Hard Pressed In Small Press


By Rodw (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I call it the biggest mistake of my career. At the time, I thought it was a great idea. Usually, that’s how disasters happen. Just watch Tosh.0 and Ridiculousness for clip after clip of examples. What was my stupid writer trick?

I signed with a small press at the height of the print-on-demand era.

I won’t name the press (It’s gone anyway.) and I won’t repeat some of the rants I made when it went under. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the reasons Holland Bay is going to be my last crime novel. So what happened?

Back in the day, I’d worked very hard on Northcoast Shakedown. I talked it up on forums, made friends with some influential zine editors, and even networked with some rather successful writers. It even netted me some agent referrals. So what happened to the fame and fortune?

Well, first off, there’s no guarantee of fame and fortune. In those days, I was rather friendly with publishing guru Sarah Weinman, and often we would lament that a promising author’s career would tank with a rushed second novel or shabby treatment by a publisher. It happens. It’s business. But I think if I had waited two more weeks for a nice lady named Jane Chelius to contact me, I’d have at least had a two- or three-book run to build upon.

Instead, I shopped to several small presses that were getting buzz. One of them was run by a radio guy and his wife who lived waaaaay out on the fringe of the Baltimore-DC area. He had signed a couple of writers from a forum I had joined, and his wife worked for Borders, which helped get the books on the shelves. (I really miss Borders.) My system was to send out the manuscript to certain small presses and get the rejection letters out of the way. Only this guy didn’t. He pulled the trigger. Soon I found myself with a contract (no advance, which should have been a warning sign), and an agent for whom I had no manuscript now to shop.

OK, I thought, I’ll ride out the contract, get some sales, and move on to something New York would like better. Only…

I politely refer to this guy as “someone working out of his garage,” an apt description as several more successful small presses do just that. I signed based on goodwill, and in our capitalistic, opportunistic society, goodwill is sometimes a liability. We soon had problems. Early copies looked rough because he missed his payments to Lightning Source. Some bookstores wouldn’t carry our books because of the returns policy. And print-on-demand smacked of vanity press. I never paid a dime to get into print, but man, I spent a lot of travel money going to signings and conventions. I miss those days when I could hop a plane to New York or spend a weekend in Chicago.

But alas, a company needs revenue to survive. My publisher was long on good intentions, clearly loved what he did, but did not have the business acumen or the cash flow to make it work.

This, of course, is not a knock on small press. Many micro-presses and small presses do rather well. But they live within their means, try not to overreach, and generally don’t make promises they can’t keep. I’d seen what happened to me play out several times before. I remember when Blue Murder Press imploded that many people worried for the publisher once they knew the story. When a small press fails, it’s never pretty. Many publishers, including mine, go into denial. Many writers, including me, lash out in anger. And I’m a planner. I already had a trip to his door planned, three courthouses Google mapped, and the number to the IRS memorized before I got my rights back. Yeah. I was righteously angry. I got the reversion of rights agreement in the mail before I ever left on that trip or called the IRS.

But I moved on, and from what I’ve seen, so did my former publisher. He focused more on radio and film after abandoning his publishing venture. I hope he’s done better since then.

As for my side of it, my biggest crime was being impatient. Two weeks, I tell myself, and I would have been into traditional publishing back when it was really the only game in town.

The Power Of Hand Selling

Chef Michel Roux at book signing

CC 2009 Roland Tanglao

I’ve often talked about how signing with a micropress in 2004 was the biggest mistake of my career. And yet, I’ve struggled with the independent route. When my original publisher was a going concern, I managed to sell 500 copies of Northcoast Shakedown, 200 of them directly out of my trunk. So why aren’t people flocking to me after saying “Your first novel was really great!”?

