsetting to a certain extent one marketing advantage indies once enjoyed.
·         In this settling-out period, traditional publishers will continue to take few risks: Modest advances will continue to be offered, even for some authors who used to get big ones. The midlist author will continue to get squeezed out—and almost every author ends up at midlist eventually.
·         When it comes to discoverability and visibility, there’s no gaming the system: In the beginning (circa 2009-2011), there were tricks indie authors used to get their books noticed, especially on Amazon. Reality is starting to settle in; see the first bullet point about Amazon making the rules.
·         Readers want to be able to trust what they’re getting: Especially in children’s books, literary fiction, and nonfiction (except self-help), readers want to know that the books they’re getting are actually good, so even if they read on e-devices, they discover books in much the same ways they always have, with online reader reviews as a means of reinforcing their buying decisions.

Though this may all sound discouraging, it’s in fact nothing more than a natural correction in the marketplace, similar to what went on when the music industry went digital. As with musicians, the authors who make it will be those whose primary motivation is passion, tempered with enough good business sense to diversify their incomes from related enterprises that reinforce their branding.

Overall, it’s still an exciting time to be an author. Revel in what you can control: the joy of the creative process; the marvel that you—yes, you—can write and publish a book. Just don’t set yourself up for failure. Now more than ever, you need to educate yourself on your options in publishing and decide what’s best for you and your book.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Writer's Best Gift: We Have Faith in You!

For years, the reading of Harper Lee's "Christmas to Me" has been a holiday tradition for me. In this brief essay, Lee tells of a precious gift she received one long-ago Christmas, a gift any writer would cherish, a gift that in turn reached beyond one aspiring writer to millions of readers, in the form of Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Happy reading, and warmest holiday wishes to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Writer's Brain - and Heart

Not long ago, I took a writerly side trip. You know how it goes. You’re getting back to your novel after a few too many days away for celebrations and family and a whole lot of other things that matter a lot, plus a few that only matter a little but still manage to snag your time, and you’re trying to get into the swing of your narrative because you know if you get to a certain spot you’ll be truly engaged and the story will carry you off the way you hope it will carry your future readers, but that spot teases and hides till you reach a little epiphany: it’s time for some research.

I won’t go into how and why I ended up researching prehistoric humanoids with over-sized brains, but it did get me thinking, not only about how to use the information in my story but how much nicer it might be if writers had the generous 25% bonus brain of a Boskop.

I stumbled on the Boskops in an excerpt from the book Big Brain by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, reprinted in the December 28, 2009 issue of Discover magazine. These neuroscientists believe that skulls unearthed in Boskop, South Africa in 1913 come from a giant-brained group that flickered, sputtered, and died off approximately 10,000 years ago.

Lynch and Granger contend that in relation to their large cranial capacity, the Boskops had small, childlike facial features reminiscent of…well, maybe you've caught one of those Twilight Zone marathons?

Extrapolating on potential brain capacity, the authors believe these hominids may have boasted IQs averaging 150 and stretching to 180, not to mention an “inconceivably large” frontal cortex.

“While your own prefrontal area might link a sequence of visual material to form an episodic memory,” they write, “the Boskop may have added additional material from sounds, smells, and so on. Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church.”

The Boskops were a tad pre-Paris, but you get the idea. Higher IQ, heightened sensory memory. If only we writers had Boskop brains. Then there’s this:

“Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.”

If writers got three wishes, surely this would one: to imagine more deeply, while knowing the narrative costs of following one thread over another.

But there’s a downside to this super-sized thinking. Lynch and Granger speculate that aside from the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies, the Boskops may have been overwhelmed by their own potential and frustrated by their inability to make good on it. And there is that little extinction problem.

More important than wishing for long-lost genes is doing the best with what you’ve got, the way . pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly did. An aspiring poet, Lilly attempted but never achieved publication in Poetry magazine. Undaunted, she applauded the positive tone of her rejections and, in 2002, donated $100 million to further the magazine’s mission of advancing poetry.

The Boskops may have us beat when it comes to brains, but our hearts – well, that’s another matter altogether. In this season of giving, consider the many ways you can open your hearts to others within the literary community.  Recommend books you love; every author appreciates sincere word-of-mouth praise. Mentor an emerging writer. Donate your time, talents, and cash to a literary nonprofit like 49 Writers. Attend readings, signings, and other literary events. Support the innovative efforts of other writers on crowdsourcing sites, in journals, and on blogs.

When you finish a book, take a minute to leave your thoughts at online sites like Goodreads and Amazon. You’ll be giving the gift of social proof while helping readers find books they’ll enjoy. Like, comment, and share. Email writers to let them know you enjoyed their books. The few minutes you take to write your email will multiply into days (if not weeks) of encouragement for the author. 

Just yesterday I received this from a reader: 

That book blew me away! Thank you for it. Write more. Soon. I'm greedy . . . At this point I'm a raging fan! 

Sent from an iPhone, the note took only seconds to write. But what a gift. Never mind the size of my brain; my heart is warmed beyond compare.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Trouble with Speed Writing

Back in the 70’s, the craze was speed-reading. Now it’s speed-writing, with authors churning out book after book at lightning speed.

