Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Letter from a Literary Agent

I found this in my inbox yesterday:

Joe,

First off, thank you. I've been struggling with a lot of aspects of working "inside" the publishing industry lately. I found your blog following a link trail one day last week. I sat down and promptly started reading from 2009 (when you dove into self-publishing) until present. You make a ton of sense.

Unfortunately, you didn't do anything to make me feel better about my current position (although, that's not your job). I've been struggling with my role as an advocate for authors. I have been working on one contract now for almost four months. I keep going back to fight for my client and each round feels like I'm getting both closer and farther away from an agreement that will make either one of us any money. I work mainly with small presses that offer better terms that the large houses, but even those terms feel unfair to my clients.

The challenge comes in continuing to seek out contracts for my clients when I keep doubting that it is the best path for them. At the same time, I know many of my clients have no desire to self-publish. They don't want to mess with the back-end aspects, even if that costs them money in the long term. Will they change their minds after a few contracts have run their course? Maybe, but only time will tell.

I love your estribution model, but I don't think it's feasible for me. Neither I nor my agency have the kind of liquid capital to invest heavily in multiple clients when it comes to things such as editing, cover art, etc. I want to help my clients, but I don't personally have the money to invest in their careers. What I do have is time, skills and a deep desire to give my clients the best chance at success.

You have so many great ideas about publishing and I admire the way you innovate. I'm wondering if you have thought of any other models, similar to estribution, that would allow me to help a client who is hesitant to self-publish without tying up money I don't have. I want to do what's right by my clients, but right now any path feels like a loss when I know they don't want to self-pub, but are unlikely to be happy in the years to come with most traditional deals.

I know you get a metric ton of email, so I understand if you can't answer this. If you decide to address this topic on your blog, I just ask that you keep me anonymous. I do plan to discuss this with the owner of my agency, but don't want to blindside her. I appreciate your understanding.

Joe sez: I've said before that no one owes you a living. That goes for agents as well as authors.

In the past, agents filled an essential role in the legacy publishing industry. If you convinced a good literary agent to represent you, it improved your odds at getting your book read by a publisher, and consequently improved your odds at getting published.

I couldn't have gotten pubbed without my agent. And besides helping me land my legacy contracts, she has also fought to improve their terms, and sold dozens of subsidiary rights (audio, foreign, movie).

Since I began to self-pub, my agent has helped me in an estributor capacity, especially when it comes to my collaborations. I find the percentage she recieves is well worth the work and monetary investment she puts in.

But how about agents, like the one who sent me the above email, who want to work with authors but can't invest money in cover art and formatting?

I have some advice. And the advice is the same as it is for authors who don't want to self-publish:

Find another line of work.

I'm not trying to be flippant, or harsh. I'm being entirely realistic. Allow me to use some analogies.

"I want to be a mechanic, but don't want to learn how to work on engines."

I suppose you could limit yourself to just brakes, or transmissions, but you won't be able to find work as easily, and you're missing out on a big part of what the title mechanic means.

"I want my art to hang in museums, but don't know how to get it in there."

Before you create a key, study the lock. Working on something and expecting the world to embrace it doesn't happen too often.

"I want to be a surgeon, but am afraid of the sight of blood."

Maybe you can become a tree surgeon.

"I want to play poker for a living, but not with my money."

No one is going to stake you until you prove yourself. And once you prove yourself, you probably won't need anyone to stake you.

"I want to manufacture wagon wheels, but there isn't a market for them anymore."

You can still make all the wagon wheels you want to. Just don't expect to sell any.

"I want to be a contract lawyer, but my contracts are never accepted by either negotiating party."

Sounds like you won't get a lot of business.

My point is that the roles of writers, and agents, have changed. The industry has changed. Expectations have changed. What was once the norm is now the exception. 

Writers, and agents, if they want to thrive (or even survive) have to develop new skills, take on new responsibilities, and take different chances.

This means learning about the current state of the industry, doing things outside your comfort zone, and ponying up a few bucks.

I expect contract negotiations with publishers to get even harder as more and more publishers become aware that they aren't needed. Since there continue to be writers who insist on going the legacy route, publishers will make those writers pay. 

Consider the taxi cab. There are many alternatives to getting around town, and all of them are cheaper. Yet cabs can command a premium, because they provide a service for those who want it. Just like publishers.

You can't negotiate with a cab driver for a lower fare.

Consider textbooks. As a student, you're forced to pay $200 for a single book. The publishers know this, and they price accordingly. The school bookstores also know this, and they make used books almost as expensive as new books. They gouge. It's human nature. If you can get more for something, you will.

Publishing, as of April 2014, is a market still controlled by publishers. They can set the terms, because there are still plenty of eager authors willing to give up 70% royalties and rights forever. When more authors catch on that signing a legacy deal isn't in their best interests, publishers will begin to leverage everything they can from those who remain.

One might think the opposite will happen: that publishers will try to lure authors to them with better terms.

I don't see that happening. Profit margins are already too thin, and while the Big 5 keep posting record sales figures thanks to ebooks, the trend won't last forever. As paper sales dwindle and their monopoly on distribution ends, and more and more authors leave legacy to self-pub, publishers will squeeze the suppliers (authors) they still have. Right now advances are shrinking, some acquisitions aren't even getting paper releases, and print runs are down. When belts begin to tighten, the last thing publishers will do is offer authors more of the pie. Like starving dogs, the Big 5 will viciously fight over the scraps that remain.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe publishers will start treating authors fairly, and become more open to negotiation with agents. And then Satan and I will go ice-skating in hell.

There are only two essential groups in the reader/writer relationship: readers and writers. Everyone else is a middleman who has to prove their value.

Some writers don't want to self-publish, so there will be some agents and some publishers who can assist them for a piece of the pie. But as more and more writers learn how easy it is to reach readers, I see those who pursue careers as agents, or those who work in the publishing industry, becoming a niche.

Unless publishers and agents offer authors something they really want, at a cost authors are willing to pay, we're going to see their numbers dwindle.

