Breaking In (Part 5): My Plan

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little analysis of what I think it takes to get published.  I can’t stress enough, though, that everything I’ve written on the subject comes from the point of view of someone who has yet to be published.  But I’ve read a lot on the subject, including much from writers who already are published, though I realize you’ve got to take it all with a grain of salt.

I wanted to wrap this miniseries up by sharing my own personal plans for Breaking In.  There’s no guarantee my plan will work, or that I know what I’m talking about.  But this is roughly how I plan to pursue my goal of getting published.

The first part of my plan is what I’m not going to do.  Realistically, I don’t have the free time or the money to take part in many writer’s conferences, seminars or workshops.  There is a big, annual Fantasy and Science Fiction convention held in my city which I may attend next year, in 2011, but which I more than likely will not be attending this year – not with a new baby and with MBA career-planning in coming into full swing.  It’s not that I discount the value of being able to mingle with other writers or having the opportunity to attend panel discussions with published writers and editors or to chat with editors and start spreading your name or building your network.  I think those things are potentially very valuable, and I encourage other aspiring writers to attend those where possible.  But for me, it’s just not feasible.  I’m still knee deep in my MBA, I’ll soon have a new baby, and my day-job isn’t getting any easier.  With all of those factors, I can afford neither the time nor the money.  So, I’ll have to do this a different way.

So, I’m hopeful both that I was right about short story markets being one place acquiring editors for novel publishers look for new talent and that I’m good enough to break into the short story market.  You’ll note that I only wrote one article on breaking into short stories; I realize there’s a lot I probably don’t know.  But, my intent is to try to get a few short stories published over the next few years (and accelerate my rate of publication over time).  During this time, I’ll be working on the side on a novel project as well.  That novel project may not be the long-gestating project I occasionally blather about (a quick usage note: whenever you see me use the word “blather”, I”m almost always talking about the same novel project… it’s a quirk, I guess).  Realistically, though, even if I choose to start developing, writing, and shopping a different project first, I’ll always still be working on my original novel project on the side as well.  (I’ve read that successful writers have to be ruthless and able to kill their babies – no, not their human babies; their writing babies – but my particular baby has evolved so much over the course of its “life” that it can hardly be said to be the same juvenile thing I started with.  I suspect, though this is as yet unproven of course, that writers can also be successful if they’re willing to evolve and improve their babies rather than giving up on them.)

So, stage one of breaking in to the novel market involves breaking in to the short story market.  Keep in mind, again, that in both instances I mean the Fantasy & Science Fiction genre equivalent of those markets.  Personally I have very little interest in most mainstream fiction that doesn’t have some element of fantasy or sci-fi, with a few exceptions.  Still, I suspect the process is largely the same in mainstream markets.

To break into the Short Story market, therefore, I will be following a few guidelines as well.  First: I will write my best.  That’s a given, perhaps, but it’s imperative.  That means letting my stories rest and get away from them for a little while so I can review them with fresher eyes later.  That means hopefully getting critical feedback from a number of different readers.  The quantity and quality of that feedback are somewhat out of my control, and I’m reluctant to foist my work upon close friends not with the expectation that they enjoy it but that they will do a little work for me for free by giving me that feedback.  Here’s where writer’s groups come in handy – if participants are all engaged in this tit-for-tat process it feels less like getting free work out of someone and instead becomes like for like.  Therefore, at some point, most like after I’ve finished my MBA, I’ll put in a real effort to either locate and join an existing writer’s group or to start up one that works as an ongoing basis.

In the mean time, as soon as I’ve polished a story as much as I possibly can, I’ll begin submitting it to appropriate markets.  How I’ll choose markets will begin first by filtering for genre and tone.  More science-fictional stories will go to markets that publish more science fiction.  More fantastic stories will go to markets that publish more fantasy.  I’ll be starting near the top (based, admittedly, on my own criteria for what constitutes the top) and working my way down.  I’ll be taking into consideration the pay that a market offers as well as my own beliefs about the prestige of a given market.  (There are echoes of my Decision Modeling class here; I’ll have to develop a rigorous approach to how I evaluate “prestige”; I like the approach suggested in this post (and linked word doc) by Tobias Buckell in which he mentions he built a spreadsheet model to rank order which markets he’d submit to, first.)  Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about why you should start at the top (or more to the point, and more accurately, why I believe I should start at the top, and why I will be).

So, that’s my plan.  I’m going to try to get some short stories published.  I’m starting with the one I’ve been working on recently.  I have a few more I want to write and a few more that are waiting a new, revised treatment.  Once I start submitting – choosing higher-tiered markets first – I wait for the acceptance or rejection (and start working on the next story, of course).  If I get accepted, Congratulations-to-me, I’ve achieved stage one of my plan.  If not, then I move on to the next market.  At some point during this process, I join and actively participate in a writer’s group.  I repeat this process as often as necessary until I have a dozen or more short stories in pro markets to my name.  At that point, just maybe, I’ll be far enough in my career to start shopping a novel around.  So the goal then will be to finish a novel.

