Monday, December 30, 2013

On Breaking Up With An Author: An Open Letter To Stephen King

I originally posted this open letter to Stephen King on my Facebook page, but it generated such a lively and sometimes heated discussion that I've decided to share it here. Let me preface what you're about to read by saying I've been a big fan of Stephen King going all the way back to Carrie. Granted, I was only 8 years old when that first book was published, but I started in on King at the age of 13 or so and happily devoured everything he had to offer well into my 20's. Whenever I wanted a good, old-fashioned scare from the type of book I didn't dare read alone at night, King was my go-to source.

In 1999 King was hit by a car and needed an extended period of convalescence. He even spoke publicly about the possibility of retiring. It didn't last, he came back in 2006 with Cell, and he's continued to release new novels, essays and other works since. And I haven't liked a single one of the novels he's written since his return. Book after book, year after year, he continues to disappoint me and make me regret having given him the benefit of the doubt (and my time and money) yet again.

With that said, here's my open letter.

- - - - -
Dear Stephen King:
It was a lovely reader-author relationship while it lasted, but it's been over for at least a decade and it's time for me to move on. I think it's really wonderful that you've found faith and feel that it, and sobriety, have turned your life around. I just don't enjoy the fact that those two things have become the central themes of virtually every piece of fiction you've written since you discovered them.

I came to you looking for truly frightening, taut, dark and edgy supernatural horror that explored the limits of human strength and character in the face of pure, inexplicable evil. But you haven't been writing that kind of material for a very, very long time and what you have been writing has been so self-indulgent, maudlin and overwrought that's it's difficult for me to believe you even have an editor anymore.

I held out hope that with Dr. Sleep, your long-awaited sequel to The Shining, you would return to form at last. I was wrong. It's less a supernatural horror thriller than an overlong, overwritten examination of sad-sack, grown-up, recovering alcoholic Danny filling in as your usual Christ figure as he takes on your recently-typical cadre of banal baddies.

Again and again you write these characters who are supposed to seem boringly ordinary on the surface yet filled with a churning malice and menacing hunger to destroy and subsume, but they turn out to be boringly ordinary through and through. Selfish and grasping, sure. But not remotely alien or deeply disturbing in the manner of the bad guys from your earlier books, like Black House and The Stand.

So, this is goodbye. I will always remember the good books fondly, and know you'll be just fine without me.

Sadly,
Me.

- - - - -

It wouldn't be right for me to reprint the discussion that followed on Facebook, but I can share one of my follow-up comments by way of further explaining what my primary issue with King's more recent work is:

- - - - -

See, if King wants to switch it up and write character studies, that's fine. It's a departure from what made him a bestselling and beloved author, but it's his right and many a creative type has branched out into other types of work and found a NEW audience with great success. But King's publishers just keep on banging that "Master of Horror!!" drum on every book he releases and forcing every new book of his into the "thriller" category (no matter how much the book DOESN'T fit that category), to try and hold on to the old audience, when they know very well the new book is NOTHING like the stuff the old audience originally came for.

I am part of that old audience, and I don't turn to King for character studies, historical fiction or coming of age stories. IMO, there are already plenty of other authors who do those things FAR better than King, and if I want those kinds of stories I'll go to those other authors. What (IMO) King was best at was the supernatural horror-thriller, with evil that's not grounded in any system of religion or morality, but just IS. The fact that it was totally unpredictable, illogical and inexplicable is what made it so scary: if you can't explain or predict it, how can you avoid such evil in real life? There was no soft landing with the old King, there was no "we all learned something today" moment. And that's what made it so great, IMO. It was nihilistic. But once King himself stopped being nihilistic, so did his work. Great for the man, bad for the work.

- - - - -

As I state in my open letter, King will be just fine without me. There are literally millions of readers out there who are still buying and loving his work, but I will no longer be among them.

I'm disappointed to see the novels of King's son, Joe Hill, going down that same overwritten, poorly edited, more-character-study-than-horror road. Hill's Locke and Key graphic novels (with illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez) and his Heart Shaped Box were right in line with what I loved about the Stephen King of old. But Hill's supposed horror-thriller Horns is about 60% backstory/character study/coming of age tale, and his NOS4A2 suffers from the same problems of repetition and authorial navel-gazing as his father's more recent works.
 

So what can I learn from this experience as an author?

Well, I haven't released any new fiction in a very long time. But I guess my author takeaway is this: if I choose to break with my usual style or genre(s), I have to expect I will lose at least some of my original readership. If I'm no longer giving them what they came for, I can't expect them to keep coming back.

Also, if I should ever be lucky enough to become a bestselling author, I should do everything in my power to ensure I've got editors who are brave enough to be as ruthless with my work as they would be with a manuscript from any first-time author. In my opinion, King's novels have been crying out for a quality edit going all the way back to Cell, and regardless of his changes in tone and content, a quality edit could've vastly improved every novel he's released since his return to publishing.

Finally, categories matter. I should never categorize my books according to what I think will sell without regard to their actual genres, because it makes readers angry when they feel you've basically tricked them into buying a book they didn't want.


Happy trails, Mr. King. Your work will always be part of the canon of my youth.



Monday, December 9, 2013

Don't Be Too Quick To Shut Down That Author Blog

As many of you already know, my Publetariat site was offline entirely for close to two months in the early part of this year, and then it was back online but laying more or less fallow for several more months while my work continued behind the scenes to ensure the site was secure and functioning properly.

Now that I've got it up and running again, with new material being posted there five days a week, I've discovered that many of the sites and blogs I used to visit when searching for possible content to share on Publetariat have disappeared.

I suspect many of those missing site and blog owners eventually threw in the towel because they felt they didn't have the time or energy to keep adding new material on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis, and having been repeatedly admonished to do so, felt there was little point in keeping the site or blog going if they couldn't live up to that requirement.

Giving up was a mistake.

As you may have noticed, I don't post here daily, weekly, nor even necessarily monthly. I post when I have something to say that I think is worth sharing, and frankly, it just doesn't happen all that often.

Don't get me wrong: I am most certainly NOT saying that people who DO post daily, weekly, et cetera are just flapping their gums for no good reason. Plenty of bloggers have a lot of interesting, valuable, educational, or even just amusing stuff to post on a regular basis, and I applaud them for being so prolific.

But even if you're like me, only posting as time allows and when inspiration strikes, it's still worth keeping your blog up because longevity has intrinsic value on the internet. Here's how the cycle works:

The longer your blog is up, the more legitimate and "trustworthy" it looks to Google and other search engines. The more search engines "like" and "trust" your blog, the higher (closer to the top) its posts come up in search results.

The higher your blog's posts come up in search results, the more exposure you get. The more exposure you get, the more traffic you get. The more traffic you get, the more people you get sharing links to your blog. The more traffic and links you get, the more legitimate and trustworthy you look to search engines.

And the cycle repeats, ad infinitum.

What all of this means is, even if you're NOT posting fresh content on a frequent basis, the mere fact that your blog exists---and continues to exist, year in and year out---is helping to cement and build your author platform by improving your search rankings.

Even when I'm not posting new stuff here, people keep coming every single day from web searches and by following direct links to stuff I've posted here previously.

Of course, posting fresh content regularly will always help to drive more traffic and get your books more exposure. So if your goal is maximum sales, the laidback, infrequent posting approach won't work for you.

But if you're considering shutting down your site or blog merely because you don't currently have the time or energy to update it regularly, DON'T. Someday you may again have the necessary time and energy, and until then, your "resting" blog is still building traffic and credibility for you. Given that it can take years to build a following and reach respectable web traffic numbers, why on Earth would you want to throw away the equity you've already built?

Let your blog lie fallow if that's what you need to do right now, but don't shut it down if there's even the tiniest possibility you'll want to blog again in the future.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Goodreads Review Policy Changes

As part of a recent policy update, Goodreads implemented the following change:

**Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

Apparently, lots of Goodreads members are very angry about this and many are going so far as to cancel their Goodreads accounts.


