Sunday, July 28, 2013

Guest Post by Geraldine Evans

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

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:

You can read Jeff Carlson talking about his publishing journey here:

You can read Zander Marks talking abut new genres here:

Now here's Geraldine Evans...

Such a thrill to write a guest post for Joe Konrath. I’ve admired him from afar since before I decided to turn indie myself — a decision I doubt I’d have had the courage to make if not for Joe. So thank you, Joe, for your generosity in sharing so much with the rest of the writing community and for opening our eyes to the possibilities created by Amazon and the internet. You’ve raised the lid on so much to do with the publishing world: not least author earnings, which most of us have probably been secretive about (though more from mortification that our earnings were so small than from any James Bondian reason!). A lot of us are now earning a living from our writing and finding those readers that were so elusive during our traditional publishing days.

I’ve been writing for nearly half my life, but, like most writers, I took a while to get my act together and actually finish a novel. It took hitting one of those age milestones for me to stop prevaricating and actually type those blissful words: ‘The End’.

But, as we all know, and as Winston Churchill famously said in relation to World War Two, we weren’t at the beginning of the end. But we might be at the end of the beginning.

So, beginning made, we advanced proudly on to the next stage. You’ll be familiar with this one. It’s the standard rejection letter stage. This goes on for quite a while. From there we move on, if we’re lucky, to the more personal rejection letter, maybe even with a few encouraging words scribbled at the end by the editor. But it’s still a rejection and doesn’t necessarily smell any sweeter with the addition of a few barely decipherable words.

Six years and six books later in my case, I received my first letter from a publisher saying they wanted to publish my book. I’d been writing romantic novels in the hope of getting signed up by Mills & Boon (Harlequin). I never managed to get taken on by them — although I did get to the ‘few words’ stage, that advised me my books had too much plot and not enough romance… So, I decided to try Robert Hale, who also published romance in a smaller way. They accepted my novel, Land of Dreams (set in the Canadian Arctic in an attempt to be ‘the same, but different’!) out of print in any format), for the fabulous sum of — wait for it — £100, which is roughly $150. Still, it was a start. And, of course, I’d go on to greater things…

Alas, the greater things never happened and I languished on the midlist through God knows how many years and eighteen novels, never advancing much, although my advances did at least gather a nought on the end.

But this was only after the next rejection for my follow-up romantic novel and a switch in genre. This latest rejection had made me good and mad. I felt like murdering someone. So I did. I turned to crime (which is what that quiet little voice inside had been telling me to do for some time). I found a niche almost immediately with Macmillan who sold that first crime novel, Dead Before Morning, the first in my now 15-strong Rafferty & Llewellyn procedural series to St Martin’s Press and Worldwide. The latest in the series, Kith and Kill, is one of my self-published works.

My Rafferty & Llewellyn series novels are more cozy procedurals, with my London-born and Essex-based DI Joseph Aloysius Rafferty hailing from a working-class Irish Catholic family who — with their little more than passing acquaintance with the letter of the law — are the bane of his life. Being a policeman in the Rafferty family is not a happy experience. And while they might give me as the author and, hopefully, the readers, a lot of fun, they cause Rafferty plenty of angst, angst compounded by me partnering him with DS Dayd Llewellyn, a more moral than the Pope intellectual Welshman.

So, alongside the murder investigations, I’ve generally got family-caused mayhem going on in the sub-plot, which gives Rafferty plenty of ‘How the hell do I get out of this?’, moments.

I still wasn’t earning much. I was still stranded on the midlist. With nowhere to go, but down and out. And out I went after the first four books in the Rafferty series when Macmillan was taken over by a firm of German publishers and they dropped about a third of their list, including yours truly.

It was another six years before I managed to get published again. But after another ten crime novels, I was still marooned on the midlist, with no marketing budget, no publisher-paid-for book tours, no nothing. It really was a dead-end job with no hopes of promotion. Worse, it was a very poorly-paid dead end job which had to be fitted in around my real dead-end job.

Is this it? I thought. Is this what all my aspirations and hard work had been about? By this stage, I was pretty disheartened and beginning to lose my love of words and the joy I’d previously found in putting them together. I was still working full-time at the day job and fitting in my writing during evenings, weekends and holidays. It wasn’t much fun for me or my long-suffering husband.