If you are an author who doesn't want to get your hands dirty by self-publishing, your choices are going to be limited. If you are an agent who can't assist writers by becoming an estributor, your choices are going to be limited. 

It doesn't have anything to do with what's fair. Or how things used to be. Or what authors and agents want.

It has everything to do with how readers are finding books to read.

If you want to be a part of the reader/writer business transaction, there is no magic bullet or formula or business model that I'm aware of which doesn't involve either legacy publishing or estribution. If you want to work with authors, you have to give authors something they want.

It would be great if we could shape the world into what we want it to be, but mostly we have to figure out how to work with how things are.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Latham Conger and Kickstarter

I met Latham Conger in fourth grade. We were plucked out of our respective classes to attend a two year program in another school called Special Opportunities. 

And no, it wasn't because we were disfunctional. It was a gifted program for supposedly smart kids, and we were taught by two teachers for two years in the same classroom. No grades, just written report cards. We were encouraged to explore our minds, both academically and creatively. Sort of a Montessori set-up, within the public school system.

Being with the same group of kids for two years was interesting. I made two lifelong friends during that time (Latham and my friend Jim), and have stronger memories of 5th and 6th grade than I do of any other school year.

Both Latham and I wound up going to the same junior high, high school, and college. We both wanted to be filmmakers.

I went to Hollywood after graduation with a few terrible spec scripts and tried to find an agent. I couldn't. When I came back home, I was pretty disheartened, and turned my attention to fiction writing. Over the next ten years I wrote ten novels, got hundreds of rejections, and finally sold my Jack Daniels series. 

Latham did some video projects on the side while working in fields he didn't like, same as I did while trying to get published.

Life marched on with all its spoils and tragedies. Births and marriages, firings and hirings, children and buying houses. We stayed friends, saw each other when we could, he shot my wedding on video, I shot his, and two years ago when I had the ridiculous idea to go on a beer diet, I hired Latham to film me for 30 days around the clock. 

One day we'll cut that movie together, and it'll be entertaining. Some YouTube vids are in the sidebar of this blog.

After the beer diet ended, Latham decided it was time to make the movie he always wanted to make. He wrote a damn good script, got the talent together, and for the past two years has been neck-deep in fulfilling his potential. Now he's in the final stage, doing the edit and sound mix, and he needs a few more hundred dollars to be able to finish.

So he began a Kickstarter campaign. You can hear Latham talk about his movie, and donate some money to support his cause, here.

Joe: Hi, Latham. Good to finally talk to you about your film project. How's it going?

Lay: Thanks, Joe. It's a lot of work, but going well. I never dreamed this would expand into the project it has, but it's going to end up being really unique when it's finished.

Joe: Tell us about your film, The Gordian Knot. How did the project get started?

Lay: The Gordian Knot is my first independent film. I began writing the screenplay in March of 2012, finishing it that summer. We cast the film in August of 2012, and began shooting it in and around the Palatine area in September. What was supposed to be a two and a half month shoot ended up taking much longer. Since the movie takes place primarily in the fall, we needed to finish the outdoor shots before the snow came. That didn't happen! We waitied until spring of 2013 to continue, and then finished primary shooting in June of that year. Or so we thought! Reshoots were necessary in the fall of 2013 again, and then we finally finished principal photography in October.

Joe: And now you are in post-production?

Lay: Yes. I began editing in November and have been at it ever since. We just finished the visual rough cut a few weeks ago, and are now getting ready to mix in all the sound and music. My co-editor is fantastic, and has really upped the ante with the film, as he is able to do things I never would have figured out. Aside from that, there's all kind of promotional things we are preparing, as our Kickstarter campaign attests to.

Joe: I've always wanted to make an independent movie, but watching you for the past two years, it seems like a great deal of work.

Lay: It is. The reason it is taking longer than expected is because of my three producers. They're very easy to work with... because they all quit over a year ago. I've had to handle nearly every aspect of the production myself, and it has been exhausting. Rewarding, but exhausting.

Joe: Tell us about the story. I know there's some unique aspects I haven't seen portrayed in any recent films, including a popular hobby that I know a lot of others are interested in.

Lay: The Gordian Knot is about "The Game". The Game is a contest that moves around the United States, popping up in a different location every few months, offering a ten thousand dollar prize to the winner each time. The Game's popularity has grown on the internet, but it's still hasn't reached a high level of popularity.

Fifteen people are picked to play in "The Game" by the powers that run it. You can apply online, but it's a mystery what criteria they use to pick anyone to be in it.

Joe: How does one play "The Game" ?

Lay: The game involves two aspects: The first is the hobby known as geocaching, where you use a global positioning unit to find hidden objects on planet Earth. During the time the game is played, each participant is required to search for these "caches" after solving certain puzzles provided by the game masters. The more geocache points you find, the further you can move along in the game. That's just the first part of what you do to play, though.

The second part of the game involves stalking and "eliminating" other players you are competing against. When the game begins, everyone receives a device that signifies they are playing the game, a bracelet which attaches to the wrist. If the bracelet ever comes off once the game has begun, you are eliminated from the competition. Of course, there are certain "factors" that must be in place for you to eliminate anybody, and you learn about those early in the film.

Joe: It sounds like The Hunger Games, but without the death.

Lay: It definitely owes a lot to the "Ten Little Indians" suspense device, where you are introduced to a bunch of different characters and are left to figure out which one is going to remain in the end, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. The Game itself is the framework for the story, but it goes much deeper than that.

Joe: Can you tell us more without revealing too many spoilers?

Lay: Just a little! Our main character, one of the players in this particular game in Palatine, has come to town for a completely different reason. He's looking for something, and he has a very good reason why he won't quit until he finds it. While the game unfolds, we learn about what he is trying to do, and why. It's a slow reveal, and creates the main suspense arc of the film. From there things get...strange.

Joe: When you say strange...

