Why Bestselling Authors may just be Lucky

Creative people know any field where Intellectual Property is the primary value of something is going to be treated subjectively like the customer. It’s one thing to have a plumber who can either fix a leaky pipe properly and on time or who can’t. But writing a book, making a movie or music video, or a card game are totally subjective. These tend to have the very top 1% making a lot of money from their IP, maybe another 3% earning solid money from their IP, and everyone else is just doing it for the passion.

For years people have wondered though, why do some people make so much more money than others? How come one idea takes off, while 20 similar ideas don’t? Two researchers tried to  crack that code this week with their new book, The Bestsellers Code. I’ve added my reactions to help explain what they mean:

 

Back in the spring of 2010, Stieg Larsson’s agent was having a good day. On June 13, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest—third in the series from a previously unknown author—debuted at number one in hardback in the New York Times

The following month Amazon would announce Larsson was the first author ever to sell a million copies on the Kindle, and over the next two years sales in all editions would top seventy-five million. Not bad for an unknown political activist—turned-novelist from a little Scandinavian country, especially one who had chosen a rather uncharming title in Swedish and had written some brutal scenes of rape and torture.Men Who Hate Women—or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as it was renamed in English—was the sensation book of the year in more than thirty countries.

The press didn’t understand the success. Major newspapers commissioned opinion pieces on what on earth was going on in the book world. Why this book? Why the frenzy? What was the secret? Who could have known?

Answers were lackluster. Reviewers scratched their heads about it. They found fault with the novel’s structure, style, plotting, and character. They groaned over the translations. They complained about the stupidity of the reading public. But still copies sold as fast as they were printed—whether you were in the UK, the U.S., in Japan, or in Germany; whether you were male, female, old, young, black, white, straight, or gay. Whoever you were, practically anywhere, you knew people who were reading those books.

That doesn’t happen very often in the book world…The level of sales his trilogy achieved without even the backing of its author was supposedly just unfathomable. Freakish. Unpredictable.

Let’s consider some numbers. A company in Delaware called Bowker is the global leader in bibliographic information and the exclusive provider for unique identification numbers (ISBN) for books in the U.S. Their annual report states that approximately fifty to fifty-five thousand new works of fiction are published every year. Given the increasing number of self-published ebooks that carry no ISBN, this is a conservative number. In the U.S., about 200-220 novels make the New York Times bestseller lists every year. Of that…even fewer hit the bestseller lists and stay there week after week to become what the industry calls a “double-digit” book. Only handfuls of authors manage those ten or more weeks on the list, and of those maybe just three or four will sell a million copies of a single title in the U.S. in one year. Why those books?

Traditionally, it is believed that there are certain skills a novelist needs to master in order to win readers: a sense of plot, compelling characters, more than basic competence with grammar. Writers with big fan bases have mastered more: an eye for the human condition, the twists and turns of plausibility, that rare but appropriate use of the semicolon…But when it comes to the kind of success involved in hundreds of thousands of people reading the same book at the same time—well, unless Oprah is involved, that signals the presence of a fine stardust that’s apparently just too difficult to detect. The sudden and seemingly blessed success of books like the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Help, Gone Girl, and The Da Vinci Code is considered very lucky, but as random as winning the lottery.

 

So these guys are essentially admitting that publishers have no idea how to identify a bestseller, right? And that there’s a lot of random chance in why one book is “it” and 5,000 other books similar to “it” just don’t have “it.”

 

White Swans

The bold claim of this book is that the novels that hit the New York Times bestseller lists are not random, and the market is not in fact as unknowable as others suggest. Regardless of genre, bestsellers share an uncanny number of latent features that give us new insights into what we read and why. What’s more, algorithms allow us to discover new and even as yet unpublished books with similar hallmarks of bestselling DNA.

There is a commonly repeated “truth” in publishing that success is all about an established name, marketing dollars, or expensive publicity campaigns. Sure, these things have an impact, but our research challenges the idea it’s all about hype in a way that should appeal to those writers who toil over their craft. Five years of study suggests that bestselling is largely dependent upon having just the right words in just the right order, and the most interesting story about the NYT list is about nothing more or less than the author’s manuscript, black ink on white paper, unadorned.

Using a computer model that can read, recognize, and sift through thousands of features in thousands of books, we discovered that there are fascinating patterns inherent to the books that are most likely to succeed in the market, and they have their own story to tell about readers and reading. In this book we will describe how and why we built such a model and how it discovered that eighty to ninety percent of the time the bestsellers in our research corpus were easy to spot. Eighty percent of New York Times bestsellers of the past thirty years were identified by our machines as likely to chart. What’s more, every book was treated as if it were a fresh, unseen manuscript and then marked not just with a binary classification of “likely to chart” or “likely not to,” but also with a score indicating its likelihood of being a bestseller. These scores are fascinating in their own right, but as we show how they are made we will also share our explanation for why that book on your bedside table is so hard to put down.

Consider some of these percentages. The computer model’s certainty about the success of Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, was 95.7 percent. For Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer it was 99.2 percent. Both were number one in hardback on the NYT list, which for a long time has been one of the most prestigious positions to occupy in the book world. These are veteran authors, of course, already established. But the model is unaware of an author’s name and reputation and can just as confidently score an unknown writer. The score for The Friday Night Knitting Club, the first novel by Kate Jacobs, was 98.9 percent. The Luckiest Girl Alive, a very different debut novel by Jessica Knoll, had a bestselling success score of 99.9 percent based purely on the text of the manuscript. Both Jacobs and Knoll stayed on the list for many weeks. The Martian (before Matt Damon’s interest in playing the protagonist) got 93.4 percent. There are examples from all genres: The First Phone Call from Heaven, a spiritual tale by Mitch Albom, 99.2 percent; The Art of Fielding, a literary debut by Chad Harbach, 93.3 percent; and Bared to You, an erotic romance by Sylvia Day, 91.2 percent.

These figures, which provide a measure of bestselling potential, have made some people excited, others angry, and more than a few suspicious. In some ways that is fair enough: the scores are disruptive, mind-bending. To some industry veterans, they are absurd. But they also could just change publishing, and they will most certainly change the way that you think about what’s inside the next bestseller you read.

