Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Local Approach to Authors and to Publishing

In case I haven't noted it before, Napier's Bones has not been getting a whole lot of love from any local sources. CZP sent copies to the Star-Phoenix here in Saskatoon and also the the Journal in Edmonton (Edmonton will qualify as a local source because I grew up there, because I used to write for that paper, because I have family there and regularly visit, and because part of the novel takes place there), but no reviews were done, no articles written, no mention made of my launch at McNally Robinson here in Saskatoon. In addition, no launch took place in Edmonton (in spite of some hopeful signs, but in the end all that arrived was frustrating silence), and it took some effort to therefore convince the libraries to order in copies of the book. And don't get me started on how Saskatoon Public Library has now shelved the novel as YA. In the end, aside from the launch at McNally and a later signing at the recently-refurbished Coles in downtown Saskatoon, the only local push I got was an interview in Planet S, the local free arts paper. Even Indigo, which had a co-op deal with my publisher, made a hash of things, and the manager-who-no-longer-works-there neglected to order the books until it was too late to get at the front (or even middle) of things.

Anyhow, now that I'm done bitching about all of that, I wanted to take the rest of this space to write about a new publication here in town called Bridges, published by the Star-Phoenix as a free weekly, which means even if you don't subscribe to the paper, this will still show up in your mailbox. In a never-ending pattern of plenty of newspaper chains (and Postmedia, the Star-Phoenix's corporate masters), there is a new path towards getting the word out yourself, instead of paying for a real author, real photographer, and real editor to do any kind of real work. The first sign of that is a new feature for local authors to write in and tell about their book, and to of course supply their own photo. Of course, the Journal has also done their own bit to give up more power to the readers, but that is neither here nor there right now.

Will I write a piece for this? I suppose I probably will, seeing how important it is to get the word out about my novel, and doubly so now that the initial window of interest has come and gone. Remember, it's all about What Have You Done For Me Today.

To take this digression a little further, while still staying with the publication at hand, last week's Bridges (only just now online) has a cover article about self-publishing, and I find myself wanting to answer a few things in it. In the interest of ease, I am going to attempt to address these in the order in which they arrive in the article.

1. In the article, Wes Funk says, "Every letter I got was quite praising of the book... But they told me they couldn't afford to take on an unknown (author)."

Now, I may be wrong here, but without evidence, I'm going to suggest that this may be a bit of hyperbole. Every letter? Listen: Editors and publishers want - desire, even - to discover someone new and fresh. It's a big deal to do so. Sometimes, those discoveries come off the slush pile, that stack of unsolicited manuscripts sitting in every publishing office around the world. Hell, the fact that anything worth publishing comes off the slush pile is a reason to celebrate, and no editor is going to turn down that opportunity.

At the risk of hurting feelings, I am going to instead suggest that Wes Funk received rejection letters (not all, of course) that were written in a way to very gently let him down. For whatever reason (and sometimes it has nothing to do with quality of the writing and the story), his book didn't speak to those editors, or perhaps it caught them on the wrong day, or after they'd already read portions of six other books that had similar themes and/or characters, and they decided to pass.

By the way, did you catch that word in the last sentence? Let me repeat it for you: Portions. The bad news here is, if you don't catch the editor or agent in the first sentence, you may have lost him or her already. And then, if the first sentence works but the first paragraph doesn't, again the editor may bail. And if that first paragraph works, but the first page doesn't, or the first chapter, or... Well, you get the idea. I haven't read Dead Rock Stars, so I don't know if it's missing anything in this area, but I will make an effort to track it down and make up my own mind. Because, as I've also noted, it may be that Funk just caught the wrong eyeballs on the wrong day.

2. The article goes on to say, "Any given year, a traditional publishing house, like Random House or Penguin, could receive as many as 3000 manuscript submissions a year. Of those, it's likely only 15 will make it onto bookstore shelves."

I won't speak to how many mss are received each year by the various publishers. I know it is indeed a large number. But a quick Google search tells me that Random House in the US is featuring 35 new titles for Fall orders, and going to "Upcoming Releases" for Penguin Canada kicks out 500 titles (I'll grant that "new" could mean a variety of things here, but bear with me). Are all those titles going to make it to the shelves of McNally-Robinson? Probably not. Are all of them going to appear of a variety of shelves in different stores? Here, I would suggest that yes they will.

3. The article talks about how Funk did everything himself, publishing and media releases and finding stores to carry it and cover design.

Yes, this is pretty much the definition of self-publishing, where you do everything yourself. Now, here is the point where I tell you all that it is not my job to be critical of the author. You may find info and a picture of the cover for Dead Rock Stars here, but without holding that book in my hands I can't tell you whether or not that cover really works for me. Besides, coming as I do from the garish world of scifi and fantasy, who am I to talk? But I will point out that hiring a professional for this sort of task is usually a very good idea.

4. Funk states, "Even a lot of renowned writers and authors are now turning to self publishing."

I will grant that, in spite of the redundancy of the above statement, and will cover a couple of examples at the end.

5. The article says that McNally Robinson in Saskatoon estimate they have over 300 self-published titles on their store shelves right now.