Hope you’ve enjoyed following me on this little journey.  Happy writing!

Back to Part 4: What’s in a Name?

Continue to Part 6 (the final installment): From the Top

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Breaking In (Part 4): What’s in a Name?

Over the past few days I’ve been sharing my observations on what it takes to break into the world of writing and get your work published.  I’ve been especially focused on writing novels, and I’m also more squarely focused on the fantasy and science fiction genre markets.  All of these observations are those of an outsider: someone who has yet to really be published.  Some would call me a wannabe, an appellation which is technically true as I do, indeed, want to be a writer.  More specifically, I want to be a professionally published writer, and I want to be able to make a living off of doing that.

But there’s a wide gap between where I am and where I want to be.  So, I’m trying to learn everything I can about the industry and gain some insight on how editors makes the decisions they make on who and what to publish.  So, let’s think about things from the editor’s point of view for a minute.  An editor’s job is a hard one.  There is no shortage of people like me: wannabes.  We love writing, have what we think are great ideas, and want desperately to do this professionally.  Most of us, quite frankly, are awful at it.  Some of us have latent talent, but not the skill and experience to make things work.  From the editor’s perspective, there is a potentially infinite source of manuscripts.  The editor has to tackle that infinity of manuscripts, wade through a sea of crap (remember, if we need to write a “million words of crap” before we’ll start producing anything of quality, if there were only a few thousand wannabe writers that would be billions of words worth of crap; the estimation of only a few thousand wannabe writers is probably, in my experience, unrealistically low), and find the work of true quality that can be polished until presentable and published.  It seems a daunting, even impossible task.  How does an editor do it?

Lesson 3: Editors don’t want to read crap.

The only answer I can see to the question above: an editor needs heuristics, rules-of-thumb, to help him or her quickly eliminate the vast majority of the crap.  If you’ve seen one crap manuscript, you’ve pretty much seen them all.  Many crappy stories and half-baked novels, at least from the editor’s perspective, share certain traits and qualities in common.  So, I believe editors start from the lowest-common-denominator and work their way up, applying new filtering heuristics to each set of manuscripts that passed the last test.  They may start with simple things: manuscripts that don’t follow their manuscript format guidelines are summarily discarded without further ado.  Then they’ll get into the details: does the opening paragraph grab the editor’s attention?  No?  Discard it without reading further.  Does the story provide some new or interesting perspective on the genre?  No?  Discard it.  Each editor will have his or her own tastes and specifics on what she is looking for. 

Mostly, at least, that’s what I surmise about how things work in the short story market.  It is not a real leap of logic to suggest that things are similar in the novel market.  An acquiring editor at a novel publisher may give you more than a single paragraph to catch his interest, but only just so.  The idea, I imagine, is the same.

One of those filtering heuristics, based on some things I’ve read, may be one which the wannabe writer would least expect: the prominence of the wannabe’s name in the industry.  In other words, has the editor heard of you?  One answer to that question can be addressed in part in my previous “Breaking In” post on developing a “Writing Community”.  If there are a lot of editors in your “network” of people you know and interact with, chances are better that an editor you want to do business with will have heard of you.

In the novel-publishing market, there is one other potential source of “name recognition”: the short story market.  At least, this seems to be true in the speculative fiction world.  If you get a half-dozen short stories published in the magazines or short-story compilations that the acquisition editors are reading regularly, they’ll start to notice your name cropping up.  When your novel manuscript ends up on one of their desks, the editor is more apt to think to herself: “now where have I seen this name before?”  If your story was one he or she liked, more the better for your chances of holding that editor’s eyes long enough to give your manuscript a fair read.

Ideally, of course, you would be able to use both of these tools in tandem: growing your network to include editors and gaining some name recognition in the short story markets.  However, one or the other of these may be just entirely infeasible to one writer or another.  The drawbacks of the networking were mentioned last time.  For short story writing,  however, the drawbacks are different.  A writer who is great at long-form writing (such as novels) might be terrible at short stories.  And the reverse can also be true: a great short story writer may be a sub-par novelist.

Ultimately, the lesson for wannabe writers comes back to this simple rule: to be successful at writing as a career, you need to be exceptional at the craft of writing.  That one factor, more than any other, will do the most to improve your chances of launching  a career.  However, it’s really not enough.  Success also takes marketing savvy, developing a rapport and name-recognition in the industry.  You’ll need to find some way to get past an editor’s crap-meter and get your beautifully polished prose in front of his or her eyes.

The sad part about the crap-filtering heuristics is that, inevitably, they are imperfect.  The vast majority of what will be rejected by these filters will, certainly, be crap.  But they will also filter out gems that, on first pass, look like crap.  By the same token, there will be some crap that manages to pass through all these filters without setting off alarm bells.  The bad news for writers-to-be: there really isn’t any better or more reliable system imminently available to editors that will allow your gems to rise to the top (unpolished or otherwise).  For us, it stands only to learn the ropes of the business and do our best to improve our craft.