We should make it clear that none of the books we reference were acquired based on our model’s figures, and figures, beyond the ones you’ll read about here, have never been formally shared with any agent or publishing house. We should also be clear that these figures are specific to the closed world of our research corpus, a corpus we designed to look like what you’d see if you walked into a Barnes & Noble with a wide selection to choose from. Agents and editors do a good job of putting books in front of consumers—it’s not as though we are short of things to read. And some individuals in publishing have a particular reputation for the Midas touch. But remember that the bestseller rate in the industry as it stands is less than one-half of one percent. That’s a lot of gambling before a big win. Note, too, that year after year, the lists comprise the names of the same long-standing mega-authors. Stephen King is sixty-eight. James Patterson is sixty-eight. Danielle Steel is sixty-eight. As much as fans are still thrilled by another new novel from one of these veteran writers, it is telling that the publishing world has not discovered the next generation of authors who will similarly enjoy thirty to forty years of constant bestselling. Nor did the industry find, despite the thousands of manuscripts both rejected and published annually, a runaway bestseller for 2014 (Dragon Tattoo, Fifty Shades, and Gone Girl had been the standout hits of previous years), and neither did it publish a manuscript to impress the Pulitzer Prize committee in 2012. Why?

Well, it is a universal wisdom that bestsellers are freaks. They are the happy outliers. The anomalies of the market. Black swans. If that is the truth, then once you find a bestselling writer, why put your money anywhere else? Why put your millions on a new twenty-year-old writer instead of Stephen King? How could you possibly know if a new literary author is worth the sort of investment worthy of a future big-prize winner?

If you review their computing model, you find they only review bestselling books against each other. They don’t compare the bestsellers to every book ever published, or even a random collection of 10,000 indie  books or 10,000 traditionally-published books NOT on the bestsellers’ list so it’s unclear why bestsellers do better than non-bestsellers, according to their algorithm.

 

The conventional wisdom has always been that it’s random chance, and so publishers and agents take total guesses as to what book will become a bestseller in the future. Because of this, they look for authors who fit the ‘profile’ they’ve built up: someone between the ages of 25-39 with a killer manuscript and either a) a big following already (celebrities) or b) the chance to gain one super fast. The MS fits the common themes assigned for that particular genre but also has a twist on it so it seems fresh and exciting and can be promoted in 18-24 months when the book comes out (assuming it does). The public at large, who may prefer different novels, will love it as much as librarians.

I personally have an theory it’s the AUTHORS, not the books, that drive sales. You get an author willing to take risks and to become a lightning rod for attention (and controversy) and I think sales will increase over authors who just have good stories. I would love to prove the conventional wisdom wrong- quit look at the Manuscripts, agents! But then again, I’m a lowly writer with 43k Wattpad views and no fiction sales ever, so what do I know, according to them?

Well, at least we can agree on something- no one knows exactly how to build a bestseller. The difference is, I’m willing to bet that I can create them without needs for silly algorithms or guesswork.

 

Will Pokemon Go Help Your Marketing?

Squirtle/nianticlabs.com

If you look around anywhere these days, you’ve probably seen kids of all ages running around looking into their smartphones catching Pokemon via the new Pokemon Go app from Niantic. Simply put, the app uses your phone camera to collect your data for sale to third parties who will market their products and services to you let you find and catch Pokemon for your collection. So you roam around to a spot where Pokemon are and catch and I presume trade, or hatch Poke eggs (I’m not playing). You also go to places and fight other people and pokemon in the gyms. While a few people have been injured or mugged, for the most part the biggest issue is people addicted to their phones not paying attention as they get exercise and socialize with other humans in person.

This post came up in the Jersey Writer Facebook page:

Authors can leverage the crazy popularity of ‪#‎PokemonGo‬ by dropping $10 or so on “lures” during book signings or other events. Cheap, easy, effective. ‪#‎kidlit‬, ‪#‎marketing‬

 The premise is simple: Just tell people there are Pokemon near you at your book signing and people will line up to buy your book while they catch Magikarp! Or will they?
Since the game is new, I can’t say for sure. There are mixed reviews about whether or not increased foot traffic to stores boosts sales. For some places, I’m sure store owners can guilt persuade new visitors into buying some cupcakes or a new shirt. Other places don’t do as well with people who could care less about your store and are only there for Pokemon or for the gym. I observed this in Virginia last week, seeing a bunch of people in battlefield parks paying little to no attention to the park itself, focusing on their smartphones for an Abra.
Abra/polygon.com
 So my personal opinion is that using a $10 lure probably works, since it’s low-cost. At $10 If you sell anywhere from 2-5 books (depends on your cost) you’ll cover even slightly profit from your cost. Even if you lose, $10 for some increased attention isn’t necessarily bad. However, don’t assume that most of the people who come to find your Pokemon give a darn about your book or even that they can be guilted into buying a copy. Also, this only works if you’re going to play off Pokemon Go into a clever ad. Just saying “I have Pokemon!” isn’t going to work. I speak from observed experience- people using Pokemon lures to get people to show up at things with the hope they will care about what they do. News flash: Maybe 10% will listen, the rest want their Pokemon.

If you’re doing a book signing or other event, and you’re using Pokemon Go to attract people, let me know how it goes.
  

If Barnes and Nobles Closes, are Unknown Authors Screwed?

If you missed the news, New Republic has a new essay out on the impending doom of Barnes and Nobles https://newrepublic.com/article/133876/pulp-friction

There’s more than a little irony to the impending collapse of Barnes & Noble. The mega-retailer that drove many small, independent booksellers out of business is now being done in by the rise of Amazon. But while many book lovers may be tempted to gloat, the death of Barnes & Noble would be catastrophic—not just for publishing houses and the writers they publish, but for American culture as a whole.

If Barnes & Noble were to shut its doors, Amazon, independent bookstores, and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart would pick up some of the slack. But not all of it. Part of the reason is that book sales are driven by“showrooming,” the idea that most people don’t buy a book, either in print or electronically, unless they’ve seen it somewhere else—on a friend’s shelf, say, or in a bookstore. Even on the brink of closing, Barnes & Noble still accounts for as much as 30 percent of all sales for some publishing houses.

