Tag Archives: publishing

Personal Journeys in the Book Business

28 Aug

It’s been a while but I’ve been busy — publishing three novels and putting together a new anthology. Lazarus Risen is due back from the printers next week and, in the lull, I thought I’d bring you up to date.

Distribution

I recently ended my relationship with my distribution company. That may seem like a crazy thing to do but actually the decision was pretty easy. It all came down to money.

Selling books is hard; selling anything is hard but books are harder because it is the only product that stores can return for a full refund. This practice started in the 1930s when publishers were looking for a way to kick start book sales in the depression. The mass market paperback was relatively new and was designed to be printed cheap and distributed widely. To encourage book sellers – a notoriously conservative lot – to take the risk on unknown writers, the books could be returned for a credit against future sales.

This worked pretty well for publishers, who in those days mostly distributed their own books. They didn’t actually have to give money back – they simply took a loss in the future, which as any economist will tell you, is a discounted loss.

It doesn’t quite work that way anymore. As the world became more complex, sales processes became more specialized. Publishers outsourced their warehouses to distribution companies. Gradually those distribution companies developed their own salesforces (on top of the marketing departments of big publishers) and took over marketing for medium and small publishers.

And of course they took their cut of the sales – which would be okay if they also didn’t charge fees for every transaction they undertake. There is a fee when they send the book to the store and another larger fee for when it comes back. And if the books stop moving, they charge you a fee for storing them and a different fee to dispose of them or return them to the publisher.

Generally you are told you should budget 30% for returns, though the distributor assures you they will do everything possible to keep it below that. But what if they sell your books to the wrong stores – such as stores that don’t sell a lot of science fiction, or stores who won’t keep new or relatively unknown books on their shelves for more than a few weeks? Returns can quickly rise above 30% and, with all the associated fees, it is possible to actually lose money through distribution.

Which is what happened.

I could see that it was coming and I have thought of an alternative – two, in fact. One would be to find a new distributor. There are several out there but getting them to take you on is not as simple as asking. You need to have a certain size back catalog, you need to publish a minimum number of titles each year, you need a certain size print run.

Requirements vary, of course, but obviously, the bigger the distributor (access to more stores, larger sales force, and so on), the stiffer the entry requirements. And returns are still a problem. Still, I’m looking into the possibilities.

Not all distribution companies are created equally and some are as hard to work with for store-owners as they are for publishers. Complex accounting processes and inefficient shipping practices can lead stores to refuse to work with certain distribution companies.

I’ve talked to a few book sellers about the problem and they either suggested a smaller, but reliable, mostly Canadian firm (there are several) or to do self-distribution. If authors can self-publish, why can’t publishers self-distribute?

So, for at least the interim, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve created a catalog that includes all the backlist (and announces the titles of upcoming publications) and I’ve started sending it out.

My first experience was a good one. A few weeks ago at When Words Collide (which was a great success – we won an Aurora Award and had a successful triple book launch), I approached a couple of regular book sellers with the catalog. One took the catalog and the other took some books. So while supplies last, Calgary readers can buy Bundoran Books from the Sentry Box. I’m hoping to add a lot of names to that list in the coming weeks.

The secret – deep discounts for the book sellers (more than the traditional 40%) and no returns for the publisher. Even with shipping costs I expect to make more money than I did with my big American distributor. And I certainly won’t lose money. Obviously this approach is unlikely to work with the big chain bookstores and it definitely won’t work on Amazon – but it might actually result in more books sold which will be good for both me and for the authors I publish.

E-books

Like most traditional publishers, I publish e-books of all the books I also publish by print. I’ve even published one stand-alone novella. Some have sold okay – mostly when both I and the author independently promote them – but none have been spectacular. The only exception is my anthology, Blood and Water, which sold a lot of copies by being included in a book bundle with nine other Aurora-winning or nominated books.

I’ve done all the usual things to promote e-book (and print sales): Twitter, Facebook, (including ads), Goodreads, blogs, manipulating the Amazon algorithm, but the results have been so-so..

