Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A New Direction

I'm going away next week, which is the real reason I haven't started any huge marketing push for my book yet. It's selling here and there from the office, but things have been a little slow there too, so there's not much to post.

Because of that, I'd like to take this blog off in a slightly different direction. Not that different, actually; just an expansion on the subject of self publishing.

I'm going to review self-publishing sites on the web. I've been exploring some of them, and I'd like to go back, review the fine print, and report back on what's really out there.

Why do I feel qualified to do this? Because I am smart, skeptical, able to see through smoke and mirrors, willing to call a spade a spade (and a vanity press a vanity press) and most importantly, I am a disinterested, neutral party not trying to sell anyone anything. I've already decided to be my own publisher (true self-publishing) so I'm not in the market for any of their services. I'm not working for any of them, nor am I getting any money (or favors; no nuttin') from them. I have done my homework (as attested to by none other than Miss Snark; see comment to my first post) and I feel I have a good enough handle on this aspect of publishing to provide useful insights to others. And that's what I'm finding makes for a good (read "popular") blog.

How is this different from what you could do by perusing the websites yourself? It's not. I'm just offering my opinions in hopes of informing, facilitating discussion, and providing yet another layer of potential warning between writers' money and those who want it.

Here's how I plan to organize my comments:
*What they say
*What they really do
*Specifics:

*Bottom line: what it smells like.

Just off the top of my head, here are some of the sites I plan to review in the coming weeks:
XLibris
LuLu
iUniverse
BookLocker
(May as well start with the biggies, to develop my rating systems and so on.)

I'm open to suggestions, both about who and what you want me to look at.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

It's Business

If there's one thing I've heard over and over, it's that publishing is a business.

Editors and agents are professionals, and we writers are exhorted to mirror their professionalism. Don't waste their valuable time; be respectful; be businesslike in all manner of communications; written, email, and telephone.

A professional relationship is based on an asymetry of skills: you can do something that I would like done and cannot do myself. Money is involved, though often not directly exchanged between professional and client (agents get their commissions from publishers' funds; car repairs are often paid by auto insurance, and so on.) Because the professionals have the specialized knowledge or skills, they have the advantage in the relationship. However in order to entice clients/customers to do business with them, a certain level of "people skill" is required. All other things being equal, it is without a doubt more pleasant (and often more profitable) to deal with a professional who is pleasant and personable (in addition to being skilled) than one who is imperious and condescending. (All other things aren't always equal, of course. A pit bull of a divorce attorney is often appreciated.)

But lo and behold, along comes Agent007. She likens the author/agent relationship to a marriage and acknowledgements to love letters. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure she's a wonderful agent, and her insights into the workings of the publishing houses from having been an editor are very interesting. And while befriending one's clients (as well as expressing a desire that the relationship will endure for the long term benefit of both parties) is all well and good, get real!

An agent is an agent. She can function in some capacities as friend, mentor, and confidante, but there are boundaries which are violated at one's peril. As it happens, I too am in a profession where I often become close to those who engage my services. And on occasion they end the relationship. I admit that when I was younger I let it affect me more than it does now. I have learned to respect boundaries between friendship and professionalism.

It's business! Remember?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Meow!

Agent007 and Miss Snark are at it again. Well, 007 is, at any rate.

The main difference between the two seems to be that the good Agent doesn't *get* the humor of the Snark. Frankly, after reading the entirety of both blogs I find Miss Snark to be by far the more respectful to writers, her stiletto subtitle notwithstanding.

I wouldn't want either one as my agent. Miss Snark doesn't represent the kinds of stuff I write, and Agent007 has boundary issues (more on that coming up.) At least Miss Snark's blog is fun to read. 007's just makes me grind my teeth. I know, I know; then why read it? Grist for this blog, of course.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Better later than never

So in between maintaining my new blog, running a full time business, raising a family, and keeping up with three cats, a dog, and a new publishing business, I finally got around to reading some more of the publishing blogs that are out here. Thanks as always to the lovely Miss Snark as a jumping off point for links, I perused Agent007's blog the other day. From there I found a profanity filled rant (can't even call it a blog) by a scammer who thinks he's an agent (and who things writers have no business being involved in a writing watchdog group; go figure) and another guy who seems to have seen through all her insider angst (and is at least funny.) I also checked out POD-dy Mouth, which I found a little hard to follow, but also interesting, and several other writing/publishing blogs.

Bottom line: there's good news and bad news: many of the things I've wanted to point out about publishing have already been said somewhere else. (That's the bad news.) But I still think I have a new viewpoint to bring to the discussion. (That would be the good news, folks.)

There are straight-up writing blogs by writers, for writers, about writing, reading, ranting, and publishing. There are agents and editors, agents who used to be editors, and I'm sure somewhere there are editors who used to be agents; all kinds of people in publishing ranting on and on about their particular role in the process. There are the POD people whose main interest seems to be drumming up business for themselves (cough -- BookLocker -- cough). And there's Dan Poynter trying to get everyone to start up their own publishing business so he can get rich selling them all they need to know to do so.

