Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Castigation of the Publishing Industry Part Two

Last week I crapped all over the traditional publishing industry. I described them as a complete waste of skin and a complete mess as the leader of the most powerful country on earth.

Wait... sorry. That was my description of Obama once I saw that, despite his claims that the oil spill mess in the Gulf was his highest priority, he'd spent more time on vacation and fund raising for Barbara Boxer than actually making any effort to do anything. What do you expect of a man that orders $400 Kobe beef while everyone else suffers from a recession that he prolonged with idiot economic practices?

Anyway, last week I talked about how traditional publishers are out to get you. They aren't looking for good writing; they are looking for salable writing. They'll take a dismal book by a well-known author over a great book by a complete unknown in ten out of ten chances.

There are other things that traditional publishers do that irritate me as well. There's a little practice known as "buybacks" that ought to be outlawed. Here's the way they work: Publishers send booksellers to marketplace retailers like Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks. These booksellers pitch your book and tell the retailers, "You should be able to sell 500 of these books by August 15th!" The retailers agree to purchase 500 books from the publisher.

August 15th rolls around and the retailer has only managed to sell 450 books. This means that 50 are still on the shelves. Since that's valuable retail space, someone has to "buy back" those unsold books from the retailer. Guess who does that?

For some reason the traditional contract between author and publisher makes the author responsible for buying back the books from the retailer, even though it was the publisher that got overzealous in convincing the retailer what they could sell! Even worse, the author doesn't even get the books himself. He gets covers that were torn off (for mass market paperbacks) or dust covers that were removed by way of keeping count, and the actual printed books themselves get thrown away!

One of my mentors, a guy named Jack Reed, commented in his book on self-publishing that when he traditionally published his first book on real estate investment and was forced to purchase buybacks he demanded the books he was paying for. As an "I'll show him for demanding his property be returned to him if he's paying for it!" method, his publisher deliberately left his books out in the rain before shipping, and then billed him for water-weighted, soggy, destroyed books!

Jack has been self-published ever since. He writes non-fiction, but Piers Anthony, bestselling author of the Magic of Xanth series (among others) has similar stories to tell on his blog.

For another entertaining read, pick up a copy of Anthony's But What of Earth?. Commissioned in 1976 by now defunct Laser Books, Anthony wrote the novel and sent it in for publication. Roger Elwood, his editor, called him and said, "There are a couple of things that need minor changes. I've got a copyeditor working on it so I don't waste your time." Imagine Anthony's astonishment when the book was published in 1977 and the copyeditor, Robert Coulson, was listed as co author! (Coulson was not to blame. Elwood told him he was working with Anthony's approval.)

In addition, Elwood promised Coulson 50% of the royalties. Anthony's response, particularly when he got his hands on the book again and republished it through Tor in 1989, is damn near legendary.

One of my issues with traditional publication is also that I'm a mercenary. I believe in being paid for my hard work. I'll put this very simply: money is a physical representation of actual time taken from your life. If you make ten dollars an hour, then spending ten dollars on a video game had better deliver at least one hour of entertainment just to break even on the deal, right? (What does sending 40% of your life in the form of your income to the government mean to you? Maybe you should stop voting democrat, eh? Not that Republicans have been much better lately...)

The standard publishing contract for a new author gives them 3-7% royalties on profits for fiction. (Nonfiction is closer to 20%.) This means that, for a book selling at $8.99, you would only make 62 cents-- if they gave you a percentage of the retail price!

Unfortunately, for you, they pay you based on the profit, so the book that cost about $1.75 to print and about $2.25 to "publish" (edit, copyedit, cover design, and typeset) rakes in about $4.99 in profit. You get 7% of that, which is about 34 cents.

To make the same salary as a teacher in North Carolina, $30,000, you must sell 88,236 copies of your book. For selling that many books, the publisher raked in $410,297.

Now, they aren't paying salaries out of that profit, by the way. Those were taken care of by the $1.75 in book printing charges and $2.25 in publication costs.

It doesn't seem right to me that you write a novel over the course of five to eight years, usually giving up your free time because damn few jobs will let you work on your own projects while working for them. (Although I know a long-haul trucker who wrote three novels while driving cross country, using a cigarette lighter-powered laptop and voice dictation software.) This expensive, non-returnable time from your life is represented by a series of words on paper.

These words are submitted to agents, who reject them, essentially telling you over and over again that your life is unimportant. Finally, when you find an agent who accepts you, they begin the submission process anew, sending your life to publishers.

Who also reject it. Again and again.

Finally, usually right before you give up hope and go back to waiting tables or turning in TPS reports, a publisher takes your life in. However, because you're a complete unknown and unable to negotiate a better deal for yourself, (because the publisher can always say "Piss off," and leave you out in the cold again) they give you 3-7% of the profits they make from your life.