Pick A Side, Any Side

On the one side are the authors, who feel reviews focused primarily on the author rather than the book, or which include allegations of plagiarism, are inherently unfair. Admittedly, some authors try to retaliate against those who post negative reviews even when the review is solely focused on the book's content, and because of this many Goodreads members are afraid to post negative reviews at all.

On the other side are the reviewers, who feel they have a right to know when authors behave badly, when authors retaliate against reviewers, or when there are allegations of plagiarism in connection with a given book.

Some authors say they are under personal attack from reader-reviewers who misuse the Goodreads platform, and that false claims being posted about them are causing real damage to their sales and careers. Some reader-reviewers say they are just as much, if not more, under attack from authors. There have been reports of reader-reviewers being harassed on sites outside of Goodreads, having their personal contact information exposed online, or even being hacked as "punishment" for a negative review.

Before I get into my lengthy analysis---sorry, but it's a quagmire and there's a lot to look at---, let me state first of all that since I am an author myself some people will undoubtedly think I have an agenda here and I'm automatically going to take the authors' side, but that's not true. I think the majority of reviewers, just like the majority of authors, aren't guilty of any wrongdoing here. Rather, it seems to me the bad behavior of a vocal minority on both sides is spoiling things for everyone.

I don't doubt the reports of extremely inappropriate, even literally criminal in some cases, behavior on the part of some authors. However, I also know there are a few bad-egg reader-reviewers out there who are more interested in power-tripping than in providing fair and informative reviews, and some who even take pride in destroying a new book's, or an author's, prospects.


Peeling Back The Layers

When it comes to complex issues like this, where there is no obvious "right" answer, nor a solution that will satisfy all sides, I try to go back to basics by removing the specifics that people seem to think makes a given situation fraught with uniqueness when really, it's not. Once all of the emotionally-charged "specialness" is gone, it's easier to simply apply logic. Here are my considerations, and conclusions.

First, what if we were talking about professional, mainstream reviewers instead of Goodreads reader-reviewers? Professional, mainstream book reviewers never (to my knowledge) base their reviews of books on author behavior, and if author behavior is ever mentioned in a mainstream book review at all, I think it's a pretty rare occurrence. This would seem to support Goodreads' choice to eliminate all review and shelf content that hinges on author behavior, merely on the grounds that such statements aren't a proper use of a book review platform in the first place.

Second, if we already draw a clear, legal delineation between opinion/free speech and libel why can't we just apply that same, pre-existing paradigm here?  We already have a legal definition of what constitutes libel, and since libel is illegal, site owners should always have the right (maybe even the responsibility) to remove libelous content, regardless of who posted it.

As the administrator of numerous websites myself, I know all too well the necessity of erring on the side of caution when it comes to deleting potentially libelous member posts. If the target of such posts makes a libel claim, that claim can name site owners and administrators as liable parties in a lawsuit. So here again, I'd be in agreement with Goodreads' decision to unilaterally delete all such questionable content.

Third, I've been witness to plenty of false allegations that quickly gathered steam and spread like wildfire all over the 'net, so it doesn't seem right to just let reader-reviewers post their various claims as facts with zero oversight. Not everyone can be trusted to verify whatever allegations they've heard, it seems most people will just pass the allegations on; this is how internet urban myths are born. Another point in favor of disallowing the 'author behavior' reviews and shelves.

Again, I'm not saying attacks against reader-reviewers are ever justified, but I think it's important to acknowledge that placing limits and controls on abusive or irresponsible reader-reviewer behavior is just as important as placing limits and controls on abusive or criminal author behavior.

Fourth, what if we were talking about consumer reviews of a product other than a book? Here again, I don't recall seeing many mentions of inventor, CEO, company or spokesman behavior in product reviews as any kind of justification for a bad review. The closest I can think of is negative app reviews where the reviewer accuses the developer of posting sock puppet reviews or collecting excessive personal information through the app.

Personally, I've always found those reviews to be abusive of the review system since they usually make little or no comment on the app itself. Why shouldn't the same standard apply to book reviews? The reader is supposed to be reviewing the book, not the author. Once more, I think Goodreads has a leg to stand on in choosing to bar 'author behavior' reviews, statements and labels based on its 'proper use' policy.

Finally, while I agree it's fair for reader-reviewers to share their personal opinions about matters other than a book's specific content, due to the libel and false allegation issues, I think all such sharing should be handled more privately or entirely off-site from sites like Goodreads and Amazon. Some reader-reviewers have said they really want to know if there's a suspicion of plagiarism or criminal author behavior, because such information truly can guide purchase decisions. However, given the enormous and somewhat anonymous nature of the internet, it's unreasonable to expect site owners and administrators to fact-check every allegation made in any of the tens of thousands, or even millions, of posts on their sites. Yet if they do no fact-checking and let potentially libelous allegations remain in place on their sites, they can be held liable in a legal proceeding.


My final conclusion is that the Goodreads policy change is both fair and appropriate, given the risks Goodreads faces if it allows the 'author behavior' content to remain.

Reader-reviewers who feel unreasonably constrained by the changes at Goodreads do have another option: they can always start their own blogs for posting 'author behavior' information, and shoulder the potential for legal liability themselves. I suspect that after a couple of cease-and-desist orders from attorneys, they might feel quite differently about this matter.


 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

My New Memoir

As many regular readers of this blog and visitors to my Publetariat site already know, in 2010 my life more or less imploded. I blogged about it at the time, and based on the encouragement of family, friends and readers, I decided that eventually, when the dust settled, I'd write and publish a memoir about that horrible time and my recovery. Here it is, at last:



Here's the book's brief description:

In early 2010 I learned I had a "suspicious" mass in my right breast. Two days later my husband of 18+ years announced he was leaving me. This meant I'd also soon be unemployed since my job at the time was as Office Manager for a business my then-husband and I ran together, and that lengthy period of unemployment also led to the eventual loss of my home. To Hell And (Hopefully) Back is my memoir of learning first to survive, and then to thrive.

In first section of this memoir I reprint every post from my To Hell & (Hopefully) Back blog, where I chronicled my experiences during the first year after being hit with all of these major life traumas simultaneously. In the second section I share what I've learned along the road to recovery, and how I've found my way through to a 'new normal'. In the last section, The Crash Cart, I provide the survival tips I used to tie a knot and hang on at those times when I was sure I'd reached the end of my rope.

This is a book for anyone who's trying to cope with a loss or tragedy that seems too big to endure. What I share in this book is my experience in living the old proverb from Lao Tzu: "Sometimes new beginnings are disguised as painful endings."

- - - -

It's been a long time coming, and a tough slog. But the point of the book is that I survived. Little 'ol me, who was a creature of habit, a perfectionist and control freak, survived having everything I'd always taken for granted forcibly, suddenly ripped out of my life. I can tell you this much: I'm not a perfectionist anymore and while I still prefer structure to disorganization, and knowing to not knowing, I've definitely learned how to loosen my grip on things that are, or should remain, outside my control.

I used to say, only half-jokingly, that I should just join the Navy SEALS because after all I've been through, it's obvious that nothing can kill me. This is the book that tells that story.

To Hell And (Hopefully) Back is now available exclusively in Kindle format, for the Kindle, Kindle Fire, or any of the free Kindle reader apps for PCs, Macs, and Android and Apple mobile devices.

I've left the first several entries from the original To Hell & Hopefully Back blog up, as a free preview.

Anyone who'd like to review the book can write me at indieauthor@gmail.com to request a free copy.



Monday, May 20, 2013

Why You Should Be Paying More Than $50 For Ebook Formatting & Conversion

I just posted this in response to a service provider who commented on my earlier post, Ebook Madness: Don't Confuse Ebook Conversion With Ebook Formatting! In his comment on that post, this gentleman said he only charges $40-50 for the typical formatting AND conversion job, and asked if he's not charging enough.

My answer was an emphatic YES, and I'm reprinting the full response here because I think both service providers and those who seek their services need to get a better understanding of the economics involved. Here's my response, in full:
------------------------------------------------

Yes, you are most definitely not charging enough to either do a thorough job or earn a living wage, though I'm sure you don't realize it.

