Is there a bit of wishful thinking behind Simon Owens’s article from Mediashift on how self-publishing has been great for freelance designers and editors? I read so much—even real books with covers and an actual publisher—that clearly escaped a firm editorial hand and would have benefited from one. Self-publishing, he says, has created “a rising need for the kind of editors who offered the feedback that could be found at traditional publishing houses.” Recently, I bit the bullet and sent the manuscript of one of my novels to a freelance editor who specializes in mysteries and thrillers—and is an award-winning mystery author in her own right. It was one of the best writing decisions I’ve made. A terrific experience.
Perhaps Owens hopes his words will encourage more editors to enter the author support services field. The numbers are certainly there: An estimated 3,500 new books are published every day in the United States, not including ebooks. This estimate is based on the number of new ISBN numbers, which many ebook authors don’t bother to obtain. The first response to this need was a deluge of unqualified or barely qualified editors and designers, overpriced services of marginal value, and discouragement and frustration among authors. If an editor is not well qualified (including familiarity with genre considerations) or if the author is unwilling to make changes, an expensive and frustrating experience is in store.
If the numbers are there, the dollars may not be. The majority of self-published authors make less than $5,000 a year on their writing. Even established writers (i.e., members of the Authors Guild) are earning 24% less from their writing now versus five years ago, says a new survey.
The acute need for author support services and the highly variable quality of what was out there led to development of invaluable websites like Reedsy and Writer Beware. These sites are true author advocates—pointing out bad actors, scams, and other traps laid for those hopeful souls who say, “I just want to write. I don’t care about all this businessy stuff.”
Owens’s sources say competition among books actually requires “more emphasis on producing a professional product, both in design and editorial standards” and, I’d add, faith that the audience knows the difference, for which evidence is scant. And, of course, if an author isn’t looking to self-publish, a solidly edited product is essential for attracting agents and traditional publishers.
Two reputable-sounding sources for editorial assistance cited by Owens are Reedsy and New York Book Editors, whose freelancers generally are former employees of traditional New York publishing houses. Ideally, says freelance editor Rebecca Heyman, “There should be no gap in quality between independently-published work and traditionally-published work.”
Gulf Coast Books, Fort Myers, Florida (photo: facebook)
A great idea recently came out of Florida—and, no, I am not talking about aspiring Republican presidential candidates. According to a Publisher’s Weekly story by Judith Rosen, the first bookstore dedicated to self-published authors opened in Fort Myers earlier this month. The Gulf Coast Book Store was launched by two self-published authors: Patti Brassard Jefferson, who writes and illustrates children’s books and history author Timothy Jacobs.
The store addresses one of the biggest difficulties facing self-published authors—the near-impossibility of getting their books into stores. In traditional book stores, self-published authors—who conservatively publish some 450,000 books per year—are essentially invisible. Even books published by small presses may have difficulty appearing on store shelves if the publisher doesn’t invest in relationships with book distributors. Distributors’ sales teams are the people who promote a new author’s book to book store buyers. (A useful discussion of the difference between book wholesalers and distributors is here, a distinction many publishing services gloss over.)
At Gulf Coast, which is located in Fort Myers’s Butterfly Estates, self-published authors’ works are not vetted, but writers must be local. They can rent shelf space for three months for $60, plus a $15 set-up fee. In return, they receive 100% of every sale. (Bookstores willing to take a local author’s books typically do so on consignment, and the author may receive only about half of each sale.) Gulf Coast can offer these full returns because it doesn’t need staff. Butterfly Estates—which includes shops, a café, and butterfly conservatory—handles sales and credit-card processing.
In April, the store offered books by 36 local authors, plans to add 16 more in May, and currently has no spaces available. Each writer can display up to 10 books, and the 10 may be all the same title or multiple titles. Authors can display promotional materials—bookmarks, brochures, and the like—and are featured on the store’s website.
Gulf Coast’s space is available for book signings, too. For Jefferson and Jacobs, “the store is about building community and helping other authors,” writes PW contributor Rosen. Though Gulf Coast provides a tiny solution for now, if it caught on elsewhere, indie authors would rejoice.
