Friday, July 26, 2013

Guest Post by Jeff Carlson

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Gary Ponzo talk about first lines here:

You can read Chris Everheart talking about technophobia here:

You can read Joe Flynn talking about his publishing history here:

You can read Richard Stooker talking about bestsellers here:

You can read Nikki M. Pill talking about fear here:

You can read Billie Hinton and Dawn Deanna Wilson talking about categorizing your book here:

You can read Helen Smith talking about her publishing journey here:

Now here's Jeff Carlson, a hybrid writer whose short fiction and novels have been published by the Big 6, self-published, and published by Amazon’s new imprint 47North…

Thank you, Joe.

Going against the grain, let me open by confessing that my evil corporate New York publisher was good to me at first.  Then I left ‘em anyway.  Ha!

As writers, this has become one of the clich├ęs of our time:

Boy meets corporation.  Boy falls in love.  Corporation returns boy’s affections but is also busy dating other boys and girls.  Boy woos corporation (boy sells more books than expected), but the corporation doesn’t want their relationship to evolve.  Boy realizes corporation is obstinate and dysfunctional.  Puzzled, boy walks away.

I came up the so-called traditional route.  In 2002, I sold my first short stories to small press and semi-pro markets.  I’m talking about ink on paper.  Eventually I cracked into pro magazines. Then I graduated to novels, found an agent, and sold post-apocalyptic thriller Plague Year in a minor bidding war.  This was 2007.  It felt like the big time.  There was a film option and several foreign language deals.

To their credit, Penguin did everything right in packaging Plague Year.  The cover art is provocative.  They wrote awesome back jacket copy and added the world’s greatest tagline in blood red:  The Next Breath You Take Will Kill You.

Then they dumped 40,000 copies on co-op displays nationwide.

That’s what a Big 5 publisher is supposed to do — rule the monopoly.  Plague Year went to a second printing, a third, a fifth, an eighth.  Shouldn’t this have been a fairytale?  The collapse of the global economy in 2008 is partly what derailed my cinderella story, but, inexplicably, they backed off of my success instead of running with it.

Also in 2007, I’d sold a story called The Frozen Sky to a top anthology.  Because the story is a near future sci fi thriller, which I consider my meat and bread, I asked my editor if she’d like a full-fledged novel of  The Frozen Sky as our follow-up to Plague Year.  I thought I knew my readership.  She said no.

Plague Year is a present day nanotech action adventure novel.  For marketing reasons, they’d  immediately pigeonholed me as an end-of-the-world guy.

Penguin wanted a sequel, and I loved my characters (the ones who’d survived, ha ha).  Eager to find out what happened to them next, I wrote Plague War, then Plague Zone.  Suddenly we had a nice trilogy.

The corporate machine did some things well.  The covers for War and Zone are perfect.  Unfortunately, the jacket copy they wrote for War was mediocre.  Yes, the trilogy is a dark tale of doomsday, but their description emphasized the negatives.  It described how the heroes would confront the very worst of human nature whereas my focus was on everything that makes people great in the face of terrible challenges — determination, loyalty, cleverness, and sacrifice.

My agent warned me not to rock the boat.  Don’t be a troublemaker, he said.  The obvious joke is  troublemaker is my middle name.  I made a polite stink about miscasting the book.  In the end, I fought them to a draw.  They grudgingly rewrote two sentences while sending me several emails to explain the expense of doing so.  Really?  Changing two sentences is expensive? 

A month later, we hit our next hurdle.  Overseas, Plague Year was a hardcover bestseller in Spain.  It had verged on genre lists in the U.S.  It sold well in Germany and the Czech Republic.  I asked Penguin to hype the sequel by adding “International bestseller” to my byline.

No.  Too expensive.

Then War became a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, not a small honor in science fiction — but they said they couldn’t put any mention of it on the cover of Zone.  Too expensive. They said the artwork would be the artwork with no special design work.

Do the words “Finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award” need designing?

Meanwhile I’d always kept one eye over my shoulder wondering I could do with The Frozen SkyBy then, publishers’ staffs had been cut to the bone, there were fewer shelves for books, Kindle had blown the doors off the barn, and I knew exactly what New York had to offer.  For a low five-figure advance (low enough to verge on four figures), they’d lock up print and ebook rights for ten years, maybe longer, while fighting me every step of the way over presentation.

I self-published The Frozen Sky in October 2012.  During the first few months, sales were slow as word spread.  Then it took off. 

Since January, it’s sold 24,000 copies.  Not bad.  Following the lead of King Kong Joe Konrath, I’ve experimented with price points from 99c to $3.99 with most of my success at $2.99.  The best part is reaching audiences around the world.  My agents are gabberflasted.

Here’s the thing.  My editor at Penguin was almost right.  Plague Year reads like the love child of Crichton crossed with King whereas
The Frozen Sky is pure high tech sf in the vein of Aliens or Pitch Black.  If you’d enjoy a futuristic mind bend about smart people exploring an ice moon packed with freaky blind monsters and lost civilizations, this is your book.  But the marketing team in New York was never going to break stride from “Carlson writes tech thrillers” to “Carlson also writes hard sf.”

Why not? 

They’re publishing too many books and they don’t have enough staff.  The corporate machine really is set up like a machine. In my day, so long ago in 2007, the
Great And Powerful Marketing knew all.  Marketing dealt with other marketing heads in other corporate environments like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Tower, Target, and Wal-Mart.  Even now, their computers match numbers with other computers; the computers want simple, readily identifiable brands; and if this smacks of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, try not to think too hard about it.