Well, corky, let’s take a look at the Jim of 2005, when Northcoast debuted. In spite of the mediocre cover (which, let’s be honest here, I approved), occasionally poor-quality prints, and distribution problems, the book was one of that publisher’s consistent best-sellers. Why? It was my first, my baby. I could talk all you wanted about it. I traveled (since my dad had left me a little bit of cash and flying to New York and various Bouchercons seemed like a good investment). I gushed about writing a book. I belonged to a Toastmasters group. A little about Toastmasters.

First off, any author who wants to pimp his or her wares should join a Toastmasters club. Most writers are introverts anyway, so the fear of public speaking doubles. Toastmasters doesn’t exactly cure you of it, but it does show you how to put that fear to work for you. I used to win table topics contests, which tests members by forcing them to speak off the cuff for 2-3 minutes. It’s a fun, safe environment where you can learn to speak in front of people. Believe me, when you work their program, it’s a huge confidence booster.

But Toastmasters are innately curious about other Toastmasters. Even before and after the meeting, if you’re an author, they’re going to ask you about your work. I probably sold 20-30 copies that way, and another 30 at various district-level functions.

I went to Bouchercon. I went to Love Is Murder. I went to New York for the helluvit. (That last one likely won’t happen again for a while.) I shook hands. I commiserated. Probably what sold those other 440 copies was the fact that I went to these events, talked a little about Northcoast with an enthusiasm of a college senior snagging his first job. But I didn’t talk constantly about it or bombard people with emails and MySpace messages and…

Therein lies the difference. When I went indie, I noticed Road Rules would get a little uptick whenever I started talking to people, this despite a couple of nauseating covers and crummy formatting. Of course, it was early in the ebook revolution. People were more forgiving back then. But Road Rules was a quick and dirty little caper that’s easy to talk about. What’s not to like about “I wrote a book about two idiots in a stolen Caddie with a holy relic they don’t know is in the trunk?”

What doesn’t work?

Filling your twitter feed with “My Awesome Epic http://someshortlink #indiepub #thriller #mymomsaysitsawesome #hashtagvomit”

Yes, even I’ve done that. You know what potential readers do when they see that? They unfollow you. They unfriend you on Facebook if all you do is bombard people with fan page invites. But if you talk about your book (without more than one or two hashtags please) while talking about life, the universe, and everything else, people get innately curious. And talk about the book in person. I don’t mean like every word out of JA Konrath’s mouth is about his books and self-publishing and whatever else he is pontificating about today. I mean have a genuine conversation with people. If it comes up in conversation, tell them about it. Give them a link. Ask them (very politely) for a review. It happened at Ye Olde Day Jobbe this past week, and somehow, without mentioning it, I even sold a copy of poor, ignored Second Hand Goods.I know New York and London love hashtag vomit and excessive promos. Let me explain this in very clear terms: It does not work. It only alienates readers and kills sales. I have never bought a book off an automated tweet or twenty Facebook posts a day. I bought them because someone was blown away by something and insisted I download or get to my local Barnes & Noble/indie store/Amazon right this frickin’ minute. Sorry, social media gurus, but you’ve been getting it wrong for a decade now. Lest ye point out I’m a middle-aged IT worker who grew up before the Internet, I will remind you that my stepson, who is 20, finds Twitter annoying and useless. He also prefers print books to Kindle. So do his friends. It means you still have to go do legwork if you want to sell books. There were three million published last year. Hashtag vomit is just a means for me to whittle down the list of potential new buys.

Less Talk. More Content.

jehovasThere’s an annoying trend of late that’s been exacerbated by the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Waaaay too many writers are burning up Facebook and Twitter time trying to justify why they are self-publishing. Or they’re decrying “the death of the novel.” (Always a trad published author, and too frequently a literary one.)

Lovely. Either someone spent money on you, or you’re doing it all yourself. Guess what.

I don’t care. The last thing I need are hoards of authors pounding on my door Saturday morning asking if I’ve accepted Kindle/The Big Five/whatever as my personal publishing lord and savior.

“Hey, yeah, can you give me a minute? I want to talk to the fascinating gentlemen behind you with the copies of Watchtower. Thanks.”

Want to get my attention?

