The wider road of publishing

I read some posts on Facebook today lamenting how publishing has gotten to be a soul-killing mess, bookstores and libraries are going into the toilet, and other things. In some ways these are legitimate complaints.

Here’s the bottom line, and I’m putting it right up on top:

A: The publishing industry has changed a lot.

B: It’s not all bad. Not by a long shot.

In the old days (not that long ago) you had mostly the major publishers and the bookstores. You had a few authors that made it big, some authors that made a decent living (fewer than you’d think, even among well-known names), a boatload of authors with unsold manuscripts collecting dust, and a mighty boatload of authors who never got to the point of getting a manuscript finished.

If you were a writer, there was nothing in front of you but a line of hurdles. You’d bust your butt jumping one, and there was another one. And another. Some of them were a lot higher than others, and if you couldn’t make it past one you sat on the track with nowhere else to go.

I look at the track now, and something interesting has happened. The publishers, agents, and the the rest are still there. The hurdles are still there, and you can still jump them. But the track itself has gotten a hell of a lot wider, and now if you want you can go up to some of these hurdles and…just go around them.

My first book, Castle Falcon, went the standard route of agents and publishers, and it didn’t work out (long story). The book could have sat there and molded as I went on to the next ones. But a year or so ago, I took a look and saw that I had new options that my favorite authors of my younger days could only dream of.

I published the book myself. It took some learning, and the messy details can be found elsewhere on this blog (go down to that tag cloud on the sidebar, and click that great big “Self-Publishing” tag).

I made a POD softcover book (Createspace), I made e-books (Kindle, Nook), and I even made a real live Lulu hardcover with a dust jacket (mostly just because I could). I put all of it out for sale on ready-made systems that let people buy them over their computers.

I didn’t have to spend thousands getting crates of books printed and try to figure out how to get them in stores while they sat in my garage becoming rat farms. Remember when that’s what “self-published” used to mean?

It cost me time and effort, and I was fortunate to already have some computing tools and a bit of artistic skill, but none of it cost me a dime.

Am I getting rich now? Is this one of those stories you read about the self-publisher who struck gold?

Hell, no. I’m not even making a living at it. Sales are almost nil, trickling at best. But they’re there. Yog’s Law is in force, and the money is trickling toward me, not away.

And I’ve got readers. Not a lot of readers, but real readers who paid to see my stuff. My work isn’t languishing on a shelf or in a drawer in dusty spiralbound drafts. That’s not wild success, but it ain’t chopped liver either.

It isn’t just self-publishing that’s changing things. In the regular publishing industry the Big Boys might look moribund, but I look out there and see small publishers coming out of the woodwork in all directions. I used to go onto Absolute Write’s Bewares and Background Checks and it was almost all agents. In the past couple of years it seems like the new entries are all publishers. Little publishers, trying out the new wider road, and providing even more options for writers to get their books out there.

It’s not just regular books either. I read comics, and in the old days if you had writing or drawing talent, you worked for one of the big comic companies or basically, you didn’t get published. There were some notable exceptions, but not many.

Now there’s online comics, and some amazing talent is finding an audience. Anyone can set up a webpage to get their work out there. WordPress and others have specific formats just for online comics. Many of these artists are even using the new book publishing tools and things like Kickstarter to get their work into actual print. Again, getting there by another road, going around the old hurdles and gatekeepers. Are they getting rich? Hell, no. But they have fans, and readers, and what money there is still trickles toward the artists.

Yes, publishing has changed. The old routes haven’t gone away, and some of the hurdles are even higher than they used to be, but the road is wide now, miles wide, with plenty of new routes.

I’m still trying out the regular route to get my other two books published, jumping those damn hurdles. Oh, yeah, it would still rock to see my books in a real bookstore. Surprised? But if they don’t make it, I’m not left sitting on the track in front of a hurdle I couldn’t clear.

An angel, or maybe my Muse, told me once that no writer is a failure who has readers.