Penguin would have been happy with Plague Year #4.  I could have written that series until my eyeballs hemorrhaged while they left the books on autopilot, and I considered it.  I had an absolute blast writing the first three titles.  Blowing up the world is fun.  I also learned many interesting things about myself and how I view society and relationships as well as awesome freak-outs like ant swarms, limited nuclear strikes, and bad guys dropping out of the sky in hazmat suits and paragliders.  But I wanted to do more than stay in the same storyline forever.  I wanted to grow.

The Frozen Sky was spreading my wings.

Interrupt is the epic disaster thriller I read as a boy like Lucifer’s Hammer or The Stand.  It’s more ambitious than anything I’ve done yet — larger in its cast of characters, in scope, and in page count.

My agent took Interrupt to New York because I believe in the hybrid approach.  The manuscript made New York nervous because a large page count means larger pre-production costs, print costs, warehouse, shipping, returns, you know the drill.  At the same time, we approached Amazon, whose Seattle-based imprints are the new 1200 pound gorilla in publishing.

Guess who wasn’t afraid of print costs because their corporate machine is a lean fighting unit based on the new economy and new media?

Working with 47North is a pleasure.  They actively sought my input on jacket copy because, you know, I’m a writer.  What a strange idea!  They paid an artist to draft several cover concepts and asked me to collaborate on fine-tuning their approach. 
Interrupt is a tough book to capture in a single image. What do you go with?  A flaring sun?  Neanderthal warriors?  Navy pilots?

The burning orange eye promises chaos and transformation.  I freakin’ love it.  I’m excited indeed to partner with a twenty-first century publisher, and I want to thank everyone who’s helped me walk this complicated path.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Joe sez: I wish I could say Jeff's experiences with legacy publishing were unusual. And I suppose they were sort of unusual, in the sense that he was screwed in a unique way. But being screwed by publishers isn't unusual or unique. 

I lost count of the times someone in publishing thought they new better than I did and prevented something I knew would help sales. My vindication comes from getting my rights back and doing it myself and proving that my way was the right way.

In some cases, publishers actually meant well, thought they knew better, and exerted the power authors gave them when signing that lopsided, unconscionable contract. But a well-intentioned doctor who has no clue what he's doing can hurt you or kill you.

In some cases, apathy coupled with a giant industry that treats books like interchangeable cogs, hurts authors. Authors, and books, aren't interchangeable. 

In some cases, publishers were downright evil. The term robber baron comes to mind. 

Often it was a combination of the above. But I've seen the end result countless times. The author is left wondering WTF happened, and then justifiably liberated when an alternative comes along.

I'm fine with blaming publishers for their treatment of authors and books, but I have a harder time blaming individuals who work within that system. On the contrary, almost every publishing pro I've worked with has been smart, pleasant, with good intentions. They really thought they knew better, and to a certain extent, they did. Books are commodities subject to the rules of supply and demand, and after decades of publishing books, publishers more or less learned how to sell them. So they did things that worked before, avoided things they'd tried but didn't work, and tried to keep the conveyor belt running while staying profitable.

The problem with the "one size fits all" mentality is that books are an unreproduceable phenomenon.  I knew this back in 2007. Publishers, however, haven't changed their strategy. And they remain clueless about how to succeed in the future.

Markus Dohle, the new CEO of the recently merged Random Penguins, recently said this:

“I’m optimistic that we can have more loyalty than Amazon,” he says. “Loyalty in terms of the personalities of our authors. You can be loyal to Amazon because you can get a new tennis racquet in 24 hours, free freight. But you’re not being loyal to them on a more visceral level.”

That quote is a plateful of fail with a sidedish of stupid. 

Customers are loyal to Amazon because Amazon has been working for two decades to the the most customer-centric company on the planet. Amazon keeps raising the bar for customer service and experience, and does everything it can to care for and cultivate customers. They innovate, they keep prices low, they ship quickly, they offer a huge selection of tangible and digital goods, and most of all they listen to what customers want.

Amazon has said, many times, that authors are customers, and treats them accordingly.

So customers are loyal to Amazon. They are not loyal to Random Penguins. I'd wager 98 out of 100 people have no clue who publishes the Big 5 authors they read. I'd wager they don't care, either.

Because customers aren't loyal to publishers. They're loyal to authors. 

Why does Dohle persist in the belief that Random Penguins will forever have a renewing crop of authors to exploit when more and more authors are finding happier, greener pastures by leaving the Big 5?

Dohle, and the industry, are suffering from something called existence bias. That's when a company (Kodak is a good example) believes they will continue to thrive because they've thrived in the past. This becomes a problem because keeping the status quo is the company's goal, rather than innovation that will keep them relevant.

When Amazon introduced the Kindle, they introduced a disruptive technology that took power away from the Big 5, who had wielded that power for decades, and put it in the hands of costumers--readers and authors.

Random Penguins is a middleman. A middleman who takes a ridiculously large percentage of ebook royalties for doing very little.

If Dohle wants to succeed, it isn't going to be by having a confrontational relationship with Amazon (who is the largest seller of Random Penguins books). The Big 5 need to understand that without authors, they'll have nothing to sell. 

Amazon inspires customer loyalty. Authors inspire customer loyalty. This is truly a visceral loyalty. 

The only people loyal to publishers are those who work for them.