I’d always tried to educate myself about the publishing world, the same as I’d tried to educate myself after I left school at sixteen. It was this desire to learn that brought me to Joe’s blog and, hardly able to believe my eyes, I read what he had to say about going it alone in a self-publishing world. Could there really be a way to escape the publishing treadmill, rekindle (!) my previous delight in the written world and make a proper living, too? It seemed too good to be true. There’s got to be a catch, I thought. But I continued to read Joe’s blog and from his posts I discovered other authors who’d taken the step into this Brave New publishing World before me. I started to think, ‘Mmm. Maybe it is possible.

Joe was and is such a great enthusiast, such an inspiration, and writes the things about publishers that most of us only think, that 2010 was like a succession of those ‘Ping!’, light bulb moments.

Although I still hardly dared to believe I could succeed on my own, after a few months’ I became brave enough to turn down my publishers’ latest contract — not a difficult decision in the event — especially as signing it would mean I agreed to give them the ebook rights to my entire backlist, the potential value of which they were starting to grasp.

Hey, I might be ill-educated, but I’m not stupid; certainly not after receiving a publishing education at the hands of the Master! No way was I doing that. So I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, and cut myself adrift to sink or swim on my own.

But I wasn’t alone. I had Joe always there with so much advice. And I had all the other intrepid authors who, like me, the publishing world assured us, would come to regret our foolhardy decision to leave their ‘nurturing’ nest.

Well, I’m happy to tell you we weren’t so foolhardy after all. I now earn more in a month than I used to earn in an entire year publishing the traditional route. I was able to give up the hated day job, I managed to get the rights back to nearly all my books and I’m now the proud indie author of sixteen books: twelve novels from my backlist, two new novels (Kith and Kill #15 Rafferty and The Egg Factory, a standalone medical suspense), one collection of short-short stories  (A Mix of Six) and one short non-fiction guide to kindle formatting (How to eFormat Your Novel For Amazon's Kindle: A Short But Comprehensive A-Z Guide

I’ve just finished preparing the last but one of my backlist for digital publication (A Thrust to the Vitals, with Death Dues to follow shortly (Rafferty #s 10 and 11.). I’ve also got half a dozen or more typescripts (not quite sure of the numbers as they were shoved wherever in our little house that they’d fit), that I think are good enough to be given another look at. They’re going to have to wait a while though, as I really must get on with my so-called work in progress (Asking For It #16 Rafferty series).

But I have a new lease of life, new readers and a new, much improved, source of income: all things the nay-sayers claimed I’ve never get. And it’s great! And, Joe — so are you! J xxxx

Joe sez: I remember thinking that it was my fault my books never made the bestseller lists. Even though my publishers made so many mistakes it was a comedy of errors. Even though I'd done more than any author, before or since, to self-promote. I felt the responsibility for being midlist.

Self-publishing for me was emancipation. With it came the realization that I'd done many things right, and that it was the archaic, greedy, dysfunctional, evil industry that had screwed up, not me.

But I won't place all the blame on NY publishing. Because fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me for eight legacy published books, I became a willing participant in my own victimization.

Granted, it was the only game in town. To a starving man, a crust of bread is a banquet. 

But I'll never forget the feelings of failure, many of which stemmed from my own modest expectations. 

I can imagine what young sports stars feel like, working their asses off in college sports, hoping to go pro. I can also imagine how they feel when they get a shot at going pro, and it doesn't work out. The whole "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" sounds like it was written by someone trying to soothe himself after a horrible experience.

Honestly, I don't know what hurts more. Spending years trying to break into legacy publishing but never getting a deal, or getting a deal and being treated like crap.

I still see authors going after legacy deals and I honestly can't understand what the allure is. Aren't there enough confessional stories of woe on the internet that show how legacy publishers treat authors? Aren't there more and more indie authors speaking about their successes?

I'd like someone to explain to me why, if they read my blog, they'd still pursue a legacy deal. The hope of a NYT bestseller? It can happen self-publishing. A movie deal? It can happen self-publishing. Someone to guide them through the publishing process? That DOESN'T happen in legacy publishing. Publishers don't take care of you. They exploit you. 

