Tag Archives: money

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

31 Mar

A few weeks ago, I completed an Indiegogo campaign to raise the pay rates of an upcoming anthology of short stories.  Thanks to the 91 contributors and the dozens more who provided signal boost and other forms of encouragement, Strange Bedfellows will open for submissions in a few days, paying professional rates of 5.5 ¢ a word.

It was, frankly, a lot of work.  Designing the campaign and dreaming up the perks were the easy parts.  What followed were almost daily (or several times daily) promotional tweets, Facebook posts and blog mentions, followed up by over 300 personal e-mails to potential donors.  And the work doesn’t stop with the end of the campaign.  The process of thanking and acknowledging donors and sending people their perks has to be completed and a mechanism to let people know about progress of the project needs to be designed.  (For people looking for hints to running their own campaign, there are lessons learned at the end of the blog.)

I didn’t do a precise breakdown but Indiegogo claims that roughly 25% of all funds raised come from family and close personal friends.  Another 50-60% come from your ‘community of interest,’ that is, people you have both a personal connection with and who share an interest in the proposed project.  The rest comes from relative or complete strangers who are attracted to the concept.  In really big campaigns, such as the recent Kickstarter campaign to make a ‘Veronica Mars’ movie, it is the third group who dominate.  But there are far more campaigns of the scope and scale of Strange Bedfellows than there are of the ‘Veronica Mars’ type.

Although most of the crowd sourcing buzz centres on arts projects or on neat technological devices, these web-based fundraising systems (and there are at least seven or eight that I know of) have been used to promote development projects in the third world or for personal campaigns to help people whose houses have burned down or, especially in the United States, have inadequate medical coverage to deal with catastrophic illness.

While it may seem like this is something new and amazing (if the breathless media coverage is to be believed), crowd sourcing money (CSM) has been around forever.  Like most innovation – whether on the Internet or in an exciting new short story – the Indiegogos of the world take a couple of existing ideas and jam them together, then present them in a shiny new package.

Anyone in the arts knows that most projects need external support to succeed – beyond what can be raised by sales of the product itself.  Ranging from bake sales to casinos to government grants, artists scrounge together the cash to support themselves while they do their work.  The elephant in the room is, of course, direct solicitation.  Most people hate to do it, particularly if they seem to be the main beneficiary.  After all, it seems like begging.  That’s why so many organizations use go-betweens, professional fundraisers and the like, who for a fee or commission will deliver the message for you.  Which is exactly what fundraising web-sites do – present your message in a somewhat arms length way and take a cut of the proceeds when you succeed.

However, CSM web-sites mine other sources than traditional fund-raising models which are based largely on concepts of philanthropy (i.e. people give money because it is a ‘good cause’ rather than for more personal reasons). On the one hand they encourage a sense of ownership among contributors – they are joining a team to support a creator, even if the end product may be distant and even uncertain.  No one can know for sure that Strange Bedfellows will be a good anthology or that anyone will read it – contributions have elements of both faith and risk, as well as an interest among contributors in making it succeed.  This is quite different than giving to an established theatre company or research lab.

To me, it’s like buying penny stocks on the venture capital market.  People I know don’t do it because they expect to get rich (though they won’t object if they do) but because it provides a chance to be in on the ground floor of something exciting.  It will be interesting to see if that sense of ownership results in a greater commitment down the road to making the project succeed.  The question for me is: will my contributors feel more inclined a year from now to talk up the book through social media and word of mouth than people with no ‘investment?’  Of course, beyond some immediate perks and a copy of the book, my investors won’t actually profit monetarily from Strange Bedfellow’s success but, presumably they will receive psychic rewards.

The third key component of CSM is the sense of community.  In the modern world, communities are constructed, built around areas of interest and shared values rather than proximity – but community is still community.  Recently, my in-laws contributed their efforts to help out a neighbour in distress.  The whole town – a little place in rural Alberta – came together one weekend and held an auction.  The amount paid for the donated goods – from pies to flat-screen TVs – far exceeded their value.  But by raising money through an inclusive community event, neighbours were able to give money while preserving the dignity of the recipients.  It wasn’t charity; it was community.

Philanthropy, investment and community are all parts of a successful CSM campaign.  Giving because you support the cause, giving in the expectation of return, even if only psychological, and giving because it’s what neighbours do – bringing those disparate elements together in an easy to use world-wide platform is the real innovation behind Indiegogo and Kickstarter.

Lessons Learned

Fundraising costs both time and money; be prepared to invest both and take into account the cost of raising money in your campaign.  The web-site itself will charge between 4 and 9% of contributions, depending on how you structure your campaign.  In addition, Paypal will take their cut when the money is transferred to you.  Providing perks is not generally free; besides the cost of goods, there is the cost of postage.  I didn’t take all of this into account and, as a result, will wind up spending more than I originally planned to produce the anthology.

