Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pension funds for writers? YESSSSS

Dean Koontz has made the observation that novels are like annuities, earning income for writers over a lifetime. Well, that's true for Koontz and a handful of writers who manage to keep books in print and on the shelves.

Given the constraints of shelf space, the product pipeline that requires a 30-day flushing of "out with the old, in with the new," and the vagaries of sales numbers and warehousing, the publishing-industry model almost guarantees a writer will have NO books on the shelf in their old age, precisely the time when they need income the most and should be enjoying the fruits of their life's orchard.

I wish I had a dollar to give a sick, starving writer every time I've seen an impassioned message-board or tweet feed on a living legend who is facing massive hospital bills and is at risk of losing everything. I'd gladly give that dollar to them. And while it's beautiful that fans and healthier writers always rise to the challenge, it's sickening that it is even necessary.

I was chilled at last year's Dragoncon when I heard fantasy writers Gene Wolfe and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro talking about the tenuous state of their careers, how slowly the money arrived from publishers ("advances" often arrive after a book is actually printed), and how they weren't even sure if they would get that next book deal.

I won't embark on an anti-NY screed here. That was so April 2010 and it was fun, but now I wish publishers the best. Reality is, Big Six publishers "license" material but in fact do everything but own it, often for years and years in which the book is not even available for sale or generating income for the writer. There is no insurance and no pension fund for writers, nor any job security or other benefits, and you get to pay your own self-employment taxes.

Let's celebrate this brave new world where writers are getting money directly in their bank accounts, and regularly. Hopefully, legends have enough control over their backlist--the sum product of a long apprenticeship and decades of personal growth in the craft--to independently release the books or turn them over to caring, fair intermediaries who will fork over the lion's share of the profits.

Today, there are only two reasons your work can't generate income on its own--someone else is keeping your own work from you or you have no audience left. Anyone who needlessly keeps a writer's work out of print today, or paying a 10 percent e-book royalty, is morally a criminal, no matter what the license says.

And as a reader, you no longer have to send in something to a charity auction--you can thank the writer by buying a print-on-demand paper book or e-book, as lucky writers independently release their work. Thank you, all you living legends, and all you writers in the trenches, and all you loyal and passionate readers, and even you publishers, who have laid the foundation for this wonderful new era of writing and reading.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Six Things I'm Grateful For Today

As a the owner of a cottage industry called Haunted Computer Books, I spend my days tweeting, blogging, boarding, networking, revising, writing, and attending the many tiny details of a dreamer's life. But this dream is real, and I can't forget how cool it is. So I offer for your consideration, and God's, these simple wonderful things:

1. The wall between me and my reader, and me and the author I am reading, is now so thin as to be blurred.

2. I don't have to ask anyone's permission to attempt the most spectacular and impossible literary or publicity stunts.

3. If you and I agree, we don't have to share our direct personal transaction with anyone--you can buy my books on my site and I send with a thanks. You are my boss, and I trust you.

4. Digital books will soon put almost every word ever written, and the sum of human knowledge, right at our fingertips, and at a low cost--or free.

5. The weirder I am, the happier I am--old rules no longer apply, nor the fear and control that go with them.

6. The future is limited only by doubt, and imagination is as vast and ever-expanding as heaven. Be brave and embrace this perfect day.

That's enough to get me to sleep tonight. Sweet dreams.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why my daughter's bookstore will be 10 inches tall

With my daughter, I visited a Border’s in Greensboro, NC, a store I may have autographed books in at one point. It’s hard to remember since most Borders stores are fairly uniform. However, since it had been a few years since I’d been in one, the impressions were really dramatic.

The biggest was my daughter (aged 10, a 99th percentile reading level) immediately leaping toward the kiosk where the Sony Readers were on display. “Kooool!” she said. I was curious myself, but first I had that primary author’s mission of seeing if I had a title in the store. Yup, one copy, with a creased corner. I signed it and put it back (face out, as required by the writer’s union) instead of asking the clerks to put an “Autographed copy” sticker on it as I used to do. The store only had two clerks that I could see, and I didn’t want to divert them from their task of whatever they do in bookstores, such as grinding Joe Muggs coffee.