I'm not the only one crowing about this. I'm seeing the same stories, over and over. I'm seeing publishers make the same mistakes. I'm seeing the old system fail, bit by bit. All the information is out there, easily accessible.

And yet there are still authors who want a book deal. The Big 5 and Harlequin are still seducing authors into taking unconscionable deals.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Guest Post by Zander Marks

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

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:

You can read Jeff Carlson talking about his publishing journey here:

Now here's Zander Marks...

Square Pegs and Round Holes

It's no jaw-dropping epiphany to readers of this blog that massive changes are underway in publishing. It's also no jaw-dropping epiphany that traditional publishers are worried about it, as evidenced by the full-page Patterson angst-fest, the occasional incoherent fatwa from Mount Turow, and the Jeff-Bezos-with-horns-and-a-tail narrative.

But I'm not here to talk about all that. I'm here instead to talk about one of the side effects of the turmoil. I'm here to talk about what happens when people believe the sky is falling. (The fact that it actually is falling is of little relevance here.)

When the sky is (or seems to be) falling, people tend to run for safety. They tend to become risk-averse. They tend to favor the safest choices possible. They tend to cover their hindquarters.

As an author, that's a problem for me. I just wrote a book that is not for the risk-averse. And this is not a good time to do that if one wishes to go the traditional route.

What's wrong with my book? Everything! I'm a white guy who has just written a book set in the 'hood. My protagonist is not only African American, but he is (gasp!) an African American character with complexity, inner conflict, and a buffet of issues. He's no Alex Cross. My protagonist has some serious growing to do.

(Meanwhile, Slate Magazine--in the twenty-first century--still feels the need to make the apparently controversial case that such writing is not off-limits.)

What else is wrong with my book? It's a mash-up of two seldom-linked genres: Urban fantasy with urban fiction influences.

Now, most major publishing houses have urban fiction imprints these days. Teri Woods opened those doors years ago by--ahem, self-publishing--True to the Game and proving that there was a market. It's safe now, so they do it. But somebody had to show them that it was safe first. And of course everybody's doing urban fantasy. But both at the same time...not so much.

So what does all this have to do with self-publishing? The industry is battening down the hatches, piling up the sandbags, and that means that fewer editors are in the mood to stick their necks out too far. That's not a good thing if you're coloring outside the lines or playing outside of the sandbox.

But at the same time, we see that new genres are being born all the time--Fifty Shades being one of the harder-to-avoid examples. Of course, Fifty Shades was incubated in self-publishing before it crossed the transom.

My prediction is that we will see more and more of this. In addition to the greater creative control, rights control, and income that authors are finding in self- and hybrid-publishing, there is one other factor that doesn't get discussed as much, but in my mind is just as important: The freedom to bend and blend genres, invent new forms, and take creative risks.

That's good for readers as well as writers.


Zander Marks is the author of Death Ain't But A Word: A Supernatural Hot Mess. This book is free for Kindle from July 27 through July 31.

"An enticing blend of the paranormal and urban fiction. Highly recommended." -- Midwest Book Review

"Death Ain't But A Word is a fast-paced, thrilling book that is both hilarious and off-the-wall book that is impossible to put down and impossible not to love." -- San Francisco Book Review (★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars)

"Marks delivers a sixth-sense thriller with a intriguing tale with an unlikely protagonist, and he may have also created a new urban-fantasy subgenre...Marks' prose provides a sense of hope and humanity in bleak situations. He also delivers a thought-provoking story, with a high level of creativity and flair...just the right amount of intensity throughout. An imaginative, offbeat urban-fantasy..." -- Kirkus Reviews

Joe sez: I landed an agent in 1999 with my novel ORIGIN. She wasn't able to sell it. ORIGIN was a sci-fi/horror/occult book that fit into the technothriller category except for one difference: it was funny.

My follow-up, THE LIST, also failed to sell. Like ORIGIN, it mixed thriller elements with comedic elements.

Apparently, trying to combine thrills and laughs wasn't marketable according to New York Publishing. Here are some of the things said in the rejection letters for these books. Each is from a different publisher.

"The feel here is very MEN IN BLACK. To me, it works better as a movie."

