Some Thoughts on the State of Publishing

20 Sep

Everything has changed in publishing over the last few years. And nothing has changed. That is the only conclusion I can extract from all the discussion that has been filling newspapers, magazines and the blogosphere. It’s hard to make much sense out of any of it. So I’ve pretty much decided to stop trying and just do what I want.

The argument between traditional and self-publishers has become slightly less vociferous. Hugh Howey, the ultimate hybrid author who benefits equally from both forms of publishing but is generally seen as one of the great promoters of the latter, has even gone so far as to say that maybe gatekeepers – of the proper sort – have a role to play. That role is not to exclude creative authors but to help readers find good books.

Obviously if you write good books, you have an interest in having readers find them – not easy to do when as many 1,000,000 books are published each year world-wide. Particularly not easy to do when it turns out that social media is not a particularly useful way to sell books. Depending on who you talk to, social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter, can generate 0 book sales or a few hundred.

You might also have an interest in having people not be exposed to bad books. It’s why no-one really gives away their books for free anymore. People got so many free books that were frankly not worth what they paid for them, no-one believes that a free book is worth having.

Readers are the real issue. With current technology, anyone, quite literally anyone with access to a word processor and in internet connection, can publish a book. Writers and the opportunity to be published is not the issue – getting people (other than friends and family) to read your book is the problem. And it always has been. The reality is that the number of readers is not increasing and the number of books they each read is fairly stagnant. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve consistently read 35-50 books a year. All the extra books in the world is not likely to change that.

It turns out that word of mouth remains the primary way to sell books – and word of mouth doesn’t work on social media for several reasons. The first is filtering – no matter how many friends you have on Facebook or followers on Twitter, the algorithms that determine your news feed pretty much ensure that you only see a small portion of them and they, you. So when you tell people over and over to buy your book – you are actually telling the same people (30 or 80 of them) to buy it. It kind of gets embarrassing. The only people who seem to believe in the efficacy of social media are the people who own the companies and the consultants who want to sell you advice on how to do it.

The second is commitment. Just as many people will sign an on-line petition but would never go to a protest march, lots of people might like your post or your book page but never buy your book. The former is easy; the latter is hard.

The other tried and tested and still effective way of selling books is having people see them. Getting that to happen on Amazon is a mug’s game; it’s not even clear that Amazon understands how it works – though there are people who think they know and, who knows, they could be right. Still, there is nothing like having you book prominently displayed in a bookstore to get people interested. The best thing of all is to have the book on those carousels or racks by the front entrance. But of course, that only happens if you are prepared to pay for the privilege. Didn’t know that? (The same is true of banner promotions with on-line bookstores.) Thought it was based solely on merit? So did I – when I thought about it at all – until I became a publisher and lost my innocence (what was left of it).

What is an author to do? Well, it never hurts to go to bookstores and see if you book it is there. If it is, make sure you turn it so the cover, rather than the spine, is showing. It probably won’t help but it can’t hurt. But don’t bother secretly autographing them – it won’t stop the bookstore from returning the book to the publisher, it just means it can’t be sold to another books store. Do ask them if you can sign it and put a ‘signed by author’ sticker on the book. If they say yes, it means they are committed to keeping and selling your book a little longer – and may even lead to an invite to have a signing or event. Though don’t get your hopes up too high.

Probably the best thing you can do as a writer is figure out why you want to write. If it is to get rich or even make a living, you are almost certainly bound to be disappointed, even if you follow the advice of the super promoters and write four books a year or spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time promoting. Despite the success stories of the 1%, writers’ incomes are not only low, they are falling. That’s true of traditionally published writers and even more so of self-publishers. The way the pie is divided is less important than how big the pie is in the first place and number of slices it is being cut into.

There are other reasons to write a book. Some people quite literally treat it as a bucket list event. They write one book and then they are done with the process. In some case, like my day job boss, it’s a legitimate thing. At 72, his memoir is being published and he has no intention of writing another book but I’ve also had fiction writing friends who, after their first book was published and in their hands, said, been there, done that and have a book on my shelf for posterity.