What are you selling? No, I don’t care if Macmillan dropped $20K on you to put it in Barnes & Noble, nor do I care if you’re a plucky indie writer. You are desirous of me spending my money and probably 4-6 hours of my time on your work. OK. What’s in it for me? This is a business. What’s in it for me, the consumer? Tell me what you’re selling. Moreover, tell me what it was you spent months writing. Why’s that got you so stoked you pumped out 90,000 words of it? Enlighten me. Excite me.

And try not to mention Amazon in any context except, “Hey, look, they’re selling it for 40% off today.”

Car companies have gone out of business trying to tell us to buy cars because they’re made in America (or wherever you live.) Rover and Jaguar are owned by an Indian company. Chrysler is owned by Fiat. Half of GM has ceased to exist. So did “Buy British” or “Buy American” work for them? The Jetta in my driveway says no. Why? The car is solid, cheap on gas, and comfy as hell, a poor man’s Audi. Likewise, I really don’t care if your three-book deal is contingent upon me buying what you’re selling or that you haven’t sold more than 5 self-pubbed books this month. I have limited time and a tall TBR stack to squeeze books in. Your case will be made on what you wrote, not how you published it.

Remember, it’s the content, stupid.

Bad Religion: Now In Print!

BadReligion-ebook600Finally, at long last, Bad Religion is in print. Actually, all my novels will be going to print soon. Why didn’t I do this years ago?

When my original publisher folded in 2006, you didn’t have any options, really. There was iUniverse and XLibris, who told you up front that you’d be paying a lot of money to get books printed. What they did not tell you was that the bookstores wanted nothing to do with them. And bookstores were your only real option, despite what my now-defunct publisher insisted, to sell any books.

Then along came Kindle. And Nook. And Smashwords. Suddenly, not only did authors have an ebook option, but it took away some of the stench of self-publishing. You didn’t pay to play. You published. And if you published, the only money you might spend was paying for a cover and possibly formatting. Even formatting has become simple. If you can master Smashwords’ Meatgrinder – it is very unforgiving of poorly formatted Word docs – you then have a viable source document that can be tweaked for Nook and Kindle. (I still prefer to do those channels separately. More control, more royalties.) Covers…

Road Rules doesn’t look bad. Northcoast Shakedown doesn’t look bad. The Compleat Kepler actually looks professional. Never mind that it was done by an idiot* in his basement on PaintShop Pro. “A Walk in the Rain”? Um… Second Hand Goods? Meh. Thanks to some back-and-forth with Li’l Sis, we came up with not only a bad ass cover for Bad Religion, but a theme we could easily use on the first two Kepler novels. We’re still mulling a “keyhole” image for Second Hand Goods, which has been the runt of the Kepler litter for some reason.

So how did I go to print without going bankrupt? Simple. Amazon has offered CreateSpace for a while now. Take that ebook Word doc you made, add a header and footer for page numbers, and upload. It also has a tool for creating book covers, though in the case of Bad Religion, Li’l Sis came to the rescue again. You can digitally proof the book, which I did, but most authors I know recommend ordering a print proof. It costs very little. Mine would have been about $5 and some change. That’s it. Author copies are also inexpensive, less than 2/3 the retail price of the book (unless you set your price ridiculously high, like $12.99, which is stupid for a paperback. Nobody’s that good, and I know Ken Bruen. So I don’t say that lightly.)

Is it worth it? I’m out some time spent on formatting in Microsoft Word, and I owe Li’l Sis a detailed beta. When you’re not selling hundreds of copies a week, barter is your friend. Your best friend. Other than that, I’m not out anything. Yes, I’d like to sell it in bookstores, but bookstores and Amazon do not get along. Too bad. Because, speaking as a customer, that really limits my choices.

Which, indie bookstores and Jeff Bezos, is a major fail on your part. Fix it. Now.

Print | Kindle | Nook | Smashwords

*To quote Howard Wolowitz, that would be me.