I’m telling you that any readers are better than no readers, and any money is better than no money.

Now tie up those track shoes, and get that manuscript out of the drawer.

The books of my childhood

I was a voracious reader as a child, but my access to books was limited. For many years I didn’t live near any large public libraries, never mind any real bookstores, so the school library was my primary source of reading material. I liked science fiction, fantasy, and of course nonfiction about things like space, submarines, and dinosaurs. It didn’t take long to run all the way through some of the shelves and have to start over. I remember some favorite books where my name was the only one on the library card in the back of the book, over and over again.

Years later, when I tried to locate my own copies of my old favorites, I was amazed to find out how many were out of print, and only available as used books, often expensive. These weren’t obscure books either. They were classics in their time.

Why did these get left behind? I don’t know. Most of the authors have passed on, and maybe their estates aren’t that enthusiastic about the books. Maybe it’s the publishers.

One good example (of many) would be Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books. There were five of them:

  • The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, illustrated by Robert Henneberger.
  • Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, illustrated by Robert Henneberger.
  • Mr. Bass’s Planetoid, illustrated by Louis Darling (who illustrated many of my favorite childhood books).
  • A Mystery for Mr. Bass, illustrated by Leonard Shortall.
  • Time and Mr. Bass, illustrated by Fred Meise.

Of these, only the first book is still in print, and that edition has no illustrations at all inside.

Over the years, I managed to scrounge up all the rest in their older editions (except for A Mystery for Mr. Bass, still on my wait list). But why aren’t these great old books still being printed, illustrations and all?

I don’t have an answer. Even if publishers think printing new paper copies is too expensive for the return, why not produce e-books of the original works? Heck, I could do it myself with a scanner if I had the time and incentive, but I couldn’t sell them. How hard would it be for a publisher to assign a few people to do it properly?

I’m keeping my eyes open. I’ve seen a few old favorites get picked up by small specialty publishers, and maybe the Mushroom Planet books will be noticed by one of them. Until then, there’s always the libraries, and the musty old books on my own shelves.

Katie and Zach pushed open the library door and went in. The building was new, but if you came into the library with your eyes closed and took a deep breath, you might visualize an ancient room with lacquered wood shelves reaching far over your head, sunlight streaming through high windows with dust floating in the sunbeams, and horsehair chairs at wooden tables with old brass lamps on them. Few things smell as good as a library where many of the books are older than you are.

Castle Falcon

(Mr. Bass at work. Illustration by Robert Henneberger)

The first 250 words

I’ve been involved in several writing contests where the entry calls for your pitch and the first 250 words, or sometimes just the first 250 words.

This is fine, and it’s kind of fun, but I’m worried that some new authors are getting the idea that if you don’t shoot the Sheriff in the first two paragraphs, you’re not going to get an agent’s attention. I suspect that many entries have been specifically “tuned” to the contests. There have been too many cases of the “hook” arriving in the last sentence of the 250 words to be a pure coincidence.

The way I see it, most readers buy a book for these main reasons:

  • It’s an author the reader likes and she knows what they’ll deliver.
  • The reader checked out the cover and the back of the book or the end papers.
  • The reader saw a review or a friend recommended it.

If they’ve gotten that far, most readers will happily plow through a few pages of gray, gray Kansas to get to Oz.

An agent can’t do these things when they’re checking out a new author, so they typically request a pitch/query to lay out the whole idea, and the first chapter to demonstrate writing ability. A whole chapter gives the writer a little more slack. The first 250 words in the examples I’ve collected below may be mundane, but almost all of the books they are taken from have you into some real action before the first chapter ends.

Usually only contests cram us down to the first quarter page, or even loglines or Twitter pitches. Again, I hastily add that I’m perfectly okay with that, especially since the judges are good-hearted volunteers who don’t deserve being buried in hundreds of pages.