Murder, She Read, is a research report from Nielsen Book Research (a copy will set you back $1,500), on the book-buying preferences and habits of some 6000 nationally representative U.S. mystery/crime readers. The researchers defined “mystery/crime” as
a genre of fiction typically focused on the investigation of a crime. Mystery fiction is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction—in other words, a novel or short story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) investigates and solves a crime mystery.
This is a more restrictive definition than most, but a lot of books fit it. Highlights of the study results:
(photo: raider of gin, creative commons license)
Most “mystery” readers (70%) are female
The biggest age group of mystery readers (28%) comprises people 65 and older, with almost half of mystery readers 55 and older and
Many mystery readers are not actually buying their books; they’re getting them free.
The gender and age concentrations revealed come as no surprise. Month after month, I see lists of the mysteries agents and publishers are signing. Their decisions are creating and reinforcing this important audience, and its dominance is an effect of the choices they make.
I certainly don’t want to suggest there shouldn’t be books geared to the older female demographic, but mysteries that involve clever kitties, cutesy shops, knitting patterns, and recipes not only succeed in appealing to one specific group but also fail to develop new communities of interest.
Authors can—and do—write novels that appeal to both men and women. And many women readers devour books by Michael Connelly, Tana French, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman just as much as men do. However, a focus on novels with marketing appeal to only one segment of the population (and a low- or non-paying one at that) may prove counterproductive in the long run. I hope authors and publishers read the Nielsen findings as a call to reach out to tomorrow’s audiences—readers who will be as loyal and enthusiastic as the older woman audience is today.
Curtis Newbold, “The Visual Communication Guy,” runs a website about topics in good design. He says “it’s as important for (people) to be literate in visual communication these days as it is to know the fundamentals of grammar.”
He’s created a nifty infographic, “18 Rules for Using Text” if you’re intrigued by graphic design, web design, and just generally making the stuff you print out look better. The graphic is also available from his store in poster form, in case you have a bare patch on your office wall.
I look at a lot of websites and can attest to the fact that these rules are violated often. And, while they aren’t rules in the sense of “never do this,” they are certainly rules-of-thumb. Red or yellow type on a black background? No, please. Going crazy with fonts? Amazing how many people still do this. A list like this is a good reminder of these most common mistakes–which are “mistakes” because they discourage readership. Something none of us want to do.
Something else to worry about on the rocky road to publication: The Goodreads analysts have crunched the site’s numbers to explore the reading habits of their male versus female members. You can see the results in this nifty Infographic. My home page includes a button indicating I’m a member of Sisters in Crime, started by women crime and suspense writers who thought 20 years ago (and still do) that women crime writers get the short end of the stick in book reviews and other ways. The text of the Goodreads post says that’s still true for book reviews generally.
Key messages from the Infographic: women are twice as likely as men to read a recent book, and men are twice as likely to write (is that a typo?) a 500+-page book. In the first year after a book is published, a male writer’s audience will split 50-50 along gender lines, whereas a woman writer’s audience will be 80 percent female.
This new finding tracks with a 2005 study that found four out of five men (academics, critics, and writers) said the last novel they’d read had a man as author, whereas women in the study were equally likely to have most recently read a novel written by a man or a woman. Whatever they read in 2014, according to Goodreads, men and women both rated the books by women a bit higher.
A 2012 Wall Street Journal article quoted a Penguin editor as saying: “For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, ‘not for me.’ When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that—the cover, the copy and, yes, the author’s name.” Which is why we had J.K., not Joanne Rowling. And why women still write under men’s—or at least ambiguous—names. [For a survey of this and other types of literary masquerade, try Carmela Ciuraru’s Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.]
Finally, Goodreads looked at the 50 books published in 2014 that men most often read, and found that only five were by women. Three of these fall into the fantasy-science-fiction-dystopia world of teen lit, one is young adult, and the last—The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a feel-good tale about a bookstore owner for whom everything looks grim, but then “magically” becomes more than OK (judging by the blurb). Go ahead, call me a snob, but I laughed out loud when I read the tagline for one of the fantasy books: “Erchomai, Sebastian had said. I am coming.”
Similarly, of the 50 books published in 2014 most often read by women, only five were by men (that is, if you count J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith persona). The books by men that women mostly read were young adult fantasy, adventure fantasy, Galbraith’s The Silkworm, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, and a book I read and liked, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
If you’re wondering, out of the 41 books I’ve read so far this year, 29 (71 percent) are by men—partly reflecting my genre reading choices (mystery, thriller). So, what about your reading, and do you (know you) care whether the author is a man or woman?
