Saturday, January 30, 2010

Amazon vs. major publishers?

Well, let me be the next to offer an uninformed opinion about Amazon's apparent parting of ways with Macmillan and its imprints like St. Martin's, Tor, Forge, Henry Holt, and more. The prevailing information points to Macmillan balking at Amazon's ebook price of $9.99, favoring a higher royalty rate. Publishers also prefer a delayed ebook release to protect hardcover prices and selling window (since paperback versions are generally released 9 months or so later, the hardcover crowd has usually made its purchases).

The Apple iPad announcement, which seemed to have all the publishers lining up in anticipation, would set an ebook price of $12.99 and up for Apple ebooks. The publishers apparently pushed all their chips to this bet. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that Amazon is the world's largest bookseller. Publishers need Amazon far more than the other way around. Amazon doesn't need books. It can sell razor blades, underwear, Apple tablets, DVDs, televisions, camping gear, practically anything. Publishers don't have a whole lot else to sell but books.

I understand the publishers drawing a line in the sand. Unfortunately, consumers don't support it at all. The only people who think ebooks should be more than $10 are publishers. Hardcovers and paperbacks have physical costs in printing and shipping. The only overhead in ebooks is editing and formatting. My main concern is for the effect on authors, because I have friends who publish under those imprints. And they're probably locked up in contracts that will last years, so they have to roll with whatever the parent company decides.

While it's hard to pick a side between Major Corporation A and Major Corporation B, it's basically a moot point now, because Amazon long ago set the price of ebooks at $9.99 or less. A number of independent authors are doing quite well with their ebooks through Amazon, most pricing them at a few bucks. Will they fill the gap left if bestselling authors aren't around, or will Kindle owners reduce their shopping because their favorites are missing? Since I currently don't have a book contract, I don't have a dog in the fight, though I do have a few titles up for Kindle. Right now I am watching and learning. As an author, I just want to reach readers. As a reader, I want as many choices as possible. Let's see what happens when the dust settles.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Young adult

I saw an interesting note on Scott Westerfield's blog, about how he became a young-adult writer because he didn't have to worry about genre classification and the resultant potential for career stress, plus he could tell any kind of story he wanted. He presents it in a light tone, but there is much truth to it. My friend Jonathan Maberry has written horror marketed as supernatural thriller, and a "horror" type of thriller marketed as a thriller, and now has a zombie young-adult book coming out marketed as "Young adult."

I was in my daughter's school library the other day and was astounded by the diversity of covers, styles, subject matters and authors. This is not a criticism of adult fiction or publisher marketing categories, because it's hard to match a reader with a book even in the best of environments, but it's encouraging because I don't believe most teens draw these artificial boundaries on the types of books they like to read. Of course, because I am also developing two young-adult properties, I embrace the wide-open approach, because I'm pretty wide open on what I write. I am always a little saddened when I hear someone say they don't read "my type of book." I don't expect everyone to like what I do, but it's disappointing to be locked out before you even have a chance. I don't know if that is because of cover art, market categorization, the titles, the look, or maybe even the cover font. Tons of tiny clues.

I'm the kind of person who will just grab a book and read the back cover, or crack to chapter three and do two paragraphs. But, I have to admit, I'm less likely to do it if there's a pastel cover featuring a cartoon Barbie type (the chick-lit shorthand) or a Fabio male vampire with no chest hair looming over a startled but not entirely reluctant woman. The YA I've been browsing seems to have fewer clues on the outside covers and they're all mixed together in a beautiful, brilliant hodgepodge. I look forward to playing there.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Electronic candy

I've been doing a lot of research on e-books and the current state of publishing, mostly noting that several big authors--Ian McEwan, Stephen Covey, Paulo Coelho--have signed exclusive deals with Amazon to release their books on Kindle only. They are using Rosetta Books as a "publisher," so they aren't getting all the money, but I expect very soon some high-profile author, probably a thriller writer or SF writer, is going to announce a do-it-yourself deal with Amazon. It's tricky right now for many authors, because they rightfully don't want to alienate their publishers. If they have a true partnership, then they should mutually benefit. If the publisher is holding the author back instead of rocketing the author into the future, then that author should take a serious look at the Five Year Window.