Lay: The movie moves in a unique direction once the game approaches its climax. Something else that needs to be resolved becomes as important as who's going to win the game. And then there's the ending, which will make you think and wonder like very few films have done before.

Joe: When you first told me about it, we had a discussion about films needing to be complete and have all of the story elements and characxter arcs wrapped up by the ending, but you disagreed.

Lay: Yeah, I didn't agree. The Empire Strikes Back is universally accepted as the best Star Wars movie, but it literally has no ending. Slice-of-life films sometimes end with the main character just continuing on, perhaps changing, but not finding a particular resolution that the audience was hoping for. Some other movies never make sense, even when the director's is asked to explain them later!

The Gordian Knot is unique in that it has a challenging ending, but there are clues left throughout the film for astute film watchers to figure out what exactly happened. There is a real solution, and a true explanation.

Joe: You make it sound like the movie is a game itself? Is that what you're going for here?

Lay: That's exactly what I'm going for. I wanted to make the ultimate "puzzle movie". I wanted to make a film that needed to be "solved", and to be explored multiple times. There are many things hidden in the movie itself, in lots of different and unique ways, and it's up to the viewer to find them and piece them together. I don't want to reveal any of them yet, but plenty of these secrets are visually right in front of you as you watch The Gordian Knot.

Joe: What made you want to make a film like this? Did something inspire you?

Lay: David Lynch is one of my favorite directors. His influence is a healthy part of The Gordian Knot, but I've always had one beef with him. He makes these strange movies whose stories are hard to follow. They draw me and really interest me. In the end, though, there's no payoff. Film discussion groups will try and figure out what he was trying to say, but no one can fully agree. A lot of filmmakers like it that way: they want their vision to be interpreted in multiple ways, and some of the greatest films of all time work better that way.
I wanted to make a film like that, but I wanted it to have a real solution. An answer. Something that you can read about later and check to make sure it follows with the story on screen. I wanted to make people think and wonder what the hell happened, and then reward them later by explaining exactly what did.

As far as other influences, I'd list two: Lars Von Trier is another director whose work I admire, and I like the way he splits his movies between gorgeous cinematic vistas and personal handheld characters. The Gordian Knot plays like one of his films, especially visually. The other unique influence for this film is GAMES magazine, which I've been reading since the late seventies. I'm a big fan of puzzles in general, and some of the things hidden in the movie are inspired by ones I've solved in that magazine.

Joe: What's going on with your Kickstarter campaign?

Lay: The movie is almost finished, and we are trying to raise funds to pay for the final editing, colorizing, recording of music and dialogue, and resources to distribute the film. We are really close to our goal, but only have a few days left to hit it. If things go well and we attain the goal on Kickstarter, we're looking at finishing the movie by late May or sometime in June.

Joe: Do you have a link we can put up if people are interested in donating to the film?

We also have a Facebook page for the film: https://www.facebook.com/gordianknotmovie?ref=hl

Joe: Anything else you want to add?

Lay: Only that I'm so excited to finish this project and let everyone see it. It's grown in length and scope since we started, and I'm really proud of the complicated story and how it all fits together.

There's a science-fiction film called Primer that came out in 2004. It's one of my favorite films of all-time, and one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. It's 75 minutes long. It's utterly minimalistic in its approach, but it tells a whopper of a story. When it ends, you immediately want to watch it again and "figure it out".

The Gordian Knot is similar to Primer, but longer and more involved. When it ends, if I've reeled you in correctly, you're going to want to go back and search for a lot of things to solve the puzzle. Or should I say...puzzles.

Joe: This sounds, if I may say so, like a breath of fresh air in a time where movies are all about superheroes and teen vampires.

Lay: Get ready to inhale!

Joe sez: Help support a fellow artist and donate a few bucks to the campaign. I did. You should too. 

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Guest Post by Dale T. Phillips and Vlad V.

Giving Our Way to Success- by Dale T. Phillips and Vlad V.

Giving comes back around. Tess Gerritsen sparked the giving circle with so much of her time, energy, and money to aid Alzheimer's research – so it's nice that I got to thank her in person at Bouchercon, the world mystery conference.

On this site, Joe upped the ante with his guest post offer, raising even more funds – while helping writers at the same time – so we’d like to say “thank you” for this opportunity. We've been reading this blog and others like it for years, and a big part of our going Indie is due to pioneers like Joe – many of which you'll see mentioned on this blog from time to time. People like Dean Wesley SmithKristine Kathryn RuschDavid GaughranLaura ResnickBob MayerJoanna PennVincent ZandriJude Hardin and Russell Blake have shared their journeys and experiences, and it's helped us to find our own paths in the new world of publishing. These folks and others, like Jane Friedman and The Passive Guy, offer incredibly useful advice to Indies for free. It's a lovely cooperative world.

Vlad V. and I are serious about our long-term writing careers, and we’ve found outstanding value in cooperation. For us, giving is the new way to achieve success.

As writers, we all give our stories to the world. We have to – without the sharing, we're nothing. Sure, we hope for some sort of return, some acknowledgment that what we present has value to others, and though we aspire to take care of our families while writing full-time, many of us would keep telling and sharing stories if we never saw another dime from it.

But the Indie writing life can be isolating and sometimes depressing, especially when you’re struggling with sales, or when your manuscript just isn’t turning out the way you’d like it to. Collaborating can be the solution to keeping your Indie fire stoked and white-hot. By working together for mutual advantage, we’ve made more traction in the last two years than we did in all the time of going solo and through traditional avenues. We had heard time and again about the value of collaboration, but it wasn’t until a few of us began our own informal group that the advantages really started to emerge.

Sharing With Others Can Save You Money
Indies should be frugal, and many (like us) are striving for success on shoestring budgets. Collaborating can help you avoid financial mistakes, such as overpaying for cover design. One author at a show was brandishing his “great” book cover that he'd paid “only” $2000 for (think Barry Eisler’s infamous “Green Garage Door” cover). Had he used one of our cover artists, he'd have got his cover – or a better one – at a quarter of the price.