Still, it’s important to remember that ultimately you’re writing for readers (and agents), not for contests. Make the pacing work for the story. There’s a lot to be said for “hooks” and “grabbing the reader right away,” but I’ve read many a good book that eased you into the story a lot more quietly.

A few 250 word examples after the break:

Continue reading

“Kindle Worlds:” Amazon creates licensed fanfic model

How does it work? From what I gather Amazon gets a license on a popular fiction property, and then fans get to legally make money with their fanfic of that property. Sounds like a good idea on paper, but I can see some possible problems.

So far, Amazon has announced licenses for Gossip Girl, by Cecily von Ziegesar; Pretty Little Liars, by Sara Shepard; and Vampire Diaries, by L. J. Smith. A lot depends on whether they can secure licenses for the really hot properties, and I’m thinking the major players in books and movies (the ones that generate the most fanfic now) might not be that eager to get on board.

Rules say “no pornography,” which from my limited knowledge of fanfic may also put a considerable damper on things.

Kindle Worlds page

Official Amazon press release


So, I enter Zorya into the “Pitch+250” contest, where everyone enters a pitch and then the first 250 words. I got cut in the first round, but they sent me a detailed scorecard (which was pretty cool of them) and this comment from the judge:

“This could be a really good story but I didn’t get enough sense of what happens or the stakes from the pitch. Since I’m guessing most of the action happens when Zorya’s exiled, I wanted to know more about this and the stakes to her.”

Everyone had to cut their pitch to 100 words for the contest. Much of what I had to cut was the action during Zorya’s exile.


Trapped in a world of their own making

From the Wall Street Journal: “How to Kill a Vampire (Series).”

The article details the tribulations of authors whose popular series and characters have taken over their careers. Then when they decide to wind a series up, they have to deal with legions of upset fans clamoring for more. The main example in the article is Charlaine Harris and her “Sookie Stackhouse” series.

I can imagine the unpublished authors out there shaking their heads: “Lord, please curse me with that problem!” Yeah, me too. It might be stifling to some writers to spend much of their career in one world with one set of characters (“prisoners of their own creations” as the article puts it, referring to Arthur Conan Doyle), but there are some positive angles to it, too.

In a long-running series your world-building work is largely behind you, but you can still add new places if you really want to. Your characters settle down in your mind, and in some cases practically write themselves. While many authors put their characters through “arcs” of personal growth and change (Harry Potter, Sookie Stackhouse), others write characters who are essentially unchanged through the whole series. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one example. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are the same through 46 books, and don’t even age noticeably between the 1930s and the 1970s.

There are other advantages, too, not least of which is that a long-running series builds a large, loyal audience that will reliably buy new books in the series, sometimes waiting in line to get them. This makes your publisher, your agent, movie producers, and your bank account very happy.

I still remember when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. My family was in the line at the local Borders bookstore, along with hundreds of others. When the time came for the release, and carts of the books were rolled in, there were screams like you hear at rock concerts. Imagine writing a book that does that. Imagine writing books that make you a billionaire.

Best of luck to those authors trying to move on to different things and stretch themselves, but there are worse things than a prosperous, celebrated, and beloved writing legacy wrapped around one series of books.

Crowd waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Border’s

Ray Harryhausen, RIP

Ray Harryhausen has died at the age of 93.

Ray Harryhausen

Harryhausen was a master of movies, not a writer, but anyone my age who loves fantasy and science fiction books was into his movie work at least as much as they were into the written work of Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and all the rest.

Bradbury in particular was a close friend of Harryhausen’s. Most people know that Harryhausen’s Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was based on Bradbury’s story “The Fog Horn,” but not as many know that Bradbury’s short story, “Tyrannosaurus Rex” was based on Harryhausen.

If you’ve got some time to kill, here are the full versions of Jason and the Argonauts, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and the “Tyrannosaurus Rex” episode of Ray Bradbury Theater.

