Friday, June 25, 2010

Save the indies? We could have saved each other

I knew this was coming. Again. Remember when the creeping encroachment of chain stores led to a public outcry of "SUPPORT INDIES AND SAVE LITERATURE!!!"? Well, maybe the cry wasn't all that public, emanating mostly from bookstore owners.

And guess what? Indies died by the dozens. They expired like whales on an oil-infested beach, leaving the stench of recrimination on our collective brows.

The next evolution of the outcry is "SUPPORT INDIES AND SAVE REAL BOOKS!!!" This is the case made by The Regulator Bookshop. Basically chastising people who like e-books, sneering and snubbing, creating an elitist argument veiled as a populist uprising. I wish I could be sadder for you. Actually, I am sad. But it's the kind of sadness felt over a long-ago high school crush, or that job where you never got promoted, or that old swimming pool that used to have a diving board.

I am sorry you will have to find a new career. Really. But you are not alone, because I expect the chains will be following shortly. You survived Borders but you can't survive electronic tablets and instant, wireless communication. You didn't do a thing wrong. You will die for one reason only: you are not giving your customers what they want. Thrash and moan but you won't change that. I can't change that.

Sure, I can drive three hours and buy a few books and you can pay the electric bill another week. But the books will cost more than I can afford, and my philanthropy extends primarily to those who are truly starving and not those who might theoretically starve one day. Your books cost more than I care to pay, anyway, because all I care about is the content and the experience, not the package, that wonderful R-book that will cost me two-and-a-half hours' pay and has many, many hands chipping away nickels between the author and my eyeballs.

I do support my local indie when I can. I do buy R-books there, and it's an emotional exchange, not a need. They sell my books. I send people there. Simple.

The local store took out books to put in a yarn section, and now sells gift items and jewelry as well. It's not just a "bookstore" anymore, because the owners realize change equals possible survival. They aren't making people feel guilty for not wanting something they don't need--they are giving them things they want. They are even exploring setting up an e-book shopping experience.

Still, I can't support you, Regulator. You probably don't remember me. Five or so years back, I made multiple book-signing trips across this state. I called you and wrote you emails. I sent you book cover flats and press releases for each new book, asking to set up a signing at your store. I figured since I was a notable North Carolina author, you'd be proud to have me and my books in your store. Because indie bookstores are great at hand-selling and supporting local authors, right? Heck, I promised to do the publicity, since my friend was editor of your local paper. You never answered. Nothing.

I once even drove around downtown Durham looking for your store, so I could meet you in person and maybe buy an R-book or two. I couldn't find you. The cry of "Shop indie" no longer means supporting local bookstores, it means supporting independent writers. Your very battle cry has been usurped.

You ask us to support you and give to you and save you. I wish you had given just a little so we could have helped each other. Maybe I would be even sadder today. Instead, I will just upload my e-books and partner with the people who want a mutual relationship. I don't care about R or E books. I care about MY readers, whatever letter they put in front. Your store doesn't have my readers because I was never in your store.

But you won't be lonely, Regulator. You will find plenty of company in the unemployment office, in the line of agents and editors who insist on artificial preservation of their industry. You guys can kill a little time together, reminiscing about the good old days when books were books and everything was real.

Me, I am going where stories are stories and everything is a dream.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Help me sell your indie book

I spent a few years after my last contract expired trying different things, dumping the agent, and generally spinning wheels (though writing all the while) and saw how much more cynical the industry had become since I had broken in. Agents who don't respond, editors only looking at agented work, agents sneering and laughing at writers in their blogs and tweets. An incestuous system. (And, no, I am not a NY hater, I just understand how the business works and why they make the decisions they do).

I'd been tinkering with some POD for a backlist title (THE RED CHURCH) but it all looked somehow clumsy. How was I going to get that sucker in a thousand bookstores? It was around about December I really started paying attention to reality--I was too steeped in the old-school indoctrination. NEVER SELF-PUBLISH!