Another big expense is editing. Working with other writers allows us to reduce the number of for-pay editing rounds we go through before a manuscript is publication-ready. While we still use professional editors in the final stages, we weed out many of the weaknesses in our early drafts, and thus minimize our financial outlay later on.

There are caveats here, however. First, be willing to give. When a collaborator sends you a manuscript, do your absolute best to find ways to improve it, because when another writer sees how much you care about theirsuccess, they care more about your success. It’s a two-way street.

Second, work with writers who are equal or more advanced than you are in some aspect(s) of the craft, because that’s how you get better. For example, Vlad is great at writing dialogue, while Dale’s pacing is meteoric, and we’ve both learned from one another in a variety of other ways. Your local writing group might be a good place to start, but only if they're up to par. That’s a subjective decision you’ll have to make for yourself – but you can always start your own group and be picky about who you choose to work with. Maybe only the cream of the crop in your local (or online) writer’s group would be interested in joining a more serious collaborative. There is often a correlation between a writer’s knowledge of the craft and how seriously you should take their opinion, so surround yourself with the best writers you can find who want it just as badly as you do, and who are passionate about their work. Their skills are likely to rub off on you, and vice-versa.

Third, be honest. Many writing groups are too soft, and mere flattery doesn’t help a professionally-oriented writer. This is a tough business that requires a thick skin, so don’t be afraid to take off the gloves, provided your insights are constructive and will improve the work. In our group, we tend to give short summations of what we like about a piece in 2-3 sentences, followed by an in-depth analysis of its weaknesses, which may go on for many pages. Blunt honesty is abundant, and while it might be hard to accept, we try not to take it too personally, because the feedback invariably improves the work.

Diversification helps, too, so collaborate with a variety of writers. Don’t limit your group to one genre. Vlad has a pair of horror publications out, and his latest, The Button, is Science Fiction. Later this year, he'll release his books for kids. Dale has a mystery series, a horror thriller, and story collections in a number of different genres. Exposure to other genres expands the skill sets and techniques available to you as an artist. For example, can your Action-Thriller featuring John Q. Mightystrong be given more depth with an intricate backstory, not unlike what you found in My Lesbian Breasts, Jane’s character-based women’s novel about two lovers suffocated by the social stigmas of the Deep South in the 1820s? Perhaps John Q. Mightystrong will be strengthened as a character.

Hemingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” so it behooves all writers to expose themselves to as many skill sets as they can, as often as they can.

Cross-promotion
We’ve found that cross-promotion can help build more buzz for author events. Are readers going to flock to a local bookstore to meet a single author they might not have heard of? Probably not, but they may come for half a dozen or more. Collaboration can extend your reach to readers and other industry players that you might not have had access to when you’re doing all this solo.

When we find a new opportunity, we let the others know about it, too. Many have scored new interviews, bookstore appearances, reviewers, and signing opportunities we may not have heard about otherwise.

Want to work with groups of people who will help get the word out about your works? Use libraries, who are having a tough time in the modern book world. Joe's developing a program to get quality self-pub and Indie e-books into more libraries, a great thing. Dale connected with librarians while signing books at the Boston Book Fair, and was told how big publishers are screwing libraries with higher fees and more restrictions. So he offered his e-books to them for free, and 8 of his releases are now in a statewide pilot program, available in over 50 libraries. That's over 400 more chances for someone to find his work! And because of a comment on this blog, Dale contacted the Douglas County Library System, part of Joe's program, and has been accepted there as well. And where he gets in, he helps others of quality to do the same…

A great way to cross-promote is to write for charity. Dale gave a story to Nightfalls, a charity anthology edited by Katherine Tomlinson, which got him more connections and exposure. Using that idea, we're working with a local charity to produce a book of stories from a handful of local writers, of which all proceeds will benefit the charity. They'll promote us through a mailing list of 10,000+, as well as through their website and at live fundraising events, and we'll get people checking out our work, while supporting a great cause. Win-win, through collaboration!

We'll try anything to see if it helps. Giveaway bags are something we've done at a couple of big signings. Instead of simple flyers and business cards that end up in the recycling bin, we up the ante. Interested readers who stop by and chat get a bag of various goodies: candy, a free book or two, an inexpensive booklight, whatever. Hey, they do it at trade shows. We've had a number of delighted recipients, who tell others, and since our marketing info is built right in, it’s led to repeat readers. Get a few writers each tossing in a treat, and you can get folks at a big show buzzing about your table. Not something you'll want to do every time, but a fun way of getting people to know your name and check you out.

Big publishers pay a lot of money to distribute ARCs in the hope of reviews, but as Indies, we do giveaways of e-books. The small press that published Dale's first mystery novel put it up as a giveaway e-book for a few months, long after its debut. With almost no promotion, over 3400 new people downloaded it, and even though many are Kindle-stuffing, he’s bound to get some new readers from those, who will go on to buy his other works... But imagine the horror from a big publisher if you were to give away thousands of copies!

Even print can cost so little now for short works that it can be used for giveaways as well. By combining efforts with other authors, you can extend your promotional reach to a wider variety of readers.

Cross-selling
We’ve also found that cross-promotion naturally leads to cross-selling, which has been a boon for us at live events. When a reader approaches us, and we don’t have what they’re looking for, we send them on to someone who does. We’ve seen more than one author push their book on a customer based on what the customer said they liked … even though that book had nothing to do with the customer's preference. It makes us cringe, because at the end of the day, it’s better to give readers what they want, rather than deceiving them into a sale. At best, they’ll never come back to your brand, and at worst, they’ll bad-mouth your work to others.

Our host Joe does few public events anymore, but we’ve found that these live events have been more productive for us than online ventures, at least so far, because our fan base is still growing. We prefer the personal connections and have enjoyed the book shows and signings, where we can talk to new readers and get more people interested in our work. We’ve been building our fan base and list of email contacts one person at a time.