This happens a lot and B&N is still among us. Yet in the long run, they are clearing out space for book and selling more music and games. Borders did this, and look at where they are now.

Here’s the scary part for wanna-be trade-pubbed authors:

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.

The irony of the age of cultural abundance is that it still relies on old filters and distribution channels to highlight significant works. Barnes & Noble and corporate publishers still have enormous strides to make in fully reflecting America’s rich diversity. But without them, the kinds of books that challenge us, that spark intellectual debates, that push society to be better, will start to disappear. Without Barnes & Noble, we’ll be adrift in a sea of pulp.

So accoring to this author, if you’re unknown, sold poorly in the past, and not famous, you will soon be beyond screwed if B&N goes out. This is because no one, not even Amazon, can or will ever create a viable national print bookstore chain again in this country, unless there’s a sudden return to reading by the public.

It’s pretty clear that without B&N, traditional print publishers will lose a massive part of their appeal. Their two biggest appeals are: Marketing and distribution. Yes, they could still send to indie bookstores, but I have a feeling that few but the biggest authors will want to give away 85% of their revenue to someone who is nothing more than a big marketing agency and seller to small bookstores, especially since there are and will be other services that can do this more effectively for less. And marketing can be done with an agency.

I’m not saying publishers will be extinct if B&N goes under, but they will lose a huge incentive to query those agents for years to land one, and then wait more years to find a publisher (unless you’re one of the lottery winners who just has ‘it’ and can sail through the process in months). The downside is, how will most people be able to get their work out in an overcrowded marketplace?

 

 

Will Authors Quit Writing in 2016?

photo: Wikipedia       

That seems to be the prediction of Mark Coker, Founder and CEO of Smashwords. Via his blog:

“Many indies and traditional publishers alike reported flat or lower sales in 2015. The go-go days of exponential ebook market growth of the early days (2008-2012) are over. As I shared in my November 2014 post, Things Get More Difficult from Here – Here’s How to Succeed, a key factor in the slowdown is an emerging equilibrium for consumption of print and ebook formats. Due to the law of large numbers, ebook sales growth (or declines) will begin to more closely mirror the overall market for all books. The book market is mature and is therefore a slow or no-growth industry.  Additionally, there’s an ever-increasing glut of high-quality low-cost ebooks that will never go “out of print.” These continuing factors paint a picture for a more competitive landscape for authors in 2016 and beyond. Every author will face more competition today and tomorrow than they faced yesterday. In addition to the factors I outlined above and in the “Things get more difficult” post, the growth of Kindle Unlimited presents a new existential threat to the industry (more on this in the next item).

 Kindle Unlimited will gut single-copy sales and drive greater ebook commoditization

Earlier this year I blogged how Amazon’s merchandising pages encourage Kindle customers to read books for free as part of a Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime subscription. Most of the publishing industry remains oblivious to the long term ramifications of Amazon’s strategy here (not a surprise, because despite Amazon operating with amazing transparency and predictability, most industry watchers and media still don’t understand Amazon’s long term self publishing strategy). The issue of immediate concern is that Amazon’s merchandising tactics discourage readers from purchasing single copy ebooks. Amazon is training Kindle customers to view even 99 cent ebooks as too expensive when other books can be read for what feels like free. Amazon’s success with Kindle Unlimited, which now offers over 1 million books almost exclusively supplied by indie authors is going to gut the market for single copy sales at Amazon. It’ll be death by a thousand small cuts.  The pain will be felt by four publishing industry constituencies. In descending order of pain, and in order of who will feel it first, these constituencies include traditionally published authors and their publishers which I’ll consider as a single group; non-exclusive indie authors; Amazon-exclusive authors; and competing retailers.

Basically what Mark is saying is that selling single e-book copies, or even e-book bundles will soon become obsolete, replaced by subscription programs. The only question is whether the distributors assume an pool-sharing model (where money is collected and distributed equally among contributors as the distributor sees fit) or agency (where the contributor is paid for each book downloaded or read as an individual unit). If Mark’s prediction is accurate, and Amazon shifts more and more e-books into a subscription program, then you should know much much harder it will be for an indie author to make money. Especially since Amazon continues to dominate e-book sales. Read his post; it’s worth your time.

He also writes:

“During the early days of the indie ebook revolution, it was relatively easy for a quality writer to earn good income self-publishing low-priced ebooks. The market was doubling and tripling each year, readers hadn’t really seen 99 cent ebooks before, and everyone was happy.  As I mentioned in the “Ebook publishing gets more difficult from here” post, the exponential growth masked challenges that market’s maturation has now brought to light. Many indies who quit their days jobs to pursue writing full time will find they need to return to a “real” job in 2016, especially authors for whom writing is their sole source of income and they’re already feeling challenged to make the monthly rent. This means production will decline among the indie midlisters. As I’ve been telling the audiences for my ebook publishing workshops for the last seven years, if you want to make a lot of money publishing ebooks get a job at McDonalds instead. Publishing has always been a tough business. Witness the fact that most traditionally published authors must maintain day jobs. Ebook publishing is NOT the path to riches except for a very few authors. Yes, I’ve been pleased see the many Smashwords authors whose indie ebook earnings have allowed them to pay off mortgages, buy homes and save for retirement. These stories inspire me, yet we must remember these are the exceptions, not the rule. In 2015 I witnessed a growing desperation among many bestsellers, some of whom – I can imagine due to their prior successes with indie publishing – had might have changed their lifestyles or quit their day jobs. These authors are now feeling the financial and emotional pain of struggling to make ends meet. I hate to see this pain and anguish. As I’ve advised in the past, your prior success is no guarantee of future success. If you’re among the many Smashwords authors who’ve been blessed and have done well, or if you’re fortunate enough to sell well in the future, please bank that money when it comes. Pay off your debts and be conservative with your savings so you can build up your rainy day fund.”