The Future Of Publishing – An Unqualified Opinion

Part of the problem I have with the argument over ebooks vs. print is the absolutism that runs through it. You get more reasoned, even-handed arguments over abortion and gun control.

One of the reasons I distrust pretty much every prediction about the future of publishing is that ebooks gained their traction during a really bad recession.  As a result, everyone seems to assume either the growth in ebooks will continue on a steady slope, or it’s just a fad. Here’s a fact no one seems to consider: Every technology that experiences sudden explosive growth plateaus and settles into more realistic growth rates. Go all the way back to the telegraph, which no longer even exists. The telegraph as we know it was invented in the 1830’s, with Morse building the first viable system in the US shortly thereafter. By the Civil War, a mere twenty-five years later, you could dot and dash a message to even the most remote parts of the US and Canada and even England. The railroads, the telephone, automobiles, the computer, television, cable, cell phones, and the Internet all experienced this growth.

Furthermore, every media format with the exception of print has gone through the same thing. So why not print?

Movies required first a projector, then a television, and now a computer file.  Without some powered means of illumination and movement, you don’t get a movie. Same with recorded music. Start with hand-cranked wax cylinders, move to wax disks, the glass 78 rpm record, the vinyl LP and its 45 single companion, cassettes, CD’s, and now MP3’s and the like. Whether it’s a handcrank or your smart phone’s battery, music is dependent on a power source.

Books are not. Which, if you’ve read this space for a while, is not a deterrent to ebooks, but it should temper the idea that no one will buy printed books in the future. Not only do I not have to plug in a printed book, but the book will remain on my shelf until I remove it, unchanged from the day I brought it home.

So, what do I think books will look like in the future?

  • The biggest advantage to ebooks is that you can read them on your smartphone. He who goes the app-based route will win that race vs. device driven formats.  Sorry, Apple, but I want to read the new Micheal Connelly whenever, wherever.
  • What’s killed self-publishing up until the Age of Kindle and iPad has been a piss-poor print-on-demand model. Trade paperbacks, which are the best print format for on-demand printing, cost too much and Ingram, which owns the biggest POD printer, Lightning Source, may be guilty of anti-trust measures. Indies tend to depend on Baker & Taylor and independent book distributors. Ingram, the 800-pound gorilla in book distribution, doesn’t play nice with others. Then there’s iUniverse, which makes more money off authors than off readers. Their books are overpriced compared to the average traditional press’s books. Never mind PublishAmerica and Authorhouse, which refuse to admit they’re printers, not publishers. (Sorry, but publishers pay the author and do not charge for editing. No exceptions. Ever. Ever. Ever.)
  • That said, I do not believe the only place you will be able to buy books in the future will be Walmart and Kroger. I believe you will buy most of your bestsellers and celebrity “books” there. Who will sell the most books? The independents, believe it or not. The Espresso machine that does on-site print on demand will become a must-have for those selling print books. Authors will not want to pin themselves to a single brick-and-mortar location, which will spell doom for the chains, already in trouble. Indies, on the other hand, will do what they do best: specialize. You will see science fiction bookstores and mystery bookstores and even shops specializing in paranoid wingnut politcal screeds. (Those will not get a dime of my money, but knock yourselves out. Glenn Beck needs that gold scheme money.  Keith Olbermann just needs attention.)
  • The indies that will survive or thrive will have an ebook component to their business. How?
  • The epublisher will rise. Right now, it’s good to self-publish electronically. Done right – good editing, good covers, good promotion – which is now easier than ever, one can make some good money self-publishing. But as this model grows further, it will be a return to the bad old days of POD self-publishing, wherein there’s a lot of garbage out there. An epublisher will be able to cut deals with indie stores, Amazon, and so on. Print authors will be able to offer electronic editions of their print books. More importantly, books will still need to be edited, formatted, given cover art, and so on. New authors generally suck at this. Plus, a writer will need to have someone who can help them stand out above the crowd.
  • Established authors will become their own publishers. The smart established author will go it alone once they’ve built their brand, hiring their own editor, artist, and publicist and leveraging their existing relationships with bookstores. If you can offer a print version by emailing your book to Partners in Crime in New York or any other indie you may know, the Big Six become sort of extraneous.
  • Will it be a brave new world? Sure. It may even become what the 1990’s were to computer nerds. (Hey, that gave me a decent day job career.) But getting there will be ugly. It’s like everything else. We are between booms in this country and in most of the world. Does anyone deny that, right now, it’s pretty ugly? That applies to everything.
  • James Bond will return.