On Friday I’ll tie these “lessons” together and summarize my plan for developing my writing career.

Happy writing.

Back to  Part 3: Writing Community

Continue to Part 5: My Plan

Breaking In (Part 1): Periodicals & Short Stories

I call my blog “The Undiscovered Author” because I haven’t been published, so take these thoughts for what they’re worth.  It’s been a lifelong goal to get published, and though I’m usually told that my writing is good (how good depends on who’s talking, and there’s a lot of latitude there) I’ve yet to break in.  Part of that has to do with how infrequently I’ve actually made specific efforts to get published.  As my dad likes to say: you can’t win if you don’t play (but then, my dad is talking about the Lottery and, statistically speaking, you can’t win that even if you do play).  That said, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on what it takes to get published.  This is basically where I stand now, and what I perceive to be my challenges.  It is the first in a miniseries about how to “Break In” to publishing.

First, let’s be straight about what I mean by “getting published”.  There are basically two parts to the publishing world: periodicals and books.  Periodicals include everything from newspapers to magazines.  For someone like me, who writes speculative fiction (sci fi and fantasy, especially fantasy in my case) “periodicals” means short story mags.  These magazines, likewise, fall into two categories: print mags like Asimov’s , The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Analog and online zines such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld or Jim Baen’s.  There are challenges inherent in both of these formats.  The online magazines have much faster response times (measured in weeks) and are rumored to be much more receptive to new authors (a rumor I can neither confirm nor deny, at this point).  But they mostly have very tight length restrictions (SH has an outside limit of 9,000 words with a preference for stories under 5,000 while Clarkesworld has a hard limit of 8,000 words), and their pay tends to be slightly less than that of the print magazines.  The print magazines, meanwhile, have response times measured in months which can tie up a story that is ultimately likely to be rejected for a long time before it can be shopped at another venue (if you obey the rule prohibiting simultaneous submissions, as I intend to).

The challenge for me, personally, is that my short stories tend to hit a length of between 6,000 words and 12,000 words.  I’ve written some longer and few shorter.  At that rate, only the shortest of my stories are viable for publication at the online zines.  My current story runs up to just under 10,000 words, which puts the story in the range the SFWA defines as a Novelette.  Basically, that puts this particular work just outside the range of most online zines (though potentially not Baen’s).  However, there are some pending edits that I will need to make to this story.  I’ve got a few thoughts on what I need to do to to improve it, but I’m not quite ready to start that work.  I’m not sure how that will affect the length.

I don’t intend to disclose, at this point, who I will decide to submit to first (I’ll report when I’ve been rejected by a venue, but not which venue did the rejecting).  If this particularly story does get accepted somewhere, however, I’ll announce that here as well as the magazine that will be publishing my work and any other details I can provide.  That’s if and when, mind you.

I’ll be honest in saying I don’t have much of a plan, at this point, for getting this story published beyond (a) polishing the story as bright as I can make it before sending it off and (b) submitting it, waiting for acceptance or rejection and then submitting at another market if rejected.  Though, I am approaching this a little more seriously than that.  I’m trying to make sure I’m well-read in the venues in which I intend to submit, to make sure that I feel my story actually fits within the corpus of their publication.  And I’ll be thoroughly familiarizing myself with the individual submission guidelines of each market before I submit anything there.  These are common suggestions from the professional markets.  As a new writer, however, there are few other options I am aware of on what to do, either before or after submitting, to increase my chances of publication.

Ultimately, writing a really good story is all I really can do to improve my chances of getting my story accepted.  But even so, those chances are still slim.  The submission guidelines of one market I was looking at pointed out that they receive 400 – 500 submissions per month and yet only purchase 4 or 5.  In other words, you have about a 1 in 100 chance of being on the lucky side of that coin-toss.  You’ve got to have more than just a good story if you want to beat those odds.  As a new writer, the deck is already stacked against you.  To shuffle it in your favor… you’ll have to write a great story.  I mean, transcendent; a story so good its existence brings the very angels out of the heavens to sing its praises.  Since that’s not going to happen, you can try to play the odds, but if you write science fiction and fantasy, like me, there aren’t a hundred different markets to send to.  Instead, you send the story off, one-by-one, to those you can then start over by writing another really good story and sending it off, too.  Write enough of these and send them off and eventually the odds may fall in your favor.  When they do, you’ll have a new tool in your arsenal: you’ll have published author cred.  Once you have that cred, as I understand it, the odds shift in your favor just the tiniest bit.  Hey, it may not be much of an advantage, but it’s still an advantage.

All that aside, my real goal, it must be said, is not to break into writing short fiction for periodicals, but to write novels.  On Monday, I’ll start sharing some of my thoughts on what I’ve learned about what it takes to break into the novel-writing world, from the point-of-view of someone who has yet even to complete writing his first novel.

Happy writing.

Continue to Part 2: Writing Novels

A Novel Venture (A Publishing Successor Model)

On Saturday, I alluded to the possibility of posts on some ideas I have for possible “successor” models to replace the existing “traditional publisher” model that predominates publishing today.  Market forces are whittling away at that dominance, and publishers are struggling to find new ways to survive.  Eventually, they will more than likely have to change to remain viable.