But then there was Stars Like Cold Fire by Brent Nichols, which in the last two weeks has sold more units than all the other titles (except for the aforementioned Blood and Water) sold in the last six months. How did this happen? Neither of us have a clue. It’s not like it has become a best seller in its category (Space Opera) – although apparently that doesn’t mean what you might think anyway – but it has ticked along very nicely. Neither Brent nor I are likely to get rich – but you never know. Maybe a year from now, we’ll be referring to Brent as the new Hugh Howey. And I’ll have sold my company to Random House.

Speaking of e-books, the debate continues to rage over which is doing better – e-books or print books. Some would have you believe that e-books are in decline and print books are on the rise and sales figures would suggest they are right. Total e-book sales have fallen since 2013, while print books have shown a modest but steady increase.

Others would point out that e-book weakness is largely because there wasn’t a breakout YA novel in 2014 or 2015 – which shows how a single author like J.K.Rowling can move the market more than 10,000 other lesser selling authors. And at the same time, the rise in print sales is almost entirely due to the recent fade of adult colouring books.

That’s right. Colouring books. Maybe I need to produce a book of colour-it-yourself space ships and alien landscapes.

My own view is that – publishing is a tough business and few people are going to make a decent living at it. Most people who make a living as a writer start out being supported by family, friends, spouses, and lousy part-time jobs. Or if they live in a country that values the arts – by public arts granting agencies. For Canadians, things recently got a little better – but it’s still a rough go. Here are the median individual incomes in Canada. If you are doing better than that as a writer – count yourself lucky.

Still, we persevere – both as writers and as publishers. After all what else can we do?

Yeah, I know, get a haircut and get a real job

 

Story Bundles 2

5 Apr

In my last blog, I mentioned that Douglas Smith and I both appeared in an anthology edited by Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink – which also connects me to the third author in the Aurora Story Bundle: Candas Jane Dorsey.

Candas was a founding member of The Books Collective, the Edmonton-based publishing company that then published the Tesseracts series of books featuring Canadian writers. Candas was and remains an important figure in the Alberta writing community and I frequently ran into her both at science fiction conventions but also at literary and theatre events. I lived in Calgary while she was in Edmonton so we didn’t see each other more than a couple of times a year but it was always a pleasure. In 1997, her first novel, Black Wine, was published and it was extraordinary, winning numerous awards, including Canada’s Prix Aurora Award. And deservedly so – it was a sensational debut, a powerful story, beautifully written.  I’m happy to share space with such a wonderful book.

Black Wine Review

I didn’t see Candas very often after I left Alberta but a few years ago we ran into her at a convention. She was running for municipal office in Edmonton and we both thought our role reversal was amusing. When she was founding a publishing company in the 1980s I was running for office; now, I was the publisher and she was the candidate which just goes to show you never know where life will take you.

Which brings me to Dave Duncan, author of West of January. Dave was born in Scotland but moved to Canada in the 50s to work as a geologist in the petroleum industry. He didn’t start writing until he was 51. Two years later, in 1986, he made his first sale just two weeks after his career in the oil business came to an abrupt end. Dave took the plunge into full-time writing and more than fifty books later he’s still at it – which means he has now been an author as long as he was a geologist. Dave lived for many years in Calgary and every year would have the local SF writing community over to his place for a barbeque. Dave and his wife, Janet, were great hosts and Dave encouraged literally dozens of young writers – including me. Last year, he was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

West of January Review

Every time I speak to Dave – too rarely these days – he always tells me that he is done writing. Then more books appear – including two this year.

You can check out Dave and Candas’ work (along with 8 other great books) at StoryBundle.com.

Short Stuff

14 Feb

When I was young and first reading science fiction and fantasy, short novels were the norm rather than the exception. Many of the books I read – indeed many of the famous books in the field – were relatively short, forty or fifty thousand words or under two hundred pages. In fact all the major science fiction awards still define a novel as work of fiction over 40 thousand words.

The reasons were varied but the low cost of mass market paperbacks versus other formats was a factor. As well, the readers of such books were more interested in plots and ideas and less in characters or literary style. This is not a knock against these books – a lot of them hold up today and are still read by a lot of people, which is more than you can say for some of their more literary contemporaries.