Forced Improvement
There are few things as satisfying to a writer as seeing his or her book in print after working so hard to bring a story from idea to publication, and the urge to hit the ‘publish’ button can be overwhelming. Collaboration can keep you from pulling the trigger too early.

After you’ve found your circle of collaborators and have begun to trust their judgment, hear them out. Both A Shadow on the Wall by Dale and The Button by Vlad were delayed by several months, because they needed concentrated work to make them much more than just good enough. But try telling a major publishing house you're not delivering on schedule, because you've got to kick the quality up a few more notches. They'd rather have the next-quarter profits, not the long-term book quality.

Baby Steps
Self-publishing isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s a long, lonely, cross-country journey (think Lord of the Rings) with fifty pounds of gear on your back, and perils all around. Collaboration makes the highs and lows of such a long journey bearable, and yes, even enjoyable. Writing is, after all, a manic endeavor, so when you can see the mountaintop, but all you’re able to do is go another few feet up the slope, know that it's okay, because you’re making progress.

Collaboration helps us understand what works and what doesn’t work for other writers, so we can refine our own methods. Some writers can write 2,000 words a day, every day, 365 days a year. The rest of us have busy lives with day jobs, family, school, and whatever else might pop up. There’s a ton of writing advice out there, the Do’s and Don'ts from the greats, right down to your dear Aunt Betty. Writing every day is a big one. Can you write every day? Maybe not, but what you can do is further your career right now by taking baby steps that will help you eventually reach the mountaintop. Instead of berating yourself for missing a deadline, or feeling overwhelmed because you’re falling behind on your blog, focus on what you can do to further your career at this very moment.

Reading, keeping tabs on the industry, writing, tweeting your brand, scribbling notes, editing – they are all necessary to get you where you want to go. Yes, by all means, familiarize yourself with the “rules” of writing, but don’t be afraid to tailor them to your lifestyle, and discard the ones that are impractical for you.

Wrapup and Pitch

We're the pilots, not the passengers, in this new world of publishing, and we get to say where the plane is going. By continuing to write, publish and collaborate, someday we'll move up to Abundant Airlines. Joe has talked about mastering your fate in his collaboration with Barry Eisler, Be the Monkey. We're following their lead. Work with others, folks. Big publishing is about competition, but self-publishing is about cooperation and collaboration.

So you want to know what we're offering to share with you, right?

Check out Dale's horror thriller, Shadow of the Wendigo,


or the story collections listed on his website: www.daletphillips.com.

Drop him an email (daletphillips@comcast.net), tell him which book you want, and he'll send you a code for a free copy on any e-book platform (via Smashwords.com).

Or if you'd rather have a good action mystery, try his first one, A Memory of Grief, dropped to 1.99 on Kindle.

Vlad is offering The Button, his brand-new Sci-fi/Thriller, free to readers here for the entire month of April on any e-book platform.


Visit this Smashwords page: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/425039
and purchase The Button using coupon code: GS83H

Thank you for reading!

Sincerely,
Dale T. Phillips – www.daletphillips.com
Vlad V. - www.TheVlad.net

Thursday, April 03, 2014

A Wake Up Call for Tracy Hickman

Via PassiveGuy, who was linking to an article from ScienceFiction.com about a convention speech by bestselling sci-fi author Tracy Hickman to a room full of writers.

Quote Tracy:

“I have to do more now,” he said finally. A hush went over the audience as Hickman continued to describe the conditions under which authors are laboring under today. One can write 12,000 words and sell it for 4.95, he said. At that price point, his 120,000 novel would have be $49.50, which would be impossible to market.

“I’m fighting for my life as an author,” he admitted frankly, his voice solemn.

He then said that his audience of 6 million no longer find him because the book store is dying. A booksigning in older days would have fans lining around blocks just to have his signature, but a booksigning now might only get six people. “I have a 6 million following,” he said quietly, “and they don’t remember me.”

Now, he works 12-14 hours a day writing four times the books he’s comfortable writing because he makes a fourth of what he used to.

Tracy, I was really torn in how to respond to this when I read it. But I did feel compelled to respond, because I want to help you by offering some hard-won advice.

On one hand, I'm sorry the system that helped bring you fame and fortune can no longer do that for you. I was only entangled in the legacy system 1/3 of the time that you were, and it didn't treat me very well. But a look at the early years of my blog shows how hard I tried to be a part of it. I naively trusted those in NY Publishing to do their best for me, and I worked harder than any writer, before or since, to help my publishing partner sell as many books as possible. That including sending 7000 letters to libraries, visiting over 1200 bookstores, and doing events in 42 states.

My thriller series, though in multiple printings, got dropped, and I was forced to write horror under a pen name for half the money (going from $40k a book to $20k a book), and then that publisher screwed me and I did sci-fi under a pen name for 1/3 the money.

So I understand the mentality of running as fast as you can just to stay in place. I did it for eight years.

On the other hand, when all three of my major publishing relationships ended, it was mainly because I finally woke up and realized I was getting screwed.

So while I believed I'd gotten a raw deal, I didn't whine in public about it, or throw myself a pity party about how hard this business is. I realized that no one owes me a living. Even the fans who love me don't owe me.

That's when I took back all of my books--through great effort and expense--and self-published them, along with a slew of new titles.

I chose to give NY Publishing the finger. I encourage you to do the same.

Writing 4x as much to make what you used to make? Why the hell would you do something like that? If you have millions of fans, Tracy, they'll read whatever you publish. You're the brand, not your publisher.

You're upset that it's raining and you're getting wet, and right there next to you is a barrel full of free umbrellas. Reach for one, for crissakes.

If people can write 12,000 words and sell it for $4.95, what is preventing you from writing 12,000 words and selling it for $4.95? Have you heard of Hugh Howey? Wool? Or are you so entrenched in the legacy system that you feel there is really no other way?

I noticed this type of behavior way back in 2011. I called it Stockholm Syndrome. Read it. But a warning: it's gonna hurt. Truth and change always do.

Yes, I know you're wounded, and depressed, and frantic. But you need to take a few deep breaths and be brave.