Let's assume you begin with an MS Word file containing 300pp, which is the typical length of a typical novel. Let's say you charge your higher end estimate of $50 to do the formatting and conversion.

You can take $22.50 right off the top for self-employment taxes**, leaving you with $27.50. But you still have to pay income tax on that income, and even if we assume you're in a very low bracket, say 25%, you're losing an additional $6.88 in income tax, which means you're really only earning $20.62 for the job---and that's before taking out your expenses, as you should be doing before figuring your net income.

**UPDATE - several have questioned my math on the taxes, and since I know math is not my strong suit I'm willing to defer to their judgment. But even if the taxes are only $10 per $50 you get paid as a freelancer (and I'm pretty sure they're quite a lot more than that), you're still only earning slave wages by the time you take all the expenses, weekly hours you don't have booked with paying work, and weekly hours you spend on non-paying but necessary stuff like billing and promotion into account.

Your electricity, internet access and software aren't free. Neither is the cell phone you probably use sometimes for communicating with clients. But I'm fairly certain you're not taking these items, or the taxes, into account because if you were you'd realize you're barely earning minimum wage on each job.

Getting back to those 300 pp...let's assume you spend two hours reviewing the MS Word file and making your formatting changes. Even if you use a bunch of scripts or other automated processes to do the formatting changes, you MUST at least LOOK at every single page to be sure you haven't missed anything that needs to be reformatted to be ebook -compliant. Two hours only allows your 120 minutes total for the job, or 24 seconds per page to review each page AND make any additional formatting changes as necessary. If the MS Word file you've been given is filled with lots of funky and inconsistent Styles and/or formatting, the job will take even longer but again, you have to at least look at EVERY SINGLE PAGE to know if this is the case.

At this point you haven't even done the actual conversion step, or the (absolutely necessary) step of reviewing the converted file---again, if you're doing the job right this means looking at EVERY SINGLE PAGE---yet. Let's allow another 15 minutes for the conversion, since most of that work is done with automated tools, and another 5 seconds per page to review the converted file, which comes out to 25 minutes more: a total of 40 additional minutes, or 67% of an hour.

If you find any irregularities in the converted file you'll have to go back and revisit the formatting work and then repeat the conversion and review steps, but I'm sure your $50 price point doesn't take that possibility into account, either.

So in reality, if you're doing as thorough a job as you should be (by which I mean you're looking at EVERY page both before and after the conversion), it should take you a minimum of 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete a formatting + conversion job on a 300pp manuscript of a novel. It takes considerably longer for a nonfiction book with many images, tables, figures, charts and the like.

Since I've already calculated you're only making $20.62 total for the job after taxes, and at the minimum you should be spending 2.67 hours on the job, that works out to an hourly rate of $7.72 per hour---and again, that's AFTER taxes but BEFORE expenses.

If, on the other hand, you're NOT reviewing every single page both before and after the conversion, then I'd say your work isn't thorough enough.
-----------------------------------------

So if a freelance service provider says they're willing to do your ebook formatting and conversion job for $50 or so, there are only three possibilities: either that person isn't paying him- or herself a living wage, or that person is not paying his or her taxes, or that person is not doing a thorough job on your book.

(No disrespect to the commenter, I am not familiar with his work so I can't comment on it, but most of the time what's going on with these lowball estimates is BOTH that the person isn't paying taxes AND that he or she isn't doing a thorough job. Most service providers who offer such ridiculously low prices are only using automated formatting and conversion tools, and if they bother to look at individual pages at all it's only to do some minor spot-checking.)


Monday, April 22, 2013

Amazon's Ebook Returns Policy Is A GOOD Thing. Here's Why.

Recently some indie author friends have become so outraged by ebook returns that they're trying to organize and bring pressure to bear against Amazon to eliminate its 7-day return policy on Kindle books. There are other vendors who allow returns as well, and I'm sure this same group will be targeting those vendors in due time.

The main reason why this group of authors is so upset is that they're watching their online, real-time royalty reports very closely, and making financial decisions for themselves and their households based on the "sales" they see reported there.

However, as any mainstream-published author already knows all too well, until net royalties for book sales are actually paid they are subject to change, and a large quantity of returns can easily bring your royalty statement for a given 6-month period into the red. The same is true of returnable self-published books, but these authors don't seem to get that, or if they do get it, seem to think it's unfair.

And so they've taken to social media to try and raise the visibility of this issue, to nudge their fellow authors into taking action intended to eliminate legitimate, vendor-sanctioned ebook returns. In my opinion, what they're doing is a big mistake and if they succeed in getting vendors to eliminate ebook returns, it will be bad for all authors who have ebooks on the market.

Amazon's 7-day return policy seems to be the biggest target here, so I'll address my remarks to that specific vendor. But I think the points I'm about to make here are equally applicable to any ebook return policy.

I am *in favor* of Amazon's 7-day return policy on Kindle books. Here's why:

1. Hard copy books can generally be returned up to 30 days after purchase---longer, if you bought them someplace like Target. Therefore, as a consumer and reader, I don't see why ebooks shouldn't be returnable as well. Why aren't all of these same authors up in arms about return policies on hard copy books? I'm all for removing barriers to ebook adoption, and one major barrier is consumers' perception of value, that an ebook is somehow inherently inferior to, and less valuable than, a hard copy book. Elimination of ebook return policies makes ebooks economically inferior to hard copy books, from the consumer perspective.

2. Returnability removes the risk for buyers who might not otherwise take a chance on a new author.

3. People who want to game the system will always find a way, and it doesn't make sense to take these first two benefits away from readers (and authors) for the sake of trying to do battle with the scammers. Take returns away, and the scammers who are abusing the returns system will just go back to outright piracy. Meanwhile, you've given paying customers some good reasons not to take a chance on your ebook.

4. I don't believe most people DO read a book within 7 days of purchase, nor do I think most readers WANT to be put under that kind of time pressure. Those who are willing to read EVERY Kindle book they buy within 7 days are already paying a significantly higher cost than the price of the book in terms of convenience.

Classic case of penny-wise, pound-foolish. True, the dishonest buyers' inconvenience does not put money into authors' pockets. But this just underscores my point about people who are looking to game the system. People who are willing to put themselves out like that to save three bucks or less are not a desirable target demo. I don't want them to be my fans because they're not truly invested in my work in any sense of the term, and never will be.

5. Regarding the "missing" or "stolen" royalties issue, I know this will sound harsh, but authors shouldn't be counting their chickens before they hatch, anyway. Until I actually get a royalty transfer into my bank account, I know those figures I see in the KDP reports are fluid and subject to change. KDP authors still have it better than mainstream-pubbed authors, who must wait a year or longer for the first royalty check and only get them every six months thereafter.

My Indie Author Guide STILL hasn't 'earned out' (the collapse of Borders meant thousands of returns), and it was published in November of 2010.

6. Contrary to what these agitating authors seem to think, those ebook returns do NOT represent lost sales. The people who are motivated to steal books or anything else never intended to pay for those things, and never would have paid for them. This argument from the authors is like a bank manager thinking that if only the bank robbers could've been talked out of their heist, they would've opened accounts at the bank and become customers.

Pirates and thieves are pirates and thieves, period. It's just a question of how they get the books for free: illegal download, or return policy abuse.

7. Some of the authors who are speaking out about this are suspicious that there are actual, organized groups promoting the practice of return abuse as a means to get free ebooks. But even if there ARE groups of people who've organized to promote theft, well...so are pretty much all piracy groups. There's no way to stop all piracy, and if people are abusing Amazon's returns policy, it's just another form of piracy.

8. Again, I know I'm about to sound really harsh, but the realities of business ARE sometimes harsh and that doesn't make them any less real: Ignorance is not a defense here. Anyone who's self-publishing for profit has a duty to read, and ensure they not only understand but agree with, any contracts they're signing, and that includes KDP terms of use and Amazon's ebook listing and sales policies.

If you don't like Amazon's ebook returns policy, you shouldn't publish there or list your ebooks for sale there.