Asking people for money is not always easy.  Even people who love you, don’t necessarily want to give you money.  Sometimes they want to but can’t right now; you can never really know what goes on in people’s bedrooms or bank accounts.  Be direct but give people options of other ways to support you; acknowledge that this is not how everyone wants to support the arts (or whatever).  It’s their money and their choice; be sensitive to that in making the ‘ask.’

A ‘thank you’ is a ‘please’ according to an old fund-raising mentor of mine (who BTW, gave a donation – thanks, Sam).  People have given you something – they deserve your thanks and appreciation.  The thanks is shown directly, through a note or e-mail.  The appreciation is shown by carrying out the project as promised and keeping people in the loop about progress.  It is also shown by paying attention to details, like spelling names right in the acknowledgement sections of Strange Bedfellows.  On a pragmatic note, you can run one successful CSM campaign without thanking people; you can’t run two.

Signal boosts are an important contribution.  Simple tweets or posts spread the word and get people to the fund-raising site.  When supporters went a little farther by blogging about it (thanks to Peter Watts, Chadwick Ginther, Liz Strange, David Brin) or posting a detailed appeal (Robert J. Sawyer and Dani Kollin), I actually saw a jump in contributions – especially from people I didn’t know.


Let me not admit impediments… the Perfect Contract

17 Mar

Marriages are never perfect (no matter what the fairy tales say).  Without question, some are better than others; some are much better.  Regardless, all of them are subject to negotiation (or ‘bargaining.’)  And if the marriage is truly bad –there is always divorce.

If it was only so easy with writing contracts.  Generally the worse a contract is, the harder it is to get out of it.  At least for the writer.  Publishers (big ones) have a battery of lawyers working to protect their interests and screw the writer.  Writers seldom have one lawyer; many don’t even have decent agents.  If a writer can command big bucks, they can hire help and negotiate from a position of strength.  Most authors aren’t nearly so lucky.  Which is why so many of them sign bad contracts.

Still, the news isn’t all bad.  In the face of collective outrage, Random House made some changes in their e-book imprints.  And there are plenty of business oriented writers willing to share some practical advice.  Still, it is mostly an unequal relationship.

Of course, I approach this issue from a different perspective.  I’ve written a few books and I hope to have bigger and better results in the future.  But I’m also a publisher – a small but ambitious one.  These are competing interests.  Contracts are meant to find a balance between interests.  The perfect contract is the one where nobody gets everything they want.  But they all get some of what they need.

A writing contract licenses the intellectual property rights of one party (the writer) to another (the publisher) for a fixed period of time for a payment in the form of royalties (a percentage of sales).  Those royalties may be paid up front (an advance) in expectation of a certain number of books being sold.  Seems simple enough but the proof is in the boilerplate.

The main questions to be decided are what rights, for how long, and for how much.  There are ‘industry standards’ for all of these things – mostly a mixture of ‘the way things used to be’ and ‘what big corporations can now get away with.’  But things aren’t the way they used to be – in so many ways – and writers, at least those who are psychologically so inclined, have options that don’t include publishers, big or small.

But as I say the devil is in the details.  Let’s start with ‘rights.’

The writer of original work retains copyright for all aspects of the work.  Any contract that tries to transfer those rights to someone else is a very bad contract and should never be signed.  If you have any doubts about that, ask John Fogerty.  There are ‘write-for-hire’ projects – such as Star Trek (TM) novels and similar projects.  But they aren’t ‘original’ work; someone else already owns those rights. 

Copyright is divisible.  For a novel, you can have English language rights or it could be further divided into North American English rights and World (meaning everywhere else) English rights.  Some writers are even able to negotiate separate rights for separate countries.  In fact, some multi-national publishers separate rights that way so they don’t compete with their sister imprints.  Then there are foreign language rights – a separate right for every language in the world.  All of these can and often are sold separately. 

Most publishers, including most multinational publishers, don’t want to divide copyright.  At the very least, they want World English rights, and increasingly insist on them.  It’s not simply greed; there is business logic behind it.  Years ago (I mean ten or twelve), there was an actual physical component to a book design; now it is all computer files.  They can be produced anywhere and sent electronically to printing plants around the world.  Printing is still done locally (i.e. any place connected by highway or rail) because it is cheaper than outsourcing it to China, but design – which can easily cost more per book than the actual manufacture – is perfectly transferable.  And, of course, an electronic book can – provided there are no rights limitations – be produced and sold anywhere by the simple click of a mouse. 

So with respect to English language rights, I expect the trend is world rights.  I’m not saying it is just but I suspect it is true, not just because of publishers–book distributors and large (especially on-line) retailers also are involved.  Commercially successful writers will still be able to negotiate separate rights but it will be more difficult for new or mid-list writers to resist.  However, by being aware of the alternatives or having a strong agent who is, even beginning writers might be able to negotiate a better deal by using the division of rights as a bargaining chip. 