I've been reading entries at iReader Review about the rapidly changing environment, the pressures that will shape ebook prices, and the bizarre industry notions out there. My favorite is that publishers have been holding closed-door meetings with Apple so that the new tablet becomes the preferred method of electronic distribution. Hard to see that happening, and it's hard to see the Nook or Sony eReader gaining ground on the Kindle. Now, Amazon is currently the Walmart of electronic distribution and it could get to a point (if it's not already) of the tail wagging the dog. Amazon started as an online bookstore, for those new to the Internet--and it was content to lose money on those sales to corner a market, branch off, and sell gadgets and gimmicks at high profit margins while losing money on low-ticket items like books. Just as Amazon is paying $14 to publishers for a $10 ebook (a decidedly insane model), publishers are probably happy but a little uneasy about it. Their $14 books are no longer worth $14, and never will be. And from $10, they go down from there. And this doesn't even get into the erosion of a hardcover's value, if any.

But does anyone seriously believe Amazon is worried about the cost and value of ebooks? They can make lots of money selling Kindles, or getting ebook consumers to their site to buy other high-tech devices, because ebook readers are early adopters of technology. And technology produces lots of toys.

Amazon is raising its royalty cut to 70 percent for independent authors and that immediately sets off the radar. Well, gee, that's mighty generous, and plenty of unpublished writers, disgruntled writers, prescient writers, retired writers, and casual writers were thrilled to be getting the current 35 percent (especially compared to publisher royalties that generally varied from 6 to 10 percent for most deals). Some were so happy for a platform they were giving their books away free. The real genius of Amazon came in establishing the price range for which the 70 percent applied--between $2.99 and $9.99, thereby establishing the "worth" of ebooks. There are tons of articles and posts heralding "Writer beware," but very few labeled "Publisher beware."

So what is the value of an ebook? $14? No, never again, except for certain technical manuals with meticulous research. Is it the current "hardcover ebook" standard of $9.99? Only for six months at the most. Is it zero? Well, soon it will be. Book piracy is in its infancy and enough writers seem willing to give away their work in some strange hope of becoming valuable. In limited doses, maybe, (such as blogging) but they also say don't do anything for free that you're good enough to do for money.

For writers, should you wait for a universal platform before you make a digital decision? Apple tablets WILL be the future...for five minutes, just like every other future we've been sold in the last 20 years. I still listen to music on cassette tapes in my car. In 1998, I gave away what might have been one of the last functioning 8-track tape players, a format that didn't function well even when it was new. I finally put together a CD collection about the time iPods and iTunes showed up.

I still submit to agents and publishers because I believe in making allies and forming positive partnerships, and I still love paper books. But I am also presented with a historic and fleeting window of opportunity. I put my backlist novel The Red Church up, I am formatting two printed story collections (one was rather ineffectually sold by a pioneering electronic publisher), and a novella Burial to Follow. A print deal for one of my unpublished books recently fell through. I'm not quite ready to go to original digital release for it, and of course Amazon is not knocking down my door to sign me to an exclusive. I'd still rather get it on a bookshelf somewhere, but how long do I wait? The first draft of that novel was written 10 years ago, and I think it's pretty good, and it will appeal to audiences that would never pick up The Red Church or any other book that looks remotely spooky.

It's a window. Through a glass darkly, draw the curtains, or turn on the light. What's the future?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The First coming to e-publication

Since I'm working with Ghostwriter Publications to release my short fiction in the UK, I am collecting most of my stories for release as e-books. While "Scattered Ashes" and "Thank You for the Flowers" (under the updated title "Flowers") will go in lockstep with the print versions, I'm putting together THE FIRST as an original collection (though the stories have all been previously published.)

