Monday, December 07, 2009

Scalzi on Self-Publishing!

Jasper here, with more on self-publishing, this time from New York Times bestselling author and multiple Hugo Award winner John Scalzi! From his "Quick Note on Self-Publishing":
[I]f you are going to self-publish, for the love of all that is good and decent in this world, don’t pay to do it. In this day and age, there is no reason to do so...

[This] assumes you are minimally competent to copyedit your own work and are competent to do a basic design for your book, either on your own or using the default settings available on Lulu or other similar services. If not, you can hire people to do these specific tasks, which is still very likely to be cheaper than a suite of services you would buy from a vanity publisher.

In related news, there's been a bit of an online brouhaha surrounding romance publisher Harlequin's announcement that they're launching their own "vanity press" imprint! They got spanked pretty soundly by several trade organizations, including SFWA, and that's all I'm going to say about that!

Always remember Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer! (And thanks to Viable Paradise's Jim Macdonald for originating that axiom!)


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cory Doctorow on Self-Publishing!

Jasper here, with some commentary from Hugo-nominated science fiction author Cory Doctorow!

Cory's latest Guardian column is about "Why free ebooks should be part of the plot for writers," but he also addresses the question of self-publishing:
[W]hy do we need publishers if we can just release ebooks and make the print available through one of the many excellent print-on-demand houses such as Well, a traditional publisher does a lot for you that is unrelated to printing books, from preparing the manuscript to ensuring that the book connects with an audience by wooing reviewers to talk the book up, booksellers to put it in the path of readers, librarians to put it on the shelf and, of course, by paying for a certain amount of marketing in the speciality and general press.

Note: that's not a typo! People really do say "speciality" instead of "specialty" in England!

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Redux!

Hello aspiring writers! Jasper here with some more FREE ADVICE for you on self-publishing. It comes from THE INTERNET, so you know it's good!

First of all, thriller writer Joe Konrath has the definitive answer to the question: "Should You Self-Publish?"

I won't keep you in suspense! The answer is, it depends. Read his complete blog post for more--he goes into specific exceptions where it makes sense to self-publish instead of going the "traditional" route!--but as he says, the most important thing is "to figure out what it is you want, and then decide on the best way to get it."

If you're interested in numbers and data and stuff like that, check out novelist Lee Goldberg's "You Can Be a Kindle Millionaire" blog posts! He talks about putting some of his backlist and out-of-print titles on Amazon, and gives actual sales numbers for each title!

And once again, his conclusion says it all: "So far, I have earned nearly $700 on out-of-print books that I thought were long past their earning potential for me. That's not a lot of money... I don't think the Kindle is the wave of the future for authors or least not yet. Not even for self-publishing. There just isn't enough money in it for original works to make a living at it or simply a decent wage."

So there you have it! If you want to be a successful writer, it still pays to get an agent! Don't get discouraged! Check out literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog or others for some inside dish. And keep writing!

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Pay the Writer

After reading Monday's blog post, my friend Loren emailed me to ask: "How soon do you realistically think it will be before you make money from writing?"

I wrote up this response:

I've been submitting short stories to magazines; if and when one of those sells, I might get a couple of hundred dollars (depending on the publication). The short fiction is mostly for practice, and to accumulate professional credits.

After I finish this month's rewrites/additions to the novel, I'll start querying it; if it sells, a typical first-novel advance is about $5,000. (Last year at VP, I talked to one of the staff who had signed a 3-book deal for a total advance of $60,000. That's insanely great for a new novelist. Her agent had managed to get two publishers into a bidding war.)

More on first novel advances:

I also have a couple of screenplays in the trunk. I have no idea what the going rate for those is, but my impression is it's highly variable depending on a variety of factors (no pun intended). I'd have to do quite a bit of work to get either of them into fighting shape.

Realistically, I probably won't ever make a living from writing alone; most fiction writers don't. I expect to get back into web consulting in a few years--I've already started attending the various open-source events here in Portland--or doing other types of freelance work.

Those are the facts. I'm luckier than most to be able to take a few years off to chase this dream--I've already won the lottery once, figuratively speaking. I have no illusions about my chances of becoming a bestselling millionaire novelist (to wit: vanishingly slim), but I believe I have a good chance at getting published, sooner or later. I'm working on the "sooner" part.