Writers should retain foreign language rights – individually they may not be much but collectively they can be worth as much or more than English rights.  Most publishers can’t successfully exploit foreign rights and either won’t ask for them or will readily give them up if pushed.  Writers and their agents should push – and then try to exploit them as best they can.  You might look to Canadian writer, Douglas Smith, for advice.  The same can be said for adaption rights – audio, stage, TV, film, video game – publishers of books can’t exploit them (though some of the largest publishers are also active in other media).  But that won’t stop them from asking for them.  Again, push back.

A more complicated issue and, for me, a grayer one is ‘participation rights.’  These clauses don’t transfer the entire license for an audio book or a movie adaptation but establish an interest in those licenses, often 10-20%.  Essentially, they say that if you, the writer, sell the screen rights (from option to production) of the book, you owe the publisher a cut.  Their rationale is that your book would never have come to the attention of a movie producer if they hadn’t published it.  This may or may not be true.  Certainly, few unpublished novels get turned into movies (surprisingly few published ones do, too).  Most books don’t make publishers a lot of money; a significant number actually lose money.  No writer likes to admit that people think their baby is ugly – but it is a sad reality.  From the publisher’s point of view, they want to milk as much out of the few really successful books as they can. 

My own view is that publishing a book is a shared risk.  Writers invest their time and energy up front to write a book; publishers invest money up front in the hopes it will sell.  In a perfect contract, they share risk and they should share reward.  Before anyone starts screaming at me about it being my (the writer) ideas, my story, my rights – let me point out that selling a novel to the movies is FREE MONEY, often with less investment by the writer than buying a lottery ticket.  Writers have seldom done a lot of extra work to get a movie deal (his agent – that’s another story).  The novelist isn’t selling a screenplay, he is selling the right for someone else to write one (and doesn’t that tale often end in tears).  So maybe the publisher – without whom the novelist would merely be ‘aspiring,’ – deserves a small slice of the pie.  How big is another matter – for doing nothing, a thin sliver; for actively promoting or networking the book, maybe a little bit more.

How long should the license last?  The standard clause nowadays is ‘for the duration of copyright.’  In the US, that is 70 years after you’re dead (about 50 years elsewhere).  That seems a bit onerous to me (my writer half speaking).  The more important issue is: under what circumstances does the license lapse?  As Dean Wesley Smith puts it: How do I get my book back?  Reversion clauses, in theory, establish when a book is ‘out of print’ based on existing inventory or annual sales levels.  In effect, most books in modern contracts go out of print when the publisher says so.  Personally I don’t think that is particularly fair.  Writers should try to negotiate reasonable reversion clauses – based I think on the principal: If you can no longer make significant money from my work, you should let me give it a go.

Which finally brings us to advances and royalties.  Royalties are, of course, the most important element of the contract for the writer.  They determine how much, over the life of the publication period, the writer will be paid.  Royalty rates are negotiable within a narrow range and are different for different formats (8-10% for mass market, 10-12% for trade, up to 15% for hardcover, 25% or more for digital).  The more books you sell, the higher rates you can negotiate.  If you have no sales history, you can guess the results.  Of course, royalty rates tell only part of the story.  Making 15% on 1000 books is not nearly as lucrative as making 8% on 100,000.  But things like print runs, distribution and marketing strategies are largely not negotiable.  Nor are sales ever predictable.  A sure fire bestseller can bomb (usually ending the career of the writer, editor and associated sales people) while a sleeper can become a runaway sensation (a la Harry Potter).

Which is why advances are important.  The advance on royalties is the only sure money for the writer.  They get it even if the book is a complete and utter failure, selling only as many books as the writer has cousins.  The advance represents a recognition of the work the writer has already done; for the publisher it is both an expression of faith in the book and a recognition that, in this business, publishers risk money while writers risk time.  Both risks are real.  The publisher takes on some of the writers risk by giving him money in advance and the writer takes on the publisher’s risk by being helpful and cooperative and publicly personable (even if they hate people).  Ideally, in the end, everyone makes money.  Publishers who don’t help their writers prosper will soon lose them to someone else; writers who don’t care if their publishers make a profit will soon be looking for another one.

The amount of the advance is of course – what? – that’s right: negotiable!  A simple rule of thumb – the bigger you are, both writer and publisher – the bigger the advance.  New writers with small presses should expect something but not a lot.  Established writers with small presses can demand more.  You can do the math on the rest (probably an unfair assumption – so many writers can’t do the math at all which is why they make crazy demands or sign stupid contracts).

The rest of the contract is important but often commonsense or non-contentious: delivery dates and publication schedules, protection against fraud or libel, free author copies and so on.  Pay attention to them but focus on the big three.