It contains sixteen stories and a couple of bonus essays and has three sections: Phantasmia, Hypnagogia, and Dystopia. This collects my dark fantasy, fantasy, and bleaker science fiction stories, including several from the Aeropagan cycle. The title is fitting because it's my first foray into original electronic publishing and I'm curious how it will do compared to the novel THE RED CHURCH and the existing story collections. Scattered Ashes is not quite formatted but I will probably roll it out in a week or two. I'm excited about the chance to reach new readers with these stories that sometimes didn't get much of an audience in their first incarnations, and the work in THE FIRST is a bit of a departure from my usual supernatural subjects, though there is a sprinkling of that in here as well. Thanks to Neil Jackson as Ghostwriter for the great cover.

I believe the expansion of the electronic book market will lead to a revival in short stories, as people find time to read shorter works due tot he convenience, and also be able to squeeze in a quick read in places they might not have had time to do before.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Patterson Inc

A friend sent me this link to an article on the James Patterson Industry.

I am well aware of the number of Patterson books out there, now infiltrating nearly every genre. At first, it was a curiosity, and now, it's something of a horror. I actually like his early Cross books and find them skillful (except once when he had his black detective Cross "hassled by the white cop" in Chapel Hill, which is one of the most diverse and international cities on the planet). Later books, eh. Competent but rather flimsy, and coinciding with the time he was giving most of the work to co-authors.

As a writer, I say "Good for him. He made a name for himself through force of will, and he gets people to buy books and read." As a writer, I say, "This is how publishing is putting another round in its chamber for the next Russian roulette spin." As a writer, I think, "If Patterson takes up all the tables at the front of the bookstore, nobody will need the other few thousand fiction authors behind him."

I understand completely that it makes more sense to sell five million books by one author instead of 10,000 books by 500 authors, or 100,000 books by 50 authors. Despite the deep discounting of bestseller hardcovers, it probably has a much more solid profit margin, with little risk. Sort of like Hollywood shooting for the high-profile remake instead of the stunningly original roll of the dice. I am sure the publisher is doing what's best to keep the doors open and pay employees, and perhaps give the stockholders a smile. And all that has nothing to do with art.

But that's okay. Art never has deserved to exist. And that's not to say Patterson isn't creating art. That's all subjective. What is objective is dollar signs. People make choices. Maybe they have limited choices, but nobody's holding a gun to their heads at the checkout line.

If I had my books packed on every paperback rack, would I slow down so that other people have a chance? I doubt it. If Patterson hired me as a co-author, would I do it? Hmm. Guess it would depend on how much. So I'm just like every other lazy hack out there clinging to art until it gets in the way of a decent meal.

And I fully expect the Patterson machine to keep chugging long after his death, just as the estates of VC Andrews and Robert Ludlum have done. In fact, if there's a future of "traditional" publishing, I'd say that's the future. And it is going to carry over to ebooks, because marketing is far more important than brilliance. In the long run, it probably all comes out the same. Colleges won't be teaching Sidney Sheldon or Jacqueline Susann, and few people talk about them now. New Pattersons will come along, or Patterson-like corporations that just happen to manufacture words instead of beans or widgets.

Maybe it's not the end of anything. Or even the beginning. I don't know how many times I've seen the words "the death knell for books" in the 13 years I've been a writer, yet people still read and write, somehow. Got to go now. Patterson is giving me a run for my money as the world's laziest hack, and I'm tired of typing...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Da Vinci Code, symbology, and Scottology

Being the kind who is usually 10 years behind the cultural trends, I'm just now getting around to "The Da Vinci Code," listening to an audiotape from the library. I can see why this is so popular. It's accessible, fast-paced, reasonably well-written, and provides a lot of information. I've known some writers who sneered at the book, considering it hack work. Of course, that comes from the position of assuming that 10 million people have to be "wrong" in a subjective matter. I have to admit, I picked up one bestseller and when I got to the line "I did a shrug," I thought, "Well, maybe I'm not in this book's audience."