They’re only words, right?

Here’s the thing: readers have access to all the words they want, for free, on the internet. They don’t need your book or mine. Not unless it’s truly worth reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about fluency—pushing through to the end of a crappy first draft, so you can see what you’ve got. Too much deliberation along the way, and you risk writer’s block. That’s why initiatives like NaNoWriMo, spurring writers to complete a novel draft in a month, make good sense.

To complete a book-length draft is no small achievement. But keep in mind that in the glow of your accomplishment, your draft will look better than it really is. Don’t be fooled. Don’t circulate it prematurely among agents and editors. Don’t hit that “publish” button too soon.

Particularly in the self-published e-book market, some authors are churning out book after book, each one completed in only a matter of weeks. A few have even found readers, some in substantial numbers. But if you look closely, you’ll see that most successful of these speed-writers first hit the market during a unique moment in publishing history, roughly between 2009 and 2011, when readers (of genre fiction, primarily) were just discovering how much bang they could get for their e-book bucks.

That era is already fading fast in the rear view. The authors who found their followings during those golden years continue to speed-write for their loyal readers, with decent though moderated success. These days there are exponentially more e-books to choose from, allowing readers to be a lot more discerning, quick to slam those with weak plots and flat characters and typos on every other page.

Traditional publishers sometimes push authors to speed-write, too, especially when the topic is timely and they want the book out right now. It's called "crashing a book." Too many crashes, and your writing looks pretty ugly.

Pace yourself. With ten years between books, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt is proof that readers will wait. 

Get it right, because books are forever.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tips for the Successful Author: Flexibility

If you’re an author, you already know the importance of discipline: stick with your project and one day you’ll finish. And if you participated in NaNoWriMo, you know you can hit that finish line a lot more quickly than you’d ever imagined.

Now what?

First, you figure out whether your book is ready for market. If it’s a first draft, odds are that it’s not—not yet, anyhow. That’s where flexibility comes in.

When I first began publishing, I coveted the qualities of a real writer: persistence, diligence, tenaciousness, enthusiasm, confidence, humility, patience, and, of course, a thick skin. But flexibility was one trait no one said much about, and I believe it’s among the most vital.

I don’t only mean “kill your darlings,” though that’s great advice. Neither do I mean staying on your feet as the revolving doors of publishing present changes in staffing, distribution, and marketing, not to mention ever-increasing ways to publish. I’m talking about the kind of flexibility that allows you to rethink, rework, and even start over on a project, whether you’ve written 100 words or 100,000.

It’s possible that I appreciate flexibility because I’m not especially good at getting things right the first time. But not long ago, I completed a series of revisions on a novel that is, save the title, unrecognizable from its earliest versions. As I look back on the journey, I’m glad I stayed flexible throughout the process. It made all the difference in the end result.

Commenting on his process in writing “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a terrific essay anthologized in Literary Non-Fiction, Jon Franklin affirms the value of flexibility. He began the project as one in a series of “practice pieces” in which he applied the Chekhovian story form to journalism. In particular, he wanted to do something highly paced. Since he’d already earned a reputation as a science writer for the Baltimore Sun, he was able to follow Dr. Thomas Decker into brain surgery. But on this particular day, Dr. Decker wasn’t the hero Franklin was expecting to write about. His patient died.

“I had somehow assumed that the operation would work out okay and have a happy ending,” Franklin says. “Now I had this terrible feeling that I had lost my story. It was an awful day. Here a woman had died and I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have a story and, yet, that’s how I felt. I went over it and over it, and it wasn’t until seven or eight that evening that I realized I did have a story. It was just different than I thought. It was, in fact, a better story, one in which Dr. Ducker, not Mrs. Kelly, was the protagonist. Of all the lessons I learned on that story, the most powerful was that stories change…and a good writer lets them…When a story changes on you, always let go of your hypotheses and follow the story. What you find will be much better than what you abandoned.”

Profiled by Kevin Nance in Poets & Writers, fiction writerBen Fountain tells how he learned a similar lesson about flexibility. Two years after his 2006 prizewinning story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevera was published, Fountain’s editor turned down the novel he’d been working on for ten years. The editor didn’t suggest a revision—Fountain had already done several. He advised him to scrap it.

As you might imagine, this came as a big blow to Fountain. Although six weeks earlier Malcolm Gladwell had called him “a genius-level literary autodidact with unlimited promise,” there was the small fact that he’d been writing for two decades and had only the one published story collection. After the editor’s rejection of his novel, Fountain says he went through all the stages of grief, from denial through depression, before he landed on acceptance. He decided he had other things to write. A few weeks later he started a short story that became the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, released with a blurb from Madison Smartt Bell that says it’s “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days”; Fountain’s novel went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Here’s the thing about Fountain: he never gave up. He proved himself tenacious and persistent in the long haul, while with individual projects, he learned what to believe in and when to let go. In a word, he proved flexible.

When you’re flexible, it’s easier to be objective about your work. It’s easier to avoid the mistake of trying to publish too soon, when your book is half-formed. It’s easier to understand which rejections are happening because the book isn’t ready and which are happening because you haven’t found the right agents (or readers) who love the book the way you do.