- - - -

Personally, I share Neil Gaiman's view on piracy: I don't care how people initially discover me, because once they're fans and are able to pay, they will. And in the meantime, they'll be spreading the word about me and my books. You may disagree with this stance, or even feel it's na├»ve. But the bottom line is the same, regardless of anyone's opinion about it: thieves will ALWAYS find a way. Hassling your paying customers and fans in an effort to discourage thieves will NEVER stop the thieves, but it is LIKELY to annoy customers and fans, resulting in TRUE losses in sales and new fans.

Has consumer hatred of DRM taught us nothing?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Publetariat Update

I still have a blog post in me about this incident, but I'm not quite ready to write it yet. In the meantime, here's the update:

Writer and web developer Shawn E. Bell has very generously volunteered his time to resurrect Publetariat for all of us.

Shawn also offers author services for indie authors and small imprints; please consider him if you need help with your books.

I also wish to thank the many others who came forward to offer help. This has been a devastating experience, but I'm amazed and humbled by the way the indie community can pull together.

With Shawn's help I hope to have the essential site back online soon, though it may be many more weeks or even months before all desired functionality is restored.

Please be patient, and watch for a re-launch announcement from me on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Hackers - 1; Publetariat - 0. We All Lose.

I will write a more in-depth follow-up as soon as I can calm down enough to do so, but for now, I'll just reprint what's supposed to be displaying for anyone who visits Publetariat.com right now. It isn't displaying as I write this, because the site is so trashed that nothing works there anymore.
-------------------------

As regular site visitors already know, Publetariat has been repeatedly targeted by hackers over the past few months. The most recent of these attacks occurred on 4/16/13, and has broken the site in numerous ways.

As a totally non-profit, volunteer-staffed site, Publetariat lacks the resources and staffing to keep recovering from these malicious attacks. The site is currently not accessible or properly functional, though its content is still contained in the site's database. But even if I can rebuild the site, it seems likely that another malicious attack will bring it down in a matter of weeks. For that reason, I'm trying to decide if it's even worth the effort to try. I hate to let the hackers win, but I also can't make a career out of fighting them.

It's devastating to see something I've poured my heart and soul into being destroyed like this. Still, I'm glad Publetariat played its part in the indie author revolution, and has helped so many of you.

Anyone who's very knowledgeable in Drupal and can volunteer to work on fixing the site, or migrating it from Drupal to Wordpress: please email me at indieauthor@gmail.com.

Sincerely, And Sadly,

April L. Hamilton
Publetariat Founder / Editor in Chief

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Big Publishers Forming Imprints With ASI: You're Doing It Wrong. Here's How To Turn The Titanic Around

I have been VERY vocal in my criticism of the many mainstream publishing outfits who've decided to form new, vanity publishing imprints in partnership with Author Services, Inc. (also known as "ASI" and "Author House", among many other aliases). This begs the question: if those vanity partnerships are so wrong, what should publishers be doing instead?

I have the answer, and it's pretty damned simple. You'll see for yourself when I lay it out below: there's nothing terribly Earth-shattering or insightful in it, it's all just plain old common sense. But no plan, no matter how sensible, will ever get any traction with big publishers unless they can accept some attitude adjustment first.

Note that in this post, where I refer to Big Pub, I'm talking about the Big Five mainstream publishing houses.

Partnering With A Vanity Press Will NEVER Work

What you've decided to offer via your various partnerships with ASI is such a transparent ripoff of authors, you really ought to have known better. It's painfully obvious to everyone (other than Big Pub, apparently) that this is a facile money-grab undertaken by outfits that are desperate to get a piece of the growing indie market share, but are so unwilling to invest anything of value or meaning in the endeavor that they've outsourced the entire enterprise to a disreputable vanity press.

ASI has been in the business of overcharging would-be authors for "publishing services" while also stripping them of their intellectual property rights for decades. Do you really have so little respect for writers that you thought we wouldn't realize inserting yourself between us and ASI can only accomplish one thing: to further increase ASI's already excessive fees to cover Big Pub's cut?

Readers Are Your Customers

For many decades publishers have viewed booksellers as their customers, not readers. Publishers sold their books to booksellers, who in turn sold them to readers. This business model makes readers the customers of booksellers. It's a business model that is now failing in the face of so much technological and cultural disruption, yet big, mainstream publishers seem at a loss to shift their focus from booksellers to readers. They've made careers of knowing what bookseller purchasing agents want, they've never had to give much thought to what readers want. That's always been the booksellers' job.

Well guess what? Amazon, the biggest bookseller of them all, is eating your lunch precisely because it has only ever focused on what its customers---in this case, readers---want. Its in-house imprints are informed by reader tastes and wants, and if you want to survive, your imprints must be similarly informed.

Authors Are Your Lifeblood

It's not just aspiring authors who are going indie in droves. Increasing numbers of well-known, mainstream-published, bestselling authors are jumping their mainstream publishing ships in pursuit of the greater control and profit afforded to indies. When JK Rowling decided to take her ball and go home, it should've been a wakeup call to your entire industry.

Popular, established authors don't need you anymore. There is nothing you can offer the Rowlings of the world that they cannot obtain on their own more cheaply, more efficiently and faster than you can provide any of it.

And this is why continuing with business as usual is a slow suicide march for Big Pub: you turn away from anything you feel appeals to anything less than a NYT bestseller -sized audience for fear such books won't earn enough to keep you afloat, yet authors who do succeed in scaling such lofty heights are as likely as not to ditch you as soon as they've gained a foothold with readers.

And your ill-advised partnerships with ASI have given authors and aspiring authors good cause to look at you with a very jaundiced eye. What more proof do any of us need that you don't view writers as your partners, but merely as profit centers to be exploited?

When an author or would-be author asks you (as they are starting to do with regularity), "What can you offer me or my career that going indie can't?" you better have a good answer. Because right now, what you have to offer most first-time authors is ridiculously slow publication schedules, unfair contract terms, laughable efforts at promotion, and advances so small that they may not even cover one month's expenses for a writer who toiled months or years on the manuscript you hope to profit from.

Either that, or the "opportunity" to have the bones of their dreams picked clean by ASI.

You DO Have Something To Offer, But It's Not What You Think

Up until recently you've done a great job of convincing writers that what you have to offer is an odds-on opportunity for fame and riches, and that without you fame and riches are impossible things for any author to achieve.

When you lost your stranglehold on the distribution piece of the bookselling business, it was time to come out from behind the curtain and dispense with this Great and Powerful Oz shtick. Thanks to several well-publicized instances of indie authors reaching sales figures to match those of your strongest authors, and MANY well-publicized (within indie author circles, at least) instances of indie author earnings FAR exceeding those of authors who've signed with Big Pub, the cat's out of the bag and authors are paying very close attention to the man behind the curtain.

The good news is, enough writers have become self-publishers that as a group, they're pretty well informed about the harsh realities of publishing and bookselling. They know from firsthand experience what's involved in producing a book and bringing it to market, both in terms of effort and expense. They know it's not free and they know it's not easy.

The bad news is, they're no longer buying what you're selling because they also know it's a myth: signing with Big Pub guarantees nothing in terms of a book's success or failure. All that it does guarantee is that the book will be mired in Big Pub's outdated, slow, inefficient production, distribution, sales and marketing processes.

Your Commodities Are Administration, Experience, Expertise And Connections

Your business model is in desperate need of a radical overhaul, to display what you bring to the table in sharp relief for would-be author-clients. Big Pub needs a Public Relations facelift too, to rebuild the trust between yourselves and writers: something it seems you've greatly undervalued, judging by how quick you were to squander it on the likes of ASI. Fortunately for you, acting on the former may ensure the latter takes care of itself---but only if you do it right.

I have blogged here before about the necessity for any indie who's going it alone to have an entrepreneurial spirit and approach, if she hopes to earn a living on her book sales alone. Guy Kawasaki echoes the same opinion in his book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book. But I've also acknowledged here that many, perhaps even most, writers have no desire to be entrepreneurs. There are plenty of exceedingly talented writers out there whose strengths in plotting and characterization far outstrip their skills in bookkeeping, administration, design, production or marketing.