But there doesn't seem to be a Shadow, a self-publisher (with a real publishing business) at the very beginning of his game.

Then again, now that I've widened the scope of my blog reading, there's all the more grist for blog writing. Watch out, blogoshpere: Shadow's here.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

What is the meaning of this

As I'm sure anyone reading this blog has figured out by now, I have published a book. The comment was made: "Why no place that says "see the book" or "buy the book"??" The idea was that I should use the "built in traffic" from the blog (though heaven knows how much that is; so far the comment bin hasn't exactly been overflowing) to sell the book. In response to that, I added a small link to the website, but I'm still mulling it over.

I do not envision this blog as a significant part of Shadow's marketing efforts at this time.

"Fool!" some may bark. "Get your publicity wherever you can! Exposure is the name of the game!"

Perhaps. But for the moment I'm more interested in a broader exploration of this fascinating animal called The Publishing Industry, and would prefer that my readers not get the sense that the blog is just a way to hawk my books.

Here's my deal: Despite a perfectly satisfying career in a totally unrelated field, I sat down one day and decided I wanted to write a novel. (Before the onslaught of "Dilletante!!!" begins, let me add that I've always been a voracious reader and journaller.) I joined a writing community, took classes, read writing books, wrote like crazy, and have produced a manuscript that has passed muster among a covey of beta readers (who include writers, readers, English professors, and quite a wide variety of people.) ie, it's not crap, in more than just my opinion. I'm in the process of shopping around for an agent, and in the process have come across such fascinating blogs as Miss Snark and Agent007.

Along the way, I produced another book (a quirky, offbeat, poetry-type collection targeted at a very narrow audience) which had no chance of "conventional" publication, because literally no one either on Agent Query or in Jeff Herman reps poetry. I did my research, ending up with Dan Poynter's book (the bible of self-pub), and to shorten a story that really isn't all that long now that I think about it -- I published it. (I began writing the quirky poetry in April of this year. Less than 6 months to book in hand.)

The question I'm now grappling with is how long to continue tilting at the windmill of Big Pub with the novel. My specific issue is that it's a novel about an inevitable disaster, and once the disaster happens, fuggedaboutit. The more I read about self-pub (the real thing; see the previous post) the better it looks. And the more I read about "real" pub, the less I want to have anything to do with that craziness.

All these blogs are, in fact, an excellent way for us writers to get a feel for the business. However what I find lacking is any critical voice implying that they are not the only game in town. With apologies to James Taylor, that's why I'm here. Looking at the industry from the viewpoint of an intelligent outsider, the emporer has some serious fashion issues.

There is a time and a place for everything. I am marketing the book to its narrow market niche through other channels. At this time, I prefer not to use the blog for that purpose. (Subject to change without notice, of course, as is everything in life.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What's in a name

Let me make one thing perfectly clear.

That's easier said than done, what with the alphabet soup of publishing these days. Publishers. Printers. Vanity presses. POD (print on demand) both the technology and the industry. iUniverse. XLibris. And so on until the bovines return.

When the words "self-publishing" are tossed about without any other context, there is no way to be sure exactly what they mean.

Just a quick review, with apologies to Miss Snark and other publishing intelligentsia:

A publisher purchases a manuscript from an author (technically, what is purchased is certain rights regarding the MS); pays to have books made from that MS (including the right to decide what they look like, from cover to typography); markets the books, and then pays the author a percentage of the money the books bring in, not counting the advance and the production costs. There's way more to it than that, but those are the bare bones of the arrangement.

A printer makes books. They don't care who pays. Offset ("real") printers print books by putting ink on paper. Digital printers print books using heat to bond toner to paper. Many people seem to feel the results of the former are technically superior to the latter. Both make extensive use of computers (digital machines) in their processing.

Print on Demand, the technology, refers to making a book only after someone has said they will buy it. Digital printing is usually used, because it's the only way to make the process economically viable.

"Vanity press" is a sticky term, because it runs the gamut from the slimiest, sleaziest elements of the business to a straight up WYSIWYG business model. Because the former elements have properly given "Vanity presses" such a lousy name, they have tried to lose the term. Bottom line definition: paying someone else to publish a book. Not print. Publish. That is, giving them all the advantages of publishing while taking on all the risks oneself. The worst, like Publish America, are full of deceptive advertising promising sure success, astronomical sales, and rich returns. iUniverse and XLibris are somewhat better. If you read the fine print, it's pretty clear what you're getting yourself into. At the other end of the spectrum is LuLu; you pay, you get your books; thanks very much. No muss, no fuss, no promises. BookLocker is somewhere in between. Despite being a POD outfit, they say they only publish 5% of submissions, rejecting manuscripts for things like "spelling and grammatical errors, poor writing, and low sales potential", and "inappropriate" or hateful content. In other words, they're very selective about whose money they will take. Their main advantage is a contract with Ingram, one of the two mega-wholesalers in the country, so their books are available through bookstores (usually by special order.)