This is the last week for our Indiegogo campaign – Strange Bedfellows.  We are almost to our goal but could use a bit more help to pay writers real money.

And thanks to all those who have already contributed or spread the word on Facebook, Twitter or in their blogs.

Taking Out a Contract

10 Mar

The Interwebs and Twitterverse are abuzz.  Writers are being screwed.  Publishers, big and small, but especially big, are exploiting innocents.  Particularly offensive are the new genre e-book imprints of Random House – Hydra, Alibi, Flirt and Loveswept.  John Scalzi has done a good job at eviscerating them here, and he’s not wrong.  Anyone who signs such a contract will probably be taken for a ride.  Equally upsetting to many professional writers is the attempt by the quite-profitable Atlantic Magazine to get a well-established writer to contribute for free.  Kristine Kathryn Rusch piles on by suggesting to non-savvy writers: You’re a rotating group of widgets that might make the publisher some money. She advises writers to consider self-publishing (using lots of paid outside help) and write as many books a year as you can pump out, i.e. the James Patterson factory approach.  It’s the only way to fame and fortune.

On the flip side, Amanda Palmer, musician and wife of Neil Gaiman, says artists should be happy to work for free and be satisfied with what people are willing to give them.  Clearly that works for her since she managed to get people to give her $1.2M through Kickstarter for her last album.  Cord Jefferson disagrees, suggesting people who work for free, only do so because they already have money, or at least parents with money.  Or as my union buddies used to put it: The working class can kiss my ass; I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.

And, of course, what artist hasn’t heard: You don’t need to be paid, you’re doing what you love.  (BTW, when an artist says – I have no choice; I have to write, paint, whatever – they are basically saying the same thing.)  Folks, I know lots of lawyers who love the law, engineers who love building things, accountants who love working with numbers – they all want to be paid.  The only person who loves what he does so much he would do it for free is Warren Buffet but since what he does is make money, he has to give it away instead.

So what’s going on?  Has publishing changed?  Is traditional publishing dying? Has the e-book self-publication revolution turned everything on its head so old-time publishers are trying squeeze the last nickel out of writers before their empires collapse?

Publishing has changed – but not recently.  It changed during the wave of mergers and acquisitions that took place in the 1990s.  Bertelsmann, for example, is a massive media corporation who owns Random House and dozens of radio, TV, Internet, phone and content producers.  Ironically, they are the producers of “The Price is Right,” which pretty much describes their philosophy.  This was a company that made money under Hitler and continued to make money long after Hitler and his cronies were gone.  That’s what they do: Make money.  There’s the real change in publishing – when big companies stopped being run by people who loved making books and began to be run by people who love making money.

Traditional publishers aren’t desperate; they’re making more money than they ever have.  They are doing what entrepreneurs do: adapt, innovate or, in a few cases, die.  Have they suffered from the indie revolution?  Not so far.  They continue to dominate e-book sales and when an idie writer shows signs of success they sign them to a lucrative contract.  What has changed is the development work that publishers used to do with new writers is now being done by the writers themselves, while the money makers sit on the sidelines ready to swoop in and reap the rewards.  And indie writers, like Amanda Hocking, are more than happy to oblige, because publishing even a moderately attractive book is a lot of work.  Work that takes away from what you love to do: writing.

The e-book revolution, therefore, hasn’t changed the publishing side of the equation.  It has changed the writing side.  Self-publishing has always existed but it really had no significant impact on professional writers.  The reason is simple enough: while it’s easy to get your book printed, it’s damn hard to get it distributed.  Amazon and digital publishing changed all that.  Now anybody can publish a book and, theoretically at least, have it available world-wide.  True, most e-books don’t sell more than a handful of copies, even with relentless self-promotion.  But the possibility is there and more importantly, the exposure is there.  What e-books have permitted publishers to do is outsource the slush pile.  The public is now working to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Books that might have languished in a slush pile for years are now being vetted in a matter of weeks or months.  Net result: more money-making widgets (to use Rusch’s term) on display.

The laws of supply and demand are brutal.  Increase the supply, the price falls.  I’m not sure if there are more good writers out there (maybe, since it appears the average intelligence of people is on the rise) but they are easier to find.  I suspect the real reason writers’ advance have fallen is due to the increase in the supply of competent widgets.  Publishers can offer lower advances because the only option writers have is to do it themselves.  While some people are happy to take that route, for many writers it really is too hard or too unpleasant to contemplate and, with all due respect to Ms. Rusch, browbeating them is not going to change that.  Market forces will apply and many writers will find other ways to use their talents to make a living.  That’s what I did after six years of full-time writing.  Or, they will do what a lot of writers have always done – find a spouse with a good job who will support their artistic endeavours or get a job, like university lecturer, Senate employee, or school bus driver, that pays the bills while still having the flexibility to pursue their art.