Today, I present the first (and possibly only, as so far this is the only idea I’ve come up with for an alternative) Publishing Successor Model.  The format is this: I will begin by describing the Model, giving it a name and detailing the basic function.  Then, I will offer an argument for why it will succeed.  Finally, I will conclude with an argument for why it will fail.  (If there are any future Publishing Successor Model articles, they’ll follow the same format.)

What it is:  The Novel Venture Capital Model

How it Works:  The model is based loosely on the way many small businesses in America today get funding, and how they are primed for success.  The idea is that the mechanisms by which novels are screened and edited (and financed) are decoupled from the printing and publishing process.  Instead of sending off query letters to publishers, novelists in the future will prepare short business plans (including a short summary of the novel, sample chapters, reviews of the finished work when available, an explanation for why the novel will succeed, target audience analysis, that sort of thing) for review by “Novel Venture Capitalists”. 

NVCs, as we’ll call them, are a decentralized, loose network of angel investors and avid readers of some means who organize together to fund “Novel Ventures” for publication and distribution in exchange for an equity share in the business venture (potentially anywhere between 20 and 60 percent stake).  Working with an NVC group gives an author access to that group of NVC’s network of distributed, experienced, and vetted freelance editors, artists, designers, proofreaders, and so on, as well as to established relationships between NVCs and the large, old-school printing, distribution, and marketing firms (today’s traditional publishers will become these, and will make their profit on a per-book-sold fee).  An NVC group may work with a number of different printing and distribution firms, depending on the specific distribution channel (for e-Books, Hardcovers, etc.). 

Because the primary role of the NVCs will be to screen and vet novels and novelists for publication, finance the venture, connect the novelists to skilled and experienced professionals who will manage the process, and then get out of the way and let the system work, the NVCs will develop a talent for, well, recognizing talent.  Everyone else gets to do the part they’re good at, and nobody has to support the overhead of trying to cram all that talent together under one roof (most of these jobs can be done from freelancers’ homes).

Why it Will Succeed:  Today’s new mid-lister authors will be tomorrow’s old guard, blockbuster novelists, replacing the current group as they pass away or retire.  And these mid-listers/future-blockbusters will be increasingly disloyal and disillusioned with current traditional publishers even as their own names increase in brand recognition with the reading public.  As the traditional publishers try to demand more and more rights from writers and offer ever-diminishing royalty rates in a bid for their own survival, these established and experience authors will revolt, seeking new opportunities in the open marketplace.  They’ll seek ways to maintain all of their rights, bundled together and closely held, and only sell out shares of the potential profits: a business model that ties easily with existing network of angel investors. 

Bereft of their big-name, tent-pole authors, the current business model of traditional publishers will suddenly implode as the reading public abandons them in droves.  They are forced to divest unproductive assets and imprints in order to lean up and compete with the smaller printers that are lapping up the new business.  The old publishers still have the means to do large-scale print runs the most economically possible.  Their divested imprints have the marketing and distribution relationships needed to manage the book, the publication process, and ultimately success. 

Writers get to keep the rights to their own work and keep on writing (even if they sometimes have to write business plans).  NVCs reap huge hordes of cash when Hollywood moguls purchase licensing options for film adaptations.

Why it Will Fail:  Typically, novelists are terrible at writing business plans, and have a general lack of business acumen.  Real-world Venture Capitalists demand huge returns on their investments, on the order of 30% or more over a couple of years (for comparison, the stock market historically returns something like 8% in the long term).  It’s uncertain whether the chance to fund (and get a share of) the next J. K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers will be worth the risk of funding (and getting no return from) the next John. Q. Nobody (who is a more populous animal than the J. K. Rowlings) to business-savvy VCs.  Plus, the idea is predicated on groups of VCs who love books and reading simultaneously coming up with this same idea and spontaneously forming networks.  Heavy industry consolidation in publishing means the remaining players have a lot of power to manipulate the market for their own mutual benefit and to prevent their own demise.  It will take some heavy defection from some really major tent-pole authors (we’re talking tomorrow’s Stephen Kings et al.) before all the old publishers will be in any serious trouble.

What do you think?  How do you think the market and industry will evolve to solve today’s market and industry inefficiencies and problems?  Let me know in the comments.

New Media & the Future of Publishing

So, I had a very interesting discussion with a writer named Cliff Burns a few days ago in response to my post about the challenge the future holds for new writers like myself.  And I’ve been thinking (and reading) a lot since then about the state of the publishing industry today, and what the future holds.

Thanks in large measure to the AmazonFail/Macmillan Kerfuffle, a lot of writersmany of them published (especially those published by Macmillan and its imprints) have written a lot about the state of the publishing industry right now.  Frankly, it’s not pretty, but there are a few common themes.  I’m going to try to walk through some of the insights I’ve gained by following these blogs in recent weeks.