You have people on your payroll right now, as I write this, who are seasoned experts in the very things those authors can't, or don't want to, do by themselves. These are the things you have to offer and you've come by them honestly, so stop trying to hide them like so much stagecraft.

How To Capitalize On Indie Authorship Without Being Evil

Here are the broad strokes of how, were I in your shoes, I would attempt to turn the Titanic around.

(Any Big Pub representatives reading this who'd like to fly me out to New York for some paid consulting time to have me fill in the details, I can be reached at indieauthor at gmail dot com.)

Up until now, in recent decades your business model has required Big Pub to be interested in only two kinds of books: easy moneymakers, and status symbols. Any book that came your way and didn't appear to be either a likely bestseller or winner of a major literary award would be rejected, regardless of any other appealing qualities it might have.

This is why you haven't published a Great American Novel in generations, yet have created a market environment in which the Snookis and Honey Boo Boos of the world will never have much difficulty signing a six- to seven-figure book deal. It's time to let go of your self-assigned role of gatekeepers and arbiters of taste, because you've been exclusively in the business of selling product at a profit far too long to keep denying it. There is no shame in this; you're businesspeople after all, not philanthropists. So own it.

Writers aren't bowing and scraping to you anymore. You can no longer afford to sit on high like so many Pontiffs of Publication, reaching down to bestow your magical favor on the select few while brusquely relegating all other supplicants to the nearest exit.

You need to start PARTNERING with authors, forming business relationships that put the parties on more or less equal footing. You can no longer survive merely as book publishers, you must also become book producers.
------------------------------

Step One: Retool The Factory

If I can find freelancers to provide quality editing, cover design, interior layout and ebook formatting services for under $2500 total, and with turnaround times of 2-3 weeks each (or less), you should be able to acquire these same services at a comparable cost and within comparable timeframes.

If you haven't got the in-house staffing to do it right now, establish a stable of trusted freelancers to whom you can subcontract the work at the same rates they're already getting from individual indie authors. Alternatively, pay them higher rates in exchange for the right to keep them as dedicated resources, taking jobs only from you, to ensure they will be available when you need them.

There are PLENTY of skilled editors, designers and ebook conversion experts out there (many of whom were laid off from fulltime positions with magazines, newspapers and other publishers) who would welcome the chance to have a fully-booked work roster, as well as the opportunity to add the business relationship to their resumes.

You also need to keep some social media / web communications experts on staff. Their job would be to engage in social media and web communication on your brands' behalf, and to train / mentor your author-clients in the most effective uses of social media and web communication. This approach is considerably less expensive---and more effective!---than throwing money at the usual, old-school book promotion methods.
--------------------------------

Step Two: Overhaul Distribution

Re-negotiate your contracts with booksellers to eliminate returns. Indie authors and small, independent imprints aren't subject to those impossible terms, and now that chain booksellers are no longer the powerful rulers over your domain they once were, you are no longer subject to their unworkable demands.

You should get the same deal producers of every other product known to man get in the world of retail: the seller orders as many units as they think they can sell in advance, and none are returnable. The seller can discount any unsold product as he sees fit, holding monthly or end of season clearance and 2-for-1 sales, if need be. Once the product has left your warehouse, it's no longer your problem.

Since brick-and-mortar, chain booksellers are an endangered species, MOST of your print book production should be managed with a Print On Demand system, which would eliminate the big chunk of your current overhead expense that goes toward large, upfront print runs.
---------------------------

Step Three: Overhaul Advances

Establish an acquisitions model that doesn't require you to essentially sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into lottery tickets in the hopes that just a couple will pay off each year. Instead of acting as treasure hunters, ever on the lookout for the next blockbuster and willing to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars or more at a single title, acquire a wide range of titles that can respectably clear the net profit threshold, and acquire them at lower cost to put that threshold within easy reach.

There's no reason for ANY advance to ANY first-time author to EVER exceed six figures, and even six figure advances should be so rare as to be newsworthy. Historically, the great majority of books acquired in bidding wars have not earned out; but acquiring them has prevented publishers from spreading their capital (and risk) across many more titles with potential.

Get out of this downward monetary spiral and let your rivals take a bath on those bidding war gambles; it won't be long before all of the Big Five stop acting like they're on a bender in Vegas. A typical advance for a very promising book should be in the mid- five figure range, and many other books could be acquired with far more modest advances. Just think how many more titles you could acquire if you never paid any advances higher than $125k, and the great majority of your advances averaged out at less than $20k.
---------------------------

Step Four: Pluck The Low-Hanging Fruit

Successful indie books are hiding in plain sight all over Amazon, Apple's iBookstore, Smashwords, Goodreads and elsewhere. These are authors who've already proven they know how to write and they know how to grow a readership all on their own; imagine how much MORE successful they might be with your help. They are a proven quantity too, so your investment in their books is very low-risk, nothing at all like acquiring a previously unpublished title you think may hold promise.

Acquiring previously self-published, successful titles allows readers to tell you in advance which books they want to buy. You should be seeking out the authors of bestselling and best-reviewed indie books and offering them contracts---but not in the way you've done it in the past.
---------------------------

Step Five: Overhaul Acquisitions

For every manuscript or self-published book that comes to you for consideration, rather than the simple math of your current thumbs up, thumbs down system, you should consider one of four possible outcomes.

1. Possible Bestseller / Award Winner - Offer the typical, negotiable contract from one of your flagship imprints, with a sizeable up-front advance and back-end profit split. The book will be published in both print and ebook formats, and the author will receive training and support from your social media expert team.

2. Possibly Respectable Seller, Midlist Type Title - These are manuscripts you're currently rejecting on a daily basis, because you can't see a way for these books to recoup the costs you must invest to produce them. Yet countless indie authors are turning modest to impressive profit on books that sell only in the mid-thousands of copies. After you've retooled the factory and made the other changes outlined above, your overheads should be considerably less than they are at present, bringing the bar for profitability within reach for far more books.

Offer these authors the typical, negotiable contract from a new, boutique imprint, with a modest up-front advance and the typical back-end profit split. The book will be published in ebook formats only to minimize upfront costs, and the author will receive training and support from your social media expert team. Any book in this track that proves to be a hit could also be offered in print formats later, with terms either negotiated at the same time as the ebook deal or later/separately.

3. Modest Seller, Quality Work, Motivated & Social Media Savvy Author Who Could Grow - Offer these authors a negotiable contract for an ebook only release from a new, boutique imprint with no upfront advance, and a back-end profit split that's higher than for acquisitions made under items #1 and #2 above. The author will receive the same training and support from your social media expert team as all your other signed authors.

For this type of book, you would essentially be taking what you would've paid as an advance and investing it in the production costs of the book. The backend profit split begins with sale #1 since there's no advance to be repaid. You're partnering with the author in a way that helps him to cultivate a larger following while minimizing your upfront investment and risk.

4. Unpublishable, For Whatever Reason - Reply with an honest rejection, do not offer to sell any professional services.
--------------------

Step Six: Open A Totally Separate Author Services Division

Open a new business, totally separate from your publishing business, to serve indie authors who wish to remain indie. This business would offer paid pro services from the same stable of in-house or freelance / contract experts you employ on all other books. The key is to ensure your service offerings are priced only slightly higher than what those authors would have to pay if they sought out and contracted for the services themselves.

Your slightly higher price points can be justified on two counts. First, you would be offering a one-stop shop of pre-vetted service providers, saving authors the time and trouble of locating and vetting individual service providers themselves. Second, you could provide a certification seal to service division clients, allowing them to place a seal on their book covers certifying the book has been professionally produced by the experts at [insert company name here]. This certification would be buyers' guarantee that at the minimum, the book they bought has been professionally edited and designed.

Unlike your current ASI clients (if any), these authors are being allowed to remain completely independent and you would merely be offering services they would have to acquire on their own anyway if they intend to stay the course of top-tier indie publication. With this model, the author retains all rights to the work and there's no backend split - you are offering 'for hire' services only.