Which brings us back to those Hydra contracts.  I’m sure some people who receive those offer sheets don’t feel like they’re being offered a contract as much as having a contract taken out on them.  Who would sign such a deal?  Are they stupid or just desperate to be published by a ‘real publisher’?  Or have they been conned into thinking this is the indie road to untold wealth?  Or are they like those poor people who get taken in by the Nigerian scam – knowing it’s too good to be true but willing to be persuaded there is a free lunch. Personally, I feel sorry for people who get taken in – but a little bit of me fears they may have only themselves to blame.  And, for those who are truly innocent, I support strong laws against fraud and the actions of attentive postal workers.

Years ago, I worked in labour relations.  At different times in my career, I sat on both sides of the table.  Offers were made; deals were negotiated.  Here’s the first rule of the process: never settle for the first offer.  The corollary is: never offer what you’re willing to settle for; always demand more.

The Hydra offer is the inevitable result of the e-book revolution.  No advances and make the writer pay for the development costs.  Then make them work for a share of the profits – and as the theatre promoter in Shakespeare in Love likes to say, ‘there are never any profits.’  Of course, professional writers associations are going to fight back – that’s their job.  As a writer, I say good on them.  Because as a writer, I want to get the largest advance and royalty possible for the least release of my rights and I want to do nothing other than write my books. I also want to be loved and admired and have beautiful young women fling themselves at my feet.  (What’s that you say: only the really dumb blondes sleep with the writers? Drats!)  As a writer, I want to get paid first and the publisher to get paid last.

But I’m also a publisher.  From that perspective, I’d love to pay no advances for all the rights to a work and, as well, get the writer to pay all the up-front costs in exchange for a share of mythical future profits.  As a publisher, I want to get paid first.  (At least the Hydra contract doesn’t require the writer to send a cheque as other vanity press companies did and still do – if the books don’t sell, nobody gets paid.)  I don’t happen to believe that model is sustainable – especially for small publishers without the financial clout of a Bertelsmann or Amazon – but one can dream, can’t one?

So what’s fair?  Fair is a moving target but one definition of fair is both sides of a negotiation get some of what they want, but not all.  Contracts people sign against their interests almost always lead to conflict.  Workers may – because of economic exigencies – sign contracts they hate.  At some point, they find ways to take revenge – through sick leave or workplace sabotage.  Or they find a better job.  Employers sometimes give away the farm in order to keep the lines running but then use oppressive management to claw the benefits back.

If writers are exploited, they will jump ship at the earliest opportunity or they will somehow sabotage the relationship.  Hemingway wasn’t the first to screw his publisher over contract disagreements and he won’t be the last.   If publishers are too generous, they go bankrupt (though writers’ advances are usually only a small contribution to the failure of a badly managed business – more a symptom than a cause).  Non-compete clauses are an attempt to stop that.

Fair is also getting what you are currently worth – a well-known writer should expect more from their publisher than a beginner.  On the other hand, publishers shouldn’t expect a free lunch, demanding the world in terms of extended rights and non-compete clauses in exchange for services they won’t or can’t provide.  (I’ll be interested to see how those clauses – that essentially indenture a writer to his publisher – will stand up in court.  Free agency, anyone?)

So the Hydra offer is exactly that – an offer.  The writer can and should counter-offer.  If you can’t reach a deal you can live with, find another publisher, or perhaps, publish yourselves.  In either case, writers have a duty to themselves to know, at a minimum, what’s involved in creating a book and what that will cost – financially and in terms of psychological stress.  Writers, like all professionals, have to find a way to maximize their income –so they can afford to keep writing, or at the very least justify themselves to the spouses who are paying the bill.

However, the day when writers will simply write and do nothing else is long gone, if it ever existed at all.  Writers should contribute to the overall product, not by paying for it but by reducing the workload of the publisher.  For example, final work should be submittedto the publishers’ specification, even if it is a pain in the ass to remove those extra spaces between sentences.  Find every typo to keep copy-editing costs to a minimum.  Be prepared to self promote – Facebook, Twitter and a web-presence is only a beginning.  Writers need to become media savvy so they can exploit every opportunity to promote their books, not just the obvious ones like book launches and writers’ festivals.  They also need to learn to be frugal.  Robert J. Sawyer is legendary for his ability to turn 3-city book tours, for which his publisher is willing to pay, into 10-city events.  He does it by flying at the lowest possible fair, staying with friends when he can, planning his tour around speaking events or SF conventions which pay a fee or subsidize his costs.  My friend Peggy Blair created two fabulous book launches in Ottawa by calling on friends and finding sponsors to supplement the small publicity budget of her publisher.

Can that kind of effort be written into contracts?  I think so – at least I intend to try.