But in thinking about my own work, I can't afford to take any kind of elitist position. I thought after 10 years I'd know how to write. The truth is, after 12 years, I am finally ready to LEARN to write. A big distinction. A little unsettling, a little intimidating, but also strangely freeing and transformative. In the last post, I was musing on my past. I can't disown it. Yet I also don't have to be "just my books."

By looking at the kind of books people like, instead of what I think they should read, I am more like the student I say every writer should be. I used to shudder when I heard about writers who calculated their plots and characters on whatever was popular at the time, deliberately copying big beats like First Kill, First Punch, First Kiss. But there's wisdom in it because it is the rhythm of our popular storytelling, and it didn't emerge in a vacuum. The reader completes the journey that the writer embarks upon alone. Everything is not Shakespeare. Sometimes you need some Patterson or Brown or Evanovich or Meyer.

Friday, January 15, 2010

that's a wrap, Mummy

As I finish up the latest novel (the one closest to the end), I look around at the various crossroads, and on most of the detours, it doesn't really make sense to remain "Scott Nicholson." Indeed, I've already submitted one novel under a pen name, and another book I'm working on is in a distinctly different genre. I am very grateful to have published some books and I have some loyal readers. There's nothing as humbling, nor as clear a reminder of why we do this, as when you get a note from someone that says "You're my new favorite author."

Scott Nicholson is a decent commodity and has published some solid work. He is not a bestseller, just a humble hack pouring his heart and lungs out on a keyboard. The word "horror" is on the spines of his six novels but he doesn't feel horrible at all. The books just happened to have some ghosts and creatures in them. They are about faith and love, things Nicholson believes in. He doesn't believe in ghosts and creatures. They contain some darkness. Nicholson has seen darkness. They have some redemption. is FICTION, after all.

After a flurry of study, research, and inquisition, I've been able to take a more remote look at what I write, how it is presented, and, on the marketing end, how it is categorized out there in the wider world. One thing the online booksellers really excel at is compiling search histories and customer track records and seeing which books you're clumped with. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'd never read the types of books I write, but I'm nowhere near my literary heroes. A lot of that comes to me, and how hard I work at it, and how much I want it. Boy, I love this job. Even though it's a part-time occupation, it's a full-time obsession. It is incredibly satisfying to be published. In the rank of things I wanted to do on this planet, that's probably in third, right after wife and kids (which are really tied for first, I suppose.)

But maybe Scott Nicholson needs to die. It won't be pretty, because I've known him long enough to know he won't go down without a fight. I may have to club him from behind with a shovel, or poison his coffee, or short-circuit his computer. He's got an incredible ego. He thinks what he has to say is important and that the world needs to hear it. Such people are dangerous and tend to persevere.

But if he were gone, I could convince myself to start fresh and never write a scary book. I could write about easy love and blind faith and sincere trust and happy endings. I'd have snappy, likable characters with indentifiable quirks. I'd create a series character. Two series characters, who quibbled over easy love.

But I suspect Scott Nicholson would slide out of his grave at night, dirt spilling from his rotted jacket as he sought his revenge. I'd go down a lot easier than he would.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Self-publish or self-perish?

With self-publishing so easy that now even a lazy hack like me can do it, a lot of the old arguments for seeking the traditional route have moved to the wayside. Why should authors send off their efforts, or at least send queries about the possibility of sending off their efforts, when they can hit "Presto Change-O Publish-O" on their keyboards and immediately join the ranks of Stephen King and Dan Brown and Mary Higgins Clark?

You can self-publish, get the same playing field at Amazon and B&N as most publishers get (one Web page per book), and then do your own promotion, which most authors end up doing anyway. You get more of the money in most cases. Plus, if you're truly timid, you don't have to face rejection. At least until somebody accidentally buys your poorly edited jumble of alphabet and demands a refund. Alternately, if you're assuming you're too (fill in the blank--"extreme, controversial, daring, literate, good-looking, intelligent, Billy Bob Thorntonish") for the mainstream publishing industry, then go ahead and lulu createspace kindle your way to fame and fortune and giving your momma something to brag about during bridge.