"I'm afraid the story is a bit too weird and over-the-top for my taste. I don't think this could be easily classified as thriller or horror, so it would be difficult for us to package and market."

"Mr. Konrath's voice is confident, his prose crisp and engaging and his characters three-dimensional and believable. That said, I have to confess that I really couldn't get a hook on the story itself."

"I felt the second half of the book was too derivative of Alien and other movies of that type--being trapped in a remote location with a creature of evil and destruction."

"I thought the rather light-hearted tone diminished the impact of the novel's darker potentially more interesting elements."

"It is breezily written and has its funny moments. I think it's going to be a challenge, though, to market. With a blend of suspense and humor it'll be difficult to peg readers."

"This kind of tongue in cheek humor is tough, and the bizarre subject matter makes this even more difficult."

"I'm sorry to say that despite the good writing and humor, I think the story may be too fabulous for us to publish it successfully."

"While it is certainly not a plot I've seen before, it seems familiar all the same, plus the humor in the storytelling seems a little forced and sitcom-ish."

"I found the premise extremely imaginative and original, and the author does a remarkable job balancing the brisk pacing and humor. In the end, however, I thought it would be hard for us to really break this out in a competitive fiction market, as its novelty almost seems to hamper its commercial potential."

"I read with great interest. It's certainly an original premise, and Konrath has an engaging style. I'm afraid though that ultimately we weren't sufficiently drawn in to the thriller aspects of the novel."

"The constant joking, while witty at times, also eroded the tension and sense of menace."

"Amusing, but ultimately we felt it was a bit too odd and were concerned about the audience."

"I certainly give Konrath lots of credit for trying to put forth a most creative and different type of thriller novel. And for the most part his wise-cracking dialog held my attention, too. I just think this would be a very difficult thriller to sell to our sales force in a major way."

"It had a lot going for it--especially certain moments of humor--but in the end it seemed too much like the novelization of a movie."

"It lacks the spark and sustained suspense required to stand out on the crowded fiction shelf."

In 2009, I self-published ORIGIN and THE LIST.

Since then, they've received over 1000 reviews (averaging four stars) and have earned me over $325,000.

Those who follow this blog know that after ORIGIN and THE LIST I wrote a book with zero comedic elements, DISTURB, which is my poorest selling and poorest reviewed novel. When I returned to mixing thrills with comedy in WHISKEY SOUR, I finally landed a publishing contract. (Incidentally, ORIGIN, WHISKEY SOUR, and DIRTY MARTINI are currently free on Kindle, and my other Jack Daniels novels are 99 cents.)

Now even though the rejections stung at the time, I actually do understand the publishers' concerns. A publisher's batting average is awful when they sign books they actually think they can sell--I've heard only 1 out of 5 legacy-pubbed books makes a profit. It's very important to pigeonhole paper books so they can be shelved correctly and find their intended audience. Mixing genres, and adding humor to what has traditionally been a humorless genre, could potentially confuse the marketing team and the sales team, making it difficult to sell.

Happily, these novels have found and audience--an audience large enough that I get several emails a week asking for sequels. The books haven't changed. What has changed is the way books are sold.

One of the many cool things about the indie ebook revolution is that properties once considered hard-to-sell--like novellas, genre mash-ups, thrillers with humor--can now reach readers. Readers who, in many cases, are drawn to the very attributes these publishers dismissed as negative. Brick and mortar bookstores don't have a "Funny and Scary" section. But funny and scary are keywords that can be used to search for books. Readers can now specifically and quickly find kinds of books they like, without having to wade through shelves and shelves of  "Horror" or "Romance" or "Mystery" or other umbrella one-size-fits-all labels.

As self-published authors, we can take much bigger risks with our prose than legacy publishers ever could. And sometimes those risks pay off.

So who else is finding success by breaking the rules and mixing up genres? Let me know in the comments.

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 clichés 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.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Guest Post by Helen Smith

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

You can read Ian Kezsbom talking about Fuzzbomb Publishing here:

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:

Now here's Helen Smith...

I have just completed my ninth book and I’m working on my tenth. I write novels, poetry, plays, screenplays and children’s books. I have been published traditionally by one of the “big five” and by a small press in the UK. I have also self-published. My new British mystery series is published by Thomas & Mercer.