To eliminate even the appearance of any conflict of interest, anyone to whom you offer 'for hire' services cannot resubmit the book for later publication consideration under items #1-4 above. No writer should be led to believe that if he invests in the for-hire services you have to offer, a publication contract will be forthcoming.

Step Seven: Lather, Rinse and Repeat. Class Dismissed.


April L. Hamilton is the founder and Editor in  Chief of Publetariat.com, founder and Editor in Chief of The Digital Media Mom, and Editor in Chief of Kindle Fire on Kindle Nation Daily.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Simon & Schuster / Archway Update

Today I received a follow-up email from a different S&S staffer. It reads:

Hi April,

Veda forwarded your e-mail to me. I manage Archway Publishing for S&S, and would appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about the service. There are a lot of options available to self-publishing authors today, and we believe Archway delivers real value. Please let me know if you'd be interested in speaking, and we can schedule a time.

Regards,
[name, with a simon and schuster email address]

And here is my response to that email:

Unless one of those options is to detach AuthorHouse from Archway, I have no interest in hearing anything more you have to say.

You cannot partner with Bernie Madoff to offer investment services and expect people to ignore the fact that your partner is Bernie Madoff.

---------------------
'Nuff said.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Simon & Schuster Is Trying To Bribe People Like Me

...to refer people like you to their new vanity imprint, Archway, which they formed in partnership with AuthorHouse (aka "ASI") late last year. A couple of days ago, I received the following, kind of astonishingly brazen email from a Simon and Schuster staffer:

-------------------------------------------------
Simon & Schuster recently launched Archway Publishing as a new type of offering for self-publishing authors. With services delivered by Author Solutions, Archway was developed to help authors achieve their publishing goals and reach their desired audience. S&S has provided guidelines on book design, introduced certain unique self-publishing services, designed packages tailored to meet specific author objectives, and will monitor titles for potential acquisition.

Your blog is an important resource to help authors navigate the variety of self-publishing options. We believe Archway is a unique new service for authors, and would be valued by your readers. The Archway Affiliate Program enables partners to earn a $100 bounty for each author they refer who publishes with Archway*. Click here to learn more about the affiliate program. In addition, we’d like to extend to your audience a 10% discount off any Archway package, when referred though affiliate links on your site. We can also create contests, webinars, and creative for your site, or discuss other ways to work together.

-------------------------------------------------
[*emphasis added by me]

Note that when industry people write to me and make reference to my "blog", they're generally talking about Publetariat.com, not this blog.

Anyway, it's obvious that this person has zero familiarity with me, aside from the fact that I own and operate a site that's very popular with writers, authors and publishing professionals. Anyone who bothered to peruse this blog would've very quickly discovered there's no way I'd ever sign on for such a thing, and I'd be inclined to publicize the offer.

After re-reading the email a couple of times to be sure I wasn't misunderstanding anything, and giving myself a couple of days to put together a more reasoned (and less pissed off) response, I hit Reply on that email, and this is what I said:

-------------------------------------------------
I have always advised indie authors to avoid vanity publishers, and AuthorHouse is one of the most notorious among them. The reputation of AuthorHouse as an overpriced, under-performing scam agency far precedes its name. I have warned many a writer away from AH in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.

I am very disappointed to see such an august and respected publisher as S&S moving into this new, arguably predatory market area: pairing up a respected publisher with a vanity press to offer desperate would-be authors various, fee-based "services"---any of which the writer could retain him- or herself from freelancers at a fraction of the cost---and/or a publishing contract offering terms that virtually ensure the publisher will turn a profit, but the author will not. Surely the strongly negative reaction to Random House's Hydra imprint hasn't escaped your notice?

I'm also troubled by your affiliate offer, as I fear many others you've approached with the offer will accept it and be motivated to lure naive aspiring authors to Archway like so many lambs to slaughter. The mere fact that Archway can afford to pay affiliates a $100 "bounty" per referral attests to unnecessary fees your author-clients are being asked to shoulder. I have little doubt that bounty is being paid by the author who was referred, probably bundled together with many other fees under an innocuous, yet vague heading like "book set up".

I am sorry to be so negative, and I understand you are not personally responsible for the existence of Archway. However, having been a supporter of indie authorship since the days when people scoffed at the possibility of brick and mortar bookstore chains failing, I've seen far too many companies like yours take advantage of far too many of my peers. To say I feel very strongly about this sort of thing is a gross understatement. Nevertheless, I am glad to have received your email for one reason: now that I am aware of Archway, I can warn others about it.

------------------------------------------------
So if anyone on any site you frequent is starting to advertise Archway, refer site visitors to Archway, or running content or contests provided by Archway, in all likelihood it's because that person said "yes" where I said "no".

It would've been more honest for Archway to offer a "bounty" of thirty pieces of silver per referral, because anyone in the indie community who takes them up on this offer is a Judas.

*UPDATE* See S&S's response to me, and mine back to them, here.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Free Kindle Book Ride May Be Over

Many authors have been taking advantage of the Amazon KDP Free Book promo option ever since KDP Select was rolled out, and many a bookish website and blog has sprung up specifically around promotion of free Kindle books.

All of that may be about to change, thanks to an Amazon Associates agreement revision that's set to take effect March 1 of this year:

March 1, 2013 version
The following is added at the end of the sub-section:

“In addition, notwithstanding the advertising fee rates described on this page or anything to the contrary contained in this Operating Agreement, if we determine you are primarily promoting free Kindle eBooks (i.e., eBooks for which the customer purchase price is $0.00), YOU WILL NOT BE ELIGIBLE TO EARN ANY ADVERTISING FEES DURING ANY MONTH IN WHICH YOU MEET THE FOLLOWING CONDITIONS:
(a) 20,000 or more free Kindle eBooks are ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links; and
(b) At least 80% of all Kindle eBooks ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links are free Kindle eBooks.”


A Little Background On Amazon's Associates Program

Amazon Associates program participants can provide a link to virtually any page or product on Amazon (including links to free Kindle books) with their Associate ID attached to it, and that ID piggybacks on most purchases the customer makes on the Amazon site during the same shopping session. So Associates have historically had an incentive to share ANY Amazon link, including links to free Kindle books.

If anything, links to free Kindle books have been very desirable for Associates program participants to use because shoppers' resistance to clicking through on such links is low: the product in question is free, after all. But very often, once on the Amazon site, the customer will start browsing or will think of some other item they've been meaning to buy, and commissions for those purchases are paid to the Associate whose ID first brought the customer to Amazon.

Possible Chilling Effects of the Associates Policy Change

There are two factors to consider when trying to forecast possible outcomes of this change:

1. This new policy puts ALL of a given Associate account holder's commissions at risk in any month where "sales" of free Kindle books from that Associate's links are high.

2. With this new policy, authors and Associate link / promo providers who used to have the common goal of maximizing click-throughs on free Kindle books are set in opposition to one another. The author still wants to maximize downloads during the free promo period, but the more free downloads are generated, the greater the risk that the Associate link provider will lose all of his commissions for the month.

In my opinion, this will be a pretty effective discouragement for many Associates to promote free Kindle books. Even if the bar for commission loss is set pretty high (both of the above-quoted conditions must be met for a given month's commissions to be forfeited), the mere possibility of commission loss may steer many Associates away from continuing to promote free Kindle books.

What's Amazon Up To?

This policy revision speaks to some business changes on Amazon's end.

Amazon is surely aware that the free Kindle promo option has been a major driver in getting authors to sign up for their KDP Select program, but recent changes to Amazon's book sales rank algorithm have drastically reduced the formerly positive effects of large numbers of free downloads. While a given book's sales rank isn't exactly penalized for free downloads, free downloads are no longer driving the kinds of sales rank leaps and bounds that drew authors to take advantage of free book promo periods in the first place.

Now add the disincentive for Associates to promote free books, and it definitely starts looking like Amazon is moving to discourage publishers and authors from offering their Kindle books for free.

Has Amazon Finally Turned On Indies, As So Many Predicted Would Happen?

Since the great majority of authors and publishers who have been willing to offer their Kindle books for free are indies, some may conclude this is some kind of long-planned attack from Amazon on indies in general, but I doubt it.