Sometimes, even shorter books would make it into print. Ace – which is still a major SF imprint – used to publish novellas as Ace Doubles. Read one story and then flip it over and red the other. Two ripping yarns and two exciting covers for the price of one. The format proved so popular that, when I was a teenager, I joined a book club that offered literary formats in the same style, though they were cheap hardcovers. I may have been the only 15 year old boy of my acquaintance who had read all of the Bronte sisters and most of Jane Austen. I sometimes think the format was the trick to suck me in – though it was the content that kept me reading.

Short novels were nothing new and not only in the genre fields. Two of the classics of the early twentieth Century – The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby – were not much longer than those novels by Heinlein or Norton. I’ve sometimes wondered if technology had something to do with it.

Hemingway described his writing process thusly. The first draft was written by hand (standing up) and the second draft corrections were made right on the page. Only then was a draft produced on a manual typewriter. Every subsequent draft had to be re-typed, usually by Hemingway himself. Revisions were made by hand, or sometimes, as he typed. By the time it was approved by the publisher he had typed the book five or six times. No wonder he kept his prose economical!

First novels were often (though not always) short in those days. Second and subsequent novels got longer, maybe because the authors could afford to hire typists. In those days, too, there was a significant cost differential for printing a small book as opposed to a larger one – while prices didn’t necessarily rise as dramatically.

Of course, there have always been long novels – War and Peace comes to mind – but what was termed popular fiction (Hemingway and many of his compatriots would not have been offended to have their work so labelled; they wanted to be widely read) tended to be shorter rather than longer.

In the genre field, short novels lasted well into the sixties and seventies. This may not be surprising, science fiction also retained a large market for short stories in mass market format – even as that most quintessential form of America writing was finding fewer and fewer outlets. Short story markets for non-genre short fiction still exist but generally don’t have as wide a readership as they once did and nothing to compare to that of genre.

But then came word processing. Suddenly the limitations on producing long novels were no longer a technical one but one of markets. And those markets were changing. More and more readers demanded more from their books than plots and ideas. Character and setting – world building – became a bigger part of the literature and books, especially in the fantasy world (which always did run longer than pure SF), began to lengthen. As printing costs fell, profitable books could be almost any length and the typical SF novel climbed from 60 or 70 thousand words to almost 100K. Novels of 150 thousand words or even a quarter of a million in fantasy became common place.

Some people complained that the new technology that allowed longer novels to be written with less physical effort had ruined the genre. It seems that someone or something is always destroying science fiction. But the market had spoken – as it always does in commercial fiction – and like it or not, longer novels became the way of the world. They were more popular and more profitable. Maybe that – rather than some quaint conspiracy theory – is the explanation of why some books are more popular than others.

So you might think that as a small publisher, I would be inundated with massive tomes and that I would eagerly publish them. Well, I do get a few but the longest I’ve published has been under 110K and most have been in the 75K range.

As usual, the reasons are various. First of all, I like short novels. The growing length of fantasy novels is one of the reasons – though not the main one – I mostly quit reading fantasy ten years ago. As well, the length I mentioned is an economic sweet point, the place where costs are not too high while the price I can charge maximizes revenue. A short book costs a bit less but the price is generally lower; you can charge a bit more for a big book (though not a lot) but the costs are also higher. Price is not a tremendously important factor in the sales of print books but it is a small one. It may be a factor in digital books – but probably not a determining one. Studies have been, well, inconclusive, no matter what proponents on both sides claim.

Still, short is one thing but SHORT is quite another. During my latest round of submissions, I received far more submissions under 60K words than I did over 100K which mark the limits of my preferred range. In fact, a lot of the books, quite well written ones at that, were under 45K words, some as little as 33 thousand. Many of the rest barely topped sixty thousand in length.

This too may have a technological cause or even a sociological one. Digital publishing – nearly all of the submitters of short books have tried their hand at self-published e-books – doesn’t care about length. While there is a cost in terms of editing and cover design, the cost of printing is irrelevant and distribution is relatively cheap (though as always marketing is the issue). People may well be as willing to buy a short novel (or novella) as long one in part because, for one thing, they aren’t confronted with the physical thinness of the volume.