I then stood back and took in the milieu and compared it to my memories of earlier Borders visits. Lots of space. Aisles were a mile wide, plenty of room to avoid bumping elbows with all those customers who weren’t there. Lots of gift items, toys, CDs, stationary, and squarish stuff that looked like books but on closer inspection were Harry Potter doo-dads, candy, card games, and other idol pleasantries branded like books. My daughter was enamored of a juggling kit, though I couldn’t quite figure out what it was doing near the Middle Grade books. Maybe it had an instruction booklet or something, so it qualified as “literary.”

I checked the fiction section and noticed a lot of uniformity even for a superstore—multiple titles of not-very-many books. I know Borders has always run a pretty tight inventory, but the lack of variety was stunning. The usual suspects had their usual sections, and Rowling still had a shrine despite not publishing in several years. Vampire romance was sprinkled liberally in virtually every genre. Branded and series books were there in droves. I have to admit, it’s much easier for six different books to stand out if they all look the same and take up forty feet of store shelves. It all felt very—corporate. In a way I’d never really noticed before, despite my hundreds of visits to bookstores of all stripes.

So I went back to the Sony Reader. If this display was intended to entice someone to purchase the device, the mission failed. The screen said “Touch operated” but didn’t really operate by touch. Giving it a serious poke triggered a well-produced video showing all the cool things the reader might do if it actually functioned. Taped above the display was “Kobo Reader, coming soon!” Not exactly an enticing endorsement for the poor Sony Reader.

Though the price was knocked down to $149, I am not going to be suckered into any reader until somebody picks a formatting horse and rides it to the checkered flag, or however they end horse races. While buying the “real book” my daughter had picked out, I asked the clerk, “Are people buying e-readers yet?”

“Not much,” he replied. “I’m one of those people who likes to hold a book and turn pages.” Maybe that’s why he didn’t walk the 20 feet to show me how the device worked, if it had actually been working, that is. Don’t quit your day job.

Outside, I asked my daughter about the e-reader, an object she’d heard about but never seen. Definitely neat, definitely something she would possess, the most fascinating object in the store to her. “If I had one of those, I wouldn’t have to pay the extra four dollars (for the hardcover) if the paperback isn’t available.”

Boom. My daughter is smarter than most of the people who run New York publishing houses.

“Touch screen, and you can highlight it, plus you can write notes with a little pen,” she added. I asked her how many of her books she would trade for one of the devices, and she said, “All of them.” With a tone like, “What would I need books for if I had that?”

“I like the smell of paper, but I think this would be easier because you can read any book you want, and you don’t have to carry 3,000 books everywhere you go.” And she didn’t even read the marketing material. Her generation gets it.

I had a tug in my gut upon seeing all those books, including titles by some of my friends. I almost got the urge to “do that again,” go through the long slog and get my books back on those shelves. But, as with those paper-sniffing, page-crinkling faddists out there, it’s only an emotional pull and not a wise business or art move. I am not even sure this Borders would still be around in the 18 to 24 months it would take to grind a book through the system.

I am pretty sure there will be a few of those fancy-schmancy ebook readers around in 18 to 24 months, and I am pretty sure my daughter’s generation will be reading most of their books on them. I am pretty sure the bulk of my future audience will be a digital crowd and won’t be coming to Borders. I am pretty sure I will keep writing. I am pretty sure I will never step into this Borders again.

“All bookstores smell the same,” my daughter said. We drove away. And I didn’t get one single twinge of nostalgia.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bestsellers on crack, bloggers on speed

Writers love to give themselves labels, and bookstores love to use labels, and publishing industry types love labels. It's easier for slotting if something is "mystery," or "horror," or whatever happens to be trendy--like all the paranormal romance authors who used to be horror writers but are now writing "urban fantasy." Book bloggers also tend to have their favorites, and seek their own brands and communities through blog hops. Same stuff, different label.

No matter how trendy, most writers just want one label: "Best selling." It's practically a category of its own, and usually comes before any genre delineation, such as "best-selling romance writer" or "best-selling historian." Writers of best sellers often must cross genre boundaries to break out big enough to get the title. And it used to be easy to determine who was a best seller, because Publisher's Weekly and the New York Times told us. And book bloggers act in concert because they have taken on the role of newspapers in reviewing and promoting books. Naturally, they are going to have the same bestsellers as everyone else.