Lesson 1: The World has Changed

There’s not a lot of consensus on this issue, but there’s a certain economic reality to it.  The Information Age Revolution happened without asking authors (and especially without asking aspiring authors) their opinion.  Amazon.com launched in 1994 when the internet was still in its infancy.  But in time it has grown to become a major player in the bookselling world.  Meanwhile, blogging began to grow in popularity between 1997 and 2000 (the word “blog” was coined in 1999).  Shortly on the heels of blogging came the new wave of Social Media: Friendster launched in 2002, MySpace in 2003, Facebook launched initially in 2004, and expanded to include everyone in 2006.  (I finally got on Facebook in 2008.)  And then, there were e-Books and POD. 

The first dedicated e-Readers were launched in 1998 (the SoftBook and Rocket eBook), but the market wouldn’t start to be noticed by the publishing world until the advent of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007 (and to a lesser degree, Sony’s Reader in 2006).  Amazon quickly followed up with an improved version of the Kindle in 2009.  As the e-Book market began to grow, the old-media publishers had to take notice.  A burgeoning monopoly was in the birthing stages: today more than half of all e-Books are sold through Amazon.  As for POD printing: Amazon offers a service for this, as I understand it, and I mentioned others in my prior post on this subject (like Lulu.com and Virtual Bookworm). 

What the advent of e-Books and POD did for struggling writers was open up a tantalizing golden road of self-publication.  Vanity press is nothing new: they’ve been in existence since as long as writers have wanted to break into print.  But you could never achieve a wide distribution with an old-fashioned Vanity press.  You’d be left with an expensive bill, and a lot of books you couldn’t possibly sell to make up the difference.  Self-publishing via e-Books and POD offered a huge advantage over old-school vanity press.  Both have relatively low set-up costs compared to the old vanities.  E-Books allow you to reach a potentially “limitless” online audience.  POD allows you to defray the printing costs one-book-at-a-time by only printing and delivering books to readers as they order them.  Both were only made possible thanks to widespread adoption of the internet.  The old writer’s adage on the subject is that “Money flows to the writer”, meaning that in a legitimate, traditional publishing enterprise, the publisher buys rights from the writer: they pay the writer for the right to publish their work.  If a company asks the writer to pay the company to print the books, that’s a classic warning sign of a scam.  But these changing paradigms mean that, as attracting the attention of a traditional publisher is increasingly difficult, these paid “services” to writers become a viable option for writers with an entrepreneurial spirit and a certain amount of confidence in the salability of their work.

The market was again shaken (not stirred) in the last few weeks, with the advent of the great messiah of e-Books and the announcement of Apple’s iPad device (I say that with tongue-in-cheek; I have neither ill-will nor particular best wishes for the success of Apple’s new venture; I know only that I cannot afford one).  The details aren’t clear, but the story seems to go something like this:  Apple wanted a piece of Amazon’s action (they’d been steadily building an online media distribution monopoly of their own, in the form of iTunes).  They needed something they could market as an e-Reader, but better.  Ergo, the iPad.  And they needed publishers to get on board with their platform.  But publishers were already wary of Amazon’s growing monopoly power, and the damage Amazon’s $9.99-all-the-time price point was putting on traditional publishing models.  There was a point of pain, there, and Apple exploited it: offering publishers a deal that allowed them a flexible pricing model (a deal Apple never offered to music producers on iTunes, but only came about after what were, by all accounts, intensive negotiations).

On the face of it, there’s one flaw in Apple’s plan: if publishers can sell books for more than $9.99, why would they buy on Apple when Amazon sells them for less (vice versa, though, theoretically Apple would have some for less than $9.99, but let’s put that aside for a moment).  The flip side: the iPad’s virtually inevitable success (I’m not making any actual judgments here about the iPad’s potential for success, but looking at this from an market/industry perspective) gives publishers a new lever to pull: they don’t need Amazon anymore, to sell to the e-Reader market; Apple’s iBook store has a decent chance of superseding Amazon.  With that potential leverage, Macmillan felt the time was right to broker a new deal with Amazon to get a more favorable arrangement.  (Rest assured, the other major publishers are right behind Macmillan; some are probably kicking themselves for letting Macmillan do it first, others are content to let someone else be the guinea pig.)

What all that boils down to is this: all of these factors are part of a perfect storm of changing winds in the way books will be bought-and-sold in the future.