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Friday, May 22, 2009

More on Self-Publishing

I'm sure many people will miss the crucial bits in today's Washington Times article on self-publishing (featuring outlier Wil Wheaton), so I'll highlight them here. My emphasis below:

Melinda Roberts ... admits it's been tough going: "When I sell a book, I can buy a Big Mac, and that's about it. My last quarterly check, which is sitting on my desk waiting to be deposited, was $24."

Translation: Don't quit your day job. All writers get this advice, and self-published writers are no different.

Mr. Wheaton argues, "There's a sharp distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing." He encourages writers who are serious about their work to self-publish — if they're certain they've written a good book... "If you're serious, hire an editor. And pay for it. Listen to the editor. If you think your story about magic ponies is really awesome but nobody wants to buy it, there's probably a reason for it."

Translation: Get a second opinion (or even a first) before proclaiming your genius from the rooftops. You could avoid a lot of embarrassment.

Hope this helps!



Friday, May 01, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 5 (The Last): Flash in the WAN

(Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

It's no secret that I am a writer, and I aspire to be a professional. Since last October, I've been posting a new piece of flash fiction every Friday to 512 Words or Fewer and recording an audio version to podcast.

But wait! Why, you may ask, am I "self-publishing" these stories, when I've just spent the last four days railing against self-publishing? Why am I not submitting them to actual, paying markets so I can start collecting professional credits?

I'm doing 512 Words for three main reasons: practice, pressure, and publicity. Practice, because I'm still working through my million words of crap; pressure, because at least two people will notice and get on my case if I don't meet my deadline every week; and, of course, it's a publicity stunt to get my name out there (a story a week! kinda like Jay Lake! but not really).

Listen, I have no illusions about my "reach" (as marketers would call it). My blogs are essentially newsletters for my family and friends, because nobody else cares what I have to say. I do have longer stories making the rounds at several professional markets (I'm expecting that rejection from The New Yorker any year now), but if short fiction is to writers as the club scene is to independent musicians, flash fiction is my version of busking on a street corner. It gets me out there and doing something, and it keeps me writing. It's just part of the journey.

I also believe, as Tim O'Reilly famously said, that obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy. I support the Creative Commons (CC) movement to share cultural works freely (both as in speech and as in beer). I believe more artists should follow the fine example of forward-thinking people like Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Coulton, who release all their work under CC licenses for others to share. Let fans be fans, and they will show you love and support in ways you could never have imagined--or, sometimes, ever wanted to, but that's another story. So this is me, putting my money where my mouth is.

Even if you're a writer who would rather distribute your writings the old-fashioned way--encased in physical objects called "books"--the Internet gives you tons of opportunities to interact with your fans and keep them engaged. You may have heard of Scott Sigler and Seth Harwood, whose novels are published by Crown Publishing (a Random House imprint). Both of these guys do a ton of online self-promotion, including putting free content on and selling some crazy merchandise. Clearly you don't have to be as gung ho as these two to succeed as an author, but it certainly couldn't hurt:

Now, some people think it's fun to do all that self-promotion. But that's not writing. More to the point, if you can make others believe in your work, they will help you do all the things you're not so good at. When I get my first book contract, I don't want to comb through all the legalese myself--that's when I'll want an agent. When the book goes to press, I won't want to deal with typesetting and other production issues personally--that's why I'll want an editor and a publisher. And so on. I am willing to relinquish some control for the benefit of having a good team on my side, and I want them to be in it for the duration.

The American dream these days seems to be the get-rich-quick scheme. Every singer wants to be Gloria Gaynor, who built a career out of a single song ("I Will Survive") and is still raking in the royalties. A lot of unpublished writers seem to think they'll be able to write a single Great American NovelTM which rockets to the top of the bestseller lists and then immediately retire, having secured fame and fortune everlasting.

But no publisher or promoter wants a one-hit wonder. Forget about the lottery-jackpot aspect of this pipe dream; if a reader enjoys one book, she's going to look for more books written by the same person. Publishers want to help dedicated writers build careers as authors. I want to tell lots of good stories, and I want each one to be better than the last. I want my life to be something more than long.