(artwork: Christopher Dombres, Creative Commons license)
Copyright is a battlefield for creative types—authors, bloggers, musicians, and artists. As both a producer and a user of digitized content, I want the rights to my creative output (such as it is!) protected and strive to respect the rights of others. At the same time, I want to enrich my content with good graphics, audio and video content, and the resources of other works.
A recent Louis Menand article in The New Yorker crosses into this fraught territory, starting with a little history. Legal backing for copyright began with Britain’s 1710 Statute of Anne, and, in the United States with Article I of the Constitution, giving Congress power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” In 1790, the law set that time limit at 14 years, renewable for another 14. By 1998, as a result of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the time limit was extended to the author’s life plus 70 years—which some regard as a lengthy prison sentence for creative works.
Menand points out how different our attitudes about copyright are in the print versus the online worlds. “If , a year from now, someone else, without my permission, reprints my article . . . I can complain that my right to make copies is being violated.” Most people, Menand asserts, would agree with that. But if a Web site (like this one) posts an article referencing Menand’s piece and hyperlinks to it on The New Yorker website (as this one does), that seems normal in today’s world. Even a service. Courts have questioned the propriety of this, and it remains a grey area.
Meanwhile, billions of files are being downloaded—perhaps 40 billion a year—and an estimated 94% of these downloads are illegal and unmonetized, to the tune of $552 billion so far this year, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Tru Optik (“Game of Thrones” has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most illegally downloaded TV series).
Despite the uncertainties, various bibliographic initiatives worldwide are attempting to digitize the content of written works. Most visible in this country is Google’s effort to scan all known existing 129,864,880 books by 2020, an effort that has been plagued by numerous lawsuits. Google settled with publishers in 2012, and authors plan to appeal a negative ruling a year ago that deemed Google’s efforts “fair use,” since only “snippets” of text are provided for works under copyright protection, unless the copyright owner has granted permission for a more expansive view. However, the status of copyright protection is not always clear, as many potential rights-holders are unknown. (Google Books is a boon to genealogists, I can tell you.)
These disagreements arise in part because of a fundamental conflict in people’s understanding of the purpose of copyright. On one hand are those who think that, as Menand put it, “individual rights are intended to promote public goods.” These are the people, like the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who want to see works moved into the public domain for sharing, education, and entertainment. Historian Peter Baldwin characterizes them as “Silicon Valley.” On the other hand are those who believe the right to control one’s works “is not a political right. It’s a moral right.” These are people who want to maintain absolute control—Hollywood and the music industry.
The latter view comports more closely with European than Anglo-American views on the matter. My literary hero Charles Dickens conducted several popular speaking tours in the United States, in 1842 and thereafter, in which he read from his works. They added to his fame here, but his purpose was as much to fight for U.S. copyright protection for his and other foreign works, something that didn’t happen until the early 1890s.
The “moral rights” view is what gives the Broadway producers of Urinetown the ability to sue Akron’s Carousel Dinner Theatre for using “significant aspects” of the original Broadway production—direction, choreography, and design—beyond the script and songs for which the Ohio theater had a license. At the other end of the control spectrum, Menand says Samuel Beckett and his estate were well known for requiring theater companies wanting the rights to produce his plays to comply literally with Beckett’s stage directions. (Perhaps this is why all productions of Waiting for Godot look so bleakly similar—in form as well as content.)
On the Web, the problems and opportunities for misuse of others’ content are multiplied. It’s temptingly easy to obtain words, pictures, film, and music files to repost. The perils of doing so are described here and here. While one might think the sea of website postings offers virtual invisibility for a tiny misuse or sloppy repost, technology works against the user, through imbedded code that might as well put a flashing red light on an unauthorized use and search engines that patrol the web looking for them.
When I started my blog two years ago, I was clumsy in attempts to find good pictures for my posts and used a couple that were found and taken down and replaced with flashing warnings. Embarrassing, to say the least. Now, I check the “labeled for reuse” status in Google Images, have a slight preference for Creative Commons licensed pictures, or use one of my own. I also like the free and low-cost options at Imgembed, and while I can use those purchased photos on my website, I haven’t yet solved the problem of using them in the related social media promotion.