Being brave means turning down shitty publishing contracts in favor of self-publishing.

I don't know you. I didn't hear your talk. I only have your quotes, and their interpretations, to go by. Maybe you're a forward thinking, deliberate, self-aware, brave writer who had a brief, public moment of nostalgia for the old days. Or maybe you're crying because someone moved your cheese.

It doesn't matter if that article painted a perfect picture of you. What matters is you feel you have to work four times as hard as you used to, and you're unhappy because fans aren't showing up to your signings.

So change.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, hoping for a different outcome.

I'll assume you aren't insane, but simply stuck in a rut.

Here's my advice:

1. Start reading my blog from this post in 2009 until present. It will take a day or two, and you'll get a Master's Degree in how to self-publish. This progression shows me going from $30 a day on Kindle, to well over $1000 a day.

2. Get as many rights back to your old work as possible. This may involve hiring a lawyer. That's what I did.

3. Buy out your current contracts. That's what I did.

4. Self-publish everything, and make sure it is as professionally done as possible. That's what I did.

5. Experiment. That's what I did, and still do.

I remember the feeling of impotence that legacy publishing instilled in me. No matter what I did, I wasn't good enough. Matters were out of my hands, and I didn't know what to do.

In hindsight, the answer is obvious.

When your career is out of your control, take control back.

It's risky. It's ALWAYS risky. But at least you'll have a say in your own fate. Working your ass off, begging for the crumbs your publishers hesitantly throw you, is indentured servitude. Especially when the industry has changed enough to give you many advantages and benefits you didn't have five years ago.

Now, I'm being intentionally provocative and critical because I believe you could use a wake up call. This is also a wake up call for the thousands of other legacy authors who are in your exact same position.

If you know a legacy author bemoaning their career and latest contract, forward this post to them. Don't let fear and despair and routine and impotence keep you from connecting with fans, making better royalties, keeping control of your IPs, and finding peace previously unheard of in this career.

I know I sound like a Zoloft commercial. But there really is an answer to your problems. It isn't a pill. It isn't crossing your fingers, hoping your publisher will treat you better. And it isn't the industry going back to the way it used to be.

It's self-publishing. And you need to embrace it fully, not in your spare time.

If you want to talk, Tracy, email me.

Addendum:

Tracy Hickman graciously responded on his blog. http://www.trhickman.com/wake-up-call-five-years-ago/

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

My Last Blog Post

Over three years ago, I did a blog post about successful self-published authors, and how many of them tried out self-publishing because they read my blog.

I ended the blog post with this offer:

You hear that, NY Publishing? You truly want to slow the growth of ebooks?

Shut me up.

I'm willing to be bought off. Pass around a collection envelope, like you do for employee birthdays. For a million bucks, I promise I'll never blog about ebooks, or help another writer, ever again.

Since that post I've written several hundred more, encouraging authors to self-publish while explaining, in excruciating detail, why legacy publishing wasn't a wise choice.

I'll never know how many people I've impacted with this blog, but more and more authors continue to leave legacy publishers behind and find success on their own. NY Publishing knows this. So now, after I've likely done more damage to the legacy industry than any single person in history, they've finally decided to pay me off.

You read that right. Several large publishers have acknowledged the irreparable harm this blog has caused them, and they've given me one million dollars to stop blogging.

Since I'm a man of my word, I have no choice but to comply.

I shall blog no more forever.

I'll miss posting my numbers, and fisking legacy pinheads, and extolling the virtues of self-publishing. But a deal is a deal, and a million bucks ain't chump change.

A portion of my windfall will go to my favorite charity, MechaDogs.com, a non-profit organization that makes robotic tails for dogs who have lost theirs in skiing accidents. The rest will go towards beer.

It's been a good run, and I want to thank all of my blog readers for making this blog such a harmful weapon against the idiocy of legacy publishing.

Part of the deal includes me deleting all of my previous blog posts, so if you have any favorites, you have 24 hours save them via cut and paste. Then I'm erasing everything.

Thanks for reading, and goodbye.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New Jack Daniels Novel Q & A with Jude Hardin

The first Jack Daniels novel in four years, LADY 52, is now available on Amazon Kindle for $3.99.

What do Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels and private investigator Nicholas Colt have in common? 

Billiards, bourbon, bad jokes… 


And murder. Several, in fact. 


A homeless woman’s remains are found near Chicago twenty-six years after she disappeared. Her daughter—now retired in Florida—suspects foul play, and she hires Colt to fly up there and check it out. 


A prominent Chicago physician is slain outside a convenience store, horribly mutilated. A senseless street killing? A robbery gone wrong? Or something much worse?


As the homicide cases and those involved converge, it quickly becomes apparent that Jack Daniels and Nicholas Colt are in for the most challenging—and deadly—time of their lives. 

Filled with humor, suspense, and mystery, LADY 52 is sure to satisfy longtime Daniels and Colt fans, and is a perfect introduction to both series. It's approximately 250 pages long. 

Q: Why the collaboration? Why now?

Jude: When Joe started talking about franchising the characters from his Jack
Daniels series, I knew it was something I wanted to try. I’ve been a fan since WHISKEY SOUR, the first book in the series, came out in 2003. I started thinking that Jack and my PI character Nicholas Colt might make an interesting team, so I started putting together some scenes for them. I think it worked out pretty well.

Joe: Jude was one of my first blog commenters, way back in 2005. When he wrote his first novel, POCKET 47, I read it and enjoyed it. Very much in the Robert B. Parker/Robert Crais school of action, mystery, and humor. When we did the Colt/Daniels short RACKED, our styles blended very well, our characters had chemistry, and the fans liked it. Doing a novel was a no-brainer.

Q: There’s violence in LADY 52, yet there are moments of hilarity as well. Why mix the two?

Jude: Joe was one of the first authors to do that kind of thing with mainstream thrillers, and I wanted to try to match the tone of the previous books in his series. Plus, Colt has always had his own brand of humor, and I tried to maintain some of that as well. 