Like the man said, always end on a song:


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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 4: Zines and Thoughtcrimes

(Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Over the last three days, I've discussed why self-publishing is, at best, a huge time sink for writers who should be writing, and at worst a way for scam artists to prey upon those desperate souls and steal their money. As I noted yesterday, there do exist legitimate print on demand (POD) services who don't pretend to provide the editing, advertising, and other services that real publishing houses do, and those companies are a great asset for certain creators. But that's printing, not publishing. There's a difference.

There's a long tradition of people printing their own stuff when no one else would, because they were passionate and wanted to put their work out there. Here in Portland, Oregon, the public library system and Powell's ("The greatest bookstore on the planet," says PNH) both feature entire racks of zines covering a wide variety of interests and topics. They come in all shapes and sizes, many obviously handmade. They serve small, local audiences. They have no pretensions or wider ambitions. This is what they're for. (Science fiction fandom also produces tons of fanzines, but that's a whole other discussion.)

These days, it's trivial for anyone to create their own "e-zine" by setting up a blog or a web site. Of course, just because it's easy for anybody to find your content, it doesn't mean that they'll go looking for it, or that they'll like it. If you build it, they will not always come. And even if they come, they may not stay.

So who gets to be a "real" publisher? These days, short fiction writers can submit their work to a lot of online-only markets. Many of these are little more than blogs, and most don't pay writers a lot (if anything) for their stories. Mac Stone, whom I met at Viable Paradise XII, runs Coyote Wild Magazine out of her own pocket. She doesn't make any money doing it. She does it because she wants to help get good stories out there.

Leonard Richardson and Sumana Harihareswara just released Thoughtcrime Experiments, "a free 2009 anthology of fantasy and science fiction stories and art, published under a Creative Commons license." As Leonard explains in Appendix A: How to Do This and Why, he and Sumana spent $2,300 and nearly 400 person-hours putting together the anthology, and the main reason they did it was so they could find and share stories that suited their own personal tastes. In other words, for fun. They're not making any money off TE; in fact, they're losing money. But they consider it money well spent.

Are Mac and Leonard and Sumana publishers? Sure; they've found content they like and helped present it to a wider audience. Are they professional publishers? No, and they don't pretend to be running a business. They're publishing because they want to give back to the community. They have no illusions about reaping financial gains from these transactions, and that's okay. We all do things for love that we would never do for money.

Tomorrow: the anticlimactic conclusion!


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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 3: Eragon vs. Hogwarts

My favorite anecdote regarding Eragon comes from our friend Suzie, who saw a billboard for the movie adaptation and thought to herself: "Hey, they misspelled DRAGON."

I haven't read Eragon, and I don't intend to. The history of its publication is similar to Daemon and Scratch Beginnings, the two self-published books I read recently, and if its quality is also similar, I have better things to do with my time. Besides, I'm more of a science fiction than fantasy man. And I spell "dragon" with a "D."

Anyway. Teenage author Christopher Paolini's parents printed their son's first novel and marketed it themselves, but by all accounts Eragon was not considered a success (or, I imagine, remotely profitable) until Knopf acquired it and reissued it in hardcover. I'll admit I haven't done extensive research, but I've yet to hear of a single self-published author who turned down an agent or editor after attracting media attention.

It seems pretty clear that "self-publishing" is a misnomer; it's really just printing up bound versions of your manuscript, which may or may not be any good, and then selling it yourself. It's no different from the people who make arts and crafts to sell at swap meets or street fairs or on Etsy, except that there is some status associated with being "an author" and not just "a writer."

There's nothing wrong with printing your own book--we've done it with our 2008 road trip photos and the Hogwarts Game textbook, and every year I print a copy of my finished NaNoWriMo novel because my wife doesn't like reading 50,000+ words in Courier font. But that's not publishing. That's printing. We're doing these things for fun, not as a business.