Yet Another Publishing Wonk

Everybody who’s anybody, and quite a few nobodies, are pontificating on the present state of publishing.  Things are rough right now.  My agent sent me a couple of nervous emails about what type of project we should pitch next.  (Maybe evil yet awesome?  Oh, wait.  That’s in April.)

Everyone has an opinion.  You know what they say about opinions, but this is a big Internet.  I will not take it personally if you pass on this one.  Hell, enough of you read my political rants.  So why not have a go at my wholly unqualified opinion on the publishing industry.

I want to hit four points based on what I’ve seen these past five years.  But first, I want to make a very important point:

Yes, it’s bad.  It’s a dark time for publishing.  But if history teaches us anything, it’s that dark times are what come between the booms.  (Conversely, booms happen between downturns, so keep that in mind next time publishing gets all giddy again.  That goes for everything else.)

I want to address newspapers, distributors, electronic publishing, and print-on-demand.

  • Newspapers – My original post was longer and rantier and made some points about the free alternative weeklies doing better than the dailies.  And then Matt Groening had to go and invalidate everything I said with a comment about his Life in Hell strip’s future.

    But one point I do want to make.  The newspaper as we know it is disappearing.  It’s not coming back.  Nor is the broadsheet or the single-section paper of the pre-Hearst/Pulitzer era. 

    For that reason, I believe publishers should shift their focus away from newspapers until they figure out what their new role will be going forward.  There’s a role for newspapers in the future, but until they figure out what that is, publishing needs to shift it’s advertising dollars elsewhere.  Go where the eyeballs are.
  • Electronic – Recording saw electronic formats coming and panicked.  As early as 1995, major artists suggested that sending music to record stores via those newfangled broadband cable thangies might be a profitable revenue stream when coupled with another cheap, new technology:  The CD burner.  Recording’s response?

    Run screaming into the night.  So rather than embracing something that would have ushered in a new golden era for recording, labels buried their heads in the sand and let Napster do for free what they should have done a buck a download.Publishing’s response to the Internet and electronic formats?

    Um…  The PDF (fine for replacing the fax), DRM (only works for movies), and proprietary ebook formats.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Kindle, but if electronic books are going to become competitive with hardcover, trade, and mass market paperbacks, they’re going to need to be standardized for any device and reasonably priced.

  • Distribution:  Distribution of books is in the hands of one or two companies.  That is not competitive.  In fact, it’s the biggest obstacle to independent bookstores surviving.One or two big companies decide it’s more competitive to send big orders to a few chains or Wal-Mart, and the independents are screwed.  No, that’s not capitalism.  That’s an oligarchy bordering on monopoly.  Last I checked, those were illegal except in a few cases. 

    Since we’re talking about books instead of cars or pro sports, book distribution doesn’t pass the exception test.
  • Print-on-demand:  It has it’s place, and small press is not it.  I know this from personal experience.  I think the in-store press has a future, as does the small print run on POD.  But the model of no advances, no inventory has simply lost any credibility.  I know.  I was in the lab for the experiment, and that rabbit stunk when it died.

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers.  I do know distributors have a lopsided amount of influence on publishing.  I know New York and London have twiddled their thumbs on electronic formats, possibly handing Amazon a monopoly.  I don’t think newspapers are dead, but I do think they’re overdue for a transformation.  And I don’t see a future for POD as a major force in publishing.