The high point of my screenwriting career was being commissioned by the BBC to write a series based on my first two books (the money was fantastic, though the series never went into production). The high point of my career as a playwright was seeing my play, The Psychic Detective, (“a film noir, perfect in almost every detail” The Times) produced at the National Theatre in London. We were parked outside the main building in a container truck mocked up to look like a 1940s cinema, with velvet seats for the audience. The high point of my career as a poet was seeing my biography and two poems printed in a respected anthology (co-founded by Ted Hughes) for which payment was two copies of the book. The high point of my career as a novelist was reaching the number one spot as the most popular mystery writer on last month. I love the written word in all its forms. But, for now, I’m sticking to writing novels.

I don’t usually give advice about writing unless I’m asked for it. Friends of friends sometimes contact me to ask how to self-publish their books. I tell them how to do it but, unless they’ve previously been published elsewhere, I tell them to go the traditional route if they can. I have an agent. I’m traditionally published. Do I do it because I need validation? Yes! Yes, yes, yes. I want reviews and I want sales. I want a TV deal for my new series. I can’t get those things by myself.

Publishing your books yourself is hard work unless you have a marketing background or an established readership. None of us is frightened of hard work, but digging ditches is hard work. Pitching reviewers and advertising to readers is hard work. Wouldn’t you rather be writing than marketing? I know I would. If you have an established readership or a talent for marketing, go for it. Or if this is the best choice for you right now, go for it. I love the choice that self-publishing – particularly Amazon’s KDP programme – offers authors. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t self-publish. I’m just saying you shouldn’t do it because you think it will be easy. Do it because you’re not afraid of hard work. Do it because your book is brilliant and you want people to read it.

If you decide to self-publish because you can’t handle rejection, consider this. If you go the traditional route, you only have to sell your book once: to your agent. Your agent sells the book to a publisher and the publisher sells the book into bookstores and direct to readers. They also handle publicity, pitching your book to reviewers and bloggers. If you self-publish, you have to make every sale. You send out every pitch. And you will meet with a hundred tiny rejections instead of one or two big ones.

Give yourself a little pinch. How thin is your skin? The rewards are wonderful when you self-publish. I’m not talking about the money, though of course you get to keep most of the royalties for yourself if you publish yourself. But if you cared about money you’d be working in a bank or dealing in property in London, not writing a novel, right? I’m talking about the opportunity to make relationships – friendships, even – with the book bloggers who are kind enough to read and review your work. I’m talking about connecting directly with readers. Once you do that and you go back into traditional publishing, you’re Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. You’ve seen too much. You’ve gone rogue. You’re going to be difficult to handle. But you only get to play Colonel Kurtz if you’ve made a success of self-publishing. And before the hubris comes the rejection. The snubs from reviewers. The snubs from professional writers’ organizations. The snubs from bookstores. Oh, those endless, petty snubs from bookstores that they report so gleefully on Twitter, as if a local author wanting to partner with them to sell books is an affront to their dignity and humanity. Thank goodness for Amazon!

But before you can publish a book, you have to write one.

If I’m asked for advice about writing, I usually confine myself to a variation of “just finish your book,” tagging on a cheery and heartfelt, “good luck!” If that advice seems facile, that’s probably because you’ve never finished writing a book. Lots of people start them. Not many people finish. How do you even know if you’ve finished? OK, I’m going to cover that in my “five things you should know about writing”, below. After that, I’m done.

Thank you to Joe Konrath for hosting me here. He invited me to post after I made a donation to Tess Gerritsen’s War on Alzheimer’s Fund. I also fundraise for Tŷ Hapus, a centre in Wales that provides respite care for people with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Five things you should know about writing

1)  The publication of your first book is not the end of the journey, it’s the start of it. The hard work starts now. Good luck. Don’t forget to keep writing.

2)  Don’t use song lyrics in your book.
You need to get permission to use the lyrics and pay to use them. You are responsible for this, not your publisher – and it’s expensive. I think it’s natural for writers to want to provide a soundtrack for their book, especially first time writers who are throwing everything they’ve got into the manuscript to make it work. If you want to use a song to evoke a mood, or locate the action in a particular time or place, just use the song title – you don’t need to ask for permission or pay for it. This is perfectly legal. If the reader recognizes it, the song will instantly start playing in their head as they read your book. Nick Hornby did it brilliantly in High Fidelity, if you need an example of how to make it work. But don’t reproduce the lyrics without permission.