Lesson 2: The Old Publishing Model is Broken

For someone like me, who’s lifelong dream is to break into the traditional publishing world, this is a hard concept to realize.  But it’s not traditional publishing, per se, that is broken: it is their business model.  It’s antiquated, and maladapted for success in the changing, increasingly digital world.  Much has been said on the various blogs out there about the hordes of costs involved in producing a book that are fixed, regardless of the number of books that are sold.  These costs are relevant even if the publishers sold only electronic versions of their books, and nary a single hardcover.  But there is a persistent image among consumers that most of the costs of a physical book are tied up in the physical printing and binding process, and the rest is just gravy for the writer.  To these consumers, e-Books don’t incur the expense of printing, and their is no physical product to own and to hold.  For these reasons, consumers value an e-Book much less than they value a physical book.  This image is a false one, but it hints at something that’s fundamentally wrong with the business model of traditional publishing: there are a lot of fixed costs tied up in the business that have nothing to do with bringing good books to readers.  Most publishing firms are housed in New York, a land of notoriously high real-estate costs.  They have a byzantine and expensive-to-maintain distribution system that doesn’t add value to readers (allowing “remainders”, or unsold books, to be returned to the publisher, and other strange practices).  These practices are predicated on the idea that the publishers produce only blockbuster novels, allowing them to spread some of these high fixed costs over as large a print-run as possible.  But they’re not set-up to succeed in the new, fractured-media-landscape that has evolved.  What’s increasingly challenging this model is that the base of regular readers is shrinking (even as the base of irregular readers – those who will pick up a blockbuster novel from time-to-time – is growing).  And deep discounting at the big bookstore chains and online at Amazon are hurting the value of their product in customer’s minds.  It’s created an unsustainable cycle.

Over the past twenty years the industry’s answer to this has been consolidation.  Consolidation means cutting down on the number of extra publishers, allowing them to cut out the duplicative costs associated with having so many of them (like duplicated New York real estate; duplicated marketing & finance departments, etc.)  But the industry has nearly consolidated as far as it can go without becoming a monopoly itself – there are now only 6 remaining traditional publishing houses.  So, using the consolidation model, there’s just only so many more costs the industry can squeeze out.  What’s need, for long-term survival, is radical change.

The problem is, book publishers don’t act anything like other consumer products manufacturers.  Nor do they act like other media producers.  They try to act a little like both, but fail to successfully tap either model.  If they shift toward a focus on e-Books, they would need to act more like a media company.  If they remain focused on physical books, they need a model more like successful and acclaimed CPGs companies (like Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, etc.)  Right now, they don’t know what they want to be, and until they do, their model is going to continue to fail.

Lesson 3:  The Signal-to-Noise Ratio Means Traditional Publishers Are Still Necessary

And here’s a lesson that’s a hard one for the new breed of young writers feeling empowered by the weakness of traditional publishers and the rash of new tools available to them: you are not alone.  You are so not alone, that there are too many of you for dedicated readers (and even more so for casual readers) to ever find your voice among the din and cacophony of the internet.  Yes, I am in this same boat.  My voice is one of thousands.  But readers don’t have time to sift through thousands of voices to find the few that will truly shine for them.

What’s more, while what a writer does is one of the most important parts in the telling of a finished, polished story – what they do is the part that adds the most value – what a writer does produce is not a finished product.  What comes hot of the keys from a writer is unedited manuscript.  It’s the story, the characters, the world, the meaning, the theme.  But it’s also bad grammar, plot holes, dropped characters and deus-ex-machina.

Traditional publishers have two huge advantages, from a reader’s perspective, that really do add value.  The first is that they employe editors.  Editors fix all those things that are wrong with a rough manuscript that I mentioned above (or at least point them out to writers so they can fix them).  Editors also, at least in theory, screen out the unsalvageable crap from the diamonds-in-the-rough.  And make no mistake: there is a lot of unsalvageable crap out there.  This one advantage means that traditional publishers have an opportunity to build a lot of good faith and trust with consumers, by ensuring that they publish only high-quality books.  The second advantage that traditional publishers offer is marketing power.  The author is really integral to a successful marketing plan for a new novel, but the writer alone cannot hope to do everything that needs to be done to properly market a new book to a reading public heretofore uninformed about the book’s existence.  And don’t underestimate the value of effective marketing.  It is, in no uncertain terms, the be-all and end-all of getting your book into reader’s hands, for a reader will never want your book in their hands in the absence of good marketing.

Besides these two critical functions, traditional publishers do a lot of other work to help make a novel successful.  Besides editors, you have copyeditors, proofreaders, typesetters, interior designers, cover artists and cover designers, and so on.  A lot of people seem to believe that novel writing is a solitary affair – and with good reason: the content of the novel springs mostly from the mind of the writer himself.  But there is this small army of behind-the-scenes crew that are applying the spit-and-polish.  In this sense novel writing is really a lot more like making a movie, one in which the novelist is writer, director, and the stars of the show, but for which we also have producers (the editors), cinematographers, soundtrack composers and performers (like the interior design and type design), and so on.  You know, the Oscars have a whole host of technical categories that regular people almost never see, because they’re not flashy and glitzy but which are every bit as important in the production of a good movie.  So it is with good books.