Humor’s tough, because you never really know what’s going to work and what isn’t. But if I’m amusing myself along the way, I figure I might be on the right track.

Joe: I laughed at a lot of Jude's jokes, and he's told me he's laughed at mine, so I think we found a good balance.

I really try to make the reader experience as many emotions as possible in a book. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them nervous, make them frightened, turn them on. Fiction is an entertaining way to give the limbic system a vicarious work-out.

Q: There’s a hot sex scene in LADY 52, in a car no less. Why include something like that in a thriller?

Jude: Well, like our friend Ann Voss Peterson says, a sex scene in a novel should really be about emotion. Sometimes the emotion might be love, but often it’s fear. It’s about adding to your characters’ challenges and vulnerabilities, taking them into an intimate moment and ideally revealing an emotional side of them that the reader wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

Joe: I didn't write my first explicit sex scene until the sixth Jack Daniels book, CHERRY BOMB, and I really thought it added to the book. The Codename: Chandler series I write with Ann (three novels, three novellas) have a lot of sex in them. Along with revealing character, I think a well-written love scene is just plain fun, like snappy dialog or a cool fist fight. Which is why I write erotica under the name Melinda DuChamp.

This sex scene, however, was all Jude. I think maybe I added a comma.

Q: There are a couple of major twists near the end, some things most readers probably won’t see coming. How did those come about?

Jude: I don’t want to reveal too much, so I’ll just say that a good mystery usually involves a backstory that remains offstage for most of the book. It’s that backstory that sets the wheels in motion and motivates the characters to do what they do. I never outline, so some of the plot elements were a surprise to me as I composed them. That’s a good thing, I think. If I can surprise myself, maybe I can surprise the reader as well.

Joe: Jude came up with a really fun plot that seems to be going in a certain direction, then takes a 180 degree turn. But it is a mystery, and the clues are there for readers to solve it before Colt and Daniels do.

Q: How many books does Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels appear in? Nicholas Colt?

Jude: LADY 52 is the eighth novel featuring private investigator Nicholas Colt. He’s a world-class guitarist who gave up on music when his wife and daughter and all the members of his band died in a plane crash. He was the sole survivor, so he carries that weight around along with everything else. LADY 52 is brand new, but in the Nicholas Colt universe the events in the book occur between those in my novels COLT and POCKET-47. So while it’s the eighth Nicholas Colt book I’ve written, chronologically it’s book #2 in the series.

Joe: This is Jack's tenth novel, and it fits in between BLOODY MARY and RUSTY NAIL.

Q: So how did the collaboration process work?

Joe: It was a breeze for me. Jude knocked out the first draft, and then I fleshed out the main bad guy and some of the mystery elements, added a few scenes and jokes, and tweaked my characters. Jude did a good job writing Jack and company, so it was fun to build off of his framework. It's a 60k word book, and probably 15k-20k of it is mine. So I got off easy. :)

I think anyone who is a Nicholas Colt fan will enjoy this, and anyone who is a Jack Daniels fan will enjoy this. It's a fun merger of their respective universes, and hopefully our fans will cross-pollenate and buy more of our books. Readers who like SNUFF TAG 9 will like FUZZY NAVEL, and vice-versa.

I also wrote many lines, and a whole scene, in Colt's POV. Jude will have to comment on how I did, there.

Jude: Joe has a lot more experience with collaborations than I do, and he’s written at least twice as many novels, so I pretty much let him take the reins once I turned in the first draft. I was really impressed when I read his approach to Nicholas Colt and some of the other characters I created. The goal is for everything to be seamless, and he nailed it! As for the actual mechanics of working together, we passed the manuscript back and forth via DropBox, and we addressed any questions and concerns through email. He changed some of my stuff here and there, and I changed some of his, and we bounced ideas back and forth until we were both happy with what we had.

Q: Will you collaborate again?

Joe: My schedule is crazy busy… I sat on LADY 52 for more than three months before I could find the time to work on it. But I'd work with Jude again in a heartbeat.

Jude: Writing a novel is a lot different than, say, writing a TV show, in that it’s generally a solitary affair, so it was a pleasure to work with another author for a change, especially a seasoned professional like Joe. I had a lot of fun with it, and I would absolutely do it again. I could see Colt and Daniels together at least one more time, maybe at a nine ball tournament somewhere between Florida and Illinois. Hmm…

Joe: If the fans want it, I say let's do it.

Q: What's coming up for both of you?

Joe: I've got a huge list of collaborations coming up. We just released the next Jack Daniels/AJ Rankowski thriller, BEAT DOWN, that I did with Garth Perry, and THE SEXPERTS: GIRL WITH A PEARL NECKLACE, which is a Melinda DuChamp funny erotica novella. Blake Crouch and I are still doing LAST CALL, wrapping up the Jack Daniels/Luther Kite story, and this month HOLES IN THE GROUND, a sequel to ORIGIN, will come out, co-written with Rob Iain Wright. And more. Lots more.

Jude: I’m working on a brand new series called iSEAL, a trilogy of techno-thrillers about a failed Navy SEAL candidate desperate for a second chance. As a pathway back into the program, he volunteers for a research study, allowing himself to be a human guinea pig for a revolutionary new brain-computer interface. I’ll just say that things don’t go so well for him after the surgery. The first book is out now, and the second is on the way.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

No One Knows

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2007 I wrote a blog post called Unreproduceable Phenonmenon. For the link lazy, here are the high points:

"Books," I said, "are like a science experiment without a control. If a book is successful, everyone is quick to take credit for it, and when a book fails, everyone scratches their heads, but no one can explain why either happens because publishers can do the exact same things for two different books and get two very different results."

My friend said, "I get it. Publishing a book is an unreproduceable phenomenon."