Yesterday, I posted a lighthearted exchange about Eminem and M&Ms, and found a trove of photos linking the two. Most appealing—and found with a second search under “labeled for reuse”—was a graphic portrait of the star created out of the candy. Perfect! I looked at the source website, which is an aggregator of cartoons and images that has lots of rights information for submitters but no information for reusers. I posted the photo, then, working on this article, pulled it down and sent the aggregator a permission request, returned to me as undeliverable. I know somebody “created” that artwork and should have credit. Absolutely not worth it to use it.
In one of my novels, I want to refer to lines from “Burnt Norton,” the wonderful T. S. Eliot poem. I’ve heard his estate is prickly about granting usage rights, even though a “Burnt Norton” Google search generates some 2.87 million results. I’ll work around it. There’s only so much time to write, and none at all to sit in endless conferences with intellectual property lawyers.
Helping writers become published seems like as big a big business as writing itself. And writing, we know, is huge. People will help writers write, help them self-publish, and help with the endless baffling tasks—finding an agent, managing a self-publishing path, and promoting their product. As a book nears completion, a writer’s anxiety grows, and the whole process of sending that precious baby out into the marketing void fills authors with not unreasonable qualms.
That some of these purveyors are unscrupulous goes with the territory. (See links below.) That some of them serve ideas that are cold potatoes, ditto. But every once in a while, amid the cacophony of advice available to writers, comes a message that may not be exactly new but really resonates.
Jane Friedman is a consistently reliable, forward-thinking writing-and-publishing commentator and pulls in mostly helpful guest posters on her blog. Recently she invited Laurie Scheer, “a seasoned development exec and writing mentor,” to talk about a topic most authors (me included!) would rather not examine: What if the fundamental idea for your book is, well, mediocre?
Scheer started off with three questions, then presented what I found the most helpful part of her post: an example.
The Three Questions
Every writer, she says, needs to have persuasive answers to these three questions on the tip of the tongue—for dealing with potential editors, agents, publishers, and the (eventual) marketing team and even the public. Why make this? Why make it now? and Who cares?
The answer to “why make this,” needs to describe what about a novel (or screenplay, for that matter) makes it unique, compelling, and authentic. For people who write in genre fiction—mystery, romance, science fiction, horror, and their permutations—this can be especially hard. A police procedural with a flawed detective? Divorced and drinks too much, perhaps? In truth, most plots have been done and done again—because they work—but something about them needs to be unique, compelling, and authentic. This is a flaw with many memoirs. Nothing new or insightful. That’s a hard message for writers delving into their own personal—and very likely painful—history.
Why make this now? Recognizing trends in the marketplace and when they’ve peaked suggests something about timing. In crime novels, the trend has been for ever-more inventive and grisly threats. This has upping the violence ante to the point of unbelievability, in my opinion. In one I read last year, a victim would awake standing up, with the lower half of his body encased in a block of ice. Nowhere did the text mention the amount of time it would take to freeze that much water, the noise of the generators producing sufficient cooling, how the equipment to do it was transported from one locale to another, in other words, a big “huh?”
And, the third question, who really cares? Who will pay good money to read this book? Herein is the flaw in the new Kindle Scout program—“reader-powered publishing for new, never-before-published books.” Potential readers help decide which books the program publishes and receive the book free if it’s selected. In other words, some of the people most interested in the book don’t have to pay to get it. (Thanks to Build Book Buzz’s marketing maven Sandra Beckwith for pointing this out.)
Here’s the Pitch
Scheer gives this example of the kind of ideas writers often pitch in answer to the above questions:
A story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child.
Scheer says, “I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story. And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is the story.” A story that has been done many, many times. Some new element needs to be interjected to create new and unique conflicts (why now?). That new element might be one that would capture attention of some larger audience (who cares?). Perhaps the baby’s father should be a divorced police detective who drinks too much. Just kidding. Half.
So I’m going back to reexamine my pitch letters and make sure I’m not cutting short my three-sentence description of what my books are about before I get to “why now” and “who cares”!
Preditors and Editors – this widely recommended website rates agents, editors, publishers, and many other businesses for writers. Though encyclopedic, it could use a makeover. Especially helpful would be dates added to its one-line reviews.