For writers with investment money to burn, savvy business chops, and a dynamite book on their hands, there are paid services that can and will, for a hefty fee, do much of this for you.  Through one recent commenter, I discovered the services of iUniverse, a self-publishing services outfit.  But their basic package, with editing services, a cover design, and ISBN, costs almost $600.  Their full service, with all of that plus other services like the ability for bookstore to return remainders, an internet marketing campaign, and promotional materials will lighten your load by more than four grand!  And the author will still have to do the lion’s share of the actual marketing work.  I can only imagine how much an actual, full-service not-just-email-only campaign will set you back.  Add to that the cost of finding a good artist for the cover, type-set and interior designers, and so on.  That’s a pretty significant risk – with that large of a financial investment, this is considerably more than your average struggling author can afford for a minimal chance at returning that amount in terms of sales.  Again, as I suggested at the head of the paragraph, a writer with the money to burn, the know-how to succeed, and a book that is dying to be read by the masses (oh, and tons of free time on his or her hands) this is, technically, a realistic option to success.  Some of this a writer can even learn to do him or herself, competently (and at the expense of spending time writing, of course).  But the chances of succeeding in this route are, even by the best estimates, realistically no better than succeeding through the traditional route (which, granted, is also very very poor).

The fact is, at the end of the day, writers need traditional publishers if they want to achieve widespread, mainstream success.  And readers need traditional publishers as a filter for the noise and unlimited number of choices available on the internet.  These two facts mean that traditional publishing, in some form or fashion, can, will, and must continue to exist – at least until a better model is devised.

What neither the writers nor the readers need is to subsidize expensive New York real estate, costly organizational structures on the back end that aren’t in the business of adding value to the reading consumer, and byzantine distribution channels that are not optimized for the customer.  Unfortunately, what the state of publishing is today means that you get a mixed bag of the good and bad together.  And besides that, one of the core promises of publishers having editors in the first place – that editors filter out the crap – isn’t even remotely true.  Editors can realistically only filter out the crap from what they have time to read.  The signal-to-noise ratio right now is so bad, it seems your average editor doesn’t have anywhere near the time to actually review everything that comes his or her way.  That means that tons of real gems never even make it to the editors’ eyes to get caught in their garbage filters, recognized for what they are, and polished to perfection for mass distribution.  They make sure that we don’t get crap, but they can’t possibly guarantee that they’ve given us the best-quality gems.

But back to Lesson 1: the world has changed.  Whatever else we may say about this, that change is real, and it’s permanent.  And nobody – I’m convinced, nobody – really knows how this thing is going to pan out, yet.  It’s a market that’s far more dynamic than ever it has been in the past.  It’s in flux, but one thing we do know is that the successful publishing model of the future looks very little like the model of today.  The shifting tides lend a certain air of inevitability.  E-Books will grow in importance in the market.  Old-fashioned physical books will never fully die away (especially hardcovers) but mass-market and trade-paperbacks will be increasingly supplanted by e-Books.  But how this transition will be managed, and how publishers will succeed and how writers will break out and gain the fame and notoriety they crave: these things are as yet unknowns.  Some traditional publishers may fade away into the dust, or get absorbed into larger companies until their are only two or three left, or the distribution channels may get refined, or… well, who knows?

What does this mean for me, as a writer, and undiscovered author?  I don’t know yet.  I’m simultaneously excited and scared.  I’ve never been published.  Will I ever be published?  Will I find a way to succeed and thrive in this new environment?  Frankly, I just don’t know.  But what I do know is this: I am a writer.  And there is one thing I must do.  I must write.  I must write the best dang stories I can possibly write.  And… someone will read them.  Someone will read them because they are good stories.  (Are they the best they can be?  Without editors, probably not.  But for what I can do without editors, yes.)  Until I can make a name for myself, that may not be many someones.  I might only count them on a single hand.

But I cannot be discouraged.  I will write on.

Happy writing.

Buying Your Name

Book buyers these days are an increasingly fickle lot and, anecdotally at least, an ever-shrinking pool of the population at large.  I don’t have data to support these assertions, and they’re not really mine in the first place.  Myself, I love books as much as ever, and I find myself recently developing new interests in new authors based solely on the awesome premises of their books.

But there is evidence that the book buying public has more narrow criteria driving their reading habits.  There is a reason that Stephen King and Dan Brown and their like consistently sell large numbers of their books.  There is a reason that virtually everyone who picks up books to read has either read the Harry Potter series or the Twilight series or has had to make a conscious decision not to read them.  The reasons for the first example and for the second are subtly different, but linked.

The latter is tied to the impetus of a cultural moment.  This is how legends are made.  I admit that, initially, I was reluctant to pick up the Harry Potter books. They were marketed as children’s novels, and I like my fantasy to take itself seriously.  Something intended for “children”, I figured, could hardly take itself seriously.  But at last I relented, and was glad I did.  For all the “silly” trappings of childhood fantasy – flying broomsticks, magic wands, and ridiculous nonsense magic words – there was a maturity and depth and seriousness to the work.  It treats its target audience with respect, and for that reason it is equally good reading for an adult (and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of young adult fiction).  Why, however, did I finally relent?  By the time I read the first book, the series was becoming a phenomenon.  Virtually everyone I know had read it, and the number of positive reviews from people I trusted left me little choice but to investigate their claims.