Now, I don't feel that it's worth it. Others may disagree. One thing that money gets you is a vast and powerful marketing system. Twilight didn't become a hit overnight. Someone had to stick that stupid goth apple on a bunch of posters and cardboard standups at the local bookseller's. Marketing is very hard work, particularly in the world of entertainment.

Movies can be made or broken on the backs of a decent trailer. How many times have you seen a really atrocious flick because the "best parts were in the commercial?" DVD sales are largely dependent on how well the movie did in theaters (although some really, really bad movies gather cult followings, like Snakes on a Plane).

Book sales... what are those based on? I'm not completely certain that anyone knows. Eric Flint, Baen eLibrarian, commented in 2000 that his best selling books were the ones he posted for free download on the site.

An author by the name of Paul Coelho decided to pirate his own books and uploaded a Russian translation of his work to Bit-Torrent. He sold over a million copies of his books in Russia.

Harlan Ellison may be a cantankerous drunkard, but he's also an asshole. He really tries to rip into people that have asked that his books be electronically published. He's afraid of piracy and losing sales.

Okay, he's got that right. They're his words, after all, and that's time out of his life we're talking about. Except... honestly, I'm not going to buy his omnibus at $35.00 on the off chance that I'll enjoy his work! If I still made ten bucks an hour, that's three and a half hours out of my life!

Libraries may allow people to read books for free, which cuts into Harlan's profits, but they also allow people to try before they buy. My first exposure to my all-time favorite author, Terry Pratchett, was in 1991 when I found a copy of Pyramids in my local library. Since then, I've not only purchased Pyramids for myself, but also copies of every book he's ever published that I could possibly get my hands on, some of them multiple times thanks to a flood that destroyed my book collection or friends that failed to return them. Pratchett has probably made $3,000 off of me over the years, not counting the dozens and dozens of friends, relatives, acquaintances, and random boobs on the street I've cajoled into buying his books. Thank you, Bonney Lake Public Library!

Publishers do a lot of work for you on the back end. The problem is that they make you do a lot of work on the front end. While they typeset, copyedit, edit, occasionally rewrite, graphically design, and format your book before marketing, presenting and actively selling it to the retailer, they make you jump through an awful lot of hoops to get there.

What about another way? What about self-publishing?

Traditional publishers really don't want you to self-publish. They call it "vanity" press. They pretend that it doesn't matter. As long as they hold the hoops you have to jump through, then they also control the profits your leaps may generate.

Traditional publishers were one of the primary reasons why electronic publication took so long to take off. Amazon finally had to tell the largest publishing houses, "Listen, you arrogant asshats. We are the largest retailer of your products in the damn world. We are going to make an electronic book and make it marketable. You can either get on board with that or find someone else to sell your books."

Publishers still resisted. This is why there's so much stupid about the place. For example, an eBook of David Eddings's The Belgariad is available on Amazon for the Kindle. Unfortunately, someone thought it would be cute to only epublish the last two books in the series, not the first three. Then, when the series fails on the kindle, Del Ray can stand there and point and claim, "See! We told you eBooks wouldn't sell! That's one of our hottest books by an established author!"

That's sort of like refusing to allow an oil company to drill in shallow water or on land, and then blaming them when they're forced to drill in 5,000 feet of deep water and they have an industrial accident that causes an oil spill. As I said, there's a lot of stupid around.

Here's the main problem with self-publication: there aren't enough checks and filters. Traditional publishers are about half right. As I mentioned last week, getting into the King's Chamber of traditional publishing means that you're one of the best.

To self-publish, all you need is a few hundred bucks and enough discipline to finish a manuscript.

To successfully self-publish takes a bit more work. Here's how to do it right:

First, master your craft. Practice writing constantly. Write fiction and read fiction. Participate in writing groups and accept critiques gracefully, even when you don't agree with them. (The only acceptable response to a critique is "Thank you.") Learn how to use the blasted comma. Eliminate all forms of text-speak from your writing; no "LOL" or "ROFLMAO" or "C U L8R QT!"

Second, proofread constantly. Force yourself to read every word and not to skip anything. This won't be easy, but you'll catch letter drops like "an" in place of "and" and some of the more embarrassing mistakes, like accidentally typing "know" instead of "no" (which I have done on this very blog at least twice) or vice versa because your inner monologue was moving faster than your fingers.

Third, get someone else to proofread your work. Get friends to read it. Have your critique group read it with an eye towards proofreading rather than critiquing. Failing all else, seek out a college campus and post a sign on a bulletin board in the commons:

"Proofreader needed to read novel. Will pay $50 for read and $1 for each confirmed typo, grammatical, or punctuation error you find. Must have applicable knowledge of English rules and good spelling/grammar skills. Serious inquiries only."

You may be broke, but you'll have damn few spelling mistakes in your book.

That takes care of the front end. Your book is ready to go to the publisher and get printed. Next we'll talk about who to send it to and why, and how to make money from it.

Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!



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