3)  Don’t send the book out until you’re finished.
Are you sure the book is finished? Really? There’s nothing you could possibly change? It’s hard enough to get people to look once. They won’t look twice.

4) Agents and publishers are not looking for potential.
See number three, above. Have you written a good book? Or have you written a book that could be good, with a lot of outside help? Agents and publishers are looking for the former, not the latter. Yes, publishers will hire a copyeditor to fix the typos in your book if they buy it, and they may also give you notes on your manuscript so you can fix anything that doesn’t work in your final draft before publication. But they will not match you with industry insiders eager to transform you from weeping ingénue to star. This isn’t American Idol. If you’re looking for that kind of help, you’re in the wrong business.

5) Be nice.
Be nice to everyone. Everything goes better in life if you heed this advice.

Invitation to Die was published by Thomas & Mercer in May 2013. Helen Smith blogs at or find her on Facebook or Twitter

Joe sez: Every writer has a different path to follow, and they glean wisdom from their experience.

Readers of this blog know what my experience has been. I encourage everyone to self-publish, and I don't believe anyone should take a Big 5 contract unless it's for a ridiculous amount of money, or unless you can keep the ebook rights.

That's been my experience, so that's what I share. But that doesn't mean those who have opposing views are wrong, or that there is only one cookie-cutter way to succeed. We all have different journeys, and different results.

As an author who has visited 1200 bookstores, my experience differs from Helen's. While I did have to sell my book to my agent, that wasn't the only person I sold it to. I've found that I worked many times harder and longer selling my legacy books than I have selling my ebooks. Countless eight hour days in bookstores, handselling. Traveling to conferences and book fairs and library events in 42 states. Schmoozing with publishers and publicists and editors in order to get them on my side. I'm very happy I don't have to do any of that anymore, especially considering the meager monetary benefit I got from it.

Whereas with ebooks, they seem to sell themselves, with minimal prodding on my end. But again, that's been my experience, and your mileage may vary.

Every writer's goal should be to learn as much as possible, by talking to others, reading blogs and books, and experimenting. Then you can find what works best for you. Then you'll be able to give advice based on experience. Just remember than not all advice, mine included, fits all.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Guest Post by Billie Hinton and Dawn Deanna Wilson

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

You can read Constance Phillips and Jenna Rutland and Joe Konrath talking about their paths to publication here:

You can read Ian Kezsbom talking about Fuzzbomb Publishing here:

You can read Gary Ponzo talk about first lines here:

You can read Chris Everheart talking about technophobia here:

You can read about 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:

Now here are Billie Hinton and Dawn Deanna Wilson...

To-may-to, To-mah-to - A discussion about categorizing your novel

BILLIE: Thank you to Tess Gerritsen for creating the Alzheimers fundraiser and to Joe for coming up with a way to make donating both fun and a marketing op. Its a real pleasure to be part of this huge group effort to do some good while talking about our books and the writing/publishing life.

DAWN: We are two North Carolina writers who met at a Weymouth writer residency (where there was a bit of suspense about who stole/ate Billie's chicken salad, but that's another story.) Since then, we have been able to support and encourage each other on this journey, sharing information on what works, what doesn't work, and tweaking things along the way.

BILLIE:  The real suspense was learning how to deal with the Weymouth ghost-in-residence! We had a great and productive time there. We also do some collaborating on a children's picture book series! But back to grown-up books and categories and genre questions. In 2010, I decided to e-publish claire-obscure, (available on Amazon for $3.99), my first novel that was represented by two agents, shopped by one, praised to the high heavens, but didnt sell. While it had been shopped as literary fiction, every editor who read it noted the strong element of psychological suspense. Every reader to that point said they'd "never read anything like it" - so from the beginning there was some question about how to position the book. I felt strongly that the book had an audience. So I decided to publish it myself.