On the flip side, publishers should recognize that writers have already done a bunch of work when they submit their manuscript and as they develop it for publication.  The advance represents a payment for that work.  It may be the only payment the writer ever gets, though any sensible publisher would hope that isn’t the case.  The advance also represents the expectation of the publisher of how many books he has to sell before it is profitable for him.  If he winds up paying more money to the writer, then the book has exceeded expectations and everybody is making money!  Legitimate publishers (I agree with SFWA: Hydra is not a legitimate publisher) can’t expect writers to pay all the upfront costs either.

The traditional publishing payment structure looks like this: writer, publisher’s employees and contractors, publisher, writer and publisher.  The vanity model, and to all intents and purposes the Hydra model, looks like this: publisher, publisher’s employees and contractors, writer.  With the writer’s payment highly doubtful.  Make no mistake, some people will sign these contracts, just as some people have and will continue to vanity publish.  The only difference is: now big publishers want a part of that particular revenue stream (when before they were dismissive of writers who took that route) though they still want to be recognized as ‘real publishers.’  It’s a shame but it is also inevitable when writers are on the bad side of the supply curve and publishers only reason for existence is, like every corporation, to maximize return on investment.

I’ve had a bit of fun showing what makes a bad contract and why so many writers are driven to sign them.  Next week, I’ll talk a little about what a decent contract might look like in our modern world and what role small publishers and other models, like writers’ collectives might have in creating them.

P.S If you’d like to make it possible for me to offer better contracts, support our latest project – an anthology of political science fiction called “Strange Bedfellows” – by donating to our Indiegogo crowd sourcing.  There are lots of nice benefits and it’s sure to give you a nice warm feeling.

And thanks to all those who have already contributed or spread the word on Facebook, Twitter or in their blogs.

Old Dogs Don’t Need New Tricks

24 Feb

There are advantages to having twice as many years behind you than you do in front of you.  Not many, but not a few either.

Six months ago, I’m not sure I would have seen it that way.  My career was in its final stages; my body was accumulating indignities (ever dinner party began with the obligatory ‘organ recital’); trivial things had started to plague my thoughts.

Not much I can do about the generalized senescence that we will all get to experience (if you’re lucky) but there’s nothing like taking on a new challenge to invigorate your thoughts.  As I’ve said before, becoming a publisher wasn’t planned – but it seemed destined.

Which is where the advantage of age comes in – or as I like to call it “the rich and varied experience of life.”  Although taking on (or starting up) a small press, when you’ve never worked in the field of publishing, might seem to be an energy-sucking, brain- breaking learning curve, it is more a re-learning curve.  It’s a climb but not nearly as steep as I feared.

The first thing I had to remember was how to be an entrepreneur.  That’s going back a long way – all the way back to my teenage years.  Before I got my first part-time job, I was a businessman.  It all started with shoes.

When I began junior high, I needed a pair of dress shoes.  Up to then, my mother, or sometimes my father, took me shopping for school clothes.  This September, my dad handed me $40 and told me to go to Margolian’s department store and pick out the shoes I liked.  Even at 12, I knew times were tight.  Instead of doing the easy thing, I spent the entire afternoon going to the five stores in town that sold shoes, trying on pair after pair.  Eventually, I settled on shiny black, steel-toed, thick-soled shoes made in Czechoslovakia.  Ugly – yes, but utilitarian and at $19.95 ($21.35 with tax), a bargain.  When I came home with the change, Dad looked at me, looked at the shoes, looked at the money I was holding out to him.  He took the ten and left the rest — $8.65 – saying: You worked hard, you deserve a reward.

$8.65!  Nothing today but in those days, it was equal to two months’ allowance, enough to buy every Marvel comic for a month with money left over for a couple of paperbacks and fistful of chocolate bars.

I could have pocketed my good fortune and carried on but that idea: work hard, get a reward had been burned in my brain (despite the abundant evidence that things didn’t always work like that).  Money meant freedom and it meant social acceptance.

Over the next few years, I sold greeting cards door-to-door; shoveled driveways in winter, mowed lawns in summer, supplementing that with picking and selling wild blueberries.  I went through my books, comics and toys – making the hard decision of which to keep and which to sell to my more affluent friends.  For two to three years, I was a regular tycoon.  At fifteen, I got a job in the local library and began hiring out my labour to bigger berry operations – but I kept my greeting card business until I went to University, when I sold it to my younger brother for a dollar.

Now I’m selling books but the principles are the same.  Buy a good product at a reasonable price, add value through effort and thought, sell the result at a fair mark-up.  Deliver on your promises and don’t cheat your suppliers or your customers; short term gains always lead to long-term losses.  ‘Good will’ is a real thing.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I do think you can do business ethically.  It’s not a charity; businesses that consistently lose money disappear.  But you can be a success without being a prick.  At least I hope so.

Everything I’ve done in life has provided me with the basic skills I need to be a publisher.  As I take on each task, I discover they have a strange familiarity.