Others want to produce art (yes we are all artists and should insist on being recognized as such – but there is art and then there is ART) – their goal may be to produce great literature, whatever that is, and don’t really care if they make a living or even if they are really recognized except by select panels of people (i.e. juries of major awards). If it takes ten years to write that great novel, so be it; I can teach creative writing to make ends meet in the meantime. Don’t get me wrong – some of my favorite books as a reader took years or even decades to write. There is nothing wrong with it; it is simply a choice. (On a personal note – I recently took five months to write a 9000 word story and I think it may be the best thing I ever wrote, but I may be in the honeymoon stage. I’m also fond of the novel I wrote in 3 days some 23 years ago).

Then there are people who write because, as they say, they have to. Without writing they feel unfulfilled or even ill. Or on a more positive note, they write because they love to write, they love to tell stories, they love to be a writer and to hang around with other writers. They write because it defines how who they are, in ways that other things don’t. Writers are not alone in this – lots of people feel that way about the law or medicine or carpentry or farming – but they do tend to be more vocal about it. They are always using their words – even when we might wish them to shut up.

It is pretty much why I continue to publish. It’s not like we at Bundoran Press are setting the world on fire. Frankly, most people have never and will never hear of us. We are getting some accolades and building a positive reputation among those who do know us. And we’re getting to publish some books that we are very proud of producing. Like most people in the business we are not getting rich – quite the opposite. As I like to say – how do you make a small fortune in publishing? You start with a large fortune and…

But I love the process. The work can be onerous at times but it definitely has its rewards. And there are far worse things to spend time and money on. And who knows, maybe right now in the slush pile is the next great science fiction writer waiting to be discovered.

So I guess I better go read it.


22 Feb

Collaboration is a tricky thing for writers and for editors yet it happens all the time.

I had plenty of experience as a playwright; in theatre, the collaborative process, especially for new plays, is quite important.

Frequently, a new play will be work-shopped with the involvement of actors, directors, even designers, all of whom had opinions — often strong ones — about the structure and text. It could be daunting for the playwright and it sometimes felt like everyone was ganging up on you. A good dramaturge — who may have opinions of their own —will usually act as a referee and a defender of the play’s interests (if not the playwright — it’s all about the work). After the workshop, the playwright will often write a new draft. Changes may be dramatic and may incorporate not only ideas but actual lines improvised by the writer. In some theatre companies, there is no single author and the final product is a collective creation.

Still, most plays, like most other creative endeavours, are primarily the work of a single author.

In poetry or prose fiction, the equivalent is the critique group where writers will comment on their colleagues’ work. The writer may come away with new perspectives and ideas but seldom with actual blocks of text. The basic rule is that it is your work and you are free to accept or reject any changes. The final decisions are all yours.

Similar rules are supposed to apply when the writer begins to work with the editor. Editors generally respect the integrity of the work and make suggestions to help it achieve the writer’s intent. Still, when an editor makes a suggestion, the writer needs to take it seriously and recognize that sometimes the editor knows better what works in a story than the author does. Contractually, the editor is not supposed to change anything without the permission of the writer. On the flip side, the editor generally has a final say when the work is ready for publication — if ever — and, so, when the writer will be paid.

While it is not uncommon for other people to have input into your work, actual formal collaboration where two or more parties share the creative process and generally have reciprocal vetoes over the others’ work is much more rare. Still, it can be done and, when it works, will often result in a stronger story than any of them could have done alone.

I’ve collaborated on two pieces with my wife over the last couple of years — one of which was published. The other was designed as a performance piece and we’ve presented it a couple of times in the last six months.

But since this is the publishing blog and not the writing one, I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

For the last year I’ve been working with my business partner, Mike Rimar, (whom I’ll encourage to blog about this separately) on an anthology called Second Contacts. It is Mike’s first crack at editing but other than a few suggestions from me to get us started, we’ve played a completely equal role in the process.

I drafted the guidelines but Mike made a number of substantive changes in them before we finally posted them. Before we even started receiving stories, we agree on a process for reviewing them as well as a system for the initial evaluation.

One of the rules we agreed on was that we each got to choice two stories, even if the other editor didn’t like them. This ensured that each of our individual visions would be reflected in the anthology. For the other stories, we had to come to a consensus, recognizing that some choices would be obvious and others would require some discussion. We also agreed that we would take, at most, two reprints — which in the end was how many we took.