Sales rank algorithm changes levelled the sales rank playing field again to a great extent, but maybe sales rank integrity wasn't all that was troubling Amazon. Maybe Amazon never anticipated how popular and widespread free book promotions would become, and how large a percentage of their monthly Kindle book "sales" in any given month would eventually come to consist of free downloads. Every free Kindle download represents a loss to Amazon, since Amazon is absorbing overhead costs to host and sell the book but isn't earning any profit on it.

Given that Amazon only earns money on downloads of Kindle books people are actually paying for, I think the most obvious and simple answer is the correct one:

Amazon is tired of losing money on free book downloads.

But once the genie was out of the bottle and indies everywhere had made free downloads an entrenched part of best practices for any new Kindle book launch or promotion, nobody outside of Amazon or mainstream publishing was motivated to stop the runaway freight train of free Kindle books.

Even indie authors and publishers who don't want to offer free promo periods have felt pressured to do so, since others who did offer their books for free have sometimes seen such great results.

You May Have To Start Making Money On Every Kindle Book Download, Whether You Like It Or Not

I can only speculate about the long-term impacts of this most recent policy change, but after thinking it over I've concluded that in the end, it's probably a good thing. The change gives indies a good, solid business reason to move away from offering their Kindle books for free; what's that old expression, about how a rising tide lifts all boats?

When the majority of us are selling our books at a price instead of giving them away, the majority of us will be making money on every download.

When free Kindle books become the exception instead of the rule, book buyers will stop 'waiting till it's free' or even having an expectation that a given book should be free. I was never one of those who backed the 'devaluation of books and literature' argument, I've always thought that within reason, ethics and the law, any promotional tack that gets an indie author more exposure and sales is worth trying. Even so, I think the prevalence of free Kindle books has shaped---some might say distorted, or even dominated---the ebook market in ways that few predicted, and it has ultimately hurt indies overall more than it has helped most of us.

The former, nearly guaranteed sales rank boost one could expect from a free promo period is all but gone, thanks to algorithm changes. Yet many have continued to cling to the free promo gambit like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood, because it has worked for so many authors in the past.

In the face of the very daunting book launch and promo task, a free book promo was at least something an indie could do pretty easily to get his or her book in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and an easy "in" to book blogs and sites. Like I said before, a free product is an easy "sell". And if most customers who were taking advantage of those free promo downloads were actually just book hoarders, collecting but never actually reading hundreds of free titles, well, most of us preferred not to think about it.

Amazon may be trying to force authors, publishers and book bloggers alike to stop offering and promoting free Kindle books, but in so doing they're forcing us in the direction of more profit for everyone. It's hard for me to see that as anything but a positive development.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Let Your Writing Lead You Where It May

Many of those who are reading this are facing the harsh reality that author royalties may never be enough to support yourself and your household, or at least the only slightly less harsh reality that while you're waiting for lightning to strike, you've got bills to pay.

I am living proof that writing can be a great career skill and a surprising stepping stone; you can make a living with your writing, but not necessarily in the way you imagined, and not necessarily by doing nothing but writing. Still, writing in a professional context is no less legitimate than writing in an artistic context, and it can be very fulfilling while also providing you with some financial security, as I've learned firsthand.

I am one of those rare, incredibly fortunate individuals who has a dream job, and I have writing to thank for it. I get paid to consume all kinds of digital entertainment content (e.g., ebooks, audiobooks, apps, movies, TV shows, music) on various devices and write about it. I write reviews, tips and tricks, how-tos, and editorial commentary. I work from home, and have the flexibility of setting my own schedule. I am acutely aware of how lucky I am in this, and just as certain that I never could've arrived at this point in my career without having accumulated the skills and experiences gained through all the career paths I've traveled in the past. It's been a long and circuitous route, but the one constant through everything has been writing.

I started out as an English major, but only because it was a favorite and easy subject for me, someone who's always been a prolific writer and voracious, compulsive reader. There was just one problem: I never aspired to career in education, academics or journalism. Of course I dreamt of becoming a published author someday, but it seemed more like a pipe dream than a practical career choice. When I decided I needed to change to something more paying-the-bills -friendly, I switched to an Animal Science/Veterinary major because I've always loved animals and science.

While doing a mandatory research project I realized I enjoyed analyzing data, working on my research paper, and using technology to facilitate better, faster and more accurate results more than I enjoyed providing healthcare to animals. From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to a career in software development, where my unique combo plate of communication and tech skills always kept me in demand. I may never have been the most brilliant software engineer or database admin in any of the companies I worked for over the years, but it was my writing and communication abilities that always tipped the scales in my favor. A particular strength I had was the ability to translate highly technical content and concepts into plain English. I did a great deal of technical writing and software documentation during that time, and wrote numerous project plans and proposals as well. This kept my writing skills sharp and it kept me happy, because I never had to give up completely on my first love: writing.

Little did I suspect those tech and writing skills would form an ideal platform for me to circle back around into my long-dormant dream of authorship, but that's exactly what happened. Back in '07, when Amazon launched its first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, 'self-publishing' was still a dirty word. Among most aspiring authors and publishing wonks, the bias against self-publishers was no less passionate nor baffling than the completely unjustified reverence heaped on mainstream publishing. I came into that milieu as an outsider with a tech/business perspective, and all I could see was that self-publishing simply made more sense for many would-be authors and existing authors, and that this was the direct result of two recent, disruptive technologies: ebooks and Print On Demand. It was really my innate drive to make sense of the nonsensical and disprove fallacies that drove me to champion indie authorship, and eventually, to found Publetariat.

In 2010, I had divorce and unemployment foisted upon me simultaneously. After I'd been floundering on my own a while, one of my online colleagues in indie authorship and ebooks reached out to me, and once again it was on account of my unique skillset. From my work advancing the cause of indie authorship, I'd learned all about the publishing business and self-publishing in particular. My work in software engineering had provided me with web development and site administration skills. My work in founding and maintaining Publetariat had schooled me in content development, SEO and social media. I'd also published books of my own, both mainstream and indie, both in print and e formats, so I could relate to the author's perspective. On top of this my sincere passion for tech and digital media had never flagged. So my colleague, who was looking to expand his simple, Kindle-focused blog into a full-fledged site, offered me a unique opportunity to put all my skills and interests to good use in helping him take his business to the next level.

As his business grew and sprouted new sites, I transitioned into being administrator and Editor in Chief for his Kindle Fire site. This has been a great fit for me, since I still get to use bits and pieces of all my various skills and can finally put my lifelong love of entertainment content of all kinds (books, movies, TV shows, web, music, games) to work: the Kindle Fire is essentially a delivery system for all those things, so it's part of my job to stay involved with them and write about them.

And this brings me to my latest career morph. I still run Publetariat, and I'm still Site Admin and Editor in Chief for Kindle Fire on Kindle Nation Daily. But a few days ago I launched a new site that drills down even further from what I'm doing on those other sites to focus on digital media and tech in a way that's not limited to the Kindle Fire. The new site is Digital Media Mom, and its mission in life is to help non-geeks navigate the sometimes complex and confusing world of digital media. It's about educating consumers so they can feel confident their digital device and media purchases are solving problems and saving money for them, and it's also about having fun and talking some trash about entertainment media and content. It's a lot of fun for me, and I hope it will be helpful and entertaining for consumers.

So while there's no easy or guaranteed path to a dream job like mine, I hope my experiences demonstrate three things. First, that writing can be a valuable career skill in virtually ANY field. Second, that being a fulltime author is not the only dream job available to people who can write. Finally, that very often, the only way to get a dream job is to create it yourself. If you're passionate about something many other people are passionate about, and you can communicate about it in a way that appeals to those other people, you can fill a niche. If you have skills or knowledge that can help others solve their problems or reach their goals, and again, you can communicate well, you can fill a niche. And many of the job skills you're accumulating now, while working at jobs you may not particularly enjoy, may prove to be instrumental when the opportunity to write your own ticket comes along.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Scams Preying On Writers Who Are Struggling Financially

Maybe "scam" is too strong a word, but I'm not sure what else to call it.