It was hard to make that leap at first. Then I realized no one was going to do it for me. And it was as easy as click click click. And then the success was instant. So much so that I put up two original titles. It was so easy and rewarding, I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say "Who are you fooling? You CAN'T do it your way!"

Yes, I can. I can believe in my vision. You can, too. And here is how I can help you, because your vision is valid and worthy.

If you are an indie writer, email me (at indiebooksblog AT your book cover, your bio, your book description, and answer the three standard questions at Indie Books Blog. When the post is up, please tweet and Facebook it--create synergy. Ask your friends to go look because it's cool. We'll ask them to buy it to support your vision.

Simple enough?


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Beat of a Different Drummer

Take a local legend, a misfit childhood, and a Civil War re-enactment, add water, and you get my new novel Drummer Boy.

The idea for the novel had been germinating for some time, originally called “The Jangling Hole” after a legend here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Because the peaks were so rugged and remote, deserters from both sides of the Civil War often hid out in the caves. Since they had no dog in the fight, they often camped together, being careful not to have campfires or otherwise give away their position.

According to legend, you can still hear the jangle or clink of their tools and mess kits inside the caves, often with a spooky echo. Ghosts are more fun when kids are involved, so I created a group of three friends who investigate the legend. The boys are loosely based on my own childhood, at least as far as the alienation and the sense of being an outsider. One of the boys is grappling with the idea of being gay, which adds its own special torments. His one dream is to be a drummer boy in his father’s Civil War re-enactment troop, but the father is distant and suspicious.

I served in a Civil War re-enactment a few years ago, so I brought that element of living history to the novel, though it’s very much a contemporary tale of the supernatural. The one thing about real “make-believe” war is that it’s loud and dangerous, with large horses, intense action, and a very loose script that creates a lot of improvisation. I wanted to combine that sense of make-believe with the actual legends and create a milieu in which the young boys try to fit in.

But the drummer boy discovers that he belongs in neither the world of the living nor the dead, but he is all that stands between the town and the ghostly Civil War troop. I’ve often used local Appalachian legends in my novels, and I try to write a couple of pages a day. I don’t outline, so each trip tp the keyboard is an adventure. I think if I knew the ending before I started, I’d be too bored to finish.

Drummer Boy offered me a wonderful journey, tying together legends I’d already researched, actual historical events, a character I’d used before, a reporter based on my experiences in journalism, and memories of my own childhood as spread out among the three young characters. We’re all misfit kids. Some of us are just a little older than others.

Scott Nicholson is the author of nine novels, including The Skull Ring, The Red Church, and They Hunger. He’s also written three story collections, six movie scripts, several children’s books, a number of songs and poems. He’s a freelance editor and also writes comic books. Signed copies and ebooks of Drummer Boy and other works are available through his Web site, as well as and

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ebook price move

If you're an indie author, you probably are quite aware, but if you're the average Kindle consumer, you probably don't keep up. But on July 1, Amazon begins paying a 70 percent royalty to authors whose books are priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Right now, $1.99 seems a reasonable price, though I've played with different numbers. Most of my books are 99 cents, though I just moved The Red Church from $1.99 to $2.99. Predictably, the sales tailed off a little.

There will be a lot of experimentation in the next few months, as authors move their prices around and balance things out. Right now, you can get tons of indie authors for 99 cents, and that may very well be the "standard" for indie authors. Most will move to $2.99 because you only have to sell one-sixth of the numbers at the higher price to make the same amount of money. As a pro, you want to earn the most money you can, but as a writer you want to connect with readers and keep prices low so they can buy more books. I will almost certainly be moving Drummer Boy and The Skull Ring to $2.99, though I may launch the new paranormal thriller Speed Dating with the Dead at 99 cents until it builds up a body of reviews. Choices, choices. Fine tuning. Guesswork.

I can easily foresee a summer of frantic price moving, and then indies start moving their prices back down. I may even do it myself, because readers don't really care about royalty rates. All they want is a good read at a fair price. And, today, more than ever, they get to set that price. Viva la revolucion, but no revolution comes without a few heads rolling.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Publishers aren't as dumb as people think

(Reprinted from guest post at Megalith Books)

Most observers and even some authors believe the major publishing industry has been slow to respond to the electronic-book era. True, the industry is struggling with pricing while trying to protect hardcover sales and has not been especially welcoming of digital books, especially those that compete with their higher-priced versions. But they have not been putting their heads in the sand, either.