I have yet to pick up the Twilight books, and can say that I currently find it unlikely I will.  While it, too, has reached the epic status of a publishing phenomenon, I have a few holdups.  It’s clearly marketed toward females, which I am not, and it is about vampires.  To date I have not developed a deep interest in the vampire romance genre.  Be that as it may, the forces that drove the Twilight books to success are the same as those that drove Harry Potter. 

Both books became part of a cultural moment.  I suspect that neither was initially supported by a significant amount of promotional spending on the part of the publishers.  But something about the books was truly good – and it struck a chord with readers.  When sales started to pick up, in spite of low promotional support, the marketers took notice, and the ad dollars began to flow.  Once that happened, the books broke the ceiling, and the skies were the limit.

That promotional efforts took what would have been modestly successful books without and made these books stratospherically successful is part of the same equation that keeps the well-known authors who have been writing for decades churning out bestseller after bestseller.  These authors can bank on their past success.  Readers, who know they enjoyed the last work but that author, have a reasonable amount of confidence that they’ll enjoy the writer’s next book.   Marketers know that, and so they work to make sure that anyone who may have enjoyed one of that writer’s books before is made fully aware that he or she is releasing a new book.  That effort takes a lot of promotional money, and not much is going to be left for the as-yet-unproven author.

Those of us in that category face an uphill battle.  We want to be a household name.   We want to be part of the cultural moment.  But how do we get there?  How do we convince the powers-that-be that investing in us will pay dividends?

Frankly, if I had the answer to that, I’d be using it as we speak.  But what I can say is this: it’s clearly not easy, and if you’re going to make it, it will take work.  The people who are making these investment decisions are usually not doing so based on a narrow set of tastes and preferences.  They are making business decisions, and they want their investments to succeed.  Convincing them is going to take proving in no uncertain terms that a failure to invest in you would be a financial mistake.

That sets a high hurdle.  To meet that bar, you must have more than determination and motivation to succeed.  You need more than just talent and a finely honed skill.  You can’t be just a good author.  You must be great.  You must be among the best.  You must be so good that, once readers get a hold of your books, there cannot be enough printed to sate their demand for it.  Mere rhetoric will not sway the decision-makers.  There must be action behind your words: the action of a reading public clamoring for your books.

That’s the question that keeps me up at night: I know I’m a good writer.  But am I great?  And even supposing I am great, how would I prove it?  They are questions I have yet to answer.

Semester Introspective – Part 4 – Brand Me

If I think of my writing as a business that I want to develop, and I want to be successful, I need to think about the Brand I want my name to sell, or what I want potential readers to think when they see my name emblazoned on a book. 

Brand Management basically begins at the product development phase, by defining the audience for which the product is intended and how the product will meet the needs of that audience.  To guide the development of the product, and the brand, a Brand Manager crafts a “positioning statement” that basically summarizes these points. 

The positioning statement targets the brand’s “core user”, the group at the center of the audience who give character to our target audience.  The rest of the audience may lay outside the definition of our core user, but they in some way identify with certain traits of the core user.  The next part of the positioning statement is the competitive frame of reference.  This is how the brand considers itself positioned compared to its competitors, and is crafted in such a way as to highlight the brand’s strengths.  A good competitive frame links back to the benefits and value the brand offers – the thing that makes it different or better.  Next, the position statement explicitly references the benefit of the brand, or the payoff of what makes the brand different or better.  The benefit can be either functional or emotional, or some combination.  Finally, the position statement offers the support – the evidence or reason these claims can be made.

That means, to make a career in writing successful, I have to think about how I, as a writer, answer those questions.  Who is my “core user”.  Is “Fantasy and Science Fiction Readers” to broad a demographic?  My gut tells me so, but how do I more narrowly define that?  Is there a way to frame my writing that highlights what makes it better and different?  For that matter, just what does make my writing better or different?  Why would a fantasy or science fiction reader choose to read my work over someone else’s?  Those are hard questions to answer.  But I suspect I must at least begin to have an inkling of the answers before I will be able to make my writing work for me.

In the mean time, I have this blog.  As of this writing, I have no readers (so, yeah, I’m sort of talking to myself ).  But in the near future, I hope to change that.  Hopefully some of what I say here will be of interest to others, and with a little luck and work, I can start to reach those who might be interested in the things I’ll be writing about, as I continue to explore these and other questions that arise from the challenges of trying to be a writer, student, valued employee, and a loving husband, father and provider.

Now that my semester has drawn to a final close, I’ll have a little break from class (I’m not taking an ACE over the winter break).  Of course I’ll largely still be working on the job during this time, but during my free evening, in between cleaning up around the house, starting to set up the nursery, and taking care of other “honey-do” projects (between the three of which most of my “free time” will most likely be absorbed) I plan to start working a little more at writing.  Besides these must-do projects, my wife suggested I take some of that “free time” in the next month and dust off an old short-story, work on proofreading and editing it, and trying to submit it to a short story magazine for publication.  I’ve already got a few old ones written that could stand some edits, and I’ve got just the one picked out.  I hope you’ll follow along as I start work on this project.