I'm seeing more and more marketing materials specifically targeted to indie and mainstream authors who are struggling to earn a fulltime living as writers, or finding it impossible to make the transition from day job to fulltime author. Whenever a demographic that contains many disappointed, disillusioned and possibly desperate or gullible people is formed, the vultures are quick to start circling.

Today I received yet another solicitation from a company offering to solve all my financial and work-life balance problems by helping me realize the dream of not only being a fulltime writer, but being paid handsomely for it.

The email sympathetically acknowledged how many writers have tried to get a mainstream publishing contract and failed, or self-published and seen disappointing profits. The email went on to reassure the reader that the dream of making a living as a writer is well within reach for anyone who wants it, and in fact the simple key to success is a little-known career niche that many writers simply don't know exists.

The email claimed success in this niche is easy; so long as you know about this type of work, love writing, and are able to write well, you can exceed your wildest dreams of success as a professional writer. According to the email, many writers who have discovered this little-known niche are earning six-figure incomes while only spending 20 hours a week or so writing.

Hmm...Sounds 'Legit So Far...

Loaded language like "little-known", "secret", "six figure income" and the like tends to make my internal red flags pop up, especially when it comes wedged into what's obviously a sales pitch of some sort. Mental alarm bells start going off for me when the pitch purposely avoids ever explicitly stating what's being offered for sale.

All that was missing from the email was the assurance that with "this one weird tip" my career would take off instantly, or that a "[insert your hometown name here] mom" had been the one to make this discovery, which career experts didn't want me to know about, and which would soon be solving all my career problems, whitening my teeth and making me lose pounds and inches.

It was looking pretty darned scammy and pyramid-scheme-y, but hey, this email was delivered to me by a reputable, national writers' organization, with an intro stating that organization was excited to share this amazing opportunity with me, so it couldn't possibly be a scam, right? Whatever this offer turned out to be, it must've been fully vetted, and I should give it the benefit of the doubt, right?

And The Secret Is---Wait For It, Wait For It---

I read all the way to the bottom, hoping 'the secret' would finally be revealed at the end, but instead was presented with a 'let me show you how' link. That link took me to another lengthy statement on a web page attesting to the awesomeness and profitability of this amazing writer opportunity, and included testimonials from other writers who'd taken advantage of the offer and had relocated to Easy Street shortly thereafter, with their full names, photos and everything.

Yet nowhere did this second, even longer sales pitch state what was being marketed to me, or how much it would cost.

It wasn't until I followed yet another link, at the bottom of that lengthy page of marketingspeak B.S., that I got to a page that actually showed what was being sold and what it would cost: a series of e-publications on topics about how to find copywriter jobs, how to succeed as a freelance copywriter, how to generate copywriting leads, how to break into travel writing, et cetera et cetera, and even though they were valued at over $200, for a "limited time" I could have them ALL for a mere $49.

$50 Is A Big Chunk Of Change, But Does That Alone Make It A Scam?

No. I'm fairly certain all of the "secrets" in these e-pubs are already available for free in multiple locations online, but I can see where gathering them all together and offering them for sale in a single package---otherwise known as a "book"---adds enough value to justify charging for the material. But here's why I still classify this as a scam:

1. The seller repeatedly emphasizes how EASY it is to "immediately" start earning large fees; she conveniently leaves out the part where essentially, she's just advising you to start your own freelancing business, and she also conveniently leaves out the part about how HARD it is to launch a new freelance business.

Plenty of people, myself included, have sold books or training programs intended to provide writers with necessary business or craft skills, but the ones who are being honest will tell you the ugly truth right up front: it's hard work, it's a longterm investment that will not "immediately" start paying off, and no book or training program can guarantee career success. Many people can and do make a respectable or even comfortable living as freelancers, but it took a lot of time, effort and sacrifice to get there.

2. The key to success here is NOT any of the e-pubs she's offering to sell you, it's having a very strong entrepreneurial drive and a lot of business savvy. If you already have those things you don't need anything she's selling to launch a freelance business, and if you don't, no amount of advice or e-pubs from her or anyone else will make your business a success.

This person is not selling a course in how to run a small business, covering your tax and regulatory bases, basic accounting and so on, but she's marketing her copywriting information as if it IS a one-stop, magic portal that can take you from being unemployed, or unhappily employed in an unfulfilling day job, directly to a glamorous new life where you're making tons of money, setting your own hours, and basically living the dream as a professional writer.

3. The sales copy repeatedly emphasizes how one need only spend 20 hours or so a week writing to earn a fulltime income---yet never mentions the many MORE hours freelancers must spend chasing after leads, networking/using social media to promote, preparing bids, trying to collect on jobs already completed and seeing to all the same small business administration tasks as any other small business owner.

In addition, the sales copy fails to mention the fact that freelancers must also get and maintain a professional-quality website, and be prepared to invest time and possibly money in advertising themselves and their "products". If all of this stuff sounds familar, that's because it's all the same stuff authors are supposed to do to sell their books.

The copywriter career path is being sold as an easy, painless alternative to the disappointment and long hours of trying to make it as an author, yet the very same things that can make trying to earn a fulltime living as an author disappointing and exhausting are required of a fulltime, freelance copywriter.

4. While this may not technically fit the criteria to be classified as a pyramid scheme, in one sense, it is: the seller is making her money by getting you to buy her e-pubs and subscribe to her magazine. She must be working as a hugely successful copywriter too---if she weren't, how could she be in position to advise you, after all---, but it's a safe bet that a large piece of her income pie chart comes from this particular revenue stream.

The fact that she's trying to make money by selling something isn't the problem; it's that she's trying to make money by using deceptive advertising techniques that are very much in line with the techniques used to suck people into multi-level marketing scams.

5. The whole thing is being sold to a demographic that was targeted specifically on account of its members' financial problems. If you want to be cynical, you could say the message of the whole thing boils down to, "Money problems? Give me fifty bucks and I'll tell you a secret that'll make you rich overnight!"

It would be more responsible to target people who are already making some headway as freelancers, but need some additional guidance and advice from more experienced and successful freelancers who've gone before them. That's a group of people who already know what's involved and have already made some level of commitment to a career in freelancing, not a bunch of struggling authors who still hang on to the hope that there's some magic bullet that can make all this promotion / author platform / day job stuff go away and escort them directly into the ranks of wealthy, fulltime writers.


BOTTOM LINE: How Good Can Your Product Or Service Be If You Have To Trick People Into Buying It?

I don't begrudge anyone wanting to earn some money in exchange for sharing the knowledge they have to offer. This woman's e-pubs and magazine may be filled with all kinds of great information that can absolutely help anyone who's already trying to make a go of a career in freelance copywriting and already appreciates all the challenges he or she is up against.

What bugs me is the bait-and-switch marketing approach. Why not just open with a statement like this:

"We all know it's the rare author who earns enough from book royalties to live on, but that's not the only way to make a living as a professional writer. You'd love to quit your 'day job' for something that makes better use of your writing skills, but you still have to pay the bills. Have you considered a career as a freelance copywriter?"

I'll tell you why not: because putting it right out there in the open, right up front, makes it impossible to bend the truth and offer exaggerated claims. The statement above would let the reader know this supposedly "little known career niche" is actually just the same old freelancing that's been around since the dawn of civilization. Most people know that freelancers who are earning a comfortable living at it only do so by working very hard, that it took a long time for them to start earning a fulltime living at it, and that they're no less rare than authors who make a comfortable living on their book royalties alone. But the truth won't sell many $49 "career packages".

The above statement also makes it possible for the reader who actually IS interested in pursuing a career in freelancing to simply start Googling for all the same "tips" and "secrets" this woman is trying to sell.


Yes, making a fulltime living as an author or writer is a rare and difficult thing. But there is no "secret", no magic bullet, and no "little known career niche" that will make it any less rare or difficult. Barring a winning lottery ticket or generous inheritance, we all have to work for a living, and the harder we work, the more we stand to gain. As Westley the Farm Boy (and sometime Dread Pirate Roberts) so eloquently put it in The Princess Bride:

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

Don't buy it.