DailyMotion link

DailyMotion link

YouTube link

E-mail query hazards (the Invisible Goofies)

I got a rejection back yesterday, the normal polite variety, but the editor added a friendly and cautionary note about the screwed-up formatting of my e-mail.

My original query was copied on the bottom of her reply, and boy, was it ever screwed up. I’ve had issues in the past with e-mail queries, usually involving line spacing problems at the other end. This time not only was the line spacing wrong, but all the apostrophes and quote marks in the query and writing sample had magically transformed into spaces, which was a new one on me. The result was almost indecipherable, especially the dialogue sequences.

I’m aware that most agents and editors don’t have the time to pass friendly corrections back to authors. This one was a welcome exception, thank goodness. I have six queries out now. How many of them ended up at the other end looking like they were typed by archy the cockroach? For all I know, half a dozen agents are out there now looking at gibberish and not telling me!

Well, nothing to be done about that now, but I’ll be more careful in the future. My own fault–I got lazy, and didn’t rigorously follow my own rules.

Formatting E-mails:

Almost all agents want to see e-mail queries now. This is almost a complete reversal of what things were like only a few short years ago when hard copy was the rule, and only a few agents took e-mail. When you write a letter and print it on paper, you can be pretty sure it’s going to show up on the agents desk without all the spacing and fonts mysteriously changed. Not so for e-mail.

Formatting is tricky. If you copy something into an outgoing e-mail from a word processor, almost certainly something invisible and goofy is going to be copied over too. Even if you compose the e-mail directly in your e-mail program, if you get too fancy about formatting the same kind of “Invisible Goofy” errors can sneak in. Sending test mails to yourself is a good idea, but not foolproof. The gibberish e-mail I sent to the editor transmitted just fine to my own address in tests, and still looks perfectly normal sitting in my “Sent” file.

Here’s how you go about making sure you have a “clean” e-mail, or at least as clean as possible (my example uses Microsoft Outlook, but most e-mail programs should have similar functions):

– Compose the e-mail, query, synopsis, writing sample and all into one e-mail. Almost all agents will want to see these things in the body of the e-mail itself, not an attached document. There are very few exceptions, and they’ll mention it on their websites.

– If you must import text from another application, use “import as plain text” when you can. In Outlook, this is done under the “Paste Special” function, which has a line called “unformatted text.” This will take any complex formatting and fancy fonts and paste it in as plain text.

– When you like the look of what you’ve got in the composition window, play it extra safe by converting the entire e-mail to “plain text” format.  This will strip any remaining Invisible Goofies out. Yeah, your nice formatting, including italics and boldface, will disappear with them. In Outlook there are three format options in my New Mail composition window under, well, “Options.” They are “Plain Text,” “HTML,” and “Rich Text.” Picking Plain Text on this menu does the stripping job.

– Now switch the e-mail format to HTML, or whatever the simplest step above Plain Text is in your particular e-mail program that allows access to things like italics and boldface.  I don’t like “Rich Text,” which has the highest level of formatting flexibility, but in my experience also has the highest probability of slipping Invisible Goofies into your e-mail query.

– Edit your e-mail inside the composition window to restore things like italics and boldface that were stripped out. Refer to another copy of your query, synopsis and writing sample to make sure everything you really need gets back in there. If an agent likes the writing sample double-spaced, you can fix that in the composition window too if the format command to do it is available. Be careful restoring your basic formatting, but it’s better to have an italicized word sneak through as plain text than to have all your apostrophes turn into spaces.

The resulting e-mail should be okay to send.

Yeah, it’s a pain to strip a long e-mail down to Plain Text and then go to HTML (or whatever) and rebuild just the few format bits you need. Remember I said I’d gotten lazy–I’ve just been copying old queries from previously-sent e-mails into new ones, and it seemed to work just fine, but that’s just what I did to create the recent Mystery Mess, so there you go.

When in doubt, do it the hard way. Twenty minutes more of your time may save you from looking like a dork at that big agency you’re trying to impress.

Invisible Goofy