Writer Beware! – highly recommend website and blog maintained by Victoria Strauss for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, but applicable to all writers. Especially helpful information on contracts, I’ve noticed. (Her take on Kindle Scout is here.)
Laurie Scheer’s new book—The Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit (Amazon says Tookit) for Mastering your Genre. I ordered this book, and will review it here.
So much has been written about the various pieces of the book publishing dilemma lately it was delightful to be pointed to this article from The Economist that assembles the whole juicy pie. If this is all you read about this topic, you’ll understand more than most people.
The title of the essay—“From Papyrus to Pixels”—suggests the editors stance. The conveyance of written information has evolved from the earliest days of this form of communication and continues to do so. Still, “the digital transition may well change the way books are written, sold and read more than any (other) development in their history, and that will not be to everyone’s advantage,” the authors say.
Industry players caught in the last paradigm, notably independent booksellers, have been seen the changes reduce their financial viability, as did the papyrus manufacturers of Ancient Egypt. Meanwhile the large publishing houses still mostly see increasing profit margins, despite Amazon’s fierce competition. About this massive e-tailer, The Economist quotes English novelist, Anthony Horowitz: “They really are evil bastards. I loathe them. I fear them. And I use them all the time because they’re wonderful.”
Moreover, despite all hand-wringing to the contrary, books themselves, as a technology “developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought,” continue to thrive.
Naturally, this being a story about the economics of the industry, with many nifty charts (be sure to view the projected timeline of the rise of ebooks internationally), it gives only passing attention to the plight of individual authors, caught between downward pressure on ebook prices and conventional publishers’ obsession with blockbusters. The Economist quotes one industry analyst who suggests that while consumers may have more books available to them, fewer people may be able to make a living as full-time writers or publishers.
In addition to lots of juicy databites and useful, even-handed perspective, the article gives you a chance to test Spritz—a new small-screen application that smoothly displays one word at a time, at the pace you set. It’s way faster than regular reading because your eyes stay in one place, not having to wander across and down the page. And, potentially, glancing off the page entirely and out the window or over to the refrigerator. Spritz’s “most immediate application is to allow longish text to be read on smallish screens,” The Economist says, “such as those of watches.” Just as you bonded so completely with your iPad.
Last week in London, the Literary Consultancy held its third Writing in a Digital Age conference. Participants heard the usual hand-wringing over the issues of digital rights management, the decline in bookstores, especially independents, and the attention-sucks of our various digital tools and devices. Panelists discussed the irony that the gadgets developed to expand reading are the very same ones that can reduce it, if what we use them for is interrupting our reading time to play a game, send an email, scan Facebook, tweet a half-formed thought, watch a YouTube cat video, and check the current weather in Paris. One speaker called them digital Trojan horses.
And while these de rigueur arguments are familiar, echoing past concerns that television would be the end of radio, and video would be the end of movies, one statement by panelist Steve Bohme, who manages the Books and Consumers survey for Nielsen, sent a chill from my toes to the roots of my hair: “When everyone you know has a Kindle, why would you buy them a book?” No more buying (and receiving) books as presents? Oh, no!
According to Digital Book World, “dystopian young adult novels with a female protagonist caught in a love triangle might be wearing thin with readers.” So, does this mean the end of series like The Hunger Games and Divergent? Just remember, the industry repeatedly turned down Anne Rice’s first vampire novel, claiming “vampires are dead.”
At least the publishing pundits on a recent DBW panel acknowledged “there’s no silver bullet” guaranteed to capture readers’ attention. Thus their dog-bites-man advice to writers to produce “compelling stories.”
One trend panelists did note is increased interest in true crime (is this “non-fiction dystopia”?), mysteries, and thrillers, perhaps because of the runaway popularity of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, reviewed here in 2013. They also debunked the publishing rule of thumb that readers aren’t interested in characters that don’t resemble themselves. I guess this explains Hannibal Lecter.
In addition, panelists predicted:
Continued low prices of ebooks and growth of ebook subscription services, which are low-risk ways for readers to try new authors
More erotica, romance, and literary fantasy (e.g., Game of Thrones)
More writers of color among mainstream literary authors
Classics and back-list titles (cheap for publishers to produce)