Publishing contracts of this century almost universally grant publishers the electronic rights to the content, and those clauses may have seemed innocuous even two years ago, when e-book sales were negligible. The clauses that were afterthoughts returned the electronic rights to the writers when the book went out of print, back when that term was more cut-and-dried.

But, increasingly, the publishers are setting clauses that lock in the license as long as some minimum sales levels are reached. I don't get a lot of contracts these days, but the ones I know about generally have numbers like "If ebook royalties reach $100 in a six-month period, the clause automatically renews." In other words, if some laughable minimum of sales is met, the publisher retains the rights. Possibly forever, if the clause keeps renewing.

That is literally indentured servitude that traps writers over an entire career, at least those unlucky enough to have the moderate success needed to stay trapped by the clause. Ironically, those writers who are most deeply invested in The System are the ones who are going to be in the worst shape in five years, and even worse in 10 or 20, their retirement years, when they will be getting nickels instead of dollars.

You'd think agents and authors would be screaming about this development, but the ones who are most invested in The System are the ones most actively in denial. Look at the agent blogs--most are talking about how challenging the current system is and how lousy the quality of submissions are (when they are not actively making fun of some poor author's query letter), not how their roles may be diminishing, and very few (I've only found one) will admit that the current ebook clauses are suicide. I know agents have fought these battles with publishers, insisting on better e-book terms, but at the end of the day, you just get the most you can right now and take your 15 percent. Any agent who did otherwise would be either looking for job or heralded as a true advocate of the author. In other words, blackballed by New York.

In today's publishing environment, you still need an agent and the agent still needs to get a significant deal. It makes sense for them to do the best they can right now and not worry so much about the long term. Unless the client is a blockbuster, the client likely will not be earning royalties or a lifetime revenue stream anyway.

Even if you are an e-book phenomenon, you will do better if you have shelf presence. Take Boyd Morrison's deal for The Ark, after making a name selling $1.99 e-books. He was signed by a major publisher and now his e-book is $11.99 and he's not making much more per sale than he did back then--and the poor consumer is expected to pay six times the price. By Boyd's own admission, the biggest edits were some minor stuff and the changing of one character's name. Where's all that extra money going and what value was added?

Publishers are great at distributing books and can afford to ship free copies to the numerous book bloggers, who often seem to be reviewing the same book at the same time. That's been the carrot publishers are still holding out while they grip the stick to beat authors over the head. "You're not a real writer and no one will review your books" is still a powerful tool.

If publishers use the carrot to lock down long-time e-book rights, and ebooks become even 20 percent of the market (as is predicted by 2015), then those publishers have just made major bank, and will continue to do so as e-books increase in popularity. I don't see anyone predicting the genie will be shoved back in the bottle and all this new-fangled technology will get boring. After an e-book is published, it is nothing but content, and the publishers will be skimming both the cream and the milk, with little additional work besides dipping the ladle. As the e-book market grows, those publishers who have hoarded the most content will be on Easy Street. Those writers who gave the most away will be in the soup-kitchen lines, or, if they're lucky, they will be the beneficiaries of charity auctions at fan conventions.

Agents are debating whether it's better for the writers to get 15 percent of list or 25 percent of net--well, what about 70 percent of gross? How about that, Mr. Agent and Ms. Publisher? (And, by the way, you can trim 15 percent off that 15 percent, so the writer is getting around 13 percent.) And when e-books reach their natural price range of $1-$5, those writers will be getting a quarter a copy and have no control over anything, while publishers will have an easy, ongoing revenue stream because they essentially own the content (you can call it a "license," but if it's for a rock-bottom e-book floor to keep the clause active, then it will last forever).

Sure, publishers will be happy to return your rights once the content is worthless, meaning your career is dead and every drop has been squeezed from the teat. Of course, agents will get their spillover as long as their names were on the original contracts.