No one has ever said publishing was easy, but I’ve noticed big-time indies are often more optimistic than the rest of us into the future of indie publishing, in terms of making serious money and not just doing it as a side-hobby. It’s easier to think earning money writing is easy and Amazon is great if you’re one of the lucky few to earn 6- or even 7- or 8- figures a year writing, just as a lot of the blockbuster best-sellers in the traditional system rarely complain about their publishers or support changes to the traditional publishing system that are needed. It’s a matter of whose bread is begin buttered by whom, I guess. I’d guess an author has maybe a 2% chance at best of earning enough money a year to sit around and write (and do writing-related activities) all day. That includes authors who could do that, but who choose to maintain other occupations, such as with non-fiction writers. And that’s just to pay bills; that’s not the lavish lifestyles some of them live.

David Boyle of the Society of Authors, based in the UK, writes:

“You worry a little, as an ebook author, that people might be sceptical that you have ever written anything. Or indeed whether all that writing exists in any real sense, since you can’t see it on your shelf. I mean, where is it? You can’t lend it, copy it or give it as a present. Yet bizarrely, online pirates seem capable of giving it away for free within days of it going on sale.

There are certainly advantages to writing the new generation of ebooks that are designed as such, rather than as reluctantly issued e-versions of printed books. They are often a convenient length – maybe a fifth or quarter as long as a traditional book, just long enough to read on a transatlantic flight or a train to Scotland. And they are priced low enough to sell widely. It is a marginal decision to buy a short book at £1.99 or £2.99. You might as well buy it as not.

an ebook writer, I’m only too aware of the problem flagged up by the Society of Authors, that the income of writers is still falling. I certainly agree that authors should get at least half the royalties on ebooks; the big publishers often fob them off with 25% or less. Well, I would say that.

Yet this is not primarily a difficulty with ebooks. It is a symptom of two more fundamental, linked problems. The competition watchdogs have allowedAmazon and the big supermarkets to strangle what had been a working business model. As a result, the remaining, desperately consolidated, mainstream publishers are trapped in a business model that works for nobody – except perhaps for the 5%, the mega-earning authors, who take 43% of all the money.”

Though Mr. Boyle says he will continue writing (and I assume working his financial services job while he writes on the side), no doubt many authors will come to the conclusion that yes, it’s really, really hard to earn a living from writing and the time spent writing could be better done doing other productive things.  I think his concern is more aimed at the Big Five traditional publishers, who are losing to Amazon and who don’t offer a good deal on e-book royalties to their writers. I can’t speak for smaller presses.

So writers of the world: How many of you will continue to write, and how many will decide the time spent writing just isn’t worth it anymore?

Do Million Dollar Debut Authors Help or Hurt Publishing?

Million Bucks

Point One: Book publishing, like the entertainment industry at large, relies on a few breakout successes to overcompensate for the projects which don’t succeed. Point two: We as humans are wired for “narratives” in our lives-thus we seek opinions which confirm our pre-conceived notions, rather than being challenged.

For book publishers and authors, nothing beats a “rags to riches” narrative, given the struggles of pretty much every author who has a book, many who may live in poverty or low-income conditions, who see their work come to life via publisher. They watch the book become a hit, get rich, and stand tall as the next wave of eager beavers send in their manuscripts, in the hopes that their book might be the Next Bit Thing (NBT). The desire to stand on top of the mountain and shout to everyone behind you “yes, you can do it. See me? See me? I did it and perhaps it could be you.” Whether that desire is eager optimism to help fellow authors or a cynical ploy to sell “services” or “advice” to wannabes, depends on the author.

The desire to find the next breakout story drives publisher to seek the NBT. The problem is, it’s not really clear why some books do phenomenally well and others don’t. If it were, publishers and agents would only accept authors with a 95% chance of that book hitting the bestseller’s list. (Subscribe to my blog for a future post on this 95 percent confidence interval and what it means). But since determining those books is difficult without market research (which I don’t see them do for most books), they are left to what we used to call in grammar school “educated guesswork” or “guesstimates”.

The Wall Street Journal had a recent article about the “millionaire debutantes”- authors who got $1 million or more for their first book. This is like the legendary City of Gold or Shangri-La for authors, since it’s so rare to ever hear of an author receiving an advance this big. Or is it?

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, a former marketing copywriter in Los Angeles, dreamed for years of becoming a novelist but never had any illusions about earning a living from it. Her goal in writing her first novel, “The Nest,” which she tackled in her early 50s, was merely to finish it.

In a whirlwind week as publishers read the manuscript last December, HarperCollins’s Ecco editorial director Megan Lynch made a pre-emptive offer to publish the novel for at least $1 million. “I never imagined people would respond that way in a million years,” said Ms. Sweeney, 55. The book, about four adult siblings whose anticipated inheritance has all but evaporated because of one brother’s bad behavior, is scheduled to be published next March.

Literary fiction, long critically revered but poorly remunerated, is generating bigger and bigger bets by publishers. Thanks to a spate of recent runaway hits such as “The Goldfinch” in 2013 and “All the Light We Cannot See” last year, publishers are increasingly willing to pony up enormous advances to secure potential blockbusters.

Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads have contributed to a culture in which everyone reads—and tells their friends about—the same handful of books a year. It’s increasingly a winner-take-all economy, publishing executives say.As a result, publishers are competing for debut literary talent with the same kind of frenzied auction bidding once reserved for promising debut thrillers or romance novels. “If they feel they have the next Norman Mailer on their hands, they’re going have to pay for that shot,” literary agent Luke Janklow said. “It’s usually the result of a little bit of crowd hysteria in the submission.”

“They’re basically betting on the book establishing itself as an important book in the canon,” Jane Friedman, co-founder of e-book publisher Open Road Media and former CEO of HarperCollins said of Knopf’s deal for “City on Fire.” “You’re betting that this is going to be the most-read book of the year.”

The lack of a sales track record is one of the factors that makes debut authors most appealing, publishers say, because there is no hard data to dampen expectations. “You can pin all your hopes and dreams and fantasies on a debut novel,” said Eric Simonoff, an agent known for negotiating seven-figure advances.

Some worry that large payouts for debut novels could do more harm than good. They put pressure on first-time authors and consume resources that otherwise might go to authors who have posted moderate sales, some agents and publishing executives said.

“It’s not that they’re betting on the wrong writer, it’s that the bet’s too big,” said Morgan Entrekin, publisher at the independent house Grove Atlantic, who noted that Grove can’t afford seven-figure advances.