Initially I listed claire-obscure as literary fiction. It sold, but it was slow. Early on in our self-publishing venture Dawn and I each earned what we called latte money.”  Which gradually turned into pizza money and then dinner out money. Around that time, I realized the response from readers had mostly to do with the suspense - and I changed the category to reflect that. Once I changed the category, Pixel of Ink picked it up a few times, downloads went wild, and sales increased. Suddenly, I was earning weekend getaway money and finally horse farm expenses money.

DAWN:  I have had two books traditionally published by small presses and while they did okay, sales eventually stagnated. I never considered self-publishing; as a former newspaper reporter, I knew that self-pubbed books went straight into "file 13" when they arrived in the newsroom, and I still carried that prejudice. Then Billie told me about ebooks and about this wonderfully wild and crazy guy named JA Konrath who was self publishing on Kindle...and succeeding.

When the rights to my second novel, Leaving the Comfort Cafe, (available on Amazon for $3.99), reverted back to me, I changed the cover and self-published on Kindle. I was thrilled just to see things moving again. I had originally pushed the book as literary/southern fiction, but I have found more success with it in the romance market. (Although it isn't a "bodice buster," a love story is a strong element of the novel.) Then Pixel of Ink picked up Cafe, and for a few brief, shining days, I outsold Nicholas Sparks. Suddenly, latte money turned into "I-can-afford-an-iPad-and-a-visit-to-Paris money."  Needless to say, I got the rights back from book #1 (Saint Jude) and put it on Kindle. I didn't even bother shopping my third novel, Ten Thousand New Year's Eves. I published it straight to Kindle.

BILLIE: The weekend Comfort Cafe went viral we were at my house watching numbers. It was crazy! But it became clear that certain genres had a lot more potential for that upward path to the top of the bestseller list. As a writer who had been thinking literary for years, I suddenly realized that part of my job as a self-publisher was to look closely at how my books were labeled and, ultimately, what the best audience really was.

As the first "real reader" reviews came in, it was clear that the high level of suspense paired with good writing and characterization were the most appreciated elements by readers. A smaller but significant number of people noted the erotic element as well.

Right before Christmas this past year sales began to slow down. I continue to find readers who love claire obscure (and Signs That Might Be Omens, book two in what is planned to be a quartet, also available on Amazon for $3.99). I'm in the process of taking yet another look at what I can do to better position my titles to get them into the hands of readers who will appreciate them. Another of my novels, The Meaning of Isolated Objects, ($3.99 on Amazon)) about a father-daughter mixed up with CIA intrigue, has one cross-over character. My brain started ticking along...

DAWN: Well, with Claire, I think it could fit easily into a number of categories. Your characters make cameos in other pieces, don't they?

BILLIE: Since all my adult novels live in the same world, and characters from one book often make cameo appearances in the others, Im starting to see the possibilities. There are three characters in claire-obscure who have their own trilogies, quartets, etc. as works in progress. Finn has the potential to go into thriller/horror. Bingham and Raoul will be solid thriller material. And I get to write about characters I know - but still have a lot of discovery to do in terms of their adventures. I'm starting to view these in-progress novels as retirement investments.

DAWN: You know, I've always liked that aspect, an Easter egg for the readers.  I don't think any of my characters lend themselves to my other books.  I can't see Blythe from Cafe appearing anywhere else unless there's spiked coffee involved. But it does open the door to other categories. Maybe one character's book is more thriller and another more erotica. You then have this tie-in for the reader.

BILLIE: Another thing we've learned is that sometimes the idea for tweaking the categories comes from seeing your book on Amazon best seller lists you haven't considered.

DAWN: One thing that surprised me was that Saint Jude, (available on Amazon for $3.99), which is about a teen with bipolar disorder, kept appearing on the top sales list for NONfiction. I have no idea why. I did NOT categorize it that way and it's clear in the description that it's fiction. Obviously, this is an example of when you would NOT change categories, but it demonstrates how KDP giveaways can lead to sales in unexpected categories.

BILLIE: Exactly. And it gives you information you can use for marketing purposes. Clearly, with St. Jude, readers are finding it when searching for books about bipolar disorder. Until I changed claire-obscure, a few readers were finding it in literary but really honing in on the suspense. Finally I got a clue and started looking at what the readers were saying.

DAWN : I think our books easily fall under literary fiction but I've not seen that label lend itself to sales like the genre labels.  I'm not sure why. Maybe readers hear literary fiction and think it is going to be a long, dense narrative like William " I don't need no stinking commas" Faulkner.