And, then there is NaNoWriMo that encourages people to write 60K ‘novels’ in a month. Not everyone succeeds but many of those ‘failures’ still have a relatively complete 40 thousand word manuscript that they then polish and improve without significantly lengthening them. Having once won the 3-day novel writing competition, I would argue it is a lot easier to write a novella than a full-fledged novel. Expectations are lower so it is easier to meet them.

While the general rule is that most books benefit from having 10% cut from them – there is even a writing guide that focuses mostly on that process – these days short  books almost always feel incomplete to me. Characters are not fully developed; plots have gaps, worlds and even ideas are sketched rather than painted. The final versions of these slim volumes are almost always ten or even fifteen percent longer – and are better books for it.

But adding 15% to a 35K manuscript still barely qualifies it as a novel even in genre terms. Add any more and it will either becomes bloated or turns into something the writer never intended to do. So, sadly, even though some were very good, I have almost always had to reject them.

Hmm, maybe I can look into the economics of publishing Bundoran Back-to-Back Books. It would at least save me the trouble of having to come up with back cover copy. Would you buy two short novels printed back to back?

In the News

Our next book is Transient City by Al Onia which will feature our first attempt at back cover art. We hope you will find it appealing. Watch on Goodreads for a giveaway in a few days or go to NetGalley to get an uncorrected proof review copy in PDF format.

A new report from Amazon suggests that while a lot of people are making a little money from self-publishing, only 40 have really hit the big-time in the last five years.

Meanwhile incomes from full time writing continues to fall – not exactly news but still disturbing. At the same time rich authors are getting richer. The 1% doesn’t just exist on Wall Street.

 

The Birth of a Novel

10 Jan

I buy almost all of Bundoran Press’ novels through an open submission process, though obviously if you’ve published with me before you get to go to the front of the line. But even that is no guarantee of publication.

So how does a novel get from being three chapters in a metaphorical meter-high pile of other submissions (I only accept digital submissions but a sea of electrons isn’t as visually arresting) to being an actual book?

I thought you’d never ask.

Almost every submission I receive is competently written; even the stories and characters are okay. It’s not that they aren’t adequate; they just aren’t special. The truth is, good writing alone will not get you through the slush pile. You need to present something interesting, something ‘fresh.’ Hardly helpful, I know, but it really does come down to that. You have to catch the editor’s attention. The good news, I suppose, is that different editors are interested in different things – but none of us want the same old thing.

The secret is not to write the best copy ever of the last best seller. Trying to be another writer – unless you are being paid to ghost-write a celebrity bio – is not the road to success. Your novel has to reflect you. It may fall into a category of books – LA dystopian thrillers, for example – but it should try to re-define what that category means.

I call it the ‘look-away’ factor. Let me explain.

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. In the last few years I’ve read a lot of manuscripts that want to be books. I apply the same standard to both. If I find myself frequently putting a book down to wander off and check my e-mail, get a snack, wash my hair – there is a pretty good chance that book will go into the ‘did not finish’ pile. If I put it down mid-paragraph, that chance becomes a certainty. It happens more often than you might think.

Manuscripts face a tougher go. They have seldom been edited and are certainly not in as good a shape as the writer thinks it is. So, the chance of me ‘looking away’ from the screen is somewhat higher. Looking away – or walking away – in mid-paragraph is a still pretty bad sign. On the other hand, if I immediately look back and keep reading, there is a good chance I’ll want to see more.

Sometimes what brings me back is pacing. The craft of drawing the reader along in that ‘what will happen next’ kind of suspense goes a long way. I like stories; I like ripping yarns. But it can also be the depth of a character – a character I didn’t see on an episode of ‘Supernatural’ last night – that pulls me in. Or, the sheer beauty of the writing or the cleverness of the central premise.  If at the end of the 3 chapters, I want to know what happens, I then read the synopsis. But only then.

Because before I am an editor, I am a reader.

So, you’ve made the first cut – about 10-15% do. What next? Assuming the synopsis doesn’t go in a completely weird direction, failing to follow the first rule of the novel – which Nancy Kress describes as fulling the promise you made to the reader in the first few chapters – I’ll ask to see the whole manuscript.