Keeping track of money is no different for a small business than for a municipality (I spent two years overseeing hamlet finances on Baffin Island) or a non-profit (five years running an arts education program in Calgary).  The technology has changed, true.  I now use Quick Books rather than doing it by hand but inventory control, accounts payable and receivable and so on are exactly the same.  The new program is fancy and a bit daunting – bu, after an hour or two of struggle, it all fell into place.

Reading slush is a chore – few submissions are close to being in publishable form; many never will be.  Still, it’s like reading plays as a director (twenty directing credits in Yellowknife and Calgary).  It’s not what’s on the page.  It’s what those words can become when you have actors and costumes, sets and lights.  The same thing is true of slush; you have to be able to see what it might become with your creative input.  Years of critiquing other writers’ work helped – some stories you can make better, some you can’t, some nobody can.  Which pretty much describes ‘slush.’  Some I can polish, some has potential but is not for me, some is hopeless dreck.  Those people should stop wasting electrons!

Working with writers – i.e. giving editorial direction – reminds me of my years as a policy analyst for Cabinet, vetting decision papers.  Some people were easy to work with.  They recognized my goal wasn’t to ruin their lives but to help put the best possible paper before Cabinet (or, if you like, the reading public).  They took advice – while sticking to their guns about the request they wanted to make (story they wanted to tell).  Others resisted advice at every step, complained I was trying to force my own narrative on them.  It’s amazing how many of those papers flopped during Committee consideration.

I can’t tell in advance what a writer will be like to work with.  Once I’ve bought their book, it is hard to unbuy it if the process is unpleasant.  But it is easy not to buy a second book.

And so it goes – when I opened InDesign for the first time, I was frightened by what I might find.  But it’s a lot like other publishing software I’ve used before to create brochures, newsletters and so on.  On steroids, it’s true – but the basics remain the same.  Not a new skill to learn but an old one to refine.

Similarly when I started working with my new FTP program to revise the company web-site.  ‘I remember this.’ I thought – from my days building the web-site for CAPES in Calgary.  Just a matter of remembering and not doing anything hasty.  And back-up your work!

And did I mention how much social media is like political campaigning. Crowd-source funding is another name for fund raising.  And management is management is management.

I suppose if I had spent 35 years doing the same thing, I might not find things so familiar.  But, now, my adult long-term attention deficit driven history looks like a benefit instead of a wealth-preventing disorder.  I can do a lot of things because I’ve done a lot of things.

Of course, I’m not dumb enough to think I can do it all.  As a friend of mine – a gourmet and a gourmand – likes to say: Why slave for hours in the kitchen to produce mushroom compote, when you can buy a better one just down the road?  I’ll do as much as I can competently and economically and hire people to do the rest.

At least it’s not home renovations – once we get beyond picture hanging, it’s tradesmen all the way the way down


P.S If you’d like to support our latest project – an anthology of political science fiction called “Strange Bedfellows” – consider donating to our Indiegogo project.  There are lots of nice benefits and it’s sure to give you a nice warm feeling.

And thanks to all those who have already contributed or spread the word on Facebook, Twitter or in their blogs.

A Publisher May Work from Sun to Sun, but a Writer’s Work is Never Done

17 Feb

The e-mail has landed in your in-box (or perhaps it’s even a phone call) – a publisher has offered to produce your book. 

Or perhaps, you’ve decided to go the self-publishing route.  Your manuscript is done and you feel ready to go. 

In either case, your work has just begun. 

Since I’m a publisher, I’m going to focus on the first case.  For self-publishers, everything I say applies plus you’ll have to find a way to do everything the publisher does, too.

You read the e-mail several times.  The initial euphoria starts to fade.  That’s all they’re paying me for my year or more of struggling with this bloody manuscript!?  I’ve dealt with this before – advance payments for first novels (or even second, third or fourth novels) run from a few hundred to perhaps as much as ten thousand dollars. 

An advance is a payment against future royalties (a percentage of the sale price of the novel, somewhere between 8 and 15%).  It is usually paid in three installments – on signing the contract, on final draft and on publication.  Suppose you get $5000 against an 8% royalty on a $10 mass paperback.  The publisher has to sell 6250 books at full price before you see another dime.  Most first novels don’t sell 5000 copies.  Fortunately for you, you don’t have to pay back unearned advances.

In fact, for small presses – which often only print 500 to 1000 copies of a trade paperback – we would be thrilled to pay you more money.  It would mean we actually had sales large enough to not only pay our costs but to make a little profit, too.  Which we could use to subsidize those books that don’t sell as well as either we or the author might like.

But enough whining about my life – let’s whine about yours for a while.

You’ve accepted the offer, signed the contract, cashed the paltry cheque and treated yourself to your favorite libation.  Whew!  Now I can get started on the next book.  Indeed, you must start writing immediately – because if your novel is a success the publisher is going to want another one twelve months from now. 