As stories came in, we divided them up equally. We had agreed on some guidelines to evaluate the stories that took into account the writing, the strength of the story, the science components and the adherence to the guidelines. Every story was read by one editor and if it scored more than 65% on the guidelines (stories scoring less were rejected without a second read) was usually passed on to the other editor. The one exception to that was when stories clearly weren’t “second contact” stories — that is, they didn’t fit the stated guidelines. Then it didn’t matter how well written they were — they weren’t suitable for the anthology.

Once stories were passé don to the second editor, he had the choice to keep it for further review or, if they really didn’t like it, to reject it at that point. Since all the stories needed two yeses to get in, there was little point in keeping it if one editor didn’t want it. While it is possible we could have exercise ‘editor’s choice’ at this point, it didn’t happen at that phase.

It was clear from the start we were going to keep more stories for the final round than we would be able to actually buy. That’s not a bad situation to be in.

Once we got to the second round, we decided that the simplest way to proceed was to rank the stories in our order of preference. We then averaged the scores to come up with a consensus rank. There were stories that I ranked high and Mike ranked lower (and vice versa) and we both indicated our willingness to invoke our selection privilege — but in the end all of those stories were rated high enough on average to make the final cut.

The real argument — such as there was one — came with the last few choices. We had about 3-5 slots left based on our word count limits and about 8 stories that were roughly the same in rank. Some Mike liked more than me and some I liked — but we were agreed that all of them were worthy.

Discussions now ranged around whether these stories were too similar to one we had already chosen. We also wanted to have some variation in style and length. Stories that had a distinctive voice or a somewhat experimental style had a real advantage. In the end, we went back a forth a few times before coming up with our final choices.

The things we didn’t discuss we didn’t discuss was country of origin or seeking diversity. Both Mike and I were committed to finding the best story. While I can’t speak for Mike, I didn’t even really look at who the author was until the choices had been made.

In the end, we picked 18 stories by 19 authors (our collaboration picked one collaborative story). There were 11 Canadian writers, 4 Americans and one each from Mexico, United Kingdom, Israel and The Netherlands. There were 11 men and 8 women.

We are now in the final stage of work — the actual editing of the stories. Again we agreed on a process that allows us each have some input into the process while preserving a certain degree of individuality in the end product. In effect, we divided up the stories and each provided the other with general comments that they should consider in making their final editorial suggestions.

We will need to have some further discussions on copyedits — though it is clear that with the majority of stories coming from Canada and England, Canadian spelling with prevail.

Then, it’s a matter of writing the opening and closing essays — and we’ve already decided who will do which — and determining who does the work of putting the whole package together.

It has been an interesting process and I think we’ve both learned a bit about working together and about how to improve our own editorial processes.

2014 in review

30 Dec

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Iggy Pop’s Speech

20 Oct

Further to my last post, it is worth reading Iggy Pop’s speech in its entirety.

The Amazing, Exciting and Sometimes Sad History of the Book

18 Oct

It has been a while since I’ve posted here at the Bundoran Press blog. It’s not that I have nothing to say — apparently I have lots to say and have been saying, 450 words at a time, over every day at 10 Minutes of Words. If what I have to say on subjects other than publishing interest you, you might want to check it out. Or you can read my occasional but somewhat longer political musings and occasional thoughts on writing my own work on Hayden’s Hubris.

The publishing world continues to be in upheaval, though these days the rate of change seem more like continental drift than actual earthquakes. The Amazon — Hachette fight continues to play out in the negotiating rooms and the press. I suspect it may eventually move to a higher level — the courts or at least the US Department of Justice. Writers continue to take sides though the wisest among them have come to realize that the only side they should be on is their own.

The book business is certainly in a transition and has long been subject to one shock or another. Most people these days think it has something to do with e-books and self-publishing. I was at a talk by long-time senior editor for TOR books, David Hartwell, who suggested it was the purchasing decision — to go from multiple distribution companies to a single source — made by a supermarket more than ten years that started the major upheaval. That one decision had a domino effect: a number of small distribution companies went out of business leading to other markets following suit, leading to more bankruptcies. Eventually there were only a few distributors left. They were bigger, but combined couldn’t move as many titles. And so publishing companies cut back. Fewer books meant fewer authors and fewer opportunities.