Hold it, you say, what’s this about a promise? A novel is not a series of random events. A novel begins by presenting something to the reader – it may be “I am a mystery. Watch me solve it.” Or “This young girl has been placed in terrible peril. Watch her escape.” Or “The universe is falling apart. Watch me fix it (or pick up the pieces).” Or even “Here is a dysfunctional family. Watch them wallow in it.” You can’t then veer off and present something completely different. You can take a meandering path; you can even play tricks on the reader but at the end, you have to deliver the goods.

Of course, the first three chapters are always the most polished. The synopsis may promise more than the writer is capable of delivering. The writer may not even know what their book is about. I heard a novelist on the radio the other day who admitted she didn’t really understand her novel until a year after it was published. Fortunately her editor did.

Once I have a full manuscript in front of me, I try to read it quickly but carefully. I have several questions in mind. What is this book about? Am I interested in the lives of the characters? Do I care what happens to them? Is the plot consistent? Is the background realistic (for SF, that also means is the science ‘correct’ – that is, not patently wrong)?

While the front of my mind remains in reader mode, in the back of my mind, other questions are percolating – editor questions. Is the character arc(s) clear? Is the initial promise fulfilled and, if not, why not? Does everything that’s here belong in the book or are their pieces that are missing? Is the writing good enough to do the job? Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Has the writer shown me – in the best parts of the text – that they have the chops to do more?

Most important: Do I want to help this writer make this the best novel they can write? And, can I do it? I once had a pretty good book that I rejected because I knew it wasn’t quite right but I had no idea how to fix it.

Once I do ask for a full manuscript, the chances are about 25 to 50% that I will offer a contract for the book. Not all offers are accepted. The second book I tried to buy was turned down because the offer didn’t satisfy them. I don’t know if the book was ever published or not, but obviously it wasn’t published by me.

Then the fun begins.

Some books are in pretty good shape when I start working on them; others are fairly rough, if intriguing, drafts. Regardless, I now do a second read – more careful this time, taking notes as I go. I may take a week or two to get this read done. By the end I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I will say to the writer. I then I read it a third time to nail down my initial thoughts. Sometimes I read parts of it a fourth time before I send my notes to the writer.

The editorial process varies a lot. In one case I got the writer to cut 1/3 of the first half of the book, providing specific examples and even some red ink to guide them along. In another case, I suggested that the writer should re-write the entire novel making the secondary character into the main one (not as hard as you might think though that is just my opinion). In others, the problem was mainly thematic – the writer wasn’t focused on what their book was really about. I didn’t impose a theme on them but merely pointed out in their own text where the theme emerged. In some cases, all that was required was the deletion of a chapter or two and the addition of some bridging material so the characters’ actions made sense.

None of the books I published looked exactly like they did when they arrived on my desk but, unless I’m being lied to, all the writers were happy with the work I helped them do. Because in the end, it remains the author’s book; their story. My job is merely to help them remove the rough edges and polish the brilliant parts. To help them tell their story in the best possible way.

That’s what editors do. It’s just a lot easier to do when you’re not being paid by the author – when the advice feels a bit like criticizing your boss.

Finally, we’re done. Well, almost. There is still the proofreading to be done – first by me, then by the author, then by me again. We get one more shot at it when the page proofs arrive – when we desperately hope we don’t find too many more typos.

And, of course, there is the cover. I generally ask the author if they have a scene that particularly captures the essence of the book. I always have a few ideas too. These get passed on to our artist Dan J. O’Driscoll – who has already read the book – for him to turn our thoughts (and especially his) into striking images. My authors don’t have final approval for art but I always consult them.

There are plenty of other details to handle – the ISBN number, the Catalogue in Publication (CIP) information for the front of the book, acknowledgements, dedications, bios, blurbs, back cover copy and so on. Then off to the printer.

Once the books are printed, 2 to 4 months ahead of the release date, there is the PR to handle – getting reviews, blog interviews, book giveaways, launch parties, all part of the package here at Bundoran Press.

And 10-18 months after I first read it in the slush, those 3 chapters have become a book. And I get to deliver it into the hands of a smiling author. And they always smile.

 

 

Change, What Change?

29 Dec

It’s been a few months since I last posted here; I’ve been busy is one excuse. Another might be that, despite all the hoopla, the publishing industry doesn’t change that much. The same thing cannot be said for technology or various fads generated by technology.