Moreover, if the book doesn’t turn a profit, the relationship between the author and publisher can sour. And those disappointing sales figures are available for any other publisher to peruse when the author tries to sell her next novel. “That is a scarlet letter that you don’t get out from under,” Mr. Janklow said.

Indeed, million-dollar investments in debuts often don’t pan out, publishers and other industry experts say.

Read that quote by Eric Simonoff again and scratch your head. Is that how a business should operate? Committing millions of dollars to unproven projects because you could project your fantasies onto them?

Authors, unlike musicians or actors, are generally not public figures and rarely have the extroversion needed to build a massive social media or TV following to sell books. Whose fault that is you can argue all day. But the point is, you don’t see any reality TV shows featuring the writer’s life or asking aspiring writers to read their best flash fiction on-air for judges. Just imagine if publishers took most of that over-sized advance and instead committed it to marketing their books. Might they not sell more, especially of the ‘midlisters’?

The whole point of an advance is to provide authors with a source of income for their writing while they waited for their books to sell and collect royalties.But how can you justify handing one author a million bucks, probably 20 years’ of pre-tax pay for their job, when other authors barely get enough to pay their mortgage or rent? Or get nothing at all? Especially when who gets what is based on guesswork and not data.

The bottom line is, in an age where Amazon and self-published authors are taking market share from the traditional publishers of all sizes, the last thing the Big Five need is to spend millions on “guesstimates” of which books will succeed, enriching a tiny, tiny number of lucky authors while leaving the 99.999% out to dry, and focus on marketing the titles they already have. Then they might not need to rely so much on blockbuster titles.

photo: http://mymoneycounselor.com/net-worth-how-are-you-doing/million-bucks

 

Do Indie Authors Need Gatekeepers?

As someone who has published indie before (disclosure- that was once on Wattpad, but technically it counts), I follow the news in the indie author world. And while many are embracing the “don’t query, just publish” mentality, I find it deliciously ironic that some indie authors are now, in fact, wondering if credible gatekeepers might be a good thing.

Tahlia Newland, Australian author, submitted an op-ed to Self Publishing Advice where she addresses that question:

The problem is that not every book written is worthy of publication and, in general, the author is the least qualified person to make the decision as to its worthiness. Even for an experienced author, the temptation to publish just because you can is strong. How many self-published authors stop and consider whether their book is actually worth publishing or, better still, ask someone objective and well read that question?

The fact is that for all the books written, only a small percentage are worthy of publication. During the days when traditional publishing was the only practical way to get published, publishers used to pick up around 5% of what was submitted to them. One publisher I did a workshop with said that around another 10% were well-written, but they weren’t something the publishers felt would sell.

But the advent of easy self-publishing hasn’t made 85% of the books written any better, it’s just made it possible for readers to read them. So what we can get, at best, is a lot of mediocre books because authors are not that discerning in deciding if their book is worth the effort. They just want to see it published.

The problem of quality in self-published books will only be solved when authors ask a publishing industry professional if their book is worth publishing, and if they get an honest answer and are prepared to not publish. Sounds a bit like a gatekeeper, doesn’t it?

Well, there was a reason for them, and the reason still exists: to protect readers from books that aren’t that great, and to protect authors from the career-killing repercussions of ill-advised publication.

Whoa Nelly! Hold the horses. Is an indie author suggest we need, dare I say it, gatekeepers? And she doesn’t mean readers; she means before it gets to readers, so many won’t be jaded by the perception of indie books being crud.

Often authors who want to publish debate between self-publishing and trying to seek an agent. From my own interactions with indies, most hate the idea of querying and waiting years to get a novel published, with no guarantee a book will ever see the light of day. At least when published, your script has a chance, a 0.0000001% chance, but nonetheless, of hitting mega-stardom and propelling you next to the mega-bestsellers, both indie and traditional.

But as someone who has read chapters or stories from other indies, I can honestly say there are some people I really would love to just say, “you should do something else with your time. You’d be more productive.” They are just not good writers. But the pressure to “write! write!” and “publish! publish!” persuades some that either they are the next big thing, or else at least they can say they did something few achieve: actually publishing a novel, from start to finish. And to be fair, there are some traditionally-published books that are terrible and should not have been published in the first place.

For all authors, making the decision whether or not to kill a manuscript can be tough, especially if one devotes dozens or hundreds of hours to a particular story. But sometimes, shelving that manuscript is for the best. The question is, will those who write treat their work like a product and have it tested before publication? Or do they just toss it up to the internet and hope for the best?

I Interviewed a Woman and She Nearly Killed Me. Here’s Why.

Shocking Finds

Today I interview Marin Yarthine, the main lead in Shocking Finds, a Finder’s Keeper’s novel. She has superpowers but isn’t quite up to Superwoman level yet. Or…is…she? Muwahahahahahaha .