Of course, maybe your dream has now been fulfilled.  You’ve had a book published – time to move on.  I knew someone who thought that way.  He sold his first book and then basically quit writing!  Fair enough.  Life is full of adventures, after all.  Of course, the publisher now hates him.  As do most of his writing buddies. 

Why?  Because publishers don’t invest in novels – they invest in writers.  The first novel is a big risk and almost never makes much money.  But if it makes a little or even comes close to breaking even, then maybe the next few books will do better and everyone can get paid.

So get writing that next book.   Maybe you’ll make some real progress before the request for re-writes arrive.  (How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?  I’m not changing a GD thing!)  Some will be minor – too frequent use of an expression or phrase; some grammatical clumsiness; suggestions about sentence length – others will be major – there are too many characters; eliminate that delightful sub-plot; cut the first six chapters. 

A friend of mine was shocked to get 350 editorial comments on a 300 page manuscript.  In the end, he accepted most of them and felt it made for a better book.  But at the time he threatened to quit writing several times.

Oh, and by the way, we need those changes in six or eight weeks.  But we still love your book!

Then comes the second round of changes (actually the third – if you’ve already gone through this process with an agent).  Less substantive, more picky, still painful.  But when they are done you get that second cheque.  Yay!

Great!  Now back to the new novel.

But there are still copy edits.  If you’re lucky and your publisher can afford to pay for them.  These go through the book line-by-line, questioning your grammar, spelling, word use, style, even your facts (because even fiction has a factual component).  It is often copy-editing that makes prose really sing, plots vibrate, worlds take on that rare quality of verisimilitude.  They will also leave you tearing out your hair – if you have any left – and questioning you ability as a writer.

Finally done!  Well, except for the author’s proof-reading, literally reading the ‘proofs’ before they go to the printer or the e-book programmer.  Only to discover six typos that somehow have escaped everyone’s attention and desperately wanting to re-write a scene (too late now!).  And feeling guilty about it because every change at this point costs the publisher money.  Well, you should feel guilty.

Meanwhile, the publisher has paid the editor (or done it themselves) hired the copy-editor and/or proofreaders, commissioned and paid for cover art, designed the book, obtained an ISBN, hired and paid a printer, arranged shipping to the distributor (who will deal with getting the books into stores). 

Nothing now but to provide an author’s bio, maybe a professional photo, do a few pre-launch interviews.  And did we mention you should have a web-site (paid for by you), a Facebook, Twitter and other social media presence?  No, well, get on with it.

Finally, the big day comes.  Your book is in your hands (along with that third cheque)and an official launch is announced.  Of course, there isn’t actually any money for that – or only a couple of hundred dollars.  You have to help if you want it to be a big success and a fun party.  Do you have an acquaintance with a bookstore, bar or art gallery?  Will they donate the space?  How about catering?  Can you get it for free or crowd source it from among your family and friends?  How about sending out invites to everyone you ever met?  If it is starting to sound a bit like selling insurance or Amway products – that’s because it is.

Bit of a rough go, especially if like many writers you’re a bit of an introvert.

Of course you don’t have to do any of this public relations stuff.  Whether you go the traditional route or the self-publishing one, you can just throw your book out into the market and hope for the best.  Good luck with that.  Or, you could be like lots of people on Twitter and shout “Buy My Book!” every minute of the day for a month.  Of course, most of the thousand or ten thousand people who follow you are too busy shouting “No, Buy My Book,” to notice. 

Sorry, audiences are not built by being annoying.  They are built by writing good books, accepting editorial comments that turn them into better books, defending your vision but not sweating the small stuff.  Making sure the book itself – whether print or e-book – is attractive in itself.  If you self-publish you have control over that and it will be as nice as you can afford to make it.  As a writer, you may make the quality of the publisher’s product part of your decision when you get an offer.  After all, it can’t possibly be about the money.

For science fiction and fantasy writers, there is another opportunity for promotion.  Most cities have a local SF convention.  Make sure you go – it’s a chance to meet the people who buy your books or who might in the future.  You also get to meet a lot of fellow writers for both social and educational purposes.  If you go, try to be yourself.  If you happen to be a jerk, try to be an entertaining one and avoid doing really stupid things.  If people like you or, more importantly, find you interesting, they may well be willing to give one of your books a try.  After that, it’s all up to the writing.

And that, ultimately, is why you did it in the first place.  And if the writing is good enough – then a few books from now you actually will be making enough money to quit the day-job (or at least go part-time).  It seems a modest goal – but a reasonable one.  People who start writing because it will make them rich are a lot like people whose retirement plans are based on winning the lottery; it can happen, but you better not count on it.


P.S If you’d like to support our latest project – an anthology of political science fiction called “Strange Bedfellows” – consider donating to our Indiegogo project.  There are lots of nice benefits and it’s sure to give you a nice warm feeling.