Every book is released into the world under unique circumstances. Some of the things that factor into a book being published are:

  • Type of book
  • How it's written
  • Who the author is
  • Date of release
  • Amount of advertising
  • Amount of publicity
  • Amount of marketing
  • Publisher enthusiasm
  • Bookseller enthusiasm
  • Fan enthusiasm
  • Library enthusiasm
  • Cover art
  • Print run
  • Catalog placement
  • Size of advance
  • Foreign sales
  • Movie sales
  • Coop budget
  • Distribution
  • Similar releases
  • Market saturation
  • Price
  • Word of mouth
Now common sense would say that many of these factors are within a publisher's control, so the more that they do, the better off the book will be. But there are so many factors that even a big book with huge expectations can, and often does, flop.

So the current publishing model is to do the bare minimum, and see if magic happens on its own. And magic happens often enough to keep everyone in the game, trying to figure out how to reproduce it.
But that's the problem. Publishing is an unreproduceable phenomenon.

I once compared publishers to those Skinner pigeons who pecked a lever that offered a treat at random intervals. The pigeons kept pecking, even though their efforts didn't yield any direct, controllable results.

If it's true that no one really knows what they're doing, and that luck is ultimately responsible for a book's success, then it really shouldn't matter what the author does because fate will decide what happens. Just write the best book possible and cross your fingers, right?

Well, sometimes that works. Sometimes you buy a single lottery ticket and win. Sometimes you buy ten tickets a week for thirty years before you win. But most of the time you never win.

Which begs the question: what should authors be doing if no one really knows what to do?

The answer is easy. You have to do everything you can to become your own unreproduceable phenomenon.

You'll do some things that work, and other things that won't, and when success comes you'll hopefully be smart enough to know that it wasn't any specific thing you did that made you a hit, but more likely a combination of things plus luck.

Luck doesn't mean you can stop trying. Luck means you have to keep trying until luck happens.

Joe sez: Now, more than six years later, a few things on my list of factors no longer apply, and a few others do. For a self-pub ebook author, I'd submit these are the major factors of concern:
  • Type of book
  • How it's written
  • Who the author is
  • Amount of advertising
  • Amount of publicity
  • Amount of marketing
  • Fan enthusiasm
  • Cover art
  • Distribution
  • Price
  • Book description
  • Formatting
  • Proofreading 
  • Word of mouth
As authors, we lost a lot of factors that were beyond our control, and that's a good thing. Release dates no longer matter (the best release date for an ebook is yesterday), we had no power over publisher enthusiasm, print run, catalog placement, and coop . We now can control cover art, distribution (to an extent), and price. 

The downside is we now also control advertising, publicity, and marketing, but considering most legacy pubbed books got very little of that I consider our position now to be much better.

But even though we mutinied and took over as captain, the sea still decides our ultimate fate.

In other words: there is still no way to guarantee success, and most authors will still fail to make a living at this business.

This can be extremely disconcerting. We've all heard about the self-pub shadow industry, we've seen the numbers, we've become part of this revolution, and our sales are still below even modest expectations. Which makes no sense, because we all know self-pubbed authors who are rock stars and are making a fortune.

They aren't you. Stop comparing yourself to other authors.


Now you probably have questions...



Q: What are bestselling self-pub authors doing right that everyone else is doing wrong?

A: Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing. But it comes down to luck. They got lucky. 


Q: There has to be a reason my books aren't selling well.

A: There may be many reasons. Maybe your books aren't good. Maybe your covers suck. Maybe you aren't doing enough promotion.

But there are books that sell well that aren't good, have bad covers, and aren't promoted at all.

It comes down to luck.


Q: I used to do things that helped me sell books, but now they don't work.

A: You got lucky before.


Q: How do I improve my sales?

A: No one knows for sure.


Q: Amazon must know.

A: If Amazon knew, every book it published would be a #1 bestseller. That isn't the case. Even with all the data Amazon has, it can't force a giant hit.

Because even with information, experience, and smart plans, publishing is still an unreproduceable phenomenon.


Q: So how do I make money in this business?

A: You get lucky. No one owes you a living.


Q: I feel helpless.

A: You are helpless. 

That may sound callous, but it's true. If you want job security, find something else to do. If you feel entitled, or that you deserve success, you're probably going to end up very disappointed.

No one knows why some books blow up and others don't. Maybe you can take some solace in the fact that somewhere, in a parallel universe, George RR Martin is wallowing in obscurity and your series is a #1 TV show. But, in this universe, it isn't the case. Learn to live with it.


Q: If only things were different!


A: They aren't. 


You can complain all you want to about how Amazon changed its algorithms, or how BookBub is unfair for not accepting you, or how there is too much competition, or how prices are too low, or how free is ruining everything, or how the tsunami of crap will destroy us all, but your complaints won't change things. It would be wonderful to snap your fingers and rearrange the world as you prefer it to be. That isn't the case.


We live in the here and now. We don't live in the wish and hope. 


You can curse the rain all you want, but you'd be better off getting an umbrella.

Trying to change what people want to do will never work. 


Q: So what do I do?

A: The best you can. Work hard. Experiment. Innovate. Control all you can control, and make sure it is as good as it can be. But that's still no guarantee of anything. The odds are against you succeeding. They might be better than they were under the legacy system, but ultimately both types of publishing work the same, exact way:

In order to succeed a whole lot of people need to buy your books.

That will always be beyond your control, or your publisher's control, or Amazon's control. 

The longer I'm in this business, the more I realize how little power I actually have. So I work on leveraging the power I do have.

I write good books, which I try to make as professional as possible. Good covers (and if a cover doesn't seem to work, I change it), good formatting, error-free, good product descriptions. I experiment with price, platform, and advertising. I try different genres and different pen names. I collaborate. I franchise. I discuss and debate with smart peers. I work with agents. I pay attention. 


Getting a complete stranger to buy your books isn't easy. Getting a million of them to is waaaaaay beyond anyone's means.


Becoming a success is a dream, not a goal. It isn't within your power. 


All you can do is your best, and cross your fingers. 


What I said six years ago still applies: Luck doesn't mean you can stop trying. Luck means you have to keep trying until luck happens.