S: In the beginning of the book, you were described as having the ability to move a Toyotal with your mind. What was that like?
Marin: Whoa, whoa whoa… if you’re gonna start with insane questions, I need another cup of coffee first. *sigh…
S: Can we get Miss Yarthine some more coffee. Okay… while we wait, why don’t you tell me about the Toyota?
Marin: Fine. But there really isn’t anything to tell. That wasn’t me. I may accidentally shock people, but I’ve never moved anything with my mind. And you can call me Marin. Besides… Kyland says my last name is actually de Platadreki.
(At this juncture I put down my recorder, cried onto my YouTube channel for no reason, then rechecked my questions)
S: Speaking of Kyland, he informed us that the first time he saw you, you were flipping a car through the air, managing to save your own life.
Marin:… (like in Final Fantasy when you know an imposter’s coming and you’ll have to fight its outrageously high HP)
S: Marin… are you alright? Ouch!
(The Interviewer dropped the now smoking recorder, and shook the sting out of his hand before picking up one of the spare recorders Kyland had suggested he have on hand.)
Marin: Sorry. *ducks to hide her flaming cheeks… I still have a lot to learn, and I guess no one has gotten around to telling me that part. Not that I can’t remember the moment vividly. It was the first time I ever allowed my anger to show, to reach the surface. I remember thinking that the anger, or some large power, was moving through me, flying off to bat the Toyota away. It was so strong that I got slammed backwards into the parking lot. And yes it freaked me out. But then, a lot of this magical stuff freaks me out.
(The Interviewer slowly placed the recorder on the table sitting between them.)
S: Sooo… Take us through your mind the first time you met Kyland. How do you
feel about him now?
Marin (A big smile on her face): I absolutely love that Fae. Don’t get me wrong, he drives me crazy… but he also gets me through all the changes in my life that would have sent me into hiding without him. When I first met the man, he was saving my faux-aunt. He didn’t have to do that, but he worried about how me. As for my part, I was in the middle of a nightmare, afraid my only family would die before my eyes. And still, my hormones – my previously thought dead hormones – perked up and took notice. But come one. Have you seen him? The man is absolutely lickable.
I even found him to die for when I woke up to find he had stolen my clothes. Don’t ask.
S (stunned): If you could have one additional enhanced sense you don’t currently
have, what would it be, and why?
Marin: Wow. Now that’s a horrible thought. I already have all five of the human normal senses. Plus the Fae ability to sense emotions. Well, I can sense them sometimes. That one is the most annoying. I mean, who wants to sense emotions without contexts. I guess it would be nice to sense curses and spells, like Kyland. Not only to I have enough curses to live with, that I am still trying to get rid of, but knowing if an attacker was under a curse would be helpful. I hate the loss of innocent life more than anything else about my new reality.
S: What is the best part of being a Princess now?
Marin: That’s a tough one. I’m not sure I even want to be a Princess. I’ll have to get back to you after I’ve gotten used to the idea. Though being noticed by those around me, being seen… even though it freaks me out a little, it’s nice to be a part of the crowd.
S: How did you feel when Lindal revealed her true nature?
(Marin flinched a little. Sparks started flying off her fingers, but one deep breath and the sparks died down. The recorder was still working, but the Interviewer gave Marin a moment to calm down by switching to a new recorder and handing off the current one to his assistant.)
Marin (looking off to the left): My heart broke. I was angry and lost, and I wanted someone to tell me it wasn’t true. It isn’t like Lindal even pretended to love me. She was just the only family I had ever know, the only acceptance no matter how abusive. And yes… I now know without a shadow of a doubt that the way she treated me was abuse.
(Marin feel silent. After a few minutes, the Interviewer decided to continue.)
S: What’s the Queen’s real name? We won’t blab to the whole world, promise.
Marin (Shaking her head): I’m sorry. What did you ask?
S: What’s the Queen’s real name? We promise not to repeat it.
(Marin opened her mouth to answer, but stopped and looked over the Interviewer’s head as a gruff male voice answered for her)
Kyland: I warned you what would happen if you strayed from the list of approved questions.
S: (trying to get over tingling electric shock): Sorry. I didn’t think that one would hurt.
Marin: It doesn’t matter. No one will tell me anything other than Queen de Platadreki.
At that point I tried to politely end the interview before a dude seven feet tall tried to kill me. All the lights in the studio exploded and I was thrown from my chair by another electric shock. Marin growled, “Mine!” and stomped from the studio, dodging the Fae medical staff they hand on hand for just this reason, and knew that Kyland would follow. That’s all the questions I got. The takeaway: sometimes it’s better to ask fewer questions, especially when your guests have superhuman powers and you don’t.
In the meantime, follow Marin’s journey and read this book before it hits the USA Today and New York Times bestsellers lists and those who haven’t purchased a copy will find out what it’s like to face a human who can electric shock you at will. And before Dogbert takes over the world 😉.

Buy the book at Amazon HERE or at Barnes and Nobles HERE

Visit the author’s webpage HERE or the webpage for the Finder’s Keeper’s books HERE

toad photo: www.kissin993.com

Author Interview: Ann the Supreme Overlord

Ann Livi Andrews is the “Supreme Overlord” of the Support for Indie Authors Goodreads group, which she started in January 2015. The group has grown to over 3,000 indie authors bound by a desire to help each other. Here’s my interview with Ann about her debut novel, Hollow Towns.

S: You wrote in multiple viewpoints for this story, as opposed to just one person. Did that make the writing style more difficult, or was it a fun challenge?

A: Honestly they felt like two completely different stories as I was writing them. Yes, they do tie together, but Charlie’s personality is so different than Hannah/Lucy’s that it gave the first half of the book a vastly different feel than the second half – at least it did while I was writing it. My greatest struggle was in finding a way to put them together that wasn’t too confusing for readers. I knew they weren’t two separate books, but alternating between the two viewpoints would have given too much away too quickly.

S: To me, The Seven made the story more creepy. Your writing made them feel almost like…deities. Tell the blog reader (without too many spoilers) how these seven beings impact the story.

A: I suppose they’re a bit like a shadow government that many people have conspiracy theories surrounding. Only they’re not concerned with individuals. I’d go so far as to say that they don’t recognize anything in the singular form, which I hinted at with their reaction to Charlie and Madison at the very end of the book. Every action they take is merely a small step towards a greater purpose. As for the sense that they’re deities, I’m pretty sure they believe they are.

S: Near the end of your book, two characters talk about a possible war and whether they should participate or not. Without too many giveaways, where do you see the next book headed? Or, are you done with this story?

A: I wanted to be done with this story, but things don’t always work out the way we want them to. However, I’m excited to begin on the sequel because we’ll get to learn about this new way of life through Madison’s eyes as she experiences it for herself. In addition, we’ll learn more about The Seven and their plans for Charlie. And as Charlie and his team take on new missions, we’ll get to learn more about the environment they were raised in. As for the impending fight, they’ll have to decide whether or not they have a chance to make any changes at all by fighting.

S: Where do you get your inspiration for your writing?

A: Sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes it’s a sentence that keeps repeating over and over again in my head until I write it down. Regardless, it never feels like something I’m making it up. It’s more like switching through frequencies until you get a clear signal on a story that’s already floating around somewhere. With Hollow Towns, I had an image of a girl waking up amid rubble with no idea of who she was, lightning flashing all around her. The story built from there due to my curiosity to find out what had happened to her.

S: Since you published this novel, what has the initial reaction been like?