The reality is, getting accepted by a major agent or editor is darned hard, takes lots of work, and requires much luck. You have to be not only good but better than the thousands of other merely "good" writers. You have to not only land on the right desk, you have to do it at the right time with the right project. And even if you beat the odds and get accepted, then the real battle begins. Because thousands of writers are pushing from behind, and thousands of great writers ahead of you are pushing you off the shelves. Given all that, it makes perfect sense to slap up an e-book, or cram fodder through a print-on-demand press.

But you know what? The hard way's still worth it. It's a dream that's almost impossible to reach. In other words, the kind of dream worth having. But what do I know? I only have about 700 rejection slips and eight books out there killing trees. It's worth it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Alexandra Sokoloff, a writer's writer

Alexandra Sokoloff is one of the most brilliant writers around, especially in awareness of various storytelling techniques, tricks, and craft mechanisms. Because of her background in theater, screenwriting, and novel writing, she has broad experience from which to draw. Her genius is in analyzing what works in the best thriller and suspense classics, and to understand how those techniques affect audiences. Her blog The Dark Salon has sampling of her new work, and she's also released "Screenwriting Tricks For Authors" for Kindle.

I had the good fortune to teach with her at Pen To Press in 2008, and I believe I learned as much or more than the students did. She was also my bandmate in the original Thriller Killer Band that performed at the first Thrillerfest in Phoenix. If you love taut psychological suspense, give her fiction a try--she's the closest thing to Ira Levin I've found among modern writers.

After reading a few of her blog entries, I'm ready to prowl back through some of my work and add some more suspense. I love writers that make me work harder!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Kindle e-book pricing

E-book prices are all over the map, from plentiful freebies to the typical "major publisher" price of $9.99.

This is a complicated issue and the best thing about Amazon Kindle is it lets the author set the price. I've published in mass market paperback and trade paperback, but when I released my first novel The Red Church on my own, I set the price at $1.99. I did this for two reasons--at this price, I make about as much in royalty as I did in print, and because I want to reach new readers. Readers are my primary goal, not money. I can make money elsewhere. At the same time, I want to value my work and this price seems fair while also (as others pointed out) encouraging people to try me who might not have heard of me before.
That novel sold well on release, probably around 35,000 copies, but it's been out of print for four years. I want people to read it because I still get excited about it. So any new readers and additional income is gravy to me. However, I could understand setting the price slightly higher for an original release--to between $2.99 to $3.99.
Major publishers are still caught in the dilemma of setting e-book prices high to protect paper sales. They are worried about themselves, not about readers. And that's what they should do, watch out for business, because they are under siege when an author can simply post the book themselves, make it available to a worldwide audience at virtually no overhead cost, and make decisions on when a book is released, what the sales price is, and how it is presented. The author still has to do most of the marketing but that's always been true for all but a hundred or so who are highly successful and in whom publishers have invested much.
I priced Burial to Follow at 99 cents because it's a 20,000-word novelette and I want an audience for it and it was published in a hardcover for limited edition so it hasn't had a chance to reach a big audience, and I consider it one of my top five works. I will soon be releasing a short story collection and mulling over the price now, and I'm putting together a free promotional writing-advice e-book.
This is my personal situation and that's why I've made these decisions--others obviously feel differently, but i modeled my prices after JA Konrath's, who is doing very well in both print and e-book.
And, when all is said and done, why not meet readers halfway, or even further on their side of the bridge?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Red Church for Kindle

Took the plunge and got it online, along with Burial To Follow. Cover art by Neil Jackson of Ghostwriter Publications. If you have a Kindle, it's specially priced at $1.99. Hope you give it a try--I'm thrilled to get this back out there.