The odd thing is how little the word "author" appears in all this discussion of "The Future of E-books." But, then, most authors went into writing because they were lousy at math. And, I suspect, they like getting beaten with sticks.

Scott Nicholson is author of 10 novels, including Drummer Boy, The Red Church, The Skull Ring, and They Hunger. He's also written three story collections and six screenplays. He works as a journalist and freelance editor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His web site is

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What happened to your heart?

My friend and artist/writer Lee Davis had read the first part of The Red Church (my first published novel) and emailed me with his initial thoughts:

"Your understanding of humanity is crucial, ranging from complexities of the young boys' mind to the conflict of a deteriorating marriage and then on to the law that is trying to maintain the peace and keep the town from falling in on itself. I immediately felt empathy to Donnie's young and troubled thoughts at life in general as he goes inside his mind and looks at the nature of his being vs. the world. I could go on and on about that topic as it's practically the story of my life! Then the drama between Linda and David, the pain David feels, the intensity of the conflict and pain of betrayal, and Linda's harboring of a secret that she's not purged for the sake of the morality and healthiness of modern Christianity."

And it made me think about how I felt while writing that novel. The fourth I had written, and at a time when getting published was still a burning dream. But back then, I didn't want to "just" get published. I had something to say. I had stories I thought were important, that I wanted to share with readers, and which I also felt were well-crafted and important enough to reach a commercial audience. I was writing with my heart.

I had no way of knowing it would ever be published. I'd sold some short stories and won some awards, so I thought I had a decent chance, but I didn't know much about the publishing industry. But that book was a hit--alternate selection of the Mystery Guild mail-order book club, Stoker Award finalist, second printing, an amazing sell-through of 90 percent (an average of about 50 percent of all shipped mass-market paperback copies go unsold). Now it's doing well in Kindle, hitting #1 on the "Christian fantasy" bestseller list and as high as #2 in "Ghosts." Some people say it's the best book they've EVER read, including a couple who aren't related to me.

I wrote that book scared. All the fears, conflicts, family lessons, spiritual questions, pain of being human, joy of hope--all I knew about being a human being was in those early books. Even with their structural flaws, the typical internship mistakes, I still felt their power. They affected me, and my chest hummed as I typed, and I felt perhaps that vibe would transmit to the reader. I can't control that end of our transaction, as your response is your own. But I opened up and laid my heart and soul out there. Take, eat.

Somewhere along the way, I had this idea of "a career." I've always believed writers should educate themselves on professional matters, but too much attention to sales numbers, print runs, market conditions, and all the things "you should be doing" somehow become cholesterol that can clog your arteries. Your heart slows a little, perhaps seeing some publishing trend that you should have capitalized on, or some writer near your skill level and genre who gets the big break and push. Or your heart races when you jump into some publicity stunt that's bound to sell some copies. Somewhere along the line, if you're not careful, it becomes more about selling books than sharing stories. The drumbeat of "better keep your numbers up."

I developed a little cynicism that seemed to mirror the growing cynicism of the publishing industry--easy to look for blame in others. Where was my big marketing push? Where was the agent endlessly advocating? Why were my partners failing me? Of course, I was failing them in equal measure, and there's a parallel melodramatic personal story to go along with that publishing internship. I am grateful and fortunate to have been published and connect with readers. It's one of the profoundly satisfying achievements of my life, along with being a decent father and an occasionally good husband.

But the internship is over, and Act II is underway, and today we have an industry where publishers won't consider unagented manuscripts and many agents don't even bother responding to queries. The frenetic rush to cash in on a trend--or change its name, as "paranormal romance" became "urban fantasy" when the former was polluted by too many rushed, mediocre books--is coinciding with a rising do-it-yourself era, where bestsellers will still do very well but midlist writers will have to make tough choices about trying for the brass ring or going indie.