Until a few years ago, it seemed likely that digital or e-books would soon overwhelm their print counterparts. Sales of electronic devices were on the rise and digital books right along with them. Bookstores were failing as print book sales fell and on-line retailers grabbed a bigger share of the market.

So you have to wonder why Amazon just opened a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle to sell print books – and not just from their own imprint. Using the massive amounts of data that consumers provided them for free, Amazon is marketing books based on their on-line reviews and star ratings. Nothing under 4 stars makes the shelves and every book is presented with highlights from reviewers’ comments. Some of the books even won awards, the retailer notes. And every book is displayed with its cover out, which has been shown to improve sales.

Meanwhile, e-book sales – especially for the big 5 publishers – have been falling. In part, this may be because of higher prices, though some studies have shown that price is the least important factor in the purchase of books (no matter what economists might want to believe). That has certainly been my experience; having experimented with different price points, I’ve found that most people are little influenced by dropping the price.

The prices of self-published e-books have also been rising though not as dramatically. The old adage rings true: you get what you pay for and many buyers have come to believe that $1.99 for a novel is in fact no bargain – if the book you get is largely unreadable. Though simple price escalation is no guarantee that the quality of the product will rise.

It is also possible that people have gotten a bit tired of the e-book experience – not everyone obviously (for those who are about to yell: But I love my e-book reader!) but enough that it has had an impact on sales. A few years ago, I did half my reading on my Kobo (never did like the Kindle, though my wife owns one) but now it’s about 10%. I spend plenty of time reading from screens for work – I really don’t want to do it for pleasure. Give me the full-meal deal of a physical book for my reading experience these days. This article on the joys of the print book explains the feeling as well as I can.

Meanwhile, the incomes of all writers – based on the most reliable data available – continue to fall to the point that some writers feel that traditional publishing is unsustainable while others desperately seek alternatives in self-publishing and reformed contracts.

Bundoran Press

We had a pretty successful year publishing at Bundoran Press (no I’m still not getting rich – but money isn’t everything) and have a number of exciting projects on the go for next year. In 2015, we published three novels: Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm; Contagion:Eyre by Alison Sinclair (second in the Plague Confederacy series) and Falcon’s Egg by Edward Willett (sequel to Right to Know). We also put together an anthology called Second Contacts, co-edited by Michael Rimar and Hayden Trenholm. It had stories about, well, second contact (50 years later) from around the world and we were pretty pleased with it. Sadly, Barry King, whose story opened the anthology, passed away just a few weeks after its release.  He is and will be greatly missed.

Our anthology, Strange Bedfellows, was nominated for an Aurora Award but finished second (by a couple of votes) to On Spec, a deserving winner. We were consoled when Dan O’Driscoll won the Best Artist Award, in part for the covers he did for our books.

TC-cover-titlesDan has recently completed his cover for Transient City, a new stand-alone novel by Al Onia, which will be our first book next year. We think it’s pretty nifty; we hope you do, too.

We just finished an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a new anthology, called Lazarus Risen, which Mike and Hayden will also co-edit. After failing in our campaign for Second contacts, we made this a flexible funding campaign, meaning we would get all the money raised even if we didn’t reach our goal. Our instincts proved correct since we only reached about 77% — meaning we’ll be able to pay writers 4 cents a word instead of 5. Stories are already beginning to flow in. You can see the guidelines here.

Crowd sourcing has been a great way to raise extra funds for special projects but it seems – based on my experience and what others have told me – it is getting harder and harder to pull off. It may be one of those technological fads I mentioned above. Maybe the new Canadian government’s announcement of more funding for the arts will help take up the slack.

Today, I made an offer on another novel which was accepted. The contracts haven’t been signed but I’ll be making an announcement soon. I’m pretty excited to publish this debut novel, which will be released this fall. I fully expect to sign at least one more novel (and maybe more) from the latest round of submissions – but I have to finish reading them first. We’re still accepting submissions for another month if you happen to be putting the finishing touches on a novel. Though I do hope it’s one you spent some real time writing as this little screed against writing a novel in a month explains.

Links of Interest

The Return of Print

E-books suffer

The new Utopians

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.

Collaboration

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.