However, those numbers have never been "floor-level data." They are based on store orders, which is why books show up as bestsellers before you ever see them in the stores. It's based on units shipped more than units sold, and why a book produced, marketed, and shipped as a best seller rarely fails to be one. Even in the era of e-book bestsellers, the numbers are based on major publisher numbers and fails to account for all the independent outlets and all the books that don't even have tracking numbers. Amazon doesn't require a number for its e-books, and only the author and Amazon know how many units sold. Amazon does a great job of constantly updating data, so the actual, real-time bestseller list is based on the previous hour's sales.

I've hit #1 in the "Ghosts" category with three books, Speed Dating with the Dead, Drummer Boy and The Red Church. I've also hit #1 in the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy list with The Red Church. Yet I hesitate to call myself a "bestseller" simply because that word has taken on loaded meaning in the industry and I feel like I would be corrupting its intent, even though it is literally true--no bestseller stays a bestseller forever, so it keeps that label merely from having once been a bestseller. Even if only for an hour. And some of the push is from the generosity of passionate book bloggers.

However, in lining up blog stops for the "90 Days of Nightmares" tour, I have started pointing out the books have hit #1--partly to overcome the perception that because these are basically self-published (through our collective press), they are somehow less legitimate and I am not a "real" author. Even though Amazon doesn't lie about such things, as far as I know!

So I use the stats, and I mention I used to publish with a "real" publisher. I promise you, based on sales and reader responses, I am more real now than I have ever been. I've been very lucky to find some passionate bloggers taking chances on indie or newer authors, without waiting to be told what's cool. I think the wheel is turning, and more and more book bloggers are going to help guide the indie ship--and, sooner or later, the indie ship is going to be the transatlantic liner. Bloggers have incredible power, and they haven't yet realized it beyond the nice cases of new books that show up every week from the big publishing houses. Some, like Kindle Nation Daily, Red Adept and Kindle Obsessed, are already riding the next wave and will become influential gatekeepers of their own.

Right now, it's still backwards--bloggers are sent new books and pretty much told what book to review when, which is why so many bloggers are reviewing and blogging about the same book at the same time. And, under the current industry system, it makes sense, because the publisher needs to push that book for a week to make room for the next bestseller. But when shelf space doesn't matter, and books are available 24/7 all around the world forever, a different type of ripple can form.

And that's where progressive bloggers are going to become the new gatekeepers, possibly more powerful than agents and editors (and, possibly in 5 to 10 years, more influential than the major buyers for the big chain bookstores). All it takes is a willingness to read and review a book for its own sake and with no promise of free "product" and giveaways. Bloggers, you're going to create the next generation of bestsellers! I think that is a precious gift and a beautiful service to literature. Indie bloggers will shape the indie scene in unforeseen and magical ways.

Now, time to go off and try to hit #1 again! Being a bestseller isn't what it used to be.

And book blogging hasn't even begun to be what it's going to be.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book of chips

We had a great discussion tonight at the library about how e-books are changing the world--in how content is experienced, in how authors deliver it, and in how various media are going to co-exist and overlap. I believe the e-book model is going to roll in faster than most industry and tech analysts expect, with expectations about six months ago that e-books would comprise 15 percent of the market in five years. Now 50 percent in five years is the general agreement. I think it will happen exponentially faster than that, as various pressure points collide--more and cheaper e-books, more established authors moving over to independent publishing, and cheaper e-readers and tablets that will put them in the reach of most households.

I remember in the late 1990s when people were raving about e-books as the immediate future. I laughed at them. I remember in 2002 when I signed my first book deal and e-books weren't mentioned, or the next year when I gladly gave away half the digital rights because "they were worth nothing." I even had some short stories on FictionWise that earned me a dollar every month or two--I was laughing then. Then I put up my out-of-print title The Red Church in January.

I put it out with a little bit of trepidation, afraid my peers would snub me because I was "vanity publishing." Actually, they didn't notice. They had their own worries, like declining paper sales and the real fear of getting dumped by their publishers. The Red Church went out solid and has stayed steady. Enough that I have put out three original titles this year, something I would have considered unthinkable even a year ago. My mindset has revolutionized itself. I am no longer laughing.

Since I entered this new arena, my creative life has been fulfilled and joyful--there's not enough time in the day to do all the things that should be done. Promotion, blogs, tweets, reading up on my new "industry" (though it is much more like a village than a factory), getting formatting and covers, and making time to write. It's probable that money will follow, because I am now doing what I fully love. But even if money doesn't come, I have won--I have found the right thing to be doing, and the best reason to do it.