But now, even doing it myself, I say "I'd better write something that sells, so the other books get noticed and purchased and read." But that's not the reason I got into writing in the first place. I want to make a living, but I want to do it with my vision, the things inside me that make me a crazy human, insecure of rejection and egotistical enough to think my vision matters. I don't want to write a cash-in, vapid book, because all that would let me do is buy stuff. It's the reason I've avoided tie-in or corporate-owned fiction, though I've had some chances. That's just a job.

I want to write a book with heart. The kind of books I want to read, and the kind of books I think will survive when trends fade. It's amazing to me that 10 years later there's a new audience for The Red Church. The book still feels fresh. It is, because it was true, and held all the timeless things I wanted to say to the world.

My other books have it, but maybe with a little too much eye on market conditions. My least-successful novel was one I tried to make widely likable, and my last New York novel was written almost in a tooth-grinding state of passive aggression. The sum of the professional industry advice I received can be reduced to:
1) "Write it more like Stephen King"
2) "Write a thriller. They sell."
3) "Have you thought of writing a vampire novel?"

That's it. Now, I'm convinced New York knows better than me how to sell books to one another. They know their industry. I am not so sure they know how to sell books to a reader, or everything they publish would be a bestseller. I am not so sure I know how to sell books to a reader, or I would probably be writing the types of books more readers want--those trends emerge for a reason.

But the one thing I do know, and which NY probably doesn't know or care about, is my heart. All I can write is the truth inside, and let the microchips fall where they may. It's something I often forget. It might be my heart's message only gets to one reader. Maybe a few hundred or a few thousand. Maybe more.

Never once has anyone in the publishing industry asked, "Which idea inspires you? What book are you dying to write? What book would you want to leave as your epitaph? What book would you dedicate to your daughter?"

Maybe other authors have heard it, but not me. And sometimes it makes me woozy that I ever let such a philosophy hold sway over me. I forgot what I was here for. So I ask myself the question: "What happened to your heart? And what are you going to do about it?"


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

La Chiesa Rossa--red in any language

Some good insight by Sarah Jae Jones, a St. Martin's editor, on the different types of book readers and how the digital era might affect their reading habits. My own thoughts as a writer are similar--I believe the bestsellers in hardcover will still have a print following, especially those casual readers who only read the blockbusters they see on the cover of People or Entertainment Weekly--Da Vinci Code, twilight, Harry Potter, and the like. They read a few books a year, what Jones' accurately describes as "seeing what all the fuss is about." And, if you press them, those types of readers would describe themselves as "well read." I doubt if I'll ever be able to reach that audience.

The middling crowd, those counted on to support bookstores, are likely to migrate to digital books. I'll probably do both. I already read on the PC Kindle for Desktop, but I am waiting to buy an e-reader when the prices come down and there is more uniformity of format. I do like to re-read certain books, but I gave away cases and cases of books from my personal library when I realized "once was enough" or that I'd likely never be interested in reading a particular book (I used to do a lot of hoarding at rummage sales, which explains the random pile of genre fiction). I still have more paper books than I can comfortably read in a lifetime, but I've never been a trend or fad reader--I don't need the hottest bestseller or the "book everybody's talking about." I figure it will always be around and if it stands the test of time I can pick it up for a quarter in 10 years.

And that's the kind of stuff I write, the quarter books. I'm more of a disposable, working-class writer, a storyteller. I am fortunate enough to have some readers who like to collect all my books, but it would be difficult for me to sustain a hardcover audience, because that involves a huge contract. I would also have a hard--but not impossible--task of publishing genre fiction in midlist, mass-market paperback, but the cold truth is that the wait, the short shelf life, and the years and years of content loss means it's not only a bad move financially, it also doesn't really build a career.

I was talking to one of my translators about how this new era works. Making $5 a book per day may not seem much, but if you have 10 books on the market, that's $50. If you have 10 translations of those 10 books on the market, that's $500. A day. Sure, the translation work is difficult, and adds complications, but you also never know where you are going to be a hit--France, Germany, Spain, China. Everyone's buying the iPad, and the frontiers are just now busting open. In a global market, the first one overseas wins. I'm not sure I can get there fast enough, but here's to trying!