As opposed to? Does anyone care to take a guess at how many "traditionally" published books are on those same shelves? I haven't asked, but I'll take a wild stab and say that if could be anywhere from 7500 to 20,000 individual titles. Perhaps more, since so many are mass market paperbacks or slim picture books, and there is a 2nd floor as well.

A more sensible statement would be that there are over 300 titles and X percentage of them are selling regularly, even if not briskly.

6. The article also quotes Jeff Smith, who runs a company here in town called Indie Ink. He says, "Frankly a traditional publisher who hasn't figured out that the world is changing is on borrowed time."

As is any business person. The good news here is that most publishers I am acquainted with has indeed figured out that the world is changing. Their reactions are often different as they cast about for what will be the right answer for them and for their creators, but they are making an effort to change.

But let me quote from Indie Ink's website. The home page starts with the words "Create, collaborate, celebrate" and then asks what they mean. It also says "the old model is dying; its carcass huddling inward upon itself, licking its mortal wounds and surrounding itself with the trusted and familiar." That carcass is of course traditional publishing.

Delving deeper into the site, we find this as the only discussion of costs: "So who pays for all this? Maybe we do, maybe you do, or maybe we share the costs. It depends on the project and the players. Every deal is different, but one thing is certain, when everyone has a stake in the game, everyone stays focused and realistic. No fat and no Armani."


Just so we're clear, what this says to me is that different people are going to get different deals, kind-of-but-not-really like how Stephen King and I got different advances for our last novels. All of a sudden it sounds to me like a traditional publishing model, except for the part where you have to fork over some of your own dough. Only, if you have Most Favored Nation status, you don't have to pay as much. I think. I'd know for sure, but they're being awfully secretive about it.

Also, Armani? Wow, do we ever live in different worlds. Almost every editor I know, and I know a lot, dresses every bit as well as almost every writer I know (LE Modesitt, Jr is an outlier here). In other words, just like regular people. The same goes for publishers, although I know fewer of them.

There would be more I could say, but you get the point, I hope.

I don't question the wisdom behind self-publishing anymore. If done right and with care, it can be a good thing. I'm seeing that a fair number of my friends are getting into it for ebooks, as a way to bring older works back into "print." Jim Kelly is doing a zine of his short fiction, and Doug Smith is also selling his older short work online. Even more interesting to me is Minister Faust going out on his own for his new book, and I will follow with interest what comes of it. I know that he has opted to print some actual books after initially only going with an ebook. And of course Cory Doctorow has documented (start here) the process for With a Little Help, but I have always contended that Cory is a special case. More power to him, but what he does will not work for all of us.

In case I'm not preaching to the choir, anyone who is thinking about self-publishing needs to make sure that they check out Preditors and Editors for all the info on who and what to steer clear of. If you are paying money to anyone, it needs to be for the printing service, not for all sorts of starry-eyed ideas about how to market your book. Plain and simple, that's what you want. Avoid the Publish America (no link, but lots of stuff on the web about how nasty they are) model at all costs.

And that sort of warning is, I suppose, why I felt the need to write this post. Because the Bridges article had nothing to say about the dangers, and they are many and very real. In the meantime, I have vented, and now I can rest easy, at least until the next time I read something that sparks something.

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Ah, Derryl, never at a loss for words. In this particular case, though I have never had the honor/pain of self publishing, I have a better appreciation for your side of the story than the one in Bridges. Things are indeed changing and with change comes people willing to rip you off for that change.

If I may make a suggestion, since you obviously feel strongly about this, have you approached the editorial staff at Bridges and asked them if you could write a "counter point" to the original article? Highlighting some of the risks of self-publishing, but also some of the ways to reduce that risk? Self publishing will never be risk free but you may be able to steer people in the right direction and save some of them a great deal of pain.
I may, Don. Sometimes, though, I'm just at the eye-rolling point in my life, y'know? I spent years working to help people avoid these traps and pitfalls, and part of me just wants to hide in a corner and wait for everyone to shoot themselves in the collective foot.
His statistics are full of crap.

Random House has around 60 direct lines, which would mean each of those houses (say Del Rey or McClelland Stewart) is each producing only one book every 4 years.

The new release section in Saskatoon MRB has space (after the reductions due to the bankruptcy two years ago) for about 80-120 new Mass market facings, of which about half will be duplicates (many not duplicated at all, some, like GRR Martin, having 8-16 faces). Even if new books stay there for 90 days (which they certainly never did in the past) that is minimum of ten new fantasy MM per month

When I counted inventory at the Saskatoon Store in February, McNally Saskatoon had more than 2000 individual titles (titles, not copies) in SFF&H alone. Seems to me the last time I looked at the total lines for the inventory counts, they were running around 70,000, of which perhaps half were non-book/non-unique(magazines, gift ware, toys and books in a duplicate location.) I would say, at a slow time of year, they have about 30-50 thousand unique book titles on the shelf.

Last year, Bowker reported U.S. publishing was "flat" with about the same number of new titles published as in 2008, at a little over 275000.
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