BILLIE: You recently tweaked the categories for Leaving the Comfort Cafe.

DAWN: Yeah, I narrowed it down to romantic comedy. I  felt the general romance category included soooooooo much, from sweet first love to erotica. I was getting lost in the shuffle.

BILLIE: Its a learning curve. Experimenting with each title, finding out how to best position it to find the most readers possible. I think the biggest lesson I've learned is that it's not only okay, but necessary, to experiment. (We can thank Joe for that!)

Once again Im looking at genre, category, cover, and product description to see if tweaking these would better position claire-obscure to go bigger. And of course, working on getting the next titles out there.

Which reminds me. Your newest novel, Ten Thousand New Year's Eves, which is my favorite of your books so far, has been through some cover changes recently.

DAWN: Yeah, we're not going to get too much into discussion on covers here, because other posts have handled that so beautifully, emphasizing the importance of professional covers.

BILLIE: I think it's worth repeating that when a cover evokes a certain genre, it helps the book find its best readers.

DAWN: Like my covers for Ten Thousand New Year's Eves (available on Amazon for $3.99) that we are just going to call Dawn's Epic Fail. This is why I'm in the process of getting a cover professionally designed. This book is about dysfunctional people whose lives are intertwined, even though they do not realize it. Because it deals with windows into the lives of different people (and one bomb-sniffing dog), there are a bunch of genre elements, but no one that seems to have more sway than the other. The book is literary fiction, but I don't want to be locked into that category.

Cover one: Good things-- I like the yellow. Bad things-- I don't like the yellow.

BILLIE: I'm just one reader, but to me the book has to do with the whole six degrees of separation idea, and you manage to pull together a group of wildly disconnected characters and show us their quirks and how their paths connect in one very brief period of time. Tricky cover to create - when you first redesigned, you focused on the romantic angle.

DAWN: Yes, because like Cafe, there are some strong romantic themes. Which leads to my Epic Fail Cover #2 which I think makes it look like it all takes place in New York (it doesn't)  and gives an impression of the traditional rom com happy ending.

BILLIE: Aspects of the book are quite dark.

DAWN: Right. So until I do a redesign, I went to cover # 3. Which I'm not sure is a fail, but it captures more of the essence of the story than the the others. We will see.

BILLIE: The bottom line: Don't be afraid to experiment. Pay attention to what the readers are saying when they write reviews and emails. Look where the book is finding readers. It took a great review from Crime Book Beat to make me realize I could stop calling claire-obscure literary. Right now I'm considering re-doing the cover to reflect some of the eroticism. It's the same book it has always been. But in looking at what readers respond to when they read it, I'm positioning it to find more good readers.

DAWN: And if I may gush for a moment, Joe, we sincerely appreciate all you've done, not just your information, but giving back to charities, supporting other writers, etc.  Though we realize there are no more "JA Konrath Visits So Many Bookstores You Think He's in the Matrix" events, if you ever find yourself in in North Carolina, we will treat you to a beer with some of our latte money.

BILLIE: I think we can spring for beer AND pizza. If my new re-design goes viral maybe a trip to Paris?

DAWN: Let's stick to beer and pizza.

Billie Hinton writes novels for adults and children, nonfiction about the writing process and living with equines, as well as the occasional short story. She lives on a small horse farm in North Carolina with her husband, two teenagers, two horses, a painted pony, two miniature donkeys, six cats, and two Corgwn. She sees magic happen every single day.

Dawn Deanna Wilson writes YA and adult novels and short stories. She also illustrates children's books and has a small art studio in Eastern North Carolina. She drinks far too much coffee.

For more information, visit their author websites: and

Joe sez: One of my cardinal rules when marketing is asking myself, "What makes me buy a book?"

This rule can and should be extended to searching for things to read. What keywords do you type into the search box on Amazon to find your genre? Do you use "customers also bought"? Do you use genre bestseller lists?

Besides the BISEC categories (how you list your ebooks on Kindle) what are some of the keywords you use in product descriptions to make sure you maximize your title's visibility?

I'd like to hear your thoughts on this in the comments. Let's pool our collective knowledge and learn from each other.