The most useful definition of a publisher I have found is this: the one who assigns the ISBN is the publisher. Not the one who pays to have the book made. Not the one who markets the book. Not the one who dreams about the book. Usually the one who makes any money there is to be made. All the outfits mentioned above use their own ISBNs, except that BookLocker will let you use your own, if you wish (and if you have one.) ISBNs are purchased. The smallest block available is 10 for $225.

For the record: Shadow Publications is a publisher, ISBN prefix and all. Shadow owns 10 ISBNs. Shadow designed the book, paid a printer in Nebraska to make the books (though there's another guy in Gaithersburg MD that I'm looking forward to working with) and is doing all the marketing his very own fluffy little self. (That includes whipping out a copy in the bank today, showing it off to the friendly neighborhood bank manager, and leaving him with a mail order form.) Because the author is the same as the publisher, this is "Self Publishing."

Now would someone please call the mother ship to come pick up the PODs. Shadow wants nothing to do with them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

They're here

The books came today. Eight heavy cartons containing 500 little pieces of my new adventure.

Of course the mailing envelopes I'd ordered from the printer were the old-fashioned, dirty padded variety, and the counter displays I'd bought from them were made of cardboard, but I'm told that mistakes are common the first time out. And in the grand scheme of things those mistakes weren't overly costly. I've already tracked down the cleaner bubble wrap mailers on the web, and counter displays are available in six different materials at Staples. But the extra book covers are spectacular. Next step is marketing, now that I have what I need.

Day One: (with no marketing to speak of)
2 copies sold.
20 copies out on consignment to friends' offices.
Got a gig at a professional convention in November with 300 potential attendees plus 25 other exhibitors as my possible customers. Perfect timing for a gift book as the holidays approach.

For anyone keeping score, selling 134 books (of my 500 printing) recoups not just the cost of the printing, but the entire initial investment.

Here we go...

Monday, September 19, 2005

Adventures in self-publishing

So what do you do when one group of people says one thing, and another person or group of people says the exact opposite? In my experience, it usually means that the truth, such as it is, falls somewhere in between.

Take publishing.

"There is no money in self-publishing," says the common wisdon at Forward Motion, a wonderful writers community. Self-publishing doesn't count as a "real publishing credential" to Miss Snark, a NY literary agent. The only people who self-publish are losers who aren't good enough to "really" get published. The only way to make "real money" (however you care to define that) in publishing is through one of the large NY publishing houses, which of course can only be accessed with the services of a literary agent, who, as a group, are only slightly less open to newcomers than a seventh grade girls prep school clique, and are the subject of a slew of warnings and search engines.

But then there's Dan Poynter, the guru of self-pub, whose take on the NY publishing establishment (agents included) is somewhat different. Self publishing is the only way to have any control over your work. Promotion is what sells books, and the author has to do the lion's share of the promotion anyway. Why shouldn't more of the revenue go to the author? Start up your own company and, with a little get-up-and-go, you too can be independently wealthy. (Frankly, perusing the bookstore shelves does tend to leave the impression that the best way to make money in self-publishing is to write a book about self-publishing.)

Like politics in the age of the blogosphere, there's enough chatter on both sides of this issue to reinforce whatever opinion one may have going into the discussion without ever having to seriously consider the merits of the other position. As a general rule, I am suspicious of absolutes. Of "this is the only way" to accomplish something. So here I am, stuck in the middle.

Granted, to a certain extent Poynter and the NYC world are talking apples and oranges. Poynter admits that his model is geared to non-ficiton, wheras even he admits it's tough to make money on fiction. Supposedly, NYC is the only way to go with fiction. What bothers me, though, is comments I've read lately about how NY is publishing fewer and fewer titles and fewer and fewer new authors in an effort to maximize their profits by publishing only what will sell big. Is this the trickle-up of greed as it becomes more acceptable in our society? Why settle for a handsome profit when one can have a ridiculous, or even obscene one?

Here is something I have discovered: the difference in cost between printing a book and selling a book is huge. That's the bottom line. Between the top and bottom lines, however, as NYC will tell you ad nauseum, there are zillions of levels known as "overhead." Marketing, design, sales, and other departments, for example. But the greater your overhead, the more you have to sell before turning your profit. Shrinking down all those intermediaries means the need to generate far fewer sales both to make back an initial investment and to reap a reasonable profit. (The definintion of "reasonable" is another hot button. The dreamer's definition is enough never to have to work again. The "writer's" definition is enough to make writing one's primary occupation. Mine is enough extra on top of what I make at the dream career I already have to put my kids through college; not a small sum, but a finite one. Although I write, I do not think of myself primarily as a writer.)

So: to continue the quest to find an agent and "make it there" in the 212, or to follow the path less taken?

Both, for the moment. The completed novel continues to get shopped around that big fruit of a city, while the niche market quirky humorous poetry book is self-published. I'll continue to expound on the topics begun above as I share the progress of this new endeavor. I don't even care if Miss Snark calls me a "hobbyist." I'm hoping I'll be chuckling all the way to the bank.

I look forward to your company as I embark on this new adventure.

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