If you're crafty and like making things, it can be a lot of fun to make a book and sell it at your local flea market. Print on demand (POD) services are great for low-volume, special-interest items like the Hogwarts textbook. Ironically, we moved 107 copies of that thing in 2006, which makes it more successful than many actual, published books:

"Here's the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million [in print] tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies."
-- Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006

Of course, we weren't trying to turn a profit, or even offer the book as a separate product--it's just a souvenir of The Game. We also want to stay under the radar so Ms. Rowling's lawyers don't come after us.


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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 2: Scratch Beginnings

Scratch Beginnings is not a well-written book. To his credit, the author--Adam Shepard--admits in the introduction that he is not a good writer. But someone telling you he's an awful cook won't make the meal taste any better.

I became interested in this book based on the description of the author's recent visit to Powell's. I didn't attend the event, having learned of it after the fact, and that's probably a good thing; I might have been tempted to actually purchase the book, and I would have suffered some serious buyer's remorse around page 12. (I later found it at my local library.)

The gimmicky high concept of Scratch Beginnings--which is a good hook, I'll admit--is a recent college graduate's personal experiment to bootstrap himself out of poverty. He selected an east coast city at random, traveled there by train, and debarked with only $25 to his name. His goal was to go from homelessness to having an apartment, a car, and $2,500 in the bank by the end of one year.

I'll save you the pain of having to read the book: he succeeded. To be honest, I never doubted that he would; I was curious about the details of his actual experience. And the stuff about the homeless shelter was interesting, but his frequent use of sentence fragments and constant self-aggrandizement got old real quick. Several sections could have been summarized thusly: "Dear diary, today I did cool things and made people like me. Because I am awesome!"

Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh, but it really does get that bad at some points. I'm pretty sure "Shep" is one of the "white people" from Stuff White People Like.

Even though Scratch Beginnings and Daemon are touted as self-publishing success stories, it's important to note two things:
  1. They are the exception, not the rule; and
  2. both authors took pains to disguise the fact that they were self-published.
Daemon was put out by "Verdugo Press," a company created by the author and his wife for the express purpose of marketing the novel. Scratch Beginnings came from "SB Press," whose business address is a condominium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Guess where Adam Shepard's family lives? Yup.

Scratch Beginnings has since been acquired by the Collins imprint of HarperCollins and reissued in hardcover--hence the book tour. Isn't it interesting that the ultimate goal of most self-published authors seems to be getting an actual book deal from a real publisher?

Anyway, here's a half-hour interview with Adam Shepard from a Triangle-based public access cable show. He seems like a nice kid, and I hope he enjoys his fifteen minutes:


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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 1: Daemon

You may have read last year's Wired article about the novel Daemon, detailing how three agent rejections discouraged first-time novelist Daniel Suarez so much that he started his own company to publish and market his half-baked techno-thriller.

You may also have seen novelist J. Steven York's deconstruction of Daemon's success--the book was later acquired by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin, and reissued in hardcover (and with the author's name spelled forwards instead of backwards).

I have nothing to add to the information presented in those two articles, especially the second one, except to say that the Big Ideas name-checked in Daemon are presented much more completely and plausibly in Charles Stross' Halting State (which opens with a bank heist inside an MMORPG) and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (which delves into actual hacking in great detail; complete text available free online).

I've been programming computers for over twenty years, and I know from personal experience that automation is hard. Maintaining the Internet is a war of attrition. Someone discovers an exploitable flaw in the network--e.g., in TCP/IP or DNS or some other protocol--either by research or accident; then somebody figures out how to fix it; and the security hole gets patched. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I don't care if you're Lex Luthor; there's no way anyone can create a single automated system that can hack the planet for over a year without some human intervention. Also, the repeated threat that the daemon will crash the global economy falls flat, since we've now demonstrated that we can do that pretty well all by ourselves.

Anyway. Skip this nihilistic crapfest and read Stross and Doctorow instead. It's a huge plus that Halting State and Little Brother, in addition to being authored by competent writers with a firm grasp of narrative language, were also vetted by experienced editors who knew from good storytelling and copy-edited by professionals who knew where to put quotation marks and how to join separate phrases together to form actual complete sentences. It's not a coincidence that Halting State was nominated for a Hugo Award last year, and Little Brother is nominated this year.

Finally, speaking of Charlie Stross, here's what he had to say about the continued value of real book publishers in 2007: (skip to 46:47)


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