Because I work for you. You can fire me if you want. You can buy my next book and encourage me to write another. You can make me drop my price. You can tell me I need to write a different kind of story. You can change the way I deliver content and stories (and it will change in ways we can't even imagine). I'll work for you as long as you will let me. You're the boss. Thank you for giving me the best job in the world.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shane Kirshenblatt is a modern Michelangelo

The amazing Shane Kirshenblatt is providing original, limited-edition sketch cards for those placing Grave Conditions pre-orders. Shane illustrated Brian Keene's story "Burying Betsy" in Grave Conditions and the sketches are from various scenes in the book. This talented, hard-working artist is going places, so you better grab these valuable collector items. Only 16 remain as of today.

You also get some Digger sketch cards signed by me, but don't let that scare you away!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Four Ways to Be A Better Reader

I've heard that people are more likely to read a blog with short bulleted lists because then they can skim to the most useful information. So I am leaving out all the information you don't need and hitting the high spots (but I'll bet you didn't read this because you went right to the bullets.)

1. Use your library. If you haven't been in a while, your library is not just books anymore. I love to grab audiobooks for long car trips. It's sort of like averaging an extra book per week. They also have computers!

2. Read aloud to kids. You want your kids to develop good habits and be able to educate themselves, or else they will have to rely on others for an education that's probably going to suit the educator better than it suits the child. Any reading is good reading--comics, picture books, tweets, blogs, Don't just cram down the usual "classics." MOBY DICK has killed the joy of reading in millions of teens. TWILIGHT has created millions of readers.

3. Diversify. Keep a book by the bed, by the tub, in the seat of your car for red-light stops; try e-books, you may find them convenient. While buying books supports more writing and books, free and cheap is good, too.

4. Spread the love. Tell friends about books you like and engage in conversations. You might be surprised who else has read the same book. That's a better, more intimate connection than "American Idol."

There. How to be a better reader without having to read too much about being a better reader!


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Readers as slush-pile slaves

Some people fear the new era of indie publishing will lead to a tide of bad books, with readers swamped by millions of titles.

This fear is fed in part by fearful gatekeepers like Laura Miller of Salon, whose recent article warned of readers faced with unlimited choices and how terrible this is going to be (because Laura Miller will no longer have to tell them what they need to read from among the limited number of major titles of which she approves).

It took about 15 years for Amazon to reach five million paper titles. Last year, three-fourths of the million new titles were self-published (or indie or vanity press, whichever you prefer). Undoubtedly hundreds of thousands more didn't get ISBNs and so weren't counted. Right now there are a little more than half a million ebooks out, growing by the hundreds daily.

I fully expect there will be 10 million different ebooks available in two years. I am not worried at all, either as an author or reader. I am not "competing" against others and I am not lost when I want to find new writers outside the purview of New York and its specific requirements (namely, profit).

I don't think all indies are going to "raise the bar." Some writers are totally oblivious to their shortcomings (I'm probably among them). Writing gets into that weird land of ego and insecurity, because it is such an intimate medium. A lot of people who have multi-rejected books will throw them out there. Probably sell some. Not write any more or bother to build an audience. You probably will never know about them. A few good ones will emerge. You might know about them if they are in genres that interest you. Otherwise, you probably won't.

What is more likely to happen is you find books in your favored genres, both good and bad, just as you did before. Some you will like, and you won't care whether they are "good" or "bad," only that you like them. You'll buy more by the author or more that resemble them, or more that Amazon says "Customers who bought this also bought these titles..."

I have no idea what Lady Gaga sings like, or Brittney Spears, or Miley Cyrus. I would not recognize them if they were beside me in a check-out line. I have successfully avoided them because I am not interested in them. Yet I discover just as much new music as I need in the areas that interest me, and much of it would be considered "bad" by most listeners, because it's not mainstream popular. It wouldn't make the cut of American Idol. But I found it, and it works for me and some other people. Maybe that's all it was meant to do. The rest doesn't bother me. I am not actively "weeding." I am simply moving in the communities that interest me, and that community reinforces the interests. I trust it. A lot. Way more than I do a publishing industry whose sole purpose is to get money from me.

One-to-one. Words to reader. Doesn't get much simpler than that.