What else could you expect? They turned to self-publishing. E-books had been around for a while but suddenly there was supply side excess; Amazon happened to be perfectly placed to fill the void and the rest is history.

It’s not the standard narrative but it has a certain elegance in terms of how markets actually work.

In any case, this is nothing new it seems. There is a great essay in this week’s edition of The Economist that looks at the past and future of the book starting with Cicero and projecting into the next decade or so. The conclusions are interesting though not surprising to me: e-books will take more of the market share but not nearly all of it. Physical books will continue to make up at least 50% of all books (and likely more) though some genres (such as romance and maybe science fiction) will become largely digital. Total sales in dollars will fall with prices but profits of big publishers will grow. That trend has already been shown to be true.

Sadly, more books will be published but authors, on average, will make less money. The recent advice of Nobel jurist, Horace Engdahl, that writers should go back to waiting on tables and driving cabs to make their literature more real, may prove prophetic if not helpful. Russell Smith disagreed with the entire premise but his suggestion is more funding for the arts. Good luck with that.

Amazon will continue to dominate — similar to Mr. Mundie’s circulating library of the 19th century. He would buy up almost half of the print run of most publishers and any author who Mr. Mundie didn’t like was soon seeking other work.

Meanwhile artists everywhere are feeling the pinch. As a column by Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail asked: if Iggy Pop can’t make a living from his music, who can make a living in the arts? The recent winner of the Booker Award, Richard Flanagan was ready to give up writing to become a miner. The $90,000 prize will keep him writing. For now at least.

But options continue to present themselves. There is, for example, Kindle Scout, a new Amazon venture that seems to be modelled a little on Wattpad. Thos guys at Amazon are endless innovators — or at least they know where to borrow ideas from. With Kindle Scout, a writer can post part of his novel on-line for readers to access for free. The readers (not, I’m sure, because the frantic pleading of their writer friends) vote for the excerpts they like best and each month, the lucky winners are asked by Kindle to submit the whole thing. If it passes the vetting process, they get a $1500 advance and a five year contract for e-book and audio rights. No mention of print and no certainty sales will ever lead to more cash. In essence they seem to be outsourcing their slush pile. I wish I could get away with that.

Over here at Bundoran, our slush mostly consists these days of submissions to Second Contacts, an anthology who guidelines can be found here. We’re officially closed to novel submissions and will be for a while yet. Despite that there are a few books being examined — books by our existing authors or people I’ve met at SF conventions. We all (Hayden, Mike and Liz) recently spent several great days at Can-Con here in Ottawa. I may blog about that on my personal space later this week.

As for next years’ books, Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm is now at layout and should be available for review in a few weeks. Alison Sinclair’s Contagion: Eyre is in the final stages of editing and should also be designed by mid-December. Both will be launched at Ad Astra in Toronto in April 2015. Edward Willett’s Falcon’s Egg, a sequel to Right to Know, has been received and will be launched at When Words Collide in Calgary in August. Stay tuned for further announcements.

Money, money, money — share the wealth. As you may know our Indiegogo campaign to pay professional rates for Second Contacts failed but you can still support Bundoran Press to pay writers and artists by participating in our Patreon campaign. The idea is that you make a small monthly donation — $2, $5, $10 — which we use to keep the business going and growing. In exchange we provide you a variety of perks including e-books, souvenirs, editing advice and acknowledgements. If you’ve shown an interest in Bundoran before, don’t be surprised if you get a personal e-mail, asking you to do so again.

Publishing News

Speaking of Patreon campaigns, if you don’t want to fund ours why not support On Spec, whose Canada Council funding was cut for 2015.

Chadwick Ginther has a list of other worthwhile projects on his blog.

Good news for fans of Madelaine Ashby and Ramez Naam. Angry Robot Books has found a new home and the third books in their trilogy should appear — hopefully sooner rather than later.

Be Silly

14 Sep

“He actually caught himself saying things like “Yippee,” as he pranced ridiculously round the house.”
Douglas Adams

We should all do this at least once a month. No serious writer should ever take themselves seriously. Laughter — especially at ourselves — is a scalpel to cut away the unimportant and reveal the deeper truth.


10 Sep

So if you think you know what censorship is, you should take a gander at this.


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