A: Most readers have enjoyed it. I thought the change in perspective might frustrate a few people, but so far it’s been well received.

S: Which of the character’s perspectives was the toughest for you to write, and why?

A: Hannah/Lucy for sure. I couldn’t connect with her. I really don’t like her at all. I’m not sure if it’s her naivety or her stubbornness to keep pushing on, but she really irritated me. I had completed my first draft but after rereading it, I basically scrapped the entire first half of the book (Hannah/Lucy’s story) and started from scratch. I can honestly say that she drove me to drink.

S: What’s next for you?

A: I’m hoping to launch a paperback of my first four stories in my Rehab for Superheroes series titled “Meet Your Heroes.” This will feature an extended version of Crimson Mistress (this is the first story I ever published and I’ve known for a while that it needed to be rehashed a bit), Jack, Em, and Dakota. I also have a sequel to Hamlet that I’ve been working on for a few months now. If I could get those two out by the end of the year I’ll be happy. Then I’ll be wrapping up the full length novel of Rehab for Superheroes. My list only seems to get longer even though I’ve crossed quite a few items off of it.

visit Ann’s personal website HERE

Buy the book HERE

Author Interview: Robert Krenzel, A Veteran Who Helps Veterans

Today’s author interview is with Robert Krenzel, former Army officer who served in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan with a specialty in Armor and Cavalry operations. He focuses on writing and helping fellow vets suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a serious problem that sadly goes untreated in too many vets. I spoke to him about his new book and his work.

S: You have some great military experience which suits you to write novels based on the battlefield. Can you tell me about how your experiences shape your writing?

RK: I think the equation goes something like this: Experience + Research + Imagination = Story. I have been around soldiers most of my adult life so my experiences with them obviously color my approach to writing about them. For example, I can’t write about British troops without balancing the research I have done (not all of it casts them in the best light) against the incredibly positive experiences I had with British troops in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan! On top of that there is a warm place in my heart for American troops; for one thing you never know what is going to come out of their mouths! In my upcoming novel there are a few scenes that are based on actual conversations I had with members of my tank crew in Kosovo. I think things like that add some color, warmth, and realism to my work…and I think they are a fitting tribute to my brothers and sisters in arms. Oh, and I know what it is like to be absolutely terrified, although that never really happened in combat (it was in an airplane).

S: PTSD is such a major issue, but one which unfortunately is not well understood by the public at large and is not well treated by the VA. Did you ever suffer from PTSD, and/or do you mentor other veterans, but in particular those who have PTSD?

RK: First of all, every war is different for every soldier, and PTSD is not something that goes away. I have seen and done things I would really have preferred to not have experienced, but I know men and women who experienced far, far worse. Yes, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and it has been a rough road, but I am doing very well now. I try to help others, and I try to raise awareness of this issue in my books. I also support organizations like Invisible Wound, a non-profit founded by friends of mine, Adrian and Diana Veseth-Nelson. Adrian and I served together twice in Iraq; he was decorated for valor (a well-deserved medal, by the way), and experienced some horrific things along the way. Check out their FaceBook page at https://www.facebook.com/InvisibleWound (BW note: Consider supporting veteran organizations which work directly with vets, such as Invisible Wound)

S: Tell us your thoughts about the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing path for authors. Why did you choose your path?

RK: My genre is not one of the most lucrative, and I was spending more time trying to convince agents that my book was worth their time than I was making the book worth the reader’s time. I also think independent publishing has a tremendous future. To top it off, the process of publishing was both fun and rewarding!

S: Have you ever attended a writer’s conference? If so, what was your experience?

RK: I have never attended a writer’s conference. The closest I came was taking an online course on writing improvement; it involved a great deal of writing and feedback from other writers. I really enjoyed the interaction with other authors and potential authors. That course was so helpful in fact that the opening scene of “Times That Try Men’s Souls” originated as a homework assignment. I got feedback from my peers, developed it further, and am very pleased with the results.

S: How do you deal with negative feedback about your writing? Do you get back more positive or negative feedback?

RK: I have been fortunate to get mostly positive feedback. What negative feedback I have gotten has been constructive; I have been able to learn from it and use it to improve my writing. I also bear in mind that no matter how well I write, not everyone is going to like my work. Many people do, and I love writing, so that is what really matters.

S: How many Gideon Hawke novels do you intend to write? And tell us a little more about Gideon.

RK: I will write until the story has told itself. I have ideas for several more books in the queue, and it was a very long war! As long as Gideon remains committed the Cause I will continue to write about him.

Tell you more about Gideon? I will give you a little teaser about “Times That Try Men’s Souls”: Gideon’s biggest flaw is that he is too protective of those he cares about. He is willing to take risks, but he holds back others who are willing to do the same. Let’s just say that causes conflict.

Check out Robert’s website and Facebook page:

www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels

http://robertkrenzel.com/

You can find “This Glorious Cause” on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/This-Glorious-Cause-Gideon-Hawke/dp/1511465190   

A good reason to tune out “successful people”

willywonka - No, copying my candy factory idea will NOT  make you the next "Shark Tank" success story.

For those of you who write, or for those of you who are readers who want to know what an authors thinks about before writing, you need to understand that most authors are merely “wannabes” who aspire to become bestsellers. What I mean is, they want to be the next JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, or even the next Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath, or Amanda Hocking, all multi-millionaire authors.

Knowing this, there is a huge market of people trying to peddle “information” or “services” to help make those writer’s “dreams come true.” While some services and information are legitemate and honest, this tends to fall into one of 4 camps:

  1. The entity offering the “information” or “service” sees a lucrative financial opportunity to make money off unsuspecting and desperate writers, so they make promises they can’t keep and stick you with a high bill. Vanity presses work like this, such as this one.
  2. The “bestselling” author sees an opportunity to make money and sell seminars based on “here’s how successful I am. Just do what I do, and you can be successful like me too!” They then give you “advice” which sometimes is practical, and sometimes is not. Here’s one example. The end goal is not primarily to help newbies achieve success: it’s to establish the bestseller as a credible authority because s/he achieved success and financial fortune, and to make money either from ad revenue on hits to their web page, or on seminars or books dedicated to “helping” you. Whether or not their advice helps you is none of their concern.
  3. The wanna-be author, who lacks an understanding of branding and market principles, follows the herd, not understanding just how many other people are doing the exact same thing. Which companies tend to be most successful long-term: the innovators, or the “sheep”? Our wanna-be, however, does not know this. So s/he copies advice from
    “self-help” books written by successful people who of course want to help them personally, and then claim it does work because their sales went from 50 a month to 100. They then write it in blog comments or on their own website.
  4. The entity which studies information and claims there is a specific formula to doing something. For example, the perma-free strategy. I have come around on it to some extend, conceding that it does work for some people and to some extent. But not for everyone; if it did, everyone would be rich. So giving away lots of freebies isn’t going to work just because you did it. You really do need a solid strategy in order to lure people to other offerings, using your free book as a “loss leader” of sorts.

You can substitute books and authors for any other topic, such as “how to grow a successful small business” or “how to reduce stress from your life”, etc. I just use books as an example. Again, some people do offer quality advice, but not always, and even then, you need to pay attention.

What the “successful” people fail to tell you, however, is how many factors, both in your control and out of it, play into achieving success. Yes, there is an element of luck and timing and various other factors, including socio-economic background, college education, access to capital, work ethic, ambition, being a producer first, not a consumer first, etc. Yes, there are some universal truths. But like religion, I really believe it is impossible to say there is one “true” way to live life to achieve the goals you want to achieve. Each of us is an independent human being with success as being defined by us, in the way which works best for us. A person who makes $30 million a year as an actor has different success than a kid living in a single-parent home in a federally-classified “war zone” who graduates college and earns $90,000 a year as a lawyer. Both are successful, in different ways. Very unlikely the actor and the lawyer could switch places and have the exact same success.

With that comes a post from the Huffington Post, which I believe is being unfairly maligned, but hits home some uncomfortable truths (bold emphasis mine):

“No matter what experts tell you, no matter what trends, conventional wisdom, social media chatter or your friends in the Facebook writers group insist upon, do NOT write four books a year. I mean it. Don’t.

Unless they’re four gorgeously written, painstakingly molded, amazingly rendered and undeniably memorable books. If you can pull off four of those a year, more power to you. But most can’t. I’d go so far as to say no one can, the qualifier being good books.

Beyond the fact that the marketplace is glutted with an overwhelming number of books already (many of dubious quality), writing good books simply takes time, lots of it. There’s no getting around that time. It involves learned skills, unhurried imagination, fastidious drafting, diligent editing, even the time to step away, then step back, to go over it all again. And, unless you’re a hack (and we know there are plenty of those out there), isn’t the whole point of this exercise to write good books?

So, her (blogger Penny C. Sansevierifirst piece of advice to self-publishing authors wasn’t to put more focus on fine-tuning one’s craft, it wasn’t about taking time to mull and ponder what stories, what narratives, most inspire you to put “pen to paper”; it wasn’t even a suggestion to be relentless about working with professional content/copy editors and cover designers to create the best possible version of your work. No, it was the insanely insane advice to pump out at least four books a year.

And people wonder why there are stigmas attached to self-publishing.

First of all, in looking at her point of reference, I suppose it depends on what you define as a “successful author.” I have a distinct feeling this may be where the disparities lie. Perhaps my own definition is a different one.

When I self-published my first book, After The Sucker Punch, in April of 2014, I had, by then, put years into it, doing all those many things I itemized above. Because I not only wanted to publish a novel, I wanted that novel to be a work of art, a book of depth and merit, one that would not only tell a compelling story but would meet standards of publishing that authors of the highest regard are held to. I wanted it to be a book that would favorably compare with anything put out by a traditional publisher. My choice to self-publish was a result of not having engaged a publisher by the time my book was done and I was ready to market it. It was not based on the notion of joining the “second tier club” where one is unbound from the stricter, more demanding standards of traditional publishing.

“Second tier club”? Yes. As insulting as that sounds, particularly in relation to self-publishing, there is no question that there are two tiers operating in the culture of the book industry. Take a moment to think about it: based on what advice is given to self-published writers, some of which I shared above; based on the”free/bargain” pricing paradigms of most book sellers hawking those writers; based on the corner (quality)-cutting measures required to pump out endless product to meet the purportedly endless demand of those sites and their bargain-hunting readers, “second tier club” is no misnomer.”

The author of that post was attacked by well-known authors like Larry Correia, who admitted he “averaged 2 a year until I quit my day job.” Now that he earns a solid living writing full-time, he can write more books and do so more efficiently. Good for Larry, but few authors earn a full-time living writing. so someone like me, with a full-time job (and seasonal/free-lance too!) who has no name recognition is not going to be able to churn out solid books every quarter to keep up with Larry, who is writing full-time because he was both lucky and good to make a lot of money. Of course, I may very well be so successful that I can do it, but even then my success wouldn’t necessarily translate to success for you because you did what I did. “First to market” principle is in place here.

Lorraine’s (HuffPo article author) attackers don’t get that she’s not saying you shouldn’t do it under any circumstances. She means you should do what works for you, not what others are telling you to do just because it worked for them or someone they know. Just because a few authors in this world got mega-rich, or even 6-figure rich, doing something doesn’t mean you will too, even if you do what they did, even if you’re a talented writer. Luck and timing are as important to the free marketplace as they are to casinos. My only advice is, consider advice from different sources and make your own decisions for your life. And quit propping up the “self-help” industry, because more and more I am convinced that most of those people are less interested in truly helping YOU than in helping themselves to some more money by dangling that success stick in your face and telling you how you can join the elite club for just $19.95.

The truth she’s exposing is that there is no “magic bullet” to success. Maybe an author who sells 10,000 copies can call it a day. Others could sell 100,000 and feel like a failure. But the people and businesses who earn money with seminars and books telling you how to do it don’t want you thinking independently, or else you won’t need them anymore. So they try to get you hooked so you can

If you don’t believe me, try writing a poorly-written erotic novel that sells over 100 million copies. Yea, thought so.

Do you agree or disagree? And it doesn’t just have to be books- how do you feel about people who offer advice or services, free or paid? Do you find most of them to be sincerely helpful, or are they tooting their own horn?